Ahh, the ‘War on Christmas’

Ahh, the war against the non-existent war on Christmas has begun. Does it seem like the war begins earlier every year? As a long-time non-religious person who loves Christmas, I am amused every year when people start accusing others of waging a “War on Christmas.” The first salvo I have seen this year is the accusation that Starbucks is waging a war on Christmas because its holiday cups have removed “symbols of the season.” What amuses me about this is that, for me and for most of the people I know (including my Jewish wife), Christmas is well loved because…

Continue reading

A Fist Fight at the New York Times?

Jonathon Chait seems to be trying to get a fist fight going at the New York Times. He claims in New York Magazine that a recent column by Paul Krugman was actually an attack on David Brooks. Brooks claimed that we have spent huge sums on anti-poverty efforts with no success and that the problem of poverty is due to poor people lacking middle class values. I side with Krugman on the question of whether government expenditures make a difference on poverty. But I think Krugman and other critics of Brooks are unfairly misreading Brooks’ claim. Living in poverty stresses…

Continue reading

Behavioral Science May Prove to Be Our Most Important Science

Science has changed our world. We take for granted the impact of the physical and biological sciences on our world, forgetting that it once took months to get from the East coast to the West coast or to communicate with someone across the ocean. Science has dramatically improved our health too. In nineteenth century England more than 100,000 people died of cholera before John Snow showed that contaminated water was the cause of cholera. It might seem that no such stunning changes are possible when it comes to human behavior. We continue to have significant problems with crime, drug abuse,…

Continue reading

Perhaps We Can Prevent Terrorism

Does it seem like we are winning the “war” on terror? Events in Paris, Syria, Iraq, and Libya in recent weeks make it hard to be optimistic. We should not be surprised. Our pursuit of this “war” conflicts with scientific understanding of human behavior. When people are attacked, their biologically driven response is to counterattack. Yet we continue to pursue a military strategy that focuses narrowly on apprehending or attacking terrorists, while ignoring the collateral effects our actions have in inciting terrorism in the first place. Our science is consistent with the bumper sticker observation that “We are making terrorists…

Continue reading

Creating a Grand Coalition to Foster Human Wellbeing

In my last essay, I described how Lewis Powell’s memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped instigate the formation of a coalition of business interests that came to dominate public discussion and policymaking through well-organized advocacy for unregulated markets and minimal government. The effort was organized around neo-classical theory of free market economics which was particularly effectively propounded by Milton and Rose Friedman in their book and television series Free to Choose (Friedman & Friedman, 1990). According to this view, individuals’ pursuit of economic gain in an unfettered market benefits the whole society and government action necessarily limits wellbeing…

Continue reading

Evolving a More Nurturing Capitalism: A New Powell Memo

Is it possible that evolutionary theory can explain how the U.S. came to have the highest levels of child poverty and economic inequality of any developed nation? I think it can. It also can help us evolve a more nurturing form of capitalism, one in which people are more caring and productive, and they place greater value on the wellbeing of every member of society. We certainly have room for improvement. The U.S. has one the highest rates of child poverty among economically developed countries and it is harming our children. Families living in poverty have more conflict, which leads…

Continue reading

Selection By Consequences: Recovering Skinner’s Key Insight About Learning As An Evolutionary Process

Until recently, evolutionary psychologists considered behavioristic accounts of human behavior incompatible with evolutionary theory. They characterized B.F. Skinner’s work merely as part of the “standard social science model” and gave it scant attention. But Skinner was in fact an evolutionist who extended evolutionary thinking to the selection of behavior. He argued that the open-ended capacity for behavioral and cultural change was itself an evolved capacity of the organism and an evolutionary process in its own right. In essence, we could study behavioral development according to the same principles of variation and selection by consequences that were involved in genetic selection…

Continue reading

Climate Change, and the Evolution of a Social Movement

I am excited to see the formation of the Social Evolution Forum. We are building a network of scientific disciplines around an evolutionary perspective, including an evolutionary approach to cultural evolution. It has the potential to bring science and practice together around the goal of evolving far more nurturing societies. We have people in economics, biology, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, and anthropology. In an earlier essay, I described how a large, wealthy, and sophisticated coalition of business interests has outcompeted the sectors of society concerned about human wellbeing and how the Evolution Institute and a host of other organizations have the…

Continue reading

Why Sustainability Needs Prevention Science

Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay’s theoretical analysis of an evolutionary approach to sustainability science is useful for clarifying the contextual influences on sustainable practices.  In that regard, it may be helpful to connect this theoretical analysis to some specific problems of sustainability that must be addressed if catastrophic climate change is to be prevented.  The beauty of an evolutionary analysis is that it can pinpoint malleable contextual variables that affect the behaviors of individuals and the actions of groups or organizations (Biglan & Hayes, 2016).  This is not to say that one must pursue such an agenda—one can analyze contexts affecting…

Continue reading

Choosing Goals for Intentional Cultural Evolution

I wholeheartedly endorse Peter Richerson’s call for scientists to become advocates.  As he suggests, the traditional image of the “objective” scientist, above the fray, was never accurate.  And we have come to a point in the evolution of societies where the human sciences must play a pivotal role.  I say this in the context of the growing evidence that climate change risks catastrophic outcomes for humans and thousands of other species 1. In our paper in Brain and Behavior Sciences, we argued that evolutionary theory provides a framework for intentionally influencing cultural evolution. In the spirit of this view, Dennis…

Continue reading