My previous post on bin Laden highlighted Jonathan Haidt’s argument that contradictory human instincts (for self, for others, against others) can help explain the outpouring of sentiment at the death of bin Laden.
Jason Antrosio of Hartwick College disagrees: “Haidt's commentary is a diversion from the real issues and real reasons for the celebrations” about Osama bin Laden’s death.
Antrosio points us to a fuller account of his critique at his Living Anthropologically blog.
In this post, Antrosio argues that the study of natural instinct is something anthropologists have to fight against: “What is disturbing is all the people who call themselves social scientists trotting out to claim such celebrations express ‘natural urges,’ whether as bedrock human instincts or as shaped by human evolution.”
Antrosio says that anthropology needs to “deny any instincts exist outside the current of history.”
This is an intriguing but difficult claim—particularly as advances in human brain imaging, experimental economics, and other techniques bring out a more nuanced understanding of human behavior across cultural boundaries.
One can commiserate with anthropologists who are feeling the sting of budget cuts and the intrusion of other disciplines into their domain. Yet that doesn't let them off the hook. By failing to engage with new science, will anthropologists be left behind over the next few decades?
Below, the first two points (I hope) celebrate Antrosio’s key point: that human behavior is greatly shaped by human institutions, including culture.
Since Douglass North won the Nobel Prize in 1993 there is scarcely any economist who is unaware of the importance of human constructs:
Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction.... [they] create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange (1991, 97).
North, Douglass C. 1991. ―Institutions,‖ Journal of Economic Literature 5(1):97-112.
Human experiences -- rather than innate biological differences – are the distinguishing factor determining many outcomes and behaviors, at least according to Adam Smith, who notes:
The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education…. (Wealth of Nations, 1776, Chapter I.ii).
Hence, the world of an isolated tribesmen studied by anthropologists is different from the world of London, but the differences observed are largely due to experiences and human constructs, not to differences in human nature or capabilities.
Having thus identified institutions and experiences as key factors shaping human behaviors, is there anything left for instincts? Antrosio seems to argue no. In this, is he passing up the opportunity to flesh out the key interactions between human instincts and institutions?
Paul Zak, for example, a neuroeconomist, is doing fascinating work identifying how the experience of market interaction releases the same kind of hormone (oxytocin) as does breast feeding. In both cases oxytocin serves as a bonding agent to create long run trust needed for group success.
The release of hormones in certain circumstances is an autonomous reaction—not under one’s direct control. This is not to say that cultural practices cannot create circumstances that reliably trigger certain instinctual responses. Anthropologists could be uniting with researchers like Zak to ask: what kind of rites or ceremonies reliable produce certain hormonal responses, and what is the origin or evolutionary purpose of these?
Further, scientists may have identified a "mirror-neuron" system in the brain that instinctively (again that dreaded word!) allows humans to imagine experiencing what others feel--which is a strong endorsement of Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments.
There can be deep criticism of the experimental methods used--which in psychology and economics often relies on 20-year old college students in Western countries--making inter-cultural (or inter-generational) comparisons suspect. Much work will have to be redone to overcome these biases.
But understanding the interplay between nature and nurture seems exactly the direction that social scientists should go. Why would anthropologists wish to avoid being part of this exploration?
(Thanks again to Jason Antrosio for his comment.)