The Evolution of Everything and Ultrasociety

HARPER, 2015
368 PP.; $28.99
272 PP.; $18.95

Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, and their followers have given us a solid platform for understanding biological evolution and all its considerable ramifications. Humans differ from other species, however, in the routes we have taken as we evolved. These differences are sufficiently important to support a whole new discipline: cultural evolution. Being new, it is controversial. Some serious scientists still deny that it exists.

The boundary that separates the two fields of study is the principle of group selection. Skeptics ask: How can individuals whose genes are programmed only for survival and reproduction cooperate together as the prime constituents of social groups that compete successfully against other groups of the same species? Doesn’t that require altruistic behavior that contradicts the programming of their genes? But civilization is here, it is real, it has happened. How can you explain it if the selfish gene principle brooks no exceptions? There is a paradox here reminiscent of the old paradox between human nature and morality that was explained by belief in God. We were born bad but God either bribed us to be good, or he punished us. But if you abolish God, what then? Does that change human nature? And how can your group be good if you aren’t?

For years, many competent believers in evolution had trouble with this problem and rejected the whole concept of group selection. They insisted that everything group selection tried to explain could be better explained by principles like kin selection and reciprocal altruism. They also found group selection unacceptable because in the past, variations on that theme had been used to justify racism and genocide.

The simple answer to this argument is that human intelligence has worked around the problem of altruism and devised all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to persuade or coerce members of the group to support group interests even at some personal cost. How is this accomplished? That, it turns out, is an enormously complicated story, as complex as civilization itself. It is cultural evolution’s central issue.

It’s only quite recently that cultural evolution has been recognized as a separate field of study. During the last decades of the twentieth century, brave pioneers like E.O. Wilson risked professional scorn by openly challenging existing dogma, while other pioneers like Peter Richerson plugged away creating conceptual scaffolding that supported group selection principles. It’s only in this century that group selection has been liberated. Now, books using principles of cultural evolution as starting points for explaining aspects of the cultural world we have created are appearing like bubbles in a pot of hot water, when a simmer is transforming itself into a boil. It is, after all, a well-known fact that great inventions have multiple parents. Ours is an age of discovery and everyone, myself included, wants to get in on the act of “discovering” group selection.

This review covers current books by two students of human evolution. British journalist and politician Matt Ridley gets along quite well with Dawkins and ignores the group selection controversy. Peter Turchin, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, is a strong advocate of group selection. It’s hard to imagine two books that could better illustrate the gap between biological and cultural evolution theories.

Ridley’s Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge has one dominant theme—no “skyhooks”—and an obbligato: “bottom up works, top down fails.” By skyhook, taken from Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he means any explanation that depends on supernatural intervention. Ridley roundly denounces creationism in all its forms and even skewers other evolutionists when he spots them swerving from the straight and narrow atheist path. He covers a lot of ground, starting in chapter one with the evolution of the universe and moving on in subsequent chapters to the evolution of morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the Internet. It’s quite a menu. And the epilogue offers a dessert: “The Evolution of the Future.”

The author marshals an impressive array of information and quotes to buttress his argument for each of the listed areas of social concern. The first several chapters cover ground that any humanist will find familiar and congenial, but after that Ridley covers trickier terrain, and in my opinion he sometimes loses his way. One of the book’s major themes is that central planning doesn’t work well, compared to letting outcomes be determined by millions of individual decisions, laissez-faire rampant. This may be useful as a general principle but is it an ironclad law? On public health the author gets so wound up opposing government intervention that he suggests the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) might be a step backward, and when he gets to our banking system, Ridley opposes current proposals for reform on similar grounds. Admittedly I’m no expert on either subject, but I have had some experience with population control programs in South Asia and find him off the mark when he steps into that. In sum, he is too categorical in insisting on the litmus test of a broad-based selection process to determine outcomes even in highly complex problem areas. In other words, there are some wars where a good general can make a difference. A modest application of common sense could have salvaged much of Ridley’s argument and a dose of group selection theory could have strengthened its explanatory power.

Two other omissions marred The Evolution of Everything. Ridley doesn’t take the threat of climate change seriously enough—in fact he almost seems to side with the deniers. Any serious diagnosis of humanity’s present condition that looks to the future ought to consider whether the relatively slow and randomized process of bottom-up decision making will be effective enough when global warming, with its attendant violent weather swings and rising sea levels, challenges our adaptive capabilities on a new scale. Maybe it will, but we ought to think about this issue more than he does.

The other omission is any serious consideration of war as a factor in shaping the course of human social evolution. I have long believed that war has functioned as a key shaper of cultural evolution, but for a serious consideration of this topic, one must look elsewhere.

Peter Turchin writes extensively on war as a factor in cultural evolution in his new book, Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. It’s a more modern book than Ridley’s in that it’s based foursquare on new and current group selection theory. So was Turchin’s 2007 book, War and Peace and War, but he has tapped into a lot of interdisciplinary sources recently and his latest opus embodies interesting refinements.

Ultrasociety offers a preview of coming data-based analyses, in that it draws on an impressively eclectic collection of sources: geography, climatology, archeology, DNA, and the waging of war, along with written narratives from modern and ancient writers. The book is an incomplete narrative in that it carries us only up to the Middle Ages, then drops us there with the promise of more to come. Take it as part one of a family history of our species.

Turchin’s foil isn’t Ridley, however, it’s Steven Pinker and the latter’s 2011 work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker assumes that an individual’s chances of dying prematurely and violently were greatest in prehistoric times and that the odds have improved gradually ever since. Turchin charts a more complex course. He agrees there has been an overall trend toward less violence in the last 10,000 years, but during the first half of that period violence increased and spiked when small city-states began to give way to larger empires. He attributes both the rise and fall of violence to seminal improvements that occurred from time to time in the way people waged war. It’s a good display of his argument for war as a major factor in propelling the onward march of civilization, and his even broader argument for a broad interdisciplinary library of pertinent data, a Wikipedia of sorts for cultural evolution. His rationale for the latter is compelling: an encyclopedia of data accessible via computers could prove useful not just for proving new hypotheses but also for getting rid of bad ones. In other words, it will provide a handy tool for a needed process for getting rid of just-so stories.

So, again, why is group selection theory important? I am convinced that the elevation of cultural evolution to the status of a respectable field in its own right, which we are just now witnessing, can constitute a turning point for humanists in the refinement of a more solid humanistic perspective and worldview. (I won’t say belief system because many anarchists bridle at the term, equating it unnecessarily with the old religious faiths, but that’s what it is.) Until now most humanists have been preoccupied with getting rid of God, shucking off old beliefs that were increasingly irrelevant and were getting in the way of further progress. Now that the battle has turned in our favor—and it has, no doubt in my mind about it—we can move on to a more positive phase, a more sophisticated concept of what it means to be human. We are indeed unique as compared to other terrestrial life forms, and nattering around the fringes about parrots talking and chimps counting and such like is not going to change the broad picture. We are special, and can take pride in what we have become even though the paths we took to get here are convoluted and sometimes unpleasant, and even though our present state is far from perfect.

We’re not only special, we’re in charge. The future of life on this planet is in our hands.

No room for fatalism here, this job is one we have to do ourselves.