Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is Biopolitical Science Predictive?

I have just finished revising an article on "Biopolitical Science" for publication in Politics and the Life Sciences, the journal of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences. When I first began working on this paper a few years ago, it was entitled "Darwinian Political Science."

In this article, I develop a theoretical framework for biopolitical science as a science of political animals. This science moves 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 biopolitical science, I show how this science would help us to understand Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

At the end of the article, I respond to some of the likely objections to my argument. One objection is that the biopolitical science I have sketched lacks the predictive power necessary for a true science. After all, some critics might say, the ultimate aim of a true science of politics is not just to interpret political events in the past (like Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation), but to predict the future course of political events through scientific laws of political behavior.

In answering this objection, I argue that because of the complexity and freedom of human political behavior, any science of politics must be a science of history based on historical narratives. By contrast with non-historical sciences, historical sciences have only limited predictive power. At best, political science can make general predictions about political patterns. But it cannot make specific predictions about political events. Biopolitical science deepens the historical narratives of political science by grounding them in the evolutionary history of political animals, which moves through three kinds of historical narratives: natural history, cultural history, and biographical history. And yet this biopolitical history cannot provide the precise predictions that are possible in the non-historical sciences.

Evolutionary biology and the social sciences are historical sciences of emergent complexity. By contrast, physical sciences such as physics and chemistry are non-historical sciences of reductive simplicity. Except for historical disciplines such as cosmology and geology, physical scientists study physical phenomena without reference to their history.

Many social scientists--particularly, economists--have taken physics as the model for all science, and they have tried to unify the social sciences as founded on a social physics free from historical contingency. But biopolitical science rejects this approach. Biopolitical science recognizes that social phenomena are necessarily historical, and therefore they can only be explained through historical narratives, which cannot have the predictive precision that is achieved through the deterministic laws of the physical sciences. Pursuing social physics sacrifices accuracy for the sake of precision, because it ignores the fuzzy complexity and historical contingency of social reality. Pursuing biopolitical history sacrifices precision for the sake of accuracy, because it recognizes that fuzzy complexity and historical contingency.

Although biopolitical science cannot provide deterministic laws, it can provide probabilistic regularities, which support falsifiable but fuzzy predictions of behavioral patterns. For example, evolutionary game theory has developed formal models of the natural behavioral repertoire that I lay out in this article, and those models can generate falsifiable predictions that can be tested through experimental game playing. This research shows a complex interaction between natural history, cultural history, and individual history. There are some universal behavioral patterns that manifest a natural history of the human species that has shaped human beings to be both self-regarding and other-regarding. But there is great cultural variation in that behavior that manifests a cultural history that has shaped some societies to be quite different from others. And yet there is also great variation across individuals that cannot be precisely predicted from what we know about natural and cultural history.

Consider, for instance, the playing of the "ultimatum game." In this game, there are two players under conditions of anonymity. Both players are told there is a specified sum of money to be divided between the two players. One player is told to propose a division of the money to the other player. The responding player can either accept or reject the proposal. If the responder accepts the proposal, the money will be divided as proposed. If the responder rejects the proposal, then neither player receives any money.

Assuming that human beings are purely self-regarding egoists, rational choice theorists will predict that the responder will accept any proposed division, because any money is better than none, while the proposer will want to take most of the money and give the responder as little as possible. But Darwinian evolutionary theorists, who think human beings have evolved to have other-regarding moral concerns, will predict that responders will indignantly reject unfair offers, and proposers will feel obligated to offer fair divisions of the money, somewhere around an even split. The Darwinians predict that human beings will on average show a sense of fairness in reciprocity by their willingness to punish those who make unfair offers, even when inflicting the punishment is costly to the punisher.

The experimental play of the ultimatum game generally confirms the predictions of the Darwinians--in most cases, responders reject unfair proposals, and proposers feel compelled to offer fair divisions. But while this evidence suggests that a sense of fairness is part of the natural behavioral pattern of most human beings, a substantial portion of the participants in these experiments (about one quarter) behave in a purely selfish manner. And in a few societies around the world--particularly, in small-scale societies where there is no experience with market exchange to cultivate a culture of reciprocal fairness--almost everyone behaves in a purely selfish manner. So, although we can't make specific predictions based on deterministic laws, we can make general predictions based on probabilistic propensities.

Similarly, political scientists could not have precisely predicted Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But they could have predicted that chattel slavery would provoke resistance from those who saw that it violates the natural desire for justice as reciprocity, and they might have predicted that the cultural history of American constitutionalism would create opportunities for ambitious political actors to satisfy their desire for glory by promoting the ultimate extinction of slavery.

Once Lincoln issued the Proclamation, political scientists could begin a debate over what kind of historical narrative best accounts for that political event. Biopolitical science contributes to that debate by providing a broad theoretical framework for such a historical narrative as moving through the natural history of slavery, the cultural history of slavery in America, and the biographical history of Lincoln as the political actor who won his glory in becoming the Great Emancipator.

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


Troy Camplin said...

Two things. One, I can't believe that there is a journal like that -- and I am thrilled that there is. Two, sounds like a great paper. I can find nothing in your summary I disagree with.

Larry Arnhart said...

It's a great journal. And the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences is a great organization for anyone interested in the application of biological reasoning to the social sciences.

The founding president of APLS--Tom Wiegele--was a professor at Northern Illinois University who also established "Politics and the Life Sciences" as a field of study at NIU. I was there at the founding of both.

Troy Camplin said...

I googled the journal. I find it to be an evil temptation, luring me to consider papers I could submit to it. :-)