Socialisation and Evolution

Keith Rankin, 16 May 1998


A review by Michael Corballis in the NZ Listener (2 May 1998, p.44) of Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, shows the growing importance in academia of "evolutionary psychology" in explaining why we, as humans, are the way we are.

The issue of social evolution is very important for economics, because it can help economists to recognise the severe limitations for our understanding of the real world of the use of the concept of "economic man" as the central premise of neoclassical theory.

A central tenet of 1980s' sociobiology was the concept of "The Selfish Gene"; a concept that became the title of a best-selling book by Richard Dawkins. I have commented before (incl. the February 1998 issue of the New Zealand Political Review) on the contrast between the concept of men and women as individually selfish "Hobbesian" beings, and the alternative view that humans are a socialised species who naturally interpret self-interest in the context of the group rather than the individual.

Socialisation can be defined as the process by which individuals see their contribution to the group as being in the group interest, and therefore, because they are members of the group, in their individual interest. Conversely, socialised individuals see activities which might at first appear to be in their self-interest (eg crime) as being contrary to the group interest, and therefore, because they are members of the group, contrary to their individual interest.

Evolutionary psychology moves beyond sociobiology, in that it seeks to explain why we are socialised in the particular way we are, and how we evolved into social being from simple unsocialised life forms; from primeval slime into an intelligently cooperative life form. There is no longer any doubt in biological and psychological circles that we are a socialised species. However, in the current view, the form of socialisation might best be called "tribalisation", reflecting one set of innate intra-tribal behaviour, and a tendency to Hobbesian selfishness with respect to inter-tribal behaviour.

The discussion centres very much on the kinds of cooperation that were required in a population of hunter gatherers, because for the vast majority of human history, humans lived as hunter gatherers. As a result, some forms of behaviour that might be regarded as unsocial (eg certain types of macho behaviour) may have served a social purpose in hunter-gatherer communities. Economists should not be misled by casual empiricism into believing that we are innately selfish.

According to the selfish gene hypothesis, the winners in the game of reproduction were those individuals who selfishly and single-mindedly acted to breed the most. As a result their offspring inherited those characteristics of individual selfishness. QED.

The flaw is that societies of individually selfish beings would fail at the social level, usually by outstripping their resource base and suffering sooner more often than later from social implosion. Socialised tribes out-survived collections of Hobbesian individuals. Cooperation, it turns out, was an essential key to the evolution of humans, and the evolution of intelligence was a key part of that.

Intelligence enables the socialisation process to broaden, so that tribes or nations, by understanding the benefits of tribal socialisation, will expand those principles into the global arena, despite the fact that biologically they are only socialised at the tribal level. Furthermore, with intelligence, the process of evolution moves from genes to culture (as Corballis notes, is the theme of a book that "neatly complements" Pinker's work; Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond).

Intelligence also gives humankind the opportunity to learn to live in harmony with the whole of the natural environment (and not just with other tribes or nations), without waiting for genetic change to breed humans who are hard-wired to conserve. An interesting example was portrayed in an episode of the BBC television series Earth Report (screened 13 April 1998), set in Guinea on the grassland region bordering the Sahara Desert.

In the marginal lands of West Africa there are grasslands dotted with clumps of bush. Well-meaning western expert opinion has always assumed that the land was natural forest which the local people had removed to satisfy supposedly unsustainable practices, included burning. It turns out from recent research - a combination of asking the local people themselves and checking out aerial photos from the 1950s - that the activities of the local people have created the islands of forest, and that in their absence the land would have been desert.

Humankind, as an intelligent species, has genetically and culturally evolved to cooperate both with each other and with their environment.

The danger today is that the economics of selfish individualism acts something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The underlying claim that we are essentially selfish acts as a kind of role model, suggesting we ought to be so selfish. As Hobbes himself understood, the logical outcome of selfishness is social implosion ("war of all against all"), and the extinction of the worst offending communities; or, if the manner of extinction is dramatic enough, the end of humanity as a species.

Certainly studies of past civilisations - all of which have declined - suggest that selfishness is a consequence rather than a cause of economic development. Long run socio-economic development requires the maintenance of the cooperative spirit to which our minds are hard-wired at birth.

Economics, as social science rather than as dogma, must adapt to the premise that human beings are born to cooperate, not to cheat. We want to help each other - to work for each other - by our very nature. Our predominant economic theory should not assume otherwise. We do not wish to be vegetables - "couch potatoes" - idling away our lives unless someone with a stick makes us work, or hunger drives us from our beds. We only become cabbages if we are prevented from being anything else.

When our rules prevent us from being what we are by nature, and when our economic role-models are cheats, then society is entering a state of implosion. Indeed social evolution works through the demise of failed civilisations, just as biological evolution works through death and extinction.


© 1998

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