Monday, September 01, 2008

Responses to Dan Smail and Richard Richards on "Biopolitical Science"

At the APSA convention in Boston, the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy sponsored a series of three panels on "Evolution and Morality." For one of those panels, I presented a paper on "Biopolitical Science: Darwin, Lincoln, and the Deep History of Politics," which is available at the APSA website. The commentators on my paper were Richard Richards, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, and Dan Smail, a historian at Harvard. Dan and Richard generally agreed with most of what I wrote. But they did raise some questions and indicate some problems. Here I will briefly go over my responses.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, my paper develops a theoretical framework for a biopolitical science that would be a science of political animals. Such a science would move through three levels of deep political history--the universal political history of the species, the cultural political history of the group, and the individual political history of animals in the group. To illustrate the particular application of this biopolitical science, I show how this science helps us to understand Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

Dan pointed to four possible problems. First, Dan questioned whether there really is a natural desire to resist dominance that is always "turned on." After all, doesn't a dominance hierarchy require that the resistance of subordinates be "turned off"? Second, he suggested that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is not a good case to study because it was "an act of the highest altruism." Dan wrote: "it would have been perfectly natural if Lincoln had favored his own group, white people, at the expense of black people. But he didn't." By contrast, Dan spoke of Pope Urban II's proclamation in 1095 calling for a crusade as an example of the more common tendency to brutal attacks on those outside of one's group. Third, Dan doubted that a biopolitical science could really explain specific events, and he suggested that such a science could be better developed through a comparison of two or more cases rather than concentrating, as I did, on one case. Finally, Dan suggested that my claim for modern constitutional republicanism as a revival of the egalitarianism that prevailed in ancient foraging societies showed a "fallacy of Edenism"--i.e. a naive progressivist view of history.

To Dan's first point, I would say that, of course, there is a natural tendency for subordinates to defer to dominants. The ambivalence in our political behavioral repertoire comes from the tension between the natural tendencies to dominance, deference, and resistance to dominance. If some human beings were so naturally subordinate that they never resisted being exploited, they would be natural slaves. But the history of slavery suggests to me that there are no such natural slaves, at least among normal human beings.

To Dan's second point, I would say that the Emancipation Proclamation was not so clearly a purely altruistic act. Lincoln's justified it as a military tactic for strengthening the Union attack on the South, although he worried about the resistance of white Union soldiers who did not see the Civil War as a war of emancipation. In fact, critics of Lincoln have accused him of being a racist who used the slavery issue for his own political and military purposes. Frederick Douglass--the black abolitionist leader--referred to Lincoln as "the white man's President." Keep in mind that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in the border states on the side of the Union. In other words, Lincoln's issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation is morally complicated. And that very complexity is why it's such a fascinating case for study.

To Dan's third point, I would say that yes any behavioral science must arise from a comparison of cases rather than trying to explain a unique case. But the history of slavery ranges over more than two thousand years. A big part of the interest in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is how it fits into that wider history. The problem of explaining unique cases indicates the distinctiveness of historical sciences like evolutionary biology and political science--sciences that study cases that will never repeat themselves in exactly the same way.

To Dan's final point--about the "fallacy of Edenism"--I would say that my deep history of politics is hardly "Edenic." It seems to me that one cannot explain the amazing revolutionary turn towards democratic republicanism since the eighteenth century without seeing this as satisfying some natural human desire to be free from exploitation, a natural desire that must manifest a human universal of evolutionary history. But this is not utopian, because there is no suggestion that human beings could ever live without any dominance hierarchy at all, which would be the dream of the Marxists or the anarchists.

Richard offered various comments on what he identified as my "pluralistic approach" to explanation. Like Dan, he was generally supportive of my position. But he did indicate a few problems. He wondered whether my biopolitical science would be perceived by many people as too fuzzy in its complexity to satisfy the need for theoretical simplicity that seems to make science possible. Formulating and testing scientific ideas usually requires simplified models that abstract from the complexity of the real world. Richard also wondered whether my explanation of Lincoln's career as motivated by ambition might be seen as based on a "folk theory" of beliefs and desires. It often seems that such intentional states depend on subjective mental experiences that cannot be explained scientifically through objective physical causes.

Richard rightly invoked the famous motto "a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." He agreed with me in quoting Aristotle's advice about not demanding more precision or certainty than is appropriate for the subject matter under study. Because moral and political life is so irreducibly complex, it cannot be fully explained in its historical particularity through simplified scientific models. But actually my framework is capacious enough to incorporate some scientific research based on simplified models. For example, as I said in my post on Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, his use of the "trolley problem" in providing scenarios in moral judgment shows how science demands simplified models. This kind of research could be part of biopolitical science. But it needs to be combined with real world history. Another example of simplified models would be experimental evolutionary game theory. Such game theory models can be tested cross-culturally to provide some experimental testing of evolutionary theories of human behavior. But, again, as with Hauser's simplified trolley problems, this game-theory modeling needs to be combined with real historical cases, which is what I am trying to do.

To Richard's point about "folk theory," I would say that such "folk theory" or commonsense psychology is irreplaceable in the behavioral sciences. The subjective experience of self-conscious, intentional states is not objectively observable. We have personal access to our own subjective experience, and then we attribute comparable experience to others. Others can testify to such experience by verbal report. But we cannot directly observe it as we observe physical events. Human psychology depends upon this. Similarly, with animal psychology, we cannot directly observe "animal minds," and so we must project our conscious experience onto them. This creates the problem of anthropomorphism. But if we are studying animals with brains comparable to ours, and if they are close evolutionary ancestors to human beings, we would seem to be justified in attributing mental experience to them.

Natural science can refine, but it cannot replace, prescientific or commonsense psychology. Our ordinary experience of how beliefs and desires explain human behavior is presupposed by all behavioral science. Without such experience, our scientific modeling of behavior through objective, observational data would not work. So, for example, consider fMRI research in which subjects respond to moral dilemmas, and we look for correlated brain changes. Interpreting these brain images would be impossible if we did not have subjective, commonsense experience of human psychology, and if we could not ask our subjects to verbally testify about their subjective experience.

My idea is that a biopolitical science should encompass laboratory experimentation, evolutionary theory, and traditional research in political history. Some of this work will lend itself to simplified scientific models. But the real-world political history will have all the fuzzy complexity of such history.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Although I have only read "Darwinian Natural Right" and am not qualified to question Arnhart's brilliant analysis, I do wonder whether we have to be committed to our common sense folk-psychological language in interpreting the results of science. It seems like language is a negotiable concept, both in terms of its usage as well as grammatical categories. We no longer interpret "virtue" as a physical property in the same way that we constantly refine our language through scientific results. That seems to be why we look back at the pre-Enlightenment period as the Dark Ages.

Moreover, I wonder if Arnhart is stopping too short in his idea of a natural history of biopolitical science.

The next step seems to be E.O. Wilson's concept of gene-culture coevolution: instead of natural history, we have biohistoricism. Historicism, not as a merely cultural proscription but historicism as something deeply biological.

Thus, to abstract about philosophy, we might say that philosophy is, indeed, 3-pronged: natural history, economics, and neuroscience.