About this Issue

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.


Lead Essay

Darwinian Liberalism

Libertarians need Charles Darwin. They need him because a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.

In his review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, Thomas Huxley declared, “every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armory of liberalism.” The Whitworth gun was a new kind of breech-loading cannon — a powerful weapon, then, for liberalism.

In 1860, liberalism meant classical liberalism — the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others. According to the liberals, the primary aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud, which included enforcing laws of contract and private property. They thought the moral and intellectual character of human beings was properly formed not by governmental coercion, but in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society.

Although Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as Herbert Spencer in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw that Darwin’s science supported liberalism. Darwin himself was a fervent supporter of the Liberal Party and its liberal policies. He was honored when William Gladstone (the “Grand Old Man” of the Liberal Party) visited him at his home in Down in 1877.

Like other liberals, Darwin admired and practiced the virtues of self-help, as promoted in Samuel Smiles’ popular book Self-Help, with its stories of self-made men. Darwin was active in the charitable activities of his parish. He was the treasurer of the local Friendly Society. In Great Britain, friendly societies were self-governing associations of manual laborers who shared their resources and pledged to help one another in time of hardship. In this way, individuals could secure their social welfare and acquire good character through voluntary mutual aid without the need for governmental coercion.

Darwin was also active in the international campaign against slavery, one of the leading liberal causes of his day. In their recent book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown that Darwin’s hatred of slavery was one motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the pro-slavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a separate species of natural slaves.

Also in The Descent of Man, Darwin showed that the moral order of human life arose through a natural moral sense as shaped by organic and cultural evolution. He thus provided a scientific basis for the moral liberalism of David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other Scottish philosophers, who argued that the moral and intellectual virtues could arise through the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture.

Darwin and the Libertarians

One might expect that today’s libertarians — who continue the tradition of classical liberalism — would want to embrace Darwin and evolutionary science as sustaining their position.

But libertarians are ambivalent about Darwin and Darwinism. That ambivalence is evident, for example, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy, under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Charles Darwin. But there are entries for Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism, and Evolutionary Psychology. In these and other entries, one can see intimations that libertarianism could be rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature. But one can also see suggestions that Darwin’s science has little or no application to libertarian thought.

The entry on Evolutionary Psychology is written by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the founders of the research tradition that goes by the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

They indicate that evolutionary psychology was begun by Darwin. They say that its aim is to map human nature as rooted in the evolved architecture of the human mind. They summarize some of this evolved human nature, including reasoning about social exchange and cheater detection that provides the cognitive foundations of trade and the moral sentiments that make moral order possible. They contrast this idea of a universal human nature with the idea of the human mind as a blank slate that is infinitely malleable by social learning. They say that the false idea of the blank slate explains the failure of those experiments in social engineering that denied human nature, as illustrated by the failed communist regimes. This all suggests that a Darwinian evolutionary psychology could support a libertarian view of human nature.

But Cosmides and Tooby also cast doubt on this conclusion. Although the implementation of public policy proposals needs to take human nature into account, they say, “the position most central to libertarianism — that human relationships should be based on the voluntary consent of the individuals involved — makes few if any assumptions about human nature.” They don’t explain what they mean by this. One interpretation is that they are making a fact-value distinction, and suggesting that while the calculation of means to ends is a factual judgment that might be open to scientific research, the moral assessment of ends — such as the value of individual liberty — is a normative judgment that is beyond scientific research.

Perhaps their thought is more clearly stated by Will Wilkinson in his essay on “Capitalism and Human Nature

We cannot expect to draw any straightforward positive political lessons from evolutionary psychology. It can tell us something about the kind of society that will tend not to work, and why. But it cannot tell us which of the feasible forms of society we ought to aspire to. We cannot, it turns out, infer the naturalness of capitalism from the manifest failure of communism to accommodate human nature. Nor should we be tempted to infer that natural is better. Foraging half-naked for nuts and berries is natural, while the New York Stock Exchange and open-heart surgery would boggle our ancestors’ minds.

Wilkinson argues that while our evolved human nature constrains the possibilities of social order, the historical move to liberal capitalism — the transition from personal to impersonal exchange — was a “great cultural leap,” as Friedrich Hayek emphasized. Within the limits set by evolved human nature, the emergence of liberal capitalism depends on cultural evolution. “We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom.”

This dependence of classical liberalism on cultural evolution is also stressed by George Smith in his encyclopedia entries on Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer. Smith argues that Spencer’s view of evolution was Lamarckian, and therefore quite different from Darwin’s view. While Spencer’s Lamarckian conception of evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been discredited as biological theory, Smith observes, this is actually a better approach for understanding social history than is Darwin’s biological approach. Social evolution — including the evolution of liberal capitalism — really is Lamarckian in that the social practices successful for one generation can be passed on to the next generation through social learning as a system of cultural inheritance. Most importantly for Spencer, the move from regimes of status based on coercive exploitation to regimes of contract based on voluntary cooperation was a process of cultural rather than biological evolution. Smith suggests, therefore, that the liberal principle of equal liberty arose not from biological nature but from cultural history.

Furthermore, Smith argues, Spencer and other classical liberals understood that market competition differed radically from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. Smith concludes: “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply.”

There’s a big problem with Smith’s analysis. If Social Darwinism means explaining all social order through biological evolution based on zero-sum competition, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.

Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game.

Moreover, Darwin accepted Lamarckian thinking about what he called “the inherited effects of the long-continued use or disuse of parts.” And he saw that the moral and social progress of human beings came much more through cultural evolution by social learning than biological evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s reasoning has been confirmed by recent research on gene-culture co-evolution. As Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have shown, a broad understanding of evolution must encompass four systems of evolutionary inheritance — genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.

Darwin’s liberalism combines an Aristotelian ethics of social virtue and a Lockean politics of individual liberty. This is the sort of liberalism that has been recently defended by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl in their books Liberty and Nature and Norms of Liberty and by Den Uyl in his book The Virtue of Prudence.

To anyone who knows about my advocacy of “Darwinian conservatism,” it must seem odd that I am now arguing for “Darwinian liberalism.” But the conservatism I have defended is a liberal conservatism that combines a libertarian concern for liberty and a traditionalist concern for virtue. This is similar to the “fusionist” conservatism of Frank Meyer, which is close to the Aristotelian liberalism of Rasmussen and Den Uyl.

To see how Darwinian science supports classical liberalism, we must see how the liberal principles of equal liberty have arisen from the complex interaction of natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.

Natural Desires

If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

In Darwin’s writings on human evolution — particularly, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals — he accounts for these 20 desires as part of human biological nature. We now have anthropological evidence — surveyed by Donald Brown and others — that there are hundreds of human universals, which are clustered around these 20 desires. Psychologists who study human motivation across diverse cultures recognize these desires as manifesting the basic motives for human action.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify the natural ends of human action as corresponding to a list of generic goods that resembles my list of 20 natural desires. Their list of generic goods includes health, beauty, wealth, honor, friendship, justice, artistic pursuits, and intellectual pursuits.

My assertion that the good is the desirable will provoke a complaint from some philosophers that I am overlooking the distinction between facts and values or is and ought. They will insist that we cannot infer moral values from natural facts. From the fact that we naturally desire something, they say, we cannot infer that it is morally good for us to desire it.

But I say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken — because what we desire is not truly desirable for us — then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. Much of Darwin’s discussion of moral deliberation is about how human beings judge their desires in the light of their past experiences and future expectations as they strive for the harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, and much of this moral and intellectual deliberation turns on the experience of regret when human beings realize that they have yielded to a momentary desire that conflicts with their more enduring desires.

Whenever a moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, “Why?” The only ultimate answer to that question is because it’s desirable for you — it will fulfill you or make you happy by contributing to your human flourishing.

But even if we know what is generally or generically good for human beings, this does not tell us what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. Although the 20 natural desires constitute the universal goods of human life, the best organization or ranking of those desires over a whole life varies according to individual temperaments and social situations. So, for example, a philosophic life in which the natural desire for intellectual understanding ranks higher than other desires is best for Socrates and those like him, but not for others.

Evolutionary biology allows us to generalize about natural desires as the universals of evolved human nature. And yet evolutionary biology also teaches us that every individual organism is unique. After all, the Darwinian theory of evolution requires individual variation. Even identical twins are not really identical. Evolutionary biology also teaches us that human evolutionary adaptations enable flexible responses to the variable circumstances of the physical and social environment, which is why the human brain has evolved to respond flexibly to the unique life history of each individual.

If there is no single way of life that is best for all individuals in all circumstances, then the problem for any human community is how to organize social life so that individuals can pursue their diverse conceptions of happiness without coming into conflict. And since human beings are naturally social animals, their individual pursuit of happiness requires communal engagement. Allowing human beings to live together as children, parents, spouses, friends, associates, and citizens without imposing one determinate conception of the best way of life on all individuals is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify as “liberalism’s problem.”

Liberalism’s solution to this problem is to distinguish between the political order of the state as protecting individual liberty and the moral order of society as shaping virtuous character. While a liberal political community does not enforce one determinate conception of the human good, it does enforce procedural norms of peaceful conduct that secure the freedom of individuals to form families, social groups, and cooperative enterprises that manifest their diverse conceptions of the human good.

Cultural Traditions

Natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions. If I am right about my list of 20 natural desires, this constitutes a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings by nature, and we can judge cultural traditions by how well they conform to these natural desires. So, for example, we can judge the utopian socialist traditions to be a failure, because their attempts to abolish private property and private families have frustrated some of the strongest desires of evolved human nature. We can also judge that political traditions of limited government that channel and check political ambition are adapted for satisfying the natural desire of dominant individuals for political rule, while also satisfying the natural desire of subordinate individuals to be free from exploitation. But cultural traditions like socialism and limited government arise as spontaneous orders of human cultural evolution that are not precisely determined by genetic nature or by individual judgment.

Recognizing that natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions, Darwinian liberalism avoids the mistaken assumption of biological determinism that biology is everything, culture nothing, while also avoiding the mistaken assumption of cultural relativism that culture is everything, biology nothing.

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.

Darwin showed how this moral order of civil society arises from the natural and cultural history of the human species. The need of human offspring for prolonged and intensive parental care favors the moral emotions of familial bonding, and thus people tend to cooperate with their kin. The evolutionary advantages of mutual aid favor moral emotions sustaining mutual cooperation. And the benefits of reciprocal exchange favors moral emotions sustaining a sense of reciprocity, because one is more likely to be helped by others if one has helped others in the past and has the reputation for being helpful. “Ultimately,” Darwin concluded, “our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment — originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Recent research in evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened this 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.

Individual Judgments

Natural desires and cultural traditions constrain but do not determine individual judgments. Classical liberals recognize that the human good or flourishing is complex in conforming to the natural ends, the cultural circumstances, and the individual choices of human life. Our shared human nature gives us a universal range of natural desires that constitute the generic goods of life. Our diverse human cultures give us a multiplicity of moral traditions that shape our social life. But ultimately, individuals must choose a way of life that they judge as best conforming to their natural desires, social circumstances, and individual temperaments. For that reason, liberals believe that the fundamental human right is liberty of judgment or conscience.

Darwinian moral psychology explains the evolutionary history of the human capacity for individual moral judgment. Most recently, neuroscience has begun to uncover the emotional, social, and cognitive capacities of the brain that make moral judgment possible. For example, while Darwin explained the evolutionary importance of sympathy for human moral experience, contemporary neuroscientists have studied the “mirror neurons” in human beings and other primates that allow animals to imaginatively project themselves into the experiences of other individuals.

Created from Animals

I have argued that Darwinian science is compatible with a classical liberal understanding of how moral order in a free society arises from natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. But does Darwinism make any unique contribution to liberal thought — something that could not have been derived from the moral and political thought of liberalism without the help of Darwinian science?

Yes, I think it does. Evolution provides a purely naturalistic grounding for liberal thought, so that there is no necessity to appeal to the supernatural. That’s important, because if liberal thought required supernatural beliefs, this might seem to require a coercive enforcement of those supernatural beliefs, which would subvert the individual liberty of conscience.

From Locke’s Two Treatises of Government to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Spencer’s Social Statics, liberal thought has justified equal liberty as an expression of the unique dignity that human beings have as created in God’s image. For Locke, our natural desires give rise to natural rights because they have been implanted in us by God, and we are all naturally equal in our rights to life, liberty, and property, because we are all “the Workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” For Jefferson, looking to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we can hold it to be self-evident “that all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For Spencer, since God wills human happiness, He also wills that human beings should have equal liberty as the condition for satisfying their desires.

If liberalism requires such religious beliefs, then the liberal doctrine of religious toleration cannot include tolerating atheists. This was Locke’s conclusion, because he warned that denying the existence of God as the Creator of human beings and of the moral law dissolved the moral bonds of human society.

Darwin offered an alternative. In one of his early notebooks, he wrote that “man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals.” Although scientists and philosophers had long speculated on the possibility of a purely natural evolution of life, Darwin was one of the first thinkers to lay out a rigorous theory of how this could have happened, which included an evolutionary theory of the natural moral sense.

In his review of The Origin of Species, Huxley explained that Darwin’s book was a great weapon for liberalism because it refuted the Biblical doctrine of “special creation.” To protect liberty of thought from coercive theocratic authority, liberals needed to explain all of nature, including human nature, as the product of purely natural causes.

And yet, despite the claims of some of its religious opponents, Darwinism does not dictate atheism. Although Darwin by the end of his life was an agnostic, he recognized that religious beliefs were often important for the cultural evolution of morality. Recently, evolutionary theorists such as David Sloan Wilson have shown how the evolution of religion through group selection can strengthen the cooperative moral dispositions of religious believers.

But even without religion, Darwin suggested, believing that we were “created from animals,” we can see that moral order stands on purely human grounds—human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.

That’s why libertarians need Charles Darwin.


Larry Arnhart is a Presidential Research Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

Response Essays

Evolution is Far Freer than Classical Liberalism

I am intensely distrustful of attempts to marshal the dead to support a particular political philosophy, and I am even more suspicious of efforts to use science to justify a political view. It suggests a deficiency of living contemporary critical thought, not exactly a hallmark of a vital movement, and of the sciences, evolutionary biology has to explain diversity as well as adaptedness, and so is a poor discipline to use to promote a single view.

Larry Arnhart begins by telling us that libertarians need Charles Darwin, and that is because Darwinian science supports classical liberalism. The first is unsurprising and the second too vague to be meaningful.

Everyone needs Charles Darwin. His ideas are the foundation of modern biology, so that’s about as great a truism as saying that everyone needs Isaac Newton. Most political movements at least aspire to be congruent with reality, and denying the biological realities revealed in the light of evolutionary theory (or denying the physical realities revealed by Newton) would constitute a very poor framework for rational policymaking. Throwing out a major chunk of modern science is a strategy to put one in the political ghetto of crackpots like David Icke, Lyndon LaRouche, or Sarah Palin — which, at least in the last case, is not an insurmountable barrier to some kind of political success, but it’s got to be a blow against one’s self-respect.

But to suggest that the science of evolution supports a specific view of the narrowly human domain of politics is meaningless. Evolutionary theory supports the existence of ants and eagles, lichens and redwood trees, and finding an evolutionary basis for any human activity is trivial.

The Revolutionary Communist Party has claimed evolution for its own. They’ve even published a very good book explaining the basics of the theory, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, by Ardea Skybreak. I find their arguments that the science of biology supports a communist worldview just as convincing as Arnhart’s that it supports classical liberalism…which means not very.

It has become a well-funded industry within certain branches of Christianity to push the compatibility of evolutionary biology with their religion, which beggars my imagination, at least. I can concede that Arnhart is on stronger footing than BioLogos or the Templeton Foundation; at least he isn’t postulating anything directly contrary to Darwinian ideas, such as the existence of intent shaping the history of life, but he comes close when he suggests that concern for virtue has some kind of scientific justification.

The Green Party could make an even better argument for compatibility with Darwinian thought. At least there, there is some acknowledgment of organisms other than humans, our dependency on interactions with the environment, and the importance of species and habitat diversity. If there is one arresting image to emerge from Darwin’s work, it is the metaphor of the tangled bank, where diverse forms struggle for survival in a complex environment. Any rationale that focuses on the habits of a single species, and addresses only a narrow range of interests in a single culture in a small slice of time, cannot lay claim to Darwin’s mantle.

Among the flaws of Arnhart’s argument, as well as those of other ideologies, is that there is little comparison of which side has the relatively best fit to the scientific observations — instead, there is a roster of points of correspondence of one favored theory to the science, followed by the conclusion that therefore science supports the theory. At best, this is grounds for claiming compatibility, but given the multitudes of different ideas that flourish in the tangled bank of human politics, I am unconvinced that classical liberalism has any kind of privileged place.

Now where I do agree is the description of Darwin the man. Charles Darwin was an upper middle-class businessman, cautious and prosperous in his investments, involved in the welfare of his community. He was also, for his time, a social liberal who promoted great causes, like abolitionism. He was the perfect figure of a classical liberal.

However, that says nothing about his science! Peter Kropotkin was an anarchist, Theodosius Dobzhansky was devoutly Eastern Orthodox, Richard Lewontin was a Marxist, Francis Crick was an atheist — these are factors in their personal journeys through science, but they are not the lens through which we should look at their actual work…and if their work only makes sense as libertarian science or Marxist science, then there is a deep flaw in it. We are always looking for the answers that transcend the circumstances of personality and politics, and are suspicious of those dependent on prior bias.

Most tellingly, though, if Darwin was a good classical liberal, and if his theory was so compatible with classical liberalism, why was he made so uneasy by his own ideas? He sat on it for two decades, uncomfortable with its implications for society and worried about its effect on those close to him. This was not the action of a man who felt that his theory was entirely consonant with his philosophy. In part this was because he felt that weakening the belief in a creator god would “dissolve the moral bonds of human society,” but again, atheism is not a necessary prerequisite of classical liberalism, since there have been and are theistic libertarians, and it does not distinguish other political philosophies from classical liberalism.

Evolution gives us only very general rules for our species. Adapt to the environment, or die. Change is inevitable. No matter what our species does, it will eventually change or die. It’s not necessarily the most uplifting of messages, but there are encouraging lessons within it. Diversity is unavoidable, providing many different avenues our species could follow, and also, that our happiness does not have to descend from our biological limitations; we often work against our predispositions, because the elements of our inheritance that may have worked for a savannah ape must often be expanded upon and redirected to make a modern urban ape thrive. Evolution does not incline us to classical liberalism; it is just one of many options that evolution allows.

Much Work Left to Be Done in Connecting Politics and Evolution

Professor Arnhart has provided a generous view of the manner in which even the most juridically abstract theory of morality must finally default to an operating version of what we have to and perhaps should for all time call “human nature.” The grisly intellectual alternative is to have to entertain, if even for a fleeting second, the possibility that that random anthem of deaf-mutes — post-modernism — boasts even a mini-scintilla of explanatory utility.

As Arnhart stresses, Darwin’s profound insight was to embrace the fact of variation. He saw it as the engine of sexual and natural selection which he understood was not only remarkably parsimonious but was kind of fun, insofar as it allowed you to scrutinize with absorbed usefulness everything from the differences among fungi to head gestures of infants. He was satisfied that the principles of the normal curve rule all. And (forgive my amateur non-card-carrying political-theorist naiveté), he cleared the way of prissy angels-on-a-pinhead negotiations about Platonic forms, in favor of the lovely robustness of Aristotle’s “man is by nature a political animal” — a drum-roll please for the central phrase “by nature.” Yes!

In the context of this exercise, Arnhart is of course usefully efficient in adumbrating various views of the “blank slate” which are antidotal to concepts of human nature. It has been intriguing to inspect the contortions of self-described liberals as they try to comport the optionality of their general system of belief with the fact that it is precisely the blank slate which has provided a handy note-pad for various slate-artists such as Messrs Stalin, Ghadafi, and Big Mao. And there is always the long-lived natural experiment of the two Koreas, one colorfully successful as a productive and well-organized market economy, and the other, with very similar startup population, as a disastrous pitiable outcome of a fatal alloy of the ideology of juche — self-reliance — with the dictatorship of a kin group, which recently bombed a South Korean warship to glory up the succession planning of Dear Leader for his son.

What remains a surprise about this discussion is that it is taking place now and not forty years ago. Notwithstanding Aristotle’s “by nature” breakthrough, surely much of all this was available long ago. We can recall Graham Wallas with his Human Nature in Politics of 1908 and William James probing naturalism about that bigshot matter, religion. And if nothing else, it is presumably acceptable to recall that way back in 1971, Robin Fox and I published The Imperial Animal (Transaction, 3rd edition, 1998) in which we adapted Chomsky’s essential notion of a biological basis for language — otherwise language is too hard for kids to learn — to broader behavior, which we called the biogrammar. Of course because we’re on the same side of the street, this resembles Arnhart’s natural desires, though we were perhaps more coy and were unprepared to equate desire with probability.

I miss in Arnhart an appropriate scan of one of the recurrent vexations in the discussion about libertarianism and biology — the relationship between human nature and economic behavior. Currently, we emerge (one has no choice but hope) from a vast economic episode which surely challenges any fundamental commitment to the notion that, left to their own devices, human beings will do the right and better and most effective thing.

What I have called Lysenko Economics emerged from the remarkable notion that humans are logical, not biological. Reason necessarily prevails. Cogito ergo and all that. Self-correcting markets, leave them alone, they will be fine and will do what is necessary without supervening intervention. Without being either ideological or dyspeptic about it, it is presumably appropriate to note that the super-logical quants and computer jockeys who oversaw and underwrote the destruction of vast amounts of capital and confidence were all paragons of logic, their implacable processes at once magnified and miniaturized by the startling lever of computers. We know that the unintended result was that, like in old bad science fiction, the machines overran their masters. While the results and remedies are hardly currently clear it is presumably acceptable to suspect that if there was an invisible hand in all this, it was a clenched fist some of which clutched gold.

In other words, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his most interesting book) was discarded in favor of his more technical The Wealth of Nations. The result conceptually, and in pro- and anti-libertarian chat, was that the core process of living beings as Darwin understood it, sociality, was set aside in favor one of its smaller branch plants, business, and it seems fair to say that without anyone really trying or wanting what happened, the result has been at least amazing.

Of course it’s an inexpensive shot to accuse a philosophy of a worldwide recession. Not my point, except to stress that an overconfidence in the athleticism of the brain generated the kind of license often associated with a different organic malfunction, for example in male adolescent gonads. At the same time, Arnhart in my view sensibly reviews the join where the puzzle pieces of religion and biology interact and surely to widespread agreement has to dismiss Locke’s odd decision that tolerating atheists was anti-social because this questioned the existence of God, the rock of society itself.

May I here add to the music more noise (from our recent book God’s Brain) about a perception of my co-author Michael McGuire and myself that in fact it is in the very operation of the brain, with its neurotransmitters and electric sensitivity to social milieus, that the source of religion lies. This hardly supports the busyness of the New Atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins who assert among other things that believers in God tend to the moronic. Instead, the work of McGuire, a neuropsychiatrist who led the research group at the UCLA Med School that discovered serotonin and all its works, and my own cross-cultural work on the biology of optimism, stimulated us to view religion as a natural feature of human society — there are some 4200 religions at work. And religion is not only a product of the brain, but also the brain is its principal and most avid consumer. Then the issue arises, how do classical theories of the state and society embrace (or not) a sharply different explanation for the existence of religion than the power of sacred persons and writings?

One final comment, if I may, about the fact that in the literature of libertarians (to the embarrassingly limited extent I know it) there is a failure to confront fully the fact that there are two sexes and that each has forms of interaction and contest with the other. In my The Decline of Males of 1999 (St Martin’s) I produced the argument that the introduction of female control of reproduction, most dramatically in the form of the Pill as well as internal contraceptives, had the effect of “alienating males from the means of reproduction.” Glib though this might seem, enormous changes in male/female ratios in education, increasingly in the economy, and in attitudes overall have in fact followed broadly these very parsimonious alterations in the sexual contract. Perhaps most profoundly, in the modern and modernizing world, about 40% of babies are born to unmarried women. While some may see this as an artifact of moral decline, irresponsible hedonism, or the alteration of welfare payments, it is a bedrock ethical matter. A new kinship system is emerging that I have called bureaugamy, the main players within which are a woman, a baby, and a bureaucrat. Sorting out the meaning of such a development is worthwhile challenge for worthwhile libertarians.

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.

The Conversation

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.

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.