Human Biology and Democracy

"Discourse is most productive near the very limits of civility"


Today I hope to push those boundaries a bit. Maybe even overshoot them somewhat. The topic is not the impact of democracy on the pursuit or teaching of biological science but rather to begin a discussion of the implications to democracy derived from our understanding of biological science. The question is a legitimate one; is democracy a fundamentally unstable form of government based upon what we know about the real nature of man. If so, what if any are reasonable alternatives. Let's start with something completely obvious...

Democracy is unnatural

That's a bit of a gauntlet to throw right off. Is humankind special or are we just a particularly inventive primate? This is at the crux of any debate on the stability of democracy. Democracy is predicated on a special view of humankind as something far removed from the animal kingdom and the biological world. As such it is derived from a highly idealized and separate view of humanity or its relationship to the whole of creation. Democracy thrives in an environment of self-motivated and enlightened souls endowed with abundant free will yet possessing a strong love for community, or so we are told. But is that a legitimate view of humankind? Are we essentially noble creatures or self-serving beasts who will do almost anything to survive. Many of the problems we face today are complicated by our unwillingness to answer that question truthfully.

One of the arguments we hear from the religious right fairly frequently is that without objective 'truth' many of our institutions are at risk. (As if the mere believing in a special place for ourselves somehow really changes the truth of our nature.) I happen to agree with them on this point - though for completely different reasons. I believe man really is just a particularly inventive primate and any arrangements which in the long run require him to be something else will fail in time. If man is not special, then governments designed for special beings (arguably like democracy) will not endure. Imperfect man the animal may need help in achieving a stable form of government or society. But that will never happen without understanding our basic nature. Theists of course think they have the answer to that one but religion too suffers from the same flaw as democracy - its foundation is the special nature of man which does not exist. If science is correct then the way we construct government may or may not be badly flawed.

Our collective perception is that humans have a strong sense of the importance of community even sometimes at the expense of the individual. Certainly this is true on occasion and these traits can be successfully nurtured or redirected through certain kinds of conditioning like military training. As Spock said while sliding down the glass during his protracted (but impermanent) death scene, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Noble sentiments about self-sacrifice and community are the bread and butter of politics but there is a small problem with the science. Man is just another product of evolution (to the best of our knowledge at this time). Evolution or biology is about individual survival - not populations. In other words evolution is about the needs of the one exclusive of the needs of the many. But a society must be predicated on the needs of the many not only the one; i.e., on the needs of populations if they are ever going to work. Society is, therefore, at some level unnatural (certainly once we reach the size of nations) in a strictly scientific sense. That's a huge stumbling block. Our nature is a product of Nature. A stable society must struggle to nurture those traits most conducive to the collective welfare of all, while mitigating humankind's nature forged over millennia of natural selection and individual competition. It would seem that a realistic appraisal of human nature would be very helpful to those efforts. How successfully a society balances (or ruthlessly suppresses) those forces is in large part a measure of its longevity.

The affects of our animal origins are everywhere. For example, our individual nature and motivations help explain the persistence of injustice. Guilty or innocent, the handling of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners violates every U.S. Constitutional guarantee conferred upon the accused. Yet there has been no rebellion, no storming of the Capitol in defense of fairness and the law. Some people complain but no real skin is put in the game by the overwhelming majority. In some ways we haven't come very far at all. Three million years ago some of Lucy's kin and countrymen no doubt ignored her cry rather than risk injury in a collective defense against that leopard that killed her. They, like us, were probably just content to know it wasn't them. So predators, politicos and tyrants continue to flourish when minimal effort by the masses could stop them cold. In the context of survival of the individual rather than the group, that all makes perfect sense. Nobility is very expensive. Why take risks unnecessarily. Leaders know this to be true. For all our protestations to the contrary we generally avoid conflict that doesn't directly affect us – or which isn't made to appear as if it has dire consequences to us personally through the skilled art of manipulation.

At its most basic level democracy depends upon aggregate self-interest. The theory is pretty simple. If people vote for their own interests, and these interests are fairly universal, then government will represent the needs of the majority of its people by simple default. But problems arise almost immediately because individuals, simple animals that we are, rarely consider consequences beyond the immediate. The recent election was a classic example of this. Regardless of the desirability of the result, there is not doubt that many people stopped fretting about potential future dangers to national security from bomb-laden terrorists when faced with the immediacy of the economic down turn and voted differently. (A meltdown in the hand is worth two in the future...)

So what are inventive primates to do if they want to create stable governments? Perhaps we should take a lesson from a cockroach. A favorite book in our household is "The Roaches Have No King" by Daniel Evan Weiss. The book chronicles the efforts of one particularly industrious cockroach who dreams of the possibilities that would be opened up if he and his brethren could ever work together. His efforts to organize and direct a group effort all end badly. Rude as it no doubt is, the book makes the claim that ultimately enlightened self-interest is probably the best approach to life and its ultimate expression, governance. If you want it to work, that is.

What is enlightened self-interest? Nothing more than pragmatic realism. As we mentioned earlier, religious people often argue that in the absence of theology morality automatically becomes relative. You know what - I agree with them. It's clear from a cursory study of history that morality has always been relative and pliable even within the so-called absolutes of the various faiths. So does that mean that we can't create a reasonable moral model for a society? That's just silly. Sorry, but the answer is yes, we can. The broad strokes of it are pretty simple. It starts with the familiar Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But with a caveat. Perhaps we would have been better served if the Founders had written, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; within evolving and carefully considered limits." The individual is most content when allowed to pursue his or her own path free of any restrictions which are not needed to protect other's rights or which endanger the innocent. That looks suspiciously like the Golden Rule... That is the first element of pragmatic realism. Create only those rules needed to provide the broadest societally stable range of opportunities and securities for each citizen based upon our knowledge at the time. And not one rule more. In principle that's about it for the short term. That may well be all that is required to create an idealized democracy but is not enough to give it longevity. At least two factors threaten its eden-like existence.

The first place where the trouble lies is in the definition of what is central to our own needs and constitutes the rights of others. Human evolution has resulted in brains that can ponder the presumed consequences of a wide variety of esoteric issues far removed from Maslow's Hierarchy. So instead of limiting our choices to those that affect the availability of food, collective security, the welfare and future opportunity of our offspring, or shelter, we machinate on such critical survival issues as the theoretical and theological consequences of allowing gay couples to wed and so on. How is one to assess issues in order to determine what is legitimately a threat a which are just really no one's business? Let's take the cases of pedophilia and homosexuality as examples since they come up often enough. The pedophile's pursuits clearly violate the rules about harming the innocent. They probably are hard wired that way and may not be able to help what they feel, however neither can a wolf nor a tiger and we would see no problem in preventing those predators from 'expressing their natures' by devouring our young. Enlightenment is not he same thing as stupidity or lack of accountability. Understanding is not synonymous with acceptance. Enlightenment is really nothing more than making decisions based upon truth. That's objective proof for those about to pounce... Rather than requiring each parent to pursue and neutralize these sexual predators society is justified in creating laws to off load the individual burden. Society can justify this because it protects the innocent and frees up adults to pursue more mutually beneficial activities as well as standardizing responses and penalties for real threats. Justifiable morality is the best we can hope for when absolutes are removed. However, using the same logic it is hard to make the case that the marriage of two gay adults constitutes a clear and present danger to the rest of society. In my opinion a huge part of enlightenment is distinguishing true harm or threat from mere perceptions of danger. Some may find gays threatening in some way or based upon this or that belief, but an enlightened society should be able to determine that such risks are mere perceptions rather than objective realities. One can believe what they want but society must determine what, if any actions are permissible in light of these beliefs. Pedophiles are a true danger while gays are only perceived as such by some. The minimalist democracy previously described would recognize these distinctions and ignore mere perception. That may sound great but this is difficult to accomplish in a true democracy as individuals will vote in accordance with their perceptions rather than objective reality (measure 8 anybody?). In that case about the only hope one has is that one of those activist judges everybody complains about may decide that a Rosa Parks really can sit where she wants... Those Founders were pretty smart guys.

A variation on this is the single issue voter. Such a person, for what ever reason, decides that one item is the lynch pin of society and won't vote for anyone who thinks otherwise. This makes for some strange political bedfellows as our recent (and not so recent) history demonstrates. Imperialist white male neocons aligned with Christians of all flavors on the topic of abortion while they conveniently ignored all the other less than Christian activities that resulted in the deaths of many non-fetuses. How does a democracy survive the threat of such strongly polarizing issues? One fact which complicates these discussions is that sometimes they really are issues central to a society or really are issues of objective truth. It's understandable that single issue voters were common in the election of 1860 for example. Only the future will reveal whether the abortion debate ultimately is as divisive or important to the nation's continued existence. Frankly I have no clue.
Long-term interests of society

A hard as the afore mentioned problems are, the next one is even worse. How do you take a primate forged by natural selection to live in the moment and make them care about the future? So far, it's been a mixed bag and many conservation efforts originated in a desire to preserve a resource for purely selfish reasons. Conservation is an extremely advanced concept that has no biological precedent nor any basis in natural selection up to now. We inventive primates appear to be the first such creatures on this planet that can at least conceptualize the impact of today's actions on future events and even more; can take actions to alter that impact. That is extraordinary. Future planning is beyond the biological programming of any antecedent species. For all of biological baggage and limitations, we have invented (or developed) empathy and conservation.

Natural selection works on individuals in the here and now. It is quite possible (and even observable) for an ancestral individual to be successful and sire more offspring by consuming resources which will ultimately endanger future generations of the species, maybe even leading to extinction. Populations collapse all the time in nature because individuals live in the here and now and are not innately linked to (or concerned with) any collective future. Yes, rodents often store supplies for a rainy day but they aren't storing it for any college fund - its for their own consumption. Seeds falling from a bird feeder being snatched up by squirrels may provide the only observable example of trickle down economics but the birds aren't trying to be magnanimous - they're just messy and there are certain limits to the dexterity of a beak. Nature is not cruel it is just extremely apathetic. And we are its children. World oil supplies are finite and dwindling but you don't see many people melting down their Hummers - until the price of gas hurts them directly. It's almost always about us.

This only scratches the surface of the issues. Hopefully this provides some food for thought and discussion. Can hairless apes swing a democracy for the long term? What do we do to engender objective decisions regarding rights and limits? Or do we care? How do we prepare for the future when most only care about today? Any thoughts?


GearHedEd said...

Sounds a lot like this:

Justice as Fairness

GearHedEd said...

The major difficulty of Rawls' theory is that it requires a measure of forethought in the construction of a system of justice; i.e., if the system is already in place, then too bad. Our "democracy" is such a system: the founding fathers intuitively realized a lot of what Rawls later wrote, but they couldn't anticipate the future, hence the nature of the Constitution as a document that needs constant interpretation. This is the reason for the checks and balances in our government as written, and why the Constitution needs periodic amendment.

GearHedEd said...

Looks like my link didn't work for some reason...

GearHedEd said...

Let's try that again...
Justice as Fairness

Asylum Seeker said...

In a way, even though evolution is only about individual survival per se, I think that cooperation and enterring into loose groups where members look out for the collective survival of one another is not only enlightened self-interest, but it is a rational necessity for primates such as ourselves. Almost the only way that we could actually have survived collectively for so long is due to being social animals at heart, who, by gathering together, can adopt specialized roles with a level proficiency and collective variety that cannot be attained by individuals alone. In that way, though not necessarily stable government or democracy, some form of society is needed for us in order to be at a selective advantage instead of...dinner.

And, I think that the justifiable morality you mention is a similar inevitability, in that they are basic, simple standards that members of such proto-civilizations (and current civilizations as well) would need to collectively adhere to in order to make it so that societies could be sustained. Being the animals that we are, I am certain that was quite a lot of breakage from those, but I think that we may have got it drilled into our natures somehow over millions of years (most likely by favoring hominids who were naturally inclined to balance out willingness to cooperate with the ability to not be exploited for labor and killed in their sleep).

Of course, this is all just typical speculation on my part. I am actually rather fascinated by your second to last paragraph, in that I am now incredibly curious as to whether there are other kinds of animals who have a comparable way of roughly predicting the future by extrapolating from past events. I assume that they must do so to some degree (animals couldn't learn otherwise) but whether the degree even comes close to our own or not would be interesting to find out.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...


The future sense is a fascinating question to ponder. Certainly animals can recall patterns based upon prior experiences or even instinctive patterns to some extent. The question of course is can they extrapolate those patterns into any kind of avoidance behavior based upon inference or is it just stimulus/response to a sub pattern. Trying to embody this into machine intelligence systems is one of my 'hobbies'.

I agree about the justifiable morality - I think that is how we have always done it though we are loathe to admit it.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

GHE - thanks for the Rawls link

Harvey said...

This is a fascinating foray into just how large a part evolution plays in Human Development.
Although evolution is clearly the reason we have arrived at this point both physiolgically and psychologically, we must realize that societies evolve for almost the same reasons; survival of individuals long enough to reproduce. When we had evolved to the point that we no longer needed to spend all of our time hunting, gathering, and fending off predators, some of us, perhaps those best suited to intellectual pursuits at that point in history, were able to think in abstract terms, as well as to begin to "look to the future". From this point in our development as humans, relatively little has changed physiologically, but, of course everything has changed steadily, both in terms of our psychology and even moreso our social realtionships. Evolution only stops when a group either runs out of sustenance, adequate space, or gets killed off by disease or other species-wide catastrophe. Clearly, this is true for societies as well as species.
So, it seems to me that although we may be hard-wired to have only self interest at heart in most circumstances, it appears that we are forced to learn to "look PAST" these urges in order to survive within a group. When that group is a small tribe, all speaking the same language, largely related to each other, and all looking pretty much the same, the demands on the indivdual to be willing to submerge his immediate gratification in the good of the group are fairly straightforward and nearly immediate. Once the group has evolved into a country, a Nation, let alone itself an "individual" in the group of all the nations of the world, the demands on the individual are much too great to be decided upon by himself. Thus, systems of government, like democracy, have become necessary to survival. In its purest sense, then, it doesn't matter whether or not we are "hard-wired" to care only about ourselves and perhaps our families. We must remember that although "survival of the fittest" seems to pertain to individuals, Nature only cares about enough individuals survivng long enough to breed to perpetuate the group. Nationhood and systems of government are, I think, not really any disserent. Those in the group who cannot see the personal benefit to be derived (or bad outcomes to be avoided) by supporting and abiding by those activities that are "best" for group survival (i.e. the rising tide raises all ships) are doomed to expulsion, isolation or inability to benefit from the group's success. In short, the philosophical idea referred to as Egoistic Hedonism not only applies. but takes into account this selfish drive we are all born with, but usually learn to control as we grow up or, in the case of cultures or forms of government, become "civilized".

pboyfloyd said...

I don't think that your premise 'Democracy is unnatural' is true.

I don't think that we either have to imagine that we are 'noble beasts' or abandon the notion of democracy at all.

I think that the U.N. is democratic while some of their member nations despise the idea.

In the USA, religionists balk at the idea that men can rule themselves yet rule themselves they do.

Seems to me that democracy, like any other type of fairness thingy is bound to be treated by sociopaths and other greedy bastards as an obstacle to be overcome while using the word as a 'curtain' to hide behind.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Thanks for the thoughts P-boy

No doubt about the dirtbags who prey upon democracy for profit.
I guess my question will ultimately be answered over the next few years. Can the voting public forgo short-term comforts and advantages in order to alter the fate of our descendants generations in the future which we will never see? Could be I'm just not creative enough to figure out how to make these distant problems more germane to today. If I buy a Prius and my neighbor buys a Hummer not much progress is made. Part of the problem is that those who sacrifice (including the military of course) help to enable those who don't. But I suppose that is part of the cost of democracy. What remains to be seen is if a society can continue to shoulder that cost indefinitely.

I'm a bit skeptical that we can as a nation (hope that I am very wrong). The debt load we've left for future generations is just one example.

Asylum Seeker said...

"Can the voting public forgo short-term comforts and advantages in order to alter the fate of our descendants generations in the future which we will never see?"

Only if it means a different set of short-term comforts in addition to benefiting future generations. We have foresight, we generally want what is best for kin and other people in general, but, when it comes down to it, our personal wants still trump all of that. I think we would naturally want to make sure that future generations do well, in that we are almost hardwired to think of society as an extension of ourselves, and to see our children and grandchildren in a similar (more biological) manner. But, the future will always take a backseat to the present, and those people who associate with ourselves are second priority. Selfishness wins out. Our goal is to be selfish, and yet use that towards seemingly altruistic ends. How? No clue.

Michael Lockridge said...

I recall reading of a primate study that examined brain size in relation to the sizes of primate tribes. By projecting the information the study determined that the optimal size of working bodies of humans (tribes) was around 144.

The study overlaid this information on the opperation of military units, finding that numbers for functional independent units were in the neighborhood of 165 individuals.

It would be interesting to see just what the optimal size of functional human tribes in non-military environments might be.

I believe that the tribe is most likely the natural social order for humans. However, the expansion of knowledge and resultant technology has permitted the development of meta-tribe structures.

Democracy is just one of those. It is dependent on a high level of individual learning, which largely resulted from the expansion of industrial technology.

Only in recent times have conditions existed in which units in tribes can begin thinking as individuals. Indeed, part of the difficulty in our current military adventuring is the failure to take into account the tribal psychology.

Of course this is just a speculation based on the amalgamation of watching informational television and my profession over the past 19 years. I spend a lot of time locked up with human primates, and do a lot of informal observing.

I have done some speculations along these lines. So as to not overburden your comment section I invite anyone interested to visit my blogs.

This is an interesting place. I shall Follow.