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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sounds Better When He Says It

Thanks to our old friend Tallahassee Joe for alerting me to this Will Wilkinson article in the latest Cato Institute Policy Report - Capitalism and Human Nature. It's absolutely great, and it's the first time I think I've ever seen a political think tank use evolutionary psychology as the basis of its arguments. The times they are a changing. I have to admit that, emotionally speaking, I'm a little ambivalent about this.

There's something satisfying about being one of only a few pretty much underground writers applying this relatively new science to larger scale social and economic issues. Now that Cato's talking it up, I think it's fair to say the cat's out of the bag. So I should be happy, right? Of course, I am. My caveman pride aside, I am on a mission here and every little bit helps. So, check it out. Incidentally, I can't tell you how many queries I've sent to newspapers and magazines to write this exact article. In the end, I guess I'm glad they all passed - this guy's work is deep and wide, all in four pages. Bravo, Mr. Wilkinson.

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job EC. A rising tide raises all boats...

2/23/2005 11:36:00 PM

 
Blogger analogee said...

His point about anti-trade feelings being really a form of bigotry (I think, without going back for the exact quote, he says something like 'preferring people in Baltimore to people in Burma') is an interesting that I've been exposed to only once or twice before. But it's a pretty powerful thought. If we want to only buy our cars from Americans, regardless of which cars are the better value, why? It has to come down to this. Not that using this as a debating point on free trade has ever gotten me anywhere.

The thought about territorial behavior as being a natural precursor to property rights is kind of a new idea to me. All I know is that, whether nature or nurture, I have an extremely powerful instinct for property rights. I like to share, but I strongly dislike being forced to share. And I see over and over again how 'community property' is mistreated, while privately owned property is maintained, in general, in a better state. It seems almost obvious why this should be so, but enforced sharing seems to be a big value in most peoples' minds. Curious.

The thing is, this all sounds sort of self-contradictory. Ancestors developed to form egalitarian societies, but property rights might have a natural basis. I'm wondering if 'evolutionary psychology' can ever really be a true science. Can theories really be formed, and then shot down by experiment? Is anything falsifiable? Caveman, any thoughts?

2/24/2005 04:11:00 PM

 
Blogger alice said...

Excellent point, analogee. Perhaps evolutionary psychology will be just another in a long line of attempts to explain the unexplainable...the human psyche.

It's not that I don't completely buy into the theory of evolution, it's just that there may be a limit to how much we are truly capable of understanding about ourselves...and proving that that understanding is correct.

2/24/2005 05:40:00 PM

 
Blogger alice said...

I finally had a chance to read the entire article. Good ideas and I've read them before from various sources.

The one thing I have a problem with is the description of our modern society as existing somehow "apart" from us. This almost smacks of dualism. WE created this society from the very essence of who we are. It didn't just appear out of nowhere. Everything we see and how we see it is because of how we are made. A sunset is not beautiful in itself. It takes a human mind to see it that way. And we see it that way because it has a benefit to us to do so. Our economy does not "work". It works because we say it works. Some Martian might have another opinion altogether.

So when someone speaks of being strangers in this strange land of modern society I must heartily disagree. It is the land that cavemen built and we are very much at home here.

2/24/2005 07:21:00 PM

 
Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Oh, have you pegged my "beg to differ" meter. Yes, the world is what it is because of the people that inhabit it, but those aspects of it that are contrary to evolutionarily useful behaviors are here because of people who *chose* to behave differently.

There's logic here that should not be lost. Natural selection only works when there's a struggle, a struggle where specific traits can confer either a competitive advantage, disadvantage, or nothing. There is no such struggle going on right now. It hasn't happened for at least 10,000 years. Since that time, man has mastered his environment, which is to say that you can put a handful of humans together anywhere on this planet and you can bet that a few of them will survive. Two reasons for that.

1. Their genes. The folks who could not hang physically or emotionally or cognitively did not make the cut. The ones that remained, our ancestors were the elite.

2. Their culture. While Homo sapiens was competing with other hominids for survival eons ago, it was amassing a collection of stories, artifacts, and tools. As the only cooperating hominid, these things made a big difference. They were passed down from generation to generation, and ultimately made it possible for a human to be born with quite a leg up on life.

And here we are - our genes and our culture. At times in our history, humans have emerged who took their vehicle off of auto-pilot - Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Kant, Locke, etc. They defied what their genes dictated and they *chose* how things should be. This modern world is because of *them*.

One need only take a quick look at Africa to see what humans do when they are not taught to overcome their "free trade bias," their tribalism, their caveman genes. Look at countries like Togo, where the King, a supremely unjust human being, has just died and his son has illegally taken over. The Enlightenment notions of human rights and the rule of law have not taken root, so it's jungle rules out there. In short, their culture is lacking, and their genes are in charge.

Here, however, our culture is so advanced that we *choose* to have our cake and eat it too by taking birth control. Not only have the notions of human rights and the rule of law taken root here, we are *so* sophisticated that we use them as the very foundation for an industry that lets old coots get erections on command (intellectual property law).

We are to society as our genes are to our culture. See what I mean? We all have the caveman genes in us, and, if they were left unfettered, you might not be reading this right now. Instead of your comfortable home, you may find yourself in modern Africa or the Middle East.

Fortunately, however, icons in human history have come along again and again and shown us the error of our caveman ways. The smart ones among us have listened, and this explains how an entire society of folks who don't understand their own genetic predilections arises.

Can evolutionary psychology ever be a true science? Absolutely. Just type evolutionary psychology into Amazon.com and pick any of the top 10 books. The experiments are real and the conclusions make sense (at least to me, and I've been reading this stuff for well over 15 years).

I think that people are simply uncomfortable finding out what's really under the hood. So, my addition to our culture is this piece of advice - "it's okay, once you know, you're in control."

2/24/2005 11:02:00 PM

 
Blogger alice said...

If you were begging to differ with me because of something I wrote I guess I missed from your answer where it is that we do. (now that's a sentence!)

"Natural selection only works when there's a struggle, a struggle where specific traits can confer either a competitive advantage, disadvantage, or nothing. There is no such struggle going on right now. It hasn't happened for at least 10,000 years."

I guess you know a whole lot more than I do about evolution, but from my understanding it is always happening. I don't understand how you can say there isn't now and hasn't been a struggle going on for 10,000 years. And I must also question whether it takes a struggle for evolution to occur. From what I understand all it takes is for a mutation to be favored or at least passed on to another generation. Maybe you are refering to the human race only. And then I could ask, very naively, whether perhaps we have evolved in the past 10,000 years. My guess is that you will say "no".

Oh now I'm in for it.

2/25/2005 01:46:00 AM

 
Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Evolution as a phenomenon requires three things in order to take place:
1. Inheritance - there have to be characteristics that are passed down from generation to generation.
2. Variation - there have to be different characteristics in the population. This is where mutations come in.
3. Selection Pressure. There has to be something differentially selecting some characteristics over others, so that some persist and some go away.

To answer your question - no, we have not evolved *genetically* in more than 10,000 years. That is the central thesis in evolutionary psychology. The logic is simple - as soon as man mastered his environment, the selection pressures that allowed the *survivors* to survive while the rest perished disappeared. For thousands of years, life and death has not been about genetic fitness so much as it has been about luck and circumstance.

If suddenly, however, the sun became very intense so that individuals with fair skin caught on fire (absurd, I know - bear with me), then we would see evolution start up again. Suddenly, there would be a differential fitness advantage for dark-skinned individuals. Our species would evolve. But nothing like this has happened in eons. Our human gene pool, and the culture that comes with it, is essentially equipped to survive in our world.

Of course, mutations still happen, and when they do, the victims usually die. We could think of this as a micro sort of evolution, but it has no bearing on the overall human gene pool. The bottom line is that the genes that were around 10,000 years ago are still here. They've just been reshuffled countless times.

Make sense?

2/25/2005 01:59:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

OK, we have not evolved genetically for 10,000 years. I knew that (yeah, sure), but I didn't know that it was because there have been no environmental pressures to do so. I thought there were always little changes going on. After all it took a long time for us to evolve into homo sapiens. Those changes were imperceptable at the time.

What about a seemingly inconsequential thing like height? We know that we are getting taller. Maybe this is different than you mean, but there may be other changes going on that we are not aware of yet.

I still cling to the belief that we are not strangers in a strange land. Our societies did not emerge just because of Plato, Kant, and whatshisname. They "evolved" because of us not in spite of us.

Take language for example. We are equiped to communicate. It is hard wired. From that trait has "evolved" all of the beautiful things like music, art, literature and Marvel comics. Kant didn't invent language, nor did he invent democracy. The dude just spent a whole hell of a lot of time thinking, something he was genetically equiped to do. Now, is your point that he wouldn't have had that time if he had been having to hunt lions for supper?

It seems to me you go back and forth (another human trait) In one instance you extol caveman tendencies and in another you want to rise above them. I guess I take a more holistic approach. I think it's all the same thing. We are definitely different from our ancestors, but everything we are, Kant and genocide included, is because of our human tendencies.

2/25/2005 10:10:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

PS Maybe you can help me with this. I would like to email Wilkinson's essay to a few people.
Hows does I do dat?

2/25/2005 11:29:00 AM

 
Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Hmm. You bring up an interesting point. With respect to height, the argument could be made that evolution is still happening. The selection pressures would be fairly benign, only showing a preference for tall people to reproduce over short people. So, I'll concede that there may be minor changes in the human genome that are still taking place.

*However,* it is well known that our emotions are our motivators. Furthermore, given the location of the primary ones (fear, anger, etc.) in our brain (close to the brain stem), we know that they are evolutionarily old. My argument, and that of the evolutionary psychologists, is that these ancient emotions are flexible programs that respond to input by generating output that leads to survival.

It is the culture that has been accumulated by our species that separates us from the Homo sapiens of caveman days. That's it. You can see it in Africa, where they are still tribal and have very little reason-oriented culture to work with. We, them and us, have virtually the same genes. The chasm between us is cultural.

You may argue that the genetic capacity to grasp reason and to *decide* to do things differently than our genes would dictate means that this world is nothing strange to us. I can live with that. What I am saying is that our caveman genes are at work a lot more in our daily lives than we'd like to admit.

Yes, I go back and forth because I don't believe that our genes are all bad. They give us love, which is what makes life worth living. But they also give us status-oriented envy and pettiness. They also give us the "me-first" ethos that can translate into scoundrels oppressing other humans. So I say we have to recognize what's good and acceptable in our human nature and keep it, but *consciously* discard what is causing problems.

Where we disagree is in thinking of this holistically. I don't. To me, there's what our genes want and what an enlightened, rational being would want. Sometimes they agree; most times they don't. And, while I'll admit that the line between the two is sometimes blurry, it's there and it matters a lot.

2/25/2005 01:07:00 PM

 
Blogger Michael Gersh said...

You say it right, Caveman, when you say that this Cato piece is an indication of a move toward a more rational politics. A Libertarian think tank is far from the mainstream of American political thought, but it is a lot closer than your blog, or mine. I posted more on this over at Zero Base Thinking. I think that this is big. Time will tell.

2/25/2005 03:29:00 PM

 
Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Agreed. It's a credible precedent. The herd will notice.

Alice - Just send them this:

"Dear friend,
I just found the greatest website on the Internet. www.enlightenedcaveman.com. Be sure to click on the link to the Cato article on human nature and capitalism.
Please pass this to everyone in your address book.

Love, Alice."

2/26/2005 12:37:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

"Where we disagree is in thinking of this holistically. I don't. To me, there's what our genes want and what an enlightened, rational being would want. Sometimes they agree; most times they don't. And, while I'll admit that the line between the two is sometimes blurry, it's there and it matters a lot."

EC. I wonder if there could ever be a right and wrong to this debate. It seems we are coming to the same conclusion, but using a different argument. You say that we are rational in spite of our caveman tendencies. I say it is because of them. Take for instance cooperation. We have figured out that it is our best interest to work with others peacefully (and sometimes not). We calculate the pros and cons. We figure out future scenarios and decide how we should procede. We are not always right, because we don't have the clairvoyant gene, but everything we do is based on cost/benefit analysis.It is our minds, the caveman mind, much more sophistiacated now, which allows these calculations to be made.

You have labeled some of our emotions as "bad" or non- productive. Let's take envy for instance. Religion has called it one of the seven cardinal sins, so for a long time its destructive properties have been recognized. But I would argue that it is one of the things which spurs us on. We want to have what the other guy enjoys. We realize it would not be wise to hit him over the head and take it because that could cost us too much. But we can work our asses off for it and eventually get it for ourselves while not taking his. A win/win spurred on by envy.

I have been thinking that you might be a bit of a "liberal" in the Thomas Sowell sense. You seem want to go outside of human nature and devise a new strategy for living this life. That is what liberals do (says Sowell) They think they see a better way and then go about prescribing those ways for others. Now I know you are not really doing that, but it seems you may be heading in that direction. Have you read "The Vision of the Anointed"?

I don't mean to be contentious for it's own sake. I'm just really trying to understand what you are saying.

2/26/2005 11:12:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

"Where we disagree is in thinking of this holistically. I don't. To me, there's what our genes want and what an enlightened, rational being would want. Sometimes they agree; most times they don't. And, while I'll admit that the line between the two is sometimes blurry, it's there and it matters a lot."

EC. I wonder if there could ever be a right and wrong to this debate. It seems we are coming to the same conclusion, but using a different argument. You say that we are rational in spite of our caveman tendencies. I say it is because of them. Take for instance cooperation. We have figured out that it is our best interest to work with others peacefully (and sometimes not). We calculate the pros and cons. We figure out future scenarios and decide how we should procede. We are not always right, because we don't have the clairvoyant gene, but everything we do is based on cost/benefit analysis.It is our minds, the caveman mind, much more sophistiacated now, which allows these calculations to be made.

You have labeled some of our emotions as "bad" or non- productive. Let's take envy for instance. Religion has called it one of the seven cardinal sins, so for a long time its destructive properties have been recognized. But I would argue that it is one of the things which spurs us on. We want to have what the other guy enjoys. We realize it would not be wise to hit him over the head and take it because that could cost us too much. But we can work our asses off for it and eventually get it for ourselves while not taking his. A win/win spurred on by envy.

I have been thinking that you might be a bit of a "liberal" in the Thomas Sowell sense. You seem want to go outside of human nature and devise a new strategy for living this life. That is what liberals do (says Sowell) They think they see a better way and then go about prescribing those ways for others. Now I know you are not really doing that, but it seems you may be heading in that direction. Have you read "The Vision of the Anointed"?

I don't mean to be contentious for it's own sake. I'm just really trying to understand what you are saying.

2/26/2005 11:59:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

"The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives. To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility."
Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer", 1951

Ok, EC, I am obsessed. I admit it.
My only excuse is that I am sick and unable to engage in anything other than thinking.

I went and looked for Eric Hoffer and found the above quotation. In the meantime I have also reread the essay by Wilkinson and all of a sudden I had this "coming together" of an idea.

As you know I work with my hands as does my husband the engineer/renaissance man. That has been my whole life and I chose it because I thought it would give me purpose and grounding which it mostly has.

But I live in a world of cell phones and fancy cars (California) and I am always struck by how useless most of it is. Of course I do need rich people in my life because they are the ones who can afford what I do. But I do not really admire the lifestyle because I think of them as being engaged in a lot of "busy" work.

So back to Wilkinsons's article. We are living in a global world and everyone is supposed to be very happy about it because we can now have all of this "prosperity". We are being encouraged to cast off our antiquated ideas and our zero-based thinking. But maybe the real reason people don't like it because they feel there's something wrong. They feel alienated. Yes, they can go to Wal-Mart and buy all of the cheap goods made in China but they really hate the idea of Wal-Mart and just wish it would go away.

Read Hoffer's quote and ask yourself are we really any happier with all of this stuff that's only going to end up in landfills to make room for the newer stuff?

I am not so sold on the idea of an ever expanding pie, because this pie is suffocating every beautiful place on earth with it's meaningless shit.

Now I would never propose that anything be done to stop the pie. I am not a liberal. I think if that's where humanity wants to go, well OK, let's see what happens. But to praise this consumerism (read corporations that benefit everyone) out of hand I think is folly. But then that's human, too.

Pleas remember that these are rantings from some with a bad cold.

2/26/2005 09:40:00 PM

 
Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Your obsession is my compulsion. Tomato. Tomahto.

Eric Hoffer's quote was not about how life in a world of consumerism is futile if you buy into it. It was about frustration. The central theme in the book is that the frustrated mind is succeptible to mass movements, especially ones that are completely irrational. He is saying that one who is poor, who is eaking out a living, doesn't have time for frustration. He or she is too busy.

He goes on to say that it is the "new poor," those who *had* a decent living and lost it, who are the frustrated poor, the ones to watch out for.

You really must read the whole book. It's almost eerie in how observant it is.

Just goes to show you how a quote out of context can lead down a completely unintended path. But, of course, I'm always good with exploring a new avenue. My brain was awhirr with transient nodes of thought after reading your comments.

(Please tell me somebody gets the "Blazing Saddles" reference.)

2/27/2005 01:45:00 AM

 

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