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Our Ruly Nature

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It is in our nature to need rules. By enabling better social productivity rules beats no rules. We can clarify our biological rule dependence by analogy with language and tools. Also by noticing that we are apt to ape more than apes.

We are born able to automatically absorb the rules of our mother tongues simply by hearing other tongues using them. Like our language-rule-processors we have other social-rule-processors that acquire our native cultures norms, either tacitly by social osmosis or explicitly by education. As with grammar, certain social rules are neither choosable nor easily changeable.

An “impulse to follow rules…seems to be…innate” in humans,  says Alison Gopnik. Toddlers “act in a genuinely moral way,” understanding that rules shouldn’t be broken, that causing harm is bad. Moralities, like languages, likely have an underlying universal structure. Jonathan Haidt reports six components that cultures, and subcultures, configure differently: fairness, care, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Darwin knew how deeply biologically baked social rules and their violation become, noting “the burning sense of shame…when calling to mind some accidental breach of a trifling…rule of etiquette.” Stronger self-generated punishments arise from ruptures of rules once more readily called moral.

Rules not followed can’t be adaptive, which might be why we ape more than apes. Infant chimps shown an unnecessarily complex task behave differently than children. Chimps “are more rational” seeing an easier way they efficiently use it, but children tend to mimic the demonstrator. Our preference for social learning likely evolved to let us avoid reinventing behavioral wheels and because using the working solutions of wiser others can overcome the limits of our own smarts.

Good rules are as important as good tools for our survival. Christopher Boehm believes that 250,000 years ago our ancestors evolved a different kind of rule-set. They transitioned from an “apelike ‘might is right’…social order to one also based on internalizing rules.” His data shows modern hunter gatherers universally use “counter dominant coalitions” to prevent the strong from dominating resources. They became self-policing and feared violating community rules because punishment by exile or execution was as bad for survival chances as predators.

Rules aren’t all good. Bad ones can create “customs…in complete opposition to the true welfare and happiness of mankind” wrote Darwin: “How so many absurd rules of conduct…originated, we do not know… but…a belief constantly inculcated…early…appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct…the very essence of… [which is to be]…followed independently of reason.”

Though now unfashionable, rules remain crucial. We are descended from those with the better fitting traits, and tools, and rules.

Cartoon: Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Photo: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, Human Origins Exhibition Press Kit

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.comwww.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.comwww.hangingnoodles.com. It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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