Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eusociality, Morality and Political Systems

Over time, it seems that my view of human nature as it relates to religion, morality and political systems has diverged considerably from the ideas that most people hold these days. I have always believed in evolution, but when I read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, in the 1990's I began to become a radical Darwinian. This involved the recognition that we are here as the result of random events, meaning that life as we know it was far from inevitable. More recently, I have been influenced by Edward O. Wilson's application of eusociality to humans. I thought that I should say something more about these concepts, because they relate to many of the views that I have presented on this blog.

According to Wilson, humans are eusocial animals because they have these features: division of labor, overlapping generations and cooperative care of the young, including ones that are not their own. Certainly it is a bit of a stretch to relate humans to social insects on this basis, but from my point of view this is simply an opening through which to look at basic human nature as it relates to genetic predispositions. There is growing evidence that the cooperation humans engage in is the central ingredient that allowed our distant ancestors to survive while all other Homo species became extinct. Human cooperation is linked to the development of language, large brains, and, ultimately, consciousness. It is also the basis for all modern societies and, by association, most modern religions.

Although humans have never behaved as mechanically as ants, it is a useful thought experiment to consider what human life would be like if we had no innate tendency to form cooperative groups. If you have a hard time visualizing this scenario, it's because it is almost unimaginable. Humans would never have developed language, agriculture, villages or technology. We would in all likelihood be extinct. Any humans who managed to survive would probably live in a manner similar to chimpanzees or other primates.

I think there is a great deal of naïveté even among educated people about why we are the way we are and how our institutions came into existence, and this has ongoing manifestations in religious, moral and political thought. In my interpretation, religions have historically supplied worldviews that unify groups and permit them to form hierarchies that provide organization and functionality to groups of varying sizes. In a very small group, a religious leader might provide explanations that calm the group and prevent its disintegration. Until recently, there was often no separation of church and state: a theocracy was a natural form of organization that often worked quite well. Because of advances in science and global population growth, we are currently in a transitional period that could play out in several different ways.

In ancient times, some populations could live in proximity to other tribes and scarcely know that they existed. Because of population growth and advances in transportation, that is impossible now. Most of the conflicts of modern history have to do with different cultures coming into contact with one another and competing for natural resources. The British and the French in particular swiftly set up exploitative colonial systems that reaped benefits for hundreds of years. More recently, the American colonies, which consisted primarily of British settlers, decided not to be exploited by Britain any longer, as they were able to manage their own affairs. The U.S., however, copied the British model and continued to exploit slaves, who were used for inexpensive labor, and Native Americans, who were removed from their ancestral lands in order to make space for settlers and allow unfettered access to natural resources.

Because many early settlers of the U.S. came to escape religious persecution, the U.S. became the first major country to support the separation of church and state. Initially this may have had to do with the desire of immigrants to escape religious persecution, but eventually, because of the influx of people from diverse cultures, toleration of differing religious views on American soil became a necessity. It may be difficult for younger people to understand it now, but John F. Kennedy was a controversial presidential candidate in 1960 simply because he was Catholic.

My personal view is that there is currently little point in belonging to any religion. It is no longer necessary in the West to use religion to express one's affiliation with a group. This is not to say that religion has no significance. The medieval universities were primarily Christian, and much of modern Western civilization, including the sciences, developed within that tradition. There will always be church teachings that have some relevance, but I don't believe that any church has real authority, and scientific knowledge, though not always complete or satisfying, is still in the process of replacing church dogma. I consider large religious organizations to be on the verge of obsolescence.

One of the historical purposes of religion has been to provide a basis for moral authority and law. However, most church dogma is becoming irrelevant today. Particularly in monotheistic religions, once you take God out of the equation, there is nothing left to back up church ideology. After the emergence of Protestantism, erosion of church authority began to accelerate with the Enlightenment. In most developed countries today, the church plays no role in governance, and faith is treated as a private matter. Yet the transition away from church teachings in government is ongoing, and the conceptual basis of morality and law is still shifting.

Some now think of morality as a form of rationality, like Kant's categorical imperative. To me this is nonsense. It is more appropriate to look at human behavior first to determine the origin of moral behavior. I believe that its primary source is an instinct for group preservation. While there are indeed contexts in which rational self-interest may explain apparent moral behavior, I do not believe moral behavior would generally exist as a phenomenon were it not for a deeply implanted genetic predisposition that is supported and encouraged within human cultures. Because we are large, complex organisms, morality can only be loosely codified in our genetic makeup, and the resulting inconsistencies in individual behavior tend to mislead some into thinking of moral behavior as a rational choice. The fact is that, because of our complexity, any individual is capable of acting both morally and immorally while being fully aware of what constitutes right and wrong. I believe that it is a mistake to look for a source of morality beyond the context of human evolution and natural selection.

Another aspect of human life that ought to be examined in light of our knowledge of evolutionary processes is systems of governance. Here again I believe that we are in a transitional period. Possibly one of the most deeply-rooted instincts is to have a single leader such as a chief, king, pope or president. Although the Founding Fathers rejected the notion of monarchy, which they correctly associated with unfairness and the abuse of power, gradual increases in presidential power in the U.S. are probably to some extent indicative of an innate predisposition among humans to have concentrated sources of political and spiritual authority within their groups. This is an area where I think some of the ideas of the Enlightenment need reexamination.

In a nutshell, I believe that the concepts of governance that arose during the Enlightenment are shortsighted and incorrect, because they predated Darwin and place an unrealistic emphasis on human rationality. To make matters worse, subsequent political thinkers such as Karl Marx did not make any effort to incorporate Darwinian ideas into their thoughts and dismissed altogether the relevance of biology in the construction of political theories. The capitalist democracy is now the default system for most developed countries, and this state of affairs is probably little more than an accident of history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many European groups that had undergone religious, political or economic repression were attracted to the U.S. because of the freedoms it offered, and because their circumstances improved dramatically here no one critically analyzed whether this was a sustainable model when seen from the vantage point of all of humanity. My view is that the U.S. started as a quick fix for social inequality in Europe and escaped scrutiny as a model only because the timeframe in which people judged its success was too short. Obviously it seemed perfect to those who were unemployed and starving when they found jobs, food and shelter after arriving. However, there is no evidence that the system set up in the U.S. is one that can last for a thousand years and be modeled throughout the world without ill effects.

The two main areas in which I think the American system has failed are environmental destruction and inequality. The success of the economy and the political system rests on pollution and the segmentation of society on the basis of wealth. As the largest polluter in the history of the world, the U.S. bears a proportionate share of the responsibility for anthropogenic global warming and the associated mass extinctions. And, as Thomas Piketty amply documents, wealth inequality is likely to increase if we remain on our current trajectory. The fact is that the Founding Fathers had no idea what the long-term consequences of pollution might be - they didn't even know that pollution could damage the planet - and their ideas about equality are unacceptable by modern standards. Slavery? No problem. Female votes? Forget it. From my point of view, these were not small errors in the plan that crept in through the cracks, but are symptomatic of a limited system that was created in an ad hoc manner and has already proven itself unfair and unsustainable.

I advocate an orderly transition to a post-capitalist society in which people live equally, fulfilling their eusocial instincts, but without the democratic system with which we are familiar. In my view, capitalism must end eventually, because any benefits that accrue from it are likely to be negated by its destructive effects. Once a certain technological level is reached - and we are probably very close - there will be very little need for further technological advancement, and it is conceivable that working for a living will become unnecessary. Currently the democratic process is intertwined with economics, and a large percentage of legislation, in the abstract, boils down to how wealth is to be distributed. If wealth were permanently equalized, most of what we now think of as democracy would serve no purpose. In the long run, I think that some sort of automated system containing equality algorithms may work best for mankind, with active democratic processes continuing mainly at the local level, where individual participation may remain relevant. Technologically, I don't think we're far from creating artificial intelligence that will be capable of thinking better than we can and that won't have private agendas like those that still infect politics. At the moment it is, if anything, unsettling to think that the people in the federal government in Washington, D.C. are determining our future. Any political system that isn't based on a deep understanding of human nature is destined to fail. Abuse of power is no less apparent in modern democracies than it was in the old European monarchies.


  1. It makes sense that group preservation is a strong instinct, however moral behaviour notwithstanding it seems common that people are extremely self interested and absorbed, will walk on others to get want they want and also that as people get older they seem to retreat quite happily into isolation and introversion. Does that jive with the group instinct? Maybe in the very big picture...when ppl are young and having children and are impassioned about the world around them the instinct is stronger similar to sexual drive I suppose. Can you further comment, thanks.

    1. It's a little harder now to see some human instincts in operation, because we don't live under the same conditions that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. Part of the problem is that population levels are much higher than we're adapted for. Therefore, while technically all of the people who live in the same city are in the same group, on an instinctive level it isn't really a group - there are potentially dangerous strangers everywhere. I notice that people who live in rural areas are generally friendlier and more trusting than people who live in cities.

      As I said, we're very complex creatures, so even with instincts in the background we can be quite unpredictable. I think the pressures of modern living have made selfish behavior more acceptable than it used to be. In a small group of hunter-gatherers, if someone lied and cheated all the time, he might soon find himself kicked out of the group - and dead without group support. There isn't much of a penalty now for being selfish. I've read articles recently saying that many people in positions of power are psychopaths, because their indifference to others gives them a competitive advantage in the workforce. What I'm writing about would probably have been more observable before civilization came into existence, but you can still see it in small groups.


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