[Paleopsych] Meme 044: The Collapse of the SSSM (Standard Social Science Model)
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Mon Jul 18 00:17:01 UTC 2005
Meme 044: The Collapse of the SSSM (Standard Social Science Model)
Communism collapsed mighty rapidly, from the victory of Solidarity in Poland in
1989 June to the opening of the Berlin Wall in November that year, just five
months later. (The USSR itself lingered on until 1991 December 8.) One
unremarked miracle is that well-nigh irrepressible urge of politicians to make
hot air was suppressed: I remember no speeches from Communist politicians about
how beneficial communism is, how moral it is, how it should be given another
We are witnessing an equally sudden collapse of the Standard Social Science
Model, the idea that human social organization has little or nothing to do with
human biology. The SSSM holds that the human brain is a domain-general learning
mechanism (also called a blank slate (tabula rasa after John Locke)), rather
than a network of domain-specific mechanisms that guide learning in ways that
were practical in our evolutionary past. If the SSSM is true, then people can
learn almost anything and culture can establish almost any rules that social
scientists want. (The power implications should be obvious.)
What kept communism going was that it suppressed its critics, though the time
of fervent belief had long since passed. By the fall of the Berlin wall there
were more truly-believing communists in West German universities than in the
whole of East Germany. Criticism of the SSSM had been building ever since the
work of Nikolaus Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz in the comparative study of animal
behavior ("ethology") in the 1950s suggested application to human societies,
leading to E.O. Wilson's _Sociobiology_ in 1975. Still, in most university
departments in sociology and the humanities (not so much in psychology), the
SSSM reigns by severely sanctioning those who inject biology into their
studies, on the grounds of racism or reductionism.
What is happening now is the rapid fall of suppression (though not the hot
air). The last five months have witnessed publication in major journals on the
hereditability of political attitudes, the superior intelligence of Ashkenazi
Jews, the different cognitive abilities among races generally (this was
recently really taboo), and rehabilitation of individual responsibility
(striking, since the SSSM ignores free will along with biology). These articles
would not have been published in major journals just a few years ago. The
Berlin Wall in academia having fallen, there is a flood of them.
But the best evidence, perhaps, is that the article I recently sent, Different
Emotional Reactions to Different Groups: A Sociofunctional Threat-Based
Approach to "Prejudice," by Cottrell, Catherine A., and Neuberg, Steven L.,
_Journal of Personality and Social Psychology_, 2005 May, does indeed invoke
sociobiology in explaining the wide varieties of prejudice as evolutionary
adaptations, as opposed to purely cultural ones. The amazing thing is that
paper is really a Big Mac journal article:
"Virtually all research articles have a predictable format--review of the
literature, hypotheses, methodology, results, tables, interpretation,
conclusion, footnotes and references. [He forgot to add plea for more funding.]
Reading the typical American research article offers the same kinds of
gratification as eating a Big Mac for lunch. The sociologist knows exactly what
to expect and where each component of the article will be found, just as the
customer knows that the Big Mac will include a bun, burger, pickle, relish, and
"special sauce," as well as where each element is to be found if one cared to
deconstruct the burger. There is great satisfaction in knowing precisely what
can be expected in one's lunch and in what reads before, after, or even with
that lunch. Since they are both highly rationalized, a Big Mac and the typical
research article in an American journal go well together at lunchtime. (In
contrast, it would be ludicrous to try to read the latest, non-rationalized
books of Pierre Bourdieu or Jurgen Habermas over such a lunch.) It is nice to
know that there will be no big surprises--Big Macs and research articles almost
always deliver precisely what is expected, no less, but also--and most
tellingly and damningly--no more" (George Ritzer, _The McDonaldization Thesis__
(London: Sage Publications, 1998), p. 40).
Having read the article--well, not thoroughly: only the author and the peer
reviewers give these articles a thorough reading--I can report that the whole
backdrop of the actual experiment with college students could just as easily
been couched in SSSM or even Freudian terms as in sociobiological ones. The
experiment itself only showed that there are different kinds of prejudice,
depending on the kinds of threats the object of prejudice is seen to have. It
seems quite surprising that this variability had not been studied before, but
it's easy to get an article placed if you make conduct a slightly different
experiment and thoroughly follow the Big Mac article procedures.
What's remarkable, as far as the collapse the forces that suppressed critics of
the SSSM goes, is that authors can now get away with attacking the SSSM and
substituting the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology. I use the term rhetoric,
even though I buy into e.p. explanations generally, fully aware of their
limitations. Being better than the SSSM does not mean perfection. I also
realize that the social layer is to some extent (in some cases, a great extent)
independent at least in the short term from biology. There is no reduction of
Die große Fuge to Beethoven's synapses. Biology constrains what can happen and
how fast society can change.
I won't say much about the political fallout, since political lag is the
severest form of culture lag. We're seeing the rise of Big God--here we really
need sociological explanations, for biological explanations speak of a "god
gene" (no, the biological explanations are not *that* reductive) but not of
*changes* in the political landscape over a few decades--and may be seeing the
rise of Big White, the first due to the failure of secularists to come up with
an adequately strict morality suitable to carry individuals through periods of
rapid change, the latter in reaction to Affirmative Action programs and to
immigration, lately of Muslims with
their competing Big God issues.
I'm going to concentrate on the sudden collapse of the SSSM and send out
articles relevant to this historic event. This will come at the expense of most
of what I've been sending out. (I badly need to catch up with my own
forwardings and have 300 e-mails backed up. Let me know if there is something
you very specifically want a response to. You often just send casual remarks. I
do not intend to ignore my critics, in fact, I thrive on them. So please repeat
what you most want me to respond to. Otherwise, I'll assume you have figured
out your own answers!) I'll drop most of the short-term political stuff and the
merely routine complaining. I'll drop most of the stuff on technological
advances. (Send me an e-mail for my own best sources.) I will continue to watch
for thoughtful articles on long-term social trends, such the Americanization of
the world and the resistance to same.
Below are some paragraphs I've grabbed on the SSSM.
Harold Fromm: The New Darwinism in the Humanities
The orthodoxy that triggers revolt for Cosmides and Tooby can be represented by
a remark by Emile Durkheim from 1895, a sentiment whose influence shaped the
social sciences for almost a century: Collective representations, emotions, and
tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness of individuals
but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed.
Such actions can, of course materialize only if the individual natures are not
resistant to them; but these individual natures are merely the indeterminate
material that the social factor molds and transforms. [Emphasis added by
Cosmides and Tooby.] From this are generated the two most powerful themes of
The Adapted Mind: the Standard Social Science Model, or SSSM, and the blank
The Standard Social Science Model requires an impossible psychology. Results
out of cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence,
developmental psychology, linguistics, and philosophy converge on the same
conclusion: A psychological architecture that consisted of nothing but
equipotential, general-purpose, content-independent, or content-free mechanisms
could not successfully perform the tasks the human mind is known to perform or
solve the adaptive problems humans evolved to solvefrom seeing, to learning a
language, to recognizing an emotional expression, to selecting a mate, to the
many disparate activities aggregated under the term learning culture. . . .
Although most psychologists were faintly aware that hominids lived for millions
of years as hunter-gatherers or foragers, they did not realize that this had
theoretical implications for their work. More to the point, however, the logic
of the Standard Social Science Model informed them that humans were more or
less blank slates for which no task was more natural than any other.
The appeal of the SSSM is that it provides a rationale for social engineering
and political correctness, for promulgating such egalitarian absurdities as the
doctrine that there are no substantive psychological differences between the
sexes, a doctrine that has finally run its course. Or as Cosmides and Tooby put
it, A program of social melioration carried out in ignorance of human complex
design is something like letting a blindfolded individual loose in an operating
room with a scalpelthere is likely to be more blood than healing. Rhetorically
asking how it is possible for pre-linguistic children to deduce the meanings of
the words they hear when they are in the process of learning their local
language for the first time, they reply that infants powers of interpretation
must be supplied by the human universal metaculture the infant or child shares
with adults by virtue of their common humanity, in other words, their evolved
The description of evolutionary psychology from the latest edition of
Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopaedia:
Evolutionary Psychology, the notion that the human mind is the product of
evolution and has therefore developed innate psychological mechanisms that are
typical of the human species. This relatively new field of study stands in
marked contrast to the standard social science model (SSSM) which has tended to
portray the human mind as a general-purpose computer to be programmed by
random, culture-specific determinants (the "blank slate" thesis).
This new branch of psychology grew out of developments in the late 20th century
in a number of quite disparate disciplines including evolutionary biology,
palaeoanthropology, and cognitive psychology. Evolutionary psychologists have
used findings from each of these fields of research to argue that a universal
human nature lies just below the surface of cultural variability.
While the SSSM emphasizes the flexibility of human learning, social
environment, and random cultural processes, evolutionary psychologists believe
that such flexibility consists of a number of tendencies to learn particular
skills and to do so at various, specific ages. Evolutionary psychologists do
not dispute the importance of learning, but attempt to explain the process in
terms of innate mechanisms. Likewise, evolutionary psychology stresses the
importance of culture, but, rather than defining culture as a random force, it
sees it as the way in which humans are aided in acquiring skills that
potentially enhance fitness and, therefore, the abili ty to survive longer than
others and produce fit offspring.
From: Paul Voestermans <voestermans at psych.kun.nl>
To: <evolutionary-psychology at egroups.com>
Date: Apr 13 2000 - 5:16am
Cultural psychology meets evolutionary psychology.
Toward a new role of biology in the study of culture and experience
NCPG, department of cultural psychology, University of Nijmegen, the
6500 HE Nijmegen
voestermans at psych.kun.nl
NCPG, department of cultural psychology, University of Nijmegen, the
6500 HE Nijmegen
baerveldt at psych.kun.nl
Paul Voestermans & Cor Baerveldt
NCPG, department of cultural psychology, University of Nijmegen, the
The basics of evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary psychologists are much concerned with the behavior generating
principles in the brain, which come into existence under the pressure of
adaptive problems in the environment. They want to get rid of the Standard
Social Science Model (SSSM) of the social and behavioral sciences, as defend
for example by Geertz (1973) and Montagu (1964). That model is a relict from
thoughts entertained already long before Darwin. At that time the human mind
was not considered to be part of nature. It was a pre-given device (from divine
origin) which stood open to the outside world and took its content from the
social world. The evolutionary psychologists are convinced that this assumption
is still a vital part of the SSSM. Central to this model is the idea that the
mind operates on the basis of the free social construction of its content. This
idea lies also at the basis of a few incorrect presuppositions with respect to
culture, so the evolutionary psychologists argue. The most import one is that
culture is somehow transmitted to a brain that functions as a "general purpose
machine". To this machine belong the abilities to learn and to imitate others.
General intelligence and rationality belong to it as well. The idea is that
these functions are all free of content. Let us quote what the evolutionary
psychologist have to say on this score: "all of the specific content of the
human mind originally derives from the outside -from the environment and the
social world - and the evolved architecture of the mind consists solely or
predominantly of a small number of general purpose mechanisms that are
content-independent, and which sail under names such as "learning",
"induction", "intelligence", "imitation", "rationality", "the capacity of
culture" or simply "culture?"" (Cosmides & Tooby, Internet Primer, 1997, p. 3).
What is the alternative proposed by the evolutionary psychologists? In the
course of evolution a few regulative, functionally specialized circuits in the
brain have been devised. They are designed for the execution of behaviors which
are functionally organized around adaptive problems our stone age forebears
encountered. There is some convergence on the part of neuroscientists,
evolutionary biologists, and cognitive psychologists on the issue of how the
brain as a physical system processes information in order to generate certain
behaviors. This convergence aims at the understanding in terms of
"computations" and information processing of a variety of behaviors ranging
form perception, cognitive functioning (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994) to sex and
mating behavior (Symons, 1979) and a variety of social psychological phenomena
(Simpson & Kenrick, 1997). Those who adopt the SSSM have assumed too readily
that: "all significant aspects of adult mental organization are supplied
culturally". Linking the production of culture solely to "general purpose
learning mechanisms or content- independent cognitive processes" denies the
relationship between biology and psychology and suggests too strongly that
human being are instinctually ?underprepared?. Learning becomes too much of a
"window through which the culturally manufactured pre-existing complex
organization outside of the individual manages to climb inside the individual"
(Tooby en Cosmides,1992, p. 30). Content-specific brain mechanisms are
The standard social science model:
"A set of assumptions and inferences about humans, their minds, and their
collective interaction ... that has provided the conceptual foundations of the
social sciences for nearly a century..."
In fact, these assumptions and inferences have been largely shared with the
humanities and the arts, at least in the academic world.
...one would be strangely mistaken about our thought if ... he drew the
conclusion that sociology, according to us, must, or even can, make an
abstraction of man and his faculties. It is clear. . . that the general
characteristics of human nature participate in the work of elaboration from
which social life results. But they are not the cause of it, nor do they give
it its special form; they only make it possible. Collective representations,
emotions, and tendencies are caused not by certain states of the consciousness
of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its
totality, is placed. Such actions can, of course, materialize only if the
individual natures are not resistant to them; but these individual natures are
merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms.
Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and
consequently plastic predispositions which, by themselves, if other agents did
not intervene, could not take on the definite and complex forms which
characterize social phenomena.
(Emil Durkheim, 1895).
Sketch of the arguments behind the SSSM, taken from Cosmides and Tooby, "The
Psychological Foundations of Culture," in Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, The
Adapted Mind (1992):
Rapid historical change and spontaneous "cross-fostering experiments" dispose
of the racist notion that intergroup behavioral differences are genetic.
Infants everywhere have the same developmental potential. Althoughs infants are
everywhere the same, adults everywhere differ profoundly in their behavioral
and mental organization. Therefore, "human nature" (the evolved structure of
the human mind) cannot be the cause of the mental organization of adult humans,
their social systems, their culture, etc.
Complexly organized adult behaviors are absent from infants. Whatever "innate"
equipment infants are born with must therefore be viewed as highly rudimentary
-- an unorganized set of crude urges or drives, along with a general ability to
learn. Infants must acquire adult mental organization from some external source
in the course of development. The external source is obvious: this organization
is manifestly present in the behavior and the public representations of other
members of the local group. "Cultural phenomena are in no respect hereditary
but are characteristically and without exception acquired." "Undirected by
culture patterns -- organized systems of significant symbols -- man's behavior
would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding
emotions, his experience virtually shapeless" (Geertz 1973). This establishes
that the social world is the cause of the mental organization of adults.
The cultural and social elements that mold the individual precede the
individual and are external to the individual. The mind did not create them;
they created the mind. They are "given, and the individual finds them already
current in the community when he is born." (Geertz 1973). The causal flow is
overwhelmingly or entirely in one direction: the individual is the acted upon
and the sociocultural world is the actor. Therefore, what complexly organizes
and richly shapes the substance of human life -- what is interesting and
distinctive and worthy of study -- is the variable pool of stuff that is
referred to as 'culture". But what creates culture?
Culture is not created by the biological properties of individual humans --
Rather, culture is created by some set of emergent processes whose determinants
are realized at the group level. The sociocultural level is a distinct,
autonomous and self-caused realm. "Culture is a thing sui generis which can be
explained only in terms of itself .. Omnis cultura ex cultura." (Lowie 1917).
Alfred Kroeber "The only antecedents of historical phenomena are historical
phenomena." Emil Durkheim "The determining cause of a social fact should be
sought among the social facts preceding it and not among the states of
individual consciousness." Geertz "Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our
emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products -- products
manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with
which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless." (1973).
Therefore, the SSSM denies that "human nature" -- the evolved architecture of
the human mind -- can play any notable role as a generator of significant
organization in human life... In so doing, it removes from the concept of human
nature all substantive content, and relegates the architecture of the human
mind to the narrowly delimited role of embodying "the capacity for culture."
From this perspective, the choice of "human nature" as the inaugural theme for
the Humanities Forum is surprising and even shocking.
What is Experimental Economics?
by Vernon Smith
The first concept of a rational order derives from today's standard
social-economic science model (SSSM) going back to the seventeenth century. The
SSSM is an example of what Hayek has called, constructivist rationalism, which,
in its modern forms and power, stems from Descartes, who believed and argued
that all worthwhile social institutions were and should be created by conscious
deductive processes of human reason. Truth is derived and derivable from
premises that are obvious and unassailable. Thus, in positive economics it has
been argued influentially that you judge the validity of a model by its
predictions, not by its assumptions--a methodology that provides limited
guidance in experimental studies where one can control the economic environment
and institutional rules. In economics the SSSM leads to rational predictive
models of decision that motivate research hypotheses that experimentalists have
been testing in the laboratory since mid twentieth century. The test results
are decidedly mixed, and this has motivated constructivist extensions of game
theory, most notably based on other-regarding, in addition to own-regarding,
preferences, and on 'learning'--the idea that the predictions of the SSSM might
be approached over time by trial-and-error adaptation processes.
For tractability, Cartesian rationalism provisionally requires agents to
possess complete information - far more than could ever be given to one mind.
In economics the resulting analytical exercises, while yielding insightful
theorems, are designed to aid and sharpen thinking - if-then parable. Yet,
these exercises may not approximate the level of ignorance that has conditioned
institutions, as abstract rules independent of particular parameterizations
that have survived as part of the world of experience. The temptation, of
course, is to ignore this reality, because it is poorly understood, and to
proceed in the implicit belief that our parables capture what is most essential
in understanding what we observe.
The biology of culture
23 November 2000, 808 words
One of the more depressing traits of human beings is their readiness to accept
obvious falsehoods and, concomitantly, an almost equal readiness to reject
provable truths. Evolutionary theory is an example of the latter; an example of
the former is the widely-held belief that culture determines human nature.
In his book Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald Brown writes, "...the
proposition that nature and culture are two distinct phenomenal realms assumes
[that] a given trait, behaviour or institution is either cultural or it is
natural, there is nothing in-between. In any form, this proposition ignores the
obvious truth that, whatever the analytical validity of distinguishing nature
from culture, the latter must come from the former. Folk beliefs
notwithstanding, there is no alternative to this materialist tenet."
Most people's belief systems are adopted on the basis of heritability - i.e.
whatever their parents and/or peers happen to believe. So what the average
persons believes is determined, not by logic or proof, but by convenience and
comfort. Evolution explains why this is so; culture does not. That is, we have
evolved to believe whatever "truth" best ensures our genetic survival, not
whatever is really true, since the real truth may sometimes not serve our
interests. (Indeed, a good test of how objective you truly are is to consider
whether you have any deep beliefs which you would prefer not to hold.)
This belief in the power of culture to shape human nature is particularly
pernicious because it permeates all strata of society, from the academic to the
political to the folk. Ordinary people believe that anyone who has a different
skin colour, language, religion, even eating habits, is not only different, but
fundamentally different from them. Politicians believe that people can be
persuaded to believe anything, if told it often enough and loud enough.
The academic viewpoint, which has been dubbed the Standard Social Science Model
(or SSSM), was articulated by American anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1935 in
this way: "...human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding
accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions...The members
of either or both sexes may...be educated to approximate [any temperament]."
Mead's conclusions were based on her studies of the Samoan islanders, whose
nonchalant sexual habits, she claimed, made them satisfied and their society
crime-free; and on the Tshambuli, who had reversed sex roles, with the men
wearing make-up and curls and, she said, having gentle natures as a result.
Fact is, later studies showed that the Samoans had sexual jealousy and rape
like any other society, and the Tshambuli men were wife-beaters and treated
homicide as a milestone in a young man's life which entitled him to wear the
face-paint Mead thought was so feminine.
The ethnographic evidence overwhelmingly shows that a universal human nature
does exist. Brown lists nine pages of traits common to all known societies,
such as prestige, gossip, humorous insults, rhetoric, terms distinguishing male
and female, sexual regulations, kinship terms, property, rules proscribing
violence and rape, and many more.
This is hardly surprising. Human beings all have the same genomes. Genes build
bodies and bodies build brains and brains build minds. Ergo, human beings are
basically the same in the Amazon rainforests and the metropolitan cities.
Differences in behaviour, beliefs and habits - i.e. culture - are mainly the
result of ecology, geography and technology.
Yet, although both the logic and the empirical evidence show that human nature
is not as malleable as the SSSM insists, academics and other intellectuals
still write as though it is. There are several reasons for this obduracy, not
least of which is social scientists promoting their own professional agenda.
The SSSM is the secular catechism of educated people, who are too
intellectually advanced not to see the obvious contradictions of religion, but
who are not emotionally advanced enough to reject the religious mindset.
Culture assumes the aspect of a God, to whom one can pray in order to bring
about fundamental changes in the reality of the world.
Concomitantly, the attraction of the SSSM also lies in its implication that one
can wield power over others since, if you can control their culture, you can
control their minds. This idea is what lies behind calls to legislate local
music quotas, as well as the advertising blitz for the 2000 general election.
Cultural determinism can only work if the human mind is a tabula rasa or, as
some commentators believe, if the average person is at the mental and emotional
level of a two-year-old.
But, even if the latter were true, it would provide no comfort to those who
think people's attitudes can be shaped by cultural fascism: most children learn
to say "No" before "Yes". That little fact alone helps prevent me despairing
over the future of our species.
[I am sending forth these memes, not because I agree wholeheartedly with all of
them, but to impregnate females of both sexes. Ponder them and
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