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The perils of “ape-brain” overreach

The perils of “ape-brain” overreach
Human nature, so they argue, is merely "a modified form of ape nature."

“The Elephant in the Brain” asserts that primates are the best way to understand humans, but why exactly are we supposed to ignore the "human" part of human nature?

There are 1200+ notes from 620 sources in Status and Culture, but alas, it should have been 623. On his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen griped, “[Status and Culture] doesn’t seem at all aware of Simler and Hanson, and Robin Hanson more generally and for that matter my own What Price Fame?This TC diss-blurb stung a bit, because I swore the Good Faith Author Oath and tried to read everything I could. Colin Marshall had kindly pointed me to Hanson’s blog posts on status, but by the time I read them, I had already cited the same ideas from elsewhere. And I would have happily read What Price Fame? had I known it existed.

“Simler and Hanson,” on the other hand, is a more complicated complaint. This is Cowen's short-hand for Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson's 2018 book, The Elephant in the Brain, and in my Good Faith Author Oath, I immediately bought a copy. Cowen is absolutely correct that I should have acknowledged the book’s existence. But had I read it in time, I would have used it to exemplify the overreach of an increasingly common methodological approach, grounded in evolutionary psychology, that I'd summarize as “ape-brain.”

Ape-brain writers seemingly believe that traditional social analysis fails because it attempts to explain human life — medicine, education, charity, art, religion, politics — as human life. Simler and Hanson state repeatedly that humans are best understood as “primates, specifically apes,” which means that human nature is "a modified form of ape nature." Simler came to this conclusion after reading Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest, which “analyzes human societies with the same concepts used to analyze chimpanzee communities.” Suddenly society perfect sense to him: “an office full of software engineers” was just “a tribe of chattering primates.”

The resemblance of human society to ape tribes is an old idea. Zoologist Desmond Morris explored these similarities in 1969’s The Human Zoo, and decades long before that, Clarence Day Jr. wrote an entire satire called This Simian World with lines such as, "The best government for simians seems to be based on a parliament: a talk-room, where endless vague thoughts can be warmly expressed. This is the natural child of those primeval sessions that gave pleasure to apes."

Parallels between humans and animals aren't hard to find. For example, Victorian England is quite like a bee colony with workers and drones serving the queen. But Simler and Hanson aren’t interested in mere metaphors: Animal social dynamics, they argue, reveal the hidden mechanisms that guide our daily behaviors.

Humans are certainly blind to their motivations, and evolutionary psychology seems useful for exploring the origin of particular universal human propensities and heuristics. Ape-brain overreach, however, emerges when proponents claim our animalistic instincts are the primary cause for our contemporary behavior. “It's too easy,” write Simler and Hanson, “to get caught up in all the ways we're different from other animals: language, reasoning, music, technology, religion. And yet even in our uniqueness, humans were forged by the same processes responsible for all animal behaviors: natural and sexual selection, the relentless imperative to survive and reproduce." So if the Zambian chimpanzee Julia started a "trend" by putting a blade of grass behind her ear, do we really need to consider anything else to explain fashion?

The first flaw in this thinking is that humans are legions different from animals, particularly in the fact that our cognition overrides and shapes our instinctual drives. As philosopher Susanne Langer wrote in 1942, "No matter how many of [humans’] traits may be identified as simian features, there is that in him yet which springs from a different source and is forever unzoological." For Langer and her mentor Ernst Cassirer, humans transcended animality through the ability to symbolize at a complex level. This single capability opened the door for convention-based practices such as language, ritual, myth, religion, art — and even rationality. In other words, human nature is an extremely modified ape nature. Ape-brain requires us to downplay the entirety of symbolization, because apes don't symbolize with any complexity. But ignoring symbolization in human behavior is like ignoring "living underwater" in describing dolphin life — it shapes everything! This means that symbolization occurs even in areas of life where Darwinian "fitness" is a clear driver. As much as our genes push us to select mates with good "health," humans use collectively-shared symbols to judge what is “healthy" (and these symbols differ by era and locale.)

By taking symbolization off the table, Simler and Hanson are forced to offer very crude explanations for the blatantly symbolic parts of life. To analyze art, why read E. H. Gombrich, Herbert Read, or Arthur Danto, when Darwin explains everything you need to know! A work of art, write Simler and Hanson, is “an advertisement of the artist's value as a potential mate” and “also functions as a general-purpose fitness display, that is, an advertisement of the artist's health, energy, vigor, coordination, and overall fitness.” Apparently the best way to explain Piet Mondrian's pursuit of neo-plasticist red, blue, and yellow paintings was his desire to show off a “survival surplus.”

The inherent issue in explaining human nature is weighing the influence of different human motives — instinctual and learned, unconscious and conscious, conventional and rational. For ape-brain theories to be persuasive, authors need to demonstrate why evolutionary instincts better predict behaviors than the dominant explanations from economics, sociology, semiotics, and anthropology.

This tension is very clear when explaining status — a favorite subject of the ape-brain set, who assume humans are genetically disposed to be “status-seeking monkeys." The human desire for social rank must be in our genes, since primates live in hierarchical groups. In The Status Game, author Will Storr declares we are “great apes” programmed to want status due to natural selection: “In the millions of years in which our brains were being designed by evolution, the greater our status relative to the people around us, the better able we’d be to maximize our potential for survival and reproduction.”

But animal hierarchies are extremely poor parallels to human hierarchies, as they are based exclusively on fear and dominance. “Status,” on the other hand, describes voluntary human hierarchies based on esteem. The fact that power-based hierarchies have become rarer in a liberal democratic world suggests that humans can perfectly organize without being chained to their animality. Moreover the most striking characteristic of status in human communities is how order is maintained and demonstrated through beliefs and symbols rather than threats of violence.

Even more damning to ape-brain thinking on status is that no evolutionary explanation is required to explain its origin. Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has shown how status is a rational group optimization strategy. High-status is given to contributors as an encouragement for future contributions. If ape-brain writers disagree with these non-genetic origins, they need to explicitly work to disprove them. But based on the ape-brain books' bibliographies, no one seems to be reading Max Weber, Ralph Linton, or Ralf Dahrendorf to research the theories they so wish to unseat.

Of course, my gripes with ape-brain simply rehash a century-long debate between cultural anthropologists and bio-anthropologists. (On his blog, Robin Hanson seems sympathetic to a very paranoid history that pins the entire conflict on culture wing conspirators who feared “that an evolutionarily based social science would put them out of business.”) I don’t want to be yet another partisan in this long war, as I think evolutionary psychology is a fine pursuit that potentially offers many insights to synthesize into a general theory of culture. Simler and Hanson, for example, do excellent work in The Elephant in the Brain demonstrating that Freudian rationalization follows an evolutionary logic.

Where I worry is when ape-brain instinctual universalism tries to steamroll over areas where the differences in human behavior are the entire point: taste, aesthetics, identity formation, artistic invention, subcultural rebellion, fashion cycles, and historical memory. A lot of human life is symbolic play. Politics and status are just too bound up in historical circumstances and specific economic modes to be reduced to a single ape-tribe dynamic. Simler and Hanson’s Darwinian “virtuosity” theory of art makes no sense in a broad historical context, as the internal dynamics of symbolic-thinking encouraged the avant garde to abandon craft and aesthetic pleasure for much higher goals.

Judging by the non-fiction bestseller lists — from Malcolm Gladwell to Steven Pinker to Sapiens — evolutionary psychology is arguably today's reigning methodological lens for explaining individual action and social interaction. There is an obvious appeal to this approach in a data-driven era: Authors can attribute their ideas to research papers from esteemed teams of scholars rather than the capricious scribblings of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and early economists (who dared to have ideas before the birth of regression analysis). But if ape-brain writers demand we should think less about humans as humans with exclusive human abilities like symbolization, they need to spend more time showing that animal instinct alone better explains us than other methodologies. They have yet to do so.