Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Birth of The Commons

“You have the right to remain silent.”

I’ve just invented a new communication app.  It can be used by almost everyone; It works anywhere and anytime, night or day;  It doesn’t need batteries, doesn’t need to be plugged in,  doesn’t even need the internet;  Once people start using it, it is so easy to use that it is almost impossible to stop using it;  it becomes indispensable, and you are hooked, you cannot be without it;  It can be tailored to suit any occasion;  It’s use facilitates an expanding network of people; It’s use opens up incredible possibilities for creativity and cooperation.  

 There is only two things that may be problematic: my new app takes about four years to download. Yes, you heard correctly, not four minutes but four years.  And usually, only ridiculously  young kids know how to download it, but, like I said it takes about four years.   During that time, the system needs constant maintenance and TLC.  The other snag is that once someone starts using it, it becomes common property, available to everyone free, and so I personally, can’t get rich off of it.

 OK, I lied.  It’s not a  new app.    It’s called language, and it was invented by the first humans probably within the last million years.  

I mention this, not because I’m bemoaning a lost opportunity,  (If only I had bought shares in Language Corp early,  when it was just getting started...)  but because of all the things about language, it’s universal availability may be its most important aspect.

What is language?  A method of communication unique to humans that is available to virtually all humans to use.  A common  way for us to share information and create enduring knowledge.

Take a proto-language  “Me Tarzan, you Jane”. Start with naming, then add verbs to describe action and emotions.  Once you begin to share information you are creating a common space of understanding amongst you and your fellow speakers.  That common space is like a blank screen that allows for maximum creative yield, and prepares the ground for collective decisions.  

What is a commons?  A commons is a level-playing field.  Everybody gets to breathe air, and we have that in common with most other species.  Here in the rain forests of the  Pacific Northwest, fresh water is a common resource.

We parcel up land into properties, but much land is held in common in the form of parks, trackless wilderness, public rights of way and public spaces.  The sunlight that falls to earth is common to all,  plants and animals on land , fish and the whales in the sea.  

Before the human development of agriculture and domestication humans lived for millions of years in hunter-gatherer bands of approximately thirty to ninety people.  If the band survived and prospered, eventually, as population grew over generations, a new band would split off.  As this process continued, a larger and larger area of land would need to be occupied.

Eventually groups that originally were connected, would become separated permanently by mountains or water barriers. Originally we had everything in common.  Then because of our success in outgrowing our original environment we ceased to have a common place and identity.

This is probably the basis for the evolution of different languages (see “Tower of Babel”)  If we go back far enough in time, all of us living today have a common history, but over thousands of years different peoples occupying different places have come to conflict and cooperation with each other.

Each of us has our humanity and human origins in common with everyone else alive today.  Since then, we may have got here in different ways, but we all share the present time in common.  We, in fact, share this age in common with the Earth’s biosphere and all it’s manifest diversity.  

Here is the thing we do not share  in common with any other form of life - the origins of our humanity.  What makes us human? And is there such a thing as a defining characteristic of humanness? It is my hypothesis that human society was created by collective agreement, beginning with establishing sexual monogamy.  A few other animals, like geese and swans are naturally monogamous but only humans maintain monogamy by collective agreement.

Chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives are naturally promiscuous, but unlike our ape cousins, most adult humans choose to live in monogamous societies and in monogamous relationships.  Monogamy creates a level playing field for prospective human mates. The idea is that all  males and females should, at the least,  get a chance to pair-up.

I hate to break it to everyone, but monogamy is definitely not the default mode for human sexuality.    Instinctually we are promiscuous, not monogamous. If you don’t believe me, note the content of TV, movies, the internet, pornography, etc.  

We can only maintain monogamy by actively and persistently suppressing alpha dominant behaviour.  It takes a lot of collective effort and teamwork to establish and maintain monogamy in a society, however imperfectly it is maintained,  yet in most societies,  monogamy is, in fact, predominant and seen as the ideal standard.

Try to find a contemporary society where the ideal relationship is not a pair-bond.  Fundamentalist Mormons? The one exception that proves the rule.  Even in Islamic societies where multiple marriages are permissible,  the romantic ideal is a couple, not a harem.

  How the heck did we manage to institute a practice that goes against our instincts, that appears to go against Darwinian natural selection, and not only initiate it but make it near universal, in a world of fantastically diverse human cultures?  That’s the cool hat-trick.

Enforcing monogamy is,  in effect, a collective effort to enforce a level-playing field where prospective alpha males are prevented from taking over, and tilting the field in their favour. I believe that the most relevant evidence comes from observing contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, because these societies are the closest we have to the way our common ancestors once lived.  

American Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, has surveyed the existing nomadic hunter-gatherers and found that each group collectively  forms a “moral community” that specifically focuses on suppressing alpha behaviour.  They  do have leaders, but they are first-among-equals types of leaders. In these societies leaders who get too assertive or aggressive are ignored or shunned.

Consider how feelings of embarrassment or fear of being embarrassed can really reign us in from “making fools of ourselves”  The social controls on acting out that we internalize during childhood are very powerful.     

In alpha-male dominated societies such as chimpanzee society, social situations tend to be more violent and favour the alpha and his confederates.  Even if an alpha gets eliminated, he is soon replaced with a new alpha.    The level playing field never has a chance to be established.  Without it, there is no potential for collective agreement, only different forms of coercion and intimidation.

Collective agreement, not individual choices, is the basis of language and human culture, the core abilities that distinguish humans from animals.  This was first made possible by creating and maintaining a common space of equality where adult males and females could form enduring pair-bonds.  

For the first time, this allowed humans to form agreements based on rights and privileges. By agreeing to live by rules, setting limits on our behaviour,  we   were able to create a common social space in which everyone could participate and everyone could benefit. Thus, we crossed the line between animals and humans when we used collective agreement to set limits on human sexual  behaviour.

From then on, every aspect of human culture: kinship and family,  language, music, social institutions, governments, markets, associations had this in common:  They all create social spaces, built by prior collective agreement, where, by agreeing to behave under certain limits, we collectively create and sustain a common social reality.  

By agreeing to live monogamously the first humans created a level playing field where  suppressing alpha male behaviour and sharing information, food, technology, and parenting first became universally possible, benefiting both individuals and societies.

If we consider the question “How is language possible?”  We can broaden that  question into: “How is human society possible? This is the basis of the work of American Philosopher, John Searle.   Social reality is created by the use of language.  Declarations, Demands, Acknowledgments,  Recognition, Honoring, Accepting, Rejecting, Promising, Proposing, Compromising, Agreeing….  all these actions create social reality by the use and utterance of language.  They work in creating and sustaining social reality because we implicitly agree to follow rules when we use language.  

Language itself doesn’t work unless it’s universal.  Fact:  All languages can be translated into other languages.  Fact: There are no human groups without language.  Even the deaf have sign language.  Hypothesis:   Monogamy preceded the development of language and was a necessary condition for its development.  

I believe that language was born out of an agreement to  level the  playing field.  By agreeing to establish and maintain a system of pair-bonds our ancestors created the first human commons.  Like Noah’s Ark, we agreed to pair up equally and by maintaining that equality we created the possibility of a radically expanded social reality.

As Canadian anthropologist Bernard Chapais has pointed out, in his book, Primeval Kinship,  by recognizing the rights and privileges of monogamy we create the reality of recognized paternity, the incredible advantage of dual parenting, in-laws,  forms of  kinship including aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the potential to accumulate knowledge over generations.  

We use language because we expect not to be taken advantage of by others.  Apes don’t distribute meat from hunting in an equitable manner but human hunter-gatherers do.  Apes can be taught versions of a proto-language, but never can get beyond it,because they don’t trust that going along with the rules will work when the alpha is around.  There is only one rule for an alpha - “Might makes right”.  Social systems with alpha males preclude most forms of collective agreement, because any rule that is agreed to is likely to be broken by the alpha male.   Without monogamy, we could not have created language, for language presupposes a level of trust, and collective agreement that is lacking for any group living under the shadow of an alpha male.  

Once we learned to speak out we amplified our ability to cooperate and help each other, reinforcing our collective ability to suppress and control potential alpha males.Think about gossip, shaming,  mocking - all ways of influencing and keeping others in line.  We craft ideas, stories,   idealizations and myths as a means to focus on staying within certain agreed upon boundaries, and as a way to point to ideals of behaviour.

 What hunter-gatherer humans had accomplished was the establishment of the first human commons, and the creation of an ever-expanding social reality by the use of collective agreement.

No animal other than humans distributes food equally, and hunter-gatherer groups do this routinely.  No other animal speaks a language that is capable of generating an infinite number of thoughts and ideas.  This generative capacity comes from the universal accessibility of language.  Everyone uses language, everyone shares ideas when they use it. We can create a world with language where our understanding and cooperative abilities are magnified beyond anything possible on our own.  That is the power of collective agreement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Jungle/Drum 'n' Bass", Johnny Rabb's definitive School of Rock

The word “rock”  in the phrase “rock and roll”, alludes to the rocking back and forth motion.  The word “rock” in “rock music”  began to acquire the other sense of “rock” when the music became more sophisticated, with a harder edge to it.  

There is something about the rock beat that feels right -  that building of tension with the repeating bass drum and that blessed relief that comes with the crack of the backbeat on the snare.  It so mirrors the rhythms of the human body, which is why it is so irresistible a form of dance music.

In jazz drumming up until the 1950’s the bass drum beat solid four - four quarter notes to the bar.  The famous drum exercise book Syncopation. by Ted Reed, is almost entirely straight four on the bass drum.  I realize Syncopation  is probably the greatest book of progressive exercises for the right and left hands ever, but the straight four drives this rock aficionado crazy.

Here’s a suggestion for aspiring rock drummers:  Once you’ve gone through Syncopation, turn around and do it again, this time substituting the bass drum for the snare drum part.  Use one of your hands to play quarters, eighths, or broken triplets on the cymbals, and the other to play backbeat on the snare, on the three, for cut-time or on the two and four for regular.  If you want a real workout on the bass drum I recommend Bass Drum Control by Colin Bailey.

For years I have searched high and low for the rock equivalent of Ted Reed’s Syncopation - a book that takes you from simple and easy to fantastically complex in a smooth satisfying progression.  I believe I have found such a book for the rock drummer.  It is a book by pro drummer Johnny Rabb, called Jungle/Drum 'n’ Bass.  

Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass is actually a particular style of dance music that often features drum machines rather than live drummers.    In some ways this style is rather segmented from other styles of popular music.  Unless you are a fan, you are likely only to have heard this kind of music in passing.  It is distinct in it’s high speed tempo and polyrhythmic drumming, hence it’s jungle-like aspects.  The bass drum has an insistent flowing quality that drives it forward.  Even though it is repetitive, the fast tempo makes it flow together surprisingly well.

Johnny Rabb, who is well-known for his speed and precision, has created what amounts to the definitive primer for rock drummers in this book.

A good rock drummer should be able to play in many different styles so that he or she has the ability to create a virtually infinite variety of beats.  The most important thing to remember is the bass drum.  In order to lay down a proper groove, the bass drum line must always be rock solid, the foundation for everything else in the song.  Rock solid means perfect timing and steady even phrasing - everything else follows.  

How do you get to this point?  The first thing is practice - but what do you practice?  It needs to be progressive - start with easy and slowly add challenges - timekeeping, coordination, and achieving a continuous flow at higher tempos.  In order to make progress a drummer has to be able to produce a wider and wider variety of beats in a technically consistent manner. this only comes from regular practice and gradually increasing the technical challenges.  This is exactly what Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass allows you to do.

Working my way through Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass over the past year  I have been pleasantly surprised by the steady improvement in my timing, precision, and ability to play polyrhythms in a relaxed and seemingly effortless manner.  

Rabb’s section on rolls has been particularly satisfying as I have made substantial progress in a matter of weeks.  What Jim Blackley did for Syncopated Rolls, Johnny Rabb does for Rockin Rolls in this book.  This section alone was  well worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, the highlight of Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass  is the section on Linear Drumming.  I was first introduced to the Linear style of drumming in books by Glenn W. Meyer.  Creative Drum Systems, Funk and Fusion Concepts, and Beyond Stick Control are a few of his books that feature sections on Linear Drumming.  

As Johnny puts it, this is one of the styles that looks easy but is more difficult to do correctly. As I see it, Rabb’s entire book is a graduated series of exercises that builds up to the Linear style.  All the pieces that go together are first broken down into learnable parts and then gradually built up into a cohesive whole.  That’s why it is really important to start at the beginning of this book and do the exercises in the order they are written.  

What I love about the linear style is how relaxed and effortless it sounds and how it adds to the continuous flow of the music.  If you want a consummate example of this style listen to Steve Gadd.  

There are also great sections on other important styles of drumming in Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass, including unison style, sixteenth note ghost-notes, and double-bass drumming.  

Here are some suggestions as to how to get more out of Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass:
  • practice exercises as written, then go back and practice them with a shuffle or legato feel.  
  • keep time with the high hat while playing the ride cymbal.  Steady half-notes, quarter notes, or eighth notes played with the foot on the high-hat really helps to keep time especially when you are creating a break or a drum solo, where the tendency is to fall out of time in the transition.  (Use ear protection, especially when you are playing on the ride cymbal or the crashes.)
  •   practice all exercises with the R hand on hi-hat or ride cymbal, then switch to L hand on hi-hat or L ride.  Now, why burden oneself with ambidexterity on the cymbals?  It strengthens your left hand;  it allows your right hand freedom to play around the set,  especially on the low tom, while your left hand is keeping time;  and best of all, it it strengthens your right foot - making for a more solid bass drum beat.  That’s because the right foot does the same thing whether R or L is working the cymbals, so the foot gets twice the workout.  

All in all, Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass is the closest thing I know of  to a “School of Rock” for aspiring rock drummers .  Practicing the exercises in this book in a graduated manner will eventually give you the precision, timing, creativity, and mastery to be able to play tasteful grooves any time, anywhere.

People may remember a particular rock drummer from the groove that he laid down in one song, but what really makes a good rock drummer is the ability to play a wide variety of grooves and styles with a consistent technical proficiency.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How "Urge to Merge" Led to Language


“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal…”                     The Declaration of Independence

The idea that the structure of language, its syntax, and underlying rules are built-in to the human brain, perhaps initially  triggered by a chance mutation, sometime around one hundred thousand years ago, that created within us a disposition to combine words, called “Merge”, is famously postulated by the MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky.  

The motivation for this theory comes from the astounding difference between human language and any other form of animal communication.  If the apes are the animals that we have the closest genetic relation to, how could such an incredible system as language have developed from ape communication?  There is a vast discontinuity here that is very hard to bridge with any Darwinian step by step explanation.

 Humans are a type of primate, but the only primate that talks.  Monkeys, apes, and many other animals vocalize.  These are stereotypical calls that are emotional responses to dangers, conflicts and potential mates.   Vocalizations are often, but not always involuntary.  They are conditioned responses to stimuli.  Laughing and crying are human vocalizations, and they follow the same pattern as in animals;  They are often but not always involuntary.

Apes can communicate with gestures, and gestures, unlike vocalizations are entirely voluntary. Speech could have come from vocalizations, but it’s more likely it first came from hand gestures and then shifted to voluntary vocalizations. This would explain why we still like to use our hands when we talk, especially when we are emphasizing a point.

 All the areas of speech specialization are in the cerebral cortex, the more conscious part of the brain that controls the voluntary muscle movements.   The number of throat and tongue muscles involved in speaking is mind boggling and the degree of coordination between groups of muscles that is needed to be able to speak rapidly, defies the imagination.  We must have had a lot of time to develop this, five or six million years maybe.
By the way, no attempt by humans to teach apes to talk has succeeded or will ever succeed, because they lack the fine motor coordination of the human vocal apparatus.  On the other hand, there has been some success teaching apes sign language.

It seems likely that language developed from some form of voluntary intentional communication.  This would suggest that language is less instinctual and more of a learned habit or skill which uses a fair bit of real estate in the more conscious and voluntary parts of the brain.  This is also supported by the evidence of  the plasticity of infant brains, the prolonged human infancy, and the prolonged period of learning that it takes to master a language.

In my view we have neglected the importance of agreement, and rule formation in the question of how language originated.  All languages have vocabularies of words used to refer to objects, actions,  mental states and ideas.  When words are combined to form complex descriptions, narratives, and declarations, they are combined according to set rules.  The body of these rules are known as syntax or more commonly as grammar.

 Where do rules come from?   Many rules  come from agreements.   The act of agreement is often signified nonverbally,  by a handshake,  sometimes even a nod of the head.

 As the American Philosopher John Searle has described in his book, The Construction of Social Reality,  In our everyday existence we find ourselves already embedded in a world of human values, a world created and maintained by successive  collective agreements.  These agreements can be present right now, as in a signing ceremony, or they can remain implicit, and hidden, and often forgotten.

Rules and agreements, in order to be sustained over generations, need the basis of a “level playing field”  We expect those who enter this “field”  to follow the rules and we watch for rule-breaking,  and  “out them” if they do break the rules.  

  Rules are agreed to because they apply to everyone equally.  Rules, such as - “Do unto others…” ,  and “you cannot have more than one wife” -  only  work if people believe in them and expect that others will follow them also.

 If we speak correctly others understand what we are saying, because both the speaker and listener are mutually following the rules.  The interesting thing about our mastery of language is that we take it so much for granted that it is hard to imagine not following the rules of grammar, etc.

We can look to evidence from brain damaged individuals showing various incapacities to speak or to understand.  Evidently these individuals have become incapable of following certain rules, not out of choice, but because the brain circuits that they used each time they followed those rules have now been destroyed.

Rules and agreements are each foundations for further rules and agreements.    So that over a million years it is conceivable that evolution could carve out new grooves in our cerebral cortex  for the use of learning these rules, and that as we did so the older rules would be more forgotten because a superstructure of rules has been laid down on top of them.

Imagine teaching apes rules.  It would  not  be easy,  especially if your intention was to get them to use the rules spontaneously or for them to teach the rules to their fellow apes.  But learning and teaching rules is an easy task for a six year old human child.  In my opinion, apes don’t take to rules because they live in societies with an alpha male.  

There is no level playing field with an alpha male.  There is no concept of rules applying equally, because there is only one rule: “MIght Makes Right.”   When a new alpha topples the old alpha he may have different expectations and preferences from the previous alpha, but these will just be changed again when he loses to a future alpha,  and so, the one rule rules them all.

Chimpanzees, our closest relatives and Gorillas our more distant relatives have dominance hierarchies ruled by alpha males.  They don’t have language.  Humans don’t have alpha males but we have hierarchies and we have language.

An interesting exception is the bonobo, an even closer relative of chimpanzees.  Bonobos are smaller, but look similar.  And they have very different social behaviour  from that of chimps.
 In most ape societies, when an alpha is eliminated he is soon replaced with another alpha, but that doesn’t happen in bonobo groups.  Unlike male chimps, bonobo males are prevented from using their superior physical strength to dominate  females, because bonobo females always gang up on individual males before they can get away with their bullying.   But bonobos don’t live monogamously  and they don’t have language either.

Note the element of collective intentionality that’s always present in the elimination of the alpha.  Bonobo females act together to overpower males and have managed to maintain this system for possibly millions of years.   Bonobos prefigure humans because the females control male dominance collectively.  Even though they don’t have words they have some rudimentary concept of right and wrong because they punish or threaten to punish males for their behaviour.

Most of the great apes live in tropical forests, with enough fruit and nut trees in one area to support a group of about thirty.  There is a role for the alpha to help rally and bolster the troops over boundary disputes and defense of territory.  But hominins, the ancestors of humans, were walking greater distances together and the idea of defending  this as “territory” probably stretches the role of alpha too far.

Three million years ago the hominins were pursuing a different niche strategy outside the forest, due to the contingencies of severe climate change, as a series of brutal ice ages descended over the earth.   In order to survive over time, they needed to be able to migrate during seasonal or prolonged droughts.

In my opinion, alpha males would have been a distinct liability for migrating hominins.  Their presence would have discouraged the kind of cooperation and functional cohesion that aids survival when a group is on the move.

Alpha males would have been always replaced by another alpha, unless a collective decision was made by everyone else in the group to eliminate the present alpha and suppress any new candidates.  Female bonobos have done this without the use of language. It’s interesting that the most advanced case of language ability in an ape is the bonobo, born in captivity,  named “Kanzi”  

When an individual chimpanzee or a coalition overpowers an alpha, a new alpha comes to power.   Only eliminating the alpha by a collective decision makes it possible to create and maintain a system where humans bond in pairs, and dominance is separated from other forms of competition.

We know that agreements are possible without language because we can observe animals hunting in packs and then sharing the kill, usually according to hierarchical status.  Animals can act voluntarily, they can agree to hunt together and share the kill, but they can’t seem to agree to share things equally.  This seems to be related to the presence of an alpha male based hierarchy.  

Certainly there are all too numerous examples of humans sharing unequally, but if we narrow our examination  to include only  nomadic hunting and gathering societies,  then, according to the findings of Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, described in his book, Hierarchy in the Forest,  nomadic hunter-gatherers from the far corners of the earth, universally distribute shares of meat from large kills in an equal fashion to all families in their group.

Not coincidentally, as Boehm notes,   hunter-gatherers are often obsessed with  suppressing greediness, polygamy,  boasting, and anger, They use social control through ridicule, gossip, and shunning.  they create a “moral community” that actively promotes egalitarianism.

Eliminating and  suppressing alpha-male behaviour has enhanced the survivability of hunting and gathering societies. One reason for this is that hunters are not always lucky, and if successful hunters don’t share in good times,  they risk starving when they hit a dry spell.

 By eliminating the alpha male, then establishing pair-bonds, human communities were first able to collectively regulate behaviour by community-enforced “rules”, although, before language they were not rules as we know them today, but more feelings and emotions.   The feeling of what is fair and what is not, can be shared amongst a group, and the desire to be with one’s beloved  and to facilitate the same for others does not  necessarily require words.

Monogamy could have been inspired through emotions, perhaps even love, before language or any form of reason existed.  But the collective creation and maintenance of monogamy  created a level playing field   in which those who excel at things other than dominance,  can contribute to the whole  community,  rather than taking over everything, as the alpha does.

According to  Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, all living things are descended from a single ancestor.  What I am proposing, is that all human collective decisions, including those that were used to create  language, are descended from that first collective decision to eliminate the alpha male and replace him with monogamous pair-bonds.  

By this collective act, a level playing field was created,  the idea of equality was born, and from this beginning language as a rule bound way of sharing information became possible.

Even though language wasn’t asking to be spoken, we collectively created it  by  first calling into being the conditions of its possibility -  monogamy and equitable sharing.   It was in this collective act that we created ourselves as human beings.

As the Declaration of Independence states, humankind was created equally, and the concept of equality comes from the human ability to maintain equality through collective action.

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 am 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 does not 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.