Selfish genes, selfish individuals or selfish nations ?

by John Quiggin on April 4, 2004

Following up on Henry’s post, I wanted to look slightly differently at the appeal of evolutionary psychology. As I said in Henry’s comments thread the ev psych analysis is essentially “realist”. This is the kind of style of social and political analysis that purports to strip away the illusions of idealistic rhetoric and reveal the underlying self-interest. The only question is to nominate the “self” that is interested. In Ev Psych the unit of analysis is the gene, in Chicago-school economics the individual, in Marxism the class, in public choice theory the interest group, and in the realist school of international relations the nation.

All of these realist models are opposed to any form of idealism in which people or groups act out of motives other than self-interest. But, logically speaking, different schools of realists are more opposed to each other than to any form of idealism. If we are machines for replicating our genes, we can’t also be rational maximizers of a utility function or loyal citizens of a nation. Clever and consistent realists recognise this – for example, ideologically consistent neoclassical economists are generally hostile to nationalism. But much of the time followers of these views are attracted by style rather than substance. Since all realist explanations have the same hardnosed character, they all appeal to the same kind of person. It’s not hard to find people who simultaneously believe in Ev Psych, Chicago economics and international realism. One example of this kind of confusion is found in Stephen Pinker whose Blank Slate I reviewed here, back in 2002.

Here’s my conclusion

the most interesting parts of Pinker’s book do not relate to human nature at all, but to his restatement of a pessimistic view of the human condition. In the process of this restatement, Pinker abandons his evolutionary psychology model without realising that he is doing so.

Take, for instance, his observation, following an approving citation of Hobbes, that ‘violence is not a primitive, irrational urge, nor is it a “pathology”, except in the metaphorical sense of a condition that everyone would like to eliminate. Instead, it is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamics of self-interested, rational social organisms’. This is backed up by the work of political scientiist who claim that war has generally benefited the aggressors.

Pinker may well be right, but his argument is inconsistent with the claim that violence is the product of genetic predispositions acquired by our distant ancestors, that is, of primitive, irrational urges specific to males. If the Hobbesian view is right, violence will arise as a rational response to this environment in the absence of any predisposition to violence or even in the presence of an instinctive aversion to violence, such as that which evolutionary psychologists impute to women.

On the other hand, an environmentalist theory of violence such as that of Pinker in his Hobbesian mode has optimistic corollaries which he partly recognises. If the environment is such that violence is costly, a rational organism will choose the path of peace. Whatever political scientists may argue about the broad sweep of history, aggressive war has not been a profitable policy from World War I onwards. The aggressors lost both wars, and the victors reaped nothing but grief in their attempts to extract benefits from their victories. More recently, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic have ruined their countries and, in all probability, themselves by playing the politics of war. The real threat today is neither the rational use of force in the manner of Clausewitz nor aggressive genes inherited from the Pleistocene past but the culturally-generated craziness of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.

Ultimately, whatever contribution our genes may or may not make to our nature, there is not much we can do about them. Unless we are prepared to embark on large-scale genetic re-engineering, our only hope is to focus on those aspects of our condition that are amenable to nurture.

{ 56 comments }

1

Abiola Lapite 04.04.04 at 1:59 pm

“If we are machines for replicating our genes, we can’t also be rational maximizers of a utility function”

This is a patently false statement, no, an absurdity. It is perfectly possible to reconcile the two by assuming that the utility function being maximised is that for reproductive successs. The rest of your argument is just as easily dismissed.

2

Howard Butler 04.04.04 at 2:34 pm

Whoever this guy Gene is, if he’s selfish, then I don’t like him!

3

Ben Benny 04.04.04 at 2:58 pm

Abiola:

Maybe you don’t understand what is meant by “utility function”.

4

Carlos 04.04.04 at 3:02 pm

I think you’re missing the spirit of the enterprise. What you should be doing is coming up with a tough-talking, hardnosed meta-theory to explain the evolutionary psychology of Chicago School realism. After all, think of the selective advantage it would give.

C.

5

Abiola Lapite 04.04.04 at 3:59 pm

“Maybe you don’t understand what is meant by “utility function”.”

You’re hardly in any position to be condescending to me on that front, if you can’t see what I’m getting at.

6

EKR 04.04.04 at 4:13 pm

I think that Abiola is on the right track here. I suspect that a common response would be to say that we’ve evolved to maximize our reproductive success (a la Evo Psych). A good way to do that is to build a brain which tries to maximize utility (a la classic decision theory) as long as it’s not too difficult (a la Kahneman and Tversky). So, we’ve got realism at a number of different levels.

7

Gavin 04.04.04 at 4:20 pm

Ultimately, whatever contribution our genes may or may not make to our nature, there is not much we can do about them. Unless we are prepared to embark on large-scale genetic re-engineering, our only hope is to focus on those aspects of our condition that are amenable to nurture.

Surely, a complementary approach is to try to structure society such that the negative effects of our genetic inheritances are minimized? And that the positive effects are maximized. For example, encourage competition in some circumstances, encourage cooperation in others?

8

Andrew Case 04.04.04 at 4:22 pm

I’m with Abiola on this one. The various realisms discussed form something of a hierarchy, with genes at the bottom. Models always simplify, so it’s no surprise that the various realisms fail to capture all details, leading to inconsistencies between them. The particulars of the models may be wrong, but there’s no fundamental problem with the idea of a hierarchy of units of selection, all in the end serving the gene.

9

Cosma 04.04.04 at 4:32 pm

Abiola and ekr are right here, and John is (with all due respect) wrong. Indeed, I seem to recall just this point being made by a number of prominent members of the evolutionary psychology school — Dennett certainly, and I believe Cosmides and Tooby, and Pinker’s earlier book. It’s an issue of mechanism design, if you like — creating a system of incentives to align the interests of the principal and the agent. It’s not obvious that this is the case, but it’s certainly not incoherent to talk about it. (I won’t comment on the stuff about Pinker’s latest book, not having read it.) Similarly an international relations realist could say that rational utility maximizers who find themselves leading states will pursue (a certain conception of) those states’ interests, due to very general features of states as institutions (i.e., the information available to their leaders and the incentives they face). I’m far more skeptical of this claim than the evolutionary one, but, again, there doesn’t seem to be any logical incompatibility.

10

push 04.04.04 at 5:49 pm

What I would like to know is what lies behind the appeal of these self-interest maximising theories. We have enough evidence that they don’t explain a great deal, but

a) why do people find them so appealing and

b) why is it that the alternative explanations (probably some mixture of self and other-regarding motivation) don’t find systematic expression? (And if these exist could someone refer me to the relevant literature? what I’ve seen is overwhelmingly normative)

11

Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 6:37 pm

There’s also a question of the is-ought gap here which it seems to me John is overlooking. Pinker, Janet Radcliffe Richards and John Gray had a very interesting discussion about this on BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ a couple of years ago (it’s archived, I just re-listened to it a few days ago; I recommend it). As JRR kept firmly pointing out, saying what we are like is one thing, saying what we ought to do is quite another. Richard Dawkins is equally firm about the fact that he is a Darwinian descriptively and very much an anti-Darwinian normatively.

I think it’s way too glib to assume that all evolutionary psychologists are ‘realists’ of the ‘selfishness is good’ variety. At any rate, it doesn’t happen to be true.

12

Tom Runnacles 04.04.04 at 7:54 pm

Ophelia,

Thanks very much for the ‘In Our Time’ link. I didn’t know they had an archive, but now that I do I suspect I’ll be catching up with a lot of the programmes I missed when they were originally broadcast.

Bragg can sometimes be an irritant, but IOT is generally very, very good.

13

Shaun Evans 04.04.04 at 8:16 pm

“All of these realist models are opposed to any form of idealism in which people or groups act out of motives other than self-interest.” This isn’t quite correct.

When this question came up in my micro-economics class, the Prof replied that philanthropy is a status good. Money is given to a cause, in exchange for status, recognition, and acceptance into high society.

Here’s a quick quiz: how many named endowed chairs are there at your alma mater? How many anonymous endowed chairs?

Is endowing a professorship an idealistic act, or a self-interested one?

Similarly, many people are willing to buy collective goods, like support for NPR, only if they’re “on sale”, for example during a matching funds pledge drive. Likewise, the number of people willing to vote for more social spending by raising taxes is higher than the number of people willing to pull out their checkbooks and give money to the disadvantaged directly.

14

Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 8:21 pm

Tom,

Very welcome – not that I gave an actual link, I was too lazy to go get it, but I’m glad you found it. Yes, Bragg can be quite annoying – you’d think that, being on the radio, he would take some care to slow down and not gabble! – but the show is indeed very good. I was delighted when the Beeb started archiving the whole thing instead of only a week at a time. Yay.

15

Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 8:27 pm

Well, now that I’ve admitted to being lazy, I might as well give the links. Here’s the archive page and here’s the one for Pinker, Radcliffe Richards and Gray.

16

Neel Krishnaswami 04.04.04 at 8:30 pm

Hi push, I can’t speak to the general appeal of “self-interest maximizing theories”, but I can say something about why I find (some of) them appealing.

First, I think the explanatory power of contemporary economics is actually pretty good. There’s no recipe yet for good economic policy, but there’s at least a considerable literature on what won’t work, and more importantly, why it won’t work. I don’t think that answers your question, though, since you seem to be after the emotional appeal of this style of argument.

Personally, I think the economic style of thinking — methodological individualism — is a more humane mode of thought than its competitors. It’s harder to deny the individuality of a person when your theory demands that you model him exactly as you model yourself. I can’t sacrifice the individual for the class, or the community, or the social interest, because all those things get defined in terms of what individuals are doing. I can’t say that if only my guys were in charge, things would be different, because I have to assume that Us is just Them standing in a different position.

People naturally stereotype and treat groups of people as homogenous units, and we naturally tend to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. Unfortunately, these modes of thinking are as intuitive and appealing as they are flawed. So I use methodological individualism as an innoculation against the common pathologies of how people (including, and especially, myself) think.

17

Keith M Ellis 04.04.04 at 8:31 pm

The problem that John is pointing out is a problem only in the same sense that it’s a problem for him. As others have said. For different purposes, there are more and less appropriate levels of description. An extremely common intellectual vice is to prefer a general level of description (reductionism, say), then expect that to be appropriate for all purposes. Simiarly, critics will point to failures of theory as disconfirming the appropriateness of that level of description for all purposes.

It’s also worth noting that insofar as John’s examples are all “realist”, a parallel claim can be made about “idealist” schools of thought and how they are also (necessarily) inconsistent with each other. The comparison is telling, since I imagine that John would naturally expect the idealists to disagree—they’d have to—but that his point is that the “realists” shouldn’t be disagreeing because, as “realists”, aren’t they describing reality and isn’t there only one of those? Well, no, there isn’t, not in the descriptive/modeling sense relevant here.

The real problem here is ideology and ideologues. They want a Theory of Everything, usually organized around a few core principles they are psychologically predisposed to favor. It’s makes me very tired.

18

Peter Cuthbertson 04.04.04 at 8:37 pm

I think it’s an interesting point that a certain cynical sort may well find evolutionary psychology, free market economics and foreign policy realism all attractive for similar reasons, though of course a psychological bias towards a certain view doesn’t make that view wrong.

But I’m not sure the belief in all three is inconsistent. Evolutionary psychology makes no moral claims whatsoever: it simply says people are – perhaps strongly – inclined to behave in such a way as to ensure the survival and spread of their genes. And while the implications of this explanation may certainly set certain political teeth on edge and comfort other politicos, I don’t understand how anyone can uphold this as a normative declaration of life’s purpose. Who goes around with the conscious aim of spreading certain genetic material, even if necessary at his own expense? No matter how much we may be instinctively inclined to live in this way, I don’t think there is anyone in the world who upholds the spread of his genes as a morally worthy end in itself.

Similarly, the actual belief in the claims made by free marketeers rather goes against the idea of someone being hard-nosed. The Chicago school holds that everyone working to pursue their self-interest benefits everyone via the invisible hand, that socialism and government intervention harms the poor. I’d have thought the truly hard nosed view would be one that accepted the need for redistribution of wealth and nationalisation etc. to help others, but opposed it anyway, not someone who opposed such intervention because they believed it to be harmful.

So although there are some tensions between an extreme advocacy of free enterprise and a fervent nationalism, it isn’t really contradictory. A patriot can accept Chicago school economics and the individual pursuit of self-interest as the fastest path to national prosperity. And someone who believes in one or both of these things can accept the sociobiological evidence that people have a strong instinctive inclination to spread their genes.

19

Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 8:56 pm

“Evolutionary psychology makes no moral claims whatsoever: it simply says people are – perhaps strongly – inclined to behave in such a way as to ensure the survival and spread of their genes.”

Just so. This is why I think John is being glib in assuming that EP necessarily or automatically has an agenda. It just ain’t true. Sure, no doubt plenty of individual evolutionary psychologists or at least popularizers of the field do, but the discipline as a whole? No.

20

Shaun Evans 04.04.04 at 9:00 pm

The tension between idealism and realism relates to a point I’ve been wanting to make for some time. The very motto of this blog, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” seems rather un-idealistic to me. And yet a majority of the posters seem idealistic.

How do you reconcile your (apparent) cynicism about the flawed nature of humanity with your (apparent) idealism? How can the two be reconciled?

Thanks,
Shaun

21

Keith M Ellis 04.04.04 at 9:12 pm

Shaun—that’s a famous Kant quote (Berlin’s translation) and thus, I think, is consistent with what you’re calling “idealism”.

22

John Quiggin 04.04.04 at 9:28 pm

Ophelia, I don’t think anything I wrote bears on the questions of “is” and “ought” or the social agenda of of EP.

To various people, I’ll observe that any of these models can be rendered consistent with any of the others in a trivial fashion, as suggested in abiola’s opening comment. It’s fairly obvious that people’s preference is not to maximise their reproductive success and that hard-wired behavior designed to do that gets in the way of their actual goals. A big part of the EP program is to find instances of this kind. By contrast, a big part of the Chicago program is to explain such instances (away), as in the ‘explanation’ of philanthropy, noted by Shaun.

Precisely because these models offer competing explanations and predictions of behavior at the same level, the argument by Peter fails.

Rather than argue in the abstract, how about considering the issue of aggression, which is central to the EP attack on the SSSM and is the area of inconsistency I noted in Pinker’s model. EP wants male aggression to be genetically ingrained, Chicago economics wants aggression to be used rationally by individuals pursuing their goals and international realism wants it to be used by nations in the same way. These can’t all work together.

23

Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 10:02 pm

John,

I stand corrected. Or cower corrected. But then if is-ought is irrelevant – why, for instance, do you say that “EP wants male aggression to be genetically ingrained” [my italics]? Why do you seem to be so convinced that EP always and everywhere simply finds what it is already looking for? Why do you seem to be so convinced that EP has an agenda and that it’s self-evident what that agenda is?

24

bill carone 04.04.04 at 10:12 pm

“why is it that the alternative explanations (probably some mixture of self and other-regarding motivation) don’t find systematic expression?”

It seems that you could set up standard “rational” economic reasoning to deal with things like other-regarding motives. For example, just put extra terms into the utility function that deal with other people’s wealth. Then, you just take observations and figure out what kind of utility function best describes human action.

Most economists I know shy away from that sort of thing; they make the “rationality” assumption that means everyone has very simple desires and acts correctly to maximize them. They see many instances of people not doing this, and they admit that their rationality model fails in those instances. However, enough of the time, it works well enough, so we use it to make predictions and explanations.

Once you allow any sort of value into your utility function, your theory may stop being useful (to paraphrase David Friedman: “Why am I standing on my head twiddling a pencil between my toes? Because I _value_ standing on my head twiddling a pencil between my toes”). This is similar to putting too many degrees of freedom into a theory; it can fit the data really well, but still doesn’t provide much explanatory power.

“Precisely because these models offer competing explanations and predictions of behavior at the same level, the argument by Peter fails.”

Since economic theory doesn’t claim to work all the time (“It’s only a model” “Shut up” :-)) EP might be able to shore up the difficulties. For an example of this, see David Friedman’s article. Among many other things, he observes

– Economics is a good theory of rationality, but EP might give a good theory of mistakes, and
– Economics says we act correctly towards simple desires, but EP can tell us more about what those desires are.

25

Tom 04.04.04 at 10:13 pm

According to Marx, it is individual members of ruling classes who act self-interestedly, not the class. This is why capitalism can have crisis tendencies.

Tom

26

Mark 04.04.04 at 10:49 pm

“(EP)simply says people are – perhaps strongly – inclined to behave in such a way as to ensure the survival and spread of their genes.”

The inclinations that are part of our nature promoted the survival of our genes in a hunter-gatherer, clan-based culture. EP is fascinating when it explains current social and psychological issues by contrasting the culture in which we evolved with the culture in which we live. We are in some ways out of phase with our genetic inheritance because cultural evolution proceeds much more rapidly than genetic evolution.

EP emphasizes that many aspects of our nature are not conscious. The propensity to equate EP with “rational choice” is just a demonstration that our brains arrogantly think they call all the shots.

Flexibility was key to genetic survival, and cooperation and altruism are optimal strategies in most cases within the clan, and in many cases when interacting outside of the clan. John’s discussion of aggression should recognize it is a strategy that is one of many choices we can make depending upon the circumstances. Oversimplifying evolutionary psychology makes it easy to criticize. It is not the Social Darwinism of a century ago espoused by those who never understood Darwin.

27

John Landon 04.05.04 at 12:16 am

Whatever happened to the massive discourse of the nineteenth century division of the human and natural sciences? Better question, get on the social debugger and find the exact point at which desertification began in the social sciences, leading to its present imbecility.
For my money, although I respect Marx in many ways, his work shows the approximate debug step, with the traces of Hegel still vestigially present in his economic concoctions.
I must remind myself that if a man as smart as Marx is a specimen here, the tidal motion of this change (Kuhnian dynamics?) was irresitible.
In fact, the generation of the Left Hegelians shows the social science flu getting underway and spreading.
So it would be unfair to blame the whole thing on that incorrigibly stupid Darwin, who claim to fame was a degenerate version of the original idea of evolution gestating in the late Enlightenment, visible in Lamarck, the teleomechanists,Robert Chambers, and others….
Moral: some sciences advance, and some decline, in time.

28

Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 12:19 am

Yes, I think Mark hit upon something I have been trying but failing to express. The value of evolutionary psychology is very similar to the value of evolutionary medicine. That is, if we put aside our assumptions about “how things must be” or “how they ought to be”, we will likely find (as we already have) that many of the ways in which we’ve traditionally dealt with pathologies have been deeply flawed.

Paul Ewald’s “The Evolution of Infectious Diseases” makes a nice example of this. Conventionally, there’s been an assumption that pathogens are virulent only when they’re not fully adapted to the ecological niche they are (it is thought) colonizing. In time (it is thought), parasitism always evolves toward symbiosis. Virulence has been thought to inversely and directly correlate to how long a pathogen has been in a niche. Very virulent pathogens are recent mutations or cross-species infections. Ewald demonstrates that this isn’t necessarily the case—that virulence very likely more closely correlates to whether or not the vector is independent of the host. The best (long-term strategy) for fighting infectious diseases is to quit trying to win an arms race in which pathogens will always have the advantage; and, instead, control vectors and thus indirectly control the pathogen’s evolution regarding virulence. This has profound implications in many epidemiological contexts.

Similarly, many pathologies in human behavior may be badly misunderstood by not accounting for how human evolution is involved. Eating is behavior, yes? Well, eating till we’re “full” is actually not optimal for us, because in our environment of adaptation, that wasn’t regularly possible. When it was, it was helpful to do so. Now, when it’s almost always possible in wealthy countries, it’s maladaptive. A related thought regards happiness. Most people seemt to think that “being happy” is like “being full” and that a continual state of this is, in theory, possible and desirable. But, unhappiness is a prime motivator just as hunger is, and I’m not sure the desire for our intuitive understanding of “happiness” can be sated. The distinction between that evolved understanding of “well being” and the economists’ “rational choice” is a very important one that has not been well-addressed.

29

Mafred Traven 04.05.04 at 1:03 am

I don’t see any inconsistency in the various realist schools, unless you take them in a ridiculously strong form. If you say “all human action is in the service of maximizing reproductive fitness”, then yeah, the other theories will contradict that. But nobody sensible takes such a single-minded view.

How about this: self-interest occurs in many different organization levels. Genes are selfish, but genes make minds which end up pursuing their own interests, which often but not always in sync with those of the genes. Similarly, individuals combine to make social groups (nations, classes) which end up having their own interests and even have some mysterious power to make individuals neglect their own interests (and that of their genes) in favor of the group. None of this is contradictory becuase none of the phenonenon are simple, closed, laws-of-physics types of things — they are complex patterns of interaction between different levels of organization.

30

eudoxis 04.05.04 at 1:52 am

JQ: “…,I’ll observe that any of these models can be rendered consistent with any of the others in a trivial fashion,…”

One could find a trivial connection while ignoring the substantial real (and logical) connection. Let’s take flowering plants as a simple example. At a reductionist, evolutionary level, the plant exists to propagate its genes. From a bird’s or insect’s point of view the plant is optimizing for flower color and intensity and scent. These two would appear to be incoherently related, but their relationship involves a complex network that is anything but trivial.

The connection between human nature driven by genetic predispositions and interactions between societies is often a difference between primary actors and emergent behavior of a group.

I don’t think that the connections that John decries have actually been modeled and may not be at a stage to be fully articulated–the problem with The Blank Slate–yet they are beyond the stage to be simply dismissed.

31

plover 04.05.04 at 2:03 am

From Ophelia
why, for instance, do you say that “EP wants male aggression to be genetically ingrained” [my [emphasis]]?

John:
Would it be consonant with your intent to interpret your statement as “the branch of EP which Pinker espouses wants male agression to be genetically ingrained”, or is the stronger statement implied by your original wording more reflective of what you were thinking?

While there may be no inherent agenda to a broadly conceived EP, my impression is that the most well known exponents of the field often present their arguments in a fashion that tallies with John’s description. So it’s possible that, regardless of the possibilities of the field, the current culture of EP may reinforce/reward a certain outlook. It could also be true that EP just needs a popularizer/synthesist who represents another part of the spectrum.

The former would lead to two related “realist” points: one, that there is an exploitable niche available for those who want to practice EP from a different perspective; and two, that, for those who might want to follow ideas similar to EP but who are not matched to the culture of the field, that pursuing their studies under a different rubric would enhance their chance at tenure.

(I am trying to sketch a meta-argument here – I can’t claim enough familiarity with the range of positions among practitioners of EP to attach particularities to the framework I’m suggesting.)

mark raises the question of flexibility. In that context, it seems that one of the main baselines that EP would need to establish is some way to distinguish the (perhaps diffuse) border between tendencies that are held in place by cultural means (with such reinforcement possibly extending to biological effects – as a simple example, cultural practices may bring about a water supply tainted with lead, which leads to biological effects), and tendencies that are governed by genetic effects.

I am troubled that exponents of EP seem to ignore the criticisms directed at the field by developmental biologists. I recall being particularly annoyed by Dennett on this point. If I recall correctly, Dennett, (at least in _Darwin’s Dangerous Idea_) did not address developmental issues, but did emphasize the viewpoint that for any complexly constructed object (such as an organism), there must have been a process of construction.

Reading bill’s discussion of economic models, I became curious if anyone has ever tried to model economics a probabilistic mechanics. As actors do not always follow their rational interest (as conceived by the model), perhaps some way could be devised to assign a fluctuating percentage of the population who are not acting “rationally” over time. This would force economic models to deal with the spikes in non-rational behavior that would follow from such a model, and which (naively) accord with reality. Or would this route excessively an already unwieldy computational framework?

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plover 04.05.04 at 2:06 am

Um, that last sentence should read:

… excessively complicate an already unwieldy …

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bill carone 04.05.04 at 2:45 am

“perhaps some way could be devised to assign a fluctuating percentage of the population who are not acting “rationally” over time.”

My understanding is that there is no theory of irrational behavior even close to as well-developed as standard economic theory of rational behavior. I am quite open to being corrected on this point.

34

plover 04.05.04 at 4:03 am

My understanding is that there is no theory of irrational behavior

I have no idea whether there is or not. Also, I know almost nothing of the technical details of economic models. I freely admit to making an off-the-cuff suggestion on a subject that I’m not qualified to talk about.

I was more or less thinking that the model could be adjusted such that the random variable determines a percentage of people who receive a random result instead of the result predicted by the deterministic parts of the model. The intent being to provide a better method of determining how closely people need to adhere to the model for it to be predictive, and perhaps suggest the circumstances under which the model necessarily fails.

The technical content of my suggestion may be goofy (or not, I don’t know), but the underlying idea seems a reasonable goal for economic theories, and one which does not seem to be addressed by assuming a uniform set of rational actors (though whether it is a practicable one, I again do not know).

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john c. halasz 04.05.04 at 4:20 am

I’m puzzled by the characterization of certain approaches as “realist”, in contrast to “idealist”, as if any objection to them would amount to a prediliction toward airy realms. A common line of criticism to such “realist” approaches is that, in fact, they are reductionist and lead to highly unrealistic accounts and implications, especially when pushed to the limit and totalized.

I rather liked Neel Krishnaswami’s defense of methodological individualism in economics. Still, one of its drawback is that it perhaps can not deal adequately with the dimension of organization, insofar as it is not reducible to individual interest or utility, including the levels of organization required for individuals to pursue their maximalization of utility or interest.

As for utility-functions themselves, one of the common criticisms is that, of course, they can be drawn to accomodate just about anything. But another line of criticism is that they are not the sole criterion of rationality on the basis of which individuals make decisions.

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a lab rat 04.05.04 at 4:24 am

Intersting discussion! Reading this blog is even better than getting a food pellet!

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John Quiggin 04.05.04 at 4:26 am

From Ophelia
why, for instance, do you say that “EP wants male aggression to be genetically ingrained” [my [emphasis]]?

John:
Would it be consonant with your intent to interpret your statement as “the branch of EP which Pinker espouses wants male agression to be genetically ingrained”, or is the stronger statement implied by your original wording more reflective of what you were thinking?

This was mainly just sloppy wording on my part. I should have said something like ” EP (at least as promoted by Pinker) incorporates the hypothesis that aggression (by males) is genetically ingrained”

My use of “wants” brought the implicit premise “advocates of a hypothesis want that hypothesis to be true”, and I think my argument does rely on that hypothesis. That is, I’m arguing that people who are attracted to particular styles of explanation generally want explanations of that style to be validated by empirical evidence.

What I’m not saying is that people think that the state of the world revealed by the evidence is a good one. So, for example, I’m not asserting that Pinker thinks that male aggression is good and should be encouraged.

There is of course a bit of a problem here, familiar in the context of the war in Iraq. Opponents of the war who predicted a lengthy and bloody anti-occupation insurgency are naturally going to emphasise evidence that validates this and question claims (such as those made a month or so ago) that calm is being restored. On the other hand, with some exceptions, this doesn’t mean they think the insurgency is a good thing.

Similar Pinker is keen to point to evidence of the universality of male aggression (in this sense, he ‘wants’ it to be found everywhere) even if, in a moral sense, he deplores it.

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Ophelia Benson 04.05.04 at 4:50 am

Oh, confirmation bias then. Gotcha.

Did you know that Pinker started out from the opposite direction? Himself talking about ‘Just So Stories’? He changed his mind after he learned more about the field. So he at any rate hasn’t always had the same confirmation bias.

(And he of course would point out for instance social science studies that forget even to test for genetic explanations in the first place, so…)

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john c. halasz 04.05.04 at 5:54 am

Just to continue a line of criticism from the previous thread, even if the program of ev psych were to be completely established and fulfilled, it is likely that the explanatory power it would offer with respect to human behaviour and organization would be quite limited and a good deal less than that afforded by other approaches. So it is hardly apparent why such a program should assume the mantle of scientific realism and be regarded as obligatory in its consideration. There are likely specific biological constraints that condition and inflect our existence as human beings, in our behavior and the possibilities available to us, but they are far more likely to be discovered piecemeal in the course of empirical biological research than through the erection- (pun or not)- of a grand theory.

Ev psych stakes its claims on universals, which have a tendency on inspection to be less than meets the eye, thin abstractions that carry little by way of detail and explanatory power, given the range of variation, which even the most rigorous application of statistical methods can not control for, since, not only does statistics establish correlation rather than causality, but its application is dependent on a prior categorical framework, which can not rule out statistics gathered on the basis of different categorical/explanatory frameworks. So the emphasis on universals tends to toward the searching out of streotypes, though the prediliction for stereotypes is no doubt something susceptible to good evolutionary explanation. But aggregated behavioral tendencies often prove less strong than the range of variation amongst individuals so aggregated, especially considering the effects of all the other factors that weigh in the balance. But such steroetypes are precisely what is needed to make good on the claim for the predominantly biological determination of human culture, inspite of the fact that biological potentials have be refunctioned by human culture, repeatedly and variably so, such that their distinct expression is likely to be context-dependent and quite variable in emphasis.

What does ev psych “want”? It wants to be recognized with all the seriousness and honor due to a “disinterested” science, rather than as a rather trivial academic fad, motivated by the standard oversupply of time and the imperatives of academic overproduction- (publish or perish!). This would at least obviate the need for the most basic claims of its hodge-podge to be reflected upon and argued for. (Specifically, it tends to go together with a rather philosophically bizarre account of knowledge as a non-linguistic process that is reducible to biological/functional adaption.) But its elective affinities in its adaption to the currently prevailing socio-cultural environments remain open to ideological analysis and criticism. Specifically, one might argue that it is conducive, not so much to conservatism in general, as to laissez-faire attitudes, as a requirement of adaption to the status quo.

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John Quiggin 04.05.04 at 6:46 am

Ophelia, I think you’re placing far too much weight on side-issues. I’m not concerned with whether Pinker is biased or has particular political views, and I’m happy to withdraw the word “want” altogether.

The point I tried to make is that Pinkers account of aggression as individually rational (in terms of obvious individual-level goals like access to food, sex and power) is inconsistent with (or at least renders redundant) a claim that aggression is a genetically-driven behavior induced by sex-specific adaptions to a now-vanished environment.

I haven’t yet worked out whether you agree with this or not. In particular, do you think that, because of their different genetic endowment, women are more likely than men to refrain from violence in situations where it appears likely to be a cost-effective way of pursuing their goals?

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Monica 04.05.04 at 12:35 pm

I think John’s point is that a “selfish gene” explanation says you throw yourself on the grenade because that’s behavior that saves your kin, who then go on to propagate genes similar to yours, while a “selfish individual” explanation says you throw yourself on the grenade because you want the glory and status that will accrue to your name aftewards, and a “selfish nation” explanation says you do it because you love your country. The explanations are not mutually exclusive, but it’s logically incompatible to say that all three are the primary motivation. And if one of them takes precedence, then it may lead to instances where the others are inoperative–if the genes are primary, then there are instances where they will lead you to act not in your individual interest. If the individualism is primary, then it will lead to instances where you take actions that don’t further your genes (e.g. Gary Becker’s argument that we don’t have kids when they become expensive). But I suspect the truth is that there is no “hierarchy,” and that we don’t understand yet what motivations are primary in what circumstances, and the fact that no one really tries to clarify that question makes it all a bit unsatisfying.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 1:55 pm

Quit being so reasonable, Monica, it’s spoiling the mood.

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Greg Hunter 04.05.04 at 3:11 pm

The underlying tone in some of the discussion is that men are violent and that women are not and have thereby have a diminished role in the choice for aggression.

I think it is evident that on an individual basis men would have a tendency to have a more violent response when threatened or on the hunt. Women have a tendency to desire negotiation. These two responses seem to have been honed in the hunter/gatherer society. The simplistic view of this setting – Men making a plan and then silent execution. Women working together and discussing every aspect of life until the men got back.

In short, Women have been able to study men as a group and are very perceptive in discerning how to manipulate men to achieve their desires. The problem is that women have never, “looked in the mirror”, and analyzed how their desires have influenced the aggressive choices of a nation. I think if women turned their “perceptive?” gaze at themselves they would see that aggressive national responses are initiated, when women approve them.

As another side analysis, look at the blogosphere and inside your own households, women are rarely involved in the discussions, but when it comes time to vote they will name a candidate and quote some headline out of a paper as the rationale for the selection. While all I heard out of their mouths until that time was “what color should we paint the kitchen”, “jimmy is a better soccer player than bobbi” “my husband does not do (blank) right.

Fill in the (blank).

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theCoach 04.05.04 at 3:21 pm

monica’s post elucidates the arguments, me thinks. the problem, is the desire to have a “primary” motivator. there is no such thing. even at a very low level genetic explanations compete with each other.
I was under the impression that no one, not even from the Chicago school, thought agents were truly maximizing, just that they thought that was a good approximation.
The interesting thing about EP, as has been pointed out earlier, is to find the differences between maximizing in our current environment compared to what it would be in the formative environment of our genes.

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jay 04.05.04 at 7:06 pm

Aggression and violence are strongly linked to testosterone levels. There is a lot of variation in testosterone levels among men AND women, and it, by the way, declines with age.

Testosterone promotes dominance, risk-taking, and sexual activity in both males and females. It’s pretty easy to see how this might get selected for evolutionarily, because more sex, with more desirable partners (because of dominance), means more reproductive success.

But low testosterone ALSO gives a genetic advantage. Simply put, high-testosterone individuals die a lot faster, or tend to wander off, and thus aren’t around to help their offspring become adults. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Violence may not be reproductively beneficial in today’s world, but dominance pretty clearly still is.

My best source for this is the book Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers by James McBride Dabbs.
I think of Pinker’s work as pre-scientific — it shows where to look — and work like McBrides to be
the science that backs it up.

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Ophelia Benson 04.05.04 at 7:16 pm

John,

What I think about it tends to depend on what I’ve read most recently. I’m very suggestible. I think it’s at least possible, and worth investigating and researching.

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John Quiggin 04.05.04 at 9:20 pm

monica, you have it exactly right in my view.

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Kimmitt 04.05.04 at 9:26 pm

The reason Evolutionary Psychology spoke to me was that it was the first set of ideas that sought to address two questions that had devilled me for some time:

1) If we are evolved creatures, why do we even think about morality? Where do human universals regarding morality come from?

2) Why the heck do I, personally, behave in ways which are opposed to my own morality? Why would I ever want to do that?

I guess what I’m saying is that EP has been good to me personally.

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push 04.05.04 at 10:25 pm

Kimmitt, your (2) frames the question of needing to explain deviation from morality rather than compliance with it, when one could legitimately ask what explains our compliance with morality in the first place…

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eudoxis 04.06.04 at 12:20 am

monica: “I think John’s point is that a “selfish gene” explanation says you throw yourself on the grenade because that’s behavior that saves your kin, who then go on to propagate genes similar to yours, while a “selfish individual” explanation says you throw yourself on the grenade because you want the glory and status that will accrue to your name aftewards, and a “selfish nation” explanation says you do it because you love your country.

The “selfish gene” explanation for adaptive behavior(!) implies that the rationalization for throwing yourself on the grenade is with an eye to kin and country when in actuality it’s the genes that made you rationalize it in just such a way. (Just as the innate, genetic drives for sex, food, and power are driven by needs for satisfaction, or posterity, not a desire to pass on particular genes.)

One can, of course, find logical incompatibility even when just sticking with a single explanation because adaptive behaviors, whether expressed in genes, individuals, or groups are statistical trends, or, rational choices involve proximate and distal ends which may conflict on their way to an ultimate end.

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Abiola Lapite 04.06.04 at 12:31 am

“The point I tried to make is that Pinkers account of aggression as individually rational (in terms of obvious individual-level goals like access to food, sex and power) is inconsistent with (or at least renders redundant) a claim that aggression is a genetically-driven behavior induced by sex-specific adaptions to a now-vanished environment.”

John,

Again, I say that you are simply wrong here in stating that there is any sort of inconsistency between the two positions you lay out, and that it ought to be obvious why this is so. The “redundant” part isn’t necessarily true, either.

For an evolved tendency to aggression to be irrational in the context of the modern world, one would have to show that aggression is no longer efficacious in winning struggles for influence, mates and so on, but anyone who’s ever had to work in a competitive, heavily male atmosphere, even in the Western world, will realize straight away that aggressiveness, even physical aggressiveness, does still indeed often pay, often enough that men will go out of their way to cultivate a reputation for aggressiveness out of all proportion to their own real inclinations (“machismo”). Aggressiveness is indeed an evolved trait, and as someone else has already mentioned, we even know a biological precursor for it – testosterone. It is a trait that paid off often enough to be passed on not just in the Paleolithic, but anywhere in the world where young men have had to compete with each other for the “good things” in life – those being usually defined as women and booty.

To address the “redundant” part (which, by, the way, if true, would be inconsistent with your claim of inconsistency), a trait could have evolved in a certain historical context only to have become obsolescent with the passage of time; indeed, this is the very stuff of which evolution is made. Not everything that is the result of evolution is necessarily adaptive in the current context, and if a trait is indeed still adaptive, it needs to be shown to be so. As such, your claim of redundancy is also without merit.

(By the way, John, I don’t want to read too much into it, but why did you choose not to bother capitalizing my name when mentioning it, even though you took care to do so with everyone else? I’m not particularly bothered by it, but it does seem to say to me that my response got to you at a personal level. You dismissed what I had to say as “trivial”, but the fact is that your original statement was blatantly false, and a shocking lapse in reasoning from someone from whom I expected better.)

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John Quiggin 04.06.04 at 3:25 am

Abiola, if you check a few comments back, you’ll see that I didn’t capitalize Monica’s name either (and I was agreeing with her). I didn’t mean any offence by this, but I’ll be more attentive to it in future.

Also, I wasn’t referring to your comment as “trivial” but to the kind of model that’s needed if you are going to make, for example, rational self-interested utility maximisation agree with a selfish gene hypothesis. I’m thinking of the kind of case, which I encounter frequently, where altruism (for example, towards kin) is explained by making the welfare of others an argument in the utility function, while still claiming that the behavior described is self-interested.

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Kimmitt 04.06.04 at 9:36 am

Kimmitt, your (2) frames the question of needing to explain deviation from morality rather than compliance with it, when one could legitimately ask what explains our compliance with morality in the first place…

Well, I want to be moral. I feel happy when I’m being a moral person. Why would I wish to do anything to interfere with that?

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Gareth 04.06.04 at 9:18 pm

I don’t see how anyone who isn’t a creationist can deny the basic premises of Evolutionary Psychology. Dispute some individual explanation, sure. But can you deny:

(1) Complex biological structures develop through evolution as guided by natural selection.

(2) Natural selection will favour a complex biological structure just to the extent that its benefits outweigh its costs, where both are measured in inclusive fitness.

John Q.’s point that sociobiology contradicts a strict rational choice model with no other-regarding preferences is hardly a revelation. It was a big part of the point.

One of the original puzzles that started the whole sociobiological revolution was the “problem of altruism”, and, in particular, why insects with a haploid-diploid genetic structure had vastly more complex social structures than other insects. The reason was because individual haploid-diploid insects are more closely related to their neices and nephews. What’s wrong with this explanation?

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John Quiggin 04.07.04 at 4:11 am

Gareth, I’m glad at least someone agrees with a point I thought so obvious as to require no explication. I certainly didn’t intend to present it as a revelation.

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sennoma 04.07.04 at 4:11 am

Gareth: briefly, what’s wrong with it is that not all eusocial insects are haplo-diploid (termites are diploid); not all haplo-diploid insects are eusocial (predatory and parasitic wasps, for instance, are haplo-diploid but not social); in colonies with multiple queens, the extra degree of relatedness between females and nieces/nephews does not obtain; and phylogeny of the Hymenoptera suggests that haplo-diploidy arose in several separate instances, in each case in insects which already had somewhat developed social structures. (Also, the salient point is the haploid/diploid sex determination, not the use of a haploid stage; humans have haploid gametes!)

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