The successfully predictive theories of human behavior begin with humans as evolved primates. Darwinian selection has given us certain innate predispositions. Those that govern emotion and information processing—cognition—are the most important, from a social theorist’s point of view.
Human cognition and human culture evolved for hunting and gathering, specifically in the East African landscape of mountains, high plains, vast lakes, rivers, and dry savannahs. We are adaptable enough to do well everywhere from cities to Arctic ice floes, but we should remember that our particular mix of emotion, reason, heuristics, and mental shortcuts evolved to dodge hyenas and lions while searching for seeds and berries.
Above all, it evolved to deal with sizable and complex social groups, often (if not usually) at war with similar neighboring ones. Our greatest joys and blessings are social, but by far our greatest curse—the true Original Sin—is our knee-jerk reflex to hate the neighboring group when anything goes wrong in our lives.
Predictive theories also begin with individuals, since only individual persons actually think and act. But they recognize that humans are always and necessarily social. Hobbes’ “savages” do not resemble anything that has existed anywhere in the primate order for 50 million years or so. Human persons develop through social interaction, and early learn the cultural rules and knowledge systems of their societies.
Social systems arising from interaction necessarily develop structure: kinship systems, hierarchy and leadership systems, economic structures, healing practices, religions (in some very broad sense, at least), and so on. All these originally develop to satisfy human wants and needs, but then take on a life of their own, as “emergents.”
Normal human information processing leads to countless mistakes. Most are in a systematic and predictable direction. People tend to attribute everything to deliberate agency until proven otherwise; religions are partly explained by this. People need to simplify this incredibly diverse and confusing world, and thus are prone to fall for any simplifying heuristic that is even remotely credible. This has proved the to be by far the deadliest error-maker in science. Occam’s Razor has slashed many a scientist’s career to ribbons.
One common reason for mistakes getting into cultures and nesting there is the natural tendency of people to go with the most simple and plausible explanation for a phenomenon, and use it till it is proved wrong. It almost always is, but by that time people have deduced from it a whole range of new “facts,” which take on a life of their own and persist indefinitely. We have observed this in the case of Galenic medicine. From the Four Elements came the Four Humors, and from those came countless explanations for ills and plans for curing them. The deductions were typically wrong. But, on the other hand, people constantly interpreted accurate empirical information in the light of Galenic medicine, and thus incorporated it into the system. Eventually, a huge system existed, full of wrong deductions and accurate but wrongly-explained observations. It was better than nothing, and thus lasted for two thousand years, until something clearly better came along (cf. Kuhn 1962).
The first and most obvious and human reaction to economic and social differences is to be hopeful and active during periods when things are getting better, passive when things level off, and increasingly angry, reactionary, and disaffected when things get worse. The devil in the details is our assessment of what “better” and “worse” mean in such situations. Long periods of sustained peace and economic progress bring out the best in people, long periods of decline bring out the worst, but the very best and very worst ares often brought out by sudden sharp changes. In the 1930s depression, Americans kept their faith and hope and revolutionized the country; Germans lost hope (partly because of their losses in World War I) and went to Hitler. In the current recession, Americans are losing hope and turning to fascism.
Knowing this psychological trait of humans is one of the few really effective ways of predicting the future.
Ordinary everyday knowledge is overwhelmingly of the useful kind. We know it because it is true and because we need it to live. It is thus best explained by functionalist theories. Dysfunctionalist theories work best in the political arena. They explain what we think we know about power, about competition, about our enemies.
Most knowledge is useful; it relates to the real world well enough to have value in our constant search for food, clothing, shelter, and above all the sociability which we crave above all other things. Therefore, most knowledge has developed through everyday interaction with people and things. It has not developed through formal logic, philosophical speculation, or divine inspiration. The vast majority of beliefs that we consider to be philosophy and religion develop from more ordinary, unstructured, everyday issues.
Humans are inveterate organizers, and Claude Lévi-Strauss was right to see that we structure everything in sight. He exaggerated how much we do this, but the postmodern tendency to see human thought as highly contingent, disorganized, culture-bound, and ad hoc is an even greater exaggeration in the other direction. If knowledge really were a random collection of culturally given beliefs, or a set of ideas created and propagated solely to maintain the power of an elite, we humans would never be able to find food or avoid predators or cure illness. On the other hand, if our thinking was locked into tight structures, we could not change with the times. In fact, we humans are extremely sensitive processors of information, and that information is derived from constant interaction with people and things. We test our ideas about the world, talk over what we find, test again, talk more, and eventually come up with working knowledge.
This should mean that we know more and more all the time, and on the whole this is true. But knowledge is distorted by closed feedback loops that drive error against clear sight. Elites are not the only ones who deploy shaky knowledge in self-serving ways. All the other ways of going wrong can lead to closed loops also.
People err in predictable ways. First, they must prioritize defense against threat, and they often imagine threats where only the possibility exists. So they are more defensive, resistant, and even aggressive than would be rational. Second, they follow their culture—more exactly, they go with the received wisdom in their reference groups, and usually follow their elders and peers. This makes sense—no one can start learning everything from scratch—but it must be checked by awareness of the limitations of received wisdom. This leads to the two most deadly and costly human mistakes: group hatreds and rigid top-down hierarchies. Third, humans naturally go with the most simple and immediate truths and inferences until these prove inadequate, and then work slowly toward wider and longer-range explanations. This is reasonable, but means that humans constantly over-discount the future and the wide context. They undercut the common good for small personal gains, which would seem like “selfishness” if they were not just as prone to undercut their own future good for trivial immediate pleasures.
Economic calculation may affect all our thinking (as economists insist), but it influences especially our ideas about money and goods, and so the theories based on rational individual choice are best at explaining that realm of culture. Politicians develop ideologies based on power and competition for it, so Weberian and Foucaultian theories do best in that area. Theories of interpersonal emotional interaction (like those in Stets and Turner 2006) do best at explaining love and hate. Darwinian theories seem to find their best use in explaining simple, basic strategies of mating and feeding. Thus, one must come up with a different mix of distorters and influences for every field of knowledge in a society.
All academics know that any social scientist is apt to believe that her field is the one with the real explanations. Economists believe in the universality of “economic man.” Anthropologists ridicule this, but are apt to think that “culture” can create preposterous levels of difference: people in Culture X are totally indifferent to wealth, or have no concept of mother love. Political scientists properly dismiss such views, but assume people live only to compete for power and position. Biologists assert everything is very heavily conditioned by evolved genetic mechanisms, in spite of the obvious changes in immigrant groups’ behavior within one generation.
The one truth that works perfectly for all cases is that all humans construct their knowledge from interaction—from actual, real-world, real-time dealings with people and things. Hardheaded economic calculus, wild passion, stark fear, social fictions and deceptions, and all manner of other types of influence all enter into the mind, mix and churn, and somehow create phenomenological experience. People share these experiences with each other—to an unknown degree, and by an imperfectly understood mechanism.
Culture is a useful shorthand term for what we learn from our wider society. Cultural knowledge is organized, with many models and systems embedded in a ground matrix of facts, customs, and ideas. But we have a less than perfect understanding of how cultural knowledge diffuses, or why people pick it up, or how they operate among the many complexities of scale, multiculturality, and rapid change.
Epistemology is not an easy discipline. We need to know much more about how we know.
For the future, tolerance, mutual aid, and valuing diversity are the basic and prime moral teachings. We are all in this together—not only seven billion humans divided into thousands of culturally defined groups, but also billions and billions of other organisms, on many of which we depend. With group hate as our greatest problem, and rejection of or indifference to the environment as a close second, we have to make conscious efforts to appreciate what we have.
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