- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Here's a stab at it

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on September 27, 1999 at 01:49:47:

In Reply to: A Brief Reply posted by Barry Stoller on September 20, 1999 at 03:00:28:

: Thanks for your comments, all of you who responded. It's certainly nice to be remembered. Although I doubt that I can spare the time to visit regularly, I will attempt to check in once in a while. My main apprehension about participating here is the tendency for new, immature voices to absorb so much of the dialog on the usual recurring themes---such as 'socialism is antithetical to human nature'---which get rebutted again and again but only to a rather shallow degree each time before a new version of the same line pops up again.

1.2 Why human behavior is cultural, and not merely natural

Some people in human society discuss the behavior of members of society by an explanation that involves "human nature," as if to say "that's the way things are." Someone may cite theft in order to say that it is "human nature" to be greedy, or they may cite conflict to point out that they think that it is "human nature" to fight. Such explanations, however, use one particular behavior to generalize about all people. They miss the diversity of behavior that exists within different cultures, and so we can generalize anything about anyone by invoking "human nature" while missing the possibility of other human natures.

For instance, one could argue that it is human nature to be violent if one looked only at the Yanomami of the Brazil rainforest, or on the other hand, one could argue that it is human nature to be peaceful, if one looked only at the Semai of Malaya. Similarly, one could argue that it is human nature to be communal if one looked only at the Congo Pygmies, whereas one could also argue that it is human nature to distrust and avoid social life if one looked only at the Ik of the Kenya-Uganda border area. My point is that human enculturation, the initiation and reinitiation into a culture that one lives through if one grows up American, Yanomami, Semai, Congo Pygmy, or Ik, determines behavior in a way that simple explanations of "human behavior" miss. "Human nature" won't explain how behavior happens -- critical social theorists must therefore study culture to understand human nature.

The closest the social sciences have gotten to an appropriation of the "human nature" argument has been in a subfield called sociobiology, as popularized by E.O Wilson with books such as Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, released in 1975. Sociobiology hoped to show the biological roots of social behavior. The point of sociobiology is to trace the behavior of people and animals back to a biological tendency that can be observed between possessors of the same genes. In short, sociobiologists would like to say that "you did it because of your genes." For Marshall Sahlins, author of The Use and Abuse of Biology, this amounts to a necessarily shallow theory of "why you did it." Sahlins attacks the idea that "human social phenomena are the direct expression of human behavioral dispositions or emotions, such as aggressiveness, sexuality, or altruism, the dispositions themselves having been laid down in the course of mammalian, primate, or hominid phylogeny" (xiv). So, according to the sociobiologist, you did it because you experienced an emotion, which can be traced back to a biological drive. As Sahlins shows, however, any particular behavior can be seen as evidence of a number of different emotions or dispositions:

Is violence an act of aggression, generosity a sign of "altruism"? Ethnographers of Melanesia as well as psycholanalysts of America will readily testify that aggression is often satisfied by making large and unrequited gifts. For as the Eskimo also say, "gifts make slaves, as whips make dogs." On the other hand, a person may well hit another out of a true concern for the latter's welfare. One man's altruism becomes some child's sore 'behind; and, "Believe me, I'm doing this for your own good." (Sahlins 10)

Interpreting observed behavior merely as aggression, or altruism, or "biology in action," misses the complex cultural explanations for all behavior. Animals may often behave instinctually; adult people do what they do because they live in circumstances made complex by their immersion in society. Critical social theory, with Sahlins, tries to understand the "other human natures" that may account for particular observed human behaviors, instead of first generalizing about the behavior of the human race.

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