Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What makes us human? An Economist, Philosopher, Evolutionary Biologist, and Two Psychologists Offer Answers in Recent Books

From the Times Higher Education blog (UK), Matthew Reisz reviews five new books that try to answer the question of What Makes Us Human?
Those are some seriously heavyweight authors for a brief article of this type.

Here is the meat of the article, called Hearts and Minds:
In all of these books, one can point to moments of stridency and showmanship, even a pleasure in polemic, which occasionally leads the authors to try to convince us that black is white. Yet all are dazzling displays of impassioned scholarship. All combine first-hand research evidence with jokes, personal anecdotes and references to popular culture in a way that manages to be entertaining as well as informative. Kahneman has described Thinking, Fast and Slow as the first of his books aimed at a mass audience, and all five publications demonstrate how well many leading academics can communicate with a broad readership when neither constrained by the research assessment exercise nor unduly plagued by self-doubt. Read one of them and it is almost impossible not to be carried away by a sense that one has now grasped some fundamental truths. The only problem is that they can't all be right.

Both Kahneman and Trivers believe we are in some fundamental sense divided against ourselves. The former notes, for example, that the "heuristics that guide citizens' beliefs and attitudes are inevitably biased" and can only be overcome by tremendous effort. Yet he seems fairly relaxed and forgiving about these flaws: "Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous - and it is also essential." Furthermore, his is a strikingly chaste book, which probably devotes more space to our choice of insurance policies than our choice of sexual partners.

Trivers has a much more tormented view of the world, offers woeful tales of his women troubles and seems wryly pessimistic about the chances of self-improvement: "As individuals, we can choose whether to fight our own self-deceptions or to indulge them. I choose to oppose my own - with very limited success so far." Furthermore, since he is keen to relate everything to the core evolutionary issues of survival and reproduction, he keeps returning to the battle of the sexes. He suspects that the genes we have inherited from our mothers and those that come from our fathers are at war with each other - an idea that he confesses first occurred to him "when I was trying to poison the minds of my three daughters against their mother's people". Such elaborate arguments about genes slugging it out within us are precisely the sort of thing that Prinz is determined to discredit.

Trivers' book is a million miles away from the can-do spirit of Baumeister and Tierney's, which argues that "willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise" (even a shot of glucose can usually help). And if they believe that individuals can dramatically improve the quality of their lives, Pinker thinks that the human race has already done so. Although evolution has implanted in us the "demons" of revenge, sadism and evil as well as the "angels" of reason, self-control and empathy, the angels have been firmly in the ascendant since the end of the Second World War, and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union - and he has the statistics to prove it.

It is perhaps inevitable that a big book on human nature also ends up as a kind of self-portrait, and it is not difficult to discern major differences between the authors' temperaments, values and politics.
Baumeister is a conservative in outlook, who hopes to "combine the best of modern social science with some of the practical wisdom of the Victorians". The secret of child-rearing is apparently: "Forget about self-esteem. Work on self-control."

Trivers is a born member of the awkward squad who feels that a book on deceit is as good a place as any to lash out at Nazis, Israelis and US foreign policy. With the Soviet Union no longer around to "provide a counterweight to rapacious capitalism", the post-Cold War era has "seen intense American wars, an accelerated shift of wealth to the already wealthy...and gross thievery by the wealthy and their agents leading to near economic collapse". Pinker, meanwhile, sees the same period, with its decline in violence, as one of unprecedented good fortune.

Several of these authors offer theories about why serious scholars often disagree so fundamentally (or, more cynically, why their opponents keep getting things wrong).

Kahneman suggests that "a weakness of the scholarly mind" is "theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws". Successful scientists require "the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing", which can blind them to alternative perspectives. Disciplinary divisions impose further blinkers, so that economists and psychologists often seem "to be studying different species".

Trivers is far more outspoken. As he has got older, he explains, he has begun to "care less about appearing the fool, so I am willing to live with a higher ratio of foolish thought to true insight in my statements". He seems equally unconcerned about who he might offend, dismissing whole disciplines in a couple of sentences.

Pinker also thinks he knows why many people find it hard to believe his positive narrative. In much of the world, he points out, "customs such as slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disembowelling, bearbaiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets" and so on have "passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about" during what he calls the post-Enlightenment "Humanitarian Revolution". The good news is that most of us are unlikely to be hanged, drawn and quartered. But it can be hard for people to believe that humans have made any progress when they watch atrocities every night on the television and the horrors of the past are largely forgotten.

The social sciences, Trivers tells us, would benefit from "an explicit, well-tested (biological) theory of self-interest" - which is why we find only "a few honest historians". Economics is not a true science, although it "acts like a science and quacks like one", since its vague notion of "utility" is not rooted in biology. Most psychology consists of "competing guesses about what [is] important in human development, none with any foundation".

But more interesting than this disciplinary one-upmanship is the general point that Trivers makes about human arguments. They "feel so effortless because by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. The argument may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information lie already organised, waiting only for the lightning of anger to reveal them."

Reading all these books gives one the exhilarating and disorienting sense of visiting five different intellectual landscapes. All are fascinating, although everyone will find some more familiar and congenial than others. But where do they give an accurate picture of the world and where are they distorted by disciplinary tunnel vision or by their authors' prejudices?

Perhaps someone will eventually produce an even bigger book, offering an aerial view of all the separate mountain plains. Until then, we might as well enjoy the scenery.
 Read the whole article.

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