Book Reviews

Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (Rutgers Series on Human Evolution)
by Paul H. Rubin


Product Details

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs, October 27, 2002
As consilience inches forward and continues to gather various disciplines in the sciences and humanities, now comes a welcomed book on human politics as shaped by the evolutionary perspective. Paul Rubin is professor of economics and law at Emory University and editor-in-chief of Managerial and Decision Economics. He is a fellow of the Public Choice society, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and former vice president of the Southern Economics Association.  He has worked at various positions in the Federal government concerning product safety, taught at various universities, and has published several books and over 100 articles in economic, legal, and evolutionary journals.

"Gordon Tulluck, one of the founders of public choice, has been known to say that the best government from his perspective is one with himself as dictator. The next best from the same perspective is a democracy with limited powers, such as we have in the U.S. today.  Gordon has a strange sense of humor, but most human males would probably agree with his ranking, suitably modified." p. 195

It is this crucial paragraph that sets the tone throughout all sections of Darwinian Politics. Rubin argues effectively that the desire for freedom goes back to our evolutionary roots and rests in the hearts and souls of all individuals longing to be free to make their own personal choices.  He also tells us, that in the quest to find the origins of human politics, the study of history -- that is, the recorded events of our human past over the past 10,000 years  --  is totally false because during this period, an "unnatural state" of reduced freedom existed.  It is also at this point that Rubin points out the other side of the coin: "Of course, humans, in addition to wanting to be free themselves, also want to be dominant.  That is, individuals prefer to be dominants and reduce the freedom of others. Sometimes subordinates cannot resist this power, and we have monarchy or dictatorship." p. 113.

Rubin then guides us through this "struggle" from evolved individual tastes for freedom into the reality world of today lead by those who dominate over those who are submissive, yet yearning to be free. Rubin stresses that politics is mostly a "man's game"... and ... "as a result, while men have always sought power, less dominant men have also sought to limit the power of those who are more dominant." p 155. (On a personal note, the 2002 Republican candidate for the 7th Congressional District [in Colorado] was quoted on local television here as saying that politics was a "contact sport" (a reference to masculine physical competition) and that "negative campaigning" was a "just a consequence of politics"). The book then leads us into the usual evolutionary pressure descriptions of why attaining political power appeals to men (access to women) and cites Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's 1999 book Mother Nature to remind us that there are no matriarchal societies that have every existed (not entirely true, but 99.5% accurate).

In Darwinian Politicos, the descriptions found in the subchapters on Evolutionary Basis for Rules, The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), Natural Selection, and Individuality are some of the best that I have ever read.  When one gets to the subchapter on Preferences and Behavior, Rubin, the economist, begins to teach us some of the world in which he belongs.  The basis of economics, he teaches us, is the study of facultative behavior found in humans to relative prices.  And here, "price" to an economist is widely viewed as including all costs and benefits associated with a choice necessary to fulfill a desire, or preference. For example, if you have a "desire" for a pack of gum, is it "worth the price" to drive ten miles in a blinding snow storm to fulfill that preference?  On a comparative level, would a young undergraduate male be willing to overcome the "cost" of driving ten miles in a blinding snow storm after receiving a call from his new female friend wondering if he would like to come over and have access?  "The most basic law in economics, the law of demand, tells us that people change their consumption in response to changes in prices of goods.  In this analysis, price is to be interpreted broadly. Part of a price may be the time needed to consume some good. Prices would also include health effects and other nonpecuniary implications of consumption." p. 15. 

Since professor Rubin is an economist, one of the benefits in studying this book is the inclusion of behaviors and their meanings that spring from his world; references such as: invisible hand, intertemporal exchange, rent seeking, endowment effect, deadweight loss, base rate fallacy, frequency dependent selection, law of demand, law of numbers, principle agent interaction, and positive and zero-sum games -- manage to creep into his text while still maintaining his clear direction in explaining his political theme.  After all, modern political thoughts are highly influenced by the economic reality faced by the common voter. ("It's the economy, stupid" is perhaps one of the more memorable political sound bites in recent years that bring this thought to the fore).

These snippets from economists are Rubin's way of introducing us into the world of how the individual makes political decisions, and for a start, the facultative decision making process on its own.  He takes us to the meaning of a zero-sum society; meaning that the decisions that most humans base their decisions upon today evolved in our primal past where exchanges between humans in early hunter-gatherer tribes basically added up to zero -- or another way to put it would be to say that most interchanges in the primal environment were based on equality.  But economists don't see this zero-sum exchange as being really good for our modern society.  They feel that the evolving international trade with its lower prices, interchanges of ideas, technologies, and abundance of cheap labor, results in far more benefits as a whole.  As a result..."economists have learned to understand these results at a deep level, and the increasing worldwide reduction in tariffs may mean that we have succeeded in teaching them to others.  But these results must be studied and taught; they are not learned intuitively." p17.

From here, Rubin guides us to the political societies of around 10,000 years ago where surpluses began to appear from the domestication of plants and animals.  It is at this point that we see the evolution of specialized division of labors created to nurture these new surpluses, and the emergence of the warrior class. Rubin quotes Lawrence H. Keeley by stressing that..."societies without specialization in the economic realm were unlikely to develop specialized warriors or units" p. 20.  It made me think: Besides the ultimate function of common defense as contribution to the public good, did a warrior class also arise to protect the accumulated wealth of certain dominates within their territories while subjugating their submissives, or did they arise as an adjunct in raiding the goodies of other dominate persons in other villages to benefit themselves?  Or was it a combination of all of them?

After the establishment of small villages and tribes based upon the domestication of plants and animals, Rubin now draws our attention on Groups: Membership and Conflict.  This is an excellent chapter on group memberships, land, conflicts, punishment, competition and intelligence, gains from trade, and a very interesting, and important, section on young males, from which I quote:  "They are easily persuaded or indoctrinated by official statements or propaganda. They also form groups easily -- whether military platoons, sports teams, or gangs." p.44; and at the entrance of chapter 2:  "The behavior becomes more understandable if we include two evolutionary facts.  First, the actions of the players are closely related to what would have been military actions in the evolutionary environment. Running, throwing projectiles (balls), kicking, hitting with clubs (bats, hockey sticks), and knocking down opponents -- all of these actions are direct modifications of ancestral actions that would have been related to defense from others or offense against them.  Second, in the evolutionary environment, the lives of our ancestors often depended on the strength and prowess of their young males." p.31. When we ponder these excellent arguments we can begin to see the emergence in the politics of 2002 with the "Manifest Destiny," "Captain of the Ship," "The Father's Justice," "Pilot in Command," and "Commander-in-Chief" mentality that permeates our planet's political systems; from the fundamentalist male war-lord Talibans, to complex American political parties that are interlaced and heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethos based upon masculine (read here dominating male "warrior") governance.

Another most convincing point that Rubin makes is the importance relating to larger groups as reflections of small groups that exist in our modern societies.  "...the ability to associate in larger groups..."  "...the larger social agglomerations make use of the cooperative tendencies that evolved for cohesion in smaller groups."  "...we may be selected to complete with a relatively small number of other individuals for dominance.  We seem to create work environments similar to those in the EEA even today because such environments are consistent with evolved tendencies and therefore, work more efficiently." p. 124.

And again:  "We as humans, particularly here in the USA, join small groups, or work with small groups, (we join religious, work, clubs, other voluntary groups).  Again, these tend to organize themselves into relatively small subgroups.  Individuals who are subordinate in one setting can be dominant in another p. 126.

Thus, Rubin may have stumbled upon a large portion of the basic human nature of being: The hierarchical position of oneself in relation to others in their own small group.  Perhaps this strongly confirms the reason, as a sage political saying goes, is why, "all politics are local."  This desire to relate to small groups merely may be reflecting one's own 'power struggle' to gain autonomy at one's local environment (And by "local environment," I mean the exact longitude and latitude on the planet where this group roams and interacts with each other).  This refusal to be dominated layers itself in America until it reflects in the US constitution..."The US Constitution was consciously designed to limit the power of government; this system of checks and balances that we all studied in school." p. 127.

It is at this point that I am going to end the detailed scrutiny and quotes from the book because the best is yet to come; I want you to go out and purchase this book to learn more.  Darwinian Politics hits its stride when it reaches chapter 5 entitled, Political Power.  Here, Rubin discusses Political Power among Hunter-Gatherers, Sedentary Societies, Polygyny and Monogamy, and Political Power in Modern Western Societies.  Of the remaining chapters, chapter 3 on Altruism, Cooperation, and Sharing is basically a review of prior evolutionary works on the subject, but also includes the author's struggle at fully accepting "group selection."  On this subject, I believe that it exists, and will in the end, be restructured in arguments similar to the debate on "nature vs. nurture" and will be on the right side of the equation with natural selection (individual selection) on the left -- "individual selection" vs. "group selection."  Like the current debate on nature vs. nurture, genes vs. culture, scientists will end up agreeing that the link to group selection exists, but will be confused as to what percentage each side of the equation has and how it really works for some time. 

Chapter 7, on How Humans Make Political Decisions is also a strong one as it brings to us cognitive decision making with emphasis on economics.  An item that I would consider important that I strongly suggest everyone to focus upon would be the subject of "identifiable individuals" found on page 162 until the end of the chapter.  Chapter 6, on Religion and the Regulation of Behavior, reinforces the social constructionist view of the power of religions to act as "morality guide posts" in controlling individual behaviors as deviating from the social norms that religious leaders consider strongly beneficial to group survival.  I consider chapter 4 on Envy as the weakest and is subject to close scrutiny; I feel that it was used as an attempt to make modern macroeconomic theories somehow appear as if they sprung from the EEA; this chapter will spark heated debate.

Overall, the book Darwinian Politics argues its points convincingly.  I however, have some doubts that I could heatedly counter argue -- in particular, the author's "confusion" on the creation of various forms of hierarchies in his chapter 4 on Envy, and his "forgetfulness" to consider the female contribution in hunter-gatherer societies and their limited sexual selection choices in the EEA in comparison with 2002.  However, I consider his book of such importance in tweaking the interests of economists and policy makers by bringing them to the evolutionary perspective fold, that whatever my deeply held counter arguments might be, they are unimportant next to nurturing an engagement between dominate political thought vs. submissive political thought.  We, (in the evolutionary community) should do everything that we can to encourage other economists to join; the altruistic underpinnings found in human nature  will chip away at the number crunchers, and in the end, they will find that "happiness" will not be in "the big picture" of profit and loss and the possessions of "things," but in the "close quarters" empathy found in the hearts and minds of individuals that look around and find themselves in a small group of other similar individuals.  The basic core pressure that fused the human mind in the EEA and formed the "nature" part of the human mind was with us in the beginning and it will be with us till the end of our individual existence here on this planet.   Our common human existence in 2002 is about the evolutionary voyage we take out into the "nurture" cosmos -- while always attached to the "tether line" that links us back to the mother ship we call human "nature"; what an exciting voyage it is.

I know that professor Rubin is a conservative at his core, and I make no attempts to hide my liberal leanings, but to engage in derogation of Darwinian Politics would only distract from a fine body of work that has been put together with diligence and skill.  He truly believes in his positions, and should be praised for that stance.  His writing is lucid and linear, and I would encourage all high-profile publishers to give serious considerations to any of his future work. His fluid style of writing should help to encourage many students that are having difficulty with the evolutionary perspective of any subject.

This book deserves to be read by all members of the HBES, all student and profession economists, and all political policymakers.  Because all of the reasons listed above and because of its evolutionary perspective from start to finish, I am placing it on my Level Three Recommended Reading list.

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