August 12, 2003


Darwin and Political Theory (Denis Dutton, Philosophy and Literature)
Political philosophers are right to posit a natural background that underlies construction of political systems, evolutionary psychologists say, but it required Darwin to finally to explain that background to us. A lucid attempt to spell out the implications [of] evolution for politics has now been published by Paul H. Rubin, a professor of economics and law at Emory University, in the form of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Some of his conclusions are what anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology might suppose even without picking up the book. Others come as a surprise, and were unexpected even by Rubin himself. The book is both fascinating and unpredictable.

The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the EEA, essentially the Pleistocene, the whole, long period lasting from 1.6 million years ago up until the shift to the Holocene with the invention of agriculture and large settlements 10,000 years ago. Our present intellectual constitution was achieved by about 50,000 years ago, or 40,000 before the Holocene. Keep in mind the immensity of this time scale: calculating at twenty years for a generation, there were 80,000 generations of humans and proto-humans in the Pleistocene, while there have been a mere 500 generations since agriculture and the ?rst cities. It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans. These pressures might have pushed only very slightly in one direction over another. But a slight pressure over hundreds of thousands of generations-toward a taste for sweet, say, or a wariness of snakes-can deeply engrave psychological traits into the mind of any species.

Pleistocene evolution is often associated with the savannahs of East Africa, but human evolution occurred in many places out of Africa-in Europe, Asia, and the Near East. It was going on in the Ice Ages and during interglacial periods. The wide-ranging, hunter-gather species we became did not evolve in a single habitat, but adapted itself to all sorts of environmental extremes. Selective pressures would have been af?fected by climate, varying availability of foods, diseases, and predator threats. But beyond survival in natural habitats, each of our ancestors also faced threats and opportunities posed by other human and proto?human groups and individuals: we evolved to accommodate ourselves to each other, both as individuals in a group and as groups in relations of cooperation or aggression toward each another. It is all of these forces acting in concert that eventually produced the intensely social, robust, love-making, murderous, convivial, organizing, squabbling, friendly, upright walking, omnivorous, knowledge-seeking, arguing, clubby, raiding-party, language using, versatile species of primate we became: along the way to developing all of this, politics was born.

Rubin begins with that bracing idea that the often-coercive political control placed on human beings since the advent of cities is characteristic only of the Holocene. The human desire for freedom, he argues, is an older, deeper prehistoric adaptation: for most of their existence, human beings have experienced relative freedom from political coercion. Many readers will find Rubin's thesis counterintuitive: we tend to assume that political liberty is a recent development, having appeared for a while with the Greeks, only to be reborn in the eighteenth century, after millennia of despotisms, for the benefit of the modern world. This is a false assumption, a bias produced by the fact that what we know best is recorded history, those 500 generations since the advent of cities and writing.

Our more durable social and political preferences emerged in prehistory, during the 80,000 hunter-gather generations that took us from apes to humans. I stress here that Rubin is talking about hunter-gatherer political preferences as contingent givens; he is not in every case concerned whether those preferences should be honored. Moreover, when gathered together, these preferences do not form a deductive, logical, or empirically "neat" system, such as we find with the periodic table of elements, or the laws of Newtonian mechanics. Like evolved sensitivities to smells, tastes in food, or like the evolved morphology of the human skeleton, the catalogue of evolved political preferences does not display an order that makes analysis easy. The catalogue includes preferences, such as selfishness and altruism, that in many contexts are conceptually incompatible. It also includes preferences that are hard to disentangle from preferences produced by enculturation. The best anyone can do is to lay out putative Pleistocene political preferences with as much clarity as possible, in whatever irregular order they present themselves, however they happen to criss-cross, overlap, or contradict one another. This can only be done, as another naturalist, Aristotle, would shrug, with as much precisions as the subject matter allows. [...]

Darwinian Politics in its way exemplifes Kant's famous remark that "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made." It is not, to play on Kant's metaphor, that no beautiful carving or piece of furniture can be produced from twisted wood; it is rather that whatever is finally created will only endure if it takes into account the grain, texture, natural joints, knotholes, strengths and weaknesses of the original material. Social constructionism in politics treats human nature as indeinitely plastic, a kind of fiberboard building material for utopian political theorists. Evolutionary psychology advises that political architects consider the intrinsic qualities of the wood before they build.

Steven Pinker uses the crooked-timber quotation in The Blank Slate to distinguish what he calls the Utopian Vision of human nature from the Tragic Vision. Pinker himself comes down firmly on the Tragic side, and includes as his intellectual company Hobbes, Burke, Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Madison, Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, Popper, and Richard Posner. Utopians include Rousseau and Marx, Godwin, Condorcet, Tom Paine, Earl Warren, and Ronald Dworkin.

Who, other than Utopians, will find Mr. Rubin's thesis--that Man begins wanting absolute freedom but finds it necessary to compromise it for his own security sake--"counterintuitive"? In its political form it's at least hundreds of years old and forms the core of conservative social contract theory and therefore of the theory of our Founding. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2003 8:54 PM
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