Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Thousand Posts (4)

In the spring semester, I taught a graduate seminar on Leo Strauss.  Consequently, I wrote many posts on Strauss from January to June.  Much of this writing was incorporated into my chapter on Strauss in Political Questions.

Although I never met Strauss, many of my teachers at the University of Dallas and the University of Chicago had been colleagues and students of Strauss.  Many of my colleagues and students in the political theory program at Northern Illinois University were deeply influenced by Straussian thinking.  I absorbed many of the Straussian ideas about the history of political philosophy that shaped much of my thinking, although I was never an orthodox Straussian. 

I was particularly interested in Strauss's understanding of "natural right."  And from Roger Masters, one of Strauss's students who specialized in the study of Rousseau, I picked up the idea that natural right might be rooted in Aristotelian biology in a way that could be supported by modern Darwinian biology.  This led to my argument for "Darwinian natural right."  The Straussians have been hostile to my argument, mostly because of their hostility to modern natural science generally, and to Darwinian biology in particular. 

In my posts, I pointed out Strauss's silence about how Aristotle's biology supports natural right, and also his silence about Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism in his middle writings (especially, Human, All Too Human).  Strauss and the Straussians tend to stress Nietzsche's early and late writings, where they can find a Nietzschean attack on Darwinian naturalism.  But they ignore Nietzsche's appeal to Darwinian science in his middle writings.

I also reflected on the similarities between what Strauss identified as the liberalism of Lucretius and Darwinian liberalism.  According to Strauss, the central insight of Lucretius's argument is that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable." Strauss calls this "the most terrible truth," because it denies that the cosmos is ordered to the human good.  Strauss and the Straussians are deeply disturbed by this "terrible truth" that there is no cosmic teleology.  Darwinian liberalism accepts this truth and is satisfied with grounding the human good in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature. 

Strauss's most famous claim is that many of the classic writers of political philosophy have practiced an art of secret writing, by which they could convey an esoteric teaching that is unpopular or heterodox to a few careful readers who are philosophic, while conveying an exoteric teaching that is more popular or orthodox to the many careless readers who are unphilosophic.  This claim--elaborated in Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952)--suggests the question of whether Strauss himself was a secret writer with a secret teaching.  If he was, then what's the big secret that would be so disturbing to most readers that it needs to be hidden from their view?

If Strauss had a big secret, I think, it's to be found in that "most terrible truth."  When a writer has a deeply disturbing message that he wants to transmit to his philosophic readers, while hiding it from his vulgar readers, Strauss suggested, there are various techniques available to him.  A writer can convey his own views through writing interpretive commentaries on the texts of other writers, so that only careful readers will notice his implicit endorsement of ideas attributed to others.  A writer can also hide his most unpopular views by putting them at the center of his text, because careless readers tend to pay more attention to the beginning and ending of what they read than to the middle.  In Strauss's Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), the central chapter--and the longest chapter--is a commentary on Lucretius's On the Nature of Things.  The exact center of the book is page 135, where Strauss concludes his study of Lucretius by explaining "the most terrible truth."  Strauss hints that he agrees with this teaching of Lucretius. "Lucretius' poetry makes bright and sweet the obscure and sad findings of the Greeks, that is, of the philosophers" (83).

Since the world is not the product of an ordering mind, the world is not teleological, although it contains intelligent species--particularly, human beings--that have evolved to be teleological in their natural striving to satisfy their natural desires.  Since the world is not intelligently designed by a divinely providential mind, the world is indifferent to human beings and thus provides no cosmic support for human purposes.  Moreover, while the world is enduring, it is not eternal.  The world and everything in it--including the human species and all other species of life--will eventually collapse into the ceaseless motion of atoms that will then produce another world.

In one post in June, I have argued that the temporality of life is indicated by the dependence of life on photosynthesis as the evolved process by which the energy of the Sun is captured for sustaining life on Earth.  Once photosynthesis ceases, as it must in a billion years or so, there will be no life on Earth.  Many people worry about the degrading effects of teaching evolution to our school children.  Perhaps they should also worry about teaching them about photosynthesis, because this will teach them the "most terrible truth."

If the idea of natural right depends on the cosmic teleology of the universe, as Strauss says, then the "most terrible truth" that the cosmos is not teleologically ordered means that the idea of natural right is an illusion.  If Strauss agreed with Lucretius that the universe is neither eternal nor purposeful, then natural right cannot be defended, unless it is rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature as an enduring but not eternal product of a natural evolutionary process, which is my argument.

Shadia Drury has argued that Strauss's core teaching was the natural superiority of the philosophic life of the few human beings capable of such a life, as the only life that was good by nature, and thus the inferiority of the nonphilosophic life of the great multitude of human beings who were incapable of living this naturally good life.  She criticized this teaching as both false and dangerous.  It was false because this absolute separation of all of humanity into two groups--the philosophic few and the vulgar many--was a pure fantasy rather than an accurate account of what human beings are like.  It was dangerous because it promoted a tyranny of the philosophers, in which the moral, religious, and political life of the vulgar many was seen as governed by lies--even if noble lies supported by philosophers for the good of philosophy.  In my posts, I have suggested that Strauss's defenders have not properly answered Drury's criticisms
Similarly, Strauss's defenders have not answered William Altman's charge that Strauss's secret teaching was his promotion of a Heideggerian Nazi attack on liberalism.  I point to some weaknesses in Altman's reasoning.

Altman identifies Strauss's secret teaching as an affirmation of Darwinian evolution and his public teaching as an affirmation of Platonic eternity.  That public teaching of Strauss is what Altman embraces as true.  By contrast, I find the Platonic teaching of eternal cosmic standards implausible, and I embrace Darwinian natural right: even if the world that we care about is neither eternal nor purposeful, and even if the cosmos does not care for us, natural right can still be rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature as an enduring but not eternal product of a natural evolutionary process.

Other than Strauss, perhaps the single greatest influence on my thinking about Darwinian natural right has been Edward O. Wilson, particularly through his books Sociobiology (1975) and Consilience (1998).  In May, I wrote about his new book The Social Conquest of Earth, and I saw seven major themes related to Darwinian natural right: (1) consilience, (2) emergence, (3) genetic plasticity, (4) the two peaks of social evolution, (5) the iron rule of moral evolution, (6) religion and science, and (7) the rejection of kin selection theory.

Wilson identifies two paths to the social conquest of the earth--the insect path and the human path.  The social insects rule the invertebrate land environment.  Humans rule the vertebrate land environment.  Like the social insects, humans are "eusocial" in the technical sense that multiple generations of individuals live together, caring for dependent offspring and cooperating in a social division of labor.  While the social insects organize their colonies largely through pure instinct, with the insect queen producing robotic offspring guided by instinct, humans must organize the cooperation of individuals through personal relationships based on social intelligence, which requires navigating through a tense social network balanced between the selfish interests of individuals and the social interests of groups.  Wilson explains this tense balance in human social life between selfishness and sociality as a product of the countervailing evolutionary forces of individual selection and group selection.

Some of my writing on Wilson's Social Conquest of Earth went into my review of the book in the Fall 2013 issue of The Claremont Review of Books.

A third person whose writings greatly influenced me was another Wilson at Harvard--James Q. Wilson. In March, I wrote a post on Jim Wilson the day after he died.  He was best known for his work in criminology.  As a young scholar, I admired his book Crime and Human Nature, which I used as a text in some of my classes as a classic of political science.  I detected in this book and some of his other writings an evolutionary view of human nature.  This was confirmed in 1993 by the publication of Wilson's The Moral Sense.  Wilson said that he was most proud of this book.  For me, his pride was warranted.  This book was crucial in shaping my thinking about the evolutionary roots of human nature, and particularly the evolutionary confirmation of the idea of the natural moral sense in Scottish moral philosophy (Hume and Smith).  In many ways, this book pointed me to my book Darwinian Natural Right.

Wilson surveyed the evidence for how the natural and cultural evolution of morality can explain human cooperation as rooted in kinship and reciprocity, or what some evolutionary theorists have called kin selection and reciprocal altruism.  Evolution favors helping those genetically related to us, because this spreads our genes into the future.  Evolution also favors cooperating with those who are not genetically related to us if there is some reciprocal exchange.  I will cooperate with you if you have been cooperative with me in the past (direct reciprocity), or if I know you have a reputation for being cooperative with others (indirect reciprocity).  So it's tit for tat. People are rewarded for their good reputation as trustworthy cooperators and punished for their bad reputation as untrustworthy cheaters.

But does this show genuine altruism or selfless concern for others?  We could see helping our close relatives as genetic selfishness, because we are acting to spread our genes.  And we could see reciprocal cooperation as merely enlightened self-interest, because we're cooperating only as long as we expect some reciprocal benefits for ourselves. 

And yet, some evolutionary theorists--particularly, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis--have argued that human beings also show genuine altruism--totally selfless service to others--through what they call strong reciprocity.  This is a propensity to cooperate and share with others, even strangers, and to punish those who don't cooperate and share with others, even when the cooperation, sharing, and punishment are personally costly to the strong reciprocator, and the strong reciprocity requires neither ties of kinship nor expectation of future reciprocation.  Moreover, Bowles and Gintis think that the research in experimental game theory confirms the reality of such strong reciprocity.  They also think this confirms what Adam Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments about those lovers of virtue for its own sake who desire to do what is praiseworthy even without the reward of actually being praised.

In a series of posts in June and July, I challenged the reasoning of Bowles and Gintis and suggested that what they see in experimental games as evidence for strong reciprocity is actually evidence of indirect reciprocity, in which people are generous because they expect (even if only unconsciously) to earn a reputation for generosity that will benefit them in the future.  Under conditions of total anonymity, people tend to express their purely selfish motivations.  Much of this writing went into the new chapter on Adam Smith in the 4th edition of Political Questions.

In September, I wrote some posts on how Jonathan Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology supports fusionist conservatism and Aristotelian liberalism.

In October, I wrote a long post on the evolutionary politics of minimal winning coalitions among both humans and chimpanzees.  Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have shown how the power of political leaders depends on their having the support of a minimal winning coalition.  No ruler can rule alone.  Even an absolute dictator needs a small coalition of powerful people who are loyal to him, and to win and maintain that loyalty, the dictator must buy them off with money and power.  A democratic leader differs from a dictator in that the democratic leader depends on a larger coalition of supporters.  Frans de Waal found this to be true for chimps as well: success in political competition among chimps depends on the exercise of strategic intelligence in which chimps must form coalitions that will support them as the alpha male in the group's hierarchy.  My writing here was incorporated into my chapter on Machiavelli in Political Questions.

One seemingly profound objection to the evolutionary science that I defend on this blog is that this evolutionary science of nature cannot explain the existence of nature itself.  Why does nature exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? And why are things as they are and not different?  When Bill Nye debated evolution with Ken Ham, Nye was asked, What was there before the Big Bang?  Nye's answer was: It's a mystery!  Ham's answer was: God.

Jim Holt has written a book on how philosophers and scientists have tried to answer this question--Why does the world exist?  In October, I wrote a post on this question.  I argued that Why is there something rather than nothing? is a meaningless question, because it rests on two false assumptions.

First, the question falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothingness.

The second false assumption in the question of why the universe exists is that the principle of sufficient reason can apply to the whole universe.  Our experience of finding reasons or causes to explain things applies to events in the universe as governed by natural laws.  But this makes no sense as applied to the universe as whole.

This question comes up in the chapters on Augustine and on Nietzsche in Political Questions. 

Finally, I shouldn't leave 2012 without noting my posts in March on "genopolitics," because this bears upon one of the most common criticisms of any biological study of politics--the charge of genetic reductionism.

Beginning in the 1970s, a small group of political scientists jointed an intellectual movement that they called "biopolitics" or "politics and the life sciences."  I was one of the early members of that movement.  Although some of these people hoped to turn the mainstream of the discipline of American political science towards a political science rooted in biological science, this did not happen.  By the turn of the century, around 2000, some of these people lamented that the movement had largely failed, because most political scientists still showed little or no interest in the biological study of politics.

But then, sometime around 2004, there seemed to be a growing interest in biological explanations of political behavior.  Two articles were especially prominent.  In 2005, the American Political Science Review published "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?" by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbing.  Through the methodology of behavior genetics, using the study of twins, they concluded that about 50% of the variance in propensities to "conservative" or "liberal" ideology is explained by genes.  This article gained widespread publicity.  This was followed by more articles advancing what was called "genopolitics."  One article by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes, published in 2008 in the Journal of Politics, claimed in its title that "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout."  This was the first time that researchers had identified particular genes as linked to some political behavior.

I and others in the biopolitics movement were suspicious about these genetic explanations of political ideology and behavior.  They were too simplistic in thinking that political thought and action could be explained through genetics.  We knew that behavior genetics had a bad record of making strong claims about the genetics of behavior that could not be replicated.  So when Evan Charney began criticizing this research, I agreed with him and wrote posts explaining why he was right to say that the simplistic model of genopolitics cannot capture the emergent complexity of political behavior as the product of many interacting causes and levels of analysis.

In May of 2013, the American Political Science Review published three articles on the debate over genopolitics, which provided empirical confirmation for Charney's critique.  Fowler and Dawes were forced to suggest that their 2008 article should never have been published, because they and others had failed to replicate their results in that article.  They admitted that their simple genetic models cannot fully explain the complexity of what they are studying.

By contrast, the explanatory models for political life proposed by proponents of biopolitics are far more complex than the simple models of genopolitics: genes are there in the biopolitical models, but the genes have no effect on their own, because they interact with other factors at many different levels of analysis.

My post for September 13, 2015, surveys this debate and includes links to my many other posts on this.

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