You are on page 1of 30

Civilization Without Romance *

James A. Montanye
Consulting Economist
Falls Church, Virginia USA

Abstract - Civilization, rather than being an alternative to the state of nature, is

instead its efficient form. The instruments and institutions of civilization –
economic and political structure, law, culture, religion, war, etc. – are
manifestations of mankind’s genetic predispositions toward cooperation and
reason. The fabric of civilization comprises behaviors and institutions that coalesce
around core beliefs that need not be objectively true. The principal cost of
civilization is defined by the social obligations that individuals are compelled to
incur, and the opportunities for private benefit that they are compelled to forego,
all for the sake of maintaining an optimal degree of civil unity and trust. Disputes
about these cost give rise to culture wars, civil wars, and clashes between

“But I do think that man at present is a predatory animal. I think that the sacredness of
human life is a purely municipal ideal of no validity outside the jurisdiction. I believe that
force, mitigated so far as may be by good manners, is the ultima ratio, and between two groups
that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add that
every society rests on the death of men – as does also the romantic interest of long inhabited
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to Sir Frederick Pollock (February 1, 1920)

he conventional political wisdom still echos Thomas Hobbes (1651) dictum that life in the

T state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and nevertheless too short. Ethicists decry
these outcomes, attributing them to the cruel and evil exploitation of man by man. Science
takes a different view. The distinguished biologist Richard Dawkins explains that “nature is not
cruel, only indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit
that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent
to all suffering, lacking all purpose” (1995, 96).
We humans do readily admit, however, to a desire for lives that are more prosperous,
more peaceful, and increasingly more riskless. To this end, mankind affects behaviors, creates
social instruments and institutions, and submits to coercive social goads and constraints. The
result is called (loosely) civilization. Scholarly disciplines link civilization variously with the rise
of agriculture and the domestication of livestock, metallurgy, science and technology,
occupational specialization, unifying mythologies and ideologies, written language, the

A version of this paper appears in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 17:2 (Fall/Winter 2009), pp. 103-28.
emergence of economic and political structure, the appearance of cities, and occasionally to
mankind’s better nature (see, for example, Quigley 1979). At bottom, however, civilization is a
product of the natural process of biological change described by Darwin; of the genetically-
programmed behavioral predispositions that are the accumulated consequences of life’s struggle
in a world of scarcity and indifference. The institutions of civilization – government, culture,
religion, war, law, markets, common virtues, etc. – are the means by which life’s most able
competitors leverage the value extracted from the environment. Civilizations, along with the
cultures and institutions they comprises, are not alternatives to mankind’s “natural” state; rather,
they are its natural state.
The idea that civilization’s institutions are products of mankind’s genetic composition is
suggested by Dawkins’ (1999) insight that genetic manifestations extend far beyond such
physical attributes as eye color. Dawkins offers the example of lakes that form behind beaver
dams, and which are as much a manifestation of the beaver’s genetic programming as its outsized
incisors, flat tail, and webbed feet. Dawkins describes the “long reach” of genetic consequences
as extended phenotypes. Environmental and other factors play a role as well, but the underlying
behaviors are genetically predisposed.
I shall argue that the instruments and institutions of human civilization are the extended
phenotypes of mankind, and I shall emphasize nature (behavioral biology and rational choice)
rather than nurture (culture). Many readers will dismiss the biological argument a priori; about
half of all Americans – including three of ten Republican presidential primary candidates in 2007
– publically reject the science of biological evolution. Mankind is remarkably reluctant to accept
its own biological nature (see Dawkins 1995; Pinker 2002; Dennett 2006), preferring instead (as I
shall show) to unite spontaneously around objectively false beliefs. Other readers will despair
over the essay’s limited treatment of “culture” per se, both as a constituent element of
civilization, and as an influence on human personality and individual action. The difficulty
incorporating culture in a work of this sort is implied by the description offered by the historian
of civilizations Carroll Quigley:

Culture is ... a very subtle and very complex thing. From one point of view it is the
cushion between man’s purely animal nature and the natural environment. From
another point of view it is the social heritage passed down from generation to
generation. From another point of view it is a complex medley of personalities,
material objects, patterns of behavior, subtle emotional relationships, accepted
intellectual ideas and intellectual assumptions, and customary individual actions.
From another point of view it is constantly changing, and forms the chief subject
of study in all the social sciences. (1979, 59-60)

From my point of view, “culture” is too broad and indeterminate, and its canonical treatment
often tends toward the romantic view of civilization that this essay proposes explicitly to avoid.
Consequently, the essay focuses on elements of culture, including religion, virtues, government,
and environmental influences.
I begin by describing the biological aspects of civilization, the belief systems around
which civilizations form, and the institutions that define a civilization. I then describe the costs of
civilization, and show how disputes about cost precipitate culture wars, civil wars, and clashes
between civilizations.

The Biology of Civilization

Philosophers from Aristotle forward have characterized mankind as intrinsically virtuous

social animals that cooperate for mutual advantage. Modern observers use political terms like
civilization, communitarianism, capitalism (Rothschild 1990), and freedom (Rubin 2002; Dennet
2003) to describe this cooperative nature. Biologists, by contrast, now recognize that Darwinian
evolution predisposes and conditions mankind to cooperate in ostensibly virtuous ways (Hauser
2006). This result is not the consequence of a rational, directional, intelligent, or normatively
judgmental process. Rather, it is the consequence of mankind’s most beneficial and fruitful genes
(alleles) passing from one generation to the next through individual vehicles called human beings
(Dawkins 1999). The process is likened to an arms race, with the best genes surviving and
reproducing, and the rest disappearing from the river of life. Biological evolution does not make
life’s struggle kinder and gentler over time, merely more efficient.
Evolution has endowed mankind with two refined qualities of interest. The first is reason
(rationality), which John Locke romantically (and mistakenly) described as the capacity “which
God hath given to be the Rule betwixt Man and Man, and the common bond whereby humane
kind is united into one fellowship and society” ([1690] 1988, II:§172). The corresponding
scientific view is offered by the distinguished biologist E.O. Wilson, who explains that “[t]he
human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various
techniques” (1978, 2). Reason is the capacity for strategic calculation. It is linked with the
capacity for language, making it a conscious (cortical) process and distinguishing it from the
brain’s subconscious (limbic) functions. Reason routinely is touted as a force for good, but it’s
essential purpose is entrepreneurial self-interest entailing payoffs that may be either pecuniary or
non-pecuniary, tangible or intangible (see Montanye 2006a). Reason is one evolved means by
which individuals compete for resources in an environment characterized by indifference and

The second quality of interest is mankind’s capacity for cooperation, reciprocity, and
trust. Biologists now recognize that these behaviors are genetically predisposed, and that they are
conditioned by neurotransmitter hormones that “reward” the brain chemically for compliant
decision-making, punish its sinful deviations, and encourage interpersonal trust. This amends the
earlier view that evolution had not equipped individuals to “cooperate generously and unselfishly
towards a common good” (Dawkins [1976] 1989, 3). The current view is that “[w]e now have
four good reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other:” (i)
kinship; (ii) reciprocation; (iii) a biological predisposition toward acquiring a reputation for
generosity; and (iv) the acquired tactic of developing a reputation for generosity (Dawkins 2006,
219). Applied reason carries a portion of this load. At bottom, however, evolution has primed
individuals with instincts for strategic and rationally selfish calculation. These behaviors often
mimic unselfish cooperation (altruism) towards a common good.
The biologist Matt Ridley argues that mankind is psychologically primed for virtuous
behavior by a brain module that he labels the “social-exchange organ.” “We don’t know for sure
where the social-exchange organ is, or how it works,” writes Ridley, “but we can tell that it is
there as surely as we can tell anything about our brains” (1997, 131). The module, like Marc
Hauser’s (2006) “moral organ” and Noam Chomsky’s “language module,” owes its existence to
the struggle for survival and reproduction by mankind’s evolutionary progenitors. The social-
exchange organ works by artfully signaling and managing cooperation, reciprocity, and trust. The
result is a form of rationally selfish behavior that biologists term reciprocal altruism (Ridley
1997 and Trivers 1985, passim). Reciprocal altruism always entails an expectation of benefit in
exchange for the costs incurred. Conventional (utopian) altruism, by contrast, implies that actors
knowingly and willingly incur costs without reciprocal benefits, behavior that typically is limited
to interactions between parents and offspring.
The propensity for reciprocal altruism underlies all of mankind’s innate civilizing virtues,
including concepts of brotherhood and non-sexual love (agape), golden and silver rules of moral
conduct, categorical imperatives of ethical behavior, the proscription of usurious interest, and the
innate preference among non-economists for bartered exchange over money and markets. It is
the foundation for all concepts of fairness and justice. Reciprocal altruism also is the ultimate
source of social unity and moral order that commonly (and mistakenly) are described as being
divinely “external” to human existence. It is the essence of Aquinas’ natural law: “There is in
people an appetite for the good of their nature as rational, and this is proper to them, that they
should know the truths about God and about living in society. ... whatever this involves is a
matter of natural law” (Summa theologica, q.94, a.2, trans. in Freeman 2003, 331). It is the basis
for Locke’s “Rule betwixt Man and Man,” and of the biblical “assurance of things hoped for, the
conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is the essence of Spinoza’s “soul,” of

Schopenhauer’s “will,” and of Bergson’s “vital urge.” It is the motivation behind Max Weber’s
“Protestant ethic” and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and it is the source of value in Smith’s
moral sentiments of “approbation and esteem.” Reciprocal altruism also gives rise to the human
God-sense (about which more below), and so can claim to be the universal god of monotheism,
with cooperation, reciprocity, and trust (faith) as its holy trinity.
The instinct for reciprocal altruism predisposes mankind to coalesce into cooperative
groups that discriminate in favor of members (us) and against strangers (them) (Dawkins 2006,
179). Individuals who can be trusted a priori to cooperate reciprocally form the us group; all
others are regarded as them. Trust lowers the transaction costs of cooperation by lessening the
expectation that individuals will renege on reciprocal obligations. It facilitates wealth creation and
capital formation (as when neighbors cooperate to raise a barn), and wealth redistribution (as
through majoritarian politics and war). It allows mankind to overcome the “collective action”
problem that logically impairs the provision of collective goods (Olson 1965), and it increases the
frequency and intimacy of interpersonal contacts. Economists readily observe the correlation
between trust and economic development (see, for example, Easterly 2006, 79-89; Harrison and
Huntington 2000). Low-trust societies remain relatively poor because individuals sharply
discount the future and so are unwilling to invest in mutual aid, tangible and financial assets, and
human capital. The absence of trust engenders the Hobbesian state of nature (see Fukuyama
Discrimination between us and them groups also generates conflict. “Once cooperators
segregate themselves off from the rest of society,” notes the biologist Ridley, “a wholly new
force of evolution can come into play: one that pits groups against each other, rather than
individuals” (1997, 147, italics added). The consequences of this new force can be both
destructive and dehumanizing. The sociologist Max Weber noted how “Cavaliers and
Roundheads did not appeal to each other as two parties, but as radically distinct species of men”
([1930] 1992, 88-89). Similar sentiments remain evident between races, religions, nationalities,
and civilizations. The roots of discrimination are biological, but as the economist Gary Becker
(1971) has shown, its practice can be highly rational as well. Fairly or not, discrimination exists
because it improves the fortunes of some individuals, albeit at the expense of others.
The predisposition for cooperation gives rise to a collateral aspect of reciprocal altruism
that Ridley labels the “parasitism of reciprocity.” This he describes as

a human invention to exploit our pre-existing natures, our innate respect for
generosity and disrespect for those who would not share. And why would we
have such an instinct? Because to be known as intolerant of and punitive towards

stinginess is an effective way to police a system of reciprocity, to extort your
share of others’ good fortune. (1997, 123-124, italics added)

Parasitism of reciprocity entails a sense of entitlement that engenders envy (Schoeck 1966), free-
riding, and predatory rent-seeking (that is, the entrepreneurial and characteristically parasitic
pursuit of windfall economic gains). And, because biology has endowed mankind with an innate
sense of private property (Pipes 1999, chap. 2), parasitism of reciprocity engenders both
defensive and predatory violence.
Mankind’s willingness to defend property is unsurprising, as is the willingness to fight for
survival, reproductive opportunities, and a share of essential resources. What is surprising is the
willingness to fight “for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of
undervalue” (Hobbes [1651] 1998, 83-84). The precursor of this behavior is attributed to an
internal sense of fairness – a “moral organ” (Hauser 2006) – that complements Ridley’s
parasitism of reciprocity. Evolution has endowed mankind with “a predisposition to cooperate
with others, and to punish (even at personal cost if necessary) those who violate the norms of
cooperation, even when it is implausible to expect these costs will be recovered at a later date”
(Ginitis and others 2005, 3). This behavior typically is termed extreme reciprocity, although it
could as well be called extreme cooperation.
The behavioral economist Robert Frank notes that “[t]he emotions that lead people to
behave in seemingly irrational ways can ... indirectly lead to greater material well-being” (1988,
258). The underlying efficiency and rationality of such behavior has been confirmed
experimentally through computer simulation (Axelrod 1984). The sociologists Richard Nisbett
and Dov Cohen, who study cultural violence, conclude that “sensitivity to insult is secondary: it’s
purpose is to preserve the individual’s reputation for being willing and able to carry out violence
if needed” (1996, 89). Violence, and the threat of it, are genetically primed complements to
cooperation that stimulate reciprocal altruism in others by threatening to raise the cost
consequences of non-cooperation and non-reciprocation.
Violence signals the willingness to defend resources. Nisbett and Cohen characterize this
behavior as the “culture of honor” that arises

wherever gaining resources, or keeping them, depends on the community’s

believing that the individual is capable of defending himself against predation. If
resources are abundant or are not subject to theft (like those of most traditional
farming peoples, for example), then a reputation for toughness has little value. But
if resources are in scarce or unpredictable supply, and if they are sufficiently
portable that theft is a practicable route to bounty, then toughness has great

economic value. ... A key aspect of the culture of honor is the importance placed
on the insult and the necessity to respond to it. An insult implies that the target is
weak enough to be bullied. Since a reputation for strength is of the essence in the
culture of honor, the individual who insults someone must be forced to retract; if
the instigator refuses, he must be punished – with violence or even death. (xv; 5)

The authors are describing behavior common to the American South, the roots of which are
traceable to earlier cultures in Western Europe. Their description unintendedly describes other
civilizations and cultures, like those in parts of the Middle East, where social status, economic
well-being, and life itself are linked to a reputation for toughness.
The repertoire of violent behaviors that stimulate reciprocal altruism evolved within
groups numbering fewer than 400 individuals (Shermer 2000, 159; Hayek 1988). Mankind
operates within larger cooperative groups today because of formal social institutions that amplify
“an evolved faculty of the mind that generates universal and conscious judgements concerning
justice and harm” (Hauser 2006, 63). The atavistic predisposition toward violence nevertheless
escalates routinely into destructive warfare, a kind of behavioral “misfiring” that Dawkins
describes generally as “an unfortunate by-product of an underlying psychological propensity
which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful” (2006, 174). Violent conflict and war
ironically are artifacts of the predisposition for cooperation.
Behavioral biologists, by contrast, often link conflict and war directly to reproductive
success instead of routing it through cooperation:

We appear to have built on a chimpanzee proclivity for organized intertroop

conflict and murder to produce a sexual selection extravaganza, in the form of
full-scale war; the death of man or all male combatants, the capture of concubines
or rape of the defeated women, the plunder of wealth, and the enslaving of
peoples. Perhaps the recency of human monogamy and the continuation of male
conflict, especially at the group level, explains the human conformity to the
general mammalian pattern. ... Despite their monogamy, humans probably
conform to the general mammalian pattern because the monogamy is
evolutionarily recent and male – male conflict has been retained, especially in
intergroup relations. (Trivers 1985, 313-14)

The behavioral biologist Robert Trivers notes that “[the] traits that differentiate us from
chimpanzees have passed through at least 200,000 generations of selection ... [and] the

development of religion and art has probably experienced about 10,000 generations of selection”
(1985, 29).
Modern atheists, by contrast, labor to identify systematic violence with religion. The
physicist and Nobelist Steven Weinberg echos Pascal’s spirit when denouncing religion broadly
as “an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things
and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion” (qtd. in
Dawkins 2006, 249). Weinberg, like many contemporary atheists, ignores not only religion’s
many civilizing aspects (Stark 2005), but also the vastly greater evil done by “civil religions” like
Communism and National Socialism (Rummel 1997). I shall return to this point.
The glorification of violence reflects its primal origin. The French soldier and statesman
Charles de Gaulle described war as “[t]he self-sacrifice of individuals for the sake of the
community, suffering made glorious – those two things which are the basic elements of the
profession of arms – respond to both our moral and aesthetic concepts. The noblest teachings of
philosophy and religion have found no higher ideals” ([1932] 1960, 14). War, for de Gaulle, is

an instrument of the best and the worst. ... stirring in men’s hearts the mud of their
worst instincts. ... Time and time again it has destroyed all ordered living,
devastated hope and put the prophets to death. ... [and yet] With what virtues has
it not enriched the moral capital of mankind! ... Had not innumerable soldiers shed
their blood there would have been no Hellenism, no Roman civilization, no
Christianity, and no Rights of Man and no modern developments. (69)

The instinct for soldering and war, much like the instinct for reproduction, often overwhelms
mankind’s capacity for reason. Certain individuals are especially predisposed to violence and
soldiering just as others are predisposed to religion and the priesthood. Ridley notes that “[t]he
heritable aspect of human nature predicts fairly well who will end up becoming a fundamentalist
believer within any particular society” (2003, 80). Ridley is addressing godly values, but his
insight holds for any primal behavior.
Modern ignorance, hubris, and indifference regarding the origins of violence exacerbate
clashes within and between civilizations. Consider, for example, comments by the former
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who condemned, as a “sad episode, a triumph of emotion
over reason ... deeply regrettable” (2006, 238), the reaction among Muslims caused by the
publication of Danish editorial cartoons associating the prophet Muhammad with terrorism. She
asserts that “[m]aking an insensitive statement or mishandling a holy book is to be condemned,
but – as Muslim leaders should be pressed to agree – it does not provide an excuse for violence”
(273-74). The offenses that Albright dismisses as peccadillos are interpreted by Muslims as

affronts to the civil and spiritual truths that historically have given their civilization its coherence
and resilience against foreign encroachment. Islam is a culture of honor writ large. Its truths are
akin to inner-city “street creds,” which are hard-won, easily lost, and must be defended to the

The Fabric of Civilization

Civilizations comprise aggregations of discriminatory groups that form around unifying

beliefs that need not be objectively true. The French engineer-turned-social-mechanic George
Sorel aptly characterized such beliefs as “vital lies” and “myths,” which he defined as “artificial
combinations invented to give the appearance of reality to hopes that inspire men in their present
activities” (qtd. in Goldberg 2007, 36). Nations are built on webs of these beliefs (Hosking and
Schöpflin 1997; D. Day 2008), as are small towns (Vidich and Bensman [1958] 2000), religions,
and small, private associations like fraternities. The mythologist Joseph Campbell (see, for
example, 1991) wrote extensively about the civilizing power of the fanciful, socially constructed
truths that underlie mythology, religion, and culture. The historian Will Herberg describes
contemporary America’s core beliefs this way: “It is the American Way of Life that supplies
American society with an ‘overarching sense of unity’ amid conflict ... The American Way of
Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a system of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of
beliefs and standards; it symbolizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the
good, and the true in actual life” (qtd. in Stark 2001, 246). Nationalism and patriotism are
measures of civilization’s intensity at this level.
The historian Michael Burleigh observes that groups within civilizations coalesce around a
variety of beliefs that he labels as “objects of devotion and refocused religiosity” (2007, xii). His
examples include “‘science’, ‘progress’, ‘morality’, ‘money’, ‘culture’, ‘humanity’ and even
‘sport’” (xii), and also the arts “in the sense of giving higher meaning to a world that was
increasingly disenchanted” (2005, 273). Casual observation reveals other catalyzing objects,
including skin and hair color, nationality, ethnicity, class, language, couture, common enemies,
common goals, the environment, charismatic and numinous individuals, deceased ancestors,
historical events, geo-political boundaries, written constitutions, and pop-psychology. Each
object contributes to the variety of mankind’s religious experiences. Loyalty to the group is the
test of civilization at this level. Individuals who fail to meet their group’s expectations are
disciplined, often harshly, as being shirkers and sellouts. The legal scholar Randall Kennedy
(2008) provides an insightful look at the workings of fidelity and discipline within African-
American groups. The principles he identifies scale, mutatis mutandis, to all levels of civilization.

The core beliefs around which groups and civilizations form need not be objectively true,
and frequently are patently false. Such beliefs are products of applied philosophical Pragmatism
(Truth being whatever works, or is necessary) of the sort advanced by William James, John
Dewey, and Richard Rorty. The historian Oswald Spengler (1926) noted the willingness of
individuals to form into civil sects and to accept core beliefs without proof, behaviors that he
characterized as a “second religiousness.” We are reminded of Pontius Pilate’s rhetorical
question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 19:38), and of the theologian Origen’s exegesis noting
that the author of John’s gospel “does not always tell the truth literally, [but] he always tells the
truth spiritually” (Pagels 2003, 37). Truth in this context lies in the spirit, not in the fact.
The sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann note that unsubstantiated beliefs

be taken on by a group because of specific theoretical elements that are conducive

to its interests. ... It would be erroneous, however, to imagine that the relationship
between an interest group and its ideology always is so logical. Every group
engaged in social conflict requires solidarity. Ideologies generate solidarity. The
choice of a particular ideology is not necessarily based on its intrinsic theoretical
elements, but may stem from a chance encounter. (1966, 114).

Rorty extends this view to encompass wholly fanciful beliefs; “the idea of truth as
correspondence to reality [i.e., objective truth] might gradually be replaced by the idea of truth as
what comes to be believed in the course of free and open encounters” (1989, 68). In the limit,
“truth” emerges even from such fact-free encounters as the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt
(2005) pellucidly calls “bullshit.”
Core civilizing beliefs must be gauged accordingly, not as right/wrong and true/false
dichotomies, but by their power to unify. Civilizing beliefs are always right on the spirit, but they
need never be right or consistent on the facts. The relevant test of a belief’s value is whether it
promotes reciprocal altruism. Unsurprisingly in this light, “positivism [as a secular creed] never
appealed to more than a fraction of the population” (Burleigh 2005, 232). Scientific atheists and
other critics who attack a civilization’s cultural aspects on grounds that the supporting core
beliefs are objectively false and subject to “humiliating disproofs of mythologies” (Wilson 1978,
3) either fail to appreciate, or else chose to ignore, the role that spiritual truths play in the
civilizing process. Scientific atheists, like the religious believers whom they denigrate, are equally
prone to emphasizing spiritual truths over objective facts (V. Day 2008).
Ideology, as indicated by Berger and Luckmann, is another potent source of civilizing
beliefs. Ideology spawns political “isms” that complement Ridley’s “parasitism of reciprocity.”

The legal scholar J.M. Balkin echos Marx by pejoratively relating ideology, which Balkin calls
“cultural software,” to notions of social justice. He writes that ideology is the “mystification [of
power] that serves class interest. ... Ideological effects ... help create or sustain unjust social
conditions, unjust social relations, or the unjust use of social power” (1998, 103-04). The late
jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose near-death wartime experiences drew him to the ideas of
Charles Darwin (1859) and Herbert Spencer (1850), explained legislation and law in similar terms.
Holmes despaired of attempts to categorize the law logically, ultimately attributing its substance
not only to “experience,” but also to the success of factions that were willing to fight for
particular social outcomes (Gordon 1992, passim). Modern political economy, by contrast,
recognizes that entrepreneurial factions often purchase desired outcomes more cheaply, easily,
and predictably than they could be fought for.

The Institutions of Civilization

The definition of civilization often turns upon static attributes, like the domestication of
animals and the rise of cities. Institutions, by contrast, determine a civilization’s dynamic aspects.
Common social virtues, religion, and government are three institutions with close links to human
biology, and so to each other.

Common Social Virtues

Justice Holmes believed that civilization flowed from the virtuous affectations of genteel
individuals, like himself, who performed civil obligations cheerfully (paying taxes, for example)
rather than grudgingly – only bad men, in Holmes’ view, behaved according to the results of
sharp, rational calculation (Gordon 1992, 150-51). Holmes’ guileless virtue not only identified
him as a Kantian moralist, but also marked him as a trustworthy cooperator who set reciprocal
altruism above reason. (Economists, who model mankind as rational calculators, are puzzled by
the genteel willingness of most individuals to pay taxes.)
Instrumental virtues, by contrast, are the product of reason. The economist Deirdre
McCloskey (2006) considers a range of such virtues, spanning the gamut between the solitary
virtue of prudence (rational self-interest) by which economists characterize the ethos of economic
man, and the 613 commandments of Moses. McCloskey concentrates upon seven “bourgeois”
virtues, which she argues characterize civilizations that are structured around commerce and the
market process: viz., four pagan virtues, including prudence plus courage, temperance, and
justice; and the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Comparable lists have been
assembled by social thinkers and reformers since antiquity. The Boy Scouts inculcate an

interesting mix of pagan, Christian, and biological virtues, instructing its members to be
“trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and
reverent.” Mahatma Gandhi located civilization with reference to seven sins whose virtuous
opposites must be fought for: politics without principal; wealth without work; commerce without
morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity;
and worship without sacrifice (Gomes 2007, 122). Virtues that are not linked to reciprocal
altruism tend, however, to be normative, teleological, and often their own reward.


Religion’s civilizing power is attributable to mankind’s innate God-sense, which springs

from the biology of reciprocal altruism. Religion frequently is characterized as the divinely
external source of civilizing virtue, but while religion produces many important civilizing effects,
it conveys only the virtues of reciprocal altruism.
The human God-sense is an artifact of the social-exchange organ’s perpetual search for
beneficial exchange opportunities. In the absence of bona fide exchange partners, the social-
exchange organ projects exchange scenarios into imagined deities and other fanciful figures.
Willing cooperators without appropriate exchange partners – frightened soldiers in foxholes are
the classic example – desperately signal their willingness and desire to cooperate through prayer,
worship, commitment, and sacrifice. Biologists term behavior of this sort in vacuo because it
occurs in the absence of appropriate external stimuli. Individuals who are distressed, lonely,
disaffected, seriously ill, and despairing are especially prone to such behavior. Their condition
renders them vulnerable not only to indoctrination and fleecing by manipulative evangelists
(Hedges 2006), but also to fanciful interactions with alien spacemen (Sagan 2006).
The God-sense, so derived, is logically prior to questions about ultimate beginnings and
endings. It becomes in effect an empty vessel into which unknowable answers of all sorts are
poured. Moreover, it implicitly defines Satan in terms of behavior that interferes with or is
contrary to reciprocal altruism and voluntary exchange; for example, force, fraud, and the
opportunistic reneging on voluntary commitments. In sum, the antithesis of God and reciprocal
altruism is Satan and the Hobbesian state of nature.
Observed aspects of religion and exchange are consistent with this artifactual view of
God. The word “religion” is a cognate form of the Latin verb ligere, meaning literally to bind and
to unify, which is the essence of civilization. Economists use the word “catalactics” to describe
the exchange process, a term rooted in the ancient Greek verb (Anglicized to katalattein and
katalassein) meaning “not only ‘to exchange’ but also ‘to receive into the community’ and ‘to
turn from an enemy into a friend’ (Hayek 1988, 112). The sociologists of religion Rodney Stark

and Roger Finke observe that “[m]ost of the world’s religious scriptures abound in the language
of exchange” (2000, 40), making scripture quite literally the word of an exchange-based God.
Brain imaging in the sub-fields of neurotheology and neuroeconomics, which image the
brains of individuals engaged in prayer and exchange situations respectively, will either confirm
or falsify the theoretical and circumstantial link between mankind’s God-sense and the evolved
biological propensity for exchange.
Previous generations of scholars attributed religious belief to compulsive neuroses, the
need for father figures, a taste for opiates, and the apprehension of death. Modern biology views
God differently. Dawkins classifies himself as

one of an increasing number of biologists who see religion as a by-product of

something else. ... Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate by-
product of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances
is, or once was useful. On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in
our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only
incidentally manifests itself as religious behaviour. (2006, 172-74)

Biologists dismiss religion as a direct consequence of biological evolution partly because

[f]rom an evolutionary standpoint, the reasons why religion shouldn’t exist are
patent: religion is materially expensive and unrelentingly counterfactual and even
counterintuitive. Religious practice is costly in terms of material sacrifice (at least
one’s prayer time), emotional expenditure (including fears and hopes), and
cognitive effort (maintaining both factual and counterintuitive networks of beliefs).
(Atran 2002, 4)

Biologists tend also to dismiss religion as an element of “group selection,” as argued, for
example, by David Sloan Wilson (2002). Genes and individuals, rather than groups, usually are
taken to be the basic units of evolution (Dawkins 2006, 169-72; Trivers 1985, 67-85).
Religion nevertheless forms a cornerstone of civilization. In antiquity, notes the historian
Charles Freeman with reference to ancient Rome, “[r]eligious practice was closely tied to the
public order of the state and with the psychological well-being that comes from the following of
ancient rituals. Religious devotion was indistinguishable from one’s loyalties to the state, one’s
city and one’s family” (2003, 68). This description characterizes many civilizations today. The
theologian Helmut Richard Niebuhr characterized modern Western Civilization’s religious faith
as the ultimate bulwark against “the gangrenous corruption of a social life in which every

promise, contract, treaty, and ‘word of honor’ is given and accepted in deception and distrust”
(1989, 1). Politicians consequently advertise their religious affiliations in order to connote (often
falsely) their trustworthiness, and also to imply their lack of private “ambition,” which, in earlier
times, indicated defective character.
Religious practice, like the predisposition toward reciprocal altruism that inspires it, has a
profoundly rational aspect that goes beyond transmitting pearls of moral wisdom. All cooperative
relationships require trust, and religion excels at generating it at low cost. Niebuhr recognized that
“[t]he massive law books and the great machinery of justice give evidence of the vast extent of
fraud, deceit and disloyalty among men” (81). The philosopher of religion Adam Seligman
similarly argues that “in the current [market] situation we are more dependent on trust (and less
on familiarity) to supplement those interstitial points where system confidence is not sufficient”
(1997, 160). The sociologist Robert Putnam, who studies the ebb and flow of social capital –
which he defines as the “connections among individuals: social networks and the norms of
reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” – concludes that “[f]aith communities in
which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital
in America. ... nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church related, half of
all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious
context” (2000, 19; 66). Britain’s Astronomer Royal, the atheist Martin Rees, inadvertently
highlights the duality of religious practice by asserting that he attends church regularly as “an
unbelieving Anglican ... out of loyalty to the tribe” (qtd. In Dawkins 2006, 14).
New York City’s diamond trade provides an example of trust and cooperation fostered by
religion. The trade was dominated for decades by Orthodox Jews, who did business on trust and
a handshake while their less successful business rivals relied upon contracts and litigation to
compel cooperation and reciprocity (see Williamson 1993, 465; 472-73). A more general example
is the great success of Mormon society. Religion can be counterproductive when taken to
extremes, however, because orthodoxy limits the number of potential cooperating partners
(Wilder and Walters 1998).
Economic analysis confirms the rationality of religion’s supply and demand functions
(see, for example, Oslington 2003; Iannaccone 1998; Ekelund and others 1996). The historian
Peter Novick inquires into religious practices by asking “why now,” “why here,” and “what is the
payoff” (1999, 1-2; 14). The sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke use Rational Choice
theory to analyze religion as an economic system. “Religious economies,” the authors write,
“consist of a market of current and potential followers (demand), a set of organizations
(suppliers) seeking to serve that market, and the religious doctrines and practices (products)
offered by the various organizations” (2000, 36). The authors “begin with the assumption that
people make religious choices in the same way that they make other choices, by weighing the

costs against the benefits. But what are the benefits; why do people want religion at all? They
want it because religion is the only plausible source [or perhaps the most efficient means] of
certain rewards for which there is a general and inexhaustible demand” (85).
The literature on economic growth contains frequent, albeit passing references to Max
Weber’s ([1922] 1960; [1930] 1992) views about the economic consequences of religion. The
economists Robert Barro and Rachael McCleary (2003), by contrast, study religion’s rational
effects empirically. They find, in summary, that “[economic] growth responds positively to the
extent of religious beliefs, notably [beliefs] in hell and [to a lesser extent] heaven, but negatively
to church attendance” (2003, abstract). The authors conclude that “higher church attendance
depresses [economic] growth because it signifies a larger use of resources by the religion sector”
for the production of religious beliefs (24). By contrast, the points of this essay predict that
attitudes regarding heaven and hell reflect the chemically-conditioned sense of rewards and
penalties associated with the “natural law” of reciprocal altruism, and that church attendance
proxies both the cost of building social trust (rather than religious beliefs per se) and the burden
of entrepreneurial rent seeking conducted through religious institutions. Unambiguous examples
of rent seeking behavior conducted under the cloak of religion are presented in works by political
theorists Norman Finkelstein (2000), and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007). Windfall
political benefits flow to factions that are best able to compete for them. Religious standing is
competitively advantageous because questioning the motives of anyone acting ostensibly out of
religious conviction remains socially and politically impermissible despite the growing awareness
of religion’s malign role in the rent seeking process.
God is the ultimate exchange partner because mankind creates God internally as the
perfection of cooperation, reciprocity, and trust. Reciprocal altruism, in Niebuhr’s view, emerges
from disillusionment with God’s apparent indifference, lack of benevolence, and inability or
unwillingness (except by coincidence) to deliver material goods (1989, 99). Niebuhr’s argument
implies that interpersonal trust cannot develop fully in civilizations whose core belief is the
omnipotence of God’s will. This implication is confirmed by data gathered by the political
theorist Ronald Inglehart (2000, 90), whose scatter diagrams show that Western nations generate
more interpersonal trust and economic prosperity than Islamic societies that impose strict
behavioral codes to minimize popular disillusionment with God. Civil societies that minimize
popular disillusionment with government in order to bolster the state’s numisistic appearance
similarly stunt the formation of interpersonal trust and cooperation.
Religion, like all social institutions, entails burdens as well as benefits; there is no free
lunch. Accordingly, religion’s contribution to civilization must be judged on balance; that is, by
whether it maximizes the potential spread between social burdens and benefits, ceteris paribus.
Dismissing or condemning religion based upon burdens alone, as modern atheists typically do, is

faulty analysis that yields invalid conclusions. Religion’s ubiquity and long history, coupled with
this essay’s theoretical and empirical claims, suggest that religion benefits civilization on balance.
Religion frequently esteems the feral aspects of mankind’s nature. Crusades, inquisitions,
witch hunts, the Thirty Years War, Japan’s ironic militarization of Shinto (an inherently peaceful
religion) following the Meiji restoration, and today’s clash between Islam and Western
Civilization are obvious examples of religion’s apparent capacity to inspire and sustain violence.
Dawkins (2006, 254-59) cites research showing that modern Israeli Jews find the gratuitously
violent Old Testament’s story of Joshua remarkably unexceptional, although they recoil when the
same events are attributed fictitiously to a civilization other than their own. This finding grounds
Dawkins’ broad claim that “[r]eligion is undoubtedly a divisive force” (259).
New Testament teachings, by contrast, extended reciprocal altruism and the fundamental
Mosaic proscriptions beyond tribal limits by encouraging individuals to integrate (assimilate) into
cosmopolitan society. These teachings are presented morally, but their instrumental effect fosters
peace and prosperity by encouraging individuals to act cooperatively within wider circles.
Christianity’s assent coincided with a decline in civil violence. Machiavelli was perhaps the first
thinker to address this relationship, which he judged unfavorably:

Our religion [Christianity] has glorified humble and contemplative men more than
active men. It has then placed the highest good in humility, abjectness, and
contempt of things human; the other [ancient religion] placed it in greatness of
spirit strength of body, and all other things capable of making men very strong.
And if our religion asks that you have strength in yourself, it wishes you to be
capable of more suffering than of doing something strong. This model of life thus
seems to have rendered the world weak and given it in to prey to criminal men,
who can manage it securely, seeing that the collectivity of men, so as to go to
paradise, think more of enduring their beatings than of avenging them. And
although the world appears to be made effeminate and heaven disarmed, it arises
without doubt more from the cowardice of the men who have interpreted our
religion according to idleness and not according to virtue. ([1531] 1996, 132)

Machiavelli’s criticism was echoed by the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon, the
nineteenth century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, and the twentieth century American writer
Whittaker Chambers, who was drawn to Communism by a belief that Western Civilization,
which was both predominately Christian and democratic, had lost the power to reform itself, “to
hold convictions and to act on them” ([1952] 2002, 9). For each of these thinkers, as well as for

many modern neo-conservative thinkers and leaders, Christianity’s most ostensibly civilizing
aspect – its humble, ethical, and cooperative dimension – paradoxically undermines civilization.


A civilization can be viewed as a collection of societies having similar forms of

government and related social institutions. The line of political theory running through Hobbes,
Locke, and the American founders places the instinct for Western-style government in the desire
to protect and extend life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Government
unfortunately falls short of being a Hobbesian panacea. Sociobiology (the conflation of biology
and social science) and the Public Choice program in economics (which is to government what
skepticism and doubt are to religion) tacitly ground government instead upon Ridley’s
“parasitism of reciprocity” – the biological instinct for extracting one’s “fair share” of wealth
from other individuals. Entrepreneurial individuals and factions, operating in both the public and
private sphere, seek to better the “normal” economic returns of reciprocal altruism by capturing
and redistributing the wealth and property rights of others, while simultaneously defending
themselves against similar, predatory attacks. Behavior of this sort is aggressive and coercive
rather than reciprocally altruistic. It is wasteful and directly unproductive (Bhagwati 1982), and it
pushes civilizations toward decline (Olson 1982; Quigley 1979, 85-166). The economist Leland
Yeager aptly characterizes modern government as the “weapon of choice” in a concentrated state
of Hobbesian war pitting every group against every group (2001, 249, paraphrasing John Gray).
James Madison, writing in The Federalist No. 10 and elsewhere, reflected the founders deep
concern that factions of all sorts, including religious groups, would undermine the new American
form of government.
The Bible records that the age before kings was a state of anarchy in which “every man
did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Hobbes similarly characterized life in its
natural state as a war of every man against every man and, following biblical precedent, located
salvation in sovereign authority. The sovereign, according to Locke, “puts Men out of a State of
Nature into that of a Commonwealth, by setting up a Judge on Earth, with Authority to
determine all Controversies, and redress the Injuries ... And where-ever there are any number of
Men, however associated, that have no such decisive power to appeal to, there they are still in the
state of Nature” ([1690] 1988, II:§89). Civilization to Locke meant, in effect, an earthly cooperator
of last resort – a tangible point of presence and locus of prayer operating one level below the
supreme (albeit fanciful) sovereign of heaven and earth.
Locke’s view of the cooperative sovereign foreshadowed the American shift in religious
focus from the Old Testament to the New Testament and beyond– from the ascetic Calvinistic

worship of God in the 1600s, to the worship of Jesus beginning around 1800, and finally to the
modern, post-Christian worship of consumption and re-distributive government. Adaptation
transformed the American Jesus “from an abstract [creedal] principle [back] into a concrete [and
supremely ethical] person, and then into a personality, a celebrity, and finally an icon” (Prothero
2003, 12). Jesus displaced God as the ultimate cooperating partner; an identifiable individual of
the flesh who not only performed miracles for the benefit of commoners, but also ostensibly died
for their sins. The attractiveness of social organization based upon this paragon of altruism is
understandable, especially when compared to the alternative model of a jealous, vengeful, and
sacrifice-demanding god. Modern politicians skillfully model themselves on Jesus, the upshot
being a post-Christian civilization that worships re-distributive government.
Political sovereignty is best understood in terms of a residual claimant, an entrepreneur
(or assemblage of entrepreneurs) whose claim on a nation or a civilization is equivalent to a
private individual’s claim on his business. The sovereign, acting within a defined scope of
authority, need not act as a benevolent despot, although political theory commonly assumes this
posture. The sovereign defines society’s maximand in his own image and interest, creating what
the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott informally called a social teleocracy. The sovereign’s
preferred maximand is pursued through a blend of persuasion and coercion that compels public
compliance and punishes contrary behavior. Modern sovereigns seek, within the scope of their
authority and consistent with their desire to retain the power and perquisites of office, to extend
control over all resources that lie within reach (see generally Brennan and Buchanan 1980). This
arrangement enlarges the pecuniary and non-pecuniary wealth of those citizens who are best
suited to compete for economic rents within a sovereign political structure.
Sovereign power promotes peace, prosperity, and economic growth so long as the
sovereign’s social design is consistent with both the local environment and mankind’s underlying
biology. Coercion increases perforce as the imposed design diverge from these constraints.
Divergence ultimately determines whether a sovereign’s rule appears to be benevolent or
Sovereign power in secular societies flows from the will of an individual or governing
body. Within theocratic societies, by contrast, sovereign power flows from the presumed will of
God, as revealed through interpretation of ancient scriptures and reified through acclimation,
repetition, imitation, and faith. A civilization of this sort has no active residual claimant (apart
perhaps from God’s earthly interpreters) and, consequently, it is less likely than otherwise to
prosper. Theocratic societies nevertheless may represent the best of all possible tradeoffs under
certain circumstances: T.E. Lawrence’s description of the “biting social discipline” of the Arabian
Peninsula, where “sterile experience robbed [the individual] of compassion and perverted his
human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hid” ([1926] 1966, 15), speaks both to the

ascetic origins of Islamic civilization, and to regions where militant Islam flourishes today. A
reasonable assumption, one that is founded on the presumption of social efficiency, is that every
civilization over the long run tends toward the form of sovereignty that maximizes the aggregate
value that can be extracted from the local environment.
Civilizations change over time as technology and environmental conditions change, and
as economic possibility frontiers shift correspondingly. The process by which creative destruction
has transformed Western Civilization into a post-Christian, rent seeking, consumer society is a fit
example. The economic historian Eric Jones notes that “all cultures are syncretic, though some
may be more open or energetic than others at mixing and developing borrowed and indigenous
ingredients” (2006, 145). The optimal pace of social change is internal to each civilization.
Benevolent (or not) attempts by outsiders to install numinous sovereigns and to impose
normative social maximands succeed only in shuffling the distribution of winners and losers.

Sovereignty and Religion

The distinction between God and State turns upon the difference between reified spiritual
truths on one hand, and reified civil truths plus the “deification of civil power” (Burleigh 2005,
199) on the other hand. Civil religions (as they are called, following Rousseau) replace a
transcendent God – the perfect cooperating partner – with second-best, charismatic and
numinous sovereigns who exude something resembling idealized and larger-than-life qualities of
cooperation, reciprocity, and trust. Scholars quibble about whether deified civil power constitutes
a “substitute religion” or a “substitute for religion” (Burleigh 2007, 197). Either way, the debate
correctly characterizes civil and spiritual religions as close substitutes. Burleigh (2005 and 2007)
provides vivid examples of the substitutions that have occurred since the French Revolution,
documenting in particular how nationalism became “the most potent church to emerge [in
Europe] during the nineteenth century” (2005, 199). The noted economist Joseph Schumpeter
once characterized twentieth-century Marxism as a religion, observing that it is “first, a system of
ultimate ends that embody the meaning of life and are absolute standards by which to judge
events and actions; and, secondly, a guide to those ends which implies a plan of salvation and the
indication of the evil from which mankind, or a chosen section of mankind, is to be saved. ... [It]
belongs to that subgroup [of ‘isms’] which promises paradise this side of the grave” (1942, 5). As
much can be said of other Western civil religions – Fascism, National Socialism, and Liberal
Democracy in the twentieth century, and American Democratic Fundamentalism in the early
twenty-first century (Montanye 2006b and 2000). Civil religion’s spiritual components –
especially its mythology, dogmatism, and irrationality – are masterfully illuminated by the
political writer Jonah Goldberg (2007). The literary and social critic Harold Bloom similarly notes

that “[the West’s first] war against Iraq ... was a true religious war, but not one in which Islam
was involved spiritually, on either side. Rather, it was the war of an American Religion (and of
the American Religion abroad, even among our Arab allies) against whatever denies the self's
status and function as the true standard of being and value” (1992, 15-16). The biologist E.O.
Wilson nails the overarching point:

Religions, like other human institutions, evolve so as to enhance the persistence

and influence of their practitioners. Marxism and other secular religions offer little
more than promises of material welfare and a legislated escape from the
consequences of human nature. They, too, are energized by the goal of collective
self-aggrandizement. (1978, 3)

The rise of civil religions beginning in the nineteenth century vindicated Kierkegaard’s
prediction that politics eventually would be revealed as religion. Politics, like traditional religion,
alleviates despair by providing an object for faith, worship, and devotion, the foundations of
which are found in revelatory constitutional and statutory scripture, and in volumes of
hermeneutical (jurisprudential) interpretation. Civil religions promote hope by providing
opportunities, benefits, and compensation for private failure. The converse of Kierkegaard’s
insight also is true: religion reveals itself as politics when factions employ religious ideology to
coopt civil power for private gain.
Modern Western civilization draws a conspicuous line between civil and religious power,
between state and church, without acknowledging that the two institutions have more inherent
similarities than differences (the “high wall of separation” between church and state often
resembles a “spite fence” between neighbors). By ostensibly exchanging faith (scripture) for
reason (constitutions and statutes), the West has moved away from mankind’s primal, albeit
essentially virtuous, genetic predispositions. The rise of civil religions based upon “reason”
manifests the instinctive “parasitism of reciprocity;” that is, the desire to create and capture
economic rents not only by promoting economic prosperity and growth, but also by substituting
fraud and coercion for cooperation and reciprocity. Twentieth century history was the bloody
consequence of this trend, and twenty-first century history is continuing along this line.
Civilizations clash inwardly and outwardly as they find themselves compelled to choose
“between irreconcilable opposites – God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism”
(Chambers [1952] 2002, 16). For “Communism” here, read “Reason.” Attempts to perfect
mankind against its own nature – ostensibly to rid the world of Hobbesian conflict – ironically
produce super-Hobbesian nastiness and brutality by testing the limits of mankind’s underlying
biology. E. O. Wilson, an authority on the altruistic social behavior of ants, sums up

Communism’s inherent flaw: “Wonderful theory. Wrong species” (qtd. in Pinker 2002, 296).
Biologists now accept that “very few animals ever put the interest of the group or species before
the individual. Without exception, all those that do are actually putting family first, not group”
(Ridley 1997, 176, italics added). Benevolent attempts to perfect mankind’s nature through social
reform, politics, and education must accept the species’ limited behavioral repertoire.

The Cost of Civilization

Civilization is not a free good. Every civilization obliges its members to incur burdens that
further a civilization’s prescribed maximand, and to forego conflicting entrepreneurial activities
that might be privately beneficial. These obligations, which reflect a civilization’s underlying
myths, fantasies, and sovereign vision constitute a social cost. Civilizations are often
characterized as high-cost (“conservative”) or low-cost (“liberal” or “progressive”) according to
the extent of sacrifices demanded.
Cost characteristics reflect a civilization’s optimal level of trust. Individuals assess each
other’s trustworthiness in the same way that markets interpret price as a proxy for qualities that
cannot be observed directly. Individuals routinely signal their genuine willingness and desire to
behave cooperatively. Economics and behavioral biology teach that these signals must be costly
to produce and mimic in order to be credible. Signaling often gives the appearance of pure
altruism, although their underlying purpose is rationally selfish. Individuals also signal falsely on
occasion in order to share parasitically in the success of others. Fraudulent signaling is so
prevalent in nature that biologists now reason that signaling and communication behaviors
evolved principally as means for deception (Dawkins 1999, 57). Hence the importance of
signaling trustworthiness through such costly commitments as religions devotion and gang
membership: adult circumcision and gang initiations are but two painful examples of
commitment signals that are difficult to fake. High-cost civilizations, like high cost religions,
facilitate reciprocal altruism by allowing individuals to identify themselves, both to God and to
their peers, as trustworthy cooperators through the Holmesian virtue of cheerful compliance.
Suicide bombing is an extreme form of signaling, as is fighting for ideological principles on
foreign soil; rising to sing hymns in church and national anthems at sporting events are less
extreme means. Signaling cooperation is not always a discretionary act, however. Upwards of
175,000 American were arrested during World War I, and many of them were jailed, for failing to
signal patriotic solidarity in often trivial ways (Goldberg 2007, 116-17). Many other individuals
were informally beaten, and several died. Similar treatment has befallen insular individuals and
sects through history.

High-cost alone doesn’t compel cooperation and trust, as advocates of conservative social
policies often mistakenly imply. It does facilitate trust, however, thereby reducing the need for
synthetic social institutions that seek to increase wealth and sculpt its distribution by dictating
cooperation, coercing reciprocity, and obviating the significance of interpersonal trust.
Civilizations tend toward the social cost structure that maximizes the net benefit (that is,
the spread between costs and benefits) that can be extracted from the local environment through
trust and cooperation. Within pluralistic societies, differences of opinion regarding the optimal
cost structure form distributions that are multi-peaked and fat-tailed. These differences give rise
to conflicts and hostilities that fuel clashes both internally and with other civilizations. Clashes
reflect disagreements about whether one group’s cost structure complements the other’s optimal
level of trustworthiness, and vice versa.
As between Islam and the West, casual observation indicates that the two measures do
not equate. The low-cost structure of liberal Western Civilization is insufficient in Islamic eyes to
engender the level of trustworthiness necessary to the maintenance of Islamic societies.
Conversely, the high-cost of Islamic civilization, like that of old time Calvinism and New England
Puritanism, is too high to profit modern Western market societies. These differences pose a
credible answer to the current debate about “Why do they hate us?” (legitimate grievances aside).
They (Islam) hate the West, not because of conflicting interpretations of ancient scripture, or
because of the West’s freedoms, wealth, and power, as often are alleged, but because the West’s
loosely fettered exercise of wealth and power produces external effects that are inimical to the
maintenance of necessarily high-cost civilizations.
The political theorist Samuel Huntington and the conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza
argue along this line, albeit without specific reference to cost. Huntington claims that the
worldwide revival of religion “is a rejection of the West and of the secular, relativistic, degenerate
culture associated with the West” (1996, 101). D’Souza characterizes Huntington’s clash-of-
civilizations thesis as a war “between the Muslim-led forces of monotheism and morality against
the America-led forces of atheism and immorality” (2007, 180). D’Souza accuses America’s
“cultural left” of promoting socially disruptive moral values at home and abroad. He relates the
international war on terror to the domestic war on modern liberal culture, and argues that
American conservatives are “allied with ... Muslims in their opposition to American social and
cultural depravity” (25), and should “join with the Muslims and others in condemning the global
moral degeneracy that is produced by liberal values” (26). His argument is cast in terms of raising
moral standards rather than raising the internal cost of Western Civilization to “conservative”
levels by restricting certain valued cultural activities, but the essential point is the same.
An oft-quoted passage from Osama bin Laden’s Statement to America (2002) seconds
D’Souza’s point: “You [America] are a nation who, rather than ruling by the Sharia of Allah in its

Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will desire. You separate religion
from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord
and your Creator.” The statement reflects the importance of cooperation and trust in Islamic
societies, and it is on all fours with the preference of American political conservatives for high-
cost civilizations and their complementary disdain for low-cost social and cultural depravity.
Curiously, it also accords with Americans’ professed love of God, rejection of Darwinian
evolution, their intuitive sense of natural law (“rule of law” presupposes natural law), and their
scholarly, pejorative criticisms of statutory law as being the “rule of men.” Nevertheless, bin
Laden’s Statement, unlike D’Souza’s book, is condemned reflexively in America.


Civilization is biology. Mankind and civilization are “imperfect” because, as Darwin

himself noted, evolution itself is prone to “mistake” ([1859] 1985, 447). Human reason too is
imperfect; in addition to inherent biological failings, it is limited by the extent of knowledge,
warped by immediate self-interest, and frequently overwhelmed by genetically-inspired and well-
conditioned instincts. Unsurprisingly, ostensibly rational and benevolent efforts by all-too-human
sovereigns to “perfect” mankind against its inherent nature (as, for example, from behind a
Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”), whether along Marxian, Wilsonian, or modern neo-conservative
lines, have produced cruelties that would have stunned Hobbes.
The biologist Matt Ridley explains why efforts to perfect mankind along rational and
ideological lines are ill-advised:

For St. Augustine the source of social order lay in the teachings of Christ. For
Hobbes it lay in the sovereign. For Rousseau it lay in the solitude. For Lenin it lay
in the Party. They were all wrong. The roots of social order are in our heads, where
we possess the instinctive capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and
virtuous society, but a better one than we have at present. We must build our
institutions in such a way that they draw out those instincts. ... [T]he human mind
contains numerous instincts for building social cooperation and seeking a
reputation for niceness. We are not so nasty that we need to be tamed by intrusive
government, nor so nice that too much government does not bring out the worst
in us, both as its employees and as its clients. (Ridley 1997, 262;264)

When Lady Astor asked the late Soviet dictator Josif Stalin how long he planned to
continue killing people, he replied: “As long as it is necessary. ... you blame us for killing a

handful [about 30 million in all] for the most promising social experiment in history?” (qtd. in
Chambers [1952] 2002, 82). Stalin’s views of civilization, drawn ostensibly (and ironically in
hindsight) with an eye toward creating an inherently low-cost, high-trust, and godless utopian
civilization, were influenced not only by the behaviorist and father of operant conditioning Ivan
Pavlov and the bogus geneticist T.D. Lysenko, but also by the American Progressive and
eugenics movements. The redoubtable Mr. Justice Holmes was among both movements’
sympathizers: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best
citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the
strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in
order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence” (Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 [1927]).
The ideas supporting Stalin’s and Holmes’ progressive social agenda are mostly out of favor
today. Lady Astor’s question nevertheless elicits Stalinesque responses from the sovereigns
behind today’s clashes within and between civilizations.
Whittaker Chambers believed in 1937 that by turning against Communism he was
“leaving the winning side [a rational civil religion] for the losing side [God and freedom]” ([1952]
2002, 541). His choice ultimately proved to be the better alternative despite his reasoning being
exactly wrong. Communism failed, both as a civilization and as a civil religion, because it
recklessly and fecklessly demanded behaviors that lie outside the range of mankind’s biological
programming – “Wonderful theory,” as E.O. Wilson noted. “Wrong species.” Significant
portions of Communism’s social agenda nevertheless have become synonymous with Western
Civilization’s progressive, neo-liberal welfare democracies, in large part because biology has
written into mankind’s genes the “parasitism of reciprocity” instinct that grounds modern
communitarian ideals.
Today’s clash between Islam and the West, like that between Communism and the West,
eventually will lead each side to adopt some of the other’s practices. Islamic countries already are
adopting Western-style consumption patterns, business behaviors, and media methods. Western
Civilization could benefit from Islam’s higher birthrates, Islam presently being the more
successful civilization biologically. Posterity alone will judge the long-term effects of today’s
clashes and convergences.


Albright, Madeleine. 2006. The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and
World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins.

Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York:
Oxford University Press.

Axelrod, Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Bhagwati, Jagdish. 1982. Directly Unproductive, Profit-Seeking (DUP) Activities. Journal of

Political Economy 90 (August): 988-1002.

Balkin, J.M. 1998. Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Barro, Robert, and Rachael McCleary. 2003. Religion and Economic Growth. Harvard
University Working Paper (April 8). Available at

Becker, Gary. 1971. The Economics of Discrimination, 2d. Chicago: University of Chicago

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in
the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.

bin Laden, Osama. 2002. Statement to America (November 24). Available at

Bloom, Harold. 1992. The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation. New
York: Simon & Schuster.

Brennan, Geoffrey, and James Buchanan. 1980. The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a
Fiscal Constitution. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Burleigh, Michael. 2007. Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great
War to the War on Terror. New York: HarperCollins.

–––. 2005. Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French
Revolution to the Great War. New York: HarperCollins.

Campbell, Joseph. 1991. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books.

Chambers, Whittaker. [1952] 2002. Witness, 50th Anniversary ed. Washington: Regnery

Darwin, Charles. [1859] 1985. The Origin of Species. New York: Penguin.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

–––. 1999. The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene, rev. ed. New York: Oxford
University Press.

–––. 1995. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: BasicBooks.

–––. [1976] 1989. The Selfish Gene, new ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Day, David. 2008. Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others. New York: Oxford University

Day, Vox. 2008. The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and
Hitchens. Dallas: Benbella Books.

de Gaulle, Charles. [1932] 1960. The Edge of the Sword. London: Farber and Farber.

Dennett, Daniel. 2006. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York:

–––. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

D’Souza, Dinesh. 2007. The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.
New York: Doubleday.

Easterly, William. 2006. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have
Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin.

Ekelund, Robert, Robert Hebert, Robert Tollison, Gary Anderson, and Audrey Davidson. 1996.
Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm. New York: Oxford University Press.

Finkelstein, Norman. 2000. The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish
Suffering. New York: Verso.

Frank, Robert. 1988. Passion within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York:
W.W. Norton.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Freeman, Charles. 2003. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of
Reason. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York:
Free Press.

Ginitis, Herbert, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fuhr. 2005. Moral Sentiments and
Material Interests. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Goldberg, Jonah. 2007. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from
Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. New York: Doubleday.

Gomes, Peter. 2007. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?
New York: HaprerOne.

Gordon, Robert, ed. 2002. The Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Stanford: Stanford
University Press.

Harrison, Lawrence, and Samuel Huntington, eds. 2000. Culture Matters: How Values Shape
Human Progress. New York: Basic Books.

Hauser, Marc. 2006. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and
Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Hayek, F.A. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago

Hedges, Chris. 2006. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. New
York: Free Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1998. Leviathan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. 1941. The Holmes-Pollock Letters: The Correspondence of Mr.
Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock, 1874–1932. Vol. 2. Edited by M. Howe. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hosking, Geoffrey, and George Schöpflin. 1997. Myths and Nationhood. New York: Routledge.

Huntington, Samuel. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New
York: Touchstone.

Iannaccone, Lawrence. 1998. Introduction to the Economics of Religion. Journal of Economic

Literature 36:3 (September), pp. 1465-1494.

Inglehart, Ronald. 2000. Culture and Democracy. In Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human
Progress, edited by L. Harrison and S. Huntington, pp. 81-97. New York: Basic Books.

Jones, Eric. 2006. Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.

Kennedy, Randall. 2008. Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lawrence, T.E. [1926] 1966. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. New York: Doubleday.

Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government. New York: Cambridge University

Machiavelli, Niccolo. [1531] 1996. Discourses on Livy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics For an Age of Commerce. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

Mearsheimer, John, and Stephen Walt. 2007. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Montanye, James A. 2006a. Entrepreneurship. The Independent Review 10:4 (Spring), pp. 547-
69. Available at

–––. 2006b. The Apotheosis of American Democracy. The Independent Review 11:1 (Summer),
pp. 5-17. Available at

–––. 2000. Values, Virtues, and the New American Testament. The Independent Review 4:4
(Spring), pp. 577-600. Available at

Niebuhr, Helmut Richard. 1989. Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith.
Edited by Richard R. Niebuhr. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nisbett, Richard, and Dov Cohen. 1996. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the
South. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Novick, Peter. 1999. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Olson, Mancur. 1982. The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and
Social Rigidities. New Haven: Yale University Press.

–––. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge,
Mass. Harvard University Press.

Oslington, Paul, ed. 2003. Economics and Religion. 2 vols. Cheltenham, U.K.: Elgar Reference

Pagels, Elaine. 2003. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Pipes, Richard. 1999. Property and Freedom. New York: Vintage Books.

Prothero, Stephen. 2003. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New
York: Simon & Schuster.

Quigley, Carroll. 1979. The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis,

2d. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Ridley, Matt. 2003. Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experiences, and What Makes Us Human. New
York: HarperCollins.

–––. 1997. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. New
York: Viking.

Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University

Rothschild, Michael. 1990. Bionomics: The Inevitability of Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt
and Company.

Rubin, Paul. 2002. Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. New Brunswick:
Rutgers University Press.

Rummel, Rupert J. 1997. Death by Government. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction

Sagan, Carl. 2006. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for
God. Edited by A. Druyan. New York: Penguin.

Schoeck, Helmut. 1966. Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and

Schumpeter, Joseph. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper and

Seligman, Adam. 1997. The Problem of Trust. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Shermer, Michael. 2000. How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York:
W.H. Freeman.

Spencer, Herbert. [1850] 1995. Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness
Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Spengler, Oswald. 1926. The Decline of the West. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stark, Rodney. 2005. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism,
and Western Success. New York: Random House.

–––. 2001. One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion.
Oakland: University of California Press.

Trivers, Robert. 1985. Social Evolution. Menlo Park, Calif.: Benjamin/Cumminigs.

Vidich, Arthur, and Joseph Bensman. [1958] 2000. Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power,
and Religion in a Rural Community, rev. ed. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Weber, Max. [1930] 1992. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London:

–––. [1922] 1963. The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Wilder, Esther, and William Walters. 1998. Ethnic and Religious Components of the Jewish
Income Advantage, 1969 and 1989. Sociological Inquiry 68:3 (June), pp. 426-36.

Williamson, Oliver. 1993. Calculativeness, Trust, and Economic Organization. Journal of Law
and Economics 36:1 (Pt. 2) (April), pp. 453-86.

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of
Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Yeager, Leland. 2001. Ethics as Social Science: The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation.
Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.