Politics & Policy

Humans Evolved to Share—When They Know Each Other.

photo by P. A. Jensen

The political Left routinely reminds us that humans are social animals, and that we evolved to share resources in egalitarian groups. Fair enough. However, the Left sometimes uses that evolutionary past to justify socialism.

That’s quite the evolutionary leap.

The crux of the argument for socialism based on human behavior goes something like this: because humans evolved to share, human behavior lends itself to a governmental system based on sharing. One professor who focuses on evolutionary psychology puts it this way: “A true socialist approach to society, one that focuses on evenly distributing resources, is actually quite consistent with a basic mode of our evolved social functioning.”

To be both clear and fair, to say that our evolutionary past is consistent with a government based on sharing is different than saying our past demands a government of sharing. The Internet is full of both types of arguments. The latter argument would be tougher to make in general, of course, so we will focus on the more narrow, more cautious argument that our history merely permits socialism, which is often what more thoughtful socialists and quasi-socialists say, including the professor above.

But even this narrow, cautious argument is misguided.

We will unroll two ideas here. First, we will take a whirlwind tour of human behavior as it relates to sharing of resources. We will then remember the sights from this tour when talking about socialism, or the quasi-socialism that is becoming more popular in America today.

First, human behavior and evolution. As a first swing at a complex idea, consider that prior to agriculture and sedentary civilization, humans foraged across the landscape in small groups. Many “primitive” cultures did this before falling victim to the guns, germs, and steel of civilization, and some cultures continue to live this way. Ample evidence suggests that these groups did/do rely on egalitarianism, or low levels of inequality, especially regarding resource use. So, the “baseline” human group, the kind apparently closest to our primate heritage, is one with a lot of sharing between members.

Importantly, members of egalitarian groups share resources, but they also remember how the resources were shared. And they act on it.

Sticklers for fairness all around, egalitarian primates can be.

Now, before we go further, let’s anticipate a criticism. This is not where we go down a road toward some sort of moral case for accountability, often crudely summarized by the “makers and takers” argument. Many anti-socialist screeds do this, and they commonly end up railing against the government in any form as some sort of anti-Malthusian boondoggle. We won’t do that. We’re talking about human evolution, and we will limit ourselves to points that, I hope, are pretty straightforward, and that avoid name-calling. (Also, we haven’t made our point yet, so please hang on until we do.)

With that said, truly egalitarian groups can break down if resources are not shared in a way that might be interpreted as “fair.” The fairness of that distribution can be calculated by monitoring the production and consumption of members of the group. As calculated this way, any unequal or unfair distribution of resources is often the result of of cheaters, who typically consume more than they produce. In our crude parlance, they “take” more than they “make.”

To be clear, this is not necessarily an accusation or value judgment. Children and the aged, for example, can be considered “cheaters” in this strict sense, but groups tolerate them because they provide other benefits: groups that do not tolerate whiny, infant cheaters quickly go extinct, for example, and more elderly members of a group might have other features to offer the group, like wisdom, experience, or even childcare. So, some “cheating” members of the group routinely consume more than they produce in a metabolic, caloric, biophysical kind of way, but the able-bodied members often pick up the slack because these “metabolic cheaters” provide other, less easily demonstrated survival benefits, or because failure to do so can be the end of the evolutionary line for all involved. There is a complex evolutionary calculus here. This is part of the group dynamic.

The exceptions of children and the aged aside, though, cheaters in general destroy egalitarian groups because they rob the group of resources, much like how a thief would. If a member of the group takes resources from the groups as a “free rider,” the other members of the group must produce more than they otherwise would, which takes both energy and time. To combat this, even children and elderly people contribute to the daily goings-on of egalitarian groups, in no small part because there is incentive to maximize production, “child labor” be damned.

If a group has too many free riders, the rest of the members of the group cannot make up the difference, and the group ceases to be functional. In an extreme case, perhaps some or all of the members die. Because group function is so critical, traits that decrease the amount of cheating in a group, or that increase policing of cheating, have persisted in egalitarian groups over time. After all, groups that could police the cheaters were more likely to survive.

How this happened, at least in evolutionary terms, is now considered classic science, the kind that is in introductory textbooks. Almost fifty years ago, Robert Trivers outlined requirements that egalitarian groups would need to survive. In general, these groups are based on the concept of reciprocity, or reciprocal interactions that are the basis of cooperation. Members of groups that cooperate, he concluded, would probably be long-lived and intelligent, and the groups would be small, stable, and heavily interdependent. (The reasons for these specific traits will become clear.) Without these traits, the group would break down, in no small part because of the scourge of cheating.

Here’s where we identify the problem(s) with socialism, or even quasi-socialism. Socialism can sound egalitarian, just like our evolutionary past, but execution of socialist principles typically violates the rules of cooperative groups. Socialist societies do not have all of Trivers’s traits: of the five, socialism maintains two, may or may not retain two others, and plainly dismisses one.

First, the non-problematic traits. Humans can obviously maintain their potential for lifespan and intelligence in socialist systems (“jokes” about famine and wars aside). Regarding the more questionable traits, though, the stability of the group might be affected by features like immigration, for example, while the “interdependence” of the group might be the realm of the “makers and takers” argument mentioned above. No matter—we will leave all of those alone here, and proceed as though socialism has no problem with these, per se.

However, socialism does necessarily violate one key requirement for egalitarian communities: the small group. Small groups are critical for sustained egalitarianism.

When socialists, or quasi-socialists, point to “primitive” cultures as a justification for a socialist state, they gloss over the fact that people in those primitive cultures functioned as members of a group in a strict sense, and held each other accountable to the group. For everything. The amount and type of work, for example. The amount of consumption, for another example. For interpersonal interactions. Sexual fidelity. Maintenance of major cultural norms. Maintenance of minor cultural norms.

Everyone is in everyone else’s business. All of it.

Further, in egalitarian cultures, being in everyone’s business goes beyond mere gossip. Failure to pull your weight or conform to group norms is not tolerated, in no small part because these failures can threaten the viability of the group itself. As a result, these failures have consequences, and often severe ones. This includes shunning. Perhaps being ostracized or extradited. Violence. Even execution, in extreme cases. Group dynamics is serious business. For most of our evolutionary history, it was the only business that mattered, really.

And that business could thrive only in small groups.

Simply put, a small group is necessary to identify cheaters, because group members need to keep track of the balance of production and consumption, or of accounting for resources generally. Indeed, the aforementioned requirements of intelligent, long-lived species are actually secondary to the need for a small group—we are an intelligent, long-lived species in terms of the animal kingdom, but no one is smart enough to keep track of all the production and consumption of all of the members of a society as large as a nation, regardless how many supercomputers we build, and regardless how hard we try to keep track with Big Data and surveillance. “Intelligent” is a relative term here, and we are intelligent only in the context of a small group, and downright stupid when it comes to keeping track of a group the size of a country.

When the system gets too big, the probability of cheating approaches inevitability. No one can keep track of the cheaters. Or, just as important, enforce the cheating effectively.

The interpersonal interactions between the members of the group, both positive and negative, have served as the social fabric from which egalitarian groups were cut. This is why Trivers identified that groups must be stable and interdependent: the group members must remain accountable to each other in the long-term, which enables group members to punish each other for bad behavior, including with emotional warfare, like shunning. In a state-sized system, even if we could keep track of the cheating, no codification of laws could effectively police it. No state can efficiently match the face-to-face shunning or the threat of being ostracized that a small group can provide; no state can understand the nuances of these interpersonal dynamics, or can execute any reasonable “justice” in that context.

Fortunately or unfortunately, these are the dynamics upon which “primitive” cultures depend. I think it’s safe to say that this small-group dynamic has been the foundation of every—every—instance of true egalitarianism in the history our species. The state is, and would be, a poor substitute.

For a socialist, that might sound depressing.

Nonetheless, humans seem to be capable of interacting peacefully in our modern environment, which does not obviously resemble our small-group past. Is small-group thinking still relevant on a planet of seven billion people?

As one example of a supposed flaw in small-group thinking, some people of a socialist bent have cited how humans often help other people in seemingly altruistic ways, even if those other people are total strangers. One particularly thoughtful essay cites Darwin’s famous example of saving a stranger from drowning, which is seemingly at odds with the picture of cunningly self-interested primates in small groups that I have painted here. At first glance, this seems like more relevant human behavior for 21st-century America, or at least 21st-century urban America, than the inner workings of troupes of primates on the savanna.

That’s fair. However, it’s also pretty thin gruel as advocacy for socialism. Even a universal predisposition for altruism toward drowning strangers is pretty far removed from a modern socialist state. I’m not a behavioral neuroscientist, but a split-second decision to save drowning strangers seems biologically different than deciding whether to systematically, repeatedly share hard-won resources with those strangers. In terms of human behavior, equating the two might be problematic, to say the least.

Further, split-second altruism may still be consistent with our small-group past. It might be unsurprising that we save others without thinking, because everyone around us for most of our human history was part of our tribe. Even in a strictly adaptationist way, we may have evolved to save others because there never was a distinction between “in-group” and “out-group” in everyday life. Today, we might help or save others even if we are unrelated to—or in competition with—them, but that could be due to a change in our environment, and a recent change, evolutionarily speaking.

(This resembles another kind of environment-and-evolution scenario: why plants still try to put down roots when they grow in space, even though doing so kills them. Plants evolved in an environment with Earth’s particular strength of gravity, so they “relied” on it to guide them; when gravitational force disappears or decreases, like in space, that same developmental program actually kills plants because they literally don’ know which way is up, and they developmentally arrest. Their environment changed, and a behavior that helped them in one environment does them no good in another. That might be the case with helping strangers, albeit with the important difference that helping strangers is rarely lethal.)

Regardless, I’m not sure it matters. We can hypothesize why humans might help all humans, even strangers, but that such behavior persists in a species that evolved in small groups shouldn’t surprise us. That such behavior has been tortured into fitting a narrative of socialism, the scope of which is so foreign to our evolutionary past, is pretty ironic, however. To put it mildly, the preponderance of the evidence in a discussion of human evolution seems to fall against the de facto, large-scale sharing of socialism in general, at least when we’re talking about levels of government far bigger than any group of primates that we encountered in our deep evolutionary past.

Importantly, the conclusion here that humans are not wired for socialism is different than other, similar conclusions, and for one key reason: our conclusion explicitly acknowledges that people indeed share, and have depended on sharing for survival. Common arguments for socialism seem to build a straw-man conservative argument, where market-based economies demand a species that only fiercely competes for survival of the fittest individual. The fact that humans shared resources in their evolutionary past seems to invalidate this straw-man argument for capitalism, and seems to lend credence to the plausibility of socialism as an alternative, even that alternative is indeed a false choice.

Acknowledging that humans shared, but being carefully specific about the environment of that sharing behavior, disrupts this de facto argument for socialism. Humans did share, but they shared with humans only when they knew them and felt accountability toward and from them. This is consistent not only with a market-based economy, but with the ideas of community, as shown by Burke’s comments about “little platoons” of life, as well as many conservatives’ attitudes toward community and charity.

Overall, our evolutionary profile seems to match a system of sharing at home and skeptically contracting everywhere else, if it matches anything at all.

I would add, even if glibly, that our everyday lives seem to match such a description. Perhaps how we act today is exactly how a species of primates who evolved in small groups would operate on a planet of seven billion of those primates. I think the data are in.

So, humans shared resources in egalitarian societies throughout history, but that history does not translate to modern societies because of its reliance on small groups, which the state is clearly not. Where to go from here?

First, maybe we can dispense with the argument for socialism based on sharing in deep human history. If anything, as far as more recent human history is concerned, actual socialism is far from promising, to put it mildly. Can we dispense with that argument, at least as typically presented, please?

Second, perhaps we can start to swing the pendulum in the other direction, and argue that evolution says that we should experiment with focusing our lives, political and otherwise, toward smaller groups that humans are more equipped to handle. Conveniently, we have laboratories for how such an experiment might look: they’re called small towns. We can relearn the rules of small-group accountability, including how they manifest in modern environments, from how people act in small towns today. It’s the closest thing that our civilized societies have to our evolutionary past.

To be sure, small towns include people who are the stereotypical “takers” from large-scale government, and not just because small towns tend to have an overrepresented population of elderly people, either. But that’s the point. How is this “taking” perceived in small towns? How does it work?

As political leanings of rural people show, it doesn’t work. Rural people typically don’t support socialism, and not just because of delusions of apocalyptic government tyranny or allegiance to fringe religious views, either. Instead, that rural people don’t vote (quasi-)socialist might just be a product of their rural environment. Based on what we’ve seen, this should be no surprise, either.

One big reason that people in small towns are so loath to support socialist programs, or even quasi-socialist programs, might be because in small towns, the “takers” are more visible.

The “taking” is less anonymous in small towns, at least indirectly. That is, in a small town, like in a “primitive” tribe, everyone can monitor everyone else’s “production”: everyone knows whether (and where!) everyone else works, and everyone knows who doesn’t work. Also, everyone can monitor everyone else’s consumption, whether in line at the grocery store, or by seeing what clothes they wear, or by seeing whose pickup is parked at the bar, or by noting exactly what kind of pickup is parked at the bar. As a result, if you know that someone isn’t working and is probably “on the take” from “The Government,” and if you see some conspicuous consumption nonetheless, you might dislike the person a bit more.

After all, it’s how we evolved.

In a city or suburb, no one knows enough of anyone else’s business to start to paint that whole picture of production and consumption, at least on any scale. The accountability disappears. Almost as important, the mere threat of accountability disappears, so people don’t have to act as if they were accountable to anyone. And they know it.

Or, maybe they don’t know it. For some city-dwellers, the very idea of accountability to a group for production and consumption is actually a foreign concept. To have to justify how someone used resources obtained by social “entitlement” might be insulting to many people. It might even be an infringement on their—wait for it—freedom.

How you spend the group’s resources is not an issue of “freedom.” That kind of thinking is “inhuman.”

I think this is a major point about how the Left views rural areas. In a What’s the Matter with Kansas? kind of way, the Left wonders why rural people, who are often poor by national standards, don’t vote for people who would give them things. News flash: it’s not because rural people are super individualistic, or super proud, or super stupid. Instead, part of the reason is that they couldn’t accept government support anonymously, like people in cities can. There’s a kind of shame that comes with it, because people will notice.

There’s still a little bit of that “primitive”—or perhaps “primatological”—behavior left in them. Or, maybe it’s still in all of us, but their environment still selects for it.

In cities, there’s not the same primatological reason not to take the handout. As I’ve written elsewhere, “The Government” can exist in big cities as a faceless entity, and taking money from a faceless entity is easier than taking it from people you know. As long as government functions as a Magic Anonymous Money Tree, it’s easy to pluck its fruit, especially if no one knows you’re doing it.

So, when we talk about a government, let’s talk about accountability. We can talk about sharing resources, but let’s talk about sharing resources that are, you know, shared. Maybe we can talk about building a school, especially in a small town where everyone will buy in. Maybe we can talk about public works projects that are, you know, public. This is easier in small towns, as there often aren’t “parts of town” where some people don’t go—everyone uses the same streets, and the same sewers, and the same school, and the same parks. These projects would be subject to discussions of accountability, including who would use them, as well as who wouldn’t. And, of course, who would pay. That’s buy-in, just like in a primitive tribe. That’s a discussion worth having, at least, because it enables people to be “in other people’s business,” and be accountable to each other, at least indirectly.

The discussion that’s harder to have involves direct gifts of resources to individuals, especially anonymously. These features didn’t exist in primitive tribes. Welfare checks. Food stamps. Also, pulling from the progressive playbook: tuition. Medical bills, too, actually. These are anonymous, and sometimes for fair reasons. But the flip side of that is that accountability disappears, and the mechanism of detecting cheating disappears with it. And even if there are no cheaters (another news flash: there are), even knowing that there could be cheaters is enough to trip a wire in our primate brains that demands accountability.

We don’t like that.

Tripping that wire in our brains is how human beings distinguish between “sharing” and “taking.” Our survival used to depend on it, just as much as we used to depend on each other. You know, in actual groups, or dare I say “communities”—where cheating was not tolerated, and entitlement meant you were an infant, elderly, or seriously laid up.

Maybe some of those primitive rules can be violated in the name of “progress.” But an entire political philosophy that flat-out ignores the size of the group where sharing happens, or that ignores that not all “sharing” is equal, is doomed to failure.

Is socialism, or quasi-socialism, a logical extension of our primatological, egalitarian past? Is it even consistent with that past? No. It’s a philosophy that, evolutionary science tells us, should go extinct.




P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.

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