The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.

AuthorJones, Owen D.

THE GREAT DISRUPTION: HUMAN NATURE AND THE RECONSTITUTION OF SOCIAL ORDER. By Francis Fukuyama. New York: The Free Press. 1999. Pp. xii, 354. $26

The analysis of where norms come from is colored by the strong ideological preferences people have as to where they ought to come from. [p. 1891

For a long time -- and through the now-quaint division of disciplines -- morals and norms have been set apart from other behavior-biasing phenomena. They have also been set apart from each other. Morals are generally ceded in full to philosophers. Norms have been ceded to sociologists.

In retrospect, it is not clear why this should be so. Reality is notoriously impervious to taxonomy, and the axis supposedly distinguishing morals from other norms is, after all, arbitrary. Moreover, behavior-biasing phenomena interact in important ways, making the study of parts -- without more -- just the study of parts. But one thing is clear. To the extent that understanding morals and norms is important to law, studying the two apart from other behavior-biasing phenomena creates a problem.

This problem arises because of opportunity costs. Whenever a topic -- such as morality -- is both relevant to law and without a uniquely legal theoretical foundation, legal thinkers must rely (at least initially) on disciplines claiming expertise. But in a world in which the academy has divided reality into disciplinary slices -- which, having once been sundered, are neither differently divisible nor easily recombined -- there is an ever-present risk to law of disciplinary capture. As, for example, when legal thinkers may too hastily elevate the pronouncements of one discipline, perhaps the one most hypertrophied or shouting loudest, over another.

The costs of such disciplinary capture increase according to the value that foregone knowledge from another discipline would have offered. And in today's world, in which knowledge accumulates at an ever-quickening pace, these opportunity costs climb faster than ever before, making each choice about where to turn for insights on human behavior fraught with consequence. To disciplines like law, in particular, charged with practical matters of great human importance, the costs of foregoing useful knowledge can be affirmatively harmful, not just intellectually embarrassing.

As consumers and appliers of knowledge from other disciplines, legal thinkers should play -- indeed should feel obligated to play -- a far more active role in furthering interdisciplinary integration of subjects relevant to law. Of course, the inevitable limits on the accumulation of individual expertise make it endlessly tempting for even the most talented and committed interdisciplinary thinkers in the legal academy to mine a single disciplinary vein (economics or cognitive psychology, for example) to its maximum depths. There are economies of scale. And many great and useful insights can be and have been gained thereby. But the common isolation of our proliferated disciplinary mineshafts from even near neighbors often forecloses the important and available benefits that broad, cross-connective integration could provide. Put simply, scholars of various disciplines often work to solve the same problems, unaware that their efforts are closely paralleled by those with whom intellectual trade would yield mutual gains.

Such is the case with morals and norms. To the extent that legal thinkers have in fact recently begun to move beyond philosophy and sociology for more information, they have turned primarily to economics, psychology, and game theory. But even this happy development remains an incomplete achievement (reflecting, as it does, a latent tendency to elevate the social sciences over the life sciences, rather than partnering them). Behavioral biology has at least as much to offer to the study of morality and norms as these other disciplines, perhaps more. Many primatologists, behavioral ecologists, ethologists, neuroanatomists, and behavioral geneticists have long studied the origins of and patterns in, for example, human and nonhuman cooperation and altruism, reciprocity and hostility, division of labor, sharing of production, and identification and treatment of cheaters on social norms. Their work has sound theoretical foundations, and is empirically robust. Without the contributions of behavioral biologists to the study of morals and norms, legal thinkers risk errors that are harmful, not just intellectually embarrassing.

Why can we state this with confidence? Because: a) law is fundamentally about levering human behavior in directions it might not go on its own; b) law's fulcrum in this effort is its model of where behavior comes from; and c) behavior is fundamentally a biological phenomenon. Consequently, any model of behavior inconsistent with the foundations of modern behavioral biology is inaccurate and obsolete. (Or else the unheralded ferment of a true intellectual and scientific revolution.) And thus legal approaches to understanding and influencing human behavior that are based on outdated behavioral models are simply less likely to effect socially and legally desirable outcomes than might be the case if the behavioral models were more conceptually robust.

This should hardly be surprising. The centrality of biology to understanding human behavior is not just a matter of academic accessorizing. Biology is not just another "and" at the "Law and -- "buffet, to be sampled at convenience, when tastes turn. Biology is truly foundational, having both broad and practical relevance at a completely different level of analysis than, say, economics or sociology. For just as theories of chemistry must be consistent, in the end, with theories of physics -- and theories of biology must be consistent, in turn, with theories of chemistry and physics -- theories of economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and all the rest must be consistent, in the end, with the basic principles of biology.

The most basic principle of biology, in turn, is evolution -- particularly evolution by natural selection. Natural selection occurs in any system in which there is differential reproductive success as a function of heritable variation. Put simply, any population of replicators, in which variations in heritable traits affect future replicative success, will tend, over generations, to accumulate an increasing proportion of traits that contribute to replicative success.(1)

The power of this deceptively simple insight -- and its ultimate relevance to law -- lies in its ability to explain not only species-typical patterns of form, but also species-typical patterns of behavior. (Or what some people term a species-typical nature.) More specifically, natural selection shapes the physical and chemical information-processing pathways of the brain in ways that have tended, over time, to contribute to the survival and reproductive success of organisms that bear them. These information-processing pathways yield behavioral predispositions. Of which, to circle back, morals and norms are a subset.

Francis Fukuyama understands all this.(2) He has written an exuberantly creative, thorough, and highly stimulating book on the relationship between political and economic order on one hand, and social and moral order, on the other. Specifically, he argues that understanding the human future requires us to see underappreciated connections between politics, economics, law, social order, morals, norms, and biology. It is a big task. For Fukuyama undertakes nothing less, in The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, than to identify recent patterns in social order and disorder, to offer novel explanations for their origins, and to make predictions about what will happen next. But Fukuyama has never been one to shy away from big tasks. (His prior works include, for example, the ambitiously titled The End of History and the Last Man.(3)) And in The Great Disruption, true to his subtitle, Fukuyama ambitiously enlists the life sciences, integrating them with social sciences, in aid of a deeper understanding of human behavior and morality, and in furtherance of political science analysis.(4) His message is synthetic, explanatory, predictive, and in the; end, consoling. His methods are, for legal thinkers and others, engaging, instructive, and sometimes cautioning.


    Fukuyama's major hurdle, in arguing for the relevance of life science perspectives on human morality, is context. His contextual problem extends past disciplinary divisions to the history of science itself. Beyond the endlessly important but by now cliche observation that bad things have been done in the name of good science, lies an even deeper resistance to his effort. For we can view the march of the science he invokes as, in many ways, leading a steady retreat from human uniqueness.

    Time and again, through history, we have developed a perfectly plausible way of viewing our place on the planet. It comports with our preferences for the way the world ought sensibly to operate. It conforms to our convictions. It makes us feel special in the dark dangerous night. And then along comes some flag-waver like Fukuyama, preaching the scientific virtues of parsimony and falsification, who shoots our favored theories full of holes. Constructive or destructive? It depends on where you happen to be standing at the time. Progress is less preferable when progress threatens prominence.

    And science has, one must admit, served up steady threats to our prominence. When Copernican reasoning ultimately exposed as false our belief that Earth was the physical center of everything, we retreated to the less bold claim that at least, and after all, we among all life sprang full-blown from time, in full modern form, as the direct, special, and unchanged-from-the-beginning creation of a supernatural power. Theoretically possible -- until Darwin shrank the probability toward zero.


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT