Thursday, October 4, 2012

Groups, Gossip, Selfishness and Civilization

Slate takes a look at what anthropology and evolutionary biology can tell us about the altruism/selfishness debate. Examining at the work of Colin Turnbull among the Pygmies, they tell the story of a "rugged individualist" named Cephu who pushed his net ahead of the others to gain the best meat during a group hunt. Cephu was known as a lone wolf, refusing to confer and often withdrawing from the rest of the tribe. The group caught him, and, decided to punish him for his behavior:
At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.

Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. “He apologized profusely,” Turnbull wrote, “and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat.” This ended the matter, and members of the group pulled chunks of meat from Cephu’s basket. He clutched his stomach and moaned, begging that he be left with something to eat. The others merely laughed and walked away with their pound of flesh. Like the mythical figure Atlas from Greek antiquity, condemned by vindictive gods to carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity, Cephu was bound to support the tribe whether he chose to or not.
 And this seems to be typical for hunter-gatherer societies typical of those before the rise of civilization:
"There are two ways of trying to create a good life," Boehm states. "One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue." Boehm's theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls "Late-Pleistocene Appropriate" (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.

What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand's selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group (as in the case of Cephu).

What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. "Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band's decision process," Boehm writes, "and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations." A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).
Groups and Gossip Drove The Evolution of Human Nature (Slate)

This makes me wonder how these egalitarian societies that once encompassed all of humanity turned into the hierarchical top-down social pyramid societies of rulers and litter-bearers we see today. When did we begin to not only tolerate, but justify and even celebrate those who took a disproportionate share of everything and set themselves as rulers over the rest of us? How did we come to justify individual ownership of not only things, but people? And how do the one percent continue to channel the entire world's wealth into their coffers, more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes, even as societies crumble around them? More importantly, why do so many people defend their right to do so. As the above article shows, "human nature" is hardly an explanation.

Certainly Cephu's "selfishness" would enhance his genetic fitness. By getting a disporoportionate share of the resources of that society (predominately meat), he would have superior access to females, since females prefer to mate with the males with the greatest access to resources. He would also be able to channel resources like food to his own children while starving the rest of the tribe, making sure his genes were the ones passed along. Selfishness is a virtue in the "selfish gene" ideal.

However, if everyone engaged in that sort of behavior, it would quickly turn into Hobbes' classic "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes), probably leading to the extinction of the entire tribe. Thus such behavior is sanctioned by gossip and ostracism as described above.

However, in a society of surpluses produced by herding and horticulture/farming, things might begin to look different. Hoarding behavior is actually possible then, and such individuals would thrive. The Cephus of the world would outbreed everyone else, passing their (literally) selfish genes among members of that society. In times of scarcity, the hoarders would determine who lives and who dies.

Is this how it happened? As I've said before, the time from the beginnings of herding and cereal cultivation to the first empires is roughly equal to the time between the first empires and today. What happened during that time? Did the rise of authoritarian genes allow that world of hierarchy to occur, in contradiction to the hunter-gatherer societies mentioned above where individuals would simply refuse to obey, and in fact sanction, anyone who set themselves up as an "owner" or "ruler?"

Is it a coincidence that the people who are most hierarchical and most likely to defend the privileges of the elites are the most religious? Is it a coincidence that the most religious people are also the most authoritarian? And is it a coincidence that hierarchical societies begin at the same time as organized religions with defined priesthoods? We already know that political preference is shaped by genetics. Is there a genetic component behind the origin of large, complex, societies?

Again, just thinking out loud here. Note that I distinguish between spiritual (where very individual can commune directly with the divine without an intermediary, and god is in all things, without a defined will or list of enemies) and religious (defined pantheon of hierarchical gods who desire obedience and worship, speak through only special representatives, and divide people into the "chosen few" and the rest). I consider organized religion to be a 'hijacking' of man's inherent spiritual impulse for specific ends.

Finally, I find it ironic that Hobbes' used the phrase "war of all against all" to define primitive man in the state of nature before the imposition of society, when in fact we now know that man was far more cooperative before the hierarchical civilizations developed; yet his phrase almost perfectly describes the ideal capitalist "free market" state that we are now living in.


  1. Getting warm. The question is, though, why did the bands/villages permitted hoarding after gazillion generations that proscribed it?

    Surplus itself does not explain it... there are plenty of examples of ag/horti societies that produced surplus when needed then going back to underproduction.

    1. Humans cooperate to compete. Once we get into arms races with neighbors, then the behaviors that escalate arms races tend to win out, even if they are detrimental in the absence of intergroup competition.

  2. Wonderful might enjoy "The Fall" by Steve Taylor. He plays around with some theories as to why the more egalitarian societies...fell.

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