Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We are people through other people

What Drives Us?
We are people through other people (Bantu proverb)
Homo economicus and Homo geneticus
Two widespread perceptions or theories interpret or explain all human efforts and motivation from one single factor. One is socio-biology, which sees human agency as just a reflection of the selfish interest of genes to multiply, and the other is economicism and the invisible hand, which interprets all human actions as motivated by economic stimuli; that is, all traits that are ‘profitable’ will be chosen and will ultimately dominate. These two theories are not contradictory. Socio-biology is perhaps more applicable at the private level and economicism at the societal level. The more extreme proponents of both theories try toexplain all human behaviours with their respective theory, for instance that we chose partners on the basis of economic considerations alone.

Socio-biologists, with some support from the theory of natural selection, consider egoism of genes to be the engine of all developments and actions. They don’t deny that people can act altruistic but explain altruism as something that is driven by egoism in the first place.The fact that young men waste their genes as canon feed in a meaningless war—or in a dignified battle for freedom for that matter—is explained by the fact that they (or rather their DNA) can ‘count’ on the genes of their sisters being spread and, in such way, their own genes can live along. Or some other far-fetched explanation. 

That the world is not filled by rapists cannot be well explained by this theory but can well be understood with a societal perspective of human beings. If the desire for rape were genetic, only through a systematic killing of the infants born out of rape could it be contained, especially if there were no societal mechanisms against it (and such an infanticide would again be a societal response). Socio-biologists also fail to explain why women in high-income countries don’t have so many children. They could manage to raise four, and well up to ten, children and all would survive, spreading their genes much more effectively than with the current two children. Despite all these objections, it is quite clear that many human actions can be explained on rather simple evolutionary grounds—anything else would be sensational.

Simpleton economicists and their popularizers want to explain all human actions by economic drivers. Also, many Marxists tend to see the acts of different groups to be fully dependent on their economic standing in relation to as opposed to production factors—here the concept of ‘class’ is critical. The reasoning goes from self-evident things to very cumbersome explanatory models. History shows that economic motives and personal gain were in no way important drivers before capitalism. Material wealth has, for sure, always been attractive, but social status and power have always been more important. And economic wealth was not the route to these; many cultures despised trade and entrepreneurship. 

The basic error is the perception that economic drivers are superior to all other drivers and that all other drivers can be ‘translated’ into money. If one studies certain periods in history one might indeed get this impression. The strength in the reasoning is that the economic driver is a forceful paradigm with many self-reinforcing loops. And as a society is built along this paradigm, human beings consciously and subconsciously create a world that rewards exactly this; in such a way it becomes self-fulfilling. But this is not truer than the statement that the most important driver for human development is the ability of an individual to throw a spear farther than anyone else. This ability was most likely very important in a hunter society or a war society, much more important than the ability to amass wealth.

Even the liberal economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (2001) notes in his famous The Road to Serfdom, an attack on both fascism and socialism, that the ultimate objectives of a rational person are never economic; that there is no ‘economic motive’, but only economic factors that influence our ability to achieve other goals. Another version of economicism is the idea of ‘rational choice’ , that is, the idea that one can find a rational explanation to all human deeds. Also, this idea is to some extent totally self-evident and totally meaningless in the sense that irrational choices most certainly will lead to failure in the long run as this is more or less the definition of ‘irrational’; if it is successful it isn’t irrational . . .

The arguments of the economists and socio-biologists can complement each other and don’t necessarily contradict each other. Also, the economists and socio-biologists are often the same people, or the same people use their arguments alike. If economic wealth also leads to higher levels of reproduction, they most certainly complement each other. While there are some indications that success is attractive, it doesn’t seem to translate into rich people or rich societies having more children than poor people or poor societies. Modern population patterns seem to support a totally opposite view. The poor have more children and today they also have more surviving children. Both theories forget the importance of the social and cultural context.

We are tamed by culture
Many look towards animals for guidance on which behaviours are ‘natural’, with the
understanding that what is ‘natural’ is good or right or, at least, inevitable. And, for sure, many interesting parallels exist between human and animal behaviour. But the search in nature for examples of certain behaviours is often coloured by what people want to see. For some reason, many tends to look a lot more towards chimpanzees than bonobos. Both species are equally close to human beings, so why are comparisons drawn mainly with the aggressive chimpanzees? Chimps live in aggressive patriarchates whereas bonobos live in matriarchates, using sex for social interaction and conflict resolution. While social hierarchies do exist among bonobos, rank plays a less prominent role than in other primate societies. Isn’t it so that human beings project what they want to see in the examples they seek? Space doesn’t allow any major digression into gender, but if there is any area where the most meaningless comparisons with nature are made, it is here. Even human reproduction is described in terms of male activity and female passivity, while reality might be quite different.

Nature has such diversity that one can find almost any behaviour there.The long adolescence of a human being is long and slow for a (evolutionary) reason. Whileone can envision human beings growing up in a few years, like horses or cows, or in half a year, like dogs or pigs, in reality human beings need a lot more time. A newborn chimp’s brain weighs around 60% of a grown-up chimp’s brain, whereas a newborn human’s brain weighs just 24% of an adult human’s brain (Gärdenfors 2003). It takes human beings some 12–18 years to grow up, and this time frame seems to get longer as society becomes more and more complex. Humankind has to learn so many things and, more importantly, human beings need to be ‘socialized’. Some even qualify the human brain as a bio-cultural organ (Weltzer 2011), with layers of accumulated cultural learning. Through culture, society harnesses and adapts some genetic heritage.

For instance, let us look at reproduction. In almost all cultures, human beings wait to reproduce long after they reach sexual maturity; in many societies, parents try—admittedly, sometimes unsuccessfully—to control their offspring’s choice of mate. Most rules and customs in society are mainly about the preservation of society and not so much about biology. Ultimately, behaviours that are taught must, in the end, be considered as ‘natural’ as other behaviours that are more clearly genetically conditioned, and they areas much or as little ‘good’ as behaviours that are genetically conditioned. Society andculture are a part of the human species. Without society, without culture, without the mastering of fire or without language (which is a very good example of a social innovationthat is essentially human), we are simply not human beings one is simply not a human being. 

Therefore, the argument that genetically conditioned behaviours are more important or more ‘real’ than culturally conditioned behaviours is a denial of humanity. This is not incontradiction to the survival of the genes because human genes are most common with those of the family, then with those of society and, finally, with those of humanity at large. It is also not in contradiction to the human quest for utility as individuals, which the
economists claim is the predominant force. Human society and cultures recognize both behaviours but have always reined in their forces.

Mutual aid
The Russian geographer, and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) in response to ‘social Darwinism’ and, in particular, to Darwin’s supporter Thomas H. Huxley’s essay ‘The struggle for existence in human society’ (1891), where Huxley applied Darwin’s observations to human society, citing ‘survival of the fittest’ as the predominant force in shaping human society and development. Kropotkin was strongly against Huxley’s perspective. He supported Darwin’s theories about natural selection, but believed that, at least in Huxley’s version, it overemphasized the struggle between individuals of the same species. Kropotkin looked at other animals, but in particular at human society, and claimed that mutual aid is an important principle both in nature and in human development. He cited the cooperation in mediaeval cities, in village communities and workers’ cooperatives as successful examples of mutual aid. He showed how such self-organized voluntary systems operated the fisheries in the Caspian Sea, the Volga and the Urals.

And today, open-source software development is a good example of the successful application of mutual aid. ‘Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph notbecause cooperation is morally right or software “hoarding” is morally wrong . . . , but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem’ (Raymond 2000).

Recently, Sloan Wilson (2003) showed the importance of human cooperation (among others in the form of religion) in his book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. He gives an example to better understand how ‘groups’ or ‘societies’ can be ‘adaptive units’, that is, subject to ‘laws’ of evolution at the level of the group and not only at the level of the individual. Males of some species can kill infants in order to mate with the mothers. This would be, and is, a successful reproduction strategy for them, but not for the mothers, the infants, the group or the species. Human beings (human society) have a moral revulsion against such practice and the person trying it would be excluded from the group. Such a group would be better adapted and more successful than a group that did not have such moral codes. In this way, moral systems have evolved by group selection to suppress self-serving (but group-damaging) behaviours. Sloan Wilson notes, however, that ‘those groups of males who do not kill each other’s offspring might well kill the offspring and appropriate the females from other groups’ (2003: 38). This puts the solidarity of us our own group (people, tribes whatever category) and our hostility
towards ‘the other’ in an understandable evolutionary context. One can lift the discussionone level higher though, where the survival of the entire species depends on the human ability to adapt to new situations (such as climate change). Such a situation would then assign adaptive group properties to the whole species and be a ground for universalism.

All these are just examples of  that societies also are evolutionary, adaptive organisms, where the cooperation of individuals are almost as important as the cooperation of cells within the body.

The unit of survival is not the individual
Perhaps it would have been wiser or better to have grown a thick fur than to have built houses, and to have developed more body fat and flippers to swim better, but that was not the adaptive response of humankind. I venture that the speed of human development and the complexity of human society don’t allow for a sufficiently rapid genetic adaptation of the individual. Gregory Bateson says: ‘the unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment’ (2000: 457). I believe that ‘environment’ should here be understood to encompass ecosystems,
but also culture and society; all of these work together as adaptive responses, and it is only by taking care of all of them that one we can meet the challenges of the future.


  1. Magnificent! I will cite this work in my upcoming master's thesis.
    Thank You!

    1. you can cite the book Garden Earth (forthcoming)

  2. Excellent post, Gunnar!

    It is so utterly important that we re-examine the assumptions upon which we have built the project of "modernity". Modern economists have massively influenced the world's cultures by taking a very one-sided, black-and-white approach to human nature. I'm happy to see that you're publishing this helpful analysis and reminder that human nature is much more colorful than the monochrome self-interest that economists proclaim it is.

    Also, thanks for featuring the Post Growth Institute and the (En)Rich List on your blog!

    Take care,

    Jen and the Post Growth Institute team

  3. Thanks Jen, always nice with feed back. And yes I think Post Growth does a great job.