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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 241-254

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Darwin and Political Theory

Denis Dutton


IN THE 1970s, during the oil crisis, B. F. Skinner suggested a way that the United States's energy shortage could be alleviated. People should be rewarded, he argued, for coming together to eat in large communal dining halls, rather than cooking and eating at home with their families. His reasoning was irresistible: large cooking pots have a lower ratio of surface area to volume. There would be therefore a considerable saving in energy in massive public kitchens, compared with numberless small individual pots cooking in private kitchen stoves across the nation.

Of course, Skinner must have known his idea would have to overcome objections based on ingrained middle-class prejudices. Some parents would feel aggrieved: placing children before big communal pots would rob mothers of the pleasures of preparing foods and feeding their own offspring. Others might object that the only foods adequate to a big, round energy-efficient vessels are stews or soups; they might complain about endless boiled fare. Families of one ethnic background or another might dislike the relatively uniform diet, despite the hearty, nutritious goodness of stew. I can imagine Skinner's frustration: Why are people so stubborn? Why can't they look beyond minor details and see the sheer reasonableness of the proposal?

The story is cited by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate as yet another dream of a better-engineered world shattered by the ornery persistence of human nature. Based on his work with rats and pigeons, Skinner was sure that the proper conditioning applied to human beings could eliminate aggression, overpopulation, pollution, and inequality. In Skinner's utopia, Pinker wisecracks, "The noble savage became the noble pigeon." [End Page 241]

B. F. Skinner was just another daft step on a long utopian road that stretches back through Marx, Rousseau, Hobbes, and St. Thomas to Plato. These political philosophers, as well as those who, like Aristotle, are skeptical of utopianism, base their visions on some understanding, argued or merely implied, of human nature. All political systems—free or totalitarian, monarchist or republican—tend to posit some notion of the natural human being. In recent generations many thinkers have been inclined to regard competing conceptions of human nature as stuck in eternal conflict, embodying basic commitments about the human condition that are independent of evidence, originating instead in the religion, culture, or individual temperament of the political philosopher.

Evolutionary psychology gives hope against this pessimism. Political philosophers are right to posit a natural background that underlies construction of political systems, evolutionary psychologists say, but it required Darwin finally to explain that background to us. A lucid attempt to spell out the implications evolution for politics has now been published by Paul H. Rubin, a professor of economics and law at Emory University, in the form of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, $25.00, paperback). Some of his conclusions are what anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology might suppose even without picking up the book. Others come as a surprise, and were unexpected even by Rubin himself. The book is both fascinating and unpredictable.

The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the EEA, essentially the Pleistocene, the whole, long period lasting from 1.6 million years ago up until the shift to the Holocene with the invention of agriculture and large settlements 10,000 years ago. Our present intellectual constitution was achieved by about 50,000 years ago, or 40,000 before the Holocene. Keep in mind the immensity of this time scale: calculating at twenty years for a generation, there were 800,000 generations of humans and proto-humans in the Pleistocene, while there have been a mere 500 generations since agriculture and the first cities. It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans. These pressures might have pushed only very slightly in one direction over another. But a slight pressure over hundreds of thousands of generations—toward a taste for sweet, say, or a wariness of snakes&#8212...


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