Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOMMORROW

If you read any half-decent history of modern China, you will learn that a recurring influence on the ideologies that competed for power in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries was Social Darwinism.
But what you may not know is that more recent theories of genetic determinism have also played a part in the struggle over China's post-Mao future.


MAN STRUGGLES, HEAVEN CHOOSES


In the mid-ninteenth-century, following China's defeat in the Opium Wars, the country's ports were awash with Western diplomats who - although the label itself didn't stick until a hundred years later - were steeped in the tenets of Social Darwinism.

They included men such as Rutherford Alcock.


In 1855, after ten years as British Consul in Shanghai, Alcock wrote:

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
"Man's efforts at civilisation invariably - when the race to be benefited is weaker and inferior, intellectually and physically, than the nation civilising - have had but one result: the weaker has gone down before the stronger."

This passage perfectly embodies the central thrust of Social Darwinism - the application of Darwin's model of evolution by natural selection to the apparent "struggle" for existence between human societies, and between individual human beings within those societies - as it was conceived by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer.

Here is a definition of Social Darwinism taken from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

"[A] diverse collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century doctrines...that interpreted various human social phenomena in the light of (what was taken to be) Darwinian evolutionary theory. Perhaps the most influential form of Social Darwinism viewed society and the economy as a competitive arena in which the "fittest" would rise to the top. [...] From a contemporary perspective, Social Darwinism conflated social success with reproductive fitness and questions of moral rightness with matters of a supposed "natural order.""

According to Spencer, all of human history has been a great movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity (in physical and mental attributes), whereby the level at which the principle of "survival of the fittest" operates has descended from larger to smaller groups, and, in modern societies, to a struggle of each against all. Every step in this process of removing obstacles to competition has supposedly improved the prospects of survival for the "best" of humanity (whilst the subjective nature of such value judgments is conveniently evaded).

When Darwinian theory arrived in China, it was intermingled with Social Darwinist theories. They had a lasting impact because they seemed to provide an explanation for China's humiliating decline in the world, even though Darwin's description of permanent revolution in nature clashed with the cyclical Confucian conception of history.

As James Reeve Pusey describes it in China and Charles Darwin:

"That message, even with its 'scientific backing', was shocking, but it was also electrifying - because many Chinese intellectuals wanted to fight... In the charged atmosphere following the Sino-Japanese War, traditional moral aversion to the word struggle was momentarily put aside."

As the above quotation suggests, Social Darwinism "went viral" in China in the aftermath of Japan's crushing victory in the 1898 Sino-Japanese War.

Crucially, this was also the moment at which the last great attempt to reform the Qing Dynasty from above - the "Hundred Days" Reform Movement of 1895-8 - was brought to an end by concerted opposition from within the Imperial state. As the possibility that gradual reforms might reconcile supporters and opponents of the status quo faded, a new and uncompromising doctrine of necessary struggle and inevitable conflict found a receptive audience.

The man who supplied the earliest Chinese translations of Darwinian theories was a scholar named Yan Fu.


Yan is an extraordinary figure in the history of modern China. After having studied at a Naval Academy in England, he returned to China and translated many seminal works of Western science, history and philosophy, including works by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Montesquieu. Every time he translated such works, he published commentaries alongside them that try to relate these writers' works to precedents in Chinese thought.

His most influential attempt to relate Darwinism to China's contemporary experience was his T'ien-yen lun, or The Theory of Evolution, his translation, with commentaries, of Thomas Huxley's Evolution and Ethics. He used a memorable phrase to describe natural selection: "living things contend, Heaven chooses."

In the book, Yan reconciles the Confucian idea that man attains peace by taming and subjugating nature with the Darwinian view of continuous change in nature by essentially conflating evolution and "progress." In other words, he ascribed to nature a restless dynamic for improvement and in so doing, he created a Social Darwinism with Chinese characteristics (Pusey describes it as an activist brand of "Darwinian Taoism").

Yan was not a strict determinist when it came to the fate of particular societies: he held that men have choices, albeit within narrow and predetermined boundaries, about how they will respond to the aggression of others engaged in the struggle for survival. There is a tension between his idealism and his materialism (what Pusey calls his "determinationism" and his "deteminism") that runs through his philosophy, and which he never fully resolves.

He argued that the West had attained its material advantage by believing in progress, and thus China must also adopt a progressive mindset if is to survive; otherwise, the fatalism that Yan saw as pervading the Chinese mindset (and for which he blamed Confucianism) would deceive his countrymen into thinking that their current predicament was another episodic downturn in the 'dynastic cycle', rather than a radically new challenge that threatened their whole way of life with extinction.

Here is an extract from Yan's essay, Learning from the West:

"The Chinese are fond of antiquity but neglect the present. The Westerners are struggling in the present in order to supersede the past. Chinese consider that a period of order and a period of disorder, and a period of prosperity and a period of decline are the natural course of heavenly conduct of human affairs; while Westerners consider that daily progress should be endless."

Although he shifted back and forth on exactly how reform should be carried out, Yan's arguments consistently made the case for reform from below, and for the necessity of changing the pessimistic mindset of the masses, before any institutional reforms would matter. For this reason, he thought that reform, including limited democratisation, had to be far-reaching, but that it also had to be gradual. As he saw it, the crucial conflict was between social groups, and China needed to first be unified by a national consciousness before it could resist imperial aggressors.

This was not quite how the next generation of Chinese Darwinists saw things.



"A BARBARIC FORM OF LEARNING"



At almost the exact same moment that Yan published his commentaries on Huxley, another would-be reformer of the late Qing state published an even grander deterministic philosophy that he believed held the key to China recovering its former greatness.

His name was Kang Youwei, and the book was the Da Tongshu.


Kang's philosophy originated with a vision he had. By means of the vision, he claimed to have discovered that the progressive beliefs of Western Enlightenment philosophers such as Kant and Condorcet were actually foreshadowed in the writings of Confucius many centuries earlier. Contrary to Yan Fu, Kang argued that a belief in progress - in the perfectibility of man and his society - was central to Confucius' writings, but that this had been obscured over time by the sages who had reinterpreted him.

Da Tongshu
But in order to show this, Kang had taken a commentary to another commentary to the Annals of Confucius and distorted its real meaning by taking it out of context; he took a story by a Han scholar which contrasted the glories of the Han Dynasty with the "barbarians" who preceded it, and inferred that such improvement would continue indefinitely.

Similarly, Kang read Confucius' notion of the "Three Ages" - of disorder (chu-luan), of relative peace (sheng-p'ing), and of great peace (t'ai-p'ing) - as meaning that history was a more or less linear narrative of progress towards a perfect society (which he imagined to be a secularised Buddhist utopia, in which nation-states would be abolished). Social conflict would culminate in a "Great Unity." Yet all that Confucius had said in his original text was that China had recently passed from the first to the second age; he said nothing about such transitions being permanent or irreversible.

Pusey writes that:

Liang Qichao (1873-1927)
"Kang had come to believe that the universe was not aimless, nor static, nor cyclical, nor simply out of joint. The cosmos was going somewhere, and the world had a destiny. It was destined for better things than it had ever known... 

"It was the Ta t'ung, the Way of Heaven revealed through Confucius, that would "arrive with the necessity of natural law." He thus became modern China's first determinist, a Confucian determinist oddly reminiscent of Christian determinists, who was to help others become all sorts of Darwinian and later Marxist determinists."

One of Kang's most brilliant and influential students was Liang Qichao. Liang was directed in his thinking by Kang's epic brand of Social Darwinism, but he also read Yan Fu, and the original texts by Darwin and Spencer, firsthand.

Whereas Kang had been instrumental in the "Self-Strengthening" reform movement of the 1860s, Liang was the intellectual spearhead for the "Hundred Days" reform effort - a last forceful attempt to persuade the Qing to adopt a program of modernisation. He helped found the Society for the Study of Strength in order to draw up plans for change and, through the rapid spread of journals, he became one of the most famous journalists and public intellectuals of his time.

In the introduction to a series of long pro-reform essays that made his name, Liang observed that: "Natural change is the way of Heaven. But whether it be change for the better or the worse depends on the way of man." Like Yan Fu, Liang believed progress was inevitable, but not that progress would inevitably benefit all - that depended on whether particular societies took the necessary steps to ensure their own survival.

Liang was opposed to bringing about change through violent revolution. Under the influence of Social Darwinism, he, like Yan, tended to see all aspects of human behaviour as being jointly determined by the same factor: a 'rational' and progressive outlook (or the absence thereof) and the impetus this gave to efforts to unify society. Thus he saw all facets of human behaviour as being interconnected.

Here is how he described it in his 'Observations on a Trip to America':

"The weaknesses of the Chinese people can be listed as follows:

1. Our character is that of clansmen rather than citizens...

2. We have a village mentality and not a national mentality...

3. We can only accept despotism and cannot enjoy freedom... When I look at the societies of the world, none is so disorderly as the Chinese community in San Francisco. Why? The answer is freedom...

If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than committing national suicide... To put it in a word, the Chinese people of today can only be governed autocratically."

He drew substantive conclusions from observing the habits of Chinese abroad because, "Though these are small matters, they reflect bigger things." In so doing, he acutely foreshadowed the Kuomintang's (KMT) rationale for governing throughout the late 1920s and '30s. As Chiang Kai-Shek himself said, by way of explaining the logic behind his fascistic 'New Life Movement':

"Only those who readapt themselves to new conditions, day by day, can live properly. When the life of a people is going through this process of readaptation, it has to remedy its own defects, and get rid of those elements which become useless."

The extreme politicisation of individual manners and habits under the KMT reflected Chiang's belief that China could only be rich and strong if each and every one of its people became permanently self-conscious of how they conducted themselve, and that through this self-awareness they would adopt the "progressive" mindset - the habit of thinking about personal improvement, relative to a collective ideal.

In this sense, it also reflected the form in which Social Darwinist ideas had first arrived and percolated through Chinese society: the idea that, as long as some societies were stronger than others, by virtue of their knowledge of science and their attitude towards continuous change, there would inevitably be conflict between nations, and that societies were only as strong as their members believed they could be.

In the first half of the twentieth-century, the focus of the Republican revolutionaries who were the heirs to this ideological legacy was on achieving national solidarity. As regards the Communists, a social group that represented a direct challenge to that goal, the Kuomintang's approach varied; Sun Yat-Sen tended towards conciliation, Chiang towards elimination. But both of these men were against the laissez-faire doctrines of Herbert Spencer and his followers, and favoured using the state to mould a shared culture of self-sacrifice.

Shortly before the 1912 elections, Sun Yat-Sen declared that:

"Before the twentieth century, the nations of Europe invented a newfangled stuggle-for-existence theory, which for a time influenced everything. Every nation assumed that "the survival of the fittest" and "the weak are the meat of the strong" were the vital laws on which to establish a state... This kind of theory in the early days of the evolution of European civilisation had its uses. But, from the vantage point of today, it appears a barbaric form of learning."

Despite Dr. Sun's optimism, as Jonathan D. Spence argues in The Search for Modern China, the KMT were attacked throughout the 1920s by the Left, who feared that China was slipping into a state of lethargy; that all of the policies encouraging people to be self-conscious only fostered the rise of consumerism, and did nothing to combat the power of the provincial warlords who kept the nation divided.

The Left also adopted Social Darwinist ideas, although they interpreted them differently in the light of the new conditions in which they had begun to organise: a country that was, politically, far more sharply internally divided, with the KMT launching "extermination campaigns" against the Communists. In a context in which compromise between different social groups seemed impossible, Social Darwinist ideas thus found fertile ground.

In 1917, Mao read Kang's Da Tongshu and he later described it as a seminal moment in the formulation of his own ideas about how to organise society (particularly his strong ethos of voluntarism).  However, the difference between the lessons he drew from it and those drawn by the Republican revolutionaries can be best illustrated by a quotation from Yan Fu:

"At first, species struggle with species; then, as [people] gradually progress, there is a struggle between one social group and another. The weak invariably become the prey of the strong, the stupid invariably become subservient to the clever."

In the above passage, one finds the germ of a fundamental tenet of 'Mao Zedong Thought': that the most effective way in which the state can effect genuine social unity is by periodically 'purging' society of its corrupting (i.e. divisive) elements through mass campaigns that turn individual members of the society against one another (cf. the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution, etc.); only in this manner, by keeping every citizen on their toes, can that self-consciousness be instilled and maintained.


THE LORD OF THE ANTS


Meanwhile, evolutionary theories were helping to shape political battles in the Western world.

In 1975, Edward O. Wilson - dubbed "Lord of the Ants" for his exhaustive knowledge of insects - published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines 'sociobiology' as:

"[T]he application of evolutionary theory to social behaviour. Sociobiologists claim that many social behaviors have been shaped by natural selection for reproductive success, and they attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary histories of particular behaviors or behavioral strategies."

It is a simple enough idea to grasp, but, for its critics, therein lies the rub: many regard it as a reductionist way of explaining human behaviour and the functioning of society, which ignores the importance of "levels" of explanation in making sense of social phenomena, and erodes individual freedom or moral responsibility through the application of genetic determinism.

The timing of Wilson's publication was crucial to the furore it created, especially within academia. In 'The Cultural Politics of the Sociobiology Debate', Neil Jumonville argues that:

"The politics of the sociobiology dispute were less about the traditional contest between left and right - over jobs, taxes, and military spending - and more about the new struggle over a multicultural future...with one side defending a longstanding liberal Enlightenment universalism, and the other side battering it with a new creation soon to be called multiculturalism, a product of the 1960s belief in the benefit of a group identity (whether based on race, ethnicity or gender)."

The identity politics of the 'New Left' in the 1960s appears to have born out of the ideas of theorists of such as Herbert Marcuse that the mass consumer culture and 'post-industrial' society had enabled capitalism to politically neutralise the old industrial working-class; in that sense, it almost seems like a tactical manoeuvre that became a strategy.

I think that the key point here is that, whether or not one thinks identity politics is a good thing, the New Left did at least have a sensitivity to the historical contingency of human behaviour, as had the 'Old' Left.

In other words, they were aware that the pressures of commercial society could lead to increasing homogeneity, and that this did not necessarily represent a kind of social consensus about the best way to live - whether encoded in our genetic makeup or otherwise - but might merely reflect the temporary "hegemony" of particular social elites, brought about by historically specific power struggles and legitimating ideas.

This was the background against which a debate was fought out through the 1970s and '80s between, broadly speaking, on the one hand, the 'liberal universalists' who used the claims of sociobiology to bolster their case for a "colour-blind meritocratic society" that would be "pluralist but integrationist", and, on the other, the 'New Leftists' who attacked sociobiologists as part of their case for "participatory democracy, positive group identities, multiculturalism, postmodernism and particularisation."

Scientists who were opposed to the ambitious claims of Wilson's new discipline, organised in groups such as the Sociobiology Study Group (SSG), and propagated their criticisms via journals and magazines like 'Science for the People'. One of the earliest members to join SSG and lend it academic credibility was the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

In 1975, Gould and several other of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard wrote a joint letter to the New York Review of Books, "'Against' Sociobiology." The letter is worth quoting at some length:

"From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," to E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior. These theories have resulted in a deterministic view of human societies and human action. [...] 

"Each time these ideas have resurfaced...even though strong scientific arguments have been presented to show the absurdity of these theories, they have not died. The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex.

"[Wilson's] supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. Thus, we are presented with yet another defense of the status quo as an inevitable consequence of "human nature." [...] We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange."

Here is an interview with Gould from 1995 - from about 16:00, he provides a clear account of what he finds problematic about sociobiology, scientifically and politically.


These criticisms notwithstanding, it does not seem that the central issue of contention is the political commitments of prominent sociobiologists per se. For example, Wilson has supported the use of gender-based employment quotas to correct for what he regards as modern society's "magnification" of the consequences of minor genetic differences.

And another renowned geneticist, Richard Dawkins, has repeatedly refuted any implication that the theory of gene-level natural selection lends support to the individualistic philosophy of the 'New Right.'

Here he is, making his case that "Nice Guys Finish First" in a BBC Horizon special from 1987. 


Nor can this debate be reduced to a simplistic dispute over "nature" versus "nurture." As the conservative theorist Larry Arnhart explains in his article, 'The New Darwinian Naturalism in Political Theory', this debate really centres on the limits that sociobiology places on human freedom, because of the way that they conceptualise freedom:

"Moral freedom should be identified not as the absence of determinism but as a certain kind of determinism. We are free when our actions are determined by our deliberate choices... [B]eing morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible one must organise and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection... Human freedom is freedom within nature, rather than freedom from nature."

This does not immediately sound unreasonable or controversial, but it does in fact amount to a fundamental change from the moral and political philosophies of the Enlightenment which were built on a notion of human beings having free will, such as Kantianism.

What sociobiology does is to redefine the role of human reason in ethics, from that of creating values to that of merely "eliciting, directing and organising" 'values' which are in fact given to us by our "species-typical feelings or desires, which emerged from human evolution to become embedded in the genetic structure of human nature."

To a sociobiologist, the observable diversity - across place and time - in human behaviour and social practices does not lend support to postmodernism or multiculturalism, because, properly understood, it actually strengthens the idea of a "common human nature", and of a universal causal relationship between this and the workings of any given society:

"What is naturally right varies according to the variable circumstances of particular communities and particular individuals. This does not dictate moral relativism, however, because for any given set of circumstances, there are naturally better and worse ways to satisfy the natural desires of human beings... While there is great diversity in the physical world as well as the moral world, in both worlds the diversity is naturally regular."

Since different environmental factors can cause identical genotypes to express themselves differently as phenotypes, a certain amount of cultural, political and economic variation is only to be expected. But the crucial point here is that, for a sociobiologist, the amount of behavioural variation is always determined by the underlying genes, and the seemingly complex process of interaction between human beings and their environment can be explained entirely through the science of genetics:

"Sociobiology, particularly as developed by Edward O. Wilson, has been perceived by its critics as attempting to explain human social behaviour as controlled mostly by genetic inheritance, which seems to ignore the flexibility and complexity of human behaviour as a purely phenotypic response to variable environments. Behavioural ecology, however, is concerned precisely with such adaptive responses to environmental conditions... As a product of Darwinian evolution, human behaviour should manifest some general propensities that were adaptive in human evolutionary history. Yet the individual expression of these propensities will vary according to individual temperament and in response to the social and physical circumstances."

Put slightly differently, on this account, we are neither strictly determined in all of our important behaviours by our genes, nor are we completely free (in the above sense of "freedom from nature") in any of the important areas of behaviour that we might think of as expressing our individual autonomy (in culture, in the arts, in politics, and so on); instead, we are constrained in all of these areas of life by the genetic probabilities we have each been allocated by natural selection:

"Regularity in patterns of parental care across cultures manifests inborn inclinations shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. The variability in those patterns manifests the flexibility of human social behaviour as shaped by individual experience and social learning. Like other animals, human beings display innate potentialities and propensities that are neither absolutely fixed nor absolutely malleable."



BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL


Returning to China, we find a familiar story of the costly politicisation of science under Mao. In their article, 'Science as Ideology: The Rejection and Reception of Sociobiology in China', Li Jianhui and Hong Fan write that sociology and anthropology courses were effectively scrapped across all Chinese campuses after 1952 and replaced with courses on orthodox Marxism.

Although the manipulation of genetics for propaganda purposes by the CPC was not quite as heavy-handed as it had been in Stalinist Rusia, 'Lysenkoism' - the theory that the personal traits one acquires over a lifetime can be passed on to offspring via one's genes - was imported and generally regarded as the paradigm of "socialist" science.


When sociobiology appeared in China in the late 1970s, it was initially condemned by various Party organs and journals as "a new variety of Social Darwinism." The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) declared, through the Journal of Nature, that:

"Sociobiology is virtually the modern successor of Spencer's reactionary Social Darwinism... Wilson is a biological determinist. Sociobiology aims to provide new theoretical ground for national domination, aggressive wars, and racial and sexual discrimination."

Although stated with more hyperbole, presumably because Chinese scientists were still anxious to toe the Party line in the early post-Mao period, these criticisms echoed the views being propounded by enemies of sociobiology in the West.

Wu Rukang

A paleo-anthropologist named Wu Rukang used a quotation from Friederich Engels to assert that sociobiologists were inappropriately encroaching on matters suited to the humanities and social sciences:

"Production soon brings it about that the so-called struggle for existence no longer turns on pure means of existence, but on means for enjoyment and development. Here - where the means of development are socially produced - the categories taken from the animal kingdom are already totally inapplicable."

Appearing at the outset of China's "reform era", sociobiology became a weapon in the struggle by Chinese scientists to liberate themselves from political micro-management. But it has always been much more than that - it was seen as evidence for the new model of political economy China had to build in order to succeed in the world, and for the uniquely important role that scientists must play in planning and managing that model (see here for an example of how this logic played out in another scientific field).

In the autumn of 1979, the CAS held an important meeting on "the future of biology", which cleared the way for sociobiology to enter the mainstream of scientific research. According to Li and Hong, the scientists' intention was to replace the "dogmatic" voluntarism and idealism of 'Marxism-Mao-Zedong-Thought' with "a cogent, self-consistent methodological principle" which embodied the "strong power" of Western science:

"The scientific connotations and challenging spirit of sociobiology neatly met the needs of the age. The motivation for the editors in publishing this book [Wilson's 'Sociobiology'] was not to develop sociobiology, but to prompt reforms in mind and society. [...] In China, E. O. Wilson has met a fate that resembles the one that Darwin encountered. People have advocated Wilson's theory mainly because they wanted to use his theory as a tool for changing China's ideology and society. So the reception of sociobiology in China is quite different from other countries... There were fewer criticisms of sociobiology in China than in America."


Boshu Zhang has been one of the most articulate defenders of sociobiology's claims to speak with authority on political and economic issues. Boshu is a political philosopher who was steeped in Marxist theory throughout his early academic career. He was traumatised by the state's brutal response to the student protests in 1989, and the lessons he drew from that event then shaped his whole way of thinking about human nature.

In 1995 he wrote a book called Marxism and Human Sociobiology: The Perspective of Economic Reforms in China.



He opens the book with a sardonic swipe at China's leaders for cynically back-tracking on their opposition to pro-market reforms in the early '90s, and then trying to rationalise their opportunism with Marxist dogma:

"There is an amusing phenomenon in contemporary China in which the leading group that used force to oppose reform is now, in an attempt to maintain its power, using government-sponsored reform initiatives and masking them as orthodox ideology."

However, he is not content merely to lambast the Party for hypocrisy: his real objective is to show that any political ideology that is not rooted in an understanding of the evolutionary origins of social practices and institutions is open to abuse and double-standards, because it allows those who wield it to claim that human nature is infinitely flexible, and thus rules and principles that applied one day can be ignored or totally re-defined the next. In short, without sociobiology, there is no reliable continuity in human nature from which consistent and ethical political principles can be derived.
 
Boshu Zhang
Given his background, his main target in the book is Marxism, and especially the Marxist humanist concept of man as a "species-being". This is the notion that "human nature" is effectively determined by how human beings relate to the means of production in any particular historical epoch and that, consequently, which human behaviours are truly "natural" cannot be known until the means of production are collectively controlled; in this state of abundance to come, mankind's essence - labour activity - will be a free expression of his natural motives, rather than a reflection of the values of a particular ruling class.

"Marx's assumptions concerning the state of the economy in his future society...originally presupposes a special understanding of human nature. [...] Free, conscious activity is the species-character of human beings. Life itself appears only as a means of life. [...] Socialised mankind, the associated producers, will regulate their interchange with Nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power, and accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy."

In his review of Marxism and Human Sociobiology, Arif Dirlik neatly summarises Boshu's counter-arguments to the Marxist view of human nature:

"Marx's notion of 'free, conscious activity' ('living to labour') is wrong because it ignores the biological basis of the necessity of 'labour-for-living' to satisfy basic physical needs, which is the primordial condition of humanity and necessitated cooperation for survival under circumstances of backward productive forces. Advanced productive forces transformed 'labour-for-living to labour-for-profit', which served as an 'amplifying mechanism...in human desire and behaviour', but also dissolved the necessity of community bonds for survival."

Boshu argues that Marxism is fundamentally flawed because humans labour is motivated by two forces: the biological drive to secure the necessities for life, and to secure the approval and cooperation of other human beings (a genetically-coded sociability also inherited as an evolutionary advantage). But the same social formation - capitalism - that has best enabled man to respond to the first motive by marshalling man's selfishness, has also weakened the second motive by undermining our "communal bonds."

The Shanghai Stock Exchange

Since the communal instinct is really only an expression of the underlying survival instinct, it follows that we have a stark choice: capitalism and representative democracy or an unproductive "collective" economy that, in the long run, will only succeed in reigniting selfish individualism. Either way, the ideas of yesterday about utopian communities are history - at best, we might curb the excesses of selfish individualism with a Welfare State, but only insofar as this is compatible with healthy profitability in a free market.

"The most effective method of increasing productive forces and social wealth would be to build up a set of normative and stimulative mechanisms that utilise the 'selfish' components of human nature. Such a procedure would then be an inevitable choice for people, because only by doing so can undeveloped countries, like my own China, possibly change their awkward economic situations in a relatively short time, without regard to whether it is 'good' or 'evil'."

Boshu has remained a stern critic of the CPC. In 2008 he was one of the earliest signatories of 'Charter '08', which demanded more fundamental political reform, and in 2009, at a seminar to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest, he framed the subsequent repression as being wholly "rational" from the Party leadership's perspective:

"Antagonistic rationality is an aspect of any authoritarian political culture. The repression of the 1989 patriotic movement by the CPC was the result of just such an antagonistic rationality. It regards all criticism of authority as "conspiracy"... This kind of rationale, adopted by Deng Xiaoping and other CPC leaders, is the beginning of all the wrongs in our history."

This touches on a consistent theme in his writing: the argument that China's future prospects are overshadowed by its inability to reflect rationally on its past.

Here is a brief appearance in which he discusses his advocacy of gradual constitutional reform:


In 2010 he was expelled from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).


Shortly before this, he wrote an essay on why China cannot have "soft power" until it undertakes the reforms he outlined back in 1995. What I find so interesting about it is the way in which it echoes many of the principles of China's early Social Darwinists, who had also fought for reform of their state.

He criticises China's leaders for hiding behind a global form of multiculturalism, which he argues conceals the reality of a universal human nature that can provide the basis for a universal form of governance. Moreover, cultural relativism is holding back China from developing a high-tech economy underpinned by innovation, because it prevents scholars from studying China's past objectively and giving a thorough diagnosis of which traditional practices are retarding development (e.g. an overly specialised Higher Education sector, and earlier forms of learning):

"Confucius is no longer criticised. This is obviously a good thing. However, reflecting on the rationality of traditional culture has at the same time been suppressed. This is because the current leaders are not especially concerned about the complicated historical relationship between modern China's transformation and pre-modern China's cultural heritage, and are more concerned with...ancient historical figures acting as cultural symbols...to prove the legitimacy of a culture that is different from the "West", which it seems would then indirectly prove the legitimacy of a political structure that is different from the "West."

"China's current political system is definitely outside the global tide of democratisation. It is this environment that produces government-hired scholars who play up their theories which are at odds with logic... Only when China is free can it analyse its past and "transform our innovation."

The fundamental problem, Boshu says, is that "those holding office lack self-confidence". What they need is a new progressive mood of optimism that large-scale social challenges can be overcome - and the key to that is recognising that "true" soft power lies with the masses. He is echoing Yan Fu, who, according to Pusey, "wanted to destroy forever the idea that progress had been spoon-fed to mankind by near-supermen, for he wanted to prove that progress comes out of the people."

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964)

And once more, we find the clarion-call that a particular reform plan is essential for "enjoying with the citizens of other nations the latest achievements of human civilisation." When I read this, I am reminded of two things: one is Karl Polanyi's masterwork, The Great Transformation, with its criticisms of the reductionist "tradition of the classical economists, who attempted to base the law of the market on the alleged propensities of man in the state of nature".

The other is the entry for sociobiology provided by The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: "Sociobiology is often criticised on the grounds that its explanatory hypotheses are not easily verified, or that they reflect conventional, unexamined, or impossible assumptions, especially about natural patterns of behaviour for human beings."

In the twenty-first century, this debate has moved on. As Peter Augustine Lawler observes in The New Atlantis, the old argument between "social constructionism" (e.g. certain schools of Marxism) and sociobiology centred on the extent to which man's behaviour was determined by his natural history and its genetic legacy. As our knowledge of human biology has increased, we now have the prospect of radical applications of biotechnology:

"Without scientific knowledge, we blindly adapt as evolution intends. With scientific knowledge and modern technology...we can take evolution into our own hands. [...] Wilson is correct when he says that the truth of sociobiology is an unstable middle position between unscientific ignorance and biotechnological willfulness. Sociobiology is true until we know it is true. Once we understand how human nature "works," we stand armed and ready to try to change or improve it... However used, biotechnology would be a means to construct an existence that is "naturally" different from the way we are now."

The terms of the debate have shifted from whether man shapes nature more than nature shapes man, to what either of these perspectives implies for a future in which man will be able to shape his own nature in the most radical way possible. Sociobiologists like Wilson regard biotechnology as not only an unknown frontier, but an unknowable one, and one that represents historically unprecedented risks for the future of our species.

However, if sociobiology is wrong to claim that much of our complex social behaviour can be entirely explained by reference to our genetics, throughout human history and up to the present, then biotechnology need not be regarded as such a qualitatively new frontier that necessarily poses unknowable risks to the way we live.

Once again, it seems that the attitude we choose to adopt towards the future depends heavily on how we view the past...and whether we think such attitudes in and of themselves can make a real difference.



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