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December 04, 2004

The State of Nature

Is the "state of nature" literal or metaphorical? I have always thought it metaphorical, but I may have to think again after reading a review by Denis Dutton of Paul H. Rubin's Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Here's a relevant sample of Dutton's very long review:

The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adapted-ness, 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....It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans....

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....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....

...In what follows, I’ll review a few basic components of hunter-gatherer political structures as described by Rubin.

Group size. Hunter-gatherer bands in the EEA were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children....

This group size for hunting parties remains a persistent unit of organization even in mass societies of millions of people — or, say, industrial firms or college faculties of thousands. It is in fact the default “comfortable” size for human working groups....We can try as a thought experiment to imagine alternative default group sizes: under different conditions....In our actual world, however, hunting with two hundred people would be an organizational challenge, if not a nightmare, as are most working parties of that size: that is why working groups such as company boards, university committees, and fielded soccer, football, and baseball teams tend to be hunting-band size.

Dominance Hierarchies. The formation of hierarchies, common among animals and found in all primates, is another trait universal in human societies. In the EEA, Rubin surmises, social life was generally orga­nized by so-called dominance or pecking-order principles....

Dominance hierarchies of the Pleistocene did not feature strong coercion from the top of the order, what we might term dictatorship, but required cooperation down the line....A desire for freedom, then, for relative personal autonomy within the group, is a powerful Pleistocene adapta­tion pitted against extreme coercive hierarchy....

Envy in a zero-sum society. One difference between a hunter-gatherer mentality and understandings needed today involves the nature of hierarchy itself. Hierarchies in the EEA evolved for a zero-sum resource environment: whatever was available was divided according to power or status. Trading in such circumstances is a zero-sum game: every bit of resource one person or family owns is something another family does not own. This default Pleistocene view of a zero-sum economy dogs our thinking today and results for the modern world in two undesirable features. First, we are prone to envy, to feeling dispossessed or cheated by the mere fact that others own what we do not own....Second, zero-sum thinking....makes it hard for us easily to understand how trade and investment of capital can increase the sum total of wealth available to all. We are therefore not well adapted to make sense of today’s economic system....

Risk and welfarism. Rubin speculates that in the EEA, resource availability fluctuated unpredictably (owing to weather change, disease, and natural events beyond a group’s control). Skill and hard work could help to meet these threats when they occurred, but individuals still would be “subject to significant variations in income” that could be fatal. Such risks, Rubin argues, predisposed humans to look for ways to insure survival through periods of hardship. An evolved moral prefer­ence for resource sharing is one form of such insurance, one way of handling risk. Societies of families, which is what we were in the EEA, are generally risk-averse....

Such... conservatism goes along with two other impulses. The first is our impulse to share as a form of insurance for lean times. The second, intrinsically connected with envy, is our desire to knock down pecking-order hierarchies, to foil the concentration of too much wealth at the top of the order. The first tendency, part of ancestral altruism, is a source of welfare in the modern state, but so is the second, which inclines us to tax the rich: an impulse toward income redistribution for the poor is a deeply Pleistocene adaptation, according to Rubin.

These preferences produce much tension in modern polity....

Youth, defense, and monogamy. Sports teams gather in stadiums over the world to engage in combat, cheered by their home fans....Despite the odd, wasteful way organized team sport consumes time and resources for very little utility beyond amusement, it is a human universal. This seems less strange, Rubin says, if we consider two aspects of sport: “First, the actions of the players are closely related to what would have been military actions in the evolutionary environment. Running, throwing projectiles (balls), kicking, hitting with clubs (bats, hockey sticks), and knocking down opponents — all of these actions are direct modifications of ancestral actions that would have been related to defense from others or offense against them.” The second aspect gets down to the evolutionary use of strong, aggressive young men: “the lives of our ancestors often de­pended on the strength and prowess of their young males....”

...Young fighters have a place in a general pattern of thinking in the Pleistocene: “human tastes for defense, and sometimes offense, are natural. . . . Pacifism is not a belief that would have been selected for inthe EEA.”...

Untenable libertarianism. Rubin’s summary of the political impulses and preferences of the Pleistocene presents a mixed and contradictory picture. This makes it possible for most political theorists to find inspiration for a favored point of view somewhere in hunter-gatherer psychology. Looking at life in the EEA, fascists and militarists can take heart, and so can Rawlsian egalitarians, Peter Singer socialists, and liberals of either the free-market or welfarist stripe. Still, the big picture for Rubin shows behavioral tendencies that we ignore at our peril. One, for example, is that as practiced in recent U.S. history, affirmative action programs are liable to create social friction and undermine the legitimacy of the state, perhaps outweighing benefits of such programs in the long term....

Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that Rubin is using evolution­ary psychology merely to support his own political predispositions (an antipathy to affirmative action being one of them), we should note what he says about libertarianism. Rubin confesses that libertarianism — the minimal interference by the state in the life of the individual — appeals to him personally: “in a libertarian regime, government would define and protect property rights, enforce contracts, and provide true public goods, but would do nothing else.” That is obviously not what people want, or there would have been more libertarian governments, Rubin says. Libertarianism was not a viable strategy for the EEA. The actions of individuals produce by-products to affect whole communities, and “we have evolved preferences to control these actions.” We are genetically predisposed, it seems, “to interfere in the behavior of others,” even where the behavior has little demonstrable adverse effect on a community....We are fundamentally meddlesome creatures.

Rubin speculates that this impulse to control our fellows, even in matters that have little or no material effect on living standards or resource allocation, is an adaptation designed to increase group solidarity....

Darwinian Politics in its way exemplifies 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 indefinitely 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....

If Dutton correctly interprets Rubin, and if Rubin is on the right track, it's no wonder that libertarianism seems to succeed only at the margin. For every success (e.g., deregulation of airlines and telephone service, abolition of the draft) there have been many countervailing and costly failures (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, excessive environmentalism, campaign-finance "reform", affirmative action, gross abuse of the Commerce Clause, and on and on). And that may the best we can hope for. The instincts ingrained in a long-ago state of nature may be far more powerful than libertarian rationality.

Posted by Thomas Anger on December 04, 2004 | Permalink

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