Darwinizing Politics

By Gross, Paul R. | New Criterion, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Darwinizing Politics


Gross, Paul R., New Criterion


Paul H. Rubin Danvinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Rutgers University Press, 256 pages, $25

Suddenly, "Darwinian" design and interpretative techniques are not only permissible but also--in some privileged venues--fashionable. We see Darwinian applications in computer science, engineering, molecular biology, cosmology, psychology, psychiatry, political science, and economics. In his new book, Darwinian Politics, Emory University's Paul H. Rubin, Professor of Economics and Law, applies a Darwinian analysis to current political processes. The subtitle, The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, is provocative but, in my view, justified.

Life on Earth is 3,500 million years old: an incomprehensibly long interval. We can assess it by analogy, but we cannot feel it as we can an hour, a year, or a human lifetime. Hominins--human-like apes--have been here for at least four and a half million years. Hominins of the genus Homo, which includes humanity and its cousins, are known from about two million years ago, the start of the Pleistocene Epoch. Two million years is no more comprehensible an interval for us than 3,500 million: it is just a very long time! Modern humans--we hunters and gatherers--arose about 250,000 years ago, probably in Africa, whence we began our outward migration some 140,000 years ago. Recent finds show us having adapted to and surviving even in the ice-age deep freeze, in coastal Siberia, 30,000 years ago.

The current epoch--the Holocene--began 10,000 years ago with the most recent onset of global warming and retreat of the glaciers, with the discovery of agriculture and the consequent building of settlements. There was thus a very long interval between the first appearance of our immediate ancestors and the technological discoveries that closed the books on the static eons of hunter-gatherer life. Social upheavals due to agriculture and hydraulics ushered in our restless existence in fiefdoms and cities, but through at least the 40,000 years preceding those developments, we--in essentially if not exactly our present physical and mental shape--lived on the land.

Conditions allowing civilization and a readable historical record began only in that geological eye-blink, the last 10,000 years. As Professor Rubin ably summarizes it, our ancestors lived for thousands of generations in a world radically unlike ours; during that residence, their bodies and brains evolved, as did the aggregate instincts, awarenesses, tastes, and behavioral tricks which are the product of those brains--the mind. In the new discipline of evolutionary psychology, the long period of human life prior to the Holocene is dubbed the "EEA"--the environment of (our) evolutionary adaptation. It deserves that name because in the course of its long development, the basic features of human cognitive performance--those instincts, tastes, and behaviors that are still with us--were "selected for" and stabilized. They became features of nearly all of the human population because their possessors were the most successful survivors and hence reproducers. The last 10,000 years are too short a period for this picture to have changed very much.

The idea of EEA is a key concept of evolutionary psychology and an indispensable background to Professor Rubin's arguments. Evolutionary psychology is sociobiology, still despised on the far left and the far right for bad but different political reasons. The left sees it as anti-social and deterministic; the right sees it as anti-religious, or as a nasty challenge to cherished tradition. Darwinian Politics is a well-documented but pleasingly readable epitome of interpretive insights from the application of evolutionary psychology to political behavior. It is an example of the consilience of which E. O. Wilson has written, for which he has heard so many indictments of his scientism, or worse.

With what might a "Darwinian" economics and politics deal? …

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