A review of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, by Paul H. Rubin;
Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human, by Matt Ridley;
Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett;
Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson


The Left has traditionally assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. In a rationally designed society, we can remake human nature to conform to rational norms of social harmony. "Man can be corrected," Lenin declared, because "man can be made what we want him to be." In a rationally planned social order, we could abolish private property, monogamous marriages, and even the differences between men and women, and create a classless society in which the state would wither away.

Conservatives object, arguing that social life arises not from rational planning but from the spontaneous order of instincts and habits. Libertarian conservatives stress the spontaneous economic order of trade and the division of labor. Traditionalist conservatives stress the spontaneous moral order of culture and, well, tradition. Despite their differences, these libertarians and traditionalists generally agree that the American republic provides the best model for fostering a spontaneous social order compatible with human nature.

Often viewed with suspicion by conservatives, Darwinian biology actually supports this conservative view of society. It seeks to explain how the spontaneous order of human social life arises from the complex interaction of genetic evolution and cultural evolution, and shows how a democratic republic like America satisfies the evolved desires of human nature. The recent renewal of Darwinian social theory among biologists and social scientists should begin to persuade conservatives to reconsider the possibility of a "Darwinian conservatism."

Vigorously argued and clearly written, Paul Rubin's Darwinian Politics makes clear how Darwinian naturalism can unify biology, law, economics, and political science. An economist by trade, Rubin assumes that human beings maximize the satisfaction of their preferences as constrained by prices, with prices understood broadly to include both monetary and nonmonetary costs. But while economists generally take preferences as given, Rubin argues that Darwinian biology can explain human preferences as shaped by natural selection to serve man's fitness in what he calls the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness," or EEA. When human beings evolved during the Pleistocene Period (from about 1.6 million to about 10,000 years ago) all human ancestors lived as huntergatherers. Rubin's claim is that human beings still show the evolved desires formed for that hunting-gathering environment—the EEA—as it existed prior to the development of agriculture that began about 10,000 years ago.

Employing evolutionary game theory (such as the classic "prisoner's dilemma"), Rubin suggests that the social problem for human beings in the EEA was how to secure the benefits of mutual cooperation while protecting against "free riders" or cheaters. A cooperative social order arose from the bonds of kinship and reciprocity, and the cheaters who violated the norms of cooperation were punished. Although this hunting-gathering society was roughly egalitarian, there were some differences in status and power. Human beings in the EEA showed a desire for dominance as well as a desire not to be dominated. While some people could become dominant, their dominance was checked by the resistance of subordinates who refused to be exploited.

Eventually, the development of complex, agricultural societies allowed humans to move from small foraging groups to larger farming groups. With the emergence over the past 10,000 years of large, centralized states, most men became exploited by dominant elites. Only in the last few centuries, Rubin contends, have human beings developed the modern principles of free markets, civil liberty, and limited democratic government that restore the freedom that our ancestors enjoyed in the EEA.

Rubin's general conclusion is that modern democratic republics, such as the United States, satisfy the evolved desires of human beings better than any other social order. A capitalist economy based on private property allows human beings to divide their labor—so that people can specialize in doing what they do best—and then exchange the products of their labor. In the process, they satisfy the evolved desires for survival, status, and wealth. A free society also allows human beings to form nuclear families and diverse social groups, meeting the evolved desires for sexual mating, familial bonding, parental care, and friendship. Representative government with limited powers allows those with political ambition to seek public office, while preventing them from becoming an oppressive elite. Again, the ruling few can dominate while the evolved desire to be free saves the subordinate many from exploitive dominance. Thus, Rubin argues, we can judge political regimes as better or worse, depending on how well they satisfy the evolved desires of human nature. And we can judge that the American regime is the best regime because it satisfies those evolved desires more fully than any other.

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Regardless, many conservatives still believe that Darwinian thinking encourages a self-indulgent hedonism. But while the evolved desires of human beings are not absolutely selfless, neither are they absolutely self-centered. We are social animals who depend on the cooperation of others in satisfying our desires. Darwin himself argued that human beings evolved a natural moral sense. In Nature via Nurture, Matt Ridley, like Rubin, extends this argument by showing how morality evolved as a spontaneous social order to secure cooperative practices that would benefit everyone. To win the cooperation of others, we need to appear to be moral, and the best way to appear moral is to be moral. This evolved propensity to morality is instinctively expressed in moral emotions such as love, anger, indignation, guilt, and shame. Ridley surveys some of the evidence showing that the limbic system of the brain is adapted to express and recognize such emotions, which motivate moral behavior. Those few people who lack such emotions are pure psychopaths, and since they lack any moral sense, we are justified in treating them as predatory animals.

Still, what about free will, without which we can't hold people morally responsible for their behavior? Ridley's book is a vigorous survey of the evidence that genes are not deterministic in any way that would deny human freedom. Rejecting the traditional opposition between nature and nurture as a false dichotomy, Ridley shows how genes switch on and off in response to changes in the physical and social environment. Genes make it possible for us to learn. For example, the mechanisms of the brain for recording memories depend upon specific genes switching on and off at the right time. And the tools for cultural learning—such as language— also depend on genetically mediated mechanisms in the brain. All of our distinctively human capacities for free choice—our abilities to think, reflect, deliberate, and imagine possible futures—are enabled by our genetic nature.

Although Daniel Dennett agrees with Rubin and Ridley in many ways, he takes a different approach to the question of free will in Freedom Evolves. Defending determinism, he argues that free will properly understood is compatible with determinism properly understood. You see, determinism for Dennett does not mean inevitability, because the causal determinism of the universe allows for the evolution of living creatures that can respond flexibly to changes in their environments. Eventually, this deterministic evolution produced human beings with unprecedented freedom to learn from the past, to anticipate the future, and to choose present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations. Dennett rejects as unreasonable Kant's notion of moral freedom as the absolute self-determination of the will. A biological explanation of human nature does not deny human freedom, if it is defined as the capacity for deliberation and choice based on one's own desires.

Nevertheless, conservatives will object that Daniel Dennett is a proud atheist. Indeed, for many conservatives, Darwinism is atheism. After all, doesn't it try to explain the origins of life, including human life, with no acknowledgment of God as the Creator? Such scientific atheism seems to contradict conservative principles by denying the moral dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. This explains why many conservatives have been receptive to the proponents of "intelligent design theory"—such as Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe—for offering an intellectual and moral alternative to Darwinism. (I suspect some conservatives who are closet atheists still think atheism is corrupting for ordinary people who cannot live moral lives without religious belief.)

As a natural science, Darwinian biology cannot confirm the supernatural truth of Biblical religion in its theological doctrines. And yet, Darwinian biology can confirm the natural truth of Biblical religion in its practical morality. Paul Rubin argues that religious morality can help believers solve prisoner's dilemma situations where the mutual benefits of cooperation might be lost through the temptation to cheat, because religious morality promotes intense group solidarity and punishes those who cheat. Biologist David Sloan Wilson, in his recent book Darwin's Cathedral, shows how a Darwinian theory of human social evolution can support the moral utility of religion in bringing individuals into well-organized groups. From Wilson's Darwinian point of view, religion causes human groups to function as adaptive units by coordinating behavior and preventing or punishing cheating. Religion teaches believers to act for the benefit of their group. For certain conservatives, it is this moral and political utility of religious belief that is decisive. Darwinian social theory supports that insight.

What Darwinian science can neither affirm nor deny is the transcendent claims of Biblical religion. The human search for ultimate causes that would explain the universe culminates in a fundamental alternative. Do we take nature as the ultimate source of order, or do we look beyond nature to God the Creator as the ultimate source of nature's order? Do we agree with the naturalist who chooses to focus on the causal regularities of nature in the absence of any direct observation of God? Or do we agree with the creationist who insists that the existence of an uncaused God is far more probable than an uncaused nature? In any case, we must still accept the fact that both nature and God are simply the way they are.

These are difficult questions. Indeed, they are the deepest questions that human beings can ask themselves about the order of the world. In the end, even if a Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate explanation, it can at least provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to individual liberty, traditional morality, and limited government.