Selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish nations ?
Following up a post by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, I wanted to look slightly differently at the appeal of evolutionary psychology. As I said in Henry’s comments thread the ev psych analysis is essentially “realist”. This is the kind of style of social and political analysis that purports to strip away the illusions of idealistic rhetoric and reveal the underlying self-interest. The only question is to nominate the “self” that is interested. In Ev Psych the unit of analysis is the gene, in Chicago-school economics the individual, in Marxism the class, in public choice theory the interest group, and in the realist school of international relations the nation.
All of these realist models are opposed to any form of idealism in which people or groups act out of motives other than self-interest. But, logically speaking, different schools of realists are more opposed to each other than to any form of idealism. If we are machines for replicating our genes, we can’t also be rational maximizers of a utility function or loyal citizens of a nation. Clever and consistent realists recognise this – for example, ideologically consistent neoclassical economists are generally hostile to nationalism. But much of the time followers of these views are attracted by style rather than substance. Since all realist explanations have the same hardnosed character, they all appeal to the same kind of person. It’s not hard to find people who simultaneously believe in Ev Psych, Chicago economics and international realism. One example of this kind of confusion is found in Stephen Pinker whose Blank Slate I reviewed here, back in 2002.
Here’s my conclusion
the most interesting parts of Pinker’s book do not relate to human nature at all, but to his restatement of a pessimistic view of the human condition. In the process of this restatement, Pinker abandons his evolutionary psychology model without realising that he is doing so.
Take, for instance, his observation, following an approving citation of Hobbes, that ‘violence is not a primitive, irrational urge, nor is it a “pathology”, except in the metaphorical sense of a condition that everyone would like to eliminate. Instead, it is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamics of self-interested, rational social organisms’. This is backed up by the work of political scientiist who claim that war has generally benefited the aggressors.
Pinker may well be right, but his argument is inconsistent with the claim that violence is the product of genetic predispositions acquired by our distant ancestors, that is, of primitive, irrational urges specific to males. If the Hobbesian view is right, violence will arise as a rational response to this environment in the absence of any predisposition to violence or even in the presence of an instinctive aversion to violence, such as that which evolutionary psychologists impute to women.
On the other hand, an environmentalist theory of violence such as that of Pinker in his Hobbesian mode has optimistic corollaries which he partly recognises. If the environment is such that violence is costly, a rational organism will choose the path of peace. Whatever political scientists may argue about the broad sweep of history, aggressive war has not been a profitable policy from World War I onwards. The aggressors lost both wars, and the victors reaped nothing but grief in their attempts to extract benefits from their victories. More recently, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic have ruined their countries and, in all probability, themselves by playing the politics of war. The real threat today is neither the rational use of force in the manner of Clausewitz nor aggressive genes inherited from the Pleistocene past but the culturally-generated craziness of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.
Ultimately, whatever contribution our genes may or may not make to our nature, there is not much we can do about them. Unless we are prepared to embark on large-scale genetic re-engineering, our only hope is to focus on those aspects of our condition that are amenable to nurture.