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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 274-276 ( 9 July )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/brown.html

Book Review

The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order
by Francis Fukuyama
Profile Books (London) and the Free Press. 1999.

Reviewed by Donald E. Brown, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Barbara, USA.

Drawing on recent developments in the study of human nature, Fukuyama is optimistic that the U.S. and other modern, mostly western nations will find solutions to an important set of current problems. The current problems, the origins of which Fukuyama traces to the mid-1960s and which constitute a “great disruption,” have brought about a decline in, or unfortunate redistribution of, social capital. The principal ingredient in social capital is a society’s (or any group’s) shared values and norms, which foster the trust that lubricates social order. A decline in social capital has economic as well as other consequences.

The series of changes constituting the great disruption are often associated with the information age, but Fukuyama traces them further back, to the declining years of the Industrial era. While these changes include on the plus side a great increase in freedom and equality, they also include a long list of indicators of “deteriorating social conditions.” Among them are rising rates of crime and disorder that devastated the inner cities, a sharp acceleration in the long decline of kinship institutions, soaring rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, and a prolonged slump in confidence in government and other large-scale institutions.

Fukuyama argues that the “weakening social bonds and common values holding people together in Western societies” did not accidentally co-occur with the benefits that come with a “more complex, information-based economy,” but that two are connected. For example, the new economy substituted mental for physical labor, propelling millions of women into the economy, and thereby undermining the family.

The bulk of the book is devoted to documenting trends and tracing the connections between them, but there is more to these trends than the unintended consequences of the shift from manufacturing to information economies. Thus the contraceptive pill must be added to the movement of women into the workplace in the undermining of the family, as must the defection of men from marital responsibilities. Among the other issues discussed are rising levels of individualism and moral relativism, and an increase (in the U.S.) in the number of interest groups along with a decrease in their scope. Interest groups are key elements in civil society, but when they get smaller and more competitive the result is “moral miniaturization” and a re-allocation of social capital that is detrimental to society as a whole.

Fukuyama identifies the big losers in the great disruption in the U.S. as lower income men, especially black men; children; and lower income women with children. He also discusses Asian exceptionalism, arguing that distinctive features of their cultures have retarded or softened trends that have had more malign effects in the West.

There are two surprising omissions in Fukuyama’s analysis. One is mention of the war in Vietnam, which surely figures in the declining respect for institutions that is almost invariably traced to the sixties. The other is the civil rights legislation of the middle sixties. In several places Fukuyama raises the issues of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism and their implications for shared values, trust, and cooperation. But in an early discussion of the consequences of “social heterogeneity” for rising levels of crime and disorder, he dismisses its importance, on the grounds that the levels rose among the majority as well as the minorities. However, this across-the-board rise in disorder is entirely consistent with the nature of plural societies. In his seminal works on the (ethnically) plural society, economist J. S. Furnivall identified the absence of a “common will” as its distinctive shortcoming. This is clearly parallel to Fukuyama’s concern with clashing values and depleting social capital.

Certainly when one thinks of conditions initiated in the mid-sixties, the civil-rights and immigration legislation of the era leap out no less than the troubles in industry. And that legislation too brought about great increases in freedom and equality yet have been rich in unintended consequences (Graham 2002). To some degree and in some ways, civil rights legislation and its affirmative-action implementations have transformed the U. S. into a plural consociation, in which the various ethnies form co-ordinate building blocks of society and polity. Some societies of this sort have been peaceful and enduring (e.g., Switzerland) but many have been quite the opposite (e.g., Lebanon and Yugoslavia). The high rates of immigration that have followed on the immigration reform of the sixties have swelled the numbers of several minority ethnies and given them more clout. Consideration of these matters is not an alternative to Fukuyama’s analysis, but an additional perspective that might well have been explored more thoroughly.

Perhaps of greatest interest to readers of this review is Fukuyama’s discussion of the evolutionary origins of social order. Fukuyama argues that various lines of research in the life sciences and economics-especially those related to the evolution of cooperation-show “how order arises, not as the result of top-down mandate by hierarchical authority…but as the result of self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals.” The insights arising from these lines of research constitute “one of the most interesting and important intellectual developments of our time.”

The lesson that Fukuyama derives from these findings is that humans instinctively create social order. The difficulty with this is, as Fukuyama notes, that the social orders that are instinctively created tend to be of small scale, with a limited “radius of trust.” Many of our current problems are the result of too many small-scale, special-interest moral communities (at the expense of the larger ones). Indeed, much of the legislative superstructure that emerged from the Enlightenment was designed to curb the unfortunate consequences of limited radiuses of trust, and recent trends are a setback.

But humans are intelligent, too. Thus, Fukuyama concludes that humans can be counted on to apply that intelligence to the social order, and thus to re-establish social capital in our larger institutions. He sees this movement already at work in the so-called culture wars. Moreover, he sees a decline in crime levels in the nineties as a sign that the worst years of the great disruption may be past.

Unfortunately, at the very time this review is being written the U.S. government has released statistics showing that the nearly decade-long decline in crime rates has come to a halt, and rates increased last year. Furthermore, the bases for Fukuyama’s optimism would seem to apply to any period of human history, not specifically to this period. To defend his optimism Fukuyama would have to give more of an argument that these times are not really all that unique.

To my mind the reasoning in this book is not always as tight as it should be, and references for what look like somewhat surprising statements of fact are not always supplied. But the issues that Fukuyama addresses are significant, and many of his insights and analyses are valuable. Fukuyama is surely correct in holding that the currently emerging insights into human nature richly deserve to be folded into debates about present conditions and the immediate future.


Graham, Hugh Davis, 2002, Collision Course: The Strange Conversion of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

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© Donald E. Brown.

Dr. Brown is engaged in applying the ideas derived from the study of universals and human nature to a re-thinking of the "ethnocentric syndrome" and to the comparative study of race/ethnicity in educational settings. Brown is author of Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature: The Social Origins of Historical Consciousness. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988 and Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.


Brown, D. E. (2002). Review of The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order by Francis Fukuyama. Human Nature Review. 2: 274-276.

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