Wired for Good and Evil

Battle in Heaven

It seems almost as long as we could speak human beings have been arguing over what, if anything, makes us different from other living creatures. Mark Pagel’s recent book Wired for Culture: The Origins of the Human Social Mind is just the latest incantation of this millennia old debate, and as it has always been, the answers he comes up with have implications for our relationship with our fellow animals, and, above all, our relationship with one another, even if Pagel doesn’t draw many such implications.

As is the case with so many of the ideas regarding human nature, Aristotle got there first. A good bet to make when anyone comes up with a really interesting idea regarding what we are as a species is that either Plato or Aristotle had already come up with it, or discussed it. Which is either a sign of how little progress we have made understanding ourselves, or symptomatic of the fact that the fundamental questions for all our gee-whiz science and technology remain important even if ultimately never fully answerable.

Aristotle had classified human beings as being unique in the sense that we were a zóon politikón variously translated as a social animal or a political animal. His famous quote on this score of course being: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” (Politics Book I)

He did recognize that other animals were social in a similar way to human beings, animals such as storks (who knew), but especially social insects such as bees and ants. He even understood bees (the Greeks were prodigious beekeepers) and ants as living under different types of political regimes. Misogynists that he was he thought bees lived under a king instead of a queen and thought the ants more democratic and anarchical. (History of Animals).       

Yet Aristotle’s definition of mankind as zóon politikón is deeper than that. As he says in his Politics:

That man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal is clear. For, as we assert, nature does nothing in vain, and man alone among the animals has speech….Speech serves to reveal the advantageous and the harmful and hence also the just and unjust. For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things of this sort; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city.  (Politics Book 1).

Human beings are shaped in a way animals are not by the culture of their community, the particular way their society has defined what is good and what is just. We live socially in order to live up to their potential for virtue- ideas that speech alone makes manifest and allows us to resolve. Aristotle didn’t just mean talk but discussion, debate, conversation all guided by reason. Because he doesn’t think women and slaves are really capable of such conversations he excludes them from full membership in human society.More on that at the end, but now back to Pagel’s Wired for Culture.

One of the things Pagel thinks makes human beings unique among all other animals is the fact that we alone are hyper-social or ultra-social. The only animals that even come close are the eusocial insects- Aristotle’s ants and bees. As E.O. Wilson pointed out in his The Social Conquest of Earth it is the eusocial species, including us, which, pound-for-pound absolutely dominate life on earth. In the spirit of a 1950’s B-movie all the ants in the world added together are actually heavier than us.

Eusociality makes a great deal of sense for insects colonies and hives given how closely related these groups are, indeed, in many ways they might be said to constitute one body and just as cells in our body sacrifice themselves for the survival of the whole, eusocial insects often do the same. Human beings, however, are different, after all, if you put your life at risk by saving the children of non-relatives from a fire, you’ve done absolutely nothing for your reproductive potential, and may even have lost your chance to reproduce. Yet, sacrifices and cooperation like this are done by human beings all the time, though the vast majority in a less heroic key. We are thus, hypersocial- willing to cooperate with and help non-relatives in ways no other animals do. What gives?

Pagel’s solution to this evolutionary conundrum is very similar to Wilson’s though he uses different lingo. Pagel sees us as naturally members of what he calls cultural survival vehicles, we evolved to be raised in them, and to be loyal to them because that was the best, perhaps the only way, of securing our own survival. These cultural survival vehicles themselves became the selective environment in which we evolved. Societies where individuals hoarded their cooperation or refused to makes sacrifices for the survival of the group overtime were driven out of existence by those where individuals had such qualities.

The fact that we have evolved to be cooperative and giving within our particular cultural survival vehicle Pagel sees as the origin of our angelic qualities our altruism and heroism and just general benevolence. No other animal helps its equivalent of little old ladies cross the street, or at least to nothing like the extent we do.   

Yet, if having evolved to live in cultural survival vehicles has made us capable of being angels, for Pagel, it has also given rise to our demonic capacities as well. No other species is a giving as we are, but, then again, no other species has invented torture devices and practices like the iron maiden or breaking on the wheel like we have either. Nor does any other species go to war with fellow members of its species so commonly or so savagely as human beings.

Pagel thinks that our natural benevolence can be easily turned off under two circumstance both of which represent a threat to our particular cultural survival vehicle.

We can be incredibly cruel when we think someone threatens the survival of our group by violating its norms. There is a sort of natural proclivity in human nature to burn “witches” which is why we need to be particularly on guard whenever some part of our society is labeled as vile and marked for punishment- The Scarlet Letter should be required reading in high school.

There is also a natural proclivity for members of one cultural survival vehicle to demonize and treat cruelly their rivals- a weakness we need to be particularly aware of in judging the heated rhetoric in the run up to war.

Pagel also breaks with Richard Dawkins over the later’s view of the evolutionary value of religion. Dawkins in his book The God Virus and subsequently has tended to view religion as a net negative- being a suicide bomber is not a successful reproductive strategy, nor is celibacy. Dawkins has tended to see ideas his “memes” as in a way distinct from the person they inhabit. Like genes, his memes don’t care all that much about the well being of the person who has them- they just want to make more of themselves- a goal that easily conflicts with the goal of genes to reproduce.

Pagel quite nicely closes the gap between memes and genes which had left human beings torn in two directions at once. Memes need living minds to exists, so any meme that had too large a negative effect on the reproductive success of genes should have lain its own grave quite quickly. But if genes are being selected for because they protect not the individual but the group one can see how memes that might adversely impact an individual’s chance of reproductive success can nonetheless aid in the survival of the group. For religions to have survived for so long and to be so universal they must be promoting group survival rather than being a detriment to it, and because human beings need these groups to live religion must on average, though not in every particular case, be promoting the survival of the individual at least to reproductive age.

One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore interesting claims Pagel makes is that what really separates human beings from other species is our imitativeness as opposed to our inventiveness. It the reverse of the trope found in the 60’s-70’s books and films that built around the 1963 novel La Planète des singes- The Planet of the Apes. If you remember, the apes there are able to imitate human technology, but aren’t able to invent it- “monkey see, monkey do”. Perhaps it should be “human see human do” for if Pagel is right our advantage as a species really lies in our ability to copy one another. If I see you doing something enough times I am pretty likely to be able to repeat it though I might not have a clue what it was I was actually doing.

Pagel thinks that all we need is innovation through minor tweaks combined with our ability to rapidly copy one another to have technological evolution take off. In his view geniuses are not really required for human advancement, though they might speed the process along. He doesn’t really apply his ideas to understand modern history, but such a view could explain what the scientific revolution which corresponded with the widespread adoption of the printing press was really all about. The printing press allowed ideas to be deciminated more rapidly whereas the scientific method proved a way to sift those that worked from those that didn’t.

This makes me wonder if something rather silly like Youtube hasn’t even further revved up cultural evolution in this imitative sense. What I’ve found is that instead of turning to “elders” or “experts” when I want to do something new, I just turn to Youtube and find some nice or ambitious soul who has filmed through the steps.

The idea that human beings are the great imitator has some very unanticipated consequences for the rationality of human being visa-vi other animals. Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. One more sign that human beings can be thankful for at least some of their irrationality.

This might have implications for machine intelligence that neither Pagel nor Santos draw. Machines might be said to be rational in the way animals are rational but this does not mean that they possess something like human thought. The key to making artificial intelligence more human like might be in making them, in some sense, less rational or as Jeff Steibel stated it for machine intelligence to be truly human like it will need to be “loopy”, “iterative”, and able to make mistakes.

To return to Pagel, he also sees implications for human consciousness and our sense of self in the idea that we are “wired for culture”. We still have no idea why it is human beings have a self, or think they have one, and we have never been able to locate the sense of self in the brain. Pagel thinks its pretty self-evident why a creature that is enmeshed in a society of like creatures with less than perfectly aligned needs would evolve a sense of self. We need one in order to negotiate our preferences, and our rights.

Language, for Pagel, is not so much a means for discovering and discussing the truth as it is an instrument wielded by the individual to gain in his own interest through persuasion and sometimes outright deception. Pagel’s views seem to be seconded by Steven Pinker who in a fascinating talk back in 2007 laid out how the use of language seems to be structured by the type of relationship it represents. In a polite dinner conversation you don’t say “give me the salt”, but “please pass me the salt” because the former is a command of the type most found in a dominance/submission relationship. The language of seduction is not “come up to my place so I can @#!% you”, but “would you like to come up and see my new prints.” Language is a type of constant negotiation and renegotiation between individuals one that is necessary because relationships between human beings are not ordinarily based on coercion where no speech is necessary besides the grunt of a command.

All of which brings me back to Aristotle and to the question of evil along with the sole glaring oversight of Pagel’s otherwise remarkable book. The problem moderns often have with the brilliant Aristotle is his justification of slavery and the subordination of women. That is, Aristotle clearly articulates what makes a society human- our interdependence, our capacity for speech, the way our “telos” is to be shaped and tuned by the culture in which we are raised like a precious instrument. At the same time he turns around and allows this society to compel by force the actions of those deliberately excluded from the opportunity for speech which he characterizes as a “natural” defect.

Pagel’s cultural survival vehicles miss this sort of internal oppression that is distinct both from the moral anger of the community against those who have violated its norms or its violence towards those outside of it. Aren’t there minature cultural survival vehicles in the form of one group or another that fosters its own genetic interest through oppression and exploitation? It got me thinking if any example of what a more religious age would have called “evil” as opposed to mere “badness” couldn’t be understood as a form of either oppression or exploitation, and I am unable to come up with any.

Such sad reflections dampen Pagel’s optimism towards the end of Wired for Culture that the world’s great global cities are a harbinger of us transcending the state of war between our various cultural survival vehicles and moving towards a global culture. We might need to delve more deeply into our evolutionary proclivities to fight within our own and against other cultural survival vehicles inside our societies as much as outside before we put our trust in such a positive outcome for the human story.

If Pagel is right and we are wired, if we have co-evolved, to compete in the name of our own particular cultural survival vehicle against other such communities then we may have in a very real sense co-evolved with and for war. A subject I will turn to next time by jumping off another very recent and excellent book.