Modern society is not a happy, tight band of hunter gatherers
Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky declared, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Certainly it’s impossible to make sense of politics without understanding where we have come from.
Take socialism. It has proved an unmitigated worldwide disaster. But still the majority of people lap it up and yearn for more.
Here in New Zealand the government dominates our lives, our families, our work. It fails in everything it attempts and our response to the failure is to call for more government.
It doesn’t make sense – except in the light of evolution.
One million years ago our ancestors harnessed fire. No other animal uses fire. And every human society does. Fire changed us. Fire meant campsites. And campsites increased social life.
Camp life produced a division of labour: some would hunt, some forage and some guard the campsite and young. Food had to be shared and the sharing had to be acceptable if the band was to stick together and survive.
Individuals within the bands that worked well together survived and reproduced. They could hunt better and defend better. The selective pressure on our forebears was to empathise and to understand others and so to live better socially within the campsite group.
That’s the life we are adapted for. Think hunter gatherer. Think campsite living. That’s over 99% of human history. The outlook, attitude and psychology of the hunter gatherer band is deep within our DNA.
The 10,000 years since agriculture is less than 1% of human history. And early farming life was nothing like how we live now.
The human experience of living in a vast, complex society where billions of humans co-ordinate anonymously through the mechanism of price is but a blip in evolutionary time.
Our DNA and our outlook have not caught up with modern life.
The evolutionary throwback is seen most obviously in the language and ideas of socialism and politics.
People always talk of “we.” That’s fine for the small group who live together, talk each day, and seek consensus. But the “we” makes no sense when humans live in a society and a world where they don’t know each other, let alone share the same aspirations and goals.
Then there’s the “them.” Hanging over politics and socialism is the fear of external forces beyond our control that “we” must guard ourselves against and protect ourselves from.
That was certainly true in the prehistoric campsite. There were predators happy to have us for dinner. And other human bands ready to attack us. That sense of “them” and “us” is deep within us and is ruthlessly and cynically exploited by power-crazed politicians time and time again.
Think the fear of immigrants. Think the War on Terror. Think the global financial crisis.
The idea of collective action dominates politics: that “we” must “do” something. It makes sense in the small band. The band can collectively decide a course of action. But a modern society can’t. There is no collective “we.”
The language and ideas of politics and socialism are primitive and deep within us. There is lively debate and discussion about what “we” should do. But the “we” in a modern society is not a happy, tight band of hunter gatherers each knowing the other.
The “we” is not New Zealand society. New Zealand society can’t decide a thing. The “we” is invariably the government. It’s the only mechanism of collective action we have in modern society. And the collective action is not based on collective agreement and voluntary action. It’s government decision delivered through police power.
So next time you find yourself saying what “we” should do, stop a moment. Think. And ask yourself: who’s the we?