January 20, 2004

Rubin reveals evolutionary roots of politics

By Michael Terrazas

Human political interaction often is viewed as a product of the species’ higher faculties. Indeed, the terms “political science” or “political philosophy” carry with them implicit connotations that such pursuits are made possible only by Homo sapiens’ heightened intellectual capabilities.

But in his latest book, Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 2002), Paul Rubin argues that ideology—or at least its basic building blocks—is a natural product of human evolution, and determining evolved political “tastes” provides the opportunity to judge systems of governance on how well they accord with how people are wired.

“We evolved living in groups of perhaps 25 to 150 persons. Political decisions were made in these bands,” writes Rubin, professor of economics and law, in the book’s preface. “Now we live in political agglomerations of up to 1 billion persons, as in China and India. We still make political decisions. The social decision-making mechanisms are radically different today from those in earlier times. But the individual decision-making mechanisms we use are those that evolved with our ancestors, and many of the issues we consider are surprisingly similar to the issues that our ancestors would have found relevant.”

Though an economist by vocation, Rubin has been intrigued by (and sometimes written about) the evolution and emergence of “tastes” ever since he read naturalist E.O. Wilson’s seminal Sociobiology in the 1970s. Mostly Rubin has applied this approach to economic tastes, or tastes regarding risk, but Darwinian Politics—named by Choice magazine as one of its Outstanding Academic Titles for 2003—arose from Rubin’s interest in “public choice,” which he describes as an intersection of economics and political science.

“Most work in evolutionary psychology tends to be on very narrow issues, which is valid resesarch, but this book views evolution and its implications from broader areas of human behavior,” Rubin said. “Ideally it would have a wide range of implications.”

Humans are a species that has developed a natural, sociobiologic preference for freedom and democratic systems of governance, Rubin argues, and he goes on to say that some societies have developed customs that run counter to those preferences. This could help explain certain undesirable and even destructive social phenomena.

“For example, when you have a society that allows polygamy, you end up with a large number of males who don’t have wives or mates and don’t have much prospect of getting them,” Rubin said. “I’m not sure such a society is consistent with being democratic because you have such a large group of dissatisfied people, and young males are always a problem for society to contain.”

Rubin does not shy away from making conclusions from his research. Assuming it is possible to determine what political preferences humans have evolved, he argues that it is likewise possible to determine which societies best serve those preferences. This leads to a scale of political “good” and “bad,” at least from an evolutionary biology perspective.

“Many say that, due to cultural relativism, we can’t compare societies; I don’t take that view,” Rubin said. “I think certain societies do a better job than others at satisfying our evolved preferences. Modern, Western, liberal democracies do the best job.”

Even Rubin’s own political beliefs don’t always pass evolutionary muster.

“I personally have strong libertarian preferences, and some of those are not consistent with evolved preferences,” he said. “For example, consider the control of certain types of behaviors like drug use. I could see why people would evolve a preference to control those behaviors. We can evolve as individuals and in groups, and certain behaviors of members of the group have effects on our descendants, so a preference for controlling those behaviors makes perfect sense.”