The world is in turmoil over the incendiary language of a US president, the invasion of the US Capitol Building incited by his speech, and the silencing of the president by giant tech firms. Commentators fall back on the US Constitution, especially the First Amendment, to make sense of it all—as if the wisdom of the founders could somehow anticipate the Internet Age. To truly make sense of it all, we need to go back—way back—to the genetic evolution of our species at the scale of small groups.  

Humans are masters of social regulation at the scale of small groups. Alexis d’Toqueville, the acute observer of American democracy in the 1830’s, got it right when he wrote that “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that wherever a number of men are collected it seems to constitute itself.” 

Toqueville’s use of the word “natural” was more apropos than he could have known, writing decades before Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today we know that our ability to cooperate in small groups is a product of genetic evolution. Even though we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees, there is a night-and-day difference in our cooperativeness. According to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book The Goodness Paradox (1), naked aggression is over 100 times more frequent in a chimpanzee community than a small-scale human community. Even cooperation in chimpanzees typically takes the form of small alliances competing against other alliances within a given community. The main form of community-wide cooperation is aggression toward other communities. 

Something happened in human evolution that resulted in a quantum jump of within-group cooperation (we’ll get to between-group competition later). To the best of our current knowledge, that “something” was social control. A chimpanzee community is despotic in human terms, with social status largely an exercise in raw power and alliance building within the community. In a small-scale human society, bullying and other forms of disruptive self-seeking behaviors are vigilantly suppressed by other members of the group. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls this “reverse dominance” (2,3,4) and it is increasingly being described by Wrangham and others (5) as a form of self-domestication, similar to the way that we have bred compliant behaviors in our domesticated animals. 

Cooperation within human groups has a voluntary component—wanting to help others for its own sake—in addition to a compulsory component, but these must go together as a package. Without strong norms enforced by punishment, it is unsafe to be genuinely other-oriented. Likewise, small-scale human societies are not just communitarian but also stubbornly individualistic. Since the great danger is to be pushed around, all members assert their right as a moral equal so that decision-making becomes a collective enterprise. These seemingly contradictory strands, compulsory and voluntary, collective and individualistic, are woven together to form a strong braid. 

Most of the traits that we associate with human moral psychology can be understood in these terms, but to call them natural is not to say that small human groups invariably run on an even keel, the passage by Tocqueville notwithstanding.  The better analogy is to regard human moral psychology as like the immune system, which is designed to combat the “disease” of disruptive self-serving behaviors, but which is often challenged and sometimes overcome. 

Then there is the matter of between-group interactions. It goes without saying—at least from an evolutionary perspective—that we evolved to be cooperative within small groups in competition with other groups. Our moral psychology includes drawing boundaries that define who exists inside the moral circle. How we behave toward “them” is highly contextual and need not take the form of warfare—but often it does. That is the goodness paradox highlighted by the title of Wrangham’s book. 

So much for the big evolutionary picture that was beyond Tocqueville’s imagination. How does it bear upon the urgent questions of our day, such as the incendiary speech of a US president and the decision of major tech companies to deny him a forum? Let’s shrink these problems down to see what they look like at the scale of a small group. As we have seen, there is a necessity for everyone to have a say in matters of collective importance. This is the necessity that is recognized by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. There is also the necessity to suppress bullying and other behaviors that can disrupt the common good. It all depends on the context. In small and well-regulated human groups, it is relatively easy to recognize the context and apply the appropriate rules. 

Not only was this true for small groups in the distant past and the small-scale societies of today, but examples abound in modern WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) societies (6). Consider the norms of scholarship and science, where adhering to the facts of the matter is a cardinal virtue. The formation and testing of alternative hypotheses is a form of unrestricted free speech, failure to cite or misrepresenting relevant material is rigorously policed, and willfully falsifying data results in immediate exclusion. These norms are as strong as those of the strongest religions. Similar examples could be cited for other modern contexts where truth-telling is important, such as responsible journalism and judicial procedures. When witnesses at a trial swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…” they legally bind themselves to that commitment. 

Why this ability to recognize context and apply the appropriate rules exist for some aspects of modern life but not others requires a lot of thought and discussion. Two major factors can be briefly mentioned here. The first is the Internet, which has burst upon the world so fast (remember that Facebook was created in 2004) that a regulatory apparatus, both informal and formal, has not had time to evolve. Actually, when we look within the Internet, we can find many examples of regulations that have evolved, such as reputational systems that ensure good behavior in commerce, so it is only many other aspects of the Internet that remain normless and lawless, with consequences that can only be expected. 

The second major factor is that evolutionary theory, which was beyond the imagination of Tocqueville, is still a new perspective in discussions of social theory, economics and law. The title of my book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, signifies that the conceptual unification that has taken place in the biological sciences (and of course continues), is only now taking place in the human-related sciences. In my long career, I have observed that the “evolutionizing” of human-related disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, religion, economics, business, and law takes place at different rates based on idiosyncratic factors. 

Economics and business are late bloomers and law even more so. One of the few legal scholars who thinks about free speech and the Internet from an evolutionary perspective is Julie Seaman, Associate Professor at Emory University’s School of Law. An open-access article that we coauthored titled #FreeSpeech makes a start at evolutionizing the concept of free speech, in general, and in the Internet Age. This conversation needs to expand and be put into action rapidly, to keep pace with the rate of cultural evolution in the Internet Age. Otherwise, only social dysfunction can result.

Published On: January 11, 2021

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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