Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis (Little, Brown Spark/Getty Images)

Is the world getting worse? Nicholas Christakis says in the big picture that's not true

Is the world getting worse? Maybe so, but Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis says the bad times won't last


Chauncey DeVega
October 14, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

The mood of the world is dour.

Neoliberalism and globalization have promised so much but delivered little: Global wealth inequality has soared, with the top 1 percent of the world's population now owning more than the bottom half. Older forms of colonial and imperial exploitation by the West against the global south (or “Third World) were never vanquished. Instead they evolved as “neocolonialism” to fit the 21st century.

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Humankind is running out of time before the planet is made uninhabitable by global warming. Across the planet entire ecosystems are collapsing.

Democracy and the progress they represent are under siege around the world by the New Right and other authoritarian movements. The international human rights group Freedom Watch warns that “between 2005 and 2018, the share of Not Free countries rose to 26 percent, while the share of Free countries declined to 44 percent.”

In the United States, a recent Gallup poll shows that 66 percent of Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. The 2018 Pew Global Attitudes Survey reveals high levels of concern and dissatisfaction with the health of democracy, the state of the economy, and free speech and other civil rights in countries around the world.

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Technology such as artificial intelligence, the Internet, the algorithm, robots and other forms of automation are causing social, political and economic disruptions, which will not necessarily be for the betterment of the human condition long-term.

Rates of depression and anxiety are at crisis levels.

But what one sees is often a function of where one is standing.

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Sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis does not believe that matters are so dire. He is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University. Christakis is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, Time Magazine included him in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives."

In his new book, "Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society," Christakis argues that while there are problems and challenges in the short to medium term, the overall trend for humanity is one that is positive and improving.

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Have human evolution and natural selection actually influenced human beings to be good? Are human social relationships, and our ability to cooperate, evidence of how we are oriented towards collectively positive behavior? Are technologies such as the Internet and social media an aid or impediment to positive and healthy human social relationships? In our conversation, Christakis addresses these questions and more.

As usual, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

With the spread of right-wing authoritarianism around the world, Trump's presidency and his assault on American democracy,  environmental disaster, and global income and wealth inequality there is much to despair about in the world. When you survey this moment, what do you see?  

I'm an optimist. My extended argument is that the arc of our evolution is long, but it bends towards goodness. I think both evolution and history, generally, are improving the lot of human beings. Now, this doesn't mean that things have improved monotonically, meaning that at every moment life is getting better and better. There may be blips up and down, but generally speaking it bends towards goodness. A great amount of research and other scholarship shows that over the two to three hundred years and especially since the European Enlightenment, things have been getting better.

Science and philosophy led to a perfect storm worldwide whereby things are getting better. This is an objective fact. There's less violence, people are living longer. Fewer wars. There is greater wealth and fewer people in poverty. There are fewer people starving. This is absolutely happening worldwide and it's almost certainly due to some of the changes in technology, governance and philosophy.

But my argument is that we do not just have to rely on historical forces to conclude that the world is getting better. There is a more ancient and powerful set of forces at work. This is evolution. Over the last 300,000 years, natural selection has shaped us to be good and has equipped us with capacities for love, friendship, cooperation and teaching. These and other wonderful qualities must necessarily have outweighed the bad qualities.

Yes, it is the case that we are prone to violence, hatred, tribalism, selfishness and mendacity. But if in our ancestral situation, every time I came near you, you killed me or gave me useless or false information, I would be better off living a solitary life. So the benefits of a connected life outweighed the costs.

I'm not an idiot or a starry-eyed optimist. I know every world is not the best of all possible worlds and that every century is replete with horrors. We humans have venal, corrupt and violent leadership. In the United States we have incompetent leadership. There's a rise in nationalism around the world right now. There is ascendant tribalism. I'm aware that at present we seem to be taking a step back in many ways. But I don't believe this is a permanent state of affairs.

How do we reconcile your narrative with the empirical data which shows that several dozen people have more wealth than 50 percent of the people on the planet? Or the rise in loneliness and other examples of social alienation and atomization in Europe and the United States, for example?  

That is all true. There is also religious conflict and political polarization. Many other indices are bad as well. We have the highest levels of economic inequality in the United States that have existed in 100 years. However, globally, economic inequality is falling. The bottom billion, the poorest people in the world, are much richer now than they have ever been. And one of the things that seems to be happening is a kind of global redistribution of wealth.

Some people believe, and I think it's probably true, that the rising inequality in wealthy countries like the United States is related to declining worldwide inequality, roughly speaking. This is not exactly correct. But there has been a transfer of wealth from the poor in the United States to the poor abroad, from the rich in the United States as well, and from other developing countries.

You are describing a complicated picture. And it is further complicated by the other difficult conundrum, where a rising tide may lift all boats but it may lift them unequally. But the problem then becomes, do we not want the rising tide? This cleaves politically in terms of the left and the right very neatly.

The right wing argues, "Yes, it's unfortunate that we have this awful inequality that we have now, equal to the time of the robber barons, but the poor are better off than they were 10 or 20 years ago." The left says, "That's ridiculous. There's been no rise in real wages at the median, and we still care about inequality regardless of what the cause is."

What do we want the world to look like? Yes, the poor can get cheap cell phones and other consumer goods but what does that reveal about their overall quality of life? And also what of neocolonialism and the vast transfers of wealth from poor countries to rich countries every year?   

Earlier I was describing an empirical state of affairs regarding rising wealth worldwide, inequality and how many times these two things go together. It's difficult to disentangle them. I was not making a normative statement. Some would say, "Well, there needs to be some kind of redistribution of wealth in this society, because that's what we believe and we're the majority," or the other side might say, "No, that's inefficient. We need to have a free economy, and if there's some inequality, the market is still the most efficient mechanism for creating and distributing wealth."

Those are political and ideological arguments. We can also go to the empirical data and say, "Well, what do we know about how much inequality is harmful for the commonwealth?" Then we can argue, "Well, that's just too high. It saps the political solidarity in the country. We don't want to live in a society with this much inequality, because it harms our ability to work together. It harms the health of everybody, including the rich." Then a society and its elites can decide what to do about it.

How does biology inform our understanding of politics?

I'm interested in the forces that have shaped us over hundreds of thousands of years. Let's not forget, we domesticated animals about 10,000 years ago. We invented cities about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. We formed chiefdoms, kingdoms and then larger polities and various ways of distributing power after that. This is all quite recent in evolutionary terms.  We built the social rules on our evolutionary foundation. For example, human beings have evolved to prefer what I call "mild hierarchy". We do not like organizing our groups so that they're perfectly egalitarian. In fact, there's empirical evidence that type of arrangement is inefficient. There is more conflict and less information exchange in groups that are perfectly equal. We are better off having some inequality in power, for instance, or status.

Also, let's not forget that some inequality is a product of the natural lottery. Some people are born stronger and smarter than others. That's just the reality. Even in a society which had no socioeconomic inequality, no factors that tended to advantage some people over others, some people would still be better off just because they were born with better bodies.

Maybe, for example, in a forager population some people are taller and faster runners and therefore better able to hunt, which means they are going to have more stuff. Humans have evolved to like some mild hierarchy, which, as it turns out in a variety of experiments with primates and humans, is optimal for the performance of groups. But not too much hierarchy. We really resent it when there is autocratic power and we humans often band together to kill leaders that are asserting too much authority over us.

Now, this does not mean in every single instance this happens, but as a general matter over the course of our evolution, there is a strong set of data that support the belief that we "domesticated" ourselves. Weaker individuals within our primate ancestors would band together and literally kill older, more aggressive and strong individuals to reduce the prevalence of this type of assertive hierarchy in the gene pool.

When humans built our political systems we did this on top of all of these inborn qualities. For example: our propensity to cooperate. We like to be in groups. We like to work together. We like to develop comparative advantage and occupational specialization. One person forages for food and another person hunts, and then they trade with each other. This provides the basis for the way human beings developed political systems.

How does technology interact with the human brain to influence our interpersonal relationships?

If you could talk to my Greek grandmother — who was born just after the turn of the last century — who lived in a little village in southern Greece, and you asked her when she was a 10- or 12-year-old girl, just before the First World War, "How many friends do you have?" she would have said, "I had one or two best friends, and there were four or five of us girls who would hang out together." And if you talk to my daughter who has an iPhone in her pocket, she would give you the same answer. It is not the technology which drives this phenomenon.

There's something deep and fundamental about our social interactions, the way we make friends, which is unrelated to technology. The technology is at the service of these qualities, and every time a new technology has been invented, people have been worried that it will totally remake the social fabric. When the telephone was invented, there was a concern that it would corrode the culture of letter-writing.

There was a type of moral panic that this way of life was going to disappear, and that people, instead of visiting their neighbors face to face, would call them. People did start using the telephone. But we did not have a complete transformation in our social needs. We are fundamentally still the same people, but there are things that do change. For example, one of the things that online communication tools do is to expand the scope and the scale of our social interactions. It is much easier to track many more people using the internet and other new technologies.

These technologies also make it easier for human beings to realize our innate propensity to cooperate. My favorite example of this is Wikipedia, where you have thousands of strangers working together to maintain an encyclopedia that is available to all people. These new technologies also enhance our specificity. It was always possible to find a particular person if you wanted to — although it could have been very difficult. Now you can just Google them.

These online tools also impact what I call our "virtuality." They give us the capacity to act like people we are not. So for example, to have avatars with discordant genders where there is a man with a female avatar or a woman with a male avatar. This was also possible in the past. People could cross-dress, for instance, or could pass as a different gender, but in the modern era with online tools this is much easier.

What do we know about the quality of those relationships? Are we defining friendship in different ways? For example, so-called millennials are hyper-connected online, but also report very high levels of loneliness and social isolation.  

Our evolved psychology correctly reads these online relationships as being very fake and not real. Our evolved psychology also reads that situation as dangerous. You're not among friends. You're actually isolated, and we have evolved to fear isolation which was deadly in our ancestral environment. We know that we may have 1,000 Facebook friends. But deep down we know that these online "friends" are not your real friends, we have evolved to crave real friendships. That is why there are such rising levels of depression. Facebook is contributing to some of the very high levels of mental health problems we are seeing in this generation.

In your career you have not been afraid of big questions and big answers. How have you navigated that choice?

America's universities are a hallmark of our civilization. I think only a rich and open society could have universities like we do. Our universities are the envy of the world over. They play a huge role in the production of wealth in our society and discovery.

Speaking for myself, I feel lucky that I live in a time and a place where I can be employed at a university in the task of generating and disseminating knowledge. I try very hard to discover new things as much as possible, to see things that others have not seen before, and I've had some limited success with that. It's thrilling. And I've also taken my duty to inculcate in the next generation the knowledge that humans have accumulated -- and also the norms that are central to our freedom to do that. It's been a privilege and I've taken very seriously the opportunity to learn as much as I can.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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