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.

18 thoughts on “Selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish nations ?

  1. I’ve always felt that ev psych was a bit too cute in its explanations of human behaviour. To my mind the human mind is far too complex to be constricted by genes in such a simplistic way ie cultural evolution is a far stronger motivater/influence on people than the genetic drives. As an example (apart from the war one), the increased childlessness of the Western Nations. If there was ever a primary genetic Macchiavelli it would be that, but it simply cannot stand in the way of a desire for self-actualisation.

    Until it starts predicting stuff we didn’t know instead pseudo-scientific rationalisations of old-fashioned patriarchal norms, I will continue to rank it with phrenology.

  2. And yet, and yet …

    I remember getting home from the hospital the night our first child was born. Switched on the telly, for some reason, to see that famous footage from World War I of the soldiers going over the top and silently crumpling as they were mown down. Like everyone else, I suppose, I’d seen it dozens of times, thought ‘how terrible’ and moved on.

    That night, however, admittedly (and literally) tired and emotional as I was, it reduced me to a blubbering wreck. As a PARENT, all of a sudden, the sight of all those young men being slaughtered brought home one or two basic realities. Call me a monster, but I’d always struggled to understand why parents seemed so distraught at the death of a child – far, far more than at the death of, say, a spouse. (I should say that I understood that to be so and sympathised accordingly, but never really appreciated WHY it was so.)

    It’s biology, stupid, I told myself. At that moment, I felt little different to any other animal, wherever it fits into god’s kingdom, that nurtures its young.

    It’s a banal insight, memorable (for me) only because of the circumstances. But what I want to know is: where does a ‘we are all animals’ truism stop and evoluntionary psychology begin? Surely we can cope with the idea of cultural overlays modifying behaviour without junking the whole idea of our evolutionary heritage being at least partly responsible for some of those behavious in the first place.

    In other words, I believe we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater – a stance consistent with my nurturing role as a perpetuator of my genes.

  3. andrew: childlessness in the west is not a problem for evolutionary psychology. we are having just as much sex as ever, and since we didnt evolve with effective contraception, this has previously equated with child birth.

    john: youre wrong that you cant be consistently realist on different levels. everything in the entire universe is “in reality” the interaction of a few basic particles. thus its meaningless to talk about anything else.

    obviously this is mistaken. economists use statistics to show what generally happens, but this doesnt mean everyone in a market is following some economic model.

    thus, one can think that nations act in their own best interests or perish, and that individuals that comprise those nations are doing the exact same thing. there is no contradiction. this is variously known as functionalism, or the tri-level hypothesis.

    you are nearly right when you say “clever realists understand this”. an example is when dawkins defeats group selectionist arguments if they can be explained by selfish genes.

    this doesnt mean that for the purposes of analysis, we cant simplify a mass of rationally self interested individuals into a stable and selfish structure like the state, for the purposes of international relations. economists do this type of thing all the time. and its not invalid for realist interpretors of international relations to do so either.

  4. to be more specific:

    “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.”

    is self-evidently false.

    it may be in my gene’s best interest to be a loyal citizen. it depends on the environment. i in fact would assert that it is in the best interests of the survivability of my offspring that i am essentially loyal to the state. being in prison isnt a good strategy for rearing children.

    again, when we talk international relations, we dont need to consider individuals avoiding jail, we can just simplify and say the state is self-interested.

  5. As if a gene could have a best interest in anything. It’s like saying a wheel nut has an interest in winning the grand prix. There’s a lot of decidedly whacky language being used regularly in this topic.

    You won’t find selfishness or altruism any other high level human characteristic characteristic in a chemical. Genes aren’t actors, they aren’t rational, etc. It’s anthropomorphism gone almost completely round the loop. Try saying, “I’m mugging this old woman because my genes want to relicate” (or something similar) and you’ll realize how crazy the whole shebang is.

    There is now a wealth of evidence coming from psychology and biology (etc) that humans have mechanisms for individualism and selfishness but also powerful mechanisms for shared feeling and altruism. These apparent opposites – acting simultaneously – provide part of the complex motivation for ordinary human activities, such as a C8to post to the quigblog.

    I just can’t quite work out why someone would choose the selfish take exclusively when biology and human affairs provide a plethora of evidence for both sides. I do have ideas though.

  6. you have no more rationality than the genes, you are just one big chemical.

    anthropomorphism is the accepted simplifying language used in genetics, and everyone accepts the disclaimer. get used to it.

    if you read dawkins, you’ll understand why most things you think are altruism are selfish genes at work.

    (this doesnt mean its feels to me like im a selfish gene machine, but i probably am. it feels to me like i have an ethical framework, which is fine, the genes are ok with that.)

  7. “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.”

    Where is your proof for this claim? Have you actually undertaken a research study into this issue?

  8. Where is your proof for this claim? Have you actually undertaken a research study into this issue?

    Umm, this is a blog. What proportion of claims on blogs do you think are backed up by research studies? It’s pretty obvious that I’m giving an impression based on (extensive) personal experience.

  9. Its interesting that you enter into a critique of a field of science and offer no supporting evidence other than personal anecdotes. The implication that soemone who advocates an EP position does not do so because of the validity of its scientific method but rather because of their personality is a fairly major hypothesis to make regarding the nature of science and of personality.

  10. I agree with c8to. there is no contradiction. our evolutionary heritage provides a genetic substrate to our behaviour and faculties – nothing political about that, Chomsky is basically an evolutionary psychologist when it comes to language. however humans have a culture that can take on a life of its own not in any animistic sense but in the sense of an emergent property that can modify our evolutionary urges in different directions – e.g the drive for sex has its ultimate purpose in reproduction but proximately it gives pleasure as a guiding signal. the disconnect between sex and reproduction is mediated by cultural influences like contraception but the urge for sex remains a strong one in humans because the pleasure signal remains. the genetic substate and cultural overlay define the utility function of the individual human. economics doesn’t have anything to say about *ultimate* rationality or purpose, just *means-ends* rationality i.e. it is concerned with analysis of maximising *proximate* purposes (e.g. money may be maximised for the ultimate purpose of pleasure, what is seen as pleasure is ultimately influenced by the genetic substrate) so there is no contradiction between being a Chicago school or any other economist and being an evolutionary psychologist. finally foreign policy realism may be a normative position which is similarly amenable to means-ends rationality analysis. even as a positive doctrine realism isn’t incompatible with the others as power may figure as a part of statesman’s utility function because of its association with other goods.

  11. John, your ancedotal generalisation is as good as any other. I could similarly say (with more support) that the tendency of social democrats such as yourself to view realist explanations with distaste suggests the continuing strong influence and contamination of the christian meme in social democratic thought. or I could accuse anti-hereditarians who profess secularism to really still vieiwng humans as a some ‘special creation’, the distaste being an indicator of sublimed Christianity.

  12. Jason, you could say either of those things on your blog and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you were unjustified in doing so just because you hadn’t undertaken research to back them up.

    As a matter of interest, I agree with you that residual elements of christianity (minus the supernatural element in most cases, but maintaining the humanistic and idealistic elements) do play a role in social democratic thought, and probably contribute to the distaste for realist explanations that most social democrats display.

  13. C8to

    If I (and I guess by implication you) have no more rationality than genes then this ostensibly rational discussion is nothing more than some complex chemical reaction, and the discourse has the same values as, say, a maggot chewing it’s way through a piece of shit. If there’s no rationality, there’s no (knowable) truth. If there’s no truth, there’s no injustice. It seems to get a run these days, but I doubt you would really believe it. It’s just a convenient temporary foxhole.

    My comment about anthropomorphism was meant to say that if you happily jump between different levels of explanation you can more or less come up with anything. The valueless physical universe can be transformed into an immense awful machine or a sublime revelation, or whatever. Choices.

    I’m not disputing evolution or genetics. It’s just that the valueless physical world (dreadfully boring, cosmically stupid) is transformed into something else by us, merely looking on. The selfish gene could be called the smart gene or equally the dumb gene, yielding to and implying different world views.

  14. If the selfish gene is so self-interested why is it unable to trick the mind of the derterminedly childless into thinking they’ve taken the birth-control pill?

    Gene prediction is only meaningful in large populations (as evolutionary theory clearly implies). Its use to explicate the actions of individuals is junk science.

    That Dawkins has arguments of jesuitical complexity does not amke them true. It just means I don’t have the individual firepower to take him on on his own ground.

  15. Jason Soon hits upon what IMO is the correct answer when he raises the issue of emergent propoerties. The important thing to realize is that there is not a one to one relationship between genes and behaviour but a many-to-one relationship. So, if you have 4 genes there are 16 different combinations of those four genes able to produce some specified behaviour.

    Gregory Bateson prophesied much of the development of emergent property theory in maths when he talked about hierarchies of learning. As he put it – ‘leaarning to learn to learn’ is the equivalent of a life changing insight.

    Another way to understand the consequences of this is to realize that there is more than one rationality, just as there is more than one evolutionary pathway and some pathways fail even though there appears to be a congruence between culture and nurture and biology. So dinosaurs and romans get replaced by rodents and goths.

    Life evolves from a selection of all possible organic chemicals. This selection is self selecting. All the amino acids are left handed all the sugars are right handed. Some kinds of chemicals although thermodynamically stable are never seen as a result of the processes of life
    (buckyballs, TCDD-dioxin). They may be formed by physical processes but they are not part of the biological process on Earth.

    THe gene/meme dualism is real I think and goes both ways. Genes are a specific kind of language, and if life were to start over it would rapidly diverge in the meaning of the words(behaviours) that the genes represented. This is a mathematical consequence of chaos theory.

    The debates about selfish genes just miss the point because it’s like saying that words are selfish. There is a specific kind of teleology that is present in an idea like selfishness that isn’t present in a gene. ‘This is a selfish sentence’is a queer use of english.

  16. Andrew, if we had been using unchanged contraception for long enough we would evolve biology or behaviours which reduced its effectiveness. But ‘long enough’ is probably centuries.

    Genes do explain some individual behaviour — you’re not smarter than a dog because you had a better education, it’s because you have ‘better’ genes. The question is which parts of behaviour and how much.

  17. Tom

    I agree with you.

    Genetics obviously influence the range of behaviours a person can exhibit (but then so does having an aerobic rather than anarobic metabolism).

    However, the multiple and murky roles of genes and proteins at the intra-cellular level continually frustrate biologists trying to give definite answers to what causes what (and how to undo it).

    If, at the simplest level of genetics, it is extremely difficult to make deterministic statements about function, what chance is there at the organism’s level?

    Evolutionary behaviourists have so far shown nothing that is even remotely as useful (or insightful) as any of the great philosophers relying on self-examination.

    Until it can produce an insight that rivals (say) gravitational theory in its ability to change paradigms of human thought about themselves and their world, then it is still not useful.

    I don’t think it is useful for much more than providing theoretical underpinning for social Darwinism.

  18. Pr Q provides a very handy scalable model of the realist school of social analysis:

    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 [state].
    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.

    I think that the self-interest model of analysing social behaviour is the only one that makes ontological sense. One and the same self can act without contradiction to:
    propagate their genes: have optimum number of children
    maximise their utility: attempt to acquire more income for preferred expenditure
    pursue their class interest: negotiate a better deal for like-stated property occupations
    support their national interest: by seeking to repel alien threats to their jurisdiction
    Indeed Pr Q does this evey time he gets out of bed.
    The trouble is in defining the extent of the self, in different social and temporal contexts. This problem comes up when there are conflicts between these agenda scales: which scale of agency will the principal self give precedence to?

    Classes and States are social constructs with ephemeral existence. So I do not think that they are permanent regulator of human behavior, they are more like idealised models in a human person.

    Only indvidual persons, and dividual gene series, have real existence. These days, my money is on the utility-maximising individual, although the gene-propagating dividual would have been a better proxy for behaviour in the days prior to fertility control and paternity identification.

    Note: a utility maximising individual does NOT entail Egotism. This is a common fallacy, for utility can often be obtained from the warm, fuzzy feeling of caring for others.
    Thus a Good Self can encompass the utility of others, ie have an interdependent utility function.

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