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 favourite 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 speciality 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 favour pair-bonding to the alternatives but there are sizeable 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.  This is how we set 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 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 defence.  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.  Yet,  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.
Back in the dawn of prehistory 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 grand-kids.  In the great apes there is no consistent recognition of paternity and except for Bonobos, no friendly relations with other groups.  Part of the reason for this is that there is an incentive for females to hide paternity so that infants are not killed by rival males. Another reason is that if each territory is ruled by an alpha male then relations with other groups will always be hostile.

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, 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”.

It is not a coincidence, as Christopher Boehm has pointed out, that all hunter-gatherer societies have conventions about not boasting or bragging, not taking more than your “share” , against extramarital affairs, and in support of generosity towards others.  And all these conventions are constantly and actively  enforced by ridicule, shaming, shunning and banishment

This tells us  two things about human nature: Firstly that we are flexible - we can do different things in  many different ways, and secondly, that we establish and maintain monogamy and equality by conscious social effort.

 With humans, there is no default mode, we never grow up in a vacuum because we consciously use cultural conventions to encourage social behaviour and to discourage anti-social behaviour.  

What is so”human” about pair-bonding, is that it is a solution that  always requires a little upkeep and “fixing”.  It’s not always an automatic instinct that just kicks in at the right time,  but once it’s up and running it’s a powerful force for the public good.  

   When we traded king alpha’s rule for human culture we traded institutionalized selfishness for constant  social- work.  The pay-off was in a stable division of labour and males cooperating in raising children.

The superiority of humans over the apes comes from our ancestors overthrowing the alpha male in the dawn of prehistory and successfully maintaining pair-bonding during the  huge span of time that we were hunter-gatherers.    For this made the basic foundations of human culture possible:  kinship, language, technology, and exchange with other groups.  Tune in next time when I explain how.

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: 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 six 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 and proto-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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking: Touching the Ground of Human Nature

In the book of Genesis we have the beautiful  image of  God: “walking in the cool of the evening.”  Where are Adam and Eve, the first humans, when God is out for his evening walk, by the way?  Aren’t they hiding?

When I was a child growing up in Vancouver I used to go for walks by myself and I took to walking greater and greater distances, and then I got a bike, and for years I rode further and further in all directions.  It’s often the case that once you can go somewhere you just  end up  going there.  That’s what happened when we started to walk.

 Walking on hind legs, that so human of characteristics, proceeded humans by at least six million years. The first walkers, called Australopithecus, had brains the same size as the chimpanzees living today.

  In the story of Genesis, it is said that humans were created in God’s image.  Well, the story’s got a point.  One could argue that the invention of automobiles and T.V.  have led to virtual epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity - all because they have replaced walking.

 One hundred years ago people walked an average of three miles a day.  Now people drive everywhere.  There is plenty of medical and scientific evidence that regular walking keeps you healthier, prolongs life and keeps your mind in top shape.

Our prehistoric  hunter-gatherer ancestors were accomplished walkers, and could easily walk an average of twelve miles a day.  They were taller, healthier and longer-lived than  the neolithic  populations that mostly replaced them starting around  ten thousand years ago.  When humans domesticated plants and animals  and started living in permanent dwellings,  we may have gained in access to food and energy but we lost something in terms of health and fitness.

Back before humans were even on the scene, six million years ago there was severe climate change over the Earth.  The African equatorial rainforests were shrinking, and  grasslands, savannas, and deserts were taking their place.  Lakes and waterholes were drying up.

 Because the traditional habitat of the great Apes - the rainforest - was shrinking, the  ability to walk more efficiently on hind legs would have been an asset for the first species of hominid, Australopithecus.  The hypothesis that climate change drove the evolution of walking is one championed by Anthropologist Clive Finlayson, in his book  The Improbable Primate.

As hominids evolved over millions of years their abilities to walk longer distances increased.   Archaeologists have found the remains of hominids all over east Africa, and the  much more recent remains of our closest ancestors  Homo Erectus in  Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Indonesia and China.  

The hominid line that we came from were such good walkers that they were able to spread out of Africa when none of the other hominid types could.  

As humans we pride ourselves on our brains and our technology.
Without free hands we couldn’t have made and carried tools, we couldn’t have cut  the meat of predator kills that gave us the extra energy we needed for our bigger brains.

Walking was an essential precondition of talking, because the upright posture freed the lungs and the breath to find a rhythm independent of quadruped locomotion. And, an upright posture lent itself to more expressiveness with the hands and this may have led to more conscious control over communication and then, eventually to spoken language. This process would have taken millions of years to unfold.  

Walking long distances made group cohesion important and was probably the impetus for the growth in hominid brain size.  Walking long distances on a seasonal basis would have challenged our memory systems.  Can we remember where that old water hole was or understand the geography of a place never-before-seen?

Walking long distances would also bring our hominid ancestors in contact with other hominid groups possibly relatives, possibly enemies.  Bigger brains would have been an advantage to keep track of bigger groups of hominids now, not just a small group of apes in the forest.

Once our ancestors could walk migration would be an important option for many reasons:   Escaping droughts, expanding range, finding new environments, following migrating game, and seeking other hominid groups or escaping from them.  

Migration as a very challenging feat for social coordination.  You’ve got to pick up very few possessions and go together.   You and your group may be travelling for  weeks or months over rarely or never-before seen lands;  You will need scouts to find the way or detect dangers;  you need to be able to act collectively at a moments notice  and continue to act as a collective in varying circumstances.  This is a consequence of climate change and walking away from the forest.

Apes live in the forest and the forest provides everything for them.  For much of their time they live as individuals pursuing their individual wants and needs within their group.  Apes do not do migration well.  If the forest dies out where they live they will die with it.  Their ability to act collectively is severely limited compared to humans.
Darwin’s theory of Evolution  is an explanation of how changes in an organism’s environment lead to differential survival in offspring.  If  an animal figures out a means of getting to all kinds of  different environments, then it’s  opened up a huge range of possibilities to exploit, as well as a huge range of conditions that will come to challenge and shape new behaviours over the span of time.

Think about birds, how through a hundred million years of evolution the adaptation of flying has allowed them to range over the entire Earth, from above Mt Everest to every Continent including Antarctica and then to the vast oceans.  

It took humans less than a million years to walk from Africa to South America.   By walking we have entered almost all the environments that were opened to us and we have developed specialized abilities to live and to thrive in each and every one of them from the Australian outback to the frozen wastes of the Canadian North.

The interesting thing about humans is that even though we live in all kinds of different places and environments we are still just one species, because in some ways we have stayed connected.  We are still busy exchanging cultural and genetic material all the time.

By allowing hominids access to  so many different kinds of environments, walking challenged our prehistoric ancestors  to maximize brain power and cooperative abilities.  Walking is so basic that it is taken for granted, but walking is the basic behaviour that forged human nature.

Nowadays, I imagine,  writing Genesis for a modern audience, we would see God arriving in a chauffeur driven stretch limo.  Since Neolithic times God has been pictured on thrones and chariots, so why not an automobile?

 Of course we are talking about origins here, so putting things in modern dress is reversing the sequence of events.  In the beginnings of human evolution we didn’t have cars, we had our two legs, and they led us here over aeons of time. Nowhere else in the Bible is God depicted walking except in the story of our origins, in the book of Genesis.

Friday, August 1, 2014

From the Forest to the Garden - How Climate Change Forged Human Nature

How many of us have heard the story of Adam and Eve and the “Garden of Eden”? I wonder how a Tabloid newspaper would headline this story?  Hmm, something like... “God Discovers Naked Couple in Garden.”

I love the way that the story situates us in  the “garden”  and I really appreciate the uncanny way  that Genesis manages to touch all the bases of  human nature:   walking, pair bonding, egalitarianism, and language.

And,  as I have already pointed out, the story portrays Adam and Eve as naked. Their eventual recognition that they should cover up comes when they disobey God and eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Note that Adam and Eve cover themselves with the leaves of the fig tree. One of the deep things about this story is how the images of the tree of knowledge and the leaves of the fig tree take us back to our pre-origins in the forest.
So at some point, maybe two million or so years ago, but long after we left the forest,  we lost a lot of body hair and we developed sweat glands. (the apes don’t have them, you know)  Consequently we developed a greater need for drinking water  compared to apes, which tied us to reliable sources of fresh water big-time.  Imagine trying to get enough water from puddles in the rain forest, especially if those forests were dying back.   

   Shedding the fur was a human evolutionary adaptation to climate change.  Check one  for Genesis.  


So what is human nature anyways?  Let’s say, you’re hiking along a trail, looking for a place to camp. It will need to have trees, open spaces and a nice view of water…Or, you’re a billionaire and want to buy the perfect match of house and landscape.  It will need to have trees, open spaces and a nice view of water.  Choice real estate means location, location, location.  

Anthropologist, Clive Finlayson,  in his book,  The Improbable Primate (c. 2014) tells us that for millions of years humankind and hominids have preferred to live “in areas close to fresh water with trees and open spaces nearby.”    The hominid line that branched off from the great apes six million years ago, left the forest to live permanently in this sort of environment, which existed all over the earth and was alternately encouraged and then checked  by periods of glaciation and interglacials.   Open spaces, some trees,  and a water view.  That’s the garden.   Check two for Genesis.    

But six million years ago a group of Apes did not decide -”Hey Dudes, let’s start walking on our hind legs.   We’ll look more dignified and be able to make cool gadgets and carry them around with us.”  So, why did those furry little hominids start walking then?  

For aeons of time the big rainforests were like a green supermarket for apes.  Everything a group of primates needed was near-at-hand.  fruits, tubers, veggies, leaves, herbs, nesting materials, etc.

The trees were great protection against predators like the big cats, and there were lots more of them in those days - sabre tooth tigers…We’re talking real bad cats.  Those big cats could make mincemeat out of our ancestors.  Cats can climb trees but they have to have low hanging branches.  Apes can climb up any old kind of tree, the point being that having access to trees and being able to sleep in them high in the forest canopy keeps apes safer from predators.

So why did hominids start walking when the apes stayed in the forest?  According to Finlayson, it was climate change.  Six million years ago the ice ages became more severe.  The huge African equatorial rainforests  were shrinking and grasslands,  savannas,  and  deserts were getting larger.

 The major glaciation events of the Pleistocene era created a drier, cooler world with more water locked up in ice and less liquid fresh water available.  That meant that your basic body of fresh water was getting smaller and further between.  That meant that the ability to walk distances in the open, to follow game and search for permanent and seasonal water holes was an asset.

Even though it was riskier to be walking out in the open it sometimes meant the difference between dying of thirst or survival.  If big sections of forests died out because of the climate change, then the ability to walk distances would have benefited the first hominids.

In Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, changes in a species’ environment cause selective pressures on the reproductive success of different individuals that make up that species. Over time, this differential in reproductive success, if accompanied by periods of isolation from the parent species, can lead to speciation.

  The apes that  stayed in the forest,  evolved over time into Chimpanzees and Bonobos. But six million years ago the forest was shrinking, and water was getting scarcer.  

Walking  had a tremendous evolutionary potential, basically, the ability to quickly open access  to the many different environments that existed in places around the world.

To recap:  Walking was an advantage for the first hominids because glaciation up north made the climate drier, which shrunk the African rain forests and created a lot more deserts and grasslands, with bodies of fresh water only available at greater distances from each other.  The behavioural adaptation of walking opened up a cornucopia of new environments to hominids for the first time,  which allowed the first humans to migrate out of Africa and to populate the rest of the world. Tune in next week when I explain how.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Debt: Facing the Music

What is music?  An agreement.  What is debt?  An agreement.   They are the same thing. No, they aren’t the same.  Let me explain.  

Music is an activity that people do together based on an agreement about the value of units of time, frequency of beats, frequency of tones,  loudness and dynamics and the intervals between tones in melody and harmony. Of course when I say it that way it seems kind of complicated.  What I’m getting at is that music exists based on human agreement and can’t exist without it.

When musicians play together they must agree to these musical standards and conventions in order to create music rather than chaos.  If the musicians are able to play at the same tempo, same dynamics,  same frequencies, and same harmonies, in effect, play the same song, then they create music together.  What happens when people play music together is a kind of surplus value, that is created when the group agrees to abide by certain standards and conventions.

Before money, which is a kind of handy intermediary between people, lenders lent things and borrowers paid back in the surplus value that they earned over time from utilizing the things that they borrowed. Things were more informal back then so there had to be a lot of fudge factor in the equivalence of loan to debt.  that changed with the invention of unit of account.  You know -“money” .

Nowadays, a  debt or IOU, is an agreement that I am borrowing something that equals an agreed amount of units of value and that I  will pay the equivalent back  plus some agreed upon extra units of value sometime in the future.  The lender agrees to lend the “money” and the borrower agrees to take it and then pay it back later.

With a loan, there has to be agreement or trust between the parties.  If I, the prospective borrower, say:  “ I’ll take your money but I have no intention of paying you back.”  chances are good, that you, the lender, are not going to enter into an agreement. If I have a history of defaulting on my debts, no-one is going to trust me or lend to me.

just as music is made possible by the agreement of the musicians to abide by the rules, debt is ideally about  the possibility of surplus value coming from capital by an agreement between borrower and lender about what is given and what is owed.

Many people, when they say the word “capital”  mean the money needed to get some enterprise going.  “It takes money to make money”  That sort-of thing.  But it’s not the money that creates surplus value it’s the real aspects of capital.

 Money is only virtual.  It only exists by virtue of agreement, and ceases to exist when the agreement breaks down.  Think of wallpapering your house with worthless money and what that says.  

Debt allows capital to be used by someone without having to pay for it now. I, Mr Capitalist, promise to pay you, Mrs.  Investor later, when, presumably I’ve made a profit from your investment.If I as a lender or investor own a debt, it’s because I believe that in the future that debt will generate income.

That’s where money comes into the picture.  Just as a debt represents the promise of future income, money represents the promise of future goods and services.

  If I have money, then I don’t have a thing.  If I buy a thing I don’t have that money anymore.  Thus I hold money because I believe that in the future I will be able to use it to purchase goods and services.  

Is this anything like music? No, because music is a real experience, not just a promise.  Consider songs.  Songs are composed by people and then they enter human society and history.  songs are reproduce-able: other music artists can cover a song, or anybody can sing along with a song.  Some songs are very popular for a generation, other songs like: “twinkle twinkle”  last for generations.  If I can sing in key and follow the right rhythm and melody I ought to be able to reproduce a song so that everyone who hears it recognizes it.  I suppose you could say that songs are a medium of re-creation.  I can pass along a song to others by teaching them or motivating them to learn it.  

Songs are much more than a medium of exchange, they are a medium of shared experience.  I can sing a song with my mother, and both of us can derive deep meaning from it.  I can sing a song in church with the congregation and we will all derive inner strength and passion from singing it together.  

sorry, money can’t do that.  Money is virtual and music is real.  My point here is that surplus value does not come from money it comes from our creativity in using resources and energy to produce goods and services.
Money lowers transaction costs, so it facilitates exchange. It is like adding oil to the gears in order to make the wheel turn easily.   But it has no value in itself.  Music has value in itself: we enjoy it, we teach and learn it, we pass it on, it has social, political,  emotional, and spiritual significance for us.   

Ideally, money as a unit of account, is a kind of messenger that informs us as to how we should organize our wants and desires. But the more debt we carry the more pressure that’s on us to make  more money, and to do the bidding of our creditors independently of what is going on in reality, and the higher the general level of debt the more pressure there is on governments and banks to create money or to favour creditors.

 This is where we find ourselves today.  We have a society where many children believe that the point of life is to grow up and make lots of money.  we have a society where some of the best and brightest go into financial services instead of science and education because that’s where they can make the most money.  We have a global system and global institutions that are about making the flow of money and capital easier, but the protection of human rights and the environment harder.  we have an economy where a tiny minority takes in a huge income and the vast majority barely get by.

someday this will all change and we will realize that money is not a measure of our lives or our happiness. Make music a part of your life, because music adds value by enriching your experience.  The same cannot be said for money.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Building The New Commons: A Manifesto

Humanity’s strength is in  groups.  In fact, It is our way of cooperating and communicating together in small and large groups that has allowed us to become a dominant form of life on Earth.   

On the other hand the most important thing that we share with all other living things is  our need for energy.  

In fact, human evolution is intimately linked to the need for  energy.  The development of walking millions of years ago made it easier for proto-humans to go out on the savannah and get food;  The invention of stone tools for hunting and dressing meat gave access to a vital source of energy needed to support the growth and development of the larger brain size of modern human beings;  The mastering of fire; and then, hundreds of thousands of years later,  the domestication of plants and animals, and  the development of warfare and slavery -  all these major changes and innovations can be seen as ways of  capturing greater and greater amounts of energy.

As the form of energy that humans have been able to access has become more and more concentrated, our  power to extract from and to transform the earth has expanded exponentially.

 Our present industrial civilization has grown and prospered for the last two hundred and fifty years in lock-step with our growing use of  fossil fuels.  The expansion of human population, industrial infrastructure, our transportation and communication and international trade systems are all  dependent on the highly concentrated form of energy that comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Imagine our modern  world without cars, trucks, buses, freight trains, heavy equipment, motorboats, ocean-going tankers, chain saws and anything else that runs on fossil fuels.  It would be a very different world.   We would not be able to live in the same houses,  eat  the same foods, travel to the same destinations, or enjoy the same entertainment without fossil fuels.

With a global economy, for the first time in history billions of people are poised to achieve the same fossil fuel hungry life-styles that we have, here in North America.  But  will that actually happen?  

As the easy-to-get oil has mostly gone we are rapidly reaching diminishing returns, as we turn to the extraction of tar sands oil and tight oil and gas from fracking.  These unconventional forms of fossil fuels are a lot harder to get out of the ground than conventionals.  They require vastly greater expenditures for infrastructure as well as bigger flows of resources like water, natural gas and condensate.  And they  leave a much larger ecological  footprint and far greater output of greenhouse gases.

But the real reason that unconventionals are a dead end is that with each passing decade, the  amount of net energy gained from these extraction techniques becomes smaller and smaller.  In economics, this is called “diminishing returns” and it implies that as we throw more time and money at getting the oil out of the ground and refining it, we will be getting less economic product for our troubles.  Because almost every contemporary economic activity is dependent on fossil fuels it is inevitable  that our economies will slow down and start to contract, as a result.

 We are trending towards more and more resources and effort going into extracting fossil fuels and less of these resources available for human health and welfare.  As a result, we can expect to see future declines in life-expectancy and increases in chronic respiratory disease.

For two hundred and fifty years cheap  fossil fuels have  fueled the growth of the economy. This growth has had dangerous hidden costs.  Costs that, over time, have deeply undermined our ability to survive and sustain our civilization.  

 Economies grow by appropriating the natural  commons. Size matters - eventually the sheer amount of extracting, manufacturing, consuming, and wasting begins to overwhelm ecosystems.  The probability of ecosystem collapse then raises the possibility of human extinction.  This is a risk we don’t want to take on.

The two most important ways to stop ecosystem collapse: stopping fossil fuel use and stopping economic growth - will happen together inevitably, because of diminishing returns.

For most people abandoning fossil fuels makes little sense.  Cars and electricity are very useful.  But the global economic system is locked in a spiral of self-destruction caused by economic growth itself.  As economies grow, they suck up fossil fuels.   Over time the amount in the ground gets depleted and what is left has more impurities and is more inaccessible.  We are looking at the bottom-half of the barrel.

I’m convinced that decreasing my use of fossil fuels is better for my health.  Walking and cycling are fun, safe, and they help lower  stress.  It would obviously be healthier for everyone to use cars less often, but most of the incentives are towards using them more.  After all, buying more cars and using them more often have multiplier effects on the economy

 On the other hand I believe that the global effects of fossil fuel use make a far more persuasive and  powerful argument. An ever tightening series of booms and busts based on oil prices, increasing job losses, stagnant or decreasing wages, accelerating inequality, massive default on debt - that is what we are looking at when we look at the bottom of the barrel.  

For the global economy there is nowhere else to go.  Economic growth inevitably increases the demand for fossil fuels and causes more consumption and waste.  Global economic growth is already accelerating the depletion of resources and  diminishing returns from the energy sector.

What’s the answer?  Is it to find another planet to exploit?  Imagine the preposterous amounts of energy and materials from our own planet we would be wasting on that endeavor. But, if the economy stops growing how do we manage to survive?  The answer is in stopping and reversing the growth of the market and in rebuilding and reclaiming the commons.

Human evolution  is also linked to the development of complex forms of cooperation linked to our development and  use of  the commons. It was not our use of fossil fuels that first  differentiated us from the rest of nature,  it was our creation and development of rules, roles, and dispute mechanisms.

  As humans we collectively create and maintain organizations that further the common good.  Our way of living together, sharing, cooperating, and helping each other in families and communities is what separates us from the apes and all the rest of creation.

Marriage, extended families, clubs and associations,  schools, hospitals, public councils and governments, religions and the scientific process are all created and maintained through the active participation of countless groups of people. This is in  a social sphere of influence that can be described as a common space that humans alone inhabit.

  The commons are the things that we have in common, that no one is excluded from.  These are natural things like air, water, ecosystem services, climate, the ocean, etc.,  which we also share with all other living beings.  

There are also  very significant types of commons that are created from the human imagination: language, music, legal systems, and science are all systems that benefit everyone in society. 

One of the best examples of a human built commons is language.  A language is a commons, because everyone in a certain locality can speak it, everyone uses it everyday, and the evolution of the language, it’s words, pronunciation,  grammatical rules, etc., are all collectively determined.  

Why did humans develop language?  The obvious answer, that we are more intelligent than other animals, begs the question of how we got that way.  Did we create speech because we are intelligent, or did we become intelligent because we created  speech?

According to Christian theology, humans are different because God created us in God’s image. That’s a great metaphor,kind of flattering, although also pointing to our flaws as our own  fault, but it’s misleading as an explanation.

I think it is important to understand what the difference  between humans and our primate relatives is and how it came about.  A tall order, I know, but  the more we know  the real reason for the difference,  the
more consciously we can use this knowledge to adapt to the new challenges that now face us. 
Why did humans come to dominate the world?  Like all other animals we have to breathe, drink water, and eat.  How are we different?

By agreeing to live by rules  we  crossed an invisible line where we  created a common space in which everyone could participate and everyone could benefit. By doing so, we left behind the Darwinian world of dominance hierarchies.  
Not completely behind, mind you because dominance relationships are our default mode.  It takes constant and continual vigilance to maintain a commons, otherwise people take advantage and take over.  That’s what rules are for, but they must be enforced.  

All other primate spe
cies are organized according to dominance hierarchies.  The biggest strongest male gets the pick of the females and the choicest food. 

In contrast, human nature is about the constant   tension between  hierarchies and egalitarianism.  We have individuals who are leaders and who dominate others, but we also have rules and institutions like marriage, that help groups of people to live together peacefully.

When proto-humans developed stone tools they also developed the means to decisively overcome dominance hierarchies.  A man with  a stone blade can easily kill a physically stronger man.  According to the Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, evidence from various contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers suggests that for most of human history, previous to the neolithic, we lived in egalitarian  bands where dominance hierarchies were actively suppressed by violence or the threat of violence.

It was by creating and maintaining small egalitarian societies that humans made the first rule-governed commons possible. This, more than any other factor, is the basis for human exceptionalism.  

We are not descended from chimpanzees,  but we share an ancestor from millions of years ago, so chimps are human’s   closest relatives.
 A group of humans  that is rule-governed is many times more effective than a group of chimpanzees in spite of the fact that chimpanzees are physically stronger.

A dominance hierarchy, the natural state of chimpanzee life is a lot like a corrupt political system.  The dominant male has control over resources and the life for the subordinates is stunted and unpleasant.   In a corrupt system, goods and services may trickle down to the rank and file, but the majority of benefits go to a small elite.  

In a human commons like language, the system is self-organized to benefit everyone.  Everyone participates and everyone benefits from sharing information. 

 In dominance hierarchies information is sequestered to serve or to avoid serving the interests of the dominant male.  This results in a lot of wasted resources that are  used solely to keep the majority impoverished while the dominant and his confederates get the lion’s share.

Language is representational. It can reveal  what is not visible or present to others and thus it benefits the group more than it benefits any particular individual. That is why it was much more likely that it developed once humans created egalitarian societies.

  Before the crucial development of human egalitarianism sharing information was not as desired a  trait.  For the dominant, language would have made it harder to keep what he had to himself. And it would have been the same for the subordinate.  For the subordinate to share would have meant giving up more of what she had appropriated to the dominant.

Language, organization, education, planning, and rule-making: these are all human abilities that have enabled us to  create thriving cultures and civilizations.  It is significant, that all of these activities are things that people do together that do not require fossil fuels.

Even though our present civilization depends on fossil fuels the human race has survived most of it’s existence without them and will do so again.  Adopting renewable forms of energy will be important, but because their net energy production is much lower than conventional fossil fuels, they are unlikely to power a modern economy let alone economic growth.  Also, aspects of their production may be equally dependent on fossil fuels. Thus, there may be no choice but for society and the economy to run on less power.

The problem is in our reaction to the economic damage that this will cause.  Declining pay cheques and increasing costs will fuel mass discontent and anger.  Because of the amount of money riding on these issues, people will likely be misinformed by corporate and government propaganda. There is a real danger that people will be manipulated by blind prejudice and hatred to turn to authoritarian and fascist regimes.

All the more reason that we need to start now to increase the growth in the Commons.  The more Commons we build together, the more we participate in building community.  The more we participate in building community the more we are immunizing ourselves from political forms of tyranny. By participating in governing the Commons we are inoculating ourselves  from apathy and raising the level of knowledge and the quality of discourse.  

   In order to survive for more than the next fifty years we must  leave fossil fuels in the ground.  But if we were to abandon fossil fuels too quickly we would risk economic, political, and social collapse. We must gradually abandon fossil fuels and build up new commons in their place.  This will help us maintain better health and welfare over future generations at the same time replacing the bipolar world of economic booms and busts with a system that serves everyone equitably.