Saturday, March 25, 2017
Kin Selection and Political Evolution
What follows is the beginning of a paper I will present in Vancouver next month.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,
In the Politics [1252a ff.], Aristotle presents us with an almost evolutionary account of the origin of political communities. “If we look at the growth of things from their beginning,” he tells us, we will be in the best position to speculate about the nature of the political community. So, he begins with the most elementary human community: that of man and women and their offspring and “that which by nature can rule and that which by nature is to be ruled. The latter include beasts of burden, whether human (slaves) or other animals. That he includes the second association tells us that this is not an evolutionary account, a point to which we shall return.
If we ignore the second elementary community, we can easily make an evolutionary story out of Aristotle’s account. Families, which serve everyday needs come together into villages. The most natural version of the latter is the enlarged clan. This is why the “first cities” were ruled by kings and why human beings still imagine that the gods are so ruled, for the rule of the king is the natural extension of the rule of the father. A union of villages comes next, which must include a number of clans, and this larger group can achieve self-sufficiency. It is the polis, the political community, and while it comes to be for the sake of living (meeting our biological needs), it exists for the sake of the good life. That last comment is vitally important, for it distinguishes the driving force of evolution from the agenda that human beings can follow when their basic biological needs are met with plenty. Alone among living creatures, human beings get to decide what to do with our time.
Until fairly recently, evolutionary social theory followed the same lines as Aristotle. It was assumed that our ancestors first lived together in small, extended families and that these come together in larger and larger groups. In fact, it was probably the other way around. When the Ur ancestors of all the hominims first came down out of the trees, we did so in groups of individuals who were not necessarily closely related. We came down in groups because group size was the only defense we had against the predators which hunted on the ground. It is unlikely that anything like a family existed yet, if we define family as both a mother and a father who together invest in the rearing of their offspring. This doesn’t mean that familial instincts were not a fundamental force in social evolution or that Aristotle is wrong about the family as a template for the emergence of political forms.
In this essay, I will argue that the human family is both a cause and effect of our social evolution. You cannot have a human family as we understand it without a larger community to support it, nor can you have the emergence of the larger human communities, leading up to the political community, without such families. As the pre-human species explored the various routes to cooperation that natural selection allowed, the potentially political larger community and the family co-evolved.