On Human Nature
In my inequality post, Snarky McSnarkSnark writes,
The elevation of the “economic man” over the “social man” in our political and cultural thinking has led us increasingly away for our own core nature.
I replied that,
The core nature of humans, I would argue, is simultaneously and inextricably social, economic and political
I want to expand on that briefly. First, it is indisputable that humans are a social species. Our nearest kin species are social, humans have by all indicators always lived in social groups, and much of human intelligence seems to be a social intelligence, oriented towards reading others’ intentions, tracking networks of support/alliances, and in general navigating the prospects and risks of social life.
Second, much of that social activity is political in nature, a matter of who gets what, when, and how, whether that what is personal gain or a collective gain, and whether the how is through conflict, cooperation, or commanded behavior. In fact there is no clear dividing line between the social and the political, although it would probably be a category error to say they are one and the same.
Third, humans are inevitably economic, because economics is about scarcity, the inability to have it all, and the necessity of choice between alternatives (preferably desirable alternatives, but unfortunately also, at times, between undesirable alternatives). Should I hunt or should I gather? If I have hunted successfully, how much of my gain should I share with whom (given that, socio-politically, I am generally obligated to share), given that I cannot give everyone all they would like? Should I go fishing today, or should I feign tiredness, and try to score with Joe’s wife while he’s out fishing? Choices must be made, and economics is just the necessity of choice
But more than that, each of these can be analyzed in the context of each of the others. We can study social and political behavior as functions of choice in conditions of scarcity (who is a better social/political ally? why are some males/females preferable as mates than others?).
We can study economic and political behavior as social structures. Why do people pursue power? Why do hierarchies tend to form? When does egalitarianism thrive? Why do men choose to hunt rather than gather, and why does gathering tend to be defined as women’s work?
And we can study economic choices and social behaviors as political opportunities and strategies. What is the socio-political advantage of sharing meat with Joe, but stiffing Bob? How does grooming Jane lead to access to support for political influence? How do social mores function as political institutions?
These are not the same, yet they are interconnected in ways that cannot be fully extricated. Perhaps ideally we would study them all as a piece, but alas we live in a world of intellectual specialization, where we have differing fields focusing on each of the differing aspects. In a nutshell, and not meant to be exhaustive (and perhaps my three aspects of human nature are not exhaustive, either, surely I could at least add in a mystical/spiritual nature), these fields are sociology, political science, and economics. But psychology and anthropology come in as well, sometimes cutting across those three broad areas, and at the margins all of these disciplines blend into each other (my graduate adviser, nominally a political scientist, has published also in psychology, economics, and sociology journals, and in journals of decision-making, which consciously straddle all these disciplines; one of those latter was a study of decision-making in Hamlet, so perhaps he was a literary theorist as well, and of course those folks would correctly insist they are analyzing human nature also).
That is to say, each of these disciplines should be aware that they are not capturing the full essence of human nature, and that there is much to be gained by intellectual miscegenation with each of the other disciplines. And in my experience, the great majority of folks in each of those disciplines do have that awareness.
And yet each discipline does, and must, specialize to some extent. So of course sociology emphasizes homo sociologicus, economics emphasizes homo economicus, and political science emphasizes homo politicus.
To criticize any one of these disciplines for their emphasis is to criticize them all. How badly sociology fails when it ignores homo economicus. How badly political science fails when ignores homo homo sociologicus. How badly economics fails when it ignores homo politicus, and around and around.
It’s not that the criticisms are wrong. It’s just that not one of them can be called into play without the shadow of all the others joining it. If anyone thinks any of them can, it only means they are unaware of the limitations of their own model of homo sapiens.