Fukuyama’s biological approach


Jason Collins


July 18, 2011

I have started reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and am enjoying his starting point of human prehistory. I will write a full review when I have finished, but in the meantime, some of Fukuyama’s initial observations are worth noting. In particular, he takes biology to be the foundation of our understanding of political development.

To understand this, then, we need to go back to the state of nature and to human biology, which in some sense sets the framework for the whole of human politics. Biology presents a certain degree of solid ground resting below the turtles at the bottom of the stack, though even biology, as we will see in the next chapter, is not an entirely fixed point.

This knowledge exists in several distinct domains, including primatology, population genetics, archaeology, social anthropology, and, of course, the overarching framework of evolutionary biology. … The recovery of human nature by modern biology, in any case, is extremely important as a foundation for any theory of political development, because it provides us with the basic building blocks by which we can understand the later evolution of human institutions.

While Fukuyama starts with the biological basis, he adopts a Jared Diamond-esque approach to differences in political development:

Biology gives us the building blocks of political development. Human nature is largely constant across different societies. The huge variance in political forms that we see both at the present time and over the course of history is in the first instance the product of variance in the physical environments that human beings came to inhabit. As societies ramify and fill different environmental niches across the globe, they develop distinctive norms and ideas in a process known as specific evolution. Groups of humans also interact with each other, and this interaction is as much a driver of change as is the physical environment.

As I have posted about before, I am not averse to a Jared Diamond style argument for developmental differences being triggered by environmental variation. However, this is not to say that human nature is from that point static.

Fukuyama’s analysis of the basis of the philosophies of Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke is also interesting. By acknowledging that humans are social and competitive animals, their philosophical positions can be argued to have a very weak foundation. Fukuyama writes:

Human beings and chimpanzees were both descended from an ancestral ape, and both modern chimpanzees and human beings, especially those living in hunter-gatherer or other relatively primitive societies, display similar forms of social behavior. For the account of the state of nature given by Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau to be correct, we would have to postulate that in the course of evolving into modern humans, our ape ancestors somehow momentarily lost their social behaviors and emotions, and then evolved them a second time at a somewhat later stage in development. It is much more plausible to assume that human beings never existed as isolated individuals, and that social bonding into kin-based groups was part of their behavior from before the time that modern humans existed. Human sociability is not a historical or cultural acquisition, but something hardwired into human nature.