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 the subject 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…...Time for Plan B.

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.  

Let’s look at what it 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.  

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.  

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, 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 orangutans 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.

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 Morality”  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.  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.  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 primate 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.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Water Keeps Us Alive

It's uncanny how many essential functions water serves for living processes. But perhaps the most important function is the regulation of temperature. And the amazing thing is, water acts to regulate temperature simultaneously and independently on multiple levels. On a micro sub-cellular level, a human level, a regional level, and a global level.

Life survives in a narrow temperature range that just happens to correspond with the temperature at which water is a liquid. That's not a coincidence. Life and water are tightly coupled on Earth. All of life's metabolic processes – the things that make a living organism “alive” - happen in water.

The temperature at which water is a liquid is not necessarily the temperature that's ideal for many types of chemical reactions. In some cases heat needs to be added to get a reaction underway, or a chemical reaction can produce a lot of heat in an uncontrollable chain reaction. Either way, the reaction proceeds at a temperature much too hot for life.

All biochemical reactions are catalyzed (made easier) by large convoluted protein molecules called enzymes. The key to an enzyme's function as a catalyzer of chemical reactions is its complex shape. And the key to an enzyme's shape is how the molecule twists and folds in on itself in relation to the water molecules that surround it.

Water is also necessary because it facilitates the flow of dissolved molecules that form the raw materials and the products of enzyme mediated reactions. But that's another story.

The enzymes that catalyze most biological reactions work best within a narrow range of a few degrees centering around 37 Centigrade, normal body temperature. Hotter than this and the enzymes lose their shape and cease to function. Too cold and the chemical reactions slow down too much to sustain metabolic processes.

The human body has several independent systems that work to keep the body's temperature within the narrow range necessary for life. All of these systems involve water in a crucial way and yet each uses water in a unique way.

When we are cold our circulation system shunts blood away from the extremities, where it would be more likely to lose heat to the external environment. This keeps more of the body's water within the better insulated core where it protects the vital organs.

When we are too hot our circulation system shunts more water out to the extremities where heat can be transferred out of the body. Another independent system kicks in to cool the body by secreting water in the form of sweat on the body's outer surface. On a hot sunny day the sweat on our skin evaporates cooling us off.

When we are cold another independent system come into play. We “shiver”. This is a muscular reaction that produces heat to warm the body by increasing metabolic rates and shunting blood to the large muscles of the body. Muscle cells are controlled by nerve cells, and nerve cells cannot tell muscle cells what to do without the medium of water.

So here comes the analogy. Just as water plays the major role in keeping our bodies alive it also plays the major role in keeping life on Earth alive. For it is water in all it's forms that moderates temperature on Earth's surface.

Water has the second highest heat capacity of any liquid. Water retains heat. That's why we use it for radiators. But that's also why it's warmer near the ocean in winter, and cooler in the summer. Large bodies of water moderate climate, because they absorb heat and are slow to give it up.

In places far inland it's colder in the winter and hotter in the summer because these places lack the moderating influence of a large body of water. Note that the majority of the world's population lives within 50 miles of the ocean.

Water also has a huge role to play in temperature regulation via an entirely different system – the weather. Here's how it works: The Sun's radiant energy heats the surface water of the oceans. When this happens some of the surface water evaporates. It changes from it's liquid form to water vapour – a gas. In doing so it absorbs heat and cools the surface water.

Not a big deal in terms of the proportion of water that ends up in the atmosphere .001 % of Earth's total, but it's still enough to make a huge difference to the Earth's surface temperature.

The water vapour rises up into the atmosphere where it gets blown far away by the winds. The higher the water molecules rise the colder the air. Eventually the the molecules condense back to liquid and form water droplets. When this happens the latent heat of evaporation is given off into the atmosphere.

But here's the deal - where the water molecule absorbed the heat and where it gives it back can be thousands of miles apart. Thus the sun's energy powers water's transfer of heat over the Earth's surface through the medium of the winds in the atmosphere.

But that's not all folks. There's another couple of systems involving water in a major role that effect the Earth's surface temperature independently of the one's I just mentioned. Water freezes into ice at 0 C. Ice reflects sunlight and cools the Earth's surface. That's why during an ice age the Earth's surface gets colder.

But there's more. In the atmosphere water vapour molecules have a stronger greenhouse warming effect than carbon dioxide. This is counterbalanced both by the cooling effect of evaporation, and the fact that water molecules do not stay long in the atmosphere before gravity takes over and pulls the water down to the earth in the form of rain.

OK but there's still more. Because water, unlike most other liquids expands when it freezes, ice forms on top of liquid water and because of that ice insulates water and keeps most of it from freezing in the winter.

Used for warming and cooling, multiple independent systems involved, tightly coupled with life itself -That's Water.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Human Singularity - Part I

It seems ironic to me that the  idea that humanity originated with a  single decisive change now gets short shrift by most scientists and philosophers.   Instead the idea of a singularity is pinned on the popular science fiction fantasy of intelligent machines taking over the world at an unspecified future moment in time.

Nowadays scientists and philosophers are so specialized that they can’t possibly see the whole of human nature by looking through the lense of their separate disciplines.  Everyone is looking at little bits and pieces like the story of the blind men trying to figure out the shape of an elephant. As of yet, the experts don’t agree on what human nature is and how it originated.  Perhaps the subject of human nature is not really a scientific subject at all because it’s just too general for most scientists, as the concept of “life” is for biology.  

All life is purposive, in the sense that each life form tries to keep surviving and reproducing.  A flame may seem to act like a living thing because we can see it feeding off combustibles, we can  see it move and change shape and feel its heat if we get too close.  But a flame doesn’t have any  purpose.  It doesn’t anticipate running out of fuel, and it doesn’t look for more fuel elsewhere in order to keep itself alive.  

Similarly no machine generates its own purpose.  Machines do things, because they are designed and operated by humans.  At no future time will a machine cross over this boundary to become purposive and self-maintaining and self-replicating because there is nothing about machines that equates to the urge to live.

All critters are motivated to keep living, avoid predators, and dangers, approach and utilize food and shelter, enjoy the fruits of a good life and make babies. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds of millions of years.  All living organisms today share a common descent from an original organism that maintained and replicated itself more than three billion years ago.  For all that time,this chain of life has never been broken.

  Machines have no background like this.  They don’t need to survive, because their “surviving” is totally dependent on specific  human purposes. We need machines.  They don’t need themselves or us.  They only do what they are programmed to do.
Judging by  the widespread popularity of science fiction stories and movies like the Terminator, 2001,  Star Wars, and Avatar,  it is still  very easy to imagine and believe that human-type purposes can  independently  exist and animate machines.  But, this is really just an updated version of an old way of looking at our world called “animism” - the belief that spirits and gods animate natural phenomena like rivers, the weather, and volcanoes.  

Most of us are aware that storms are a natural phenomenon caused by  weather patterns, and they are not the result of storm gods punishing people or exacting revenge.  It might feel intuitively like that when we are caught in a  bad storm, but we know that that kind of thinking is projecting human qualities onto brute physical processes.

Now that we have Darwin’s theory of Evolution we have an explanation of how things came about that doesn’t involve projecting human intentions onto either nature or supernatural beings.  Natural selection, which means roughly, that populations are winnowed by natural causes and it is the survivors who preserve and pass on successful hereditary traits.  But it also implies that our origins were not from design, and that is a revolutionary suggestion to our ears.

Humans are not natural, in the sense of being self-organizing like primate societies, or other types of animal groupings.  Humans create social reality by design, by  conscious deliberation and collective agreement. On the other hand, nature is not human, it doesn’t have human consciousness, intentions and purpose.   The problem that this entails is simple but very far-reaching: the way that we came into existence must have been natural but through that  process we somehow created our own separate human nature.

Nowadays, to talk about a decisive difference between humans and animals is a bit unpopular.  It would seem that, by the principles of Darwinian natural selection there cannot have been a singularity because the transition from animal to man had to be a gradual one.  One could almost call it a consensus view that there could be no single factor in human evolution that led to homo sapiens, it had to be multiple factors, and over a vast span of time.

In other words, today it is easier to imagine our end with the Terminator than it is to imagine how we first actually  became different from animals.

The book of Genesis tells us that God made humans in God’s image.  A wonderful metaphor that could mean just about anything because we don’t have any direct evidence of God’s existence.  Presumably it is hinting at our comprehensive and expanding knowledge of the world and our use and possession of reason rather than just animal instincts and passions.

In Genesis God walks in his garden just as we do, he takes a well-earned rest after creating the world in six days,  and he gets into bad moods and wrecks things just like we do and this is all consistent with the theme that we were created in God’s image.   

I believe the collective use of moral judgement is what distinguishes us from animals and  this is what gave us the ability to bootstrap our way out of the natural world by making it  possible to construct our own reality and impose it on almost everything else.

The problem here is the same problem to do with the image of God.  Where is the evidence?  It turns out that there is some evidence, and it exists all around us but this evidence is so much a part of the background that it remains unseen, and taken for granted.  Humans have language and morality. What do these two have in common?  They are both rule-bound activities, that involve and include all humans, or at least, would do  so in a paleolithic group of thirty to a hundred humans.  

Why this size of group?   Like other primates we live in groups in order to survive.  and, there are some good reasons why the first humans lived in groups of from thirty to a hundred people. First off the first groups of humans couldn’t have been smaller than thirty for a number of reasons. They had to be nomadic, so they had to have few possessions and they would have depended on each other to survive.   They had to deal with other groups of people and be able to defend themselves.  

 But larger groups, while they might be more effective in warfare, might not be supportable in many less-than-plentiful environments.  And dissension and violence seems to accompany groups when they get too large.  No doubt that humans are the co-operators par-excellence, but the rate of failure undoubtedly  goes up when a group gets too large.

Language, and morality are basic human social activities.  Knowing what they have in common might give us a good idea about what distinguishes us from animals.

The first quality is “commons”.  Both of these human activities would be shared in  common with everyone in the group.  Everyone in a group would speak the same language.  For any given language, all its speakers share the same words and the same rules of grammar.  

We also include everyone in our moral system, unless we believe that for some reason they cannot comprehend or follow its moral precepts. If we judge anyone to violate moral rules, they are punished, shunned, banished, or even executed.  ( Note that I am not here claiming that one particular moral system is shared by all groups but that every group of humans has a moral system.)

We have now touched on the second important distinction between humans and other animals.  Adherence to rules.  Both language and morality  are made up of rules.  If you don’t follow these rules then you cannot speak intelligibly and you can’t distinguish right from wrong.

The rule-governed world is organized by rules, but where explicit rules and choice as to whether or not to adhere to them do not exist, there you find “self-organizing systems”   What exactly are they?  Self organizing systems are systems in nature that are sustained by the mere natural interaction of their elements without any deliberation or planning.   These systems, like the solar system and earth’s ecosystems, just run themselves.  In the case of the solar system, it works by the force of gravity between the planets and the sun.  In the case of earth’s ecosystems, it is so complex that we don’t really understand how it works.    The fact is that we are incapable of creating and sustaining an ecosystem by deliberation or design.  Nonetheless, ecosystems work fine here on earth without our help.  

Our closest animal relatives are the great apes.  Apes live in self-organizing dominance hierarchies.  In a dominance hierarchy the dominant animal, usually called the alpha male, controls sexual reproduction and the distribution of food.  The system works so that the alpha and other apes on the upper rungs get all the goodies, and the rest of the group gets the dregs.  

In hearing this, you might think that that is exactly what we have in place now.  But you would be wrong.  In a chimpanzee society if the alpha male is killed he is quickly replaced by the new alpha.  Human societies are not like this.  First, leadership is not automatically connected to sexual dominance.  Look at the Pope.  He is the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, but he doesn’t get to marry or have children.    Second, we don’t usually need to kill our leaders and CEOs in order to replace them.  Leadership generally follows rules and leaders, unless they are maniacal tyrants, cannot do whatever they want.

Hunter-gatherer groups make important decisions by consensus.  Many modern groups make decisions by majority vote.  All of these involve collective deliberation as opposed to the automatic functioning of dominance hierarchies.  

What with the continued existence of male sexual misconduct, bullying, and gang-related behaviour one might be tempted to think that nothing has changed since the time our ancestors were apes but all this shows is that we still  bring some of our strongest instinctual urges to the table.

It’s true that we will never really know what human society looked like two million years ago.  There is very little physical evidence left from that long ago.  But we can surmise, by working backward from what we see of human society, especially nomadic hunter-gatherer groups,  and working forward from what we observe about great ape societies.

Somehow we went from small-brained walking apes with dominance hierarchies to large-brained humans with consciously created social systems.  Something had to spark that change and it couldn’t have been just more of the same chimpanzee politics.  

We don’t have alpha males running harems of females (except maybe in Utah.)  Apes don’t follow rules, speak languages, or have moral systems.   It therefore seems unavoidable that the point of origin of human beings had to do with the collective institution of a system of rules that everyone was expected to abide by.

The Human Singularity - Part II

What was the singularity?  Was it the invention of morality or the invention of language? Many philosophers argue that language came first because morality would  not have been possible without language.  Or was it?  We can see in bonobos, a close relative to chimpanzees, a nascent morality, because male bonobos do not get to dominate females.  They are consistently  prevented from dominating females by the collective action of all the females in a group. This is close to a moral system, in spite of the fact that bonobos don’t have language.

Note that in order for the bonobo “moral” system to work, it requires collective action on the part of the entire group of females.  If the females couldn’t overpower individual males by acting together, than the males would dominate instead.

Interestingly, female bonobos have dominance hierarchies but they are much less violent than  chimpanzee male dominance hierarchies because bonobos use sex as a method of dealing with conflict.  Bonobo sex is independent of fertility and happens anywhere and anytime, with any and all combinations of partners.

In bonobo troops, it happens that females individual interests and collective interests exactly coincide in suppressing male dominance behaviour.  But is that the case for humans?

Let’s initially define morality as a system of rules and principles that are collectively used to judge and regulate social behaviour.  This definition would appear to presuppose language.

 We could say that female bonobos appear to be following the unspoken rule:    ”Never allow a male to beat up or harass a female.” But  an alternative explanation could be that female bonobos just instinctively act to  help lone females  by collectively responding when they utter distress calls.  I tend to favour the former explanation, myself.  

We know that our own behaviour is internally regulated by much that is nonverbal:   feelings, moods, hunches, intuitions.  It stands to reason that much social regulation of behaviour has to do with nonverbal feelings too.  
It is highly probable that shared feelings would have preceded any conceptual rendering of a moral principle.  

Could some situations be simple enough that regulating the behaviour involved doesn’t necessarily require the use of language? There is, in fact a type of vulture that collectively disrupts and attacks extra-”marital”  copulation in their fellow vultures.  Note that what’s different about these vultures is that the cuckolded male is able to recruit other vultures to help him attack the guilty couple.  

Regulation of behaviour doesn’t necessarily imply language.  But it is hard to see how a moral system could exist without language.  In a moral system we judge conduct according to standards.  There is no question that this is strongly facilitated by language.  

Is it possible to simplify moral standards down to a fundamental dichotomy, that is simple enough to understand and implement without the use of language?  I think it is.  We see the possibility in the examples of bonobos and vultures, even if we concede that there is a strong argument against their being actual moral systems.  

The sense of universality, that, to paraphrase  Jeremy Bentham, everyone should count as one and no-one as more than one, could be the basis of such a pre-verbal dichotomy.  We all have strong feelings about fairness.  We resent it when others are privileged, or when we are treated worse than others.  Both apes and monkeys have these feelings too.  

The alpha dominance hierarchy is a self-organizing system, because it is in the self-interest of the alpha male to dominate, and in the individual interest of everybody else in the  troupe to submit to his domination.  A moral system, almost by definition, is not self-organizing, because it involves judgement and deliberation and there is an overarching principle that everyone is equally subject to.

There is a reason why moral systems are supposed to apply to everyone equally.  We agree to follow the rules because we expect that everyone else will too.  This is why we agree to follow a rule which may not be in our own self-interest to follow.  This is why we are willing to go out of our way to punish rule-breakers.  

In a game, I play with others as long as I and everyone else plays by the rules.  It might be to my advantage to break a rule, but I play by the rules because I expect everyone else too.  Rule breakers are kicked out of the game.

Games  have a universal commons quality because the rules apply to everyone equally and the game works by rule following.  In a commons, a property common to all is shared according to rules agreed by all and applying to everyone equally.  A commons is therefore not a self-organizing system.

A big biological difference between humans and most other apes, is that humans live in larger groups.According to Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory, we evolved language to deal with the social complexity of living in large groups.  There is a correlation in primates between brain size and group size and humans not only have enormous brains compared to primates, but hey also live in indeterminately larger groups.  Dunbar’s theory is that if humans were living in larger groups they would have needed a method of communication and trust that was more efficient than what apes now have.  

But why did humans start living in larger groups?  As I have pointed out in part I, group size is a balance between the need for bigger size to protect the group and the propensity of larger groups to break apart through violent disagreement. Language, which greatly facilitates communication would also make larger groups more cohesive, more able to stay together.

But what would have inspired human groups to grow larger in the first place?  Something that would have radically changed the political and social group dynamics. Something that allowed the first humans to leave the natural world of self-organizing systems.   This happened long before language, but it would have then hastened the development of language, through the change in social dynamics.  

There is actually strong physical evidence for this change.  It is the stone tools from early humans uncovered by archeologists.  It is also evidence of a taller more gracile body form in homo erectus, and a smaller more human-like sexual dimorphism compared to previous hominids.  It is the fact that Homo Erectus was the first hominin to control fire and colonize continents outside of Africa.  

Walking upright, and the nascent ability to develop and use stone technology - these were the natural precursors to human behaviour.  Walking freed our hands to carry things over distances, and to make and fashion tools.  Stone knives facilitated meat eating and the sharing of meat by making it easier to cut carcasses; spears made hunting game and fending off predators easier.  

The truly radical change happened because stone knives and spears threatened the alpha male system.  Now any pipsqueak with a stone tipped weapon could dispatch the alpha in his sleep.  The important social result was that harems became untenable.  At this time violence must have become more widespread as individuals or groups of males vyed for access to females.  

Another big biological and social difference between humans and apes is that humans pair bond and most apes do not. Pair bonding in a large group setting may be possible, but it is bound to be unstable in the presence of alpha male behaviour.  In order for stability you need the institution of monogamy - a collective agreement that all adults in a group have the right to pair up and form semi-permanent bonds. The other side of the coin is that monogamy  implies the elimination of the alpha male position and the continual public suppression of alpha male behaviour.

We have now uncovered the human singularity. It had to be the achievement of something relatively simple to conceive and institute.  It had to have immediate benefit for the majority of individuals. And it had to be a deliberate collective action.   It’s success led to bigger, stronger, more cohesive groups, and to all other forms of rule making and collective agreements.  

The original point of having rules, of having a morality  was to suppress the alpha and facilitate monogamy.  The evidence is all around us.  In almost every human society the majority live in monogamous relationships;  The human alpha male only exists in rare pathological conditions such as the case with murderous tyrants, serial killers, and religious cults;  Moral rules universally condemn murder and often  condemn sex out of marriage; Nomadic hunter-gatherer groups universally have strong moral strictures against public displays of anger, bullying, boasting.  These are all alpha male behaviours.  

In modern society we frown on people who get angry, boast, bully, or engage in affairs. We often successfully inhibit ourselves from doing these things too,  because we already experience strong emotions like guilt and shame that motivate these inhibitions, and we are very susceptible to peer pressure which is often focussed on inhibiting these kinds of behaviours.

  We sometimes shun bullies and aggressive people but we don’t banish them as would happen in a hunter-gatherer society.  We are not surviving by the skin of our teeth, and we have governments, police and social workers,  so that may be the reason why hunter-gatherers are so much more morally strict about aggressive conduct - for them, suppressing alpha male behaviour is directly linked to their survival.

  Human male dominance behaviour is regulated by collective action when it falls outside of the pair-bond, but I think that most of the time and for most of human history alpha behaviour has been unregulated within the pair-bond and the nuclear family.  This remained the case until the last fifty years, so we can justly congratulate ourselves that we have made some moral progress since it is no longer considered OK for a man to beat up his wife or his children in Western society.