Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Stephen Sanderson and the Twenty Natural Desires of Evolved Human Nature

If the good is the desirable, then human ethics is natural insofar as it satisfies natural human desires that naturally win social approval as useful or agreeable to oneself or to others.  The satisfaction of these natural desires constitutes a natural standard for judging social practice as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required in judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances. 

By this standard, the modern bourgeois liberal regime can be recognized as the best regime so far in human history, because no other regime has satisfied those natural desires so well for so many people.  Or, to put it another way, the liberal regime has been more successful than any other regime so far in securing for human beings their equal liberty for the pursuit of happiness.

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least twenty natural desires: human beings generally desire (1) a complete life, (2) parental care, (3) sexual identify, (4) sexual mating, (5) familial bonding, (6) friendship, (7) social ranking, (8) justice as reciprocity, (9) political rule, (10) war, (11) health, (12) beauty, (13) property, (14) speech, (15) practical habituation, (16) practical reasoning, (17) practical arts, (18) aesthetic pleasure, (19) religious understanding, and (20) intellectual understanding.

I have argued that these twenty natural desires are universally found in all human societies, that they have evolved by natural selection over millions of years of human evolutionary history to become components of the species-specific nature of human beings, that they are rooted in the physiological mechanisms of the brain, that they direct and limit the social variability of human beings as adapted to diverse ecological circumstances, and that different individuals with different temperaments will rank these desires differently.

My selection of these twenty desires as natural and universal is supported by various kinds of evidence.  Social scientists who have surveyed the anthropological evidence have shown that there are hundreds of human universals, which are clustered around the twenty desires on my list.  Psychologists who study human motivation recognize these twenty desires as manifesting the basic motives for human action. Survey data from psychologists who ask people what is most important to them confirm the primacy of these twenty desires.  When Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Rhetoric, reviews the common opinions of human beings about what is desirable in life, he includes the twenty desires on my list.  When an Aristotelian scholar like Martha Nussbaum describes the "basic human functions" that support universal norms of moral judgment, she includes the desires on my list.

There is evidence that this pattern of twenty desires developed in the Pleistocene environment of our hunting-gathering ancestors, from about 1.6 million years ago up to the invention of agriculture about 11,000 years ago.  This was the evolutionary environment in which human nature was shaped by natural selection.  The historical record of human civilization since the development of agriculture shows human beings as moved by these twenty desires.

My survey of the evidence is not as good as that provided by Stephen Sanderson in two of his books--The Evolution of Human Sociality (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) and Human Nature and the Evolution of Society (Westview Press, 2014).  Sanderson is one of the few sociologists who has promoted a Darwinian science of sociology.  Of all the social sciences, sociology has been most resistant to Darwinian science, because so many sociologists believe that human society is a purely cultural construction unconstrained by human nature.  Like me, Sanderson argues that while society certainly is "socially constructed," these social constructions are not arbitrary products of an autonomous culture.  Social constructions are constrained by the natural desires and natural conditions of human existence.  Human biological nature constrains but does not determine human cultural history and the choices of human individuals.  Consequently, a Darwinian social science must explain the universality of human natural desires and the variability that comes from variable socioecological conditions and variable temperaments of individuals.  Sanderson shows how that can be done.

Identifying me as a "Darwinian political philosopher," Sanderson accepts my list of twenty natural desires as delineating the most important features of evolved human nature.  But he does offer his own slightly altered version of my list: (1) a complete and long life, (2) health, (3) reproduction and parental care, (4) sexual mating, (5) familial bonding, (6) gender identity, (7) social ranking, (8) wealth, (9) political rule, (10) reciprocal exchange, (11) ethnic identity, (12) beauty, (13) aesthetic pleasure, and (14) religious understanding (2014, p. 382).

Comparing the lists, one can see that he has made some changes.  He has moved "health" from number 11 on my list to number 2. He has changed "justice as reciprocity" to "reciprocal exchange." He has added "ethnic identity" to the list. And he has omitted from his list seven of the desires on my list: (6) friendship, (10) war, (14) speech, (15) practical habituation, (16) practical reasoning, (17) practical arts, and (20) intellectual understanding.

I do not see the justification for omitting these seven, especially since all of these seven desires appear in one way or another in his writing.  He says that friendship could rightly be added to his list (2014, pp. 12, 383).  He writes about the evolution of war (2001, pp. 318-330; 2014, pp. 287-312) and of language (2014, pp. 27-32).  He suggests that intellectual understanding should be added to his list (2014, p. 383).

Sanderson agrees with me that the natural desires cannot all be satisfied at the same time, or even over a whole life.  And so people must rank these desires, and since individuals differ in their natural temperaments and abilities, they will differ in how they rank these desires.  So, for example, as Sanderson observes, Albert Einstein said that he had no need for money, power, or fame to be happy; and so he was not much moved by the natural desires for social ranking, wealth, or political rule.  Einstein said all he needed were his sailboat, his violin, and physics.  And since he spent most of his time on physics, he was clearly ranking his natural desire for intellectual understanding over the other desires (2014, p. 383).  For me, this shows the need for practical habituation and practical reasoning in organizing a life for the fullest and most coherent satisfaction of one's desires over a whole life.

Sanderson has moved me to make two changes in my list.  I have combined a complete life and health into one category.  And I have added ethnic identity to the list.  So now my twenty natural desires are (1) a healthy life, (2) sexual identity, (3) sexual mating, (4) parental care, (5) familial bonding, (6) friendship, (7) social status, (8) justice as reciprocity, (9) political rule, (10) war, (11) ethnic identity, (12) beauty, (13) property, (14) speech, (15) practical habituation, (16) practical reasoning, (17) practical arts, (18) aesthetic arts, (19) religious understanding, and (20) intellectual understanding.

This begins a series of posts on how Sanderson's survey of the evidence for a Darwinian science of human nature supports my list of twenty natural desires.


Anonymous said...

I think it worth re-examining your foundational assumptions more closely rather than spending time arguing over the order or number of natural desires. I made the following point in a comment to a separate post, but this post provides the opportunity to highlight what I believe is a core oversight in your argument.

Your basic premise is that if we agree the good is the desirable, then we have a standard for judging behavior and social organization based on how well they satisfy the natural desires of humans. But let's more closely examine the proposition that the good is the desirable. Ask yourself why natural desires exist in the first place. The answer is straightforward: natural desires exists as natural desires because, in the particular circumstances in which those desires evolved, the behavior of individuals as they sought to fulfill those desires increased the evolutionary fitness (i.e., differential survival and reproduction) of such individuals. If certain natural desires arose which decreased fitness, they would not be widespread among humans. They're not random or pre-ordained, but are products of a particular evolutionary environment.

So then natural desires are evolved behavioral regulation mechanisms that act as rough proxies for survival and reproduction. This must be the case for all human traits. We can ask therefore, why should the good be the desirable if the desirable only exists as a proxy for fitness? Shouldn't the good be, not a proxy for survival and reproduction, but survival and reproduction itself?

I don't believe I have seen an answer from you on that question.

This argument fundamentally upends your moral schema. We could take it as true that the modern bourgeois liberal regime is indeed the best ever in human history at satisfying the natural human desires. But is it the best regime for the differential survival and reproduction of its members? Below replacement level fertility rates suggest it isn't. It's very likely human populations under different regimes fare better in the evolutionary fitness sense than humans under the modern bourgeois liberal regime, even if they aren't as happy or if they would prefer to live under the modern liberal regime.

Larry Arnhart said...

I assume that what is good for us is set by the proximate motivations of our natural desires not by the ultimate evolutionary causes of those desires. The ultimate cause of our evolved natural desires is that they have served our reproductive fitness as measured by high rates of fertility in the environments of our distant evolutionary past. And generally that continues to be the case.

But in the environments of modern industrialized liberal societies, where the social success of our children depends on high parental investment in their education and training, some parents have chosen to invest a lot in a few children rather than invest little in many children. In some cases, this had led to low rates of fertility, and in a few cases, to rates of fertility that are below replacement levels. This is highly variable, however. For example, the low fertility rates in the United States and Europe before World War II were followed by a post-war baby boom.

In any case, parents satisfy their desire for parental care by rearing children in circumstances that maximize their chances of being socially successful, even when this means a low total rate of fertility.

Your argument is that what is good for us is doing whatever is necessary for the highest reproductive fitness even when this frustrates our natural desires and makes us miserable.

How are you going to persuade people that what is undesirable for them and their children--what makes them miserably unhappy--is really good for them if it maximizes reproductive fitness?

You seem to have embraced a strange kind of Kantian ethics in which the categorical imperative is to maximize reproductive fitness regardless of whether this makes us happy.

Narciso said...

Why not use a dialectical approach in this case? Say, why shouldn't we consider that what is good for us is to (ultimately) maximize our reproductive fitness while respecting our natural desires fundamentally caused by our evolutionary past?
It was never obvious to me why we should completely ignore reproductive fitness as an ethical end, and why we should stick only with the proximal natural goods.

Anonymous said...

I am unhappy to learn that sociologists still tend to believe that inborn mental characteristic play no role in forming society. I am wondering if there is an ideological motivation at work here, like a utopianistic belief that society could produce humans with perfect personalities.

Incidentally, here is an article about a similar debate in anthropology:


-- Les

Rob Schebel said...

Professor Arnhart,

You still include "war" in your list. You've written extensively, and favorably, of Steven Pinker's work, especially in "The Better Angels of Our Nature." Pinker demonstrates that human beings have become significantly less violent over time. While we have not eradicated war, it does appear that our desire for war is highly malleable. Is it malleable enough, in your view, that we ought not to regard it as a universal human trait?

-Rob Schebel

Larry Arnhart said...

Like all the desires, the desire for war is highly malleable. I agree with Pinker that violence has declined. But I see no reason to believe that war will ever totally disappear. Human beings will always desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. I will have more to say about this in a future post.

Roger Sweeny said...

I recently finished Darwinian Natural Right (on to Darwinian Conservatism when it arrives). I made some notes to try to keep things straight in my mind and I now feel brilliant because I made a similar change to Sanderson and you:

A. Can we all agree on these two?

1. Not to die (Arnhart 1. A Complete Life): Most people at most times want to keep living. Like all “desires,” it is not absolute. Many people reach a point when they wouldn’t mind if they went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Perhaps because they have lost energy and capabilities (17?), perhaps because they have lost people close to them (4,5,6). Others may be suffering, mentally or physically. Perhaps great pain. Perhaps feelings of hopelessness (depression).

2. Basic physical desires (Arnhart 11. Health) This complex is related to 1. because failing to satisfy these desires often leads to death. If you are dehydrating, you feel thirst and a desire to drink. If you are using more calories than you are taking in, you feel hunger and want to eat. If your body is losing dangerous amounts of heat, you feel cold and want to warm up. If your body is in danger of overheating, you feel hot and want to cool off. If you haven’t slept much, you feel tired and desire sleep. If you are exposed, you want shelter. If you are sick, you want to be cured.

Even people who reject the idea of innate desires generally agree on these two, thinking them almost trivial. Such denialists will also point out that though “you don’t have to be taught to eat,” you are taught what and when (and how) to eat.

Arnhart agrees, making a distinction between the innate desire, which is universal, and the manifestation of that desire, which is conditional and can be very parochial. E. g., everyone wants to communicate and speak (his 14) but what language you speak depends on your history and who you are speaking to.

Many things in this category are obviously shared by other animals. Though undoubtedly most animals don’t feel such things with the same consciousness that humans do.

People often say that someone “suffered from hunger” or “suffered from cold” or “suffered from cancer.” So perhaps this category could be rephrased as Avoiding suffering. Which implies that there is suffering. Not just something that is objectively bad but something that feels subjectively bad. There has to be hunger, not just inadequate nutrition. There has to be pain, not just burning or puncturing. To be unable to feel pain would make you less likely to survive. Pain tells you to take that hand out of the fire, to stop walking on those sharp stones. Combined with the ability to remember and to plan, it causes you to avoid many things that will cause you hurt.

R.K. said...

But what happens when the desire for any one of those twenty desires becomes taken to such extremes that it must oppress or even stamp out another one of those desires?