Reflections on the Nature of Human Evolution

I remember once asking my late son William, “What is the purpose of life?” William, a schizophrenic, was babbling nonsense, but he stopped and in a moment of clarity gave me a quirky smile and replied: “The purpose of life is to relieve God’s boredom”.

I have never been a believer in the supernatural, but I thought that was a pretty perceptive answer, and I still do. Evolution is a quirky process, with life forms branching out like the waters of a huge delta, with each rivulet solving problems as it trickles along, then bumping into other streams and creating more problems, on and on. Over several billion years, this process has matured magnificently, producing a many-splendored tapestry of life, complex and unpredictable enough to fend off boredom for all the gods that people have ever invented.

The story of humankind, writ large, has always held a particular fascination for me. If you stand back, as though from another planet, and look at all this froth of evolutionary activity, one species stands out, ours. Other species will proliferate and branch out into various parts of the world and develop complex ways of adapting to their circumstances, but only humans manage to create their own problems and then solve them as regularly and felicitously as we humans do.

I grew up with Darwin the way my forebears grew up with the Bible. The basic elements of his theory of evolution through natural selection were what I started with as conceptual tools to explain the human world I have been exploring all my life. I have traveled and lived in many parts of the world by now and observed in detail how our species has managed to adapt and evolve and branch out and confront new situations and start adapting all over again. I got to know about many different cultures and because it was helpful to me professionally as well as second nature, I learned about how cultures vary, and sometimes conflict with each other when they collide. Everything I saw fell into the general pattern of culturally distinct groups of people populating the planet, occupying different territories, and usually but not always coexisting harmoniously. I just assumed, because it was so congruent with everything I had observed, that these groups, and the ones that had preceded them, followed Darwinian principles of evolution as they proceeded down the long corridors of history.

It is a commentary on the distance between academia and my own world of professional diplomacy that I never realized until I retired that this common sense Darwinian view of my fellow humans was unacceptable to the university types who considered themselves the experts on the evolution of our species. No, they insisted, groups like nations or ethnic groups don’t evolve as entities in a game of adaptation and survival, that process can only happen on the individual level! Or so they told me, in tones that suggested that if I were taking one of their simpler courses, I would probably flunk it.

I did not take any of their courses but I read up on the subject and found a lively minority of academics who agreed with me. Since then, in the last twenty years roughly, the concept of group selection as a principle governing how human societies evolve has become almost respectable. Oversimplified, the general idea is that certain behavioral patterns can be adaptive, and survive, on more than one level. Take prayer, for example. It survives on the individual level because the individual gets a certain satisfaction out of the act. If, however, you look at its effect on the group as a whole, you can see that when most members of the group pray, especially when they pray together, it increases group solidarity, which is a key to ensuring that the group survives and flourishes even when facing an adverse environment, or competing with other groups. In the long run, groups of individuals that pray together will have a better chance of surviving.

Perhaps that helps explain why religion has survived and flourished so well in this age of science-based enlightenment. But I digress.

Evolutionary theory explains how biological life on our planet emerged and developed into its present luxurious condition. While there are still a few mysteries, perhaps, the basic ground plan has been sketched out and found to be structurally sound. But how far can evolutionary theory go in explaining how human societies have emerged and developed over the much shorter period since our species was born? Here the field is less cluttered. Much remains to be parsed out. More theories need to be developed and vetted by peer groups and validated (or not) by experiments.

I want to help this effort, without competing with the scholars, by offering some thoughts based on first-hand experiences. It’s a bit like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the more blind men you have contributing information about bits and pieces of the whole, the easier it becomes to assemble a viable picture of the beast.

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In 1996, I had the good fortune to visit a patch of virgin forest in eastern Poland called Bialowiecza. It is probably the last of its size anywhere in Europe where the original climax vegetation was temperate forest. An excellent Polish guide took us around and explained how the biosphere there had evolved in an environment that remained undisturbed in any major way for many millennia. The basic pattern I saw is that the big issues get settled first and then evolution proceeds at increasingly detailed levels. As time goes by, that is, the big trees and other major life forms sort out which species will best thrive on which bit of terrain, in terms of soil and microclimate variations and other factors, and then, under and around and between the big fellows, evolution continues with fungi and ground cover and insects, and other forms of life. Increasingly complex harmony emerges out of initial chaotic simplicity. In other words, a stable climax vegetation, with countless symbiotic relationships between many diverse elements, is what you get eventually when the environmental parameters that set the rules of the game of natural selection remain stable for a long enough period.

Can this principle be applied to human societies, societies that have existed and evolved socially within an essentially static environment for many generations? In such a society, the great majority of individuals may die within a couple of miles of their place of birth; there is no appreciable generation gap because each generation grows up under conditions almost the same as those that prevailed when their parents were small; and conventional wisdom, rules of behavior, morality, and peer group views about what is right and proper pass on virtually unchanged down the generations. Surely at least some of the societies that have been discovered in the highlands of New Guinea or the farthest reaches of the Amazon Basin qualify, or did qualify before we moved in and messed things up for them. And probably many of the societies that existed before the dawn of history did too.

There is a mythology lurking in our modern subconscious, about a never-never land where the whole world is at peace, and people and animals cavort around in a rosy glow of mutual respect and admiration. The Garden of Eden, Valhalla, Nirvana—unattainable places that embody our dreams and perhaps help explain our origins—Paradise Lost. We suspect they are dreams, and unattainable, because the harder we work to attain them, the more and greater the obstacles that spring up in our path. And we have reason to doubt their validity even as distant and perhaps unattainable goals because when some intrepid explorer pushes into new territory and discovers some tribe that seems to fill the bill, he also discovers that the their lives are nasty, brutish, and short.

Progress, it would seem, is the very antithesis of the Garden of Eden society of our dreams. While we yearn for a golden age when children obey their parents just because they know they ought to, everything we do to resolve our increasingly stressful problems seems to make things worse.

So much for the principle that if the rules of the selection game remain stable, complex harmony can emerge out of relative chaos. The principle may be valid, but it has its limits. It may help explain how we evolved when our species was very young, but it doesn’t help much in explaining our present condition, because the rules are changing too rapidly. How can we expect our kids to believe everything we tell them when their perceptions of the world around them differ from ours, and they are often right, because the world around us when we were kids has changed, and moved out from under us?

Recently Jane and I visited the Galapagos Islands, treading in the footsteps of the patron saint of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. There were many things to be learned from this living museum of natural history, but one of the first conundrums we confronted was the tameness of the large animals we encountered, mostly sea lions, tortoises, iguanas, and sundry species of birds. When we first arrived, our plane landed on a small islet, we bussed to the dock where we were to board our ship, and there, on a park bench, was a mature sea lion sunning itself. From then on, every time we set foot on land, we had to watch out lest we trip over one of the brutes. Sometimes they thinned out but then, the shore became like a big parking lot filled with marine iguanas, plus marine birds of various kinds and the occasional sea turtle, none of them in the least bit shy. Step a few yards inland and the population pressure goes down out a bit, but without much difficulty one finds land iguanas and more birds and, in some places, the big lumbering land tortoises, all equally unafraid and approachable.

The reason these animals didn’t fear us was the lack of natural predators on the island. The only animal around that ate sea lions, the orca, was far at sea, and could not get at them while they basked around in the sun. The big tortoises and turtles had no enemies. The iguanas had developed forbidding armor and once they grew up a bit they seemed pretty well shielded. There was an indigenous hawk that sometimes caught baby iguanas but once they grew up they were relatively safe. We were shown a film where a hawk did actully attack and kill a baby iguana as it hatched out and emerged from the sandy beach where its mother had buried her eggs. In the next scene, another little iguana emerged and scuttled with astounding speed to safety in the rocks and vegetation behind the beach. That was about the only case I remember of an instinct for preservation being built into one of the native species by natural selection.

There was another case, where one might have expected an instinct for self preservation to evolve through natural selection, where it did not. Throughout much of the nineteenth century whaling ships used to collect tortoises and turtles and stuff them in the holds of their ships to use as provisions. They were well suited for that as they could live for long periods without food or water, and being slow and fearless, they were easy to catch. Their numbers, predictably, fell precipitously. Extinction was narrowly avoided by the advent of more enlightened humans.

Dawkins and others have explained how two species can co-evolve rapidly when the normal process of natural selection is expedited by something analogous to an arms war. His favorite example is the cheetah and the antelope, which both became much speedier as a result of working out on each other. Many predator-prey relationships fall within this category, but by no means all. If the predator starts with a big enough advantage so that the prey cannot evolve rapidly enough to catch up, it may just go extinct, as the Galapagos tortoise surely would have, if a new and gentler breed of human had not taken over. For a true arms race to prevail over many generations, the antagonists have to start in kindergarden at the same time, as it were, and grow up together.

This line of thought applies in spades to human societies as they compete with each other. If you can believe the Old Testament, there was a protracted period after the introduction of agriculture when closely knit tribes were battling each other, often in very bloody fashion. If a tribe had bronze weapons it had a major advantage over a rival that did not, and the latter faced extinction as a distinct possibility if it did not shape up and get some bronze itself. It is no surprise, then, that the use of bronze spread rapidly. Much the same psychology prevails today, notably in the issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The case of the whaler versus the tortoise also has its parallel in the evolution of our own species. When a technically advanced culture collides with one much less advanced, the latter is headed for defeat. and either extinction or absorption follows.

It may seem a bit of a leap, from the Galapagos tortoise to nuclear weapons, but there is a principle that binds them. An ancient relationship between predator and prey, that probably has existed since shortly after life began, has evolved and mutated time and time again to take advantage of ever more complex life forms, until finally it burst on the human scene as something operating within a species rather than between two competing ones, and metastasized. (I know, certain insects fight internal wars. But no insect has the imagination to run with them the way our fellow humans have).

Let’s go back for moment to our first principle, about complex harmony evolving when the environmental parameters are stable. Now we see that arms races of one kind or another are profoundly destabilizing. Ever since our ancestors started fighting each other in a serious way, the parameters governing natural selection have been in flux. The more we fight the more they change and the farther away our dream of a world at peace drifts. Or so it seems.

* * * * *

Is there some factor that helps guide the onward course of human cultural evolution that is new, in the sense that it never existed in the evolution of the rest of life on our planet? If so, it is most probably speech, and the unique capacity it gave us to convey abstract ideas. We can imagine things that don’t exist and then make them exist. If the essence of evolution is creation of something new through natural selection, we have devised a way to short circuit the process.

This god-like gift has allowed us to make many of the same mistakes that have occurred with other life forms through natural selection, but much, much more rapidly. Along the way, we have reinvented the arms race principle and married it to a singular capacity to devise mechanical tools, thus achieving a kind of symbiosis between intergroup conflict and technological advance that has propelled us forward at an accelerating pace into our present era of discontent.

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It’s time to shift gears again, and look at human evolution from the perspective of individual variability. For all living things, the process of natural selection is based primarily on the fact that minor variations occur naturally among the various individual life forms that comprise a species, and these variations are inherited. Can we say the same about the individual people that comprise a society? Yes, we know that physical differences like eye color, stature, and vulnerability to certain diseases exist and are inherited. They are not just things we learn. But how does this apply to human behavior? Can it be said that at least some of the behavioral patterns that characterize an individual are inherited rather than acquired after birth? This is a bit trickier, as our behavior is usually a mix of what we have inherited and what we have learned, with the latter predominating. But the whole field of evolutionary psychology is based on the premise that some of our behavioral patterns are inherited, and among them are patterns that can be traced pretty far back into our evolutionary history. That field has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades, and accumulated a respectable library of experimental evidence that validates its premise that at least some of our behavior is in fact inherited, not just part of the array of cultural patterns we learn from our peers as we grow up.

If we accept this premise, can we examine patterns of variability in inherited behaviors as they exist among individuals within a society? We could look for constants, patterns that recur across a broad spectrum of societies, as well as for variations. In the end we may be able to distill a concept or two that will help us understand the principles that govern human societal evolution. We can expect that these principles will in a broad sense be derivative of the more basic principles that govern the evolution of life in general, but with some original wrinkles that have evolved with our own arrival on the scene as the first fully sapient life form.

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No matter what society you’re looking at, or whatever country or tribe, if you set up a school and get a cross section of children in it you are going to find some students are smarter than others, in that they learn more quickly and easily. You are also going to find that some of them are more disciplined, and some are more creative, some of them work better with their hands, and so on. This kind of variability, I believe, characterizes the population of every coherent social unit on earth.

The existence of a mixture of talents and capabilities within any given group is something that persists because it provides flexibility in enabling the group to cope with the demands of a changing environment. If it is to survive at all, any group needs enough individuals who are competent at human relations, and are willing for one reason or another to subordinate selfish interests for the benefit of the group. But it also needs a few mavericks who think and act a little differently from the majority because in times of crisis and stress it is often these types who provide the inspiration, or leadership, or both, that provide the margin of survival. Even the most primitive societies we know have specialists, like the shaman who manages rites of passage, or the tool maker, or the women who know herbs and can heal as well as making the meat the hunters bring home tasty. Neither the tool maker nor the midwife may be major contributors to the gene pool, in fact they may make no contribution at all, but they keep cropping up, generation after generation, because they add to the ability of the group as a whole to survive the vicissitudes of war, famine, and pestilence that nature and other groups may inflict on it.

Back in Bialowiecza we saw a pattern where evolution proceeded from the macro to the micro level, when many generations went by without any significant disruption in the environmental parameters. Then we applied the same perspective to human societies. Now we can get a little better fix on how such a process can work in practice. We can see how any society that can settle down for several or more generations without any major disruption in the environment will become increasingly conservative. Previous generations will have solved the problems of adapting to major environmental constraints. The challenges that remain will be relatively pedestrian and will require less creativity to solve. Mavericks will continue to be born but as they grow up they will have fewer opportunities to behave in ways generally perceived as socially useful. Tradition will become revered and continuity will be valued more than innovation.

I suspect that if there were ever groups that enjoyed a blissful freedom from challenge over a very long period, they didn’t evolve very much, and in all probability they have long been extinct. On the other hand we know about many other groups that faced rather too much challenge, and also became extinct. Carthage comes to mind, and doubtless there are many lesser groups that expired before the dawn of history, when the climate was worse and human techniques for coping with it less advanced.

These thoughts support the conclusion that we don’t want our descendants to be threatened with constant extinction, but we cannot let life get too easy either…there must be challenges in the future to keep us on our toes.

* * * * *

Two types of glue hold societies together, common sense and the law. I devoted a chapter to this theme in my book, “Culture Wars and the Global Village.” The essence of the argument is that there are some constraints on selfish behavior that most people accept because they were brought up that way, and others that they accept because it’s the law and they know that violations will lead to trouble. Common sense is a sense shared throughout the community that includes guidelines that tell us that certain behaviors are acceptable and others are not. If all the problems that might spring up within a society are covered, there’s no need for law, you have Nirvana, where everyone does good by being good. But as we’ve seen, Nirvana is an aspiration not a reality, so we have the law, as back-up for situations where common sense doesn’t provide answers, or where common sense is lacking.

Applying this concept to our earlier discussion of “mature” societies, we see that in a society that has settled in and evolved in an environment that remains stable over many generations, the emphasis is on common sense. But common sense is an uncertain guideline in times of rapid change, and law fills the need for guidance on questions that common sense addresses only imperfectly. This is especially true when the society has been formed relatively recently out of separate groups whose common senses may differ.

We can define a society in terms of the balance between common sense and the law that holds it together. Totalitarian regimes by definition rely almost exclusively on their laws, maintaining close control of individuals, and imposing stiff penalties on lawbreakers. They attempt to bring common sense around to support their regimes and goals through indoctrination of the young and lavish use of symbols of group identity, but often fail and are replaced. More democratic societies rely on a more balanced mix between the laws of the land and the common sense of shared responsibility for maintaining a reasonably viable society. In the relatively “unspoiled” backwaters of the upper Amazon or New Guinea, lawyers and courts are unknown.

* * * * *

What this exercise suggests to me is that there is no single guiding principle that we can follow to guide our troublesome and troubled species out of its present discontents and into a more secure and happy future. Or if there is, it is that when faced with the horns of a dilemma you seek compromise. We need balance, between too much “maturity” and not enough, between too much challenge and not enough, between total reliance on the law, and none at all. The challenge lies in finding the best balance.

The only vision of the future that appeals to me is one where there is a reasonable balance in all the above senses. The problem is that I don’t quite see how we are going to get there if we are to survive the very powerful challenges that are confronting us all over the planet. Within the next thirty or forty years the population of our already overcrowded globe could increase by 50% if not unchecked by Malthusian forces. We shall probably have at least one and perhaps several instances of nuclear warfare. (This could count as a Malthusian force to check population increase, but probably would not be enough to stop the tide unless the major nuclear powers were drawn in.) And on top of all the turmoil we are generating by ourselves, we have the prospect of a significant shift in climate patterns which may impose threats to our existing ways without precedent in the last ten thousand years.

All these challenges coming together in a relatively short time period suggest that for quite a few generations to come, there will be precious little future for “mature” societies. To survive, all societies will need to exploit their mavericks in efforts to devise new solutions to emergent problems. There will be a kind of undertow pulling all of us toward totalitarianism in the interest of providing necessary decisive action in timely fashion. In the longer run, popular discontent, abetted by chronic problems of succession, will tend to restore something of a balance between common sense and the law, but while this process plays itself out, much havoc and suffering may transpire.

This murky and rather gloomy picture suggests that the crying need of the moment is for the rapid evolution of that kind of common sense that is common to all humanity. For there are lots of species and subspecies of common sense, and they coexist and evolve in complex ways. In my lifetime I have seen a reversal of the common sense I remember about blacks in our society, as well as profound changes in the common attitudes towards women and gays. Now we need a similar change in the common sense approach of most Americans toward foreigners. The information explosion will help, but contrary forces will stoke xenophobia. A similar sea change in the common senses toward foreigners will have to occur in the rest of the world.

Our species has finally come to a critical juncture, from which there is no going back. We are headed toward a global governance system that controls violence and commands support for the common measures needed to cope with climate change and other environmental challenges. We are going to get it one way or another because without it we shall quite likely become extinct. Will this global system be top-down and totalitarian for several generations at least, or can we manage somehow to make a direct transition to a system that is at least partially dependent on a shared sense of what is right and proper behavior?

I must be getting in a rut. That is the issue I ended my two books with, and most of my other recent writings. I shall stop here, in the hope that this essay adds a bit by way of perspectives I have not already beaten to death.

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