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.

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