The Evolutionary Origins of Property Rights

We need a better defense of property rights than the ones we typically see. Many past defenses of property rights have come from the idea of Natural Law –- an idea in no small part founded in a particular religious view. However, the fact that this particular religious view replaced an earlier religious view that denied the existence of property rights left it vulnerable not only to being replaced by a new religious world view, but to a completely new world view: the scientific world view.

In the early part of the Modern Era, the scientific world view was the Newtonian one. The world was deterministic, meaning that if we knew the position and velocity of all objects in the universe, we could know the future. When this idea was taken up by philosophers, we got reactions ranging from Kant’s division of the world into a deterministic phenomenal world and a free noumenal world to Marx’s deterministic history, with a world going inevitably toward world communism. Adam Smith gave us abstract notions like an “invisible hand,” while socialists promised us a scientifically designed economy –- one which was finally, fully just. If we could design better and more perfect machines, then we could design a better and more perfect economy. The fact that property rights were associated with Natural Law only put it in the category of non-scientific ideas.

One of the great contributions of Charles Darwin was his idea that randomness could contribute to order and complexity. This idea became much more solidified in the New Synthesis, when Darwinian natural selection was combined with genetics – we realized that the mechanism of evolution was in random mutations of the DNA, creating variations that could be selected for or against in nature, whether that selection was through natural selection or sexual selection, as Darwin suggested, or through such mechanisms such as punctuated equilibrium, as Gould suggested (and which has received a great deal of support from Walter Kauffman’s work). The notion of randomness as a part of nature that contributed to its order and complexity was developed even in physics in quantum mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, and in the second half of the 20th century in the theories of chaos, complexity, emergence, information, and catastrophe. The simplistic view of increasing entropy as merely being order turning into randomness has been greatly modified, showing that there are kinds of randomness that actually result not only in order, but sometimes in more complex forms of order. Newton gave us the mechanistic view of the world – but Darwin gave us the much more accurate biological view of the world: a world of change and complexity.

All of this seems to be a strange path to property rights, but certain ideas must first be established. Property is not a physical property –- it is a biological property. We find the idea of property rights deep in evolutionary history, in the first territorial fishes. The lobe-finned fishes, from which land vertebrates evolved, are territorial fishes, though certainly not all territorial fishes are lobe-finned fishes. An example is the brightly-colored gobies, which are very territorial. “For many vertebrates, a clearly defined territory for offspring rearing seems to be fundamental. This involves aggressive behavior of a great variety on the part of the male (and sometimes the female too), usually of a ritual nature, but effective in defending an area” (John T. Bonner, The Evolution of Culture in Animals, 86). These fish establish territories where they live, feed, mate, and protect their eggs from predators. Schooling fish, like herring, are simple in both coloration and behavior. Why spend energy on dangerous bright colors to attract mates when everyone releases their eggs and sperm at once, collectively? And why develop complex behaviors if there is no reason to, if there is no conflict, since there is no need to defend territory if you are a schooling fish in the open ocean? A great deal of energy is spent on making literally millions or even billions of eggs, let alone sperm – and there is only a limited chance that it will be either your sperm or your egg that survives. But with territorial fishes, the energy is put into protecting the fewer numbers of eggs, but those eggs are more likely to survive. And, more importantly for the individual fish, the female knows her eggs are protected until they hatch, and the male knows the eggs were fertilized by his sperm. Thus, there is a certain advantage to protecting territory, since it ensures that any particular individual fish has passed on its DNA to future generations. Herring can never know for sure.

One of the consequences of the establishment of territory by some species of fish was that complex behaviors had to evolve as well. This is due to the conflict created by the creation and defense of territory. The conflict comes about between the needs to aggressively defend territory and sexually reproduce. If one just defends, one runs off potential mates. But passive gobies lose territory –- and cannot attract mates. What develops from the conflict between the straightforward actions of defense and sex is the mating ritual, a nonlinear feedback behavior designed to allow members of the opposite sex to enter one’s private space. It is a dance. It is a dance wherein linear elements conflict to create nonlinear systems, which reorganize the chaos created by the conflict into a new order. Ritual is the emergent system created out of the conflicting elements. It is a safe space in which the participants play out the conflicts, to ensure mating can occur. One result is that gobies differentiate between individuals. Territoriality (notions of private property) created individuality through the need to ritualize sex. More, it resulted in the creation of ritual itself, which led to more and more complex behaviors as different species evolved, including art and religion in humans. When territorial lobe-finned fishes evolved into the first amphibians, territoriality was carried onto the land, and into every land vertebrate. All amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are territorial. And this includes humans.

Thus, evolution established property rights as a fundamental way of ensuring reproductive fitness. In social mammals, this became partly socialized, since it was the tribe or family group as a whole that owned the territory they defended. And all humans groups have always believed that they owned the land –- otherwise they would not have spent so much time, energy, and lives on protecting it from others. In social animals, including pair-bonding animals, this resulted in the development of personal relationships, including love. But none of this could be possible without a complex neural system to allow for the creation of such complex behavior.

Social mammals have strong social bonds even among those who are not mates. These bonds were generated through elaborating mating rituals into things like grooming rituals. Primates have strong grooming rituals, which have led to sexual pleasure, leading to recreational sex in humans and bonobos, and massage in humans. We can see this behavior in the fact that “the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love” (Frederick Turner, The Culture of Hope, 170). The conflict is found even at the neurotransmitter level. Which should not surprise us, since we have already shown that it is the protection of territory that resulted in the kinds of rituals that created pair-bonds in the first place.

Animals that have territory not only protect that territory, but work to improve it. Gobies organize rocks in their territories, and keep the caves they create to live and hide in clean. Bower birds decorate their bowers to attract females. Often the male animal himself is decorated, or he creates a larger, more beautiful territory – or, oftentimes, both. Thus undoubtedly explains why human males feel the need to accumulate more and more property, and why we try to decorate ourselves with things ranging from nice clothes to tatoos. And it also explains why, when we own property, we have more of a tendency to take care of it than if we do not own it. When we use private property, we treat it like someone else will come along and clean up the mess we make, or that if we don’t take what is there, then someone else will. We do this because deep in our evolutionary past, in our deepest of instincts, we believe that not only do we have to keep our own territories in good shape to attract mates, but that if any competition’s territory is ruined, then potential mates will be discouraged from mating with our competition. This is the purpose of raids on the territory of other tribes, or exploiting commons – which results in the Tragedy of the Commons. So if we truly want to protect the world’s resources and keep the world clean, then all property must become privately owned, without danger of a government being able to come along and take that property. No amount of social engineering will be able to change this biological imperative to owning property.

And this is certainly best overall. For it is only on our own land where we can be free to be who we are. It is only on our land where we and our families –- our tribes –- can be safe. There, we can live and love and prosper and speak as we wish. All of our freedoms derive from property rights –- and property rights are part of our evolutionary heritage. Thus, there is nothing less scientific than the idea of abolishing private property, as the socialists have wanted to do. More, this all implies that abolishing property rights is downright unnatural, from a mammalian, land vertebrate, and even fish-level point of view. So when we look to make economics, cultural, and social changes, let’s try to avoid such stupidities as abolishing property.

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