20 August 2021

Beyond the blank slate: how basic instincts shape human societies

By Professor Colin Talbot

Any theory of politics, or political ideology, is also a theory of human nature. Even those that claim there is no such thing as human nature.

Let’s start with the hardest – the fashionable view that there is no such thing as human nature. This is what Steven Pinker famously dubbed the “blank slate” view of humans. It’s dominated much of Western social sciences, and popular culture, for decades.

The problem is that it is a theory of human nature. It says, implicitly, that humans evolved to become ‘blank slates’. It’s pretty obvious all our nearest living relatives, and as far as we can tell our pre-human ancestors had inherited traits – instincts – that shaped how they lived and interacted.

At best all these creatures had extremely limited communications skills and what we now call ‘cultures’, but nevertheless their societies (and they were all social) reproduced themselves. They managed this because they were born with a set of ‘hard-wired’ ways of relating and only very limited learning changed their basic instincts.

Anyone who cares to look can see inherited behaviours in action across the animal kingdom. And not just some basics like eating and reproducing, but increasingly complex individual and social behaviours. Where do these common behaviours come from unless they are inherited?

Somehow, the ‘blank slatists’ seem to be saying, the evolution of homo sapiens broke this chain. We relegated all that animalistic behaviour to mere ghosts from our evolutionary past. (There are clear echoes here Christian beliefs about humans being different to mere creatures.) We humans, they contest, are shaped by only two things – our ‘self-actualising’  selves and our cultural environment.

This is an appealing idea for those on the left who want to produce a perfected human society. All the undesirable traits of humans can be blamed on our present and past cultures – especially capitalism – and will be eliminated by socialism.

It is even more comforting when various crack-pot forms of biological determinism, social Darwinism, eugenics and other frankly evil doctrines wreaked so much havoc in the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the Holocaust. Evolutionary origins for human behaviour became definitely a minority viewpoint, with far too much baggage.

It is worth noting at this point that the right has its own theory of human nature, rooted in economics. Although, like left-wing social scientists and their ‘blank slate’, the economists would deny it was a theory of human nature at all.

The idea that all humans, everywhere and when, regardless of cultures, are ‘rational utility maximisers’ – an idea at the core of most modern economics – is a de facto theory of human nature. What else could it be?

These theories are both right and wrong. They are right in explaining some aspects of common human behaviour, but wrong because they are only partial and miss out important aspects of our evolved human social instincts.

Is there a way of combining evolved social instincts, cultural context and individual agency? I think so. 

Steven Pinker develops one building block for such a theory in his book The Language Instinct (1994). Pinker argues that humans are born with a language instinct, which he says is a combination of both a desire and an evolved ability to acquire language.

But – and this is crucial – which language we acquire is a result predominantly a matter of what culture we are born into and what choices we make. 

At more or less the same time the American anthropologist Alan Page Fiske was developing his ‘relational models’ theory of human social life. He also based his ideas on the combination of inherent instincts, cultural forms and individual choices. Based on extensive field research and a massive review of anthropological and sociological literature Fiske identified just four social instincts that could account for human societies. These were what he called Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching and Market Pricing. Each was an instinct to relate to other humans in a particular way, but each needs a cultural expression – and these can vary.

As an example, the basic instinct of ‘Communal Sharing’ is about both belonging to a social group and being prepared to sacrifice for it. But what that group is can vary. So globalist human rights and interdependence, socialist class solidarity, and nationalist populism are all expressions of communal sharing based on very different definitions of community.

These social instincts can be expressed in ways that are either left or right-wing, progressive or regressive, and they can also complement or contradict one another. Importantly, we all use all of them – in different expressions and balances, and sometimes simultaneously.

So, to take a stark contemporary example: the Taliban operate a strong authority ranking system based on religious authority and patriarchy. It expresses communal sharing in religious terms – their version of the Muslim ummah, which is violently protected. Equality matching is expressed through (alleged) equality before sharia law and before God. And market pricing is permitted through commercial activity (but with Islamic restrictions).

One implication of this theory is that any society that attempts to suppress any of these four social instincts is likely to fail. Thus the various communist experiments of the 20th century all tried to suppress ‘market pricing’. They either eventually collapsed – partly due to underground market pricing activities – (Russia) or had to allow market pricing to re-emerge (China, Vietnam).

Similarly those libertarians yearning for a minimalist state (reduced authority ranking and free market pricing) would soon find authority ranking re-asserting itself. As has happened in failed states and in ‘un-stated’ activities like illicit drugs.

Perhaps the French Revolution got it right with Fraternité (communal sharing), Egalité (equality matching), Liberté (market pricing). The one they missed – Autorité (authority ranking) – was perhaps understandable at the time. But the Revolution certainly used authority ranking in practice and eventually fell victim to an extreme form of it with Napoleon Bonaparte?

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Colin Talbot is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of Manchester

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.