Humans are still evolving

A defining characteristic of ideologies is an implicit or explicit theory of human nature. For example, modern libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard derived bold normative conclusions from the fact that humans are endowed with reason. In such attempts, an abstract theory of human nature is made to do more work than it can possibly do; provide all humans with a set of normative guidelines for social interaction. The failure of such “rationalist” approaches to draw ideological conclusions from human nature does not mean that knowledge about human nature has no role to play in social philosophy or public policy at all. Absent deriving grandiose categorical imperatives, knowledge of human nature can provide us with knowledge about the limits of human malleability or the feasibility of specific public policy proposals. To be able to play this role, however, it needs to satisfy at least two criteria; it needs to be based on experimental evidence and it should be situated in an evolutionary context.

Many writers about human nature are aware of the social sensitivities surrounding this topic. As a consequence, most contemporary books that aim to provide a theory of human nature need to walk a fine line between providing a plausible evidence-based perspective and avoiding presenting an account of human nature with controversial social-political implications. What makes many books about human nature not entirely persuasive is the implicit premise that humans have stopped evolving since our descendents left Africa around 50,000 years ago. Stephen Jay Gould was quite explicit about this when he wrote that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” One problem with these accounts is that genetic evidence keeps accumulating that humans not only kept evolving over the last 50,000 years, but that the pace might even have accelerated after the start of agriculture and modern civilization. Two books about human nature that explicitly depart from the view that humanity has not experienced meaningful genetic change over the last 50,000 years are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) and Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Before the Dawn provides a general evolutionary account of human origins and The 10,000 Year Explosion specifically aims to provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for recent genetic change and its implications. As such, The 10,000 Year Explosion can be read as a sustained, detailed treatment of one of the themes in Before the Dawn and constitutes a major contribution to the resuscitated field of “biohistory.”

Since both authors reject the theory that 50,000 years is too short for genetic changes to occur, both books discuss emerging evidence that diverging populations responded with different genetic adaptations to the environments they encountered. Nicholas Wade devotes a whole chapter to the view that the concept of race may have been abandoned without good scientific reason and that this concept can do meaningful work in population genetics, history, medicine, and forensic science. Such a perspective makes evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker uncomfortable. In an interview in New Scientist magazine he admits, “People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent.”

Commenting on Jared Diamond’s (mostly) environmentalist perspective, Wade writes, “If New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?” Both books argue that this is exactly what has happened, and give a number of examples. In particular, they discuss the hypothesis that the unique history of the Ashkenazi Jews triggered genetic adaptations that make them excel in cognitive tasks. In addition, Cochran and Harpending do not just argue that race is more than skin-deep, but also explain why similar traits can reflect different genetic adaptations. In the closing chapter they write, “If researchers in the human sciences continue to ignore the fact of ongoing natural selection, they will have thrown away the key to many important problems, turning puzzles into mysteries.”

Nicolas Wade also expresses concern over the tendency of many post-war archeologists and anthropologists to play down or even deny the prevalence of warfare (and other cruel practices) in primitive and pre-State societies. This theme has been treated in detail by Robert B. Edgerton in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, and, more recently, in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Such wishful, or anti-Western, thinking not only obscures the progress that has been made in many modern societies, it also prevents scholars from properly assessing the role that warfare and competition has played in shaping human nature. In fact, in his book The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution Toward Peace, Robert Sidney Bigelow dispels the myth of primitive harmony and proposes that continuous warfare gave rise to increased in-group cooperation and increased brain size.

If natural selection is still at work in humans, an obvious question is where we are heading, or could be heading, if we allow for the possibility that humans may soon have real control over their genetic destiny. This topic is treated in a very interesting manner in the last chapter of Before the Dawn. Nicholas Wade discusses the current trend that the rich and more intelligent tend to have fewer children but without reaching a firm conclusion whether this will produce natural selection to act against genes that promote intelligence. Even if such a scenario would occur it might be offset by new technologies that allow genetic human enhancement. Such developments could even produce new post-human species who are not capable of breeding with modern humans. “Our previous reaction to kindred species was to exterminate them, but we have mellowed a lot in the last 50,000 years,” writes Wade. Whether un-enhanced humans will survive in the long run is an open question.

An extensive 5-part interview with Gregory Cochran is available here:
Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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.

The slow cultural suicide of Europe

The Dutch ex-politician and right-wing intellectual Frits Bolkestein, no stranger to defying political taboos, published a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal called “How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization.” He is not the first person to wonder how Europe lost confidence in its own civilization (“the noble Western traditions of self-assessment and self-criticism have often degraded into sentimental self-flagellation”) but then he draws attention to the possibility that one of the sources of this phenomenon may be found in Christianity itself:

“Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

Instead of suggesting that Europeans can prevent their “slow cultural suicide” by finding inspiration in Christianity, he advocates to “take pride in our classical values.” It is not every day that one can reject both multiculturalism and Christianity, quote Friedrich Nietzsche, and get published in one of America’s biggest newspapers.

What is not sufficiently made clear in Bolkestein’s article is that “our current masochism” is something that only really resonates with politicians, progressive intellectuals and conformist hipsters. It is not something that has caught on with the majority of the European people. As a matter of fact, multiculturalism needs continuous reinforcement and support by the State to sustain itself.

The philosopher Michael Levin has suggested that multiculturalism is not popular despite the fact that it contradicts common sense and empirical observation but because of it:

The theme uniting the tenets of conventional liberal wisdom is that they all run exactly counter to experience; I think they are arrived at from experience, via the assumption that experience always misleads.

Levin thinks that the common observation in science that things are often not what they appear is responsible for the tendency of progressives to embrace ideas that are the opposite what common sense would dictate.

Another explanation is that progressives prefer “unconstrained” visions of society. Thomas Sowell identifies the unconstrained vision as one that does not accept any limits to human malleability or the ability of experts to improve on “chaotic” decentralized processes such as free markets. Progressives are therefore quite hostile to claims that human nature or economic incentives are guaranteed to defeat their objectives.  Despite all the logical and empirical arguments against it, the progressive vision of man is one of a human being endowed with “free will” unconstrained by evolutionary traits.

The quest for a European political union and a single currency can be seen as the culmination of this view of society exacerbated by profound guilt over Nazism. As Simon Kuper wrote in a recent article in the Financial Times:

…there was never much economic logic behind the euro – certainly not a euro that includes everyone from Germany to Greece. Economics wasn’t what the currency was about. Rather, the euro is a war baby. It was created because Europe was struggling to get over the second world war…The general thinking was that a common currency would “bind in” a new Germany and somehow prevent Hitlerism…much of European life then was built on memories of war. Hardly any Europeans would vote for anti-immigrant parties, because look what Hitler had done…The European Central Bank, too, was a war baby. It inherited the Bundesbank’s obsession with inflation, traceable to the trauma of German hyperinflation of the 1920s that had helped create Nazism.

The advocates of an “integrated” Europe were not just content with abolishing nationalism and expressions of ethnic identity in their member countries, but also aimed to eliminate the recurrence of such ethnic politics by celebrating the changing ethnic composition of these nations. The ideology of multiculturalism was supposed to reconcile citizens with these events by presenting the demise of a dominant culture as a benefit.

One of the reasons why modern Western governments have become increasingly authoritarian again (suppression of free speech and free association) is because this project goes so firmly against what we understand about human nature and history that only coercion can secure its implementation – and even that may be temporary. Ironically, the consequences now seem to undermine the welfare state consensus in Europe (including Scandinavia) and trigger a renaissance of identity politics.

In hindsight it is striking how the objective of denazification was conceived as a defense of the welfare state and increased centralization; the socialism of the National Socialists was never identified as a great concern, nor the micro-management of people’s thinking, feeling, and behavior which has remained a constant elements of modern politics.

What became of the degenerate?

In 1956, Richard D. Walter wrote a peculiar article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences called What Became of the Degenerate? A Brief History of a Concept, in which he reviews the use of the term degenerate as a biological and social concept. Most of the literature on this topic was produced in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the field of sociology the topic of social degeneration was treated by Max Nordau in his famous book Entartung [Degeneration] (1892). Naturally, when this term is used in a social context there is room for vigorous debate. Nicholas Murray Butler, who wrote an introduction to a book called Regeneration, a reply to Max Nordau (1896), considered Nordau himself “an abnormality and a pathological type.”

The subject of degeneration was also important to the early 20th century eugenicists in books such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong’s The Survival of the Unfittest (1929).

Walter concludes that “though the original concepts of Morel, Lombroso, and Nordau have become obsolete, the phenomena that degeneracy attempted to explain are still of great current interest and far from completely understood. In today’s concepts of the etiology of psychiatric disease, the old dichotomy of nurture versus nature still appears under more subtle terms, though today’s emphasis is upon nurture. This also applies to the subject of criminology, as well as the larger areas termed race and culture.”

In a 1902 textbook of zoology the authors can still write on the topic of human degeneration:

Human degeneration. It is not proposed in these  pages to discuss the application of the laws of animal life  to man. But each and every one extends upward, and can  be traced in the relation of men and society. Thus, among  men as among animals, self-dependence favors complexity  of power. Dependence, parasitism, quiescence favor degeneration. Degeneration means loss of complexity, the  narrowing of the range of powers and capabilities. It is  not necessarily a phase of disease or the precursor of death.  But as intellectual and moral excellence are matters associated with high development in man, dependence is unfavorable to them.

Degeneration has been called animal pauperism. Pauperism in all its forms, whether due to idleness, pampering,  or misery, is human degeneration. It has been shown that  a large part of the criminality and pauperism among men  is hereditary, due to the survival of the tendency toward  living at the expense of others. The tendency to live without self-activity passes from generation to generation.  Beggary is more profitable than unskilled and inefficient  labor, and our ways of careless charity tend to propagate  the beggar. That form of charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful is an incentive toward degeneration. Withdrawal from the competition of life, withdrawal  from self-helpful activity, aided by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of others these factors bring about degeneration. The same results follow in all ages and with all races, with the lower animals as with men.

One can only wonder what the authors would  think about contemporary society in light of such phenomena as the “withdrawal from the competition of life” and “charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful.”