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Virginia Postrel is an author and speaker whose work spans a broad range of topics, from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture, commerce, and technology. Postrel[…]

You can gain a lot of insights about the operation of human psychology and human societies from biology.

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.