Darwinian political science? No thanks.

In a graduate seminar on the scope and method of political science, political scientist Heinz Eulau would ask his students: ‘what would happen to our great commonwealth if all of political science were dumped into the ocean, never to be seen again?’ He claimed that only the brightest had an answer: ‘it probably would have to be rediscovered or reinvented.’[1]

Eulau’s question raises a further one: If the political sciences were rediscovered or reinvented today, would they be Darwinian? Some people seem to think so. This group of scholars generally refer to themselves as biopolitical scientists. But there is a central ambiguity on what exactly it means for a non-biological science to be ‘Darwinian.’ Indeed, much of the literature is mired in confusion, partially because there is little systematic attempt to conceptualize the links between the biological content, on the one hand, and the political (or otherwise social) science models they are feeding into on the other.

Usually, the insistence on the integration between the biological sciences and the political ones is an attempt to provide better foundations for the political sciences. For example, consider realism in international relations (IR).  Realism in IR stresses the importance self-interest and conflict as explanatory variables in the analysis of international politics. The underlying foundations for realism in international relations rests on claims about human nature, namely, that humans are egoistic and strive to dominate.

There has been a long-standing debate amongst IR scholars since at least after World War II regarding the intellectual foundations of realist scholarship. In a nutshell, critics of realism claim that the microfoundations of realism rest too heavily on theological or metaphysical assumptions to motivate the views regarding egoism or domination exhibited by humans that forms the core of realist theories. Critics point to these shaky foundations in classical realist thinkers, such as Reinhold Niebuhr who held that humans are inherently evil, or Hobbes and Morgenthau who claim that humans have an innate desire to dominate others and are self-interested. The latter appeals to an innate desire to dominate and self-interest are taken to be dubiously metaphysical since Hobbes and Morgenthau do not provide any scientifically respectable reasons for why we should accept their view.

Critics of realism make straightforward appeals to the foundations of realism being inherently unscientific, since religious appeals to evil or unjustified metaphysical claims are not scientifically respectable. The thought here is that if the foundations of realist theories are susceptible to such critique, then the realist theories themselves are susceptible to such critique. Indeed, criticisms of realism are framed explicitly terms used by philosophers of science to demarcate between science and pseudo-science, such as the Lakatosian ‘degenerative research programmes.’[2] As such, the charge goes, realists need to either produce a much-needed scientific foundation for their theories, or abandon them altogether.

These criticisms have been well taken. Recent responses to this challenge from critics of realism have looked toward evolutionary theory to supply the ostensibly much-needed scientific foundation for realism. Starting with Bradley Thayer,[3] a growing body of work in IR has focused on the application of evolutionary theory both to unify the intellectual core that forms realist scholarship, as well as to provide an overarching framework to phenomena of interest to IR scholars such as terrorism, war, suicide bombings, and so on. These realist responses to critics of realism again make direct appeals to scientific respectability; indeed, Thayer mentions at the outset of his seminal paper, Bringing in Darwin: Evolutionary Theory, Realism, and International Politics, that ‘[e]volutionary theory provides a stronger foundation for realism because it is based on science, not on theology or metaphysics.’[4]

It’s important to note, however, that whenever realist scholars claim that they are importing ‘evolutionary theory’ into the social sciences dealing with international politics, what they usually mean is that they are importing controversial sociobiological hypotheses. Calling this ‘evolutionary theory’ and not ‘sociobiological theory’ is itself somewhat misleading, as it gives an appearance that sociobiology enjoys universal or near-universal acceptance amongst scholars in the biological sciences. It does not.

The main problem with placing sociobiology as the intellectual foundation of realism in IR is a well-known one: sociobiology is regarded as excessively adaptationist, and is thus susceptible to the problems of overly functionalist thinking. Excessively adaptationist here means that sociobiologists tend to overemphasize the role of evolutionary adaptations in evolutionary explanations. Overly functionalist here means that sociobiologists tend to emphasize the function (typically contribution to fitness) of whatever unit is being analysed from an evolutionary perspective. Typically, sociobiologists observe a pattern of behaviour and are quick to show how that behaviour is adaptive in some evolutionarily meaningful way, and moreover, that this adaptation is an optimal solution to some evolutionary problem (i.e., that it is fitness-maximizing).

Consider two standard sociobiological examples of approaches to IR. Francis Fukuyama claims that socialism and radical feminism will fail as systems of governance since our understanding of evolutionary theory tells us that men (and masculine women, such as Thatcher) strive to be dominant. As such, power politics requires masculine policies, which rules out socialist and radically feminist policies. Thayer claims that inclusive fitness and group selection provide ‘sufficient explanations for war,’ by which he means that evolutionary theory tells us that assisting others can be thought as the broad pursuit of individual self-interest. From this he concludes that ‘evolutionary theory suggests that groups may go to war to increase inclusive fitness’ since ‘a group becomes more fit if it can successfully attack to take the resources of others’ and ‘it must be able to wage a defensive war when competitors threaten its resources.’[5]

It’s important to note that it is not adaptationist thinking or functional explanations that are per se the problem, it is sociobiology’s sometimes exclusive focus on this kind of thinking that is the real issue. This is a particularly pressing problem for IR realist scholars because of two reasons: (1) the explananda of international relations theory heightens grain-of-analysis problems that have plagued sociobiology from the outset; and (2) sociobiology’s scientific credentials are frequently questioned.

Consider the complex collective behaviour on the international stage that IR scholars take to be their phenomena of interest, that is, the explanandum. Typically, IR theorists are interested in explaining behaviour such as war, terrorism, collective xenophobia, and the like. In other words, what IR theorists are interested in is the behaviour of humans at an aggregate level: ethnic groups, international corporations, non-governmental actors, states, and so on. From an adaptationist approach, sociobiologists try to isolate particular behaviours in order to provide evolutionary explanations for the behaviour in question. Typically, these explanations are functionalist: this behaviour arises in this organism because it contributes to the organism’s fitness, and so the gene (or set of genes) that is responsible for that behaviour is favoured in natural selection. Sociobiologists use population genetics to show ‘hypothetical’ genes that could have coded for the trait in question. At the outset, however, it’s unclear that slicing up the suite of behaviours that form the complex phenomena on the international stage is possible.

What’s important here, from an evolutionary perspective, is to appreciate a distinction between mosaic and connected traits. Mosaic traits evolve more or less independently of an organism’s phenotype, whereas connected traits evolve in a way that is connected to some or rest of the organism’s phenotype. Connected traits are typically developmentally entrenched, meaning that a change in a connected trait is usually accompanied by corresponding changes in other areas of the organisms biological life. An example of a mosaic trait might be human skin colour, which can be explained evolutionarily with respect to particular aspects of the environment (e.g., sun exposure) precisely because skin colour evolves relatively independently of the organism’s phenotype. But complex human behaviour that forms the explanandum for IR theorists, such as war, terrorism, collective xenophobia, and so on, are the aggregation of individual behaviour that results from mental mechanisms that play a role in a number of behaviours. If that’s true, then the IR theorist’s explanandum does not offer itself up to an evolutionary explanans, since these kinds of behaviours are not the appropriate evolutionary unit for an independent evolutionary explanation—they are ‘unlikely to have histories to call their own, or to have independent adaptive significance.’[6]

There is a fineness-of-grain issue in another area for realist IR theorists. If the explanandum of IR theorists is complex group behaviour, then any underlying biological theory intended to provide realist intellectual foundations must provide guidance as to what unit of selection ought to be emphasized in evolutionary explanations. In many cases, however, realist IR theorists ignore debates about the unit of selection, debates that are highly controversial and continue to be waged even to this day.

As Bell and MacDonald have noted,[7] this results in contradictory or indeterminate hypotheses for realist IR scholarship. For example, Thayer (2000), in an attempt to explain the biological underpinnings of war, claims that humans are egoistic (following Hobbes and Dawkins),[8] but will sacrifice themselves for groups altruistically during war.[9] Thayer sifts seamlessly between claiming that the appropriate unit of analysis is the gene, the individual, or the group. He does so explicitly, arguing that there needs to be a ‘conceptual shift’ to explain egoism from an evolutionary perspective, given that Dawkins’s level of analysis is at the level of the gene. This raises the question: which level of analysis is the appropriate one, particularly if sociobiology is supposed to provide an intellectual foundation for IR theorists? Is it the gene, the individual, or the group? How will realist IR theorists adjudicate between these levels of analysis, especially since there is a highly controversial and long-standing debate amongst biologists themselves as to what the precise unit of analysis should be with respect to natural selection? This is particularly pressing since the standard IR analysis occurs at the group-level.

One final point to mention here is that there is something particular to the phenomena that interests IR theorists that make it especially difficult to supply realist IR theories with sociobiological foundations. IR phenomena are complex, more complex than just individual or group behaviour because of the multifaceted interactions between group behaviour, international political systems, and differing cultural circumstances. Given that sociobiology itself provides no way to delineate between evolutionary or environmental causes, it’s unclear what use sociobiology is to IR. Indeed, Thayer claims that although warfare and xenophobia may be explainable by appeal to inclusive fitness, the phenomena are also influenced by ‘environmental factors such as culture and religion.’ But what is the mechanism to parse out biological and environmental factors? Sociobiologists and sociobiologically-minded realist IR thinkers provide no response to this question, even though a lot turns on its answer.

It’s also worth noting that many biologists and philosophers of science claim that sociobiologists provide explanations do not meet the threshold criteria for scientific respectability—a threshold that realist IR theorists (such as Thayer) take to be important. Recall that debates about the scientific status of realism in international relations are framed in, and make reference to, exactly the same sorts of criteria.[10] This means even if realist IR theorists could discretely identify mosaic traits that result in behaviours that are fitness maximizing, the question of whether it is an evolutionary mechanism that brought about that behaviour still remains open. This is because functionalist thinking tends to downplay other equally or more plausible explanations for behaviour by exclusively emphasizing the contribution to fitness of whatever unit is being analysed from an evolutionary perspective.

It’s also true that, generally speaking, philosophers of science have moved far beyond verification and falsification as demarcation criteria. Whether sociobiological hypotheses can be verified or falsified might be irrelevant to judging the scientific status of such hypotheses. My point here is only that if the goal is to supply a solidly scientific foundation to realist IR scholarship, choosing such a controversial interpretation of evolutionary biology seems to be a mistake, particularly if (at least some) of the controversy focuses around sociobiology’s scientific status. 

So this is a problem for realist IR theorists by their own lights, given that they claim that one reason to adopt sociobiology is its scientific credentials. It is precisely these scientific credentials that many biologists question regularly. The thought here is that sociobiologists tend to trade in ‘just-so stories’ and commit a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy in their analyses. Commentators question the scientific credentials of such analyses because they do not pass demarcation criteria that some philosophers of science have taken to be important in evaluating the scientific status of theories, such as verificationism or falsifiability. Another line of reasoning is that there is no way to adjudicate between different explanations given to us by sociobiologists, resulting in hard underdetermination problems between competing hypotheses. Sociobiologists tend to rule out competing hypotheses with a commitment to functionalist explanations, or simply by ignoring other non-adaptive or non-biological factors. In sum, it’s hard to see how realist IR theorists can contend that sociobiology is the appropriate scientific foundation for realism to the extent that sociobiologists either provide hypotheses and explanations that cannot be verified or cannot be falsified, or result in hard underdetermination problems and to the extent that IR theorists take these to be plausible demarcation criteria.

Thayer responds to the claim that sociobiology is a heavily controversial science by claiming that a controversial science is distinct from a flawed science.[11] He goes on to claim,

“The important issue is whether any controversy is anchored in scientific fact that discredits the theory or the science. Evolutionary theory is strongly supported by scientific fact, and there is consensus among evolutionary theorists that evolution through natural selection applies to humans—this was one of Darwin’s most revolutionary insights—and that natural selection operates as an ultimate cause of human behaviour” (Thayer, 2000, p. 194).

Thayer is overlooking the fact that it is precisely the scientific credentials of sociobiology that, e.g., Gould and Lewontin started criticizing in the 1970s. Specifically, they claim that sociobiological hypotheses are not scientific because they are not falsifiable. Whatever one thinks about the merits of this claim, or about whether falsifiability is a plausible demarcation criteria, it’s hard to deny that the target of Gould and Lewontin is precisely the scientific status of sociobiological hypotheses (and so is an attempt to discredit the ‘theory’ and the ‘science’ of sociobiology). In a nutshell, what fuels the controversy surrounding sociobiology is exactly that it is viewed as a flawed science by many in the biological and nearby sciences.

Finally, much of the criticism of sociobiology is undertaken from an evolutionary perspective, indeed, an evolutionary perspective motivates it. This line of critique—from people like Gould, Lewontin, and Kitcher—is quite literally motivated by the view that sociobiology departs from, or does not show fidelity to, the evolutionary theory that putatively underlies it.  So the fact that evolutionary theory—not sociobiology—is strongly supported by scientific facts, and that there is consensus among evolutionary theory that evolution through natural selection applies to humans, and that natural selection operates as an ultimate cause of human behaviour tells us exactly nothing of relevance about the status of the type of sociobiology that realist IR theories are interested in.                      

Anyone familiar with sociobiology is familiar with these criticisms in general. And there are a handful of IR and political science scholars (e.g. Duncan Bell) who have been vocal about the relationship between sociobiology and IR specifically. But the seduction persists—and has persisted over time; that is, the seduction of pulling controversial biological content into social scientific models to make them ostensibly more scientific. That's probably the phenomenon that requires explanation now. 


[1] Eulau (1997). 

[2] Vasquez (1997).

[3] Thayer (2000, 2004).

[4] Thayer (2000, 125).

[5] Thayer (2000, p. 141 - 142).

[6] Sterelny and Griffiths (2012).

[7] Bell and MacDonald (2001).

[8] Thayer (2000, p. 133)

[9] Ibid., (p. 135).

[10] Thayer (2000); Vasquez (1997).

[11] Thayer (2001).