Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More on Evolutionary Psychology

Some remarks by Jonathan Marks: Evolutionary Psychology is Neither.

I had a long response in the comments that I will share here. I have said much of this before, but dealing with and understanding the social emotions is one of the common themes in the solidification of our social world.

My response to Mark Sloan, which is really a response to Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind):

Your (Haidt's) stance on the social emotions is precisely the problem. The idea that “shame” stands as some given is dicey, and likewise with most social emotions. Even if there is some strong basic emotion that people feel upon some social encounter, we can imagine a cultural world that downplays or systematizes out the responses to those emotional reactions. More still, we can imagine such a world that thoroughly recognizes the manifestation of such emotions within individuals and teaches individuals, as responses but also as social programs, to turn around and shrug off such emotions, and especially not to allow such emotions to create further social programs.

So, maybe in some bare sense “shame” would still be there, but its effects and lasting cognitive and emotional effects would be far different than under most of what we encompass in our social minds when thinking about shame. But this goes to show that even things like basic emotions are wrapped up in institutions and cultural mediation to produce reactions and further emotions in ways that we often assume are just part of what “shame” has to be. The reflective and social building creatures that we are do not have to pay homage to such emotions. In many ways we have done just that where we see fit. However, I will grant that these emotions have played into the dialectical build up much of our social and personal worlds, and thus into how we feel shame while living in this society.

You run into troubles by failing to imagine such a differing society, or in claiming that such a society would not be highly productive and enjoyable to live in (moral in general terms). You may be making an argument that you would not want to live in such a society, or think that trying to achieve such a society is dangerous, but the failure in imaging such a world leads to a bad description about human beings, which is what we are doing here.

The moral of the story is that pretty much any definition or conception of “shame” will not be able to parse out contingent social factors without thoroughly defacing the concept. That is, there is a great difference in the bare mechanisms that exists in the natal brain/body and how that gets played out in any adult. Evo. Psych's problem is really psychology's problem. By taking certain “mental traits” as given human qualities, instead of understanding their mechanistic underpinnings, they believe that such mental characteristic are necessitated, when in fact there are many environmentally and culturally mediated contingencies that fold into such expression. Much of psychology, by cataloguing their own personal milieu of “traits” and those in the society around them, take the givenness of those traits as essential. They make this mistake because they stayed far away from actually understanding the mechanisms that give rise to such behavioral expression. And, thus, we end up with traits that are overly salient given the mechanistic underpinning. It is of course then a mess when we turn back to history for an explanation of a given entity that is not as robust a concept as was assumed.

One of the keys is that an emotion is a brain/body process, but you (and Haidt) then want to say that this evolutionary inspired given emotion is what is producing “phenomenally cooperative social animals” in the present day, which has to do with actions taken and events produced. In the end, all thoughts and decisions are emotionally mediated, but there is a gap between a generic emotional tendency (e.g. shame) and the behavior and outcomes manifested by such a tendency. The reason why you can conflate the emotion with the action, and think this is a good explanation of humans, is the failure to imagine the social world that tears the two apart, which may be unlike any society we have laid eyes on. Failing to do this is why psychology now has an empty concept of shame. So, you either have to explain the contingent social factors that fold into shame, or you are left with a conception of shame in some bare mechanistic structure that is a shell of our normal use.

I will add here:

Though we are highly reflective beings, ones that can change our selves in drastic ways by asking about our institutions and what kind of beings we want to be, and then making such changes, we have not thoroughly undone broad emotional categories in ways that we are capable of doing. Christian and Buddhists monks, among others, have tried to thoroughly undo some rather throughput social emotions. How much they achieved this is probably varying, but also probably far short of what humans could do. We will become even better at rearranging our selves and our social institutions (including norms, social responses to others) both as we understand exactly what we are (the mechanistic underpinnings) and as we delve into biotechnology and medicine. In the end, there will likely be human beings and societies that look far different than what we are today, and they will have far different encounters with something like "shame." Perhaps they will laugh it off as a folly that we once thought was simply part of our repertoire. 

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