Monday, May 30, 2011

Created or Evolved? The Teachers Decide

In 1965, I went to my public high school biology class in Big Spring, Texas, prepared to attack Darwinian evolution and defend creation science. I came to each class with notes taken from my reading of Henry Morris and others at the Institute for Creation Research who exposed evolution as unscientific and immoral. But, then, I became increasingly frustrated over the semester, because my teacher never spoke about evolution. Finally, I went to the teacher after one class and insisted that he should teach evolution so that I could refute it. He was oddly evasive. Years later, I realized that he was like many high school biology teachers in Texas who avoided the topic of evolution because it was too controversial.

Now, of course, I recognize that the evidence and arguments for evolutionary science are powerfully persuasive. But perhaps as a result of my youthful enthusiasm for creation science, I think that the best way for public high school biology teachers to handle the topic of evolution is to "teach the controversy"--to allow their students to survey the evidence and arguments for all sides in this debate, and then to leave the students free to make up their own minds. If I were a high school teacher, I would do what I do in my university teaching: I would indicate why I think the case for evolution is persuasive, while encouraging the students to compare the alternatives, with confidence that most students will see that the weight of the evidence and arguments favors evolution.

Occasionally, I have had my university students actually read Darwin himself--particularly, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man--along with some contemporary writing on evolutionary science and some of the criticism coming from proponents of creation science and intelligent design theory (such as Michael Behe and Bill Dembski).

My students see that Darwin himself believed in "teaching the controversy." He presented the issue as a choice between two theories--the "theory of creation" and the "theory of natural selection" (or the "theory of descent with modification"). In defending his theory, he admitted that there are "a crowd of difficulties" for his theory. "Some of them," he lamented, "are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered" (Origin, beginning of Chapter 6). In fact, these "difficulties" turn out to be the very objections to his theory that have been made by the proponents of creationism and intelligent design. Darwin devoted much of the Origin to answering these objections and pointing to the weaknesses in the alternative "theory of creation."

Darwin also concluded--in both the Origin and Descent--that there is no necessary contradiction between his theory and religious belief. In the concluding chapter of the Origin, he declared: "I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one." He quoted a remark by the Reverend Charles Kingsley: "it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."

His famous last sentence of the book evoked the image of the Creator as First Cause, borrowing language that echoes the Biblical book of Genesis: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

This opens the possibility of a theistic evolution for those students who seek a reconciliation of religious belief and evolutionary science.

Although I think this would be the best way to teach high school students about evolution, I have found few high school teachers who agree with me. But, then, for a long time, it has been hard for me to get a clear picture of how exactly evolution is taught in American public high schools.

Now, a new book has gone a long way in clearing up my confusion about this--Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Berkman and Plutzner are political scientists at Penn State University who have used empirical research--particularly, opinion surveys of the general public and of teachers--to study how evolution is taught in American public school biology classes.

They make a good case for two remarkable conclusions. They show that the policies for teaching evolution in all the American states contradict what the majority of American citizens want, as reported in various opinion surveys. And yet, they also show that teachers have the discretion to violate state policies, and many of these teachers have done so in ways that conform to what the citizens in their school districts want.

Amazingly, while both the proponents and the opponents of teaching evolution have devoted most of their energy to trying to influence state educational policies, Berkman and Plutzner show that these policies have almost no effect on what is actually taught in the classroom, because regardless of state policies, the teachers decide what will be taught and how it will be taught.

There is a good reason why this debate over the teaching of evolution in the public schools has been an intense legal and political debate in the United States for almost a century--from the Scopes trial of 1925 to the present. The reason is that the fundamental premise of American political thought, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is the equal liberty of all human beings, which apparently depends on the special moral status of human beings as created in God's image and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. If we believe that human beings are endowed by an evolutionary process with their distinctive human nature, does that sustain our belief in our special moral dignity? Or does any belief in the evolutionary origins of human beings from lower animals deny the necessary grounds of our moral dignity as rooted in "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God"?

Although Berkman and Plutzner do not take up this deep philosophical question in their book, they do help us to understand how the moral and political debate over evolution works itself out in America's classrooms.

THE GAP BETWEEN STATE POLICIES AND PUBLIC OPINION
Berkman and Plutzer show us that public opinion surveys over the past thirty years indicate that the majority of Americans think that public school biology teachers should "teach the controversy." Most citizens think that in the debate over whether human and biological life originated through evolution, through divine creation, or through intelligent design, the public schools should present all sides to this debate.

In recent surveys, about 25% of the public would prefer the public schools to teach only creationism or only intelligent design. Only about 12-15% favor teaching only evolution, which has become the official policy in all fifty states in recent years.

This shows a great gap between public opinion and public policy. The primary cause of this gap is that public educational policy concerning the teaching of evolution has been constrained over the past 30 years by Supreme Court decisions, which seem to dictate that only evolution can be taught in public school biology classes, and that state laws for a "balanced treatment" of the evolution debate in public schools is an unconstitutional "establishment of religion."

In 1965, when I was hoping to debate evolution in my high school biology class, Susan Epperson--a high school biology teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas--launched a law suit against a 1928 Arkansas law that made it illegal to teach that human beings "descended or ascended from a lower order of animals." In EPPERSON v. ARKANSAS (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, striking down the law as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, because it established a religious belief in creationism.

In 1981, Arkansas legislators tried a new legal strategy in passing a law mandated a "balanced treatment" of creation science and evolutionary science in the public schools, while also prohibiting any religious instruction. But then, in a Federal District Court case--McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982)--a Federal judge struck down this law as unconstitutional, because it seemed to be an indirect way of teaching Biblical creationism.

The "balanced treatment" policy was also enacted into law in Louisiana, where it was required that if evolution was taught in a public school, creation science must also be taught as an alternative. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this law as unconstitutional, because it seemed that the purpose of the law was religious rather than secular. Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist dissented. Even in the majority opinion, there was one passage that left a slight opening for a "balanced treatment" policy:

We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught. . . . Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.


This provided the opening for the intelligent design movement, which began with Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial (1991) and Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996). "Intelligent design theory" was said to be a purely scientific critique of evolution that was free of the religious associations of "creation science." And, thus, it could be argued that teaching intelligent design in a public school biology class as an alternative to evolution could be justified as purely secular instruction and thus not prohibited by the Aguillard decision.

This argument was tested in the Federal District Court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005). In Dover, Pennsylvania, the school board enacted a policy that students in the biology classes should be told about a book in the library--Of Pandas and People--that would teach them about intelligent design theory as an alternative to evolution. Some parents and teachers sued the school board. Judge John Jones was persuaded by the trial that "intelligent design" was not really a scientific theory but a deceptive strategy for teaching creationism.

One dramatic piece of evidence for this was the history of the editing of the book Of Pandas and People. Prior to the decision in the Aguillard case in 1987, the book referred to the "creator" and "creation science." After the decision was released, these words were erased and replaced with "intelligent designer" and "intelligent design theory."

All of these court cases seem to make it difficult, if not impossible, for state educational policy makers to follow the public opinion favoring a "balanced treatment" of evolution and alternative theories. And although there have been some legislative debates over this in recent years, there seems to be a clear policy at present in all fifty states declaring that evolution alone is to be taught in the public schools.

And yet, as Berkman and Plutzer indicate, many teachers are free to ignore these state policies.

THE TEACHERS DECIDE
Much of what Berkman and Plutzer report in their book comes from a survey that they themselves carried out. In the spring of 2007, they conducted the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers. A survey form was mailed to 2,000 randomly selected high school teachers of biology in U.S. public schools, and 926 teachers responded, which included teachers from every state except Wyoming. In addition to answering the forced-choice survey questions, 325 of these teachers chose to add written comments.

As reported by these teachers, only one per cent never taught evolution. On average, teachers devoted about 14 hours of class time to evolution. 17% taught evolution in general but never talked about human evolution, apparently because it was too controversial. But 60% devoted 1-5 hours of class time to human evolution.

75% of the teachers report that they never talk about creationism or intelligent design in their classes. 22% report spending some time talking about creationism or intelligent design. 14-21% actually endorse creationism or intelligent design as valid science.

Berkman and Plutzer conclude that the most important factor in determining how teachers teach evolution is their personal beliefs about the subject. Of these 926 teachers, 31% believe in "organic evolution," the idea that "human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process." 47% believe in "theistic evolution," the idea that "human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process." 14% believe in "young earth creationism," the idea that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

Why do these biology teachers have so much freedom to follow their personal beliefs in deciding how to teach evolution? Berkman and Plutzer explain this by saying that high school teachers are "street-level bureaucrats"--government employees who act with broad discretion in their daily work with the public. They have so much discretion that they can disregard the policies handed down by policy makers.

This might seem to be contrary to democratic government if these teachers are refusing to execute the policies made by elected officials. But from another point of view, as Berkman and Plutzer argue, this manifests democracy from the bottom up rather than from the top down. In the United States, the public schools are highly decentralized. Each school district can be understood as a little democracy unto itself, governed by local community values. The teachers hired in each school district tend to be people who are comfortable with the cultural values of the community. Consequently, the teaching of evolution in the public schools tends to reflect the preferences of the local community. In rural and suburban school districts in the South and Midwest with traditional cultural values, there's likely to be some community preference for teaching creationism or intelligent design as an alternative to evolution, and the teachers in those districts are likely to reflect that preference, as opposed to the situation in urban school districts in the Northeast or West with more cosmopolitan values, where the local community is probably opposed to teaching creationism or intelligent design.

So who decides how evolution is to be taught in America's public schools? The teachers decide. But the local community also decides, because the teachers tend to conform to the cultural values of the community.

So how many teachers follow my approach--arguing that the evidence and arguments favor Darwinian evolution, but allowing students to weigh this against the alternatives?

Berkman and Plutzer report that of those teachers who introduce creationism or intelligent design into their classes, many say that they take a "teach the controversy" approach--presenting alternative ideas and leaving students free to arrive at their own conclusions. In fact, most of those who "teach the controversy" personally endorse creationism or intelligent design. Some teachers say that they tell their students that they need to understand evolution, but they don't need to believe it.

Of those teachers who say that they don't personally endorse creationism or intelligent design, 17% report that they raise the question of "irreducible complexity" as a possible objection to evolution, apparently acting as a devil's advocate to provoke thought in their students.

Of the 926 teachers surveyed by Berman and Plutzer, 13 identify themselves as proponents of evolution who nevertheless think it's important to present creationism or intelligent design as alternatives for their students to consider (190-191). For example, one teacher from Ohio explained: "I consider myself strongly on the side of evolution, but I do recognize the validity of creationism, and more importantly, I recognize that we have an obligation to expose students to both."

These are the only teachers who take my approach, which was also Darwin's approach, in defending the "theory of evolution" as superior to the "theory of creation," while taking seriously the "difficulties" for evolutionary theory, and arguing that evolution can be compatible with believing in the Creator as the First Cause of a universe open to evolutionary development.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leo Strauss's "Epilogue": Natural Right and Biology

One of the readings for my recent Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge" was Leo Strauss's "Epilogue," which was originally published in 1962 as the last essay in Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, edited by Herbert Storing.

For this book, Walter Berns wrote an essay on American voting studies, Storing wrote on Herbert Simon's science of administration, Leo Weinstein wrote on Arthur Bentley's group theory of politics, and Robert Horwitz wrote on Harold Lasswell's studies of propaganda.

I must confess that this essay by Strauss did not go over very well, because most of the discussants found it to be confusing and irritating. Strauss seemed to be criticizing a crude caricature of social science. Also, the bitter tone of his writing showed a curmudgeonly temperament that many of the discussants found unpalatable.

Those of us who knew something about Strauss and the Straussians tried to explain the significance of this essay by explaining its historical context, which we thought was important for understanding why Strauss had such a powerful effect on so many of his students at the University of Chicago.

Strauss opens and closes his essay by referring to "the crisis of the modern Western World," which was "the crisis of liberal democracy" in its battle with its enemies. In 1962, the most obvious manifestation of this crisis was the Cold War, with liberal democracy threatened by communism. Strauss's attack on the "new political science" was rooted in his worry about this global crisis. "Whereas acting man has necessarily chosen values, the new political scientist as pure spectator is not committed to any value; in particular, he is neutral in the conflict between liberal democracy and its enemies" (324). A value-free political science cannot provide any rational defense of liberal democratic values, and thus it "has nothing to say against those who unhesitatingly prefer surrender, that is, the abandonment of liberal democracy, to war" (327).

This leads Strauss directly into the bitter conclusion of the essay:

Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli's teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless, one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.


But as important as the Cold War was in creating the urgency and vehemence of Strauss's essay, his understanding of the "crisis of liberal democracy" had a broader context than just the Cold War: the broadest context was the entire history of political philosophy or political science from Plato to the present. Modern political science (beginning with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke) had broken away from the tradition of Aristotelian natural right, and the new political science was only the latest development in that intellectual break. The problem is that if there is no standard of natural right--no natural standard of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust--if all values are merely subjective preferences that have no objective truth for all human beings, then we must inevitably fall into historicism, relativism, and nihilism. In that condition, a commitment to liberal democracy is nothing more than an irrational choice, an arbitrary value judgment, that cannot be defended by any rational argument as superior to its alternatives.

The exhilaration felt by many of Strauss's students came from the sweeping history of philosophic ideas that Strauss presented to them, which allowed them to understand the urgent political events of the day as part of a human drama stretching over thousands of years. Moreover, he led them to believe that the study of political philosophy was the only way to participate in that continuing historical drama at the highest level.

A crucial turning point in that drama came with the emergence of modern science, beginning in the seventeenth century, which overturned Aristotelian science, and thus overturned Aristotelian natural right. This is what I was hoping would come up in our discussion.

I might have been more successful if I had had the participants read the "Introduction" to Strauss's Natural Right and History along with the "Epilogue." In fact, there are so many points of correspondence between these two texts that I wonder whether Strauss looked back at his "Introduction" while writing the "Epilogue."

What I find perplexing in these two texts is Strauss's failure to consider how Aristotelian natural right depends not on physics or cosmology but on biology, and how Darwinian biology can support something like Aristotelian natural right.

Aristotelian natural right depends on a biological science that recognizes natural kinds and natural ends. If we can recognize the human species as a natural kind, and if we can recognize that as members of that human species, human beings have natural ends, then we can understand natural right as the fulfillment of those natural ends. Darwinian science recognizes the enduring reality of the human species, although it is not eternally fixed; and it also recognises the immanent teleology of the human species as directed to its natural ends.

In the "Introduction," Strauss asserts that Aristotelian natural right depends on "a teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part," but this seems to have been destroyed by modern natural science. "The issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved" (7-8). But this ignores the fact that most of Aristotle's examples of teleology are of plants and animals, not of the heavens.

In the "Epilogue," Strauss lays out Aristotle's distinctions between the theoretical sciences and the practical sciences, based on a passage in the Metaphysics (1025b1-1026a33). But Strauss ignores Aristotle's biological works and Aristotle's claim that the natural science of living beings--as opposed to physical cosmology--is "nearer to us and more akin to our nature." And he implies that Socrates was wrong to identify "nature" with astronomy, while also criticizing the cosmic teleology of Plato's Timaeus (PA, 642a28-30, 644b22-646a5; Meta, 987a30-b20). Human life belongs to a world of living beings, which show natural patterns of flux and becoming rather than fixity and eternity.

In the "Epilogue," Strauss implies that the Aristotelian understanding of human nature contradicts the Darwinian understanding:

According to the Aristotelian view, man is a being sui generis, with a dignity of its own; man is the rational and political animal. Man is the only being that can be concerned with self-respect; man can respect himself because he can despise himself; he is "the beast with red cheeks," the only being possessing a sense of shame. . . . The presupposition of all this is that man is radically distinguished from non-man, from brutes as well as from gods. . . . The new political science, on the other hand, is based on the fundamental premise that there are no essential or irreducible differences: there are only differences of degree; in particular there is only a difference of degree between men and brutes or between men and robots. In other words, according to the new political science, or the universal science of which the new political science is a part, to understand a thing means to understand it in terms of its genesis or its conditions and hence, humanly speaking, to understand the higher in terms of the lower; the human in terms of the sub-human, the rational in terms of the subrational, the political in terms of the sub-political. In particular, the new political science cannot admit that the common good is something that is. (310-311)


Strauss does not note that Aristotle compared human beings with other political animals, while also recognizing that the rational capacities of human beings can be seen in at least rudimentary form in other animals. Aristotle even dissected chimpanzees and concluded that, more than any other animal, they resembled human beings.

Nor does Strauss note that while Darwin did speak of the human difference as only a difference in degree, he also recognized that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious thought, and moral judgment.

At the Liberty Fund conference, the reading following Strauss was an excerpt from Ernst Mayr's What Makes Biology Unique?. Mayr argues that Darwinian biology confirms much of Aristotle's biology. While Darwinian science refutes any cosmic teleology, it supports the immanent teleology of species as directed towards ends, which is the form of teleology that Aristotle saw.

Strauss seemed to concede that Aristotelian natural right required only an immanent teleology when he wrote: "However indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions. . . . We must therefore distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are natural and those which originate in conventions. Furthermore, we must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad" (Natural Right and History, 94-95).

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hayek, Oxytocin, and the Evolution of Trade

The Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge" was good. The participants were from a wide range of disciplines--including economics, political science, philosophy, literature, journalism, and computer science. Our readings were selected writings by Hayek (Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason, "The Pretence of Knowledge," and "Three Sources of Human Values"), Michael Oakeshott ("Rationalism in Politics"), Leo Strauss ("Epilogue" from Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics), Ernst Mayr (What Makes Biology Unique?), and Paul Zak ("Moral Economics").

As is usual at a Liberty Fund conference, lots of good food and drinks at a beautiful resort location (Westward Look in Tucson) added to the fun of lively discussions with some smart people.

As is also usual at such conferences, I came away with lots of questions. I decided that I need to think more about three issues--Hayek's account of the open society as the repression of the tribal instincts of human nature, the evolution of oxytocin as one neural mechanism supporting morality and exchange in a free society, and the evolution of trade in prehistoric societies.

As I have indicated in various posts, I am not persuaded by Hayek's argument that the evolved instincts of human beings are adapted for life in a "closed society," and therefore the "open or free society" requires a cultural tradition of impersonal rules for an abstract society that suppresses those instincts, while the yearning for socialism and "social justice" manifests a desire to restore those primordial instincts.

Some of the discussants agreed with me on this. But the more devoted Hayekians disagreed, and their arguments in defense of Hayek on this point were reasonable. Isn't it true that most of our evolutionary history in small foraging groups adapted our ancestors for life in families and small face-to-face groups bound together by personal obligations and egalitarian levelling? Isn't the desire for collectivist societies the attempt to extend these small group norms over a large modern society? Doesn't modern liberty require that we live in two worlds--the world of families and small groups and the world of impersonal exchange--and that we must not impose the rules for one world on the other?

Those who agreed with me argued that even in small foraging groups, there was some individual autonomy, and individuals were inclined to resist domination by the arbitrary wills of others. In some respects, the modern liberal society revives the individual freedom of foraging societies, while combining that with all the advantages of modern civilization as based on global exchange networks. Our evolutionary ancestors were adapted for engaging in social exchange and detecting cheaters who violated the norms of fair exchange. Those evolved mental capacities for social engagement provided the psychological conditions in which the cultural evolution of a modern exchange society could succeed.

A related issue here concerns the evolutionary origins of trade. Hayek assumes that trade did not appear until the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, and then it increased with the emergence of urban settlements about 5,000 years ago. If that's so, then there was no trade among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and trade would have little or no support in genetically innate dispositions.

One discussant noted that Matt Ridley--in his new book The Rational Optimist--argues that exchange or trade is uniquely human and is responsible for the success of human civilization. Ridley sees evidence of exchange extending back long before the advent of agriculture. There is evidence of prehistoric tools, for example, that are made of materials that had to be transported over hundreds of miles, which suggests a network of trade. Moreover, there is some evidence that part of the superiority of our hominid ancestors over Neanderthals came from the human disposition to trade. Even if this disposition to trade arose as a cultural invention that did not depend on any specific genetic change, this prehistoric trading behavior had to express some generalized genetic capacities for learning how to trade.

Paul Zak has performed some game-theory experiments that seem to show that this disposition to exchange as based on trust is supported by the neuroactive hormone oxytocin. If so, then the ancient evolution of oxytocin in human beings and other mammals suggests deep evolutionary roots for extended human cooperation.

Zak argues that economic exchange depends upon moral values, because it depends upon the trust that makes cooperation possible. There is evidence that this disposition to trust and cooperation has evolved to be part of human nature, although the expression of that disposition varies in response to the cultural environment. We are now beginning to explain the neural mechanisms of this evolved moral nature. In particular, Zak has shown experimentally that oxytocin supports moral cooperation by promoting attachment to offspring, to reproductive partners, to friends, and even to strangers. What originally evolved to promote mammalian maternal care for offspring has been extended to embrace ever wider groups of individuals who benefit from exchange.

In contrast to Hayek, Zak sees economic exchange as rooted in evolved human nature. He writes:

Values are not specific to the West or East, nor are there broadly distinct Western and Eastern economic institutions. Rather, values across all cultures are simply variations on a theme that is deeply human, strongly represented physiologically, and evolutionarily old. Similarly, the kinds of market institutions that create wealth and enable happiness and freedom of choice are those that resonate with the social nature of human beings who have an innate sense of shared values of right, wrong, and fair. Modern economies cannot operate without these. (276)


Zak agrees with Hayek in seeing the modern transition from personal exchange to mostly impersonal exchange in markets as making possible the great increases in wealth and population since the Industrial Revolution. But in contrast to Hayek, Zak sees this cultural tradition of impersonal exchange as actualizing a potentiality of evolved human nature.

One can see this, Zak observes, in the research of Joe Henrich and colleagues who studied the play of the Ultimatum Game in small-scale societies around the world. Variations in the play of the game manifested variations in the cultural norms of the societies. The higher rates of fair offers in the game were associated with those societies that had high levels of market activity. It seemed that people who regularly engaged in trade learned that successful trading required that traders agree on a fair distribution of gains. The evolved neural mechanism of oxytocin as favoring trust will fluctuate in response to the social environment.

I need to think more about how the evolution of trade and oxytocin sustain cooperation in a free society.

I have pursued these questions in other posts.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hayek's Freudianism and the Prehistory of Liberty

I am preparing to travel this week to the Westward Look Resort in Tucson for a Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge."

One of the readings for the conference is Hayek's "The Three Sources of Human Values." In that essay, he argues that "freedom is an artefact of civilization" that requires the "repression" of the innate desires and emotions of the human mind as shaped by genetic evolution for life in hunter-gatherer bands or tribes (155, 161, 163-64). The neural structures of Homo sapiens were adapted for life in small groups of foraging individuals. In such a face-to-face society, social order was deliberately organized to satisfy the needs of the known and recognizable members of the group. By contrast to this prehistoric life in small foraging groups, the advent first of agriculture and then of settled urban life has made possible--over the past 5,000 years--an expansion of social life through trade with distant strangers, which creates an abstract society governed by abstract rules. Eventually, the ancient Greeks discovered how individual liberty and private property made possible the civilization of free men. The modern liberal capitalist society continues the cultural evolution of freedom that began in ancient Athens.

But this civilization of free individuals is painful for human beings because it represses the genetic instincts and desires of the human brain as adapted for life in small primitive groups. "In consequence, the long-submerged innate instincts have again surged to the top. Their demand for a just distribution in which organized power is to be used to allocate to each what he deserves, is thus strictly an atavism, based on primordial emotions" (165). The demand for "social justice"--for a distribution of resources according to individual need and merit--is implicitly a demand to return to a primitive society. By contrast, a "free society" cannot be a "just society," because the spontaneous order of market competition and exchange does not allocate resources according to any shared standard of just deserts. Consequently, socialism is appealing to human beings because it satisfies our innate instincts for social justice.

I call this the "Freudian" theme in Hayek's writing, because it follows the argument of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents that civilization requires that human beings repress their animal instincts. This could also be called the "Popperian" theme, because Hayek took it from Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, in which the popular appeal of the "closed society" is explained as an atavistic return to tribal morality based on personal relationships against the impersonal and abstract relationships of life in the "open society."

I will be interested to see if any of the other folks at this conference find this reasoning as confusing as I do.

Generally, Hayek defends the "free society," in which social order arises as an evolutionary order from the unplanned interactions of individuals, and he rejects the "planned society," in which the attempt is made to organize social life by the deliberate design of one or a few minds. But he also suggests that a fully planned society is at least possible in families and tribal groups:

Only in the small groups of primitive society can collaboration between the members rest largely on the circumstance that at any one moment they will know more or less the same particular circumstances. Some wise men may be better at interpreting the immediately perceived circumstances or at remembering things in remote places unknown to the others. But the concrete events which the individuals encounter in their daily pursuits will be very much the same for all, and they will act together because the events they know and the objectives at which they aim are more or less the same.

The situation is wholly different in the Great or Open Society where millions of men interact and where civilization as we know it has developed. . . . each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all, and . . . each is therefore ignorant of most of the facts on which the working of society rests. (LLL, vol. 1, 13-14)


And yet Hayek also says that ethology and cultural anthropology have shown that in both animal societies and primitive human societies, the structure of social life is determined by the evolution of unconscious and instinctive rules of conduct--for example, rules of parent-child bonding, social rank, and property--that have not been explicitly and consciously formulated by deliberate design. Moreover, the eventual formulation of such rules in human language depends upon the evolution of language as a spontaneous order that has not been deliberately designed (LLL, vol. 1, 72-82).

It seems then that primitive human beings and other social animals organize their social lives according to abstract rules rooted in their evolutionary instincts. "Men generally act in accordance with abstract rules in this sense long before they can state them" (CL, 148-49). So, contrary to what Hayek says about free society and civilization as the repression of primitive instincts, the "abstract rules" of the "abstract society" are cultural extensions of the social instincts manifest in primitive societies, which permits an extension of cooperation to ever wider groups.

The extension of cooperation in the "Great Society" to embrace millions of individuals who are strangers to one another depends on expanding trading networks. In some of his writing, Hayek suggests that trade arose for the first time in human history five to ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, and thus the propensity to trade could not have been shaped by genetic evolution in the history of primitive human ancestors. But this ignores the extensive evidence for prehistoric trade--both within and between tribal groups--and for the evolution of language and norms of reciprocity as facilitating trade among our hunting-gathering ancestors. This would suggest the possibility that the expansion of trading networks over the past five thousand years was the cultural extension of innate propensities for trade.

Another problem for Hayek's Freudian/Popperian conception of the "open society" as the repression of primitive instincts is that this ignores the ways in which a liberal society allows for human beings to satisfy their desires for personal social bonding in civil society. A fundamental principle of liberal thought, as Hayek emphasizes, is the importance of civil society as lying between the individual and the state--a social realm in which human beings are free to express their social needs through the natural bonds of family life and the voluntary associations of life. This allows for human beings to satisfy their instinctive needs for familial and social bonding in small groups comparable to those of their hunting-gathering ancestors.

The social structures of civil society can satisfy the human instincts for face-to-face social bonding in small groups bound together by traditional moral norms. This is important for Hayek's distinction between "true individualism" and "false individualism."

That true individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group, that it believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations, and that indeed its case rests largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration need not be stressed further. There can be no greater contrast to this than the false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms, which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state, and which tries to make all social ties prescriptive, instead of using the state mainly as a protection of the individual against the arrogation of coercive powers by the smaller groups.

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society as these smaller groupings of men are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable to a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is the essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. (SADR, 66-67)


Hayek sees this free society as emerging for the first time in the ancient Greek world. In Greek antiquity, "freedom" originally meant "not being a slave"--that is, not being subject to the arbitrary will of a master. And, thus, we could say that liberty or freedom could be understood as "the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another" (CL, 11-20).

But then Hayek leaves us wondering why human beings resist being enslaved. If slavery is not natural, if normal human beings are not naturally adapted for submitting to the arbitrary will of others, that suggests a natural propensity for self-rule and for resisting being dominated by others. Some evolutionary scientists--like Christopher Boehm--explain this as an instinctive propensity shaped in the evolution of our hunting-gatherer ancestors, among whom there was a tense balance between the natural desire of an ambitious few for dominance and the natural desire of the subordinate many to resist tyrannical dominance. The establishment of agrarian states allowed for unprecedented oppression of subordinate individuals by ruling elites. But, then, Boehm argues, the emergence over the past few centuries of liberal capitalist societies has restored some of the freedom from oppression enjoyed by ancient foragers while combining it with all the benefits of modern civilization.

This suggests to me that rather than seeing the free society as the repression of the evolved natural desires shaped in prehistoric human societies, we should see it as providing the fullest satisfaction of those desires.

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Gat on War (3): Seal Team 6 and the Evolution of Peace

The American commandos who killed Osama bin Laden belong to an elite military group--Seal Team 6. They are said to be the "all-star team" of the Navy Seals (Sea-Air-Land teams). In a recent article in the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller describes their training:

All Seal members face years of brutal preparation, including a notorious six months of basic underwater demolition training in Coronado, Calif. During "hell week," recruits get a total of four hours of sleep during five and a half days of nonstop running, swimming in the cold surf and rolling in mud. About 80 per cent of the candidates do not make it; at least one has died.

For those who succeed, more training and then deployments follow. After several years on regular Seal teams, Team 6 candidates are taught to parachute from 30,000 feet with oxygen masks and gain control of a hijacked cruise liner at sea. Of those Seal members, about half make it.

Ryan Zinke, 49, a former member of Seal Team 6 . . . said members of Team 6 had a certain personality: "I would say cocky, arrogant."


The American celebration of the heroic toughness of these Spartan warriors manifests our natural inclination to honor courage in war. But in recent years, it has become common for many theorists of international relations to argue that we are evolving into a modern world of perpetual peace in which war will be unnecessary, which suggests that war is not natural but cultural, and eventually a pacific culture will abolish war. In such a world, we will not need the military virtues of men like those in Seal Team 6.

I agree that the evolution of war shows a trend--especially, over the last two centuries--towards a more peaceful world as governed by the cultural norms of liberal capitalist democracy. But I see no reason to believe that perpetual peace is achievable, because I see no reason to doubt that there will always be some severe conflicts of interest between societies that will motivate people to go to war through fear, interest, or honor.

Azar Gat's book--War in Human Civilization--helps me to think through my position by showing that war is "both innate and optional," because the level of violent aggression fluctuates in response to the physical and social circumstances of life, so that we can experience long periods of peace, although we will go to war whenever we think war is instrumental to satisfying our evolved natural desires.

From the time of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer to the present, evolutionary thinking about war has displayed an odd oscillation between militarism and pacifism. On the one hand, the evolutionary view of war seems to be militaristic insofar as it shows the importance of warfare for group-selected evolution in human history. That's why so much of the militaristic rhetoric from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century employed the Darwinian language of races and societies progressing through a struggle for existence in which the stronger defeated the weaker.

On the other hand, both Darwin and Spencer foresaw moral progress in the future towards an ever-wider extension of cooperative dispositions. Spencer predicted that the social order based on contractual relations of voluntary association would eventually evolve into a global condition of perfect and permanent peace. Without the threat of war, human beings will enter the final state of evolutionary history-- a civilized anarchy in which human beings will organize their societies without government.

Although the historical evidence of the past two centuries hardly supports an inevitable evolution towards perpetual peace, it does seem to support the idea of a "democratic peace," and consequently, "democratic peace theory" has become a lively research program among theorists of international relations.

From 1945 to the present is the longest period in history in which the great powers of Europe and North America have not fought a war against one another. This was preceded by the second longest (1871-1914) and third longest (1815-1854) periods in which the great powers did not fight one another.

Democratic peace theory proposes to explain this by claiming that it arises from the spread of democracy in the modern world, because democracies rarely wage war against other democracies. Remarkably, this theory has influenced political leaders like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Tony Blair, who have all cited this theory as supporting the wisdom of a Western foreign policy that promotes democracy around the world as a way to promote world peace.

And yet, scholars continue to debate whether the historical evidence really does support this democratic peace theory. There seem to be many cases in which democracies have fought one another. For example, in the ancient world, the democratic city-states of Greece fought one another. Recent cases include the War of 1812, the American Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, the war among the new states emerging from the former Yugoslavia (1991-95), the NATO intervention into Kosovo (1999), and the India-Pakistan war of 1999.

Defenders of the democratic peace theory try to explain away these exceptional cases by defining "democracy" narrowly enough that the societies in these wars can be said to be non-democratic. But then this narrow definition of democracy leaves us with so few cases of truly democratic regimes over such a short period of history that it's not clear that the data is sufficient to support the theory.

Recently, some scholars have argued for a "capitalist peace theory": the correlation between democracy and peace arises not because democracy causes peace, but because modern democracies tend to be capitalist, and it's really capitalism and its attendant prosperity that fosters peace. Capitalist societies benefit from free markets and free trade, both within and between societies, which create networks of global interdependency and exchange that are disrupted by war.

Moreover, in capitalist societies based on contractual relationships with strangers based on social trust and the rule of law impartially enforced by the state, individuals are habituated to peaceful cooperation rather than violent aggression. Michael Mousseau argues that what promotes peace is the move from a "clientelist economy" to a "contract-intensive economy." In clientelist economies, individuals depend on their families, their friends, and their group leaders--their patrons--to provide economic and physical security, which promotes a xenophobic psychology of in-group/out-group conflict that fosters military conflict. In contract-intensive societies, individuals are habituated to making contracts with strangers with the expectation that those contracts will be enforced impartially by the state under the rule of law. Citizens in such societies are inclined to see the advantages of bigger markets with more contracting opportunities, and so they support foreign policies of international cooperation under an international rule of law that facilitates global trade and mutual exchange. As one example of the empirical support for his theory, Mousseau claims that from 1961 to 2001 there was no violent conflict between nations with contract-intensive economies ("The Social Market Roots of Democratic Peace," International Security, 33 (Spring 2009): 52-86). (Mousseau and others survey much of the evidence and reasoning for the "capitalist peace theory" in a special issue of International Interactions [May 2010].)

Gat proposes a sensible synthesis of the "democratic peace theory" and "capitalist peace theory" within a broad evolutionary framework. This allows us to see the many factors shaping war and peace in the modern world, while also seeing how this all fits into the two-million-years of human genetic and cultural evolution.

Gat proposes that peace is promoted by a complex combination of a capitalist economy, a liberal society, and a democratic polity. Affluent liberal democracies tend to be more peaceful than other regimes. The fundamental point is that in pre-modern times. Economic trade and growth was so limited that resources were practically finite, and thus competition over scarce resources was a zero-sum game, where war could bring great gain for the victor at the expense of the loser. But with the emergence of modern industrialized capitalism and global trade, wealth was increased in ways that benefited all the parties who participated in free exchange. This was Adam Smith's insight supporting his argument for free trade, free markets, and liberal societies. Under these conditions, the benefits of peace become so great for capitalist liberal democracies that they are reluctant to go to war against one another, although they might go to war against regimes and groups that threaten the international order of capitalist liberal democracy. That's why capitalist liberal democracies will fight against Political Islam and terrorists like Osama bin Laden who threaten the international order of liberalism.

By putting all of this in an evolutionary framework, Gat shows that the changing cultural circumstances of war and peace interact with the stable dispositions of human nature. Ultimately, war is a tool for satisfying the desires of the innate human motivational system grounded in the deepest needs for survival and reproduction and in all of the proximate needs of human nature, which include honor, glory, and dominance.

Human beings will always choose war or peace to satisfy their natural desires. In the continuing debate over international relations theory, Gat suggests, the "liberals" are right to see that the modern liberal order makes peaceful cooperation the increasingly attractive option; but the "realists" are right to see that war will always be an option when human beings are caught in tragic conflicts over the objects of desire.

For as long as our evolved human nature endures, we will need those Spartan warriors of Seal Group 6.

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