If Thomas Jefferson or James Madison were nation building today, what would they be reading? America’s success is built in no small part on its founders’ insight into human nature. In the 18th century, that meant study of Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Locke. Nowadays, it might mean sharing a conversation with Nicholas Christakis.
Professor Christakis runs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and his recent book, “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society,” feels like a modern-day Enlightenment treatise. With scientific methods and tools that were scarcely imaginable three centuries ago, he runs humanity through the wringer and comes to a conclusion that might surprise some people: “The arc of our evolutionary history is long. But it bends toward goodness.”
So as part of my effort to acquaint you all with fellow readers and thinkers working to expand the best in our natures, I sat down with him in December for a chat and turned the conversation to politics.
Dr. Christakis’ research suggests that a “social suite” including love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching has been hard-wired into human beings, though we tend to deploy these qualities selectively toward those like ourselves – our “in group.” In many ways, he says, America is an unprecedented social experiment, testing whether we humans can share these behaviors more broadly.
In that, America has had an important superpower. It has had identities that cut across in-groups. For example, “you might go to a different church from someone else, but you had connections with them” – your children played baseball together or you went to the same school or had the same occupation, Dr. Christakis says. And the less segregated we are – not just racially but by ideology, religion, income, and education – “the stronger the democracy.”
That’s changed in recent decades. People talk about living in “Facebook bubbles” where we only interact with people who agree with us, but it goes beyond social media. We live in an increasingly “sorted” society. Yet for a diverse democracy to overcome the urge to tribalize, it needs citizens with crosscutting identities, he says.
So what do we do now? We can combat tribal tendencies in one of two ways, Dr. Christakis says. We can “go up, or go down.”
We can go “up” to a higher unifying identity as fellow citizens, for example. While most nation-states define themselves by ethnic or linguistic identity, “it’s almost unparalleled in the history of the world that anyone can become an American,” he says.
Or we can go “down” a level and acknowledge the innate value of each individual, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued. “Every single human holds prejudiced opinions,” Dr. Christakis says. But that can be overcome by “our innate capacities for recognizing the uniqueness of others and for forming friendships.”
In the end, the founders got it right. The Constitution reflects crucial features of human nature, Dr. Christakis says. Political tides can push against our innate desire for the good in the social suite, “but only for a while.”