Neo-Darwinian Thought and the Study of History
Delivered on the
24th of February 2004
Dr. Thomas H. Keene
Professor of History
In the history of science, the eighteenth century is
Charles Darwin was far from being
the first advocate of the idea of living species developing through an
evolutionary process. What set
A third component of
The most outspoken critics of
It is scarcely surprising that
In fact, Spencer’s theories of
social development were not purely Darwinian, but rather an amalgam of
At the beginning of the twentieth
Great events also played a role. During the First World War, citizens of the supposedly advanced nations slaughtered one another by the hundreds of thousands. Then in quick succession the Depression, Totalitarianism, World War II and the Jewish Holocaust knocked for a loop all but the sturdiest historical optimists. Nazi and fascist use of crude Social Darwinist arguments underlined the dangers of applying notions of Darwinian struggle to human affairs. Meanwhile on the totalitarian left, Stalin’s clumsy effort to revive a Lamarckian view of biological evolution only served further to discredit any linking of biological and human history. Evolution and politics was evidently a toxic combination. For a decade or more after the Second World War a strong anti-positivist streak ran through the social sciences. Darwinian evolution was strictly reserved for the biology department. Any thinking that suggested a biological influence on human society was quickly dismissed. (Bowler, 2003)
Yet by the mid-1960’s a new
generation of zoologists began to discern Darwinian processes not only in the
physiological history of animals, but in their social adaptations as well. The start came when William Hamilton noted
the adaptational advantages of altruistic behavior at
the cellular level. Genetically
identical cells often sacrificed themselves to benefit mates.
Hamilton and Trivers’ key insight was to recognize that the crucial unit in Darwinian adaptation was not the individual organism, but rather individual genes. Whether a particular characteristic proves adaptive, they demonstrated, was a function, not of the survival of an individual organism, but of the survival of a particular gene, or bundle of genes. That mothers instinctively sacrifice their lives for their children is not an adaptational advantage for the mother, who may die prematurely as a direct result of the instinct. Nor need it promote the survival of her daughters; having inherited the instinct, they may also sacrifice themselves for their children in turn. It is however plainly an advantage for the genes that the mother and children share.
At the time, one wag put the new argument this way: “The chicken is just the egg’s way of reproducing itself.” That got students’ attention, but was not quite the point. Both the chicken and the eggs are, in a sense, merely elements in the reproductive strategy of their shared genes.
E. O. Wilson, a student of insect
behavior, pulled together much of this work in his 1975 synthesis Sociobiology.
Steven Jay Gould, a Harvard
paleontologist and perhaps
But despite Gould’s brilliantly written dismissals, the neo-Darwinists continued to push into once forbidden territory. During the 1980s and early nineties, the Darwinists gained powerful new analytical tools: greatly improved computer modeling techniques, breakthroughs in genetics, and an explosion in the use of game theory. By the mid-nineties a new, if still contested, paradigm emerged that argued for a significant Darwinian role in our understanding of human society.
The new thinking has come on two fronts. First, many studies demonstrate that a wide range of behaviors that previously seemed to be culturally driven, have a biological basis. An influential example is the fifteen-year study of child abuse and pedocide (child killing) by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson (1988). Their study revealed that in households with a step-father (that is, an unrelated male), children were from 10 to 100 times more likely to suffer serious physical abuse, including injuries that result in death, than in households with a biological father. This was true in all five societies they studied. David Buss (1994) and others have likewise shown that some sexual selection preferences are universal, and thus apparently have a biological basis. In every culture, males place greater value on physical appearance, while females are more attracted to wealth and status. A related conclusion from a recent study will come as no surprise to advertisers, nor perhaps to many women. The mere sight of beautiful women, it seems, makes men markedly more inclined to spend money. (Hey, 2003) In his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker surveys a large and persuasive list of studies along these lines. He demonstrates that, contrary to John Locke’s idea of a tabula rasa, biology retains a significant impact on human behavior (2002).
The neo-Darwinists’ second claim
involves the assertion that the new evolutionary thinking could profitably be
used to examine interaction within social groups, and by extension, to analyze
human history. A major problem with
efforts to apply Darwinian thinking to social development is the lack of any
distinct unit of transmission like the gene.
The British sociologist W. G. Runciman picked
up on Richard Dawkins suggestion of the term meme, for a unit of
cultural transmission. For example Runciman identified four memes, or “bundles of instruction
and obligation” that supported the bonding and the code of honor among hoplite
warriors in classical
1. The ‘always be ready to go to war’ meme.
2. The ‘commemorate the fallen’ meme.
3. The ‘dedicate the spoils to the gods’ meme.
4. The ‘avoid shame and guilt’ meme.
Each of these bundles was itself a complex of ideas and norms. Taken together, Runciman argued, they constituted a powerful basis for the hoplites code of honor. They could be transmitted severally or as a package, as conditions warranted. New memes could be generated continuously during day-to-day life. Most memes, like most biological variations, do not prove adaptive. But a few survive the historical selection process, and help to transform society, thus creating a new social context in which still more memes will be generated. (Runciman, 1998b)
also took up the crucial question of self-awareness and intentionality. Critics contend that the Darwinian model
became irrelevant when humans became self-aware and approached problem-solving
with conscious intent. For homo sapiens, they argue, new variations are
not random, they are rationally conceived.
The selection process is also much impacted by conscious choice; it is
not just an external process. While
granting that self-awareness does give an added dimension to the evolutionary
process, Runciman contends the significance of
intentionality is less than meets the eye.
First, few human choices are fully intentional. We are programmed by our language, our
culture and our situation – by the memes we share with those around us. Second, in those rare instances where truly
creative, original thought takes place, the process is far less intentional
than is supposed. Creative people
generate tremendous numbers of ideas, not in any particular order or by drawing
much on their reasoning powers. That is why we make a distinction between
analytical and creative thinking.
Creative people use their reasoning ability, rather, to project the
possible consequences of each idea, discarding those that do not work, and
selecting the few that may. Reason gives
humans the ability to conduct quick thought experiments so they do not have to
test all ideas in the real world. Nonetheless, the human creative process
Robert Wright, a respected science writer, drew from the recent scholarship to produce two popular books that synthesized the impact of the new thinking. In his first book, The Moral Animal, Wright made extensive use of Robert Trivers’ concept of reciprocal altruism to explain how social animals, including humans, developed patterns of mutually beneficial cooperation. He concluded that human “conscience and sympathy and even love, [are] all grounded ultimately in genetic self-interest.” (p378) The Moral Animal was highly controversial, but widely read. Having explored human nature from a neo-Darwinian perspective, Wright next turned to human history.
Zero and Nonzero
In Nonzero and the Logic of Human Destiny (1999), Wright offered a
synthesis of the neo-Darwinians’ work and its application to human
history. At the heart of the book are
two arguments: First, Wright noted
recent work that asserted, contrary to classical Darwinism, that biological
evolution in fact has a direction. It
has no particular goal, but does have a general direction, which grows out of
Second, Wright contended that, in natural as in human history, cooperative, win-win strategies have persistently had adaptational advantages. Cooperation works. Hence the title of his book. A zero-sum game is one in which all participants fight for a portion of fixed sum of money. Each participant’s gain is the others’ loss, for it removes a portion of the prize from the table. That is how much competition works. But, Wright concluded, life is not purely a zero sum game. Despite much competition, both in nature and in human society, cooperation is frequent and highly adaptive. Life is not a fight over a fixed sum, because cooperation can increase overall wealth so there is more for everyone. Beginning as single cells, genetically distinct organisms joined in ever more intricate symbiotic relationships to form the complex organisms that populate today’s natural world. In the same way, in human history simple social structures gave way to more complex ones because of the overwhelming advantages of cooperation and specialization. Increased social complexity develops because the historical selection process rewards groups that accept the social restraint necessary for cooperation while simultaneously using efficient communication methods (like literacy) to negotiate mutually beneficial compromises. On the other hand, historical selection tends to punish individuals and groups that are unable to establish the communication and trust necessary to cooperate with, and learn from, their neighbors.
I believe that in the Moral Animal and Nonzero Wright got the significance of neo-Darwinian thinking on human social development about right. I have also been much influenced by the works of Jared Diamond (1997), Steven Pinker (2002), and Frank Sulloway (1996). Before proceeding to elaborate these views and to apply them to the current scene, I would be remiss if I did not mention that all do not share my enthusiasm for neo-Darwinian thinking. In addition to methodological doubts, objections have come from both left and right on the political spectrum. In both cases the critics argue from an admirably moral point of view, for which I have the deepest respect. On the right, critics influenced by traditional religious beliefs reject the very idea of Darwinian evolution. They find it quite inconceivable that human emotions like love and compassion could have their origin in the material biological world. Meanwhile, on the left, many critics fear any argument that even implies support for biological determinism will strengthen the hand of racist and reactionary forces. They think the case is weak, and that it is dangerous and unwise to treat it as respectable. Steven Jay Gould, who had challenged the sociobiologists in the 1970’s, continued fighting on this line right up to his premature and tragic death of cancer in 2002.
Not The 19th Century Version
Despite his brilliant contributions in many areas, I believe Steven Jay
Gould overestimated the danger that neo-Darwinist thinking poses. Take the example of colonialism. Early Social
Darwinists saw colonialism as simply the introduction of the superior social
In short, this is not 19th century Social Darwinism. The political implications of the new Darwinist ideas are almost the opposite of the old. The early social evolutionists believed that the laws of history, like the laws of Newtonian physics, were highly deterministic. Modern European society, they were sure, was the inevitable outcome of a predetermined plan for mankind. We now appreciate that the evolutionary process is highly contingent, that is to say it is a historical process, messy, often ironic and always unpredictable except for its general direction. While there may be a broad movement toward greater complexity and specialization, the exact form that complexity takes is quite unpredictable.
A famous episode in historiography illustrates the difference in the two ways of thinking. In the 1930s Herbert Butterfield criticized the so-called Whig historians because they presented their heroes in British history, the Protestant opponents of the Stuart kings, in terms that mostly resembled the British present. The tradition of religious freedom was well established in late Victorian Britain. Whig historians credited their Protestant forbearers with bringing that about. But many of the Protestants who fought Charles I and James II did not actually want freedom of religion; they wanted to impose their religious and social views on everyone else. It was only because they, like the Stuarts, failed in their quest that they settled, not entirely happily, on the principle of freedom of religion. The end result was less due to the farsightedness and genius of Protestant Whig statesmen than to a haphazard process set in motion by people whose aims were quite different than the ultimate outcome. (Burger 2003)
It is hard to sustain a Newtonian deterministic view of history in the
face of such irony and complexity. But
this course of events is perfectly in keeping with the neo-Darwinian
perspective, which emphasizes that evolution often takes a
crooked paths. We now have a far
more complex picture of biological evolution.
We understand, for instance, that every modification that survives the
selection process will not be an adaptational
advantage. Particular variations may be
neutral, or even disadvantageous, if they are part of a larger package that
enhances survival. And so it is in human
history as well. Steven Jay Gould used
the term spandrel to illustrate these non-adaptive byproducts. In architecture spandrels are the two roughly
triangular spaces left between an arch and the lintel it supports. The arch has considerable architectural
value; the “left over” spandrels to each side of it have none. It is even a bit of a nuisance for builders
to fill these awkward spaces. Your might
discover that an exposed spandrel in the doorway to your living room is a fine
place to display the souvenir boomerang you bought in
All complex organisms, and complex social arrangements, are replete with spandrels. Far from being pre-determined by Newton-like laws, history is filled with chance, coincidence, irony and oddity – even as it develops in a general direction toward greater social specialization. Indeed one of the greatest values of neo-Darwinian thinking is that it can help us understand some of those quirks and oddities. The work of Frank Sulloway is an example. Sulloway has used Darwinian theory to study family dynamics and the development of personality. In Born to Rebel (1996) he examined the family background of many of the greatest intellectual and political revolutionaries of western culture. After having graduate students research the family lives of scores of these rebels and conservatives, Sulloway discovered that almost without exception the revolutionaries were younger siblings. Equally consistently the intellectual and political conservatives were first-borns. Sulloway concluded that the family functions something like an ecosystem, in which the thing mostly vied for by children is parental attention and approval. In a large family, the first-born child of each gender gains parental attention by a pleasing conformity and conventional ambition. This leaves younger siblings to situate themselves psychologically in unconventional, often contrarian, ways. Thus, as is often stressed, the human family is a foundation for harmony and continuity in history, but is also an inexhaustible source of critical insights and what might be called productive alienation.
The new social Darwinism is subtler than earlier versions, but for Wright, for Jared Diamond (1997) and for me, the overall view of history remains broadly progressive. A progressive view of course assumes that no catastrophic event occurs, like a large meteor striking the earth and dropping average temperatures fifty degrees. In an environmental catastrophe, natural or man-made, Darwinian rules continue to apply, but nature could trump human ingenuity permanently. It happened to the dinosaurs. But barring such a catastrophe, history is broadly progressive, even though particular episodes are alternately tragic, ironic and farcical. The achievement of the amazing levels of specialization in today’s advanced societies (i.e., modernization) is indeed the culmination of the historical process to date. That is the master narrative of human history, a narrative of great, though not always glorious, achievement. But this narrative is far different than Herbert Spencer’s. We are now well aware that modernization is not the achievement of any one culture, but a product of the interaction of people and ideas from many cultures. Competence is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. Contingent factors like luck and coincidence are as also part of the equation. Those who lag behind are frequently as bright and deserving as those who succeed. The race does not always go to the swift. Nor does progress come without costs, for in the crush of modernization much is lost. Often the losses are poignant and cruel. Above all there is no place in this version of the narrative of human history for expressions of the ultimate superiority of any one nationality, ethnic group or religious tradition. There are only the cautionary tales of self-defeating cultural arrogance and parochialism.
The implications of neo-Darwinist thinking for public policy are straightforward, and scarcely original: We should support measures that provide a basis for communication, trust and cooperation. In other words, work for the spread of reciprocal altruism. Progressive policies are those that move us toward Wright’s nonzero society, locally, globally and everywhere in between. Rather than grabbing existing wealth, power must be mobilized to strike a balance between freedom and restraint, and between competition and cooperation, in order to create more opportunity, more freedom and more security for everyone. Of course the tricky part is deciding exactly how to do that with all the contending pressures and interests. The devil is in the details.
“Patriotism” said Mark Twain, “is supporting your country all the time, and your government
when they deserve it.” To my mind the
current policies of the United States Government frequently fail the nonzero
test. The Bush administration’s
unilateralist approach to foreign policy has tended to undermine international
institutions, not support them. Rather
than work through the problems inherent in international cooperation, the
administration has tended to grandstand to domestic opinion and noisily reject
entire processes. The handling of the Kyoto Accords, the International Criminal
Court, the SALT withdrawal, all show the same tendency. And all of that came before the contempt
shown to the United Nations in the run-up to the invasion of
At home too, the American government fails the nonzero test. The Bush administration is so intent on appeasing its wealthy supporters that it risks disrupting the American social consensus. Massive tax cuts to the rich are undermining the fiscal basis for providing quality education and other services to the less affluent. Always careful to avoid explicitly racist or religiously bigoted statements, the administration nevertheless panders to those who hold such views in order to keep their political support. As you will gather, I will not be working for Mr. Bush’s reelection.
Social Darwinists of the late
nineteenth century would, I think, be quite content with Mr. Bush’s policies,
his efforts to remove the restraints on the selfish uses of power and
wealth. Let the laws of nature operate,
they would say. Our view today is
different. Though we understand nature
better now, we are less enamored of it.
An important aspect of the slow build-up of complex moral traditions and
political institutions is to do better than our biology asks of us, to go
beyond the selfish gene. Civilization
should not merely encourage what is natural.
Rather, we must construct a culture that asks us to practice
self-restraint and pursue long-term goals, and yet reflects a realistic
understanding of human nature. We must
construct a culture that provides us with the social tools to make our own
improvement possible. To use Isaiah
On this score African societies
have many positive points. A visitor
cannot but be impressed by the warmth, decency and humanity of the people. A recent Economist survey of
So-called Afro-pessimists routinely
point to the failure of
I am an Afro-optimist. Human beings are resilient and dogged,
Africans are especially so. I believe a
broadly progressive Darwinian process of social evolution is already operating
That is the project before Africans, but, in truth it is the project before every society, as we humans struggle to accommodate accelerating social change. Neo-Darwinian thinking cannot predict the future. History is far too contingent for that. But it can help us to a better understanding of human nature and of what it takes to improve human society. That is not a bad place to start.
A LIST OF SOURCES
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Daly, M. and
Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker.
Desmond, A., and
Moore, J. (1991).
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Germs, and Steel.
Elias, N. (1998). On
Civilization, Power and Knowledge.
Ferris, T. (1988). Coming of Age in the Milky
J. (1996). Full House.
J. (1997). Evolution: The Pleasures of
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Hey, big spender. (2003, December 20), The Economist.
How to make
Kauffman, S. (1995). At Home in the Universe.
Konnor, M. (1999).
Numbers, R. (1998). Darwinism Comes to
Okumo, W. (1991). Afro-Pessimism and
African Leadership. http://www.theperspective.org/afro_pessimism.html. Retrieved
Runciman, W.G. (1998a). The Selectionist Paradigm and Its Implications for Sociology. Sociology 32(1), 163-188.
Runciman, W.G. (1998b) Greek Hoplites, Warrior Culture, and Indirect Bias. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(4) 731-751.
W.G. (2000). The Social Animal
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank
Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
K. (1999). Origins of Genius: Darwinian
perspectives on creativity.
Smolins, L. (1997). The Live
of the Cosmos.
Sulloway, F. J.
Trivers, Robert (1972). Parental Investment and
Sexual Selection. In Bernard
Campbell, eds., Sexual
Selection and the Decent of
Wright, R. (1994). The Moral Animal.
Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.