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Interview: Nicholas Christakis on His Latest Book

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When I’m speaking of a good society, I’m not necessarily speaking of a good society in the 21st century. I’m speaking of a kind of good society that we have a blueprint to make, that is, in turn, written in our genes.”

Nicholas Christakis, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, recently published his third book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Christakis also earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. In the time since, he has worked at the intersection of social networks and biological sciences—and, to this effect, serves as the director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale, which focuses on the “relationship between social networks and health.” He joins Merion West editor Erich Prince to discuss key conclusions of his book Blueprint, the context in which he sees his work, and the role of empirical approaches to understanding human society.

To begin, Professor Christakis, I’d like to ask you about the context in which you see your book, if any. I know there have been a number of recent books out that have received a lot of attention, from those by Steven Pinker, whom I see is well-represented on the book jacket—to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Some of these books are shedding light on aspects of human nature with a certain upbeatness and are also grounded more in empirical sorts of methodologies. I’m wondering if you see this book in that context or maybe a different context or maybe none at all?

The book is, in some sense, in conversation with books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. It’s a book that’s full of stories and big ideas. It tries to advance a set of interlocking arguments about the role of evolution in shaping our societies for good. How is it that, in fact, we make societies have all these desirable properties—such as love, friendship, and cooperation—and not just awful qualities? It uses evidence from many fields and from many case studies to make that case. So it’s similar to the books you mention in terms of scope and positivity, I suppose—and empirical basis.

Both Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Better Angels of Our Nature are primarily focused on historical and cultural forces that have shaped societies to be the way they are. But Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of A Good Society focuses on evolutionary forces that have been acting over a much longer time period, often hundreds of thousands of years. Still, the interesting thing is that all these forces, cultural, historical, and evolutionary, have (in general) been shaping us to have better societies, making it possible for us to live together in more convivial ways.

I wanted to raise this fundamental characteristic of human society that you bring up, which is the presence of other humans. I know at one point you say that sometimes this can have some negative effects as well, where the biggest threat to humans is—more than say natural disasters—other humans. Could you talk more about this idea?

If you think about it, a key predator to humans has historically been other humans, so we have had to find ways of living with each other. The kernel of the argument is that one of the fascinating things about human beings is that we build social worlds around us, and then these social worlds that we’ve built around us are equally forces of natural selection, shaping our evolutionary trajectory—just as much as any physical or biological feature of our environment. Nobody would be surprised to learn that humans have evolved to cope with, for example, the presence of predators or prey in the environment—that our species responds to these forces of natural selection, just like any other species does. But we also have evolved to respond to the presence of other humans in our environment.

But the interesting thing about these social environments that we make is that we take them with us wherever we go. Wherever we live, no matter all the variation in all the natural environments in the world—from the Arctic to the deserts—the thing that is a constant about our environment is the presence of other people to whom we must respond and with whom you must get along.  It’s analogous to the idea that wherever a snail goes, it carries its shell with it, which shell helps it to survive in different sorts of places. So we have our social shell with us wherever we go.

Our genes shape the kind of social environment we make for ourselves. Then that social environment shapes the kinds of genes that make us able to live in that environment. For example, we make environments that involve friendship and cooperation, and people who are friendly and cooperative are, in turn, better able to live in those environments. So you get this virtuous feedback loop that gives us the kind of social order we have today.

In the book, you talk about certain anthropologists that want to enumerate certain universals. Incest, for example, is a universal taboo. There was another interesting point about this inverse rate ratio between the frequency of use and the length of words, and that being, more or less, a universal. I remember Roy Rappaport was talking about using rituals to encode that breaking a promise is almost universally bad across societies. Sometimes, there’s also a tendency to try to enumerate and create these lists of what all the traits are that you can find everywhere.

Yes. But what I’m interested in are those universals that are at least partially encoded in our genes. So there are cultural universals, for example, that people everywhere wear clothes or play sports or something like that. But that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in laundry lists that say every society will have a kinship system or religious beliefs or healing practices or dispute resolution procedures. These are all true, but the details of those items aren’t encoded or shaped by natural selection. Our desire for survival is shaped by natural selection, but the presence of shamans and doctors is not. Those are cultural products.

Instead, I’m interested in those universals which can be fairly ascribed to the workings of natural selection. So, therefore, I’m talking about things that I would regard as more fundamental. For example, our propensity to love our partners, which is seen everywhere, which is uncommon in the animal kingdom—but which is very common in our species, and it’s a universal (except for that one exception I talk about, the Na people of the Himalayas).

But sometimes the culture comes in and regulates these kinds of more natural desires and inclinations?

Yes. So, for example, play is universal, but the Baining people who have a very strong culture of proscription of play. However, typically speaking, very powerful forces are required to swerve the natural order away from itself. It’s sort of similar to the argument about the workings of the pancreas; your pancreas has a kind of normal way of working. But if you starve the body or if you overfeed it, then the pancreas will work in an abnormal way or in a way that that’s atypical. So that’s the sort of argument that I’m making about certain social features: that we are pre-wired to manifest them.

For example, friendship is another universal trait; it’s seen in all societies. But it’s uncommon in animals. We form long-term, non-reproductive unions to other members of our species who are not related to us, who are not our kin. This is really unusual. I mean elephants do it, certain cetacean species do it, primates do it, and we do it. It’s quite remarkable, but it’s seen everywhere in human populations. It’s a universal that has been shaped by natural selection.

The other thing that’s interesting to me is that many of these qualities that are evolutionarily specified and that shape how we live together are not only universal, but are also what we would often or typically regard as good qualities. So the things we’ve been talking about so far—like love and friendship, and also cooperation and teaching— which are all part of what I call the “social suite”—are good too.

That actually gets at something that I wanted to ask you about. As a reader, you’re often left saying, “Oh, these things are good.” We get this warm fuzzy feeling of sorts when hearing about them. I think in Confucianism they call it Ren. When we hear about altruism or maybe even to some extent the example you gave with the Turkana in Africa where some couples opt for this love relationship instead of an arranged marriage—my point being that we get this warm feeling, we look at things, “Oh, this is a good thing.” In human society, is that kind of positive self-reflection selected for or is it at the intersection of what is selected for and what’s culturally prescribed?

Well, this of course is discussed in the last chapter of the book, and it’s a complicated topic. So it has to do with the question of whether there is an evolutionary foundation to morality or can we get morality just from abstract philosophical reasoning? I’m a subscriber to the school that evolution has shaped our moral principles. So our tendency to reciprocate, or to cooperate, or to show acts of kindness (like adopting orphans, for example): these acts are shaped by various evolutionary forces.

These principles are a kind of social axioms that natural selection has equipped us with, from which we can then get the rest of our social geometry—how we go about creating social worlds are how we go about creating a moral order. I talk a little bit about some of the work that Paul Bloom and other psychologists have done on intrinsic morality in babies (as Bloom discusses in his book, Just Babies). There are famous examples of experiments with babies and toddlers. They’re three or six month old kids that had been shown puppet shows with arbitrary colors and shapes. A yellow circle is trying to get up the hill, and then a blue square is trying to push it down the hill and a green triangle is trying to help it up the hill. Then afterwards, the babies are shown puppets. They can pick the helper puppet and have some kind of primordial sense that this one was a nice guy and the other guy was not a nice guy.

Similar experiments have also shown a preference for one’s own groups even in such young children. In those experiments, two year olds are randomly assigned T shirts of different colors and can be easily made to dislike the children with the other shirt colors (this is known as the “minimal group paradigm”).  Unfortunately; this is also a part of the social suite.

It’s sort of like the Robber’s Cave experiment?

Yes. Exactly. That sort of ingroup bias. This is also very depressing. You can just randomly assign children different shirt colors. They know that it didn’t matter that they were assigned red or blue T shirts, but all of a sudden all the blue T shirt wearing kids think that red T shirt kids are just awful children who deserve to be punished and not get toys and stuff. You just scratch the surface of human beings, and you’d get this quality as well.

You use shipwrecks as an important example in your book. Were there any other things you were considering other than shipwrecks—maybe prisons would be an interesting thing—I know that race was a delineating factor among mutineers, like it has been described as being in prisons. Are there other situations you were considering other than shipwrecks?

Well, chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Blueprint consider many sorts of examples of social order. First I look at unintentional communities, for instance shipwrecks. Then I examine intentional communities like communes—everything from 19th century American sects and utopian movements to the kibbutzim in the 20th century and outposts of scientists in Antarctica who are thrown together for a year. I also examine social experiments that my lab and other labs have conducted. For example in my lab, we looked online at massively multiplayer games and what kind of social order do people in those environments create. Also, we have done experiments where we have taken thousands of people and dropped them into little social worlds that we, in kind of god-like way, can engineer. For instance, we can specify the amount of inequality or the types of social connections that are permissible in these worlds and then experimentally test some ideas about what kinds of social order are possible. So there are many kinds of lines of evidence that can be used.

All of these examples converge to suggest that there’s a fundamental type of social order that human beings are prone to make, if they’re able to make any social order at all. That kind of social order is often very advantageous and successful in the group. The part of the book about the successful and failed shipwreck communities was a lot of fun to write, honestly.

I found a database that had all the wrecked ships during the age of European exploration, and there were about 9,000 relevant wrecks between 1500 and 1900—of which, 20 had a population of 19 people who were stranded for at least two months. So I reviewed all the journals and accounts that survivors left behind and digested those and looked at modern archaeological excavations of these wreck sites to see, for instance was there evidence of hierarchy? Did they have separate buildings for crew and the officers or was there evidence of communal efforts to build a well or a fire tower and stuff like that? So using all that evidence together, you’d get a kind of proxy for the kind of experiments that, if you were mad scientist, you would want to do, which is to take a group of babies who had never been taught anything and strand them on an island and let them grow up and see what kind of society they would make for themselves. That would be a natural society.

In some of these shipwrecked societies, I think there was one example—maybe Shackleton—there’s a captain where he was doing the virtuous thing in giving some of the rations to his men rather than to himself.

Leadership is another whole topic. Human beings tend to be anti-authoritarian. We don’t like extremes of power asymmetry. We don’t like it when others can lord over us. But we also don’t like totally equal or egalitarian societies either. We don’t function well when there’s nobody in charge.

We saw that with mutineers of the Bounty. They had a direct democracy and after a couple of years, all but one of the mutineers had died.

Yes. They slaughtered each other; it was a bloodbath. That’s right. So you want a kind of “mild hierarchy,” which seems to be optimal for our species. There’s evidence from other primates that also converges on this, and there are complicated and interesting reasons for this. Fully egalitarian societies with no leadership or status differentials make it very difficult to prevent violence and efficiently share information. You need a little bit of leadership to tamp down on people interacting poorly with each other—and a little bit of leadership to efficiently share useful knowledge. At the other extreme, when you have overly aggressive or powerful leaders, we resent it because the resources are all flowing to the top, and people don’t like to be bossed around. That’s why the Shackleton example is very good—and also the Grafton wreck so capably led by Captain Musgrave. They’re effective leaders because they are leaders. They are recognized as leaders, but they’re very egalitarian. So Shackleton is recognized as a leader, but he makes sure that all the food is shared equally and even sacrifices some of his own rations for his crew. That’s good leadership.

To wrap up, how do you view the books such as your own grounded in empiricism as they relate to more philosophically-oriented approaches to describing a good society?

I would say that the principles that I’m engaging with have been shaped over hundreds of thousands of years and are prehistorical. The kinds of social orders that I’m trying to discern, and that, I argue, underlie the kinds of social order we’re making now with our vast civilizations, were built up by natural selection over hundreds of thousands of years, even before the Agricultural Revolution, let alone the Enlightenment and modern political systems and philosophical principles. When I’m speaking of a good society, I’m not necessarily speaking of a good society in the 21st century. I’m speaking of a kind of good society that we have a blueprint to make, that is, in turn, written in our genes. So it’s kind of a good society that is within us, that is revealed by us, that has always been revealed by us. And yet, nowadays, it’s being revealed in a rather different environment that it was 10,000 years ago.

Thank you very much for your time today, Professor Christakis.

Thank you so much, too.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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