Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Birth of The Commons

I’ve just invented a new communication app.  It can be used by almost everyone; It works anywhere and any time, 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.

Are you ready to try my new free app?   It’s called language.   OK, I lied.  It’s not a  new app and I didn’t invent it.  But everything else I said about it is true, and it was invented by the first humans sometime within the last five hundred thousand 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.