Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What Jane Goodall Has Taught Us About Biopolitical History


Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Jane Goodall's arrival at the Gombe Stream Preserve in Tanzania on July 14, 1960.  There she initiated the first long-term study of a wild chimpanzee group.  Remarkably, she was only 26 years old; and she did not even have a college degree. She supervised the work at Gombe until 1986.  Others have continued the work at Gombe up to the present.

By the early 1970s, the National Geographic Society had crafted Goodall into one of the celebrated scientists of the 20th century--mostly through its National Geographical TV documentaries.

I can now see that Goodall was crucial in teaching me that a biopolitical science of political animals (including humans and chimps) would have to move through three levels of evolutionary history in complex interaction: the genetic history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group.

In 1975, I read Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which planted in my mind the idea of developing a biopolitical philosophy that would be both Aristotelian and Darwinian.  Then, in 1980, I read Kenneth Bock's Human Nature and History, which was one of the first critiques of Wilson's book.  Bock argued that the biological study of animal nature cannot explain human history, because "animals other than man do not have histories," and human history in its contingency and diversity shows a human freedom from nature that transcends human biology.  Human history can be studied by historians, but not by biologists.

I saw that Bock was taking the side of Thomas Hobbes against Aristotle, because Hobbes argued that Aristotle was wrong in declaring that human beings were political animals by nature, because while human politics was a product of uniquely human social learning and individual judgment, the politics of the political animals was determined by fixed instincts.  But I wondered whether Aristotle might be right in claiming in his biological works that the political life of nonhuman animals was shaped by their cultural learning and individual personalities, just like human politics.

In 1986, I read Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior; and I was surprised to see that she took the side of Aristotle against Hobbes, because her book was a political history of the Gombe chimpanzees showing that they had distinctive cultural traditions and individual personalities.  She showed that the genetic nature of the species set the "patterns of behavior"--predictable general propensities found in every chimpanzee group, like dominance hierarchies.  But she could not predict the precise history of the "chimpanzees of Gombe," because of the historical contingences of the cultural traditions and individual personalities that made the chimpanzee group at Gombe unique.  If she was right, Bock was wrong: these Gombe chimps did have a history, and this history of animal culture and individuality would have to be part of any biological science of politics.

Also in 1986, I attended an international conference on chimpanzee studies in Chicago sponsored by the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  Goodall was there.  And one of the preeminent topics was the growing interest in chimpanzee culture.  The high point for me was sharing an elevator with Goodall!

In 1998, in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, I was able to defend Aristotle's account of political animals against the Hobbesian and Kantian claim that "culture" is the human transcendence of animal nature.  I could argue: "Like human beings and other primates, chimpanzees are cultural and historical animals."

In 2012, in my book chapter "Biopolitical Science," I gave a fuller account of the three-levelled analysis of biopolitical science--the unity of political universals, the diversity of political cultures, and the individuality of political judgments.  I worked through those three levels of biopolitical history as they are generally manifested in human politics and as they were particularly illustrated in Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

I argued that the individual personality of animals had to be included in any biopolitical science, because biologists now recognize that personality is part of animal psychology.  One of the most extensively studied models of human personality is the Five Factor Model that describes human personality differences across five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  Each domain corresponds to an axis running from high to low.  This same OCEAN model can be applied to the study of nonhuman animals.  And it has been shown that chimpanzee personalities display all five domains, just like human beings.

More recently, in some of my posts, I have argued that a Darwinian social psychology needs to understand the interaction of genetic history (the evolutionary psychology of Tooby and Cosmides), cultural history (the cultural group selection of Richerson, Boyd, and Henrich), and biographical history (the evolved personality and life history of self-interested individuals who are agents of cultural change acting through coercion or persuasion, as presented by Singh, Wrangham, and Glowacki).

There is complex co-evolutionary interaction between these three levels of history.  Genetic history enables and constrains, but does not determine, cultural history.  Genetic history and cultural history jointly enable and constrain, but do not determine, biographical history.

The interaction also moves in the opposite direction: biographical history enables and constrains, but does not determine, cultural history; and biographical history and cultural history jointly enable and constrain, but do not determine, genetic history.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of how cultural history can shape genetic history is the evolution of adult lactose tolerance.  Most human beings around the world today cannot easily digest milk, because after weaning from their mother's milk, they no longer produce lactase--the enzyme necessary for digesting the sugar lactose in milk.  This was probably true for most human beings throughout evolutionary history.  But then in pastoral societies with cultural traditions of dairying, milk was available as food for adults, which created a cultural environment in which genetic mutations for the production of lactase in adults would be favored by natural selection.  The people today who are lactose tolerant are descendants of those human beings who lived in dairying cultures.  Their genetic history was shaped by cultural history.

For me, understanding this co-evolution of genes, culture, and individuals began with Goodall's chimps.

Some of these points are elaborated in previous posts herehereherehereherehere, here., and here.


Roger Sweeny said...

enables and constrains, but does not determine

I like that. Deserves to be at least as well-known as "the result of human action but not of human design"--which itself deserves to be better known.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Turkheimer's First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.
Some smart person might productively investigate the relation between population size and the reproductive value of envy. In a genetically isolated thirty member extended family (our ancestors' condition for two million years) where the most successful hunter looks like Tom Selleck and sings like Sam Cooke I have no chance to get my genes into the next generation unless my friends and I arrange a little accident. In a 20,000 person agricultural society, I will get caught and killed before I reduce the population of better-looking metal smiths (or whatever my occupation) sufficiently to make a measurable improvement in my odds for reproductive success.