Thursday, October 02, 2014

Darwinian Political Thought

Wiley Blackwell has just published The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, edited by Michael Gibbons.  It's a massive work--8 volumes for only $1,188.00 at Amazon!  It's also available as an electronic version on Wiley Online Library.  From looking over the articles, I would say that this will become the best source for introductory overviews of every major topic for political thought.  It has over 900 A-Z entries by over 700 contributors.  It covers non-western as well as western traditions of political thought.

I was asked to contribute two entries--"Darwinism" and "Thomistic Political Thought."  Since I suspect few of you have a thousand dollars to spend on such a collection, I will post my two articles.  I will post my Thomism article tomorrow.  Here is my Darwinian political thought article.

Darwinism is an intellectual tradition associated with the ideas of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), an English biologist.  Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) elaborated his theory of the evolution of all living species.  For two thousand years, it had been assumed in the Western world that all the species of life had been eternally fixed ever since their original special creation by God.  Against this, Darwin argued that all forms of life have changed over long periods of time, so that the species of plants and animals that we see today are descendants of simpler species in the ancient past.  The primary cause of this evolutionary change is natural selection.  There are heritable variations in the traits of individual organisms influencing their survival and reproduction.  Organisms are in a struggle for life, because the scarcity in food and other resources limits the growth of populations.  Consequently, those heritable variations that enhance survival and reproduction will be preserved, and those that impede survival and reproduction will be eliminated.   Gradually, the favorable traits will be naturally selected to be more frequent in later generations, so that eventually new species can arise.   In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained the evolution of human beings, including human morality and politics, which became the classic text of Darwinian social theory.

The history of Darwinian political thought is best understood in the light of three ideas.  The first is that Darwinian political thought belongs to the tradition of biological naturalism in political thought that began with Aristotle (384-322 BCE).  The second is that if one takes Darwin’s Descent of Man as the definitive statement of Darwinian moral and political thought, then what has been called “Social Darwinism” is not really Darwinian at all.  The third is that it is only in recent years that we have seen the full elaboration of Darwin’s evolutionary social theory in the development of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and biopolitical theory.


Biological Political Thought from Aristotle to Adam Smith

Aristotle was a biologist whose biological studies influenced his political thought.  He argued that human beings were by nature political animals, and they could be compared with other political animals, such as ants, bees, wasps, and some birds.  He also saw that human beings were most similar to chimpanzees.  He explained social cooperation among animals as ultimately rooted in parental care of offspring, so that the most political animals were those whose offspring needed extended parental care, and this familial bonding could then be extended to wider groups.  He thought that human politics was unique because human beings use reason and speech to argue about the justice of political rule.  But he also thought that human social and political life is shaped by some of the same natural inclinations that one sees in other political animals, such as the natural biological inclinations to self-preservation, sexual mating, parental care of offspring, and social cooperation under the leadership of political rulers.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) continued this Aristotelian tradition in arguing that law and politics could be guided by a natural law rooted in these natural inclinations.

          In contrast to Aristotle’s political biology, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) denied that human beings were political animals by nature, because he saw many differences between human political life and the communities of natural political animals like the social insects.  Unlike the social insects, Hobbes thought, human beings are naturally inclined to selfish competition that impedes social cooperation, and consequently human political order must be created artificially when human beings exercise rational choice to agree to be ruled by a sovereign power that will take them out of their natural state of war.  Although John Locke (1632-1704) seemed to agree with Hobbes that human beings were too naturally selfish to be political animals by nature, Locke recognized that human beings were like other social animals in that offspring were naturally dependent on prolonged parental care, and therefore family life depended on natural social inclinations that could be extended to embrace larger social groups.

          David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) thought that while human beings are naturally selfish, as Hobbes and Locke saw, human beings are also naturally social like other naturally social animals.  Hume and Smith argued that the moral and political life of human beings depends on the moral emotions or sentiments that arise from natural sympathy or fellow-feeling—the capacity to imaginatively share the emotions of others, and to approve of what helps them and disapprove of what harms them.  This reasoning from Hume and Smith about the biological nature of human morality and politics influenced Darwin’s thinking about human social evolution.


Darwin and Social Darwinism

Although Darwin said nothing about human morality or politics in The Origin of Species, one of the first reviews of the book in 1860 was by Thomas Huxley, who declared that Darwin’s book would be a powerful weapon for liberalism.  In 1860, liberalism meant classical liberalism—the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others.  According to the liberals, the primary aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud, which included enforcing laws of contract and private property.  They thought the moral and intellectual character of human beings was properly formed not by governmental coercion, but in the natural and voluntary associations of private life.

          While Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw Darwin’s science as supporting liberalism.  Darwin himself was a fervent supporter of the British Liberal Party and its liberal policies.

          Darwin was active in the international campaign to abolish slavery, one of the leading liberal causes of the day.  His hatred of slavery was one motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the pro-slavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a separate species of natural slaves.

          Darwin’s theory of social order in The Descent of Man is implicit in his biological account of the human moral sense.  Social order arises as the product of three kinds of order: natural desires, customary traditions, and deliberate judgments.  As naturally social animals, human beings are endowed innately with social desires, which originated as an extension of the parental or filial affections, so that they feel a concern for others and are affected by social praise and blame.  As animals capable of learning by habit and imitation, human beings develop habits and customs that enforce the social norms of their community.  And as intellectual animals, human beings can deliberately formulate abstract rules of conduct.  Darwin concluded: “Ultimately a highly complex sentiment, having its first origin in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, confirmed by instruction and habit, all combined, constitute our moral sense or conscience.”  This allows for moral progress through history, which eventually leads to the formulation of moral principles such as the Golden Rule.   “To do good unto others—to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you—is the foundation-stone of morality” (Darwin 1871: vol. 1, 165-66).

          Darwin’s moral teaching in The Descent of Man is very different from the morally repugnant doctrines usually identified as “Social Darwinism,” which is thought to teach “survival of the fittest” understood as the rule of the strong over the weak.  Such Social Darwinism is generally assumed to have promoted racism, imperialism, coercive eugenics, and Nazism.

          This view of Social Darwinism was largely originated by Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, which was first published in 1944.  Prior to the 1930s, the term “Social Darwinism” was rarely used, and when it was used, it was a label for something that the author was criticizing.  Furthermore, it was not until Hofstadter’s book appeared, that people like Spencer were generally identified as Social Darwinists.  So the idea of Social Darwinism as Hofstadter constructed it seems now to be a distortion of historical reality.

          Moreover, Social Darwinism has almost nothing to do with the writings of Darwin, particularly The Descent of Man.  In fact, Hofstadter in his book never proves that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist.  Hofstadter almost admits this when he says that “Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist” (1955: 238).  Hofstadter offers direct quotations from Darwin’s Descent on only two pages of his book (1955: 91-92).  These quotations suggest that Darwin could not have been a Social Darwinist of the sort portrayed by Hofstadter, because they show Darwin stressing the natural sociality of human beings and their natural moral sense based on sympathy for the needs of their fellow human beings.  “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere,” Darwin declared, “and without coherence nothing can be effected” (Darwin 1871: vol. 1, 162).  If Darwinism should have some clear connection to the teachings of Darwin, then Social Darwinism is not Darwinism.

          From the 1860s to the 1930s, an amazingly diverse range of political thinkers identified themselves as Darwinians.  Classical liberals like Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” required that individuals be free to live as they please, provided that they do not infringe on the equal freedom of all other individuals, and that the coercive power of the state should be limited mostly to protecting individuals from force or fraud.  But there was also a long line of Darwinian socialists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, Annie Besant, Peter Kropotkin, and Ramsay MacDonald, who saw the evolutionary process as a progressive movement towards ever greater cooperation, so that the competitive individualism of capitalism was only a temporary stage on the road to the cooperative society of socialism.

          The scorn for the disreputable ideas associated with Social Darwinism by Hofstadter and others caused a decline in Darwinian social thought after the Second World War.  In recent decades, however, there has been a revival of Darwinian thinking in the social sciences that began around 1975.


Contemporary Biopolitical Theory

The renewal of Darwinian social thought began in 1975 with the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  An evolutionary biologist at Harvard University specializing in the study of ants, Wilson defined sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior,” which would use biological concepts to unite the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in the scientific study of the social life of all animals, including human beings (Wilson 1975: 3-6).

          Wilson’s book was condemned by many people who feared that he was advancing a new form of Social Darwinism that would promote a morally repugnant biological determinism.  Marxists and others on the political left charged that sociobiology would try to justify racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalism as grounded in evolved human nature.  Against Wilson’s biological determinism, his critics on the left insisted that human social behavior is not innately determined but socially learned, and therefore it can be changed by social policies of progressive reform.

          At the same time, Wilson’s critics on the political right argued that he was promoting an atheistic and reductionist materialism that denied the free will and transcendent spirituality of the human soul. Renewing a criticism that had been directed against Darwin, religious believers worried that the very idea that human life was naturally evolved from lower forms of life denied the moral dignity of human beings as created in God’s image.

          Despite this controversy over Wilson’s sociobiology, Darwinian social thought has had growing influence in the social sciences in recent decades, although it is most often identified as “evolutionary psychology,” “evolutionary game theory,” or “biopolitics,” to avoid the distasteful connotations of “sociobiology.”  

The basic question in this Darwinian social research is the basic question of all social theory:  If human beings are naturally inclined to selfish competition, how is social cooperation possible?   Aristotle identified the political animals as those naturally capable of working together for some shared purpose.  But he also saw that even the most political animals are inclined to fall into factional fighting because they are divided by conflicting interests.  To explain how human beings and other political animals sustain cooperation against the tendency to conflict, Darwinian social theorists have identified five mechanisms of cooperation:  kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, spatial selection, and group selection.  The reasoning for these five principles has been summarized by Martin Nowak (2011).

Kin selection is the evolutionary mechanism favoring cooperation within a family and among those closely related by common ancestry.  We are more inclined to cooperate with those we recognize as kin than with strangers.   “Blood is thicker than water.” 

Direct reciprocity is the principle of fair exchange—tit for tat.  I will do a good deed for you, because I expect that you will return the favor.  “I’ll scratch your back, and you scratch mine.”

Indirect reciprocity is based on the idea that individuals benefit from having a good reputation for cooperation.  We cooperate with those whom we believe to be trustworthy.  “I scratch your back, and someone else will scratch mine.”  Among human beings, language is important for communicating the reputation of individuals, and that’s why so much of our communication is gossip about who has done what with whom.

Spatial selection is the idea that our cooperation is organized into social networks in which some individuals form clusters and interact with one another more than with others.  This means that the structure of a population can affect its social evolution.

Group selection is the idea that evolutionary selection works not only on individuals but also on groups.  In the competition between groups, those groups with members willing to sacrifice for the common good are likely to prevail over those groups whose members are too selfish to sacrifice for the good of the group.  As a result of this, we have evolved for tribalism, because we are inclined to help our friends and hurt our enemies.

Our evolved human nature inclines us to enforce these mechanisms of cooperation through moral emotions.  We feel love and care for our family and friends.  We feel gratitude toward those who cooperate with us.  We feel indignation toward those who cheat us or otherwise harm us.  We feel guilt or shame when we have betrayed our family, our friends, or our community.  We feel pride in our reputation for good character.  We feel fear in losing our good reputation with others.  We feel honor in serving our country and fighting its enemies.

These five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation—and the moral emotions that enforce them--can all be found in Darwin’s writings.  They can also be found in the tradition of moral and political thought that includes Aristotle, Hume, and Smith.

Although Darwinism has been criticized both by some people on the political left and by some people on the political right, the recent achievements of Darwinian social thought have led a few individuals to argue for a Darwinian left and a few others to argue for a Darwinian right.

In A Darwinian Left, Peter Singer tries to persuade his friends on the left to accept a Darwinian view of human nature.  Those on the left want to promote an egalitarian society in which the powerful cannot exploit the weak.  In pursuit of this goal, Singer argues, leftists need to be realistic about the limits of human nature as revealed in Darwinian science. 

The left has traditionally believed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction, and therefore social problems can be solved through utopian programs that would make human nature conform to rational norms of social harmony.  Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels accepted Darwinism in explaining the animal world, they thought that human history manifested the uniquely human freedom to transcend nature.  Marxist biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould continued this tradition by insisting on human freedom from the constraints of biological nature. 

Rejecting this utopian tradition of the left, Singer argues that a Darwinian left would accept “that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like.”  Such a left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one’s kin) cannot be immediately abolished.  He concedes that that this will be hard to accept: “In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved.  That is, I think, the best we can do today” (Singer 1999: 60-62).

In response to Singer, Larry Arnhart has defended “Darwinian conservatism,” which he explains as a fusion of traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism based upon a Darwinian understanding of human nature.  He argues that Singer’s “sharply deflated vision of the left” might be largely acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy.  For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the public good.  Thus, Singer’s attempt to justify a Darwinian left actually helps us to see the justification for a Darwinian right.  Arnhart claims that a Darwinian science of human nature supports traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals in their realist view of human imperfectibility, and in their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

Even those Darwinian social theorists who might reject most of Arnhart’s Darwinian conservatism might accept the idea of the imperfectability of human nature as revealed by Darwinian science.  After all, one of the fundamental conclusions of Darwinian social theory seems to be that our moral and political life will always be torn by tragic conflicts of interest.  Because of the multileveled character of evolutionary selection, human beings experience moral ambivalence arising from the conflicting pressures of different units of natural selection.  What is good for the individual can conflict with what is good for the family.  What is good for the family can conflict with what is good for the tribe.  And what is good for one tribe can conflict with what is good for another tribe.  We feel the conflict between our natural selfishness and our natural sociality, and even in our sociality, we feel the conflict between competing social groups.

Darwinian social thought can illuminate but it cannot resolve these tragic conflicts of our social life.


References and Suggested Readings


Arnhart, Larry  (1998)  Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Arnhart, Larry  (2009)  Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.  Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Darwin, Charles  (1859)  On The Origin of Species.  London: John Murray.

Darwin, Charles  (1871)  The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2 vols.  London: John Murray.

Hofstadter, Richard  (1955)  Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Nowak, Martin A.  (2011)  SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.  New York: Free Press.

Singer, Peter  (1999)  A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Wilson, Edward O.  (1975)  Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O.  (1998)  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stack, David  (2003)  The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914.  Cheltenham, UK: New Clarion Press.

Wilson, James Q.  (1993)  The Moral Sense.  New York: Free Press.

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