Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Biological Fantasies

From a Cato Institute Policy Report:
In the spring of 1845, Karl Marx wrote, ". . . the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations." Marx's idea was that a change in the "ensemble of social relations" can change "the human essence."

In June 2004 the communist North Korean government issued a statement to its starving citizens recommending the consumption of pine needles. Pyongyang maintained that pine needle tea could effectively prevent and treat cancer, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cerebral hemorrhage, and even turn grey hair to black.

Tragically, human nature isn't at all as advertised, and neither is pine needle tea. According to the U.S. State Department, at least one million North Koreans have died of famine since 1995.

Marx's theory of human nature, like Kim Jong Il's theory of pine needle tea, is a biological fantasy, and we have the corpses to prove it. Which may drive us to wonder: if communism is deadly because it is contrary to human nature, does that imply that capitalism, which is contrary to communism, is distinctively compatible with human nature?

The article goes on to discuss evolutionary psychology, which is a relatively new area of psychology that "seeks to understand the unique nature of the human mind by applying the logic and methods of contemporary evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology."

Somewhere between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era, when humans adapted from a "hunter-gatherer" to "agricultural" mode of living, the physiology and structure of the human brain--and hence, human psychology--was finalized by the concerted environmental and biological pressures on the human species during the previous 1.6 million years. In other words, modern human beings have the brain of their stone age ancestors. Our brains are not designed specifically for the "modern" world that we live in.

The article goes into some of the recent research of evolutionary psychologist, who are trying to understand exacly what "human nature" is all about. Basically, the results of their research shows that we are hard-wired--and therefore psychologically the same "hunter-gatherers" of 50,000 years ago. OUr social interactions are thus defined and limited by those ancient humans. Their findings are

We tend to form into groups of 25 - 150 most easily. Larger groups--where we do not have face-to-face contact with other members, are instinctively considered less trustworthy; and we tend to think often in terms of "us" versus "them". Having said that, when we develop social institutions that reinforce this built-in coalitional tendency (e.g., representative, democratic government) social tensions are relaxed and societies can thrive. OTOH, when political rhetoric encourages people to identify themselves as members of groups with no biological basis (e.g., "rich" versus "poor") tensions rise and animosity interferes with social stability. Free trade, or capitalism, encourages us to be wary of other groups, but also wo view them as partners in mutually beneficial trade; rahter than as "enemies".

If you look around you will see evidence of this in every aspect of our life. Most social organizations have formal heirarchical structures (president, VP and the like). Even in area that aren't "formally" organized (e.g., high school or middle school) dominance and status issues are a primary concern of the students who vie with each other to be the most "cool". We so dislike being at the bottom of a heirarchy, that we naturally form coalitions that help to check the power of the dominant groups.

We have difficulty in thinking of resources or wealth as ever-expanding, and tend to think that their gain must be our loss. This leads to envy and all the associated social and political conflicts. And yet, the first two characteristics (coalition and heirarchy forming qualities) show that by working together and engaging in mutually beneficial trade and thereby increasing productivity, wealth can be created beyond what we think it can. But this tendency from hunter-gatherer days makes us have difficulty understanding our own economic system (especially if coalitions are formed which enhance the "us" versus "them" thinking).

In order to prevent the allocation of all resources to those at the top of heirarchies, the recognition of individual property rights has been part of our make up for thousands of years. Animals mark out territories for exclusive use in foraging, hunting, and mating--and so did our ancestors. This again is "hard-wired" into our species.

Trade, exchange, and division of labor are human universals that existed long before complex societal structures.

We have a biological capacity for and need to trust others. This psychological trust enables us to solve otherwise unsolvable social problems--e.g., how to deal with strangers; outsiders; and other groups. Without this biological instinct to give other humans the benefit of the doubt, complex social interactions are impossible.

A recent article in the LA Times titled "The Anatomy of Give and Take" discusses some very recent research that tries to explain the economic interaction of humans, using high technology equipment such as MRI scanners. In one such experiment, two individuals are pitted against each other in an attempt to see which one could maximize their financial gain in the marketplace:

As the pair wavered between cooperation and betrayal, scientists recorded how their brains changed. The researchers hoped to discover the secret of trust — the human variable missing from the mathematics of modern economics.

The terms of the experiment were simple: At the beginning of each round, Belur could put up to $20 in play. Any investment automatically tripled. Tang then decided how much to return and how much to keep.

Belur's safest strategy was to hoard all of her money. Tang's most logical move was to cheat her partner at every opportunity.

There was a riskier but potentially more profitable way.

They could trust each other.

The experiment was part of a new frontier in the exploration of the brain — a field called neuro- economics that seeks to understand the biology underlying economic behavior.

In universities and research centers across the country, scientists are probing the brain with coin flips, $5 bills and gift certificates from Amazon.com. Bit by bit, they are assembling a mosaic of the financial brain, identifying how competing neural circuits shape decisions.
This is the new field of "neuroeconomics", trying to figure out why people trust each other, when economic theory says they won't. Yet the field of evolutionary psychology has evidence that such trust is built-into our brains, and it is what makes such economic activities as "trade" and "production" possible.

Matt Ridley, in his book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation tackles this issue head-on (and is well worth reading, I might add).

What all this information is leading to is the idea that human nature must be taken into account as we evaluate the usefulness and consequences of certain economic and political systems that are advocated in the world today. We are clearly well-suited to some things and not to others. There are some social, economic, and political systems that are like the Procrustean bed and try to adjust human nature to their theories. These almost always end in catastrophy, human misery, and death. There are some social, political and economic systems which encourage war, domination, and the accumulation of wealth by the top of the national heirarchy.

Many will say that it is capitalism that does these things, but they are incorrect, and all the evidence leans to the opposite conclusion. In fact, among social, political and economic systems, democratic capitalism is probably the one and only system that is MOST CONSISTENT WITH HUMAN NATURE.

Far from encouraging the "survival of the fittest", capitalism simultaneously encourages cooperation for mutually beneficial trade as well as competition. Far from encouraging war and dominance; capitalism encourages trust and human cooperation; as well as alliances to maximize productivity and wealth creation. Far from concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, capitalism makes it possible for anyone to accumulate wealth (contrast for example the number of people who earn over $100,000 a year in the U.S., with those do in Cuba. The only really wealthy person there is Fidel Castro and his cronies. Likewise, in Iraq, the only wealthy were Saddam and his thugs). Envy is a real human emotion, but only in a capitalist system can one transform one's envy into socially acceptable action to imporve one's own lot without attacking or destroying others.

Human nature is what it is. This is not tragic, it is simple truth. The biological fantasies of the Utopians; and the delusional fantasies of communists and socialists and all their heirs, have lead to incalculable levels of human suffering all over the globe, as the proponents of these theories have tried to force humans to some "ideal" state. All these systems have failed the real-world tests in the last century; and all current versions of these ideologies will also eventually fail and fade away. To the extent that they attempt to incorporate some aspects of "human nature" into their failing system, they may last a bit longer (e.g., China); but it is much more likely that human nature will transform the ideology than the reverse.

What we see in the Middle East today is the re-assertion of human nature after years of being crushed under the oppression of yet another social system that has attempted to rebuild humans along the lines of a religious "ideal", spiked with totalitarian fantasizing.

As with Kim Jung Il's theory of pine needle tea, how many deaths will it take before the social engineers of the New Procrustean Empire (following in the steps of the communists and socialists) abandon their attempts to force human beings to adapt to their fantasies?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the winds of Freedom.

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