February 2006
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Day February 25, 2006

Can you pass 8th grade math?

From P.Z. Myers, just a quiz for fun:


You Passed 8th Grade Math


Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

Historical Inevitability as Bad Social Science (and Disastrous Policy): The Short Version

I have to confess that I’m also having a really hard time writing about Francis Fukuyama and the “End of History,” as I promised I was doing many weeks back. I haven’t been precisely idle on the subject, though. Since this is a subject (the processes surrounding social and cultural change) close to my long-time areas of research, I do have a hard time writing anything short on the subject. Everything I’ve started writing has turned into the beginning of a journal article, not a blog post.

So I’m just going to put a stake in the ground and sketch out some of the reasons why I have trouble with Fukuyama and other “historical inevitabilists” (among whom I also include contemporary authors such as Ronald Wright, certain kinds of traditionalist conservatives, as well as most other former-Marxists-turned-neoconservatives). And we’ll see where the discussion goes from there.

In general, the arguments I have trouble with are:

  1. History represents an inevitable progression towards a single, optimal “end state.”
  2. That our current state of political and economic organization (i.e., neoliberal market capitalism and political liberal democracy) is a stable “end point” of the evolution of political and economic systems.

The second argument is less complex to discuss, so I outline my issues with it first. This argument is fairly standard “Whig history” — in other words, the tendency of relatively successful peoples to interpret their current way of life, political organization, or philosophy as representing a pinnacle of achievement. Naturally, we don’t know that #2 is always empirically wrong, because we cannot predict the future. We can, however, remind ourselves of the prevalence of this type of argument throughout history, and how often in the past those who employ this type of reasoning have been wrong. The boy has cried wolf a few too many times for a reasonable person to take such statements at face value.

We can also guard against the implied utopianism of #2 through balanced criticism of the ways in which market capitalism and democracy still harbor and occasionally even foster injustice and inequality — even if they do represent clear improvements on the currently available alternatives. Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom is essentially correct: markets do provide more fertile ground for the growth of liberty than do planned economies. But we need not read Hayek as making a metaphysical, utopian claim, as suggested in argument #2. We still get all of the instrumental benefits of Hayek’s argument if we read him as making a pragmatic claim about the relative benefits of two modes of economic organization. And the instrumental reading does not require us to believe unverifiable claims about the future.

The first argument is a much tougher nut to crack, given its ubiquity and persistence in the history of Western ideas. The idea that human history is governed by a grand pattern, that history has a “purpose” or represents continuous improvement along some dimension, is a very old one. Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument belongs to a class of theories about “universal” history which proposes that human societies develop through a series of ordered, relatively universal “stages”, and are subject to relatively inevitable or sometimes inherent forces which drive them through these stages. Theories that meet these criteria are not new, as Ken Rufo pointed out in his earlier comments. For example, in my own discipline of anthropology, the idea of a progression from “bands” to “tribes” to “chiefdoms” and finally, to “states” (codified by Elman Service in his 1962 book Primitive Social Organization) is emblematic of this type of universalist, unilinear social history. The idea of a fixed “ladder” of evolutionary stages was widespread and explicit in the social science of the 19th century. We see clear examples in the work of August Comte (the father of sociology), Emile Durkheim, and Lewis H. Morgan. Morgan, for example, proposed in Ancient Society that societies uniformly move through three stages, driven by technological progress: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Societies merely differed in the rates at which they progressed through each stage; all societies, in this view, would eventually progress to the “highest” and final stage. This notion was widely adopted by two major groups of social scientists in the mid-nineteenth century: social darwinists (like Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton) and philosophers in the Hegelian tradition (specifically, Marx and Engels).

Schema that organize historical change into universal “stages” of development are traceable even deeper in history than these nineteenth century examples. In Western thought, the ultimate origin of such schemes is a secularization of the classical and medieval theological idea of the scala naturae, or “great chain of being” (note 1). In pre-modern thought about politics and the economy, for example, the chain of being justified the hierarchical structure of monarchical society, the Church, and the economic “caste” status that went along with that hierarchy. Prevalent in European thought until the Renaissance, the scala naturae depicts a universe in which there is a fixed hierarchy of beings, ranging from the “lowliest” up through humans, leading ultimately to the Divine. During the Italian Renaissance we see the secularization of the “chain of being,” but not a fundamental challenge to the notion of a hierarchical schema itself (note 2). This slow secularization ultimately allowed the scala naturae to shed strictly theological connotations and fade into the background of Western thinking concerning the relationship between species, and the relationship between “civilized” Europeans and the Asian, African, and American peoples they encountered on their steadily increasing voyages of discovery. By the time of John Wilkins and the Royal Society, the notion of a chain of being essentially “dissolved” into schemes of scientific classification, leading ultimately and rather directly to the Scottish Enlightenment (e.g., Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith), pre-Darwinian geology and biology (e.g., Linneaus, Buffon), as well as the universalist unilinear schemes of philosophers like Hegel (note 3).

Given the deep tradition of unilinear, stage-based models of universal history, we shouldn’t be surprised to see them cropping up again in contemporary discourse. Nevertheless, one might be led, by their very prevalence, to wonder how so many versions of the same idea could possibly be wrong?

I’m going to claim that the answer is “easily,” but with a caveat. Rejection of universalist, unilinear, stage-based, progressive models of history seems only natural if one has already rejected a few other traditional philosophical doctrines: essentialism and teleology in particular. If one is a philosophical naturalist, and an anti-essentialist, it is difficult to accept teleological accounts of any natural phenomenon, up to and including human behavior. And this is where I’m coming from when I criticize argument #1 (above). I simply do not find teleological accounts of history to be consistent with the rest of my philosophical beliefs.

In addition to my philosophical objections, the true “death knell” for argument #1 for me is the fact that teleological, universalist histories are rarely (if ever) falsifiable. No mechanisms are evident in the scientific sense of the term — for example, what process is causally responsible for driving societies towards democracy and freedom? Hegelians tend to fall back on metaphysical answers to questions like these: innate drives, the “spirit of the age,” or the action of the “dialectic” on the dominant ideas of a particular people. Sadly, no “innate drive” towards democracy, or individual liberty, or even capitalism has yet been detected by neuroscientists or behavioral geneticists, and even anthropologists still argue about the ubiquity and “naturalness” of social phenomena such as inequality. Explanations that invoke chimeras like the “spirit of the age” are worse than scientifically useless; in many ways they represent the secularization of superstition and faith, rather than the search for verifiable knowledge.

But before you claim that the preceding was horribly biased and unfair to a long tradition of philosophers and historians, go back to my caveat above. Given the philosophical commitments with which I start my analysis of universalist histories and folks like Fukuyama and Wright, my rejection of their work follows pretty naturally. If one accepts teleological explanations, and has no problem with Aristotelian essentialism, then my conclusions may seem hasty or wrong, and I want to acknowledge that.

Finally, I want to note that my beef isn’t really with Francis Fukuyama; he’s written some pieces I quite agree with, including his editorial in last week’s New York Times (hmmm…wish I had the URL for it). My problem is really with the survival of ancient, philosophically suspect, inflexible, and ultimately unscientific ways of explaining where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. People the world over, regardless of culture, persist in believing that their current situations have simple explanations that give the events of the day a clear “purpose” within a grander narrative that situates each group in the “center” of their own universal narrative. Narratives that seem to define our current way of life as the “best,” thereby justifying whatever actions we take in protecting and maintaining that way of life, up to and including actions that harm people with other beliefs and customs.

One way we should sense that something is wrong with such narratives, and the philosophies that justify them, is that clearly not everyone can be right about their destiny as the pinnacle of human existence. Isn’t it far more likely that none of us are living a grand narrative, that no group’s fantasies about the direction of history are correct? Isn’t it far more likely that we’re all just living in a history that is ongoing, that is determined precisely by our actions and nothing more?

If my arguments above aren’t convincing, I’ll close by noting that most of the 20th century’s worst atrocities were committed by folks — on the left and the right — who firmly believed in the ultimate rightness and historical inevitability of their actions. Doesn’t it seem clear, just pragmatically, that teleological, inevitabilist views of history are something that the human race can ill afford anymore?

NOTES:

  1. See A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, 1936, Harvard University Press.
  2. For the classic example, see Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has one foot firmly in the Middle Ages and one in Renaissance humanism, accepting the notion of the chain of being, but claiming that humans were specifically created outside the chain and could modify their own proximity to the top of the chain by creating knowledge and exercising moral self-discipline.

    3. I’m glossing over an important, but subsidiary, issue in this post — in an effort to keep my remarks “short” and thus get them posted before virtually everyone gets tired of waiting for me to write something. Prior to the 18th century or so, most “universalist” teleological histories held that humanity was in decline, in keeping with the Biblical notion of the Fall. Today’s dominant teleological narrative, at least in philosophical and historical circles, is progressive in contrast. This switch in the perceived “direction” of history is decidedly an Enlightenment phenomenon, especially the Scottish enlightenment thinkers.