Is socialism doomed by human nature?

June 9, 2016

Phil Gasper, the editor of a fully annotated edition of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, cuts through the myths that underlie a common argument against socialism.

PERHAPS THE most common argument against socialism is that it is impossible or doomed to failure because it is incompatible with human nature. I have a Google Alert for the phrase "human nature," and almost every day, an example of this argument, made by someone somewhere, arrives in my inbox.

This week, for example, a British columnist writing for a Malaysian newspaper tells me, "Utopia is a fantasy, and communism fails because it contradicts fundamental elements of human nature: namely, we are, inherently and irrevocably, competitive animals. To comply with the laws of evolution, it couldn't be any other way."

This version of the argument is made not just by op-ed writers, but by some leading biologists, too.

When asked about Marxism, for example, the Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson is said to have replied, "Wonderful theory. Wrong species." Or according to the influential evolutionary theorist Michael Ghiselin, "If the hypothesis of natural selection is both sufficient and true, it is impossible for a genuinely disinterested or 'altruistic' behavior pattern to evolve."

A transit workers speaks at an Occupy Wall Street general assembly in New York
A transit workers speaks at an Occupy Wall Street general assembly in New York

On Ghiselin's account, when humans appear to be acting in non-selfish ways, we are really being deceptive and simply calculating how to advance our individual interests more effectively. So someone helps a neighbor in distress, but perhaps they only do it to gain social prestige.


IF EVOLUTION involves a battle for survival between individuals, with each one attempting to spread their genes to the next generation, doesn't it follow that the ones who put their own interests ahead of everyone else's will be most successful? And doesn't that mean that humans must be fundamentally selfish?

In fact, Charles Darwin, who developed evolutionary theory in the 19th century, didn't think so. He pointed out that in many instances in which people appear to act selflessly, there isn't enough time for them to calculate how this will affect them:

Many a civilized man, or even boy, has disregarded the instinct of self-preservation, and plunged at once into a torrent to save a drowning man, though a stranger. Such actions...are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or pain to be felt at the time.

Darwin went further and argued that evolution has made us empathetic to the needs of others, allowing humans to embrace the golden rule: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise."

How is this possible? To begin with, it's necessary to distinguish two different meanings of the word "altruism." In ordinary conversation when people use the term, they are generally referring to someone's motivations. An altruist in this sense is someone who has genuine concern for others and who is prepared to sacrifice some of their own interests to benefit another person.

But in biology, altruism is a technical concept that has no direct connection to motivation or psychology. Organisms that are too simple to even have a psychology can still exhibit altruism in the biological sense if they do things that reduce their own reproductive fitness--that is, the likelihood that they will survive and reproduce--while increasing the reproductive fitness of another organism.

These two notions of altruism are quite distinct. Biological altruism has to do with the effects of behavior, not its causes. Psychological altruism has to do with the causes of behavior, not its effects.

As we just noted, there can be biological altruism without psychological altruism. The converse is also true.

If I distribute condoms at my own expense to strangers in the hope of reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, I am apparently being a psychological altruist. But my behavior is not altruistic in the biological sense, because I am reducing the likelihood that the recipients of my gifts will reproduce.


FROM ALL this, it follows that there is no contradiction in believing both that human beings are the product of evolution and that we are capable of being motivated by concern for others and acting cooperatively with them.

One way that this could come about was first suggested by Darwin, who believed natural selection could act on groups as well as on individuals.

If two groups of organisms are competing for resources in a particular region, a group whose members cooperate and are motivated by genuine concern for one another may very well do better than one in which every individual is motivated only by concern for their own well-being.

Not only is this possible, but there is strong evidence for thinking it is true with respect to humans. For example, in recent years, the anthropologist and primatologist Christopher Boehm has argued that the decisive event in human evolution was the emergence of egalitarianism.

Our closest primate relatives--chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas--all live in groups with strict hierarchies of dominance, and so it is likely that our closest common ancestors with these other species also lived in hierarchical groups.

But based on what we know about contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, there is strong reason to believe that around 100,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in relatively egalitarian groups in which males--and in some groups, probably both males and females--treated each other as equals.

Summarizing Boehm's views, the philosopher of biology Elliott Sober writes:

[E]galitarian groups in our ancestral past featured individual autonomy, a leveling of economic inequality, generosity and decision-making by consensus, with leaders executing the general will, not imposing their will on others. The rank and file, consisting of both men and women, held leaders in check by a series of sanctions of increasing seriousness. There was gossip, ridicule, ostracism and, finally, execution. If contemporary egalitarian groups are any guide, the more extreme measures on this list were rarely employed, the threat of countermeasures usually being a sufficient deterrent.

Boehm believes that such societies developed because language, increased human intelligence and the development of weapons, gave their members the ability to organize together and prevent the imposition of a top-down hierarchy. By contrast, apes lack these advantages, and so were and are unable to resist the emergence of hierarchy.

Of course, over the past 10,000 years, most human societies have become grossly inegalitarian, but this later development was the result of specific historical developments, not the consequence of some inevitable feature of human biology. The fact that for most of the past 100,000 years, modern humans lived in egalitarian societies is enough to show that our biology does not necessitate social inequality.

After egalitarian groups were established, Boehm argues that competition between them led to the development of greater altruism and of morality. These further changes were the result of cultural, rather than biological, evolution.


IN RESPONSE to the argument that humans are essentially selfish and competitive, some people suggest that the opposite is true--evolution has made us essentially altruistic and cooperative. Boehm makes a different argument. On his view, human nature is complex and contradictory. Natural selection has given us a capacity for altruism and kindness, but we also have capacities for selfishness, aggression, greed, and so on. We are neither essentially selfish nor essentially altruistic.

In this respect, Boehm's view is similar to that of the evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote:

Why imagine that specific genes for aggression or spite have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality and kindness are just as biological--and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.

Boehm and Gould are right to argue that human nature is complex and flexible. Historically, this has meant that humans have been able to live in a variety of different social arrangements.

However, this obviously does not mean that some forms of society aren't better or worse than others. The inegalitarian and class-divided societies in which humans have lived for the past few millennia have frequently failed to meet even the most basic physical and psychological needs--including for food, shelter, social contact and affection--of the people who lived in them.

We also have a need to exercise control over our own lives and to engage in activities that make use of our creative abilities. Capitalism, like other forms of class society, frustrates these needs, leading those who are exploited to fight back against it. Those struggles can begin to show the possibility and necessity of creating a different kind of world.

The major question facing humanity in the 21st century is whether capitalism can be successfully replaced by a genuine socialist alternative based on democracy, equality and sustainability. There is nothing inevitable about socialism, but there is nothing in our history or biology that makes it impossible either.

Our human nature is not only compatible with socialism--it will flourish if socialism becomes a reality.

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