Survival of the unfittest

Reading the book today, Survival of the Unfittest (1927) by Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, it has all the elements that ensured its descent into completely obscurity: concerns about human degeneration, advocacy of eugenics, and classical liberal views on state and political economy.

Authors such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, who posit that survival of the fittest is an immutable law of nature, are challenged to explain how natural selection can give rise to degeneracy, or, as he also calls it, the “survival of the unfittest.” Armstrong answers that:

To say…that Natural Selection is no longer operative in man is nonsense, because natural law is immutable. But any given law may produce different results to-day from those of yesterday when new factors arise to complicate matters. Thus, if we make unfitness in any way more advantageous for procreation than fitness, this will tend to make Natural Selection cause the survival of the unfittest instead of the fittest.

In his chapter on “Humanitarian Legislation” he identifies socialist public policies as producing a reproductive advantage to the “unfit:”

By heavy taxation we penalize success; by the dole, the Poor Law and public and private charity in a hundred forms we encourage the weak, the defective, the shiftless and the unsuccessful, not only to continue in their present condition, but to breed freely. We even give them extra help for every child they produce, and although the amount given may be insufficient to keep that child in comfort, yet to the improvident and the selfish it acts as a real incentive, for it is certainly made to yield, in many cases, extra comforts for the parents, even if the child goes hungry in consequence.

Armstrong rejects the argument that social legislation is required “by the demands of morality:”

To force everybody to do what you think is moral is not to make men moral. A good action must be voluntary; therefore let any man whose Christianity may move him that way save his poorer brother. But you cannot in the name of morality force anyone to do so.

In the same way, if thrift is a virtue it cannot be compulsory. By forcing people to insure you cannot teach them thrift or make them thrifty. In fact, you kill thrift as a virtue.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to substantiating that welfare- and unemployment benefits, instead of reducing poverty and misery, instead increase it. To make his argument  he relies on “logical inquiry by the inductive and deductive methods:” statistics and economic reasoning. In particular, Armstrong is greatly concerned by the existence of unemployment benefits without an obligation to engage in productive work. As a consequence, the incentive to find work is reduced and productivity declines, which further impoverishes the nation. As far as involuntary unemployment and the “inability” to work is concerned, the author remarks that “trade union rules..are far oftener responsible for such “inability” than is anything else. Then, again, the inability to work does not, unfortunately, bring with it inability to procreate…”

In today’s terminology, the author is very much a “supply-sider” who thinks that all obstacles to create wealth should be eliminated and that productivity, not re-distribution of income, is the real source of prosperity. He also anticipates the rise of a class of welfare and tax recipients.

In every part of the country, especially the great towns, there has now grown up a new and dangerous class, a mass of humanity dependent on the payer of rates and taxes. Before the change, a man had no right to vote, that is to take part in the government of others, unless he were at last independent and able to support himself. Now he helps to govern those who maintain him. This great host of paupers and semi-paupers is already organized in the Socialist interest and has become a factor which can decide elections.

Naturally, as many 19th century classical liberals, Armstrong was strongly opposed to the idea that everyone has the right to vote:

I see no reason why the vote should be called a right. It used to be said, “No vote, no taxation.” Is it not equally just to cry, “No taxation, no vote?”

He has little patience for democracy and politicians:

God save us from the politicians! Perhaps some of the nations of Southern Europe are wiser than we in their generation. They have abolished the politicians – and democracy.

In his chapter on “Government” he describes the transformation of liberalism as it unfolded in Europe and the United States:

Since the true definition of liberty is the power to do anything that in no way causes suffering to others (future generations being included in the term “others”), the proper function of legislation in a free country is to determine what specific acts do cause suffering, and prevent them. The further we get away from this, in legislation, the worse we fare. When Liberalism, leaning more and more towards Socialism, begins to regulate our lives by legislation that has since become oppressive, the excuse was that laissez-faire involved the oppresssion of  one class by another. Under this pretext it abandoned the great principle of individual liberty that had been its main characteristic up to that time. But having once abandoned this principle, “Liberal” statesmen began to indulge in a great deal of lawmaking that interfered with the individual without having anything to do with the prevention of oppression. Thus began the new tyranny.

Under democratic government, each party, when in power, considers itself under the obligation to invent new laws, often under the pleasing name of “social reform,” with a main view to adulating the mass of voters. These enactments interfere more and more with the order of our lives, and oblige all to subscribe to the pet theories of idealists, or the latest scheme elaborated for winning the applause of the mob, cheating it into the belief than an open sesame has been found to the earthly paradise.

Trade unions, too, add ever to the number of rules and regulations that restrict liberty. The leaders, being often ignorant of the first principles of economic science, everybody is ordered to kow-tow to rules of behaviour based upon the most mischievous fallacies, such as those which purposely limit output, and those which prevent men from passing one district or one trade to another, when the needs of industry so demands.

Thus is democracy proving itself more fatally despotic than any autocracy. No emperor ever thought of reversing the process of evolution; but democracy, with its chance majorities, obtained by rhetoric of self-seeking demagogues, may succeed in doing so; not be superseding natural law, but by using it in ignorance for suicidal purposes – playing with forces it does not understand.

Armstrong devotes a whole chapter to spelling out his views on morality. He rejects the idea that a literal reading of the Bible should be the source of morality. “Fortunately, in our own times, this attitude is more characteristic of farmers in Tennessee than of educated Englishmen.” Similarly, he rejects the idea that the State or conventions provide us with an unambiguous set of moral rules. His own answer, however, may leave many people equally puzzled when he suggests that nature should be the source of morality as it seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering and “the happiness of all.” Armstrong’s emphasis on nature as the basis of morality seems to partly be motivated by his aim of criticizing a number of practices such as the unfair treatment of unwed mothers, puritanism, monogamy, and hunting for sport. Whereas some of his ideas on equality and political economy may be construed as “reactionary,” on many life-style issues and Christian fundamentalism, he is clearly in the progressive camp.

Although Armstrong is very concerned about a scenario where “the more intelligent and efficient…become relatively sterile, while the shiftless, decadent classes breed like prolific animals,” his case for eugenics does not depend on the presence of dysgenics:

It should be said at once that the need for eugenic reform in no way depends upon where the truth lies in the controversy about degeneration. Whether we are deteriorating or not we need this reform, for it is just as desirable to progress more rapidly if we are moving slowly as it is to stop degeneration if it is going on.

Like modern-day transhumanists, Armstrong seeks to accelerate human evolution so that we may one day even “conquer Death, and eventually Time and Space.” As to the question, how Eugenic Reform can be accomplished, he advocates abolishing public policies that discourage those with undesirable traits to procreate. He rejects involuntary euthanasia, is agnostic about segregation, and endorses sterilization for the “grossly unfit.” But because he believes that politicians have little interest in the long-term fate of humanity, he devotes a significant portion of the book to the idea of establishing voluntary communities that seek the accelerated progress of humanity.

Amusingly, while Armstrong believes that the “undegenerated Englishman…has no moral or intellectual superior among the world’s people…perhaps he is a trifle more inclined towards hypocrisy, intolerance and obstinacy than most progressive races.” Another defect of the English are the physical characteristics of the English. In particular, the typical English women with their “large feet, masculine stride and flat or angular form.”  Not to speak of the poor eyesight and poor teeth of the English:

How much pain, how much ill-health, and how much physical ugliness are due to bad teeth! The breath becomes offensive and the digestive and other organs seriously damaged. Even the heart itself is affected by abscesses due to caries. No defect, in fact, is more far-reaching in its effects upon other organs. Yet here in England of ours, even our children, a few years after receiving their second teeth, are already nearly all of them suffering from this grave trouble. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly hereditary. The truth is, in fact, little short of this: As a race we are in serious danger of losing our teeth altogether.

Charles Wicksteed Armstrong does not expect that the benefits from eugenics will result from exclusive selective breeding within one country and he actively advocates efforts to select for the most desirable traits of different populations, such as the Mediterranean people.

Armstrong himself may have been blessed with “longevity genes” because in 1961 the Eugenics Society congratulated Mr. Armstrong on achieving his ninetieth year. His old age allowed him to witness both the birth but also the decline of the eugenics movement. A casual search on the internet reveals little information on the life and ideas of Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, despite the renewed interest in the history of eugenics. His concerns and his constructive solutions, on the other hand, have not disappeared.

Discussions about decline today are mostly confined to cultural decline, although Prof. Richard Lynn has published books on both Dysgenics and Eugenics with similar concerns as Armstrong. The word “eugenics” has gone mostly out of favor with those in favor of human genetic enhancement, but contemporary transhumanism can be said to carry forward the legacy of liberal eugenics, but with a stronger emphasis on individual choice. A good example of a recent argument in favor of human genetic enhancement is Gregory Stock’s book Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future. Even the interest in overcoming death has it contemporary counterparts with publication of books about the Scientific Conquest of Death.

The social cage

With all the current interest in the paleolithic lifestyle and the paleo-diet it is not surprising that some people will wonder what kind of social-political environment is most suited for hunter-gatherer descendants. One attempt to answer this question is provided in Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner’s The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. They write:

For individualistic primates, whose most “natural” state is hunting and gathering, state power and crushing stratification are hardly compatible with humans’ basic genetic tendencies. Hence, it is not surprising that, when possible, members of agrarian systems have traditionally revolted, migrated, and otherwise sought to escape the sociocultural cage of state power.

According to the authors, individualist (post) industrial society is more compatible with our inherited psychology and offers a prospect to escape from “the social cage” of the agrarian societies. They do not necessarily idealize modern (post) industrial societies, and even seem somewhat confused about “exploitation” in early industrial societies, but claim that, broadly speaking, the transition from an agrarian (aristocratic) to an industrial organization of society returns humans to conditions that are more line with the environment of hunter-gatherers.

In the final chapter they address the question why such an encouraging development is rarely recognized and appreciated by scholars and thinkers, and identify two major  reasons: (1) the collectivist bias of sociologists and intellectuals, and (2) the neglect of the biological basis of human conduct in sociology:

..modernists and post-modernists often appear to believe that humans are a monkey, requiring embeddedness in tightly woven social structures. They are not: humans are an evolved ape, a primate that has little trouble with weak tie relations, loose and fluid communities, mobility, and fluctuating social structures.

The authors are not blind to the emergence of new forms of social bondage and note correctly that modern democracies tend to produce big governments as a result of pressure group politics and the expansion of “rights.” To this one could also add that some of these developments (such as the demand for equality and income redistribution) are the consequences of people not biologically equipped to recognize the new non-zero sum nature of modern capitalism, a perspective that is worked out in great detail in Paul H. Rubin’s excellent book, Darwinian Politics.

One major weakness of this book is that it invariably talks about “humanity” as a homogenous concept and does not treat the topic of human biodiversity at all. One of the most robust observations of daily life is that the desire for freedom from bondage and aversion to state interference varies greatly within groups of people and between groups of people. The framework that is adapted in this book does not allow for a systematic treatment of this issue. As such, the book fails to explain the increasing polarization of human society into those who support the existing size of government (and benefit from it) and those who resist government control and seek to escape it.

Darwinian Politics

Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is a fine introduction to the sociobiology of politics. Rubin is a self-identified libertarian but he makes a serious attempt to avoid dogmatism and consider evidence that points in the opposite direction. For example, on the issue of personal freedom his research forced him to qualify his views about government regulation of personal behavior. In most other aspects, he believes that knowledge of evolutionary psychology can help us in recognizing irrational and wealth-destroying ancestral thinking and conduct. To what extent such recognition can alter our behavior is not a topic he discusses in much detail. In some cases, he seems to be of the opinion that there are general human traits that are so “hardwired” that it would be futile for politicians to go against them, but in other cases he seems to lament the persistence of other hardwired human traits in our modern society. I suspect that, ultimately, where one locates oneself in such debates is itself influenced by ideology, which presents some non-trivial challenges in drawing normative conclusions from sociobiology.

The main thesis of the book is that humans have spent most of their existence in small groups of hunter gatherers and our thinking and conduct concerning economical and political matters is greatly shaped (and constrained) by this.  Most of the chapters are aimed at working out the implications of this for various issues, ranging from conflicts between groups to the politics of envy.

Rubin is not a friend of social contract / state of nature theorizing. He not only believes that contractarianism provides little guidance about the State and politics in the real world, but that the social contract metaphor itself is harmful because it suggests that humans have more freedom in choosing the rules and institutions of their society than they actually have (and can have). He draws an interesting analogy to this view and the Standard Social Science Model (and its political offspring, Marxism) in which human psychology is basically a blank slate. He writes, “if real policies are based on false constructions, then real suffering may ensue.”

One of the strongest sections in the book is where Rubin explains why evolution is not incompatible with individual or group differences. His argument draws upon evolutionary game theory in demonstrating why we would expect individuals who employ different “strategies” to be present in varying proportions in the population, including a small proportion of sociopaths. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that different character traits give rise to different kinds of political beliefs, and that we should expect a permanent “war” between these various types of people. Rubin, however, does not pursue this line of thought and focuses on how general evolved human traits may conflict with rational decision making and welfare maximization.

He devotes a whole chapter to group conflict and this chapter is by far the least exciting because he rather uncritically adopts the outlook of progressive economists.  Rubin puts a lot of emphasis on the observation that individuals can be part of, and can identify with, all kinds of groups. There is little discussion, however, of the degree to which this behavior persists in decision making about personal and political matters. The author is correct that prejudiced consumers and producers decrease the economic gains available to them but he does not discuss cases where “discrimination” can contribute to economic welfare or safety. He also seems to treat the Western economy as a given and does not consider the possibility that (rapid) demographic changes can alter the popularity and functioning of a free market itself. This individualist position should be well known to libertarians (especially of the Objectivist variety) but the question of how a society of (secular) individualists should deal with internal and external threats of more collectivist groups of people is ignored in this context. He is a staunch opponent of affirmative action, however, because it strengthens ethnic identity politics and is extremely dangerous.

In the chapter on altruism, cooperation, and sharing I feel that the evolutionary perspective runs into limits. To some people, evolutionary psychology is just a bunch of just-so stories that allows for the (permanent) co-existence of competing theories and normative conclusions. Rubin thinks that a roughly utilitarian position is implied by human evolution, as opposed to Rawlsian income distribution or Marxism because the latter positions embrace views of human justice that are not compatible with human evolution. He counters the criticism that utilitarianism leads to undesirable implications if carried to its logical extremes by pointing out that such preferences would not have been fitness maximizing, which is an interesting evolutionary take on “rationalist” academic philosophy. This chapter is perhaps the most interesting for his exposition of the debate about the existence of altruism and whether it can be explained without resorting to group selection.

Rubin discusses the existence of envy in some detail and this is the topic where our evolved psychology seems to be highly incompatible with the characteristics of free market economies, in which economic transactions benefit both parties and the gains of the rich do not come at the expense of the poor. It should not be surprising, however, that most humans (including intellectuals) cannot distinguish between, what he calls, dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. As a consequence, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that the wealthy people do not exercise power. In his discussion of political power, he returns to this topic when he notes that this failure to distinguish between economic success and political power leads many people to believe that government can be a countervailing power instead of a substitution of coercion for mutual benefit.

The author attributes the existence of religion to a form of enlightened anthropomorphism that also allows humans to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemma situations. He attributes the popularity of religions like Christianity and Islam to their universal non-ethnic nature. Unfortunately, the author does not treat the topic of how rising secularism in the Western world will affect such conventions about cooperation and altruism in much detail. In the same chapter, he also discusses a form of competition called “handicap competition,” in which humans engage in self-harming behavior to signal their superior fitness. The author does not draw this link but it is intriguing to think that a lot of the obligatory self-loathing that progressive intellectuals display in discussions about multiculturalism is actually a means to signal their superiority instead of an actual attempt to reduce their own power.

The chapter about how humans make political decisions is quite interesting for libertarians, and those of the anti-political variety in particular, because it documents in some detail how our inherited political conduct is mostly irrelevant and ineffective in today’s world. In particular, we vastly overestimate the importance of our own political views and behavior. As the author notes, “given the vanishingly small probability that a single vote will influence the outcome of an election, there is no reason for people to vote at all.” One important consequence of this is that individuals have a much greater incentive to make rational decisions as consumers than as voters. In politics, ancient zero-sum views on economic issues and envy persist. As such, Rubin provides an evolutionary explanation for the economic populism and political failure that the economist Bryan Caplan identified in his groundbreaking book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In a sense, this indictment of mass politics as such is more radical than the political anti-statism that informs contemporary rights-based libertarianism.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching discussions in the book concerns the contrast between the study of rationality by behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists on the one hand, and evolutionary psychologists on the other. It has become quite trendy to document and highlight all kinds of cognitive biases, but Rubin contrasts this field with the work of Gerd Gigerenzer, who has shown that if problems are presented in a way that tracks our evolved abilities, respondents are much more likely to give the right answer. Rubin then gives a number of examples of cognitive bias and explores their evolutionary basis. Sadly, it seems that no matter how one defines rationality, it looks like most political activity remains irrational, wasteful, and divisive in today’s world.

The book ends with some analytic and policy implications of the materials presented in the preceding chapters. He basically restates his preference for limited government, against confiscatory income redistribution, and for more liberal immigration policies. Aside from the fact that the author seems to take the orthodox rationale for government as the preferred provider of public goods for granted (at least in this book), one would expect an evolutionary utilitarian such as Rubin to end on a more critical note about democracy, universal suffrage, and its effects on welfare. Otherwise, Darwinian Politics is an important book that warrants careful study and contains a lot of interesting ideas and references.