Friday, June 25, 2010

Darwinian Libertarianism?

In his review of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1860, Thomas Huxley began by declaring: "every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism." A Whitworth gun was an advanced breech-loading cannon. So Huxley saw Darwin's evolutionary biology as a powerful weapon for liberalism against its opponents.

In 1860, "liberalism" was what we today would call "classical liberalism"--the social and political tradition that argued for the primacy of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to live as they please so long as this was consistent with the equal liberty of others. Such liberty included moral liberty, economic liberty, political liberty, and religious liberty. According to the liberals, the only proper aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud and to enforce laws of contract and private property.

Although Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as Herbert Spencer in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw his science as supporting liberalism. Darwin was a fervent supporter of the Liberal Party in Great Britain and its liberal policies. He was honored when William Gladstone (the "Grand Old Man" of the Liberal Party) visited him at his home in Down in 1877.

Like other liberals, Darwin believed in distinguishing state and society, and limiting the power of the state, while leaving matters of moral and religious virtue to be enforced through the family and the voluntary associations of social life. He believed in the virtues of "self-help," as promoted in Samuel Smiles' famous book Self-Help, with its stories of self-made men. Darwin was active in the charitable activities of his parish. He was the treasurer of the local Friendly Society. In Great Britain, friendly societies were self-governing associations of manual laborers who shared their resources and pledged to help one another in time of hardship. In this way, individuals could secure their social welfare through mutual aid without the need for governmental intervention.

Darwin was also active in the international campaign against slavery, one of the great liberal causes of his day. In their recent book--Darwin's Sacred Cause--Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown that Darwin's life-long hatred of slavery as a violation of human liberty was one prime motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the proslavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a distinct species of natural slaves.

Also in The Descent of Man, Darwin showed that the moral order of human life arose through a natural moral sense as shaped by organic and cultural evolution. In doing that, he provided a scientific basis for the moral liberalism of David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other Scottish philosophers, who argued that morality could arise through the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture.

One might expect, therefore, that today's libertarians--who see themselves as continuing the tradition of classical liberalism--would want to embrace Darwin and evolutionary science as sustaining their position.

And yet libertarians are ambivalent about Darwin and Darwinism. That ambivalence is evident, for example, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy, under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute, and published in 2008 by SAGE Publications. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Charles Darwin. But there are entries for Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism, and Evolutionary Psychology. In these and other entries, one can see intimations that libertarianism could be rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature. But one can also see arguments that Darwin's science has little or no application to libertarian thought.

The entry on Evolutionary Psychology is written by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the husband-wife team at the University of California-Santa Barbara who are generally regarded as the founders of the research tradition that goes by the name of "evolutionary psychology."

They indicate that evolutionary psychology was begun by Darwin. They say that its aim is to map human nature as rooted in the evolved architecture of the human mind. They summarize some of this evolved human nature, including reasoning about social exchange and cheater detection that provides the cognitive foundations of trade and the moral sentiments that make moral order possible. They contrast this idea of a universal human nature with the idea of the human mind as a blank slate that is infinitely malleable by social learning. They say that this false idea of the blank slate explains the failure of those experiments in social engineering that denied human nature, and they mention the the communist regimes as a prime example of this. All of this suggests ways that a Darwinian evolutionary psychology could support a libertarian view of human nature.

But then, in their last paragraph, they cast doubt on this conclusion. Although the implementation of public policy proposals needs to take human nature into account, they say, "the position most central to libertarianism--that human relationships should be based on the voluntary consent of the individuals involved--makes few if any assumptions about human nature." They don't explain what they mean by this. But one possible interpretation is that they are making a fact-value distinction, and suggesting that while the calculation of means to ends is a factual judgment that might be open to scientific research, the moral assessment of ends--such as the value of individual liberty--is a normative judgment that is beyond scientific research.

What Cosmides and Tooby are suggesting here is perhaps more clearly stated by Will Wilkinson in his essay on "Capitalism and Human Nature":

"We cannot expect to draw any straightforward positive political lessons from evolutionary psychology. It can tell us something about the kind of society that will tend not to work, and why. But it cannot tell us which of the feasible forms of society we ought to aspire to. We cannot, it turns out, infer the naturalness of capitalism from the manifest failure of communism to accommodate human nature. Nor should we be tempted to infer that natural is better. Foraging half-naked for nuts and berries is natural, while the New York Stock Exchange and open-heart surgery would boggle our ancestors' minds."

Wilkinson goes on to argue that while our evolved human nature constrains the possibilities of social order, the historical move to liberal capitalism--the transition from personal to impersonal exchange--was a "great cultural leap," as Friedrich Hayek emphasized. Within the limits set by evolved human nature, the emergence of liberal capitalism depends on cultural evolution. "We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom. We can, of course, do better."

This dependence of classical liberalism on cultural evolution is also stressed by George Smith in his encyclopedia entries on Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer. Smith argues that Spencer's view of evolution was Lamarckian and therefore quite different from Darwin's view of evolution. And while the Spencer's Lamarckian conception of evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been discredited as biological theory, Smith observes, this is actually a better approach for understanding social history than is Darwin's biological approach. After all, social evolution--including the evolution of liberal capitalism--really is Lamarckian in that the social practices successful for one generation can be passed on to the next generation through social learning as a system of cultural inheritance.

Most importantly for Spencer, the move from regimes of status based on coercive exploitation to regimes of contract based on voluntary cooperation was a process of cultural rather than biological evolution. And, thus, Smith suggests, the liberal principle of equal freedom--that people should be free to live as they please so long as they respect the equal rights of others--arose not from biological nature but from cultural history.

Furthermore, Smith argues, Spencer and other classical liberals understood that market competition was radically different from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from their voluntary exchanges with one another. (Other libertarians--like George Gilder--have made this same distinction between zero-sum biological competition and positive-sum market competition to argue against the application of Darwinian evolution to human morality and social order.) Smith explains: "To associate market competition with the biological competition of Darwinian evolution is to misunderstand how classical liberals viewed the free market." In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. So, Smith concludes: "It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply."

There is, however, a big problem with Smith's analysis. If Social Darwinism means explaining all social order through biological evolution based on zero-sum competition, as Smith suggests, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.

Darwin is clear in recognizing that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship and reciprocal exchange. Modern Darwinian research--both empirical and theoretical--on the evolution of cooperation clearly shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game. This research tradition is well surveyed in Robert Wright's book Nonzero.

Moreover, it is not true that Darwin totally rejected Lamarckian evolution. In fact, he accepted Lamarckian thinking in speaking of "the inherited effects of the long-continued use or disuse of parts." And he saw that the moral and social progress of human beings came much more through cultural evolution by social learning than biological evolution by natural selection. With civilized nations, Darwin said in The Descent of Man (Penguin ed., 163), moral progress comes mostly through cultural factors: "the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings."

Darwin's reasoning here has been confirmed by recent research on gene-culture coevolution, which supports a broad understanding of evolution as encompassing at least four systems of inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, cultural, and symbolic.

To see how Darwinian science supports classical liberal or libertarian thinking, we must see how the liberal principles of equal liberty have arisen from the complex interaction of natural history, cultural history, and prudential judgment.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Troy Camplin said...

For my part, I am certainly a Darwinian Libertarian. I think Frederick Turner would also be classified as such. And it is precisely because we take this much broader view of Darwin and Darwinism. For social animals, it is survival of the most cooperative -- and, thus, a positive sum game for that social group. Or, as one primatologist once observed, "One chimpanzee is none." The same is true with humans. Of course, I periodically write about it on my blog:

And then there is, of course, my book, "Diaphysics."