[Paleopsych] Alice Andrews reviews The Paradoxical Primate by Colin Talbot

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jun 18 23:25:19 UTC 2005

Alice Andrews reviews The Paradoxical Primate by Colin Talbot

    Imprint Academic, 2004
    Review by Alice Andrews, M.A. on Jun 13th 2005

    At first it was hard for me not to be gleeful reading Colin Talbot's
    The Paradoxical Primate: here was Talbot, an ex-Trotskyist (I grew up
    the daughter of Trotskyists) with an evolutionary psychological view
    of human nature (a perspective he and I share) writing in a light and
    personal style (my favorite); telling me I was about to read a
    "creative synthesis" of many disciplines: management and
    organizational theory and research (his current field), public
    administration, economics, evolutionary psychology, chaos and
    complexity theory; about a topic that fascinates me--our paradoxical

    Talbot, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Nottingham
    and director of the Nottingham Policy Centre calls his 'synthesis'
    "human paradox theory;" which basically propounds the notion that we
    have evolved paradoxical instincts (or traits) which generate
    paradoxical systems (or organizations). Talbot sees our paradoxical
    human nature as universal, "ineradicable," and adaptive (not only for
    our ancestors, but for us today--though he admits it does pose risks
    and can be maladaptive), and he believes that seeing humans through
    this particular paradoxical lens will be better for public-policy
    makers and probably for us all. These paradoxical instincts come in
    pairs; the major ones for him being: aggression versus peace-making;
    competition versus cooperation; altruism versus selfishness;
    conformity versus autonomy. One of our problems as social animals and
    indeed as agents of social change, etc. (as I think he-- rightly--sees
    it), is that, paradoxically! we tend to think in rather
    black-and-white terms, in 'either/or' ways. Talbot writes: "Humans, we
    usually assume, are either one thing or another. Creative or
    pedestrian, aggressive or pacific, competitive or cooperative,
    rational or emotional, and so on endlessly. ....Most social science
    has traditionally been constructed around the notion that if you are
    more of one, you must be less of the other. If you are more
    competitive, you must be less cooperative. (6)" The aim of human
    paradox theory is to go beyond such false dichotomies. One of his
    arguments is that in some sense this either/or mentality parallels the
    political left and right, as well as the war between blank slatists
    and innatists. (Talbot does a pretty good job of defending why one can
    be on the left and also subscribe to an innatist view.)

    Though Talbot and I arrive at the same conclusion and draw on some of
    the same literature and theories, and though he does make clear that
    his is not a grand theory of everything but rather an opening to the
    possible beginning of cross-disciplinary synthetic research in
    paradoxical studies, my glee did turn to a bit of disappointment, as
    ultimately, I wasn't convinced about his argument and how he arrived
    at the conclusion, and I wonder if, indeed, The Paradoxical Primate is
    a synthesis. Human paradox theory feels more like random ideas and
    examples and gedanken experiments (quite a few of those) than a
    cohesive theory or synthesis about our paradoxical nature. The fields
    Talbot uses for his theory are fine and most are good, but I would
    rather see more emphasis on behavioral genetics, neuroethology,
    evolutionary psychology, plain old reductive genetics and
    neuroscience, and a smattering of Jung and Freud and maybe even fuzzy
    logic--less so on management and organizational theory and research,
    less talk about Boston Boxes--but this is clearly my bias and there
    must be plenty of readers for whom the application of management and
    organizational theory to our paradoxical nature would be useful and a
    good starting ground.

    Here's an example of how more ethology would have been useful. Talbot

    "What evolves is what might be called a sort of 'behavioural jukebox'
    [I got the idea of a behavioral jukebox from the excellent book by
    Bateson and Martin...] a set of behavioral patterns--often
    contradictory--from which the jukebox operator can select in response
    to their environment and preferences..."

     But does he need a neologism for this? Doesn't ethology already have
    a vocabulary for such a thing? What about 'innate releasing mechanism'
    or the newer 'releasing mechanism' which admits the continuum of an
    open to closed developmental system? Or a discussion of epigenetic

    Talbot is often paradoxical his own self and sometimes seems to
    confuse or at least muddy his terms here and there. And though Talbot
    writes an awful lot about the group versus the individual, he doesn't
    use that dichotomy to make his paradoxical model more clear. Talbot's
    sense of our paradoxicalness appears to have two components: in one
    sense we are individually paradoxical--we are deceptive, covetous,
    hypocritical, wear masks, are well-mannered, civilized; our actions
    and behaviors and not always in line with our beliefs and values and
    thoughts. (He never mentions cognitive dissonance but some discussion
    of it as a social psychological principle might have been warranted.
    Likewise no mention of Freud and the still very cogent theory that the
    conflict between the Superego and the Id results in neurosis, stress,

    The other way we are paradoxical is as a group, a species. Our very
    nature is paradoxical in that it seems to have a limited but plastic
    and ever-adaptive and flexible program which tends to be what he
    refers to as 'bipolar.' Talbot, I think, is right in supposing that
    one of our problems comes from not recognizing our paradoxical nature
    and setting up dichotomies. But I yearned for a deeper understanding
    of these paradoxes. Can such things be located in parts of the triune
    brain (reptilian, limbic, neocortex) or bifurcated brain (left/right
    hemispheres)? Are there perhaps differences in the very brains and
    genes of people who tend to see our nature as either 'either/or' or as

    I think Talbot is right that we might need a new model of human
    nature. I'm going to assume that anyone interested in reading his book
    doesn't need an exploration of the problems with the blank-slate
    model. But the evolutionary model (and EP in particular) is worth
    looking at. The Cosmides/Tooby evolutionary model states that there is
    one universal human nature but that within that nature there is an
    epigenetic process with much variability--things can be turned up/on,
    down/off, or modified depending on the environment, etc.

    One of the drawbacks to the universal human nature argument seems
    semantic: If we see such a huge range of behaviors and individual
    differences, what does it mean to say we have a universal human nature
    that is say, hierarchical, yet have the capacity to be
    nonhierarchical? It seems nonsensical (and yes, paradoxical). This is
    often the argument against evolutionary psychologists, in fact. [See
    my essay "An Evolutionary Mind" [26]www.metanexus.net).] MacClean's
    triune brain model (or Jim Henry's four-brain system) might provide
    clues to this puzzle, though, and although Talbot does make mention of
    Gerald A. Cory's CSN (conflict systems neurobehavioral) model (a
    brilliant model--see Human Nature and Public Policy: An Evolutionary
    Approach, eds. Somit and Peterson) which is based on MacClean's triune
    brain model, he doesn't exactly incorporate it into his theory.

    Talbot talks about paradoxical behavior and paradoxical instincts, but
    what of the mind?; the conscious executive function--the ego? He does
    say: "We humans are essentially conflicted between our individual and
    social selves and a great deal of our behaviour derives from this
    basic paradox." (71) But he doesn't develop or expand on the
    discussion of the executive program that decides on which dimension to
    lean toward (he uses Cory's terms: ego versus empathy), and it's an
    exploration of this that seems worth pursuing. The mind (or Ego) in
    Freudian terms, is that which is constantly trying to balance the
    instincts (Id) and the Superego (culture's rules, morals, norms, etc.)
    Through this lens (mechanistic as it is), we are paradoxical because
    we are constantly being torn and pulled every which way by one side
    (Id's lusty, demanding, individualistic, sexual and aggressive needs
    (the midbrain)), or the other--Superego's fair-minded, other- and
    outward-directed, prosocial needs (the cerebral cortex). It is the
    executive function (Ego) that tries to balance these. Because Talbot
    doesn't really deal with the mind (or the executive function much),
    when he writes about hypocrisy, there is only a fuzzy sense about it.
    However, seen through the Freudian (or EP or MacLean) triadic model,
    hypocrisy becomes clearer: A person's need for a job is critical for
    survival. A person may have an Id-y, reptilian impulse to strike out
    at a boss or colleague but instead might repress such feelings because
    of a need to remain in the group, because the group affords survival.
    A person may even act hypocritically; using the defense mechanism of
    reaction formation, to brown nose a boss and 'act' in affiliative ways
    toward colleagues, while behind their back saying all sorts of nasty
    things about them. If one didn't need to go in to work--if one could
    be a recluse, a hermit, a self-employed artist--one wouldn't have to
    deal with the issue of hypocrisy or being two-faced very much. It is
    one's ability to live with these contradictions and masks, which to
    me, distinguishes different types. Are there those who are more
    sensitive to living with such contradictions? Are there different
    thresholds? I would argue yes--that there are those who are wired to
    have a large capacity to distance their thoughts and feelings from
    their behavior and words--to be more compartmental--thus not
    experiencing as much cognitive dissonance; these are the cool,
    "cut-off," types, what I call "Apollinian." While there are others who
    have a harder time with the mismatch (the dissonance) in the form of
    guilt--who have a naturally lower threshold to carry the inconsistency
    of mind and behavior. We often refer to these people as "sensitive"
    artists--what I call "Dionysian." And I think there are fundamental
    differences between these types--at the level of alleles even. For
    example, there is much speculation that men's brains are wired more
    compartmentally and that parts of their corpus callosums--the nerve
    fibers that bridge the two hemispheres together--are smaller than in
    women's brains, which could account for some typically male
    'compartmental' traits. And though Talbot briefly mentions other
    cultures such as Japan, he doesn't go near such a genetic or
    neurological argument, which I think is the more interesting. An
    exploration of the possible genetic differences regarding collectivist
    cultures/peoples and individualist cultures/peoples would have been

    Despite my minor disappointment and misgivings, Talbot's project in
    The Paradoxical Primate is admirable and worthy of attention; there is
    definitely much food for thought here as he does bring in a lot of
    material (good references) and that alone is valuable. Certainly a
    paradoxical view of human nature helps to explain the seeming
    contradictions regarding our dual nature: How do we answer the
    question: are we peace-loving or violent? And is it a valid question
    in the first place? It is in the working out of these questions that
    evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics will probably have to
    duel and at some point make peace with, in the form of some
    paradoxical synthesis.

    [27]Alice Andrews, M.A., Department of Psychology, State University of
    New York at New Paltz


   26. http://www.metanexus.net/
   27. http://bhs.sunydutchess.edu/andrews/

More information about the paleopsych mailing list