Like may others I am an admirer of Winston Churchill, and have lately been reading an excellent book by the managing editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham. It’s called Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, and as you can imagine from the title, it chronicles the enormously important friendship between Churchill and FDR during a critical passage in the history of the civilized world.
One of the reasons I admire Churchill so is the astonishing inquisitiveness and flexibility of his intellect, and in reading this book I found (on page 119) another wonderful example. In this selection, taken from Savrola, his only novel (I haven’t read it), Churchill is explaining the evolution of alliance in human societies:
I think of it in this way. When the human race was emerging from the darkness of its origin and half-animal, half-human creatures trod the earth, there was no idea of justice, honesty, or virtue, only the motive power which we call the “will to live”. Then perhaps it was a minor peculiarity of some of these early ancestors of man to combine in twos and threes for their mutual protection. The first alliance was made; the combinations prospered where the isolated individuals failed… Thus man became a social animal. Gradually the little societies became larger ones. From families to tribes, and from tribes to nations the species advanced, always finding that the better they combined, the better they succeeded. Now on what did this system of alliance depend? It depended on the members keeping faith with each other, on the practice of honesty, justice, and the rest of the virtues. Only those beings in which those faculties were present were able to combine, and thus only the relatively honest men were preserved. The process repeated itself contless times during untold ages. At every step the race advanced, and at every step the realization of the cause increased.
This is simply dazzling. In this brief passage Churchill has given us a concise, limpid account of the evolution of morality. In a single paragraph we have a prescient account of the group-selection model described by David Sloan Wilson (which Wilson has applied most convincingly to the origins of religion in his recent book Darwin’s Cathedral), of the expansion of “non-zero-sumness” that was the central theme of Robert Wright’s excellent book Nonzero, and even of the Baldwin Effect, in which useful cultural tricks favor the selection of those organisms that are apter to learn them.
If there is any quibble at all to make, it is that our prehuman ancestors were probably already highly social. But such a nit is hardly worth picking.
What a mind! What a man!