Nicholas Christakis on the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

This enlarged perspective is the focus of the book. It extends the concept of genetic influence beyond its physical manifestations (without the strict determinism, as we’ll see). To begin with, it is a noncontroversial fact that genes code for proteins, which aggregate into cells. The cells, in turn, form bodies, brains, and ultimately the emergence of mind and behavior. But it is not clear where this genetic influence should stop, and Christakis is suggesting that genes also have an influence on the formation of societies, just as they have an influence on bodies.

The concept of the extended phenotype—popularized by Richard Dawkins—describes the effects of genes on the environment outside of the body. Whereas a phenotype is a physical manifestation of genetic information, as in the genes that code for blue eyes, an extended phenotype is an expression of the genotype that impacts the environment, such as a spider’s web, a bird’s nest, or a beaver’s dam. Experiments have been conducted that show, for example, that birds can build nests without the benefit of social learning, demonstrating that the behavior is innate.

Considering that we know that genes code for physical manifestations and environmental behaviors, there is no logical reason to terminate the point of influence at arbitrary levels; genes, in addition to coding for body shape and size and the instinct to build nests, can also encode for social network formation as an extended phenotype for social animals, including humans.

For a host of historical, philosophical, and religious reasons, we tend to view humans as somehow separate from and superior to nature and other animals, but the distinction breaks down after careful analysis. For example, years of research in animal behavior shows that chimpanzees, elephants, and whales form friendships, engage in pair-bonding, practice altruism, participate in social learning, mourn for the dead, develop a sense of self identity (dolphins, apes, and elephants can pass the mirror test), and develop culture. Since these animals share an evolutionary history with humans, it’s more than likely that these animal behaviors correlate with similar internal states and emotions found in humans, all coded by genetics. And, as Christakis explains, recognizing our similarities with animals makes it harder to deny our common humanity. If we share traits with other species, we must share certain universals among ourselves. As Christakis points out:

“The thing about genes is this: we all have them. And at least 99 percent of the DNA in all humans is exactly the same. A scientific understanding of human beings actually fosters the cause of justice by identifying the deep sources of our common humanity. The underpinnings of society that we have come to understand—the social suite that is our blueprint—have to do with our genetic similarities, not our differences.”

Our genes cannot account for differences; cultural variation accounts for that. What our genes can account for are all the similarities that are present underneath all of the cultural variation. Those similarities represent the social suite and the foundation for our societies. The social suite includes eight elements:

  1. The capacity to have and recognize individual identity
  2. Love for partners and offspring
  3. Friendship
  4. Social networks
  5. Cooperation
  6. In-group bias
  7. Mild hierarchy (relative egalitarianism)
  8. Social learning and teaching

These elements are found across cultures (including to some degree in apes, elephants, and whales), and within unintentional communities (shipwrecked communities), intentional communities (communes), and artificial communities (online communities). Further, successful communities embrace the elements of the social suite whereas failed communities try to repress certain elements (think communist suppression of individuality or totalitarian suppression of the importance of love and family).

It’s important to note that Christakis is not a hard determinist, in the sense that genes determine all behavior or that everything is predetermined and cannot be otherwise. Our genes greatly influence our thoughts and emotions, and therefore influence our beliefs and behaviors. But they are not rigidly determined as in the beaver’s encoded behavior to build specific types of dams. Our genes code for minds that are adaptable, that create societies and solve problems in response to environmental variation, but that the specific products of that activity are variable. But again, at the foundation of that variation is the social suite that is found in all cultures.

Despite cultural variation, you won’t find a culture of isolated humans fending for themselves, a culture devoid of love and friendship, a culture devoid of social learning and cooperation, or a culture composed of humans without individual identity. These are the universals upon which all else is built, and upon which we can continue to build.

And this is good news, because the social suite mostly enhances cooperation—the only real advantage humans have over other animals. We form bonds, friendships, and networks for the purpose of cooperation and social learning that gives us an advantage over our environment—whatever that environment happens to be. Cultural variation is an adaptation to environmental variation that humans have been exposed to throughout our evolutionary history.

A key point to remember is that these evolved traits of cooperation predate written history—and any religious texts—by hundreds of thousands of years. That means, if we didn’t have the innate capacity for cooperation and morality, we would have never survived for the hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of religion and moral philosophy. Our morality is a product of natural selection and is expressed in our best religious and philosophical texts, it is not caused by them. We weren’t all killing and stealing from each other indiscriminately for 197,000 years before the Bible was written. The world’s religions and philosophies were written and embraced, and have ultimately survived in one form or another precisely because they harmonize with the social suite.

So if the deepest aspects of our humanity are mostly positive, why is history replete with violence and oppression? The answer is that humans also have parallel aggressive and violent tendencies, which were also necessary for survival (a species too cooperative sets itself up for exploitation). Additionally, cultural variation can be significant and at times at odds with our well-being, and in-group bias can accentuate small differences and obstruct the recognition of our common humanity. But our best chance of transcending these differences and building a better society is not by surrendering to any single belief system, but by recognizing and promoting the cultural universals—the social suite—that optimize human cooperation, expanding the circle of who we consider to be part of the human in-group.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed Blueprint, check out these new releases in evolution and evolutionary psychology:

This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution by David Sloan Wilson

The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham

Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies by Edward O. Wilson