Natural Selection and Societal Laws

  • Richard D. Alexander
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


Ever since Darwin published his Origin of Species literate people have tended to regard the attributes of living things as outcomes of an evolutionary process, and to suppose that humans like other organisms are in some way derived through organic evolution. In terms of searches for explanation there are several meanings to this remark. Laboratory scientists, for example, may assume that common or similarly derived mechanisms underlie physiological phenomena observed even in widely different animals, and they may as a result use simpler or more easily studied organisms, such as rats, to help understand complex species, such as humans, which are difficult to study in the laboratory. Primatologists may assume that humans are similar to other primates because of genetic similarity or a recent common ancestry; this assumption may be used in developing and testing theories about human behavior and its history, or about the phylogenetic derivation of humans. Paleontologists assume that the phylogenetic patterns they are able to trace across geological time are the result of mutation, selection, and isolation, as observable today, even though they are hardly ever able to reconstruct the environments in which the changes occurred well enough to understand the adaptive significance of ancient trends.


Natural Selection Normative Ethic Group Living Parental Authority Large Game 
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  1. 2.
    The reasons for this assumption are not widely discussed. Some of them are the following: (1) altering directions of selection alters directions of genetic change in organisms; (2) the causes of mutations (chiefly radiation) and the causes of selection (Darwin’s “hostile forces” of food shortages, climate, weather, predators, parasites, and diseases) are independent of one another; (3) only the causes of selection remain consistently directional for relatively long periods (thus could explain long-term directional changes); and (4) predictions based on the assumption that adaptiveness depends solely upon selection work. A prime example of the last is the history of sex ratio selection, traceable from the work of R. A. Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, New York: Dover, 1958;Google Scholar
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    Here I add a reservation about the enthusiasm which has occurred in the wake of Williams’s 1966 book, and as a result of W. D. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness in “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour, I, II,” Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7 (1964): 1–52 (later referred to generally as “kin selection”). Hamilton followed Fisher (The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection) and others in pointing out that organisms can reproduce genetically not only via their direct descendants but also through whatever other nondescendant relatives may be socially available to them. In other words, nepotism to any genetic relative may be part of an organism’s strategy of reproduction through altruism to others (altruism being defined as acts that at some expense or risk to the actor contribute to the well being—actually the reproduction—of others). Since humans are more extensively and complexly nepotis-tic than any other organism, Hamilton’s arguments are immediately interesting to anyone concerned with human behavior. Hamilton’s arguments also focused attention on subgenotypic elements, since they deal with reproductive costs and benefits to anyone of helping relatives with different fractional genetic overlaps. My caution has to do with the fact that evolutionary biologists have followed the lure of simplified quantitative genetics, perhaps without due care, right to the gene level.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    As Ernst Mayr put it (“The Unity of the Genotype,” Biologisches Zentralblatt, 94 (1975): 377–88), “The approach… became entirely atomistic and, for the sake of convenience, each gene was treated as if it were quite independent of all others. In due time all sorts of phenomena were discovered which contradicted this interpretation, such as the linkage of genes, epistasis, pleiotropy, and polygeny, and yet in evolutionary discussions only lip service was paid to these complications…. The purely analytical school thought that… an integrative attitude was incompatible with a meaningful analysis and dangerously close to such a stultifying concept as holism.” Sooner or later, I believe, we must return to the individual as the most potent level at which selection works (See Lewontin, “The Units of Selection”). This simply means that, whatever we decide about subgenotypic levels, we will be forced to consider at every step what is meant by the fact that genes do not produce their effects independently of their genetic environments and are not inherited separately. This question may seem largely academic for social scientists, since the interests of genes and genotypes are so often synonymous;Google Scholar
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    however, the prominence of certain questions, like kin selection and the outcome of parent-offspring conflict (see R. L. Trivers, “Parent-Offspring Conflict,” American Zoologist, 14 [1974]: 249–64; Alexander, “The Evolution of Social Behavior”) indicates that subgenomic considerations cannot be ignored, even by social scientists. Moreover, useful parallels can be drawn between the effects of selection on organization at subgenomic and supragenomic (i.e., social) levels (see Alexander and Borgia, “Group Selection, Altruism, and the Hierarchical Organization of Life”).Google Scholar
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    Some of my students suggested two special cases that do not fit well into these general categories: (4) communal winter clusters (e.g., of flying squirrels) which may chiefly gain from minimizing energy loss, and (5) the V-formation of migrating waterfowl in which individuals may gain from pooling their information about the long migratory route. W. J. Freeland (“Pathogens and the Evolution of Primate Sociality,” Biotropica, 8 (1976): 12–24) argues that disease may be an alternative cause of group living, but his arguments seem more to involve modifications of group living, once other causes establish and maintain it, because of the expense of diseases under group living.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    I use the term “function” in this paper essentially in the sense of Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966) (and now of evolutionary biology more or less generally) to mean evolved adaptive significance. In other words, I use it to refer to any contributing factor supposed or hypothesized to be responsible for the selective origin and maintenance of the phenomenon, as opposed to (1) effects (Williams’s “incidental effects”) or (2) contributing causes unable by themselves to account for the phenomenon. Thus, there is an implicit assumption that what I am calling the function of an act or other phenotypic expression is alone capable of producing and maintaining the phenomenon; or that is an hypothesis under consideration. In this sense I am searching for single causes, and I regard this procedure as a logical approach to causation in biological phenomena. Multiple causes should be accepted only when single ones prove insufficient. If the absence of truly broad generalizations in the search for understanding of human existence should happen to be attributable to our long-term failure to reconcile the search with the principles of organic evolution, then our reluctance to admit the possibility of “single causes” should at least be tempered somewhat when we enter into a stage of rapid and massive incorporation of evolutionary principles, as I believe is the case at the moment.Google Scholar
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    The criticism is sometimes made that Flannery’s (ibid.) kind of reconstruction assumes that a particular modern ethnographic example is an exact replicate of its archaeological (and extinct) counterpart, or even, in the extreme, that the ethnographic and archaeological examples are implied to give rise to one another, always progressing from simple to complex. This attitude implies a basic misunderstanding of comparative method. Comparative method, in biology or archaeology, assumes: (1) that sequences of change have occurred (genetic evolution and cultural change); (2) that parallel sequences of change occur in different places, at different times, and in different lines at the same times and places; (3) that some (but not all) of the attributes of different stages (but not the actual cases or even, necessarily, the actual sequences) will be represented in both extant and extinct forms, and (4) that appropriate comparisons of such attributes can yield information about the sequences of change and their causes. These assumptions allow interpretation of the past by studying the present, or vice versa, and comparative method, explicitly in the sense described here, represents the main source of evidence for both evolutionary biology and archaeology.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    I would expect the function of laws Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966 (see footnote 9) to be the limitation of the reproductive striving of those other than the legislators and enforcers themselves; it is an incidental effect that legislators and enforcers are limited by the same laws—although from the viewpoint of those requiring legislators and enforcers to follow the same laws they have to follow (another form of enforcement), this “effect” in turn becomes a function.Google Scholar
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    N. A. Chagnon, Yanomamö: The Fierce People; “Genealogy, Solidarity, and Relatedness: Limits to Local Group Size and Patterns of Fission in Expanding Populations.” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 19 (1975): 95–100; (1974).Google Scholar
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    P. Stein and J. Shand, Legal Values in Western Society. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974), pp. 114–16, provide a closely parallel but evidently independent comment: “In the fellowship type of social relationship, the value of the individual as a person is secured by the mutual regard and affection of the members for each other. The nature of the relationship is such that every member can confidently rely on receiving respect from the others. Their mutual regard is the product of its personal character. Such a social group cushions its members against the impact of legal rules. For example, early Celtic society, which was largely pastoral, displayed marked fellowship features. The main social unit was the kindred, the drebfhine of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, which extended for four generations. The act of one individual might affect all the members of the kindred, each could claim his share in any inheritance, and each was bound to assume his share of liability for any fines payable by any member. As Nora Chadwick says: There was no personal payment. The ‘kindred’ stood or fell together. In this way they were responsible for one another and would obviously keep a close eye on one another’s doings. In this way too every “kindred’ group would see to it that the kindred did duty as both police and judges. There could have been no better way in such a society of keeping justice on an even keel, and this helps to explain the relative scarcity of legal machinery which a study of so many legal tracts implies. “Traces of such group feeling can be found even today in closely knit family groups, which regard themselves as culturally distinct from the rest of society. Gypsies, for example, settle their disputes themselves according to their own customs, and will rarely have recourse to law, except in their dealings with outsiders. If a member of a gypsy family in East Anglia is accused of a motoring offence, it is common for his whole family to accompany him to court, and if he is convicted and fined they will all contribute as a matter of course to its payment. ‘As societies develop into the nation-states, they cease to be collections of fellowship groups. These groups are replaced by less personal types of social relationship, in which the members feel no special regard for each other. In the newer relationships respect for persons cannot be taken for granted. Circumstances require that people be treated as individuals, and the position of the individual in society must be recognised by the law. Further, the precise character of the law is best adapted to a society whose members are treated as separate individuals rather than as members of groups. Historically, as laws have become more sophisticated, the more they have tended to make the individual rather than the group the focus of rights and duties. These considerations do not, however, imply the attribution of a particular value to the individual as against society. “Ancient Roman society regarded property as belonging to the family, but quite early in its development it ascribed ownership to the head of the family, the paterfamilias. He could dispose of the family farm, for example, without the need to obtain the consent of other members of the family. The freedom of disposition applied both to alienations inter vivos, such as followed a sale of the property, and to those by will. Towards the end of the Republic, it is true, a testator was compelled to take into account the needs of his descendants when deciding the destination of his property after his death, but he was still allowed a very wide discretion. This aspect of the Roman law of property is sometimes cited as evidence of Roman dedication to the principle of individualism in the modern sense. Such an assumption is unwarranted. The freedom of disposition enjoyed by the Roman paterfamilias was legally and commercially convenient. Its exercise must be seen against the background of the strong social pressures of good faith, family piety, and neighbourly duty, summed up in the notion of officium. These pressures considerably inhibited the use which the paterfamilias made of his powers of disposition. Furthermore, what the Roman owner could do with his property, apart from his rights of disposition, was not so unrestricted as it has in modern times been declared to be. As we shall see, Roman law kept Roman owners within the limits of good neighbourliness, and the alleged ‘absolute’ character of Roman dominium has largely been read into the Roman texts by later generations of jurists imbued with non-Roman ideas. Had the Romans really been individualistic in the modern sense, they would have changed the rules whereby adult descendants, unless formally emancipated from the power of the paterfamilias, could own no property of their own in his lifetime. The law recognised their right to control what had come to them as a result of their own enterprise, such as military service, but anything they received by way of legacy or gift belonged to the paterfamilias, and was thus kept in the family funds of which he disposed.”Google Scholar
  62. 41.
    I mean that our view of evolution may parallel our view of pornography, through reflections, conscious or not-so-conscious, about the effects of either on our children. Thus, we seem first to teach our children to be absolutely truthful—a way of operating that clearly is incompatible with social, economic, and political success, probably in any society anywhere. Then we teach them to adjust the truth ever so slightly—and thereby successfully—to their own advantage. After they start telling Aunt Kate that she is fat, and such things, we begin to teach them to be what we so tactfully call tactful. Similarly, we seem first to teach our children that sex is an evil to be avoided—that too is a way of operating, for adults, at least, that is not usually compatible with either social or reproductive success. Then we teach them, or allow to develop, the circumstances in which sex is permissible and profitable; we allow them to learn that sex in these situations is enjoyable, and we try to teach them that sex in other situations is not. Perhaps, in each case, the sequence of learning is crucial; perhaps by these sequences alone we are able reliably to guide children to success in the sensitive business of sociality, sexuality, and morality. In each case a connection can be discerned between the education of children and the growth of understanding about evolution. In each case a possible explanation of the relationship between family stability and law-breaking is discernible. Perhaps, without always being conscious of it, we tend to be repelled by evolutionary explanations, particularly of human sociality, because we somehow understand that full knowledge and acceptance of them would not be good for our children (see also R. D. Alexander. “Creation, Evolution, and Biology Teaching,” American Biology Teacher, (Feb. 1978).Google Scholar
  63. 42.
    Donald Black’s book, The Behavior of Law (New York: Academic Press, 1976) did not become available to me until the final draft of this manuscript was completed. Black’s findings are relevant to my arguments and seem to support (even if inadvertently) the general viewpoint I have advocated.Google Scholar
  64. 42a.
    As his title suggests, for purposes of analysis, Black treats law as Leslie White, e.g., The Science of Culture (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1949) treated culture—as a thing apart from function, motivations, psychology, and individuals. He seeks correlates of the quantity of law (pp. 6–8) and tries to ascertain their effects. He defines law as “governmental social control” (p. 2), and quantifies it chiefly (p. 3) by “the number and scope of prohibitions, obligations, and other standards to which people are subject, and by the rate of legislation, litigation, and adjudication.” He then examines the correlates of quantitative variations in law in different circumstances and societies, and emphasizes twenty-five or thirty such correlates, which may be condensed as follows: Law is “greater” (employed more often, or more effectively) in societies and social groups that are larger, more dense, more organized, more differentiated, more complex, more stratified, and in circumstances in which there are fewer other social controls (e.g., less family control) and greater “relational” (social, genetic) distances among interactants (e.g., more during interactions between distant relatives, or nonrelatives, and “strangers”), than in the opposite kinds of societies, social groups, and circumstances. Within societies “more” law is directed (or law is directed more often and more effectively) at individuals and groups that are relatively low-ranking, uninfluential, transient, not “respectable,” socially marginal, and more distantly related then in the opposite direction. Black’s approach treats law as a singular phenomenon whose traits can be analyzed and generalized. Because law is obviously not without function, and is not independent of the motivations of people, Black’s success in locating a small number of general rules, despite the enormous variation in legal systems, suggests that a certain singularity of function, therefore of motivational background, may exist for law as a whole. That is also the argument made in my paper. Moreover, the particular correlates discovered by Black sometimes are the same as those I have emphasized, and his findings seem to support the arguments about the origins and functions of law described in my paper.Google Scholar

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