Thursday, November 6, 2014

How "Urge to Merge" Led to Language

                         


“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal…”                     The Declaration of Independence

The idea that the structure of language, its syntax, and underlying rules are built-in to the human brain, perhaps initially  triggered by a chance mutation, sometime around one hundred thousand years ago, that created within us a disposition to combine words, called “Merge”, is famously postulated by the MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky.  


The motivation for this theory comes from the astounding difference between human language and any other form of animal communication.  If the apes are the animals that we have the closest genetic relation to, how could such an incredible system as language have developed from ape communication?  There is a vast discontinuity here that is very hard to bridge with any Darwinian step by step explanation.


 Humans are a type of primate, but the only primate that talks.  Monkeys, apes, and many other animals vocalize.  These are stereotypical calls that are emotional responses to dangers, conflicts and potential mates.   Vocalizations are often, but not always involuntary.  They are conditioned responses to stimuli.  Laughing and crying are human vocalizations, and they follow the same pattern as in animals;  They are often but not always involuntary.


Apes can communicate with gestures, and gestures, unlike vocalizations are entirely voluntary. Speech could have come from vocalizations, but it’s more likely it first came from hand gestures and then shifted to voluntary vocalizations. This would explain why we still like to use our hands when we talk, especially when we are emphasizing a point.


 All the areas of speech specialization are in the cerebral cortex, the more conscious part of the brain that controls the voluntary muscle movements.   The number of throat and tongue muscles involved in speaking is mind boggling and the degree of coordination between groups of muscles that is needed to be able to speak rapidly, defies the imagination.  We must have had a lot of time to develop this, five or six million years maybe.
 
By the way, no attempt by humans to teach apes to talk has succeeded or will ever succeed, because they lack the fine motor coordination of the human vocal apparatus.  On the other hand, there has been some success teaching apes sign language.


It seems likely that language developed from some form of voluntary intentional communication.  This would suggest that language is less instinctual and more of a learned habit or skill which uses a fair bit of real estate in the more conscious and voluntary parts of the brain.  This is also supported by the evidence of  the plasticity of infant brains, the prolonged human infancy, and the prolonged period of learning that it takes to master a language.


In my view we have neglected the importance of agreement, and rule formation in the question of how language originated.  All languages have vocabularies of words used to refer to objects, actions,  mental states and ideas.  When words are combined to form complex descriptions, narratives, and declarations, they are combined according to set rules.  The body of these rules are known as syntax or more commonly as grammar.


 Where do rules come from?   Many rules  come from agreements.   The act of agreement is often signified nonverbally,  by a handshake,  sometimes even a nod of the head.


 As the American Philosopher John Searle has described in his book, The Construction of Social Reality,  In our everyday existence we find ourselves already embedded in a world of human values, a world created and maintained by successive  collective agreements.  These agreements can be present right now, as in a signing ceremony, or they can remain implicit, and hidden, and often forgotten.


Rules and agreements, in order to be sustained over generations, need the basis of a “level playing field”  We expect those who enter this “field”  to follow the rules and we watch for rule-breaking,  and  “out them” if they do break the rules.  


  Rules are agreed to because they apply to everyone equally.  Rules, such as - “Do unto others…” ,  and “you cannot have more than one wife” -  only  work if people believe in them and expect that others will follow them also.


 If we speak correctly others understand what we are saying, because both the speaker and listener are mutually following the rules.  The interesting thing about our mastery of language is that we take it so much for granted that it is hard to imagine not following the rules of grammar, etc.


We can look to evidence from brain damaged individuals showing various incapacities to speak or to understand.  Evidently these individuals have become incapable of following certain rules, not out of choice, but because the brain circuits that they used each time they followed those rules have now been destroyed.


Rules and agreements are each foundations for further rules and agreements.    So that over a million years it is conceivable that evolution could carve out new grooves in our cerebral cortex  for the use of learning these rules, and that as we did so the older rules would be more forgotten because a superstructure of rules has been laid down on top of them.


Imagine teaching apes rules.  It would  not  be easy,  especially if your intention was to get them to use the rules spontaneously or for them to teach the rules to their fellow apes.  But learning and teaching rules is an easy task for a six year old human child.  In my opinion, apes don’t take to rules because they live in societies with an alpha male.  


There is no level playing field with an alpha male.  There is no concept of rules applying equally, because there is only one rule: “MIght Makes Right.”   When a new alpha topples the old alpha he may have different expectations and preferences from the previous alpha, but these will just be changed again when he loses to a future alpha,  and so, the one rule rules them all.


Chimpanzees, our closest relatives and Gorillas our more distant relatives have dominance hierarchies ruled by alpha males.  They don’t have language.  Humans don’t have alpha males but we have hierarchies and we have language.


An interesting exception is the bonobo, an even closer relative of chimpanzees.  Bonobos are smaller, but look similar.  And they have very different social behaviour  from that of chimps.
 In most ape societies, when an alpha is eliminated he is soon replaced with another alpha, but that doesn’t happen in bonobo groups.  Unlike male chimps, bonobo males are prevented from using their superior physical strength to dominate  females, because bonobo females always gang up on individual males before they can get away with their bullying.   But bonobos don’t live monogamously  and they don’t have language either.


Note the element of collective intentionality that’s always present in the elimination of the alpha.  Bonobo females act together to overpower males and have managed to maintain this system for possibly millions of years.   Bonobos prefigure humans because the females control male dominance collectively.  Even though they don’t have words they have some rudimentary concept of right and wrong because they punish or threaten to punish males for their behaviour.


Most of the great apes live in tropical forests, with enough fruit and nut trees in one area to support a group of about thirty.  There is a role for the alpha to help rally and bolster the troops over boundary disputes and defense of territory.  But hominins, the ancestors of humans, were walking greater distances together and the idea of defending  this as “territory” probably stretches the role of alpha too far.


Three million years ago the hominins were pursuing a different niche strategy outside the forest, due to the contingencies of severe climate change, as a series of brutal ice ages descended over the earth.   In order to survive over time, they needed to be able to migrate during seasonal or prolonged droughts.


In my opinion, alpha males would have been a distinct liability for migrating hominins.  Their presence would have discouraged the kind of cooperation and functional cohesion that aids survival when a group is on the move.


Alpha males would have been always replaced by another alpha, unless a collective decision was made by everyone else in the group to eliminate the present alpha and suppress any new candidates.  Female bonobos have done this without the use of language. It’s interesting that the most advanced case of language ability in an ape is the bonobo, born in captivity,  named “Kanzi”  


When an individual chimpanzee or a coalition overpowers an alpha, a new alpha comes to power.   Only eliminating the alpha by a collective decision makes it possible to create and maintain a system where humans bond in pairs, and dominance is separated from other forms of competition.


We know that agreements are possible without language because we can observe animals hunting in packs and then sharing the kill, usually according to hierarchical status.  Animals can act voluntarily, they can agree to hunt together and share the kill, but they can’t seem to agree to share things equally.  This seems to be related to the presence of an alpha male based hierarchy.  


Certainly there are all too numerous examples of humans sharing unequally, but if we narrow our examination  to include only  nomadic hunting and gathering societies,  then, according to the findings of Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, described in his book, Hierarchy in the Forest,  nomadic hunter-gatherers from the far corners of the earth, universally distribute shares of meat from large kills in an equal fashion to all families in their group.


Not coincidentally, as Boehm notes,   hunter-gatherers are often obsessed with  suppressing greediness, polygamy,  boasting, and anger, They use social control through ridicule, gossip, and shunning.  they create a “moral community” that actively promotes egalitarianism.


Eliminating and  suppressing alpha-male behaviour has enhanced the survivability of hunting and gathering societies. One reason for this is that hunters are not always lucky, and if successful hunters don’t share in good times,  they risk starving when they hit a dry spell.


 By eliminating the alpha male, then establishing pair-bonds, human communities were first able to collectively regulate behaviour by community-enforced “rules”, although, before language they were not rules as we know them today, but more feelings and emotions.   The feeling of what is fair and what is not, can be shared amongst a group, and the desire to be with one’s beloved  and to facilitate the same for others does not  necessarily require words.


Monogamy could have been inspired through emotions, perhaps even love, before language or any form of reason existed.  But the collective creation and maintenance of monogamy  created a level playing field   in which those who excel at things other than dominance,  can contribute to the whole  community,  rather than taking over everything, as the alpha does.


According to  Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, all living things are descended from a single ancestor.  What I am proposing, is that all human collective decisions, including those that were used to create  language, are descended from that first collective decision to eliminate the alpha male and replace him with monogamous pair-bonds.  


By this collective act, a level playing field was created,  the idea of equality was born, and from this beginning language as a rule bound way of sharing information became possible.


Even though language wasn’t asking to be spoken, we collectively created it  by  first calling into being the conditions of its possibility -  monogamy and equitable sharing.   It was in this collective act that we created ourselves as human beings.

As the Declaration of Independence states, humankind was created equally, and the concept of equality comes from the human ability to maintain equality through collective action.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Game Theory: How Humans Changed the Rules

To know who we are we need to understand how we differ from animals.  And the best way to do that is to compare ourselves with the animal that we are genetically closest to.  This would be the chimpanzee,  one of the three African great apes.  We share 95 percent of our genetic ancestory with chimpanzees.  It was about six million years ago that our ancestors and their ancestors parted company.


Adult chimpanzees are about two thirds the size of  humans, they have much smaller brains, but there huge shoulder muscles and their long powerful arms  make them vastly stronger than any human could ever be. They look cute on TV, but they have canines that are meant to be used and they are far better weapons than human teeth. Humans are pipsqueaks compared to chimps, but we make up for it by being better cooperators.


Chimpanzees live under the constant shadow of the alpha male.  The dominant male uses his superior strength to throw his weight around and intimidate everyone else in the group.   Meanwhile other male chimps, while behaving submissively,  actually would love to turn the tables on alpha if they could.


Female chimps are entirely on their own when it comes to feeding themselves and taking care of their kids.  Where is the father?  Busy maintaining his alpha status or if he isn’t the alpha, he’s busy scheming with others on how to take over alpha’s status.  


This kind of behaviour is present in humans - in office politics for instance,  but the difference between us and the apes is that in all human societies the majority of adult humans live in pair bonds where children’s paternity is known.  


The dilemma of how to engender cooperation among sexual competitors was solved in a single stroke with the establishment of the nuclear family.  This arrangement offered almost every male a chance at reproduction, hence incentives to contribute to the common good.  We should look at the human pair-bond, therefore, as the key to the incredible level of cooperation that marks our species.   Frans De Waal,   Our Inner Primate


I’ve never met Frans De Waal, Primatologist, and author of the above quote. I hope that  I am honouring him, rather than embarrassing  him, when  I say that I believe that this is the single most important idea in human history. At the same time, I would like to say, that I have a slight  difference with the way he puts it, (more on this later.)  But overall I think it stands as good as any explanation for what constitutes the ground of human civilization.  


Really?  What I am saying is, the fact  that human pair-bonds replaced the alpha male is the key to understanding the difference between humans and animals.  We still have the alpha male in us, but as humans we are constantly controlling the alpha by social conventions, internalization of morals and even by collective intervention, because that’s what we do.  


Humans became human by cooperating together to take down the alpha.  Before that cooperation, the alpha was always replaced by another alpha.  Only cooperation in common made human pair bonding possible.   The easiest way to see this is contained in the theory of games,  because it’s the most convincing way to see how altruistic behaviour became possible in a Darwinian world.


In order to think about life productively we have to simplify it, and having simply:  players, a set of rules, moves, turns, and outcomes,  gives us the basics of the evolution of any type of behaviour.


All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.  William Shakespeare.




Change one word in Shakespeare’s quote, from “stage” to “game”, and it would make a pretty fair description of game theory, the mathematical theory used to explain the evolution of human behaviour.   


Shakespeare does well to include the idea of ages.  We often associate games with youth, because we play many games in our youth as preparation for adulthood.  Games exercise both our minds and bodies.  Humans have exceptionally long childhoods compared to other animals.  It takes a long time to learn all the rules and habits that go into being an adult, so the simplified representation of life activities in games provides a virtual environment in which to practice, as well as providing a softer landing for our youthful mistakes.


To play a game is to play by the rules of the game, implying the ability to follow rules and commands.  To follow a rule or command is to act in a way that takes other’s interests into account.  Rules exist to facilitate playing the game and to ensure fairness for all the players.  The fact is, playing games, especially sports games,  helps instill the ability to act collectively and prosocially.  

In life there are forced moves.  But one of the things that more often distinguishes games is that our participation is voluntary.  We agree to play by the rules because we believe that the rules are fair and the other players are playing by the rules too.  If we perceive others as having broken the rules the game usually breaks down.  And no-one wants to play if they know the rules are fixed.

Our lives are a sequence of behaviours, and we almost always internalize rules of behaviour that guide us. The possible behaviours are endless, but Mother Nature carves out our basic game-plan:  You are born, you grow bigger, you learn things, you become productive, you mate, you raise children, you die.  Some of these sequences are forced moves that nature imposes.  Still, at every step of the way we make choices and we base those choices on rules that we have internalized,  unconsciously or consciously.

In the game of evolution, “the struggle for existence”  as Darwin called it,  the winner is the one who has the most offspring.  Who has the most offspring depends on an individual’s genetic heritage and the state of the environment.  As the environment changes, due to, say, climate change, this will highlight the differential abilities of individuals to reproduce.  


Evolution tests alternative strategies for the ability to survive and reproduce…... The key point in the evolutionary game theory model is that the success of the strategy is not just determined by how good the strategy is in itself,  it is a question of how good the strategy is in the presence of other alternative strategies, and of the frequency which other strategies are employed in competing populations.    Elinor Ostrom,     Governing the Commons


Elinor Ostrom, nobel-prize winning Canadian economist, and the author of that quote, is on to something very important here.  Humans evolved from primate groups.  Our closest relatives, the great apes live in groups where dominant individuals control access to reproductive sex and the choicest food.  In such groups, altruism, the practice of helping others at the expense of oneself, is a losing strategy because of the superior reproductive success of the alpha male.  It generally pays to be selfish if you are a chimpanzee.  


On the other hand, in human societies we’ve literally changed the rules: we disapprove of and avoid selfish behaviour,  and social institutions are largely structured around creating incentives that inhibit selfishness and promote other-regarding behaviours. How were we able to do this, if Darwinian evolution is pushing us the other way?


E.O. Wilson, the founder of Sociobiology, and author of a number of books about human nature, argues that humans are eusocial,  that we have changed the rules from natural selection on the level of individuals to multi-level selection,   by creating cohesive groups of kin and unrelated allies, where  altruistic behaviours result in certain groups out-competing others.


Wilson points out, animals that can act collectively have an enormous advantage over individual animals of other species.  This is borne out in the ascendency of ants, termites, and other social insects and, of course, with humans.


  How did we change the game to create human society? Anthropologist Christopher Boehm in his book Moral Origins, The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame, argues that our ancient ancestors deliberately eliminated overly selfish deviants from the gene pool in order to make altruism work.  


Boehm notes that in egalitarian societies there are many social techniques of peer pressure:  gossiping, ridicule,  and social distancing, for instance,  that are widely used to “socialize” behaviour.  Most of the time these work, and we all internalize social dos and don’ts.


 But it appears that some aspiring alphas, the most destructive ones, with no conscience and an inability to follow social rules, were deliberately taken out of the gene pool by general social consensus in order to avoid social fission.


To this day, hunter-gatherers will agree by consensus to banish or assassinate overly violent and intimidating members of their own community. That may sound harsh from our modern point of view, but in light of the absence of police and law courts in hunter-gatherer society, it’s probably a reasonable way to prevent Hatfield vs. McCoy feuding.

People agree to follow rules when they believe that others are doing the same.  When this happens social institutions encourage prosocial behaviour.  When people don’t trust that others are going to be fair, then they too abandon the rules  and social institutions break down.   The latter situation is basically what goes on in a Chimp alpha-male- run society.


The moral “rules” in Chimp society are  “Might makes Right”. There are no other rules, in most circumstances.  Humans play games “just  for the hell of it” but  chimpanzees don’t play human games unless there is some external reward involved.  Chimps won’t follow rules for their own sake, as humans do, because they know that the alpha male does not honour the rules.  


Somehow, our ancestors managed to collectively  overthrow the dominant,  probably by the technological advance of spears and stone weapons.   Their goal was not the ambitious one of creating civilization, it may have  been just the desire to pair themselves off in a fairer system.  They wanted more stable longer lasting relationships and to avoid the constant fighting over sexual dominance.


There is evidence for this is  in our physical bodies.  Male chimpanzees are physically many times more powerful and capable of killing or wounding than human males.  We don’t have super-powerful shoulder muscles and huge fangs because we get things done through cooperation.  

For whatever the motives, overthrowing the alpha created a level playing field where pair-bonding,  language,  and moral rules,  such as “Do unto others”  became possible.  But the culture of  levelling became an ongoing process of detecting and punishing cheating, a preventative to avoid new alpha males from emerging.

In becoming human, we internalized prosocial emotions that  guide our behaviour and that help us empathize with others in our group.  The group can collectively act to police each individual’s behaviour, looking for and detecting cheating, punishing cheaters, and keeping the general trust.  It then pays to play by the rules, because one can reasonably expect that everyone else will play fair, given the costs of exposure.  


Now let’s hear that paragraph of de Waal’s again:   The dilemma of how to engender cooperation among sexual competitors was solved in a single stroke with the establishment of the nuclear family.  This arrangement offered almost every male a chance at reproduction, hence incentives to contribute to the common good.  We should look at the human pair-bond, therefore, as the key to the incredible level of cooperation that marks our species.


When early humans took out the alpha male and replaced him with couples, they made morality possible, where before it had been “Might makes right”.  Once the rules of the game were changed through collective action the Darwinian game of survival became the human game of cooperation and mixed cooperation and competition with other groups of humans.  This led to a steady gain in human population over time and to the development of religion, philosophy and science.


Now, doesn’t that sound better than “survival of the fittest” and “makers and takers”?   Morality evolved from early human behaviour, but it evolved when our ancestors collectively decided to take down the alpha, and replaced him with monogamy.  


It appears that instituting monogamy was more than just a “single stroke”- It  involved collective hands-on maintenance.  In order to keep alpha males from re-taking over, our ancestors had to  collectively institute powerful social controls, with effective monitoring of behaviour, detection of cheaters, and timely and appropriate punishment.


And as Christopher Boehm shows, in Hierarchy in the Forest, his book describing the comprehensive study he made of hunter-gatherers,   all contemporary small-scale egalitarian societies share these social control networks.  He calls them “moral communities”.


The fact that our very ancient hunting and gathering ancestors were able to control and channel alpha male behaviour, and generations succeeding were able to do this, means that we have them to thank for morality, religion, and science, not to mention our very existence.

It was our ability to collectively and consciously change the rules of the game, from the survival of the fittest, to within-group and between group cooperation,  that ultimately distinguishes us from all other animals.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Human Pair-Bond

             
We should look at the human pair-bond...... as the key to the incredible level of cooperation that marks our species.”    Frans de Waal,    Our Inner Primate .


 Frans de Waal is a Dutch Primatologist who specialized in studying chimpanzee society.  He’s written a lot of books comparing apes and humans and they are all insightful and significant contributions to our understanding of human nature.  

One of de Waal’s favorite themes is our repeated failure to understand what apes can do.  People can be so taken by the desire to understand exactly how we are different that they will prejudge the apes or discount evidence,  potentially  preventing themselves from seeing something vital about human nature.

Bonobos are apes that look a lot like chimpanzees but are actually a separate species. They are smaller than chimpanzees, and unlike chimps, bonobo males are not dominant.  Female bonobos have achieved dominance over males by ganging up on them.

In chimpanzee society, where males have the upper hand, disputes are dealt with by violence or, more often, threats of violence. But In bonobo society many of these same issues are dealt with by frequent voluntary sexual encounters.

With chimpanzees, brute physical strength is the specialty of males, but in the dominance hierarchies of bonobos, females specialize in being party animals.

In some ways it is hard to believe that bonobos actually exist.  Are we sure that Hollywood didn’t make them up?


We can think of apes and humans as living in groups with degrees of  hierarchical dominance. If dominance were a dial, then apes are higher on that dial than humans, and humans have more range on their dominance dial than apes, from equality all the way to tyrant.

The question is how do we set or reset this dial?  Bonobos have done it through females banding together to dominate the males.  This seems to make dominance less of a problem, as everyone makes love instead of war.  Chimpanzees have pushed the dial to the right, by males banding together under an alpha male. This leads to more violence and greater incentives to selfishness and destructive behaviour.  

 Both methods, in their own way,  have  worked because chimps and bonobos  evolved from our common ancestor and have been living on opposite side of the Congo river for millions of years.  

On the whole, Humans favor pair-bonding to the alternatives but there are sizable minorities engaged in polygamy in many human societies.

One of the things about human nature that I wish to emphasize is that humans are capable of doing just about anything, but we almost always live in societies where a range of behaviours are prohibited. That is how we have reset the dial, in contrast to the great apes.

Both our closest relatives chimps and bonobos are sexually promiscuous.  Chimpanzees are male dominated and bonobos are female dominated.  In a sense, we  humans are right in the middle of these poles.  We have pair bonding, some promiscuity, and a mixture of  hierarchies and some social and sexual equality - a bit of everything, as it were.


Ironically, I’m sometimes more interested in what de Waal , a Primatologist, has to say about humans than in what the  Anthropologists have to say about humans.  For instance, here’s why de Waal thinks that the human pair bond is important:

Our societies are set up for what Biologists call “cooperative breeding”.  that is, multiple individuals work together on tasks that benefit the whole.  Women often jointly supervise the young,  while men perform collective enterprises, such as hunting and group defense.  The community thus accomplishes more than each individual could ever hope to accomplish on their own.  And such cooperation hinges on the opportunity for every male to reproduce.  Each man needs to have a personal stake in the the outcome of the cooperative effort, meaning a family to bring the spoils home to.  

The dilemma of how to engender cooperation among sexual competitors was solved in a single stroke with the establishment of the nuclear family.  This arrangement offered almost every male a chance at reproduction, hence incentives to contribute to the common good.  We should look at the human pair-bond, therefore, as the key to the incredible level of cooperation that marks our species.  


Involving adult  males in child-rearing and  food sharing led to the superior survivability of human nomadic groups. Divorcing sexual competition from hunting and sharing food led to the human ability to excel at many different activities, and to the human ability to exchange with and tolerate other groups.  


In a previous article (The Origins of Egalitarianism)  I argued that egalitarianism was the key to human cooperation.   De Waal argues convincingly that the human pair bond is the basis of this cooperation.

We can see that in fact, human pair-bonding and egalitarianism are two sides of the same coin. Pairing humans off implies rough equality between males and prepares the ground for equality between the sexes, something that had not seriously been taken  up until the twentieth century, when Feminism became part of Western  popular culture.
Sustaining the human pair-bond would not have been possible without a conscious moral culture of egalitarianism.  In Christopher Boehm’s comparative study of hunter-gatherer groups from around the world, all had social egalitarianism that was consciously maintained by ridicule, peer pressure, community sanctions, and ultimately by group sanctioned  banishment or assassination.  

Note that the most frequent cause of homicide in these groups were disputes over women. These were not socially sanctioned murders, but the acts of passion.  In other words, they were cases where community sanctions hadn’t worked, either because of secrecy or because of defiance.

 This shows that human  pair-bonds do not come cost-free.   They, in fact, require constant vigilance and threats of social sanctions to maintain.  Boehm calls this the “moral community” -   basically a conscious culture of social monitoring, policing, and influence on each individual of the group by all the others.

We might think of the idea of a moral community as an oppressive lid on our freedom of expression.  We can afford to do this today because we live in a modern society with huge material and economic surpluses, and have the luxury of living under governments, with  legal systems, and well-functioning military and police.

 In the case of our society the benefits of being free to express ourselves may outweigh the losses from the possibilities of  family breakup, and unwanted children.  The situation would be totally different in a hunter-gatherer society, where there exists no lasting surplus to  fund institutions such as police, government,  social security and medical systems.  

Note that the institution of marriage appears to be universal in human societies.  Marriage is  social recognition of pair-bonding, recognition from the families involved and  the public,  of an enduring relationship between the  bride and the groom with the expectation of offspring.  It is the formalization of a cooperative relationship between two families, often, but not always unrelated.  

In almost all  great apes, females leave the group when they become sexually mature and emigrate to a group in an adjoining territory.  Once in the new group they cease all relations with their former group.

It’s not at all like humans, where we may live with or visit our in-laws so they can see the grandkids.  In the great apes there is no consistent recognition of paternity because  there is an incentive for females to hide paternity so that infants are not killed by rival males;  and, excepting bonobos, no friendly relations with other groups, because each territory is ruled by an alpha male who is especially hostile to any other alpha male.

Marriage benefits female humans by creating social recognition of paternity and providing a stable environment for raising children.  Marriage is not an iron-clad guarantee of stability but as a social institution it creates a powerful incentive structure that amplifies pro-social behaviour.

Widespread polygamy in humans is actually a more modern phenomenon, dating from the beginnings of domestication of plants and animals, and the existence of surplus food.  But even in those societies, the majority of humans lived as monogamous couples.

There is compelling evidence that polygamy leads to greater poverty, lower education levels and more violent conflict.  The reasons are not hard to find.  Societies where polygamy is prevalent, are often societies where women work in the fields and men are indolent.  Because the richest or most powerful men monopolize the women, there are more conflicts and wars for the purpose of capturing them.

The majority of men in societies with polygamy, who  are poor, with less access to women to marry,  are less likely to have any interest in doing anything for the public good, and more likely to be involved in acts of crime and violence.  This is not a good recipe for social stability.  

Hunter-gatherers, on the whole, reject  polygamy.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why.  Hunter-gatherers produce and carry only enough to survive.  They produce no economic surplus.  Polygamy is a waste of human potential which decreases a nomadic group’s chance of survival.

For these reasons it seems likely that pair-bonding was universal in humans and their ancestors for millions of years.  At the same time that pair-bonding was the rule, it was also not universal by desire.  Those who could get away with violating it did, but this free-riding was checked by the cultural development of a critique of “alpha-ness”.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Origins of Egalitarianism

What really differentiates humans from all other animals?   Consider the fact that you are reading this paragraph written by Mr. C. Justice. You may or may not know me.  You may or may not live in the same community or the same country as me.  And yet, you are willing to consider what I have to say.   This is a level of cooperation that escapes any other type of  animal.


I’m sure everyone can think of impressive examples of human cooperation. An example of tightly coordinated human cooperation is a special operations military team.  All the team members hold to the same goal and act to further the same goal. This is called “joint intentionality”, by the way,  which is the prerequisite for collective action


In action they all regard each other and trust each other as equals.  Even the leader is regarded as “first-among-equals”.  Consider what would happen if in an operation the leader put on airs and insisted that everyone follow strict hierarchical protocol and constantly defer to him.  Mission aborted.  Combat missions that require split-second timing cannot afford to have individuals grandstanding or having a melt-down.

The quality of cooperation and the amount of cooperation in humans is distinctly different from that of any of the great apes, our nearest primate relatives.   For all other great apes are ruled by dominance hierarchies, in most cases, where the dominant male controls sexual access to females  and dominant animals control access to the choicest foods.   As long as this situation existed it served to inhibit the development of joint intentionality, and collective action.


Six million years ago, the ancestor that we had in common with chimpanzees  our closest great ape relatives probably had dominance hierarchies too.

But,  what if, deep in our ancestry the situation of dominance hierarchy changed?  In fact it must have, because present day human societies are a mixture of hierarchy and egalitarianism.  That change would have opened wide the possibility of  deeper cooperation and collective action.  

Do humans have dominance hierarchies?  They sure do.  We can see evidence for it everywhere:  gangs, prison behaviour, bullies, tyrants, spousal abuse, the”toxic boss”,  military rank, etc.    But we also see evidence of egalitarianism too, in some types of human pair-bonding and socially in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies, which are the closest thing to the way our nearest ancestors lived.


In Chimpanzee society one male, usually the biggest and strongest, is able to control most sexual access to females when they are in estrus.  His method of dominance is mostly threat displays designed to intimidate subordinates.  If need be he will fight, and if he loses, a new, usually younger alpha male, takes his place.  


Imagine life under a bully who is physically bigger and more powerful than you.  He’s often in a bad mood and often goes into rages.   He’s constantly terrorizing you, sometimes  he beats you up for random things you do that he  perceives as “insults”.  He controls your access to both the best food and to sex.


 Or imagine living in a country where every official is corrupt, and you need to  constantly grease everyone’s palm to stay out of trouble or get anywhere.  This is what life is like in Chimpanzee society.


Six million years ago, Hominids started moving out of the forest and it is hypothesized that they initiated waves of migration because of a series of prolonged droughts.  Africa is a pretty big place.  To migrate any distance would  require a lot of group coordination and group solidarity. Dealing with a dominant alpha male might actually lower a group’s chance of surviving in this type of situation.  For one thing it could negatively affect morale.  Why would the subordinate males want to go along with the rigours and discomforts of migration when they would be denied access to fertile females?


 The idea that early humans consciously cooperated to create egalitarian groups is the hypothesis of Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm in his book  Hierarchy in the Forest.


Group migration, because it is a process of moving over large distances requires collective action.  Everyone needs to be together on certain things, sharing food, protecting against predators, avoiding dangers, and finding the right way.  Humans know how to act collectively, but the great apes are much more limited in this capacity.


I believe  that the reason we are more cooperative is because, way back in our prehistory, eliminating or suppressing the dominant male made migration more feasible. This resulting, consciously maintained  egalitarianism,  then opened the way for pair bonding, language, culture, and human society.


Note that I am not saying that early hominid groups got together and killed the dominant male so that they could migrate.  Migration would have been a necessity forced on them, but groups that did get rid of their alpha male would have been more likely to survive than groups that didn’t and this could have driven hominid evolution.


First of all, why was migration so important?   The last three million years were years of ice ages alternating with shorter warmer ages.  The ice ages have dominated, and during times of glaciation the African Equatorial Rainforest has shrunk and more open environments of desert, savannah, and grasslands have grown.  When glaciers are at their maximum they lock up  tremendous amounts of fresh water.  The amount of ice locked up in Greenland and Antarctica could raise the level of the world’s oceans about 250 feet if it all melted away.  


If, at times of maximum glaciation, there was less fresh water available, then there would be less water in lakes, rivers, and the oceans.  Bipedalism, the ability to walk on the two hind-legs, would have given the first hominids an advantage in finding good sources of water over years and decades, and generations.   


As the hominids became more efficient at walking, greater feats of migration would have become possible.  These could have made the difference between extinction and survival during severe bouts of climate change.

The great apes would have gotten no advantage from eliminating dominance hierarchies because they stayed in the rainforest, where each group staked out and defended territory against rival groups.  As long as dominance was the rule,  life in Chimpanzee society is always a zero-sum game with winners and losers.  In this situation cooperation is almost entirely instrumental and altruism is a losing strategy.  


 The original reasons for the hierarchy reversal could have been the desire of subordinate males for sexual access to fertile females and the access to weapons that occurred when hominids started to manufacture stone blades.  After all, the fact that the majority of male chimpanzees are subordinate means that there are a lot of dissatisfied male chimps who would love to dispatch the alpha male if they had the means to do it.


We can date the first stone tools to  around two and a half million years ago, which is approximately when our ancestors are estimated to have lost all that body hair.  Razor sharp knives and spear points may well have  provided the means for Homo Habilis, our first tool-making ancestor to consciously create egalitarian societies.  Shaving would come two and a half million years later.


Anthropologist Christopher Boehm  studied and compared many different modern hunter-gatherer groups, and what he found was that the vast majority of these groups maintained small egalitarian societies,  that is, societies where  the meat from animals killed by hunters was shared by everyone equally, and bragging, showing off, showing anger, or claiming more for oneself was deeply discouraged by the active use of peer pressure, ridicule etc.,  and if those methods didn’t work, they relied on  the ultimate  threats of group banishment or assassination.  


The point of this conscious culture of egalitarianism was to suppress or reverse the dominance hierarchy of the alpha male.  Instead of competition being a zero-sum game between dominant and subordinates, our ancestors learned to excel at hunting, etc., without taking over everything else.  


Why would the contemporary  lifestyle of a ridiculously small minority of humans matter to the development of human society?  Ten thousand years ago was the beginnings of farming, settled life and living in villages.  For millions of  years previously homo sapiens and our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers.  That means, for the vast majority of time that humans have lived on Earth, they have lived as hunter-gatherers.  


So if contemporary hunter-gatherers are consciously egalitarian, it’s likely that previous hunter-gatherers were as well.  Note that most contemporary hunter-gatherers are nomadic.  They have to migrate in order to get enough food and water to survive all year-round.  Hence the reason for being consciously egalitarian.  Egalitarianism favours survival in small nomadic groups.


Once hunting and gathering was replaced by farming, then the situation changed radically and hierarchical behaviour no longer had an inimical effect on group survival.  Hence our present day mixture of egalitarianism and hierarchy.  


One of the most fascinating things about Boehm’s findings is that egalitarianism in hunter-gatherers has to be consciously and culturally maintained. I believe that this has revolutionary implications today.

In response to climate change, proto-humans conscious adoption of egalitarianism made the deeper and more complex forms of human cooperation possible at the same time that it first put in place  social controls on our instinctual urge to dominate and take advantage of each other.  Civilization eventually followed.