2005-12-31: On Human Nature

On Human Nature (1978)

by Edward O. Wilson (1929-)

This book is in the lineage of Pinker’s The Blank Slate and others, and is interesting to me on that basis. However, it is not the best introduction to the topic, due to Wilson’s other agenda of promoting his sociobiology agenda. I don’t have anything against sociobiology; however, it is peripheral to my interests. Nonetheless, there are some interesting items in this book.

Wilson points out that phobias (“deeply irrational, emotionally colored, and difficult to eradicate”) are usually evoked by features of the environment that would have been particularly dangerous in the environments in which humans evolved, such as “snakes, spiders, rats, heights, close spaces” but rarely by modern dangers such as “knives, guns, and electrical outlets”.

He identifies a “powerful urge to dichotomize, to classify other humans into two artificially sharpened categories. We seem able to be fully comfortable only when the remainder of humanity can be labeled as members versus nonmembers, kin versus nonkin, friend versus foe. Erik Erikson has written on the proneness of people everywhere to perform pseudospeciation, the reduction of alien societies to the status of inferior species, not fully human, who can be degraded without conscience. Even the gentle San of the Kalahari call themselves the !Kung – the humans beings. These and other of the all-too-human predispositions make complete sense only when valuated in the coinage of genetic advantage. Like the appealing springtime songs of male birds that serve to defend territories and to advertise aggression, they possess an esthetic whose true, deadly meaning is at first concealed from our conscious minds.”

Regarding consciousness, after discussing the multiple levels of transformation and encoding of sensory data as they pass through the brain:

Consciousness consists of immense numbers of simultaneous and coordinated, symbolic representations by the participating neurons of the brain’s neocortex. Yet to classify consciousness as the action of organic machinery is in no way to underestimate its power. In Sir Charles Sherrington’s splendid metaphor, the brain is an “enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern.” Since the mind recreates reality from the abstractions of sense impressions, it can equally well simulate reality by recall and fantasy. The brain invents stories and runs imagined and remembered events back and forth through time: destroying enemies, embracing lovers, carving tools from blocks of steel, traveling easily into realms of myth and perfection.

The self is the leading actor in this neural drama. The emotional centers of the lower brain are programmed to pull the puppeteer’s strings more carefully whenever the self steps onto the stage. But granted that our deepest feeling are about ourselves, can this preoccupation account for the innermost self – the soul – in mechanistic terms? The cardinal mystery of neurobiology is not self-love or dreams of immortality but intentionality. What is the prime mover, the weaver who guides the flashing shuttles? Too simple a neurological approach can lead to an image of the brain as a Russian doll: in the same way that we open one figure after another to reveal a smaller figure until nothing remains, our research resolves one system of neuronal circuits after another into smaller subcircuits until only isolated cells remain. At the opposite extreme too complex a neurological model can lead back to vitalistic metaphysics, in which properties are postulated that cannot be translated into neurons, circuits, or any other physical units.

The compromise solution might lie in recognizing what cognitive psychologists call schemata or plans. A schema is a configuration within the brain, either inborn or learned, against which the input of the nerve cells is compared. The matching of the real and expected patterns can have one or the other of several effects. The schema can contribute to a person’s mental “set,”” the screening out of certain details in favor of others, so that the conscious mind perceives a certain part of the environment more vividly than others and is likely to favor one kind of decision over another. It can fill in details that are missing from the actual sensory input and create a pattern in the mind that is not entirely present in reality. In this way a gestalt of objects – the impression they give of being a square, a face, a tree, or whatever – is aided by the taxonomic powers of the schemata. The frames of reference serve to coordinate movement of the entire body by creating an awareness and automatic control of its moveable parts.

This description begs several questions, and is typical of some of errors that have been described and explained by Dennett and others. Still, it’s a semi-intuitive appreciation of some aspects of what must be the truth about how the mind works.

Of course, Wilson is deeply committed to evolutionary explanations. For my part, I prefer to find ways to make the conclusions palatable to people who have no sympathy for that approach. Typical of Wilson’s approach is this passage:

Darwinism has been established as the prevailing mode of biological evolution in all kinds of organisms, including man. Because it is far slower than Lamarckian evolution, biological evolution is always quickly outrun by cultural change. Yet the divergence cannot become too great, because ultimately the social environment created by cultural evolution will be tracked by biological natural selection. Individuals whose behavior has become suicidal or destructive to their families will eave fewer genes that those genetically less prone to such behavior. Societies that decline because of a genetic propensity of its members to generate competitively weaker cultures will be replaced by those more appropriately endowed. I do not for a moment ascribe the relative performances of modern societies to genetic differences, but the point must be made: there is a limit, perhaps closer to the practices of contemporary societies than we have had the wit to grasp, beyond which biological evolution will begin to pull cultural evolution back to itself.

This seems to make an error of scale, assuming an ultimate limit, and then imagining that it might (almost must!) be near at hand. His summary of the neural basis of the mind seems to make a similar error. It is as if Wilson has a grasp of certain principles, but has not fully explored their consequences; instead he treats them as metaphors with which to construct rhetorical argumanets, rather than arguments from first principles. He goes on:

And more: individual human beings can be expected to resist too great a divergence between the two evolutionary tracks. Somewhere in the mind, as Lionel Trilling said in Beyond Culture, “there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it.”

He sees the failure of the institution of slavery as an illustration of this idea, and it seems worth looking in to. The American and French Revolutions might be other examples.

Wilson summarizes the theory of the origin of human social behavior:

It consists of a series of interlocking reconstructions that have been fashioned from bits of fossil evidence, extrapolations back through time from hunter-gatherer societies, and comparisons with other living primate species. The core of the theory is what I referred to in my earlier book Sociobiology as the autocatalysis model. Autocatalysis is a term that originated in chemistry; it means any process that increases in speed according to the amount of the products it has created. The longer the process runs, the greater its speed. By this conception the earlier men or man-apes started to walk erect when they came to spend most or all of their time on the ground. Their hands were freed, the manufacture and handling of artifacts were made easier, and intelligence grew as the tool-using habit improved. With mental capacity and the tendency to use artifacts increasing through mutual reinforcement, the entire materials-based culture expanded. Now the species moved onto the dual track of evolution: genetic evolution by natural selection enlarged the capacity for culture, and culture enhanced the genetic fitness of those who made maximum use of it. Cooperation during hunting was perfected and provided a new impetus for the evolution of intelligence, which in turn permitted still more sophistication in tool using, and so on through repeated cycles of causation. The sharing of game and other food contributed to the honing of social skills. In modern hunter-gatherer bands, it is an occasion for constant palavering and maneuvering. As Lee said of the !Kung San,

The buzz of conversation is a constant background to the camp’s activities: there is an endless flow of talk about gathering, hunting, the weather, food distribution, gift giving, and scandal. No !Kung is ever at a loss for words, and often two or three people will hold forth at once in a single conversation, giving the listeners a choice of channels to tune in on. A good proportion of this talk in even the happiest of camps verges on argument. People argue about improper food division, about breaches of etiquette, and about failure to reciprocate hospitality and gift giving . . . Almost all the arguments are ad hominem. The most frequent accusations heard are of pride, arrogance, laziness, and selfishness.

The natural selection generated by such exchanges might have been enhanced by the more sophisticated social behavior required by the female’s nearly continuous sexual accessibility. Because a high level of cooperation exists within the band, sexual selection would be linked with hunting prowess, leadership, skill at tool making, and other visible attributes that contribute to the strength of the family and the male band. At the same time aggressiveness would have to be restrained and the phylogenetically ancient forms of overt primate dominance replaced by complex social skills. Young males would find it profitable to fit into the group by controlling their sexuality and aggression and awaiting their turn at leadership. The dominant male in these early hominid societies was consequently most likely to possess a mosaic of qualities that reflect the necessities of compromise. Robin Fox has suggested the following portrait: “Controlled, cunning, cooperative, attractive to the ladies, good with the children, relaxed, tough, eloquent, skillful, knowledgeable and proficient in self-defense and hunting.” Because there would have been a continuously reciprocating relationship between the more sophisticated social traits and breeding success, social evolution could continue indefinitely without additional selective pressures from the environment.

At some point, possibly during the transition from the more primitive Australopithecus man-apes to the earliest true men, the autocatalysis carried the evolving populations to a new threshold of competence, at which time the hominids were able to exploit the sivatheres, elephants, and other large herbivorous animals teeming around them on the African plains. Quite possibly the process began when the hominids learned to drive big cats, hyenas, and other carnivores away from their kills. In time the hominids became the primary hunters and were forced to protect their prey from other predators and scavengers.

Child care would have been improved by close social bonding between individual males, who left the domicile to hunt larger game, and individual females, who kept the children and conducted most of the foraging for vegetable food. In a sense, love was added to sex. Many of the peculiar details of human sexual behavior and domestic life flow easily from this basic division of labor. But such details are not essential to the autocatalysis model. They are appended to the evolutionary story only because they are displayed by virtually all hunter-gatherer societies.

Autocatalytic reactions never expand to infinity, and biological process themselves normally change through time to slow growth and eventually bring it to a halt. But almost miraculously, this has not yet happened in human evolution. The increase in brain size and refinement of stone artifacts point to an unbroken advance in mental ability over the last two to three million years. During this crucial period the brain evolved in either one great surge or a series of alternating surges and plateaus. No organ in the history of life has grown faster. When true men diverged from the ancestral man-apes, the brain added one cubic inch – about a tablespoonful – every hundred thousand years. The rate was maintained until about one quarter of a million years ago, when, at about the time of the appearance of the modern species Homo sapiens, it tapered off. Physical growth was then supplanted by an increasingly prominent cultural evolution. With the appearance of the Mousterian tool culture of the Neanderthal man some seventy-five thousand years ago, cultural change gathered momentum, giving rise in Europe to the Upper Paleolithic culture of Cro-Magnon man about forty thousand years before the present. Starting about ten thousand years ago agriculture was invented and spread, populations increased enormously in density, and the primitive hunter-gatherer bands gave way locally to the relentless growth of tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Finally, after A.D. 1400 European civilization shifted gears again, and the growth of knowledge and technology accelerated to world-altering levels.

There is no reason to believe that during this final sprint to the space age there has been a cessation in the evolution of either mental capacity or the predilection toward special social behaviors. The theory of population genetics and experiments on other organisms show that substantial changes can occur in the span of less than 100 generations, which for man reaches back only to the time of the Roman Empire. Two thousand generations, roughly the time since typical Homo sapiens invaded Europe, is enough time to create new species and to mold their anatomy and behavior in major ways. Although we do not know how much mental evolution has actually occurred, it would be premature to assume that modern civilizations have been built entirely on genetic capital accumulated during the long haul of the Ice Age.

That capital is nevertheless very large. It seems safe to assume that the greater part of the changes that transpired in the interval from the hunter-gatherer life of forty thousand years ago to the first glimmerings of civilization in the Sumerian city states, and virtually all of the changes from Sumer to Europe, were created by cultural rather than genetic evolution. The question of interest, then, is the extent to which the hereditary qualities of hunter-gatherer existence have influenced the course of subsequent cultural evolution.

I believe that the influence has been substantial. In evidence is the fact that the emergence of civilization has everywhere followed a definable sequence. As societies grew in size from the tiny hunter-gatherer bands, the complexity of their organization increased by the addition of features that appeared in a fairly consistent order. As band changed to tribe, true male leaders appeared and gained dominance, alliances between neighboring groups were strengthened and formalized, and rituals marking changes of season became general. With still denser populations came the attributes of generic chiefdom: the formal distinction of rank according to membership in families, the hereditary consolidation of leadership, a sharper division of labor, and the redistribution of wealth under the control of the ruling elite. As chiefdoms gave rise in turn to cities and states, these basic qualities were intensified. The hereditary status of the elite was sanctified by religious beliefs. Craft specialization formed the basis for stratifying the remainder of society into classes. Religion and law were codified, armies assembled, and bureaucracies expanded. Irrigation systems and agriculture were perfected, and as a consequence populations grew still denser. At the apogee of the state’s evolution, architecture was monumental, and the ruling classes were exalted as a pseudospecies. The sacred rites of statehood became the central focus of religion.

Wilson says the key to the emergence of civilization is “hypertrophy, the extreme growth of pre-existing structures.”

Even the beneficiaries of hypertrophy have found it difficult to cope with extreme cultural change, because they are sociobiologically equipped only for an earlier, simpler existence. Where the hunter-gatherer fills at most one or two informal roles out of only severable available, his literate counterpart in an industrial society must choose ten or more out of thousands, and replace one set with another at different periods of his life or even at different times of the day. Furthermore, each occupation – the physician, the judge, the teacher, the waitress – I splayed just so, regardless of the true workings of the mind behind the persona. Significant deviations in performance are interpreted by others as a sign of mental incapacity and unreliability. Daily life is a compromised blend of posturing for the sake of role-playing and of varying degrees of self-revelation. Under these stressful conditions even the “true” self cannot be precisely defined, as  Erving Goffman observes.

There is a relation between persons and role. But the relationship answers to the interactive system – to the frame – in which the role is performed and the self of the performer is glimpsed. Self, then, is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but  changeable formula for managing oneself during them. Just as the current situation prescribes the official guise behind which we will conceal ourselves, so it provides where and how we will show through, the culture itself prescribing what sort of entity we must believe ourselves to be in order to have something to show through in this manner.

After describing the rise of civilization in Mexico, a region deficient in large game animals, he turns to India:

India began from a stronger nutrient base than Mexico and followed a different but equally profound cultural transformation as meat grew scarce. The earlier Aryan invaders of the Gangetic Plain presided over feasts of attle, horses, goats, buffalo, and sheep. By later Vedic and early Hindu times, during the first millennium B.C., the feasts came to be managed by the priestly caste of Brahmans, who erected rituals of sacrifice around the killing of animals and distributed the meat in the name of the Aryan chiefs and war lords. After 600 B.C., when populations grew denser and domestic animals became proportionately scarcer, the eating of meat was progressively restricted until it became a monopoly of the Brahmans and their sponsors. Ordinary people struggled to conserve enough livestock to meet their own desperate requirements for milk, dung used as fuel, and transport. During this period of crisis, reformist religions arose, most prominently Buddhism and Jainism, that attempted to abolish castes and hereditary priesthoods and to outlaw the killing of animals. The masses embraced the new sects, and in the end their powerful support reclassified the cow into a sacred animal.

In summarizing the chapter on emergence of cultural evolution and civilization, Wilson reveals the principle of a long-term approach:

Pure knowledge is the ultimate emancipator. It equalizes people and sovereign states, erodes the archaic barriers of superstition and promises to lift the trajectory of cultural evolution. But I do not believe it can change the ground rules of human behavior or alter the main course of history’s predictable trajectory. Self-knowledge will reveal the elements of biological human nature from which modern social life proliferated in all its strange forms. It wil help to distinguish safe from dangerous future courses of action with greater precision. We can hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendents may learn to change the genes themselves. With that basic proposition having been stated, I now invite you to reconsider four of the elemental categories of behavior, aggression, sex, altruism, and religion, on the basis of sociobiological theory.

Wilson dismisses Freud’s and Lorenz’s views on aggression and says: “Like so many other forms of behavior and ‘instinct,’ aggression in any given species is actually an ill-defined array of different responses with separate controls in the nervous system. No fewer than seven categories can be distinguished: the defense and conquest of territory, the assertion of dominance within well-organized groups, sexual aggression, acts of hostility by which weaning is terminated, aggression against prey, defensive counterattacks against predators, and moralistic and disciplinary aggression used to enforce the rules of society.”

In discussing altruism, using attitudes toward religions as an example, Wilson makes the following observation: “It is exquisitely human to make spiritual commitments that are absolute to the very moment they are broken. People invest great energies in arranging their alliances while keeping other, equally cathectic options available.” (cathectic: emotionally invested with energy, e.g. in a person, object or idea)

Further discussing altruism he considers morality:

Lawrence Kohlberg, an educational psychologist, has traced what he believes to be six sequential stages of ethical reasoning through which each person progresses as part of his normal mental development. The child moves from an unquestioning dependence on externalized standards as follows: (1) simple obedience to rules and authority to avoid punishment, (2) conformity to group behavior to obtain rewards and exchange favors, (3) good-boy orientation, conformity to avoid dislike and rejection by others, (4) duty orientation, conformity to avoid censure by authority, disruption of order, and resulting guilt, (5) legalistic orientation, recognition of the value of contracts, some arbitrariness in rule formation to maintain the common good, (6) conscience or principle orientation, primary allegiance to principles of choice, which can overrule law in cases the law is judged to do more harm than good. . . . Depending on intelligence and training, individuals can stop at any rung on the ladder. Most attain stages four or five. By stage four they are at approximately the level of morality reached by baboon and chimpanzee troops. At stage five, when ethical reference becomes partly contractual and legalistic, they incorporate the morality on which I believe most of human social evolution has been based.

In discussing religion, and the difficulty of relating human religious behavior to genetic causes, he quotes Ernest Jones: “Whenever an individual considers a given (mental) process as being too obvious to permit of any investigation into its origin, and shows resistance to such an investigation, we are right in suspecting that the actual origin is concealed from him – almost certainly on account of its unacceptable nature.”

There are many interesting insights in this book, but it also conveys a program of improvement of the human condition that is too facile, and yet extremely remote, to take seriously.


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