“Learning from Evolution about Free Speech
By David Sloan Wilson
January 11, 2021
The world is in turmoil over the incendiary language of a US president, the invasion of the US Capitol Building incited by his speech, and the silencing of the president by giant tech firms. Commentators fall back on the US Constitution, especially the First Amendment, to make sense of it all—as if the wisdom of the founders could somehow anticipate the Internet Age. To truly make sense of it all, we need to go back—way back—to the genetic evolution of our species at the scale of small groups.
Humans are masters of social regulation at the scale of small groups. Alexis d’Toqueville, the acute observer of American democracy in the 1830’s, got it right when he wrote that “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that wherever a number of men are collected it seems to constitute itself.”
Toqueville’s use of the word “natural” was more apropos than he could have known, writing decades before Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today we know that our ability to cooperate in small groups is a product of genetic evolution. Even though we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees, there is a night-and-day difference in our cooperativeness. According to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book The Goodness Paradox (1), naked aggression is over 100 times more frequent in a chimpanzee community than a small-scale human community. Even cooperation in chimpanzees typically takes the form of small alliances competing against other alliances within a given community. The main form of community-wide cooperation is aggression toward other communities.
Likewise, small-scale human societies are not just communitarian but also stubbornly individualistic. Since the great danger is to be pushed around, all members assert their right as a moral equal so that decision-making becomes a collective enterprise. These seemingly contradictory strands, compulsory and voluntary, collective and individualistic, are woven together to form a strong braid.
So much for the big evolutionary picture that was beyond Tocqueville’s imagination. How does it bear upon the urgent questions of our day, such as the incendiary speech of a US president and the decision of major tech companies to deny him a forum? Let’s shrink these problems down to see what they look like at the scale of a small group. As we have seen, there is a necessity for everyone to have a say in matters of collective importance. This is the necessity that is recognized by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. There is also the necessity to suppress bullying and other behaviors that can disrupt the common good. It all depends on the context. In small and well-regulated human groups, it is relatively easy to recognize the context and apply the appropriate rules.
Not only was this true for small groups in the distant past and the small-scale societies of today, but examples abound in modern WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) societies (6). Consider the norms of scholarship and science, where adhering to the facts of the matter is a cardinal virtue. The formation and testing of alternative hypotheses is a form of unrestricted free speech, failure to cite or misrepresenting relevant material is rigorously policed, and willfully falsifying data results in immediate exclusion. These norms are as strong as those of the strongest religions. Similar examples could be cited for other modern contexts where truth-telling is important, such as responsible journalism and judicial procedures. When witnesses at a trial swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…” they legally bind themselves to that commitment.
The second major factor is that evolutionary theory, which was beyond the imagination of Tocqueville, is still a new perspective in discussions of social theory, economics and law. The title of my book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, signifies that the conceptual unification that has taken place in the biological sciences (and of course continues), is only now taking place in the human-related sciences. In my long career, I have observed that the “evolutionizing” of human-related disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, religion, economics, business, and law takes place at different rates based on idiosyncratic factors.
Economics and business are late bloomers and law even more so. One of the few legal scholars who thinks about free speech and the Internet from an evolutionary perspective is Julie Seaman, Associate Professor at Emory University’s School of Law. An open-access article that we coauthored titled #FreeSpeech makes a start at evolutionizing the concept of free speech, in general, and in the Internet Age. This conversation needs to expand and be put into action rapidly, to keep pace with the rate of cultural evolution in the Internet Age. Otherwise, only social dysfunction can result.”
Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2017
Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-439
Posted: 14 Apr 2017
Emory University School of Law
Date Written: April 12, 2017
It has become commonplace to note that courts have struggled with the challenge of applying analog legal concepts to digital spaces, and nowhere is this truer than in the context of the First Amendment. Here, we focus on a very specific aspect of the Internet and social media revolution – the impact on human behavior of this distinct medium of communication – to consider whether the online context of a communication can be expected to affect the behavior either of the speaker or the audience in ways that might be relevant to First Amendment theory and doctrine.
With the emergence of the field of cyberpsychology over the past decade, the complex universe of the online social brain has begun to reveal itself. While much of this space is thus far only roughly mapped and much else is yet to be discovered, there are a number of preliminary findings that have implications for thinking about freedom of speech on the Internet. The nature and effects of disinhibition online, the effect of online social communication on memory and belief about facts and events in the physical world, and the drivers of antisocial behaviors such as flaming, shaming, and trolling – to name just a few – are all fertile ground for analysis and further research as they relate to First Amendment theory, doctrine, and values.
This initial foray into the treacherous terrain at the crossroads of the First Amendment, social media, and human behavior also draws on the evolutionary science of group dynamics and cooperation, which has much to say about how individuals behave within groups, how groups behave with respect to other groups, and the features that can make some groups successful, constructive, egalitarian, and prosocial while others are destructive, hierarchical, violent, and antisocial. It explores the implications of these ideas as they relate to groups that operate in cyberspace.
Keywords: First Amendment, Cyberspeech, Cyberpsychology, Internet Speech”