Michael Chorost, Ph.D.

Michael Chorost Ph.D.

World Wide Mind

Why I Am A Scientific Progressive–And An Optimist

How I derive my political principles from evolutionary theory.

Posted Sep 06, 2012

UPDATE Nov. 7, 2012: Read my blog posting on the 2012 election results, A Status-Quo Election, But Much Cause For Hope.

In this election season I’d like to say why I think of myself as a “scientific progressive” -- and moreover, an optimistic one. My political identity’s deeply shaped by a lifetime of reading about, and writing about, science. Let me explain how.

Though I'm a liberal Democrat, I have plenty of respect for Adam Smith’s classical theory of economics. Free markets are in fact a tremendous generator of goods, jobs, and wealth. I read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in graduate school and appreciated his thesis that free markets allocate goods and services more efficiently than communist-style central planning ever could.

In fact, you can analogize free-market theory to evolution with very little trouble. Innovation is analogous to mutation; competition is analogous to selection; free markets are analogous to self-organization. There’s a reason why the analogy works so well: Humanity is not separate from the forces of evolution that shaped life on Earth. The same dynamics that operated in the primordial sea and the African savannah also operate in Whole Foods and Wall Street.

But how do I get from that to being a “scientific progressive”? You’ll notice that evolution appears to have created greater complexity and power in both organic life and in the economy. Not without periods of stagnation and outright reverses, of course. There are extinctions in biology, and Dark Ages and depressions in economies. But life, and economies, have always gone on to even higher levels of sophistication.

Charles Darwin

This is a very hard question to answer, and it hasn’t been answered yet in any comprehensive and widely-accepted way. However, there are many interesting pieces of the solution floating about. (Earlier this year I wrote an article, One-way evolution: The ladder of life makes a comeback, for New Scientist to help myself understand some of them.)

My thinking is based on a  raft of recent books arguing that progress is built into the mechanics of life and society. As Stuart Kauffman argues in Origins of Order, there may be a “fourth law of thermodynamics” that drives complexity upward. This is a contested position, but I think the evidence and the books in its favor are accumulating. They include Robert Wright’s Nonzero, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, Simon Conway Morris’s Life’s Solution, and Carter Phipps’s Evolutionaries. To distinguish this group from orthodox evolutionists like Stephen Jay Gould, I’ll call them progress-oriented evolutionists.

They all point to interlocking phenomena that, once started, reinforce each other. For example, in her book Symbiotic Evolution the biologist Lynn Marguilis points to the emergence of progressively more powerful forms of cooperation. Billions of years ago primitive bacteria merged, giving rise to the modern eukaryotic cell with its mitochondria. Later, eukaryotic cells themselves merged into multicellular creatures, which themselves joined into increasingly sophisticated collectives (like ants and bees, and later mammals and humans.) And recently, we have seen the symbiosis of humans and computers giving us powers that we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Things merge, again and again. With each symbiosis, the new collective gains an evolutionary advantage because it can accumulate more energy and better propagate its kind.

There are interlocking phenomena in economies too (or more broadly, in culture). In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker identifies five intertwined forces that have made human society both more sophisticated and more peaceful: (1) the rise of the state and its monopoly on violence, (2) interdependence based on trade, (3) the feminization of culture and a consequent de-emphasis on violence, (4) the expansion of empathy, and (5) the “escalator of reason” – the self-reinforcing use of rational thought (Kindle location 235.) Each of these reinforces the others in a “virtuous cycle” of ascent to higher levels of power and complexity. And they confer powerful competitive advantages on the societies that hold them.

These virtuous cycles anchor my perspective as a scientific progressive. I see a smart politics as one that recognizes these interlocking, self-reinforcing forces and consciously acts to accelerate them through governance. One could say, in fact, that governments are analogous to the rise of consciousness in organisms. Governments came into being when societies became complex enough to need centralized, rationalized administration. The more complex an organism gets, whether it’s biological or economic, the more intelligence it needs. Robin Dunbar has argued, for example, that one reason human brains grew bigger was to handle the complexity of social relationships. You need more smarts to maintain an internal model of who’s on the ins and outs with whom. Similarly, the more complex an economy gets, the more sophisticated its government has to be.

Relying on blind forces worked, albeit slowly and erratically, for a long time, but that just won’t cut it anymore. We now have problems that can only be solved by large-scale rational thinking and global cooperation. For example, the free market isn’t going to solve the problem of global warming on its own: every actor has the incentive to focus on short-term profits while dumping externalities like pollution onto third parties. To solve global warming, you need transnational governance. It won’t help to switch to cleaner energy in the U.S. if China is still mostly burning coal. It doesn’t have to come from an institution such as the United Nations; it could emerge out of a system of international agreements that slowly becomes more powerful.

From that perspective, the Republican obsession with smaller government is like a body wanting a smaller brain. (Brains have in fact de-evolved in several species, but that’s always because the body or the environment became simpler. Once a barnacle attaches to a surface, it digests its brain because it doesn’t need to manage motion anymore.) It would make sense if Republicans said they wanted a more efficient government. Who wouldn’t want that? But that is very different from wanting smaller government. Wanting a smaller government is precisely equivalent to wanting a simpler society.

Barring catastrophe, that’s not going to happen. For one thing, the U.S. has 100 million more people than it had in 1970. You can’t just scale up governance linearly as population grows and the economy produces proportionately more goods and services. More complex societies need larger entities to manage them, because they do more relative to their size. The Republican yearning for smaller government is pure nostalgia for an idealized past.

From the evolutionary perspective I’ve outlined, many progressive values emerge organically. For example, the importance of diversity. Diversity is an essential resource for the evolutionary process. Every individual, every race, every ethnicity, every religion, every sexuality, every system of thought, is a kind of evolutionary experiment. The more diversity there is, the more resources the species/society has to cope with change. It’s well known that monocultures – that is, sets of organisms that don’t differ genetically from each other – are extremely vulnerable to extinction because they can all get wiped out by the same thing. On the other hand, when there’s genetic diversity, some members are more likely to survive a catastrophe and repopulate the group afterward.

The rule holds for cultural diversity, too. That’s why our society can’t merely tolerate people of different races and religions and opinions out of some spirit of benign acceptance. It needs to actively cultivate them as a reservoir of variation to cope with change. That’s why, as a Democrat, I’m glad my party is actively embracing people of different races and sexualities. That value emerges naturally out of a progress-oriented evolutionary perspective – one that’s based on a rational study of how life actually works.

And it offers a beautifully principled basis for opposing the Republican Party. You will notice that today, the Republican Party resists every single element of the interlocking phenomena I named above. Let’s go through them. Start with the cooperation Lynn Marguilis talked about. If you look at the Republican platform, you will find that rhetorically, cooperation is a distant second to individualism. Take this passage, for example:

“Prosperity is the product of self-discipline, work, savings, and investment by individual Americans, but it is not an end in itself. Prosperity provides the means by which individuals and families can maintain their independence from government, raise their children by their own values, practice their faith, and build communities of self-reliant neighbors.”

Not that Republicans totally deny the value of cooperation. And of course it’s a good thing to be  disciplined and self-reliant. But the vision here is of a drastically atomized society. Note the heavy usage of words like self, individual, families (as opposed to larger units), independence, own values, and self-reliant. The one usage of the word “community” is remarkably vague: what exactly does a “community of self-reliant neighbors” actually look like? You can practically see the flannel-shirted farmers living in isolated log cabins on the Nebraska plains, calling each other up on antique phone lines at harvest time.

Now let’s look at the Republican perspective on Pinker’s five interlocking forces that lead to higher levels of civilized behavior. Republicans want none of it. They are blindly anti-government. They want to undermine its peacemaking monopoly on violence by arming the citizenry to the teeth. They explicitly aim to limit the autonomy and power of women. They resist interdependence on both national and individual levels. They mock the word “empathy.” They have no use for science, dismissing out of hand the science behind evolution and global warming. Moreover, they oppose the exercise of reason itself. The Texas GOP’s platform says this:

"We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

No “escalator of reason” to be found there. From all this I can only conclude that today’s Republican Party is aggressively, willfully, and irrationally doing everything it possibly can to de-evolve.

There used to be moderate Republicans in the party who could talk thoughtfully about the proper balance between the individual and the state, as Hayek did, and who supported science and rational thought, like Jon Huntsman. Huntsman, of course, was swiftly rejected in the primaries. The party has become so syncophantic, so anti-intellectual, and so head-bangingly stupid, that it is simply no longer credible as a governing force. That’s not just because of its particular ideas. It’s because the party actively works against the mechanisms that make life and economies more sophisticated. Case in point: George W. Bush, whose adminstration was catastrophic in virtually every single respect.

It is profoundly unfortunate that the Republican Party has taken this turn. There is a serious intellectual basis for principled conservatism. In college I read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and was impressed, if not persuaded, by his thoughtful and eloquent defense of tradition. Burke and Hayek were the kind of conservatives that progressives could have a dialogue with, reaching workable compromises on governance. But today’s Republican Party has thrown away that intellectual heritage.

Unfortunately, a lot of Americans call themselves Republicans. Enough to keep the gears of American government solidly locked, and I’m not optimistic that the situation will change much after the election. I think Obama will win, the Democrats will keep the Senate, and the Republicans will lose a few seats in the House but maintain a majority. The government will be as deadlocked as ever.

But in the long run, I’m an optimist. The demographics are against the Republicans. The country is becoming more diverse and more tolerant, while the Republican Party is becoming whiter and more bigoted. That’s going to have a major effect at the ballot box in future elections. More importantly, though, the evolutionary process itself will have its way. Ideas that don’t work lead to the extinction of the groups that hold them. That doesn’t happen quickly; people cling to bad ideas out of fear, complacency, or laziness. Or, of course, if they have gamed the system to benefit from them.

But history shows that in the long run, stupidity never wins. Humanity will get its act together, as it always has. The only question is when, and how much unnecessary suffering will have to happen beforehand. My take on evolutionary theory tells me that there will come a day when the U.S. decisively rejects the Republican mindset and sets about building a fairer, smarter, and richer society. And that’s why I’m not only a scientific progressive, I’m an optimistic scientific progressive.

I usually blog about science -- my current interest is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- but if you want to see my other political essays, start with this one: The Turning Point: The Moral Example of UC Davis Students. To learn more about me and my books Rebuilt and World Wide Mind, please see my website. You can also follow me on Twitter @MikeChorost.