Yours truly has accepted an invitation to present a paper at the World Congress of the International Political Science Association. It meets this summer in Madrid. For that reason, you can expect more posts on Biopolitics.
I have been thinking about the biological foundations of virtue. Virtue is a concept that was essential to classical moral and political philosophy. It was neglected for centuries in modern philosophy, but has recently made something of a comeback in ethics. Virtue is any capacity of soul that enables and makes likely some beautiful action. Thus, someone who possesses the virtue of courage is more likely to take a personal risk on behalf of his fellow citizens, or even on behalf of innocent strangers. There is a lot of analysis such actions in sociobiology. Human partnerships have been very powerful over the history of our species. Virtues conspicuously displayed advertise one's value as a partner in a cooperative relationship.
But right now I want to dig a little deeper. What is a beautiful action? There is little doubt that our appreciation for beauty has its roots in biology. The very fact that we can see colors, let alone take pleasure in a colorful scene is connected to the fact that we can digest fruit. The obvious worry that such an insight is that it is reductionist: it reduces our appreciation of a great painting, for example, to digestion.
I knew that understanding beauty in these terms is not in fact reductionist long before I became interest in Darwinian explanations. I knew it because I know Socrates. In Xenophon's Memorabilia, Socrates argues that the beautiful is dependent on the useful and good. Socrates admires a set of armor for how well it fit the body of its intended owner. He inferred this not from the owner, whom he didn't know, but from the design of the armor itself. In this way, Socrates recognizes beauty as emerging from usefulness and at the same time understands that the beautiful cannot be reduced to mere usefulness. The armor was the least bit useful to Socrates but that does not stop him from appreciating it.
Along those lines I was tipped off to a more modern version of the problem by listening to an All In The Mind podcast featuring V.S Ramachandran, a neuroscientist. Ramachandran mentioned a famous experiment by the great ethologist, Niko Tinbergen. You can read an excellent account of the experiment here.
Herring gull chicks will peck at a certain spot, colored red, on its mother's beak. This is a cue to the mother to regurgitate food. In an ingenious series of manipulations, Tinbergen isolated the features that cue the chick's behavior. The chick will peck at a detached beak or a piece of wood. It will peck at almost any color dot so long as there is a high visual contrast. But Tinbergen achieved more than that. He succeeded in something that herring gulls have never managed: herring gull abstract art.
He created several models and began experimenting through trial and error. First, he dulled the end of the beak so that it was rectangular rather than pointed at the edge. The chicks seemed indifferent to this change. Then he elongated the rectangle, and the chicks started to react more aggressively. When he made the beak thinner, so that it was just a long super-thin line, the chicks went absolutely nuts, reacting almost twice as excitedly as they would have for a normal beak.
Tinbergen had discovered the essential properties, or the recipe, for a beak that tells a chick what to peck at: high visual contrast, rectangular elongation and thinness, and the color red. So he took a long stick, painted it red, he showed it to the chicks. They excitedly pecked at it. Then he added three white lines to the bottom, to enhance the contrast, and he reduced the thickness by half. When he showed this object to the chicks, they went absolutely insane, pecking in every direction as quickly as they could.
Niko Tinbergen had reverse engineered the seagull chick to create an uberbeak. But it looked nothing like a beak at all.
Herring gull chicks turn out to be aesthetes. They prefer an abstract, exaggerated version of their mother's beak to the real thing. One way to put this is that the preference for the exaggerations is a byproduct of the inclinations that are selected for. That is indeed reductionist and there is nothing wrong with that. However, it is equally valid to say that there was a hitherto undiscovered an unexploited aesthetic dimension to the herring gull soul. The preferences that were selected for allow the chicks to be enticed in ways that are detached from any usefulness. Herring gull artists should take note.
Human souls are incredibly complex by contrast. Our ability to appreciate beauty is grounded in (or emerges from) inclinations that were selected for according to their usefulness. They also allow us to appreciate beauty apart from any reduction to usefulness. The arts explore this dimension of the human soul (and simultaneously, of nature) not only by Tinbergenian manipulations of our simple, evolved dispositions, but also by combining the aesthetic spaces opened up by any number of inclinations. The result is the vast (but not infinite) variety of the human arts. This is the opposite of a reductionist account; it is radically expansionist.
This has tipped me off to a possible explanation for a small but perhaps key difference between Plato and Aristotle. Both recognize a tripartite division among good things. There are things you do solely because they are useful (getting paid for a job you hate); those that you do both because they are useful and because they are gratifying (getting paid for a job you love to do); and those that you do only because they are gratifying (doing a job without pay for the sheer love of it). However, Plato thought that the best goods are those that are both useful and gratifying. Aristotle thought that the best or highest goods are those that are simply gratifying. Neither Plato nor Aristotle was in any sense a reductionist. Plato, however, was more worried about reductionism than Aristotle was. He was concerned to show that higher things like beauty and justice were both useful and good in themselves. Aristotle thought that reductionism was more or less vanquished. He was more concerned with the operation of the virtues.
At any rate, I think that a coherent account of the virtues must begin with the biology of beauty, though it cannot end there.