Friday, April 28, 2017
Family & Polis 2
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.