Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The July/August issue of the International Socialist Review has an article by Phil Gasper criticizing my argument for Darwinian conservatism.

Gasper insists that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels accepted Darwin's science, which shows that the ideology of the socialist Left is compatible with Darwinism. But Gasper does not tell his reader that Marx and Engels set up a sharp dichotomy between animal nature and human culture, so that they could say that Darwinian science explained the natural world of animals and the human body but not the uniquely human world of cultural history. Although other animals have some capacity for labor, Marx claimed, only human beings have the capacity for purposeful working upon the world to conform to some plan in the imagination. By changing the natural world to satisfy his needs, man also 'changes his own nature.' This allows Marx to protect his utopian vision of socialist perfectibility from being subverted by Darwinian naturalism. This same socialist tendency towards viewing human beings as capable of a utopian transcendent freedom from nature is manifest in Gasper's appeal to Stephen Jay Gould's vision of human transcendental freedom.

The mistake that comes from such utopian transcendentalism--broadly characteristic of all Leftist thought--is refusing to recognize the limits set by human imperfectibility. For example, Marx asserted that the greatest revolutionary change would come with the rule of the proletariat, which would bring a classless society and thus the end of all domination of some over others. Against Marx, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin warned that Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" would actually become a new "despotism of a governing minority." "He who doubts this," Bakunin insisted, "simply doesn't know human nature." Marx responded by ridiculing Bakunin's "hallucinations about domination."

Like Marx, Gasper rejects my claim "that humans instinctively seek power." According to Gasper, we can conclude that there is no "instinct for power" when we see "examples of cooperation and solidarity." He quotes from anthropologist Richard Lee's account of the Kung bushmen as showing that "the earliest human societies were not based on competition, inequality, and hierarchy." Here Gasper follows Marx's lead in arguing that pure communism would restore the original communism of primitive hunter-gatherers.

Gasper does not tell his reader that Richard Lee calculated that the homicide rate among the Kung was comparable to that of Detroit. (See Lee's book The !Kung San [1979].) Nor does Gasper tell his reader that Lee studied patterns of "leadership" among the Kung. Although there were no formal structures of leadership or government, some individuals had more status or power than others. The Kung were egalitarian in the sense that they worked hard to punish people who might become too arrogant in their bullying. But that's just the point--they had to work hard to restrain the human tendency to dominate.

Far from restraining that human tendency to domination, socialist utopias have appealed to the "instinct for power" as expressed in the yearning for revolutionary leadership. In this same issue of the International Socialist Review, there are articles on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Castro is quoted as saying that when he was a young boy, he admired people like Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Becoming the leader of the socialist revolution allowed him to satisfy his dream of power and glory. Chavez shows the same love of glory in proclaiming "socialism for the twenty-first century." The author of the article on Chavez opens with breathless excitement: "Venezuela's 'Bolivarian Revolution' is moving ahead fast." Well, yes, and all for the glory of Hugo Chavez.

Wouldn't it be more prudent to recognize the need to limit government to protect against a potentially tyrannical "instinct for power" that is too deeply rooted in human nature to be abolished by socialism?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Political Judgment in Darwinian Political Science

A Darwinian political science would have to move through three levels of political history. The first level would be the natural history of political universals as shaped by the genetic evolution of the species. By "political universals" I mean the recurrent patterns of political behavior that characterize human politics generally in every human community. So, for example, the tendency for every political community to be organized as a dominance hierarchy with the "people" defering to the dominance of the one or the few. This seems to be part of the inherited propensities that human beings share with other primates. Even in democracies, all citizens are not equal in their power or status. This behavioral propensity to dominance and deference is probably part of the genetic nature of the human species.

The second level of political history in Darwinian political science would be the social history of political cultures as shaped by cultural evolution. By "political cultures" I mean the somewhat variable patterns of political behavior that distinguish different political communities. Contrary to popular belief, cultural learning is not uniquely human, because researchers in animal behavior have shown that many social animals have some capacity for culture. For example, different chimpanzee communities in Africa are distinguishable by their various cultural traditions that apparently arise as innovations made by individual animals that have spread throughout the community by learning or imitation. So, if one reads, for instance, Jane Goodall's CHIMPANZEES OF GOMBE, one can see some patterns of political behavior--like dominance and submission--that are universal to all chimpanzee groups; but one can also see some behavioral traditions at Gombe (such as certain kinds of tool-use) that are found at Gombe but not in some other chimpanzee groups. Similarly, of course, human communities show great cultural variability in political behavior. While every human community shows dominance and deference, the cultural institutions or norms for regulating the pursuit of dominance are highly variable. S. E. Finer's HISTORY OF GOVERNMENT surveys the history of the many cultural inventions in government that would illustrate this.

Finally, the third level of political history for Darwinian political science is the individual history of political judgments that reflects the highly variable decisions of individual political actors in particular circumstances. Goodall's history of the chimps at Gombe shows that chimps have individual personalities that reflect innate temperament and individual life histories. In navigating their way through the complex social environment at Gombe, individual chimps must make decisions that influence not only their individual lives but also the social life of the community. We can see the same kind of variability in human political communities, which is captured in political biographies. So, for example, the life of Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate historians and political scientists because we can see that his political judgments were crucial for the political history of the United States. His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, brought a critical turn in American political history.

At the level of the natural history of political universals, we could explain Lincoln's political life as manifesting the sort of dominance drive or political ambition that one sees throughout political history in every political community. At the level of the social history of political cultures, we could explain Lincoln's political life as shaped by the peculiar political culture of nineteenth-century America, which would include the constitutional framework of American government and the problem of slavery in American politics. Finally, at the level of the individual history of political judgment, we could see how Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was constrained by, or responsive to, the political universals of political ambition and the political culture of American political institutions. But this would still not fully explain Lincoln's political judgments, such as the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Aristotle indicated in Book 6 of the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, the intellectual virtue crucial for moral or political action is prudence or practical judgment, which is the intuitive capacity to judge what should be done in particular circumstances where it is impossible to infer any right answer by general rules or logic. The historical contingency and complexity of political life make it necessary to rely on such practical wisdom in circumstances where it is impossible to determine the right answer by purely logical means.

Leslie Paul Thiele's new book THE HEART OF JUDGMENT: PRACTICAL WISDOM, NEUROSCIENCE, AND NARRATIVE is the best single book I have ever read on the subject of political judgment. Thiele's book is a good beginning towards thinking about how the study of political judgment could fit into a Darwinian political science. Thiele shows how contemporary neuroscience illuminates the character of judgment by exploring its roots in the brain. Thiele argues that by indicating the dependence of judgment on worldly experience, emotional dispositions, intuitive insights, and narrative thinking, neuroscience confirms the wisdom of Aristotle's account of prudence.

Darwinian political science would have to be complex, because it would have to capture the complexity of political life as it arises from the complex interaction of political nature, political culture, and political prudence.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Pope on Theistic Evolution

Many times on this blog, I have argued that there is no necessary conflict between Darwinian evolution and biblical religion, because Darwinian science leaves open the question of First Cause, which allows for theistic evolution. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taken this position. Pope John Paul II affirmed this in 1996.

In recent years, there has been some speculation that the new Pope might take a different position--perhaps even endorsing "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. But now there is a story in the NEW YORK POST reporting that Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed theistic evolution, so that the Church can accept Darwinian science as compatible with Biblical revelation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Behe's Intelligent Design as Intellectual Retreat

The August 16th issue of The New York Review of Books has a review of Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin by H. Allen Orr. Unfortunately, the full text of this review is available only to subscribers.

Although I have a copy of Kitcher's new book, I have not yet had a chance to read it. Orr's review makes me think that it's a good book. As summarized by Orr, Kitcher's book confirms my claim in some posts on this blog that Michael Behe's version of intelligent design theory is really an intellectual retreat from earlier versions of creationism. The first version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis was common among many scientists in the early 19th century. This was refuted by a fossil record that did not conform to the Genesis story. The fossil record showed clearly that the earth was much older than 6,000 years and that some primitive forms of life appeared long before other forms. This fossil record could not be explained as the consequence of Noah's Flood.

The next version of creationism was what Kitcher calls "novelty creationism"--over a long expanse of time, the Creator intervened to miraculously create new species. Geologist Charles Lyell took this position. But this new form of creationism was rendered implausible by the pattern of evolution. For example, why would the Creator create new species of finches on the Galapagos Islands remarkably similar to those on the South American mainland? Such patterns of geographic speciation are plausibly explained as products of evolutionary descent with modification.

The third form of creationism--intelligent design like that proposed by Michael Behe--is a further retreat. Behe agrees that Biblical literalism is implausible. He also agrees that evolution by common descent is more plausible than "novelty creationism." He retreats to the position that the Intelligent Designer somehow arranged things at the beginning of the universe so that evolution by common descent might unfold so as to produce "irreducibly complex" mechanisms like bacterial flagella. But then we ask, what is his alternative explanation to substitute for Darwinian natural selection? When, where, and how did the Intelligent Designer do this? Behe has no answer to such questions. And so "intelligent design theory" is left with almost no intellectual content.

As Orr indicates, Kitcher wants also to explain the implications of Darwinism for religion. He thinks Darwinism refutes Biblical literalism and supernatural religion, but not "spiritual religion." And yet, as Orr indicates, since "spiritual religion"--that idea that some spiritual leaders offer morally exemplary models--denies both Biblical revelation and supernatural reality, it seems hardly distinguishable from secular humanism.

Kitcher thinks that skepticism about the divine inspiration of scriptural texts subverts supernatural religion. But I would suggest that supernatural religion does not require belief in the authenticity of scripture. All that it requires is the belief that some supernatural cause is the only answer to questions of First Cause or ultimate explanation: Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing? Darwin acknowledged that such questions point to a fundamental mystery. I do not see how Darwinian evolution denies such supernatural explanations for the origin of life and the universe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bonobos--The Politically Correct Primate

Although bonobos resemble chimpanzees, bonobos are now considered a separate species. They have passed into popular culture as the "hippie chimps." They are sexual swingers who shift easily from heterosexual to homosexual activity. They resolve conflict through sexual pleasure rather than aggressive violence--make love not war! Although bonobo males are bigger and stronger than bonobo females, the females seem to be dominant over the males, which seemed to be enforced by females bound together by lesbian sex attacking any male who becomes too assertive. And while chimps have shown what looks like warfare between distinct territorial groups, bonobo groups seem to mix easily without warfare. So while bonobos would appear to be political animals in the sense that they must manueuver their way through a complex social community, bonobo politics would seem to be more peaceful, egalitarian, and matriarchal than is chimp politics.

But all of this is based on remarkably skimpy observational evidence. Wild chimpanzees are found only in the dense tropical jungle south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The few primatologists who have tried to study them in the wild have found them so hard to track that some observers have seen them for only a few hours after years of seeking them out. Most of the popular picture of bonobo behavior comes from Frans de Waal, who has seen bonobos in zoos, but who has never seen a bonobo in the wild.

I have regularly taught a course at Northern Illinois University on "Chimpanzee Politics," which includes some reading on bonobos. Each time I teach this course, I take my students on a field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which has the largest group of bonobos in captivity (18-20 individuals). Each time that we go, I am struck by how we don't see the behavior that we have read about in de Waal's books (particularly, the 1997 book Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape). For example, we go there with the voyeur's expectation of seeing lots of sexy encounters, but we're usually disappointed. This experience as well as my reading of the primatology research comparing chimps and bonobos has made me skeptical of de Waal's story of bonobo life and the popular acceptance of this story as showing the potential for confirming Rousseau's image of the noble savage.

In the July 30th issue of The New Yorker, Ian Parker has an article on bonobo research. He surveys the debate among primatologists over de Waal's claim that bonobos are radically different from chimps. One can see here the moral and political implications of these debates. Feminists, gay activists, and those on the political Left would like to see bonobos as the closest living evolutionary relative of human beings, and they like de Waal's account of bonobo life as suggesting that human beings could potentially adopt the "bonobo way" of sexual equality and peaceful hedonism. Darwinian conservatives are suspicious of this as motivated by utopian longings.

As Parker indicates, the direct observations of bonobos in the wild are leading some primatologists to question de Waal's account. Bonobos are probably more violent than de Waal is willing to admit. They are not more bipedal than chimps. They are not more sexually active than chimps. And whether bonobos show female dominance--in contrast to the male dominance of chimps--is open to doubt. Even in de Waal's Bonobo book, there are some occasional suggestions that bonobo males are "slightly dominant" or maybe "co-dominant" with females (60, 74-81).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wilson vs. Dawkins on Religion

Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion has become a best-seller. This book reinforces the popular prejudice that Darwinism must denigrate religion. Dawkins's fanatical attack on religion falls into the stereotype of the Darwinian scientist as the village atheist.

But as I have argued in my books and on this blog, there is no necessary conflict between Darwinism and religion. Although Darwinian science cannot confirm or deny the theological doctrines of religion, it can recognize the practical truth of religion as satisfying certain natural human desires in ways that foster social cooperation. This sustains the conservative view of religion as important for supporting morality and political order.

David Sloan Wilson has written a response to Dawkins that shows how evolutionary theory can explain the practical importance of religion for sustaining cooperation in groups. Wilson's statement can be found here. A previous post on the debate over evolutionary explanations of religion can be found here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Response to Jonathan Wells

Jonathan Wells works for the Discovery Institute promoting "intelligent design theory." In his book Icons of Evolution, he shrewdly employs a rhetoric of negative argumentation--attacking weaknesses in Darwinian theory while refusing to defend intelligent design in any positive way. He encourages the reader to assume that if Darwinian evolution hasn't been absolutely demonstrated to be true, then creation by an intelligent designer wins by default as the only reasonable alternative. But in doing this, Wells demands standards of proof for Darwinian biology tht are unreasonably high. After all, Wells himself could never satisfy those standards if he had to show the exact causal mechanisms by which a disembodied intelligence shapes natural objects in the world.

Wells's new book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. This book has been a "main selection" of the Conservative Book Club, and it has been endorsed by that great conservative philosopher Ann Coulter ("Annoy a godless liberal: buy this book!").

He has a chapter on "Darwinism and Conservatives," in which he casually dismisses my arguments without seriously confronting the intellectual issues. For example, he quotes Carson Holloway as saying that "Arnhart's 'Darwinian political theory . . . provides the basis for no useful moral teaching at all.'" But Wells does not lay out Holloway's reasoning for his conclusion, and he does not tell his reader that I have responded to Holloway's critique.

To show that Darwinism leads to immoral eugenics, Wells very carefully quotes some comments from Darwin's Descent of Man about how "the weak members of civilized societies propagage their kind," but then he doesn't the quote the immediately following comment from Darwin about the importance of the instinct of sympathy in moving us to care for the weak and the helpless (see pp. 158-59 in the Penguin Classics edition of the Descent). Wells doesn't allow his reader to see what he is doing.

Similarly, he accuses Darwin of being a racist, but he says nothing about Darwin's life-long opposition to slavery and his rejection of the racial science that supported slavery.

Wells also links Darwin to Hitler by quoting from Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler. But he does not respond to my criticisms of Weikart's book in Darwinian Conservatism for failing to show any clear line of influence "from Darwin to Hitler."

Wells doesn't indicate that one of the texts most often quoted by the Nazis to justify their persecution of the Jews was Martin Luther's long pamphlet "On the Jews and Their Lies," which urges Christians to attack Jews as "poisonous worms." Of course, it would be unreasonable to say that this "from Luther to Hitler" connection shows the evil influence of Christianity. But it's just as unreasonable to blame Darwin.

Wells also claims that Darwinism leads to "managed economies" because it sees life as a "zero-sum game," and fails to see the logic of free market economics as laid out by Adam Smith. This is ludicrous. Robert Wright has written a whole book--Nonzero--on the Darwinian logic of cooperation as a nonzero-sum game in which individuals find mutual benefit in reciprocal exchange. Darwin rested much of his argument for the evolution of morality on Adam Smith's account of "sympathy" as the ground for moral sentiments.

Wells presents himself as a scientist. But he never reveals to his readers that his decision to get a Ph.D. in biology was in obedience to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who picked him along with other seminary graduates to do battle against Darwinian science. Moon is the founder of the Unification Church who reports that as a 15 year-old boy, he was visited by Jesus in Korea in 1935, and Jesus told him that he was needed to carry out Jesus's plans for the Second Coming. Wells joined the Unification Church and submitted to Moon's authority. Wells explains this in a Unification Church sermon--"Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.--which can be found here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Frederick Kagan on the Failure in Iraq

Frederick Kagan is one of the leading neoconservative proponents of the American war in Iraq who helped the White House formulate the current "surge" strategy. Oddly enough, his recent article in The Weekly Standard on "The New Strategy in Iraq" shows that the American war there has been--with only one possible exception--a complete failure.

Imagine that you know nothing about the war and that you're relying on this one article for your assessment. Read the article carefully. The first and last paragraphs declares that "Operation Phantom Thunder" is working well, and the war should continue, which is what you would expect Kagan to say. But if you read the rest of the article, you see a remarkable survey of the failures in the war.

Consider the following quotations from the article under the section subtitles used by Kagan.

"Falluja, 2004"
"The Marines were not allowed to follow up on their success in Falluja. . . . Nevertheless, Falluja was fairly stable for many months after the Marine attack, only slowly sinking back into chaos and enemy control."

"Najaf and Sadr City, 2004"
". . . The successes in Najaf and Sadr City were fleeting in another respect, however. U.S. forces left both areas quickly, and the Sadrist militias retook control of them within months. The Sadrists remain largely in control of Najaf and were long uncontested in Sadr City, although recent events have greatly complicated their situation there."

"Tal Afar and the Upper Euphrates, 2005"
". . . Operations in 2005, although inadequately followed up and sustained, created a lasting change in a critical province of northern Iraq."

"Ramadi, 2006"
Ramadi seems to be the one bright spot. Elsewhere in the article, Kagan says, "Ramadi is the model."

"Bagdad, 2006"
"These operations failed. . . . By November, Operation Together Forward II had mostly ground to a halt, having made no lasting improvement in the situation."

"Lessons of the Past"
". . . rapid reductions in Coalition forces after clearing operations undermined the success of almost all past operations. In Sadr City and Najaf, the withdrawal led to the complete if quiet restoration of the militias tht had been driven out. . . . Turning control of cleared areas over to Iraq forces prematurely--as in Falluja after the first battle and in Baghdad after Operations Together Forward--generally led to rapid failure. . . ."

"Operation Phantom Thunder in Context"
". . . The establishment of security, moreover, is a precondition for further political progress, not a guarantee of it. The enemy may find a way to disrupt the current operations, or to derail or defeat the subsequent clear-and-hold operations. It is possible that Iraqi Security Forces will prove unable to develop the numbers and capabilities required to maintain security once it has been established. And unpredictable disasters can always drive a well-designed strategy off course."

And what conclusion does Kagan draw from this bleak history of failure and prospect of unpredictable disasters? "The current strategy . . . deserves to be given every chance to succeed"!

As I have suggested in other posts, the utopian folly of the Iraq war is a predictable consequence of a neoconservative view of government in which presidents initiate and manage wars guided by a messianic rhetoric of spreading democratic liberty around the world. The Machiavellian utopianism of the neoconservatives is most evident in Harvey Mansfield's recent defense of the "manly nihilism" of the American presidency and his praise of George Bush's "one-man rule" as manifesting "the living intelligence of a wise man."

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Leon Kass and the Science of Color

This continues my previous post on Leon Kass's recent article in Commentary and the response from Steven Pinker.

As I have indicated, I am not persuaded by Kass's assumption that we can look to Rene Descartes--and particularly, his materialist reductionism--as determining the whole history of modern science. To me, Descartes' dualistic separation of matter and mind and his physicalist reductionism denies the emergent complexity of living phenomena as studied by Darwinian biology.

To illustrate his claim about Descartes as the founder of all modern science, Kass says that "in a revolution-making passage in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes sets the program of all modern science by transforming how we should approach the study of color." (Like much of this article, this entire section is taken from Kass's essay on "The Permanent Limitations of Biology" in his book Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, 277-97.)

Descartes says that we can study colors by arbitrarily identifying them as corresponding to various geometrical figures. Kass writes: "Descartes's geometrical figures, standing for the differences among the colors white, blue, and red may be passe, but the principle he proposes is not: today we still treat color in terms of 'wave lengths,' purely mathematical representations from which all the color is sucked out. This tells the whole story: the objective is purely quantitative. All quality disappears."

Is this really "the whole story" of the scientific study of color? Certainly, part of the story is that scientists explain visible light as a continuously varying wave-length. But this is not the whole story, because wave-lengths of light have no color intrinsic to them. Color arises only for animals that have neural systems of vision that translate the variations in wave-length into color perceptions. Different species perceive different colors or none at all.

Many anthropologists used to say that human color perception was an arbitrary creation of culture depending on the variable color vocabularies of different human languages. But in the 1960s, a famous experiment conducted by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay showed that this variation in color vocabularies followed a regular pattern indicating a universal of human nature. Native speakers of twenty languages from around the world were asked to look at a Munsell array showing the full spectrum of colors and then apply the color terms from their languages. Although there was great variation, the variation followed a universal pattern moving from two to eleven basic color terms. The reason for this is that the human sensory system for vision tends to break down the continuing varying wavelengths of visible light into discrete units.

Notice that Berlin and Kay had to ask their subjects to report their subjective experience of color in the terms of their color vocabularies. Color as a perceptual quality is known to us only by our subjective experience. But we can testify to that qualitative experience through language that can then be the basis for scientific study. It is not true, then, that for modern science, "all quality disappears."

Edward O. Wilson--in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--offers the Berlin and Kay study of color vocabularies as an example of "gene-culture coevolution" guided by "epigenetic rules." He writes: "The brain constantly searches for meaning, for connections between objects and qualities that cross-cut the senses and provide information about external existence. We penetrate that world through the constraining portals of the epigenetic rules. As shown in the elementary cases of paralanguage and color vocabulary, culture has risen from the genes and forever bears their stamp. With the invention of metaphor and new meaning, it has at the same time acquired a life of its own. In order to grasp the human condition, both the genes and culture must be understood, not separately in the traditional manner of science and the humanities, but together, in recognition of the realities of human evolution" (163).

In my chapter on "emergence" in Darwinian Conservatism, I indicated that although Wilson sometimes identifies "consilience"--the unity of all knowledge--as based on a strong form of reductionism, he has to recognize the emergent complexity of life that cannot be explained through strong reductionism. So, for example, the epigenetic rules of human biology shape the broad patterns in color vocabularies that are universal propensities across all human societies. But within those broad patterns, the specific content of color vocabularies will be determined by linguistic practices, social customs, and deliberate choices that are peculiar to some particular group. And our scientific studies of color perception must combine quantitative methods of objectified science with the qualitative experience of human subjects expressed in language.

Such scientific study of the emergent complexity of life is lost in Kass's assumption that Descartes's reductionism "sets the program of all modern science."

Friday, July 06, 2007

Leon Kass on Science and Religion

Leon Kass has written an article for Commentary (April 2007)on "Science, Religion, and the Human Future." Steven Pinker and others have written responses to the article. Since Kass's article is a good summary of his ideas about modern science and its limitations, reading the article has stirred me to ponder my points of agreement and disagreement with his thinking. I will begin with the points of agreement. (The next five paragraphs are taken from my article on "Darwinian Liberal Education" in the fall 2006 issue of Academic Questions.)

As a young man, I decided that what Leo Strauss called the "fundamental dilemma" of modernity explained the loss of liberal education as a comprehensive study of the whole. The natural sciences assume a materialist reductionism that cannot account for the human mind or spirit. The humanities assume a radical dualism that treats human conscious experience as autonomous in its separation from the causal order of the natural sciences. And the social sciences are torn between these two contradictory positions.

We might overcome this dilemma, I thought, if we could see Darwinian biology as a comprehensive science that would unify all the intellectual disciplines by studying human experience as part of the natural whole. This would continue the Aristotelian tradition of biology because, as Strauss observed, Aristotle believed that biology could provide "a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man." But I found that many of those influenced by Strauss assumed that Darwinian biology must deny the fundamental premises of Aristotelian natural right in denying the uniqueness of human beings as set apart from the rest of animal nature and in denying the cosmic teleology that sustains human purposefulness.

Reading Leon Kass's Towards a More Natural Science helped me to see how I might answer these Straussian objections. Kass suggested that Darwinian biology could recognize human uniqueness as a product of emergent evolution, and it could recognize the internal teleology of living beings as goal-directed. Darwin failed to see how his own biology allowed "that certain differences of degree--produced naturally, accumulated gradually (even incrementally), and inherited in an unbroken line of descent--might lead to a difference in kind (or at least its equivalent), say, in mental capacity or inner life." So it seemed that Darwinian biology could support an emergent naturalism in which novel traits arise in evolutionary development at each higher level of organization in an "unbroken line of descent" leading to differences in kind. Differences in degree passing over a critical threshold of evolution could produce differences in kind (Towards a More Natural Science, 271; The Hungry Soul, 12, 14, 39, 59-63, 76-79).

On the question of teleology, I was impressed by Kass's distinction between "external teleology" and "immanent teleology." External teleology is the conception of all of nature as an organic whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator. By contrast to such cosmic teleology, Kass suggested that "the primary home of teleological thought is the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms, in their generation, their structure, their activities." This immanent teleology of living things was what Aristotle had in mind, Kass observed, when he spoke of natural teleology. And while Kass recognized that Darwinism was generally regarded as rejecting cosmic teleology, he noted that Darwinian biology implicitly assumed the immanent teleological nature of organisms. Even if evolution by natural selection is not purposeful, it produces organic beings that are purposeful. Plants and animals grow to maturity, and once grown, they act for ends set by the functional nature of the species (ibid., 253-64).

I was inspired by Kass's striving for "a more natural science" that would require the kind of biological understanding of nature that could account for the ethical and intellectual purposefulness of human life as an expression of nature. Like Kass, I sought a biological science that recognizes "the tacit ethical dimension of animal life," and thus the "natural, animal bases for the content of an ethical life." Like Kass, I believed that a science of living nature would reject both reductionist monism, which reduces life to homogeneous matter, and transcendentalist dualism, which sees human mental and moral experience as simply separated from the rest of nature. Like Kass, I decided that such a science could bring together Aristotle and Darwin (ibid., 277, 284, 295, 347; Kass, The Hungry Soul, 62.)

In recent years, however, Kass has moved away from his Aristotelian/Darwinian naturalism, because he doubts the sufficiency of human reason unaided by Biblical revelation of nature as created (see Kass's Life, Liberty, and Defense of Dignity, 277-97; and his Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, xiv-xv, 1-4, 15, 68). In his new article in Commentary, he continues in this direction by arguing that modern science assumes a materialism that reduces all knowledge to quantifiable objectification that denies the qualitative subjectivity of "lived experience" and the "inwardness of life." As transformed into "scientism," which assumes that such scientific objectification is the only true form of knowledge, this modern scientific project threatens human freedom and dignity. Kass then wonders whether philosophy or religion can provide an adequate philosophy of nature to challenge the false claims of modern scientism.

Although I see some partial truth in almost everything Kass says in his article, he fails to recognize here (as he did in his earlier writing) that Darwinian biology refutes the Cartesian vision of science. Kass's fundamental presupposition is that Rene Descartes' writing is normative for all of modern science. Again and again, he quotes from or refers to Descartes as the authoritative spokesman for all of modern science. Here he implicitly takes for granted a view of the history and philosophy of early modern science that came out of the German phenomenological tradition, which was transmitted to the curriculum of St. John's College by Jacob Klein, and which has influenced Kass in his years at St. John's and the University of Chicago.

But I am not convinced that Descartes' philosophical writing is canonical for all of modern science. Kass cites Hans Jonas's The Phenomenon of Life, but he ignores Jonas's argument in that book that Darwinism refuted Descartes dualistic separation of objective matter and subjective mind. "Evolutionism undid Descartes' work," Jonas explained, because "the continuity of descent now established between man and the animal world made it impossible any longer to regard his mind, and mental phenomena as such, as the abrupt ingression of an ontologically foreign principle at just this point of the total flow," and so "with the last citadel of dualism there also fell the isolation of man, and his own evidence became available again for the interpretation of that to which he belongs" (57).

In fact, many Darwinian scientists now recognize that Darwinism affirms the continuity of animal minds as products of emergent evolution. For example, Steven Pinker shows how Darwinian science refutes Descartes' dualism (The Blank Slate, 8-10). But then Kass criticizes Pinker as a materialist who does not recognize the reality of the soul as "the integrated powers of the naturally organic body" that arise as "emergent properties" from the formal organization of living matter. Pinker responds to this charge by saying that he has always argued for the reality of such psychic "emergent properties." In his defense, Pinker could have quoted from his book How the Mind Works, where he speaks of "consciousness in the sense of sentience" as a "mystery" for which there is no scientific explanation. "But saying that we have no scientific explanation of sentience is not the same as saying that sentience does not exist at all. I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything, and I bet you feel the same" (148). Kass makes exactly the same point about the certitude of our subjective experience of "inwardness," although it cannot be studied externally.

In following the St. John's/phenomenological tradition, Kass assumes that "mathematical physics is the jewel and foundation" of all science, and biology is reducible to mathematical physics. But this ignores the autonomy of biology and biological phenomena as an emergent realm of study that must be consistent with but cannot be fully reducible to physics and chemistry. Ernst Mayr and other modern biologists have argued this position very well.

Kass says that genetics cannot tell us "how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee." But this ignores the whole field of animal behavior and cognitive ethology. Primatologists like Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal observe the natural lives of primates either in the wild or in captivity, and in explaining their behavior, they infer the emotional and cognitive experiences that constitute their subjective lives. Much of the debate in primatology today is about how far we can infer "animal minds" from our own subjective experiences as self-conscious beings. To say, as Kass does, that all biologists assume that man is "a freakish speck of mind in a mindless universe" restates Descartes' view, but this is contradicted by those many biologists who reject Cartesian dualism and recognize the necessity to explain animal behavior as shaped by subjective consciousness.

So what does religion contribute to this discussion? Kass is evasive about this. In his interpretation of Genesis 1, he rejects both "creation science" and "intelligent design," because he assumes that the Creation story is not really a literal description of how the universe came into being. Rather, the Creation story teaches "self-evident truths" about the "existential condition" of human beings that "do not rest on biblical authority."

It is not clear whether Kass thinks he is learning something from Biblical revelation that he could not know by philosophic reason alone, or whether the Bible offers an account of the human condition that confirms what we might already know by reason. In fact, when Kass refers to "the mysterious source of being itself," he seems to be following Martin Heidegger's existential philosophy of how human Dasein faces the mystery of Being.

Kass's reading of Genesis 1--like all of his readings of the Bible--is thoughtful, imaginative, and elegant. But it is not clear to me that this is the way Biblical believers read the Bible. Clearly, Kass is reading the Bible under the influence of philosophical commentators like Immanuel Kant and Leo Strauss. There is surely much to ponder in such a reading. But this seems to be more philosophic than it is religious.

If Kass were to return to his original project for a "more natural science" that would be both Aristotelian and Darwinian, he could argue for a Darwinian naturalism that would recognize the importance of religion insofar as it reinforces our natural moral sense.

My next post will continue this discussion of Kass.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Darwinian Nature of Patriotism

Howard Zinn--best known as the author of The People's History of the United States--is one of the leading writers for the American Left. The website for The Progressive has a 4th of July article by Zinn, who argues that it is immoral for Americans to celebrate July 4th. He writes:

"On this July 4, we would be well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledge of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.

"Is it not nationalism--that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder--one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred."

He concludes: "We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation."

As I have indicated in Darwinian Conservatism, this is one fundamental distinction between the utopianism of the Left and the realism of conservatism: the Left adheres to a rationalist utopianism of universal benevolence that denies patriotism, while conservatives recognize that it is natural and good for human beings to be more attached to those close to them than to strangers, even though this divides human beings in ways that often create tragic conflicts. One can see this, for example, in the way that both Edmund Burke and Adam Smith rejected the humanitarian rationalism of Richard Price who insisted that moral principle required that all human beings should deny patriotic attachments so that they could be "citizens of the world."

A Darwinian account of human nature explains the ultimate causes of such group loyality as arising from evolutionary group selection that favors a tribal attachment to one's own. Of course, our natural capacity for sympathy allows us to extend our concern to ever wider groups, even to the point of feeling some concern for human strangers and even nonhuman animals. But this humanitarian concern will always be weaker than our attachments to kin, to friends, and to fellow citizens.

There is a dark side to such tribalism, as Zinn indicates, because our natural tendency to cooperate with our group to compete with out-groups can lead to brutual cruelty. But to think that the proper solution to this moral problem is a disinterested humanitarian rationalism that shows no spirited attachment to one's own is a utopian, if not inhuman, denial of human nature and the natural grounds of moral concern.

Happy 4th of July!

Sunday, July 01, 2007


In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson developed an evolutionary theory of religion as a product of cultural group selection. Religion binds people together and thus allows groups to function as collective units, which suppresses competition within a group and thus strengthens the group in competition with other groups. Religion arises from certain natural propensities--such as moralistic cooperation, symbolic thinking, and the capacity for cultural learning--that have been shaped by the genetic evolution of the human species. But the development of the various religious traditions arises from the cultural evolution of human groups.

In Evolution for Everyone, Wilson suggests that an evolutionary science of political history and international relations could be developed based on the idea that "nations are nothing more than very large groups that are trying to function as collective units." And yet, "a book on political evolution comparable to Darwin's Cathedral has yet to be written" (283-85).

Peter Turchin's new book--War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires--would seem to be the kind of book that Wilson is looking for. Turchin is a biologist at the University of Connecticut who has been developing an evolutionary science of political history that is summarized in this new book.

In recent years, there has been a tendency in both the social sciences and the biological sciences to try to explain social behavior as a product of self-interest. In evolutionary biology, this arises from the attempt to explain social life as ultimately driven by "selfish genes." In the social sciences, this arises from the attempt of "rational choice theory" to explain social behavior as motivated by the rational calculation of selfish interests. Against such thinking, Turchin argues that any science of cooperation must explain the capacity for self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, which is the necessary condition for cooperation. Research in experimental economics--particularly, in "ultimatum games" and "public goods games"--indicates that the majority of human beings cooperate even when the cooperation requires some sacrifice of narrow self-interest. And research in evolutionary theory indicates that we cannot explain human ultrasociality--human cooperation within huge groups with millions of members who cannot be bound together by ties of kinship or reciprocity--except as a product of cultural group selection.

In his book, Turchin employs the theory of cultural group selection to explain the rise and fall of empires throughout political history. The medieval Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun argued that the success of political communities depended on asabiya, an Arabic word that can be translated as "group feeling" or "group spirit." Asabiya is the capacity of a social group for collective action, the disposition to cooperate within one's group to compete with those outside one's group. Nations expand and empires rise when they have strong asabiya. They fall when their asabiya weakens.

Human ultrasociality--our ability to act in cooperating groups with millions of members--depends on two key adaptions. The first is our disposition to be "moralists" or conditional cooperators. Most of us will cooperate in a group as long as we think enough of the others are cooperating, and we will punish those who don't cooperate. In evolutionary history, groups with enough moralists would have outcompeted groups who did not have enough cooperative members. The second adaptation is the human ability for language and symbolic thinking. This allowed human beings to use symbolic markers to define their group membership, so that they could identify themselves as belonging to huge groups of people who would otherwise be strangers. Religious symbolism, for example, allows religious believers to identify themselves as members of a religious group competing with those outside their religious group. Christians could band together against pagans. Muslims could band together against Christians. Some of the most successful empires or civilizations have arise from such religious commitments.

Turchin further develops this idea by arguing that groups with high asabiya arise on "metaethnic frontiers" where between-group competition is especially intense, which promotes a strong in-group/out-group distinction. So, for example, the metaethnic frontiers where Christianity and Islam met in competition might cultivate an intense sense of group solidarity on both sides of the frontier.

Most of Turchin's book applies this theory of cultural group selection working at metaethnic frontiers to particular examples of empires that have risen and fallen--ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Islam, the medieval Germans, Russia, the modern European nations, and the United States.

He also indicates how his concept of asabiya is recognized in contemporary theorizing about "social capital" by Robert Putnam and others, and how his concept of metaethnic frontiers is recognized in Samuel Huntington's account of the "clash of civilizations."

He also suggests that his metaethnic frontier theory predicts the possibility of a new Islamic caliphate emerging in the Middle East if the Western powers continue to challenge Islamic civilization.

Although I do not necessarily agree with all of Turchin's claims, I do think that his book lays out what would be a big part of what I have called "Darwinian political science."