Much Work Left to Be Done in Connecting Politics and Evolution

Professor Arnhart has provided a generous view of the manner in which even the most juridically abstract theory of morality must finally default to an operating version of what we have to and perhaps should for all time call “human nature.” The grisly intellectual alternative is to have to entertain, if even for a fleeting second, the possibility that that random anthem of deaf-mutes — post-modernism — boasts even a mini-scintilla of explanatory utility.

As Arnhart stresses, Darwin’s profound insight was to embrace the fact of variation. He saw it as the engine of sexual and natural selection which he understood was not only remarkably parsimonious but was kind of fun, insofar as it allowed you to scrutinize with absorbed usefulness everything from the differences among fungi to head gestures of infants. He was satisfied that the principles of the normal curve rule all. And (forgive my amateur non-card-carrying political-theorist naiveté), he cleared the way of prissy angels-on-a-pinhead negotiations about Platonic forms, in favor of the lovely robustness of Aristotle’s “man is by nature a political animal” — a drum-roll please for the central phrase “by nature.” Yes!

In the context of this exercise, Arnhart is of course usefully efficient in adumbrating various views of the “blank slate” which are antidotal to concepts of human nature. It has been intriguing to inspect the contortions of self-described liberals as they try to comport the optionality of their general system of belief with the fact that it is precisely the blank slate which has provided a handy note-pad for various slate-artists such as Messrs Stalin, Ghadafi, and Big Mao. And there is always the long-lived natural experiment of the two Koreas, one colorfully successful as a productive and well-organized market economy, and the other, with very similar startup population, as a disastrous pitiable outcome of a fatal alloy of the ideology of juche — self-reliance — with the dictatorship of a kin group, which recently bombed a South Korean warship to glory up the succession planning of Dear Leader for his son.

What remains a surprise about this discussion is that it is taking place now and not forty years ago. Notwithstanding Aristotle’s “by nature” breakthrough, surely much of all this was available long ago. We can recall Graham Wallas with his Human Nature in Politics of 1908 and William James probing naturalism about that bigshot matter, religion. And if nothing else, it is presumably acceptable to recall that way back in 1971, Robin Fox and I published The Imperial Animal (Transaction, 3rd edition, 1998) in which we adapted Chomsky’s essential notion of a biological basis for language — otherwise language is too hard for kids to learn — to broader behavior, which we called the biogrammar. Of course because we’re on the same side of the street, this resembles Arnhart’s natural desires, though we were perhaps more coy and were unprepared to equate desire with probability.

I miss in Arnhart an appropriate scan of one of the recurrent vexations in the discussion about libertarianism and biology — the relationship between human nature and economic behavior. Currently, we emerge (one has no choice but hope) from a vast economic episode which surely challenges any fundamental commitment to the notion that, left to their own devices, human beings will do the right and better and most effective thing.

What I have called Lysenko Economics emerged from the remarkable notion that humans are logical, not biological. Reason necessarily prevails. Cogito ergo and all that. Self-correcting markets, leave them alone, they will be fine and will do what is necessary without supervening intervention. Without being either ideological or dyspeptic about it, it is presumably appropriate to note that the super-logical quants and computer jockeys who oversaw and underwrote the destruction of vast amounts of capital and confidence were all paragons of logic, their implacable processes at once magnified and miniaturized by the startling lever of computers. We know that the unintended result was that, like in old bad science fiction, the machines overran their masters. While the results and remedies are hardly currently clear it is presumably acceptable to suspect that if there was an invisible hand in all this, it was a clenched fist some of which clutched gold.

In other words, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his most interesting book) was discarded in favor of his more technical The Wealth of Nations. The result conceptually, and in pro- and anti-libertarian chat, was that the core process of living beings as Darwin understood it, sociality, was set aside in favor one of its smaller branch plants, business, and it seems fair to say that without anyone really trying or wanting what happened, the result has been at least amazing.

Of course it’s an inexpensive shot to accuse a philosophy of a worldwide recession. Not my point, except to stress that an overconfidence in the athleticism of the brain generated the kind of license often associated with a different organic malfunction, for example in male adolescent gonads. At the same time, Arnhart in my view sensibly reviews the join where the puzzle pieces of religion and biology interact and surely to widespread agreement has to dismiss Locke’s odd decision that tolerating atheists was anti-social because this questioned the existence of God, the rock of society itself.

May I here add to the music more noise (from our recent book God’s Brain) about a perception of my co-author Michael McGuire and myself that in fact it is in the very operation of the brain, with its neurotransmitters and electric sensitivity to social milieus, that the source of religion lies. This hardly supports the busyness of the New Atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins who assert among other things that believers in God tend to the moronic. Instead, the work of McGuire, a neuropsychiatrist who led the research group at the UCLA Med School that discovered serotonin and all its works, and my own cross-cultural work on the biology of optimism, stimulated us to view religion as a natural feature of human society — there are some 4200 religions at work. And religion is not only a product of the brain, but also the brain is its principal and most avid consumer. Then the issue arises, how do classical theories of the state and society embrace (or not) a sharply different explanation for the existence of religion than the power of sacred persons and writings?

One final comment, if I may, about the fact that in the literature of libertarians (to the embarrassingly limited extent I know it) there is a failure to confront fully the fact that there are two sexes and that each has forms of interaction and contest with the other. In my The Decline of Males of 1999 (St Martin’s) I produced the argument that the introduction of female control of reproduction, most dramatically in the form of the Pill as well as internal contraceptives, had the effect of “alienating males from the means of reproduction.” Glib though this might seem, enormous changes in male/female ratios in education, increasingly in the economy, and in attitudes overall have in fact followed broadly these very parsimonious alterations in the sexual contract. Perhaps most profoundly, in the modern and modernizing world, about 40% of babies are born to unmarried women. While some may see this as an artifact of moral decline, irresponsible hedonism, or the alteration of welfare payments, it is a bedrock ethical matter. A new kinship system is emerging that I have called bureaugamy, the main players within which are a woman, a baby, and a bureaucrat. Sorting out the meaning of such a development is worthwhile challenge for worthwhile libertarians.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, political scientist Larry Arnhart observes that there are indeed some universal values shared among all human societies, and that these appear to spring from a common evolutionary heritage. Such values, he argues, are the basis of a classical liberal politics that, while recognizing and even affirming individual differences, still offers us a common set of especially human values. Today’s evolutionary psychology, he argues, points the way to a new take on classical liberalism.

Response Essays

  • PZ Myers agrees that Charles Darwin’s political views were liberal, but he argues that these views have nothing to do with science. Nor should they, he continues. We are rightly suspicious of Marxist science, because injecting politics into scientific inquiry entails biased conclusions. Everyone, of every ideology, needs science, because science grounds us in reality. Evolutionary biology appears to be true by every measure we have designed, and its overall structure has been overwhelmingly confirmed, but this still doesn’t, and shouldn’t, make it political.

  • Lionel Tiger criticizes Arnhart’s account of evolutionary politics for its incompleteness on several fronts. First, if we are really going to describe politics in terms of evolutionary psychology, we need to engage with a long conversation already underway, on just this subject, going back to the early twentieth century and even before. Second, what about the gap between the rational economic actors of classical theory — and the distinctly irrational results of the business cycle? Third, what can the move from evolutionary psychology to politics learn from the parallel developments in our understanding of religion? And fourth, what about gender, which is a constant source of research material for biologists, but a relatively rare topic in libertarian thought?

  • Herbert Gintis agrees that evolutionary biology is an important influence that shapes human societies, but he rejects the idea that it leads to classical liberalism. At best, the evidence for the claim has not been adequately presented. And further, substantial evidence exists supporting the opposite — far from implying a classical liberal civil society, human biology has been shaped, and has arguably conformed on a genetic level, to communal governance. Gintis argues that we should take cognizance of our evolutionary history, then, and perhaps enact more rather than less communal regulation of moral norms.