Reflections on Arnhart’s Darwinian Liberalism

Any fruitful assessment of alternative political philosophies must take into account the limits of the possible (“ought implies can,” was Kant’s expression). Evolutionary biology suggests that such limits exist and even suggests what some of these might be. In his essay, Larry Arnhart lists key aspects of being human that are suggested by evolutionary theory. First, there is a universal human nature rendering human beings predisposed to embrace some patterns of social life while rejecting others. This predisposition, as Arnhart stresses, rejects the model of the human mind as a “blank slate” equally capable of embracing any set of moral principles, and therefore of supporting virtually any variety social order. As Arnhart contends, an understanding of our evolutionary history and the universal moral principles associated with our species renders many political philosophies, such as utopian socialism and communitarianism, either impossible or supportable only by the relentless repression of natural human desires and principles.

As Donald Brown (Human Universals, 1991) and others since have shown, and Arnhart affirms, there are certain human desires and practices that are exhibited in virtually all societies, including the myriad of existing hunter-gatherer and other small-scale societies. This fact does not come from evolutionary theory, but from anthropological observation. The explanation of these regularities, however, is deeply biological. Until some 10,000 years ago, humans lived almost exclusively in small, mobile, hunter-gather bands. Over some hundreds of thousands of years of coevolution of genes and culture, our ancestors evolved new cultural forms that in turn became the basis for human genetic evolution. Human nature, then, is as much the product of cultural evolution as cultural evolution is the product of genetic evolution. This is the deepest single principle underlying the character of human societies and their inhabitants.

Of course the existence of human universals does not suggest a unique form of social organization. Indeed, there have been many distinct types of human society, and many of these have been widely embraced and broadly defended by their members. Therefore, Arnhart’s assertion that Darwinian evolution is favorable to “classical liberalism,” which he characterizes as “a libertarian concern for liberty and a traditionalist concern for virtue,” leading to a situation in which “the political order of the state [protects] individual liberty” and “the moral order of society [shapes] virtuous character,” must depend on additional arguments.

Arnhart’s main argument here is that “evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened [the] Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design.” However, he does not present this evidence and I do not believe that it exists. Indeed, a reasonable generalization is that every known society has a collective mechanism that deals with the establishment of social values and that regulates the treatment of individuals who violate social norms. Of course, in pre-sedentary societies, there are no formal institutions, and hence no “government.” But there remain extremely important and ubiquitous collective practices in small-scale societies for the regulation of norms. See, for instance, Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest (Harvard University Press, 2000); Christopher Boehm, “Conflict and the Evolution of Social Control”, Journal of Consciousness Studies 7 (2000):79-183; and Polly Wiessner, “Norm Enforcement Among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen,” Human Nature 16,2 (2005):115-145.

Humans evolved in contexts in which the establishment and enforcement of morality was regulated collectively. It is an error to consider such collective institutions as tribal meetings as aspects of “civil society.” Rather, they are fundamentally public institutions, and hence are forms of governance. Therefore, for most of human history, collective governance rather than the “spontaneous order of human action” regulated the stabilization and change in social morality.

The fact that collective governance has regulated human morality in the past does not, of course, imply that the evolution of morality might not be better transferred to “civil society,” but Darwinian evolutionary theory does not support this notion. Therefore, evolutionary theory does not uniquely support Arnhart’s version of liberalism. This should not be surprising, because the political philosophies of individuals who are well trained in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology are highly varied, and Arnhart’s libertarianism is probably a minority position among such individuals.

The evolutionary history of our species, to my mind, suggests the need for stronger collective regulation of morality in modern than in hunter-gatherer society. This is because modern societies tend to comprise several distinct ethnic and cultural groups with conflicting moral and religious principles. The tolerance preached by classical liberalism is thus a novel moral element injected into the ethical systems of nation states for the purpose of reducing social friction and improving the prospects of cooperation and mutual respect. The notion that mutual tolerance and adjudication of moral differences emerges spontaneously in civil society is implausible.

The evolutionary history of our collective control of morality might well suggest that in modern society, we need a formative politics in which political discourse develops the capacities of citizens for self-rule. The radical laissez-faire of libertarianism makes it impossible to use political discourse to probe fundamental morality. For instance, one of the rallying cries of choice advocates in the abortion controversy is “If you are opposed to abortion, then don’t have one!” The message here is that abortion is a personal choice, and I’ll make mine the way I wish, and you should do the same. But please don’t tell me that I must follow your views on the matter rather than my own.

Contrary to this libertarian approach to abortion, another strand of liberalism bids us to enter into a public debate concerning the morality of abortion and come to some understanding through open public discourse. The results of such deliberations may justly be imposed upon dissenters under some conditions. Thus, rather than supporting the institution of gay marriage or that of mothers with young children remaining in the labor force on the grounds “to each his own,” we might want to insist that we debate the implications of these institutions on how they will affect the fabric of our communities and the development of individual character in the future as a result of living with these institutions.

I conclude that evolutionary biology should inform our political deliberations, but that evolutionary findings will not uniquely favor any single political philosophy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, political scientist Larry Arnhart observes that there are indeed some universal values shared among all human societies, and that these appear to spring from a common evolutionary heritage. Such values, he argues, are the basis of a classical liberal politics that, while recognizing and even affirming individual differences, still offers us a common set of especially human values. Today’s evolutionary psychology, he argues, points the way to a new take on classical liberalism.

Response Essays

  • PZ Myers agrees that Charles Darwin’s political views were liberal, but he argues that these views have nothing to do with science. Nor should they, he continues. We are rightly suspicious of Marxist science, because injecting politics into scientific inquiry entails biased conclusions. Everyone, of every ideology, needs science, because science grounds us in reality. Evolutionary biology appears to be true by every measure we have designed, and its overall structure has been overwhelmingly confirmed, but this still doesn’t, and shouldn’t, make it political.

  • Lionel Tiger criticizes Arnhart’s account of evolutionary politics for its incompleteness on several fronts. First, if we are really going to describe politics in terms of evolutionary psychology, we need to engage with a long conversation already underway, on just this subject, going back to the early twentieth century and even before. Second, what about the gap between the rational economic actors of classical theory — and the distinctly irrational results of the business cycle? Third, what can the move from evolutionary psychology to politics learn from the parallel developments in our understanding of religion? And fourth, what about gender, which is a constant source of research material for biologists, but a relatively rare topic in libertarian thought?

  • Herbert Gintis agrees that evolutionary biology is an important influence that shapes human societies, but he rejects the idea that it leads to classical liberalism. At best, the evidence for the claim has not been adequately presented. And further, substantial evidence exists supporting the opposite — far from implying a classical liberal civil society, human biology has been shaped, and has arguably conformed on a genetic level, to communal governance. Gintis argues that we should take cognizance of our evolutionary history, then, and perhaps enact more rather than less communal regulation of moral norms.