Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death

Peter Lawler's contribution to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question is entitled "All Larry Needs Is Love (and Death)."

As I indicate in my response, I don't understand Lawler's claim that "Arnhart denies that love and death are essential to our being," and that I cannot account for "the fact of our deep loneliness or of our deep longing to be known and loved by other persons." It is odd that he says this considering that I stress the natural desires for friendship, conjugal love, parental care, and familial bonding as manifestations of our evolved nature as social animals, and that I also speak about the natural human longings for religious understanding and intellectual understanding in the face of the mysteries of life and death.

I disagree with Lawler's assertion that Darwin advanced an "impersonal theory of evolution" denying the personal reality of love and death. Anyone who examines Darwin's life and writings can see how his scientific thinking was influenced by his personal life, and particularly by his experience with love and death in his family and with his friends.

One of the best studies of how Darwin's science arose from his personal struggles with love and death is Randal Keynes' Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (2001). Keynes is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a great-nephew of John Maynard Keynes. Some years ago, he came across a child's writing case that had belonged to Annie Darwin, the first daughter of Charles and Emma, who had died when she was ten. The writing case was filled with personal items that Emma had saved to remember her daughter. Charles had written a note recording how Annie felt every day during her last months, and then after her death, he wrote a memorial to record his memories of her character and life. As Keynes collected this and related material, he began writing his book as a study of how the death of Annie in 1851 had shaped her father's understanding of love and death in ways that guided his scientific thinking about the natural world.

A few days before his wedding, Charles told Emma that while during his five years travelling on the Beagle, "the whole of my pleasure was derived from what passed in my mind," he now looked to marriage to take him out of himself. "I think you will humanize me, and soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories and accumulating facts in silence and solitude." He spent the rest of his life doing his scientific work surrounded by his family in his home in Down. (As I have indicated in a previous post, I found that visiting Down House evokes the life of the Darwins in a poignant way.)

The family included ten children, of whom seven lived to adulthood. Mary died in 1842, within three weeks of her birth. Annie died in 1851. Charles Waring died in 1858, at age four. Annie's death, after six months of severe illness, was especially traumatic for Charles and his family.

Charles responded to his children with both the warm feelings of a father and the methodical observations of a scientist. He kept careful records of how his children developed in infancy to support his "natural history of babies," which would help him understand the earliest psychological development of human emotions and thoughts as compared with other animals. He also learned from his own paternal feelings and from Emma's maternal care the importance of parental love in nurturing the individual development of each child.

Charles's mother had died when he was eight. He regretted later in life that he could not recall many clear memories of her. When Annie died, he was careful to preserve a written summary of his memories of her written one week after her death. In about 1,500 words, he sketched her character, her appearance, and her behavior. He wrote:

"Our poor child, Annie, was born in Gower St on March 2nd 1841 and expired at Malvern at Midday on the 23rd of April 1851. I write these few pages as I think in after years, if we live, the impression now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics. From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness, tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger, and her strong affection. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigour. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her. Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. . . .

"Her figure and appearance were clearly influenced by her character: her eyes sparkled brightly; she often smiled; her step was elastic and firm; she held herself upright, and often threw her head a little backwards, as if she defied the world in her joyousness. . . .

"Her health failed in a slight degree for about nine months before her last illness; but it only occasionally gave her a day of discomfort: at such times, she was never in the least degree cross, peevish or impatient; and it was wonderful to see, as the discomfort passed, how quickly her elastic spirits brought back her joyousness and happiness. . . . When so exhausted that she could hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, and said some tea 'was beautifully good.' When I gave her some water, she said 'I quite thank you'; and these, I believe were the last precious words ever addressed by her dear lips to me.

"But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, and her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling and all the other little acts of affection.

"We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her."

Annie's "joyousness" and the sadness in the household from the loss of this joyous child are the clear themes of this memorial statement.

At the time, no one really understood the cause of Annie's death except that she suffered from a "bilious fever." She probably died of tuberculosis, which was known at the time as "consumption," for which there was no cure. It was not until 1882 that the German bacteriologist Dr. Robert Koch identified the cause of the disease as a bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

So how should loving parents understand and deal with the death of a child? In Victorian England, there were a variety of beliefs about how to handle such a loss.

Orthodox Christians consoled themselves that their dead children would go to Heaven, and that parents would eventually be reunited with their children in Heaven. Christians could believe that such death was designed by God to teach the need for faith in undergoing suffering.

For many religious believers, death was God's punishment for the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and even innocent children had to pay the price for the sin of Adam. Or such believers might see the death as the punishment for some personal sin of the parents.

For some people, however, such beliefs were dubious. Despite the common view that the Bible teaches eternal life after death, the Biblical account of the afterlife is vague, and the character of Heaven and Hell is not clearly explained. Moreover, why should we be consoled by belief in eternal life if we can't be sure about whether we (or our children) will go to Heaven or Hell? And why should we rely on scriptural authority for an afterlife if this is not supported by evidence from natural human experience and reasoning?

In any case, it's not clear that even those who profess to believe in an afterlife really believe it strongly enough for this to overcome their natural feeling that death is the end.

Some people wondered why a God who is both all-powerful and all-good would allow the innocent to suffer and die. They also wondered about the fairness of God in condemning most people to eternal punishment in Hell.

Some Victorians thought that we should accept death as a consequence of natural causes that we cannot alter. This seemed to be Alfred Tennyson's response when his first child was stillborn (three days before Annie's death):

Little bosom not yet cold,
Noble forehead made for thought,
Little hands of mighty mould
Clenched as in the fight which they had fought.
He had done battle to be born,
But some brute force of Nature had prevailed
And the little warrior failed.

"Some brute force of Nature had prevailed." What more should be said about the death of a child--or of any human being?

How did Emma and Charles respond to the death of Annie? As a Unitarian who believed in the eternal afterlife, Emma tried to console herself with the thought that she would be reunited with her family after death in Heaven. She was troubled that Charles did not find the evidence for such beliefs convincing. Over her life, as she and Charles talked about this and read books on the debate over the evidence for personal immortality with eternal rewards and punishments, she became less confident about her beliefs, although she was always more openly pious than Charles.

In his early life, Charles was an orthodox Christian believer. By the middle of his life, he had concluded that there was insufficient evidence for the divine authority of the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines. By the end of his life, he identified himself as an agnostic. Some people assumed he was a complete atheist. But he always insisted that he was open to the possibility of God as First Cause of the natural laws governing the universe, although he worried that searching for the ultimate causes of all things was beyond the natural limits of the human mind. "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

He was clear, however, in rejecting the traditional doctrines of God as having separately created every form of life and as providentially intervening to control every event in natural and human history. He laid out the evidence and arguments for species as originating from ancestral species through natural laws of evolution, although he indicated that this was consistent with believing in God as the Creator of those natural laws. Persuaded by the evidence of experience and science that nature was governed by general laws, Charles could not believe in any miracles, except possibly the original miracle by which the laws of nature themselves were created.

Charles rejected the traditional teaching that God would condemn all unbelievers to everlasting punishment as a "damnable doctrine."

He also rejected the traditional belief in God's particular providence, because Charles could not see how a just God could be responsible for "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." It would be a more sublime notion of God, Charles thought, to say that God was not responsible for the cruelty of nature as governed by the "universal struggle for life." He believed it was "more satisfactory to attribute pain and suffering to the natural sequence of events." So at the end of the Origin of Species, Charles leaves his reader with the image of how "endless forms most beautiful" evolved "from the war of nature, from famine and death."

Charles learned this from his personal experience of love and death. He could love Annie as his beautiful child. He could understand her death as coming from her losing struggle for life in the war of nature. He could cherish his memories of her joyous personality, as preserved in his memorial essay, but without any expectation of being reunited with her in an afterlife.

Charles could also engage in scientific research on the natural causes of suffering and death with the hope that such knowledge could provide some relief. Although he did not understand how Annie's disease was caused by microorganisms, Charles did develop an evolutionary theory of how parasites and hosts coevolve in the struggle for life.

In 1877, a scientific friend of his sent him an article by Dr. Robert Koch, who would later discover the bacillus that causes tuberculosis. The article contained the first photographs of bacteria, along with Koch's argument that such microorganisms could cause diseases. Charles replied: "I well remember saying to myself between twenty and thirty years ago [about the time of Annie's death], that if ever the origin of any infectious disease could be proved, it would be the greatest triumph to Science; and now I rejoice to have seen the triumph."

So now Charles's science can explain why his daughter died. She died because she lost her struggle for life in the war of nature with tubercular bacteria. She was defeated by a "brute force of Nature."

Without a scientific understanding of her disease, Charles could not save her life. But he could save his memories of her in all her beautiful exuberance. "She held herself upright, and often threw her head a little backwards, as if she defied the world in her joyousness."

Does Peter Lawler have any better alternative for understanding love and death?

Some of my thoughts here are elaborated in my post on Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning" and it's famous line that "death is the mother of beauty."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Catherine Zuckert, Remi Brague, and Platonic Cosmology

Was Plato the first intelligent design theorist?

It is clear that the basic arguments for intelligent design are stated in Book 10 of Plato's Laws. In that dialogue, the Athenian Stranger warns against the dangerous atheism of natural philosophers who explain the universe as a product of purely natural causes. Against them, he argues that lawmakers must persuade their people that the complex, functional order of the universe shows the intelligent design of a divine mind that is benevolent in supporting human morality and law. This intelligent design reasoning provides cosmic support for human moral and political order.

Similarly, in the Timaeus, Timaeus argues that Socrates "city in speech" can be supported by a rational theology of cosmic order, in which the intelligible order of the cosmos manifests the intelligent design of the cosmic craftsman. The moral and political order of human life can then be judged by how well it conforms to this cosmic order of the omnipotent and benevolent craftsman.

Remi Brague--in his book The Wisdom of the World--shows how this conception of a cosmos ordered by Divine Intellect provided a cosmic pattern for human life to imitate, and how this idea runs through much of the history of the Western world until it was challenged by modern thinkers. Brague also shows how the biblical teaching of God as providential creator was assimilated to this Platonic cosmology.

The modern "disenchantment of the world"--based on the claim that the natural universe is indifferent to human moral concerns--means that human life must take its moral bearings from human experience itself rather than from some transcendent order of the universe. For Brague, this denial of cosmic moral order leads to moral confusion if not nihilism.

Many conservatives and Straussians have adopted Brague's reasoning in denying my argument for "Darwinian natural right." The only possible ground for natural right, they claim, is a cosmic moral teleology. Without such a teleology of the universe, any appeal to a moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature will collapse into moral relativism.

But is this really Plato's position, as Brague and others suggest? Brague acknowledges that Timaeus's cosmology reverses the move of Socrates in the Phaedo in turning towards the study of human things separated from the study of cosmic order. Moreover, Brague admits that some readers of the Timaeus have found Timaeus's reasoning so ridiculously implausible that they wonder whether Plato is being ironic. But having noted this possibility (p. 32), Brague moves on without considering its implications. Furthermore, Brague never really explains why anyone should accept this anthropological cosmology--in either its Platonic or Biblical form--as true.

A very different way of reading Plato on this issue is laid out in Catherine Zuckert's new book Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. This massive study of all of the Platonic dialogues (888 pages long!) is organized around the dramatic dating of the dialogues rather than the dating of their writing by Plato. Her insight is that each dialogue fits into a dramatic context in which the strengths and weaknesses of Socrates' philosophic approach are assessed in comparison with four other philosophers prominent in the dialogues--the Athenian Stranger, Parmenides, Timaeus, and the Eleatic Stranger.

Zuckert suggests that Socrates distances himself from the cosmological reasoning of the Athenian Stranger and Timaeus. Socrates is skeptical about any claim that human beings can attain full knowledge of the whole, she claims. Furthermore, Socrates also doubts that the order of human life can be governed by the order of cosmic intelligibility. Socratic philosophy, she concludes, will be a search for wisdom that never ends in complete knowledge; and although we will never understand completely the order of the universe, we can understand something about the order of human desires as a guide for human action and thought.

In contrast to Brague's reading of Plato, Zuckert stresses Socrates' quest for understanding human nature on its own terms and his skepticism about appeals to cosmic design. If Zuckert is right--as I think she is--then Socrates is not that far from the skeptical naturalism of David Hume and Charles Darwin.

For some other posts related to this topic, go here, here, here, and .here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Leon Kass and the Demise of the Council on Bioethics

Last week, President Obama abolished the President's Council on Bioethics, which had been established by the Bush Administration in 2001 under the chairmanship of Leon Kass. Peter Lawler has written a statement on his termination as one of the members of the Council.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, I will miss the high intellectual level of discussion fostered by the Council both through its meetings and through its reports. I agree with Lawler that Kass directed the Council in such a way as to promote a Socratic discussion of the deep philosophical questions raised by biotechnology, and it is rare for any government agency to do anything like this. By contrast, President Obama seems to have no interest in such philosophical debate.

On the other hand, I have always been disturbed by Kass's unreasonable scorn for modern science and by his dishonesty in his management of the Bioethics Council. As I have often noted on this blog, Kass's deep fear of modern science as impious and immoral distorts his view of everything associated with modern science and technology.

Kass's dishonesty was evident in 2004 when he pressured the White House to dismiss Elizabeth Blackburn from the Council because of her firm disagreement with Kass. Along with the voluntary resignations of William May and Stephen Carter, this created three vacancies. Kass successfully recommended three replacements--Benjamin Carson, Peter Lawler, and Diana Schaub. Many people at the time noted that all three of these people were in general agreement with Kass, and so it was clear that Kass was being careful to insure that the majority of the Council would be on his side.

I was particularly shocked by Schaub's appointment. Shortly before her appointment, I had met her at Hillsdale College where we were participating in a week-long lecture series on biotechnology. I was disappointed by the shallowness of her lecture, which suggested that she knew nothing at all about the subject. Apparently, Kass appointed her because she was a friend of his, and she agreed with him.

And yet, in response to his critics, Kass wrote an article for the Washington Post arguing that he knew nothing about the views of these three people, and that there was no political bias in his appointments. He suggested that he selected these three people only because they were obviously the most qualified people for the positions. Even some of Kass's friends were embarrassed by the blatant dishonesty in his statement.

Some of my posts on Kass can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Darwin's Barnacles

In 1836, Charles Darwin returned from his five year trip around the world on the Beagle. In 1837, he began writing out in notebooks the ideas that eventually would be elaborated as his theory of the origin of species. He married Emma in 1839. They moved to Down House in 1842, which would be their home for next 40 years until Darwin's death in 1882. By 1842, Darwin had written a thirty-five pages of a sketch of his theory of natural selection. By 1844, he had written a 231-page essay developing his theory. But then, oddly enough, he chose not to publish this work. Instead, in 1846, he began a meticulous study of barnacles that would not be completed until 1854. Only then would he return to his theory of the origin of species, and his Origin of Species was finally published late in 1859.

One of the big questions for Darwin scholars is why Darwin delayed the publication of his theory, and why he chose to spend eight years studying barnacles.

The best handling of this question is Rebecca Stott's book Darwin and the Barnacles (2003). This is one of the best books on Darwin that I have ever read. It is certainly one of the best-written. Stott is a novelist and a professor of English who writes with a wondrously evocative style.

Darwin's grandfather--Erasmus Darwin--had speculated in his book Zoonomia that all of life might have emerged ultimately from some simple aquatic life form. In 1844, Robert Chambers elaborated this idea in his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Indeed, Darwin recognized in Chambers' book his own theory of transmutation of species as traced back to some original marine life form. But despite the wide audience for Chambers' book, scientists (including Darwin) criticized him for engaging in wild speculation without meticulous empirical research to back it up. This was a lesson for Darwin--that he should not publish his theory until he had won the respect of the scientific community for his careful observational and experimental research. His research on barnacles would do that.

In studying marine invertebrates to see the gradation of differences between life forms, Darwin was following in the tradition of Aristotle's biology, which was recognized by Robert Grant, who became Darwin's mentor in Edinburgh. But Grant and Darwin had advantages over Aristotle. The microscope allowed them to see microscopic patterns of life that were invisible to Aristotle. Another advantage for Darwin is that the development of a postal system and a railway system allowed Darwin to contact people around the world who might collect barnacle specimens and barnacle fossils for him, and with whom Darwin could carry on discussions about the problems he faced. Stott shows how this allowed Darwin to develop a "barnacle network" that would later expand as he carried out his later research from his perch in Down. This global network of information--based largely on the global structures of the British Empire--created the conditions for collective scientific research far beyond anything available to Aristotle.

Stott lays out at least five ways in which Darwin's barnacle research advanced his theory of the origin of species. First, this research allowed him to see how the history of barnacles showed the variability of animals adapting to diverse environments for survival and reproduction, and in this history, there was no sharp demarcation between one species and another. Second, this research established Darwin's authority as an empirical scientist who would not engage in broad speculation until he had mastered the details of natural history. Third, this work on barnacles gave him time to allow the pressure to build among naturalists who were beginning to recognize the mutability of species. Fourth, his global network of correspondence in his barnacle research established connections with people around the world that could later be used for promoting his theory of species.

Finally, this work on barnacles gave Darwin time to develop his writing style--in which he combines accuracy of description, cautious hesitancy, and boldness of conclusions. As she indicates, this deft combination of caution and boldness is illustrated by one sentence in the last paragraph of the Introduction to the Origin: "Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained--namely, that each species has been independently created--is erroneous."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A You Tube Video on Arnhart

As part of the ceremonies for the awarding of the Presidential Research Professorships this year at Northern Illinois University, the university produced a short video on me. That video can now be found on You Tube.

The Deep History of the Channel Islands

At the end of our European trip, my wife and I spent four days on the Island of Guernsey, visiting family members who live near St Peter Port, the capital city of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Guernsey is an island of 25 square miles, 30 miles west of France's Normandy coast. We also travelled to the islands of Herm and Sark, which are included within the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

Even the casual tourist can hardly avoid noticing the signs of the deep history of the Channel Islands. There are many prehistoric sites of human occupation dating back to the Paleolithic. The earliest human migration in this part of the world was shaped by climate and biogeography. The end of the last Ice Age brought rising sea levels that created Guernsey as a island. This deep history from prehistory to the present is surveyed at the Guernsey Museum, which is based on the natural history collection of Fredrick Corbin Lukis, who was the leading archaeologist of Guernsey in the nineteenth century. The work of Lukis is continued today by Heather Sebire and other archaeologists associated with the Guernsey Museum. Sebire is the author of The Archaeology and Early History of the Channel Islands (2005).

The political history of Guernsey is remarkable. In 933, Guernsey became part of the Duchy of Normandy. When Duke William II conquered England in 1066, Guernsey became a possession of the English Crown. Even today, Guernsey is not part of the United Kingdom. Instead, it continues to be a Crown Dependency. Queen Elizabeth II rules Guernsey as Duke of Normandy. Although Guernsey has been politically autonomous for centuries, its laws must be approved by the Privy Council, and its defense and foreign policy are managed by Great Britain.

One can see here the transition from feudalism to modernity. The Island of Sark has been the one remaining feudal state in Europe until last year, when a general election transformed Sark for the first time into a democratic regime. Previously, Sark has been governed by feudal laws dating back to Queen Elizabeth I. The island has been ruled by a Seigneur who holds it as a fiefdom from the Queen. The legislative body, Chief Pleas, has benn governed by the 40 heads of family descended from the original feudal landowners.

No motorized vehicles are permitted on this island of 2 square miles with 600 inhabitants. Except for some tractors, people travel around the island on bicycles. Visiting the island creates a strange feeling of going back in time.

Sark's feudal system was challenged in the 1990s when the Barclay brothers--Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay--purchased the island of Brecqhou from Sark in 1993. They discovered that the feudal laws of Sark required that they pay a 13th of the purchase price each year to Seigneur John Michael Beaumont, their feudal lord. They also discovered that under the feudal law of primogeniture, the landed property of the Barclay brothers on Brecquou would have to be passed entirely to the eldest son of the elder Barclay.

To overturn this feudal regime, the Barclay brothers launched lawsuits claiming that Sark's feudalism violated the European Convention on Human Rights. This eventually led to the adoption of a democratic constitution for Sark, which was put into effect last December with a popular election. But then, oddly enough, the election was divided between two factions--those supporting the democratic reforms proposed by the Barclay brothers and those supporting the old feudal ways. The majority of the voters supported the feudal landowners who warned that the political and economic development favored by the Barclay brothers would ruin the feudal traditions distinctive to Sark.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Philosophy of Sea Sponges: Aristotle, Grant, and Darwin

While travelling through Scotland last week, my family stopped to explore some beautiful coastal areas with tidal pools. Examining the life in those Scottish tidal pools reminded me of Robert Grant's study of the sea sponges that he found along the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, and of how important Grant's work was in shaping Darwin's earliest zoological interests.

Some of the earliest proponents of evolution speculated that all life might have descended ultimately from some simple marine invertebrate. In the early 1820s, Grant studied sea sponges to show that they might be a descendant of those first living forms. After all, they seem to live at the border between plants and animals. Grant's experiments and careful observations led him to show that although sea sponges look like plants, they exhibit some of the activities of animal life such as digestion and voluntary movement.

In his research, he studied everything that had been written about sea sponges. He was especially intrigued by Aristotle's extensive work on sea sponges, showing that these creatures really were at the border of plants and animals. Grant saw himself as continuing the research that had been started by Aristotle. He studied Aristotle's text in the original Greek. He wrote:

"But the philosophy of the sponge, the immutable foundations on which scientific discriminations of the species ought to rest, the minute investigation of the mechanism, the composition, and the uses of all the parts of the animal, and of the extraordinary phenomenon it exhibits in the living state, --its mode of growth, --its kind of food, --its habits and diseases, --the means of cultivating an animal, which has so long rendered important services to mankind, --its mode of propagating the species, and extending them over the globe, and the great purposes which it is destined to fulfil in the universe, have remained where Aristotle left them, or rather, in this branch of study, mankind have gone backward ever since his time."

In 1826, Darwin came under Grant's influence when Darwin (at age 16) began work as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh. He found his medical training classes boring. But he enjoyed doing zoological studies with a group of Edinburgh students who had formed the Plinian Natural History Society, and Grant was the predominant influence over them.

Darwin presented a paper to this group--his first scientific paper--supporting Grant's view that the eggs of all zoophytes show spontaneous motion. Darwin continued this research on invertebrates during his voyage on the Beagle. Then he 1837, he made a note in his transmutation notebook about the importance of this for his emerging evolutionary thinking: "Prove animals like plants; trace gradation between associated & non-associated animals-- & the story will be complete."

Between 1846 and 1854, Darwin devoted all of his research to a massive study of all the species of barnacles, which established his scientific reputation before publishing his ORIGIN OF SPECIES.

This whole story of how Darwin's evolutionary reasoning was advanced by the study of marine invertebrates as first spurred by his time with Robert Grant is elaborated in Rebecca Stott's book DARWIN AND THE BARNACLE.

But for me the most interesting point here is how this illustrates the connection between Darwin's natural philosophy and the intellectual tradition of zoological research begun by Aristotle and then renewed by people like Grant.

That one could draw broad philosophical ideas from the study of seemingly insignificant organisms was a fundamental assumption of Aristotle's biology. But after Aristotle, few philosophers followed his lead. Modern natural philosophy renewed that Aristotelian tradition in the work that eventually led to Darwin's evolutionary science.

The thought that biological research might illuminate the deepest questions of philosophy--questions about the origins of life and natural order and the place of human life within that natural order--originated with Aristotle. The idea of bringing together modern biological research and philosophy as part of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education" has its roots in Aristotle's biological philosophizing.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

War and Population in Human Social Evolution

While travelling in Scotland and England, it has been good to read some articles in the June 5th issue of SCIENCE on human social evolution. One article by Samuel Bowles argues that group selection through warfare created the conditions for social cooperation and morality. Another article by Mark Thomas et al. argues that increases in population density have fostered technological and symbolic complexity in human cultural evolution. In the same issue of the journal, Ruth Mace has a "perspectives" article on these two papers. The June 6th issue of THE ECONOMIST has an article on these papers.

Bowles claims that human morality--concern for the well-being of others and the willingness to sacrifice for them--arises from group selection in warfare among foragers in the late Pleistocene and the early Holocene. He reaches this conclusion by surveying the archaeological evidence for ancient warfare and the ethnographic evidence for warfare among historic foraging groups. He also formulates his reasoning in a formal model.

This argument that human beings evolved to cooperate in order to compete in war with those outside their group was set forth by Darwin as a key factor for the evolution of the moral sense. Later, people like Richard Alexander have elaborated the reasoning for this. But the Bowles article is one of the best surveys of the evidence from the most recent archaeological and ethnographic research.

This warfare hypothesis has a long history in political philosophy from Aristotle to Hume. But this Darwinian view of militaristic evolution now allows us to see how this emerged in the deep history of politics.

This history of Scotland and England provides plenty of illustrations of how human history has been shaped by warfare. Touring the castles of Great Britain reminds us of the history of warfare. And in some cases--for example, Edinburgh Castle--there is archaeological evidence that the site of the castle has been fortified for 6,000 years or more.

The Thomas article raises the question of why the material artifacts of culture--such as tools, weapons, and art--wax and wane in the archaeological record. The answer set forth in the article is that this reflects fluctuations in the density of population. A more dense population makes it more likely that cultural knowledge will accumulate over time through the exchange and transmission of information.

The invention of agriculture creates dense human populations and thus more cultural learning. Modern commercial and industrial societies have created an explosive density of population that fosters cultural evolution. As David Christian has shown, the whole history of human social evolution can be seen as the progress in collective learning associated with increases in population density and global exchanges of information. This explains why the emergence of philosophy and science is associated with urban centers.

Hume developed this point in suggesting that the expansion of population in modern commercial societies would have a civilizing influence. One of the most salient features of the modern commercial and industrial revolution is the huge increase in the global human population, which is associated with increases in collective learning that foster ever more complex mechanisms in channeling the flow of energy to sustain human social life.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Religion at Bath

I have been travelling over much of Scotland and England--from Inverness (where we looked for the Loch Ness monster) and the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides to Bath in England. Now, we're in Oxford. In a few days, we'll be flying to Barcelona.

I have found myself thinking a lot about the religious history of Great Britain as illustrating the universal desire for religious understanding diversely expressed in human history.

No place shows this more clearly than Bath. Here are the only thermal springs in Great Britain. Over the past two hundred years, the elaborate Roman baths from the first century A.D. have been excavated and reconstructed.

There is some limited archaeological evidence that hunter-gatherers camped around these mineral springs and perhaps invested them with religious meaning. When the Romans arrived, this part of Britain was ruled by an Iron Age tribe called the Dobunni, who saw the hot spring as a sacred place for the Goddess Sulis, who might have been thought to possess some curative powers.

Following their general practice, the Romans incorporated this native religious tradition into their own as they built a temple here to Sulis Minerva.

Later, Christians destroyed the Roman baths and temple and built their own city on top of the ancient Roman ruins. It was not until late in the 18th century that the newly emerging scientific culture of Britain led British scientists to uncover the ancient ruins. The cathedral of Bath Abbey was built on the site. Originally, it was Roman Catholic. But then the Reformation brought the conversion of the cathedral into an Anglican church.

So here we see a tradition of religious belief in Bath that stretches over thousands of years, perhaps even back to the earliest settlement of Britain by foragers. This to me shows the evolutionary history of a natural human desire for religious understanding. But the scientific study of the archaelogical history of this site also shows a natural desire for scientific understanding that drives our modern disposition to want to understand this human history.

Some people would say that this scientific understanding could eventually satisfy human beings so fully that they would not need religious belief. But, as I have often argued on this blog, I cannot see how that scientific understanding could ever completely answer those questions of ultimate explanation and existential concern that drive the longings of religious life.

Some of our travels in Scotland included visits to ancient prehistoric burial sites. And of course many of the lovely parish churches across Britain have old cemeteries. The burial of the dead is one of those distinctive human practices that shows a human symbolic capacity that raises questions about the meaning of life and death and conceptions of an afterlife.

It is not clear to me that a science of deep history can satisfy that human yearning to find some eternal meaning to our lives that elevates us above the contingencies of natural history in which all living things come into being and pass away.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Energy and Symbolism in the Deep History of Scotland

Travelling in Scotland, my family and I attended two services last Sunday at two different churches in Glasgow affiliated with the Church of Scotland. In the morning, we attended a neighborhood church. In the evening, we attended the beautiful Glasgow Cathedral.

We were surprised that the sermons at both services referred to a deep controversy over homosexuality in the church. We learned that earlier in the week a General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had debated the question of whether homosexual clergy should be supported by the Church. A similar debate has divided the Church of England in recent decades, leading to some traditionalist Anglican churches breaking away from the Anglican communion in Great Britain. Now, it seems that a similar issue is dividing the Calvinist churches in the Church of Scotland.

In the morning service, we heard a liberal clergyman argue for a full acceptance of homosexual clergy as an expression of Christian love. He compared this to the debate over slavery: members of the Church of Scotland had originally supported slavery as sanctioned by the Bible, but eventually they saw that slavery was wrong as contrary to the universal love teaching of Jesus. Similarly, he argued, we will someday see that the debate over homosexuality should be settled by this principle of universal love. But even as he made this argument, he said that this would require setting aside the teaching of scripture, which condemns homosexuality, in favor of the progressive revelation of the Holy Spirit in history.

The problem then is that the Calvinists separated from the Catholic Church based on an appeal to the Bible as the sole authority for Christian doctrine, but then they discovered that on issues like slavery (and maybe homosexuality), the Bible is not a good guide. So they are torn apart by their commitment to scriptural authority and their sense that scripture is not always reliable in its moral teaching.

This illustrates the importance of symbolic understanding in human cultural evolution. Human beings are unique in their capacity for symbolic evolution--for developing traditions of symbolic learning that gives meaning to their lives--which includes the appeal to Biblical texts as the symbolic ground of moral experience. But then they struggle over the meaning of this symbolism and its adequacy for handling their problems.

Travelling around Scotland, one sees the ancient remains of prehistoric burial sites--burial cairns built of rocks arranged in a pattern that suggests some kind of ceremonial significance--and perhaps some kind of religious conception of life and death. Here then one sees the uniqueness of human symbolic evolution. But one also wonders about the conflicts that arise as human beings disagree about the meaning of those symbolic traditions. After all, one cannot study the history of Scotland without thinking about the bloody wars of religion, in which people slaughtered one another over religious issues.

But then there's another side to the deep history of human life. As I indicated last year in my post on David Christian's book on deep history, one theme in human deep history is the progressive evolution in the human power for channelling the flow of energy to sustain ever larger populations of human beings. One can see this in the modern history of Scotland. Advances in the history of science and engineering--for example, James Watt's invention of the steam engine and Thomas Telford's work in building the infrastructure of Scotland and England--show the increasing power of human ingenuity in controlling the flow of energy for human benefit.

But how is this related to the evolution of human symbolic meaning? By the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, poets and philosophers had begun to lament the economic and technological power of human beings as failing to provide the symbolic meaning that human beings crave.

The Church of Scotland struggling over the adequacy of the Bible for resolving the moral debate over homosexuality illustrates the human need for symbolic meaning that goes beyond physical survival and material comfort. A Darwinian account of human evolution must account for this natural desire for religious understanding and make sense of the human existential concern for meaning in the universe.

The deep history of human life must include not only the evolutionary increase in the human power for channelling energy to human purposes but also the evolution of symbolic traditions of meaning in answering the existential questions of life.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Deep History of the Scottish Highlands

The many Darwin celebrations remind us that this is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES. But there's another 150th anniversary in the history of evolutionary science. In the spring of 1859, John Evans and Joseph Prestwich announced in England that they had verified the discovery of some human-made flint tools in association with the fossil remains of some extinct animals. Although others had presented similar evidence in earlier years, this was the first generally recognized evidence of the antiquity of human beings. Previously, the Western world was dominated by the Biblical chronology of Bishop James Ussher that dated the origin of the world to 4004 B.C. The scientific world in the early 19th century came to agree that the earth was much older than 6,000 years. But it was still widely believed that the human species appeared for the first time no sooner than 6,000 years ago. But beginning in 1859, more and more scientists began to accept the conclusion that human beings had existed in deep time along with extinct species of other animals.

And yet even today political scientists--and social scientists generally--don't study the deep evolutionary history of human beings as stretching back for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. What difference would it make for the study of politics if social scientists were to study human politics against the background of such deep history?

I have been thinking about this while travelling in England and Scotland. Today, my wife and I and our niece are in Inverness, Scotland, which is the ancient capital city of the Scottish Highlands. We visited the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, which has a remarkable exhibit on the natural history of the Highlands over 3 billion years. I have never seen a museum exhibit that so broadly surveys the geological, social, and political history of life for a particular region. This is the kind of deep history of politics that began in the Scottish Enlightenment and that was carried forward by Darwin and then by later evolutionary studies. This is the kind of deep political history that I would like to develop.

The museum exhibit reflects the work of John Horne, an important Scottish geologist who wrote THE GEOLOGICAL STRUCTURE OF THE NORTH-WEST HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND in 1907. Some of the material in the museum was originally collected by Horne, who devoted his life to studying the archaeology, geology, natural and social history in and around Inverness.

The museum exhibit begins with the first 3 billion years of the Highlands in earth histoy. It then turns to the arrival of the first Highlanders in the Mesolithic 9,000years ago with the beginning of the forgaging way of life, followed by the start of metalworking in the Bronze Age.

The exhibit then turns to the emergence of a warrior society among the Picts in the Iron Age, which is represented by Pictish symbol stones from the Highlands.

The exhibit then surveys the foundations of modern Scotland through the history of the Scots, Vikings, and Normans, the history of medieval Inverness, and complex mixture of factors that constituted Gaelic language and culture. The exhibit also covers the ecological conditions of Highland life.

Next, the exhibit narrates the wars with England, the Reformation, and the civil wars. A large part of the exhibit is devoted to the Jacobite revolution, when the Highlanders sought to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.

The broad cultural and economic influence of the Highlands on Scottish history up to the end of the twentieth century is a big part of the end of the exhibit.

What difference does it make to political science to take such a broad view of human political history?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows of other museum exhibits that show the kind of deep evolutionary history of human politics and culture that I saw at the Inverness Museum.