Scientific American Notices Human Nature

And speaking of Robert Ardrey, what more striking vindication of his contention that there actually is such a thing as human nature could there be than recognition of that very fact by the relentlessly politically correct Scientific American?  In fact, such recognition has appeared many times, implicitly or explicitly, in the pages of the venerable SA since the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The most recent example turned up in one of its sponsored blogs, The Primate Diaries, written by evolutionary anthropologist and science historian Eric Michael Johnson.  Its title, Human Nature and the Moral Economy, is itself an interesting combination of Ardreyism and the kind of ostentatious piety that has become the trademark of Scientific American.  That fact alone documents a rather dramatic change in the “moral landscape.”  In his heyday, Ardrey was the bête noire of the ostentatiously pious.  I’m not aware that SA ever even deigned to mention his work, but if it did, it was likely the sort of mention reserved for the morally suspect.  Now we find the mag referring to human nature as matter-of-factly as if it had never been doubleplusungood at all.

The theme of Johnson’s article is the “inextricable tie” between economics and moral behavior.  It is his contention that, “…anthropologists may have some insight” into showing us “how we might integrate our economic and moral values that so often appear at odds.”  Well, there are anthropologists, and then there are anthropologists.  Here Johnson isn’t referring to the left over Blank Slaters of the Marshall Sahlins school who still infest the American Anthropological Association, but the rather less common species, as exemplified in this case by Joseph Henrich and his colleagues, who embrace human nature and are exploring its interaction with culture.  According to Johnson,

The researchers’ conclusion was that altruistic punishment emerged in our species through a process of gene-culture coevolution. In other words, human psychology is biologically predisposed to enforce a system of fairness, but how much we do so depends on the culture we see reflected around us. This result was later supported by another study in 2010 that developed a model explaining how even “selfish genes” could promote altruistic traits.

Ah, yes, “biological predispositions.”  That classic Ardreyism should bring a smile to the face of those too old or too young to realize that no such man ever existed.  But the “reevaluation of values” doesn’t stop there.  Johnson continues,

…in addition to small-scale foragers or horticultural societies and those (humans) living in large industrial economies, there is considerable evidence that an innate sense of fairness exists in our closest primate relatives as well.

It boggles the mind, really.  Twenty years ago, such stuff would have landed the author in the camp of the rankest and most incorrigible heretics.  Today it trips off his tongue as if it had never been even remotely controversial.  Never fear, though, dear reader.  If Scientific American recognizes human nature, that it follows that human nature must be “Good.”  And, sure enough, we learn that “cooperation and fairness” are “in our genes” (pace Richard Lewontin).  This begs a further question:

…if it is the case that fairness and cooperation are intrinsic features of the human species (at least within groups) how can this information be used to promote a moral economy?

Here we have come full circle and returned to that warm and fuzzy world, so familiar to longtime habitués of Scientific American, in which Good and Evil objects are not just mirages, but real things, and there actually are such unicorns as “moral economies.”  Here they regain the comforting reassurance that they are “…not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” but can continue to sleep the sleep of the truly just.  Everything is still for the best in that best of all possible magazines.  Human nature isn’t just a grab bag of behavioral traits.  In fact, it is a magical nostrum for reforming the economy as befits the “more just, verdant, and peaceful” world favored by the editors of Scientific American.  As Johnson puts it,

Since we now know that many of the assumptions about human nature that classical economics was based upon were either wrong or woefully incomplete, it is high time that other ideas be accepted around the table. With an economic system teetering on the edge of unprecedented inequality it would be immoral not to consider other options.

At this point we have a more or less complete picture of evolution as interpreted by SA, at least as it applies to human nature.  As an aspect of that nature, morality isn’t just a subset of behavioral traits that are the end result of a random process of natural selection, and as such purposeless and without a goal.  Rather, there exists an absolute thing-in-itself, the Good, without which such statements as, “…it would be immoral not to consider other options” would be reduced to absurdities.  Morality evolved for a purpose, and it is to serve that Good!  Better yet, the editors know what that Good is.  It’s true that two earlier experiments in applying morality to economics didn’t end well; Nazism and Communism.  Never fear, though.  No doubt the diagnostics for detecting the true Good at Scientific American are much better now than anything available in those days.  We need only trust the editors to apply them to our economic system, and inequality and exploitation will be things of the past.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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