Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What is "The State of Nature" ?

 Are we, in fact, uniquely separate from the other animals? Common sense, religion and mythology all  say that we are, but  modern biology and  evolutionary psychology beg to differ.  According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, we too, must have evolved by natural selection, which means, it seems, that the differences between humans and their closest ancestors are only a matter of degree.  

Trouble is, our closest ancestors are not with us anymore.  We only know of them because archaeologists have uncovered their bones in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  We have to go back six million years ago, to the time when our ancestors left the  African forest and split from the common descendant to find modern living examples, chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living animal relatives

Modern human DNA is ninety-eight percent the same as chimps and we are separated by six million years of evolution.  In that time, We started to walk upright, we invented stone knives, our bodies became taller and more gracile, we lost most of our body hair, our sexual habits changed, we were able to make and control fire, to cook food, and we developed language.  More was to come.  

Humans live in groups, like apes, we collectively defend the group like apes, and we have dominance hierarchies, like apes.  But our groups are much bigger, our dominance hierarchies are far more complex, rule governed, and less violent, we have accumulated knowledge about building and using tools and they have not, we have  moral systems and they have not, we have language and they do not, we have pair-bonding and monogamy and they mostly do not, and we have kinship systems and extended bonds of fatherhood and they do not.  

Most uneducated, or those with no more than a high-school education will have no trouble seeing a qualitative difference between humans and animals.  The trouble begins when you receive a University education.  Because we know we evolved from the apes, we then assume that evolution occurred gradually, and could not have led to any large qualitative changes in such a short amount of time.

In other words,  if one accepts the theory of evolution, it appears that we couldn’t have left the state of nature behind.  Are we then, in fact, still in it?  Of course, it can also depend on how you define “nature” and the “state of nature”.  So let’s look at “the state of nature”.   What exactly does this concept mean?  The answer depends mostly on which philosopher is using it.  

The first modern philosopher to use it was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  Hobbes lived during the English Civil War and he saw the social upheavals and destruction it caused first hand.  He was anxious for his homeland to avoid these calamities in the future so he sought, in his philosophy, to establish a rock solid foundation for  a political system that he thought would guarantee peace, order and good government. These wars were between different religious groups: Protestants and Catholics. It was assumed in Hobbes time, that if there wasn't one unified religious body over all states then the only feasible alternative was for each state to be identified with a single religion. This suggested the necessity of a single head. A monarch who determined the religious system as well as the government.

In order to advance his justification for absolute monarchy, Hobbes introduced the idea of the state of nature.  What would it be like before humans had governments?, asked Hobbes.  His answer looks a lot like what happens during a civil war.   He thinks our lives  would have been “nasty brutish, and short”  and it would basically degenerate into a war of all against all.  Sure people could make agreements, but what was to guarantee that those agreements would be honoured or enforced?  As Hobbes said, in his book Leviathan, "Covenents without the sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

Note, that Hobbes does not  have a very accurate picture of nature. Pre-Darwin, it was thought that humans were a special creation of God's. So the Hobbsian state of nature is not animal precursors to human, but humans in a natural state, where life is apparently, "nasty, brutish, and short." But he does pick up on the fact that agreements that are not backed by the real possibility of enforcement, are not sustainable.  This is the key idea.  

Later English and Continental Philosophers:  Locke, Rousseau, and Kant - will use the idea of the state of nature and covenants to form their own moral theories.  And then in the twentieth Century, the American philosopher John Rawls, will bring back Hobbes’s ideas of the state of nature and the social contract to form a new justification of  the modern welfare state, but he will do it in a much more abstract hypothetical form.

The English philosopher John Locke, (1632-1704)   who seems pretty excited about how humans can better themselves by their own labour, a system of property rights, and a market economy , is the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's opening words for the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “ We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal.”

According to Locke, in the state of nature everyone is equal, and there is morality and human rights, but these moral rights cannot be operationalized without a government and legal system to protect life, liberty, and property, hence the form and content of the U.S. Constitution and the absence of the word “slave”.  

Rousseau ( 1712-1778), a French philosopher who famously or infamously, inspired the French Revolution was inspired himself by tales of North-American Indians.  His idea of the state of nature was where humans were free, mostly solitary, with limited wants, and minimal social strife.  Not a bad place to be actually.  In fact it seemed to Rousseau  to be preferable to European society with it’s gross inequality and hypocrisy.  

John Rawls (1921-2002), in probably the most famous work of twentieth century philosophy:   A Theory of Justice, uses the state of nature, purely as an abstract hypothetical device to illustrate what moral and political system people would likely agree to,  if they were ignorant of their own position in social and economic hierarchies.  That state of nature is really just a state of ignorance, a device for smoothing the way towards political agreement.  

OK, I get the idea here.  The state of nature is a state of simplicity.  Everyone is equal.  There are no differences in status, no accumulation of wealth, no difference in political power.  Some say it would be bad, some say it would be good, and some say it never really existed, it’s just an idea.  

Well, it obviously existed, but we don’t really know what was happening at the point when humans became humans, because there are no eye- witness reports from two million years ago.  Neither writing nor language existed at this time, so all we have as evidence is stones and bones.

Still, one thing we do have that those European philosophers didn’t have is a much better picture of nature, thanks to Charles Darwin.  According to the theory of evolution, we are descended from the apes, which means that the state of nature is radically different from how these Western philosophers imagined it.  And, thanks to all those biologists and ethologists out there who study animal behaviour in the wild, we now know a lot more about what the state of nature would have been like when humans first appeared on the scene.  

Jane Goodall spent years observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania and Frans de Waal spent years observing captive chimpanzees in a large natural-like setting in a Dutch zoo.  According to both of them, there is no equality in ape society, there are rigid dominance hierarchies, and what’s worse there is definitely politics in ape society.  Certain individuals rule the roost, certain factions dominate the rest and mercilessly crush all dissent.   Hobbes got it wrong, it’s the state of nature where the absolute sovereign rules absolutely.  

Hobbes was right that absolute monarchy can bring about peace and harmony, but wrong about where this happens.  In chimpanzees and gorillas, relative peace and order is brought about by the unchallenged rule of the alpha, or most dominant male.  Unfortunately the alpha’s rule only goes unchallenged if he doesn’t have a bigger, stronger, challenger;  but eventually he will.  

I think that with the help of evolutionary theory and field biologists, we have gotten a pretty good idea of the state of nature.  All social mammals have dominance hierarchies, and they are based on competition for size, strength, and ability to intimidate.

Nature is not a war of all against all,  it’s a place where group members cooperate by fitting in with rigid pecking orders.  Conflict is over who gets to be first.  Once that is settled the conflict ends and peace reigns for a time.  

So what would it be like for a social contract theory to be based on a more realistic state of nature?  For one, we would want to know how we got from the rigid social hierarchies of apes to the more flexible, rule-bound, and less obvious dominance hierarchies of human beings.  

In fact, if we look at the societies which today, we believe most closely resemble stone age humans,  that would be nomadic hunting-gathering societies.  These would be small groups of between thirty and a hundred individuals.  Hunter-gatherers have the most egalitarian societies in the world.  If they have leaders, they usually only have power to persuade, and they do not in any way resemble an alpha male ape or Hobbes’s absolute monarch.

Here’s where Locke and Rousseau got their ideas about equality in the state of nature:  They both read reports about Indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes in North America.  The problem is that we no longer see hunter-gatherers as “primitive”.  We consider them as human as anyone else.  Therefore they do not represent the state of nature, they represent human nature.

There’s your simplicity:  small groups of hunter-gatherers, no economic surplus, no wealth except for knowledge and experience;   no political system - other than agreement by consensus;  no permanent leaders; nomadic, so no permanent habitation.  But that’s not the state of nature.  That was human nature for two million years until plants and animals were first domesticated ten thousand years ago.  

To recap:  through ethological studies in the field, we have a much better idea of what the state of nature for beings such as the first humans, was really like.  It was a Hobbesian Absolute monarchy with an alpha male on top, but it was decidedly not based on a covenant.  So, how did we get to a covenant?  How did we go from ape-men to egalitarian hunter-gatherers?

We can agree with John Rawls himself,  that there was  no actual  “original condition” with a “veil of ignorance”, nor were there men in powdered wigs discussing representative government.  But this original agreement could have happened long before we even developed language.  Just as no non-human animal has a syntactical language, we can safely assume that there is no syntactical language in the state of nature.  

The fact that male chimpanzees cooperate together to defend their group against predators and enemies, and that they sometimes hunt cooperatively, shows that apes are capable of making collective agreements without language.  The star example of this is the bonobo,  close cousin to chimpanzees, who diverged from chimps about two million years ago.  Female bonobos join together and collectively prevent males from dominating.  Here we have pretty strong evidence that male dominant behaviour can be suppressed by collective action, and without the need for language.

Evolutionary psychologists keep themselves very busy studying game theory and population genetics, trying to figure out how we could have become so darned altruistic, or as they like to put it:  how we developed indirect reciprocity.   Darwinian evolution works mostly by differences in reproductive ability, which appears to be incompatible with altruism, because the more you sacrifice your own interests for others the more likely you will be taken advantage of and out-competed by more selfish individuals.  Darwin had suggested that more altruistic groups could out compete groups of selfish individuals,  but, in the latter half of the twentieth Century, Biologists such as John Maynard-Smith and George C. Williams cast doubt on that hypothesis, and now it’s an ongoing controversy whether group selection can actually work.  

Be that as it may, I have problems with evolutionary psychologists equating morality with altruism.  It seems to me that morality is a kind of package deal.  It requires collective agreement to get it going in the first place, and it requires collective enforcement to keep it going.    It was Hobbes who pointed out that covenants not backed by the sword were useless.  

Once a moral system is in place, it affords mutual trust, and encourages altruism.  People who act selfishly are punished by collective judgement, even if no actual physical punishment is meted out.   No one wants to be held in low esteem by everyone else in the group.  We all want to be trusted.  Plus we expect that everyone else in the group will act in a trustworthy fashion, and we are disappointed and even angered when anyone breaks this expectation.

An alpha male keeps the peace in group of apes but he also gets whatever he wants at the expense of everyone else, which is the problem with the rule of the stronger.  The only way that we can expect anything different is if we collectively agree to constrain this kind of behaviour.  Humans have infinite ways of influencing each other’s behaviour but a big part of it is the suppression, channeling, and or  elimination of alpha dominant behaviour by a seemingly infinite number of psychological and social means.

Shame, embarrassment, guilt, and remorse, all involve both  self reference and expectations of what others would think of us.  Other techniques, such as mocking, ridiculing,  haranguing, ignoring, and shunning, occur in a group context.   Even if  these social and psychological techniques do not work, as in the case of psychopaths, we have back-ups for dealing with them, like banishment, and execution.  

Mostly our individual and collective expectations keep selfish behaviour to a minimum and encourage caring and altruism.  The moral force of our judgement can control what we allow ourselves to do and what we expect of others.  Usually this suffices, but when it doesn’t, we fall back on using Hobbes’s sword.

Unlike de Waal, or many of the evolutionary psychologists,  I don’t see altruism or reciprocity as the building blocks of morality. Instead, these are the welcome consequences of a moral system.  I see the goal of morality  in the protection and the preservation of the group.  That’s why it can be our moral duty to cause harm to others -  to punish or prevent behaviour that could potentially harm the group -  or, to sacrifice our lives in warfare - in order to protect the group. That is also the source of the dark side of morality. Moral certainty  can directly lead to terrible atrocities such as lynching, slavery, witch hunts, terrorism, and genocide.  

Apes don’t have a moral system, but they have restraints on behaviour, which are  meted out by a dominance hierarchy system, which, in its way, helps to protect and preserve the group.  Humans have this too, but where humans are different is in the deliberate imposition of a moral system that  overrides the dominance system.  

It is this overriding of a natural self-organizing system that allowed humans to exit the state of nature.  Humans, unlike animals, took control of our destiny at a specific point in time because, by agreeing to a moral system, we agreed to selectively remove the most likely potential alpha males out of the gene pool.   That means that we went from natural selection to artificial selection in one step.    

Jane Goodall once observed a female chimpanzee, over time, repeatedly killing and eating the infant offspring of another female in the group.  The killer was not ostracized or punished.  It turns out that the killer was more dominant than the mother.

We would probably agree that if the killer was a human, that killer should be punished and excluded from the group, regardless of her social  status.  In fact, as soon as people found out about the foul nature of her deed her social status would be destroyed.

Female bonobos use collective agreement to constrain male dominant behaviour, but they do not have a moral system.  They did not take that step, and they remain in the state of nature.  What female bonobos did was to selectively control male dominance but not female dominance.  Female dominance in apes is relatively benign (the above example notwithstanding) because females, lacking testosterone, don’t engage in violent conflict over who should be on top.

By collectively creating a moral system our ancestors got us out of the state of nature.  This created  an atmosphere of trust that facilitated many of the things that we value about ourselves:  our cooperativeness, our willingness to help and to sacrifice for each other and our commitment to following rules, rules that level the playing field for everyone within the group.  

Did Love Have to do with It? How We Left the State of Nature.

The contemporary American philosopher, John Searle likes to say that what differentiates humans from animals is that humans act on “desire-independent reasons”  This is basically a reframing of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanual Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative.  Which is to say that we each follow moral rules because we believe that everyone, including ourselves, ought to follow them, even if these rules constrain the pursuit of our own interests.  And, in fact, we judge excuses for immoral behaviour based on self-interest as egregious and self-evidently invalid.

In this sense, no wild animal has a moral system, because no wild animal knowingly acts against its own interests, nor would most of us judge any animal in the same way we judge humans.

 That we expect everyone else to follow the same moral rules shows that this is actually a form of agreement.  I agree to act morally, because everyone else agrees as well.  If one, or a few people break moral rules, we punish them, but, if enough people break a moral rule enough times, we may come to assume that this agreement no longer exists.

A big  part of what it is to be human is to grow up and be socialized into human society where we commit ourselves to following moral rules.  We can choose not to follow these rules, but to do so invites conflict, incarceration, or worse.  The whole system works well, as long as the vast majority follow the rules and rule-breakers are caught and punished.  

We can call it an agreement because we have a choice, but it is a choice of whether or not each one of us wants to remain in human society.   The ultimate reason why the overwhelming majority of us respect and follow the reigning moral rules is because we do not want to be excluded.  

Everywhere we look there are rules of conduct.  Some are not considered moral rules, but are considered conventions, like driving on one side of the road only, or keeping your dog on a leash. Compared to moral rules, It is much more likely that we will violate these conventional rules if it is in our interest to do so.

Moral rules are different because they carry weight.  We cannot help being emotionally involved in them if someone has broken them.  When people try to justify why moral rules are there, they usually bring in the big guns like “God” or some version of “objective knowledge” because of this weight.  The stronger the suspense, the more we search for explanatory bedrock.  

The weight of morality comes from the strength of  our desire to be part of the group and our fear of being excluded by the group, as well as our rejection of those who undermine or threaten the group.    Our strongest feelings center on our powerful attachments to others. Anything that threatens these attachments threatens our identity. Human existence is a constant tension between being alone and separate from others and being  a part of something larger.  Love, death, and boundaries -  these issues are involved in everything we do.

   I’m interested in how these rules reflect human nature.   Why did we agree to abide by moral rules when no other group of animals have?    No doubt there is a legend or myth about this and it might go something like this:     

In the state of nature, long before we domesticated plants and animals,  the biggest, strongest, toughest, and meanest guy around ruled the roost.  As long as everyone else submitted, he kept the peace.  But one day someone invented the stone knife and he shared his knowledge with others.  Soon everyone had to have one.  They worked great for cutting up meat, but soon people found out that they were also great weapons, and they let people who were not so big and strong kill the stronger in his sleep.  Since females were monopolized by the most dominant male, this meant that killing the alpha male led to better access to females, and so many were tempted, and many succeeded.  

This degenerated into a war of all against all, as the alpha could no longer stand his ground, nor keep the peace.  It was no longer possible to keep a harem of females, if one was besieged by knife wielding men with elevated testosterone levels.

People tried different solutions, but in the end only one solution worked.  Luckily it was a simple solution, which involved every adult male pairing up with an adult female.  No more monopolizing females, no more harems.  This got rid of a major source of conflict.  But,  it could only work if the entire group committed to preventing another alpha male from emerging from within the group and taking over, and this required constant vigilance and the obligation to punish and exclude rule-breakers.  Groups that failed to do this ended up going back to the war of all against all.
Thus, the collective enforcement of monogamy had the revolutionary effect of levelling  the social hierarchy  in stone age society.  Once monogamy was established the group was more likely to grow bigger and survive, where, groups with an alpha male would be smaller and have less resilience.

There is no doubt that the situation became much less egalitarian once humans had learned how to domesticate plants and animals, and could thereby gain a surplus.  But, to this day, small nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, the kind of people who most resemble our stone age ancestors, will not tolerate public aggression or bullying in their societies and rule breakers can be dealt with severely, sometimes by execution.

So, what about the state of nature?  Monogamy is actually rare in apes.  Gibbons are monogamous, but they do not live in larger groups than a nuclear family.  It is hard to see how apes who live in groups could ever be monogamous, because they are far too promiscuous.  Bonobos, another type of ape, which are very closely related to Chimpanzees, are female dominant, and they have  managed to get rid of the alpha male entirely, but they are probably the most promiscuous animal in the world. Humans, on the other hand, have rules about sexual behaviour, lots and lots of rules.

But why should we have moral rules about sexual behaviour?  Why can’t moral rules just be about avoiding harming others?  No matter how liberated we are, it always seems as if some party-pooper comes along and condemns certain kinds of sexual behaviour.   They will often resist changes in skirt length, insist on prohibiting women wearing pants,  or worse, insist that women wear clothing that covers everything including their face.   To them, it is not at all a matter of convention, it is a moral issue.  But to most of us in modern democratic society, what a women wants to wear should be up to her.  

This illustrates, for some,  the uncomfortable fact that moral standards differ from one society to another.  Some believe that one moral system, presumably revealed by God to a certain special person, is the only legitimate moral system, and all the rest are imposters.  This kind of belief usually does not end well.

All the rest of us have to put up with the fact that there is not one objective set of moral rules, but many competing sets, with competing theories to justify them. This has given a lot of philosophers sleepless nights, worrying about “moral relativism”.   

But why is sexual behaviour so central to morality in the first place?  For instance,  I think that most of us would agree that sex with minors is wrong, that rape is wrong,  that incest is wrong, that uncovering our genitals in public is wrong,  that adultery is wrong, and that the sex act in public is wrong.   Although groups, such as nudists, and Fundamentalist Mormons might  dispute this, the existence of these minorities does not  undermine  morality in general.

The question is, why do these prohibitions around sex garner nearly universal agreement? My answer is not going to satisfy everyone, especially not moral philosophers, but I think if we stop to consider it, it will make sense of a lot of disparate information.  Limits on sexual behaviour are universal in all moral systems, because the kinds of behaviours that are prohibited tend to severely undermine social stability, putting the group at greater risk.

We can safely assume that no human society can exist for long without a moral system in place because we can find no counter-examples.  If limits on sexual behaviour exist in all societies, you can bet that any particular society that got rid of too many of these limits would find itself in deep trouble, and would eventually fail.  Why is this so?  

Let’s go back to the state of nature for a moment.  Do apes who live in groups have any of these limits?   For bonobos, chimps, and gorillas, sex is fine out in the open, but for chimps and gorillas it’s not OK for subdominant males to openly mate with fertile females.  Bonobos get away with sexual freedom because they’ve gotten rid of male dominance altogether, but they actually use sex to reduce conflict, pretty much all the time.  This is a unique solution that would not work for humans because we still have male dominance.  The fact is, for humans, disputes about sex are often disputes about dominance, and this kind of dispute has a tendency to be very disruptive and can easily get out of hand.   

Our solution, is not to get rid of dominance, but to put collective controls on it, to make it rule-governed.  That is, we imposed a set of rules that override the pre-existing dominance hierarchy system.  That is why we differ from animals.

By agreeing to put social controls on male dominance, our stone-age ancestors created the first moral system.  Unlike animals that live in groups that are self-organized according to a dominance hierarchy system, humans purposefully overrode this system by agreeing to prohibit certain kinds of behaviour.  

Rules apply to everyone included in a group or to everyone that fits a specific category. The “rule” in animal societies is: bigger and stronger dominates the weaker.  This “rule” affords social stability, it is nature’s “moral system”.  And I put this in scare quotes, because it isn’t a real moral system, but more like a condition that every animal accepts, and that can only change when one individual challenges and defeats a higher ranking individual. Whereas with humans the rules apply to everyone, even the most dominant.  

As Primatologist, Frans de Waal puts it,  humans were able to divorce sexual competition from all other forms of competition through the introduction of a monogamous system.   This is the origin of “desire-independent reasons”.  It is my thesis that monogamy was the first and simplest rule-governed system;  and,  it forms the template for all subsequent systems of rules, including language.  

So, what is this template?  It is essentially a recurring agreement about the  rules that cover everyone in a group.

In it’s simplest form it is a dichotomy.  The dichotomy between good and bad, right and wrong, black and white.  A dichotomy is a way of separating or excluding one thing from another.  In morality, rules are set out to define the group and exclude moral outsiders.  We each agree to this dichotomy because we want to be part of the group and we want to exclude those who don’t play by the rules.

The amazing thing about human society is that there are so many different overlapping kinds of rules.  Hence the need, nowadays, to go beyond black and white to all kinds of greys and colours.  

Rules are so omnipresent in human society that we simply take them for granted.  They form the tacit, unfocused background to our activities until we inadvertently violate one, or come against some legal or social barrier.

I maintain that all rules are derived from the first moral rules.  Rules that divided outsiders from insiders, rules meant to protect the group. All moral force, all normativity derives from the inherent social and psychological tension between being included or being excluded.

 No wonder our adolescence can be so fraught with anxiety.  Adolescence is when we learn whether to go or to stay, and what it feels like to be part of the group versus what it feels like to be excluded.  
A wonderful illustration of this dichotomy is the myth of the Garden of Eden.   The forbidden fruit is from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.   Once Adam and Eve eat of this forbidden fruit they both feel ashamed, because they realize that it is wrong to be naked in public.  So, they cover themselves and hide. But then, God recognizes the significance of their decision and expels them from the garden.

Humans left the state of nature  when they chose to follow moral rules and exclude those who didn’t. This is why we are more than just animals.  And God’s forcing Adam and Eve to leave the garden reflects our own moral exclusion of rule-breakers.   This is not original sin, this is what makes us human.   

It seems to me that the author of the book of genesis got right to the essence of human nature in this masterful myth of origin.  Just as the evidence of evolution is all around us if we would only see, the evidence of our moral origins in the social contract, exists in the infinite number and variety of rules in human society.