Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Monogamy - A Theory of Human Nature

In his recent book Sapiens,  Yuval Noah Harari does a great service by sketching a plausible theory of human nature, while avoiding the dense thicket of  details and controversy that goes along with just about every other scientific account of this fascinating topic.

Here’s the gist of his theory:  “Many animals and human species could previously say  ‘Careful! A  Lion!’  Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution,  Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say:   ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’  This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.”

“ But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively.  We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of the Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.  Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.  Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives.  Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of individuals that they know intimately.  Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers.  That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Where I disagree with Harari is how he labels mankind’s defining ability as the ability to collectively believe fictions.  In contrast, I would say that humans’ defining ability is the ability to create and sustain a social reality by recognizing, accepting and sustaining limits to our behaviour.  

It may appear, by using contradictory terms such as ‘fiction’  and ‘social reality’  that we are referring to two different things. But, by calling collective beliefs ‘fictions’  Harari is correctly emphasizing that human creations are based on subjective states of mind.  Money does not exist independently of collective belief, for instance.  

When a magician says ‘Abracadabra’  and pulls a rabbit out of his hat, he is creating the illusion that saying   the magic  word can create a reality.  Why does this illusion work?  Because we do create reality by saying words and the effects are real, not fictional.  What is taken for granted is that this social reality is based on collective agreement.

When my wife and I both said  ‘I do’  during our wedding ceremony  we helped to create public acknowledgement of our marriage.

There is no state of marriage in nature.  Marriage is a human concept, but it is not simply an agreement between two people, it is a collective agreement between everyone in society.  The presence of others as witnesses to the marriage demonstrates this. It’s the agreement that makes it real, that creates real effects.  If this were not so, then there would be no point in a marriage ceremony.
Swans, and geese can live monogamously, but they are not in a state of marriage, because their relationship is based on biology, not on acceptance by  feathered friends and relatives.  

My thesis like Harari’s is that collective agreement is what distinguishes humanity, but unlike Harari, and most other scholars and scientists, I believe that in particular the collective agreement to institute monogamy is what led to humankind.  

Chimpanzees our closest living primate relatives, are promiscuous and ruled by an alpha male, and his coalition.  There is almost no ‘sexual dimorphism’ no size difference, between male and female chimps.

Sexual dimorphism is quite pronounced in gorillas, where the huge silverback alpha male rules a harem of much smaller females.  Polygyny  (polygamy) in animals seems to be associated with more striking sexual dimorphism.  

By examining archaeological evidence, we can surmise that some of our ancient ancestors were not monogamous and some were.  Australopithecus, the first ancestor to walk on two feet had less dimorphism than gorillas, but much more than humans and chimps.  But, homo erectus, who evolved millions of years after australopithecus, and was the first primate to use fire and migrate out of Africa, had much less dimorphism.  In fact, homo erectus had very similar sexual dimorphism to humans:  more size difference between the sexes than chimpanzees, but less difference than gorillas or australopithecus.

According to Bernard Chapais, Anthropologist at University of Montreal, and author of Primeval Kinship, polygyny became an unstable system when homo habilis, the ancestor of homo erectus, invented stone knives and tools approximately two and a half million years ago.  Stone-age technology enabled nerdish homo erectus the easy means of bypassing superior muscle power by developing superior knife or spear tactics. This made a polygynous system where physically stronger males restricted access to their females, an unstable arrangement, because physical strength could now be defeated by technology.   

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that homo erectus was the first primate to walk out of Africa, nor that erectus was the first to control fire.  I believe that monogamy was the key to HE’s  enhanced social abilities.

 If, indeed, monogamy led to human culture, the change to monogamy did not occur because humans wanted to have culture, or all the unseen benefits of a monogamous system.  Humans agreed to monogamy in order to facilitate pair-bonding.  That stuff about ‘fatherhood’,  ‘in-laws’, prolonged childhood, bigger brains, and language did not even exist in people’s imaginations at the time.  It was all about dealing with jealousy and sexual possession.  It was about desire.  It was not desire to rise above nature it was just natural desire.

Nevertheless, the effects of monogamy were truly revolutionary.  The two million years that humans were monogamous hunter-gatherers was the crucible for human evolution.  This is the time period when brains grew significantly larger, and jaws and teeth grew smaller.  As brains got bigger, female humans needed to give birth to bigger babies, but there was only so much room.  Something had to give.  That something was developmental readiness in human infants.

 Human babies are totally helpless, and their nervous system is undeveloped compared to other animals at birth.  Our period of infancy and childhood, where we require much attention and provisioning and are incapable of surviving on our own, is much longer than any other animal.   It was made possible by the sexual division of labour.  Females gather and cook.  Males hunt and fight. That’s what makes a longer childhood and bigger brains possible.  

But note that the division of labour, in turn, is made possible by monogamy.  You can’t have a division of labour in a household  if you don’t share.  One of the things that monogamy does is to increase the amount shared between male and female partners.  Bernard Chapais and others have pointed out how many benefits come from monogamy.  Recognition of paternity becomes more plausible.  An adult male has more incentive to provision his mate and offspring.  Monogamy could have set off a multiplier effect that ultimately led to human language and culture.  

Here’s how it would work.  I might want to be monogamous, but as long as someone else in the group can take my partner away from me, I can’t realize my preferences.  Suppose everyone was sick and tired of fighting and killing over females.  We decided that from now on everyone gets to be paired up and anyone who tries to take more than their share is punished.  For this to work we not only need to detect cheating, we need to publicize and vigorously punish it.  Any group that neglects detection and punishment soon ends up with more violence and instability.  Groups that pay attention to detecting and punishing cheaters are able to maintain a monogamous system and reap the benefits.

Monogamy means the collective recognition of pair-bonding, which is, in important ways, analogous to our concept of reciprocity and fairness and the principle of the golden rule:  do unto others as you would have would them do unto yourself.  Furthermore it requires the institution of rough equality between men and it unlocks the possibility of equality between the sexes.

A question the reader may be asking at this point is if what I am saying is valid then how come we have so much polygyny in the world?  Note that polygyny in humans is not universal, but it exists mostly in traditional agricultural societies, where landowners  or animal herders are sometimes able to amass surplus wealth.

In hunting and gathering societies, which are largely nomadic, people can only keep as many possessions as they can carry on their bodies.  Therefore surplus wealth is unlikely, and thus polygyny in hunter gatherers is only practiced by a small minority.  

Indeed because polygyny means that  women are monopolized by a single male, there are going to be men who lack a mate and who may be willing to fight in order to get one.  This weakens the hunting and gathering band making them more vulnerable to social disruption.  It would make sense that groups that enforced monogamy would better survive, because they would be more likely to share equitably and to act collectively to protect the group.   

Remember, individual humans, even nuclear families, cannot survive without being part of a larger group.  Most of these bands comprise groups of thirty to ninety people.  Too few and they can’t survive over generations, too many and dissension and violence split the group up.  

To sum up so far: two million years of human evolution equals two million years of human monogamy.  Our evidence for this thesis is the degree of sexual dimorphism in humans and homo erectus, suggesting that erectus and sapiens eschewed chimpanzee type promiscuity and gorilla type polygyny.  Then there is the fact  that monogamy is prevalent in almost all human societies.  Promiscuity is less prevalent, and polygyny is least prevalent.

It cannot be a coincidence that today’s hunter and gatherers all have a similar egalitarian ideology of encouraging sharing, discouraging boasting, inequality, greediness, selfishness, public aggression and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm, Lee, and others.    It is not likely that this ideology just happened to develop, since it is common to nomadic hunter gatherers no matter what part of the world they are from.  It is more likely that this suppression of public male dominance behaviours developed universally because it was necessary for group survival.

What mating systems have in common is that they are about  social control, but what is unique about monogamy is how effective it is as a way to control male behaviour outside the immediate family.  By separating sexual competition from other forms of competition it allowed a greater proportion of males to flourish and to benefit their families and societies.  To repeat: The path to differentiation between humans and animals came from our ability to create and sustain social reality by recognizing, accepting, and sustaining limits to our behaviour.

Of course, we may be aware of how monogamy breaks down through divorce, abandonment, affairs, etc.  The point is that it exists in all human societies even though our natural feelings may influence us to violate it.  

We can think of human society as a kind of kluge,  A contraption built in a haphazard way by using whatever bits and pieces of things are immediately at hand.  Every element of human culture comes from our primal ability to agree to form and follow rules of behaviour where we expect others to follow these rules equally.

Sometimes those expectations are disappointed.   The environment always intervenes to create inequalities, and we come up with further modifications in order to constantly deal with the  centrifugal pressures from the environment threatening to pull us apart.  Monogamy, kinship, language, myths, religion, government, money, legal systems, educational systems, science,  all created to sustain social cooperation.

The anchor for human society is monogamy because it is the first sustainable institution that incorporates collective agreement to limit behaviour and to honour those limits through a rough equality.  By deciding on monogamy our ancestors made equality possible, and by developing social methods of control:  shaming, ridicule, shunning, and banning, our ancestors created a method of maintaining monogamy in the face of centrifugal natural desires.  

My belief is that monogamy forms the very basis of human nature, it being the first lasting human institution that was consciously created and sustained by collective agreement.  The agreement to institute monogamy forms the template for all human institutions including language because all human institutions arise from collective agreement to limit behaviour and to recognize and sustain these limits by various social means.

While some would argue that human language is the ‘ur’ institution, I believe I can make a plausible case that monogamy preceded language and actually makes language possible.  In language we have developed representations of reality called ‘words’.  These representations can be created and assembled by individuals and then shared.  This sharing implies a rough equality, in that in order to understand what is said it is agreed by everyone that specific words refer to specific things or classes of things.

 Grammar and syntax - the structure of languages - could have developed from step by step collective agreements about how words can be combined to  refer to various aspects of the world. Before monogamy was instituted, dominance hierarchies precluded equality and equal sharing.  There was less incentive to share information, so there would have been less incentive  for  a group to agree to common meanings and to follow rules of grammar in combining words and phrases.

On a deep level speaking and listening to others speak requires trust.  The moment I detect that someone is trying to take advantage of me is the moment that I stop listening to them.  I share information with others as long as I believe that they are not going to harm me.  This trust is made possible when we believe that everyone else is following rules and not taking advantage.

Monogamy is not an instinct, nor a default behaviour that we can fall back on, but a system of behaviour that requires high maintenance in order to be sustainable and yet we have managed to make it the prevalent mode of conduct over the vast span of human existence.

By stripping away the effects of wealth and surplus on behaviour we get in nomadic hunter gatherer peoples a minimalist set of conditions, the bare bones required to sustain human society.  These behaviours involve collective social controls on male domination outside the family, owing partly to the fact that our survival depends on living together in groups that include more than a single family.  By maintaining a rough equality between men, monogamy made greater trust and social cooperation possible and led to all the advantages of human culture including and especially the gift of language.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Drumset: A Phenomenological History

The drumset is the most beautiful, expressive and magical instrument of all, and that’s my very biased opinion.  I have always loved the way that they look in music stores, and can barely help myself from sitting down and playing when I see one. Playing a drum set is a totally addictive experience for me.  

The dynamic range of the drums is enormous.  From pianissimo to triple forte, you absolutely command attention.  Elvin Jones, my favorite drummer, and a great jazz drummer, said that the drummer in a jazz trio or quartet is like the conductor in an orchestra.  He sets the tempo, time signature, loudness, and “feeling”; signals when to break to a new chord, framing the verses, choruses and  solos and helping build and sustain the  peak  in intensity of a song.  

I’ve played all sorts of drums in my day:  congas, bongos, frame drums, dun duns, djembes, doumbeks, dhals, and cajones, and electronics but the acoustic drum set tops them all mainly because of the infinite expressive palette it provides together with the deep involvement of the entire body.  With the best drummers it’s hard to tell where they end and the drums begin, they are so physically involved in the drumming.  

There is no other instrument, not even the cello or the piano that involves the entire body so deeply as the drum set.  All of one’s limbs are involved and coordinated, like separate musicians who play together and create a unified song.  That is what makes the drum set so magical, that it creates a unity out of the diversity of percussion instruments, each one of which could be played by a separate musician in a symphony orchestra.

Bass drum, snare, tom-toms, hi-hat, crash, ride cymbals, and cowbell.  All separate instruments in their own right, all sounding unique and different but all capable of being utilized to keep time, keep a beat or a groove going or help to  create a wave of sound.  

What really gave the impetus for the drum set was the manufacture of the bass drum pedal and the high hat in the early twentieth century.  These two modest technological advances made it possible for one person to do the job of two or more percussionists.  To be able to easily play a bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals, all at the same time.  This is the real basis of the drum set’s appeal.

Nowadays  it is ridiculously easy to see videos of all the famous drummers playing solo and playing in bands on youtube.      I recommend watching them:   Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, and many more.

 You’ll be astounded at the sheer variety of beats, sounds, grooves and effects that these guys drum up, and some of them play very basic drum sets.   Here is  Gene Krupa  . Note how puny his drum set looks according to today’s standards, especially the cymbals,  but the sound is big and bold.  Note how much the low tom is featured in this piece, and how magical it gets when Benny Goodman starts his solo.  

The drumset used to be called the ‘traps’  which was short for ‘contraption’, because they can consist of so many different and novel noise makers.  At the beginning of the twentieth century when drum sets were first constructed they often had cowbells, woodblocks, temple blocks, horns and other exotic instruments.  Then in the 1920s  the tom toms were added for colour and effects, and in the 1930s, the crash and ride cymbals for the driving rhythms and dynamics of big band swing.  Here’s Viola Smith playing a mind-blowing drum set from the thirties.

Elvin Jones often had a very small drum set compared to Ginger Baker or John Bonham, but he has a big sound and one that is way more polyrhythmic with half the drums. There’s a bit of sixties musician humour in this video of  Elvin Jones drum solo from 'Zachariah'  as someone drops dead during his solo and has to be carried out of the saloon.  

Rock and roll drum sets a la Elvis, and Ringo Starr were fairly simple in the fifties and sixties.  But with the advent of amplified guitars, bass and keyboards, drumming became louder, and the hardware became more heavy duty. That led to the monster drum sets of the seventies with double bass drums: Ginger Baker, Billy Cobham, etc.. but more drums didn’t necessarily mean better music.   For my money Steve Gadd is the best of the rock pile.  He brings solid rudimental chops, a latin linear style, and true Afro-American funk together in a wonderful synthesis.  Take a look at  this solo by Steve Gadd.  

In roughly one hundred years the drum set has come to dominate certain forms of popular music, becoming a major contributor to the evolution of jazz, latin, blues, and rock music.  Indeed none of these popular styles are conceivable without the drum set.  Nor would it have been possible without the great drummers who played them.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Beyond The Big Bang: The Sequel

I have just published my first book called     Beyond The Big Bang  You can preview the book by clicking on the title. The book is about how the elements came together to form life and how life on earth has effected the chemical make-up of the earth's surface and atmosphere. It is written in a relaxed, non-technical style.  Hope you enjoy.  My nom de Plume is Charlie Justice.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Answer to Ayn Rand

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.  We can’t accept this.  We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody.  So we always speak of his meat as worthless.  In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.  - !Kung Healer ,  quoted by Boehm   1999   from Lee, The !Kung San.  

Talent and ability create inequality…. to rectify this supposed injustice, we are told to sacrifice the able for the unable.  Egalitarianism demands the punishment and envy of anyone who is better than someone else at anything.  We must tear down the competent and strong - raze them to the level of the incompetent and weak…     - Gary Hull (Ayn Rand Institute)  

Ayn Rand was an American intellectual, born in Russia, who has been very influential in the U.S. conservative, Republican and libertarian circles.  Her philosophy, which is reproduced  here by Gary Hull, is a glorification of capitalism, and an attack on altruism.

I don’t think Ayn Rand is just wrong, I think her philosophy is fundamentally false from its beginning to end. Egalitarianism does not mean the suppression of human abilities, instead, it is the very foundation of  human civilization.   

 I believe that egalitarianism was the major factor in creating a difference  between humans and the apes.   What differentiates us from the chimpanzees and other great apes is our ability to intentionally impose egalitarianism, to use social rules and mores to both control and eliminate the alpha male, replacing him by group enforced monogamy, and it is this milestone that led to language, and culture - without which we would not be here today.

Egalitarian hunting and gathering groups are made up of loose associations of nuclear families with pair bonded couples.  By divorcing sexual competition from hunting and sharing food,  groups without alpha males were able to out-compete groups that didn’t eliminate their alpha. 

 It was conscious egalitarianism that   led to the enormous human capacity to excel at so many different activities, and to the human ability to exchange with and tolerate other groups because these things are not possible with an alpha male present.    

  This is the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  It was social levelling in hunting and gathering that eventually led to markets, economies and capitalism, because if we hadn’t gotten rid of the alpha male we would still be selfish chimpanzees.  
I think that the best answer to Ayn Rand is this hunter gatherer speech.  even though, in modern standards it appears to be  rather harsh and paranoid. I will explain my reasoning.

Hunting and gathering is a way of life that seems long superseded by our systems of agriculture and industry.  Nowadays, the few hunter-gatherers left are living on marginal lands:   deserts, jungles, scrub lands,  and frozen wastelands that often  have little or no economic value for anyone else.  When the land does end up having economic value, as is the case for oil extraction in Ecuador,  so much the worse for the indigenous tribes living there.

 Hunting and gathering used to be the only way of life,  but then around twelve thousand years ago our ancestors first domesticated plants and animals and created a world of agricultural surplus and plenty of scope for social and political hierarchies.

Before what we call the “Neolithic Revolution”  there were around two million years of hunting and gathering and living close to the bone.  Those two million years drove the evolution of some of the most important aspects of human nature, notably our ability to cooperate, our extended period of infancy, pair-bonding, and the development of language.

The hunting-gathering groups ranged from about thirty to ninety people.  Less than thirty made it difficult for the group to survive and defend itself from other groups.  More than ninety created too much conflict and caused groups to fission.

If the nomadic hunting and gathering societies form the bulk of human history,  then they formed the evolutionary crucible for the development of the human brain, and  the distinctly human forms of cooperation that led to  language and culture.  By the time we get to the neolithic revolution, twelve thousand years ago, brains are modern, languages are present and evolving quickly, and culture is becoming more cosmopolitan and  more representative of life in fixed communities.

Social institutions,  technology, language - all taken for granted, all developed over two million years,  in the stone age.  The real question is:  How was our unique form of human cooperation made possible?  Ayn Rand claims the idea of “property”  an idea taken from eighteenth century British apologists of market capitalism.  But for millions of years, people had no more property than they could wear on their backs.  

Somehow they managed to survive without capitalist economies and fossil fuels.  How they did it is explained by the  !Kung healer’s speech.   The Bushmen don’t tolerate bullies or tyrants in their midst.   They use very effective social methods of persuasion with the threat of ultimate sanctions ever-present in the background.  The way they sustain their way of life is by actively,  vigorously, and collectively  suppressing the alpha male.

With minimal possessions, a nomadic hunter-gatherer group is evidence of the necessary and sufficient social institutions needed for a human group to survive for long continuous periods.  Egalitarianism or social levelling is universally practiced in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.  It seems plausible that that is because human hierarchies, with alpha males at the top, are inimical to hunter-gatherer survival.

I can anticipate some objections at this point.  Look, if these hunter-gatherers were around two million years before they began to domesticate plants and animals and live in hierarchical societies, maybe they should have done it sooner.   Maybe the whole hunting-and-gathering schtick holds people back and they could have “been somebody”  sooner by coveting property and creating markets. Also someone may say, why is hunting and gathering relevant today?  It has nothing to do with us….

One thing that we do know through science is that climate change played a huge role in human evolution.  Our ancestors survived through a successive series of brutal ice ages.  It was all about survival and nothing but.  Climate change forced humans to be more cooperative than any other animal.  

It’s interesting that Libertarians and followers of Ayn Rand both tend to  deny the existence of human induced climate change. The idea that unfettered Capitalism could actually be bad for our future doesn’t get any traction with these folks.  Nor is there any interest in life before  Capitalism.  If they think about hunting and gathering societies it is just to disparage them as hopelessly primitive.

Why egalitarianism?  All nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are actively egalitarian. The alpha traits of boasting, intimidation, greed, and selfishness are met with social disapproval and censure.  Adultery is discouraged and actively disapproved of.      But instead of discouraging productivity and initiative this has the exact opposite effect because it separates sexual dominance from other skills and abilities that differentiate people and contribute to the group as a whole.

Egalitarianism levels the playing field, and makes it possible for people with diverse abilities and  experiences  to thrive without getting beaten up or intimidated by an alpha male because they somehow threaten the alpha’s status.

It is not a coincidence that Rand’s most popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged,  celebrate the alpha male and even celebrate the right of alpha males to destroy things if they don’t get their way and to rape women if they feel like it.  That’s the way it works in both wild and captive chimpanzee groups too.

Humans differ from chimpanzees because we have found ways to avoid conflicts by jointly following rules and we have put severe pressure on alpha males to behave pro-socially and by and large it has worked to our collective advantage.  Humans out compete everything else because of our skills in cooperation.  Individuals add to society but it’s the cooperation between many people that gets most things done.

The alpha male is deep in our instinctual selves.  Even though we internalize social mores, we still need a lot of guidance from others as to their attitudes and judgements about our behaviour.  Our feelings of shame, guilt, and empathy help to guide our behaviour in more pro-social directions.  Without them we are nothing but dangerous psychopaths.   The quote from Objectivist Gary Hull, about the evils of egalitarianism, is true to Ayn Rand’s philosophy but it is also a paean to psychopathy.  Within it there is no recognition of our social reality.

Hunter-gatherers who managed to survive in a direct line of descendents for millions of years before the present, are the minimalists who created human nature.   They didn’t survive for so long because they honoured private property, they survived because they were able to share food in good times and bad, they were able to learn from each other and other groups and they were able to collectively control, and,  when necessary,  eliminate the alpha male, creating a level playing field for the first time, and ultimately leading to human civilization.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Collective Agreement Part II - How we agree

I’m fascinated with the image of the wizard from JRR Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings.  The wizards Gandalf and Saruman both have the power to create a new reality by casting a spell.   We like to imagine this power in individuals, but in fact, words do have the power to create reality, but only if they are uttered  within a background of human agreement. That’s what is missing from the wonderful image of the wizard - the background.  And that is as it should be in a mythical or poetic account, because what forms the background is not usually noticed.

Everything humans do is done against  a cultural background.  This background was created by successive agreements among and between many many groups of people.  That does not mean that when I decide to do something new, that I have to consult everybody including my ancient ancestors, but if I make a mistake, someone will tell me about it, or it will get back to me in some way.   

If I’m singing a song in the key of C and I go flat, it doesn’t sound right to anyone else but maybe I can’t tell, because I am unaware of lowering my tone.  People might frown, or show in their body language that something is wrong.  I could pick up on that, and resolve to stay in key the next time, or feel sorry for myself and never sing that song again.

The point is that my reaction to making mistakes is to better conform to what the group expects. I don’t do anything really without it being part of a web of agreements.  If this were not true then there would be no such thing as mistakes.  I sing in C and you sing in C# and nobody cares.  I pay for bread with a washer instead of a tooney, and the cashier is fine with that.

Biology matters.  In order to understand what makes us special, we need to know what we share with animals.  Understanding how animals act collectively can help us  better understand what makes us human.

Several  times I have had the pleasure of watching small flocks of sandpipers flying and landing in formation.  Sandpipers are small shorebirds with very skinny twig like legs.  They like to hunt for beach fleas on sandy beaches, and they do so as a group, on mid to low tides.  Watching them flying and landing, I swear the precision in their flying formation puts the top fighter pilots to shame.

  If you watch any kind of birds fly in formation you will notice how the formation moves as if it has one “collective mind”.  The thing is, that’s an illusion.  Each bird is acting from its own intentions, but it also acts collectively when it takes in the relative position of, and synchronizes its motions with its immediate neighbours.  

Humans do a similar kind of thing every time we use language or play music. But the difference is that we can create a lasting reality by collectively recognizing and acknowledging a situation, whereas no other animal can do this.   

  I would go further than the French scholar Roger Callois who said:   “Rules themselves create fictions - by the very fact that we follow these rules - we separate ourselves from real life.” In contrast I maintain that rules create a specifically human reality.  By the very fact that we follow these rules and expect others to, we distinguish  ourselves from all non-human life.  

What is different about human collective action?  We follow rules, because we expect others to do so as well. To be human is to continuously participate in following rules.  In contrast, the more we make exceptions and the more we act as if rules don’t matter, the less human we become.  

According to John Searle,
        “The individual contribution is only made on the assumption that others are making their contribution - that is what is meant by saying that one is acting as part of a collective.  It is only given the contributions of the other members of the collective that the agent can achieve what he does, but nonetheless his intention is to try to achieve the common goal.”

Voting is an example of a collective action.  When I cast a vote, I do so trusting that a sufficient number of fellow citizens will also do the same.  If I don’t have this sense of trust in others,  I won’t vote.  

Apes are promiscuous and don’t recognize paternity  but humans impose a system of predominant monogamy in almost every culture.  By agreeing to pair up we can expand the social network that we live in by recognizing in laws, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so on.  Men can recognize paternity and potentially share more of parenting, and be less prone to violence.

I have written elsewhere (The Birth of the Commons) that monogamy was the first human commons.  The first time that men had equal access to women.  By the act of cleaving together in a pair-bond each couple creates a relationship, that as long as everyone else respects their boundaries, they can continue to be a couple.    Thus the libertarian idea that what I do in my private life should be completely independent of everyone else is false.  The reality of monogamy cannot exist unless it is recognized and maintained collectively.  

Expecting that others will recognize the status of being married is part of what it means to be married.  This is what makes monogamy a collective act that involves all of society, not just the families of the respective spouses.

But there is more to it than that.  Maintaining monogamy requires collective effort.  At first it meant that the alpha male was killed, then it meant that signs of alpha-like tendencies, such as uncontrolled anger, bullying, and “extramarital” affairs were actively discouraged.  Otherwise another alpha male was bound to rise up and take over.  In modern society we have much more privacy than in hunter-gatherer societies,  so all that maintenance work is less visible, but it is still there, and much more all-encompassing and pervasive.

Humans generally prefer to make love in privacy. People still disapprove and gossip about affairs.  People hide their illicit relationships and feel shame about what they are doing.  These are not just individual compartmentalized feelings, but part of the collective action and intention that goes into maintaining a monogamous society.  

Obviously people disagree all the time too.  The possibility of disagreement is part of what it means to have choice.  But disagreement is parasitical on agreements.  We can only disagree about someone’s status or their right to possess a thing if we have already established, ie., agreed, that there are different statuses and there are such a thing as property rights.  

 When we behave as human beings, we are constantly adjusting our behaviour to fit our expectations of how others will behave.  That’s not that much different from the way individual birds, flying in formation, appear to simulate a collective mind, by subtly adjusting their flight in response to any changes made by their immediate neighbours.  

But humans create lasting reality through agreements, we can create, stories, poems, songs, languages,  religions, and countries, the latter three of these involving the agreement between larger and larger groups of people.

And why is it that we are able to make these agreements when our close primate relatives are not?  The difference is that we have more developed prefrontal areas of the brain.  We can limit our behaviour, comparing ourselves to others, and expecting them to follow rules because we are able to self-evaluate and compare our own and other’s behaviour to previously agreed upon standards.  

In the first of these two articles on agreement, I said that the heart of human nature was something simple, so simple that it is usually ignored and taken for granted.  What is simple about this is the origins of these agreements.  I tell a story and someone listens.  A group of us sing a song together;  I attend church services on Sundays along with the rest of the congregation;  Many people in my country speak the same language;  I pay taxes and vote in  municipal, provincial and federal elections.     

Nothing too complicated with these agreements.  Each and every one involves an expectation that I do my part while everyone else is also fulfilling their part.  This is the reason for their ability to last over time.  When, in times of strife, these institutions break down, it is because we see too many others not fulfilling their part, or violating the rules, so we cease to honour them.

Collective Agreement: Part I - The Heart of Human Nature

If we could  better understand  what is at the heart of human nature than we could better navigate a way forward for ourselves.  I believe that the heart of what makes us human is very simple, so simple that it is mostly taken for granted and ignored.

We can talk about the  superior intelligence of humans, compared to other animals,  but we don’t really know how or why that intelligence developed.  Was it because we had to cope with bigger group size, as British Anthropologist  Robin Dunbar argues?  Or was it the need to physically navigate through new geographic features and maintain group coherence  during inhospitable bouts of climate change?

Was it language, or was the development of language the driver in brain size? It appears from evidence of ancient skulls that the evolutionary rate of growth in the size of the hominin brain started accelerating  around the time that stone tools and weapons were first developed, approximately two million years ago, well before humans are said to have developed language.  

Skeletal evidence reveals that anatomically modern humans, that is, humans that were physically capable of speaking language, must have evolved within the last million years.  

Evidence from attempts to teach “language” to chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest ape relatives, demonstrates that apes are capable of using a proto-language but not a human language with syntax, and infinite generativity.

Ape communication tends to be more involuntary, involved as it is in displays of dominance and submission.  Human communication has a much stronger voluntary component and involves collective intentionality on an entirely different level than ape communication.

Apes do not play games or follow non-coercive  rules on their own initiative. A significant portion of individual and group behaviour is ruled by instinct.  When a group of males attacks a group of strangers, it’s a serious business where attackers try and ambush, outnumber, and kill their opponents.  There is no question of fairness

While it is true that humans are just as capable of homicide and genocide we also have alternative ways of dealing with rivalries that are more, shall we say, playful.  In  team sports, such as football there is the motivation to beat the opposing team, but the game is played according to rules agreed to by both sides, and the whole game is overseen by referees, who have the power to stop the play and enact penalties against rule breakers.  

You could say that the game of football simulates a conflict and brings out some of the same kinds of emotions and feelings that a conflict would bring out, but it is obviously far more structured and controlled than a fight to the death.  

Part of what differentiates humans from the apes is not only our penchant for following rules and cooperating with each other,  but also our greater ability to control our impulses.  This greater control comes from the evolution of the prefrontal region of our brain, which is the part of the brain in humans which has most enlarged compared to ape brains.  This is the part responsible for “executive function”  the brain's system that is implicated in planning, self-evaluating, and impulse control.  

 The ability to compare our own behaviour to standards, to understand where another is coming from, to put ourselves in another’s place, to judge someone’s character, all require executive function and the use of the prefrontal region.

The evolutionary development of the human brain, the development of language, and humans ability to make collective agreements, all came out of the same evolutionary crucible - the two million years that humans and early humans have spent in nomadic hunting and gathering groups.  

Apes, whose habit has always been the forest,  have only rudimentary collective action, which is most evident when they patrol territorial borders and hunt for bushmeat.  Humans regularly agree to do things collectively, even with people who are not kin.  Sports, religion, banquets and feasts, education, science, music, warfare.  The list of things that we like to do in groups is endless.   

The fact that apes can be taught to use a proto-language but not a full-fledged one suggests that  the ability to use syntax, follow rules, and act collectively may well be what distinguishes humans from other creatures. If we are to better understand what differentiates humans from apes I believe that the most fruitful direction would be to examine the nature of collective agreement. 


The “ordinary language” philosophers   John Austin “How to do things with Words”  and John Searle   “The Social Construction of Reality” both point out how social reality is created by the use of language.  Declarations, Demands, Acknowledgements,  Recognition, Honoring, Accepting, Rejecting, Promising, Proposing, Compromising, Agreeing….  all these actions create social reality by the use and utterance of language.  

When two or more people make an agreement they each give their assent to either maintaining or bringing about  some state of affairs.  Agreements are so pervasive in our lives that one could say that we cannot go anywhere or do anything without stepping into an endless succession of previous agreements that set the stage for the present situation.

Agreements are not things that exist independently of minds.   If no-one agrees anymore that this confederate dollar bill is money than it simply ceases to be used as money.  The same cannot be said of a boulder.  It will still get in our way, whether or not we call it a “boulder”.  

Humans are making agreements all the time.  We do this overtly through what Austin calls,  speech acts.  I say, “I agree”, or “yes”  in response to your speech act and that creates the agreement.  If I say, “I promise”, then I have agreed to carry something out in the future.  If I say “No”, then I have stopped the agreement from happening.  

Much of the time we simply agree nonverbally, as when we give or accept money for purchases.  According to Searle, this is an abbreviated form of agreement that has the same logical structure as a declaration.  

To some degree animals can make agreements with each other.  If they couldn’t they would never have produced offspring.  Birds brood and raise baby chicks together.  Beavers make and maintain dams together, Wolves, lions and hyenas hunt in packs.  

Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the minimal set of conditions that determine human nature.  Their  social structure is probably similar to ancient hunter-gatherers because the conditions of their survival are similar.  Because of the necessity of nomadism, (the necessity of seasonal migration to follow or find food sources) hunter-gatherers cannot carry anything more than what is on their backs.  Thus they cannot maintain a surplus, and they lack social hierarchy.  

Survival is hard and is much harder if the group size is small.  Sharing equally insures that the families that are temporarily unlucky at hunting don’t starve.  One way to look at this is to say that in a hunting and gathering band each person’s ability to survive depends on everyone else in the band.

When we examine examples of collective action on the part of mammals, such as lions and hyenas,  we find that although they can hunt in groups they never distribute the meat in equal portions.  They distribute according to a dominance hierarchy, with the alpha male receiving the “lion’s share”.

Maintaining equality is a clear and important difference between animals and humans.  Human hunter gatherers tend to share the meat of large kills in equal portions to all families in their band.  The Inuit did this, as do the iKung in the Kalahari Desert, the Aborigines in Australia, and hunter-gatherers the world over.  

Nomadic hunting and gathering societies not only universally practice egalitarianism, it’s a big part of the way these people think and feel about their own and other’s conduct. Actually people everywhere have very powerful feelings about being treated fairly, and strong preferences against being coerced or intimidated by others.

Ideally an agreement benefits both parties.  At least we expect it to when we make it.  But we are probably aware of relationships which are coerced, such as slavery,  or unequal, such as parenting, teaching and employment.

Every aspect of human culture is built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.  This is how we differ from all other animals.   

I like the example of music because it’s easy to see how music is created out of collective agreement. All it takes is one person playing out of tune to wreck a song.   We have to subordinate our behaviour in order to play music together.
A song is reproduced from a group of musicians agreeing to faithfully reproduce the key, melody, harmonies, tempo, phrasing, and words of the song.  It’s easy to see how things like a key, melody, harmonic progression,while limiting our behaviour allow us to increase our creative potential.  By each agreeing to limit our behaviour, channeling it according to previously agreed upon rules,  we create the possibility of musical expression.  

We, in fact, already exist in a world of agreements but most of these agreements are not overt. We discover the content of these agreements when we make mistakes and are corrected or criticized for them.  Everything about music involves a succession of agreements going back in time.

The musicians are taught music in school, or they learn it from individual teachers.  they rehearse together in halls created for the purpose of teaching or holding social gatherings, or in someone’s basement.  The music they play is written by composers  from their own country or from  other countries, and often from  musicians who are no longer living.  

Songwriters or composers write their songs based on musical forms and styles that they learned from other musicians. Those musicians, in turn, were taught and influenced by still  older  generations.
 Without groups agreeing to play in time, in tune, in tempo, agreeing to hold rehearsals, agreeing to teach and agreeing to learn, agreeing to hold public concerts, audiences agreeing to listen, composers  agreeing to write songs, musicians agreeing to play those songs, etc., music would never happen.

It’s not as if music is in any way special in terms of it requiring collective agreement to come into existence.  The same is true of all aspects of human culture.  To repeat:  Every aspect of culture is built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.

In my opinion these speech acts and music work in creating and sustaining social reality because we implicitly agree to follow rules when we use them.

Think back to my previous example of the football game.  The opposing teams play the game by collectively  following the rules. Anyone who refuses to play by the rules is kicked out of the game.   The audience understands what’s going on -  when a team makes a score, who is winning and who is losing -  by knowing beforehand the exact same rules.

Team members and audience members are not acting like Homo Economus and maximizing their individual utility functions.  Following rules means restricting your behaviour whenever the means to your goal are restricted by the rules of the game.  We voluntarily restrict our behaviour in order to play by the rules but in so doing we are helping to create and sustain a Commons.  This is fundamental and it is what makes human action possible.  

In contrast, in chimpanzee society, chimps would not be able to understand or play football, because they live in social groups with strict dominance hierarchies where there is really only one rule:  “Might Makes Right”.   The point being that no-one will voluntarily follow a rule if they don’t expect that those who “count”  will follow it. This is the precise root of human collective action.  

Language is the exact opposite of an instinct. No one speaks spontaneously without having been immersed in a community of speakers during their infancy.    Grammar  does not exist  independently of human minds.   Grammatical rules are created out of the collective use of language.

Language is a common form of communication that is available to all humans, that presupposes the human purpose of sharing information.  We take this for granted, but it is the absence of the alpha male that changes everything.   In chimp society the dominant alpha male wants information about a food source but a subordinate does not want to share that information because it will mean that he will be deprived of access to the food by the alpha.  The subordinate assumes, rightly, that sharing information will result in being taken advantage of.  In this situation there is often no incentive to share information and collective agreement is greatly inhibited.  

The situation is reversed when we have a monogamous system, where alpha male behaviour is suppressed.  Now sharing information is encouraged, because it leads to food sharing and better control of potential rule-breaking.  

It is my belief that all human culture originates from a primal collective agreement that occurred more than a million years ago:   the first time that humans agreed to live monogamously and were able to sustain that system over generations.  How can I be so confident as to assert the existence of a “primal agreement”   when there obviously cannot be any direct evidence of such an occurrence?

There are two reasons, one is indirect evidence, the other is logical.  First, the fact that our closest animal relatives have social structures that consist of dominance hierarchies with an alpha male on top, whereas humans, for the most part live monogamously in pair bonds and nuclear families.

Apes are not monogamous, they are promiscuous and, except for bonobos, each group is  dominated by an alpha male, who uses his physical strength to terrorize and subjugate the rest of the group.  An alpha is  territorial and will not tolerate a group of strangers of his own species in his vicinity.  

Secondly it is the fact that a monogamous system could not be instituted by individuals each deciding to live that way on their own and then summing up their preferences together.  This was by necessity a collective decision involving irreducibly collective action.    The group not only had to agree to eliminate the alpha male to initiate monogamy, they also needed to agree to  continually suppress new alphas from gaining the upper hand, which was basically a problem that required the ongoing intervention of the entire group and could not be left to solve itself.

Most educated people would probably agree that it is our ability to communicate by language that differentiates us from animals and forms the basis for our overwhelming success.  But our ability to  act according to rules is even more basic than language.

 It may seem as if you cannot have rules without language.  Tell that to bonobo females, who keep males in check by collectively intimidating them.  Bonobos, who look like chimpanzees, are a different species but closely related, having diverged from chimpanzees about two million years ago.   Bonobos can’t talk, but the females still act as if they are following the rule:  “do not allow a male to harass or harm a female.”

We can certainly imagine a situation where the motivation to preserve pair-bonding and prevent a new alpha from taking it all away would exist in common, even if, at the time, humans did not have the linguistic ability to describe that situation.  

I have argued elsewhere  (How the Urge to Merge Led to Language) that eliminating the alpha male and instituting monogamy across the board was what made language possible, because it created a level playing field, where collective action was encouraged.  

In part two I will look more closely at the concept of collective action.