Thursday, November 29, 2012

Incest in Ancient Egypt and Persia: A Westermarckian Response to Paul John Frandsen

Six years ago, I wrote a post entitled "So What's Wrong with Incest?"  Amazingly, every week since then, that post has been one of the top two or three posts in the number of pageviews at my blog.  Apparently, lots of people are troubled by incestuous thoughts, and they are Googling the Internet to find some help in understanding their feelings.  One can see that in some of the comments on my post.

I was disturbed to learn from one of my students that my post on incest can be found on a website for incest pornography, where it is presented as defending incest!

The purpose of my post was to summarize some of the reasoning of Edward Westermarck for explaining the Darwinian evolution of the incest taboo, which elaborates an idea briefly suggested by Darwin himself. 

I first began thinking about Westermarck and incest in 1998, when I lectured at a conference in Helsinki, Finland (Westermarck's homeland), on Westermarck's legacy.  There I first met Arthur Wolf, the leading defender of Westermarck's theory of incest, and other younger scholars like Debra Lieberman, who became a leader in the field.

Westermarck argued that if close inbreeding tends to increase the probability of producing offspring with inherited physical and mental defects that lower the chances of survival and reproduction, then we might expect that natural selection would favor adaptations for avoiding such inbreeding.  And one way of doing that would be to favor a mental propensity to feel disgust towards the thought of having sex with those among whom one has been reared from early childhood.  Typically, this would create a sexual aversion towards close family members.  This emotional disgust towards incest could then be generalized across a society as an incest taboo. 

Westermarck developed this as a Darwinian theory of the incest taboo that would illustrate a general Darwinian theory of morality as rooted in evolved moral emotions.  This Westermarckian theory has become one of the best examples of evolutionary moral psychology.

In my book chapter on "The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right," I explained why I think Westermarck's theory is persuasive, particularly when one considers the scientific evidence and arguments for it as summarized by Arthur Wolf in Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck.

There are lots of objections to Westermarck's theory, and I tried to answer them in my book chapter.  But I did not say enough about the objection that the incest taboo cannot be natural, because incest and incestuous marriages have been common in some societies, such as ancient Egypt and Persia.

The evidence for this objection has recently been surveyed in Paul John Frandsen's book Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia.  But while I find Frandsen's book fascinating, I am not persuaded by his general argument, because he has not shown that the evidence he presents refutes Westermarck's theory.

Although Frandsen mentions Westermarck and suggests that his book refutes Westermarck's theory, he shows no knowledge of the details of Westermarck's work and of how Wolf's research supports Westermarck.  Consequently, Frandsen fails to see how the evidence he presents is actually compatible with Westermarck's position (see Frandsen, 21-22, 25, 49, 73-74,  81-83, 85, 111, 115, 125-29, 136, 167).  In his 395 notes, Frandsen cites Westermarck three times and Wolf once (nn. 31, 33-34, 389).  But as far as I can tell, he hasn't actually read either Westermarck or Wolf.

Westermarck predicted that although the incest taboo is universal, the details of the taboo will vary across individuals and societies.  The taboo against sexual mating within the nuclear family (mating with one's parents, one's children, or one's siblings) will be universally strong, although some individuals will deviate from this either because of their temperament or their circumstances.  Although the Westermarck effect is a natural propensity, the fulfillment of that propensity requires social learning..  People will not necessarily show the Westermarck effect if they have not been reared from early infancy in close association with their nuclear family members.

Moreover, Westermarck's theory predicts that there will be great variation in the extension of the incest taboo beyond the nuclear family.  For example, whether the marriage of cousins, of uncles and nieces, and of in-laws is taboo varies according to the kinship systems and social circumstances of different societies.

Apparently, Frandsen's book challenges the core of Westermarck's theory by showing the wide acceptance of marriage between nuclear family relatives in ancient Egypt and Zoroastrian Persia.  He shows that while brother-sister marriages were extremely rare over the 3,000 years of Pharaonic Egypt, they became more common among the members of the Greek communities of Graeco-Roman Egypt (from around 300 BC).  He also shows that father-daughter, mother-son, and brother-sister marriages were justified as religious obligations for Zoroastrians during the Sasanian Period (224-651 AD) of Persia.

Frandsen fails to see, however, that all of the evidence he presents can be compatible with Westermarck's theory.  For example, he relies on the research of historian Keith Hopkins on the evidence for brother-sister marriages as being a common practice in Egypt (48-50).  But he does not notice that Arthur Wolf and Walter Scheider have shown that Hopkins' research fails to refute the Westermarck hypothesis.

The Westermarck effect arises when children are reared in their first few yeas with siblings and other family members.  Many of the sibling marriages in Hopkins' data are between siblings with considerable age differences, which suggests that they were not reared together in their earliest years, and consequently the inhibitions to sexual intercourse and reproduction would not have been acquired. 

Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that some of the sibling marriages of people close in age were between people who could have been reared by wet nurses in their earliest years, and thus they might have imprinted on the body odor of their unrelated wet nurses, which would interfere with the Westermarck effect.

Another problem with the Hopkins data is that it does not give us any evidence of the success or failure of these sibling marriages.  Did such marriages produce high rates of divorce, adultery, and infertility?  If they did, then they would follow the pattern that Wolf saw with Chinese "minor" marriages--where parents adopted an infant girl, reared her with their son, and then forced the girl and boy to marry at puberty.

The same problems arise with the Persian evidence.  Frandsen gives us no evidence that these marriages of nuclear family members were successful.  In fact, he sometimes quotes remarks about such marriages being "difficult and hard" (73, 85).  But he doesn't reflect on what this means.  He also admits that there is little evidence as to how frequent these marriages were (81-82, 115).

Occasionally, Frandsen acknowledges Persian texts that seem to point to the many children of these marriages being born physically and mentally deformed.  But, again, he doesn't ponder the implications of this.

The evidence from ancient Egypt and Persian shows that a society can force brothers to marry their sisters, mothers to marry their sons, and fathers to marry their daughters.  But if these people have grown up in close association from an early age, Westermarck predicts that most of them will not be happy in their marriages.  And even if they are happy in their marriage, many of them will suffer the unhappy consequence of producing seriously deformed offspring.

This gives us the general pattern for an evolutionary moral psychology.  By nature, we are endowed with evolved propensities to learn certain moral emotions, like finding incest disgusting.  By custom, we learn the traditional norms of our society, but those social norms are constrained by our natural propensities.  By reason, we exercise individual judgment in deciding how best to live happy lives within the constraints of our natural desires and our customary traditions.

Larry Arnhart, "The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right," in Arthur Wolf and William Durham, eds., Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 190-217.

Paul John Frandsen, Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia: An Examination of the Evidence (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009).

Walter Scheidel, "Ancient Egyptian Sibling Marriage and the Westermarck Effect," in Wolf and Durham, 93-108.

Arthur P. Wolf, Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

"Natural Right and Biology"--Ken Blanchard's New Blog

"Natural Right and Biology" is the title for Ken Blanchard's new blog.  He will be writing about topics related to what he sees as the intersection of classical political philosophy and Darwinian biology. 

Obviously, this is similar to what I do on this blog, although I can anticipate some interesting points of friendly disagreement as indicated by his post on Lincoln and Aristotle.

Both Ken and I were trained as scholars of the history of political philosophy, and we both decided some years ago that the evolutionary biology of human nature could illuminate our study of political philosophy.  In particular, it seemed to us that modern Darwinian science might support a revival of the ancient idea of "natural right."

In our thinking about classical natural right, Ken and I were influenced by the scholarship of Leo Strauss and his students.  But unlike most Straussians, we did not see modern natural science--and particularly Darwinian science--as the enemy of the classical tradition of natural right. 

A crucial influence guiding us down this path was Roger Masters of Dartmouth College.  Roger studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago where he wrote his dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political thought.  Roger became one of the leading Rousseau scholars.  Then in the 1970s, he began to consider how modern biology might help him to think about the history of political philosophy--particularly, in supporting the tradition of natural right.

In 1978, I read a conference paper by Roger on modern biology and classical natural right.  I was hooked.  And from that point, I began to work through the points of contact between biological science and political philosophy.

In the summer of 1996, Ken and I were together at a NEH/NSF summer institute on "Biology and Human Nature" directed by Roger at Dartmouth.  The thinking that we did that summer--stimulated by conversations with the many smart people at the institute--laid the groundwork for much of what we've done since then.

In 2009, Ken edited and contributed to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, which presented some of the debate over my argument for Darwinian conservatism.

Ken's new blog will continue our conversation.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln": The Nobility of Politics and the "Appeal to Heaven"

"The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way."  "The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning."

That's the message that David Brooks--writing in The New York Times--sees in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."  The power of that message depends largely on the extraordinary acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, who may well have given us the best film portrayal of Lincoln that we will ever see.  (It also helps to have an Aaron-Copland-style musical score composed by John Williams and played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) 

This movie reminds me of why I regard my course on Abraham Lincoln as one of the best courses I teach--because it helps students to understand the nobility of politics in combining "high vision" and "low cunning."

It is hard for students to understand the nobility of this combination, because many of them want to see one without the other, and thus they are caught between idealism and cynicism.  The idealists assume that nobility is found only in a pure moral vision uncontaminated by practical cunning.  The cynics assume that there is no nobility in politics because it's all a matter of Machiavellian cunning with no moral purpose.  Lincoln's moral realism shows that both the idealists and the cynics are wrong.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the basis for Spielberg's movie, and it's one of the best books for showing Lincoln's combination of moral purpose and prudential realism.  It's one of the books that I have used in my course.  Apparently, this book is now a bestseller because of the movie.  This is a tribute to American popular culture, in showing how a popular but serious movie can direct many people to an even more serious treatment of a topic in a good book.

Some of the best parts of this movie come from the thoughtful material in the book.  One example is Lincoln's explanation of his reasoning for his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a constitutional exercise of his powers as a Commander in Chief in time of war, and why the constitutional limits of that power made it necessary to have a constitutional amendment to achieve a complete abolition of slavery, which could not be done by presidential decree.

Another thoughtful scene in the movie presented Lincoln explaining his fascination with Euclid's geometry.  One of Euclid's self-evident postulates--that two things equal to a third are equal to each other--captured the self-evident truth that slavery is wrong:  if two human beings are equally human, then they are equal to each other as members of the human species.

Appealing to such reasoning shows how persuasion can be used to resolve moral disagreements in politics like the debate over the justice of slavery.  But persuasion is not enough, because human beings are too imperfect in both their knowledge and their virtue to finally settle their disagreements by persuasion alone.  And when persuasion fails, and the urgency of the issue requires some final resolution of the debate, then often the debate must be settled by violence, as was the case in the American Civil War.

Modifying Brooks' conclusion, I would say that Spielberg's movie portrays Lincoln in a way that shows the nobility of politics in the marriage of high vision, low cunning, and brute violence.  Showing Lincoln riding his horse to Richmond with piles of bodies all around him reminds us of the brutality of the war.

The importance of war in settling moral debates in politics is also conveyed in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  The movie gives us the last few lines of this speech.  But it does not convey what Brooks rightly identifies as the acknowledgement in the speech of the "moral ambiguity on both sides."  "Both sides," Lincoln observed, "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.  And each invokes his aid against the other."  But God cannot answer the prayers of both sides.  And ultimately God speaks his will here through war.

Lincoln is implicitly, I think, pointing to the Biblical story of Jephtha asking God to judge between the people of Israel and the Ammonites.  He makes an appeal to Heaven for judgment, and he leads his army out to battle (Judges 11:27).  This appeal to Heaven is always risky, however.  Even the leader of the winning side in a war is exposed to vengeful retaliation, as in Lincoln's assasination. 

As Mark Noll has argued, the American Civil War was a theological crisis, because in a country where the Bible was the ultimate moral authority, the Bible was open to conflicting interpretations on the issue of slavery:  the explicit teaching of the Bible was to support slavery, but some of the Bible's general teachings--such as the Golden Rule--could be interpreted by abolitionists as condemning slavery.  This dispute over the interpretation of the Bible was finally settled, Noll observed, by Generals Grant and Sherman.

This "appeal to Heaven" principle is fundamental to John Locke's teaching in the Second Treatise of Civil Government (secs. 19-21, 155, 168, 175-96, 232, 240-43).  In a constitutional crisis, where there is a dispute over whether the government is exercising force without authority, the ultimate judge is the contest of battle.  Consequently, the moral history of politics--as in the debate over slavery--is military history.  This shows the ultimate ground for Locke's law of nature and his political liberalism in the natural inclination of human beings to violence in resisting exploitation.  "In all States and Conditions," Locke writes, "the true remedy of Force without Authority, is to oppose Force to it.  The use of force without Authority, always puts him that uses it into a state of War, as the Aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly" (sec. 155).

We should remember that Locke was suspected by Charles II of conspiring with other Whigs for insurrection and assassination.  We should also remember that Locke denied his authorship of the Two Treatises, for fear of facing execution for treason, as happened when Algernon Sidney published his attack on monarchy and defense of republicanism in his Discourses Concerning Government.

Charles Darwin saw the importance of political violence, because he saw that moral progress in evolutionary history often turned on group selection through warfare.  He was a fervent opponent of slavery, and he used his Descent of Man to support the Euclidean logic of the argument against slavery, because he showed that the human races were not separate species but merely varieties of the same species, and thus endowed with the same moral and intellectual faculties, including the natural propensity to violence in resisting exploitation.   (As I have indicated in a recent post, there is now some evidence that even ant slaves rebel against their enslavement.)  Darwin cheered when he read the news reports of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the military victory of the North over the South.

I have elaborated some of these points in a previous post.  I have also written some posts on the evolutionary decline in violence as part of Darwinian liberalism and on whether the idea of human rights requires Biblical religious beliefs.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Biological Naturalism of the Lockean Pursuit of Happiness

In some previous posts, I have identified myself as a Midwest Straussian--as someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Leo Strauss) that one can combine ancient virtue with modern liberty.  If I have anything special to contribute to this Midwest Straussianism, it's my argument that Aristotelian liberalism can be rooted in a biological naturalism that is supported by Darwinian science.

Michael Zuckert is the paterfamilias of Midwest Straussianism, and Catherine Zuckert is the materfamilias.  They rule over their intellectual family from their Midwestern home base in South Bend, Indiana.  Although Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl would not identify themselves as belonging to any Straussian lineage, they have elaborated a defense of Aristotelian liberalism that Midwest Straussians should embrace.  A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts on this intellectual project of the two Dougs.  In recent years, Tom West has joined the family of Midwest Straussianism, having begun his intellectual life as a West Coast Straussian fighting the East Coast Straussians.  Having recently moved from the University of Dallas to Hillsdale College, West has set up a home base in Michigan not far from South Bend.

In considering West's many contributions to the Midwest Straussian combination of ancient naturalism and modern liberty, two stand out in my mind.  One is his defense of Thomas Aquinas against Straussian criticisms, on which I wrote a series of posts last year.  The other is his interpretation of Locke, which he has elaborated in a recent article in Social Philosophy and Policy.

West agrees with Michael Zuckert that Locke's political thought does not have to be grounded in religious belief--particularly, in the belief that all human beings have been created as the workmanship of God.  But while Zuckert sees self-ownership as the ultimate ground of Locke's argument, West thinks the true ground for Locke's argument is the natural human pursuit of happiness, so that government is justified insofar as it secures the conditions for that natural pursuit of happiness by securing life, liberty, and property.

Although I generally agree with West, I see this Lockean pursuit of happiness as rooted in Locke's biological naturalism, which includes a biological understanding of self-ownership as extended into a concern for others that is natural for social mammals like human beings.

Kenneth Dewhurst's medical biography of Locke and Roger Woolhouse's general biography make clear Locke's life-long passion for medical science, medical practice, and experimental research in natural philosophy generally, under the mentorship of people like Robert Boyle, Thomas Sydenham, and Thomas Willis.  For example, he contributed to Boyle's experiments with his air-pump to explore how air provided some element necessary for respiration, which apparently sustained the natural heat of the heart that was necessary for life.  Thus, Boyle and Locke were close to the discovery of oxygen's role in sustaining animal life.  One of Locke's earliest writings was a draft manuscript on the importance of air in respiration.  He wrote: "Nature's aim seems to have been to foster that universal heat or fire of our life.  For we live as long as we burn, and are nourished by the same fire" (quoted in Woolhouse, 68).  One can see here the natural teleology of functional processes in biology.  Locke also learned about how the human mind emerges from the brain and nervous system from Willis, who is often considered the founder of modern neurology.  Like Aristotle, Willis dissected monkeys and apes to study their neurological similarities to human beings, while also looking for differences that would explain the distinctiveness of the human mind.

In fact, if Locke had not joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper (the first Earl of Shaftesbury) in 1667, which drew Locke into the political activity of the Whigs, one can imagine that he might have devoted his whole life to natural science without becoming a political philosopher.  If one keeps this in mind, then one begins to notice the biological character of Locke's moral and political philosophy. 

Strauss and the Straussians have generally depicted Locke as promoting a moral relativism and atomistic individualism that set off a first wave of modernity that would lead inevitably to the third wave of nihilisitic crisis with Nietzsche and Heidegger.   West shows that the Lockean pursuit of happiness does not have to be interpreted as radically relativistic or atomistic, because it is rooted in the natural teleology of human nature.  I agree with this, but I would stress more than West does that this Lockean naturalism is biological, and that this biological naturalism is confirmed by modern Darwinian science.

That Locke's natural standard for the human good is set by the natural pursuit of happiness is most clearly stated in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in chapter 21 of book 2.  (This is one likely source for Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.)  By nature, happiness, as the fullest satisfaction of our natural desires, is that "which we all aim at in all our actions" (II.21.36).  On this point, Locke agrees with Aristotle and Aquinas.

Many Straussians object, however, that Locke breaks fundamentally with Aristotle and Aquinas in denying that there is any natural summum bonum for human life.  In this very chapter on the pursuit of happiness in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explains:
"the various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike.  This variety of pursuits shows, that every one does not place his happiness in the same thing, or choose the same way to it.  Were all the concerns of man terminated in this life, why one followed study and knowledge, and another hawking and hunting; why one chose luxury and debauchery, and another sobriety and riches, would not be because every one of these did not aim at his own happiness; but because their happiness was placed in different things" (II.21.55).
This leads Locke to apparently deny that there is any summum bonum: 
"the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation: and they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best relish were to be found in apples, plums, or nuts, and have divided themselves into sects upon it.  For, as pleasant tastes depend not on the things themselves, but on their agreeableness to this or that particular palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure, and in the absence of those which cause any disturbance, any pain.  Now these, to different men, are very different things. . . . Men may choose different things, and yet all choose right; supposing them only like a company of poor insects; whereof some are bees, delighted with flowers and their sweetness; others beetles, delighted with other kinds of viands, which having enjoyed for a season, they would cease to be, and exist no more for ever"(II.21.56).
As West indicates, Locke's reference to the peculiar "viands" of  beetles is probably a reference to dung beetles:  so it seems that some human beings are like flower-seeking bees, while others are like dung-eating beetles.  Doesn't this, many Straussians insist, show Locke's modern relativism, in which what is good for any human being is merely a matter of subjective taste?

And yet West rightly points to another passage in the Essay where Locke says that human beings "are both concerned and fitted to search out their summum bonum" (IV.12.11).  "In this passage," West observes, "Locke admits that there is a summum bonum--not one single good for everyone, to be sure, but a genuine highest good for each person" (37).

As the two Dougs have argued, this conception of the summum bonum as both humanly universal and individually diverse provides Aristotelian moral support for Lockean liberty.  If there are certain generic goods that are universally good for human beings--like health, property, friendship, parental care, and intellectual activity--then these generic goods constitute a natural standard for the human good.  But if the appropriate ranking or organization of these generic goods varies according to the temperament, talents, and circumstances of different individuals, then each individual has a distinctive summum bonum.  And if so, government cannot properly enforce a single summum bonum for all individuals, but it can properly enforce the conditions for people to have the liberty to pursue their summum bonum in the natural and voluntary associations of society.  Lockean government cannot guarantee the self-perfection of every individual.  But it can guarantee the self-direction that is the condition for the pursuit of self-perfection.  West seems to be defending a reading of Locke that is compatible with the argument of the two Dougs.

I see all of this as rooted in a biological naturalism that Locke shares with Aristotle and Darwin.  As a physician and biological scientist, Locke recognizes that human beings share certain species-specific desires that characterize them as social mammals, but he also recognizes their biological individuality such that different individuals properly rank or organize their natural desires in distinctive ways.  Some are bees, and others are beetles.

In some ways, this is relativistic.  But in other ways, it is not.  This is relativistic in two ways.  First, the human good is not a cosmic good, because the generic goods of life are relative to the distinctive nature of the human species, which is not the product of any intentional cosmic design. 

Second, this human good is relativistic in being individualized, because the actual human good is always the good of some particular individual, which is why we need prudence or practical judgment in determining what is best for particular individuals in particular circumstances.

And yet this conception of the human good is not radically relativistic, because the generic goods of life conform to the reality of the biological nature of the human animal, and the individualized goods of life conform to the biological reality of human individuals. 

Moreover, as naturally social animals who cannot pursue their happiness without living cooperatively with others, human beings need to live in families and voluntary groups that cultivate their moral and intellectual virtues, and they need government to secure the liberty necessary for fulfilling their natural desires as the social mammals that they are.

Dewhurst, Kenneth, John Locke (1632-1704), Physician and Philosopher: A Medical Biography (London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1963).

West, Thomas G., "The Ground of Locke's Law of Nature," Social Philosophy and Policy, 29 (Summer, 2012): 1-50.

Woolhouse, Roger, Locke: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Locke's Evolutionary History of Politics

Reading Jose de Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies is essential for understanding John Locke's political thought and how evolutionary anthropology might support Lockean liberalism.  I have only recently come to that conclusion as I have been revising my Locke chapter for the fourth edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Acosta (1540-1600) was a Jesuit priest who worked in Peru from 1572 to 1586, spending his last year in Mexico.  His Natural and Moral History of the Indies was published in Spanish in 1590.  Following the structure of Pliny's Natural History, Acosta's book was a comprehensive survey of the physical, biological, and anthropological history of the New World.  It was one of many travelogue descriptions of the New World that were avidly read in Europe.  (Another reason for my interest in this book is that my wife and I will be touring South America this coming summer, including a few weeks in the Galapagos Islands in connection with the Mont Pelerin Society's meeting there on the topic of "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty.") 

This was part of a critical turning point in world history, because for the first time in history, the entire Earth was in a global network of human exchange.  The traditional histories of human life in Europe--as formulated in ancient philosophy and Biblical religion--were challenged by the discovery of an unknown world of human experience.  Much of modern political philosophy was a response to this development--particularly, in the speculation about the original state of nature of humanity, which one can see in the work of Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Smith.  Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle continued this tradition of global natural history as inquiry into the universal history of humanity on Earth.  

As indicated by Peter Laslett's list of the books in Locke's library when he was writing his Two Treatises of Government Locke had at least eight books on the history of the New World (or the West Indies), including an English translation of Acosta's book.  In his critical edition of the Two Treatises, Laslett has indicated the influence of these books on Locke's writing.  The best work that I know showing how these books shaped Locke's account of the state of nature and the evolution of politics is William Batz's article on "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke."

Acosta's book seems especially important for Locke, because it's the one that Locke directly quotes in the Second Treatise (sec. 102)This comes in Chapter 8 on "The Beginning of Political Societies," in which Locke argues that human beings are originally by nature free, equal, and independent, so that they enter civil society only by their consent. 

He acknowledges that one objection to this argument is that there is no historical evidence for this claim that human beings were once free and equal, and that they established government by consent.  Locke responds by arguing that there are two kinds of historical evidence for this--the history of America and the history of ancient society in the Bible.

Locke's appeal to history here is fundamental not only for his Two Treatises but also for most of his other writings.  Contrary to what many of Locke's scholarly commentators assume, his reasoning depends not on the logical analysis of abstract ideas but on what he identifies in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Intro., 2) as "this historical, plain method."  This method of historical reasoning from observational experience shows the influence of Locke's medical practice and experimental research, in which he followed the lead of his friend Thomas Sydenham, who insisted that medical science be guided by the experimental history of health and disease in particular patients rather than theoretical reasoning about abstract ideas.  Remarkably, with the exception of a few scholars like Laslett and Batz, most commentators ignore this in their reading of Locke.

So, for example, many scholars debate the meaning of Locke's account of the state of nature as if Locke were engaged in a purely abstract argument without reference to the observable experience of history.  This ignores Locke's clear declaration that "in the beginning all the world was America" (ST, 49), and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (ST, 108).  Thus, Locke follows a methodological assumption that has been fundamental for evolutionary anthropology--that the study of hunter-gatherers who have survived into recent history can illuminate our understanding of what the first prehistoric human beings must have looked like.

That's why Locke turns to Acosta's book and quotes the following as a description of the original state of nature:  "And if Josephus Acosta's word may be taken, he tells us, that in many parts of America there was no Government at all.  There are great and apparent Conjectures, says he, that these Men, speaking of those of Peru, for a long time had neither Kings nor Commonwealths, but lived in Troops, as they do this day in Florida, the Cheriquanas, those of Bresil, and many other Nations, which have no certain Kings, but as occasion is offered in Peace or War, they choose their Captains as they please" (ST, 102, quoting Acosta, book 1, chap. 25, pp. 73-74). 

Here's a new translation of this passage from Acosta by Frances Lopez-Morillas: "There are clear indications for a long time these men had no kings or any form of government but lived in free groups like the Indians of Florida nowadays and the Chiriguanas and Brazilians and many other tribes, who do not have regular kings but in accordance with the occasions that arise in war or peace choose their chiefs as they like."

Notice the ambiguity in this passage.  On the one hand, there is said to be among these people "no kings or any form of government" or "no government at all," as Locke says.  And yet, on the other hand, it is said that occasionally in war or peace, these people can choose chiefs or captains to lead them.

This is an ambiguity in Locke's account of the state of nature.  At times, the state of nature seems to be an utterly asocial and apolitical state in which people live as solitary individuals with no structure of rule at all, which can be interpreted to mean that Locke is denying that human beings are political animals by nature.  But, at other times, the state of nature does seem to have some structure of rule, because the family is said to be the "first society," and parental power over children is thus the first structure of authority, although this familial society falls short of "political society" (ST, 77).

This ambiguity is seen in Locke's definition of the state of nature as "men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them" (ST, 19).  Living without any common superior or judge with authority might suggest an asocial state of solitary individuals, but "men living together according to reason" clearly indicates some kind of rule-governed social order.

A similar ambiguity is that while Locke says that the state of nature is a state of peace rather than a state of war, and thus disagrees with Hobbes, Locke also says that the state of nature easily becomes a state of war that induces people to establish government to enforce peace, which agrees with Hobbes (ST, 19, 123).  Here is where the Straussians see Locke's Hobbesianism as his secret teaching.

But this assumption that this shows some complicated rhetorical strategy of secret writing becomes less plausible if one looks at the anthropological reports about America that Locke was studying.  For example, one report from the French missionary Gabriel Sagard-Theodat describes the Great Lakes Indians in Canada as organized by familial and tribal attachments under the leadership of their chiefs, which shows, he concluded, that "man is a social animal who cannot live without company."  And yet the reports of violence and warfare among the American Indians show that living without formal government made it hard for them to live always in peace with one another.

What look like contradictions in Locke's arguments actually show Locke's effort to accurately generalize conclusions about the complex variability of this historical experience, in which primitive people can live orderly social lives governed by informal customary rules, even though the absence of formal governmental institutions makes it hard to settle all disputes peacefully.

Acosta distinguishes three levels or stages in the history of government in Peru and Mexico.  The first human beings to arrive in America were savage hunters who crossed over a land bridge from Asia to America.  (Acosta was the first person to propose this theory of the original human migration from Asia to America over a land bridge, a theory that is now widely accepted by evolutionary anthropologists.)  These hunters had no government.  "They had no chief, nor did they recognize one, nor did they worship any gods or have rites or any religion whatsoever" (380-81).

The second stage is "that of free associations or communities, where the people are governed by the advice of many, and are like councils.  In time of war, these elect a captain who is obeyed by a whole tribe or province.  In time of peace, each town or group of folk rules itself, and each has some prominent men whom the mass of the people respect; and at most some of these join together on matters that seem important to them to see what they ought to do" (359).

The third stage is that of monarchy or empire--like that of the Incas or the rule of Montezuma in Mexico.  Originally, this was a "moderate rule" that is the best, in which the kings and nobles acknowledged that their subjects were "equal by nature and inferior only in the sense that they have less obligation to care for the public good" (346).  But later this monarchic rule became tyrannical as the rulers treated their subjects as beasts and treated themselves as gods (346, 359, 402).

In some passages of his book, however, Acosta combines the first two stages and suggests that even the most primitive hunter-gatherers had some informal leadership by which prominent people could mediate disputes and lead them in war, but always constrained by the informal consent or resistance of the community.  The one passage quoted by Locke is an example of this, as though Locke figured out that even primitive foragers would have some episodic and informal structure of rule in which some individuals would have more influence than others, although excessive dominance would be checked by popular resistance.

In the state of nature, Locke observes, "they judged the ablest, and most likely, to Rule over them.  Conformable hereunto we find the People of America, who (living out of reach of the Conquering Swords, and spreading domination of the two great Empires of Peru and Mexico) enjoy'd their own natural freedom, though, ceteris paribus, they commonly prefer the Heir of their deceased King; yet if they find him any way weak, or uncapable, they pass him by and set up the stoutest and bravest Man for their Ruler" (ST, 105).  The American Indian Kings were originally temporary war leaders.  "And though they command absolutely in War, yet at home and in time of Peace they exercise very little Dominion, and have but a very moderate Sovereignty, the Resolutions of Peace and War, being ordinarily either in the People, or in a Council.  Though the War itself, which admits not of Plurality of Governours, naturally devolves the Command into the King's sole Authority" (ST, 108).

This appeal to the historical anthropology of the American Indians as showing that government was originally limited in its powers and its ends is part of Locke's argument for liberal toleration in his Letters on Toleration.  He argues that there is no justification for European rulers in America to compel the American Indians to convert to Christianity, particularly since they are "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and the Law of Nature, and no ways offending against the Laws of the Society" (40).

In his Second Letter on Toleration, Locke writes: "There are nations in the West-Indies which have no other End of their Society, but their mutual defence against their enemies.  In these, their Captain, or Prince, is Sovereign Commander in time of War; but in time of Peace, neither he nor any body else has any Authority over any of the Society.  You cannot deny  but other, even temporal ends, are attainable by these Commonwealths, if they had been otherwise instituted and appointed to these ends" (77).

In his attack on Locke's Letter on Toleration, Jonas Proast asserted that "Commonwealths are instituted for the attaining of all the Benefits which Political Government can yield; and therefore if the spiritual and eternal Interests of Men may any way be procured or advanced by Political Government, the procuring and advancing those Interests must in all reason be received amongst the Ends of Civil Society, and so consequently fall within the compass of the Magistrate's Jurisdiction" (69).

In response to Proast, Locke insisted that the question was whether government has any power to use force in matters of religion or for the salvation of souls.  The argument against this is that governments are not established to use force for such ends.  Rather, governments are established by men only to protect themselves against injuries from other men for which there is no protection except governmental force.  Religious opinions or forms of worship do not injure those who disagree in any way that requires governmental force against those with those opinions or worship.

To support this conclusion, Locke points again to the American Indians:
"let me ask you, Whether it be not possible that Men, to whom the Rivers and Woods afforded the spontaneous Provisions of Life, and so with no private Possessions of Land, had no inlarged Desires after Riches or Power; should live together in Society, make one People of one Language under one Chieftain, who shall have no other Power but to command them in time of War against their common Enemies, without any municipal Laws, Judges, or any Person with Superiority establish'd amongst them, but ended all their private Differences, if any arose, by the extemporary Determination of their Neighbors, or of Arbitrators chosen by the Parties.  I ask you whether in such a Commonwealth, the Chieftain who was the only Man of Authority amongst them, had any Power to use the Force of the Commonwealth to any other End but the Defense of it against an Enemy, though other Benefits were attainable by it." (76)

Today's evolutionary anthropologists might complain that Locke has confused two levels of primitive social organization--bands and chiefdoms.  But still, Locke is remarkably accurate in describing how foraging societies without formal governments--called "stateless societies" today--enforce customary norms of conduct through private arbitration, while also organizing around war leaders in defense against outside groups.

But notice also that the American Indian societies to which Locke is appealing as a standard for political freedom and limited government are societies of hunter-gatherers in a primitive state, and they survived only as long as they remained out of reach of the Incan and Mexican empires.  Thus, these hunting-gathering societies were both culturally uncivilized and militarily weak.

The problem for Locke's liberalism is how to combine freedom, civilization, and power.

Beginning 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture after the Last Ice Age, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, administrative, and monarchic bureaucracies.

These agrarian states provided the conditions for high civilization — economic wealth, technological innovation, cultural progress (particularly, through the invention of writing), bureaucratic administration, and military power. But that high civilization came with a big price — the loss of the individual freedom from domination that human beings enjoyed in foraging societies. Among foragers, the inequality of power, wealth, and status is minimal. Foraging societies don’t allow some to tyrannize over others. But agrarian states allow ruling elites to live by exploiting those they rule.

Consequently, the history of politics over the past 5,000 years has been largely a conflict between freedom and domination — with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There has often seemed to be no good resolution to the conflict, because human beings seemed to be caught in a tragic dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.

Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal republican capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a republican polity, and a capitalist economy promotes both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free, while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But we can mitigate this through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become unduly concentrated or unchecked. For classical liberals, such a system is imperfect. But it’s the best we can do.

The Darwinian history of politics provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage evolution of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.

Acosta, Jose de, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, trans. Frances Lopez-Morillas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Batz, William G., "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke," Journal of the History of Ideas, 35 (1974): 663-70.

Burgaleta, Claudio, Jose de Acosta, S.J. (1540-1600): His Life and Thought (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999).

Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010).

Some of these points have been developed in some previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Manly Ambition of Political Animals

How should we explain people like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney?  And how should we explain the rest of us--that we are so fascinated by their rivalry?

People like Obama and Romney are ambitious men, and their ambition is to be on top, to be the dominant individual ruling over all others, the alpha male.

Ambition matters in the study of politics.  Remarkably, however, many political scientists look to impersonal laws of political behavior and abstract models of rational choice in which the personal ambition of political actors falls out of view.  Against this tendency, a few political scientists (like Harvey Mansfield) have asserted that politics is all about the manly spiritedness of ambitious political actors competing for importance.  Looking back to the political psychology of political philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Madison, political scientists like Mansfield explain political ambition as an expression of thumos--of the desire to be recognized as superior, the love of fame and glory.

Biopolitical science explains such political ambition as the striving for hegemonic dominance that arises among political animals organizing themselves into hierarchies of dominance and submission.  Among human beings and some other primates, this competition for dominance creates a tense balance of power between the desire of the dominant few to rule and the desire of the subordinate many to be free from exploitation.

Abraham Lincoln was an example of a restlessly ambitious man who yearned to do something great in politics that would bring immortal glory to his name.  His ambition was channelled and checked by the American system of constitutional government.  But that constitutional system also allowed him to satisfy his ambition for glory.  After he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he told his old friend Joshua Speed that he had finally satisfied that dream of glory that he had had since he was a young man. 

Lincoln's ambition is well presented by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book A Team of Rivals, which has been used by Stephen Spielberg in making his new movie Lincoln.  We'll have to see how much of the greatness of the book comes through in the movie.

New York University Press has just published Evolution and Morality, edited by James Fleming and Sanford Levinson, which has a chapter by me--"Biopolitical Science"--that offers a biopolitical explanation of Lincoln's ambition as displayed in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and then support the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  (Apparently, Lincoln's support for the Thirteenth Amendment is the primary story for the Spielberg movie.)

My evolutionary explanation of Lincoln's ambition moves through three levels of deep political history--the natural history of political universals, the social history of political cultures, and the individual history of political judgments.

At the level of political universals, we can see Lincoln's ambition as an evolved propensity of human political psychology that human beings share with other political animals.  Primatologists have noticed that chimpanzees who become dominant display distinctive character traits--such as self-confidence, boldness, assertiveness, and clever intelligence in social manipulation and coalition formation.  Whether these abilities lead to success in competing for dominance will depend, however, on lucky circumstances.  Just as Machiavelli indicated, becoming the Prince depends on a combination of virtue and fortune.  Success in winning and holding dominance will also depend on whether a dominant individual can secure the deference of subordinates and avoid being overthrown by subordinate individuals forming alliances to resist exploitative dominance.  Primate politics is based on the complex interaction of the dominant one, the ambitious few, and the submissive many.

At the level of political cultures, we can see Lincoln's ambition as constrained and channelled by the cultural institutions and cultural history of the American regime, which includes a constitutional system that empowers the presidency within a network of checks and balances.  That constitutional system protected slavery, but it also opened the possibility of abolishing slavery through the war powers of the president and the amendment of the Constitution.  Like human political communities, chimpanzee groups show cultural diversity that arises from the unique cultural history of each group.  But human political culture is uniquely human insofar as it expresses the uniquely human capacity for symbolic evolution.

At the level of individual history, we can see Lincoln's ambition as expressed in his prudential judgment as to whether, when, and how he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation successfully.  Other political primates show a similar capacity for prudential judgment, and the success of dominant apes depends on their ability for prudent judgment.  Aristotle saw this, because he indicated in his biological writings that some animals show prudence insofar as they learn from experience and use forethought in judging what is good for their lives, and he also recognized that apes were the animals most closely related to human beings.

Thus, a biopolitical science of political ambition would combine genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and biographical history in explaining the psychology of dominance as expressed among all political animals.

A sample of some of the posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.