Monday, October 20, 2014

Game Theory: How Humans Changed the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Human Pair-Bond

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

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

One of De Waal’s 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.