Friday, March 19, 2010

Anthropologists go to great lengths to discover what some have long known by sitting in chairs and thinking

Markets make kinder, gentler societies: study
Free-enterprising, impersonal markets may seem cutthroat and mean-spirited.

But a provocative new study says markets have been a force for good over the last 10,000 years, helping to drive the evolution of more trusting and cooperative societies.

"We live in a much kinder, gentler world than most humans have lived in," says anthropologist Joe Henrich of the University of B.C., lead author of the study that helps topple long-held stereotypes.

The finding, reported today in the journal Science, suggests people trust and play fair with strangers because markets and religion -- not some deep psychological instinct inherited from our dim tribal past -- have helped shape our neural circuitry over the eons.

The 13 researchers on Henrich's international team spent time -- and played clever psychological games -- with more than 2,000 people in 15 different societies.

One researcher trekked to Bolivia to play the games with the Tsimane people who hunt and forage for food in the rain forest. Another anthropologist introduced the games to the Hadza living in small nomadic groups on the savannah in Tanzania. At the other end of the human spectrum, the researchers studied wage earners in Accra, Ghana, and Missouri, in the American Midwest.

In each of the 15 societies they recruited volunteers to play Dictator, Ultimatum and Third-Party Punishment -- games widely used by researchers to gauge people's willingness to share with strangers, and punish people who make unfair allocations.

The study found that the likelihood that people "played fair" with strangers increased with the degree people were integrated into markets and participated in a world religion. Participants in the larger-scale societies were also more likely to punish players who did not play fair.

The hunter-gatherer and tribal societies studied are known for sharing among family and close acquaintances. But the researchers found fair play in monetary transactions with strangers was almost an alien concept. People in the simpler societies treated strangers less fairly, and were less likely to punish people who kept most of the money for themselves.

Social scientists -- and economists in particular -- have long been baffled at the way people in large societies are so trusting and fair in dealings with strangers. Many academics have argued it is a throwback to a time when humans were hunter-gatherers.
This is because many social scientists have little conception of what a covenant is or how it works or how it can be renewed in the midst of modernity. There are certain things that prouldy empirical sciences and reasoning - and contemporary academic anthropology is largely empirical and anti-theoretical - just can't see, though it is important for us to note when, given the weight of historical developments, empirical sciences are encouraged in taking baby steps towards seeing or measuring what they can no longer readily ignore...
Henrich and his colleagues say their findings indicate playing fair with strangers is a behaviour that was favoured as the size of societies and populations grew.

The emergence and growth of markets allowed for the exchange of goods, skills and knowledge and enabled large complex societies to emerge and function, says Henrich, noting that humans in large societies are not nearly as selfish as some would suggest.

"There are all these aspects to our lives that just seem to work, because we are not actually baboons," says Henrich in an interview.

He says life -- and commerce -- would be much different without trust and fair play: "Shoplifting would be a constant threat. Fruit sellers couldn't put fruit in front of their stores. Cab drivers would have to take the money up front."

The study also suggests world religions, such as Christianity and Islam, were a potent evolutionary force, favouring the growth of complex societies by reinforcing fairness and trust.

"The problem with large, impersonal societies is there is lots of opportunity to cheat at the margins, and to do the wrong thing," says Henrich. Religion helped check bad behaviour.

"If you believe that there is a God watching that will send you to hell for all eternity, then you're less likely to take advantage of somebody."

Henrich says policy-makers and economists need to be more aware that fair play and altruism are powerful forces that motivate people to do things for the public good, such as donate blood, recycle or conserve energy.

"People will give blood freely as an altruistic act," he says. But he notes that blood donations can actually drop when people are paid money to give blood because the cash takes away the "warm glow of altruism."
But there is no mention of which of these "world religions" does a better job. Clearly, the (post)Christian world is economically more advanced that the Islamic world. Islamic antisemitism will be, I suspect, the subject of my next post. However, this is not to suggest that Islam is not a definite improvement, for Muslims, in comparison to the unmediated tribalism of old Arabia. But if one form of religion is better than another, then why not also say that some forms of the higher form are also better...?

Anyway, for now, just to show that you don't have to travel deep into the rainforest to discover that certain religious understandings underpin the freedom of markets and more complex forms of trust, I'll give you a tidbit from the book I am reading, written by a scholar, Philip Rieff, who specialized in thinking about the failures of his colleagues in the Freudian therapy business:
It is important to note that, in the development of Western culture, the meaning of discipline cannot be separated from its credal animus [i.e. religion]. The conformity of action in mass organizatin is anti-credal [anti-religious]. Deep individuality cannot exist except in relation to the highest authority. No inner discipline can operate without a charismatic institution, nor can such an institution survive without that supreme authority from a relation to whom self-confidence derives. Without an authority deeply installed, there is no foundation for individuality. Self-confidence thus expresses submission to supreme authority.
For all the confidence of Israel in its covenanted identity, the covenant is itself a response to sheer transgressiveness. Only when the Israelites turn away from Moses and his mission does he receive the covenant. Covenants are ways of trying again. And from this new drawing power, Moses gathers a second and weird strength, yet without magical characteristics... In this world as a vale of soul-making, circumstances are enough to create wonder and astonishment; no causal explanation can destroy our wonder. THere is no security in our knowledge because there is no limit on possibility.(24-5)
law is becoming mere legality just because law, to be compelling, must be thought true; and to be true, law must derive from those repressive oppositions to possibility, that very breaking of law, that criminality definitely opposed by the authority of charisma. Thus, for example, in ancient Israel, Deuteronomic laws make explicit the underlying assumption that wrongdoing constitutes an offense to the divine overlord, to the supreme authority; an offense against the Lord is a threat to the group, and for both reasons, and in that order, must be compensated against by the profoundly social act of punishment. Evil is the enactment of closed possibility. But, although closed, the possibility is always there, waiting to be freed from the preventive disciplines of obedience. Therefore, "evil" is always possible; it is there, in what must be denied. Law is a codification of denials. Law itself must lose effect, and criminality gain a peculiar eminence, wherever the dynamics of guilt, behind the denials, have been sapped by the "rational" criticism. Finally, everythying that is, or might be, is rational; everything that cannot be can be criticized into existence. Superego can be talked into deep alliances with id, under the name of Reason. The weakest of all legal theories, bound to destroy the law as a codified expression of charisma, is the rationalist one of the people deliberately establishing such prohibitions or such regulations as suit their convenience at a particular time. Such "progressive" and "consensus" theories of law as now dominate our most persuasive legal minds are an advanced phase of disintegration in the binding authority of law. The lawyers' conception of law would make it derive, not from charismatic institutions, but rather as a specification of popular opinion. Such a conception indicates a principled disinclination to remove that evil from our midst which is the soul and substance of law. If charismatic authority is ever to be reestablished, or, more precisely, if law is to again dominate, then perhaps a principled regression to primitve doctrine - a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth - is necessary; only thus, perhaps, will we work through the therapeutic phase and again establish a moral order beyond the dis-ease that therapy itself can only affirm by ints analytic anti-charismatic intelligence. The very nature of therapy affirms the dis-ease endemic in an anti-charismatic culture. It is in this precise sense that such a cure can itself be called, with equal truth, the dis-ease.(32-33)
But can Rieff be right? After all the "therapeutic society" he bewails is not without rather complex forms of economic relationships, dependent on trust and on fear of the law's financial and penal punishments (rather less than on fear of God). On the other hand, Western nations have become "ponzi nations" with increasingly expensive and, in the long-term, unsustainable systems of social welfare benefits. Perhaps our complex societies depend on a form of social or religious capital that is presently eroding. The risk of such erosion is what the insurance industry knows as "moral hazard" - when you sell someone insurance, a new problem arises: how do you now stop him from doing stupid, risky, things he wouldn't do if he were not insured? how do you stop him from undermining the assumptions of risk on which the complex system of mutual insurance is based?

When our fear of "moral hazard" is destroyed - be we players in the world's largest investment banks that are, as we have recently learned, "too big to fail" and whose debts thus get socialized by Washington and other governments, or be we just looking forward to the benefits from socialized insurance whose moral hazard risks no one really polices (how many doctors in Canada tell their patients they are visiting just too often, unnecessarily?) - maybe then we will see that Reich is right and we will seek out a new covenant in response to the dis-ease engendered by that crumbling respect for law - law as something more than mere legality.

As Reich suggests, that new covenant will have to form around some new understanding of what he calls "charismatic" authority founded in our need to model ourselves on or around certain symbolic figures who represent or help reveal to us the necessary "religious" meaning/revelation of shared historical events. How, for example, do we respond to a new age of terrorism? We might follow the charisma of those who didn't sit back when their historical security had sufficiently eroded and the new call came: "Let's roll".

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