At the heart of conservatism is the belief that competition, whether between individuals or nations, releases the full potential of the human animal. The current rationale for this Hobbesian view of human nature was born in October of 1838 when, two years after his Beagle voyage, Charles Darwin read Thomas Malthus’s treatise on the perils of overpopulation. “Here, then,” Darwin wrote in his 1887 autobiography, “I had at last got a theory by which to work.” He framed natural selection as a struggle, primarily among the same species, of too many mouths competing for not enough resources. Darwin reveals very clearly in this decisive passage from The Descent of Man that he believes that the positive attributes of human nature were evolved for the benefits of winning wars.
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.The Descent of Man (1871)
Although there is evidence that killing losers in wars has selected for red blooded us-vs.-them loyalty in our own species, justice, and its handmaiden, morality, were evolved in our ancient hominid ancestors. Diverse evidence is accumulating that the principle human adaptation across all environments is our capacity to coordinate divided labor. We have a highly evolved mentality for teamwork, and justice evolved to permit engagement necessary for teamwork. The transformation from competing individuals to coordinating groups can be compared to the transition from competing biological cells to multicellular organisms 500,000 years ago. The change is from the natural selection of competing individuals for fitness over to the “passive” selection of the most productive relationships at the end of each generation. This is the opposite of competition, and analogous to natural selection for the most harmonious musical instruments.
The shift from mere cooperation (a this-for-that business deal) to coordination (the capacity to run a business) necessitates a radical expansion and alteration in the function of communication. Whereas animals selected by the survival of the fittest individuals are stingy about sharing information lest it give a competitor a leg up, humans are shameless blabbermouths incessantly competing to bend each other’s ears (exhibit A😊). Duke comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello in Becoming Human, A Theory of Ontogeny (2019) describes his work comparing the mental abilities of apes and developing children. He has determined that the capacity to share motivations is uniquely human. When you point to, and jointly look at a pretty bird with a nine-month-old child, this sharing of an experience is unique in the animal world (except for dogs). If you point out something to an ape, the ape will just stare at your finger. Then at three years old, children understand collective motivations, such as, “That’s the way we ought to do it.” Tomasello concludes that, “Coordinating with others on shared goals in the context of collaborative foraging . . . was very likely the adaptive challenge leading to humans’ unique forms of cooperative communication . . ”
A key question is whether this behavioral coordination was evolved in the context of a fear-based dominance hierarchy. This issue is addressed by the work of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who has examined hunter-gatherer societies that have not been contaminated by agricultural practices (in which individuals accumulate wealth). He observed among such people their “. . . deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce political equality among fully adult males, . . .” giving detailed examples from tribes on every continent. This social sanctioning includes behaviors such as ridicule, shunning, and even killing those with persistently selfish dominance behavior. In his book, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Atruism, and Shame (2012), Boehm similarly concludes that this sense of justice and equality was evolved for enabling the benefits of coordinated foraging, particularly big game hunting.
Just as wolves evolved the rudiments of justice to enable hunting in packs, so too has justice enabled the vast refinement of coordinated behavior in human evolution. Instincts for justice did not drive the evolution of teamwork, the benefits of teamwork drove, and continues to drive selection of evermore refined instincts for justice. So, justice and morality were not evolved for winning wars, but preventing them by regulating divisive dominance instincts sufficiently to engage in productive teamwork. We love justice not because it makes us happy, but because it brings us the peacefulness to engage in the sacred legacy of our productive intercourse. 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.