We’ve been discussing human nature and the naturalistic fallacy a lot, and how proving that something is human nature is not the same as proving that it’s a desirable trait to have today in modern society. As I’ve said in the past, human nature just means it was something that was at one point in human history very useful when it came to surviving and reproducing, but is not necessarily so useful now. Something that is part of human nature may still be useful for surviving and reproducing, but it also may be maladaptive, meaning it’s counterproductive to optimal living, but not so counterproductive that it ever ends up being weeded out of human nature through the evolutionary process.
To give an example, bugs evolved to be attracted to light. This is because being attracted to light, for a variety of reasons, helped them survive and reproduce in their original habitat. In the location of a big city, in an era where artificial light is the norm, this attraction to light is a maladaptive trait. When you remove your light bulb cover you may see a bunch of dead bugs accumulated in it. Bugs are known to waste time flittering around lamp posts at night, or hovering outside an apartment window, or flying into bug zappers.
However there are still plenty of habitats where this attraction to light still provides high survival and reproduction value, so this trait is not going to be weeded out of existence anytime in the near future.
Just like a big city with artificial light makes things that our part of a bug’s nature now counterproductive and dysfunctional, modern civilized society does the same thing to many traits that are part of our human nature.
The desire for violence is a part of human nature. So is the desire to live peacefully. Civilized society tries to police and reduce the former, or at least channel it into areas where it will do the least collective harm, like athletics, while encouraging and incentivizing the latter in a way that helps the greater, collective good. The urge to compete is part of human nature, as is the urge to cooperate. Civilized society tries to channel the competitive and cooperative urges into areas that it deems constructive, while discouraging people from exercising these same urges into areas it deems detrimental to the greater good. For example, civilized society may encourage cooperation in many instances, but when criminals cooperate with each other it’s its own separate crime, racketeering. Or society may give a criminal incentive to cooperate with the police and confess to a crime and incriminate his partners, but will punish criminals who cooperate with each other to cover up crimes.
Some human nature behaviors and traits are considered universally bad in civilized society, with no positive manifestations. Take for example, rape. It’s a controversial notion, but there is a school of thought that says that rape evolved under some circumstances as a genetically advantageous behavioral adaptation. This view was popularized by biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer in their 2000 book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion.
The Wikipedia entry discusses how critics applied the naturalistic fallacy with this book:
Thornhill and Palmer write that “Rape is viewed as a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage”. They further state that by categorizing a behavior as “natural” and “biological” we do not in any way mean to imply that the behavior is justified or even inevitable. “Biological” means “of or pertaining to life,” so the word applies to every human feature and behavior. But to infer from that, as many critics assert that Thornhill and Palmer do, that what is biological is somehow right or good, would be to fall into the so-called naturalistic fallacy. They make a comparison to “natural disasters as epidemics, floods and tornadoes”. This shows that what can be found in nature is not always good and that measures should be and are taken against natural phenomena. They further argue that a good knowledge of the causes of rape, including evolutionary ones, are necessary in order to develop effective preventive measures.
Evolutionary psychologists McKibbin et al. argue that the claim that evolutionary theories are justifying rape, is a fallacy in the same way that it would be a fallacy, to accuse the scientists doing research on the causes of cancer, that they are justifying cancer. Instead, they say that understanding the causes of rape may help create preventive measures.
The point is, because rape was once an advantageous strategy purely from a survival and reproduction standpoint, especially during those parts of human history before the existence of modern birth control and abortion procedures, it is still part of human nature today, which is why our society puts so much effort into educating about, preventing, and punishing rape. Yet only an idiot or a sociopath would argue that a rapist is behavior to emulate, or that being a rapist was ever an example of good behavior.
Another reason why an aspect of human nature may be maladaptive is because it’s a free rider trait. Free riders are opportunists who game the system in a way that allows them to benefit themselves as the expense of others. Free riders behave selfishly in their own favor in ways that hurt the greater, collective good of the group.
Since free riders have existed throughout recorded human history, and because one can see the ways in which being a free rider can benefit someone, it’s tempting to use the naturalistic fallacy with free riding and say that being selfish is a desirable trait. As I described in a recent post:
[B]eing a free rider only works when a minority of people are free riders. There is always a tipping point level where if enough people start behaving selfishly and free riding the whole game falls apart. In the game theory game Prisoner’s Dilemma, if everyone starts competing it’s a mess. Same for the game Tragedy of the Commons: if enough people start acting selfishly the system falls apart.
In every system, there is always a balance between competition and and cooperation that must be aimed for. The more civilized and structured a society is, the more important cooperation becomes, and the lower the threshold becomes for crossing that free rider tipping point and having the whole system unravel.
So advanced civilization as it exists today must be taken into account when discussing whether a trait reflects human nature, and when discussing if that trait is still an optimal trait today or a maladaptive one. What works in the context of a hunter gather society from thousands of years ago, or even in the context of a civilized society from mere decades ago, may be dysfunctional and self-defeating within the context of the specific, advanced society of today.