Friday, April 20, 2007

Karl Marx was wrong, and it is just happened that he had the right species!   posted by Razib @ 4/20/2007 11:17:00 AM

Ron Bailey in Reason has a piece which summarizes some recent work suggesting that humans are "innately" egalitarian. Unfortunately, it is titled Natural Born Communism. There is a robust and consistent finding that humans tend to often behave in a manner which suggests that they are not Homo economicus. Psychologists have long reported that humans can exhibit inexplicable altruistic tendencies (that is, impose punishment on others at costs to themselves without any future possibility of payoff), and those with an evolutionary bent have often hypothesized that this is due to "misfiring" of cognitive modules maladapted to mass society. Kin selection, reciprocal altruism and group selection have all appeared as models in part to explain deviations from Homo economicus. But, there is an important point which I think suggesting a Communist inclination elides: humans tend to dislike inequality (or, on the whole will tend to minimize it when possible when they are the not the "winners," which is most of the time by the nature of the game), but that does not mean that they wish to live in system where private property is abolished and production is directed from on high. In other words, I think there is something to be said for making a distinction between the "Commanding Heights" philosophy (implemented in the Post-War Era in Britain by Labor), where major industries were nationalized and put under state control, and the Nordic model of high taxation and redistribution in concert with private control of property and assets. Ron concludes:
...It's hard to see how an inborn drive could arise in Pleistocene hunter gatherers such that people spend their scarce resources to reduce other people's resources promotes either individual or group survival. Or is enforcing equality really all that different an activity from punishing non-cooperating cheaters? Perhaps early in human evolution, large differences in income actually correlated with cheating and thus automatically merited punishment. Another puzzle is if humans are instinctively egalitarian, how did early hierarchical civilizations in which the incomes of priests and kings were significantly higher than those of peasants come about at all? Finally, finding that humans have an innate tendency toward enforcing a norm of income equality would explain the persistent attraction of communism, progressive tax rates, the demand for universal government-supplied health care, minimum wage laws and other such destructive modern leveling ideologies and policies.

I think one overarching issue is that evolutionary advantage is often a matter of relative fitness (and happiness is also likely relative). In societies which over the long term are not characterized by open-ended economic growth or great natural increase in effective population it stands to reason that many would perceive the world as zero sum (certainly in their lifetimes). If a man in your tribe was a superior hunter his generosity may increase the fullness of your belly on several occasions, but what genetic solace would that give if his virtuosity in the games men play allows him to become the alpha who monopolizes the attentions of all the females in your small tribe? How long would your woman be yours if a greater part of her protein intake was due to the efforts of another man? Perhaps better to kill the showoff and maintain a mediocre equilibrium with your fellow non-alphas! Finally, Ron asks how and why hierarchical civilizations arose if we are naturally egalitarian. The easy, and uninformative, answer is that humans are complex with many evolutionary tensions girding us, and at any given time we can place a particular emphasis a subset of our drives and impulses shaped by social context and personal interests. But, I would offer that perhaps the reality that Neolithic populations seem to have expanded greatly in numbers over several thousands of years allowed for a moment in the sun for a succession of alpha males. In larger population agglomerations human anonymity allowed alphas to appeal to counterforces to the jealous rivals nearby, the enemy of the enemy afar is my friend. But the life of men like Julius Caesar shows that the counteracting vector remains operative at particular moments to offer correctives, even if Rome was on an inevitable path toward the Dominate, the republican illusion remained powerful enough to stay the hand of the logic of naked explicit autocracy.1

Addendum: The title is a reference to E.O. Wilson's contention that "Karl Marx was right, it is just that he had the wrong species" (i.e., eusocial insects). I am implying that clearly Communist economics doesn't work, but, the mental biases of humans renders us vulnerable to its messages. Though as I note, the main attraction is probably redistribution, not a more abstract abolition of selfish human action.

Related: Why patriarchy? Galor and Moav: Property rights as an evolutionary force.

1 - Let me elaborate. The first emperor, Augustus Caesar, was notorious for maintaining the illusion of republican continuity. He was the first citizen, nothing more (well, until he started accepting the titles that the sycophantic Senate gifted him). It was with the transition to the Flavian Dynasty that the hereditary principle became explicit and without concealing artifice, the founder Vespasian stated that if his sons did not succeed him to the purple no one would. In the early 3rd century the emperor Septimius Severus dispensed with the illusion that the law had any independence from his will, having his decrees read out in the Senate without consultation. Now, he was Rome. Finally, by the 4th century oriental despotism became normative as all pretense that Rome was not a monarchy ruled by kings was stripped away. The models now were not their republican forebears, but the glittering Sassanid court. Julian the Apostate was mocked in part by contemporaries for his traditionalist sympathies toward returning to a simpler time, where the emperor was lacking in divine glamor and oriental opulence. Instead of accepting this as a Roman virtue, Julian's abstemious nature was taken as projecting a mean and unbecoming image for the emperor.