Darwin and Political Theory
Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 241-54.
In the 1970s, during the oil crisis, B.F. Skinner suggested a way that the United States’s energy shortage could be alleviated. People should be rewarded, he argued, for coming together to eat in large communal dining halls, rather than cooking and eating at home with their families. His reasoning was irresistible: large cooking pots have a lower ratio of surface area to volume. There would be therefore a considerable saving in energy in massive public kitchens, compared with numberless small individual pots cooking in private kitchen stoves across the nation.
Of course, Skinner must have known his idea would have to overcome objections based on ingrained middle-class prejudices. Some parents would feel aggrieved: placing children before big communal pots would rob mothers of the pleasures of preparing foods and feeding their own offspring. Others might object that the only foods adequate to a big, round energy-efﬁcient vessels are stews or soups; they might complain about endless boiled fare. Families of one ethnic background or another might dislike the relatively uniform diet, despite the hearty, nutritious goodness of stew. I can imagine Skinner’s frustration: Why are people so stubborn? Why can’t they look beyond minor details and see the sheer reasonableness of the proposal?The story is cited by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate as yet another dream of a better-engineered world shattered by the ornery persistence of human nature. Based on his work with rats and pigeons, Skinner was sure that the proper conditioning applied to human beings could eliminate aggression, overpopulation, pollution, and inequality. In Skinner’s utopia, Pinker wisecracks, “The noble savage became the noble pigeon.”
B.F. Skinner was just another daft step on a long utopian road that stretches back through Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, and St. Thomas to Plato. These political philosophers, as well as those who, like Aristotle, are skeptical of utopianism, base their visions on some understanding, argued or merely implied, of human nature. All political systems — free or totalitarian, monarchist or republican — tend to posit some notion of the natural human being. In recent generations many thinkers have been inclined to regard competing conceptions of human nature as stuck in eternal conﬂict, embodying basic commitments about the human condition that are independent of evidence, originating instead in the religion, culture, or individual temperament of the political philosopher.
Evolutionary psychology gives hope against this pessimism. Political philosophers are right to posit a natural background that underlies construction of political systems, evolutionary psychologists say, but it required Darwin ﬁnally to explain that background to us. A lucid attempt to spell out the implications 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 (Rutgers University Press, $25.00, paperback). 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 ﬁrst 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.
Paul H. Rubin
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 affected 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 protohuman 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.
Rubin’s 223-page book is a rich, compact summary of the state of knowledge and speculation about the Pleistocene sources of our political and moral preferences. Some of the research that backs it up is Rubin’s own, but most of it derives from a long bibliography that stretches from Adam Smith, Westermarck, and Wittfogel to Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal, Tooby and Cosmides, Gerd Gigerenzer, and David Sloane Wilson. The book includes discussions of social altruism, the way humans tend to form in-groups, racism, common fallacies of Pleistocene political and economic thinking, sources of political power and attitudes toward it, religion and the regulation of behavior, and sex differences. 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. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specialization of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, ﬁnd game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals.
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. In military life, for example, modern mass armies may contain millions of soldiers organized in strict hierarchies, with companies and regiments, but the fundamental infantry ﬁghting unit is still the squad: typically ten to twenty men (or now women). In the U.S. Army version, the squad consists of a staff sergeant and corporal in command of ten privates. In its Pleistocene incarnation, such a hunting band was big enough to plan comprehensible strategies, numerous enough to surround game, diverse enough to exploit special talents of individuals (one man’s running speed, another’s game detection, another’s throwing accuracy), and powerful enough to overcome large animals with spears. We can try as a thought experiment to imagine alternative default group sizes: under different conditions, it could have turned out that we evolved to be most comfortable in working groups of two hundred. In that possible world, to note one new requirement, our memory for names would presumably have evolved to be much better than it is. 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. As with other animal species, such hierarchies are rational adaptations, insofar as they enable the allocation of resources without uncontrolled violence. They are not desirable for the individuals at the bottom, but they still would have had utility for societies in the EEA, as they do for social groupings now: better, at least, than eternal conﬂict and uncertainty.
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. Until the Holocene and the beginning of settled agricultural communities, hunter-gatherer life was mobile and had little structure. Some men tried to attain dominance, while others in the group, often ganging up, resisted them. Rubin cites studies showing that hunter-gatherers had what are called “reverse dominance hierarchies,” where less dominate males acted individually or cooperated with each other to curtail the power of would-be dominants. Strategies for this would include “ridicule, refusal to obey commands, forcible resistance, and even homicide against those with too strong a desire for power.” A desire for freedom, then, for relative personal autonomy within the group, is a powerful Pleistocene adaptation pitted against extreme coercive hierarchy.
The desire for relative autonomy while cooperating in small groups reveals itself clearly in modern organized mass societies, both democracies and dictatorships. Americans, for example, are inveterate joiners of small groups — special interest clubs for stamp collectors or antique enthusiasts, garden clubs, church groups, service groups such as Rotary or the Lions, sports clubs, Civil War reenactors, and choirs. In modern totalitarian states, such as the postwar Soviet Union, it is likely that many citizens who felt alienated from the power of a remote and monolithic government invested more of their sense of personal solidarity in, say, a local chess club, or in organizing outings for children in the Young Pioneers. Such small-group identity remains hierarchical, however, and people will often try to attain status in hierarchies of small groups they are members of. So an individual may have a lowly situated role as a worker for a large corporation or government department, and yet be president of a model airplane club. Well-structured societies today, including modern mass democracies, would provide adequate outlets for our hunter-gatherers preferences to ﬁt into hierarchies, to achieve relative dominance in them, and to possess autonomy, all at the same time. The variety of independent spheres of life today opens even greater possibilities than the Pleistocene offered for individuals to ﬁt in, both to lead and follow, in organized groups.
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. We view the very possession of desirable goods and resources on the part of others as somehow unfair or even immoral, and we will look for evidence allowing us to regard the rich as unworthy of their “luck” and possessions. We are inclined to regard as “unjust” any inequitable allocation of resources. Second, zero-sum thinking, although it has given us a good intuitive grasp of what we call “fairness” in simple trading arrangements (my fruit for your ﬁsh), 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.
Envy, Rubin argues, was a rational emotion for the EEA and had survival value. If another member of the group owned more than you, it was indeed likely because that person somehow had cheated or stolen it, exerted predatory power over you or others, or stumbled on a windfall. Individual skills might be rewarded in successful hunts or foraging expeditions, but these were expected to be shared. Moreover, the notion of large gains from economic exchange or inventing new technologies or productive investment (three major avenues to wealth in the modern world), would have had no place whatsoever in the EEA. Innovation was slow in the prehistoric world, and privacy nonexistent, thus making it impossible privately to invent something and capitalize on it. Increasing productivity by means of invention, expansive trade, and saving for investment were unavailable options. Human beings, Rubin suggests, therefore evolved a tendency to presume in the face of disproportionate wealth that the person who possesses it attained it through theft, hoarding, or shirking.
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. Consider two trees. A nearby tree offers our Pleistocene ancestor enough fruit to survive for another day. There is a 50% chance, however, of ﬁnding a distant tree that would have twice the fruit on it. What is our ancestor to do, stay at home with half the fruit, or go in search of the distant tree? He stays, insured of having nearby fruit. In a situation where it is just enough to survive, that marginal utility of getting to the distant tree is negated by the certainty of starvation if it is not found. As Rubin says, “If our predecessor bet right and found much more food, the ﬁtness gains would have been small. If he bet wrong and did not ﬁnd more food, he might have starved and left no descendents. (He would not in fact have been our ancestor.)”
Such bird-in-the-hand 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. While sympathy for the destitute or unlucky remains a permanent part of our thinking, there is another hunter-gatherer emotion that plays off against it: resentment for shirkers and freeloaders, even if they are at the miserable bottom of resource distribution. The much-reviled Victorian notion of the “deserving poor” is therefore a persistent category of human thinking and perception. This means that political campaigns to increase income redistribution toward the welfare of the poor must stress bad luck and lack of opportunities on the part of welfare recipients and argue against indolence or failure to seize opportunities as causative factors for poverty.
The “desire of our ancestors to reduce the power of dominants” is in Rubin’s opinion a much less beneﬁcial impulse today. It is based, he argues, on our failure to understand the nature of productive hierarchies, which have a beneﬁcial place in modern society, as opposed to the dominance or pure power hierarchies mentioned above. Productive hierarchies emerge from specialization of labor, where a high place in a social order is achieved by producing something that is seen as a beneﬁt by others. In productive hierarchies it is natural that highly skilled performers of any technique are able to sell their labor and receive commensurate reward. Brain surgeons, star basketball players, expert academics, effective business managers, skilled nurses, accountants, tree trimmers, TV repairmen, artists, and so forth form myriad ﬂexible hierarchies within society. While the system of rewards in a modern capitalist society could never be perfect from any one point of view, there is no doubt that many highly rewarded people rise to the tops of their heaps because of talent and hard work: in a word, they “deserve” in some sense what they earn because they are giving society, or some niche within society, what it is willing to purchase.
The Pleistocene mind doesn’t necessarily see it that way: it tends to notice how arbitrary or unjustiﬁed rewards can be — think of the returns for years of training in, for example, professional ballet versus professional football. Productive hierarchies, Rubin says, even when they are rational and beneﬁcial, are often resented, in line with the ancestral antipathy, as essentially dominance hierarchies. Sometimes this is justiﬁed; often it is not. Rubin criticizes Peter Singer for lumping together aristocracies, military hierarchies, and hierarchies based on wealth, as though they were all the same. The ﬁrst type is an allocation hierarchy, the second is based on predation, while the third may be benignly productive, altogether a ﬁne thing to have, Rubin says. “The most powerful and tragic example” of the confusion of allocation (or consumption) with productive hierarchies, according to Rubin, is found in communism. Marx knew how immensely productive capitalism was, but he consistently ran together productive and allocative hierarchies. The idea, as Marx puts it in the Communist Manifesto, is that factory workers are exploited by being “placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy.” Marx’s only way to make sense of a factory hierarchy is to cast the system as either enforced military service (an “industrial army” commanded by “ofﬁcers and sergeants”) or as slavery. That such an industrial hierarchy might actually produce more wealth for workers and capitalists, let alone consumers (which includes other workers), is systematically underestimated by the communist formulation. That a worker might choose to join a productive hierarchy, such as Henry Ford’s motor car company, makes perfect sense: Ford needed to attract workers, which is why he offered them his famous ﬁve dollars a day. The balance of power between industrialists and workers has shifted back and forth since the Industrial Revolution; it is not today merely one-sided, but involves hierarchies of skill, talent, and application. A conceptual universe that only allows for coercive or dominance hierarchies will be blind to this.
There is one other salient aspect of Marxism’s relationship to hunter-gatherer thinking that Rubin brieﬂy alludes to. The way in which the EEA has equipped us to understand simple barter and zero-sum trading has also given us an immediate intuitive grasp of the Marxian labor theory of value — the idea that the value of something is created by the labor invested in it. The converse of this fact is that we do not easily understand the productive use of capital and the payment of interest it entails. This may explain, Rubin comments, “why many religions forbid the payment of interest.”
Youth, defense, and monogamy. Sports teams gather in stadiums over the world to engage in combat, cheered by their home fans. Teams are typically composed of ﬁt young men, organized in squads of a dozen or so players. Their performances are subject to enthusiastic, highly-critical scrutiny by their supporters. 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. If these young males were more effective than those of competing tribes or clans, these predecessors survived and became our ancestors; if they were not, we are not descended from those individuals.” Even older males (and females) shouting instructions from the sidelines probably have an evolutionary genesis. Rubin says nothing about half-time encouragement by lusciously nubile young women, but why explain the obvious?
We might imagine that defensive strength in the EEA was set against dangerous wild animals. It is more likely, however, that the greatest threats to any human or proto-human group were other humans. Survival in such circumstances depended on young males. Rubin notes that young males have characteristics that make them good soldiers: “They are easily persuaded or indoctrinated by ofﬁcial statements or propaganda. They also form groups easily — whether military platoons, sports teams, or gangs.” They are also, as he says later on, inveterate risk-takers, whether in peacetime skylarking or in the heat of wartime battle. 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.”
One ominous aspect of the Pleistocene uses of young men comes to the fore in considering polgyny versus monogamy. Rubin argues that hunter-gather life was somewhat polygynous, with high status, resource-rich, dominant males having more than one wife. Polygyny has its uses: in warlike societies, conquerors “can obtain additional wives from the conquered, thus beneﬁting their genes and leading to larger populations in the next generation.” Male mortality on any side is a problem alleviated by allowing polygyny (in fact, Mohammed proclaimed polygyny permissible after a battle had resulted in heavy male fatalities). Polygyny also can be advantageous for some women: although it may seem odd for modern monogamous women to entertain the idea, there would have been many circumstances from the EEA up to the present day where a woman might have been in a much better position to be the third wife of a rich and powerful male, than the only wife of a relatively poor and powerless one.
Monogamy, however, has enormous social advantages over polygyny, and its enforcement in custom and law is one of the most important cultural developments in the modern Western world. In fact, the most successful modern states are those that have outlawed polygyny. A difﬁculty with polygyny stressed by Rubin is the strife it causes with young males. A signiﬁcant number of young males in polygynous society will realize that they are permanently cut off from access to females; this is a source of turmoil. It is, he suggests, an important factor in governance problems seen throughout the Islamic world, where undemocratic, repressive regimes have to deal with the tensions created by “ﬂoater males” or “desperados.” It is not accidental, Rubin suggests, that one of the most democratic Islamic states, Turkey, outlaws polgyny.
Polygyny is therefore also relevant to terrorism. Young males even in monogamous states are volatile, prone to violence, and inclined to risk-taking. Whatever the religious incentives are for a young man to commit suicide, they will be all the more attractive if he believes he will never attain a wife. He dies a hero, is provided with wives in heaven, while his earthly family or group beneﬁt from his death. It is probable, Rubin says, “that we humans have evolved tendencies to be particularly altruistic to kin in situations where we as individuals cannot breed anyway.” The suicide bomber whose family is promised money or new furniture is respecting this kind of altruism. Islamic polygyny is therefore a force tending to inﬂame a sense of desperation and increase violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.
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. Rubin argues that the multi-ethnic character of American society is one of its greatest successes. On the other hand, the “real danger from afﬁrmative action is that it can unleash the very ethnic identiﬁcation and ethnic-based politics that it is aimed at correcting.”
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 want to control recreational drug use, when people can gamble or drink, where they can smoke, and whether they can engage in private sex acts. We succumb to periodic moral panics about youth — the music they listen to or their hairstyles, their language, and so forth. We set up laws to regulate all aspects of behavior. 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. In fact, he even suggests that a group in the EEA that put into practice libertarian values would likely be less able to survive than one that more tightly controlled social behavior: I have a picture of laid-back, freedom-loving Pleistocene libertarians being massacred by a nearby tribe of Pleistocene fascists. What makes the fascists successful is the enforcement of speciﬁed beliefs and rituals, “our” culture. Punishing defectors keeps the group strong. The result is a marked human taste for paternalism, for interfering in private behavior in the name of morality.
But though Rubin thinks libertarianism as an outlook will never gain wide appeal, he does nevertheless conclude that free, Western democracies that enjoy free markets, allow ownership of property, and give citizens a wide range of individual liberties are the best way to satisfy Pleistocene political preferences. In particular, he says that the United States has been especially successful in “satisfying human wants” by constraining the power of government, instead of by increasing it. Judging by the status of the U.S. as an immigrant destination, it is difﬁcult to argue with the point.********
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.
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.
Rubin’s version of the Tragic Vision, like Pinker’s, does not depend on refuting a simple caricature of the Utopian Vision. The Utopian vision, as Pinker so nicely puts it, has set itself against customs, laws, and practices that were once thought to be sanctioned by human nature, and therefore possibly defended by proponents of the Tragic Vision in their day: “the conﬁnement of women to the home, the stigma against homosexuality and premarital sex, the superstitions of religion, the injustice of apartheid and segregation,” and such practices as “absolute monarchy, slavery, war, and patriarchy.” These are all patterns of thought and behavior to struggle against, for Rubin as for Pinker: there can be no ethical warrant to accept punishing homosexuality, or accepting slavery or racism, even if it could be shown that most human beings were disposed to do so by virtue of some inherited preferences formed in hunter-gatherer existence. But just in case there are such (to us today) undesirable preferences, it behooves us to understand as clearly as possible their Pleistocene genesis, present distribution, strength, factors that trigger them, and the ways they can be blunted or accommodated in modern life. This is not, pace the Utopian Vision, a matter of simply building a society in which they are not generated and will therefore disappear. It is a matter of working most effectively to build our political life in ways that use the best of human nature and minimize, or render innocuous, its worst.
At the same time, we ought not to try in politics to achieve the impossible. As Michael Oakeshott advised, “To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise.” So have some of the most corrupt political systems been created out of the highest human ideals. This is one of the tragic features of the human condition. Politics must respond to all of our nature, and it can only do so if it sees with Darwinian eyes the deep, pervasive, and haphazard system of tastes and preferences in human relations that are our inheritance.
So much of our contemporary political discourse appeals to notions of “right,” “justice,” “fairness,” and so forth. You don’t have to be an old-fashioned positivist to see the purely emotive nature of many attempts by politicians, and political theorists too, to persuade. Darwinian Politics offers an attempt to understand the evolved psychological roots of appeals to political sentiment. Its arguments are given in a spirit of providing information and opening debate, rather than closing it down. Paul Rubin has written an excellent introduction and guide to ideas that ought now to be part of the backdrop for any serious discussion of public policy.
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