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Why Humanist Values Will Prevail: A Cultural Evolutionary View
Biology Philosophy
Image credit: Marc Brüneke | Flickr
Michael Price
Michael Price
is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London.

Our geopolitical world seems increasingly unstable, and some see this instability as a threat to Humanist values. But I’m optimistic that these values will ultimately prevail. Before I justify that optimism, let me clarify what I mean by Humanist values.

The twin pillars of Humanist morality are values about epistemology (how we should understand the world) and social behaviour (how we should treat others). The epistemological kind are easier to define, because they’re essentially just ‘believe in science and reason’. Humanists believe that the scientific method is the best tool for revealing objective truth, and that problems should be solved through evidence-based reasoning and applied knowledge. The other side of this coin is a rejection of concepts like divine revelation, and of the idea that problems can be solved via belief in falsehoods or supernatural forces.

Humanist social values are somewhat more complicated to define, mainly because human social behaviour is itself complicated. Humanists tend to endorse prosocial values such as compassion, fairness, individual freedom and dignity, and belief in human progress and potential. Accordingly they tend to reject bigotry, oppression, exploitation, and other regressive sociopolitical attitudes. Humanist social values are highly prosocial, so much so that at first glance they may seem to view human nature through rose-coloured glasses. It would be absurd, however, to suggest that Humanist morality implores us to never experience negative social emotions—such as anger or punitiveness—towards others. It does implore us, however, to apply negative social values primarily in the service of positive ones. Anger may be perfectly appropriate, for example, when motivated by compassion for the greater good, or in defence of people you love or your value system itself.

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I actually think the best way to comprehend Humanist social values is not by trying to define them, but rather by considering how they have empowered societies over the course of cultural evolution. Since agriculture emerged 12,000 years ago, societies have grown progressively in qualities like size, wealth, complexity, and power. Not every aspect of cultural evolution has been unequivocally wonderful for humanity, nor has the trajectory of this evolution always been perfectly linear—it has often been a case of three steps forward, two steps back. Still, humanity has clearly made some massive net gains in 12,000 years, especially in terms of epistemological and social attitudes (more on these points below). And equally importantly, cultural evolution has not just been about improving existence for humanity, it’s been driven by competition between societies. Societies have had to evolve—they have had to become larger and more technologically advanced, for example—in order to compete in balance-of-power races with other societies.1,2

Humanist-type values have contributed hugely to societal success in these balance-of-power competitions. This contribution is especially obvious in the case of epistemological values: knowledge truly is power, and societies that have embraced the scientific method have advantaged themselves technologically, economically, and in many other ways. But Humanist-type social values have been equally important in enabling cultural success, because what these values have really been about, functionally, is allowing and encouraging people to be as brilliant as they can be, in pursuit of both their own happiness and in their ambitions to contribute to society. Humanist-type social values strive to overcome the regressive bigotry that, by rejecting contributions from members of particular social categories (based on ethnicity, class, etc.), would prevent individuals from giving the most they had to offer. These values also increase individual motivation to contribute productively and cooperatively to society, by allowing people greater freedom to pursue their own happiness (as opposed to being a slave, for example, or the pawn of a dictatorial state). Over the course of cultural evolution, reductions in bigotry and increases in personal liberty have allowed societies to become increasingly cooperative,3 nonviolent,4 and more powerful in every sense: when you maximise individual ability to contribute, you generate a society that is maximally motivated, inventive, productive, stable, and strong.

That, then, is why I’m optimistic that Humanist values—specifically, those which promote science and unleash individual potential—will ultimately prevail. These values have been key engines of progress over millennia of cultural evolution, and we have every reason to expect them to retain these functions in the future. No matter how severely they may be tested in the short term, if the past is any indication, then what doesn’t kill them will only make them stronger.


  1. Alexander, R. D. (1987). The Biology of Moral Systems. Aldine de Gruyter.
  2. Turchin, P. (2016). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books.
  3. Wright, R. (1999). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Pantheon
  4. Pinker, S. (2011).The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Penguin.

Join the discussion


  1. Helga Vierich says:

    We’ve been too preoccupied with the idea that the development of civilization was some kind of positive evolutionary step, whereas we soon might have to ask ourselves if it was in fact a prelude to extinction.

    A more self-critical appraisal prompts a more dismal view: what if “complex” human societies (those with internal socio-economic stratification) actually develop in response to the shift from positive to negative trophic flows within the subsistence economy? What if their technology develops to offset losses and increased conflict resulting for this shift?

    Unless such societies are able to restore positive trophic flows, however, their collapse in inevitable. As did many previous empires throughout history, European nations were able to put off collapse over the past 500 years by colonization (progressively usurping the energy and diversity) of those human societies that were still generating positive trophic flows. This colonizing and flipping of whole ecological systems from positive to negative flows is on-going, and has so far overcome any resistance from the societies (indigenous populations in colonized regions who had horticultural, pastoral, and hunter-gatherer-based economies) previously supporting ecological diversity and large wild biomass. We see a modern example of this in the burning of Indonesian forests to clear them for palm oil production.

    Civilization… why do you think so many people have been sold this fairy tale about how the tribal “savages’ were the more violent and warlike – or that civilized people are smarter and better? The elites tend to develop permanent fortified strongholds. So the shift to state levels of political organizaiotn is usually simultaneous with a shift to social inequality, as well as negative trophic flows.

    Meanwhile, states everywhere throughout history tend to stomp out the kind of internal squabbling, witch hunts, and occasional murders typical of tribal societies. Since these are all cultural mechanisms that appear to stabilize population at levels below carrying capacity, the overall effect of spreading empire is increased population and decrease violence once tribal people are incorporated into states. Let me repeat that – internal squabbling – especially economic disruption in colonized frontier regions – are NOT encouraged once “civilization” – takes hold of that region. Large states extract local surpluses to support centralized activities – like monumental architecture, art, festivals, nonproductive of food and water, they tend to impose bans on local warfare (and murder and other mayhem). They also tend to disarm the locals. This imposition of a Pax is not altruistic: local squabbling can seriously interfere with the production of extractible surplus.

    So then, you can imagine what comes next: local systems become the bottom of a great syphoning of materials toward the rapacious centre… their local ecosystems grown under the weight of too many people, carrying capacity is exceeded, and local wild ecosystems disintegrate under the avalanche of negative trophic flows.

    Those of us, who have been caught up in this shift, kidded ourselves for millennia about how much better life was.
    Our monumental buildings, our ploughs and wheels, our gods and weapons, and above all our intelligence and written records, all reassured us that we were the vanguard, the creme, the cutting edge of human evolutionary progress. Some of our brightest minds continue, to this day, to tell us that we become better angels, live “longer”, and are getting ever richer and healthier and more literate due to the civilizing influences of our complex economies. We have entered, not just the industrial age, but the space age!

    I’m sorry, but this essay by Michael Price is yet another – admittedly reassuring addition to this body of mythology.

    So why do we have a mythology of progress? Why do we have these mythological stories about the special people who are “born to rule”, like King Arthur pulling a sword form a stone? Because they perpetrate the legitimacy of the social stratification, just as do racist narratives about the “white man’s burden” to educate the illiterate and less intelligent savages. Just as do the religious mythologies of empires, which always endorse the saving of souls by conversion to some “one true faith” or other, even if inquisitions and witch hunts might be deemed necessary at times. Why such impose such unspeakable suffering and genocide if not to reduce thousands of local languages and eco-sacred narratives into mere “native superstitions”. Derrick Jenson’s latest book on why human supremacy is a myth. Most of that myth has been perpetrated by those who sought to exonerate us for civilizations’ effect on their ecosystems, by proclaiming that humans are special and exempt from the inevitable extinction of species that cause their ecosystems to collapse.

    It is the dominant myth of civilization.

    Meanwhile, some also note that we have entered the Anthropocene. We are in a slipstream of ignorance, ignored our most ancient intuitions about our keystone role.

  2. Helga Vierich says:

    On July 14, 2016, a team of researchers at the University College, London, announced that species biodiversity worldwide had fallen below levels considered safe for ecosystem stability.
    “For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries — an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.
    “It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”
    The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat…” (1)

  3. Helga Vierich says:

    The Holocene lifted some selective pressures on the human species, resulting in denser population, smaller territories and more frequent negative trophic flow (simplification and destabilization of ecosystems), to which cultural systems adapted by intensifying energy output – which was useful for humans, but eventually, if population did not stabilize, becoming very damaging to other species, like forest tree species and the animals dependent on them. Seen from this perspective, the intensification of ecosystem management represented by the “Neolithic Revolution” takes on a very different meaning, and the further intensification too the point of reducing whole ecosystems to bare soil much of the time in order to grow annual crops (agriculture) is actually a symptom of a switch to negative trophic flows, which can eventually lead to ecosystem collapse.

  4. Rory Short says:

    I am a person who inwardly experiences a mystery greater than myself. I belong to a group of people, Quakers, who consciously choose to enable this inner experience in our members, the more continuously the better. From this experience I have concluded that this inner experience arises from an all pervasive consciousness [APC] permeating the Universe. I surmise that the APC drives the evolution of every aspect of the universe including the evolution ,of course, of ourselves and our cultures.

    You say “We’ve been too preoccupied with the idea that the development of civilization was some kind of positive evolutionary step, whereas we soon might have to ask ourselves if it was in fact a prelude to extinction.”

    Evolution has a hit and miss trajectory. ‘Hit’ when things survive from one generation to the next, ‘miss’when they don’t. Consequently everything that currently exists is part of a continuous experiment searching for survival. Our cultures are not a monolithic whole, there are bits of them that will survive into the future and there are those bits that will fall by the wayside.

    It would certainly seem that we are on the way to extinction. If you look at the overall exploitative and extractive nature of our globalising world then we are definitely on the way out. However there are growing movements that are trying to shift us off this path into the abyss of nothingness and they just might have enough of an impact to turn us, as a species, around. As I see it those are the things, like TVOL for example, that we need to put our energy into.