4 min read.Updated: 16 Jan 2022, 09:36 PM ISTNitin Pai
Insights from evolutionary biology can explain how we got here and what we must do to be better
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Biology is revolutionising public policy. Edward O. Wilson, the man who was instrumental in triggering this revolution four decades ago, passed away last month. There are many disciplines that emerged in the wake of his discoveries—sociobiology, evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics—but the central idea is that the evolutionary path of our species determines a lot of what we feel, think, believe and do today.
It holds out the promise that discovering more of the connections between our genes, minds and cultures will put us in a better position to address our big policy challenges. That’s not all. There’s something that injects a sense of urgency into the affair. As Wilson writes “We are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection—the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be." If we humans are going to write our own future, then we ought to better understand the mechanics of how we got where we are today.
One of the most important insights for public policy is the theory of multi-level selection. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution identified natural selection as the mechanism by which genes that best adapt to the environment are more successful in making copies of themselves. This underpins ‘survival of the fittest’. Fitness in the biological sense is about improved chances of surviving and producing offspring. After studying social animals—humans being the epitome of this category—Wilson and his colleagues determined that ‘selection’ operates not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of groups.
The idea that ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to clans, tribes, communities and nations is dramatic, not least because it lets the natural sciences barge into the faculty of social sciences. It pulls the rug from under the feet of philosophers, sociologists and political scientists whose disciplines are constructed on, well, thin air. Evolutionary biologists, on the other hand, not only rely on data but offer theories that are falsifiable. Leaving academic contests aside, the notion that human society consists of groups in competition for survival can be deeply wrenching to our liberal sensibilities. As Wilson showed, nature has no obligation to conform to the human sense of right and wrong. It simply is.
A lot of people have reservations about applying evolutionary theories to human societies because of the gross inequities perpetrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when racism, colonialism, eugenics and genocide were ‘scientifically’ justified using self-serving interpretations of biology. That risk remains, and science to an ideologue is like a lamp post for a drunkard; useful for the support it provides rather than the light it sheds. Even so, with Wilson and his successors accumulating persuasive evidence for group selection, no free society can reject it for the risk of abuse.
Interestingly, the forces of individual and group selection often pull in opposing directions. Within a group, a selfish individual is more likely to succeed than an altruistic one. Think of tax evaders, draft dodgers and people who disappear just before it’s their turn to buy a round of drinks. But in competition among groups, those whose members are better at cooperating are more successful. For instance, groups where everyone steps up to fight at the risk of their lives are more likely to prevail over those whose members shirk responsibility. The differences in balance between selfishness and altruism can explain the trajectory of human society, religion and politics.
The other profound idea that followed Wilson’s work is that of culture-gene co-evolution. On one hand, cultures compete and are also subject to natural selection, and on the other, they influence and are in turn influenced by our genes. The human digestive system, for instance, has evolved to consume cooked food; but humans neither have an innate knack for cooking nor have any adaptations for it. Cooking is a cultural acquisition. Studies over the past few decades have shown that cultures compete, the ones best adapted to the environment survive and influence which genes get passed on. Besides, cultural evolution is faster and works horizontally across a generation (like barefoot people adopting footwear), while genetic evolution is slower because it works vertically over several generations.
The wrong conclusion to draw from evolutionary biology is that everything is biologically pre-determined and that biology justifies our actions. Neither is true. The fact that today’s world has so much diversity—genetic, ethnic, religious, cultural and political—suggests that chance, choice and course play important roles in shaping outcomes. Biology might tell us how our moral compass works, but we are free to travel in the directions of our choice. Morality need not be subordinate to biology.
To quote Wilson again: “Humanity, I argue, arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us. There will be no redemption or second chance vouchsafed to us from above. We have only this one planet to inhabit and this one meaning to unfold."
Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy