man, beast and politics: stone age politics

westminster hour, bbc radio 4, 28 october 2001

At the heart of any political belief is a vision of the kind of creatures human beings are. Liberalism, conservatism, Marxism - not only does each embody a view of what an ideal society should look like, but each also derives that view from a particular understanding of what human nature is.

For Adam Smith, one of the founders of classical liberalism, humans were rational, self-contained atoms, each seeking above all to maximise his satisfactions and minimise his dissatisfactions. The role of government was simply to create the conditions wherein individuals could best pursue their own selfish interests. Edmund Burke, the first modern conservative, had a much darker view of human nature. In his eyes humans were creatures not so much of reason as of instinct, prejudice and habit. Any social change, he believed, had at best to be slow and gradual. For Karl Marx, human nature was not fixed but was shaped by the material conditions of society. To change human nature and human consciousness, therefore, one had to transform the material conditions of human existence.

All politics, then, is rooted in beliefs about human nature. As the American writer Henry Adams put it, 'Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.'

But how do changes in our perceptions of human nature shape political beliefs? This is a particularly important question to ask today as we are living through what many consider to be a revolution in our understanding of what it is to be human. For much of the postwar period, human beings were perceived as highly malleable creatures whose nature was moulded largely by the culture they inhabited. In the 1950s and 1960s the still-fresh memories of the Holocaust scared away many scholars from thinking about the biological basis of human nature. As the highly influential anthropologist Ruth Benedict suggested, 'The vast proportion of all individuals who are born into any society always assume the behaviour dictated by that society'.

This view of human beings as blank slates waiting to be moulded by the environment not only seemed to act as a bulwark against the excesses of Nazism and racial science but also met with political approval in an age of social planning. There was a widespread belief that through social engineering one could make people good or bad, intelligent or stupid.

How different it is today. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of Marxism and disillusionment with ideas of social engineering have all transformed visions of what it is to be human. There is increasing acceptance, among academics, policy makers and the public, that humans are biological beings with a fixed, unchangeable nature. Darwinian arguments about human nature, far from being reviled, have become acceptable, even fashionable. Twenty-five years ago sociobiologists such as EO Wilson were treated with great hostility. Today figures such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Helena Cronin - and indeed Wilson himself - have become the scientific superstars of our age, as much entertainers as scientists, writing bestsellers, starring in any number of TV documentaries, and injecting evolutionary wisdom into all manner of political and cultural debates, from why Bill Clinton shared a cigar with Monica Lewinsky to whether it is morally proper for women to have toyboys as partners.

What are the political consequences of this changing view of human nature? The blank slate view gave credibility to the kinds of programmes of social engineering that were fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. What kinds of political policies are favoured by the new Darwinian theories of Man? That's the question I want to investigate in this series of programmes.

First, however, we need to establish what evolutionary psychologists understand about human nature. At the heart of their argument is the belief that the human mind, like the human body, has been designed by natural selection through the process of evolution. Natural selection favours physical traits and mental abilities that allow the individuals who possess those traits and abilities better to survive and reproduce. Because such individuals survive and reproduce better than others, so these particular capacities get passed on to the next generation. In this way animals evolve and their characteristics change, better suiting them to their environment.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind was designed in exactly this fashion. Our desires, intuitions, and forms of reasoning - the way we fall in love, the importance we attach to our families, our willingness to help out a neighbour, our ability to pick out a face in a crowd, men's obsession with sports - have all been designed with one thing in mind: to help spread our genes more efficiently by coping with the kinds of problems humans habitually face in their environment. Not, however, the environment in which we now live but rather the environment in which our ancestors used to live. For most of our history humans were hunter-gatherers. The mind has been designed not to solve the kinds of problems with which we are faced today but the kinds of problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is designed, therefore, not to bring peace to the Balkans, or to unravel the human genome - nor indeed to make radio programmes about politics and human nature - but to hunt mammoths, build shelters and find a mate.

Postwar academics and politicians saw humans as immensely flexible. Contemporary evolutionary psychology views human nature as fixed, and moreover as fixed in the Stone Age. Modern humans are, in effect, Stone Age beings living in a space age world.

Evolutionary thinkers argue that all social policy must take into account the constraints created by our evolved psychology. This is how Helena Cronin and Oliver Curry, both of the London School of Economics, put it in a paper on family policy:

A realistic understanding of our motivations and desires is vital for changing people's behaviours. Darwinian theory provides this understanding: human nature is fixed but we are designed by natural selection to respond appropriately to the ever-shifting sands of social conditions. Thus the task for the policy-maker is to work out which aspects of our environment need to be altered in order to achieve the desired ends.

The argument runs something like this. Human nature is fixed but human behaviour is flexible. That's because our fixed nature responds in different ways to different environments. Put a group of humans in environment A, they are likely to exhibit behaviour X; in environment B, behaviour Y; in environment C, behaviour Z. And so on. A particular environment will always elicit a particular response. If policy makers want people to behave in certain ways - if they want, for instance, to reduce anti-social behaviour or to ensure that husbands do not desert their families - then they must use their knowledge of evolved human psychology to create social environments that constrain behaviour in the desired fashion.

In a sense, then, evolutionary psychologists are promoting a form of social engineering little different from that advocated by postwar social scientists except that they view human nature as fixed, not pliable. The problem with postwar social policy, they believe, was not the attempt at social engineering as such, but the failure of to heed the structures of human nature.

They also believe that the fixed character of human nature reveals why certain types of societies work and other do not. According to the writer Matt Ridley, communism failed because it attempted to frustrate the basic human instinct to put family above others. Marx, he writes, 'designed a social system that would only have worked if we were angels; it failed because we were beasts'. Ridley concludes that 'Universal benevolence evaporates on the stove of human nature.'

Evolution reveals why governments are bad and markets are good. Socialism doesn't suit human nature, Ridley argues (though chimpanzees, with their highly authoritarian social structure, would apparently take to it like Marx to the British Library). Markets, however, are written into our genes. According to Ridley, 'Man the hunter-gatherer' is also 'man the exchanger'. Socialism is for chimps; real Men barter. The moral of his evolutionary story is that governments should stop meddling in our lives: 'If we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital we reduce the power and scope of the state.'

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer disagrees. He wants to reclaim Darwinism for the left and suggests that 'a readiness to cooperate seems to be part of our genes'. Opposing Ridley's desire to leave it all to the market, Singer claims that an evolutionary view of human psychology shows the need for state intervention to create a more egalitarian society.

The celebrated American commentator Francis Fukuyama stands somewhere in between the free market views of Ridley and the socialist ideas of Singer. Like Ridley, he wants to dispense with government as far as is possible; like Singer he pines for greater civic virtue. In his book The Great Disruption, Fukuyama bemoans the destruction of social life brought about by the break-up of the postwar order. The transition from an industrial to an information society, he believes, has led to increased crime and social disorder, the decline of the family, a collapse of trust and confidence in social institutions and the weakening of social bonds and common values. The solution to these problems, he argues, lies as much in human nature as in social policy:

Human beings by nature are social creatures with certain built-in, natural capacities for solving problems of social co-operation and inventing moral rules to constrain individual choice. They will, without much prompting, create order spontaneously simply by pursuing their daily individual ends and interacting with other people.

Homo thatcherus, Homo equalitas, Homo communitas - all, apparently, have emerged from the East African savannah where humans first evolved. How convenient that on the African savannah of 100 000 years ago we should find the tools to remake the politics of today. And how even more convenient that these tools should match exactly one's own political inclinations. Over here we find evidence that humans are, by nature, freetraders, over there that they are naturally inclined to fairness, and round the corner we find that stitched into their souls are the necessary means to heal the great disruption.

Evolution allows us to dream it all. And that's the problem. If human psychology can lead to a Thatcherite, an egalitarian or a communitarian society, why base political arguments on the nature of human psychology? Why not simply make a political argument? The fact that we don't suggests an uncertainty about politics and a newfound respect for nature. We live in an age in which many people have become disillusioned with reason and politics as agencies of change. An age in which human activity is often disparaged as the cause, not of progress, but of destruction - from global warming to ethnic cleansing. An age in which in almost every aspect of life - from health treatments to energy sources to the food on our table - the 'natural' is regarded as morally superior to the artificial, or the humanly-created.

Against this background, it makes sense for politicians and writers to appeal to our natural as opposed to our political instincts. An entreaty to nature short-circuits the need for rational political debate - you can no more debate with Nature than you can with God. An appeal to human nature, like an appeal to God, is to invoke a seemingly independent arbiter to sort out our affairs. Humans no longer have to take responsibility; God or Nature will.

The young Bob Dylan once satirised the belief that religion can tell humans how to act. Whatever politicians did, he sang, they always discovered that they did it with 'God on their Side'. In politics, Nature is a bit like God: somehow, it always seems to be on your side.