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The Paradoxical PrimateReview - The Paradoxical Primate
by Colin Talbot
Imprint Academic, 2004
Review by Alice Andrews, M.A.
Jun 13th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 24)

At first it was hard for me not to be gleeful reading Colin Talbot's The Paradoxical Primate: here was Talbot, an ex-Trotskyist (I grew up the daughter of Trotskyists) with an evolutionary psychological view of human nature (a perspective he and I share) writing in a light and personal style (my favorite); telling me I was about to read a "creative synthesis" of many disciplines: management and organizational theory and research (his current field), public administration, economics, evolutionary psychology, chaos and complexity theory; about a topic that fascinates me--our paradoxical nature.

Talbot, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Nottingham and director of the Nottingham Policy Centre calls his 'synthesis' "human paradox theory;" which basically propounds the notion that we have evolved paradoxical instincts (or traits) which generate paradoxical systems (or organizations). Talbot sees our paradoxical human nature as universal, "ineradicable," and adaptive (not only for our ancestors, but for us today--though he admits it does pose risks and can be maladaptive), and he believes that seeing humans through this particular paradoxical lens will be better for public-policy makers and probably for us all. These paradoxical instincts come in pairs; the major ones for him being: aggression versus peace-making; competition versus cooperation; altruism versus selfishness; conformity versus autonomy. One of our problems as social animals and indeed as agents of social change, etc. (as I think he-- rightly--sees it), is that, paradoxically! we tend to think in rather black-and-white terms, in 'either/or' ways. Talbot writes: "Humans, we usually assume, are either one thing or another. Creative or pedestrian, aggressive or pacific, competitive or cooperative, rational or emotional, and so on endlessly. ….Most social science has traditionally been constructed around the notion that if you are more of one, you must be less of the other. If you are more competitive, you must be less cooperative. (6)" The aim of human paradox theory is to go beyond such false dichotomies. One of his arguments is that in some sense this either/or mentality parallels the political left and right, as well as the war between blank slatists and innatists. (Talbot does a pretty good job of defending why one can be on the left and also subscribe to an innatist view.)

Though Talbot and I arrive at the same conclusion and draw on some of the same literature and theories, and though he does make clear that his is not a grand theory of everything but rather an opening to the possible beginning of cross-disciplinary synthetic research in paradoxical studies, my glee did turn to a bit of disappointment, as ultimately, I wasn't convinced about his argument and how he arrived at the conclusion, and I wonder if, indeed, The Paradoxical Primate is a synthesis. Human paradox theory feels more like random ideas and examples and gedanken experiments (quite a few of those) than a cohesive theory or synthesis about our paradoxical nature. The fields Talbot uses for his theory are fine and most are good, but I would rather see more emphasis on behavioral genetics, neuroethology, evolutionary psychology, plain old reductive genetics and neuroscience, and a smattering of Jung and Freud and maybe even fuzzy logic--less so on management and organizational theory and research, less talk about Boston Boxes--but this is clearly my bias and there must be plenty of readers for whom the application of management and organizational theory to our paradoxical nature would be useful and a good starting ground.

Here's an example of how more ethology would have been useful. Talbot writes:

"What evolves is what might be called a sort of 'behavioural jukebox' [I got the idea of a behavioral jukebox from the excellent book by Bateson and Martin…] a set of behavioral patterns--often contradictory--from which the jukebox operator can select in response to their environment and preferences…"

But does he need a neologism for this? Doesn't ethology already have a vocabulary for such a thing? What about 'innate releasing mechanism' or the newer 'releasing mechanism' which admits the continuum of an open to closed developmental system? Or a discussion of epigenetic rules?

Talbot is often paradoxical his own self and sometimes seems to confuse or at least muddy his terms here and there. And though Talbot writes an awful lot about the group versus the individual, he doesn't use that dichotomy to make his paradoxical model more clear. Talbot's sense of our paradoxicalness appears to have two components: in one sense we are individually paradoxical--we are deceptive, covetous, hypocritical, wear masks, are well-mannered, civilized; our actions and behaviors and not always in line with our beliefs and values and thoughts. (He never mentions cognitive dissonance but some discussion of it as a social psychological principle might have been warranted. Likewise no mention of Freud and the still very cogent theory that the conflict between the Superego and the Id results in neurosis, stress, etc.)

The other way we are paradoxical is as a group, a species. Our very nature is paradoxical in that it seems to have a limited but plastic and ever-adaptive and flexible program which tends to be what he refers to as 'bipolar.' Talbot, I think, is right in supposing that one of our problems comes from not recognizing our paradoxical nature and setting up dichotomies. But I yearned for a deeper understanding of these paradoxes. Can such things be located in parts of the triune brain (reptilian, limbic, neocortex) or bifurcated brain (left/right hemispheres)? Are there perhaps differences in the very brains and genes of people who tend to see our nature as either 'either/or' or as paradoxical?

I think Talbot is right that we might need a new model of human nature. I'm going to assume that anyone interested in reading his book doesn't need an exploration of the problems with the blank-slate model. But the evolutionary model (and EP in particular) is worth looking at. The Cosmides/Tooby evolutionary model states that there is one universal human nature but that within that nature there is an epigenetic process with much variability--things can be turned up/on, down/off, or modified depending on the environment, etc.

One of the drawbacks to the universal human nature argument seems semantic: If we see such a huge range of behaviors and individual differences, what does it mean to say we have a universal human nature that is say, hierarchical, yet have the capacity to be nonhierarchical? It seems nonsensical (and yes, paradoxical). This is often the argument against evolutionary psychologists, in fact. [See my essay "An Evolutionary Mind"] MacClean's triune brain model (or Jim Henry's four-brain system) might provide clues to this puzzle, though, and although Talbot does make mention of Gerald A. Cory's CSN (conflict systems neurobehavioral) model (a brilliant model--see Human Nature and Public Policy: An Evolutionary Approach, eds. Somit and Peterson) which is based on MacClean's triune brain model, he doesn't exactly incorporate it into his theory.

Talbot talks about paradoxical behavior and paradoxical instincts, but what of the mind?; the conscious executive function--the ego? He does say: "We humans are essentially conflicted between our individual and social selves and a great deal of our behaviour derives from this basic paradox." (71) But he doesn't develop or expand on the discussion of the executive program that decides on which dimension to lean toward (he uses Cory's terms: ego versus empathy), and it's an exploration of this that seems worth pursuing. The mind (or Ego) in Freudian terms, is that which is constantly trying to balance the instincts (Id) and the Superego (culture's rules, morals, norms, etc.) Through this lens (mechanistic as it is), we are paradoxical because we are constantly being torn and pulled every which way by one side (Id's lusty, demanding, individualistic, sexual and aggressive needs (the midbrain)), or the other--Superego's fair-minded, other- and outward-directed, prosocial needs (the cerebral cortex). It is the executive function (Ego) that tries to balance these. Because Talbot doesn't really deal with the mind (or the executive function much), when he writes about hypocrisy, there is only a fuzzy sense about it. However, seen through the Freudian (or EP or MacLean) triadic model, hypocrisy becomes clearer: A person's need for a job is critical for survival. A person may have an Id-y, reptilian impulse to strike out at a boss or colleague but instead might repress such feelings because of a need to remain in the group, because the group affords survival. A person may even act hypocritically; using the defense mechanism of reaction formation, to brown nose a boss and 'act' in affiliative ways toward colleagues, while behind their back saying all sorts of nasty things about them. If one didn't need to go in to work--if one could be a recluse, a hermit, a self-employed artist--one wouldn't have to deal with the issue of hypocrisy or being two-faced very much. It is one's ability to live with these contradictions and masks, which to me, distinguishes different types. Are there those who are more sensitive to living with such contradictions? Are there different thresholds? I would argue yes--that there are those who are wired to have a large capacity to distance their thoughts and feelings from their behavior and words--to be more compartmental--thus not experiencing as much cognitive dissonance; these are the cool, "cut-off," types, what I call "Apollinian." While there are others who have a harder time with the mismatch (the dissonance) in the form of guilt--who have a naturally lower threshold to carry the inconsistency of mind and behavior. We often refer to these people as "sensitive" artists--what I call "Dionysian." And I think there are fundamental differences between these types--at the level of alleles even. For example, there is much speculation that men's brains are wired more compartmentally and that parts of their corpus callosums--the nerve fibers that bridge the two hemispheres together--are smaller than in women's brains, which could account for some typically male 'compartmental' traits. And though Talbot briefly mentions other cultures such as Japan, he doesn't go near such a genetic or neurological argument, which I think is the more interesting. An exploration of the possible genetic differences regarding collectivist cultures/peoples and individualist cultures/peoples would have been fascinating.

Despite my minor disappointment and misgivings, Talbot's project in The Paradoxical Primate is admirable and worthy of attention; there is definitely much food for thought here as he does bring in a lot of material (good references) and that alone is valuable. Certainly a paradoxical view of human nature helps to explain the seeming contradictions regarding our dual nature: How do we answer the question: are we peace-loving or violent? And is it a valid question in the first place? It is in the working out of these questions that evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics will probably have to duel and at some point make peace with, in the form of some paradoxical synthesis.



2005 Alice Andrews


Alice Andrews, M.A., Department of Psychology, State University of New York at New Paltz


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