Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Our chimp and bonobo selves, leading to a discussion of Jane Jacobs

Sometimes I think chimps, bonobos, and humans share an ancestor with contradictory impulses, and when we split from that ancestor, chimps got one impulse, bonobos got the other, and humans kept both.

Chimps got aggression. They will go to war for women or territory. One group of chimps got too large, so it split off, and one group went to the forest next door. The chimps that were left behind went as a group to the new territory and killed the male chimps one by one, and then took their women. Another group of chimps would patrol its border, killing any male chimps from other tribes whom they ran across in smaller numbers than their own. Eventually, they went en masse and killed them all, and took over the dead chimps' fruit orchard as part of their territory.

Bonobos got the joy of sex. They use sex to trade for food, to make up after an argument, or just because it's fun.

And, golly, it's tempting to think of liberals vs conservatives here. I mean, given all that I believe about behavior being neural, and much of that being genetic or epigenetic, which chemicals are released where, and which synapses fire, and how fast the neurotransmitters are reabsorbed; and given that you really have to assume that chimp and bonobo behavior has a similar neural substrate, it's really tempting to believe that hippie liberals got sex-is-fun genes from our common ancestor, and neo-conservatives got the you-lookin'-at-me? genes, and others got varying proportions of both.

And who am I, who make a hobby of speculation, to avoid temptation? This deals with a problem I've been wrestling with for some time. I don't remember when I first read it, but when I read Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs, it forever changed the way I sort people. Much more about Jane Jacobs after the jump.

Systems of Survival is a dialog in which half a dozen characters discuss social corruption. They came up with what seems to be a useful way to divide people (at least Americans) into two groups according to their moral imperatives, actions they would say are “the right thing to do” and the opposite of which would be dishonorable.

People differ in what they consider dishonorable. Jacobs came up with 30 kinds of acts that some people consider a mark of honor, which she calls imperatives. Someone else might come up with a slightly different set, but these are pretty close. I would add some categories.

Some imperatives come in opposite pairs; some people think using force is abhorrent, and others want to teach the sons of bitches a lesson. Others are not opposites of anything else. The imperatives are:
·         Be honest
·         Deceive for the sake of the task
·         Dissent for the sake of the task
·         Be loyal
·         Respect contracts
·         Treasure honor
·         Use initiative and enterprise
·         Be obedient and disciplined
·         Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
·         Shun force
·         Exert prowess (i.e., use force)
·         Compete
·         Come to voluntary agreements
·         Shun trading
·         Be exclusive
·         Be open to inventiveness and novelty
·         Adhere to tradition
·         Promote comfort and convenience
·         Show fortitude
·         Respect hierarchy
·         Invest for productive purposes
·         Be ostentatious
·         Be efficient
·         Take vengeance
·         Be industrious
·         Make rich use of leisure
·         Be thrifty
·         Dispense largess
·         Be optimistic
·         Be fatalistic

I would add to the list:
·         Be self reliant
·         Be a team player
·         There are absolute rules of morality
·         Morals are created by humans to solve their own problems
·         Accept ambiguity
·         Hate ambiguity

People vary in which and how many of these they associate with honor and dishonor. And it’s not whether we feel all those moral imperatives but how much and when. We may swell with pride as our boys and girls bomb Afghanistan on TV but recoil when we find out our troops were machine0gunning civilians in Korea in the ‘50s.
The moral imperatives fall into clusters, and so do people. People tend to have mostly one set of 15 moral imperatives or mostly the other 15. Jacobs calls these the commercial moral syndrome and the guardian moral syndrome.

Commercial Moral Syndrome
Guardian Moral Syndrome
Compete; Come to voluntary agreements; Shun force; Be honest; Respect contracts
Shun trading; Exert prowess; Take vengeance; Deceive for the sake of the task
Be open to inventiveness and novelty; Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens; Use initiative and enterprise; Dissent for the sake of the task
Adhere to tradition; Treasure honor; Respect hierarchy; Be obedient and disciplined; Be loyal; Be exclusive;
Be optimistic; Promote comfort and convenience
Be fatalistic; Show fortitude
Be thrifty; Be efficient; Be industrious;  Invest for productive purposes
Dispense largess; Be ostentatious; Make rich use of leisure

Where you see this in the world
Large-scale activities tend to use one syndrome or the other. Merchant trading is a clear example of an activity with a commercial moral syndrome, and government, the military, the Catholic Church, and 17th century British aristocracy are clear examples of a guardian moral syndrome.

Enterprises that use too many of the wrong morals either fail or become corrupt. If you run the insurance business by guardian rules, you get the Mafia. The Soviet government failed miserably at running its economy with guardian morals and was corrupt as well. Soviet guardian intrusions into science produced Lysenkoism, into art produced Soviet Realism.

American government is most laughable when it does things that are commercial rather than guardian, such as procurement. How much did those toilet seats cost? The government is good at dispensing largess. Social Security checks flow like a river. Pork gets to every district, the most important districts first.

In some cases, cross-moral acts are illegal. Deceiving for the sake of the task is routine for guardian groups like the CIA or local police interrogators, but it is fraud or false advertising in business. Civilians call midnight requisitioning burglary. Used car salesmen are noted for lying to get the sale made, but they are in a commercial task. How does this fit? This is a corruption in the system, and if it gets too bad, the government steps in and stops it. It is recognized as being dishonorable, as shown by the jokes depicting used car salesmen as sleazy.

Coming to voluntary agreements and collaborating with strangers and aliens is called trading if a civilian does it. If an individual member of the military does it, it may be bribery or treason.

People who have a guardian mentality will do better at guardian jobs and vice versa. The trick is to know which you are and what characteristics of the other group you have as corrupting influences.
Hitler tried to turn all Germans into guardians.

Christianity begun as a commercial religion, but the guardians took it over. Martin Luther re-introduced commercial attitudes, but fundamentalists went back to guardian.

Art can go either way.

It should be possible to tailor advertising or political appeals to one cluster or another.
·         What do you think about diversity training in schools?
To guardians: I think we should all be proud of who we are and where we come from. We should honor our grandparents, and their grandparents, and theirs. And we should each get to know more about the others, who are equally proud of their background.
To commercialists: I’m all for it. People should mix freely and meet new people.
·         Abortion
To guardians:  If there is a God on high who cares about unborn babies, these people will suffer in hell for their sins. Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord.
To commercialists: To each her own. The moral aspect is between her and her God, the medical aspect between her and her doctor, and the social aspect decided by polls and legislation.

How this applies to education:
Schools can be used to teach either syndrome.
·         Science, rightly done, is clearly commercial, as are math and engineering.
o   Depends on how it is taught. I can imagine a teacher saying we engineer this way because we always have.
·         The creationism dispute is an attempt to make biology guardian.
·         Social studies tend to be guardian. We teach the myth of America in elementary and high school American history.
·         Business should be commercial. Business Ethics is teaching the syndrome.
·         Art, music, art history, literature, and so on can go either way, depending on the teacher.

Of course what interests me most is politics. I've written before about the biological aspects of it, and I continue to think about it.

But what I'm grappling with now (actually I'm at the stage of thinking I should think about it) is how the Big 5 personality traits fit in. Psychologists assert you can describe people in terms of conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness/intellect. So there should be some set of proportions that produces people in the moral and guardian syndromes,  hence liberal or conservative.

In a couple of days, I'm going on vacation. Maybe I'll have time to think about it then.

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