Saturday, 17 August 2013

Is there such a thing as human nature?

Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior L.) are dying in the UK because of a disease, ash dieback, imported from continental Europe by trans-North Sea breezes.  I like ash trees a great deal.  They tend to grow straight and tall, and their symmetrical arrangements of soft green leaves are some of the most elegant foliage to be found in a northern European copse.  Their wood is lovely - it's sturdy, generally straight, unknotted, and very hard.  It's very evocative, with a bright white colour, visible grain, and distinctive smell (a lot of people say that freshly cut ash smells 'old').  It's also very easy to work, which was a notable characteristic for me when I used to run about the place armed with a Swiss army knife and whittling know-how.  The common name in English, aesc, was once used to mean 'spear'.  Its wood is particularly good for that purpose.


Not all ashes are the same.  They are affected by multitudinous variables, especially wind, soil conditions, altitude, latitude, and whether boys have gone around hacking at their branches.  Radiation can presumably have the same effect it does in animals and produce mutated, aberrant ash trees, and ash dieback, if withstood, can also have some effect on the later growth of the tree.  Presumably, too, these could have such an impact on the development of the ash that none of the general characteristics of the tree make an appearance.  There are certainly some ash trees that haven't grown straight and whose wood would be useless for making spears.  There might be some whose summer growth has been too stunted, resulting in soft wood with no resilience, contrary to our expectations of ash wood.  This is more likely the further north one goes.

There are also several species of ash.  They aren't homogeneous, and there is genetic variation within the species that we've got.  We can see this in the unfortunately low resilience of European ash trees to ash dieback, and the fact that some trees resist while others do not.  We can't say that ash dieback is a threat to all the organisms covered by the name of 'European ash', although it is to most of them.

But does that mean that there's no 'ash nature', no common core of overlapping features that we can generalise about, while accepting that there might be exceptions?  Does it mean that the genetics of the ash have such little impact on its development that we should refuse to generalise about the trees?  Should we say that the core features of the ash can only be understood in context (which is trivially true), that every ash is different in history and even genetics (also trivially true), and therefore refuse to make any claims about the utility of ash wood in making furniture or spears or poles?  Can we not communicate anything useful about ash trees to one another without noting all the variables involved in each specific example?

I don't think so.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

You can generalise a lot about people.  This is the basis of cognitive psychology - indeed, of all branches of psychology.  There are still some questions about the specifics of what humans are like, but humans aren't exactly mysterious beings.  They are intelligible to us and have been made intelligible by the application of reason to understanding them (i.e., by the scientific enterprise).  Reading the essay by Steven Pinker in The New Republic and seeing the risible reactions to it, you get the impression that humans are a mysterious species whose attributes are wholly flexible - not like ash trees at all, but completely malleable by history and experience such that there is no human nature.  The ash tree example is intended to show what happens if you try to apply the critics' reasoning to something other than humans.  In reality, human nature is as well-understood as ash nature, and while we all understand that humans are affected by myriad variables, just like ash trees, there are in fact plenty of core features of human beings that we can talk about (even leaving aside basic stuff like physiology).

For instance, humans are typically capable of processing multiple orders of recursion.  Iguanas, dogs, and ash trees can't do that; it's a product of our phylogenetic inheritance.  Humans tend to have a theory of mind - i.e., they are capable of interpreting actions, whether human or otherwise, as intended by the agents, and in fact they seem to do this automatically.  They do not like to experience pain and they generally don't want to die, or at least they fear death.  They are capable of acting on the basis of beliefs about the world encoded in their brains resulting from sensory data, including beliefs about the beliefs of others based on observations of their behaviour.  They inevitably bridge the is/ought divide, and find it hard to conceive of the idea that there is even a divide there.

They are incapable of acting against what they believe to be the right course of action, but they have divided brains that can cause them to want mutually contradictory things, so that they can give the appearance of both free will and 'weakness of the will'.  Their decisions are the automatic result of the equally automatic weighing up of sometimes mutually contradictory reasons for action.  They tend to want sex or procreation - sometimes both - at regular intervals.  They tend to avoid sexual intercourse with close kin, i.e., those people imprinted as close kin through co-residence in childhood.  They tend to care about the opinions of others, even others they've never met and will never meet.  They tend to care about reputation.  They care more about friends than strangers, and tend to care more about family than friends.  They can learn patterns of thought and action that allow them to operate on instinct.  They become bored and need new stimuli.  We can see all of this in what humans do and say.

You can generalise a lot about people, and you can make plenty of predictions about what they will do in given circumstances.  We'd have no realistic linguistic or archaeological models without this.  We wouldn't be able to understand urbanisation or literacy without this.  This is the result of the phylogenetic ancestry of human beings.  To deny this - to say that there is no such thing as 'human nature' - is wrong.  Yet this is exactly what the Pinker-phobes are saying.

When Tim Ingold says that, while there is no such thing as human nature, humans can't be made into whatever you want them to be, he is echoing Steven Pinker from the other side.  Pinker says that humans are variable and affected by all sorts of historical circumstances and that their decisions are not entirely the result of their genetics, but also that their phylogenetic ancestry is key to understanding their behaviour.  Ingold says that humans have some (presumably innate, phylogenetic) limitations that affect what they can and cannot do, but that humans nonetheless vary according to historical circumstance.  The difference between Ingold's stated position and Pinker's stated position (not the anthropologists' caricature) is slim indeed.

(Ingold has also said that ethnography isn't data collection, but of course it is; his claim that it is a way of seeing 'from the inside' is a crock based on a poor and incorrect view of introspection and human capabilities.  The mystical view that he takes assumes that anthropology is something other than the attempt to make human life, nature, and history intelligible.  This is probably related to his fuzzy, bullshit denial of 'human nature'.)

I liked Steven Pinker's essay.  I even liked the positive embrace of the label of 'scientism', because, as he defines it, it is positive.  If you actually take the time to understand what he means by the word 'science' (which he uses to mean something along the lines of the application of reason to the natural world, which is believed to be intelligible) then it is genuinely hard to disagree with what he is saying.  If you've decided to argue against reason, then you've already refuted your own claim by employing reason to make the argument, and once you've accepted reason you can't say that it should be suspended when examining certain phenomena.  That's self-refuting and stupid.

Finally, contra that awful expletive-filled rant about Steven Pinker that is making the rounds, Pinker is of course aware of the philosophies of people like Spinoza, Kant, et al.  Kant's essay on perpetual peace is a key part of his argument in The Better Angels of our Nature, and only someone who hasn't actually read his books could come to the conclusion that he is as philosophically unsophisticated (not to mention as boorish) as the author of that poorly written and moronic essay.  Only someone who already hated him could think that he's as terrible as his accusers suggest he is.  And, by the way, is the idea of correcting Spinoza referred to in the essay so offensive?  No: it's only offensive if you treat someone like Spinoza as infallible.  It seems to me that attempting to correct earlier thinkers based on what is now known is a perfect way to do philosophy, and it seems like the very best way to approach older philosophical texts - not as holy writ or solely as historical documents, but as things that could potentially be wrong and productively engaged with.  It says a lot about the Pinker-haters that they disagree with this position.  It may say even more that they will form of a chorus of agreement with a stupid and frankly offensive essay full of such poor arguments (can you imagine if Dawkins wrote something like that about religious belief?).

The idea that the world, including human beings, is intelligible to reason is not a scary idea and it's not a bad idea.  It's just good sense.  The Pinker-phobes don't even seem to know what they're arguing against.

See here for more Pinker-related shenanigans.

11 comments:

  1. For a comment on Human nature, there is a lot of "tend to" followed by vague unscientific terminology: What is reputation? What is it to "care about"? A lot of people don't really care about their families. A lot of people aren't actually all that ambitious (if that is what you are equating with "reputation"). What about them? Are they less natural? Or is human nature just a vague group of generalizations* that end up being banal and/or unspecific?

    (* - and, of course, not necessarily correct generalizations at all. One has to think of the whole history of 19th Century race science or sexology of the same period and later - yes, I know those are cliché examples, but it's an important one - and their statements of what was obvious, true and therefore correct).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Some of the features are so basic and elemental that there is no need to use 'tend to'; the ability to process multiple orders of thought is one of those, without which most human thought would be impossible. Without the ability to process some degree of recursion, you wouldn't be able to hold a conversation or think about what someone else might do - the whole possibility of interpreting other peoples' actions would be impossible. That is a capability lacking in other species and it derives, as far as can be told, from our phylogenetic inheritance. Almost all humans can process multiple orders of ideas - ideas embedded in ideas embedded in ideas - and this gives them their ability to communicate and form societies. That is not banal and it isn't unspecific. It's of revolutionary importance in understanding how humans work.

    The others are general observable tendencies in all human groups. There are exceptions to some of them, but only as written and not in substance. For instance, Hawaiian and Inka royal incest, whereby to preserve the integrity of the royal line a king or heir might marry his own sister, is an exception to the principle that humans don't want to have sex with their close kin. How could it come about? Well, there was a strict separation between royal kin in both civilizations, so the imprinting necessary for the Westermarck effect would not occur.

    You'll also note that most of these features of human nature are predictive. Humans tend to fear death (I use 'tend to' because it is hard to tell whether suicides fear death or not; certainly the fear isn't overwhelming). We can see this in their actions. No one has to tell them not to want to die or not to want to experience pain. They already want to avoid those things. That is neither vague nor banal nor unspecific. It says that, caeteris paribus, humans will avoid death if they can. Why? It is hard to avoid the idea that natural selection has caused this. That is inescapable evidence that evolution has played a strong causal role in determining human actions. That's a big deal, especially because much of the opposition to the idea of 'human nature' comes from the fact that it is asserting the primacy of drives provided by natural selection in determining human actions. Yet the influence of natural selection is completely undeniable.

    We have to use 'tend to' because these things can be overridden and can be in conflict. If someone threatened a man and his sister - who grew up together in the same household with regular and sustained contact with one another - with death if they don't have sex, I don't think the Westermarck effect, or the desire to maintain their reputations, would be strong enough to override the fear of death. And there would be lots of other variables; that's how people work, by weighing up reasons for action automatically.

    None of this is vague or banal. And for anthropologists to claim that there is no such thing as human nature is quite ridiculous. Without the Westermarck effect, for instance, we have no real fundamental understanding of kinship-based social structures.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would not claim that there is no Human nature - clearly, there is. Or that natural selection played no role in human development (whatever that means), as that is clearly false. Only that we should be really, really careful when trying to define it, simply because of the history of this thing. Grand scientific theories of human nature have in the past been simple, reductive, naturalistic and wrong (even if not racist, sexist, etc).

    I said banal (okay, point granted on the Westmarck effect - there are even exceptions to that) only because, well, they are not too different from what introspection would reach. People who claim some grand notion of human nature tend to go beyond that (there's that 'tend to' again).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, and point granted on recursion too obviously.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's not just that natural selection played a role in human development, but that natural selection has generated the basic, fundamental motivations of humans. They want to avoid death and don't want to have sex with their close kin. Even if you disagree about everything else, these two core motivations have to be taken into account in explaining the lives of humans. They are actually strongly predictive and each has enormous repercussions for what humans do and how they act. Even if everything else is wrong and only these two things remain - and I hardly think that is the case - we've still got to take these things into account in understanding even the most basic aspects of human life and social structure. Human nature is real and important, and when someone as prominent as Ingold denies its existence, that can easily have a detrimental effect on the understanding of human life and the development of science.

    You're right: they're very often not different from what you might infer from your general experience of life in a human society. I'm not sure why that makes them banal, though.

    Pinker and others are starting with the proposition that humans must be, in some way, the product of natural selection, not just physiologically but in terms of motivation and reasons for action. We should, then, be able to link up any instance of human action with natural selection in at least some way, even if we never actually do this - even if the link to evolution is only in principle. As Pinker says in his essay, we shouldn't try to explain a war purely in terms of cell activity or natural selection, but nor should we claim, as some people do, that there is no human nature, no core of common properties to humans that affects what they think and do, or that this common core has no impact on literature or art or warfare. I don't think this position is in any way ridiculous, and yet everyone seems to be jumping on the Pinker-phobia bandwagon.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "It's not just that natural selection played a role in human development, but that natural selection has generated the basic, fundamental motivations of humans. They want to avoid death and don't want to have sex with their close kin. Even if you disagree about everything else, these two core motivations have to be taken into account in explaining the lives of humans. They are actually strongly predictive and each has enormous repercussions for what humans do and how they act."

    Don't Disagree

    "Even if everything else is wrong and only these two things remain - and I hardly think that is the case - we've still got to take these things into account in understanding even the most basic aspects of human life and social structure."

    I would doubt very much that is the case although no other explanations that I know of (but I admit my reading in this field is fairly sketchy) have seem totally convincing to me.

    The Westmarck effect, no but that humans don't desire death I don't think has ever been refuted or attacked by any social scientist of any hue ever. Well, except perhaps the Late Freud. It's hardly revolutionary stuff.

    "Human nature is real and important, and when someone as prominent as Ingold denies its existence, that can easily have a detrimental effect on the understanding of human life and the development of science."

    As you admit yourself, Ingold and Pinker don't really disagree all that much. Ingold is obviously trying to shield the political problems that might emerge from any universalist understanding of human nature - he's not so much saying 'no human nature' as 'no, not that one'. Unlike you, I suspect, I don't really have that much of a problem with this. Social science (of the type of social Anthropology) is in the end, largely perscriptivist, as we expect our ideas about the world that we study to have some impact on how it will be understood (or at least, that is, what we should be aiming for). And as we both know, 'human nature' has a very rotten intellectual history.

    "You're right: they're very often not different from what you might infer from your general experience of life in a human society. I'm not sure why that makes them banal, though."

    The problem with it is where to stop... if simple introspection can demonstrate such things, perhaps it can demonstrate other things as well... which would be false. This is one of my problems with some of Pinker's writings. He more or less says "Look at these obvious and intuitive conclusions about humans that science has found and those stupid postmodernist social scientists deny them"... which is odd position for a cognitive psychologist to take (Defending intuitive and supposedly 'self-evident' propositions).

    "Pinker and others are starting with the proposition that humans must be, in some way, the product of natural selection, not just physiologically but in terms of motivation and reasons for action. We should, then, be able to link up any instance of human action with natural selection in at least some way, even if we never actually do this - even if the link to evolution is only in principle"

    For a start, to state what you probably already know, it is questionable whether natural selection is the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_theory_of_molecular_evolution]SOLE PRINCIPAL AGENT of evolution[/url]. Genetic drift is obviously pretty important and probably so-called sprandels are as well. Perhaps what seems like adaptive might just have been a chance genetic development due to the very small population that were our common ancestors. I hope I don't have to go on here about absurdity of so much pan-adaptationist explanations.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "As Pinker says in his essay, we shouldn't try to explain a war purely in terms of cell activity or natural selection, but nor should we claim, as some people do, that there is no human nature, no core of common properties to humans that affects what they think and do, or that this common core has no impact on literature or art or warfare. I don't think this position is in any way ridiculous, and yet everyone seems to be jumping on the Pinker-phobia bandwagon."

    I don't think that the position is ridiculous either... except that it doesn't have a glorious history either. There is a tendency to claim now - from some Pinkerians - that we are close to solving most of the problems of human nature thanks to the unity of cognitive psychology and neo-darwinism. To which I can only recall the quote of Jerry Foder on the early AI people like Minsky and Simon "They went into a game of three dimensional chess thinking it was tic tac toe".

    Let's be rigorous and careful here... on both sides of the argument (He speaks to the air).

    ReplyDelete
  8. There's a confusion in your post about whether these findings agree with intuition, which they can do, or whether they were arrived at through intuition, which they weren't. Pinker is a cognitive psychologist and psycho-linguist, and he mainly operates through experiment and statistical analysis, not through introspection.

    If you want more on the Westermarck effect, then the text you really need is Bernard Chapais's Primeval Kinship. It seems irrefutable, at this point, that humans avoid sex with close kin, and that the mechanism for this is imprinting in infancy. Moreover, there is a clear adaptive reason for this: the offspring of close genetic kin are less fit than the offspring of more distant relatives. There isn't really much argument from the other side - Levi-Strauss has, unfortunately, died, and no one really wants to take up the Freudian mantle he left behind because it makes no sense. Other kinship folks are willing to deny the existence of innate kinship mechanisms and assert the primacy of cultural phenomena in determining how people relate to one another. But they merely assert this, instead of tackling the actual arguments made by Chapais and others (even Westermarck, for that matter!) and the evidence on this point.

    I don't think social science is or should be prescriptive. And I really, really, really don't think we should shy away from something that is true because of the belief (unfounded, usually) that it will have deleterious social effects. I don't think there's much more to add on that point, except that if that is Ingold's motive for denying the presence of human nature, it is a cowardly one. Coming to terms with uncomfortable truths and communicating the fact that they aren't reasons for action is the mature thing to do.

    ReplyDelete
  9. No, I'm very aware that the Westmarck Effect is well established at this point (though I should feel like pointing out here that Chomskyian UG and the innatist approach to language is not even if he did demonstrate the hard-empiricist position makes no sense). And yes, I'm aware of your distinction of what
    Pinker is doing in regards to research but my point was in that, at least in The Blank Slate, he did not present it as such. He can be very high on rhetoric sometimes. It's the condescending attitude which I think turns people off (That and his BS comments on politics - that "Tragic view" nonsense)

    (Also, he's wrong to present Social Darwinism and Eugenics as historical aberrations in the history of science. They were in the mainstream of science until about the 30s. Hell, many of the founders of the modern evolutionary synthesis were eugenticists - Fisher, Julian Huxley, Karl Pearson (as a statistican) and after WWII, W.D. Hamilton, the founder of Kin Selection theory himself. This of course says nothing about the empirical value of their discoveries only that eugencists were the front of many of the most important ideas in modern biology - they were not cranks. In fact, in some cases - like, it seems, Hamilton, it was their interest in eugenics which sparked their interest in Biology. This may be the major problem of social science, actually, certain people with already held a priori views go into disciplines that already suit their preferences - so your stronger positivists go into economics, your "I'm going to find out what's wrong with the world" people into sociology, and your fuzzy, well-meaning culturalists into sociocultural anthropology. (I'm obviously absurdly generalizing here but it has some truth in it I think)

    A few clarifications:
    " It seems irrefutable, at this point, that humans avoid sex with close kin, and that the mechanism for this is imprinting in infancy"

    Yeah, if you mean "Close kin" as "kin of the same generation who grow up together and mothers/son". Any other type of very close incest can be found. Usually non-consensual though (as between Fathers and Daughters).

    (I will look out for the book though... thanks for the recommendation).

    "I don't think social science is or should be prescriptive"

    Only to certain extent I think. Not to the extent of the hard postmodernist position obviously. But I say this simply because the work of a social scientist should aim to have some relevance and thus impact on (say, policy) the people the social scientist is studying. This should NOT mean that the social scientist makes stuff up (as some people seem to wish about Napoleon Changon - or Margaret Mead for that matter) only that especial attention be paid to language, description and analysis so that positive action can be taken (assuming you are talking about a specific problem). Frames, Heuristic devices and theories must take this into account when studying our subjects. We can't study them like subatomic particles.

    Besides, you yourself being a descriptive social science, makes political recommendations based your discoveries (i.e. your position on Anarchism). I doubt you will convert any anarchists though. David Graeber no doubt would disagree. Is he less descriptive than yourself? You can pretty much only answer that by introspection (That's is you specifically answering it)

    "And I really, really, really don't think we should shy away from something that is true because of the belief (unfounded, usually) that it will have deleterious social effects"

    It's true that such research rarely has such an impact. Except perhaps as an excuse for an pre-ordained decision (such as the Venezuelan government's attempt to shoehorn the Yamomamo into reservations back in the late 80s). However, Social science (or at least pop social science) is responsible for a lot of the popular - and political - discourse about humans and human nature amongst other things. This implies caution.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "I don't think there's much more to add on that point, except that if that is Ingold's motive for denying the presence of human nature, it is a cowardly one. Coming to terms with uncomfortable truths and communicating the fact that they aren't reasons for action is the mature thing to do."

    Yes, and no. I was speculating about Ingold's motive but I don't think it's that irresponsible - Human culture has had a great ability to change - especially over the last 200 years and one of the things about social science is that reality and events in the 'outside world' - rather than experimental observation - can falsify theories (like Marxism). An example related to this topic would be here: http://ecodevoevo.blogspot.nl/2013/08/why-we-have-pubic-hair.html (That's an excellent blog btw).

    Also, I don't think Ingold was dissimulating so much denying the
    My point is in general I guess, when you speak of human nature, you must have damn good evidence for it and the innatist claim should always, always be assumed to be false unless shown quite clearly otherwise (and I would also add, must restrict one's self to falsifiable claims. Which reminds me, please no more stuff about language evolution, please...)

    (I will add here, as a confession, that I do share one major thing in common - and not the only thing - with the hermeuntical position in this debate. I'm generally not a fan of 'population-level' type thinking. This explains somewhat my sympathy for Ingold even if I think he is wrong. In social science, there is a matter of who you look at. And you can get very different results if you are looking at populations (as a statistical aggregate) or at individuals. I don't think either method is 'wrong' but can get different results.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I agree, of course, about so-called Chomskyan grammar and the concept of mentalese. I don't think it's necessary to use these concepts in making sense of language.

    "your fuzzy, well-meaning culturalists into sociocultural anthropology."

    I always thought it was these people who go into anthropology, but it isn't, not so much. Social anthropology seems to be dominated by people who want to change the world and defeat neo-liberalism rather than by 'well-meaning culturalists'.

    "the innatist claim should always, always be assumed to be false unless shown quite clearly otherwise"

    I agree, but I'd also say that some things are so well-established that to deny them, at this point, would just be head-in-the-sand behaviour. The Westermarck effect is real; the ability to think recursively is real; fear of death is real; and the ability to conceive of other minds is real. You could almost generate human society only out these elements, so they're quite important. I'm less concerned about whether there is an innate grammar or not (although that is an interesting question, of course).

    As for anarchism: anarchists (and people with similar beliefs about human society) are wont to twist the facts. That is my problem with them. If they said that anarchism was a noble but impossible dream unfounded by the understanding we have of non-state societies, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. But very often they make the claim that non-state societies are 'freer', less violent, and so on, which isn't actually true, given the data we actually have on this. I didn't have a problem with anarchism before studying anthropology or anything like that. I'm not devoted to an anti-anarchy ideology at all. And, moreover, my interest in better understanding non-state horticulturalists did not arise from the desire to further a political agenda - really, I just find pre-Columbian Amazonia and pre-colonial eastern Indonesian, and so on, fascinating in their own right.

    "please no more stuff about language evolution, please..."

    What do you mean by that? Is that general advice for innatists, or specific advice for me to follow? (I haven't written anything about language evolution, as far as I can remember, so...)

    ReplyDelete

You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.