Human Social Evolution

Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement: if anyone here believes the world was created six thousand years ago, and God scattered dinosaur bones around to confuse us, and so forth: then you have come to the wrong meeting.

No takers. It seems we all believe the Darwinian, evolutionary explanation of how all the plants and animals on planet earth evolved, and how we humans are part of this same evolutionary process.

That explanation didn’t get discovered all at once, of course. It too evolved, just like the process it describes. It evolved over the course of the last hundred and fifty years. First Darwin described the processes of natural and sexual selection, then Mendel uncovered genetics, and finally the molecular biologists identified the precise biological mechanisms, genes and DNA and so forth, that made it possible for individual creatures to replicate themselves. Together, these advances in human knowledge constitute an extraordinarily inclusive explanation for the presence of the biological life we see around us. The creationists are on the defensive. In the realm of ideas, their view is in danger of extinction—although many of them don’t seem to realize it.

There is a parallel development taking place right now. It is the evolution of our understanding about how complex human societies have evolved. Unlike our present understanding of biological evolution, our thinking on this subject is still in an early stage. The anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, and other concerned specialists have yet to get together and connect the dots between their areas of knowledge, the way the botanists and zoologists and geneticists have. We’re still waiting for people to develop the kind of unified theory for social evolution that we already have for biological evolution.

Such a theory would be extremely useful. Once we’ve connected up enough of the dots and can see the overall pattern, all sorts of issues will be illuminated by our new-found understanding. The consequences will be far-reaching.

We’ll have a coherent set of scientifically based arguments demonstrating that all ethical values, all moral principles, and indeed all religious beliefs, originated with human beings. No external source, such as a divine creator, need apply. That will demolish the argument that you cannot have morality without God.

Understanding the process that brought us to our present condition will help us determine where we as a species ought to be heading. It will become clear that global governance is not just a distant goal, nor is it just one of several alternatives. It is an inevitable and crucially important next step. I’ll come back to this in a while.

My book tries to connect at least some of these dots. It’s not the last word by any means, but it’s a stab in the right direction.

–It tells how, about 50,000 years ago, our ancestors first came to think and talk symbolically, as we do now;

–It explains how symbolic thinking made it possible for individuals to develop a sense of belonging to larger and larger groups, which over the course of many millennia led to the nation state and our present situation;

–And finally, it offers an evolutionary, scientific basis for the argument that our present condition is transitional and is inevitably leading toward global governance.

You might well ask why this kind of analysis hasn’t attracted more attention, and why a whole battalion of social scientists haven’t addressed it and worked out a series of theories and explanations leading to this kind of general overview of our condition. The short answer is that philosophers have been working on this subject for a long time, and recently at least a few social scientists have joined them. I’ve drawn on their thinking. But we still have a problem. Mainstream anthropologists for the past half century have been obsessed with a misconception about the nature of human social evolution. I’m talking about a major mental block that is just now being overcome, that has kept many of our best minds from trying to parse out the most important single aspect of the whole process.

I refer to the mistaken notion that selection takes place only between individuals, and cannot occur between human societies or groups. The whole idea of group selection was denounced after the Second World War, not so much for scientific reasons, as because the idea that some societies were more successful than others had been thrown into disrepute by its misuse by the Nazis. (Echoes of the Master Race, eugenics, and persecution of the Jews).

There was, of course, a scientific argument to back up this position. The Darwinian engine of evolution, also known as “the survival of the fittest,” acts through the individual as the selective unit, not through the flock or the herd or whatever. It is purely genetic, not learned. Nature, not nurture. It is the standard way animal and plant life on this planet has evolved.

The mistake came when the anthropologists assumed that since we are animals too, the same rule must apply to us. That was wrong. It overlooked one of the most important facts about the human condition.

Humans are different from other animals in that we think in terms of symbols and we can speak using those symbols. Symbolic thinking leads to culture, and culture allows relatively large numbers of individuals to coexist in cooperating units. Each of these units has a kind of collective corporate memory which stores information that is passed on to the children who are born within the group.

Every culturally distinct group develops its own library of knowledge which is passed on from generation to generation. Unlike other animals, the transmission is effected through teaching with verbal signals; the genes have nothing to do with it. Each generation grows up, therefore, within a learned cultural matrix, consisting of all the information and guidelines it needs to function as a cooperating member of the group. Such information may include: ways to cope with the environment (technology); ways to ensure group loyalty and cooperation (ethics, religion, law); and ways to cope with problems arising with other groups (patriotism, diplomacy, and war).

Cultures evolve over time. Individuals contribute to shared wisdom, which then lives on after they die. Let me offer some examples:

One of our remote ancestors is sitting in front of his cave. He chips a stone a different way and discovers a new tool. Soon several of the other members of his band are making similar tools and almost all of them are using them. What is the breakthrough, the tool itself or the new knowledge of how to create it? The knowledge, of course. And does this knowledge die with the person who invented it? No, it stays on as part of the collective wisdom of the tribe. The tribe as a unit is better equipped than it was before to cope with certain problems. But none of this knowledge was transmitted genetically. It became part of the group’s cultural heritage. The culture of a group is like the genes of an organism, in that it preserves knowledge and passes it on to coming generations. But it works differently, and much faster.

Another example: Neolithic farmers are crowded together in what is now Iraq. There are seven good years and the population goes up. Then there are seven years of drought and people starve. A lot of them don’t survive. Never mind, that’s the way it has always been with other species. But wait! Some genius imagines granaries, a means of storing grain in good years to be used in times of drought. This technique spreads rapidly and soon changes everything. Soon you have specialists, and then kings and priests and metals and so forth. What started this chain, was it the granaries themselves, or the idea of building and using them? And what preserved that knowledge once it started, an individual brain, or the collective experience of the whole society?

A third example: A shepherd in central Arabia, with a talent for poetry and quite possibly subject to hallucinations, composed a series of epic verses that inspired the people around him, creating a new religion that swept through half the known world. Even today, fourteen centuries later, over a billion Muslims still remember the words that young man brought down off the mountain.

So that’s the way it has worked, for the past fifty thousand years. That is why we are so different from our remote ancestors, even though in a purely genetic sense, we have hardly changed at all. We have evolved through changes in what we know, not in what we are.

The historical pattern has been for culturally defined groups to get bigger and stronger through the gradual accretion of knowledge, usually including some set of religious beliefs, that strengthen internal solidarity and better equip the group to deal with the environment. The larger the society within which knowledge is pooled, the more people can specialize and add to the common pool. This is a basic principle of human social evolution that we can still see operating around us.

But it isn’t just the linear evolution of these shared pools of knowledge, or cultures, that accounts for our civilization. Competition between groups has usually played a key role in this process. Within each group there is competition between individuals for power and status and many other things. But the ultimate fate of the groups themselves depends on the outcome of their struggle with competing groups. Carthage achieved greatness only to be extinguished by Rome. Ancient history is full of such stories. Even in our times, and on a different level, you see the same kind of process. For example, General Motors was riding high, but now Toyota has taken much of its market share. This is group selection in action, the very process that the anthropologists, for reasons of political correctness, have been telling us doesn’t exist.

My book elaborates on all this. One of my conclusions is that if you look at the forest instead of the trees, you have to recognize that this business of competition between groups has served humanity well, despite the fact that it has frequently taken the form of war between competitors. War is messy and costly but it does serve as a shot in the arm for technological advance, or it has in the past. This was particularly true in much earlier times, when culturally defined groups evolved in relative isolation, without the many channels for cross-cultural information we have now. Conquests tended to be relatively brutal and complete. In many cases the loser was eliminated as a separate actor, with its knowledge (and sometimes its women) absorbed by the victor. In those times the process of group selection could be said more nearly to approximate the process of natural selection that still operates to a large degree in the biological world.

Americans, living in a modern multi-ethnic megastate, cannot be expected to relate this pattern to their own experience, because our very success in becoming multiethnic has changed the nature of the social environment. We see genocide in Cambodia or Rwanda or, most recently, Darfur, and recoil at what seems to us to be a bloodthirsty and disgusting aberration. It wouldn’t have seemed that way three or four thousand years ago. Not, for example, if you found yourself in one of the wandering tribes described in the Old Testament. Even now, if you visit northern Iraq and talk to a Turkoman or an Assyrian, you’ll get a pretty clear picure of the conditions I’m trying to describe. There are still many parts of the world where cross-cultural competition is intense and ethnic and other parochial loyalties drive people to periodic frenzies.

This is why I’ve spent so much time arguing that the anthropologists are wrong, that group selection does exist for our species, and that it has played an important role in our evolutionary history. If you won’t recognize that something exists, you cannot understand how important the change is when it ceases to exist. And the most significant feature of our era is the gradual disappearance of cultural conflict as an engine of progress.

The world is coming together now. The most technologically advanced states, particularly the ones with a nuclear weapons capabilities, have effectively renounced war as a means of settling disputes. Humanity as a whole is passing into a new era, where war, the ancient engine of social evolution, has outgrown its usefulness.

Meanwhile, the collective knowledges of many formerly independent ethnicities are overflowing their boundaries, merging into a much larger pool of universally shared knowledge. The internet, which happened only a moment ago in the time frames we have been using, allows anybody anywhere to obtain information about almost anything.

No more closed information systems. Scientists now associate with their professional colleagues, communicating electronically for the most part, without reference to national boundaries. Tom Friedman looks at economic globalization and talks about a new flat earth, with a level playing field. Lawyers and judges in many countries are increasingly aware of the thinking of colleagues outside their own nations. Everywhere you look, a web of transnational relationships is growing denser and more efficient every year.

Hardly anyone is pushing for a world government as such, but the need is growing for more transnational and global agreements to address emerging problems, and the need is being met, organically and naturally. Humanity is on the march and is heading in the general direction of global governance.

But we are not there yet, by a long shot. Everywhere you look you find holdouts: people who remain committed to the assumptions of the old era of cross-cultural competition, people who are so committed to regional conflicts they don’t want to stop fighting, people who think patriotism to the state they were born in is incompatible with membership in a larger global community. These are people who cannot see the grand pattern that is evolving all around us, or who only see pieces of it that they hate and fear. These are people who continue with the old atavistic fear of strangers: if they aren’t with us, part of our group, they are against us.

Some of the worst offenders are Americans mired in the past and fearful of the new world that is dawning. I speak of the hard core of voters who made it possible for George Bush to enjoy a second term in office. During his first term, Bush made it clear that he totally lacks any understanding of the tides that are sweeping through all humanity in this crucial transitional era. I shall not go into a catalogue of his sins. I listed some of them in my book, and he has added more since I wrote it. Suffice it to say that at least the man has been consistent. He has done just about everything wrong. He’s standing there on the beach like King Canute, telling the tide not to come in, confident that if he only applies enough spin, he will prevail.

What a waste of eight crucial years, during which our country could have played the role of constructive world leader! We should have been building on our experience as a multiethnic state to spread interethnic harmony and a new sense of global cooperation for the good of everyone. Instead we have come across as mean-spirited, selfish, and bellicose.

Hopefully the next administration will have learned from the failures of the present one, and will do better. In my book I describe a vision of a world of the future in which the environment is protected, and human rights are observed everywhere, while guaranteeing each region and culture the freedom to develop according to its own genius. I do believe we can get there, if enough of us share that kind of vision and resolve to make it so. Imagination, after all, is not a quality given us by some divine intervention. It is something we worked out for ourselves, some fifty thousand years ago. Remember those granaries! The ability to imagine something good and useful that doesn’t already exist, and then make it come into existence—that is the quality that brought us out of caves and into our present condition. We still have this quality, and if we use it well, we can pull ourselves through the present turbulent transition and into a new and wonderful era.

With all humanity in concert, our achievements will go into overdrive, and, well….let me quote from the conclusion of my my book (which you can acquire yourself for a very modest sum right here at the conference):

“…we shall discover that this new world is full of marvels and delights we never imagined when we were locked within the narrow confines of the nation we were born into. All things will become possible. And many of them will actually happen.”

Thank you.

Note: This is the script for my talk May 6, 2005 at the American Humanist Association’s conference in Albuquerque.

Carl Coon 5/11/05

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3 Responses to Human Social Evolution

  1. Turq Dorian says:

    So someone has thought up this concept besides me, eh? I just googled “human social evolution” to see if anyone was thinking along the same lines and I’m happy to see someone is! Can’t wait to read your book.

  2. Peter Keck says:

    So what if “God” is not divine? What if the Bible is just one of the most significant chronicles of human social evolution. What if God the Father is the embodiment of all the laws of the universe: unbendable, unknowable, omnipresent, eternal and yet evolving?

    What if God the Son is the embodiment of all the laws of human interaction: Will we ever evolve to the example of Christ’s unselfish love, forgiveness, kindness, thankfulness, service, and sacrifice?

    What if God the Spirit is the embodiment of collective consciences of all cultures: The myths we hold, not as facts but as truths, the miracles that occur through the optimism of faith, inspiration and synergy?

  3. Amber says:

    The Christian God or Jesus Christ is not our answer. But it is spiritual in nature. Human societal evolution will occur when we become selfless instead of selfish. Bc we will know that to hurt another is to also hurt ourselves. We all run on the same life energy. A soul is electricity. Is consciousness electricity? What is dark matter and why can’t we measure it? Why can’t we measure consciousness? When all humans understand that this energy is what unifies us, we will evolve.

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