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By John V. Wylie, M.D.


The Montréal Review, May 2018


By John V. Wylie


The prevailing narrative

         Political beliefs ultimately rest on attitudes toward human nature. The political right has long been rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ view that the natural state of mankind is “warre of every man against every man—Bellum omnium contra omnes” (Leviathan, 1651).1 Material progress is made possible by business competition permitted by a strong military in an inherently dangerous world. There are two bulwarks against our fundamentally evil nature: The Constitution and salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians notwithstanding, the broadest authority for this view has seeped down into popular belief from Darwin and Freud.

         Freud followed Darwin’s discovery that we are descended from apes with a pessimistic portrayal of our species as highly anxious about the antisocial aggressive and sexual drives that lie beneath the social veneer of our conscious presentation of ourselves. This ape-man view of human nature became more widespread after World War II. Hitler symbolized the hideous beast that lay within us all, represented by Freud’s central concept of the powerful id.

         Freud’s conception of human nature is epitomized by his celebrated Oedipal complex. The growing boy has sexual desires to possess his mother leading to the unconscious wish to kill his father, in response to which the boy fears retaliation, including castration. As the boy matures, this psychic drama becomes the template for the internal interaction between his rapacious sexuality, the ape-like id, and his Old Testament fear of retaliation by those in authority, which Freud called the superego. Human aspirations are an exercise in management for the Freudian ego, the task of which is “to achieve optimum gratification of instinctual strivings [for sex and power] while maintaining good relations with the external world and with the superego.”2

         Even more Hobbesian is Darwin’s credo of the survival of the fittest. Darwin believed that life is an unending struggle of too many organisms for too few resources. After pondering how human virtue could have arisen by natural selection in a dog-eat-dog world, his conclusion was that virtuous behavior and cooperation within tribes made them better warriors in the constant struggle for scarce resources between tribes. Natural selection that takes place between warring tribes is called group selection:  

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (Descent of Man 1871).3

         So, the emphasis on martial virtues on the political right rests upon Darwin’s speculation that human hyper-cooperation in general is the legacy of a long succession of victories between chronically warring tribes, which he claimed could be a form of natural selection. In the post-war period, because of its manifest connection with the Nazi notion of a master race, this idea of group selection became tainted in academia. However, the evolutionary gorilla in the academic living room was the obviously superior capacity in humans for productive cooperation compared to its rudimentary presence in apes; how could it be explained without invoking some form of group selection?  

         In 1964 British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton demonstrated that insects could be altruistic in proportion to their family relatedness.4 Leaping from insect to human behavior, kin selection was enthusiastically embraced as at least part of the explanation for human cooperation. In 1971, biologist Robert Trivers spelled out the evolutionary logic of reciprocal altruism: within relatively small, stable groups in which everyone has a sense of how reliable everyone else is, it is a winning strategy to help people who help you.5 Since then, kin selection coupled with reciprocal altruism has been accepted as the default explanation for why humans are so much more cooperative than other primates. These academic arguments, albeit influenced by a recoil from Nazism, have supported convictions on the political right that family ties and the business ethos of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours form the basis of human cooperation.

Reach Out and Touch Face – Oil on panel by Chris Leib

The vast silent cradle of our passions

         There is virtually no scientific evidence for how the mind of apes evolved into our own mind. Large amounts of scientific evidence about the minds of apes and living humans are neatly being stacked upon the cliffs on either side of the six-million-year canyon of time that separates apes from modern humans; but it is within this vast silent chasm of time that all our human ancestors, whose ghosts animate the very core of us, passionately forged the destiny that now is ours. Perhaps the world’s foremost scientist on the subject of mind evolution, Michael Tomasello, states in his A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014):

The main problem is that collaboration, communication, and thinking do not fossilize, so we will always be in a position of speculation about such behavioral phenomena, as well as the specific events that were critical to their evolution. Most critical, we do not know how much contemporary great apes have changed from their common ancestor with humans because there are basically no relevant fossils from this era.6

         The gulf separating animal and human cooperation is put into perspective by the central function of our language to share our goals and intentions. When a one-year-old child points to a bird, and then comprehends the sharing of the experience with you, something very rare in the animal world is happening: shared intentionality (which is occurring as you read this). In contrast, as the result of the Darwinian struggle for fitness between individuals, animals evolve to be very stingy about giving out any information that might provide competitors a leg up. This limitation is precisely stated in the abstract of a classic article on the subject by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney (2003) entitled “Signalers and Receivers in Animal Communication:”

In animal communication natural selection favors callers who vocalize to affect the behavior of listeners and listeners who acquire information from vocalizations . . . The mechanisms that cause a signaler to vocalize do not limit a listener's ability to extract information from the call. Whereas signalers may vocalize to change a listener’s behavior, they do not call to inform others. Listeners acquire information from signalers who do not, in the human sense, intend to provide it.7

         A stark indication of the importance of sharing information in humans is that the dark portion of our eyes called the iris is much smaller than it is in apes, allowing us to share with others where we are looking. For me, natural selection occurring at the level of groups has remained the only believable way that we could have evolved our capacity to coordinate our motivations to such an elaborately derived degree. But group selection, as Darwin describes it, means that our virtue is the sullied fruit of chronic war.

The evolution of the invisible hand

         I entered the field of psychiatry forty-seven years ago imbued by Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious. Jung felt that Freud’s concept of his superego was an attempt to make the collective unconscious personal instead of universal and historical.8 As I began to think in evolutionary terms, Jung’s vision of a distilled repository of collectively shared mental experiences from our ancient ancestors became the lost continent that I set out to explore. From the beginning, it has been clear to me that the motivation for dominance in ape individuals has somehow evolved into the collective motivation that we humans recognize as authority. It is obedience to authority that gives civilizations their power, but how does this happen? For example, how do political parties maintain allegiance from their advocates?

         Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind (2012),9 offers evidence that the differences between Republicans and Democrats involve the differing emphasis that each group places in six belief categories: important issues to Democrats are care/harm, liberty/oppression, and fairness/cheating, whereas for Republicans the most important issues are loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In the thinking process, there is constant reinforcement from the various nested groups within which we are absorbed (via watching a favorite cable news channel, for example). We are unaware of the process of believing in (and obedience to) systems of values because we are immersed within the medium of our beliefs in the same way that fish swim together in water.

         We usually think of authority as being exercised by designated individuals, but there is also authority transmitted by groups themselves. My study of schizophrenia convinced me that there is indeed a hidden mental process in which the authoritative values of a given group are constantly being communicated to and received by their members. The most central symptom of schizophrenia is the riveting perception of receiving thoughts from an external source of intelligence, and a major facet of the resulting disability involves a loss of the normal striving for social status that is determined by group identities and affiliation. After many years of observing this most mysterious of all maladies, the intimate relationship between the strange symptoms and the identity deficit slowly came into focus. I concluded that schizophrenia not only lays bare but also disables the very psychic mechanism whereby group values are continuously and actively communicated to the individual in order to sustain group identities.  

         Because schizophrenia is such a crippling and consistently widespread disorder, and because it leaves spoken language ability largely intact, the aspect of communication function that it disables must be a vestige of something that had been far more central to our ancestral hominids. In other words, this one facet of modern communication that serves to transmit group beliefs and competitive loyalty may have been the only form of language communication among our ancestral species, and therefore it was likely to have been essential to their survival.

         Prior to modern humans evolving our complex and multifaceted vocal language, communication may have been primarily motivated by obedience to the authority of groups. The goal of constant communication would be to piece together bits of authoritative information distributed among the individuals of a group in the attempt to achieve a running consensus as to how they should coordinate their behavior as a unit. It is likely that this ancient component of modern language, which is disabled in schizophrenia, has receded into the background of our communication and functions outside of our awareness.

         The most difficult aspect of group-selected intelligence to grasp is that, although any effectively coordinated task is functionally hierarchical, it is the group itself that is in charge and makes the decisions. For example, in the process of moving furniture through a door, the individuals involved share a single dominance mentality, passing it around among themselves. It is as if the dominance of the task itself temporarily speaks through each individual at different times. It is clear from the tone of each person’s voice expressing this kind of dominance (called authority) that its source is not that specific individual with any demand that the others submit to him personally. Rather, the movers are more like instruments orchestrated by the authority springing from the task itself. Another illustration is a basketball team bringing the ball up the court; they are all checking out the defensive moves, as well as each other’s, and collectively deciding what play they will run, which can then be changed on a dime. Figuring out which play to run was what the lives of our ancestral species were all about.

         A sense of this process also can be discerned in expressions of authority in a work meeting. When someone attempts to speak with authority, take note of how the voice changes. It drops an octave and comes from deeper in the throat, and its tone is a balance between the dominance-of and submission-to authority. This individual is speaking not just on his or her own behalf, but, as in our ancestral species, the group is now talking through that individual. Listeners then evaluate the speaker and message for their authenticity. It follows that in a group, authority is the long-evolved expression of our unique capacity to share and to pull one’s oar in our evolved collective will to survive.  

         The main question for me as a psychiatrist was to determine the emotional changes that were associated with the stark shift from the aggression of hierarchical dominance competition characteristic of ape behaviors to the sustained engagement needed to coordinate group behavior. Early in my career, when I worked in a prison setting, I noted the heavy presence of a sense of justice in the inmates’ dealings with one another, despite their criminal backgrounds. I had the vision that morality was the result of countless generations dispensing justice, and that, indeed, authority in the form of justice defines our hominid tribe’s humanity. To me, the core of liberalism is the belief that justice is a deeply evolved-and-evolving human instinct that is at the heart of what is distinctively human about human nature.

         In this liberal conception of the human evolutionary narrative, the central motivator is not the survival of the fittest individuals or groups struggling against one another for scarce resources, but the survival of the most productive bonds made possible by the evolution of the capacity to dispense and obey the authority of justice. Why? Because, whether it be a pair-bond or a nation, the most productive social system imaginable is one based on the principles of justice.

         Ironically, Adam Smith supports the connection between justice and productivity. He is well known for attributing wealth to the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations (1776),10 but he is less known for The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in which he singles out justice as being the one moral sentiment that is indispensable to productive social functioning.11 From his perspective I concluded that a social structure based on the principles of justice most optimizes the productive coordination of the individuals within it. I cannot help but believe that Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which coordinates the division of labor, was the core achievement of our six-million-year evolution.

A liberal narrative

         There is evidence that, in a period of sharply declining temperatures, a collapse in the ape population occurred about the time that hominids appeared.12 My view is that in the context of birthrates falling toward extinction, hierarchical dominance competition became a dangerous waste of reproductive resources. In response, the target of natural selection shifted from the fitness of individuals to the fecundity of relationships between individuals—from the sterility of dominance competition to the productivity of teamwork, favoring hominids who participated.

         The emotional interactions enabling close coordination were evolved genetically. The term group in group selection is misleading because it implies an identifiable kinship tribe, whereas the actual selection takes place from the ground-up in disparate permutations of single relationships between individuals, whether within or across interacting groups. In this kind of group selection, the group is only two, and it is effectively the relationship itself and not the participating individuals that is naturally selected. It is as if genes within individuals code for musical instruments that are selected based on how well they harmonize in the music of a language that synchronizes teamwork. The evolved life force shifted from the competitive fitness of individuals to the productive harmony of relationships between individuals.

         Life is defined as the capacity to replicate and evolve. It is important to understand the concept of a phenotype because it lies at the heart of what is new here. Your genotype is all your genes, which contain the coded recipes to synthesize the phenotype that is you, the person who is sitting there reading this. We usually think of genes coding for physical characteristics like eye color and height, but Darwin’s insight in his last treatise, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), is that our emotions and motivations are also part of our inherited phenotype.13 Of course, the physical DNA of these relational genes would reside within individuals. But the evolved collective intentions of authority—justice—would be the phenotype of relational genes emanating from a virtual, collective space.  

         According to the well-known law of parsimony, nature always chooses the simplest path. A single, simple explanation for diverse data is always more likely to be correct than those that are more complicated. Alfred Wegner used the idea of continental drift (later called plate tectonics) as a parsimonious explanation for a wealth of diverse geological data. Similarly, the simplicity of the theory of natural selection is a parsimonious explanation for the complexity and diversity of species.

         The proposal here is that the collective motivation for justice rendered us into humans by enabling us not merely to cooperate but to engage each other in the productive coordination of teamwork; that the capacity to coordinate the behavior of a group (and multiples of groups) into an organically functioning unit has been our decisive adaptive advantage and allowed us to survive across all environments. This casts human nature in a far different light than survival of the fittest individuals in response to various physical environments.

         Do these ideas make sense with respect to what we know about human evolution from the facts of paleoanthropology? Of course, there are no fossils for justice, but there is much evidence of widespread cooperation and the coordination of teamwork for which the establishment of justice would have been a requirement.

Upright posture, great big brains and only one hand ax

         For a fossil to be designated a hominid there must be evidence of upright posture.  However, any orthopedic surgeon can tell you that upright posture produces extreme vulnerability for injuries to the lower back (perennially among the top ER visits14), hips and knees, so it is reasonable that the evolutionary advantages of such a costly adaptation must have been central to the functioning of the earliest hominids. Upright posture most likely was determined by more than one factor, but I believe that this was the most important. For a group to begin to shift into a language that could productively coordinate its behavior, the sheer volume of information that was required to be simultaneously expressed and comprehended increased by many orders of magnitude. These creatures stood up to be in constant visual contact with one another’s facial and upper body gestural expressions in order to mutually fathom the evolving coordination of collective behaviors, in the same manner that a musical band continuously makes small adjustments to stay in sync.

         The peoples of our own genus Homo arose some 2.5 million years ago. It is a fact that the Homo peoples’ stone tool industry spread not only in Africa but through the vastness of Eurasia, and particularly in need of an explanation is that, after the shape of the tool stabilized, it remained unchanged for 1½ million years. Clearly, part of the progression of the early tool industry involved widely dispersed genetically mediated manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Yet there can be no doubt that the actual method of stone tool construction was spread culturally—and there’s the rub. Darwin’s challenge was to construct a theory that contained the potential of dynamic change over time within apparently unchanging species; but the riddle of the hand ax is quite the opposite—why is there such stasis in usually rapidly changing cultural transmission? Darwin’s idea is that evolutionary change demands diversity in individuals, whereas the cultural evolution of the unchanging hand ax demands a unitary and unchanging cause.

         The environment selecting these hand axes was the willfulness residing in a collective sphere, the unchanging functional essence of which was the maintenance of productively coordinated behavior. A central adaptive function of tool construction for the better part of two million years was not primarily their utility in butchering meat, or any of the other possible uses that have been hypothesized over the years, but as a ritual serving to maintain the foundation of the Homo peoples’ central advantage, which was the productive fecundity of their associations. Once the stone tool evolved into the perfection of the hand ax—bifaced, sized to fit the hand, teardrop-shaped, and sharpened all around the edges—there was no reason for it to evolve further.

         And, finally, why, in the face of this glacial stasis in hand ax construction, did these later hominids evolve the world’s largest brains? For many years, a study by British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar (1992) has been cited as support for the idea that in primate species, the bigger the size of the species’ average group membership, the bigger the size of the brain.15 Machiavellian intelligence is a term used to describe the competitive ability to read an opponent’s mind, which, in a hierarchy, is informed by knowing everyone’s rank at any given moment. The bigger the group, the bigger the brain has to be to keep track of a large, fluid hierarchy.

         However, when Dr. Dunbar began to study what correlated to large brain size in other animals, much to his initial dismay, he found that the correlation was to monogamy and not group size. He characterizes the cognitively demanding behavior in monogamous pair-bonds as “activity synchronization” (such as birds feeding their young) and then goes on to recognize that bonding is an “emotional experience” and that “language [and I would add science] is a notoriously poor medium for describing our inner emotional experiences.”16  

         Beyond monogamy, it could have been the expansion of a communal decision-making process and the capacity for coordinated behavior (enabled by more high-quality nutrition from meat) that spurred the growth of the brain in the Homo peoples. The development of a communal mind could be characterized as maintaining its roots in a Freudian superego (justice), and then flowering into the collective unconscious that Carl Jung observed with its synchronicity and richness of shared symbols in the realm of communal thought.

         So here is a peaceful version of the evolution of our unique capacity for teamwork; but how can this Edenic vision be reconciled with our modern experience of constant war? To understand, we need to consider the evolutionary changes that resulted in the modern humans.

Homo vanitas

         Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “Nothing can be more gentle than [the human] in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and . . . civilized man.”17 If Rousseau were around, he would probably identify apes as the stupid brutes, but I would extend his civilized qualifier to the entirety of our own Homo sapiens species. While schizophrenia is effectively an emotional fossil pointing to the process of pre-modern social communication, an evolutionary analysis of mania (manic phase of bipolar disorder) indicates what our own species has brought to the hominid table when it first appeared around three-hundred-thousand years ago.

         A disabling disease, mania reveals much about our emotional makeup. In each of us an intensely positive feeling is elicited specifically by capturing the admiration of others. We might refer to people who are highly motivated to promote themselves as having a “big ego.” However, in mania this normally balanced propensity spins out of control and seizes the sufferer’s mind in the same manner that normally muted messaging from groups seizes those with schizophrenia. An intensifying cycle between pleasure and self-esteem amplifies into the euphoria of mania. The inflated victim becomes overly outgoing and hypersexual with a loss of propriety, copiously talking to anyone who will listen. As we all know from our own lives and our observations of others, our endlessly ongoing hunger for attention stamps our species like no other quality. This powerful drive to seek the attention of an audience is directly analogous to competitive sexual display in birds epitomized by the peacock’s motivation to display its gorgeous tail.

         The social desire for display has led to the development of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors. There are scattered indications of this newly evolved incentive early in our history in the form of body ornamentation with pigments and pierced shells (presumably for necklaces), with sustained evidence appearing about 40,000 years ago with beautiful cave art and carvings. The pervasiveness of this motivation has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. Ancient biblical texts have distilled this quality into a single word: vanity.

         I believe Darwin’s most brilliant and courageous hypothesis is his theory of sexual selection. While thinking about how elaborately useless male traits in birds could have evolved by natural selection, Darwin, who famously suffered from psychosomatic symptoms, wrote a colleague that “The sight of a feather of a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze on it, makes me sick.”18 He observed, “On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have.”19 Darwin’s largely ignored conclusion was that the mere desire for beauty—pleasure itself—is the driving force behind the selection of the dances and songs of birds and that the same is true for ours.20   

         There is paleontological evidence for sexual selection in Homo sapiens. What makes early human fossils recognizably modern is that they come from individuals who would have been physically attractive to us: gracile with childlike skulls. The elongated braincase of prior hominid species evolved into the globular shaped head with a small-and-divided brow ridge above a small face that is characteristic of modern humans.21 It is reasonable and parsimonious to assume that these transformations were the result of sexual selection in the direction of the appearance of an infantile skull. We have selected one another emotionally as well as physically in large part by the desire for the aesthetic grace of youthfulness. However, it is not the desire for attractive traits but rather the desire-to-be-desired for them that distinguishes our behavior and becomes unraveled in mania. Compared to the deal-making, transactional capacity of competing politicians and businessmen, the parsing of political attitudes towards our own species’ signature motivation of vanity is far subtler.

         A view of mania through the lens of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection affords insight into human avarice, as wild spending sprees are a consistent symptom. Buying a fancy sportscar can serve the same purpose as those ancient shell necklaces, and, indeed, at the heart of the profit motive lies a vision not of power but of romance like that evoked by the gold rush and wildcatting for oil in the wild West. In the celebrated 10th Federalist Paper, James Madison places his finger on the cause for violent factionalism as both the limitless inclination and the differing abilities of people to acquire what Alexander Hamilton refers to in Federalist #12 as “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.”22 Madison expresses a central attitude of many on the political right towards our new mind when he concludes that “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”23

         The other side of the highly goal-driven state of mania is that intense states of narcissistic rage can be the response when inflated goals are frustrated, sometimes escalating into dangerous paranoia. A patient, who in health could be a delightful person with a balanced family life, after stopping medications, could rapidly pass through euphoria into an embattled paranoid state, barricaded inside the home. Mania exposes a dark side of our new mind, which, in its extreme, is exemplified by the toxic capacity of an individual, like Hitler, to mobilize the narcissistic rage of an entire nation inflaming a reawakened lust for domination. In assessing these tragic flaws that afflict our species, the principal distinction between left and right is that the right views them as fixed and “sown in the nature of man,” whereas I view them as a transitory phase in an unfolding drama. I call my views progressive because I believe that human nature is in the process evolving toward an integrated equilibrium between our ape mind, and our old and new human minds. What is the nature of this progressive process?

         We are a relatively young species. Superimposed upon six million years of a collective mind infused by justice, we now possess a new ego-mind animated by a human emotion that can be summed up in the word desire. We Homo sapiens are the primates who desire. And what is it that we desire? We both desire and desire to be desired by one another constantly, relentlessly, and irrepressibly, which has resulted in the overall strengthening of bonds between individuals and induced an emotional force pulling together larger and larger intercommunicating groups. UCLA anthropologist Robert Boyd, a leading authority on the interaction of culture and evolution, suggests, “Perhaps our complex culture does not stem from individual cognition but from the shared knowledge we construct in groups.”24 However, in addition to creating the glorious beauty and intelligence of our culture, the relentless stress of population amalgamation can also be viewed as the root source of our intractable internecine violence.

           The daily barrage of news sustains an acute awareness that appallingly depraved group violence is part of human nature. Convergent evidence from about 120,000 years of human history25 plus observations of contemporary hunter gatherers26 indicate that warlike instincts have been part of human nature even early in the pre-history of our species. However, it is my contention that us versus them loyalty and patriotism have only recently, largely within our own species’ era, been evolved by group selection in the manner Darwin proposed. Although we are childlike and fun-loving, our signature vanity can reawaken and, indeed, inflame ape-appetites to dominate one another, which, although suppressed in pre-modern hominids, would not evaporate.

         Nevertheless, my progressive and liberal view is that the strengthening of human bonds has resulted in our fundamental evolutionary vector to coalesce, and that our “fallen” state of tribal enmity (now manifest on a national scale) will ultimately be transitory—the growing pains of a species amid the process of reasserting justice, the deepest passion of our humanity. But how can we recognize the evolutionary process in which we are immersed?

War games

         Now the argument can be more finely drawn. Although there is no evidence that our common ancestor behaved anything like todays’ chimps, it is true that chimpanzees engage in war. Furthermore, at least as far back as we can detect, our own species is characterized by chronic war. Right-leaning ideology draws strength from Darwin’s hypothesis that the increment of human progress over apes, our capacity for group cooperation, has been the handmaiden of chronic war. But, if we accept that our evolved capacity for teamwork enabled our hominid forebear societies to spread a universal stone tool industry, to control fire, and to colonize the vast continent of Eurasia, for us then to conclude that these unique achievements were side-effects of chronic tribal war surely stretches reason.

         The concept of games offers us the most accessible analogies for our species’ progress. The essence of a game is competition under the authority of rules. Games are the quintessential human occupation. Patients with significant dementia can still be entertained by sporting events on TV, presumably because in games all three elements of our motivational heritage are aligned. There is the primate impulse to dominate by winning, aligned with the sexuality of self-display, and the unique and well-developed inclination to submit to intricate rules of fairness and equality. I will leave the reader to decide which of these statements leans more to the political right or left: “It’s not who wins or loses, but how the game is played.” Or, “Winning is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

         Rules have a more basic function than leveling the playing field. The guiding principle for James Naismith in making up the rules of basketball in 1892 was to reduce the likelihood of violence while competing. He concluded that the big soft soccer ball was the safest; he thought that most injuries were incurred when someone was running with the ball, so he had the players dribble and pass it; and, most notable, he minimized injuries around the goal by making it unreachably high so players had to loft the ball at it from a distance. (Naismith went on to found the basketball program at the University of Kansas.)

         Both business and politics are games too because the alternative is war. The political right places the highest premium on freedom—that the freedom of individuals to compete for status, particularly through the accumulation of wealth, can release the full creative potential of our human nature. The liberal does not dispute the value of freedom but focuses on the deeper reality that individual freedom exists only to the degree that collective justice pre-exists and continues to be served.

         Justice must be placed before freedom because justice is the only soil in which freedom can take root and blossom; the garden must be tended before it yields its fruit. Indeed, if the collective will for justice had never arisen, we would still be holding on in our jungle refuges with utter freedom to compete for domination over our extended families, and we would never have evolved the ability to make or do anything worth buying. Only when our inflamed impulses to dominate are harnessed to our tribe’s ancient instinct for justice can we be free.

          Throughout all our history of chronic war, I consider the gradual crystallization of justice into law—Hebrew, Roman, English common law, U.S. Constitution, international law—as a sign that our deepest human instinct is progressively reasserting itself despite a history rendered tumultuous by our relentless rage to amalgamate. Just as our simian instinct to dominate would not simply evaporate, so too would not our human instinct for justice evaporate.  

          In discussing justice as a central liberal value, it must be pointed out that justice is inherently neither liberal nor conservative, neither right nor left. For example, it cannot be assumed from the liberal perspective that justice is not indeed served by the rich becoming richer. What I believe is liberal is the deeply felt belief that justice is a living and evolving human agency that can only be revealed through the sustained public-dialog-seeking-consensus that directly reflects the ancient core of our unique form of intercourse.  

          In order to regain confidence in the depth of this liberal view, it must be acknowledged that justice is not just something we recently figured out by virtue of acquiring the formal capacity to reason, let’s say, since the ancient Greeks. It is not that reason does not deeply inform justice. The problem is that reason lacks evolutionary depth and thus lacks instinctual depth to its authority, particularly against the darkness of our combined motivations for dominance and vanity.

          In stark contrast is the tenet that authority, having been uniquely bred into the spirit-realm of our associations, continues to be the crucible for the living covenant of our hominid tribe’s six-million-year struggle for justice. Justice is neither fixed nor transcendent, but a source of will emanating from each and every human interchange. Because justice is alive, it continues to evolve in ways that cannot be predicted. Justice demands humility, obedience, listening, and tending to its cultivation for those who next will dwell within its torch. How much more majesty there is in the vision that the unique aspect of our nature is animated not by tooth and claw, but rather by our tribe’s ancient mission to transform the power of aggression into the bounty of communion.


Dr. John Wylie holds a BA in history from Yale University and an MD from Columbia University. After completing his psychiatric residency at Georgetown University, he began his career at a maximum-security prison in Maryland. He then spent 35 years in private practice in Washington, DC, where he served as the chair of the department of psychiatry at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Dr. Wylie was a founding member of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. He retired in 2007 and has published Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients, and Their Families (2010 & 2012), and Ape Mind, Old Mind, New Mind: Emotional Fossils and the Evolution of the Human Spirit (2018).


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