Social Evolution, Psychoanalysis, and Human Nature

Daniel Kriegman and Charles Knight

Uses evolutionary theory to revise our assumptions about human nature
(with direct consequences for our understanding of human politics).
Originally published in Social Policy, Fall 1988, pp. 49-55.

At the very back of a Harvard lecture hall we jealously guarded the last remaining seats for two friends who were working their way through an overflow crowd at the door. The long room was buzzing in the anticipation of hearing a couple of Cambridge intellectual stars. Stephen Jay Gould, the well-known paleontologist, and Richard C. Lewontin, a Harvard biologist, were the featured speakers. Sponsored by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People, the evening was called "Sociobiology, A Retrospective."

Gould has written elegantly and voluminously on the historic misuse of biology to bolster particular world views, especially racism. His books have been widely read, and their images on nineteenth-century scientists measuring cranial capacity with mustard seed seem ridiculous to the modern eye. As a whole, Gould's historical work serves as a powerful reminder of how social and cultural blinders can lead the scientist astray and how such "science" can be misused by political actors with no essential interest in truth.

DANIEL KRIEGMAN, Ph.D., was formerly Chief Psychologist and the Director of Supervision and Training at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Offenders. He is a coauthor (with M. O. Slavin) of The Adaptive Design of the Human Psyche: Psychoanalysis, Evolutionary Biology, and the Therapeutic Process (1992, Guilford Press). His many published articles focus on the application of evolutionary biology to psychoanalysis and group psychology.

CHARLES KNIGHT is President of the Commonwealth Institute. His research and writing has been focused on alternative defense and security strategies, with an emphasis on reformulation of US defense policy.

Lewontin, in his work as a population geneticist, has challenged the very concept of race in the human species. The biological evidence, he says, is of much more genetic variation within the racial populations than between them. The common features of racial identity such as skin, hair, and eye color are best understood as adaptations to indeterminate conditions, perhaps geographical, which simply overlay a basic genetic commonality of the human species. From this perspective, Jensen's work becomes meaningless as it was based on separating IQ test subjects into the conventional racial groupings and comparing scores to arrive at a proof of genetically based difference in racial IQs. Lewontin argues that there is no evidence of consistent genetic difference in the brains of different "races" and, lacking any such evidence, we should assume that differences in IQ arise from the social or physical environment.

So that evening it was not just intellectuals who had gathered at Harvard. This was a political crowd as well. Ever since another Harvard professor, E. O. Wilson, wrote Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, sociobiology has been of great interest to competing political ideologies for use in their polemic battles. Those leaning toward the right have used Wilson's ideas to bolster their social Darwinist arguments about the inherent inferiority of the disadvantaged and the inevitability of class differentiation (primate dominance hierarchies); while those on the left use sociobiology as an example of specious "blaming the victim" type of reasoning. Now the left-leaning Science for the People's Sociobiology Study Group had gathered to hear its "heavies" declare the battle won. Sociobiology, it would be shown, was discredited as science and was, at best, a pseudo-science that served the interests of the right wing.

Although the evening's message was that the Study Group's intellectual work had been completed -- they were to declare that "sociobiology is dead" -- there was urgency in the air as more work still needed to be done. Ronald Reagan, the great arch-conservative communicator, had formed an unusually effective right-wing coalition that might last well beyond him. Racism waxed as civil rights gains waned. Surely great harm would come if the right's intellectual henchmen were allowed to continue to peddle their dangerously flawed, pseudo-scientific wares unchallenged.

Lewontin rose to the occasion; his voice rang with all the righteousness and contempt of an evangelist proclaiming victory over the devil, as he announced sociobiology's demise. Gould, displaying a better humor, was more even-tempered as he marshalled the facts depicting the misuse of the scientific process by some sociobiologists. The crowd, as evidenced by its enthusiastic response to the oratory, responded with religious fervor. Questions from the floor echoed the sentiments of the speakers as they mockingly dismissed sociobiology as pernicious nonsense. In the back row, the four of us grew ever more uncomfortable. None of us would ever be called conservative in our political beliefs, yet we had each found something attractive in recent advances in evolution theory. Now we found ourselves whispering to each other about "cheap shots" and conclusions "far too sweeping."

Finally one of us spoke up. "Aren't sociobiologists really trying to get at a theory of human nature? Yes, this new science may have been prone to bad method and premature conjecture -- which others could use for their political aims. But was that good reason to abandon the study of human nature? Isn't it important to understand human nature; to sort out what it is from what we imagine it to be, or from what we would like it to be? Especially, if one's goal is the construction of a more just, fair, and humanitarian society, should we not study the nature of the building blocks of such a system?"

Though the crowd was decidedly unfriendly to this challenge, pockets of resistance to the evening's evangelical message began to open up. Those who were cowed by the crowd's fervent and enthusiastic reception of the anti-sociobiology diatribe began to speak up. Their comments did not appear to indicate a right wing perspective. Rather, there was something in the sociobiological viewpoint that they felt was important and should be respected.

At the time of the Harvard meeting, we had been working on a psychobiological model with an eye toward revision of certain aspects of psychoanalytic theory and progressive political thought. In addition to whatever clinical value this new approach might have, we hoped to develop a better understanding of some of the liberal and radical politics, and to derive guidelines for more effective social change. Hardly a right-wing agenda. In this context, the unrelenting attack from the left on sociobiology was paradoxical, for it was the work of a leading sociobiologist that seemed to us to present the clearest foundation for a human psychology that includes altruism and cooperation as inherent human tendencies. Yet, in Western thought, those who had plumbed the deepest into the human psyche were bringing back the message that humans are basically instinctual, selfish animals.


The founder of psychoanalysis had familiarity with Darwinian thought but none with modern genetics. In Freud's model the inherent self-serving drives of sex and aggression were psychological bedrock. Civilization, as he eloquently described in Civilization and Its Discontents, is a human achievement that stands in opposition to human nature. Humans are inherently unhappy as they are forced to surrender their true instinctual/selfish nature under the oppressive but necessary civilizing forces.

Freud's view of human nature is generally consistent with the experience of capitalist competition and its adjunct philosophy at the extreme, Social Darwinism.

This conceptualization of human nature underlies the most fundamental of dilemmas of twentieth-century liberalism. If "civilizing influences" must be forced upon the reluctant human animal, the prospect of advancing to higher orders of civilization diminish in proportion to the distance we climb from the morass of basic human greed, lust, and aggressiveness. What we have is a law of the diminishing returns of civilization. It is a profoundly pessimistic view of the human situation; one with human nature assumptions that have become closely intertwined with the popular Western perception of the human situation.

Freud's view of human nature is generally consistent with the experience of capitalist competition and its adjunct philosophy at the extreme, Social Darwinism. The inevitable tendency of human motivation is toward competition. Inevitably struggles ensue and yield a "survival of the fittest" dominance hierarchy. Civilization with its manners, cooperation, sympathy for those suffering, and altruism is a useful achievement, but it is only a "thin sugar coating" over our truer instinctual essential nature. Facing harsh truth is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory and treatment. Thus, the clinical goal is to enhance the accuracy of the executive agency of the mental apparatus, the ego, in its perception of itself and the world, by overcoming resistance to swallowing this bitter pill and facing the harsh animalistic (instinctual) reality.

Humanists and socialists are simply romantic "nicefiers" who refuse to take their unpleasant but necessary medicine. While Freud was sympathetic to their goals, his psychology was antithetical. As he stated in Civilization and its Discontents:

As we already know, the problem before us is how to get rid of the greatest hindrance to civilization - namely, the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another. . . I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature (p. 144).

While Freud's basic notions of human nature still hold for the majority of modern psychoanalytic theorists, they have been modified to include powerful social needs beyond simple discharge of sexual and aggressive drive tensions. Today psychoanalytic thought is in a state of flux between drive-centered theory and viewpoints that place relational or social needs at the core of human psychology. Relational theorists are no longer members of splinter groups that follow the work of Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, or Harry Stack Sullivan. In psychoanalytic writings, these innovators are now given some consideration. Even more influential within modern, mainstream psychoanalysis is the work of the relational theorists such as W. R. D. Fairbairn, D. W. Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, and the influential self psychology of Heinz Kohut; this latter group's writings, comprise part of the basic course of study for new psychoanalysts. With the addition of this relational focus, psychoanalysis can no longer be seen as being based upon a theory of an inherently asocial organism reluctantly forced into relatedness.

Despite Freud's influence on our own thinking, our professional experience, clinical and otherwise, was leading us toward human nature assumptions that are consistent with cooperative social models. Yet, doesn't the general observation of ubiquitous human conflict suggest that competition is the central theme? In organizational settings, strife and political tension are so common that we may often wonder how anything gets accomplished at all. At a different level, look at the failure of the Soviet system to create a vibrant and flourishing economy.

Human history includes endless warfare and genocide, with more people killed in this most scientifically informed, civilized century than ever before. And despite promises of arms negotiations, the world, as a whole, continues a suicidal buildup of weaponry. The bottom line for those of us who accept the theory of evolution as the only scientifically credible theory of creation is that competition is inherent, unavoidable, and simply part of the natural order, as natural selection selects the fittest for survival. Evolution theory appears to tip the balance between differing human nature assumptions. Surrender to the conservative view of human nature seems inevitable -- and wise.


In the psychoanalytic laboratory of practical applications to real people (clinical psychoanalysis) a new perspective has been brewing. This is the psychology of the self as developed by Heinz Kohut. Self psychology is a relational theory that sees interpersonal conflict, regarding selfish drives or instinctual striving, as secondary and not inevitable. From Kohut's viewpoint, Freud's use of drives, "a vague and insipid biological concept," in an attempt to develop psychoanalysis within the domain of biological science, has paradoxically made traditional psychoanalysis mechanistic and out of sync with the natural order. Kohut labels the Freudian vision of the essential nature of the human condition, "Guilty Man": as an insufficiently and incompletely tamed animal, reluctant to give up his wish to live by the pleasure principle, unable to relinquish his innate destructiveness.

The concept of reciprocal altruism suggests that there may be a bio-genetic basis to altruistic behavior.

For Kohut, conflict exists, but rather than being an essential feature of human psychology, it is a "tragedy." It is an unfortunate byproduct of the failure of the human tendency towards empathic relationships that sustain our "selves" - thus, Kohut's concept of "Tragic Man":

...healthy man experiences...with deepest joy, the next generation as an extension of his own self. It is the primacy of the support for the succeeding generation, therefore, which is normal and human, and not intergenerational strife and mutual wishes to kill and to destroy--however frequently and perhaps even ubiquitously, we may be able to find traces of those pathological disintegration products...which traditional analysis has made us think [of] is a normal developmental phase.

If healthy self structures are not formed due to parental failure to provide a nutritive psychological and emotional milieu, the result is an enfeebled self that will turn to drive gratifications in an attempt to ward off a more devastating fragmentation of the self. The psychological problem arises from a failure of relatedness, not a failure to learn appropriate control of inner instinctual drives. Without empathic self others to relate to, the individual becomes preoccupied with desires and instinctual demands and struggles in conflict to deal with them.

In traditional psychoanalytic thought, the parents, as society's representatives, are inevitably in conflict with the sexual and aggressive drives of the child. The unavoidable "discontent" begins in childhood as the parents attempt to acculturate their child. They must engage in conflicts with the child, ultimately giving rise to anxiety and guilt, thus internalizing the conflict within the child and removing the need for external control. This solution leaves the child, and later the adult, in the inevitable situation of being torn between instinctual selfish wishes (the id) and socializing internalized guilt (the superego). Discontent is inevitable.

In the self-psychological approach, the essential nature of the parent to the child is as a provider of empathic and soothing mirroring of the child's internal experience and as a provider of opportunities for the child to merge with a calming idealized other. Problems arise not from the essential conflictual nature of the parent/child relationship, but rather from the failure of the parent to provide adequate empathic holding or mirroring and idealized models for the development of the child's self. The parent/child relationship need not be characterized by intense pathology inducing conflict. Pathological conflict only results from the failure--due to their narcissistic defects or other limitations, some of which may be inevitable--of the parents' natural tendency to provide a nutritive, sustaining, and generative milieu for the child's nascent self.

In the applied clinical setting, this relational theory often fits the clinical data much better than Freud's individualistic drive theory. Yet the ubiquitous nature of human conflict along with evolution theory's emphasis on competition and "survival of the fittest" made Kohut's human nature assumptions appear untenable, even naive. It was an impasse to be traversed using the work of Robert Trivers.


Trivers is one of the most creative and influential evolutionary theorists on the scene today. His recently published Social Evolution is the most authoritative work on the subject. Among his earlier work are three paradigm-defining papers on social evolution: papers that are already considered groundbreaking classics. In one of these, he developed the concept of "reciprocal altruism." This fascinating evolutionary construct undermines the simplistic notions of Social Darwinism and provides a basis for reviewing the erroneous thinking underlying the misuse of evolutionary theory in support of reactionary dogma.

The concept of reciprocal altruism suggests that there may be a bio-genetic basis to altruistic behavior. At first glance, altruistic behavior, which in evolutionary terms reduces the altruist's fitness and leads to an increase in the recipient's fitness, appears to be in contradiction to the basic self-serving survival interest of any organism. However, the concept of reciprocal altruism is based on the notion that an altruistic act is often returned to the altruistically behaving organism.

To illustrate the concept of reciprocal altruism, Trivers describes a mutually beneficial relationship between certain host fish and unrelated cleaner fish. The cleaner's diet consists of parasites removed from the host, which can often involve entering the host's mouth. Each fish engages in altruistic behavior towards the other, presumably because of the mutual adaptive advantage of the symbiotic relationship. For example, Trivers describes how a host fish will go through extra movements and delay fleeing when being attacked by a predator in order to allow a cleaner extra time to leave its mouth! One would assume that it would be to the adaptive advantage of the host, at such a moment, to simply swallow the cleaner. Instead, the host delays its departure in order to signal to the cleaner that it is time to get out of its mouth. This type of altruistic behavior seems to reduce the fitness of the host in two ways: it increases the chance that it will be eaten by a predator, and it forgoes a meal of the cleaner.

Yet, Trivers was able to show that there is an adaptive advantage to this altruistic act: being able to have debilitating parasites removed in the future. Because the cleaner fish stays in one spot in the shallow waters along the shore, the host can return to the same cleaner over and over again. In fact, they do and reliable relationships form in which both species benefit. One certainly would not posit guilty self control of selfishness as the motivator of such cooperative, and even altruistic, behavior in the host fish. Nor is it likely to be a calculated action. Most likely this behavior is directly imbedded in the biological responsive structure and motivational system of the fish; a system that yields cooperative altruistic interactions between two unrelated species of fish.

While there may be some intelligent fish, and while one may know some fishy people, it remains dangerous to generalize from fish to humans. What can be demonstrated by the evolutionary analysis are the prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism: high frequency of association, the reliability of association over time, and the ability of two organisms to behave in ways that benefit the other. If an altruistic act costs the altruist less than the benefit to the recipient then both will benefit from frequent trading of such acts. If this sounds like a perpetual motion machine where the output magically exceeds the input, consider just a few human examples such as a traditional barn raising, the act of helping an unrelated child find its way back to its parents, and many forms of charity. In such situations the cost to the altruist is frequently far less than the recipient's benefit. Those individuals who can trade such acts will have a significant adaptive advantage over non-altruists or those excluded from reciprocal arrangements.

This evolutionary line of thought presents a powerful challenge to the classical Freudian notion that "guilt" is necessary for civilization. Even though Trivers posits an important role for guilt in human social evolution, he points out that evolution theory cannot be used to "predict" guilt as central and necessary for civilization. The prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism are present in our species and have been shown in other species to be capable of shaping extremely cooperative behaviors.


Based on Trivers' model, Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton used game theory to prove that such a strategy is highly effective and can out compete more selfish strategies. They presented a demonstration that helps explain how the adaptive advantage of cooperative altruistic strategies could have evolved and entered a species repertoire. Axelrod and Hamilton used a modified version of the Prisoner's Dilemma, a game that has been extensively studied by social scientists. They changed it so that it represented opportunities for voluntary cooperation versus a selfish attempt to take advantage of another's willingness to cooperate, or a refusal to cooperate with a non-cooperator. There were various incentives for each of two players to do one of the following: cooperate, punish a non-cooperator (a "cheater") by not cooperating, and attempt to take advantage of a cooperator (to "cheat").

There are a number of rounds of play in which each player makes his or her decision and announces it simultaneously. The "payoff" is defined as follows: cheating a cooperator yields the biggest payoff for the cheater (payoff = 5) and the loss by the cooperator of his/her investment (payoff = 0); when both players are cooperative they are each rewarded (payoff = 3); finally, when both players cheat they protect their investment, but gain nothing (payoff = 1).

Robert Axelrod conducted a computer tournament of different strategies to this game that were submitted by game theorists in economics, sociology, political science, and mathematics. Though some of the strategies were quite intricate, the winning strategy (the highest score averaged against all challengers) was one of the simplest--a basically cooperative strategy called TIT FOR TAT: cooperate on the first move and thereafter do whatever the other player did on the preceding move. Thus, the strategy is to initially "announce" an intention to cooperate and then to let the other player know that cheating will not lead to a gain. TIT FOR TAT is quick to forgive no matter how many times the other player has cheated--just one indication of a willingness to cooperate from the other player leads TIT FOR TAT to try cooperation again.

What Axelrod and Hamilton were presenting was a theoretical model of how cooperation could evolve. Instead of competitive advantage going to the tough individual oriented toward selfish cheating, it might in fact lie with the wary but open individual oriented toward cooperation. Reality is more complicated than the conventional western view of an "I, I, me, me, mine" human nature. The human world has a social dimension as well as an individual dimension. Paradoxically, playing the game along both dimensions is the strategy most in the individual's interest.

Instead of competitive advantage going to the tough individual oriented toward selfish cheating, it might in fact lie with the wary but open individual oriented toward cooperation.

One powerful human demonstration of this tendency occurred during the early years of World War I in the trenches. Much to the consternation of the generals, the "disease of cooperation" between the opposing soldiers broke out all along the line. Stationed week after week, and month after month, in the same spot facing the same "enemy," the ideal conditions were present for the generation of reciprocal altruism. Soldiers shot to miss. Troops left the trenches and worked at repairing them in full view and within range of enemy soldiers who passively looked on. Christmas was celebrated together. One striking incident occurred when in one area an artillery burst exploded sending both sides diving for cover. After several moments, a German soldier called out to the other side and apologized, saying that his side had nothing to do with it: "It was those damn Prussian artillerymen." Note that artillery is stationed far back from the line, and the mutual trading of beneficial acts (shooting to miss) would be more difficult to communicate over long distances. In the end, the generals solved what was from their perspective a thorny problem of unwanted cooperation by ordering random raids (and shooting those who resisted), eventually breaking down the mutual trust that had developed.

The skeptic could argue that the human examples are anomalies, and, of course, we do not expect humans to behave as fish or relatively simple computer programs. However, human interactions are, in fact, often highly cooperative, and while there may be tension and competitiveness, the destructiveness that supposedly characterizes our species is relatively unseen. Murders are relatively rare within stable living communities and account for very little of human mortality. In fact, it behooves those who would posit that destructiveness and competitive greed lie at the heart of human motivations to explain the enormous amount of cooperation and the relative internal harmony of most human societies. We can conclude that the prerequisites for the evolution of reciprocal altruism -- that have been shown in other species to be capable of shaping extremely cooperative behaviors -- are present in our species, and are possibly present to a greater degree than in any other species.


What Trivers was able to show is that there are strong adaptive advantages to altruism, and he was able to delineate the necessary prerequisites for the evolution of altruism. Thus, in contrast to Freud's use of primitive evolutionary theorizing, utilizing the modern evolutionary perspective, altruistic behavior can be seen as conferring a powerful adaptive advantage on the altruist. Trivers suggests that this tendency may have been selected for at the same time that the selective pressures were shaping the evolution of human intelligence. This evolutionary scenario is the opposite of the conventional one -- used by Freud -- in which our animal nature is seen as being forcefully (and only partially) overcome by the pressures of civilization, made possible by increased intelligence and the ability to delay gratification of instincts.

In contrast to Freud's use of primitive evolutionary theorizing, altruistic behavior can be seen as conferring a powerful adaptive advantage on the altruist.

Consider the following evolutionary path that the above suggests. Sympathy for one in pain (the empathic sharing of the experience of pain and the desire to alleviate the sufferer's anguish -- a "desire" to act altruistically toward one in need) may have first evolved within the context of kin-directed behavior. In a kin relationship, an altruistic act increases the fitness of the altruist even if the act is not reciprocated. Any act that aids a relative is likely to increase the chance that one's own genes will be replicated because, by definition, a relative is one who carries some of the same genes. Therefore, the evolution of such behavior within kin relationships was not dependent upon there first being a tendency for reciprocation. However, kin altruists who tended to act more altruistically toward relatives that reciprocated were more successful than those who made no such discrimination.

As Axelrod and Hamilton have shown, once a cooperative strategy begins to invade a population it should be able to out compete the selfish strategies. So, the generalization of altruistic behavior to non-related others became possible as sufficient cognitive abilities were developed so that the altruist could distinguish between those likely to return the altruistic act (reciprocal altruists) and those unlikely to do so (cheaters). The development of large-scale human societies, where participants are only distantly related, is predicated both on emotional tendencies toward reciprocal altruism, and the cognitive ability to distinguish reciprocators from cheaters.

Trivers analyzed some of the subtleties of this ability. He suggested that reciprocal altruism evolved alongside increased cortical capacity and was a major source of selective pressure shaping that development. A moment's reflection will demonstrate that many aspects of human social relations exist within a complex web of kin and reciprocal altruism. In this analysis, rather than being an outcome of conflict brought into being by recent cortical evolution that led to the development of civilization, the tendency to act altruistically is seen as being historically primitive. Recent monkey studies by de Waal suggest that reciprocal altruism existed at a very early stage in primate evolution.

Traditional Freudian psychology clearly sees altruistic behavior as a recent development brought into being after increased brain size began to lead to the formation of civilization: civilization, made possible by increased intelligence, leads to pressure to control instinctual behavior. Altruism is understood as being in opposition to our "true" instinctual animal nature: changing an unconscious wish or desire into its opposite in consciousness, due to guilt induced by society. In Trivers' analysis, the adaptive advantage of reciprocal altruism existed at the earliest stages in the development of intelligence, forcing rapid intellectual advancement and the shaping of civilization in order to garner the advantages accrued through the successful trading of altruistic acts.

This is consistent with the Kohutian viewpoint and suggests that the traditional psychoanalytic emphasis on guilt does not adequately explain most altruistic behavior. While Trivers discusses a role played by guilt in reciprocal altruism, there is the inescapable self interest that is served by parental altruism towards one's children. This suggests that guilt conflict, which we cannot assume to be a primary factor in other species that also contribute considerable parental care toward their offspring, is unlikely to be the primary or main factor motivating such behavior in humans.

Parental protectiveness and the eager investment in offspring are not adequately explained by traditional psychoanalytic thought using reaction formations, pleasure resulting from the approval of one's super-ego, or de-repressed infantile narcissistic identifications. In focusing on the non-conflictual aspect of human relations (where the individual's and other's needs are in harmony due to the individual's tendency toward altruism), Kohut's self psychology appears to recognize a deep emotional wellspring that gives rise to altruistic behavior and that need not -- and Kohut argues can not -- be understood within the context of a drive-based, conflict psychology model. The evolutionary arguments used in analyzing altruistic behavior toward kin and non-kin in many species suggest that there is a basic biological component to this altruistic behavior: that altruistic behavior was not contingent upon the recent increase in the size of the neocortex-cortex that then allowed for the development of a strong ego and such motivating forces as guilt. Of course these arguments do not prove that guilt is not a strong motivating factor, and they are consistent with the notion that guilt does, in fact, provide significant motivation for some such behavior.

The arguments do suggest that Kohut's data, as well as his orientation and viewpoint in regard to empathic and altruistic behavior, may have the same biological basis (or rather the same degree of biological foundation in a human motivational system) as we assume that instinctual drives have. Conflict between our basic selfishness and the needs of others/society may not be at the core of the human psyche as traditional psychoanalytic theory would suggest, but may in fact be, as Kohut views it, a result of the failure of the biological tendency toward altruistic empathic behavior and experience.


Once a cooperative strategy begins to invade a population, it should be able to out compete the selfish strategies.

Modern evolutionary theory beckons us to fresh speculation in regard to many aspects of the human condition. It has certainly proven attractive to social philosophers and political theorists of various persuasions. However, the problems of proving the constructs of sociobiology rival those of proving different aspects of psychoanalytical theory. In his carefully argued study of the sociobiological debate, Vaulting Ambition, Philip Kitcher has demonstrated that a careful and difficult path must be traveled from any principal statement of social evolution to any particular statement regarding human nature. Certainly the lesson is to be wary of the grand conclusions of some sociobiologists.

According to Kitcher:

A quick look at actual behavior and at behavior differences among groups has all too frequently served to buttress hypotheses about the fixity of human institutions and the impossibility of eradicating inequalities among races and classes. Plant breeders who inferred the qualities of rival strains from consideration of relative vigor in a single environment, or from casual inspection of a collection of environments, would have a pronounced tendency to go rapidly out of business. By contrast, their imitators in the behavioral sciences usually seem to thrive (p. 28).

Clearly, the consequences of faulty reasoning in sociobiology go far beyond the success or failure of individual theorists. Bad theory and findings hastily adopted to support social policy can contribute to ongoing and unnecessary social injustice. Such was the effect of Jensen's IQ studies at a time when there was growing political resistance to affirmative action and continuing Head Start programs.

On the other hand, if we look deep enough, in every political philosophy we discover assumptions about human nature. Generally, more conservative political views emphasize the more static and selfish nature of humans. More progressive or change-oriented political views optimistically stress the ability of humans to fashion their existence through social reconstruction without preconceived limits derived from limiting notions in regard to human nature. Yet, the latter assumes humans have a behavioral proclivity to find happiness, satisfaction, and/or meaning through effective or, at least, valued social interaction.

The issue is not whether there is some nature in human behavior, but rather what that nature is and what its effect is. Some answers to these questions would certainly be a useful addition to our thinking about the many institutions that serve to direct and organize human behavior. Sociobiology, despite the claims of its more ambitious practitioners, is still a long way from providing definitive answers, though with recent advances a new conceptual schema is becoming available that may help guide us to a more accurate picture of the human condition. Meanwhile, premature conclusions about human limits have led to a reactionary trend from the left. In this trend, sociobiological attempts to fathom human nature are treated as anathema and are rejected as right wing racism. Thou shalt not apply the theory of evolution to human nature.

When we strip away the ill-founded and hasty conclusions reached by some sociobiologists, we are left with some very interesting analytical structures and some surprising possibilities for human nature. It has been easy to see why aggression and competition might be favored by evolution. But now we can understand how altruism and cooperation might also be favored. Further sociobiological study will probably show that humans are intrinsically social creatures, and help us to understand the complex design of social creatures who at times also act selfishly to maximize their evolutionary success.

Ironically -- given the extremely hostile criticism coming from the left -- one definitive political conclusion we can draw from human sociobiology at this stage is a challenging reply to the most pessimistic view of human nature coming from the right. In this pessimistic period of history, this alone may be a significant contribution. The popular view of human nature as simply aggressive, selfish, and competitive is far too narrow. We do not need to pose civilization in opposition to essential human nature, as did Freud. We do not need to deny evolved human behavioral propensities to explain the origin and maintenance of culture. As surprising as it may be, sociobiology appears to provide a scientific basis, however tentative for an optimistic view of both human psychology and the potential for civilization.


Axelrod, R., and W.D. Hamilton, "The Evolution of Cooperation," Science, 211 (1981), pp. 1390-96.

de Waal, FB.M., Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

Freud, S., Civilization and its Discontents (Standard Edition), 21 (1930), pp. 59-145.

Kitcher, P., Vaulting Ambition (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).

Kriegman, D., "Self Psychology from the Perspective of Evolutionary Biology" in A. Goldberg (ed.), Progress in Self Psychology, vol. 3 (Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press, 1988), pp. 253-274.

Trivers, R.L., "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," Quarterly Review of Biology, 46 (1971), pp.35-57.

_____, Social Evolution (Boston: Addison-Wesley,1985).

Daniel Kriegman and Charles Knight, "Social Evolution, Psychoanalysis, and Human Nature," Social Policy, Fall 1988, pp. 49-55. :internet (January, 2003).