July 2010

Evolutionary psychology has wide-ranging implications for the social sciences and even for philosophy itself. How did we come to develop institutions like the family, religion, government, and the market? How did we develop our sense of right and wrong, and what role, if any, did evolution play in these momentous occurrences?

And — when we’re done answering all these weighty questions — what about politics? Is there such thing as an evolutionary politics? Or is the whole enterprise, as critics charge, by now starting to run away with itself?

In this month’s Cato Unbound, Professor Larry Arnhart makes the case for a classical liberalism grounded in the insights of evolutionary psychology. Well-known as the author of the book Darwinian Conservatism, which stresses the importance of evolutionary thought to a conservative political viewpoint, here Arnhart emphasizes that evolutionary biology can be a friend to liberalism, too. (Indeed, Darwinian Liberalism is the title of one of his current projects.)

The evidence, he argues, is all around, from Charles Darwin’s own liberal sympathies, to the anti-racist implications of mankind’s common descent, to the cultural evolution of societies toward greater tolerance, peacefulness, and industry. Just as human descent is common, many human values and aspirations are also common, and these are the foundations of a rational liberalism, one based firmly in evolutionary science.

Evolutionary psychology, though, remains a controversial field, and it stands to reason that its extension into politics will be controversial, too. This month we’ve recruited a group of eminent scientists to examine Arnhart’s claims in detail. Developmental biologist PZ Myers of the popular science blog Pharyngula, behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis, and anthropologist Lionel Tiger will each weigh in over the course of the next two weeks, followed by a discussion among all four.


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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.