How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy

The flaws in the competition-is-good-for-you logic

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By Frans de Waal

The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole.

An avowed admirer of Richard Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution, Skilling mimicked natural selection by ranking his employees on a one-to-five scale representing the best (one) to the worst (five). Anyone with a ranking of five got axed, but not without first having been humiliated on a website featuring his or her portrait. Under this so-called ‘Rank & Yank’ policy, people proved perfectly willing to slit one another’s throats, resulting in a corporate atmosphere marked by appalling dishonesty within and ruthless exploitation outside the company.

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The deeper problem, however, was Skilling’s view of human nature. The book of nature is like the Bible: everyone reads into it what they like, from tolerance to intolerance and from altruism to greed. But it’s good to realise that, if biologists never stop talking about competition, this doesn’t mean that they advocate it, and if they call genes selfish, this doesn’t mean that genes actually are. Genes can’t be any more ‘selfish’ than a river can be ‘angry’ or sun rays ‘loving’. Genes are little chunks of DNA. At most, they are self-promoting, because successful genes help their carriers spread more copies of themselves.

Like many before him, Skilling had fallen hook, line and sinker for the selfish-gene metaphor, thinking that if our genes are selfish, then we must be selfish, too. He can be forgiven, however, because even if this is not what Dawkins meant, it is hard to separate the world of genes from the world of human psychology if our terminology deliberately conflates them.

Keeping these worlds apart is the greatest challenge for anyone interested in what evolution means for society. Since evolution advances by elimination, it is indeed a ruthless process. Yet its products don’t need to be ruthless at all. Many animals survive by being social and sticking together, which implies that they can’t follow the right-of-the-strongest principle to the letter: the strong need the weak. This applies equally to our own species, at least if we give humans a chance to express their cooperative side. Like Skilling, too many economists and politicians ignore and suppress this side. They model human society on the perpetual struggle that they believe exists in nature, which is actually no more than a projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.

I look at this issue as a biologist and primatologist. One may feel that a biologist should not stick his nose into public policy debates, but since biology is already part of it, it is hard to stay on the sidelines. Lovers of open competition can’t resist invoking evolution. The e-word even slipped into the infamous ‘greed speech’ of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that ‘greed’ – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

The evolutionary spirit? In the social sciences, human nature is typified by the old Hobbesian proverb Homo homini lupus (‘Man is wolf to man’), a questionable statement about our own species based on false assumptions about another species. A biologist exploring the interaction between society and human nature isn’t doing anything new. The only difference is that, instead of trying to justify a particular ideological framework, the biologist has an actual interest in the question of what human nature is and where it came from. Is the evolutionary spirit really all about greed, as Gekko claimed, or is there more to it?

This line of thinking does not just come from fictional characters. Listen to David Brooks in a New York Times column that made fun of social government programmes: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.” Conservatives love to believe this, yet the supreme irony of this love affair with evolution is how little most of them care for the real thing.

In the 2008 presidential debate, no fewer than three Republican candidates raised their hand in response to the question: “Who doesn’t believe in evolution?” American conservatives are social Darwinists rather than real Darwinists. Social Darwinism argues against helping the sick and poor, since nature intends them either to survive on their own or perish. Too bad if some people have no health insurance, so the argument goes, so long as those who can afford it do. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona went one step further – causing an outcry in the media and protests in his home state – by voting against coverage of maternity care. He himself had never had any need for it, he explained.

The competition-is-good-for-you logic has been extraordinarily popular ever since Reagan and Thatcher assured us that the free market would take care of all of our problems. Since the economic meltdown, this view is obviously not so hot anymore. The logic may have been great, but its connection to reality was poor. What the free-marketeers missed was the intensely social nature of our species. They like to present each individual as an island, but pure individualism is not what we have been designed for. Empathy and solidarity are part of our evolution – not just a recent part, but age-old capacities that we share with other mammals.

Many great social advances – democracy, equal rights, social security – have come about through what used to be called ‘fellow feeling’. The French revolutionaries chanted of fraternité, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy and Theodore Roosevelt glowingly spoke of fellow feeling as “the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life”.

The ending of slavery is particularly instructive. On his trips to the south, Lincoln had seen shackled slaves, an image that kept haunting him, as he wrote to a friend. Such feelings motivated him and many others to fight slavery. Or take the current US healthcare debate, in which empathy plays a prominent role, influencing the way in which we respond to the misery of people who have been turned away by the system or lost their insurance. Consider the term itself – it is not called health ‘business’ but health ‘care’, thus stressing human concern for others.

Moral primates?

Human nature obviously can’t be understood in isolation from the rest of nature, and this is where biology comes in. If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the past few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Superior our intellect may be, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives. Like us, they strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cellphones and fly aeroplanes, but our psychological make-up is essentially that of a social primate.

Without claiming other primates as moral beings, it is not hard to recognise the pillars of morality in their behaviour. These pillars are summed up in our golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” brings together empathy (attention to others’ feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well). Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity – tendencies found in our fellow primates.

After one chimpanzee has been attacked by another, for example, a bystander will go over to embrace the victim gently until he or she stops yelping. The tendency to console is so strong that Nadia Kohts, a Russian scientist who raised a juvenile chimpanzee a century ago, said that if her charge had escaped to the roof of her house, there was only one way to get him down. Holding out food would not do the trick; the only way would be for her to sit down and sob, as if she were in pain. The young ape would rush down from the roof to put an arm around her. The empathy of our closest relative exceeds its desire for a banana.

Consolation has been studied extensively based on hundreds of cases, as it is a common, predictable behaviour among apes. Similarly, reciprocity is visible when chimpanzees share food specifically with those who have recently groomed them or supported them in power struggles. Sex is often part of the mix. Wild males have been observed to take great risk raiding papaya plantations to obtain the delicious fruits for fertile females in return for copulation. Chimps know how to strike a deal.

There is also evidence for pro-social tendencies and a sense of fairness. Chimpanzees voluntarily open a door to give a companion access to food, and capuchin monkeys seek rewards for others even if they themselves gain nothing from it. We demonstrated this by placing two monkeys side by side: separate, but in view. One of them needed to barter with us using small plastic tokens. The critical test came when we offered them a choice between two differently coloured tokens with different meanings: one token was ‘selfish’, the other ‘pro-social’. If the bartering monkey picked the selfish token, it received a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner got nothing. The pro-social token, on the other hand, rewarded both monkeys equally at the same time. The monkeys developed an overwhelming preference for the pro-social token.

We repeated the procedure many times with different pairs of monkeys and different sets of tokens, and found that the monkeys kept picking the pro-social option. This was not based on fear of possible repercussions, because we found that the most dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) were in fact the most generous. More likely, helping others is self-rewarding in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

In other studies, primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others being rewarded with grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers and go on strike. The cucumber has become unpalatable simply as a result of seeing a companion get something better. I have to think of this reaction each time I hear criticism of the bonuses on Wall Street.

Don’t these primates show the first hints of a moral order? Many people, however, prefer their nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. There is never any doubt about continuity between humans and other animals with respect to negative behaviour: when humans maim and kill each other, we are quick to call them ‘animals’, but we prefer to claim noble traits for ourselves. When it comes to the study of human nature, however, this is a losing strategy because it excludes about half of our background. Short of divine intervention, this more attractive side of our behaviour is also the product of evolution, a view increasingly supported by animal research.

Everyone is familiar with the way mammals react to our emotions and the way we react to theirs. This creates the sort of bond that makes millions of us share our homes with cats and dogs rather than iguanas and turtles. The latter are just as easy to keep, yet lack the empathy that we need to get attached.

Animal studies into empathy are on the rise, including studies into how rodents are affected by the pain of others. Laboratory mice become more sensitive to pain once they have seen another mouse in pain. Pain contagion occurs between mice from the same home box, but not between mice that don’t know each other. This is a typical bias that is also true of human empathy: the closer we are to a person, and the more similar we are to them, the more easily empathy is aroused.

Empathy has its roots in basic body mimicry – not in the higher regions of imagination or in the ability to reconstruct consciously how we would feel if we were in someone else’s place. It began with the synchronisation of bodies: running when others run; laughing when others laugh; crying when others cry; or yawning when others yawn. Most of us have reached the incredibly advanced stage at which we yawn even at the mere mention of yawning, but this is only after lots of face-to-face experience.

Yawn contagion works in other species, too. At Kyoto University, investigators showed laboratory apes the videotaped yawns of wild chimps. Soon, the lab chimps were yawning like crazy. With our own chimps, we have gone one step further. Instead of showing them real chimps, we play three-dimensional animations of an ape-like head going through a yawn-like motion. In response to the animated yawns, our apes yawn with maximal opening of the mouth, eye-closing and head-rolling, as if they are going to fall asleep at any moment.

Yawn contagion reflects the power of unconscious synchrony, which is as deeply ingrained in us as it is in many other animals. Synchrony is expressed in the copying of small body movements, such as a yawn, but it also occurs on a larger scale. It is not hard to see its survival value. You’re in a flock of birds and one suddenly takes off. You have no time to figure out what’s going on, so you take off at the same instant. Otherwise, you may be lunch.

Mood contagion serves to coordinate activities, which is crucial for any travelling species (as most primates are). If my companions are feeding, I decide to do the same because, once they move off, my chance to forage will be gone. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone else is doing will lose out, just like the traveller who doesn’t go to the bathroom when the bus has stopped.

Social creatures

Natural selection has produced highly social and cooperative animals that rely on one another for survival. On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees in the forest are known to slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. So, why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is ample proof to the contrary?

Bad biology exerts an irresistible attraction. Those who think that competition is what life is all about, and who believe that it is desirable for the strong to survive at the expense of the weak, eagerly adopt Darwinism as a beautiful illustration of their ideology. They depict evolution – or at least their cardboard version of it – as almost heavenly. John D Rockefeller concluded that the growth of a large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God”, and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs – the biggest money-making machine in the world – recently depicted himself as merely “doing God’s work”.

We tend to think that the economy was killed by irresponsible risk taking, a lack of regulation or a bubbling housing market, but the problem goes deeper. Those were just the little aeroplanes circling King Kong’s head (“Oh no, it wasn’t the aeroplanes. ’Twas beauty killed the beast”). The ultimate flaw was the lure of bad biology, which resulted in a gross simplification of human nature. Confusion between how natural selection operates and what kind of creatures it has produced has led to a denial of what binds people together. Society itself has been seen as an illusion. As Margaret Thatcher put it: “There is no such thing as society – there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Economists should reread the work of their father figure, Adam Smith, who saw society as a huge machine. Its wheels are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith saw honesty, morality, sympathy and justice as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. His views were based on our being a social species, born in a community with responsibilities towards the community.

Instead of falling for false ideas about nature, why not pay attention to what we actually know about human nature and the behaviour of our near relatives? The message from biology is that we are group animals: intensely social, interested in fairness and cooperative enough to have taken over the world. Our great strength is precisely our ability to overcome competition. Why not design society such that this strength is expressed at every level?

Rather than pitting individuals against each other, society needs to stress mutual dependencies. This could be seen in the recent healthcare debate in the United States, where politicians played the shared-interest card by pointing out how much everybody (including the well-to-do) would lose if the nation failed to change the system, and where President Obama played the social responsibility card by calling the need for change “a core ethical and moral obligation”. Money-making cannot be allowed to become the be-all and end-all of society.

And for those who keep looking to biology for an answer, the fundamental yet rarely asked question is why natural selection designed our brains so that we’re in tune with our fellow human beings and feel distress at their distress, and pleasure at their pleasure. If the exploitation of others were all that mattered, evolution should never have got into the empathy business. But it did, and the political and economic elites had better grasp that in a hurry.

Originally published here.

2016 May 13

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