Suddenly, “Darwinian” design and interpretative techniques are not only permissible but also—in some privileged venues—fashionable. We see Darwinian applications in computer science, engineering, molecular biology, cosmology, psychology, psychiatry, political science, and economics. In his new book, Darwinian Politics, Emory University’s Paul H. Rubin, Professor of Economics and Law, applies a Darwinian analysis to current political processes. The subtitle, The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, is provocative but, in my view, justified.
Life on Earth is 3,500 million years old: an incomprehensibly long interval. We can assess it by analogy, but we cannot feel it as we can an hour, a year, or a human lifetime. Hominins—human-like apes—have been here for at least four and a half million years. Hominins of the genus Homo, which includes humanity and its cousins, are known from about two million years ago, the start of the Pleistocene Epoch. Two million years is no more comprehensible an interval for us than 3,500 million: it is just a very long time! Modern humans—we hunters and gatherers—arose about 250,000 years ago, probably in Africa, whence we began our outward migration some 140,000 years ago. Recent finds show us having adapted to and surviving even in the ice-age deep freeze, in coastal Siberia, 30,000 years ago.
The current epoch—the Holocene—began 10,000 years ago with the most recent onset of global warming and retreat of the glaciers, with the discovery of agriculture and the consequent building of settlements. There was thus a very long interval between the first appearance of our immediate ancestors and the technological discoveries that closed the books on the static eons of hunter-gatherer life. Social upheavals due to agriculture and hydraulics ushered in our restless existence in fiefdoms and cities, but through at least the 40,000 years preceding those developments, we—in essentially if not exactly our present physical and mental shape—lived on the land.
Conditions allowing civilization and a readable historical record began only in that geological eye-blink, the last 10,000 years. As Professor Rubin ably summarizes it, our ancestors lived for thousands of generations in a world radically unlike ours; during that residence, their bodies and brains evolved, as did the aggregate instincts, awarenesses, tastes, and behavioral tricks which are the product of those brains—the mind. In the new discipline of evolutionary psychology, the long period of human life prior to the Holocene is dubbed the “EEA”—the environment of (our) evolutionary adaptation. It deserves that name because in the course of its long development, the basic features of human cognitive performance—those instincts, tastes, and behaviors that are still with us—were “selected for” and stabilized. They became features of nearly all of the human population because their possessors were the most successful survivors and hence reproducers. The last 10,000 years are too short a period for this picture to have changed very much.
The idea of EEA is a key concept of evolutionary psychology and an indispensable background to Professor Rubin’s arguments. Evolutionary psychology is sociobiology, still despised on the far left and the far right for bad but different political reasons. The left sees it as anti-social and deterministic; the right sees it as anti-religious, or as a nasty challenge to cherished tradition. Darwinian Politics is a well-documented but pleasingly readable epitome of interpretive insights from the application of evolutionary psychology to political behavior. It is an example of the consilience of which E. O. Wilson has written, for which he has heard so many indictments of his scientism, or worse.
With what might a “Darwinian” economics and politics deal? With matters such as these, each of which gets a chapter in the book: group membership and group conflict; altruism, cooperation, and sharing; envy; political power; religion and the regulation of behavior and how humans make political decisions. It deals, in short, with demonstrably heritable universals of human preference and behavior, and with the extent to which they fit—and sometimes emphatically do not fit—present social, cultural, and political reality.
For example: the facts of paleontology, archaeology, and anthropology tell us that for most of our time on Earth—until just now—we have been a small-group social species. H. sapiens has for most of its history lived in family or clan-sized groups: twenty-five to a hundred individuals. For a weak but clever animal, such groups have great advantages over solitary or near-solitary existence. Just as they do, in fact, for the other apes. An individual’s tastes and behaviors conducive to successful small-group life enhanced survival and therefore reproduction. Many such variations made it into the next human generation: far fewer tastes of the opposite kind did. That’s what evolution is and why it is inevitable.
Rather abruptly, in the Holocene, the world changed. Groups became much larger. In the EEA, humans had become adept at living successfully with fewer than a hundred others, where every member was known to every other member. With the growth of towns, immediate group size grew tenfold. It is now a thousand times and ten thousand times larger, and great cities even larger that that. Groups must, one way or another, be governed. Anarchy for a social species is the pipe-dream of Romantics or criminals. Clearly, the ways of governing and living with about fifty others cannot possibly suffice for governing and being involved with a million others, let alone hundreds of millions. The crucial difference is between social and political preferences for which we became specialized in the EEA, in which our cognitive styles and preferences remain to this day heavily invested—and the socio-political realities of the present. Solutions to many puzzles of human behavior are being sought and found in that difference.
Why, for example, do we—whole populations of us—become exercised to the point of political upheaval because of a story about, or a meeting with or a glimpse of, an individual, while we pay no attention to vastly more serious or urgent cases of similar kind that involve thousands whom we do not see? Why can one tear-jerker TV story create mass demand for senseless political action? Because we became experts in understanding, empathizing with, judging individuals, people we see and know, and not in understanding statistics and abstractions. In the long period of evolutionary adaptation, personal insight was a key survival tool, and it was honed. Quantitation, analysis, and abstraction were not. This is one example of how our evolutionary history continues to affect behavior and emotions.
Our mammalian heritage and the pitiless imperatives that drive its survival and reproduction made it inevitable that in those small bands of the EEA there would be dominant males (since we are mammals, not dipterans or molluscs). Social organization would generate hierarchy, with dominants collecting and defending large harems. Males with heritable strong preferences in that direction would out-reproduce those with weaker preferences. Devices of control beyond mere combat would soon be needed, and such devices appeared and evolved: politics. We still have among us persons with especially well-developed preferences for domination, for acquisition, especially of mates, for cajoling or controlling subordinates. They are the most successful politicians. But now, the numbers they deal with are not fifty or a hundred, but thousands, millions.
Meanwhile, what of the non-dominants? Were their preferences static? Surely not. There emerged very early in the EEA variants of taste and preference for open—or disguised—subversion, opposition to, and, eventually, the counter-control or even elimination of dominants. Envy, that pernicious but politically indispensable human trait, evolved as one common variant. Just as domination made sense for the group as a whole (because of efficiency in hunting and defense against predators), so too did resistance to and subversion of dominants, preventing them from accumulating for themselves too many of the available goods (females, food). In a zero-sum world, which it was, only opposition to power insured that non-dominants would survive and perhaps mate. And that too was good for the group. The resistance movements are “reverse dominance hierarchies.” A balance, in short, emerged in the small bands of our ancestors, descended from what had probably emerged much earlier among ancestral apes (and survives for us to observe in living troops of apes). It was a balance suited to small groups, between oligarchy and anarchy, servitude and freedom.
In the post-neolithic revolutions, however, that balance was lost. There is, surprisingly, no doubt that our forebears in prehistory had more personal freedom than did their descendants after the rise of cities and states. The devices available for domination and control (complex religions among them) increased and became extremely powerful. Devices for resistance to power failed to keep pace, and were eventually reduced to sporadic, mostly failed, revolutionary wars. Most of the wars that made real changes were between competing dominants.
The wonder is that we nevertheless discovered means by which we regained a measure of freedom for individuals (this time including women), and also—only very recently!—means for limiting in perpetuity the power of dominants. Those means are in liberal democracy—the only political system in which, so far, that has been accomplished. Because of its inherent instabilities, personal freedom in liberal democracy is always under threat from older, simpler political arrangements. Still, it is the most extraordinary achievement of our species so far. Thus envy and resistance to power, products of our evolution, are in one respect an inherited blessing, just as our easy diversion, by a good human interest story, from reason, justice, and even self-interest can be a grievous flaw. And yet envy itself, so useful for limiting dominance, is an inherited and dangerous flaw when it takes the form, in our largest groupings, of cultural resentment or class envy.
Summaries like this do not do justice to the richness of evolutionary psychology. Professor Rubin, however, has ably summarized the discipline’s key insights, so that a nonspecialist reader can appreciate the real issues underlying the controversies. He has also cited a large body of primary literature, which will help readers to make independent judgments about the value of such Darwinian analysis. Needless to say, a new discipline like this throws up as many wrong notions as right ones. There is plenty of criticism within the discipline, even of the basics. Some critics challenge the assumed primacy of the EEA, arguing that rates of cognitive evolution, driven by language and culture just as much as by the physical environment, are much higher than is assumed in evolutionary psychology, and therefore arguing that human cognitive competences and styles have not been static during the last 10,000 years. Others accuse practitioners of evolutionary psychology of political or cultural naiveté. Of course there is the continuo, played so loudly that it cannot be missed, of purely political carping from both ends of the spectrum. This doesn't matter much. Fashionable or not, the evolutionary psychology of economic and political behavior is becoming a legitimate bridge between the social and natural sciences.