I rage much, I sleep little. Incongruously, I have been a union activist and simultaneously a Constitutional libertarian. I am a registered nurse, a sailor, an Army veteran, and a III%er... I am a complicated man.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
Societal Evolution and Human Behavior
by Peter Venetoklis
Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
A bit over two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero penned these words. We can admire their continued validity across the past twenty centuries, but it is telling that these observations were considered centuries-long hindsight even then.
They tell us that little has changed in the ways of human nature, no matter that human civilization has advanced tremendously since their utterance. The human condition today, in the aggregate across the globe, is far, FAR better than at any other time in history. The poorest of the poor are doing better than ever, and the poor in first-world nations are enjoying living standards that in most ways exceed those available to the “1%ers” of centuries and millennia past. Technological advancement has provided the foundation for this, and for the societal evolution that fostered the recognition of each of us as a free individual, with inherent rights, and not inherently subordinate to a hereditary ruler.
It is a reality that societal evolution has outpaced behavioral evolution. The human brain is the product of billions of years of evolution, and human behavior has been conditioned by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. In contrast, the oldest civilizations only date back 5000-6000 years. Societally, we’ve come a long way in the 6 millennia or so since our ancestors took their first steps away from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, but our biological hard-wiring hasn’t had the time to change as much.
Thus, all that Cicero observed remains as valid today as it did then, and that is not going to change, in our lifetimes or in our great-grandchildren’s lifetimes.
We can recognize these inherent human tendencies and the mistakes they foster, and we can, both as individuals and as proselytizers, urge others to recognize and overcome them. We cannot, however, presume that they can be taught out, overwritten, or legislated away. This reality, ably addressed in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, must be given its due in both our daily lives and in our politics. We can, each of us, work to overcome our tendencies towards these mistakes. We can urge others to do the same. But, we cannot ignore others’ inherent tendencies in these directions when living our lives, nor can we force others to, as the final mistake notes, believe and live as we do. Or, worse, as we believe they should believe and live.
Cicero’s six mistakes are rooted in our tendency toward self-centeredness. That tendency is a fact, reinforced by the most fundamental drive of evolution: to pass one’s genes forward. This imperative, which is coldly competitive, is often at odds with the behaviors that produce the best societal outcomes. While, as rational humans of the modern age, we want to live long, full and meaningful lives, biologically-speaking, once we pass prime child-birthing age, our usefulness is only as a support system for our descendants. While, as rational humans, we can idealize a world at peace and harmony, biology drives war and repression of the weak. Biology has also left behind all sorts of behavioral tendencies and imperatives that aren’t nearly as relevant to life in modern society as they were during the large majority of human existence. These range from the tendency to overeat to the preference for excess today over prudent planning for the future. They also give us a sometimes unhealthy tendency to defer to father and authority figures. Our genes don’t care about anything more than getting passed on.
Historically, humanity has instituted political and religious systems to elevate our motives beyond that of selfish DNA propagation, but history is overwhelmingly an annal of the bending of those systems’ noble motives to selfish ends. This, too, is biological, as the good and altruistic are undermined by the selfish. Biology rewards subversion from within, and biology rewards the application of selfish power over acts of selflessness. This reality warns us against investing too much power and authority in others. The old adage “power corrupts” is true for a reason, and that reason is inherent in our very nature as human beings.
Thus, we are informed of the correct direction for societal evolution: the limiting of the power that some have over others. This is the essence of individual liberty and political systems that prioritize and defend it. This is the essence of why liberty and the free market system has, as Milton Friedman observed:
the record of history is absolutely crystal clear. That there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.
And, it is the essence of why the various forms of socialism have overwhelmingly produced human misery and slowed societal evolution. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than limited so as to leave as much as possible in the hands of the many, biology drives the few to seek selfish advantage. Those who overcome that drive are themselves susceptible to the selfishness of others, and even a great and wise leader eventually grows old and dies.
Marx saw socialism as the next evolutionary step, societally, after capitalism. Marx was wrong. Capitalism, liberty, free enterprise, laissez-faire, whatever you want to call it, rooted in a system that protects individual rights (including individuals’ property rights) is the pinnacle of societal evolution, given the reality of human biology. Socialism and Communism may promise a “nicer” society with utopian outcomes, but unless and until human biology “catches up” with societal evolution, they’re actually stray paths that lead to misery and destruction. And, given that natural selection will always motivate “selfish” behavior, biology’s never going to “catch up” to the point where collectivist ideas become biologically hard-wired.
We must therefore accept the reality that the promises of big government, of collectivism, of socialism, of central planning, and of forcible redistribution of wealth inevitably produce bad outcomes. Humans are wired a certain way, and that’s not going to change. Despite the passing of two thousand years, the “mistakes” Cicero cited are as prevalent as ever. And, they are prevalent in the richest and poorest societies. The most capitalistic and the most socialistic societies. Hedonistic and puritanical. Young and old. Hot and cold. Eastern and Western and Northern and Southern. Human nature persists, across the centuries, across the millennia.
Want a good society, where things get better for people? Want to evolve the human condition? Want to overcome the uncaring selfishness of our genetics? Embrace liberty. For your self and for all your fellow humans. Invest as little power as possible in the rulers, keep as much power as possible in the hands of the ruled. History proves it, and overcoming biology requires it.