The romantic ideal of our illusory evolution

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There is the tendency to place the essence of being human in our prehistoric past, the period in which man evolved. Evolutionary psychologists make decisive statements about who we are and why we do what we do. That certainty, however, is rarely substantiated, most knowledge about primal times is only speculative in nature. Nonetheless, it seems that prehistoric times have come to form a kind of romantic ideal that dismisses us from the moral obligation to construct moral rules ourselves, via a public debate and ethical reflection. After all, our moral intuitions are assumed to have already been fully established by evolution. Like all romantic ideas, such a romantic idea is incorrect and misleading.

In short, romanticism comes down to the conviction that once you could be more human than you can be nowadays. For example, you can believe that in the nineteenth century or in the Middle Ages, people lived in harmony with themselves, with others, and with nature.

This romantic longing for a time when the world was as it should be seems to originate from the innate human need for purity. This need can entice individuals to create art: we look for who we really are and we report on that search in a book, painting, poem or sculpture. Sometimes these reports are beautiful, but most of the time it leads to clichés – in the end, most of us are not that special.

Romantic ideals becomes problematic when they seduce communities. This can take the shape of conservative resentment or nationalism, or, in case of the progressive left, the longing to go back to a time when we were not yet ‘alienated’ from ourselves, but were one with nature and/or with the community.

Thank goodness most romantic ideals are falsifiable nonsense. Medieval life was miserable: you were plagued by nature; other people hurt you; and you were too busy surviving to live in harmony with yourself. The nineteenth century was fun for a few, the rest of the people lived in slums, in the midst of cesspits and people with cholera. If you were lucky, you died quickly, because you would no longer have to work in the factory all day long.

It may be so that romantic ideals are constantly playing up and that there always will be some voters who fall for them. However, as long as there is a functioning public debate, this kind of thinking can be effectively combated. The nostalgia for a non-existent past will lose its appeal if it is highlighted from different angles and if the attention is focused on the dangers and historical shortcomings of romantic delusions.

But there is no reason to be cheerful yet: more and more often we are confronted with ideas that refer to the enduring prehistoric times when homo erectus evolved into homo sapiens.

Science-based references to primitive times do not seem to be romantic at first, but this impression is too naive: prehistoric times are represented as the time when man was truly human, in which the essence of man was determined once and for all.

These kinds of ideas have been around for a while. In the sixties, the economist Marshall Sahlins argued that prehistoric times presented the ‘original affluent society’, in which it took just a few hours per day to meet all needs. The rest of the time the primeval people could tell stories to each other around the fire, meanwhile enjoying a rich and varied meal. With the Neolithic revolution, we have only become less human – a claim that was repeated by Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens.

These days, the most popular insights originate from evolutionary psychology. We are what we are because we have evolved as tribes of hunter-gatherers. Our psyche and behavior are determined by our DNA and our DNA is determined by the evolutionary background that we share.

Just think about it, we have only been living in settlements for around 10,000 years, where we grow crops and keep cattle. There were hardly any major cultures for the Egyptian empire. Yet for over 200,000 years, humans have been the humans we know, preceded by more than a million years of precursors, branches, variations, and so on that turned us into what we are.

Increasingly insights from evolutionary psychology influence in management literature, but also in everyday ethical discussions an increasing amount of references are made to the time in which we were shaped and especially to the differences of this time and our time.

The group size of 150 people is notorious, the maximum size of a group of people in which we can engage in altruistic behavior. When we are surrounded by more people, we feel like a guest at a birthday party where we don’t know anyone. This wisdom is not only translated into organizational structures based on this magic number, but also serves as an excuse for our tendency to exclude strangers.

Furthermore, we seem to have the evolutionary disposition that we expect a leader to be a ‘he’ with a low voice and an above-average length. If you are a squeaky woman, you are 2-0 down when you apply for a managerial position. Was it a surprise that Donald Trump won Hillary Clinton? Not for evolutionary psychologists. Trump is an archetypal alpha male and that’s precisely corresponds with our innate preference.

Also the less than rational choices that we sometimes seem to make can all be traced back to prehistoric times. In the texts of evolutionary psychologists, there are lots of lions and saber-toothed tigers that would jump out of every bush to outwit you. Those who feared every little rustle survived and passed on their short-term fears to new generations, while those who only cared about the long-term risks did not reproduce themselves.

Now we have to deal with pensions, cigarettes and climate change. All things that require a long-term strategy, because our short-term preferences lead to the wrong choices. It will not work. We were not built that way.

Are we becoming fat? That is because we like to eat salty, sweet and fatty, because in the past we a lot more trouble to get food. A paleo-diet of nuts and seeds with the occasional bone of a self-caught boar is much healthier (still, I wonder if I have to floss my teeth after the irregular meal).

In sum, prehistoric times are taken as the period in which the essence of being human was developed. We are not able to make choices ourselves, because we are irrevocably driven by our genetic instructions.

The ethical notion of the naturalistic fallacy points at the demand that we should never straightforwardly assume that an existing situation is a morally right one. People who want to sustain established structures and traditions also have a duty to substantiate the legitimacy of this position.

The reduction of men to a being that cannot escape its cavemen roots then is quite convenient. After all, this suggests that we cannot change ourselves, even if we want to. Eventually we will have to return to the tribal patriarchy, with its authoritarian, misogynous and reactionary character. We can’t be blamed for that, that’s just the way it is.

Evolutionary psychologists like to boast with their knowledge. However, the basis of this knowledge is really paper thin. Though prehistoric times took a long time, there is very little left of it. No texts, after all we are dealing with pre-history. Only an occasional bone, shard, footprint, a few tribes that still exist in the far corners of this world. A lot of white spots have to be filled with that scanty material.

We can also look at those animals that are most similar to us. But which animals are most like us: the peace-loving Bonobo or the aggressive Chimpanzee? It is primarily a matter of preference and ideology of the researcher that determines this choice.

Computer models that simulate the entire evolution are becoming increasingly popular. Darwin’s laws are then, for example, cast in a game-theoretical form and subsequently you may found out what happened or could have happened. Are we altruistic or competitive, do we believe in gods because that creates a common bond or is such belief an evolutionary by-product? Let the computer do a number of model runs and we know it, at least we think so.

The common denominator of all these scientific approaches is that they are marked by deep uncertainties. With genetic techniques you can find out when we started walking upright and when we got a larynx, but there is no way to find out to which place we were walking and what the first conversation was about.

We still carry DNA from Neanderthals and Denisov people with us, apparently early humans had inter-species sex. Did the sapiens men pull their Neanderthal women into the cave by their hair, were the sapiens women seduced by the Denisov men with their deep voices? Was there a prehistoric case #MeToo or was it a case of informed consent. Nobody knows.

Models that redo evolution? You can extract every conceivable result by playing around with the parameters and by varying the entry data. Ultimately, such model results are predominantly speculation.

There is no way you can avoid that answers to these questions depend on interpretation. In their turn, these interpretations seem to be mainly formed by observations and beliefs from the present – as is typical of romantic ideas. Marshall Sahlin’s society of abundance mainly says something about the time in which he lived, the 1960’s, when there was an emphasis on communality and idealism. The claims of evolutionary psychologists about how an organization should work mainly say something about the social situation and power structures in our won times, in which people are first and foremost seen as a bundle of neurological traits defined by a genetic blueprint.

The era in which we live can also be seen a historic turning point in the confrontation between progressive and conservative mindsets. These never seem to have been so evenly distributed, and never before have the gaps between both directions been so big and decisive.

Very roughly one may distinguish progressive groups on the one hand that often live in cities and orient themselves cosmopolitan – the so-called ‘anywheres’–, concerned with climate change and populist authoritarian leadership. On the other hand there are conservative groups – the ‘anywheres’ – who are oriented towards the part of the world that is close to them, worrying about the loss of certainty due to immigration, due to the required changes in living patterns so to save climate, due to having to deal with a more complex collective identity and so on. The ratio between the two groups is almost fifty-fifty, in elections the representatives of both groups are taken their turns in winning and losing and a marginal difference in votes can completely change the future of a country – think Brexit, think Trump, think Erdogan.

The naturalistic fallacy is so important because it points to the ‘moral project’ that has been started with the Enlightenment. A long-term collective project in which we determine which ethical values ​​and position are legitimate based on theoretical reflection and on public debate. In this, no moral starting point situation can straightforwardly be assumed to be true.

The speculative claims of evolution psychologists may have a negative influence here. Firstly because, as stated above, it dismisses about half of the participants in the public debate of the moral obligation to account for their ethical position (and, in the meantime, dismisses the other half as utopian dreamers or unworldly fanatics). After all, one can easily say that people simply want to trust a powerful leader and that this leader is obviously male. One can easily state that we do not like to be confronted with uncertainties and foreigners.

But above all, these kinds of claims are challenging the foundations of the Enlightenment’s moral project. As Immanuel Kant stated, the Enlightenment is about shedding our chains, which is done by the disposition to critically question existing dogmas. But by placing the essence of being human in an unchangeable past, we chain ourselves again: after all, if we believe evolutionary psychology, there is little room to doubt our genetic predispositions.

But it is by no means necessary to take our evolutionary ancestry as the sole measure of being human. This is just a romantic projection with little credibility. After all, our recent history has proved the existence of female leaders, functioning democracies, and organizations that have a 150 members multiplied by 1000. And of course our moral intuitions are largely evolutionary shaped, but that does not mean that our norms and rules are fixed. On the contrary, these can in any case be adapted to new moral requirements – as I have written earlier. We are able to reflect on our actions and late, we are able to enter into discussions with ourselves and with others. We are able to participate in a collective moral project and we are able to ignore romantic ideas if this is necessary.

That scientific claims are characterized by uncertainties is not a problem, nor is it a problem that subjective interpretations are used to deal with those uncertainties. Science is a long-term task and because of its self-correcting capacity there is certainly no reason for concern.

Moreover, it is obviously very important that we understand how we work and many of the insights developed by evolution psychologists are helpful for this. But at the same time, a speculative and sometimes suggestive reconstruction of the past should never act as a measure of moral thinking.

Further reading:


De Waal, F. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates: WW Norton & Company.

Gintis, H., Van Schaik, C., Boehm, C., Chapais, B., Flack, J. C., Pagel, M., . . . Erdal, D. (2015). Zoon Politikon: The evolutionary origins of human political systems. Current Anthropology, 56(3), 340-341.

Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind: Random House.

Hirschman, A. O. (1991). The rhetoric of reaction: Harvard University Press.

Laland, K. N., Uller, T., Feldman, M. W., Sterelny, K., Müller, G. B., Moczek, A., . . . Odling-Smee, J. (2015). The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, assumptions and predictions. Paper presented at the Proc. R. Soc. B.

Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined: Penguin Group USA.

Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., . . . Henrich, J. (2016). Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature.

Van Veelen, M. (2009). Group selection, kin selection, altruism and cooperation: when inclusive fitness is right and when it can be wrong. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 259(3), 589-600.


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