The History of Government in Darwinian Liberalism

In my lead essay, I argue 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.”

Herbert Gintis claims that there is no evidence for this conclusion. He writes,

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.

He then cites the work of anthropologists Christopher Boehm and Polly Wiessner. He continues,

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.

Gintis fails to see, however, that the work of Boehm and Wiessner — and similar work in evolutionary political anthropology — supports the liberal understanding of civil society, while also supporting the history of government set forth by liberal political theorists such as John Locke.

The concept of civil society identifies the sphere of collective action through natural and voluntary associations, as contrasted to individual action, on the one hand, and the coercive authority of the state, on the other hand. A liberal state secures the spontaneous order of civil society, while a totalitarian state suppresses it. The fundamental insight here is that because human beings are naturally social animals, they will spontaneously organize themselves into families and communities, even without central planning by a bureaucratic state.

The historical science of Darwinian anthropology confirms this insight by showing that for most of their evolutionary history, human beings have lived in small foraging groups that were “stateless societies.” Gintis concedes this when he notes that in such societies, there are no formal institutions of government. What he calls “collective governance” is the social order that emerges among autonomous individuals acting through familial and voluntary associations to enforce customary norms of social behavior.

In the article cited by Gintis, Wiessner observes that in foraging societies like the !Kung Bushmen, “all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others.” There are informal differences in status and power, and some individuals exercise leadership in subtle ways. But foragers enforce a rough equality by punishing “big-shot behavior.”

Similarly, Boehm describes foraging societies as showing “egalitarian hierarchy,” in which subordinates use sanctions — such as ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, or execution — to restrain politically ambitious individuals with an innate propensity to dominate. In every society, there will be leaders in some form. But an egalitarian society will allow only “a moderate degree of leadership.”

Against the “visionary democrats” like Marx and Engels who believed that hierarchical leadership could be totally abolished in the future withering away of the state into a classless society, Boehm defends the position of “realistic democrats” who believe that a formal or informal system of checks and balances can allow for moderate leadership without the exploitative rule of dominants over subordinates. There is “a universal drive to dominance.” But that natural desire for dominance can be checked by the natural desire of subordinates not to be dominated.

Beginning 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture after the Last Ice Age, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, administrative, and monarchic bureaucracies.

These agrarian states provided the conditions for high civilization — economic wealth, technological innovation, cultural progress (particularly, through the invention of writing), bureaucratic administration, and military power. But that high civilization came with a big price — the loss of the individual freedom from domination that human beings enjoyed in foraging societies. Among foragers, the inequality of power, wealth, and status is minimal. Foraging societies don’t allow some to tyrannize over others. But agrarian states allow ruling elites to live by exploiting those they rule.

Consequently, the history of politics over the past 5,000 years has been largely a conflict between freedom and domination — with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There has often seemed to be no good resolution to the conflict, because human beings seemed to be caught in a tragic dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.

Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal republican capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a republican polity, and a capitalist economy promotes both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free, while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But we can mitigate this through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become unduly concentrated or unchecked. For classical liberals, such a system is imperfect. But it’s the best we can do.

The Darwinian history of politics provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage evolution of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.

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.