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.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Why Lil Dicky made this star-studded Earth Day music video

"Earth" features about 30 of the biggest names in entertainment.

Culture & Religion
  • Lil Dicky is a rapper and comedian who released his debut album in 2015.
  • His new music video, "Earth," features artists such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheehan, Kevin Hart, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • All proceeds of the music video will go to environmental causes, Dicky said.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Behold, the face of a Neolithic dog

He was a very good boy.

Image source: Historic Environment Scotland
Surprising Science
  • A forensic artist in Scotland has made a hyper realistic model of an ancient dog.
  • It was based on the skull of a dog dug up in Orkney, Scotland, which lived and died 4,000 years ago.
  • The model gives us a glimpse of some of the first dogs humans befriended.
Keep reading Show less