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February 16, 2005

Delenda Est Tabula Rasa

A Ukranian acrobat sent me an email notifying me of this piece, Capitalism and Human Nature in The Cato Policy Report. I don't have much time to comment now, but I will add that I don't think that "human nature" implies one specific socio-political arrangement, rather, it sets the rules of the game (for now) that one must play by, favoring some pathways toward implementation of "utopia" and blocking others.

To my mind, a fully fleshed political philosophy for the new millennium must grapple with reality as we know it. This does not imply that the one should necessarily seek the "lowest energy point," that is, the "evolutionarily" least taxing social configuration, but if you do wish to perpetuate a higher energy state you need to engineer circumstances so that that state is favored and tunnels or gradients toward lower states are sealed off. For example, assume that you believe that there are social goods you wish to promote by maximizing the number of males in pair-bonded relationships with females, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the modal male H. sapiens evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) consists of mild polygyny (between gibbons and gorillas in terms of a spectrum1, though closer to the former). In the United States we mitigate this bias by only legally sanctioning monogamous marriages, de jure banning polygynous marriages, as well as promoting religious and social customs and norms that render polygyny a taboo. Now, one might assert that serial monogamy, practiced by many high status males, is a tunnel they use to evade social strictures and engage in the proximate behaviors in keeping with the human modal ESS, but I think on the balance legal and social restraints on unencumbered polygyny does have some effect.

Take home message: there might be multiple social and political equilibria that can be sustained by the predispositions of human nature, but they are finite.

Addendum: Also, let me add that Will's essay assumes the "Standard Model" of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). That is,


  • One Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA).
  • Monomorphism on the salient behavior influencing loci, ergo, universal human nature (one allele is near fixation on the locus so the genetics of the behavior should not vary between individuals of the same sex).
  • Massive mental modularity (the "Swiss Army Knife" mind).
  • Thorough adaptationism.
  • The Pleistocene is paramount, humans haven't evolved much in their mentality since then.

This is not the only model out there, thinkers like Steven Pinker tend to forward it so it has a de facto establishment cred. There are many who work in other paradigms, Terrence Deacon, who I mentioned before, tends to reject massive modularity. David Sloan Wilson, who emphasizes group selection, also suggests that there are different personalities within a given population and that both morphs might be at an ESS ("High Mach" vs. "Low Mach"). It is no surprise that thinkers like Kevin MacDonald, who draw upon Wilson's paradigm, posit that different groups have different ESSs (understatement). Some try to rework complex behavorial phenotypes not as direct adaptations, but byproducts of cognitive cross-domain interactions, in other words, they believe that a non-adaptationist explanation for many phenomena can emerge from the assumption of massive modularity. Our friend Henry Harpending, and others, who are skeptical of a simple Out-of-Africa demographic model, often reject a unitary EEA. Finally, the implications of behavorial genetics (variation between individuals), and the likelihood of differential polymorphic genetic structure on loci that control behavior in varied populations is suggestive of the possibility that cognitive evolution did not halt after the Pleistocene.2

This does not render the ideas of thinkers draw from the Standard Model null, but, it is does suggest that the science is very diverse and permutations of norms and scientific models can multiply rather quickly....

Addendum II: I thought I would copy something I said over at Will's blog, "the laws of physics are universal, but the machines you construct by considering their implications might have different uses." In my opinion criticizing EP for being "right-wing" (a common charge from the Left) or "amoral" (a common charge from the Religious Right) is a bit like attacking physics for being a "tool of Western oppression" due to its use in offering a theoretical framework for the practical design of weapons of mass destruction or "enablers of amorality" for its role in the mass production of devices for lascivious modern media. Granted, EP hits closer to home, the human mind itself, but facts be facts, what people do with those facts can be disputed without tearing down the theoretical framework they leverage in an all-or-nothing intellectual assault.

1 - Humans are often compared to both chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest kin, but I think it often takes us off track because I believe our social-sexual behavior patterns are somewhat orthogonal to their forms of hypersexuality.

2 - A few weeks ago I got rather snippy at a commentor who posited the idea of a "bioculture." Partly this is because bioculture promoters rub me the wrong way because they tend to be in favor some sort of normative ethnonationalism and cobble together evidence post hoc to support their ideals. Nevertheless, if for example the Chinese are more introverted, on average, than the Papuans, doesn't that have salient implications for cultural expression? I think it does, but I'm not sure what it is. For example, I might offer that the Chinese are more capable to perpetuating a minarchist libertarian state, because they are less physically aggressive on average, perhaps innately, and can therefore more easily implement the "non-aggression axiom." But, I could possibly suggest that the Papuans would find a libertarian order more personally appealing because it would give free reign to their individual creativity and ego adornment. Where does that leave us? When it comes to simple alternatives like this we need to proceed cautiously before declaring one model authoritative, therefore, when people say that certain works of art might be unintelligible between populations because of biocultural considerations, it seems like overreach to me. I think that speculations of this sort tend to far outrun the demands of establishing a chain of causation, or least very robust correlations. In the historical record they are often falsified, that is, the Greeks thought the Romans were uncultured brutes who could never appreciate genuine art during the initial period of Republican expansion, but eventually they produced Virgil and Ovid when their culture matured and ripened.

Posted by razib at 11:31 AM