Sunday, April 21, 2013

Do the Bee Police Enforce God's Law? Or Are They Darwinian Nihilists?

The public cheering of the police in Boston after they successfully hunted down the terrorist bombers reminds us of our dependence on police to protect us from violence. 

Thomas Hobbes might have seen this as confirming his argument that human beings need the artifice of a Leviathan state to protect them from the violence of the state of nature, because human beings are not naturally cooperative like the political animals, and therefore Aristotle was wrong to identify human beings as political animals like ants, bees, and wasps.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I think Hobbes was right about how a centralized state helps to reduce violence, which is supported by the evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature.  But I have also indicated that I think Hobbes was wrong in denying Aristotle's claim that human beings are political animals by nature like the social insects.

Hobbes's reasoning about political animals depends on two fundamental assumptions.  First, among the naturally political animals, social cooperation is completely harmonious, because there are no conflicts of interest to create competition.  Second, nature and instinct are necessarily antithetical to artifice and learning, so that social order cannot be natural or instinctive if it depends in any way on artificial or learned activity.  Darwinian biology denies both assumptions.

The second assumption is denied by the evidence that many animals are capable of social learning and behavioral traditions that show animal culture.  (Links to some of my posts on this can be found here.)

But here I want to concentrate on Hobbes's first assumption--that political animals do not manifest the conflicts of interest that throw human beings into a violent state of nature that makes it necessary for human beings to accept the artifice of the Leviathan to resolve their conflicts.

Hobbes was deceived by the appearance of completely harmonious cooperation among the social insects.  Now we know that this is mistaken.  Actually, social insect colonies are full of conflicts and conspiracies.  From a Darwinian point of view, we can see that this must be so, because the individuals in insect colonies are not genetically identical, and therefore they have conflicting reproductive interests.  In recent decades, the evidence for this has been accumulating.

For example, honey bees and other social insects experience internal conflicts that can only be resolved by policing that deters or punishes the selfish behavior of individuals that is contrary to the collective good of the colony.  So we see that it is as true for social insects as it is for human beings that conflicts arise when the interests of individuals differ, which then makes it necessary for there to be some form of government to resolve these conflicts.

It might seem that there is a harmonious division of labor in a honey bee colony.  The queen bee specializes in reproducing offspring, and the worker-sisters specialize in rearing the offspring and doing other work for the colony. 

But there is potential conflict here.  The workers cannot mate, but they have functional ovaries, and since males arise from unfertilized eggs, workers can potentially produce males.  In hymenopteran societies, the reproductive system of haplodiploidy causes workers to be related less to brothers than to sons, while the queen is related more closely to her sons than to workers' sons (her grandsons).

Therefore, the queen is favored by natural selection to prevent workers from successfully reproducing, and thus she should police reproduction by destroying the eggs laid by workers.  Moreover, in colonies with a queen that has mated with many males,  the workers are on average more closely related to the queen's sons (their brothers) than to other workers' sons (nephews).  So, here the workers should be selected to police reproduction by destroying the eggs of other workers.  Studies have shown that this is what happens.  They have also shown, however, that individual workers can sometimes evade this policing.  Just as is the case for human beings, some insect individuals try to cheat while avoiding detection, which creates the social need for policing to detect and punish cheating.  Glaucon in Plato's Republic was right to emphasize this problem for moral and political order.

Two of the leading researchers in the study of conflict resolution among insects are Francis Ratnieks (at the University of Sussex, UK) and Tom Wenseleers (at the University of Leuven, Belgium).  Their explanation for these bee police is that this is an evolutionary adaptation for conflict resolution.

But some creationists have another explanation.  As indicated in a YouTube video, they cite this evidence for bee police as showing how God enforces his moral law among the social insects--"law and order is a gift of God"--in a manner that cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

But shouldn't these creationists be troubled by the fact that these worker bees are murdering their nephews?  This would be immoral for human beings.  Why isn't it immoral for the bees as well?  Does this mean that if the bees were able to formulate their social rules as moral norms, that they would show a moral sense very different from the human moral sense, because bee morality would be relative to the nature of bees? 

Darwin suggested this in The Descent of Man:
"In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct.  If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.  Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience" (Penguin Classics, 2004, pp. 122-23).
Frances Cobbe in her review of Darwin's book protested that this would destroy all morality, because it was a nihilistic teaching that morality had no grounding in cosmic moral universals that are the same for all rational beings.  Recently, John West and other proponents of intelligent design theory have made this argument.  Last week, at my panel at the Midwest Political Science Convention, Steven Forde made the same argument.  As I indicated in a previous post, Forde insists that morality in the "true or normative sense" requires a cosmic grounding rather than an evolved grounding in the nature of the human species.  To suggest, as Darwin does, that morality is species-specific is to show that Darwinism is nihilism.

As I have said, this argument from people like Cobbe, West, and Forde assumes a Platonic expectation of a moral cosmology--that morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the cosmos as a dictate of a cosmic God, a cosmic Reason, or a cosmic Nature.

I reject this Platonic moral cosmology, because I see no reason why morality cannot rightly be understood as grounded in our evolved human nature, so that what is moral for us would not necessarily be moral for any other species that might develop a moral sense.

Contrary to Cobbe, West, and Forde, I see nothing nihilistic in admiring the bee police for their evolved system of law enforcement, and in seeing this as showing that Friedrich Nietzsche was right to view "the entire phenomenon of morality as animal."


Arnhart, "The Darwinian Biology of Aristotle's Political Animals," American Journal of Political Science 38 (1994): 464-85.

Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), Chapter 3: "Political Animals."

Arnhart, "The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science," Perspectives on Politics 11 (June, 2013).

Wim Bonckaert, K. Vuerinckx, J. Billen, R. Hammond, L. Keller, and T. Wenseleers, "Worker Policing in the German Wasp Vespula germanica," Behavioral Ecology 19 (2008): 272-78.

Francis Ratnieks and P. Kirk Visscher, "Worker Policing in the Honeybee," Nature 342 (1989): 796-97.

Francis Ratnieks and Tom Wenseleers, "Policing Insect Societies," Science 307 (2005): 54-56.

Francis Ratnieks, Kevin Foster, and Tom Wenseleers, "Conflict Resolution in Insect Societies," Annual Review of Entomology 51 (2006): 581-608.

Links to some of my previous posts on insect politics can be found here.

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