Examine what it means to be a social being and live in society through the lenses of evolutionary biology and social philosophy.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97
On Being Social Beings
Offered fall 2021
Humans are social creatures. We live in families, we work in teams, we envision duty and purpose through religious fellowship, we negotiate through economic alliances and political coalitions, and our norms are shaped by our culture, itself an emergent property of group-living. Most of us probably take all this for granted, as though it stood in no need of explanation or contemplation. But why do we live like this? People who serve in the military or as firefighters do so at great risk to themselves, and often do so to the great benefit of other people whom they will never meet. Why do people do that? Wouldn’t individuals fare better in the end if they simply looked out for themselves and avoided taking risks to benefit strangers? And what prevents such social systems from breaking down due to the strains imposed by free-riders who reap the benefits provided by social cooperators, but who don’t themselves contribute to the public good?
These questions have broad implications for all sorts of human endeavors—economic exchange, political alliances, systems of government, religious organization and practice, ethics and morality—and they raise questions about the fundamental nature of being human. Political and social philosophers from Locke and Rousseau to Weber and Durkheim have wrestled with questions of whether humans are inherently cooperative social beings or if instead, societies force sociality upon them. Evolutionary biologists began to seriously probe the paradox of the free-rider problem in the late 1960s, and in the last two decades have generated a strong theoretical and empirical scaffolding upon which economists, political scientists, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists are building robust understandings of why we are social (as well as why we sometimes aren’t).
Students will take a multidisciplinary approach to these questions (and other related ones!) by enrolling in both FYSP 181: Selfishness or Altruism? The Evolution of Sociality in Humans and Other Animals and PHIL 127 Philosophical Approaches to Society and Sociality. FYSP 181 explores the ability of evolutionary theory to explain social behavior in humans and other animals. Can natural selection favor cooperation in non-human animals in spite of their “selfish genes”? Perhaps so, but can evolutionary theory account for social phenomena that seem restricted to humans—for example, religion, economic exchange, political alliances, and ethics? PHIL 127 raises questions about the fundamental nature of these phenomena—e.g., what is it to be a member of a body politic? what is it to have or belong to a culture? what is the essence of capitalism as an economic form? PHIL 127 also surveys and critiques various explanatory approaches to social phenomena—including the evolutionary explanatory approaches that FYSP 181 delves into. Students will therefore engage in critically reflecting (in PHIL 127 ) upon the same investigatory practices that they learn to engage in (in FYSP 181).
Both FYSP 181OC and PHIL 127OC are required for enrollment in this learning community.
Bryan Parkhurst, Instructor
PHIL 127OC Being Together: Philosophies of Society and Sociality
Meets Tuesday and Thursday, 3–4:15 p.m. ; 4 credit hours; enrollment 16
Social philosophy is the systematic working-out of our curiosities about the nature and existence of social phenomena. In this course we will be interested in causal accounts of how social things and social capacities come about, ontological accounts of the fundamental nature of social reality, and normative accounts of what
society ought or ought not to be like. In addition to surveying pertinent recent literature in social philosophy, this course will serve as an introduction to the work of some of the great social theorists, such as Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Marx, and Engels.
Keith Tarvin, Instructor
FYSP 181OC Selfishness or Altruism? The Evolution of Sociality in Humans and Other Animals
Meets Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 11–11:50 a.m.; 4 credit hours; enrollment 16
This course explores the ability of evolutionary theory to explain social behavior in humans and other animals. Can natural selection favor cooperation in non-human animals in spite of their “selfish genes”? Perhaps so, but can evolutionary theory account for social phenomena that seem restricted to humans—for example, religion, economic exchange, political alliances, and ethics? We will explore these issues through readings, discussion, modeling exercises, graphical analysis, and independent projects in which you generate original hypotheses, deduce predictions from them, and design experiments to test them.