Does“Homo Economicus” Just Need Rehab? . . .

An Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of “Conscious Cultural Evolution”

Brian McConnell
Oct 12, 2019 · 5 min read

Behooving to academic convention (I suppose), the definition Wikipedia attributes to homo economicus (“economic man”) depicts “humans as agents who are consistently rational, narrowly self-interested, and who pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally” (Homo economicus, 2019). The online encyclopedia similarly traces the term’s early usage to those like French economist Léon Walras (1834 -1910) who employed it to signify a “bundle of assumptions about human nature” which, in Walras’ case, opportunely accommodated his aspirations “to create a physics of social behavior” [italics substituted for quotation marks] (Wilson, 2019, p. 174).

Likewise, and dating back (at least) to René Descartes (1596 -1650), just as a Gordian knot of suppositions surrounding the premise of ‘Absolute’ cosmological truth or reality can arise between (or even ‘within’) spiritual traditions as ineludible facets of dualism, so does it similarly with science. As Fritjof Capra has pointed out, “Descartes based his whole view of nature on (a) fundamental division between two independent and separate realms: that of mind, or res cogitans (the ‘thinking thing’), and that of matter, or res extensa (the ‘extended thing’)” (Capra, 2014, 24).

Importantly for Descartes though, “the existence of God was essential to his scientific philosophy” because “(b)oth mind and matter were creations of God”. Moreover, and conceptualized this way, ‘God’ “represented their common point of reference, being (both) the source of the exact natural order and of the light of reason that enabled the human mind to recognize this order” [emphasis and parenthesis added].

In the centuries that have followed however, new generations of “scientists” have merely “omitted any explicit reference to God while developing their theories according to the Cartesian division” (Capra, 2014, p. 24–25). Yet, and as Stuart Kauffman notes, because res cogitans and res extensa are “mutually exclusive counterparts”, even though Descartes’ hypothesis presented itself as “seemingly plausible” on its inception, it’s since “encountered notorious difficulties in view of the fact that mutually exclusive substances by definition cannot be integrated” which, in turn, is plainly evident with “the ‘mind/body’ problem” [emphasis added] (Kastner, Kauffman, & Epperson, 2017, p.3).

David Sloan Wilson and Steven Pinker — Does group selection favor “altruism” over “self interest”?

Consequently, but evaluating Homo Economicus’ (HE) prospects for successful ‘rehab’ from this more ‘objective’ vantage point, findings from a 2014 study enlisting a series of games (including prisoner's dilemma) suggests our case-subject is actually a psychopath (Ubel, 2014; Yamagishi, Li, Takagishi, Matsumoto, & Kiyonari, 2014). It’s for these same reasons though, evolutionary biologist and Evolution Institute co-founder David Sloan Wilson appears such a welcome apologist for the practicalities accompanying an advent of conscious cultural evolution:

Clearly, more is needed for human groups of all sorts to adapt to change at the speed and scale that is required to solve the myriad problems of our age. The first step is to adopt the right theory. When our view of human nature is “Homo economicus” or when we think that creating an adaptive group is merely a matter of finding the most talented individuals, then we become incapable of seeing the ingredients that are actually required to create an adaptable society [bold type added, quotation marks substituted for italics] (Wilson, 2019, p. 215).

Yet, and even acknowledging a subtle portending of the text to this point, one might think Wilson’s qualifying proviso to “adopt the right theory” a foregone detail for 21st Century humanity. Not so — in fact, and in its own way, but with regard to the revolutionary impact (or “grandeur”) of Charles Darwin’sview of life” upon contemporary society, Wilson references Einstein’s own insight in pointing out, “It is the theory that decides what we can observe” [emphasis added] (Wilson, 2019, p. 4).

Disconcertingly though, there are those like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker who’d wantonly disavow or otherwise divert co-creative potential by fatuously warning us against “The False Allure of Group Selection” (Pinker, 2014). Moreover, and adding insult to injury, his stance perpetuates that of mainstream scientific materialists who since the “mid 1960s” have fostered a mutually subscribed notion that “natural selection (acts) primarily at the level of the individual” (Group selection, 2019).

By way of contrast however, and over the last twenty years or more, the efforts of thought leaders like David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society - 2002) and Ken Wilber (The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion - 1998 ) have served instead to trail-blaze methodological paths along which consciousness itself (e.g. from Wilber’s vantage point) might be said to be unfolding as an integral component of these evolutionary processes.

Consequently then, but where “individual learning” and “cultural transmission” reflect a “strong directed component” involving these very “evolutionary processes”; they’re subsequently presenting themselves as a means to “radically alter the course of genetic evolution”. Simply put, but in this same “fashion, the slow process of genetic evolution” could be said to follow “where the fast process of cultural evolution leads” [italics added] (Wilson, 2019, p. 219).

It’s for these reasons then, and in reference to the theoretical frameworks informing discourse between Ken Wilber and David Sloan Wilson, Roanoke Community Ecosystems has subsequently initiated its Conscious Cultural Evolution learning project. Consequently, and coinciding with the publication of, Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, we’re mobilizing a small group of learner/participants for (primarily) regional (mid-Atlantic seaboard, USA) collaboration (please see: YouTube’s, “Conscious Cultural Evolution — a learning project”).

Consequently, and if interested in obtaining additional information relating to prospects of working together, please visit our website’s, “Conscious Cultural Evolution” project page.

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Capra, Fritjof and Pier Luigi Luisi (2014): The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Delhi, India; Cambridge University Press

Group selection. (2019, September 8): In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:41, September 9, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Group_selection&oldid=914585387

Homo economicus. (2019, August 28): In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:12, August 30, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Homo_economicus&oldid=912869906

Kastner, R.E., Kauffman, S. and Epperson, M. (2017): Taking Heisenberg’s Potentia Seriously, Cornell University Library, last revised 5 Oct 2017 (this version, v4), 1–19. Retrieved from https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1709/1709.03595.pdf

Pinker, Steven (2012, June 18): The False Allure of Group Selection. Edge, Conversations: Life, Retrieved from https://www.edge.org/conversation/steven_pinker-the-false-allure-of-group-selection

Ubel, Peter (2014): Is Homo Economicus a Psychopath?, Forbes, Dec 15th, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterubel/2014/12/15/is-homo-economicus-a-psychopath/#1cb284891604

Wilson, David Sloan (2019): This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, New York, NY: Pantheon Books

Yamagishi, T., Li, Y., Takagishi, H., Matsumoto, Y., and Kiyonari, T. (2014): In Search of Homo economicus, Psychological Science, Vol. 25, Issue 9, pp. 1699–1711, September 1, 2014 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797614538065

Brian McConnell

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With an affinity for ‘world religion’, Brian has been a “consciousness” practitioner focusing on “integral” theory and practice for the last two decades.

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