Evolution and Moral Community

by on May 10, 2007 at 2:39 pm in Science | Permalink

Paul Rubin argues that our evolutionary heritage biases us against seeing larger moral communities.

Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there
was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next.
This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum — if a
particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of
another.

This is the world our minds evolved to understand. To this day, we often see
the gain of some people and assume it has come at the expense of others.
Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether
domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else
the exchange wouldn’t occur. Economists have also long argued that the economics
of immigration — immigrants coming here to exchange their labor for money that
they then exchange for the products of other people’s labor — is positive sum.
Yet our evolutionary intuition is that, because foreign workers gain from trade
and immigrant workers gain from joining the U.S. economy, native-born workers
must lose.

1 Lord May 10, 2007 at 3:15 pm

Primitive societies are hardly zero-sum when bounty and scarcity are bestowed by nature. Try again.

2 Lee A. Arnold May 10, 2007 at 4:18 pm

Mr. Tabarrok, I tried to picture what you are writing about in:

“Work”
http://youtube.com/watch?v=8-XlWaVahgc

and

“Elementary Social Studies”
http://youtube.com/watch?v=Rpv0DoTCag4

3 y May 10, 2007 at 4:39 pm

There is evidence for trade among very primitive peoples going back quite a long way–for example, rocks, shells, and so forth found associated with human habitation far from their natural areas of distribution. An assertion that our ancestors lived in zero-sum conditions is something that cannot be accepted casually without evidence. This sounds like just another careless bit of amateur evolutionary psychology.

4 ricpic May 10, 2007 at 5:47 pm

So immigrants are always good for the society they immigrate to? Even when they send the dollars earned back to “my country,” in the process draining the host country? Why? I’ll tell you why. Because you want it to be so. Sophist.

5 Robert Scarth May 10, 2007 at 6:54 pm

ricpic said “…Even when [immigrants] send the dollars earned back to “my country,” in the process draining the host country?”

So someone goes to live in another country, and does useful work in exchange for pieces of paper which they then send back to their home country … sorry, I’m confused, who is it you think is losing out here?

6 Keith May 10, 2007 at 8:31 pm

Wow, not only are Sailer’s own posts awful, so are the ones he recommends.

“Even an economist must agree that (a) immigrants themselves only move because they expect to be better off in their new homes than their old, and (b) once they arrive they will compete with natives for existing economic resources.”

And of course B is exactly the zero-sum fallacy that Rubin was talking about.

Pondering done. That was fun.

7 fustercluck May 10, 2007 at 11:14 pm

“It’s not hard to get people to cooperate, if you persuade them to treat each other as kin. In fact, that’s the point of the Golden Rule.”

As somewhat of an aside, I was reading an article in The New Yorker – a feature on Barack Obama who, I will go ahead and assume, is not universally adored by this crowd.

Anyway…he had an interesting quote: “If everyone is family, no one is family.” ‘Universalism is a delusion.’

We congretate in families, relligious affiliations, political circles, nations, (etc.) because the lack of these structures would render us rudderless as a species. Thus, trade/resource imbalances – and I think most of us understand that they have existed since the dawn of mankind – need not necessarily be at the person level, but are always at least at the group level.

8 Dennis May 11, 2007 at 12:31 am

And of course B is exactly the zero-sum fallacy that Rubin was talking about.

Nonsense. Even the most fervent open borders enthusiast acknowledges that there is some loss in native wages due to immigration. They merely argue that it is worthwhile due to a net gain to the economy as a whole.
It is far more naive to believe that there is no competition than to believe that it is a zero sum proposition. It is elementary after all that for a benefit to ber realized an exchange has to occur (see complementarity).

9 Steve Sailer May 11, 2007 at 1:32 am

This post points out a general problem with economists today: they are too quick to expound upon morality before they understand reality. Less moralism and more realism would be a good motto for economists.

10 Stefan May 11, 2007 at 4:50 am

Steve,

I do not believe that economists are the “moral” ones. Actually, economists try to disentangle “moral” or “opinion” from facts, which is NOT done by politicians, e.g.

11 Barbar May 11, 2007 at 7:21 am

Evolution explains our preference for helping kin… and what explains our ability to think this preference might not be ideal? Magic? God?

12 Dennis May 11, 2007 at 10:19 am

Chairman Mao:
And if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass a-hoppin’.
But when the conversation has degenerated to this:
I wonder if natural selection will kill them off or if economists are doomed to live in their hateful world.
it can safely be described as spent. Just as well, I’ve run out of Kleenex pondering the tribulations of our morally chaste economists. It’s all so emotionally taxing.

13 albatross May 11, 2007 at 10:45 am

Distinguish between:

a. I lose from immigration, but the economy gets better and so the wins outweight the losses.

b. I lose from immigration short-term, but the economy gets better and the rising tide lifts my boat too, so I end up better off.

c. I lose from immigration, and the economy sees no change.

(c) is zero sum, but (a) is certainly an argument for why some people will oppose immigration. A lot of the claim of the anti-immigration movement is that open immigration is a mechanism for redistributing wealth inside the US, from people at the bottom to people at the top.

Another claim, which doesn’t fit here as well, is that the effects of added immigration aren’t simple additive effects–there’s some function of total immigrant population, or unassimilated population, or whatever, that doesn’t appear important for individual immigrants, but which becomes important when we get to some threshhold, say by becoming a destabilizing force in US ethnic identity politics.

I’m not sure either of these concerns is right, though it seems pretty obvious that immigration does redistribute wealth within the country in the short run. I don’t even know how you’d go about looking into the threshhold ideas.

14 Bernard Guerrero May 11, 2007 at 12:06 pm

Albatross,

Evolution gave us ingroup/outgroup distinctions, which get applied across all kinds of categories–my tribe, my church, my family, my race, my party, my nation, whatever. You can’t say ahead of time which of these will be more important; that’s a cultural thing, at least once you get past close family.

That last clause says it all, my man. Dead-on.

15 notsneaky May 11, 2007 at 3:54 pm

There is evidence for trade among very primitive peoples going back quite a long way–for example, rocks, shells, and so forth found associated with human habitation far from their natural areas of distribution.

This is of course qualitatively true but quantitatively it’s pretty small. Yes, there was trade and technological progress in the pre-industrial era. But compared to what came afterward it was essentially zero. So think of the “zero sum” assumption as an approximation.

And let’s be honest, the Steve Sailer/Mark Seecof argument pretty much amounts to “given that I’m white, and that for evolutionary reasons I care more about my brother and sister than my cousin, and more about my cousin than further relations, all I really should care about is white people”.

16 adrian May 11, 2007 at 7:36 pm

notsneaky – and what of it? Who does Jesse Jackson care about?

albatross – Steve deals with the world as is, not what we would like it to be. Marxists deal with a prescriptive world, Steve deals with the real one.

Lord – “The fruits of nature are perishable and variable in location and time.”

So one tribe taking all the oranges of another is irrelevant because oranges grow back? What if said tribe dies in the interim?

17 Barbar May 11, 2007 at 8:30 pm

notsneaky – and what of it? Who does Jesse Jackson care about?

That’s true, Sailer has always considered Jesse Jackson to be a role model.

18 notsneaky May 11, 2007 at 10:11 pm

Albatross. You can dress it up as you like.

Adrian. You’re an idiot. I’m no marxist, and neither is Alex. As for Jesse Jackson, take it up with him. But basically your argument is the old stupid one: “White power isn’t about racism, it’s about being proud of your race!”. Uh huh. Did I mention you were an idiot?

19 adrian May 12, 2007 at 12:54 pm

notsneaky = Whiny + Little + Bitch.

20 Lord May 12, 2007 at 3:30 pm

So one tribe taking all the oranges of another is irrelevant because oranges grow back? What if said tribe dies in the interim?

It is many things but it certainly isn’t zero-sum. I think the main problem here is confusing a game theoretic notion of zero-sum with an economic notion of low growth. There was growth in prehistory, but it was in population; there was wealth but it was in hands. Population grew rapidly, especially after the development of agriculture. Sure growth was low by modern standards, but it was certainly much faster than pre-agarian times. An addition pair of hands added to production. There is nothing zero-sum about that. An additional person did not make the rest poorer which is what zero-sum really means. By this measure of wealth, we are doing far worse than our ancestors despite our advanced civilization and are becoming more a zero-sum society, not less.

21 adrian May 12, 2007 at 7:14 pm

Lord – but the point is that the anti-immigration position of most humans in the world is simple pleioscene gene expression, ie pre-economic growth gene expression, and no amount of ‘tell them how the economy works’ rationalization will make it go away. I’ve studied economics for four years, and yet I’m not cool with the idea of France becoming majority Muslim, or the US becoming an extension of Latin America. Simple gene expression? Da. Do I care? Nyet.

22 albatross May 12, 2007 at 8:04 pm

Dennis:

Any useful prescriptions had better start with a good description of reality, right? Consider international trade and global climate models. In both cases, we use them to both describe reality and to guide future policy. If the models are good descriptions of reality, we’re likely to get good guidance from them.

And this matters, as Keynes pointed out. Decisionmakers *are* strongly affected by these models, sometimes without even knowing where they came from.

23 Dennis May 12, 2007 at 8:26 pm

What’s missing here is the new data offered by recent research; evolutionary pressures have been acting on us recently, that is to say in the 40,000 years since humans split into the geographical regions that forged the racial differences we see in pigmentation, body types. This of course is a very frightening prospect for many, particularly of Rubin’s philosophical persuasion, because it also suggests that evolution has been acting on geographically, hence racially, distinct populations, contrary to the comforting notion of stasis in human evolution, now rendered quaint and seemingly designed to spare us the reality of race.
From this we have to confront the specter of not just cultural but racial differences in sociality and cooperation, just the elephant squatting amidst Rubin’s paltry thesis. Careful where you tread, Professor. Never mind, I’m sure your will to put unpleasantness out of mind will triumph.

Rubin would selectively apply pre-historic adaptation as an explanation why people favor their own; useless really and as likely to explain why too much immigration can break up a polity into intractible factions, but okay, fine.
What drives the rest of us batty when confronting this “let’s presuppose X” mentality is that immigration, like nearly every other issue, is not solely an economic issue, it is also a social, political and environmental (in every sense of the word) issue.
What Rubin will never understand, perhaps because he doesn’t live with the vertiginous effects of massive immigration inflows rendering parts of our cities and suburbs less and less desirable and beyond the means of working class folk, is that some of us do not believe that the sun rises and sets on economic growth, however essentially beneficial it is. It is a beneifit, not the raison d’etre of civilization.

Sociality and cooperation are traits that have been selected for, and recently (that cold breath on the back of your neck is IQ); we in fact have remarkable and beneficial capacity for it. Rubin sees imperfection and calls it deficiency, because our ability in this regard is not absolute and confounded by other traits favoring kin. It is the same old ideological rigidity that measures man against an imaginary standard of perfection and finds him lacking but for the introduction of a liberating ideology. Coercion always follows.

It furthermore is a fundamental misunderstanding not only of how the world works, but its very nature, and it always ends badly.

And still these other traits favoring kin haven’t lost their usefulness as a means of genetic propagation, and can’t be expected to. Who’s to say an individual doesn’t have every right to seek his genetic perpetuation? Recognizing the “sticky” nature of immigrant populations, that is the tendency for immigrants to establish and rely on contacts within it, and for the tendency for these populations to resist assimilation the larger they become, as it becomes less necessary, the favoring of kin begins to undermine the health of the body politic. That’s what you see (those who allow themselves to look) when protesters take to the street waving the flags of substandard foreign nations they risked life and limb to emigrate from, protesting the slight possibility that the nation they escaped to might timidly expect to enforce its laws regarding immigration. Reason, as we understand it, is nowhere to be found. Those are kinship flags, as much as anything else.

This is fundamentally human behavior, confounding, exasperating, difficult, but any cure for it inevitably is far worse. All we can do is recognize the limitations imposed on us thereby, and proceed with caution, not the carelessness of “immigration is good, hence unlimited immigration is unlimited good.”

Of course, this perpetual impulse toward ideological coercion too can be explained in evolutionary terms, as we chase our tail in circles.

Whatever insights offered by evo psych, and I do believe they will eventually be many if the ideologues outside of it leave it be to develop along with the remarkable advances in genomics to come, the only reasonable inference to draw from it is that to preserve liberty we should proceed with caution because human nature is far from perfectly malleable (in fact it appears less and less so the farther we get from the behaviorist school of thought that is rapidly fading before our eyes), and never will be.

24 notnseaky May 12, 2007 at 9:02 pm

but the point is that the anti-immigration position of most humans in the world is simple pleioscene gene expression, ie pre-economic growth gene expression, and no amount of ‘tell them how the economy works’ rationalization will make it go away. I’ve studied economics for four years, and yet I’m not cool with the idea of France becoming majority Muslim, or the US becoming an extension of Latin America. Simple gene expression? Da. Do I care? Nyet.

Of course the point is wrong to begin with, but even then you’re basically saying “I can’t help being prejudiced, my genes made me do it!”. Not only you’re a racist schmucko but you won’t even take resposibility ofr your moronic opinions. WLB indeed.

The racism of Mexicans vs Whites, and North Africans vs Whites, is well known. Muslims in Europe racially target white women to rape.

Ah, here we get to the real problem, which is all those racist Mexicans oppressing the down trodden white man. Does it really need to be pointed out how idiotic this is?

25 fustercluck May 12, 2007 at 11:47 pm

“What Rubin will never understand, perhaps because he doesn’t live with the vertiginous effects of massive immigration inflows rendering parts of our cities and suburbs less and less desirable and beyond the means of working class folk, is that some of us do not believe that the sun rises and sets on economic growth, however essentially beneficial it is. It is a beneifit, not the raison d’etre of civilization.”

Bingo.

26 Chairman Mao May 13, 2007 at 6:51 am

Perhaps using a more descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) approach to conveying economic information to the masses (i.e. other personality types) would make it more palatable.

Moreover, one is qualified to comment on the human condition using logic and economics with a little sugar rather than playing on people’s passions. Either way, poverty remains, hard work can be painful and death is a reality. We must evolove out of the age when we tucked ugly facts under the carpet.

27 Barbar May 13, 2007 at 8:11 am

Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese people all rely on the “if you look like me, you are my friend” module that was built by natural selection (evidence: a conversation with Richard Dawkins), which is why no one would ever think that there could ever be any racism between them.

28 albatross May 14, 2007 at 11:08 am

adrian:

Thanks for providing the Dawkins quote! I’d seen it before, and was thinking of it when I wrote my comment.

The point of my examples is that genes/race/ethnicity don’t *always* dominate. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, and the situation is quite mixed historically. I haven’t tried to do any kind of analysis (and don’t have enough history to do such an analysis), but I think it’s very common to have groups A and B, closely related and hostile, in a fight in which one or both are fighting on the side of unrelated outsiders, against their more closely related but hostile neighbors.

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