Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Modernism 16b: An Aside About "Human Nature"

Apologies. Family matters have me frazzled to the bone. Only snippets of time for this blog.

But here's a bone for those eager for something to chew over...

An Aside about Human Nature

Before continuing with my overall points about Modernism and its enemies, let me suggest that we should always drop back now and then and contemplate that minefield topic: "human nature".

All ideologues - and indeed all modernist-pragmatists - base their arguments and agendas upon assumptions about human nature, often explicitly stated, but far too often not. A worst-case example was Karl Marx, whose marvelously ingenious just so stories about destiny and society began with excellent foundation in contemporary economics... then marched right off a cliff of Tex Avery ditziness an teleological determinism that ignored any reference to evolution or real science.

Ayn Rand is just as bad, doing exactly the same things that Marx did, casting romantic incantations without ever offering falsifiable statements or opening her ornate reasoning to CITOKATE (Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.)

When it comes to "human nature," I am skeptical of all explanations of human nature that leave out the neolithic.

By far a majority of human generations took place, strove, endured hardship and evolved during that long epoch. We may have adapted and developed a lot of sophisticated culture since then, but the UNDERLYING genetic predispositions nearly all arose in a context of migratory hunters gatherers, chipping clever stone tools and singing by camp fires, interacting with each other at a level similar to LORD OF THE FLIES.

Neolithic people had very sophisticated minds and tremendous strengths. They had minds basically as good as ours. But they almost certainly lived all that time in systems of power and interaction that were not democratic. Our knowledge of more recent tribal societies suggests that we are internally wired for some degree of fealty to chiefs and shamans. A distressting image, but sobering.

I do believe that we are genetically different from neolithic people is a few ways. The discovery of beer probably unleashed a very rapid culling of drunks, resulting in the astoundingly high percentage (at least 2/3) of humans who can "just say no". (This glass-half-full way of looking at human addiction is rare, but worth pondering.) Likewise, the effectiveness of kings at utilizing harems has been shown to have had a notable genetic effect. (8% of Chinese people are descended from Ghengiz Khan, apparently.)

ChidrenPrometheusIf interested in how culture may continue evolution, see CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS: The Accelerating Pace of Human Evolution, by Chris Wills.

Still, most of our proclivities arise out of neolithic people who were almost genetically the same as us. Leaving me amazed at how MUCH democracy and enlightenment and science we actually turn out to be capable of! The paramount trait of those neolithtic folks seems to have been adaptability.

In the end, though, we are foolish to ignore the fact that we still carry buttons that can be pushed, often cynically, to get us reacting to tribal totemic images and threats etc.

Chiefdoms became feudal societies because that transition is an easy extrapolation, while democracy (as the Athenians found) is hard. Really hard.

Modernism and the enlightenment are hard. They do not come easy. Today there are many, left and-right, who are busy pushing neolothic buttons to try and end the modernist experiment.

Example: I think one reason for the anti-modernists' hostility is the fact that our current high priests and shamans don't behave as mysteriously and in the domineering but reassuring way that they used to (and that they are depicted doing in fantasy: e.g. Gandalf and that horrible demon, Yoda.) Many people do not like the way today's high priests of knowledge fizz and pop on PBS about our steadily growing knowledge & power, eager to share it with all, unlike every other priestly class.

Far deeper inside us is the expectation that priests should keep secrets, domineer, and cast incantations. Very authoritative and convincing. Far more than watching some TV physicist gush "we don't know! Ain't it great?"

Finally, let me correct a notion that anti-modernists never look forward in time. As described by Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic: "Utopianism is back. We are exhorted from all sides to believe in happy endings. Russell Jacoby has just written Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti Utopian Age, a woozy and peculiarly unpolitical volume in which he demands that the old liberal anxiety about the consequences of the belief in the perfectibility of the human world be retired."

EndPovertyAnother example is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs, in which he calls for "ending poverty in our time"- specifically, "by the year 2025." This is also the goal set in a report released last month by the United Nations Millennium Project, led by Sachs. Both modernists and anti-modernists can share GOALS, and even short term political desires.

The difference (and culture war) lies deeper down.

soon... addicted to mysteries...


Michael Bryan said...

I recommend Stephen Pinker's book "The Blank Slate" on this topic, which makes a neurobiological case the those who think human nature is fixed AND those who believe it completely malleable are BOTH wrong.

Rather, our genetic enheritance gives a great domain of flexibility in our haviour to adapt to a bewildering array of unforseen social conditions. But we are not unmolded clay or blank slates, there is still a lot of hardwiring from our evolutionary history, and not everyone is equally endowed with mental flexibility. And there's the rub...

Anonymous said...

I guess for most humans there has always been this conflict between the way they would like the world to be (and feel it ought to be) with (dominant) allknowing, evercaring parent figures and the way they are afraid it really is, filled with soulless objects that are indifferent to their needs.

These two models (although obviously being unrealistic extremes) have struggled with each other inside every human being since at least the neo-lithic.

People realised that assuming the first model could be dangerous (but it *is* very tempting)
and assuming the second model at the very least depressing. So I think that for some people this internal struggle was a motivation to find out what the world is in fact like.

We have come a long way. Our ideas have become more nuanced.

Still there are optimists and pessimists. Enough gaps in our knowledge exist to give them the (pseudo-)intellectual room they crave and this may never change.

The struggle continues.

Anonymous said...

Another, somewhat different, literature on the evolutionary basis of human society suggests that we have strong egalitarian tendencies (Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Christopher Boehm). I'm not sure how this literature fits into Dr. Brin's explanation.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous beat me to a mention of our egalitarian tendencies.

Recent research suggests lots of primates are wired that way. They also get upset at freeloaders, unfair pay, and the like.

So . . . are we hierarchical or egalitarian? The answer is an emphatic YES! There's nothing simple about it.

Our egalitarian wiring can be used to counter-attack deliberate tweaking of our hierarchical tendencies. I don't think the left is doing nearly enough with this. To hell with fair play: Pompous, moralizing blowhards like Rush and Bennet should have shamed into silence when their hidden vices came to light.


Rob said...

Seems like most conversations I (try to) have with my conservative co-workers on what should constitute a good society always washes up on the shore of human nature. They reject all arguments that society should promote individual welfare for those who cannot achieve it on their own because "too many people will abuse any such system, and I don't think it's fair that I should have to support them." They would rather throw away the whole idea and go back to rugged individualism than tolerate any level of free riders. To me that just seems sad, and totally opposite to the rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism". Where's the compassion?

I do get very depressed, faced with this thinking and the reality that people who think this way are in control of our government. With an 8-year break for Clinton it's been 23 straight years of this, and given the results of the last election I don't see the end in sight. I think it's going to have to get worse before it gets better.

Tim Swanson said...

I'm somewhat partial to Ludwig von Mises's axiom explaining 'human nature': humans act.

This sufficiently explains the behavior of even our farthest ancestors, the neolithics.

Plus, by even thinking about disagreeing with the postulate, you inadvertently prove it, by acting.


Anonymous said...

I am wondering about this dichotomy of yours, and I am glad you brought up human nature. Suppose one was a romantic at heart, but believes in modernism. Now you claim that the differences lie deep down ... is it unchangable? If modernism is hard, does it not imply that only the smartest people on the planet can indulge in it? What is a person who isn't that smart supposed to do?

One very common criticism of the ideas of famous philosophers and the reason one should not adopt their stance is that one is not smart enough to appreciate the nuances of their ideas. What can you say to that?

NoOne said...

Dr. Brin said "Still, most of our proclivities arise out of neolithic people who were almost genetically the same as us. Leaving me amazed at how MUCH democracy and enlightenment and science we actually turn out to be capable of!"

Following Gilbert and Sullivan,"I must object, I must object" :-) If you look at human history through a genetic lens, then of course the neolithic is going to stand out since you've just reduced all cultural memes to genes. Instead, if we follow people like Gerhard Lenski, then we should acknowledge that human societies all over the globe followed a progression from foraging, horticultural, agrarian, industrial and now informational stages with some societies "stuck" at certain stages.

Agrarian correlates very well with feudalism.

Industrial correlates very well with modernism.

Informational correlates to some extent with postmodernism. Let's hope it is not just a deconstructive postmodernism but a constructive one.

reason said...

"I think it's going to have to get worse before it gets better."

Don't worry it will (AND SOON NOW)! Reality always intrudes in the end.

As for what anonymous says

"So . . . are we hierarchical or egalitarian? "

Well if we think about small groups of hunter-gatherers it is clear we can be both. Egalitarian within peer groups, but supporting some hierarchy as to decision making. I don't think there is a great conflict.

The egalitarian part of our nature by the way comes into serious conflict with our economic models. Read some recent musings by Ross Gittins especially

Mark said...

NoOne, are you claiming Dr. Brin is stuck in a modernist mindset, unwilling to advance himself to postmodernism? In other words, a romantic for the modernist era?

It's a funny idea, but I don't think it quite fits. Makes for a fun strawman caricature, though. "Oh, why can't we be modernists like we used to be!?" Or, "when I was a kid, we didn't worry about the past, all we cared about was the future; those were the days!"

The more I think about it, the more I realize this really is a trap one could easily fall into. I think we are all romantics at heart. I know I am.

NoOne said...

Mark said "NoOne, are you claiming Dr. Brin is stuck in a modernist mindset, unwilling to advance himself to postmodernism? In other words, a romantic for the modernist era?"

Not really. We cease to be modernists the moment we actually call ourselves modernists. More likely, we're disgusted by deconstructive postmodernism and are reaching for a constructive postmodernism that embraces everything that's good about modernism. When you are something and don't realize it, more likely than not you think of it as canonical and you don't really have a name for it. Since we are all aware of the modern and the postmodern, we're all probably reacting against the deconstructive part of it and are reaching for a truer postmodernism that honors modernity.

David Brin said...

Mark nailed the key element... a sense of humor about one's own limitations... and about the limitations of any one model of the world.

Modernism had many failings and most of those occurred whenever it took itself to be an "ism". At that point Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier and Robert Moses became romantic little tinpot dictators. Mages instead of engineers. Tyrants instead of professionals.

You all know that my deeper fealty is not to modernism but to its cousin, skeptical contrarianism! If everyone were modernist right now, the romantic in me would boil forth and write stuff like "The Gernsback Continuum."

Wait 3 days then check out "appearances" at I might be speaking nearby.

Keep thinking and thrive.

(Oh, and if you know any members of our nation's Officer Corps... military, intelligence, Foreign Service...etc... offer them any help you possibly can, during the worst political purge in a century. Whatever your leanings, these people are our greatest bulwark. Tell them that you know this. Tell them to hang in there.

Tury said...

Most of us are followers. We think we need people to lead us. Being leaders of ourselves (e.g true democracy) is a frightening prospect for many of us. Most of us want some authority figure in charge who we believe is much smarter than we are. This doesn't end at the political level. It goes much further. Most of us feel the need of a cosmic parent who is looking out for our kind. This is why so many believe in a god of some sort. Not only is it comforting and reassuring to believe this, but by making us happy it ensures a longer life than those of us who are uncertain. Uncertainty tends to cause anxiety (stress.) Stress is a huge factor in how long we live. Stress kills. I'm not saying that we should all throw our hands into the air and force ourselves to believe in a god when we don't think of the idea as viable. What I’m really saying is that those of us who can suspend belief or disbelief I think are the strongest human beings imaginable. Uncertainty is a burden for anyone, and it’s certainly burdensome when you call into question something as gigantic as a creator who cares for us. But as Carl Sagan expressed in the Demon Haunted World, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

Tury said...

"Not only is it comforting and reassuring to believe this, but by making us happy it ensures a longer life than those of us who are uncertain." - I realize this statement I made is very general and is not completely true for everyone. I'm sure lots of atheists outlive devout believers in God. I'm just speaking generally that the idea of God is more comforting than the idea of no God, and that unbelief in God can cause a certain amount of distress for some people. (Genetics plays a role in this)

JGF said...


I hope your family situation will improve quickly. My own suspicion on human nature is that sapiens sapiens (us) was an exceedingly nasty primate that ate Home erectus and neanderthalis, but then went through a rapid cull of our nastiest aspects as our population density grew. By comparison, we may be angels.

On another topic, would you consider championing a 'friends of the enlightenment' web ring or blog ring? The latest assault on southern science museums emphasizes how far behind we are in facing this threat. Science as a whole, and "origins science" in particular is facing an effective and sophisticated assault. We need to "hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang apart".

Guardians of the Englightenment arise, your fields are burning!

mungojelly said...

"Neolithic people had very sophisticated minds and tremendous strengths. They had minds basically as good as ours. But they almost certainly lived all that time in systems of power and interaction that were not democratic. Our knowledge of more recent tribal societies suggests that we are internally wired for some degree of fealty to chiefs and shamans."

When you are thinking about tribal peoples, you must remember to constantly keep in mind the fact that you are the cultural descendant of a people who fervently believed that the primitive nature of all other peoples was well demonstrated by their queer inability to speak Latin. This installs in us deep blinders which require vigilant attention to undo.

You say that neolithic people had "sophisticated minds," but the rest of your argument betrays your underlying unexamined contempt. They did in fact have sophisticated minds; furthermore they had sophisticated cultures, philosophies, & even technologies. They were not "primitive" at all, but rather fully developed real people with all of the same capacities that you have.

They certainly did not have the word "democracy," but it's naive to imagine that they were incapable of the concept. In fact there is every reason to believe that humans have created a great variety of implicit & explicit political structures for as long as we have had speech, if not longer.

You must consider your sources of information. For instance you trust the report of our cultural ancestors that tribal peoples they encountered tended to be hierarchically organized; under what conditions were these observations made? In nearly every case our ancestors were waging war against those whom they describe. I'm sure at second glance you can realize that there is often a difference between social organization during times of war as opposed to times of peace, & that this may constitute a systematic sampling error.

Here's another: those societies which were the least warlike, regimented, & fierce were the fastest to fall against European aggression. Those who fought hardest are those who made the greatest contribution to the body of history. Those who survived to the present were those most prepared & capable to resist centuries of brutal aggression. This is both a sampling error & a single-step selection. If you examine (or just think over) the record of history again, you will find that there are numerous affairs where the story is a very short "and then we conquered them with little effort and made them all slaves"; how do you suppose those peoples might have been politically organized?

Democracy is indeed very difficult. In fact, our culture seems to be having quite a bit of trouble with it at the moment, even in those areas where it is nominally practiced. One source we might look to for ideas on how to resolve disputes through peaceful deliberation is in the rich & sophisticated traditions of those few native cultures who survived our ancestors' senseless indiscriminate slaughter & cultural indoctrination. Alas, to do that would require removing the blinders & actually completely disowning those conquerers and their racist views.