Steven Pinker, HOW THE MIND WORKS, post 3

Chapter 7, “Family Values,” about the psychology of social relations, is the longest chapter in the book, and second-to-last. The author begins by recalling that period in the 1960s when activists and folk singers called for peace and understanding, a new era, the Age of Aquarius. John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It didn’t last. Indeed, studies have showed long lists of human traits that are found in all cultures, including violence. Another scholar showed how, of all the plots found in literature, most are tragedies involving kinship or love. That doesn’t mean that all cultures don’t deplore violence and try to reduce it in various ways; but conflict is part of human nature.

[[ At the same time, most plots in science fiction, I’d say, *aren’t* tragedies of kinship or love, which might one reason why literary critics dismiss SF as sub-literary. (They’re at best, plots of discovery.) But observations about such human universals mean that human nature is unlikely to change anytime soon. Thus, for example, the optimistic future of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, in which he thought human conflict would be overcome, is likely naive at best. ]]

Chapter 7: Family Values

The chapter proceeds through sections devoted to various kinds of relationships among people, focusing first on kin in general, then focusing specifically on parents and children, brothers and sisters, men and women, husbands and wives; then expanding to consider rivals, friends and acquaintances, allies and enemies, and humanity. The running theme through all of this is rivalry for reproductive success and survival, on the one hand, to altruism and reciprocal altruism, on the other, the latter applying where kinship is absent. All the feelings for kin and attitudes towards friends and allies have been honed over millions of years by evolution can be understood through the logic of genes and natural selection.

  • Kith and kin. We’re equipped to learn our family tree, and treat kin differently than other people. The core relationship is a mother and her children. People are wired to make sacrifices for their own children, but not for anyone else. Marriages are typically between clans, not just individuals; in-laws are both genetic partners and business partners. Thus parents often try to arrange their children’s marriages, while children can resist parental influence and elope. Defaults on marriage agreements can lead to feuds and warfare. The family, especially when extended over generations, is a subversive organization (despite views on the right and left) to political and religious movements, who thereby seek to undermine the family, as rivals for a person’s loyalties. Among several examples is how Jesus told his followers to leave their families and to follow him.
  • Parents and children. Different species have different strategies: some crank out as many offspring as possible, content that a few will survive; others lavish attention on every child. Among humans, the genetic interests of parent and child quickly diverge. And between child and child; thus sibling rivalry. Parent-offspring conflict begins early; infanticide has been practiced worldwide, as a matter of investment in the newborn. Most animals let sickly offspring die. And women will let infants die in some circumstances (e.g. it’s sickly, the father is absent and the tribe must move, the mother is overburdened by older offspring, etc.)–but these are tragedies, not casual heartlessness. [[ These cases parallel the reasons women today get abortions, of course. ]] Infants manipulate their parents by being cute, by crying. Alternative popular ideas include Freud’s Oedipal complex, which led to the notion of the importance of a daughter’s “purity”; and that parents form their children’s personalities as if they have no instincts of their own. Studies of personalities (along the five familiar axes) show that about 50% of variation in personality is genetic, and only 5% is accounted for by parents and home. The rest? Likely from competition with siblings, and competition in peer groups. Parents seem to understand this — thus the concerns about neighborhoods when moving.
  • Brothers and sisters. Children are born at different times, and a child becomes more ‘valuable’ the older it gets. Though parents feel more tender toward younger ones. A first-born child has several advantages, and to cope with competition, he should be a conservative and a bully, while later children have to be more flexible, and won’t compete in whatever the first-born is best at. Each child finds its own niche. Latter-borns are more likely to be rebels. [[ This was not the case in my family, where I was first-born and became the liberal outlier; but then Pinker is describing broad trends, and there were special circumstances in our family’s situation as I grew up. ]] (Thus many cherished beliefs about the influence of parents are wrong.) The added twist between brother and sister is that one is male, one female. Yet they virtually never have sex and get married. Yes, many societies have incest taboos, but the lack of sexual feeling is an adaptation, to avoid the costs of inbreeding. A side-effect is that in social experiments where children from many families are raised together, e.g. kibbutzim, the children are less-likely to inter-marry than neighbor children raised apart.
  • Men and Women. Conflict is universal; conventional wisdom denies this, insisting on lifelong monogamous relationships (or counterculture free sex). That these arrangements are idealistic are myths. There are actually two different human natures, one male, one female. Why is there sex to begin with? The current reasoning is that sex is a defense against parasites and pathogens; without sex to mix up the genes each generation, germs that evolve quickly to infect a parent would then infect all that parent’s asexual offspring. The difference in reproductive investment explains the differences between the sexes — males compete and will have sex at the drop of a hat; females are more discriminating (and don’t do pornography). Human sexuality is not “socially constructed.” In the ancestral world, sex led to babies, so male and female strategies and feelings have evolved in that context. Thus there are reasons for old-fashioned stereotypes. (Many examples given.) Homosexual behavior offers insights; gays have as many partners as heterosexual males would, if they could. [[ The contrast between male and female sexual strategies is usually where the topic of social psychology begins, e.g. males need invest a mere 5 minutes to father a child, while females invest 9 months and then many years. Thus males are casual about sex, females much more careful… ]]
  • Husbands and Wives. Men should want many wives, not just sex partners, to insure their children are raised, and some cultures have allowed it, sometimes leading to despotic rulers with harems. Legal monogamy is an agreement between more and less powerful men. Both sexes commit adultery, but for different reasons. Women look for resources, usually from men of higher status than their husbands. Men want beauty, and sexual experience. Thus the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Women want a husband who supports their children; men want child-bearing abilities, and thus prefer younger brides. Stereotypes? Perhaps, but they’re stereotypes for a reason; they make genetic sense. Beauty is a key to sexiness, meaning healthy, free of infection, unblemished skin, etc. Women are considered more attractive when they have relatively small waists and wide hips, a ratio observed over thousands of years. Beauty is not a conspiracy by men to objectify and oppress women; really sexist societies drape their women from head to foot. Women can be certain of their children, but not men; sexual jealousy is found in all cultures, but differently between the sexes. Men are more concerned about sex than emotion; women vice versa. Violence against women happens worldwide. Humans think of wives as property; marriage is a transfer of ownership; the bride is “given” away or paid for. Adultery is more serious for the woman than the man; hers is a crime against her husband. The law is lenient toward men who kill their wife’s lover. Finally: this approach and understanding does not conflict with feminist ideals of ending sexual discrimination and exploitation. It does challenge some orthodoxies about class, children, and society. Nature is not necessarily nice.
  • Rivals. People everywhere strive for honor, authority, respect, and so on, even to the way people dress. Where do these motives come from? Here’s the key idea. Many animals want to advertise how potent they are, but such signals can be counterfeited; so there’s an arms race among such signals, even if they themselves are intrinsically worthless. The issues are, who can hurt you, and who can help you. Animals can’t fight at every opportunity; they’ve evolved to display signs of their worth, or fake them, so that opponents can walk away without one of them getting killed. Thus pecking orders evolve. Humans have dominance hierarchies, especially among men. Height is often a key factor. And beards. Humans also develop the notion of reputation. The most common motive for homicide is an altercation over some trivial matter in which one party loses face. In many cultures a man gains honor through avenging insults, even through murder, as in dueling. Today the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Cultures of honor are more common among herders than farmers. The biggest risk factor for violence is being male. Those who fight are usually nobodies, young men with no future who have nothing to lose. Young men discount the future steeply. And even academics engage in verbal battles. Status is the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to. There are examples even among hunter-gatherers, such as potlatches, which involve conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste. They reduce actual wealth but increase other people’s esteem. Just as peacock’s tails evolved *because* they were handicaps. It takes effort for the upper class to stay ahead. Thus: cycles of fashion. Animals discovered this first, as when animals mimic others. Another factor: conspicuous outrage. That is, offending others, by rebelling, being hip, or following “alternative” bands — all ways of standing out from others.
  • Friends and Acquaintances. People exchange favors even when they’re unrelated, when doing so is of mutual benefit. This is called trade. When exchanges are delayed there’s the possibility of cheating. This leads to the (famous) Prisoner’s Dilemma. There’s no solution to the paradox. But people can remember what others do and alter their strategy accordingly. This leads to an initial optimal solution: tit for tat. Are there cultures where everyone shares freely? In primitive cultures, maybe, where almost everyone in a tribe is kin. [[ The idea anticipates communism of course.]] Foraging people share with non-relatives, when the cost-benefit analysis works. They match our sense of fairness and compassion. But consider helping the homeless, which people rationalize not doing. Yet reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat is awkward between friends. And people who need help the most may be those unable to return it. One strategy is to make yourself irreplaceable. Or to associate with people who share your interests. Establish a symbiosis: friendship. In which cheaters are called fair-weather friends. That modern society reduces the effectiveness of these strategies is perhaps what makes people feel alienated and lonely.
  • Allies and Enemies. So what about war? People in all cultures feel they are members of a group (band, tribe, clan, nation) and feel animosity toward other groups. War has been common among primitives peoples as well. Examples. War has been a major selection pressure, and so must have shaped part of the human psyche. But why would anyone start a war? Among tribal people, the answer is often to acquire women and increase a male’s reproductive success. Men are killed and women are abducted. In villages the killers attract more wives. The women are at least an extra incentive. Modern people have a hard time believing this basic motive. Yet even modern people rape or abduct women in combat; it’s in the Bible. Numbers 31, etc, p512. Similarly the Iliad, the Crusades, accounts in Shakespeare. All the way to modern wars. Such aggression by coalition is rare in the animal kingdom, while people are easily jingoistic; people divide themselves into rival groups over the most trivial matters. The example of the boys at summer camp…. Women have no incentive to start war. War benefits men, so they bear the risks. Among foragers, numbers matter, since all of their weapons are the same. Thus whipping up crowds is important even today. War parties face the problems of altruism; every member has incentive to cheat and save himself. Thus bravery and discipline are obsessions. Until certain death seems imminent, giving cause to desert. Long-distance weapons postpones these feelings.
  • Humanity. But it doesn’t take the analysis of evolutionary psychology to show that humans are selfish and wicked; history shows that. Will we wake up from history like a bad dream, and discover that some ideal is possible? No (will provide long quote on this topic). And humans are capable of great good. Different parts of our minds can disengage others. History has seen some terrible blights disappear forever, like slavery and blood feuds. [[ Again, anticipating his later book ]] Why? Author suggests: literacy, knowledge, and the exchange of ideas, 518.6. Realization that others suffer too. Martin Luther King, in his “I have a dream” speech, “made it impossible for segregationists to maintain they were patriots without looking like charlatans.” And the example of the Dalai Lama, and his hopes that humanity has learned.

I’ll have some quotes from this section later. One chapter to go: “The Meaning of Life.”

Stepping out to see the big picture: this kind of analysis, validated by genetic logic, is as much evidence as you could possibly want that human begins are animals, and human nature has evolved to advantage behaviors that promote survival. (Genes don’t literally bring about the urge to reproduce, a point the author makes a couple three times; they evolve to induce *behaviors* that result in reproduction. A key difference.)

And survival is not necessarily about being nice. Beware the ought fallacy: just because behaviors have evolved doesn’t mean we are stuck with them, or should valorize them. Of course (now I’m speculating beyond Pinker) if we sense that some of these behaviors are selfish or ‘wrong,’ where did that sense come from? Well, first, not everyone has such senses; and second, they probably come from the recognition that humanity lives in a world quite different from the ancestral world of tribes and what I’ve called savanna morality. Human awareness and cognition can actually override basic instincts. (See: the Enlightenment and Science and our modern world.) Thus the hierarchy of morality (see here) where selfish priorities are moderated, at a minimum, by rule books and threats, and at best by people who understand broader perspectives of the world that lead to higher principles of morality.

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