Why we are, as we are
Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition
As the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On The Origin of Species” approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers
WEALTH, according to H.L. Mencken, an American satirist of the last century, “is any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” Adjusted for inflation since 1949, that is not a bad definition. But why do those who are already well-off feel the need to out-earn other people? And why, contrariwise, is it so hard to abolish poverty?
America, Mencken’s homeland, executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?
Why, after 80 years of votes for women, and 40 years of the feminist revolution, do men still earn larger incomes? And why do so many people hate others merely for having different coloured skin?
Traditionally, the answers to such questions, and many others about modern life, have been sought in philosophy, sociology, even religion. But the answers that have come back are generally unsatisfying. They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.
The reasons for that ignorance are complex. Philosophers have preached that there exists between man and beast an unbridgeable distinction. Sociologists have been seduced by Marxist ideas about the perfectibility of mankind. Theologians have feared that the very thought of evolution threatens divine explanations of the world. Even fully paid-up members of the Enlightenment, people who would not for a moment deny humanity’s simian ancestry, are often sceptical. They seem to believe, as Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University, in England, elegantly puts it, that evolution stops at the neck: that human anatomy evolved, but human behaviour is culturally determined....