Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Darwin to Mao?--Pusey on Chinese Darwinism

In 1898, Yan Fu published a Chinese translation of Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics. This introduced Darwin's theory of evolution into China, which became one of the most influential Western ideas among Chinese intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century.

The history of Darwinism in China has been told by James Reeve Pusey in two books--China and Charles Darwin (Harvard University Press, 1983) and Lu Xun and Evolution (SUNY Press, 1998). In the first book, Pusey studies the history of Chinese Darwinism from 1895 to the Republican Revolution of 1911, and he shows the influence of Darwinian ideas on Yan Fu, Kang Yuwei, Liang Qichao, Sun Yatsen, and the young Mao Zedong. In the second book, he studies the influence of evolutionary thinking on Lu Xun (1881-1936), who is often regarded as China's greatest modern writer, and who was hailed by Mao in 1937 as "the sage of the New China."

Two main ideas run through Pusey's books. The first idea is that Social Darwinian thinking in China prepared the way for the triumph of Chinese Marxism and the rule of Mao Zedong, and thus Darwinism bears the blame for Mao's brutal rule. Just as Richard Weikart and other proponents of intelligent design theory and creationism have tried to show the line of influence "from Darwin to Hitler," as an example of the immoral consequences of Darwinian science, so Pusey tries to show the historical connection "from Darwin to Mao."

Pusey's second main idea is that evolutionary science cannot explain human beings and human social life because it cannot explain morality as based on a transcendent intuition of right and wrong that is beyond nature and thus beyond natural science. This second idea is related to the first: because Darwinian science cannot properly understand morality, it cannot support the human moral sense of good and evil that could have resisted the evils of Maoist rule. This second idea rests upon a Kantian transcendental idealism that Pusey assumes, but without any elaboration or argumentation. He thus takes the side of Frances Cobbe, who warned in her early review of Darwin's Descent of Man that Darwin's rejection of the Kantian view of morality as transcending natural human experience would destroy all morality.

To the first idea--that Darwinism led to Maoism--I have two responses. My first response is to point out that Chinese Darwinism was a crude distortion of Darwin and Darwinian science. In fact, Pusey himself admits this in some passages where he notices that the Chinese Darwinians used popular slogans like "survival of the fittest" and "struggle for survival" without any understanding of Darwinian science.

My second response is that the big mistake in Chinese thinking that led to Mao's rule was the utopian perfectionism of state socialism as the solution for all human problems, which included the failure to see how moral order arises best in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society rather than through state coercion. Darwinian liberals like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner saw that state socialism was inherently despotic, because it ignored the natural disposition for omnipotent rulers strive for exploitative dominance. A Darwinian view of human beings as naturally limited in their knowledge and their virtue supports the need for a liberal state that limits the power of political rulers and secures the freedom of civil society.

To Pusey's second idea--that human morality cannot be explained by natural science--my response is that he has failed to adequately support this conclusion. To do that, he would have to work through Darwin's account of morality--particularly, in The Descent of Man--and the elaboration of Darwinian ethics by people like Edward Westermarck, and then he would have to show how this Darwinian account of morality fails. He would then have to offer his alternative explanation of morality, and show its superiority to the Darwinian explanation. He implies that he accepts a Kantian view of morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of "noumenal" experience that is beyond natural experience and scientific explanation. But he never lays out his case for Kantian transcendentalism, and so he never faces up to the serious difficulties in such a position.

Pusey indicates that the primary idea that Chinese intellectuals derived from Darwin was the "law" of "survival of the fittest," understood as "the weaker go down before the stronger, the weaker nation, the weaker race" (CCD, 3-4).

This idea resonated with the Chinese because at the end of the 19th century, China was humiliated by the power of the Western imperialism and then by the power of the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War. Considering the grand history of Chinese civilization stretching back for over two millennia, this weakness before foreign threats caused an anxious desire to explain what was wrong. Darwin seemed to explain this--that history is a struggle for power, and that China's survival would require a struggle to become strong enough to avoid extinction.

From his travels around the world on the Beagle, Darwin had directly observed the imperial expansion and enslavement by which the strong conquered the weak, and he inferred that such group-against-group conflict was a factor of human evolution. But his realistic understanding of the rule of force in human history was compatible with his understanding of how the evolved "moral sense" of human beings allowed them to condemn the unjustified rule of the strong over the weak. His life-long hatred of slavery was one manifestation of the moral emotions of evolved human nature.

On May 4, 1860, in a letter to Charles Lyell, Darwin wrote: "I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved 'might is right,' & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right" (Correspondence, Cambridge University Press, 1993, vol. 8, p. 189).

But while Darwin was amused by such a crude misreading of his Origin of Species, Pusey suggests there is some truth to it, when he says that Yan Fu "would have been hard-pressed to prove Darwin had not proved what the squib said he had" (CCD, 67). And yet, in many passages, Pusey says that Chinese Social Darwinism was clearly not Darwinian at all. He writes that "much of what was called Darwinism was not really Darwinian" (CCD, 456). And he identifies Lu Xun's "unDarwinian Darwinian argument" as actually "pseudoscience" (LXE, 137).

Actually, the Chinese Darwinians resisted the teaching of "might makes right" by seeing in Darwinism a scientific proof for a utopian belief in perfectionist progress. Pusey rightly criticizes them for not recognizing that any view of the universe as progressing toward some state of perfection assumes a cosmic teleology that is denied by Darwinian science.

In a few passages in Darwin's writing, Darwin does seem to endorse the idea of evolution as progressive and perfectionist. Pusey likes to quote from the end of the Origin: "As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" (489).

Pusey rightly criticizes this passage from Darwin for failing to explain the meaning of "progress" and "perfection," and for failing to show how progression towards perfection could be compatible with his evolutionary thinking (CCD, 14; LXE, 51-55). But Pusey does not notice that this passage contradicts others in the Origin. In one, Darwin says: "Natural selection will not produce perfection" (202). In another, he indicates that species are never perfectly adapted to their circumstances, because circumstances change (82-83). And yet, Darwin recognized that it is hard to ignore the appearance of trends in evolution towards complexity of organization and intelligence. Many evolutionary biologists today would say that we can recognize such trends without speaking of "progress," which carries an implicit judgment of worth or value.

With respect to morality, Darwin does indicate in the Descent that he sees moral progress, particularly as people have learned to extend their moral sympathy to ever wider groups of human beings. But he attributes this moral progress largely to cultural evolution rather than organic evolution, and he never sees a historically determined plan of progress such as was adopted by Marx and Mao.

Pusey writes: "'Perfectionism,' the idea that a perfect human being or even society is in the making, is another 'Darwinian' idea with no Darwinian evidence" (CCD, 454). But it was exactly this utopian idea of cosmic perfectionism that led to Mao's tyranny. If one believes that one is advancing the perfect end towards which history is moving, that cosmic end justifies any means. Mao and the Marxists were moved by a cosmic Machiavellian idealism that is contrary to the realist naturalism of Darwinian science.

Pusey indicates that for the Chinese Darwinists, freedom of thought was unsatisfying if there was no unity of thought enforced by the state--"one faith that was good for all China," a "new unifying faith" (CCD, 234-35). This longing for a "new unifying faith" enforced by the state under one leader is blind to the possibility of moral order arising from an open civil society. There is nothing between the individual and the state. By contrast, Darwin's account in the Descent of Man of how morality evolves shows the emergence of moral order through the natural and voluntary associations of social life, without any need for state coercion or moral leadership of a ruler.

The failure to see how moral order can arise in civil society goes back deep into ancient Chinese thought. Pusey quotes the ancient philosopher Mozi as an example of this (CCD, 235). Mozi wrote that "in ancient times, when people first came into being and before there were governments or laws, each person followed their own norm for deciding what was right or wrong" (chapter 11). This brought chaos. So they established a state with one ruler--"the best person among the most worthy" to be the "Son of Heaven." Mozi explained: "If we look into how good order was maintained in the world, what do we find? Was it not simply because the Son of Heaven was able to unify the norms followed within the world that he was able to maintain good order in it?"

Mozi went on to argue that the "Son of Heaven" must be seen as enforcing the cosmic moral law of "Heaven" (chapter 26). "Heaven desires what is right and dislikes what is not right." "There is the Son of Heaven to govern them. The Son of Heaven does not make up his own standard. There is Heaven to govern him."

Mozi also argued that the people must believe in ghosts and spirits who reward the good and punish the bad (chapter 31). Without such beliefs in supernaturally enforced morality, the people would collapse into disorder.

Mozi's reference to the "ancient times" before government in which "each person followed their own norm for deciding what was right and wrong" seems to indicate the primitive, foraging life before the establishment of the agrarian state. But with the emergence of that state, moral order would be enforced by the "Son of Heaven." (There is a remarkable similarity to what Plato says in the Republic and the Laws about state order requiring central enforcement of moral unity of thought backed by a political religion.)

This traditional Chinese belief in the need for a state-imposed morality from the Son of Heaven prepared the way for Mao. One can see this in Pusey's comments about how the "new morality" sought by Chinese intellectuals in the 20th century was understood to be a "public morality" rather than a "private morality." It had to be "a morality to be followed by citizens for the good of the nation, a morality of the people for the People" (CCD, 238). It's a short step from this to the slogan of the Gang of Four--"politics in command" (LXE, 149). To look to the moral order of the "national group" ignores groups in civil society. The whole moral order of society must be centrally controlled by the political rulers, who must leave no room for moral freedom in a civil society. This is totalitarianism.

According to Pusey, Darwin's scientific naturalism subverts morality by teaching that we live in an "amoral universe" that provides no cosmic support for moral norms. Against this, Pusey sees "Confucius's bedrock belief in a moral universe," because Confucius (like Mencius) thought that "morality was of Heaven" (CCD, 255-56, 411).

Although the Chinese Darwinians professed to be materialists, Pusey observes, they were actually idealists, insofar as they assumed the universe was moral and thus agreed with Confucius. From this point of view, Lu Xin and Mao Zedong were Confucian idealists, because they believed that the cosmic history of the universe was moving towards moral perfection. They were transcendental idealists without realizing it. In the moral rhetoric of people like Lu Xun and Mao, Pusey believes, we see that our "sense of justice" shows an "intuition" of a "transcendent truth," which expresses a Confucian idealism that denies Darwinian naturalism (CCD, 257; LXE, 69-76, 104-107).

It should be noted, however, that Pusey never substantiates his claim that Confucius and Mencius believed that "morality is of Heaven." As many readers of the Confucian classics have noticed, Confucius and Mencius are vague about "Heaven." They certainly don't lay out any clear conceptions of a moral cosmology governed by supernatural powers.

Confucius and Mencius show the same ambiguity about moral cosmology that one sees in Plato's dialogues. On the one hand, Plato seems to clearly lay out a moral cosmology--the Idea of the Good in the Republic, a divine cosmology of eternal rewards and punishments in the Laws, and the moral cosmos of the Demiurge in the Timaeus. On the other hand, many readers have noticed that the skeptical questioning of Socrates often seems to undercut any dogmatic faith in moral cosmology.

Even if we accept Pusey's assumption that Confucianism is an idealism based on moral cosmology, we have to notice that in identifying Mao and the Chinese Marxists as Confucian idealists, he contradicts his claim that Darwinian naturalism was the true basis of Mao's triumph.

We must wonder whether the true ground of modern totalitarianism is cosmic idealism. Pusey shows the influence of Ernst Haeckel on Lu Xun, and he shows that Haeckel manifested a pantheistic idealism, despite his professed materialism. Some historians have shown the deep influence of Haeckel on Nazi thought. When one notices also that most of the German philosophers who supported the Nazi party were moral idealists who looked to the tradition of Plato, Kant, and Fichte, then one must be even more skeptical of Pusey's claim that Darwin's moral naturalism was somehow responsible for Mao's totalitarian rule.

In the end, we are back with the debate between Cobbe and Darwin. Can we explain morality as arising from human experience--human nature, human culture, and human judgment--as Darwin believed? Or must we appeal to some trans-human order--cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason--as Cobbe believed? Which position is likely to be most supportive of human virtue and freedom?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Were the Bushmen in Locke's State of Nature?

In some previous posts, I have argued that modern evolutionary studies of human social life in the Paleolithic or "Old Stone Age" (2.5 million years to 12,000 years BP) confirms much of what John Locke described as the original "state of nature." Locke quotes from Joseph Acosta and other authors of books reporting on the primitive foraging societies of people in the New World and elsewhere. In his edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett indicates in his notes that Locke had many such books in his library, and that Locke's notebooks show evidence of his careful reading of these natural histories of politics. "In the beginning, all the world was America."

Later political philosophers--including the Scottish philosophers of the 18th century, Rousseau, and Marx--continued to debate the character of the original state of human beings as a standard for what is humanly possible. So, for Marx and Engels, for example, the idea that primitive human societies were communistic provided support for Marx's vision of a communistic future.

Here, then, is an example of a fundamental debate in the history of political philosophy that rests on empirical claims about the history of politics that can be judged true or false by whether or not they are confirmed by the science of Darwinian anthropology.

One important line of evidence comes from ethnographic studies of foraging groups that have survived long enough in the modern world to be studied by anthropologists. One of the most intensively studied groups are the Bushmen of southern Africa. In the 1950s to the 1970s, they were studied as one of the last foraging societies in the world. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, they adopted agriculture and were forced by governmental programs to give up their foraging way of life. Genetic studies suggest that the Bushmen show the great genetic diversity that one would expect if they were remnants of the original human populations of Africa.

Although it's a mistake to look at them as if they were living fossils of our original Pleistocene ancestors, the foraging life of the Bushmen does at least offer hints of the sort of life lived by the earliest human beings.

Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, has been studying the Bushmen since the 1970s. She reports some of her research in an article--"Norm Enforcement among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen: A Case of Strong Reciprocity?," Human Nature, Summer 2005, vol. 16: 115-145. The data for this article is taken from her field notes on hundreds of conversations among the Bushmen during 1974 and 1996-1997. Herbert Gintis cites this article in his response to my Cato Unbound essay.

Reading Wiessner's article along with Locke's Two Treatises is fascinating because of the remarkable parallels between her descriptions of the Bushmen and Locke's account of human beings in the state of nature. This shows how a Darwinian evolutionary anthropology can support Lockean liberalism.

In Locke's state of nature, everyone is equally free, and everyone has "the executive power of the law of nature." This "executive power" is the power of everyone to defend lives and property against transgressors, and to punish transgressors in any way that reason and conscience dictate as required for reparation and restraint, which includes the power to kill murderers.

Everyone acts to satisfy his natural desires--such as the desires for self-preservation, sexual mating, parental care, and property--and everyone assumes that others will have similar desires that they want to satisfy. They can conclude, therefore, that to satisfy their own desires, they must satisfy the similar desires of others whose cooperation they need. Their natural desires become natural rights when they reflect on the conditions for satisfying their desires. Their natural rights correspond to their strongest natural desires or inclinations. Equal natural rights to life, liberty, and property are thus rooted in the "principles of human nature."

In this state of nature, people live in foraging groups, like the Indians in the New World, who live by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Children are dependent on parental care, and kinship ties are primary bonds of social life. Parents exercise authority over children, and patriarchal fathers exercise authority over kinship groups. Occasionally, some individuals will exercise political leadership, particularly as military leaders in time of war. But this authority is limited and episodic. There are no formal institutions of government. There is no common judge with authority to rule over them. But they enforce norms of good behavior through informal, customary agreement, with everyone having the right to punish those who violate the norms.

The informal enforcement of social norms can keep the peace. But the tendency to unrestrained vengeance and feuding, particularly when most people are "no strict observers of equity and justice," can turn the state of nature from a state of peace to a state of war, which is "full of fears and continual dangers." As people settle into an agricultural way of life, and thus abandon their foraging ways, population increases, and the disputes over land and other property become impossible to settle without some formal institutions of arbitration and punishment. Moreover, persistant wars with outside groups tend to turn temporary war leaders into permanent military commanders. For all of these reasons, people in foraging societies eventually consent to the establishment of formal governmental authority.

Locke explains that although everyone is naturally equal in the state of nature,

"I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of Equality: Age or Virtue may give Men a just Precedency: Excellency of Parts and Merit may place others above the Common Level: Birth may subject some, and Alliance or Benefits others, to pay an Observance to those to whom Nature, Gratitude or other Respects may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the Equality, which all Men are in, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion one over another, which was the Equality I there spoke of, as proper to the Business in hand, being that equal Right that every Man hath, to his Natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man" (II, 54).

He adds that children are not born in a full state of equality, which they attain only when they reach adulthood (II, 55). Moreover, those with severe mental disability or madness are treated as perpetual children, if they can never attain the freedom of choice that comes to normal adults (II, 60).

Consider the many ways that Wiessner's study of the Bushmen coincides with Locke's depiction of human beings in the state of nature.

Among the Bushmen, Wiessner claims, "all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others" (117). There is a "strong egalitarian norm that no adult can tell another what to do" (126). "All people as autonomous individuals are expected to stand up for their rights," and so everyone has the right to enforce the social norms of the group by punishing those who violate them (135).

Kinship ties are primary social bonds. Parents care for their children. But parents can call on extended kin to help in rearing their young. Until they reach maturity, children have no authority independent of their kin. Unmarried young males are particularly unruly, and they are often the objects of criticism.

The common sources of disputes include food-sharing, claims on land, sexual misbehavior (such as adultery), jealousy over possessions, stinginess, laziness, fighting, power struggles, and "big-shot behavior."

Punishment can take many forms--from mild to severe--mocking, mild criticism, harsh criticism, ostracism from the group, or violent acts. Although peace was usually maintained, there was always an underlying threat of violence, and sometimes disputes escalated into general brawls. Although everyone is free to punish transgressors, those who are judged to be too critical or harsh suffer from their bad reputation.

The Bushmen show what Christopher Boehm calls "egalitarian hierarchy." That is to say, that while they enforce norms of equality, they recognize that people are unequal in their talents and temperaments, and therefore some people will have more property, higher status, or more power than others. They distinguish between those who are "strong" and those who are "weak." The "strong" are those skilled in persuasion, mediation, hunting, gathering, music, or healing. Some who are judged to be superior in their social skills for mediation and persuasion become camp leaders.

But those who are powerful or influential invite leveling by those suspicious of "big-shot behavior." Wiessner writes:

"Weak and average people feel free to criticize the strong and are not reluctant to do so in their presence. Despite the fact that the strong are frequently under fire, they are able to maintain their positive reputations. In fact, some criticism may help rather than hurt their reputations, as it establishes the impression of equality in the face of real inequalities in productive abilities and social influence. The strong generally take mocking or pantomime with good humor, swallow criticism, or make amends. Sometimes they engage in self-leveling by getting drunk or making fools of themselves, thereby remaining 'one of the boys'" (129).

But, sometimes, when leaders are perceived as too aggressively assertive, they can be deposed and thus lose their power.

The norms enforced by the Bushmen correspond to the principles of social cooperation recognized by evolutionary theorists. People cooperate with their kin. People cooperate based on reciprocal exchange with tit-for-tat behavior and based on people's reputations for being cooperators or cheaters. And people cooperate through norms of strong reciprocity, because people are willing to enforce social norms by punishing violators even when the punishment is costly. They do this because they want to live in stable, cooperative groups.

Wiessner observes:

"Norms enforced through reward and punishment conformed closely to desires expressed by Ju/'hoansi hunters and healers who do more than their share to support the community, namely, to eat well and live on their land in stable groups of close kin . . . They also created conditions for what Hrdy . . . has proposed to be the fundamental social organization in human evolutionary history: to live in stable, cooperative breeding communities" (139).

Thus, the Bushmen live by what Locke calls "the Law of Nature" for the state of nature.

Many of my posts over the last month or so are relevant here. Other related posts can be found here, here, here. and here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Brooks on The Moral Naturalists

In today's New York Times (July 23), David Brooks has an op-ed essay on "The Moral Naturalists," which comments on some of the researchers who explain morality as rooted in human evolutionary psychology. Despite the brevity of the essay, he makes some good points, especially in the opening and closing paragraphs.

At the beginning, he writes:

"Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift of God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love. A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for outselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by.

"Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don't rely upon revelation or metaphysics: you observe people as they live."

I agree with the moral naturalists here in their empirical approach to morality--studying morality as it is manifested in how human beings live, rather than making a transcendent appeal to revelation or metaphysics.

At the end of his essay, Brooks writes:

"For people wary of abstract theorizing, it's nice to see people investigating morality in ways that are concrete and empirical. But their approach does have certain implicit tendencies.

"They emphasize group-cohesion over individual dissent. They emphasize the cooperative virtues, like empathy, over the competitive virtues, like the thirst for recognition and superiority. At this conference, they barely mentioned the yearning for transcendence and the sacred, which plays such a major role in every human society.

"Their implied description of the moral life is gentle, fair and grounded. But it is all lower case. So far, at least, it might not satisfy those who want their morality to be awesome, formidable, transcendent or great."

By contrast, I do recognize the competitive virtues by acknowledging the natural desires for social status, political rule, and courage in war. I also recognize the tragic conflicts that arise from diverse ranking of the natural desires that distinguish one moral tradition from another and one individual from another. And I recognize the yearning for the transcendent as an expression of the natural desire for religious understanding.

Brooks highlights the work of Jonthan Haidt, Marc Hauser, and Paul Bloom. Some of my posts on these three can be found here, here, and here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More on "Darwinian Liberalism" at "Cato Unbound"

The discusssion of my essay on "Darwinian Liberalism" at "Cato Unbound" continues. The responses by P Z Myers, Lionel Tiger, and Herb Gintis and my reply have all been posted.

If you do a Google search, you can see some of the blog discussion of this exchange. Two of the best blog posts that I have seen are those by Ron Bailey and Troy Camplin.

Friday, July 09, 2010

"Darwinian Liberalism" at "Cato Unbound"

This Monday (July 12), an essay of mine on "Darwinian Liberalism" will be posted at the "Cato Unbound" website, which is sponsored by the Cato Institute.

Over the next two weeks, they will post responses to my essay from P. Z. Myers (July 14), Lionel Tiger (July 16), and Herb Gintis (July 19).

Then, until the end of the month, the four of us will participate in a continuing discussion.

My essay is a summary of my argument for why libertarians should see Darwinian science as supporting their promotion of classical liberalism.

"Cato Unbound" is one of the more intellectually stimulating sites on the Web.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Political Egalitarianism During the Last Glacial

Are human beings naturally egalitarian or naturally hierarchical?

On the one hand, for most of human evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in foraging communities that were probably very egalitarian, with no one exercising despotic dominance over others.

On the other hand, for the past 5,000 years, most political communities have had rigid hierarchical structures, with those at the top exploiting those at the bottom.

Modern liberal democratic republics are officially based on the principle of human equality, with governmental authority based on the consent of the governed. But, obviously, these democratic states are hierarchical in that those at the top have more power, privilege, and property than those below them.

A little over ten years ago, I was excited to read a book manuscript by Christopher Boehm for Harvard University Press that helped me to think through this problem. The book was published in 1999 as Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. As suggested in the title, Boehm makes a complex--but persuasive--argument for human beings as combining hierarchical and egalitarian tendencies as shaped by their evolutionary history.

"My thesis," Boehm says, "is that egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings" (9-10). A society can have an "egalitarian hierarchy" in which the subordinates use sanctions--such as ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, or execution--to restrain "politically ambitious individuals, those with special learned or innate propensities to dominate." In every society, there will be leaders in some form. But an egalitarian society will allow only "a moderate degree of leadership" (154).

Against the "visionary democrats" like Marx and Engels who believed that hierarchical leadership could be totally abolished in the future withering away of the state into a classless society, Boehm defends the position of the "realistic democrats" who believe that a formal or informal system of checks and balances can allow for moderate leadership without exploitative rule of dominants over subordinates (256-57). There is, Boehm argues, "a universal drive to dominance." But that natural desire for dominance can be checked by the natural desire of subordinates not to be dominated (39).

Boehm supports his argument primarily through two types of evidence--primatological studies of chimpanzees and ethnographic studies of human foragers and tribesmen--which he uses to infer that the "Common Ancestor" of human beings as evolved in the Paleolithic was shaped for a foraging society of "egalitarian hierarchy."

While chimpanzees have a dominance hierarchy with an alpha male at the top, they show what Frans de Waal has called "egalitarian dominance" as opposed to the "despotic dominance" of rhesus monkeys. The rhesus alpha male is rarely challenged by his subordinates. But the chimp alpha male can be challenged by subordinates who create alliances to resist the alpha male who becomes too despotic. (Doesn't this sound like how Hobbes and Locke describe equality in the state of nature?)

Similarly, human foragers in small nomadic groups that live by hunting and gathering have ways to punish ambitious people who become too assertive. Individuals who become too proud and aggressive can be ridiculed or ostracized. Others in the group can simply refuse to obey their orders. Or, in extreme cases, those who become aggressively dominant can be killed.

Richard Lee, in his study of the Kung! San nomadic foragers in the Kalahari Desert, writes:

"Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement: 'Of course we have headmen . . . each of us is headman over himself.' Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in the camp." (1979:457)

Boehm concludes from this that human beings evolved in the Paleolithic for a social life of "egalitarian hierarchy" in which leaders would be strictly limited by vigilant subordinates ready to punish any overly assertive upstarts. But, then, beginning 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first urban agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize themselves to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, and administrative bureaucracies.

The profound meaning of this move in human history is captured well in the Old Testament, in First Samuel 8, where the people of Israel want to give up the informal leadership of judges and have a king, so that they can compete with all the other powerful agrarian states around them. Samuel warns them of the despotic oppression that will come from this. But they refuse to listen. Later, modern republican thinkers--John Milton, John Locke, and others--cite this as Biblical support for their rejection of monarchic absolutism and embrace of limited republican government.

Boehm sees modern republican government as a new form of the "egalitarian hierarchy" that once prevailed in the foraging groups of our Paleolithic evolutionary history. The universal dominance drive will express itself in the ambition of individuals who want to rule over others, but in a republican system of governance, their ambition is channelled and checked in ways that protect their subordinates from despotic dominance. If Boehm is right about this, then we can say that the cultural evolution of republican politics has produced a system of rule that conforms to the evolved natural desires of human beings as shaped in the Paleolithic.

But some people would say that this is only a highly speculative "just-so" story that cannot be supported with scientific evidence, because we have no scientific way to study human social behavior in prehistoric time. We can study the prehistoric evolution of human anatomy through the evidence of skeletal fossils. But how do we study the prehistoric evolution of human politics, considering that political behavior doesn't fossilize?

The answer to this question is provided in a recent article--Doron Schultziner, et al., "The Causes and Scope of Political Egalitarianism During the Last Glacial: A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective," Biology & Philosophy, June, 2010, 25: 319-346. One of the authors is Rebecca Hannagan, one of my colleagues in political science at NIU.

Here's the abstract: "This paper reviews and synthesizes emerging multi-disciplinary evidence toward understanding the development of social and political organization in the Last Glacial. Evidence for the prevalence and scope of political egalitarianism is reviewed and the biological, social, and environmental influences on this mode of human organization are further explored. Viewing social and political organization in the Last Glacial in a much wider, multi-disciplinary context provides the footing for coherent theory building and hypothesis testing by which to further explore human political systems. We aim to overcome the claim that our ancestors' form of social organization is untestable, as well as counter a degree of exaggeration regarding possibilities for sedentism, population densities, and hierarchical structures prior to the Holocene with crucial advances from disparate disciplines."

The Last Glacial is the last ice age, a climatic period that by radiocarbon dating began about 74,000 years ago and ended about 11,500 years ago. The Holocene epoch is the climatic period that stretches from about 11,500 years ago to the present. During the Last Glacial, climatic conditions were colder, more arid, and more unstable than during the Holocene.

The key point here is that the unusually stable climate of the Holocene epoch has provided the necessary conditions for human agrarian civilization over the past 11,500 years. Prior to that, the climate of the last ice age made sedentary, agrarian life impossible for our evolutionary ancestors, who could only live in small, nomadic foraging bands as they moved in search of sufficient food from wild plants and wild animals. The authors of this article argue that in the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial, human beings must have lived as egalitarian foragers, and thus our human ancestors during this prehistoric environment of evolutionary adaptation must have evolved for an egalitarian social and political life. The implication of this is that human beings are naturally egalitarian, despite the cultural evolution of hierarchy over the past 11,500 years.

Although I generally agree with the reasoning in this article, I see a fundamental ambiguity in the argument that is never cleared up by the authors. I should say that when I read an early draft of this paper, I pointed out this ambiguity in the paper. The authors made some revisions in response to my comments, but the ambiguity is still there.

Here's the problem. On the one hand, the authors adopt Boehm's reasoning, which suggests that they agree with him that the evolutionary adaptation of ancient human foragers was for "egalitarian hierarchy" with "a moderate degree of leadership." On the other hand, the authors contrast "political egalitarianism" to "political hierarchy" in a way that suggests that the ancient human foragers had no hierarchy at all, which would deny Boehm's position.

I think Boehm's right. I think human beings are naturally evolved for "egalitarian hierarchy," but they are not evolved for an absolute egalitarianism with no hierarchy at all. I detect a faint Marxist (or Rousseauean) propensity in this article--a wish to find a utopian egalitarianism in our evolutionary past to support the possibility of such utopian egalitarianism in our socialist future. The authors never come out and actually say this. But I can smell it.

They write: "Political egalitarianism is a social organization in which decisions are reached through deliberation and consensus, individuals do not command authority over, or coerce, other group members; social status, honor, and positions (if and when they exist) are voluntarily granted or withdrawn, and not inherited; and individuals can freely leave their group peers or residence. Political hierarchy is a social organization with opposite characteristics" (320).

Notice the dualistic opposition they set up--"political egalitarianism" is the opposite of "political hierarchy." This contradicts Boehm's claim that egalitarianism does not result from the absence of hierarchy, because human beings have never lived without at least some leadership. As Boehm says, "We always live with some type of hierarchy, which suggests that our behavior is constrained by human nature" (237).

Notice also the ambiguity of the parenthetical phrase about social positions of status in an egalitarian society--"if and when they exist"--which leaves the reader wondering whether they think positions of leadership can be totally eliminated or not. Later in the article, they repeat this odd phrasing--"leaders (if they exist) have little authority over group members" (326). Well, do they exist or not? We are not told, but we are left with the impression that egalitarian societies could have no leaders at all, which, again, would contradict Boehm, Lee, and others who argue that even the most egalitarian foragers have some form of leadership.

Another way in which this ambiguity is conveyed in the article is that the authors say that foragers use "levelling mechanisms" that "keep the political system as close to flattened as possible" (326). Well, how flat is it? We are never told. But the suggestion is that it could be completely flat. If that's the claim, then the authors would have to defend that radical assertion of complete equality without any hierarchy at all, which they never do.

Despite this disagreement, I can agree with everything in this article if it's interpreted as providing evidence and argumentation for Boehm's "egalitarian hierarchy."

The reasoning moves through six steps corresponding to the six parts of the article.

(1) They survey the data for global climatic change during the Last Glacial, and they infer that the dry, cold, and unstable climate would have forced human beings to live in small, foraging groups that roamed in search of plants, animals, and water. This would have made agriculture impossible. And this would have severely limited group size and forced the groups into a nomadic way of life.

(2) Ethnographic studies of foraging groups shows a "foraging spectrum" (Kelly 1995) that includes semi-sedentary foragers that show some hierarchical structure, and some anthropologists have concluded from this that our foraging ancestors in the Paleolithic could have been hierarchical (Hayden 1995). But the authors of this article argue that the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial would have forced Paleolithic foragers into a nomadic life, which would have limited the accumulation of personal property, forced food sharing, and restricted the size of the group. Consequently, they would have looked like the nomadic foragers of the Kalahari studied by Richard Lee.

They write: ". . . These limitations on group size make internal group affairs easier to maintain and hence reduce or eliminate the need to concentrate power in the hands of individuals who can resolve conflicts by coercive authority. . . This fluidity of band composition makes the domination of others very difficult, and arguably irrelevant" (327).

Notice, again, their ambiguous language: "reduce or eliminate" and "very difficult, and arguably irrelevant." But if they agree with Boehm and Lee, then they should say that hierarchy--at least moderate forms of leadership--cannot be eliminated or made irrelevant.

(3) Employing the logic of evolutionary biology, the authors argue that if having high rank in hierarchical societies conferred fitness advantages--reproductive success and better access to food and other valuable resources--then we can infer that natural selection would favor an innate desire for dominance. But at the same time, we can infer that there would also be an evolutionary pressure favoring an innate desire of subordinates not to be exploited by dominants. This would create two countervailing tendencies--the natural desire for dominance and the natural desire to be free from exploitative dominance.

This is in fact what we see in nomadic foraging bands. "One the one hand, the fact that foragers need leveling mechanisms means that there is an innate tendency of some individuals to exaggerate their rank and status. On the other hand, there exists an innate tendency to thwart others' attempts to gain power because it may beecome dangerous and harmful to oneself and one's peers" (329). What this means is that dominance behavior is never completely lost, but it can be balanced by the natural tendency of subordinates to resist dominance. This required subordinates to find ways to form coalitions to check dominants. The evolution of language could have made coalition-formation easier. And the invention of projectile hunting weapons could have increased the power of subordinates to challenge dominants.

But then, with the cultural evolution of farming and agrarian states, the innate disposition to dominance created ruling elites who could escape the leveling mechanisms used by subordinates in foraging societies.

Notice here that the authors of this paper clearly concede that dominance behavior is innate in all human societies, and therefore they implicitly concede that equality with no hierarchy at all is impossible.

(4) As the fourth step in their argument, they show how the fossil records of hominid brain-size, skeletons, and teeth supports the evolution of political egalitarianism in the Paleolithic. The increase in brain-size and the associated evolution of language allowed subordinates to cooperate in socially complex ways to check dominance behavior. The evolutionary reduction in sexual dimorphism (males being larger than females) and in the size of canine teeth is associated with egalitarianism, because males are less able to build and protect large harems.

(5) Archaeologists can see various kinds of empirical evidence for social and political hierarchy. If some people have been buried with signs of wealth, if some people have had larger or more elaborate housing, if there is monumental architecture, or if there are other signs of unequal resources, then we can infer that some people had more wealth, power, or status than others. The authors argue that there is very little evidence of this kind for hierarchy in the Paleolithic.

They do concede that Paleolithic cave art might be interpreted as evidence for shamans, who would have had superior status. But while this does suggest differences of social status, they argue, it does not require rigid hierarchy. Ethnographic studies of foragers shows that "social esteem is granted to shamans and other individuals who benefit the group (i.e. successful hunters) only by group members' consent, and shamans who abuse their role are constrained or even killed" (335).

(6) The authors conclude by explaining the transition from the political egalitarianism of the Paleolithic era to the political hierarchy of the Neolithic era. The transition to a sedentary life allowed the accumulation of wealth, which supported economic inequality. They observe: "some individuals are better than others at hunting, gathering, herding, cultivating land and so on, and those differences can translate into economic inequality if the ecological setting is stable enough" (337). The transition to larger and more dense populations with a greater division of labor favored political hierarchy as power was centralized and concentrated in a bureaucracy of specialists who coordinated the collective activity of the agrarian state.

For me--as a political theorist with an interest in biopolitical theory--what is most interesting about this article is how it provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage movement of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"In the beginning all the world was America": Political Evolution and Political Theory

I have argued that a true science of politics would be grounded in a "deep history" of politics stretching back to the Paleolithic age (2.5 million years to 12,000 years BP). To most political scientists and political theorists, this sounds silly, for at least two reasons. First, they assume that we can never know much about human political experience prior to the invention of writing, because in the absence of written records, any conjectures we might make about human politics in the Paleolithic must be wildly speculative, if not pure fantasy. The second reason is that most political scientists and political theorists believe that such speculative scenarios of prehistoric politics would add nothing important to our understanding of politics based on the recorded political history of the last few thousand years.

My response to the first point is that modern evolutionary science has been developing some ways for studying prehistoric politics that are both empirically and theoretically rigorous. This can't be dismissed as fantastic speculation. As an example, I will be writing a post on a new article surveying the evidence and reasoning for studying political egalitarianism during the last Ice Age.

In this post, I will respond to the second point by suggesting that a Darwinian deep history of politics continues a tradition of thought in the history of political theory, which should be taken seriously, therefore, by those political theorists who study that tradition.

At least since Plato, political philosophers have had to study the deep history of politics, because they have understood that political life is shaped by natural and social history. In Book 3 of Plato's Laws, for example, the Athenian Stranger attempts to trace the "original source of the political regime" (676a). He speaks about the ancient stories of disasters--like floods and plagues--that have destroyed most human beings and left only a tiny remnant living in primitive conditions. With civilization destroyed, they lived by herding and hunting. Without writing, there were no written laws, but only ancestral or customary laws. Here the first pattern for a political regime would be the paternal authority of older men in their families, which could lead to a patriarchal dynastic monarchy. Then, as population increased over long periods of time, human beings turned to farming, which supported the first cities. So Plato recognized the importance of the invention of agriculture as a crucial turning point in political evolution (680e-81a). He also saw that this evolution depended on the modes of survival and reproduction.

Living in small family groups, the first stories about the gods are told by parents, and children in their simplicity believe them, just as they adopt all the customs coming from their parents. Later, as various clans with different customs and beliefs come together, there must be lawgivers to select which customs and beliefs are best suited for the larger community (681a-81d).

The Athenian Stranger quotes from Homer as a source for his political history, because Homer "speaks somehow according to god, as well as according to nature." He speaks as a divinely inspired poet who sometimes will "hit upon many things that truly happen" (682a).

Plato's Athenian Stranger goes through the various kinds of political regime that have arisen in political history. His final aim in this political history is to support the conclusion that the best regime is a mixed regime that combines authority and freedom. The Persian regime represents monarchic authority, with too much slavery. The Athenian regime represents democratic rule, with too much freedom. It would be best to combine Persian authority and Athenian freedom under the rule of law (690d-702e).

Other ancient authors offered their own versions of the historical origins of politics. Perhaps the most elaborate account of political evolution in the ancient world is in Lucretius' On Nature (De rerum natura) (at the end of Book 5).

But it was the European discovery of the New World in 1492 that gave a powerful impetus to the study of political evolution in political theory. When Europeans discovered a whole world of human social life that had been unknown to them previously, this forced them into reformulating their traditional stories of human origins. In particular, they had to reconsider the Biblical account of human creation and social history.

Here was a turning point in human history as far-reaching as the invention of agriculture and the emergence of the first bureaucratic states. For the first time in human history, the entire earth was tied together in a network of economic, political, and intellectual exchange. One consequence of this was the thought that the American Indians might manifest the original condition of humanity.

That thought underlies Hobbes's conception of the state of nature (in Chapter 13 of The Leviathan). He describes this condition of human beings without government where "every man is enemy to every man," as a state of war where the life of man is famously described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

To the objection that such a condition has never really existed, Hobbes answers that, on the contrary, the American Indians still live in this state: "the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner."

In such a state of nature, without government, or any common authority, human beings are naturally equal, Hobbes thinks. He recognizes that, of course, human beings are naturally different in mind and body. But these natural differences are not so great as to give anyone unchallenged dominance over others. He explains:

"Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself."

There is some confusion in this description of the state of nature. On the one hand, Hobbes speaks of it as a "solitary" life, which suggests no social life at all. Yet, on the other hand, he recognizes "the government of small families" as bound together by "natural lust," and he also sees that the weak can form a "confederacy" to overcome the strong. So it seems that even without formal governmental authority, human beings would have a social order based on familial ties and social alliances. If so, then Hobbes's state of nature conforms to the kind of social life lived by nomadic foragers in stateless societies.

Like Hobbes, Locke--in the Two Treatises of Government--describes the state of nature as a condition where human beings live with "no common judge with authority," which is a condition of natural liberty and equality, in that each person is free to live as he pleases without dependence on the will of another.

And like Hobbes, Locke looks to the American Indians as showing this natural state. "In the beginning, all the world was America" (II, 49). And, thus, the American Indians provide "a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (II, 108).

Locke lays out a history of political evolution based principally on two sources--the many books on the social history of the American Indians by Europeans who had travelled in the New World and the Biblical history of politics in the Old Testament. This evolutionary history of politics is crucial for his argument that human beings are naturally equal in their freedom and that governments arise by their consent.

Locke's evolutionary history is tied to three factors--property, parental care, and political power--corresponding to three natural desires: self-preservation, reproduction, and political rule

(1) PROPERTY. In his history of property, Locke sees three stages of appropriation corresponding to the foraging life, the agrarian life, and the commercial life. The American Indians live as foragers who gather wild plants and hunt wild animals (II, 26). Assuming that each man asserts a property in his own person, he extends his property through the labor of gathering plants or hunting animals that he consumes.

With the invention of farming, human beings appropriate land to themselves by cultivating it to produce food for consumption by themselves and their families. If land is abundant and the human population low, there is no conflict over land use.

With the invention of money and development of commercial exchange, farmers can produce for the market, which gives them the incentive to expand their land claims, so that soon all the land has been claimed. Now, conflicts over the property in land requires a government to regulate the right of property by legislation.

Like Adam Smith, Locke marvels at how commercial exchange creates a spontaneous order in which strangers cooperate to produce something like a loaf of bread (II, 43).

(2) PARENTAL CARE. Locke regards the conjugal society of husband and wife as the "first society," which shows that human beings are naturally social, because they are naturally inclined to sexual mating. From this conjugal society arises the familial tie between parents and children. Comparing human mating with the mating systems of other animals, Locke sees that human beings show a long period of childhood dependency on parental care, so that for human beings, it is natural for parents to provide extensive care that provides not just for the existence of their offspring but for their nourishment and their education. Thus does family life as the "first society" arise from the natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding (II, 77-84).

Children are not born in a state of equal freedom, because they are dependent on their parents. But as they mature and acquire reason, they naturally grow into their natural freedom (II, 54-63). It was natural, however, for children in "the first ages of the world" to give a tacit consent to being ruled by their fathers, which created patriarchal political authority (II, 74-76).

(3) POLITICAL RULE. Since all individuals are by nature free, equal, and independent, Locke argues, no one can be put under the political power of another without his consent. By their unanimous consent, individuals agree to join a community, and then that community by majority consent can establish any form of government.

Locke recognizes two major objections to his reasoning. First, it is said that there are no historical cases of people who begin as free and equal and then meet to set up a government. Second, it is said that all individuals are born under a government to which they owe obedience, and they are not free to set up a new one (II, 100).

To the first objection, Locke answers that there is very little historical evidence of the state of nature and the establishment of government by consent only because government first arose before the invention of writing. But even so, we can find some evidence among the American Indians and other foraging people that originally they lived without government. We can also see in the Bible and other records stories of how government first arose.

We can see evidence that primitive societies commonly put themselves under patriarchal rulers or others who seemed best suited to rule them. Typically, tribal chiefs were war leaders who exercised little authority in time of peace. Locke sees evidence for this in the books about the New World and in the Bible (II, 101-12).

To the second objection--that all individuals are born under the authority of a government to which they have not consented--Locke answers by pointing to the obvious fact of the multiplicity of governments as showing that human beings have regularly established new governments. Moreover, the history of colonization provides clear cases of where people have left the governments under which they were born to enter a new government. This indicates that when natural born citizens obey their government, they are showing their tacit consent (II, 113-22).

Locke recognizes that the history of government is largely the history of conquest, and in wars of conquest, popular consent is ignored (II, 175-96). But when government rules by force alone, without any authority from popular consent, that government can be overthrown whenever enough people are discontented and have sufficient courage and opportunity to rebel. In other words, people are naturally inclined to meet force with force, when they think they are being exploited by tyrants. People can always choose to rebel against their government. And when they do, they have "appealed to Heaven," which is to say, they have invoked the God of battles (II, 240-43).

As suggested by both Hobbes and Locke, the ultimate ground of the natural right to equal liberty is the natural inclination of human beings to use violence in retaliating against those who exploit them. Machiavelli makes the same point when he observes that a prince who is hated by his people is easily assassinated.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.