Friday, June 10, 2016

Evolutionary Leadership, Evolutionary Ethics, and Redistribution (Part II)

Preliminary Draft

 Evolutionary Leadership, Evolutionary Ethics, and Redistribution
Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Mount St. Joseph University

 (To be presented at the International Political Science Association Congress,
July 26, 2016 to be held at Poznan, Poland)

Part II.
Evolutionary Social Psychology
Moral philosophers, including Rawls, agree that: “Ought implies Can.” Therefore, any credible public policy must be consistent with the dictates of human nature and human culture, at any given time and place. Both ELT and EET are rooted in Evolutionary Psychology, an emerging body of theory which argues that human feelings, thoughts, and behavior are conditioned (if not determined) by the “facts” of evolutionary biology. State-of-the-art evolutionary psychology is anchored by the Modular Theory of the Brain, which says that the human brain is comprised of modules, which have evolved over millions of years in response to specific environmental problems that have impeded the survival of individual genes, organisms, species, and ecosystems. (Cosmides and Tooby, 1997) For humans and other social species environmental problems include problems that emerged within both the ever-changing physical and social environments. Hence, evolutionary psychology is inexorably interdisciplinary; drawing research from geology, primatology, anthropology, paleontology, biology, psychology, and neuroscience.

Evolutionary psychology (like all evolutionary disciplines) is engaged in two broad classes of causal theories. Proximate Theories answer questions about “how” the various modules of the brain generate human feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Proximate theories require input from both biology and the social sciences, especially psychology and social psychology. (Scott-Philips, Dickens, and West, 2011) The initial task for evolutionary psychology is to distinguish between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that are universal (the products of genetic evolution) from those that are contextual (adapted to specific environmental conditions). Once those universal modules are identified, other proximate theories seek to “localize” those modules within the brain, and reduce those modules to the flow of neurons, genes, molecules, and atoms over time. Ultimate Theories answer questions about “why” those universal modules evolved under various environmental conditions at various times and places and therefore involve long-term, teleological, biological causation.

Orthodoxy in evolutionary psychology says that the human brain evolved very slowly over time and that our present-day set of brain modules (both active and latent) has not changed very much since the Pleistocene Era (2.4 million years ago). Today, human culture changes very rapidly… for better and for worse. Thus, evolutionary psychology involves the interaction of both “biological” and “cultural” evolution. 

The most prolific source of cultural evolution was the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago). That is when human culture, began to evolve at a much faster rate than biological evolution. Since then, as a result of that growing rift, mismatches often developed between our Pleistocene brains and our rapidly evolving post AR human culture. The mismatch hypothesis is most often invoked in providing ultimate explanations for brain-culture dysfunctions at any given time or place. The classic application of the mismatch hypothesis is evolutionary biology’s ultimate explanation for the twenty-first century obesity epidemic in the United States (Saad, 2007). Other more controversial applications of the mismatch hypothesis include: human monogamy (Ryan & Jethra 2010) and human warfare (Smith, 2007).       

From its very beginning, evolutionary social psychology has explored both the proximate and ultimate causation of human cooperation. Since the Ancient Greeks, social and political philosophers have attempted to explain large scale human cooperation and how to preserve it; and in some cases, how to prevent and/or undermine it. Although cooperation is evident among many social species, it is an enormously complex human social behavior; involving both biological and cultural evolution. Scholars have noted that voluntary “cooperation,” often entails a degree of self-sacrifice or altruism. Evolutionary Psychology has developed two main theories of altruism: kin altruism (altruism is correlated with genetic-relatedness) reciprocal altruism (altruism is correlated with a history of reciprocity between individuals and/or groups: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”). (Price and van Vugt, 2014) Both theories admit that there are non-cooperative individuals and coalitions of non-cooperative individuals, who often undermine cooperation.  (White, 2011)  So what might Evolutionary Psychology say about the prospect for cooperation between producers and consumers?   

Proximate theories address “how” specific brain modules are involved in producing and or consuming those goods and ultimate theories explain “why” those modules evolved during the Pleistocene Era (or before). And finally, “how” and why” those modules became increasingly mismatched after the Agricultural Revolution? One of the most obvious consequences of our post-AR cultural evolution has been the ever-expanding production and consumption of social goods (and services). Therefore, the more social goods (and services) that are produced, the practical question arises: How much social distance between the “most advantaged” “producers” and the “least-advantaged” “consumers” is morally and legally acceptable? For the least advantaged, what is the “social minimum?” And for the most advantaged; what is the “social maximum?”   

In sum, evolutionary social psychology involves both proximate and ultimate theories, which identify and explain the specific brain modules that underlie the feelings, thoughts, and behavior of cooperative individual organisms living in groups. Although there are many gregarious social species, the human species lives in organized groups based on leadership and followership. The first step in elucidating the nature of the redistribution via the Difference Principle is to acknowledge that both small-scale and large-scale human cooperation take place within the context of leadership and followership; and that any socially acceptable redistribution policy is largely contingent upon the nature of the relationship between leaders and followers. So how does evolutionary social psychology explain leadership and followership?

Evolutionary Leadership Theory 

Evolutionary Leadership Theory (ELT) is a recent branch of Evolutionary Social Psychology that explores the nature and nurture of cooperation (and/or competition) between leaders and followers. Of course, individual human beings organize themselves in groups (and sub-groups), based on leadership and followership, in pursuit of many different ends (goals) via various means. The beauty of approaching cooperation via organizational leadership theory is that it acknowledges that political organization is only one of many organizational contexts; and that there are different kinds of organizational structure that have evolved over time in order to achieve various ends via various means with greater and lesser degrees of efficacy and efficiency. So what might (ELT) contribute to the philosophical debate over the redistribution of primary goods within any political group, at any given time and place?

            ELT begins with the empirical observation that many social species organize themselves based on leadership and followership; and that there is both continuity and discontinuity between Great Ape species, hominid species, and the human species (Homo sapiens). Given that hominids and humans inherited genetic material from the Great Apes, primatologists argue over which traits evolved from which species. (Wrangham and Peterson, 1996) Patterns of leadership and followership have been identified among the species that comprise the Great Apes; especially among and between our closest genetic relatives; bonobos and chimpanzees. Hence, much proximate research is devoted to untangling the structure of “our inner ape.” (deWaal, 2001 and 2005). Primatologists observe that bonobos and chimpanzees collectively organize themselves based on two different organizational structures: democracy (organization “from the bottom up”) and dominance (Organization from the “top down”).

Cooperative female bonobos “lead” social groups via decentralized horizontal, egalitarian relationships. Cooperative male chimpanzees “lead” groups based on dominance centralized vertical hierarchical relationships. There is a body of proximate research that seeks to materially reduce dominant leadership behavior to male (testosterone) and/or female democratic leadership to female (progesterone). The focus of contemporary debate is the degree to which human leadership and followership behavior today are shaped by bonobo genes and/or chimpanzee genes. The most contentious point revolves around the question of whether hunter-gatherers were mostly peaceful or mostly warlike; and whether the AR increased or decreased violence and/or warfare.  (Masters, 2007)   

According to van Vugt, Pleistocene hunters and gatherers lived in small, face-to-face groups of less than 150; where everyone knew each other. Leadership and followership were contextual and based on consensus. There were no general leaders; only contextual leaders. Everyone knew who was the best hunter, warrior, or gatherer. When specific contextual leaders failed, followers easily replaced them. There were no elections or controversy. Although there was a degree of social distance between the “most-advantaged” hunters and warriors, and the “least-advantaged” members of the group, the “social goods” subject to redistribution consisted, primarily, in increased allocation of food and/or mating opportunities.

However, with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 B.C.) those small, mobile, and democratic regimes became stationary, increasingly larger, and hierarchical. Face-to-face personal relationships between leaders and followers were gradually replaced by formal, rule-based relationships. Stationary lifestyles created the opportunity for the accumulation of social goods, by both the most advantaged producers and the least-advantaged consumers, which led to a precipitous increase in social distance between various classes of producers (agriculture and husbandry), consumers; and between political leaders and followers. This “revolution” also created social conditions that led to the rise of “opportunism;” especially the potential for free-riding followers and free-riding leaders; and the long-term propensity for the “rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.”            

In sum, ELT argues that during the Pleistocene Era, the relationship between leaders and followers was dominated by our Bonobo genes; and therefore among hominid and early Hunters and Gatherers there was very little social distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and “leadership and followership” tended to be contextual. Therefore there was no perceived need for sociopolitical redistribution. Social distance only became a problem after the Agricultural Revolution. If social distance did emerge within any pre-AR context, leaders and followers (no doubt) would have closed that gap via democratic voluntary redistribution. Today, our Hunter-Gatherer genetic programming for democratic leader-follower relationships is mismatched to our post-AR culture; result of the cultural evolution of agriculture and husbandry, and the resulting explosion of social goods and large-scale, hierarchical political structures. Hence, our post AR culture faces two political problems: 1.) How to prevent a minority of “haves” from monopolizing the available social goods; and, 2.) How to prevent a majority of “have nots” from killing off the “haves” and seizing their social goods. In short: how to employ the coercive power of government to redistribute those “social goods,” without “killing the goose that laid the golden egg;” that is, without undermining the future production of social goods. That, is the problem that Rawls is attempting to address via the Difference Principle.   

Evolutionary Ethics 

What might Evolutionary Ethical Theory (EET) contribute to that debate over the ethics of the redistribution of primary goods in any given context? Why is redistribution most-often interpreted in moral terms; especially of virtue, duty and/or consequences? And how does EET relate to those three (often-conflicting) ethical frameworks? (Sontag, Jenkins, and White, 2011) 

First, let’s acknowledge that philosophers have long sought to distinguish between descriptive ethics (how human beings morally feel, think and behave) and prescriptive ethics (how human beings ought to feel, think, and behave). The relationship between a descriptive “is” and a prescriptive “ought” has long been a source of philosophical debate. Can prescriptive ethics (what we ought to do) be reduced to descriptive ethics (what we do)? Can an “ought” can be reduced to an “is?” Can an “is” be reduced to an “ought?” (James 2011) Moreover, let’s also agree that human beings often cooperate in pursuit of immoral ends, and/or pursue moral ends, via immoral means. Thus, ethical leadership is about moral judgement concerning both good/bad means and good/bad ends. In short, cooperation is ultimately an amoral behavior, dependent upon context. (Sontag, Jenkins, and White, 2011)

There is also persistent of theoretical debate over ethical theories: Virtue-Based Theories, Duty-Based Theories (deontological), and Consequential Theories (teleological). Evolutionary ethics provides proximate theories that explain “how” the human brain generates moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; and ultimate theories that explain “why” moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors emerged within the human species via biological and/or cultural evolution. (Sontag, Jenkins, and White, 2011)

Rawls was inexorably committed to a Kantian duty-based moral theory, and argued that duty is determined by human nature, namely rationality and free will. Morality, therefore, must be rule-based, and that rational rules can (and must) trump immoral feelings and emotions. In terms of the distribution of social goods among humans, there are feelings, thoughts, and behaviors associated with the principle of distributive justice; in terms of the distribution of social goods, research focuses on the proverbial relationship between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and the feelings, thoughts, and behavior associated distributive justice. Since Aristotle, justice has involved four material principles of justice: merit, need, equality, and utility. Feelings of justice and injustice accompany all four principles.         

Evolutionary Ethics is also a branch of Evolutionary Social Psychology. Proximate research based on the empirical observation of human moral behavior indicates that individuals are more likely to feel sympathy toward other humans (than other species) and act in response to those feelings in regard to the interests of their immediate family members, (kin altruism); and, among friends (reciprocal altruism)…and perhaps childhood altruism (feelings toward all children). Hence, in a large community of mostly strangers, the “haves” and “have-nots” (in general) are less likely to feel sympathy toward one another; and are less-likely to voluntarily redistribute (individually or collectively) in the interest of those strangers. Peter Singer and other moral philosophers, therefore, argue that ethics is not about how we treat family and friends, but about how we individually and collectively treat strangers.    

Most ethicists focus on the moral obligation that the “haves” have toward the “have nots.” The center of that debate usually revolves around those feelings of sympathy. Evolutionary ethicists address the proximate question of “how” feelings of sympathy are generated by specific “brain modules” of the brain; and the ultimate question of “why” those “feelings” remain embedded in human nature. Moral feelings (in general) evolved during (or before) the Pleistocene era. Therefore, EET argues that our present day, moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors were adapted specifically for the hunter-gatherer environment; and that, today, there are many mismatches between our pre-AR moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; and the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that culturally evolved post-AR.  

Feelings of both sympathy and of antipathy enter into the descriptive ethics of social and political redistribution. There are many brain modules (active and latent) that might support or undermine feelings of sympathy and/or antipathy in any given context. Therefore, we can anticipate a wide array competing emotions, which (in the real world) often trump (or obscure) rationality and/or cooperation. The most problematic socio-political emotive complex is “in-group/out-group bias,” or the human propensity to cooperate with humans that look and act like us (kin altruism) and compete with humans that do not. Therefore it is safe to assume that not all of our sympathetic brain modules evolved to promote the fair distribution of social goods among strangers.

The hallmark of contemporary ethics is our ever-expanding knowledge of strangers via increasingly expanded access to information technology. The more that the “haves” know about what they have in common with the “have-nots,” the more likely it is that they might willingly agree to redistribute. And, the more the “have-nots” know about what they have in common with the “haves” the less likely the “have-nots” will form a revolutionary coalition, and seize the social goods of the most-advantaged; and the more likely that the least-advantaged might be willing to settle for less than an equal redistribution. In both cases, the primary question would be to what degree the “haves” and the “have nots” feel that they “deserve” each other’s current allotment of social goods.   

Descriptive ethics also indicates that the Principle of Justice (or fairness) is marked by a cluster of feelings that correspond to four main material principles: merit, need, equality, and utility. However, those principles most often apply to distribution among strangers. However, those feelings often contradict each other. However, we have a natural propensity to ignore justice when we distribute our goods to family and friends. In the real world, true to our Pleistocene brain structure, feelings of genetic relatedness and feelings of friendship trump feelings of justice. However, there’s a dearth of research on the proximate and ultimate causation of human friendship, and how those feelings relate to the distribution of social goods.           

Again, the human brain evolved, originally, to facilitate cooperation within and between small, informal, face-to-face, sociopolitical groups (less than 150 members); where leaders and followers members knew each other. Hunter-gatherers were not likely to accumulate much in terms of social goods, other than food and sex. However, the advent of the Agricultural Revolution (14,000 years ago) marked the end of hunter-gather social environment and rise of increasingly larger, stationary social environments, and increasingly formal, rule-based, and increasingly impersonal leader-follower relationships. And of course, there was also an explosion of social goods, beyond food and sex.  If it’s true that there is a growing mismatch between our hunter-gatherer moral feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and our Post-Agricultural Revolution feelings, thoughts, and behavior, then what (if anything) can be done to overcome our natural antipathy for strangers in a large community comprised of mostly of strangers?   


The purpose of this essay has been to suggest that advancements in Evolutionary Leadership Theory and Evolutionary Ethical Theory might elucidate issues relating to the distribution and redistribution of social goods. The justification for the redistribution of social goods can be based on either moral or political arguments. (Narveson, 2008)  Moral arguments in favor of redistribution can be based on either cognitive theories (virtue-based, rights-based, consequential) or non-cognitive theories (emotive). Emotive arguments in favor of redistribution most often focus on feelings associated with justice (merit, need, equality, and utility); and feelings of sympathy (toward family, reciprocates, and strangers). In the Western Liberal tradition, political redistribution invokes, primarily, cognitive arguments to justify a political leader’s decision to employ the coercive power of the state or non-coercive persuasion to redistribute social goods.

If we take ELT and EE seriously, the political question becomes: “How can modern humans close (or limit) the growing mismatch between our hunter-gatherer brain structure (which facilitates informal, non-coercive, small-group, face-to-face, cooperation among family and friends) and our post-AR life-style (which requires formal, coercive, large-group, mediated cooperation, among strangers)?

Rawls viewed cooperation between the “haves” and the “have-nots” as a cognitive activity; a voluntary agreement between rationally-self-interested individuals endowed with freewill. However, evolutionary social psychologists now agree that cooperation is the product of the co-evolution of both cognitive modules (located in the outer brain) and non-cognitive modules (located in the inner brain). Evolutionary leadership scholars agree that, historically, there has never been a “state of nature” where human beings lived as atomic individuals in the absence of cooperation. So if social cooperation is (at least in part) shaped by non-cognitive forces, then what are the logical implications for the Rawlsian Difference Principle? Classical liberals argue that in a truly liberal society, the state cannot violate the Liberty Principle in order to enforce the Difference Principle; nor can the state ignore human feelings of sympathy and antipathy in order to enforce the Equal Liberty Principle. Therefore, the post-Rawlsian liberal challenge is how to simultaneously support both principles.  Let me present three prospects for future research.

First, Rawls’ observation that in the “State-of-Nature,” the distribution of social goods was (or would be) based on a “Natural Lottery” is misleading if not false. Although, proximate explanations for genetic variation postulate a degree of “chance variation,” natural selection involves both proximate and ultimate explanations over the long run. Genetic traits that produce social advantage and disadvantage are contingent upon environmental circumstances at any given time or place. During the Pleistocene Era “Tall dark and handsome” males tended to make good hunters and warriors, today they do not, necessarily, make good “political leaders,” despite the fact that we still feel inclined to vote for them. Therefore, we need more detailed research on that alleged mismatch between our Pleistocene brain and Post-AR culture. No one persuasively argues that modern humans ought to return to the Hunter-Gatherer life style and thereby limit cultural evolution. Most of us do, however, agree that there are better and worse ways to distribute the ever-increasing trove of social goods generated by a liberal democracies.          

Second, from any evolutionary perspective, the forging of a social contract involves both cognitive and non-cognitive brain functions. Rawls’ purely cognitive approach, therefore, contradicts the basic principles of Evolutionary Psychology. In the real world, humans do not (and cannot) bargain (forge contracts) based on cognitive brain activity alone. This casts serious doubts on Rawls’ argument that the Difference Principle can be rationally justified based on an over-lapping consensus under the “veil of ignorance.” Although, Rawls has continuously argued that the “veil of ignorance” was intended to serve as heuristic device and not as a historical fact, it is not at all clear how an obviously false heuristic device can elucidate the nature of cooperation. Future research might focus on both the cognitive and non-cognitive elements of social contracts within a variety of contexts.

Third, although EE suggests that cognitive arguments alone cannot justify the Difference Principle, it might be more plausible to justify social redistribution based on non-cognitive brain functions; especially feelings of feelings of sympathy. Thus, based on those feelings, the vast majority of “most advantaged” might voluntarily agree to redistribute social goods for the benefit of (at least some) of those “least advantaged” strangers. The more we know about those “strangers” the less “strange” they become, and the more likely we’d feel sympathy toward them and agree to social redistribution. And, the “least advantaged” might be willing to accept a degree of social distance in the present, in exchange for potential long-term gains. ELT and EET elucidate the social redistribution of social goods by setting objective (natural) boundaries for the exercise of redistribution. Most notably, increased evolutionary knowledge of our natural, non-cognitive predisposition to forge leader-follower relationships might form the basis for cooperation between the “haves and the have nots.” Once we begin to identify the various brain modules associated with leadership and followership, we might be able forge more productive cooperation between leaders and followers. But that’s a bit idealistic; that same knowledge that might enhance cooperation in pursuit of “moral ends,” would also advance the ability of bad leaders and followers to pursue “immoral ends.” Ludwig a psychiatrist surveyed recent political leaders, and observed that vast majority of them are (or were) clinically neurotic if not psychotic. (Ludwig, 2002)  

Once we take into account, non-cognitive brain modules, even if political redistribution seems rationally justified, the “most advantaged” and the “least advantaged” may reject redistribution based on non-cognitive feelings of out-group bias and antipathy (as opposed to sympathy). And, political leaders might align themselves with either the more numerous “least advantaged” (contemporary political liberalism) or the more wealthy “most advantaged” (contemporary political conservatism). In short, political redistribution, often (if not inevitably) takes into account, not only the long-term and short-term self-interest of the “least advantaged” and “most advantaged,” but also the long-term and short-term interests of political leaders. All liberals (libertarians and welfare liberals) rightfully reject crony relationships between politicians and the “most advantaged.”     

            Finally, I would suggest that, at a bare minimum, public policy reform ought to begin by eliminating unintended political incentives and disincentives that undermine leader-follower cooperation within various kinds of political organizations. A good starting point might be to re-examine the existing body of crony-based political redistributive policies. Do those policies (in fact) build upon our natural redistributive instincts; or do they undermine those instincts, and do they (in fact) increase or decrease social distance between “haves, “the have nots,” and the political leaders that execute involuntary, political redistribution?  SEE: Part 1


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