Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Limitations of Behavioral Biopolitical Science (2)

In my previous post, I identified Man Is by Nature a Political Animal, edited by Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott, as a good survey of the research in behavioral biopolitical science.  This research constitutes a biological study of politics guided by the intellectual commitments of behavioralist political science, which assumes that any true science of politics must be a value-free science based on abstract causal models of behavior and empirical hypothesis-testing.  Much of this research is fascinating in showing how human biology shapes human politics in ways that have often been discussed on this blog.

But there are also some limitations to behavioralist biopolitics.  While it might explain some of the psychological preconditions for political experience, it does not explain the specific content of political experience as a moral debate over the common good.  Because of its traditional commitment to the fact-value dichotomy and the idea that science must be value-free, behavioralist biopolitical science is not empirical enough in its research, because it must ignore the empirical data of political speech and argumentation about the moral issues of political life.  In doing this, it must ignore the normative structure of animal movement as purposeful conduct.

By contrast, I have indicated my agreement with Ed Wilson that political science is "primarily the study of applied ethics," and thus a biologically grounded science of politics must study the biology of the moral sentiments, which will continue a tradition of empirical ethics that stretches from Aristotle to Hume to Darwin. 

Another limitation is that in pursuing the simplifications of abstract modelling, behavioralist biopolitics cannot account for the emergent irreducible complexity of political biology.

For example, consider this declaration by Hatemi and McDermott:  "The findings that shared genes can explain up to 50 percent of the variance in political attitudes was a stunning revelation to the discipline (see Alford, Funk, and Hibbing 2005; for an earlier version see Eaves et al. 1999)." 

They don't indicate to the reader, however, that this "stunning revelation" has been challenged by critics who point out that it depends on fundamental assumptions of twin-studies in behavior genetics that contradict recent research showing the variability between twins.  The assumption that monozygotic twins are 100% genetically similar is false.  Because of transposable elements in the human genome ("jumping genes"), copy number variations, variations in mitochondrial DNA, and various epigenetic processes, identical twins are not really identical.  (See the paper by Evan Charney forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which I mentioned in my previous posts on Charney's critique of behavioral biopolitics.)  This biological research suggests that the human genome is so remarkably complex, contingent, and variable, that any genetics research that assumes the fixity of an individual's genome from conception to death must be false.  Hatemi and McDermott say nothing about this research that would cast doubt on their "stunning revelation."

As another illustration of their failure to account for the complexity of human biology, consider the following comment by Hatemi and McDermott:
Biological or genetic processes are not static, nor do they predetermine behavior.  For example, in 2002, Avshalom Caspi and others examined a large sample of male children from  birth to adulthood to determine why only some abused children develop antisocial (violent) behavior, whereas others do not.  They found that a variant of the gene encoding the neurotransmitter metabolizing enzyme Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) moderates the effect of childhood abuse.  Abused children with the genotype that promoted higher levels of MAO activity appeared less likely to become abusers than abused children with the genotype that resulted in lower levels of MAO.  Several additional studies verified their findings, thus partly explaining why not all abused children grow up to victimize others, although others have more recently called their findings into question.  Nonetheless, genotypes can moderate our sensitivity to environmental stimuli along such pathways.
Notice the rhetorical move at the end of this paragraph indicated by that "nonetheless."  Hatemi and McDermott quietly admit that Caspi's findings have been challenged by those who have failed to replicate them.  But then without citing these critics or explaining the debate, Hatemi and McDermott move the reader quickly back to their conclusion favoring Caspi's claims.  What they don't tell the reader is that most of the attempts to replicate Caspi's research have failed, and that this is generally the case with gene association studies, which are notorious for their failure in replication.  This is not a minor point because the acceptance of Caspi's claims is a recurrent theme in this book (see, e.g., 218-19, 256-57).

For some indication of the poor record of genetic association studies, see Marcus Munafo and Jonathan Flint, "Meta-analysis of Genetic Association Studies," Trends in Genetics 20 (September 2004): 439-44; Munafo et al., "Gene x Environment Interactions at the Serotonin Transporter Locus," Biological Psychiatry 65 (2009): 211-19; and Jonathan Flint, Ralph Greenspan, and Kenneth Kendler, How Genes Influence Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 76-95.

Another example of how the explanatory and predictive power of behavioral biopolitics is severely limited by the complexity of human biological nature is the research that relies on brain imaging.  Darren Schreiber's chapter on "neuropolitics" in the Hatemi/McDermott book recognizes this problem.

Schreiber identifies a new field of research for biopolitics--"social cognitive and affective neuroscience" (SCAN).  His fundamental assumption is that "all mental activity is at least reflected in the brain" (273).  This is surely uncontroversial for most people.  Most of us would expect that our mental activity is somehow "reflected" in our brains.  The problem, however, is that the connections between mental states and brain states are so complex that it's not clear how we could study this precisely through simplified causal models without distorting the complex reality that we want to explain.

One popular way to study "neuropolitics" is through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which appears to give us colorful pictures of the mind at work in the brain, so that we can identify particular parts of the brain with particular mental activities.  So, for example, it seems that we should be able to use fMRI to identify how the brains of voters light up in response to various political candidates, and then political campaign experts can devise techniques for reading the minds of voters through brain imaging studies.  A few years ago, the New York Times published an article entitled "This Is Your Brain on Politics," which claimed, for example, that brain imaging shows that Mitt Romney's image provokes "voter anxiety" as indicated by increased activity in the amygdala.  Claims like this have sparked public excitement about "neuropolitics."

Schreiber explains the techniques of functional MRI research and surveys some of the results.  But while he is optimistic that this can be a powerful tool for political scientists, he rightly warns the reader about the limitations of such research.  The problem is that such brain imaging can be misconstrued as "neophrenology" (274)--conveying the illusion that the colorful pictures from fMRI research actually allow us to read the minds of human beings by identifying mental states with particular brain regions.

It is simply not true, Schreiber admits, that we can clearly identify brain regions as the locations for particular mental activities.  We cannot do this because of the complex interconnectedness of overlapping networks in the brain.  Everything is connected to everything else (290).  Unfortunately, brain imaging studies--especially as they are reported in the popular media--overlook this simple fact of irreducible complexity.

I agree with Schreiber.  But I would go even further in rejecting what I have called "the brain imaging fallacy"--the false assumption that a brain image is a photograph of the mind at work, and that brain imaging explains and predicts thoughts and actions.  Some of my previous posts on this can be found here and here.  Some of the general problems with fMRI are surveyed by Kerri Smith, "fMRI 2.0," Nature 484 (5 April 2012): 24-26.

What Schreiber says about neuroimaging could rightly be said about all of the research surveyed in the Hatemi/McDermott book:
Neuroimaging may provide us evidence that the same region of the brain that enables us to feel pleasure from the spiritual ecstasy of silent prayer (Schjodt et al. 2008) is involved when we punish people who violate social norms (de Quervain et al. 2004) or when we desire a sports car (Erk et al. 2002).  While this data may allow us to make a number of interesting inferences about the pleasurable nature of each of these activities, it does not tell us about the existence of God, the value of a particular social norm, or true quality of the car.  Taking the results of neuroscience seriously does not require us to reject free will (Mele 2009) and may even necessitate the rejection of a merely reductionist project (Mitchell 2009).  The hard questions of political science will remain the hard questions as neuropolitics develops.  However, our field of potential answers will likely be narrowed a bit by the data that this approach generates. (274-75)
Yes, "the hard questions of political science will remain the hard questions" as biopolitics develops.  Even if we cannot find any final answers to those hard questions, we can think through the questions more deeply and weigh the possible answers more rigorously if we integrate behavioral biopolitics into a comprehensive biopolitical science that includes Darwinian psychology, political philosophy, and political history.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Limitations of Behavioral Biopolitical Science

Last year, the University of Chicago Press published Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics, edited by Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott.  This is a collection of papers by some of the leading political scientists in biopolitical research.  The book is designed to persuade other political scientists to adopt the ideas and methods of biopolitics in their research.  It illustrates how the study of political behavior might be illuminated by evolutionary theory, primatology, genetics, psychophysiology, endocrinology, and neuroscience.

What one sees here is what I call behavioral biopolitical science.  The unstated presupposition underlying almost all the research in this book is the behavioralist view of political science.  Behavioralists assume that the only way to scientifically study politics is through building simple theoretical models that generate hypotheses that are empirically testable.  They assume that this new political science must break away from an older political science that relied on political philosophy and political history.  And they assume that this new science must be value-free, because science is the study of facts, not of values, of what is, not of what ought to be.  Therefore, the political scientist must not engage in moral argument.  This book shows how biological science can advance this project for a behavioral political science.

The book manifests both the power and the limitations of such an approach.  I see here two kinds of limitations.  The first is that the simplifying models of behavioral biopolitical science are limited in their explanatory and predictive power by the emergent complexity of political animals, due to the individuality, contingency, and historicity of their behavior.  The second is that the value-free methodology of behavioral biopolitical science cannot grasp human political experience as an activity of moral judgement and argument, because it cannot grasp the normative structure of animal movement.


The authors in this book might have noticed the second limitation if they had thought about the title of their book.  Man Is by Nature a Political Animal is taken from a famous passage at the beginning of Aristotle's Politics, which points to Aristotle's biological writings, where he studies the biology of political animals.  Remarkably, Hatemi and McDermott say nothing about their title, and no one in the book shows any evidence of having read Aristotle, although he was the first biopolitical scientist.

The only reference to Aristotle in this book is at the end of Darren Schreiber's chapter on "neuropolitics."  He writes:
Aristotle contended that we are, by nature, political animals.  This assessment continues to be  borne out as SCAN [social cognitive and affective neuroscience] develops our understanding of the human brain.  We observe politics, however, in a wide variety of animals . . . and the deeper question of precisely what kind of political animal we are remains.  Neuropolitics has the potential to aide in our answering that question.  Exploring the function of the brain will reveal more about the mind and illuminate the political context it operates on. (290-91)
Schreiber seems to be unaware of Aristotle's answer to the question of "precisely what kind of political animal we are" and of how evolutionary biology supports Aristotle's answer.

In his biopolitical writings, Aristotle observed that political animals cooperate for some common work or function; their social lives are directed to some collective goods.  Human beings are by nature more political than other political animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech or conceptual reasoning (logos).  Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain.  But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good.  Human beings are the most political animals, because through speech or language, they cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive that is possible for other political animals.  Through speech, human beings can deliberate about the common good as the standard of justice.  A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common interest of all or most of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private interest of its ruling group.

While the strongest bonds of common interest arise among individuals related by kinship, other social bonds arise from mutualistic and reciprocal cooperation.  Although human beings display a complexity in their social bonding through nepotism, mutualism, and reciprocity that indicates the unique complexity of human speech and cognition, Aristotle believes other animals show traces of all the psychic dispositions and capacities that are more clearly manifested in human beings.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin continued this tradition of Aristotelian biopolitics by explaining the evolutionary roots of human social and political life.  (Remarkably, there are no references to Darwin's Descent in the book edited by Hatemi and McDermott.)  Like Aristotle, Darwin saw the continuity of human beings with other social animals, but he also saw the uniqueness of human social life as shaped by language and the moral sense.

From Aristotle to Darwin, we see an intellectual tradition of striving for an empirical biological science of ethics and politics.  Recently, Edward O. Wilson has pointed to this tradition as part of his project for "consilience"--a unity of knowledge that would embrace the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  Arguing that political science is "primarily the study of applied ethics," Wilson suggests that we need to unite ethics and political science through a biology of human nature, which would include a biology of the moral sentiments (Consilience, 248, 255). 

Some of the early proponents of evolutionary psychology have criticized Wilson for this, because they see this as violating the fact/value dichotomy.  And yet, over the past 15 years, there has been a vigorous intellectual movement towards biological explanations of morality as crucial for any science of human behavior.

As indicated by the Hatemi/McDermott book, behavioral biopolitical scientists reject anything like Wilson's proposal, because they take for granted the fact/value dichotomy as supporting a separation of political science from ethics and the assumption that there cannot be a science of ethics.  At various points in this book, however, one can see the inseparability of ethics and politics, and thus the need for a biopolitical science of ethics.

Darby Proctor and Sarah Brosnan have written a chapter on "Political Primates: What Other Primates Can Tell Us about the Evolutionary Roots of Our Own Political Behavior."  Without recognizing the extent to which they are restating Aristotle's observations, they explain the problem of cooperation among primates: "Given that natural selection is about the promotion of individual fitness, an evolutionary account of cooperation must explain how working together with another individual can lead to increased fitness for both individuals.  There are currently three explanations for this behavior--mutualism, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism--although more recent thought emphasizes the necessity of broadening this approach" (51-52).  They report that monkeys and chimpanzees often refuse to cooperate with individuals who do not share the best resources, and they also detect and punish cheaters who violate the norms for social cooperation (55-64).  Thus, they agree with Frans de Waal and other primatologists who see something like a sense of justice and injustice in primates.

Nevertheless, Proctor and Brosnan indicate, human beings are different, because human beings can use language to extend their political life through symbolic communication in a manner that goes far beyond what other primates can do (64-65).  Once again, evolutionary theory confirms and deepens Aristotle's biopolitics.

We can see here the normative structure of animal movement.  As Aristotle indicates in The Movement of Animals, the natural history of goodness arises from animal movement as the interaction of knowing, desiring, and evaluating.  In their intentional behavior, animals gather information related to their needs and then act according to their assessment of the information in relation to their needs.  Consequently, the biological explanation of animal behavior requires teleological or functional concepts.  Animals act in a goal-directed manner to satisfy their natural needs based on their information about the changing environments in which they live.  Animal movement is thus inherently normative or value-laden insofar as animals cannot live without choosing between alternative courses of action as more or less desirable. 

For political animals, this normative structure of movement includes a concern for enforcing social expectations for cooperation and punishing cheaters.  Human politics differs in that this enforcement of cooperation and punishment of cheaters is extended and formalized for large communities through symbolic rules and deliberate judgments about the common good.

Although the normative structure of human political behavior is manifest in much of what is studied in the Hatemi/McDermott book, the only explicit recognition of the ethical character of politics is at the end of the concluding chapter written by Hatemi and McDermott:
We suggest that political scientists have a moral and ethical obligation to undertake research into the biological and genetic bases of political choice because such work is already being undertaken by governmental, corporate, and private interests.  Only when scholars who do not remain beholden to private or financial interests engage in such research can the findings be widely disseminated, evaluated, and publicly discussed.  Only when such factors become part of the public debate can such knowledge become transparent, and potentially be used for the public good, as opposed for the public ill or private political financial gain without the knowledge of those who might be exploited.  (304)
Here is the only passage in the book that recognizes the value-laden character of political phenomena as based upon a continuing debate over how best to promote the public good by enforcing norms of social cooperation.  They recognize that their scientific research can be used to advance private interests contrary to the public good and for the sake of exploitation.  (Should we be reminded of the morally repugnant activities of eugenics, for example?)  And yet they suggest that political scientists can be trusted because they are guided by "a moral and ethical obligation" to use their research in proper ways.  Do they thus assume that scientific knowledge is good, because it is guided by "a moral and ethical obligation"?  Does that mean that scientific research is always value-laden, and thus the fact-value dichotomy is misconceived?  If so, then should a biopolitical science include a biopolitical account of morality?  We must wonder why they never indicate the need for such a scientific study of morality in this book.

Every political regime is defined by its distinctive conception of the best way of life as serving the common good of all individuals.  The authors in the Hatemi/McDermott book do not engage in any kind of comparative regime analysis, because they take for granted the liberal democratic principles of the American regime.  Most of the political behavior they study turns on the the typically American debates over the principles of liberty and equality.

So, for example, some of the authors suggest that a biological exploration of political behavior can illuminate the controversy over affirmative action policies.  There is disagreement over whether a history of past discrimination against black Americans justifies an affirmative action policy of preferential treatment for black individuals over white individuals in employment and in admission to institutions of higher education.  Those who oppose such a policy justify their opposition by appealing to principles of equal treatment without racial preferences, but they are often accused of being motivated by irrational racial prejudices rather than principled arguments.  Some neurophysiological researchers claim that they can identify biological markers of racial prejudice such as increased activity in the autonomic nervous system and in the amygdala of the brain in response to black faces as compared to white faces.

Kevin Smith and John Hibbing report an experiment from their physiology laboratory studying the correlation between physiological reaction to racial stimuli and opposition to race-conscious policies.  They explain:
These physiological responses are, for the most part, not under conscious control and as such could constitute deep-seated, gut-level responses rather than conscious and cognitively elaborated self reports.  One way to test whether deeply help prejudices or principled ideology is driving policy preferences is thus to empirically assess the correlation between attitudes on race conscious issues and physiological responses to racial stimuli. (240) 
They conclude:
Ideology, measured on a standard 1 = strongly liberal to 7 = strongly conservative scale, is a consistent predictor of opposition to race-conscious policies, independent of any gut level orientations picked up by the physiological measures.  This provides at least some mild support for the principled conservatism argument, though the hint of an independent effect for physiological reactions to black images means the matter remains far from settled. (242)
Schreiber reports that neuroimaging studies of reactions to racial images suggest that the emotional responses of the amygdala can be repressed by the intentional action of frontal lobe processes (284-85).

Does this show that in political debate there is a conflict between reason and emotion, and that sometimes reason can rule over emotion?  Or should we see this as a reciprocal relationship in which reason influences emotion and emotion influences reason?  Do we see here evidence for intentional repression of racial emotions that might illustrate our capacity for moral choice in which the mind changes the brain?  Does this provide evidence for what Jeffrey Schwartz has called "directed mental effort"?  This is important because it bears on the question of whether neuroscience is compatible with legal standards of responsibility. 

It seems to be implied here that acting through "principled ideology" is better than acting through "deeply held prejudices."  But is that always true?  Can't "principled ideology" often be mistaken, and "deeply held prejudices" be warranted? 

The question of the proper relationship between reason and emotion in moral and political judgment is an old issue in political philosophy.  Some of the today's researchers in evolutionary moral psychology (like Jonathan Haidt) argue that David Hume has been proven correct:  reason really is the slave of the passions, because most of the time, our moral judgments are rationalizations of our moral emotions.  But other researchers think that reason plays its own independent role.

Another great question of political philosophy that comes up in Darwinian moral psychology is the question of whether our standards of right and wrong can be rooted in nature, or whether they are purely conventional or artificial.  Aristotelian natural right, Thomistic natural law, and Lockean natural rights all appeal to human biological nature: as mammalian animals, we care for ourselves first, but we also extend ourselves into our offspring, our sexual mates, our kin, and our wider social groups; and as rational animals, we can formulate these biological propensities to mammalian care as natural norms for social cooperation and moral concern. 

Evolutionary neuroscience confirms this biological moral naturalism by showing how the neurochemistry of mammalian attachment provides the natural ground for human morality and social order.  In his chapter on "neuropolitics," Schreiber refers to some of the neuroscientific research on brain regions that support self-awareness as embracing empathic concern for others perceived to be connected to oneself (285-86).  But he does not indicate how this might provide a ground in evolved human nature for morality, which shows that our nature as political animals is inseparable from our nature as moral animals. 

Thus, biological science might help to clarify, if not answer, some very old philosophical questions.  On the other hand, this biological research might only confirm the irreducible complexity of moral and political questions that makes it impossible to find final answers.

This problem of complexity in the Hatemi/McDermott book will be the subject of my next post.

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

Arnhart and Biopolitics in Playboy Magazine

The March issue of Playboy has an article by Neal Gabler entitled "The Weird World of Biopolitics."  (If you decide to read the article, you will have to be very careful not to look at the dirty pictures!)

Gabler is best known as a film critic and the author of a series of books on the cultural history of Hollywood.  He's a man of the Left, and he's afraid that biopolitical research is showing that evolutionary nature favors conservatism over liberalism.

Here's the opening paragraph of his article:
Larry Arnhart has news for you, and depending on your politics, you may not like what he has to say.  Arnhart is a middle-aged, Texas-born, University of Chicago-educated political science professor at Northern Illinois University, and, his beard notwithstanding, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative whom many creationist conservatives nonetheless loathe, even though his message is effectively a death knell for liberalism.  That's because Arnhart believes that conservatism isn't just another political ideology.  As he sees it, conservatism is the expression of self-interested survival and self-perpetuation, which are also the two hallmarks of Darwinian evolution.  As such, he says, it is the political view most consistent with human nature, which gives it a kind of inevitability.  "It's generally going to prevail," Arnhart says.
Gabler then goes on to survey the research of John Hibbing, James Fowler, Chris Dawes, Peter Hatemi, and other political scientists studying the genetic and neurophysiological bases of political attitudes and behavior.  The general conclusion that he draws from all of this is the view he attributes to me--that conservatism will prevail over liberalism because conservatism is favored by Darwinian evolution.

Regrettably, he didn't quite get it right.  He has read some of my writing, and he interviewed me by telephone for about an hour.  It was clear in the interview that he wanted to identify me as claiming that conservatism was somehow inevitable for evolutionary reasons.  I tried to explain that this was not what I was saying:  to say that conservative thought (including traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism) is compatible with evolutionary views of human nature is not the same as saying that conservatism is evolutionarily inevitable.

Another mistake evident in the above quotation is the claim that evolution favors the triumph of purely selfish behavior.  Far from saying this, I have often stressed the importance of the natural moral sense in any Darwinian account of human evolution.  Human behavior shows a complex interaction of self-interest and social cooperation, which can be explained as the product of an evolutionary history in which natural sociality has been favored. 

Maybe I should study the article more carefully.  But then how do I hide it from my wife?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Fundamental Issue in Charney's Critique of Genopolitics

There are many issues raised by Evan Charney's critique of genopolitics.  But as I suggested in my earlier post, the fundamental issue turns on Charney's formulation and assessment of the six assumptions underlying the genetic explanations of political behavior through heritability studies and gene association studies.

Those political scientists who engage in this kind of research have only two choices in responding to Charney.  Either they must deny Charney's claim that these six assumptions are necessary for their research.  Or they must deny his claim that these assumptions have been refuted by recent research in molecular biology.

So, for instance, according to Charney, the first assumption of heritability studies is that "100% of the genes of MZ [monozygotic] twins are identical; on average, 50% of the genes of DZ [dizygotic] twins and singletons are identical; singletons possess ~50% of their parental DNA."  But, in fact, Charney argues, biological research shows that this assumption is false.  If Charney is wrong, he is either wrong in his formulation of the assumption, or he is wrong in thinking that the assumption is contrary to the biological research.

In one passage in his BBS article (at the beginning of sec. 6, page 38), Charney writes:

All of this places in doubt the validity of heritability estimates in all but a small class of traits (i.e., so-called "monogenic" disorders; see below, sec. 8.1).  What this does not call into doubt, however, is the following:  MZ twins are significantly more genetically concordant than DZ twins (and are likely most concordant in relation to single nucleotide polymorphisms), and this greater genetic concordance plays an important role in a wide range of inter-twin phenotypic concordances.  As we shall see, however, this fact may end up being of limited practical application, at least within the framework of the conventional genetic paradigm.
Should the proponents of heritability studies of political behavior see this as a crucial concession from Charney?  If the latest research in molecular biology still supports the "greater genetic concordance" of MZ twins as compared with DZ twins, is this enough to sustain heritability studies?  Or is Charney right that this has only "limited practical application" within the "genetic paradigm" that he is challenging?

Genopolitics: Evan Charney's Response

In response to my post on Evan Charney's critique of genopolitics and the genetic paradigm, he has sent me the following reply, which I am reproducing in full:

Larry: I appreciate your blog comments and your careful and insightful reading of my paper for Brain and Behavioral Sciences Let me attempt to respond to a few of your remarks regarding the APSR paper.

One thing I would like to highlight in reference to that article is that the same two genes that Fowler and Dawes associated with voting have been associated with every conceivable behavior (and a large number of non-behavioral traits). Readers should look at the following updated version of Table 2:

A specific polymorphism of the MAOA gene has been associated with, among other things, agreeableness, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, anger/aggression, anorexia nervosa, antisocial behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attitudes toward longshot risks, auditory evoked potentials, binge drinking, bipolar disorder, bulimia, bone mineral density, borderline personality disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, conscientiousness, contraception use, cooperativeness, credit card debt, depression, educational continuation, extraversion, facial expressionrecognition, fearfulness, fibromyalgia, gambling, gout, hypertension, insomnia, intelligence, memory, narcolepsy, neuroticism, novelty seeking, openness, pain perception, panic disorder, Parkinson’s disease, persistence, restless legs syndrome, reward dependence, schizophrenia, smoking, social phobia, stress response, success by Wall street professionals, sudden infant death syndrome, temperomandibular disorder, time perception, and Tourette syndrome.

What is going on is data mining on a massive scale: A number of large data sets contain the same polymorphisms of the same five or six genes, with the result that these genes have been associated with every imaginable trait (and for everystudy showing an association, there is another study showing no association).

Regarding the unfortunate terms “genetic determinism” v. “environmental determinism”: The issue from the standpoint of genetics concerns whether or not specific variations in specific polymorphisms contribute to variations in complex human behaviors in such a manner that we can say that the polymorphism is associated with, and presumably plays a causal role in, variation in the behavior in question.

Political behavior and personality are not like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, i.e. they are not monogenic disorders in which a mutation in a single gene results in the transcription of an abnormal protein that plays a key role in certain metabolic processes and results in the disorder in question.

What we now know of what falls under the rubric of “behavior” is as follows. The most advanced studies concern fruit flies because research allows for kinds of investigation not possible in humans: Variation in anger involves variation in proteins encoded in thousands of genes, with extensive pleiotropy and epistasis (i.e., non-additivity). I particularly recommend Zwarts, et al. 2011. "Complex genetic architecture of Drosophila aggressive behavior." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (41):17070-5. Plasticity means that there is no single route to variation in aggression on the molecular, physiological, and environmental level.

"Genes" v. "environment" is a false dichotomy (but saying this in no way implies that polymorphisms can predict complex behavior). The gene after all, has to be transcribed, and once we acknowledge that then we are going to need to know, e.g., cellular/physiological factors influencing the transcription of the gene (e.g., epigenetic state of the gene to be transcribed), what cellular physiological factors influence which form of agiven protein synthesized by the cell from the gene (e.g., alternative splicing), what processes influence the manner in which that protein is transferred out of the cell in which it is produced, what homeostatic mechanisms regulate the relevant protein at the relevant level in the relevant tissue (e.g., even if a polymorphism does enable “faster transcription” of a protein by the cell, that in no way automatically translates to more of that protein, since homeostatic mechanisms may serve to counteract any perceived protein or hormonal imbalances. All of these are environmental processes, but the structure of a gene is so intertwined with all of the biological-environmental processes involved in its transcription, translation, and ultimate physiological effect, that the dichotomy gene-environment is a false one.

Every advance in molecular genetics indicates an extraordinary conservation of the genome of species, including plants (corn as noted in the article, has more genes than humans). The key differentiating factor between species is the processes that regulate gene transcription. These facts are a game changer.

We simply cannot predict from the structure of a polymorphism what effect (if any) it is going to have, or is likely to have, on behavior. This is what I mean by "genetic determinism," a perhaps unfortunate usage. All of this is argued at greater length from the perspective of genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary theory in “Behavior Genetics and Post Genomics,” forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.


I suggest that Rebecca Hannagan read this piece carefully and I would be happy to discuss it with her

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Evan Charney's Critique of Genopolitics and the Genetic Paradigm

The two most common reasons for rejecting biopolitical science arise from misconceptions about the biological study of animal behavior. 

The first reason is the assumption that any biological explanation of political behavior must be unreasonably reductionistic and deterministic.  This is mistaken, because it ignores the fact that biological science must recognize the individuality, the contingency, the complexity, and the historicity of animal behavior.

The second reason is the assumption that while animal behavior shows a fixity as determined by genetic instincts, human behavior is unique in its flexibility because of its openness to social learning and individual judgment and its freedom from genetic influence.  This is mistaken, because other animals--even those that seem very simple--show a flexibility in their behavior that is similar to human behavior in being constrained but not determined by genetics.

Both of these points can be clarified by considering the current debate in political science over "genopolitics."

In recent years, some political scientists in the biopolitics movement have tried to show how human genetics might influence political behavior.  One prominent example is the article by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John Hibbing in 2005, in the American Political Science Review, which argued that twin studies showed that propensities towards "conservatism" or "liberalism" were strongly influenced by genetics.  In response, Evan Charney criticized this article for its unwarranted genetic determinism.  In a previous post, I commented on this debate, arguing that it displayed too much straw-man argumentation based upon a false dichotomy of nature versus nurture.

Now, Charney has renewed this debate, and this time, he's criticizing an article by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes.

In 2008, The Journal of Politics published an article by Fowler and Dawes entitled "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout."  Here's the abstract for the article:
Fowler, Baker, and Dawes (2008) recently showed in two independent studies of twins that voter turnout has very high heritability.  Here we investigate two specific genes that may contribute to variations in voting behavior.  Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we show that individuals with a polymorphism of the MAOA gene are significantly more likely to have voted in the 2004 presidential election.  We also find evidence that an association between a polymorphism of the 5HTT gene and voter turnout is moderated by religious attendance.  These are the first results ever to link specific genes to political behavior.
These two genes--MAOA and 5HTT--influence the metabolism of serotonin in the brain.  Some studies suggest that the serotonin system affects social behavior, in that high levels of serotonin tend to promote prosocial behavior, while low levels tend to promote antisocial behavior.  Some of these studies suggest that there is an interaction of genes and environment, so that, for example, those individuals genetically endowed with an efficient serotonin system are better able to respond to stressful life events without becoming persistently depressed, or better able to experience abuse as children without becoming abusive as adults.  

Since many social scientists have explained voter turnout as a prosocial behavior, Fowler and Dawes hypothesize that genes favoring high levels of serotonin will promote prosocial behavior and thus promote voter turnout.  They found that the allele of the MAOA gene promoting efficient metabolism of serotonin was directly associated with voter turnout.  But they also found that the allele of the 5HTT gene promoting efficient metabolism of serotonin favored voter turnout only when the individuals with this allele frequently attended religious services.  Social scientists have noticed that people active in religious organizations tend to show higher rates of voting, and this seems to be the case here.  So here there's an interaction between genes and environment.

That two genes predict voter turnout is an astonishing claim.  But while they make this claim, Fowler and Dawes also qualify, if not contradict, this claim in their article.  They say that environment might be more important than genes for voter turnout, and they indicate that the two genes they have studied raise the likelihood of voting by only 5% to 10% (588).  So now it seems that while these two genes have some influence, their influence is so weak that they cannot predict voter turnout.

They stress the weakness of this influence in the last paragraph of their article: "It is important to emphasize that there is likely no single 'voting gene'--the results presented here suggest that at least two genes do matter and there is some (likely large) set of genes whose expression, in combination with environmental factors, influences political participation" (590).

So their final conclusion seems to be: these two genes do matter, but they probably don't matter very much in causing voting behavior.

This points to some of the problems with genetic explanations of political behavior identified by Evan Charney.  In the March 2012 issue of the American Political Science Review, Charney and William English have an article entitled "Candidate Genes and Political Behavior," which criticizes the article by Fowler and Dawes.  Charney and English make two kinds of arguments.  First, they argue that, if one considers four kinds of methodological problems, one can see that the data set used by Fowler and Dawes does not show that two genes predict voting behavior.  Second, they argue that in general there are many difficulties in any attempt to identify particular genes as causing social behavior.  This second more general argument is part of Charney's criticism of what he has called the "genetic paradigm," which he has elaborated in an article to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Charney and English identify methodological problems in four areas--phenotype specification, population stratification, genotype classification, and independence of cases and controls.  Rather than going into the details of their analysis, I will only suggest that one sees in their debate with Fowler and Dawes the same fundamental difficulty that arises in Charney's debate with Alford, Funk, and Hibbing.

In both of these debates, the opposing sides employ the rhetoric of arguing against a "straw man."  Charney criticizes his opponents for being genetic determinists.  His opponents criticize him and others like him for being environmental determinists.  And yet no one here is defending either genetic determinism or environmental determinism.  Charney agrees that genes matter.  His opponents agree that environment matters.

The debate over the Fowler and Dawes article is confusing, because Fowler and Dawes imply two different kinds of claims--one is very astonishing and the other is very modest.  The very astonishing claim is that two genes predict voter turnout, and this is the claim that Charney easily refutes.  The very modest claim is that these two genes might matter a little in influencing voter turnout, but these two genes by themselves cannot actually predict voter turnout, and in fact these two genes are probably much less important than other factors.  Charney comes close to agreeing with this very modest claim when he says: "DNA is one component of a complex, integrated, interactive, and dynamic biological-environmental-ecological process through which biological organisms come to manifest divergent phenotypes."  Charney, Fowler, and Dawes all agree that particular genes influence but do not specify behavior, because genes interact with other genes, with other biological factors, and with the physical and social environment.

In his APSR article, Charney has a section on "Broader Issues in Genetics," which briefly summarizes arguments that he has elaborated in his BBS article entitled "Behavior Genetics and Post-Genomics."  This BBS article makes clear the profound implications of Charney's position. 

Biological research over the past 20 years has uncovered evidence that some of the most fundamental assumptions of modern genetics are dubious, and a few biologists are suggesting that this requires a "paradigm shift" in how we understand genetics and biology generally.  The great value of Charney's paper is that he summarizes this research in order to force us to reexamine the "genetic paradigm" of behavior genetics.  Those of us who belong to the biopolitics movement will have to respond to this challenge.

Much of what Charney says constitutes the "genetic paradigm" is captured by the six basic assumptions of behavior genetics--three for heritability studies (HS) and three for gene association studies (GAS).  Heritability studies use adoption studies and twin studies to determine the proportion of phenotypic variance in a given population that can be attributed to genotypic variance.  Gene association studies look for statistically significant associations between particular genes and particular phenotypic traits.  The Alford, Fund, Hibbing (2005) article is an example of a heritability study.  The Fowler and Dawes (2008) article is an example of a gene association study.

Here is how Charney states the six basic assumptions:
HS1. 100% of the genes of MZ [monozygotic] twins are genetically identical; on average, 50% of the genes of DZ [dizygotic] twins are genetically identical.  On average, 50% of the genes of non-twin siblings are genetically identical.

HS2.  The percentages of genetic identity in HS1 never change (i.e., they are unvarying).  That is, MZ twins, from conception to death, are always 100% genetically identical; DZ twins are always ~50% genetically identical; non-twin siblings are always ~50% gentically identical (heritability, however, can change over the life course).
HS3.  All causes of phenotypic variation that impact human behavior can be attributed to a latent genetic (G) or environmental (E) parameter, or the interaction of the two (G x E).

GAS1.  Persons have identical DNA in all of the cells and tissues of their bodies (with the exception of germ cells, red blood cells, and certain cells in the immune system).
GAS2.  The presence of a particular genotype (polymorphism or mutation) entails that it is "turned on," that is, it is capable of being transcribed in a manner associated with that polymorphism or mutation.  Hence, the same two polymorphisms in any given two individuals will have the same capacity to be transcribed in the same manner (precisely what this entails will be considered below, but it emphatically does not mean that any two polymorphisms in any two individuals are always being transcribed to the same extent).

GAS3.  Specific genes are coded for the production of specific proteins.
Charney's argument is that recent research casts doubt on all of these assumptions.

Identical (monozygotic) twins are not really genetically identical.  For example, we now know that a large portion of the human genome consists of transposable elements--repetitive DNA sequences that can move from one location to another--that have been called "jumping genes."  These "jumping genes" seem to be especially common in the human brain.  Some researchers believe that this is one major reason why individuals have unique brains, including identical twins.

We also know that individuals, including twins, are unique because of copy number variations in DNA--stretches of DNA present in multiple copies and showing high variation between individuals.  Moreover, this variation occurs not only between individuals but also within individuals, so that--contrary to GAS1--the DNA is different in different cells of the same body.  This is one source of "mosaic genomic variation."

Another source of variation between and within individuals is variation in the number of chromosomes--"aneuploidy."  Some human individuals have more or less than the 23 pairs of chromosomes that we assume to be normal.

Contrary to GAS2, genes are not self-activating, because whether they are activated depends on epigenetics--the complex system of modifications of the genome that determine whether genes are turned on or off in response to environmental input.  Moreover, these epigenetic modifications can be inherited, which constitute a form of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits.

This genetic and epigenetic heterogeneity comes from within germ cells, from the prenatal environment of the mother's body, and from the postnatal environment.  At all three levels, the behavior of a mother can influence the genetic and epigenetic constitution of her offspring in ways that are heritable.  For example, a nurturing mother induces changes in her child that can be passed on to her grandchildren.

The postnatal environments of monozygotic twins induce genetic and epigenetic changes through differences in life experiences.  For example, if one twin exercises a lot, and the other does not, the exercising twin can experience increased production of new neurons in the hippocampus.

Contrary to the assumption (AS3) that specific genes are coded for the production of specific proteins, we know that a single gene can code for many different proteins.  Not only does each gene have multiple effects, but also each gene interacts with many other genes to generate complex traits.

For these and other reasons surveyed in Charney's article, we cannot predict complex human phenotypes--like political ideology or voting behavior--from a human genotype.  The ultimate evolutionary reason for this is that human beings have evolved for phenotypic plasticity--the capacity to change one's phenotype in response to a highly complex and variable environment.

Many of us assume that this evolved capacity for behavioral flexibility is unique to human beings--perhaps a product of our uniquely large and complex brains.  And it is true that the behavioral flexibility that comes from the human capacities for language and symbolic reasoning probably is uniquely human.

But it is also true that most of what has just been said about the complexity, variability, contingency, historicity, and flexibility of genetic influences on behavior is true for many animals other than human beings--even animals as seemingly simple as nematode worms, fruit flies, and mice.  This confirms Charles Darwin's conclusion that "man is the modified descendant of some preexisting form" (Kendler and Greenspan 2006).

This research also confirms my claim--often made on this blog--that biopolitical science must be a complex science of emergent evolution that embraces not only genetic evolution but also the cultural history of political regimes and the individual history of political actors.  Human genetics constrains but does not determine human cultures and human judgments.

Something similar could be said about the political science of any political animal.  So, for example, Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe explains the chimpanzee politics of the community at Gombe through the complex interaction of chimpanzee genetic nature, chimpanzee cultural traditions, and individual chimpanzee life histories and personalities. 

Just as is the case for human politics, the irreducible complexity and historical contingency of chimpanzee politics made it impossible for a primatologist like Goodall to make precise predictions about the future of the society at Gombe.  So, for example, she could make generic predictions about the need for a dominance hierarchy with an alpha male at the top, but she could not make specific predictions about which individual would fill that alpha position in the future.  There probably are a few chimp genes that show a statistically significant association with alpha dominance, but that association is probably too weak to support exact predictions.

My article on "Biopolitical Science" sketches a biological science of political animals that moves through three levels of deep political history--the universal political history of the species, the cultural political history of the group, and the individual political history of animals in the group.  Genopolitics would be one element of such a biopolitical science.

Some of my previous posts on related themes can be found here, here,, here., and here.


Alford, John H., Carolyn Funk, John R. Hibbing, "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?" American Political Science Review 37 (1) (2005): 246-78

Arnhart, Larry, "Biopolitical Science," Politics and the Life Sciences 29 (March 2010): 24-47.

Baillie, J. K., et al., "Somatic Retrotransposition Alters the Genetic Landscape of the Human Brain," Nature, 470 (24 November 2011): 534-37.

Charney, Evan, "Behavior Genetics and Post-Genomics," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 35 (2012): 331-410.

Charney, Evan, and William English, "Candidate Genes and Political Behavior," American Political Science Review (March 2012).

Flint, Jonathan, Ralph J. Greenspan, and Kenneth S. Kendler, How Genes Influence Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Fowler, James H., and Christopher T. Dawes, "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout," The Journal of Politics, 70 (July 2008): 579-94.

Gage, Fred H., and Alysson R. Muotri, "What Makes Each Brain Unique," Scientific American, 306 (3) (March 2012): 26-31.

Greenspan, Ralph J., An Introduction to Nervous Systems (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2007).

Kendler, Kenneth S., and Ralph J. Greenspan, "The Nature of Genetic Influences on Behavior: Lessons for 'Simpler' Organisms," American Journal of Psychiatry, 163 (10) (October 2006): 1683-94.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Surfing Strauss's Third Wave of Modernity

As I indicated in my previous post on Leo Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity," I am puzzled as to why Strauss chose to pass over in silence Friedrich Nietzsche's Darwinian naturalism in Human, All Too Human and the other writings from his middle period. 

This is crucial for how we assess Strauss's claim about the crisis of modern natural right, which is the crisis of liberal democracy.  According to Strauss, "the critique of modern rationalism or of the modern belief in reason by Nietzsche cannot be dismissed or forgotten," and "this is the deepest reason for the crisis of liberal democracy."  This is the third wave of modernity, and "the political implication of the third wave proved to be fascism."

It seems, then, according to Strauss, that Nietzsche was correct in his critique of modern rationalism, which created a crisis leading to fascism, and that Nietzsche offered no way out of this crisis.  But any reader familiar with Nietzsche's writings must wonder why Strauss says nothing about Nietzsche's acceptance of Darwinian science in his middle period as an alternative to the apocalyptic rhetoric of "will to power" and "eternal return" in his later writings.  It is this Nietzsche of the later writings that Strauss and the Straussians have embraced--the Nietzsche who shows the "manly nihilism" admired by Harvey Mansfield.

Oddly enough, Strauss in this essay does quote one brief passage from Human, All Too Human (sec. 2).  But Strauss is silent about the context of this quotation, which is part of Nietzsche's development of a free-spirited Darwinian science.  In one of his typically long paragraphs, Strauss writes:
I quote Nietzsche: "All philosophers have the common defect that they start from present-day man and believe that they can reach their goal by an analysis of present-day man.  Lack of historical sense is the inherited defect of all philosophers."  Nietzsche's critique of all earlier philosophers is a restatement of Rousseau's critique of all earlier philosophers.  But what makes much sense in Rousseau is very strange in Nietzsche: for between Rousseau and Nietzsche there has taken place the discovery of history; the century between Rousseau and Nietzsche is the age of historical sense.  Nietzsche implies: the essence of history has hitherto been misunderstood.  The most powerful philosopher of history was Hegel.  For Hegel the historical process was a rational and reasonable process, a progress, culminating in the rational state, the postrevolutionary state.  Christianity is the true or absolute religion; but Christianity consists in its reconciliation with the world, the saeculum, in its complete secularization, a process begun with the Reformation, continued by the Enlightenment, and completed in the postrevolutionary state, which is the first state consciously based upon the recognition of the rights of man.  In the case of Hegel, we are indeed compelled to say that the essence of modernity is secularized Christianity, for secularization is Hegel's conscious and explicit intention.  According to Hegel there is then a peak and end of history; this makes it possible for him to reconcile the idea of philosophic truth with the fact that every philosopher is a son of his time: the true and final philosophy belongs to the absolute moment in history, to the peak of history.  Post-Hegelian thought rejected the notion that there can be an end or peak of history, i.e., it understood the historical process as unfinished and unfinishable, and yet it maintained the now baseless belief in the rationality or progressive character of the historical process.  Nietzsche was the first to face this situation.  The insight that all principles of thought and action are historical cannot be attenuated by the baseless hope that the historical sequence of these principles is progressive or that the historical process has an intrinsic meaning, an intrinsic directedness.  All ideals are the outcome of human creative acts, of free human projects that form that horizon within which specific cultures were possible; they do not order themselves into a system; and there is no possibility of a genuine synthesis of them.  Yet all known ideals claimed to have an objective support: in nature or in god or in reason.  The historical insight destroys that claim and therewith all known ideals.  But precisely the realization of the true origin of all ideals--in human creations or projects--makes possible a radically new kind of project, the transvaluation of all values, a project that is in agreement with the new insight yet not deducible from it (for otherwise it would not be due to a creative act).  (pp. 95-96)
 Notice how Strauss presents this whole paragraph as a commentary on his quotation from Nietzsche--"I quote Nietzsche."  And yet if one looks at the passage being quoted from section 2 of Human, All Too Human, one notices that Nietzsche's argument here differs from the argument attributed to him by Strauss.

Nietzsche is arguing for rejecting "metaphysical philosophy" and embracing "historical philosophy" rooted in the "natural science" of evolution.  This science of evolution teaches us that "everything has evolved," and thus "man has evolved."  He writes: "everything essential in human development took place in primeval times, long before those four thousand years with which we are more or less familiar.  Man probably hasn't changed much more in these years.  But the philosopher sees 'instincts' in present-day man, and assumes that they belong to the unchangeable facts of human nature." 

Thus, Nietzsche accepts a Darwinian evolutionary psychology in which human nature has been shaped by prehistoric evolutionary history, so that human nature is enduring but not eternal.  Consequently, "there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths."  But there are "humble truths" that are discoverable by the strict methods of modern natural science.

This supports what Nietzsche identifies in Human, All Too Human as "philosophical science" (sec. 27) or "scientific philosophy" (sec. 131).  Such a science is an "imitation of nature in concepts" (secs. 38, 136).  Such a science will be pursued only by those few human beings who derive their greatest pleasure from a Socratic life of studying nature for its own sake (secs. 3, 34, 38, 56, 254, 265, 292, 635-38).  All knowledge is perspectival, because life itself is determined by perspective.  But still we can rank the probable truth of perspectives as more or less powerful, just, and comprehensive (Pref., 6-7).

Here, then, the Socratic life of philosophy becomes a modern scientific life of endless inquiry into nature, which has an enduring order as a product of evolution although it is not eternal.  This new philosophic science of evolution will be Socratic but not Platonic. 

Strauss's talk about "a radically new kind of project, the transvaluation of all values" has more to do with Nietzsche's later writings than with Human, All Too Human.  Strauss goes on to speak about Nietzsche's belief in the "infinite power of the Over-man" (97).  But Strauss says nothing about Nietzsche's warning in Human, All Too Human (sec. 164) that any belief that some minds are "superhuman" (ubermenschlich) is a "religious or half-religious superstition."

Once again, as I have suggested in some previous posts, we see that Strauss prefers the atheistic religiosity and the striving for eternal order in Nietzsche's later writings over the Socratic evolutionary science of his middle writings.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Death of James Q. Wilson

I have just learned that James Q. Wilson died this morning at the age of 80.

Jim Wilson was one of the greatest political scientists of the past 50 years.  He grew up in Southern California.  He graduated from the University of Redlands, and then went to the University of Chicago for his Ph.D.  At Chicago, he took a course from Leo Strauss on Kant.  I remember him telling me that he didn't understand anything in the course, except that Kant was wrong, but that was enough to satisfy Strauss. 

At Chicago, he made a great impression on Edward Banfield, a professor known for his research on urban politics.  When Banfield went to Harvard, he took Wilson with him.  Wilson was a professor at Harvard for over 25 years.  He then ended his formal teaching career at UCLA.

Wilson was best known for his work in criminology.  As a young scholar, I admired his book Crime and Human Nature, which I used as a text in some of my classes as a classic of political science.  I detected in this book and some of his other writings an evolutionary view of human nature.

This was confirmed in 1993 by the publication of Wilson's The Moral Sense.  Wilson said that he was most proud of this book.  For me, his pride was warranted.  This book was crucial in shaping my thinking about the evolutionary roots of human nature, and particulary the evolutionary confirmation of the idea of the natural moral sense in Scottish moral philosophy.  In many ways, this book pointed me to my book Darwinian Natural Right.

One can see in Crime and Human Nature and The Moral Sense the distinctive theme of Wilson's scholarship--an Aristotelian concern for the importance of moral character in individual and social life.  He insisted that most of our problems in life come from a lack of good moral character.  His famous theory of "broken windows" as a guide for community policing, which may have had some influence in reducing crime rates in cities where it was adopted, illustrates this insight.

I got to know Jim, and he was generous in supporting some of my endeavors.  One of the highlights of my life was organizing a panel for an American Political Science Association convention on The Moral Sense, with Jim, Robin Fox, Robert Trivers, and myself as panelists.  I remember being surprised when Jim confessed his nervousness before this panel, because he was afraid that Bob Trivers would expose his ignorance of biology.  Despite his prominence, he was in some ways a shy man.

Another prominent memory is of Jim at a Liberty Fund conference on the ethical and political implications of Darwinism.  The organizer was John West of the Discovery Institute.  Although none of the assigned readings took up the issue of "intelligent design," West had stacked the conference with about half of the participants being proponents of "intelligent design."  At the first night's dinner, I warned Jim about what I feared was going to happen.  Instead of talking about Darwinian ethics and politics, they insisted that we should talk about how Darwinian science was obviously false and about the superiority of "intelligent design" explanations.  This ruined the discussion.  Finally, at the beginning of the penultimate discussion session, Jim started off by announcing that he was leaving early because he had no interest in debating "intelligent design," and that he had been deceived into attending the conference without any warning that it would be controlled by proponents of "intelligent design."  He then walked out.  From that point, the Liberty Fund refused to sponsor any more conferences organized by the Discovery Institute.  When West wrote his book attacking Darwin's Conservatives, Jim was a target as well as me.

I admired Jim for the power and clarity of his intellect and for his gentlemanly character.  I remember as a young political scientist thinking that he was the model of the kind of political scientist that I would like to be.

I will miss him.

His obituary has been published on the front page of the New York Times.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Do Strauss's Religious Longings Explain His Silence about Nietzsche's Darwinian Liberalism?

In reading Leo Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity," I am reminded of my blog posts a few years ago on Strauss's religious longings, and on how those religious longings explain Strauss's attraction to Nietzsche's early and later writings, as opposed to the middle writings that show Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian  evolutionary science.

In "Three Waves of Modernity," Strauss says that Nietzsche's critique of modern rationalism created the "third wave" of modernity that was "the deepest reason for the crisis of liberal democracy," and "the political implication of the third wave proved to be fascism" (98).

Remarkably, Strauss says nothing--neither here nor anywhere else, as far as I know--about Nietzsche's moderate support for liberal democracy in his middle writings, particularly Human, All Too Human.  This Nietzschean liberalism is a Darwinian liberalism, because in this book--and also in Dawn and the first four books of The Gay Science--Nietzsche writes as a Socratic "free spirit" who accepts a Darwinian science based on the general claim that "man has evolved," because "everything has evolved," and thus "there are no eternal facts" (HATH, sec. 2).

Strauss rejects this Darwinian Nietzsche, because Strauss prefers the Nietzsche of Beyond Good and Evil who affirmed "the eternal basic text of homo natura" (sec. 230).  In his article on Beyond Good and Evil, Strauss stresses the importance of Nietzsche's eternalizing of human nature, his respect for the "religious instinct," and his atheistic religiosity.  Like the Nietzsche of the early and later writings, Strauss was moved by a religious longing for eternity that could not accept the Darwinian "deadly truth" that human nature is enduring but not eternal.

My elaboration of these points can be found here, here, here, and here.

Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism would resolve the "crisis of liberal democracy" by affirming that liberalism can be grounded in evolved human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of eternal order.

What would Nietzsche's Darwinian liberal democracy look like?  Although Nietzsche is critical of modern democracy in much of his writing, Human, All Too Human shows a moderate acceptance of liberal democratic politics and institutions, while strongly rejecting socialism.  (Here I am drawing some language from my chapter on Nietzsche in Political Questions.)  He sees that in modern Europe all political parties must appeal to popular opinions because of the triumph of democracy.  He accepts the political rule of the majority of the people as long as the few "free spirits" are given their freedom to keep out of politics generally, while occasionally being allowed to speak out about public issues.

Philosophers such as Plato were enemies of democracy, Nietzsche observes, because believing they possessed absolute truth, they wanted to rule over others.  There were "tyrants of the spirit."  But free-spirited philosophers pursue scientific knowledge in a skeptical spirit.  "Free spirits" want to be free to investigate everything, but they have no desire to become tyrants.  They are "oligarchs of the spirit" (sec. 261).  "Free spirits" can live in a modern democracy, because they ask only for the freedom of speech and thought that liberal democracy can provide.

Previously, Nietzsche observes, the state claimed a transcendent religious authority to rule absolutely over the life of a people.  Now, in modern democratic states, the state has no such transcendent authority, because the government is merely an instrument of popular will (sec. 472).  Religion is a purely private matter, pursued in civil society as distinguished from the state, and therefore there is a great diversity of religious sects.

The popular distrust of central authority in a liberal democracy leads to a weakening of the state.  Increasingly, the functions of government are given over to private contractors.  This decline in the state gives "free spirits" a freedom that they would not have under a centralized illiberal state.

While Nietzsche welcomes the freedom provided by modern liberal democracy, he fears the tyranny to come from modern socialism.  Modern socialism will require "the most submissive subjugation of all citizens to the absolute state, the like of which has never existed" (sec. 473).  Since socialists will not be able to use traditional religious authority to support the state, they can only rule for short periods "by means of the most extreme terrorism."  Nietzsche foresees that this socialist rule by terror will only reinforce the lesson that all accumulations of state power are dangerous, and thus the reaction against socialist state terror will promote the idea of minimizing the power of the state.  We need democratic institutions, Nietzsche concludes, to combat the "lust for tyranny" (WS, sec. 289).

Thus did Nietzsche predict the rise and decline of socialist despotism in the twentieth century--both Marxist socialism and National Socialism--and the eventual revival of liberal democracy and limited government.

Nietzsche's political thinking in Human, All Too Human contradicts those German National Socialists who claimed that he was their ideological founder.  Not only does he argue in favor of individual freedom and against centralized state power and rule by terror, he also rejects nationalism as an artificial obstacle to the political and cultural unification of Europe to form "a mixed European race" that will include the Jews, whom he praises for their contributions to European culture (sec. 475).  Moreover, Nietzsche ridicules the idea of a "party member" as contrary to free thought.  "He who thinks much is not suited to be a party member:  too soon, he thinks himself through and beyond the party" (sec. 579).

In fact, some of the Nazis recognised that Nietzsche was not friendly to their cause.  Ernst Krieck, a leading Nazi intellectual, remarked: "Apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist, and opposed to racial thinking, he could have been a leading National Socialist thinker!"

As long as modern democracy leaves Nietzsche's "free spirits" free to pursue their lives of endless scientific and philosophic inquiry, they are not much interested in political activity.  There is a kind of solitariness that characterizes this Nietzschean life, which is indicated by the last part of Human, All Too Human, entitled "Man Alone with Himself" (secs. 483-638).  The "man of science" is constantly questioning his beliefs, and thus he cannot be a "man of convictions" who is absolutely certain about his beliefs, which means that the scientific man cannot be a political man, because he cannot serve a political cause with unexamined enthusiasm.  Nietzsche's "free spirit" looks a lot like the Socratic philosopher as described by Strauss.

It is true, however, that some of Nietzsche's writing--his early and later writings--stirred the political enthusiasm of Nazis and other political ideologues, who looked to the "will to power" of the "Overman" to bring eternal meaning to human life.

Remarkably, its these same writings that show a spirit of atheistic religiosity that attracted Strauss.

Some of these points are developed further in my previous post on the "Nazi philosophers".