The human condition is more conditional than many think. Iffy ideas and popular errors bedevil our view of ourselves, but violence can lead to better models of our nature.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, big-idea-big-book builder, and noted metaphor-breaker, has amassed armies of reason, deployed over 800 pages, to fight faulty ideas about human violence and its surprising decline. But buried in his tome are battle tested ideas that can combat errors in other fields of human behavior. Below are three key examples.
First, don’t be pressured into the "hydraulic error”. Evolved urges are of at least two types, either like those for food or for fighting. Hunger is hydraulic, building over time, pushing us to eat regularly. Freud forced the same frame on all drives. But Pinker shows fighting isn’t hydraulic and could only have been adaptive in certain contexts.
Second, don’t be tempted into the “evo-irresistible error”. Perhaps pop-evo-psychology’s worst idea is that we are filled with impossible to resist innate impulses. Non-hydraulic contextual drives are only possible because of our evolutionarily critical capacity for restraint. Pinker includes self-control in his “better angels” alongside empathy, moral sense and reason. He notes self-control has "been with us for as long as we have been human."
Third, don’t act according to the “social script error”. How could contextual drives be directed in the continuous theatre of our communities? Pinker says “the human behavioral repertoire includes scripts...that lie...[dormant]...and may be cued by... [suitable] ...circumstances.” Here he means innate scripts for violent rampage, but we should consider their culturally configured counterparts. Indeed cultural scripts could be a useful distillation of much else in Pinker’s 800 pages.
Cultural scripts enable our crucial capacity to acquire, non-genetically, habitual behaviors that rapidly adapt to the social stage on which we have always had to survive. Such socially sourced habits avoid reinventing behavioral wheels using the experience of others. They are like behavioral tools with contextual triggers and pre-reasoned pre-packaged action rules.
The logic coupling our basic biological drives to our malleable behaviors is highly culturally configurable. For example the idea that fatty foods are innately irresistible ignores that our food behaviors have likely long required culturally scripted self-control. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that hunter-gatherers exiling or executing meat hogs created strong artificial selection pressures for food related self-control. Perhaps cultural scripts now configure our drives for greater indulgence.
Better models of our nature must distinguish between behaviors that are: hydraulic, contextually triggered, hard to resist, self-controllable, mostly innate or culturally scripted.
Photo: National Park Service Digital Image Archive, public domain