Jonathan Haidt on the Reactions to bin Laden’s Death
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Nature or Nurture?

Jonathan  B. Wight

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. 

1. Institutions

 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.

2. Experiences

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.

3. Instincts

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.)


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Dear Jonathan,

Many thanks for this detailed response to my comment and blog-post. Please allow me some clarifications. I am definitely not arguing for a kind of either-or, where the terms of the either-or are nature/nurture, instincts/institutions, genes/environment, biology/culture. Also I am definitely not arguing against anthropological engagement. Anthropological engagement is very necessary, precisely to question the terms of what you call the “new science.”

What I am arguing against is how under the guise of “both-and,” at least some of the practitioners of this new science have actually resurrected an either-or, prioritizing the nature-instincts-genes dimension of human behavior. I am arguing that while “both-and” is probably better than either-or, a truly new science must emerge which goes beyond both-and. That can only happen when we dissolve the dichotomies bedeviling previous approaches:

The implied essentialisation of biology as a constant of human being, and of culture as its variable and interactive complement, is not just clumsily imprecise. It is the single major stumbling block that up to now has prevented us from moving towards an understanding of our human selves, and of our place in the living world, that does not endlessly recycle the polarities, paradoxes and prejudices of Western thought. (Ingold 2006:276)

The problem with continuing a both-and approach can be seen in the history of the discipline of economics. I love the Adam Smith quote you choose in point #2. But if I correctly read Sandra Peart and David Levy’s work on The “Vanity of the Philosopher”: From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics (2005), there was a long period when economics (and other disciplines including anthropology) got pulled away from Smith’s view of shared human capacities and into some noxious racism. I also appreciate the work on institutions you mention in point #1, but if I read Malcolm Rutherford’s work correctly on The Institutionalist Movement in American Economics (2011), views that might have been more sensitive to the role of institutions were actually defeated, marginalized, and forgotten.

There is a lot to be gained by revisiting and recapturing the richness of the people you mention in #1 and #2, and I am grateful for your work and to this blog for pointing us there. I am also grateful to the participants and professors at the 2010 NEH Summer Institute held at the Duke University Center for the History of Political Economy. We do have to recognize, however, how often it has been that "both-and" keeps getting pulled back into an "either-or."

As for the researchers in point #3, I find this work interesting, but I’m often not sure what they are trying to tell us. When we want to explain the emergence and dominance of a market economy, is oxytocin release really more important than the historical and political decisions made (sometimes violently) to institutionalize that economy? Yes, there are hormones and neurons at work, but no hormone, neuron, or “instinct” exists outside of its particular historical context. When mothers breastfeed—which is very much a learned behavior—the oxytocin release occurs in a particular context of reciprocal interaction. These days, the mother may even be breastfeeding while checking Facebook, which Paul Zak also says increases oxytocin release. Whether we should encourage the use of social media is a very different question, and it won’t be answered by measuring oxytocin levels.

Anthropology is at the forefront of understanding the interplay between experience and biology (as long as we do not reduce biology to genetics). My blog is in part an effort to highlight the work that has been done but not received much attention. I thank you again for the opportunity to respond on your blog. For further reference to anthropology-related work:

- Fuentes, Agustín, et al. 2010, “On Nature and the Human,”

- Keller, Evelyn Fox, 2010, The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (Duke UP)

- Gravlee, Clarence, 2009, “How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality,”

- Ingold, Tim, 2006 (cited above), “Against Human Nature,”

- Lende, Daniel, 2011 blog-post “How Experience Gets Under the Skin” and other work at Neuroanthropology,,

Thanks for the clarification and the helpful cites.

Hi Jonathan,
Thank you again for writing and linking. I am grateful for your efforts to rescue Adam Smith from the caricatures, as you did in Saving Adam Smith. I put a link to your book in my blog-comments. Anthropology can learn from recapturing a fuller and richer vision of what Adam Smith was trying to do.
Best regards,

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