Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mozi, Darwin and Universal Love

Of Ethics and Evolution

Mozi and Ancient Chinese Ethics

Chinese philosopher Mozi (470-391 B.C.E.) developed the doctrine of jian ai, which has been variously translated into English as “universal love,” “impartial care,” “impartial concern,” or “inclusive care.” Mozi developed the doctrine of inclusive care to counter what he saw as the over-determination of Chinese ethics by the traditional (that is Daoist and Confucian) focus on the family, and upon social practices forged by bonds such as those of filial piety.

Mozi and his followers (“the Mohists”) concerned themselves with what they saw as the corrupting influence of this over-emphasis on the family upon Chinese thought and society. Mohism paired the ethical doctrine of inclusive care with a political doctrine advocating a meritocracy. Thus an overall emphasis on fairness and impartiality can be seen to imbue Mohist thought.

As most Mohist philosophers came, not from the upper classes, but from the rising class of craftsmen and merchants, it is easy to see why the focus on impartiality, as opposed to favoritism or nepotism, would have had a great appeal for them.

Mozi, who lived during China’s Warring States period (479–221 B.C.E.), flourished from around the mid-to-late decades of the 5th century; his school, Mohism, flourished from Mozi’s time until the suppression of Mohism by the legalist Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.).

Universal Love

In his writings, Mozi exhorts people to practice universal love, or inclusive care of all human beings; specifically, he exhorts people to inclusively care for one another, and in so doing, to participate in mutually beneficial relationships.

Exclusion Leads to Social Harm

Mozi argues for inclusive care both because it is Heaven’s intention, and because social harm is the result of excluding people from the sphere of ethics. The exposition of Mozi’s doctrine for inclusive care argues in favor of such care, and against completely disregarding others – despising and hurting them. [Book 16 of the Mozi]

Inclusive Care in Practice

In theory, inclusive care requires equal concern for everybody. In practice, extant Mohist writings neglect to specify how inclusive care would be implemented in society – and how such implementation would be worked out on the ground. One might well wonder at how the instruction to care about strangers as much as one does about one’s family was received by Chinese literati, and by commoners, of Mozi’s time.

Later Mohists even argued that there should be no degree of difference between love or care for one’s family, and love or care for strangers. In response to the setting of this high standard, which some of their adversaries claimed was contrary to human nature, the Mohists developed counterarguments to the objections that inclusive care was too difficult or practically impossible.

Mohism and Social Darwinism

Mohism posited ethical and political standards – one might say ideals – in an attempt to oppose the deeply ingrained human tendency to value family above other affiliations, and certainly above the tentative bond one might feel towards strangers. At the other end of the spectrum, Social Darwinism advocated for the exclusive survival of those who are fittest socially. Modeled on Darwinian concepts such as Natural Selection, Social Darwinism has argued in favor of selfishness, and emphasized individual success in a competitive environment, with one notable exception: each individual will be motivated to foster and protect his biological descendants.

The selfless-seeming devotion of parents towards their offspring is thus driven almost entirely by selfishness rooted in genetically-based drives such as the dissemination of one’s genes. Related studies have shown males and females of various species competing with one another to produce the greater number of offspring. According to the Social Darwinism schema, then, unselfish or “altruistic” behaviors should, and will, be reserved exclusively for one’s biological offspring.

 Recent experiments among primates demonstrating that relatives more “distant” than parents or grandparents may perform “altruistic” behaviors aimed at enhancing the survival of, say, nephews or nieces – while widening the circumference of the circle of individuals who might be expected to elicit or perform ethical or empathic acts – only serves to underscore what a narrow band of individuals are posited in the Darwinian model as plausible candidates for ethical behavior towards one another.

In the harsh light of Social Darwinism, then, one may be tempted to think of communities that flout the selfishness drives-based model – by, for example, owning property in common, or performing childcare communally – as utopian, and certainly as aberrant.

Utopian Dreams Based on Evolutionary Biology?

Perhaps that is not so straightforwardly the case. Evolutionary theory offers an equally compelling model – one that explains the apparently “altruistic” feeding arrangements of an extended clan as based on evolutionary advantage. According to Social Anthropologist Barry Bogin, the appearance of Childhood itself – as a new Life Stage distinct from Infancy and the Juvenile stage (an event that took place some two million years ago among our hominid ancestors) – happened in conjunction with a dramatic change in hominid patterns of survival. For the purposes of Bogin’s hypothesis, Childhood is defined as the stage at which the infant is weaned from the breast, but still depends on an adult or adults for care and feeding.

A Dramatic Change in Hominid Patterns of Survival

The invention of Childhood, so to speak, was accompanied by a move away from the survival of the infant within the tight bond between mother and child, to a situation in which the clan, by taking over the feeding of the weaned infant, becomes the engine of survival. 

Perhaps one of the earliest examples of Mozi’s docrine of impartial care can thus be seen as part of the configuration accompanying the evolution of childhood as a stage in the human life cycle, as described in Barry Bogin’s evolutionary hypothesis.

Communal Child Care

Before shared childcare in utopian, religious, and socialist communities: in Christian communities such as the Hutterian Brethern, with roots in the Radical Reformation of the 16th century; on communes in the USSR (1922-1991), and on kibbutzim (the earliest kibbutzim were founded around 1914, three decades before Israel achieved statehood); there was the early childcare system (hypothetically) adopted around 2 million years ago, by Homo habilis (1.4 – 2 million B.C.E.)

The Problem:

Back in the day (of Homo habilis), due to increases in Homo habilis’ brain size compared to that of his evolutionary predecessor (fossil records show Homo habilis with an adult brain size of 650-800 cc, as compared to 442 cc for Australopithecus africanus), Homo habilis’ skull would have become too big to fit through the birth canal had not the Homo habilis’ brain done more of its growing postpartum. However, extending the infancy stage, during which the species’ females couldn’t reproduce, would likely have put a demographic strain on Homo habilis.

The Solution?

Wean those big-headed Homo habilis babies, and let the clan feed them for a bit. Meanwhile, Homo habilis females would continue to reproduce – more frequently than any ape.

Homo erectus: Continuing Increases in Brain Size

Next in the evolutionary sequence: Homo erectus. According to fossil evidence, Homo erectus had an adult brain size of 850-900 cc. Homo erectus would thus have needed an extended childhood to achieve the necessary brain growth postpartum. (Barry Bogin, “Modern Human Life History: the Evolution of Human Childhood and Fertility,” in The Evolution of Human Life History, 2006). This would then have set the pattern for Homo sapiens, who had an even bigger adult brain size.

Social Darwinism and the Clan

What is notable about Barry Bogin’s human life history hypothesis, in terms of Social Darwinism, is that the clan, whose individual members would receive a lesser genetic benefit than the infant’s mother from the survival of an infant who is not their biological offspring, nevertheless takes over from the mother the care and feeding of the weaned infant during the new Life Stage known as Childhood.

What happened? How did the clan “know” that in allowing its members to secure an evolutionary advantage – not only for the clan, but for the species – it would be establishing an ethos of empathy and altruism, at least towards children, and promoting the sacrifice of individual genetic benefit for the greater benefit of group survival?

These intriguing questions are perhaps not answerable according to our present state of knowledge. If you accept the theory of Natural Selection, you will be aware that the hominid ‘invention’ of Childhood, according to anthropologist Barry Bogin’s hypothesis, was a secondary development consequent upon the primary Darwinian engine driving evolutionary change: the earlier weaning of infants allowed females to reproduce at shorter intervals. The fact, then, that hominids could produce offspring faster than any ape would have given the genetic edge to the human race. Humans’ big brains,  secured inside their big craniums, also turned out to be a plus.

What is the implication, for us humans, descendants of the hominids, of this dramatic re-shaping of the hominid lifecycle, by the addition of a Life Stage called Childhood, believed to have occurred two million years ago? Driven by the demands of evolutionary biology, that early childcare collective, the clan, would have developed the “altruistic” social organization that best suited its biological imperatives. Altruism would thus have been, according to the Life Stage hypothesis, an intrinsic part of human development and human nature. Thus we would have to agree, with Mozi, that the human condition mandates some form of inclusive care. And we would have to agree with Mozi’s ideological heirs that it takes a village to raise a child. If Mozi’s intuition about human nature is correct, however, Mozi’s ethics state a truth adumbrated first and foremost by evolutionary biology; the ethics that describe our human history being, again, a subsequent development.


Fraser, Chris, “Mohism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zaita (ed.) URL =

1 comment:

linda colman said...

The Sci Show on YouTube covers the Darwinian take on Altruism with a perspicacious patter: