Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Does Strong Reciprocity Support a Darwinian Left?

In 1998, the political left was dispirited.  The collapse of the Marxist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the turn in Communist China from Maoism to markets, the unpopularity of welfare state programs, and the global expansion of capitalism spurred by international free trade--all these events seemed to show the triumph of capitalist libertarianism and the defeat of socialist egalitarianism.

In that year, two essays were published arguing that the revivification of the left would require a turn to Darwinian science.  "The left needs a new paradigm," Peter Singer declared in the British journal Prospect, and that new paradigm should be based on a Darwinian understanding of human nature, which would replace the traditional utopian vision of the left as based on the assumption of human beings as a blank slate that was malleable and perfectible.  Singer's essay was expanded into a short book--A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation.

The other essay was written by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis and published in the Boston Review, along with commentaries by thirteen authors.  (Large parts of this essay were published elsewhere: Bowles and Gintis [1998b] and Fong, Bowles, and Gintis [2005].)  Bowles and Gintis argued that the left could promote a new egalitarian politics based on a Darwinian science of human cooperation that would support egalitarian policies.  They wrote: "It is not self-interest that opposes the welfare state, nor unconditional generosity that supports it.  We will show that there is a solid foundation for cooperation and sharing in two basic human motives--we call them strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity.  Moreover, we argue that hostility to contemporary forms of egalitarianism is evidence for, not against, that deep foundation, and that new egalitarian initiatives are fully compatible with it."

"Basic needs generosity" was identified as the propensity to share with others to assure them some minimal level of the means of subsistence.  "Strong reciprocity" was identified as "a propensity to cooperate and share with others similarly disposed, and a willingness to punish those who violate cooperative and other norms--even when such sharing and punishing is personally costly." 

Bowles and Gintis then sketched the reasoning for explaining these and other grounds of cooperation as innate propensities of the human species as shaped by both genetic and cultural evolution under the influence of group selection through war, so that more cooperatve groups tended to prevail over less cooperative groups.

The essay in 1998 was an ideological manifesto or intellectual prospectus for Bowles and Gintis that has guided their writing over the past twelve years.  Their latest book--A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution--continues to elaborate the arguments sketched in their 1998 essay.  Reading that essay and comparing it with Singer's essay illuminates their fundamental project in promoting a Darwinian left.

The similarities in the arguments of these two essays is striking.  Like Singer, Bowles and Gintis cite the work of Petr Kropotkin in Mutual Aid on the Darwinian evolution of cooperation as supporting a natural human disposition to generosity and reciprocity, in contrast to the mistaken assumption that Darwinism promotes a view of life as selfishly competitive.  Kropotkin thought that a socialist anarchism could be rooted in a Darwinian understanding of human beings as evolved to be naturally social animals.

Like Singer, Bowles and Gintis cite the research in behavioral game theory that explains the evolution of cooperation in ways that challenge the rational egoism of Homo economicus.  This research indicates that some people in some situations really are purely selfish beings.  But they are generally in the minority.  Some other people--also a minority--are pure altruists who cooperate unconditionally.  But the majority of people are conditional altruists--people who cooperate as long as they think others are cooperating and who are willing to punish cheaters who don't cooperate.

Like Singer, Bowles and Gintis think that Darwinian science can explain much of human cooperation as driven by kinship (cooperating with relatives) and reciprocal altruism (cooperating with non-kin as long as there is some expectation of future reciprocation of cooperation to repay the altruist).   The Darwinian logic of kin-selection has been elaborated by William Hamilton.  The Darwinian logic of reciprocal altruism has been elaborated by Robert Trivers.  The further elaboration of reciprocal altruism has included the logic of indirect reciprocity, developed by Richard Alexander, Martin Nowak, and others, which explains how individuals might cooperate if their reputations for being cooperative benefit them in the future, and if those who fail to cooperate suffer punishment from their bad reputations.

What is distinctive about the argument of Bowles and Gintis, however, is their claim that another evolved motivation is required to fully explain human cooperation--strong reciprocity.  Unlike the "weak reciprocity" of Trivers, "strong reciprocity" is the disposition to be cooperative and to punish cheaters even when cooperation and punishment is costly in ways that can never be repaid to the cooperator or the punisher.  Actually, as I have indicated in a previous post, "strong reciprocity" is a bad choice of words because by definition there is no future reciprocation. 

That's why the Darwinian explanation for how such a disposition could evolve requires group selection, so that the benefits for the whole group compensate for the sacrifices suffered by individual members of the group.  This is most likely to be explained through an evolutionary history of warfare, as Bowles and Gintis argue, in which individuals might sacrifice their own lives for the sake of their group, and those groups without such self-sacrificing individuals would tend to be eliminated.  This would favor the evolution of what Bowles and Gintis call "parochial altruism"--being cooperative within one's own group in competition with those outside the group.

Although Singer does not develop this idea of strong reciprocity in the way Bowles and Gintis do, he does come close to it when he says that to fully explain altruism, we need to explain not just "kin altruism" and "reciprocal altruism," but "genuine altruism toward strangers."  His illustration of such genuine altruism is the study by Richard Titmuss (The Gift Relationship) of the blood banks in Great Britain, which relied on voluntary blood donation with no possibility for the recipients to repay the donors (A Darwinian Left, 54-59).   Those on the left need to understand such genuine altruism so that they can look for ways to promote it as the basis for truly altruistic cooperation.  Singer wonders whether the left might need to encourage such altruism through social policies that reward this behavior with enhanced popularity and social status.  Of course, Bowles and Gintis would have to reject this, because the genuine altruism of strong reciprocity does not require any payback, and the rewarding of reciprocity with a good reputation would turn this into the reciprocal altruism of Trivers rather than the strong reciprocity of Bowles and Gintis.

And yet, as already indicated, even the strong reciprocity of Bowles and Gintis is not an unconditional altruism, because even the strong reciprocator will stop cooperating with cheators, and he will want to punish them.  Moreover, even the strong reciprocator--as a parochial altruist--is naturally tribalistic in favoring those within his group over those outside his group.  Even strong reciprocity falls far short of an utterly disinterested humanitarianism.

I am not yet fully persuaded that Bowles and Gintis have made a convincing case for the evolution of strong reciprocity.  But even if I were persuaded to accept their account of strong reciprocity, I don't see how this--along with the rest of their account of the evolution of cooperation--supports a Darwinian left, because what they say would seem to provide more support for a Darwinian libertarianism (or classical liberalism).  This came up a couple of years ago, when I wrote an essay for "Cato Unbound" on "Darwinian Liberalism," and Herbert Gintis was one of the commentators.  Although he seemed to largely agree with most of my points, he had to reject my general conclusion that a Darwinian science of human cooperation supported classical liberalism.  But I couldn't exactly understand his disagreement.

In their Boston Review essay of 1998, Bowles and Gintis argue that the left must give up its utopian view of human beings as a blank slate open to perfectionist visions of social transformation.  They thus seem to agree with Singer that a Darwinian left would require "a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved" (62). 

In fact, much of this "deflated" leftism would be acceptable to libertarians, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature and a "coolly realistic view of what can be achieved" must guide social policy.  For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channelling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the public good; and he also agrees with Smith about the danger in trusting those in government to exercise concentrated coercive power over the economy and society.  Again, Bowles and Gintis seem to agree with Singer about this.

And yet while Singer generally rejects the utopianism of the traditional left, he concludes his essay and his book by suggesting that "our capacity to reason can, in the long run, take us beyond the conventional Darwinian constraints on the degree of altruism that a society may be able to foster," which could lead us to "the idea of an impartial concern for all of our fellow humans, or, better still, for all sentient beings" (62-63).  Here Singer takes us back to the utopian vision of a pure, disinterested altruism--a universal love for all human beings and even for all sentient beings, which would support Singer's argument for "animal liberation."  As far as I can tell, Bowles and Gintis never fall back into such utopianism, because even their strong reciprocity is a conditional and parochial altruism that creates tragic conflicts of interest that can never be perfectly resolved.

Bowles and Gintis reject the utopian hope of the traditional left that central planning through governmental coercion can achieve perfect social and economic justice and equality.  But even as they reject the naive confidence of the left in governmental planning as a substitute for markets, they also reject what they take to be the naive confidence of libertarians in the spontaneous order of free markets.  Bowles and Gintis argue for recognizing the importance of "community governance" in solving problems of collective action through the enforcement of social norms where both government and markets would fail.

But then Bowles and Gintis fail to see that what they say about "communities" or "community governance" corresponds to what libertarians would say about "civil society."  In my Cato Unbound essay, I argued that "evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened the Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design."  Gintis responded by insisting that there was no evidence for this because "every known society has a collective mechanism that deals with the establishment of social values and that regulates the treatment of individuals who violate social norms," and he called this "collective governance."  But what he is calling "collective governance" or "community governance" is exactly what I am calling "civil society." 

The point is that human social order can arise not just from governmental planning or market exchange but also from the natural (familial) and voluntary associations of life--families, neighborhoods, churches, schools, clubs, and all kinds of commercial and charitable enterprises.  Darwinian science explains how this is possible by explaining the genetic and cultural evolution of the social propensities that underlie these social arrangements.  This supports a Darwinian libertarianism that recognizes the proper functioning of all three sources of social order--governments, markets, and communities.

Although Bowles and Gintis come close to accepting this position, they can't quite bring themselves to give up the traditional left's reliance on governmental coercion as superior both to markets and to communities.  One can see this in their exchange in the Boston Review with Kevin McCabe and Vernon Smith.

McCabe and Smith are famous as economic experimentalists employing behavioral game theory.  Smith won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work in experimental economics.  Their work is cited by Bowles and Gintis.

McCabe and Smith generally agree with Bowles and Gintis in interpreting their experimental work as showing the inadequacies of the Homo economicus model and the need to understand the other-regarding character of human cooperation.  But while Bowles and Gintis think this research shows the need for governmental welfare programs, McCabe and Smith think this shows the need for cultivating the natural tendencies to charitable reciprocity among individuals and social institutions to take the place of governmental welfare programs.

McCabe and Smith write:
We think the widespread experimental and other evidence for the innate practice of reciprocity by some, but not all agents (roughly half our subjects choose reciprocity, and half choose noncooperative play when given a choice) in decentralized processes of social exchange, suggest that the problem of distributional transfers might best be handled by individuals, acting alone or through social institutions.  That is, the alleviation of poverty should largely be considered none of the government's business, and in this sense belongs in the same category with drugs, abortion, health care, population size, prostitution, schooling, and religion. . . . Centralized power yields abuse as certain as death, taxes, and clumsy government intervention.  Basically, people cannot trust governments to do their bidding because each is bidding differently, and the aggregation of the bids faces implementational infeasibility.  Information on the fine structure of distributional preferences is dispersed, and no central authority can deploy resources to effectively satisfy those preferences.  These ancient truths have been well expressed by Bastiat, Hume, Locke, and others.
McCabe and Smith would prefer to end the governmental welfare state completely and allow private charity to take its place.  But if a more gradual reform is required, they recommend a system of tax credits to provide incentives for charitable reciprocity.  You could allow taxpayers to make direct contributions to poor individuals or to charitable organizations helping the poor, and these contributions would count as 100% deductions from their taxable income. Over time, these individual contributions would take the place of the governmental welfare budget.   In fact, most of the most effective programs even today for helping poor people are privately administered and privately funded.  But the rising budgets of governmental welfare programs tend to crowd out these private programs.  Eliminating the governmental welfare system would allow the social preferences for reciprocity to fully express themselves through private charitable activity to benefit poor people.

What McCabe and Smith recommend has been elaborated by libertarians like Michael Tanner (2003) who shows how the governmental welfare state could be replaced by private charity.  He concludes:
Civil society would rely on a reinvigorated network of private charity.  An enormous amount of evidence and experience shows tht private charities are far more effective than government welfare programs.  While welfare provides incentives for counterproductive behavior, private charities can use their aid to encourage self-sufficiency, self-improvement, and independence.  Private charity can individualize their approaches and target the specific problems that are holding people in poverty.
Most important, private charity is given out of a true sense of compassion, which forms a moral bond between giver and receiver.  Private charity enriches the lives of everyone involved and helps to nurture the true tendrils of community. (107) 
Oddly enough, in response to McCabe and Smith, Bowles and Gintis insist that "community governance" and the motivation to reciprocity cannot be trusted to do this, because only government can be trusted to alleviate poverty.  "The absence of poverty is a public good, like environmental quality or public safety, the provision of which through private markets is bound to be insufficient.  Voters have strong preferences to live in a society which protects all of its members against dire poverty, and these preferences simply cannot be implemented by private acts of charity."

But if Bowles and Gintis really believe that human evolution has endowed us--at least many of us--with propensities to "strong reciprocity" and "basic needs generosity," then why shouldn't they believe that helping the poor is best done through communal institutions that enforce social norms of fairness and benevolence? 

If they were to fully embrace the Darwinian insight into how social cooperation arises as an unintended emergent order of our evolved social instincts, they might then have to finally reject the position of the traditional left in favor of Darwinian libertarianism.

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


Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis.  1998a.  "Is Equality Passe?"  Boston Review, November.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis.  1998b.  "Recasting Egalitarianism."  In Erik Olin Wright, ed., Recasting Egalitarianism: New Rules for Communities, States, and Markets, 361-97.  London: Verso.

Fong, Christina M., Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis.  2005.  "Reciprocity and the Welfare State."  In Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, eds., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life, 277-302.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Tanner, Michael D.  2003.  The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society.  Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Response by Herbert Gintis

Herbert Gintis has sent me a response to my post on A Cooperative Species.  He has given me permission to post it here:

"Thanks for your careful consideration of our book.

"I never talk about our experimental results without mentioning their implications for the market/morality relationship.  We did not bring this up in the book because the book is not about the modern period, or about market economies.  Similarly, we totally agree that Pinker is probably correct about the decline in violence, but this also has nothing to do with our book.

"I chose the term 'strong reciprocity' to distinguish it form Trivers' term.  I admit it is not great, but it has caught on.  We also use the terms 'altruistic punishment' and 'altruistic cooperation' in the book, and I don't believe we have used the term strong reciprocity in journal articles in years.

"But I think you go overboard in criticizing it.  The idea is that of the categorical imperative: I help you because it is the right thing to do, in that I would expect you to help me in the same situation.

"Your contention that the idea is confused is, I think, not true and not important.  The idea that prosocial behavior will deteriorate if there is a generally high rate of defection is not in the least in conflict with the assertion that an act of helping or hurting is carried out without expectation of future reward as a result of that action.

"You are also incorrect in your saying that we believe altruism is absolute.  We do not believe this at all.  We argue that individuals have moral elements in their objective functions, and they trade off among goals.  If the price of behaving altruistically is too high, they will refrain from so behaving.

"I don't know why you are so hard on us.  We do not disagree on any political or moral issues, and I can't think of any scientific differences either.

"Your review would be better if you put your own alternative front and center.  Otherwise, you just sound like you're picking around the edges."

I anticipate that I will be writing some more posts on the work of Gintis and Bowles, which will indicate that we really are, as Gintis suggests here, in basic agreement on most important issues.

Against Altruism: Bowles, Gintis, and Strong Reciprocity

At the end of the summer (August 29-September 2), I will be in New Orleans at the convention of the American Political Science Association.  I will be on a panel entitled "Darwin, Justice, and Politics: The Evolution of Human Reciprocity."  The other panel members are Steven Forde (the University of North Texas), Tamler Sommers (the University of Houston), Alex Schulman (Duke University), and Barry Weingast (Stanford University).  The panel will be organized around a new book by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (Princeton University Press, 2011).  The panel meets Saturday, September 1, at 10:15 am.

This book is a good survey of the evidence and arguments for explaining the evolution of human cooperation through evolutionary game theory.  It is also a good statement of the view favored by Bowles and Gintis--the the crucial mechanisms for the evolution of human cooperation include the group selection through warfare of strong reciprocity and parochial altruism.

I see three problems in this book.  First, there is some conceptual confusion in their idea of strong reciprocity.  Second, there is a gap in their evolutionary history, because the initial appearance of strong reciprocity is explained with only two paragraphs of speculation.  Third, there is a second big gap in their evolutionary history--the past 7,000 years--that is covered in only a few paragraphs.

The first problem is the confusion in the very idea of strong reciprocity, which Bowles and Gintis identify as the disposition to cooperate without any expectation of future reciprocation and to punish defectors at some cost to oneself.

If there is no expectation of reciprocation, then why call this strong reciprocity?

Bowles and Gintis argue that while Robert Trivers' "reciprocal altruism" is not real altruism, but actually "enlightened self-interest," strong reciprocity is real altruism.  But they also indicate that this is a conditional altruism, because the strong reciprocator will not cooperate if most others are not cooperating.  So it seems that there is some self-interest here--the strong reciprocator expects his cooperation to be reciprocated--but this contradicts their definition of strong reciprocity as free from any expectation of future reciprocation.

Bowles and Gintis insist that the strong reciprocator bears the costs of punishing defectors without any expectation of any payoff.  But then they also say that strong reciprocators will not bear the great costs of punishing if others are not punishing defectors.  Moreover, they indicate that punishing defectors, or even just threatening to punish them, motivates defectors to become cooperators, and thus costly punishment has a payoff, because it sustains cooperation.

The fundamental problem here is that Bowles and Gintis take for granted the idea of "altruism" as originated by Auguste Comte--the idea that there's a strict separation between self-interest and selflessness, and that morality is identified as utterly selfless behavior.  Comte coined the word "altruism" (altruisme in French) as a term for "the good of others" in contrast to egoism.  If one accepts this, then prudence is no longer a moral virtue.

In her argument for "the virtue of selfishness," Ayn Rand rejected the morality of altruism--living for others and denying one's own good--as a denial of life.

Although this idea of altruism has been a pervasive and unexamined assumption of modern social science, biology, and moral philosophy, I doubt it.  As naturally social animals, we extend ourselves into others for whom we feel some attachment.  Thus, our concern for ourselves includes a concern for others who have some connection to us.  Consequently, our other-regarding dispositions are extensions of our self-love.  This also means that absolutely disinterested and universal love is impossible.  That is, I think, the idea behind Aristotle's "friendship" (philia) and Adam Smith's "sympathy."

The incoherence in the idea of altruism is indicated by Bowles and Gintis in their edited book Moral Sentiments and Material Interests in two footnotes (33).  They concede that any voluntary, intentional act of altruism must "increase the subjective utility of the actor," and thus, "if one truly cares about others, it may be self-interested to sacrifice on their behalf, even though it is manifestly non-self-regarding to do so."  So now it seems that true altruism might be "self-interested"!

The other two problems in this book are related to this problem of altruism, and they concern the two big gaps in its evolutionary history.  The first gap is the initial appearance in human history of strong reciprocity.  Bowles and Gintis admit that they can only speculate about this, and their speculation consists of only two paragraphs (197-98).  They assume that strong reciprocity originated as "a small behavioral modification of either kin-based altruism or reciprocal altruism."  Notice that this concedes that strong reciprocity is evolutionarily rooted in kin selection and reciprocal altruism.  What they say here is similar to what James Q. Wilson in The Moral Sense says about "attachment or affiliative behavior" (44, 127-28), which corresponds to Aristotle's "friendship" and Smith's "sympathy," and which was picked up by Darwin in his account of the "moral sense."

The second big gap in this book is the 7,000 years of human history from the early Holocene to the present.  Bowles and Gintis cover this in only a few paragraphs (3-4, 111-12).  Of course, it would be unfair to criticize them for not giving us a complete history of human civilization in one book.  But the point here is that explaining this history is crucial for their general argument.

For example, they indicate in various passages the importance of trade throughout human evolution from prehistoric foragers to the present (2, 79, 94-99, 101, 114, 134).  But they don't elaborate their view of trade in human history.  What would they say about Matt Ridley's argument in The Rational Optimist that Smith in The Wealth of Nations was right to see "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" as the ground for explaining the uniqueness of human cooperation?  Does this explain the commercial/industrial revolution of the past 200 years?  What would they say about Deirdre McCloskey's argument that this great revolution came from intellectual changes favoring the "bourgeois virtues"?

Here is where Bowles and Gintis need to turn to the history of political philosophy, particularly the early modern history of liberalism.  They do refer a few times to Smith.  But they seem to favor "the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments" over "the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations" (1, 44-45, 79, 199-200), and thus they overlook the connection between markets and morals.

Explaining the commercial/bourgeois revolution would force Bowles and Gintis to clarify their ambivalent and ambiguous position on market societies.  As former Marxist economists, they often denigrate the moral culture of market societies.  And yet they have been involved in some cross-cultural research that shows that primitive societies that engage in some market exchange have stronger norms of fairness and trust than those with little market integration.  Recently, in the Boston Review (May/June 2012), Bowles and Gintis have argued that markets promote morals.  But in this book, they say nothing about this.

Another point about the second gap in their history is the issue of violence.  Group selection through warfare is a fundamental element of their argument in explaining the evolution of "parochial altruism."  They don't say anything, however, about the apparent decline in violence in human history, particularly in the last few centuries.  The evidence for this has been surveyed by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and he argues that a major reason for this decline in violence is the cultural transformation brought by modern liberalism.  Would Bowles and Gintis agree?  In their Boston Review essays, they imply their agreement with this.  But this is not clear in their book, which reflects their reluctance to embrace Darwinian liberalism.  (One can also see this in Gintis's response to my essay on "Darwinian Liberalism" at the Cato Unbound website.)

If a great book is one that raises great questions, then this is a great book.

The many posts on related topics would include my posts on Pinker and Ridley.  Some others can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Leo Strauss and Darwinian Science: Is Photosynthesis the "Most Terrible Truth"?

Straussians will see the second "Earth Summit"--meeting in Rio de Janeiro next week--as a reminder of what Leo Strauss called "the most terrible truth": "that nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable."  This "terrible truth" that Strauss saw in Lucretius' De rerum natura has been deepened by modern science and particularly Darwinian science, and it is the fundamental thought implicit in the idea of "sustainability."  Even as we debate the best path to sustainable development, we might remind ourselves that modern science teaches us that no matter what we do, ultimately human life--and, indeed, all life on earth--is unsustainable. 

If we're lucky, we can hope to prolong the life of our species and other species for a few more centuries or millenia.  But we cannot hope to prolong life forever, because we live in a evolving universe that does not care about us or for us, and the evolutionary conditions sustaining human life and all living beings are enduring but not eternal.  Eventually, everything we love and everything that lives will die, and the Earth will become just another dead planet.

That's what Strauss identified as "the most terrible truth," and what Straussians like Tom Pangle have called "the elemental terror."  According to the Straussians, the few human beings who are philosophers can find pleasure in knowing that terrible truth, because they find their supreme pleasure in knowing the truth, and for them no truth is terrible.  But all other human beings cannot live, or live well, with such a terrible truth, and they need the pleasing delusion that the universe has been created by an intelligent designer who cares for them eternally, who therefore will sustain human life forever.  That's why Strauss and the Straussians scorn modern science and Darwinian science in particular, because this science teaches that human life has evolved through natural conditions that are not eternally sustainable.  (Similarly, conservative existentialists like Peter Lawler complain that Darwinian science cannot satisfy the transcendent longing of human beings for eternal meaning, which can only be satisfied by the heroic delusion of religious belief.)

It all comes down to photosynthesis. 

One of the greatest achievements of modern science over the past two centuries has been the discovery and the understanding of photosynthesis as the process by which the flow of energy from the Sun is harnessed to sustain life on Earth.  A wonderfully written account of this is Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet (Harper Collins, 2008).

Contrary to so much of the rhetoric of environmentalism that assumes a static "balance of nature" in the biosphere that has been disturbed by human activity, the history of the Earth is a history of dynamic change, in which the whole biosphere has arisen as a contingent product of photosynthesis.  The meaning of photosynthesis is that light makes life.  Sunlight provides the energy that is captured by plants and channelled in ways that sustain the living processes of all plants and animals.  Plants use photons of sunlight to power the process by which carbon is taken from the air and "fixed" into living tissues, a process that requires water and chlorophyll, and which gives off oxygen. 

Large multicellular creatures cannot survive without the energy levels provided by oxygen coming from the atmosphere.  But there was little oxygen in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic cyanobacteria began to raise the level of oxygen, and now oxygen is about twenty percent of the atmosphere.  All complex life as we know it depends on this atmospheric oxygen.  This "Great Oxidation Event" was the first great environmental catastrophe in the history of life on the Earth.  That's why some astrobiologists believe that the best sign of life on another planet would be evidence of oxygen in the atmosphere.

As is true for the history of all life, the history of human life depends on the photosynthetic flow of energy from the Sun through the biosphere.  The history of human civilization shows the emergence of ever more complex levels of order from structuring the flow of solar energy to sustain order against the entropic tendency of the second law of thermodynamics.  Within that cosmic pattern, human history's three eras can be seen as three levels of ever more complex order that require ever more complex means for extracting energy to sustain ever larger human populations.  Through most of human evolutionary history, foragers extracted energy through hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  Then, about 12,000 years ago, because of the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the end of the last ice age, farmers began to extract energy through harvesting domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals.  In the modern era, beginning around 1750, human beings have come to rely ever more on fossil fuels as sources of solar energy stored away in the Earth.  The ultimate source of all this energy in plants, animals, and fossil fuels is sunlight.  And thus it is that life on Earth draws cosmic support from the fires of the Sun.

If there were not enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, photosynthesis would shut down.  Right now, that doesn't seem to be a problem because human activity has been raising the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past two centuries.  But scientists project that over the longer term--somewhere between a hundred million and a billion years into the future--this carbon dioxide will disappear, photosynthesis will then stop, and all life on the planet will die.

Unless one believes that the cosmos is intelligently designed or divinely created for the eternal good of the human species, we must face up to the future extinction of all human life, and even all life generally.  That's the ultimate message of Darwinian science as conveyed through the scientific understanding of photosynthesis as the evolved natural ground of all life.  Many people worry about the degrading effects of teaching evolution to our school children.  Perhaps they should also worry about teaching them about photosynthesis.

Strauss and the Straussians share this worry about the enervating effects on most human beings of this "most terrible truth" of Darwinian science.  The Straussians also suggest that any scientific denial of cosmic teleology and the eternity of human nature denies the ground of natural right.

My response to this is to argue that even if the world that we care about is neither eternal nor purposeful, and even if the cosmos does not care for us, natural right can still be rooted in the immanent teleology of human nature as an enduring but not eternal product of a natural evolutionary process.

We need not be terrified by the truth that the cosmos does not care for us, because by nature we care for ourselves, and that immanent teleology of our nature is enough to sustain natural right.

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

Friday, June 08, 2012

Darwinian Sustainability: Ehrlich versus Ridley

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970's the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to 'stretch' the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole."

That is the first paragraph of Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb, first published in 1968.  I was reminded of that book when I noticed that Ehrlich is back in the news with an article in the latest issue of Nature (June 7, 2012), with new warnings about the approaching Malthusian Apocalypse.  There are many other articles in this same issue of the journal with similar warnings, which are to prepare us for the upcoming Rio Earth Summit.  The newspaper coverage of these articles suggests that we will see another wave of hysterical predictions about the gloomy future of the Earth, comparable to those initiated by Ehrlich and others in the 1960s and 1970s.  This is what Anthony Barnosky and his coauthors in another article in Nature call "biological forecasting." 

The most amazing feature of all of this writing is the silence about the failure of the "biological forecasting" of people like Paul Ehrlich.   When Ehrlich's Population Bomb was published in 1968, the world population was three and one half billion.  Today, the population has just passed seven billion.  This was not supposed to happen.  Ehrlich predicted that mass starvation in the 1970's would cause a collapse of world population to bring it down to the "carrying capacity" of the Earth. This is the logic of Thomas Malthus:  human population grows until there is not enough food to feed everyone, and then the population drops dramatically through famine, war, or disease until the balance with limited natural resources is restored.  While many people have starved in many parts of the world over the past 50 years, the average human life-span and per capita wealth have increased around the world. 

If scientific research is to be judged by falsifiable predictions, then the science of those like Ehrlich has been refuted by their record of falsified predictions.  In contrast to Ehrlich, Julian Simon argued that population growth was good as long as free markets and free trade allowed human entrepreneurial and inventive genius to find new ways to turn natural resources to productive uses.  To prove his point, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a bet.  In 1980, Ehrlich could pick a list of five commodity metals.  If Ehrlich was right, he would predict that by 1990 these metals would be so scarce that their prices would have risen.  If Simon was right, their prices would drop.  Ehrlich lost the bet.  The prices in 1990, adjusted for inflation, had dropped, just as Simon predicted. 

In 1989, I was on a year-long sabbatical at Stanford University doing research on "Darwinian natural right," and I audited some of the classes in the "Program in Human Biology" at Stanford.  Ehrlich is a Stanford biologist, and he lectured to some of the classes.  The students and faculty treated him with awe.  I was astonished that he was never challenged for his embarrassing failures.  In 1990, he lost his bet.  But he also received the "genius award" of the MacArthur Foundation!

Ehrlich is not a complete fool.  He has learned from his mistakes.  What he has learned is that he should never again make any predictions that are precise enough to be falsifiable.  So now he predicts an eminent "turning point" in the history of the Earth that will be catastrophic.  But he will not give us exact dates as he did in 1968.

So what's going on here?  It's the debate between Darwinian pessimism and Darwinian optimism.  It is well known that reading Thomas Malthus's book on population inspired Darwin in formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection in the "struggle for life."  It is possible, then, to infer that the natural evolution of life on earth is a history of population growth followed by mass starvation or conflict leading to a population decline falling back within the limits of scarce natural resources necessary for sustaining life.  Thus, "sustainability" is identified with limits to growth.

But, as I have indicated in some recent posts, it is also well known that reading Adam Smith inspired Darwin to see how human beings used social cooperation to achieve a dominance over the Earth.  Moreover, Darwin had some intimation of the importance of trade or exchange in allowing human beings to increase the productivity of their labor through specialization, just as Smith saw in The Wealth of Nations.  In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley has developed this as the theme of all human history--the ever-increasing productivity of human life spurred by exchange and specialization--to explain human progress.  The critical turning point came with the Industrial Revolution--starting in England and Scotland during the lifetime of Smith--when human population and prosperity exploded to unprecedented levels.  The logic of Malthusian boom and bust was overturned, so that Darwinian pessimism could be replaced with Darwinian optimism.

Notice that in this new journalistic coverage for Ehrlich's Malthusian pessimism, there are no references to the arguments of people like Simon and Ridley.  Even in the articles in Nature, the scientists are careful not to mention the historical record supporting Darwinian optimism.

But don't we have good reasons to be pessimistic about the future?  If we continue using scarce resources (like fossil fuels) at the present rate, and if we continue to promote global warming at the present rate, can't we foresee catastrophe sometime in the near future?

For example, consider the following sentence in the article by Barnosky et al.: "A decrease in this extra energy budget, which is inevitable if alternatives do not compensate for depleted fossil fuels, is likely to impact human health and economics severely" (54).

But notice the conditional language--"inevitable if."  This points to what Ridley identifies as the fundamental fallacy of Malthusian pessimism--extrapolationism.  Extrapolate present trends into the indefinite future and catastrophe becomes inevitable.  Assume that the future will be a continuation of the present with no novel adaptations.  That was Ehrlich's mistake in 1968.

In The Population Bomb, he has a few pages on the possibility that new high-yield varieties of food grains might increase productivity to the point of feeding world population without any mass famines.  Ehrlich dismissed this as unlikely.  But that's exactly what happened.  Norman Borlaug's "green revolution" allowed countries like India to produce so much food in the 1970's that they actually become exporters of grain; and now India has become one of the more prosperous countries in the world.  India and China are the two most populous nations in the world, and they also have the greatest stockpiles of food grains.

Ridley draws the lesson from this:
The pessimists are right when they say that, if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for all humanity.  If all transport depends on oil, and oil runs out, then transport will cease.  If agriculture continues to depend on irrigation and aquifers are depleted, then starvation will ensue.  But notice the conditional: if.  The world will not continue as it is.  That is the whole point of human progress, the whole message of cultural evolution, the whole point of dynamic change--the whole thrust of this book.  The real danger comes from slowing down change.  It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine, and it solves problems by changing its ways.  It does so through invention driven often by the market: scarcity drives up price; that encourages the development of alternatives and of efficiencies.  It has happened often in history.  When whales grew scarce, petroleum was used instead as a source of oil.  (As Warren Meyer has put it, a poster of John D. Rockefeller should be on the wall of every Greenpeace office.)  The pessimists' mistake is extrapolationism: assuming that the future is just a bigger version of the past.  As Herb Stein once said, 'if something cannot go on forever, then it will not.'" (281)

But what about global warming?  Doesn't that bring the insurmountable limit to human population and economic growth?  Ridley's response is prudent.  He accepts the evidence for global warming as a product of human activities.  But then he asks us to consider the most reasonable response to this.  If we accept the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can still be Darwinian optimists, Ridley argues, because the pessimistic assumptions about future global warming coming from the IPCC depend on optimistic assumptions about growing wealth, because it's the expansion of economic growth around the world that's likely to have the greatest effects on global climate.  Consequently, we should see that "the richer people get the less weather dependent their economies will be and the more affordable they will find adaptation to climate change" (333).  "In short, a warmer and richer world will be more likely to improve the well-being of both human beings and ecosystems than a cooler but poorer one" (341).  Those like Ehrlich argue just the opposite: a cooler but poorer world, with fewer human beings, would be better for us and for the Earth.

Darwinian optimists see a general trend in human history that is progressive--especially in the last 200 years--towards greater peace, prosperity, and population.  Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature surveys the evidence for declining violence in history leading to the "liberal peace" of the present.  Ridley's Rational Optimist surveys the evidence for growing prosperity and population.  Both support a Darwinian liberal progressivism based on the idea that classical liberal ideas--liberty, commerce, tolerance, limited government, bourgeois virtues--have promoted a course of cultural evolution that has cultivated the "better angels" of our evolved human nature.

It is not clear, however, that Darwinian thinking promotes a cosmic optimism.  After all, a Darwinian explanation of the place of human life in the cosmos would seem to indicate that the extinction of all life, including human life, is inevitable, and the most we can do is to slow the inevitable decline of Earthly life into entropy. 

That's a question for a future post.


Anthony Barnosky, et al., "Approaching a State Shift in Earth's Biosphere," Nature, 486 (7 June 2012): 52-58.

Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968).

Paul Ehrlich, Peter Kareiva, Gretchen Daily, "Securing Natural Capital, and Expanding Equity to Rescale Civilization," Nature, 486 (7 June 2012): 68-73.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Has Peter Lawler Become a Darwinian Conservative?

I have often detected a tendency towards Darwinian conservatism in the writing of Peter Lawler.  That is evident in his recent "Big Think" blog post on Ed Wilson's new book, in which Peter suggests that Wilson's Darwinian view of sexuality and marriage has a lot in common with Thomistic natural law.

Compare Peter's post with some of my recent posts on Thomistic natural law as Darwinian natural right, which can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Who knows?  Maybe some day Peter will even repudiate his Heideggerian existentialism.

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

Peter has written a response to this post identifying me as an "evangelical Darwinian conservative," while also indicating that he believes Darwinian conservatism is at least partially true, but partially false.  The partial falsehood comes from the failure to account for the religious longings of the human soul for supernatural redemption from the natural world into which we have been thrown, longings that make us alien beings in the universe.  My response to this can be found in some of the posts indicated above.

It would help me understand Peter's position if he would explain what he believes it is that will finally satisfy our transcendent longings--eternal bodily punishment in Hell and rewards in Heaven?  In the spring of 2010, I wrote a series of six posts on Heaven and Hell expressing some skepticism about the traditional doctrines of Heaven and Hell, which came into Christianity from Egypt and from Plato.  Does Peter believe that this really is what human beings want?  He has said that I have "a rather traditional Southern Baptist view--'I'll fly away'--of heaven."  Does that imply that he rejects any "traditional" view of Heaven and Hell in the afterlife?  Does he believe that the longing for an afterlife is a longing for the impossible? 

My suspicion is that Peter is a secret writer who agrees with Leo Strauss that the religious belief in the afterlife is a pleasing delusion that most human beings need to protect themselves from the terrible truth that the cosmos is indifferent to human care.

Three of my posts on Heaven and Hell can be found herehere, and here.

By the way, I like Peter's comparison of me with Sheldon Cooper (of "The Big Bang Theory"). 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Government of Evolutionary Liberalism: Smith, Darwin, Hayek, and Ridley

Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (HarperCollins, 2010) is a brilliant exposition of the evolutionary history of human society as arising from the spontaneous order of exchange and specialization.  This makes it an essential contribution to the tradition of evolutionary liberalism that stretches from David Hume and Adam Smith to Charles Darwin and Friedrich Hayek.  It's appropriate, therefore, that in 2011 Ridley's book received the Hayek Prize of the Manhattan Institute, which "honors the book published within the last two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and individual liberty." 

In receiving his award, Ridley's lecture summarized the main Hayekian idea of his book--that all human accomplishments arise not from individual intelligence, but from the social networking of our minds into a collective brain.  Moreover, he argued, "that the key feature of trade is that it enables us to work for each other, not just for ourselves; that attempts at self-sufficiency are the true form of selfishness, as well as the quick road to poverty; and that authoritarian, top-down rule is not the source of order or progress."

And yet, Ridley's version of evolutionary liberalism suffers from one fundamental flaw--an almost anarchistic scorn for government.  Unlike Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Hayek, Ridley fails to see that although governmental power is dangerous when it is unlimited and undivided, the spontaneous order of human civilization can arise only within a framework of general rules deliberately designed and enforced by government. 

In his Hayek Lecture, Ridley says:
"Politically, I still see myself as a liberal, even a radical one, whose distrust of putting people in charge of other people is born of knowledge that government has been the means by which people have committed unspeakable horrors again and again and again: under Sargon, Rameses, Nero, Attila, Genghis, Tamerlane, Akbar, Charles V, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong Il, and Muammar Gaddafi.  Not one of them used the market to repress and murder their people; their tool was government."
Of course, we should agree with him about the "unspeakable horrors" that come from government.  But his mistake is in leaving his readers with the implied conclusion--that he never quite makes explicit--that we would be better off with no government at all.  Without saying so openly, he hints at anarchism.

Adam Smith would not agree with this.  In The Wealth of Nations, Smith defended the "simple system of natural liberty," in which "every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men" (IV.ix.51).  Consequently, a government securing natural liberty would be released from any duty to supervise the industry of private people to serve some conception of the public interest, which would falsely assume a knowledge in the central planners that they could never have.  And yet, in this system of natural liberty, government still has three important duties: the military defense of society against foreign threats, the administration of justice to protect each individual of the society against unjust injuries from other individuals, and the establishment and maintenance of certain public works and institutions that could not be well provided by private individuals.  Thus, in a society of natural liberty, the power of government is limited but still essential.

Could there be a human society without any government at all?  In The Wealth of Nations, Smith sees the history of society as moving through four stages--the age of hunters, the age of shepherds, the age of agriculture, and the age of commerce.  Government first arises in the second stage, when disputes over property make government necessary; but when human beings live by foraging--hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants--there is no need for government, since disputes can be settled by informal social authority (V.i.a.1-2, V.i.b.1-12).  But in at least one passage of The Wealth of Nations, Smith suggests that even among hunters, there is a need for "chiefs" to act as judges in peace and leaders in war (V.i.f.51).

The reason for this confusion is that while foragers can live in "stateless societies," as anthropologists would say today, because there is no formal structure of authority that would constitute a "state," there is, nonetheless, some informal and episodic social ranking in which some individuals act as leaders in arbitrating disputes or fighting in war.  In any case, any civilized society clearly requires government.

Similarly, Darwin thought that the primitive foragers he saw at Tierra del Fuego had no structure of leadership, and yet he believed that any animals who live in groups need leaders to resolve disputes or to organize fighting with other groups.  And certainly in the more civilized human societies, there will be a political ranking in which ambitious individuals will compete for dominance (Voyage of the Beagle, chap. 10; Descent of Man, Penguin ed., 2004, 124, 127, 130, 133, 142, 157-58, 629-30, 683).

Like Smith and Darwin, Hayek saw that no large human society--or "Great Society"--could exist without government.  Only in very small primitive groups was it conceivable to have society without government.  Any civilized human society requires governmental organizations to provide central direction for common purposes.  Even in the most free societies--those that liberals like Hayek wanted to promote--there would always be some need for governmental coercion to manage military defense, to enforce general rules of justice, and to provide the economic and social security of a welfare state (The Constitution of Liberty, 133-61, 253-394; Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1: Rules and Order, 13-14, 32, 46-54). 

And while general rules of law can evolve spontaneously ("grown law"), Hayek thought, these rules will often need to be corrected by the deliberate decisions of judges and legislators ("made law") (Rules and Order, 51, 88, 100).  Furthermore, in times of emergency--war, rebellion, or natural catastrophe--the spontaneous order of society might need to be temporarily suspended, and powers of compulsory organization must be given to someone in government exercising supreme command (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3: The Political Order of a Free People, 109, 111, 124-26, 130-33).

In contrast to Smith, Darwin, and Hayek, Ridley tells a story of human civilization in which government is denigrated as unproductive exploitation.  "Merchants and craftsmen make prosperity; chiefs, priests, and thieves fritter it away" (161).  "Merchants make wealth; chiefs nationalize it" (160). 

He admits that markets cannot function well without institutions and rules that might come from government--such as the rule against revenge killing: "handling the matter of revenge over to the state to pursue on your behalf through due process would be of general benefit to all."  But he immediately suggests that this does not have to be done by government.  "I see these rules and institutions as evolutionary phenomena, too, emerging bottom-up in society rather than being imposed top-down by fortuitously Solomonic rulers" (118).  He cites the examples of medieval merchant law and British common law.  But he says nothing about Hayek's point that spontaneously evolved rules often need correction by the deliberate decisions of judges and legislators.

Despite Ridley's anarchistic sentiments, he is quick to call for the help of government when he needs it.  He was the non-executive chairman of the Northern Rock bank from 2004 to 2007, having joined the board of the bank in 1994.  The bank fell into crisis in 2007 after making risky investments with money borrowed from other banks, and it became the first British bank since 1878 to face failure from a run of withdrawals by depositors.  The bank was forced to petition the Bank of England for a bailout.  Ridley was forced to resign.  In response to this scandal, some of Ridley's critics accused him of hypocrisy. 

In The Rational Optimist, Ridley writes one passage about this.  He expresses his regret, and explains: "The experience has left me mistrustful of markets in capital and assets, yet passionately in favour of markets in goods and services. . . . Speculation, herd exuberance, irrational optimism, rent-seeking and the temptation of fraud drive asset markets to overshoot and plunge--which is why they need regulation, something I always supported. (Markets in goods and services need less regulation.)" (9).

In one other passage of his book, Ridley comes close to agreeing with Smith about the three duties of government even in a system of natural liberty.  "Not all of the hangers-on were bad: there were rulers and public servants who lived off the traders and producers but dispensed justice and defence, or built roads and canals and schools and hospitals, making the lives of the specialise-and-exchange folk easier, not harder.  These behaved like symbionts, rather than parasites (government can do good, after all)" (351).

This reluctant concession to the need for government in this one brief passage near the end of the book is as far as Ridley is willing to go.  But nowhere does he indicate to his reader how his leaning towards anarchism separates him from the liberal tradition of Smith, Darwin, and Hayek.

Posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Darwinian Social Contract

How can we explain the social cooperation of human beings while recognizing their propensity to selfish behavior?  At least since the ancient Greek sophists, one possible answer to that question has been the idea of a social contract. 

Among modern political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes began one tradition of social contract theory by asking what sort of contract would be accepted by rational egoists to escape the anarchic disorder in a "state of nature."  Proponents of economic game theory and rational choice theory--including philosophers such as John Rawls--have continued that Hobbesian tradition. 

A second tradition of social contract theory was begun by David Hume and Adam Smith who asked how the existing implicit social contract could have evolved.  Charles Darwin added to that Humean/Smithian tradition in explaining how the moral sense could have evolved through biological evolution by natural selection and through cultural evolution by social learning.  Recently, biologists such as John Maynard Smith have extended this tradition in developing evolutionary game theory. 

Brian Skyrms--in his book, The Evolution of the Social Contract (Cambridge University Press, 1996)--continues the tradition of Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Maynard Smith by showing how evolutionary game theory can illuminate issues in social contract theory.

In Chapter 1 ("Sex and Justice") of his book, Skyrms offers a partial explanation of the evolution of distributive justice.  In a simple bargaining game where we must decide how to divide a valued good among selfish individuals, informed rational self-interest would produce an infinity of strategies to solve the problem.  But an evolutionary approach would suggest that under specified conditions that seem realistic the only evolutionarily stable strategy would be the principle of share and share alike.  A crucial condition for this outcome is that there be a natural tendency for "positive correlation," in which individuals interact with others like themselves.  Fair-minded people promote the evolution of justice by dealing with others who share their sense of fairness and avoiding those who are unfair.

In Chapter 2 ("Commitment"), Skyrms shows how evolution might favor commitments to norms in social dealings for making fair offers and punishing unfair offers.  Experiments in "ultimatum games" show that people will punish unfair offers even at some monetary cost to themselves.  This might seem to contradict the theory that people act to maximize their subjective expected utility.  But it is possible that natural selection has shaped the neuroendocrinological systems for moral emotions, so that the utility functions of the human species show a emotional preference for fairness.

In Chapter 3 ("Mutual Aid"), Skyrms explains the minimal conditions for the evolution of mutual cooperation.  A common paradox of utilitarianism, as captured in the "prisoner's dilemma" game, is that individuals acting for their rational self-interest often refuse to cooperate with one another and thus find themselves worse off than if they had acted for the common good.  Evolutionary game theory indicates, however, that Darwinian evolution has favored a tendency to cooperate for the common good.  Once again, the critical requirement is "positive correlation."  If people are inclined to interact with like-minded people, then cooperative people can enjoy the benefits of cooperation with one another and avoid the costs of being exploited by cheaters.  By contrast, cheaters are punished by being ostracized from cooperative groups and forced into self-defeating interaction with other cheaters.  Darwinian theory, therefore, would support one version of Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only so that if others act likewise fitness is maximized" (p. 62).

In Chapter 4 ("Correlated Convention"), Skyrms shows how conventions such as property could arise from human evolution.  Aristotle believed that property was rooted in natural human propensities.  He claimed, for example, that "not taking is easier than giving, since people part with what is their own less readily than they avoid taking what is another's" (p. 76).  Recent experiments in economic psychology confirm this, because they show that people tend to demand a higher price to sell some good that they own than they would be willing to pay to acquire it in the first place.  Like other animals, human beings thus display ownership behavior in which owners fight harder to keep a resource than they would to acquire it.  This is what Maynard Smith calls the "bourgeois strategy" in animal conflicts over resources: if individuals are either owners or intruders in fighting over resources, this strategy would dictate that one should fight hard until seriously injured if one is the owner, while one should first engage in threatening display but then flee from real danger if one is the intruder.  Evolution could have favored such a rule if resources tend to be more valuable to owners than to intruders, or if it is easier for owners to defend their resources than for intruders to take them away.

In Chapter 5 ("The Evolution of Meaning"), Skyrms shows how signaling systems can emerge among human beings and other animals by evolution.  The evolutionary selection of one signaling system over another may be largely a result of chance.  But the evolutionary advantages of communicating information are so great that the selection of some signaling system is strongly favored by the evolutionary process.  Even where a signaling system requires some altruistic risk by the sender (as in giving an alarm call), accurate signaling would be favored where individuals can recognize and punish those who engage in deception.

Students of political philosophy might be led by this book to consider the possibility that a Darwinian view of human nature could support an Aristotelian conception of natural right.  Skyrms shows us how justice, sociality, property, and language might have emerged from a Darwinian social contract as shaped by natural selection in human evolutionary history.  This could confirm Arisotle's claim that human beings are by nature rational and political animals.


Sunday, June 03, 2012

"A History of Everything"--A Play About Science and the Meaning of Life

"We are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close forever."

That sentence from Richard Dawkins' book, Unweaving the Rainbow, is said by Alexander Devriendt to capture the theme of his new play, "A History of Everything."  I have just seen a performance of the play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.  It's the work of a Belgian theatre group.  It was first performed a few months ago in Australia.

The play depicts the history of the universe in reverse, moving from the day of the performance backwards through the history of human beings and their evolutionary ancestors until we reach the Big Bang.  The performers enact selected events on a giant map of the Earth that covers the floor of the stage.  Eventually, the continents merge into Pangea, and then the Earth itself is folded up into a ball that disappears.  This is all done with a clever playfulness that is a joy to watch.  There is even some tasteful nudity that adds some sizzle (think Botticelli's "Birth of Venus").

Devriendt says that the sentence from Dawkins "embodied an important aspect of the show: how science and history can provide us with answers about our life, as opposed to religious or creationist views."

This play is a remarkable work of thoughtful entertainment.  It gave my wife and I much to talk about as we dined after the performance.

I have four thoughts about this play.  The first is that it is dogmatic in assuming the truth of Dawkins' scientific atheism.  It assumes that Dawkins is right that there must be an opposition between the scientific history of evolution and religious accounts of human life in the cosmos.  The possibility of theistic evolution is never considered.

Thus, dogmatic atheism has taken the place of dogmatic religion.  Just as artists once dramatized the religious beliefs of their time, now artists like Devriendt dramatize the atheistic beliefs of people like Dawkins, "who provide us with answers about our life."

A crucial turning point in this play is when it reaches 1859 and depicts the event of the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.  One of the actors speaks then about the "death of God," as if that were the only conclusion that anyone could draw from Darwin's science.  Of course, this is Dawkins' Darwin.  But it's not clear to me that Darwin himself would have accepted this.  Although he became a skeptic, Darwin left open questions about First Cause and the unexplained grounds of all explanation in a way that invited thought about reason and revelation.  Those like Dawkins are not open to such questions.

This play manifests what I have called Romantic Darwinism--the effort to infuse an atheistic evolutionary view of the world with religious emotions and thus achieve a kind of secular transcendence.  Artists like Devriendt are easily captivated by this, but without really understanding what they're doing.

Similarly, the reference to Lucretius ("atoms and the void")  is apt, because this play is a lot like Lucretius' poem--On the Nature of Things--in its poetic story of human life as part of an evolving cosmos that is undesigned and uncaring.

My second thought is that the play dramatizes the amazing increase in human population over human history without reflecting on the meaning of this.  One of the performers counts down the world population from the present seven billion.  This reminds us of the startling growth in human numbers over the past two hundred years.  And yet the play emphasizes war as pervasive throughout history.  The play thus misses one of the fundamental themes of human history--the remarkable decline in violence and increase in prosperity.  If Devriendt had read Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley instead of Dawkins, he might have thought about depicting this big pattern that supports historical optimism.

My third thought is that the last ten or fifteen minutes of the play should be cut out.  Near the end, a bright, blinding light is shined out on the audience to suggest the Big Bang.  This should have been followed immediately by total darkness as the end of the play.  This would have been more dramatically effective than continuing with some wandering lights on the stage, which was confusing.

My final thought is that this play reminded me of George Anastaplo's argument--in his book, The Artist as Thinker--that artists really are thinkers, and therefore we must judge their art by the quality of their thought.  One can see that a playwright like Devriendt is using his art to work through a line of thought--in this case, the thought of some historians and scientists--and consequently our aesthetic judgment about his art must be a philosophic judgment about the persuasiveness of his reasoning.

My earlier post on Romantic Darwinism can be found here.

My previous posts on the evolutionary history of everything can be found here and here.