Evolution and Politics, a Cautionary Tale

Does evolution endorse any particular political ideology? Larry Arnhart – he of Darwinian Conservatism – thinks it does (as the title of his blog might suggest). He elaborates on his notion that evolution suggests liberalism (in the traditional sense*) in an essay authored for the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, entitled Darwinian Liberalism.

Larry Arnhart

It’s well worth a read, as it weaves together a slew of interesting elements of evolutionary theory, moral and evolutionary psychology and political ideology – a synthesis that I think is largely underrated in academia.

I’m inclined to largely agree with Arnhart’s conclusion that liberalism is an effective political ideology, but I’m wary of calling upon evolutionary biology to justify this fact, and I disagree with him in some key details of his argument.

My own view is that evolution is important in understanding humans and what makes us the way we are, but that it doesn’t explicitly endorse any particular political ideology. Instead, as I’ve argued before, I believe that evolution is not only agnostic when it comes to favouring one political ideology over another, but that, if anything, it favours a diversity of political ideologies.

Arnhart argues that evolution supports liberalism because it can tell about what it is that we, as humans, want out of life:

If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

This is my first point of contention with Arnhart. Just because we have evolved a desire to do x – even if that desire is universal in all human societies – it doesn’t mean that we really should pursue x. And I’m not just talking the naturalistic fallacy, which suggests (in one of its many guises) that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good.

I’m saying that just as we’ve evolved a desire for sweet and fatty foods, today we readily appreciate that pursuing sweet and fatty foods will often do us ill. Likewise, a desire to pursue social status, beauty or property might also do us ill.

What Arnhart is talking about when he lists these desires are the proximate mechanisms, which have evolved to satisfy our ultimate interests, with the latter being – in the evolutionary sense – the interests of our genes. Unless we want to prioritise our genes above all, I think we have good reason to be suspicious of our proximate desires.

Arnhart is aware of my objection, and addresses it such:

My assertion that the good is the desirable will provoke a complaint from some philosophers that I am overlooking the distinction between facts and values or is and ought. They will insist that we cannot infer moral values from natural facts. From the fact that we naturally desire something, they say, we cannot infer that it is morally good for us to desire it.

But I say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken — because what we desire is not truly desirable for us — then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. Much of Darwin’s discussion of moral deliberation is about how human beings judge their desires in the light of their past experiences and future expectations as they strive for the harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, and much of this moral and intellectual deliberation turns on the experience of regret when human beings realize that they have yielded to a momentary desire that conflicts with their more enduring desires.

The ‘philosophers’ would object that just because we desire something doesn’t mean we ought to desire it, which is essentially a rewording of Moore’s Open Question Argument. That’s not my objection, though; as I’ve already argued, I don’t believe the kind of ought that Moore is concerned with actually exists, or is even important.

My objection is that neither proximate not ultimate desires will, qua desires, be a reliable foundation for morality, or politics. Ultimate interests are biological interests at best, genetic interests at worst. Proximate interests are those things that instrumentally (if heuristically) serve the ultimate interests. I think we need to be careful in giving consent to these interests to form the foundation of morality, or politics.

I think a better account of interests needs to find some middle ground between proximate and ultimate interests. What is (instrumentally) good for an individual depends on how that individual is composed, and how they’re composed is dependent in an important way on the facts of evolution.

But the facts of evolution don’t give sanction to those goods – to say so would be to say that the hand evolved to hold a spear, so that what it should continue to do. Instead, we can say that the hand evolved to hold a spear, and that accounts for its properties today, and these properties make some things rather than others (instrumentally) good for the hand. I hesitate to dredge up the word ‘intrinsic’, but I’m inclined to call these intrinsic interests, which are interests by virtue of possessing certain properties. The role evolution plays is in explaining what these properties are, and how they came to be.

Ultimately (no pun intended) I don’t actually think my position is that far from Arnharts, I’m just more cautious about how we should understand interests and desires. Furthermore, I do think that, as a matter of empirical fact, people will tend to pursue their interests, whatever they might be, and however they might vary individual-to-individual. Arnhart would agree. And, given this fact, if we each want to pursue our interests, then we’d be advised to learn how to get along with each other and cooperate – play nice in the game of life, as Ken Binmore puts it – in order to better satisfy our own interests. I think myself and Arnhart are on the same page to this point.

But, and this is my next objection to Arnhart’s argument: I don’t think evolution endorses any one political ideology – any one ‘strategy’ – to achieve this end.  That means not socialism, not conservatism, not libertarianism and not even liberalism. If anything, it endorses them all, or it endorses none.

When it comes to solving the problems of coordination that arise by us living as social animals, all furiously pursuing our interests, there’s no one answer. Yes, classical liberalism encompasses this notion of individual interests all push-pulling on each other. But so does communitarianism, just in a different manner – instead of looking at the planets, communitarianism looks at the warped spacetime that results from their mutual gravitational interaction (too obtuse a metaphor?).

If anything, evolution tells us that having a pluralism of values working in tension helps to maintain some kind of equilibrium rather than letting things swing too far in any one direction – as it does in societies that are devoted to either communitarianism or liberalism. As such, the political ideology that evolution (almost) endorses is democracy, because it allows this tension to play out, and it gives a roll to liberal and conservative – and every other – sentiment.

In many ways this is compatible with Arnhart’s view, as he hints in his essay:

If there is no single way of life that is best for all individuals in all circumstances, then the problem for any human community is how to organize social life so that individuals can pursue their diverse conceptions of happiness without coming into conflict. And since human beings are naturally social animals, their individual pursuit of happiness requires communal engagement. Allowing human beings to live together as children, parents, spouses, friends, associates, and citizens without imposing one determinate conception of the best way of life on all individuals is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify as “liberalism’s problem.”

Just add to that ‘diverse conceptions of social coordination’, and we’d be in broad agreement.

Evolution and politics is a curly topic. I think evolution has a lot to say when it comes to explaining political phenomena we observe today. I’m just more wary when it comes to drawing any prescriptive lessons from evolution. Like Hobbes, Hume and Mackie, I believe morality and politics are human constructions – surely they’re strongly influenced by our evolved moral intuitions – but it’s up to us to construct the morality and politics that we think will serve us best. Evolution can inform that debate, but it can’t tell us the answers.

* Arnhart defines ‘classical liberalism’ as “the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others”, and thus brings it under today’s broadly libertarian conservative tradition.

10 Comments on Evolution and Politics, a Cautionary Tale

  1. Paul
    15th July 2010 at 9:10 am

    Let me see if I understand this; your objection is that our desires do not, in and of themselves give firm foundation in determining our interests, because it is evident that often our desires run contrary to our interests?

  2. Bayesian
    16th July 2010 at 1:58 am

    “if anything, it favours a diversity of political ideologies.”

    And how do you call the defense of such a “liberal” system?

  3. Perplexed in Peoria
    16th July 2010 at 9:19 am

    Arnhart argues that evolution supports liberalism because it can tell about what it is that we, as humans, want out of life …

    That is horribly mistaken, and not just for the “naturalistic fallacy” reasons that you give. It is wrong because the theory of evolution tells us nothing about human nature. The flow of inference just doesn’t work in that direction.
    To my mind, it is quite reasonable to think that a proper understanding of human nature might illuminate a choice of political ideologies. After all, we choose ideologies by considering not just for the goals they preach, but also by analyzing their efficacy in achieving those goals. And a proper understanding of human nature is an important ingredient of that analysis.
    But, if you want to understand human nature, you would do well to study humans directly, rather than to try to guess the consequences of the latest theories of how we came to be. Human nature is directly accessible to experiment. What we learn about human nature may suggest research programs for those who claim to account for how human nature came about. But accounts of how we came about are currently mostly guesswork. Any hypotheses about how we are which result from this guesswork are probably based more on the prejudices of the investigator or his funding agencies than upon facts. And, in any case, if evolutionary psychology does happen to generate an interesting hypothesis about modern human nature, the hypothesis must be checked by looking at modern humans, not by looking at bones or at primitive societies. This seems so obvious to me that I am not sure why I need to say it.
    So why do so many people seem to believe that understanding our past constitutes a high road to understanding how we are today? I think that, just as sciences like chemistry and biology tend to suffer from physics envy, the humanities are still suffering from “scripture envy”. After all, mankind’s first attempt to know itself was based upon a historical explanation. Scripture was not satisfied with a descriptive account of human nature – there was also theory. A theory relying on historical contingencies, but an explanatory theory nonetheless. And the historical account was somehow more noumenous and important than the descriptive facts being explained. So now, deprived of that particular historical account, we think we need another to take its place. As if somehow, an explanation of human nature based on contingent history is somehow purer than a simple contingent descriptive account of human nature. Something within us demands the history.
    I wonder what is the reason for that? 😉

  4. Tim Dean
    16th July 2010 at 8:58 pm

    @Paul: that’s a basic summary, yes. Although the terms ‘desire’ and ‘interest’ need to be carefully defined. And I’m not advocating a certain set of interests that we ought to follow; I do think people’s interests will differ.

    @Perplexed: “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I would just extend that claim to psychology. Theories of human nature that contradict evolution are notoriously unreliable. Theories that are compatible with evolution are more sensible.

    For example, one can examine the heart today and extrapolate its function. But there are some aspects of the heart’s design that only make sense in the “light of evolution.” Particularly when it comes to design ‘flaws’ or strange features that appear to confound its apparent function, then evolution is key to drawing an accurate picture of why the heart is the way it is. Likewise with psychology.

    But, as I’ve argued, evolution doesn’t explicitly endorse any prescriptive views. It takes *us* to add the premise that “evolution ought to endorse prescriptive views,” and that premise cannot itself be justified by evolution.

  5. Perplexed in Peoria
    17th July 2010 at 2:49 am

    Tim, You have missed my point completely. You point out that evolution is key to drawing an accurate picture of why the heart is the way it is.” That may be. But my point was that evolution is not very helpful in drawing an accurate picture of the heart itself, never mind the why. In choosing political ideologies, we are not particularly interested in the why of human nature. We are interested in the what. And we can learn about that rather directly by observing humans, interviewing them, etc.
    You also write: Theories of human nature that contradict evolution are notoriously unreliable. Theories that are compatible with evolution are more sensible. Spoken like a true philosopher. It is left as an exercise for the reader to transform that aphorism into one that might be uttered by an empirical scientist.
    The only way in which evolution is helpful in discovering facts about the present is when we extrapolate from common ancestry. For example, from knowledge that humans and chimps both require dietary vitamin C, we can reasonably infer that the same applies to bonobos, even before conducting invasive empirical tests on that endangered species. But that is not the kind of inference that the evolutionary psychologists make. The aspects of human nature which interest them are precisely those aspects of our nature in which we differ from our fellow apes. Common ancestry doesn’t help. Inference to the whatfrom natural selection is completely unreliable. But, no problem, we have plenty of actual human beings willing (in fact, eager) to have their nature scientifically probed. And once we have measured the what, inferring the why becomes a harmless parlor game which we can leave to the field of evolutionary psychology without qualm.

  6. Tim Dean
    17th July 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for your reply Perplexed. I don’t believe I’ve missed your point, I just disagree that the ‘why’ is not relevant to the ‘what’. Knowing about the ‘why’ enables us to gain insights into the ‘what’ and formulate new hypotheses that can delve deeper into the ‘what’.

    For theories of human nature that contradict evolution, take Cartesian psychology, Marxist psychology, Freudianism, behaviourism or the Standard Social Science Model. All took surface observations of human behaviour and postulated deeper mechanisms to account for the observed phenomena, yet all are fundamentally flawed.

    One important finding of evolutionary psychology is to understand many of our mental processes are heuristics designed to solve adaptive problems. Understanding how they work, what the problems were they were trying to solve, to what extent they’re innate and/or influenced by environmental factors, to what extent they’re malleable and how they can result in errors in judgement are all important to understanding human behaviour – and that understanding will go deeper than just observing behaviour and extrapolating possible mechanisms to account for it. Doing yhat could lead you to become a behaviourist…

    But my blog is not about arguing the validity of evolutionary psychology – there are plenty of places where its strengths and weaknesses are explored. But I do think an evolutionary perspective in crucial in any complete account of human nature.

  7. Mark Sloan
    21st July 2010 at 5:09 am

    Tim, I also disagree with Arnhart’s arguments that evolution somehow endorses any one political strategy.

    Two questions though. You quote Arnhart as agreeing with Darwin that the goal of moral behavior ‘is’: “… harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life …”. This means acting in one’s long term self interest. This seems to me to be pretty clearly correct in terms of the emergence of moral behavior based on both genetic and cultural evolution. So Arnhart is actually not making the error of claiming, as you say, “we have evolved a desire to do x …(then) we really should pursue x”. Sure, moral philosophers have made claims that the goal of moral behavior ‘ought’ to be something else, but none of those claims are generally accepted and I have no reason to believe any such claims ever will be.

    Second, you say “What Arnhart is talking about when he lists these desires are the proximate mechanisms, which have evolved to satisfy our ultimate interests, with the latter being – in the evolutionary sense – the interests of our genes.” And later “I think a better account of interests needs to find some middle ground between proximate and ultimate interests.”

    Are you proposing that the ultimate interests of our genes (to outcompete all other genes?) should be given significant weight in defining morality?

    I see no justification for people considering anything but proximate interests “over a whole life” in defining morality. Certainly nothing prohibits people from weighing the ultimate interests of their genes. I just don’t see what makes such considerations obligatory. (In this view, one proximate interest of existing generations could be concern for the proximate interests of future generations, but this concern for the future seems to me very different from weighing the ultimate interests of our genes.)

  8. Tim Dean
    21st July 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I think Anrhart (along with many others) are somewhat confused when talking about the goal of moral behaviour. On one hand, the goal of moral behaviour is to foster social interaction. But this goal serves a further goal of advancing our long-term interests. I think Arnhart slips between both senses.

    I also think we need a more comprehensive account of interests – and I agree that ultimate interests aren’t what we’re after. That why I’ve tentatively proposed the notion of ‘intrinsic interests’, which are those interests an individual has by virtue of them possessing certain properties. Ultimate interests can explain the origin of intrinsic interests, and the existence of proximate interests to serve them. I’m still not 100% convinced this is the best account of interests – but it’s something I’m thinking through at the moment.

    Really, I don’t want to prescribe what interests people ought to follow, but it is clear that following some interests (say, proximate or short term) can compromise other interests (say, long term). It would be helpful to be able to tease these different senses apart and see how they interrelate.


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