I’m still recovering my bearings after a serious automobile accident on Wednesday, so no fresh DJ today. Here’s a book review that ran in this space seven years ago today. By the fifth paragraph, you’ll see why I chose to flashback to it. I hope you enjoy the piece. Back in the saddle on Monday.

RALEIGH — Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are topics fraught with peril – not because of some inherent conceptual flaw, but because of superficiality and wishful thinking.

The basic concept is that common characteristics humans exhibit today can be explained according to their survival value during prehistory. For the vast majority of the time hominids have existed on the planet, they have lived in small bands of approximately 50 to 150 hunter-gatherers. Thought patterns or behaviors that made members of such bands more likely to survive, reproduce, and bring those children safely to adulthood, obviously made their generic material more likely to be passed on to future generations. Therefore, tendencies or characteristics in modern humans that seem otherwise hard to explain in today’s context can be understood as having evolved through natural selection among our forebears.

This basic concept is unobjectionable. Problems arise in the application. For example, there is what philosophers call the “is-ought distinction.” Even if evolutionary psychologists conclude that males in the state of nature might seek power and status in order to attract multiple sexual partners, thus increasing the propagation of their genes, that does not invalidate our moral teachings against husbands cheating on their wives. Similarly, there seems to be no question that violent tendencies are naturally selected in human beings. Those individuals able and willing to defend themselves and their relatives from predators, or perhaps even to conduct successful predatory raids on others, were more likely to survive and reproduce. That doesn’t make it okay to settle personal disputes with violence, or to make war lightly and without regard to its serious and destructive consequences.

What do the subjects of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have to do with my usual topic of politics and public policy? Paul Rubin, a brilliant Emory University scholar, wrote a fascinating book a few years ago that explores this relationship in detail. Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom is not a breezy read. It’s strictly slow-and-steady-wins-the-race material. To follow Rubin’s narrative, you have to master some scientific concepts up front, and learn to decode acronyms such as the EEA (the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness). But the investment pays big dividends.

Rubin formerly served as chief economist of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and a senior economist at the Federal Trade Commission. His service in Washington and interest in questions of economic policymaking help to inform the most revealing sections of the book, which explore the persistent and often debilitating gap between what people tend to believe and what sound statistics or economics reveal about a given subject. Some of Rubin’s best examples concern the issue of risk. Why do so many people continue to fear traveling by airplane, even though the data clearly show that traveling by car is more dangerous? Why do we so often fixate on the possibility of catastrophic events with extremely low probabilities, at the expense of taking actions to reduce the occurrence of events that are mundane but more likely?

One explanation, Rubin suggests, is that human beings were conditioned to trust in the explanatory value of personal anecdotes. If you lived in a community of 50 individuals, and discovered that two of your compatriots had been killed by wild animals on two separate occasions while traversing a particular forest path, you’d be wise to avoid said path. That’s a fairly high risk. Of course, once human invented agriculture and formed much larger communities, such personal anecdotes might still be compelling, but they would no longer be reliable indicators of risks worth taking costly steps to address.

The tendency towards individualization affects a host of important human activities – the practice of journalism, for instance (e.g. the anecdotal lead), and the nature of political campaigns, which so often focus on the personal characteristics or even appearance of potential leaders more than their ideas. Rubin uses survival value in the EEA to probe the origins of altruism, the social and political significance of religious belief, the often-unjust behavior of juries, and common mistakes that many humans make in interpreting economic events (such as ascribing adverse economic outcomes to particular, villainous individuals rather than to the market behavior of large numbers of buyers and sellers largely unknown to us).

Rubin doesn’t argue for simply accepting these defects of human nature and living with the deleterious outcomes. He suggest that those who advocate liberty, peace, and sound public policy do so by understanding human nature and crafting arguments that suit it. Evolution has left humans with a “strong taste for freedom,” Rubin writes, so opportunities for its defense abound in the careful study of human psychology and social behavior.

A study greatly advanced by Darwinian Politics.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.