It's In Our Nature To Need Rules

It is in our nature to need rules. By improving social productivity rules beats no rules, and evolution endowed us with rule-following traits accordingly. Comparing languages and tools can help us see our biological rule dependence. As can noticing that we are apt to ape more than apes.


It is in our nature to need rules. By improving social productivity rules beats no rules. Hence evolution endowed us with rule-following traits. Comparing languages and tools illuminates our biological rule dependence. As can noticing that we are apt to ape more than apes.

1. We are born able to automatically absorb the rules of our mother tongues just by hearing other tongues using them. Like our language-rule-processors we have social-rule-processors that acquire (tacitly or by explicit education) our cultures social rules/norms.

2. As with grammar, certain “moral” rules feel right, and they’re neither choosable nor easily changeable.

3. An “impulse to follow rules… seems …innate” in humans (Gopnik). Toddlers “act in a genuinely moral way,” understanding that rules shouldn’t be broken. Moralities, like languages, have underlying commonalities (Haidt reports six configurable ingredients: fairness, care, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity).

4. We ape more than apes: Infant chimps shown an needlessly complex task behave differently than children. Chimps seeing an easier way use it (seems “more rational”) but children tend to mimic the inefficient demonstration.

5. Our social learning preference likely evolved to let us avoid reinventing behavioral wheels. Using pre-existing solutions of wiser others = we’re not limited to our own smarts.

6. Good rules matter as much as good tools (rules are themselves social tools). Christopher Boehm believes our ancestors evolved a different kind of rule-set 250,000 years ago. An “apelike ‘might is right’…social order” transitioned “to one also based on internalizing rules,” with self-policing. All studied hunter gatherers rigidly punish community rule violations. Punishment by exile or execution = as threatening as any predator.

7. Darwin knew how deeply biologically baked-in social rules become, noting “the burning sense of shame” caused by breaking even “a trifling…rule of etiquette.” Ruptures of “moral” rules can cause stronger self-generated punishments (~undying guilt). Rules not followed can’t be adaptive.

8. Rules aren’t all good. Bad ones create “customs… in complete opposition to the true welfare ...of mankind” wrote Darwin: Even an absurd rule or belief “constantly inculcated…early…appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct… [which is often]…followed independently of reason.” Configurable second natures matter.

Though now unfashionable, rules and rule-following remains crucial. Those with the better fitting, more productive, traits, and tools, and rules, thrive more. And some social/moral rules are objectively more productive.

Cartoon: Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

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