The Big Society and human nature

I’ve been reading around in preparation to write something in longer form about the Big Society. It’s taking me a while I’m afraid, but I thought I’d draw people’s attention to the essays the Government commissioned to tie in with the Giving Green Paper:
One paper in particular jumped out:

Geoffrey Miller, Psychology Department, University of New Mexico: Harnessing human nature for charity and volunteering: some ideas from evolutionary psychology

My eyes lit upon this article as I am somewhat sceptical about evolutionary psychology. I claim no great knowledge or expertise in the area, but (and perhaps this is the fault of the media) I do get the impression that a lot of the time a past we can only make educated guesses about is being used to explain current phenomena.

A notorious example was the assertion that girls innately like pink – the explanation being the female role in gathering red berries in prehistory.

Maybe it sounds plausible. We all know blue=boys and pink=girls right?

The problem is that it’s nonsense. It rests on the idea that there’s a biologically hardwired affinity between people with two X chromosomes and pink, while blue is more manly. Yet go back less than a hundred years and the reverse was assumed:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Ladies Home Journal 1918

“If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.”

Sunday Sentinel 1914

(Source: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column)

The gender/colour idea is culturally determined.

And this seems to be a problem with the discipline as a whole. I’m not denying a historical, biological impact on our psyche; it just seems that there’s a desire to see this as trumping our current culture, economy and society, along with some bold claims that lack hard evidence.

Looking at the essay in question there is an assertion on an evolutionary basis for altruism, but really, this is just a guess, and we shouldn’t base public policy on guesses around prehistoric human activities that if true may have an impact on current behaviour that we can’t really judge. At the very least we’d need to look at more than one opinion on the roots of altruism (which is an interesting topic, even if I can’t see how short of time travel we can ever reach a conclusive answer).

However we don’t really need to worry about that as much of the article seems more about promoting a particular ideological agenda than anything else:

First, policy needs to acknowledge that in an efficient market economy, most of the power that individuals have to ‘do good’ depends on them acting morally as workers, consumers, and investors – not on the more conspicuous virtue‐displays of charity and volunteering.

Many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated by government over‐regulation, subsidies, quotas, tariffs, monopolies, or failures to enforce property rights.

This of course has nothing to do with psychology or evolution, it’s just standard right-wing economics. You could also argue that many social and environmental problems that charities try to resolve were exacerbated – or perhaps caused – by market driven policies. Economic inequality and climate change being obvious examples.

It does seem to confirm my suspicions that many evolutionary psychologists seem to be seeking to justify the status quo by appeals to evolutionary causes.
If the author read this no doubt he would assume that I’m writing from a pro-big government, state socialist point of view. I’m not, I support neither the free market nor the state, though I must admit to wanting to keep the safety nets of the welfare state and similar reforms that staved off the worst aspects of an unequal society.

It’s been bad enough trying to fight compulsory or remunerated activities being defined as volunteering, try this for size:

Yet within the market economy, there is plenty of scope for moral virtues to improve human welfare ever further. Any workers doing their job with more skill, attentiveness, and integrity than strictly required by their employment contract are already ‘volunteering’ that extra labor for the common good – and these are pro‐social work values worth celebrating.

While there may be a case here – a pleasant chat with a person on a till can give a feeling of goodwill – it’s massively overstated. A worker putting in extra effort is more likely to be filling the coffers of their employer without any remuneration than anything else. God forbid anyone in a precarious low paid job just does what they’ve been paid to do. The inhuman monsters.


Another paper that did make me smile was the title of a paper by Stephen Howard, CEO, Business in the Community:

Great companies support communities through difficult times

Cynics might argue that they could start by paying their taxes…


One response to “The Big Society and human nature

  1. Thanks for the post Mark. I think it’s really important that these ideas on giving coming out of the Green Paper are challenged and scrutinised. There’s a rich literature out there :- ) I’ve tried to pull out some sources in a post on the ‘motivations of giving’ and the growth of social biology and the literature on “pro-social behaviour”:

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