Wednesday, September 16, 2009

becoming more civilized

I was puzzled for a while over the evolutionary mechanism which is driving mankind's progress towards civilization. In many ways history is cyclical with ideologies swinging to and fro, wars happening, societies forming, growing and fracturing - so why, I wondered, is there an underlying trend which is away from the view that like is right and different is either inferior or bad and towards the principle of universal equality? Even in my own lifetime views on gender, sexuality, race and other species has changed dramatically. We now feel a collective guilt for the prejudices of the past: Japan has apologised to its prisoners of war, the British government has apologised to Alan Turing for dealing with him under laws which were legitimate at the time but now seem discriminatory.

Then I had an idea: a theory which would explain this trend. It is an article of faith but it could be proved empirically. I think that it is to do with bringing up children. That simple.

The point about evolution is that it only takes a tiny advantage to drive really big changes over time. We tend to think of the giraffe's neck in terms of all the short necked giraffes dying one hot summer when there weren't enough leaves to go round. In fact, more likely in a drought year about 50% of the giraffes who died were long necked and 50% short necked, but a tiny difference in chance would mean that there would be a few more longer necked giraffes in the next breeding season so a slightly larger chance of two of these breeding and having offspring with even longer necks. Slowly the average neck shifts towards being longer over thousands of generations and thousands of years.

So, my theory is that for any given generation the people who pass their genes on to the next generation are more likely to be civilized and social than those who don't have any children. It only needs to be a tiny difference. If you are out all the time plundering and fighting you are not bringing up children and vice versa. When a society is involved in wars, the people who go out and fight are less likely to pass on their genes than those who don't. The experience of war counts for nothing in terms of genetics which is why the horror of war in one generation does little to prevent the next from repeating it. But the genetic makeup of the next generation is fundamentally altered by the selection of cannon fodder.

Support for there being a trend linked to childcare comes from the way that children are given ever more time and energy to bring up to adulthood as societies become more civilised. A hundred years ago early teenagers were considered ready for adult life, now we are adding years to schooling (14 to 16 to 17, 18...) and a larger proportion of people are going to higher education which provides a buffer before full adult responsibilities. The more resources that our societies put into bringing up the next generation, the less they have for fighting each other.