Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Utopianism of David Wilson and Herbert Spencer

My fundamental argument for Darwinian conservatism is that Darwinian science generally supports conservatives in their realist view of human imperfectibility, in contrast to the utopian view of human perfectibility that tends to run through leftist thought. Nevertheless, there is a tradition of utopianism coming from Herbert Spencer that is often associated with Darwinian evolution. One can see some of that Spencerian utopianism in the writing of David Sloan Wilson. (A previous post on Spencer can be found here. A previous post on Wilson can be found here.)

Spencer foresaw an evolutionary trend towards completely harmonious cooperation in a "social organism" that would embrace all of humanity. This would bring about the transformation of human nature into a state of perfection in a stateless anarchy with perpetual peace.

There are some intimations of a similar utopian progressivism in Wilson's Evolution for Everyone. Although I generally agree with Wilson, I am not persuaded by the utopian elements in his writing. Like Spencer, Wilson defends a theory of group selection based on the idea of the "social organism"--the idea that a social group can become as harmoniously cooperative as an organic body. This can easily be pushed towards the sort of perfectionist utopianism that one sees in Spencer.

For example, Wilson's chapter on "The Egalitarian Ape" in Evolution for Everyone suggests that human groups can become so egalitarian that no individual has more authority than another. To support this conclusion, he looks to the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer groups, he appeals to Chris Boehm's conception of how a "reverse dominance hierarchy" can enforce equality, and he contrasts human egalitarianism with "despotic chimp society."

There are problems with this reasoning. Hunter-gatherers are not completely without leaders or conflicts over dominance. If they appear to be egalitarian, it's only because their resistance to exploitative dominance inclines them to punish individuals who become too pushy in their dominance. Wilson quotes from Richard Lee's studies of the !Kung San in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. But he does not quote Lee's comments on "patterns of leadership" among the !Kung (see Lee, THE !KUNG SAN [1979], 343-50, 457-61). Wilson concedes this point later in his book when he writes: "The balance of power is never equal in real villages. Some members are always better than others in their physical prowess, intelligence, or experience. . . . Powerful members of villages who demonstrate their good intentions are rewarded with leadership, whole those who throw their weight around are shunned and excluded" (292).

The same is true for chimps. Although Wilson claims that Frans de Waal has shown the "despotism" of chimp society, de Waal actually contrasts the "egalitarian dominance" style of chimps and the "despotic dominance" style of rhesus monkeys. Dominant male chimps must serve the good of their group, and they are punished by their group when they don't. This supports de Waal's argument that there is an evolutionary logic behind limited government based on checks and balances: even as we allow ambitious individuals to pursue their dominance drive, we can check and channel that dominance to satisfy the desire of the many to be free from exploitative dominance.

Like Spencer, Wilson foresees that international relations will evolve towards peaceful cooperation. He sees the emergence of a "global village" based on a "shared value system." But he is vague as to what this "shared value system" would be, how it would be enforced, and whether it could really secure perpetual peace.

In contrast to Spencer and Wilson, I think that Darwinian science supports a realist conception of human nature that makes conflicts of interests unavoidable. This supports a tragic view of the human condition in which some conflicts cannot be resolved except by force. That's why war is inevitable. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. I agree with Wilson about the importance of evolution by group selection. But I would stress that group-selected cooperation will always be weakened by competition both within and between groups, so that the best we can achieve is to maintain a tense balance of competition and cooperation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good post. However, while it is true that human nature tends to produce war, today we have the good fortune of certain new features in the world that tend strongly to turn nations away from direct combat. Perhaps the most important is that nuclear weapons so radically change the calculus of war that states simply avoid it. Another important factor is that in our current technologically advanced version of market capitalism, wealth is best attained through internal economic growth plus international trade, rather than conquest. Another factor, according to many, is that democracies tend, for various reasons, to not go to war with each other. The result of these factors is that war between major nations seems to have been abolished, and other wars have become considerably less frequent.

I do quite agree, however, that humans society will always have a a balance cooperation and competition.

-- Les Brunswick