February 2, 2014

Anti-Human Nature

Another from the Edge forum on obsolete scientific ideas:
Peter Richerson 
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of California-Davis; Visiting Professor, Institute of Archaeology, University College London 
[Anti-]Human Nature 
The concept of human nature has considerable currency among evolutionists who are interested in humans. Yet when examined closely it is vacuous. Worse, it confuses the thought processes of those who attempt to use it. Useful concepts are those that cut nature at its joints. Human nature smashes bones. 
Human nature implies that our species is characterized by common core of features that define us. Evolutionary biology teaches us that this sort of essentialist concept of species is wrong. A species is an assemblage of variable individuals, albeit individuals who are sufficiently genetically similar that they can successful interbreed. Most species share most of their genes with ancestral and related species, as we do with other apes. In most species, ample genetic variation ensures that no two individuals are genetically identical. Many species contain geographically structured genetic variation, as the modern humans do. A few tens of thousands of years ago, our genus seemed to have comprised of at a couple of African "species" and three Eurasian ones, all of which interbred enough to leave traces in living genomes. Most species, and the populations of which they are composed, are relentlessly evolving. The human populations that have adopted agriculture in the Holocene have undergone a wave of genetic changes to adapt to a diet rich in starchy staples other agricultural products, and to an environment rich in epidemic pathogens taking advantage of dense, settled human populations. Some contemporary human populations today are subject to new selective pressures owing to "diseases of abundance." The evolution of resistance to such diseases is detectable. Some geneticists argue that genes affecting our behavior have come under recent selection to adapt to life in complex societies. 
The concept of human nature causes people to look for explanations under the wrong rock. Take the most famous human nature argument: are people by nature good or evil? In recent years, experimentalists have conducted tragedy of the commons games and observed how people solve the tragedy (if they do). A common finding is that roughly a third of participants act as selfless leaders, using whatever tools the experimenters make available to solve the dilemma of cooperation, roughly a tenth are selfish exploiters of any cooperation that arises, and the balance are guarded cooperators with flexible morals. This result comports with everyone's personal experience, some people are routinely honest and generous, a few are downright psychopathic, and many people fall somewhere in between. Human society would be entirely different if this were not so. The human nature debate on the topic was sterile because it did not attend to something we all know if we stop to think about it. 
Darwin's great contribution to biology was to abandon essentialism and focus on variation and its transmission. He made remarkable progress even though organic inheritance was a black box in his day. He also got the main problem of human variability right. In the Descent of Man, he argued that humans were biologically a rather ordinary species with a rather ordinary amount of geographical variation. Yet, in many ways, the amount human behavioral variation is far outside the range of other species. The Fuegans adapted to a hunting and gathering life on the Straits of Magellan were sharply different from a leisured gentleman naturalist from Shrewsbury. But these differences mainly owe to different customs and traditions, not mainly to organic differences. He also realized that the evolution of traditions responded to selective processes other than natural selection. Traditions are shaped by human choices a little like the artificial selection of domesticates, with natural selection playing a subordinate role. 
In his Sketch on an infant Darwin described how readily children learn from their caregivers. The inheritance of traditions, customs, and language is relatively easy to observe with the tools of a 19th Century naturalist compared to intricacies of genetic inheritance, which is still yielding fundamental secrets to the high tech tools of molecular biology. Recent work on the mechanisms underlying imitation and teaching has begun to reveal the more deeply hidden cognitive components of these processes and the results underpin Darwin's phenomenological account of tradition acquisition and evolution. 
In no field is the deficiency of the human nature concept better illustrated than in its use to try to understand learning, culture and cultural evolution. Human nature thinking leads to the conclusion that causes of behavior can be divided into nature and nurture. Nature is conceived of as causally prior to nurture both in evolutionary and developmental time. What evolves is nature and cultural variation, whatever it is, has to the causal handmaiden of nature. This is simply counterfactual. If the dim window stone tools give us does not lie, culture and cultural variation have been fundamental adaptations of our lineage perhaps going back to late australopiths. The elaboration of technology over the last two million years has roughly paralleled the evolution of larger brains and other anatomical changes. We have clear examples of cultural changes driving genetic evolution, such as the evolution of dairying driving the evolution of adult lactase persistence. Socially learned technology could have been doing similar things all throughout the last 2 million years. The human capacity for social learning develops so early in the first year of life that developmentalists have had to design very clever experiments to probe what infants are learning months before language and precise imitative behavior exist. At least from 12 months onward social learning begins to transmit the discoveries of cultures to children with every opportunity for these discoveries to interact with gene expression. In autistic children, this social learning mechanism is more or less severely compromised, leading to more or less severely "developmentally disabled" adults. 
Human culture is best conceived of as a part of human biology, like our bipedallocomotion. It is a source of variation that we have used to adapt to most of the world's terrestrial and amphibious habitats. Using the human nature concept, like essentialism more generally, makes it impossible think straight about human evolution. 

As F. Scott Fitzgerald might have said if he had been a little more sober: the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to notice that this bathtub gin bottle is both part empty and part full at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.


Anonymous said...

So how can I use this to sell Soylent Green more efficiently

Idiot Denisovan said...

You know, I have no idea what your final paragraph is supposed to mean, and I've got better things to do than wade through all those quotes on the Fitzgerald page you link to and then try to figure out what you're so wittily alluding to.

If you want to make in jokes for the aficionados (and I suspect I'm not the only regular reader who has no idea what you're talking about), you might want to talk down to us idiots a bit. Certainly, i suspect you'd make more general impact (as opposed to winding up with people staring blankly at the page and then moving on, as you put it a few weeks ago) if you'd cut the reader a bit of slack.

ben tillman said...

Richerson sometimes takes the culture thing a bit too far, but he and Charles Boyd generally do good and interesting work.

The following is an interesting introduction to Boyd & Richerson:


Anonymous said...

Even if an essentialist concept of human nature is wrong, it doesn't follow that there's no such thing as human nature. Maybe human nature refers to traits of most people grounded in biology (for example, traits we have because of natural selection). That's probably the kind of human nature that evolutionists have in mind, and these tired deconstructions of "essentialism" don't touch it.

Anonymous said...

There is no F. Scott Fitzgerald quote--he could have used W.C. Fields or Mickey Mantle to similar effect. It's just Sailer jerking around anyone foolish enough to engage him, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Anonymous said...

Let's just do away with all measures of central tendency then. Because outliers. And stuff.

ogunsiron said...

Has Edge been losing it lately ?
It seems to me that this kind of muddle headed pc science wasn't so prominent on that site, especially with people like Pinker taking a lot of room over there.

consider her birdbrained ways said...

GoldiBlox runs $4m ad (now cleansed of Beastie Boys IP)--if at first you don't succeed...

Anonymous said...

"Using the human nature concept, like essentialism more generally, makes it impossible think straight about human evolution. "

Abandoning the human nature concept makes it impossible to think straight about the limits to social construction.

Anonymous said...

"I have no idea what your final paragraph is supposed to mean"

I think our host's intention was to point out the interactions between social construction and human nature. Neither, when excluding the other, is as powerful as the two together. One has to hold both ideas in one's head at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Simon in London said...

Hm. I agree with him that the concept can be used very badly, but there clearly seems to be a human nature as compared to a cat nature or a shark nature, say. We are an omnivorous pack species with very long maturation, and this definitely affects our behaviour when compared to loner species, say. Huge amounts of our brainpower are dedicated to getting-along-with-others problems, and this skews our perceptions just as much as eg lone-predator species' brain focus on prey catching (while avoiding injury) skews theirs. It determines our culture, and the limits of our possibilities.

slumber_j said...

Yeah, who even knows who this Fitzgerald guy even *is*! Anyway, "F." is like the dumbest first name ever.

That said, I'm really glad Michael Jackson isn't around to see his ideas being thoroughly discredited by visiting professors at UCL:


AMac said...

Peter Richerson's Edge piece reads like a promising first draft. He makes strong arguments against those who sridently hew to an absolutist, binary pro-Human-Nature stance.

His next step should be to engage with some of the people who synthesize evidence and evolutionary theory when discussing these concepts.

I'd suggest dialog with Jayman and hbd chick.

I can imagine some worthwhile insights emerging from Richerson's re-written essay.

Anonymous said...

Why ponder on a half-empty bottle? Drink it for Crissakes.

Neil Templeton

PatrickH said...

He's one of those effectively Sailersphere types, like more than one NYT op-ed page contributor and some other moles deep in the heart of the enemy. Squid ink, my friends, squid ink, spurted in massively PC protective clouds!

Essentialism is essential to biology. Cladism works in the way it's meant to, all that supposedly Darwinist anti-essentialism is simply irrelevant to the question of essences. The Edge guy was trying to kill human nature, not essences. The nurture-only folk are drowning, and this the kind of straw at which they are clutching.

Anonymous said...

So, in order to refute the strawman idea of "Human Nature" that exists only in his head, he cites scientific studies that make consistent finidngs about Human Nature ("A common finding is that roughly a third of participants act as selfless leaders..."). Ideology really does make you stupid.

Anonymous said...

Race does not have to mean distinct gene pools with high barriers, as you keep pointing out. Human nature does not have to mean a set of given essential qualities. It appears to be human nature that maybe 30% are selfless leaders, 10% cunning selfish types and 60% pragmatists looking for traction, survival and a fair deal if possible. So isn't that human nature, too: the boundaries around the connected behaviors and their rough distribution?

Melendwyr said...

Human language varies wildly, with some quite stunning variations, and it seems this is due entirely or almost so to cultural inheritance rather than biological.

Yet how and when we acquire language is clearly biologically determined. Humans generate complex syntaxes even when their cultural sources lack them (as in the creation of creoles from pigdins). Adults are almost incapable of managing that task, children spontaneously excell - again, for clear biological reasons.

Without thinking of essences, it's almost impossible to think. Categorizing things and making preductions based on those assignments is the foundation of all higher thought.

Anonymous said...

From the Crack Up, F.Scott Fitzgerald:

"...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."