Monday 21 February 2005

A permanent state of contradiction

The Paradoxical Primate, by Colin Talbot

Any new contribution to the debate about what it is to be human is welcome and Colin Talbot’s The Paradoxical Primate is an enjoyable addition to the plethora of recent books on the subject. This is an ambitious little book, a mere 96 pages, which takes on the grand task of establishing a new framework for understanding human nature. Written in a clear personalised style, The Paradoxical Primate follows Talbot’s personal intellectual journey from radical Marxist to progressive reformist to what he describes as ‘materialist paradoxicalist.’

His hypothesis is, as suggested by the title, that human beings are paradoxical by nature, by which he means that we live in a permanent state of contradiction, and behave accordingly. Most important for Talbot is the notion of contradictory systems and their paradoxical nature, first developed by Robert Quinn and his colleagues in the late 1980s in their study of organisations and management. For Quinn a paradox is different from similar concepts such as irony, inconsistency, dialectic or conflict, in that it is not necessary to choose between contradictory elements in a paradox - they can all exist and operate alongside each other. Talbot borrows this definition of paradox and uses the fairly unfashionable term instinct to describe a range of tendencies such as selfishness and altruism, competition and cooperation, which, while they appear contradictory, exist side by side within each of us and are even quite commonly expressed at the same time. Further, he argues that all of these tendencies are part of our evolved nature, that is they can be explained through the study of our evolutionary past.

Drawing on a wealth of literature from areas as diverse as management theory, economics and sociobiology, Talbot attempts to construct a pluralist view in the spirit of EO Wilson’s Consilience, in which the human mind is considered neither as a blank slate nor as entirely socially determined. This in itself is far from novel but, in his own words ‘treating paradoxical behaviour (and its source in paradoxical instincts) as axiomatic about humans is taking this a step further than most writers have done so far.’

Part I, Explorations, consists of a discussion of existing paradoxes in organisations and management, highlighting the parallels between the debates that have taken place in the fields of management theory and public policy over the last three decades. This section of the book is very strong thanks to Talbot’s experience in public administration and long-term interest in management and organisation theory.

Talbot’s classic ‘Boston Box’

Criticising the rigidity of what he describes as the classic ‘Boston Box’ of management books, he argues that real phenomena are too fuzzy and complex to fit into simple either/or models, and that thinking in this way often lead to spurious conclusions. He goes on to examine the rise of paradox in management books subsequent to the publication of Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence in 1982. Peters and Waterman attacked the rational analysis that was popular at the time, arguing that people are inherently contradictory and thus do not always behave in a rational or consistent manner. For example we ‘are self-centered, suckers for a bit of praise, and generally like to think of ourselves as winners’ yet at the same time ‘will sacrifice a great deal to institutions that will provide meaning for us’; ‘On the one hand, we can hold little explicitly in mind, at most a half dozen or so facts at one time ... On the other hand, our unconscious mind is powerful, accumulating a vast storehouse of patterns, if we let it’; ‘We are creatures of our environment, very sensitive and responsive to external rewards and punishment. We are also strongly driven from within, self-motivated.’

Talbot identifies a similar theme in Collins and Porras’s 1994 book, Built to Last. They found that, rather than trying to suppress paradox, successful companies operate through it by combining seemingly contradictory goals such as the pragmatic pursuit of profit in tandem with purposes beyond profit. Thus Collins and Porras argue that organisations need change and continuity, rigidity and flexibility.

Talbot examines the arguments in the literature surrounding two schools of thought; those who argued for rational planning - an approach common in both the area of strategic planning and in the policy field; and those who highlight the non-rational processes in decision-making. He proposes a synthesis of the two in which the four main trends in strategic management theory are brought together in the form of the strategic content and process model shown below. However, this is not a ‘Boston Box’ in which the four areas are mutually exclusive. Rather Talbot assumes that these modes can operate simultaneously and, in his 1995 work, he looked for examples of real organisations in which two or more such modes operate in the same organisation at the same time. In his study he found that most organisations had 2, 3 or 4 operating in tandem.

Talbot’s Strategic Content and Process Model

Talbot is highly critical of those postmodernists and constructionists who imagine that there is no real discoverable set of rules governing a system. He attacks their claim that there is no objective reality as ‘fundamentally unscientific and unhelpful.’

At the close of Part I, Talbot moves into the realm of human universals, drawing heavily on sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Beginning with morality, following James Q Wilson, Frans de Waal and (most controversially) EO Wilson, he argues that humans have universal evolved moral dispositions, but no specific moral rules.

Exhibiting more than a little cynicism, he refers to the literature on deceit in animals and argues that hypocrisy is an integral part of our nature; ‘Humans aspire to consistent morality, to telling the truth and to consistency and yet at all levels of our lives - from the closest interpersonal interactions, through casual acquaintanceships to organisational life - we indulge in hypocrisy.’

Part II, Evolutions, is an attempt to provide an evolutionary explanation for our paradoxical nature. As he relies heavily on the notion of instinct, Talbot defines what he mean by the term: ‘a desire, motivation or drive to behave in a particular way and an ability to do so or learn how to do so.’ For example ‘humans are both driven to acquire language and have an ability to do so.’

Tracing a number of arguments that have raged since the 1960s on whether we are innately aggressive or peaceful, conformist or individualistic, selfish or altruistic, he makes the case for all of these tendencies to be part of our evolved nature, drawing on evidence from the behaviour of primates. He counterposes the notion that we have innate tendencies in a particular direction (for example towards aggression) with a simple map of apparently contradictory tendencies as shown below and suggests that they actually represent paradoxical human instincts, that is tendencies that co-exist.

Paradoxical human instincts

Turning to neo-classical economics, Talbot challenges the idea that humans are rational utility maximisers. Pointing out that this notion supposes this tendency to be a human universal he argues that it is thus implicitly an evolutionary theory, making it quite distinct from what evolutionary psychologists are fond of describing as the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM).

In contrast to the neo-classical economists Talbot makes the case for the existence of genuine altruism in human nature, rejecting the argument that individuals who commit acts of altruism are actually ‘gratifying their own preferences for feeling good about themselves by being altruistic.’ Rather he proposes that an individual’s preference for both selfish and altruistic acts is another example of our paradoxical nature. Similarly he argues that we have evolved ‘a strong and flexible capacity for both cooperation and competition’ and that ‘having contradictory instincts would seem to be a necessary basis for evolving complex and therefore adaptable behaviours.’ Continuing in this vein, Talbot goes on to discuss human emotions and intellect, suggesting that ‘the existence of potentially conflicting emotions can be associated with, and reinforce, conflicting values and instincts for paradoxical behaviour in humans.’ He emphasises a fundamental conflict between the self-serving ego and group oriented empathic tendencies, seeing this as a driver for much human behaviour.

Leaning heavily on the highly contested notion of group selection and on the modular theory of mind popular with evolutionary psychologists, Talbot seeks the evolutionary reasons why we are paradoxical beings. This is by far the weakest section of the book, revealing a number of confusions and some personal paradoxes - on the one hand Talbot wants to make his case while on the other he excuses himself for telling ‘just so stories’ and comes across as distinctly defensive about his position. For example he puts forward the idea of conflicting, paradoxical behavioural modules present in humans but includes a footnote saying ‘I hasten to add this does not imply these are spacially located modules in the brain ... Nor does it imply a ‘gene for aggression’ or other such nonsense’, which rather begs the question what it does imply! He argues that differences in culture represent different emphases placed on our inherited contradictory nature, but makes no attempt to account for those differences. Culture is, for him ‘a malleable result of underlying tensions in human social nature.’

With an ironical paradox, Talbot offers his theory as potentially reconciling disagreements within and between the social and natural sciences yet dismisses the view that we are primarily shaped by the society we grow up in, describing well-respected writers such as Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose as ‘fighting their corner with, it has to be said, increasing desperation.’ Drawing attention to (and clearly siding with) the current popularity of theories which emphasise genetic and evolutionary based influences on human behaviour, Talbot fails to analyse why this should be the case.

What seems to be missing from many of the examples in the last part of the book is a sense of what the paradoxical primate thesis can actually tell us about ourselves. For example, arguing that tendencies towards autonomy and conformity co-exist in all societies he refers to Geert Hofstede’s research on national cultural differences, stating that ‘both individualism and conformism exist in all the countries he has surveyed - the only differences are in the balance between the two.’ But surely it is the differences and the reasons for them that really tell us something about human nature. He also states that individuals ‘may inherit greater or lesser propensities (but not deterministic impulses) towards one or other ‘pole’ of a paradox but few (if any) individuals will be exclusively biased in one direction’, and even qualifies this by excepting special cases such as aggressive sociopaths. If these propensities are neither deterministic nor uni-directional then all this really says is that we are all different, so what accounts for that difference?

While he recognises the huge improvements to the human condition that have taken place under capitalism Talbot is disappointing in rejecting the notion of social progress, something that is sadly all too common in today’s literature. Perhaps revealing his own disillusion with the project of changing society, he attacks the Enlightenment ideal of human perfectibility, siting the failed experiments in the USSR, China and other countries in the twentieth century. However, while nodding his head at Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, he does not conclude that liberal democratic capitalism is the only viable social model. Rather he thinks that society will probably remain ‘in a state of flux and evolution’ and looks to chaos and complexity theory as a potential method for understanding society and change.

Talbot has taken on a difficult task in pulling together so many different threads in such a short book and as such The Paradoxical Primate is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. Talbot’s background in management and policy makes for a refreshingly different take on the subject of human nature, making the first part of the book a particularly useful contribution. For my part, I hope that The Paradoxical Primate will achieve Talbot’s stated aim of stimulating debate on how to bring together the insights of different disciplines on the subject of what it is to be human.

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