Easter Island, Humanism and Ethno-altruism

The story of Easter Island has always fascinated me. Not just because of the huge, enigmatic statues, but because Easter Island was (before European contact) a miniature analog to the Earth. It was a little world, isolated in the Pacific, colonized by human beings only about 1000 years ago, and within a 500 year period there was a population explosion, environmental destruction, and population collapse. I will retell that story very briefly, and then I will discuss some of its implications for human nature.

The original colonists found a paradise of abundant food. They brought no diseases with them, so for many generations they lived lives free of disease, hunger and war. At first, they could easily kill dolphins and seabirds for food, so they did. The island was covered in a lush forest of huge trees, which could be cut down for canoes or timber. Eventually, the dolphins and seabirds disappeared, so the Easter Islanders switched to agriculture as their main source of food. As their population expanded, they spread over the island, and formed different clans on different portions of the island. These clans seem to have lived together in peace, as they traded resources and probably mates with one another. The human population continued to grow. Eventually it reached a peak of 15,000 or more, all descended from a few original colonists.

At some point, close to the peak of their population, the Easter Islanders decided to build giant stone statues. No one knows why. Polynesians have a cultural tradition of building statues and "totem poles", but not on that scale or in that peculiar, monotonous style. For whatever reason, the Easter Islanders built these strange statues that the island is famous for today. Then, during the height of their statue-building mania, they descended into war and cannibalism.

By the time they reached their peak population, the island had been deforested. There were no trees to build canoes from. The landscape had been eroded and much of its soil had washed into the sea. The next generation was growing up, and as usual it was twice as big as the previous, but this time the food production could not be expanded. If anything, it was contracting due to the degradation of the environment. The Easter Islanders could not shift to a new source of food to feed their growing population. So, they fought over the remaining resources: the precious land on which to grow food. They also began to eat each other. Genocidal and cannibalistic warfare literally consumed the islanders, until their population fell down to about 2,000 or so survivors. They lived on, in a state of desperate poverty and endemic warfare, until Europeans showed up. (Then things got even worse for most of them.)

During the collapse, the Easter Islanders pushed over all the statues. The Europeans discovered them lying on the ground, often broken into pieces.

There are a number of lessons that can be learned from the natural experiment of Easter Island. The one I have focused on before is simply that human beings are not magic. We are part of nature. We are selfish life-forms selected to reproduce, and the human population is normally limited by premature death, just like every other species. In an environment with abundant resources and no disease, the human population explodes until resources are scarce and people are starving. Then war limits the population. Easter Island demonstrates the reality of human nature very clearly, condensed into a small space and a short period of time.

Many people want to believe that human nature is intrinsically nice, and thus bad things such as war must have some special explanation that lies outside human nature. Easter Island is one of the best natural experiments that debunks the "humans are normally nice" theory. It played out in a very isolated environment that was a paradise of abundant resources at the beginning. Left to its own devices in an isolated but rich environment, human nature generated a tragedy of the commons, as predicted by the "selfish reproducer" theory. The world today is going through a population explosion, due to modern civilization, that is very similar to the population explosion on Easter Island and will probably end in a similar way.

But I have made that point before. Here I want to focus on another aspect of Easter Island: its racial, ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

It is hard to imagine a more genetically and culturally homogeneous population than the Easter Islanders. They were all descended from a few original Polynesian colonists, who were very similar to begin with. The genetic similarity between Easter Islanders would have been extremely high, probably close to 99.9%. They had the same cultural traditions. Yet, they divided into factions that fought, killed and ate one another. Imagine a parent killing a child from another family and then feeding that child to his own hungry children. That is what happened, even though the eater and the eaten were almost genetically identical.

Warfare and cannibalism are normal human behavior in times of scarcity. Most warfare, for most of human history, took place between people who were more closely genetically related than two white people selected randomly from a street in Seattle would be. For all of human history, people who are almost genetically identical have killed one another, and not just in "noble" conflicts between adult males. Warfare has usually involved the slaughter of children. Modern wars are no exception. During WW2, the Allies (the "good guys") deliberately killed millions of civilians in Germany and Japan, many of them women and children.

Human beings are not altruistic in general, regardless of how genetically similar they are. The human form was selected to reproduce itself, not to be altruistic. The brain was selected to be generate reproductively selfish behavior. We love our children and are indifferent or hostile to almost everyone else, unless they are useful to us. That is human nature: violent, selfish, and selected to reproduce. Our delusions of altruism are just that -- delusions.

Many people in alt-right circles believe that racial or ethnic homogeneity is a panacea for the problems of our time. They believe that genetic altruism is the basis of society, and so a racially and ethnically homogeneous society should work really well, while a racially and ethnically mixed society should fail. They believe that people who are genetically similar will be nice to one another and will naturally work together to advance their shared genetic interests. I call this view "ethno-altruism".

The ethno-altruistic view contrasts with humanism, its ideological counterpart. The humanist view is that we are all the same beneath the skin, and that war is due to ignorance and prejudice, to racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, etc. If we could just grow or "evolve" past these primitive superstitions, we could all live in peace and prosperity. The anthem of humanism is the song "Imagine" by John Lennon. Humanism is the underlying value system of the liberal left, and of the modern West in general. It presents itself as secular, but it has roots in Christianity. In the humanist worldview, people are naturally altruistic and rational, society is based on altruism, and war is due to causes external to human nature.

Both humanism and ethno-altruism are based on false conceptions of human nature and society.

Society is based on cooperation, not altruism. Easter Island demonstrates that. As long as there were abundant resources, there was little reason for war, because people could extract more food from the landscape by working together. Without war, they could spread over the whole landscape. With war, there would be a "no-mans-land" buffer zone between warring groups. Without war, they could trade different resources from different parts of the island, and get the benefits of division of labor and economies of scale. With war, they would have to live in isolated, defensive groups and depend mostly on local resources. The absence of warfare was a form of cooperation that allowed them to extract more energy from the environment. It was a useful adaptation that benefited everyone, up to a point. That point was when the environment could no longer support the population, and cooperation could no longer increase the food supply. At that point, life became a zero sum game. The only way one person could survive was for someone else to die.

The reason we have complex social structures, such as governments and corporations, is that we need those power structures to create cooperation on a large scale. Those power structures deliver the incentives, positive and negative, that make selfish individuals cooperate. The Easter Islanders had a fairly simple power structure because their social order was relatively small scale (up to 15,000 people). They had a hierarchy with a small number of chiefs at the top, who could negotiate deals for the whole island and impose cooperation locally. It worked, for a while.

No matter how good a power structure is, it will not work if the individual payoff for cooperation is less than the individual payoff for defection. Society is based on incentives. If a society cannot deliver those incentives, the power structure collapses. The Easter Islanders shifted from a relatively peaceful social order to warfare and chaos when the individual benefits of competition outweighed the individual benefits of cooperation.

What happened on Easter Island fits perfectly with the predictions of the selfish reproducer theory of human nature and the selfish cooperator theory of society. It does not fit the ethno-altruist or humanist theories of human nature and society. Both would predict a utopia on Easter Island, not a catastrophe.

Easter Island was about as genetically pure as a human population can be. Now, I suppose some white nationalists will say that Polynesians are more violent than whites and that is why their society collapsed. It is probably true that Polynesians are somewhat more prone to violence than Europeans (although Hawaii has very low levels of violent crime). Nevertheless, they managed to sustain a functioning, non-violent social order on Easter Island for centuries prior to collapse. Saying that Polynesians are genetically more predisposed to violence does not explain what happened. Neither does saying that they are genetically more predisposed to population growth. Europeans have had population explosions too, in various times and places. The natural state of affairs, for all living beings, is to reproduce to excess until the population is limited by external factors. The ethno-altruist worldview cannot explain what happened on Easter Island.

The humanist worldview can't explain what happened either. The collapse wasn't imposed on the Easter Islanders by external forces, such as colonialism. It wasn't caused by bigotry. Their society collapsed because their population outgrew and degraded the environment. Perhaps some humanists would argue that the Easter Islanders just didn't understand what they were doing, and would have changed their behavior if they had. It is dubious that they couldn't see what they were doing, on an island that small. It is much more plausible that they denied it or ignored it, which conflicts with the humanist view that human beings are rational. Either the Easter Islanders were profoundly irrational to ignore the inevitable consequences of population growth on a small island, or they were individually selfish and the tragedy was due to their inability to resolve their conflicts of interest. Either way, their descent into cannibalistic warfare certainly does not fit the humanist conception of human nature as intrinsically good and rational.

Humanism and ethno-altruism share the same basic moral value of altruism, but they differ in the definition of the in-group. Humanists believe that expanding the in-group to include all humans is a panacea for social problems. Ethno-altruists believe that shrinking the in-group to just one's race or ethnos is a panacea for social problems. Both worldviews have a similarly idealistic, rather than realistic, view of their in-group. To humanists, humans are magic. To ethno-altruists, the ethnos is magic. Both believe that their altruistic ideal is natural and that their views are supported by science. Humanists believe that humans evolved to be altruistic to other humans, and the psychological mechanism for this is empathy. Ethno-altruists believe that humans evolved to be altruistic toward a genetic in-group, and the psychological mechanism for this is in-group preference.

Both views are wrong. Neither expanding nor shrinking the in-group is a panacea for social problems. No one is magic. We didn't evolve to be altruistic at the level of species or race/ethnos. We evolved to be selfish reproducers with the potential to cooperate or compete, depending on the circumstances. We did evolve empathy, but it has both positive and negative forms (affection and hatred) and it doesn't make us altruistic. We also display in-group preference based on a social identity, but that social identity isn't necessarily ethnic or racial, and in-group preference doesn't make us altruistic.

People divide into factions and fight when life becomes a zero-sum game, or appears to be. When that happens, they find a basis for dividing into factions and a moral justification for violence. The ideology is not the underlying cause of the violence. It is just a way to organize into competing groups. I'm sure that the Easter Islanders created moral justifications for their behavior when they split into factions to fight over the dwindling resources of their former paradise. I'm sure that they came up with some reason why the people of other factions were morally deserving of death. People are good at deceiving themselves to maintain the coherence of their worldviews.

Dividing up into smaller factions didn't solve the fundamental problem, of course, which was that their population couldn't grow forever on a finite island. Humanism or "Easter Islandism" couldn't have solved their fundamental problem either. Only a rational program of population control, imposed by society on individuals, could have prevented the collapse. Without birth control pills or latex condoms, they would have had to use cruder methods, such as abstinence and infanticide, but that would have been much better than the alternative: war and famine. Such a program would have allowed them to live in prosperity indefinitely. Unfortunately, the Easter Islanders didn't have the social rationality to do that. I don't think we do, either.

Prior to their big collapse, the Easter Islanders were in a situation similar to our civilization today. They had gotten used to growth and abundance over many generations. They had expanded their food supply to keep up with their growing population many times in the past, and they probably expected to do it again, somehow, as we moderns believe that technological progress will always solve our problems. Plus, their moral delusions about their "goodness" would have prevented them from thinking and talking about problems created by their own behavior. To fix their problem, they would have had to admit that they were the underlying cause of it. They would have had to face the reality of human nature.

Instead, they built statues.