On Thomas Sowell

This is a nice review of a biography of one of the pre-eminent economic intellectuals of our time, Thomas Sowell.

The triumph of Thomas Sowell

newcriterion.com/issues/2021/6/the-triumph-of-thomas-sowell

Features June 2021

Thomas Sowell. Photo: Free to Choose Network.

by John Steele Gordon

On Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason L. Riley.

Thomas Sowell is one of the towering American intellectuals of our time. An economist trained at the University of Chicago and a social theorist of the first rank, he has been a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1980.

He has written an astonishing fifty books (if you count revised and expanded editions), numerous essays, and a long-running, twice-a-week newspaper column. Extraordinarily wide ranging, he has covered everything from the rudiments of economics to race relations, the housing crisis of 2008 to late-talking children.

His best known book, Basic Economics (2000), a best-selling, chart-, graph-, and jargon-free introduction to the subject, is now in its fifth edition and has been translated into seven languages.

No less an authority than Milton Friedman, who taught Sowell at the University of Chicago, has said that “The word ‘genius’ is thrown around so much that it’s becoming meaningless, but nevertheless I think Tom Sowell is close to being one.”

So it’s about time for there to be a biography of this remarkable man, although it should be noted that Maverick is far more an intellectual biography than a personal one.1 And we should be grateful to Jason L. Riley for writing a very good one. Riley is the author of Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (Encounter). He is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist at TheWall Street Journal.

Sowell’s life did not get off to an easy start, to put it mildly. In 1930, the year he was born into a black family in Gastonia, North Carolina, the Great Depression was gathering strength. And Jim Crow was in full force, so he seldom encountered white people in his early years. As Riley explains, “He’d been turned away from restaurants and housing because of his skin color. He’d felt the pain and humiliation of racism firsthand throughout his life. He needed no lectures from anyone on the evils of Jim Crow.”

His father had died a few months before his birth, and his mother, a housemaid, already had four children. So he was raised by a great-aunt.

The family moved to Harlem when he was nine, part of the great migration of black families from the South to the North in search of greater opportunity in those years. Forced to drop out of high school to get a job, he only went to college after a stint in the Marines during the Korean War.

He was the first member of his family to get beyond the seventh grade, and he was ignorant of even the basics of higher education. At first he thought that professors who were addressed as “doctor” were physicians as well as professors. “It came as a revelation to me that there was education beyond college,” he wrote, “and it was some time before I was clear whether an M.A. was beyond a Ph.D. or vice versa. Certainly I had no plans to get either.”

At first he attended night classes at the historically black Howard University. There, his professors noted his remarkable intellect and capacity for hard work and helped him transfer to Harvard the next year. He thrived there intellectually and graduated at the age of twenty-eight magna cum laude.

But he was less enamored of the social atmosphere in Cambridge. Sowell noted that he “resented attempts by some thoughtless Harvardians to assimilate me, based on the assumption that the supreme honor they could bestow was to allow me to become like them.”

Chicago was not an imitation of anything. It was wholly itself.

He got his master’s degree the next year at Columbia and intended to get his doctorate there as well, so he could study under George Stigler, who had written an essay on the early economist David Ricardo that Sowell had greatly admired. (It might be noted that the very first quotation in Sowell’s Basic Economics, written many years later, is from George Stigler.) But when Stigler (who won a Nobel Prize in 1982) moved to the University of Chicago, Sowell followed him there. He was very glad he did.

For while Sowell thought Columbia was a sort of a “watered-down” version of Harvard, Chicago was not an imitation of anything. It was wholly itself.

And the economics department was extraordinarily rigorous. Ross Emmett, an authority on the economics department at Chicago, told Riley that “During that period of time, Harvard took in twenty-five to twenty-seven students and graduated twenty-five of them, whereas Chicago took in seventy students and graduated twenty-five of them.” In the fifty-two years that Nobel Prizes in economics have been awarded, no fewer than thirteen have gone to scholars associated with the University of Chicago.

Although Chicago has long been the center of the study of free-market economics, Sowell was a Marxist in his twenties. He explained that, when working as a Western Union messenger after he left high school, he would sometimes ride the bus from the Wall Street area to his home in Harlem. The ride took him past the upscale department stores on Fifth Avenue, past Carnegie Hall, and through the affluent residential neighborhoods of Riverside Drive. “And then,” Sowell wrote, “somewhere around 120th Street, it would cross a viaduct and onto 135th Street, where you have the tenements. And that’s where I got off. The contrast between that and what I’d been seeing most of the trip really baffled me. And Marx seemed to explain it.”

But then he took a summer job at the U.S. Department of Labor in 1960, when he turned thirty. Even after a year at the University of Chicago, including a course under Milton Friedman, Sowell had “remained as much a Marxist as I had been before arriving.”

He spent the summer analyzing the sugar industry in Puerto Rico, where a minimum wage was set by the U.S. Government. It wasn’t long before he noticed that as the minimum wage had risen, the number of sugar workers fell. He had always supported minimum wages, assuming they helped the poor earn a decent living. But now he realized that minimum-wage laws cost jobs and were a net detriment to the poor.

“From there on,” Sowell wrote, “as I learned more and more from both experience and research, my adherence to the visions and doctrines of the left began to erode rapidly.”

Soon, Sowell was “rethinking the whole notion of government as a potentially benevolent force in the economy and society.” He also couldn’t help noticing that his fellow bureaucrats did not care if the minimum wage helped workers. Their job was to enforce the laws. It was not to see if the laws did any good.

“It forced me to realize, Sowell wrote, “that government agencies have their own self-interest to look after, regardless of those for whom a program has been set up.” Marxist theory ignores the powerful force of self-interest in the working of economies, and Sowell came to realize the centrality of self-interest to the human universe.

At Chicago, Sowell studied the history of ideas under the great Friedrich Hayek, but it was Hayek’s own ideas that had lasting consequences for him. Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” dealt with how the information used to make economic decisions spreads through an economy. Its central insight is that knowledge is highly dispersed and no one person or group can possess all the knowledge needed to make good economic decisions. Therefore, he argued, the decision-making process should also be decentralized, the opposite of what Marx argued for.

Later, when Sowell was asked to teach a course on the Soviet economy, the significance of Hayek’s essay hit home:

I could see what the factors were that led the Soviets to do what they were doing, and why it wasn’t working. There was a knowledge problem that was inherent in that system. In a nutshell, those with the power didn’t have the knowledge, and those with the knowledge didn’t have the power.

Out of this came one of Sowell’s most important books, Knowledge and Decisions (1980), which extended Hayek’s work and, as Riley says, “would do so in ways that even Hayek had never contemplated.”

In hopes of reaching a wider audience than Hayek, who wrote in the technical language of economics, Sowell’s book, in “lieu of graphs and equations . . . offers rich metaphors and copious real-world examples that make the weightier concepts under discussion not merely digestible but tasty.” This appeal to a wider audience is no small part of the reason that Sowell has been so influential.

Another is that, while an economist by training, Sowell’s mastery of subjects is far wider. Gerald Early, of Washington University, noted that his expertise extends to sociology and history as well. “He had some kind of mastery of other fields to do the kind of comprehensive stuff he was doing. Whether you agree totally with his ideas or not, it was impressive what he was doing. Who knew an economist could write that stuff?”

Indeed, far too many economists can’t write, period. Sowell most certainly can. Early, who is black himself, noted that “I knew lots of black people who were not academics and who had heard about him and were reading his stuff because it was accessible.”

Another thing that distinguishes Sowell from all too many other economists is his insistence that theory be tested in the real world. Gunnar Myrdal, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, for instance, argued that third-world countries could not develop without extensive foreign aid and much central planning, despite the fact that post-war Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore did exactly that in the late twentieth century.

“I got no sense,” Sowell wrote, “that Myrdal actually investigated these theories of his and compared them with anything that actually happened. I myself, of course, started out on the left and believed a lot of this stuff. The one thing that saved me was that I always thought facts mattered. And once you think that facts matter, then of course that’s a very different ball game.”

Myrdal and his type are essentially theoretical in their approach to economics. Sowell, like Stiller, Hayek, and Friedman, is empirical, demanding real-world proof, not just elegant ideas.

“The market can be ruthless in devaluing degrees that do not mean what they say.”

Sowell has always regarded himself as fortunate that his higher education came before the era of affirmative action, which he regards as an unmitigated disaster for blacks. In his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (2007), the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recalled how shocked he had been when his law degree from Yale and his sterling grades failed to impress the white-shoe law firms where he applied for a job. “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference,” he wrote.

But Sowell had predicted this in the very first days of affirmative action. “The double standard of grades and degrees is an open secret on many college campuses, and it is only a matter of time before it is an open secret among employers as well,” he predicted in 1970. “The market can be ruthless in devaluing degrees that do not mean what they say. It should be apparent to anyone not blinded by his own nobility that it also devalues the student in his own eyes.”

One of Sowell’s most important contributions has been to notice how wide the gap often is between ordinary black Americans and black intellectuals and civil rights leaders. In a pair of op-eds in The WashingtonPost in 1981, Sowell wrote that

Historically, the black elite has been preoccupied with symbolism rather than pragmatism. Like other human beings, they have been able to rationalize their special perspective and self-interest as a general good. Much of their demand for removing racial barriers was a demand that they be allowed to join the white elite and escape the black masses.

In other words, they have been all too anxious to do what Sowell had spurned doing many years before at Harvard.

In fact, Sowell doesn’t have much use for the pretensions of intellectuals of whatever color. Perhaps my favorite quote in Maverick is used by Riley to open his chapter on “Sowell’s Wisdom”: “Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”

In this short, well-written book, Jason Riley leads the reader on an enlightening tour of the thought and experiences of one of the most luminous minds this country has produced.

It should cause many readers to explore the works of Thomas Sowell. They will be richly rewarded for doing so.

1Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason L. Riley; Basic Books, 304 pages, $30.

The Unforeseen Entitlement Crisis

The alternative is not a pretty future. It’s a future in which older people receive Social Security checks but still go hungry, in which Medicare is a paper entitlement because doctors and hospitals can’t be found to provide services for what Medicare is willing to pay.

We’ve explained before on these pages how the crucial issue in healthcare is not only making it affordable, it’s making it available. In economic terms it means we have not only the effective demand issue of paying for it, but a supply challenge of producing the goods and services demanded. Thus, healthcare can only be provided where supply intersects demand at the right price. Accurate price signals are the only way to coordinate this market process – there is no other proven method in the history of civilization. Unfortunately, the ACA disregards this simple truth. So, are you voting for solutions, or for more of the same failed promises?

From the WSJ:

Robots to the Rescue?

The flip side of an entitlements crisis is a labor shortage.

By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.

In 1999, a golfer named Payne Stewart and crew were rendered unconscious by a loss of cabin pressure and their private jet crashed when it ran out of fuel. What does this have to do with the fiscal cliff? Read on.

Even in 1999, one could puzzle over why controllers on the ground couldn’t take command of a plane and bring it down safely. Technology certainly existed to make such a thing possible. Yet today we’re skipping right past pilotless airliners in anticipation of self-driving cars.

Why? Because we’re old. Technological innovation is less miraculous than it seems: It responds to need, and we’re an aging country with more people who need help and fewer people to do the helping, including driving us around.

All this was once foreseen by Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman in the 1990s, who pointed out a corollary to the giant unfunded long-term liabilities of Social Security and Medicare. Not only does an aging population mean fewer workers to pay for the oldsters’ benefits. It means fewer workers to actually produce the goods and services that idle oldsters will want to consume. The corollary to an entitlement-spending crisis is, by definition, a labor shortage.

Robots are coming because robots are needed. In 2013, we can already see the appetite in the transportation sector. Aviation analyst Kit Darby figures the industry will need 65,000 new pilots in the next eight years to cover expected retirements. One reason for the millions Google has been spending to develop a driverless car is to meet anticipated market demand from America’s growing elderly population.

Or take another example, arising in Baltimore, where a local entrepreneur, following the logic of need, invested seven years and $30 million developing a robotic system for packaging prescription drugs for long-term patients in nursing homes and hospitals.

In a conversation last year, inventor Michael Bronfein told me if he’d known what it would cost him in time and money, he might never have started. How many entrepreneurs say the same? Probably all of them. But Mr. Bronfein saw a need and the power of technology to meet it, and the result was the Paxit automated medication dispensing system.

He saw workers spending hours under the old system sticking pills in monthly blister packs known as “bingo cards,” a process expensive and error-prone. He saw nurses on the receiving end then spending time to pluck the pills out of blister packs and into paper cups, to create the proper daily drug regimen for each patient. (By one study, the 40 million Americans over 65 take an average of eight drugs a day.)

He saw that the bingo-card system was not just wasteful of labor. When a patient died or was moved to a new facility or had his prescription changed, a month’s worth of drugs might have to be thrown out too.

He followed the economic logic that indicated that all the people involved in the old system were becoming too valuable to have their time wasted by the old system. Backed by his company, Remedi SeniorCare, Paxit—in which a robot packages, labels and dispatches a daily round of medicines for each patient—is spreading across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest and winning plaudits from medical-care providers.

Writ small here is an answer to our entitlement morass, when more of us will be living off our savings (or transfers) and fewer of us will be contributing our labor to society. Robots aren’t the only solution. We will still need better incentives for younger baby boomers to save for their own retirement and depend less on Uncle Sam. We still need better incentives for Americans of all ages to supply labor rather than leaving it to someone else to be productive (which means revisiting our massive expansion of unemployment and disability subsidies over the past four years).

We need to preserve the incentive for investors to bring us the robots that will make the future bearable, rather than burying entrepreneurs in taxes in a vain attempt to seize the returns of investments before those investments are made.

None of these matters, of course, has been allowed to intrude in the empty theatrics that President Obama, primarily responsible, has ordained should be the substance of the fiscal-cliff war. But even from the perspective of the fiscal cliff, let’s welcome the new year by envisioning a future that won’t be so bad, where modest entitlement reform and proper incentives for robot builders will save us from the Soylent Green solution to an aging society.

Make no mistake: The alternative is not a pretty future. It’s a future in which older people receive Social Security checks but still go hungry, in which Medicare is a paper entitlement because doctors and hospitals can’t be found to provide services for what Medicare is willing to pay. If we weren’t still in a New Year’s mood, we’d say the latter future is the more likely one.

Change, Chance, and Politics

We live in a world that can be scientifically (and poetically) described as uncertain, probabilistic, and risky. Politics is defined as the “art of governing,” in other words, managing the affairs of the citizenry. This definition implies the imperative of setting social priorities and making social choices. So, to complete the big picture, we have a landscape that is uncertain, probabilistic and risky, and on that landscape we live in human societies that collectively try to manage their survival as the landscape constantly changes through time. This is how we should conceptualize the political.

This essay is not about the method of social choice, such as voting and various theories of government such as democracy or autocracy, but about the goals of politics given the uncertain state of the world. At the turn of the 15th century, Niccolo Machiavelli, who spent considerable time contemplating politics, surmised that our fate was determined by two factors, in about equal parts: one’s virtù (or character), and pure random chance. A successful “prince,” or political leader, was one who possessed noble virtù, but who was also able to adapt to the changing times. In modern terms, we interpret this to mean successful politics is promoted by institutions that are rooted in timeless principles of human nature, but are flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions. Sometime around the 19th century, science came to accept this idea that the world was not deterministic, but probabilistic. Kings became kings not because of ancestral claims or divine right, but due to a series of random historical events. Governments designed by the people were products of their constitutions, nothing more.

It’s odd that more than a half a millennium after Machiavelli’s insight and more than a century after science’s confirmation, many people adopt a governing philosophy, unwittingly perhaps, that assumes government policy is deterministic, rather than probabilistic and uncertain. Such people believe that if the government passes a law, the outcome is a given. If the government doubles taxes, then revenues naturally double. Of course, if laws were deterministic, we would have no need of courts, judges, or juries, but such inconveniences are easily overlooked or dismissed by believers of a deterministic world.

The salient point here is that the ‘government,’ as a collection of fallible and self-interested human beings, cannot really ‘manage’ the economy. It cannot manage global climate change. It cannot manage its citizens’ political preferences. What it can do, quite unintentionally, is mismanage it all. But we do need functioning institutions to manage social choice, so we stumble along with the best we have, which in our case is some form of participatory democracy. But the governing function of ‘managing change’ is severely limited. The best the government can do is help its citizens to manage the uncertainties of change.

This is not as intangible as it sounds. We have all been blessed by nature with a keen sense of how to survive by managing the risks we face in an uncertain world, as have all living species. Nothing has changed that much in a few million years. Nature manages the risks of change and random chance through biological diversification. We also diversify our risks by pooling them with others for mutual protection. I would guess that this was one of the primary motivations for creating tribes, communities, cities, and nation-states in the first place (the other being our innate sociability).

At this point we should make the connection to modern politics and democratic government. Pooling through diversification is merely a definition of insurance, such as what you buy for your car or your house. And social insurance describes the logic of entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. Bismarck is credited with introducing the first examples of state-managed social insurance in Germany in the late 19th century. More than a century later, social insurance entitlements make up the largest share of government budgets in all advanced democracies. Should we assume that this demonstrates the best government can do is provide cradle-to-grave social insurance to manage the vicissitudes of an uncertain world? On the contrary.

There is a cost to insurance that sometimes outweighs its benefits. The primary cost is called moral hazard. Insurance can cause people to assume excessive risks. The common example is a driver who drives more recklessly because he has insurance, imposing more costs on the insurance company than they receive in premiums. Another case with social insurance is that Social Security causes people to reduce saving for their retirement, making them more dependent on the program than they would be otherwise. These moral hazard problems show up with deteriorating financials for the pool – in the private case the insurance company would go out of business, in the public case we get ever-increasing deficits in the programs. (Social Security and Medicare are not true social insurance pools, but inter-generational transfer programs—this creates another whole set of problems.) Either way, the pool will eventually fail. Private insurance avoids this fate by monitoring the behavior of its participants and pricing accordingly (i.e., a speeding ticket results in an premium increase). But social insurance, as part of a social compact, cannot discriminate between risky and prudent behavior, so the good risks end up subsidizing bad risks and the bad risk pool grows. In other words, if you get subsidized healthcare, why eat well and exercise? Why not just indulge? Somebody else will pay for it. And that’s what we do and the deficits grow. (Politicians also increase benefits without increasing tax contributions in order to win votes for re-election. This would be like an insurance company approving all claims no matter how frivolous and never raising premiums, kind of like Santa Claus. The company would be out of business rather quickly.)

So, private insurance is always more efficient, cheaper, and more abundant than social insurance. This implies that the government should do what it can to assure a functioning, competitive private insurance industry. Our government has failed us in this regard by hampering competitiveness and fostering monopolies. More importantly, the most efficient form of insurance that avoids all moral hazard costs is self-insurance. We self-insure when we save for a rainy day. We can design tax and regulatory policies that empower self-insurance across the population by allowing for private asset accumulation and diversification. (This essentially is what insurance companies do with your premiums in order to make a profit.) Why can we not have tax-free accounts set up for healthcare costs, educational costs, retirement, and even first time housing purchases? Then we could assume most of our own economic burdens in life that currently flow unnecessarily and inefficiently through the government. Self-insurance also fosters a competitive market in the goods and services we need by creating a discriminating consumer market. Our politicians have made such private alternatives overly restrictive and over-regulated instead of making them more available.

Social insurance, private insurance, and self-insurance are all complementary means to managing the risks of change in an uncertain world. Social insurance must be the last resort when private markets fail, but we should never allow social insurance to drive out the more efficient alternatives offered by a thriving private economy. That is how a free society and a free people will best ‘manage its affairs,’ in a world of constant change and uncertainty.

Evolution and Our Inner Conflict

Excellent essay on human behavior, the foundation of all social science. The issue, as Wilson points out, is not so much individual vs. group, but a tension and balance between the two that makes us, well, complex human beings. We must be selfish to survive, but we are also social and altruistic. Civilized society is a delicate balance between economic competition and cultural cooperation.

From the NYTimes:

By EDWARD O. WILSON

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggests that we are all of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently complicated. We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners – not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal – but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not implying that we are driven by instinct in the manner of animals. Yet in order to understand the human condition, it is necessary to accept that we do have instincts, and will be wise to take into account our very distant ancestors, as far back and in as fine a detail as possible. History is not enough to reach this level of understanding. It stops at the dawn of literacy, where it turns the rest of the story over to the detective work of archaeology; in still deeper time the quest becomes paleontology. For the real human story, history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.

Within biology itself, the key to the mystery is the force that lifted pre-human social behavior to the human level. The leading candidate in my judgment is multilevel selection by which hereditary social behavior improves the competitive ability not of just individuals within groups but among groups as a whole. Its consequences can be plainly seen in the caste systems of ants, termites and other social insects. Between-group selection as a force operating in addition to between-individual selection simultaneously is not a new idea in biology. Charles Darwin correctly deduced its role, first in the insects and then in human beings – respectively in “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man.”

Even so, the reader should be warned that the revival of multilevel selection as the principal force of social evolution remains a hotly contested idea. Its opponents believe the principal force to be kin selection: when individuals favor kin (other than offspring), the evolution of altruistic behavior is favored. The loss suffered by the genes of the altruist are compensated by genes in the recipient made identical by common descent of the altruist and recipient. If the altruism thus created is strong enough it can lead to advanced social behavior. This seems plausible, but in 2010 two mathematical biologists, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that the mathematical foundations of the kin selection theory are unsound, and that examples from nature thought to support kin selection theory are better explained as products of multilevel selection.

A strong reaction from supporters of kin selection not surprisingly ensued, and soon afterward more than 130 of them famously signed on to protest our replacement of kin selection by multilevel selection, and most emphatically the key role given to group selection. But at no time have our mathematical and empirical arguments been refuted or even seriously challenged. Since that protest, the number of supporters of the multilevel selection approach has grown, to the extent that a similarly long list of signatories could be obtained. But such exercises are futile: science is not advanced by polling. If it were, we would still be releasing phlogiston to burn logs and navigating the sky with geocentric maps.

I am convinced after years of research on the subject that multilevel selection, with a powerful role of group-to-group competition, has forged advanced social behavior – including that of humans, as I documented in my recent book “The Social Conquest of Earth.” In fact, it seems clear that so deeply ingrained are the evolutionary products of group selected behaviors, so completely a part of the human condition, that we are prone to regard them as fixtures of nature, like air and water. They are instead idiosyncratic traits of our species. Among them is the intense, obsessive interest of people in other people, which begins in the first days of life as infants learn particular scents and sounds of the adults around them. Research psychologists have found that all normal humans are geniuses at reading the intentions of others, whereby they evaluate, gossip, proselytize, bond, cooperate and control. Each person, working his way back and forth through his social network, almost continuously reviews past experiences while imagining the consequences of future scenarios.

A second diagnostic hereditary peculiarity of human behavior is the overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups in the first place. To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain, and put on the road to madness. A person’s membership in his group – his tribe – is a large part of his identity. It also confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority. When psychologists selected teams at random from a population of volunteers to compete in simple games, members of each team soon came to think of members of other teams as less able and trustworthy, even when the participants knew they had been selected at random.

All things being equal (fortunately things are seldom equal, not exactly), people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry.

It might be supposed that the human condition is so distinctive and came so late in the history of life on Earth as to suggest the hand of a divine creator. Yet in a critical sense the human achievement was not unique at all. Biologists have identified about two dozen evolutionary lines in the modern world fauna that attained advanced social life based on some degree of altruistic division of labor. Most arose in the insects. Several were independent origins, in marine shrimp, and three appeared among the mammals, that is, in two African mole rats, and us. All reached this level through the same narrow gateway: solitary individuals, or mated pairs, or small groups of individuals built nests and foraged from the nest for food with which they progressively raised their offspring to maturity.

Until about three million years ago the ancestors of Homo sapiens were mostly vegetarians, and they most likely wandered in groups from site to site where fruit, tubers, and other vegetable food could be harvested. Their brains were only slightly larger than those of modern chimpanzees. By no later than half a million years ago, however, groups of the ancestral species Homo erectus were maintaining campsites with controlled fire – the equivalent of nests – from which they foraged and returned with food, including a substantial portion of meat. Their brain size had increased to midsize, between that of chimpanzees and modern Homo sapiens. The trend appears to have begun one to two million years previously, when the earlier prehuman ancestor Homo habilis turned increasingly to meat in its diet. With groups crowded together at a single site, and an advantage added by cooperative nest building and hunting, social intelligence grew, along with the centers of memory and reasoning in the prefrontal cortex.

Probably at this point, during the habiline period, a conflict ensued between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, versus group-level selection, with competition among groups. The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competitor between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

So it appeared that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing locations between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as an ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots – students of insects call them ants.

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. It might be the only way in the entire universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as a primary source of our creativity.