Leda Cosmides on Socialism and Human Nature



there's a very basic political divide in fact I heard it on c-span last week people ask our humans basically good or basically bad um liberals often say we're basically good we're natural socialists who enjoy sharing and just corrupted by a culture of private property in capitalism conservatives often say we're basically bad we're self-interested selfish exploitive and we need culture to rein in those motives so which is true is human nature basically good or basically bad I would say neither that for an evolutionary psychologist like me it's it's not a scientifically coherent question and here's why from my strange point of view and the human brain is a computational system that's produced by evolution it's composed of many different programs that are evolved adaptations each of these evolved programs is designed to execute its functions when it detects cues that the problem that it evolved to solve is at hand and these programs do lots of different things from causing family love and aggression to cooperation and theft that they do different things so human nature to me is a collection of reliably developing species typical information processing adaptations from this point of view we're not basically good or bad basically we're collections of adaptations that execute their functions for adaptation executors from this view the mind the mind is not a blank slate or a copy a content free copying machine it contains a lot of functionally specialized programs each well engineered for solving a different adaptive problem mating hunting cooperative groups problems faced problems in survival and reproduction faced fire hunter-gatherer ancestors those problems evolved to navigate a small-scale social world the hunter-gatherers from whom were descended lived in small face-to-face um bands semi-nomadic ones of anywhere from 550 to 200 people men women and children included many of whom were family friends neighbors people they knew um people they knew whose character they knew and who where they knew what they were doing they could monitor the behavior now our mind is very well designed for understanding that vanished world obviously not markets in which we cooperate mostly indirectly with millions of anonymous strangers so when where what the seeing markets when we're seeing the modern world we're seeing it through the eyes of our ancestors to a brain that was designed by a world that doesn't exist anymore now importantly a lot of these evolved programs are content rich and and domain-specific in a way that used to be called by philosophers as which could think of as innate ideas in them like expert systems and artificial intelligence they're equipped with concepts and inferences that apply in one domain but not in others these organize our experiences and and actually they don't constrain what we do without them we would learn nothing they generate particular inferences inject recurrent concepts and motivations into our mental life they give us our passions and motivations caused us to think certain very specific thoughts make certain ideas feelings and reactions seem reasonable interesting and memorable consequently they play a key role in shaping human culture and society knowing the structure of them is necessary for understanding why some ideas spread very easily from mind to mind and others don't and why some institutions succeed and others fail so the key point I want to make today for understanding socialism and human nature is its several different evolved programs regulate cooperation and sharing and so just to start out I want to ask well was Carl right Marx right about collective action in hunter-gatherers if you remember what Carl Marx thought was he believed that existing hunter gathers data was coming from anthropologists going to different parts of the world colonial parts of the world and coming back to Europe and by extension our ancestors he believed that they lived in a primitive state of primitive communism where all labor was accomplished through collective action and sharing was governed by the decision rule from each according to his ability to each according to his need he thought that the overthrow of capitalism would bring forth an economically advanced society with similar properties all you need to do is abolish private property and all labor will once again be accomplished through collective action and because the mind reflects the material conditions of existence I'm not exactly sure what spent by that but the hunter-gatherer communal sharing role is going to emerge once again and dominate social life and as you know based on his theory twentieth-century institutions and laws governing property labor trade legitimacy of consent and dissent were changed all across the planet with a big impact on the lives of the people in those countries but not at all the utopian ones that he had hoped for so was he right it was his view of hunter-gatherer labor and sharing rules correct and if not what cognitive programs generating cooperation did the selection pressures endemic to 100 gather life build well there's been many many studies of existing hunter gathers and converging evidence from paleoanthropology and one of my favorites is this classic study by by hilly Kaplan Hillard Kaplan and Kim Hill on food sharing among at a foragers in Paraguay and what they find and this is what basically everybody who studies hunter-gatherers finds is that hunter-gatherers or yes they're cooperative but it's not an orgy of indiscriminate cooperation there are several alternative sharing rules even within the same cultural group for different kinds of goods and resources and one of the important triggers for alternative sharing rules is perception of variance due to luck versus effort so what do I mean by triggered well some cultural patterns are a vote not not merely transmitted complex patterns can be elicited by cues that activate a specific evolved mechanism where the behavioral complexity arises from the evolved mechanism not transmitted cultural knowledge and so in this way I apologize for my voice I'm getting over cold our brains are like something that you see on the streets of Santa Barbara that's called the Santa Barbara landshark especially when it comes to cooperation with where we have many different kinds of programs generated by different evolved systems cooperation so this is the Santa Barbara landshark if you're sitting on a cafe on State Street in Santa Barbara you might see this go down this the the street and you might say oh look at the tour bus nice tour bus then you might see this what what is this thing then you might see this what is it is it a boat is it a bus what it's two minutes and one what is this it's the same vehicle and its general trip the function is transport um in the same way that a general function might be cooperation but a contains complex machinery that generates two alternative modes of operation and which set of machinery is activated is triggered by information about the local environment here provided by the perceptual system of the driver when it's on the street it operates as a bus the wheels come down it rolls when it's on the ocean it operates on the boat there's a propeller and rudder engage it moves by displacing water so the experience of the street versus the ocean doesn't create these two different complex functional designs the wheels versus the propellers etc it activates them so what I would say is that our our we have a land shark brain there are many different evolved systems regulating cooperation there's risk pool reciprocation we're the lucky share with unlucky and reverse roles and that's what I'm going to talk most about there is social exchange favors different trading different resources etc collective action cooperation with two three or more people to achieve a common goal and share the resulting benefits and that can happen in rather pro-social contexts like hunting or shelter building but also in warfare a coalition aggression and then other deep engagement relationships that John may mention I'm not sure about a friendship that involved valued individuality with clothes clothes others so the first case I want to talk about is this case this situation from Kaplan and Hill about alternative sharing rules within the same hunter-gatherer group so hunting is a risky business you've on 4 out of 10 hunts you'll come back with nothing even when you're trying really hard it the variance in success is very high and it's mostly due to luck Natsuki as a hunter with with meet with hunted foods what what hunter-gatherers mostly do is they pull the risk they pull this risk there's up to band level sharing to deal with these frequent reversal of fortunes I come back with nothing today you share with me you come back with nothing tomorrow I share with you I'm storing food in the form of a social obligation with other people and this is closest to the sharing role from each according to his ability to each according to his need it may be what the anthropologists were noting when the apologies from who he was getting his information were noting I don't know other foods like gathered foods um when you're gathering nuts when you're gathering plant foods there the variance in forging success this is low and the variance is mostly due to effort did you go out did you try did you forge today those foods are shared primarily within the family and be a reciprocation with particular partners and then other goods are shared by by reciprocation or trade even with people in other other bands well what gives rise to this pattern is it a culturally accumulated package of normos plus with that are acquired by some sort of content free learning + imitation or our minds like the santa barbara landshark with alternative sharing rules triggered by the experience of high versus low variance well you can't just tell by merely noticing noticing differences between cultures you need to know more about the design of the mind well so you can ask well to elicit these patterns do you have to have knowledge that you acquired by hunting and gathering did you have to be a hunter-gatherer to have this this um these different sharing roles so you can ask what up people raised in weird cultures Western educated industrialized rich democratic cultures well if you do this with Japanese and American college students given them a verbal lottery so and it's one shot they're more willing to share a share the high variance resource and a low variance resource and that and that holds regardless of the subjects particular ideologies about distributive justice you can also then ask well how quickly do weird people detect resource variance respond with sharing so this was addressed Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson teamed up with Hillard Kaplan of the study that I shown you before and another anthropologist Eric Schneider and they asked a very entertaining question which is what happens when Southern Californians forage doo doo weird people behave like 100 gathers so they created a virtual world for foraging a game where eight people forage and they discover properties of the world and you have an avatar and the H person has an avatar of a different color but we're anonymous to each other and each round you choose whether to forage on the red patch or the blue patch the red patch is very a very high variance patch high variance high mean patch the blue patch is the low variance low mean patch now when after you foraged you can put resources in your own pot or another avatars pot and after a round foraging avatars can communicate with one another but there's no mechanism for enforcing contracts and there's 20 rounds but the subjects don't know how many they'll be so does spontaneous reciprocal sharing emerge and if so is there only one sharing norm is sharing the same in response to both patches is it triggered in response to the high variance patch only how long if that how long before the high variance patch triggers more sharing is it immediate does it take a long time and give an advanced astral pattern of men hunting and specializing in high variance resources meet in response to the high variance patch do men respond more strongly to it than women so this this is showing this is showing the the data and what you're seeing exactly point but um spontaneous reciprocal sharing these are the rounds oh this is sharing a low variance patch and women and those two were the high variance patch the dark line has been and the dotted line is women and what you're seeing is for the high variance research you're getting you're getting spontaneous sharing emerging in even happening on the first round here immediately immediately um you're not getting it for the low variance resource stays low the whole time and and and you're also interestingly although both men and women are sharing more in response to the high variance patch men are choosing the high variance patch more and once they've chosen if they share more on that patch um but both are sharing hugely on the high variance patch in other words these weird people are immediately detecting which patch is high high variance high gain versus low variance low gain and they responded to that experience of luck with risk fool sharing it's just very natural to us it's the fingerprints of evoked culture of the landshark of the behavioral complexity arriving from a mechanism that's activated by alternative Jews well what happens when someone fails to cooperate to our minds categorize that person as a free writer or cheater to be punished avoided excluded just by virtue of failing to cooperate or failing to give as much what turns out that actually categorizing everyone who contributes less than others as a free writer would be a bad design from an evolutionary perspective because there's an important adaptive problem which is that in hunter-gatherer ecologies and now every cooperator is at some time going to fail to contribute due to mistake injury or error and excluding or punishing those those people is going to be a large Fitness error error because you need repeated gains and trade to get selected for cooperation in the first place so the solution is concepts and inference systems that look for and respond to cooperative versus exploitive motivations and it turns out that that distinction is embedded within a lot of evolved programs including in our research reasoning mechanisms specialized for social exchange that look for cheaters not innocent mistakes in a free writer concept and collective action that attaches to people with exploitive attend intent but not those who fail by accident that happens without conscious awareness it's almost as if we have a grammar of sharing where these two sound reasonable if he's a victim of an unlucky tragedy then we should pitch in to help him out if he spends his time loafing and living off of others that he doesn't deserve our help those sound kind of human hear to that sound very weird if he's a victim of an unlucky tragedy that he doesn't deserve our help if he spends his time loafing and living off others then we should pitch in and help him out who sound kind of weird to a human mind and a lot of cultural attitudes and transmission might be shaped by the same sharing rules so if you think about the political debate on homelessness people argue about whether people are homeless due to bad luck bad fortune or whether they're not trying whether it's low effort but they don't argue about what follows from that it's as if they just assume if it's bad luck sharing helping out is appropriate if it's not maybe it's not as appropriate that part doesn't get debated or talked about so political attitudes in mass cultures are sometimes shaped by mechanisms that evolved for this small scale social world and our colleague michael banck peterson is in denmark has done a lot on this and one of my particularly interesting one is how quickly political attitudes can change by sharing these alternative rules triggering these alternative rules so you can change perceptions of luck versus effort and you can change people's attitudes about something like like welfare um it turns out that people have different develop default assumptions different stereotypes about welfare recipients so in Denmark people think of people who are on social welfare as unlucky in the US more people think of them as lazy um and so this is this is opposition to social welfare and it's higher in the u.s. than said in Denmark not surprisingly well what happens if you replace that stereotype with information so there's a control condition where you say nothing there's a reciprocated condition where you say imagine a man who's currently on social welfare he's always had a regular job but has now been the victim of a work-related injury he's very motivated to get back to work again and then the third condition is imagine a man who's currently on social welfare he has never had a regular job but he's fit and healthy he's not motivated to get a job well what happens to attitudes towards welfare recipients and is it different in Denmark in the United States it turns out when you make it clear there's no difference between Danes and Americans well when you have the laziness queue they're both wrong opposed more more close to social welfare when you have the effort queues were all less opposed to social welfare and there was zero difference between Denmark and the US they changed Danes into Americans and Americans and to Danes but that's simple information so now in light of the psychology consider what happens in an economic downturn if we have this psychology that we're different sharing rules are triggered by luck versus effort firms go out of business people lose their jobs due to bad luck despite hard work despite having cooperative motivations bad luck is causing high variance in forging success factors having in the economy that had nothing to do with what I has an employee of a company was doing seeing that should activate motivations for band level sharing risk pooling redistribution from the lucky to the unlucky if the victims of a bad luck then we should pitch in to help them out want to help members of my band under those circumstances and if the lucky are unwilling they must be bad people that's what humans do we when is bad luck we help each other out that's that's that cheering rule bad people we should force them to do the right thing support goes up for for government band level redistribution low interest rates business bailouts etc all framed as as help for a situation which distorts prices market signals causing I don't need to tell you causing a lot of malinvestment we're in the Hayek auditorium so I won't explain that which is going to make more firms go out of business which is going to make more new businesses fail because they're responding to the wrong kinds of information it's going to make it harder for people to to save to invest in new businesses job creation will suffer as more businesses fail and fewer new jobs are created everyone knows people who lost their jobs who are trying hard to find jobs but cannot so you've got your experience people with high effort and bad luck activating more sympathy for redistribution creating a negative feedback loop the economy continue spiraling down and liberty and prosperity suffer the problem is that there's a mismatch or one one of many problems is that there's a mismatch between the modern world versus the ancestral world our minds are equipped with programs that evolve to navigate a small world of relatives friends neighbors not for cities and nation-states and thousands or millions of anonymous people certain policies laws and institutions satisfy the moral intuitions these programs generate but because these programs are now operating way outside the envelope of environments for which they're designed laws that satisfied the moral intuitions they generate may regularly fail to produce the outcomes that we're desiring and anticipating even worse they can cause us to overlook policies that might have the consequences that we're looking for these mental programs can so powerfully structure our inferences as certain policies may seem self-evidently correct and other self-serving or immoral but modern conditions often produce outcomes as you know and we've known since Adam Smith that seem paradoxical to our of all programs venal motives can be the engines that reliably produce very humane outcomes and what can seem like good intentions can make a hell on earth so to preserve liberty and prosperity for all yes you absolutely need to know how markets work and understand the consequences of economic policies but you also need to understand human nature because you need to be able to explain why certain it's not enough to know what kinds of policies will help you need to be able to explain why certain policies are helpful and others are harmful in ways that engage our evolved moral intuitions instead of fighting against them thank you

8 thoughts on “Leda Cosmides on Socialism and Human Nature

  • It would be more interesting and better socially and economically if there was no welfare. This would be a good thing. Sure at first there would be riots and looting. Then people would start learning that nothing is for free. After about 2 months those people would start building alliances and getting together to plan how they will survive. Some will figure out how to get employed and others will join gangs to pillage and loot. The ones who want the jobs will eventually scatter out of the cities and the ones that are just wanting to pillage and loot will kill themselves off. The ones who honestly want to try will be given charity and help to relocate. It would sort itself out.

  • I think that it would be interesting to carry out further social psychological experiments. One I would suggest is to have two groups of people. In group 1 give each of the people the same tasks to perform and give each of the people the same rewards (chips, food, money, whatever could be used as a stand in for resources) regardless of how much of the tasks each one performs. In group 2, give each of the people the same tasks to perform and give each of the people the rewards in proportion to the amount of the tasks they actually complete. Then see how much of the tasks each person completes and how much of the tasks all of the people complete collectively in each group. I can think of other experiments along these lines that could be very enlightening about economic behavior as well. lol.

  • 4:30 For anybody interested on what Marx meant by that small line, I would recommend you read how Marx was reacting to the German philosophy of his own time, specifically German idealism, and particularly Hegel's philosophical system.

    And I suppose Leda's talk wasn't really about socialism, she mentioned almost nothing related to socialism. She talked mostly about how we can understand human nature and cooperation through evolutionary psychology.

  • Made a huge leap from psychology to economics. For the psychology part she gave some support (studies). For the economics part her assertions were just a given. She may be right on the first part but is out of her depth in economics.

  • Evolutionary psychology is interesting, but those basic values of rewarding work, sharing luck, etc., are child-level insights. Aristotle's virtue ethics is a highly systematized elucidation of the plurality of principles at work in moral calculation. Learning about morality this way is going backward, not forward.

  • so if what she is saying is true: that modern society does not match the kind of society that we evolved to have, doesn't it make more sense to return to that type of society? and keep our technology?

  • Set the mic up so that it only records her voice and not the audience coughing. This lecture is way too good to be recorded like this.

  • All sentient species have to go through this malarkey. Technology is a barrier, but there is a way through to the other side.

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