Particularism as a Big Idea

One of the interesting points about Jared Diamond’s books that has come up recently at Savage Minds is that cultural anthropologists don’t write “big books” much any longer, that the disciplinary vision of cultural and social anthropology is now so anti-universalist, anti-teleological, so devoted to the particular character of specific places and times, that a sweeping analysis of large-scale themes or generalized theory seems out of bounds. (David Graeber’s Debt was mentioned as an exception.) Cultural history exhibits something of the same tendency towards the microhistorical and particular, as does a good deal of humanistic scholarship in general.

This alone seems enough to inflame one set of critics who seem to regard it as both heretical and superficial to refuse to pursue generalized, sweeping conclusions and universally valid principles that arise out of empirical data. So this, in fact, seems to me the “big book” that we need an anthropologist or historian to write, aimed at the same audiences that read Diamond, Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Haidt and other sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, neurobiologists and “big history” writers who offer strong universalizing or generalizing accounts of all cultures and societies across space and time. What we need is someone who can write a big book about why the most interesting things to say about human cultures are particular, local and contingent.

That book would have to avoid falling into the trap of being the straw man that Pinker in particular loves to hit over the head. It would need to start by saying that of course there are transhistorical, universal truths about human biology and minds and the physical constraints of environment and evolution. “Nature” matters, it’s real, it’s important. And equally of course, there are institutions which have persistent force across time and space either because human beings carry those institutions with them and reproduce them in new settings, or because there really are functional, practical problems which arise repeatedly in human societies.

A preference for local, situated, grounded studies does not require a blanket rejection of the biological, material or functional dimensions of human history and experience. What I think the “big book” could say is two major things:

1) that many forms of generalizing social science make far stronger claims that they are factually and empirically entitled to make, and that this problem gets much worse when the generalization is meant to describe not just all existing societies but all of human history.

2) that much generalizing or universalizing social science uses a description of foundational or initial conditions of social and cultural life as if it were also a description of particular, detailed experience and thereby misses both what is interesting and important about the detailed variations between different places and times–which includes the fact that there should be details in the first place. Essentially, that strongly generalized accounts of all human history are making a big deal out of the most obvious and least interesting aspects of human existence.

The first point is simpler, but should command far more respect among scholars and intellectuals who describe themselves as scientists and empiricists than it seems to. I’m going to focus on it for the remainder of this essay and take up the second point another day.

Let me use the example of “stages” of world history, which comes up prominently in Diamond’s new book, primarily as an assertion that there are “traditional” societies that reflect an original or early stage of human history and “modern societies”, with everything presumably arranged neatly in between them. (Diamond is not much interested in his new book in the in-between, and actually has never really been interested in it–Guns, Germs and Steel more or less argues that the early migration and development of human societies across the planet has determined all later histories in a directly symmetrical fashion.)

Most contemporary anthropologists and historians react negatively when they come across an account that tries to arrange human societies along a single spectrum of evolutionary change. To some extent, that reaction is conditioned by the historical use of such characterizations to justify Western racism and colonialism. But even accounts of evolutionary stages of human history that scrupulously avoid those associations are factually troubled.

What’s the issue? Let’s take a point that crops up in Diamond, in Napoleon Chagnon’s work and in a number of other sociobiological and evolutionary-psychology accounts of human variation.

If someone says, “Many human societies practice some form of warfare” or “organized violence is common in most human societies”, that’s fine. The anthropologist or historian who pushes back on that simple generalization is just being a tendentious jerk. Sure, it begs the question of what “warfare” is, but the generalization is so gentle that there’s plenty of space to work out what “many” and “warfare” mean.

Step up a notch, “All human societies practice some form of warfare”. This kind of generalization is easy to break, and it is frustrating when someone making a generalization of this kind digs in their heels to defend it. It’s really only defensible as an icebreaker in a conversation about the phenemenon in question. It can only hold as an airtight assertion if “warfare” is defined so generally that it includes everything from World War II to a football game.

Refine it a step using an evolutionary schema: “All human societies once practiced some form of warfare, but warfare grew into a more rarified, restricted and directed phenomenon as states grew in scale and organizational sophistication.” This sounds like it’s being more careful than the “all human societies practice” generalization but in fact it is even easier to break, because it rests on a linear account of the history of the state (and then a linear account of warfare’s relationship to that history). This is simply not true: human political institutions across time and space have all sorts of variations and really haven’t moved progressively towards a single form or norm until the exceptionally recent past. Even now there are some striking variations at a global scale–and it’s equally clear now that Fukuyama’s End of History assertion that liberal democracy is the final stage of human political evolution is just plain wrong. Beyond the present moment lies the unknown as far as political structures and practices go.

You can break the general assertion not just by citing endless examples of political structures that don’t fit neatly between “traditional” and “modern” societies or endless examples of “warfare” with non-linear relationships to changing political structure over time. You can also break it at the end that Diamond and Chagnon focus on, in the assertion that “traditional societies” in recent history are unchanged survivals, a window into the distant past. There’s increasing evidence, for example, that there have been a succession of large-scale polities in the Amazonian rainforest and the eastern Andes over a very long period of time that simply happened to be absent or weak at the time that Europeans first pushed into these areas. Assuming that small-scale societies of various kinds in the same region where such a history unfolded were unchanging, pristine and unrelated to other societies is at the very least unsupported by any direct evidence. More to the point, such an assumption actively overlooks evidence in many cases in the modern world that “pristine” societies of this type live where they live because they were trying to get away from larger or more centralized polities, that there is a dynamic relationship between them. Which surely includes ideas and practices of violence and warfare.

This is where the use of evolution as the organizing idea of such accounts is so aggravating. Not because it’s “scientific” but because it’s not. Evolutionary biologists know better than to describe speciation as progress towards an end or a goal, to assume that natural selection must always produce more complex or sophisticated organisms over time, or that evolutionary processes should ever be represented by a single line of descent. Go ahead, show an evolutionary biologist a single line that goes from Devonian tetrapods to homo sapiens with every ‘transitional’ animal in between neatly marked as one more interval on the way to us and get ready for a big eyeroll and an exasperated sigh.

Sure, there’s a successive relationship over time between forms of political organization in human history, but if you were going to chart it, you’d have something that looked hugely bushy, with all sorts of groupings, thousands of radial and convergent movements at all scales of time. And if you tried to place “warfare” in relationship to that complexity it would get even messier and more intricate.

Anything that arranges human history as a matter of “stages” progressing neatly towards the modern is just factually wrong before we ever get to the troubled instrumental and ideological history of such schema. Yes, that includes most versions of dialectical materialism: the dogged attempts of some Marxist historians and anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s to get everything before 1500 into some kind of clear dialectical schema long since crashed into either an assertion that there’s only been one general world-systemic polity ever in human history (the “5,000 year-old world system”) or that lots of variant premodern histories collapsed into a single capitalist world-system after 1500.

When scholars who see politics or culture or warfare or many other phenomena in granular and variable terms rise to object to strong generalizing or universalizing accounts, their first motive is an empirical one: it just isn’t like that. Human political structures didn’t ALL go from “simple tribes” to “early states” to “feudalism” to “absolutist centralization” to “nation-states” to “modern global society”. They didn’t even go that way in Western Europe, really. Certain kinds of structures or practices appeared early in human history, sure, and then recurred because they radiated out from some originating site of practice or because of parallel genesis in relationship to common material and sociobiological dimensions of human life. Other common structures and practices appeared later, sometimes because new technological or economic practices allow for new scales or forms of political life and structure. But there is a huge amount of variation that is poorly described by a linear relation. There are movements between large and small, hierarchical and flat, organized and anarchic, imperial and national, etc., which are not linear at all but cyclical or amorphous.

That’s the “big idea” that people with their eye on variation and particularism could try to sell more aggressively: that the stronger your generalizations and universalisms about human culture and societies are, the more likely they are to be just plain wrong, factually and empirically wrong, and that the only way to dodge that wrongness to sustain those generalizations is to cherrypick your examples and characterize anyone who calls you on it as a pedant or ideologue.

This entry was posted in Academia, Books, Generalist's Work, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Particularism as a Big Idea

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Man! Am I depressed! I am in the final stages of publishing a book that does most of the things that you say should not be done. I am not kidding. I think I will eat a little ice cream and go to sleep. I’ll read this post again tomorrow, and try to find some reason to go on. But right now, I am depressed.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, keep in mind that I think this is an interesting argument rather than a final product. The problem as I see is that the “big universalists” don’t even think they need to take the argument for microhistory, particularism, etc. seriously, and a bit of that is because we most often make the case for that approach by simply doing that kind of work–we produce a bunch of very focused studies which Diamond et al come along and cherrypick if they find them congenial to whatever “big universal” they’re crafting and ignore if they don’t. So if someone made a good “big case” against this style of universalism, maybe that would make it a more interesting conversation overall. I also think another think I’m leaving totally out of the picture is the kind of big-scale comparative analysis that historical sociologists like Charles Tilly did for a long time which is also increasingly hard to find in the current academic scene.

  3. Brad Weiss says:

    Tim, there is so much that I like about the way that you’ve framed this discussion. Yes, the pursuit of unifying narratives of history, and typologies of societies boils down to a kind of evolutionism that no evolutionary biologist would countenance. And all carried out in the name of “science,” which somehow isn’t even attentive to pesky observable phenomena like, gee, I don’t know, facts. As I know we’ve discussed before, the best kinds of social scientists (and I’ll say natural scientists, too) understand the importance of empirical observation without being hidebound empiricists. There’s a world of difference there.

    As for writing the big book on the grand sweep of human events, sometimes I think the problem is simply academic convention. It’s a cliché, I know, but I do think there are some great big – and small – books that could have caught on if they hadn’t been wedded to the sound of their own wonky voice. I know David’s “Debt” is taking a stab at writing in a more direct prose style, and it must mean something to get read (and vilified) in the pages of the Financial Times and Wall St. Journal, as well as the Guardian and The Nation. But what if somebody had bothered to say, (e.g) look, there are a host of endlessly fascinating idiosyncratic, marginal cases he draws on to illustrate his claims, but the big idea of Foucault’s _Discipline and Punish_ is, modern citizens think they’re freer than ever, but that’s only because they have become so effective at constraining themselves and vilifying their enemies that it seems downright enjoyable. Which is how we end up with the eugenics practices in parts of the USA right up until the 1970s, and self-help books for people who worry about their leisure time, and TSA officers with rubber gloves. Here’s a big idea, here are some facts, drawn from far and wide, to demonstrate it. Cool, isn’t it? The other thing is, I think, there really IS a big idea that remains very much a guiding premise of so much human science research and writing (by which I mean the kind of stuff I do and read and teach) which is: Capitalism sucks. Yeah, we want to couch that in a host of contingencies, and recognize those for whom it sucks less, and those for whom it sucks, but not in the ways you’d think it would, and those for whom life goes on even amidst the sucking. But, like those institutions you describe that actually carry weight in and through time and place, capitalism IS kind of a “thing.” Ignore it at your own (publish or) peril.

    Here’s what I don’t like, though: particularism. I know that must sound like a very odd thing to say, coming from someone who has insisted both that there are vitally important, consequential differences between witches that turn you into laboring zombies and sorcerers that disinter your grandfather; or mass produced hot dogs and artisanal lunch meats. Yes, I have a thing about particulars, true enough. But I have never once thought the particulars were the point. Or – even worse – that the methodological triumph of social history was the restoration of “voices” to our benighted subjects. Yes, please open your microphones and let a thousand voices bloom, spare me your paltry efforts at analysis. Ack! It’s all very well and good to be attentive to the actual experience, and language, and nuance, and ambiguity of the stuff of living, but if it doesn’t serve to make some kind of claim, then why bother to document it?

    Which begs the obvious question, what kind of claim can we make? Or what kind should we want to make? As someone who has occasionally even had things to say about big ideas like “neoliberalism” and “modernity”, both of which I will be only to happy to see heaped on the dustbin of rhetorical strategies, I think it’s incumbent on me to ask: why did I do that? And I don’t think it is wrong to do that, or that it is somehow mistaken to put barbershop murals and structural adjustment programs – or indirect rule – in the same framework. But how do you do that? Or, put differently, what is the systematic observation of and argumentation about human vagaries for? If it’s merely for its own sake because the concreteness of the stories are so compelling, have their own rhythm and poetry and form and allure- which, on a good day, they surely do! – well, then you kind of surrender to particularism. But, for me, at least, the details matter because what I’m really interested in is something else: comparison. How is it possible for a Groundnut Scheme in colonial Tanganyika to be the very paragon of administrative failure, and yet peanuts could be so central to “take-off” in Ghana? Why do Americans drink coffee to speed up and Italians bolt an espresso to help them relax? Why should you only borrow money from your uncle in an Italian-American family, but never borrow money from family if you’re Jewish (don’t ask my wife, and don’t ask me)? I don’t think the answer is – Bingo! Freakonomics! – some unifying human calculus that can explain it all for you! I think it’s that interesting comparisons help us illuminate questions that are worth asking – and always will be because there are no definitive answers. But by looking at observable and enduring differences we can start to draw out patterns that suggest recurring potentials: People don’t just bear offspring, they have kin. When people suffer, they wonder why that happens. People have ideas about how things work, which often make things work the way they think. And more!

    In any event, generalization isn’t the way out, but variation actually seems a good notion –and, dare I say it again – fact to think with. Thanks for making me think with it. That could be a good one to sell, too!

  4. Jerry Hamrick says:

    If Charles Darwin were still alive, I think that he would say that Edward O. Wilson is one of those “naturalists having sound judgment and wide experience,” that we should listen to. Wilson has written many important books on various topics concerning evolution. His latest, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” may well be his most important. In it, he explains how human evolution has resulted in a fundamental conflict between behaviors that favor the success of the individual human and behaviors that favor the success of groups of humans. He says that these two conflicting behaviors have a genetic basis:

    “Alleles (the various forms of each gene) that favor survival and reproduction of individual group members at the expense of others are always in conflict with alleles of the same and alleles of other genes favoring altruism and cohesion in determining the survival and reproduction of individuals. Selfishness, cowardice, and unethical competition further the interest of individually selected alleles, while diminishing the proportion of altruistic, group-selected alleles. These destructive propensities are opposed by alleles predisposing individuals toward heroic and altruistic behavior on behalf of members of the same group. Group-selected traits typically take the fiercest degree of resolve during conflicts between rival groups.”

    Wilson’s conclusion is that this conflict, this struggle between two kinds of humans, has only one outcome:

    “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.

    … In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.”

    I can think of no better description of our present predicament. The Darwinian struggle has long been with us, and it is reflected in every social institution that civilized man has developed—including all forms of government.

    So, Wilson’s idea is a big one, don’t you think? And it can lead to the development of other big ideas, and these ideas could be valid, don’t you think? I suppose I could say that Wilson was just creating a metaphor. Yes, that’s it. I can say that I am just speaking metaphorically rather than scientifically, and I just don’t know the difference. Otherwise I will have to throw away sixty years of data collection and nine years of writing about the ideas that flow from the data—all because of the power of your idea.

    Or, as James Madison, “on the other hand,” I could just forget that I read your post.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    On E.O. Wilson. Part of my beef with him, Jerry, is that his consistent “big idea” in his sociobiological arguments does not involve ‘wide thinking;, it avoids ‘wide thinking’ in a manner that frustrates me–and is a good example of what motivated this post. Consilience is a great Rorschach blot of a book: almost everyone in every discipline I know loves the basic idea of a more “consilient” practice of scholarship and knowledge production, but the people who loved Wilson’s verson of it loved it partly because it flattered their own inclinations and prejudices. Consistently throughout the book, when Wilson engages humanistic thought, he openly confesses the cursory, disinterested and lazy character of his engagement. At one point he says something along the lines of “Well, I decided to see what this Foucault fellow was all about and I read a bit and thought ‘Hey, come on, things aren’t THAT bad'”. More to the point, Wilson’s vision of how science can talk about “culture” is to do some experiments, look at some MRI scans of people listening to music, find out what the evolutionary origins and function of culture is, and voila! mission accomplished, culture studied, truth produced, end of line. That’s not consilience–it’s conquest.

    So take this other ‘big idea’ that you like. It absolutely can be a good, interesting way to start with thinking about questions like “what’s the relationship between individuals and groups”. It could also be an interesting basis for an existential, philosophical statement like, “The worst of our behavior and the best of our behavior are inevitable, the human condition is what it is.” There are humanists who arrive at similar conclusions from different starting points.

    It’s the in-between that concerns me, and is a typical case of the issue I’m speaking to above. If we could shift this off people for a second, it might be clearer. If an evolutionary biologist said, “natural selection is the fundamental causal explanation for every phenotypic feature we see in living organisms, every behavior, every ecological relationship”, I would say (provisionally), “ok”. What I would say next is, “Ok, take natural selection, start at the beginning of life on Earth, and predict for me every single organism, every single behavior, every single ecology, and every single lived moment that will follow from that causal beginning”.

    The evolutionary biologist would now say, “Don’t be an asshole. I can’t do that because there are random events that intervene from that point on: mutations, genetic error and genetic drift, catastrophes. And there are interactions between organisms, environment and genes that produce emergent effects.” I would say, “Ok.” What I would say next is, “But is all of that (natural selection + random events + emergence) sufficient to explain all of the variation we see in organisms, in their behavior, in their interactions, over the entire history of life?”

    I think the evolutionary biologist would say, “Yes”. And again I would say, “Ok”. So then I would say, “So if I study the structure of duck penises and vaginas; hairworm parasitism and its effects on grasshopper behavior; or Neanderthal cave paintings, you’re going to come along and say, ‘Great, great, those are great examples of just what I was talking about!'” In other words, none of those things are interesting in and of themselves, and are reducible to being “examples of natural selection”? Most evolutionary biologists would say, “Hey, I’m not being reductive in that way: I’m with you–all of that is interesting to study for itself and of itself.” That there should be such incredible variation and complexity to life, and that the living should experience that complexity as having meaning and mystery is not important: everything is just an example of a hugely abstract and generalized point.

    But I think not so with some sociobiologists and other social scientists who use “evolution” as huge cudgel that flattens everything into a reductive little box. Everybody who studies a specific phenomena or moment or episode in this kind of approach is just carrying water for the “big thinker”, just providing him with more examples.

    Typically the humanist scholar also adds that consciousness, agency, sentience, etc., adds another degree of contingency and unpredictability, of variation. Mostly Wilson et al dodge that these days via asserting that consciousness is an illusion and that our behavior is entirely driven by our evolutionarily-derived neurobiology. I pointed out in my analysis of Jonathan Haidt a while back that this sort of dodge invariably leaves room for one odd, solitary exception to this assertion: science itself, and scientific thought, is still seen as deriving from a form of rationality that is independent of our neurobiology and having a truth which is not reducible to our evolutionary nature. Music or theater or literature or even politics is “just” evolutionary, but not science. This is to me a really weird and generally unremarked upon disjuncture in Wilson, Haidt, Kahneman, Pinker, etc.–I noticed it with particular sharpness in extreme memeticists like Susan Blackmore. In other words, why isn’t Wilson’s characterization of human nature itself something we are “just” evolutionarily predisposed to believe in?

    Once you open that space, there is a lot more that crowds up to come in behind it, all the variation and complexity of human life (and the rest of life) begs to be interesting for its own sake, and to not be easily reducible to some law or principle. I can buy that there is an evolutionary tension between “the group” and “the individual” in human history, but not that the group is always expressed in “honor, virtue and duty” and the individual as “selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy”.

    This is where Wilson et al have too small an imagination and are too quick to look around them now, take stock of their own culture and prejudices, and pronounce them universal. Those words have really specific resonance and meaning in modern and Western societies. I can make work my way to seeing something like “honor” as an issue in most societies across time, but this takes me deep into having to consider semantics, meaning, something that Wilson et al have no time for at all. It’s as if I assembled a word cloud of English words having something to do with violence: war, mayhem, fighting, slapping, fisticuffs, nuked, violation, assault, beaten down, coerced, wrestled, jabbed, intimidated, murdered, and then said, “Oh well, really that all just means violence”. And then compounded that by doing the same to every related word in every related language.

    That’s what a humanist would usually be incredibly scrupulous and careful about. If Anthony Appiah sets out to talk about “honor” across time and space, he does a lot of preparatory work in his analysis to assure himself and his readers that the concept has validity in many different concepts AND he pays a tremendous amount of attention to its variation, its complexity, its richness, its meaning. Because that’s both what is required empirically and what is required philosophically. Coming along and saying, “See? I told you, all societies talk about ‘honor’ and that’s because there is group-level selection that is stacked against individual-level selection for selfishness” is bad behavior on multiple levels–it’s not showing respect for how difficult it is to actually prove what the “big thinker” claims to have proven and it’s not showing respect for how interesting the variation and complexity of human experience (or life itself) really is.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Brad: great comment. I am struggling in non-blog writing with how to describe this set of preferences and practices on the humanistic side of social analysis. “Particularism” is a bad way to put it, I agree. I think of it because this is often our first knee-jerk reaction to Diamond, Wilson etc.–they assert a generalization and we say, “But goddamn it, I’ve studied a particular case and what you say is just not true in my case, and if it’s not true in what I study, it can’t be true at the level of universality that you’re asserting!” But what we’re doing at a deeper level is not always asserting the particular over the general–it is about how we systematize or generalize, the processes of reasoning and rhetoric we use to do that with.

    I keep thinking back to that meeting in Germany that we went to where the historians and anthropologists spent the first day complaining about the way that the political scientists and economists systematized and argued from evidence, and the next day they rather justifiably noted that we had our own theories and “hypotheses” that drove us to select sites and subjects of study, it’s just that we adhered to a kind of fiction about when and how those theories had occurred to us–we performed as if they had arisen out of our engagement with a site or an archive or a situation rather than preceded that engagement.

  7. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Thank you, Herr Doktor Professor Burke, for taking the time to teach me. I will have to read all of this some more, but I think I am beginning to get your point.

    I read “Consilience” many years ago, and I probably still have it somewhere around here. I enjoyed reading it, but it didn’t move my thinking forward. Over time I followed Wilson’s writing and was convinced that he would wind up where he is today. He probably was just introducing his current book over a period of many years. But his idea that I quoted in a post above is what I had hoped for. I had a similar idea myself developed over many years of dealing with large groups of adults in pressurized situations—their livelihoods were at stake and my actions would, to a large degree, determine their futures, and yet my behavior was based on their behavior. In order to do a better job, I learned to recognize and even anticipate certain behaviors. So, I included my idea in this damned book I talk about all the time, and felt happy to see that someone of Wilson’s authority had blessed it. I suppose that what I have said violates some sort of scholarly creed, and if it does, then I am sorry. But I did write to him and included verifiable proof of my ideas from years past. I never heard from him.

    But, his idea is the end of his book. My idea (his idea since he is the authority) is the beginning of my book. I made my living, not from having original ideas, but from implementing someone else’s ideas when no one else could–or had not gotten around to it. My book is about dealing with the relationship between the two kinds of behaviors that I observed and that Wilson describes. And I must say that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others also described these behaviors and they elevated them to the level that Madison said that the Constitution is primarily a device for dealing with the problem these behaviors produce. The Constitution is a start, but Madison’s system was doomed to failure, he was not a good systems designer. Well, maybe he was really good, but he had run out of time and so he threw something together, and here we are.

    So, I have taken Wilson’s idea, Madison’s idea, Washington’s idea, and lots of other ideas, and put them into a system that takes advantage of their strengths and controls their weaknesses. And I am not kidding. So, I guess that I will go ahead and make a fool of myself and publish it. I am so old that the humiliation can’t last too long.

  8. Jerry Hamrick says:

    E. O. Wilson has published an essay in the NYT:

    He argues that the humanities have provided an incomplete explanation of humankind and only his theory of multilevel evolution can complete the story.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    See, that’s what I’m talking about, Jerry. He starts off by saying, “The humanities has an incomplete understanding of humankind” (which humanists would generally agree with and argue that this is ON PURPOSE, in part because most humanists think humankind can only be understood incompletely–they have their own sort of ‘uncertainty principle’). So first, Wilson doesn’t really grasp what he’s criticizing because he’s not really interested in the actual content of humanistic thinking (or, I think, the actual content of expressive culture). Secondly, he doesn’t *complete* the humanities with something they’re missing, he dismisses them entirely with his ‘theory of multilevel evolution’–which he thinks is the alpha and omega of the story of culture, the human condition, you name it, that there is nothing else that can be said outside of it and nothing that his theory would have difficulty saying.

    Completing the humanities would be offering some useful supplement, counterbalance or extension of humanistic thought. That is absolutely not what Wilson is doing.

  10. Jerry Hamrick says:

    I know, I know. I just thought you would get a kick out of it.

    But, from my point of view as a systems designer, I don’t much care about the humanities or whether Wilson is right. I only care about behavior and how it affects society. I am not interested in changing behavior or punishing behavior or… But I am interested in devising a system that will maximize the positive benefits of some behaviors and minimize the negative benefits of other behaviors. With that in mind here my comment on Wilson’s essay:

    “Wilson says that there are two kinds of human behaviors: those that favor the success of the individual, and those that favor the success of the group.

    ‘Do these behaviors exist evenly in each human being? Do we spend our daily lives deciding from moment to moment whether to act in favor of the group or to act in favor of ourselves as individuals? Or does one set of behaviors dominate each of us?
    In other words, are there humans who consistently behave selfishly versus other humans who consistently behave in favor of the group?

    ‘I think that there are two living varieties of Homo sapiens who dominate our societies and cultures. One I call Varietas Tyrannica, the other I call Varietas Democratica. Tyranni compete with democrati in the Darwinian struggle for survival, and this struggle has shaped our history. It can be seen in action at this very moment in Congress.

    ‘Political behavior is nothing more than Wilson’s theory of multilevel selection at work: group vs. individual. This is the reason that we talk about “bipartisanship.” We recognize the need but we are biologically unable to act rationally without an external force or structure to make us do so.

    ‘Our society has to undergo another evolution. It has to divide itself into four cooperative generations based on the cycle of life, and it needs to begin to follow another form of evolution: Evolution by Cogitation. We must ponder life objectively and with a purpose—we must extend Wilson’s idea.”

    I have been working on the design of a structure and finding ways to give it force. One of the reasons that I keep lurking around your blog is that you write about the first generation in my four-generation plan. You write about humans under age 26.

Comments are closed.