October 2, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Reducing Human Behavior to Natural Laws

Can human behavior be reduced to natural laws that science can study in a morally neutral way?  Darwin sought to incorporate all aspects of the living world, including behavior, in natural laws that were amenable to scientific explanation.  Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists continue in that tradition today.  Consider two recent examples in the literature that described how human behavior evolves.

  1. One nation, under Darwin:  PhysOrg published a short article 9/24/08 about how a strong leader can benefit society.  “In a study that looks at the evolutionary role of leaders in society, the researchers explored how having a leader in charge – with the power to punish – works better than spreading responsibility through the entire group.”  They said that a leader who punishes cheaters and freeloaders increases the cooperation and riches for everyone.
        The article talked about how strong leadership benefits the “greater good,” but failed to mention if the model applies equally well to tyrants.  The lead author, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution, was probably not thinking about the exquisite methods of punishment of leaders like Stalin or Kim Il Sung.  Natural laws, however, are indifferent to morals.  It could be argued that their strong leadership did accomplish their national goals quite effectively.  In fact, political scientists often point out that dictatorships are the most efficient forms of government – much more so than democracies and republics with their inevitable delays from long debates, power struggles and drawn-out campaigns. 
  2. Evolutionary utopia:  Another study was aware of the possibility of mass murder.  “Cultural boundaries have often been the basis for discrimination, nationalism, religious wars, and genocide,” began a paper in Science last week.1  “Little is known, however, about how cultural groups form or the evolutionary forces behind group affiliation and ingroup favoritism.”  This shows right off the bat that they were looking for evolutionary forces, not moral or intelligent causes, behind such effects.  In fact, the paper remained fairly dispassionate about favoritism (which could entail genocide).  Note the word meaningless in their next sentence: “Hence, we examine these forces experimentally and show that arbitrary symbolic markers, though initially meaningless, evolve to play a key role in cultural group formation and ingroup favoritism because they enable a population of heterogeneous individuals to solve important coordination problems.”  So it’s also a paper on the evolutionary emergence of meaning.
        The paper approached human poopulations amorally.  A sample population might involve two races at war, communists vs capitalists, or identical people with red shirts and blue shirts – it doesn’t matter, as long as what happens as they interact is explainable in terms of “evolutionary forces.”  The authors were not looking for the thoughts and philosophies and morals of the individuals as having any explanatory power; it’s all about how a population evolves.  Presumably this could explain ant behavior as well as human behavior.
        The symbolic markers that were a key element in their model were extremely generic: “This process requires that individuals differ in some critical but unobservable way and that their markers be freely and flexibly chosen.”  Once the markers are identified, “markers become accurate predictors of behavior.”  A natural law is born:

    The resulting social environment includes strong incentives to bias interactions toward others with the same marker, and subjects accordingly show strong ingroup favoritism.  When markers do not acquire meaning as accurate predictors of behavior, players show a markedly reduced taste for ingroup favoritism.  Our results support the prominent evolutionary hypothesis that cultural processes can reshape the selective pressures facing individuals and so favor the evolution of behavioral traits not previously advantaged.

    What do they mean by “meaning”?  They asked this question later in the paper: “How does symbolic meaning emerge in the absence of fiat?  (Fiat, presumably, involves intelligent causation.)  Their evolutionary theory produces meaning out of meaninglessness: “Interestingly, mixing players with different expectations, which creates the original problem, also creates a potential solution,” they answered.  “It does so by producing small amounts of covariation that can feed back into the system and accumulate dynamically.”  This is meaning at its most rudimentary, biological, content-free level.  Any covariation that becomes self-reinforcing becomes a measure of meaningfulness.  If the players on the game board start cooperating around an arbitrary symbolic marker, no matter if they are computer soldiers in a war game, bacteria in a petri dish or human slaves, then meaning has “emerged” in this dispassionate world of evolutionary explanation.  One only has to follow the dynamical outcome.  In their experiments on human subjects playing contrived games, “These results indicate that players showed a general tendency to couple behaviors and markers,” they continued.  Notice how content-free and values-free the generalized laws were described: “This tendency, however, was strongest when a player hit upon a successful behavior-marker combination, and it was further reinforced and amplified in the marker-maintained treatment when the marker was not prevented from acquiring meaning.”  Meaning, here, is not meaning in the traditional sense of semantics.  It is self-reinforcing behavior linked to a symbolic marker that brings out the unobservable differences in a population.
        Ostensibly, all the researchers were trying to do is understand why humans tend to rally around symbols.  Why do people cheer for their flag when the flag initially was just a piece of colored cloth?  Moral principles, values, propositions, philosophies and theologies have nothing to do with it, from their perspective.  It’s just the way evolutionary forces produce outcomes.  Notice how generic the language is:

    These results show how the evolution of cultural groups can reconstitute the social environment and produce selection for an ingroup bias that was not initially advantageous.  If selective pressures of this sort were common in past human societies, a plausible outcome would arguably be a relatively inflexible bias leading individuals to prefer others similar in some symbolic dimension.  This idea is consistent with much research showing an astonishing willingness for subjects to exhibit ingroup favoritism when groups are based on trivial, short-lived distinctions. 

    They performed more experiments to see if the favoritism might have been biased beforehand.  They ran correlation coefficients, charted measurements on graphs, and did other scientific things.  Conclusion: evolutionary forces are sufficient to explain what happened.  Trivial groups evolve into cultural groups.  Any symbolic markers, however trivial and meaningless, provide rallying points for unobservable differences between individuals in populations to express themselves.
        In their final paragraph they put this all into perspective.  Think of how many complex human situations, how many battles, cross-town rivalries, special-interest clubs, fads and cultural revolutions are now explainable in terms of simple evolutionary laws:

    The research on intergroup processes indicates that people have a willingness to show ingroup favoritism, and in particular this holds even when groups are trivial and evanescent.  This research tradition has generally examined neither the evolutionary mechanisms behind group formation nor the impact of these mechanisms on ingroup favoritism.  We implemented an experiment in which the significance of groups had to arise, if at all, endogenously, thus providing an evolutionary foundation for ingroup favoritism.  In this setting, trivial groups remained trivial under certain circumstances, but under other circumstances they developed into cultural groups composed of individuals who shared both behavioral expectations and symbolic markers signaling group affiliation.  Ingroup favoritism was strongly associated with cultural groups but not with trivial groups.  Our experiments made exclusive use of coordination games, which serve as a kind of generic proxy for strategic settings with multiple equilibria.  Many strategic settings are characterized by multiple equilibria, and thus the dynamical processes examined here have potentially broad significance.  The mechanisms implicated in the evolution of human prosociality, for example, often produce multiple equilibria, and so cooperation is a behavioral domain with considerable scope for the path-dependent evolution of groups with different norms and expectations.  In this sense, cooperation can be analogous to coordination.  Even more generally, whenever people have a shared interest in distinguishing among themselves in terms of their unobservable information, whatever that means in a given situation, the logic behind the evolution of cultural groups holds.

Both studies involved experiments with human subjects who were paid to take part in games devised to study the behavior in question.


1.  Efferson, Lalive, and Fehr, “The Coevolution of Cultural Groups and Ingroup Favoritism,” Science, 26 September 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5897, pp. 1844-1849, DOI: 10.1126/science.1155805.

If any of you were swayed by the claims in these papers, you need a serious deprogramming session, kind of like soldiers being deloused after returning from a jungle.  If you don’t see yet how these articles are logically self-refuting and morally pernicious, please, get on your thinking cap.  You will need it because the evolutionists just removed it.  They said you don’t need it any more because you are just a victim of evolutionary forces.  Somehow they are immune to the evolutionary forces acting on them, because they belong to the Yoda Order of the Disinterested and Detached Scientifically Wise Wizards.  This is an ingroup favoritism they must maintain, as evolutionists on a higher plane than the rest of us, lest we on the playing field look at them and accuse them of writing their papers only because evolutionary forces made them do it.  That would be their undoing.  It is vital, therefore, that they maintain their illusion of objectivity.
    Undoubtedly they could point to plenty of examples of strongly-held group loyalties around meaningless markers: skin color, favorite food, team flags, arbitary national allegiances (for instance, whether the Sicilians should have allied with Rome or Carthage), and whether to join the Lions Club or the Loyal Order of Moose.  People have an innate ability to identify with fellowships, wear the uniform, and rally behind the standard of their favorite group identity, no matter how profound or silly.  Watch political conventions and observe the crazy ecstasy of crowds cheering on their standard-bearer.  Think about Lincoln demoting indecisive generals and choosing strong, ruthless generals willing to punish non-cooperators and get the job done.  A defender of the two studies above might argue, doesn’t it make sense to try to understand these human tendencies scientifically?  The authors might deny our charge of promoting themselves to the Yoda Order of the Wise.  They might say, “We are humans like the rest of you.  We acknowledge we have these tendencies ourselves.  We’re not making moral judgments.  We feel that by investigating scientifically, with controlled experiments, what makes us act the way we do, how group loyalties emerge, and why we look to strong leaders, we can avoid some of the pitfalls of ignorance about these matters and approach problems in ways more likely to avoid conflict and bring about peaceful solutions.  By understanding our social dynamics, we can try to make the world a better place.  Once we understand the evolutionary tendencies that influence our actions, we can learn to control them, and thus avoid some of the racism and genocide that has plagued human history.  Why are you criticizing this?  What’s the matter with you?  Aren’t you the pernicious ones who would interfere with the progress of science?”
    Such criticisms make some sense from a Judeo-Christian perspective.  They make absolutely no sense from an evolutionary perspective.  The claims and questions in the previous paragraph borrow heavily from Judeo-Christian presuppositions and values: honesty, fairness, truth, beauty, peace, understanding, morality.  Remember, the evolutionist believes everything consists of particles in motion obeying natural laws (which cannot be construed as laws in a designed or moral sense, but only as patterns in experience).  It’s as if these researchers burglarized the Judeo-Christian house, stole all the tools and utensils and furniture, raided the refrigerator, then took it to Darwin’s house and served up a feast for their friends they never could have cooked up out of their own resources.  That’s why their explanation is not just dumb, but pernicious.  They’re bloomin’ thieves.
    Now if they want to become Christians, we can talk.  We can reason.  We can discuss the pros and cons of their propositions, some of which may be partly accurate (though ignoring the intellectual aspect of human behavior is bound to produce error).  We can let them recast their theory, provided they strip out all the evolution talk and reference their sources.  Since Jews and Christians believe humans are made in the image of God, it is possible for people to use their eyes to study the eye, their hands to study the hand, and their minds to study the mind.  Animals and plants do not do such things.  Your cat may look in the mirror, but it does not come up with a theory of cat behavior and write it up in a scientific journal.  Cats do not have self-awareness, abstract reasoning ability, language, ontology, epistemology, moral philosophy and all the other prerequisites for explanation.  Animals don’t explain things; they just operate.  They may memorize patterns and learn behaviors that reward actions, but they do not deal in concepts.  They do not ponder meaning in life and ultimate reality. 
    As human beings with an imago Dei (image of God), we have the mental and spiritual resources to operate in the conceptual realm.  At the same time, we have physical natures we share with the animals (stomachs, kidneys, vertebrae, etc.).  But in what organ does self-awareness and abstract reasoning reside?  Our dual nature produces confusion to evolutionists, but the spiritual and intellectual (non-physical) nature is uniquely human.  We are persons.  This is what allows humans, and humans alone, to observe and explain their own behavior.  As created beings, we can observe (and sometimes laugh at) those behaviors that reflect our shared properties with animals: talking like a crow, following the herd, strutting like a peacock, loafing like a sloth, and pigging out at the dinner table.  It is the fallacy of reductionism to suppose that our physical nature entails our spiritual nature.  Honesty, truth, courage, explanation, morality – these and many other qualities that make a man a man instead of a mouse refer to eternal realities.  What is true or moral unless it refers to that which is unchanging, permanent, universal, necessary, and certain?  You can’t get that from randomly moving particles, patterns in experience, or any combination of the two.
    The fallacy in evolutionary explanations for human behavior is worse than reductionism.  It ignores the most important aspects of humanness.  We praise those people who subject their physical appetities and natural propensities to their spiritual values: the soldier who ignores his pain to rescue a comrade, the student who suppresses his desire to go to a party to finish a term paper, the leader who suppresses his fear to confront an evil, the young person who waits for marriage, the voter who studies the issues instead of following the party line, the man or woman who reasons instead of reacting to fleshly passions.  “Are you a man or a beast?” – the question emphasizes the point.  Our humanity consists in reasoning, planning, believing, choosing and acting based on concepts and values often contrary to what the flesh wants.  Only humans can exercise self-control.  You have to have a self to control it.  A dog or horse or dolphin will do amazing feats to be rewarded by its trainer, but that is not self-control; it is trainer control.  The animal gets an immediate reward.  Does your dog plan for retirement and write up a will?
    Ignoring the key distinguishing marks of humanity to explain human behavior by mystical “evolutionary forces” as if we are pinballs in a game is completely misdirected if not silly.  It is also self-refuting.  It’s like explaining books from the chemistry of paper and ink, and then writing a book about it with a stolen Judeo-Christian pen.  Add to those sins the evolutionists’ complete lack of moral judgment.  Their explanation draws no distinctions; to them, if cooperation is achieved, that’s good (notice that they cannot completely erase the concept of good).  The evolutionary forces and laws care nothing about the means by which cooperation is achieved.  Stalin is the moral equivalent of Reagan.  Let the prisoners in the Gulag weep in silence.  Let them abandon any appeal to their fellow man or to heaven for justice.  Justice!  That word is completely absent from the Darwin Dictionary.
    These researchers, because they retain a shadow of that image of God, continue to trade in concepts.  They cannot do that as consistent evolutionists.  If they want to be consistent, let them screech and scratch and watch each other’s behinds (see National Geographic for an edifying exploration of that).  The moment they want to appeal to explanation as if it might be true, they deserve to be sued for worldview plagiarism.  In court, the bailiff will make them swear on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Human Body

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