Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Debate--Hillary Clinton, Bonobo Alpha Female



So what really happened in the Presidential Debate Monday night?  The previously alpha male chimpanzee was defeated by the alpha female bonobo.  Everyone who watched the debate knew this as soon as they saw Clinton's shimmy.

After a lengthy comment, Trump concluded: "I have much better judgment than she has.  There's no question about that.  I also have a much better temperament than she does."

Clinton's response: "Whoo!" she said. "OK."  She then shimmied her shoulders while smiling broadly.  The audience laughed.  She was having fun. Trump was not.

I have written a previous post on Trump's "chimpanzee fascism."  The only way to explain Trump's success is to see that he is showing the chimpanzee politics of an ambitious male seeking alpha dominance through charging displays of bluffing intimidation. Just like the Gombe chimp Mike discovered that making lots of noise with empty kerosene cans could intimidate the high-ranking males, Trump has discovered that loudly yelling insults at anyone who challenges him is so shocking and flamboyant that he becomes the center of attention for voters, and his competitors are thrown into stunned confusion.  This shows us that much of political competition has less to do with intellectual debates over public policy and more to do with gut-feelings about who looks dominant and who looks subordinate, gut-feelings rooted in our evolved primate political psychology.

One way that social scientists have studied this is to have people judge political candidates through their nonverbal displays.  Some years ago, Jim Schubert, a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University, did a study in which he asked people in Europe and in the United States to watch videos of political candidates running for office in Romania and then to rate them for "electability."  With the sound turned off, they saw only the bodily and facial displays.  Remarkably, their rankings corresponded closely with the electoral outcomes.

Similarly, Jonathan Mahler has written an article for the New York Times on his experience in watching the Clinton/Trump debate with the sound off and with no other information about the debate.  His assignment from his editor was to test the idea that nonverbal displays in debates can determine winners and losers.  And, indeed, he knew that Clinton had won the debate when he saw the restless anxiety and frustration of Trump's displays and the confident serenity and humor of Clinton's displays.  That shimmy of her shoulders and her big grin were enough to show that Clinton was the alpha female.

If Trump has been trying to show that he's the alpha male chimpanzee, Clinton has shown that she can be the alpha female bonobo.  In chimpanzee communities, there are both male and female dominance hierarchies, but the alpha male is clearly superior to the alpha female. In bonobo communities, as I have indicated in some posts, the alpha female seems to be dominant over the alpha male, although some primatologists think there is actually codominance shared by the alpha male and alpha female. 

Since chimps and bonobos are the closest living evolutionary relatives of the human species, we might expect that we combine chimp and bonobo traits, as Frans de Waal argues.  In all human societies, even in egalitarian foraging societies, men tend on average to hold more dominant positions than do women.  There has never been a true matriarchy in human history.  But even so, some women have the ambitious temperament that inclines them to seek dominance, and obviously Hillary Clinton is one of those.  In fact, this became an explicit topic for the debate--whether she had the "temperament" or "stamina" to be President.

Bonobo males are physically bigger and stronger than bonobo females, but when bonobo females form alliances with one another, they can dominate over the males.  Similarly, Clinton in the debate indicated that she was leading a female alliance against Trump's attempts at subordinating and denigrating women.  Clinton spoke about the case of Alicia Machado, who was crowned Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump ran the Miss Universe contest.  When Machado began to gain some weight, Trump ridiculed her as "Miss Piggy."  He also called her "Miss Housekeeping," an insulting reference to her Latina ethnicity as a Venezuelan woman.  Now Machado is a U.S. citizen, Clinton indicated.  So in supporting her against Trump's insults, Clinton was appealing to both women and Latino immigrants.

What this shows is that the rhetoric of dominance displays is not mindlessly irrational, because it does have some rational content insofar as it's connected with policy issues--in this case, questions about immigration, the social status of women, and the leadership style of those competing for dominance.

As Gary Johnson argues in his op-ed article for the New York Times, he offers a third way between Clinton and Trump--fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.  If he is allowed onto the debate stage, he will have to display the dominance style of a classical liberal.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Smith and Strauss on Bourgeois Liberalism and the Philosophic Life

Steven Smith's Modernity and Its Discontents elaborates the argument of Leo Strauss and the Straussians for the "crisis of liberalism" as showing "the problem of the bourgeois."  The basic idea for Smith's book comes from Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity"--the idea that the first wave of liberal modernity is theoretically flawed in ways that provoke two waves of illiberal attacks on modernity. This suggests the question of whether Strauss and the Straussians are proposing some illiberal alternative to the bourgeois liberal order. 

Smith's answer is no, because while Strauss was a critic of liberal democracy, he was a friendly critic who saw liberal democracy (like that of the United States) as the best practicable regime for the modern world, despite its weaknesses.  And, therefore, Smith says, Strauss was actually "a classical liberal who believed that present-day liberalism requires the support of certain premodern sources of authority if it is to be sustainable" (292).   Smith is relying on what Will Altman has called the "Golden Sentence" of Straussian apologetics: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy."  (Altman points out that Strauss is careful here to use the word "we" rather than "I," and that Strauss says that Maimonides uses the word "we" to distinguish a popular opinion from what he himself believes.)

It's not clear how Smith's claim that Strauss was a friend of liberalism is consistent with Smith's observation that in his lecture on "German Nihilism," Strauss implicitly included himself among those young German nihilists who preferred a "closed morality" that was "based on such old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, duty, honor, and self-sacrifice" as showing a higher level of humanity than an "open morality" that was "divorced from the particularities of nation, race, or class" (250). Smith is silent about Strauss's assertion in "German Nihilism" that National Socialism was "a return to a pre-modern ideal."

We must wonder whether Smith's reading of Strauss as a classical liberal is persuasive.  In particular, given what Strauss said about the supremacy of the philosophic life and about the conflict between philosophy and society, we must wonder whether a bourgeois liberal regime can allow for such a philosophic life.  And if the open society of a liberal regime can be open to philosophy, does that refute Strauss's claim that every stable society must be a closed society that cannot tolerate the skeptical questioning of philosophers?

In order to separate Strauss from the illiberal critics of the Enlightenment, and thus protect Strauss from Will Altman's charge of being a Jewish Nazi, Smith distinguishes between the radical Counter-Enlightenment of those like Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Martin Heidegger, and the moderate Counter-Enlightenment of those like Strauss, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Isaiah Berlin (348-49).

Smith's distinction here between two forms of Counter-Enlightenment is strange for at least two reasons.  First, to put Strauss on the side of Berlin rather than Heidegger ignores Strauss's severe criticism of Berlin as failing in his attempted defense of liberalism and Strauss's fervent endorsement of Heidegger as the one great thinker of our time who has refuted liberalism.  Strauss writes: "All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power. One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate. I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger" ("Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," 29).  Remarkably, Smith is silent about this claim by Strauss that Heidegger has refuted any argument for rational liberalism.

The second reason why Smith's distinction is strange is that in assigning Nietzsche to the radical Counter-Enlightenment, Smith is silent about Nietzsche's defense of the Enlightenment and liberalism in Human, All Too Human and other writings from his middle period.  As I have argued in some previous posts, Nietzsche lays out in his middle writings a vigorous defense of Darwinian aristocratic liberalism as superior to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later writings.

Smith does not see that in order to push Strauss towards Berlin and away from Heidegger, he has to implicitly reinterpret Strauss as a Platonic or Aristotelian liberal who embraces Berlin's advocacy of both liberal pluralism and negative liberty, so that the individual liberty secured by a liberal regime allows a few people to choose the philosophic life as the highest end, while most others choose different lives with a different ranking of ends.  In other words, Smith has to interpret Strauss as being what Michael and Catherine Zuckert have identified as a Midwest Straussian, who believed that bourgeois liberty allowed for the expression of the bourgeois virtues, which could include the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life.

Another way of putting this is to say that Smith has to read Strauss's classical liberalism as based on a liberal interpretation of both Plato and Aristotle.

Strauss is best known for his illiberal interpretation of Plato as arguing that the philosophic life is the only naturally good way of life, and that this philosophic life is necessarily in irreconcilable conflict with society.  As Smith puts it, this can be expressed as a syllogism:
"Major Premise: Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinion, including opinions about political things, by knowledge.
"Minor Premise: Opinion is the medium of society.
"Conclusion: Philosophy is necessarily at odds with society." (304)
If this is true, then Strauss would seem to be saying that a liberal open society is either impossible or a foolish mistake, because no stable society can be open to philosophical questioning.  No society can safely tolerate the philosophic life.  Therefore, philosophers must employ esoteric writing to hide what they are thinking, and thus protect philosophy from social persecution, while also protecting society from subversion by philosophical questioning.  Plato's metaphor of the cave in The Republic shows that society must always be ruled by illusory opinions rather than philosophic enlightenment.  And Plato's Apology of Socrates shows that society must persecute Socratic philosophers who corrupt the young and deny the gods of the city.

But as Smith indicates, Strauss also offers a liberal interpretation of Plato.  While Book 8 of The Republic contains the "severest indictment" of democracy, according to Strauss, it also presents democracy as a "multicolored coat" in which every way of life, including the philosophic life, can be lived.  And, after all, Socrates lived his philosophic life in Athens until the age of seventy, and he could not have lived this life in Sparta (298).  Thus, as Will Altman has argued, Plato might endorse liberal democracy as the regime most open to the philosophic life, because "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c). 

This suggests the possibility that a liberal open society could overcome the conflict between society and philosophy by creating a free market of ideas, so that philosophers would no longer need to practice esoteric writing.  In fact, Arthur Melzer has pointed to that in his Philosophy between the Lines.  Since about 1800, he observes, the art of secret writing has largely disappeared, because in modern open societies, we no longer see the need for hiding dangerous philosophic ideas.  That's why Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing was so novel--and controversial--because he was rediscovering an art of esoteric writing that was common before 1800, but that had been rendered unnecessary by the triumph of the liberal open society over the past two centuries.  Smith suggests the same point when he writes: "It is certainly far from evident that a strategy adopted by Halevi, Al-Farabi, and Maimonides, writing in times of considerable hostility to philosophy, remains applicable in a modern democratic age where the demands for intellectual probity and 'transparency' have become not just private but also public virtues" (308).

Notice the startling implication here.  What often seems to be Strauss's signature idea--the irresolvable conflict between society and philosophy and the necessity for esoteric writing as dictated by that conflict--has been refuted by the success of bourgeois liberalism in creating an open society where the philosophic life can be openly lived in the free market of ideas.  Does that follow from Strauss's liberal interpretation of Plato?

Smith also suggests a Straussian liberal interpretation of Aristotle, although he is not as explicit about this as he is with Plato.  Strauss often asserted the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, in contrast to which the merely moral person appears as "a mutilated human being" (Natural Right and History, 151).  Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be read as supporting this idea of the philosophic life as a purely solitary contemplative life that is superior to the moral life.  From this view, as Smith says, "morality is at most instrumental to the attainment of a kind of contemplative autonomy," in which the philosopher does not need morality or any engagement with other human beings (309).  Here there seems to be no common ground between the moral life of society and the philosophic life of the solitary thinker.  Here Aristotle seems to affirm a dominant end conception of the good life as directed to one end--philosophic contemplation.

But in the books on friendship (Books 8 and 9) of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of the political association (koinonia) as an association of associations in which people pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life in association with others who share their ethical ends, and this includes those who pursue the philosophic life in association with their philosophic friends (NE, 1160a9-31, 1170a13-1170b19).  This conforms to what Smith identifies as Strauss's understanding of philosophy as a way of life, in which the aim is "to create spiritual communities in which the individual members could seek to live freely and in friendship with others who had chosen a similar way of life" (293).  In democratic Athens, philosophical schools could form voluntary private associations (like the Academy and the Lyceum) in which philosophic friends could gather with others who shared their devotion to the philosophic life.  In this understanding of Athens as an association of associations, Aristotle seems to affirm an inclusive end conception of the good as a multiplicity of moral and intellectual goods, with different ways of life organized by different rankings of those multiple goods.

This suggests the possibility, which Smith never considers, that modern liberalism is the expansion of ancient Athenian liberalism.  After all, even Strauss admitted that "the city of Athens was rather liberal" ("The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy," 47).  This would cast doubt on the sharp Straussian dichotomy of ancients and moderns.

Aristotle's inclusive end conception of the human good as supporting a free society in which individuals pursue their diverse ends in association with others of like mind looks a lot like Berlin's understanding of liberal pluralism and negative liberty, in which the negative liberty of an open society allows for the fullest expression of value pluralism in the diverse associations that people form to pursue their differing conceptions of the good life.  We might think that Strauss could not have endorsed this, because he criticized Berlin's value pluralism as a relativism that created the crisis of liberalism by denying any absolutist affirmation of liberalism as conforming to the human good of human nature. 

But as Smith indicates, Berlin denied that his value pluralism was value relativism (277-86).  While Berlin believed that there were many different good ends for human life, and that these good ends were not perfectly harmonious, yet he believed that these good ends were not "infinitely many," because they were all within the "human horizon."  Berlin affirmed both "a common human nature" and "a wide variety of cultural experience" (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 11).  The pluralism of human nature--that human beings have different natural ends or desires--is an objective truth about human nature, and therefore this pluralism is not relativism.  By virtue of our shared human nature, we all share in the generic goods of human life--such as, for example, self-preservation, family life, friendship, social status, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.  (These generic goods correspond to what I have called the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature.)  But how we rank these generic goods will vary across cultures and across individuals.  A liberal open society secures the negative liberty that allows for individuals live different ways of life in association with others in their families and associations, and these different ways of life will manifest different rankings of those generic goods.  Those with the temperament and talents of a Socrates will live a philosophic life that ranks intellectual understanding as higher than the other generic goods.  Others will live different kinds of life with different rankings of the generic goods.

This seems to be what John Locke meant by a free society that would secure the pursuit of happiness for diverse individuals with diverse conceptions of the good life rooted in human nature.  The summum bonum is not by nature the same for all human beings, but all human beings by nature "are both concerned and fitted to search out their summum bonum" (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV.12.11).  Locke's point seems to be that there is a summum bonum--a highest good--for each person that constitutes the natural standard of happiness for each person.  But there is no single highest good for all people, because different people will rank the generic goods of life in different ways.

Human nature sets the standard for the human good.  By nature the generic goods characterize the human species.  By nature the individualized goods characterize human individuals.

A bourgeois liberal society conforms best to this human nature, because a liberal open society will secure both natural liberty and natural virtue--the liberty of individuals to develop those moral and intellectual virtues that express that ranking of the generic goods of human nature that constitutes the best life for those individuals.  In such a free society, someone like Strauss, who "fulfills the office of philosopher to the highest degree," will be free to live the philosophic life in friendship with other philosophers; and the rest of us will be free to live other kinds of life that best conform to our individual propensities and talents.

Smith concludes his book by declaring that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable" (352).  He believes this is true because antibourgeois intellectuals have said that it is true.  He never reflects on the fact that this contradicts the reality of the life that most of us live today in bourgeois liberal societies.  Because of market freedom, cultural pluralism, and the bourgeois virtues, our life today is generally more peaceful, more just, and richer in both material and spiritual goods than has ever been the case for human beings at any previous time in history.  Does Smith really believe that that is not progress?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Steven Smith's Straussian Scorn for the Bourgeois

Although the Bourgeois Era has brought the Great Enrichment--the unprecedented increase in human prosperity and population over the past two hundred years--critics have scorned the Bourgeois Era for promoting proletarian poverty, economic inequality, and bourgeois boredom.

Karl Marx predicted that the enrichment of the capitalists would require the impoverishment of the proletariat.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, the British Industrial Revolution produced only a slow growth in the wages of the working class, which seemed to support the Marxist argument. But by the end of the century, wages rose in such a way as to indicate that the Great Enrichment would benefit workers as well as employers. 

Today, the success of the Great Enrichment in reducing poverty has spread around the world.  According to calculations at the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $2 per person per day) has declined by fifty per cent in the last twenty years. In 1981, 44 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.  Today, it's less than 10 per cent and falling.  It's realistic to expect that by 2030 such extreme poverty will no longer exist in the world. 

Moreover, this world-transforming enrichment of human life is not only material but also intellectual and spiritual.  For the entire history of the human species, most adults were illiterate.  But now over 85 percent of adults around the world are literate, and this is rising.  Prior to 1800, most human beings lived in grinding poverty and mind-numbing ignorance.  Now, for the first time in human history, we are eliminating these and other sources of human suffering.

And yet, even though those on the Left have to admit that bourgeois liberalism has largely abolished extreme poverty, those like Thomas Piketty complain that while the poor have been enriched, the rich have become even richer, and thus we suffer from an economic inequality that must provoke the resentment of the lower and middle classes against the richest classes.  But while it is true that economic inequality has risen in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, it has not risen as much in the rest of the world.  International inequality is declining because of the rising incomes of the poor in countries like China and India.

Moreover, as I have argued in other posts, it is not clear that economic inequality should be morally offensive if the poor are becoming richer, and if there is enough economic mobility so that those in the middle classes have some chance to rise to the richest classes.  As long as most people have the economic resources to live dignified lives, and as long as we recognize envy as a vice, there is no moral justification for those who have less to resent those who have more.

Yet this will not satisfy the bohemian artists and intellectuals--the "clerisy" as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called them--who complain that what's really wrong with the bourgeois life is that it is so boring! 

That's the complaint of Gustave Flaubert, who showed us how Emma Bovary was forced to have two adulterous affairs and then commit suicide as a heroic protest against the bourgeois mediocrity of her husband Charles.  In a letter to George Sand, Flaubert proclaimed: "Axiom: Hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue."

Steven Smith quotes this in his chapter on Madame Bovary in his new book Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow, which has been receiving a lot of attention, including a review in the New York Times Book Review.  Smith is a Straussian, and the influence of Leo Strauss permeates his book, including a chapter on Strauss.  According to Smith, Strauss "fulfills the office of the philosopher to the highest degree" (312). 

Like most Straussians, Smith scorns bourgeois liberalism because, they insist, it lacks the human excellence, the heroic nobility, and the transcendent longings of life in the premodern world.  As is characteristic of the Straussians, Smith presents his argument through textual interpretations of some books.  As is also characteristic of the Straussians, he almost never looks at any of the empirical evidence that might sustain or deny the claims of the authors he interprets. 

The thesis of his book is "that modernity has created within itself a rhetoric of antimodernity that has taken philosophical, literary, and political forms" in denouncing the bourgeois life as "a kind of low-minded materialism, moral cowardice, and philistinism" (xi).  He thinks that he proves this thesis by restating what some of the antibourgeois writers have asserted in their attacks on bourgeois liberalism.  This proves the existence of an antibourgeois rhetoric.  But this does not prove the truth of this rhetoric as confirmed by empirical evidence of what life is like in the Bourgeois Era.

Smith says that the goals of bourgeois liberalism are no longer credible, because "leading opinion has increasingly lost confidence in these goals" (4).  But then he never wonders whether "leading opinion" might be wrong.

For example, one of the goals of bourgeois liberalism is to promote declining violence both within and between societies through the liberal values of peaceful cooperation.  Smith dismisses this as a "utopian belief" that has been refuted by the two world wars, by the 9/11 attack on the United States, and by the resurgence of ethnic tribalism in recent decades (5-6, 149-53).  He is confusing on this point, however, because he first says that Kant's world of "perpetual peace" is impossible, but then he says that we have already achieved such a world, and it's a "world without nobility" (152).

Smith is completely silent about the evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature) and others that suggests that there really has been a decline in violence due to the spread of liberal values.  The extraordinary violence of the first half of the 20th century was provoked largely by illiberal regimes like those of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  When viewed in the context of world history, Pinker has argued, World War Two can be seen as an isolated peak in a declining sawtooth of violence.  Since World War Two, all kinds of violence have been in decline.  Even terrorist violence has declined since the peak of the 1970s and 1980s.  Smith says that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable," because the liberal "faith in infinite progress" as inevitable and inexorable has been refuted by the violent episodes of recent history.  But he says nothing about the evidence presented by Pinker and others that there has been real progress towards a peaceful life, although it is not inevitable or inexorable.  Smith is silent about this debate over the empirical evidence for declining violence promoted by liberal values.

Smith is also silent about Deirdre McCloskey's argument that far from being morally degrading, the liberal social order has promoted the "bourgeois virtues," as displayed in the Aristotelian virtue ethics of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and in the bourgeois life of Benjamin Franklin.  Smith says nothing about The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  But he does devote a chapter to Franklin, which is the only fully sketched historical example of a bourgeois man. 

Smith quotes all of the antibourgeois criticisms of Franklin as the model of the American bourgeois.  Charles Austine Sainte-Beuve, Max Weber, and D. H. Lawrence have all scorned Franklin as a morally degraded human being who cared only about making money.  If the bourgeois man is "dull, flat, and conformist" (xii), then Franklin is the supreme American example of such a man.

But Smith recognizes that "this completely misunderstands Franklin."  Smith writes:
"Both Weber and Lawrence completely fail to see the irony, the humor, and the sheer joie de vivre that permeates Franklin's Autobiography. As is now common knowledge, Franklin's life was anything but ascetic; he had a powerful sexual appetite and had, on the whole, far fewer hang-ups than either Weber or Lawrence, who were tortured by their own sexuality.  There is little dry or 'colorless' Puritanism in Franklin.  The book itself is testimony to one of the most remarkable public and private lives ever. How can any serious reader of Franklin fail to see his immense playfulness and enjoyment of life's pleasures?" (113)
Moreover, Smith observes, Franklin's promotion of philosophic clubs for conversation and debate and his scientific research in natural philosophy show that he was an "American Socrates" living "a life uniquely devoted to the pleasures of the mind."  "Franklin offered his story not as the example of a singular genius that could not be replicated," Smith writes, "but as that of a modern man who, from unlikely beginnings, achieved not just great things but also everyday comfortable things that make life enjoyable" (129-30).  Smith concludes his chapter on Franklin's life by declaring that this is "a story worth remembering."  But then, oddly, Smith forgets about Franklin's remarkable story for the rest of his book (except for two passing references at 179 and 261).

He repeats the claims of the antibourgeois writers that the bourgeois is "too boring to satisfy the deeper longings of the human spirit," and thus shows the "drabness, conformity, and philistinism of the new bourgeois order" (172), and that the "ethic of the bourgeois" denies the "ethic of citizenship" (196).  But he never points out that the life of Franklin contradicts this.

If Franklin's life really does show how a bourgeois man can display the moral and intellectual virtues, as Smith suggests, then why shouldn't he conclude that McCloskey was right in presenting Franklin as evidence for the bourgeois virtues as manifesting human excellence, and therefore there is no justification for the clerisy's scorn for the bourgeois?

My next post will be on Smith's account of Strauss's assessment of bourgeois liberalism and the philosophic life.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Does the Variability of Hunter-Gatherer Societies Deny Human Nature? A Response to Robert Kelly

Most of my thinking on this blog turns on the idea of human nature as shaped by human evolutionary history, and on the argument that this evolutionary understanding of human nature allows us to adjudicate debates in the history of political philosophy.  Since human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers throughout most of their evolutionary history, I have argued, evolved human nature has been largely formed for a hunting-gathering life, which some early modern political philosophers identified as "the state of nature."  And thus much of my reasoning resembles that of the evolutionary psychologists (like Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Steven Pinker), who argue that the evolved structure of the human mind is adapted to the way of life of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.

So, for example, I have claimed that an evolutionary science of human nature can show that Thomas Hobbes was partly right, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was mostly wrong, and John Locke was mostly right about the state of nature.  I have also claimed that Adam Smith was right about "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" as part of that evolved human nature, and that the liberation and honoring of that propensity in liberal commercial societies explains the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries, which has promoted the unprecedented flourishing of human life in the Bourgeois Era in which most of us now live.

There are at least three objections to this reasoning.  The first is that there is no human nature, because there is too much cultural and individual variability in human existence to warrant any belief in an unchanging human essence.

The second objection is that anthropological studies of existing hunter-gatherers over the last two centuries shows such variability in their societies that it is impossible to generalize about the human nature of the foraging way of life.

The third objection is that even if it were possible to generalize about hunter-gatherers of the last two centuries, this would tell us nothing about our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose societies were variable in their adaptations to the social and physical environments of the prehistoric past.

I have replied to the first objection in my responses to David Buller (here) and Jesse Prinz (here).  If one defines human nature in a silly way (as Buller does), then human nature does not exist.  But if one defines human nature in a sensible way, then human nature surely does exist.  A silly definition of human nature is that it must consist of traits that are eternal essences that are not historically contingent, so that they are invariably and exactly the same for all human individuals in all human societies.  It is easy to argue that human evolution has not produced a human species with such traits. 

But a sensible definition of human nature does not require these conditions.  We could define human nature as constituted by those enduring (but not eternal) regularities in that suite of generally recurrent anatomical, physiological, and psychological traits that characterize the human species for as long as it exists.  Although this suite of traits is generally recurrent across the human species, there will always be great variation across human individuals and across human societies.  One can look at Gray's Anatomy and see the anatomical adaptations that generally characterize the human species, although every human individual is anatomically unique.  Similarly, one can study human evolutionary psychology and see the psychological adaptations that generally characterize the human species, although every human individual is psychologically unique.

A biopolitical or biosocial science would have to move through three levels of deep history--the natural history of the human species, the cultural history of particular human communities, and the biographical history of individual actors in those communities.  This is also true for other social animals.  So that, for example, Jane Goodall's history of the chimpanzees of Gombe must be a natural history of the chimpanzee species, a cultural history of the chimpanzee community at Gombe, and a biographical history of the individual chimpanzees in the Gombe community.

The other two objections that concern the human nature of hunter-gatherers have been well stated by Robert Kelly in The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum (Cambridge University Press, 2013), which is a revised version of The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).  This book is generally recognized as the best survey of the anthropological studies of hunter-gatherers.

Kelly observes that "anthropologists seek human nature," that they "think of hunter-gatherers as displaying human nature," and that they think that the anthropological studies of hunter-gatherers show "humanity in the state of nature," because they show what human beings were like in prehistoric foraging societies (xv, 272).  Kelly denies all of this by arguing that the observable variability in hunter-gatherer lifeways subverts any idea of a universal human nature, and that what anthropologists have learned about living hunter-gatherers tells us almost nothing about prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

And yet, far from denying human nature, Kelly's book is actually organized around an implicit theory of human nature that is evident in the topics of chapters 3-9 of the book: (3) Foraging and Subsistence, (4) Mobility, (5) Technology, (6) Sharing, Exchange, and Land Tenure, (7) Group Size and Demography, (8) Men, Women, and Foraging, (9) Nonegalitarian Hunting-Gatherers.  Why does he assume that these are the most important topics?  Because they are natural human desires or needs that any human society must satisfy in some manner?  If so, then why isn't this a matter of human nature?

Foraging and subsistence are prominent in the anthropology of hunter-gatherers, Kelly tells us in Chapter 3, because "without food, people die" (40).  Doesn't this implicitly assume the human nature of the need for food?  As Stephen Sanderson has indicated (in Human Nature and the Evolution of Society), making a living is a fundamental need of human nature, and there are essentially four ways of making a living: foraging for wild animals and plants (hunting, gathering, and fishing), herding domesticated animals, farming domesticated plants, and trading or commerce (buying and selling).  Human social orders can be distinguished by the prominence of these ways of making a living--with human history showing a movement from foraging to farming to trading.

"Hunting and gathering, of course, is not all that hunter-gatherers do," Kelly observes.  "They also spend time in religious activities and prestige competition, in family life, socializing, trading, defense, and tool manufacture" (108).  This list of human concerns covers many of what I have identified as the 20 natural desires of evolved human nature: a complete life, sexual identity, sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic arts, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

From Lewis Henry Morgan to Richard Lee, it has been common for anthropologists to argue that hunter-gatherers show "primitive communism" in their sharing behavior, and thus the ownership of property is not rooted in human nature.  But in Chapter 6, Kelly concludes that while "hunter-gatherers appear to share food, goods, and access to land quite readily," "this is not simply primitive communism" (164).  Hunters do share some of their meat, but they favor their family and their close kin.  Moreover, in sharing their meat, hunters expect reciprocity from those who benefit from their reciprocity.  Hunters who have shared their meat expect to be repaid in the future, when they return from an unsuccessful hunt and need others to share with them.  Successful hunters derive prestige from their hunting and their sharing, and they have greater reproductive success.   "Generous people do better in the long term than stingy people," Kelly explains (151).  Land tenure is variable, but "boundaries exist" (154); and territoriality appears "when resources are sufficiently dense and predictable and, especially, where competition is high" (164). Doesn't this manifest the natural human desires for property, sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, social status, and justice as reciprocity?

In Chapter 8, Keely observes that hunter-gatherers show a sexual division of labor, in which men do most of the hunting for large game, and women do most of the gathering of plants and hunt only small game.  There is some individual variability, however, because there are a few individual cases of women big-game hunters in the anthropological record.  And among the Philippine Agta, the women are very good hunters.  But still this seems to be the exception to the rule.  Even among the Agta, only a few women hunt.;  

The main reason for this sexual division of labor is that gathering is more compatible with pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childcare.  It is hard for women to hunt large game if they have to care for their children at the same time.  Moreover, it is hard to learn how to hunt well, and it requires ten to twenty years of experience.  It is easier for young men to acquire hunting skill than for young women, because young men are less involved in caring for children.  This creates sexual differences in status, since hunting and sharing meat confers prestige on men.  Women benefit from this insofar as wives benefit from the high status of their husbands.  Men benefit from this insofar as the most successful hunters attract the best mates and have the highest reproductive rates.  Don't we see here the natural human desires for sexual mating, sexual identity, parental care, and social status?

In considering sexual mating, Keely surveys the rules for marriage that determine whom one can and cannot marry (234-39).  In some hunter-gatherer societies, cousin marriage is permitted or even encouraged; but in others, cousin marriage is prohibited.  Although Keely does not explicitly mention it, no hunter-gatherer societies permit parents to marry their children or siblings to marry one another.  Here we see a universal incest taboo that prohibits marriage within the nuclear family, although marriage outside the nuclear family depends on variable rules of kinship. 

Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of the incest taboo explains this as a naturally evolved instinct to feel a sexual aversion to mating with those with whom one has been raised, which can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation to avoid the deleterious effects of inbreeding.  This is one of the best developed examples of the evolutionary psychology of human nature.

In Chapter 9, Kelly explains the contrast between two kinds of foraging societies that anthropologists have called simple and complex.  Simple foraging societies are small nomadic societies that are largely egalitarian, while complex foraging societies are large sedentary societies that are nonegalitarian in their hierarchical structure.  Kelly assumes that simple egalitarian foraging societies are evolutionarily older than complex nonegalitarian societies. 

Kelly agrees with Christopher Boehm that not everyone is really equal in egalitarian foraging societies (243-44).  Some people have more wealth and status than others.  And some people do exercise informal leadership over others.  "There are people in every society who will try to lord it over others, but egalitarian societies contain ways to level individuals," so that ambitious people are punished for their arrogance, and thus everyone protects their individual autonomy.  In large sedentary societies, however, sedentism releases the constraints of a nomadic foraging life and allows those with domineering personalities to express their natural desire for ruling over and dominating others (249).  Kelly does not mention, however, Boehm's claim that modern liberal regimes can limit such domination and open access to power so as to revive the natural desire for individual autonomy expressed in small foraging societies, which confirms the Lockean and Smithian argument for liberal social orders based on equal liberty.

Nor does Kelly acknowledge Boehm's insistence that these propensities to dominance, deference, and counter-dominance are evolved traits of human nature, and therefore that Kelly is wrong to deny the reality of human nature (Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, 1999, pp. 40-42).

Kelly concludes his book, in Chapter 10, by arguing that ethnographic studies of living foragers cannot be taken as providing any model for prehistoric foragers. But he qualifies this argument in a way that implicitly recognizes a universal human nature of foraging life.  He writes:
"After the first edition of this book was published, a colleague asked me if there was anything from the ethnographic data that I thought could be projected into prehistory, something that we could assume in a model of the past.  Then and now, I think there are only two things: nomadic foragers live in residential groups of somewhere between eighteen and thirty people, and men hunt while women gather.  And I feel comfortable making those assumptions not because they are empirically common, which they are, but because we can provide a theoretical justification for each, as we have done in this book.  A standard group size across environments results from the balancing of the desire to reduce daily variance in food intake while minimizing the rate of depletion of the foraging radius, and the division of labor is rooted in fundamental biological differences between men and women and the incompatibility of children with hunting.  If we have correctly determined the causal conditions of these behaviors, and if we can assume those conditions were true of the past, then the assumptions are provisionally valid" (274).
Doesn't this recognize--explicitly or implicitly--many of the traits of human biological nature as likely expressed in prehistoric foraging societies?  Doesn't it point to the natural desires for food, for sexual identity as male or female, for parental care, for conjugal bonding, for social status, for justice as reciprocity (in the sharing of food), and for speech (in negotiating the terms of social life)?

If this is so, then recognizing the variability in hunter-gatherer societies is fully compatible with recognizing the regularities in these societies that manifest our evolved human nature.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

New Evidence of Good Inequality in the United States

The United States Census Bureau has just released a new report on income and poverty in the United States in 2015.  An article in The New York Times summarizes the report.

In this report, I see evidence for what I have called "good inequality" in a previous post, which includes links to other posts on the evolution of inequality.

Good inequality has been achieved over the past 150 years in liberal societies that have succeeded in dramatically reducing the level of absolute poverty, although the level of relative poverty is still high.  By contrast, socialist societies have failed in their attempts to reduce relative poverty, while increasing absolute poverty. 

People live in absolute poverty when their income is so low that they cannot live a dignified life, because they live in grinding poverty.  For most of human history prior to 1800, almost all human beings lived that way.  Increasingly, very few people in liberal societies today live in such destitute conditions.  But even when those people with the lowest income in a society are living much better than the poor of the past, they can be living in relative poverty in that their income is much lower than others with higher incomes.

The Census Bureau reports that the median household income increased 5.2% in 2015 over 2014, which is the largest one-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967.  This increase in 2015 is shown at all income levels, including the middle classes and the poor.  From 2014 to 2015, there was a 1.2% decrease in the poverty rate, which is the largest annual percentage drop in poverty since 1999. So, on average, everyone's economic condition is improving.  But still the gap between the very poor and the very rich remains very wide, and therefore the rate of relative poverty remains high. 

In liberal societies, the number of people living in such destitute conditions of poverty that they cannot live dignified lives is approaching zero.  And so absolute poverty has been almost completely abolished. 

And yet the leftist critics of liberalism complain about the economic inequality between those who are very rich and those who are not so rich.  This is the complaint of those like Thomas Piketty, who insist that to satisfy the moral principle of equality we need confiscatory tax rates to redistribute the wealth from the very rich to the very poor, because the very rich don't deserve their wealth, and the very poor cannot rise out of their poverty.

But as I have argued in previous posts, it's not clear that Piketty is right about this.  The very wealthiest people tend to be people who are highly educated, who are married to other highly educated people, who have high IQs, and who work full time in two-income households.  In highly complex and  technologically advanced societies, these tend to the people with the highest incomes.  Is it fair to say they haven't earned their wealth?

It might be unfair if those in the middle or lower classes could never move up, but there is lots of evidence that there is plenty of movement up and down.  Most of those American households in the top 1% of income don't stay there for longer than one year.  And 50% of the American households will reach the top 10% in income for at least one year.  Moreover, poor Americans are living better today than most human beings have ever lived at any time in human history.

To complain that this is all unfair because some people are wealthier than other people, and that fairness demands that no one should have higher income than anyone else, is to affirm the vice of envy.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Athens in the Evolution of Liberalism

To ask about the place of ancient Athens in the evolution of liberalism must seem to many people to make no sense.  If liberalism is a distinctively modern way of thinking about social order, and if truly liberal societies have appeared only in the last two centuries, then one might assume that ancient Athens and classical Greece in general are not part of the liberal tradition.

Scholars on the political Left would deny that there was any economic liberalism in Athens, because they have been persuaded by those like Karl Polanyi--in The Great Transformation (1944)--who argue that the market economics of liberal capitalism is a recent cultural invention of modernity, and that for thousands of years societies have organized the production and distribution of goods through social and political planning without markets.  In the ancient world, markets did not matter.

Scholars on the political Right would deny that there was any social or political liberalism in Athens, because they have been persuaded by those like Leo Strauss--in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968) and other writings--that Athens was like all premodern regimes in being a closed society, in contrast to the open society sought by modern liberalism.  In his vehement criticism of Eric Havelock's claim--in his book The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics--that there was a liberal tradition of thought in ancient Greece, Strauss observed: "The city of Athens was rather liberal, but not so liberal as to tolerate every pursuit and every teaching.  It seems that that city was so much opposed to Protagoras' activity that it had his writings burned and himself expelled" (47).  And, of course, the Athenian trial and execution of Socrates for impiety and corrupting the young was for Strauss the dramatic manifestation of the inevitable conflict between society and philosophy.

Here one can see Strauss's mistaken acceptance of the traditional view of the ancient Greek polis as a fusion of state and society--with no distinction between the public and private spheres of life--in which the conduct of all citizens in all areas of life was regulated by the state.  This was true for Sparta but not for Athens.  In Sparta, everything was regulated by the state.  It was what Karl Popper called a "closed society."  But in Athens, there was a separation between the public sphere of the polis and the private sphere in which citizens were free to live as they pleased as long as they obeyed the laws.  In this way, Athens was an "open society."  Strauss's view of the polis as a fusion of state and society showed the influence on him of people like Benjamin Constant and Fustel de Coulanges.  But as Mogens Herman Hansen (2006:122-24) and others have shown, more recent historical studies of the polis have shown this to be incorrect.

Furthermore, new research in the social sciences over the past fifty years--particularly, in archaeology, anthropology, economic history, and classical studies--has shown that despite the uniqueness of modern liberal societies, there is a deep evolutionary history of liberal social order from antiquity to the present, and that ancient Athens is prominent in that history.  This helps to answer one of the great questions in the social sciences today: why and how did the liberal social order of today--the modern world that is unprecedented in its explosive growth in wealth and population--arise in human history?

Proponents of the "new institutional economics"--particularly, Douglass North and his colleagues--have argued that the history of social order can be explained as a history of institutional rules for solving the problem of violence and determining who has access to socially supported organizations.  As I have indicated in my post on North, Wallis, and Weingast's Violence and Social Orders (NWW), they lay out an evolutionary history of social order that moves through three stages: the foraging order, the limited access order (the natural state), and the open access order.  Through most of our evolutionary history, our prehistoric ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small egalitarian bands that enforced limits on violence through the personal enforcement of customary social rules.  But then once human beings settled into large agrarian societies, social hierarchies appeared with elites who lived by rent-seeking exploitation of the non-elites, and where the elite groups had to agree to abstain from violence among themselves so that they could benefit from their monopoly control of the governmentally protected social, religious, and political organizations.  Finally, over the past three hundred years, a few societies have moved into open access social orders governed by the institutional norms of rule of law, property rights, and impersonal access to economic, social, religious, and political organizations that compete freely in the open marketplaces of life.  These open access societies emerged first in England, the United States, and northwestern Europe, and then they have appeared in other parts of the world, bringing with them their historically unique growth in wealth and population.

The full transition to open access came in Great Britain, France, and the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, when general incorporation laws allowed for the open creation of economic corporations and political organizations through impersonal laws (NWW, 190-240).  Previously, the formation of economic and political organizations had been an elite privilege; now it was open to non-elites.  Once people were free to form economic, political, and social organizations that would freely compete with one another, open access had been achieved.  "Individuals and groups may freely form organizations and enter into most economic, political, social, and other activities, subject to general rules applied impersonally, such as refraining from violence" (NWW, 117).  This is the principle of classical liberalism.  Indeed, it was at this time that the term "liberalism" came into common use to designate the idea of equal liberty in an open society.

Deirdre McCloskey has challenged this Northian evolutionary story of institutional rules.  (My most recent post on McCloskey can be found here, which includes links to earlier posts.  McCloskey has written a brief summary of her argument here for The New York Times.)  She has pointed out that most of the institutional rules that North identified as necessary for open access societies have appeared throughout human history, and therefore these institutional rules cannot explain the unique increases in wealth and population that she calls The Great Enrichment.  There are lots of examples in history--including ancient Athens--of a doubling or tripling of economic wealth per capita and of population growth over a few human generations.  Such growth has come from trading activity in markets.  And thus Polanyi is wrong in assuming that markets didn't matter in the premodern world.  But these premodern spurts of growth eventually came to an end, and so they did not produce the self-sustaining and accelerated growth of The Great Enrichment, in which liberal societies over the past two hundred years have seen average daily income increase by 1,000 to 3,000 percent. 

McCloskey argues that the cause of this Great Enrichment is not liberal institutions but liberal ideas--particularly, the idea that ordinary people pursuing their economic interests through trading in markets are equally honorable and dignified.  In other words, the bourgeois life can be virtuous.  This is what Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations called "the 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."  This allows "every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Liberty Fund, 664, 687).  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith embedded this liberal system in a moral life that recognizes this as expressing the bourgeois virtues.

Until the 19th century in Great Britain, the life of trading in markets was common, but it was disdained as an ignoble or corrupting life.  And thus it was in ancient Athens, which was a commercial society: prosperity came from the entrepreneurial activity of merchants, tradesmen, and artisans, but the lives of such people were scorned as morally inferior to the lives of warriors, aristocrats, and philosophers.  The Great Enrichment was not possible until there was a change in moral and intellectual rhetoric so that the bourgeois life could be honored rather than scorned.  McCloskey's project is to support this new pro-bourgeois rhetoric by showing how the bourgeois virtues include all of the traditional virtues--the pagan virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and wisdom, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The best Northian response to McCloskey would be the argument that institutions include or depend upon ideas.  After all, as NWW indicate, successful institutions require "shared beliefs."  And so, the move to open access societies required a "transformation in thinking," because "open access societies depend for their operation on impersonal identity and the associated beliefs in equality and fairness" (NWW, 117, 192, 258, 262).  These "beliefs in equality and fairness" include the rhetoric of the bourgeois virtues that is emphasized by McCloskey.

In his recent book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015), Josiah Ober does not mention McCloskey, but he does agree with McCloskey that ancient Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was one of those premodern societies that showed an "efflorescence" (in the terminology of Jack Goldstone)--a period of increased economic growth as well as increasing population and cultural achievement promoted by a vigorous commercial life that is similar to what we see today in modern liberal societies.

Ober disagrees with McCloskey, however, in that Ober fully embraces Northian institutionalism as adequate to explain the Athenian efflorescence as well as the modern liberal social order.  And yet Ober does partially disagree with North, Wallis, and Weingast, because while NWW think that ancient Athens reached the "doorstep" of the open access society, Athens did not actually pass fully into the open access order (NWW, 134-35, 150-51); Ober and his colleagues argue that "Athens went beyond the doorstep conditions and transitioned to an open access society" (Carugati, Ober, Weingast 2015, p. 4).  By contrast, NWW would call ancient Athens a "mature limited access order."

Like McCloskey and North, Ober sees the evolution of liberalism as moving through three stages.  In the foraging bands of the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherers lived as equally free in their autonomy, because anyone who attempted dominance over others would be punished by others in the band enforcing customary norms of resistance to dominance.  (Here Ober relies on Christopher Boehm's account of "reverse-dominance hierarchies.")

Then, in the agrarian states that came with agricultural settlements, social hierarchy and exploitation of non-elites by elites arose as the prevalent form of order--"natural states" as NWW call them.  But occasionally, after the collapse of these exploitative hierarchical orders, societies could fall back into the norms of rough egalitarianism that prevailed in the prehistoric foraging societies, which showed the human capacity for decentralized cooperation, which had evolved in the foraging environments of evolutionary adaptation (Ober 2015, pp. 105, 129-31, 347, n. 13).  This is what happened in ancient Greece, after the collapse of the Late Bronze-Age-Mycenaean kingdoms (around 1177 BCE), and the Greeks moved from palace-centered regimes to citizen-centered regimes.  But even so, such citizen-centered democratic regimes were rare in the premodern world. 

It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that liberal democratic open access regimes became prominent in the world.  Unlike the natural states, these modern open access regimes show greater adaptive flexibility, which leads to economic, social, and cultural flourishing, because such regimes are rooted in the naturally evolved human capacities for decentralized cooperation.  Through a Darwinian cultural evolution, liberal social orders have emerged as more adaptive than the alternatives.

Ober is persuasive in surveying the evidence against the common assumption of many scholars that ancient Greece was poor and experienced little or no economic growth. In fact, Greece in the classical era (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) had rates of growth in both consumption and population that were much higher than the premodern normal and higher than any other period in Greek history until the middle of the 20th century (Ober 2015, pp. 71-100).  Ober offers a Northian institutional explanation for this: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a context of low transaction costs" (103).

Similar conclusions about the ancient Greek economy have been supported by Alain Bresson (2014, 2016).  The ancient Greek economy showed some of the features of capitalist society that supported a long period of unprecedented economic growth.  The rule of law enforced property rights and contractual obligations in a way that sustained both domestic and international markets for trade.  The Greek city had two institutions for trade--the agora, or internal market, and the emporion, or market for international trade.  This trade allowed for an extensive domestic and international division of labor.  The Greek world experienced the first world economy based on long-distance trade.  Like Ober, Bresson relies on Northian institutionalism to explain this.

Although I generally agree with Ober and Bresson, I disagree at one crucial point where Ober and Bresson fail to answer the objections of McCloskey to Northian institutionalism:  Northian institutional rules cannot by themselves explain the Great Enrichment that began in the middle of the 19th century in Great Britain and the United States, because explaining this requires the emergence of liberal ideas about the bourgeois virtues that began to appear in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the first time in history.

Ober relies on Goldstone's account of the "efflorescences" in premodern history--spurts of growth in wealth and population--that include the High Middle Ages in northwestern Europe (1150-1250), Golden Age Holland (1570-1670), High Qing China (1680-1780), Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), perhaps also classical Greece (5th and 4th centuries BCE).  But Goldstone is clear that in none of these efflorenscences does one see the self-sustaining and accelerating explosion in economic growth that began in Great Britain around 1850, which McCloskey calls The Great Enrichment (Goldstone 2002, pp. 327, 329, 331-32, 334, 341, 354, 354-58).  And, indeed, even Ober concedes that the ancient Greek efflorescence and all the other efflorescences failed to achieve anything like The Great Enrichment (Ober 2015, pp. xiv-xv, 2-4, 77).  So although Northian institutionalism can explain these efflorescences of economic growth in per capita income of up to 1% per year, it cannot explain the unprecedented growth in the past two centuries, in which liberal societies have seen increases in average income from 1800 to the present of over 1,000 to 3,000 percent.  To explain that, McCloskey argues, we need to see the crucial rhetorical change that led to the great Bourgeois Revaluation that recognized the moral and intellectual virtues of the bourgeois commercial society.

But then wouldn't Strauss and the Straussians object at this point that the material economic benefits of a liberal society do not in fact promote human excellence, particularly the intellectual excellence of the philosophic life?  Must there not always be a conflict between society and philosophy that liberalism cannot resolve?  Don't we see that in the fact that even in Athens, as liberal as it was, there could be no complete toleration for philosophers, as indicated by the persecution of Socrates and other philosophers?

Ober's answer to this objection is suggested by his essay on the trial of Socrates (Ober 2011).  He points out that Socrates lived his philosophic life in Athens until his death at age 70, a life that he could not have lived in illiberal Sparta, where the freedom of thought and discussion for philosophers was impossible.  The trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BCE can be explained as an extraordinary consequence of the disorder in Athens after its defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE and the reign of the Thirty Tyrants set up by Sparta in Athens, followed by the restoration of democracy in Athens in 401.  Two of the Thirty Tyrants--Critias and Charmides--were associates of Socrates, and so Socrates was regarded with some suspicion by the supporters of the restored democracy.  A proclamation of amnesty, however, made it impossible for anyone to file legal charges against anyone suspected of supporting the tyrants.  So when Meletus brought the charge of impiety against Socrates, he was pursuing an indirect way of eliciting the citizens' suspicions of Socrates.

As indicated by the quotation above from Strauss, he saw the execution of Socrates as part of a general pattern of Athenian persecution of philosophers, including someone like Protagoras.  But, in fact, most of the stories about such persecuted philosophers in Athens are stories for which the evidence is very dubious (Dover 1976).  Strauss mentions the story about the burning of Protagoras's books and his expulsion from Athens.  But Strauss provides no source for this story.  And he is silent about the claim of Socrates that Protagoras enjoyed a high reputation in Athens throughout his life (Plato, Meno, 91e).

Ober notes that Athens allowed philosophical schools (like those of Plato and Aristotle) to organize themselves as voluntary associations in which philosophers could pursue the philosophic life in friendship with others, and thus the open access order of Athens applied to ideas as well as market exchanges (Carugati, Ober, and Weingast 2015).  Here Ober is relying on a dissertation by one of his graduate students on freedom for associations in classical Athens (Kierstead 2013), which builds upon the work of Nicholas Jones (1999).

Even Plato in The Republic recognizes that democracy is the only regime that secures the freedom that allows people like Socrates to study philosophy, and thus "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (558c-62a).  Some readers of The Republic (like Will Altman) have seen this as Plato's endorsement of liberal democracy.

As I have indicated in some earlier posts (here and here), this shows the Aristotelian liberalism of philosophic friendship in a free society that Adam Smith and David Hume saw as emerging in the modern commercial society of Scotland in the 18th century.


Bresson, Alain. 2014. "Capitalism and the Ancient Greek Economy." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 1: The Rise of Capitalism: From Ancient Origins to 1848, eds. Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, pp. 43-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bresson, Alain. 2016. The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carugati, Federica, Josiah Ober, and Barry R. Weingast. 2015. "Is Development Uniquely Modern? Athens on the Doorstep." Working paper. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

Dover, Kenneth. 1976. "The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society." Talanta 7: 24-54.

Goldstone, Jack A. 2002. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the 'Rise of the West' and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History 13: 323-389.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. 2006. Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Nicholas F. 1999. The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kierstead, James. 2013. "A Community of Communities: Associations and Democracy in Classical Athens." A Doctoral Dissertation for the Department of Classics, Stanford University.

Ober, Josiah. 2011. "Socrates and Democratic Athens," In Donald R. Morrison, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, 138-78.

Ober, Josiah. 2015. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Friday, September 02, 2016

The Origin of Life (and Morality) 3.7 Billion Years Ago?

A 3.7-billion-year-old rock from the Isua Greenstone Belt in Greenland showing conical stromatolite-like structures that could be fossil evidence of bacterial activity, and thus the earliest signs of life on Earth.

One of the greatest unresolved mysteries in science is the origin of life.  There is today no generally accepted scientific account of exactly where, when, and how life originated on Earth.  Closely connected with this question is the question of whether life might have appeared elsewhere in the universe beyond the Earth. 

This is a deeply human question because living beings like ourselves want to understand our place in the history of life, and of what that might say to us about the meaning and purpose of life.  Human beings have always heard mythic or religious stories about the origin of all things, including the origin of life and human life.  But now we wonder whether modern science can give us a scientific story of life's origins.  And if we are persuaded by such a scientific story, then we must wonder what this teaches us about how we fit into the history of the universe.

This week, an article for the journal Nature on what is claimed to be the earliest evidence of life has been published online.  Nicholas Wade has written about this for The New York Times.

The oldest fossil evidence of life is stromatolite fossils. A stromatolite (literally, "layered rock") is a solid structure created in shallow marine environments by single-celled microbes called cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).  The photosynthesizing cyanobacteria form colonies and trap sediment with their sticky surface coatings.  The trapped sediment reacts to calcium carbonate in the water to form limestone.  The formation of such microbial mats can be seen today in places like Shark's Bay in Western Australia.

Microbial mats are important for the study of early life on Earth because they are a macroscopic manifestation of microscopic life.  They can be preserved as macroscopic structures in the rock record, which are more easily identified than individual microbial fossils (microfossils).

In northwestern Australia (Pilbaria Craton), the Strelley Pool Chert is a 3.5 million-year-old sedimentary rock formation that seems to show stromatolite fossils.  Until recently, this has been thought to be the earliest fossil evidence for life on Earth (Allwood et al. 2006).  There's a YouTube video on this site.

But now a team led by Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia is presenting evidence of stromatolite fossils in rocks from the southwest coast of Greenland that are 3.7 billion years old (Nutman et al. 2016).  If this is correct, this would be the earliest fossil evidence for life.  And yet while cyanobacteria might seem to us to be very simple forms of life, they are actually rather complex, and so they must have been preceded by the evolution of simpler forms of life much earlier than 3.7 billion years ago.

This research is important for astrobiology--the biological study of evidence for life beyond the Earth.  If we were to find rock formations like this on Mars, would this be evidence that life has evolved on Mars?

This research will provoke a lot of scientific debate.  First of all, there will be debate over whether these rock formations were really caused by microbial action, or whether they could have been formed by purely physical or chemical activity, so that this would not be evidence of ancient life. For a decade or more, scientists had assumed that American paleontologist William Schopf had found stromatolite fossils in rocks in Western Australia that were 3.5 billion years old (Schopf 1993).  But then Martin Brasier (a paleobiologist at Oxford University) challenged Schopf's evidence by arguing that the stromatolites presented by Schopf had actually been formed by geological processes, not by bacteria (Brasier et al. 2002).  Later, Brasier presented his own fossil evidence for life that was 3.4 billion years old, but here the fossil patterns were microscopic, with sizes and shapes suggesting a kind of bacteria that lives on sulfur and dies if exposed to oxygen (Wacey et al. 2011).  We can expect, then, that there will be similar criticism of Nutman's evidence.

Another problem for Nutman's research is that if cyanobacteria appeared 3.7 billion years ago, then the simplest forms of life must have evolved during the Hadean period of Earth's history (from 4.5 to 4 billion years ago).  This period is called Hadean because it was a "hellish" time for the Earth, during which the Earth was being bombarded by asteroids.  It's hard to see how life could have emerged and survived in these conditions.

What we see here is one of the fundamental problems of evolutionary science.  We cannot directly observe what happened billions of years ago.  Se we must rely on the indirect evidence of evolutionary history, such as the fossil record.  And that fossil record is limited and hard to interpret.

But at least we can adjudicate the scientific disputes by looking at whatever evidence we have and weighing the arguments over the interpretation of that evidence in the light of the competing scientific theories.

By contrast to this, the critics of evolutionary science--like the proponents of Intelligent Design Theory--do not offer any alternative theories that are testable by evidence.  For example, Jonathan Wells, in his book Icons of Evolution--criticizes evolutionary scientists for not proving the step-by-step evolutionary pathway for the origin of life; and then he asserts that the only alternative is Intelligent Design Theory.  But he does not explain exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created life.  He does not do this, because his rhetorical strategy is a negative argument from ignorance: he shows that scientists cannot prove the step-by-step evolutionary origins of life, and then he asserts the truth of Intelligent Design by default, without satisfying the standards of proof that he has used against the scientists.

As I have indicated in a previous post, there is another side to this debate over stromatolite fossils that has to do with the evolution of morality.  Microbial mats form because hanging together allows these microorganisms to stick to the rocks in shallow sea water without being washed away by the tides.  By hanging together, these microorganisms are cooperating with one another for their mutual benefit.  And while we might not see this as morality in the strict sense, we might see it as at least incipient moral behavior.  The morality of human social cooperation could be seen as the culmination of a long history of life in which living beings have evolved to cooperate for their mutual benefit.  Something like this is suggested in Aristotle's biological works.


Allwood, A. C., M. R. Walter, B. S. Kamber, C. P. Marshall, and I. W. Burch. 2006. "Stromatolite Reef from the Early Archaean Era of Australia." Nature 441: 714-718.

Brasier, M. D., et al. 2002. "Questioning the Evidence for Earth's Oldest Fossils." Nature 416: 76-81.

Nutman, A. P., V. C. Bennett, C. R. L. Friend, M. J. Van Kranendonk, and A. R. Chivas. 2016. "Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700-Million-Year-Old Microbial Structures." Nature

Schopf, J. W. 1993. "Microfossils of the Early Archean Apex Chert: New Evidence of the Antiquity of Life." Science 260: 640-46.

Wacey, D., et al. 2011. "Microfossils of Sulphur-Metabolizing Cells in 3.4-Billion-Year-Old Rocks of Western Australia." Nature Geoscience 4: 698-702.

Wells, Jonathan. 2000. Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.