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Thursday
Dec292011

Darwinian Politics - The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom

The economist Paul H. Rubin has written an excellent study. Relying on an impressive amount of evidence from evolutionary psychology and economics, he shows us how the theory of evolution and the evolutionary history of humans are relevant for understanding contemporary political behaviour. Rubin is convinced that if we understand the ways in which our political preferences evolved, we will be in a better position to understand how we make political decisions and perhaps also how we should decide in these matters. This does not imply making the “naturalistic fallacy”. He is not drawing normative conclusions straight from empirical results. Rather, he calls attention to a large set of facts about human nature that no serious political theorist legitimately could ignore. 

 

Rubin follows Peter Singer’s work A Darwinian Left and argues, like Singer, “that there are evolved political preferences in humans and that political systems must consider, and perhaps adapt to, these preferences”. But, unlike Singer, Rubin does not start out with a specific political agenda but tries instead “to be somewhat more analytical and allow the agenda to come from the preferences”. He analyses which political institutions allow humans to fulfill their preferences, rather than imposing his own preferences on them. He admits to having started out writing the book as a libertarian, but that he has in the process come to question some of his previously held beliefs. It is refreshing that he for the most part avoids moralizing and takes a more scientific and objective stance to his subject matter. Only on a few well-chosen places does he step down from the meta-perspective to take a normative stand on important issues. The overall conclusion of the book is that modern western societies (particularly that of the United States, primarily because of its ethnical diversity) are the most effective societies for satisfying our evolved preferences. 

 

Adopting such a project obviously involves rejecting the blank slate myth – the idea that individual humans are almost infinitely malleable and can be fundamentally re-shaped by society. There are very strong evidence-based reasons against the blank slate (as meticulously gathered by Steven Pinker in his excellent book by the same name). Rubin writes that certain rules and behaviours are indeed "programmed" into us and that “we violate these rules only at great peril” which is powerfully exemplified by the disastrous social experiments of communism in Russia, China and elsewhere.  

 

The themes explored in the book include conflict (within and between groups), altruism and cooperation, envy, political power, and religion. There are so many good and important points made that I will not be able to mention them all here, but I will list some of them and then go on to raise a couple of critical points.

 

  • Humans are highly individualistic and we differ from each other on numerous dimensions. There are reasons why evolution has not generated the same set of preferences in everyone. This explains why human individuality is important and why political ideologies that assume everyone to be the same are doomed to failure.
  • We have a common desire for freedom which is an evolutionary very old characteristic of humans. But in addition to wanting to be free ourselves, we also have a desire to dominate others. Sometimes subordinates can resist this desire for power by dominants but at other times they cannot and we have dictatorship. Throughout most of human existence, most individuals (at least most males) have been quite free. It is only during the last 10.000 years or so that most humans have been living in an unnatural state of reduced freedom. Moving from this state to the relatively limited government powers of modern western democracies has caused a major improvement in human happiness by returning us to conditions that are more similar to the environment of our ancient ancestors. (Which is not to say that the current situation cannot be further improved.)
  • There are good evolutionary explanations why some (primarily male) individuals seek political power. Those who sought and obtained such power generally left more descendants than those who did not. If those attracted to politics use it as a method of seeking status, then there would be relatively little demand for positions associated with the elimination of political power. Those seeking to reduce the power of government in all dimensions would tend to not seek political power in the first place. (This might explain why libertarian political parties do not do too well). “Given this, those of us not involved in government would do well to form our own reverse dominance hierarchy and attempt to limit the power of government.”
  • Certain political behaviors may be counterproductive with respect to our evolved preferences in the novel environments in which we now live. We can learn that satisfying these preferences costs too much, and decide not to satisfy them.
  • We evolved in a world with limited possibilities for exchange and other activities that increase wealth. Therefore, we are not well adapted to think intuitively in terms of gains from trade; our minds are built for understanding a zero-sum world in which we no longer live. The fact that all parties gain from trade, and that free international trade is welfare-maximizing is counterintuitive. Economic thinking must be studied and taught, it is not learned intuitively. The result is that humans in many cases now tend to base decisions on outdated zero-sum thinking
  • One example of such zero-sum thinking concerns our preferences for (material) equality. In a zero-sum world, if some are wealthy, this must be at the expense of the poor. In today’s world, while increasing the incomes of the poor is a desirable policy, increasing equality is not. Policies aimed at increasing equality lead to lower economic growth and actually lead to more, not less, poverty.
  • Another example concerns the envy that many people feel toward the relatively rich. This feeling is linked to a belief that the only way to accumulate wealth is to take it from others, perhaps through social cheating. It is easy to see how a basis for such attitudes of envy evolved in a zero-sum environment. But it is equally easy to see how misplaced they are today. In the market economies of modern western societies, the most efficient and the most common way to accumulate wealth is to provide some productive benefits for others. The wealthy have not in general accumulated their wealth through "exploitation". Thus, in most cases our envy towards the rich is misplaced. 
  • In a zero-sum world where possibilities of increasing wealth by increasing productivity are not available, the only way to get additional resources is to take them from someone else. Those who were more successful at such predation would have been more likely to become our ancestors. If we evolved in such a world, we might have tendencies to believe that such aggression is a useful strategy. This might explain why we have war. However, since the world is no longer zero-sum this evolved intuition is now counterproductive and many are giving it up. This can explain why violence has declined. Rubin observes that warfare in primitive societies was a more significant source of death than in advanced societies, even when major wars are included.     
  • Both ordinary people and professional students of human behavior and evolution have often confused dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The same factors leading humans to (justifiably) dislike dominance hierarchies can lead them to (unjustifiably) dislike productive hierarchies as well, even though the latter may benefit all members. The result is that people may be overly hostile to productive hierarchies and as a result choose policies that actually make them worse off. Rubin takes Marxism to be the most powerful and tragic example of this phenomenon: “Marx opposition to capitalism and the acceptance of Marxism by many individuals (including many intellectuals) was based on confusion between productive and [dominance] hierarchies […] Marx did realize that capitalism was a highly productive system, but his analysis […] reads like a discussion of dominance hierarchies.” The appeal of Marxism (“which persists in some circles even today, when the dismal implications of a communist society should be clear”) “was based on the human opposition to dominance hierarchies, inappropriately applied to productive hierarchies.”       
  • Another error made by Marx and accepted by many others may be based on evolved patterns of thinking. There was little capital in the environment in which we evolved and as a result we may not have reliable intuitions about the productivity of capital. This may explain the Marxian labor theory of value: "This theory is clearly incorrect, but it may be intuitively appealing for evolved reasons." It may also explain why many religions forbid interest: "Interest is a payment for the use of capital, and if one does not understand the productivity of capital, it is impossible then to understand the value of interest.”
  • Voters exhibit many cognitive biases and illusions in the political process that are not so common in (private) economic decision making. (A point made more fully by Bryan Caplan in his The Myth of the Rational Voter). A rational citizen will pay much more attention to deciding what to buy in the marketplace than to which politicians he prefers. Indeed, given that it is extremely improbable that any one vote will have any impact on the outcome, there is no incentive to vote at all. Still, many people do vote. Rubin suggests that people greatly overestimate their individual contribution because we retain the thought patterns of our small-group evolutionary environment. “We are simply not suited to understand situations in which our decision has no influence.”  
  • Humans have a flexible group identification mechanism but it is also powerful. If membership in an ethnic group becomes important for significant purposes, this membership can easily become the basis for strong group identification. Affirmative action (concerning race) is a very dangerous policy because it involves treating individuals as members of ethnic groups rather than as individuals
  • Libertarianism as a strategy would not have been viable in the environments in which we evolved. Individuals with libertarian preferences would have been less successful than others and left fewer descendants. Such preferences would thus have been selected against, but not completely eliminated which can explain why there is a minority who desire a libertarian order. The conditions have now changed sufficiently so that a libertarian society would be more viable today when the benefits of interventionist preferences may have decreased and the costs of enforcing such preferences increased. Modern western society limits the power of dominants, and individuals in such societies have more freedom now than humans ever had in the past.


Rubin is evidently very well read in both economics and biology and the bibliography is indeed impressive, but (as he himself admits) his analysis is largely uninformed by contemporary moral and political philosophy. He is right to point out that philosophers in general have not paid adequate attention to biology. But in not paying adequate attention to philosophy Rubin himself commits the converse mistake (and citing other authors who also ignore philosophy (!) does not help). In the preface he states that this book is an effort in what E.O. Wilson has called consilience - the unification of knowledge across the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. This is an admirable and ambitious intention, and Darwinian Politics does go a long way toward achieving its goals, but it could have been even better if the philosophical literature had been given proper attention. I’m not just saying this because I care about philosophy, but because I really think that philosophical perspectives would have been useful in clarifying some of points made in the book. I now raise a couple of examples of that.

 

His rather quick and insufficiently motivated dismissal of using a hypothetical state of nature as a starting point in political theorizing and his equally quick and somewhat uncritical embrace of utilitarianism leaves something to be desired. He amusingly points out that the closest real-world approximation to a Hobbesian individual would be an orangutan, not a human. Orangutans live solitary lives with almost no social grouping beyond the mother and offspring. He says further that  

 

... rules governing social actions of individuals would have come into being along with humans themselves. Asking about the life of human beings in isolation with no social structure would not be meaningful. Moreover, since rules evolved along with humans, asking what rules humans in a totally ruleless state would choose is also meaningless. Such a world has never existed and, in principle, cannot exist.  

 

While this might demolish Hobbes' particular version of the state of nature (which is wildly implausible anyway!), it does no damage to the social contract idea as such. My point is not that Rubin is wrong, but that insofar as he wants us to stop thinking in terms of a state of nature altogether (which it is not clear if he really does) his argument needs to be a lot more subtle. David Hume's distinction between natural and artificial virtues might be very helpful here. We could agree that a totally ruleless state has never existed and, in principle, cannot exist and that social contract reasoning would indeed be meaningless when applied to the natural virtues, but maintain it with regard to the artificial virtues. John L. Mackie makes a big deal out of this distinction in his Hume's Moral Theory. Mackie stresses how insights from Hume can enhance and refine Hobbes' theory:

 

[Hobbes'] doctrine that men are completely selfish has been effectively criticized by many of his successors, and must be drastically modified. Nor have we found a need for an absolute political sovereign. Again, while Hobbes sees moral practices as being deliberately adopted through intelligent calculation as a means to individual well-being, this seems not to be their main explanation. These are radical corrections; yet after they have been made the main outlines of his theory still stand. He was right in denying objective moral qualities and relations. He was right in seeing morality as a solution to a social problem of partial conflict which is not solved, but rather made more acute, by human instincts and the ordinary
human situation. He was largely right in his view of the form of the problem, and partly right in his identification of the elements to be used in a solution. But his notion of sovereignty exaggerates the part that has to be played by government, and his notion of covenants overstresses explicit agreement whereas more weight should be placed on the notion of convention that we have extracted from Hume's discussion and the mechanism of reciprocal sanctions.

 

I agree with Mackie's attitude. We ought to make the state of nature more empirically accurate. In doing so we make the social contract view more, not less, plausible. Maybe, Rubin would agree? He says that "to understand the state of nature, we must replace the Hobbesian world of individuals in conflict with a world with groups in conflict" and that in such a world "behaviour within the group would have been governed by existing, evolved (not created) rules". Besides, the social contract idea is not (primarily, at least) about how rules come into being, but about the validity of rules - it is not about providing an explanation but a justification - a distinction that Rubin fails to make explicit. 

 

Rubin discusses utilitarianism, Rawls and Marx and thinks that, out of these three theoretical options, it is utilitarianism that goes best together with our evolved preferences. This is, I believe, highly questionable. All of these alternatives are patterned principles in Robert Nozick’s terminology. I think that our evolved preferences go better with historical principles which is shown by our deep and universal concern with reciprocity and moralistic punishment. Utilitarianism downplays reciprocity and gives it only a secondary importance which is not the kind of importance it enjoys in people’s minds. A common objection to utilitarianism (that Rubin does not mention at all) is that it demands too much of us. Utilitarianism demands not only trivial sacrifices for the benefits of others, but can demand significant ones for the benefits of utter strangers (in the name of total utility). Our strong evolutionary based propensity to give precedence to kin (and others close to us including ourselves) is, for example, not respected by utilitarianism (where overall utility is all that matters, not whose utility it is).

 

Only one objection to utilitarianism is actually mentioned by Rubin and his reply to it is puzzling to say the least. He notes that a common criticism proceeds by showing that the logical implications of utilitarianism are absurd if the theory is carried to its logical extreme. He then comments:

 

But the argument discussed here is that utilitarianism is essentially the result of fitness maximizing preferences. In this reading, any implications of utilitarianism that conflicts with fitness maximization for the relevant decision-making group are illegitimate extensions of the theory and should be ignored.

 

I'm not quite sure what to make of this somewhat cryptic passage, but it seems to be the case that Rubin is a utilitarian only with strong reservations. He also fails to explicitly make the standard distinctions between rule and act utilitarianism and between preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism (his explicit embrace of Bentham might easily lead us to believe that Rubin is a hedonist, but his argument is concerned with preferences so the principle of charity forbids such an ascription). It remains unclear why his overall argument is supposed to fit better with utilitarianism than with theories in the social contract tradition (including that of Rawls).

 

As I said above, there is more to this book than I have been able to mention here. It should be said that Rubin’s style of writing is a bit on the formal side and the text could flow better than it does. But what it lacks in style it makes up for in content. Each chapter ends with a short summary and it is wise to start with these summaries together with the preface and chapters 1 and 8 on a first reading. Overall, this is a highly recommended read for economists, political scientists and philosophers alike. 

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