Sunday, January 27, 2013

Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality

In 1975, Edward O. Wilson declared on the first page of Sociobiology that it was time to take ethics away from the philosophers and turn it over to the biologists.  He explained that "sociobiology" as the scientific study of the biological bases of all social behavior would have to include the evolutionary explanation of morality.  Later, in 1998, Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge renewed his argument for an empirical science of ethics based in evolutionary biology as an alternative to the transcendentalist view of ethics as belonging to a metaphysical (or "noumenal") world of normative imperatives beyond the natural world of animal life.

Wilson's argument for a Darwinian science of morality has provoked intense criticisms not only from many moral philosophers but also from many scientists.  Philosophers like Thomas Nagel have rejected Wilson's proposal as a reductive materialism that fails to recognize ethics as a purely theoretical subject of moral logic that belongs to a transcendent world of normative imperatives, which are beyond the biological world of animal life.  Even the evolutionary psychologists, who agree with Wilson in pursuing a Darwinian science of human nature, have often scorned his argument for an evolutionary ethics.  In 1996, when Wilson addressed the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and explained his biological view of ethics, many of the members of HBES protested vehemently that he was committing the "naturalistic fallacy" by failing to see the radical separation between the empirical world of facts and the normative world of values.

More recently, however, over the past decade, a growing number of biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have worked to develop a Darwinian moral psychology that looks a lot like what Wilson had originally proposed.  This research is new in so far as it draws from new knowledge in evolutionary biology, ethology, psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience.  But the fundamental ideas for such an evolutionary moral psychology were first stated by Charles Darwin in 1871 in his Descent of Man.  And one of the first people to develop these ideas in the late 1870s was Friedrich Nietzsche.

In contrast to the writings of his early and late periods, the writings of Nietzsche's middle period--Human, All Too Human (1878), Assorted Opinions and Maxims (1879), The Wanderer and His Shadow (1879), and Dawn (1881)--are devoted to the natural sciences, and especially evolutionary science.  In this middle period, he rejects the mythopoetic metaphysics of Dionysian frenzy manifested in his early and late writings as illusory fantasy refuted by empirical evolutionary science.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I regard the Darwinian science of Nietzsche's middle period as morally, politically, and intellectually superior to the mythic metaphysics of his early and late writings.  This science is morally superior because it promotes a sober morality of moderation that restrains tendencies to intoxicated extremism.  This science is politically superior because it promotes a prudent respect for liberal democracy that restrains tendencies to tyrannical power-seeing.  And this science is intellectually superior because it can be grounded in empirical evidence and methodical reasoning rather than the delusions of enthusiastic fantasizing.  In contrast to the Darwinian science of the middle period, the distinctive teachings of the late Nietzsche--the will to power, eternal return, and the Ubermensch--are morally corrupting, politically dangerous, and intellectually confused.

The Darwinian moral psychology of Nietzsche's middle period anticipates Wilson's sociobiology of animal morality.  One way to see this is to look carefully at section 26 of Nietzsche's Dawn in the context of his other writing during this period.  So I will begin by quoting that entire section, and then I will organize my comments around some of the language he uses in this section.

Here's the passage (as translated by R. J. Hollingdale):
"Animals and morality.--The practices demanded in polite society: careful avoidance of the ridiculous, the offensive, the presumptuous, the suppression of one's virtues as well as of one's strongest inclinations, self-adaptation, self-deprecation, submission to orders of rank--all this is to be found as social morality in a crude form everywhere, even in the depths of the animal world--and only at this depth do we see the purpose of all these amiable precautions: one wishes to elude one's pursuers and be favored in the pursuit of one's prey.  For this reason, the animals learn to master themselves and alter their form, so that many, for example, adapt their coloring to the coloring of their surroundings (by virtue of the so-called 'chromatic function'), pretend to be dead or assume the forms and colors of another animal or of sand, leaves, lichen, fungus (what English researchers designate 'mimicry').  Thus the individual hides himself in the general concept 'man,' or in society, or adapts himself to princes, classes, parties, opinions of his time and place: and all the subtle ways we have of appearing fortunate, grateful, powerful, enamoured have their easily discoverable parallels in the animal world.  Even the sense for truth, which is really the sense for security, man has in combination with the animals: one does not want to let oneself be deceived, does not want to mislead oneself, one hearkens mistrustfully to the promptings of one's own passions, one constrains oneself and lies in wait for oneself; the animal understands all this just as man does, with it too self-control springs from the sense for what is real (from prudence).  It likewise assesses the effect it produces upon the perceptions of other animals and from this learns to look back upon itself, take itself 'objectively,' it too has its degree of self-knowledge.  The animal assesses the movements of its friends and foes, it learns their peculiarities by heart, it prepares itself for them: it renounces war once and for all against individuals of a certain species, and can likewise divine from the way they approach that certain kinds of animals have peaceful and conciliatory intentions.  The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, courage--in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues, are animal:  a consequence of that drive which teaches us to seek food and elude enemies.  Now if we consider that even the highest human being has only become more elevated and subtle in the nature of his food and in his conception of what is inimical to him, it is not improper to describe the entire phenomenon of morality as animal."
This summary of Nietzsche's account of the animal roots of morality can be confirmed at every point by recent biological studies of evolved animal morality.  In supporting this conclusion, I won't offer many detailed citations of the research, but much of this is well surveyed not only in Ed Wilson's writings, but also in Frans de Waal's Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Harvard University Press, 1996) and Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce's Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  Bekoff and Pierce argue that while human morality is uniquely human, other animals have their own moral codes.  They have presented some of their ideas from their book in an article.

I will begin to lay out my reasoning in the next post.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

Just ignore the naturalistic fallacy. You can't reason from "is" premises to "ought" conclusions to convince, say, Shaker's, that celibacy is a really bad value for a people to have. From the "is" of "if you practice celibacy you will die out" you can't deduce "you ought not practice celibacy." But they will just die off because of their value and you will be left with societies that don't practice it anyway. The study of morality should be the study of the survival values of various values.