More on markets as extended phenotypes


In the same vein as Don Boudreaux's recent comments, Will Wilkinson has this article on markets and evolutionary psychology.


First principle of dogmatism: if your argument doesn’t win on its own merits, call your pet preference “natural” instead. Bentham was wrong about a lot of things, but arguments to order society on “natural” principles are still nonsense on stilts.

Of course, because homosexuality is genetic it is “natural”. Which means that we should all just accept it as we do blue eyes or other variation in human phenotype. Or was it that we should do all we can to detect it and abort all foetuses marred by it?

Oh, you say homosexuality isn’t genetic, after all? Well, it must be “just” culture, then. So let’s do all we can to cure the delusioned sufferers from their culturally induced affliction. Or, was it that it is cultural and therefore an expression of individual choice and preference to be respected much like, say, the choice to live in the country rather than the city.

Clearly, by an absurdly wide definition markets are an extended fenotype. Just like murder. Or war, the evidence for which goes back a lot longer than that of markets, howsoever reasonably defined. Great, I know just what to decide about the war in Iraq now.

I like capitalism. I have it good because of capitalism. Dammit, I’m even an economist and make my living by helping people understand markets, and capitalist markets, to boot. But as I write this, doing something as grossly unnatural as focussing my vision not on a distant herd of mammoths but on my computer screen before me, I make no pretense that I think any of these things because it’s “natural”.

PS Oh no! There’s evidence for biological foundations of altruism. Does that mean I have to live in a socialist utopia instead? Oh bother.

I doubt anyone will seriously deny that there is such a thing as “human nature” in the sense that there are psychological commonalities among (most) people. I wouldn’t wish to have to argue that these commonalities don’t emerge in various forms. The notion that we should have “social orders that do not foolishly attempt to cut against the grain of human nature” is very old. All of the philosophers on whose works the US government was based, from Locke to Rousseau, began their works by saying basically “because human nature is THIS way, the ideal society (even a workable society) must be THAT way, because the two must work together. The notion is that we’re best accepting what people do naturally, and managing it rather than trying to change it.

And if the proof is in the experience, and we look around the world and through history, we DO find that some things are pervasive and indeed nearly universal. In political organization, we find “strongman systems” everywhere, where power is concentrated as much as possible. In social organization, we find nearly universal human belief in the supernatural, accompanied by organized attempts to persuade anthropomorphized forces to accede to our wishes. Most commonly, we find the social and political aspects working hand in glove – this is the best way to concentrate power. So the political leadership either IS, or must pay close attention to, the ecclesiastical leadership. The king (dictator, high priest, or big juju) rules by divine right.

For the most part, societies that nominally do not accommodate these tendencies actually follow them in practice. Communism was in Marx’s vision everyone providing for the needs of everyone, all together. In practice, power coalesced quickly and permanently. That was no accident. Yet productivity boomed (as in China) when people were permitted to keep for themselves some portion of their production. However, the continued success (essentially within the original framework) of the US and Western Europe, despite a genuine sharing of power and relatively little intrusion of religious dogma on political expediency, indicates that human nature is neither narrow nor rigid. As Machiavelli wrote, “where neither their property nor their honor is threatened, most men live content.”

My reaction to the Cato Institute’s article, perhaps much like Per Klevnas’s reaction, is that they have taken a few things that are self-evident about how people think and feel, and used them as justification for specific political policy directions. It’s a bit disturbing to read that human nature is Republican with a Libertarian flavor. It is? Maybe it’s ALSO human nature for me to wonder about the Cato Institute’s funding and customers…

Butterflies in Brazil may cause snow storms in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean that studying snow storms in Cleveland is a good way to understand butterflies in Brazil.

The Cato Institute pays people to relate everything to markets, even when the connections are mighty tenuous. Ideological obsession makes for dubious methodology.

I first started reading this piece and thought, “Oh no, not this again.” It’s not that bad though. There are a few parts that I take strong exception to.

We cannot, however, consistently think of ourselves as members only of that one grand coalition: the Brotherhood of Mankind.

I see no reason why this must be the case. Certainly, if aliens were to come and attack us, we’d have little difficultly thinking of ourselves as one united humanity. We may tend to think in terms of “us vs. them”, but there is no reason why “us” must have an upper limit of inclusion that’s below the species level.

It is important to avoid designing institutions, such as racial preference programs, that reinforce coalitional categories that have no basis in biology and may heighten some of the tensions they are meant to relax.

Only if one assumes that these coaltional categories do not already exist and are not already being used to disadvantage certain groups. If those categories are preexisting however, and if one can show one group is being harmed, then one is justified (at least in principle) in correcting that harm.

Evolutionary psychology can help us to understand that property rights are not created simply by strokes of the legislator’s pen.

This one is nonsense. Property rights must come from a legislator’s pen, or some other form of societal recognition. What Wilkinson is describing is not property rights, it’s territorialism. Children are territorial when it comes to their favorite toys or preferred section of the playground, but this by no means implies that they have an exclusive right to use these things at the expense of everyone else. Indeed, when a bigger bully comes along, suddenly that territory changes hands. Without some socially recognized system for obtaining and enforcing property rights (in most cases, the government), people take whatever they want and own only what they can defend. Wilkinson is confusing an instict with a legal right, which is a categorical error.

Once we appreciate the improbability and fragility of our wealth and freedom, it becomes clear just how much respect and gratitude we owe to the belief systems, social institutions, and personal virtues that allowed for the emergence of our “wider civilization” and that allow us to move between our two worlds without destroying or crushing either.

Perhaps true. But if we give credit to our social institutions for helping society function, then surely we can give them blame for the degree to which society, or its members, are dysfunctional. We can just as easily use this sentiment to justify wholesale reform when things don’t work to our satisfaction. But I strongly suspect that Wilkinson (or at least the Cato people in general) would lay the blame on the individuals disaffected, rather than on society.

Here we go again. Tim links to something really only tangentially related to the debate between ID and Evolution. The link is overtly political. So, once again Panda’s Thumb is hijacked to promote a particular brand of politics rather than the debate between ID and Evolution. Suppose in contrast, someone were linking to a site proving that left wing politics resulted from evolution?

So again, I assert, that if PT is going to promote politics, then it ought to consider promoting all politics rather than having Tim hijack PT to promote his brand of right wing politics. And here I thought that one of the virtues of science and of evolution was that it didn’t have politics-one could be a liberal, a radical, a conservative, an atheist, a theist and accept some basic scientific facts-I have always thought so.

Having spent a good deal of time recently reading some of the literature on sociobiology and EP I had also finally become convinced that Sociobiology and EP were not right wing plots to convince me that heirarchy, capitalism, imperialism and war were just “natural” consequences of human nature. Once I stopped reading only the critics of EP and Sociobiology and started reading their proponents it became clear that:

1. EP and Sociobiology’s proponents did not share any uniform view of politics; 2. It did not follow that heirarchy, territoriality, imperialism, war, capitalism were a consequence of human nature.

But this link only got worse. True enough, our minds probably haven’t changed much in 50,000 years-although the jury isn’t out on this if you read some of the current debates among archaeologists about what constitutes “modern” human behavior. Were we “modern” 100,000 ya or 10,000 ya?

Whichever you accept it is clear that human minds were fully formed before…Guess what folks???

The rise of centralized, formal heirarchical civilizations. For most of our existence we lived in relatively non-heirarchical societies. There was no formal political structure. There was no permanent political class. Of course we can’t know this for sure but we can make good guesses by looking at modern foraging societies. Not only were we not “heirarchical” it isn’t even clear we were “patriarchal”. Much anthropological research suggests that while there was **some** gender based division of labor, it was not rigid and women’s status was better than in centralized societies.

So, our nature is to be non-heirarchical, cooperative (and sometimes competitive)social animals. Our minds are adapted to solving small scale problems and keeping track of relatively simple contracts. We are not innately male supremacists. We are not even innately large scale civilization builders.

None of this can be taken, one way or the other to support capitalism or socialism or the welfare state. At least not directly and certainly not the way this author wants to do it.

Again-bad biology, bad anthropolgy-just plain ideologically motivated junk science.

Finally, let me take the time to puncture another myth. Contrary to Tim’s view Marx and Engels really did not believe humans were infinitely malleable. Quite the contrary. Marx was an advocate of “species being”. He believed that humans would thrive best under a particular social order: the primitive commune or communism. So what Marx did was really not that different from what this author did: he made an observation (and a wrong one at that about the primitive commune) and then read into history necessary laws-thus giving us a dialectical, Teleological driven view of history.

The only difference here is that the Teleology is different. But it is still big T Teleology.

I wonder if some of you actually read the article. The main point is that liberal capitalism is NOT especially natural, that it’s emergence and sustenance requires the cultural refinement and suppression of elements of our evolved psychology. However, because liberal capitalism is actual, it must be possible, and that possibility is grounded in aspects of our psychology, such as adaptations for exchange and the recognition of property norms.

I made NO argument to the effect that evolutionary psychology supports a particular political position. I specifically warned that EP can only tells us something about the range of feasible human societies, but does not tell us which among the feasible we should prefer.

The article ASSUMES the desirability of market-based liberal social order, and explores the ways in which our psychology does and does not support this kind of order. The Cato Policy Report is geared to a largely libertarian audience, and so the article explores the issue evolutionary psychology through the lens of the likely reader’s assumptions about political philosophy. You may disagree with those assumptions, but that is not a problem with the article. I disagree with Peter Singer’s political assumptions, but I thought _A Darwinian Left_ was a good book, given the audience he was addressing.

I understand the various debates in evolutionary psychology, e.g., whether massive modularity is true, whether the mind continues to evolve, etc. But, of course, a 3000 word article attempting to give a quick and dirty overview of a vast body of research and relate it to political economy is hardly the place for “on the one hand/on the other hand” rumination. I thought it would be safe to represent the Tooby/Cosmides line on most issues as mainstream.


Firstly, thanks for showing up here and taking the time to offer your insight as to what you meant. That effort is much apreciated. Since you took the time to do so I took the time to re-read your article to see if (and where) I misunderstood you.

PT is probably not a good place for an extended exchange of the kinds of issues you raise. That said, the issues you raise merit extended scholarly exchange and consideration. I’d be happy to discuss some of the issues in more depth if you’d care to e-mail me: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

After re-reading your article I recognize that portions of it are more subtle than I saw at first glance. However, it also remains my view that you make inaccurate generalizations and jump to conclusions that are simply unwarranted.

I will make a few comments here and I will try to be brief.

1. As I pointed out before, Marx did not hold to a view of infinite human plasticity.

2. We should of course properly regard North Korea as a horrific regime. Here is an interesting comparison: The “liberal” regime of Great Britain in the 1840’s upheld the principles of property rights and human plasticity as the Irish starved to death. They were starving to death because they were forced into monocrop agriculture. 19th century liberals tended to view culture as inherently plastic as they saw no problem with overturning centuries of cultural practices which though imperfect were adaptive and flexible cultural systems. The idea that “capitalism” or “western civilization” is “natural” or “inevitable” has repeatedly resulted in immense destruction of people’s cultures. One can argue that this was not “true capitalism”, but then again, one can argue that Kim Il Jong is not a “true Marxist”. Both State Socialism and Laissez Faire Capitalism have at points in time and different contexts been immensely destructive. I’d suggest we not get into a debate on PT about who killed more people-Stalin or Western Colonialism. Both were evil.

2. I have no inherent objection to the proposition offered by Tooby and Cosmides that we have “stone age minds” adapted to solving stone age problems rather than the problems of modern industrial society.

3. The extent to which the mind is compartmentalized can and has been debated. I don’t think this issue really bears on the points I dispute here however.

4. I agree that human minds are limited in their information processing and problem solving capacities.

5. I agree human beings are “coalitional”.

6. I agree human beings create cultural rules that will atempt to minimize conflict and reduce transactions costs.

7. I dispute the assertion that humans are “naturally heirarchical”. The evidence from modern foraging societies is that permanent heirarchies are resisted. Attempts to “lord it over” groups is disputed and most often results in the group ditching the “leader”.

8. I agree that small groups make it easier for people to cooperate. Engendering cooperation among larger groups is inherently difficult.

9. Male dominance is not “innate”. Some degree of gender based divisions of labor **may have been** invevitable or may still be in foraging or horticultural societies. The relative statuses ascribed to male and female roles is not inevitable and in many foraging and horticultural societies female status has been quite high and compares favorably to female status in many modern, industrial societies.

10. While all human societies create some form of “property rights” not all human societies create modern, individual property rights. While all human societies exchange goods, not all exchange is through the market. Much production and distribution is organized through the family, lineage group or clan.

11. Many societies have leveling mechanisms.

12. Many societies provide for “social insurance”.

I could just as easily say that the “welfare state” is the logical extension of human society as I could that “capitalism” is the logical extension.

I object to the careless overgeneralizations you made based on the literature in EP. I do not object to EP per se, though on the whole, I regard it as a research program that needs a lot more careful definition and testing.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on February 17, 2005 3:25 AM.

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