Category Archives: Human Nature-Scientific

Evolution, Ethics, Hope, and Religion

Trees and Bushes

There are many issues surrounding the connection between evolution and: progress, ethics, hope, or religion. For instance, some Darwinists and philosophers think of the evolution of species as progressive, that some animals have increased in complexity over time thus resulting in, for instance, bigger brains. But Darwin generally used the term “descent with modification” which doesn’t connate progress. And some Darwinists deny that species change is necessarily progressive. In fact, natural selection doesn’t imply that species are better, only that they are better adapted to their environment. More complex species may go extinct while simpler ones may survive. Evolution may not be like a tree sprouting upward, but more like a bush sprouting sideways.

Historical Progress

Turning to progress in human history, Kant, Hegel, Marx and other modern thinkers espoused progressive views of history that echoed the positive interpretations of history found in the Western monotheistic religions. But if we’ve generally lost hope in religious stories of progress, have we not also lost faith in secular progress as well? We may be becoming smarter or more moral, but then again we may not be.

Theism, Darwinism, or Both?

Evolution is so well confirmed that it is essentially a fact in the same way that the earth is round or goes around the sun. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or scientifically illiterate.) Still, many religious fundamentalists refuse to accept the science and prefer their creation myths. Somewhat more sophisticated believers suggest that their God didn’t create things literally, but used cosmic evolution to create us. (A strange way for an omnipotent being to proceed—taking about 14 billion years to complete the task!)

Others argue that biological evolution reduces us to being just animals. But Darwin didn’t draw that conclusion. We may be human-animals, but that doesn’t mean that ethical or aesthetic standards no longer apply to us. We are at least a special kind of animal. So even if we aren’t different in kind from our evolutionary ancestors, or there was no exact moment at which we did became different in kind from them, we are still vastly different from them now. So our values as persons needn’t be undermined by considerations of our origins.

Ethical Values and Evolution 

Religious objections to evolution emanate from concerns that evolution implies that values aren’t objective, or life no longer meaningful. But the fact that there are biological underpinnings to human altruism, doesn’t mean that altruism is reducible to biology. Our brain states affect our values, but our values also affect our brain states. So while there are many reasons to doubt the objectivity of ethics, facts about our origins aren’t one of them.  We can still choose our values independent of considerations of our origins, with the caveat that our origins still inform our ethical choices.

Is Monogamy Natural?

Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart): A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn): Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ The African Queen (1951)

Which is more natural for human beings, monogamy1 or polygamy? If one is more natural, does that make it preferable?

Most documented human societies, about 85%, have been polygamous. This almost always involves polygyny, men having multiple wives. Polyandry, wives having multiple husbands and polyamory, having more than one consensual, intimate relationship at the same time, are far less common. Even in so-called monogamous cultures people have affairs, and they often engage in serial monogamy, the custom of having multiple, consecutive sexual relationships but not more than one at a time. Perhaps humans are naturally polygamous.

Yet there are examples in nature of mostly monogamous relationships: lar gibbons, mute swans, Malagasy giant rats, waved albatrosses, California mouses, black vultures, shingleback skinks, sandhill cranes, prairie voles, convict cichlids, some African antelopes, and … humans. Humans are capable of long-term, happy, monogamous relationships, just as they are capable of having polygamous ones.

So it is hard to say whether monogamy or polygamy is more natural. It might be like asking whether it is more natural to speak English or German. Humans are wired to learn language just as they naturally crave contact with others, but culture largely determines the language they learn and the forms of their relationships.  Nature doesn’t determine which language or relationship is best. And even if one is more natural than the other that doesn’t make it better. Some natural things are good, but some are bad—like smallpox!

Moreover, humans have both long-term and short-term mating strategies. We associate long-term mating strategies with monogamy. These strategies value commitment, gene quality, economic prospects and parenting skills. We associate short-term mating strategies with polygamy. These strategies value physical attractiveness, sex appeal, and sexual experience. But nature doesn’t decree which types of relationships are morally or biologically better.

Regarding the origins of monogamy the situation is straightforward:

The genetic evidence for the evolution of monogamy in humans is more complex but much more straightforward. While female effective population size (the number of individuals successfully producing offspring thus contributing to the gene pool), as indicated by mitochondrial-DNA evidence, increased around the time of human (not hominid) expansion out of Africa about 80,000–100,000 years ago, male effective population size, as indicated by Y-chromosome evidence, did not increase until the advent of agriculture 18,000 years ago. This means that before 18 000 years ago, many females would be reproducing with the same few males.[36]

This strongly suggests that monogamy is a cultural imperative, not a biological one. And the modern world favors monogamy—polygamy is illegal in the entire developed world.  Why the transition from polygamy to monogamy? The main reason is that polygyny is detrimental to society. It creates an incentive for men to take many wives, leaving other men without wives—and men without mates cause problems. In polygynous societies levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality are greater than in monogamous ones as a recent study at the University of British Columbia confirmed:

… monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment …

Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households, and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households …

… By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

It seems that we should favor the wisdom of culture over our genetic lease. Still, you might object. “Even if it’s in society’s interests to have stable monogamous unions that doesn’t mean it’s in mine. I like polygamous or polyandrous relationships.” It is hard to give a knockdown argument against this. If all involved parties are happier in such relationships, and the effects on society are limited, then so be it.

I can only speak for myself by echoing the words of that great freethinker Voltaire:

As I had now seen all that was beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home; I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt, I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.2


1. I am referring to marital monogamy, marriages of two people only, and social monogamy, two partners living together, having sex together, and cooperating in acquiring basic resources.

2. Voltaire, The Travels of Scarmentado.

Summary of Darwinism on Human Nature

Three quarter length portrait of Darwin aged about 30, with straight brown hair receding from his high forehead and long side-whiskers, smiling quietly, in wide lapelled jacket, waistcoat and high collar with cravat.

Darwinian Theories of Human Nature

(This is my summary of a section of a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature,  by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press. There is an outline of the material at the end of the post.)

What does modern biology say about human nature? To understand the answer to this question let us look the history of evolutionary ideas.

Evolutionary Theory, Stage I: Darwin and his Contemporaries – Before Darwin came along scientists in the 18th and 19th century realized the world was much older than the Judeo-Christian tradition had assumed. Geologists like Charles Lyell realized that layers of rocks or soil were formed by processes like eruption, sedimentation, and erosion over vast periods of time. Scientists before Darwin had also discovered fossils of creatures that no longer existed. Many thinkers, including Darwin’s Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, had realized that the organisms that exist now had come from predecessors through a series of small changes. [Even some pre-Socratic philosophers had theories of evolution.]

Darwin on Natural Selection – Of course, it is one thing to realize that something had happened but quite another to show how it had happened. What Darwin realized was that natural selection was the mechanism for evolution. The most prominent theory about how this had happened before was Lamarck’s theory. Lamarck believed in the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” If animals, for example, stretch their necks they might pass on long necks to their offspring. [Or if you lift weights you might pass on your muscles to your offspring.] Darwin, who came to Cambridge to study first medicine and then theology, found himself most fascinated with biology and geology—which led to his getting a position as the naturalist about the HMS Beagle on its five-year trip around the world.

During his excursion, he found bones of huge, extinct animals, the fossilized remains of sea creatures, an earthquake in Chile that uplifted earth, and other evidence of the processes of geological change. And of course, he saw the birds and other animals in the Galapagos Islands, which were similar to those of the mainland but differed from one island to another. Even the beaks of little finches differed from one island to the other, in each case so as to help them get food on that island. Shortly after his return to England, he came up with the idea of natural selection, but he did not publish the idea for almost twenty years since they were so controversial. Finally, after Alfred Wallace had arrived at the same conclusions, his friends encouraged him to publish so that he could get the credit.

The basic idea of evolution can be logically deduced from 4 basic empirical facts:

1) Variation of traits exists among individuals in a given species [look at other humans]
2) Traits of parents are passed on to offspring [look at people’s parents]

You can easily see both of the above by looking around you. This is how we have bred animals and plants for thousands of years. Just like humans artificially select to modify species—hence all those different dogs walking around—so too does nature select. And that’s called natural selection. Here are the other two facts:

3) The population of species can increase quickly, and
4) An environment’s resources typically cannot support such increases.

Fact #3 can be confirmed when you realize that any pair of organisms can produce more than two offspring, in some cases thousands of offspring. Along with fact #4, this means that only a small portion of offspring reach maturity and reproduce and that there is a competition to survive and reproduce. Given fact #1 we can logically infer that some individuals, because of their differences, have a better chance to survive and leave offspring than other individuals. Thus the traits of those individuals that reproduce will be passed on. This means that the characteristic of populations gradually change and, given enough time, this will lead to new species. All you need is natural selection working on individuals with different traits. (Darwin also recognized sexual selection, the process of selecting for traits that help individuals reproduce—color of birds, antlers of the stag, or a peacock’s tail.)The Origin of Species is basically 700 pages of evidence to support his logical inference—evidence from selective breeding, natural history, paleontology, and more.

Darwin on Human Evolution – While others immediately saw the implications of his theory for human bodies, Darwin waited another 12 years to publish The Descent of Man. In it he used anatomical, medical, embryological, and behavioral evidence to support the thesis that the human body has a common ancestry with other animals. Today biological evolution is acknowledged as a fact beyond any reasonable doubt by biologists. The overwhelming evidence for this today comes from literally dozens of sciences including but not limited to: comparative anatomy, botany, embryology, biochemistry, genetics, anthropology, geology, molecular biology, chemistry, mathematics, population ecology, zoology, and more. This is as well established as anything in science.

[Evolution is as well established as that gravity or atoms exist! It is every bit as certain as that the earth is (roughly) round and goes around the sun! Anyone who tells you that evolution is false is either a) lying; or b) scientifically illiterate. The only way to imagine it is false is if intelligent aliens or deceptive gods are playing tricks with our minds! But you don’t have to trust me. Here is a link to a statement on the issue from the National Academy of Sciences, the most important scientific body in the world. You could also visit hundreds of other scientific websites to confirm this claim. Even better, major in biology at a good university and you can learn to understand this fact first hand. ]

Social Darwinism – But what are the social, ethical, or religious implications of the theory? Specifically, can a scientific fact imply anything about values? Can you get an ought from an is? It seems not. For example, it may be a scientific fact that penicillin cures certain bacterial infections, but that doesn’t mean that you ought to take penicillin (unless you value health.) Or it may be a fact that large amounts of energy are released when we split atoms, but that doesn’t imply that you ought to split atoms. Similarly, the fact of evolution doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. (Defenders of this view say that those who think you can get facts from values commit the naturalistic fallacy.)

Still others say that since evolution implies the most biologically fit survive and reproduce, and since biological success might be thought of as the ultimate value, those who survive must be the most valuable. They take Darwinism to imply that we should do everything we can to survive, that greed is good, etc. [Not surprisingly Ayn Rand, the matron of today’s Republican Party in the USA, titled her work on ethics: The Virtue of Selfishness.] In other words those who survive are not the biological fittest, but basically the fittest in a larger sense. [In the USA today this is generally taken to mean those with the most money.]

This also implies that charity, health-care, social security, public education, child care, etc are pointless. You must let the inferior die; they cannot possibly be as valuable as the idle rich! Many thinkers in the USA in the 19th century adopted this attitude, and it was as common among the robber barons at that time as it is among large elements of today’s Republican Party in America. It advocates competition to weed out the 47% who are Ayn Rand’s or Mitt Romney’s or US Senator Paul Ryan’s moochers. It is but a small step from social Darwinism to racism and genocide. But it doesn’t follow that those who are biologically fit—like cockroaches—are morally, artistically, intellectually, spiritually, or psychologically fit. Those who have the most children or the most money aren’t necessarily the best in other ways. And social Darwinism was not Darwin’s idea, nor did he subscribe to it. The idea came from the philosopher Herbert Spencer and was embraced by the wealthy in America in the 19th century, as it still in large part is. [How ironic that so many of the opponents of biological Darwinism in the American political arena, primarily from the right, are supporters of social Darwinism. They disbelieve what we know to be true, and believe what we know to be false.]

Darwin’s Own Values – Darwin suggested that not only had human bodies evolved from lower forms but so too had our intelligence, language, emotions, morality, and religion. [Today we know that Darwin was right about all this. He was, I believe, the most important human being who has yet lived.] Darwin knew he was speculating by extending evolution from human bodies to their minds and behaviors. And some of his ideas, especially about selection operating at the level of the group—group selection—are still matters of controversy today. [Yes there are controversies about how evolution happened, but none about that it happened.] He also realized that culture, as well as biology, influenced ethical values and religious beliefs. Darwin believed that human sympathy and compassion were noble. By all accounts, he was a humble man, dedicated father, and affectionate husband.

The reply to social Darwinism is that evolution has given us sympathy and concern for our fellows, and the intelligence to make a just and moral world. This is every bit as natural as a survival of the fittest. But in the end, the appeal to the ethics of Kant or Marx or Christianity at its best goes well beyond any biological imperative. As for religion, many pages have been spilled on the issue of Darwin’s religious beliefs. But anyone serious about discovering his views will conclude that by the end of his life he was almost certainly a closet atheist. He had come a long way from preparing for the clergy as a young man.

Charles Robert Darwin is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey, not far from Sir Isaac Newton.

Evolutionary Theory, Stage II: The Reaction Against Biological Accounts of Human Nature



Gregor Mendel





The Genetic Basis of Heredity – Darwin knew that there are variations between individuals and that these variations are inherited, but he didn’t know the mechanism of inheritance. This mechanism was discovered by Gregor Mendel who figured out that distinct casual factors—what we call genes—are passed from parents to offspring. We now know that sometimes genes change or mutate randomly, which accounts for genetic variation. Putting Mendelian genetics together with Darwinian natural selection along with precise mathematically modeling resulted in the “modern synthesis.” [This feat accomplished during the 1930s and 1940s is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.] To make the ideas even stronger, the biochemical basis of gene copying was uncovered with the discovery of DNA in 1953 by Crick and Watson. This ushered in the era of molecular biology so that we now understand evolution at a molecular level that Darwin couldn’t imagine. Today, in laboratories around the world, biological evolution is confirmed over and over every single day! Over and over and over; day after day after day! 

Crick & Watson



Eugenics, Racism, and Sexism – Many were led to the conclusion that evolution implied that there are innate differences between individuals, sexes, or races. Perhaps this implies that we should let the physically or mentally weak die or at least keep them from breeding. This led to the idea of eugenics, the study of how to produce fit offspring. In the early twentieth century, much of the western world was enamored with this idea. Yet even if this was ethically acceptable, it is practically impossible to know who has “bad” genes. Moreover, such judgments, as Darwin himself realized, were sociological, not biological. What we call different races are all the same species. Racism and sexism all emanate from prejudice against groups with no biological justification for such prejudice. [Race is not a justifiable biological concept. More genetic diversity exists within populations than between them.]

The Reaction in Favor of Culture and Education: Intelligence Tests, Sociology, and Anthropology – Many went further to suggest that woman and some racial groups were intellectually inferior to white men. But this raises a number of questions. Is there some single thing called intelligence that can be measured? Even if there were how would it be measured. Are there different kinds of intelligence, say social or moral intelligence as compared to simply being good at math or language? And even if we had tests to measure this supposed intelligence how do we know if the results are due to innate ability or social opportunities? Today the whole idea of intelligence measurement is controversial.

Moreover, the burgeoning social sciences of the 19th century placed more emphasis on the influence of culture rather than biology to explain human behavior. (With the exception of some basic biological functioning.) Social scientists generally say that facts about human beings are: 1) physical; 2) psychological; and 3) social/cultural. Most importantly social facts are not reducible to psychological or physical facts. This means that social facts really exist just as physical things do. [There really are such things as sub-cultures or societies.] Social facts are facts about wholes that cannot be reduced to their parts. [Society is not just a collection of individuals.] The social world strongly affects the individual. Culture is not reducible to biology. [If you were raised in a non-English speaking culture, you would probably not have learned English.] However none of this implies cultural relativism. Some cultures may be better than others, at least in certain ways.

John B. Watson

The Reaction Against Instinct Theory: Behaviorist Psychology – There was also a reaction against supposedly Darwinian ideas in psychology, especially the idea of instincts. To put psychology on a more scientific basis John B. Watson (1878-1958) proposed that psychology study observable behaviors and reject the appeal to vague notions like instincts, intentions, or other mental states. He was so adamant about the influence of the environment that he thought he could make any healthy child a world-class scholar, musician, or athlete if the right environment were provided. This program was carried forth by B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) at Harvard. Skinner argued the environment selects behaviors by rewarding them or eliminates behaviors by punishing them. [Classical and operant conditioning.] In other words, Skinner emphasized that behavior was explained by environmental causes. While there is some truth in all this, studies of identical twins reared apart—who share identical genomes—reveal the strong influence on the biological as compared to the environmental.

B.F. Skinner at Harvard circa 1950.jpg  B.F. Skinner

Because of the perversions of social Darwinism, racism, sexism and all the other immoral ideas attached to Darwinism, the biology of human nature was ignored until the 1960s. And while we acknowledge the horrors of racism and sexism and social Darwinism, we should also not ignore facts about our biology. In the last few decades, a new wave of thinkers rediscovered and extended the Darwinian paradigm further than Darwin could ever imagine. They have brought about a scientific revolution. We now turn to these ideas.

Evolutionary Theory, Stage III: The Return to Human Nature

Genes and Memes –  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s evolutionary was further confirmed and understood at greater depths than ever before. Mathematical insights shed light on adaptation, kin selection [altruism toward close relatives], reciprocal altruism [directed toward away from relatives even toward other species], and the relevance of game theory to evolving populations [for example, non-human animals often find themselves in situations with the structure of a prisoner’s dilemma.]

 Richard Dawkins

This research meant that evolution could be understood at the level of the gene, an idea popularized by Richard Dawkins in his famous book, The Selfish Gene. The very title of the book helps us see evolution in terms of the competition of genes trying to survive. [With today’s mathematical modeling we can understand this in great detail.] At the end of the book, Dawkins argued that culture evolves analogously to biology only much faster. The elements of culture that are selected for are ideas, beliefs, practices, fashions, etc. Dawkins called these “memes.” Some memes catch on and survive–say a belief in gods or immortality or wings for aircraft—while others go extinct—like the idea of celibacy for everyone or wings attached to your arms. Like genes, memes are transferred from person to person, only rather than being transferred from one body to another, they are transferred from one brain to another. This means you can spread memes must faster than you can spread genes. Cultural evolution is very fast while biological evolution proceeds very slowly. [Cultural evolution also seems to be guided by Lamarckian “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” You inherit your religious or sports team loyalties from say your parents, who acquired them.]

Niko Tinbergen

The Rise of Ethology – In the mid-twentieth century a new discipline arose, ethology, which studies animal behavior in its natural environment. The key finding was that much behavior is physiologically innate or hard-wired. Many behaviors in animals can’t be explained by environmental conditioning. They exist independent of experience or learning, they are fixed. It seems evolution has designed species-wide behaviors. Regarding animal behavior, the great ethologist Niko Tinbergen discovered that the explanations usually were in muscle contractions, hormone secretions, fetal development, and previous learning with the goal to of surviving and reproducing. In other words, much animal behavior depends on causes that are innate to those animals.

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz (1903 -1989) became famous for studying animal behavior, especially the imprinting of ducks to the first moving thing they see. He assumed imprinting was an innate feature of many animals, but he reached this conclusion too easily—how does one know which traits are learned and which are innate? Moreover, if an anti-social behavior is innate, can it be eradicated or are we stuck with it? Lorenz did believe in group selection, but as we have seen the level or levels at which selection operates is still open to debate.

Noam Chomsky portrait 2017.jpg Noam Chomsky

Chomsky and Cognitive Psychology –  While B.F. Skinner thought that language could be explained by the social environment, the linguist Noam Chomsky showed that human facility with language is different from other animal behaviors.  All normal humans can learn language and no animal language approaches the complexity of human language. Even chimps who use sign language fall far short of human language. Chomsky famously argued that the speed at which infants learn language and grammatical rules suggests that a capacity for language is innate. There is a universal human grammar, and it is a result of our evolutionary history. [This has been the most influential idea in 20th-century linguistics.] In short, our facility with language is an evolutionary adaptation, a feature selected for in our long evolutionary history. Language aids survival. Today research on this topic is pursued by linguists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists.

[Today Chomsky is known mostly as a political philosopher and social critic, especially as a critic of American domestic and foreign policy. Despite writing voluminously on political topics, despite a fearless desire to debate anyone, anywhere, you will almost never see him on TV or noted in the mass media. His ideas are generally censored from the masses. Here is a collection of his essays: Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013.]

Plos wilson.jpg E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology – But if language has a strong evolutionary component, then wouldn’t other human behaviors? The Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson was the first to argue convincingly and vehemently that the humanities and social sciences can be reduced to biology, and that all this leads to the new science of sociobiology. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, On Human Nature, Wilson offers biological explanations for human social behaviors like aggression, sex, ethics, and religion. [I think this is one of the most important books of the 20th century. And it is eminently readable.] Needless to say Wilson’s ideas have provoked controversy, especially from social scientists who don’t want to believe their fields can be biologized. Moreover, they fear that Wilson’s views give support to those who would misuse them for racist or sexist views. Even some biologists believe he is underestimating the influence of culture. The political implications of Wilson’s theories are thought by some to be so controversial, that this grey-haired grandfather once had a bucket of water dumped on his head at a conference!

But Wilson’s detractors were wrong. He clearly saw that both biology and culture as influential on human nature, and he made this clear to anyone who read his books carefully. In fact he wrote an entire book on gene-culture coevolution. Still, he may have been right when he said that, for the moment, “genes hold culture on a leash.” We are not that far removed from our evolutionary past; its imprint is apparent in our behaviors.

Cosmides/Tooby and the Integrated Causal Model – What Wilson called sociobiology goes by other names like evolutionary psychology or evolutionary anthropology. This school of thought applies Darwinian insights to the human mind and human behaviors. Key premises are: 1) universal human nature refers primarily to evolved psychological mechanisms; 2) these mechanisms are adaptations selected for over many generations that helped us survive and reproduce, (remember though what was formerly adaptive and what is now adapted can be different—going to college may now be adaptive, aggression may no longer be); 3) our minds contain adaptations from distant ancestors, all the way back to the Pleistocene. This final point has been challenged by evidence that genes may evolve faster than previously thought.

Image result for Cosmides and Tooby    Cosmides and Tooby

Cosmides and Tooby, an anthropologist and psychologist respectively, also critique the standard social science emphasis on the environmental factors. Because social scientists fear racist and sexist ideologies, they argue, they have been blind to the overwhelming evidence for evolutionarily produced cognitive mechanisms. Like Wilson, they propose that a complex web of causal factors produced human nature. Behind any human phenomena is 1) natural selection operating over eons of time producing innate cognitive structures; 2) historical development; 3) unique genes as the result of sexual reproduction; 4) physical, cultural, and social environments; and 5) information processing which leads to beliefs and desires.

What all this means is that there are innate mental modules resulting from natural selection that operated on our distant ancestors, especially regarding factors relevant to reproductive fitness like perception, language, cooperation, mate selection, parental care. [Harvard’s Steven Pinker and Rutgers’ Helen Fischer both write about these issues for popular audiences.] Still all of this is open to further investigation. Human nature is complex and there is much more to be learned.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love

Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love


Evolutionary Theory, Part IV: Hope for Humanity

Trees and Bushes

There are many issues surrounding the connection between evolution and progress, ethics, hope, or religion. For instance, some Darwinists and philosophers think of the evolution of species as progressive, that some animals now are more complex or now have bigger brains. But Darwin generally used the term “descent with modification” which doesn’t connate progress. And some Darwinists deny that species change is necessarily progressive. In fact, natural selection doesn’t imply that species are better only that they are better adapted to their environment. More complex species may go extinct while simpler ones may survive. Evolution may not be like a tree sprouting upward, but more like a bush sprouting sideways.

Historical Progress

Turning to progress in human history, Kant, Hegel, Marx and other modern thinkers espoused progressive views of history that echoed the positive interpretations of history found in the Western monotheistic religions. But if we’ve generally lost hope in religious stories of progress, have we not also lost faith in secular progress as well? We might become smarter or more moral, but then again we might not.

Theism, Darwinism, or Both?

Evolution is so well confirmed that it is essentially a fact in the same way that the earth is round or goes around the sun. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or scientifically illiterate.) Still, many religious fundamentalists refuse to accept the science and prefer their creation myths instead. Somewhat more sophisticated believers suggest that their God didn’t create things literally, but used cosmic evolution to create us. (A strange way for an omnipotent being to proceed—that took about 14 billion years!)

Others argue that biological evolution reduces us to being just animals. But Darwin himself didn’t draw that conclusion. We may be human-animals, but that doesn’t mean that ethical or aesthetic standards no longer apply to us. We are at least special kinds of animals. So even if there was no exact moment at which humans became different in kind from their evolutionary ancestors, we can still say that we are vastly different now. Or consider that though our brains are products of evolution, that doesn’t imply the truth of our beliefs. In short, our values as persons needn’t be undermined by considerations of our origins.

Ethical Values and Evolution 

Religious objections to evolution surely emanate from concerns that evolution implies that values are no longer objective or life no longer meaningful. But the fact that there are biological underpinnings to human altruism, for example, doesn’t mean that all altruism can be reduced to biology. While there are many reasons to doubt the objectivity of ethics, facts about our origins aren’t one of them. In the end, while our brain states affect our values, our values affect also our brain states. We can choose our values independent of any considerations of our origins.

My Final Thoughts

Darwin himself was a scientist who was unafraid of the truth:

[Humans in their] arrogance think [themselves] a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider [them] created from animals. 

Yet at the same time he was an artist who saw beauty in that truth:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

He was also, by all accounts, a wonderful father and husband too.

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgewood

Finally, allow me to reiterate that Darwin is one of my greatest intellectual heroes, and he may have been the most influential person in human history. Today multiple sciences converge on his basic insight—which is true beyond any reasonable doubt. He gave us the greatest idea we have, and perhaps will ever have, an idea applicable to everything from the cell to the cosmos. Without a basic understanding of evolution, one lives in intellectual darkness. Before encountering Darwin that’s where I lived, and I thank him for showing me the light.

Summary Outline

Biological Darwinism

  1. Biological evolution was in the air in the 19th century.
  2. Darwin was the first to realize the mechanism—natural selection.
  3. He supported his claim with mountains of evidence.
  4. He didn’t publish the results—that non-human animal bodies evolve—for about 20 years.
  5. He later extended the argument to human-animal bodies.
  6. Today we know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt.

Social Darwinism

  1. Scientific facts seem independent of values. Is doesn’t imply ought.  
  2. But social Darwinists say if individuals survive, they must be better people.
  3. This attitude is reflected in political attitudes—winners are good people; losers are bad people.
  4. But why does biological survival or money make you a better person?
  5. Darwin was not a social Darwinist.

Laws of Inheritance and Genes

  1. Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance.
  2. The modern synthesis united Darwinian natural selection & Mendelian genetics.
  3. This was one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.
  4. The exact molecular structure of the gene was discovered in the 1950s.
  5. Today biologists understand evolution all the way down to the molecular level.

The Reaction Against Biology – Eugenics, Racism, Sexism, Behaviorism

  1. Eugenics is about producing fit offspring.
  2. Some people think that certain races or sexes are less intelligent or have bad genes.
  3. But Darwin recognized these were sociological judgments.
  4. And race is a weak proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics.
  5. Also, the social and cultural play a large role in influencing traits.
  6. Watson and Skinner believed that our nature was primarily shaped by our environment.

Biology Ascends Again

  1. We now have detailed mathematical modeling of genetic evolution.
  2. Cultural ideas and beliefs evolve too—as memes.
  3. Lorenz found that many animal behaviors are hard-wired by genes.
  4. Chomsky showed that the ability to learn human language is hard-wired.
  5. E. O. Wilson argued that all human social behaviors have largely biological explanations.
  6. Others argue that social scientists generally reject biological explanations for human behavior because they associate those explanations with racism and sexism. But biology largely determines our nature.



Summary of Freud’s Basic Ideas

Image result for freud

Freud: The Unconscious Basis of Mind

(This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Freud’s Career  – Freud (1856 – 1939) grew up in Vienna where he lived until the last year of his life. He was an outstanding student with a broad range of academic interests, he attended the University of Vienna medical school, and worked as a physician before setting up a private practice in nervous disorders at the age of thirty. He continued that work for the rest of his life.

In the first phase of his intellectual career, “he put forth some original hypotheses about the nature of neurotic problems, and began to develop his distinctive method of treatment, which came to be known as psychoanalysis.” From his early experiences conducted with middle-class Viennese women, Freud hypothesized that emotional symptoms had their roots in a long-forgotten emotional trauma that needed to be recalled so that the emotions associated with it could be discharged. [This mechanical model is itself problematic. Do humans build up pressure like machines? Is there a better model to describe them?] This was the beginning of the idea of psychoanalysis. Freud also found that in many cases patients reported their trauma originated in sexual abuse—although he was uncertain how often these reports were reliable. Freud postulated that psychology had a physical basis in the brain, but neurophysiology was not developed enough at the time to confirm this.

Around the turn of the century, he also began to formulate theories about sexual development and the interpretation of dreams. Ideas common to our lexicon would subsequently spring up—resistance, repression, and transference. Such ideas were applied to everyone’s mental life, giving birth to a new psychological theory. Starting around 1920, Freud changed his theories introducing the death and life instincts, as well as his division of the mind into the id, ego, and superego. In his later years, he wrote his most philosophical works. The Future of an Illusion regarded religion “as a system of false beliefs whose deep infantile root in our minds can be explained psychoanalytically,” and Civilization and Its Discontents “discussed the alleged conflict between individual drives and the morals of civilized society.”

The Future of an Illusion  Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud escaped Austria right before the start of World War II and died a year later in London. [Freud suffered terribly from cancer of the jaw in the final months of his life. On September 21 and 22  his doctor administered the doses of morphine, as he had promised and Freud requested, that resulted in Freud’s death on 23 September 1939.]

Metaphysical Background: Neuroscience, Determinism, and Materialism – Freud began his career as a physiologist who always tried to explain all phenomena scientifically. He had no use for theology or transcendent metaphysics, believing instead that the human condition could be improved by the application of science and reason. Living post-Darwin, Freud recognized that human beings are animals related to all living things, and he believed that both mental and physical events are determined by physical causes. This meant that Freud was a materialist regarding mind—as almost all philosophers and scientists are today—mental states, including unconscious states, are dependent upon brain states. He left the project of discovering the relationship between mental states and the brain to future scientists, a project that has developed enormously since his time.

Theory of Human Nature: Mental Determinism, The Unconscious, Drives, and Child Development – The first major idea in Freud’s theory of human nature is the application of determinism to psychology. This would seem to imply that humans do not possess free will, but Freud was ambivalent about that philosophical question. On the one hand, he thought the contents of consciousness are determined by the individual’s psychological and biological drives, while on the other hand, he believed that we sometimes make rational decisions and judgments. (This is similar to Marx’s view, although Marx held that the causes of the contents of our consciousness were primarily social and economic.)

The second key idea in Freud’s theorizing is the postulation of the unconscious. For Freud, there are not only preconscious states, those we aren’t continually conscious of but can recall if needed, but unconscious states that can’t ordinarily become conscious.  Our minds contain elements of which we have no awareness, but which exert influence on us nonetheless. Some elements of the unconscious may have originally been conscious, say a traumatic event in childhood, but were subsequently repressed—a process of pushing ideas into the unconscious. [Is this is done consciously or unconsciously?] He also advanced his famous three-part division of the structure of the mind: 1) id, instinctual drives that seek immediate satisfaction according to the pleasure principle; 2) ego, conscious mental states governed by a reality principle; and 3) superego, the conscience, which confronts the ego with moral rules or feeling of guilt and anxiety. The ego tries to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id—I want candy—with the superego—you shouldn’t steal candy.

The third main idea in Freud is his focus on drives or instincts. These drives manifest themselves in multiple ways. Freud, following the mechanical models of his day, felt these drives need to be discharged or pressure builds up. [Again this is at best a model, and probably not a good one.] Freud emphasized the sexual drive to a much greater extent than any previous thinker, but other important drives include the drive for self-preservation and other life-enhancing drives (eros), as well as self-destructive drives for sadism, aggression or death instinct (Thanatos). However, Freud acknowledged these ideas were preliminary.

The fourth major aspect of Freud’s theorizing was his offering of a developmental account of human personalities. He places particular emphasis on the crucial importance of childhood for future psychological development. [Be nice to your children.] In fact, he didn’t believe you could understand any adult without knowing about facets of their childhood, including various sexual stages of development. And while Freud has been criticized for his focus on the Oedipus complex, most likely he was making the point that the love between parents and children foreshadowed adult love. However, if individuals don’t develop properly then psychoanalysis may be the only way one can reverse the damage of childhood.

Diagnosis: Mental Harmony, Repression, and Neurosis – “Like Plato, Freud held that individual well-being, happiness, or mental harmony depends on a harmonious relationship between various parts of the mind, and between the whole person and society.” [This might explain why some countries—most notably, New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, and Denmark—do so much better than other countries on the Social Progress Index.] The ego seeks to satisfy its demands, but if there is a dearth of opportunities to do this, pain and frustration ensue. Yet even in the best of situations, there is obsession, neuroticism, and other mental illness.

Freud believed that repression was a primary cause of neuroticism. If someone experiences drives or desires (or beliefs) that conflict with standards or norms they are supposed to adhere to, then such feelings are often repressed. Repression is a defense mechanism used to avoid mental conflict. But repression ultimately doesn’t work, for the desires or drives remain in the unconscious exerting their influence. They may lead to irrational behaviors that we cannot control. Furthermore, much of the blame for neuroses Freud attributes to the social world. Parents and other parts of culture may make unrealistic demands upon people. In fact, Freud speculated that entire societies can be described as neurotic. While the exact meaning of this claim is ambiguous, clearly some societies do better at providing the conditions in which individuals can flourish.

Prescription: Psychoanalytic Therapy – Freud hoped “that human problems could be diagnosed and ameliorated by the methods of science. His project was to restore a harmonious balance between parts of the mind and … to suggest a better balance between individuals and the social world.” Freud concentrated on the former—social reformers work on the latter—but he recognized the limits of working only with patients. Freud’s method, so well-known to us today, tried to get his patients talking uninhibitedly about their past. When patients stopped talking, Freud thought he was close to some repressed memory or idea. He thought that by bringing this material to the awareness of the rational, conscious mind, one could defeat these harmful thoughts.

Freud realized this process could take years, but such “psychotherapy” could eventually bring greater harmony for troubled individuals. He also found that patients manifested strong feelings of love or hatred toward Freud himself. Thus was born the idea of “transference,” whereby emotions are projected onto the therapist. The goal of the therapy is self-knowledge. Patients may then: a) replace repression of instinctual wishes with rational self-control; b) divert them into acceptable behaviors; or c) even satisfy the wishes. But by bringing these passions to the surface one conquers them, they no longer will control the patient. [This is problematic. Might not one also become obsessed with these repressed memories or desires? Thereby allowing them even more control?] And Freud also thought that psychoanalysis could probably be applied to entire societies: “… our civilization imposes an almost intolerable pressure on us …” [For example what does it say about a country that always says it is #1 or the greatest country on earth, when by objective measures it’s clearly not the best place to live, does not have the happiest people, has a very high suicide rate, has the highest incarceration rates, etc.? Might Freud say that entire culture is neurotic?]

Critical Discussion: (A) Freud As Would-Be Scientist –  Is psychoanalytic theory scientific? Is it effective? Is it true?

Is it effective? – It is hard to judge the effectiveness of psychoanalysis for many reasons. First, understanding the causes of maladaptive behaviors or thoughts—say abuse in childhood—does not imply that one can change it. Some things may be impossible to undo and we have to accept or control them as best we can. Second, even if psychoanalysis works, it might be misapplied in practice. Third, what constitutes a cure is vague. Fourth how can we compare different neurotic patients, or establish control groups to compare them to? Generally, we rely on anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of therapy, which is by definition not scientific.

Is it true? – Testability is fundamental for a theory to have scientific status, so we must ask whether these theories are testable before we can know if they are true. Freud’s theorizing is speculative, going beyond the evidence, so it is not clear how it is testable. For example, Freud thought dreams were typically to be understood as wish-fulfillment. Even if this is true what are its causes? Are they mental or physical? Are dreams significant or just cognitive noise? Can we test the idea that the cause of a dream is a wish? Can we test that the unconscious is the cause of a slip of the tongue, a Freudian slip? Isn’t psychoanalytic theory just a way to understand people by interpreting meaning into what they say, do, and dream? In large part, it seems so.

Is it scientific? – Now consider the idea of unconscious mental states. Is it a testable idea? Does it explain or predict human behavior? If not it is not scientific. It is similar to our attributing conscious states to explain thoughts and behaviors. [Many scientists think this is just a kind of “folk” psychology, explanations that aren’t really scientific ones.] Moreover Freud does more than just postulate unconscious states, he says the process of repression pushes thoughts into the unconscious. But who or what does this repressing? Is this another consciousness? Is there a consciousness within a consciousness? We can raise serious doubts about the scientific status of the Freudian project.

Defenders reply that psychoanalytic theory is not so much a scientific hypothesis as a hermeneutic (interpretation), a way to understand the meaning of people’s actions, words, dreams, neuroses, etc. So we shouldn’t criticize it for being less precise than physics or chemistry. People are more complicated than atoms. Perhaps interpreting people’s thoughts and behaviors is more art than science. Maybe psychotherapists are particularly good at understanding human motivation; perhaps they have a knack for it. Still, interpretations should be backed up with evidence before we accept them as good interpretations. Perhaps this view of Freudian psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic can be supported by the distinction between reasons and causes. Perhaps the unconscious is not a physical cause but a psychological reason for behavior. Or perhaps unconscious beliefs and desires are both causes and reasons. These are deep philosophical questions.

As for Freudian drives, how many there are? How do we distinguish one from another? How do we know that some drive, say a sexual one, is behind different behaviors, say artistic expression? We can sometimes be self-destructive, but does this imply we have a death instinct? None of this is clear. The extent to which this is scientific is problematic.

Critical Discussion: (B) Freud As Moralist – All human behaviors don’t seem driven by bodily needs. But Freud thought that our behavior shows that we operate according to “the pleasure principle.” We generally seek satisfaction of our impulses. But this makes us seem like non-human animals despite the fact that we derive satisfaction from, for example, the intellectual and artistic. Freud replied that these “satisfactions are mild” compared to eating, drinking, and sex. Moreover, the higher satisfactions are available only to those with rare gifts he thought. But what of the satisfaction of friendship, parenting, music and more which are more reliable and lasting forms of satisfaction?  [Both Plato or John Stuart Mill make qualitative distinctions between pleasures. Both thought the intellectual was preferable to the physical.] Perhaps Freud’s views were colored by the physical pain he endured and the world war through which he lived.

But Freud was not one to offer an overly optimistic view of reality. For example, he saw “religious belief as a projection onto the universe of our childhood attitudes to our parents: we would like to believe that our Heavenly Father … is also in benevolent control of our lives …” Of course, that fact that religion has its origins in childhood doesn’t mean that it’s false but Freud himself was an atheist who thought religion was generally bad for society. Freud thought religion appealed to the emotions not reason; it was an illusion created by humans because they couldn’t face the bleakness of life. It could best be understood as wish-fulfillment. We believe God, souls, and immortality because we wish they are real.

The Future of an Illusion 

Freud also believed that saintly, selfless behavior, as well as artistic or scientific activity, derived their energy from suppressed sexual instincts. Needless to say, this biological theory of human motivation is highly speculative. Humans are often bored even if their physical needs are met. But Freud thought that most humans are motivated by pleasure and thus they may need Platonic-like guardians to run the society.

Summary of the Philosophy of Karl Marx

Marx: The Economic Basis of Society

(This is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

We are interested in Marxist theory, not in the various ways it may have been implemented. [Think of the parallel with Christianity. If you are a Christian and someone says “Christians conducted the Crusades and Inquisition, they may have collaborated with the Nazis and protected pedophile priests,” you answer that none of that is Christian behavior. A Marxist can say the same about Stalin or Mao or North Korea.] Who was Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)? “Marx was the greatest critical theorist of the Industrial Revolution and nineteenth-century capitalism … Although hostile to religion, Marx inherited an ideal of human equality and freedom from Christianity, and he shared the Enlightenment hope that scientific method could diagnose and resolve the problems of human society … Behind his … theorizing was a prophetic, quasi-religious zeal to show the way toward a secular form of salvation.”


Marx studied at the University of Berlin in the mid-nineteenth-century at a time and place when G.W.F. Hegel’s thought was dominant. Hegel believed in a progressive human history where Geist—mind, spirit or god—develops throughout history. All human history is “the progressive self-realization of Geist.” In other words, human social life evolves in a progressive direction as more adequate ideas of reality slowly emerging leading to greater consciousness, self-awareness, and freedom. [Hegel’s philosophy is notoriously complex and abstruse. But the process in large part takes place as a dialectic between ideas. A thesis is offered, its antithesis advanced, and a synthesis emerges.] Hegel believed that mental and cultural development eventually reaches a state of absolute knowledge. Right Hegelians believed that the 19th Prussian state had reached a near perfect state of development; left Hegelians believed it had not, that the society was far from ideal and it was up to people to make it better.

[Consider the parallels with politics in the USA today. From the conservative right we hear that “the USA is the greatest nation ever,” “American love it or leave it,” “God loves America most,” “We are an exceptional nation,” etc. Thus change is unnecessary. From the progressive left comes the idea that there is much-unfilled promise in our era, thus the need to change things for the better by advancing a progressive political agenda. Conservatives want to conserve—traditional marriage, white supremacy, current economic system—or go backward—get rid of social security, women in the labor force, minimum wage, contraception, labor unions, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. Liberals want to liberate and free people from undue burdens like lack of health care and affordable education, minimum wage jobs, unwanted pregnancies, racial prejudice, etc. Obviously, this is all more complicated than this but that’s the general idea.]


The other main influence on Marx was Ludwig Feuerbach. Rather than agreeing with Hegel that geist or god realizes itself (himself) throughout history, humans create religion as an idealized version of life in this world. [This world is so bad that people imagine a perfect world.] Here Feuerbach uses another idea of Hegel’s—the idea of alienation in which subjects confront objects unknown and alien from themselves. Feuerbach argued that people become alienated when “they project their own human potential into theological fantasies and undervalue their actual lives.” Feuerbach argued that metaphysics and theology are expressions of our emotions disguised as claims about reality. “So he saw religion as a symptom of human alienation, from which we must free ourselves by realizing our destiny in this world.”

All this led Marx to conclude that Hegel was right to be concerned about truth and progress in history, but wrong to think the natural, historical world was a manifestation of the development of spirit or mind. Instead, Marx argued that thought and mind are manifestations of the natural world, of material conditions. (Hence the idea that Marx turned Hegel upside down.) The driving force of social change are not ideas about gods or cosmic spirits, but economic conditions. And alienation is not primarily religious but social and economic. In a capitalist system, we are alienated from our labor because we don’t work for ourselves, but for others who own the means of production and the products of our labor. Capitalists try to maximize profit, exploiting their workers by paying them the minimum needed for their survival.

The Materialist Theory of History – Marx was an atheist and a materialist. He thought of himself as a social scientist that had discovered a scientific way to study “economic history of human society.” He was looking for general socio-economic laws that applied to human history both synchronically and diachronically. Here is what he argued.

At any given time, synchronically, economics determines ideology. The rich and powerful defend capitalism because it serves their interests. Their rhetoric regarding freedom of enterprise, trade, and markets expresses the self-interest of those who possess land and money. The rest are left “free to starve,” if the labor markets won’t give them jobs. [Or they can be incarcerated or killed in foreign wars that serve their capitalistic interests.] Marx claims that social, legal, and political power was in the hands of capitalists, especially the very wealthy, although government has tried to regulate the excesses of capitalism by banning child labor, minimum wage laws, health and safety laws, environmental protection, some health care and retirement benefits, etc. [Marx would not be surprised to find that in a rich country like America today, the capitalists and financiers try to influence, if not control, any government attempts to reign in their excess profits or contributions to climate and other environmental degradation. The government becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of business.]

Looking across time, diachronically, Marx recognized that economic and technological development will result in social, political and ideological change. Consider how agriculture, slavery, feudalism, or the industrial revolution transformed social and political life. Marx’s salient insight is that a materialist, economic theory of history explains these transformations. A brief summary of this insight can be seen in this passage:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness …

The economic base of a society provides the foundation of one’s social life, and it conditions that social life to a great extent. To understand this would be to pay attention to the distinctions Marx draws between:

a) Material powers of production: natural resources including land, climate, plants, animals, minerals; technology such as tools, machinery, communication systems; and human resources like labor power and skills.

b) Economic Structure:  the organizational structure of work, division of labor, authority in the workplace, legal power of ownership, systems of rewards and payments, legal concepts of property, economic concepts like money, capital, and wages.

c) Ideological Superstructure: social beliefs, morality, laws, politics, religion, and philosophy.

It is not exactly clear what Marx meant by economics being the basis or foundation of social life. Is that foundation a, or a and b? Does a determine b and therefore c? Or does b determine c alone? Or do a and b determine c? [I think the argument as a whole works even if some of the details aren’t entirely clear.] The key question is how much conditioning or influencing or determining did Marx believe that economics had on ideology. Surely we have to eat before we can act or think but it doesn’t seem to follow that this determines everything we do or think. Still, the economic structure of a society sets limits on and influences how people think.

[For example, the economic structure determines how you can earn your bread in a society, and thus the way most people act a large part of the time. But consider how earning your money selling cigarettes, crude oil, real estate, alcohol, or assault weapons significantly influences how you think about those things. Or consider how growing up in a sub-culture with few economic opportunities strongly influences how you think about occupations like small-time drug dealer, prostitute, professional boxing, as well as about law enforcement, courts, laws, foreign wars, etc. Consider the vastly different political views of those in different socio-economic classes. You can probably think of all sorts of other examples of this connection between economics and ideology.]

While none of this implies hard determinism, Marx thought that capitalism would become gradually more unstable, class struggle would increase, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

[These themes were in large part the subject of the economist Thomas Piketty’s recent worldwide best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty is arguably the world’s foremost expert on income and wealth inequality. His “central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long-term, the result is a concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability. Piketty proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce inequality and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority.” Consider how your own reaction to such claims is largely determined by your own socio-economic background. I have written about these issues here, here, here and here.]

The extent to which Marx’s predictions have come true is open to debate. On the one hand, capitalism more or less reins in first world countries, although technically we have mixed economies, on the other hand, the strengthening of the social safety net in first world countries may have prevented the kind of upheaval that Marx envisioned. Moreover, 3rd world countries may be the proletariat for 1st world countries today.

  Why Marx Was Right

Theory of Human Nature: Economics, Society, and Consciousness – Marx is most interested in the social nature of humans rather than their biological nature. “Almost everything a person does presupposes the existence of other people … what kinds of things one does are affected by one’s interactions in the society one lives in. What seems ‘instinctive’ in one society or epoch—for example, a certain role for women—may be very different in another.” In other words, sociology is not reducible to biology or psychology. Some things about humans cannot be explained by facts about individuals but must be explained by society. Marx is one of the founding fathers of sociology. Marx does argue that human beings are active, productive beings. Unlike non-human animals, we make conscious decisions about how we want to work for a living, and good lives entail appropriate, purposive work.

Diagnosis: Alienation and Exploitation Under Capitalism – Alienation or estrangement in Marx refer to our alienation from other people, as well as from the products and process of their labor. Without capital, one must sell one’s labor to capitalists who dictate the nature of work. Thus we do not generally get to express or elaborate our being through our work but must work in order to satisfy our basic needs. At work, we don’t “belong to ourselves,” rather we are under the control of others. Moreover “the competitiveness of life under capitalism conflicts with the ideal of solidarity with other human beings.” Alienation thus implies a lack of community where individuals can’t see their work as contributing to the larger society. In short, Marx sees the economic structure of capitalism as unjust. [What would he think of this?]

Surprisingly many of Marx insights coincide with those of Adam Smith, who is usually hailed as the father of capitalism and its most ardent defendant. Smith too was alarmed by the injustice of capitalism: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.” Both echo Kant’s a formulation of the categorical imperative—never treat people as a means to an end, for they are ends in themselves. In Marx’s time, people were clearly used for the capitalists’ ends, including children and adults who worked long hours in unsafe conditions. [Thee conditions were not ameliorated by capitalists, but by responsive governments.] Even today exploitation of workers in the most advanced countries still takes place. [The countries that do this least, who treat their workers best, are the social democracies of Scandinavia and western Europe.] And this is not only factory workers or minimum wage workers but the vast majority of people who can’t fulfill their human potential, those who cannot elaborate themselves through their labor. Human beings shouldn’t exist as cogs in a productive machine; they produce in order to express themselves.

Prescription: Revolution and Utopia – “If alienation and exploitation are social problems caused by the nature of the capitalist system, then the solution is to abolish that system and replace it with a better one.” [A more modest proposal would be to tinker with it, preserving what might be good about it but improving its obvious flaws—encouraging mindless consumption, exploitation of individuals, destruction of the environment, etc.] Marx thought that the movement of history would eventually undermine capitalism. [In fact, pure laissez-faire capitalism exists nowhere on the planet.] However he still believed that we should act to bring about the transition from capitalism to communism (a classless society in which all wealth and property is jointly owned). Marx held that a complete revolution was necessary to undermine capitalism and create a more just and equitable society. [Some historians argue that US President FDR actually saved capitalism from the ferment developing in the depression of the 1930s.)  In fact, many of the proposals of the Communist Manifesto have been adopted by capitalist countries.

“Marx envisaged a total regeneration of humanity …” If human consciousness could be altered, then freedom could become real, with individuals free to actualize their potentials. The guiding principle of this world is “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.” [If this sounds idealistic, think of the voluntary labor that produced Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, etc.] Marx advocated using science and technology to improve life, shortening work, universal education, society in balance with nature, and more. “Marxism has offered this kind of hopeful vision of a human future … [it] has been a secular faith, a prophetic vision of social salvation.”

Still, we might object that economic factors are “only one of many obstacles in the way of human fulfillment.” Existential angst, immorality, pain, aggression, death and much more also stand in its way. Nonetheless, Marx highlighted, perhaps better than anyone else has done, the horrors of capitalism.