Evolutionary Subjectivity


The use of theory and fact from biological evolution in the deliberations over how societies ought to be structured has a richly deserved bad reputation. Beyond analogies based on lobsters and eugenical calls for breeding humanity into a brighter future, evolutionary psychological thought in centrist and right wing circles is enamored of the notion that human nature is well-suited to a society structured along principles of free market liberalism. Beyond the unwarranted leap from the biological to the political, the evolutionary psychological scholarship that underlies these claims have no basis in fact and is theoretically incoherent on biological grounds alone. An examination of how it fails as biology also shows the ways in which evolutionary psychology hides the human need for networks of support and caregiving dubbed “mutual care” by anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Agents of politics and agents of evolution

In the first descriptions of the evolution of Man, they certainly meant the “Man” part. Each man in the collective of Man of evolution is, in this account, something along the line of the Roman head of household or the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer who kept a wife, offspring, hirelings, and slaves. He further enjoyed the favor of a government that subsidized his farmstead and business ventures, provided extensive investment in infrastructure, and put down rebellion by working people, enslaved and free alike. Where Man tried himself against nature and against himself in the Darwinian struggle for existence, the remainder of humanity, though necessary for reproduction and thus evolution itself, were simply features of the environment as though they were the air that surrounded the Roman citizen or Virginia smallholder.

Evolutionary psychology proposes that human nature is embedded within a suite of many cognitive programs that were adapted by natural selection to meet specific challenges to survival and reproduction such as avoiding predators, engaging in social exchange, and identifying potential mates. As the evolutionary psychology account goes, each of these cognitive programs that make up human nature took a very long time to evolve. Since many societies have changed so rapidly with the development of agriculture and industry humans, evolutionary psychology claims,  have not had sufficient time to evolve our nature leaving us with what amount to stone age brains.

Prominent evolutionary psychologists, most notably Steven Pinker, have even argued that free-market liberalism is the ideal social structural match for human nature, some going so far as to refer to liberal enlightenment thinkers and the framers of the US constitution as proto-evolutionary psychologists. By this way of thinking, free markets and a government that is aloof to most concerns except for the enforcement of property rights together constitute the foundations of a political system to which humans come pre-adapted. The evolutionary psychologist envisions a republic that both makes productive use of human nature by harnessing an innate competitive spirit to drive economic growth  and protects against the worst consequences of the same by suppressing the instinct to steal.

Evolutionary subjects

 On evolutionary terms alone, this framing of individual organisms as being equivalent in evolutionary and political terms shows cracks in its foundation.

To the extent that evolutionary psychology has any foundation in genuine evolutionary theory, it tends to draw on an inclusive fitness perspective. In a pub excursion with colleagues and graduate students, population geneticist JBS Haldane remarked that he was “prepared to lay down his life for eight cousins or two brothers.” The quip was inspired by the problem of the evolution of altruism: How could natural selection, which arises from individuals’ differential propensity to survive and reproduce, evolve a behavior in which one organism aids another at considerable risk and cost, up to and including that of its life? One theoretical solution to this problem was developed in the form of kin selection. Since you share copies of your genetic material with your relatives in proportion to your degrees of relatedness, ½ with a sibling or ⅛ in the case of a cousin, helping relatives survive and reproduce might evolve by natural selection in spite of the risk. In this account, aiding a relative is a bit like aiding a fractional version of yourself because of the high probability that you share genetic material from recent common ancestry.

As soon as this is admitted, the evolutionary psychological equivalence between the evolved human organism and political subject assumed by the evolutionary psychologists begins to fade. If the evolutionary effects of differences and reproduction are spread out across individuals, the organism becomes an accounting device for keeping track of copies of genes in a single generation.

As Kropotkin observed, mutual care is a necessary condition for human existence. Young mammals must have sustained care for non-trivial proportions of their lives. This quality is exaggerated in humans beyond all others in the mammalian world with the possible exception of the care given to first-born sons in certain groups of orca whales. From the perspective of the cold calculus of reproduction and survivorship, ensuring that offspring survive, as energy and time intensive as their care might be, is the feature of the human life cycle to which natural selection is most sensitive. That is, once an individual has a very few offspring, additional reproduction has little effect on a human’s evolutionary posterity in comparison to ensuring the survivorship of existing offspring. This exaggerated dependence on survivorship is invariant to changes in social structure and economic mode and it varies little between sexes.

The relationships of care that the human life cycle entails has defined much of our evolution. Human nature cannot, therefore, be located in the mind of individual humans. Rather, to the extent that the concept is recoverable, human nature is best thought of as being distributed across the relationships of mutual care and other social relations that are necessary conditions for human existence.

Are we natural born socialists?

At this point, it might be tempting to say that distributed mutual care being a necessary precondition for human existence and the key context in which we ought to understand the natural origins of human social behavior means that liberal evolutionary political psychology is wrong and we are actually natural born socialists. Such a conclusion, though based on premises that happen to be true, would be just as invalid as its liberal evolutionary psychological counterpart. Whether we evolved in a bellum omnium contra omnes or harmonious primitive communism, or were even created by divine powers whose motivations will remain forever a mystery, that which harms us or provides us sustenance is a matter of the conditions of the present. We do not need a full evolutionary explanation of the origins of human reproduction and childrearing, for instance, to realize that mutual care is a prime site for the generation of exploitation and inequality.

Coercive control of caregivers is precisely what the least powerful in the households of the Virginia yeoman farmer and Roman citizen faced. In either case, children were raised by the enslaved and otherwise subordinate members of that household. Different coercive and deeply unequal systems prevail today, ranging from the suppression of reproductive healthcare to the exploitation of working class women in for-profit daycare.

Where the need for care is our evolutionary inheritance, the system of caregiving a society builds and the degree to which it is just and fair are political problems. To the extent that investigation of human evolution can provide any positive guidance to an effort to make a more just and equal society, it can do so by highlighting the fact that no social configuration that we would consider as providing the conditions for a good human existence can be realized without substantial mutual care. Democratization of the systems governing care is essential to ensure that command of this needed activity cannot be wielded as an instrument of coercive control.