Friday, April 28, 2017
What follows is the central argument I made in the paper I recently presented in Vancouver. I will present a larger version at the APSA convention this fall in San Francisco.
My topic is the relationship between the emergence of the nuclear family and the emergence of political nature in the course of human evolution. My question, as I described it in an earlier post is a chicken and egg question: which came first, the family or politics? My answer is yes.
When our ancestors left the trees, or more likely, when the trees retreated behind them due to climate change, we did so in small bands of mostly related males accompanied by their mates and offspring. Our reason for moving in groups was simple: it was the only defense against predators when we could no longer escape upward.
We were, at that point, a promiscuous species. Males mated with as many females as possible and come into conflict frequently over access. This we may infer from the degree of sexual dimorphism. In a harem species, like gorillas or elk, males are much larger than females. Among elephant seals (an extreme case) males are about four times as heavy as females. This is because a bull has exclusive access to a large number of females, which he guards with his prowess and so gives birth to beefy sons. Chimpanzee males are about twice as large as their mates. P. troglodyte mates promiscuously but in the context of a strong hierarchy where the alpha male gets first dibs on a female in estrous.
Human males are about 1.15 larger than females, which suggests less selection pressure for males in competing with other males for access to mates. This suggests that something tempered the competition but did not entirely eliminate it. What tempered it?
In both of the Pan species and in Homo sapiens, there is a tendency of strong males to dominate other males. In bonobos (Pan paniscus) this tendency has been largely muted by female coalitions based on homosexual partnerships. These coalitions protect the sons of coalition members from aggression by other males, which all but reduced violence and political conflict. That it is still there is evidenced by the fact that a bonobo male whose mother dies is subject to aggression. Among chimpanzees, dominate males are very powerful; still, the alpha male has to tread carefully. Coalitions may arise against him and, if he pushes his weight around too much, the whole group may attack and kill him.
That same tendency of strong individuals to dominate the rest of the group is all to obviously part of human social behaviors. We managed to temper it much as the chimpanzees do, but with much greater success. Existing forager groups are remarkably egalitarian. Food is shared and dominant individuals have to tread very lightly. Anyone in the group who is perceived by the others as being too big for his loin cloth risks ridicule, ostracism, expulsion, or death. Human groups in the context in which our species came into its present form maintained an egalitarian ethos. Anyone who didn’t carry his weight (the free rider who is always slow to join the hunt and fast to join the feast) or who pushes his weight around (the would-be alpha male) is put in his place.
The group ethos suppresses any bully who tries to push around any member of the group in order to protect the autonomy of all the members. What does the bully want? There are only three things that he can hope to gain: the satisfaction of domination, which is very satisfying, more food, and access to females. The first is greatly reduced but not eliminated. Collective decision making may be the rule; however, the group will need to depend on the most competent leader on occasion. The leader will gain some benefit from his position if and only if he is very careful to appear generous and respectful of his fellows.
What the members of our UR human societies would have been most sensitive about is access to mates. The group ethos that reigned in the leader protect the access of males to at least one female. This, I submit, is the origin of the family. Once the group exerts its power against the dominant individual it opens up a space for the other males to claim exclusive access to their mates. Now the male can be reasonably certain that his offspring are his offspring. This encourages him to invest in them.
When the group as a whole polices its members and especially its leaders, it becomes a much more effective unit. Everyone can put his weight into hunting, building, and war, because no one in the group can push his weight around. Each member of good standing is protected, along with his wife and kids. The family is the result of political organization because it was one of its main objects.
As Aristotle first recognized, the political community is the comprehensive community. It includes the families, clans, and villages that are its elements. Without the elementary communities, the polis could not exist. Without the polis, neither could the family.
Friday, April 21, 2017
I just finished Robin Dunbar’s magnificent book Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior. Dunbar presents two central hypotheses (if I understand the argument). One is that there is a robust correlation between the brain size of primate species and the size of the groups that they live in and interact with.
The causation that is indicated by the correlation is it problematic for animals to live together. We annoy each other. Living in close proximity means that we can come into conflict over a wide range of things: food, mates, space, etc. This annoyance has to be managed.
One way to manage it is by grooming. When one baboon grooms another (coming through the fur, looking for juicy insects that carry pathogens, it results in the release of endorphins. Endorphins play a large part in the book. Nothing makes it easier to tolerate the presence of another furry conspecific than a warm fuzzy feeling that she produces while she fondles my back.
It is easier, of course, to tolerate others when the others are closely related. Kin selection is one of the foundational theories in sociobiology. If one of my inherited traits is to serve my offspring or my siblings, I am promoting the biological success of individuals who, mostly, inherit the same traits.
The problem with both solutions to the problem of group living is that they don’t allow for very large groups. Kin selection works according to Hamilton’s rule. If the cost of cooperating with someone else is less than my relatedness to the other times the benefit I bestow, then cooperation can be selected for. The formula can be stated simply: kin sacrifice is selected for whenever C < RB.
For example, I am foraging with my brother and I see a predator stalking us. Should I call out a warning? The answer is no. I am related to my brother by a factor of point five. We share fifty percent of the same genes. If my brother survives, that is a factor of one. If the tiger nails me because I called out a warning, that is a cost of one: zero chance of future offspring. 1>.5 x 1. Hamilton’s rule is not satisfied. Natural selection will not favor this behavior because the genes that code for it will diminish in any population.
What if I am foraging with seven brothers when I see the cat? Now the calculation reverses. My cost is still one if I die and the relatedness is still point five. But the benefit (saving seven brothers) is seven. 1 < .5 x 7. If my seven brothers survive and reproduce, I get more of my genes into the next generation than if I have my own offspring. My nieces and nephews will inherit my familial piety.
Kin selection is a robust foundation for cooperation and it explains how closely related individuals can work together. It is limited, however, in its range. While brothers are related by a factor of point five, cousins are related by a factor of point twelve and a half. A willingness to take risks on behalf of cousins will need a lot more cousins to make the calculation work. Kin selection cannot explain the emergence of communities much larger than the clan, let alone communities that include unrelated clans.
Grooming can explain how unrelated individuals learn to tolerate one another. It feels good to be groomed by another, regardless of our relationship. This works wonders for a lot of primate species. Here, Dunbar deploys a second device: a time-budget model. There are only so many hour in a day. Some of these must be devoted to sleeping and resting. More must be devoted to feeding and moving from one source of food to another. Some must be devoted to social bonding activities like grooming. Grooming involves two individuals and so only so much of it can occupy the social bonding segment of the time budget.
The genius of Human Evolution lies in the use of these two devices‑brain size vs. group size and the time-budget model to map out the emergence of human beings as a branch of the family tree. Our ancestors came together in groups and the groups came together in larger groups. This enlargement of the social contract was both a cause and a consequence of the enlargement of our mammalian brains. Laughter (we bond over jokes), language, alcohol, and religion were the devices by which we solved the problems stated above.
Why, for instance, did we survive where the Neanderthals did not? Perhaps because, by the time we encountered one another, we could muster much larger coalitions of cooperative groups than they could.
Friday, April 7, 2017
I was interviewed today by David Tucker, Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. The interview will be posted soon and I expect that it will be available to anyone (I didn’t exactly ask!). If so, I will post a link here.
Our topic was Darwin and the Declaration. While I was preparing for the interview, something occurred to me that might be worth further thought. I am thinking it through here for the first time.
One of the greatest innovations in Aristotle’s writing concerned a way of confronting apparent paradoxes. A paradox occurs when something appears to be two things at the same time and the two things are apparently contradictory.
To take a simple example, consider an oblong table not quite so wide than your hips and longer than the reach of both arms. Standing at one end, it appears narrower than you. Now walk around it and look at it from its middle. From this point of view, it is wider than you. That is the paradox: “narrower than you” and “wider than you” are contradictory propositions. It can’t be both at the same time; and so, the table is impossible. If this seems silly, more intelligent people than you or I have been driven to distraction by such things. The obvious solution (once it occurs to you) is that the table is at least a two-dimensional object. Its multi-dimensionality allows it to be both narrower and wider at the same time.
Using this kind of strategy, Aristotle solved a wide range of problems in philosophy. How is it possible that a baby can be both entirely material (the stuff of flesh) and also entirely formal (it’s a baby and not just a lump of stuff)? Because organisms (and indeed all lumps) have these two dimensions‑material and form. To complete the explanation, Aristotle added efficient cause (the baby is being pushed out of its initial state by its phusis, or nature) and it is growing toward maturity (the telos or end of its growth).
Now consider a mature animal, say a horse. How do we understand what this is? On the one hand, it is one thing: this here animal. “This here” is frequent Aristotelian terminology; it points you toward the thing to be examined. On the other hand, it is many things: a head and a haunch, an outside with hide and eyeballs and an inside with organs. We can keep searching down to cells, subcellular devices, complex and simple molecules, etc. It is one thing and many at the same time.
We can also go in the other direction. The horse is one horse but there are other horses. While it is one thing, standing alone in the pasture, it is part of one larger thing: the species Horse. And Horse is one distinct thing and yet a part of a larger thing: Mammal, etc., etc.
Here is what occurred to me today: horse and Horse are not quite the same thing. To speak of a horse is to say that this here animal is horsy. It has traits that we recognize and that allow us to place it in a larger category. To speak of Horse is to speak about something just as real but rather larger: the collection of all the existing horses.
Aristotle got hung up on this, and had a difficult time deciding whether horse or Horse was the real object of theoretical understanding. Much the same thing happened in the philosophy of biology. Some have thought that Horse is an individual, bounded in space and time and therefore just as much an individual as the horse I am riding on.
We have here a paradox. A species is something attributable to this here animal; yet, it is also a larger thing and, more interestingly, a thing that not only extends across space but also backwards in time. Biological classifications are categories, conceptual boxes into which we place specimens; yet Horse is also a real object that occupies both local and temporal space, back to the ancestor of all horses.
What is the real thing, the individual animal or the species extending backward and forward (hopefully) in time? The task of philosophy is to explain how the answer can be yes.