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20211218 – Minds Make Societies

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MAIN IDEA:

Here is the author’s statement on the main idea of this book:” The following chapters chart some elements of this naturalistic science of human societies, from the way we form groups to the way we interact in families, from human attraction to religious notions to their motivation to create ethnic identity and rivalry, from the intuitive understanding of economics to their disposition for cooperation and friendship. This should not imply that we now know all there is to know about those topics—far from it. But we can already perceive how they make more sense in the context of human evolution. There is great promise in that vision, some would have said even grandeur, if we can make progress in explaining human behavior as a natural process.”

DETAILS:

Introduction: Human Societies through the Lens of NatureIn the introduction, the author points out that studying human societies the new approach, closely resembling the general scientific approach to studying nature, produced critical advancement by using evolutionary biology and psychology. The author presents several questions that he hopes to answer with the new approach, such as:

WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE SO MANY THINGS THAT AIN’T SO?

WHY POLITICAL DOMINATION?

WHY ARE PEOPLE SO INTERESTED IN ETHNIC IDENTITY?

WHAT MAKES MEN AND WOMEN DIFFERENT?

ARE THERE DIFFERENT POSSIBLE MODELS OF THE FAMILY?

WHY ARE HUMANS SO UNCOOPERATIVE?

WHY ARE HUMANS SO COOPERATIVE?

COULD SOCIETY BE JUST?

WHAT EXPLAINS MORALITY?

WHY ARE THERE RELIGIONS?

WHY DO PEOPLE MONITOR AND REGIMENT OTHER PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS?

After asking questions, the author presents some rules for answering them:

Rule I: See the Strangeness of the Familiar

Rule II: Information Requires Evolved Detection

Rule III: Do Not Anthropomorphize Humans!

Rule IV: Ignore the Ghosts of Theories Past

The author completes the introduction by describing the positive program of the research of human social behavior.

Six Problems in Search of a New Science
One: What Is the Root of Group Conflict?

In this chapter, the author promotes a few ideas related to the human grouping that he believes the science supports:

  • The contemporary nations are mainly recent inventions
  • People develop and then cling to ethnicity as the tool to recruit others into their group.
  • Humans are “groupish” – they join a group naturally and form their attitude and behavior about issues depending on in or out of group situations.
  • People develop particular coalition psychology that synchronizes mental representations of the world, strengthening the link between the group members and preventing defection.
  • People create the coalitional institutions assigning people to diverse stereotypes
  • They also build the large group by signaling their belonging via appearances
  • The separation into groups quickly leads to violence whether the groups are ethnic, religious, or just sports fans.

The author also discusses Hobbes vs. Rousseau’s visions of human nature, noting that reality is much more complicated than either one. He then reviews features of primitive warfare. At the end of the chapter, the author looks at the diversity of contemporary societies and stresses that it causes to many people.

Two: What Is Information For? Sound Minds, Odd Beliefs, and the Madness of Crowds
Here the author discusses various strange panics, mysteries of junk culture, and other similar things.  He also looks at human biology’s “good design” when even infants possess lots of intuitive knowledge that support quick learning and effective accommodation to the environment. The author then reviews information processing in societies, concluding that people are not gullible, so all kinds of rumors, mysteries, and conspiracy theories are pretty helpful. His conclusion is:” We generally assume that information is transmitted because of its epistemic value, its connection to the way things are and to potential consequences for fitness. That explains the transmission of vast domains of cultural knowledge, but also of deceptive communication, which favors the deceiver’s interests precisely because it is false. But epistemic value is not the only factor that motivates humans to spread information. The need to be seen as a reliable source, the requirement to detect threat information, the urge to recruit others in collective action, or at least to gauge their potential commitment, are powerful factors. As they are not directly affected by the value of the information transmitted, junk culture is in some conditions both epistemically disastrous and evolutionarily advantageous.”

Three: Why Are There Religions? … And Why Are They Such a Recent Thing?
In this chapter about religion, the author reviews the meaning of various supernatural combinations and their spirituality. The main point that the author stresses is that it all has some adaptive value, or at least used to have. The current world is seemingly moving away from this, but it is not necessarily the case. The author sees contemporary development as the threefold path:

  1. The first is the path of indifference. This is a situation in which most people evince no great interest in the doctrines or teachings of the different religions. Naturally, like other human beings, people in this context are still attracted to the products of supernatural imagination. Generally treated as fiction, these supernatural notions can sometimes lead to the “extraordinary popular delusions”
  2. The second path is that of spirituality. The term is of course vague, which is rather apposite, as the beliefs people usually call spiritual are notoriously nebulous. Spiritual movements are focused not on particular statements about the world but on the exploration of various techniques and disciplines of the self.
  3. The third path is the coalitional path. Affiliation to a particular doctrinal religion turns into ethnic or cultural identity and triggers the thoughts and motivations of coalitional psychology, including the clear separation between those who belong and the outsiders, the valuation of the group’s collective goals, the assumption that the welfare of outsiders is a loss for the group, the close monitoring of other people’s commitment, the attempts to deter defection by making it very costly, and so forth.

Here is the author’s conclusion:” One should not take these three paths as an exhaustive description of the way religious representations could be handled by human minds. Nor should we think of the three paths as alternative and exclusive futures. They might coexist in the same place, and even in the same community. The difference between them lies in individual cognitive processes, whereby religious representations are mostly seen as possibly interesting fictions (indifference), as a way to cultivate the self (spirituality), or as the foundation of group solidarity and intergroup hostility (coalitions). We cannot, on cognitive grounds alone, predict the relative prevalence of these three paths. We can only be sure of very general probabilistic claims—for instance, that increased security favors indifference to religions, that some prosperity is required for spiritual interests, that coalitional recruitment is among the strongest forces in social interaction.”

Four: What Is the Natural Family? From Sex to Kinship to DominanceIn this chapter, the author poses some questions about various forms of families and looks at it mainly from the point of view of evolutionary fitness under variety of circumstances. He stresses that the way sex works for evolution is not direct but rather via promises. He then discusses gender and dominance why and how it defines political orders and domestic oppression. The last part of the chapter is about collective oppression when all men collectively oppress all women.

Five: How Can Societies Be Just? How Cooperative Minds Create Fairness and Trade, and the Apparent Conflict between Them

This chapter discusses human cooperation, altruism, and commons. The author initially treats it as a mystery but then demonstrates that such interactions are usually mutually beneficial and therefore fully justified from the evolutionary point of view. The author also discusses the ideas of justice, where they came from. At the end of the chapter, the author summarizes it this way:” If all this is valid, our conceptions of justice seem to lead to a paradox. The reason humans could develop trade, and expand it far beyond the confines of small-scale production and local consumption, is that we have a set of evolved dispositions for mutually advantageous transactions, based on strong intuitions and motivations concerning ownership and participation in collective action. Because of these mental dispositions, we created an extraordinarily complex economic world, and the prosperity that comes from this complexity. The world created consists in countless products and services, whose existence cannot be explained by our intuitive systems. They seem to appear, but no intuitive system represents the conditions under which they appear. So they are treated by some mental systems as a windfall. This in turn activates our communal sharing preferences and intuitions, which make certain conceptions of justice, notably the distribution of available wealth, both intuitive and compelling, that is, easy to process and convincing. But the notion of redistributing wealth violates some intuitive expectations, to do with effort and reward—those who contribute more should receive more—and of course ownership—those who produce are entitled to what they produced. Redistribution implies some limits to these expectations. Some people may contribute a lot more than others but receive only a little more than others. Some may have to relinquish part of what they produced, in the form of progressive taxation. So, the policies intuitively preferred because of one intuitive system (sharing) clash with preferences from another intuitive system.

There are of course many sophisticated ways of going past this conflict between different sets of intuitive preferences. But that is the point—they are sophisticated, they require the work of scholars, and it takes some effort to learn them, because our mental equipment does not provide us with an intuitive resolution of this inconsistency. Humans seem to generate trade because of fairness, and trade creates results in so much impersonal production that the imperatives of fairness seem to clash with the requirements for trade.”

Six: Can Human Minds Understand Societies? Coordination, Folk Sociology, and Natural Politics

In this last chapter, the author discusses politics and human perception of it. At the beginning of the chapter, he points out that:” HUMANS WERE DESIGNED BY EVOLUTION to live in societies, but they may not understand how societies work. This may seem paradoxical. Man was classically described as the political animal; many people in many places seem to be attentive to political processes and be emotionally engaged in political action; and many people, it seems, even enjoy talking about politics. Political programs, political disputes, and political arguments, not to mention revolutions and reform, all convey general ideas about the way a society works and ought to work, how institutions are created and maintained, how different groups and classes interact, and so forth. Such ideas are not the preserve of specialists; they fill everyday debates and justify opinion among all or most citizens of mass societies.”

The author discusses social complexity, the origin of politics, and typical toolkits of “Collective Actions” and “Hierarchy”. He then looks at what he calls “Folk Sociology” and systematically reviews its principles, consequently mainly rejecting most of them. The list of Folk sociology’s principles looks something like that:

Principle I: Groups Are Like Agents

Principle II: Power Is a Force

Principle III: Social Facts Are Things

The author also discusses Folk sociology as a coordination tool and seeks to derive some lessons for modern politics.

Conclusion: Cognition and Communication Create Traditions

The Author begins this part by pontificating about the nature of culture and then suggests:” So, dispensing for the moment with confusing notions of culture, we have two questions for a natural science of societies, namely, How do people converge on similar representations through communication? and Why are some themes so common in such diverse, unrelated societies? At the risk of ruining the surprise, I should reveal that these are in fact one and the same question, which we can address in a rigorous manner by considering the way human minds infer new representations from communication.”

To answer this question, the author first looks at traditions and then analyses the transmission as selection. Next, he discusses the in-depth development of social essentialism, intuitions and reflections about other groups, and other cognitive processes that define a culture. He concludes by presenting his vision of the future development of the scientific approach to social sciences:” So, rather than a new philosophy, the scientific approach to human societies is grounded in a set of simple attitudes and healthy habits that are in fact rather natural to empirical scientists in other fields of inquiry. One of these is deliberate eclecticism, a decision to ignore disciplinary boundaries and traditions, so that evolutionary findings can inform history, economic models can be based on neurocognitive foundations, and cross-cultural comparisons on ecology and economics. The other habit is a healthy embrace of reductionism. For a long time, social scientists were horrified at the very notion of reduction, and they would clutch their pearls at the very thought of explaining social phenomena in terms of physiology, evolution, cognition, or ecology. The mere mention of psychological or evolutionary facts in descriptions of culture would, according to that academic version of the one-drop rule, irretrievably pollute the social scientific brew. But, in rejecting that form of reduction, social scientists were rejecting what is the common practice of most empirical scientists. Geologists do not ignore the findings and models of physics, they make constant use of them. The same goes for ecologists with biological findings, and for evolutionary biologists with molecular genetics. It was only recently that social scientists realized that these empirical disciplines were all actually making progress, and that may have to do with the systematic use of reduction in this sense, promising a vertical integration of different fields and disciplines.55 That integration is now happening. There is a great hope in these rudiments of a science that would follow the path originally traced by philosophers, historians, and moralists toward explaining the emergence of societies, a truly unique outcome of evolution by natural selection.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

Here are my brief answers to the questions the author discusses in this book:

WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE SO MANY THINGS THAT AIN’T SO?

Because people had to rely on other people for information and these other people have other objectives more vital to them than truth and correspondingly adjust information to support these objectives.

WHY POLITICAL DOMINATION?

Because political domination allows people to obtain goods and services from others without giving anything in exchange, it even enables the use of others as disposable tools.

WHY ARE PEOPLE SO INTERESTED IN ETHNIC IDENTITY?

Because the ethnic identity provides at least some security in the permanent competition of us against them, whether this competition is peaceful or violent.

WHAT MAKES MEN AND WOMEN DIFFERENT?

Biology and its role in survival. For the group survival in competition with other groups, women are precious as the foundation of reproduction and individual survival, while men are disposable, being auxiliary for reproduction, but key ingredient in competition with other groups for resources and therefor the foundation of the group survival.   

ARE THERE DIFFERENT POSSIBLE MODELS OF THE FAMILY?

Yes, and there are many models. We’ll probably see the new and completely different models when technology allows reproduction without a naturally high workload on women.

WHY ARE HUMANS SO UNCOOPERATIVE?

Because to survive in an environment with limited resources, sometimes one needs to fight for resources with others.

WHY ARE HUMANS SO COOPERATIVE?

Because in some cases, cooperation provides for an increase in available resources while fighting leads to a decrease.

COULD SOCIETY BE JUST?

It depends on the meaning of “just.” Since different people understand it differently, it is an impossibility.

WHAT EXPLAINS MORALITY?

Groups of people in which individuals comply with a set of rules favorable for survival outcompete the groups with no rules

WHY ARE THERE RELIGIONS?

Because true belief increases the probability of compliance with morality rules by making rule enforcement by supernatural force inevitable, whether in the near future or the future life.

WHY DO PEOPLE MONITOR AND REGIMENT OTHER PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS?

Because supernatural forces seldom, if ever, provide sufficient evidence of rules enforcement. So, people constantly monitoring each other’s compliance with the rules compensate for this deficiency, also providing a mechanism for rules’ adjustment to what people believe is essential and what is not.   


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