Saturday, February 28, 2015

Answer to Ayn Rand

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.  We can’t accept this.  We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody.  So we always speak of his meat as worthless.  In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.  - !Kung Healer ,  quoted by Boehm   1999   from Lee, The !Kung San.  

                                               VS
Talent and ability create inequality…. to rectify this supposed injustice, we are told to sacrifice the able for the unable.  Egalitarianism demands the punishment and envy of anyone who is better than someone else at anything.  We must tear down the competent and strong - raze them to the level of the incompetent and weak…     - Gary Hull (Ayn Rand Institute)  


Ayn Rand was an American intellectual, born in Russia, who has been very influential in the U.S. conservative, Republican and libertarian circles.  Her philosophy, which is reproduced  here by Gary Hull, is a glorification of capitalism, and an attack on altruism.

I don’t think Ayn Rand is just wrong, I think her philosophy is fundamentally false from its beginning to end. Egalitarianism does not mean the suppression of human abilities, instead, it is the very foundation of  human civilization.   

 I believe that egalitarianism was the major factor in creating a difference  between humans and the apes.   What differentiates us from the chimpanzees and other great apes is our ability to intentionally impose egalitarianism, to use social rules and mores to both control and eliminate the alpha male, replacing him by group enforced monogamy, and it is this milestone that led to language, and culture - without which we would not be here today.


Egalitarian hunting and gathering groups are made up of loose associations of nuclear families with pair bonded couples.  By divorcing sexual competition from hunting and sharing food,  groups without alpha males were able to out-compete groups that didn’t eliminate their alpha. 


 It was conscious egalitarianism that   led to the enormous human capacity to excel at so many different activities, and to the human ability to exchange with and tolerate other groups because these things are not possible with an alpha male present.    


  This is the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  It was social levelling in hunting and gathering that eventually led to markets, economies and capitalism, because if we hadn’t gotten rid of the alpha male we would still be selfish chimpanzees.  
I think that the best answer to Ayn Rand is this hunter gatherer speech.  even though, in modern standards it appears to be  rather harsh and paranoid. I will explain my reasoning.

Hunting and gathering is a way of life that seems long superseded by our systems of agriculture and industry.  Nowadays, the few hunter-gatherers left are living on marginal lands:   deserts, jungles, scrub lands,  and frozen wastelands that often  have little or no economic value for anyone else.  When the land does end up having economic value, as is the case for oil extraction in Ecuador,  so much the worse for the indigenous tribes living there.

 Hunting and gathering used to be the only way of life,  but then around twelve thousand years ago our ancestors first domesticated plants and animals and created a world of agricultural surplus and plenty of scope for social and political hierarchies.

Before what we call the “Neolithic Revolution”  there were around two million years of hunting and gathering and living close to the bone.  Those two million years drove the evolution of some of the most important aspects of human nature, notably our ability to cooperate, our extended period of infancy, pair-bonding, and the development of language.

The hunting-gathering groups ranged from about thirty to ninety people.  Less than thirty made it difficult for the group to survive and defend itself from other groups.  More than ninety created too much conflict and caused groups to fission.


If the nomadic hunting and gathering societies form the bulk of human history,  then they formed the evolutionary crucible for the development of the human brain, and  the distinctly human forms of cooperation that led to  language and culture.  By the time we get to the neolithic revolution, twelve thousand years ago, brains are modern, languages are present and evolving quickly, and culture is becoming more cosmopolitan and  more representative of life in fixed communities.

Social institutions,  technology, language - all taken for granted, all developed over two million years,  in the stone age.  The real question is:  How was our unique form of human cooperation made possible?  Ayn Rand claims the idea of “property”  an idea taken from eighteenth century British apologists of market capitalism.  But for millions of years, people had no more property than they could wear on their backs.  

Somehow they managed to survive without capitalist economies and fossil fuels.  How they did it is explained by the  !Kung healer’s speech.   The Bushmen don’t tolerate bullies or tyrants in their midst.   They use very effective social methods of persuasion with the threat of ultimate sanctions ever-present in the background.  The way they sustain their way of life is by actively,  vigorously, and collectively  suppressing the alpha male.

With minimal possessions, a nomadic hunter-gatherer group is evidence of the necessary and sufficient social institutions needed for a human group to survive for long continuous periods.  Egalitarianism or social levelling is universally practiced in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.  It seems plausible that that is because human hierarchies, with alpha males at the top, are inimical to hunter-gatherer survival.

I can anticipate some objections at this point.  Look, if these hunter-gatherers were around two million years before they began to domesticate plants and animals and live in hierarchical societies, maybe they should have done it sooner.   Maybe the whole hunting-and-gathering schtick holds people back and they could have “been somebody”  sooner by coveting property and creating markets. Also someone may say, why is hunting and gathering relevant today?  It has nothing to do with us….

One thing that we do know through science is that climate change played a huge role in human evolution.  Our ancestors survived through a successive series of brutal ice ages.  It was all about survival and nothing but.  Climate change forced humans to be more cooperative than any other animal.  

It’s interesting that Libertarians and followers of Ayn Rand both tend to  deny the existence of human induced climate change. The idea that unfettered Capitalism could actually be bad for our future doesn’t get any traction with these folks.  Nor is there any interest in life before  Capitalism.  If they think about hunting and gathering societies it is just to disparage them as hopelessly primitive.

Why egalitarianism?  All nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are actively egalitarian. The alpha traits of boasting, intimidation, greed, and selfishness are met with social disapproval and censure.  Adultery is discouraged and actively disapproved of.      But instead of discouraging productivity and initiative this has the exact opposite effect because it separates sexual dominance from other skills and abilities that differentiate people and contribute to the group as a whole.

Egalitarianism levels the playing field, and makes it possible for people with diverse abilities and  experiences  to thrive without getting beaten up or intimidated by an alpha male because they somehow threaten the alpha’s status.

It is not a coincidence that Rand’s most popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged,  celebrate the alpha male and even celebrate the right of alpha males to destroy things if they don’t get their way and to rape women if they feel like it.  That’s the way it works in both wild and captive chimpanzee groups too.

Humans differ from chimpanzees because we have found ways to avoid conflicts by jointly following rules and we have put severe pressure on alpha males to behave pro-socially and by and large it has worked to our collective advantage.  Humans out compete everything else because of our skills in cooperation.  Individuals add to society but it’s the cooperation between many people that gets most things done.

The alpha male is deep in our instinctual selves.  Even though we internalize social mores, we still need a lot of guidance from others as to their attitudes and judgements about our behaviour.  Our feelings of shame, guilt, and empathy help to guide our behaviour in more pro-social directions.  Without them we are nothing but dangerous psychopaths.   The quote from Objectivist Gary Hull, about the evils of egalitarianism, is true to Ayn Rand’s philosophy but it is also a paean to psychopathy.  Within it there is no recognition of our social reality.


Hunter-gatherers who managed to survive in a direct line of descendents for millions of years before the present, are the minimalists who created human nature.   They didn’t survive for so long because they honoured private property, they survived because they were able to share food in good times and bad, they were able to learn from each other and other groups and they were able to collectively control, and,  when necessary,  eliminate the alpha male, creating a level playing field for the first time, and ultimately leading to human civilization.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Collective Agreement Part II - How we agree

I’m fascinated with the image of the wizard from JRR Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings.  The wizards Gandalf and Saruman both have the power to create a new reality by casting a spell.   We like to imagine this power in individuals, but in fact, words do have the power to create reality, but only if they are uttered  within a background of human agreement. That’s what is missing from the wonderful image of the wizard - the background.  And that is as it should be in a mythical or poetic account, because what forms the background is not usually noticed.


Everything humans do is done against  a cultural background.  This background was created by successive agreements among and between many many groups of people.  That does not mean that when I decide to do something new, that I have to consult everybody including my ancient ancestors, but if I make a mistake, someone will tell me about it, or it will get back to me in some way.   


If I’m singing a song in the key of C and I go flat, it doesn’t sound right to anyone else but maybe I can’t tell, because I am unaware of lowering my tone.  People might frown, or show in their body language that something is wrong.  I could pick up on that, and resolve to stay in key the next time, or feel sorry for myself and never sing that song again.


The point is that my reaction to making mistakes is to better conform to what the group expects. I don’t do anything really without it being part of a web of agreements.  If this were not true then there would be no such thing as mistakes.  I sing in C and you sing in C# and nobody cares.  I pay for bread with a washer instead of a tooney, and the cashier is fine with that.


Biology matters.  In order to understand what makes us special, we need to know what we share with animals.  Understanding how animals act collectively can help us  better understand what makes us human.


Several  times I have had the pleasure of watching small flocks of sandpipers flying and landing in formation.  Sandpipers are small shorebirds with very skinny twig like legs.  They like to hunt for beach fleas on sandy beaches, and they do so as a group, on mid to low tides.  Watching them flying and landing, I swear the precision in their flying formation puts the top fighter pilots to shame.


  If you watch any kind of birds fly in formation you will notice how the formation moves as if it has one “collective mind”.  The thing is, that’s an illusion.  Each bird is acting from its own intentions, but it also acts collectively when it takes in the relative position of, and synchronizes its motions with its immediate neighbours.  


Humans do a similar kind of thing every time we use language or play music. But the difference is that we can create a lasting reality by collectively recognizing and acknowledging a situation, whereas no other animal can do this.   


  I would go further than the French scholar Roger Callois who said:   “Rules themselves create fictions - by the very fact that we follow these rules - we separate ourselves from real life.” In contrast I maintain that rules create a specifically human reality.  By the very fact that we follow these rules and expect others to, we distinguish  ourselves from all non-human life.  


What is different about human collective action?  We follow rules, because we expect others to do so as well. To be human is to continuously participate in following rules.  In contrast, the more we make exceptions and the more we act as if rules don’t matter, the less human we become.  


According to John Searle,
        “The individual contribution is only made on the assumption that others are making their contribution - that is what is meant by saying that one is acting as part of a collective.  It is only given the contributions of the other members of the collective that the agent can achieve what he does, but nonetheless his intention is to try to achieve the common goal.”


Voting is an example of a collective action.  When I cast a vote, I do so trusting that a sufficient number of fellow citizens will also do the same.  If I don’t have this sense of trust in others,  I won’t vote.  


Apes are promiscuous and don’t recognize paternity  but humans impose a system of predominant monogamy in almost every culture.  By agreeing to pair up we can expand the social network that we live in by recognizing in laws, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so on.  Men can recognize paternity and potentially share more of parenting, and be less prone to violence.


I have written elsewhere (The Birth of the Commons) that monogamy was the first human commons.  The first time that men had equal access to women.  By the act of cleaving together in a pair-bond each couple creates a relationship, that as long as everyone else respects their boundaries, they can continue to be a couple.    Thus the libertarian idea that what I do in my private life should be completely independent of everyone else is false.  The reality of monogamy cannot exist unless it is recognized and maintained collectively.  


Expecting that others will recognize the status of being married is part of what it means to be married.  This is what makes monogamy a collective act that involves all of society, not just the families of the respective spouses.


But there is more to it than that.  Maintaining monogamy requires collective effort.  At first it meant that the alpha male was killed, then it meant that signs of alpha-like tendencies, such as uncontrolled anger, bullying, and “extramarital” affairs were actively discouraged.  Otherwise another alpha male was bound to rise up and take over.  In modern society we have much more privacy than in hunter-gatherer societies,  so all that maintenance work is less visible, but it is still there, and much more all-encompassing and pervasive.


Humans generally prefer to make love in privacy. People still disapprove and gossip about affairs.  People hide their illicit relationships and feel shame about what they are doing.  These are not just individual compartmentalized feelings, but part of the collective action and intention that goes into maintaining a monogamous society.  


Obviously people disagree all the time too.  The possibility of disagreement is part of what it means to have choice.  But disagreement is parasitical on agreements.  We can only disagree about someone’s status or their right to possess a thing if we have already established, ie., agreed, that there are different statuses and there are such a thing as property rights.  


 When we behave as human beings, we are constantly adjusting our behaviour to fit our expectations of how others will behave.  That’s not that much different from the way individual birds, flying in formation, appear to simulate a collective mind, by subtly adjusting their flight in response to any changes made by their immediate neighbours.  


But humans create lasting reality through agreements, we can create, stories, poems, songs, languages,  religions, and countries, the latter three of these involving the agreement between larger and larger groups of people.


And why is it that we are able to make these agreements when our close primate relatives are not?  The difference is that we have more developed prefrontal areas of the brain.  We can limit our behaviour, comparing ourselves to others, and expecting them to follow rules because we are able to self-evaluate and compare our own and other’s behaviour to previously agreed upon standards.  


In the first of these two articles on agreement, I said that the heart of human nature was something simple, so simple that it is usually ignored and taken for granted.  What is simple about this is the origins of these agreements.  I tell a story and someone listens.  A group of us sing a song together;  I attend church services on Sundays along with the rest of the congregation;  Many people in my country speak the same language;  I pay taxes and vote in  municipal, provincial and federal elections.     

Nothing too complicated with these agreements.  Each and every one involves an expectation that I do my part while everyone else is also fulfilling their part.  This is the reason for their ability to last over time.  When, in times of strife, these institutions break down, it is because we see too many others not fulfilling their part, or violating the rules, so we cease to honour them.

Collective Agreement: Part I - The Heart of Human Nature

If we could  better understand  what is at the heart of human nature than we could better navigate a way forward for ourselves.  I believe that the heart of what makes us human is very simple, so simple that it is mostly taken for granted and ignored.


We can talk about the  superior intelligence of humans, compared to other animals,  but we don’t really know how or why that intelligence developed.  Was it because we had to cope with bigger group size, as British Anthropologist  Robin Dunbar argues?  Or was it the need to physically navigate through new geographic features and maintain group coherence  during inhospitable bouts of climate change?


Was it language, or was the development of language the driver in brain size? It appears from evidence of ancient skulls that the evolutionary rate of growth in the size of the hominin brain started accelerating  around the time that stone tools and weapons were first developed, approximately two million years ago, well before humans are said to have developed language.  


Skeletal evidence reveals that anatomically modern humans, that is, humans that were physically capable of speaking language, must have evolved within the last million years.  


Evidence from attempts to teach “language” to chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest ape relatives, demonstrates that apes are capable of using a proto-language but not a human language with syntax, and infinite generativity.


Ape communication tends to be more involuntary, involved as it is in displays of dominance and submission.  Human communication has a much stronger voluntary component and involves collective intentionality on an entirely different level than ape communication.


Apes do not play games or follow non-coercive  rules on their own initiative. A significant portion of individual and group behaviour is ruled by instinct.  When a group of males attacks a group of strangers, it’s a serious business where attackers try and ambush, outnumber, and kill their opponents.  There is no question of fairness


While it is true that humans are just as capable of homicide and genocide we also have alternative ways of dealing with rivalries that are more, shall we say, playful.  In  team sports, such as football there is the motivation to beat the opposing team, but the game is played according to rules agreed to by both sides, and the whole game is overseen by referees, who have the power to stop the play and enact penalties against rule breakers.  


You could say that the game of football simulates a conflict and brings out some of the same kinds of emotions and feelings that a conflict would bring out, but it is obviously far more structured and controlled than a fight to the death.  


Part of what differentiates humans from the apes is not only our penchant for following rules and cooperating with each other,  but also our greater ability to control our impulses.  This greater control comes from the evolution of the prefrontal region of our brain, which is the part of the brain in humans which has most enlarged compared to ape brains.  This is the part responsible for “executive function”  the brain's system that is implicated in planning, self-evaluating, and impulse control.  


 The ability to compare our own behaviour to standards, to understand where another is coming from, to put ourselves in another’s place, to judge someone’s character, all require executive function and the use of the prefrontal region.


The evolutionary development of the human brain, the development of language, and humans ability to make collective agreements, all came out of the same evolutionary crucible - the two million years that humans and early humans have spent in nomadic hunting and gathering groups.  


Apes, whose habit has always been the forest,  have only rudimentary collective action, which is most evident when they patrol territorial borders and hunt for bushmeat.  Humans regularly agree to do things collectively, even with people who are not kin.  Sports, religion, banquets and feasts, education, science, music, warfare.  The list of things that we like to do in groups is endless.   


The fact that apes can be taught to use a proto-language but not a full-fledged one suggests that  the ability to use syntax, follow rules, and act collectively may well be what distinguishes humans from other creatures. If we are to better understand what differentiates humans from apes I believe that the most fruitful direction would be to examine the nature of collective intention and agreement.  


In discussing the notion of collective intentionality my guide is the American Philosopher, John Searle.  Searle is one of the very few philosophers that can talk about abstract stuff like intentionality and keep the reader grounded in reality.


When two or more people make an agreement they each give their assent to either maintaining or bringing about  some state of affairs.  Agreements are so pervasive in our lives that one could say that we cannot go anywhere or do anything without stepping into an endless succession of previous agreements that set the stage for the present situation.


Agreements are not things that exist independently of minds.   If no-one agrees anymore that this confederate dollar bill is money than it simply ceases to be used as money.  The same cannot be said of a boulder.  It will still get in our way, whether or not we call it a “boulder”.  


Humans are making agreements all the time.  We do this overtly through what Searle calls,  speech acts.  I say, “I agree”, or “yes”  in response to your speech act and that creates the agreement.  If I say, “I promise”, then I have agreed to carry something out in the future.  If I say “No”, then I have stopped the agreement from happening.  


Much of the time we simply agree nonverbally, as when we give or accept money for purchases.  According to Searle, this is an abbreviated form of agreement that has the same logical structure as a declaration.  


To some degree animals can make agreements with each other.  If they couldn’t they would never have produced offspring.  Birds brood and raise baby chicks together.  Beavers make and maintain dams together, Wolves, lions and hyenas hunt in packs.  


Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the minimal set of conditions that determine human nature.  Their  social structure is probably similar to ancient hunter-gatherers because the conditions of their survival are similar.  Because of the necessity of nomadism, (the necessity of seasonal migration to follow or find food sources) hunter-gatherers cannot carry anything more than what is on their backs.  Thus they cannot maintain a surplus, and they lack social hierarchy.  


Survival is hard and is much harder if the group size is small.  Sharing equally insures that the families that are temporarily unlucky at hunting don’t starve.  One way to look at this is to say that in a hunting and gathering band each person’s ability to survive depends on everyone else in the band.


When we examine examples of collective action on the part of mammals, such as lions and hyenas,  we find that although they can hunt in groups they never distribute the meat in equal portions.  They distribute according to a dominance hierarchy, with the alpha male receiving the “lion’s share”.


Maintaining equality is a clear and important difference between animals and humans.  Human hunter gatherers tend to share the meat of large kills in equal portions to all families in their band.  The Inuit did this, as do the iKung in the Kalahari Desert, the Aborigines in Australia, and hunter-gatherers the world over.  


Nomadic hunting and gathering societies not only universally practice egalitarianism, it’s a big part of the way these people think and feel about their own and other’s conduct. Actually people everywhere have very powerful feelings about being treated fairly, and strong preferences against being coerced or intimidated by others.


Ideally an agreement benefits both parties.  At least we expect it to when we make it.  But we are probably aware of relationships which are coerced, such as slavery,  or unequal, such as parenting, teaching and employment.


Every aspect of human culture is built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.  This is how we differ from all other animals.   


I like the example of music because it’s easy to see how music is created out of collective agreement. All it takes is one person playing out of tune to wreck a song.   We have to subordinate our behaviour in order to play music together.  
A song is reproduced from a group of musicians agreeing to faithfully reproduce the key, melody, harmonies, tempo, phrasing, and words of the song.  It’s easy to see how things like a key, melody, harmonic progression,while limiting our behaviour allow us to increase our creative potential.  By each agreeing to limit our behaviour, channeling it according to previously agreed upon rules,  we create the possibility of musical expression.  


We, in fact, already exist in a world of agreements but most of these agreements are not overt. We discover the content of these agreements when we make mistakes and are corrected or criticized for them.  Everything about music involves a succession of agreements going back in time.


The musicians are taught music in school, or they learn it from individual teachers.  they rehearse together in halls created for the purpose of teaching or holding social gatherings, or in someone’s basement.  The music they play is written by composers  from their own country or from  other countries, and often from  musicians who are no longer living.  


Songwriters or composers write their songs based on musical forms and styles that they learned from other musicians. Those musicians, in turn, were taught and influenced by still  older  generations.
 
 Without groups agreeing to play in time, in tune, in tempo, agreeing to hold rehearsals, agreeing to teach and agreeing to learn, agreeing to hold public concerts, audiences agreeing to listen, composers  agreeing to write songs, musicians agreeing to play those songs, etc., music would never happen.


It’s not as if music is in any way special in terms of it requiring collective agreement to come into existence.  The same is true of all aspects of human culture.  To repeat:  Every aspect of culture is built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.


Think back to my previous example of the football game.  The opposing teams play the game by collectively  following the rules.  The audience understands what’s going on -  when a team makes a score, who is winning and who is losing,  by knowing beforehand the rules of the game.


In contrast, in chimpanzee society, chimps would not be able to understand or play football, because they live in social groups with strict dominance hierarchies where there is really only one rule:  “Might Makes Right”.   The point being that no-one will voluntarily follow a rule if they don’t expect that those who “count”  will follow it. This is the precise root of human collective action.  


There has been an incredible amount of nonsense written about the so-called “language instinct”  when, in fact, language is the exact opposite of an instinct.  The rules in language are just as much the result of collective agreement as are the rules of music.  Grammatical rules are created out of the collective use of language, not because one particular person decides that a word ought to be used a certain way,  or that rules of grammar have some sort of objective existence independent of human minds.  


Language is a common form of communication that is available to all humans, that presupposes the human purpose of sharing information.  We take this for granted, but it is the absence of the alpha male that changes everything.   In chimp society the dominant alpha male wants information about a food source but a subordinate does not want to share that information because it will mean that he will be deprived of access to the food by the alpha.  The subordinate assumes, rightly, that sharing information will result in being taken advantage of.  In this situation there is often no incentive to share information and collective agreement is greatly inhibited.  


The situation is reversed when we have a monogamous system, where alpha male behaviour is suppressed.  Now sharing information is encouraged, because it leads to food sharing and better control of potential rule-breaking.  


It is my belief that all human culture originates from a primal collective agreement that occurred more than a million years ago:   the first time that humans agreed to live monogamously and were able to sustain that system over generations.  How can I be so confident as to assert the existence of a “primal agreement”   when there obviously cannot be any direct evidence of such an occurrence?


There are two reasons, one is indirect evidence, the other is logical.  First, the fact that our closest animal relatives have social structures that consist of dominance hierarchies with an alpha male on top, whereas humans, for the most part live monogamously in pair bonds and nuclear families.


Apes are not monogamous, they are promiscuous and, except for bonobos, each group is  dominated by an alpha male, who uses his physical strength to terrorize and subjugate the rest of the group.  An alpha is  territorial and will not tolerate a group of strangers of his own species in his vicinity.  


Secondly it is the fact that a monogamous system could not be instituted by individuals each deciding to live that way on their own and then summing up their preferences together.  This was by necessity a collective decision involving irreducibly collective action.    The group not only had to agree to eliminate the alpha male to initiate monogamy, they also needed to agree to  continually suppress new alphas from gaining the upper hand, which was basically a problem that required the ongoing intervention of the entire group and could not be left to solve itself.


Most educated people would probably agree that it is our ability to communicate by language that differentiates us from animals and forms the basis for our overwhelming success.  But our ability to  act according to rules is even more basic than language.


 It may seem as if you cannot have rules without language.  Tell that to bonobo females, who keep males in check by collectively intimidating them.  Bonobos, who look like chimpanzees, are a different species but closely related, having diverged from chimpanzees about two million years ago.   Bonobos can’t talk, but the females still act as if they are following the rule:  “do not allow a male to harass or harm a female.”


We can certainly imagine a situation where the motivation to preserve pair-bonding and prevent a new alpha from taking it all away would exist in common, even if, at the time, humans did not have the linguistic ability to describe that situation.  


I have argued elsewhere  (How the Urge to Merge Led to Language) that eliminating the alpha male and instituting monogamy across the board was what made language possible, because it created a level playing field, where collective action was encouraged.  

In part two I will look more closely at the concept of collective action.   

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Birth of The Commons

“You have the right to remain silent.”


I’ve just invented a new communication app.  It can be used by almost everyone; It works anywhere and anytime, night or day;  It doesn’t need batteries, doesn’t need to be plugged in,  doesn’t even need the internet;  Once people start using it, it is so easy to use that it is almost impossible to stop using it;  it becomes indispensable, and you are hooked, you cannot be without it;  It can be tailored to suit any occasion;  It’s use facilitates an expanding network of people; It’s use opens up incredible possibilities for creativity and cooperation.  

 There is only two things that may be problematic: my new app takes about four years to download. Yes, you heard correctly, not four minutes but four years.  And usually, only ridiculously  young kids know how to download it, but, like I said it takes about four years.   During that time, the system needs constant maintenance and TLC.  The other snag is that once someone starts using it, it becomes common property, available to everyone free, and so I personally, can’t get rich off of it.

 OK, I lied.  It’s not a  new app.    It’s called language, and it was invented by the first humans probably within the last million years.  

I mention this, not because I’m bemoaning a lost opportunity,  (If only I had bought shares in Language Corp early,  when it was just getting started...)  but because of all the things about language, it’s universal availability may be its most important aspect.

What is language?  A method of communication unique to humans that is available to virtually all humans to use.  A common  way for us to share information and create enduring knowledge.

Take a proto-language  “Me Tarzan, you Jane”. Start with naming, then add verbs to describe action and emotions.  Once you begin to share information you are creating a common space of understanding amongst you and your fellow speakers.  That common space is like a blank screen that allows for maximum creative yield, and prepares the ground for collective decisions.  


What is a commons?  A commons is a level-playing field.  Everybody gets to breathe air, and we have that in common with most other species.  Here in the rain forests of the  Pacific Northwest, fresh water is a common resource.

We parcel up land into properties, but much land is held in common in the form of parks, trackless wilderness, public rights of way and public spaces.  The sunlight that falls to earth is common to all,  plants and animals on land , fish and the whales in the sea.  

Before the human development of agriculture and domestication humans lived for millions of years in hunter-gatherer bands of approximately thirty to ninety people.  If the band survived and prospered, eventually, as population grew over generations, a new band would split off.  As this process continued, a larger and larger area of land would need to be occupied.

Eventually groups that originally were connected, would become separated permanently by mountains or water barriers. Originally we had everything in common.  Then because of our success in outgrowing our original environment we ceased to have a common place and identity.

This is probably the basis for the evolution of different languages (see “Tower of Babel”)  If we go back far enough in time, all of us living today have a common history, but over thousands of years different peoples occupying different places have come to conflict and cooperation with each other.

Each of us has our humanity and human origins in common with everyone else alive today.  Since then, we may have got here in different ways, but we all share the present time in common.  We, in fact, share this age in common with the Earth’s biosphere and all it’s manifest diversity.  

Here is the thing we do not share  in common with any other form of life - the origins of our humanity.  What makes us human? And is there such a thing as a defining characteristic of humanness? It is my hypothesis that human society was created by collective agreement, beginning with establishing sexual monogamy.  A few other animals, like geese and swans are naturally monogamous but only humans maintain monogamy by collective agreement.

Chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives are naturally promiscuous, but unlike our ape cousins, most adult humans choose to live in monogamous societies and in monogamous relationships.  Monogamy creates a level playing field for prospective human mates. The idea is that all  males and females should, at the least,  get a chance to pair-up.

I hate to break it to everyone, but monogamy is definitely not the default mode for human sexuality.    Instinctually we are promiscuous, not monogamous. If you don’t believe me, note the content of TV, movies, the internet, pornography, etc.  

We can only maintain monogamy by actively and persistently suppressing alpha dominant behaviour.  It takes a lot of collective effort and teamwork to establish and maintain monogamy in a society, however imperfectly it is maintained,  yet in most societies,  monogamy is, in fact, predominant and seen as the ideal standard.

Try to find a contemporary society where the ideal relationship is not a pair-bond.  Fundamentalist Mormons? The one exception that proves the rule.  Even in Islamic societies where multiple marriages are permissible,  the romantic ideal is a couple, not a harem.

  How the heck did we manage to institute a practice that goes against our instincts, that appears to go against Darwinian natural selection, and not only initiate it but make it near universal, in a world of fantastically diverse human cultures?  That’s the cool hat-trick.

Enforcing monogamy is,  in effect, a collective effort to enforce a level-playing field where prospective alpha males are prevented from taking over, and tilting the field in their favour. I believe that the most relevant evidence comes from observing contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, because these societies are the closest we have to the way our common ancestors once lived.  

American Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, has surveyed the existing nomadic hunter-gatherers and found that each group collectively  forms a “moral community” that specifically focuses on suppressing alpha behaviour.  They  do have leaders, but they are first-among-equals types of leaders. In these societies leaders who get too assertive or aggressive are ignored or shunned.

Consider how feelings of embarrassment or fear of being embarrassed can really reign us in from “making fools of ourselves”  The social controls on acting out that we internalize during childhood are very powerful.     

In alpha-male dominated societies such as chimpanzee society, social situations tend to be more violent and favour the alpha and his confederates.  Even if an alpha gets eliminated, he is soon replaced with a new alpha.    The level playing field never has a chance to be established.  Without it, there is no potential for collective agreement, only different forms of coercion and intimidation.

Collective agreement, not individual choices, is the basis of language and human culture, the core abilities that distinguish humans from animals.  This was first made possible by creating and maintaining a common space of equality where adult males and females could form enduring pair-bonds.  

For the first time, this allowed humans to form agreements based on rights and privileges. By agreeing to live by rules, setting limits on our behaviour,  we   were able to create a common social space in which everyone could participate and everyone could benefit. Thus, we crossed the line between animals and humans when we used collective agreement to set limits on human sexual  behaviour.

From then on, every aspect of human culture: kinship and family,  language, music, social institutions, governments, markets, associations had this in common:  They all create social spaces, built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.  

By agreeing to live monogamously the first humans created a level playing field where  suppressing alpha male behaviour and sharing information, food, technology, and parenting first became universally possible, benefiting both individuals and societies.


If we consider the question “How is language possible?”  We can broaden that  question into: “How is human society possible? This is the basis of the work of American Philosopher, John Searle.   Social reality is created by the use of language.  Declarations, Demands, Acknowledgments,  Recognition, Honoring, Accepting, Rejecting, Promising, Proposing, Compromising, Agreeing….  all these actions create social reality by the use and utterance of language.  They work in creating and sustaining social reality because we implicitly agree to follow rules when we use language.  

Language itself doesn’t work unless it’s universal.  Fact:  All languages can be translated into other languages.  Fact: There are no human groups without language.  Even the deaf have sign language.  Hypothesis:   Monogamy preceded the development of language and was a necessary condition for its development.  

I believe that language was born out of an agreement to  level the  playing field.  By agreeing to establish and maintain a system of pair-bonds our ancestors created the first human commons.  Like Noah’s Ark, we agreed to pair up equally and by maintaining that equality we created the possibility of a radically expanded social reality.

As Canadian anthropologist Bernard Chapais has pointed out, in his book, Primeval Kinship,  by recognizing the rights and privileges of monogamy we create the reality of recognized paternity, the incredible advantage of dual parenting, in-laws,  forms of  kinship including aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the potential to accumulate knowledge over generations.  

We use language because we expect not to be taken advantage of by others.  Apes don’t distribute meat from hunting in an equitable manner but human hunter-gatherers do.  Apes can be taught versions of a proto-language, but never can get beyond it,because they don’t trust that going along with the rules will work when the alpha is around.  There is only one rule for an alpha - “Might makes right”.  Social systems with alpha males preclude most forms of collective agreement, because any rule that is agreed to is likely to be broken by the alpha male.   Without monogamy, we could not have created language, for language presupposes a level of trust, and collective agreement that is lacking for any group living under the shadow of an alpha male.  

Once we learned to speak out we amplified our ability to cooperate and help each other, reinforcing our collective ability to suppress and control potential alpha males.Think about gossip, shaming,  mocking - all ways of influencing and keeping others in line.  We craft ideas, stories,   idealizations and myths as a means to focus on staying within certain agreed upon boundaries, and as a way to point to ideals of behaviour.

 What hunter-gatherer humans had accomplished was the establishment of the first human commons, and the creation of an ever-expanding social reality by the use of collective agreement.

No animal other than humans distributes food equally, and hunter-gatherer groups do this routinely.  No other animal speaks a language that is capable of generating an infinite number of thoughts and ideas.  This generative capacity comes from the universal accessibility of language.  Everyone uses language, everyone shares ideas when they use it. We can create a world with language where our understanding and cooperative abilities are magnified beyond anything possible on our own.  That is the power of collective agreement.