Saturday, July 11, 2015

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.

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