Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Aristotelian Prudence of Bonobos

In the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, we have "Politics and the Life Sciences" as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Many of our Ph.D. students have combined "biopolitics" with political theory and other traditional areas of research in political science. Andrea Bonnicksen, Rebecca Hannagan, and I are the three faculty members who teach in this area. One of the things we do is compare human politics with the political behavior of other primates--particularly, chimpanzees and bonobos.

The Milwaukee County Zoo has the largest group of bonobos in captivity. And so I have taken some of my students to visit the Milwaukee Zoo to see the bonobos. This semester Bonnicksen will be taking some of her students there.

Many people find it weird, if not ridiculous, that political scientists would be looking for political behavior among apes. But for me, this is an extension of Aristotle's biological science of political animals.

Last year, Jo Sandin published a book--Bonobos: Encounters in Empathy--on the Milwaukee bonobos. Dr. Harry Prosen is a psychiatrist who has worked with the bonobos there for some years. Sandin reports that Prosen's colleagues in the psychiatric community have been impressed by his accounts of the practical judgment shown by some of the bonobos. In particular, Lody--until recently, the alpha male--is said by Dr. Prosen to show "evidence of wisdom, in the Aristotelian sense: the ability to see life in all its aspects and to act in a way that benefits others." According to Prosen, "Lody's empathetic behaviors and ability to use good judgment in parenting skills, discipline and, in many instances, the demonstration of altruistic behaviors have had a powerful impact on the development of the juvenile males in the bonobo group" (Sandin, pp. 51-52).

Many people would dismiss as silly the idea that apes might exercise prudence or practical judgment, which Aristotle regarded as the primary intellectual capacity for moral and political life. But Aristotle's biological writings would suggest that he himself would take this seriously. After all, he often attributes prudence (phronesis) to nonhuman animals--and particularly, to those he identifies as political animals. Although he does not speak of apes as political, he does recognize their remarkable similarities to human beings and suggests that they are the animals most closely related to human beings.

As I have suggested in previous posts, the importance of prudence--judging what is best in the particular circumstances of particular individuals--across many animal species shows the complexity and contingency of animal behavior, so that we cannot predict animal behavior with precision. The failure to achieve predictive power in the scientific study of human politics shows a pattern that holds across all animal behavior. A biological science of political animals would be a historical science of particular individuals and groups with complex cultural traditions.

Two previous posts on bonobos can be found here and here. Some of my posts on animal prudence can be found here, here, and here.

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