A Serf’s Discourse on Human Nature.
Remember that scene in Hitchcock’s film The Birds where a hysterical woman accosts the stranger in the group with the accusing words , “Who are you – What are you?” and all eyes in the service station cafe focus suspiciously on the stranger, Tiki Hendrickson. Well turns out she’s not some mysterious bringer of disaster to quiet little Bodega Bay. What we see is scapegoating in action, a group of insiders blaming an outsider for some perceived disaster being inflicted on the group.
There’s an anthropologist cum philosopher called Rene Girard who perceived scapegoating as integral to human culture, even as the basis of human societies. He makes a large claim.
J’accuse…or someone does.
Girard says we learn by imitating others, imitation eventually erases the differences among human beings, and as we become similar to each other we begin to desire the same things, a process he calls Mimesis, which leads to rivalries and a Hobbesian war of all against all. These mimetic rivalries soon threaten the very existence of communities. What to do? Girard says this is where the scapegoat comes in. Peace comes at the price of an identified victim viewed by the community as the actual cause of the turmoil, someone or group to be punished, expelled or even killed by the community. Once this retributive violence occurs, peace is restored, – at least for now. In past times this scapegoat could take the magical form of a god, a demon or a witch, the essential thing was that the community itself was not to blame, the victim and the process was turned into myth and ritual celebrating a peaceful outcome.
While Girard’s large claim cannot be validated or even falsified, pre-history evidence being light on the ground, we do know that humans imitate each other, cultural habits, fashions in dress, crazes like the Tulip Mania are features of everyday life. We also know that humans are prone to scapegoat others, particularly those perceived as not of the group, violent instances, the witch trials and punishments of Medieval and 17th and 18th century Europe, the pogroms against Jews in Germany in World War 11.
Attacking others, especially those not of the group, that’s not especially a human trait though. Take some animal groups, apes, lion prides, territorial birds, observe how one group attack outsiders that venture into their territory! Until recently life on the edge was the way of life for most people also, a shortage of resources characterizing much of human history, a struggle at the water hole or some land resource in short supply -it’s the story of human as well as animal existence.
So what else does Girard’s theory tell us about human behaviour? Well, it tells us we’re theorists, it’s yet another example of our human disposition to theorize about our natural world and living inhabitants of that world, including us and the societies we have constructed. Uniquely human is the development of spoken and written language beyond emotive expression and signal, descriptive and critical language based on grammar and logic (and evidence); pity we don’t always adhere to logic and evidence when we argue our case.
That old chestnut, nature versus nurture.
Here’s the standard model theory, very much nurture not nature, Skinner’s behaviourist theory first propounded by John Locke and then by David Hume. It is the belief that we learn by habit, the child is the passive recipient of his or her culture, cultural transmission taking place through learning a well understood unitary process that makes the child like the adult of its culture. It’s a theory that implies that we’re open to perfectibility – Utopianists with creative urges like it, gurus who wish to control others also like it, more of that later.
The standard model has been under attack since the 1960’s beginning with the marine biologist George Williams and geneticist William Hamilton. Their revolution is best known by Richard Dawkin’s book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ at its core is the recognition that individuals do not act consistently to benefit family or a group or even themselves, Individuals are driven by their genes because they are all descended from others who did the same, Dawkins says we are survival machines programmed to preserve our selfish molecules known as genes. Dawkins says it is not the individual who survives at the level of evolution but the gene. What he named the ‘selfish’ gene could also be called the ‘immortal ‘gene. Recent research has not undermined his theory.
A past student of Richard Dawkins. the evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley expands on the gene theory. Selfish as we are, he asks, why, then, are people such eager co-operators? In his book ‘ The Origins of Virtue ‘, instead of focusing on diversity in human cultures as the behaviourists do, Matt Ridley studies where our cultures share a practice or engage in universal behaviour, behaviour not shared by other animal species.
Ridley identifies networks of trade and commerce as common practice in all human societies, even in existing hunter gatherer groups such as the Yir Yoront aboriginal tribe on the York Peninsular in Australia. The Yir Yoront used polished stone axes with wooden handles that were highly valued and in constant use. The stone axes were made by a tribe that lived some 400 miles away at the site of stone quarries that supplied stone for the axes. In exchange the Yir Yoront traded barbed sting-ray spears that were made by their tribe. The two tribes conducted this trade by a system of arbitrage involving other tribes whose territories lay in between the two producer’s territories. The Yir Yoront could buy one stone axe from a near neighbour for a dozen spears. As the spears worked their way further south their value rose relative to that of stone axes. In this trade the producers benefited and so did those middlemen in between.
This exchange illustrates two things, says Ridley. Trade illustrates the division of labour as a human activity, (though some social animals have some division of labour within a group they don’t have it inter group,) and it demonstrates that trade is not just a modern phenomenon but was part of hunter gatherer life. Ridley also describes how the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, studying the belligerent Yanomamo tribe in Venezuela, observed that they appear to deliberately manufacture products that were provided for allies in order to strengthen alliances via feasting ceremonies, cementing bonds that could be valuable in times of war.
The blank slate and other theories of human nature…
Neuroscientist Steven Pinker adds to the discussion of human nature in his essay ‘The Blank Slate,’ in which he gives a comprehensive view of various theories of human nature that have had currency in Western societies, including the theory of his title. The first theory he refers to is the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, much of which we allocate to psychology and biology today- positing that the human mind has a capacity for love, for a sense of morality and a capacity for choice or free will; and grounded in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, also has a tendency towards sin. Today no scientifically aware individual can accept a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and tends to look elsewhere for a theory of human nature though it may include components of the Judeo-Christian theory.
Steven Pinker identifies three popular theories that took its place or added to it at various times. The first of these, by Frenchman Rene Descartes in the 17th century, began with his sceptical search for intellectual firm ground, “I think therefore I am.” He concluded his thought process with the view that the human mind was quite separate and distinct from the human body. Descartes’ theory has enjoyed great appeal with many individuals as re-enforcing the Judeo-Christian belief in the possibility of existence of a human soul separate from and surviving the death of the body. It was ridiculed in the 20th century as ‘the doctrine of the ghost in the machine,’ by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle.
Another theory that has survived despite anthropological findings that show otherwise is the doctrine of The Noble Savage, most commonly associated with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote: ‘So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed, whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state…’ By other authors Rousseau was referring particularly to Thomas Hobbes saying life without rule of law was nasty, brutish and short. Unfortunately close encounters with other tribal societies, for example in the South Pacific, by naturalists and anthropologists have indicated that Rousseau’s theory was more romantic than actual. And when it comes to rule of law, history has shown the need for checks and balances to prevent governing individuals and group from ravaging their flocks. The American founding fathers understood this with their efforts to establish such checks and balances in the American Constitution.
The third theory was John Locke’s doctrine of the mind as being like white paper, ‘void of ideas which are acquired later from experience.’ which was shared by the philosopher David Hume who in his ‘Treatize on Human Nature,’ written in the 1730’s famously ascribed our attempts at identifying causes to events as no more than blind habit. This is the Blank Slate Theory which continued to be influential through the 20th century, explaining all human behaviour by simple mechanisms of association and conditioning.
From his work as a cognitive scientist, Pinker agrees with Ridley that a bed rock of universal predispositions, ways of thinking and feeling, identified in ethnography studies, have to be in place in order that things get done. They include the basic concepts of an enduring object and lawful causation, which can be seen even in young infants, a number sense that enables us to grasp quantity of number, spatial recognitions that allow us to negotiate the world, facial recognitions and a theory of mind with which we seek to understand the behaviour of other people. And of course, there’s our language instinct that enables us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others through words and sentences.
Pinker says that neuroscience has also challenged the blank slate by showing ‘that there’s a complex genetic patterning to the brain, an example being the wiring diagram of the primate visual system comprising some fifty distinct areas connected in precise ways’. Neuroscience studies also identify common patterns in the brains of fraternal and especially identical twins. There are those studies of identical twins separated at birth, sometimes even by nation, who meeting as adults, show idiosyncratic resemblances in behaviour, too many to be accidental.
Pinker also argues that in keeping with Darwinian evolution, evolutionary psychology has also challenged the blank slate in another way by showing that many human drives that don’t maximize our welfare, such as our human thirst for revenge, all those vendettas and wars, can be interpreted as adaptations to survival in our ancestral environment where a reputation for toughness was an advantage in a world where you couldn’t dial up emergency for assistance.
It’s hard to be objective when we think about the human brain. We like to think we have rationality and morality and free will. Proponents of the blank slate think that biologists’ genetic claims are a threat to these things. Pinker gives four reasons why behaviourists are emotionally committed to the blank slate doctrine. They consider that it supports the view that we are all equal and it supports the view that we are perfectible. It also dispels their fear of determinism and fear of nihilism.
Relating to the fear of inequality, Pinker says it’s a non sequitur argument. ‘It confuses the value of fairness with the claim of sameness. When the Declaration of Independence stated: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,’ it surely did not mean ‘We hold these truths as self evident that all men are clones.’ Rather a commitment to political equality means two things. First it rests on a theory of human nature, ‘says Pinker, ‘in particular, universal human interests, as when the Declaration continues by saying that ‘people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It’s also a commitment to prohibit public discrimination against individuals based on the average of certain groups they belong to, such as race, ethnicity, or sex. ‘
There’s a downside in believing the blank slate, says Pinker, in that you view talented and successful people as invariably recipients of ill-gotten gains such as the Jews in Europe or the Chinese in Indonesia. This can lead to persecutions or expulsions and sometimes to genocide. The second fear Pinker identifies, the fear of imperfectability, well there’s a dash to an old dream. If ignoble traits are innate, what can anyone do? All is not lost, argues Pinker, the human mind is a complex system of many parts, some of which can and do counteract other impulses. The executive system of the frontal lobes of our brains can apply knowledge about consequences and moral values to inhibit behaviour. (Matt Ridley has argued how all societies are critical of selfish behaviour.)
Then there are our cognitive faculties that allow us to learn lessons from history. And here again there’s a downside to this desire to mould human nature. It’s a temptation to social engineering. Some autocrats of the 20th century, like Chairman Mao, believed in the blank slate.
All is not jest blind fate.
Next Pinker explores our fear of determinism. He doesn’t say much on free will but does observe that parts of the brain can anticipate the consequences of behaviour and inhibit it accordingly. I expand on this with some observations on determinism and rationality by others here in a previous issue.
Pinker’s final defence is directed against the behaviourist fear of nihilism, and the fear that biology strips life of learning and purpose. Pinker wisely reminds us that meaning in life does not require that the products of evolution, namely ourselves, must be selfish, or immoral or be without purpose, even if in some metaphorical sense our genes are selfish and evolution amoral and without a purpose other than passing on genes. We can adopt our own purposes. The realisation that life is short can act as an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in some pointless dispute, to vow to use your time productively instead of squandering it.’ The gene theory does not preclude human choice.
I’ll add to that our by noting how our species have evolved to be creative in so many ways…. building bridges, roads and aquaducts, making breakthroughs in science that have saved lives, and via spoken and written language that we ourselves created, have produced great literature. Our species have also composed inspiring music – orchestral symphonies and concertos, along with simple folk songs, and devised the musical instruments to play them. We’re not all bad!
What about rationality?
Philosopher David Hume, that most rational of men, said that our thinking based on accumulated perceptions is merely blind habit, that although we have experienced all those instances that the sun has risen doesn’t logically allow us to say that it must rise tomorrow. This is like the turkey experiencing the farmer’s kindness right up to Thanksgiving Day when the turkey experiences otherwise.
Professor of Science, Karl Popper, in a series of essays and lectures published as ‘Öbjective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach.’ claims that while Hume’s argument concerning habit is logically valid, it is based on an incorrect theory of human thinking, the theory that we are inductive learners. This theory of inductive learning is what he calls ‘the bucket theory’, whereas Popper argues that we are not passive receivers of experience but active learners in what he calls ‘the searchlight theory ‘ of learning, learning by way of trial and error observations.
‘We have perceptions,’ says Popper, ‘but we make observations,’ which is a different kind of process. An observation always presupposes the existence of some system of expectation, it is always preceded by a particular interest, a question or a problem. Popper says that a disposition to act must proceed every perception. As Frederic Neitzche observed, ‘No such thing as the innocent eye.’
And quoting Karl Popper again: ‘At every instant of our pre-scientific or scientific development we are living in the centre of ‘a horizon of expectations,’ whether subconscious or conscious, or perhaps even explicitly stated in some language. Animals or babies have also their various horizons of expectations though no doubt on a lower level of consciousness than, say, a scientist, whose horizon of expectations consist to a considerable extent of linguistically formulated theories or hypotheses.’ (P345.)
When a baby puts an object from the floor in its mouth, it is testing a hypotheses, ”Is this part of my food environment?’ just as when a scientist poses a specific question of nature and follows it up with more careful observations. Richard Feynman’s “First you guess, then you test.’
The various horizons of expectation differ among animals and among individual humans, whether at subconscious or conscious levels. An example, is when we encounter an unexpected step in our path. It is the unexpectedness of the step which makes us conscious of the fact that we expected to encounter an even path. Such disappointments force us to correct our system of expectations.
In all cases, Popper argues, the horizon of expectations plays the part of a frame of reference conferring meaning or significance on our experiences our actions and observations. The observations we make have a peculiar function within this frame. If they clash with our expectations, they may, under certain circumstances, destroy the frame itself and force us to rebuild a whole horizon of expectation. Today’s science, for example is built upon yesterday’s science which may be subject to falsification.
Thinking fast and slo-o-w.
Antonio Damasio in ‘Descartes Error’ replaces the frame of reference with emotional engagement as a dynamic for action, though I think these are connected. Damasio argues, in his case study of broken brains, that emotions are a mental device for gaining commitment. This study includes studying the brain cast and history of Phineas Gage, a famous 19th century case of a survivor of a mining explosion in which a steel pole pierced Phineas Gage’s frontal cortex. Afterwards he remained completely rational but was unable to make choices between the array of possibilities that presented even in simple decisions. Other cases that Damasio worked with, patients who had injuries in the same brain area, presented the same behaviour and declared that they had lost the ability to feel emotion. His patients became so cold blooded about rationally weighing up all the facts before them that they couldn’t make up their minds, no particular course of action appealed to them. ‘Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behaviour’, speculates Damasio.
Thinking fast and slow… Not enough careful deliberation, argues Daniel Kahneman in his book about human cognitive illusions, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’ Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who turned psychology into a quantitative investigation, A large part of his book is made up of studies indicating the various illusions which supposedly rational people demonstrate when confronted with choices under controlled conditions.
Kahneman argues the existence in our brains of two independent systems for organizing knowledge, one he labels System One, a fight or flight survival mechanism which probably evolved with our mammalian ancestors. Our System Two is the slow process of forming judgements based on conscious thinking that checks the actions of System One and allows us to correct our mistakes. Human art and science have been created by System Two.
Says Kahneman, bottom line, we’re machines for jumping to conclusions, prone to associative bias. For System One, the measure of success is coherence of a story, it’s consistency that matters most, not completeness of evidence… ‘what you see is all that there is.’ There’s a grab-bag of simple heuristics we adopt to make adequate but often wrong answers to difficult questions like ‘the availability heuristic, what comes readily from memory, first in line. And the bad news is, as Kahneman first discovered, working with Israeli Defence Forces in the 1950’s, that your System Two thinkers are also prone to similar thinking errors and heuristics, more apologist than critical of the emotions of System One.
I don’t see this contradicting Damasio, but what about Popper’s theory of trial and error rationality?
Well, thinking is hard work and time consuming so when you don’t consider that your decision is too fraught you are prone to not check your guess too stringently, it seems, confirmation bias rules. If you have a strong cultural or political frame, then you don’t want to challenge it too much, your expectations have to be truly shaken by some test observation to be critically roused, – but it happens and you may have to rebuild your whole framework of expectations. There are some people, not only Socrates, who are viewed as generally rational and sceptical, and there are some scientists who really do subscribe to the scientific method, particularly if they are curious and really wish to understand the question they ask of nature. Some so called scientists who do science as a high status and well paid enterprise may be more tempted to confirm the research outcome they’re financed to find. But we can be rational as individuals. The TV program Áircrash Investigations shows how people apply trial and error to solve urgent problem situations. The aircraft companies must be seen to solve these crashes, people want to know that the aircraft company is safe or the business loses customers. They can’t fake it. Watch the program and you see how logically and exhaustively the investigators test the possible causes of the crash, aircraft, pilot error, control tower mistakes…
All the way with Edward Bernays…
So further to rationality, back to the gurus I mentioned earlier, those like Dr Edward Bernays who’s aim was to mould human opinion or as he termed it, ‘to engineer consent.’ Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote in his book ‘Propaganda, (1928) ‘ If we understand the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will, without them knowing about it?’ In the techniques he employed in his career in public relations this is what he did, engineer consent.
When he started working for American Tobacco Company, Bernays was given the objective of increasing Lucky Strike sales among women, who for the most part had formerly avoided smoking. The first strategy was to persuade women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. Bernays began using photographers, artists, newspapers, and magazines to promote the special beauty of thin women. Medical authorities were found to promote the choice of cigarettes over sweets. Home-makers were cautioned that keeping cigarettes on hand was a social necessity. The campaign was a success but a taboo remained on women smoking in public. Tying the smoking campaign to the women’s freedom movement Bernays organized a contingent of attractive women to smoke cigarettes, ‘torches of freedom,’ in the 1928 New York Easter Parade. The carefully scripted event was a publicity success and women across the country were soon smoking as planned.
A chilling program of indoctrination that might sound like passive conditioning, but wait a minute, weren’t those women willing participants in Bernays’ program of indoctrination? They’re responding because glamour and sexual attractiveness is important to them, they’re not just innocent victims – though he did set up a clever plan.
It works like Pavlov conditioning, Pavlov’s dog is not just passively responding to the ringing of the bell that signals food, it’s anticipating food, which is part of its active daily food seeking behaviour. The dog has innate expectations, Popper’s horizon of expectations.
That Unconstrained Vision Thing.
Relating to persuasion, the economist and intellectual historian, Thomas Sowell has formulated his own theory of human nature in Western Society. Sowell has written a book called ‘A Conflict of Visions ‘ (1987) in which he observes us as belonging to two fundamentally different groups depending on our views of human nature, these two visions Thomas Sowell calls ‘the constrained vision’ and ‘the unconstrained vision.’ Thomas Sowell says these two fundamentally different visions underlie Western Civilization and can be retraced back to Karl Popper’s analysis of Plato and his vision for a Republic in 6th century BC Athens.
The constrained vision is, that while individuals may differ in many ways, human nature is basically fixed and flawed, a problem that has to be considered in the evolution of human institutions and laws, implying prudent trial and error reform rather than grand schemes for social change. Adam Smith was a proponent of this view.
The unconstrained vision sees human nature as perfectible, ‘born free but everywhere in chains,’ as Rousseau stated. If humanity experiences pain and suffering, it is because of a failure of others to be as wise as those who are of the unconstrained vision, present institutions and leaders are the cause of human pain and wrongdoing, whereas the unconstrained can remedy this.
These two visions, sometimes presented as implicit views, sometimes unconscious assumptions, have directed actual and would-be decision makers through out history,
The individual framers of the American Constitution following the constrained vision, proposed checks and balances, separation of powers between Legislature, Executive and Judiciary on grounds that concentration of powers by a single person or small group is a threat to the liberty of others. According to Sowell, the French liberal the Marquise de Condorcet, demonstrating the unconstrained vision, supporter of the French Revolution, after being arrested by Robespierre, was still puzzling why the American makers of their Constitution needed such checks and balances.
In a contemporary situation these conflicts of vision are still strong as in the McCain /Obama battle for the US Presidency and attitudes to law. McCain shared the opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes no one has the sheer intellectual power to decide to figure it all out in advance, that the judiciary role be limited to making judgments according to the laws, not making laws according to their own opinion, which is not law but an arbitrary act. Obama said with regard to selecting judges, not that they would make decisions according to laws that are the result of peoples’ experience over time but rather, ‘If a woman is out trying to support her family and is being treated unfairly, then the Court has to stand up if nobody else will, and that’s the kind of judge I want.’
Sounds brave but as Sowell says, that is no law at all, it overturns the rule of law with one man’s arbitrary decision.
Thomas Sowell also observes that the constrained and unconstrained visions have different ways of looking at war throughout history. One is unsurprised by war, war doesn’t need explaining. This relates also to Geoffrey Blainey’s view in his book ‘The Causes of War.’ In most countries there were just as many or more periods of war in each century as of peace, so what needs explaining, perhaps, are the causes of peace. Sowell argues that the unconstrained view of war as an event arising from some kind of misunderstanding is unhistorical and somewhat unintellectual. He says that well-meaning intellectuals in the 1930’s responsible for leading public opinion in favour of disarmament while Hitler was building up his military machine, helped bring on WorldWar11. People like them, argues Sowell, predominantly able in their own academic field think it gives them the knowledge to change the world, whereas they haven’t had this experience, they go well beyond their competency trying to create a Utopia. .
And as is clearly apparent with theories of economic development, the constrained vision supports bottom up management, a million people knowing their own interests, whereas the unconstrained visionary supports top-down management and strong central government. You know which one serfs’ support…
Let the bard have the last word.
Just in conclusion, can’t exclude that master of human action, Master Shakespeare himself, creating characters in relation to two literary traditions, the comic vision and the tragic vision. Essentially the characters in Shakespeare’s drama are exceptionally active. In the comedy ‘As You Like It,’ we see the wise and witty Rosalind donning male attire to take a role in her survival in the Arden Forest and later using her disguised role to school the romantic Orlando for adult life and marriage, she’s taking intelligent steps for her own and his future. All’s Well That Ends Well.
In his four great tragedies, ‘Hamlet,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Othello’ we see the four tragic heroes bringing on their own disasters because of some tragic flaw in their characters that proves fateful in a particular situation.
There’s Othello, his character disintegrating from jealousy, his problem, we discover that his initial image is based on false confidence, beneath the surface, there are deep uncertainties of which he was unaware. Come along a nihilist motivated by malice, like Iago ,and Othello is easily persuaded that his wife is unfaithful to him. Then there’s Lear, all passionate intensity and unrealistic expectations that his daughters will respond in kind, and his opposite, the coldly intelligent and villainous Edmund, whom we witness reflecting on his own character in a way we’ve scarcely seen in literature before Shakespeare but which is now something we take for granted in the modern novel… and in ourselves.
In the play, Macbeth, in Act 5 Scene 3, we hear Macbeth thinking aloud. Initially he made a mistake when he thought he was too extraordinary to be confined by other men’s morality, too late he finds out he was wrong:
‘I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
Í must not look to have;’
For the introspective Hamlet, who like Phineus Gage, is unable to compel himself to meaningful action, Shakespeare developed the dramatic device of the soliloquy to allow his brilliant character to reflect aloud on stage and be overheard by his audience.
So in conclusion, while no one has likely come across characters in real life as charismatic and powerful as Shakespeare’s tragic figures, we recognise in them, representatives of actual human traits and behaviours, the hubris, the human tendency to exploit our positions of power to control others and the ability to fool oneself- until nature ‘s reality intervenes, our innate ability to make heaven and hell on earth. Shakespeare creatively portrayed this complexity in language that, if equalled by some, has never been surpassed. As the literary critic, Harold Bloom says of Shakespeare, he was your master of cognitive acuity and its representation in the Arts. The Arts, something unique to human originality.