Therefore our evolutionary psychology has been shaped by hunter gatherer societies. Because of genetic differences owing to sexual reproduction and environmental influences, of course there is variation in us as well, but some core traits do seem to be very prevalent.
Many people have a visceral fear of spiders and snakes and this seems to come from our brain’s limbic system (see also Isbell 2006), itself created by the interactions of many genes by the process of evolution by natural selection.
There is strong evidence that some of our core moral intuitions are also the result of evolution. It is even likely that the sense of “fairness” or even “entitlement” leading to the existence of common property (the ancient equivalent of public goods) or sharing the wealth (e.g., egalitarian food sharing practices amongst hunter gatherers) appears to be evolved in us as an advantage for survival. Thus one could say that the desire to “spread the wealth” is not some alien, wicked propensity caused by “evil” governments: it is in our psychology, the psychology of egalitarian, food sharing hunter gatherers.
Public goods, modern welfare and social security paid for by progressive taxes are the effective modern equivalent of communal food sharing and cooperation; public property and public land the equivalent of the tribe’s common property; the widespread feelings of anger and injustice humans feel at gross inequality of wealth the equivalent of ancient egalitarianism.
The particular form that morality takes in any society is of course influenced by culture and history to a significant extent, and I do not wish to ignore the role of culture here, or suggest some vulgar genetic determinism (which I personally find distasteful). Human nature and our traits are a very complex interaction of environment, culture and genes (indeed some human traits are clearly explained more by environment and culture, than by genes). There can be many differences between what is regarded as moral in one society and another, and the innate moral faculty is probably like our innate language faculty (which also has a biological basis), and can lead to quite different systems of morality in different cultures in different times, just as our core language faculty leads to different languages, with different words, grammar and syntax, even though underlying that surface diversity is Chomsky’s universal grammar, with a biological basis (attempts to deny that our language faculty is the product of evolution are disposed of by Dennett 1996: 370–400).
Of course, none of this constitutes an adequate moral defence of modern taxes or public goods, since the argument from nature is a logical fallacy. Our moral intuitions provide no objective basis for morality, any more than the mere intuition or conviction that god exists can provide any rational basis for believing in god. We do in fact have many wrong ideas or irrational emotions about the world and objects in it, from
(1) sheer superstition (e.g., religion),For example, belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena – which is (1) above – might possibly have some psychological basis explained by human evolution (although religion is also deeply ingrained in many people by culture as well), but such belief is most probably completely wrong. Atheists can face a difficult task trying to convince people of the falsity of religion, because of widespread cultural belief in religion and the possibility of a biological and psychological basis for it. But while modern philosophy and the natural sciences can provide atheists with strong arguments in support of their position, libertarians by contrast find little support from philosophy of ethics for their natural rights-based anarcho-capitalism and the view that all taxation is theft.
(2) faulty or poor inductive reasoning (e.g., pre-modern science or medicine), or
(3) innate human psychological traits that are the product of evolution (e.g., a widespread and visceral fear of, or repulsion towards, snakes, even though most of us in industrialised nations never encounter snakes, and tobacco, sugar, alcohol or cars kill more of us today than snakes ever do).
A proper defence of what is right and wrong must come from an objective theory of ethics, not from our psychology.
Quite convincing moral justifications for government and government intervention (such as progressive taxes, basic welfare and universal health care) can easily be given through act or rule utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, the non-absolutist ethics of W. D. Ross, Rawl’s human rights objectivism, or other liberal contractarian moral theories. They could still be given even if we had no innate sense of altruism towards other people.
For free market libertarians, about the only moral theory that can be used to justify absolute property rights is natural rights/natural law ethics, which has severe flaws and is untenable (itself committing the fallacy of the argument from nature too).
Free market libertarians and Austrians face the double blow of advocating (1) things immoral by most objective ethical theories and (2) things that our innate sense of morality itself finds objectionable.
Any libertarian/Austrian faces a hard upward battle trying to convince people of ideas that (1) seem naturally repulsive and (2) can be rejected by many knowledgeable people with a background in philosophy of ethics by using rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics or other theories.
The mass “conversion” of people to libertarian or Austrian philosophy (and the elimination of all taxes or public goods) is about as likely as the disappearance of the widespread human fear of snakes, which also seems to have a deeply ingrained, evolutionary and psychological basis. This of course is not a defence, or justification, of social democracy, but is a realistic statement of how things actually are with respect to human nature. By a similar process, religion, whether it is rational or not, will probably exist for a long time, for better or worse (and for the worse in my view), even though there are strong arguments against it.
So our innate psychological nature, which is a legacy of our evolutionary past, cuts both ways: it has left us with some beliefs and propensities that can be justified independently and some beliefs that cannot (sometimes in ways that are pernicious).
Moreover, in the case of inductive reasoning, we have a surprising mental process which appears to have been successful in general and allowed us to survive, but which might not be capable of rational justification, because of the notorious problem of induction (see “Risk and Uncertainty in Post Keynesian Economics,” Appendix 1: The Paradox of Induction?, December 8, 2010).
APPENDIX 1: EVOLUTIONARY ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT?
Some people claim that the modern state has no parallel in the environment of our ancient ancestors. But the most obvious figure would be the dominant male/males of the tribe (just as in monkey and great ape groups) whose position was established by force and ability to protect other members of the group from wild animals and hostile humans from other tribes. That of course provides no serious justification for modern government or patriarchy, however.
Borders, M. “The Stone Age Trinity,” March 6, 2006
Dennett, D. C. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Books, London.
Fehr, E. and U. Fischbacher, 2003, “The Nature of Human Altruism,” Nature 425 (23 October): 785–791.
Henrich, J. et al., 2001. “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies,” American Economic Review 91.2: 73–78.
Isbell, L. A. 2006. “Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains,” Journal of Human Evolution 51.1: 1–35.
Megarry, T. 1995. Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture, New York University Press, New York.
Pinker, S. 1997. How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.
Ridley, M. 1996. The Origins of Virtue, Viking, London.
“Spiders, Snakes, and Evolved Fears,” January 11, 2008,