Saturday, December 29, 2007

Beckwith on Abortion

Francis Beckwith's new book--Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press)--is perhaps the best single survey of all the philosophic arguments for the immorality of abortion. Against the claim that the pro-life position depends purely on religious belief, Beckwith tries to show that the pro-life stance is superior to the abortion choice stance on purely philosophical grounds.

He states his basic argument in four steps:
"1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.
"2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
"3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.
"4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong."

Despite the rigor of his argumentation, I am not fully persuaded because he follows the lead of people like Hadley Arkes and Robert George in adopting a Kantian rationalism that assumes that moral judgment is a matter of pure logic separated from moral emotions. As I have indicated in a previous post, the debate over the moral status of prenatal human life--like all moral debate--cannot be resolved by pure reason alone. Rather, we need a combination of reason and emotion. Thought by itself moves nothing without the motive power of emotion or desire. Normally, we don't feel the same moral concern for a human zygote, embryo, or fetus that we feel for a human infant, child, or adult.

Although Beckwith tries to present his argumentation as a pure logic of morals, he must ultimately appeal implicitly to moral emotions. Thus, for example, his reasoning about "intrinsic value" must assume some "intuition" that depends on moral emotion. For instance, he must assume that his "substance view of persons" conforms to our moral emotions of approbation and disapprobation (p. 140).

And yet he tries to reject "human sentiment" as a basis for moral judgment. He writes: "One usually feels a greater sense of loss at the sudden death of a healthy parent than one feels for the hundreds who die daily of starvation in underdeveloped countries. Does this mean that the latter are less human than one's parent? Certainly not" (p. 153). But surely Beckwith is not saying that it is immoral to feel more concern for one's parents than for strangers (even if one acknowledges their shared humanity). We can feel some concern for suffering strangers, but normally we will feel more concern for those close to us because of the nature of our moral emotions.

Consider also the following passage (pp. 169-170):

"An anonymous reviewer raises an important counterexample to my case: 'Suppose that in an IVF clinic, an earthquake cause (1) a couple of glass dishes to break resulting in ten eggs being accidentally fertilized and (2) a fire in a room in which five patients are trapped. I can either save the fertilized eggs . . . or the patients. Most of us believe that I should save the patients but it is not clear that the sort of substance dualism espoused by the author is compatible with this claim.'
"These types of stories can, of course, always be adjusted to make an entirely different point. For example, suppose the five patients are aging Nazi war criminals and the 10 embryos are one's own offspring. It's pretty clear which group one would save. However, the sort of fictional scenario offered by this referee has been responded to by a number of others. I will offer one reply put forth by Scott B. Rae, who argues that this sort of story confuses epistemology with ontology, that is, it confuses what things appear to us with what things actually are. As Rae writes: 'The surface appearance of an embryo seems too distant and impersonal. But surface appearances and the emotions they engender are, by themselves, inadequate guides for moral reflection. To a lesser degree, this same sort of 'argument' could be used to justify racism, an unjustified preference for individuals who share many of one's own surface features. Since the presence or absence of surface features may be the real basis for the intuitions in this argument, we do not consider it has the force its advocates claim it has.'"

Here we see that both reason and emotion have roles to play in moral judgment. But reason can only elicit the emotions as the ground of moral intuition. So generally we don't feel the same moral concern for human embryos that we feel for human adults, even though intellectually we might be persuaded that the embryos are equally human with the adults. But we might feel more moral concern for 10 embryos that are our own offspring than we would for the 5 Nazi war criminals. Notice that Beckwith must implicitly appeal to our moral emotions. He denigrates the appeal to "surface appearances," but he himself must acknowledge the moral relevance of those "surface appearances."

There is another problem with Beckwith's argument.  As indicated in the first comment on this post (by RBH), "full-fledged member of the human community" is a fallacious metaphor.  Birds have fledged when their feathers and wing muscles have developed to the point that they can fly, which increases the chances that they can survive on their own.  By contrast, a human zygote has no chance of surviving on its own.

I have written another post on the related issue of stem-cell research.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Ambition

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto brings to an end a remarkable example of female political ambition.

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I identified her as an illustration of how some high-testosterone women can display the same driving ambition for political dominance that is more commonly displayed in politically ambitious men. Because the propensity to dominance tends to be stronger in men than women, the highest positions of political rule tend to be filled mostly by men. Nevertheless, some women--like Benazir Bhutto--display a manly ambition for dominance. The need to channel and check that dominance drive justifies limited government, because even those who claim to be purely democratic leaders will be inclined to abuse their power to satisfy their ambition.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Questions and Answers for John West

In a recent blog post, John West claims that in our debates, I have refused to answer his four major questions for me. Here I will briefly summarize my answers to those questions and then pose some questions for West.

West's first question: "If Darwinism provides the standard for determining what is moral or immoral (as Arnhart claims), how can we condemn any activity that persists over time among even a subpopulation of human beings or animals?" Since Darwin indicates that practices such as infanticide, rape, and polygamy have been common in human history and thus "natural," doesn't this imply that Darwinism would endorse such practices?

The answer to this question is to be found in Darwin's account of the moral sense. Although natural selection through the "struggle for existence" shapes the social instincts of human beings and their capacities for reason, speech, and social learning, "the highest part of man's nature," Darwin indicates, comes from the moral development that arises more from habit, reason, instruction, and religion than through natural selection (Descent of Man, Penguin Classics, 163, 681-82, 688-89). So, for example, we can understand that in primitive societies, people felt compelled to kill their offspring when it was difficult or impossible to successfully rear all the infants that were born (65, 659-60). But modern conditions of life allow us to preserve our offspring without threatening the lives of others. We can also understand why polygyny (one husband with many wives) has been common in human history, while polyandry (one wife with many husbands) has been rare (655-63). Men of high status and wealth will be inclined to seek multiple mates, and polygyny has worked in many societies. But the sexual jealousy among the co-wives will always create conflicts. And while an extreme scarcity of women might make polyandry necessary, the intense sexual jealousy of males will make this almost impossible to sustain. Thus, through moral experience and moral reasoning, we can see the advantages of monogamy in securing the peaceful management of the natural desires for sexual mating. This kind of reasoning led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that while monogamy was fully natural, polygyny was partly natural and partly unnatural, and polyandry was completely unnatural.

West's second question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward Biblical theism (as Arnhart insists), why do the vast majority of leading Darwinists identify themselves as atheists or agnostics? Are they all stupid?"

Well, are Darwinian scientists like Francis Collins stupid for believing that theism and evolution are compatible? Was Darwin stupid for concluding The Origin of Species by describing the "grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one"? Was Pope John Paul II stupid in asserting that there was no necessary conflict between evolution and religion? I don't think so. Fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins might not be stupid. But they are certainly remarkably shallow thinkers who refuse to ponder the mystery of the First Cause of nature, which leaves a big opening for God as the Creator.

West's third question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward limited government (as Arnhart also claims), why did most of the leading Darwinian biologists in the first several decades of the twentieth century champion state-sanctioned eugenics, the effort to breed a better race applying Darwinian principles? Moreover, why did these evolutionary biologists insist that eugenics was a logical corollary to Darwin's theory? Were they all stupid as well? Why and in what way?"

If grossly ignorant utopianism is stupidity, then they were stupid. The eugenicists followed in the utopian tradition of Plato's Republic, which assumed that philosopher-kings could breed human beings to improve their moral and intellectual capacities. Francis Galton openly claimed that his proposed eugenics would fulfill the dreams of utopian philosophers. This eugenics was utopian because it assumed human perfectibility in knowledge, power, and virtue. It assumed that human beings could fully understand and precisely control the mechanisms of biological inheritance so as to shape a new human race superior in physical and mental traits. This is unrealistic because complex behavioral traits are almost always shaped by the joint action of many genes interacting with the social and physical environment of the individual in ways that cannot be perfectly understood or controlled. Galton's eugenics also assumed that those people who would manage his selective breeding programs could be trusted to exercise their power for the common good without being corrupted by tyrannical interests like those of the Nazis.

West's fourth question is: "If Darwin himself only supported what Arnhart describes as 'good eugenics' such as preventing incestuous marriages, how does Arnhart explain the remarkable passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin warns of the dangers to the human race of helping the poor, caring for the mentally ill, saving the sick, and even inoculating people against smallpox? In Darwin's own words, 'no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man . . . excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.'"

Isn't Darwin right in seeing that insofar as modern civilization promotes the propagation of inherited defects, this is "highly injurious to the race of man"? Don't we know today of many genetic disorders that parents pass on to their offspring? Wouldn't it be desirable if we could eliminate or at least minimize the propagation of such disorders? So, for example, isn't it good that Ashkenazi Jews are using genetic testing to identify the carriers of Tay-Sachs and to discourage them from passing on that genetic trait to the next generation? But isn't it also right that our desire to eliminate these genetic disorders must be combined, as Darwin insisted, with a desire to aid the weak as an expression of that moral sympathy that constitutes "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent of Man, 159)?

Now let me address four questions of my own to West--questions that he has refused to clearly answer in our debates.

1. What does West mean in his book Darwin's Conservatives when he says that the alternative to a Darwinian morality of the natural moral sense is a morality grounded on a "transcendent standard of morality" (21), a "permanent foundation for ethics" (22), or "moral truth" (40)? What is the source of that "transcendent standard"? When people disagree about the meaning of that "transcendent standard," are they just stupid?

2. What does West mean when he refers to "traditional Judeo-Christian morality" (21)? Does this refer to Biblical morality--the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments--which would include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (69-71, 143)? If so, then how exactly does the Bible provide a clear and reliable moral teaching contrary to the Darwinian moral sense? When the Bible teaches the "curse of destruction" that requires killing innocent women and children (Numbers 31:1-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-20), and when the book of Revelation teaches that history is moving towards a bloody battle for extinguishing the armies of Satan, is this "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When radical Islamists appeal to the Biblical tradition of holy war, is this also part of "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When the Bible endorses infanticide (Genesis 22; Numbers 31; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Judges 11:29-40) and slavery (Exodus 21:20; Leviticus 25:44-46; Ephesians 6:5), must we accept this as "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? How do we judge the moral reliability of such Biblical teachings without appealing to some natural moral sense beyond biblical revelation?

3. What exactly does West mean when he speaks of biological desires as normative? He writes: "I am not quarreling with Arnhart's attempt to enlist biology to support traditional morality. I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certian moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative. . . . If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality" (22-23). So does this mean that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work? How can we judge that the intelligent designer or unchanging nature is good if we do not already have some independent standard of goodness? Is it possible that the intelligent designer used the evolutionary process to create the human species--as suggested by Michael Behe? If so, would that make our biological desires as shaped by evolution normative for us?

4. If "intelligent design theory" is a purely scientific theory that does not depend on religious belief, then why do the majority of scientists deny this? Are they stupid? And why is it that so many Biblical creationists--like those involved in the Dover school case--see the teaching of "intelligent design" as a way of teaching creationism as science?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Recent Human Evolution--Including the High-IQ Ashkenazi Jews

Until the emergence of agriculture 5,000 to 11,000 years ago, human ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers or foragers. Proponents of "evolutionary psychology" assume that most of our genetic evolution occurred before the transition to agriculture. Since then, there has been much cultural change but almost no genetic change. But there are some good examples of how cultural changes over the past 10,000 years have brought about genetic evolution. One example is how human populations in dairying cultures have evolved genetically so that adults can digest fresh milk, because their bodies produce the lactose-digesting enzyme lactase. In China and most of Africa, most people cannot digest milk in adulthood because their ancestors did not belong to dairying societies. Now, new research suggests that rapid genetic evolution over the past 10,000 years--like the evolution of lactose tolerance--might be much more common than was previously thought. An article in THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (December 26, 2007) surveys the evidence from genetic differences across human populations that indicate rapid genetic evolution over the past 10,000 years. The authors argue that rapid increasses in human population over this period combined with great changes in cultural and ecological conditions created the circumstances for rapid evolutionary adaptation. This paper has received wide publicity. Two of the authors of this paper--Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending--are the authors of a paper published in 2005 on the "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence", published in the JOURNAL OF BIOSOCIAL SCIENCE, 38 (2006): 659-693. The Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Cochran and Harpending argue that this arises from a history of genetic evolution shaped by the demography and social conditions of Ashkenazi Jews in Medieval Europe. The Medieval Ashkenazim were forced into financial and managerial occupations that demand high intelligence. They also showed intense reproductive isolation, because they rarely married outside their group. These two factors created the conditions for rapid genetic evolution favoring high intelligence. Moreover, the high rate of certain genetic disorders (such as Tay-Sachs) among the Ashkenazim suggest that the genetic propensities favoring high intelligence have costly side-effects. All of this research is highly controversial. But at the very least, it forces us to question the nature/nurture dichotomy, because it suggests that cultural evolution can create the conditions for rapid genetic evolution. As Edward Wilson indicated years ago, human nature cannot properly be understood as predominately genetic or cultural, because it should rather be seen as arising from the complex interaction of genes and culture. Understanding gene-culture coevolution is the final goal for the new Darwinian science of human nature. Another example of reseach on recent human evolution is Gregory Clark's evolutionary explanation for the industrial revolution in Great Britain in his book A Farewell to Alms. My post on this can be found here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Icon of ID: Jonathan Wells and the Peppered Moths

Of the books attacking Darwinian science, one of the most popular has been Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution. Sponsored by the Discovery Institute as part of its "wedge strategy" for promoting "intelligent design theory," Wells' book argues that some of the best-known examples of evolutionary explanation are actually untrue.

For instance, the evolution of peppered moths in England is often presented in biology textbooks as a clear case of evolution in action. Hundreds of years ago, the typical form of the peppered moth was mostly light gray with some black spots. But during the industrial revolution, pollution turned many tree trunks black. As a result, black "melanic" forms of the moths increased in number, because the lighter colored moths were more easily visible against the black tree trunks and thus most exposed to predation by birds. In the late 1950s, however, legislation that reduced pollution levels allowed trees to return to lighter colored trunks, which favored the return of the lighter colored moths, because now the darker moths were more visible to bird predators. In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell became famous for conducting experiments with these moths in the woodlands of England to confirm this Darwinian theory of the evolution of melanic moths.

But then in the 1980s, some researchers began to doubt Kettlewell's reports. The textbooks show Kettlewell's pictures of moths on tree trunks. But some researchers suggested that peppered moths do not rest on tree trunks, but rather they generally hide under horizontal branches. It seemed that the pictures of moths on trees appearing in biology textbooks had actually been staged by researchers who had glued dead specimens onto the trees. Wells could then proclaim this to be an example of scientific fraud. Many critics of Darwinian science have cited this in presentations to public school boards to support their claim that biology textbooks are using fraudulent evidence to advance Darwinian evolutionary theory.

And yet, Wells' presentation of this story is itself fraudulent. The debate over Kettlewell's research was surveyed in Michael Majerus' 1998 book Melanism: Evolution in Action, which Wells cites. But Wells does not accurately present the story in Majerus's book. For example, Wells asserts that "peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks" (148). But this ignores Majerus's reports of peppered moths in the wild found resting on tree trunks (see p. 123 of Majerus's book). Wells asserts that "pictures of peppered moths on tree trunks must be staged" (150). But Majerus' book has unstaged photographs that look no different from staged photographs (146-147).

Since 1998, Majerus has continued to conduct experimental research on peppered moths in England to see if Kettlewell's original claims could be defended against the critics. In recent years, Majerus has published his research confirming that Kettlewell was right after all. For example, in his research, he has shown that a significant proportion of moths (37%) do rest on tree trunks. Moreover, he generally concludes that differential bird predation has been a major factor in determining the common forms of moths, and thus this is a good example of Darwinian evolution in action.

Majerus's research is presented in a book chapter--"The Peppered Moth: Decline of a Darwinian Disciple"--in Insect Evolutionary Ecology, edited by Mark Fellowes et al. The notes for one of Majerus's power point presentations on this research can be found here.

Here then is an example of the experimental testing of Darwinian science. By contrast, as Majerus indicates, creationism and intelligent design are not open to such experimental testing.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Anastaplo on Physics and Religion

George Anastaplo is a remarkable human being--and perhaps the best teacher I had at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School at the the top of his class in 1951. But he was refused admission to the Illinois Bar because he refused to answer questions about whether he was a communist. Eventually, he argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court and lost in a 5-to-4 decision (In re Anastaplo). He became a student of Leo Strauss. In fact, I believe he attended more of the classes Strauss taught during his years at the University of Chicago than anyone else. Since he was prohibited from practicing law, he earned a Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and became a political science professor at Rosary College (later renamed Dominican University). He also taught--and continues to teach--in the Basic Program in the Liberal Arts of the University of Chicago, a "great books" program for adults that was originally founded by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler in 1946. He retired from Dominican and joined the faculty at the Loyola University of Chicago Law School, where he still teaches.

I am bringing up Anastaplo's name only to recommend a short paper he has written on "Yearnings for the Divine and the Natural Animation of Matter," which can be found here.

Anastaplo has noticed that physicists speaking at the University of Chicago--at the weekly Physics Colloquia--have a tendency to use language suggesting that matter has a natural tendency to animation that implies a divine purposiveness. Of course, most of these physicists would surely say that this is only metaphorical language that should not be taken literally. But Anastaplo rightly raises the question of whether this indicates something about the tendency of the human mind to intuit some divine purpose in the order of nature.

Anastaplo also wonders whether physicists really understand what they are looking for. In their search for the smallest and most elementary particles of matter, aren't they looking for the ultron--i.e., the ultimate particle (or principle) underlying all material order? Do they really understand what it means to search for whatever it is that allows the universe to be and to be intelligible?

Anastaplo's questions bear upon the issue of ultimate explanation that has often come up on this blog. In the search for ultimate explanation, we seem to assume some ultimate ground of explanation that itself cannot be explained but only intuited. Religious believers would say this ultimate ground is God as the uncaused cause of nature. Scientific naturalists would say that nature itself must be accepted as a self-contained order that we know as a brute fact of our experience.

The ultimate cause of life--including the life of self-conscious, thinking beings--seems particularly mysterious. Religious believers would say that without assuming a Divine Mind behind the order of nature, scientists could not explain their own capacity for--and longing for--a rational explanation of natural order. Skeptical naturalists would suggest that whatever thoughtful purposefulness there is in the universe is a contingent outcome of evolutionary processes of emergent order that are not themselves thoughtful or purposeful.

Darwinian science must leave these questions open to thoughtful inquiry, because, as Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

Friday, December 07, 2007

Mitt Romney on Religious Liberty

Questions about religion and evolution continue to come up in the debates between the Republican candidates for the presidency. Mike Huckabee has said that he rejects the Darwinian theory of evolution as contrary to his belief in the Biblical account of creation. But in a recent response to a question, Huckabee said that he does not know how God carried out his creative plan. He adds some dismissive remarks about people who believe they are descended from primates. In contrast to Huckabee, Mitt Romney has defended theistic evolution--the idea that there is no necessary conflict between Biblcial creation and the theory of evolution. In a previous post, I commented on Romney's endorsement of theistic evolution.

Evangelical Christians are uneasy with Romney's Mormonism. Romney's recent speech at Texas A & M University was his attempt to lay out his position on the political role of religion. It is a remarkably reasonable statement on the American tradition of religious liberty. He endorses Abraham Lincoln's declaration in his Lyceum speech that obedience to law and the Constitution is the "political religion" of the nation. Romney goes on to argue that the Constitution's provision for "no religious test" for public office shows that there must be no political imposition of any particular religious beliefs.

Romney rightly embraces the understanding of the constitutional founders that differences in theology could be tolerated as long as all religions share a common understanding of morality. This conforms to what I have argued as to the need for a natural moral sense (such as Darwin stresses) that stands on its own natural ground regardless of differing religious beliefs.

Romney correctly observes that the separation of church and state should not be interpreted to mean an establishment of "the religion of secularism." Religious belief is important for American public life insofar as it reinforces the principles of the Declaration of Independence--the self-evident principles of human equality under God. Here, again, Romney follows Lincoln.

In the tradition of John Locke's argument for religious toleration, Romney understands that there can be no toleration for "theocratic tyranny" such as that threatened by "radical Islamists." Like the American founders, Romney rejects any theocratic interpretation of Biblical religion, and here he follows in the tradition of Locke and Roger Williams that treats religious belief as a matter of individual liberty of conscience that cannot properly be enforced by law or coercion.

To mandate by law that a literal reading of the Biblical account of creation should be taught in public schools as science would be an exercise in theocracy. If we wish to defend religious liberty against theocracy, we must agree with decisions like that rendered by Judge Jones in the Dover school case that would forbid public schools from teaching Biblical creationism (even under the guise of "intelligent design theory") as science.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Phil Gasper and Socialist Utopianism

Last summer, I wrote a post responding to an article by Phil Gasper in the International Socialist Review. Now, my post has been reprinted in that journal along with a response from Mr. Gasper, which can be found here.

Gasper's response is reasonable, and it clarifies the points at issue. He seems to agree with me that human nature does put limits on what we can do, but he stresses the malleablility of human behavior within those limits. I agree that cultural evolution and individual judgment allows for great variability in human behavior. But I would stress that cultural evolution and individual judgment are constrained by human nature.

So, for example, I say that the drive for power and status is so natural to human beings that we can assume that power-seeking or the desire to dominate others will be a problem in any society. Some societies are more hierarchical than others, but none are completely egalitarian in the sense that no one has more power or status than any other. Primitive hunting-gathering or foraging societies are probably the least hierarchical of any societies, and yet they still show a striving for power that has to be constantly checked. The anthropologist Richard Lee was a Marxist, and so he looked for completely egalitarian relationships in the !Kung San communities. And yet he had to admit that they did show patterns of leadership, and that the !Kung had to be constantly vigilant against informal leaders who might become too arrogant.

By contrast, Gasper insists--like Marx--that foraging societies show a completely egalitarian society where no one has more power than anyone else, and this shows what a socialist society could achieve today by reviving primitive communism. To me this illustrates the utopianism of the Left based on the myth of the Noble Savage in a Golden Age.

When someone like Hugo Chavez arises to lead Venezuela to a "21st century socialism," I see a glory-seeking politician with Napoleonic ambitions, and I predict that he will strive to concentrate dispotic power in his hands. But socialists like Gasper are excited by the prospect for finally achieving socialist utopia. Gasper remarks: "Arnhart's characterization of what is taking place as no more than a power trip by Chavez is hardly a serious analysis." But isn't the history of socialism--from Marx, Lenin, and Stalin to Mao, Castro, and Pol Pot a history of power trips?

Roger Cohen has just written a similar assessment of Chavez for the New York Times, which can be found here. But viewed through the utopian vision of the Left, this will will be easily dismissed as "hardly a serious analysis."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Vogel on Kass's "Natural Law Judaism"

In some previous posts, I have questioned Leon Kass's view of modern science as promoting a materialist reductionism. I have argued that Kass makes the unwarranted assumption that Descartes is the authoritative exponent for all of modern science, and that Kass ignores the ways in which Darwinian biology refutes Cartesian dualism. These posts can be found here and here.

The best study of Kass's bioethics that I have ever read is Lawrence Vogel's "Natural Law Judaism? The Genesis of Bioethics in Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass," in Hastings Center Report (May-June 2006).

I agree with the way Vogel explains Kass's bioethics as influenced by his two most important teachers--Jonas and Strauss. From Jonas, Kass derived an "existential interpretation of biological facts" that would support the lived experience of human dignity against the dehumanizing effects of modern materialism and nihilism. From Strauss, Kass derived a deep suspicion of modernity as morally corrupting and ultimately directed to nihilism. From both Jonas and Strauss, Kass derived the thought that the alternative to modernity was to be found in antiquity--either the ancient philosophic tradition of Athens or the ancient religious tradition of Jerusalem.

But as Vogel rightly points out, Kass often seems to rely more on biblical revelation than is the case for either Jonas or Strauss. Although both Jonas and Strauss invoked the wisdom of the Judaic biblical tradition, they both suggested that we could find sufficient moral guidance by a purely rational grasp of natural order. By contrast, Kass sometimes suggests that natural reason is insufficient without the aid of revealed religion. And yet, Kass is not completely clear about this, because it often appears that his reading of the Bible (and particularly Genesis) is actually guided by a philosophic understanding that distorts his reading of the scriptural text. In any case, his warnings about the dangers of biotechnology go against much of the Jewish tradition that understands human beings as "co-creators" who properly use medical technology for the service of human health and happiness. I agree with Vogel that Kass often seems to be projecting his own neoconservative bioethics onto nature and onto scripture.

I would stress one point that doesn't come up in Vogel's article. Jonas argued that modern Darwinian science denied the Cartesian separation of matter and mind and thus the materialism that comes from such a separation, because a Darwinian view of nature sees mind as an emergent phenomenon within nature. As Vogel writes, this led Jonas to conclude: "Though nature may be God's creation, there is no need to ground ontology in theology, for nature is purposive even if there is no 'purposer.' The goodness of life must speak for itself." Although Kass seemed to accept this Darwinian view of natural teleology and emergence in his book Towards a More Natural Science, he has clearly rejected this view in recent years. This explains, I think, why he is so ambiguous about whether or not biblical revelation is absolutely necessary for morality. He is not himself a pious religious believer. And yet he fears that nature as accessible to human reason (science or philosophy) cannot provide sufficient moral guidance without belief in a divinely revealed law. At times, he seems to accept Strauss's view of religion as a "noble lie" to support a morality that philosophers or scientists can know by reason alone. But at other times, he seems to yearn for a true revelation of divine will to save humanity from the nihilism that follows from a purely rational study of nature.

As I have argued on this blog, Darwinian science really does support a natural morality based on human nature and the natural moral sense. Religion can reinforce that natural morality, but religion is not absolutely required, because morality can stand on its own natural ground.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Genetics of IQ and the Declaration of Independence

The recent controversy over James Watson's comments on the lower intelligence of black Africans reminds us of one of the enduring debates over Darwinian science. If we accept Darwin's theory of evolution, we must accept the possibility that human races might have evolved to be innately different in intelligence in response to their environments of evolutionary adaptation. Modern genetics and intelligence testing suggest that this is the case, because Africans have lower average IQ scores than Europeans, who have lower scores than East Asians, and Jews have some of the highest average IQ scores. Twin studies indicate that about half of the variation in IQ is genetic. Studies suggest that these genetic differences are correlated with head size and brain size, so that genes influencing brain size could be the inherited cause of IQ differences. A good brief survey of this research has been provided recently by William Saletan in some posts for SLATE.

The moral and political problem with this research is that it seems to deny that principle of equality proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and thus it seems to subvert the moral foundations of modern republican government. Some of the religious critics of Darwinian science would say that this is exactly what they have feared: if we reject the Biblical teaching that human beings were created in God's image, and if we see human beings as products of an evolutionary process that sets some races over others, then we have no ground for affirming the equal moral dignity of all human beings.

But for a variety of reasons, this worry about Darwinian science promoting inequality and racist exploitation is unjustified. First of all, it's not clear that Biblical religion solves the problem. After all, as I have noted in various posts, the Bible actually endorses slavery, and throughout history, slaveholders have been able to justify slavery as Biblically grounded. It's not even clear that the Bible teaches the moral equality of all human beings. The Bible begins by elevating the Jews as the Chosen People over all other human beings, and it concludes in the book of Revelation by setting the people of Christ against the people of Satan in a bloody battle at the end of history.

Moreover, the Darwinian account of human nature is fully compatible with the principle of equality as understood in the Declaration of Independence. I have elaborated my reasoning for this conclusion in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature. Darwinian science justifies the claim of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln that, although human beings are naturally unequal in many respects (including intelligence), they are equal in those minimal emotional and intellectual capacities that sustain a moral sense and thus identify them as members of the human species. This understanding of human equality requires not equality as identity but equality as reciprocity: although unequal in many respects, all normal human beings will resist exploitation and demand social cooperation based on reciprocal exchange.

"This is a world of compensation; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave." "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." Thus did Lincoln capture the logic of equality supporting republican government. Human beings are unequal in many respects. But our natural resistance to exploitation is such that no normal person would consent to be a slave, and so no one can consistently seek mastery based on any principle of superiority without exposing himself to being enslaved. If superior intelligence is the ground of enslavement, Lincoln warned, then beware: you must agree to be enslaved by the first person you meet who is smarter than you.

Moreover, the debate over the nature and nurture of intelligence is complicated in ways that make it impossible for any group to claim innate superiority. James Flynn has shown that rising IQ scores over the past century indicate the complex interaction of nature and nurture in shaping intelligence. There is some genetic influence in intelligence, but a very slight influence from genetic causes is multiplied by environmental causes. This is what Flynn calls "reciprocal causation." Slight genetic differences are multiplied in certain environments in ways that mask the environmental influence. So, for example, people who are genetically inclined to be a little bit taller and quicker than average might grow up in Indiana, where playing basketball would develop their skills to a high pitch. Similarly, the environment in modern industrial societies cultivates certain kinds of cognitive skills that are partially genetic. There is a genetic influence. But it's magnified by environmental conditions.

Another problem with measuring "intelligence" quantitatively is that there are many different kinds of intelligence--practical intelligence, mathematical intelligence, verbal intelligence, emotional intelligence, musical intelligence, and so on. Different kinds of social roles might demand different kinds of intelligence. Darwinian science supports this by stressing the biological fact of individual variation. No two human beings are identical in intelligence or any other trait. Even identical twins are not really identical. As I have argued, human nature shows a universal pattern of 20 natural desires, but individuals are unique in their temperaments in how they rank or order those desires.

Republican government is not based on the principle that all human beings are equal in the sense of being identical. It is based on the principle that all human beings resist exploitation by others, and thus that no human being is good enough to govern any other person without that person's consent. Government by consent of the governed allows the ambitious few to satisfy their ambition for rule, while also allowing others to consent to their rule without being exploited.

Some other posts on this topic can be found here and here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Antony Flew's God

Antony Flew is famous as one of the leading philosophical exponents of atheism. That's why there was so much publicity a few years ago when it was reported that Flew had changed his mind and was now a religious believer.

And yet there is much confusion surrounding Flew's supposed conversion. He is now 84years old, and his mental faculties have slowed with his advanced age. There have been rumors that some evangelical Christians--such as Gary Habermas and Roy Abraham Varghese--have taken advantage of his mental state to manipulate him into professing some kind of religious belief. Now there's an article in the New York Times Magazine by Mark Oppenheimer, who has interviewed Flew at his home in England. Oppenheimer's interviews indicate that Flew cannot remember what is attributed to him in a new book--There Is A God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Oppenheimer suggests that this book was actually written by Varghese (who is identified as a co-author of the book)as a way of manipulating Flew into apparently giving up his atheism. If this article is accurate, the Christians manipulating Flew have engaged in some morally despicable behavior.

But if one compares this book with Flew's new Introduction to the 2005 edition of his book God and Philosophy, it is clear that he has undergone some change of mind. But it's a change not from atheism to theism but from atheism to deism. In his Introduction, he suggests that the scientific arguments from nature's order to God as the designer of nature support--at best--a deistic belief in "Aristotle's God" or a Spinozistic "God or Nature." He writes: "Absent revelation to the contrary, the expectations of natural reason must surely be that an omnipotent creator would be as detached and uninvolved as the gods of Epicurus" (p. 13).
In the new book, Flew speaks of his "'conversion' to deism" (p. 1). He reinterates this when he professes to believe in "Aristotle's God" (pp. 92-93).

In this new book, Flew repeats a point that he has made in earlier books, and which I have made in my books: all explanation ultimately depends on some ground that cannot be explained, and this search for the ultimate ground of explanation leads us to a choice between nature and nature's God. Either we take the order of nature as a brute fact that cannot be explained. Or we look beyond or behind nature to God as the source of nature's order. Either nature or God is the uncaused cause of the universe. I have emphasized that Darwinian science leaves us open to this fundamental question without resolving it.

Flew's book explores the arguments for why an uncaused God might be more probable than an uncaused nature. He and Varghese suggest that we need to invoke the existence of God to explain certain phenomena of our immediate experience that point to some cosmic Mind at work. The experiences of rationality, life, consciousness, conceptual thought, and the human self imply that the ultimate source of nature must be a rational, living, conscious, thinking person that is omnipotent.

Flew is clearly impressed by this kind of argumentation. But it is not evident that this has led him to any kind of theism. It does seem, however, that he agrees with Darwin that "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

Flew seems to agree with me that Darwinian science must be open to this mystery. Moreover, Flew has written a short review of Darwinian Conservatism that endorses my argument. His review can be found here.


I have posted some comments on John West's book Darwin Day in America, which can be found here and here. West's response to those posts can be found here.

As indicated in the brief publishing blurb that I wrote for ISI Press, I like the book insofar as it provides "a deep and comprehensive study of scientific materialism's morally corrupting effects on American public policy," but I don't find his attack on Darwinian science persuasive, because I don't think he shows that there is any necessary connection between Darwinian science and the crude scientific materialism that he rightly criticizes. Similarly, I liked Richard Weikart's book--From Darwin to Hitler--insofar as it provided a history of how a crude rhetoric of scientific racism was used by Hitler and the Nazis, but I objected to Weikart's attempt to tie all of this to Darwin and Darwinian science.

Like Weikart, West has responded by claiming that I am criticizing a straw man because "not everything in the book is directly tied back to Darwin." As West indicates, he does say in his Introduction (p. xvii) that Darwinism is "only one part" of the larger story of "materialistic reductionism" from Democritus to the present. But on that same page, West claims that "the work of Charles Darwin ultimately supplied the empirical basis for a robust materialism finally to take hold."

Like Weikart, West employs a rhetoric of bait and switch. He draws attention to the supposed primacy of Darwin as a source of evil policies, but then when readers ask for evidence and arguments to support this strong claim, he insists that he has never made such a claim.

Similarly, last year I wrote a post on the Discovery Institute's use of Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler. Weikart doesn't really show any direct line "from Darwin to Hitler." When I have pointed this out, Weikart has complained that this is a straw man, because it is incorrect to allege that he argues for "a straightforward 'Darwin to Hitler' thesis." But then I drew attention to the fact that in a blog post at the Discovery Institute website, Jonathan Witt said that Weikart's book shows "a straightforward path to horror" from Darwin to Hitler. After I did this, Weikart forced Witt to alter the language in his post, which can be found here. Witt carefully removed the word "straightforward" from his post and wrote about "how reasonably and logically many of the horrors documented in Weikart's book follow from Darwinian principles." But even this language is a problem for Weikart, because in his book he says that it would be "absurd" to claim "that Darwinism of logical necessity leads (directly or indirectly) to Nazism" (p. 9). I agree! But if there is no logical necessity for connecting Darwinism to Nazism--either directly or indirectly--then how can Weikart argue for the movement "from Darwin to Hitler"?

There is some good scholarship in these books by West and Weikart. But the scholarship is distorted by the public relations strategy of the Discovery Institute's "wedge document," which requires that all of the writing sponsored by the Discovery Institute advance the claim that Darwin and Darwinian science are responsible for the moral collapse of Western civilization.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Judgment Day": A PBS Show on the Dover Case

I have just seen the PBS documentary on the Dover, PA, school case on the teaching of intelligent design, a two-hour program broadcast tonight on PBS stations.

The Discovery Institute folks refused to be interviewed for this documentary. Michael Behe also refused to be interviewed.

I think Behe and the Discovery Institute are making a big mistake. As I have indicated on some previous blog posts, it's clear to me that the Dover case was a decisive defeat for the strategy of the ID movement as led by the Discovery Institute. If they cannot blunt the effect of this case, they are dead.

The PBS documentary accurately conveyed the drama, which is clear in the transcripts of the case, of three turning points: the humiliation of Michael Behe through cross-examination, the evidence from the early drafts of the book OF PANDAS AND PEOPLE, and the perjury of the Dover school board members.

Behe was not able to respond effectively when confronted with a stack of articles and books on the evolution of the immune system. He claimed that there were no evolutionary explanations of the immune system. But he could not explain why this research was not worth studying. Behe should have agreed to be interviewed for this documentary to refute this conclusion.

The Dover school board invited students to examine the book OF PANDAS AND PEOPLE for a presentation of "intelligent design theory." A subpoena of the early drafts of the manuscript of the book indicated that the publisher had meticulously replaced all references to the work of "the Creator" with references to "the intelligent designer," and this happened after a Supreme Court decision declaring that teaching "creation science" was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. So here was blatant evidence that "intelligent design" was just a fraudulent disguise for biblical "creationism." The whole strategy of "intelligent design" as pure science and not religious was blown apart by this evidence. The people at the Discovery Institute should have agreed to be interviewed to respond to this evidence.

The school board members in Dover promoting intelligent design lied under oath about how the copies of OF PANDAS AND PEOPLE were purchased. Originally, they said they did not know how this has happened. But eventually, it was revealed that the books were purchased by contributions taken up at a local church by school board members. This deception seriously undermined their case. After all, here are Christians willing to lie under oath to advance their cause!

From the beginning, the Discovery Institute realized that they had a losing case. That's why they withdrew from the case. But this has been such a disaster for the intelligent design movement that their refusal to answer the questions it raises only hurts their cause.

One sees here the fundamental flaw in the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute and the other proponents of intelligent design theory as an alternative to Darwinian science. The main idea in their rhetoric is that intelligent design is not the same as biblical creationism, because intelligent design is science rather than religion, and therefore introducing intelligent design into biology classes in the public schools is not an unconstitutional "establishment of religion." The problem with this strategy, however, became clear in the Dover case: the parents and school board members who argue for teaching "intelligent design" will almost always be creationists using "intelligent design" as a cover for creationism. Once this is made clear, as it was in the Dover case, the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute collapses.

So what should the Discovery Institute have done in the Dover case? They should have offered their expert witnesses as support for the ACLU's case against the Dover school board policy. Their witnesses could have testified that it is fraudulent to use "intelligent design" as a cover for creationism. They could have argued that intelligent design proponents like Michael Behe have actually dismissed the idea of using the Bible as a science textbook as "silly." Moveover, Behe endorses the scientific theory of evolution by common descent with human beings evolving from primate ancestors, which contradicts the creationist view that human beings were "specially" created by God with no primate ancestors. Even now, the Discovery Institute could try to repair the damage from the Dover case by actively campaigning against any claim that creationism is science.

The problem, of course, is that if they were to do this, they would be driving a wedge between intelligent design and creationism that would alienate their creationist supporters, for whom "intelligent design" really is just a cover for "creation."

Some of my other posts on Behe and the Dover case can be found here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Strong Reciprocity and the Darwinian Left

Can there be a "Darwinian left"?

In Darwinian Conservatism and elsewhere, I have argued that a "Darwinian left"--such as that proposed by Peter Singer--is incoherent, because a Darwinian understanding of human nature denies the left's utopian belief in human perfectibility.

But at a recent Liberty Fund conference on "The Evolution of Moral Sentiments," I was led to think through this issue once again. At the conference, we read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and a book collection of papers edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr--Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (MIT Press, 2005). The authors in the Gintis et al. book criticize the conception of Homo economicus--the assumption that most human beings most of the time act as rational egoists who maximize their selfish interests. While recognizing that human beings are naturally selfish, these authors insist that human beings are also naturally social beings. They contend that experimental research in game theory has falsified the predictions of the Homo economicus model, because while a substantial proportion of people (20-30%) do behave as rational egoists in these game theory experiments, a larger proportion act as "strong reciprocators," who cooperate as long as they think others are cooperating, and who punish cheaters who violate the norms of cooperation. This seems, then, to confirm Adam Smith's view of human nature as moved both by "moral sentiments" and by "material interests."

Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles were once well known as Marxist economics professors at the University of Massachusetts. They no longer identify themselves as Marxists, presumably because of the discouraging failure of Marxist utopias around the world. But one can still see some of the moral passion of Marxism in their writing and the writing of others in their book. The attack on Homo economicus and the insistence that human beings can learn to cooperate based on moral norms of communal sharing are familiar expressions of Marxist passion. Darwinian science seems to support this by showing how the moral sentiments arise by natural evolution, and particularly by genetic and cultural group selection. Here Gintis, Bowles, and others follow the lead of Peter Singer who has argued that a Darwinian conception of cooperation as rooted in evolved human nature could support leftist thinking.

In a paper on "Reciprocity in the Welfare State," Fong, Bowles, and Gintis argue that the modern welfare state is supported by the natural morality of reciprocity as long as people perceive that welfare recipients are deserving of aid and not undeserving free riders. The reforms of welfare programs in the 1990s show the disposition to design welfare programs that benefit the deserving poor while punishing the undeserving. Supporting prudent welfare state measures expresses a moral community of shared concern based on strong reciprocity.

At the conclusion of their paper, they quote from Friedrich Hayek: "the demand for a just distribution . . . is . . . an atavism, based on primordial emotions. And it is these widely prevalent feelings to which prophets and moral philosophers . . . appeal by their plans for the deliberate creation of a new type of society" (297). But while Fong, Bowles, and Gintis think it is good for us to evoke those "primordial emotions" of justice, Hayek warned against the pursuit of a "just society" as a threat to the "free society," because "social justice" would require a centrally planned allocation of resources based on merit that would destroy freedom. The proponents of the theory of strong reciprocity in the Gintis book seem to reject Hayek's position, because they seem to say that a free society requires norms of justice based on reciprocity.

But here is where Darwinian conservatives should insist on distinctions between different levels of social order. We need state coercion to enforce a constitutional framework of law within which civil society and free markets are possible. But to secure liberty we need to minimize state coercion. We might need a minimal welfare state to provide some security for individuals who might become unfairly deprived through no fault of their own. But generally we will rely on the spontaneous orders of civil society and free markets to secure our social and economic needs.

After all, even the proponents of strong reciprocity are not arguing for fully enforcing reciprocity through state coercion. Rather, they are arguing--as in Elinor Ostrom's chapter in the Gintis book--that we need "complex polycentric systems" that combine "public governance" (state coercion), "private markets," and "community governance." This is illustrated by Ostrom's account of how common pool resources can be best managed by local groups that spontaneously develop and enforce their own norms (as in irrigation systems managed by farmers themselves rather than bureaucratic experts).

Isn't this compatible with Hayek's position? We can enforce norms of reciprocal justice in social groups at the local level while leaving markets to function freely in coordinating exchange across the larger community. The state enforces a constitutional framework of law within which these local communal groups and impersonal free markets can work. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments assumes that the moral sentiments arise spontaneously in social life with minimal reliance on governmental coercion. So we could say that Hayek's "free society" needs the strong reciprocity of moral sentiments as sustaining the moral community that makes freedom possible, but this moral community would be understood as arising in civil society from the bottom up rather than being constructed from the top down by state coercion and central planning.

Hayek recognizes this point in The Constitution of Liberty (62)when he notes the importance of moral rules enforced as "conventions and customs of human intercourse": "Coercion . . . may sometimes be avoidable only because a high degree of voluntary conformity exists, which means that voluntary conformity may be a condition of a beneficial working of freedom. It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles."

The Darwinian explanation of how the natural moral sense arises from evolved human nature supports this conception of morality enforced by voluntary conformity. A good society will cultivate those conditions of free association in which the moral norms of cooperation can emerge spontaneously as conventions or customs of social life. In this way, a "free society" is also a "just society."

This reliance on morality as an unintended, emergent social order based on individuals learning to voluntarily conform their behavior to social norms goes against the leftist tradition of rationalist constructivism. If the left is willing to give up its utopian vision of perfecting human nature through top-down central planning and state coercion, then there might be something like a "Darwinian left." But as Peter Singer has conceded, this would be "a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved." In fact, it would look a lot like Darwinian conservatism.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Debate with John West in Seattle

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is sponsoring a debate on Darwinian conservatism between me and John West. The debate will be in Seattle at Seattle Pacific University, November 15, at 7:30 pm in Demaray Hall 150.

I have written a number of blog posts in response to West's book Darwin's Conservatives, which is a detailed critique of my Darwinian Conservatism.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Behavioral Game Theory and Smith's Moral Philosophy

Adam Smith is famous for his remark in The Wealth of Nations about how "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from a regard to their interest." This suggests that Smith would support the idea common in neoclassical economics that human beings are predominantly rational egoists who maximize their selfish interests. But then Smith is also famous for his teaching in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that no matter how selfish human beings might be, they are still moved by some fellow-feeling or sympathy with other human beings, so that they share in one another's pleasures and pains, and this is the ground of morality as rooted in moral sentiments that show a concern for others and for how we appear to others.

A lot of the scholarly commentary on Smith turns on the debate as to whether these two positions of Smith are contradictory or compatible. I agree with those who conclude that they are compatible because they manifest a complex view of human nature as both self-regarding and other-regarding. We are selfish animals who care for ourselves. But we are also social animals who care for others. Smith's social science is an attempt to account for that complex human nature that is both selfish and social. As selfish animals, we are inclined to exploit others for our own selfish advancement. But as social animals, we are capable of cooperating for the good of the group.

How do we decide the truth or falsity of Smith's position? It often seems that in moral and political philosophy, we must try to judge the relative plausibility of various positions without any possibility of experimental testing such as we find in the natural sciences. But there are ways of introducing experimental research into moral and political philosophy, and one is to employ behavioral game theory. In fact, the general movement in behavioral game theory research today is to confirm Smith's complex conception of human nature.

Almost 50 years of game theory experimentation has produced results that contradict the narrow conception of human beings as purely or predominantly rational egoists. For example, in the "ultimatum game," we can give some amount of money--say, $100--to a "proposer" who is asked to propose a split with a "responder" who is free to accept or reject the proposed split. If the responder accepts the offer, the split occurs. But if the responder rejects the offer, neither one gets any of the money. If the participants were rational egoists, then the proposer would offer $1 and keep $99 for himself, while the responder would accept this, because $1 is better than nothing. But this is not exactly what happens. Most proposers will offer something close to a 50/50 split, which is accepted. Those 15-25% of the proposers who offer an unfair split will usually have their offer rejected. This pattern of behavior has been replicated consistently, even across diverse societies around the world (with some cultural variation). It suggests that a substantial minority of people really are rational egoists. But a majority of people are "strong reciprocators" who are conditional cooperators (cooperating with others as long as they think others are cooperating) and altruistic punishers (punishing those who violate the norms of cooperation). Those who reject unfair proposals in the ultimatum game are willing to bear a cost to punish unfairness.

Other kinds of games--"dictator games," "public goods" games, "trust" games, and "charity" games--show a similar pattern of behavior. Much of this research is surveyed in Herbert Gintis, et al., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (MIT Press, 2005). The authors in that book conclude that this experimental research provides scientific support for Smith's understanding of human beings as other-regarding animals whose selfishness is checked by their concern for others.

As the authors in the Gintis book indicate, experimental game theory research needs to be combined with other kinds of research. We might wonder about "experimenter effects" in game-theory experiments: Are these rather contrived games creating behavior that we would not see in "real-world" behavior. But when this experimentation is combined with evolutionary theories of cooperation supported by historical, ethnographic, statistical, and other kinds of empirical research, we can gain growing confidence in our conclusion that human beings are by nature "strong reciprocators" whose motivations conform to Smith's account of human beings as guided both by the moral sentiments and by material interests.

This kind of work would support the sort of interdisciplinary research required for Darwinian political science. We need to explain the political universals of human behavior as reflecting our ambivalent nature as both self-regarding and other-regarding animals. We then need to explain how this ambivalent human nature is expressed in the cultural history of political institutions. And, finally, we need to explain how individual political judgments of political actors show the contingency and uncertainty of political history as constrained by both the genetic evolution of political universals and the social evolution of political cultures. So, for example, we might explain the history of American constitutionalism as a search for institutional structures to channel the ambivalent motivations of human beings so that they can cooperate for the common good, but without expecting them to become perfectly altruistic. And that constitutional history will reflect both the cultural history of constitutional republicanism and the individual history of political actors who must judge what should be done in particular circumstances.

This debate over whether human beings are predominantly rational egoists or strong reciprocators has implications for the possibility of liberty, and thus it's a crucial issue for Darwinian conservatives. Sometimes, it is said that conservative political thought is Hobbesian in its pessimistic assessment of human nature. But this is wrong. Conservatives are not utopians, because they recognize the imperfectibility of human nature, and part of that imperfectibility is the power of self-interest in motivating human behavior. But to assume--as Hobbes does--that human beings are by nature rational egoists and nothing more is contrary to conservative thought, because this Hobbesian view of human nature would say that there is no natural basis for morality. In this respect, Hobbes prepares the way for Kant, for whom morality requires a transcendence of Hobbesian human nature. The Hobbesian conception of human beings as rational egoists would also subvert the case for liberty, because it suggests that the only way for individuals to solve collective action problems is coercive central planning by a Leviathan state. By contrast, conservatives assume that human beings are naturally social animals who are capable of solving collective action problems by establishing norms of trust and reciprocity, and punishing those rational egoists who violate such norms.

Some good illustrations of this point come out in the chapter by Elinor Ostrom in the Gintis et al. book. It has been common for public policy analysts to assume that the management of common pool resources--for example, fisheries, grazing lands, and irrigation systems--requires a national bureaucracy to enforce a top-down plan for the efficient management of resources. But Ostrom's research has shown that local communities can develop their own arrangements for collective management of common resources that are far more effective than any bureaucratically devised and enforced plan.

Here we see the superiority of Hayekian spontaneous order over bureaucratic central planning. The possibility of such spontaneous order assumes a natural human disposition to cooperation based on reciprocity and trust, as well as moralistic punishment of cheaters. This rests on a view of human nature that is neither cynical nor utopian but Darwinian in its realism.

Some of these issues will be discussed in a few days at a Liberty Fund conference in Charleston, South Carolina, that I am directing. We will be reading selections from Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments along with the book edited by Gintis, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests. From my experience, Liberty Fund conferences are a wonderful way to explore such topics with a great collection of people.  This group includes a Nobel-Prize-winning economist (Vernon Smith), a distinguished evolutionary biologist (David Sloan Wilson), a leading scholar of Adam Smith (Ryan Hanley), and a prominent libertarian journalist (Ron Bailey).   It also helps to have lots of good food and drink in a beautiful location.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Five Sexes?

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. The legislation has provoked a debate between gay-rights activists who support the bill and transgender activists who oppose it. Originally, the bill had language protecting people who are born one sex but live as another sex. This language was removed to enhance the chances of passage. Protecting gay rights is more popular than protecting transgender rights.

The idea of being "transgender"--being neither male nor female or passing from one to the other--would seem to challenge my claim that "sexual identity" is one of the 20 natural desires. Here is how I describe it in Darwinian Conservatism (28): "Human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female. Sex is the single most important characteristic of personal identity. It is the first question we ask about a newborn infant. It is the first thing we notice about a person and the last thing we forget. In all human societies, sex terminology is fundamentally dualistic. Male and female are the basic sexes. Others are either a combination of the basic sexes (hermaphrodites) or a crossover from one to the other (men who act as women or women who act as men). All human societies have some sexual division of labor. And although different societies assign somewhat different sex roles, there are some recurrent differences that manifest a universal bipolarity in the pattern of human desires. For example, women in general (on average) tend to be more nurturing as manifested in a greater propensity to care for children, and men in general (on average) tend to be more dominant as manifested in a greater propensity to seek high-status positions. Yet while this average difference is true for most men and women, for some it is not: some women have manly desires, and some men have womanly desires."

One should notice that even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female, I recognize the variation from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites who combine both sexes or those who cross from one to the other--as well as the manifestation of manly women and womanly men. One dramatic way to speak of this variation would be to consider Anne Fausto-Sterling's claim in a famous article that there are actually five human sexes. In addition to males and females, there are three other sexes. True hermaphrodites ("herms") have one testis and one ovary, and they might have a vagina with a large clitoris that at puberty grows to the size of a penis. Female pseudohermaphrodites ("ferms") have ovaries and female chromosomes (XX), but they might have beards, what looks like a penis, and other apparently masculine traits. Male pseudohermaphrodites ("merms") have testes and male chromosomes (XY), but they might have a vagina, a clitoris, and breasts. In fact, there is a long history of intersexuality that can now be explained as products of biological disorders.

This phenomenon of intersexual ambiguity creates legal and moral problems. For some time, doctors have advised parents with intersexual infants to authorize surgical and hormonal treatments to force sexually ambiguous infants to look more clearly male or female. Fausto-Sterling argues that this is an attempt to force a culturally constructed sexual dualism on a biological nature that resists such dualism. She recommends that children should be free to grow up as intersexuals, and then at the age of reason, they can decide for themselves whether they want medical treatment to assign them more clearly to one sex or the other.

What we see here is an ambiguity about nature recognized by Aristotle in his biological works. Aristotle studied the natural causes that created hermaphrodites (History of Animals, 589b30-90a5; Generation of Animals, 770a25-71a15). In one sense, he reasoned, hermaphrodites are "contrary to nature," because they deviate from what naturally happens "for the most part." But in another sense, hermaphrodites are "natural," because they arise from natural causes. So it is natural for human beings to have a sexual identity that is either male or female. But the biological nature of sexual differentiation sometimes deviates from this central tendency.

Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter of cultural tradition and prudential judgment. But the fact that biological nature throws up such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Problem of Free Will and John West

A few weeks ago, I posted a statement on John West's new book--Darwin Day in America. I indicated that I thought the book was a good survey of the bad effects of a crude scientific materialism in some areas of American public policy. But I also explained why West's attempt to trace this crude scientific materialism back to Darwin was implausible. I wrote a blurb for the publisher (ISI Books) praising the book, while also indicating my disagreement with West's attack on Darwinian science. Now, the Discovery Institute has set up a website for the book, which quotes my blurb. People who know about my continuing debate with West (on this blog and elsewhere) have questioned me as to why I wrote the blurb. My answer is laid out in my post of September 16th.

West's new book is designed to carry out the original "wedge strategy" of the Discovery Institute. A copy of the "wedge document" can be found here. As Barbara Forest and Paul Gross show in their book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, this document was prepared in 1998 as a secret plan for the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. West was one of the original founders of the Center, and he is now the Associate Director. As the wedge document indicates, the Center was established to lead a public relations strategy that would transform modern culture by defeating scientific materialism and reviving the traditional religious conception of human beings as created in God's image. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud were identified as the major sources of the scientific materialism that would have to be defeated. But Darwin has become the primary enemy for those following the wedge strategy.

West's Darwin Day in America carries out that strategy by claiming that all of the bad consequences of scientific materialism come from Charles Darwin. What's good about West's book is his broad survey of the deleterious effects of scientific materialism on American public policy. But what's bad about the book is his ridiculously contrived efforts at connecting all of this to Darwin.

Consider, for example, Chapter 3 of the book--"Criminal Science." The chapter opens with Clarence Darrow's famous argument that to hold Leopold and Loeb fully responsible for their murder would be unscientific in denying the scientific knowledge that all human behavior is determined by heredity and environment. West then shows how such shallow reasoning corrupted much of the putatively scientific criminology of the twentieth century.

But where's the connection to Darwin? Well, West establishes the connection with one sentence: "In his notebooks, Charles Darwin struggled with the serious consequences that scientific materialism posed for free will and responsibility, but for the most part he chose to keep his misgivings to himself." That's it! That one sentence is all that West ever says about Darwin in this chapter. He never even explains exactly why and how Darwin "struggled" with "free will and responsibility." Nor does West ever explain or defend his own conception of "free will."

In Darwinian Natural Right (83-87), I have defended a conception of "natural freedom" as compatible with a Darwinian naturalism in accounting for moral responsibility. West doesn't respond to such a conception.

In his notebooks, Darwin endorsed the idea that "every action whatever is the effect of a motive," and for that reason he doubted the existence of "free will." Our motives arise from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, and external conditions. Still, although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, Darwin believes, we are morally responsible for our actions because of our uniquely human capacity for reflecting on our motives and circumstances and acting in the light of those reflections. As he wrote in The Descent of Man, "a moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals."

If "free will" means "uncaused cause," then God is the only being with "free will," because whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from all eternity could be uncaused or undetermined. So instead of attributing "free will" to human beings, we should say that human beings have the moral freedom to act as one chooses, regardless of the cause of the choice. (Here I am following the reasoning of Jonathan Edwards.)

I agree with Aristotle, who never speaks of "free will." Aristotle believes we hold people responsible for their actions when they act voluntarily and deliberately. They act voluntarily when they act knowingly and without external force to satisfy their desires. They act with deliberate choice when, having weighed one desire against another in the light of past experience and future expectations, they choose that course of action likely to satisfy their desires harmoniously over a complete life. Such deliberation is required for "virtue in the strict sense," although most human beings most of the time act by impulse and habit with little or no deliberation.

Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action. But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice. Thus, for Aristotle, being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible, one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. One must do this to become happy as a human being, which is the ultimate end of all human action.

This Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding of moral responsibility is supported by a modern scientific understanding of human nature. In Darwinian Conservatism, I indicate how modern neuroscience might explain the emergence of human freedom through the evolution of the primate brain.

West doesn't explain what's wrong with such a naturalistic understanding of human moral freedom. Nor does he explain how he would defend a conception of "free will" as "uncaused cause." It seems that thinking through such things is not part of the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy."

Friday, October 05, 2007

Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Chimpanzee Natural Law

Quoting Ulpian, Thomas Aquinas declared that "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." Developing this thought, his account of natural moral law as rooted in natural inclinations draws ideas from Aristotle's biology and from Albert the Great's elaboration of Aristotle's biology. Although there is no idea of Darwinian evolution in this biology, the reasoning about natural moral law as rooted in biological inclinations is similar to Darwin's explanation of the natural moral sense.

Against this Thomistic/Darwinian naturalism, much of modern moral philosophy has adopted a Kantian dualism that views morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of freedom beyond nature. Heidegger manifested this Kantian tradition in dismissing natural law as "biologism." Contemporary Heideggerian existentialists like Peter Lawler continue this tradition by insisting that the transcendental freedom of human beings make them all "aliens" in the universe. Hans Jonas identified this tradition of thought as essentially Gnostic, and he saw that Darwinian science refuted Gnostic dualism.

Under the influence of Aristotle's biology, Thomas concluded that, although only human beings act from "free" judgment, other animals act from "estimative" judgment about what will satisfy their desires. Thus all animals have a natural capacity for practical judgment that shows a certain "participation in prudence and reason" and a certain "likeness of moral good" (ST, I, q. 83, a. 1; q. 96, a. 1; I-II, q. 11, a. 2; q. 24, a. 4; q. 40, a. 3). The influence of this biological psychology on the Thomistic understanding of natural law is evident in the account of marriage in the Supplement to the Summa Theologica (q. 41, a. 1; q. 54, a. 3; q. 65, a. 1-3; q. 67, a. 1).

Thomas explains that something can be natural to human beings in different ways (ST, II-II, q. 46, a. 5; q. 51, a. 1; q. 63, a. 1). The natural dispositions can be considered either as generic (shared with other animals), or as specific (shared with other human beings), or as temperamental (the unique traits of human individuals). This trichotomy of the natural dispositions comes from Aristotle's theory of biological inheritance (Generation of Animals, 767b24-69b31).

So although human politics is uniquely human, we might still learn something about the natural roots of politics by looking at chimpanzee politics. This would be in the tradition of Thomas and Albert (Thomas's teacher at the University of Paris). Albert wrote a massive survey of the whole field of zoology, building upon Aristotle's biology. Albert's work in biological science was part of his larger project to vindicate the scientific study of natural causal laws through reason, observation, and experimentation. The end result of this was to establish science as a source of knowledge independent of theology. Albert stressed the uniqueness of human beings as the only animals endowed with the powers of intellect and speech. Yet he also observed that other animals "are not entirely without the power of thought," which shows that nature "progresses gradually through many intermediates." Some nonhuman animals do have "experiential knowledge" that manifests "a sort of prudence" and a "capacity for instruction," which thus shows that these animals have at least "a shadow of reason." Many animals have some "estimative power" by which, while deciding how they should act to satisfy their desires, they judge the intentions of other animals. The most intelligent of the nonhuman animals are simians--monkeys and apes--and pygmies, which belong to a species that is intermediate between simians and humans. The simians and pygmies, Albert says, show a "human likeness beyond all other animals," and "seem to have something like reason." (All my references are to the translation of Albert's zoological work published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999.)

Albert also observed that as political animals, human beings are like other social animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes. Human society is unique, however, insofar as it can be based on formal laws or customary rules formualted deliberately by reason. Similarly, ethics in the strict sense is uniquely human to the extent tht it requires some rational deliberation in formulating a plan of how to live. Albert notes, however, that some other animals do exhibit "some natural inclination to a likeness of virtue," because their natural instincts and cognitive capacities incline them to act according to a "plan of life." On each of these points, Albert reiterates a biological teaching of Aristotle that is later adopted by Thomas.

Despite this, many of the most influential scholarly commentators on Thomas give little attention to the biological foundation of Thomas's understanding of natural law. John Finnis, for example, has led a recent revival of interest in Thomistic natural law, yet he largely ignores the importance of biological reasoning in Thomas's account. Finnis's natural law is actually "natural law without nature," because he accepts the Kantian dualism of natural law and moral freedom. In contrast to those like Finnis, I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre that the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition of ethical naturalism is rooted in a biological understanding of human nature that has been confirmed by modern Darwinian biology. MacIntyre makes this point in his Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Machiavellian Biopolitics of Assassination and Conspiracy

It appears for now that the military dictators of Burma have suppressed the public protests against their rule led by Buddhist monks. But now there are reports that the rebel groups in the countryside are plotting to overcome their ethnic differences so that they can successfully launch an assault on the government.

This is a reminder of how political rule depends ultimately on violence and military force. And although the appeal to violence might seem to favor tyrannical rule, just the opposite is true. Tyrants are more vulnerable to violent attacks than are rulers with some claim to justice. This is as true for chimpanzee politics as it is for human politics.

Studies of chimpanzee groups both in captivity and in the wild show that becoming the dominant ruler or alpha male is not just a matter of physical strength. Dominant chimps must have the personality traits that allow them to manage the complex social life of a chimpanzee society. When adult males are fighting for dominance, their fights are ritualized through bluffing displays that minimize violence, even though the canine teeth of an adult male are powerful enough to kill with one bite. But the threat of physical violence is always there, and both Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall have reported a few cases of lethal violence in fights for dominance.

The same is true for human beings fighting for political dominance. The fighting can generally be ritualized in ways that prevent actual violence. But the threat of violence runs throughout political life.

The longest chapters in Machiavelli's Prince (ch. 19)and his Discourses (III, 6) are on the danger that princes face when--being hated by their people--they are exposed to conspiracies, and particularly conspiracies for assassination. In fact, these chapters are actually little treatises on how to assassinate or otherwise conspire against tyrants. This explains why Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, coauthored with Voltaire a book--Anti-Machiavel--attacking Machiavelli's Prince as a handbook for regicide.

There is some empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that tyrannical leaders who become hated are more likely to suffer a bad end than are democratic leaders. Arnold Ludwig's book King of the Mountain (2002)supports the claim of Aristotle and Darwin that male dominance of politics is rooted in human biological nature. He argues that the male desire to be the supreme political ruler expresses the same biological propensities that support the dominance of alpha males among monkeys and apes. He develops his argument through a meticulous analysis of the 1,941 chief executive rulers of the independent countries in the twentieth century. He illustrates his points with anecdotes from the lives of the 377 rulers for whom he had extensive biographical information. He shows that the struggle for social dominance is a "dangerous game" (chap. 4). A tyrant is much more likely to be victimized by assassination plots or to be overthrown by violence than is a leader of an established democracy. "Tyrants, by far, are most likely to suffer a bad outcome, with half of them being deposed, one-fifth being ousted after having lost a war or being voted out of office, and another 15 percent being assassinated or executed. That is a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket" (120).

As Machiavelli indicated, the history of politics is largely determined by the history of war and violence. But this harsh reality of political violence does not necessarily favor tyranny, because tyrants who become hated are likely to be assassinated, executed, or overthrown. This favors republican or democratic politics. For example, the execution of Charles I in 1649, which opened the way for the English Republic, was a dramatic illustration of how popular violence can check the power of a tyrant. Similarly, the American and French Revolutions showed the vulnerability of would-be tyrants to revolutionary violence.

Republican institutions supporting limited government are designed to so limit power that recourse to political violence will be minimized. But when political conflicts of interest and principle become so deep that persuasion cannot resolve the dispute, then there is no final settlement except by force of arms--as was the case, for example, in the American Civil War.

A Darwinian political science recognizes that political order always rests on a natural rivalry for power and dominance that must be resolved either by persuasion or by force.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Utopianism of David Wilson and Herbert Spencer

My fundamental argument for Darwinian conservatism is that Darwinian science generally supports conservatives in their realist view of human imperfectibility, in contrast to the utopian view of human perfectibility that tends to run through leftist thought. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of utopianism coming from Herbert Spencer that is often associated with Darwinian evolution. One can see some of that Spencerian utopianism in the writing of David Sloan Wilson. (A previous post on Spencer can be found here. A previous post on Wilson can be found here.)

Spencer foresaw an evolutionary trend towards completely harmonious cooperation in a "social organism" that would embrace all of humanity. This would bring about the transformation of human nature into a state of perfection in a stateless anarchy with perpetual peace.

There are some intimations of a similar utopian progressivism in Wilson's Evolution for Everyone. Although I generally agree with Wilson, I am not persuaded by the utopian elements in his writing. Like Spencer, Wilson defends a theory of group selection based on the idea of the "social organism"--the idea that a social group can become as harmoniously cooperative as an organic body. This can easily be pushed towards the sort of perfectionist utopianism that one sees in Spencer.

For example, Wilson's chapter on "The Egalitarian Ape" in Evolution for Everyone suggests that human groups can become so egalitarian that no individual has more authority than another. To support this conclusion, he looks to the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer groups, he appeals to Chris Boehm's conception of how a "reverse dominance hierarchy" can enforce equality, and he contrasts human egalitarianism with "despotic chimp society."

There are problems with this reasoning. Hunter-gatherers are not completely without leaders or conflicts over dominance. If they appear to be egalitarian, it's only because their resistance to exploitative dominance inclines them to punish individuals who become too pushy in their dominance. Wilson quotes from Richard Lee's studies of the !Kung San in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. But he does not quote Lee's comments on "patterns of leadership" among the !Kung (see Lee, THE !KUNG SAN [1979], 343-50, 457-61). Wilson concedes this point later in his book when he writes: "The balance of power is never equal in real villages. Some members are always better than others in their physical prowess, intelligence, or experience. . . . Powerful members of villages who demonstrate their good intentions are rewarded with leadership, whole those who throw their weight around are shunned and excluded" (292).

The same is true for chimps. Although Wilson claims that Frans de Waal has shown the "despotism" of chimp society, de Waal actually contrasts the "egalitarian dominance" style of chimps and the "despotic dominance" style of rhesus monkeys. Dominant male chimps must serve the good of their group, and they are punished by their group when they don't. This supports de Waal's argument that there is an evolutionary logic behind limited government based on checks and balances: even as we allow ambitious individuals to pursue their dominance drive, we can check and channel that dominance to satisfy the desire of the many to be free from exploitative dominance.

Like Spencer, Wilson foresees that international relations will evolve towards peaceful cooperation. He sees the emergence of a "global village" based on a "shared value system." But he is vague as to what this "shared value system" would be, how it would be enforced, and whether it could really secure perpetual peace.

In contrast to Spencer and Wilson, I think that Darwinian science supports a realist conception of human nature that makes conflicts of interests unavoidable. This supports a tragic view of the human condition in which some conflicts cannot be resolved except by force. That's why war is inevitable. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. I agree with Wilson about the importance of evolution by group selection. But I would stress that group-selected cooperation will always be weakened by competition both within and between groups, so that the best we can achieve is to maintain a tense balance of competition and cooperation.