The present pandemic is a stark reminder that humans are, first and foremost, biological beings – as vulnerable to environmental and evolved threats as is any other organism. Twentieth-century breakthroughs in technology, policy, and practice allowed us to temporarily elide this reality, but Covid-19 has rendered humanity’s essential organicism undeniable and newly salient.
Thus, this seems a prime opportunity to reiterate that as biological beings, we humans – like the virus itself – are products of an evolutionary process that has profoundly shaped not only our morphology, but also our behavior via the imperatives, capacities, and dispositions it has bequeathed to us.1 Although unwelcome in many quarters of Sociology, this reality is in fact the discipline’s saving grace. The explicit incorporation of biological and evolutionary concepts offers the only realistic means of consolidating the disparate approaches and disputed discoveries of a woefully fragmented discipline, as well as of maintaining its relevance to – and thereby its inclusion in – humanity’s ongoing conversations about our future. Most importantly, the incorporation of evolutionary and biological concepts is indispensable to fulfilling the very purpose of sociology: The provision of complete and empirically substantiable explanations for social behavior and phenomena.1 Fortunately, despite widespread misconceptions to the contrary, as often as not, the evolutionary perspective is not only compatible with, but complementary to, the discipline’s defining perspectives and preoccupations.
Appropriately enough, the present pandemic offers an illustrative and timely example of how the evolutionary perspective completes, rather than competes with, more prototypically ‘sociological’ explanations. Covid-19’s toll in terms of lives, health, and jobs are appalling, but the willful disregard of (and sometimes visceral contempt for) expertise and evidence that it has evoked from so many of our fellow citizens is even more unsettling. That there are individuals who would cultivate such attitudes in service of their personal interests is perhaps not surprising. But that a significant subset of citizens in an affluent nation – one owing much of its until-recently-hegemonic power to the creativity and industry of its scientists, intellectuals, and universities – would so wholly adopt such attitudes despite obvious and potentially catastrophic costs to their own lives and livelihoods demands explanation. For what this situation makes abundantly clear is that a (and arguably the) foundational and justificatory assumption of our modern political, economic, and legal institutions – that individual human beings can and will reliably fulfill at least nominal criteria of rationality – is simply wrong.
Neither such innate a-rationality,2,3 Americans’ disdain for intellectual expertise,4,5,6 nor the crises currently besetting classical liberalism7 are novel observations, or lacking in partial, (proximate) explanations, but the acuteness of the problem in the present moment demands a more complete (ultimate) accounting. And that requires recourse to the evolutionary perspective.
Put simply, human beings are not rational because we didn’t evolve to be so. We evolved to be adaptive, which is not only not the same thing as rational, but often antithetical to it.8 For present purposes, we are concerned only with why and how human beings diverge from the assumptions of rationality in terms of epistemology, though there are many other dimensions on which we do so. The models of rationality meticulously elaborated in social science and economics9,10 and the less formal versions embodied in our modern institutions both begin from two fairly indispensable epistemic assumptions: That actors know and recognize their own (predominantly material) interests, and; That faced with a decision, actors will seek out and make use of any and all relevant information in order to maximize those interests. Americans’ behavior during the pandemic reveals that neither of these assumptions reliably obtains, in that a sizeable minority of Americans consistently shun widely available, empirically valid, information and advice (while simultaneously failing to subject competing misinformation to even the most rudimentary logical scrutiny) to the demonstrable risk and detriment of their own material interests.
The evolutionary origins of this particular departure from rationality are implicit in that most seminal of modern sociological classics: Berger & Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality.11 To discern their model’s evolutionary foundations, we must first recognize that behavior itself – a morphology that can change with the environment (e.g. heliotropism, pupil dilation, taste aversion) – is a revolutionary advance over the more prototypical (and much slower) adaptation via morphological alteration.12 Among humans (and to a lesser extent, some other species) the same selection pressures for speedy and flexible adaptation to the environment that gave rise to the capacity for behavior in the first place, subsequently brought about something equally revolutionary: A mode of behavioral control beyond the reflexive response to external stimuli (e.g. sun position, light intensity, associational conditioning) – one in which the organism uses an internalized model of the world – what Berger & Luckmann called a “nomos”11 (what psychologists would recognize as a “schema”) – to simulate events and actions in their heads, and, based on those simulations, to choose behaviors that produce the desired outcomes in the world.
This capacity to imagine – i.e. to think – is the source of humanity’s unique “world-openness,”11 and thereby, our much-celebrated culture and civilization. But like any other advantageous feature, this capacity for internal control isn’t without costs. The downside of behavioral flexibility is the absence of strong inborn behavioral instincts, a complete and extensive dependency on others during infancy, and a requirement that each individual to acquire a nomos for themselves. As Berger & Luckmann point out, this is possible only because we don’t have to do it by ourselves. Each of us benefits from myriad others who act as teachers, models, and gatekeepers, with each of us, in turn, helping others to construct their nomi. The evolved wellsprings of this social epistemology are evident in such innate human capacities and dispositions as those for informational conformity,13 imitative learning,14 and teaching,15 as well as in the neurophysiological underpinnings thereof (e.g. mirror neurons).16 So universal and essential are these abilities that Christakis includes them among his “social suite” of foundational elements of human sociality.17
Berger & Luckmann’s great contribution here is their realization that the ongoing maintenance of the nomos is every bit as important and problematic as its initial construction. Because no nomos is a perfect or complete representation of the world, each individual is regularly confronted with empirical anomalies – discontinuities between what our nomos leads us to expect the world to do and what the world actually does. Most such anomalies are easy enough to dismiss or to update the nomos to accommodate, but some are much more dangerous, in either of two ways. The most obvious is the danger of inaccuracy – of a nomos that is so poorly calibrated to reality that it leads us to behave in maladaptive ways. From this perspective, individuals and groups should be motivated to maintain a close correspondence between nomos and reality by seeking out the most accurate and complete information available and incorporating it into their nomi.
The more subtle danger is that awareness of such anomalies will undermine one’s confidence in the validity of their own nomos. Such “marginal situations”11 shake the individual’s confidence that their nomos really does model and predict the world as it actually is – setting them up for persistent and potentially debilitating doubt. After all, “If I was wrong about X, how do I know I’m not wrong about Y, too?”. Thus, from this perspective, individuals and groups should also be motivated to preserve and protect their extant nomos against the threat posed by such anomalies.
The crux here is that nomos maintenance is a matter of simultaneously fulfilling two distinctly different criteria – accuracy and confidence. Or, more pithily, between being right and believing you are right. Although ideally complementary, these are potentially conflicting ends (e.g. when newer, more accurate information undermines confidence in extant nomos or, obversely, when overconfidence in an extant nomos excludes newer, more accurate understandings). The rationalist perspective presumes that accuracy is the pre-eminent concern, but experience and history show that human beings can and do put up with a lot of anomalies before abandoning misguided beliefs18,19 – and for good reason, in that one’s nomos represents a major investment, the undermining of which can be lethal in ways that most factual errors alone seldom are. Further stacking the deck against accuracy is Harari’s compelling contention that the success of human societies is a direct function of human beings’ remarkable credulity: Our eagerness to believe in such empirically dubious entities as gods, nations, kings, and money so as to cooperate in their name to pursue and achieve grand collective goals.7 Between our insistent desire for confidence in the nomos and the adaptive value of credulity, it is evident that, contrary to rationalist assumptions, human beings have actually evolved to be fairly cavalier about the veracity of their nomos.
In practice, the balance between accuracy and confidence is commonly mediated via “intersubjectivity” – our disposition to assign certainty to information as a function of whether or not proximal and important others – i.e. our “plausibility structure”11 – concur about the matter. Put simply, what is “real” to us is whatever our “tribe” collectively agrees to be so. Under most naturally-occurring conditions, intersubjectivity, though no guarantee of accuracy, is a passable proxy for it in that: 1) One’s plausibility structure is mostly made up of similar others in similar circumstances, with similar interests, and thus some stake in the relative accuracy of each others’ nomos, and; 2) Following an evolutionary logic, one’s plausibility structure is composed of living individuals whose nomi, if not perfectly veracious, at least haven’t (yet) proven lethally inaccurate.
The modern world, alas, departs from such naturally-occurring conditions in important ways. Mass communication technologies (i.e. social media) have evolved that, in conjunction with more venerable print and broadcast media, provide well-financed social actors with means of enveloping segments of the population within plausibility structures carefully constructed by entities who are unlike them, whose interests diverge from theirs, and who, in fact, have a material stake in the inaccuracy of these individuals’ nomi (or, to connect our argument to classical sociology in yet another way, in propagating what Marxists would call “false consciousness.”20 Such epistemic bubbles capitalize on human beings’ evolved need for certainty, on their reliance on intersubjectivity to generate it, and on their general innate credulity to manipulate the nomos of a not-insignificant minority of citizens into being unable and/or unwilling to discern valid from invalid information, or to recognize and/or pursue their own actual interests.
That such large-scale misdirection is at all possible suggests that even apart from these particular circumstances, individual human beings are endowed with profound and congenital epistemic deficiencies, such that accurate knowledge of their world eludes most people most of the time. Sociologists have been in the forefront of fashioning such failings into a “postmodern” stance which is skeptical about the possibility of any “truth” beyond what is socially constructed within a given epistemic community – a perspective which in its strongest form reduces science itself to nothing more than an arbitrarily and unjustly privileged mode of discourse.21
Postmodernism’s responsibility for thereby helping to usher in the present “post-truth” moment is debatable, but for now, let us focus on the perspective’s more glaring flaw: Its inability to account for the fact that, despite human beings’ epistemic limitations, valid knowledge of our world is achievable, as manifest in the success of such accuracy-dependent technologies as near-space exploration, open-heart surgery, smartphones, and nuclear reactors. These examples are neither isolated nor exhaustive. They are cited here simply because they represent familiar instances in which inaccuracies or misunderstandings should make themselves immediately and unambiguously apparent. There is no a priori reason that the structures and practices that produce valid knowledge in these instances would not do so whenever and wherever they occur, and considerable, if less dramatic, evidence that they do.
This discontinuity between individual epistemic limitations and our collective capacity to acquire the exceedingly accurate knowledge of the world required for such feats tells us that “truth” and the ability to obtain it are, like rationality more broadly,22 emergent properties of (some) human groups. That it is emergent is only fitting, since the idea that “wholes can be greater than (or, more accurately, “different from”) the sum of their parts” is not only a central, shared, theme of both biology and sociology, but indispensable to the justification of sociology as a discipline, as per Durkheim’s seminal insight, illustrated, fittingly enough, via analogy with biology.23
But emergence isn’t magic. When it occurs, it does so as a function of specific mechanisms that convert the properties of individual entities into something not only more but also different. So, while it might be possible to imagine that scientific truth is essentially a matter of cultural accumulation – and such cumulation is certainly essential – that alone is insufficient to account for science’s successes. For if it were, most other forms of culture (a hallmark of which is its capacity for cumulation) would have equal claim to empirical validity – which they patently don’t.
Science’s singular epistemic superiority emerges from still other social mechanisms. What truly sets it apart isn’t anything that happens within any individual scientist’s mind or as a function of their methodology, but what occurs between scientists during weekly lab meetings, at conference sessions, and within the pages of academic journals – the reiterative and patently social process of peer review. Science amounts to a culturally evolved system of institutionalized Cartesian doubt in which the epistemic biases of each individual are overcome and accounted for via their intentional and systematic opposition with those of other individuals.
Fittingly enough, these mechanisms are themselves evolutionary. As per its venerable “variation-selection” formulation, the raw materials of scientific advance are the random innovations, connections, and inventions that constantly arise in human imaginations. But science (and academia more broadly) subsequently subjects such novel intellectual “alleles” to a set of stringent and very particular selection pressures. Although such selection pressures rely upon the existence of culturally evolved technologies that render ever more aspects of the universe amenable to empirical disconfirmation (e.g. gravitational wave detectors), upon adherence to standard operating procedures that embody a profound skepticism (e.g. the hypothetico-deductive method, the null hypothesis), upon the adoption of evidentiary standards which are overwhelmingly biased against type-I errors (e.g. vanishingly small p-values), and upon enforceable expectations of transparency (e.g. publication of data and methods), even all of these together do not yet yield ‘science’.
For all such tools and standards are, much like the technologies of birth control,24 completely dependent upon individuals’ motivation to use and comply with them. The epistemic genius of science lies in its ability to harness the above technologies to human beings’ preoccupation with status and/or material gain by creating an adversarial incentive structure. The currency of science – reputation25 – is based, first, on the ingenuity of one’s innovations, but only in proportion with those innovations’ robustness to falsification. But it is also founded upon one’s talent for discovering and demonstrating flaws in the innovations of others. I can’t speak for others’ experience, but my own graduate training in social psychology was in large part an extended tutorial in iconoclasm – in rooting out the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of even the discipline’s most canonical research authors and articles. In short, science is fundamentally and indispensably social. While, of course, individual scientists do internalize science’s constituent norms and procedures, thereby instigating an invaluable virtual peer-review of new ideas at their earliest stage, this part of the process is, at the end of the day, largely impelled by the individual’s fear of reputational loss should they fail to live up to these standards.
The net effect is a social technology – the scientific (academic) method – that despite its real imperfections, uniquely provides a means of systematically accounting for and overcoming the innate limitations and biases – including the desire for confidence in one’s nomos – that plague individuals’ epistemological aspirations. Although, as its critics never tire of pointing out, scientists are hardly free of the cognitive shortcomings that afflict everyone else, the social structure within which they work constitutes an ideational ecosystem characterized by relatively unforgiving selection pressures against inaccuracy and misunderstanding. Even as scientific knowledge expands and deepens due to the cooperative and collaborative exchange of ideas, insight, and data among scientists,26 this overlay of institutionalized social competition – between individual scientists, research groups, and disparate schools of thought – subjects scientific theories and findings to a level of systematic scrutiny that few, if any, other cultural products will ever have to endure. While there is no guarantee that facts that have (for now, as per Popper) survived this process are completely accurate, they have (for now) earned a justifiable degree of epistemological privilege over any competing alternatives. To pretend otherwise is to turn one’s back on the foundation of what is perhaps humankind’s greatest feat of transcending the limitations of human nature.
Most of the sociology presented here is as old hat to any sociologist as the elementary evolutionary ideas invoked here are to any biologist, so it is fair to ask just what has been accomplished by bringing the two of them together in this way. I would reply that, as per the instigating goal of this paper, we have demonstrated the essential compatibility of evolutionary thinking and at least one, perhaps surprising, cornerstone of sociological thought (social constructivism) – and further demonstrated their unity in terms of the phenomenon of emergence that the identity, legitimacy, and practice of each hinges upon.
But more importantly, linking current, unmistakable evidence of human a-rationality to our species’ evolved capacities, imperatives, and dispositions make evident the need for we denizens of modern civilization to think anew about some of the assumptions around which our extant institutions are constructed – at least in the epistemic realm. While I won’t pretend to know what a viable alternative might look like, it is increasingly evident that any institutional system whose safeguards rely so heavily upon the assumption that individual citizens can and will pursue their own interests in an informed and calculating manner may not have much of a future.
At the same time, and in counterpoint to such dire diagnosis, the present analysis also suggests a starting point of one possible way forward, in that despite the (biologically) evolved epistemic shortcomings of individual human actors, human societies already possess a (culturally) evolved means for overcoming those limitations so as to achieve a reasonable facsimile of “truth”. Without yet knowing just how to best use that knowledge to build better, more resilient, institutions, a logical and appropriate first step would be for sociologists to take the lead in helping our colleagues, students, and the public at large to understand that “truth” really is a thing, something that human beings, flawed as we are, actually can and do apprehend (or at least approximate) – but that we can do so only when and because it emerges from certain social contexts, specifically those best represented by the scientific community. The ultimate takeaway and crucial corollary of this argument, of course, is that some information – that produced by the scientific community via the scientific process – though imperfect, genuinely is more reliably accurate than other information, and has a legitimate claim to being treated as such.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
- How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different by Rosemary L. Hopcroft
- From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society by Lukas Szrot
- Evolution Does Not Explain Tyranny: COVID-19 Could Have Led To Many Fewer Deaths If Tyranny Had Been Less Prevalent in Washington, D.C. by Richard Devine
- The Epidemic and the Epistemic: An Exercise in Evolutionary Sociology by Doug Marshall
- Marshall, Douglas A. 2020 (Forthcoming). “Unity(s) in Conflict: Mapping Biology’s Relevance for Sociology”. In Peter Kivisto (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, Tversky, Amos. 1982. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Ariely, Daniel. 2009. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. New York NY: Harper.
- Frank, Thomas. 2005. What’s the matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York NY: Picador.
- Nichols, Tom. 2018. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
- Hoffstadter, Richard. 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York NY: Vintage Books.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. 2018. 21 lessons for the 21st Century. New York NY: Random House.
- Marshall, Douglas A. 2020. “The Biological Logic of Social Action: On the (Considerable) Difference Between “Rational” and “Adaptive”. p49-68 In R. Giovagnoli & R. Lowe (Eds.), The Logic of Social Practices. Berlin Germany: Springer.
- Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
- James S. Coleman. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press.
- Berger, Peter, & Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
- Bonner, John. 1980. The Evolution of Culture in Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Asch, Solomon E. “Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, Leadership and Men (pp. 177–190). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
- Horner, Victoria & Whiten, Andrew. 2005. “Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens)”. Animal Cognition. 8 (3): 164–181.
- Hewlett, Barry & Roulette, Casey. 2015. “Teaching in hunter-gatherer infancy”. Royal Society Open Science 3:150403.
- Leiberman, Matthew D. 2013. Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. New York NY: Broadway Books.
- Christiakis, Nicholas A. Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. New York, NY: Little, Brown.
- Fleck, Ludwig. 1981. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. University of Chicago Press.
- Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996 . The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
- Engels, Friedrich. 1949. “Letter to F. Mehring”. Pp 451 in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Works in Two Volumes, Volume II. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
- Ross, Andrew. 1996. Ross, Andrew. “Introduction” Social Text 46/47, Vol. 14, Nos. 1 & 2, 1–13.
- Marshall, Douglas A. 2003. Beyond a Rational Choice Sociology: A Sociology of Rationality. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertation Publishing.
- Durkheim, Emile. 1982. Rules of the Sociological Method. New York NY: The Free Press.
- Hardin, Garret. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science 162 (3859):1243-1248.
- Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Johnson, Steven. (2011). Where good ideas come from: The Natural History of Innovation. New York NY: Riverhead Books.
This may be the best single post I’ve read here (and I’m not given to hyperbole). The consistent failure of many humans to act in their rational self-interest, even under a capacious definition of “rational self-interest”, glaringly contradicts the assumptions not only of many economists and other academics but of many nice, well-intentioned citizens who find the conduct of many of their compatriots incomprehensible. Much of the commentary on the American situation I’ve seen from such people during the past four years amounts to increasingly tortuous attempts to maintain that somehow, contrary to all appearances, most supporters of the president and his party actually are acting in their rational self-interest. They aren’t, and their failure to do so is rationally comprehensible, in exactly the ways this post explains.
“an affluent nation … owing much of its until-recently-hegemonic power to the creativity and industry of its scientists, intellectuals, and universities”: For me, this phrase is peculiarly poignant. I was raised and schooled by fundamentalist christianists for whom the godless liberal professor was a stock villain. Eventually, I escaped and graduated from the University of California, Irvine (which I was able to do because, at the time, it was still affordable for people of modest means). There, as a physics and math major, I finally met some of those godless liberal professors and came to understand something of how the universe really works. And the sense of a yawning chasm between the culture in which I had been raised and the culture I had entered was downright vertigo-inducing. Intuitively, it seemed obvious that the American situation, in which arguably the world’s greatest system of higher education and research coexisted with (and, to a sizable degree, financially depended on) a populace most of whom were scientifically illiterate and many of whom were superstitiously hostile to scientific progress or critical thinking of any kind, was deeply unstable and probably would eventually collapse.
“human societies already possess a (culturally) evolved means for overcoming those limitations so as to achieve a reasonable facsimile of ‘truth'”: I’m reminded of the science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, who some years ago remarked, “We tend to take science at its own self-evaluation, and we’re not used to thinking that utopia might already be partly here, a process that we struggle for or against. But to me the idea of science as a utopian coming-into-being has seemed both true and useful, suggestive of both further stories and action in the world.” As a scientist myself, who has found some other scientists to be obnoxious and sometimes irrational, it would be easy for me to dismiss this idea as naive, and given that scientists constitute a tiny and self-selected minority of humanity, perhaps it is. However, for whatever it’s worth, it may be the best idea we have.
Thanks for reading, and for the kind words. Glad you found it interesting. I agree with your comments at the end – plenty of scientists (like everyone else) can be/are irrational. Indeed, I would argue that no individual really can be rational outside of some very narrowly delimited bounds. Rationality, when it occurs is an emergent property of certain social arrangements of individuals in certain kinds of institutions. It is in such supra-individual structures that I hold what little hope I have for rational behavior.
Many thanks again for reading!
Bravo Doug! I really enjoyed this, especially the bits about science and epistemology. It’s very in line with a review I wrote about Naomi Oreskes; book “Why Trust Science?” I introduced evolutionary epistemology there, which could add philosophical weight to your arguments. See the review (“Evolving Our Trust In Science”) here:
My only quibble with your essay is the use of rational vs. non-rational to describe human behavior. I guess I’d need to hear your description of rationality there. I see the “irrational behavior” you are describing as rational but just for other reasons than you or I would choose. Hume said our reason is the slave of the passions, and I think he was right about that. Our emotions are what drive our behaviors. And our emotions, according to appraisal theory, are driven by rational reasons.
I wonder what you make of that view of rationality vs. irrationality.