Saturday, February 7, 2015

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 navigate a way forward for ourselves.  I believe that the heart of what makes us human is very simple, and it 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 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 and a half 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.   

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