Help may be at hand for the intellectual left from an unlikely source; Darwinian evolutionary psychologyby Marek Kohn / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
An actress tosses her hair and lets drop the catchphrase, “because I’m worth it.” By her own estimation, she is worth $1m per episode of the sitcom in which she stars, but settles for $750,000. A pop star spends ?15,000 a month on flowers. A top footballer wants earnings of ?100,000 a week, the rate phrased as if he was still a worker on a wage.
People raise their eyebrows at sums like these, but rarely their voices. The public feels resentment when bosses seem to appropriate wealth whose source is public: in utility businesses, or high street banks which hold substantial fractions of the public’s money. Stars, on the other hand, have always been felt to deserve their wealth for the pleasure they give, especially if they have emerged from humble origins.
In any case, we now have half a century’s experience of mass prosperity and when all but a few are secure in the essentials, the force drains out of arguments about inequality. Who cares if David Beckham is paid ?100,000 a week, while those watching him earn ?20,000 a year? If his “wages” were redistributed around the stadium, they would stretch to a round of drinks; but the spectators don’t need an extra pint any more than he needs the money.
Wealth is presumed to be good in itself, however it is distributed: even if it only trickles down, a trickle is better than nothing. But a growing body of data suggests that this assumption-apparently shared by the government and certainly by Philip Collins in his Prospect essay (April) defending the government- may be flawed. Inequality-not just the difference between comfort and want, but inequality per se-appears to do profound damage to health. Richard G Wilkinson, one of the leading interpreters of inequality research, puts it bluntly: “Inequality kills.”
One of the most remarkable findings in this field concerns the effect of infant mortality, surveyed across 70 countries by Robert J Waldmann. Take two countries in which the bottom 20 per cent are equally poor, but the top 5 per cent in one are richer than their counterparts in the other. Common sense would suggest that the country with more resources at the top would have the lower infant mortality rate. But the reverse is the case: the babies of the poor are more likely to die in the country whose rich are wealthier.
Around the world, the figures suggest that unequal societies are unhealthy societies. Most of these data concern mortality statistics, as these are more reliable than other measures of health. The distinction between absolute and relative poverty corresponds to the “epidemiological transition”-the shift from conditions in which infectious diseases are the major killers to ones in which the diseases of affluence are the most feared. Above this transition point, absolute wealth makes little difference to life expectancy. Greeks are healthier than Americans, although average American incomes are more than twice as high. The objection that this may represent the superiority of the Mediterranean diet over the hamburger is countered by comparison among US states. The states with larger gaps between rich and poor have higher death rates, even after controlling for factors as diverse as poverty, race and tobacco. Within developed countries in general, death rates at the lowest levels of the social hierarchy are between two and four times higher than those at the top.
A study of 17,000 Whitehall civil servants found death rates three times higher among junior grades than at the mandarin levels. Deaths from heart disease were four times more frequent at the lower end of the hierarchy. Only about a quarter of the effect is likely to have been due to unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking. Another obvious possibility is that poor health impedes promotion, while vigour is needed to reach the top. But this analysis indicates that this is no more than a minor factor. In short, the gradient in deaths seems to arise from the hierarchy itself.
The ideological vision that this provokes is a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected. Its immediate effect is to reinvent the world on which the left used to insist. Yes, the poor do pay a price for the luxuries of the rich-a price that can be measured in dead babies. Yes, there really is something wrong with a society which is merely amused by personal extravagance. Yes, inequality is oppressive. And yes; under the circumstances, envy is good.
Yet although the sentiments are familiar, they rely upon ideas from a quarter long regarded as beyond the left’s pale. The new critics of inequality are not talking about how to slice up a given quantity of material wealth more equitably. Their focus is upon the relations within a society, and the effects of these relations upon the well-being of individuals. Above the threshold of want, they believe, health and happiness are affected more by psychological processes than by improvements in standards of living. This realisation has drawn thinkers like Richard Wilkinson and the American “winner-takes-all” economist Robert H Frank towards biology, and modern evolutionary thought in particular. (Wilkinson’s views are set out in Mind the Gap: Hierarchies, Health and Human Evolution, in the Darwinism Today series.)
Generations of students have been taught that mixing biology with sociology produces a toxic substance called sociobiology, which is inherently reactionary. But these attitudes are being modified. The most striking evidence of change can be found in an implacable statement of opposition to sociobiological thought, Steven and Hilary Rose’s compilation Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology. In Stephen Jay Gould’s contribution, he refers to the Darwinian recognition that males and females have differing reproductive interests. Female mammals have to incubate their young, and support them after birth. Males may succeed in fathering offspring even if they walk away from their future progeny the moment that mating is finished. Male reproductive success is therefore determined by opportunities to mate, whereas for females, access to resources is more important. Each sex has evolved different reproductive strategies; and it makes sense for females to be more selective in choice of mates.
Gould doesn’t quibble over the phrase “differential parental investment.” He agrees that the idea “makes Darwinian sense and probably does underlie some different… emotional propensities of human males and females.” In one sentence, Gould endorses the theoretical foundation of the school he is excoriating. He accepts the central insight of evolutionary psychology and agrees that men’s and women’s psyches have been shaped differently by evolution. It is like reading an Adam Smith Institute pamphlet and finding the words “the history of all hitherto existing society is probably the history of class struggle.”
With enemies like these, left-wing Darwinians might not seem to need friends; but with friends like Peter Singer, they don’t need enemies. Singer raised the idea of “a Darwinian left” in a Darwinism Today booklet of that title (adapted in the June 1998 Prospect). “The left needs a new paradigm,” he remarked, in comradely fashion. But in the subsequent pages he conducted a short march straight to the centre ground on which the world’s social democratic parties have been camped for some time.
Singer’s left would recognise that human nature is neither inherently good nor infinitely malleable. It would accept that some inequalities are not caused by “discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning.” It would expect people to compete in pursuit of their own interests, or those of their kin, but also to respond positively to offers of co-operation. It would stand up for the poor and oppressed, “but think very carefully about what social and economic changes will really work to benefit them.” By the sound of it, Singer’s left is already in power.
Singer concludes: “This is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is the best we can do today-and it is still a much more positive picture than many on the left have assumed to be implied in a Darwinian view of human nature.”
Today’s Darwinian left can do better than that. Socialists a century ago were understandably wary about a scientific principle expressed as “survival of the fittest.” It was hard to see how it could help a movement based on co-operation. Since the 1960s, however, Darwinists have become fascinated by the conditions that induce individuals to help each other. They assume selfishness in order to make sense of altruism and use a theory based on competition to understand co-operation.
The broad picture that emerges from the new evolutionary paradigm is of a human nature that is universal, shaped by Darwinian selection pressures, and differently accented in each sex. Racial differences, the undead of human biology, are not ruled out, but they are not expected and not sought. Innate inequalities among individuals are accepted, while remaining peripheral to the interests of evolutionary psychology. They are the enthusiasm of psychologists of a different stripe (and conservatives like Charles Murray) but they present no difficulties to a left with a modicum of self-confidence. Inequality is, after all, implicit in the formula: from each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.
It is one thing to accept the existence of innate inequalities among individuals, it is quite another to see these as directly determining social outcomes. Until recently, membership of a social class was regarded as a matter of chance. Nowadays, though, individuals are presumed to determine their own rank, according to their capacities and application. Automation has eroded the sense that society depends on labour, and without the acknowledgement that even humble jobs matter there is nothing to check meritocracy. Further, the working class has been eradicated as a political force. When the working class was respected, it underwrote the self-respect of individual workers. The trees are still there, but they are no longer seen as a wood.
A particularly cruel twist in today’s world of winner-takes-all celebrity is the notion that young people of low social status should take the most extraordinary individuals, typically sports people, as “role models.” Since by definition there is only room for a handful of champions, almost everybody who sets them as their standard is doomed to fail. Until urbanisation most people measured themselves against the small numbers of peers with whom they lived. They never encountered a world champion, so they never realised how high the ladder of achievement could go. But now champion sports people are the de facto winners of a status competition that includes spectators as well as those who take the field. The same is true of beauty. Supermodels and movie stars are the winners of a global sexual selection process, triumphing over their audiences as well as their peers.
The pertinence of evolutionary thought lies in its ability to interpret those aspects of modern life that have become salient since the developed economies accelerated away. It is attuned to stress, sexual display, conspicuous consumption and a Red Queen world in which everybody has to run faster just to stay in the same place.
In this respect, the publicists of evolutionary psychology have spun their theory the wrong way. They have dwelt on the idea that human nature is out of date, having evolved to meet conditions remote from our modern way of life. But it may be that in post-scarcity societies our evolved natures can flourish and express a broader range of possibilities than previously supposed-if we can sort out our social relations.
Evolutionary psychology understands humans as fundamentally social beings. It is unsurprised to hear that increments of wealth fail to bring corresponding increases in happiness. Instead, it expects to find the keys to happiness in the eternal verities of status and belonging. Status can exist without hierarchy, through friendship, reciprocity and mutual obligation; but as a society becomes more hierarchical, status increasingly depends upon the ability to achieve visible superiority. It becomes less important to be well regarded, more important to be looked up to.
The fact that we are now on first-name terms with each other is irrelevant. Hierarchy is not the same as formality. The traditional Japanese company might be highly formal, but it is based on an ideology of mutuality, which in turn rests on the assumption that the relationship will be long-lasting. Nor do the Japanese seem especially concerned, by international standards, about asserting status through wealth. Japan has the lowest income differentials in the industrial world-and the highest life expectancy.
Over here, call centre managers may teach their staff the company song, but they must be ready to sack them at a moment’s notice. Individuals do not belong anywhere for very long. So instead of building up a store of respect through living within a single community, it is external measures of value such as monetary wealth which become more important.
However inequality may be a step backwards, evolutionarily speaking. Our primate relatives live in hierarchies, as did our human predecessors until the emergence of hunter-gatherer societies 100,000 years ago. Those people who still hunt and gather, as we all did until 10,000 years ago, have a markedly egalitarian outlook. They recognise and admire exceptional individuals, but they do not let them acquire exceptional degrees of power. As the anthropologist Christopher Boehm points out, humans never lost their ancestors’ instinct to dominate. But among hunter-gatherers, the instinct is collectivised. Individuals who seek to dominate are restrained by “counter-dominance” from the rest of the group. The politics of envy may be the oldest politics of all.
That doesn’t make them any more attractive, of course. Few of us want to live without roofs, or writing. Equality seems to go with stagnation, inequality with progress. But there are aspects of the human environment which remain essentially the same even in advanced societies. People live among friends, families, peers and collaborators, as they always have and always will, whatever their institutions and whatever their technology. In order to sustain a place in these webs of relationship, they need trust and respect.
Egalitarianism is a strategy through which these immaterial essentials can be secured. And we may need to get back in touch with it. For the costs of inequality are not confined to health. Homicide and violent crime are higher where the range of incomes is wider. At bottom, says Wilkinson, it is a matter of trust. Health and harmony are nurtured by trust, the thread of social cohesion. A society rich in social capital is likely to be a healthy society. A society rich in material capital, but short of social capital, is likely to be unhealthy. And trust must be mutual. It is easier to achieve between people who are roughly equal.
Wilkinson’s equations offer a pleasing reconciliation between the metaphorical and the literal senses of health. They suggest that moral health and medical health are interwoven. They also give a copper bottom to feelings, providing a theory to anchor otherwise free-floating moral objections to neo-liberalism.
Other evolutionarily-minded writers have sounded similar notes. Regarding winner-takes-all markets as pernicious, Robert Frank and Philip J Cook say that the rising trend in top salaries could be curbed by taxes of up to 90 per cent-not on income, but on spending on luxury items. They reason that the pleasure a man obtains from owning a ?50,000 sports car does not reside principally in the value of the car, but from seeing that his neighbours’ car costs less. A luxury tax on yachts and sports cars would dampen this runaway display of wealth. Similarly, Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, commends song and conversation, rather than designer labels, as indicators of a suitor’s worth.
Both of these arguments take human nature to be fundamentally competitive. Yet they lead to proposals for much higher taxes on the rich and praise for “hippie” values (Miller’s term), the ideal of discovering the real person behind the consumer. They are both seeking ways to curb the ability of consumer capitalism to exploit human nature. This is not about traditional values in a modern setting, as Tony Blair used to put it. It is the rediscovery of left-wing ideas in response to analyses of contemporary phenomena.
Ideas like these suggest the possibility of a more challenging Darwinian left, which could take a sober view of the role of self-interest in human affairs and use it as the platform for an array of radical ideas and policies. The common theme is the drawing together of society, by reducing disparities of wealth and enriching the fabric of community-making common cause with the theorists of social capital. A Darwinian left would suggest that the left’s instincts about solidarity and equality were right after all.
But the difficulty is that the people in whom such feelings endure are the least likely to appreciate the idea that these actually are instincts. And besides the left’s traditional dislike of sociobiology, there is the question of sex differences. Evolutionary psychologists expect different emotional propensities in males and females. They are unlikely to see 50-50 shares in boardrooms or childcare as the measure of fairness. But that does not mean that the existing sexual division of labour is fair or freely chosen. Darwinians should appreciate better than anyone how males will form coalitions which exclude and subjugate females.
Supposing, however, that an evolutionarily-minded left did succeed in establishing itself, could an electoral majority be persuaded to support it? The slope of the heart disease graph, from the Whitehall civil servants’ study, hints that it might.
Within Britain an evolutionarily-minded left would be more likely to find sympathetic policies north of the border. And if Scotland’s parliament continues to support more collective values than in the south of England the cohesion hypothesis predicts that the Scots’ health will benefit.
Pointing out the diminishing psychological returns on consumption, an evolutionary left would affirm that we have less to lose from environmental politics than we think. It would offer an alternative to the rambling protest and resigned acquiescence into which the left is currently divided. It would show why equality and solidarity are as necessary in the world of images and information as they were in the world of industrial labour. And it would discover a new version of an old maxim-that unity is health.