Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chimpanzee Political Science

In Darwinian Conservatism (pp. 79-84), I write about the "Darwinian politics of chimpanzees and human beings," particularly as it helps us to understand dominance hierarchies among primates and the need for a "balance of power" to avoid despotic dominance.

Most people--and certainly most political scientists--would ridicule the idea that we can understand anything important about human politics from comparing the behavior of human beings and chimps. Most political scientists assume that human beings are so radically unique in their political behavior that comparisons with other primates is fruitless, if not downright silly. But I believe there are important commonalities across the primate species in their propensities to dominance and deference, so that we learn something about the biological roots of politics by seeing human status hierarchies as manifesting patterns shared with other primates.

I would even go so far as to assert that if political science ever becomes a science, it will be a Darwinian science of political animals. Such a political science would be the scientific study of political life across all the species that show political behavior, and especially those primate species most closely related to human beings.

As I argue in Chapter 3 of Darwinian Natural Right, this conception of political science as the study of all political animals--nonhuman as well as human--began with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, some animals are solitary and others gregarious. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not. The distinguishing characteristic of the political animals is that they cooperate for some common work or function. Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense.

Aristotle believes human beings are more political, however, than these animals because of the uniquely human capacity for language. Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good. Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive that is possible for other animals. Through speech human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" as the criterion of justice (Rhetoric, 1362a15-63b5). A just political community can be judged to be one that sereves the common advantage of all its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its ruling group (Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a13-14; Politics, 1279a17-19).

Darwinian biology and the study of primate social systems essentially confirm Aristotle's insights. Although Aristotle did not identify chimpanzees as political animals, he did recognize that the apes were closely related to human beings, because the apes "share in the nature of both man and the quadrupeds," and he supported this with extensive anatomical comparisons of monkeys, apes, and human beings in his biological works.

Despite the common assumption that dominance structures among nonhuman animals are determined purely by physical combat and the rule of the stronger over the weaker, chimpanzees show a primate tendency towards forming dominance structures cooperatively and peacefully rather than through violent competition. Although physical strength is important, the dominance of an alpha male depends on forming coalitions with other adult males and winning the support of the females and the children. (This is made clear in the writings of Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall.)

The tendency to form face-to-face groups organized around a structure of dominance and deference is evident across the primate species, including human beings. A good survey of the evidence for this is Allan Mazur's book Biosociology of Dominance and Deference (2005). But even as he shows the commonality of human beings and other primates in their dominance hierarchies, Mazur also shows the uniqueness of human beings in their capacity for language.

When human beings acquired the capacity for language about 200,000 years ago--perhaps because of the evolution of a few genes supporting neural mechanisms for speech--they then had a capacity for complex cultural learning far surpassing the other primates. Then, with the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, the warmer climate provided the conditions for the development of agriculture--with domestication of plants and animals. This allowed for a settled urban existence rather than the unsettled, hunting-gathering way of life of the earliest human ancestors. Human beings could then live in large civizations with millions of people, and they could use language to elaborate cultural rules of formal organization and socioeconomic stratification. Such formal and socioeconomic hierarchies are not found among nonhuman primates.

But even in such civilizations, human beings still show the same face-to-face dominance hierarchies that they share with other primates. The functioning of large organizations depends upon the behavior of small groups within the organization that structure themselves through face-to-face interaction.

Although the formal, bureaucratic structure of government transcends anything found among nonhuman primates, political rivalry as the competition for control of the government shows the same pattern of dominance contests that human beings share with other primates. Sometimes that rivalry for dominance is violent--as in wars, revolutions, and assasinations. But in a stable political community, most of the political rivalry for power can be channelled peacefully through institutional procedures such as elections and debate.

The comparative study of chimpanzee and human politics should show us that in every community there will be a few people with a strong dominance drive that can become despotic if their ambition is not checked by the ambition of others. That's why I defend balanced and limited government as a fundamental principle of "Darwinian conservatism."

The fundamental insight of conservative constitutionalism is that because power-seeking is rooted in human nature, the power of one person or group can only be controlled by the power of another. Conservatives reject the principle of sovereignty--the idea that in any social order there must be some one supreme power. Instead, conservatives defend the principle of countervailance--the idea that social order can arise from a network of independent entities that check and balance one another. To secure liberty, it is not enough that the people be sovereign, because any power that is sovereign will be abused. That's the lesson of the French Revolution, which brought about the popular election of Napoleon as Imperial Emperor. Liberty requires a system of limited government based on countervailing powers.

This principle of balance is manifested in chimpanzee groups in which the alpha male is checked by the power of others. But human beings can use language to elaborate this principle of balance as a constitutional regime that allows the ambitious few to fill the highest offices while protecting the multitude of people from being exploited by those ruling few. And thus, as Aristotle suggested, human beings can devise constituional arrangements for promoting the common good of all rather than just the private interests of the few.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lectures for Philadelphia Society and AEI

On April 28, I will be lecturing at the national meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Philadelphia. My lecture will be entitled "Darwinian Conservatism as the New Fusionism." I will elaborate some points I have made on this blog about how Darwinian conservatism could support a fusion of libertarian and traditionalist principles in conservative thought. John West will be on the same program to debate me.

On May 3, West and I will continue our debate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. On the side of anti-Darwinism, West will be joined by George Gilder. On the side of defending Darwinism, I will be joined by John Derbyshire.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Incest and Human Kin Detection

Previously, I have written a post on the incest taboo, which can be found
here. My argument is that the moral abhorrence aroused by incest is one of the clearest examples of a moral judgment that can be explained as rooted in human evolutionary nature. We are naturally inclined to abhor sex with those with whom we have been raised, and this natural propensity was probably shaped in evolutionary history as a mechanism to avoid the deleterious effects of inbreeding. Edward Westermarck elaborated this Darwinian account of the incest taboo, and a wide range of evidence supports it.

Now we have an article in the February 15th issue of the British science journal Nature that adds more evidence and reasoning in favor of the Westermarck hypothesis. The article is Debra Lieberman, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides, "The Architecture of Human Kin Selection." The abstract of the article can be found here.

At the University of California at Santa Barbara, Debra Lieberman conducted studies of over 600 students, measuring their reactions to sibling incest and sibling altruism. (I first met Debra in 1998 in Helsinki, Finland, at a conference on Westermarck; and I have been following her work ever since.) From these studies, she concludes that human beings have an evolved system for detecting genetic relatedness. Older children identify younger children as their siblings if the younger children have been associated with their mother from birth. Younger children identify older children as their siblings if they have lived together over a long time. Lieberman discovered that these kin detection cues were correlated with feeling disgust at sibling incest and feeling inclined to give altruistic help to siblings.

An interesting finding is that even when the students believed that their siblings were step-siblings or adoptive-siblings, they still felt a strong repugnance towards sibling incest and a strong propensity towards altruistic behavior with their siblings.

The assumption is that the human brain is endowed with a kin recognition mechanism that works through these two cues--association with one's mother in infancy and living together in childhood--to prompt the moral emotions of the incest taboo and sibling altruism.

There remain many gaps in this research. We don't know exactly the genetic basis for this or the precise neural mechanisms for it. But still this looks like a scientifically plausible account of how a natural moral judgment that is universal to all human societies has been shaped by our evolved human nature.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Islamic Creationist Attack on Darwinism

For some years now, Islamic creationists have been attacking Darwinian science as atheistic and immoral. One of the leaders in this movement is the Turkish author Harun Yahya. His website can be found here.
Like the Discovery Institute historian Richard Weikart, this Islamic creationist insists on the connection "from Darwin to Hitler." Beyond that, he even blames Darwinism for terrorism, because he claims that this follows from Darwin's "survival of the fittest" thought. Islam is a religion of peace, he argues, but Islam has been distorted as promoting terrorism by people shaped by Darwinian ideas.

Recently, there has been a controversy in France over the distribution of Harun Yahya's writings in French schools. A story on this can be found here.

This fanatical fear of Darwinian science as contrary to a literal reading of both the Bible and the Koran is misguided, but it seems to have a broad popular appeal to many Muslims as well as Christians.

Darwin, Lincoln, and Slavery

At this time of the year, we celebrate the remarkable coincidence of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin being born on the same day--February 12, 1809. Last year, I wrote a post on their intellectual similarities, which can be found here.

As I said then, there are at least five points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln. (1) Both believed in a universe governed by natural causes. (2) Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation. (3) Both spoke of God as First Cause. (4) Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion. (5) And both abhorred slavery as immoral.

From his voyage on the "Beagle," Darwin was horrified by the brutal treatment of slaves in South America, and this reinforced an abolitionist disposition that ran through his family.

Proslavery fanatics in the American South and elsewhere found support for slavery in the Bible and in science. The argument for scientific racism rested on the claim that the human races were actually separate species, and that the black species was naturally inferior to the white species. In March of 1861, Alexander Stephens, the new vice-president of the Confederate States of America, insisted that Thomas Jefferson's belief in natural equality had been refuted by modern science. "Our new government," he declared, "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not the equal to the white man; that slavery--subordination to the superior race--is his natural and normal condition."

Against this "polygenist" claim of the scientific racists that the human races were separate species, Darwin defended the "monogenist" position that the races are only varieties or sub-species of the same race. This meant that he had to explain the evolution of racial differences. And he tried to do this by developing his idea of "sexual selection": just as human plant and animal breeders can select for desirable traits, animals act as self-breeders in selecting mates. So the observable differences in the human races could be the product of aesthetic differences in human racial populations.

The importance that Darwin gave to sexual selection is indicated by the fact that over half of The Descent of Man is devoted to sexual selection. In the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Descent of Man, James Moore and Adrian Desmond argue that Darwin's primary motivation for writing the whole book was to attack slavery and racist science.

The Rev. John Brodie Innes--Darwin's vicar--saw this when he first read Darwin's book. He wrote to Darwin: "I hold to the old belief that a man was made a man though developed into niggers who must be made to work and better men able to make them, if those radicals did not interfere with the salutary chastisement needful, neglecting the lesson taught by the black ant slaves to the white." To which Darwin replied: "my views do not lead me to such conclusions about negroes & slavery as yours do: I consider myself a good way ahead of you, as far as this goes."

Innes' reference to ant slavery is revealing. In my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, I argue that considering the similarities and differences between ant slavery and human slavery illuminates the biological nature of slavery. The similarities suggest that in both cases slavery arises as a natural form of social parasitism in which slavemakers exploit their slaves through coercion and manipulation. But the differences between ant slavery and human slavery suggest that human beings are naturally inclined to detect and resist exploitation through slavery.

Among human beings, the coercion of slaves by masters cannot be based on a natural complementarity of desires. The master's desire to exploit the slave clashes with the slave's desire to be free from exploitation.

Darwin and Lincoln saw this as showing that slavery is contrary to human nature and thus contrary to natural right.