Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Biology of Animal Culture Supports Aristotle Against Hobbes

One of the big debates in the history of political philosophy is over the question of whether human beings are political animals by nature comparable to other political animals.  Aristotle said yes, because he thought human beings could be rightly compared with other political animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes.  Hobbes said no, because he thought that while the social insects were instinctively inclined to cooperate for the good of their colony, human political cooperation was learned rather than instinctive, and it had to overcome the natural human tendency to conflict.  Twenty years ago, I argued that modern biological research supported Aristotle's position (Arnhart 1990, 1994, 1998).  The research over the past twenty years provides even more evidence for my argument.

This dispute between Aristotle and Hobbes has been critical for the history of political science.  Most modern political scientists have followed Hobbes in assuming an anthropocentric view of political science, with no comparative study of nonhuman political animals.  In recent years, a few political scientists have revived Aristotle's conception of a biopolitical science as a comparative science that studies all political animals, with human beings understood as the most political animals because of their political use of language or symbolism (logos).

Against Aristotle, Hobbes contended, in both De Cive (chap. 5, par. 5) and the Leviathan (chap. 17), that there were six differences between social animals (like bees and ants) and human beings.  (1) Unlike social animals, human beings compete for honor and prestige. (2) Among social animals, there is no conflict between the private good and the common good, as there is among human beings, because the natural appetites of the social animals incline them as individuals to do what is good for all. (3) Social animals lack reason, which human beings use to criticize the administration of common business and thus create civil conflict. (4) Social animals lack the art of words, which human beings use to argue about what is good and evil and thus fall into sedition and war. (5) Social animals do not distinguish between injury (breach of covenant) and damage; and therefore, unlike human beings, they are not offended with one another as along as their physical appetites are satisfied.  In these five respects, uniquely human attributes create social conflicts not found among the social animals.  A sixth difference between human beings and social animals, according to Hobbes, follows as a consequence of the other five. (6) "Lastly, the agreement of these creatures is natural; that of men, is by covenant only, which is artificial; and therefore it is no wonder if there be somewhat else required, besides covenant, to make their agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power, to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit" (Leviathan, chap. 17).

Hobbes's six arguments presuppose two fundamental premises (compare De Homine, chap. 10).  First, among the naturally social 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 socially learned activity.  The research done today by Darwinian biologists studying the social behavior of animals denies both premises.

Consider the second premise--the contrast between natural instinct and social learning and the claim that only among human beings does social order depend on social learning.  Aristotle thought that many animals acted not just by unlearned instinct but also by individual and social learning.  Recent studies of animal behavior confirm this.  Among insects, individual learning affects feeding, predator avoidance, social interactions, and sexual behavior (Dukas 2010).  Most insects are solitary, and they show little social learning, except in a few cases such as offspring learning food preferences from their parents.

Social learning is more extensive among social insects, and particularly among the social bees, ants, and wasps (hymenoptera) (Leadbeater and Chittka 2007).  Thus, Aristotle was correct to identify these social insects as political animals.  Today, the most celebrated example of social learning among honeybees is their waggle dance.  Aristotle observed this behavior, and he inferred that it must be some form of social communication.  But it was not until the early 1960s that Karl von Frisch decoded the language of the waggle dance (von Frisch 1967). 

Foraging bees who have found new flower patches return to their nest to recruit their nest mates.  Inside the hive, the forager moves upward while waggling her body from side to side and vibrating her wings.  At the end of each dance, she circles back to the starting point, alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise turns, so that she moves in a figure eight pattern.  The angle of the waggle run relative to the upward direction gives the angle of the flower patch relative to the Sun's position in the sky.  The duration of the dance run is positively correlated to the distance of the flower patch from the hive.  The overall number of waggle runs is positively correlated with the quality of the food in the flower patch.

The same waggle dance is used when honeybees need to decide where to go for a new nest site.  Scouts that have examined a site return to the nest to recruit others to visit the site.  The waggle dance conveys the location and the quality of the potential site.  Different scouts represent different sites.  The better sites recruit more bees to dance for them than the sites of lesser quality.  Eventually, over a period of days, a consensus develops for one site, and the colony moves there.  This is what Tom Seeley calls "honeybee democracy" (Seeley 2010).

It's not clear whether social learning among social insects can create behavioral traditions.  There is some evidence that bees can be trained to forage at certain times of the day, and that once learned, this daily pattern of a colony can be passed down to the next generation of bees (Leadbeater and Chittka 2007).

By contrast to the skimpy evidence for behavioral traditions among social insects, the evidence for socially learned traditions among vertebrates, and particularly chimpanzees, is impressive.  In a famous survey of seven chimp study sites in Africa, it was shown that there were 39 behavior patterns customary in some communities but absent in others, so that each chimp community has its distinctive profile of behavioral patterns, which looks a lot like the cultural diversity of human communities (Whiten et al. 1999).  (As indicated in a previous post, using tools for cracking nuts is one example of a behavioral tradition found in some chimp communities but not others.)

The problem, however, is deciding whether the social learning of behavioral traditions should be identified as "culture," comparable to human culture.  In some previous posts from a few years ago, I have indicated that I have been leaning towards the position of those like Eva Jablonka and Kim Hill (2010), who argue that while the social learning of behavioral traditions is a building block of culture, it is not sufficient, and that human culture is uniquely human insofar as it arises from language and symbolism that can create moral norms supported by moral emotions.

This seems to be Aristotle's position.  On the one hand, some nonhuman animals are political in that they can organize their collective lives through the social learning of behavioral traditions.  On the other hand, human beings are more political than these other political animals, because human beings have a capacity for conceptual abstraction and language (logos) that they can use to formulate and communicate communal standards for the just and the good.  On this  point, Hobbes seems to agree with Aristotle about the uniqueness of human language in allowing human beings to argue about good and evil.

Hill argues that while chimps can have the social regularities of behavioral traditions--such as subordinates deferring to alpha males--only human beings can use symbolic thought and language to create socially recognized norms of good behavior enforced by third-party punishment--such as recognizing that some leaders have the right to rule.

Oddly enough, Hill indicates, the only nonhuman animals that seem to show the third-party enforcement of social norms are honeybees and ants that have individuals who act as "police" in punishing cheaters (Liebig, Peters, and Holldobler 1999; Ratnicks and Wenseleers 2005; Smith, Holldobler & Liebig 2009).

Moreover, the honeybees' waggle dance does seem to be an abstract form of communication that looks like a kind of language.  And yet even this dance language refers to observable realities in the world, and it does not allow bees to conceptualize and agree upon imaginary mental constructions.


Arnhart, Larry. 1990. "Aristotle, Chimpanzees, and Other Political Animals." Social Science Information 29:479-559.

Arnhart. 1994. "The Darwinian Biology of Aristotle's Political Animals." American Journal of Political Science 38:464-485.

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

Dukas, R. 2010. "Insect Social Learning." In Michael D. Breed and Janice Moore, eds., Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, 3 vols., 2:176-179.

Hill, Kim. 2010. "Experimental Studies of Animal Social Learning in the Wild: Trying to Untangle the Mystery of Human Culture." Learning & Behavior 38:319-328.

Leadbeater, Ellouise, and Lars Chittka. 2007. "Social Learning in Insects--From Miniature Brains to Consensus Building." Current Biology 17:R703-R713.

Liebig, J., C. Peeters, and B. Holldobler. 1999. "Worker Policing Limits the Number of Reproductives in a Ponerine Ant." Proceedings of the Royal Society B 266:1865-1870.

Ratnicks, Francis, and Thomas Wenseleers. 2005. "Policing Insect Societies." Science 307:54-56.

Seeley, Thomas. 2010. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, A. A., B. Holldobler, J. Liebig. 2009. "Cuticular Hydrocarbons Reliably Identify Cheaters and Allow Enforcement of Altruism in a Social Insect." Current Biology 19:78-81.

von Frisch, Karl. 1967. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Whiten, A., et al. 1999. "Cultures in Chimpanzees." Nature 399:682-685.

Some of my previous posts on these topics can be found here, here, here., here, and here.

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