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Cultural Psychology | curated by Kevin Goodman

Human Nature and Strategy: A More Rounded Picture

I just read this interesting article on Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist that basis his strategy on chess. In a nutshell, people have different values just like the pieces on a chessboard and it’s important to properly assess the value of your human resources and strategize accordingly. It is also important to have a balance between nerds and athletes, which translates into brains and fighters.  Finally, it is important to have a plan and make your moves carefully. I should mention that Peter is a master-level chess player.

Human nature has two sides and these kinds of articles always strike a chord with me because they emphasize the Machiavellian side of human nature. The game is to acquire as much as you can for yourself with skillful strategy. But life is more than a game of chess. Social and evolutionary psychology has recognized that individuals are also motivated out of compassion and sense of justice. Compassion and justice is motivated for the higher social order, as John Donne put it, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Many people have died for their ideas and beliefs, which, as a rule, serve the higher social order. People are not, at-least entirely, Machiavellian; society, however, is, as it has no qualms against sacrifice.

Organizations are miniature societies, complete with their own cultures. It makes sense that organizational leaders are Machiavellian, as it seems their organizations require it. However, an organization motivated solely for the profit of rank and file stakeholders misses an important side of human nature. Organizations that are strategic but also committed to fairness and social responsibility have a greater advantage.

Predeterminism, Freewill, Psychology, and Culture

The notion of freewill is something I struggle with, it is a commonsense concept but it defies basic scientific and mathematic epistemology and ontology. In a world where all change, all movement, stems from other causal forces, which themselves are certainly linked to others in an unbroken chain of prior occurrences and where we suppose that we could know the exact properties of all actors and actions of this interaction then we could predict the outcomes of the situation under study because all things follow a path predetermined by the axioms of physics.  This was Einstein’s view.

In social psychology, there is at times an illusion of a belief that if you knew everything about a person’s intrapsychic processes combined with an understanding of the social processes happening within their environment you would be able to predict their future behavior. I say it is an illusion of a belief mostly because it is implied and possibly not true, at least wholly. If we consider social concepts such as priming, cognitive biases, heuristics, and conditioning then there is clearly a belief in the predictability of behavior. Indeed, why should we assume that people act against the accumulation of all occurrences of the self in a particular social environment that is also the product of cumulative occurrences and pragmatic selection? This is, of course, assuming the self is constrained by the past.

These thoughts were crystallized by reading Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution by Marian Blute, of which I have only two more chapters to read.

Below is a quote by Marian Blute on the matter.

“The concept of free will has no scientific credibility. It is not a theory. Because it can explain everything, it can explain nothing and is in fact an excuse not to seek an explanation.”

Marion also explains that evolution doesn’t just filter the past for the most successful traits but is also inductive because phenotypes are plastic and can have different expressions, environmental changes can induce certain traits that then become genetic. When this process is applied to sociocultural evolution, the defense is made for a constrained “social construction” of social reality. Homo sapiens as symbol user can envision the future and therefore make inductive choices. Taking the moderate stance, Marion promotes both a deductive and inductive version of sociocultural evolution. Culture is constrained by the past at the same time that it is freed by possibilities for the future.

Returning to the notion of freewill, it seems reasonable to suggest a freewill that is constrained by ecological, biological, cultural, social, and evolutionary factors—a limited freewill.

The Prevailing Tribe

I regularly jot down notes to capture questions of intense interest for which I’m currently without significant time to explore. Over a year ago, I jotted done some questions concerning the evolutionary nature of interpersonal and intergroup violence. Specifically, I wanted to know the genetic nature of violence. This question led me to correspond with Oxford anthropologist Vernon Reynolds and to informally propose an independent study with my faculty adviser, Sheldon Solomon. Though my adviser is an expert on the topic of intergroup violence, I never got around to pursuing a sanctioned study on the topic. Dr. Reynolds, however, helped shift my attitude on the matter by cautioning against placing too much emphasis on evolution vs. learned behavior (culture), though he did suggest that evolutionary factors underlie culture. Below is a quote from our email correspondence.

“Of course, you can argue that we are programmed to learn–this is actually more powerful than claiming we have biological tendencies that shortcut our cognitive powers.”

I really should have asked for some elaboration here, but I take his statement to mean that we have a predisposition for what we learn—including a (evolutionary) predisposition for learning violence. If this is what Dr. Reynolds meant then I agree—restated—culture is constrained by evolutionary forces. One point of potential dissonance between Dr. Reynolds’s statement and my own view is that I believe our cognition is regularly short-circuited. For instance, we see in the Asch conformity experiments that the need to conform is so strong that test subjects regularly give the wrong answer to a question when everybody else also gives the wrong answer. This conformity instinct could be explained as an evolutionary adaptation by the fact that humans are a social species that require others to survive; thus, there are social and evolutionary constraints on our individualism.

In considering the need to conform, we have to recognize that culture regulates norms and taboos. Society and culture also dictate the penalties for engaging in taboo behavior or neglecting social norms. A culture can be rather lenient or it can be strict, it can value tradition or innovation; regardless, there will always be some norms of high sanctity. Therefore, even though some cultures may be highly ritualistic other cultures may encourage individualism. Likewise, we could probably can deduce cultural variance in warlike dispositions.

One theory supporting a genetic cause of war is group selection theory. Group selection has been used to explain the problem of altruism. In evolution, we do what is best for the self—the question of altruism challenges this assumption because people often sacrifice their own betterment to help others. Group selection suggests that evolution occurs at the group level. The most successful groups survive over less successful groups; individuals who support the group the most will have the most chances to pass on their genes. This theory solves the problem of altruism because a successful group requires a cohesive group and intragroup altruism facilitates in-group cohesion. The implication of group selection is that it means that one group prevails over the others, not only in successfully managing resources but also in annihilating competitors—the most vicious gene succeeds.

I’m not against group selection theory in itself. I would not be surprised if some degree of group selection occurs in long spans of time or during population bottlenecks but group selection theory is entirely unnecessary for explaining altruism. Evolution still occurs at the level of the individual specimen, which if successful introduces novelty into the species that the species then selects for; altruism as evolutionary adaptation also occurs at the level of the individual—the solution is simple. Altruism occurs because humans are a social species, if a specimen is antisocial then its chances for survival decrease. As a social species that depends on the group, we’ve learned to give prevalence to the group as an extension ourselves—if we die for the group, we can count on the group to protect our kin, to value our genes.

A number of experiments conducted by social psychologists working with social identity theory demonstrate an instinct to recognize even the most arbitrary social divisions and favor the in-group. Social psychologists working with terror management theory have found ample evidence that mortality salience (reminders of death) increase cultural self-identification and aggression against cultural differences. It appears that there is a universal predisposition to belong, and to protect the group. While the disposition is genetic, I propose that success is largely a matter of culture. The group has a desire to survive, to prevail, as an extension of the individuals whose personal success depends on it.

Success depends on the strength of the group, which culture serves to reinforce through norms and taboos. I’ve always found minority groups interesting, especially those with long histories, because of their prevalence against adversity. Jews, Roma, and Amish are examples. Despite minority status, and sometimes-total aggression, a strong inclusive culture can survive decades, even centuries, in hostile environments. Jewish history is particularly interesting when you consider their origins as a Bronze Age tribe—how many Bronze Age tribes failed cultural survival?

Sure, prehistoric tribes, especially during the rise of civilization, likely had annihilative competitions in the race for supremacy. However, assimilation was probably the prevalent mode of cultural expansion as demonstrated by the postclassical era expansion of Christianity and Muslim faiths—another reason to dismiss the strength of group selection theory. Minority cultures that fail to achieve dominance but succeed despite the dominant group’s discrimination succeed because culture is transmitted as being of supreme importance.

For most of history, a strong in-group preference and out-group bias has served to maintain tribes, clans, communities, and nations. The modern world has succeeded by overcoming some of the traditions and norms that once helped to encourage cohesiveness because they also hindered innovation. Innovation permitted the technological supremacy of the west. Innovation through the pursuit of knowledge requires relaxed norms and disregard for some taboos. I believe the conditions required for innovation present a paradox for both traditional cultures and open cultures. The conditions required for wide spread innovation erode some of the foundations for cohesiveness and vice versa.

With all this said, humans seek safety in numbers by forming groups; other groups present a threat to the strength of one’s own group that must be defended against. The desire to belong to a group, to defend a group, and to act against out-groups is human nature, is genetic. The success of the group is not genetic but cultural.

Book Review of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition,and Fiction

Book Review of on the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd

Is Psychoactive Drug Use Adaptive Behavior?

I’ve long been interested in entheogenic traditions and altered states of consciousness. I admit to a fair share of self-experimentation in earlier days. That said, the question is, is psychoactive drug use an adaptive behavior?

In using the word “adaptive”, I’m speaking of evolutionary theory. It has been proposed that art and religion are or have been adaptive behaviors. Psychoactive drug use has surely been around as long as or even longer than religion or art; after all, it is as easy as eating a plant and all animals eat.

Ancient civilizations and primitive cultures around the world have long documented traditions of psychoactive plant use; this is usually part of religious rites or shamanic tradition. Sacred use of entheogens continues in cultures around the world but also in contemporary society sub-cultures.

It’s easy enough to see the adaptive benefits of many drugs, especially those that help cure disease, rid of parasites, suppress hunger, alleviate fatigue, or calm the nerves—but psychoactive drug use doesn’t provide apparent biological benefits and, in today’s society, many would consider psychoactive drug use the opposite of adaptive (a handicap).

Nevertheless, the fact that psychoactive drug use has been with us since the beginnings of modern humanity, that is it often sanctioned by social institutions, and persists even when it is outlawed suggest to me that it deserves further examination.

The two obvious reasons for the persistence of psychoactive drugs that I can think of is that it provided religion with spiritual agency through hallucination, or encouraged creativity and innovation.

Hallucinogenic drugs attract recreational users today because they give users’ novel perception. I believe psychiatrists often see users as escapist. Indeed, LSD will turn the mundane into the profound. Users are then seekers; there becomes something spiritual about even recreation hallucinogenic drug use.

Interestingly, I believe the traditional use of hallucinogens was both an exercise of religious agency and innovation. A prominent reason for consulting with the spirits is to ask them for solutions to problems.

Modern drug users like traditional shamans may be motivated by existential anxiety. They need meaning in their lives to quell the threat of insignificance. If existential anxiety is significant enough to cause depression then psychoactive drugs may be adaptive because they induce feelings and beliefs of significance. As with religion, it need not matter whether drug induced beliefs are accurate or wholly fantasy, what matters is that they provide purpose and meaning.

As for creativity—novel ways of viewing the world begets creativity when novel perception leads to novel solutions to existing problems. Needless to say, the use of psychoactive drugs poses significant risks (especially when used within the context of contemporary society) for a number of reasons that I won’t elaborate on.

Origins of the Modern Mind

This is a consolidation of Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Mind. The narration could use a little spunk and the background has some annoying white noise but overall it is an accurate extracted summary. Merlin Donald has proposed that technological evolution has emerged, mostly independent of biological evolution, and this explains the evolution of modern cognition and the difference between archaic homo sapiens and modern homo sapiens sapiens. More precisely, he proposes that advances such as writing provide an external cognitive apparatus. His theory has influenced my own view that material culture forms the basis for cognitive processes.

War is Natural

The notion that human aggression is natural and behaviorally innate seems to have a long history deriving from the natural sciences. Darwin’s theory has long been construed as demonstrating the utility of aggression—the strongest control resources, detour challengers, and survive. In 1963, Robert Ardrey proposed that man descended from killer primates and retained his primordial ancestor’s killer instincts. Ardrey built on Raymond Darts’s theory that man evolved as a hunter into a killer from which the most cunning tool builders (weapon makers) and aggressive personalities prevailed—thereby arguing that human intelligence was the result of natural selection from violence.

Despite the killer primate being an interesting theory, it has largely been ignored by serious scholars on the auspices that there is no evidence to say that man is particularly more violent than any other predator. Early criticism also claimed that Ardrey and Dart ignored the supposed peaceful behavior of man’s closest relative, the chimpanzee.1 Interestingly, a new generation of primatologist are now claiming that chimpanzees are among the most aggressive primates.  It is now readily accepted that chimpanzee males will form alliances, defend their own territory, attempt to expand their territory, and that some populations will kill members of their own species. Accordingly, the only other primate known to actively kill members of its own species is Homo Sapiens, the chimpanzee’s closest relative. 2

This shared behavior has inspired Harvard primatologist, Richard Wrangham, to propose the Demonic Male Hypothesis. Wrangham believes that natural aggression is primarily found in males of the two species and like his predecessors, Ardrey and Darts, Wrangham believes humans and chimps share a particularly violent common ancestor.2 3 But of course, such theories draw strong criticisms. There are those criticisms that say it is wrong to call violence natural because doing so condones it or in the least excuses it. There are those criticisms that say that the available data on chimpanzee behavior is inconclusive, that studied populations are under unnatural stress and therefore their behavior is not typical. There are those who say human violence is too complex to make sense of by relating humanity to our underdeveloped primate cousins and speculative common ancestors. Accordingly, to propose a theory and defend a theory is usually to disregard other theories and data—and disregarding relevant arguments is always grounds for dismissal or the assaulting label of careless scholarship—at least for the opponents.

Despite my own cynicism for scholarly debate, I must contend that the precise nature of man’s evolution really doesn’t change the fact that civilization is often violent. That is to say that it really doesn’t matter whether the original humans were peaceful or not because our nature today often is not. But, of course, it does matter for the evolutionary theorist—nature remains nature regardless of one’s predispositions. The fact that there are wars, there are murders, strongly suggest a natural predisposition in the species for such. Those who contend that primitive man was more peaceful have it wrong—the evidence for prehistoric cannibalism, ritual sacrifice, war, and murder are very prevalent in the fossil record—so too does the noble salvage, modern primitives, give us a record of regular neighborly conflict, rape, and murder.

While I’m not ready to say that the killer primate theory is correct, I do believe violence is natural. If we were a different species of intelligent life studying humanity, we would certainly make note of humanities periodic warfare, tribal raids, lynchings, gang violence, and individual conflict—we would say these occur with enough regularity to be natural descriptors of the species, and we would probably contend that this violence serves a number of regulatory functions. The arguments that I am against are the ones that want to deny nature merely because it doesn’t sit well with ideal views or because their proponets see confirmation as being affirmation. I believe social science must be separated from social engineering and while science may be used with utility, it is wrong for scientist to politicize…to deny a truth, because it is threatening, is to politicize.

However, Oxford primatologist and anthropologist, Vernon Reynolds has warned me not to “fall into the trap of overstating the power of evolutionary explanations”4.  Doctor Reynolds recognizes that there are other causes for violence, such as “learned perceptions,” though he does concede that we can argue that we are evolutionarily “programmed” to “learn” (and I presume he means this with a predisposition for violence). However, I take a lot of inspiration from social psychology (being that it is one of my interdisciplinary disciplines) and am more concerned with “what” and “how” than “why,” which is the concern of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology. Nevertheless, Doctor Reynolds caution has caused me to do just that, and ask—can we overstate human aggression?

Interestingly, I am beginning to wonder if those who so ardently oppose the classification of violence as natural lend a valuable clue to human nature itself. Indeed, it seems that there is just as much predisposition (not to be confused with desire) to avert aggressive behavior as there is for aggressive behavior itself. Therefore I’m currently of the belief that any debate concerning man’s predisposition for war should also examine man’s predisposition for peace and any argument that is either/or is incomplete. I would suggest that we are conditioned to make and enjoy peace, but I will take the realist’s view and say that aggression is just as natural—that it is scientifically unreasonable to predict that we will ever eliminate violence and war as long as evolution has us defined as Homo Sapiens (perhaps the politically hopeful will see fit to call us something else).





4. From private email correspondence 03-23-10