Human infants as young as 14 to 18 months of age help others attain their goals, for example, by helping them to fetch out-of-reach objects or opening cabinets for them. They do this irrespective of any reward from adults (indeed external rewards undermine the tendency), and very likely with no concern for such things as reciprocation and reputation, which serve to maintain altruism in older children and adults.
—WARNEKEN AND TOMASELLO, “The Roots of Human Altruism”
IF WE ACCEPT that “prosociality” is the default setting for human nature, then the following is an ethical standard that finds support in an evolutionary account of human nature: act such that you nurture the capacity to enact repeatable active joyous encounters of positive sympathetic care and fair cooperation for self and others without qualification.
This is an exhortation to a way of life rather than full-fledged moral imperative; hermits and misanthropes are not necessarily immoral but they are not living as well as they could be. It is also just a first-order account; I will not enter into meta-ethical territory, and I am leaving the principle’s relation to law making to one side. (The dark mirror of altruism is psychopathy, so the political theory question of security from social predators—what Kant in “Perpetual Peace”  calls making a state that would work for a “race of devils”—is beyond what I can do here, but suffice it to say that the problem is real. Having sympathetic care and fair cooperation be the default setting doesn’t mean disarming ourselves. In addition to Sen 1977, see Hirstein and Sifferd 2014.) I can say that whatever your principle of moral judgment, a grasp of evolved human nature is important for your moral pedagogy, how to get to where we should be from where we are. Furthermore, I avoid the naturalistic fallacy in that I do not claim my standard is correct because it is grounded in evolved human nature. But I do think showing that evolved human nature is congruent with that standard is a needed intervention in contemporary debates in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology.
Human nature is a multiplicity, a virtual differential field of bio-neuro-cultural processes insisting in different existing actual assemblages of prosocial, politically inflected, affective cognition. Each person is an assemblage differently incarnating that pattern: we are all solutions to the problem “how to be human?” Rather than being essentialist or teleological—in which one concrete form effaces itself in its guise of a universal—the human nature concept here can only be nomological (Machery 2008), describing general outcomes for most people under loosely defined environmental situations, and without pejorative boundary setting for those whose performance is atypical (psychopaths are human beings, after all). Prosociality means a primary orientation to sympathetic care and fair cooperation, which is nonetheless admitting of rational, egoist-driven violence and competition under duress. Furthermore, with certain territorialization processes—perhaps beginning with herding, but certainly accelerating with states and grain agriculture—prosociality comes with a gradient favoring the in-group.
This notion of human nature as a multiplicity of biocultural processes with differenciating singular outcomes resonates with Sylvia Wynter’s “sociogenic principle” (Wynter 2001). Wynter invokes a deep plasticity whereby social patterns of experience use biological capacities for targeted release of neurotransmitters to produce feeling structures. Wynter takes her cue from Fanon’s analysis of how “black skins” are overlain by “white masks” and how the pathologies of colonialism can become deeply embodied as “cortico-visceral illnesses” in both colonizer and colonized. Socializing practices also enter into complex feedback relations with the singular body makeup of the people involved. (I wrote Political Affect before I came across Wynter, but there I sketch out Iris Marion Young’s analysis of the corporealization of femininity in “Throwing Like a Girl” and describe a multiplicity of intersecting corporealization practices producing a field of “bodies politic.”)
To repeat, then, evolved human nature is a multiplicity of bio-neuro-cultural processes producing different individuals with different patterns of “prosocial, politically inflected affective cognition.” The range of those differences—all formally prosocial but with different content—comes from our plasticity.
Our early hominin ancestors encountered a highly variable environment necessitating collaboration. Counterintuitively—but why do we have this intuition?—the world was too dangerous to afford competition, let alone war. We therefore evolved toward great plasticity of intelligent behavior to the extent that we engage in “niche construction”: we change our environment so that it could be inherited in predictable ways but never so rigidly as to disallow cultural change.
Together, then, plasticity and niche construction mean humans have evolved so that most are open to prosocialization processes. “Prosocialization” entails being evolutionarily prepared to be intellectually and emotionally invested in, though never determined by, the social and somatic patterns we inhabit and that guide our caring and cooperative relations—and even our violent and competitive relations—with those around us. Cultural accrual is not naively progressivist, however; many cultures produce vastly unequal distributions of costs and benefits, very often intertwined, as we have hinted, with gender and race distinctions. Some even reach the point where we emotionally invest in being dominated. As Spinoza put it, sometimes we fight for our domination as if it were our salvation. This is the problem of fascist desire, the desire to have command and obedience be the sole form of human relation.
I also hasten to say that when those social patterns conflict, moral reflection and collaborative discussion can and should intervene—and they conflict quite often, even in forager band societies earlier generations would have characterized as “simple.” Humans have been arguing about what is the right thing to do for a very long time; we are “political animals” even before or outside the restricted sense of “polis” as city; in fact, I’d say there’s more political and moral reflection and discussion in “simple” egalitarian forager bands than in the households and imperial courts of “complex” hierarchical situations, where commands are issued and obeyed or resisted. We could say that prosocialization is always fracturing and being repaired with both affective and cognitive remediation qua sympathetic care and moral argument.
But now to deal with the elephant in the room: the “gradient” of prosociality at the boundary of the group, such that we tend to put social group “qualifications” on our care and cooperation. Recall that Bergson (1977), for one, doubts whether prosocial tendencies, which he associates with the “closed society,” could ever be expanded; it might be that a leap into another regime of political affect, an “open society” regime, is required (Lawlor 2018).
Because of this, the moral pedagogy needed to meet the “without qualification” portion of this normative standard is not easy. But at least we can say that in trying to get people to enact repeatable active joyous encounters for self and others “without qualification” we are working to arrange social life to expand the scope of a basic orientation of human nature for care and cooperation and not, pace Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) and the 150 years of people in his wake, trying to intensify a mere cultural constraint on a deep and primary natural impulse to violent competition within and across groups (e.g., Wrangham 1999).
This is not, by the way, the problem with Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which clearly denies a basic violence drive and instead insists that we have both peaceful and violent capacities that are elicited by social circumstances. And as a good modern liberal, I endorse the changing social circumstances of mobility, cosmopolitanism, revisionist history, and so on that, per Pinker’s hypothesis, led to an uptick in moral investment in fairness and respect for individuals versus old-fashioned takes on communal loyalty, authority, and purity. Rather, my issue with him is his acceptance of the Chimpanzee Referential Doctrine so that the social eliciting of altruism is always scrambling to catch up with what used to be a violence orientation to our evolutionary ancestors. This results in a model in which top-down and outside-in (“internalized norms against violence”) rational, frontal-lobe self-control (the most important of “our better angels”) keeps limbic system emotional temptations to violence (“our inner demons”) in check. That’s fine as far as it goes, but for the most part his treatment of our better angels, although it does include empathy/sympathy, doesn’t really analyze bottom-up, limbic-based emotional dispositions to sympathetic care and fair cooperation. This is compounded with other problems with Pinker: (1) his questionable methods in his analyses of pre-state violence (Ferguson 2013a and 2013b), contemporary nonstate violence, and contemporary state violence (not just death rates in war narrowly considered but war widely considered [e.g., influenza after World War I], and the fate of condemnation to hidden slavery sweatshops and to being despair-ridden “losers” leading lives worse than death; and (2) the restricted political space in which Pinker’s Western Civilization Whig story operates.
In a way, I am arguing for Kropotkin rather than Huxley as the true heir to Darwin: natural selection, especially in human beings, operates via cooperation and competition, not just competition; struggling cooperatively with your group and with other groups against environmental forces and not just struggling competitively within the group and across groups for scarce resources. We have that capacity for violent intragroup competition, of course, as history sadly attests (inflamed amour propre in which injury becomes insult is a dangerous sentiment indeed). But the postulated violence within early human groups is exaggerated; i.e., it follows a questionably “chimpocentric” view of humans, as some recent work suggests (Vaesen 2014; Gonzalez-Cabrera 2017).
As for intergroup competition, a strong “in-group/out-group” distinction is arguably not reflective of the early evolutionary setting for humans, where fission-fusion in the unsegmented forager band way of life, and the relative advantage of making allies when the spoils of conquest were so meager and the defensive advantage so great (Kelly 2005; Sterelny 2014), meant porosity of boundaries rather than strong borders (Casey 2017). This is the condition for cultural diffusion via trade and imitation, as group members are always going back and forth. Even for Bergson (1977), the “closed society” is a tendency rather than a chronological posit. This is our opening to insist that any group—even “primitive.” to use Bergson’s outdated terminology—includes potential for peaceful collaboration and alliance with outsiders from the start.
So, my bottom line here: our ancestors did indeed develop ways to detect and punish bullies and shirkers and so to suppress our dominance-enabling, hair-trigger temper and violent reactive aggression, as in the Human Self-Domestication hypothesis. But, contra Gaus (2015), foragers do not settle for cooperation simply out of the fear that not cooperating would unleash the bullies and shirkers that lurk within all of us. Rather, they also genuinely and positively developed an emotional structure that can motivate us, their descendants, to search for the joy we directly find in cooperation, sharing, and helping.