Saturday, November 26, 2016
Teams of three male dolphins will occasionally raid other pods of dolphins. The object of the raid is to separate a female from the pod in order to mate with her. As she is an unwilling participant, two of the team will wedge her between them while the third swims up underneath to mate. If you are thinking that this sounds like rape, you are probably right; though there is some question about this.
This is not unusual behavior among animals; however, what is unusual about the dolphin drama is that it often involve alliances between teams of individuals.
Dolphins organized themselves into three different kinds of groups that could overlap. One group, usually in pairs or threes, was tasked with gathering fertile females during mating season.
In a "second-order alliance", the animals form "teams" of between four and 14 males which mount attacks on other groups to take their females, or to defend against attacks.
The third group maintained “friendly relations” with all dolphin groups and helped out various teams when additional forces were needed.
The team found the males made a series of alliances with the same sex. They only observed one group of females forming a temporary coalition against young males.
Reciprocity between individuals within a group or even individuals in different species, such as cleaner fish and predator fish, is common enough. The third kind of dolphin group doing something rather different. It is available for offensive and defensive alliances. It hardly seems likely that such assistance would be offered unless there is some prospect of recompense. I can’t think of any other example of this kind of behavior outside of human societies.
This may be the thing that separates the most political animal from all the other political animals. While chimpanzee groups may be governed by an alliance between an alpha and beta male, I have not heard that such groups divide into competing subgroups with more than one individual on each side. This may have been true of human groups until very recently (meaning the last twelve thousand years). Since that time, human political communities frequently divide into groups that compete for dominion over the larger group. That is what we call politics in italics.
How does this division occur? The most obvious answer is that the divide occurs along family lines; however, most human societies consist of numerous families. Isolated human individuals (free radicals?) and third and four rank families must decide which side to back. How does this happen?
I have quoted this passage from an earlier post before.
When these capuchin monkeys forage, how do they decide which way to go? The answer is that individuals break off in different directions. As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following. If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group. If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… . The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction. Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit. That is leadership in a basically democratic community. Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all.
I think it rather likely that this is not only how politics works but how the human mind works.
My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constituencies. My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs. Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate éclair to run for president.
Now that the chocolate éclair is the president elect, we may bring the analysis to bear. Political alliances form on the basis of two decisions: which allies will form a winning coalition and which coalition will give us what we want. In addition to getting a better share of the common resources, what we might want is revenge against those who have offended us. That motive has been around at least since the common human-chimpanzee ancestor.
Why did primate Trump win over primate Clinton? The election was determined, as I have written before, by who showed up at the polls. President Obama was reelected in 2012 with a smaller electorate than showed up for him in 2008. I believe that is unprecedented in the post war period. He won because Mitt Romney could not convince enough on his allies to come to the polls. Secretary Clinton inherited Obama’s declining support and saw further decline. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, held onto Romney’s coalition. That decided the matter in the states where it counted.
Individual human beings are extraordinarily complex the creatures. The factions into which they sort themselves and others are vastly more complex. Yet the latter are only the result of a lot of the former deciding which way to forage and who to back. It was not a good thing for Secretary Clinton that a very large portion of the electorate knew that she, and most of the Washington establishment and pretty much all the journalist and pundits in the mainstream press thought were contemptuous of them. It is not clear, however, that this increase Mr. Trump’s margin much. What is clear is that a lot of the folks who followed President Obama down the path last time didn’t follow Ms. Clinton.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
I suppose no one will object if I use primate studies to understand Donald Trump. I voted neither for him nor for Secretary Clinton, which gives me a small feeling of existential freedom in this matter.
At the moment there are all too many explanations for Trump’s election. The most popular on the left are racism and misogyny among the voters or, as Nate Silver put it:
America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner.
I have no idea on what the anti-Semitism charge is based. Is Secretary Clinton a Marrano Jew? To be certain, Silver is demonizing the majority of the electorate, which seems to be on the side of the dark lord merely because they are a majority. I beg to differ and I will do so in this post.
Among the problems with the racism charge are that Trump won several states that voted twice for Barack Obama and that Trump seems to have done slightly better with African American and Hispanic voters than did Mitt Romney. The explanation and the facts just don’t fit very well. The problem with the misogyny charge is that Secretary Clinton has never been in a very good position to press the case. She and her party acted as enablers for her husband’s boorish behavior. Suppose for a moment that the Republican candidate had been an African American woman who otherwise spoke and acted exactly as Trump does. I think she wins by 5% points.
Genuine landslide elections are determined by a lot of voters choosing one candidate over another. LBJ over Goldwater and Nixon over McGovern come to mind. For the most part, that is not what happens. Election are instead determined by voters deciding whether to vote or not. Mr. Obama won the nomination and election in 2008 and was reelected in 2012 in part because African American voters came out in large numbers to support him. We have only the exit polls to go by, but it appears that Trump did only slightly better among white voters than Romney. Secretary Clinton lost because she did not get the same support from Democratic constituencies that Mr. Obama did.
Human beings are not the only political animal but we are, as Aristotle observed, the most political animal. Among non-human political animals, politics is based primarily on kinship bonds and secondarily on close personal alliances. An alpha male chimpanzee governs his group by means of personal strength and aggression backed up by a strong beta male and frequently will lead his group in a lethal war against other chimpanzee groups. Human beings took a great leap forward when they were able to expand kinship bonds to include large groups of allies. Though those fighting with me are not in fact biological kin, we are nonetheless a band of brothers. This remarkable, unprecedented ability to attach kinship instincts to non-kin results in enormously complex relationships both within and between mutually hostile groups.
The result is that human politics have always been tribal, or more accurately, familial in nature. Political groups form by individuals deciding whether these or this one is one of us. The criteria for the decision may be class, location, religion, ethnic or racial identity, or ideology. However important those criteria may be to the individual, the political significance of the criteria lies in the group identity. If an Irish Catholic lad hates an Irish Protestant lad, the religious identities function as uniforms. The Catholic lad believes that his people are the original people, the true Irish; the other guy is just one of the invaders. When an American progressive accuses a Republican of being a global warming denier, the same thing is going on.
Winning in a political struggle might appear to be determined merely by which group of primates is larger. In human politics, what really matters is whether the leader on either side is able to rally his foot soldiers or, in larger scale confrontations, whether he or she can assemble a coalition of groups that is willing or able to provide support at the critical moment. Members of her loyal core may have different reasons for supporting her (she is a woman, a Democrat, a liberal, etc.) and so do the different groups that she is hoping will coalesce behind her. If she fails, it is because too many of the folks on the other side moved and too few on her side did the same when both leaders yelled “charge!”
Donald Trump is a primate and so is Hillary Clinton and so are the voters who sided with the one and the other. Upwards to 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats. A lot more moved for Mr. Obama than for her. It would be silly to accuse these voters of racism because of this. They calculated their loyalties, more or less consciously, just as everyone else does. The same is true of Trump voters. It might be wise to recognize them as just people making choices, instead of victims of demonic possession.
Friday, November 4, 2016
I have been reading Bernd Rosslenbroich’s book again: On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution. Rosslenbroich notes that Darwin himself confronted the paradox of progress in evolutionary history and attempted to solve it
A paradox occurs when the same phenomenon appears to present two, logically irreconcilable faces. On the one hand, common descent from an Ur organism seems to produce only an increasingly diverse number of branching lineages. As we survey the tree from bottom (earliest) to the top (presently existing organisms), each fork (plants fork from animals, mammals branch from reptiles, etc.) each new branch represents only the extension of original lineage into available ecological niches. The driving force is natural selection, which is altogether undirected. Evolutionary history flows, as flood waters do, around obstacles and into the next available plain. Okay, I am mixing metaphors; the point is, in this account, slime mold amoebas and certified public accountants are equal in ontological status in so far as they both made it to the present moment.
On the other hand, it seems obvious that multi-cellular organisms represent an advance beyond their single-celled ancestors, animals an advance beyond plants, mammals an advance beyond reptiles. If evolution is driven by an undirected, efficient causation, how can we understand these apparent advances? Darwin attempted to account for this by appealing to the idea of increasing fitness. More advanced organisms are better able to survive and reproduce; why else would they have emerged in the first place?
This explanation is untenable. Cockroaches are more fit in terms of natural selection than elephants, slime molds than slimy politicians. Darwin’s explanation fails. Many biologists have been tempted to try to give up the idea of progress altogether; however, they have been unable to do so. Ignoring the distinction between higher level and lower level organisms means ignoring a conspicuous feature of biological reality.
Rosslenbroich demonstrates that this is a persistent problem in the philosophy of biology. Biologists can’t do with and can’t do without a theory of progress. Among the attempts to model progress in evolutionary history are: increasing complexity, increasing division of labor among cells, increasing efficiency or energy intensive activity, increasing genetic information, and increasing body size. All seem to come up short of a satisfactory account of what distinguishes the lower levels of biological activity from the activities of the higher levels. Without that, how can we understand how sentient moles and heartbroken playwrights emerged from the primordial soup?
Rosslenbroich’s answer is increasing autonomy. The most basic feature of living organisms is that they build a barrier between themselves and their environment. The simplest living cell builds a wall around itself. Within that wall it maintains itself and controls interactions with the environment in order to resist equilibrium with its environment. If the external environment is too salty, the cell blocks the admission of salt and so maintains its less salty interior. If the internal self is polluted with waste, paste is passed on to the external environment.
The efficient cause of the movements of a fallen leaf are external to the leaf: the autumn wind. The efficient cause of the movements of a mouse or of the cat stalking the mouse, are internal to the one and the other.
Rosslenbroich argues that what distinguishes higher from lower organisms is increasing autonomy. The simplest cell builds a wall between itself and its environment and maintains the one against the other. More complex cells build internal walls, protecting the nucleus against the rest of the cell. Animals build walls around their organs and walls protecting brains and sex cells against the flow of energy and materials within the body. The walls don’t have to be material. A hive of bees distinguishes its social self from other insects.
I think that this is dead spot on. It explains the difference between the primitive and advanced organisms without any need to suppose a directed force in evolution. Just as tectonic plates collide to rise up into mountains, so the forces of evolutionary history pushed up in the direction of increased autonomy.
I also think that it holds the answer to a number of basic philosophical questions. To mention only one: the problem of personal identity. The psychological self is one more advance in the expansion of biological autonomy.