Jonah Goldberg, Darwin and Unnatural Capitalism

This is the first part of a three-part review:

Part II: The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg.
Part III Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around.


A drawing of a classical figure labeled

Anyone who claims, “There is a human nature” inevitably follows it with, “and I know what it is!” In his new book, Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg thinks he knows that there is “human nature” is and, unsurprisingly, claims to know what it is. “Human nature is real” he declares (p. 23) and is the result of “innate programming” we acquired 200,000-300,000 years ago and has held constant ever since.  We are programmed to live in small groups that max out at about 150 people–Dunbar’s number (p. 63). Because of this “genetic programming” (p. 63) we tend toward a sense of unity within our group and hostility toward strangers which are “universal human tendencies” (p. 25). In other words, “Violence is the natural way to get what you want from strangers” (p. 11). This tendency toward ingroup unity and outgroup of hostility is only a sample of the extensive list of universals that Goldberg claims have been documented by “thousands of researchers” (p. 26).  Capitalism and its concomitant individualism have proven to be the best way to overwrite our natural tendencies toward distrust since they demand we see individuals, not groups, and that peaceful exchange is mutually beneficial.

Despite its blustery assurance Suicide of the West is based on some very suspect evidence and equally poor argumentation. My task here is to explain why he is wrong about human nature. Subsequent posts will take up other claims he makes.

Goldberg’s main task is to explain The Miracle, by which he means the rise of European wealth and power approximately 300 years ago. Well, not so much explain, since he admits he has no causal account for The Miracle: “At the end of the day,” he writes, “it is impossible to authoritatively answer why beyond simply describing that it happened” (p. 110). Although we have no causal account of The Miracle, we know that it has resulted in an astonishing rise in wealth and that it has been responsible for a plummeting of violence the world over. Unfortunately we are in an age when capitalism is under attack by a professional class of agitators who will destroy our way of life unless we defend capitalism vigorously. It is in this spirit that Goldberg offers his book because, in an age of shouting matches he still believes that “persuasion matters” (p. 3).

Goldberg builds his argument around three central themes:

  1. Unnaturalness. “Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural” (p. 6). Our natural state is that of brutes, living in tribes beset with violence. The Miracle of capitalism is something we made for ourselves.
  2. Corruption. Because capitalism is an unnatural state, it is open to “decay, rot, and putrification” (p. 15). Corruption is about “giving in to the seduction of human nature, the angry drumbeats of our primitive brains and inner whispers of our feelings” (p. 15). Tribal warfare, slavery, and poverty are always a threat that must be kept at bay by a constant renewal of the ideals of individualism and capitalism.
  3. Ingratitude. “We are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle. Our schools and universities, to the extent that they teach the Western tradition at all, do so from a perspective of resentful hostility toward our accomplishments” (p. 16).

Today’s topic is the unnaturalness of capitalism. Goldberg bases his argument on a suspect understanding of “human nature.”

Goldberg, Evolutionary Psychology, and “Human Nature”

A 19th century woodcut of

Illustration from Edward B. Tylor. 1870. Primitive man. London: Chapman and Hall

Goldberg’s account of life before The Miracle is one of constant warfare, rape, and death:

This is no longer a debated point among most serious scholars. People who think we once lived in glorious harmony with each other–and the environment–aren’t scientists, they’re poets and propagandists. The evidence for mankind’s blood-soaked past can be found in the archaeological record, DNA analysis, the writings of ancient commentators, and historians, and the firsthand reports of those remaining societies that have so far resisted modernity. (p. 31)

This is only one of what I call Goldberg’s “WTF” passages.  WTF stands for, of course, “Where’s The Footnote?” because this remarkable passage is completely undocumented and, in fact, is wrong in almost every particular. Lots of serious scholars debate the violence of our past, for example. Goldberg  makes such claims because he uncritically relies on the claims of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and therein lies much of his problem when he discusses “human nature.” EP researchers claim that our “human nature” was programmed into us during the Pleistocene. As Goldberg explains the project:

It is fair to say that no reputable psychologist, neuroscientist, linguist (including Noam Chomsky), or economist disputes the fact that human beings  come preloaded with a great deal of software. Indeed the fashionable metaphor today is not software but “apps”–as in the applications we have on our smartphones. Different situations trigger different apps, and sometimes these apps can be in conflict. (p. 23)

The invocation of Noam Chomsky, noted leftist, is an interesting one, since he is a noted critic of the kind of EP that Goldberg endorses.  You’ll also note that Goldberg’s list of “experts” does not include philosophers, anthropologist, sociologists, or historians. Apparently those disciplines have nothing to say about human nature.

You’d never know it from reading Goldberg, but his conclusions about human nature are hardly based on a universally accepted account of our evolutionary history. Indeed, he tells us that: “Human nature is real. Few statements are less controversial among the people who study the subject and more controversial among people who don’t” (p. 23). A remarkable result considering he also tells us that there is a “taboo against discussing human nature” (p. 26).  This contradictory stance: of claiming a universal consensus about human nature while at the same time claiming that there is a ban on the study of human nature are not original to Goldberg. The stance comes to him from popularizations of EP, specifically those of Robin Fox and Steven Pinker.  Many anthropologists, psychologistsbiologists, and philosophers of science disagree that EP is good science. At best, EP is only one of many traditions of applying evolutionary theory to psychology. At worst, it isn’t even that. I have written a lot about EP’s problems in making historical claims about the history of evolutionary theory as well as the history of humanity more broadly. When Goldberg goes to EP for his evidence of “human nature” he immediately goes awry.

An illustrative example of Goldberg’s problems with evidence of “human nature” is his invocation of the work of Napoleon Chagnon (p. 31-2, 355-6). In the 1960s, Chagnon reported on the Yanomamö, an ethnic group in the Amazonian rainforests whom he described as the last of the “Stone Age tribes” in the world. He found them warlike and violent and his work has ever since been used by those like Goldberg to prove that our “natural” state is that of war and violence. You’d never know from reading Goldberg or Pinker (Pinker still cites Chagnon in his recent Better Angels book) but Chagnon’s conclusions have been thoroughly debunked a quarter century ago by Brian Ferguson (also see here, herehere, and here) who showed that Chagnon’s self-reported descriptions of his ethnographic practices were deeply unethical and as a result of some of the violence Chagnon reported was instigated by Chagnon himself. Finally, the Yanomamö were no “stone age tribe” but had been in contact with Europeans for centuries (p. 5).

This last problem is endemic in EP research who seem completely oblivious to the contact among cultures that has been going on across the globe for centuries. The implications of this ignorance is that neither Goldberg or EP researchers in general have a basis from moving from the universality of a trait to the innateness of a trait. Whatever they  have identified as innately biological can usually be attributed to cultural transfer of ideas or beliefs. There is no basis on finding a trait scattered across the globe to conclude that the trait is biological.

The underlying assumption behind Goldberg’s claims is that the further back in the past we go the closer to “natural” humans we get. Or, alternatively, that by looking at “societies that have so far resisted modernity” we are looking at “natural” humans. This underlying assumption, on which much of Goldberg’s argument rests, is simply wrong.

Consider his description of “primitive” life. After his introduction Dunbar’s magic number of 150, Goldberg describes “primitive” bands with authoritarian leaders who fight and kill other small, roving bands of human beings. Only The Miracle of capitalism, which demands we treat each other as equals to maximize peaceful market transactions holds this violence at bay. “We still hold on to that programming,” he declares, “And it rubs up against modernity constantly” (p. 63).

Goldberg writes as if we didn’t overcome Dunbar’s number in social organization long, long ago. As if the “tribal” affiliation is the only one we had until the first capitalist ventures of the Dutch and English in the sixteenth century. But any knowledge of sociology, with concepts like the “strength of weak ties” (aka, it isn’t who you know, it is who those you know know) shows us this is untrue. Likewise, any knowledge of the large cities of antiquity, which functioned remarkably like our modern cities, would demonstrate that we could overcome that “programming” through the mechanisms of culture. And just as surely as suspicion of “the other” is found in ancient texts, so too are xenia laws: codes outlining how to greet and interact peacefully with the “stranger at the gate” (pp. 112-3). Thus, even if we are cognitively limited to 150 friends, culture gives us tools to deal with those outside that immediate circle.

In a sense, Goldberg is right: capitalism and individualism are both “unnatural.” But then so are feudalism, monarchy, dictatorship, and other forms of social organization humans created for themselves. So is the kind of social organization of armies that allowed our ancestors to wage war against each other–how exactly does Goldberg think we managed to be so violent in the past if it wasn’t through the cultural capacity to organize ourselves into large groups in order to kill each other? Human beings have always been embedded in culture. There is no reason to think that capitalism is any more or less “unnatural” than any other form or social organization.

Darwinism, Democracy, and Race

Portrait of Charles Darwin

There is another version of Darwinism far better than that offered by EP and Goldberg. In our book, Darwinism, Democracy, and Race (get your copy today!), David Depew and I recount how the architects of twentieth-century genetics and anthropology developed an integrated account of cultural anthropology. Scholars such as Franz Boas, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and Sherwood Washburn argued that it was wrong to think of a “natural” human who somehow lived outside culture. If we think of “culture” as things like communication, technology, institutions, beliefs, social structures, and the like, then humans have always lived in culture. We evolved to be cultural beings. Our physical form, including our brains, were shaped by the culture we ourselves created. EP, and Goldberg following them, do not seem to understand that human beings are always and everywhere cultural animals. We concluded:

Cultural life is not an evolutionary grade whose heights have yet to be scaled by some people, but the specifically human niche shared equally by all. Cultural life keeps itself open to innovation not by some special form of heritability, but rather by changing complexes of meaning-laden symbolic activity. Hence it will not do to say with evolutionary psychologists that “[h]umans are the product of both biological and cultural evolution, in which culture evolves in interaction with human nature, innovations, and external events” (Schaik and Michel 2016). This sentence blithely defines human nature in terms of a collection of genetically fixed psychological proclivities and frames culture as something that evolves from less to more advanced. In doing so it runs roughshod over a century of anthropology and evolutionary biology. (p. 218)

The  version of Darwinism that David and I sketched in Darwinism, Democracy, and Race (get your copy today!) portrays humans with great agency to shape and alter their environment in order to maximize their ability to live and reproduce.[NB: Though not yet released, this view of human evolution seems to be supported by this brand-new book.] This Darwinism rejects the  essentialist notion endorsed by Goldberg: that of humans as semi-automatons, programmed by nature and rather helplessly struggling against that programming.  Opposing this essentialist version of Darwinism, we argue that our genes, bodies, and (cultural/natural) environments evolved together. Thus Washburn argued that “It is more correct to think of much of our structure as the result of culture than it is to think of men anatomically like ourselves as slowly discovering culture” (p. 21). Our anatomical ability to walk upright freed up the hand for tool use.  Tool use then altered the structure of our hand through natural selection. Hunting in groups required cooperation and language which altered our cognitive capacity for those activities. Our bodies and minds developed in culture and if there is “human nature” is that we are cultural beings:

Culture does not sit uncomfortably atop our biology, but instead emerges by a process in which its stirrings in great apes and hominids…feed back onto bodies that have been increasingly refashioned for cultural life. Natural selection of this gene-­soma-culture interactionist sort is still at work changing gene frequencies to fit populations to changed environments. But…this process occurs in such close alignment with our developmentally entrenched capacity for culture that it cannot possibly carry any implication that we…must pay a biological cost for leading a cultural form of life. (p. 139).

Thus, the Yanomamö are no closer to being “natural” humans than any other culture at any other time in history. The idea of humans existing outside culture is nonsense and, since that is the case, so is the idea that capitalism is somehow more “unnatural” than any other form of social organization that have been in place since we emerged from Africa.

Goldberg makes much of his dime-store anthropology as a prelude to is next argumentative move: that individualism and capitalism are at special risk from our violent, authoritarian “human nature.” In the next two sections of his book, he develops his argument about how capitalism is endangered. The culprits are romantic thinkers who reject capitalism which he seems to think is the only thing standing between us and getting our heads caved in by a stone ax. In my next post, I will examine his second theme “corruption!” So hurry back.

This is the first part of a three-part review:

Part II: The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg.
Part III Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around.

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5 thoughts on “Jonah Goldberg, Darwin and Unnatural Capitalism

  1. I enjoyed this, and agree with most of what you’ve written. I wonder, though, about a few points you make:

    You write, “The idea of humans existing outside culture is nonsense and, since that is the case, so is the idea that capitalism is somehow more “unnatural” than any other form of social organization that have been in place since we emerged from Africa.” and “humans have always lived in culture. We evolved to be cultural beings. Our physical form, including our brains, were shaped by the culture we ourselves created.”

    Yes, humans have always existed within culture (if the ability to generate “culture” is what we’re taking as our definition of “human”), but that doesn’t mean that these cultures all are equally in alignment with our nature as animals, as you seem to imply. De Waal and other primatologists have demonstrated, for example, that a sense of justice is innate to social primates and therefore probably pre-dates our emergence as humans. Thus, cultures that respect and acknowledge a basic egalitarianism would appear to be more in alignment with our nature than those that don’t.

    You seem to be hinting at this, when you write, “Goldberg is right: capitalism and individualism are both ‘unnatural.’ But then so are feudalism, monarchy, dictatorship, and other forms of social organization humans created for themselves.” You didn’t mention egalitarian hunter/gatherer cultures as examples of “unnatural” contrivances. Is it because you recognize that there’s something essentially different about the way our ancestors lived for several hundred thousand years and what’s come about in the past few thousand? Or am I reading too much into your non-mention of foragers there?

    Similarly, you write: “Neither Goldberg or EP researchers in general have a basis from moving from the universality of a trait to the innateness of a trait. Whatever they have identified as innately biological can usually be attributed to cultural transfer of ideas or beliefs. There is no basis on finding a trait scattered across the globe to conclude that the trait is biological.”

    Isn’t there? I’m no fan of EP, but the notion that there is “no basis” for thinking that a universal trait is probably innate seems suspect to me. It’s not iron-clad, especially in light of the fact that until recently, virtually all humans were foragers living in similar social systems (and thus had similar cultural inputs), but still, it seems the onus is on you to explain why universality doesn’t imply innateness. WTF? in other words. (Nice use of WTF?, by the way.)

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      1. On “natural egalitarianism.” Washburn and Kroeber, in his later years, speculated on the nature of primate “proto-culture” which seems to be along the lines you are suggesting. I wanted to avoid that discussion because I wanted to focus on the tremendous difficulty in drawing an exact line between nature/culture in human societies. If we trace it back to living primates I feel we are entering into some epistemological waters I don’t want to deal with in a blog post. And I’m a historian of this idea, not an active researcher in it as well. Still, your point is taken and adds another problem for EP and Goldberg.

      2. On my own WTF about innateness/universality I do cite my paper on EP and racism in the original post. It is:;c=ptb;c=ptpbio;idno=6959004.0008.002;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1;g=ptpbiog

      I argue there that the probative obligation to prove “innateness” of a trait has been well-understood since Galton and that EP has not met that probative obligation, at least in the cases I examined. My paper further cites:
      Hochman, A. 2013. Do We Need a Device to Acquire Ethnic Concepts? Philosophy of Science 80 (5): 994–1005. doi:10.1086/673896.

      Which develops the argument more generally. So that is my answer to WTF in this case.


  2. Pingback: The Corruption of Jonah Goldberg | Fardels Bear

  3. Pingback: Jonah Goldberg on Ingratitude: What Goes Around, Comes Around | Fardels Bear

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