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Why do we need to switch off the autopilot?

Tapping into the human evolutionary potential


Ever since Darwin, evolutionary biology has been used to justify all kinds of different political philosophies and economic orders, from communism to classical liberalism.


There is a recent ‘school’ of progressive interpretation of evolutionary biology that presents itself as based on the latest science. Broadly speaking the core message of these voices is that the discoveries of the past few decades have by now completely debunked the idea of the selfish gene put forward by Richard Dawkins in 1976.


The 2020 bestseller Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is possibly the most prominent example of this thinking that is becoming popular in progressive activism and beyond.


In a recent interview Bregman says: “For millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids, and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. It’s deeply embedded in our evolutionary history that, also at times of crisis, but also just generally in life we prefer to work together and be friendly most of the time.”


Bregman’s core argument in the book is an updated version of the idea of the noble savage popularised in 1755 by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau claimed that greed and violence are the product of civilisation and that people in their natural state were inherently good. Bregman believes that when humans were hunter-gatherers (which is 95% of human history) “men and women were more or less equal” and that our male ancestors were “more like proto-feminists”. He argues that only after humans settled down and invented agriculture, they became violent and power structures corrupted us.


While Bregman supports his argument with many sources, his selection of evidence is highly biased and a more complete review of the evidence we have today shows that hunter-gatherers weren’t as peaceful, altruistic and feminist as Bregman claims.


In a review of the book, William Bruckner, an evolutionary anthropologist, provides a good overview of the latest evidence against Bregman’s theses. He concludes:


Bregman presents hunter-gatherer societies as being inherently peaceful, anti-war, equal, and feminist likely because these are commonly expressed social values among educated people in his own society today” and that “in reality, human beings everywhere are neither inherently freedom loving and peaceful, nor inherently coercive and violent, but can be either or both depending on their socioecological and cultural context.

Metaphorically speaking the selfish gene is still true


As many of the anecdotes in Bregman’s book correctly show, humans are of course much more than purely selfish beings. In that sense the selfish gene metaphor has clearly been misunderstood and misused to justify the greediest forms of capitalism. Social Darwinism was another form of ideologically biased interpretation of evolutionary biology. This misconception has been overturned by the knowledge we now have about innate human morality and our natural predisposition for cooperation and pro-social behaviour.


What makes humans truly distinctive from other primates, including from chimpanzees, is that we are especially cooperative. Without this ability we wouldn’t have been able to build a civilisation as astonishing as ours.


However, the mechanisms that humans evolved and that are required for a human social group to function as an organised unit are complex. Importantly, they are not simply the consequence of the noble motives of people wanting the world to be a better place.


It could be a fatal error if we come to believe the core idea of Bregman’s book that deep down humans are mostly friendly and that our cultural systems, hierarchies and power have brought us all the bad stuff. Seeing ourselves as honest and caring from the core of our beings, if this is a false view, will not help us make ourselves or the world better.


Even if one wished evolution would happen very differently, the selfish gene in the metaphorical meaning originally intended by Dawkins is still true.


The evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein and the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson recently held a fascinating conversation on Weinstein’s Darkhorse podcast where they discussed this topic at length.



During the conversation, Weinstein argues:


If we really understood the mindset of the individual in rational evolutionary terms, we would understand that in some sense we are wired and programmed to behave in such a way, both to advance our own genetic interests and to protect the long-term population well-being that allows those genes to circulate. We are wired to effectively protect a gene pool.

In other words, we are genetically programmed to care for others, but only because a cooperative system in the population we operate in, provides a better guarantee for our genes to survive in the long-run.


It’s not selflessness that has allowed us to cooperate in groups, it’s rather our capacity to track indirect reciprocity. The late evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander said: “Indirect reciprocity involves reputation and status, and results in everyone in a social group continually being assessed and reassessed by interactants, past and potential, on the basis of their interactions with others.”


Humans also developed psychological predispositions and emotions like shame and guilt and we respond to social norms and often prefer to interact with people that share a common group identity.


Social norms emerged from our ability to learn from each other and are a crucial part of cooperation in any small group or large society. Because they harness aspects of our genetically evolved psychology, social norms are very powerful. The evolutionary scientists Richerson and Boyd argue: “In culturally evolved environments in which prosocial norms are enforced by systems of sanction and reward, individual [natural] selection will favour psychological predispositions that make individuals more likely to gain social rewards and avoid social sanctions.”


All these systems of effective cooperation are the result of the so-called gene-culture co-evolution that happened over the many thousands of years when our ancestors lived in small bands and tribes.


But these reputation systems only worked well up to that scale when everybody could see everybody and people knew everything from each other. When group size increased at the time we invented agriculture, our naturally evolved systems of cooperation broke down and were replaced by hierarchical power structures, some of them more brutal and oppressive than others.


In the absence of the social rewards and sanctions systems common in small tribes, human pro-social behaviour tends to decline and we are effectively prone to cheat. And we even evolved a way to self-deceive ourselves about the true motives of our not-so-noble behaviour. According to Alexander, “the elaborate structure of consciousness, with multiple layers, many of them hidden, evolved in part to keep our true motivations obscure, allowing us to proceed in our daily lives fully convinced of the underlying selflessness of our true motivations”.


Religions were (and to some extent probably still are) a very effective social technology that helped promote pro-social behaviour across large anonymous societies. Evolutionary anthropologist Joe Henrich found out that the more punishing and the more knowing the “big gods” are, the less people cheat in favour of themselves over distant co-religionists. However, across Western societies, religions are in sharp decline and are therefore losing their role in binding people together.


Our biggest problems are collective coordination problems


Even if we wanted, we can’t go back to the small social structures we are prepared for to live in as a result of human evolution. Our modern societies are highly complex and globally interconnected. We now face a whole range of collective coordination problems that we can ultimately trace back to our genetic evolutionary heritage. They result from the way humans naturally behave when interests between individuals or groups collide in the absence of effective systems of coordination. Climate change is an example of the tragedy of the commons which is one type of collective coordination problem, a situation when individuals act rationally in their own self-interest, nonetheless act irrationally as a collective group by irreparably depleting a resource that is owned in common. The race to the bottom that we often see when countries lower their corporate tax rate to attract global corporations is another one.


According to futurist Daniel Schmachtenberger we now face a range of existential risks that might not just lead to the collapse of our civilisation but indeed wipe out humanity as a whole. Exponential technologies are running up against planetary boundaries, AI and biotechnologies could lead to all kinds of global catastrophes for which the COVID-19 pandemic could have been just a minor prelude. Schmachtenberger argues:


All the previous civilizations that failed had so much hubris before their fall because there had been so many generations where they had succeeded that they had forgotten that failing was a thing. It was just some ancient myth, it didn’t feel real. So, we don’t have an intuition for things not working or for catastrophe because we haven’t experienced it and our parents didn’t experience it and it’s only myth.

What makes matters worse is that the very human capacity to cooperate in teams has a flipside that has been responsible for the worst moments in human history. What made humans great team players was the competition with other groups. We developed a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, often in peaceful competition with other groups. However, we sometimes turn against people who are not part of our group, and we sometimes do this violently. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes:


Tribalism is our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict. When the tribe switch is activated, we bind ourselves more tightly to the group, we embrace and defend the group’s moral matrix, and we stop thinking for ourselves. A basic principle of moral psychology is that ‘morality binds and blinds’, which is a useful trick for a group for gearing up for battle between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In tribal mode, we seem to go blind to arguments and information that challenge our team’s narrative.

In our worst moments, our genetic predispositions for tribalism have led to genocide.


In recent times, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are playing an important role in making us more tribal and polarised by tapping into a range of our innate psychological predispositions and unintentionally bringing out the worst of our human nature.


We must face up to the reality of our genetic heritage


Those well-meaning writers and activists who say that deep down we’re actually good, friendly and loving creatures and that it is the system that makes us violent and selfish seem to put their faith into the power of narrative. They believe that we have been brainwashed by a neoliberal narrative promoted by players with powerful vested interests and who benefit from a system of greed and inequality. They believe that by changing the narrative we might change reality.


While there is certainly some truth in this analysis, there is not enough truth in it for it to actually work as good advice. Even worse so, it could be a fatal mistake if progressive actors who understand the extreme dangers and existential risks we’re facing, don’t face up to the reality of our genetic predispositions.


If we don’t acknowledge the full truth of human evolution, for example, we might believe that utopian visions like socialism or communism could realise the full benefits of human cooperation and we might not recognise the game-theoretical instability at the core of such structures, as Weinstein argues in the conversation with Peterson. He says:


The genes have been in charge all along. They have acted through consciousness; they have acted through culture. But those things have been subordinate to genetic objectives. But now that we have consciousness, we can look at what it is that genes would have us do and we can actually take them out of that control position. And we must, because they contain things like programs for genocide and warfare that we must sideline if we're going to survive. So having arrived at an understanding of what we are actually built for, we now have to turn the tables on the genes.

Our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests as well as our group’s interests in competition with others. We need to keep this in mind when we want to improve our system. The art of creating a stable system will involve integrating the dangerous impulses of the human psyche and channel them towards something productive, instead of attempting to supress these. Weinstein concludes:


What you want is a system that leverages well-being in order to generate improvements. So, in other words, you want the reward that comes from successfully competing to get individuals to contribute to collective well-being. The mythology of our economic system is that you're being rewarded for delivering stuff that's good and that's why you're wealthy right? Now, it happens that our economic system does a terrible job of this. It enriches lots of people who are actually harming other people. But in principle, if you were economically rewarded for generating well-being, that would be a good thing. And it is desirable, therefore, that we have a system in which people who have contributed more have earned the right to live better, and people who have contributed less do not live as well but live at a respectable standard.

Also, as economic growth is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve and it is dangerous to continue transgressing the planetary boundaries, the risk of violence and chaos (in a zero-sum game) is very real and to some degree already on its way. In order to be less violent we need to retool the objectives of the system so that they give us human beings the sensation of growth without actual material (economic) growth.


The challenge that lies head of us is immense. Nobody has all the answers for how a better system will ultimately work and look like. Partly the problem lies in the fact that often we don’t even know what different aspects of our culture might be good for and how they intertwine with our evolved psychology. We do know with a high level of certainty that our current culture contains many maladaptations – they don’t contribute to our long-term wellbeing and don’t help our species to survive in the long-run. But there are surely other aspects, including for example certain religious dogmas and cultural rituals, that have an important purpose that is still hidden from us.


We have to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater when making changes to the system. We need to become wise managers of evolutionary processes. If we acknowledge the reality of our evolutionary past, it will help us to make more informed choices about which design features and which change strategies are more likely to work and which aren’t, given our genetic and cultural predispositions. Joe Henrich proposes:


We should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design variation and selection systems that will allow alternative institutions or organisational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners and hopefully gain some insights during the process.

This is the work we aim to focus on with the Protopia Lab. We hope that many will join us on this journey.



written by Micha Narberhaus