Monday, September 05, 2005

The importance of li and social conformity   posted by Razib @ 9/05/2005 12:06:00 AM

Yesterday I posted on the work of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd on cultural evolution. In short, they take George Price's rather expansive ideas on selection as a transdisciplinary force rather seriously, and extend them to create the field of evolutionary cultural anthropology. As David has noted before much of their argument hinges upon group selection, as the tendency toward social conformity induces far greater intergroup as opposed to intragroup variance than can be found in other species (chimpanzees, etc.). A extreme example would be language, there is obviously variation in how people speak English and French, but the difference between the two languages is far greater than any internal dialectical range. There are all sorts of issues I have with their somewhat baroque models (despite their tendency to reduce culture to mathematics I don't find their accompanying exposition easy to follow, semantics is a bugger in this case), but it is important to note that they reject kin selection and reciprocal altruism as being sufficient to generate large social units. The standard evolutionary psychological argument is that these two phenomena are abstracted and scaled up in complex societies. Richerson and Boyd assert that they are not sufficient and that prosocial adaptations and cognitive biases generated through gene-culture coevolution within the context of group selectional units were necessary conditions for cultural complexity. But in any case, no matter if Richerson and Boyd are right about group selection (and implicitly a revival of functionalism in anthropology), social conformity does seem to be a rather "natural" state of our species.

I thought of this when I read the following in The Analects of Confucius - a Philosophical Translation:

...the text as we now have it was read very closely and carefully, and in fact, usually memorized, along with the names of the dramatis personae mentioned in the text, by virtually every educated Chinese for two millennia....
Li has been translated as "ritual," "rites," "customs," etiquette," "propriety," "morals," "rules of proper behavior," and "worship."

I have posted recently that both Chinese Muslims and Jews, two very distinct (vis-a-vi the Chinese) groups had a past history of elites mastering the Chinese Classics to confer upon themselves and their people respectibility. I have emphasized li as opposed to other virtuous characteristics in Confucianism (ie; ren) because I believe that it was the most impactful on the Imperial Chinese tradition.1 Two years ago in my essay The futility of universal love I hypothesized that an abstracted and extended form of kin selection was implicit within the teachings of Confucianism and was an essential component of the magic that allowed 2,000 years of continuity.2 But over the past few years my reading of the psychological and biosocial literature has also convinced me that a strong bias toward group conformity is an innate feature of our minds. The success of the Chinese state was almost certainly in part due to the cognitive lock-step and common feeling of norms, values and customs, that united the elite. To many modern Westerners the slavish devotion to "useless" ancient rituals that were often the hallmark of (I would argue a somewhat unfair simplification) Confucianism seemed to a be great waste of effort. In reality I think that the rituals helped to solidify the fellow feeling of the bureaucratic clique which administered the state.3 A Western analogy might be the period when the ruling elites of the United States were classically educated WASPs.

Prior to the "Confucian miracle" and the rise of the Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese (and now China proper) economies it had been common form to dismiss the traditional religio-political paradigm of these nations. Max Webber famously blundered early in the 20th century when he expressed skepticism at the possibility of economic modernization in the Far East because of their Confucian and Buddhist values.4 But it is important to remember that the State Confucian system was robust for over 2,000 years! In the short term Islam is important because of its violent and demographic threat to the West. But in the long term I suspect China will loom larger. No matter the details I think we have much to learn about that nation, and much to learn from it.

1 - I tend to believe that the last great pre-Han Confucian sage, Hsu Tzu, had the great influence on Imperial Confucianism (through his influence on Legalism, which was implicitly coopted by the state even if its strong form was rejected). Hsun Tzu is often thought to have emphasized li more than the other early Confucians.

2 - To give a few examples, the traditional Chinese custom was not to prosecute sons for aiding fugitive fathers because it was understood that filial piety was more important as a basic value than a particular criminal case. Additionally, the Emperor was often concieved of in familial terms, the Son of Heaven and the metaphorical father of his people and other the potentates of tributary peoples.

3 - In the 18th and 19th century the religious worship of bureaucrats was even mandated to conform to national norms (there were proscribed gods). Additionally, it was often common practice to post mandarins in locales far from their place of birth to diminish nepotism.

4 - My impression is that Japan prior to World War II was still relatively a poor nation by Western standards, that in some ways it was going through its own "Guilded Age" as a small elite prospered and moved forward while the majority lived in relative deprivation.