The question of human nature is often at the epicenter of important ideological struggles, including those related to the inevitability of competition or the necessity of authority for the functioning of societies.
Of course, anarchist thinkers have not escaped this debate, since one of the most recurrent objections toward the movement claims its goals are impossible because people are “selfish” and “competitive” by nature. Because of this, the possibility of constant deception and conflict among the members of a group would result in fierce competition or the need to resort to authority to establish order; invariably, hierarchies would be present. In other words, anarchism would be nothing more than a utopia.
Not only have liberals relied on the naturalization of current conditions to reject anarchists, but some marxist factions have regarded vanguardism and centralization as the only viable way to overcome the material conditions and forces that disintegrate the proletariat. In the best of cases, hierarchies would persist until a new stage in the mode of production was reached.
Kevin Carson has, however, already pointed out the weaknesses and even naiveté of liberals who saw the organization of workers without a defined corporate hierarchy as impossible. But, from my point of view, it is still necessary to engage more deeply with the naturalistic or essentialist perspective, not only because this allows us to be better positioned in front of these arguments, but also because they can shed light on how individuals can relate to each other – and possibly organize themselves – depending on the environment in which they find themselves.
It may be time to reconsider the theories that seek to explain human nature, as well as the formation of society, starting with a review of several evolutionary theories. While this may sound controversial, given that evolutionism has been used to defend a Hobbesian view of humanity, I think it is worth rethinking the usefulness of these theories in the sociological realm.
Notions of selective forces in gene and information transmission can be applied to understand and predict how ideas are transmitted, propagated, conserved, or evolve in a given social environment (or memetics), as well as providing tools for understanding and predicting group dynamics and behaviors (collaborative and antagonistic). This may even help us to evaluate which model(s) of decentralized economic organization or self-organization is/are the most viable according to certain criteria.
But of course: Before talking about the possibilities of evolutionary theories or models, we must begin by talking about the history of these theories and their significance for their time.
The Origin of Species: Nature and Social Mankind
The Theory of Evolution is based on the observation that the constitution of organisms changes not simply by random mutation, but by a process of natural selection of inherited traits through generations. This selection occurs by increasing the frequency of mutations or genes related to attributes or traits that improve the probabilities of survival and reproduction of an organism in a given environment. Of course, at his time, the Father of Evolutionism – Charles Darwin, was unaware of genetic processes, which were integrated into the theory of evolution after Mendel’s contributions during the Modern Synthesis Era.
The aforementioned debate on human nature was only encouraged by Charles Darwin’s findings in On the Origin of Species. This theory would revolutionize not only the natural but also the social sciences of his time, something that would have unprecedented consequences. But these consequences would not occur in isolation; as could be foreseen, institutions and moral norms were decisive in the reception and (mis)use given to Darwin’s work. In the first place, the biologist admitted that part of his hypotheses was influenced by Malthusian thought, although it remains controversial how much Darwin was inspired by his vision of economic policy. In his biography he wrote:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species.
In any case, Darwin hardly could have escaped the economic and social reality that surrounded him. No less true are his comments on the significance of the Theory of Evolution for the psychology of his time: “In the distant future, I see open fields for much more important research. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquisition of every mental power and capacity by degrees.” In this sense, Darwin himself thought that human beings were part of this “natural order”; that is, this struggle for life, either as individuals or as groups, an idea which he would develop further in The Descent of Man. Darwin also thought that the antagonism to secure naturally scarce resources, in a social creature such as the human being, would derive from the need to create hierarchies, manifest loyalty, and obedience both to the leader and to the tribe as the basis of primitive coexistence.
This seems to coincide with the liberal “laissez-faire, laissez-passer” vision of the west, which includes the idea of unrestricted market competition and moral “individualism”. We see this synthesized in the Hobbesian-tinged philosophy of Hebert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and is the first proponent of “Social Darwinism”. Darwinism was also related to the notions of “superior races” or their improvement through eugenics; therefore, Social Darwinism has been framed in the naturalization of hierarchies and inequalities.
Now, although it is well known that evolutionary theories influenced and were influenced by the capitalist, liberal, and Euro-centric structures of their time, it should not be forgotten that these theories also arose in parallel with and influenced marxist and anarchist thought.
Society and Evolution: Darwin in Marxist and Anarchist Theories
When Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Marx had also released A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Just as Darwin took part of Malthus’ ideas as a reference, Marx developed a critique of the Malthusian theory of population and scarcity. But not only that, according to the standard account, Marx and Engels were enthusiastic about Darwin’s On Origin understanding of the processes of species transformation.
While Marx maintained his reservations about translating the “struggle for life” into the sociological realm, and Marx’s idea of revolutionary praxis did not coincide with the organicist determinism and gradualism of evolutionary change, it is undeniable that the Theory of Evolution had somehow permeated the Marxist paradigm. This becomes more evident in the contributions of the Marxists of the Second International and the Analysts concerning the interpretation of historical and dialectical materialism.
But Marx and his intellectual disciples were not the only ones to attempt to analyze social phenomena from an evolutionary perspective (whether it was exactly Darwinian or not). One of the exponents of classical anarchism led to the rethinking of evolutionary theory itself: we are talking about Peter Kropotkin.
Kropotkin, Mutual Support and Kin Selection
Peter Kropotkin was one of the earliest proponents of Kin Selection and reciprocal altruism as laws or principles of cooperation in the animal kingdom. Darwin changed the course of biology by his discovery of natural selection as natural law; however, during his observations, he encountered some phenomena that escaped the predictions of his theories, including the working of bee colonies and some species that engaged in cooperative breeding. If it all came down to a constant struggle for life and resources, why did some species seem to collaborate in such complex ways without the intervention of the rules or laws that belong to civilization?
Kropotkin is one of the first naturalists to notice the reductionism in Darwinian theories: Social interactions in nature are not limited to a constant struggle for life or pure antagonism. The anarchist thinker would declare that:
There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense… Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.
And the fact is that Kropotkin’s observations effectively coincide with the models of kin selection by W.D. Hamilton and reciprocal altruism by Trivers that emerged after the Modern Synthesis. This leads to an interesting conclusion: Cooperation, even in quite sophisticated forms, is not an evolutionary anomaly but the opposite; it is the outcome of selection processes where such prosocial behaviors are adaptive.
Among the species observed by Kropotkin are some eusocial insects, with his description of life in anthills, termites, and bees. These colonies are fascinating and maybe insightful to us since they are highly complex societies in terms of their structure and functioning. Contrary to what many think, certain species collaborate not through clearly defined hierarchies, with the Queen at the top of the structure, but interact by consensus and indirect communication. That is, these societies collaborate through self-organization and stigmergy, the latter being understood as unplanned collaboration through environmental cues (in the case of these societies, odor cues).
This kind of sophisticated organization and collaboration in the animal kingdom is made possible by kin selection processes and their derivatives, such as group and multilevel selection. In this respect, the collaboration between sterile worker castes was selected because their genetic relatedness to their sisters and queen is supposed to increase their indirect reproductive success or inclusive fitness.
To make the explanation clearer, let’s say the following: When you help a relative, such as a sibling, for example, to survive and take care of their offspring – and therefore to pass on their genes, because you share genetic relatedness with that person, indirectly you would also be helping to pass on your genes.
Throughout evolution, various natural processes have resulted in the selection of these inclusive fitness-enhancing cooperative behaviors as the most adaptive for a myriad of conditions, demonstrating that “altruism” and “cooperation” can also be highly beneficial to the individual even when it represents self-sacrifice.
In addition to the insect societies that exemplify the functioning of kin selection, we also have the examples of bird flocks, which in some cases show a remarkable swarm intelligence, even though they do not have rigid hierarchical and dominance structures. In this case, this form of decentralized cooperation takes a step beyond kin selection, probably being selected at the group or multigroup level. Group selection would come about by units of adaptability of behaviors that enhance the survival of the group – and thus, of individuals within the group.
Of course, all of this has important repercussions when discussing not only some presumed human nature but the various ways in which individuals and groups can organize themselves. After all, Kropotkin’s observations on the working of animal societies are to some extent replicated in his historical and anthropological reconstruction of human societies, from the time of the “barbarians” to the European nations of the turn of the century; Kropotkin can note the importance of lineages, family and kin identities (cultural phenomena that can be approximated from kinship selection theories) in primitive societies, and yet these institutions have had to expand and undergo important changes over time.
Given that cooperation has possibly been selected and conserved in both human and non-human species, one might then ask under what conditions can these behaviors be culturally selected?
Cultural Selection of Groups: A Different Look at Sociology
If one philosophical current revolutionized the second half of the 20th century, it was postmodernism. This branch of counter-cultural thought brought with it the revision of sociology and social structures. It is therefore not surprising that postmodernists have come to question whether it is even possible to speak of a “human nature”; once they had broken the great narrative and the totalizing foundations of identity, meaning, and history, it would make no sense to speak of a single experience at the social level.
But beyond that, it is important to remember the changing aspect of structures and how they are understood through language and the notions introduced at a given moment construct reality, our subjectivity, and behaviors in various layers of representation and alterity. This leads us to question how the culture we live in came into being in the first place and how through the generations (or even within the same generation) it has come to shape our behaviors and attitudes. And the cultural group selection model can help us answer these questions.
A proposal borrowed from the sociobiology models of the 1960s, group cultural selection seeks to explain how ideas or cultural traits spread and are maintained in a given group by how much advantage they confer on the group and individuals. This theory arises from the gene-culture coevolution model, which understands that human behavior has not only been affected by its natural environment, but also by the environment built in society, where ideas and cultural traits can be transmitted in a similar way to genes and interact with them. According to some studies carried out, culture may be much more determinant in shaping people’s social behavior.
It is important to highlight that one of the most pointed out assumptions (and limitations) of evolutionary psychology has been that of the Savannah hypothesis, where it is assumed that the human beings and all their cognitive compendium is adapted to the environment of the African Savannah. This means that the reference point for tracing the emergence and evolution of behavior is always the Pleistocene period. However, this assumption lacks support: It has never been tested; this leaves aside the possibility that human beings have undergone various changes since that period. After all, with the advent of agriculture and urbanism, people’s brains (and therefore behavior) could have undergone several changes.
In other words, a model such as that of group cultural selection allows us to recognize the possibility that society itself shapes the nature of people by recreating contexts that make possible the greater diffusion of some traits more than others, and the stabilization of these traits through institutions and normativity.
If we can mold our nature by the hand of culture, how many possibilities would not open up? The limitation of “human nature” would simply be irrelevant.
Some Examples of Cultural Group Selection
But let us go further. Remember that these new models allow us to predict or infer how actors would behave in a given social configuration, including the type of behavior that may emerge at the level of that group. And unlike Darwinist genetic models, these models are not only genealogical or arborescent but horizontal or rhizomatic as well; since ideas, norms and cultural traits can be transmitted horizontally within a group (it would not be unreasonable to think that Deleuze, rather than simply opposing evolution, tried to reflect on how it could be expanded).
Thus, we would have a useful tool to understand how societies, communities, and nations have transformed their structure, perhaps providing clues about the passage from egalitarian communities to stratified societies or why some communities have survived while others have been annihilated or fallen prey to the expansion of neighboring nations (see the work of Peter Turchin). In this sense, conflicts between societies would no longer be studied only concerning their material conditions and processes of primitive accumulation, but of intra- and inter-group dynamics from the perspective of the beliefs and norms that give structure to these societies in the first place and allow their survival as units of adaptation to a specific context.
Now, beyond reviewing the past and how hierarchical and domination structures emerged, this can help us to know what we can do to change things if we take as variables our current conditions and the ones we want to reach. In this way, it may make it easier for us to identify the best tactics to use so that people are made aware, there is a more coordinated response to mutual aid or direct action initiatives, and people decide to organize on their own.
On the other hand, cultural selection of groups can be useful in modeling or improving existing models of distributed or decentralized networks of large-scale economic collaboration by predicting what kinds of behaviors will emerge at the group level. Taking as a starting point the interactions and dynamics of configured groups and their processes of selecting patterns or signals that can facilitate trusted environments for coordination (see this example in P2P networks or this about governing the commons).
Similarly, for group norms and beliefs, it is also possible to rethink the way we identify what has “value” (or utility) for individuals as groups and communities and to know the changes undergone in their social representation, which can be useful when ascertaining the usefulness of a good or service when exchanged or transferred.
Rather than demonstrating that human beings can be highly cooperative, Kropotkin contributed to the formulation of theories and models which indicate that human behavior is neither immutable nor homogeneous. And this knowledge, if properly broken down and purged of the impressions left by some movements from the turn of the century, such as the New Atheism, can be a great tool both for activists and for people devising possible ways to reorganize our economy.
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