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The Biology of Politics

Observations on the use of Biological and Scientific Facts in Political Reasoning, per the works of T.H. Huxley and Peter Kropotkin

What is the relationship between biology and politics? This question emerged even before biology and politics were well-defined fields, as political leaders and natural philosophers ruminated on the nature of knowledge, and the connection between human society and the universe. The question came into sharper relief during the nineteenth-century, and in particular after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin's theory provoked reactions and developments in a number of fields far removed from biology, and in connection to politics, the most conspicuous development was social Darwinism.

The phrase "social Darwinism" was first used by Joseph Fisher in 1877, and referred to the application of biological theories in the political sphere, and specifically the idea that political struggles could be illuminated through the concept of the struggle for existence. Per social Darwinism, the biological struggle for existence manifests itself socially, and those who are politically powerful are those who are most powerful in biological and social terms. Most generally, early social Darwinism encompassed biological justifications for laissez-faire economics and imperialism. In this way, social Darwinists claimed, the relationship between biology and politics was direct and easily observable. However, rather than solving the question of how biology and politics were related, social Darwinism merely sparked new questions.

There were many responses that speculated on the biology of politics, and two of the most prominent responses came from T.H. Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Both were biologists, and both accepted biological evolution and the struggle for existence as facts of life. Furthermore, both were politically active, and both were highly respected as political commentators. Huxley served as scientific consultant on a number of Royal Commissions, and directly influenced government policy in England. Kropotkin spearheaded the philosophy of anarcho-communism, and influenced many tens-of-thousands of supporters, across tens of countries.

However, though both were eminent biologists and political actors, and though they agreed on the facts of evolution and the struggle for existence, they strongly disagreed on the implications of biology for politics. Based on his biological studies and social experiences, Huxley rejected social Darwinist ideas per se, but concluded social inequality is a fact of life because of biological conditions; "The doctrine that all men are, in any sense, or have been, at any time, free and equal, is an utterly baseless fiction." Contrary to this, Kropotkin rejected both social Darwinism and the inescapability of social inequality, and concluded biological conditions produced in humans a "sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own."

Both Kropotkin and Huxley had extensive biological knowledge and political experience, both renounced social Darwinist ideas, and both expounded on the implications of evolution for the possibilities of human politics. Here the question arises: how was it that these two men, who agreed in much of their biology, could arrive at diametrically opposing political conclusions, having both started from the fact of evolution and the renunciation of social Darwinism?

Here we shall endeavour to unpack the relationship between Huxley's and Kropotkin's biological and political beliefs. We shall not evaluate the truth of their political claims, but rather, we will study the method of their argumentation, what use they made of biological facts, and the process of reasoning by which they argued from biological premises to arrive at political conclusions. We will begin first with an examination of Huxley's appeals to biology in his political statements. We will then consider Kropotkin's statements, and his responses to Huxley's claims. Following this, we will investigate the form and content of Kropotkin's and Huxley's arguments, and attempt to uncover how they arrived at opposing politics, though they started from similar foundations. In closing, we will observe the relevance of our results to modern relations between biology and politics.

Observing Huxley's career as a whole, we find his political ideas developed alongside his biological beliefs, over many decades. Although Huxley's primary focus remained biology and science, he consistently showed concern for political issues, and accepted consulting positions on a number of Royal Commissions formed to discuss government policy. These Commissions covered issues ranging from fishing regulations to education and the advancement of science, and here Huxley drew on many different aspects of his expertise, including biology and politics.

Over time, Huxley found it increasingly necessary to exposit his views on the relationship between biology and politics, because the political climate of a country impacted its scientific advancement, and vice-versa. In this connection he stated: the "political problem of problems is how to deal with over-population, and it faces us on all sides." For Huxley, this problem was intimately tied to England's "internecine struggle for existence" in the economic sphere. In caching out his economic ideas, Huxley appealed to the theories of Malthus and Darwin, and he cast the survival ability of a society in terms of the biological struggle for resources. Resources were key, because Huxley believed England and other nations were facing over-population, and "One of the most essential conditions, if not the chief cause, of the struggle for existence, is the tendency to multiply without limit, which man shares with all living things."

In Huxley's eyes, the biologically motivated tendency to multiply without limit is a historical fact, and contributed to the downfall of many great civilizations:

Historians point to the greed and ambition of rulers, to the reckless turbulence of the ruled, to the debasing effects of wealth and luxury, and to the devastating wars which have formed a great part of the occupation of mankind, as the causes of the decay of states and the foundering of old civilizations, and thereby point their story with a moral. No doubt immoral motives of all sorts have figured largely among the minor causes of these events. But beneath all this superficial turmoil lay the deep-seated impulse given by unlimited multiplication. In the swarms of colonies thrown out by Phoenicia and by old Greece; in the ver sacrum of the Latin races; in the floods of Gauls and of Teutons which burst over the frontiers of tile old civilization of Europe; in the swaying to and fro of the vast Mongolian hordes in late times, the population problem comes to the front in a very visible shape.

For this reason, if England hoped to achieve stability at both the national and international levels, it had to overcome its own population problem. This meant the biologically induced struggle for existence had to be taken into account when forming both internal (national) policy and foreign policy.

Furthermore, it was important that policy makers understand that the struggle for existence arose from the biologically based "inequality of man." By humankind's inherently "natural inequality," humans were divided into two main categories: "the ethical man -- the member of society or citizen," and "the non-ethical man -- the primitive savage, or man as a mere member of the animal kingdom." Crucial here was that the "primitive savage" occurred not only in wild environs. On the contrary, because of the natural inequality of man, and the inability of society to prompt all citizens to move beyond a life "in which the pleasures within reach are reduced to bestiality and drunkenness," it is inevitable that some citizens retain or bend towards the mentality of the primitive savage. In every nation, no matter how great, "a certain proportion ... constantly tend to establish and populate ... a Slough of Despond."

For Huxley, such a Slough is inescapable, because it is a necessary by-product of evolution. The biological struggle for existence expresses itself socially, politically, and economically, and in economic terms the "inequality of individual ownership has grown out of the relative equality of communal ownership in virtue of those natural inequalities of men, which, if unimpeded by circumstances, cannot fail to give rise quietly and peaceably to corresponding political inequalities." Thus political and economic inequalities were the consequence of biological inequalities, and insofar as inequality arose "only from such [biological] causes, its existence may and must be patiently borne," because one could not escape the conditions of nature.

However, though Huxley believed inequality was a permanent feature of politics because it was a fact of biology, he believed it was also important that societies ensure inequality never reach such a level that the "animal man ... resumes his ancient sovereignty" over the mentality of the poor. If the resurgence of animal man was permitted, and occurred on too large a scale, then natural man (that is, "primitive" man) qua poor "animal" citizens would forget the rules of sociability, and plunge all of society into "the brute struggle for existence once again." This risk remained "so long as the natural man increases and multiplies without restraint" -- hence: the biologically born "political problem of problems is how to deal with over-population."

Huxley's answer to this problem of problems lay in the study of biology and prehistory. Per Huxley, the relics of prehistory provide clear evidence that "for thousands and thousands of years, before the origin of the oldest known civilizations, men were savages of a very low type." These savages struggled against each other, and other animals; "they preyed upon things weaker or less cunning than themselves; they were born, multiplied without stint, and died, for thousands of generations alongside the mammoth, the urus, the lion, and the hyaena." "Life was a continual free fight" and "the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence. The human species, like others ... floundered amid the general stream of evolution," which was awash in blood. Under these conditions "those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances" survived. Such was the biologically regulated history of natural man. However, the "history of civilization -- that is, of society -- on the other hand, is the record of the attempts which the human race has made to escape from this position." But it was not simply that the "civilized man has reached this point," such an "assertion is perhaps too broad and general." To be specific, the "ethical man has attained thereto."

Huxley then combined this assertion (that ethical men enabled all humanity to rise above the war of each against all) with the claim that humanity was divided into two main categories ("ethical man" and "natural man") and his belief that natural man could not restrain his impulse to multiply, and arrived at a political solution to manage the biological problem of over-population: placing those who are "ethically the best" in control of society. Only the ethical man could devote "his best energies to the object of setting limits to the struggle" for existence. The key issue here was that the Slough of Despond is unavoidable, and limits on the struggle for existence can only be maintained so long as the Slough does not grow too large.

Luckily, "the power of natural history was illustrated by examples of recent applications of that science in opening up sources of industrial wealth." Which is to say, England's industrial wealth has been improved by the application of scientific knowledge. Accepting this, science should be taught to everyone, and industry should be managed by those most proficient in science -- the exemplary ethical men. With those who are ethically best at the helm, national industries can apply the most advanced production techniques, and sell the best possible products at the lowest possible costs. This form of political economy was later dubbed "technocracy," and Huxley believed a hierarchically organized technocracy would enable England to sell its goods at lower prices than other nations and dominate in the realm of international exchange, and thus succeed in the international struggle for existence.

But because the "political problem of problems is ... over-population," England's ethical man leadership must keep an eye on the Slough of Despond, and maintain the proper balance between wages, product prices, profits, and population size. The need for profit meant the "rate of wages must be restricted within certain limits." That limit could not be too low, because workers must be "sufficiently remunerated" to remain "physically and morally healthy and socially stable." With this balance achieved, England could produce cheap products, while ensuring not too many of its workers gave into their animal man (because the animal man would "multiply without limit," enlarge the Slough of Despond, and plunge England into internal wars of struggling for existence), and the problem of over-population would be solved.

Thus we observe the role of biology in Huxley's politics. For Huxley, the biological imperative to multiply and the struggle for existence are facts of life, and both are evident in human prehistory and contemporary societies. Furthermore, biological processes produce natural inequalities in humans, and while most remain brutish, those who are well endowed can advance beyond their own brutishness, and also improve conditions for those who cannot. Those who are well endowed are the biologically select ethical men, who must be placed in control of politics and economics, in order that they can create a technocratic society. Such a society will succeed in the international struggle for existence by helping less well-endowed "natural" men sustain a mode of life that staves off their basal impulses, which natural man cannot do on his own.

With this overview of Huxley's biologically infused political claims in hand, let us now turn to an examination of Kropotkin's biologically imbued political claims, per his Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Like Huxley, Kropotkin began with the struggle for existence, and he agreed with Huxley that individuals that developed the most profitable adaptations would be most likely to survive in the struggle for existence. However for Kropotkin, the most advantageous adaptations were not simply those that enhanced combative ability;

As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society.

Kropotkin conceded "it would be extremely difficult to estimate, however roughly, the relative numerical importance of both these series of facts," but he stuck to his main line, "that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest." This is because animals that engage in mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence "have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization."

Contrary to Huxley's claim that the "war of each against all" was the norm in pre-civilized societies, Kropotkin claims when he studied nature he was unable to find "that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered ... the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution." This biological observation is politically important, because Huxley claims the main factor of evolution is "the struggle for existence to the bitter end," and human "society differs from nature in having a definite moral object": overcoming the biological war of each against all.

In direct opposition to this, Kropotkin claims society is not somehow different from nature, because it is a part of nature. "Sociability is ... a law of nature," and the biological drive for "mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle." Moreover,

as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance, inasmuch as it favours the development of such habits and characters as insure the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual.

It is true the struggle for existence is biologically impelled, but this struggle is not a war of each against all. Instead, "the vast majority of species live in societies," and "they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense -- not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species." Although biology does drive animals to struggle against each other, it also drives them to combine with each other and struggle against the hardships of nature. Therefore, for Kropotkin, society and sociability are not uniquely human phenomena "in which man plays the part of immediate cause," as Huxley claims. Instead, they are general features of animal life.

In one respect, Kropotkin's claims regarding society and sociability jell with Huxley's, for both hold that "unsociable species ... are doomed to decay." However, while Huxley claims non-human animals could be sociable, he states it was the only with the arrival of the ethical man that mutual aid began. As discussed, Huxley's evidence for this claim is prehistoric relics, which he believes proves that "before the origin of the oldest known civilizations, men were savages of a very low type," and that "Life was a continual free fight." Kropotkin responds: "Of course, we have no direct evidence as to the modes of life of the first man-like beings. We are not yet settled even as to the time of their first appearance." But irrespective of this, prehistoric relics are unnecessary to the debate, because the observation of known history disproves Huxley's claims. If mutual struggle was the rule, then mutual destruction could have been the only outcome. Only "the practice of mutual aid and its successive developments" could "have created the very conditions of society life in which man was enabled to develop his arts, knowledge, and intelligence."

For Kropotkin, this is proven historically, because "the periods when institutions based on the mutual-aid tendency took their greatest development were also the periods of the greatest progress in arts, industry, and science." Furthermore,

the study of the inner life of the medieval city and of the ancient Greek cities reveals the fact that the combination of mutual aid, as it was practised within the guild and the Greek clan, with a large initiative which was left to the individual and the group by means of the federative principle, gave to mankind the two greatest periods of its history -- the ancient Greek city and the medieval city periods; while the ruin of the above institutions during the State periods of history, which followed, corresponded in both cases to a rapid decay.

So, not only does human history exhibit mutual aid as a primary factor in the advancement of human knowledge, human history also disproves the claim that human civilization was always a boon to human advancement. Civilizations and cultures struggled against each other, and this resulted in the destruction of the achievements of prior societies. This point is crucial in the formulation of Kropotkin's politics, and here it is worth quoting Kropotkin at length;

When the Mutual Aid institutions -- the tribe, the village community, the guilds, the medieval city -- began, in the course of history, to lose their primitive character, to be invaded by parasitic growths, and thus to become hindrances to progress, the revolt of individuals against these institutions took always two different aspects. Part of those who rose up strove to purify the old institutions, or to work out a higher form of commonwealth, based upon the same Mutual Aid principles; they tried, for instance, to introduce the principle of "compensation," instead of the lex talionis, and later on, the pardon of offences, or a still higher ideal of equality before the human conscience, in lieu of "compensation," according to class-value. But at the very same time, another portion of the same individual rebels endeavoured to break down the protective institutions of mutual support, with no other intention but to increase their own wealth and their own powers. In this three-cornered contest, between the two classes of revolted individuals and the supporters of what existed, lies the real tragedy of history.

Thus, for Kropotkin, the observation of wild animals and also human history proves it is not mutual struggle but mutual aid that is the primary biological factor that spurs the beneficial advancement of a species. Furthermore, with respect to human societies, it is critical to observe that the "Mutual Aid institutions" of bygone times were "invaded by parasitic growths" that broke the Mutual Aid institutions down, and turned them into nascent statist institutions. These institutions aggrandized themselves, and eventually society entered "State periods of history" that corresponded to a "rapid decay" in terms of sociability.

For this reason, Kropotkin claims the primary lesson history teaches is that society should eschew statism (state-based political structures), and organize into a decentralized federation of autonomous communities. Each community should be independent, and fully managed by local residents, who offer each other mutual aid. Although individual communities should be independent, they should not be isolated but embrace interdependence, and engage in mutual economic and political exchange and support.

At the level of politics then, Kropotkin's conclusions run exactly counter to Huxley's, and seeing now the remarkable divergence between the politics of these two biologists, the question remains: how did they arrive at opposing conclusions, though both started from the basic biological facts of evolution and the struggle for existence?

As the above outlines of Huxley and Kropotkin's biological-political arguments show, the key to their diverging conclusions lies in their methodology. Where Kropotkin approached both biology and human society empirically and scientifically, Huxley approached biology empirically and scientifically, but believed ethical men created society and it was necessary "to distinguish those parts of nature in which man plays the part of immediate cause, as some thing apart; and, therefore, society ... is usefully to be considered as distinct from nature." For Huxley, there is a discontinuity between nature and society, and it is not possible to study human society using the same mode of investigation we apply to nature. The question then becomes: was Huxley right?

Here it is instructive to consider Huxley's own statements on the nature of reasoning and knowledge, and deduction and argumentation. At the highest level of generality, Huxley proclaims that "For the successful carrying on of the business of life, no less than for the pursuit of science, it is essential that the mind should easily and accurately perform the four great intellectual processes of observation, experiment, induction, and deduction." These four processes constitute the method of scientific investigation, and, per Huxley "The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification," regardless of the subject being studied. He emphasizes this repeatedly; "from the dawn of exact knowledge to the present day, observation, experiment, and speculation have gone hand in hand." Again: all laws that humans can discover can only be "obtained ... by a process of induction from observed facts."

With respect to induction and knowledge, Huxley's definition of the scientific method is in line with modern definitions. Additionally, modern epistemology theory agrees with Huxley that natural laws can only be uncovered by way of observation and induction. Hence, by Huxley' own lights, we must ask: do Huxley's biological-political claims meet his own criteria for arriving at justified beliefs and conclusions?

When considering Huxley's biological-political claims, we find they all fail at the first of his four steps: observation. Huxley's biological claims are backed by a wealth of observations, however his political claims include little or no observations, and this is problematic. If the empirical basis of biological knowledge is the close observation of biological organisms and processes over time, then the empirical basis of political knowledge is the close observation of humans and social interactions and processes over time -- that is, the study of history. This is not to say that some set of historical facts will always give rise to the same political conclusions, but rather, when constructing a political argument, it is crucial that the argument present and analyze relevant historical and social interactions and processes.

It is necessary to note that Huxley's biological-political arguments do include historical claims, but here it is important to distinguish speculation from observation. Huxley claims, for example, that prehistoric relics prove pre-civilized humans were savages, and that civilization is the force that drives social progress and cultural advancement. As Kropotkin notes however, it is impossible to deduce definite conclusions about society and sociability from relics alone, and we cannot prove the assertion Huxley makes about pre-civilized human cultures. Further, contrary to Huxley's assertion, it is an accepted historical fact that less-cultured civilizations have toppled and replaced highly cultured civilizations, imposing great suffering on the citizens of the civilization being toppled, and causing humanity writ large to suffer the loss of artistic and intellectual works. Thus, civilization has not always been the force that drives social progress and cultural advancement, and Huxley's claim is a demonstrably false speculation, rather than a historically grounded observation. Ultimately, Huxley's combination of biological observations with historical speculations leads him to deduce untenable political conclusions. Huxley's biological-political arguments are overly speculative and unscientific, because they are historically non-empirical.

Additionally, Huxley's speculations are incomplete. If, as Huxley claims, pre-civilized life "was a continual free fight," and "those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in any other sense, survived," how could the "ethical" man ever arise? Huxley discusses this question, but does not present a conclusive response. Nowhere does he present a cogent biological or historical explanation for the arrival or superiority of ethical man, as compared to the natural man. This is significant, because Huxley's entire political program rests on the advent of the ethical man, and the natural man's acceptance of his rule.

Further to this, Huxley repeatedly claims an ethically advanced subset of humans created society, and "society differs from nature in having a definite moral object." As Kropotkin notes however, society is not simply a product of human will, but a result of natural and biological conditions; "Society has not been created by man; it is anterior to man." This is critical, because Huxley effectively argues the first human societies were intelligently designed by ethical men, and in this way he commits the fallacy of (what we shall refer to as) political creationism. This aspect of Huxley's argument is particularly deleterious, because Huxley was well aware the scientific method is apposite to all physical knowledge, including history, and he was personally involved in a debate with creationists, precisely because he hoped to overturn unscientific claims.

There are many parallels between Huxley's political creationism and theological creationism, and perhaps the most significant is theodicy, explaining the problem of suffering. Where theology explains human suffering is an esoteric feature of God's plan, Huxley explains that socioeconomic suffering is the consequence of biological inequality (expressed bodily in terms of physical and psychical fitness), and this means the suffering manifest in human societies "must be patiently borne." Huxley is certainly in the right when noting we have no choice other than to bear the structures of nature. He does not however prove the structures of society must be patiently borne. Instead, he asserts his own political theodicy; just as all humans must bear the mysteries of God's plans, so must lesser humans bear the plans of ethical humans.

Further, the issue of Huxley's political creationism is germane to Kropotkin's political program, because Kropotkin argues for an anti-statist organization of society: much as Huxley struggled to overturn the received wisdom of creationism, Kropotkin faced the Herculean task of overturning the received wisdom of statism. Like the arguments in support of creationism, the arguments in support of statism evolved over many centuries, and came to possess a strong hold on the minds of billions of people whose lives are defined by the relationships and institutions of state societies. This yields a powerful unconscious bias towards statism, and gives statist ideologies a powerful predominance over non-statism.

This is not to claim Kropotkin's political claims were correct or unassailable (as noted, we are not evaluating the truth of Kropotkin's and Huxley's political conclusions), or that political norms can easily be derived from empirical observations or biological facts. One may dispute both Kropotkin's and Huxley's conclusions, however what is important is that Kropotkin's method is scientific and historical while Huxley's is neither. Although Huxley includes appeals to biology in his political arguments, his appeals are not empirically connected to his political conclusions. Huxley does not include historical facts, and makes historical claims that have no empirical basis. Unlike Huxley, Kropotkin makes close studies of biology and history that are firmly rooted in observation and empirical study, after which he presents political conclusions. The point here is that method and rigour are important, and just as Darwin showed there is another option to creationism -- natural selection -- Kropotkin showed there is another option to political statism -- anarcho-communism. Additionally, Kropotkin noted that something like anarcho-communism actually existed prior to statism, and it bore great cultural fruits.

The debate between Huxley and Kropotkin remains relevant because modern commentators continue to construct political arguments that reference biological theories, and because the relationship between biology and politics remains fraught with epistemological and logical questions. Still today we find biological-political arguments that mirror the methodologies of Huxley and Kropotkin -- and what is more, we continue to find a plethora of appeals to social Darwinism. By examining Huxley's and Kropotkin's responses to social Darwinism, and by studying the unscientific reasoning of Huxley's argumentation and the scientific reasoning of Kropotkin, modern commentators might avoid some of the problems Huxley could not.

Although we remain unable to fully elaborate the relationship between biology and politics, there are at least two conclusions about their relationship we can be reasonably certain in. First, human history and politics are inextricably bound to human biology and thus evolution. Second, even though political knowledge is more tenuous than biological knowledge, both biology and politics are based on physical realities, and political argumentation is no less subject to the strictures of evidence and right thinking than biological argumentation, and therefore both must appeal to the scientific method in order to obtain justified beliefs.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, philosophy, politics, reason, science ]

Last updated May 24, 2012