Traditionally when economists talk about human behaviour they generally displayed a belief (or tacit presumption) that humans are rationally calculating individuals who weigh up the pros and the cons before deciding. Nowadays, with the recent economic chaos pointing to the seemingly vast expanse of human stupidity, there appears to be a lot of economists leaning towards the irrationality of being human. Simplistically many of them latch on to pseudo-scientific explanations from hunter-gatherer anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists (I have blogged on the problems with these approaches in a previous post).
David McWilliams fits the latter class of economists. His recent article is uncritically built around the notion of peacocking or “signalling” which in evolutionary anthropology amounts to the display of males to females which symbolises how they would make a good mate. In our consumerist society this has transformed -as the story goes – into “costly signalling” where people purchase brand new luxury cars to display their strength as an eligible mate.
Such anthropological theorizing is based generally on circular reasoning. The usual narrative is that everything to do with human behaviour is built around some hard-wired evolutionary patterns from our ancient past. Any behaviour pattern observed is then explained by inventing some ancient occurrence that no one was around to witness. The real problem is that the influence of thousands of years of civilization, social institutions and culture gets ignored.
The reality is there are plenty of people who avoid sending out such signals (why if they are supposedly evolutionary hard-wired that way?). Those that do send out signals, their peacocking practices might well have originated with societal structures such as consumerism, the types of ‘rewards’ and status recognized by a capitalist consumer-obsessed society and an education system built around meritocracy (while ignoring underlying inequality) – also the educational system lacks the higher order critical learning which would possibly have enabled ‘consumers’ to become active ‘citizens’ and see through the bling and malarkey. Stronger communities and institutions which encourage relationships based on how you treat people, as opposed to what you have, might also go a long way towards unravelling this kind of superficiality.
Such evolutionary theorizing is problematic to politics and society for if its presumed that behaviour is ‘hard-wired’ and the societal influences involved are written out of the narrative then there really is not much hope for genuine social change. Even worse! believing human beings to have fixed natures can be used to justify existing social injustice. For example the belief we are driven by a very narrow form of individual self-interest, is one such form of this thinking that allows Rand followers to wish the worst on the most vulnerable in society.