Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Darwinian Left?--A Reply to Jiro Tanaka

Politics and Culture is an online journal that has just published a special issue on "Bioculture: Evolutionary Cultural Studies," edited by Joseph Carroll. One of the essays for this issue is Jiro Tanaka's "Notes Toward a Darwinian Left." Tanaka's article includes some strange comments on my argument for Darwinian natural right.

As the epigram for his essay, Tanaka quotes from Stephen Jay Gould: "Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our noble traits as well?" I would agree with this idea that even our noblest traits show some evolutionary continuity with other animals, and in fact this is a fundamental part of my argument for Darwinian natural right. But how exactly does this support a "Darwinian left"? Tanaka never gives a clear answer.

Tanaka indicates his agreement with Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left. But Tanaka never explains how he would respond to the many criticisms of Singer coming from me and from others.

As I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, Darwin's biological science of human nature challenged the utopian vision of the left by denying human perfectibility and suggesting that social reform would always be constrained by the limitations of human nature. Unless they chose to totally reject Darwinian science, leftists were forced to look for some way of accommodating Darwinism while preserving their utopian vision. There were three strategies for doing this. One strategy was to embrace Francis Galton's eugenics, because this assumed that biological nature could be brought under human control and thus directed to utopian reform. But Galton's utopian eugenics was both scientifically false and morally repugnant.

Another strategy for the left was to follow Alfred Russel Wallace in asserting a dualism of nature and culture, so that human social life could be seen as a product of culture unconstrained by nature and thus subject to utopian improvement. Although Wallace formulated his own theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time that Darwin developed his, Wallace broke with Darwin in arguing that the moral and intellectual powers of human beings transcended natural selection. Natural selection shaped the "animal nature" of human beings but not their "spiritual nature," which must arise from "the unseen universe of Spirit." This led Wallace to attend seances where he could talk to dead people who lived as disembodied spirits in the spiritual afterlife. Although many leftists found it hard to accept Wallace's spiritualism, they did accept a dichotomy between animal nature and human culture, which implied that human culture belonged to some kind of transcendental or supernatural realm of experience, which denied Darwin's claim that human cultural history was part of the natural history of the human species. So it seemed that the leftist belief in human perfectibility must deny a Darwinian science of human nature that constrains the human freedom for utopian transformation.

Another strategy for a Darwinian left is to reject any radical dichotomy between animal nature and human history and to adopt a Darwinian view of human beings as embedded fully within the natural world. This is evident in the work of Peter Kropotkin, a socialist anarchist who saw human beings as shaped completely by Darwinian natural selection. In contrast to those Darwinians who stressed the competitive character of the struggle for existence, Kropotkin argued that Darwin himself saw that natural selection often favored the cooperation of animals within their species. Kropotkin emphasized the importance of sociality, mutual aid, and the moral sense in Darwin's account of human nature in The Descent of Man. For Kropotkin, this suggested that human beings could organize their societies as a socialist anarchy based on spontaneous cooperation without government.

But while a Darwinian view of human nature does show how social cooperation is rooted in biological nature, such cooperation is not totally selfless, because it depends on norms of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity, so that individuals cooperate with those people whom they trust but not with those whom they distrust. This will not sustain pure anarchy without government. Moreover, by embracing Darwinian naturalism, Kropotkin rejects the leftist tradition of utopian reform unconstrained by human nature, and in doing so, he rejects the fundamental ground of leftist thought.

Kropotkin's strategy for a Darwinian left has been adopted by Peter Singer. But like Kropotkin, Singer in caught in a dilemma: his Darwinian view of human nature forces him to deny leftist utopianism, but in doing that, he denies the core of leftist thought. Singer concedes that a Darwinian left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one's kin) cannot be abolished. He is forced to conclude: "In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a cooly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today." In fact, much of his "deflated" leftism would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy. For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the common good. While Tanaka embraces Singer's Darwinian left, he never explains how he escapes Singer's dilemma.

As one might expect, Tanaka has to reject my arguments for Darwinian conservatism, but his reasoning is hard to understand. He writes: "Darwin himself was for the most part a progressive and liberal thinker, kind in his personal relations and hostile to all forms of social cruelty and exploitation. He hated slavery, which he had witnessed firsthand in Brazil." He doesn't indicate, however, that Darwin's liberalism was the classical liberalism of the Liberal Party of Great Britain. And he doesn't respond to my claim that the modern exponents of classical liberalism are people like Friedrich Hayek who belong to the modern tradition of libertarian conservatism.

Tanaka's analysis of my position is hard to follow. Here it is:

"It is not enough simply to invoke the naturalistic fallacy. The conservative scholar Larry Arnhart forces us to confront this inadequacy when he derives several 'oughts' from 'ises.' In direct opposition to the fact-value distinction, Arnhart argues for the ultimate compatibility of Darwinian evolution and Aristotelian natural right. The context of this endeavor is clear: Darwin has few advocates on the political right these days, due in large part to the coalition, forged in the Reagan era, between fiscal and social conservatives on the one hand, and Christian conservatives on the other. Arnhart therefore finds himself in a minority when he claims that 'conservatives need Charles Darwin.' To make this claim, he must argue that our evolved human nature is a source of moral--and specifically conservative--values.

"Like almost all modern evolutionists, Arnhart posits a panhuman, species-typical nature. On the basis of this human nature, he takes a moral stand on the issues of slavery and female circumcision. Both practices, he argues, violate the basic, evolved needs of human nature. Theoretically, this move puts us in the same place as Hauser puts us: it takes evolutionary biology as the source of factual knowledge, and then leaves us to decide about how to deploy that knowledge. But unlike most evolutionists, Arnhart goes on to invest 'human nature' with a kind of sacral authority that he feels is self-evidently wicked to contravene. But therein lies the false step: by choosing loaded examples, Arnhart makes the derivation seemingly self-evident. But one could also point to other historical examples in which what comes naturally is not self-evidently 'good.' Puritanism (and other belief systems that value chasteness) exhorts its followers to contravene our nature, and then identifies that contravention--that abstention or forbearance--as the Good.

"'Human nature' itself cannot stand in as a proxy for God. We're back to feeling, but not without having made some progress. Yes, it is possible for some to feel pleasure at the suffering of children, and for others to find our highest good in frustrating the natural impulses of human nature. Nonetheless, if we recognize the limits and potential in our common humanity, we shall at least know where we stand. We can put the norms implicit in the feelings of psychopaths and the ethos of Puritans--and the norms implicit in our judgment of them--into their appropriate biological context. It is probable that the brains of psychopaths exhibit irregularities in regions of the frontal lobe that mediate pro-social emotions like empathy and compassion. Belief systems that place a premium on chasteness, by contrast, may represent social constructs that tap into and amplify an evolved, but highly variable, instinct for 'purity.'"

Later, he observes: "Nothing prevents us from advancing a progressive version of Arnhart's argument, so long as we do not invest human nature with sacral authority!"

Unfortunately, Tanaka never explains specifically what he means by "a progressive version of Arnhart's argument."

Nor does he explain how he reaches the conclusion that I "invest human nature with sacral authority." Sacral authority? He even puts this phrase in italics, which suggests that I use this exact phrase in application to human nature. In fact, as far as I know, I have never used this phrase, and I have never identified human nature as having sacral authority. I am not even sure what this would mean. I do understand that some religious believers might believe that God as Creator has used the evolutionary process to create human beings in His image. But I have never said that a scientific understanding of evolved human nature requires believing that human nature is sacred or has sacred authority. Since Tanaka never provides any citation of my writings to support his claim that I invest human nature with sacral authority, I am left perplexed as to what he has in mind.

Maybe what he means by this is that I believe that human beings are naturally good, that every natural disposition is good. But it's hard for me to figure out how he pulls this out of my writing, especially since I stress human imperfection and the tragic situations that arise from conflicting natural desires. For example, I explain the tragic character of slavery as showing the conflict between the slavemaster's natural desire for exploitation and the slave's natural desire to be free from exploitation. I also explain female circumcision as showing the conflict between the natural desire of parents to make their daughters marriageable and the natural desire to avoid the pain and suffering from the customs of clitoridectomy and infibulation. As Tanaka indicates, the natural feelings of psychopaths deviate from the moral feelings typical for most human beings. But he doesn't indicate that I have a whole chapter on psychopaths as people with natural temperaments that render them "moral strangers" who cannot respond normally to moral persuasion.

How Tanaka infers from this that I regard human nature as having "sacral authority" is beyond my comprehension.

Some of my posts on why the "naturalistic fallacy" is not a fallacy can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Paul said...

I have been reading Darwinian Natural Right, and it seems to me that your own suggestion that culture is a completion of nature supports the possibility of Utopias. Human nature and human desires may be quite stable, and they most certainly constrain possible social contracts, but the tradeoffs involved in satisfying those desires have changed over time, such that the modern West is a Utopia compared to the medieval West. What really is a Utopia, but a society wherein most of the natural desires of most of its members are satisfied? I don't see why, in principle, such societies are impossible. Certainly Utopias that require all humans to treat each other as kin are impossible, but what about something like Bacon's New Atlantis?

However, I do agree that so long as the left doesn't accept that the naturalistic fallacy doesn't apply to biological organisms,then they will unconsciously still be waging a war against our evolved desires. Where will our values come from, if not from ourselves? Nietzsche criticized the left for being Christians by another name, and I think Tanaka displays exactly this tendency when he accuses Mr. Arnhart of endowing human nature with sacral authority. Someone who does not believe that our own feelings are a reasonable source of morality must look outside of humanity for moral guidance, and whether or not they are willing to admit it, they are essentially looking for God. Because Tanaka's views necessitate a lawgiver external to humanity, he assumes that Mr. Arnhart is hoisting a reified human nature up as a golden calf. But really we have no choice but to look to our own humanity, which is nothing other than our evolved biology, for moral guidance. Wasn't this why Nietzsche, no real friend of conservatives, still reserved almost of all of his vitriol for the left?

Anonymous said...

Your writing - and thinking - is inestimably clearer than Mr. Tanaka's.

He assumes that progressivism, "social change," "social justice," are obvious goods and a part of our better nature (you know, compassion versus all of our less charitable tendencies).

This is simplistic and unreflective and hardly worthy of your response.


P.S. Just finished the second edition of D.C. with the critical essays at the end - very rewarding.

Troy Camplin said...

I just wrote up a piece I am going to send to Mises.org to possibly be published on Mises Daily on the issue of the Left essentially being economic creationists or intelligent designists. If they do, I'll come back and let you know, if you're interested.

jar games said...

Your writing - and thinking - is inestimably clearer than Mr. Tanaka's.

Troy Camplin said...

THey didn't. Too interdisciplinary.

Mopenhauer said...

I think the problem with simply ruling out the possibility of a Darwinian left is that it essentially turns evolutionary psychology into a conservative historical materialism. In other words I would be a little wary of simply resting comfortably that science supports all conservative political position and thus your opponents are illegitimate. That attempt to make a scientific politics that de-legitimizes pluralistic discourse, is precisely the utopian impulse that conservatives have warned of.

I think it makes more sense to use natural law as an explanation of why you have your goals, and positivism to explain to your opponent the price of reaching his. The attempt to combine natural law and science leads to a monistic political system. In this way Darwinian conservatism is actually fairly radical to the American political system. Unlike most nations we have traditionally been a 50-50 divided nation. The times in history in which one party simply dominated, are rare. If people were to be won over to your position that conservatism is science, then that would basically be the end of politics. We could all agree on the same conservative ideology, and have 99% election results.

Rejecting scientific political programs does not mean we should fall into post-modernism. But perhaps Von Mises more positivistic approach of saying you set the goals, I'll tell you the cost. is more realistic.

The other thing is what exactly is the left? Even if you were to Darwinian politics to limit the left, you would have to draw some line, where you could say "this far, towards utopia you may go, and no further".

So what exactly is left? In Europe the political divide is between Social Democrats and Christian democrats. Both of which share a far more communitarian ethos and welfare economics than even the relative leftwing of US politics. In the US liberal means leftwing, but in most of the world that would be center-right.

Within the realm of prosperous healthy nations you have the whole gamut from the relatively minimalistic states in the USA and Hong Kong, to the tax-based welfare state of Sweden. I don't think science will ever be able to say that the American model is inherently more "natural" than the French, German, or Scandinavian models. But I think it is a fair point to say that if you wish to satisfy the natural human need for security and reverse-dominance hierarchy, you might have to pay the price in the natural human need for productivity. But that argument is based more on Von Mises and Friedman than Darwin.

Well Fukuyama's end of history in democratic capitalism still says we are free to chose from as far left as social democracy and as far right as minarchism. In a way that is what Darwinian conservatisms says. But even if thats so the competition between American minarchism on the right and Swedish social democracy on the left, still leaves plenty of room for rich left-right discourse and debate.

Troy Camplin said...

The Left are at best economic intelligent designers (which is what interventionism is) and, at worse, economic creationists (which is what socialism is). Thus, a Darwinian economic Left is a contradiction in terms.

Mark Anderson said...

When you talk about Leftist Utopianism are you talking about Norway?

Larry Arnhart said...

Mark Anderson,

Mao Zedung's socialism or Peter Singer's utilitarianism would be examples of what I mean by leftist utopianism.