Saturday, July 20, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (7): Evolutionary Liberalism and the "Mismatch" Theory

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby spoke in the morning and afternoon of June 25th about the evolutionary psychology of cooperation, economics, and morality.  As their paper for the conference, they submitted a paper on "Evolutionary Psychology, Moral Heuristics, and the Law". 

Cosmides is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Tooby is a Professor of Anthropology, and where both direct the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.  Their successful promotion of evolutionary psychology as an academic field of study is a remarkable story.  When they first began their work in the 1980s and early 1990s, their arguments provoked intense resistance among academic scholars.  But now evolutionary psychology has become a prominent field in many academic departments--particularly, psychology, anthropology, and economics.  In recent years, it has begun to show itself in some departments of political science and English.

Coming after my lecture earlier in the morning on Darwinian liberalism, their remarks and their paper helped me to think about whether they agree with me that classical liberalism can be defended as rooted in our evolved human nature.  The answer seems to be yes and no.

Yes, they agree with me that liberal societies--open societies with free markets and limited governments--have proven to be the most productive societies in human history, because they secure the social and economic benefits of voluntary association and exchange.  Yes, they agree with me that collectivist societies with central planning enforced by governmental coercion have failed, because they are contrary to our evolved human nature.  (Tooby remarked that he had been reading Friedrich Hayek for over 40 years and that his thinking has been much influenced by Hayek.)

But from another point of view, Cosmides and Tooby disagree with me, because they think that the evolved psychology of our hunting-gathering minds supports the moral instincts for communal sharing that make collectivist central planning appear to us to be morally superior to the spontaneous order of market exchange.

Here we see their "mismatch" theory--the idea that our evolved hunting-gathering psychology is adaptive for the ancestral societies of small foraging groups, but maladaptive for modern societies with millions of individuals who are strangers to one another.  This is similar to Hayek's "atavism" theory--the idea that the natural longing to return to the small communities of our ancient foraging ancestors makes socialist collectivism morally attractive to us despite the fact that it must always fail.  This is what I have called Hayek's Freudianism--the thought that modern liberalism requires a complete suppression of our natural instincts as the condition for enjoying the benefits of a modern free society.

This is an incoherent argument for liberalism.  If a liberal society is so painful, because it requires the suppression of our deepest natural instincts, why does it succeed?  And if a collectivist society satisfies our deepest natural instincts, why does it fail?

This incoherence is evident in the paper that Cosmides and Tooby submitted for the conference.

They say that "the mismatch between the ancestral world and current conditions is so great that laws that seem virtuous to our hunter-gatherer minds often have unanticipated social consequences that are disastrous, and laws that seem morally dubious can be engines of social welfare" (181).  So "our hunter-gatherer minds" deceive us.  But Cosmides and Tooby can use their "hunter-gatherer minds" to see how they are deceived by their own minds, and they assume that they can appeal to our "hunter-gatherer minds" to see the deception coming from our minds.  So it seems that the "mismatch" in our minds is not so deep that we can't use our minds to see it and then correct it.  In understanding how the mind actually works, which is what Cosmides and Tooby want to do, we must understand how that mind has evolved to correct itself and thus overcome the "mismatch."

What exactly is the "mismatch"?  They write:
"Karl Marx thought that extant hunter-gatherers (and by extension, our ancestors) lived in a state of primitive communism, where all labor was accomplished through collective action and sharing was governed by a decision rule, 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need.'  He thought the overthrow of capitalism would bring forth an economically advanced society with similar properties: abolish private property and all labor will once again be accomplished through collective action and, because the mind reflects the material conditions of existence, the hunter-gatherer communal sharing rule will emerge once again and dominate social life" (188)
But then Cosmides and Tooby indicate that the communist regimes that tried to put Marx's vision into practice failed.  So the "mismatch" here might be that the "communal sharing rule" that worked for the "primitive communism" of hunter-gatherers living in small groups does not work in a large-scale modern society. 

In speaking about ants, Edward Wilson once observed: "socialism really works under some circumstances.  Karl Marx just had the wrong species" (Bert Holldobler and Wilson, Journey to the Ants, 1994, 9).  Would Cosmides and Tooby say that Wilson is wrong, because socialism really works for human hunter-gatherers, and thus has worked well for most of human evolutionary history?  This would assume that Marx was right about hunter-gatherers being communists. 

But then Cosmides and Tooby cast doubt on that assumption.  Among hunter-gatherers, they observe, meat is often shared communally, because success in hunting is to a large extent due to luck rather than effort, and thus it is beneficial for individuals to have the meat communally shared as insurance against bad luck in their individual hunting.  But the rules are different for other kinds of resources.  Cosmides and Tooby explain:
"Meat notwithstanding, hunter-gatherer life is not an orgy of indiscriminate sharing, nor is all labor accomplished through collective action.  Aside from meat, very little is shared at the band-wide level.  Plant foods are usually gathered by individuals, who share them primarily with other members of their nuclear family . . . . When sharing outside the family occurs, the neediest in the community are not the first or most likely targets (although need plays a role).  Conditional sharing--reciprocation--is common.  Within a community, each family partners with a small number of other families, and resource sharing is characterized by informal, implicit reciprocation with delay. . . . When an individual fails to reciprocate (or reciprocates with too little), this is a source of anger, discussion, and enormous tension . . . . Access to foraging territories is governed by explicit, formal reciprocation, as are gift exchanges with specific individuals in distant bands who are cultivated as allies for future times of need . . . . Reciprocation in the form of explicit, simultaneous trade also occurs, often as economic interactions with individuals in neighboring bands . . . ." (189)

This doesn't look like Marx's primitive communism.  In fact, evolutionary studies have shown that Marx was wrong about hunter-gatherer society, because these studies have shown "that selection would not favor indiscriminate sharing, nor would it favor a one-situation-fits-all decision rule for sharing."  And "decision rules producing reluctance to share should be triggered . . . by the perception that a potential recipient's bad outcome resulted from his or her lack of effort" (190).

The description of hunter-gatherer society by Cosmides and Tooby sounds a lot like the descriptions of the earliest human societies by liberal political theorists like John Locke and Adam Smith, who studied accounts of hunter-gatherer societies in the New World and elsewhere.  Locke and Smith thought that the first human beings were biologically predisposed to social cooperation based on kinship and reciprocity, which would include sharing with family members and others who would reciprocate the sharing.  But they did not see indiscriminate sharing, because they believed that private property was natural--first, owning oneself and then extending oneself into resources acquired by one's effort.  Moreover, they saw trading behavior in hunter-gatherers that provided the natural basis for the modern commercial society.  Exchange and the division of labor arises from what Smith called the "a certain propensity in human nature . . . to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."  Smith indicated that the emergence of the division of labor through exchange appears originally among hunter-gatherers, where someone might specialize in making bows and arrows that he can trade for some meat captured by a hunter, so that each fills a particular occupation, and thus their joint labor becomes more productive than would be the case if each ere working only for himself.  In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued for a similar pattern of exchange and specialization among hunter-gatherers. 

More recently, Haim Ofek and Matt Ridley have surveyed the evidence that the whole of evolutionary human history for the past 200,000 years can be understood as the progressive extension of human cooperation through exchange and the division of labor--from foraging bands to agrarian states to modern commercial societies in global networks of trade.

A psychological propensity for trade that evolved in small ancestral groups can be extended to ever larger groups.  Cosmides and Tooby recognize this:
"Recursively, formalized dyadic exchange interactions can network individuals into n-person units (partnerships, corporations, non-profit organizations, etc.) that can then be substituted back into dyadic interactions as one of the two parties (Tooby et al. 2006).  Rich complexities internal to the organization need not be understood or represented by external parties who interact with it; they can cognitively reduce it to a single agent on the other side of a two-party exchange.  That is, voluntary exchange directly scales up to include increasing numbers of interactants, so long as it is structured at each interaction as a system in which each party can choose without coercion the best alternative it is offered by any other party.  Each dyadic interaction pumps up average welfare among the interactants" (205).
From this, Cosmides and Tooby conclude that Adam Smith was right that "freely conducted trade does systematically promote general social welfare" (203), and thus a free society with free markets is better than a centrally planned society with governmental command and control.
"In short, voluntary exchange systematically propels net aggregated social welfare upwards in a hill-climbing process to the extent that the opportunity to engage in it is distributed through the population.  The system is driven by consent-driven feedback to sort for ever-increasing benefit-benefit interactions among sets of individuals, so that modern market interactions far transcend what any boundedly rational entity (such as government) could have planned or discovered.  In contrast, the process of decree even by elected representatives has no such richly sensitive feedback element to tailor law to individual circumstances" (205-206).
This would all seem to agree with my argument in my MPS lecture that Darwinian evolutionary science shows that Adam Smith was right about almost everything.  But then Cosmides and Tooby pull back from this conclusion in their insistence that Smithian liberalism is "mismatched" with evolved human nature.

It is not always clear that they really believe this, because so much of what they say contradicts it.  For example, when they explain why the Marxist attempts to collectivize agriculture failed in the Soviet Union and China--because such collectivized labor was contrary to human nature--they indicate that an attempt to collectivize the cultivation of sugar cane in a primitive small-scale society (the Shuar in the Ecuadorian Amazon) failed for the same reasons (201).

In listing the many examples of collectivist societies that failed, Cosmides and Tooby include "intentional communities like New Harmony in the U.S." (206).  Wasn't this a small group of a few hundred individuals?  If the instinctive longing for communal sharing originated as an evolutionary adaptation for life in small groups, why does it fail in small groups like New Harmony, the Israeli kibbutzim, and so on? 

If there is any "mismatch" in human evolutionary history, it would seem to be the contradiction between human nature and collectivism.

To be sure, human beings do have natural desires that can only be satisfied in small groups.  And that's why liberal social orders allow for the pluralist multiplicity of civil society, in which human beings live out their daily lives in families, neighborhoods, churches, schools, charitable organizations, business enterprises, and all the other natural and voluntary associations of a free society.

Finally, let us not forget that hunter-gatherer societies are stateless societies, having no formal governmental coercion by a state.  So if we evolved to live in such societies, then there must be a mismatch between our evolved human nature and statist collectivism.

Previously, I have expressed my doubts about evolutionary "mismatch" in my post on Robin Dunbar's lecture.

Other posts on this issue can be found here, here., and here.

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