It’s human nature

Ken writes:

Being pregnant is a very happy experience for Dot, and so far one of the nicest things for me has just been to vicariously experience her feelings of well-being. The way in which these feelings have forced their way into our usual routines, irrespective of context, ignorant of the demands of work and the mundane, has made me suddenly more sympathetic to psychological and behavioural explanations couched in terms of human nature. One could almost say, though it would be churlish to diminish the feelings by saying so, that she’s awash with happy hormones caused by her pregnancy.

This has encouraged me to revisit some of my Boasian sympathies and try to clarify what I object to about standard appeals to human nature in the popular imagination. First a caveat. My training is in philosophy not biology or ethology or evolutionary psychology (thank goodness), or even old anthropology. So I picked up the theory I know second hand (or even greater stages of removal). And I am also more open to writers outside the main consensus (as I see it), such as Elaine Morgan (below). That said, philosophical training is pretty good. It teaches the skill of analysing arguments as a result, I tells them like I sees them, and I apportion my credence according to the evidence (though only the arguments and evidence that has passed through the filter of popular presentations of genetics, human ethology, evolutionary psychology and the like). At least I’m being upfront about the limitations of my competence to enter this debate. The hard liners in the sciences I mentioned think that because they have a PhD in staring down a microscope, or game theoretic mathematics, they are competent to speak about ethics and human society. Whether they acknowledge it or not, ethics and human society is a pretty challenging field and one that we in the humanities have actually built up some expertise on, so they need to draw in their horns and tone down their rhetoric because at the end of the day the study of human society should be an interdisciplinary venture with valuable contributions to be made by all sides. Besides, it’s a bit rich to have men with pocket protectors and tomato sauce on their ties lecturing us about human behaviour, or (to tweak the old proverb a bit) people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Consider this recent example of the genre of popular expositions of the hard truths of human nature that I find so objectionable:

Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy
When there is resource inequality among men—the case in every human society—most women benefit from polygyny: women can share a wealthy man. Under monogamy, they are stuck with marrying a poorer man.

The only exceptions are extremely desirable women. Under monogamy, they can monopolize the wealthiest men; under polygyny, they must share the men with other, less desirable women. However, the situation is exactly opposite for men. Monogamy guarantees that every man can find a wife. True, less desirable men can marry only less desirable women, but that’s much better than not marrying anyone at all.

Men in monogamous societies imagine they would be better off under polygyny. What they don’t realize is that, for most men who are not extremely desirable, polygyny means no wife at all, or, if they are lucky, a wife who is much less desirable than one they could get under monogamy. (From: 10 Politically Incorrect Truths about Human Nature)

The quote presents a tremendously compact version of some quite involved theoretical issues. In an effort to make the ideas suitable for a popular forum, they’ve had to be blunt, perhaps offensive, but the authors make no bones of this.

The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral, contrary to our ideals, or offensive. We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct. (ibidem)

I take this to mean that in spite of the popular format, they stand by their ideas and arguments in this form, so I can respond to them in this form.

Notice that the reasoning displayed above is general. For all it says about marriage practices in different societies, it doesn’t actually turn on any consideration of empirical sociological data (e.g. life expectancy of men and women, surveys of bachelors vs married couples/triples etc.) Instead the reasoning follows the modelling of a rational economic agent. The scientific credentials claimed for this sort of explanation are asserted on the strength of developed formal mathematical models (evolutionary game theory, first applied to evolutionary theory by John Maynard-Smith (I think)). I admit it is impressive. Using a sophisticated, rational, mathematical techniques to apply an awesome and fruitful scientific theory and generate novel and startling hypotheses is impressive. But passages like this show it comes at a cost of loss of significant focus.

There is no substitute for good old fashioned Boasian empirical anthropological fieldwork. Students of human nature simply must go about and survey the vast diversity of different human practices to find out what humans actually do. Unless we say everything humans do is literally determined, and if we do say this, then given the actual diversity of behaviour we’d have to say the natures of humans of different cultures were different, which no one wants to do, we have to say behaviour is partly the product of human nature and cultural upbringing. But once this is recognised, then if we want to explain anything as owing to human nature as such, we must be able to subtract, as it were, the influence of culture. I don’t see how we (as theorists) could do this unless we had a good empirical knowledge of the peculiarities of different cultures. Analogy: you know that you’re looking at someone through the window as opposed to looking at yourself in the mirror, because the figure in the glass does something different from you. The upshot of this is that appeals to human nature, given that they involve a claim to be valid for all, rest on an empirical understanding of different cultures just like the old-style anthropologists tried to provide for us.

One suspects that the authors quoted above won’t be impressed with this line of thought, because (after all) they’ve proved their conclusions mathematically. They have a general argument, so they can tell in advance what the empirical findings will have to be. Well, if that’s the case, what makes it human nature as opposed to animal, or plant, or Martian nature they’re telling us about? They can claim it is a fact about natures of all kinds: if such and such a thing meets the relevant assumptions encoded in the mathematical apparatus, then it will flourish in such and such conditions. Fine, but then the problem is whether humans meet the conditions. The authors cannot deny that they are interested in what things are like for humans so there’s just no obviating the need to find out, with mosquito nets and gumboots, what actual humans are like.

The claim is therefore, that in practice evolutionary psychological speculations run the risk of losing touch with the phenomena they want to explain because they rely too greatly on purely general reasoning. Other that that there is nothing obviously wrong about following through the implications of Darwinian theory as such, but caution is needed because following through the implications is in fact a matter of amplifying the theory with auxiliary principles, theories and observations that relate the overarching theory to the subject matter of particular implementations of it. In other words it’s not a straight-forward or innocent matter what the implications of Darwinism are. What you say that the theory implies depends on where you are coming from; obviously your other theoretical commitments, but possibly also more personal preoccupations. This is nicely illustrated by alternative explanations of human breasts (human biology, even more obviously than psychology, lends itself to evolutionary explanations).

The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks, and the sharply defined red lips around the mouth must be copies of the red labia. If the male of the species was already primed to respond sexually to these signals when they emanated posteriorly from the genital region, then he would have a built in susceptibility to them if they could be reproduced in that form on the front of the female’s body. (Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, p.51)

Morris’s speculation (that the female body adapted to entice men for the face to face copulation made the norm by bipedalism) contrasts with Elaine Morgan’s explanation, which is equally in keeping with the Darwinian perspective, but emphasises a different source of constraints. She speculates that breasts developed to bring the nipples closer to a baby’s lips (pp. 37ff.). If the baby is fed held in the crook of the arm, the most comfortable position, then with no fur to cling to, the baby needs to hold something to guide the nipple to its lips (or guide its lips to the nipple). Morgan’s alternative speculation seems to have a prima facie plausibility to it, but I mention it just because the existence of alternatives shows to my mind how susceptible pure theorising can be to being funnelled off track by unconscious beliefs and preoccupations. Morgan neatly diagnoses the circle in Morris’s reasoning: I’m attracted to it, therefore it was put there to attract me.

It is of course a prime tenet of all androcentric thinking that everything about the female was designed primarily for the benefit and convenience of the male, to make her (a) more attractive to him and (b) more accessible to him; and if you ever want to have a really good laugh, I would recommend reading some of the incredibly involved and covoluted arguments of a male evolutionist trying to explain why women, alone of all the apes, equipped herself with a hymen, which appears on the face of it to have no other purpose than to keep him out. (Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman, p. 60)

This is a long post, so I summarise: I think there’s something obviously right in principle about explanatory appeals to human nature, but in practice I think it’s a very difficult sort of claim to prove, and the proof when it comes won’t be purely general but will be the result of collating lots of anthropological studies. This especially means philosophers like me need to be cautious.

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2 thoughts on “It’s human nature

  1. kenanddot

    Dot writes: I agree with Ken’s arguments in this post and indeed we had a conversation on this topic before he went and wrote up his ideas. However, looking at the quotation from ’10 Politically Incorrect Truths’ the problem that strikes me isn’t directly to do with evolutionary psychology but simply with the concept of benefit or advantage: ‘Most women benefit from polygyny.’ The argument that women are more likely to find a mate under polygyny and men less likely is convincing, but I’m not convinced that this actually makes things better for women – in practice, as far as I can tell, polygyny seems to go with societies in which women’s lives are restricted and their status subordinate (here’s where the point about field research comes in). ’10 Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature’ encodes the assumption that benefit means, pretty much exclusively, the opportunity to reproduce. But it is surely human nature to want and to gain from all sorts of other things as well. The approach exemplified in the quotation claims to be revealing human nature but it starts from a base line that hasn’t been examined and that seems to me to be wrong – the assumption that, because evolution favours characteristics that increase an organism’s chances of reproduction, the chance of reproduction is the main or only thing that’s important for an individual organism.

    This isn’t to deny that I am feeling jolly biological right now!

  2. okeenan

    Right this is my first entry in this blog and I am posting here because Ken posted it and it is at least vaguely related to babies. Now before I get to my actual point I guess I should make some reply to the topic. I think it particularly odd that the above quoted polygyny monogamy weigh up seems to assume that only men are likely to have (or want?)multiple partners. Admittedly contemporary societies mainly exemplify this but as Dot said the status of women in these societies seems to run counter to the arguments main assertion that women are better off in a polygynous society. That said, it also bases its assertion on a false this (or) that choice when there are clearly many ways relationships can form or even culturally evolve to accommodate various individuals.

    Baby Elijah Christopher Cass was born on Mon 13 Aug at 8.30pm. Weighing 8 pounds 11 ounces (just a fraction under 4kg) He got a 10 Apgar and was out in lightning quick time. Just 45 mins. Very intense! There was no way we could ever make it to the hospital in time so just as well we had planned a home-birth.

    Weirdly despite the dark haired parents we have another blondy. Very odd.

    He has slept a lot since birth, a couple of look arounds but then back off to sleep.

    Hope you and your prawn are doing well and this blog isn’t innappropriate :).

    I’ve lost your email so hopefully you got my reply with my most commonly used address.
    Send us an email and I’ll send you some photos. Some photos from you guys would also be good.

    Keep us updated

    That fellow in the Eastern Bay of Plenty

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