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Will the Real Modern-Day Pirates Please Stand Up!

“Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates.”

In his article, The Invisible Hook: How Pirate Society Proves Economic Self-Interest Wrong, David Sloan Wilson, provided some insights into pirate societies. This was inspired by a book he spotted at a workshop which was entitled, “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economies of Pirates,” by Peter T. Leeson. Here is a long excerpt from the article that was very revealing:

“…I already knew something about pirate societies as remarkably egalitarian. How they behaved among themselves was completely different from how they behaved toward their victims. I also thought that a grand explanatory framework could explain this paradox, but for me that framework was evolutionary theory, not economic theory.

But it’s not—not fully, at least–which is why I was one of only eight participants invited to write papers for the workshop. Hayek pioneered the concept of economic systems as products of cultural group selection. That is my area of expertise, and while I admire Hayek for his originality and many of his insights, I also know that serious updating is required. The vulgar version of libertarianism cannot be justified on the basis of what Hayek wrote and the sophisticated version must bring what Hayek wrote into alignment with the best of our current knowledge of cultural multilevel selection.

When I read The Invisible Hook, I found all of the major themes that were discussed at the workshop, including the overarching theme that everything can be explained as a form of self-interest. At the workshop, this took the form of scholarly discussions of individualism in the social sciences. For Leeson, it meant that every nuance of pirate behavior—their fairness toward each other, their highly selective cruelty toward their victims, even the Jolly Roger as a costly signal, can be explained as a form of profit maximizing behavior. This comes close to the vulgar version of libertarianism and Leeson isn’t shy about calling “Greed is Good” a central lesson to be learned (p177).

For me, the central lesson to be learned, from both the workshop and Leeson’s book, is that the concept of individual self-interest is incoherent. That is arguably the major problem with economics and the major contribution that Multilevel Selection Theory can make in providing a more coherent alternative.

Before critiquing The Invisible Hook, allow me to praise it. It’s a terrific read that uses pirate societies as a microcosm for asking big questions about human nature and society. I learned much about pirates that I didn’t previously know and Leeson’s economic analysis gets a lot right. My main complaint is that we can do better with our general explanatory framework. The Invisible Hook can serve as a microcosm for asking big questions about economic theory, in addition to big questions about human nature and society.

Here are some of the facts about pirate society that cry out for an explanation. Famous for their barbarism toward their victims, it is easy to assume that pirates must also be barbarous among themselves, but nothing is further from the truth. Most pirate societies were scrupulously democratic. They voted on who was to be their captain and were quick to vote him out if he didn’t perform. They limited the authority of their captain to battle situations and elected another officer, the Quartermaster, to oversee the daily round of life on board. The Captain and Quartermaster received a mere two shares of captured booty, compared to 1 share for each member of the crew. A significant proportion of pirate crews were black and while some were slaves, others were treated as equals. Pirates created an insurance system for themselves with an agreed upon payment for the loss of each body part.

While their fearsome behavior toward their victims was real, it was also highly strategic. The goal was to capture ships and take their booty without any fighting at all. As long as their victims didn’t try to fight back or conceal their valuables, no one was likely to be hurt. Resistance was met with unrestrained cruelty, not because pirates were psychopaths, but to cultivate a reputation for being psychopaths to decrease the resistance of future victims. Pirates were also cruel to captains of captured ships who were cruel to their own crews. They seldom conscripted crew members from captured ships and didn’t need to, since there were typically plenty of volunteers. The main exception to this rule was crew members with special skills, such as surgeons or carpenters.

Leeson compares the invention of democratic governance among pirates to other inventions throughout recorded history, such as ancient Athens and colonial America. However, by far the most interesting comparison is with hunter-gatherer societies around the world, which evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls “reverse dominance” societies1. In most animal societies, dominance takes the form of the stronger individuals intimidating the weaker. These societies would be called despotic in human terms and they provide an inhospitable social environment for cooperation. Even the limited cooperation that occurs usually takes the form of small alliances competing against other alliances within the same group. In our distant ancestors, members of groups found ways to collectively suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors, which provides a more hospitable social environment for cooperation. If you can’t succeed at the expense of others within your own group, the only alternative is to cooperate within your group in competition with other groups, which might take the form of direct competition such as warfare, or indirect competition such as surviving during hard times as other groups perish.

Group selection is a concept that Darwin was forced to develop when he realized that his theory of natural selection could not explain the evolution of prosocial behaviors2,3. The word “prosocial” refers to any attitude, behavior, or institution oriented toward the welfare of others or one’s group as a whole. It is more general than the word “altruism”, which implies a degree of self-sacrifice in the act of helping others. The word prosocial is agnostic on that point. If a person can do well by doing good, so much the better.

Nevertheless, as a basic matter of tradeoffs, helping others or one’s group as a whole usually does require time, energy, and/or risk on the part of the individual actors, which places them at a relative disadvantage compared to other members of the same group who receive the social benefits without paying the individual costs. Here is a second point of departure between evolutionary and economic theory. Evolutionary theory is based on relative fitness. It doesn’t matter how well an organism survives and reproduces; only that it does so better than other organisms in its vicinity. Economic theory comes in many flavors, but the current orthodox version is based on absolute utility, as if people merely want to maximize their profits without comparing their profits to anyone else.

To appreciate the difference between relative vs. absolute fitness (or utility), imagine that you are a member of a group and can act in a way that generates $100 dollars for everyone, including yourself, at a personal cost of only $1. That makes you $99 richer and everyone else $100 richer. If you care only about your absolute profit, you will embark upon this action. If you care only about your profit relative to others in your group, you will avoid this action. The fact is, in many situations people do pick the equivalent of the second option because they care about being on top more than their absolute welfare.

According to the economist Robert Frank, rethinking economic theory to reflect the fact that “life is graded on a curve” will eventually make Charles Darwin, not Adam Smith, the acknowledged father of economics 4. For Darwin, the problem he faced was that natural selection among individuals within groups cannot explain the evolution of prosocial behaviors. His solution was to add another level of natural selection—among groups in a multi-group population. Here is how he put it in one of his canonical statements with human groups in mind5.

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and advancement of the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element of their success, the standard of morality and number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase (p. 166).

Two-level selection (between individuals within groups and between groups in a multi-group population) gave evolutionary theory the capacity to explain both disruptive self-serving behaviors (favored by within-group selection) and prosocial behaviors (favored by between-group selection) in any social species. The question of which level of selection prevails, or if both operate to a degree (resulting in a mix of antisocial and prosocial behaviors), is an empirical matter that must be examined on a case by case basis. Within-group selection is the dominating force in many social species, as I have already noted. These are “life’s a bitch and then you die” societies that none of us would want to live in. They have persisted for thousands of generations and will continue to persist unless there is a shift in the balance between levels of selection.

In other species, between-group selection is the dominating force. Members of groups evolve to be so prosocial that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right. This is called a major evolutionary transition6 and it has occurred repeatedly during the history of life, including the first cells, nucleated cells as groups of bacterial cells, multi-cellular organisms as groups of nucleated cells, and social insect colonies as groups of individual insects. Life itself might have originated as groups of cooperating molecular interactions. Literally every unit that we call an organism is in fact a highly regulated society of lower-level units that evolved by higher-level selection.

One of the most profound developments in evolutionary thought during the last three decades is to see our species as evolution’s newest major transition7. Our ability to suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups and to coordinate our activities to achieve collective benefits has been baked into our psyches by thousands of generations of genetic evolution. It includes our moral sense, our ability to think in terms of a shared inventory of symbols, and our ability to transmit large amounts of learned information across generations. It includes mental activities that qualify as conscious and intentional, along with many other mental activities that take place beneath conscious awareness. As Alexis d’Toqueville perceptively observed8, “The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.”

This is the genetically innate and culturally elaborated psychology that sprang to life on pirate ships during their extraordinarily brief history. More generally, it is the view of human nature and society that has emerged from evolutionary theory. The question now becomes: How can all of that be described by economists as a form of self-interest?

Leeson and I agree that there was an adaptive logic to pirate behavior. What they did resulted in benefits, compared to many other ways that they could have behaved. I attribute the adaptive behaviors to a complex moral psychology that evolved by a process of between-group selection and was largely invoked on pirate ships, although some contemporaneous cultural group selection might well have also taken place.

Leeson explains the same behaviors in terms of rational choice theory from economics, which he describes this way (p5):

First, individuals are self-interested. This doesn’t mean that they never care about anyone other than themselves. It just means that most of us, most of the time, are more interested in benefitting themselves and those closest to us than we’re interested in benefiting others. Second, individuals are rational. This doesn’t mean that they’re robots or infallible. It just means individuals try to achieve their self-interested goals in the best ways they know how. Third, individuals respond to incentives. When the cost of an activity rises, individuals do less of it. When the cost of an activity falls, they do more of it. The reverse is true for the benefit of an activity. When the benefit of an activity rises, we do more of it. When the benefit falls, we do less of it. In short, people try to avoid costs and capture benefits…It’s not just that economics can be applied to pirates. Rational choice is the only way to truly understand flamboyant, bizarre, and downright shocking pirate practices.

Given that I have offered another account, either one is wrong or a translation manual is required to show how they are consistent with each other. That won’t be easy. As Robert Frank noted, the rational actor doesn’t compare his benefits to anyone else’s benefit. Pirates were obsessively comparative, making sure that benefits were shared and calibrated to the contribution to group effort. Also, the rational actor is morally tone deaf. He might have an interest in the welfare of others, but that interest does absolutely no explanatory work in Leeson’s framework and might as well not exist at all. How can that account be squared with my account, which is centered on human moral psychology?

Let’s spend a little more time on moral psychology. In an interview that I conducted with the moral philosopher Simon Blackburn, I asked him to define morality as he would in an introductory philosophy class, without any reference to evolution. Here is what he said:

I think at its simplest it’s a system whereby we put pressure on ourselves and others to conform to certain kinds of behavior. That’s the side of morality that is perhaps most obviously associated with rules, with boundaries to conduct, with limiting criminal behavior when the rules are transgressed. On top of that, there’s an element of morality that is concerned more with our sentiments and emotions, for example with sympathy and our capacity to feel sympathy at others’ distress and a corresponding motivation to do something about it. So there are two sides to morality, one more coercive and the second more gentle and humane.

What’s remarkable about this conventional description of morality is how well it accords with my evolutionary account. A translation manual is scarcely necessary. The coercive side of the morality coin insures that prosocial behaviors within the group will not be exploited. Given a safe social environment, people are free to express their genuinely prosocial impulses to their fullest degree.

Human moral psychology is infused with “we-ness”. Who falls within the moral circle, qualifying as part of “we”? What should “we” do to maximize our collective benefits? That includes how “we” should behave toward those who are not included in our moral circle and qualify as “them”? In the strongest moral communities, the sense of “we-ness” is so strong that the group is described by their own members as a single organism, with the individuals playing an organ-like role—a metaphor that has now been affirmed by the concept of major evolutionary transitions.

In most moral communities, the word “selfish” is reserved for behaviors that benefit the selfish actor at the expense of the common good, which fits well with the definition of selfishness in MLS theory, as the primarily disruptive products of within-group selection. Prosocial behaviors are not called selfish, even when the actor benefits along with everyone else. Indeed, most religious moral systems promise abundant personal benefits to their believers, both in this life and the next. Moreover, when prosocial behaviors are analyzed in detail, they actually qualify as altruistic as defined by MLS theory. In other words, they typically require time, energy, and risk on the part of the prosocial individual that lower relative fitness within groups. They are like the individual that gains a mere $99, compared to $100 for everyone else. Between-group selection is required to make up for this negative differential.

In short, the study of human moral systems, first by philosophers and increasingly by behavioral scientists, is highly consilient with MLS theory. The rational actor model in economics is not. Either the rational actor model is just plain wrong or a lot of work will be required to show how it squares with both evolutionary theory and human moral psychology…”

  1. Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Wilson, D. S. (2017). Reaching a New Plateau for the Acceptance of Multilevel Selection. Retrieved from
  4. Frank, R. (2011). The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (Vol. 2 vol.). London, UK: John Murray.
  6. Maynard Smith, J., & Szathmary, E. (1999). The origins of life: from the birth of life to the origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Wilson, E. O. (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Norton.
  8. Tocqueville, A. de. (1835). Democracy in America. New York: Penguin Classic.

Having read the above, I was left with a deep nagging feeling that the author was trying to convey esoteric information for those of us who have a discerning mind and a thirst for understanding of the present-day political machinations, whether it was local, regional or global. For me at least, it explains a lot and it bolsters even more the conclusions in my last blog article Eco-Genocidal System Violence of our Private Money System Still Unseen, by exposing the hidden structural institutional framework governed by the modern day pirates within the “shadow government” or “deep state” system.

Interestingly, this piracy ushered in by the industrial revolution survives up to this day due mainly to cooperative collusion among the pirates themselves, buttressed by an institutional framework called the “square of power.”

As explained by Neil Ferguson in The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000:

“…The basic institutional framework I have in mind may be thought of as a square. To put it simply, the exigencies of war finance had led by the eighteenth century to the evolution of an optimal combination of four institutions. First, as illustrated in the top left-hand corner of Figure 1, there was a professional tax-gathering bureaucracy. Salaried officials proved to be better at revenue raising than local property owners or private tax “farmers,” who tended to retain a larger proportion of tax revenue for themselves. Second, parliamentary institutions in which taxpayers were granted a measure of political representation tended to enhance the amount of revenue a state could raise, in that taxation could be “traded” for other legislation and the entire budgetary process legitimated. Third, a system of national debt allowed a state to anticipate tax revenues in the event of a sudden increase in expenditure, such as that caused by a war. The benefit of borrowing was that it allowed the costs of wars to be spread over time, thus “smoothing” the necessary taxation. Finally, a central bank was required not only to manage debt issuance but also to exact seigniorage from the issuance of paper money, which the bank monopolized.


Though each of these four institutions had deep historical roots, it was in Britain after the Glorious Revolution that their potential in combination was realized – though it should be made clear at once that Hanoverian reality fell some way short of the ideal type I have just described. The Excise, Parliament, the National Debt and the Bank of England nevertheless formed a kind of institutional “square of power” which was superior to any alternative arrangement – notably the French system of privatized tax collection based on sales of office and tax “farming,” minimal representation in the form of the parlements, a fragmented and expensive system of borrowing and no central monetary authority.

It was not just its revenue-raising property that made the British “square” superior to rival systems. It was also the more or less unintended side-effects it had on the private sector of the economy. To speak in general terms, the need for an efficient tax-gathering bureaucracy implied a need for a system of formal education, to ensure an adequate supply of civil servants who were both literate and numerate. Secondly, the existence of a parliament almost certainly enhanced the quality of legislation in the sphere of private property rights. Thirdly, the development of a sophisticated system of government borrowing through a funded national debt encouraged financial innovation in the private sector. Far from “crowding out” private investment, high levels of government bond issuance widened and deepened the capital market, creating new opportunities for the issuance and trading of corporate bonds and equities, especially in peacetime when the state no longer needed to borrow. Finally, a central bank with a monopoly over note-issue and the government’s current account was also capable of developing functions – such as manager of the exchange rate or lender of last resort – which tended to stabilize the credit system as a whole by reducing the risk of financial crises or banking panics. In these ways, institutions that initially existed to serve the state by financing war also fostered the development of the economy as a whole. Better secondary and higher education, the rule of law (especially with respect to property), the expansion of financial markets and the stabilization of the credit system: these were vital institutional preconditions for the industrial revolution. –

Ferguson, N. (2018). The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 [Kindle Android version] location 282-302.

So here is how I decode the above into a coherent understanding and meaning of the eco-genocidal system violence that is currently being perpetuated by the present pirate class of the “shadow government” and “deep state” system. In effect, they have plundered and are continuing to barbarically plunder and steal the life-blood of our planet, societies and our bodies for their multiplying money-cancer collective gains.

Multilevel selection evolutionary theory provides the understanding that survivability of this minority pirate class depends absolutely on their cooperation and collusion among themselves, and this “square of power” consolidates this cancerous power while it starves the majority of the masses of their livelihood. By also financing and legitimizing  wars on any and everything, and fragmenting using identity politics to deceive, distract and destroy the comradery of the masses, their hope is that the masses would never be able to cooperate as a group and this should give them an upper hand in the between-group evolutionary selection process. They know fully well, that if we were able to self-organize and cooperate and make sacrifices for each other as an altruistic group, that we would win!

In this light, President Trump may be doing all of us a favor by undermining the cohesiveness and solidarity among the pirate class, and this may explain why the military generals and CIA senior operatives are now taking over pivotal posts within the administration and mainstream media to maintain stability and to maintain their dominant hegemony and hide in plain sight the plundering and stealing of resources that is about to ensue.

Thus, more than ever before, those of us in the masses have to band together, take some risk and and use our time and energy to speak the unspeakable truth to pirated power, and help to transform our global culture from one based on violent, competitive dominations and division among ourselves to one governed by peaceful, cooperative partnerships and co-existence.





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