Harnessing Human Nature To Save The World – OpEd


What ever happened to Locke, Pavlov, Skinner, Marx-Lenin — man as a clean slate at birth, moldable into whatever you like, a society programmable, made up of these programmable Boy Scouts and Girl Guides? Walden Two, communism? Revolution and a shortcut to communism sounds great, but founders on a million years of human evolution, confusing ought with is.

Well, Locke et al get an F. We’re back to Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Malthus, and Darwin.

Man is born in sin, a bundle of nasty instincts, especially greed (don’t forget fear and aggression), which culture alone can tame. We have to start with is, figure out our oughtand then how to get there. And violence and repression are not good bets. There’s still a spot for Pavlov and Skinner, but forget programming society. Locke and Marx-Lenin can stay on the bookshelf. 

The verdict is in: Marx-Lenin lost the 19th c revolutionary race to … anarchist Prince Kropotkin. That’s right. He  showed the other side of Darwin’s pitiless (r)evolution in Mutual Aid: A factor of evolution (1902). There may be lots of competition in nature (and man), but cooperation, love are everywhere in the animal kingdom, where intra and inter species mutual aid is vital to survival, cooperation being essential to all higher animals, even interspecies friendship. As vital as competition. His dialectic was competition-cooperation.

Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (now formalized in anthropology as reciprocal altruism) was not a mechanistic theory of evolution like Darwin’s. He couldn’t explain how mutual aid came about except by survival of sociable species in competition with less sociable ones. This removed competition and natural selection one step to the group rather than the individual. 

At the lowest level, genes team up, cooperate, to form chromosomes, then genomes, then cells, then complex cells, then bodies, then colonies, from slime molds to humans. Dawkins’ selfish genes cooperate, culminating in the human social gene, the meme, and end up as, yes, colonies and empires. Mindbody has much the same logic as a hive, a corporation with board of directors, workers, power struggles, the I an uneasy, ill-informed ambassador. No longer Dawkins’ machine blindly carrying out the genes’ orders.

So figuring out how to keep the world from turning to toast, either in a few minutes or decades, depending entirely on us humans, means figuring out what’s sociable in man’s instincts, i.e., social/ socialistic vs individualistic, and making all that energy work for society. Basically what Adam Smith fantasized. Smith and his nemesis Marx-Lenin gets Cs for good intentions but disastrous results. 

The goal is the way

Matt Ridley ‘s The origins of Virtue (1996) looks for the Holy Grail (survival of Earth) and finds in evolution at least a road map, with the necessary directions so we don’t end up in a (literally and metaphorically) dead end. His hero is Kropotkin. Though an atheist, Kropotkin basically follows the Tao, Christianity, Islam and really all reputable religions: the goal is the journey. Practice what you preach. The end does NOT justify the means.*

As a thinker, Kropotkin focused more acutely on issues of morality than of economics or politics and carried himself by his own principles without imposition on others. A communtarian style of living is only achieved, well, by living a communtarian lifestyle. Along with his fellow aristo Tolstoy, he helped get the pacifist Doukhobors a new life in Canada in 1899. He could see that these honest, humble, hard-working folk were as good as any anarchist. He knew a future without private property was very hard to reach, but it could only be reached peacefully. So the Doukhobors were on the right side of the equation and every bit of good living helps create a future of good living. 

But how to get there from here? Kropotkin criticized Marx’s revolutionary use of state power, arguing that any central authority was incompatible with the dramatic changes needed by a social revolution. The mechanisms of the state were deeply rooted in maintaining the power of one class over another, and thus could not be used to emancipate the working class. Instead, Kropotkin insisted that both private property and the state needed to be abolished together. A big mouthful. For that, I always dismissed anarchism as unworkable, anarchists as on the fringe of the fringe. They never managed to square the circle.

Kropotkin realized that evolution for humans is social rather than genetic. What governs our lives is based on second order evolution. Evolution of group behaviour to achieve social goals, i.e., keeping the greedy individuals in line automatically. And we can at least observe this evolution and use it for policymaking. Ridley ends up a mix of libertarian and anarchist that helps articulate not only what’s wrong with capitalism, but what went so very wrong in the Soviet Union.

P words

Where to start? First the good news. If you play Prisoner’s Dilemma over and over, you and your opponent both arrive at the compromise, reciprocal altruism. Humans can strategize, communicate. That version of the game is called the generous tit-for-tat or tit-for-two-tats (ie. an occasional cheat is forgiven).

Why cooperate? Reciprocity. Bats ‘play’ tit-for-tat. They share blood, keep score. Cheaters are detected. No police, but ostracism, so watch out. This is not kinship unconditional love, but cooperation among unrelated individuals. Kin don’t need reciprocity. 

WW I command on both sides had to move troops constantly or mutual cooperation, peace broke out. But if an there’s an accidental defection then a vendetta, excess killing (mafia). So we build in a generous tit-for-tat, tit-for-two-tats, allowing for occasional ‘mistakes’. We instinctively imitate, learn, question because genes realize the get more from social living.

Now the bad news. Sorry, Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin, but private property is the only way. There I’ve said it. Strike this communist dead for the ultimate sin. Yes, property is theft, but it’s theft potentially in the interests of the common good. Yes, the baker and butcher, or, for my purpose here, Maine lobster fishermen, conspiring through competition to be good citizens. But there’s a twist. It’s not so much the fishermen, but the group/ gang of fishermen, who ‘own’ a piece of the east coast fishing waters. If they were operating individually, they would scoop up all the lobsters and leave the ocean barren, like the cod fisheries. But in the 1920s, ‘government’ let them unofficially divide up the waters into group concessions, and they have kept a healthy stock of lobsters in place by careful monitoring ever since, through depression, world war, Cold War. No government. Anarchism works.

But when you have many players, and the stakes/ reward is the destruction of nature, there is no way forward. It becomes the tragedy of the commons. Public property is nobody’s property, so free game. Ergo ‘rest in peace Soviet Union’.

We still need some government to keep regulating the market, which is imperfect at best, and always prone to give the greedy the advantage. But the decline of elephants and rhinos are tragedies of the commons caused by nationalization (socialism!). When reversed and wildlife was reprivatized to communities working with private landholders, like Zimbabwe’s Campfire Programme, the populations have rebounded (paid for by hunters). 

The Maine fishermen is a case of the second order prisoner’s dilemma, something that has only been observed once (bottlenose dolphins for kidnapping females in estrus) outside of human societies. But it is common to ‘civilized’ (big) human societies when it comes to resource management. It’s not a genetic adaptation and is hard to spot, generally being wrapped up in ancient traditions as in Bali irrigation. It’s too fancy for blind genes. It requires intelligence and morality. It is the key to saving the world and mankind. It is essential to protecting ‘public goods’ like nature.

Virtue in slime mold

We are highly social animals more dependent than other apes. As dependent as ants. Virtue is real! All pro-social behaviour is called virtuous throughout history and now finds its home in social evolution. We have hyper-social instincts. Instincts which in humans are not immutably genetic, but are dressed in cultures, canalized expressions of our instincts. What humans excel at, have a predisposition for, is to learn, to imitate, compare, see things as metaphors. 

A harvester ant colony is born, grows, reproduces and dies over 50 years. Like a human body in 70 years. Like a human civilization in 1000+/- years. Corals are collectives like ant colonies, but the individuals are fixed. They die but the coral is immortal, or as long as the oceans are habitable. How are they like humans and our societies? What can they teach us? 100m years ago, there were complex colonies of ants run by teams of millions and they are still among the best designers in the world.

They are all organisms, with soldiers instead of an immune system, queens instead of ovaries and workers instead of a stomach. i.e., the organs are externalized, coordinated by instinct. The same pattern works on a cellular level too. Why do cells get together to form bodies? To start a new colony, or when conditions bad, the slime mold turns itself into a temporary organism, a pillar that shoots spore into the cosmos at end. Talk about selfish genes vs self-sacrifice.

The so-called selfish genes have genetic interests in common. They sometimes need truly selfless individuals to achieve their common ends. We see Maine fishermen, and Zimbabwe private farmers being excellent custodians of wild animals, but ‘nature’ in Maine and Africa is already packaged to fit the human genome. 

The world is now at the mercy of the human genome. Which includes greed but also altruism, which contributes to the gene’s long term interests. And it’s not important if I save someone for my own glory or for purely noble reasons, as long as the ‘altruism’ gene gets the job done. Altruism is there in nonhuman nature, though only as a hint. A quasi domesticated grey jay alerted her birdlover friend to come to help a baby robin that had fallen out of the nest.** Super-sociable parakeets and macaw have close to human emotions (and behaviour).

Like the lobsters, the slime mold stalk is a public good, a pedestal to emit spore. One for all and all for one.*** And how it happens is still a mystery. As is creation. But it is the same principle that lies behind the Maine fishermen (the fishermen do it consciously, the slime just gets on with it), and really all of us in cities. Trust. Though attributing trust to slime mold with a board of directors assigning tasks fairly is a stretch. 

But it really just confirms the Hegel-Marx dialectics of nature, the dialectic of man, and the dialect of capital, the highest level of abstraction, of second level evolution, bringing together groups in larger and larger flocks, all synchronized like a murmuration of starlings. Humans do that on a planetary level.

So we have evolution of individuals (from genes to us) and evolution of groups. Darwin only took the first step, which he realized in The Descent of Man. Psychology, anthropology, biology have taken more than another century to fill in many of the blanks.

This two-level evolution achieves harmony of development. A parliament of genes, each acting in self interest but only if not hurting others. Jump from cell to civilization. Hutterites are like bees. When the community is large enough to split, it prepares a new site, matches people into pairs for age, sex, skills, draw lots to decide who will occupy new site. Punishment for egotism. It works but it’s not an easy life. 

Division of labour

Selfishness is a universal taboo, a vice, perhaps THE vice. Often a negative sum game. My super win, your super loss. Murder, theft, rape, fraud are all crimes of selfishness, or spiteful acts, to the benefit of the actor and detriment of the victim. Virtue is the greater good of the group. All religions, even atheists, condemn selfishness. Human virtuousness shows no real parallel in the animal kingdom. So it’s virtue we have to explain, not greed/ vice/ sin. 

We must distinguish selfishness from self interest which is not necessarily greed or spite, but rather rational calculation. Smith’s insight was to see all the good things of life starting there, with self-interest, and making use of comparative advantage, to result in non zero positive sum games. Darwin just reinvented Smith’s Invisible Hand for the universe. 

It’s not just benevolence of a baker or nepotism that brings success. Societal benevolence needs disciplined self interest, recognition of your advantages compared to others, and levering them into prosperity. Our first contacts outside the family are for trade, specialization, exchange what you produce well for things you can’t. Men are better at throwing spears, spatial orientation, eat more meat. Females are more verbal, observant, meticulous, industrious. Gatherers. Within the tribe too, exchanges are based on comparative advantage.

Human groups are almost never closed, like chimps, trading from long before private property or money. Probably from the beginning of language. For 200,000 years, stone tools have been traveling long distances from quarries. Maybe humans invented exchange just to stimulate trade and establish good relations of trust with neighbours. The use of shells as ceremonial money, whose only purpose was to maintain peaceful relations among tribes, was virtually universal among prehistoric peoples. Feasting is perhaps the real aim, trade the excuse.

Politics ruins almost everything

Trade precedes politics. Modern commercial laws preceded state intervention, and were set up by merchants themselves. Henry II nationalized merchant courts. But official courts were soon bogged down by neptism, corruption, bureaucracy. Like state socialism. 

War is the opposite of trade, where greed and violence swamp our more civilized social instincts of curiosity and eagerness to learn. Both sides lose, sometimes to the point of extinction. This is the theatre for the nasty second order evolution. Shifting alliances, preparing for the kill. The main topic of human history. Including a fair bit of genocide. The work of the devil.

Good second level alliances look like anarchism. Communal private ownership looks like a mix of capitalism and socialism. Medieval commons were highly regulated, each kin group having access and responsibility according to a schedule established over centuries. No communal free for all.

Up until the 1970s, nationalization was the catch-all answer to the cruel market. But other than the oil nations taking control of their liquid gold, anything privatizable disappeared under Thatcher’s privatization bonaza, which was ideological, just for greed, and a crime. Water, transport, energy. Monopolies that should have stayed national. The very trained experts undoing, destroying sensible arrangements for managing commons, evolved over centuries, or at least since WW II. 

It’s profitable to conserve nature (at least the managed ‘nature’ of today). Not that profit is a necessary factor in the equation. But hunters bid to buy rights to kill from committees of villagers. Villagers police them and monitor the operation. Positive sum interaction, keeping everything local and small scale, which is where we best function as humans. Bravo.

5 yr plans, USAID, UN experts have mudded economic logic too. Both left and right, when it’s ideological rather than problem-centred, wrong. For Bali, the irrigation systems worked fine for a millennium, till the green revolution in the 1960s. New strains, more water, uniform planting, pests requring pesticides … Order emerges from chaos not by bossing, but by the way individuals react rationally to incentives. No experts, no priest, just timeworn traditions. Environmental problems in the third world are from unclear property rights. Colonialism undermined evolved traditions.

Indigenes are not necessarily more ecological. In North America the natives were never so numerous as to lead to massacres and environmental collapse on a mass scale. And their material needs were subsistence, without any industry destroying land, water and air. Still, large mammals, including horses, were hunted to extinction. The Maya produced a tragedy of the commons by overpopulation and poor ecological practices. Pre-private property belonged to God, to everyone. The tragedy of the commons hit bigtime with the European invasion and capitalism. 

The Pleistecene overkill (10,000BC) was everywhere man was. Domestication or semi-domestication first of dogs came at that time, perhaps used for hunting. But second-order alliances and the ability to regulate nature in cooperation only started to gel much later. With the state and property property. The good and the bad come together. 

Virtue is a grace, or rather a social instinct. But our politics is all about real prisons to punish greed, rather than ways to enhance virtue. Humans will police the greedy automatically given the chance. Teaching neoclassical economics turns students into greedy defectors in prisoners’ dilemmas. It’s about education, stupid! 

Smith realized this dilemma and his Moral Sentiments were to tame rational self-interest through belief, religion, to arrive at a flourishing economy. The virtuous join with other virtuous and not so virtuous in a holy alliance of mutual benefit. But Christianity had lost out in the new age of science. Where did all the good social props go? 

You only get rid of police/ armies by making a society which is self-policing. Indigenes didn’t need police. But their societies were simple, low population, low tech, by definition ‘harmonious’ with nature. They didn’t need police and neither did the Maine fishermen.****

Instead of proving how selfish man was, the prisoner’s dilemma ‘proved’ only the inadequacy of classical economics. Selfishness is not rational if you communicate, even indirectly via your actions, i.e., play the game a few times. You automatically cooperate. The ‘Nash equilibrium’ is reached by conscious, rational deduction and our long evolutionary history. In the battle of dove vs hawk, the dove wins. The tit-for-tat strategy: cooperate then do what other guy did last time. I.e., it’s nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Gradually the nasties run out of easy victims, only each other. Tit-for-tatters dominate. 

The way is the goal

Design our road to the future so that we harness this altruism. The building blocks are reciprocal altruism, kinship relations, and comparative advantage, i.e., trade.

It’s comforting to know that all those key elements have been there all along, long before private property, capitalism etc. the first two, reciprocal altruism and kinship relations allow us to jump from individuals to kin and on to group good behaviour. ‘It’s about trade, stupid!’

A coalition of coalitions is more fluid that a rigid, closed chimp/ monkey society. Social evolution. So it’s private property either individual or group, but limited by the watchful government overseer, making sure greed doesn’t undermine the social goals. Kropotkin wouldn’t have been satisfied, but he would love all the cooperating that ensues, and would opt for this rather than Marx-Lenin statism.

The lessons from natives are modest but essential: 

1/ smaller population 

2/ use less of everything

3/ trade 

4/ if you must fight then only arrows, not guns.+ 

Now natives must use conservation as a trump card to assert basic rights to land and cultural practices, which are everywhere steeped in nature. Why not build a native-based ethos for Canada, the Americas? Not just a culture of self-restraint but of wise technology recognizing the spirit and the peoples who lived here before colonialism. And refashion the ‘noble savage’ as a 21th c aristocracy. Our settler colonial history appears shameful now. Time to reinvent the old.


*Kropotkin was soft-spoken, generous, an all-round saint, practicing what he preached. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Kropotkin returned to Russia in June 1917. He met with Lenin in Moscow and advocated for workers’ cooperatives and against centralization.

**Theodore Xenophon Barber, The Human Nature of Birds: A scientific discovery with startling implications, Penguin, 1994.

***See: Evolutionarily stable stalk to spore ration in cellular slime molds and the law of equalization of net incomes, Journal of Theoretical Biology 147:329—44.

 ****The system is on its last legs due to pressures of overpopulation and new tech making cheating easier.

+New Guinean tribes agreed to substitute football for their lethal feuding. But with new rules. You play till each side gets a certain number of goals. There are no losers and every goal scorer is a winner. 

Eric Walberg

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s. He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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