Evolution and Politics: Third Time Lucky

11 11 2009

The history of the fusion of evolution and politics isn’t one to be terribly proud of, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an exciting future. And I happen to think it does have an exciting future, hence my concern not to be lumped in with efforts from the past.

Evolution and politics first locked eyes across the room in the company of Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinism movement. However, the Social Darwinists made a couple of pivotal mistakes.

Herbert SpencerThe first was to assume that evolution had an intrinsic progressive quality. Thus one organism could be called more evolved than another, despite Darwin himself rejecting that very notion. As a result, the Social Darwinists saw evolution as justifying inequality and suffering if it furthered the ends of evolution itself; if it yielded more evolved organisms. And, clearly, the wealthy and powerful were more successful than the poor and powerless. So be it, they said, it’s all for the better. Well, wrong.

The second mistake they made was to derive an ought from an is. They saw evolution as being natural, thus being good, sneakily slipping in the shaky premise that everything that is natural is good. Well, again, wrong.

EO_WilsonRound two came in the 1970s with the Sociobiology movement. This was a far more nuanced philosophy, large parts of which are still alive and kicking today under the moniker evolutionary psychology. However, Sociobiology proponents such as E.O. Wilson often – and perhaps unconsciously – made the slip from is to ought all too easily. As a result, descriptive notions – such as those concerning aggression, sexual inequality or nationalism – sometimes sounded an awful lot like apologising for the behaviours that result.

Now… round three.

Peter Singer(Actually, a brief mention of round two-point-five. Peter Singer’s cheeky little book, A Darwinian Left, is a worthwhile read for an alternative perspective on how evolution can inform political thinking from a purely descriptive level. Singer suggests that we cannot draw any prescriptive values from evolution, but we can draw some prescriptive lessons by using evolution to better understand human psychology. Thus you might value happiness, or empathy, or altruism – or if you’re conservative: competition, achievement, stability etc – and then use evolutionary psychology, amongst other things, to figure out the best way to promote those values.  Nice idea, but really only extends the notion of using out best descriptive tools to further our chosen ends. Nothing terribly revolutionary about that.)

Now… round three.

Central to my current research is the idea that, on the descriptive level, evolution might not provide insight in to any one political ideology, but might explain the very diversity of political ideologies we see in the world today and throughout history. That’s a long way from the notion that evolutionary explanations somehow suggest there should be less diversity in human behaviour.

Often an individual’s political views will be influenced by their intuitive and emotional responses to particular issues – and these intuitive and emotional responses are shaped, at least in part, by evolution. And evolution equips us not with just a limited number of consistent intuitions or emotions, but with a vast diversity of intuitions and emotions, often in conflict and tension with each other.

But evolution is canny. It hasn’t just equipped us with any old intuitions and emotions. It’s equipped us with a selection that helped us to solved many of the reoccurring problems that confronted our ancestors. Chief amongst these problems was: how the hell do you get a bunch of non-related individuals to cooperate for mutual benefit without defecting on each others’ arses?

And, crucially, there are multiple answers to that question – no one best, but some better than others in certain situations. Think of it like an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a population of Nice strategies, it’s beneficial to be Nice. However, in a population of Nasty strategies, it pays to be Nasty. And everything in between. From a descriptive point of view, I think this goes a long way to explaining the robustness of the political spectrum.

But what about the leap from descriptive to prescriptive? Without falling in to the is/ought trap, I think there are some prescriptive lessons we can gain from this.

One is that evolution can help us understand where our values come from in the first place. If your values are based around compassion, or cooperation, or even competition, there might be very good evolutionary reasons why you might hold those values. If you want to avoid the is/ought problem, then it might be worth re-examining your values in the harsh light of biology. It may even be that there is no way to escape the is/ought issue – but that might not be such a bad thing. In fact, that might lead to a kind of moral naturalism – a notion that is not altogether absurd.

If this is the case, then we might be able to – cautiously – draw some norms from evolution. One might be the primacy of survival. Arguably, if you hold a moral or political belief that is inclined to get you killed before you can pass on that belief, or pass on offspring with the genetic predisposition to that belief, then that belief will likely die out. I think that could be a very good reason for not adopting that moral belief.

Should we agree to this, then I would suggest that there is in all probability no one moral or political belief that reigns supreme. In fact, the very diversity of beliefs and norms that we see in the real world might be the optimal strategy. That’s not to say we should accept the diversity we have today in a fatalistic way – for change is another value that’s worth holding. Instead, we should seek to allow a diversity of beliefs, let them be in tension with each other and that way we have the best chance of prosperity.

Sure, there’ll be conflict that arises from this approach. But, as with any decision, one must ask what’s the next best alternative? And if that alternative leads to more conflict, then the answer may be clear. And I’d suggest that any mono-ideological position would either be unstable, and not survive, or would lead to more conflict. That’s a hypothesis that needs testing – and that’s precisely what I’m trying to do.

All in the name of having evolution and politics do more than just eye each other cautiously from across the room, but take hands and engage in vigorous conversation. That’s evolution and politics three-point-oh.

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8 responses

11 11 2009
Dan

Interesting topic! I have two questions that I am unclear on however…

First, I was unaware that Wilson has made the mistake of confusing is and ought, and you make it sound as if evolutionary biology’s mistakes of this sort are rather ambiguous. As I’m someone who’s heard of this controversy but is generally not well-informed on it, I was hoping you’d clarify this a bit more.

Second, what do you think of Frans de Waal’s book Our Inner Ape and especially his argument for coalition-building? It sounded to me that he covered ground typically discussed by evolutionary psychology but from a completely non-adaptationalist perspective. Have you read this book, and if so, what did you think of that perspective?

Thanks for indulging my curiousity.

12 11 2009
Tim Dean

Hi Dan. Thanks for the questions.

Wilson, and other Sociobiologists, often have an undercurrent of what I guess you’d call ‘naive moral naturalism’. There’s an assumption, not unlike that of the Social Darwinists, that we ought to be faithful to our evolved nature. Not uncritically, but at least be forgiving of some of our evolved predispositions, such as towards inequality or war.

I also detect a hint of the intrinsic progressiveness of evolution in some of Wilson’s writing as well – as if progress itself is somehow a good. It’s not as balls out as Social Darwinism, but I think there still a lingering element of naive is/ought there.

That’s not to say my current research doesn’t hurdle the is/ought gap. But I try to do it in a more visible and justified way. Partly by shrinking the gap, and partly by building a bridge over it.

As for de Waal – I haven’t read Our Inner Ape, although I have read other books of his. I like de Waal, and I think we can learn a lot from his research.

However, I have some concerns about his work. First is he isn’t very nuanced in his understanding of moral psychology or philosophy. Thus he often states that human and animal morality are basically the same. I disagree (and I’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog).

I also think he uses loaded terms, like ’empathy’ and ‘altruism’, in problematic ways: he tries to explain some elements of human morality by giving examples of these things in animals – but in the very describing of the examples, he’s using the loaded human terms he’s trying to define. It all gets a bit circular. Not to say there’s not something very interesting there, but I don’t thing he achieves as much as he sets out to.

But hey – we’re only two and a half thousand years in to this moral philosophy business. Hardly surprising we’re all still fumbling about to some extent.

12 11 2009
Dan

Thanks, I think that helps. I haven’t read Sociobiology: A New Synthesis but have read Biophilia, and I think I see what you mean about Wilson’s undercurrents. He doesn’t really address whether he’s just trying to be descriptive or prescriptive, and in the absence of such comments it about how he wishes to be construed he leaves some such things implied.

For de Waal, it’s my impression that that is the problem with a lot of psychology, sociology and primatology research: that these are very difficult concepts even for the leading experts to grapple with and define carefully. One simply has to read through the writings of a lot of such writers to feel that they understand what’s going on. I’ve read a few others, but it’s still so much.

12 11 2009
Michael Blume

Thanks for these very interesting thoughts! I agree on a range of issues, but I just wanted to add that the early “Social darwinists” were not the only option of “interpreting” evolution politically – not even then. Think of Darwin’s co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace, who remained religious throughout his life and valiantly fought against eugenics, malthusian war cries etc. on the basis of sexual selection – espousing women’s rights, “socialist” educational programs and redistribution of land, so that women and men would be able to freely choose their mates and numbers of children, thereby ending any needs for eugenics or wars. He even coined the now-prominent term “equality of opportunity”! I regret that this original thinker tends to be overlooked…

12 12 2009
Paul

I wasn’t sure if the end of the article was saying that conflict or strife was a good or a bad thing? I am not sure if you are a student of the history of philosophy, but Machiavelli, in his book describing republics, went to great lengths to convince his readers that peaceful civil strife is the key to protecting the dignity of citizens and to increasing the power of the state. Much of the U.S. Constitution is premised on this idea, and as Larry Arnhart has noted, after World War II delegates from just about every country on the planet were able to meet and hammer out a universal declaration of rights. Insofar as the declaration is really just a vocalization of how one should treat a member of one’s own group, based on very widely shared moral intuitions, I think that it is an example of a group of people successfully deriving an ought from an is. Also, I think it provides a compelling justification of the primacy of the separation of powers in achieving a moral society, as it is the only political ideology that has succeeded in protecting the rights of citizens for substantial lengths of time. I’m not being a dogmatic American conservative, just making an argument hoping to hear a better or more interesting one.

12 12 2009
Tim Dean

Thanks for the tip on Machiavelli. Admittedly, I never finished reading The Prince. I must pick it up again.

And yes, I am saying that conflict – in the sense of a framework that allows competing ideas to pull against each other – is a good thing. That’s a pragmatic value, as I believe such a framework is relatively self-correcting and is most likely to lead to better policy and governance.

And I also acknowledge the liberal democratic system, and the U.S. in particular, as being exemplars of this notion in action – not that they’re perfect, nor the only way to build this framework.

So in some ways, I’m just restating the values of liberal democracy – social contract, democracy, freedom of expression, separation of powers and other checks and balances – but adding that such a system accords with our evolved intuitions. I’m also stating that any mono-ideological position (say, communitarianism, socialism, libertarianism, authoritarianism etc) is unstable and we’d be unwise to adopt it to the exclusion of other ideologies.

That’s not to say I don’t think people should embrace these ideologies and argue their hearts out – but we should all acknowledge the greater value of allowing opposing views to keep the society from swinging too far in any one direction.

25 04 2013
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3 05 2013
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