Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to Rationalise, beginning the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I am your host, Masimo People, YouTube and me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Well, today we have a special guest with us in our studio.
Jesse Prince is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Oh, that's what I heard about him. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So Jesse works primarily in the philosophy of psychology and just generally speaking, how the mind works.
And he has published a bunch of popular books, most recently a book called Beyond Human Nature How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives, which is one of the things we're going to focus on in our discussion today. Jesse, welcome. Great to have you. Great to be here. Julia, thanks very much.
So let's start out. Maybe you could just summarize for our listeners what the thesis of your new book is.
Well, the book really began because of a spate of books that were coming out telling a very biological story about the human mind. So people were being told that human behavior is largely a result of evolved processes, that men are biologically different from women, and that affects the way we think. And it really struck me that this was only half of the human story, that the human story begins where biology lets off. And if there's anything that's really striking about us, it's that we're so diverse.
You you walk into a crowded lunchroom and everybody's dressed differently. Everybody has a different hairstyle. Everybody has different tastes and interests, even different thought patterns. And there's a very exciting new discipline called cultural psychology, which investigates these variations in human thought. And I think that is a branch of science that the general public really needs to know about. It's the science of human difference.
So just as you said, a number of books, let's name names. So, for instance, I don't know, Steven Pinker punches here. Well, Pinker is an interesting case because I think he was someone who appeared to me as a foil when he wrote How the Mind Works was a kind of compendium to the mind, almost a user's guide. He had a list of chapters, different aspects of psychology, each of which then went on to tell a very evolutionary story.
And I began the project really thinking it would be a response to that with chapters on different aspects of the mind, but this time telling the the cultural story. But Pinker is a very careful, I think, thinker, and he's somebody who's tried to give a balanced view. And in fact, his most recent book is on cultural differences and violence, which does suggest that our cultural situation can affect our behavior in profound and really very important ways. So they're worst offenders out there.
Someone like David Buss, for instance, who is an evolutionary psychologist in Texas who's very interested in gender differences. And I think a lot of his work has been pernicious insofar as it has reified its naturalise differences between the sexes that have a cultural origin. And by describing them as natural, he's given them the legitimacy that they shouldn't have.
Can you give any specific examples of aspects of human behavior, human psychology that you think deserve more of a cultural explanation? But some of these other people explain evolutionarily?
Well, gender is a good starting place. So we're told that men really like to have multiple partners and women really like to be monogamous. We're told that men are vastly more violent than women. We're told that men are more assertive. We're even told that men have more systematic or one might say intellectual thinking styles where women are more emotional, more driven by empathy, more prone to hysteria to take over. You take that back.
So, you know, these are these are old and familiar clichés.
And I think what the modern evolutionary approaches have done is they've tried to weave a narrative that makes sense of those differences biologically. And the narrative is so seductive that people say, well, maybe these things are based in biology, not in culture. And of course, if you go out and do the science and try and look for these gender differences, you often will find them. But what you don't look for in just describing how men and women think is the origin of those differences and the biological explanations are often much less satisfying than the cultural explanations.
And when we start thinking less satisfying, just like epistemically false, we really don't know. I'm just here.
So, I mean, if you take something like a male and female difference in in jealousy, this is this is hugely varied cross culturally. It's been claimed that men are more sexually jealous and women are more emotionally jealous. So guys don't like when their partner, their female partner is sleeping around and women don't like when their male partner is falling in love with someone else. But, you know, in fact, there there's a really straightforward cultural explanation for this, which is that women have depended on men economically and have had to put up with a lot of infidelity.
And as long as the guy is willing to kind of come home and continue to provide material support, they're willing to put up with this and the old double standard of allowing male infidelity. I think is is really woven into our preferences. And because of those financial dependencies, so to test this, what you want to do is look cross culturally and see whether these differences hold up everywhere and they don't.
So is there any patterns of which cultures they don't hold in which social system they don't? The patterns are as rich and as interesting as as culture itself. So, for instance, they don't hold up in China and they don't hold up in the Netherlands. These are really different cultures. And so China tends to be very sexually close. So men and women have the same attitude towards jealousy, which tends to focus on emotional jealousy because sexuality after outside of the marriage context is fairly taboo and not widely talked about, at least until recently.
The Netherlands is sort of the opposite.
Sexuality is considered a very casual relationship and therefore people aren't as threatened by sexual infidelity. So both men and women think emotional infidelity is worse in the Netherlands. They don't show this gender difference in jealousy.
But in China, it sounded from the way you described it, like sexual jealousy isn't a problem just because there isn't like infidelity. But I would have hoped that the question would be more like if, like, your mates were to have a sexual dalliance and someone else, would that upset you?
Well, if there was no emotion involved, there are other factors, too.
I mean, I think in China and other cultures, there may be long traditions of arranged marriage. There might be ways in which romantic relationships are really a family affair. Your your parents preference is your uncles and aunts. They weigh into into the marriage decision. So a break down in a marital relationship is a bit more like a business. Failure to families have been brought together with a tremendous amount of pressure. So it may it may be a combination of factors.
Sexuality may just be less talked about. Sexuality outside of marriage may be less common, but also it may be of more marginal importance with respect to the basic underlying structure of of a marriage there. So just to be clear and particular, because you mentioned Pinker and how he's not only careful in what he writes, but also has his latest book seemed at least I seem to some people in someone contradiction, actually, with some of the stuff that he was running earlier on, you know, when perhaps he took a little more strong evolutionary psychological approach to things, but in fact, doesn't have to be a contradiction.
Right. I mean, you're not saying the biology doesn't matter. You're just saying that it matters in a different way from from from, say, a naive evolutionary psychological approach would imply.
Oh, that's absolutely right. I didn't write beyond human nature to to criticize biology, as I call it, against human nature. And, you know, I think there are ways in which the very idea of human nature might be problematic because of cultural variation. But that doesn't mean we don't have a certain biology that allows us to be the kinds of creatures we are. If you, you know, try and raise a chimpanzee in a human society, they're not going to end up with behaviors that we do.
So there's something about our biology that allows us to be the way we are. And I think even if you take the the most extreme claims that are made among the biological determinist, so take something like personality traits and listen to a biological story about how 50 percent of our personality is woven into the genes. Well, that's really interesting. And even if we accept it on the face of that claim, I think it still raises this other question, which is, well, what about the other 50 percent?
But the idea that identical twins might end up with really different personality traits is, I think, fascinating. So we don't need to deny the biological story to take interest in what social factors might make a contribution to how we think so.
So one of the reviewers of your book, Sam Blackburn, who is obviously a very prominent philosopher in England, state out his review by pointing out that the problem with with two too strong of a biological story about humanity is that it doesn't take into account what you didn't use this term, but what biologists call gene environment interactions.
And that turns out to be actually my field before I moved to philosophy and I was OK. But it always struck me as even though I was working on plants and not on animals. But it always struck me as somewhat strange to make the case that, OK, well, this trade has, you know, 50 percent of the ability or whatever it is, which, by the way, it's not very high, as it turns out.
But it struck me as bizarre because for one thing, for what you just said, that is. Yeah, OK, so what about the remaining 50 percent that that that's not an afterthought. That's that's actually a fairly large chunk of variation there. But also because many people don't seem to to appreciate very basic facts about population genetics, for instance, that ability as a as a measure of a statistical association between phenotypes and genotypes itself is environmentally variable. So one of the experiments that we were doing when I had a lab at Stony Brook University, for instance, was to put exactly the same genotypes under.
Genotypes under very different conditions, and then we would measure the ability of certain traits, and it turns out that if you measure the irritability of, say, I don't know, flowering time, for instance, in one environment it was, I don't know, 80 percent. I'm just coming up with numbers out of nowhere here. But there are reasonable numbers. And then you measured the same attributed the same trait in a different environment. They may drop to almost zero.
And that's because there's this complex interaction between genes and environment. So what you see as the final result is the phenotype. The behavior of the organism is completely interwoven thing where you cannot simply separate, not even in principle separate and say, well, that that's the genes and that's and that's the environment. It doesn't it just doesn't work that way. Yeah, I think that's that's an extremely important and I think what your listeners need to appreciate is that heritability is just the measure of variation in a population that correlates with some biological factor.
And you can have cases of of heritability that are very high simply because the environment is extremely uniform. If if two creatures are in the exact same environment, that any variation left will be due to the due to the genes. But you you can't even go to that gene language with heritability, because when you say correlated with something biological, there may be these interesting bio cultural interactions. A classic example of this would be wearing two earrings. So wearing symmetric earrings turns out to be highly correlated with being female and in our society.
So because there's a genes for the memory so we can conclude there's a gene for it, even even though it works out to be heritable. But I think the point you make is of very strong social significance because we end up getting fed a lot of numbers and the numbers include things like intelligence is highly heritable, maybe a point six point five heritability for IQ. And we start to think, OK, this is biologically determined. But in fact, those numbers depend on keeping environment healthy and uniform.
And as soon as your environment start to get more varied or as soon as they become less healthy, those numbers tail off. So if you look at heritability of intelligence and low socio economic status settings, that is people are poor, heritability is negligible.
And that's because if you grow up poor, your environment is really unstable. And whether you end up performing well scholastically, which is what IQ measures will depend on, totally random factors, like whether you go to a very inspiring teacher, whether you had a parent who happened to have enough free time to help you out with your homework, whether you happen to be situated near a public library or somewhere else where you could get inspired by learning.
So I do think we are in danger of of taking heritability numbers as a kind of standard or synonym for for genetic coding.
I'd like to zoom out a bit for a bit to the epistemology here in distinguishing between nature and nurture explanations. So I was thinking about your example of sexual versus emotional jealousy and how it's not universal.
And it occurred to me that I don't I don't know what I would expect to see if it were mostly nurture versus mostly nature. Like let's say we let's say it were the case that like 85 or 90 percent of cultures demonstrated more sexual jealousy among men and more emotional jealousy among women. But then 10 percent of culture has demonstrated the reverse or like an unequal amount of sexual emotional jealousy between genders.
Is that like I would assume that the people who argue that it's nature would not claim that that would that would result in a 100 percent adherence to that pattern, that surely they would they would still expect that in some cases there could be weird cultures that override natural impulses. And so is that like is 90 percent conforming to the pattern in support of the nature explanation or is it it's part of the nurture explanation. I don't really know how to evaluate that evidence.
Yeah, I think it's a great question and I think it's a question that all parties on both sides of this debate should be answering, because there's a tendency to to think that any sort of statistic on the frequency of a trait is somehow a measure of how natural it is.
But in fact, what you might be getting with highly frequent traits is just a historical fact, a fact that most human societies until recently have had similar structures. So it takes something like male dominance. They have male dominance is really pervasive in just about every culture on on record has has had men in some way dominating over women. So why is this true? Well, it could be just part of our biology or it could be connected to our biology in a more indirect way.
So, for instance, if you take male upper body strength as a biological difference between men and women and and you imagine a social setting where that strength makes a difference, to say how much food you can produce for the group, how many calories you can bring in for the group, men are going to be in a huge position of advantage because they're going to become the primary breadwinners. And that's exactly what you see when you make the transition from hunter gatherer societies where when men and women basically bring in equal portions of the food consumed to.
Agricultural societies where men start to do a disproportionate amount of the work, and I think it's really in those settings that the dominance patterns appear and it's in those settings that all of these familiar gender differences start to appear. So men start to treat women as property. Women start to depend on men economically. And all these differences in and jealousy and sexual patterns start to appear. Women will marry men who are much older than them because men is the primary breadwinners and acquire more goods as they get older.
Women will tend to go for wealthier men. Wealthier men will tend to tend to be polygamists. Most human societies are polygamous. And, you know, that's a really striking fact. If we were just doing the statistics, we would say, oh, well, human beings are naturally polygamous, but this just isn't so. Agriculture is a human invention. And I think when you see a widespread pattern across human societies, it may just reflect the fact that human societies have converged historically on certain kinds of resources.
When you start to see that changing, so let's go to your 10 percent through new technologies, through a change in economic structure like the move of women onto the workforce after the Second World War and Western societies, suddenly these differences start to change. And I think we're right now in a time of transition where we're not seeing a move away from human nature. We're seeing the plasticity of human nature. We're seeing that human nature can manifest itself in very, very different ways, depending on the kind of societies in which we live.
But what about the, like, evolutionary argument for why we would expect sexual jealousy to be more prominent, emotional and women like it at least seems to make sense on the face of it, that, like, men want to make sure that their child is actually theirs.
So like any sexual dalliances, it's not OK regardless of any emotional or not emotional status of that attachment.
Basically, the evolutionary model assumes pair bonding. It assumes these kind of nuclear families where two people, a man and women are raising their children. And therefore, if a man is investing in a child who isn't genetically related, he's wasting his biological resources.
And Gene should sort of program men to avoid doing this. And it's a very seductive story. The problem is the first premise. The nuclear family is a fairly modern invention. Historically, children have been raised by whole communities, the kind of intake it takes a village idea, which is the same that happens actually in closely related species to humans since, you know, there's no nuclear family among bonobos, for instance.
So so males would not have any particular incentive to make sure that, like the women that they sleep with are sleeping with fewer men.
I think when you know, the other thing they need to remember is that in a small scale society, there will be some genetic variation because there will be some some contact with neighboring groups, but far less than we're talking about now.
So when we're looking at the evolutionary context and we imagine small bands of hunter gatherers existing, you know, in Savanna where they're really rarely coming into contact with distantly related others, taking care of your of the kids in your group, whether they're your own directly or merely effectively nieces and nephews, probably closer in genetic relatedness to our nieces and nephews is not such a bad evolutionary prospect.
So I think a collective rearing, like you see and bonobos or our common chimps is a very viable biological strategy.
And if we look across species, across primate species alone, every possible variation can be seen. So I think the evolutionary argument that says that only a few have care for you are your direct biological offspring is just refuted by the presence of species where that pattern is never observed, including the closest related species to human beings.
But then why does pair bonding happen? Like what would be the point of that if not to help ensure the success of the child?
Well, you can think about every society is facing a problem of regulating human behavior. And I think with respect to human behavioral regulation, certain domains tend to be of particular particularly strong importance. So violent behavior is strongly regulated. So we have laws and moral systems involved to keep us from killing each other. But the other thing that strongly regulated is sex because you have a danger of having social instability if there isn't some regularity and and some rules about who can sleep with whom.
And that is a solution that every society has come to. We need some rules, but the range of rules is as open ended as the sexual practice itself.
But I thought parenting was innate, that there was a biological maximum back me up here. No, no, no. I think I would like way, way back then. Yes.
But so, again, I think the point of just just about parenting, that's, first of all, several years, the length of time it would that you would need to invest in a child.
But even that is pretty recent in Asian history. Yeah, it's really a cultural history that's not known as much and it doesn't go into deep evolutionary time as far as the human species is concerned.
Again, it doesn't matter. That doesn't. There are there are certain biological characteristics about human sexual behavior that one needs to take into account in order to make sense of human sexual behavior, but I think that that the issue that you brought up, that that many people seem to sort of forget that there's been this thing like that, the agricultural revolution, which is clearly too recent to have affected dramatically human evolution at a genetic level, and it has affected dramatically destruction, functioning of our society and also the group size issue that that Jason brought up.
We live in much larger, much more varied societies. We have done so for thousands of years now. But it wasn't that was not the case for most of human history. So if we're talking about what evolutionary biologists call the evolutionary relevant environment, you know, the places mean whatever it is, I don't know. By the way, why have anything happened in the places in the savannah or something like that?
I don't know. I'm worried about the trees.
But anyway, you know, for most of our human evolution, we were not in that kind of situation. And so there is there is those issues I think are relevant. But I want to actually to move to an example that I thought I was going to bring up before reading more about your book in your favor.
It turns out I actually disagree. So let me let me put it this way. All right.
So I was going to talk about language, and I always bring up the idea when these discussions about the relative contribution of biology and culture come in.
You know, the standard example is, well, look, consider human language. We have a natural ability to learn languages.
That's the biology. But that doesn't tell you anything at all about which language you're going to talk about. You're going to be able to to speak, because that depends entirely on your culture. You know, if you end up growing up in China or in the 21st century or in England in sixteen's, it's a completely different thing.
But as it turns out, you don't actually seem to buy the Chomsky an idea that there is something fundamental about the grammar structure of the the brain. Can you can you elaborate on that?
Well, I think when when Chomsky came on the scene, psychology was dominated by behaviourists, by people who thought that all human learning was driven by a simple associative learning rule. We get conditioned to behave the way that we do. And that was clearly an oversimplification. If you had nothing but associative learning going on in human beings than any other creature that could learn associatively should learn what we were. But that wasn't the case. So I think Chomsky was a very important figure in the history of cognitive science because he started to argue that there must be specialized learning mechanisms that distinguish the human outcome from from other creatures.
And I think he's right that there must be some difference in how we learn and how other creatures learn and a lot of the debate centers and the nature of that difference. OK, so Chomsky thinks what's special about us is something specific to language. He he compares language to an organ. He thinks there's a specialized system in the brain that's there for the purpose of acquiring language. And in the 1950s already he had a series of arguments for this that were then developed in the 60s and 70s that struck a lot of people as extremely powerful.
But they were arguments that were really created from the armchair without a single bit of evidence. Chomsky never collected data and some of his followers have.
But as we do that, more and more the arguments have fallen away and the arguments tend to have a form that says here's a certain thing that kids couldn't possibly learn based on the evidence they're exposed to or positive stimulus, positive stimulus arguments, or here's an error that kids never make, but they should make if they were learning observationally.
And in both cases, we see those arguments and their most detailed and nuanced forms coming under increasing critical scrutiny. So I would actually say it's gone so far that linguistics has turned a corner and a case could even be made that it's become the majority view that Chomsky is wrong. And one of the major reasons for this has to do with developments in what's called statistical learning. And what we're seeing is that using statistical information that is keeping track of regularities in the stream of speech is a very, very powerful tool for arriving at structure, an organization that would be very difficult to identify if you reflected on that input in some rational or cognitive way.
Chomsky was imagining that the learner was constructing rules through deliberation and reflection, and he pointed out that even the most clearly it's not possible that that's possible.
But once once you start to think that learning is a dumb process, one that's very automatic and that's driven by statistical learning, you suddenly have a tool for explaining the achievement in early childhood that that's more powerful than we ever appreciated, but saying that is not enough. And I think one of the really exciting front lines in linguistics these days is coming up with models, sometimes computer models that can show the kind of achievement that we witness in young children with the same kinds of inputs.
So basically, you feed speech, the speech that children here to a simple computer system that has a sophisticated statistical learning algorithm and you show that it arrives at the rules that kids do. It's early days for this stuff.
And I think the most let me let me ask you this. So doesn't that mean, however, in some sense that not not not exactly that Chomsky was wrong as much as that the emphasis was in the wrong place, that we still have to have some way, the ability to do, for instance, statistical learning?
Right. Clearly, not every animal does.
You know, you cannot feed the same kind of information to a bunch of other animals and make them talk.
But it doesn't have anything to do with language. No, that's right. Right. So the focus is it doesn't have to do with language per say, but it still does have to do with the way in which the human brain works as opposed to the brain of other species.
And I think we can't lose sight of that because it's important for understanding our achievement in the linguistic domain. So, I mean, to make this vivid, we've talked for years now about language centers of the brain to say famous ones, Broca's area and the frontal cortex and Bernanke's and temporal cortex. Well, it turns out that these so-called language centers do lots and lots of other stuff. So we're suddenly in a position to approach language learning, not by positing this special mechanism that sort of there for language, but looking at how other mechanisms that exist in other creatures have changed in subtle ways that allow these extraordinary linguistic achievements.
And one sort of example of that is it turns out that these patterns, recognizing machines do better if they start with a very limited capacity for statistical learning and incrementally increase. And there is fairly good evidence that this is exactly how human memory works. It starts out really small and gets better and better over time. And if you compare human memory growth to primate memory growth, basically we taper off, they taper off well before we do so, this capacity to incrementally grow, you can think of it very simply as mastering, say, pairs of words to mastering cripples of words to mastering whole phrases.
And the incremental learning is extremely powerful for arriving at a syntax that allows for strings of of meaningful signs, what we call words that are indefinitely long. But if we never got to the ability to go from small patterns to larger patterns, we'd be stuck at basically the level of of two words. And that's precisely what we see in efforts to train chimpanzees to right. To speak.
So I want to note note I know that I wants to make another point, but I want to note an irony here as far as Chomsky is concerned, because for all intents and purposes, talking about a grammar module or, you know, a specific organ of the brain that is deal directly with language actually is a precursor of what evolutionary psychologists were saying.
And Chomsky, as far as I can tell, is actually not particularly sympathetic to evolutionary psychology and to the whole idea of modules of the mind. So it's like it's a little ironic that his main theory actually presupposes that sort of of very specialized organ that has made has been the staple of evolutionary psychological thinking.
Yeah, I have been struck by that irony, too. I mean, I think there are interesting social or intellectual history of these movements that would be worth tracing out. But I do think Chomsky's attitudes towards evolution changed a bit. And by the by the 2000s, he was looking at evolution in more positive terms. And he wrote a very important, seminal paper with Mark Hauser and Fitch, where they argued that there was a major evolutionary change that allowed for human language to become recursive.
And that, he said, was the key to what we have and what non-human animals don't. But the particular claim is really problematic. It's problematic because recursion is actually found in lots of systems that have nothing to do with language. So the visual system has to recursively embed one structure in another. Recursive system is just a system whose symbolic representations can contain others and contain others in a nested way. And vision does this all the time. You see a complex object like a tree, and then you can look at the branches in the twigs and the lines and the leaves and keep breaking it down, but moving the other way.
There's at least one language that's been recently discovered and studied that that has been argued to lack recursive structure. So the claim that recursion is essential to language and exclusive to language can be challenged from both directions.
What would a language that doesn't have a structure look like?
Well, we see it in chimp language. So when you try and train chimps, trained chimps to to use simple systems, they can create a sentence with two or three words. But once they've mastered a two or three words and they don't ever develop ways to embed that into yet longer sentence. So I can say, you know, put put the the hat on the table. But what about put the red hat on the table or put the hat that you were wearing last night on the table.
Ah, put the red hat that you were wearing last night on the table on which the glass is situated, so those sympathetic me all the time. So you basically I mean, and of course, this is something we do expect to find in human languages and we typically do. So the court is still out on on this one Amazonian case. But I do think given the existence of linguistic style communication in chimps, that that lack the structure, the assumption that it's present in every language can't be taken for granted.
Interesting. I wanted to ask you about something on your website when you're describing just generally describing your research interests. You say that you're you'd like to resuscitate core claims of British empiricism against the backdrop of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science. And I was hoping you could elaborate on on what you mean by British empiricism here. And and I guess along the way, like how your approach to thinking about these things differs from what you see as the standard in contemporary philosophy of mind.
Great. Yeah. I mean, that's.
Yeah, and we have abundant time 10 minutes or so ago. First, thanks for visiting the website. You know, I do think that we we all have our intellectual heroes. And I like to think that everything I've done is kind of plagiarized from the British. And. So these these were guys who really started to challenge the idea that the human mind was stocked with a rich set of innate principles and started to trace out human the origins of human knowledge to experience.
And they went so far as to claim that human beings don't think using a language like code, but instead think using something more like sensory imagery, that the medium of thought is a lot like the medium of sensory imagination. We visualize things in order to understand them, and they argue that we acquire understanding through observation. And this extends really to to all domain. So I think within the tradition that preceded empiricism, rationalism, people thought everything from mathematics to theology was innately inscribed in the mind by the hand of God.
And the empiricists have tried to look at how knowledge of mathematics, how beliefs and things like religion and also things like morality might have their origin and human activity and observation.
So as an empiricist, I'm really interested in trying to go back to the cognitive turn when cognitive science was born under Chomsky's influence and say there was a moment there where rationalism really entered into the fabric of the sciences of the mind in a way that made it seem like we couldn't study the mind scientifically without supposing a lot of innate knowledge. And I think what we're seeing now is a huge body of research suggesting that the imperiousness may have been right. So, for instance, there's a lot of work suggesting that mental imagery plays a huge role in human thought and understanding.
We're seeing a lot of evidence that all kinds of aspects of human social life and including our tendency to form religious systems might have their basis in much simpler capacities. And we're seeing that systems like morality that were once thought to be universal are hugely varied across culture. And we can actually trace out the specific historical factors that lead to a given moral system and the specific pattern of learning, usually a kind of emotional conditioning that leads a person to acquire a set of moral norms if they aren't innately specified.
You know, it's interesting you mentioned the impetuses because in preparing for this podcast, I actually reread a paper by Michael Gill that came out in 2000 on UAMS Progressive View of Human Nature. And I was struck by this because I'm a fan of youm, but I did not know that he actually had written about human nature in some sense. And basically the gist of the article is that Hume was involved in a debate that was going on at the time in 18th century England about human nature with people on two sides of the debate, essentially assuming either way that there was a sort of a constant invariant human nature, either a good one or a bad one, you know, either selfish or cooperative.
But it was invariant. And that Eun's idea was, on the other hand, that no human human nature is something that changes over time. Of course, it didn't work. It didn't use the term evolves. And at any rate, it didn't mean evolve biologically. It meant evolve culturally. But basically, it was look, you know, you start out with certain things. The basic way, for instance, that we may approach in one of the debates was about justice and the fact that the people recognised that we need a system of justice.
UAMS idea was initially the first the first time you sort of start thinking about this. It may be because it's because of selfish impulses. You realise that there is no system of justice. Then you're going to be in trouble. One of these days somebody's going to do something bad to you. But eventually the association of ideas to use these terms between justice is a good thing. That it does does good for you, but it also does. Good for sort of society at large translates into a change of attitude in tone, incorporating the idea that in the long term, sort of a feeling and emotion, that this is a good thing that has changed the way you think about that particular topic.
So this brings me to the last question I wanted to ask you.
You got a bunch of three or four minutes from the outside. It seems to me that we still do not have a particularly compelling, comprehensive theory of human culture, especially if you exclude memetics, which I do.
You mean about why it evolves the way it does? Yeah, well. And by evolve. Yes, evolve. Yes. But I don't mean biologically. Right. I mean cultural evolution. So we don't have a particular good cultural evolution.
People, you know, momentous, of course, is one attempt cavalries for some Fellman and people at Stanford have tried in the 70s and 80s with their gene Cultural Revolution, which made some progress.
But but it's, I think, very limited and I don't think it went very far.
Is that the wrong impression that I have or is there something about somebody out there that is actually working on a comprehensive theory of human culture? Or are we still out there to describing things but without a comprehensive theory? I think we don't have a comprehensive theory, but I also think we shouldn't expect one. I mean, the problem is there's not a single mechanism of cultural transmission. And I mean, human as a human is a great example of this, because Hume has this beautiful account of how we arrive at morality, which you just rehearsed very concisely.
I mean, he says we have a biological tendency to be nice to our near and dear. We basically are good to our friends and we care for our loved ones and family.
But this isn't enough to give us any more regard for strangers, much less distant, distant others, people in other cultures far away. But he talks about how through self-interest, we can come to realize that creating more large scale cooperative enterprises like state sized societies is very beneficial. So if we can just train ourselves to extend our love or sympathy or benevolence to strangers, we can all end up being better off. So that's a very it's almost a rational account of this cultural change from our biased preference for near and dear to our expanding umbrella that leads to large scale societies.
But there are lots of other stories about how we might see moral change, some of them. So Nature, who's a kind of interesting counterpoint to him as a much more cynical view, says morality is really about power. And people who are desirous of controlling more and more human beings can disseminate a system of values that incorporate a kind of norm that we should be obedient to authority. And that's a very different story. And I think at the end, what we'll get out of a theory of culture is not a general account, but an account of the human psychological capacities for learning language.
Things make us emotional. Which things do we imitate, which things attract our attention, and those together will be susceptible to all kinds of different influences, rational, powerful. And that set of influences can be used to then in a kind of historical way that makes use of cognitive science recount at any given cultural form came into being.
Just to clarify, just see the some of the basic tenets of most moral systems like the the you shouldn't kill people who are close to you and you should help people who are who are close to you. Are you arguing that those are culturally determined or.
Absolutely are. So I don't have time to argue about this, but it seems like there's such a strong evolutionary argument for why that would be the case, that like genes, would genes genes that made you want to help your children or your siblings would spread more than genes that didn't like.
Oh, I do think care for for near and dear, care for your immediate family, maybe even people with whom you regularly fraternize. You're basically your friends, the people you come into regularly contact with that may have a biological basis. So it's really the claim of how this expands out. And if you look at the human capacity for violence, which is the, you know, the mass scale killing that's been institutionalized, or the human capacity to exploit the misery of others, I mean, in any class system that we know so.
Right. So it's really yeah. It's not a claim that human beings don't have some natural some natural capacity to be good at or near and dear. I think I think we do.
But I think that is, you know, to even call it a kernel or core of morality is really misleading, since so much of morality deals with principles that that have nothing to do with his natural form of empathy or sympathy and have much more to do with very law, governance, principles of distribution of power.
Yeah, no, I thought of it as a colonel just because it's present in pretty much universally. But I mean, a final remark on that.
I mean, I actually think that the problem with this focus on empathy is that it's so. So if. Or to try and build a moral system just in our tendency to care for our near and dear, we would end up with a very bad system because it's extremely hard to extend that to others. So I think humor an overly optimistic view insofar as he thought that benevolence was something that could could just spread to all people everywhere, when, in fact, the human capacity for niceness is is more limited than that.
I don't know if I'm allowed to end the section of the podcast with you criticizing Massimo's favorite philosopher, but I'm going to do it anyway. Well, you just say that he's an empiricist. That's good enough. All right.
We're going to wrap up this section of the podcast then and move on to the rationally speaking, PEX. Welcome back. Every episode would be a suggestion for our listeners that has tickled our rational fans. This time we ask our guest, Jesse Prince, for his suggestion.
Well, as a deep fan of cinema, I think that we can find a lot of things that are related to our theme, which is human nature and the cultural influences on human behavior in the cinematic world. In fact, cinema is a little bit like travel. You can watch a film and it will take you to another place. And we can even do a little bit of anthropology by watching films from other times and places and learning a bit about the values that aren't here in other cultures.
And of the many, many films that one could use to illustrate this point, I'm going to pick one that happens to be of special interest to me, which is called White God and Black Devil. And this is a film by a very important Brazilian director who's not appreciated in the United States named Glauber Rocha. And Rossia was a kind of prodigy director who died fairly young at 42, but made a series of extremely important films that revolutionized film in Brazil.
He thought that Brazil needed its own cinema, needed a style that was distinctively Brazilian, that called on European traditions, but also had marks of the local culture. And White got black. Devil is a film that exactly exemplifies this ambition. It has a kind, of course, element which harks back to Greek theater. It has certain framings of shots which look like surgey. Eisenstein from from the Russian silent tradition. It borrows from various French and German traditions as well.
But it also is about the Brazilian experience. The setting is the very arid regions within the northeast of Brazil that are far from the coast where people lived and continue to live in considerable poverty. And the film opens with a poor herder who is in a conflict with his boss because his boss is trying to swindle him. And that results in a violent altercation and the boss killed. So suddenly this herder has to go on the run and he and his partner basically go on a tour of this region of Brazil.
And they they first encounter a leader, a charismatic leader of a religious cult figure who claims to be a saint, who's leading a very large mass of followers, the the religious leader come into conflict with the Catholic Church, that the organized religion, which is reflective of the more established and European connected religious traditions, as opposed to kind of blend of African and Christian religion, which is manifest in the cult. And of course, the government has an interest in these issues as well, because they don't like the idea of a charismatic leader leading leading the masses in ways that might have political ramifications.
So suddenly this character is thrown at the heart of a conflict that includes people from very different backgrounds, ethnically, religiously, and all of these different aspects of Brazilian culture from the established government and the established church to to these more popular religious movements that have a kind of mystical dimension are brought into the same frame. And the film deals with politics of corruption, politics of violence, politics and poverty, but does so in a way that's constantly inventive with respect to cinematic style and and never so editorial that the viewer isn't left having to make some decisions for herself about this particular situation.
Thanks, Jesse. I should also mention to our listeners that if you go to Jesse's website, which we can link to on underneath building to this podcast, you can see a little bit of his writing on the intersection between art and philosophy and between cinema and philosophy. And there's an essay which I skimmed and can recommend called Wynans Film Art, which is under his philosophy section. So check it out. It was really great having you as a guest. Jesse, thank you so much for coming in.
It's been an absolute pleasure and I love the cast.
This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.