I do think Donald J. Boudreaux gives me too much credit and Cosmides and Tooby too little for the book The Adapted Mind. More to the point, Boudreaux seems to have read my essay as Jerome’s Jeremiad.
My essay is simply not about whether the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It is about how, if we are going to understand our Internetted world, we need to learn more about the evolved mechanisms that, in the past, mediated the transmission/editing of cultural information but whose operation, today, is having unpredictable results and producing disruptive change. My catchphrase “biology is destiny only if we ignore it” is a plea for research on our evolved psychology and to take that research into account in our efforts to understand current sociocultural change. Unlike Boudreaux (and Pinker), I did not intend to discuss whether things are getting better or worse today. I certainly hope the optimistic view is correct – after all, I have grandchildren – but that is not my subject.
I do argue that the information young people learn from media figures, diverting them from more traditional paths, may be preventing them from using their talents in ways that help the rest of us. Personally, I’d prefer the best and the brightest to want to become local mayors or entrepreneurs rather than entertainers (to the extent that that is what is happening; one more research question that needs answering). I am indeed very concerned that we seem to be forming ourselves into distributed tribes (silos?) of people who may not see themselves as having much in common with their actual neighbors and rarely communicate with them – another issue that requires research rather than pronouncements. Understanding the paying-attention-to-the-high-in-status mechanism provides a tool for understanding social change. I wish I had had that tool in my fieldworker’s kit when I worked among the Migili; all I could do for lack of it was to describe briefly how a formerly integrated community became one with sharply reduced cooperation and cohesion. I should have been asking questions about who respected (and was therefore learning from) whom.
Does Internet communication lead to trust? Yes, it can, but that is not necessarily a good thing. People in face-to-face societies often face quite real sanctions if they violate the trust of people with whom they interact and cooperate with in a direct, physical way. On the Internet, the consequences of violating trust are few – one can pretend to be of another age, gender, ethnicity, and marital status, and people regularly do. Our newspapers are full of stories of individuals being financially victimized by someone whom they thought was a friend or a serious marriage prospect. Does the Internet permit violations of trust by corporations with access to both the vast databanks on our behavior and the increasingly sophisticated social psychology literature on trust? Many believe it does. Does it permit people to cooperate meaningfully in legitimate crowd-sourcing to raise capital for small enterprises or to provide charitable aid to those in need? Yes. I suggest that asking if the Internet gives rise to more or less trust and cooperation is not particularly useful; instead, we need research-based analyses of the kinds of trust (and distrust) relationships fostered by the Internet, and education about the results so that we can simultaneously protect ourselves while forming real bonds through honest electronic communication.