A glaring weakness of the agenda of the political left is that social justice does not appear to be rooted in the flesh and blood of human nature. The two most influential thinkers on our attitudes about what makes us tick are Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud: we are ape-men who when psychoanalyzed are revealed to be motivated by a combination of ape-appetites to dominate and a rampant narcissistic sexuality. Is not Donald Trump an embodiment of these atavistic drives that have flowed up to us from the ages, and therefore the most precious of all natural resources that conservatives seek to conserve within each and every individual? In contrast, justice is viewed as either an off-planet religious ideal or, more commonly, a relatively recent concoction of the intellect, a moving target of current fashions of what should be; therefore, justice, at every turn should be tempered by the preservation of the sacred wellsprings of enterprise that have been bestowed upon each of us as individuals.
A very different view of justice will be portrayed. Although not a property of the individual, the evolution of collective motivations for justice was, from the very outset, the cause for our ascent from apes and continues to be the very heart of all that is human about human nature.
The Will to Power
In 1971, I entered the field of psychiatry with the intention of engaging in a life-long study of human nature. My first philosophical theater was a maximum-security prison. The social structure inside prison was a stark reflection of dominance hierarchy, the emblem of our primate order. I realized that the well-developed “Machiavellian” analytic cognitive capacities of primates (including us) have been evolved upon the loom of a social structure that is comprised wholly of the emotions and motivations of dominance and submission.
The most visible conservative philosopher today is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was famously weaned on Ayn Rand. I trust that he would agree that more important even that freeing up our physical resources is to remove restraints on the atavistic mental resource of the will to power welling up inside each individual from the beasts from which we sprang. But seeking dominance is not the only motivational resource in the mind of individuals. We turn our attention to another source of human enterprise, one with which our new president has been prodigiously endowed.
Capturing the Audience
Forty-five years ago, I moonlighted at DC General Hospital’s emergency room while I was in my psychiatric residency. You never knew who would come in the doors down there at the General. The “White House cases” were a staple, a motley collection of characters pulled off the fence surrounding the presidential residence. One evening in particular is etched in my mind. I received the usual call at about midnight from the nurse, who told me they had a “doozy.” The on-call room was quite a distance from the ER, and when I turned a corner, I could vaguely see a bit of a hubbub at the end of the very long corridor.
The character I am about to describe could be compared to the protagonist of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which portrays an average man who is anxiously adjusted to a rather narrow modern life. Early that morning, this nondescript gentleman woke up and, I’m here to tell you, he felt G*R*E*A*T! Most of all he felt an enormous amount of energy, which, as William Blake famously said, is “pure delight.” His mind was racing from one thing to the next. His belly was full of laughter and fun. He felt he had a large audience somehow watching him with rapt approval, loving his “performance,” anticipating with collective bated breath what in the world he would do next. He thought to himself, “Wait till they see my next move! They’ll be rolling in the aisles! They’ll love it— but first I need some cash.” He hurried to the bank and struck up conversations with several bemused passersby while waiting for the bank to open. “I need a new car and I want to pay cash for it today,” he told the banker, who was captivated by the utter confidence of his ebullient mood. Next, he drew a crowd at the Cadillac showroom as he theatrically insisted that he buy the model off the showroom floor. He was in a big hurry, wanting to get going with whatever wonderful thing that he was going to do next (which shifted with every passing moment). As he got behind the wheel, he suddenly thought, “It’s a beautiful day. A great day to go out to the beach, and who knows what great, fun things might happen?” But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a costume shop, and not being able resist the riotous possibilities it might hold for him and his imagined horde of fans, he did a U-turn and went in.
When I reached the ER, this fulminantly expository figure was surrounded by three or four of DC’s finest. He had been picked up for “disorderly conduct.” Before me was a fifty-plus-year-old balding man in a rumpled blue Superman costume, the cape twisted around to the front like a large red bib. The pièce de résistance was that he was wearing a necklace comprised of small plastic breasts.
This person was in the grip of the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Over many years I analyzed composite descriptions from my patients of their psychiatric illnesses from an evolutionary perspective. I came to the conclusion that a general mechanism in mental illnesses is the release from regulation of different normal motivations into a dysfunctional hyperactive state (similar to that of cells in cancer). Because the specific motivations that become distorted by their overactive state have the power to overwhelm all mental function, I further concluded that they were not only vital to current function, but had played key roles in the deep evolution of the mind.
I deduced that mania is a disorder of recently evolved emotions from the fact that a central symptom is hyperactivity of grammatically complex speech, which, by virtue of its elaborate cognitive demands, must be a very recent adaptation. Darwin compared our extravagant verbal abilities—he thought initially via singing—to the feathers of a peacock, which are a result of the evolution in peahens of sexual attraction to elaborate male tails. Here are Darwin’s observations of “sexual display” in a collection of male birds, whose ancestors had pushed the envelope to come up with something new to attract the ladies—but they can’t hold a candle to our Donald.
They charm the female by vocal or instrumental music of the most varied kinds. They are ornamented by all sorts of combs, wattles, protuberances, horns, air-distended sacs, topknots, naked shafts, plumes and lengthened feathers gracefully springing from all parts of the body. The males sometimes pay their court by dancing, or by fantastic antics performed either on the ground or in the air.
Because mania is a euphoric, goal-driven, and highly sexualized state in which patients experience themselves as receiving adoration from an imagined “audience,” it is analogous to sexual display. I eventually concluded that our own species’ evolution involved a mechanism that was/is the same as the one that produced the bird feathers and behaviors described by Darwin. We have evolved a powerful motivation to seek the pleasure of attention from not just the opposite sex, but from a wider audience. Freud called this element of human nature narcissism, the Bible calls it vanity, and multiple lines of evidence demonstrate that it defines our own species.
What makes early human fossils recognizably modern has less to do with brute survival than with the attractiveness of males and females for each other. Modern human adults are more gracile and childlike, and have proportionately bigger heads, than their hominin forebears, which is the result of a process known as neoteny. Retention of juvenile features resulting in more youthful-looking adults makes them more appealing to the opposite sex. Women are markedly more neotenic than males, with reduced noses and jaws. Yet onto their infantilized anatomies, most evident in puberty, human females have added exaggerated sexual characteristics, such as beautifully rounded breasts, which, in contrast to apes’, are present even when the females are not lactating.
The origins of body ornamentation in Homo sapiens are ancient, and it ubiquitously persists. The earliest cultural artifacts associated with modern humans are from around one hundred thousand years ago and are found in both the north and south of Africa as well as in the Levant. They consist largely of shells and pierced beads clearly used as body ornaments and red ocher whose use is unknown, but, knowing humans, a good guess is that it was similarly employed to decorate the body, as it continues to be used in parts of Africa. It was natural for gold to supplant shells as the most valuable commodity for humans because it is far more durable and its shining luster does not tarnish, making it the ideal body adornment. Think of the gleam of Tutankhamen’s three nested coffins (Egyptian gods were thought to have flesh of gold) and the stacks of ingots in the coffers at Fort Knox. Underscoring the use that underlies the value humans place on gold is the fact that 78 percent of it continues to be used for jewelry. For evidence of the power of self-display in today’s electronic world, one need only consider the popularity of social media.
Grandiose is the marvelous word that captures the world of mania, which is an overwrought version of imagination itself, the very capacity that sweeps the modern human animal far beyond all the other creatures caged by the earth. All our foibles are exaggerated in mania, such as wild spending sprees (aka: avarice), and promiscuous hypersexuality is common. That image of a self-appointed superman wearing a neckless of plastic breasts has become a personal icon for what we 200,000-year-old modern humans have brought to the six-million-year hominin table.
So, sure the motivation to make more money than one needs has to do with power and dominance, but the sexy part—the icing on the cake, is to gratify our recently evolved desire to be admired by one’s fellow travelers, not out of fear, but by awakening their own collective desire to respond. “Normal” vanity is self-esteem, which is a prerequisite to elicit the esteem of others, but it is much more than that. We modern humans have been naturally selected to passionately desire one another on account of its relentless centripetal force that has progressively reaped the benefits of cohering together in ever larger, and therefore more productive groups.
The Evolutionary Biology of Justice
All those years ago when working in prison, in the contemplation of how the mind of apes could have evolved into the modern human mind, I struck upon an insight that has guided my subsequent researches. I hypothesized that the dominance–submission hierarchies of ape societies had somehow evolved in our human ancestors, the hominins, into a social structure based on obedience to group authority. Coordinated groups, not individual actors, give modern civilizations their power. I eventually decided that this transformation from individual dominance to group authority had defined the hominin tribe right from its beginning six million years ago. But how could this have happened after, or in conjunction with their split from apes?
I had never been in a situation in which a preoccupation with justice was more obviously apparent than I found in prison. Not that anyone much agreed as to what justice was in any particular circumstance, but everyone strongly believed in its existence. Although I was there as a doctor, therapy sessions with inmates often centered around the justice issue. Was the cure for crime the acquisition of the capacity and desire to be obedient to justice—to learn how to be good? Must everyone learn how to be good, or is goodness innate and evolved, and if so, how? No, I thought. Goodness did not arise by means of natural selection; it was justice that had so arisen. Authority was not initially evolved to enhance the dominance of individuals; it was the authority of justice itself that was naturally selected to dominate individuals. And why was, and is, justice naturally selected? Because a just relationship, whether between a mated pair-bond or distributed among the relationships of an entire nation, is the most productive of all social structures. Justice inherently begets bounty because productive bounty was the very quality for which justice was naturally selected. Here is the kernel of a new paradigm.
At the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the struggle of too many offspring for too few resources. Upon returning from his Beagle journey observing the teeming jungles of South America, Darwin experienced his vision while reading Malthus’ essay on the perils of inevitable overpopulation. But human evolution was born into a circumstance that was very different from a teeming jungle.
The hominin tribe branched off from apes amid falling temperatures and deteriorating environments. DNA studies of chimpanzees demonstrate a population collapse at the time of the appearance of hominins. With plummeting birthrates, hominins suppressed the sterility of primates’ dominance competition in favor of the fecundity of justice of hominins. This is the idea for which I have long gathered evidence to test it.
I became convinced that the fundamental transformation from apes to humans had occurred well prior to our own species in the minds of our hominin ancestors, but found that there is precious little science on the subject. Perhaps the leading researcher on mind evolution, Michael Tomasello, states in his recent book, A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014):
The main problem is that collaboration, communication, and thinking do not fossilize, so we will always be in a position of speculation about such behavioral phenomena, as well as the specific events that were critical to their evolution. Most critical, we do not know how much contemporary great apes have changed from their common ancestor with humans because there are basically no relevant fossils from this era.
Most are unaware that the genetic and biochemical causes of mental illnesses are also, thus far, beyond the reach of experimental science. As Thomas Insel, the former director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acknowledged, “We just don’t know enough. Research and development in this area has been almost entirely dependent on the serendipitous discoveries of medications. From the get-go, none of it was ever based on an understanding of any of the illnesses involved.” Therefore, I turned to other ways of knowing.
In psychiatry, we often borrow philosophical concepts for our own use. For example, an “existential problem” in psychiatry is one caused by external circumstances in the absence of mental illness. Similarly phenomenological psychiatric knowledge is obtained by eliciting patient descriptions of the subjective experience of their illnesses. All the great 20th Century psychiatrists were phenomenologists in this sense. In my psychiatric practice, I specialized in the more severe illnesses, and as described in the case of mania, I submitted refined descriptions of all the major mental illnesses to an evolutionary analysis.
Using this approach, I concluded that the most common forms of clinical depression included a pathological intensification of the fundamental fear of interpersonal separation and/or the fear of being trapped at the bottom/periphery of a group. It could have been the cohesive effect of these two basic social fears that had inhibited the antisocial fight-flight responses and enabled the formation of hierarchical primate groups some 52 million years ago. These cohesive fears then could have intensified in the transformation from dominance hierarchies in apes into the authority–justice system of hominins six million years ago. Here, my Freudian training helped. I saw that social fears imposed by a Freudian superego suppressed ape-like id impulses.
The illness of schizophrenia revealed the communication system of language that had knitted together the hominins’ novel social structure. The most fundamental experience in schizophrenia is that of receiving communications from external sources of intelligence through the medium of thought (the actual hearing of voices, although dramatic, is of secondary importance here). The fact that those afflicted with schizophrenia lose the capacity to respond to group imperatives and identities, such as emotionally responding to accepted norms of status or engaging in partisan politics, indicates that the very means whereby groups unconsciously communicate their ethos to individuals is in a dysfunctional state of hyperactivity in these patients. The primary function of the group communication that is disabled in schizophrenia is to bind large competitive groups together with emotions of loyalty. People with schizophrenia are always outsiders.
Because schizophrenia is such a crippling disorder with a consistent incidence (1%) across different times and cultures, and because it leaves spoken language ability largely intact, perhaps the aspect of communication function that it disables is a vestige of a process that had been far more central to earlier hominins. In other words, this one facet of modern communication that serves to transmit group beliefs and loyalty had been the only form of language communication of our ancestral species and therefore central to their survival.
Here was phenomenological evidence in the form of an emotional fossil for my idea that the transformation from individual dominance hierarchies to group authority was the key to human evolution. Prior to modern humans evolving our complex, multifaceted vocal language, communication might have been motivated solely by obedience to the evolved authority of groups. I propose that the foundation of group authority was the selection of just relationships on the basis of their productivity. As mentioned, the ape population was collapsing to the point at which selection for fit individuals competing for scarce resources was eclipsed by the justness of relationships on account of their productivity/fecundity.
The most important aspect of justice to note is that it is a collective instinct. Justice functions similar to an immune system that expels element disruptive to health; but justice mainly evolved as a preference not to associate with unjust individuals because the relationships of those who tolerated such behavior would fail and be selected out. After reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, I concluded that the primary adaptation of our hominin tribe is the ability to coordinate divided labor, and that justice is the one moral sentiment indispensable to its function.
British psychologist Robin Dunbar is well known for correlating the brain size of primate species with the sizes of their groups. However, he also discovered that brain size in other mammals correlates with monogamy. He hypothesized that the coordination of labor in pair-bonds (notably in birds) is much more cognitively demanding than analyzing self-interest within hierarchies. Consistent with the literature in this field, it is likely that hominin brain growth involved complex social cognitions necessary for competency in the coordination of group behavior (primarily in the frontal lobe) along with the requisite language abilities.
With these ideas firmly in place, I began to think about the fundamental elements of a novel “language” evolved by hominins that made possible the achievement of functional social coordination. Whereas animals (including apes) evolved by individual competition are very stingy with information, humans are shameless blabbermouths. In fact, the most distinctive feature of our communication is that it is based on sharing our intentions. A narrative of the hominin metamorphosis emerged—one that had the power to unify all existing paleoanthropological science.
Just as neurological systems evolved to coordinate multicellular organisms during the Cambrian Explosion, language evolved as the neurological system that coordinated what could be called the hominin group-organism. Individual dominance was suppressed by an egalitarian social structure that enforced the rules of justice. With justice established, language enlisted individuals to continuously and simultaneously signal and receive signals in order to arrive at a decision of what, together, they should do next.
Basic paleoanthropological facts about pre-modern hominin species and interpretations of them:
- Fact: An ancient skull is designated a hominin on the basis of upright posture indicated by the forward position of the hole through which the spinal cord passes (foramen magnum).
Interpretation: Hominins had to stand up due to the need for constant visual contact created by the vastly increased volume of communication demanded in language, conveyed (at least at the beginning) more by gesture than voice.
- Fact: Early hominin skulls possess very large molar teeth (megadontia).
Interpretation: Early hominins evolved to eat low quality plentiful foods and avoided the competitive, disruptive effects of hunting for high quality foods. This was to change in later, meat-eating hominins of the genus Homo, which became more prone to violence.
- Fact: Tool making became widespread (and occurred in groups).
Interpretation: Tool making was an extension of language in that tool making groups constantly watched each other for signs of the authority of how it should be done.
- Fact: The hand ax remained essentially unchanged across Africa and Eurasia for 1.5 million years.
Interpretation: The primary function of this tool was not its use but the cohesion created by its communal construction. Because hominins were fundamentally gregarious, tool making routinely occurred between groups of groups and, as they migrated back and forth, maintained unbroken chains of direct experience across continents, millennia after millennia.
- Fact: More recent hominins evolved very large brains.
Interpretation: Large brains were necessary to meet the cognitive demands of synchronizing hunting and gathering in diverse climates by means of language.
The hominin tribe was initiated by a decisive shift of the level at which evolution takes place—from the individual to the group. It is the group that then predominates by both actively and by “selecting out” disruptive dominance behavior at the individual level. Although this process is known as group selection, the term “group” is an impediment to understanding it because it conjures up a physical kinship group. Instead, this form of natural selection, favors relationships that are the most productive, whether they exist within or between physical groupings held together by family bonds.
It would be more correct to refer to group selection as “relational selection,” which bred not competition but coordination. This led to productive collaboration from the level of monogamous pair-bonds to larger, nested groupings. Intentions to survive evolved to emanate from the relationships between individuals. And these intentions evolved a collective motivation to suppress unproductive egoistic instincts within the individuals constituting them. Language was evolved to ascertain, communicate, and carry out a group’s will, which emanated from a virtual space. No one could see it, but all could feel it. This invisible but biologically based will could be said to possesses intentions, i.e.: a spirit . . . the human spirit.
A sturdy link between the world of religion and the world of evolution is the natural connection between justice and productive fecundity. In fact, the idea of a collective human spirit intending justice lies at the root of the three great monotheistic religions. Robert Bellah in his Religion in Human Evolution (2011) contrasts the trajectory of Zeus in Greece and that of Yahweh in Israel:
As a thought experiment, in what might have been we can think of the close connection of Zeus and justice (dikē) beginning, tentatively, in Homer, becoming quite explicit in and central in Hesiod, powerfully applied to his immediate situation by Solon, and reiterated once again in the tragedies of Aeschylus. But although the concern for justice remains central for those we call the Presocratics, the connection with Zeus loosens drastically. We saw in the case of Israel that Yahweh emerged gradually from being one of many other gods, even the greatest god, to the status of the one and only true God. Zeus never underwent that fate, even though the possibility was never entirely lost: witness the Hymn to Zeus of the early third century BCE Stoic Cleanthes.
The authority of justice that arose in the human lineage possessed, and continues to possess, the requirements of “life” as defined by modern genetics: the ability to replicate, and to evolve by means of natural selection. Of course, the physical DNA of relational genes would reside within the individuals. However, the intentions of authority, which are the expression or phenotype of relational genes, would be naturally selected because of the substantial survival benefits it provided by the coordination of shared behavior. These genes, within each individual, are selected on the basis of whether they can enable productive relationships with other individuals. In each new generation, relational capacities arising from genetic components reconnect themselves into new relationships, and the ones most able to productively coordinate their mutual behavior are selected.
With the ascent of man six million years ago, a threshold was achieved as significant as the appearance of life itself: the inner consciousness of individuals blossomed forth into collective being. We have been liberated from the substance of our brains into the sacred legacy of a shared inner realm, linked together by instincts for justice that demand constant tending. How much more majesty there is in the vision that the unique aspect of our nature is animated not by tooth and claw, but rather by our tribe’s ancient mission to transform the power of aggression into the bounty of communion.