The dangers of over-reliance on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, courtesy of Ernest Gellner and Henry Farrell

Primitive man has lived twice: once in and for himself, and the second time for us, in our reconstruction. Inconclusive evidence may oblige him to live such a double life forever. Ever since the principles of our own social order have become a matter of sustained debate, there has been a persistent tendency to invoke the First Man to settle our disputes for us. His vote in the next general election is eagerly solicited. It is not entirely clear why Early Man should possess such authority over our choices.

That’s from Henry Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History. Today, we wouldn’t call the primitive man the primitive man because “primitive” it prejudicial and “people” usually used instead of “man” because it explicitly includes all humans. We would instead call “primitive man” the “pre-agrarian world” or “evolutionary times” and then continue from there. But the point Gellner is making about our habitual “reconstruction” of what that looked like, in large part for the prejudices of the present, is well-taken and worth remembering in the light of books like Sex at Dawn, The Mating Mind, or the entire oeuvre of evolutionary biology and psychology, which have undergone tremendous revision over the past three decades and will no doubt continue to undergo tremendous revision under the next three and beyond.

How we reconstruct that time and “invoke the First Man” should be remembered as a reconstruction and not as the last word; he shouldn’t necessarily “possess such authority over our choices” today, because what was good for people living before agriculture or before the Industrial Revolution may not be good for us now.

It helps to understand the kinds of things that influence us, but we need to be wary of cherry picking evidence to support whatever kinds of social views we already hold.

I’m reading Gellner thanks to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.

Dan Ariely in Seattle

In addition to being an excellent economist and writer, Dan Ariely has among the best syllable-to-letter ratios for any last name I’ve heard. I only learned how to pronounce AR-EE-el-EE on Feb. 27, when he visited Seattle to discuss Predictably Irrational. He warmed the crowd with a visual illusion I fell for; this YouTube clip is a variation. Carefully count the number of one- versus two-handed passes in the video.

If you haven’t watched the clip, don’t read on. If you have, the question isn’t about passes: did you notice the guy with the cell phone walk up to the door behind the girls with the ball? Ariely’s video was more obvious: men in black and white shirts passed two basketballs and a guy in a gorilla suit walked through. Like most of the rest of the crowd, I didn’t notice the gorilla because I was busy counting passes (18 in all, though it depends on whether one counts a pass at the very end). To judge from the self-conscious laughter when Ariely pointed this out to us and the few hands that went up when he asked how many of us saw the gorilla, many others were in my situation. And with that, we were primed with a metaphor for the brain’s ability to create mental illusions.

Ariely gave many examples of such illusions and preferences. For example, opt-in versus opt-out retirement systems have widely varying degrees of participation, as do countries with organ donations, depending on whether people are enrolled by default or must opt-in. It turns out that we seem to have difficulty with multiple, complex choices and a tendency to fall back on defaults in the face of these choices. I’m reminded of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which shows how otherwise normal people who receive arbitrary authority and limited oversight can do evil acts. That tendency might be an aspect of a default option: obeying perceived authority.

Both Zimbardo and, implicitly, Ariely, argue that by becoming aware of such tendencies we can better correct or fight them. The tendency towards defaults, initial choices, and authority might also explain why change in societal attitudes often happens slowly: it takes generations for tides to shift and first decisions to be made anew. Paul Graham says, “I suspect there is some speed limit to the evolution of an economy. Economies are made out of people, and attitudes can only change a certain amount per generation.” Ariely’s research supports that conclusion, but I can also see how and why change might be accelerating: as people become more accustomed to change as the norm and as the first choice, it becomes more natural for the individuals who make up societies to reorient themselves faster to new choices. This could also help explain some of the findings in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, which argues that the Industrial Revolution took off more because of attitudes and culture in England than other conditions. England’s culture during the Industrial Revolution had finally reached a place where change and innovation became the norm, and where society could support that change rather than relying on defaults like superstition or religion to explain worldly phenomena. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of a clever way to test whether change becoming a default norm might help change in the future, perhaps explaining why I’m not a behavioral economics professor.

Ariely also showed how we’re constantly using imperfect and imprecise knowledge to make decisions, allowing first decisions their power to frame how we think about something. In an experiment, Ariely read poetry to students and then asked how much groups of students would either pay or agreed to be paid to hear him recite poetry again shortly. The group asked how much they would pay offered to pay to hear Ariely read, and the group that he offered to pay demanded money. It would appear that the way he framed the question caused them to offer or demand money—and offer more or demand more the longer the reading went on. I would also note that, although Ariely gave an excellent econ talk, I’m not sure I would go for his rendition of “Leaves of Grass.” But students who asked how much they would pay did offer money for it because of the way Ariely framed the question.

Now that I know, I wouldn’t pay to hear him read poetry regardless of whether he asked. But if he’s in town for economics, I’d see him, and so should you. You’ll laugh and learn, and the former might be the optimal way to induce the latter.

More on the Industrial Revolution: or why I post in and read English

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815 repeats a theory that partially contradicts the thesis of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. Tim Blanning quotes another historian: “‘France was not disastrously behind [in the 1780s [economically]], and the Industrial Revolution might have taken off there with only a few years’ delay in relation to England. But the “national catastrophe” which the French Revolution and the twenty years war meant to the French economy would intensify the discrepancy and make it irremediable'” (the outer set of brackets are Blanning’s, the inner mine). The French were hobbled by wars and revolution around the period of the Industrial (R)evolution, preventing them from exploiting the inventions of the time or developing the capital stocks to fund industry. Instead, they spent all their public funds on war. Had they not been so focused on war, England might not have been the big winner in technological and other terms. Clark argues that English cultural and possibly genetic evolution were the primary causes of the Industrial Revolution’s occurrence in England, but he doesn’t give enough credence to or effectively rules out other factors like geography or politics.

A longer post on Blanning is coming.


Edit: In addition, Blanning implicitly criticizes writers like Clark: “Indeed, the idea of a revolution occurring in the economic history of the world, which then affected every other aspect of human activity […] was given a new lease of life in the middle of the twentieth century.” In other words, Big Ideas like Clark’s are a relatively recent product, and they go back a long way—each one discrediting or changing the one prior.

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