The Origins of Human Nature

Charles Robert Darwin, Natural Selection from ...

Charles Robert Darwin, Natural Selection from Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human cultures are as much a product of the human genome (and epigenome) as are individual human beings.  Genes influence “human nature” and human nature influences culture (and the reverse). Charles Darwin guessed this 150 years ago, but only recently has scientific evidence reached a critical mass in support of a general model of multilevel selection. Multilevel selection is a set of dynamic and recursive interactions between various “units” of natural selection such as individual selection and group selection.

“A unit of selection is a biological entity within the hierarchy of biological organization (e.g. self-reproducing molecules, genes, cells, individuals, groups, species) that is subject to natural selection. For several decades there has been intense debate among evolutionary biologists about the extent to which evolution has been shaped by selective pressures acting at these different levels. (Wikipedia)

In theory such co-evolutinary relationships between units of selection could extend from the molecular level all the way to the biosphere as a whole. Mathematical models for such generic co-evolution are works in progress, with the current concentration of effort directed at the individual-group level. In “The Social Conquest of Earth” (amazon.com),  Dr. E. O. Wilson (Wikipedia) describes for a broad audience the available evidence for an individual-group model of multilevel selection including its ecological and social aspects. Among other things, multilevel selection offers a framework for understanding the evolutionary origins of the “varieties of human experience”, including the effects of natural variation and selection on different “phenotypes” of human personality, morality, and culture. As a rule of thumb (an admitted oversimplification), Wilson attributes “selfish” characteristics to individual selection and altruistic or cooperative characteristics to group selection. The constant, dynamic tension between these “magnetic poles” of our nature may account for much of our cognitive and cultural dissonance. I’ll close my introduction to this topic with the final words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Poor Richard

Charlie Rose interviewing Dr. Edward Wilson (two-minute excerpt): http://youtu.be/j4Ltmy4DvNg

Videos:

“The Righteous Mind”Jonathan Haidt, C-SPAN BookTV:

“Jonathan Haidt, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, presents his thoughts on the current political and social divisions that he contends separate the Left and the Right. The social psychologist examines the origins of these fissures and explains that people’s moral intuition, the initial perceptions we have of others, propagates the idea that people who view the world differently from how we do are wrong.” (full video)

Video excerpt (10 min):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHSAXyBg8h0 How do Conservatives and Liberals See the World? (vimeo.com)

“Bill Moyers and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt talk about the psychological underpinnings of our contentious culture, why we can’t trust our own opinions, and the demonizing of our adversaries.”

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan The proper study of mankind is man. Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest; In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast; In doubt his mind and body to prefer; Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err; Alike in ignorance, his reason such, Whether he thinks to little, or too much; Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d; Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d; Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all, Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

TIMN in 20 minutes: social evolution — past, present, and future, (YouTube.com) This video offers an overview of the TIMN framework: its focus on social evolution (past, present, future), its construction around four cardinal forms of organization (tribes, institutions, markets, networks), its system dynamics, and its future implications.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Attachment and Brain Development (46:21) (youtube.com) and a longer version

1:21:49 Dr. Gabor Maté

Social evolution: An ounce of allegory vs a pound of theory

Society in our modern world is little different from the earliest societies. There are four elements: sheep, shepherds, wolves, and scavengers. The sheep are we the people. The shepherd is government, which leads, protects, and annually shears the sheep. The wolves are the corporations which run the sheep half to death, rip out their throats, drink their blood, and feed upon their flesh. The wolves leave enough scraps to feed assorted cadres of buzzards, crows, rats, and other scavengers. All have co-evolved and are mutually co-dependent. Neither the shepherds nor the wolves will free the sheep. Sheep can only escape this tightly integrated system by becoming cooperatively self-reliant.

In another analogy, the liberal class is like the Eloi in H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. The docile and child-like Eloi would awake each morning to find food, clothing, etc. provided for them in the night while they slept. But a few of their number would also be missing each morning. The Morlocks (who lived underground) manufactured and provided all the necessities to the Eloi as they slept, but they also carted some of them away each night to feed upon them in the underground city.

There is no political or economic theory that can save the Eloi. All that can save them is for them to learn how to provide for themselves independently of the Morlocks, and to learn how to protect themselves.

This is a question of works, not words, and tactics, not theory.

Work is a matter of effort and skill, chipping away the marble or wood one blow at a time. Work is pragmatic, interdisciplinary, and non-ideological; with artistry, resource management, critical path management, management by objectives, and continuous improvement. (This sounds like a gruesome mashup of creativity, labor, and corporate culture.) Oddly enough, there once were artisans… and after a while there were workshops with masters and apprentices… and then there were schools and guilds and societies… and eventually there were corporations. This was ever-increasing collectivism. The left might be happy with this except for the now-gratuitous regimentation of life, commodification of work, and alienation from nature that came with it.

On the Hack the State site, Toni Prug writes:

Armed revolutionaries and anarchists hate the state. Social democrats want to be the state. I say we better hack it. [W]e need to Hack the State (hack as reuse by clever re-purposing of what’s already here), to make it do what we want it to do. (via Hacking the State, P2P Foundation Blog)

For the pragmatic, eclectic approach to social change I think the term “hack the state” works beautifully — at least for the digital activists and the internet-savvy white collar workers. Maybe not so beautifully for “mom and pop” or the blue-collar workers here in the US.

But as an ex-IT guy I like “hacking” and I would go right down the line hacking capitalism, hacking the corporation, hacking the bank, hacking property, and even hacking the commons.

Curiously, many such “hacks” already exist in the history of pragmatic, progressive movements in the US. But neither the old-school socialist terminology nor the new-school computer hacking terminology sit well with much of “Middle America”.

My own tentative umbrella term for interdisciplinary hacking of capitalism, corporations, banking, property, and democracy is “Green Free Enterprise”.

Besides cooperative self-reliance and provisioning, to rise above being sheep we the peeps need to protect ourselves from the predators in society, whether they be pirates, tyrants, corporations, or corrupt bureaucrats.

When social animals and people first began to populate the earth they quickly found strength in numbers. Eventually our experienced pioneer ancestors invented the wilderness stockade to keep out unwanted intruders of both the four-legged and two-legged kinds.  But the ultimate enemy often came from within the tribe, city, or state in the form of predatory elites either in merchants’ garb or royal attire–the over-zealous wolves and shepherds and, worst of all, the unholy alliances of the two.

What philosophers of the commons often seem to want looks a lot like feudalism to me–what I might call peer-to-peer feudalism. Maybe that’s fine, but from Aristotle’s Athens to the Soviet communes it keeps turning out that mankind’s relationship with land and with materials and with tools is at its highest an intimate, personal relationship like that between a husband and a wife or a mother and child.  Managers of  giant Soviet farms found that when they gave each working family a quarter-acre of personal land, the yields on those private family plots were ten times what they were in the collective fields. Similarly, one of the most generous and community-spirited men I ever knew would not let another person handle many of the tools of his trade. In many families and communities there are “common” tools for laypeople, but many (if not most) artists and craftspeople have very intimate, personal, and private relationships with their tools. Especially where any sharpening is involved.

Again and again, socio-economic systems and institutions that work best in real life seem to be hybrid, hacked systems where there are checks and balances between the individual and the collective good; where these checks and balances evolve bit by bit over great time (notwithstanding the rare but natural socio-economic phase transitions that sometimes occur) through the agency of both obvious and ambiguous forces that are as complex as the forces of geology and evolution.

This is not to say that unguided, natural social evolution is the best thing. The point is that when we ply our arts, crafts, and trades to the canvass of culture, to the carpentry of social institutions, and to the husbandry of nature we must respect the natural, biological and psychological complexity and diversity of all life; and not the least our own lives; and be informed by the deep, fractal complexity of natural ecology and the broad diversity of form and fit that emerge from natural selection.

Just as we can think globally and act locally, we can think theoretically but act pragmatically and observe empirically.  We must continuously refit theory to the facts on the ground and in the field, confident that whatever works in practice can work in theory, but not vice versa. We must be more committed to explicit, measurable objectives than to methods or even to noble (we think) principles. There is only one essential noble principle–“the golden rule.”

The rest is sausage making.

Poor Richard

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