Re: What is human nature?
Virginia Postrel is a political and cultural writer who is a contributing editor for The Atlantic, editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net, and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She is currently writing a book on glamour for The Free Press. She previously wrote an economics column in The New York Times for six years, served as editor of Reason and has worked as a reporter for Inc. Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights and is a popular blogger and speaker. She was educated at Princeton University and lives in Los Angeles.
Question: What role does the biological blueprint play?
Virginia Postrel: Well I believe that you cannot get from an “is” to an “ought”. I think that David Hume very much established that so that we can say . . . I am interested in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, and so that we can say that people respond to attractive faces positively. And that in fact, there are some universals about what people find attractive that you can see them babies. It’s not just Madison Avenue and Vogue magazine that invented, you know, what’s a pretty face. I can accept that as a fact of biology, and understand the evolutionary arguments behind it. That does not mean that then I say well, you know, you should equate that with virtue. Or you should equate that with goodness. To the contrary. I say that, in fact, we have a problem that we insist on either denying the reality that we respond positively to good looking people. Which that’s one thing. Oh no, it’s just manipulation. I want to . . . And that’s the one extreme. And then the other extreme is to just say, “Yes. The good, the true and the beautiful are all one thing.” And I want to say, “No, no, no! They’re different.” And in fact beauty is good in its own right, but it’s not goodness. It’s another thing. And that’s just an example. That’s one that I talk about in “The Substance of Style”. I think that you cannot ground what people ought to do simply in biological imperatives. I think that you can gain a lot of insights about the operation of human psychology and human societies from biology. But a lot of the great progress – whether you’re talking about moral progress, or economic progress, or whatever . . . technological progress – that common civilization has come from is getting away from certain things that seem to be biologically engrained. For example, the difficulty of trusting strangers or people from outside a very small group; the great triumph of sort of modern economies is this vast realm of being able to trust strangers. And part of that is institutional, but also our psychologies have changed through cultural evolution, not through biological evolution; but we’ve learned when to trust and when not to. Especially when you have a lot of transition in society, there can be some problems with that, both being too trusting or not trusting enough; but that’s an example of something that if you just say, “Well whatever biology says is good is good”, that won’t get you there very far. So I’m very interested in biology.
You can gain a lot of insights about the operation of human psychology and human societies from biology.
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They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.
- Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
- To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
- They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.
- Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
- The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
- European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
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