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in some cases deliberately creating, some common features in the populations

From the Preface

HUMANKIND IS SPECIAL IN MANY WAYS, as the result of its evolutionary history. Among other unique features, humans are special in that they build complex and apparently very different societies. Recent developments in different sciences are now converging to provide explanations for many aspects of these societies, for the particular ways in which humans for instance create hierarchies, families, gender norms, economic systems, group conflict, moral norms, and much, much more. This exciting scientific development, still in its early age, is what I describe in this book.

This new perspective on human societies did not originate in a flash of inspiration, in the revelation of a new theory of societies. That is not the way sciences work. Rather, what I present here is an accumulation of very specific scientific findings, in various fields like evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, archaeology, anthropology, economics, and more. Rather than giving us a general theory of society, this perspective offers specific answers to specific questions, such as, Why do people want a just society? Is there a natural form of the family? What makes men and women behave differently? Why are there religions? Why do people participate in conflicts between groups? And so forth. (Pg.7)

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Invented Nations?

The idea of a nation implies that each state corresponds to a community of people united by traditions, cultural values, language, and the idea of a common past. This is obviously a very modern idea on an evolutionary scale. There have been modern humans for more than a hundred thousand years, but states are a recent invention, a few millennia at the most. But if we try to understand groups and group conflict, it makes sense to start with nations, because they highlight how humans find certain kinds of group identity both self-evident and compelling.

Many new nations appeared on the map of Europe in the nineteenth century, including Germany and Italy as unified polities, but also dissident fragments of previous empires, like Hungary and Serbia, as well as newcomers like Estonia. That was the age of the Romantic ideal of nations as polities based on a common culture and language, themselves the consequences of common descent. The idea was that states should correspond to those “natural” and “ancestral” communities—rather than empires put together by conquest, modern nations would be based on the natural affinity and solidarity of people with shared ancestry and traditions. Elite Romantic movements had emphasized supposedly specific cultural features found among the common folk and had described modern nations as the unfolding of these cultural traits. From this perspective, sometimes called “primordialist,” Serbia and Lithuania and Italy were already there, so to speak, as potential nations. What they had lacked, beforehand, was the political opportunity to constitute themselves as states.1

Against this picture, some “modernist” historians and anthropologists argued that the nations were in many cases constructed by the states. That is to say, once you have a state you start noticing or emphasizing, or in some cases deliberately creating, some common features in the populations that live under that state. From that perspective, the anthropologist Ernest Gellner, for instance, described the emergence of nationalism in largely functional terms, as the outcome of modern industrial society, arguing that modern, bureaucratic states require a class of low- and mid-level clerks with administrative skills, as well as a common language for administration, and some plausible claims to legitimacy. In Gellner’s view, nation-states satisfy all of those needs. State-sponsored schooling trains the bureaucrats. The unification of a language out of disparate idioms (as happened for instance in Germany and Italy) supports communication. The state is all the more legitimate if it is seen to be founded on common cultural values and to include populations of common descent.2 Myths of origin bolster the feeling of common destiny, anchoring the groups in a more or less fantasized past, a Golden Age to which the ethnic group could return once it regained sovereignty as a nation.3

This functional account suggested that most Romantic claims to ethnic authenticity were largely instrumental, that in fact many were made of whole cloth. That is to say, if the political goal was to unify a particular region and turn it into an efficient polity, one could always find a convenient myth of origin or some similarities between dialects to turn that region into an ethnicity with a common language, and therefore into a nation crying out to be born into political existence. For instance, some historians argue, there was no unified Norwegian language before the elites created it, and few people would have identified themselves as Estonian before their elites managed to carve out an independent Estonia. In the same vein, historians had great fun puncturing the “invented traditions” of some European nations, showing, for instance, that Scottish tartan and British royal rituals, commonly described as archaic and authentic, had been invented during the nineteenth century by people who assumed that any decent nation should possess relics of its past customs.4

This description of “constructed” nations, however, was much exaggerated—mostly because of its focus on a limited place and time, the European empires in the nineteenth century. In other places, and long before the emergence of modern bureaucratic states, people had seen an intuitive link between language, ethnicity, and polity. Despite the complexity of conflicts between regional states over millennia, Chinese people assumed that their empire should include all peoples of Han culture, and the Koreans and the Japanese thought the same way. In places as different as the Greek city-states and the Yoruba kingdoms, people had a notion of ethnic identity that was largely based on language and traditions, long before nationalism in the modern sense.5

This raises the question, Why are these commonalities so important? Why do they matter to people? Indeed, even if the “modernist” picture had been right, even if nations had actually been built by elites from disparate communities, we should ask, Why did people find those identities compelling? Why were they motivated to defend this (allegedly spurious) ethnic heritage? Why would the elites’ machinations actually convince the populace? The reasons why all this (to some extent) worked, why people found ethnicity convincing, cannot in fact be found in models of ethnicity. The answer lies in a much more general phenomenon, to do with the construction of collective action and stable groups. (Pg.45)

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From the Consluison:

There are many obstacles on the path to social science. One is that, as I discussed before, some ways of thinking about societies and cultural transmission are strongly influenced by our evolved dispositions. This is probably the case for the spontaneous, and highly contagious notion of culture versus nature. Also, many ways of thinking about human societies, including many efforts on the part of social scientists, are firmly entrenched in our folk sociology, whose expectations are probably an evolved system that makes social life possible, although it is a terrible tool for understanding social life.

Despite these obstacles, the convergence of research programs in many fields, as reported in the previous chapters, demonstrates that understanding human societies the scientific way is possible, even if we have only the fragments of such an understanding. This is the consequence of changes that occurred in many different disciplines, notably in cognitive psychology, neurosciences, evolutionary biology, and anthropology. The changes did not occur because scientists in these different fields adopted a new philosophy or a new, encompassing research program. Indeed, the social sciences in past centuries were hampered more than helped by manifestos and general philosophical pronouncements. For instance, in the early twentieth century Durkheim and Boas and other influential scholars made it an official tenet of the newly emerging social sciences that what happened in society had little or nothing to do with what biologists and psychologists were investigating. This kind of segregationist posturing persisted well into the century, making it very difficult for social scientists to realize how much they could gain by the integration of disciplines, by taking profit from the extraordinary developments of biology and cognitive sciences.

So, rather than a new philosophy, the scientific approach to human societies is grounded in a set of simple attitudes and healthy habits that are in fact rather natural to empirical scientists in other fields of inquiry. One of these is deliberate eclecticism, a decision to ignore disciplinary boundaries and traditions, so that evolutionary findings can inform history, economic models can be based on neurocognitive foundations, and cross-cultural comparisons on ecology and economics. The other habit is a healthy embrace of reductionism. For a long time, social scientists were horrified at the very notion of reduction, and they would clutch their pearls at the very thought of explaining social phenomena in terms of physiology, evolution, cognition, or ecology. The mere mention of psychological or evolutionary facts in descriptions of culture would, according to that academic version of the one-drop rule, irretrievably pollute the social scientific brew. But, in rejecting that form of reduction, social scientists were rejecting what is the common practice of most empirical scientists. Geologists do not ignore the findings and models of physics, they make constant use of them. The same goes for ecologists with biological findings, and for evolutionary biologists with molecular genetics. It was only recently that social scientists realized that these empirical disciplines were all actually making progress, and that may have to do with the systematic use of reduction in this sense, promising a vertical integration of different fields and disciplines.55

That integration is now happening. There is a great hope in these rudiments of a science that would follow the path originally traced by philosophers, historians, and moralists toward explaining the emergence of societies, a truly unique outcome of evolution by natural selection. (Pg.299)


WE&P by: EZorrillaM.

“Minds Make Societies: How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create” by Pascal Boyer.

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