Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The Darwinian Emergence of Aristotle's Political Animals and de Waal's Moral Animals: A Reply to Cheryl Abbate

In various publications (Arnhart 1990, 1994, 1998, 2009), and in some blog posts, I have argued that a Darwinian science of animal behavior can support Aristotle's biological science of political animals.  Aristotle's statement that "man is by nature a political animal" is famous.  But it is often falsely assumed to mean that human beings are by nature the only political animals.  As Aristotle explains in his biological writings, the political animals include ants, bees, wasps, and cranes.  But even if humans are not the only political animals, Aristotle indicates, they are distinctive in that they are more political than the other political animals, because humans have a biological capacity for logos, which allows them to organize their political communities through shared symbolic conceptions of justice.

In his biological works, Aristotle sees that some animals are solitary and others gregarious.  Of the gregarious animals, some are political.  Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not.  The distinguishing characteristic of the political animals is that they cooperate for some common work or function.  Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense.

The uniquely human capacity for speech or rhetorical persuasion makes humans more political than the other political animals, because while other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain, humans can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good.  Through speech, humans cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other animals.  Through speech, humans can deliberate about the common interest as the standard of justice.  A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common interest of all or most of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private interest of its ruling group.

I have argued that Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality and animal social life supports Aristotle's biopolitical science.  I have also argued that the biological study of animal behavior over the past 60 years (beginning with Jane Goodall's arrival at the Gombe Stream Preserve in 1960) has largely confirmed this Aristotelian science of animal politics.

Recently, I noticed that Cheryl Abbate (2016) has disagreed with my reasoning in what is essentially a critique of my 1990 article in Social Science Information.  I also noticed that Edward Jacobs (2018) has written a response to Abbate's article, and Abbate (2018) has replied to him.

Abbate's critique consists of two arguments.  First, she claims that my defense of Aristotle's teaching contradicts the Darwinian principle of the psychic continuity between humans and animals--the idea that humans differ from other animals only in degree and not in kind.  Second, she claims that recent studies of animal behavior show that some highly social nonhuman animals have a sense of justice, and so Aristotle is wrong in thinking that this is unique to human beings.

As you might expect, I believe she's mistaken on both points.


Abbate correctly quotes from the crucial passage in Aristotle's Politics (1253a) where Aristotle declares that a human is much more a political animal than other political animals, because "man alone among the animals has speech [logos]," and through speech, "he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust," which is the uniquely human basis of human politics (Abbate 2016, 57).

She then claims that this contradicts the Darwinian principle of "evolutionary continuity"--that all differences between species are only differences in degree and not in kind (Abbate 2018, 160).  She correctly quotes from Darwin's apparent endorsement of this idea in The Descent of Man:

"Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.  We have seen the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals" (2004, 151).

Abbate is silent, however, about the fact that despite Darwin's explicit statement that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals, he implicitly recognized human differences in kind.  That is to say, Darwin saw that human beings have some moral and mental traits that other animals do not have at all.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that self-consciousness is uniquely human: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (105).  Morality is also uniquely human: "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity. . . . man . . . alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being" (135).  And language is uniquely human: "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).

Darwin was thrown into self-contradiction--both affirming and denying that humans are different in kind from other animals--because he failed to see how he could affirm emergent differences in kind without affirming any radical differences in kind.  Emergent differences in kind can be explained by evolutionary science as differences in kind that naturally evolve from differences in degree that pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  So, for example, we can see the uniquely human capacities for self-consciousness, morality, and language as emerging from the evolutionary development of the primate brain, so that at some critical point in the evolution of our hominid ancestors, the size and complexity of the brain (perhaps particularly in the frontal cortex) reached a point where distinctively human cognitive capacities emerged at higher levels of brain evolution that are not found in other primates.  With such emergent differences in kind, there is an underlying unbroken continuity between human beings and their primate ancestors, so there is no need to posit some supernatural intervention in nature--the divine creation of the human soul--that would create a radical difference in kind in which there is a gap with no underlying continuity of natural causes.

Edward Jacobs points to this when he describes the evolution of the human mind.  "The moment a certain threshold of mental development was reached (and logos is as good a placeholder name for this threshold as any), we became able to make and grasp persuasive accounts," which made humans more political than the other political animals (155).

Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka (2019) have shown how an evolutionary neuroscience could explain this emergence of the human mind as passing through the three levels of mind identified by Aristotle in De Anima (On the Soul). The basic nutritive and reproductive soul belongs to all living things--plants and animals.  The second level--the sensitive soul--belongs to all animals.  The third level--the rational or symbolizing soul--is specific to humans.  The crucial evolutionary transition marker of the rational soul is language.  The rational soul gives humans the capacity for grasping and sharing the abstract symbolic values of the good and the just that make human politics unique.  Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest that all three levels can be explained by evolutionary biology.

I have written some previous posts on emergent evolution (here and here).;


Abbate relies heavily on two cognitive ethologists--Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal--for providing the evidence that some nonhuman animals have a sense of justice, and therefore Aristotle is wrong in saying that humans alone have a moral sense, which makes them more political than the other political animals.  For Abbate, this proves that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals.

Bekoff is best known for his studies of canid social carnivores--wolves, dogs, and coyotes--and his argument that their social play shows that they have "codes of conduct" that indicate a moral life of "wild justice" (Bekoff 1995; Bekoff and Pierce 2009; Pierce and Bekoff 2012).

De Waal is best known for his Chimpanzee Politics and other studies of primate colonies in captivity.  He has endorsed what he calls my "Darwistotelian" view of human politics and morality as showing an evolved political nature shared with chimps and other primates. A sample of my many posts on de Waal can be found herehereherehere, and here.

She does not notice, however, that Bekoff and de Waal show the same self-contradiction that one can see in Darwin.  On the one hand, Bekoff says that "animal morality is different in degree but not in kind from human morality."  On the other hand, he says there are "bona fide differences in kind" (Bekoff and Pierce 2009, 139-40).  He admits that "human morality is unique," because humans are unique in their capacities of language and judgment (Bekoff and Pierce 2009, 132, 139-42).  Similarly, de Waal sometimes seems to say that morality is not unique to human beings, but then he concedes that morality at the level of judgment and reasoning is uniquely human (de Waal 2006, 20, 173-75).

Abbate might say, however, that this is not necessarily contradictory.  If de Waal is right about there being three levels of human morality, and if nonhuman animals show some elements of the lower levels but not of the higher levels, then the fullest expression of human morality is uniquely human, although some animals show some features of the moral life.  Thus, there is both continuity and discontinuity in the moral psychology of animals.  At some levels of morality, there is only a difference in degree.  At other levels, there is a difference in kind.  This is exactly what one would expect from the emergent evolution of animal morality.  And, I suggest, this is Aristotle's position, even though his biology did not have a fully developed evolutionary theory.

According to de Waal, the moral sentiments constitute the first level of morality--the emotional building blocks of morality that include empathy, reciprocity, retribution, a sense of fairness, and reconciliation to resolve conflicts and restore harmonious relationships (de Waal 2006, 166-75).  All of this can be seen in some form in other animals

In stressing the importance of the moral sentiments for moral psychology, de Waal belongs to the philosophic tradition of sentimentalist ethics that includes David Hume, Adam Smith, Darwin, and Edward Westermarck--a tradition that is set against the Kantian tradition of rationalist ethics.  I have written many posts on this, including herehere, here., and here.

De Waal identifies social pressure as the second level of morality.  Through social pressure, individuals are habituated to conform to the social rules of their group that maintain the good order of the community.  These rules are enforced through reward, punishment, and reputation.  In these ways, morality serves as a social contract for a cooperative society. Some of this can be seen in some nonhuman animals.  For example, high-ranking males in chimpanzee groups show "policing behavior"--males break up fights among others, and their intervention seems to be remarkably evenhanded.  Nevertheless, the human morality of social pressure goes beyond animal morality by formulating social rules that are more abstract and systematic than is the case for other animals.

Finally, judgment and reasoning constitute a third level of morality, and this is uniquely human.  So, for example, we are like other social animals in that we care about our reputations--how we appear in the eyes of others--so that we want to be praised and not blamed by others; but we can also use our distinctively human capacity for abstraction and imagination to see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of an "impartial spectator" (as Adam Smith said), so that we can want to do what is praiseworthy, regardless of whether we are actually praised by anyone. We care not only about our real reputation but also about our imaginary reputation.  From this we develop an internal sense of self-esteem or conscience.  There is no evidence for anything like this in nonhuman animals.  (I have written about Smith's concept of the "impartial spectator" here.)

Like de Waal, Aristotle saw both continuity and discontinuity between human beings and other animals in their moral psychology.  In his History of Animals (588a15), he wrote:

"In most of the other animals, there are traces of the qualities of soul that are more evidently differentiated in human beings.  For there are both gentleness and savagery, mildness and harshness, courage and timidity, fear and confidence, spiritedness and trickery, and, with respect to intelligence [dianoia], something like judgment [sunesis], similar in many ways. . . . For some of these qualities differ only more or less with reference to human beings. . . . For nature passes little by little from the inanimate to animals, so that this continuity prevents one from seeing a border or perceiving on which side an intermediate form lies."

Aristotle argues that the moral psychology of wild animals is like that of children: they can have natural virtue and habitual virtue, but they cannot have the deliberative virtue that requires fully developed logos (Politics, 1332b1; Nicomachean Ethics, 1144b1-1145a5).  They can have the natural virtue that comes from being born with a good natural temperament that inclines them to do the right actions.  And they can have the habitual virtue that comes from obeying social rules so that they habitually do the right actions.

Only human adults are capable of deliberative virtue, which requires logos. And logos is the capacity for grasping explanatory accounts--for understanding both theoretical and practical syllogisms (Moss 2014).  In ethics and politics, explanatory accounts do not just prescribe right actions, they also explain why these are right.  Children and animals can be trained to know what they ought to do but without understanding why they ought to do it.  Virtue in the strict sense requires deliberate choice and prudential judgment with full knowledge of both what should be done and why it should be done.  This deliberative virtue with prudence corresponds to what de Waal identifies as the third level of morality--reasoning and judgment.

Because of their unique capacity for logos, human beings are more political than the other political animals--and more moral than the other moral animals--because this capacity for grasping explanatory accounts means that rather than just habitually obeying social rules of justice in their group, human beings will want to know why these are the rules, and they will argue over whether there might be better rules.  For that reason, human politics is always a rhetorical activity in which people have to persuade one another that what their community is doing is just, right, or noble.  That's why Aristotle's Rhetoric is a crucial text for his moral and political philosophy.

The importance of rhetorical speech for human politics and human morality explains why language is the critical marker in the evolutionary transition to uniquely human symbolism and rationality, as Ginsburg and Jablonka have indicated.


Abatte, Cheryl E. 2016. "'Higher' and 'Lower' Political Animals: A Critical Analysis of Aristotle's Account of the Political Animal." Journal of Animal Ethics 6:54-66.

Abatte, Cheryl E. 2018. "Redefending Nonhuman Justice in Complex Animal Communities: A Response to Jacobs."  Journal of Animal Ethics 8:159-165.

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

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

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

Arnhart, Larry. 2009. Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.  Ed. Kenneth Blanchard. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic Press.

Bekoff, Marc. 1995. "Play Signals as Punctuation: The Structure of Social Play in Canids." Behaviour 132:419-429.

Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man.  Second edition. Ed. James Moore and Adrian Desmond. London: Penguin Classics.

de Waal, Frans. 2006. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Ginsburg, Simona, and Eva Jablonka. 2019. The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jacobs, Edward. 2018. "Aristotle and the Zoon Politikon: A Response to Abbate." Journal of Animal Ethics 8:150-158.

Moss, Jessica. 2014. "Right Reason in Plato and Aristotle: On the Meaning of Logos." Phronesis 59:181-230.

Pierce, Jessica, and Marc Bekoff. 2012. "Wild Justice Redux: What We Know About Social Justice in Animals and Why It Matters." Social Justice Research 25:122-139.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if you read the article in the NY Times this week on the work of the Canadian forestry scientist Suzanne Simard which shows that there are "networks" of communication between trees and other plants in a forest through mycorrhizal fungi:

It may be extrapolating beyond the evidence to see here a precursor of the social networks of insects and primate social animals.
The relevance here is the usual account of Darwinian evolution repeated in the article as a kind of Hobbesian struggle of individual organisms for survival.
"Many were perplexed as to why trees of different species would help one another at their own expense — an extraordinary level of altruism that seemed to contradict the core tenets of Darwinian evolution."

Of course, I believe this is based on a misunderstanding of Darwin.
The article claims that Darwin was "influenced by Adam Smith, who believed that societal order and efficiency could emerge from competition among inherently selfish individuals in a free market...Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously 19th-century capitalism writ large,” wrote the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin."

I have no idea if Darwin read the Wealth of Nations but the text of Adam Smith he seems to have known was the Theory of Moral Sentiments which begins by postulating an interest and identification in the feelings of others that is not purely selfish.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, I have written about the influence of Smith's TMS on Darwin. The "19th-century capitalism writ large" idea is a falsehood that never dies.