The Blog has stated before that the philosophical difference between the political left and right have their roots in their different views of human nature. This very moment of transition offers the philosopher of human nature a rare opportunity to have the distinctions on display.

The Evolutionary Biology of Left and RightThomas Hobbes expressed attitudes human nature popular on the political right. Hobbes famously thought that early human existence was “nasty, brutish, and short” and that the natural state of mankind is “warre of every man against every man—Bellum omnium contra omnes” (Leviathan, 1651). The modern Hobbesian prophet is Charles Darwin:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

From that point on the central process of Darwinian evolution by natural selection has been characterized as a struggle—the struggle of too many offspring for scarce resources. Aware of it or not, this is the current “scientific” grounding of the political right: life, both at home and on the international stage, will always be a struggle between winners and losers; in order to make “America great again” we must become a competitive winner again, perhaps hearkening back to the post-war era when we were undeniably the strongest country in all of history. To those on the right, the predominate dimension of human nature is the same as in all primates: the struggle for dominance, both at the individual and group levels.

The Evolutionary Biology of Left and RightJean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “nothing can be more gentle than [the human] in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and . . . civilized man.” If Rousseau were around in our post-Darwinian world, he would probably identify apes as the stupid brutes, but I remove the “civilized” qualifier and charge that our Homo sapiens species has undergone a “fall” from its beginning, two hundred thousand years ago. Rousseau is regularly debunked in the Darwinian “struggle” literature by evidence that current primitive cultures engage in chronic war, and that pre-historic peoples were similarly violent. My rejoinder is that although chimpanzees and modern humans are principally distinguished by their intense politics, our hominin ancestral species were not.

In my book, I lay out extensive evidence that 6-million-years ago, our hominin lineage arose by means of a single shift within the mental, emotional, and social sphere. Encountering harsh climates and the threat of extinction, a small colony of apes shifted from the natural selection of fitness in individuals to the selection of productivity in relationships—a shift from the sterility of individual dominance to the productivity of group authority. This is technically called group selection, but the word “group” is a problem for understanding it, because, according the Darwinian paradigm, this would mean that groups competed for scarce resources just like individuals by engaging in war. But this was not the case; this kind of evolution is not at all the Malthusian-competitive struggle Darwin envisioned, but rather is a “passive” sort of evolution: those mutual behaviors within all relationships in a population that have had more offspring at the end of the day are naturally selected. This was a strategy for surviving harsh climates in which scarcity of resources was not the issue (early hominins evolved large molar teeth in order to grind up plentiful low quality foods like grasses and sedges). And what behaviors did this entity of authority evolve to demand from its individual subjects in order for them to be maximally productive? Justice is the answer. Justice begets bounty because bounty begot justice in the first place. Adam Smaith and Human EvolutionThe essence of all that is human in us has been sustained for six-million-years, by the feedback loop between the imposition of justice and the productive morality that resulted from it.

This one evolutionary mechanism simply and parsimoniously unites the following facts of human evolution:

  1. Hominins blossomed into over a dozen species in two and a half million years, while the number of ape species even­tually increased by only one (the bonobo).
  2. Upright posture is a requirement for a fossil to be desig­nated a hominin.
  3. Early hominins evolved large molar teeth.
  4. The early species of the genus Homo were the first to develop a widespread stone tool industry.
  5. Early stone tools evolved into the hand ax, which remained virtually unchanged for one and a half million years.
  6. Premodern human species of the genus Homo evolved large brains.
  7. Finally, Homo sapiens evolved self-awareness, and
  8. A language with vast grammatical complexity and shared intentions.

These clear theoretical waters are muddied by our own “fallen” Homo sapiens species, which represents a hybrid between ape-dominance and human-justice, but it is justice that remains the core of what is human in us.

Now returning to a discussion of the underlying assumptions about human nature in the political Left and Right:

According to the Right, our human nature is predominantly that of apes seeking domination either as individuals or nations, and any progress derives from words drafted alarmingly recently from either the Bible or the US Constitution, which we must follow to the letter.

The left believes that the essence of what is human is a deep instinct for justice that has been indelibly bred into us for 6-million-years as a living, indomitable force: given enough time, mere domination without the generativity of justice withers away and is absorbed by the swelling bounty of the just. The sole mission of the awesome power of our collective human authority is to demand the justice that was evolved in tandem with our passion to obey it (morality), which has been the root source of our success. We have been endowed with “self-evident” knowledge of and the inclination for justice in response to our underlying ape-instincts for (sexual) domination. The “Thou Shalt Not” of the ten commandments are the result of millions of years of evolution. Those on the left believe that we have been woven through with obedience to a transcendent will for justice whose destiny is to transform the law of the jungle to a new social order ruled by right and wrong.

The Evolutionary Biology of Destiny



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One Comment on “The Evolutionary Biology of Left and Right”

  1. This is a clear, compelling explanation for this basic stubborn difference. By implication, it explains the repugnance each side seems so often to feel for each other. It makes me wonder if such deep-seated differences can be bridged. Certainly our recent political history with gridlock in Washington does not give much hope . . .

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