Thursday, December 22, 2005

Honey! Darwin shrunk our free will

The Economist outlines the story of man via the gates of Darwinism. It begins with the question Herbert Spencer raised in the 19th century about the relevance of goodwill and collaboration in a world marked by that catch-all phrase “survival of the fittest”. The article elaborates on why Darwinism segued with the dominant economic system of the time, and since: capitalism, but had no explanation for the evolution of human society and behaviour. None of the secular religions of our times (Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism) are competent in explaining this paradox, but Darwinism comes close: the basis of all social interaction is trust.

Modern Darwinism's big breakthrough was the identification of the central role of trust in human evolution. People who are related collaborate on the basis of nepotism. It takes outrageous profit or provocation for someone to do down a relative with whom they share a lot of genes. Trust, though, allows the unrelated to collaborate, by keeping score of who does what when, and punishing cheats.

Very few animals can manage this. Indeed, outside the primates, only vampire bats have been shown to trust non-relatives routinely. (Well-fed bats will give some of the blood they have swallowed to hungry neighbours, but expect the favour to be returned when they are hungry and will deny favours to those who have cheated in the past.) The human mind, however, seems to have evolved the trick of being able to identify a large number of individuals and to keep score of its relations with them, detecting the dishonest or greedy and taking vengeance, even at some cost to itself. This process may even be—as Matt Ridley, who wrote for this newspaper a century and a half after Spencer, described it—the origin of virtue.

The new social Darwinists (those who see society itself, rather than the savannah or the jungle, as the “natural” environment in which humanity is evolving and to which natural selection responds) have not abandoned Spencer altogether, of course. But they have put a new spin on him. The ranking by wealth of which Spencer so approved is but one example of a wider tendency for people to try to out-do each other. And that competition, whether athletic, artistic or financial, does seem to be about genetic display. Unfakeable demonstrations of a superiority that has at least some underlying genetic component are almost unfailingly attractive to the opposite sex. Thus both of the things needed to make an economy work, collaboration and competition, seem to have evolved under Charles Darwin's penetrating gaze.

A note of caution is introduced in looking at human nature in a purely Darwinian light:

The Earth's most capitalist country, America, is the only place in the rich world that contains a significant group of dissenters from any sort of evolutionary explanation of human behaviour at all. But it is also, in its way, a comforting view. It suggests a constant struggle, not for existence itself, but between selfishness and altruism—a struggle that neither can win. Utopia may be impossible, but Dystopia is unstable, too, as the collapse of Marxism showed. Human nature is not, to use another of Spencer's favourite phrases (though one he borrowed from Tennyson, his poetical contemporary), red in tooth and claw, and societies built around the idea that it is are doomed to early failure.
Interested in another cutting-edge debate within the sciences? Intelligent Design and all that jazz? Click here.

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