Sunday, March 13, 2016


I'm reading a book by Phillip Ball, called: Water, Matrix of Life. If you want to know more about water, it's fascinating and well written. I particularly like this quote of his: “Water is the agent of geological, environmental and global change. It confers fecundity on parched regions, while it's passing turns grasslands into deserts.”

Water does all this and more. But water is incredibly effective at what it does because water is a team player. Apparently there's water on the moon in the form of patches of ice, but it's inert, it doesn't do anything because it lacks the other team players. Let's introduce these other team members.

Water is a compound not an element although the Greeks and the Chinese thought it was one of the “four elements” - Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Let's run with this idea but let's assume that fire can mean all types of energy, especially the Sun. Let's use a bigger name for Air. We'll call it the Atmosphere. Let's say that “Earth” means the planet and not just a hunk of rock. Now let's add a fifth element, and call it “Life”.

Put these five elements together and they will interact spontaneously. And these interactions form the great geophysical systems of the Earth.

The Earth's surface has mountains and basins. It's lowest points are where most of the water is – in the oceans. The Earth's gravitational field is strong enough to hold all the gases: the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapour that make up the atmosphere.

Think of Earth as a house without a switch because it runs itself. It's roof is the atmosphere. It lets vital energy from the Sun in and gives us a bit of insulation at night. Too much insulation is not good, as we see with the planet Venus, with its surface temperature of 460 *Celsius.

The Earth's got plumbing, heating, ventilation and power, mostly run by one system: the weather. But it's also got backup power from internal heat which causes plate tectonics to reconfigure the seas and continents every hundred million years or so.

It's not like a house that was designed and built, because it repairs itself. Tell me, what house that we have built repairs itself, or has lasted as long as Earth has?

As a plumbing and heating system and power system the weather is partly predictable and partly unpredictable. Sometimes we get too much water sometimes not enough. Sometimes it gets too hot, sometimes it's just right.

The weather operates under the usual physical laws. The Earth's spin causes winds to curve in the direction of rotation making cyclonic wind patterns counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Sun's radiation heats water on Earth's surface and causes water molecules to change from liquid to gas. The water vapour can rise into the atmosphere because it contains heat from the sun.

Weather is partly predictable, we recognize the seasons, but also unpredictable, we don't know what the weather will be like a month from this day. The weather is a self-organizing system. Weather systems can last up to a week and travel thousands of kilometres.

Let's call a system: a group of parts that interact together to form a whole that is separated from the external world by a boundary.

Let's divide the world of systems into three: machines, institutions, and self-organizing systems.

Self organizing systems are systems of parts that interact via simple physical laws. The parts of the Solar system - the sun and the planets, interact by the laws of motion and gravity to form a balanced system that has maintained itself over time.

All machines are mechanical systems designed and built by humans for various goals. A house is a mechanical system that transfers heat and energy from outside and holds it inside. Houses and other machines have switches on them. When the switch is turned on, the machines start to work and when it's turned off they stop working.

What is a self-organizing system? Think of a flock of sandpipers flying low over the water – the precision and coherence of their flight. The flock swoops and glides as a unified whole as if it acts with one mind.

But each bird is acting on its own and the subtle alterations in flight that each bird makes in response to its neighbours creates an emergent unity.

Unlike machines, self-organizing systems are not deterministic. These systems have properties that emerge from the interaction of all the parts that cannot be predicted from the nature of the parts alone.

You cannot predict the weather beyond a week; Human behaviour is both predictable and unpredictable. Weather systems and large-scale human societies exhibit complex behaviour that is the hallmark of self-organizing systems.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Music and Morality

It is said that Pythagoras,  the founder  of an ancient mystery cult, and arguably, the father of both mathematics and music theory, took his own life, out of guilt for discovering irrational numbers.  

Pythagoras had discovered universal truths about music, by first observing that dividing a vibrating string into different proportions yielded the entire series of harmonics for the notes of the diatonic musical scale.  The pitch of a musical note corresponds to an exact mathematical proportion between the length of the string being played and the length of the segment of the string created by touching a node. Thus, touching nodes positioned at various intervals on the string creates pitches that correspond with all the notes of the scale.

Pythagoras had discovered a connection between the quality of experience and the reality of numbers.  The more perfect the actual mathematical proportion of the node to the entire length, the more harmonious and satisfying our experience when the two notes are sounded together.  We call that satisfying relationship - harmony, and the feeling of dissatisfaction - dissonance.

The interesting thing about music is its dynamics.  It gets its power from the way that it plays with our expectations and feelings, building tension and release via elements of tempo, rhythm, dynamic volume,  the degree of dissonance and harmony, and the movement of a tonal centre further or closer to the key signature.  Put in the context of a song, some dissonance is necessary in order to produce tension and make the music more compelling.  

The judgement of quality in musical experience appears to be both due to subjective impressions and to objective reality. Individual musicians who do not adhere to the standards of pitch, tonality, tempo, dynamics, etc., are judged to be bad musicians.  It would seem that there exists something universal about musical standards that leads to  a better quality of music when these standards are closely adhered to.

Music also gives rise to powerful sensations of mood.  Music embodies human nature, in its understanding of life’s goals and hardships. The experience of music is considered so desirable that the most popular musical pieces are constantly being re-created by musical groups.
Musicians re-create songs, producing music by collective adherence to standards. I want to argue that in moral systems there is something similar going on  - the group re-creates society every time it collectively acknowledges and enforces moral standards.  

The issue is this:  we expect others to act morally and not take advantage or abuse their power but we always have to do more than this.
Because, if we do not collectively exclude those who consistently disrespect moral law, they will undermine and ultimately destroy society from within.

Moral standards are ultimately about differentiating people who support the group from people who undermine the group.  People who commit wrongs can be said to fail the moral standards.  They are excluded from the group temporarily, through forms of punishment, or permanently via banning or executing.  In the past, those who refused to  play by the rules were eventually selected out of the gene pool by the rest of the group.

By accepting universal standards for our social conduct we are also implying that there is something objective about reality that leads to some forms of conduct being better and some forms of conduct being worse than others.  But at the same time, there is something irreducibly subjective about morality because it is such a powerful motivator for judgement and action.

In today’s world we take a jaundiced view of “morality”.  People believe in the value of privacy to override almost everything else, and they see religious extremists insisting on strict “moral” codes of conduct as dangerously divisive.  

But notice that moral standards can sometimes trump religious standards.  Priests, cardinals, even popes can be held accountable for moral failings.  

My intuition is that moral systems long pre-dated religion,  but I wouldn’t be surprised if music is also of ancient pedigree, perhaps originating about the same time as morality, because they both have similar structures, but vastly different functions.  

Music, like morality has standards that are exclusive.  Bands can be very picky who they let in to become band members, and this often has to do with the prospect’s ability to reliably adhere to musical standards. Adhering to high standards is what distinguishes a good band from a mediocre band.  Generally speaking, the higher the musical standards that a band or orchestra can achieve, the better the quality of experience supplied to the audience and greater the number of people drawn into their music’s orbit.

Musical scales, melodies, favourite harmonies, and songs can vary from one culture to another, but in every case, musicians have to play in tune, with appropriate instruments, in the same tempo, and the same key as the other musicians.  In order to play music together they must follow the same musical standards.

  The singer who sings off key undermines the song and harms the collective musical experience; and, if she consistently sings off key she can be kicked out of the band.  Both the audience and the musicians together uphold standards of excellence  that pertain to the quality of the musical experience.

Fortunately, there’s lots of room in modern society for musicians of different age, abilities, and tastes to form bands and play music, sometimes in public, sometimes not.  It doesn’t undermine society for this to be the case.

 But we make a mistake if we think that the fact that there are so many different groups and cultures with different rules of conduct - different moralities, if you will, means that there  are no universal moral principles that we all should adhere to.  

Living in groups demands much more from us than playing music in a group.  For one thing, with music we always have the option of not playing music.  Nor do we have to play music with other musicians, nor even to an audience.    But moral choices are always about social situations.  We do not have the option of opting out, unless we leave the group, and this was probably not an option when morality first originated.   

Both music and morality show the importance of cooperation in human conduct.  Music draws in other musicians, singers, dancers, innkeepers, as well as an audience, but morality makes human cooperation possible in the first place.  Music draws people together and its re-creation makes life more meaningful and enjoyable.  Morality is ultimately what makes it possible for people to live together.  That’s what I mean by the “re-creation of society”.



Unity, diversity, coherence, dissonance,  harmony, and universal rules.  All these elements can be loosely conceived as the basis for both music and morality. We can see that dissonance, while sometimes unpleasant, is actually an essential part of the musical experience because of its contribution to musical tension and sense of movement.   

Conflict and disagreement, as unwanted and unpleasant as they can be,  are probably essential in human groups too, as a challenging impetus that leads to better fairer agreements that are more satisfying and sustainable over the long haul.

If all we ever did was just to get along with everyone else we would  never have gotten out of the state of nature.  By having to deal with conflict we got better at living together.  Animals deal with conflicts with dominance hierarchies.  The bigger and stronger animal has more say.  Humans have added a crucial innovation - rules that apply to everyone, backed up by negative consequences that are collectively instituted against rule breakers.  

The thing about rules, which is different from nature, is that rules are not self-organizing.  They are based on prior agreements about how to behave. In nature any “rule” is more automatic, instinctual and genetically wired-in, or, it’s part of a developmental process.

Nature is self-organized in this important sense:  there is no viewpoint that understands the whole.  In self-organized systems, the parts of the system, if they have awareness, only  have awareness of their immediate environment.  There is no consciousness in charge of everything.  

These kinds of systems are ubiquitous in nature.  Think of the organ systems in our own bodies.  Each of our bodies is said to be made up of thirty-seven trillion individual cells, all interacting in multiple organ systems.  None of these individual cells have awareness of what their particular system is doing. We are certainly not aware of the vast majority of things going on with the thirty-seven trillion cells in our own bodies, although  our minds exert control over our actions and our brains exert unconscious control over our body systems.   

Human systems on small scales are not self-organized. The nuclear family is not self-organized.  Marriages break up, parents can abandon or give away their children, or even decide to adopt or not to have children at all.  And, it takes a lot of social learning and social support to produce good parents. As parents, both the mother and father are aware of the family as a whole, of their relationship with each other, of their own roles as well as everyone else’s; they have a  rough idea of the developmental trajectory of their children, and they are aware, on some level, of how their family fits in with their extended families and with other families in the community.

Music is not self-organized.  Musicians have to learn how to play instruments, how to play in key, and according to musical scales, and to remember melody and chord changes.  Conductors and band leaders need to be aware of how all the playing fits together to re-create a piece of music.   Musicians and audiences have all learned  how to  hear a piece of music as a whole, rather than just as a random series of sounds.

In order for a song to be composed, the composer must be able to conceive of the song as a whole, not just the individual parts.  In nature there is no composer, so natural systems tend to be self-organized and the parts only need to be aware of their immediate surroundings. Rules pull us out of the state of nature, by substituting conscious organization for self-organization.

 We see self-organization when the scale of human activity gets so large, that no-one has a handle on it or can predict where it’s going. This is certainly true of business cycles, where economists often cannot predict what will happen next.  It’s instructive to consider that the actors in business cycles, are often tagged as either “bulls” or “bears” because of their herd impulse to buy or sell.

This is also true of language.  Language involves so many speakers, so many words and grammatical rules, that it also is a self-organized system.  No single speaker is aware of all the uses and changes in pronunciation and meaning that are constantly occurring in any language. Nor do we normally have any awareness of a system-wide goal. There is no one who understands the whole thing, not even Noam Chomsky.   There seem to be an infinite number of different goals involved in the use of language, although cooperation and sharing information seems to be the main ones.    

There is very powerful evidence that humans are distinct from all other living things, and that evidence is in our ubiquitous use of rules.  When we agree together to follow rules we are also demonstrating our understanding of and commitment to  system-wide goals.  This is where music and morality meet.

In hindsight, it turns out that irrational numbers got a bad rap.  They are actually quite useful, and they haven’t led to the erosion of mathematics from within, as, I guess, tragically, Pythagoras was so concerned about.  In human society everything depends on adherence to rules and standards.    Both music and morality can only survive if the collectivity has the means and ultimately the will to exclude rule-breakers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

What is a Moral System?

  What is a moral system?    There is actually, very little that’s been said about the concept of moral systems in Philosophy.  And when philosophers do talk about it, what they really mean by a moral system is a system of beliefs and principles, and rules of interpretation. 

A noted exception is the philosopher, Bernard Gert, (1934 - 2011). In his book, Morality, Its Nature and Justification, he specifically talks about the moral system.  According to Gert:

“I use the phrase “moral system” to mean the same as “morality” and regard morality or the moral system as the system people use, often unconsciously, when they are trying to make a morally acceptable choice among several alternative actions or when they make moral judgments about their own actions or those of others…. It is… an essential feature of morality in all of its variations that everyone who is judged by it knows what morality prohibits, requires, encourages and allows.”  

If the reader is at all interested in learning more about the concept of "the moral system" I recommend Gert’s book.  I came to the idea independently of Gert, but see some basic agreement between our two accounts.  The main difference between our two accounts is that mine is more descriptive, and based on biology, whereas Gert’s is more concerned with justification.   A fuller account of Gert’s position compared to my own is not included here but will be forthcoming.
To most other moral  philosophers, the goal of moral philosophy is to generate better moral principles that all people can agree on.  But, why do we need professional philosophers to tell us what is right and what is wrong?  We already know it.  It’s not the principles that are the problem -  we don’t really understand what a moral system is and what it does - that’s the problem.  

In order to understand what a moral system is, we first we need to crack open the idea of “systems”.  By that, I mean just enough of an understanding of the concept to get us started.  The kind of system that philosophers talk about, which are really just collections of principles or strings of hypo-deductive inferences, is not what I  am talking about.  That kind of system doesn’t do anything on it’s own.  

Biological systems do things.  They consume resources and they produce offspring and niches.  They maintain themselves and keep things working.  These systems only have goals, in the sense that they keep themselves going - which is sometimes called, “homeostasis”.  Our bodies are a biological system of approximately thirty-seven trillion cells, that all coordinate together in multiple organ systems to maintain our physical integrity.  

In most biological systems, the parts are not conscious of the whole.  Individual cells of the body are not trying to make the body strong and resilient, they are responding to their immediate environment and all the chemical and hormonal signals that impact them.

In contrast, often times  human participants are conscious of system-wide goals and are trying their best to attain them.  We can consider the Emergency Medical System, or EMS,   and the Criminal Justice System, or CJS, as human systems with overall goals - that of saving lives and serving justice.  

For the purposes of my essay, all we need in order to understand the concept of a system is to focus on the idea that the parts of a system are not as important as the relationship between the parts. Human systems are generally resilient enough to work with missing and interchangeable parts.

In order to see what I mean, we can contrast a system with a machine.  If we take a part out of a machine, the machine  will break down.  If we try and replace the part, a new part must be “machined” to the exact same size and shape in order for it to work.  In contrast, we can call the Toastmasters Organization a system.  Replace the toastmaster in one meeting with a new toastmaster in the next, or an “ah counter” with an new “ah counter”, and the toastmasters meeting goes on, all the same.

To activate a machine, you turn on a switch;  But, how do you activate a system?  It requires both participants and communication between the participants.  How do you activate the toastmasters system?  You show up, and you volunteer to speak.  That’s what activates it,  turning up and choosing to do something.  

There are other systems that we are all familiar with.  The EMS is made up of paramedics, doctors and nurses, ambulances, hospital buildings and emergency departments.  The CJS has its lawyers, judges, juries, courthouses and legislatures.  

Let’s call the moral system, the OMS.  That stands for the “Old Moral System”.   It has been around for a very long time.  What I want to say is that all of us are part of the OMS;  all of us, if we are old enough and of sound mind, know moral principles and can make moral judgements.  And that’s what a moral system is - its all of us. End of story - right?  But, why don’t we see this, why is it not obvious to everyone?

Well, where is the OMS?  Where are the buildings that house the moral system?  Where are the professionals that do moral reasoning or hand down moral judgements?  Does the OMS really exist?  Maybe it does, but it ends up being largely invisible, because of the overlay of all the other social institutions.  

Let’s do what philosophers call a “thought experiment”  Imagine yourself to be a part of the OMS. I want to propose about seven brief scenarios, and what I’m asking  is for you to do two things: First, to note how you inwardly respond to each scenario, and second, to consider which of these scenarios activates the OMS and which does not.    And with each scenario I’m going to put on my philosopher’s hat, and give my own very brief verdict.

The point of this thought experiment is to provide you with some experiential evidence for a what a moral system is, and how it works.

Scenario 1 - I see a body lying on the ground.  “Mister, are you OK?”  I’m not getting a response.   I ask a passer by to  call 911 and tell them that there is an  unconscious person lying on the ground here at the college.  

Did this activate the OMS?  No, it activated the EMS.  

Scenario 2 - My youngest son brought this pie which he intended to share with everyone, and there is no other food to be had.  But  I feel so hungry that I tell everyone gathered that I’ve decided to eat all of the pie myself and I’m not going to share any of it with them.  

 Did this activate the OMS?  Consider that the further back in time  we go, the more likely that starvation was a real and ever-present possibility. In any case, people would be outraged, and it definitely would activate the OMS.  

Scenario 3 -   My eldest son has a nosebleed.   I bring a towel to  put on his lap and a wet compress to put under his nose.  I show him how to pinch the lower part of the bridge of his nose just above the nostrils and tell him that this will stop the bleeding, but he will have to do it for at least five to ten minutes.  

Did this activate the EMS or the OMS?  Neither, but it did activate “The Caring System”. That’s actually an older system than the OMS.  It goes back a two hundred and fifty million years, to the origins of mammals.     

Scenario 4 - OK.  Hold onto your seats, because this room is actually a time machine, and I now am adjusting the controls to take us back four hundred years ago to Elizabethan England.  “I say old chap.  Are you in harm's way?   What’s that you say.  A witch has caused you to bleed through the nose.  Oh-Oh!”  OK now I’m adjusting the controls to take us back to the present...  

Did this activate the OMS? Yes, because four hundred  years ago people believed in witches.  It would have also activated the Criminal Justice System and could have  led to some unfortunate woman being burned at the stake.  This illustrates the dark side of moral systems.  A large part of what they do depends on what everyone believes.  That’s why universal education, and high standards of evidence and scientific knowledge are important.

Scenario 5 -    I see a person lying on the street, unconscious, in a pool of blood.    A witness tells me that a man beat this lady senseless and  ran off with her purse.  Someone has called 911 and the police and ambulance are on their way.    

It appears that we have activated the EMS  and the CJS,  but what was the first system to be activated,  even before those systems?  The OMS  is activated instantly, because this situation is so unambiguously wrong. We will feel it in our bones that it is wrong. My point being, that the OMS is not activated by calling 911, it is activated by our minds - by our feelings and judgements - and it happens much faster than  a phone call.  

Scenario 6 -  I deliver a speech to a mixed audience, unannounced,  in the nude.

I think that there would be quite a few systems that would be activated here, including and especially the OMS.  I would  end up being seen and treated as an outcast in my own community.  

Scenario 7 - I win the international toastmaster’s award for best speech for an inspiring speech about the value of my home community.

 Note that, unlike the previous scenarios, this one is positive. I think that this would activate the OMS because I have done something that puts our community in a good light, and thus, benefits the community and the local toastmasters.

The goal of the EMS is to save lives, the goal of the CJS is to serve justice.  So, what is the goal of the OMS? The goal of any moral system is to protect and maintain the group.  Anything that threatens social peace is dealt with by social sanctions and punishments, and anything that benefits the group is recognized, publically acknowledged, and encouraged. But the emphasis in moral systems is always on preventing or on punishing bads, and less on promoting the good  - for reasons that I will get into.   

The moral system is much older and simpler than any other human  system.  It deals in black and white, with inclusion or exclusion.  It doesn’t do greys.
How does  it work?  Before agriculture was invented people lived as hunter-gatherers.   Let’s say, somebody did something bad. The bad situation or it’s effects were witnessed, the witnesses shared what they saw with the rest of the group.  Then a group discussion ensued, which culminated in a collective judgement.  The wrongdoer was apprehended and temporarily excluded and punished, and then re-admitted to the community.  Or, if the wrong was serious enough or the wrong-doer too recalcitrant, they would be excluded permanently.  

On the other hand, if someone did something commendable, exercising bravery or effort, beyond the call of duty, in a way that benefited the community,  they would be publically acknowledged and rewarded with a higher social status.  

Bads are more important to a moral system than goods, because certain kinds of wrongdoing are greater threats to a group’s survival.  You may or may not have noticed that the majority of scenarios that activated the OMS involved  either violent confrontation or conflicts over food or sex. When conflicts start over any of these three types of  concerns they are much more likely to spread and get worse if they are not checked by collective action. This has a lot to do with our biological origins, this is what morality originally was for - to protect and maintain the group by regulating behaviour in these three areas of concern - sex, violence, and food.   Now, of course, moral systems are much more complex and deal with more areas of concern.

Moral systems work.  They work so well that the vast majority of people would not dare activate them.  And this is largely how they work.  People are powerfully motivated to avoid doing anything that would lead to being excluded and shunned by their group.    How many of you would even think of doing what I did with the pie?

The moral system is so vital that it always forms the background to any viable society.  But, as such it is often taken for granted, so it becomes largely invisible  in our modern society.There are so many different groups in society, all with overlapping jurisdictions and their own systems of rules and values.  It’s hard to separate it all, because everything occurs together. In addition, there are many social institutions that have taken over some of the functions of the moral system.  For instance:  the Criminal Justice System,  and the Mental Health System both have taken over jobs previously, exclusively done by the Moral System.

I find it useful to imagine the Archaeologist’s job of uncovering civilizations.  Say, that on a particular location an ancient city existed for ten thousand years.  When archaeologists dig down, what they uncover is strata - layers of foundations laid on top of each other.  When a house falls down, a new house is built on top of the rubble - over and over again for thousands of years.  And it takes the painstaking job of an  archaeologist to uncover and sift through each and every layer, in order to get to the very bottom, to the original layer.  

The Old Moral System, is that original layer. It is the first human social institution, the one that forms the foundation for all other human institutions. It’s still around, we are all still part of it, and no human society  could  exist without it.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

The First Moral System


Some writers on ethics who come to the subject by way of the biological sciences, have made what I think is the reasonable claim, that both the subject and the object of ethics is the settling of conflicts of interest.  In animals that live in groups, and humans are one of these kinds, conflicts of interest are always decided by dominance, by a pecking order.  But, unlike all other animals, humans also have a distinctly different way of handling conflicts, exemplified by turn taking and the collective adherence to rules.  How did we come to develop these rules? Did they evolve from animal behaviour?

Back in 1893, Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”  for ably defending Darwin’s theory of evolution,  gave a  lecture titled, "Evolution and Ethics." This lecture  shocked the educated Victorian audience because it was a direct attack on  the very Darwinian idea that human morality evolved from animal behaviour.

In the prologue to the lecture, Huxley used an interesting  analogy for human morality: that of  the gardener who does not allow a struggle for existence to determine which plants will survive, but purposefully nurtures those plants that are useful, and weeds out those that are not.  

Huxley’s gardener points to one of the peculiarities of humans - we appear to be domesticated animals, not wild animals - but, if this is so, how did we become domesticated?  This is a key question.   I argue that by answering this question we also answer the two fundamental questions:  What is morality? And, how did it come about?

In spite of the centrality of  Darwinian theory to biology, the idea that morality evolved from animal behaviour is, to this day, controversial.   It is still the subject of a spirited debate, currently between evolutionary biologists, psychologists and moral philosophers.  And we have  not heard the end of it, not  by a long shot.

Here’s my biological philosophy of life:  Nature does not work by overall design.  Living organisms just have to fit in on their own, as best they can.  They build systems together with other organisms by fitting in.  They adapt to changes in the climate as well as changes in their neighbourhood.

Let’s talk about our neighbourhood.  Humans come from a family of mammals called the primates. Primates lived in trees, partly because on the ground there were more predators.  But often-times the primates would need to come down to the ground to get water or to cross  a gap to another tree. On the ground, they were especially vulnerable to predators.  There were an awful lot of big predators out there millions of years ago.  Just as today’s house cats prey on mice, our primate ancestors would have been tasty titbits for those big sabre-tooth tigers.  

Mice live in groups, but those groups do not band together to fend off cats.  But primates, such as apes and baboons, do band together to fend off predators.  Living in groups was essential for survival in a world of predators, but it implied that group members would often be in close proximity.  It’s obvious that close physical proximity can intensify intra-group conflict.  And intra-group conflict leads to violence and harm which puts the group in jeopardy if this violence cannot be controlled.  

To fix this problem, Nature devised the Dominance Hierarchy System.  Did I say before, that Nature is not a designer?  She’s more like a tinkerer. Got a conflict?  Then settle it this way: "Bigger and stronger always has more say. Just accept it and don’t fight it, unless you believe  that you can better your rivals.”  That’s what Nature says.    Dominance hierarchies are Nature’s way of settling conflicts, wherever and whenever animals live in groups.  

All human societies have dominance hierarchies.  Much of the time males dominate females, but it is not the same kind of dominance that rules in ape societies.  Dominance in human society is generally rule-governed,  although the rules are often left unstated; Human dominance hierarchies are much more subtle and understated than in other animals, except when it comes to the nouveau riche, dictators, and movie stars;  Except in gangs and warfare we tend to avoid violence, whereas in ape society dominance is always along the lines of “might makes right”.  In human society we call this type of dominance -”bullying”.  People often get away with bullying in private, but  we actively and collectively discourage it in public.

Now let’s say you are a primate and you make the obviously, completely irrational decision to mostly stay on the ground and try walking on your hind legs, instead of swinging in the trees.  That means that you’re going to need to be in a group very badly, because the more you’re on the ground, the more vulnerable you are to big predators.  And, the fact is, that groups of hominins could gang up on the big cats by making a big racket and throwing stones at them.  And what’s more, they could help themselves to the predator kills. “Look at all that fresh meat that sabre-tooth cat left behind!”

No doubt, this is why nowadays the cat is the most popular pet in the world, and millions of people give meat to cats, as if, in penance for stealing it from their ancestors long ago.   This is karma.

The problem would have been, that the work of scaring off the big cats was probably not   a good idea for pregnant females or females with infants - but they were the ones that needed the nourishment from the meat.  What to do?  Nature came up with a solution, but that solution was going to have big repercussions that Nature did not intend.  

About three million years ago hominins started using sharpened rocks to cut the meat off the carcases of predator kills, presumably so that they could take some of the meat for themselves and trade the rest  for sex with fertile females.  The problem was that this mix of stone knives, angry young men, and the alpha male and his harem was inevitably going to cause major dysfunction. But who knew? Nature certainly didn’t.  

Did I mention “alpha male”?  What exactly is the alpha male?  He’s just the most dominant male in a group.  In apes his role is quite significant and unavoidable.  He basically terrorizes and intimidates the rest of the group, and tries to monopolize all the sex.  

Sexual dimorphism, the difference in size between males and females of the same species, occurs often in nature.  Sometimes the male is smaller than the female, as in some kind of birds and fish, sometimes the male is bigger than  the female - this is the case with the great apes.  The Gorilla is a good example.  An adult male gorilla is much larger than a female gorilla.  

In humans, sexual dimorphism is intermediate between chimpanzees who are promiscuous, and gorillas, where the alpha male keeps a female harem and drives out other adult males.  The hominins preceding homo erectus had greater sexual dimorphism, more like that of gorillas.  According to the Canadian Anthropologist Bernard Chapais, this supports the theory that early hominins had alpha male dominated harems.

Once hominins, such as homo habilis, invented stone weapons this would have made the alpha male dominance hierarchy unstable, because it gave the non-dominant males a means of usurping the alpha. And boy were those males ready.  

The result of this instability meant that the social functions of alpha male dominance were no longer working.  Conflict and killing over females must have increased dramatically, putting group survival in jeopardy.  The need for social order became paramount, and yet killing the alpha male did not lead to a stable or satisfactory solution, because he was replaced by another alpha who became equally vulnerable to attack.

Here’s the problem:   Nature gave us the dominance hierarchy to solve our conflicts of interest, but three million years ago we figured out how to mess with the hierarchy with lots of disposable knives.  We had, in effect, taken out the part of the natural system that regulates conflicts, which meant that conflicts were going to get a lot worse...

“No problem”, Nature said, “just wait a couple of million years and I’ll be sure to come up with a great solution.”  Right.   “Thanks Nature.”    In the meantime, our ancestors were about to go extinct, along with all the other hominins that did go extinct.  “So long, it was a slice.”  ….or…..."OK, knives are great, but we need a plan B here, people."

Chimpanzees and gorillas are built for defence and conflict.  They have bigger sharper teeth, and vastly more powerful arms and shoulders than humans.  That this is so, suggests that alpha male competition has been suppressed or minimized in humans for millions of years.  Remember Huxley’s gardener?  She got rid of the aggressive weeds and encouraged the growth of the domesticates.

In Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, an explanation of how a new species comes about always involves a gradual series of changes that leads up to the new species.  But social evolution and “artificial selection” do not have to be as gradual, because, sometimes, major changes can be made simply by having people agree on making a  change.  Political elections are an example of this, as are contracts.



When philosophers speak of a social contract, they almost always assume that our living under social rules and norms is preferable to a state of nature, where there is a ceaseless struggle for survival, where, according to Hobbes, life is nasty, brutish, and short.  It seems plausible that if people had had the chance to make a collective agreement in the state of nature, they would have gone ahead and agreed  to adhere to any reasonable set of rules.

But the question is:  what were the rules that humans picked originally?  I believe that there is enough evidence to give us some idea of what the first rules probably were, at least, partly evidence, and partly educated inference.  

In the majority of modern philosophical treatments, the problem of how any group of humans actually came to such an agreement is set aside by making the whole process hypothetical.    In the most famous example from the last century, John Rawls, in his book,   A Theory of Justice, used the idea of the social contract as a move to  simplify the justification of the modern welfare state.  There is, therefore, little contact with the idea of how morality originated.   In contrast, I believe that the question of origins is central to the nature of morality, indeed, of human nature.

 First, I propose that a moral system is like a game. A game cannot be played until there are people who agree to play it.  The participants in a game are willing to limit their behaviour, in line with the rules of the game, in order to play together.

Second, I take my cue from a different kind of game theory, for the idea that often-times the winning strategy has to do with what occurs in the initial setup of the game.  Allow me to explain.

In the state of nature, behaviour is limited by environmental challenges, and challenges from social situations, competition, and conflict.  But why would we agree to artificial limits - limits that we would  impose on ourselves?  I think we would if we saw that our system was an improvement over nature’s.  And how could we see this if we didn’t have it yet?  How would anyone agree to the rules of a game if no-one had played the game before?  The answer might be that there had been”rules” of behaviour before, and previous “games”, but previously nature had defined and dictated the “rules”.  The difference with humans, is that at some specific point in time, the very first humans radically changed that situation when they created a set of rules and all agreed to follow them in order to  solve a crisis.


When new technologies appear they often lead to wide-ranging social changes. Examples are: the invention of bronze weapons, iron weapons, the invention of money, invention of the printing press, the internet, etc...  The unanticipated social changes from these new technologies can, in effect, leap ahead of existing moral and political systems.  Eventually this leads to a crisis that has to be solved by a  reorganization of those systems.  

I believe that this recurrent pattern, of technological change leading to  social change, started at the very beginning of human development, with the development of a moral system to replace the natural hierarchical dominance system of the precursors of humans.

The first moral system could  not have been something  complex or based on many principles. Instead it would have been the minimal required to replace what was lost with the elimination of the alpha. This minimal system had to replace the  three essential functions of the alpha male dominance  hierarchy:  keeping social order by regulating violent behaviour,  regulating sexual behaviour, and regulating the distribution of resources.  It also had to stop the alpha male from making a comeback.  Nature can be very persistent.  And what better human social institution to do the job right, than monogamy. 

Monogamy, the social recognition and organization of  the  male and female pair bond, exists in all human societies, and is prevalent in most, but,  to a lesser degree,  polygamy and promiscuity also exist in most societies.    In terms of being monogamous, humans are outliers compared to most other apes and primates, who are mostly not monogamous, and far more promiscuous.  The few apes, such as orang-utans and gibbons, who are monogamous are also solitary and do not live in large groups.  Humans are the only primates that both live in large multi-family  groups and live in monogamous families. 

Why Monogamy?  Why not free love like the Bonobos, or Polygamy, like the Mormons?  Why did monogamy come first?  Because it’s dead simple. Our precursors were already starting to pair-bond;  Nomadic hunter-gatherers can’t keep a surplus, so there is little extra to support a polygamous lifestyle;   Everything else would have meant more bloodshed and instability.  Monogamy could hold down the violence, and keep social stability but it would take more collective effort.
Let’s look at what monogamy replaced:  The biggest, loudest, strongest, and meanest SOB in the valley- the alpha male - had his dibs on everything and the rest fought for the  scraps.  But, most of the time the presence of the alpha kept the peace.  Everyone submitted most of the time, but sometimes he was challenged by a younger coalition. Then, the violence and stress levels could get out of hand, until the challenger won or he and his buddies backed down.  

With monogamy the entire community committed to supporting each other in nuclear families.  It was a game-changer, because the status of being “together”  would have been recognized and supported by the community and challengers would have been collectively dealt with.  Mind you, we don’t necessarily see that in today’s society - third parties don’t stop affairs from happening or get the  community to band together so as to punish adulterers.  But moral judgements, gossip, and shunning can effectively do the same thing.

Monogamy in humans sticks out.  It is not at all obvious that it is a natural default form of organization for humans.  There has been more than one book written with the phrase - “The Myth of Monogamy”  in its title.  Monogamy appears to require a system of rules and a collective effort to maintain the rules and punish rule-breakers.  A collective effort initially requires a collective agreement.  I would argue that such an agreement could  have originally happened, and probably did happen before humans had acquired language.

Evidence that this is possible comes from one of our closest relatives - the bonobo.  Bonobos are apes that look  similar to chimpanzees, our other close relative, but their behaviour is radically different. Unlike chimpanzees, in bonobo society there is no alpha male.  Males are dominated by the collective efforts of bonobo females.  Even though an adult male bonobo is physically capable of dominating any female, it never happens, because female bonobos gang up on aggressive males.

While bonobos replaced alpha male dominance with female collective action, this form of collective agreement did not lead to a moral system, because bonobo female dominance did not overcome  “might makes right” and did not lead to monogamy.   Bonobos do not have a language, but coincidentally or not,  they come closer than any other animal in their ability to use human-type languages.  

Back in the Ice Ages, hominin groups with an alpha male would not have been as successful in  building together larger groups to defend against other hostile groups of hominins.  If a group could permanently  eliminate the alpha male position it would have paved the way towards greater cooperation between all the members, towards larger group size, and towards greater cooperation between groups,  garnering major survival advantages.  

An alpha male hierarchical system is not  easy to replace, because it is a self-organized,biological system.  If you eliminate one alpha, another will generally  pop up in his place.  The analogue with today’s society is with bullying.  If we simply ignore bullying it gets worse and spreads.  It takes public attention and collective action to control it.   

For the first humans, like the bonobos, the only way to replace the alpha male hierarchy was to do it deliberately and collectively.   There must already have been a common and widespread desire to pair-bond before the institution of monogamy, and then as the role of alpha male became more unstable, the necessity of controlling violence and the simplicity of pairing up males and females led to the solution of monogamy and the social means of maintaining the system: group sanctions against cheaters.  This was in fact, the first moral system.  Unlike contemporary moral systems it had to have been dead simple in order for the first humans to have adopted it.  

It could have involved an implicit compromise:    No-one is allowed to be alpha over all any more but every male can be an alpha in a more restricted domain when he starts his own nuclear family.  Once he is paired-up  he is not under threat of being killed or having his wife stolen by a younger stronger male, because the entire community will come together to prevent this.

As American Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has shown, many contemporary nomadic hunter gatherer peoples have a much lower toleration for alpha male type behaviour in public then we do in modern societies.  In nomadic hunter-gatherer societies people can be shunned for showing anger in public settings.  People who are a law-unto-themselves are sometimes banished or executed by consensus.  In our society, people like this can become CEO’s of major corporations, and, in fact,  Ayn Rand’s popular novels are largely celebrations of the alpha male as entrepreneur.  


Here, in the idea of limiting alpha male behaviour, the analogy to games comes to the fore.  In all games including sports, players agree beforehand to play by the rules, and rule violators, if they are caught, are taken out of the game.  If this were not true, and rule breakers were not punished or excluded, no-one would agree to play.  This is basically the same situation that people find themselves in, when they inhabit a moral system.  

In board games such as chess, checkers, and go, each and every player starts with the same assets and follows the same rules. Chess and Go even have "handicap rules", rules that make a game between players of unequal strength more playable. This is the opposite of apes under an alpha.  In ape society it is “might makes right”; “rules” correspond to dominance rank, so they favour the most dominant;  the same thing applies to assets.

I call monogamy the first moral system because it replaced the alpha male’s “might makes right” with universal rules, punishment for violations,  egalitarianism, and fair distribution.  This all-in-one capacity is what makes it a moral system.  Monogamy didn’t just order sexual behaviour.  It put constraints on the levels of violence in a society and it determined the way that food and resources would be distributed.  

Remember that the first humans would have lived in smallish groups of from thirty to one hundred individuals, in which everyone knew each other by sight.  In modern society, which is so much bigger and more complex, monogamy can no longer perform these functions by itself, so we add a host of human institutions to do the job:  language, religion, agriculture, monetary systems, legal systems, government… and the list goes on.  

That morality sticks to us so pervasively is demonstrated by the fact that we are constantly judging ourselves and others,  we are continually motivated by our moral concerns, and that every single human  society has a moral system. This must mean that morality  is  doing a necessary job. Human societies cannot survive long without a moral system.  But we evolved from the hominins, of which none others but humans now exist.  Before moral systems, nature had another way of doing this job.   It had to do it via the  brutality of the alpha male.  He was nature’s way of regulating violence, sex,  and food distribution in anthropoid groups.  He beat up or intimidated everyone else,  he had priority, sometimes absolute, over females, he appropriated the choicest foods for himself and his favourites.  And this was rule by example.  He was the role model.   I gather that human beings are still capable of acting this way, but I, personally, know of no one who exemplifies or admires these qualities and am quite happy to keep it that way.

Just as the alpha kept order by using his tough status to get his way, in a moral system the group collectively monitors behaviour and punishes violations of rules.  By establishing and maintaining a monogamous system, the first humans, in effect, set up a system that selectively eliminated those more likely to be alpha males, for not being willing to play by the rules.

The second function of the alpha, that of regulation of sexual behaviour, was democratized by the institution of monogamy.  This recognized and legitimized the human pair bond, leading to a whole new set of relationships with  in-laws, and to bigger groups in general.   It also allowed men to be more assured of the paternity of their kids and more connected to them.  As the Primatologist Frans de Waal points out in his book,  Our Inner Ape, this took the pressure off males, once they entered monogamous relationships, and allowed them to thrive and compete in areas other than sex such as hunting, sports, tool-making, carving, and parenting.

The third of the vital roles played by the alpha, distribution of resources, was transformed. With the establishment of the nuclear family, the division of labour between male and female became possible through  the sharing of food and domicile.   Before this, the alpha and his favourites got the spoils, and distributed them in exchange for sexual favours.  

Instead of  meat being hoarded amongst the alpha and his associates, it was fairly distributed amongst families, something that still goes on in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies today.  One key concept here, is that sharing meat more equitably would have helped group survival.  


The road to allowing women to compete in male-dominated activities was  a rocky one due to the original compromise, (eg.  every man to be an alpha in his own home but nowhere else) which has obviously changed over time.  But only in the last hundred years, with the advent of feminism, has our society considered the equality of men and women.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the ethical  movement towards sexual equality will stick, if  today’s religious extremists have their way.

Did evolution lead to morality?  To paraphrase Thomas Huxley in his  lecture “Evolution and Ethics”:  nature does not teach virtue, it only teaches  vice.  It’s “nature red in tooth and claw” - not a well-tended English garden.   If ethics was just a part of natural evolution, then why does society have rules to constrain the fittest and rules to aid those who are less fit?  It seems that there is a break between nature and human morality, and it has to do with human groups deliberately limiting intra-group violence,   “extramarital” sexual behaviour, and greed.  

The intuition of many is that one of the things, and perhaps the most important thing that makes us distinct from animals, is that we have a moral system.  Without the collective move to monogamy two million years ago,  human society could not have arisen.