In his recent book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari does a great service by sketching a plausible theory of human nature, while avoiding the dense thicket of details and controversy that goes along with just about every other scientific account of this fascinating topic.
Here’s the gist of his theory: “Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A Lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say: ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.”
“ But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of the Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Where I disagree with Harari is how he labels mankind’s defining ability as the ability to collectively believe fictions. In contrast, I would say that humans’ defining ability is the ability to create and sustain a social reality by recognizing, accepting and sustaining limits to our behaviour.
It may appear, by using contradictory terms such as ‘fiction’ and ‘social reality’ that we are referring to two different things. But, by calling collective beliefs ‘fictions’ Harari is correctly emphasizing that human creations are based on subjective states of mind. Money does not exist independently of collective belief, for instance.
When a magician says ‘Abracadabra’ and pulls a rabbit out of his hat, he is creating the illusion that saying the magic word can create a reality. Why does this illusion work? Because we do create reality by saying words and the effects are real, not fictional. What is taken for granted is that this social reality is based on collective agreement.
When my wife and I both said ‘I do’ during our wedding ceremony we helped to create public acknowledgement of our marriage.
There is no state of marriage in nature. Marriage is a human concept, but it is not simply an agreement between two people, it is a collective agreement between everyone in society. The presence of others as witnesses to the marriage demonstrates this. It’s the agreement that makes it real, that creates real effects. If this were not so, then there would be no point in a marriage ceremony.
Swans, and geese can live monogamously, but they are not in a state of marriage, because their relationship is based on biology, not on acceptance by feathered friends and relatives.
My thesis like Harari’s is that collective agreement is what distinguishes humanity, but unlike Harari, and most other scholars and scientists, I believe that in particular the collective agreement to institute monogamy is what led to humankind.
Chimpanzees our closest living primate relatives, are promiscuous and ruled by an alpha male, and his coalition. There is almost no ‘sexual dimorphism’ no size difference, between male and female chimps.
Sexual dimorphism is quite pronounced in gorillas, where the huge silverback alpha male rules a harem of much smaller females. Polygyny (polygamy) in animals seems to be associated with more striking sexual dimorphism.
By examining archaeological evidence, we can surmise that some of our ancient ancestors were not monogamous and some were. Australopithecus, the first ancestor to walk on two feet had less dimorphism than gorillas, but much more than humans and chimps. But, homo erectus, who evolved millions of years after australopithecus, and was the first primate to use fire and migrate out of Africa, had much less dimorphism. In fact, homo erectus had very similar sexual dimorphism to humans: more size difference between the sexes than chimpanzees, but less difference than gorillas or australopithecus.
According to Bernard Chapais, Anthropologist at University of Montreal, and author of Primeval Kinship, polygyny became an unstable system when homo habilis, the ancestor of homo erectus, invented stone knives and tools approximately two and a half million years ago. Stone-age technology enabled nerdish homo erectus the easy means of bypassing superior muscle power by developing superior knife or spear tactics. This made a polygynous system where physically stronger males restricted access to their females, an unstable arrangement, because physical strength could now be defeated by technology.
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that homo erectus was the first primate to walk out of Africa, nor that erectus was the first to control fire. I believe that monogamy was the key to HE’s enhanced social abilities.
If, indeed, monogamy led to human culture, the change to monogamy did not occur because humans wanted to have culture, or all the unseen benefits of a monogamous system. Humans agreed to monogamy in order to facilitate pair-bonding. That stuff about ‘fatherhood’, ‘in-laws’, prolonged childhood, bigger brains, and language did not even exist in people’s imaginations at the time. It was all about dealing with jealousy and sexual possession. It was about desire. It was not desire to rise above nature it was just natural desire.
Nevertheless, the effects of monogamy were truly revolutionary. The two million years that humans were monogamous hunter-gatherers was the crucible for human evolution. This is the time period when brains grew significantly larger, and jaws and teeth grew smaller. As brains got bigger, female humans needed to give birth to bigger babies, but there was only so much room. Something had to give. That something was developmental readiness in human infants.
Human babies are totally helpless, and their nervous system is undeveloped compared to other animals at birth. Our period of infancy and childhood, where we require much attention and provisioning and are incapable of surviving on our own, is much longer than any other animal. It was made possible by the sexual division of labour. Females gather and cook. Males hunt and fight. That’s what makes a longer childhood and bigger brains possible.
But note that the division of labour, in turn, is made possible by monogamy. You can’t have a division of labour in a household if you don’t share. One of the things that monogamy does is to increase the amount shared between male and female partners. Bernard Chapais and others have pointed out how many benefits come from monogamy. Recognition of paternity becomes more plausible. An adult male has more incentive to provision his mate and offspring. Monogamy could have set off a multiplier effect that ultimately led to human language and culture.
Here’s how it would work. I might want to be monogamous, but as long as someone else in the group can take my partner away from me, I can’t realize my preferences. Suppose everyone was sick and tired of fighting and killing over females. We decided that from now on everyone gets to be paired up and anyone who tries to take more than their share is punished. For this to work we not only need to detect cheating, we need to publicize and vigorously punish it. Any group that neglects detection and punishment soon ends up with more violence and instability. Groups that pay attention to detecting and punishing cheaters are able to maintain a monogamous system and reap the benefits.
Monogamy means the collective recognition of pair-bonding, which is, in important ways, analogous to our concept of reciprocity and fairness and the principle of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have would them do unto yourself. Furthermore it requires the institution of rough equality between men and it unlocks the possibility of equality between the sexes.
A question the reader may be asking at this point is if what I am saying is valid then how come we have so much polygyny in the world? Note that polygyny in humans is not universal, but it exists mostly in traditional agricultural societies, where landowners or animal herders are sometimes able to amass surplus wealth.
In hunting and gathering societies, which are largely nomadic, people can only keep as many possessions as they can carry on their bodies. Therefore surplus wealth is unlikely, and thus polygyny in hunter gatherers is only practiced by a small minority.
Indeed because polygyny means that women are monopolized by a single male, there are going to be men who lack a mate and who may be willing to fight in order to get one. This weakens the hunting and gathering band making them more vulnerable to social disruption. It would make sense that groups that enforced monogamy would better survive, because they would be more likely to share equitably and to act collectively to protect the group.
Remember, individual humans, even nuclear families, cannot survive without being part of a larger group. Most of these bands comprise groups of thirty to ninety people. Too few and they can’t survive over generations, too many and dissension and violence split the group up.
To sum up so far: two million years of human evolution equals two million years of human monogamy. Our evidence for this thesis is the degree of sexual dimorphism in humans and homo erectus, suggesting that erectus and sapiens eschewed chimpanzee type promiscuity and gorilla type polygyny. Then there is the fact that monogamy is prevalent in almost all human societies. Promiscuity is less prevalent, and polygyny is least prevalent.
It cannot be a coincidence that today’s hunter and gatherers all have a similar egalitarian ideology of encouraging sharing, discouraging boasting, inequality, greediness, selfishness, public aggression and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm, Lee, and others. It is not likely that this ideology just happened to develop, since it is common to nomadic hunter gatherers no matter what part of the world they are from. It is more likely that this suppression of public male dominance behaviours developed universally because it was necessary for group survival.
What mating systems have in common is that they are about social control, but what is unique about monogamy is how effective it is as a way to control male behaviour outside the immediate family. By separating sexual competition from other forms of competition it allowed a greater proportion of males to flourish and to benefit their families and societies. To repeat: The path to differentiation between humans and animals came from our ability to create and sustain social reality by recognizing, accepting, and sustaining limits to our behaviour.
Of course, we may be aware of how monogamy breaks down through divorce, abandonment, affairs, etc. The point is that it exists in all human societies even though our natural feelings may influence us to violate it.
We can think of human society as a kind of kluge, A contraption built in a haphazard way by using whatever bits and pieces of things are immediately at hand. Every element of human culture comes from our primal ability to agree to form and follow rules of behaviour where we expect others to follow these rules equally.
Sometimes those expectations are disappointed. The environment always intervenes to create inequalities, and we come up with further modifications in order to constantly deal with the centrifugal pressures from the environment threatening to pull us apart. Monogamy, kinship, language, myths, religion, government, money, legal systems, educational systems, science, all created to sustain social cooperation.
The anchor for human society is monogamy because it is the first sustainable institution that incorporates collective agreement to limit behaviour and to honour those limits through a rough equality. By deciding on monogamy our ancestors made equality possible, and by developing social methods of control: shaming, ridicule, shunning, and banning, our ancestors created a method of maintaining monogamy in the face of centrifugal natural desires.
My belief is that monogamy forms the very basis of human nature, it being the first lasting human institution that was consciously created and sustained by collective agreement. The agreement to institute monogamy forms the template for all human institutions including language because all human institutions arise from collective agreement to limit behaviour and to recognize and sustain these limits by various social means.
While some would argue that human language is the ‘ur’ institution, I believe I can make a plausible case that monogamy preceded language and actually makes language possible. In language we have developed representations of reality called ‘words’. These representations can be created and assembled by individuals and then shared. This sharing implies a rough equality, in that in order to understand what is said it is agreed by everyone that specific words refer to specific things or classes of things.
Grammar and syntax - the structure of languages - could have developed from step by step collective agreements about how words can be combined to refer to various aspects of the world. Before monogamy was instituted, dominance hierarchies precluded equality and equal sharing. There was less incentive to share information, so there would have been less incentive for a group to agree to common meanings and to follow rules of grammar in combining words and phrases.
On a deep level speaking and listening to others speak requires trust. The moment I detect that someone is trying to take advantage of me is the moment that I stop listening to them. I share information with others as long as I believe that they are not going to harm me. This trust is made possible when we believe that everyone else is following rules and not taking advantage.
Monogamy is not an instinct, nor a default behaviour that we can fall back on, but a system of behaviour that requires high maintenance in order to be sustainable and yet we have managed to make it the prevalent mode of conduct over the vast span of human existence.
By stripping away the effects of wealth and surplus on behaviour we get in nomadic hunter gatherer peoples a minimalist set of conditions, the bare bones required to sustain human society. These behaviours involve collective social controls on male domination outside the family, owing partly to the fact that our survival depends on living together in groups that include more than a single family. By maintaining a rough equality between men, monogamy made greater trust and social cooperation possible and led to all the advantages of human culture including and especially the gift of language.