Let’s begin at the beginning. Life on Earth is, quintessentially, a biological survival enterprise. All of us are links in an unbroken chain of living systems that can be traced back perhaps 3.9 billion years. Over this unfathomably long time, the fundamental problem of living has undergone many changes – both in terms of the natural environment and in terms living species. Sometimes living organisms have been competitors, or a potential food source. At other times, they have been symbiotic partners in interdependent, cooperative systems -- a collective survival enterprise. However, the primary objective has always been biological survival and reproduction. Whatever our situation, our perceptions, or our illusions, our basic needs take precedence.
Our Ancestral Political Systems
The traditional view among students of animal behavior has been that the social decision-making systems that exist in many other primate species – like baboons or chimpanzees – involve an authoritarian dominance hierarchy that is maintained by physical threats and coercion. But we now know it is not so simple as that. Some primate societies are more flexible, and “democratic,” and may even be ruled by coalitions. However, our own hominin ancestors developed a political system that is unique. In a series of landmark studies many years ago, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm (1999) documented the fact that many modern hunter-gatherer societies are not only highly egalitarian but also exhibit what he called a “reverse dominance hierarchy” – social coalitions that actively contain and suppress aggressive individuals and rogue leaders.
Thus, it appears that a more democratic and consensual governance pattern is deep-rooted in our species. (See also Graeber & Wengrow, 2021.) The evolution of political systems among our remote ancestors – based on a leader’s skills, experience, and “prestige” rather than physical dominance – might even trace back to the australopithecines of the early Pliocene Era, some 5 million years ago. Close social coordination would have been essential for cooperative foraging and survival in a dangerous savanna environment, and this would have favored collective governance. There is also much evidence that cohesive groups can make better decisions than individuals by themselves. The synergies achieved by effective social cooperation may even have given these ancestral hominin groups a major advantage.
With the invention of agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rise of large, complex societies, however, our ancestral governance systems also changed. It is ironic that the very factors that contributed to our economic progress as a species also created opportunities for economic exploitation, social inequality, and political domination. In effect, the reverse dominance hierarchies that had long ensured against great differences in power (and wealth) in traditional foraging and hunter-gatherer societies began to break down. Voluntary consent gave way to top-down coercive force, and the traditional pattern of informal social controls and conflict-resolution was replaced over time by formal law codes, religious edicts, aggressive policing, and harsh punishments.
To be sure, there are examples of evolving complex human societies where ambition, personal achievement, and social prestige did not result in an authoritarian political hierarchy and extreme inequality – like the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus River valley. Far more common, though, were transitions that allowed for various leaders to control resources and to become self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating. This was evidently the case even in some of the earliest agricultural villages that began to appear roughly 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.
Today, extremes of wealth and poverty, coupled with hierarchical systems of political control, are the rule in modern societies. Although we have invented a variety of political workarounds to contain this tendency over the past two millennia – the rule of law, representative legislatures, free election systems, an independent judiciary, formal constitutions that set limits on government power, a free press, etc. – these safeguards have all too easily been coopted or corrupted and have often been replaced by an assortment of authoritarian, elitist, or simply corrupt and dysfunctional governments, as we have recently witnessed. The superorganisms that we call modern nation-states range from some that have been highly successful in securing the common good to many others that, for various reasons, have been completely subverted (Corning, 2018).
Our “Sick” Superorganisms
Now, in the twenty-first century, there is an urgent need to reform our many sick superorganisms. One estimate puts the total number of dysfunctional states as high as 60. More important, and far more consequential for our future as a species, we must figure out how to govern our emerging global superorganism. “Government is the problem,” but for a very different reason from what President Ronald Reagan had in mind when he coined this slogan in the 1980s. We need to assert the primacy of the common good, arrest the current trend toward authoritarian, corrupt, and exploitative regimes, and reform a capitalist system that sometimes seems to be providing “the greatest good for the fewest number” (to flip that famous utilitarian mantra). (See also Porritt, 2005; Monbiot, 2017; Raworth, 2018, Reich, 2018.)
What is to be done? The ultimate answer must be a new global social contract in which everyone has a stake, everyone benefits proportionately, and everyone contributes proportionately. I call it a “biosocial contract,” because it must be grounded in the fundamental biological purpose of our superorganisms and must give our basic biological survival needs the highest priority. These basic needs represent a non-negotiable foundation for the common good. They are absolute requisites for the survival and reproduction of every individual, and of every society over time. Furthermore, we spend most of our daily lives involved in activities that are either directly or indirectly related to satisfying these needs, including (not least) earning a living and contributing in various ways to help sustain the collective survival enterprise and our superorganism.
As I mentioned above, there are at least 14 distinct domains, or categories of basic human needs. (My list was developed and vetted over many years at our research institute and is convergent with the U.N.’s Human Development Index and the new Social Progress Index. See Corning, 2011). Our basic biological needs include a number of obvious categories, such as adequate nutrition, fresh water, waste elimination, physical safety, physical health, and mental health, as well as some items that we may take for granted, such as maintaining our body temperature (or “thermoregulation,” which includes various technologies, from clothing to blankets, firewood, heating oil, and air conditioning). Our basic needs even include adequate sleep (about one-third of our lives), mobility, and healthy respiration, which can’t always be assured these days. Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requirements for reproducing and nurturing the next generation. In other words, our basic biological needs cut a very broad swath through our economy and our society. (These 14 needs are discussed in detail in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.)
Toward a “Basic Needs Guarantee”
To repeat, the basic challenge for every human society is to provide for the basic survival and reproductive needs of its members. This is our prime directive, our raison d’etre. A reformulated social contract focused on the common good must therefore start with a universal “basic needs guarantee.”
This is a foundational social principle, and it is grounded in four key propositions: (1) our basic needs are increasingly well-understood and documented; (2) although our individual needs vary somewhat, in general they are shared by all of us; (3) we are dependent upon many others, and increasingly our global economy as a whole, for the satisfaction of these needs; and (4) severe harm (or death) may result if any of these needs is not satisfied. Equally important, satisfying our basic needs is a prerequisite for achieving the voluntary “consent” of the governed and a “legitimate,” sustainable superorganism. It is the essential antidote to anarchy and authoritarianism alike – not to mention the growing problems of hunger and climate refugees.
The idea of providing everyone with a basic-needs guarantee may seem radically new – a utopian moral aspiration, or perhaps warmed-over Marxism. However, it’s important to stress that this would not be an open-ended commitment. And it’s emphatically not about an equal share of the wealth. It refers specifically to the 14 domains of basic needs cited above. Our basic needs are not a vague theoretical abstraction, nor a matter of personal preference. They constitute a concrete but limited agenda, with measurable indicators for evaluating outcomes.
Support for a Basic Needs Guarantee
A basic-needs-guarantee also has strong public support. For instance, a famous series of social experiments first conducted by political scientists Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer (1992) and subsequently replicated (and confirmed) many more times in various countries, found that 78% of the participants overall favored providing a basic economic “floor” for everyone. Likewise, a recent public survey by researchers at Harvard University showed that 47% of young people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 agree with the proposition that our basic needs should be treated as “a right that government should provide to those who are unable to afford them” (Halpin et al., 2021). A 2019 Pew Research Center poll also found that 89% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans supported either the same or increased public spending for needy people. There is also growing interest these days in the convergent idea of providing everyone with a “universal minimum income.” This is an old idea that has enlisted many prominent advocates over the years, although it would not be sufficient by itself, as we shall see.
The argument for a basic-needs-guarantee also accords with the “right to life” principle, first proposed by the philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1970/1690) and subsequently enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The right to life has since been invoked in many other contexts as well, starting with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But if the right to life is widely recognized as a self-evident moral principle (although it’s often betrayed in practice), it certainly does not end at birth; it extends throughout our lives. Moreover, it’s a prerequisite for any other rights, including liberty and “the pursuit of happiness” (or property rights, for that matter). The right to life necessarily also implies a right to the means for life – the wherewithal. Otherwise, this right is meaningless. And because almost all of us are dependent upon the collective survival enterprise (the superorganism) to obtain the goods and services required for satisfying our basic needs, the right to life imposes upon society and its members a life-long mutual obligation to provide for one another’s needs. This implicit contractual obligation, though often betrayed, has been the moral foundation for hominin societies ever since the Pliocene.
Finally, a basic needs guarantee avoids the fatal flaw of the universal minimum income alternative, namely, that the latter alternative fails to recognize that the satisfaction of our basic needs is dependent upon many external influences – such as a benign, conducive natural environment, food security, ample freshwater resources, the means for body temperature control, medical services, reproductive assistance, transportation systems, physical safety, and so much more. A modern society is a “collective survival enterprise,” with many interdependencies. Income alone is no guarantee.
It is time – indeed, it is increasingly urgent – that our social policy and governmental programs become better oriented to biological reality and, increasingly, to our emerging survival crisis. Our basic needs must come first.
Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Corning, P. (2011). The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Corning, P. (2018). Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind. Singapore/London/New Jersey: World Scientific.
Frohlich, N. & Oppenheimer, J.A. (1992). Choosing Justice: An Experimental Approach to Ethical Theory. Berkeley CA.: University of California Press.
Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Halpin, J., Agne, K., & March, N. (2021). Americans want the federal government to help people in need. Center for American Progress, March 2021.
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Monbiot, G. (2017). Out of The Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. London: Verso.
Porritt, J. (2005). Capitalism: As If the World Matters. London, Sterling, VA. Earthscan.
Raworth, K. (2018). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishers.
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