The Trusting Ape
Will your genes survive the speciation event?
As the current craze over climate change (and just about every other Malthusian craze to date) clearly indicates, we humans tend to think of our world, and ourselves, as static. For both our planet and our species, nothing could be further from the truth. Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, have only been around for 200,000 years or so. Behaviorally modern humans have been around for less than 40,000 years – a blink of the eye in geologic terms. And agricultural, deeply technological humans have been around only since the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years – the briefest of geologic instants.
Humans, far from being a static species, are evolving at an astonishing pace. This rapid evolution is no doubt continuing even as I write. Although there are minor anatomical differences between us and the Cro-Magnons (our brains are a tad smaller, for instance), I submit that the primary difference between the current crop of humans and our recent antecedents is behavioral. This difference doesn’t show up in the fossil record, but evidence is present in the archaeological record, and I suspect there is almost certainly a (currently unidentified) genetic marker. The behavioral trait I speak of is the capacity for trust. In fact, I suggest that our particular subspecies be tagged Homo sapiens fides.
Perhaps, gentle reader, you are snorting coffee (or your beverage of choice) out your nose in a paroxysm of laughter. I beg you, hear me out. I suggest to you the concept of the noble savage is little more than a fiction. As Jared Diamond observes in The World Until Yesterday, interactions between competing hunter-gatherer groups are typically violent. Endemic tribal warfare is the norm in primitive cultures, with death rates far exceeding those observed in modern warfare. In fact, the same is true for any non-technological, predatory species. A similar propensity for inter-group violence has been documented in chimpanzees, lions, etc.
The explanation for this tendency towards xenophobia is simple. Without technology, existence is an endless competition for fixed resources, and your neighbors are your competitors. The resource pie is only so big, and if you want to perpetuate your genes, you have to get your slice. Therefore, if you can catch your neighbors in a vulnerable state, it makes good sense (from a natural selection perspective) to eliminate them. The state of nature in non-technological cultures is the Hobbesian version, where life is “… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Technology changes the game. With technology it becomes possible to make the resource pie bigger, and that has indeed been our primary accomplishment over the last 10,000 years. For Homo sapiens fides, the state of nature is the Lockean version that “… has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” In other words, when you encounter a stranger you do not reflexively kill him (and, in some primitive cultures, eat him for dinner). Instead, you invite him home for dinner, and you trade with him, exchanging your cool technology for his cool technology. This type of win-win exchange is the conceptual core of abundance mentality as popularized by the late Stephen R. Covey, and fundamentally explains how capitalism inexorably increases overall wealth.
Archaeological evidence of organized agriculture extends back nearly 10,000 years, with the first cities appearing at that time. (Jericho was first walled around 9,400 BC.) Evidence of extensive trade begins to appear in the Late Neolithic period, and is prevalent by the early Bronze Age some 5,000 years before present. For instance, the distinctive beakers for which the Beaker Culture is named may be found all across Europe and Scandinavia. The famous Amesbury archer, who dwelt near near Stonehenge some 4,300 years ago, was born and raised in central Europe. He was a travelling man.
Ironically, from the standpoint of natural selection, the capacity for trust is actually a selfish trait. As Richard Dawkins famously observed in his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, any organism is little more than a vehicle for perpetuating the genes it carries. In our case, appropriately directed trust enhances reproductive success. However, other not-so-nice traits, e.g. deceit, violence, etc., can under the right circumstances also enhance reproductive fitness. Indeed, in a dangerous universe it seems a capacity for swift, violent action will remain a part of our makeup. In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”
Freedom of movement, freedom of association, free markets and free trade are the hallmarks of our subspecies, and trust is the behavioral trait that makes it all possible. Ancient hospitality rules (e.g. Greek Xenia and Hebrew Hospitality Law) are the first formal cultural expressions of trust. In our modern society trust is formalized under the Rule of Law as embodied in our Constitution. Needless to say, policies and actions by our politicians and business leaders that damage trust have a direct, negative effect on our economic well being. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, How a Trust Deficit Is Hurting the Economy, Jon Hilsenrath illustrates the ways in which current events are doing just that.
If mutual trust and respect are the cornerstone of Lockean classical liberalism, the opposite is true of modern progressivism. The intellectual elites of modern progressivism suffer a fatal conceit: they do not trust that the plebiscite has the capacity to govern itself. And so you cannot be trusted to responsibly keep and bear firearms. You cannot be trusted to purchase on your own the goods and services that best suit your own wants and needs. In fact, you cannot even be trusted to define your own needs. All of this is the opposite of trust; Tocqueville and Levin call it soft tyranny.
At the ballot box most of us ask ourselves whether we trust a given candidate, and cast our vote accordingly. Gentle reader, perhaps a more pertinent question is, “Does this candidate trust me?”