Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sherlock Detects Strauss's Secret

In defending "Darwinian natural right" and "Darwinian conservatism," I show the influence of Leo Strauss and his students. But my effort to ground "natural right" in a scientific understanding of human nature is scorned by most Straussian scholars.

This points to the fundamental ambiguity in the legacy of Strauss. On the one hand, the powerful appeal of Strauss came from his warning that modern relativism and nihilism had created a crisis for the West by denying natural right or natural law as the ground for any natural standards for the true and the good. On the other hand, Strauss and his students have not offered any explanation for how exactly natural right or natural law can be defended in the modern world.

In a recent issue of Modern Age (Summer 2006), Richard Sherlock reflects on this ambiguity as manifesting "The Secret of Straussianism." Strauss's Natural Right and History is a profound account how how the premodern conception of natural right was subverted by modern relativism and nihilism. But then, as Sherlock indicates, the reader is left at the end of the book waiting for a philosophic grounding of natural right that will withstand the attack from modern traditions of thought. Strauss's silent refusal to satisfy this expectation indicates the true secret of Straussianism.

Contrary to the common assumption that Strauss was arguing for a return to classic natural right, Strauss was actually teaching--even if only by his silence--that a grounding of natural right is impossible. Consequently, Sherlock suggests, Strauss's appeal to premodern natural right was more rhetorical than philosophic. He thought it was morally and politically salutary to attack modern relativism and nihilism as inferior to classic natural right. But even as he did this, he left clear indications to his careful readers that there really was no ground in nature for natural right.

Sherlock rightly points to the most popular Straussian book--Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind--as conveying the secret teaching. Bloom scorns the debilitating effects of modern nihilism, and yet he praises Nietzsche as Socratic in his skepticism. Bloom's passionate devotion to philosophy as perpetual openness manifests the very nihilism that he supposedly rejects. (As I have indicated in some previous postings, Harvey Mansfield shows a similar skepticism about natural right, in his book on manliness, when he asserts "manly nihilism.")

Sherlock concludes, "the secret of Strauss's teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its light?"

What could Strauss have done to ground natural right? Sherlock suggests that he should have followed the path taken by one of his fellow German Jews--Simone Weil--and turned toward faith or theology as the ultimate ground of moral and political judgment. I agree that such an alternative must be taken seriously, because it satisfies the natural human desire for religious understanding by moving beyond nature to nature's God as the uncaused cause of the cosmos, including the moral order of the whole.

But Sherlock also recognizes other possibilities. Strauss could have tried "to ground natural right in the scientific study of human nature, as some of his extended followers, such as Roger Masters and Larry Arnhart, have done."

As Strauss and many of his students have suggested, the problem of natural right could be solved only if we could defend a teleological conception of nature against the apparent denial of teleology in modern natural science. Natural right seems to require a cosmic teleology so that that the order of the whole universe supports human goodness.

But I would argue that natural right could be grounded in a biological teleology that does not require a cosmic teleology of the whole universe. Strauss points to this possibility in Natural Right and History: "For, however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions" (p. 94).

While Bloom seemed to endorse the idea of natural teleology as rooted in human biology, he also suggested that such natural teleology is only an illusion., even if a noble illusion. "I mean by teleology," Bloom wrote, "nothing but the evident, everyday observation and sense of purposiveness, which may be only illusory, but which ordinarily guides human life, the kind everyone sees in the reproductive process" (pp. 110, 130-31). The qualifying phrase--"which may be only illusory"--allowed him to simultaneously deny and affirm the truth of natural teleology, which creates a strangely ambiguous position that one can find among many of Strauss's students, wanting to root Aristotelian natural right in a science of human nature, but also wanting to adopt a Kantian dualism that separates nonhuman nature and human culture.

One reason for this Straussian ambiguity is that Bloom and others think that the teleology required for natural right is a cosmic teleology that has been rendered implausible by modern science. But as I have argued, Aristotelian natural right requires only an immanent teleology--the observable goal-directed character of living beings--that is supported by Darwinian biology. Here I agree with Leon Kass that a crucial part of a "more natural science" would be a Darwinian understanding of teleology as rooted in "the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms" (Towards a More Natural Science, pp. 249-75).

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Antony Flew's Review

Antony Flew, emeritus professor of philosophy at Reading University in the U.K., has written a review of Darwinian Conservatism in the October-November issue of Right Now!, a British conservative journal.

Flew is famous as a philosopher who has written some of the classic philosophic texts arguing for atheism. He was an active participant in C. S. Lewis's Socratic Club. But while he was impressed by Lewis's thoughtful and fair-minded defense of theism, he was not persuaded.

So when he began a few years ago to suggest that the argument for "intelligent design" had led him to change his mind and question his atheism, this became an international news story. The history of Flew's thinking can be found in various places, including this Wikipedia article. It seems, however, that even if Flew is no longer a strict atheist, he has moved more towards deism rather than theism. He wonders whether the complex order of the universe doesn't point to God as First Cause. But he doesn't see this God as having the personal attributes of the Biblical God, and he doesn't believe in an afterlife.

This resembles my position, which is that the quest for ultimate explanations--the search for an uncaused cause--leads us to a fundamental choice between Nature or Nature's God as the unexplainable ground of all explanation.

Since Flew's review is not available online, I will quote it in its entirety here:

"The author of the present book is an American with, primarily, American readers in mind. He therefore, when thinking about Darwin's theory of the origin of species, cannot fail to be reminded that when, early in the 20th century that theory began to be taught in public schools, William Jennings Bryan supported legislation in the State of Tennessee prohibiting any teaching of evolution as denying the Biblical teaching that human beings were directly created by God. Today's well financed campaign to establish that the universe itself is the product of intelligent design points to the fabulous integrated complexity of the world of living creatures as itself the strongest evidence of intelligent design.

"Larry Arnhart's thesis in this book, which I think he proves abundantly, is that the constraints of our biological nature explode the most persistent delusion of the Left: 'that man is so malleable that he can be reshaped or transformed through political actions.' Consequently, a Darwinian politics is a largely conservative politics.

"When Harvard University biologist Edward Wilson argued that sociobiology should study the biological roots of human nature, he was attacked by those on the Left. What bothered the Leftists, Wilson explained, was 'the threat perceived to the core concept of their belief system--namely, that there is no human nature, that human behaviour and human social institutions are entirely the product of economic forces and culture; in other words, that human beings can be shaped by imposing an ideal social order.'

"Larry Arnhart is to be commended for producing an excellent book about conservative thought."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Peter Lawler and the Conservatism of Manly Nihilism

Many conservatives reject Darwinian science not because they believe that it's false, but because they fear that it's true.

In The Use and Abuse of History, Friedrich Nietzsche declared: "If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines that I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people."

Unlike other animals, Nietzsche believed, human beings cannot live without giving their lives meaning and importance--the meaning and importance that come from creating transcendent values as artistic illusions that elevate human life by giving it cosmic significance. In support of this tragic view of mythic art as necessary to create value and conceal the meaningless chaos of the world, Nietzsche criticized "scientific Socratism" for seeking pure knowledge through science and philosophy, which fails to see the need for artistic illusion to make human life meaningful and important.

Many conservatives have implicitly adopted this Nietzschean position in warning against Darwinian science as a "deadly truth." This is evident in a recent article by Peter Augustine Lawler--"Real Men Prove Darwin Wrong (Again)"--in the fall, 2006, issue of The Intellercollegiate Review. Identifying Harvey Mansfield and Tom Wolfe as "America's two most astute social commentators," Lawler praises them for their manly rejection of Darwinian science.

In a lecture on "The Human Beast," which can be found here, Wolfe argues that what separates human beings from other animals is the human capacity for speech. He writes: "The Book of John in the New Testament says cryptically: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' This has baffled Biblical scholars, but I interpret it a follows: Until there was speech, the human beast could have no religion, and consequently no God. In the beginning was the Word. Speech gave the beast its first ability to ask questions, and undoubtedly one of the first expressed his sudden but insatiable anxiety as to how he got here and what the agonizing struggle called life is all about. To this day, the beast needs, can't live without, some explanation as the basis of whatever status he may think he possesses. For that reason, extraordinary individuals have been able to change history with their words alone."

So to Wolfe it seems that human beings yearn for a transcendent meaning to life that is created by the words of "extraordinary individuals." Darwinian science threatens that human creation of values by explaining human beings as mere beasts and nothing more. Lawler and other conservatives agree.

Lawler also likes Mansfield's defense of "manliness" against Darwinian thought. While Mansfield opens and closes his book on manliness by apparently endorsing the teaching of Plato and Aristotle that "manly virtue" is rooted in nature, the central chapter of his book (Chapter 4) is devoted to the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt and Friedrich Nietzshe. He thus leaves his reader suspecting that the secret teaching of the book is the truth of "manly nihilism."

"The most dramatic statement of nihilism," Mansfield asserts, "would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning." Nietzsche is "the philosopher of manliness in modern times." Teddy Roosevelt is the best political expression of manly nihilism, particularly in the "assertiveness of executive power." Mansfield is famous for his Machiavellian defense of executive prerogative outside the rule of law, which includes some recent articles defending President Bush's displays of the "assertiveness of executive power."

Although the underlying intent of Lawler's article is hard to discern, his praise of Wolfe and Mansfield as the alternative to Darwin suggests something like Nietzsche's position. And just as Nietzsche warned against "scientific Socratism," Lawler warns against Darwinian Socratism. He writes: "There is, after all, something Socratic in evolutionism's and neuroscience's denial of the pretensions of the individual about his soul and his identity, its denial of the very existence of 'the self' that distinguishes you from me, and us from all the other animals."

Against Nietzshce and Lawler, I would suggest that Darwinian science can be true without being deadly. Darwin often asserted (in The Descent of Man, that the mental capacities of human beings and other animals differ immensely in degree but not in kind. Conservatives like Lawler worry that this denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as uniquely spiritual animals with transcendent longings.

But Darwin sometimes spoke of the human difference as a difference in kind and not just in degree. "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." He also identified "the habitual use of articulate language" as "peculiar to man." And he observed that "no animal is self-conscious," if this means "that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth."

So here Darwin would agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their capacities for reflecting on the meaning of life and death, for self-conscious moral choice, and for articulate language, which make human beings different in kind from other animals.

How does one explain the origin of that human difference? In Chapter 8 of Darwinian Conservatism, I explain it as the human soul arising through the emergent evolution of the primate brain. With the increasing size and complexity of the frontal lobes of the primate neocortex, novel mental capacities appear at higher levels that could not be predicted from the lower levels. Even if we see this as the work of God in creating human beings in His Image, we can't deny the possibility that He exercised his creative power through a natural evolutionary process.

My point, then, is that conservatives like Lawler have no reason to fear a Darwinian science of human life as promoting a reductionistic materialism that denies human freedom and dignity. A Darwinian conservatism can explain the unique capacities of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

So What's Wrong with Incest?

"Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?"

That's the way Jonathan Haidt began an article on the psychology of moral judgment. He reported that most people immediately condemn what Julie and Mark did as wrong, but they struggle to give reasons for this judgment. I have had the same reaction from students in my classes when I present this story. They react with disgust. But it's hard for them to give reasons to justify their disgust.

Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, argues that this illustrates the primacy of emotion in moral judgment. Against the tendency to explain morality as caused by moral reasoning, he suggests that moral reasoning usually comes after we have already made a moral judgment from our emotional reaction. He also claims that such a view of moral judgment as initially caused by emotional intuition is confirmed by biological psychology.

I agree. In fact, I think the incest taboo is one of the clearest illustrations of how a moral rule can be explained by a Darwinian view of human biological nature. In The Descent of Man, Darwin acknowledged that "of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important," and explaining the uniqueness of human moral experience created the "greatest difficulty" for his theory of evolution.

Proponents of the "theory of special creation" would say that that the human moral sense or conscience shows that human beings have been specially created in God's image, so that He has implanted a conscience in them. God's specific commands against incest are found in the Old Testament, in the 18th chapter of Leviticus, which was long adopted in Western legal codes as a set of rules for forbidden marriages.

But Darwin rejected the belief "that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience." He saw the rules for forbidden incestuous marriages as a subject for scientific investigation. During his lifetime, there was an intense debate in England over whether the marriage of first cousins should be prohibited as incest. Darwin had a personal stake in this, since he had married his first cousin (Emma). He proposed that Parliament should authorize a study of cousin marriages to see if their offspring suffered from inherited defects. Although his proposal was rejected, his son George did a study that concluded that the risk for the offspring of cousin marriages was often low.

In his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Darwin has a chapter "On the Good Effects of Crossing, and On the Evil Effects of Inbreeding." He surveys the experience of animal breeders in discovering the bad effects of inbreeding. And he wonders whether natural selection could have shaped a natural aversion to incest among human beings. "Although there seems to be no strong inherited feeling in mankind against incest, it seems possible that men during primeval times may have been more excited by strange females than by those with whom they habitually lived. . . . If any such feeling formerly existed in man, this would have led to a preference for marriages beyond the nearest kin, and might have been strengthened by the offspring of such marriages surviving in greater numbers."

In Xenophon's Memorabilia (IV.iv.19-23), Socrates identifies the "unwritten laws" legislated by the gods as laws that could not be disobeyed without natural penalties. He speaks of the incest taboo as one of those "unwritten laws," because those committing incest tend to produce defective offspring. Darwin's evolutionary explanation of this would illustrate, then, how Darwinian science might support the traditional idea of "natural law" or "natural right." (I have argued this in a book chapter: "The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right," in Arthur Wolf and William Durham, eds., Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century [Stanford University Press, 2005].)

Edward Westermarck elaborated Darwin's reasoning for the biological evolution of the incest taboo in his book The History of Human Marriage (first published in 1889). Westermarck's theory can be summarized in three propositions. First, inbreeding tends to produce physical and mental deficiencies that lower Darwinian fitness. Second, as a consequence, natural selection has favored an emotional disposition to feel a sexual aversion to those with whom one has been raised in early childhood. Third, this natural aversion to incest creates moral disapproval that is expressed as an incest taboo.

This put Westermarck in conflict with Sigmund Freud's Oedipal theory of human psychology and culture, because Freud insisted that the inclincation to incest was natural to human beings, and that the taboo against incest arose as a purely cultural construction that human beings created to repress their natural desires for incest, this cultural repression of human nature being necessary for civilization. So morality, as Freud understood it, required a conquest of human nature by human culture. By contrast, Westermarck believed that morality was a cultivation of natural human emotions, so that the incest taboo was a cultural expression of a natural human disposition shaped in human evolutionary history.

Over the past century, the evidence for Westermarck against Freud has grown. Arthur Wolf's study of "minor marriages" in China is one line of evidence. A traditional form of Chinese marriage was for parents to give their infant daughter to another family to be raised with the family's infant son, so that when the boy and girl reached maturity, they would be married. Wolf showed that these marriages were generally unsuccessful, because children raised together as siblings developed a sexual aversion to one another.

Another line of evidence came from the experience of the Israeli kibbutzim. In the attempt to create a fully socialist community, the kibbutz would have infant children taken from their families and put in the "children's house," where they would be raised together communally. When they reached sexual maturity, the children were encouraged to find marriage partners among those with whom they had been raised. But the children resisted this, because even though they were not biological relatives, they felt as if they were siblings and thus felt revulsion at the thought of sexual mating with one another.

So it seems that these children in China and in the kibbutzim were manifesting the "Westermarck effect": as a result of an innate disposition shaped by evolutionary history, they developed a sexual aversion to the children with whom they had been raised, even though they were not actually biological siblings.

Another kind of evidence for Westermarck's theory is that it now seems that many primates show incest avoidance. While Freud thought that incest was common among nonhuman animals, we now know that this is not true. For most primate species, males leave their native troop when they reach sexual maturity, which seems to be a mechanism for avoiding excessive inbreeding. For chimpanzees, the females leave at maturity to join another troop. This means that chimp mothers will be in the same troop with their sons. And their sons often do attempt to mount their mothers and sisters, but when the males reach sexual maturity, their mothers and sisters generally push them away. This is what Westermarck's theory would predict. The human incest taboo is humanly unique as a legal and moral norm, but it expresses a natural emotional disposition that can be found in primate evolutionary history.

Freud may have been fooled by his psychoanalytic experience, because in his Vienna, many of his patients had been raised by nurses rather than their parents, and in these conditions, the "Westermarck effect" would not kick in. After all, Oedipus himself was separated from his mother shortly after birth, and so again the sexual aversion to mating with immediate family members would not have been acquired by the Westermarck mechanism.

This Darwinian theory of the incest taboo goes a long way to explaining marriage law. In the United States today, all states prohibit people from marrying their parents, their children, or their siblings. But there is disagreement over cousin marriages. Early in the nineteenth century, all states permitted cousin marriages (as is the case today in Europe). But now cousin marriages are prohibited in 31 states, while being permitted in 19 states. (The debate over cousin marriage is surveyed in Martin Ottenheimer's book Forbidden Relatives [University of Illinois Press, 1996].) There is a good argument for permitting cousin marriage, because we now know that the genetic risk from deleterious recessive genes is often low for cousins, but high for those more closely related. Further, Westermarck's theory would predict that except in cases where cousins are reared together, there will not be a strong moral emotion against cousins mating.

There is great variation in the incest taboos across cultures depending upon the cultural definition of kinship categories.  But the variable boundaries of the incest taboos are extensions of an invariant core centered on the nuclear family.  The emotional reaction is strongest against incest with one's parents, siblings, and children.  The intensity of this emotional reaction fades as one moves away from the nuclear family.

Of course, incest does occur. But the pattern of incestuous behavior follows the predictions of Darwinian theory. Men are more likely to be the perpetrators of incest than are women, because men, unfortunately, are more indiscriminate in their sexual promiscuity.  The most common form of incest is actually child abuse--fathers abusing their daughters.  And this is more likely to occur if the fathers did not participate in the early rearing of the daughters.

Some people might not feel any moral inhibition against incest because they suffer from a psychopathic poverty of moral emotions. But still, the natural aversion to incest among most human beings is so strong that we formulate moral and legal norms against incest and enforce them as expressions of our natural emotional dispositions.

We can see how reason comes into play here. We might, for example, call on our knowledge of the genetics of inbreeding to rationalize our abhorrence of incest. But this is only a rationalization of a moral abhorrence that causes our moral condemnation of incest as an expression of moral emotion.

For more posts on the laws and moral psychology of incest, go here, here, here, here. herehereherehere., and here.  I have written about the flaws in Haidt's use of the "Julie and Mark incest story."