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On Patriotism and Civic Duty: An Evolutionist’s view on what makes a true American patriot

By David Sloan Wilson
This View of Life

I’m attending an event called the Guiding Lights Weekend at the Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair and therefore a 50-year old vision of the future. Evidently, we were supposed to be zipping around in monorails and living in buildings like the space needle by now, but instead we’re wondering how to fix our broken economy and why our political system has lost the ability to make intelligent collective decisions.

"Eric Liu, True Patriot"

That’s what the Guiding Lights Weekend is all about. It’s the creation of Eric Liu, a former advisor to President Clinton, current civic entrepreneur, and all-around dynamo. Eric is a 2nd generation immigrant from Taiwan and proud to be an American. He’s as patriotic as they come, but Eric’s brand of patriotism is unlike anything that you have probably encountered before. It’s neither conservative nor liberal, but instead strives to transcend the political divisions that currently rule our country with such an iron fist. Lest you think that Eric’s nonpartisanship is a front for a progressive agenda, one of the keynote speakers is Tea Party co-founder Mark Meckler, who recently left the movement to do some transcending of his own.

Eric has been developing his message and campaign for a long time. He has written two books with fellow civic entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, titled True Patriot (2007) and The Gardens of Democracy (2011). Both are compellingly written as calls to action, but they also reflect a lot of scholarship. In Gardens of Democracy, Eric and Nick wholeheartedly endorse the scientific study of human social behavior and economic systems, based on complexity theory and evolutionary theory, as represented by Eric Beinhocker’s superb book The Origin of Wealth (2006). They even say that we are experiencing a “second enlightenment”. The framers of the American Constitution were relying upon the best social theory of their day (the first enlightenment); shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Those are heady words for me, since I’m trying to do just that on scales both small (the neighborhoods of Binghamton, New York) and large (the Evolution Institute). I got to know Eric and Nick in the process of interviewing them for ETVOL, resulting in an invitation to attend the Guiding Lights Weekend and a more select workshop called the Civic Collaboratory. I would be thrown smack dab in the middle of the reinvention of civic participation in America. What would I learn, what could I contribute, and how would the others respond to an evolutionist joining the conversation?

Although the trappings of patriotism and “Back to the Future” atmosphere of the Seattle Center were unfamiliar to me, conceptually I felt right at home. The great challenge for the framers of the American Constitution was how to make society function at a large scale. Numerous smaller social entities existed, such as villages, the separate colonies, and religions, but if these entities were allowed to pursue their separate interests without any form of regulation or sense of being part of a larger group, the incipient nation could not be expected to function well as a group. European nations such as England and France achieved their scale of social organization over a period of centuries, based largely on between-group economic and military competition. Their social organization reflected their histories, often in ways that interfered with effective governance or the capacity for adaptive change, as Alexis de Tocqueville perceptively observed in his great treatise Democracy in America. The European nations weren’t consciously invented; they evolved and had the same Rube Goldberg quality as biological adaptations. The new American nation was more of a deliberate experiment.

Patriotism and civic duty are as important for functional organization at the national scale as the checks and balances of the Constitution. Patriotism reminds us that we are all part of a single group. Civic duty reminds us that membership in the group carries obligations in addition to privileges. Some obligations are nearly costless but still vital for functioning as a unit, such as the obligation to vote. Other obligations are as costly as it gets, such as sacrificing one’s life for one’s country in war. Either way, patriotism and civic duty are fueled by a mix of personal motivation and peer pressure. Pride for one’s country and performing one’s civic duty can be among the most rewarding experiences of one’s life, but those who are not patriotic or who fail to perform their civic duties are subject to disapproval and sanctions. Being a citizen is not a choice. It is an obligation.

The need for solidarity coexists uneasily with the need to make collective decisions, which requires tolerance of diversity. Only when people are free to disagree can alternatives be considered. When a decision is made, however, it must be on behalf of the entire group. When individuals stop identifying with their nation and start identifying with smaller subunits, functional organization at the scale of the nation can be expected to fall apart. That was the problem that the framers of the American Constitution were trying to solve in the first place.

Everything that I have recounted so far can be found in a standard course on civics—but it also fits hand in glove with the evolution of cooperation in all species and the biocultural evolution of our own species. One insight from evolution is that everything associated with patriotism and civic duty on a national scale is also required at the scale of small groups. The only difference is that functional organization takes place more spontaneously at the scale of small groups, thanks to thousands of generations of genetic evolution for teamwork in our species. That’s why Tocqueville could observe that “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that… it seems to constitute itself.”

Actually, Tocqueville’s observation needs to be amended. Even small groups can become dysfunctional (i.e., fail to “constitute themselves”) if the analogs of patriotism and civic duty are absent. If members of a small group do not perceive themselves as a group with a common purpose with obligations enforceable by punishment, then they will fall apart as surely as a nation. It’s not size per se that’s important, but the conditions for groups to function as adaptive units. What the “second enlightenment” offers is a single theoretical framework for studying groups as adaptive units, supported by an impressive body of empirical evidence, which can be applied to all social species and all scales of human society.

One question that can be asked of the unified theoretical framework is whether it adds any value to the theories already developed in human-related disciplines such as political science, economics, sociology, and constitutional law. Perhaps evolutionists such as myself, who are joining an inquiry that has already been in progress for decades and even centuries, will find that they are merely reinventing other people’s wheels. I’m happy to acknowledge that this will sometimes be the case, but it will not always be the case, as I argue in more detail in an article co-authored with economist John Gowdy titled “Evolution as a General Theoretical Framework for Economics and Public Policy”. The best way to find out is for evolutionists to join the inquiry and let the chips fall where they may.

Here are a number of basic insights that follow from an evolutionary perspective and are not necessarily the received wisdom in economic and political discourse, at either the professional or popular levels.

First, the central metaphor of the invisible hand, which states that individual utility-maximization robustly leads to societal welfare, is profoundly wrong. It needs to be replaced with the iron law of multilevel selection: Adaptation at any given scale requires a process of selection at that scale and tends to be undermined by selection at smaller scales. “Selection” can include policy selection in addition to natural selection.

Second, small groups are essential building blocks of large-scale society. We are genetically adapted to function in small groups of individuals who know, like, and trust each other and who hold each other accountable for their actions. Multicellular organisms can’t be healthy unless their cells are healthy, and large-scale human society requires healthy “cells” of small groups responsible for managing their own affairs. This notion accords well with conservative and libertarian proclivities.

Third, every sphere of human activity has an optimal scale that must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Regulation is always required, even at the scale of the smallest groups. The question is not “Whether regulation?” but “What is the optimal scale and most cost-efficient type of regulation?” This notion accords well with liberal proclivities.

For my part, I came away from the Guiding Lights weekend with a new appreciation of patriotism and civic duty, something us liberals tend to disparage and associate with conservative politics. I even added an American Flag pin with the words “True Patriot” to the lapel of my jacket, alongside my Rotary Club pin announcing my commitment to my city. If we want America to function as an adaptive social entity, we need to adopt it as our group identity, carry out its obligations, and make sure that other Americans do also. In addition, the iron law of multilevel selection states unequivocally that if America pursues its self-interest too narrowly, then its actions will undermine adaptation at larger scales. The truest American patriot works to make America a solid citizen of the global village; nothing less will do.


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