Anthropocentric Political Science

“What does political science have to say about evolution?” In many years of teaching political science, a student never asked me this question. I imagine that many political scientists responding to such a query would simply say “That’s not my department.” But situating political science within an evolutionary framework is not merely a good question. Political science’s claim to be a science, already on shaky grounds, will become untenable if it cannot provide a systematic way to undertake the challenge posed by this question. As long as political scientists have to defer to some other body of knowledge when confronted with the issue of situating humanity within evolutionary time, it will be trapped in an anthropocentric perspective unable to conceive of politics immersed in the world of nature.

Anthropocentric political science is a view of politics blind to humanity in the natural world. There are at least two respects in which this view has been challenged in relatively recent times, one pioneered by environmental advocates like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, which has forced political science to make ecological issues a core focus and the other, more fundamentally, by an epistemological crisis that highlights the need for the integration of physical and human sciences, or more to the point here, a physically integrated political science.

Social and political scientists used to have good reason not to involve physical science in their analyses of human society. The mechanistic paradigm of nature, the so-called clockwork universe that ruled science from the times of Isaac Newton, when applied beyond relatively simple physical realms to analysis of human affairs, could only reduce people to cogs in a machine. The notion that humans could, like physical objects in the Newtonian universe, be subject to mathematically precise, absolutely certain laws lent itself to scientistic and positivist rationales for domination and control. This was and is naturally repugnant to champions of human freedom whether in theory or practice. In this context, principled opposition to “hard science” interpretations of human affairs has not only been understandable but necessary to defend against dehumanizing theories of politics. But this traditional justification for keeping physical science at bay from politics needs to be reassessed in the light of developments that go far beyond the science of simple interactions of material objects to the science of emergent complexity. In this still blossoming view, nature is no longer modeled as a clockwork but as phenomena with both self-organizing and disorganizing, liberating and oppressive potential. In this new light, theorists of politics can no longer depict attempts to integrate the physical and the political as scientistic incursions into politics. Now is the time for political science to take up the challenge, however complex and monumental it may be, of situating politics squarely within physical reality – and making anthropocentric political science history.

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