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The Wiki Man

Hayek was right: you can’t understand society without evolution

He observed that human groups that have developed favourable moral habits are the ones that succeed

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

In December the controversial satellite TV channel ReallyTV launches its Christmas season with a flagship reality show called From Homs to Hamburg. A dozen refugees, accompanied by their families, will be given a budget of $500 and two-days’ water in a race to cross the German border using any form of transport. The prize for the winning family is a car and a two-bedroom flat in -Billstedt. The show follows the success of the US reality TV show Monterrey to Monterey,in which Mexican families compete to cross the Rio Grande by hiding in shipping -containers.

Now, before you recoil in disgust, I should just point out that nothing like this programme will be appearing this Christmas, because I made the whole thing up. ReallyTV does not exist.

But what interests me about this thought experiment is that almost every civilised person will regard this programme as repellent. And yet when, for a brief period, the German government announced that they would welcome all refugees who made it to Germany, few noticed that they were effectively creating a version of this competition on a giant scale. Both would cause people to embark on a risky undertaking with potentially fatal costs to those who failed. Yet most people find the TV programme horrible and the government programme admirable.


I wondered whether this showed a scaling problem — whether the moral instincts and intuitions which serve us very well in judging small-scale actions fail when applied to larger groups. Just then, in one of those freakish coincidences, an email arrived from David Sloan Wilson with a transcript of a 1985 talk by Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek: ‘Our basic problem is that we have three levels of moral beliefs. We have, in the first instance, our intuitive moral feelings, which are adapted to the small person-to-person society, where we act toward people that we know. Then we have a society run by moral traditions, which — unlike what modern rationalists believe — are not intellectual discoveries of men who designed them. They are an example of a process that I now prefer to describe by the biological term of group selection.

‘Those groups that quite accidentally developed favourable habits, such as a tradition of private property and the family, succeed but they never understood this.

‘So we owe our present extended order of human co-operation very largely to a moral tradition, of which the -intellectual does not approve because it had never been intellectually designed. It has to compete with a third level of moral beliefs; the morals that intellectuals design in the hope that they can better satisfy man’s instincts than the traditional rules.

‘And we live in a world where the three moral traditions are in constant conflict: the innate ones, the traditional ones, and the intellectually designed ones… You can explain the whole of social conflicts of the last 200 years by the conflict of the three…’.

If this is the kind of thing which interests you, allow me a small plug for evonomics.com — a new website which features views from people on the left and right who are agreed about one thing: that for economic and political thought to make useful progress, it needs to be informed by evolutionary biology. This seems a very necessary exercise, since any attempt to understand morality, politics, economics or business without reference to evolutionary biology is ridiculous. As I explain to my children, ants are Marxist, dogs are Burkean -conservatives and cats are libertarians. And, as I explain to our clients, a flower is a weed with an advertising budget.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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