michel de montaigne


jared diamond
Jared Diamond



    Most paleontologists attribute our powers of advancement to the “problem solving” model of the human brain. Though the consensus scholarship recognizes the crucial role played by increased cooperation, food sharing, and child rearing and abstract planning in human prehistory, these essentially non-material achievements they assign to cognitive advances (often associated with technological progress.)
amygdalaThey measure the evolution of the brain by the enormous expansion of the brain case, which they attribute to the increased volume taken up by changes on the surface of the cortex. They neglect the crucial importance of the lines of communication between the expanding cortical surface and the deeper mid-brain thalamic, amygdala, hippocampus and other limbic system structures that must have accompanied it.    

    Whole-heartedness, warmth and sensitivity, with all their emotional and intuitive elements, hardly matter to them. They rarely mention love and wisdom. The result: a misplaced emphasis on cognitive processing that obscures the critical distinction between reason and judgment and pigeonholes us as toolmakers and techno-enthusiasts.

    William Calvin follows this line in A Brain for All Seasons. According to him, the evolutionary premium during the Ice Ages was not on specific body adaptations, like fur or fat, but on the flexible adaptability of the CNS. That’s what lets us learn quickly in challenging environments.
    In Calvin’s view climatic pressure pushed us toward what he calls a general-purpose brain. Its greatly increased processing area helps us solve problems, acquire language and expand social interactions. Good enough.
    However, the toolkit hardly changed at all during the period when the brain doubled in size. Where did all the processing power come from? Where did it go?

    We are so accustomed to associating intelligence with technological advancement that we can hardly envision a cortical expansion not directly keyed to increased cognitive powers, with these powers leading directly to technological innovation. That’s the reigning model. We’ve been stuck with it for a long time. Calvin gives it new life by accounting for rapid changes in brain volume, in the absence of new technology, by pointing out that improved aiming and throwing skills require an enormous number of new neurons. Once we have those neurons they become available for other purposes. Calvin overlooks the direct evolution of deeper capacities for empathy, sympathy and cooperation independent of augmented intellectual powers.

    But we can look at the growth of the neo-cortex from another angle: Advancements in cognitive processing are only adaptive to the extent they rest on deepened strata of cooperation. These in turn de-pend on perseverance and resilience in approach-and-separation and withdrawal-and-return in the face of aggressive perturbations. What we needed more than brilliant minds capable of subterfuge, then, was counter-aggressive restraints. Moreover, the evidence suggests that we did evolve these restraints through better management of stress and aggression in a wider range of conditions (See # 143-149.). Emergent love and wisdom, and the new skills that came with them, favored by evolved counter-aggressive restraints, changed the stakes in life; they gave us new goals by turning us into creatures who cared differently. Out of caring, we created. And our creative energy drew on aggression in new ways.
    In my story of origins, the latter stages of brain evolution produced expanded frontal-limbic circuitry that freed us to use aggression in a Promethean way, to snatch the boon of creative moral advancement in the near chaos conditions of our turning moments.

Reason vs Judgment

    To understand where I’m coming from, let’s step back and take a broader view of our current intellectual life. By and large, our cultural elites hold false opinions about human intelligence. They seem to assume that all the prime coping values are cognitive. With the big braincase for evidence, they assume that our moral lives can be advanced by progress in understanding the external world.
    Robert Wright takes that line in NonZero. He writes,

“My point is just that these brains are a continuous outgrowth of something at life’s very essence: a primordial imperative to process information. Given the apparent connection among information processing, sentience, and meaning, it seems fair to say that evolution by natural selection was from the beginning a veritable machine for making meaning.”13

In his earlier book, The Moral Animal, he made a case for reciprocal altruism that took into account its evident abuses. Here he props up the weak reed of reciprocal altruism with the steel of intellect – more steel, less reed.

“So there you have it: the basic equipment needed for a species to hop on the co-evolutionary escalator: learning, learning by imitation, teaching, some use of tools, along with elementary grasping abilities, a mildly robust means of symbolic communication, and a rich social ex-istence featuring, in particular, hierarchy and reciprocal altruism…”
(p. 291)

    For evolved altruism to assure civility, it would have to assert itself when we were maddest at each other, when we were least amenable to reason. That doesn’t happen. Loveless altruism, half-faked, half-sincere, won’t pull us back from the brink. As soon as intense group chauvinisms surface, as in our current War on Terror, goodbye altruism. Francis Fukayama, also holds on to this false hope of altruism tempered by intellect. He assures us,

“Human nature encompasses a great deal more than male-bonded vio-lence. It also involves the desire for what Adam Smith called gain, the accumulation of property and goods useful to life, as well as reason, the capacity for foresight and the rational ordering of priorities over the long term. When two human groups butt up against each other, they face a choice between engaging in a violent, zero-sum struggle for dominance, or else in a peaceful postive-sum relationship of trade and exchange. Over time, the logic of the latter choice (what Robert Wright labels non-zero sumness) has driven the boundaries of human in-groups to ever larger communities of trust…”14

As if the heart and the temperament are secondary considerations, and biological tendencies toward aggression don’t express differently in different people and don’t enter their intentions and shape their actions and hide from them in the corners of their minds in culturally relative ways. How can outward intelligence safely shape human affairs when the roiling currents in our own depths shape intelligence itself?
    We cannot refer all matters of judgment to degrees of intelligence, or distribute them across different kinds of intelligences. If so, by im-plication, people with the highest IQs would make the most trustworthy counselors. Don’t bet your life on it.
    Intelligence can certainly try to solve any problem, (or anything that can be posed as a problem,) but without good judgment, we cannot determine which problems are worth solving. Or why. Moreover, good judgment does not come from the big brain’s cognitive capacities alone, any more than it comes from caring alone. It depends on a living balance between thinking and caring, between personal and instrumental concerns, between self-preservation and reverence for life, and between cortical and limbic interests.


    Michel de Montaigne, the first modern Western practitioner of self-examination, distinguished judgment from intelligence in a way that will still serve us well:

“Judgment is a tool to use on all subjects, and comes in everywhere. Therefore in the tests I make of it here, I use every sort of occasion. If it is a subject I do not understand at all, even on that I essay my judg-ment, sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank. And this acknowledgment that I cannot cross over is a token of its action, indeed one of those it is most proud of.”15

Donald Frame, Montaigne’s translator and biographer, says of his use of judgment:

“It is almost identical with understanding and with reason in the sense of right reason, but, unlike reason as wrong reasoning, it is close to the facts, responsible, teachable, scrupulous in reaching conclusions. Far more important than knowledge, it has no necessary connection with it. Its training is the heart of education. Its jurisdiction is infinite, including morals and intellect, determining not only what is true but what is good. It is the faculty that teaches man how to live.”16


    It is a mistake to conflate all knowing with outer knowing. Moreover, inner knowledge can be shared. This is the realization that brought Wittgenstein back to philosophy after years of alienation. He wrote in his last great work, the Philosophical Investigations: “Is there such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling? – Even here there are those whose judgment is ‘better’ and those whose judgment is ‘worse’. Corrector prognoses will generally issue from those with better knowledge of mankind. Can one learn this knowledge? Yes; some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through ‘experience’. – Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip. – This is what ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ are like here. – What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right.”17
    With “corrector prognoses,” “better knowledge of mankind” and “right tips” we can, I will show below (see # 235, 236), reconcile competing claims of the ethical and technical minds.


    How do you know when you are getting or giving good judgment? The standards change. Today the faculty of good judgment requires:

    1)    A strong mind capable of sustaining a struggle in the depths to unify being kind with being true. When caring about justice is a primary motivating energy of life directly flowing from love and wisdom, judgment encompasses intelligence.
    2)    Judgment affirms the genuine nobility of the human aspiration for truth. But it links the search for truth to personal transformation. It accepts suffering, if necessary, but doesn’t seek it. This transformation comes from a synergy of human attributes: from frontal-limbic linkages that mod-ify the stress response, from imagination that develops into envisionment, from child’s play that rises into serious and responsible exploration.
    3)    Without an inclination for deep pondering in long periods of inward reflection, increased processing power tends to produce a different kind of human social life, one more changeable, impulsive, brilliant, improvisational and more liable to sociopathy. Wisdom, reason and imagination need each other. Wisdom uses reason in its search for truth.
    4)    We can direct reason to consider problems raised by wisdom. Moreover, when reason and imagination mingle with love, qualities of temperance and judgment come into play. Without this protection, intelligence goes wild and we get into the state of mind reflected in the remarks of ex-secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara on the Cuban Missile Crisis: “We lucked out! Rational individuals came that close to a total destruction of their societies.”18


    Rational consideration is a direct route to certain kinds of knowledge. As a step in the process, it is indispensable. But alone it will not make the world safer or happier. Too many students of human nature push love and wisdom into the background. They obscure our access to the most important things about us. With love and wisdom deleted, the many modes of sensation and imagination, interoceptive sensory acuity, contemplation, meditation and intuitive knowing that we actually rely on to gauge our place in the world are bleached away.
    This negligence I believe is willful. It rests on a hidden refusal to endure self-examination. To assure objectivity, it resolutely resists inward ways of knowing as primary sources of evidence about the world – even about the passions of human nature itself. However evolutionary, archeological, anthropological, sociobiological, demographic and biological studies of human nature have not become less subjective. Instead, they’ve become more inadvertently confessional, unconsciously self-revealing. Richard Lewontin‘s 1984 criticism of sociobiology pointed out that,

“Metaphors are often taken for real identity and the source of the metaphors is forgotten. There is a process of backward etymology in sociobiological theory in which human social institutions are laid on animals, metaphorically, and then the human behavior is re-derived from the animals as if it were a special case of a general phenomenon that had been independently discovered in other species.”19

    Until we can understand our own biases through self-examination, we will be blindsided by our own self-aggrandizing tendencies. Hobbes had it right when he wrote more than four hundred years ago,

“Though by men’s actions we do discover their design sometimes; yet to do it without comparing them with our own, and distinguishing all circumstances by which the case may come to be altered, is to decipher without a key, and be for the most part deceived, by too much trust or by too much diffidence, as he that reads is himself a good or evil man.”

    Researchers now leading the study of human nature get no training in self-examination. No wonder their writings don’t have half the relevance to life you find in Montaigne‘s Essays or Machiavelli’s Discourses or Rousseau‘s treatise on the Origin of Inequality or Hobbes’ Leviathan or Hume‘s Treatise on Human Nature. The great students of human nature never excluded the evidence of their own lives from their inquiries.
    Nowhere is the absence of perspective on personal motivations more troubling than in the study of aggression. Of all the blindnesses, those keeping us from attending to our own destructive tendencies have to be the most dangerous.


    One big pitfall: evolutionary researchers must make the immediate present the terminus of the evolutionary line. The past has to add up to the present. Thousands of generations of the remote past tumble precipitously into the handful of generations of the historical record. This is a form of backward prediction. It draws conclusions before the investigation begins.
    Yet, the past does have to add up to the present. But which part of “now” is the present? Sociobiologists living in the Middle Ages, using the same approach, would argue that the natural law had feudal tendencies. Viewed from ancient Athens, social life would be inherently polis-like. The causal sequence would be skewed by the choice of any given moment as the historical terminus. But our evolutionary thinkers (and who besides Creationists is not an evolutionary thinker) deal with vast spans of time. Ten thousand years pass in a blink of the eye. Except when you get close to the present. Then the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the age of Imperialism, mark definitive periods. In a consistent evolutionary approach, however, all of these “termini” might as well be “now”. Against the 100,000 starting generations, the hundred historical generations all count as the present because they’re too close in time to reflect heritable differences from isolated breeding populations.
    That’s why millions of years of evolutionary selection can seem to validate our current belief that the American ethos, the final outflow of the Protestant Ethic, is the summum bonum of history; that success is the best indicator of a life well lived, and reciprocal altruism is the way to it.

The Fourth Epoch: Human Nature Conflicted

    Material accomplishments follow fast and hard on the heels of the Agricultural Revolution. From settlements of a few dozen, townships of hundreds, then thousands grow. The crossroads encampments become villages and eventually city-states. The explosion in techniques and tools that did not occur earlier, though we had the brains for it, happens now. We grow crops, keep seeds, domesticate dairy and raise meat animals. New methods of food preparation and storage appear, people brew beer and wine; they build irrigation canals, they dig water wells. Wheeled carts appear, fishing boats sail in coastal waters. Caravansaries carry produce. Thrown pots, urns and barrels are manufactured. Long distance trade begins. Together these increase productivity and encourage the division of labor, making community life more secure.
early star chartThe new rhythms de-emphasize the daily outings of the foragers and favor seasonal flows of time with slower growths and longer transitions. The wise men begin to measure time mathematically through the calculation of astronomical cycles, including the phases of the moon and the passage of the sun through the zodiac.

    The mythology encompasses seasons, years and generations. Eons are proposed. Creation myths, legends of the origins of the people, sagas of migration, replace the Paleolithic hunting magic. The dispersal-aggregation pulse still runs day to day, but less deeply than before. Other rhythms surge forward.
    Prehistorians provide two conflicting accounts of the fast changeover from small-scale gardening cultures to massive, empire building, and war-making civilizations.
    The minority report, to which we shall soon return, is value centered, gender oriented and reflects the sensibility of the myths that emphasize fertility and nurturance in the emerging agricultural life. The majority account, which we will consider now, is hard edged. and concentrates on material accomplishments. It makes economic relations primary. It looks to the big historical winners, the civilizations that survived, to define success. It treats the little losers as a kind of historical debris.
    Jared Diamond tells the story of the winners in Guns, Germs and Steel. He promotes a simple materialistic thesis: successful civilizations raise food production to support larger populations. These occur in geographical settings that favor cultural diffusion, particularly east-west movement within and between continents. The trade, invention and competition that follow encourage progress. “A larger area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovations available to adopt…”20
    His just-so story goes like this: the big winners of history are the early civilizations who settle the valleys of the Euphrates, Nile and Indus rivers. Alongside them some tribes and villages live, but they are conquered and absorbed. Since then small indigenous people have been pushed into increasingly remote locales.
    Though Diamond does not say much about them, the archeological evidence shows that many graceful, humane and interesting societies thrived for a while in the culture areas the “winners” dominated. The point he misses is this: not every innovative group living in a pleasant spot supplied with the right flora, fauna, surpluses and trade routes, chose the path of material accumulation and trade. Many small indigenous societies pursued other goals. There are many kinds of innovation. True, the more “competitive” societies wiped them out, so for Diamond they were losers. But that does not make them either inferior or unfit. It only shows the superior might of the victors.
    alphabetMoreover, many of the historical “failures“ have changed the world for the better. Their accomplishments in language, mythology, math, alphabetics, music, drama and philosophy still shape our sensibilities. They have transformative power not because they were the conquering civilizations but because they were conquered and their contributions were assimilated. 21
    Granted, societies need surpluses of some kind to produce higher cultures. But Diamond never acknowledges that different kinds of surpluses encourage different kinds of growth. Some surpluses, based on enhanced emotional communication, spiritual striving or ecological balance with the land, create accomplishments you cannot measure by technological prowess. Moreover, material advancement can bring on unanticipated problems that civilizations can solve only by reversion, by shutting down progress and backing off, as happened when China, after exploring the coasts of Africa, dismantled their great sailing fleets.
Diamond’s story of origins leaves out the skills and talents emerging from art, language and gender relations. In fact, the whole body of non-material attainment that gives us our defining human characteristics (love, wisdom and aggression in our account,) serve him mainly as a backdrop to technological and economic innovation. He goes so far as to argue that when you look for winners you have to disregard the aesthetic, moral and psychological qualities that make us human because over time and space they average out. He argues this on the apparently reasonable assumption that local differences would be randomly distributed over a continental mass. Even “innovativeness“ he treats as “a random variable… at any particular time, some proportion of societies is likely to be innovative.”22
    In the last chapter of Guns, Diamond retreats somewhat from his own conclusions. In a final reconsideration, he makes room for what he ignored throughout. He calls these forces historical “wild cards”. They may under some circumstances energize the transition to civilization in non-material ways. Among them he includes local cultural variations, the unpredictable influence of great men, and chance events. But “it remains an open question how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.” In among the “local cultural variations,” presented as an afterthought, he catalogs everything that most people take to be essential to their humanity and then passes over it without comment.
    In his later book, Collapse, Diamond, in a nod to environmentalism, adds an important caveat to his material determinism “sustainably”. He seems to be trying to right the balance with some kind of creative moral presence. However, he cannot squeeze into his concept of sustainability all the caring and judgment he left out of Guns, Germs and Steel because he holds a core belief that the evolution of human nature culminated in its technological capacities, and it leaves scant room for non-material primacy.
    By ignoring the great richness of the non-material qualities in human nature, by reducing success to the capacity to innovate sustainably, Diamond makes creativity too narrow, as if aesthetic, ethical and emotional factors do not contribute to success or collapse. His work falls in with the acceleration/expansion view of civilization that underpins American entrepreneurial capitalism.
    His chief error is that he draws a false contrast between “innovative” and “conservative” societies. He assumes that a society that is conservative with respect to technological change will be conservative in all respects, that a dualistic division into conservative and innovative societies can be justified by a single litmus test.
    But we have in the past revalued our values and adopted new attitudes against the grain of technological progress. We are likely to do so again.