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"We'll start the war from here.",
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This review is from: The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice (Hardcover)
This is a spectacular book, but the best aspect of this book is that Professor Corning begins his argument at exactly the right place: "We have been witnessing the emergence of a full-blown "science of human nature," a diverse effort involving many disciplines, including evolutionary biology, neurobiology, behavioral genetics, human ethology, several branches of psychology, anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, and even the study of animal behavior. This broad, multidisciplinary effort is providing us with new insights and new perspectives on some ancient questions, and (I will argue) definitive resolutions to some long-standing philosophical and ideological debates. In a nutshell, we are beginning to get a fix on the deep structure of human nature." Indeed, Corning goes on to call this new social contract a "biosocial contract" and, as he states, "To summarize this new vision very briefly, the ground-zero premise (so to speak) of the biological sciences is that survival and reproduction constitute the basic, continuing, inescapable problem for all living organisms: life is at bottom a "survival enterprise." (Darwin characterized it as the "struggle for existence.") Furthermore, the problem of survival and reproduction is multifaceted and relentless; it is a problem that can never be permanently solved. Thus an organized, interdependent society is quintessentially a "collective survival enterprise." To borrow a term from sociobiology, it's a "superorganism." This taproot assumption about the human condition is hardly news, but we very often deny it, or downgrade it, or simply lose touch with it."
Despite coming in at just under two-hundred pages, Professor Corning's book reads like a veritable who's who of the scientific and economic community. The following individuals are mentioned at least once, if not more: Abraham Maslow, Stanley Milgram, Ernst Mayr, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond [Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies], Garrett Hardin [Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos], Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker [The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature], Michael Gazzaniga [Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique], John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Barbara Ehrenreich [Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America], James K. Galbraith [The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too], and Paul Krugman [The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008]. Furthermore, there is a great discussion of ideas descended from Plato and Aristotle, the Harappan/ Indus civilization and ancient Athens, as well as the political beliefs of such notables as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rand. Also, there is brief mention of the multiple disciplines from which Corning draws his insights. They are Animal Behavior, Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, The Brain Sciences, Evolutionary Psychology, Experimental and Behavioral Economics. I especially appreciated his discussion of the research conducted by Herbert Simon, Eric Beinhocker, George Akerlof, Robert Shiller, Herbert Gintis, Ernst Fehr, Robert Axelrod, Samuel Bowles and Ken Binmore. Corning certainly did a fine job of explaining the divide between Homo Economicus and Homo Reciprocans.
Without a doubt, Peter Corning is one of the most well read individuals in academia; and one would need a great deal of evidence to overturn his fundamental arguments. Here are just a few of the more insightful quotes in the book: "A sense of fairness is a personality trait that is evidently not equally distributed, which is one reason there are so many fairness issues surrounding us."..."Human nature is rooted in our prehistory as a species: we were shaped in the pressure cooker of human evolution...Our ancestors, like ourselves, benefited from close cooperation with others in providing for their basic survival needs."..."All the evidence we have about human nature indicates that reordering society without regard to the competitive aspect of our evolutionary heritage is biologically unsound."..."It's also important to remember that every new generation needs to learn tolerance and civility, because the evidence shows that we are born with socially polarizing predispositions."..."The task that now lies before us, therefore, is to move beyond the clichés about capitalism and socialism and reboot the public philosophy with a better grounded vision of human nature and the underlying purpose of a human society."
In conclusion, this is a great book with wide appeal and application. Most importantly, I feel like Professor Corning has made an airtight case that is empirically indisputable: "Nobody can say we haven't been warned. From Plato and Aristotle to the latest game theory models, it should be clear by now that a harmonious society depends, absolutely, on fairness and social justice." I enjoyed this book so much I am going to go back and read Corning's previous book, which he touches upon briefly, Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution. I think another good book that really delves into the perils of extreme inequality is The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, which would help the interested reader in seeing further many of the issues the Professor Corning discusses (especially in detailing the shortcomings of capitalism and socialism).
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 20, 2011 2:37:33 PM PDT
Kip Dellinger says:
Sounds like a really good pre-quel to Animal Farm. All those intellectual giants morphing eventually into totalitarian pigs in order to assure us of a more fair world.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 27, 2011 4:14:01 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 27, 2011 4:14:18 PM PDT
Did you read the book to be so sarcastic!
I work in issues of Human Rights and though that is a utopia it is a worthy pursuit.
Posted on Apr 30, 2011 6:34:09 AM PDT
S. Prewitt says:
Warren R. Grayson,
You say: Most importantly, I feel like Professor Corning has made an airtight case that is empirically indisputable: "Nobody can say we haven't been warned. From Plato and Aristotle to the latest game theory models, it should be clear by now that a harmonious society depends, absolutely, on fairness and social justice."
I suspect that my ideas about "fairness" and "social justice" differ from yours (and Corning's), but I can't be sure because you never define the terms.
In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker has this to say about social justice:
* "Can one really reconcile biological differences with a concept of social justice? Absolutely. In his famous theory of justice, the philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth -- ghosts ignorant of the machines they will haunt. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be born into, KNOWING THAT THEY MIGHT BE DEALT A LOUSY SOCIAL OR GENETIC HAND [my emphasis]. If you agree that this is a reasonable conception of justice, and that the agents would insist on a broad social safety net and redistributive taxation (short of eliminating incentives that make everyone better off), then you can justify compensatory social policies even if you think differences in social status are 100 percent genetic. The policies would be, quite literally, a matter of justice, not a consequence of the indistinguishability of individuals."
Mr. Grayson: Please imagine that YOU are one of the self-interested agents/ghosts negotiating the social contract under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status you will inherit at birth. How would you answer the following questions?
QUESTION 1: Which social contract would you prefer?
Option A: Contract that helps agents/ghosts if they are dealt a lousy social or genetic hand.
Option B: Contract that:
* First, minimizes the probability that agents/ghosts will be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand, and
* Then, helps agents/ghosts if they are dealt a lousy hand.
QUESTION 2: If you answered Option B: Would you prefer to include these requirements in the social contract?
* Parents may not ... be deluded (hold false beliefs despite clear evidence to the contrary), e.g. the Blank Slate delusion, the Ghost in the Machine delusion, and the Noble Savage delusion.
* Parents may not ... be cheaters (as opposed to reciprocators), e.g. serial killers and swindlers.
* Parents may not ... be dependent on government subsidies or private charity.
* Parents may not ... be afflicted with any of the host of heritable physical, cognitive, or personality disorders, e.g. dwarfism, low IQ, and psychopathy.
Benjamin Franklin once said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." True enough. But isn't an ounce of prevention also worth a thousand pounds of treatment for incurable (genetic) afflictions?
In reply to an earlier post on May 2, 2011 7:47:12 AM PDT
Amazon Customer says:
Hello. I read your post several times and I am just not getting the gist of what you are asking me. If you don't mind, could you clarify a bit. For example, I don't really see any difference between Option A and Option B under Question 1; and under Question 2, it's sounds as though what you are implying is impossible...it would require the complete nullification of human free will, not to mention impossing an astounding bottleneck upon human genetic evolution. It sounds like it's one-half sound science and one-half political argumentation. I am not saying I disagree with you, I just don't understand the question. Thanks.
In reply to an earlier post on May 3, 2011 4:37:30 AM PDT
S. Prewitt says:
You said: "I read your post several times and I am just not getting the gist of what you are asking me. If you don't mind, could you clarify a bit? For example, I don't really see any difference between Option A and Option B under Question 1."
OK, maybe these questions will make my point clearer:
1. Would a fair society try hard to PREVENT fetal alcohol syndrome? Or is it enough to just throw taxpayer dollars at the poor unfortunates after they are born?
2. Would a fair society try hard to PREVENT low-production/low-income people? (i.e., people who, over their lifetime, produce less value than they consume.) Or is it enough to just throw taxpayer dollars at the poor unfortunates after they are born?
A) To the extent that poverty is attributable to a "culture of poverty" among childhood peers, the children of poor parents are likely to grow up to be poor adults.
B) To the extent that poverty is attributable to heritable cognitive and personality disorders, the children of poor parents are even more likely to grow up to be poor adults.
Probabilistically, cognitive and personality disorders are roughly 50% explained by genetics (i.e., parents). According to Steven Pinker:
"Autism, dyslexia, language delay, language impairment, learning disability, ... major depressions, bipolar illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ... and many other conditions run in families, are more concordant in identical than in fraternal twins, are better predicted by people's biological relatives than by their adoptive relatives, and are poorly predicted by any measurable feature of the environment." (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature)
C) From Figure 1 (Intergenerational Income Transition Probabilities) in "The Inheritance of Inequality," July 14, 2002, by Bowles and Gintis:
* Probability that children born to parents with household income in bottom decile will have household income in bottom decile as an adult = 31.2%
* Probability that children born to parents with household income in bottom decile will have household income in bottom quintile as adults = 50.7%
In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2011 7:21:44 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 5, 2011 1:24:22 PM PDT
Amazon Customer says:
Thanks for clarifying; I understand what you are asking me now. And in response, I am reminded of a story/joke that a professor once told in regards to the euthanasia program once instituted here in America (and I am paraphrasing): Sometime in the first half of the twenty-first century, a southern congressman was mulling over whether he should continue his support for the program of euthanasia in the South, and he says, "Let me get this straight. We are sterilizing the poor, sterilizing the dumb, sterilizing the infirm, and sterilizing the handicapped...well damn, pretty soon they'll be coming after us."
Now, the point is simply this: Who gets to decide these sorts of questions? There isn't really a clear answer to this question, nor is there even a satisfactory way to even begin to answer this question because once you try to answer the question you are committing to a method of discrimination - which comes with its own problems. However, I completely understand what you are saying, and to mention another book that really bears on this question comes from the book, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed, and to encapsulate a point that is made there: When you do not develop a method of discrimination you must learn to live with parasites, cheaters, and free loaders.
So, I am not sure how my review of The Fair Society came off, but I don't want you to think that I am ignorant of the point you are making (i.e., there needs to be a method of discrimination in order to prevent free loaders, cheats, and parasites). It's simply that it's a political and ethical dilemma that not many choose to talk about directly; however, there are books that talk about discrimination in an indirect fashion (such as: Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress and The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself). And lastly, to answer your question: I DO indeed agree that there needs to be method of discrimination - I just don't know what that method would be exactly. I hope that answers your question, but if it doesn't, you can contact me via my email address to discuss it further.
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