About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Wilson vs. Arnhart on Darwinism and the economy

The nation’s economy is in deep trouble, which means financial woes all over the world, with millions of people affected. Bush-II is hardly appearing in the news, as apparently “the Decider” has nothing to say about a disaster whose slow but sure build-up his so called administration has presided over for the last eight years. To compound disaster with disaster, the Treasury Department isn’t just trying to help by saddling the taxpayers with the sins of Wall Street; no, in perfect Bush style, Secretary Paulson is seeking to obtain from Congress -- and retain in perpetuity for his successors -- unfettered authority to intervene in the markets with essentially no oversight by the legislative branch.

Throughout all this, David Sloan Wilson and Larry Arnhart have been debating whether evolutionary theory favors government regulation or not. What on earth does evolutionary theory have to do with the global economy, one might reasonably ask? A lot, according to both Wilson and Arnhart, though they arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions by allegedly using the same scientific theory. Not much, responds yours truly, who is not an economist, but whose background is in evolutionary biology and philosophy. Let us first briefly see what Wilson and Arnhart say, followed by my modest take on the debate.

I find David Sloan Wilson’s essay reasonably argued (unlike Arnhart, who judges it “incoherent”), though I will point out in a minute why it is ultimately unconvincing. Wilson’s position is that we should once and for all abandon the metaphor of an “invisible hand” guiding the markets and somehow yielding the best social (not just economic -- note that the two are not the same) outcome. For him human beings are naturally social animals, with an instinct toward both cooperation and cheating. He cites recent experiments applying game theory to human behavior, showing that people punish cheaters, if the cost of doing so to themselves is relatively low, although cheaters remain alert to the possibility of cheating if they can get away with it. For Wilson this is the result of evolution by natural selection, which shaped our moral instincts in the distant past. The problem, according to Wilson, is that modern societies are much larger than the small groups that have characterized much of our evolutionary history. This means that we have to put in place regulations that for all effective purposes play the cheating-checking role that individual human beings can no longer effectively carry out.

Larry Arnhart, on the other hand, looks at the same exact situation, using the same theory of evolution, to argue, in his words, that “Darwinian science supports morality as rooted in moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments, and [that] such a morality sustains private property, free markets, the rule of law, and limited government.” He chastises Wilson for not explaining to his readers that Adam Smith (the originator of the invisible hand metaphor in his The Wealth of Nations) had a nuanced view of markets and society, distinguishing between the natural pursuit of self-interest and a sense of morality, and arguing that governments do need to provide a favorable environment to achieve a sensible balance between the two. In other words, even for Smith, completely free markets would be folly, given human nature. Perhaps Republicans should be made to read Smith before blabbering about the powers of the unfettered market.

What is wrong with all of this? To begin with, when two people can reasonably look at the same facts, interpret them through the same theory, and come to starkly incompatible conclusions, one might reasonably suspect that either the theory is wrong or that it simply does not apply. Since I think evolutionary theory is correct, I am inclined to conclude in favor of a case of misapplication. Let’s again start with Wilson. I couldn’t agree more with him when he says that metaphors -- such as the invisible hand -- have the power to guide people’s actions, and that that particular metaphor would best be set aside, forever. I also agree that experimental psychology and economics do tell us something interesting about the way human beings behave in terms of fairness, cheating, and cooperation. But he has not a single shred of evidence to back up his claim that our behavior in modern settings is the result of natural selection in Pleistocene (or any other) times. This is the perennial problem with sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, or whatever you want to call it. The argument is plausible, and Wilson may even be right; but plausibility does not a science make. We have no idea of what the social dynamics, selective pressures, and genetic heritability of high-level behavioral traits were in human populations during the relevant evolutionary period. Moreover, since these things are not going to be found in the fossil record, and because we have too few not-so-closely related species to compare with, we will likely never get beyond speculation in this area. Perhaps more importantly, Wilson admits that -- even if his ideas about the evolution of a balance between selfishness and cooperation in humans are right -- they are irrelevant in today’s environment because we don’t live in small nomadic bands anymore (thankfully, I shall add). Hence his call for government structure and regulation, which is really not that far from Smith’s own, even though Smith wrote before Darwin, and his analysis could therefore not be informed by evolutionary theory (another hint that the latter isn’t called for here).

Arnhart is even more off target. To begin with, he acknowledges that he is in favor of a “rule of law and limited government.” Right there this means that the discussion isn’t any longer about free markets vs. socialism/communism (I still find it sadly laughable that so many Americans don’t see a distinction between the latter two positions), it is a matter of where we draw the line. Again, Smith would have agreed; Wilson himself -- though mocked by Arnhart -- explicitly says that “we can argue at length about smart vs. dumb regulation but the concept of no regulation should be forever laid to rest.” Amen. Arnhart, however, in what has become a now predictable conservative move, engages in a flagrant case of arguing in spite of the evidence: “Free markets with private property under the rule of law regulate economic behavior by providing incentives to prudence. Individuals and firms with a stake in the outcome make decisions based on their processing of information. The rewards and losses from their decisions are concentrated on them rather than on taxpayers.” My ass they are. We live in a global economy, where “the tax payers” (citizens, people, citizens) actually do receive the brunt of the impact of bad economic decisions made on Wall Street, because when banks fail, our pensions, among other things, go down the drain. Moreover, for anyone to seriously argue that the people in charge suffer the consequences is criminally disingenuous, vis-a-vis the huge golden parachutes that are accorded CEOs of failing companies, and the ridiculously low rate of white crime prosecution and conviction (Enron, anyone?). Arnhart’s doublethink doesn’t stop there: he adopts a sarcastic tone about Wilson’s proposal to pursue smart regulations by stating “complex economy cannot be centrally planned because the central planners will never have enough knowledge or virtue to be trusted to do such planning.” But who has been talking about central planning? Regulation means to enact (and enforce) laws that reduce the all-powerful incentive to cheat; central regulation, instead, is an attempt to have the entire economy managed by a few people assumed to be capable of almost preternatural foresight. Central management is as idiotic an idea as a completely unfettered economic system.

Most importantly, though, both Arnhart and Wilson commit a most elementary logical mistake, what philosophers have been referring to as the naturalistic fallacy, and which was so clearly articulated by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (also, incidentally, written before Darwin, though Hume and Smith were contemporaries and friends, and they influenced each other’s work). It is worth quoting extensively:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning ... when of a sudden I am surpris’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

In other words, “is/is not” is a statement of fact, presumably verifiable by means of the examination of empirical evidence. “Ought/ought not,” on the other hand, refers to values, and can be defended by reason or appeal to “moral intuition,” but not by facts. The two may be connected somehow, but Hume chastises people who seamlessly glide from one to the other without bothering to explain how they made the connection. Both Wilson and Arnhart are telling us that evolutionary theory (which deals with facts, not values) is somehow informative on what we ought to do to create a more just society. But why should nature be a guide to what we ought to think is right or wrong? One can argue, in fact, that the whole point of human civilization is to get away from the natural order of things, defying natural selection, for instance, by the means of modern medicine, or defying gravity by way of airplanes.

It is not that nature is inconsequential or uninformative about our plague, the point is that it should not be used as a guide. Let me give you a simple example: a dietary application of the natural fallacy would be the argument that “if it is natural it is good,” something we actually do hear often enough, repeated in just the same thoughtless (as in, without thinking) manner that people talk about free markets. But one only need to remember the existence of poisonous mushrooms to realize that natural is not alway good. We do need knowledge of nature when deciding what to eat, but this knowledge comes into play both as a guide to what to eat and, perhaps more crucially, as a guide about of what not to eat!

I do not know whether human beings evolved to be largely cooperators, as Wilson maintains, or a bunch of selfish individuals who can rationalize their selfishness as natural morality, a la Arnhart. But I do know that we don’t want nature -- which is inherently a-moral -- to guide our moral choices, just in the same way in which we don’t want to eat poisonous mushrooms solely because they grow large and beautiful in the forest.


  1. >> Republicans [..] blabbering
    >> about the powers of the
    >> unfettered market.

    You must confuse neocons with libertarians.

    Today's crisis is the direct result of government intervention.

    Alan Greenspan in his infinite wisdom decided to push interest rates really low after the 2001 recession to help the economy recover. Greenspan and the FOMC didn't have to do that - they could've chosen to not let rates go so low, a process which would've pushed down inflation and encouraged people to invest money into bank accounts and government bonds. Instead, by running negative real interest rates, people threw their money at anything whose value was increasing faster than inflation. The housing bubble was thus formed and as the market expanded and people invested in housing, the prices kept going up and up. Because interest rates so mega-low, banks could afford to throw money at almost anybody who wanted a loan - even poor people. After all, if a poor person owed, say, $400,000 in a mortgage on a house that had increased in value to, say, $500,000 and beyond, what harm was there in doing so?

    The bubble and its subsequent popping therefore had more to do with irresponsible monetary policy on behalf of the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan. It was not the fault of the fractional banking system. Had Greenspan raised rates in 2003 rather than dropping them, negative real interest rates would never have occurred and a bubble would never have formed.

    Free market? Not today.

  2. Had Greenspan raised rates in 2003 rather than dropping them, negative real interest rates would never have occurred and a bubble would never have formed.

    For a counter-argument to that claim, I recommend the following article: Why Greenspan does not bear most of the blame.

    As for what qualifies as a "free market", or whether such a state of affairs is even socially desirable, I'll leave those even more speculative questions aside.

  3. Two thoughts, Massimo.

    1) Is/Is Not vs. Ought/Ought Not - Science (evo-bio) can be a guide in the sense that if we know under what circumstances humans will act more favorably toward cooperation and peace, we can help mold the 'environment" (that is, society) in that direction. If the kind of Hobbesian competition and dominance hierarchies that conservative, neoconservative or even liberal society is creating an unhealthy environment - and thus an unhealthy species - then we should move away from - in this case - capitalism and hierarchal democracy. I think there is ample evidence to make just this point.

    But what of progressive (not liberal) capitalism and hierarchal democracy? Progressive capitalism is highly regulated but not in the neoconservative fascist manor, nor of course is it like the "small-government" (read 'regulation for the rich and corporations') conservative manor, nor the liberal manor which is a compromise between the right and left which fails just as miserably in the long run. Progressive capitalism is like what we see in Scandinavia which is certainly a healthier place overall than the USA, and I think this is where David wants to go with our own economy - a healthier place for humanity - but I have argued that progressive economics and politics is akin to a Band-Aid on the problems born from capitalism and hierarchal democracy - a compromise itself between liberal and socialist ideology - and is unsustainable because of the nature of capitalism itself.

    Does Evo-bio help us here, I don't know for sure because I am not a biologist. But I think social science does show the above to be true.

    2) What do you mean when you say Americans can't tell the difference with "the latter?" Are you referring to the differences between socialism and communism? If so, of course there are major differences, but the former was meant (according to Marx) only to be the way to bring about the latter (which as we have seen, does not seem to work out very well). There are many good things about socialism if we eliminate the power of the state and do away with hierarchal democracy as well... but when you do that you have a very different kind of socialism... a socialism more like what Marx expected communism to be like (a stateless, classless society for all).

    I think this form of communism (which does not use socialism as it's means) is called anarcho-communism. Or, to flip it around, a kind of socialism which does not become a dictatorship-state can be what is known as libertarian-socialism. I think this is the way to go because it does two things which I think provides a healthier environment (than liberal or conservative or progressive or neo-con ideology) for our species:

    A - Firstly it replaces vertical (hierarchal) governance with horizontal governance ... that is, it replaces Jeffersonian/Madisonian democracy with real democracy. Recall that the US founding fathers were afraid of real democracy because their goal was democracy for white property owning males and not for women, slaves or the poor. Creating a nation with real democracy would have required a REAL revolution!

    B - Secondly, it eliminates the uber-competition created by an unequal economics system which was only a 'modernized' take on feudalism not so very long ago, and which was set up BEFORE we had an equal playing field... And which NATURALLY creates a class system even under the best of circumstances (regulated or not, with the latter being even more barbaric than the former).

    Less unnecessary competition and more mutual aid cooperation.

    Less control at the top by a few for their own interests replaced by shared control over all decisions of life with "respect authority" replacing "command authority."

    That I think sounds like a better deal for our species, no?

    Barry F. Seidman

  4. Actually, Wilson has committed no naturalistic fallacy here. First, he argues for the factual claim that human behavior simply has certain features: We are social animals with strong tendencies towards both cooperative behavior and cheating, and like most social animals the tools we use to manage cheating behavior are direct and immediate (punishments like violence against or social ostracism of offenders, etc.). Wilson does not claim that this is what human behavior should be or that this is how we ought to behave, he simply argues that this is how we do behave. Second, based on these facts of human nature, he suggests that a practical, effective way to manage our economic matters is to take those natural inclinations into account: He proposes that strict regulatory and enforcement mechanisms are needed for our systems of economic exchange because the methods we're naturally inclined to use for punish cheating are simply not up to the task in this context.

    I think Wilson's first argument is a lot more scientifically sound than you do, but that's neither here nor there. The matter at hand is the (missing) naturalistic fallacy. Wilson's first argument provides the factual context which shapes the second, practical argument in a perfectly ordinary way that does not rely on equating how humans act and how we ought to act. Rather, he presents what he takes to be facts which play a causal role in how economic crises like our current one arise - and surely understanding causes is an important part of solving problems and preventing their recurrence. Where is the naturalistic fallacy in that?

    Hume's argument suggests only that no value conclusion can be supported without at least one value premise, not that factual (is) claims can never serve as premises in prescriptive (ought) arguments at all. Typically, the naturalistic fallacy is committed by either drawing a value conclusion from exclusively factual premises, or by smuggling in some equivalent of the value conclusion in amongst the premises in a concealed fashion (i.e. a circular argument). But the only value premise in Wilson's argument has nothing to do with his factual claim about our evolved nature: Rather, the value premise at stake in his argument is simply that we want our system of economic exchange to WORK! We don't want massive breakdowns caused by cheating and greed to undermine the entire system. I shouldn't think Wilson would need to explicitly state this as a value premise in his argument, as the assumption of this shared value is the entire point of making the argument in the first place.

    Arnhart, I'm not so sure about. In my opinion, his book Darwinian Natural Right is just one long, tedious naturalistic fallacy - and a particularly unconvincing argument in every other way as well. But in this particular debate, I don't see that Arnhart's argument commits the naturalistic fallacy any more than Wilson's does. Arnhart makes arguments against Wilson's proposed solution and in favor of a different solution, and I agree with you that they're bad arguments. Maybe part of the reason those arguments are bad is because they depend on prior naturalistic fallacy arguments Arnhart has made in support of his conservative values: But lots of people hold similar values for reasons that have nothing to do with Arnhart's penchant for the naturalistic fallacy, so that doesn't seem to play an important part in this particular argument. Rather, Arnhart's debate with Wilson over how to solve/prevent economic crises still shares the basic value premise that makes such crises a problem in the first place: That is, Arnhart and Wilson agree - as presumably we all agree - that it would be a lot better for all of us if our systems of economic exchange were less prone to massive breakdowns of the sort we are in the midst of now.

    Yes, we ought to be on guard against the naturalistic fallacy - but let's not jump at shadows just because someone refers to human evolution in an argument. Every argument about what humans ought to do, whether it's a moral argument or a practical argument, will necessarily involve either explicit claims or implied background assumptions about human capacities and inclinations. Attempting to ground those claims about human capacities and inclinations in an empirically-supported, broadly scientific understanding of human nature strikes me as a lot more productive than just taking massive assumptions for granted, or otherwise pulling our understanding of human nature out of our collective arses - the methods all-too-commonly used. But wherever people get their (explicit or implicit) claims about human inclinations and capacities, the mere fact that such claims play a role in someone's prescriptive argument does not automatically make that argument an instance of the naturalistic fallacy.

    And when I say that the inclusion of facts about human inclinations and capacities is necessary, I do mean necessary - not sufficient. Take Wilson's argument, for example: It would be good if our systems of economic exchange didn't break down (implicit value premise), so it's important to set up strict rules and enforcement mechanisms to govern our economic system (prescriptive conclusion), because, while humans are naturally inclined to both cheat and to control/punish cheaters, the methods for controlling/punishing cheaters to which we are naturally inclined work poorly in social groups larger than a small village (purported facts which connect the value premise and prescriptive conclusion). If someone purported different facts about human inclinations and capacities, they would of course draw a different prescriptive conclusion. The prescriptive conclusion depends upon the factual claims for its shape, even if the value claim is held completely unchanging.

    More generally stated, value claims cannot support prescriptive conclusions without a context of facts in which those values are to be realized. There's no way to move straight from claims about what states of affairs we consider good/desirable (values) to claims about what we ought to do to realize those states of affairs (prescriptions) without considering the causal factors (facts) which render the desired state of affairs merely possible rather than actual.

    I like this way of framing the issue because it illustrates a few key points of ethical reasoning: First, if the desired/good state of affairs were the actual state of affairs instead of a merely possible state of affairs, no argument for a prescription would be necessary. This illustrates the emptiness of the naturalistic fallacy, which pretends to make a prescriptive argument while simultaneously treating the actual state of affairs (what is) as identical with the desired/good state of affairs (what ought to be). Second, if the facts are such that the desired state of affairs is impossible to realize, no prescriptive conclusion can be drawn - whence the phrase "ought implies can."

  5. TLP,

    No, I'm not confusing libertarians with neocons, I'm talking about Republicans, as in the Republican party, like the one that put Greenspan (Reagan) and Bernanke (BUsh-II) in charge.

  6. thinkmonkey,

    as usual, thanks for the well thought out response. However, I'm going to stick to my guns and argue that Wilson (and certainly Arnhart) does commit the naturalistic fallacy.

    I agree with you (and with Barry) that of course science can inform us about aspects of human behavior and preferences, and that it would be foolish to try to establish a social system that ignored or went against that information (like communism, for instance -- and yes, Barry, I did mean that many Americans can't tell the difference between communism and socialism, though I personally do not subscribe to either).

    But it seems to me that Wilson is simply trying to get a system working that would re-establish what he takes to be the natural state of things of ancestral populations, only by different means because he realizes that the environment is now too much different from the Pleistocene. There is no argument provided by Wilson (and even less by Arnhart) that this is what we ought to do. This seems to me a perfect example of Hume's concern of seamlessly going from is to ought.

    That said, the model of society that Wilson favors, and the actions he suggests, are in line with what I support too. I just don't think that speculation about evolutionary origins is necessary or helpful at all here. The latter point is reinforced by the fact that Arnhart can argue -- equally without foundations -- that his, quite different, system of morality and prescription is also in line with "Darwinism."

  7. Hmm. I think you are still somewhat mischaracterizing Wilson's argument. The evolutionary claims in Wilson's argument are used to give a causal account of why our economic systems are so vulnerable to unchecked cheating. His argument neither requires nor implies that the methods our ancestors evolved to control cheating are good or right, only that they are in fact causally effective at controlling cheaters. The goodness of controlling cheaters is not a product of his evolutionary argument, nor an assumption hidden within it: Rather, the goodness of controlling cheaters is a conclusion which follows from the causal/factual claim that cheating behavior in the economic exchange system has played a key role in the current economic crisis, and the value claim that economic crises are bad and we ought to prevent them if we can.

    Here, I think, is where confusion may lie. There is a very loose sense in which cooperation and control of cheating is "good" in evolutionary terms, simply because those behaviors must (somehow or other, on average) increase the inclusive fitness of the organisms that engage in them - or they wouldn't have evolved! But by that standard, cheating is also "good" behavior because it increases fitness - and Wilson knows this perfectly well. His argument in no way presumes that cooperation is good and cheating is bad in any absolute sense: That some humans are inclined to cheat when the opportunity arises to do so without suffering immediate consequences (punishment) is a factual claim, and the connection between this inclination and the current economic crisis is another factual claim. For the purposes of Wilson's argument, the value claim that economic crises like this are bad and ought to be prevented is the only justification needed for the claim that cheating is bad insofar as it causally contributes to such crises, and control of cheating is good insofar as it causally prevents such crises.

    Wilson does not argue for "trying to get a system working that would re-establish what he takes to be the natural state of things of ancestral populations" because he presumes the natural state is good, but because cheating behavior is effectively controlled by cooperative behavior in the natural (small-group) state. Or at least, cheating is in dynamic opposition with cooperation in the natural state, rather than being almost entirely unchecked as it is in the current economic exchange system. This is an argument about what works to accomplish the good of preventing economic crises, not about returning to some ancestral natural state because of its presumed goodness.

    In fact, I think Wilson is pretty clear that our evolved methods for controlling cheating are not even universally "good" in terms of effectiveness, never mind morality. His argument is as much about the ineffectiveness of our ancestors' evolved strategies for controlling cheating in large-group contexts as it is about the effectiveness of those strategies in small-group contexts. He doesn't want to return to some presumably good natural state, but argues that we should to replace the natural checks on cheating with artificial checks because those natural checks are not effective outside of the context in which they evolved. In any case, the claim that behavior A is effective or ineffective at thwarting behavior B does not rely on any presumption that A is "good" or B is "bad" behavior: The value judgment, if one is made, lies in which behaviors ought to be thwarted. In Wilson’s argument, that value judgment depends only on the presumed goodness of preventing economic crises, not on any prior smuggled-in assumption about the goodness of cooperation and the badness of cheating.

    Perhaps Wilson does invite the accusation of the naturalistic fallacy by not making these distinctions more explicit: Certainly it's too generous for him to assume that everyone reading already knows that cheating is just as much an evolved strategy as cooperation, and that increased fitness is not the same as increased morality or justice. On the other hand, I think it is rather ungenerous for you to assume that Wilson doesn't know this, at least without more evidence to go on: If his argument depended on some naturalistic fallacy, that would be different. But I think I've shown that Wilson’s argument does not logically depend on or directly imply a naturalistic fallacy, so to impute one to him because he isn't clear enough in ruling it out seems more than a little unfair.

    Maybe the problem is that you believe that, generally speaking, cooperation is good and cheating is bad; as do I, and as does Wilson, I’m sure. That makes it difficult to read any discussion of the evolution of cooperative behavior and cheating behavior without “reading in” the moral judgments we already make about those behaviors. Nevertheless, Wilson’s argument does not logically depend on any morally evaluative conception of cheating and cooperation, so he has not committed a naturalistic fallacy.

    Of coures, his argument can still be bad for other reasons. And I agree with you that evolutionary explanations are overused and often quite unhelpful. After all, evolutionary explanations of human nature address the ultimate causes of our behavior, and really all we should want or need for most purposes is a good account of proximate causes. In this context, it doesn't matter why people are greedy selfish bastards sometimes and cooperative at other times: It matters that they are greedy selfish bastards sometimes, and that any policies which don't acknowledge that truth will have bad consequences - hence the current fallout resulting from the Republican mania for deregulation and infatuation with laissez faire economic principles.

  8. thinkmonkey,

    far from me to want to be ungenerous to Wilson (though I don't feel so magnanimous about Arnhart, frankly). I think it is clear from our discussion, though, that David should at least have been a bit more explicit about what he wanted to say and why an evolutionary explanation is helpful at all.

    In fact, as I mentioned before, I would agree with pretty much everything David says in terms of what should be done today and why, except that the words "evolution of" would not figure in my version because: a) they are irrelevant to the issue at hand; b) I don't think we can say much that is scientifically founded about the topic.

  9. Maybe I'm missing something here (likely), but isn't Arnhart contradicting himself?

    Individuals and firms with a stake in the outcome make decisions based on their processing of information.

    ...and then...

    complex economy cannot be centrally planned because the central planners will never have enough knowledge or virtue to be trusted to do such planning

    OK, so he thinks that people can "process the information" well enough to choose the best course (A), but then it is all so complex anyway that you can't regulate it (B). Is that it? Or are these two separate things? And why? If you can understand it well enough to make the "rational decisions", why isn't that enough understanding to come up with rules?

  10. Thinkmonkey,

    I still think you are making the naturalistic fallacy. Your very concept of practicality is a value premise. Dr Wilson doesn't use this idea of practicality to describe the natural world, he uses it to project his moral view onto reality. The minute he stopped describing nature and started to say how things should be, he was talking from his moral perspective. I would much rather he just came out and said that these are his values and science doesn't really tell you what to do, it just informs you about reality (my moral value statement).

  11. On terminology here, a couple of issues strike me. When Wilson says "The invisible hand is dead.", what, exactly does he mean by the "invisible hand"? If he means we should abandon market-based decision making altogether, then he is promoting a centrally-managed economy, which Massimo says he is NOT saying. It is not clear to me what role the market is to play in Wilson's scheme.

    Generally there is what I call the "communist fallacy", which is to say you hate capitalism so much that ANYTHING would be an improvement, so you destroy capitalism and replace it with something much worse. If Wilson wants to abandon market-based decision making, we should talk long and hard about what alternative he is suggesting in its place before taking any action.

    And Wilson divides behavior into two categories -- "cooperation": virtuous, and "cheating": deplorable. He has no concept of "self-interest" which is not necessarily harmful and is potentially very beneficial. I find this type of analysis common from the economic left: any behavior guided by anything other than sheer altruism is classified as evil. This results in a totalitarian state, where any action not motivated by the political fashion of the day is frowned upon. It generates an unwillingness to just let people be.

    Regarding evolutionary psychology, I recently read a book, "On Human Nature" by E.O.Wilson (different Wilson), on it, was quite disappointed by how few conclusions about human behavior were drawn in the book. That, however, was written 30 years ago. I read Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal", written more recently, and it said a lot more about human behavior, particularly sexual behavior, that I found quite convincing.

    Massimo's point that evolutionary psychology rest on uncertain soil relative to evolutionary biology is definitely true, but we don't have any other discipline of psychology that is anywhere NEAR as solid as evolutionary psychology. Massimo points to the fact that we have few primate relatives to study in their natural habitat, and some of them have drastically different behaviors, if you compare Bonobos with other chimpanzees. But he totally fails to mention that we can study preliterate, preagricultural human societies, and their behavior and social organization does tell us a lot about what human society must have been like 20,000 years ago.

    We need a model of psychology NOW to drive many policy decisions, we cannot afford to wait centuries until we have knowledge of psychology that is as solidly established as evolutionary biology is now.

  12. lalawawa:

    I think Wilson means that the Invisible Hand refers to Laissez (un)Fair capitalism. It seems to be he is a fan of Keynes or at least some form of Social Democracy. Is this Central Planning as in USSR styled socialism, I don't think so. It's still about markets, only the state intervention will be to keep capitalism from doing what it does without such.. create great local wealth and a large gap between the haves and have nots.

    Now of course the NeoCons and other non-libertarian conservatives also intervene with the market, but they only do so to enlarge that gap (really, they think they are helping the middle class by feeding the already rich, but you know what I mean). Many liberals and some progressives are hoping that Obama does what Wilson seems to endorse.

    And by the way, communism is not what we saw in the USSR or China. Indeed, those states were hardly even socialist, nevermind communist. Real communism is about a state-less, class-less society. The problem with Marxist communism is that socialism is supposed to be the stepping stone to communism, but once a party or state has control, they won't give it up. This is why market socialism (social democracy in a way) has been more favorable to Europe than Marxist socialism. But libertarian-socialism is the best middle way to me because here you do away with the notion of central planning AND self-regulating markets. You end capitalism AND the state (which is not the same as government) at the same time.

    And Wilson does not think self-interest or competition is evil, just that extended self interest and cooperation are under-rated in the home of the 'self-made man.' With cooperation and the altruistic part of human nature (which we see when we don't have a system like capitalism bringing out the worse in us and making us insecure, we can create a more humanistic society. This incidently is where Wilson disagrees with the current cabal of evolutionary psychologists (Pinkeroids) who are practicing Social Darwinism and calling it hard science (see David Buller's critique in Adabting Minds). We won't have a really scientific understanding of human behavior if we just look to evolution or to modern psychology, anyway. We also have to look to sociology and neuro-science (brain science).


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