Monday, December 23, 2013

The Freiburg Workshop (3): Does Evolved Human Nature Provide a Standard for Social Thought?

At the Freiburg workshop on "Liberalism and the Evolutionary Agenda," one of the best papers was Thomas Reydon's "The Evolution of Human Nature and Its Implications for Politics: A Critique."  Reydon is a professor at the Institute of Philosophy, the Center for Philosophy and Ethics of Science, and the Centre for Ethics and Law in the Life Sciences at the Leibnitz Universitat Hannover, in Hannover, Germany.

Reydon argues that the concept of human nature does not provide a good standard for social thought.  In my opening statement at the workshop, I explained my general disagreement with Reydon's arguments.  But then, later, when I reread his paper, just before his presentation at the workshop, I decided that we were mostly in agreement.  Here I will offer a brief summary of his reasoning.  Then I will give my opening statement of disagreement, followed by my subsequent statement of agreement.

Reydon asks whether the concept of human nature can function as a strong bridge from the domain of biology to the domains of social, economic, and political thought.  He gives two reasons for answering no.

First, at best, the bridge provided by the concept of human nature is very weak.  It can serve an "evaluative role" in providing a "compatibility check."  But if one considers those social orders that are compatible with human nature, then one must see that human nature cannot support one as better than the others.

Second, at worst, the bridge doesn't exist at all because we have no reliable knowledge of human nature.

What we see here, he suggests, are the two steps required for applying biological human nature to social thought.  First, we need an argument to human nature, in which we move from our biological knowledge to generalized claims about the typical behavioral and cognitive properties of human beings.  Then, we need an argument from human nature, in which we employ our claims about human nature to make claims about what constitutes the most desirable social order and against undesirable social orders.  He thinks both kinds of arguments are dubious.

Reydon observes that it is hard to define human nature based on humanly unique features that are innate and universal, or at least widespread.  He notes that philosophers of biology like David Hull have challenged the "essentialist" conception of human nature as a set of traits that are necessary and sufficient for defining membership in the human species.  He also argues that while we can have a good knowledge of many biological traits of human beings, we do not have a good grasp of "human behavioral and cognitive traits," because they are so highly variable across individuals and across societies.

Adopting arguments from Stephen Jay Gould, John Dupre, and Jesse Prinz, Reydon claims that while biological science can give us some knowledge of traits that many human beings have, it cannot give us "a generalized knowledge about behavioral and cognitive traits that are shared by most if not all humans and can be thought of as specifying human nature."  There are three reasons for this.  First, human beings are such "cognitively and behaviorally flexible creatures" that we cannot specify a set of innate behaviors that constitute human nature.  Second, human evolution is a continuing process, and so we can assume that contemporary human beings have evolved different behavioral and cognitive traits from those of their Paleolithic ancestors.  Third, we cannot clearly distinguish what is naturally innate from what is socially learned, because "all cognitive and behavioral traits to some extent have an innate aspect and a learned aspect."

Reydon also worries that the search for the human universals of human nature that constitute the "normal" state for humanity will create a dangerous bias against "deviant" individuals who vary from that universal nature.

To  identify the weaknesses in arguments from human nature to politics, Reydon considers the arguments made by four authors--Peter Kropotkin, Peter Singer, Richard Alexander, and me.

Kropotkin's argued (in Mutual Aid) that since human beings and other animals have evolved to be cooperative with members of their own species, this provides evolutionary support for the sort of socialist anarchy advocated by Kropotkin.  Reydon questions whether Kropotkin provided enough empirical evidence and rigorous reasoning to sustain his generalizations.  He also questions whether Kropotkin falls into the is/ought fallacy by inferring moral conclusions from natural facts.

Reydon thinks that Singer avoids the is/ought fallacy (in The Darwinian Left) in arguing that leftist thinking can be compatible with evolved human nature--because human beings have evolved to be cooperative--but without arguing that a leftist view can be derived from evolutionary science.  Reydon agrees with Singer that a science of evolved human nature can provide a "compatibility check" on social thought, but without providing any specifications as to exactly how society is to be organized.

While Kropotkin and Singer emphasize the cooperative nature of human beings, Richard Alexander (in Darwinism and Human Affairs) emphasizes their selfish nature as evolved for survival and the reproduction of their genes.  Reydon observes: "This by itself should clearly show the difficulty of achieving reliable knowledge about what human nature really is like:  are we primarily cooperators, or competitive individualists, or both to more or less equal degrees, or what?"

Alexander believes that an evolutionary view of human nature "can tell us much about our history and the existing systems of laws and norms, and also about how to achieve any goals deemed desirable," but "it has essentially nothing to say about what goals are desirable" (220).  Thus, like Singer, Alexander avoids the is/ought fallacy.  But while he says that evolutionary science can help us to achieve our goals, he does not say much about how exactly this would work.  So it is not clear whether biological knowledge of human nature can facilitate our pursuit of desirable goals.

Finally, Reydon turns to my Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, and to my claim that our evolved human nature includes at least twenty natural desires, which constitute "a universal standard for judging social practices as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature" (DNR, 13).  He is skeptical about this:
"On Arnhart's argument, it seems that views of society can be judged with respect to the extent to which they allow human nature to flourish.  The problem, though, is that it is not clear what this means and how we can assess to what extent a particular way of organizing society allows human nature to flourish.  Presumably, human nature has a number of different aspects to it, such that a society allowing one aspect to flourish may well frustrate another aspect.  Moreover, it remains far from clear which are the constituent aspects of human nature.  Arnhart lists a number of species-specific desires and capacities, but plenty of different characterizations of human nature can be found in the literature.  So, how are we to judge which kind of society is the best when it comes to human flourishing?"
Reydon concludes that while biological knowledge of human nature can provide "compatibility checks" that tell us whether a particular view of social order is totally contrary to human nature, such knowledge cannot provide any support for one view of social order as better than others if they are all broadly compatible with human nature.

In my response to Reydon, I would stress that while we commonly separate nature and nurture or nature and art, animal nature—including human moral and political nature—must be nurtured if it is to reach its natural completion, and this nurturing of our nature includes both cultural learning and individual judgment.  That’s why I say that Darwinian anthropology moves through three interacting levels.  Human nature constrains but does not determine human culture.  And human nature and human culture jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.

Reydon misses this complex interaction of three levels when he embraces Stephen Jay Gould’s false dichotomy—biological potentiality versus biological determinism—which ignores the reality of biological propensity.  It is certainly true, as Reydon and Gould say, that we human beings are “cognitively and behaviorally flexible creatures,” and that this flexibility frees us from any biological determinism.  But I don’t know of any Darwinian theorist who believes in biological determinism, or who denies the cognitive and behavioral flexibility of human beings.

Gould and Reydon ignore the idea of biological predisposition or propensity as something more than a mere potentiality and yet something less than a rigid determinism. 

For example, in our natural desire for sexual mating, we human beings have a biological potentiality for a wide range of behaviors—including celibacy, promiscuity, monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry.  But while we have a potential for choosing complete celibacy, most human beings find this too difficult because it denies our strong propensity for sexual mating.  Promiscuity is easier for us because it caters to our sexual propensities.  Polyandrous marriage (one wife with several husbands) seems to be a very weak potentiality for human beings, because the intense sexual jealousy of males inclines them against sharing a wife.  In contrast to polyandry, monogamous mating has been universal to all human societies and polygynous mating (one husband with several wives) has been common, because they satisfy biological desires.  This pattern of social behavior reflects the biological nature of human mating.  An understanding of evolved biological propensities or desires can explain why celibacy is difficult, promiscuity is easy, polyandry is rare, monogamy is universal, and polygyny is common, although none of these behaviors is rigidly determined by specific genes.  Our nature predisposes us to favor some kinds of behavior over others, although the specific expression of our behavior will reflect the variable conditions of physical environment, social circumstances, and individual temperament. 

Our social norms for sexual mating—including marriage and family law—must respect these evolved natural propensities.  And so, for example, utopian socialist communities (like the kibbutzim in Israel) that tried to abolish familial bonding for the sake of communitarian unity failed, because they frustrated natural human desires.

Reydon criticizes me for making this kind of argument, because, he says, it is impossible “to assess whether a particular organization of society promotes the flourishing of human nature more than another way of organizing society." 

Well, then, let’s look at the history of utopian socialist communities that have tried to abolish family life.  I do this in my book Darwinian Natural Right, and I conclude that these communities exact such a high emotional price on their members that they eventually fail as people assert their natural desires.  I also survey the history of slavery as another form of social organization that is so contrary to human nature that it inevitably provokes resistance from slaves who are not naturally adapted to their enslavement. 

More generally, as I have indicated, I argue that a largely open society better promotes the flourishing of human nature than a largely closed society.  Whether this is true is ultimately, I think, an empirical question to be settled by the historical evidence.

Reydon might respond by pointing out that that he concedes that a biological science of human nature can provide "compatibility checks," so that he can concede that utopian socialism or chattel slavery can be condemned as incompatible with human nature.  But, still, he might say, there are many kinds of social order that are broadly compatible with human nature, and our scientific knowledge of human nature cannot support one as better than the others.  Even if I am right about the twenty natural desires of evolved human nature, he might argue, different social orders can rank those desires in different ways, and our knowledge of those twenty natural desires cannot determine that one social ranking is better than another, as long as they are broadly compatible with human nature.

Pondering this possible response from Reydon suggests to me that we are actually more in agreement with one another than I realized from my first reading of his paper.  Consider our answers to three questions.

Is there a human nature?  David Hull and David Buller say no, because the essentialist conception of human nature is a superstition.  Reydon says yes, because one can recognize general tendencies in human nature without being essentialist.  I agree.

Does this human nature provide some broad constraints on social order?  Reydon says yes, because he thinks that some extreme forms of social order are incompatible with human nature.  I agree.

Does the biological science of human nature prescribe precisely how society should be organized?  Reydon says no, because there is plenty of natural flexibility or variation in how our natural desires can be ranked, and thus there can be many different ways of organizing society that are all compatible with human nature.  I agree.

Reydon does not see, however, as I do, that this reasoning supports Darwinian liberalism.  Liberal pluralism prescribes a largely open society that allows for experiments in living, so that people are free to choose how to organize their social lives within the broad constraints of negative justice or the harm principle--that is, not using force or fraud against others.  By contrast, illiberal regimes refuse to allow the diverse variability in human nature to express itself in social experimentation.

In a liberal regime, one is even free to join socialist communities as long as they are voluntary and do not violate the standards of negative justice.  In Darwinian Natural Right, I provide a history of some of the many socialist communes that have been established in the United States and Israel.  Such utopian projects test the limits of evolved human nature, but in a largely open society, individuals are free to experiment in this way.  Such experiments show that some small groups of people in some circumstances can successfully live in such communities for some period of time.  But such communities tend to be short-lived, because their weighting of natural desires puts a painful strain on the central tendencies of human nature.  So, for example, the Israeli kibbutzim that have survived into the present have given up the original attempts to totally abolish parent-child bonding and private property.

Since classical liberalism rests on the fundamental idea that social order arises best as a largely spontaneous order emerging from individuals pursuing their individual ends, and thus social order is not coercively enforced by central planning, liberalism does not dictate any detailed specific organization of society, which allows for the fullest expression of evolved human nature in all of its variety and flexibility.  Consequently, we can judge that a liberal regime is the best social order as conforming best to human nature.

I have argued that we have at least twenty natural desires rooted in our evolved human nature, and that a free and open society as promoted by classical liberalism gives individuals the fullest freedom to pursue the satisfaction of those natural desires.  If the good is the desirable, then we can judge the classically liberal society to be better than those societies that do not allow individuals the same freedom to satisfy their natural desires.

At the Freiburg workshop, Jan Schnellenbach (Walter Eucken Institute, Freiburg) said in his paper that I am wrong about this, because we must make trade-offs between these natural desires, and the trade-offs made by liberal policies are no more closer to human nature than the trade-offs made by illiberal policies.  “In general,” he said, “our many natural dispositions need not be mutually consistent, and the weights between them are likely to differ between individuals.”  He claims that “evolution likely endows individuals with a variety of heterogeneous traits and dispositions, which in turn implies a variety in policy preferences.” 

But here he misses my point that it’s precisely this heterogeneity in how individuals rank their natural desires that makes liberal policies superior to illiberal policies, because while illiberal policies impose coercively a single ranking of desires, liberal policies do not impose a single ranking of desires on all, because in a liberal, open society, individuals are free to choose how to rank their natural desires.  Thus, liberal policies respect the natural heterogeneity of individuals, while illiberal policies do not.

As indicated by Viktor Vanberg in his paper for the workshop, Hayek makes this same point when he distinguishes between two kinds of “social planning.”  Illiberal planning organizes society by “a system of specific orders and prohibitions,” while liberal planning establishes “a rational system of law, under the rule of which people are free to follow their preferences.”

Some of these points are developed in posts that can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you drop your Darwinism when it comes to the state in thinking that liberal policies are better then illiberal. The state is an adaptation to the environment too, and it changes with the environment and changes the environment itself. Perhaps in the chaos of the Dark Ages, illiberal monarchies were the best state. Perhaps once monarchies established order, then Lockean liberalism was the best form of government. Then, when freedom was established, the utilitarian welfare state was best. And although I hate socialism, perhaps it could be argued that socialism is the next step after the welfare state. Or perhaps Plato and Tocqueville were right that democracies always then go broke and fail and we end up with a new chaos wherein illiberal policies are needed to restore order. It may be that in some circumstances, illiberal policies are best able to secure your human desires, the desire for order, peace, and stability, for example, being higher priorities than freedom of speech or health care, and so on.