July 1, 2008

Eat Grubs and Live: The Habit-Instinct Problem in Institutional Evolutionary Economics

By Poirot, Clifford S Jr

Abstract: This paper addresses a longstanding controversy in InstitutionalEvolutionary Economics about whether or how Darwin's theory of biological evolution can apply to social evolution. It compares and contrasts the view of Evolutionary Psychology with those of Veblen and places Veblen's contributions in the context of 19th century Darwinism and turn of the century anthropology. It argues that Veblen explains social evolution through changes in the application of intelligent reasoning to the problems of material provisioning. An important implication of this paper is that while Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian concepts are relevant to cultural evolution, there are significant limits to their application.

Keywords: Evolutionary Economics, Pragmatism, Veblen, Social Darwinism, Evolution

JEL Classification Codes: B25, B31, B41

There is significant debate among Institutional Evolutionary Economists as to whether, or how concepts that are used to explain the genetic evolution of species can be used to explain the evolution of humanly devised social institutions (Cordes 2007; Hodgson 2007; Jennings and Waller 1994; Poirot 2007). This paper seeks to shed some light on this controversy by comparing and contrasting the perspective of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology with that of Thorstein Veblen. I will explain the differences through the use of two somewhat tongue in cheek metaphors: "eat dung and die" vs. "eat grubs and live." Both metaphors imply a view of the human brain as an evolutionary adaptation to the problems of the Pleistocene epoch. But where "eat dung and die" implies a focus on the brain as composed of multiple, instinctual modules, "eat grubs and live" implies a focus on the human capacity for applying intelligent reasoning to multiple different contexts.

Eat Dung and Die

The metaphor, "eat dung and die" was coined by evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (1992) as a somewhat tongue in cheek pedagogical device to explain their views on the evolution and functioning of the human brain. Tooby and Cosmides also use this metaphor to contrast their theory with what they have termed the Standard Social Science Model (SSM). The SSM according to Tooby and Cosmides often leads students to mistakenly believe people have no instincts. The metaphor suggests that humans, like fruit flies, have strongly rooted genetically based instincts against eating toxic substances. But toxicity is species specific. Dung tastes good to fruit flies. Humans are not unique because they lack instincts. The human brain is unique because it is a collection of many, multiple instincts.

The above metaphor does in fact provide a useful pedagogical device for explaining core concepts in the closely allied fields of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. Both are rooted in the strong adaptationist program of evolutionary biology (Dawkins 1996). The strong adaptationist program focuses on the role of natural selection, acting on genetic variation, in pushing organisms to optimal fitness peaks. Some versions of the strong adaptationist program focus on the gene, or specific units of inheritance, rather than the entire organism or the species as the target and unit of selection. Evolutionary success or failure, when viewed from the perspective of the gene, is defined in terms of the ability of the gene to replicate itself and pass its replica on to the next generation, which it does from building welladapted organisms. From the point of view of the organism, evolutionary success is the ability to get the organism's genes into the next generation. Organisms (or genes) that are better adapted to their ecological niche will have a higher level of reproductive fitness and will therefore be more successful in evolution.

The strong adaptationist program in evolutionary biology explains the evolution of animal behavior, including human behavior as an outcome of general fitness maximization. This extends the focus beyond natural selection to include sexual selection, kin selection and in the case of humans, cultural selection. Contemporary evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are theories of gene- culture co-evolution, not of rigid genetic determinism. The term instinct means that there are strong genetic factors that code for specific chemical responses and in turn predispose an organism to respond in a certain way to environmental stimuli. While culture is an evolved capacity and therefore has a basis in the human genes, culture is still real. It enables humans, and to a lesser degree other primates, to further their survival. Still, there is an underlying assumption that many human behaviors and traits originated and serve the function of enabling humans to attract members of the opposite sex and thus insure getting their genes into the next generation. But there is recognition that humans can and do make choices that are often contrary to the interests of their genes.

Evolutionary psychology builds on this model to explain the evolution of the human brain and its cognitive capacities. Tooby and Cosmides explain the evolution of the brain as a step by step accumulation of specific instincts, which evolved as adaptations of humans to the Paleolithic ecological and social environment. Their view of the human brain is modular. The brain is like a Swiss Army Knife. It has many specific functions, is highly useful and can be used in ways for which it was not originally intended. But each function of a Swiss Army Knife is compartmentalized.

Since Tooby and Cosmides are strong adaptationists, they view each specific module of the brain as a genetically based adaptation. Each module predisposes humans to be capable of responding to social and environmental stimuli in a way that promotes human survival. Extensive research, including cross cultural research using various forms of the Wasson experiment suggest that humans are poor, general domain, logical thinkers. However, humans are able to arrive at the correct solution when they can apply logical rules to concrete social situations, even when the application of the rules can be explained in abstract, logical form.

Tooby and Cosmides have labeled this capacity to detect defection as a "cheater detector." The "cheater detector" is an adaptation of humans to the environment of evolutionary adaptation, including the social environment. The modern brain evolved to solve the problems of the Pleistocene epoch during which humans lived in small bands, survived by foraging and organized social life through complex, reciprocal social arrangements. Humans who were unable to effectively detect cheating in social situations would have presumably lost out in the reproductive game-perhaps by slow starvation after being deprived of their rightful share in the hunt or (in the case of males) as a result of being cuckolded.

Some important implications for understanding life in modern industrial society follow from this perspective. The human brain is limited in its cognitive capacities. This feature, in concert with others, suggests that people are easily manipulated. Many general human behaviors, including a predisposition to cooperate in groups, engage in sexual and other forms of display, territoriality, selfishness and altruism, as well as an ability to formulate and follow ethical rules can be explained as an outcome of general fitness maximization. Sociobiology or evolutionary psychology does not necessarily imply that people are hierarchical or strictly selfish animals. But it does suggest that there are limits as to what kinds of societies humans can function and thrive in.

Eat Grubs and Live

The idea of generalizing from biology to the social sciences is of course not new. In the 19* and early 20th centuries, social scientists as well as ideologues (the two categories were not always neatly separable) sought to generalize Darwin's theory of biological evolution to the study of human societies. All of these efforts were to some degree influenced by Darwin's biological theory of evolution, but not all were strictly speaking Darwinian. Darwin's view of biological evolution relied primarily on natural selection acting on hereditable variation as a means of explaining the branching pattern of biological evolution that Darwin and other biologists before him had observed in nature. It was also gradualist and non-teleological. Darwin's contributions to science also naturalized humanity: Darwin put humans back in the animal world (Hodgson 2004; Mayr 2004; Ruse 2000).

Darwin was also influenced by political economy, especially the views of Malthus. The theory of natural selection was itself an analogy to the process of selection practiced in animal husbandry. In applying his theories to the natural world, Darwin at times absorbed and applied invidious distinctions of the Victorian era to some aspects of animal sexual behavior. Socially and politically Darwin's life and politics were conventionally Victorian. As a Victorian Englishman, Darwin held views that reflected the racist, classist and sexist social ideologies of his era. In many instances, the application of Darwin's theories to social evolution did reflect and reinforce the invidious status hierarchies of the late 19* century. "Social Darwinism" however, was not a unified political and social movement. Social Darwinism was not always even particularly Darwinian, though it was evolutionary. In the late 19th century, a Darwinian, strictly speaking, posited a strong role for natural selection and viewed evolution as a non-teleological, gradual and branching process. Many Social Darwinists held to ideological, orthogenetic, unilinear and saltationist theories. Mendelism was most often viewed as a rival to Darwinism. Nineteenth century "Social Darwinists" however, were not necessarily more prone to engage in invidious distinctions than anti-evolutionists. The ideology of white supremacy in the 19* century was often buttressed by Christian theology.

In contrast, the American pragmatists Charles Saunders Peirce and John Dewey were thoroughly Darwinian.1 They sought to generalize Darwin's theory of evolution to ontology and epistemology and in the case of Dewey, to the social sciences and education as well. Their approach to ontology and epistemology built on Darwin's view that organisms and species were constantly in a process of adjusting to the environment - thus, knowledge and experience could not be radically separated. Darwin's theory of evolution also led to the erosion of the idea that there could be fixed, immutable foundations or completely independent starting points for analysis. Yet pragmatism was also strongly rooted in the enlightenment concepts of systematically applying reason and experience as the best way to make valid knowledge claims. Pragmatism sought to extend and reform the heritage of the enlightenment.

Peirce's pragmatism was therefore articulated as a theory of prope - or broad positivism. Dewey's pragmatism rejected a strong division between knowledge and experience. Dewey extended his ideas to social ethics and to education. He rejected the false dualism that either one believes in complete relativism or one embraces a fixed, absolute starting point and of course he focused on how humans apply intelligent reasoning to concrete situations. This led Dewey to focus on the application of intelligent reasoning as a means of improving the human condition, to reject many invidious status distinctions and defend Democracy as a means of engaging in social experimentation. Meade extended some of these concepts to posit a theory of the individual self in a constant process of adjustment to the social self.

The American pragmatists exerted a strong influence on Thorstein Veblen and also on later Evolutionary Economists.2 Veblen was a Darwinian in the same sense that Peirce and Dewey were Darwinians. His theory of evolution incorporated the concepts of cumulative causation, gradualism, and non-teleological change. His writings reflect an awareness and acceptance of the early attempt by Morgan to work out a synthesis between Darwin's theory of gradual, step by step evolution by variation and natural selection and Mendelian genetics. Veblen did draw distinctions between the biological and the social world, while recognizing that the social did rest on biological evolution as well as the need to adjust to the biological environment.

His view of social provisioning, however, was not based on people having many instincts, but rather, on the ability of humans to apply intelligent reasoning to multiple situations. Social evolution in Veblen's view was a process of the constant adjustment of social institutions to the needs of material provisioning (Veblen 1898a). In Veblen's view the process of material provisioning, which clearly includes both food production and food gathering does not require a lot of instincts. It requires a brain that is capable of applying intelligent reasoning to multiple different circumstances. Hence, my metaphor of "eat grubs and live" to explain Veblen's theory of social evolution.

Veblen argued that economics was not up to the standards of evolutionary science because it could not explain human social evolution as a process of cumulative cause and effect (Veblen 1898b). The crass utilitarianism of economics reduced human behavior to a crude caricature of the application of intelligent reasoning to the process of material provisioning, while also ignoring the importance of persistent social habits. He excoriated economists for relying on what has come to be termed the axiomatic deductive method to the exclusion of the matter of fact method - the method of reason and experience.

Veblen's exemplar science was anthropology.3 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropology was strongly evolutionist, but not always empirically grounded. By the 1920s, anthropology was more strongly empirically grounded but it had become anti evolutionist due to the influence of Boas. Veblen drew on both tendencies in anthropology. Like Boas, Veblen rejected much of the racist and ethnocentric assumptions of the 19th century evolutionists. He clearly respected the ethnography as a means of understanding specific cultures, but he did not adopt the naive empiricism of the Boasians. Veblen was not an ethnographer - he was an ethnologist. He was one of the first macro evolutionary social theorists to attempt to integrate an evolutionary and theoretical view of human society with an empirical, local and particular focus.

The influence of the evolutionist anthropologists of his day is clearly reflected in his multiple writings on the origins of social traits. Veblen accepted the stages of savagery, barbarism and civilization and also generalized from the ethnographic record. Veblen traced the evolution of the instincts of predation, and ceremonialism, as well as the rise of patriarchy to the stage of barbarism. Veblen argued that these social habits persisted in modern industrial society in the form of ceremonialism and conspicuous consumption. They reinforced the power of the owners of industry and were often emulated by the laboring classes.

Veblen contrasted the instinct of predation with the instinct of workmanship or in other words, the application of intelligent reasoning to specific problems of material provisioning. Many institutions in Veblen's views were not serviceable to human needs because they reinforced vested interests and blocked the full application of intelligent reasoning to solving human problems. Yet imbecilic institutions persisted and in fact, in many instances tended to triumph over institutions that incorporated the principle of intelligent reasoning (Veblen 1915; 1967).

In arguing that maladaptive institutions could persist, Veblen abandoned a strict Darwinian view of social evolution. Prussian militarism, for example, may in some ways have been adaptive for the nascent German state and the vested interests associated with the German state in the early era of its formation. But it was not adaptive for the German people as a whole, and it was not adaptive for Europe. It resulted in two immensely destructive wars and to the division of the German nation state. Put into the language of modern sociological and anthropological theory, imbecilic institutions are functional for some in society but are dysfunctional for others. But imbecilic institutions can exert a hegemonic influence over society.

In describing the evolution of human social institutions Veblen uses the terms instinct as well as habit. Did he hold to a theory of genetically based instincts? Cordes (2005) argues that he does. The answer may however be more ambiguous. The concepts of genes and instincts have come to mean more than they did in Veblen's day. There is also better understanding today of the theory of mind. But when Veblen attributes the rise of predation to the stage of barbarism, he does not say these behaviors arose de novo. He argues they became instituted during that era. The possibility that the instinct of predation and the instinct of workmanship are genetically derived traits is not necessarily inconsistent with Veblen's analysis (Cordes 2005; Veblen 1898-99c).

We also recognize today that the stages of savagery, barbarism and civilization are gross oversimplifications at best of general patterns of human social evolution.4 This allows for a partial reinterpretation of Veblen. During the Pleistocene epoch, when most humans were foragers and the dominant mechanism of social integration was most likely kinship, the modern brain and many behaviors evolved. The world before the state, and even before the rise of chiefdoms, was in all likelihood one in which direct coercion was absent - but predation as well as workmanship was present. During the long process of transition to tributary societies, which includes the stage of "civilization," the institutions of predation and ceremonialism became widespread. But at the same time, the growing complexity of society simultaneously required the continued application and extension of intelligent reasoning.


There is some ground for mutual understanding between contemporary Evolutionary Economics and Sociobiology, but there are also some significant differences. Veblen's contributions point to a stronger focus on the role of culture and social institutions. This suggests that the capacity for culture is made possible by the evolution of the brain. If fruit flies were to evolve into a sapient species, they would undoubtedly apply intelligent reasoning to better dung production. But human survival is more complex than just not eating dung, and I hazard to say this would be true of a sapient species of fruit flies. Human survival depends on diverse practices such as eating grubs, cultivating taro and consuming Big Macs. The latter require the existence of an extensive American cattle complex that is vastly different - and far more ecologically destructive - than the Nuer cattle complex. This requires a brain that is capable of conscious, purposive intelligent reasoning as well as the transmission of specific, learned behavioral traits. Notes

1. See Susan Haack's introduction to Pragmatisms, Old and New: Selected Writing (2006, 15-66) for a useful overview of the contributions of Peirce and Dewey as well as other Pragmatists. The same volume also contains useful excerpts from the writings of Peirce and Dewey and other Pragmatists.

2. See James Webb's insightful papers (2007; forthcoming) for an extended discussion of the relationship between Pragmatism and Institutional Economics.

3. I base this assertion on my interpretation of many aspects of Veblen's writings. See Harris (1968) and Wolf (2002) for useful references on the history of anthropological thought. Harris' neglect of Veblen is rather extraordinary as there are some limited parallels between Veblen and Harris.

4. Again, see the previously cited references to Harris and Wolf, and also my own earlier contribution to this debate (Poirot 2007) for extended discussion of contemporary anthropological taxonomy.


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The author is an Associate Professor of Economics at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Evolutionary Economics in New Orleans, LA, January 4-6, 2008.

Copyright Association for Evolutionary Economics Jun 2008

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