‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique


‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.


The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.


Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

The rise of populism considered from the perspective of evolutionary constraints on our moral choices

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites (Edmund Burke)

A scholar of impeccable academic credentials once suggested to me that revolutions are spaced about the average lifespan of a human apart, about 70 years. I was sceptical, as this sounded like numerology, but I did some digging and there are indeed some interesting patterns: the French Revolution (1789) to the European uprisings of 1848 is admittedly only 60years, but if the American Revolution (1776) is counted in, that is about 70; from there to the communist revolution in 1917 is roughly 70 years; and from the revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) is about 70 years. Of course these events are selective, and I am not suggesting there is a grand plan. However, they may point to an underlying truth: that real social change occurs in a highly disruptive manner, not as a result of gradual progress, and that this change is generational, as it takes the space of about two generations for the contradictions implicit in any system to become apparent and momentum for a new direction to grow to a critical point.

The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn loaned the term ‘paradigm’ from the obscurity of the social sciences and controversially applied it to revolutionary changes in scientific outlook, in the process reinvigorating the concept, redefining and enlarging it and, admittedly, setting it on course to become the de rigeur cliché for any and all sorts of change; it is surely, though, something that corresponds closely to a paradigm shift that we are living through. We are now, in the West, standing about 70 years on from the end of the second world war, from a time when a transnational consensus was established around such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the beginnings of the EU, the welfare state in Britain, the founding of modern Israel in the Middle East, the demilitarisation of Germany and Japan, the growth of the military-industrial complex in the USA, a period of US economic and political hegemony in general. Within this span many changes have occurred outside the western democratic sphere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a communist nation and then as an economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam as a powerful political idea in the Middle East and beyond, the stirring of real political and economic progress in parts of Africa and in India. In the West itself cracks are beginning to show in many of the post-war settlements and institutions, while there is a pervasive sense of economic stagnation and the loss of international leadership, manifest in the seeming inability to deal with the crisis of migration and endemic war in the Middle East. It is against such a background that we are seeing the arrival of a new kind of politics, anti-establishment and populist in its appeal.

The spectre of populism seems to alight on its most prominent figures, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, focussing on their oddity, unsavoury characteristics or questionable beliefs. Although in the main it seems to be a manifestation of right wing politics, there are also populists on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party. It is interesting to note that a significant number of voters in America switched from Bernie Sanders, an anti-establishment left-winger, to Trump, rather than Clinton, an embodiment of the liberal elite. Populism has perhaps less to do with the particular political flavour than its anti-establishment stance and the identification, even if to some extent a fabrication, of grievance and loss within a significant proportion of the national population, a loss – whether of identity, jobs or prestige – caused by the policies of the liberal establishment, an establishment, moreover, that has profited by and large from these same policies. However, I want to propose a hypothesis that even underlying these more obvious political triggers, there is an actuality – not a perception – of moral decline that should be worrying us far more than it actually is.

Since such a hypothesis is going to enrage some people even before it is explained, let me first set out what I am not saying. I am not saying that people now are worse than they were in the past; human nature does not change much over time; however, the general belief is that we are much better, and this is an illusion. We may kill people less, at least in the developed world, but this is because of advances in wealth, technology, political structure, religious belief and law. We may believe we are more generous, and cite increasing donations to various causes, but altruism is a natural human trait which is found across all cultures and has no correlation with money (although self-congratulation may). In this context, it is worth noting the rise in xenophobic attacks with the EU referendum vote and with Trump’s election, which demonstrates how shallow the shackles of self-restraint are. Or the pervasive maliciousness of the online world which exists outside conventional social restraints

The roots of moral life from an evolutionary perspective lie in our sociality, and the natural institutions that both create and emerge out of that sociality. By this I mean those social bonds that are rooted in our biology: physical survival, protection, reproduction, genetic inheritance and genetic closeness. These are the underlying infrastructure – if one can call it that in want of a better term – of our sociality and the institutions of family and community, such as marriage, parenthood, kinship, friendship and economic occupation (which includes any activity to support the family and have standing in the community, whether that be hunting, farming or banking). There is no human society in which these things have not been fundamental, despite whatever other advances or changes have occurred. Societies have always flourished at a time when these institutions have been strong; and no society historically has flourished when these have been weak, neglected or under attack.

Moreover, in evolutionary terms, beyond our mere physicality we have an ‘excess’ in our neurological constitution (which we variously refer to as mind, soul or spirit) in which we entertain beliefs about the world of our experience. Interpretations of what this means for our self-understanding vary enormously – my own view is that in the primal state this is a survival mechanism – but whatever the ontological reality of our beliefs, they must not fatally undermine our natural sociality; if they do they will be eliminated by natural selection (on this point I am closer to Richard Dawkins than to Julian Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, who believed that we have transcended natural selection). This selective process eventually manifests through the political process, particularly in times of upheaval.

The crux of my argument is that the liberal establishment has allowed and even facilitated the erosion of this evolutionary infrastructure of sociality, and that this has had a disproportionate effect on the less well-educated, less mobile and less wealthy sections of society, who in any society constitute the majority. Liberalism has not simply allowed the export of blue collar jobs abroad where labour is cheaper (to be often replaced by jobs that pay insufficiently for a person to buy a home, marry and raise a family), but, more seriously, has persistently undermined the foundations of family and community which enable the emergence of social solidarity. Economic hardship alone, while an important contributing factor, is not sufficient to accomplish this. For the past 50 years the liberal establishment, consisting primarily of academics, the media, and the entertainment industry, has moved forward an agenda of undercutting the foundations of social solidarity: marriage as the unique core of family life, the historical narrative of national identity, and also religion as one of the core facilitators of communal life. This agenda has gradually been institutionalised in education, law and politics. Whatever one’s political views, when teaching children gender fluidity becomes a greater priority than ensuring a sound basic education for all, when celebrating diversity becomes more important than celebrating full employment, we are entitled to wonder whether liberalism has reached its hubristic apotheosis.

As much as I am an advocate of maximising human freedom, freedom comes with its own built in constraints, an internal logic that freedom cannot undermine itself, that is, allow actions that result in its own destruction. These constraints are those determined by our evolutionary heritage and the institutional structures that emerge from them that constitute our social being, referred to above. That people choose not to marry or become parents, or choose not to marry but have children, or choose to divorce, or choose an alternative lifestyle, these are individual choices and rights in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they have social consequences, and if these tendencies become prevalent they have demographic consequences. The influx of immigrants into Europe, for example, is agued by some as a necessity given the population shortfall created by a low native birth rate. This, of course, is not what people want to hear. We have become used to thinking about our sociality in purely individualistic terms, in terms of our freedoms and rights and of the social reality in which we want to live; but just as for all our cleverness and ingenuity we cannot ignore fundamental forces such as gravity, so for all our social experimentation we cannot ignore the evolutionary parameters of our being without consequences.

It is at the interface between individual choice and social necessity that the most interesting political choices are made and the most virulent arguments take place. It is likely that this argument will never be finally settled, as this dynamic of competing views is at the heart of democratic culture and ensures its adaptability to changing circumstances. Excessive liberality is bad for societies, just as excessive authority is, and when pushed to one extreme a counter-force inevitably appears. Populism, therefore, can be seen as a collective, unconscious reaction to the ills that plague modern liberal democracies. If it had not been Trump, Farage or Le Pen, other figures would have arisen with similar grievances and similar policies.

Therefore, to categorically assert that populists represent the doom of democracy is to be entirely enclosed within a dying paradigm and to misunderstand the underlying dynamic of the paradigm shift that they represent. To accuse them of being by definition anti-democratic is to have forgotten that democracy was, in the ancient world, and has been in modernity, a revolutionary force, representing more closely the wishes of the mass of people than any other system of governance that has existed. It is also to be wilfully blind to this system having been gradually hijacked by self-perpetuating elites who have empowered and enriched themselves. As long as people generally felt that they were making progress they were willing to acquiesce to the elites in Washington or in Brussels, but since the financial crisis in particular, and the increasingly widening gap between rich and the poor, or those simply struggling to stay afloat, there has been a growing anger on which populism has capitalised.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of uncertainty and potential for danger in these developments. In a recent article, the author Robert Harris argued that the political situation today resembles that of the 1930s more closely than any time since. I do not think we are even close yet, but the signs should serve as a warning. Berlin in the 1930’s was not only a time of great social unrest, economic turmoil and political agitation, but a byword for moral turpitude. Lest people think that these factors are unconnected, the National Socialists made great play of their intention to clean up Germany morally, which was one factor in their gaining popular support. The present populists are hardly moral paragons and tend to be morally liberal on the whole, but they advance authoritarian policies which could be a step in allowing more extreme policies to follow.

Karl Marx expected the communist revolution to take place in Britain, the most industrially developed country in the nineteenth century; that it did not may be due in part to great reforms in the Victorian era, in particular on the spiritual, educational and economic conditions of the working classes. The populist platform today could be derailed by centrist parties having the courage to undertake reforms of similar magnitude. Having said this, I have no expectation that people today will willingly change their behaviour, as it is human nature to resist difficult choices, moral or otherwise, unless circumstances force our hand. My hope is that our existing institutions are strong enough to withstand the uncertain times into which we are moving and that we may be able in hindsight to view this period in history as a time of readjustment in the balance of freedom and moral obligation within democratic society rather than the beginning of a civilisational holocaust from which we must build anew.


Institutional Structure and Culture in the Transmission of Social Values

In the social sciences values have been considered largely a black box issue, at best subject to large-scale quantitative research (such as the American Values Survey). There have been few attempts to locate the function of values within social structures in social theory, and even fewer to have linked this function to the nature of values. In two earlier articles (posted 2015) I argued, based on phenomenological and semiotic analyses, that values have a dual modality, of interiority as shared experience and exteriority as linguistic marker, and also a dual functionality as symbol and information, these functionalities operative in ‘closed’ and ‘open’ social groupings, respectively, social forms that are largely interpenetrative in liberal societies. I also suggested that these functionalities are both operative in social transmission of values, embedding value discourse in everyday language disseminated through normal communicative channels, which is then ‘activated’ when values assume a more symbolic function in relatively closed contexts, such as political parties, businesses, government bodies, schools and religions.

In this article I want to extent this idea from the philosophy of value to social theory, by way of considering the ideas of a number of social researchers that can be broadly described as transmission theories. Its aim is to lead to a theory of institutional value transmission, in which values, institutional praxis and institutional structure are largely interdefinable. This article will be divided into three parts. In the first part I will look at the contribution to the idea of cultural transmission by a number of researchers and theorists in the field of evolutionary psychology and, in particular, those looking at inter-generational value transmission. In part two I will be considering sociological theories dealing with social transmission or aspects of, with a focus on education as one of the principal ways in which as societies we attempts to transmit values. The third part will be taken up with modelling a plausible mechanism for institutional value transmission, based on empirical research.

Part 1: Cultural and Inter-Generational Value Transmission

Although the concept of transmission is discussed in information theory, it is its biological dimensions that are of interest here. This is because although social theory has developed as an autonomous branch of knowledge, there is a growing understanding that the rationalistic view of social factors as entirely divorced from biologically-rooted motives is incorrect, and issues such as social transmission have to be understood primarily as modelled on and built upon genetics and kinship. Much of the recent research in this area, as a result, has been exploring evolutionary models of transmission and focussing on inter-generational relationships. I have divided the main part of the discussion of transmission into two parts, looking at some ideas about the evolutionary basis of transmission, and then the parameters and conditions of transmission. Parameters are the basic components and structures of transmission; conditions are various other factors associated with transmission, particularly the requirements for transmission to take place successfully. The parameters were laid down fairly early on in the 1980s and there has been little significant development since then. The subsequent research in the field has focused strongly on conditions.

The evolutionary basis of value transmission

As the areas that concern values, such as our own survival, social being, sexuality, culture and creativity, and spirituality are rooted in – though not necessarily defined by – our evolutionary past, it is to expected that any consideration of value transmission must also be rooted in our biology and our psychology. The relatively new fields of evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology attempt to understand human nature and behaviour in a holistic manner underpinned by Darwinian evolutionary theory (Buss, 2015), and one of the main areas they are concerned with is the origins of our moral sense and to what extent this is inherited through our genes and to what extent passed through a separate cultural inheritance.

Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. I will look at the theory of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman in some detail as it has features of interest in seeking to understand institutional transmission. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes) is of less interest. Dawkins’ focus is on the logic of the meme as universal replicator, which implies that cultural reproduction is sui generis; there is little in the way of the social context necessary for understanding institutional transmission.

In more recent theories there has been a drift away from the dual inheritance orthodoxy towards a more monistic view that human moral behaviours arise through survival strategies determined in close kinship groups in the earlier stages of our biological and social evolution as a distinct species. One notable contribution to this trend is Haidt’s (2012) Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that as humans we have visceral responses to a number of deep-seated ‘foundations’ or value-disvalue oppositions, six at present (although the final number is undetermined): care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. These are supposedly invariant across cultures, although some are emphasised more in some cultures than others, and there are individual and group preferences even within cultures.

Although theories like Haidt’s help us to understand the evolutionary foundations of our moral perceptions in groupish behaviour and the social values that have evolved in modern societies, they penetrate little to the core question considered in this article of the actual mechanism by which transmission takes place. That discussion has taken place in the research on cultural transmission and inter-generational value transmission. The rooting of social transmission firmly in evolutionary biology is, to the best of my knowledge, research still to be done.

Parameters and conditions of transmission

Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model draws on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilise the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change through the reproducibility of cultural knowledge, akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identify three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations, though Cavalli-Sforza (1993, p.312) later refined this concept of transmission routes adding ‘one to many’, typical of institutional structures such as schools, and ‘many to one’, referred to as ‘social group pressure’.

Schönpflug (2001b, p.132), clearly indebted to Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, but adapting and developing the ideas into the social-psychological arena, identifies four significant parameters of cultural transmission: the carriers of transmission, or transmitters – the people involved in the process of transmission; the contents of transmission, that which is transmitted, which are particularly sensitive to the channel; the mechanism of transmission, which is thought to include two stages – awareness and acceptance (cf. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981, p.62); and developmental windows, which can be genetically-based (e.g. language acquisition) or socially-based (e.g. compulsory schooling).

Within their model Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (ibid, pp.61-62) reckon there are four structural variables, ‘factors in transmission rules’: the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient); the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap); the numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught; and the degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place. Schönpflug (2001a, p.174) considers the conditions, which he terms ‘transmission belts’, which favour cultural transmission taking place in a particular socio-economic and cultural context. They are primarily the age and educational level of the transmitter and receiver (‘personal characteristics’) and the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents (‘family interaction variables’). Altogether ten conditions have been identified: degree of acceptance, quality of relationships, developmental windows, personal characteristics, perceptions, biases, common values, generation of values, numerical ratio, and social complexity. There is a degree of overlap, but they will be dealt with separately.

Degree of acceptance:  According to Cavalli-Sforza (1993) vertical transmission is more likely to result in variation in terms of the intergenerational value systems, whereas other routes, particularly the institutional route of ‘one to many’, are more likely to result in homogeneity of values. Barni et al. (2011) argue that there is a moderate degree of willingness among adolescents to accept their parents’ values. Also, after a period in which adolescents’ values diverge from their parents’, as they are asserting their identity, there is a tendency for the two generations’ values to become more similar (ibid).

Quality of relationships: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) state that the relationship of teacher (transmitter) and taught (recipient) is a key condition of transmission, while Schoenpflug (2001a) specifies the marital relationship of the parents and the parenting style of the parents. More effective cultural transmission takes place when there is a harmonious and constructive relationship between the parents (ibid), and less effective transmission in a dysfunctional relationship. Schönpflug’s research also suggests that empathetic parents are the most effective transmitters (ibid). Euler et al. (2001) add that two important related aspects of cultural transmission between generations are investment in the younger generation and emotional closeness between the generations. Barni et al. (2011) assert that acceptance is assisted when the parents themselves share the same values, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between closeness and acceptance of parental values; that is, this is not a relationship of simple causality, but a bi-directional relationship.

Developmental stage: According to Schönpflug (2001a, p.185) acquisition of values is differentiated according to age of the receiver/acquirer. Early adolescents are more open to collective values, but are less receptive as they reach later adolescence; however, in later adolescence they are more open (and more cognitively developed to receive) individualistic values, those that contribute to a ‘stimulating life’, a point that Barni et al. (2011) confirm.

Personal characteristics: Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and Schönpflug both assert the importance of personal characteristics; the former emphasise the age difference between transmitter and recipient (generation gap) and the latter adds the educational level of the transmitter and receiver.

Perceptions: In general, the values the parents wish to transmit are perceived by the younger generation to be more conservative, whereas the young are more open to new ideas (Barni et al., 2011).

Biases: Whitbeck and Gecas (1988) recognise that females have a slightly higher acceptance of parents values than males and that the mother-daughter bond in this respect is particularly strong, what they refer to as the ‘female lineage’ of value transmission.

Common values: According to Barni et al. (2011), some values seem to be almost universally shared between the generations, such as benevolence and independence of thought and action.

Generation of values: According to Grusec and Goodnow (1994) acquisition of values takes place through the assertion of moral autonomy; acceptance comes on the basis of self-generation. Barni et al. (2011) contest this view; they prefer the notion of self-other generation: the values we acquire are the result of our free choice, but this choice is not made in a vacuum; we tend to choose the values of those close to us in a familial setting.

The final two points are of particular relevance outside of the immediate family setting, in the broader social and institutional context:

Numerical ratio: The numerical relationship (ratio) of teacher to taught can also be a factor in how effective value transmission can be (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981). It is unclear here what conclusion they might have reached about this. The assumption is that they consider a smaller teacher-pupil ratio to be more effective; however, this might contradict the idea that ‘one to many’ transmission reproduces a more homogeneous set of values, referred to above.

Social complexity: The degree of complexity of the society in which the transmission takes place is considered to be a factor in value transmission(Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Whitbeck and Gecas, 1988); there is a recognition that multiple factors are at play in value socialisation, not only the parents, important as that influence is. Hashimzade and Della Giusta (2011) have modelled the relationship between the intergenerational values of immigrant families and the values of their schools, in order to determine the optimal outcomes. They have concluded that in a society of heterogeneous communities, better social outcomes are created when schools focus on inclusivity in order to avoid alienation. Attempts by schools to create homogeneity of values increases alienation and worsens social outcomes. If there is a gradual convergence of values between the immigrant community and the host society, there is a measured improvement in social and economic outcomes, initiated in part by higher educational outcomes.


I would expect that much of what has been studied in terms of intergenerational transmission of values would be of some relevance to transmission in institutions such as schools, particularly in terms of the key relationship between teacher and pupil, which while not commonly as close as that of parent and child, has some of the features of that relationship (Riley, 2010; Pianta, 1994; Bowlby, 1969), but also of some, though diminishing, relevance to other social organisations in which there are social bonds of authority and dependence. Clearly, though, on the basis of the research, transmission of values within institutions is going to be dependent upon a number of variables such as age and gender, personal relationship and the quality the institutional culture, education (both in terms of level achieved and receptivity to new ideas), cultural background, and even – apparently – which values are being transmitted.

There do seem to be two noticeable omissions. Although Schönpflug mentions the mechanism of transmission, which he (after Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman) states has two stages – awareness and acceptance – there is no attempt to describe or model this mechanism. The other is that values are not assigned any role in this process. My intuition is that these omissions are connected. As long as values are seen as a black box problem there is a limit to the extent that the transmission of values can be modelled.

Although the theories emerging from evolutionary psychology do provide relatively simple models of transmission, they are predominantly focused upon the interaction between transmitter and receiver and, therefore, in the larger social context they will be considered as part of the mechanism, i.e. an aspect of transmission rather than as a complete model. In the second part of this article I will turn to several other theories which address aspects of transmission and consider some theoretical models of social transmission.


Barni, D., Ranieri, S., Scabini, E. and Rosnati, R. (2011). Value transmission in the family: Do adolescents accept the values their parents want to transmit? Journal of Moral Education, vol. 40, no. 1, pp.105-121.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment (vol. 1 of Attachment and loss). New York: Basic Books.

Buss, D. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: the new science of the mind (Fifth Edition). Oxford: Routledge.

Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (1993). How are values transmitted? In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 305-318.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grusec, J. E. and Goodnow, J. J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology, vol. 30, pp. 4-19.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hashimzade, N. and Della Giusta, M. (2011). Schooling and intergenerational transmission of values. University of Reading. [Online] Available at: http://www.thearda.com/asrec/archive.

Lumsden, C. and E. Wilson. 1981. Genes, mind and culture: The coevolutionary process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McElreath, R. and Henrich, J. (2007). Dual inheritance theory: The evolution of human cultural capacities and cultural evolution. In R. Dunbar and L. Barrett, (Eds.), Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 555-570.

Pianta, R. C. (1994). Patterns of relationships between children and kindergarten teachers. Journal of School Psychology, vol. 32, issue 1, pp. 15-31.

Riley, P. (2010). Attachment theory and the teacher-student relationship: A practical guide for teachers, teacher educators and school leaders. London: Routledge

Schönpflug, U. (2001a). Intergenerational transmission of values: The role of transmission belts. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 174–185.

Schönpflug, U. (2001b). Introduction. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 131-134.

Whitbeck, L. B. and Gecas, V. (1988). Value attribution and value transmission between parents and children. Journal of Marriage & the Family, vol. 50, pp. 829–840.



Altruism and the Moral Matrix

This essay, ‘Altruism and the Moral Matrix’ is a contribution by the mathematician Colin Turfus to The Axiological Perspective.


We consider the origins of altruism in human society, concluding that neither the sorts of view typically put forward by religious believers nor the critiques offered by the New Atheists offer an adequate explanation. We suggest one reason for this is the excessive focus of both sides on the individual rather than the group as the arena where altruism operates. We point to evidence that altruism evolved in a group context but required a “moral matrix” to support it and prevent it from being undermined by the “free rider” problem. We also consider to what degree religion is a necessary condition for the establishment and maintenance of the moral matrix.


One of the greatest debates in philosophy and the social sciences over the last few centuries has been the origins of altruistic behaviour in human beings. This issue can be approached from many perspectives, with the result that polarly opposed opinions not infrequently find themselves being expressed. A central question within this debate is the role played by religion. Religious believers will of course see the hand of God in stimulating our Original Mind through His teachings. But, at the opposite pole, the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, and co.) see religion as one of the biggest barriers preventing human beings from living together in peace and mutual tolerance.

So how can the two sides reach such divergent views on the role of religion in their understanding of the origins of altruism? Can we claim that either side really has a satisfactory explanation of what drives altruistic behaviour and how it can best be cultivated or promoted? While my sympathies tend by habit to be more with the former position – I see how my beliefs and the moral compass implicitly embedded therein propel me to live a life for the sake of others, in particular those who share my beliefs (or some of them) – in relation to the beliefs of certain religious groups such as violent Jihadists, I must confess to feeling more sympathy for Sam Harris’s critique of religious extremism and would have to concede he has a point. And there is the nub of the problem: my spiritual beliefs always cultivate right attitudes and good behaviour, but other people’s are not always so benign…

As with all such big debates, some of which have lumbered on over centuries, this one looks unlikely to be resolved by either side ultimately prevailing over the other. A further dimension needs perhaps to be introduced that can help elucidate the validity of both perspectives while moving the discussion on to a new level.

Weaknesses in Current Explanations

One of the problems for the religious position, or more particularly the Judeo-Christian perspective, is its lack of rigour. The existence of an original mind is postulated (explicitly or implicitly). But this has been polluted by a fallen mind (at some unknown past date), so that in practice we are in a process of evolution towards its liberation. So both the original mind and the fallen mind are at best conceptual tools rather than being empirically observable or concretely defined. For example, if we ask the question whether the original mind will be liberated by creating the right social/spiritual environment or vice versa, this is not answerable in terms of the conceptual framework proposed.

The New Atheists’ position on the other hand is built on the foundation of Darwinism (or more accurately a particular interpretation thereof popularised principally by Stephen J. Gould (1980) and Richard Dawkins (1976, 2006) about 30 years ago). It is their view that human nature has evolved from animal behaviour through a process of natural selection operating on individuals at the genetic level. They explicitly exclude the possibility pointed to by Darwin (and accepted within at least part of the biological community until the 1970’s) of “group selection” whereby some groups might prosper at the expense of others on account of some genetically encoded propensity shared by individuals in the group. An argument commonly used against this possibility in the case of the evolution of altruism is the so-called “free rider” problem, first identified by Darwin himself. It states that if a genetically based behaviour evolves amongst some individuals in a group which assists the group but is not directly in the interests of the individual, there will be an advantage for those in the group who do not practise it. The prospering of the non-practising individuals at the expense of those practising the group-serving behaviour will then serve to suppress the spread of the genetic modification throughout the group.

Dawkins (1976) argues for two possible origins of altruism in human beings, both of which he sees as compatible with the selfish gene concept he promotes. One is kin selection where, for example a mother nurtures her child. But in this case she is securing the future of her own genes, so the phenomenon must be expected to remain tied to that context, except insofar as it misfires and a mother feels maternal instincts for other children, or perhaps infant animals. The second example is so-called reciprocal altruism where individuals in a community develop cooperative behaviour to their mutual benefit. But it is arguable whether this is genuine altruism given that it is defined to be conditional on a benefit returning to the initial benefactor.

On the back of such thinking, biological orthodoxy has tended to argue for the last 30 years or so against the existence of genuinely selfless altruism as an intrinsic human behaviour, i.e. one with a genetic/biological foundation. Rather evidence of altruistic behaviour is viewed either as a failure correctly to perceive the hidden benefit conferred on the individual, or as a learned behaviour. The latter may be reciprocal altruism operating at a cultural rather than, or in addition to, a genetic level (nature and/or nurture); or it may be prescribed by moral agents (such as religions) on behalf of “society” or the group against the immediate interests of the individual. Dawkins coined the word “memes” to describe such learned behaviours, the behavioural equivalent of genes. It is perhaps not surprising that biologists have on this basis been in general hostile to religion and have been more on the liberal than on the conservative wing politically.

But, whatever one makes of such arguments, it hardly constitutes an “explanation” of altruism in human beings to suggest it is self-delusion or, at best, a false consciousness.

A More Empirical Approach?

So we have the Judeo-Christian viewpoint on the one hand asserting axiomatically that altruism is an intrinsic human propensity because it is part of the divine nature with which we are all supposed to be endowed. On the other side, the hard-line Darwinians remain sceptical about the idea that human beings are intrinsically altruistic, on the basis that the free rider problem would have prevented altruism from evolving at a genetic level.

To make progress in this stand-off we might do well to take a wider perspective, looking in particular at the working and evolution of both the human mind and human society, and indeed their mutual interaction. We are all aware that our basic biological instincts are to advance our own interests as we perceive or feel them. We learn from a young age of the need to resist and control such urges as part of a socialisation process.

Whether an atheist or a religious believer, every parent knows that children have to be taught to behave with consideration for others and do not do so naturally. Why do they usually conform? Well, in the first instance there is the fact that they can: children are born in general with an innate ability to empathise, and develop fairly naturally the capacity to envisage how other people will respond to certain behaviours of theirs. What takes effort to develop is the will to direct their own behaviour in line with other people’s desires rather than their own. This usually occurs by harnessing their will to receive approval from their parents or others around them.

From this observation, two further questions arise:
• Is this approval-seeking itself an innate or a learned behaviour?
And further:
• Is the development of altruism tied to this approval-seeking or is there an independent altruistic tendency that operates independently of any approval-seeking mechanism?

These questions take us into the realm of evolutionary psychology and the closely related field of sociobiology. Although the former was for a long time marginalised by evolutionary biologists, it is I believe now starting to become mainstream, if not in the estimation of the wider biologist community, then at least in the opinion of psychologists. We note in this regard that Dawkins (2006) in his more recent writing evinces support for some of the work of evolutionary psychologists, albeit its critique of religion.

I shall not attempt here to do justice to the arguments and supporting studies and evidence presented by evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists in relation to the above questions. Rather I refer the reader to Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) recent account of these issues. In Haidt’s estimation, the answer to the first of these questions is more clear-cut than the other. But a lot can nonetheless be said in relation to both and Haidt gives his conclusions in the third part of his book under the head “Morality Binds and Blinds”.

On the first issue, it seems obvious that approval-seeking is common across many species, not just humans. One only needs to think about mating processes. And if a behaviour supports a mating process, it is a prime candidate for genetic selection. The evidence suggests that approval-seeking is hard-wired not only into our genes but also into our brains. One of the main functions of speech from its inception appears to have been to express disapproval. Gossiping ensured that any transgressions by an individual against the interests and expectations of the community would be sure to become public knowledge, to the significant disadvantage of the transgressor.

This would be expected naturally to lead to a situation where advantage could accrue to individuals manifesting “altruistic” behaviour. But, the question must then be asked whether the altruism induced in this way is transferable to relationships with those outside the community whose approval is sought? As Hayek (1988) argued in his classic defence of free market principles, although it is possible for altruism to transcend the bounds of the community in which it was forged, it is no simple matter for this to happen. The constraints we learn within our community to impose on our behaviour and perception (what Haidt refers to as moral matrices), rather than being an assistance, are frequently an impediment to integration with other communities:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.

So, according to Hayek, when in our behaviour we seek the approval of our community, this is likely to lead us into greater conflict rather than concord vis à vis other communities. The behaviours we learn which enable us to transcend our family or community loyalties are what he terms “morality”. So for Hayek, morality is by definition a learned behaviour, imbibed through a combination of imitation and schooling. Altruism beyond the community to which we have natural loyalty cannot in his understanding be construed as having a genetic basis.

Hayek’s answer to our second question would therefore appear to be no: altruism is only hard-wired insofar as approval-seeking is hard-wired in our instinctive behaviour. The hard-line Darwinian purists would happily concur with such a conclusion.

Groupishness in Human Beings

Haidt (2012) evinces support for Hayek’s general view of morality. But consideration of more recent evidence surveyed from the perspective of evolutionary psychology lead him to a conclusion which diverges subtly from Hayek’s. He points out evidence of what appears to be an innate propensity in human beings for “groupish” behaviour. By this he means the immersion of oneself in a group identity and/or behaviour (a comparison is made with that of bees or ants). This is not frequently manifested, but is triggered from time to time by certain events which can cause an altered brain state to occur. Extending the analogy with bees, he refers to these triggers as “the hive switch,” summarising his thesis in the aphorism that “human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee”.

Examples of groupish behaviour which he enumerates are:
• Strong nationalist sentiment induced by a perceived hostility or threat, e.g. 9/11
• Fraternities and sororities at US universities underpinned by induction rituals
• Chanting at football games (US or UK version)
• Evangelical worship services
• Rites of passage involving ritual dances and chanting
• Hallucinogenic drug-taking, often as a religious practice or at a rave
• Camaraderie in war

This tendency he identifies as a driver for genuinely altruistic behaviour. Thus, his claim is that groupishness is not just a behaviour which results in the individual receiving the approbation of the group, resulting in an advantage for the individual which is favoured by natural selection. If this were the case, the appearance of good behaviour would be enough to secure the advantage which would favour selection. But the activation of the hive switch is not something that can be faked. Groups of individuals together enter into altered mental states, the reality of which can be detected and measured by neurological research techniques.

The suggestion is therefore that genuine altruism is an innate propensity, but is conditional in two ways. First it requires the hive switch to be activated at some level for it to kick in. And second, it is expressed in a limited manner towards an “in-group” of other hive members, often but not necessarily at the expense of those perceived not to be members. We can see how this leads to the phenomenon mentioned above whereby religious adherents are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of their own religion and fellow-religionists, but will often be extremely uncharitable and even violent to those who neither share their faith nor conform in their behaviour to the constraints of their moral matrix.
The interesting question to ask ourselves is whether the benefits of the first outweigh the costs of the social turmoil engendered by the second. There is a strong argument to be made (Haidt makes it) that the foremost position of religion as a strong moral force at the centre of almost every thriving society is not a coincidence, an argument we ignore at our peril. (The recent economic decline in W. Europe is I think well correlated with the decline of the influence of religion.) Yet mainstream liberal opinion in both US and W. Europe tends to be scathing of religion and sees it as a necessary part of their agenda to reduce the power of religion to influence the public moral agenda. At the same time, conservative political opinion tends at best to be conditional in its support for sectarian moral agendas.

Moral Capital

If we take the above viewpoint of Haidt (who incidentally counts himself an atheist and a liberal), we must view the deficit in the respect in the US and W. Europe for the beneficial influences religion has brought to our societies as a problem to be addressed. The consequence of this failure is twofold. The first is what Hayek (1988) calls the fatal conceit. This is an inability to recognise the truth of the claim first made by David Hume that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason,” resulting in a mistaken belief that we can build the morality of our choice into our society through the deliberate design of our laws and institutions.

The second consequence is the diminution of moral capital which Haidt defines as

…the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Here we confront the paradox that it is typically in membership of a group that we give expression to our altruistic nature. So, by curbing the influence of “parochial” religion we curtail the supply of moral capital. Further, it has been observed that within communities, the degree of sacrifice individuals are willing to make for the community is related to the extent to which the group sacralises certain goals or ends. Such is not restricted to religious sacralisation but includes such causes as tackling climate change, protecting endangered species (and foxes), and promoting minority rights.

But there is a problem in that sacralising is by its definition beyond rationalisation. There will always be those who do not see the sacred objects or objectives as such and seek to use rational arguments to desacralise them. It would appear that in the western world over the last 50 years we have frequently succumbed to such arguments and seen our stock of moral capital decline substantially. We seek to rebuild this stock with exhortations to be good citizens and to commit ourselves to the building of the multi-cultural society. But if the willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause is born out of group membership, moral capital is inevitably diminished, not increased, by an attempt to break down divisions, especially if this involves losing part of our identity, such as our pride in (and knowledge of) our national history.

It should be added that the western world has been particularly vulnerable to such decline in its moral capital because of the excessive focus on the rational individual at the centre of its theorising about morals, rights, economics, politics, etc. Furthermore, religions in the Western world too have tended to be focused on the behaviour and status of the individual rather than on groups like the family, or on relationships. This is in sharp contrast with the oriental tradition of Confucianism. Members of oriental societies will of course look at society very differently and are much more likely to see families, groups and relationships, rather than atomic individuals. They are therefore more likely to take steps to protect families and groups, even where this is at the expense of compromising individual rights or freedoms. I am not here suggesting that oriental societies are therefore a better model; only that they illustrate a weakness in western societies.

The Way Forward?

So what can we learn from the above? Well, one immediate conclusion is that we should seek to use the language of relationships and groups more in discussing moral issues in the public arena.

Secondly, we should be more willing to recognise the value of sacralisation in communities as a good in itself insofar as it is typically the wellspring of altruistic behaviour. Of course, if what is sacralised is a behaviour or end which is of itself clearly harmful to society, such as the promotion of race hatred resulting in violence, that should be discouraged. But there is a difference, say, between homophobia and a choice made in conscience to value heterosexual relationships differently from homosexual. Alongside sacralisation, Haidt recognises loyalty and respect for authority as values which are equally ignored by liberal advocates. We should find the language to speak out for all three as supporting the moral capital of our society, without which it could not exist.

Thirdly, rather than trying to undermine the groups which induce in their members a willingness to sacrifice for the group, it would be more fruitful to seek to enlarge the sphere of the concern. While the innate mechanism for learning altruistic behaviour is demonstrably group-centric, that does not mean that altruistic behaviour and compassion, once learned, cannot be extended to a wider group, as Jesus elucidated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.


Dawkins, Richard (1976) “The Selfish Gene” (1st edition)
Dawkins, Richard (2006) “The God Delusion”
Gould, Stephen J. (1980) “The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History”
Haidt, Jonathan (2012) “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” (see also references therein). Part I of the book is summarised in the opening of his RI lecture available at http://www.rigb.org/contentControl?action=displayEvent&id=1239. For an overview of part II of his book, see his TED lecture on http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html. For part III, see his TED lecture on http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence.html and his RSA lecture on http://www.thersa.org/events/video/vision-videos/the-groupish-gene.
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1988) “The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism”.