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Adam Smith discovers evolutionary psychology
on February 2, 2003
This is evolutionary psychology as seen by two professors from the Harvard Business School (!). While some readers may be familiar with a lot of what is presented here, it is agreeable to get a perspective from another academic discipline and a new sense of application. It is especially pleasing because professors Lawrence and Nohria write well and have an appreciation of what an exciting time of biological discovery we are living in, a time when the convergence of knowledge and techniques from various disciplines is giving us the ability to look inside the black box of human nature previously closed.
The authors' use of the term "drives" to designate the source of behaviors is familiar, but the idea that these drives come from modules in the brain, or a network of modules, is what is relatively new. Whether this is just another construct like Freud's ego, id, and superego is an open question. However--and this is important and at the very essence of what is going on in brain science today--unlike Freud's construct, the one presented here is based on something tangible in the brain's structure. As the authors report, recent advances in technology allow us to discern the brain's structure as it works. These observations provide a scientific basis for constructs attempting to explain human behavior. Whether there are four fundamental drives, as messrs. Lawrence and Nohria think, or some other number, or whether an entirely different construct is required, is also an open question. Personally, I find their array persuasive, and I think the idea of "drives" a valuable one. More important though is their understanding that we are motivated by more than rational self-interest, the so-called "invisible hand" from Adam Smith and the market place.
Here are the drives as defined on page 10:
D1 is to acquire objects and experiences that improve our status relative to others.
D2 is to bond with others in mutually beneficial, long-term relationships.
D3 is to learn about and make sense of ourselves and the world around us.
D4 is to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our beliefs, and our resources.
In should be noted that these four drives do not in any way contradict the general finding in biology that individuals tend to behave in such a way as to enhance their reproductive success. What is new is that such "selfish" behaviors include behaviors usually seen as altruistic. Yet I think the authors would enhance their understanding of the idea of "altruistic behavior" by reading Amotz and Avishag Zahavi's The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle (1997) in which the adaptive function of some altruistic behavior is to directly advertise fitness.
It should also be noted, as the authors do on page 63, that "What drives behavior is a contest among the emotions, not the rational calculation alone." In other words, rationality leads to the creation of an emotion which competes with the instinctive emotion. This is an important concept. It is not the rational mind overcoming the emotional mind, but the employment of emotion by the rational mind to overcome instinctive imperatives which sometimes lead us in the wrong direction.
Through the process of "social bonding" as presented on page 83, the authors embrace the idea of group selection, an idea disparaged by notions from Dawkins's "selfish gene" and elsewhere. The idea that there could be the selection of genes that "orient behavior toward the good of the group" has long been discounted by the establishment in evolutionary biology. (This view is changing.) The seemingly very convincing argument has been that "any carrier with a genetic disposition to be nice to others would be, in time, wiped out by the selfish free-riders in the population." (Still on page 83.) My feeling, however (similar to that of the authors), is that for human beings the "in time" part has never had a chance to kick in. This is mainly because of the constant struggle of tribe against tribe throughout human and pre-human history. The benefit to the tribe from individuals willing to risk life and limb for the good of the tribe is clear. What has not been realized by many is that the benefits to the individual by enhancing the tribe's fitness more than offset the loss incurred from taking risks. True, if the tribe faced no outward danger for a long period of time, the genes of the "selfish free-riders" would predominate in the population and the altruistic genes would die out. But that hasn't happened. Consequently groups (bands and tribes) that contained many "altruistic" individuals survived while groups with fewer altruistic individuals died out. Therefore we have the "group selection of individuals" (which is a way I have seen this phenomenon phrased).
I should also like to note that religion, the cultural evolution of, is accounted for in a similar way. Those tribes that had religious beliefs strong enough to facilitate bonding and altruistic behavior survived more often than tribes that did not. This is something that E.O. Wilson pointed out some years ago in his book On Human Nature.
I think this is an excellent book for the general reader and a fine melding of the ideas of evolutionary biology into the culture of the work place and other loci in the modern world. The authors do a good job of showing how the ideas of evolutionary psychology go far beyond the retelling of "just so" stories, ideas that can help us to understand ourselves and the world in which we live.