Arnold Kling  

Evolution, Economics, and Education

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Mike Gibson points to a sequence of posts by D.S. Wilson. They start here (with some broken links in the first paragaph--I needed to use Google to follow up on one of them), and proceeds rather slowly for my taste. It picked up a bit with this post on Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. However, it was not until the ninth installment that I felt I encountered a stimulating idea.


The same ingredients that come easily in small human groups are more difficult to achieve in larger groups. Large cooperative groups are only possible thanks to the cultural evolution of mechanisms that interface with our genetically evolved psychology of guarded egalitarianism. When religions are viewed from this perspective, they can be seen as highly adapted to promote cooperation by providing the ingredients that would otherwise be lacking at a large scale. Belief in an all-seeing moralistic god tends to be restricted to large-scale societies, for example, suggesting that it is functioning as a monitoring device...

What does it mean for branches of knowledge as different as early human evolution, the nature of religion, and managing a commons in modern life to be explained by a single set of principles? It means that all of them are manifestations of the fundamental problem faced by all social species, whereby group-level adaptations are vulnerable to free-riding and exploitation from within.

It seems to me that over the past two hundred years or so, the role of religion has been taken over by the nation-state. That is, four hundred years ago, if you wondered whether you and a stranger would share the same norms, you would want to know the stranger's religion. One hundred years ago, it would have been more important to know the stranger's nationality.

I wonder if nationality is in the process of giving way to something else. Social networks?

Elsewhere, he talks about evolution and education.


The tight control and supervision of children's and adolescents' activities that we see today is something entirely new to human history, and its unintended consequences may include the current high rates of childhood obesity, depression, and even suicide.

Or it may have contributed to twenty-somethings further delaying adulthood.



COMMENTS (6 to date)

I wonder if nationality is in the process of giving way to something else. Social networks?

Nope. What kind of information-gathering/processing economies do social networks bring to everyday experience? Social networks are the substrate for institutions; the blank slate for the emergence of order.

I think the answer is already observable: Large multinational corporations. Most already operate by providing a hybrid of what used to be considered separate public and private functions. Most already transcend national boundaries. Many already have the following that religions had centuries ago.

ziel writes:

Belief in an all-seeing moralistic god tends to be restricted to large-scale societies, for example, suggesting that it is functioning as a monitoring device...

That seems a little "just so" - large scale societies are also pagan - and how do we characterize China? More likely is that humanity changed in fundamental ways with the advent of agricultural societies - see Cochran & Harpending's 10,000 Year Explosion.

saltmanSPIFF writes:

Belief in an all-seeing moralistic god tends to be restricted to large-scale societies, for example, suggesting that it is functioning as a monitoring device...

What does this suggest about large-scale polytheistic pre-modern societies? These earlier religions, rather than offer moral guidelines for human action, tended to serve an explanatory role in that they rationalized then-unfathomable natural phenomena, but offered little in the way of prescreptive behavior (except general piety and the occasional sacrifice, depending on the society).

What served as the "guarded egalitarian" driving force in these civilizations? To the extend that charity and egalitarianism are normal goods, could it simply be societies at that point were simply too poor, and living standards too close to subsistence-level for the average citizen, for these psychological mechanisms to evolve/manifest themselves?

Steve Sailer writes:

By the way, "D.S. Wilson" is better known as David Sloan Wilson, in contrast to his recent collaborator Edward O. Wilson. It's hard to keep track of all the distinguished Wilsons in the human sciences: D.S. Wilson, E.O. Wilson, J.Q. Wilson, W.J. Wilson, and so forth.

Hyena writes:

Yeah, that does sound very "just so". I also don't see a lot of evidence that the nation-state has taken precedence over religion, or even that religion is particularly important in shared norms.

Because, you know, there was never significant cultural diversity amongst Catholics....

Troy Camplin writes:

I recommend the psychological theory of Claire Graves as a way to understand this psychosocial evolution.

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