Wired for Goodness

29 May

The notion that genes play a strong role in our fates is not a popular one. Such a worldview risks seeming fatalistic, and has been an inspiration for any number of racist or otherwise unsavory views. Perhaps, however, it is none of those things, and Nicholas Christakis’s Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society makes just this case. Over the course of 400 pages, Christakis takes his readers on a thoroughly entertaining tour through a wide range of data sets, from the natural experiments that emerge from utopian communes and survivors of shipwrecks on deserted islands to the interactions of elephants and monkeys and any number of other species that exhibit social behavior. His book is an accessible yet scholarly tour de force, clearly a labor of love built over many years. It is also a deliberate effort to rescue an understanding of who humans are from a view that everything about us is a socially construct.

Christakis works hard to show that not only are we a complicated mix of nature and nurture, but that this is no cause for concern. Humans have a defined social suite, a blueprint, that establishes our parameters of social interaction, and the handful of cultures around the world that escape it are shaped by extreme conditions, the exceptions that prove the rule. Moreover, the most defining trait of this human social suite is its flexibility. While there is some human adaptation to different environments, humans instead are genetically equipped to work collectively and innovate to find the resources they need to thrive everywhere from dense rainforests to the Arctic, from a nomadic lifestyle to apartment living in a metropolis. We have evolved to be social, evolved to be flexible, and evolved in ways that allow us to build cultures that reward cooperation in spite of the self-interested impulses that could tear it all apart. Something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that humans first need to find basic necessities like food and shelter before they worry about something like self-actualization, gets it all backwards. The need for self-actualization is wired into human DNA, more a reason for our ability to meet those basic needs than it is an outgrowth of them.

Christakis’s work leads to an endorsement of the dual-inheritance theory: culture can affect genes, and only species with the genes for culture (those whose generations overlap and who live in groups) can develop this feedback loop. Cultures evolve, drift, and go through processes not unlike natural selection as they rise and fall. This is why human societies have drifted toward monogamy (which draws down male testosterone and makes us dudes more content to settle instead of endlessly rutting about) as they become more sedentary and grow. It explains why people develop friendships and cultivate them over time. It may even be why the gods of large urban societies tend to hand down rules for a social order while the gods of hunter-gatherers are much more capricious and participate directly in the natural world. Blueprint doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it offers tools to move toward them.

Christakis knows his optimism about evolutionary sociology is a controversial take. He leaves no doubt that people can and have abused certain notions of scientific understanding of human nature for racist or eugenicist ends. He argues, however, that their crimes are no less heinous, and on the balance perhaps less damaging, than the ravages of the Stalins and Maos and any number of other less catastrophic but still toxic individuals who believed humans were strictly the product of cultural circumstances and thought they could wipe away the cultures they didn’t like. Perhaps more ambitiously, he has some faith that the social suite is so tightly interconnected with our understanding of what life should be that we’ll be able to check the worst excesses and impulses to use AI or genetic modification in what most humans would consider natural ways. He makes a case for clear-eyed understanding of what genes can and cannot do as a saner path forward than blanket fears of acknowledging advances in understanding may bring about. On this, we can probably agree; the open question is whether the natural human instinct to resist more extreme forms of genetic engineering can act quickly enough to stop a few people with the power to do great damage.

We have evolved to be good, and slowly, surely, continue to do so. Christakis’s work has parallels to the question of theodicy, of how an all-powerful God can let bad things happen in the world; he introduces the parallel concept of sociodicy, which turns this conundrum on its head asks how we manage to more or less live together well despite having such supposedly self-interested, base desires. A whirlwind tour of political philosophy in the final chapter jives well with my own Answer to Everything, as it points to the shortcomings of beliefs that humans are irredeemably broken and also rejects easy cultural fixes to all our problems. It gives new ammunition to those of us who’d like to believe we can build a society we like; our sense that, for all the claim of ruin, we still have right around us the foundational tools for something resembling goodness.

This worldview fits well with an Aristotelian notion that we can slowly, haltingly, observe the world around us and understand it better, and come to a sense of who we are and what we can become if we align lives toward a broader goal, some sense of what it means to live a life of human flourishing. It fits the John Wesley Powell mindset of a science that discovers hope in its ability to offer ways forward through its slow experimentation and refinement of past theories. It also makes me think of Hannah Arendt, who rejected the title of “philosopher” in favor of “social theorist” because she recognized that an understanding of what humans are is useless without considering how they interact with one another. Science, Arendt argues in The Human Condition, has alienated humans from the world, but perhaps, in the end, it can help to show the way back.

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