Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Neuroscience and the New Human Nature

Stefan Klein, Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along

Conventional economics and biology sneer at generosity. People who give of themselves get fleeced regularly, and diminish their chances to survive and reproduce. Yet the world ordinary people occupy practically shimmers with mundane kindness; without it, we couldn’t conduct urban economies or do industrial jobs. But what is altruism, really? How did it originate, and what encourages it to flourish? After centuries of debate, science may have some answers.

Though trained as a physicist, German author Stefan Klein has made a career writing about the points where science impacts general society—a Teutonic Carl Sagan, perhaps. In this case, his interests throw sharp light on neuroscience and psychology, though his investigations overlap with the growing domain of behavioral economics. And he draws a surprising conclusion: more than language or technology, generosity and altruism make us genuinely human.

Because humans cannot survive individually, much less thrive, evolution rewarded primordial humans who engaged in quid pro quo generosity. This persists today in acts of trust, kindness, and public ethics that make modern society possible. Yet the very conditions altruism fosters discourage people from behaving generously. Neuroscience tells us that human society may soon shift, requiring altruism to ensure continued human survival.

Science and natural philosophy have long speculated on the motivations behind altruism, speculations Klein partly recapitulates here. From Aristotelian ethics to Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” theory, speculations have drawn on complex mixes of influences. But only recently has science reached the point where we can objectively analyze not only what people really do, but what mental and biological processes fuel these actions. Though highly complex, Klein explains the science eloquently.

Experimental techniques with Clint Eastwood titles, like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Free Rider Game, and Ultimatum, allow researchers to observe human generosity (and stinginess) in action. Though many of these games have existed for decades, new neuroimaging technologies permit glimpses inside human brains, in real time, as people make key decisions and formulate ethical precepts. The results, as Klein describes them, are anything but obvious.

During such interactions, it turns out, we have opportunities to establish norms that make future dealings possible. The way we play the Free Rider Game, for instance, allows groups to agree on ethics, not just of generosity, but of how to penalize goldbrickers. This holds true across not only groups as small as two or three, but across entire societies. Democracy and capitalism absolutely rely upon neurological habits we acquire during such simple trust exercises.

Strangely, the approaches groups traditionally use to encourage altruism and punish greed don’t really work. Klein shows how verbal praise and public recognition make much better motivators for good behavior than money or possessions. Paying people to do right actually counteracts meaningful gains. And punishments that originate “on high” have far less impact on bad behavior than mass peer pressure or censure from one’s equals. Praise and scolding: who knew?

Klein’s model refutes both common liberal and conservative lines about social organization. Top-down authoritarian government produces not honesty, but resistance, while libertarian ideals encourage mass defection from the social order. Effective codes of honesty instead percolate upward from the masses, and the people do a much better job punishing infringements than either the state or the private sector. Serious readings of Klein’s conclusions will force sweeping reconsiderations of contemporary authority.

Indeed, Klein’s conclusions could jeopardize how we constitute nations, enforce borders, punish criminals, and conduct international relations. Why, he asks, do the citizens of Basel, Switzerland, pay their taxes eagerly, while citizens of Geneva cheat regularly? The answer should force public servants to reconsider how we persuade citizens of all nations to follow the law. Turns out, most people probably learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War.

Though Klein avoids judgmental terms like “totalitarianism,” the implication remains under his regular statements: absolute power undermines basic social cohesion. Only when people feel free to leave social arrangements, only when they feel they have some voice in how society governs them, will citizens wholly commit themselves to improving the general commonweal. Klein sidesteps such sweeping conclusions, but it remains implicit in his statements. (See also this.)

Stefan Klein’s book runs short, but is packed with the kind of dense, surprising information we expect from Malcolm Gladwell or Charles Duhigg. He’s informative, helpful, lucid, and frequently funny. I defy any reader, regardless of preformed positions on human nature, to read this book without having to reconsider what you think you think. Because if Klein’s sources are right, human nature will soon have a new model.

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