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October 11, 2005

Human Nature and the Commons

The search to explain human nature leads us to a greater appreciation of the role of trust and reciprocity in our evolution.

Roughly 197,000 of humankind’s 200,000 years on Earth have been consumed by surviving the raw challenges of Nature: disease, famine, climate, natural disasters, and fellow predators. The multiple colorations, shapes, weights, and immune systems of the races of mankind reflect 200,000 years of opportunistic adaptations. Just 60,000 years ago, the continued survival of homo sapiens was in question, dependent upon the luck and pluck of just 200 ancestors. Only within the last five hundred years, just 0.25% of the human record, did the population of humankind exceed 500 million. Until the Enlightenment, population levels ebbed and flowed, as Nature was still the unconquered adversary, forever curbing human hubris and blindly enforcing its rules of fitness and survival. Encoded in our bodies, brains and cultures is this 200,000 struggle with Nature.

Then something happened as dramatic, pervasive and irreversible as the Cambrian Explosion 500 million years ago. Neither the human species nor the planet have been the same since. Science and technologies emerged in the West, wresting control away from Nature and depriving it of its culling and governing powers. Nature was subjected to the whims and aspirations of a species eager for abundance, comfort, health, control, recognition, and longevity. Within the last 200 years, this trend has accelerated exponentially in scope and depth. It is a unique event in the life of a planet whose remaining chapters are yet to be written.

Yet despite this palpable impact, our Human Natures continue to be a mystery to ourselves. As adaptations to a Pleistocene past of 200,000 years ago, they seem profoundly out of place in a rapidly evolving technological world. Traits that proved to be highly adaptive survival mechanisms in low-density, slow-changing environments based on hunting and gathering and rudimentary agriculture, are proving to be ill-suited to an interconnected global ecosystem and volatile digital culture. Our challenge as a species today is to understand not only the mechanics of Human Nature, but to see how they might be redirected and adapted to the realities of the present environment.

Over the millennia, there have been many different narratives to describe, explain and justify Human Nature. Many early Enlightenment writers — Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hume, and Adam Smith — began with their own theories about man, which they then used to explain and justify the rise of certain types of social, political and economic institutions. But unlike these writers, who could only speculate on the innate “nature” of human beings, today there is a veritable explosion of empirical findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience that tell us a great deal about “who we are” as a species.

This knowledge can help us develop a new, more reliable narrative about human nature, which in turn may help us design more effective and adaptive social and economic policies, institutions and technologies. One of the most striking themes of the new scientific knowledge is the importance of trust, cooperation and reciprocity as vital survival traits for the human species. As we will see in a series of posts that I plan for October, evolutionary sciences lend remarkable support to the commons as a paradigm for organizing human societies.

Interestingly, Adam Smith, the founder of free market economics, anticipated many of the key ideas of neuroscience and evolutionary theory. He fashioned a vocabulary and framework for economics that is not only still active and credible today, it is being verified by a new generation of behavioral, evolutionary and neuro-economists. Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” anticipated Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection by more than a half century, and continues to be intuitively compelling as a natural regulatory and selective mechanism. Likewise, Smith’s theory of moral sentiments as “moral instincts” anticipated Darwin’s writings on instinct and emotion, as well as the discovery of “social emotions” by evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists in the 21st century.

Since in Smith’s time there was no way to measure “moral sentiments” or the “invisible hands” of natural regulation, Smith and his contemporaries’ accounts were speculative and pre-scientific. This is no longer the case. Science is opening up the human brain for public inspection. The brain is no longer a “black box,” and mechanisms and pathways of “moral sentiments” can now be seen as measurable, identifiable parts of the brain with known behaviors and pathways. We need not rely on the useful “fiction” of the “State of Nature” or the ideal of the “noble savage.” Such inventions can now be replaced by exhaustive behaviorial studies of primates and cross-cultural studies of highly diverse cultures. Evolutionary biology provides a theoretical basis for understanding why and how certain types of moral sentiments evolved, how they are triggered, and how they improve or compromise individual and group fitness.

Scientists are discovering that many forms of social change and innovation are not the result of “visible,” large-scale economic forces, policies, geographic factors, or charismatic leaders. They are, instead, the result of unintended interactions of contending, self-organizing social networks resulting in myriads of “invisible” micro-interactions. These interactions randomly recombine old rules and categories into new rules of interaction and exchange.

The shift in perspective now underway is similar to the one that occurred following the discovery of bacteria and microorganisms as the source of disease. Until the invention of the microscope by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek in 1683, illness was thought to be caused by an imbalance in the four humors — yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. Not until people could actually see the swimming of microorganisms was it feasible to posit a modern theory of disease and contagion. Likewise, the electron microscope and molecular biology were necessary to understand the genetic underpinnings of certain forms of disease, and thereby provide for a whole new class of treatments through regenerative medicine. In each phase in the progression of medical knowledge and treatment, it was necessary to go beyond surface descriptions and plunge into the depths and complexities of process that were initially invisible to the naked eye.

If, in our time, we regard “self-interest” as a self-evident concept, the new scientific findings are revealing that, as a matter of evolutionary history and human physiology, self-interest has a much broader meaning than that which is declared by mainstream economists.

In my next post, more about self-interest and cooperation in a primal state.