Sermons from Evolutionary Biologists
By Arnold Kling
- The best, most all-encompassing way to describe our world is hyper-novel. As we will show throughout this book, humans are extraordinarily well adapted to, and equipped for, change. But the rate of change itself is so rapid now that our brains, bodies, and social systems are perpetually out of sync… The cognitive dissonance spawned by trying to live in a society that is changing faster than we can accommodate is turning us into people who cannot fend for ourselves.
- –Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century (xii)1
Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (henceforth WH) do not fit neatly into our contemporary political categories. They decry corporations and capitalism as though they are members of the blue team. But when it comes to cultural issues, especially surrounding male-female relationships and child rearing, they sound more like the red team.
I read A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide as soon as it was released, which happened to be a few days before the solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. So it struck me that the book might be considered a series of sermons. Setting aside science and politics, one can easily imagine their views on economic fairness, sexual conduct, and bringing up children as coming from a rabbi.
As evolutionary biologists, WH marvel at the ability of humans to thrive in different environments.
- Unrivaled in our adaptability, ingenuity, and exploitative capacity, we have come to specialize in everything over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. We enjoy the competitive advantage of being specialists, without paying the usual costs of a lack of breadth. (6)
WH say that we have achieved this through a combination of culture and consciousness. Culture is our shared habits and traditions, which allow us to function efficiently in stable environments. Consciousness is our ingenuity and willingness to experiment, which allow us to adapt to novel environments. In terms of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, culture is like System 1, in which we respond automatically to stimuli. Consciousness is like System 2, in which we step back and think before acting.
- We have discovered how to swap out our [social] software and replace it as the need arises by oscillating between culture and consciousness. The human niche is niche switching. (10)
WH focus on evolutionary fitness.
- Fitness is indeed often about reproduction, but it is always about persistence… Extinction is failure. Persistence is success…
- Each individual is the beginning of a line of descent, and the period over which its descendants persist is a good proxy for fitness. (12)
WH argue that culture and genetics both evolve to enhance fitness.
- Asking if a particular trait is due to nature or nurture implies a false dichotomy between nature, genes, and evolution on the one side and between nurture and environment on the other. In fact, all of it is evolutionary…
- … any expensive and long-lasting cultural trait (such as traditions passed down within a lineage for thousands of years) should be presumed to be adaptive. (16-17)
Whether a trait is cultural or genetic, if it is complex, costly and has persisted a long time, we can infer that it serves some function. We should treat it like Chesterton’s Fence, and not simply dismiss it as unnecessary.
Given this framework, we should be wary of innovations that offer modest short-term gains with possibly large long-term risks. With an inevitable trade-off between efficiency and robustness, we should make sure to pay attention to the latter. Imprudent innovations that inordinately sacrifice robustness are what WH call the “Sucker’s Folly.” Instead, they advocate the Precautionary principle, which says that innovations should be introduced carefully and slowly.
Economist Thomas Sowell is known for the saying, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” WH see something similar at work when we undertake medical interventions.
- The quest for magic bullets, for simple answers that are universally applicable to all humans in all conditions, is misguided. If it were that easy, selection would almost certainly have found a way. (64)
Based on these sorts of considerations, WH offer advice on diet, sleep, and deciding how to treat medical ailments.
Turning to issues of sex and gender roles, WH write
- Broadly speaking, there are three possible reproductive strategies;
- 1. Partner up and invest long term, reproductively, socially, and emotionally.
- 2. Force reproduction on an unwilling partner.
- 3. Force nobody, but also invest little beyond short-term sexual activity. (117)
WH point out that women are constrained by biology to follow the first strategy. On the other hand,
- All three of these strategies are open to men, but the first one is the male strategy that is best for society, best for children, best for women, and best for all but a handful of men (118)
They see the case for monogamy as strong. But they pivot to a concern about economic inequality, because men with very few resources are unattractive as husbands.
- This is exactly what has happened among men for whom a lack of economic opportunity and underfunding of schools have led to elevated mortality, crime, and imprisonment. In the United States, a large fraction of black men have been forced into such a situation. Men who avoid these bad fates find themselves in high sexual demand and tend to play the field, leaving many black women to raise families without a committed partner. Many in the ruling class have long pretended that this pattern derives from some imagined moral failing among black people, when instead it plainly emerges… in any population faced with similar conditions. (135)
WH do not think highly of capitalism. Here are results of a search for the word “market.” in the book:
- The market is full of con artists… The market is selling infantile values (189)
- Markets prey on our sense of fairness (202)
- Malicious market forces are largely an expression of manipulation (228)
- The market should not be allowed to intrude on several things, including but not limited to love and sex, music, and humor. (122)
- … adults will provide a road map to the environment in which their children are growing up, unless market forces intervene (149)
- … economic markets prey on this tendency, destabilizing our sense of self and community (201)
- Markets prey on our sense of fairness. They fool us into thinking that everyone else is getting grapes (202)
- … the market once again trying to intrude on honorable human tendencies (203)
- What is “healthy,” of course, is ever more challenging to decipher, in no way helped by the presence of market forces in almost every decision (204)
In short, almost every reference to “market” is pejorative. But one could easily argue that the market is an expensive, long-lasting trait and thus should be presumed to be adaptive. Unfortunately, WH seem to see no reason to investigate what positive functions it serves and what trade-offs might exist in attempting to do away with it or regulate it.
In general, although I found the sermons in WH interesting and worthwhile, I felt that the book suffered from a framework in which the individual engages in a lonely battle with the natural and social environment. So if change has become rapid, making our environment hyper-novel, they wonder how as individuals we can fend for ourselves.
Consider that in 1800 a farmer could probably fix nearly anything that broke on the farm. Even in 1950, untrained people could fix many of the tools that they used, including even automobiles. Today, so many of our tools have embedded computer chips that we are likely to be helpless when they fail us. I think that, in general, we are more dependent on other people and on technology to help achieve our goals than was the case in the past.
But our relationship to the environment is mediated by institutions, of which the market is one. The question that I have about rapid change is whether our institutions can adapt so that we can exploit the benefits of novel ideas while minimizing the harms. In that regard, I am much more worried about academia, journalism, and political institutions than I am about the market.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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