"Biopolitics": Biologically Oriented Political Philosophy
Biopolitics, originally interpreted as the subfield of political science focusing on biological (evolutionary) factors involved in political behavior, has faced conceptual and organizational differences during the forty-year period of its development. It has recently been redefined as the totality of all applications of biology to social and political concepts, problems and practical issues and concerns. In these new terms, biopolitics represents a promising interdisciplinary area of research, whose potential with respect to political philosophy and political science is exemplified by its application to the following issues: (i) Collective violence (war, terrorism, etc.); (ii) Ethnocentrism; (iii) Hierarchies and networks: and (iv) Neurochemical factors of social behavior. The prerequisite for the success of biopolitics is its collaboration with the humanities and social sciences in investigating the multi-level "Homo politicus".
Biopolitics, originally interpreted as the subfield of political science focusing on biological (evolutionary) factors involved in political behavior, has faced conceptual and organizational differences during the forty-year period of its development. It has recently been redefined as the totality of all applications of biology to social and political concepts, problems and practical issues and concerns. In these new terms, biopolitics represents a promising interdisciplinary area of research, whose potential with respect to political philosophy and political science is exemplified by its application to the following issues: (i) Collective violence (war, terrorism, etc.); (ii) Ethnocentrism; (iii) Hierarchies and networks: and (iv) Neurochemical factors of social behavior. The prerequisite for the success of biopolitics is its collaboration with the humanities and social sciences in investigating the multi-level “Homo politicus”.
In the 1960’s, a new research direction termed biopolitics took shape in political science. Impressed by the progress made by the life sciences (particularly with respect to behavioral, neurophysiological, and genetic research), a group of American political scientists including L. Caldwell, A. Somit, S. Peterson, T. Wiegele, R. Masters, T. Thorson, G. Schubert, etc., reconsidered the terms “political science” and “political philosophy” from a biological perspective. They called into question the well-known dogma (formulated by E. Durkheim) that social behavior including political activities is caused by social factors. On the basis of the results of research on animal behavior conducted by O. Heinroth, K. Lorenz, K. Frisch, N. Tinbergen, and other classical ethologists, common features of animal and human social behavior were brought into the focus. Human social and political systems were regarded as analogs of groups and communities of animals, particularly of apes and monkeys.
The plea for moving “Toward a More Biologically Oriented Political Science” made by A. Somit in 1968 (this was the title of his paper) apparently received sufficient attention among political scientists. Biopoliticians made some progress in organizational terms. For instance, the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS) was established in 1981. APLS started publishing its own journal entitled Politics and the Life Sciences in 1982.
However, Somit and Peterson (1998) had to admit that only a minority of political scientists promoted biopolitics. Articles on biopolitics very seldom appeared in leading political-science periodicals such as the British Journal of Political Science. Moreover, biopolitics suffered a major organizational failure in 1995: the APLS lost the right to be an Organized Section of the American Political Science Association that had been granted to it in 1985.
It seems likely that biopoliticians will remain a minority faction within the political-science community. They will be attacked by mainstream political scientists and perhaps defeated by them. However, biopolitics has an important potential outside political science per se. Recently, a number of biologists (including A. Vlavianos-Arvanitis who set up the Biopolitics International Organization in 1985 in Athens), philosophers, and scholars in the humanities have joined the international biopolitical movement. Biopolitics has been redefined in broader terms as “the totality of all applications of biology to social and political concepts, problems and practical issues and concerns” (Oleskin, 2007). Hence biopolitics is partly beyond the scope of political science sensu strictu but it seems to be related to political philosophy. It is based upon the idea of the belonging of humankind to the biosphere (of bios in Vlavianos-Arvanitis’ usage). Hence biopolitics adopts the paradigm of biological naturalism. In terms of political philosophy, this implies that “Homo politicus” is to be considered not only from the social but also the biological viewpoint. Human behavior as it manifests itself in politics has important evolutionary roots and is at least partially similar to the behavior of other biological species. Political power structures are a human variation on the theme of dominance hierarchies that are characteristic of various animal species as well.
Presently, biopolitics includes the following subfields (Oleskin, 2007): (a) Human nature in relation to politics (considered in terms of biological naturalism); (b) Evolutionary roots of human society and political systems; (c) Ethology of human social behavior and political activity; (d) Human physiology as related to politics; (e) Application of biopolitical ideas and concepts to a wide variety of political issues. Most biopoliticians (including the author) adopt soft naturalism. It claims that the human being is a multi-level system. Therefore, a prerequisite for the success of the biopolitical approach to human society is collaboration between biopolitics, and humanities and the social sciences that concentrate on the cultural and social levels of “Homo politicus”. In this short paper, we shall confine ourselves to several examples that demonstrate the potential of present-day biopolitics.
1. Collective Aggression (Warfare, Terrorism, Riots, etc.). To a large extent, various types of collective violence in the present-day world are undoubtedly due to social and cultural factors. It is widely believed that war, the most destructive form of human aggression, dates back to the late Neolith characterized by the formation of a special caste of warriors in human society. Biopoliticians acknowledge the important roles of social and cultural driving forces in warfare and other types of collective aggression. Nevertheless, they take into account the contributions of evolution-preprogrammed forms of behavior. Collective violence in human society is based, in part, on analogs of phenomena revealed by ethologists in the behavior of animals. They include: (a) Punishing cheaters and violators of social norms; (b) Competing for resources including mates; (c) Defending the group territory; and (d) Organized fighting between two animal groups observed in apes (Corning, 2003). Endemic armed conflicts in primitive societies, where “animal” behavioral trends are still manifest, are a transitional stage between animal collective aggression and human warfare. Biopoliticians investigate human collective aggression. They studied, for instance, student riots in France in the 60’s; similar riots that have been stirred up by students quite recently, still await biopolitical research. Biopoliticians have developed social and political technologies aimed at mitigating human aggression. They are exemplified by techniques based on the law of incompatible behavior motivations suggested by K. Lorenz (1967). The law predicts that aggression can be blocked by sufficiently strong stimuli causing non-aggressive behavior. Without knowing the Lorenz law, each of the warring parties in World War II used all kinds of propaganda (leaflets, radio transmissions, etc.) making enemy soldiers feel sexual desire and a strong yearning to return home and stay with the family. Currently, the incompatible behavior motivations law provides the foundations for the idea of encouraging potentially hostile ethnic groups, nations, or religious communities to cooperate in an effort to attain internationally important goals such as saving the planet’s biosphere (Vlavianos-Arvanitis, 2005).
2. Ethnocentrism (Xenophobia, Nationalism, Chauvinism, or Racism) and Ethnic Conflict. Although nationalism sensu strictu did not exist before nations themselves took shape, analogous phenomena based on ingroup-outgroup discrimination were characteristic of primitive human societies. Conflicts between primitive bands and tribes partially depended on social and cultural factors including mythological ideas and concepts. The people believed that their own group occupied the central position in the universe and felt obliged to maintain order in it. They were convinced that their neighbors were spreading chaos and, therefore, posed a threat to the whole world. These mythological principles were reinforced by biological forces that boil down to selective affiliative (loyal) behavior toward members of one’s own group and agonistic (aggressive) behavior towards individuals that do not belong to the group. In-groups differ from out-groups in terms of their features (markers). Many animals, such as mice and rats, rely upon their olfaction. As for human society (both primitive and civilized), ethnic markers include biological characteristics (e. g., skin color) as well as cultural features (language, dialect, myths, rites, dress style, war paint, etc.). Ethnicity-related markers appear to be imprinted on the brains of young people, and the neurophysiological mechanism involved in memorizing them apparently resembles that operating in animals. In similar fashion, a duckling follows a moving object seen during the first day of its life. In modern society, the inborn tendency to discriminate between in- and out-groups is used by the political elite for creating “the enemy image”. This helps the elite consolidate the people on the basis of its political ideology. Knowledge of the biopolitical roots of ethnocentrism can help us develop social technologies to cope with ethnic conflicts. One technology is based on the idea to prevent imprinting enemy images on children’s brains. For example, a child spends several months or years in a foreign family, and, as a result, he perceives the foreigners as “in-groups” afterwards (this method has been already successfully employed).
3. Hierarchies and Networks. Both in animal and human social structures, two organizational scenarios are possible: (a) A hierarchy with a single leader on its top (b) A horizontal (egalitarian) structure with several partial leaders (the split leadership principle). Presently, human society is dominated by hierarchies, while primitive societies were mostly egalitarian. Some biopoliticians (see Oleskin and Masters, 1997) promote horizontal structures that are exemplified by modern social networks. Networks successfully compete with hierarchies in a variety of socially important activities including small-scale business, education (networks are formed in a classroom to promote students’ creativity), local administration, political counselling for government officials, etc. (see Oleskin, 2007; Oleskin and Masters, 1997).
4. Neurochemistry of Social Behavior. Animals and humans use the same chemical substances (neurotransmitters) for transmitting impulses in the brain. Studies with animals elucidated the effects produced by such neurotransmitters as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine. These substances influence the behavior of animals as well as humans (including their political activities). Research on animal models (such as African vervet monkeys) demonstrated that the dominant male in a monkey group contains 1.6 times more serotonin in the blood serum than subordinate individuals (McGuire, 1982). Neurochemical data have obvious implications for biopolitics (such as the idea of designing diets for political leaders to optimize their neurotransmitter concentrations).
In conclusion, it should be re-emphasized that biopolitics, despite its organizational problems and conceptual difficulties caused by the complexity of the multi-level, bio-socio-cultural system referred to as “Homo politicus”, seems to be of considerable importance for political philosophy and political science in the 21st century.
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A.V. Oleskin, Biopolitics. The Political Potential of Modern Biology (Nauchny Mir Publ. Co., Moscow, 2007).
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