I’m reading Peter Turchin’s “War & Peace & War” (the sequel to “Porgy & Bess & Porgy”) currently. Some of you might jump in at the mention of cliodynamics with cracks about Hari Seldon & comparisons to earthquake prediction, but Turchin has already beat you to the punch there and accordingly proposes more modest ambitions for the field. What instead stuck out to me was his claim in the intro setting up his asabiyah-based theory that rational choice & the “selfish gene” have been debunked by experimental economics and multilevel selection, and that the previously mentioned theories cannot explain cooperation. This seemed wrong to me. Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” is full of explanations of how purely self-interested genes can give rise to cooperative behavior. In a foreword he even says the book could have been titled “The Cooperative Gene”. Turchin’s background is in evolutionary biology, so I’d expect he knows all this and perhaps has an argument contra Dawkins, but I can’t accept his claim as is on face value. Elsewhere I happen to be involved in a discussion of collective action problems, where I take the position that they do exist but surprisingly often people can come up with solutions to deal with them.
Turchin isn’t the first Russian evolutionary biologist to pooh-pooh the individual organism in favor of the group. The anarcho-communist prince Pyotr Kropotkin wrote “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution”, which I admit to not having read yet despite owning it (and seeing the endorsements of Gould & Montagu on the back), which argues among other things that competition within a species does not serve to give a Malthusian bound to population growth because animals by their nature avoid competing with one another. The less scientifically inclined Russian anarchist Bakunin was the leader of a group known as the “collectivists” in the First International. More conservative Russians aren’t keen on individualism either. Anatoly Karlin explains the ideal state for Russia being one of “sobornost”, in which Russians are united in a confident patriotism, vs “poshlost” or self-satisfied vulgarity, exemplified by Weimar Germany & 1990s Russia. Russians are always afraid of chaos and hence more willing to accept a “white rider” such as Putin today or Ivan the Terrible before. Like most in the “liberty loop” of Anglo civilization, I am more afraid of the tyranny of the ruler of the central state.
Before picking up the book I was taking part in an argument over whether an analysis at the individual level wasn’t fine-grained enough. Inspired by Derekt Parfit, behavioral economics or perhaps both, Adam Ozimek suggested that an individual at different times might be thought of as distinct persons and this framing undermines the right of a past self to commit suicide, thus depriving the future self of life. I responded that “if suicide is murder, then spending in the present is theft from a future self, sex is rape and a boxing match is battery” but that the shared genes of our past-and-future selves prevent much conflict of interests. Sister Y, as might be expected, disagrees on suicide but does seem more favorable toward the truth of the “successive selves” lens. She just thinks that “possible” entities don’t have the right to come into existence. Karl Smith frames it in terms of an “experiencing self” who wants “good friends and good laughs” while the “remembering self” wants “money, status, fame, power, etc”. I bet nobody likes him. In this discussion I should have referenced Katja Grace’s post arguing that because of the temporally divided nature of the individual, libertarianism should give way to paternalism on matters like smoking. But I forgot to do so until now.
The Austrians are known (at least among the people who know about them at all) for their methodological individualism. The Austrian-inspired libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once asked why they don’t dig even deeper to use the neuron as their unit of analysis. In his ongoing quest to alienate his old Austrian friends, Gene Callahan has pronounced methodological individualism to be alright for its time but wanting in comparison to newer goods on the shelf.