November 04, 2003
Human Desire For Freedom Evolved Before We Lived In Cities
Denis Dutton has written a review for Arts & Letters Daily of Emory University professor of economics and law Paul H. Rubin's book entitled Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom
Rubin begins with that bracing idea that the often-coercive political control placed on human beings since the advent of cities is characteristic only of the Holocene. The human desire for freedom, he argues, is an older, deeper prehistoric adaptation: for most of their existence, human beings have experienced relative freedom from political coercion. Many readers will ﬁnd Rubin’s thesis counterintuitive: we tend to assume that political liberty is a recent development, having appeared for a while with the Greeks, only to be reborn in the eighteenth century, after millennia of despotisms, for the beneﬁt of the modern world. This is a false assumption, a bias produced by the fact that what we know best is recorded history, those 500 generations since the advent of cities and writing.
The fall from the proverbial garden of freedom began around ten thousand years ago at the beginning of the Holocene era when humans developed agriculture. With agriculture came the ability to maintain much more dense settlements and that, in turn, led to governments and the coercive power of governments to control people.
If this argument is correct (and I think it is) then the advent of dense settlements and coercive political systems must have created new selective pressures on genes that shape human personality and behavioral tendencies. Therefore people whose ancestors lived in denser communities for longer periods of time probably have different distributions of alleles for personality than people whose ancestors were more recently hunter-gatherers. We might expect, therefore, to find different average personality types in Mongolia than in the most densely populated regions of northern China. Also, we might expect to see different average personality types among the Hmong and other more remote groups in southeast Asia than among those living in the Mekong Delta.
Any area that has managed to maintain a strong administrative system of control for many generations almost certainly selected for different kinds of progeny. People more likely, due to temperament and behavior, to be killed or imprisoned by governments were less likely to reproduce. People who were adept at advancing thru the ranks of elaborate administrative systems (and China probably stands out in terms of sheer continued length of such systems) would have different personality types and would have been more likely to leave more progeny.
If the desire for freedom is a primitive Pleistocene urge and if city systems and larger empire administrative structures selected for different characteristics what does this hold for humanity's future? It is hard to say. Certainly, the innate desires to get along with large numbers of people and to submit to laws and norms of behavior are all useful. But there is a complex interaction between the many elements of human personality and once it becomes possible to control what personality characteristics offspring get it is hard to predict what humans will become like.
The Pleistocene era's selection for reverse dominance hierarchies probably provides the human mental characteristics that serve as the basis of democracy.
Rubin cites studies showing that hunter-gatherers had what are called “reverse dominance hierarchies,” where less dominate males acted individually or cooperated with each other to curtail the power of would-be dominants. Strategies for this would include “ridicule, refusal to obey commands, forcible resistance, and even homicide against those with too strong a desire for power.” A desire for freedom, then, for relative personal autonomy within the group, is a powerful Pleistocene adaptation pitted against extreme coercive hierarchy.
Imagine a country in which the government forces offspring to be born with less of the innate desire to form reverse dominance hierarchies. The result would be people who do not put up as much (or even any) resistance to the dictates of those in power. In anther country where people are free to choose the genetic characteristics of their offspring it is hard to predict what choices will be made and, as a consequence, what the resulting political system will look like.
Rubin sees both the impulse for support of the welfare state and the opposition to high taxes and the resentment toward freeloaders as all consequences of Pleistocene adaptations. Helping others in tough times might lead to their helping you out at a later point. At the same time. food was too scarce to tolerate freeloading. Rubin also argues that libertarianism is contrary to human nature and that humans want to meddle in each others' lives. Read the whole review. Very interesting.
One other point: My guess is that the distribution of alleles for the desire to be altruistic or to enforce rules or to force people not to be freeloaders will be found to be different in different parts of the political spectrum. A lot of political divisions will turn out to be, at least in part, due to average differences in personality characteristics that have their origins in the Pleistocene era. My bet is that once people start genetically tinkering with their offspring purer forms of socialists, libertarians, social conservatives, and other political types will be born and the political divisions within some societies and between societies will become greater as a result.
"the advent of dense settlements and coercive political systems must have created new selective pressures on genes that shape human personality and behavioral tendencies"
But, on an evolutionary scale, wouldn't this be quite recent?
"My guess is that the distribution of alleles for the desire to be altruistic or to enforce rules or to force people not to be freeloaders will be found to be different in different parts of the political spectrum."
A provocative suggestion, but how do you explain the effect of community, culture, media, and economic status on political orientation? I live in Toronto, a city of immigrants, and yet there's a significant lean towards the left, but the same immigrants in other, American, cities apparently have more conservative opinions. And what about generational effects on social and political opinions? My generation is a lot less conservative about social issues than the previous, a period in which genetic selection would be insignificant. How significant, really, is this effect you propose?
Shai, It is a common misconception that evolutionary pressures take hundreds of thousands or millions of years to play out. We already have a large range of alleles that affect personality and intelligence. Without knowing their exact genes that much was teased out just from twins studies and other human population studies. So selective pressures were able to play out choosing between them in different local environments.
But we also see plenty of evidence of newer mutations that have occurred more recently (talking here on the scale of only thousands of years) to adjust for local conditions. Was Beta Thalassemia an advantage in Italy during the last ice age? Probably not. But there it is in Italy now. Or how about red colored hair in Ireland? Probably arose since the last ice age as well. Plus, we have plenty of mutations that look like they were selected for to deal with specific diseases in Europe. Or how about the up-regulation of lactase expression that almost certainly came well after the establishment of agriculture and said mutation is concentrated in northern Europe. Or how about the variations found in the response to alcohol? There are variations between different regions in Europe and at higher levels of agggregation. Some of these variations have been traced down to different levels of expression of enzymes that metabolism ethanol. Well, those adaptations came since humans developed the kinds of agriculture that enabled the larger scale production of alcohol from grapes and grain. There's also the adaptation to oxygen metabolism found in some in the Andes (forget the name of the enzyme involved) and those people were not living in the Andes even 15,000 years ago.
As for immigrants in the US and Canada: Your error is to assume these immigrants are more similar than they are. It is like saying that all foreigners are the same because they are all foreigners. There is a wide range of political leanings among American immigrants. Upper class genetically Spanish immigrants in south Florida are well to the right of lower class Mexican Indian immigrants in California. Korean, Arab, and other immigrant groups each have distinct voting patterns. "Immigrants" is too broad a label.
Proof of the existence of cultural effects doesn't contradict the position that genetic effects matter as well. I certainly think that "software" is important. But I think "hardware" is important too.
I expect that immigrants living in Boston or San Francisco lean more heavily to the left than immigrants living in New Hampshire. That does not affect the point that they tend to lean more heavily to the left than the non-immigrant population.
Your point about the second generation being less conservative only reinforces Randall's points that the descendants of immigrants do not on average become Republican conservatives.
Dominance heirarchies or reverse dominant heirarchies can play out in many different ways within different social context. Take Japan, for example. During the World War 2 era military dictatorship, dominancy hierarchy was expressed through kamikaze dedication to nation and emperor. In the post war era that same tendancy could be expressed in a liberal capitalist democracy through the "company man" and lifetime employment. Also it is worthwhile to consider that some political systems might be more objectively successful (i.e. creation of wealth and knowledge which allow such societies to sustain themselves and empose their will on others) regardless of their natural tendencies. It might be that any species that suficiently sophisticated enough to mold their own societies would neccesarily thrive in one where such ability is put to good use. In the world as we know it, many assume that those ideal societies should be democratic and capitalist. I refer here for further reading to Francis Fukyama's The End of History. It is possible that many if not all sentient species might inevitably come to the same end.
“The advent of dense settlements and coercive political systems must have created new selective pressures on genes that shape human personality and behavioral tendencies.”
“And what about generational effects on social and political opinions? My generation is a lot less conservative about social issues than the previous, a period in which genetic selection would be insignificant.”
There have been verbose posts about genes and alleles written in a fashion that would lead a man less versed in genetics and psychology to believe that a person’s personality, including political tendency, is based solely on his genetic makeup, in total disregard to behavioral psychology.
People are not, as Freud said, predisposed to be a certain way at birth, as more than a few seem to be suggesting. Genes can, at most, help push someone to have a stronger desire to learn in a certain way. Personality, in turn, is largely a product of one’s environment, and to say the genetics can play such a large role in personality is preposterous and even racist. Case in point:
“We might expect, therefore, to find different average personality types in Mongolia than in the most densely populated regions of northern China.”
The next step here might be to assert that Koreans are more prone to violence than Scandinavians, as has been mentioned in various media since the Virginia Tech shootings. To make that kind of distinction between ethnic groups is racist because personality is not based on what kind of alleles were passed on to you by your parents, not based on your geographic location, not based on your ethnicity, and most certainly not based on your skin color. Personality is the result of your interpretation environmental influences.