Saturday, December 17, 2011

Migration 10: Flannery's a Good Guy, But ...

Tim Flannery's writings on natural history in the longest term are always stimulating. His book on North America evokes nostalgia for all the wondrous land- and life-scapes this continuent has hosted. He combines the naturalist's curiosity with the environmentalist's despair in Here on Earth, A Natural History of the Planet (2010, Atlantic Monthly Press), and I wanted to offer a few comments stressing my own pecuilar structuring of the past 100 millennia.
For instance, here is Flannery on human sexual selection, pp 64-5: Other living things impact an individual's reproductive capacity, driving evolution by natural selection. A most important pressure is that from the opposite sex judging attractiveness. Stop. Then, without further preamble: "in many traditional societies men go to considerable lengths to control the sexual (reproductive) potential of women". However, on 74, he writes, "The population of breeding men, it seems, has long been small relative to that of women, probably because an exclusive group of high-status men has tended to father most children." This is the sentiment that appears in many of the writers (Stringer among them) about human development, all seeing the pre-Neolithic hunters & gatherers through the blue-tinged glasses of the post-Neolithic Age of the Male, when control and domination became primary human characteristics as a result of cultural innovation. It is not clear to me if Flannery has sorted out this development, since he does argue, 64, that recently women have taken control, thus themselves becoming the shapers of tomorrow's men. In contrast, I see recent changes, in the status of marriage for instance, as based solidly in human genetics, and getting less and less distorted by Neolithic developments.

If my view of pre-Neolithic times is more correct, featuring a social organization of mutually supportive bands with more egalitarian gender weighting, then Flannery's statement is a neat example of how the post-Neolithic cultural evolution that brought male domination influences our look backward. In the mutually supportive bands of pre-Neolithic times, reproductive success was due to attractiveness on the part of both male and female, since with concealed ovulation, mutually pleasurable sex, and chemically based "falling in love", mutual attraction would clearly promote more chances for conception than between Mr Chest-beater and Ms Coy. The Neolithic revolution's foregrounding of the need to control land led to the distorted (from the point of view of a hunting and gathering society's distribution of tasks) role that male strength came to play. The reproductive potential of an agricultural society needs to be controlled in order to provide labor to work the land; land that disparate strength permits men to accumulate. It would be a neat result to find that the sexual dimorphism of pre-Neolithic peoples was less compared to that of the last 10 millennia. How nice a test of natural selection to find that male muscularity and size increased once domestication was invented, particularly since women have so often played so great a role in actually carrying out the work of farming. Did the accumulators of farming land and controllers of farming labor get differentially bigger? 

On 78-9, Flannery describes Homo erectus as a hunter whose activities did not bring about extinctions, in contrast with us, the megafauna slayers, deployed in an immensely more sophisticated society based on language. We were the pillagers, destroying the defenseless fauna as we went. He draws a fractured portrait of us as relentless risk-takers, whose reward for migrating on was a feast of country and food that we quickly impoverished. But he cheers up (101ff), talking about the social preservation of echidna in New Guinea. Oddly, he says nothing about the role of language in this preservation, though clearly education and narrative were crucial. 

Flannery's discussion of cooperation (120ff) is disappointing. He presents Hamilton's rule as a way of getting at when organisms are willing to make sacrifices for others, and then ties it all up in a discussion of ants and superorganism theory. I am not convinced that he has it right. For me, he does not take enough account of the huge distinction between ants and humans around reproductive activity and sexuality, and the relationship of eusociality to superorganisms. ( Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler (2005-09-20). "Eusociality: Origin and consequences" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (United States National Academy of Sciences) 102 (38): 13367–13371. doi:10.1073/pnas.0505858102. PMC 1224642. PMID 16157878. Retrieved 2008-08-04). Our development of cooperative behavior was based on the evolution of language. It was reinforced, not by the suppression of sexual activity, but by its intensification in both genders. It was lost because the invention of domestication and farming seemed to offer a better life. These were all developments dependent on language. Superorganismic structure just doesnt fit. 

Nevertheless, his description of the downsides of domestication (124ff), which probably should be called "the evolution of de-civilization" is scarily dark. Yes, our numbers increased and we settled. But, he says, our frames got stunted, new diseases struck, our independence eroded, our finest faculties diminished, our mental acuity dimmed. Human agricultural societies are powerful entities (ants, you see) made up of incompetent individuals with shriveled virtues. Etc. I am sorry about his rant here. He does celebrate hunter-gatherers (125-6) but for exactly the wrong reason: He sees them as excelling individuals, not as members of cooperative, sharing, mutually supportive groups. 

It is a bit odd to read this screed, for when Richard Dawkins argues for natural selection and the "selfish gene", he is vigorous in attack and joyful in battle. Flannery is anti-Dawkins, wanting there to be altruism & cooperation, but is as gloomy as you can get. 

And a further indication of where he has gone wrong comes on 129, when he asserts that "prior to the agricultural revolution, everybody lived in family-sized clans, each led by an adult male or a group of men, and it was they who administered justice. But by the eighteenth century the clans had cohered into …", and I stop here. Look, I do not believe that my hypotheses about human evolution are unchallengeable, but Flannery's statement is embarrassingly ridiculous, even were he right about male leadership in pre-Neolithic times -- as I think he is not. To jump from 13000 BCE to 1700 CE just points up how he falls victim to the fallacy of seeing the pre-Neolithic through the lenses of post-Neolithic cultures. How else to puzzle out how someone so committed to saving the world can fail to understand the genetic underpinning for the counter-Neolithic changes he wants to bring about?

He does it again on 133: "In the Stone Age the politics of the clan were simple and also recognisable in numerous other mammal species: a family structure at whose centre sat a dominant male, one of several mature females and their offspring. The first villages must have consisted of clusters of such units." Stringer, I think, has looked at other primates and their social organization. There are a variety, with the one Flannery describes just one of many. And I have to admit, Flannery's picture applied, say, to Cro-Magnon peoples alone, seems just dumb, a lazy extension of non-migratory, non-language-capable animals such as chimps. I dont believe it because I dont think it would have worked as well as cooperative, mutually supportive bands of contributing adults jointly raising children that require a long period of parenting/education. Again, here is a modern male scientist looking back and seeing his own predilections reflected at him. 

He also indulges our love of violence by trotting out the evidence for it in bygone times (130ff). The question of how pacific or how violent we were 40, 60, 100 millennia is extremely important. Stephen Pinker has just put out a book claiming violence is decreasing, and I want to read it. Flannery's Hobbesian view obviously does not convince me, and somewhere I have read that tools, not weapons, dominate pre-Neolithic grave finds. The depiction of early human cultures does seem to me to have less room for inter-personal violence, "war", if migration and language were genetically based adaptations based on natural selection. Still, like the question of territoriality, violence is something I want to read more about.

He suggests, on 137, that climate change led to farming. The strange thing about that, for a migratory species, is that the ending of the glacial would have greatly expanded the places people could have gone to and exploited by hunting and gathering. You might think that it would be more likely that huddling down in a warmer area, away from the ice, would have stimulated talk and inventiveness, and watching grasses grow, and grow again…

 On 136, Flannery quotes Daniel Webster: "When tillage begins, other arts follow." This, we now know beyond doubt is completely off the mark; arts began 100 millennia before tillage. Then he adds: "The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization." Well, if he means property, slavery, empire, and Iran's search for a nuclear deterrent, he is correct. Flannery, however, is back on ants and superorganism, which is how he describes civilization.  He is getting ready for the second half of his book, which shows just how awful everything is today. So I am off the bus. I think he downplays the role of migration in humanity's history, but perhaps that is appropriate in a book that is focussed on humankind as living in antnests.

No comments:

Post a Comment