Human Nature: our (four) Human Social Instincts

It is often said that “human’s are social animals” without really thinking what that implies. Many creatures are social, in the sense that they live in groups, but there are wide differences in what ‘social’ means – from the simple semi-chaos of herding for cattle or deer through to the elaborate, regimented, division-of-labour society of the termite or the honey bee.

Human social scientists (sociologists and anthropologists especially) have traditionally spent most of their time searching for differences between human societies and often assuming that the rich variety that exists is somehow infinite and has no, or few, underlying patterns, laws or theories that explain its myriad diversity. One is tempted to think that a non-human social scientist might take a rather different view, seeing clear patterns at both the macro and micro levels of human social organisation, just as we find it easy to recognise patterns in other social species.

Social Instincts

It is not true to say that social scientists have had no idea of the nature of human sociality: – there have in fact been two, competing, visions of individuals inherited social instincts. Neither view would probably admit that they were, by implication, theories of inherited human characteristics, i.e. theories of human nature.

The first, and most obvious, is the neo-classical economics notion of the “rational utility maximising” human individual. Rather obviously the idea that everyone, everywhere, regardless of context or culture, are ‘rational utility maximisers’ then it can only be due to it being ‘human nature’. Most neo-classical economists would be very uncomfortable with any discussion of their micro-economic ‘simplifying axioms’ actually relating to real-world human nature, but it seems difficult to avoid.

The second is what has been called the “standard social science model” of the infinitely malleable “blank slate” individual. Social scientists who hold this view would even more vehemently reject the idea this was a view of human nature, but of course it is. For everyone, everywhere, to be ‘blank slates’ means we all must be born that way, which is of course a view of human nature. Having no ‘hard-wired’ social instincts is just as much an assumption about human nature as ‘rational utility maximisation’.

These two basic approaches have been associated largely with the two principle wings in democratic political thought of the past century and a half – free-market capitalism and liberalism (rational utility maximisation) and socialism or social democracy (‘blank slate’ adaptability).

I want to argue that both these models are partly right and also wrong, because they are incomplete. There is an alternative, which is still a relatively simple picture of human social instincts but accounts for contradictory human behaviour.

Let me fist set out some definitions.

What do I mean by “instincts”? I use the term in the same way it is used in Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” – that is to say an ‘instinct’ combines an innate desire to acquire something (language) with an innate ability to assimilate it. Pinker argues that all humans are normally born with an innate desire to acquire language and an innate ability to do so. This is not at all culture or experience dependent, but is ‘hard-wired’.

Which language people acquire is determined by the socio-cultural context in which the grow-up. Take a child of American English-speaking parents at birth and have it adopted by a Mandarin-Chinese speaking parents and it will grow up speaking Mandarin like a native, and vice-versa.

Human facility with language thus includes elements of inherited, fixed, motives and abilities and an acquired cultural component.

By social, in the context of social instincts, I am referring to the way in which humans seek to interact with other humans in ‘their’ and other groups (not just their immediate family). Most evidence suggests humans evolved in groups of about 150 (the famous “Dunbar’s Number”) and social instincts refer to the way we seek to interact with the members of this social group.

According to the supporters of ‘relational models theory‘ (RMT) a surprisingly small number of social instincts – just four – can explain a great deal about human social behaviour. In my explication of these four basic social instincts I have changed the terminology slightly from RMT usage, for reasons I will explain elsewhere. The four basic social instincts are:

– Community seeking – the desire for group membership, for group sharing, and for group identity.

– Authority seeking – the desire to identify leaders and followers, for security and order imposed by authority relations.

– Equality seeking – the desire for equality and equity in treatment of individuals, for justice and fairness, and for rules that apply to all.

– Advantage seeking – the desire to secure, through the group and through exchange, self-interested advantage, personal autonomy, individualism, property-rights, etc.

(According to Alan Page Fiske, the originator of RMT, this may also be the rough order in which these social instincts evolved. Certainly the first two are observable in our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees.)

An obvious question is how such, to some extent contradictory, social instincts could have evolved? The simple answer to that is: group selection. It is now widely accepted amongst many evolutionary biologists (but by no means all) that selection can operate at several levels: individual genes; the whole genome; and groups of individuals (in social groups). I have outlined in a previous book (The Paradoxical Primate 2005) why group selection might favour groups composed on individuals with contradictory levels of, for example, altruistic and selfish behaviour rather than groups made up exclusively of altruistic or selfish individuals. I have now applied the label ‘Homo Janus’ to this approach, signalling that unlike ‘Homo Economicus’, humans have contradictory social instincts.
There are several points that need to be made about the above four, basic, social instincts.

First, the cultural expressions of these underlying social instincts – as for the language instinct and actual languages – may be extremely diverse.

‘Authority’, for example, can be attached to elected representatives, professionally qualified individuals, religious leaders and autocrats. Both Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler were authority figures to many, but it is hard to imagine two more different individuals in terms of their values and actions. So the ‘authority seeking’ social instinct can have morally antagonistic expressions and very varied bases.

Similarly, ‘community’ seeking can be a positive force or, in the case of xenophobia and racism, an extremely negative impulsion.

Second, the proposition is that all individuals have all of these social instincts to a greater or lesser degree. The balance of expression of the four social instincts may well vary – in fact almost certainly do – between individuals on the basis of both nature (inheritance) and nurture (cultural experiences). This means that any extreme social system that seeks to completely suppress one of these social instincts is almost certainly bound to fail. So though there may be a great deal of variation in social systems, this variation will exist within certain limits.

A useful analogy here is the basis of life on earth itself – DNA. DNA is composed of just four bases: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) and some sugars and phosphate. ACGT can produce an enormous diversity of living forms, all from just these four bases. But within this incredible diversity there are also obvious intrinsic and extrinsic limits to the forms available.

Third, as already noted, these social instincts are in tension with each other. ‘Authority’ is in tension with ‘Equality’, ‘Community’ with ‘Advantage’, and so on. These tensions provide the individual and the group with adaptive advantages if the balance and appropriate deployment of instincts matches environmental challenges. Of course, they can also lead to destructive conflicts, both within individuals and groups, if not deployed appropriately.

Fourth, this immediately leads to another conclusion – there is no ‘one right way’ in which these social instincts, and the balance between them, are best expressed. What is right, or ‘best’, will change depending on context. What it is possible to say is that certain forms of expression are more or less likely to be appropriate in the long-run, but even some extreme forms of expression – for example extreme ‘Authority’ – may have survival and reproduction benefits in certain extreme or crisis circumstances. Societies and groups that have gone to extremes in the direction of one or other of these social instincts generally haven’t survived.

5 thoughts on “Human Nature: our (four) Human Social Instincts

    1. Human instincts are part of what makes up our “nature”. But they go beyond the four social instincts I am talking about here. They include language and other things. But our nature also includes our physical attributes. Mammalian, bipedal, dimorphous, etc etc.

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