Facebook

Subscribe
Recommended books:
  • The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
    The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
    by Steven Pinker
  • The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics
    The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics
    by Gilbert Harman
  • Six Political Illusions: A Primer on Government for Idealists Fed Up with History Repeating Itself
    Six Political Illusions: A Primer on Government for Idealists Fed Up with History Repeating Itself
    by James L. Payne
  • The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
    The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
    by Matt Ridley
  • You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy (Elements of Philosophy)
    You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy (Elements of Philosophy)
    by Jan Narveson
  • Religion Explained
    Religion Explained
    by Pascal Boyer
  • Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women
    Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women
    by Wendy McElroy
  • A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem
    A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem
    by James L. Payne
  • Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom
    Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom
    by Paul H. Rubin
  • To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice (Political Economy of the Austrian School Series)
    To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice (Political Economy of the Austrian School Series)
    by Bruce L. Benson
  • Moral Matters, second edition
    Moral Matters, second edition
    by Jan Narveson
  • Reclaiming Education
    Reclaiming Education
    by James Tooley
  • Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order (Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought)
    Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order (Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought)
    by Anthony De Jasay
  • Ethics : Inventing Right and Wrong
    Ethics : Inventing Right and Wrong
    by J. L. Mackie
  • Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World
    Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World
    by David D. Friedman
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
    The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
    by Steven Pinker
  • The Libertarian Idea
    The Libertarian Idea
    by Jan Narveson
  • Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More From The Poor And From Ourselves
    Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More From The Poor And From Ourselves
    by James L. Payne
  • Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
    Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice (Independent Studies in Political Economy)
    by Edward Stringham
  • Justice and Its Surroundings (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    Justice and Its Surroundings (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    by Anthony de Jasay
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition)
    The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition)
    by Bryan Caplan
  • Morals By Agreement
    Morals By Agreement
    by David Gauthier
  • Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled
    Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled
    by J.C. Lester
  • The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths To Political Convictions
    The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths To Political Convictions
    by Michael Shermer
  • For and Against the State
    For and Against the State
    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • The Evolution of Morality (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)
    The Evolution of Morality (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)
    by Richard Joyce
  • The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.)
    The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.)
    by Matt Ridley
  • Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice: Essays on Moral and Political Philosophy
    Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice: Essays on Moral and Political Philosophy
    by Jan Narveson
  • The Ethics of Voting (New in Paper)
    The Ethics of Voting (New in Paper)
    by Jason Brennan
  • The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God
    The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God
    by J. L. Mackie
  • Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    by Anthony de Jasay
Login
Search
Powered by Squarespace

Entries in Human Nature (6)

Sunday
Mar042012

On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection

 

[The] history of human societies from hunting and gathering to early industrialism is, in many ways, a history of structural elaborations that imposed constraints on individuals and that legitimated these constraints with ideologies.

 

In Darwinian Politics, Paul H. Rubin made repeated references to a book by Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner called The Social Cage – Human Nature and the Evolution of Society published in 1992. The present book from 2008 is by the same two authors and (from what I understand) revisits some of the same themes. Compared to Rubin, Maryanski and Turner discuss some of the same topics and even reach somewhat similar conclusions. However, they do it from very different perspectives. Rubin is an economist, while Maryanski and Turner are sociologists. Though anchored in their own academic discipline, On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection is as much a book in biology as it is in sociology and contains some powerful internal critique of sociology and the social sciences in general. Maryanski and Turner reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model that has downplayed biological and evolutionary perspectives and led to a "social constructivist" outlook in sociology and elsewhere in the social sciences. On the other hand, Maryanski and Turner also distance themselves from what they take to be “the other extreme”, that culture and social structure is to be explained largely by biology – “a mistake that early sociobiologists once made”.

 

As its title indicates, the book traces the evolutionary origins and transformations of human societies. The discussion is incredibly detailed and goes back to the very beginnings more than 65 million years ago to find the common ancestor of monkeys and apes. The first human societies (hunter-gather societies) do not enter the scene until chapter six. Chapters seven, eight and nine discuss horticultural societies, agrarian societies, and industrial (and post-industrial) societies respectively. By far the most interesting chapter of the book is the tenth and final one, entitled "Strangers in a Strange Land: Evolved Apes Living in Sociocultural Cages". This concluding chapter can be read by itself, and for many readers this will be all they need.

 

Rather than starting out with ideological assumptions or utopian presuppositions about "the good society", Maryanski and Turner ask "What behavioral propensities did natural selection install in hominids over the long course of their biological evolution?", and by answering this question they can answer another: "What patterns of social organization are compatible or incompatible with these propensities?" The general conclusion they reach is that industrial (and post-industrial) societies are far more compatible with human nature than any other societal formations since hunting and gathering.

 

For many generations, social critics of many stripes have held a highly romanticized view of pre-industrial societies as pleasant places to live. Whatever the hypothesized pathology of industrial society - alienation, marginality, egoism, anomie - early sociologists never questioned the validity of their comparisons of individuals living in pre-industrial to those in industrial societies. In fact, they tended to have a collectivist view of human nature that fit monkeys more than apes.

 

... criticisms of modernity are based on a flawed view of human nature. Humans are not the descendants of monkey ancestors, as most sociological criticisms of modernity imply. A monkey might like the world that sociologists hypothesize existed before industrialism [...] In contrast, an ape would find pre-industrial societies after hunting and gathering highly constraining. And, if we look at the historical record, humans left pre-industrial formations of horticulture and agrarianism as quickly as they could, once another option presented itself.  

 

In contrast to the chronological disposition of the book, I will opt for a more thematic approach and comment on a number of the themes in the book.

 

On human nature

Maryanski and Turner note that "many sociologists reject the idea of talking about human nature, even as they incorporate untested assumptions about human needs". The authors insist that by ignoring biology, "we miss important insights that can add a great deal to sociological explanations". They appealingly suggest that we view human nature as "a weak but persistent pressure, manifesting itself as individual preferences or a sine qua non to behave in certain ways". These "subtle and persistent pressures from humans’ biological nature have always been present", they write, "pushing sociocultural formations toward those more compatible with humans’ ape ancestry". After all, humans are animals that evolved like all other animals, and

 

... despite the spectacular, if not dangerous, cultural systems and social structures that our large brains allow us to construct, these do not obviate the influence of biology on human behaviour and social organization, now or in the distant past.

 

On individualism

The authors point out that "even with some hardwired bioprogrammers for sociality, there can be little doubt that the great apes (and the common ancestors of the great apes and hominids) revealed clear behavioral propensities for individuality". Humans are "programmed to feel comfortable in fluid, weak-tie groups". They further note that humans are indeed "far more individualistic than many sociologists feel comfortable admitting, given their collectivist ideological biases". Interestingly, the conflict between individualism and collectivism may, they think, "be lodged in human neuroanatomy, as much as in cultural ideologies" and that, "given a choice, humans appear to gravitate to sociocultural formations that give them choice and options".

 

On social cages

The history of human societies is, in many ways, a history of constraints imposed on individuals. Maryanski and Turner call these (systems of) constraints "social cages". They stress that there was not just one social cage, but many, and that they were often successively embedded in each other. They talk about the cages of kinship and power:

 

  • The cage of kinship was based on kinship-units like nuclear families, lineages, clans, phratries, and moieties, successively encompassing the entire population and leading to individuals being "trapped in a web of kinfolk".
  • This cage of kinship was eventually replaced the cage of power. A bureaucratic structure was first superimposed over the kin-based structure, eventually replacing the kinship system with a more bureaucratized state.

 

These social cages came increasingly in conflict with human nature as they

 

... limited individualism and mobility, imposed pervasive systems of authority from which there was no escape, and converted community into yet another cage that restricted rather than facilitated individualism and free movement.

 

On the evolution of the state 

Once the economy could generate a surplus of resources over and above those needed for survival, this surplus could be taxed. As power was consolidated and centralized, more of the economic surplus was usurped and used to support elite privilege and repress dissent over the perceived unfairness. Ideologies are employed to legitimate the power of leaders and to convince subordinates of their obligations to conform. Religious beliefs also began to legitimate power, with leaders being seen as god-like or as sanctioned by the supernatural. Religious elites often entered into "unholy" alliances with political elites to justify and legitimate the use of political power to maintain elite privilege.

 

Later on, law was also used as a more secular alternative to religious edicts to increase the power of the state: "law increasingly gave polity the rights to regulate and control. When law was effective, it could bestow legitimacy on the state".

 

The authors emphasize that once political leadership was given, it could not so easily be taken away. Once consolidation of power was initiated, "it continued because those with power used their power to gain more power". As the state evolved, the options of individuals to escape the cage of power declined. They may have migrated when possible, "but they typically left one cage and entered another".

 

In the end, it remains somewhat unclear whether they see government as arising as a response to some societal need, or if governments took control simply because they could. They repeatedly talk about governments growing in response to "selection pressures from regulation", but never explain what they mean in detail.

 

On capitalism 

It was possible to see trends that provided an escape from the many social cages which humans had been forced to live in: "The most significant trend revolved around the gradual expansion of economic activity outside the landed estates and the rise of markets". Over time, this emerging capitalist system "changed people’s cognitive orientations and beliefs, leading them to believe that it was their right to pursue, as individuals, the opportunities generated by markets."

 

A capitalist system [was] preferable to an evolved ape [over] the feudal system [with its] subordination to elites on landed estates [and] to clergy bent on controlling the masses for their own power and privilege.

 

However, Maryanski and Turner also think that capitalism was guilty of some “horrific early abuses”, mentioning the “truly degrading conditions” under which people had to work in factories during the early days of industrialism. The only reference provided for this claim is a quote by Friedrich Engels (sic)!

 

On money

Maryanski and Turner point out that governments "increasingly had a vested interest in controlling the coinage of money and its viability in markets generating the wealth needed to finance government and elite privilege". Indeed, money became yet another aspect of the symbolic base of political power.  

 

I recently listened to a podcast from Econtalk in which George Selgin talks about this subject. In his book The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply Under Competitive Note Issue, Selgin writes

 

States monopolized their coinage early in history. But this does not mean that they were the best makers of coin or that coinage is a natural monopoly. Rather, state coinage monopolies were established by force. Once rulers had set up their own mints they prohibited private issues, making their coins both a symbol of their rule and a source of profits.

 

On democracy

Maryanski and Turner also argue that as markets grew and as more people in a society "became part of the market system as consumers, wage earners, or capitalists (large and small)", pressures thereby increased for new democratic forms of politics: 

 

Once individuals have choices in new arenas within the economy, they begin to seek choices in political leaders [and in doing so] they begin to exercise resistance to the cage of power.

 

They point out that "humans have a desire to determine who their leaders will be and to have some ability to limit the power of these leaders". But they fail to note that, in a democracy, some people inevitably choses for others, which obviously entails that, in fact, only some will determine who their leaders will be, while most will be ruled by the leaders chosen by others. 

 

On inequality

Another slightly annoying aspect of their discussion is that they seldom distinguish between inequality of wealth and inequality of political power. They rightly point out that humans have a strong propensity to want to limit the power of dominants (as can be seen in hunter-gatherer societies, for example). But, as Rubin argued, this propensity is useful only when applied to power and it becomes wasteful and counterproductive when applied to material inequality. I think that Maryanski and Turner could learn a lot from Rubin's book in general, but their own book is worth reading as a compliment. 

Wednesday
Feb082012

The Believing Brain - From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

This book supposedly sums up 30 years of research. Michael Shermer argues that we form beliefs first (for non-rational reasons) and then we attempt to rationalize the beliefs we already hold. Our brains manifest a host of cognitive biases that continually confirm our beliefs as "true". We are, for example, prone to seek and find patterns everywhere, even where there are no patterns to be found (patternicity). And we are prone to infuse those patterns with meaning and intentional agency (agenticity). Why we do this has a simple evolutionary explanation. Ignoring genuinely meaningful patterns can be fatal, but reading meaning and agency into meaningless noise is often more or less harmless. Thus, those with a weaker tendency towards patternicity and agenticity were less likely to survive and leave offspring. Today, this can lead people to believe in all sorts of things (gods, aliens, conspiracy theories, etc. are considered). Science is argued to be our only hope of overcoming innate biases.

 

The Believing Brain is an easy read and some are bound to be familiar with many if not most of the results presented. It functions well as an introduction to common sense scepticism, but those hoping for a deeper analysis of the brain might perhaps be slightly disapointed. The book is somewhat similar to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan in that it mixes autobiography with argument in (primarily) epistemological issues.  

 

For me, the most interesting chapter is that on politics (despite that it largely overlaps with this article from which the quotes below are taken). Shermer refers to Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the unconstrained and the constrained vision of human nature, later discussed by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate under the alternative labels of the utopian and the tragic vision. Shermer states his reasons for rejecting the utopian vision:


An unconstrained utopian [which in its original Greek means “no place”] vision of human nature largely accepts the blank slate model and believes that custom, law, and traditional institutions are sources of inequality and injustice and should therefore be heavily regulated and constantly modified from the top down. It holds that society can be engineered through government programs to release the natural unselfishness and altruism within people. It deems physical and intellectual differences largely to be the result of unjust and unfair social systems that can be re-engineered through social planning, and therefore people can be shuffled across socioeconomic classes that were artificially created through unfair and unjust political, economic, and social systems inherited from history. I believe that this vision of human nature can be achieved in literally No Place.

 

Shermer then formulates a kind of middle-ground between these two views of human nature that he calls the realistic vision:

 

Rather than there being two distinct and unambiguous categories of constrained and unconstrained (or tragic and utopian) visions of human nature, I think there is just one vision with a sliding scale. Let’s call this the Realistic Vision. If you believe that human nature is partly constrained in all respects—morally, physically, and intellectually—then you hold a Realistic Vision of human nature.


He goes on to specify what he takes the realistic vision to involve. He says that

 

human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures. A Realistic Vision rejects the blank slate model that people are so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design.


Egalitarianism, Shermer points out, "only works (barely) among small bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property". One of the most telling modern-day examples of the consequences of basing political policies on the unconstrained or utopian vision is the failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the previous century. These social experiments

 

revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”


Humans are just not like that! We are not infinitely malleable blank slates waiting to be shaped by society. The realistic vision of human nature is well supported by the evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory. Shermer lists many features of human nature that seemingly cannot be changed by environmental factors including the inherited differences among people in size, strength, speed, temperament, personality, cognitive ability, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, etc. that translate into some being more successful than others; the importance to us of family ties; the universal principle of reciprocal altruism and moralistic punishment; the almost universal propensity for aggression and dominance (within and between groups), and the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another.

 

Shermer believes that even if most moderates on both the left and the right (especially those educated in the biological and evolutionary sciences) can embrace a realistic vision, this vision of human nature is best represented by the libertarian political philosophy. Specifically he holds that attempts to equalize natural inequalities by governmental redistribution programs cannot and will not work given the facts about human nature. Several similar points (and many others) are made by Paul H. Rubin in his very good Darwinian Politics which offers a much more in-depth evolutionary study of politics.

 

In a follow-up piece to the article mentioned above, Ronald Bailey continues on the same trail and focuses on the evolutionary origins of the intuitions lying behind non-libertarian views.

 

Modern progressives are motivated by an old instinct to restore the primitive egalitarianism that characterized human social relations when people lived in intimate hunter-gatherer bands, corresponding to the Marxian notion of primitive pre-state communism. For their part, modern conservatives intuitively dislike the socially disruptive character of markets and free speech and want to protect their group from outside competition and cultural corruption. These atavistic longings are part of the bio-psychological heritage of humanity and must be constantly resisted if the ambit of liberty is to thrive and expand. Liberalism (libertarianism) rises above and rejects the primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of progressives and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives. In doing so, it made the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and modern prosperity possible. 

 

Shermer wrote a friendly response to Bailey making the Hobbesian point - not made in the book itself - that the natural state of humanity is abject violence and stressing the grave importance for liberty (and science) of coming to terms with violence. Shermer again cites Pinker who argued in his The Better Angels of Our Nature that we have already come a long way towards eradicating violence since our days as hunter-gatherers. Like Pinker, Shermer too follows Hobbes in assuming an essential role for government in the production of peace. But, again like Pinker, he is rightly worried about government power getting out of hand and stifling the very liberties it supposedly should defend.

 

Like so many other writers, Shermer too takes a naive view on liberal democracy (the oxymoron that gives this website its name). He says that it is "the best system yet devised" giving people "a voice to speak truth to power". If Shermer ascribed some of the large number of cognitive biases he describes in the book explicitly to voters (like Bryan Caplan did in his brilliant The Myth of the Rational Voter), he would no doubt be less optimistic about democracy. 

 

Thursday
Dec292011

Darwinian Politics - The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom

The economist Paul H. Rubin has written an excellent study. Relying on an impressive amount of evidence from evolutionary psychology and economics, he shows us how the theory of evolution and the evolutionary history of humans are relevant for understanding contemporary political behaviour. Rubin is convinced that if we understand the ways in which our political preferences evolved, we will be in a better position to understand how we make political decisions and perhaps also how we should decide in these matters. This does not imply making the “naturalistic fallacy”. He is not drawing normative conclusions straight from empirical results. Rather, he calls attention to a large set of facts about human nature that no serious political theorist legitimately could ignore. 

 

Rubin follows Peter Singer’s work A Darwinian Left and argues, like Singer, “that there are evolved political preferences in humans and that political systems must consider, and perhaps adapt to, these preferences”. But, unlike Singer, Rubin does not start out with a specific political agenda but tries instead “to be somewhat more analytical and allow the agenda to come from the preferences”. He analyses which political institutions allow humans to fulfill their preferences, rather than imposing his own preferences on them. He admits to having started out writing the book as a libertarian, but that he has in the process come to question some of his previously held beliefs. It is refreshing that he for the most part avoids moralizing and takes a more scientific and objective stance to his subject matter. Only on a few well-chosen places does he step down from the meta-perspective to take a normative stand on important issues. The overall conclusion of the book is that modern western societies (particularly that of the United States, primarily because of its ethnical diversity) are the most effective societies for satisfying our evolved preferences. 

 

Adopting such a project obviously involves rejecting the blank slate myth – the idea that individual humans are almost infinitely malleable and can be fundamentally re-shaped by society. There are very strong evidence-based reasons against the blank slate (as meticulously gathered by Steven Pinker in his excellent book by the same name). Rubin writes that certain rules and behaviours are indeed "programmed" into us and that “we violate these rules only at great peril” which is powerfully exemplified by the disastrous social experiments of communism in Russia, China and elsewhere.  

 

The themes explored in the book include conflict (within and between groups), altruism and cooperation, envy, political power, and religion. There are so many good and important points made that I will not be able to mention them all here, but I will list some of them and then go on to raise a couple of critical points.

 

  • Humans are highly individualistic and we differ from each other on numerous dimensions. There are reasons why evolution has not generated the same set of preferences in everyone. This explains why human individuality is important and why political ideologies that assume everyone to be the same are doomed to failure.
  • We have a common desire for freedom which is an evolutionary very old characteristic of humans. But in addition to wanting to be free ourselves, we also have a desire to dominate others. Sometimes subordinates can resist this desire for power by dominants but at other times they cannot and we have dictatorship. Throughout most of human existence, most individuals (at least most males) have been quite free. It is only during the last 10.000 years or so that most humans have been living in an unnatural state of reduced freedom. Moving from this state to the relatively limited government powers of modern western democracies has caused a major improvement in human happiness by returning us to conditions that are more similar to the environment of our ancient ancestors. (Which is not to say that the current situation cannot be further improved.)
  • There are good evolutionary explanations why some (primarily male) individuals seek political power. Those who sought and obtained such power generally left more descendants than those who did not. If those attracted to politics use it as a method of seeking status, then there would be relatively little demand for positions associated with the elimination of political power. Those seeking to reduce the power of government in all dimensions would tend to not seek political power in the first place. (This might explain why libertarian political parties do not do too well). “Given this, those of us not involved in government would do well to form our own reverse dominance hierarchy and attempt to limit the power of government.”
  • Certain political behaviors may be counterproductive with respect to our evolved preferences in the novel environments in which we now live. We can learn that satisfying these preferences costs too much, and decide not to satisfy them.
  • We evolved in a world with limited possibilities for exchange and other activities that increase wealth. Therefore, we are not well adapted to think intuitively in terms of gains from trade; our minds are built for understanding a zero-sum world in which we no longer live. The fact that all parties gain from trade, and that free international trade is welfare-maximizing is counterintuitive. Economic thinking must be studied and taught, it is not learned intuitively. The result is that humans in many cases now tend to base decisions on outdated zero-sum thinking
  • One example of such zero-sum thinking concerns our preferences for (material) equality. In a zero-sum world, if some are wealthy, this must be at the expense of the poor. In today’s world, while increasing the incomes of the poor is a desirable policy, increasing equality is not. Policies aimed at increasing equality lead to lower economic growth and actually lead to more, not less, poverty.
  • Another example concerns the envy that many people feel toward the relatively rich. This feeling is linked to a belief that the only way to accumulate wealth is to take it from others, perhaps through social cheating. It is easy to see how a basis for such attitudes of envy evolved in a zero-sum environment. But it is equally easy to see how misplaced they are today. In the market economies of modern western societies, the most efficient and the most common way to accumulate wealth is to provide some productive benefits for others. The wealthy have not in general accumulated their wealth through "exploitation". Thus, in most cases our envy towards the rich is misplaced. 
  • In a zero-sum world where possibilities of increasing wealth by increasing productivity are not available, the only way to get additional resources is to take them from someone else. Those who were more successful at such predation would have been more likely to become our ancestors. If we evolved in such a world, we might have tendencies to believe that such aggression is a useful strategy. This might explain why we have war. However, since the world is no longer zero-sum this evolved intuition is now counterproductive and many are giving it up. This can explain why violence has declined. Rubin observes that warfare in primitive societies was a more significant source of death than in advanced societies, even when major wars are included.     
  • Both ordinary people and professional students of human behavior and evolution have often confused dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The same factors leading humans to (justifiably) dislike dominance hierarchies can lead them to (unjustifiably) dislike productive hierarchies as well, even though the latter may benefit all members. The result is that people may be overly hostile to productive hierarchies and as a result choose policies that actually make them worse off. Rubin takes Marxism to be the most powerful and tragic example of this phenomenon: “Marx opposition to capitalism and the acceptance of Marxism by many individuals (including many intellectuals) was based on confusion between productive and [dominance] hierarchies […] Marx did realize that capitalism was a highly productive system, but his analysis […] reads like a discussion of dominance hierarchies.” The appeal of Marxism (“which persists in some circles even today, when the dismal implications of a communist society should be clear”) “was based on the human opposition to dominance hierarchies, inappropriately applied to productive hierarchies.”       
  • Another error made by Marx and accepted by many others may be based on evolved patterns of thinking. There was little capital in the environment in which we evolved and as a result we may not have reliable intuitions about the productivity of capital. This may explain the Marxian labor theory of value: "This theory is clearly incorrect, but it may be intuitively appealing for evolved reasons." It may also explain why many religions forbid interest: "Interest is a payment for the use of capital, and if one does not understand the productivity of capital, it is impossible then to understand the value of interest.”
  • Voters exhibit many cognitive biases and illusions in the political process that are not so common in (private) economic decision making. (A point made more fully by Bryan Caplan in his The Myth of the Rational Voter). A rational citizen will pay much more attention to deciding what to buy in the marketplace than to which politicians he prefers. Indeed, given that it is extremely improbable that any one vote will have any impact on the outcome, there is no incentive to vote at all. Still, many people do vote. Rubin suggests that people greatly overestimate their individual contribution because we retain the thought patterns of our small-group evolutionary environment. “We are simply not suited to understand situations in which our decision has no influence.”  
  • Humans have a flexible group identification mechanism but it is also powerful. If membership in an ethnic group becomes important for significant purposes, this membership can easily become the basis for strong group identification. Affirmative action (concerning race) is a very dangerous policy because it involves treating individuals as members of ethnic groups rather than as individuals
  • Libertarianism as a strategy would not have been viable in the environments in which we evolved. Individuals with libertarian preferences would have been less successful than others and left fewer descendants. Such preferences would thus have been selected against, but not completely eliminated which can explain why there is a minority who desire a libertarian order. The conditions have now changed sufficiently so that a libertarian society would be more viable today when the benefits of interventionist preferences may have decreased and the costs of enforcing such preferences increased. Modern western society limits the power of dominants, and individuals in such societies have more freedom now than humans ever had in the past.


Rubin is evidently very well read in both economics and biology and the bibliography is indeed impressive, but (as he himself admits) his analysis is largely uninformed by contemporary moral and political philosophy. He is right to point out that philosophers in general have not paid adequate attention to biology. But in not paying adequate attention to philosophy Rubin himself commits the converse mistake (and citing other authors who also ignore philosophy (!) does not help). In the preface he states that this book is an effort in what E.O. Wilson has called consilience - the unification of knowledge across the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. This is an admirable and ambitious intention, and Darwinian Politics does go a long way toward achieving its goals, but it could have been even better if the philosophical literature had been given proper attention. I’m not just saying this because I care about philosophy, but because I really think that philosophical perspectives would have been useful in clarifying some of points made in the book. I now raise a couple of examples of that.

 

His rather quick and insufficiently motivated dismissal of using a hypothetical state of nature as a starting point in political theorizing and his equally quick and somewhat uncritical embrace of utilitarianism leaves something to be desired. He amusingly points out that the closest real-world approximation to a Hobbesian individual would be an orangutan, not a human. Orangutans live solitary lives with almost no social grouping beyond the mother and offspring. He says further that  

 

... rules governing social actions of individuals would have come into being along with humans themselves. Asking about the life of human beings in isolation with no social structure would not be meaningful. Moreover, since rules evolved along with humans, asking what rules humans in a totally ruleless state would choose is also meaningless. Such a world has never existed and, in principle, cannot exist.  

 

While this might demolish Hobbes' particular version of the state of nature (which is wildly implausible anyway!), it does no damage to the social contract idea as such. My point is not that Rubin is wrong, but that insofar as he wants us to stop thinking in terms of a state of nature altogether (which it is not clear if he really does) his argument needs to be a lot more subtle. David Hume's distinction between natural and artificial virtues might be very helpful here. We could agree that a totally ruleless state has never existed and, in principle, cannot exist and that social contract reasoning would indeed be meaningless when applied to the natural virtues, but maintain it with regard to the artificial virtues. John L. Mackie makes a big deal out of this distinction in his Hume's Moral Theory. Mackie stresses how insights from Hume can enhance and refine Hobbes' theory:

 

[Hobbes'] doctrine that men are completely selfish has been effectively criticized by many of his successors, and must be drastically modified. Nor have we found a need for an absolute political sovereign. Again, while Hobbes sees moral practices as being deliberately adopted through intelligent calculation as a means to individual well-being, this seems not to be their main explanation. These are radical corrections; yet after they have been made the main outlines of his theory still stand. He was right in denying objective moral qualities and relations. He was right in seeing morality as a solution to a social problem of partial conflict which is not solved, but rather made more acute, by human instincts and the ordinary
human situation. He was largely right in his view of the form of the problem, and partly right in his identification of the elements to be used in a solution. But his notion of sovereignty exaggerates the part that has to be played by government, and his notion of covenants overstresses explicit agreement whereas more weight should be placed on the notion of convention that we have extracted from Hume's discussion and the mechanism of reciprocal sanctions.

 

I agree with Mackie's attitude. We ought to make the state of nature more empirically accurate. In doing so we make the social contract view more, not less, plausible. Maybe, Rubin would agree? He says that "to understand the state of nature, we must replace the Hobbesian world of individuals in conflict with a world with groups in conflict" and that in such a world "behaviour within the group would have been governed by existing, evolved (not created) rules". Besides, the social contract idea is not (primarily, at least) about how rules come into being, but about the validity of rules - it is not about providing an explanation but a justification - a distinction that Rubin fails to make explicit. 

 

Rubin discusses utilitarianism, Rawls and Marx and thinks that, out of these three theoretical options, it is utilitarianism that goes best together with our evolved preferences. This is, I believe, highly questionable. All of these alternatives are patterned principles in Robert Nozick’s terminology. I think that our evolved preferences go better with historical principles which is shown by our deep and universal concern with reciprocity and moralistic punishment. Utilitarianism downplays reciprocity and gives it only a secondary importance which is not the kind of importance it enjoys in people’s minds. A common objection to utilitarianism (that Rubin does not mention at all) is that it demands too much of us. Utilitarianism demands not only trivial sacrifices for the benefits of others, but can demand significant ones for the benefits of utter strangers (in the name of total utility). Our strong evolutionary based propensity to give precedence to kin (and others close to us including ourselves) is, for example, not respected by utilitarianism (where overall utility is all that matters, not whose utility it is).

 

Only one objection to utilitarianism is actually mentioned by Rubin and his reply to it is puzzling to say the least. He notes that a common criticism proceeds by showing that the logical implications of utilitarianism are absurd if the theory is carried to its logical extreme. He then comments:

 

But the argument discussed here is that utilitarianism is essentially the result of fitness maximizing preferences. In this reading, any implications of utilitarianism that conflicts with fitness maximization for the relevant decision-making group are illegitimate extensions of the theory and should be ignored.

 

I'm not quite sure what to make of this somewhat cryptic passage, but it seems to be the case that Rubin is a utilitarian only with strong reservations. He also fails to explicitly make the standard distinctions between rule and act utilitarianism and between preference utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism (his explicit embrace of Bentham might easily lead us to believe that Rubin is a hedonist, but his argument is concerned with preferences so the principle of charity forbids such an ascription). It remains unclear why his overall argument is supposed to fit better with utilitarianism than with theories in the social contract tradition (including that of Rawls).

 

As I said above, there is more to this book than I have been able to mention here. It should be said that Rubin’s style of writing is a bit on the formal side and the text could flow better than it does. But what it lacks in style it makes up for in content. Each chapter ends with a short summary and it is wise to start with these summaries together with the preface and chapters 1 and 8 on a first reading. Overall, this is a highly recommended read for economists, political scientists and philosophers alike. 

Tuesday
Nov222011

Before the Dawn - Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

In this book, Nicholas Wade seems to be doing precisely what Edward O. Wilson recommended in his Consilience. Namely, to try to unify knowledge in a way that bridges the gaps between the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. Wade is doing a kind of consilient history of the human species by drawing on results from a wide range of scientific disciplines including paleoanthropology, archeology, population genetics, historical linguistics, primatology, social anthropology and evolutionary psychology. There is a special emphasis on the contributions of geneticists and how recent results from genetics can fill in many gaps in our history and adjudicate several important scientific disputes in other disciplines. Somewhat surprisingly, the human genome seems to contain an excellent record of the recent past that provides an interesting parallel to the written history.

 

Before the Dawn is a kind of scientific book of “Genesis” that traces our ancestors all the way back to the chromosomal “Adam” and the mitochondrial “Eve” who lived in the historical garden of “Eden”. It then follows our ancestors through our “Exodus” out of Africa and onwards to every corner of the planet. Along the way, Wade compiles answers to many questions regarding what the first humans were like, how they lived, what size of groups they lived in, what kind of language they might have spoken, their degree of sociality and aggressiveness, and many others.  

 

In some ways this book is similar to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. Both books start at a very early stage in human history and follow our species to the present day and beyond - both books end with some empirically based speculations about the future. Both also adopt an evolutionary or “Darwinian” approach. But the two books are also very different in that Wade’s book is more purely descriptive, while Ridley is more prone to advance normative theses. Wade clearly has an agenda, but it is scientific, not political, economical, or ethical.

 

One central insight, though, that Wade shares with Ridley is the importance of settlement in human history. Settlement was a significant event as it made possible the division of labor and specialization of roles which led to increased productivity. Wade observes that

 

Productivity creates surpluses, and surpluses of one commodity can be traded for another with a neighboring group. Settlement, specialization, property, surplus, trade – these are the sinews of economic activity, setting humans at long last on a separate path from living off nature’s bounty like all other species.

 

From chapter eight onwards, the chronological nature of the book is somewhat sidetracked and a more thematic approach is adopted. Sociality, race and language are given chapters of their own. The chapter on sociality was of particular interest for me. Here he talks about the evolutionary basis of social behavior and violence. Echoing Steven Pinker, Wade points out that archeologists and anthropologists often have downplayed the prevalence of warfare in the past and thereby obscured the important and surprising fact that “modern societies have succeeded in greatly reducing the frequency of warfare”. He says that

 

The savagery of wars between modern states has produced unparalleled carnage. Yet the common impression that primitive peoples, by comparison, were peaceful and their occasional fighting of no serious consequence is incorrect. Warfare between pre-state societies was incessant, merciless, and conducted with the general purpose, often achieved, of annihilating the opponent. As far as human nature is concerned, people of early societies seem to have been considerably more warlike than people are today. In fact, over the course of the last 50.000 years, the human propensity for warfare has probably been considerably attenuated.

 

He also stresses the importance of reciprocity in human emotions and behavior.

 

Many common emotions can be understood as being built around the expectation of reciprocity and the negative reaction when it is made to fail. If we like a person, we are willing to exchange favors with them. We are angry at those who fail to return favors. We seek punishment for those who take advantage of us. We feel guilty if we fail to return a favor, and shame if publicly exposed. If we believe someone is genuinely sorry about a failure to reciprocate, we trust them. But if we detect they are simulating contrition, we mistrust them.

 

The instinct for reciprocity, and the cheater-detection apparatus that accompanies it, seem to be the basis for a fundamental human practice, that of trade.

 

Trade is a foundation of economic activity because it gives the parties to a transaction a strong incentive to specialize in making items that the others find valuable. But trade depends on trust, on the decision to treat a total stranger as if he were a member of the family. Humans are the only species to have developed such a degree of social trust that they are willing to let vital tasks be performed by individuals who are not part of the family. This set of behaviors, built around reciprocity, fair exchange and the detection of cheaters, has provided the foundation for the most sophisticated urban civilizations, including those of the present day.

 

I would like to read this as implying that humans are natural contractarians. Wade, a science reporter, is not interested in arguing for any specific view in ethics. But insights such as these (not in any way original) seem to support the social contract view in moral theory, or at least to support the claim that any normative ethical theory that intends to guide human social behavior that does not give a central role to reciprocity is thereby flawed or incomplete. (The utilitarian view seems to suffer from this problem, for example, as it can at best give reciprocity a subordinate role.)   

 

As recognized by all social contract theorists, there is also a serious problem with trust. Wade observes that

 

Trust is an essential part of the social glue that binds people together in cooperative associations. But it increases the vulnerability to which all social groups are exposed, that of being taken advantage of by freeloaders. Freeloaders seize the benefits of social living without contributing to the costs. They are immensely threatening to a social group because they diminish the benefits of sociality for others and, if their behavior goes unpunished, they may bring about the society’s dissolution.

 

Wade then argues that

 

Human societies long ago devised an antidote to the freeloader problem. This freeloader defense system, a major organizing principle of every society, has assumed so many other duties that its original role has been lost sight of.

 

It is indeed very tempting to assume that he is talking about government here. Or maybe morality. But no! Wade claims it to be religion! He follows this claim by a whole section devoted to the social function of religion, but somewhat strangely he does not explicitly discuss government or morality. This, I think, constitutes a serious flaw in the book. I don’t doubt that religion has had a part to play in human social relations, but government and morality would have played their parts as well, and I am inclined to think that the latter two played much larger roles than did religion. Apparantly, Wade's latest book deals exclusively with the topic of religion and maybe he there develops this line of reasoning further? Richard Joyce’s highly engaging book The Evolution of Morality, is one example of a book that deals with the social function of morality.

 

Overall, Before the Dawn is an inspiring book with more to offer than I have mentioned in this brief review.  

Wednesday
Oct262011

The Better Angels of our Nature - Why Violence Has Declined

Thomas Hobbes’ idea of a social contract arising from a state of nature, Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection, and Adam Smith's idea that people concerned primarily with their own personal interests will cater to the needs of others in a way that is highly beneficial for all, are surely three of the most important ideas of all time. In more recent times these ideas have been refined and enhanced by applications of results from game theory, genetics and economics. Steven Pinker makes heavy use of all three of these powerful ideas in this massive new treatise on violence.

 

Over some 800 pages, Pinker explains the historical and psychological origins of violent behavior tracing it back to its evolutionary roots in our pre-human ancestors and follows it up to the present day. He covers everything from cruelty to animals and the spanking of children to genocide and nuclear wars. His main claim is that violence has declined significantly over millennia, centuries and decades and that, contrary to common opinion, we now live in the most peaceful time so far in all of history. The reason why many people today tend to think differently is also given a compelling psychological explanation, the gist of which is that we are much more sensitive to violence now than we ever were in the past. Also, the media naturally tends to report violent crimes rather than their absence.   

 

But while the overt agenda of the book is to explain violence (how it is rooted in our human nature and how it has been possible for us to decrease it as much as we have given that human nature has not changed fundamentally), the covert agenda is to make a case for peace. Specifically, Pinker makes an excellent case for civilisation in general and liberal humanism and (scientific, technical, economic, social and moral) progress in particular. It might seem strange to call such a large book covering such a vast topic and time period modest, but Pinker is indeed very careful and humble in his claims and even more so in his predictions for the future.

 

Today violence might be thought of as only one among many important aspects of social life, but it is actually central to human coexistence. It is the very core of politics and the central subject matter of social and political philosophy. This is however not a work in political philosophy as such, but it is an excellent overview of the empirical background of which any reasonable political theory must take note.  

 

In many ways, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a continuation and expansion of the chapter on violence in Pinker’s previous book, The Blank Slate, and it also revisits several other themes from that earlier work including, of course, further debunking of the myth of the noble savage. But here also the myth of "pure evil" is debunked: human nature contains both “inner demons” that incline us toward violence and “better angels” that incline us toward peace. Given that human nature has not changed fundamentally, something in our environment must be the primary cause of the decline of violence. Candidates include the rise of governments, the emergence of “gentle commerce” (aka trade), the greater influence of women (men are biologically more prone to violence than women), Peter Singer’s idea of “the expanding circle” and a general increase in abstract reasoning.

 

Civilization, modernity and the spreading of the ideas of enlightenment humanism (which Pinker associates with Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Smith, Mill among others and notes that it is “also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well”) is praised. Among the culprits, on the other hand, one sticks out: ideology. Utopian ideologies that promise a future paradise (like Marxism, Nazism, Christianity and Islam) have been major forces for violence and led to many mass killings throughout history. Pinker notes that religion also can be a force for peace, but this has been so only when the religion in question has been influenced by humanist ideas.

 

While he does not take that many explicit stances in the book, it becomes clear that Pinker is more of a liberal than a conservative; more of a classical liberal than a contemporary liberal; more of a democrat than an authoritarian; more of a "progressive" than a reactionary; more of an atheist (or possibly deist) than a "man of god"; more of a sceptic than a dogmatic; more of an empiricist than a rationalist; more of an optimist than an alarmist; more of a Humean than a Kantian (even if some parts are heavily influenced by the latter). It remains unclear though, whether he is more of a social contract theorist than a utilitarian. He relies heavily on Hobbes in major parts of the book, but he does also occasionally speak positively about "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".

 

There are simply too many interesting points in this book to comment on them all, so let me focus on what he says about government and democracy. Pinker follows Hobbes in thinking that organised government – the establishment of a Leviathan – was a major force for peace. But Pinker would not support a sovereign with absolute power like Hobbes did. He acknowledges that

 

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives a sinister sense of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.   

 

That government is generally more conducive to peace than anarchy in the pejorative sense of that term (meaning disorder) is rather trivial. But whether order is possible without government is an open debate. Pinker notes that

 

Libertarians, anarchists, and other sceptics of the Leviathan point out that when communities are left to their own devices, they often develop norms of cooperation that allow them to settle their disputes non-violently, without laws, police, courts, or the other trappings of government.

 

He goes on to cite the legal scholar Robert Ellickson’s work Order Without Law: How Neighbours Settle Disputes and concludes that

 

As important as tacit norms are, it would be a mistake to think that they obviate a role for government. The Shasta County ranchers [one of Ellickson’s objects of study] may not have called in Leviathan when a cow knocked over a fence, but they were living in its shadow and knew it would step in if their informal sanctions escalated or if something bigger were at stake, such as a fight, a killing, or a dispute over women.

 

It is admirable that Pinker acknowledges the existence of anarchist perspectives (as they are often unfairly ignored), but he does not further acknowledge the growing literature on individualist and libertarian anarchism. For an excellent introduction to this overlooked literature, see Edward P. Stringham’s Anarchy and the Law - an impressive volume that compiles essays and excerpts from books by major thinkers on the topic of ordered anarchy (including an excerpt from Ellickson’s work). If you want a more strictly philosophical treatment of the subject, try John T. Sanders' and Jan Narveson's anthology For and Against the State

 

Pinker sometimes uses laws (against slavery, public executions, etc.) as examples of progress, but perhaps he should have pointed out more clearly that changes in general attitude came first and the new laws came after. Let me quote David Friedman emphasising this point:

 

The modern liberal will claim that it was state legislation, limiting hours, preventing child labor, imposing safety regulations, and otherwise violating the principle of laissez faire, that brought progress. But the evidence indicates that the legislation consistently followed progress rather than preceding it. It was only when most workers were already down to a ten-hour day that it became politically possible to legislate one.

 

Furthermore, as Robert Sugden says in his The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare on the subject:

 

Wise governments do not risk losing credibility by passing laws that cannot be enforced; and when such laws are passed, wise police forces turn a blind eye to violations of them. […] One implication of this is that governments must, if only as a matter of prudence, take some account of the possibility that the laws they might wish to pass may be unenforceable. The willingness or unwillingness of individuals to obey the law is a constraint on the government’s freedom of action. […] it may be that some important aspects of the law merely formalize and codify conventions of behaviour that have evolved out of essentially anarchic situations […] the law may reflect codes of behaviour that most individuals impose on themselves.

 

The historical processes that Pinker calls "the civilizing process", "the humanitarian revolution" and "the rights revolutions" cannot possibly have been driven by laws. Instead, laws are symptoms of these processes. I’m sure Pinker would agree, and he does indeed identify independent causes for all of these processes.

 

The “solution” that Pinker hinted at to the problem of government tyranny is (not surprisingly) democracy. But it is highly questionable whether democracy really solves anything at all as was noted long ago by Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and many others. Pinker extensively quotes Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace and rightly notes that Kant associated the word 'democracy' with mob rule. In this essay, Kant said that

 

... democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which "all" decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, "all," who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.

 

That liberal democratic government is more conducible to peace than authoritarian dictatorship is one thing, but as Bryan Caplan argues in his The Myth of the Rational Voter this sets the bar too low. Caplan says further that

 

In the minds of many, one of Winston Churchill’s most famous aphorisms cuts the conversation short: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. But this saying overlooks the fact that governments vary in scope as well as form. In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets.

 

Pinker is well aware of this and supports both what he calls “the democratic peace” and the “capitalist peace” that together make up “the liberal peace”.

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature is simply an excellent synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a very wide range of relevant disciplines, presented in a way that make these results accessible despite the book's considerable length.