How can we explain human behavior?

I have previously divided explanations of human behavior into three very general categories: anti-causalism (the belief in some non-material explanation, like a soul or free will/agency), adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary adaptations mold behavior), and constructionism (the belief that social conditioning, especially social constructs, mold behavior). I have done so because positions that fall under each category do share a lot in common, and so it is instructive to discuss about them in general terms before we get into the specific. I have gone into specifics, mostly against adaptationist beliefs, in other entries, but in this entry I want to talk about the general categories again.

So one question that adaptationists often raise about my constructionist position is, how would YOU explain why people do what they do? The trouble with adaptationist theories is that they offer a solution that is clear, simple, and completely wrong. It omits all the complexity of human life and turns it into a simple and abstract mechanism of genetic propagation which can be easily understood by thinking about what you imagine hunter-gatherer societies to be like. This is basically a Flintstones view of evolution used as a nice story that explains why people do what they do: they are compelled by their genes, and the genes seek their own “self-interest” (whatever that means for inanimate objects).

My constructionist view is more complicated, because human motivations are more complicated. To fully understand any behavior, we need to fully understand the person first, which is impossible. Anyone who claims to completely understand the motivations for a behavior is lying. We can talk about general incentives that are given to the individual in this or that context, but these are generalities which do not apply to everyone. The specific circumstances of subcultures one is raised in, education, personality, social networks, and so on, change everyone’s response to incentive systems, although those incentive systems are still the dominant influence. Basically, we all either follow, or react against, incentive systems and prevalent belief-systems.

Adaptationism also has its exceptions, but they don’t make much sense. When confronted by the many ways in which non-Western societies break their “evolutionary imperatives,” they say that this must be due to culture. But according to their own theory, culture is constructed by biology, and it makes no sense for certain cultures to somehow push people into doing things that go completely against our very DNA. So there’s really no explanation to be found along these lines.

Let’s just take one simple example, one that is supposed to be one of evolutionary psychology’s strengths: the double standard. They claim that it is genetically advantageous for men to sleep around and for women to seek stable monogamous relationships. However, they have little to reply to examples of non-Western societies, or even some Western examples, where men do not sleep around (or do not have sex at all) or where women do sleep around. From a constructionist perspective, culture is primary, and therefore does not suffer from these problems. Whatever the culture says the role of sex and gender are, most people will follow. In our societies, we are raised to believe that men should be virile and have sex, and that women should want to get married and have children, so that’s what we tend to do. Other societies, with different frameworks around sex and gender, entail different behaviors.

Does that mean that everyone will follow cultural principles? No, clearly not. There are many reasons for that. For instance, we’re all raised in different subcultures and social classes, which influences how we see ourselves and the parts of the culture we adopt or reject. A white boy from the upper class will have a different relation to the culture, to sex, and to gender, than a black girl from the lower class. Also, some small portion of our personality is of genetic origin.

Genetics are not completely irrelevant from the constructionist perspective, they just don’t provide most of the explanatory power needed. Because of the fact that we have human bodies, we generally want to eat, to socialize and share kinship, have sex, have status and admiration, and so on (although these things are not true for everyone). But this does not explain behavior. Human behavior is never simply “to eat” or “to share kinship,” it consists of eating specific things at specific times and in specific ways, of a kinship that is constructed in specific ways. Both of these things are a result of culture, which nearly completely erases the genetic factor.

Social constructs are an important part of constructionism, which is why I call it “constructionism,” because they constitute our identity. Everything that you see as uniquely “you” is a result of social constructs being imposed (or in some cases, not being imposed, like in non-religious families) on “you,” mostly through childhood socialization, but also from other sources such as the mass media and the education system.

The prevalent view about identification nowadays is a view related to adaptationism, in that it posits that our most important identifications are innate (although they would not call it adaptationist at all, and they do not seek evolutionary explanations). Race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, are all supposed to be innate, fixed attributes of the individual. Many, although they tend to be more right-wing, also equate social status as being innate.

The problem with this view is that all these things are social constructs, and that ignoring that fact makes it impossible to understand why people identify they way they do. Take a controversial example, that of gender. If you ask a liberal feminist or an SJW for an explanation of why people are the gender that they are, the answer will be: because that’s what their “innate” gender is, it’s what they really are.

Not only is this impossible (because gender is an extremely mutable concept, not just between societies but within the same society at different times), but it also doesn’t explain anything. All it does is transpose the previous uncertainty to another, equally uncertain concept (what that person’s “innate gender” is). An explanation is supposed to start from known data and use that data to show the cause and effect relationship that one is asking about, usually involving the word “because.” For instance, “we had to close down the theater because there was a small fire there.” On the other hand, “they are a man because they are innately a man” helps specify what they think gender is but it doesn’t explain it.

From the constructionist standpoint, gender is a social construct. That includes the gender roles, the gender stereotypes, the gender hierarchy, everything. We are all assigned a gender at birth based (arbitrarily) on our sex. We (for most people, if not all) have parts of our personality, or beliefs, which clash with the stereotype of our assigned gender, but we go along with it anyway. Some people refuse to go along with it to some extent (mostly due to being homosexual, which goes against both gender roles in the West), and they become gender rebels of one kind or another.

This view provides us with a basic explanation. If you know the gender stereotypes in their culture (or subculture, if their family is part of a subculture that has views on gender), and you know someone’s personality and beliefs to some extent, you can, to that extent, figure out how comfortable they would be with their assigned gender.

In general we can say that the categories through which people identify themselves are based around the kinds of social constructs that exist in their culture or subculture, and the way they identify comes as obedience to, or reaction against, those social constructs. Gender is only a point of identification because gender is an extremely important kind of social construct in our societies, and people identify as one gender or the other, or as no gender at all, depending on their reactions to the gender stereotypes they are taught.

I’ve mostly talked about constructionism and adaptationism. However, as readers of my blog know, I don’t think much of anti-causalism either. Religious anti-causalists blather on and on about how one’s soul can be saved or wicked, depending on what religion one “chooses” (how one comes to “choose” a specific religion over any other is never explained), and how people who do things they disagree with are demonic. Secular anti-causalists usually deploy the concepts of free will and agency, which are unfalsifiable and don’t explain anything either. But that’s to be expected, because the concept of the soul and the concept of free will are used to bury the truth in unnecessary verbiage, not to actually explain anything. Until someone proves that some non-material entity or process can somehow be measured and be shown to effect material bodies, I see no reason to believe in either of them.

5 thoughts on “How can we explain human behavior?

  1. Brad Reddekopp July 27, 2016 at 23:05 Reply

    It seems to me that evolution provides the instincts; experience shapes one’s expression of those instincts.

    For example, the basic “elements” of human morality (empathy, compassion, a sense of fairness) are most probably evolved instincts, as evidenced by the fact that they are observed in a number of non-human social species, especially in those species most closely related to us. However, what is compassionate or fair can differ significantly from person to person, from culture to culture, due to shaping by social factors.

    • Francois Tremblay July 27, 2016 at 23:13 Reply

      Yes, I agree. I think evolutionary intuitionism has the best answer we have about human morality. That being said, as I wrote, genetics provides the general needs and desires, but the specifics are culture-dependent.

  2. roughseasinthemed July 28, 2016 at 05:54 Reply

    Are we assigned gender at birth or biological sex? Isn’t this the crux of the problem? What exactly are we assigned. Nearly sixty years ago, depending on our reproductive bits we were pronounced boy or girl. That’s what we were. Simple.

  3. John Doe July 29, 2016 at 00:26 Reply

    I feel that this pertains to human behavior, but some may call me obsessive because I talk about things like this over and over again.

    I have learned that, feel free to call me pessimistic, but we start dying from the moment we are born, so honestly what is the point of anything? What is the point of people romanticizing their precious ideas and making them into policy? Why are people actually entertained by the idea that people’s genetic makeup such as their gender, skin color, and sexuality affect other people as a whole?

    This is why free speech pisses me off so much. Freedom of speech is just as much of an idea as everything else, so why don’t people criticize that? As the old saying goes, “people have rights, ideas don’t.”

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