Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Timidity of John Hibbing and the Grandeur of Biopolitical Science

Perspectives on Politics is one of the quarterly journals published by the American Political Science Association.  The new issue (June 2013) is devoted largely to articles on the theme of "nature and politics," with special attention to the application of biology to politics.  Some of the articles are responses to an article by John Hibbing--"Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics."  Some are responses to Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  And some are responses to Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott's edited volume Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics.

Hibbing and his colleagues have been far more successful in terms of influence in political science than the older "Politics and the Life Sciences" crowd.  The Hibbing folks have concentrated on applying biological reasoning to the empirical study of political psychology in ways that have gone far beyond anything done by the PLS folks.

My contribution to this issue of Perspectives on Politics is one of the articles responding to Hibbing's article.  My article is entitled "The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science."  Here is the abstract:
"John Hibbing's essay is a persuasive defense of biopolitical research.  I argue, however, that Hibbing does not go far enough in recognizing the broad vision of biopolitical science as a science of political animals.  We need to see this as a science that moves through three levels of deep history: the natural history of the political species, the cultural history of a political community, and the biographical history of political actors in a community.  I illustrate this by discussing Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation at these three levels of biopolitical science."
Here are the first four paragraphs of my article:
"John Hibbing is timid.  He persuasively defends biopolitical research against the misconceptions of its critics.  For that reason, this essay will surely become one of the most cited articles on biopolitics.  But despite my general agreement, I disagree with how he responds to the fifth misconception: 'Political culture is too idiosyncratic to succumb to biology' (p. 480).  His response shows his diffidence in refusing to go all the way in embracing biopolitics as a comprehensive theory for political science."
"If political science is ever to become a true science, it must become a biopolitical science of political animals.  Biopolitical science would incorporate all the traditional fields of political science within a biological science of politics."
"Hibbing is hesitant about promoting this expansive intellectual project.  To calm those traditional political scientists who fear biopolitics as a threat to their professional careers, he suggests that they have nothing to fear, because biopolitics is just one more specialized tool in the political scientist's tool box.  Hibbing argues that biopolitics is limited to studying the 'bedrock dilemmas of politics' that are universal to all political communities, leaving traditional political scientists to study the 'cultural variations' or 'issues-of-the-day' in politics without any grounding in biopolitical science.  While biology can illuminate 'cross-polity commonality,' biology has no application to 'cultural differences' in politics."
"A more comprehensive view of biopolitics is suggested by the title of a book to which Hibbing contributed: Man Is by Nature a Political Animal.  This points back to Aristotle as the first biopolitical scientist, who saw that human beings as political animals by nature could be compared with other political animals, such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes.  Although he did not identify chimpanzees as political animals, Aristotle did study them--even dissecting them--as the animals that most resembled human beings.  While he did not develop a theory of biological evolution, he did suggest that a true science of politics might have to be a biological science of political animals.  A modern biopolitical science could fulfil the promise of Aristotle's insight."

Here's my last sentence:
"There is grandeur in this view of political life, as originating through the laws of nature for the emergence of irreducibly complex wholes from the cooperation of simple parts, so that, from ants and bees to chimps and humans, endless forms of political order most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
For elaboration of what I sketch in this article, see my "Biopolitical Science" in James Fleming and Sanford Levinson's edited volume Evolution and Morality (New York University Press, 2012), pp. 221-65.

In his response to the commentators on his article, Hibbing includes me as one of those commentators who wonder whether biological research could illuminate particular historical events, and his answer is that biology has no application to historical events.  He writes: "Larry Arnhart wants to know why Abraham Lincoln chose the words he did for the Emancipation Proclamation."  He continues:
"This amazing diversity of questions and topics leads me to conclude that biology might not be appropriate for every one of them, a position that Arnhart calls 'timid' and Duster characterizes as laced with 'tension.'  Still, for those political scientists and historians seeking to explain a particular historical event, I simply do not see biology helping much.  Though Arnhart does a nice job of placing all events in a comprehensive framework with biology at its core, he never says anything about the precise manner in which neurobiological techniques can be used to generate and test hypotheses concerning specific cultural events and even admits toward the end of his essay that non-biological factors must be incorporated."

Apparently, this reference to incorporating "non-biological factors" points to the last section of my essay on "biographical history," in which I say that a political judgment--like Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation--"can only be studied in its contingency and complexity through political biography," and my footnote citation for this sentence refers to Doris Kearns Goodwin's A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Allen Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.  But to say, as Hibbing does, that this "admits . . . that non-biological factors must be incorporated" ignores what I argue in this section of my essay about how biologists (like Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal) studying the political behavior of animals must study their political biography.

Remarkably, for Hibbing "biology" means nothing more than "neurobiology," and thus the biological study of animal behavior is not really biology.  I agree that neurobiology is an important part of biology, and certainly an important part of any biological science of political behavior.  But it makes no sense to me to say that the biological science of animal behavior is not really biological.  If one includes this science of animal behavior within biology, and if one sees that the biological study of animal behavior includes the study of particular events in the political history of animal groups shaped by unique cultural traditions and unique individuals, then any biopolitical science must include political history and political biography.

It seems that biopolitics as understood by people like Hibbing is much more narrow than my conception of biopolitical science as a comprehensive biological science of political animals. 

One can see in Hibbing's article here one weakness in the kind of biopolitical research that he promotes--a kind of "bait-and-switch" rhetoric of making dramatic claims that attract public attention, but then conceding that these claims are exaggerated.  For example, Hibbing writes: "Biology may not tell us why Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, but it does tell us why some people voted and some people did not."  That's an amazing claim--he can explain biologically "why some people voted and some people did not."  And if the 2012 election was decided by voter turnout, that means that in precisely predicting turnout, Hibbing could have predicted Obama's victory. 

But as I have indicated in a previous post, this claim is dubious.  Apparently, Hibbing is referring to an article by James Fowler and Christopher Dawes entitled "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout."  The title conveys the dramatic claim that attracts attention.  If they have found that two genes predict voter turnout, that's a remarkable finding that all political scientists would want to understand.  But if you  read the article, you discover that what they're really saying is that two genes raise the likelihood of voting by 5% to 10%.  In other words, two genes do matter in having some small influence on voting turnout, but they probably don't matter very much.

Much of the research that Hibbing promotes is like this.  Political behavior is influenced to some extent by psychological predispositions.  Psychological predispositions are influenced to some extent by genes that influence the brain.  Therefore, genes influence political behavior  to some extent.  That's surely true.  But if the "to some extent" turns out to be minimal, then it's not clear that this is anything very exciting.

The fundamental problem here is that political science has little predictive power in explaining political behavior, because of the irreducible complexity and historical contingency of political events and political actors.  This is also true for biology at the level of animal behavior.  A Jane Goodall or a Frans de Waal can draw conclusions about the general patterns of primate social behavior, but they cannot predict precisely the particular historical events in the social life of particular primate groups.  Each primate group has a unique political culture with unique individuals and thus a unique political history that cannot be precisely predicted.

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


Anonymous said...


You have an incredible ego.

Larry Arnhart said...

Could you elaborate?

As I indicated, I agree with most of what Hibbing argues. I think this will become one of the most widely read articles in biopolitics, because it does effectively answer many of the major misconceptions about biopolitics.

And yet, I disagree with his claim that studying political culture and political history is not biological, and therefore beyond biopolitical science. I don't understand why he thinks the scientific study of animal behavior is not biological.

But if Hibbing is too timid in this respect, he exaggerates when he says that biopolitical science can predict voter turnout.

Am I wrong about these points?