Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Embodied Capital Theory of Life History Supports Locke on Parental Care in the State of Nature

Leo Strauss taught his students at the University of Chicago that any serious student of the history of political philosophy must assume the possibility that what the great philosophers have taught might be true.  Writers of the textbooks on the history of political philosophy--like that of George Sabine--had assumed the truth of "historicism"--that all the great philosophers have been so imprisoned by the cultural prejudices of their time and place that they could not see the truths about political life that contemporary readers can see today.  But Strauss argued that historicism is itself the great cultural prejudice of our time that cannot be affirmed as true without contradicting itself, and therefore serious thinkers must consider the possibility that the human mind can free itself of common opinions and apprehend what is simply true, and thus that the great philosophers--from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau and Nietzsche--might help us to see some truths about human nature and human history that go beyond the largely unexamined opinions of our day.

Roger Masters was one of the students at Chicago who was persuaded by Strauss's argument, and Masters devoted himself to the careful study and translation of the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with the thought that Rousseau was one of those great philosophers who might teach something about the truth of human nature and politics.  Masters became one of the leading translators and scholars of Rousseau in the 1960s.  He was particularly interested in Rousseau's account of the state of nature and social contract reasoning as compared with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Masters began to study evolutionary science and Darwinian anthropology, with the thought that this science of human evolution might illuminate the debate between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau over the state of nature.  Masters thus became one of the first political scientists to apply Darwinian science to the study of political philosophy.

According to Rousseau, neither Hobbes nor Locke recognized that in the state of nature human beings were so completely solitary that they would have lived in a state of peace and equality without any dependence on other human beings.  Masters wrote this as his English translation of one of Rousseau's passages in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality:
"Alone, idle, and always near danger, savage man must like to sleep, and be a light sleeper like animals which, thinking little, sleep so to speak all the time they do not think.  His self-preservation being almost his only care, his best-trained faculties must be those having as principal object attack and defense, either to subjugate his prey or to save himself from being the prey of another animal." (Rousseau 1964, 112)
This was published in 1964 in Masters' edition of The First and Second Discourses.  Then, in 1982, when Masters read Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics, which describes the complex political lives of chimpanzees competing for power and alpha male dominance in small groups, Masters saw that this implied that the earliest evolutionary ancestors shared with chimpanzees and human beings were probably highly political animals.  He also saw that anthropologists studying the societies of human hunter-gatherers had shown the complex social order of these primitive human groups. Consequently, it seemed that biologists and anthropologists had shown that human beings in a state of nature could not have been utterly solitary, as Rousseau claimed. 

And if Strauss was right about taking seriously the possibility that the teaching of a great philosopher like Rousseau could be true, this must include the possibility that the teaching could be false.  Philosophers make empirical claims about human nature and human history that could be either confirmed or denied by scientific research.  So, Masters had to admit that Rousseau's teaching about the state of nature had been refuted by Darwinian science.  "Like chimps," Masters concluded, "humans are by nature social animals with innate political behaviors of a sort ignored by Rousseau in the passage I'd translated" (Masters 2013, 227).

I agree with Masters about this, because in a series of posts, I have argued that the evidence from evolutionary science and political anthropology allows us to judge the philosophic debate over the state of nature and to conclude that while Rousseau was mostly wrong, Hobbes was partly right, and Locke was mostly right.  This illustrates how the study of the history of political philosophy can become a biopolitical science.

Consider, for example, how Locke's account of the human family as the "first society" in the state of nature is confirmed by the "embodied capital theory" of the evolution of human life history, which is supported by lots of evidence gathered by Darwinian primatologists and anthropologists.

In the Two Treatises, Locke gives both religious and natural explanations for human familial bonding in the state of nature.  It shows the "wisdom of the great Creator" that He has created human beings with desires for monogamous marrying and for mothers and fathers jointly caring for their children (1970a, 86-89; 1970b, 77-80).  This can also be explained through the natural history of animal reproduction as adapted to the feeding niche for each species.  For some frugivorous animals who feed on grass and plants, whose offspring can survive shortly after birth without much parental care, Locke explains, mothers care for the offspring with no need for fathers to provide any parental care, and consequently there is no need for any enduring bond between the sexual mates.  But for those carnivorous animals who feed on meat from hunting, there is a natural need for an enduring pair-bonding of the sexual mates to provide biparental care.  If mothers cannot feed themselves and their offspring without the help of males, because they need the meat provided by male hunting, or if birth-spacing is short that mothers can often have multiple dependent offspring requiring prolonged care from both parents, then these animals will have a more enduring conjugal bond; and this is true for human beings.  As compared with other animals, human offspring are dependent on adult care for a long period of childhood, in which children cannot produce enough food to feed themselves.  During this period of dependence, offspring must be not only nourished but also educated, because complex human social life requires a prolonged period of social learning in which children learn the skills they will need to become productive adults.

In contrast to Locke, Rousseau argued that human beings in the "pure state of nature" were asocial and almost completely solitary animals.  Men and women encountered one another by accident and engaged in sexual intercourse whenever the desire moved them, and then they immediately left each other and felt no tie to one another.  Mothers nursed their children for a short time.  But as soon as the children could feed themselves, they left their mother, and they soon would no longer recognize one another.  So while the maternal attachment to children was the one social bond in the state of nature, it was only a momentary bond that created no enduring social recognition between parents and children and no support for the mother and child from the father (Rousseau 1964, 108, 112, 120-21, 130-31, 137, 142, 147, 216, 219).

In one of the longest notes in the Second Discourse (1964, 213-20)--note l--Rousseau quotes the entirety of sections 79-80 of Locke's Second Treatise, where Locke lays out his reasoning for monogamous pair-bonding and biparental care in the state of nature.  Rousseau denies the factual truth of Locke's claims about animal reproduction and parental care, and accuses him of making the same mistake that Hobbes made in projecting what we see in human beings today back into the state of nature. 

Against Locke, Rousseau insists that primitive human beings were totally frugivorous in their feeding and not at all carnivorous.  Mothers and children who feed on grass and plants can easily feed themselves without any need for meat from male hunters.  Furthermore, Rousseau argues that fact that human females have only two teats indicates that they rarely have more than one child at a time that needs care, and thus mothers and children have no need for help from the men.

Over the past 100 years, studies of human hunting-gathering societies and comparative studies of other primate and mammalian societies have provided evidence that Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  This evidence shows that as compared with other mammals and primates, human beings show at least five distinctive traits (Balshine 2012).  The first four pertain to human life history.  Human beings have an unusually long lifespan.  They have also have an unusually long period of juvenile dependence on adults.  They show an unusual pattern of support for reproduction from older post-reproductive adults.  And they show male support of reproduction through the provisioning of females and their offspring.  The fifth distinctively human trait is unusually large brains that bring increased capacities for social learning, teaching, and thinking about cognitively challenging problems.  Human hunter-gatherers, who live in what the early modern philosophers called the state of nature, show all of these traits.

One persuasive evolutionary theory that fits all of this evidence for these distinctively human traits is the embodied capital theory developed by Hillard Kaplan and his colleagues (Kaplan et al. 2000).  The main idea is that the human species show an evolutionary adaptation for a feeding niche based on high-quality, nutrient-dense, and difficult-to-acquire foods, which is a skill-intensive niche that requires extended learning through big brains.

Chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates feed mostly on leaves, small, unripe fruit, and large, ripe fruit, which constitutes over 90% of their diet.  Gathering this food requires so little skill and effort that young chimpanzees after they have been weaned can gather enough to feed themselves.  Chimpanzees do extract some food from nuts and insects in ways that require some skill that has to be learned.  And the males do engage in some hunting that requires some skill.  But the extracted food and the hunted meat is a very small portion of their diet, and the skills required for acquiring this food are not very complicated.

By contrast with chimpanzees, over 75% of the diet of human foragers is meat from hunting, which requires great skill that comes only from adult males who have learned those skills over a period of 30 years or more.  In contrast to leaves and fruit, meat is higher quality food, rich in protein, and highly concentrated, but it is also more difficult to acquire.  Hunted meat provides the nutrition necessary for the growth and maintenance of big brains that consume high levels of metabolic energy.  And it is these big brains that are necessary for learning the skills necessary for successful hunting.

Unlike chimpanzees, adult male human foragers must produce food for the feeding of women and children.  Human children consume more food than they produce until about age 20.  Human females consume more food than they produce throughout their childhood and their years of reproductive fertility.  Human females produce slightly more than they consume only after menopause and before old age.  Human females can have shorter birth intervals than apes do, because human females get food subsidies from adult male hunters, so that mothers can care for two or more children at a time.  Most of the production of food comes from adult males (ages 25-55) through hunting, who share their food with women and children.

Tracking and killing wild game of many different species is an intellectually challenging problem that takes many years of social learning with a large brain that requires many years of growth.  Consequently, both mothers and fathers must make many years of resource investments in the rearing and educating of their children before they can become productive contributors to reproductive fitness.

If this is the scientific description of the state of nature--of the original life of our earliest human ancestors--then Locke was mostly right, and Rousseau was mostly wrong.  This would then be an example of how Darwinian science can contribute to the study of the history of political philosophy by helping us to judge the claims that the philosophers have made as being true or false.


Balshine, Sigal. 2012. "Patterns of Parental Care in Vertebrates." In Nick J. Royle, Per T. Smiseth, and Mathias Kolliker, eds., The Evolution of Parental Care, 62-80. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaplan, Hillard, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, A Magdalena Hurtado. 2000. "A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence, and Longevity." Evolutionary Anthropology, 9:156-185.

Masters, Roger. 2013. "On the Relationship between Liberalism and Darwinism," in Stephen Dilley, ed., Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension, 217-236. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Locke, John. 1979. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1964. The First and Second Discourses. Translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters.  New York: St. Martin's Press.


Anonymous said...

"But for those carnivorous animals who feed on meat from hunting, there is a natural need for an enduring pair-bonding of the sexual mates to provide biparental care. If mothers cannot feed themselves and their offspring without the help of males, because they need the meat provided by male hunting, or if birth-spacing is short that mothers can often have multiple dependent offspring requiring prolonged care from both parents, then these animals will have a more enduring conjugal bond; and this is true for human beings."

Fascinating. What would be the political implications in a society like ours where single mothers get resources not from male providers, but from the State which takes them from productive males via taxation? 35% of children in the country are now raised by single parents getting resources from the State.

Anonymous said...

"Like chimps," Masters concluded, "humans are by nature social animals with innate political behaviors of a sort ignored by Rousseau in the passage I'd translated"

Doesn't this mean then that there is no state of nature, if the state of nature is supposed to be the non-political state of man before the State? Isn't it just politics all the way down?

Anonymous said...

My impression is that the Straussians still believe that humans in the state of nature lived an asocial existence. Can anyone tell me if I am right?

Larry Arnhart said...

The Aristotelian Straussians defend Aristotle's claim that human beings are political animals by nature. But the Platonic Aristotelians deny this, and suggest that even Aristotle did not really believe this, because he saw that political order depends on the constructive activity of political founders and lawmakers, as argued by Wayne Ambler in an article in the Review of Politics in 1985.

Anonymous said...

Are the Platonic Aristotelians the East Coast Straussians? And do they believe that Aristotle was correct, in spite of what the scientists have found? And if so, do they address the arguments the scientists make, or just ignore them?


Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, the Platonic Straussians are the East Coasters. They reject the idea that human beings are by nature political animals, because they assume an antithetical dichotomy of nature and culture, so that if political life requires any social learning, it must be purely artificial and not natural, which is what Ambler does in his article. They have largely ignored the scientific research.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Thank you for the information.


Larry Arnhart said...

The Platonic Straussians stress Plato's Image of the Cave and the seemingly most Platonic writings of Aristotle (such as Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics). They interpret Plato's Cave imagery as teaching us that the moral and political life in which most human beings live is the realm of mere opinion--the shadows on the wall of the cave created by poets and statesmen who carry images before the fire. The philosophic life is the only naturally good life because philosophers see the illusions of the cave as the illusions that they really are. Morality or politics is not natural but artificial.

Similarly, they see Book 10 as Aristotle's teaching that the philosophic life is the only naturally happy life, and that the moral life is a mutilated life. Thus, they do not recognize that the arguments in Book 10 are a parody of the Platonic arguments for the supremacy of philosophy. I have written about this in some of my posts on Strauss and Book 10 of the Ethics.

Xenophon said...

The epigraph to De Waal's book Chimpanzee Politics is a well-known quote from Hobbes: "I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death."
But if you are right then De Waal either misunderstood the implications of his own research or misunderstood Hobbes. For Hobbes teaches that man is not naturally social but solitary: "Man is made fit for Society not by Nature, but by Education.. The greatest part of those men who have written ought concerning Commonwealths, either suppose, or require us, or beg of us to believe, That Man is a Creature born fit for Society: The Greeks call him Zoon
, and on this foundation they so build up the Doctrine of Civill Society, as if for the preservation of Peace... Which Axiom,though received by most, is yet certainly False, and an Errour proceeding from our too slight contemplation of Humane Nature... De Cive Chapter1. And so on.

Larry Arnhart said...

The desire for power or dominance over others is a political desire. Rousseau rightly saw that if human beings in the state of nature were purely solitary animals, then they would not care about dominance hierarchies. Rousseau saw this incoherence in Hobbes's account of the state of nature.

Moreover, if human beings in the Hobbesian state of nature were utterly solitary, they would not show the "government of small families" that Hobbes saw in the American Indian societies.

Anonymous said...

One key problem with the idea that the state of nature was solitary is that the human body lacks the needed capabilities in at least two areas.

One is dealing with predators. Chimpanzees have long, sharp canine teeth, and huge jaws and jaw muscles, and in addition their muscles in general are several times as powerful as those of humans. Even so, they need to live in bands to fight off predators such as leopards. Human, far weaker, require weapons, which of course require a society to invent.

Another is nutrition. Chimpanzees have teeth, jaws, and a digestive track adapted for vegetation found in the wild. Human teeth, jaws, and digestive tracks require a diet of meat and vegetables, both cooked over fires (they also can live off of grains from farming). Both hunting the meat and fires require a social existence.

In both cases, basic physical human finitudes require social existence. Straussians, on the other hand, are Platonists, at least to a considerable extent, and so think the material is less real than the ideal, though they don't admit this to themselves, as far as I can tell. An example of this is their belief that the ancient philosophers could not possibly be wrong, which implies they must have had a supernatural source of knowledge.

Incidentally, Xenophon's comment confirms our host's comment that Straussians simply ignore the scientific evidence that humans have always been social. Instead of the scientific idea of a steady increase and correction of knowledge, he follows the religious one of an original revelation to a prophet, in this case Hobbes, that everyone has an obligation to accept as true from then on.


Xenophon said...

I just noted the comment of Les that "Xenophon's comment confirms our host's comment that Straussians simply ignore the scientific evidence that humans have always been social." In fact although I've learned from Strauss's writings and those of some students, I don't identify as a "Straussian" - not that there's anything wrong with that- as they say on Seinfeld. But I don't know any Straussian who holds that "ancient philosophers could not possibly be wrong". That seems an absurd caricature.

And I have no objection to looking at the empirical evidence about the earliest human origins. My question was whether De Waal's use of an epigraph from Hobbes was consistent with the empirical research presented in his book. The well-known description of the state of nature in Leviathan was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Prof. Arnhart remarks that "if human beings in the Hobbesian state of nature were utterly solitary, they would not show the "government of small families" that Hobbes saw in the American Indian societies." But my question is: in Hobbes view are these early bands of "small families" still in the state of nature or have they left it? I would say the latter, based on Leviathan 17 where Hobbes says that there's no essential difference between governments of states and these early small family clans: the large kingdom is simply the small family writ large: "And as small families did then; so now do cities and kingdoms, which are but greater families (for their own security), enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger, and fear of invasion, or assistance that may be given to invaders; endeavour as much as they can to subdue or weaken their neighbours by open force, and secret arts..." etc. While De Waal's research does point to the importance of dominance and power in the chimpanzee world doesn't it also show aspects that can't be reduced to naked power-seeking and brute force? De Waal says,the chimpanzee leader "cannot impose his leadership on the group single-handedly. His position is granted him, in part, by the other chimpanzees."