Saturday, March 22, 2014

Classical Liberalism as Evolutionary Niche Construction for Declining Violence

At the Liberty Fund conference on "Liberty and Violence," one of the participants was a primatologist who studies bonobos in Africa.  At one point in our discussion of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, she complained about how Pinker unfairly dismisses the evidence for peaceful cooperation among bonobos, in contrast to the violence of chimpanzees.  She noted that Pinker relies on primatologists who study chimps or who have only studied bonobos in zoos, and who want to make bonobos look like chimps in their tendency to violence.

She explained that in the wild bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.

She also observed that bonobos--like all primates--show a range of personality types, so that some individuals have more violent temperaments than others, and consequently the occurrence of violence can depend on the contingency of whether there are such violent individuals in the group.  She said that many of the deaths of the males comes from "testosterone poisoning"--young males vigorously displaying their virility in the forest canopy can kill themselves by slamming into a tree.

She also said that if dominant males are grouped together in zoos without females who can moderate their male conflicts, then nasty fighting is likely to break out.  She explained then that what the females are doing in the wild groups in pacifying conflicts is "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.

Here she was appealing to an idea developed by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman in Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (Princeton University Press, 2003).  In most of evolutionary theory, we think of organisms as carrying genes, and the inheritance of these genes by the next generation depends on organisms surviving and reproducing according to chance and natural selection in their environments.  But there is another process of evolution that arises from organisms changing their environments, which modifies the natural selection pressures in their environments.  This is evolutionary niche construction.  Among many animals, evolutionary niche construction includes the transmission of culturally learned traditions.  And among human beings, it includes the transmission of culturally learned symbolic systems such as art, science, religion, and philosophy.

In response to this discussant's comment about social niche construction among bonobos, I suggested that the history of classical liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, and that this is a big part of Pinker's argument: the history of classical liberal philosophy has created a cultural moral environment of liberalism in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive.

As Pinker argues, human nature is a mixture of Inner Demons and Better Angels.  Human beings are innately predisposed to violence by their Inner Demons, but the expression of those predispositions is not "hydraulic"--that is, a drive that must necessarily be satisfied--but "strategic"--that is, a propensity that is responsive to environmental triggers.  Classical liberalism constructs a cultural niche of social institutions, mental attitudes, and moral traditions that tend to elicit the Better Angels to motivate voluntary cooperation and nonviolent relationships.

In this way, human nature constrains but does not determine human culture and individual judgment.  Within the constraints of human nature as a mixture of Inner Demons and Better Angels, classical liberalism can foster those cultural traditions and individual judgments that limit the Inner Demons and channel the Better Angels towards a system of liberty and voluntarism.

A few of the people at this Liberty Fund conference were such fervent critics of the Pinker argument that they resolutely rejected this claim that there has been a historical trend towards declining violence as fostered by classical liberal culture.  But by the end of our discussions, I had a strong impression that many--and maybe most--of the people there found the Pinker argument persuasive, even if one could dispute some of Pinker's evidence and argumentation.

Nevertheless, even those of us who were persuaded by Pinker were left with the unsettling conclusion that while the general historical trend of declining violence and increasing liberty was encouraging, the contingencies of history make it impossible to predict that this trend will continue unbroken into the future.

There was a lot of discussion of whether Pinker's science is a falsifiable and predictive science.  I argued that Pinker's science is a historical science, as opposed to nonhistorical sciences like physics and chemistry.  In a historical science, one can make retrospective  predictions about the past and make only broad pattern predictions about the future.  One cannot precisely predict the future.  And, indeed, Pinker stresses that he is only claiming that we can see declining violence in past history, and that we cannot be sure that this will continue into the future.  His entire book, as he indicates in the first paragraph (xxi), is looking backward, so that he does not, because he cannot, make precise predictions about the future.

Pinker suggests that there are four possible historical trends in war--escalation, cyclical, random, and declining sawtooth (191-92).  He is arguing for seeing the trend as a declining sawtooth.  The way he draws this pattern through the Second World War as one data point shows that in a declining sawtooth pattern, there can be generally decline in violence, while still allowing for a sudden jump in violence towards the greatest single atrocity in human history--55 million violent deaths in the Second World War--which indicates the radical contingency in Pinker's historical science.

This contingency is made evident in Pinker's book by his noting how three individuals acting under the influence of illiberal ideologies were responsible for the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.  The Second World War would not have occurred without Hitler.  The Great Purge in the Soviet Union would not have occurred without Stalin.  The Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution in China would not have occurred without Mao.  So "tens of millions of deaths ultimately depended on the decisions of just three individuals" (343).

It will always be possible for such individuals to appear in circumstances that allow them to rise to positions of power that enable them to perpetrate mass atrocities of violence.  But this can be made unlikely insofar as classical liberalism as evolutionary niche construction continues to spread, making us more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees.

Some of these points are elaborated in my series of posts on Pinker (in October to December of 2011) and in my post on "The Behavioral Ecology of Chimpanzee War and Liberal Peace."


Kent Guida said...

Had I been born a bonobo, I surely would met my end slamming into a tree. But instead, I grew up in the warm embrace of modern humanoid society and survived to old age mostly in one piece.

But if the decline of violence the product of the evolutionary niche of classical liberalism, does its further decline not depend on the survival and spread of that niche? Pinker never quite commits himself to that point of view.

Perhaps he stops short of that because it would raise some difficult questions.

Classical liberalism was a withdrawal of the use of force from more and more areas of life -- from religion, from commerce, from intellectual discourse, from politics. But classical liberalism has been in a long-term decline in West. The liberal state has given way to the welfare state in which force is applied to ever wider areas of life. The state now takes much more of the citizens' product and redistributes it, and makes far more decisions in every area of life -- decisions which were formerly left to citizens.

All this is the result of a greater use of force. Mild, gentle and beneficent, but force nevertheless. Perhaps this use of force is a necessary evil, but, as Pinker points out, that claim has always been made for every form of violence by the state.

Pinker seems to think the modern welfare state is a force for peace. He quotes with evident approval an historian who "...argues that Europeans have changed their very conception of the state. It is no longer the proprietor of a military force...but a provisioner of social security and material well-being." (268)

Can classical liberalism still be said to create a niche where liberty and voluntarism can flourish if it has become the welfare state where liberty and voluntarism are systematically squeezed?

If classical liberalism is replaced by the welfare state, doesn't that entail an increase in violence?

If the historical trend away from the use of force is to continue, does that not depend on a reversal of this trend toward the welfare state and a return to the regime of liberty and voluntarism characteristic of classical liberalism?

Pinker paints a very convincing picture of the decline of violence over human history. But when it comes to 'why' and 'so what,' he is much less convincing.

Walter Bond said...

To echo Mr. Guida, another (rhetorical) question regarding the modern welfare state vs. the classic liberal state in regards to this post:

The classic liberal state has proved itself both willing to defend itself against its illiberal enemies and effective at doing so – the punctuations of “sawtooth” violence during the described decline in violence that is correlated with the ascendance of the liberal state. Put another way, if the U.S. had not been victorious (or contributed significantly to the victory) in the U.S. Civil War, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, then the phenomena studied by Pinker might have looked quite different.

Whether the new illiberal threats come from without or within, are the secular, increasingly indebted, increasingly bureaucratic, increasingly childless, modern administrative-welfare states of Europe and the U.S. up to the task? Will they be in a generation even if they are now?

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with both Mr. Guida and Mr. Bond.

If well-armed classical liberal regimes are replaced by disarmed welfare-state liberal regimes, it's not clear to me that Pinker's pattern of declining violence and increasing liberty can continue.

Last fall, when I participated in the workshop in Freiburg, Germany, on evolution and liberalism, I noticed that the discussion of the evolution of classical liberalism was silent about the importance of warfare in this evolution.

I pointed out--as Mr. Bond has just done--that the military success of the liberal regimes in defeating the illiberal regimes was crucial for the evolution of classical liberalism. The Europeans responded with blank stares of incomprehension. One person said that, of course, it was no longer necessary to fight wars.

Mr. Putin's moves in recent days remind us that keeping the liberal peace requires a well-armed liberalism.

Troy Camplin said...

I would be curious as to what you think about these musings on conservatism/illiberalism and liberalism.

Roger Sweeny said...

An interesting argument that niche construction has caused genetic change ("increased amishness") among the Amish:

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, part of the theory of niche construction is that genetic evolution can be an adaptation to culturally constructed environments.