Monday, August 25, 2014

The Origins of Egalitarianism

What really differentiates humans from all other animals?   Consider the fact that you are reading this paragraph written by Mr. C. Justice. You may or may not know me.  You may or may not live in the same community or the same country as me.  And yet, you are willing to consider what I have to say.   This is a level of cooperation that escapes any other type of  animal.

I’m sure everyone can think of impressive examples of human cooperation. An example of tightly coordinated human cooperation is a special operations military team.  All the team members hold to the same goal and act to further the same goal. This is called “joint intentionality”, by the way,  which is the prerequisite for collective action

In action they all regard each other and trust each other as equals.  Even the leader is regarded as “first-among-equals”.  Consider what would happen if in an operation the leader put on airs and insisted that everyone follow strict hierarchical protocol and constantly defer to him.  Mission aborted.  Combat missions that require split-second timing cannot afford to have individuals grandstanding or having a melt-down.

The quality of cooperation and the amount of cooperation in humans is distinctly different from that of any of the great apes, our nearest primate relatives.   For all other great apes are ruled by dominance hierarchies, in most cases, where the dominant male controls sexual access to females  and dominant animals control access to the choicest foods.   As long as this situation existed it served to inhibit the development of joint intentionality, and collective action.

Six million years ago, the ancestor that we had in common with chimpanzees  our closest great ape relatives probably had dominance hierarchies too.

But,  what if, deep in our ancestry the situation of dominance hierarchy changed?  In fact it must have, because present day human societies are a mixture of hierarchy and egalitarianism.  That change would have opened wide the possibility of  deeper cooperation and collective action.  

Do humans have dominance hierarchies?  They sure do.  We can see evidence for it everywhere:  gangs, prison behaviour, bullies, tyrants, spousal abuse, the”toxic boss”,  military rank, etc.    But we also see evidence of egalitarianism too, in some types of human pair-bonding and socially in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies, which are the closest thing to the way our nearest ancestors lived.

In Chimpanzee society one male, usually the biggest and strongest, is able to control most sexual access to females when they are in estrus.  His method of dominance is mostly threat displays designed to intimidate subordinates.  If need be he will fight, and if he loses, a new, usually younger alpha male, takes his place.  

Imagine life under a bully who is physically bigger and more powerful than you.  He’s often in a bad mood and often goes into rages.   He’s constantly terrorizing you, sometimes  he beats you up for random things you do that he  perceives as “insults”.  He controls your access to both the best food and to sex.

 Or imagine living in a country where every official is corrupt, and you need to  constantly grease everyone’s palm to stay out of trouble or get anywhere.  This is what life is like in Chimpanzee society.

Six million years ago, Hominids started moving out of the forest and it is hypothesized that they initiated waves of migration because of a series of prolonged droughts.  Africa is a pretty big place.  To migrate any distance would  require a lot of group coordination and group solidarity. Dealing with a dominant alpha male might actually lower a group’s chance of surviving in this type of situation.  For one thing it could negatively affect morale.  Why would the subordinate males want to go along with the rigours and discomforts of migration when they would be denied access to fertile females?

 The idea that early humans consciously cooperated to create egalitarian groups is the hypothesis of Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm in his book  Hierarchy in the Forest.

Group migration, because it is a process of moving over large distances requires collective action.  Everyone needs to be together on certain things, sharing food, protecting against predators, avoiding dangers, and finding the right way.  Humans know how to act collectively, but the great apes are much more limited in this capacity.

I believe  that the reason we are more cooperative is because, way back in our prehistory, eliminating or suppressing the dominant male made migration more feasible. This resulting, consciously maintained  egalitarianism,  then opened the way for pair bonding, language, culture, and human society.

Note that I am not saying that early hominid groups got together and killed the dominant male so that they could migrate.  Migration would have been a necessity forced on them, but groups that did get rid of their alpha male would have been more likely to survive than groups that didn’t and this could have driven hominid evolution.

First of all, why was migration so important?   The last three million years were years of ice ages alternating with shorter warmer ages.  The ice ages have dominated, and during times of glaciation the African Equatorial Rainforest has shrunk and more open environments of desert, savannah, and grasslands have grown.  When glaciers are at their maximum they lock up  tremendous amounts of fresh water.  The amount of ice locked up in Greenland and Antarctica could raise the level of the world’s oceans about 250 feet if it all melted away.  

If, at times of maximum glaciation, there was less fresh water available, then there would be less water in lakes, rivers, and the oceans.  Bipedalism, the ability to walk on the two hind-legs, would have given the first hominids an advantage in finding good sources of water over years and decades, and generations.   

As the hominids became more efficient at walking, greater feats of migration would have become possible.  These could have made the difference between extinction and survival during severe bouts of climate change.

The great apes would have gotten no advantage from eliminating dominance hierarchies because they stayed in the rainforest, where each group staked out and defended territory against rival groups.  As long as dominance was the rule,  life in Chimpanzee society is always a zero-sum game with winners and losers.  In this situation cooperation is almost entirely instrumental and altruism is a losing strategy.  

 The original reasons for the hierarchy reversal could have been the desire of subordinate males for sexual access to fertile females and the access to weapons that occurred when hominids started to manufacture stone blades.  After all, the fact that the majority of male chimpanzees are subordinate means that there are a lot of dissatisfied male chimps who would love to dispatch the alpha male if they had the means to do it.

We can date the first stone tools to  around two and a half million years ago, which is approximately when our ancestors are estimated to have lost all that body hair.  Razor sharp knives and spear points may well have  provided the means for Homo Habilis, our first tool-making ancestor to consciously create egalitarian societies.  Shaving would come two and a half million years later.

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm  studied and compared many different modern hunter-gatherer groups, and what he found was that the vast majority of these groups maintained small egalitarian societies,  that is, societies where  the meat from animals killed by hunters was shared by everyone equally, and bragging, showing off, showing anger, or claiming more for oneself was deeply discouraged by the active use of peer pressure, ridicule etc.,  and if those methods didn’t work, they relied on  the ultimate  threats of group banishment or assassination.  

The point of this conscious culture of egalitarianism was to suppress or reverse the dominance hierarchy of the alpha male.  Instead of competition being a zero-sum game between dominant and subordinates, our ancestors learned to excel at hunting, etc., without taking over everything else.  

Why would the contemporary  lifestyle of a ridiculously small minority of humans matter to the development of human society?  Ten thousand years ago was the beginnings of farming, settled life and living in villages.  For millions of  years previously homo sapiens and our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers.  That means, for the vast majority of time that humans have lived on Earth, they have lived as hunter-gatherers.  

So if contemporary hunter-gatherers are consciously egalitarian, it’s likely that previous hunter-gatherers were as well.  Note that most contemporary hunter-gatherers are nomadic.  They have to migrate in order to get enough food and water to survive all year-round.  Hence the reason for being consciously egalitarian.  Egalitarianism favours survival in small nomadic groups.

Once hunting and gathering was replaced by farming, then the situation changed radically and hierarchical behaviour no longer had an inimical effect on group survival.  Hence our present day mixture of egalitarianism and hierarchy.  

One of the most fascinating things about Boehm’s findings is that egalitarianism in hunter-gatherers has to be consciously and culturally maintained. I believe that this has revolutionary implications today.

In response to climate change, proto-humans conscious adoption of egalitarianism made the deeper and more complex forms of human cooperation possible at the same time that it first put in place  social controls on our instinctual urge to dominate and take advantage of each other.  Civilization eventually followed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking: Touching the Ground of Human Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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