Defending Darwinian Liberalism: A Response to Gintis, Myers, and Tiger

In my lead essay, I have argued that Darwinian science supports classical liberalism. The responses to my essay from P. Z. Myers, Herbert Gintis, and Lionel Tiger show a wide range of reactions — the general disagreement of Myers, the partial agreement of Gintis, and the general agreement of Tiger.

Myers declares that “evolution does not incline us to classical liberalism: it is just one of many options that evolution allows” — a Marxist communist society is as compatible with evolutionary science as is a classical liberal society. Really?

As Tiger suggests, one might look to the two Koreas as a natural experiment, and ask: Is the communist society of North Korea as compatible with evolved human nature as the liberal society of South Korea? Or should we rather say that this illustrates how a liberal society tends to promote human welfare, and it does this because it gives people more freedom to satisfy those natural desires that I have identified as traits of our evolved humanity?

Of course, as I have stressed in my essay, the natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions and individual judgments. Truly liberal societies began to arise only about two centuries ago — first in Great Britain, the United States, and France. So this must be the work of cultural evolution rather than genetic evolution. And yet the extraordinary success of liberal cultural practices comes from their conforming to the evolved desires of our nature. I agree with Ron Bailey that “cultural evolution is a trial-and-error process that is slowly discovering institutions that increasingly conform better to human nature.”

Gintis agrees with this point when he says that “there is a universal human nature rendering human beings predisposed to embrace some patterns of social life while rejecting others,” and consequently regimes of utopian socialism and communitarianism are “either impossible or supportable only by the relentless repression of natural human desires.”

Despite this agreement, however, Gintis rejects my classical liberal idea that moral order can arise from the spontaneous order of civil society rather than the coercive order of governmental design. He insists that in evolutionary history, the regulation of human morality has required “collective governance.” “The notion that mutual tolerance and adjudication of moral differences emerges spontaneously in civil society is implausible.”

If Gintis is saying that the moral order of civil society depends upon the legal/political order of liberal government that secures the procedural conditions for peaceful cooperation, then I agree with him. But if he is saying that moral order is impossible if substantive moral norms are not coercively enforced by the state, then I disagree.

What Gintis has written elsewhere about the evolution of “community governance” suggests to me that he wants to say the former, but not the latter. In an essay co-authored with Samuel Bowles — “Social Capital, Moral Sentiments, and Community Governance” — Gintis writes:

Community governance relies on dispersed private information often unavailable to states, employers, banks, and other large formal organizations to apply rewards and punishments to members according to their conformity with or deviation from social norms. An effective community monitors the behavior of its members, rendering them accountable for their actions. The presence of a significant fraction of strong reciprocators heightens the value of such dispersed information and opportunities for intrinsically motivated cooperation and punishment of antisocial behavior. In contrast with states and markets, communities more effectively foster and utilize the incentives that people have traditionally deployed to regulate their common activity: trust, solidarity, reciprocity, reputation, personal pride, respect, vengeance, and retribution, among others.

This seems close to what I said in my essay about the liberal conception of civil society:

The interaction of human nature and human culture is manifest in the cultivation of moral and intellectual character through the spontaneous order of civil society. Classical liberals believe that while we need the coercive powers of the state to secure those individual rights of liberty that are the conditions for a free society, we need the natural and voluntary associations of civil society to secure the moral order of our social life. The associations within civil society — families, churches, clubs, schools, fraternal societies, business organizations, and so on — allow us to pursue our diverse conceptions of the good life in cooperation with others who share our moral understanding.

The one disagreement here, however, is that Gintis separates “community governance” from markets, while I understand “civil society” as including economic activity. It is odd that Gintis does this, because he has been deeply involved in much of the cross-cultural research that shows that human beings with extensive experience in market activity tend to show a stronger disposition to the moral norms of fairness, trust, and reciprocity.

Moreover, Gintis in some of his other writing has concluded that the evolutionary psychology of morality confirms the insights of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is perhaps the best statement of the moral psychology of liberalism, in which moral order arises from the natural moral sentiments and cultural evolution in civil society.

Like Gintis, Tiger praises Adam Smith for understanding the natural sociality of human beings that was later given an evolutionary foundation by Darwin. Tiger’s intellectual career has extended this Darwinian understanding of social order as arising from evolved human nature. Particularly, in The Imperial Animal (first published in 1971), Tiger and his co-author Robin Fox showed how the “biogrammar” of human nature has structured human history and how it might support the modern idea of natural human rights.

My argument for Darwinian liberalism is in this tradition of thought. Although the free society as understood by classical liberal thought is a new idea in human history, it succeeds because a liberal order provides the individual freedom and social virtue that satisfy our evolved natural desires.

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.