Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is Big History Science or Myth? Or Both?

In 1978, Edward O. Wilson, in On Human Nature, warned that the naturalistic explanation of human nature as a product of natural evolution rather than divine creation created a spiritual dilemma: as products of a purposeless evolutionary process, we have no transcendent purpose or goal around which we can organize our societies, and yet the religious longing for transcendent meaning is part of our evolved human nature.  Wilson thought Friedrich Nietzsche was right in warning that evolutionary science was a deadly truth in denying human life any transcendent meaning, and that human beings would not accept this, because they would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose (171).  The dilemma is that human beings cannot live nobly without some religious belief in mythic stories that convey the cosmic purposefulness of human life, and yet modern scientific materialism must deny any such belief.

Wilson's proposal for resolving that dilemma was to appeal to the "mythopoeic drive" of the human mind by turning scientific materialism into a mythology of the "evolutionary epic" as "the best myth we will ever have" (201).  This evolutionary epic will begin with the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang of fourteen billion years ago, as deduced by astronomers and physicists, which is "far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis or the Ninevite epic of Gilgamesh" (202).  This epic will move forward through the evolution of everything from stars and planets to plants and animals, and finally to the hero of the epic--the human brain as the most complex device we know.

Wilson claimed that although the evolutionary epic's "most sweeping assertions cannot be proved with finality," the scientific method of empirically testing hypotheses and discarding those hypotheses that are falsified can improve our understanding of the evolutionary epic so that it approaches ever closer to some approximation of reality (201).

Is this reasonable?  Or is the very idea of a scientific mythology based on an evolutionary epic incoherent?  Must any myth or story be a human fiction that cannot be fully grounded in empirical science?  Or is it possible to construct a scientific narrative of the evolution of everything that can be supported by empirical scientific research?  Can such a scientific narrative satisfy our religious longings for cosmic meaning?  Or must scientific knowledge and religious belief always be in conflict?

These are the questions that must be raised about the Big History promoted by David Christian, Fred Spier, and others, which is the elaboration of Wilson's proposal for an evolutionary epic.  An engaging presentation of Big History is Christian's TED talk, which is entitled "The History of Our World in 18 Minutes."  Over the past five years, this talk has been viewed almost 6 million times!  The influence of Christian's vision is indicated by the fact that Bill Gates is supporting Christian's "Big History Project," which is promoting the teaching of Big History courses in high schools.

The debate over Big History can be seen in an article by Ian Hesketh--"The Story of Big History" -- and an article by Eric Chaisson--"The Natural Science Underlying Big History"

Christian's TED talk is organized around the question of how the Universe creates ordered complexity without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that randomness or disorder (entropy) increases everywhere.  His answer is that ordered, complex systems can arise when there is a flow of energy into them from the environment outside the system.  The order of the system does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because the net disorder of the system and its environment always increases.  So, for example, the complex order of life on Earth arises from photosynthesis, by which some of the energy radiated onto the Earth from the Sun is captured by plants to power the processes of life.  He can then narrate the history of the Universe from the Big Bang to humankind as an evolutionary history of increasing complexity powered by the flow of energy into ordered systems.  The complexity of human systems of order depends not just on the flow of energy but also on the uniqueness of human language and networks of communication that allow for collective learning, culminating in the modern global community that constitutes a global brain.

Christian ends his lecture with a vision of the future prompted by pictures of him visiting his grandson Daniel.  Christian explains that he worries about the current threats to human civilization--particularly, nuclear war and global warming--that could disrupt the "Goldilocks conditions" for human life on Earth.  He wants his grandson's generation to study Big History in high school so that they can understand how to meet these challenges to human life on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh sees Christian's lecture as a good illustration of the rhetorical trick in all of Big History, in which historians claim to have found an empirical science of history that embraces the entire history of the Universe, but actually what they have done is to use the literary techniques of story-telling to tell "an anthropocentric story of cosmic origins" that has no grounding in empirical science (193).  "Indeed," Hesketh asserts, "like any myth, big history's deep meanings are not inherently derived from empirical observations but from its anthropomorphic projections of an idealized cosmic world" (196).  In fact, Hesketh notes, Christian and the other proponents of Big History have often explicitly identified this cosmic history as "a modern creation myth," and they admit that they are engaging in the sort of mythology dressed up as science that was recommended by Wilson (174, 180-81, 183-86).

The anthropocentric and anthropomorphic character of this myth is evident in the way Christian ends his story of cosmic history with pictures of himself with his grandson: he thus ends with human beings on Earth occupying the center of the Universe as they face the moral challenges of securing the ecological conditions of human life on Earth against the threats coming from nuclear weapons and global climate change. 

Hesketh points out (192-93) that this corresponds to what Christian at the end of Maps of Time predicted for the "near future" of the next hundred years, but then Christian went on in his book to predict the "remote future" of the Universe--the end of life on Earth, the burning out of the Sun, and the Universe becoming "a dark, cold place filled only with black holes and stray subatomic particles that wander light-years apart from each other" (Maps, 486-89).  In his TED lecture, Christian is silent about this dark, cold future of the Universe, because that would have taken away the heroic ending of his story with human beings at the center of the universe on "this beautiful Earth."

Hesketh's fundamental criticism of Big History is conveyed in the two quotations at the head of his article.  Hesketh identifies Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry's The Universe Story as one of the first of the recent Big History texts.  He quotes them as saying: "The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to read the story taking place all around us."  He then follows that with a quotation from Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse: "No one and nothing lives a story."  Swimme and Berry present themselves not as authors of the "universe story" they tell but as discoverers of the story that can be found in Nature (186).  Against this, Hesketh points to White's "insight" that every story is a human fictional creation that has no factual grounding in Nature (196).

If you read Hesketh's article, you should notice that he simply asserts White's "insight" without offering any evidence or argumentation to demonstrate its correctness.  In contrast to this, Chaisson presents his natural science of Big History as cosmic evolution as a "grand scientifically based story" (36).  So Chaisson thinks a story about cosmic history really can be grounded in empirical science, and he backs up that claim with scientific evidence that energy is "a common currency for all complex, ordered systems," and that that one can find a quantitative measure of complexity in "energy rate density," which is the amount of energy passing through a system per unit time and per unit mass (4-5).  He surveys the evidence supporting a cosmic evolution of increasing complexity as measured by energy rate density that moves from physical systems to biological systems to cultural systems.  In some of his earlier writings, Chaisson had spoken of this as a "cultural myth."  But now he speaks of this as a "scientific narrative."  He avoids the term "myth," because that often carries the connotation of "fiction." 

But Hesketh would insist that any kind of story or narrative is fictional--that's White's "insight"--and therefore it's impossible for it to have any grounding in empirical scientific evidence.  Oddly, Hesketh recognizes the importance of Chaisson's science of cosmic evolution for Big History, but he is completely silent about Chaisson's presentation of the empirical evidence for this science, because Herseth is confident that an empirically-based science of history is impossible.

It's noteworthy that Chaisson agrees with Hesketh in criticizing the Big History of Christian and others as being too "anthropocentric" or "anthropomorphic" (see Chaisson, 1-3, 14, 35).  Chaisson criticizes Big History for restricting its view mostly to our Milky Way, our Sun, our Earth, and our history on Earth.  They do this because "big historians like all historians, basically strive to know themselves, nobly and ideally, yet sometimes dubiously rendering humanity as central or special while deciphering our sense of place in the grand scheme of things" (2).

Chaisson agrees that the empirical evidence of the cosmic evolution of complexity as measured by energy rate density shows that human brains and human cultures are some of the most complex systems in the Universe (23-30).  And yet he sees no empirical evidence that cosmic evolution follows some grand design leading up to human life as having some privileged position.  While we can hope that the human species will endure into the near future, the empirical evidence of how ordered systems evolve and of the rare conditions required for human life make it clear that human life is unlikely to last for long, and that the eventual death of the Sun will bring earthly life to an end.

Chaisson observes: "As a confirmed empirical materialist, my vocation is to critically observe Nature and to experimentally test theories about it" (36).  And thus, in contrast to Hesketh, Chaisson believes that stories about cosmic history can be tested empirically by scientific research.

Still, as we saw in the previous post, Chaisson concedes that our grandest models of the cosmos depend on speculative thinking that cannot be tested through observation and experimentation, and consequently our scientific knowledge of the cosmos must always be severely limited.  Why was there a Big Bang?  What was there before the Big Bang?  Such questions cannot be answered according to the traditional standards of scientific method.  Wilson admitted that such questions leave a big opening for religious belief in God as the First Cause (On Human Nature, 1, 171-72, 191-92, 205).

But even if empirical science cannot give us absolute knowledge of the whole--a theory of everything--it can give us empirically grounded stories about the cosmos that approximate reality.  If so, then, contrary to Hesketh's confidence in White's "insight" that all stories must be fictional, we can use science to help us read (even if only dimly) the story taking place all around us.

The first attempt at telling a scientifically based story of Big History or cosmic evolution was Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which Lucretius wrote as a didactic epic poem.  The poetic artistry of Lucretius's writing in presenting Epicurean atomistic science is evident.  But those like Hesketh would raise the question of whether this poetic story-telling is the fictional imposition of a literary order onto a natural order that does not speak for itself.


REFERENCES

Chaisson, Eric J., "The Natural Science Underlying Big History," The Scientific World Journal, volume 2014, 41 pages.

Christian, David, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Hesketh, Ian, "The Story of Big History," History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, 4 (Fall 2014): 171-202.

Wilson, Edward O., On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

Some other posts on topics related to Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Cosmic Evolution: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable

In many of my posts over the years, I have defended an evolutionary classical liberalism, which I see as a tradition of thought that stretches from David Hume and Adam Smith to Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin and to Friedrich Hayek and Matt Ridley. This evolutionary classical liberalism can be rooted in a universal history of cosmic evolution like that presented by Eric Chaisson and David Christian.

Chaisson is an astrophysicist who sees the entire history of the Universe from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago to the present as showing an evolution from simplicity to complexity that passes through eight epochs: the Particle Epoch, the Galactic Epoch, the Stellar Epoch, the Planetary Epoch, the Chemical Epoch, the Biological Epoch, the Cultural Epoch, and the Future Epoch.  Chaisson has a website that sketches his account of this cosmic evolution, which is elaborated in his Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos (Columbia University Press, 2006) and in his Astronomy Today (8th edition, Pearson, 2014).

Ever since the emergence of human self-conscious awareness, human beings have wondered about how the world came to be, how humans came to be, and how the human place in the world illuminates the meaning of human life.  To answer their questions, human beings have told themselves myths about cosmic history, and generally these myths have appealed to religious beliefs about the powers of supernatural beings. 

Chaisson says that his story of cosmic evolution is also a "cultural myth" (Epic, 426).  But it's a scientific myth that does not rely on beliefs about supernatural beings or philosophical speculation, because modern science as it began in the Renaissance can achieve true knowledge through the scientific method of gathering relevant data, formulating theories, and then testing those theories through rigorous observation and experimental testing and rejecting those theories that fail to be empirically confirmed.  Without mentioning Karl Popper, Chaisson assumes Popper's standard of falsifiability for science: a theory is not truly scientific if it is not in principle empirically testable, and a theory is falsified when it's empirical predictions fail.

I wonder whether this is true, or whether any science of cosmic evolution must confront the ultimate limits to science in facing fundamental mysteries of nature that are not open to observational or experimental study.  Herbert Spencer set forth a scientific account of cosmic evolution that is very similar to Chaisson's.  Like Chaisson, Spencer saw a cosmic evolution from simplicity to complexity, from homogeneity to heterogeneity, which could be explained through natural laws.  But unlike Chaisson, Spencer thought that increasing scientific knowledge reveals "the ultimate mystery of things," and thus provides "a firmer basis to all true Religion" ("Progress: Its Law and Cause," 484).  Modern science shows the power of the human intellect in explaining everything that comes within the range of human experience.  But it also shows the weakness of the human intellect in dealing with all that transcends human experience. 

In studying the origin of the external world, Spencer observed, we can hypothesize that all matter originally existed in a diffused form, but we cannot prove this, and we cannot conceive how this came to be, because we can have no experience of the distant origin of all things.  Likewise in studying the internal world of our human mind, we cannot conceive of how consciousness is possible, of how mind emerges from matter.  And thus we see that "absolute knowledge is impossible," because "under all things there lies an impenetrable mystery" (485).  If science is limited to thinking about nature that is empirically testable and falsifiable, Spencer would seem to say, then there can be no scientific understanding of those realms of nature that are beyond human observation.

That this might be true has recently become a hotly contested issue among some scientists and philosophers of science.  About a year ago, two physicists--George Ellis and Joe Silk--wrote an article for Nature complaining that some physicists were threatening the intellectual integrity of science by asserting that if speculative theories of the Universe were sufficiently elegant and explanatory, they should be accepted as true, even if they could never be empirically tested.  This would deny the traditional understanding of science as empirical knowledge based on observational evidence and experimental testing, which might make it impossible to distinguish scientific knowledge from philosophical speculation or religious belief (Ellis and Silk, "Defend the Integrity of Physics," Nature 516 [2014]: 321-23).

According to Ellis and Silk, string theory and the theory of the multiverse are prime examples of theories accepted by many physicists that are not testable.  According to string theory, elementary particles should be understood as infinitesimally thin vibrating one-dimensional strings in multidimensional space that are too small to be seen through microscopes or detected through collisions in any particle collider.  According to the idea of the multiverse, our universe is just one of many universes with different cosmic and physical properties.  Scanning over all possible universes, everything that can physically happen does happen an infinite number of times.  But it's impossible for us in our universe to observe these other universes.  Since these theories cannot be tested by observational or experimental evidence, Ellis and Silk argue that they are not scientific theories at all, because science should be limited to theories that are testable.

In December, a meeting of scientists and philosophers of science was convened in Munich to debate the issues raised by Ellis and Silk.  A report on the meeting can be found at the website for Quanta Magazine.

David Gross, a proponent of string theory, opened the meeting by arguing that the problem identified by Ellis and Silk is simply a "fact of nature"--the fundamental constituents of nature are either too small, too far away, or too far in the past to be observed directly by us or indirectly through our instruments, and thus nature's secrets are buried so deep or so far away that we have no way to test our theoretical speculations about them.

Here is a sketch of what Gross sees as the limits on the scale of human observational experience of nature.  At the small scale, microscopes have extended our experience beyond our visual reach, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has extended our reach even deeper.  We have gone from scales of centimeters to millionths of a millionth of a millionth of a centimeter.  But we have reasons to believe that the fundamental constituents of nature that string theory attempts to describe lie at a distance scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the LHC.  At the cosmic scale, telescopes have extended our experience of the astronomical universe; but no telescope will ever look beyond our universe's cosmic horizon and see the other universes assumed by the multiverse hypothesis.  The white area is the range of scales within human experience.  The grey area is outside that range.



Philosophers of science like David Dawid (String Theory and the Scientific Method) have argued that this shows the need for Popperian falsificationism to be replaced with Bayesian confirmation theory, which allows for a non-empirical science in which we rate the confidence we have in a theory from zero to 100 percent.  We can be confident in a theory even when it makes claims about phenomena that we cannot directly observe.  No one has ever directly seen an atom or subatomic particles, but we can be confident in atomic theory based on indirect inferences using instruments.  We might even have good reasons for accepting string theory, even though we might never have either direct or indirect empirical evidence for it.

At the Munich conference, some defenders of Popperian falsificationism pointed out that Popper recognized the importance of speculative theories that lack testable predictions.  He identified such theories as "metaphysics," and he saw that such metaphysical thinking could be taken seriously, with the thought that eventually it might become possible to devise empirical tests for a metaphysical theory.

Chaisson adopts the Popperian position when he describes the scientific method that was first formulated by scientists in the Renaissance:
"They realized that thinking about Nature was no longer sufficient.  Looking at it was also necessary.  Experiments became a central part of the process of inquiry.  To be effective, ideas had to be tested experimentally, either to refine them if data favored them or to reject them if they did not.  The 'scientific method' was born--probably the most powerful technique ever conceived for the advancement of factual information.  Modern science had arrived" (Epic, x).
With this standard in mind, Chaisson rejects string theory and the multiverse as unscientific theories: "I see no evidence for cosmic strings, eleven dimensions, or multiple universes" (xvi).  Such thinking "borders on science fiction (or even religion)" (75).  Such ideas cannot be truly scientific, because they depend on thinking without looking, speculative thought without empirical observation. 

An alternative position would be to say that while our knowledge of the world is most reliable when it is based on both thinking and looking, we must ultimately come up against the limits of human observational experience, and then we must settle for thinking without looking, even as we hope to someday push the boundaries of our experience deeper into nature, do that we can empirically test our theories.  Here we must fall back onto what Chaisson calls "informed speculation" (67).

Consider, for example, what might be the most difficult metaphysical question of all:  Why is there something rather than nothing, and why are things as they are an not different?  The modern theory of the Big Bang as the beginning of the Universe forces us to ask this question.  What was there before the Big Bang?  Why did it occur?  What or who caused it?

In a previous post, I have argued that Why is there something rather than nothing? is a meaningless question, because it rests on two false assumptions.  First, it falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothingness.

Chaisson comes close to agreeing with me when he says that questions about the origins of the Big Bang cannot be addressed by modern science, because there are no ways to experimentally test our thinking about such questions (Epic, 33).  Asking what came before the Big Bang might be a "meaningless puzzle" (57). And yet he thinks it is reasonable for scientists to speculate about such questions by formulating various models of the Universe. 

One is the steady-state model that stipulates that the average density of the Universe is eternally constant.  Although the Universe is expanding, the average density of matter remains the same.  For this to be true, however, new matter must be constantly created out of nothing, and thus the steady-state theorists still face the problem of explaining how something arises from nothing, which seems to contradict the scientific principle of the conservation of mass and energy.

A second model of the Universe is that of the "open Universe," in which the Universe expands eternally from the Big Bang.  A third model is that of the "closed Universe," in which the Universe expands from the Big Bang until the gravitational pull of matter pulls everything back, and matter collapses back onto itself in a "big crunch."  Both of these models face the problem of explaining the initial Big Bang.

A fourth model is that of the "cyclic Universe," in which the Universe expands from a big bang, collapses back onto itself, and then expands again from another big bang; so that the Universe oscillates eternally.  In this view, there is no single, unique beginning that has to be explained, because the oscillation of the Universe is eternal.  For that reason, Chaisson observes, "subjectively, in our guts, many researchers prefer it," because this model avoids the philosophical problem of what preceded the Big Bang (32).  But notice that Chaisson appeals here to some subjective "gut feeling" for which there is not objective empirical test.  Isn't this thinking without looking?

Repeatedly, Chaisson first affirms the truth of some mysterious idea in science and then admits that it might be purely imaginary.  So, for example, he says that black holes "apparently realty do exist" (95), but then says that they might be "a whim of human fantasy," because there can be no evidence, either direct or indirect, for their existence (106).  There are no experimental tests for explaining what happens deep inside black holes, and so this might be "the ultimate in the unknowable" (101).

Sometimes, Chaisson insists that scientific cosmology can supplant religious myth (418).  At other times, however, he says that we might need "a merger of science and religion" (76).

Was Spencer right in seeing "the ultimate mystery of things" as providing "a firmer basis to all true Religion"?

Some previous posts on cosmic evolution can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Prehistoric Massacre in Africa Suggests that the State of Nature was a State of War


 

 

Skeletal Remains of Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherers Killed in a Massacre at the Site of Nataruk, West of Lake Turkana, Kenya


One of the fundamental debates in the history of political philosophy is over whether the state of nature was a state of peace or a state of war.  Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all agree that the first human beings lived as foraging hunter-gatherers, but they disagree about whether this original human condition was generally violent or generally peaceful.  Hobbes claimed that without any government to enforce peace, life among these first human beings must have been an utterly lawless war of all against all.  Locke inferred from reports about hunter-gatherer bands in America that life in a state of nature could be a state of peace, but it could easily become a state of war.  Rousseau thought that the evidence refuted both Hobbes and Locke in suggesting that the first human ancestors were peaceful, and that war did not arise until the invention of agriculture led to a less nomadic and more settled social life.

As I have indicated in my many posts on this issue, this has continued to be one of the most contentious debates in the social sciences, with some social scientists (such as Richard Wrangham) arguing for the Hobbesian position that the evolution of our foraging human ancestors was shaped by warfare, and others (such as Douglas Fry) arguing for the Rousseauan position that nomadic foragers were generally peaceful, and that war was a cultural invention of the agricultural societies that emerged 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. 

Now that we have more archaeological and anthropological evidence than was available to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we are reaching the point where we might settle this debate.  I have argued that the evidence suggests that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  Locke was right in seeing that foraging human bands can enforce customary laws of cooperation that secure a peaceful life, but that in the absence of formal governmental rule, feuding often leads to war.

And yet while the evidence pertinent to this debate has been growing, the evidence is still limited in ways that make it difficult to reach any demonstrative proof.  Inferences about warfare among prehistoric foragers from ethnographic reports about foraging societies are open to dispute, because modern hunter-gatherers might be quite different from prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and because we can argue about whether acts of violence against individuals or small groups of individuals should be described as warfare.  The archaeological evidence for prehistoric warfare among foragers has been severely limited, because when prehistoric skeletons show signs of homicidal violence, it's hard to know whether this should be interpreted as showing warfare rather than inter-personal violence within a society.

But now in this week's issue of Nature, we have a report of the first prehistoric skeletal evidence for a massacre in a foraging society: Marta Mirazon Lahr, et al., "Inter-Group Violence among Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya," Nature 529 (21 January 2016): 394-398.  The New York Times has an article about this.

A team of scientists reports the discovery of the first clear evidence of the intentional killing of a small band of foragers in prehistory.  In 2012, they found the skeletal remains of 27 individuals at the site of Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana in Kenya.  The skeletal remains are dated at around 10,000 years ago.  12 of the individuals were preserved as articulated skeletons.  10 of these 12 show evidence of major traumatic lesions that would have been lethal.  There are fractures from violence in heads, necks, hands, and ribs.  For example, the skull pictured above shows multiple traumatic lesions to the cranium, involving blunt force to the frontal and left temporal bones.  In one case, a projectile was found embedded in a cranium.  In another case, projectiles were found within a body cavity.  There is no evidence of burial for any of these skeletal remains.

The Hobbesians like Richard Wrangham will see this as one of the best archaeological discoveries for confirming that warfare was part of human evolution in prehistoric foraging societies before the invention of agriculture.

But the Rousseauans like Douglas Fry will say that skeletal evidence like this from one site is not enough to be conclusive.  As quoted in the New York Times article, Fry has also said that these foragers might have been moving away from a purely nomadic life to a more settled life, and thus this would not be evidence for warfare among nomadic foragers. 

I see evidence that the co-authors of the article in Nature disagree with one another over whether their discovery supports the Hobbesian view or the Rousseauan view.  Here's the last paragraph of their article:
"As one of the clearest cases of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the event recorded at Nataruk offers information on the socio-economic conditions that marked the presence of warfare. However, there are two interpretations of how this fact impinges on our understanding of war among foraging societies.  West Turkana 10,000 years ago was a fertile lakeshore landscape sustaining a substantial popular of hunter-gatherers; the presence of pottery may be indicative of some storage and so reduced mobility.  Thus, the massacre at Nataruk could be seen as resulting from a raid for resources--territory, women, children, food stored in pots--whose value was similar to those of later food-producing societies among whom violent attacks on settlements and organized defence strategies became part of life.  In this light, the importance of what happened at Nataruk would be in terms of extending the chronology and degree of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterize early warfare in more recent periods.  Alternatively, Nataruk may offer evidence not of changing conditions towards a settled, materially richer, and demographically denser way of life, but of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups. As such, Nataruk would be important for the particular circumstances that preserved an ephemeral, but perhaps not unusual, event in the life of prehistoric foraging societies.  In either case, the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war" (397).
The first of these two conflicting interpretations supports a modified version of the Rousseauan view.  The second interpretation supports the Hobbesian view.  The news reports about this article (here, here, and here) suggest to me that Marta Mirazon Lahr, the lead author of the article, is taking the Hobbesian view, while Robert Foley, a co-author, is taking a modified Rousseauan view. 

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau claimed that warfare began with the invention of agriculture, which he called the "great revolution," because it brought the territorial settlements, the accumulation of property and the status hierarchies that provided the conditions for war.  But Rousseau also recognized that before agricultural societies, the "first revolution" in human history was the establishment of family life in settled societies that produced some forms of property. 

Some anthropologists today might see this as the pre-agricultural revolution in which nomadic foragers moved towards becoming complex foragers living a somewhat settled existence.  If there were some abundant source of food, such as fish along a shoreline or in a river, foragers could camp there, either seasonally or year-round.  They could then store some of their food.  And their population could grow.  But once they took control of this territory and its abundant resources, they became targets for other foraging bands who might want to take their property, and thus began warfare.  There are many examples of this in the ethnographic and archaeological record.  The most famous example of this is the complex foraging societies that formed on the Northwest Coast of North America.  Once formerly nomadic foragers became dependent on the intense harvesting of aquatic resources, they settled into permanent villages, in which there was increasing population and inequality in property and status, and which produced competition over valuable resources (stored food, territory, and women) that led to warfare.  These complex foraging settlements have appeared thousands of years before agricultural settlements.  By contrast, fully nomadic foragers show inter-personal violence within their bands, but not inter-group warfare.

As quoted in the Washington Post, Robert Foley seems to adopt this interpretation of the foragers who were killed at Nataruk:
"According to Foley, the skeletons appear to have belonged to a group of hunter-gatherers living at the time on the lush, marshy edge of a lagoon where they used bone harpoons to fish and hunt.  They were probably more sedentary than most foraging communities, as there are indications that the environment was quite rich.
"Although any guesses as to why they were killed are speculations, Foley said it is possible that another group found the area attractive and competed for it."
Similar quotations from Foley appear in the story at LiveScience:
"The number of casualties rules out the notion of an interfamily feud, Foley said.  More people from the group may have been killed, and still others may have escaped, which suggests the group was larger than the average hunter-gatherer group. (Most hunter-gatherer groups tend to hover around 25 to 30 people per encampment, Foley said.) And given the simple tools used to deal death, the attacking group was probably larger still, he added.
"This idea suggests that the two warring groups were likely more settled than the average hunter-gatherer population, Foley said.  That's not surprising, as hunter-gatherers who tend to stay in one place for longer periods often live near lakes, where food is plentiful and unlikely to be depleted by long stays, he added.
"'That fits into the idea of a slightly more densely packed population where intergroup conflict is likely to arise,' Foley said. 'It's quite difficult to have a war with a highly mobile group that's very dispersed.'"
Douglas Fry agrees with Foley in seeing this prehistoric warfare in Nataruk as showing the intergroup violence that arises among complex foragers, but not among fully nomadic foragers.  Thus, Fry can argue that this discovery support his Rousseauan view that throughout most of human evolutionary history, when human beings lived as nomadic foragers, there was no warfare; and consequently war must be seen as a cultural invention of recent history.

Lahr, however, seems to disagree with Foley and Fry.  As quoted by Deborah Netburn of the Los Angeles Times, Lahr says that while there is lots of evidence of warfare "among settled, sedentary communities," the discovery in Nataruk is the first "archaeological record of armed conflict between early nomadic hunter-gather groups."  She suggests that the foragers who were massacred had not established a settlement on the lake, but rather they were a "small traveling band of hunter-gatherers who stopped by a lagoon to hunt or fish."  And so, she seems to be adopting the Hobbesian interpretation of this archaeological discovery as confirming that warfare was prevalent among our earliest foraging ancestors, and thus deeply rooted in our evolved human nature.

Some of my posts on this debate over the evolution of war can be found here, here, here, here, and here, which include links to many other posts on this.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Evolutionary Origins of the Word "Liberalism"

The term "liberalism" has had a confusing history.  When this English word was first coined in the 1820s in Great Britain, it referred to the political and economic ideas of those who stressed individual liberty in both politics and economics, so that government should be limited to protecting individual liberty, and should therefore not intervene in the social and economic life of the community except to protect life, liberty, and property.  But then by the end of the century, some of those who called themselves liberals were supporting social welfare policies in which government intervened in social and economic life in ways that denied individual liberty.  Now, in the United States, those who favor interventionist government--those like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--are known as liberals, while those who favor protecting individual liberty from governmental intervention are called conservatives or libertarians.  Sometimes the original meaning of liberalism is identified as "classical liberalism" as distinguished from "modern liberalism" or "left liberalism."

Daniel Klein of George Mason University has been leading an intellectual campaign for restoring the original meaning of "liberalism" as devoted to individual liberty and limited government.  As part of that campaign, he has presented evidence that the use of the word "liberal" in its political sense originated with Adam Smith and other Scottish thinkers as a term denoting what Smith called "the system of natural liberty."  He has presented his research as an essay on the website of The Atlantic, which includes a video of a lecture that elaborates his reasoning.

Scholars who have traced the history of the English word "liberalism" have often claimed that "liberal" as a political term originated on the European Continent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was then imported into Great Britain in the 1820s, when a suffix was added to coin the word "liberalism."  In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek noted that it was often suggested that the word "liberal" derived from the early nineteenth-century Spanish party of the liberales (first edition, 530; definitive edition, 529). But Hayek indicated that he believed that this political sense of "liberal" derived from Adam Smith's language in The Wealth of Nations, where Smith identified "the liberal system of free exportation and free importation" (Liberty Fund, 538), and where he spoke of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Liberty Fund, 664).

Klein argues for the Hayek thesis as opposed to the importation thesis.  Google has scanned millions of books, and Googles Ngram Viewer allows researchers to study this digital data to see how words have been used over the centuries.  Klein has used this to study the meaning of the adjective "liberal."  Prior to 1769, "liberal" had only non-political meanings, such as being generous, noble, or having superior status (as in "liberal arts" and "liberal education").  Beginning in 1769, there was a sudden jump in the number of times that writers used political terms such as "liberal policy," "liberal plan," "liberal system," "liberal views," "liberal ideas," and "liberal principles."  In 1769, William Robertson was the first writer to use such terms in his book The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V

Robertson was a friend of Adam Smith, who began to use "liberal" in this way in 1776, in his Wealth of Nations.  He argues in favor of "the liberal system of free exportation and free importation," which would turn all of Europe into a single great empire bound together by free trade (538).  In explaining this "liberal system," he thinks it applies as much to free trade in religion as to free trade in corn.  "The people feel themselves so much interested in what relates either to their subsistence in this life, or to their happiness in life to come, that government must yield to their prejudices, and, in order to preserve the public tranquility, establish that system which they approve of" (539).  As long as the laws secure "to every man that he can enjoy the fruits of his own labor," the "natural effort of every individual to better his condition" will carry a society to wealth and prosperity (540).  Smith also speaks of this liberal system of freedom to trade as "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon that liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (664).

Smith's description of the "liberal system" suggests that it coincides with what he calls the "system of natural liberty," because in both cases, he speaks of a man's freedom "to pursue his own interest his own way":
"All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.  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 both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.  The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of society.  According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society" (687-88).
Thus, the "liberal system" or the "system of natural liberty" does require government, but the duties of government are limited.  The first two governmental duties are clear--protecting the individuals of a society from foreign attack and from the unjust attacks of other members of the society.  But the third duty--providing public works or public institutions--is more open to debate.  What Smith says about this in Book 5 of Wealth of Nations has been interpreted by some readers as suggesting that Smith might today be a left liberal or even a Marxist in favoring an interventionist government with a welfare state and redistribution of income.  If you look at the video of Klein's lecture, you will see that the commentator on the lecture raises this point, and Klein acknowledges that this is a possible reading of Smith, although Klein favors the reading that sees Smith as a classical liberal who would not have supported left liberalism.

In any case, Klein has, I think, proven that Hayek was right in seeing the political sense of "liberal" as originating with Smith, so that the "liberal system" is to be equated with Smith's "system of natural liberty."  Later, in Great Britain, the English noun "liberalism" was coined to refer to this Smithian understanding of "liberal" thought.  The earliest use of "liberalism" that I have noticed is by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on May 24, 1804, in which Humboldt writes: "Your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas have inspired me from my earliest youth."

Although Smith does not use the word "evolution," his account of the "liberal system" does have an evolutionary character to this.  Hayek noticed this and developed it in his account of the liberal idea of "spontaneous evolution" or "spontaneous order."  Smith's system of natural liberty is a spontaneous order that evolves from the bottom-up rather than being designed from the top-down.  It is a natural evolutionary order in that it arises from the natural desire of all individuals to better their condition, which leads to wealth and prosperity whenever the laws secure to individuals the liberty to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.

In the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer elaborated the principle of equal liberty as fundamental for liberalism, and he presented it as part of a cosmic evolution of order in which the whole history of the Universe could be seen as an evolution from simplicity to complexity.

In 1859, the Liberal Party of Great Britain was established under the leadership of William Gladstone; and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published.  Darwin became an enthusiastic supporter of the Liberal Party, and one can see his liberalism in his Descent of Man, particularly in his criticism of slavery.

I will be writing more about the cosmic evolution of Darwinian liberalism.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good Inequality

In recent years, it has become common for many political leaders to say that economic inequality--the growing gap between the few who are very rich and the many who are very poor--is the greatest political problem for the United States and many European countries.  Two years ago, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a best-selling book warning about the growing economic oligarchy in the leading capitalist countries and recommending that the only solution was a redistribution of wealth through confiscatory tax rates of 80% to 90% for the wealthiest.

There has been little attention, however, given to one important point raised in Piketty's book: "Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified, whether there are reasons for it" (19).  As one can see in Piketty's book, he thinks the inequality that he sees in the advanced capitalist countries is not justified, because the very wealthy haven't really earned their wealth, and those in the lower classes have no opportunity to improve their condition.

But is that really true?  Is it true that economic inequality shows a rigid class structure, in which those at the top stay at the top, and those at the bottom have no chance to rise?  Or is there a lot of mobility, with people moving up and down the class structure?  If there is such mobility, wouldn't that be a good form of inequality?

In fact, there is a lot of evidence for such mobility.  Economists who study this have shown that over 50 percent of Americans will be in the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year in their lives.  Over 11 percent of Americans will be among the top 1 percent of income-earners (people making a minimum of $332,000 per year) for at least one year in their lives.  94 percent of the Americans who join the top 1 percent group will keep that status for only one year.

Moreover, the factors that explain higher household incomes among Americans are not fixed over a lifetime, and they are to some degree a matter of personal decisions, which means that people are not forced to remain in one income bracket for their whole lives.  American households with higher than average incomes tend to be households where the members are well-educated, in their prime earning years (between the ages of 35 and 64), working full-time, and are in stable marriages.  Households with lower than average incomes tend to be households where the members are less-educated, outside their prime earning years, unemployed or working only part-time, and they are likely to be unmarried.

A large part of the growth in economic inequality among Americans over the past 40 years has been a result of assortative mating:  college students marry people they have met in college, and then form two-income households with the higher income levels correlated with higher education.  These "power couples" are then in a position to help their children become successful, because their children will inherit the good genes of their parents as well as the good environments of rearing the parents provide.  Since high educational achievement is correlated with high IQ, and since the higher paying jobs in a highly technological and mentally challenging economy require higher intelligence, what we see here is the emergence of what Charles Murray has called a "cognitive elite."  So if we really wanted to reduce economic inequality, we would have to prohibit intelligent and well-educated people from marrying other intelligent and well-educated people.

Consequently, people can raise their chances of becoming wealthy by getting a good education, by getting married to other well-educated people, by getting lots of professional work experience, and by forming two-income households.  When people do this, they create economic inequality.  But this is good inequality.

Some of my posts on Piketty, Murray, and economic inequality can be found here, here, here, here, here, here., here, and here.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Rhetoric of Aristotle's Praise of the Philosophic Life as the Only Happy Life

In some previous posts here, here, here, here, here. and here.  I have argued that Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the contemplative life in book 10 (chapters 7 and 8) of the Nicomachean Ethics are dubious in ways that suggest that Aristotle is not endorsing these arguments, and that the true peak of the Ethics is in the books on friendship where Aristotle presents an inclusive conception of the human good as a range of moral and intellectual goods.  In this way, I am challenging the Straussian reading of the Ethics as moving towards the transmoral and transpolitical life of philosophy in book 10 as the peak of the human good.

If this is correct, then Aristotle's arguments for the philosophic life as the only truly good life, set apart from and above the moral life, might be seen as an exercise in rhetoric for those of his readers who are Platonic philosophers.  Aristotle indicates in the Politics (1267a1-13) that for those who desire a life of pure pleasure unmixed with pain that can be enjoyed without dependence on other people, philosophy is the best remedy.  For such people, describing philosophic contemplation as a godlike, self-contained activity might be the best rhetorical strategy.

In Aristotle's Rhetoric, he emphasizes that the successful rhetorician must respect the opinions of his audience.  Particularly, in epideictic rhetoric of praise and blame, he explains:
"It is necessary to consider in whose presence we praise; for, as Socrates said, it is not difficult to praise Athenians among Athenians.  We must also speak of what is honored by the particular audience as actually existing there, such as among Scythians, Lacedaemonians, or philosophers.  And generally what is honored is to be referred to the noble, since they seem to border upon one another" (1367b7-12).
This remark occurs in the context of Aristotle's claim that the rhetorician must praise what appears noble to the audience, and the audience tends to assume that what they honor is truly noble.  The problem is that different audiences honor different things and therefore have different conceptions of the noble.  The rhetorician must respect those differences.  Furthermore, Aristotle indicates that philosophers constitute a distinct audience in that they have their own standards of honor and nobility.  It seems likely, therefore, that when Aristotle, in the Ethics, praises the activity of solitary philosophic contemplation as the most honorable and noblest activity (1141a20, 1141b3, 1177a16, 1178a2), he is making a rhetorical appeal to the Platonic philosophers among his readers.  It is not difficult to praise philosophers among philosophers.

The common opinion of philosophers, Aristotle indicates, is that the philosophic life is godlike because it consists in the contemplation of objects that are unchangeable and eternal.  For Plato, the unchangeable and eternal objects of philosophy are the Ideas.  Aristotle rejects the doctrine of the Ideas, particularly as applied to the study of the human good.  The Idea of the Good, Aristotle argues in the Ethics, "is no more good by being eternal, just as a white thing that exists for a long time is not whiter than a white thing that exists for a day" (1096b3-4).

More common than Plato's doctrine of the Ideas, Aristotle suggests in the Ethics, is the belief that the unchangeable and eternal objects of philosophic contemplation are the heavenly bodies--the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.  It is commonly thought that the life of wisdom is completely lacking in prudence, because while the prudent man studies the changeable and contingent affairs of human life, the wise man studies the unchangeable and eternal bodies of the cosmos (1141a30-41b2).

Although Aristotle speculates in some of his writings on the nature of the heavenly bodies, he concedes that such speculations are largely matters of "faith" (pistis) that depend on traditional myths handed down from the earliest times, and therefore such matters cannot be settled by demonstrative reasoning (Topics, 104b1-18; On the Heavens, 270b1-26, 279b4-12, 283a30-84b5, 291b24-92a10; Metaphysics, 1074b1-14).  Consequently, Moses Maimonides could claim that Aristotle's arguments for the eternity of the cosmos were rhetorical rather than demonstrative (The Guide of the Perplexed, II, 13-15).

In contrast to the common view that the highest activity of philosophy is the cosmological study of the unchanging and immortal bodies of the heavens, a large part of Aristotle's philosophical writings is devoted to the biological study of the contingent and mortal bodies of living organisms.  At the beginning of his Parts of Animals, Aristotle defends the philosophical dignity of his biological studies:
"Of substances that are composed by nature, some are ungenerable and indestructible throughout eternity, while others partake of generation and destruction.  The former are honorable and divine but less subject to investigation by man (for there is little evidence from sensation that we can use to make inquiries about those things that we aspire to understand); but concerning plants and animals, which are destructible, there is much more information to use for knowledge, because they are all around us. . . . The knowledge of terrestrial things exceeds that of divine substances because of its greater accuracy and scope, and our knowledge of terrestrial things has the advantage that they are nearer to us and more akin to our nature. . . . Even in the case of those animals that do not delight our senses, nevertheless the nature that designed them gives inconceivable pleasures to those of us who are by nature philosophers and are able to gain theoretical knowledge of causes" (644b22-45a11).
Aristotle's defense of biology as a philosophical science is important for our reading of his Ethics and Politics, because this should lead us to consider the possibility that for Aristotle ethics and politics are biological sciences.  Aristotle's biological study of human beings affirms the psychophysical unity of their nature, in which mind and body are separable in speech but inseparable in reality.  And so for the philosophic life to be a human life, it must be a rational life of embodied intellect, a social life of friends who live together by talking and thinking together, and thus a moral life based on mutuality and reciprocity.

Furthermore, recognizing the biological character of Aristotle's philosophizing should make us wonder whether modern Darwinian biology can sustain Aristotle's biological naturalism.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Hayek and the Genetic Evolution of Socialism and Capitalism

Over the years, I have written a series of posts criticizing Friedrich Hayek's Freudian theory of human evolution, in which he argues that human beings have evolved instincts favoring socialism, and that the spontaneous order of free markets that make modern civilization possible arises as a purely cultural tradition that requires the painful suppression of our socialist instincts.

Recently, I have read a paper by some libertarian economists that defends a modified version of Hayek's argument.  They identify themselves as taking a position that is opposite to mine.  Here I will offer my assessment of that paper, but I will respect the anonymity of the authors.

The authors make a provocative argument about the genetic evolution of economic psychology—that human beings are by their evolved instinctive nature inclined more strongly towards socialism (understood as “explicit cooperation”) than they are towards laissez faire capitalism (understood as “implicit cooperation”).

In effect, this is a modified version of Hayek’s argument that human beings are instinctively inclined to favor socialist central planning over the spontaneous order of free markets, although these socialist instincts that were adaptive for small prehistoric foraging bands are maladaptive for the large extended orders of modern civilization, which would be destroyed by any attempt to impose socialist planning.

My first question is about whether I am right to see their position as a modified version of Hayek’s argument about the appeal of socialism as rooted in an atavistic instinct.  That they are agreeing with Hayek is suggested by their quoting from Hayek in The Fatal Conceit as observing that “man’s instincts” were not made for modern civilization, because they were adapted to “life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race” evolved (6).  But while the authors agree with Hayek that human beings have the atavistic socialist instincts that are adaptive only for small foraging bands, they seem to disagree with Hayek’s claim that the propensities for market exchange that make modern civilization possible are purely cultural and not at all instinctive, because there was no trade in the environments of evolutionary adaptation (see The Fatal Conceit, 34, 67, 70, 80-81, 118-19, 130, 134; The Constitution of Liberty, 40).  And yet while Hayek generally assumes that trade did not exist at all until the last few thousand years of human history, he sometimes admits that there is some evidence of trade going back hundreds of thousands of years (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133).  This is the point developed by the authors—that the evidence for trade going back hundreds of thousands of years suggests that market exchange is genetically instinctive and not purely cultural, as Hayek generally claims.  And yet their claim is that socialist benevolence emerged millions of years earlier in the mammalian protohuman ancestors of human beings, and therefore we can infer that socialist instincts are more hard-wired than market instincts (5-6, 26, 28-29).  This pushes the authors closer to my position—that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” is an instinctive inclination of human nature that can be fostered by the human culture of bourgeois virtues.

Comparing the authors with Hayek raises another question.  Do they agree with Hayek that human beings in the modern world must live in “two worlds”?  While Hayek seems to think these two worlds are compatible with one another, the authors imply that these two worlds are contradictory.

Hayek is clear that markets and other processes of spontaneous ordering are only effective for certain kinds of social activities.  He distinguishes “spontaneous orders” as “grown orders” form “organizations” as “made orders,” and he makes it clear that any large society requires both kinds of ordering.  “In any group of men of more than the smallest size,” Hayek explains, collaboration will always rest both on spontaneous order as well as deliberate organization, “because the family, the farm, the plant, the firm, the corporation, and the various associations, and all the public institutions including government, are organizations which in turn are integrated into a more comprehensive spontaneous order” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1, 1973, p. 46).

Spontaneous ordering works best for social coordination where the tasks are very complex and where they involve large numbers of people who interact anonymously.  But deliberate organization works best for those tasks of social coordination that are simple enough and involve such a small number of people interacting face-to-face and sharing a common purpose that they can be planned out by deliberate design.  The family is one of those social institutions that work best as a deliberate organization rather than as a spontaneous order.

It is important, then, Hayek explains, that we neither apply the rules of the market to family life nor apply the rules of family life to the market.  “If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.  So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once” (Fatal Conceit, 18).

The authors here say nothing about the need for the deliberate design of families, firms, corporations, and public institutions.  Do they disagree with Hayek about this?  Do they think that all social coordination would be done best through markets?  Or do they agree with Hayek that “organizations” require socialism or “explicit cooperation”?

This leads to a question about how the authors understand socialism.  They quote from an article by Milton Friedman arguing that from the fact that “socialism is a failure,” and the fact that “capitalism is a success,” it is fallacious to infer that “the U.S. needs more socialism” (3, n. 2).  But they are silent about what Friedman says in the rest of that article.  He says that while pure socialism—complete government ownership and control of the means of production—has failed, partial socialism is necessary, because the judicial, legislative, and military systems of government are socialist activities that we need.  Would the authors argue that Friedman is wrong about this, because pure anarchism without any government would be both possible and desirable?

Moreover, in distinguishing the failure of socialism and the success of capitalism, the authors are silent about the possibility of successfully mixing socialism and capitalism.  After all, as measured by the “freedom indexes” of the Fraser Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, some of the freest countries in the world are the Nordic social democracies (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway).

But then the authors insist that “we live in an unfree world” (3).  According to the authors, there have been almost no free societies in the world over the past two centuries, and they insist on this as evidence that the socialist instinct is overwhelmingly stronger than the capitalist instinct.  If that is so, does that mean the Great Enrichment of the past two centuries—the unprecedented explosive growth in wealth and population that has spread around the world—has been produced by socialism rather than capitalism?  If so, isn’t that implausible?  If capitalism is responsible for that great improvement in the human condition, doesn’t that show the power of the human instincts for capitalism?

How would the authors explain the powerful capitalist instincts expressed by those people who work in the illegal underground economy, who are not legally registered or regulated by government, who are paid in cash, and who pay no taxes on their incomes?  In 2009, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that over half of the workers in the world work in the illegal economy, and that by 2020, two-thirds of the workers will be in the underground economy.  There are some estimates that in places like Lagos, Nigeria, over 80% of the workers are in the underground economy.  Friedrich Schneider estimates that the yearly value of the underground economy around the world is over $10 trillion.  If this were an independent nation, this would be second only to the GDP of the U.S.

According to the authors of this paper, the entrepreneurial energy of these people in the underground economy elicits our disgust because it violates our instincts for benevolence.  “Far more deeply embedded in the human psyche is our tendency toward explicit cooperation, or benevolence, or altruism, and therefore this constitutes a far stronger impulse in our decision-making.  Biologically speaking, explicit benevolence triumphs the implicit trade variety” (26).  But in a footnote to this passage, they say that “trade, too, is benevolent; it, too, is mutually supportive in that there are necessary gains from it at least in the ex ante sense” (26, n. 17).  Are they agreeing with Hayek’s claim that the “morals of the market” are altruistic in their effects as promoting the common welfare, even though their intentionality is not altruistic (Fatal Conceit, 81, 117-19)?

Hayek would say that those underground entrepreneurs are also intentionally benevolent in that much of their motivation for bettering their condition is so that they can help their families and friends to live a better life.  So, here again, we see human beings living in two worlds—the small world of family and intimate associations and the large world of trade and impersonal interaction—both of which are rooted in our evolved human instincts.

But how exactly do we empirically study those evolved human instincts and make falsifiable predictions about them?  The authors rely on prehistoric archaeological and paleontological evidence of human genetic evolution.  But such evidence is highly speculative, particularly since we cannot specify the genetic mechanisms for complex social behavior. 

If there are such genetic mechanisms, they should be manifested in the neural activity of the brain in a manner that might be directly observed.  So, for example, we might use brain scanning machines to study the brain activity of people who are asked to deliberate about hypothetical economic policies that test whether their thinking is more socialist or capitalist.  We could do this through economic game experiments.  This could provide us some empirical testing for our theories of the evolutionary neuroscience of socialism and capitalism.  Of course, there are some problems here that come from the fallacy of interpreting brain-scanning as mind-reading.
 
Some of my other posts on Hayek's Freudian theory of human evolution can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.