Are Humans Predisposed by Evolution To Get Along?: Podcast

In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas Christakis says natural selection "prewires" us for peaceful co-existence.


In 2015, an angry confrontation at Yale over how to dress up on Halloween caused a national sensation. Protesting students called for the university to fire Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician, because they felt he and his wife, also teaching at Yale at the time, did not protect them from possible psychic injury.

The conflict started a week earlier, when the school's Intercultural Affairs Council sent an email encouraging members of the community to be careful not to offend their fellow students with culturally and racially insensitive costumes. Christakis' wife, Erika—an expert in early childhood education—responded with her own thoughts. "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive," she wrote. From her perspective, American universities had "become places of censure and prohibition."

Students said that by sending her email, Erica Christakis had failed to create a safe space at Yale's Sillman College, where she served as associate master. Nicholas Christakis jumped into the fray, defending his wife's email, and he tried to engage in a dialogue with protestors in a courtyard. Scenes of students shouting at Nicholas and calling for his firing went viral.

Christakis not only held on to his tenured professorship, but three years later he was awarded the Sterling Professorship, Yale's highest faculty honor. And his confrontation with students kicked off an ongoing national debate about freedom of speech, political correctness, and sensitivity on college campuses.

As a sociologist, the 56-year-old Christakis is no stranger to highly charged group interactions. His new book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, which argues that our genetic makeup predisposes us to favor peaceful interaction and respectful co-existence over angry and violent mob rules.

Nick Gillespie sat down with Christakis to talk about his theory that what unites as humans is stronger than what divides us, the power of evolution as an explanatory system for society, and whether Enlightenment values such as civil discourse and intellectual freedom are still respected in our nation's colleges and universities.

Note: This is the audio podcast version of a Reason TV interview. Watch that here.

Edited by Ian Keyser. Intro by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Kevin Alexander.

Music credit: 'Voyeur' by Jingle Punks

Photos by Ragesoss and Sibjeet, under a creative commons license.

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  1. “Nicholas Christakis says natural selection “prewires” us for peaceful co-existence.”

    Yeah man… As long as the rest of the tribe adores, admires, and worships MEEEE, and all the other tribes (who are by definition less than human) pay tribute to MY tribe, then I am all into peaceful co-existence (except when I am not). Otherwise I enjoy bopping others (disobedient ones) on the head, just like Little Bunny Foo-Foo!!!!

    Just the same that every tyrant who has ever lived, was in favor of freedom… For themselves, that is!!!!

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  2. Straight up appeal to nature fallacy.

  3. “Christakis to talk about his theory that what unites as humans is stronger than what divides us, the power of evolution as an explanatory system for society,”

    Altruism is as an evolutionary adaptation that arises in the natural world. There are a plethora of examples. If altruism didn’t arise from the natural world by way of observable processes, its presence among homo sapiens would make an excellent argument for the existence of a God. How else to account for it?

    Ultimately, the process we’re talking about shouldn’t be controversial to capitalists and probably wouldn’t be among libertarians if it weren’t for some clinging to the notions of Ayn Rand. Libertarians have been writing about benevolence arising from markets since Adam Smith wrote about the invisible hand in 1759.

    And who would argue that society at large doesn’t benefit when people respect each other’s rights?

    1. “Libertarians have been writing about benevolence arising from markets since Adam Smith wrote about the invisible hand in 1759.”

      In case that was unclear, evolutionary processes are essentially market processes with specialization as a feature (as in “specialization and exchange”). And we’re not just talking about social adaptations if you imagine that’s what altruism is about. Our neo-cortex evolved to leverage the advantages conferred by what you might think of as social adaptations, like language and religion.

    2. “And who would argue that society at large doesn’t benefit when people respect each other’s rights?”

      I think our attitude towards altruism and those who benefit from it reveals deeper problems in society. Take Reason’s constant railing against ‘the nanny state,’ for example. The nanny, someone charged with the care of children, is held in contempt. Asylum seekers fleeing oppression, violence and poverty are looked upon with fear and loathing by many commenters here who identify themselves as Libertarian.

    3. the existence of a God. How else to account for it?

      This is always and forever a logical fallacy. “I can’t find an explanation. Must be God.”

      1. “If altruism didn’t arise from the natural world by way of observable processes, its presence among homo sapiens would make an excellent argument for the existence of a God”

        That’s what I actually wrote.

        I didn’t even say it would be conclusive evidence.

        However, if there were no way to account for the evolution of altruism in the natural world, then that would leave open the argument that it came from somewhere other than the natural world.

        That isn’t a logical fallacy at all.

        In fact, that argument for God is one of the reasons why I started reading up on altruism in the natural world. It’s a fascinating topic. The fact is that altruism does arise naturally from evolutionary processes. There are a zillion examples in the natural world. So the argument is preempted by the evidence.

        Hell, it turns out “inclusive fitness” (altruistic behavior for close siblings to pass on similar genes to your own) isn’t even necessary.


        Regardless, IF IF IF there were no observable examples of altruism in the natural world, its existence would be an excellent (if not 100% conclusive) argument for the existence of God.

        I maintain that it’s the same process we libertarians talk about with the invisible hand and Adam Smith. Why should it surprise libertarians if people pursuing their own interests is entirely compatible with the invisible hand of benevolence?

        1. The invisible hand isn’t altruism. Adam Smith was convinced that altruism wasn’t a good motivator, and, following his Christian environment, that humans were fallen, selfish creatures. The invisible hand was his metaphor for the ways in which selfish and explicitly anti-altruistic behavior could nevertheless yield mutually beneficial outcomes. He wanted to find a way to redeem mankind from its fallen nature. So, no, altruism isn’t at all what libertarians mean by the invisible hand.

          1. The invisible hand may have been a metaphor, but he’s talking about something very real and concrete.

            The rich…are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.

            —Theory of Moral Sentiments

            The point is that altruism emerges from these systems–even when the people within it are pushing their own interests.

            1. My understanding is that female bonobos, who are notoriously promiscuous, will shun males that refuse to share the food they have with others. (Selfishness may make for poor fathers). If you want to pass on your genes as a bonobo, you better share–but does that make an altruistic bonobo selfish for acting altruistically with a selfish motive or is it just that altruism emerges from these self-interested systems.

              It does so in economics. It does so in evolution.

              When a marine altruistically throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies, is he being selfish because he cares more about his buddies than he does about himself? Surely sacrificing your life for someone else isn’t a selfish act. Maybe it’s simply that altruism emerges from self-interest that way.

            2. I don’t get your point. I never said the outcome wasn’t real. However, altruism is a motivation: It’s when you do something for others without an expectation of personal gain. That manifestly isn’t what is at work in the invisible hand. Again, Smith was trying to figure out how to harvest human desire for gain to create mutually beneficial outcomes without resorting to altruism as a motivator, which he believed wouldn’t work.

              So, yes, the outcomes of the invisible hand are mutually beneficial, but that doesn’t make them altruistic in nature. Smith’s insight was that selfishness, rather than altruism, was the emotion you needed to appeal to.

              Altruism isn’t an outcome. It’s a motivation. You’re systematically confusing outcome with cause in your description, and the quote you put forth to support your contention ? “without intending it, without knowing it” ? explicitly makes it clear that he isn’t talking about altruism, but about an outcome that results in something like altruism without it as a motivator.

              1. “However, altruism is a motivation: It’s when you do something for others without an expectation of personal gain.”

                That’s probably the source of our disagreement.

                I’m talking about altruistic behavior emerging in these systems–regardless of and even in spite of motives. Isn’t that what Smith is talking about above?

                When scientists are studying altruism, they’re not concentrating on motives either. If bonobos can pass the mirror test, then maybe they are capable of such introspection. In the multitude of other examples of altruistic behavior in the natural world, we’re generally not talking about motives. The bees and ants that are the subject of the Nature article I linked above are probably not capable of altruistic motives. However, their economic circumstances and the forces of evolution have converged to make them behave altruistically–regardless of motive.

                Altruistic behavior emerges from economic systems, even when people are pursuing their own selfish interests, and finding that the same kind of altruistic behavior emerges during the process of evolution shouldn’t surprise anybody who understands Adam Smith.

  4. While there are an infinite number of ways to lie and be in conflict, there is only one reality, truth that we all share in peace.

    It is enough. Being rational requires the acceptance of truth.

    Evolution is all about recognizing reality. For those who think it about oppressing the weak, there are laws and revenge to cut yours short.

    No? What makes you believe that to be true?

    1. There may be a difference between the kind of advantages that peace confers to a society by way internal cohesion and the kind of advantages that same peaceful thinking confers by way of external relations.

      The biggest obstacle keeping English colonists from pushing westward was the British crown. The colonists winning the American Revolution was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Native Americans. Wiping entire people’s out and stealing their land has advantages.

      It may be problematic, however, in maintaining whatever advantages societies get from genocidal theft without that cutting into the advantages of peaceful coexistence internally. Genocidal maniacs aren’t typically good at respecting the rights of their people so that they can flourish.

      1. Aboriginals as savages were wiping each other out and stealing land long before Europeans discovered the Americas.

        They recognized and wanted the technological advantages if not the civilization much as they do today.

        There never will be birch bark big screen TVs, vehicles and guns.

        1. They were not “wiping each other out”; if they had been, none would have been left. The Americas of 1491 had anywhere from 50 to 100M people. Yes, they were killing each other, but they were breeding faster than dying. European diseases was what killed them, far more than Europeans. One epidemic killing half the population every few years will do that.

          They certainly wanted the advanced technology of the Europeans. But you do your argument no good by pretending the Indians were so savage that they killed each other more than Europeans or disease.

          1. That wasn’t my point.

            It was that killing whole villages to take what they had was as normal to aboriginals as it was to Europeans, probably more so.

            When they tried doing it to Europeans, they got whooped, signed treaties, and have learned that playing the victim card is lucrative. Like many other people’s have and are.

            If aboriginals enemies were dying of disease, aboriginals would have said good riddance.

        2. I don’t understand what your point is, unless it’s that aboriginals are better off with technology than they were when they had their own land. Not sure that respecting the rights of Native Americans in the 1800s would have meant there being no big screen TVs today. Why would those two things be mutually exclusive? I’m certainly not about to tell the descendants of Native American survivors that they’re better off because of the trail of tears than they would have been if our government had left them their land and respected their rights.

          I wasn’t even talking about the moral dimension at all–just from an evolutionary standpoint. The fact is that while societies pillage external threats may have a hard time turning around and respecting the rights of their own people, there are amoral advantages to be had in slaughtering your competitors and eating their lunch. The question isn’t whether aboriginal should have been shut out of the world economy and all its technological progress. Why would respecting their ancestors’ rights mean they couldn’t participate in technology?

          1. My point is that recognizing the truth is evolutionary.

            If the aboriginals had recognized the truth that Everyone has a right to live here and that trade is part of living together we might have got on with it 200 years ago.

            Instead we fought, won and they have a trail of tears with their hands out. Still beggars instead of being contributing members of our shared technological society.

            In my perspective, we didn’t violate any rights.

            1. Indian removal was fucking disgraceful, and, not only that, it was unconstitutional and declared so by the Supreme Court.

              “Those rights, [Chief Justice John Marshall] stated, include the sole right to deal with the Indian nations in North America, to the exclusion of any other European power. This did not include the rights of possession to their land or political dominion over their laws. He acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government, and individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs. Georgia’s statute was therefore invalid.”


              President Jackson initiated The Trail of Tears anyway–because who would stop him? The voters who wanted those Native Americans’ land? If they’d made an argument for eminent domain, it might have been more legal, but we complain plenty about that, too.

              Violating people’s rights like that is awful. Because some Americans benefited at the expense of others certainly doesn’t justify violating people’s rights.

              1. The only right is for people to live together as equals.

                We do the best we can with what we’ve got.

                My understanding is that most treaties gave aboriginals the choice to live as they always had on parcels of land or to join our civilization and way of life, not both.

                This coexistence of conflicting ways of life was doomed from the start. Our civilization farming and fencing theirs foraging and wandering. There is no scenario where it works.

                This is the truth that has never been recognized. We have not evolved and won’t until we do.

                When rights cant work, they’re wrongs.

                There aren’t enough wild elk to pay for a modern life.

                1. “The only right is for people to live together as equals.”

                  Rights are choices. They arise naturally as an aspect of our agency.

                  If property rights are the right to choose who can use something, when it’s used, how it’s used, . . .

                  There is no right to live together as equals. That isn’t even a choice.

                  The only right is the right to make choices for yourself.

                  1. Choices can be in conflict, rights can’t be.

                    1. Our rights (even our legal rights) often overlap and conflict with each other. It’s like you’ve never thought about this stuff before. Are you trollin’?

                    2. If our human rights put us in conflict, then we are naturally in conflict and there is no point to having human rights.

                      Have you never thought of this before?

                      Human rights are defined by people in a civilized society to avoid conflict. What makes you believe anything else is true?

                    3. You’re using words that I’m not sure you really understand.

                      A right is the obligation to respect the agency of others. It emerges from the ability of others to make choices–just like morality itself. Talking whether it’s moral for comet to crash into the earth and kill billions of people is absurd because comets have no agency. Comets can’t makes choices. Likewise, it would be absurd for someone to suggest that it’s immoral to destroy a comet that’s hurling towards the earth because we have an obligation to respect the comet’s agency. Comets have no agency, so they’re incapable of morality, and comets have no capacity for agency, so we are not obligated to respect their right to make choices for themselves.

                      People aren’t like comets. They have agency, so it’s possible to for them to choose to act differently than they’ve done. That’s what makes morality possible. Likewise, because people can make such choices, we’re obligated to respect the choices they make for themselves. This is what it means to have rights. We are all obligated to respect each other’s rights.

                      Rape is wrong and should be illegal because the victim’s right to make choices for herself was violated. Selling sugary soft drinks in large containers to willing customers is wrong and should be illegal because . . . well, no one’s rights are violated in such a transaction, so selling sugary soft drinks shouldn’t be a crime at all.

                    4. I have a right to choose to take a nap in my apartment. My neighbor has a right to choose to watch his television at a reasonable volume. Our rights can and do overlap and conflict with each other. Deal with it.

                    5. The only thing rights have to do with choices is that rights restrict choices.

                      You can choose to nap anytime you want but you have no right to a quiet environment.

                      It’s not a conflict between rights because they’re not rights at all.

                      You do have a right not to be murdered. That restricts my choices, that aren’t rights.

                      There is no true right that conflicts with or restricts other rights.

  5. The history of the world is a history of war. Evolutionary Morality is BS.

    1. Voluntary trade is by definition peaceful, and people trade far more often than they wage war. If nothing else, war being the primary instinct would lead to suicide of the species. How else could children be raised for 10-15 years to become adults, and another 10-15 to procreate and raise their own successors, if war and death were as primary as you imply.

      Trade occurs many times every day, when cave people traded berries for meat, or arrows for bows. It is THE natural human interaction. It is cooperation and leads naturally to altruism, because no trade can ever be perfect; people accept their less-than-ideal amount of berries and meat just to get the deal done, and that primes the pump for forgiveness and altruism.

      1. No one believes you.

      2. Regardless. Evolutionary Morality is BS.

    2. History only goes back some 5000 years. Before that are prehistoric times, hundreds of thousands of years as far as humans are concerned.

  6. This is pretty funny because we are actually wired to deny our fascism. The problem is you end up with the Soviet Union where anyone who expresses fascist tendencies (which is everyone in one way or another) is diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to the gulag for ‘treatment’. It’s funny because there you were denying you’re a fascist and look what you just did. The extents that we humans will go to deny our nature never cease to amaze.

    1. “This is pretty funny because we are actually wired to deny our fascism. ”

      We’re not actually wired. We’re not computers and we are not programmed. It’s all just metaphor and remember, the map is not the territory.

  7. The fact that something is evolutionary has nothing to do with whether it’s moral.

    1. But morals can evolve. I wouldn’t say that they evolve by genetic mutation, but morals change and adapt to new circumstances. I think the period around 200 years ago saw an evolutionary change in morals in England, at least. The period shows society becoming increasingly sensitive to pain and suffering. It was the period when anti-slavery societies became a thing, also feminism and animal rights movements are traced back the period. Anesthesia also became increasingly refined and a focus of medical attention. Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night. Mustn’t forget the Romantics, either.

  8. As I count it there’s…

    -5 paragraphs in Nick’s article dealing with this professor’s interactions with a bunch of teenagers
    -1 paragraph dedicated to talking about where they had their interview and
    -0 paragraphs dedicated to talking about the subject in the title

    I didn’t watch the interview yet… did the professor recover from his psychic injuries caused by students in his evolutionary biology classes. I hope so.

  9. This article and the next one about sex-trafficking hysteria actually go together. Why? Because while we are programmed to cooperate with our in-group, at the same time we were bred to band together against the out-groups. This is fascism (think of a bundle of sticks being stronger than just one), and the way to signal your allegiance is by ‘fake news’ that everyone knows is false but you support it any way. This is what Trump is doing when he peddles preposterous likes like birtherism. No one believes it, or at least they don’t care whether it’s true. They repeat it because then everyone knows which side they’re on. The goal is genocide of other groups, such as immigrants, Muslims or blacks. But fortunately the other groups are now banding together against white nationalists. And not a moment too soon! We have finally learned from history and I think that’s glorious!

  10. He’s a sociologist. That means he’s unqualified to speak about any scientific matter.

  11. What will happen to these snowflakes when they graduate from college and enter the real world that has no “safe spaces” for them to live in?

    Are Humans Predisposed by Evolution To Get Along? No they are not, study history. Humans are predisposed to conflict, war, and taking advantage of the weak. Find your safe place their snowflakes!

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