Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Human Pair-Bond


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

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

One of de Waal’s favorite themes is our repeated failure to understand what apes can do.  People can be so taken by the desire to understand exactly how we are different that they will prejudge the apes or discount evidence,  potentially  preventing themselves from seeing something vital about human nature.

Bonobos are apes that look a lot like chimpanzees but are actually a separate species. They are smaller than chimpanzees, and unlike chimps, bonobo males are not dominant.  Female bonobos have achieved dominance over males by ganging up on them.

In chimpanzee society, where males have the upper hand, disputes are dealt with by violence or, more often, threats of violence. But In bonobo society many of these same issues are dealt with by frequent voluntary sexual encounters.

With chimpanzees, brute physical strength is the specialty of males, but in the dominance hierarchies of bonobos, females specialize in being party animals.

In some ways it is hard to believe that bonobos actually exist.  Are we sure that Hollywood didn’t make them up?

We can think of apes and humans as living in groups with degrees of  hierarchical dominance. If dominance were a dial, then apes are higher on that dial than humans, and humans have more range on their dominance dial than apes, from equality all the way to tyrant.

The question is how do we set or reset this dial?  Bonobos have done it through females banding together to dominate the males.  This seems to make dominance less of a problem, as everyone makes love instead of war.  Chimpanzees have pushed the dial to the right, by males banding together under an alpha male. This leads to more violence and greater incentives to selfishness and destructive behaviour.  

 Both methods, in their own way,  have  worked because chimps and bonobos  evolved from our common ancestor and have been living on opposite side of the Congo river for millions of years.  

On the whole, Humans favor pair-bonding to the alternatives but there are sizable minorities engaged in polygamy in many human societies.

One of the things about human nature that I wish to emphasize is that humans are capable of doing just about anything, but we almost always live in societies where a range of behaviours are prohibited. That is how we have reset the dial, in contrast to the great apes.

Both our closest relatives chimps and bonobos are sexually promiscuous.  Chimpanzees are male dominated and bonobos are female dominated.  In a sense, we  humans are right in the middle of these poles.  We have pair bonding, some promiscuity, and a mixture of  hierarchies and some social and sexual equality - a bit of everything, as it were.

Ironically, I’m sometimes more interested in what de Waal , a Primatologist, has to say about humans than in what the  Anthropologists have to say about humans.  For instance, here’s why de Waal thinks that the human pair bond is important:

Our societies are set up for what Biologists call “cooperative breeding”.  that is, multiple individuals work together on tasks that benefit the whole.  Women often jointly supervise the young,  while men perform collective enterprises, such as hunting and group defense.  The community thus accomplishes more than each individual could ever hope to accomplish on their own.  And such cooperation hinges on the opportunity for every male to reproduce.  Each man needs to have a personal stake in the the outcome of the cooperative effort, meaning a family to bring the spoils home to.  

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

Involving adult  males in child-rearing and  food sharing led to the superior survivability of human nomadic groups. Divorcing sexual competition from hunting and sharing food led to the human ability to excel at many different activities, and to the human ability to exchange with and tolerate other groups.  

In a previous article (The Origins of Egalitarianism)  I argued that egalitarianism was the key to human cooperation.   De Waal argues convincingly that the human pair bond is the basis of this cooperation.

We can see that in fact, human pair-bonding and egalitarianism are two sides of the same coin. Pairing humans off implies rough equality between males and prepares the ground for equality between the sexes, something that had not seriously been taken  up until the twentieth century, when Feminism became part of Western  popular culture.
Sustaining the human pair-bond would not have been possible without a conscious moral culture of egalitarianism.  In Christopher Boehm’s comparative study of hunter-gatherer groups from around the world, all had social egalitarianism that was consciously maintained by ridicule, peer pressure, community sanctions, and ultimately by group sanctioned  banishment or assassination.  

Note that the most frequent cause of homicide in these groups were disputes over women. These were not socially sanctioned murders, but the acts of passion.  In other words, they were cases where community sanctions hadn’t worked, either because of secrecy or because of defiance.

 This shows that human  pair-bonds do not come cost-free.   They, in fact, require constant vigilance and threats of social sanctions to maintain.  Boehm calls this the “moral community” -   basically a conscious culture of social monitoring, policing, and influence on each individual of the group by all the others.

We might think of the idea of a moral community as an oppressive lid on our freedom of expression.  We can afford to do this today because we live in a modern society with huge material and economic surpluses, and have the luxury of living under governments, with  legal systems, and well-functioning military and police.

 In the case of our society the benefits of being free to express ourselves may outweigh the losses from the possibilities of  family breakup, and unwanted children.  The situation would be totally different in a hunter-gatherer society, where there exists no lasting surplus to  fund institutions such as police, government,  social security and medical systems.  

Note that the institution of marriage appears to be universal in human societies.  Marriage is  social recognition of pair-bonding, recognition from the families involved and  the public,  of an enduring relationship between the  bride and the groom with the expectation of offspring.  It is the formalization of a cooperative relationship between two families, often, but not always unrelated.  

In almost all  great apes, females leave the group when they become sexually mature and emigrate to a group in an adjoining territory.  Once in the new group they cease all relations with their former group.

It’s not at all like humans, where we may live with or visit our in-laws so they can see the grandkids.  In the great apes there is no consistent recognition of paternity because  there is an incentive for females to hide paternity so that infants are not killed by rival males;  and, excepting bonobos, no friendly relations with other groups, because each territory is ruled by an alpha male who is especially hostile to any other alpha male.

Marriage benefits female humans by creating social recognition of paternity and providing a stable environment for raising children.  Marriage is not an iron-clad guarantee of stability but as a social institution it creates a powerful incentive structure that amplifies pro-social behaviour.

Widespread polygamy in humans is actually a more modern phenomenon, dating from the beginnings of domestication of plants and animals, and the existence of surplus food.  But even in those societies, the majority of humans lived as monogamous couples.

There is compelling evidence that polygamy leads to greater poverty, lower education levels and more violent conflict.  The reasons are not hard to find.  Societies where polygamy is prevalent, are often societies where women work in the fields and men are indolent.  Because the richest or most powerful men monopolize the women, there are more conflicts and wars for the purpose of capturing them.

The majority of men in societies with polygamy, who  are poor, with less access to women to marry,  are less likely to have any interest in doing anything for the public good, and more likely to be involved in acts of crime and violence.  This is not a good recipe for social stability.  

For these reasons it seems likely that pair-bonding was universal in humans and their ancestors for millions of years.  At the same time that pair-bonding was the rule, it was also not universal by desire.  Those who could get away with violating it did, but this free-riding was checked by the cultural development of a critique of “alpha-ness”.