Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Human Singularity - Part I

It seems ironic to me that the  idea that humanity originated with a  single decisive change now gets short shrift by most scientists and philosophers.   Instead the idea of a singularity is pinned on the popular science fiction fantasy of intelligent machines taking over the world at an unspecified future moment in time.

Nowadays scientists and philosophers are so specialized that they can’t possibly see the whole of human nature by looking through the lense of their separate disciplines.  Everyone is looking at little bits and pieces like the story of the blind men trying to figure out the shape of an elephant. As of yet, the experts don’t agree on what human nature is and how it originated.  Perhaps the subject of human nature is not really a scientific subject at all because it’s just too general for most scientists, as the concept of “life” is for biology.  

All life is purposive, in the sense that each life form tries to keep surviving and reproducing.  A flame may seem to act like a living thing because we can see it feeding off combustibles, we can  see it move and change shape and feel its heat if we get too close.  But a flame doesn’t have any  purpose.  It doesn’t anticipate running out of fuel, and it doesn’t look for more fuel elsewhere in order to keep itself alive.  

Similarly no machine generates its own purpose.  Machines do things, because they are designed and operated by humans.  At no future time will a machine cross over this boundary to become purposive and self-maintaining and self-replicating because there is nothing about machines that equates to the urge to live.

All critters are motivated to keep living, avoid predators, and dangers, approach and utilize food and shelter, enjoy the fruits of a good life and make babies. And they’ve been doing this for hundreds of millions of years.  All living organisms today share a common descent from an original organism that maintained and replicated itself more than three billion years ago.  For all that time,this chain of life has never been broken.

  Machines have no background like this.  They don’t need to survive, because their “surviving” is totally dependent on specific  human purposes. We need machines.  They don’t need themselves or us.  They only do what they are programmed to do.
Judging by  the widespread popularity of science fiction stories and movies like the Terminator, 2001,  Star Wars, and Avatar,  it is still  very easy to imagine and believe that human-type purposes can  independently  exist and animate machines.  But, this is really just an updated version of an old way of looking at our world called “animism” - the belief that spirits and gods animate natural phenomena like rivers, the weather, and volcanoes.  

Most of us are aware that storms are a natural phenomenon caused by  weather patterns, and they are not the result of storm gods punishing people or exacting revenge.  It might feel intuitively like that when we are caught in a  bad storm, but we know that that kind of thinking is projecting human qualities onto brute physical processes.

Now that we have Darwin’s theory of Evolution we have an explanation of how things came about that doesn’t involve projecting human intentions onto either nature or supernatural beings.  Natural selection, which means roughly, that populations are winnowed by natural causes and it is the survivors who preserve and pass on successful hereditary traits.  But it also implies that our origins were not from design, and that is a revolutionary suggestion to our ears.

Humans are not natural, in the sense of being self-organizing like primate societies, or other types of animal groupings.  Humans create social reality by design, by  conscious deliberation and collective agreement. On the other hand, nature is not human, it doesn’t have human consciousness, intentions and purpose.   The problem that this entails is simple but very far-reaching: the way that we came into existence must have been natural but through that  process we somehow created our own separate human nature.

Nowadays, to talk about a decisive difference between humans and animals is a bit unpopular.  It would seem that, by the principles of Darwinian natural selection there cannot have been a singularity because the transition from animal to man had to be a gradual one.  One could almost call it a consensus view that there could be no single factor in human evolution that led to homo sapiens, it had to be multiple factors, and over a vast span of time.

In other words, today it is easier to imagine our end with the Terminator than it is to imagine how we first actually  became different from animals.

The book of Genesis tells us that God made humans in God’s image.  A wonderful metaphor that could mean just about anything because we don’t have any direct evidence of God’s existence.  Presumably it is hinting at our comprehensive and expanding knowledge of the world and our use and possession of reason rather than just animal instincts and passions.

In Genesis God walks in his garden just as we do, he takes a well-earned rest after creating the world in six days,  and he gets into bad moods and wrecks things just like we do and this is all consistent with the theme that we were created in God’s image.   

I believe the collective use of moral judgement is what distinguishes us from animals and  this is what gave us the ability to bootstrap our way out of the natural world by making it  possible to construct our own reality and impose it on almost everything else.

The problem here is the same problem to do with the image of God.  Where is the evidence?  It turns out that there is some evidence, and it exists all around us but this evidence is so much a part of the background that it remains unseen, and taken for granted.  Humans have language and morality. What do these two have in common?  They are both rule-bound activities, that involve and include all humans, or at least, would do  so in a paleolithic group of thirty to a hundred humans.  

Why this size of group?   Like other primates we live in groups in order to survive.  and, there are some good reasons why the first humans lived in groups of from thirty to a hundred people. First off the first groups of humans couldn’t have been smaller than thirty for a number of reasons. They had to be nomadic, so they had to have few possessions and they would have depended on each other to survive.   They had to deal with other groups of people and be able to defend themselves.  

 But larger groups, while they might be more effective in warfare, might not be supportable in many less-than-plentiful environments.  And dissension and violence seems to accompany groups when they get too large.  No doubt that humans are the co-operators par-excellence, but the rate of failure undoubtedly  goes up when a group gets too large.

Language, and morality are basic human social activities.  Knowing what they have in common might give us a good idea about what distinguishes us from animals.

The first quality is “commons”.  Both of these human activities would be shared in  common with everyone in the group.  Everyone in a group would speak the same language.  For any given language, all its speakers share the same words and the same rules of grammar.  

We also include everyone in our moral system, unless we believe that for some reason they cannot comprehend or follow its moral precepts. If we judge anyone to violate moral rules, they are punished, shunned, banished, or even executed.  ( Note that I am not here claiming that one particular moral system is shared by all groups but that every group of humans has a moral system.)

We have now touched on the second important distinction between humans and other animals.  Adherence to rules.  Both language and morality  are made up of rules.  If you don’t follow these rules then you cannot speak intelligibly and you can’t distinguish right from wrong.

The rule-governed world is organized by rules, but where explicit rules and choice as to whether or not to adhere to them do not exist, there you find “self-organizing systems”   What exactly are they?  Self organizing systems are systems in nature that are sustained by the mere natural interaction of their elements without any deliberation or planning.   These systems, like the solar system and earth’s ecosystems, just run themselves.  In the case of the solar system, it works by the force of gravity between the planets and the sun.  In the case of earth’s ecosystems, it is so complex that we don’t really understand how it works.    The fact is that we are incapable of creating and sustaining an ecosystem by deliberation or design.  Nonetheless, ecosystems work fine here on earth without our help.  

Our closest animal relatives are the great apes.  Apes live in self-organizing dominance hierarchies.  In a dominance hierarchy the dominant animal, usually called the alpha male, controls sexual reproduction and the distribution of food.  The system works so that the alpha and other apes on the upper rungs get all the goodies, and the rest of the group gets the dregs.  

In hearing this, you might think that that is exactly what we have in place now.  But you would be wrong.  In a chimpanzee society if the alpha male is killed he is quickly replaced by the new alpha.  Human societies are not like this.  First, leadership is not automatically connected to sexual dominance.  Look at the Pope.  He is the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, but he doesn’t get to marry or have children.    Second, we don’t usually need to kill our leaders and CEOs in order to replace them.  Leadership generally follows rules and leaders, unless they are maniacal tyrants, cannot do whatever they want.

Hunter-gatherer groups make important decisions by consensus.  Many modern groups make decisions by majority vote.  All of these involve collective deliberation as opposed to the automatic functioning of dominance hierarchies.  

What with the continued existence of male sexual misconduct, bullying, and gang-related behaviour one might be tempted to think that nothing has changed since the time our ancestors were apes but all this shows is that we still  bring some of our strongest instinctual urges to the table.

It’s true that we will never really know what human society looked like two million years ago.  There is very little physical evidence left from that long ago.  But we can surmise, by working backward from what we see of human society, especially nomadic hunter-gatherer groups,  and working forward from what we observe about great ape societies.

Somehow we went from small-brained walking apes with dominance hierarchies to large-brained humans with consciously created social systems.  Something had to spark that change and it couldn’t have been just more of the same chimpanzee politics.  

We don’t have alpha males running harems of females (except maybe in Utah.)  Apes don’t follow rules, speak languages, or have moral systems.   It therefore seems unavoidable that the point of origin of human beings had to do with the collective institution of a system of rules that everyone was expected to abide by.

The Human Singularity - Part II

What was the singularity?  Was it the invention of morality or the invention of language? Many philosophers argue that language came first because morality would  not have been possible without language.  Or was it?  We can see in bonobos, a close relative to chimpanzees, a nascent morality, because male bonobos do not get to dominate females.  They are consistently  prevented from dominating females by the collective action of all the females in a group. This is close to a moral system, in spite of the fact that bonobos don’t have language.

Note that in order for the bonobo “moral” system to work, it requires collective action on the part of the entire group of females.  If the females couldn’t overpower individual males by acting together, than the males would dominate instead.

Interestingly, female bonobos have dominance hierarchies but they are much less violent than  chimpanzee male dominance hierarchies because bonobos use sex as a method of dealing with conflict.  Bonobo sex is independent of fertility and happens anywhere and anytime, with any and all combinations of partners.

In bonobo troops, it happens that females individual interests and collective interests exactly coincide in suppressing male dominance behaviour.  But is that the case for humans?

Let’s initially define morality as a system of rules and principles that are collectively used to judge and regulate social behaviour.  This definition would appear to presuppose language.

 We could say that female bonobos appear to be following the unspoken rule:    ”Never allow a male to beat up or harass a female.” But  an alternative explanation could be that female bonobos just instinctively act to  help lone females  by collectively responding when they utter distress calls.  I tend to favour the former explanation, myself.  

We know that our own behaviour is internally regulated by much that is nonverbal:   feelings, moods, hunches, intuitions.  It stands to reason that much social regulation of behaviour has to do with nonverbal feelings too.  
It is highly probable that shared feelings would have preceded any conceptual rendering of a moral principle.  

Could some situations be simple enough that regulating the behaviour involved doesn’t necessarily require the use of language? There is, in fact a type of vulture that collectively disrupts and attacks extra-”marital”  copulation in their fellow vultures.  Note that what’s different about these vultures is that the cuckolded male is able to recruit other vultures to help him attack the guilty couple.  

Regulation of behaviour doesn’t necessarily imply language.  But it is hard to see how a moral system could exist without language.  In a moral system we judge conduct according to standards.  There is no question that this is strongly facilitated by language.  

Is it possible to simplify moral standards down to a fundamental dichotomy, that is simple enough to understand and implement without the use of language?  I think it is.  We see the possibility in the examples of bonobos and vultures, even if we concede that there is a strong argument against their being actual moral systems.  

The sense of universality, that, to paraphrase  Jeremy Bentham, everyone should count as one and no-one as more than one, could be the basis of such a pre-verbal dichotomy.  We all have strong feelings about fairness.  We resent it when others are privileged, or when we are treated worse than others.  Both apes and monkeys have these feelings too.  

The alpha dominance hierarchy is a self-organizing system, because it is in the self-interest of the alpha male to dominate, and in the individual interest of everybody else in the  troupe to submit to his domination.  A moral system, almost by definition, is not self-organizing, because it involves judgement and deliberation and there is an overarching principle that everyone is equally subject to.

There is a reason why moral systems are supposed to apply to everyone equally.  We agree to follow the rules because we expect that everyone else will too.  This is why we agree to follow a rule which may not be in our own self-interest to follow.  This is why we are willing to go out of our way to punish rule-breakers.  

In a game, I play with others as long as I and everyone else plays by the rules.  It might be to my advantage to break a rule, but I play by the rules because I expect everyone else too.  Rule breakers are kicked out of the game.

Games  have a universal commons quality because the rules apply to everyone equally and the game works by rule following.  In a commons, a property common to all is shared according to rules agreed by all and applying to everyone equally.  A commons is therefore not a self-organizing system.

A big biological difference between humans and most other apes, is that humans live in larger groups.According to Anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory, we evolved language to deal with the social complexity of living in large groups.  There is a correlation in primates between brain size and group size and humans not only have enormous brains compared to primates, but hey also live in indeterminately larger groups.  Dunbar’s theory is that if humans were living in larger groups they would have needed a method of communication and trust that was more efficient than what apes now have.  

But why did humans start living in larger groups?  As I have pointed out in part I, group size is a balance between the need for bigger size to protect the group and the propensity of larger groups to break apart through violent disagreement. Language, which greatly facilitates communication would also make larger groups more cohesive, more able to stay together.

But what would have inspired human groups to grow larger in the first place?  Something that would have radically changed the political and social group dynamics. Something that allowed the first humans to leave the natural world of self-organizing systems.   This happened long before language, but it would have then hastened the development of language, through the change in social dynamics.  

There is actually strong physical evidence for this change.  It is the stone tools from early humans uncovered by archeologists.  It is also evidence of a taller more gracile body form in homo erectus, and a smaller more human-like sexual dimorphism compared to previous hominids.  It is the fact that Homo Erectus was the first hominin to control fire and colonize continents outside of Africa.  

Walking upright, and the nascent ability to develop and use stone technology - these were the natural precursors to human behaviour.  Walking freed our hands to carry things over distances, and to make and fashion tools.  Stone knives facilitated meat eating and the sharing of meat by making it easier to cut carcasses; spears made hunting game and fending off predators easier.  

The truly radical change happened because stone knives and spears threatened the alpha male system.  Now any pipsqueak with a stone tipped weapon could dispatch the alpha in his sleep.  The important social result was that harems became untenable.  At this time violence must have become more widespread as individuals or groups of males vyed for access to females.  

Another big biological and social difference between humans and apes is that humans pair bond and most apes do not. Pair bonding in a large group setting may be possible, but it is bound to be unstable in the presence of alpha male behaviour.  In order for stability you need the institution of monogamy - a collective agreement that all adults in a group have the right to pair up and form semi-permanent bonds. The other side of the coin is that monogamy  implies the elimination of the alpha male position and the continual public suppression of alpha male behaviour.

We have now uncovered the human singularity. It had to be the achievement of something relatively simple to conceive and institute.  It had to have immediate benefit for the majority of individuals. And it had to be a deliberate collective action.   It’s success led to bigger, stronger, more cohesive groups, and to all other forms of rule making and collective agreements.  

The original point of having rules, of having a morality  was to suppress the alpha and facilitate monogamy.  The evidence is all around us.  In almost every human society the majority live in monogamous relationships;  The human alpha male only exists in rare pathological conditions such as the case with murderous tyrants, serial killers, and religious cults;  Moral rules universally condemn murder and often  condemn sex out of marriage; Nomadic hunter-gatherer groups universally have strong moral strictures against public displays of anger, bullying, boasting.  These are all alpha male behaviours.  

In modern society we frown on people who get angry, boast, bully, or engage in affairs. We often successfully inhibit ourselves from doing these things too,  because we already experience strong emotions like guilt and shame that motivate these inhibitions, and we are very susceptible to peer pressure which is often focussed on inhibiting these kinds of behaviours.

  We sometimes shun bullies and aggressive people but we don’t banish them as would happen in a hunter-gatherer society.  We are not surviving by the skin of our teeth, and we have governments, police and social workers,  so that may be the reason why hunter-gatherers are so much more morally strict about aggressive conduct - for them, suppressing alpha male behaviour is directly linked to their survival.

  Human male dominance behaviour is regulated by collective action when it falls outside of the pair-bond, but I think that most of the time and for most of human history alpha behaviour has been unregulated within the pair-bond and the nuclear family.  This remained the case until the last fifty years, so we can justly congratulate ourselves that we have made some moral progress since it is no longer considered OK for a man to beat up his wife or his children in Western society.

The Human Singularity - Part III

In The Genealogy of Morals, the German Lone Wolf Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:   
The guidepost which first put me on the right track was this question:  what is the true etymological significance of the various symbols for the idea  of “good” which have been coined in the various languages?  I then found that they all led back to the same evolution of the same idea - that everywhere “aristocrat,” “noble,”(in the social sense) is the root idea, out of which has necessarily developed “good” - a development which invariably runs parallel with other evolution by which “vulgar,” “plebian,” “low,” are made to change finally into “bad.”

According to Nietzsche, the “flowering, rich and effervescing healthiness of aristocratic values" are polluted and poisoned by the ideas of human equality.

The ‘masters’ have been done away with; the morality of the vulgar man has triumphed.  This triumph may also be called blood poisoning.  (it has mutually fused the races) - I do not dispute it.                                                                           

 Natural superiority is only diluted and weakened by rules of equality.  Why should physical and racial superiority bow before equality?  I immediately recognized where Ayn Rand got her inspiration for her twentieth century tirades against altruism, although she wisely abandoned Nietzsche’s theme of race.   

More than a hundred years later we recognize the  absurdity of notions about race purity, and we also have a much deeper picture of human origins.  I can understand why Nietzsche would only go back a few thousand years, based on the rudimentary archeological, and anthropological knowledge of the late nineteenth century.  

The usual modern philosophical  treatment of the  origin of morality doesn’t go back farther than a few tens of thousands of years, to sometime after the development of language in homo sapiens.  In contrast, I think we need to look back much further,  two million years ago, long before homo sapiens and language, to the time of homo erectus, the first hominin to control fire and to walk out of Africa.

Apes have alpha male hierarchies, these are naturally evolved, self-organizing systems of hierarchical dominance.  Humans have dominance hierarchies, but leadership is often collectively determined and the role is elected, appointed, or assigned.  Even hereditary kingship, requires justification through a story of the monarch’s exploits and achievements, the story of his family history,  and a theory of divine right. It is not at all self-organized.  

As the Primatologist Frans de Waal points out, with humans sexual dominance has split off from other forms of competition so that humans can independently excel at different abilities and cooperation can be strongly enhanced in human communities.

A group with an alpha male and a harem of adult females can only be so big and must exclude other adult males.  Intra-group cooperation is rudimentary and Inter-group cooperation non-existent. (because of the presence of competing alpha males.)  

This problem was solved by the institution of monogamy.  Allow and support every adult male to be an alpha with his mate and offspring, but with no others, the cost being that everyone participates in suppressing alpha dominance outside the family, keeping the group’s ability to cooperate and make collective decisions intact.

Out of this comes morality:  a system of collective judgement and expectations that regulates  behaviour in all human societies. The benefit  is the enhanced ability to cohere and cooperate in larger groups leading to homo erectus’s control of fire and  ability to colonize other parts of the world two million years ago; to the establishment of rules and universal adherence to them, and ultimately to homo sapiens development of  language.

It is my thesis that  two of the most important building blocks of human civilization- reason and morality -  both radically predate the development of language. One of the interesting consequences of this is that, if it is true, it puts into question most of what we would call analytic philosophy, because this type of philosophy is premised on the belief that a better understanding of language  is the key to all philosophical problems.  

So how does morality develop so suddenly in humans?  What evidence do we have, if any?  Archeological evidence shows us an origin for the first shaped stone tools of approximately two million years.  We see over and over again in history, how the development of new technologies leads to both positive and negative social transformation.  Karl Marx based much of his work on this fact.  

The first stone tools made sharing meat more practical but it’s more radical function, from our perspective, was the instability it created by making the violent replacement of the alpha male too easy.  The most common reason for murder in iKung bushman groups in Africa is a conflict over a woman.  It’s a fact that all moral codes prohibit murder.  It’s unchecked existence can lead to a vicious cycle of revenge and counter-violence.  

In apes, the presence of a physically larger and a stronger alpha male functions to stabilize intra-group violence, but stone technology radically weakened the hold of the alpha male, by making his position too precarious.  

Although we live in hierarchies, these are subject to cultural influences, and they co-exist with notions of fairness, and expectations of our having equal rights and responsibilities.  These expectations, which Nietzsche termed “slave morality”  are actually evidence of the genealogy of morals in collective agreements.  

A self organizing system runs on positive feedback.  It works because behaviour is reinforced by individuals pursuing their own self-interests.  A moral system, replaces this natural reinforcement with the expectation of universal adherence to moral rules.  We expect that rules will fall on all of us equally, and we expect everyone in the group to adhere to the rules.  Plus we expect that those who violate the rules will all get the same punishment.      

The more we see people adhering to rules the more we adhere, the more we see people violate the rules, the more likely we will violate them too.  The ability to prevent breakdown is deliberative.  We cooperate by detecting and punishing rule-breakers in order to keep expectations of adherence high.   

Monogamy is eminently simple, but from it springs most of  the complexities of human existence. In the book of Genesis, the story of Noah and his ark illustrates the centrality of monogamy.  Noah is commanded to build an ark.   All the animals on the earth come to the ark in pairs,  reflecting God’s original creation and the human institution of monogamy.   All wait together  and cooperate to get on the ark, reflecting the rule-governed order of human society. Once all the animal pairs are on the ark, along with members of Noah’s family, God causes a great flood, killing all life on land.  All the pairs of animals, including the humans become a new creation, recolonizing the land after the waters subside.  This is as close as you can get to a myth illustrating that the civilizing influence of human nature is born out of our original agreement to institute monogamy.

What is it about the singularity that led to our being human?  It was the collective nature of our action.  The first humans wanted to have stable pair-bonding, but the only way to get it was to collectively agree to honour monogamy and suppress the alpha male.  Other than walking, and the development of stone technology which preceded the singularity, everything that is specifically human has followed this first collective decision. morality, adherence to rules, language, music, games, religion, science….   all made possible by the public suppression of alpha bullying.