Friday, December 26, 2008

Why we are, as we are

As the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On The Origin of Species” approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers

For a Darwinian, life is about two things: survival and reproduction. Of the two, the second is the more significant. To put it crudely, the only Darwinian point of survival is reproduction. As a consequence, much of daily existence is about showing off, subtly or starkly, in ways that attract members of the opposite sex and intimidate those of the same sex. In humans—unlike, say, peafowl, where only the cocks have the flashy tails, or deer, where only the stags have the chunky antlers—both sexes engage in this. Men do it more than women, but you need look no further than Ascot race course on Gold Cup day to see that women do it too. Status and hierarchy matter. And in modern society, status is mediated by money.

Status, though, is always relative: it is linked to money because it drives the desire to make more of the stuff in order to outdo the competition. This is the ultimate engine of economic growth. Since status is a moving target, there is no such thing as enough money.

The relative nature of status explains the paradox observed in 1974 by an economist called Richard Easterlin that, while rich people are happier than poor people within a country, average happiness does not increase as that country gets richer. This has been disputed recently. But if it withstands scrutiny it means the free-market argument—that because economic growth makes everybody better off, it does not matter that some are more better off than others—does not stand up, at least if “better off” is measured in terms of happiness. What actually matters, Darwinism suggests, is that a free society allows people to rise through the hierarchy by their own efforts: the American dream, if you like.
The hope this analysis brings, though, is that there is nothing particularly special about biologically based brands such as skin colour. If other brands of group membership can be strengthened, the traditional ones may diminish, even if they do not disappear completely. If this theory of race is correct (and more research is certainly needed), it indicates a strong prescription: policies that encourage groups to retain their identity within a society will cause trouble, but those that encourage cultural integration will smooth things over.
A Darwinian analysis thus sheds light on a number of pressing questions. There are others. The rise of metabolic syndrome (obesity plus high blood-pressure equals diabetes plus heart disease) seems to Darwinists the consequence of people trying to sate appetites for sugar and fat that evolution put no brakes on because they were so rare in the natural world.

Pretending young adults are children so that they can be educated en masse in schools is another area ripe for investigation. And the refusal of people to adhere to the patterns of behaviour prescribed for them by classical economics has already spun off a field called behavioural economics that often has Darwinian thinking at its roots.

No one is suggesting Darwinism has all the answers to social questions. Indeed, with some, such as the role of hierarchies, it suggests there is no definitive answer at all—itself an important conclusion. What is extraordinary, though, is how rarely an evolutionary analysis is part of the process of policymaking. To draw an analogy, it is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works: not impossible, but as likely as not to result in a breakdown or a crash. Perhaps, after a century and a half, it is time not just to recognise but also to understand that human beings are evolved creatures. To know thyself is, after all, the beginning of wisdom.


Related books:

The Origin of Species

Mean Genes