I have just finished acting as the discussion leader for a Liberty Fund conference in Indianapolis on Robert Sapolsky's book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. We had a good group of 15 very smart people with a wide range of intellectual backgrounds--including primatology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, political science, and economics. This variety of expertise was helpful in our discussion of Sapolsky's book, which is a survey of much of the research over the past fifty years on the biology of human behavior.
My conclusion was that although Sapolsky does not say so explicitly, he is implicitly arguing for a Darwinian Left; and in doing so, he shows the weakness in that position as it was set forth in Peter Singer's The Darwinian Left in 1999.
I have written some previous posts on Sapolsky (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) and the Darwinian Left (here and here).
In contrast to the traditional left, and particularly the Marxist left, Singer's Darwinian left does not deny the existence of a human nature, nor does it insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that human nature is infinitely malleable. Rather, the Darwinian left accepts a Darwinian view of human nature as both selfish and social, competitive and cooperative, and as naturally inclined to dominance hierarchies and to striving for power to advance one's own interests and the interests of one's kin over others. According to Singer, the Darwinian left will foster social cooperation while channeling competitive towards socially desirable ends through free market systems of exchange and specialization. Because of human nature, a centrally planned socialist economy cannot work, and it will tend to become oppressively authoritarian, as it did in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China.
Singer was forced to conclude: "In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best that we can do today." In fact, most of his "deflated" leftism would be acceptable to conservatives and classical liberals. For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of private property, a market economy, and limited government. Singer's dilemma, therefore, is that insofar as his Darwinian view of human nature forces him to deny leftist utopianism, he thereby denies the core of leftist thought, and so his Darwinian left looks more like a Darwinian version of conservatism or classical liberalism.
Sapolsky says that when he was a freshman at Harvard in 1975, when Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology was published, he saw that the fierce controversy over Wilson's book was led by critics who were Marxist leftists. "Sociobiology was accused of using biology to justify the status quo--conservative social Darwinism that implied that if societies are filled with violence, unequal distribution of resources, capitalistic stratification, male dominance, xenophobia, and so on, these things are in our nature and probably evolved for good reasons" (384). There was a "personal tinge" to this conflict, Sapolsky observes, because "that first generation of American sociobiologists were all white Southerners--Wilson, Trivers, DeVore, Hrdy; in contrast, the first generation of its loudest critics were all Northeastern, urban, Jewish leftists--Harvard's Gould, Lewontin, Beckwith, Ruth Hubbard, Princeton's Leon Kamin, and MIT's Noam Chomsky." Since Sapolsky was himself a Northeastern, urban, Jewish leftist (405, 583, 621), one might wonder why he did not join the leftist critics of sociobiology.
Over time, Sapolsky says, the "political posturing lost steam," and this paved the way "for a sensible, middle-of-the-road middle age for the field" of sociobiology, which "does predict many broad features of behavior and social systems across species" (385). Sapolsky's Behave looks like his attempt to provide a "middle-of-the-road" version of sociobiology without "political posturing." And yet repeatedly in the book, he takes the side of the left in ways that lead me to conclude that he is defending a Darwinian left.
Although Sapolsky mentions Singer a few times in Behave, he is silent about Singer's Darwinian Left. But if one compares these two books, one can see that Sapolsky faces the same problem that arises for Singer--Sapolsky would like his Darwinian biology of human behavior to support his leftist thought, but his Darwinian view of human nature forces him to accept a "sharply deflated vision of the left" that denies all the utopian ideas of the left, which forces him to accept the classical liberal ideas of the Enlightenment.
One can see how this arises in Sapolsky's account of the three epochs of human evolutionary history--the foraging epoch, the agrarian epoch, and the modern epoch.
THE FORAGING EPOCH
We know that for most of human history, human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. This was the original human condition--the state of nature--in which human nature was shaped, and therefore the debate over what this state of nature looked like has deep political implications in political philosophy and the social sciences.
Marx and Engels believed that the anthropology of Lewis Henry Morgan confirmed that the original society of hunter-gatherers was a "primitive communism" of "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs," and so the future communist revolution could be seen as a revival of that original egalitarian society. Similarly, anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins have agreed with Rousseau's claim that our ancient foraging ancestors lived in the "original affluent society," because all of their needs were easily satisfied with little labor in a peaceful and egalitarian community. Sahlins was one of the first leftist critics of sociobiology as promoting a crude Hobbesian view of human nature as violent and competitive rather than peaceful and cooperative. I have written about this leftist view of the state of nature and the evidence against it (here, here, here, and here).
Sapolsky tries to agree with Sahlins in taking the side of Rousseau against Hobbes in seeing the original society of hunter-gatherers as free, peaceful, and egalitarian (305-27, 648-52). But even as he does this, he has to concede that there is plenty of evidence against hunter-gatherer "grooviness," because hunter-gatherers were quite violent, and so they were "no tie-dyed pacifists" (319-23). And while Margaret Mead, in 1928 in Coming of Age in Samoa, enshrined the Samoans as "the coolest, most peaceful and sexually free primates east of bonobos," Sapolsky admits that later anthropologists have shown that this was a "grossly inaccurate picture of Samoa as the Garden of Eden."
And yet even as he concedes that the Rousseauan myth of the noble savage really is only a myth, Sapolsky cannot completely give up on the idea that the ancient hunter-gatherer way of life was the best life for human beings.
THE AGRARIAN EPOCH
Like Rousseau, Sapolsky thinks that humans were forced to leave the hunter-gatherer Garden of Eden once they began to settle down as farmers and herders, farming domesticated crops and herding domesticated animals, because this led to the invention of inequality and war. This is why agriculture was "one of the all-time human blunders" (326). (I have written here about James C. Scott's account of how farming eventually provided the conditions for the emergence of the first states.)
So if this was such a great blunder, then does Sapolsky propose some correction of that blunder? Can we go back to the foraging way of life, or at least to some likeness of that egalitarian and peaceful way of life? Or should we go ahead to more progressive forms of modern liberal order? Or are we just stuck with the blunder of the agrarian order?
Sapolsky ridicules the idea of leaving the agrarian order and returning to the hunter-gatherer state of nature. Commenting on Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization, Sapolsky observes:
"Near the end of his book, Keeley airs a pretty weird worry: 'The doctrines of the pacified past unequivocally imply that the only answer to the 'might scourge of war' is a return to tribal conditions and the destruction of all civilization.' In other words, unless this tomfoolery of archaeologists pacifying the past stopes, people will throw away their antibiotics and microwaves, do some scarification rituals, and switch to loincloths--and where will that leave us?" (315)THE MODERN EPOCH
Then a few pages after dismissing the possibility of going backward to the foraging epoch, Sapolsky suggests that over the past 500 years human beings have moved forward, beyond the evils of the agrarian epoch: "over the last half millennium people have arguably gotten a lot less awful to one another" (327).
Steven Pinker has argued that the reason people have gotten less awful in recent centuries is the success of the classical liberal Enlightenment. Generally, Sapolsky criticizes Pinker and takes the side of Pinker's leftist critics. But on this point, he has to agree that Pinker is right, and he admits that this goes against his leftist commitments: "The Left charges that this giddy overvaluing of the dead-white-male Enlightenment fuels Western neoimperialism. My personal political instincts run in this direction. Nonetheless, one must admit that the countries with minimal violence, extensive social safety nets, few child brides, numerous female legislators, and sacrosanct civil liberties are usually direct cultural descendants of the Enlightenment" (617).
Although the Enlightenment has not totally abolished the inequality and war invented by agrarian societies, the harmful effects of these evils have been reduced. So, for example, one of the beneficial effects of free trade has been less war, although Sapolsky is reluctant to admit this: "'trade' is double-edged. It's certifiably groovy when occurring between rain forest hunters; it's certifiably vile if you're protesting the WTO. But as long as countries can wage war on distant nations, long-distance trade that makes them interdependent is a good deterrent" (621).
Sapolsky also agrees--again, somewhat reluctantly--with the classical liberal or libertarian idea that as people in free market societies interact with one another through trade, this cultivates a sense of fairness, so that they cooperate with those who are cooperative and punish those who are cheaters. He sees this as a modern revival of the natural sense of fairness that was originally cultivated among hunter-gatherers:
"Our moral anchoring in fairness in large-scale societies is a residue and extension of our hunter-gatherer and nonhuman primate past. This was life in small bands, where fairness was mostly driven by kin selection and easy scenarios of reciprocal altruism. As our community size has expanded and we now mostly have one-shot interactions with unrelated strangers, our prosociality just represents an expansion of our small-band mind-set, as we use various greenbeard market shibboleths as proxies for relatedness. I'd gladly lay down my life for two brothers, eight cousins, or a guy who is a fellow Packers fan" (499).And while Sapolsky worries about the harmful effects of inequality in modern societies, he admits that some forms of inequality are less harmful than others. "As with other species, human quality of life also varies with the consequences of rank inequalities--there's a big difference between the powerful getting seated at a restaurant before you and the powerful getting to behead you if the fancy strikes them" (431). So the harm from inequality is greatly reduced in modern liberal social orders that prohibit the initiation of coercive violence by the powerful against the weak.
But at this point, it seems clear that Sapolsky's Darwinian biology of human behavior has led him to totally abandon any utopian leftism while embracing the realist view of human nature that supports classical liberalism or libertarianism. As with Singer, Sapolsky's Darwinian left looks more like a Darwinian right.
It might seem, however, that Sapolsky does show a utopian vision in his account of how the Forest Troop of savanna baboons went through a cultural change that transformed them from Hobbesian violent animals to Rousseauian peaceful animals. (I have previously written about this here.) When the most aggressive males in Forest Troop died from tuberculosis in the mid-1980s, Forest Troop showed a decline in average aggression and an increase in affiliative behaviors. In the 1990s, this social culture of peace remained, so that it had been socially transmitted to the new members of the troop. Here, Sapolsky says, we can see "Rousseau with a tail" (648).
Previously, Irven DeVore--one of the Harvard biologists attacked by leftist critics for promoting "conservative social Darwinism"--had presented a Hobbesian view of savanna baboons. He wrote that they "have acquired an aggressive temperament as a defense against predators, and aggressiveness cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. It is an integral part of the monkeys' personalities, so deeply rooted that it makes them potential aggressors in every situation" (quoted at 651).
Against DeVore, Sapolsky argues, the cultural transformation of the Forest Troop baboons from Hobbesian violence to Rousseauian peace shows the "social plasticity" that allows them to transcend their baboon nature. What Sapolsky here calls "social plasticity" seems to correspond to what Rousseau called "perfectibility." So what Sapolsky sees in Forest Troop is a "baboon utopia" ("A Natural History of Peace," Foreign Affairs 85 [Jan./Feb. 2006]: 120). And if baboons can achieve a Rousseauian utopia, then surely human beings can do it too.
And yet Sapolsky contradicts himself in other writings about the cultural change in Forest Troop. He reports that after the change, there were "similar overall rates of aggressive interactions" compared with another baboon troop (Sapolsky and Lisa Share, "A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission," PLoS Biology 2 [April 2004], 535). He also reports that Forest Troop showed "no male-male reconciliation" after fights (ibid., 536). He also concludes that "there are not infinite amounts of social plasticity in a primate system." And because of those natural limits on social plasticity, Forest Troop's social culture "was not an unrecognizably different utopia" ("Rousseau with a Tail: Maintaining a Tradition of Peace Among Baboons," in Douglas P. Fry, ed., War, Peace, and Human Nature [Oxford: Oxford Universtiy Press, 2013], 436). It seems that baboon culture is constrained by baboon nature, and so a "baboon utopia" is not really possible.