Friday, November 18, 2016

Trump - Alpha Male

In the early hours of Wednesday November 9, 2016, after a lengthy and remarkably vicious election campaign, Donald Trump was declared elected as the forty-fifth President of the United States.  It is not an exaggeration to say that this event shook the whole world.

 Trump broke all the previous rules for running for office.  He lied openly, he insulted and degraded women and ethnic minorities, he talked about building a wall to keep out Mexicans;  he talked about deporting millions of illegal immigrants; he called for  a total ban on the immigration of Muslims; he encouraged violence against demonstrators, and he encouraged the idea of jailing his opponent Hillary Clinton.  

Trump also broke technical rules: his winning campaign used less attack ads, it did not rely on pollsters, it had a drastically smaller ground campaign than the losing campaign,  and it spent a fraction of what the losing campaign spent.  

During the Republican Primaries, reporters described how Trump’s ability to dominate the debates was as if he deprived the other candidates of oxygen when it came time for them to speak.   Trump was also able to dominate the news media from the first day to the last, by churning out  incendiary quotes that fired up his base and outraged the rest of the world.  Some commentators spoke of his talent for relentless publicity, which they said was honed by years of his experience with his signature reality show - ‘The Apprentice’.

I was interested to see that Jane Goodall, who spent years observing chimpanzees in the wild, compared Trump’s campaign to the the way that a particular chimpanzee, she named Mike, had risen to become an alpha male.  Mike discovered that he could take empty oil-drums and bang them together to make an awful racket.  The resultant noise intimidated the entire troop, allowing him to assume the rank of alpha male.  Goodall felt that there was a remarkable similarity between the two campaigns.  

Many wild animals, especially mammals, and especially apes, our closest biological relatives,  have natural dominance hierarchies led by an alpha or most dominant male.  These hierarchies afford a measure of stability and order in animal societies because once rank is decided, with an alpha in the top position, there is less fighting and violence between group members.  Once installed, an alpha male can control others by bluff and posture without having to risk fighting, and this will work as long and until a challenger or group of challengers comes along that match or surpass him in strength.

In humans, it’s interesting to speculate about how strong the dominance hierarchy is.  There are hierarchies all around us, in the military, the police, government bureaucracies,  academia, in the medical sector, in corporations, and  in families.  But, except for gangs and organized crime,  human hierarchies avoid violence much more than apes.  In very few, if any  organizations that I’m aware of, do the contenders have to physically fight it out for the top position.

Nevertheless we are all aware on some level about what dominance is, and most of us fall into line when we are with someone who is more dominant.  The signs are there, but, in humans they are often subtle.  Unlike other animals, human dominance is mostly rule-governed,  by which I mean that in all societies there are strong rules condemning violence, rules against stealing, adultery,etc. and rules concerning attaining and maintaining roles and positions.    

I think that Jane Goodall is onto something with her comparison of Trump with Mike the alpha chimp.  Trump’s “pre-campaign”  was publicizing and amplifying the ‘Birther’ movement.  This was a group of Americans, a substantial subset of the Republican party, who questioned the official version of President Obama’s life history, often insinuating that he was born in Kenya.  

Two things happened out of this.  Trump’s Birther campaign successfully moved President Obama to publish his birth certificate.  And then President Obama mocked Trump during an annual press gathering, in Trump’s presence.  According to the CBS Documentary 60 Minutes, it was largely as a reaction to this slight that Donald Trump decided to run for President.  My thought is that Trump’s original decision to push Birtherism was really the first step in his campaign. ( First find your supporters, then challenge the rival for supremacy.)  


Trump’s followers celebrated the fact that he was “politically incorrect”,  The fact that evidence emerged that Trump sexually molested women over the years, which in an ordinary election, and with an ordinary candidate, would have permanently barred them from being President, had only a modest effect on Trump’s campaign.

 The whole campaign makes much more sense from the perspective of alpha male competition.  From the very beginnings of Barack Obama’s Presidency, the Republicans, who controlled both the Congress and the Senate, refused to acknowledge his legitimacy to fill the office of President.  Government was continually in gridlock because the  Republican majorities refused to cooperate.

 It is common knowledge that ranking Republicans set their supreme goal to that of ensuring that Obama would only be a one term President.  To that end they were willing to undermine and weaken Obama’s efforts to recover the U.S. economy from the economic meltdown that had preceded his election.  Their concept of “public service”  was plain and simple -  the destruction of the Obama Presidency.  

This concept may seem nihilistic to some of us, but to the Republican rank and file that comprised the Birther Movement, it makes all the sense in the world.  A black President was simply unacceptable, so to do everything in their power to undermine and thwart the Obama Administration was doing a public service for “White America”.   

It may be a plausible theory that the anger of white voters had to do with the high inequality in society brought on by globalization.  But if that is the case, why was the anger specifically brought on by Obama’s election?  Obama appeared to do all that he could to alleviate the damage of the 2008 financial catastrophe, a catastrophe that unfolded during his election campaign, during the last months of the Bush Presidency.   But Obama was thwarted on almost every turn by the Republicans in the House and Senate.  The Tea party, which surely represents angry white voters if anything does, rose to power after Obama’s election, during the midterms.

The behaviour of the Republican party in seeking to delegitimize Obama’s Presidency is the key to Trump’s election. The anger of uneducated whites is not economic anger it is racial anger.  It is‘righteous” anger that a black person could actually be the President.

 This past election campaign broke the rules in every way because it was about breaking the rules.  On a deep unconscious level, this was not a contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it was a contest between Donald Trump and Barack Obama.  Just look at the immediate consequences:  the Republican party now has control of all three branches of government.  They now have the power to reverse every one of Obama’s signature achievements.  

Unfortunately there is a problem with giving an alpha male the keys to a political office.  Human politics differs from Chimpanzee Politics in one main way - human systems are  more rule-governed.  When we commit to a democratic system we expect our representatives to commit to standards of communicative validity.  Trump broke all the rules of communication;  he was often insincere, he lied constantly, often unconsciously;  he encouraged violence and hatred.

This is a man, who shows almost no commitment to rational discourse.  He didn’t have to in order to win over his enthusiastic supporters, and every time he showed his disrespect for minorities, his disrespect for the truth, and his disrespect for civilized conduct he won more support from white voters.

The government of the United States is a rule-governed system.  But rules can only work if they are followed.  If one half the population refuses to honour the rules then it becomes a system with only one rule:  “might makes right”   Donald’s sexual behaviour, his refusal to apologize, his refusal to admit he is ever wrong,  his risk-taking, his unpredictability,  his breaking the rules, his dominating the news media -   every one of these traits reinforced his status as alpha male.  

For an alpha male, it’s all about breaking the rules, because in their world there is only one rule:  “might makes right.”  Rules and morality are what make us human.  When we jettison these in favour of one “leader” we go back to the jungle. 

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 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?  Covenants not backed by the sword are useless, he tells us.  


Note, that Hobbes does not  have a very accurate picture of nature. He does not pick up on a lot of the differences between humans and animals:  language, rule-governance, tool-use, etc… probably because these things were just taken-for-granted.  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 a 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, channelling, 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 Immanuel 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 are 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.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

From Life to Humans in Ten Commitments



                         
When life first formed, a little less than four billion years ago, it only formed because it first made the commitment to multiply. This may remind you of a certain book, but unlike the account in the Bible, this form of life we now call Bacteria.  Bacteria and their allies are single celled organisms that multiply by splitting into identical copies of themselves.   


One and a half billion years ago is our next milestone, when plants and animals become separate creatures and both abandon splitting in favour of  commitment to sexual reproduction.  Lets call this the Sexual Reproductive System,later to become - “the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees.”  


 As for us animals, unlike most plants,  we commit to eating Food and this leads to both the Digestive System and the Predator/Prey System
Food is important to this story and we will visit it again when we get to Cooking  But, for now, let’s note that ever since it came into being, the Predator/Prey System is one of the main drivers of evolutionary change.  


Nothing much happens for one and a quarter billion years, and then 250 million years ago smallish creatures that we call the first mammals arrive.  The mothers of these furry little critters stop laying eggs and instead give birth live.  These mothers commit to the care, protection,  and feeding of their infants.  Baby mammals are warm and cuddly and they cry when they are in distress.  Baby snakes and lizards are not so cuddly and they are silent, because nobody is going to protect them once they’re out of the egg.  


The Maternal Caring System  is a very important player in this story as I hope to make apparent to you. Mammal mothers have mammary glands that produce milk.  The hormones that are involved in the release of milk - prolactin and oxytocin are triggered by close physical contact between mother and baby.  These hormones contribute to the sense of pleasure and attachment between babe and mom.  


The close contact, the period of helpless infancy, the attachment bond between mother and child - these are all important, because they will help facilitate development outside the womb, making possible larger brains, greater learning capacity, and more behavioural flexibility than would ever be possible by a creature that comes out of an egg.  


The next commitment that mammals make is to the group.  Growing up and living in a group helps protect individuals from predators, and, just like having a mother, it makes longer infancies and more social learning possible.


65 million years ago a group of mammals called primates committed to living in trees.  Why live in trees?  To get away from predators and to facilitate access to fruits and other goodies.  By living in trees, primates, such as monkeys, evolved better hand-eye coordination compared to other mammals and this will be important when we get  to tools


20 million years ago Apes have evolved from monkeys.  Apes are bigger and stronger than monkeys.  Male apes are noted for being committed to the collective defence of the group against predators like boa constrictors and big cats, and to male outsiders.


About six million years ago our ancestors broke with the trees and committed to standing on their own two feet.  Being primates they had already benefited from improved hand-eye coordination,  so it wasn’t long before they learned to walk long distances, and then to make stone knives, and axes.


Now, you may or may not have noticed that for the last 250 million years, all this time that mothers were caring for their infants, there is little or no evidence of fathers’ commitment to care.   2 million years ago this would all change when the first humans - homo erectus come on the scene.  And here’s why:


Do you remember those maternal hormones that worked so well to create a mother child bond - prolactin and oxytocin?  These are produced in male bodies as well, because males and females share most of the same genetic material.  And you may have noticed that humans don’t have nearly as much body hair as apes.  In fact we look kinda naked beside them.  That’s why we wear clothing. 

 Anyway, my point is that skin-to-skin contact can lead to the release of oxytocin in both males and females and this can facilitate falling in love and pair bonding.  Pair bonding is rare in primates, and doesn’t happen when apes live in groups.  It is usually prevented by the dominant male who will try to monopolize all the females.  


Homo Erectus, our hominin precursors, looked a lot more like us then previous hominins.  It was during their two million year stay on Earth that they were the first to control fire, and the first to walk out of Africa.


Remember those stone tools we talked about.  They were first used for preparing food, just as knives are today.  They were also used as weapons.  And here’s where it gets interesting. We note, that in human history, when better weapons are first developed they sometimes have a powerful effect on social systems. 

 Stone knives  would have had a leveling influence, undermining the rule of the strongest male. They would also have led to social disruption, because now there  would be a continual free fight over women. Previously the dominant male would have controlled this problem, but stone knives may have eliminated his role.


Easy access to knives would have made it a free-for-all until the group as a whole agreed to a system that limited violence and provided stability.  That agreement was the basis for human nature.

 Two million years ago agreements were not about peace, order, and good government.  The agreement had to be simple, it had to be comprehensive, with no exceptions, and it probably had to do with access to females.  Our ancestors had the right hormones to facilitate pair-bonding, but they didn’t have the right social systems until the invention of stone knives forced their hands.


 Because the dominant male kept order,  that function needed to be filled by something else.  That function, of allocating women and resources,and controlling violent behaviour, had to be replaced by a special type of collective commitment.


Today, in almost every human society most men and women live in monogamous relationships, which means that somehow, and I think it was two million years ago, we established  monogamous social systems.  Thus males and females committed to living in and supporting long-term relationships.


Animals do most things from self-interest, or because they are forced to by submission. Humans choose to follow rules that can directly oppose their own self-interest.   This is most obvious in morality.  In morality we have lists of dos and don’ts.  We all internalize these rules and we often judge those who break them harshly. Justifying your behaviour by saying that you acted in your own interest doesn’t cut it morally.  Everyone is on the lookout for people who violate moral rules, and if they are  caught, they are punished.

We all can and do feel judgmental about people who have affairs. We realize that they are doing it out of powerful desires, but judge these people for not constraining their desires. The fact is that if people didn't actively constrain themselves, monogamy would be a joke. The only thing natural about monogamy is that it reflects the pair-bond, the deep mutual attachment that can form when two people fall in love. But the trouble is that, in many cases, love doesn't last, and it can be overridden by new attractions. That's why the group had to come together and make a collective commitment, simultaneously creating the social institution of monogamy and the first moral system. My guess is that initially it was simply an agreement to control violence, and allow for pair-bonding and social stability, and the initiators had no idea of the positive consequences that would ensue.


In a single stroke monogamy would have led to fathers being more assured of the paternity of their children, the inclusion of in-laws, and thus, the effective enlargement of groups, the division of labour between males and females, and the sharing of resources amongst the nuclear family.  In effect, monogamy led to camp fires, cooking, and fatherhood.


At some unknown time, perhaps 100,000 years ago, by increasing social stability and encouraging sharing, monogamy made language, the tenth commitment, possible.


Female mammals committed to maternal care; most mammals committed to living in groups; male baboons and apes committed to collective protection of the group; humans first committed to a monogamous social system and then committed to using language.  The trend in all of these commitments is towards the facilitation of longer childhoods, greater learning flexibility, bigger brains,  and more effective and complex forms of cooperation.  Humans have the longest period of childhood, the greatest ability to learn new things, and are by far the most cooperative.  


Remember the camp fire:  Sharing stories, sharing food, singing songs together, facing the darkness together.  Almost everything we do as humans involves sharing: talking, singing, eating, playing, working, building, caring, and loving.  This is what separates us from the animals.