Look at the back of a one-dollar bill. On the left, you will see a pyramid with the “eye of providence” at the apex. Above this image are the two words Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He approves [or has approved] [our] undertaking,” and below it are three more words, Novus Ordo Seclorum, meaning “New Order of the Ages.” If the eye is understood to represent the authority of justice, there is no better depiction of human nature.
I was born in 1941, raised in New York City and educated at Yale and Columbia, thus never gave much thought to the meaning of my liberalism, but it has been right there in front of me in my work all along. I have spent my career as a psychiatrist excavating from mental illnesses the motivations of our ancestral human species for the light they throw on who we have become emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. Seen through the lens of the liberal tradition, these insights have ignited a passionate conviction in why we are here and a deep faith in where we are headed.
A pyramid represents the hierarchical social structure of primates. Beyond anything, primates are specialists in navigating their hierarchies, which are comprised wholly of the emotions and motivations of dominance and submission. The fundamental unit of behavior in a hierarchy consists of a political triangle: two attempting to dominate a third. When four possible political triangles between four individuals socially interact, the individual with the most alliances is at the apex of a stable social pyramid in which all four members are bound together by bonds of dominance and submission. Within a group, all permutations of these triangles crystalize into the simple geometric form of nested pyramids. This hierarchical order reduces the level of disruptive behavior inside the system, and therefore enhances the collective security and survival of all the participants. A robust dynamic stasis is naturally obtained in which the “fittest” political practitioners dominate those below at each nested level. The strategic cognitive skills used in political and marketplace transactions today (if he does that, I will do this), known as “Machiavellian intelligence,” originally evolved upon the scaffolding of this hierarchical social structure in primates, which is comprised wholly of emotion and motivation. House speaker Paul Ryan’s hero, Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged confines human reality to hierarchy in which the only rational and moral interaction possible is the reciprocal self interest of trade.
A wealth of convergent evidence indicates that the human social order, represented by the eye at the apex of the pyramid, arose and entered into a dynamic relationship with primate social order represented by the pyramid. The newly evolved human social system of authority largely predominated over the underlying primate system during most of the six million years of human evolution. However, with the appearance of our own Homo sapiens species two hundred thousand years ago, the primate social order has reemerged resulting in our own interactive, hybrid social system that is depicted on the bill.
Since the rise of science and reason in the Enlightenment Era, liberalism has been associated with the idea that over the long haul civilization is making progress. This liberal position that we are progressively evolving is consistent with the scientific fact that the entire cosmos is in a process of linear evolution, which is amply manifest here on earth, and most certainly will henceforth proceed, and thus time is always on our side. I will present evidence that this progress can best be understood as an ongoing process of reconciliation between the social orders of primate hierarchy and human authority.
I entered the field of psychiatry in 1971 and, while committed to my practice, I was inspired by Carl Jung to also embark upon a life-long study of human nature in conjunction with treating my patients, as he did. Initially, I worked in a maximum-security prison with a substantial treatment program. There I was deeply engaged in prison life which provided ample time to observe a social structure that was a stark manifestation of primate dominance hierarchy, however, upon close examination, I found the human ingredient as well.
I began reading Darwin’s treatises and found myself trying to understand what I was then observing about human nature from an evolutionary perspective. Early on, I hypothesized that the phenomenon of authority in hominins had evolved into a “super-dominance” relationship within the hierarchical system of ape societies. I recognized that authority is intrinsically a group phenomenon, and, most important, the modern capacity of hierarchical groups to obey authority in an organized, coordinated manner was not just recently acquired by virtue of culture, but had genetically evolved over immense periods of time. I ultimately concluded that the appearance of group authority had defined our hominin tribe from its beginning six million years ago. But how could this have happened after, or in conjunction with their split from apes?
I have never been in a situation in which a preoccupation with justice was more apparent than I found in prison. Not that prisoners agreed 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 individual humans; 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.
The therapy that I am purveying for liberals here is the idea that the authority of justice is at the biological center of human evolution; and without justice, authority inevitably reverts back to dominance. A fundamental liberal credo is that justice precedes liberty, and, furthermore, that liberty has no meaning without justice.
A Narrative of Human Evolution
Upon returning from his Beagle journey observing the teeming jungles of South America, Darwin’s insight that led to his theory of natural selection was in direct response to reading Malthus’ essay on the perils of inevitable overpopulation. At the heart of Darwin’s theory is the struggle of too many offspring for too few resources. But human evolution was born into circumstances that were very different from the teeming jungle that was Darwin’s data set.
The hominin tribe came into being amid falling temperatures and deteriorating environments. DNA studies of chimpanzees, with which we share an ancestor, demonstrate that their population was collapsing at the time hominins appeared; their birthrates were declining. I propose that it was in this very different context that the evolutionary path taken to increasing fertility and expanding hominin populations was the transformation of the social mind of apes into the social mind of early humans. The social mind in early hominin societies developed when, out from the raw material of hierarchical dominance–submissions interactions, the singular group structure of obedience to collective authority evolved. In this new compound social system, the authority of justice assumed the role of an internally protective immune system for the hierarchical “body.” According to this view, in the societies of our hominin ancestors, the precursors to our modern collective motivations for justice were naturally selected to decisively suppress the non-productive aggressive component of our primate dominance motivations. A liberal maxim emerges: economic and political competition without the rules of justice invariably leads to poverty and war. Of course, the idea of justice is neither liberal nor conservative; what is liberal is the belief that:
deeply innate collective knowledge of right and wrong underlies all else that distinguishes humans from other animals.
While I am convinced that the fundamental transformation from apes to humans occurred in the minds of our hominin ancestors prior to our own species, I found precious little scientific information 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.
These limitations of science in the area of hominin mind evolution mean that directly plumbing the depths of our own mind is the richest source of relevant information. In psychiatry, we often borrow philosophical concepts for our own use. For example, an “existential problem” is one caused by external circumstances and 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, whose impact on our self-understanding remains enormous, were phenomenologists in this sense. I specialized in the more severe illnesses, and over the course of my practice, I submitted increasingly refined descriptions of them to an evolutionary analysis. This work led to an interpretation of the major known “external” physical scientific facts about hominin evolution in accordance with the reality that the central theater of this evolutionary narrative was the “interior” function of the mind (and within the mind, the evolution of emotions and motivations determined the evolution of cognition). In psychiatrist-philosopher Peter Rabins’ words in The Why of Things, “Causal narratives seek to knit together disparate observations, facts, and events into a coherent and inclusive whole that convincingly links later events to prior events.” Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is causal narrative, not science. In order to weave an inner narrative of the momentous flowering of the human mind from much disparate and incomplete information, we first turn to clinical observations. It is from the study of the most basic aspects of the major mental illnesses that we can see the fundamental aspects of modern human nature, because it is these that are disabled.
Apes certainly suffer from existential depression, and one of the most common and debilitating mental illnesses that afflict modern humans is clinical depression. An examination of this agonizing condition reveals the sustained pathological intensification of the two most fundamental social emotions shared by all primates: fear of interpersonal separation and fear of being trapped at the bottom/periphery of a group. It is entirely reasonable that the cohesive effect
An evolutionary analysis of the experience of schizophrenia casts light on the structure and function of our ancestor’s communication system. The fundamental experience in schizophrenia is 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 responding to accepted norms of status or engaging in partisan politics, indicates that the very means whereby groups unconsciously communicate their values to individuals is in a dysfunctional state of hyperactivity in these patients. Due to their inability to identify with groups, people with schizophrenia are always outsiders.
In schizophrenia I found phenomenological evidence—an emotional fossil of sorts—for the idea that the key to human evolution had been the shift from individual dominance to group authority. Prior to modern humans evolving our complex, multifaceted vocal language, communication would have been motivated by obedience to the evolved authority of groups, and the foundation of group authority was the natural selection of justice. The organizing social principle in earlier primates of selection for fit individuals competing for scarce resources was eclipsed in hominins by that of the productive fecundity of just relationships.
However, justice is merely the pre- adaptation for the natural selection of thriving hominin groups. After reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, I concluded that the primary adaptation of our hominin tribe has been the capacity to coordinate divided labor, and that justice is the one moral sentiment indispensable to this function. The hominin social structure was organic, meaning that the relationships between individuals were not primarily transactions as in Ayn Rand’s world, but that all were continuously engaged in coordinating their behavior by means of their uniquely shared communication. Minute by minute, millennium after millennium, our ancestral species sought relentlessly and passionately to fathom from one another—in the language of emotion—the intentions of their groups. What was the most righteous and correct alternative that, together as a single creature, they should follow next?
One of many other pieces of the narrative puzzle came from British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar who is well known for correlating the brain size of primate species with the sizes of their groups, He also discovered that brain size in non-primate mammals correlates with monogamy. He hypothesized that the coordination of labor in pair-bonds (notably in birds feeding their young) is 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.
Group Selection and the Foundations of Liberalism
Much diverse evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the hominin tribe was initiated by a decisive shift of the level at which evolution takes place, from the individual to the group. The natural selection of the group predominated because of the increased productivity and fecundity that resulted from the active suppression of disruptive dominance behavior. 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 those 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, organically nested groupings. A large proportion of our will to survive evolved in hominins to emanate from the relationships between individuals as 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 authority, but all could recognize its authentic tone in one another. This invisible but biologically based will could be said to possesses intentions, i.e.: a spirit . . . what we call 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 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 the inner consciousness of individuals blossomed into an evolving collective capacity to wield the power of many to act as a single creature. Now in our own species, our adult minds have evolved to retain a child’s vanity and ego, which has reinvigorated and vastly extended our lust for hierarchical domination. Our miraculous capacity to coordinate our behavior has produced the goods that have been traded in the markets and the armies sent off to wage the wars. Nevertheless, emerging through all the chaotic millennia of conquest, evidence that the authority of justice has remained tightly adhered to the power of many to act as one is everywhere. Did not the greatness of Rome rest on Roman Law and that of imperial Britain on English common law, and has not the founding of America marked a new chapter in the unfolding of the human spirit?
The liberal views the Constitution not as the mere work of mortal men, but rather as the legacy of the sacred human spirit that has surrounded us as a living ark within which we have sought shelter, huddled together with one another, through the countless storms of our tumultuous voyage down through the eons. The liberal heart both inhabits this collective soul of who we are as a people, and believes in the future it portends. True believers are driven by the impassioned faith that the ferocious power of our allegiance to the progressively revealed authority of justice will, in some future era, finally liberate us from tyranny in all its protean forms. 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.