Among a certain class of Americans, those of us who go to “good” colleges and take, sometime during our freshman and sophomore years, some sort of introduction to sociology course, there is the universal experience of that one student. He is inevitably, invariably male; he is either in or has recently completed a course in biology, although he is almost certainly not a biology major; he finds, in almost every class, an opportunity to loudly and circularly suppose that some or other human social phenomenon is a direct analogue of some behavior in ant colonies or beehives or schools of fish or herds of gazelles. Mine was a boy who, after a section on suicide clustering, suggested that it could be explained quite easily, really; certain ants, after all, when ill or infirm, remove themselves from the nest, lest they burden their kin. So all those kids in Jersey, they, like, you know, they like knew that they were going to, like, be, like, a burden, you know, to society, because they weren’t, you know, going to, like, be successful or whatever, so, you know, you know what I’m saying.
He’s not without his charms. If consciousness is a continuum, from bacterium to baccalaureate, rather than just some crowning and discrete achievement of a select and tiny sliver of the mammalian class, then surely animals have plenty to teach us about ourselves, and surely animal societies have plenty to teach us about our own. And likewise, while I like to believe that our lives and beings are something more than the dull, material expression of DNA, that biology is not, in fact, destiny, I know that this belief amounts to a kind of self-praise and willful self-regard. “Oh, honey, you are special.” I believe in free will and self-determination, but let’s just say I accept that they must be subject to some reasonable natural limits.
But now over at Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s intrepid effort to out-USA Today USA Today, Zach Beauchamp has discovered two political scientists who have discovered “circumstantial” evidence that human wars are the genetic remnant of animal territoriality. DNA is mentioned, but there are no double helices in sight; what’s meant is something more akin to the “animal spirits” that Tristram Shandy was so concerned with, or perhaps a kind of pre-genetic, crypto-Mendelian, semi-hemi-demi-Darwinian understanding of trait inheritance. In this case, the authors of a study, and the author of the article, notice that animals are territorial, that humans are territorial, that both come into intraspecies conflict over territory, and therefore, ergo, voilà. It has the remarkable distinction of being both self-evidently correct and skull-crushingly wrong. The deep roots of human territoriality are animal, but explaining organized human warfare in this manner has the motel smell of a husband telling his wife that he’s been fucking other women due to evolutionary mating imperatives. “Babe, calm down! Have you ever heard of bonobos, huh?”
Beauchamp treats territoriality among animals as an imponderable feature of “animal psychology”—he doesn’t mention, and you’ve got to assume he just doesn’t know, that the behaviors are largely about resource distribution, and, well, ya wonder if that’s got anything to do with warfare? Eh . . . He says that we “evolved from” animals, which is another one of those strictly true but effectively incorrect statements, a recapitulation of the old teleology that makes evolution a unidirectional progression from low to high, with humans not only its ultimate achievement but also its point. (He also—this is an aside—confuses accountancy and finance, claiming that a $100 real loss is identical to $100 in opportunity cost, all this by way of clumsily explaining loss aversion.) He uses the phrase “just a theory.” He gets to the end of the penultimate paragraph, then:
Toft and Johnson just don’t have any studies of human biology or evolution that directly show a biological impulse towards territoriality.
Phlogiston! God Bless You!
I’m not a religious man, but I empathize with the religious when they call this hooey scientism, the replacement of one set of hoary mythological clichés with their contemporary TED-talk equivalent—I mean, talk about inherited traits. If this kind of thing is science, then it is less Louis Pasteur than it is Aristotle, the general observation of a couple of different things with some shared trait or simultaneity, and then a vast leap of logic alone across the evidenceless abyss. The purpose of such speculation is not to clarify, illuminate, or discover, and Lord only knows, we wouldn’t want to waste our time devising some kind of double-blind. This, after all, is political science. Its purpose, rather, is moral flattery, an up-from-the-slime story in which our more regrettable and barbarous traits as people are written off as the bad debt of our evolutionary ancestors. And speaking of moral flattery, you might notice that “gang wars” are mentioned, and “ethnic” conflict, and Crimea in this great gallery of weeping over our remnant animalism, but nowhere is it explained how land tenure explains what America was doing, for example, in Iraq.