The CSS Blog Network

The Natural Selection of Ideas: Prerequisites and Implications for Politics, Philosophy and History

Courtesy Rhoni Mcfarlane/Flickr

This article was originally published by Global Policy on 4 May 2016.

Why do certain ideas and political paradigms endure while others become obsolete or are rejected?

This question has preoccupied political and philosophical scholarship for millennia. This article puts forward four conditions for the survivability of ideas. It argues that modern tools for understanding human nature, such as those offered by neuroscience, provide us with unprecedented insights about human predilections and needs. Based on these findings, we can better conceptualize why some ideas thrive while others do not and their possible implications to international relations. The human need for dignity is central to this explanation: no ideas can thrive if they do not guarantee and safeguard human dignity.

In 1859, Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection in On the Origin of Species, and J.S. Mill explored the flourishing of ideas in On Liberty. In Darwinian natural selection, features that do not contribute to the function of the individual vanish over the course of generations, as bearers of such traits lack the reproductive fitness to pass those features on to their offspring. Mill applied a similar argument to ideas: good ideas would survive the rigors of critical debate, but there were no means of discovering which ideas would endure apart from testing them. In my attempt to continue this debate, I turn to neuroscience. Advances in neuroscience and brain-imaging inform us about underlying predilections in our nature, which indicate that we will be more likely to choose and validate certain ideas over others. My task here is to unpack this premise and to do so by looking at four prerequisites for the selection of ideas.

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The Perfect Storm: Mozambique’s Compounding Crises

Mozambique Grunge Flag

Courtesy Nicolas Raymond/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies on 22 July 2016.

A perfect storm is brewing in Mozambique as rocky economic and political fortunes stoke the embers of a decades-old conflict.

Twenty-four years after the end of the country’s civil war, sporadic violence has been erupting as former civil war adversaries have taken up arms once again. This has been fuelled by a complex web of political and economic incentives.

Both the Mozambique Liberation Front-led (FRELIMO) government and the former rebel group turned main opposition party, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), have demands for the country’s political future. The strength of their agenda at the negotiating table cannot be separated from their strength of arms in the provinces.

Meanwhile, as the political elite hash out positions for their share of power, an economic crisis looms. This has been brought on by government debt mismanagement and corruption.

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Get Real! Five Spiritual Responses to Political Reality

Peace dove

Peace dove, courtesy Dan Slee/Flickr

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy on 1 June 2016.

“Get real!” they say, in a thousand different ways, but mostly as a call for conformity, not awakening.

At its best, spiritual life is fundamentally about a deeper engagement with reality, a turn towards the confounding fullness of life, not an attempt to escape it. The idea that a renewal of progressive politics might require a spiritual turn is therefore about courage, about squaring up to those neglected features of reality that have untapped political potential.

One way to get real is to consider Neal Lawson’s excellent analysis on the existential threats to social democracy. Many believe in a beneficent state that arose from an alignment of class, governance and the cold war, when politics was national and industrial. But this state is clearly failing to adapt to a global and post-industrial world.

Part of the solution, Lawson suggests, is that we need a more visceral appreciation for values and activities that are not materialistic. We can still love our homes and our gadgets, but we need to dethrone consumption as our lodestar and touchstone. That means fostering passion for the time rich, relationship rich, experience rich and purpose rich lives we want to live.

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The Strategist: The Work of an Unconventional Political Scientist

Risk Board in the Middle East


This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 11 December, 2015.

In Sparrow’s narrative, the private and the public are intimately related, interconnected, and form a unity to explain relevant chapters of the American past.

Political scientist Bartholomew Sparrow has written what might be considered an unconventional work, The Strategist, a biography of Brent Scowcroft. His book is unconventional because biographies, even political biographies, are not typically written by political scientists – they are written by historians, journalists, or amateurs with a lot of energy and a fine pen. The political science community does not reward this work. We are scientists, not storytellers. We write about the science of politics, not about the lives of politicians. We are scientists who want, as professor Dietrich Rueschemeyer stated in Capitalist Development and Democracy to “go beyond conventional history’s preoccupation with historical particularity and aim for theoretical generalizations,” and consequently, the specific, the detail, and the particular are unnecessary and avoidable. Almost twenty years ago the eminent political scientist Margaret Levi argued in A Model, a Method, and a Map: Rational Choice in Comparative Historical Analysis that “the rationalists are almost willing to sacrifice nuance for generalizability, detail for logic, a forfeiture most other comparativists would decline.” In this view, Sparrow’s biography of Scowcroft is not only unconventional, but is also an anomaly in political science.

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Transitional Justice as Politics

Justice with a swagger

Justice? Photo: quinn.anya/flickr.

It is widely accepted that transitional justice can and should be separated from politics. How societies and states achieve justice in the wake of mass atrocities, so it goes, is a pursuit that must be divorced from political calculations. Indeed, in the eyes of many, politics is poison to any attempt at achieving accountability and combating impunity. Justice must be above and beyond politics.

As I have written previously, the field of transitional justice suffers from a diversity of problems. It is an ever-growing conceptual minefield that has accepted so much under its mandate that it risks losing its meaning. Increasingly, transitional justice no longer refers strictly to the approaches societies take to account for the past in the wake of conflict, dictatorship or a period of mass atrocity. Instead, a broad array of issues from Security Sector Reform, forced migration, Demobilization and Reintegration Reform, amongst others, are now considered under the transitional justice umbrella.

Another problem within the field and, especially, the practice of transitional justice has been a certain denial of politics. The strength of transitional justice is that it is political and, as such, represents the possibility of building societies and peace on the basis of a good politics. » More

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