There Goes the Neighborhood

There are many consequences of our having evolved as a small-group animal and relatively suddenly having shifted to living in very large groups. People in small hunter-gatherer groups and farming villages have tight and usually stable cultural rules for dealing with one another and with the natural environment. Each person knows the environment intimately and learns to synchronize with its patterns of change. Missing a game migration or planting a crop during the wrong season, for example, is an error with immediate, perhaps catastrophic, consequences. Everyone knows where her or his food comes from and what the major environmental dangers are.

Even though city dwellers tend to maintain about the same number of friendships as do villagers, they interact with a much larger number of people. But because most of the people they deal with in a given day do not belong to the same circle, they are less likely to share completely the same set of rules, a sharing that usually smoothes social life in a village.

In today's large-group world, the diversity of values even within functional communities (which may be linguistic groups containing hundreds of millions of people) can be extreme--as is clearly demonstrated by the diversity of views in the United States on such issues as abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, pornography and gun control. There are no easy ways to resolve such differences and establish broad values among such large groups.

Regardless of the evidence that small-group cultures persist in modern society, many small-group values may be going extinct, and thus human natures are evolving. In just the past half-century or so, technology, communication and especially automobiles have broken down many of the last vestiges of tight, limited neighborhood communities in the United States and in some other industrialized countries. Not only are people exposed to a much wider culture, but also their mobility has removed many cultural controls on behavior.

Being clever, human beings have, of course, evolved new values and other devices for dealing with changes in group size and mobility. Increasingly, stratification and organized coercion (supported by religion, art and eventually written edicts and a near monopolization of within-group violence by the state itself) have replaced the less formal social coercion that regulated behavior in hunter-gatherer bands, early agricultural societies and even the Old West of cinema fame. In the United States, at least, that trend can be seen to be continuing. Adults don't do as much of the disciplining of neighborhood children as they did half a century ago. The tendency now is to use the police powers of the state to deal with juvenile miscreants rather than to rely on constraints applied by parents and neighbors.

That replacement for the more traditional personalized cultural controls is sometimes not very satisfactory. Those of us who remember the neighborhoods of the past or are fortunate enough to live in similar circumstances today may value a sense of neighborhood community. But adaptable as people are, I suspect that if current trends continue, in another few decades such values will have largely disappeared. Cultural evolution can be very rapid in some areas.

We badly need to consider what, if anything, should be done about this decline of geographic community. Perhaps if people became more accustomed to taking a long evolutionary perspective on culture and entered into a systematic social dialogue on cultural trajectories, society might steer a different course.We could seek strategies to restore the more stable and interactive communities into which we have evolved biologically and culturally to fit. One initial tactic would be to gradually redesign cities so that most people could live near their places of employment, to which they could travel primarily by foot or bicycle. That, combined with telecommuting, World Wide Web shopping, more carpooling and better public transportation, could enable the establishment of human-sized communities within cities and improve the health of individuals and the environment. It took about 50 years of deliberately designing the United States around the automobile to destroy communities; with another 50 years of continuous effort, doing such things as reversing the trend toward huge, distant shopping malls and planning neighborhood retail outlets for necessities such as food and medicines (if the web should not suffice), these communities might be restored. Cultural evolution, unlike biological evolution, is reversible.

In many societies, groups exist that are trying to resist the changes brought about by rapid technological "progress." For example, powerful groups in many Islamic societies are determined to prevent Western values embodied in the mass media from destroying their sense of community and deeply held beliefs. One can be very sympathetic with that stance without endorsing such values as the suppression of women or the use of mutilation as punishment for crimes. Various fundamentalist (and "green") groups in Europe and the United States also are trying to resist what they perceive as threats to their community values. Our failure to understand the different reactions of change-embracing and change-resisting groups and ideologies underlines how little social scientists actually understand the process of cultural evolution.

What seems most desirable--and I think the diversity of more or less successful systems in our evolutionary past provides support for it--would be a sort of constrained, widely accepted ethical neopluralism. By ethical neopluralism I mean a healthy mix of wide moral consensus and tolerance for a diversity of ethical positions within that consensus. Such a consensus must go far beyond issues such as mutual tolerance of religious beliefs to encompass equally or more contentious subjects such as how society could promote sustainable patterns of childbearing and consumption while retaining individual choice.

For example, given the extent of present-day overpopulation and the resultant strain on our life-support systems, I think that all societies should move toward averaging fewer than two children per family. But I also believe that this would best be accomplished by people who are not particularly interested in reproduction remaining childless, which would enable some others with a strong interest in and talent for parenting to have more than two offspring. In order to obtain broad agreement on how to proceed on such issues, a wide-ranging discussion of what our purposes should be and how life should be lived--and what constraints nature puts on the latter--would be required.

Evolving such a broad and tolerant consensus would in itself be a monumental task, but it is one that I suspect we have no choice but to address--despite the shadow of the Brave New World hanging over us. Perhaps we can avoid that world if we retain a sense of humor, don't take ourselves too seriously and learn to live with substantial mystery and ambiguity, as Nietzsche tried to teach us to do more than a century ago.


Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and author of The Population Bomb (1968) and Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996).

Excerpt reprinted from Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect (Island Press, 2000) by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2000 by Paul R. Ehrlich.