Thursday, May 17, 2007

Philosopher, heal thyself

In March the philosopher Julian Baggini published a much commented on book, Welcome to Everytown. A Journey into the English Mind (Granta, £14.99), about the everyday attitudes to life of people in an average English town (in the event, a part of Rotherham). He also writes a regular column in the Skeptic ( In the Autumn 2006 issue he gave as an example of “a priori reasoning based on fundamental convictions, rather than empirical reasoning based on the facts of experience” the case of a “utopian socialist (or perhaps anarcho-syndicalist, she wasn't quite sure)” he had met who “was convinced that if we were to abolish money and unshackle people from the oppressive yoke of advanced consumer capitalism, we would all behave well and honourably, doing our all for the common good without concern for personal reward”. He went on “for our socialist, her self-evident first principles are that the only fair society is one where wealth is distributed equally, and that human beings are sufficiently virtuous that they would do whatever it took to make such a society function”.

He then set out the alleged factual case against this. First, “any faith in the intrinsic goodness of humanity is surely untenable after Auschwitz, Bosnia, Rwanda and the countless other acts of barbarity our species has perpetrated”. Second, “people actually pursue their own narrow self-interests and competitive advantage”. Third, we can see “the naturalness of hierarchy by looking at the behaviour of our primate cousins”. Socialists recognise this as of course the hoary old “human nature objection”, a pessimistic view ultimately derived from the Christian dogma that we are all born sinful and depraved which is still a deeply rooted popular prejudice.

We don't know if Baggini's acquaintance actually expressed herself in the terms he sets out or whether he has made her into a straw-woman he can easily knock down. We can broadly go along with her argument even if we wouldn't want to be committed to saying that humans are (to speak like a moral philosopher) intrinsically good or virtuous (and that we'd prefer to talk of distribution according to needs rather than equal distribution). But his objections reveal him to be guilty of precisely what he accuses her of: arguing from an already decided position without taking into account “the facts of experience”.

People certainly do pursue what they perceive to be their own interest – and why not, as biological organisms we seek to survive in the best way we can – but is it really the experience of all human societies that their individual members always and only, or even predominantly, pursue “their own narrow self-interests and competitive advantage”? What about the societies where, given the way that society is organised to secure the means of subsistence, people have taken a broader view of their self-interest, seeing this as being served by cooperating with others rather than trying to do them down all the time? In fact, not even capitalism, whose structure encourages unbridled individualism and competition between people, could survive if people didn’t also cooperate.

The “facts of experience” are that the various different kinds of society that humans have lived in in the course of their history and pre-history show that our species is capable of a wide variety of different behaviours. This has been confirmed by physical anthropologists and anatomists who have identified the biological features – brain capable of abstract thought, larynx and other organs capable of speech, long period to maturity – that allow “human nature” to be flexible, adaptable. Not infinitely adaptable, but enough to be able to live in a society without money, competition to satisfy material needs, or hierarchy.

It's a nice thought that gorillas, chimps and orangutans are our cousins. They do look a bit like us, but, scientifically, we are a lot more distantly related than that. We do share a common ancestor but that could have been as long ago as 10 million years. After that their ancestors and ours went their separate ways. They ended up as they have, with a relatively restricted range of possible behaviours.

In contrast, the homo line evolved into a species without any particular way of surviving in the rest of nature and whose members are capable of adopting a behaviour appropriate for surviving in a wide variety of different environments, both social and physical. Our “primate cousins” didn’t. Which is why it is invalid to infer anything about human behaviour from theirs. It is true that we share over 99 percent of genes with them, but that just confirms that the huge difference between them and us as to how we survive in nature is not due to biology but to our ability to adapt.

It was Marx who said that philosophers only interpreted the world. Baggini hasn't even done that here. All he has done is reflect the prejudices of his day.


Ittai said...

I've never been a big fan of philosophers and Baggini is a prime example of why. They never seem to look for evidence to support their statements, and any evidence they do point to never seems to be critically evaluated.

As you point out there is a wealth of information from the field of evolutionary psychology which contradicts the points made by Baggini. Firstly there are numerous studies on hunter-gather societies, which highlight their egalitarian systems, and secondly comparative studies with bonobos (formerly pygmy chimps) who seem to be less of a fighting animal preferring to settle disputes with sex.

Also in the field of behavioural genetics, the whole nature v nurture debate has largely been replaced by a complimentary model where there is an interplay between genes and the environment. So humans may have genetic dispositions for certain things, but the environment can have an effect on it manifestation. Language is probably a good example of this. Also for a range of behaviours where there is genetic involvement, this is not in one gene but a compound of a number of genes which each contribute slightly. Furthermore even when one gene contributes to a particular outcome, eg PKU, the environment can negate it's effect, ie by avoiding protein.

Basically that was a long winded way of saying that human nature/behaviour is a complicated phenomenon susceptible to numerous variables.

A last point. While I agree with most of what you have written, I have to take exception with two statements.

The first:
"Which is why it is invalid to infer anything about human behaviour from theirs".
I would say that it is valid to infer our behaviour from theirs, in that there is shared biological history. However, any inferences should be made as qualified statements, and subject to what is known in other fields of, for example, psychology and neuroscience.

The second:
"the huge difference between them and us as to how we survive in nature is not due to biology but to our ability to adapt".
Our ability to adapt is rooted in biology, ie the brain. The larger brain size and development of various brain regions would certainly explain a large part of the difference and is certainly biological. So the differences between how we survive in nature is due to our biology which gave as brains enabling us to adapt to differing environments.

Hope you find these criticisms helpful, and I should say that overall I do enjoy reading this blog, finding it very engaging and informative.

Mondialiste said...

Of course you're right. The human ability to adapt has a biological basis, as was in fact explained earlier in the item. But what precisely do you think we can infer from great ape behaviour about human behaviour? Personally, I think that "evolutionary psychology" is just speculation and no more scientific that its predecessors "social darwinism" and "sociobiolgy". You can't just make inferences about human behaviour without proposing a causal explanation.

Ittai said...

What can be inferred from great ape behaviour? Well, research in areas of theory of mind, technical and social (Machiavellian) intelligence, and culture in non-human primates have helped in understanding human evolution. In particular, the research into the concept of theory of mind began in looking at chimpanzees providing models of how humans attribute mental states, and has also contributed in showing this to be a key deficit in autism.
I agree that there is a fair amount of speculation within evolutionary psychology, but I would disagree in saying it is not scientific. After all the models proposed can be tested and the evidence weighed to see if the predictions are supported. But as you say, one can't make inferences without proposing a causal explanation. Expanding on what I meant by a qualified statement:- one needs to show how much is evidence based, how much is speculation, how it links to what else we know from other fields of research, and distinguishing between correlations and causal mechanisms.

Julian Baggini said...

Hhhm. You don't seem to have explained to me how it is that I am guilty of 'arguing from an already decided position without taking into account “the facts of experience”." What is the a priori claim that I am supposed to be holding to?
Also, you say:
'People certainly do pursue what they perceive to be their own interest – and why not, as biological organisms we seek to survive in the best way we can – but is it really the experience of all human societies that their individual members always and only, or even predominantly, pursue “their own narrow self-interests and competitive advantage”?'
I wouldn't disagree. I didnt say we only pursue our own narrow self-advantage. So I'm not sure why you intepret me the way you did when, as your own post shows, what I said doesn't imply anything so rigid.
I think you're being too defensive. My article was about a certain way of thinking and the person I talked about was just an example. I didn't say that meant human nature was fixed rigidly or that the left is doomed.
Even if I have "reflected the prejudices of his day", that is certainly not "all" I have done, as my main point was about a faulty way of reasoning.

Mondialiste said...

Thanks for the clarification but how else is "So, for instance, it's no use objecting that PEOPLE ACTUALLY PURSUE THEIR OWN NARROW SELF-INTERESTS AND COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE, because it will be claimed that this is only because society has corrupted them" to be interpreted other than as an a priori claim about "human nature"?

Stuart said...

A scientific approach to the problem would not necessarily lead us to predict that a system where individuals put selfish interests first could not lead to the emergence of stable co-operation for the mutual benefit of all. See, for example, the "Nice guys finish first" chapter in later editions of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.

Stuart said...

PS Your 99% chimp argument doesn't work, either.

Imposs1904 said...


your PS link is broken.

Mondialiste said...

Stuart, the item said the same thing but this would result from the way society was organised to get means of subsistence for its members not on abstract games theory. And, yes, every book Dawkins has written since the abominable "Selfish Gene" (in which he lambasted workers for being selfish by going on strike during the Winter of Discontent as well as trying to infer human behaviour from that of geese -- his specialist field -- let alone chimps) has backtracked on what he wrote there.
As to chimps, I think you've got the wrong end of the stick. The argument is not that human behaviour is biologically determined by the 1-2% genetic difference but by the fact that human behaviour is socially not biologically determined. Or have you another explanation for the reason why humans write books, drive cars, etc while chimps don't?

Stuart said...

"And yet still it moves."

Adam, you're arguments about sociobiology and so on are either just plain wrong (it's possible in science to be just plain wrong, as I'm sure you agree), or true, but 50 years out of date. You're having arguments that ended decades ago because everyone accepts them. I'm not going to go through it all again here, since the arguments are readily available in accessible form in popular books and on the internet. Unless you want to e-debate the issues more formally, perhaps as a longer blog or something, in which case please just let me know.

Darren, try this: 2007/05/poking_a_pet_pe.html

All the best

Imposs1904 said...


Cheers for the link. Looks like a good website.

Stuart said...

3Quarks is the best of the "best of the web" sites there is, I think.

Mondialiste said...

Come to the SPGB Summer School over the weekend of 13-15 July on "The Most Noted Political Thinkers of the Last Century" when there'll be a talk and discussion on Ashley Montagu and the contribution of the cultural anthropologists to the theory of human nature. For more details go to

Stuart said...

Ashley Montagu, indeed: the arguments that were fought and won 50 years ago. Still, great to see anthropologists on the "Great Political Thinkers" list.
Maybe see you there.

hallblithe said...

"it's not an a priori claim because it is based on evidence and is hence
empirical. It's empirical because in all societies (or at least those
which are large enough to have significant stranger interaction) it is
found to be the case. Like all empirical claims, it is not 100% proven
(empirical claims can never be 100% proven), but the counter claim
it is only because society corrupts) is essentially non-empirical
because it is a claim which dismisses evidence of experience: it based
on a claim about how we would live in a hypothetical, never yet seen
society, and for that reason cannot be empirical.

Hope that clears things up.

J Baggini"