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.


Nigel said...

The more I look into it, the more I'm beginning to think Strauss to be a complete fraud. His anti-Western agenda seems not to be too unlike that of the frauds Boas, Gould or Lewontin.

Here's an interesting recent piece on Strauss:

I think this comment at TAC sums it up:

"Like all neocons, Strauss was a hypocrite: Suicidal propositionalism and open borders for Western nations; ethno-nationalism and sound immigration policy for Israel:

Kent Guida said...

Excellent piece. I appreciate your continuing efforts to keep the big picture in view, and it doesn't get any bigger than this.

Your reference to Pangle and "the elental terror" is to his commentary on Plato's Laws, I assume. Do you know if Pangle has written or said anything directly about Darwin or evolutionary theory?

One problem we have in evaluating Strauss and his students' views on these questions is the relative lack of evidence of direct engagement with Darwin's thought.

I have seen comments from Jaffa, including his confession that he has never read Darwin, and I have seen some cursory remarks from Mansfield, but not much else.

Is this lack of interest or a rhetorical strategy?

Larry Arnhart said...


What I find most intriguing--and frustrating--is that while Strauss never elaborated his view of Darwin and evolution, his scattered comments suggest that this was a fundamental issue for him.

His clearest comments come up in his "Reason and Revelation" lecture (the one first published by Heinrich Meier in 2006 in LEO STRAUSS AND THE THEOLOGICAL-POLITICAL PROBLEM) and in LIBERALISM ANCIENT AND MODERN (viii, 29-31, 41, 85, 123, 125-26, 135, 207, 231).

The frequent comments on evolution and Darwin in the LIBERALISM book suggest that he saw Darwinian evolution as connected to liberalism (from Lucretius to the present).

Yes, the "elemental terror" phrase comes from Pangle's LAWS (479, 482-83). There is more of this in Pangle's APSR article on the political theology of the LAWS.

Anonymous said...

In this context, you might want to consider some of J. Baird Callicott's work on the shift from the "balance of nature" paradigm in ecological theory to the "flux of nature" paradigm. It might be the case that the idea of sustainability doesn't fall nicely into the flux of nature paradigm (which is essentially in line with Lucretius, save perhaps for the eternality of the atoms). In other words, under the flux paradigm, disequilibrium is the new norm and thus makes the idea of sustainability and moreover ecological restoration problematic. Yet, Callicott seeks to show that environmental ethics is still possible under the flux of nature paradigm. It pertains to the rate (temporal) and scale (spatial) of extinctions caused by human beings as distinct from other natural disturbances. However that may be, I think it is always intriguing to see if an ethic can be established from the perspective that takes flux to be fundamental.

"I seem to be having a vision of Heracleitus speaking some ancient words of wisdom…. 'all things are passing and nothing stays,' likening the things that are to the flow of a river, he says, 'you can’t step into the same river twice.'"
—Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus (402a)

Larry Arnhart said...

Some years ago, I wrote an essay on "Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic as Human Ecology" (in Charles Rubin, ed., RESTORING CONSERVATIONISM, 1998).

Callicott argues for a "biocentric" or "ecocentric" ethics by which nonhuman entities have inherent value regardless of whether or not they have any instrumental value for human beings. By contrast, I argue that all judgments of value are "anthropocentric" in the sense that whatever we believe to be good must ultimately be good for human beings as satisfying human desires. Following Leopold, I argue that the ecological understanding of the complex interdependence in biotic communities helps human beings to strive for a prudent management of nature to satisfy their intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic desires.

This environmental ethics does not require a fixed balance of nature or the eternity of human nature. All that it requires is an enduring suite of natural desires that support some human concern for biotic nature.

Anonymous said...


Callicott concedes that value is determined by human beings: "I concede that, from the point of view of scientific naturalism, the source of all value is human consciousness..." (In Defense of the Land Ethics, 133). In other words, values come from human preferences or judgments regarding what we deem to be good; however, for Callicott, this does not preclude that something may be "valued for itself" (133). A little bit below he states, "An intrinsically valuable thing on this reading is valuable for its own sake, for itself, but it is not valuable in itself, that is, completely independently of any consciousness, since no value can, in principle, from the point of view of classical normal science, be altogether independent of a valuing consciousness." In the end, you and Callicott agree as to the value being humanly grounded but differ in your moral priorities (152). That is to say, both of you are anthropocentric regarding the source of values but you are more anthropocentric regarding the sphere of moral concern. Yet, he perhaps calls into question his biocentric moral position on pp. 93-94, and thus seems to be somewhat closer to your point of view.

I have an article forthcoming in the journal Environmental Politics on your interpretation of Leopold, along with Callicott's and Bob Pepperman Taylor's. I'll send you a copy once it is finished.


Anonymous said...

It may be a mistake to simply equate Strauss's views with those of Lucretius. Strauss was certainly not an Epicurean. Further, Strauss denies that human beings can have knowledge about the roots or the end of the universe, and therefore we cannot ultimately know whether nothing lovable is eternal or that the eternal is not lovable. For example, in What Is Political Philosophy, Strauss writes:

. . . Socrates was so far from being committed to a specific cosmology that his knowledge
was knowledge of ignorance. Knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance. It is knowledge of the elusive character of the truth, of the whole. Socrates, then, viewed man in the light of the mysterious character of the whole . . . .
This understanding of the situation of man which includes, then, the quest for cosmology rather than a solution to the cosmological problem, was the
foundation of classical political philosophy.

In other words, the whole is mysterious and we cannot know its beginning or end. The above quote also shows that Strauss did not believe that a denial of particular cosmic teleology and the eternity of human nature made it impossible to ground natural right. Natural right (at least according to Strauss's Plato) is not grounded on a cosmology, but on the quest for cosmology. While human beings may be able to know the situation of man as man, they cannot know the ultimate causes of that situation (WIPP, 39.)

Supporting this interpretation are Strauss's lectures on the "Basic Problems of Classical Political Philosophy" (available online). In those lectures, Strauss states that for Plato, wisdom is not available in its perfection. "So what you have is really philosophy as the theoretical-practical concern with your own improvement, with your own betterment, with your own virtue, an attempt which can never cease because wisdom is in fact not available." (Lecture 16.)

Accordingly, it might be more accurate to say that, for Strauss, the terrible truth is the permanent impossibility for human beings to know, through unassisted reason, the first cause of things. The question is whether we can live well knowing--really knowing--that we can never attain knowledge of the most important things.

Larry Arnhart said...

As I have indicated in my posts on Catherine Zuckert's Plato book, I find the Straussian position on cosmology confusing to the point of incoherence.

If knowledge of cosmology is impossible, how can the "quest for cosmology" be essential for philosophy?

In the passage in "What Is Political Philosophy?" that you cite (38-39), Strauss seems to reject evolution, a rejection that earlier in the essay he had attributed to historicism (26). So is Strauss here endorsing historicism?

Did Strauss really believe that it was impossible to make reasonable inferences from the available evidence as to whether the human species was eternal or not?

Did he really mean to say that the cosmology of Timaeus was just as plausible--or implausible--as any other cosmology? Did he believe that modern science gives us no good reason to conclude that Lucretius was closer to the truth than Timaeus?

Larry Arnhart said...

If we can never attain knowledge of the most important things, does that mean that we can never know whether philosophy is the best life?

Larry Arnhart said...

In his "Notes on Lucretius," Strauss clearly indicates--at least as clearly as he ever is--that he endorses the core of Lucretius' teaching.

He writes: "Lucretius' poetry makes bright and sweet the obscure and sad findings of the Greeks, that is, of the philosophers" (83).

He is emphatic in identifying this as the teaching of philosophy: "The recourse to the gods of religion and the fear of them is already a remedy for a more fundamental pain: the pain stemming from the divination that the lovable is not sempiternal or that the sempiternal is not lovable. Philosophy transforms the divination into a certainty. One may therefore say that philosophy is productive of the deepest pain. Man has to choose between peace of mind deriving from the pleasing delusion and peace of mind deriving from the unpleasing truth. Philosophy which, anticipating the collapse of the walls of the world, breaks through the walls of the world, abandons the attachment to the world; this abandonment is most painful" (85).

David B. said...

Considering the importance of knowledge of the cosmos to Straussians--and all philosophers, really--I've always wondered why we have not turned to a deeper study of physics?

Kent Guida said...

Am I correct in concluding that no actual student Strauss, except Roger Masters, has undertaken any real study of Darwin or evolutionary theory? And all we have to go by is a few scattered comments?

Larry Arnhart said...

Strauss's comments on Darwin and evolution are numerous, but they are very scattered and never elaborated.

What I find most odd is that there's no evidence that I have seen that Strauss ever actually read anything written by Darwin.

Similarly, there's little evidence of Strauss's reading of Aristotle's biological works, although at least one comment in a letter to Kojeve indicates that Strauss understood the importance of biology for Aristotle as a way of mediating the study of nature and the study of human beings.

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, Masters hasn't taken Darwin seriously. He focuses, or used to focus, on current trends in evolutionary theory. Arnhart and Kass are the only ones who have taken Darwin seriously on his own terms. But only the latter, or so I am told, informally studied with Strauss.

I wonder if Strauss's Darwin is simply Nietzsche's. This would leave us with the question: to what extent, if at all, did Nietzsche read Darwin?

Larry Arnhart said...

The early Kass and the middle Nietzsche embraced Darwinian naturalism. But then both turned away from Darwinism because of their religious longings.

I see some of the same religious longings in Strauss.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I audited one of Kass's courses, because he was reading Darwin. Even then, I could see that he was becoming ambivalent about Darwin and biology.

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

Anonymous said...

The "philosophy" Strauss refers to in his essay on Lucretius does not appear to be that of Plato and Aristotle. Strauss begins the essay by stating that "Lucretius' work is a poetic exposition of Epicurean philosophy." Close to the end of the essay Strauss writes: "Empedocles was both a philosopher and a poet. He was surpassed by Democritus and above all by Epicurus. Yet in surpassing Empedocles, Democritus and Epicurus had separated philos-
ophy entirely from poetry. Poetry became at best the handmaid of philosophy. Yet the poet possesses insights which Epicurus may have lacked, above all the understanding of men's attachment to the world and what
this implies. By restoring the union of philosophy and poetry, by presenting the true and final philosophic teaching poetically, Lucretius may be
said to surpass Epicurus; the Lucretian presentation of the truth is superior
to the Epicurean presentation."

The "philosophers" Strauss is referring to in the essay, we may therefore conclude, do not necessarily include Plato and Aristotle. The union of "philosophy and poetry" is of a particular kind of philosophy, and not classical political philosophy as Strauss usually means it. Plato's poetic philosophy is a world apart from Lucretius' poem.

When Strauss says that "Lucretius' poetry makes bright and sweet the obscure and sad findings of the Greeks, that is of the philosophers[.]," he is not referring to Plato and Aristotle. This is confirmed, not only by taking this comment in the context of the essay as a whole, but also by the footnotes to Lucretius' poem that Strauss uses in this very quote. The footnotes refer to sections of the poem that discuss the "Greeks" and Homer.

What is more, the poem, while mentioning numerous philosophers, never mentions (as far as I can tell) Plato or Aristotle. (The poem does contain a criticism of "harmonism" which could be a criticism of Plato.)

Anonymous said...

I do not believe Strauss would say that Timaeus was just as plausible--or implausible--as any other cosmology. Rather, he would depreciate the importance of cosmology altogether on the grounds that that the roots and end of the whole remain mysterious. Thus, in his lectures on the Problem of Socrates, Strauss, in discussing the fact that philosophy concerns the soul as well as everything else, says that "Plato characteristically entrusts the treatment of that other thing to the stranger Timaeus, who presents cosmology, a mathematical physics, as a likely tale" (RCPR, 180.)

Strauss goes on to say that Plato's task is to "lead men to the understanding of the human soul." (Id.)

Cosmology, then, is not essential to philosophy. The understanding of the situation of man includes the quest for cosmology because man is a being that seeks final knowledge of the whole. For example, why is such knowledge sought? What good would it be if it were available? What might a completed cosmology look like if it were to support our humanity? What about a cosmology that did not support our humanity? What if the latter were more plausible than the former?

Nonetheless, Strauss seems to have believed that such knowledge was not available, at least in our time. He refers in "Social Science and Humanism" to the eventual need for a "true universal science" into which modern science and the study of the human things will have to be integrated (RCPR, 8.) Whether this means that Strauss believed that cosmology itself would ever be complete knowledge is not clear.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart fairly asks: If we can never attain knowledge of the most important things, does that mean that we can never know whether philosophy is the best life?

Strauss replies: "Philosophy, being knowledge of our ignorance regarding the most important things, is impossible without some knowledge regarding the most important things. By realizing that we are ignorant of the most important things, we realize at the same time that the most important thing for us, or the one thing needful, is quest for knowledge of the most important things, or philosophy. In other words, we realize that only by philosophizing can a man’s soul become well ordered" (OT, eds. Victor Gourevitch, Michael S. Roth, pp. 200-201).

Larry Arnhart said...

Why doesn't the "understanding of the situation of man" include understanding modern science? So, for example, why doesn't the science of photosynthesis teach us something about our place in the cosmos--that our life, even all life, depends on the evolution of photosynthesis to harness the energy of sunlight? If we want to live a philosophic life today, shouldn't that include studying such scientific investigations into the place of human life in the cosmos?

Strauss said that the ultimate goal was "comprehensive science." I agree. And I think one way to pursue that goal is through Darwinian liberal education. Hans Jonas pointed to this when he spoke of how Darwinian science denied modern dualism in presenting life and mind as emergent products of matter.

Some of my posts on this can be found here and here.