A braindead approach to free will

As Wired for Culture demonstrates, the greatest intellectual threats posed to freedom and autonomy today are those put up by evolutionary biologists and psychologists

Angus Kennedy

Topics Books

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The thing about survival is that it just doesn’t mean anything. Not in itself. It just is. American ‘preppers’ might well have survived the end of this world on 21 December 2012, but whatever new post-apocalypse society they were thinking of creating would have been one they would have to give meaning to. They would have to choose it. Simply being there would not be enough to make sense of their world.

Which is why books like Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation, which attempt to reduce human history (and there is no other kind) to one iron law of natural selection for survival, tell us nothing about the meaning of history, society or culture – although they may, ironically, tell us much about the authors’ all-too-contemporary concerns with human self-interest and, in particular, their obsession with what they see as the problem of free will.

From the very start of Pagel’s argument, his profound hostility to what he terms ‘capricious free will’ is apparent. While he accepts human exceptionalism, this is only insofar as he sees humanity as the only species to be determined by culture as well as by genetics. Culture, he says, has outstripped our genes as our ‘biological strategy’ for survival. We are thus subject to a double determination: it is not that we are either born or made but that our nature propels us into the very environments that will nurture us. Painting genes send us to art school. Orator genes to debating clubs. And presumably there’s some kind of genetic disposition for getting into the science of evolution, too. Pagel argues that everything follows a genetic version of David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage, that each should ‘do what you are best at and do only that’. Given that theory, it’s a bit of a shame then that he has not heeded his own advice and stuck to biology. His scientific expertise does not transfer as easily as he might imagine to the cultural products of humanity or the culture of human societies.

In Pagel’s view, we do not have culture because we are human or conscious or have language or labour; it is the other way round. What gives meaning to being human is culture, ‘something akin to a software “operating system” installed without our consent by our parents and others in our societies. It defines who we are and is our internal voice.’ We are ‘imprinted’ with culture like ducklings, which explains our ‘surprising and sometimes alarming devotion’ to the culture in which we are accidentally born. And with it, he sees in us a propensity for racism, xenophobia and violence driven by natural self-interest: survival at the expense of others.

He warns us to be careful about our illusion of free will. Because what we want is always locked into a ‘chain leading all the way back to our birth’ and because ‘to an evolutionist, free will isn’t even all it’s cracked up to be anyway’. For him, those who survived in the past are not those who merely did what they wanted, capriciously, but those who survived. For Pagel, survival is too important to be left up to us. Rather than us creating culture as testament and witness to our existence we are in fact just passengers in ‘cultural survival vehicles’ that exist for the benefit of culture and not for us. Forget about beauty and truth. As he charmingly puts it, culture is just ‘the most successful way there has ever been of making more people’.

We live then in ‘cultural survival vehicles’. This term, says Pagel, is central to his ‘understanding of what makes us human’. What can he mean by it? In short, the human species is a vehicle (like a physical body is for genes) for the survival of replicators, in this case not genes, but cultural ‘memes’ or mind-genes. So genes build a body, a temporary structure, as a way of surviving. And memes, like genes, build another body, a culture, in which to live, again as a survival strategy. Or, precisely, a cultural survival vehicle is built by ‘coalitions of ideas roped together by cultural evolution’. Culture is ‘our species’ biological strategy’. Being part of such a culture increases your chances of survival – it is self-interested at root. And these cultures compete for resources and territory. Some prosper: cultural selection picking winners. Some fail and die. What we think we want is irrelevant.

Or so, he speculates, this is what might have happened. It’s remarkable in a book that purports to explain the science of culture that there is so little actual science. Instead, there’s an awful lot of mights and could-have-beens. Or the great possibilities of a gene like FOXP2, which might just be the key to explain all the mysteries. Maybe it will do a better job than FOXP1 did. Who can tell? Certainly no one reading this book.

Pagel’s assault on free will continues throughout the book. The idea of an ‘I’ or a ‘me’? Just an illusion. Really our mind is more like a theatre and ‘we’ are being directed. Personal identity? So ‘tenuous’. He claims, and this is typical of his scientific rhetoric, that ‘cognitive science teaches us that our perceptions and memories are not just fallible; they are stories our brain concocts to prop up our egos’.

Note the phrase, ‘Science teaches us’. Not ‘we do science’. It teaches us apparently. Like some deus ex machina. Given that religion is anathema to evolutionites like Pagel, Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson, it is funny-sad to read him arguing we should imagine God to be our genes: ‘the truly eternal players that our minds will have had to answer to’. Yet he is redeemed by no sense of the irony involved in his laying down a law of natural teleology, his objectification of culture, nor his diminution of subjectivity to a degree verging beyond misanthropy.

Pagel’s high-handed application of the law of natural selection to reduce human history and culture to matters of facts leads him to treat hugely complex and tragic situations like the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda as explicable by the ‘fact’ that ‘Hutus are agriculturalists or farmers and Tutsis are pastoralists who herd cows’. Throw in a shortage of land and a little bit of ‘something to spark violence into action’ and, wham, there you have it.

Is it that simple? Only if you accept that the way we are is entirely because of the way we were. Only if you feel comfortable with a notion of Hutus as being throwbacks of some kind. Only if you read history backwards. Only if you can stomach the idea of there having been ‘200,000 years of our history’ without there having been any, erm, historians through its long dark aeons.

The problem for such a view of course is the extent to which we do not act like self-replication machines – and the extent to which we demonstrate altruism, empathy, self-sacrifice, emotion and sociability. Pagel attempts to solve this self-made problem by arguing that such behaviour is actually there for the survival of the group, of the culture. He argues we cooperate, despite our selfishness, because of kinship ties, because of mutual back-scratching reciprocity and because of ‘ultrasociality’. By which he means benefiting the group at cost to yourself now because it will enhance your reputation in later transactions. Altruism then, the science teaches us, is not what it appears but is really just ‘another stall in the reputation marketplace’. Just another survival strategy.

It is in terms such as these that Pagel can look back over the past 10,000 years and make the remarkable claim that crime has been steadily reducing over the period! This completely naturalistic and ahistorical view of what crime might be is not supported by any notion that we might have decided to become more law-abiding. No. In his view it is criminal genes/memes that have progressively been weeded out by a process of selection by and for culture. It’s a mercy then that he is nervous to make the logical leap and instead refrains from any suggestions as to how society might best accelerate such a benign process…

The role played by the intellectual opposition to the idea of free in these accounts rests on a misunderstanding of what self-interest is. And the clue is in the word self. I have an interest in my self. We are talking about a notion of an autonomous being here, and there is actually nothing natural at all about the idea of a self or of being interested, for that matter. To be interested in one’s self is a matter of being conscious, being human and being free. In other words, being precisely what Pagel has been dismissing in all these pages as an illusion, a fiction. He thinks we are out of our own control. He sees self as plain selfish rather than equally capable of being selfless. He sees self-interest as hostile to society, to being together, because he can only explain self-interest in terms of genetic survival. That lets him explain suicide, for example, in terms of self-interest when stopping to think about it just for a minute would suggest that suicide is quite, and irrevocably, at odds with self-interest.

At other points in history, self-interest has been seen as constitutive of society rather than necessarily corrosive of it, and the shape and thrust of Pagel’s arguments speak more to contemporary fashions of thought than they do to any truth of being human. And when the book gets to the heart of what concerns Pagel, it is a pretty predictable set of contemporary worries. We are in danger of outstripping our species ‘carrying capacity’, our predilection for small-scale groups and local customs is threatened by globalisation, our tendency towards social behaviour is being undermined by naked self-interest and greed. He concludes by urging that we should not ‘rebel against the dictates of our genes’. After all, they are domesticating us, and culture is taming us, making us commit less crime. In short, he urges us to submit, to exercise less of that oh-so-illusory free will: our world will be a better place if we just stop trying to get ahead so much.

In the end, Pagel sees us, our culture, as a machine created by our genes, albeit a machine ‘capable of greater inventiveness and common good than any other on Earth’. And the key to the smooth running of this machine is ‘to provide or somehow create among people stronger clues of trust and common values’ and ‘encourage the conditions that give people a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes’. This, in short, is genetic, memetic, nudge theory. It’s driven by a desire that we get in line and shape up.

If it is science, then it’s the very science his view of man and society requires. Pagel doesn’t give us an answer as to who should do the nudging, or quite whom needs nudged. But in the light of his own theory, there will be those with leader genes who have been born and made to be in charge. And they will have their foot soldiers who, presumably, have follower genes. And then – I will be one of these – there will be those of us who choose to resist and would have it otherwise. It is not yet the case that all of us want to live in Singapore or, for that matter, enjoy somatic Solidarity Services in a unified World State.

I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that the greatest intellectual threats posed to freedom and autonomy today are those put up by evolutionary biologists and psychologists and their kin. Those who are determined to put man under a microscope and dissect the meaning of our lives into so much meat and memes. Those who look backward to find our determinants beyond history, way back into our biology. Those who don’t or won’t look forward into what we are in the process of becoming. Those who deny that culture is actually unnatural; that it is something we create in a rebellious defiance of our very mortality.

Pagel’s outlook reminds me of nothing so much as Nietzsche’s worldview: crudely, that might makes right. Nietzsche rejected philosophical dualism. Any notion of there being a conscious self not reducible to brain activity, was ‘childish’, he wrote. There is no mind, just body. The mind is a mere organ of survival. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he wrote: ‘body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body’. This is just what Daniel Dennett’s rejection of what he calls the ‘intentional stance’ means. It is, of course, Pagel’s rejection of philosophical idealism of any sort in favour of a brute materialism. It is also a rejection of idealism in the more straightforward sense of having ideals and seeking to act on them – at least in the sense of these being my ideals, something I am responsible for. And, as such, it is an evasion of human responsibility for being in the world. After all, if cowardice is simply a matter of genetic survival then how can I rightly be blamed for it? I sense that Pagel’s book might prove very popular with teenagers: ‘But Mum, a cultural meme made me do it…’

Mark Pagel may not agree with me. He might be predisposed to argue that I’m the unwitting victim of a culturally transmitted virus and that I won’t be around long enough to realise things are the opposite of the way I see them. But I assert that it is Pagel, on the contrary, who is the one who has things head to toe. Culture is something we leave behind us rather than something that survives at our expense. Jean-Paul Sartre understood it rather better: it is existence that precedes essence rather than existence being what is essential. The ability of our minds to shape the circumstances in which we find ourselves is far greater than Pagel can credit. We are all inventors and originators, not just imitators.

But what matters most perhaps is just that: while we are indeed not God and cannot will whatever we want, nonetheless we as individuals are what makes up society and society is what we mean it to be. And that ability to create meaning in the world rests at bottom on our freedom, not our survival.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and convenor of The Academy.

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