Bozo Sapiens is a beautifully written book; a heartfelt and powerful summary of decades of research into human reasoning quirks -- the bizarre heuristic and biases which make up the vast majority of our everyday practical "reasoning". For a book which purports to espouse all the reasoning oddities and failures of the human species it has a surprisingly hopeful tone, celebrating expertise, giving constructive advice for resolving conflict and generally spending a great deal of time focussing on the converse of the very thing it sets out to explain; i.e. it ends up celebrating and encouraging homo sapiens as opposed to exposing us as the idiotic bozo sapiens of its title.
The Kaplans begin by launching into a discussion of the idiosyncrasies of economics, perhaps even more relevant in modern times than it has ever been. Classical economics states that humans are rational beings, and should make the most rational decisions in economic situations. The Kaplans christen this "the dream of rationality", and through this chapter it becomes apparent it is definitely just that: a dream. Through discussions of the problems with credit (the human inability to perceive distant losses as equable with immediate losses), the endowment effect (the feeling that something which is yours is more valuable than its abstract value should dictate), and other quirks such as the famous gamblers fallacy (the belief that the further away something is from its average value, the sooner it will revert back), the Kaplans show that the collective economic mass of humanity does not behave in a rational self-interested way, but rather displays a wide variety of strikingly irrational behaviors. Perhaps the most important point made in this chapter is their critique of the ideal that even though individuals may behave strangely, the market as an overall entity behaves in a predictable and beneficial way. The fallacy in this claim is rather straightforward: markets, after all, are simply collections of individuals. Economists who put their faith in the market are not depending on a steady, dependable organism: they are putting their faith in a collection of people behaving rather oddly. Trying to construct economic laws based on the behaviour of the market, perversely, "puts the fools in charge: their habits will determine the behavior of the professionals". This is something which has proved painfully true in recent times, and is a message which should be heeded by all.
The rest of the book moves between discussion of the unreliability of our basic perceptual apparatus (with some fascinating examples of optical illusions and the rather shocking blind spot trick on page 74), a summary of the most pervasive heuristics and biases we use in everyday life i.e. the self-serving bias (relatively self-explanatory), the fundamental attribution error (the belief that when another person does something wrong it is because they are a bad person, whereas when I do something wrong it is all down to situational factors) and motivated reasoning (the peculiar and all too familiar way in which we can twist the facts of a situation to suit our overall goals), our apparently innate primate urges to construct an "us" vs. "them" social atmosphere, and a summary of recent research in moral psychology, covering evolutionary work on altruism, the fascinating disgust and moral dumbfounding research by Jonathan Haidt, and even touching on the politically sensitive issue of why anyone would become a suicide bomber.
There is a lot of ground covered here, but underpinning it all is a strong focus on providing evolutionary explanations for our behavior, culminating in chapter 6; "Fresh of the Pleistocene Bus". This can be seen as the lynchpin of the book, in essence providing (what evolutionary psychologists refer to as) the ultimate explanation for this rather bizarre behavior. In doing this, however, they fall into the same traps as many other contemporary evolutionary psychologists, reducing everything down to a simple universal human nature, unchanged over the past 60,000 years. Whilst is it of utmost importance that academics across disciplines show an awareness of evolutionary theory, the assumption that human nature has remained unchanged for 60,000 years is rather hard to swallow. For example, recent work by David Reznick et al has demonstrated that significant adaptive change can occur over only 14 generations, at least in guppies. There have been 400 generations since the end of the Pleistocene. Furthermore, consider lactose tolerance in humans. Until the invention of agriculture, lactose tolerance was only possible in childhood. As soon as cattle could be reared and their milk (and milk by-products) consumed, however, there was a selection pressure to use this resource as fully as possible, and thus lactose tolerance became selected for in populations with agriculture. This is a physiological rather than a psychological adaptation, yes, but there is every reason to believe that if there have been physiological adaptive changes since the Pleistocene then we should expect to see psychological changes too. It seems that in order to explain why we currently behave and reason in the way we do we have a much more difficult job on our hands than simply hypothesizing about how stone-age man might have behaved.
Despite these reservations, this book deserves a whole lot of praise. As a work for the general reader, it more than succeeds. As a piece of writing, it dazzles. And in its focus on hope rather than cynicism, despite the subject matter, it finds its crowning achievement. The last paragraph of the introduction could not summarize this final point better: "There will be no self-flagellation here; if anything, the message should be hopeful: if we are more conscious of the shared mistakes that define our humanity, we can live more comfortably in this world we have created but will never fully understand. It will not make us right, but could help us be wrong better".
Reznick, D. N., Butler, M. J., Rodd, H. & Ross, P. (1996) Life-History Evolution in Guppies (Poecilia reticulata) 6. Differential Mortality as a Mechanism for Natural Selection. Evolution 50: 1651-1660
© 2010 Andrew Hirst
Andrew Hirst, PhD student for the AHRC Project "Method in Philosophical Aesthetics: The challenge from the sciences," Department of Philosophy, School of Humanities, University of Nottingham, UK