Thursday, January 19, 2012

Migration 11: Wilson and the Standard View (concluded)

Done with the chimps, Wilson wants to learn (82 ff) about the past from current hunting-gathering societies, though it is not clear how influences of the past 10 millennia are to be partitioned off. He lists tribes, aggression between them & war, territoriality, arranged marriage, polygamy, disputes over women, social hunting. His lack of interest in language shows up when he compares such hunting to the methods of lions, and when he says social evolution uses an "auto-catalytic" mechanism. Homo sapiens is not differentiated from other hominids of the past million years. Cro-magnon and Neanderthals are conflated. He says female continuous sexual availability is tied to male action. Males, of course, are described at length as, (using the work of Robin Fox): with complex social skills, controlled, cunning, cooperative, attractive, good with kids, relaxed, tough, eloquent, competent, knowledgable, proficient. "Brave, clean and reverent", too, these boy scouts. Actually, such qualities must have been characteristic of all band members for selective success. His hunters and gatherers are not pressed by agricultural societies, nor do they migrate. When they do talk, there is a lot of arguing, although child care is "improved by close social bonding between males and females".

He makes no big deal of the invention of farming, talking as if the development of political organization were primary in social change of the past 10 millennia, stating on 95, "I interpret contemporary human social behavior to comprise hypertrophic outgrowths of the simpler features of human nature." Child rearing and kin relations are simple extensions; religion and class are gross transmutations. Most significant has been the gathering & sharing of knowledge, a modern acquisition that will lift the trajectory of cultural evolution, 96. Hopeful as Wilson is, his basic stance is that what we are goes back more or less smoothly over the previous hundreds of millennia. This standard model not only favors chimps and ignores language, it does not, could not, take our propensity to spread and an invention like domestication into account. His uniformitarian picture has been distorted by the drama of world-wide migrations and the agricultural revolution with its impacts. 

Chapter 5 attacks aggression. Humans, genetically, have a hereditary predisposition to aggressive behavior, 100. This is not, however, a general instinct, but a bundle of behaviors: territorial defense, intra-group dominance, sex, anti-weaning, predation, defense against predators, disciplinary. Moreover, 103, most of these are tied to "crowding in the environment" (remember, language is little explored; migration not mentioned). If no advantage is to be gained, then aggression is unlikely to be naturally selected for. So violence, in its forms & intensities, is learned, environmental, on an innate substrate of an evolved human pattern of behaviors, 106. Frankly, this seems to me a fudge. The selective disadvantage, always, of aggression is that of tit brings tat. In the world of 100 millennia ago, how could that compete with bands of mutually supportive individuals who use language to consider situations, come up with options, and make decisions. For a migratory creature able to communicate, would not an instinct of "fight or flight" have been less useful than "talk or walk" in the effort to handle crises? Again, Wilson shuttles for explanation back and forth between animals & humans, and early & current humans. His examples come from recent centuries. when migration would have been more difficult without conquest, which is the bastardization of migration by the post-Neolithic hunger for control over land.

His view: "Primitive men cleaved their universe into friends and enemies and responded with quick, deep emotion to even the mildest threats from outside the arbitrary boundary." "Primitive" sounds like guys drinking in a bar. He just states that this emotional over-reaction was institutionalized into state warfare. He quotes Quincy Howe that civilization drove "peaceful" hunter-gatherers to the ends of earth. Why? Cleaving the universe, again? It does not seem to have much to do with the basis of civilization being in agriculture and its need for land & labor. Later on, Maori are cited as examples of violence resulting from the density trap of an island, and on 119, hunter-gatherers settle disputes violently. His case for an innate aggression, expressed through an environment-shaped pattern, gets all confused in his examples and generalizations, not helping make a case for gene-based social behavior.

This is disappointing. The capacity for violence and aggression is of course easy to see all around today (even given Steven Pinker's new book on the decrease in violence), but Wilson cannot ground its existence in a social environment, in human history, just because his theory demands that it must be innate. I take the alternate view that we prospered in pre-Neolithic millennia as non-violent walking-&-talking responders to challenge. Thus, violence can be introduced as a response to a drastic change in that social environment, the desire & competition for land. However, that does not answer the question of whether there is some sort of innate capacity for violence, which has to be socialized and sublimated in a mutually supportive group society. Again, the examination of the question founders on our ignorance: What would be convincing evidence from pre-Neolithic millennia of the violent behaviors listed above?

I found his chapter 6 on sex equally unilluminating, dependent on a traditional description, taken only from post-Neolithic cultures. On 125, males are aggressive, hasty, fickle, undiscriminating. Females hold back until they can identify males with the best genes. This is followed by polygyny (which we have winnowed down to monogamy). The ultimate function of sex is genetic diversity, not reproduction or pleasure, 122-3. However, his picture does not promote genetic diversity in comparison to band-wide mutuality in attraction & satisfaction leading to multiple partners for both men and women over their active lifetime, which maximally enhances diversity, and justifies considering concealed ovulation as an evolutionarily successful genetic strategy. He sees, 128, male physical and temperament differences (compared to women) leading to male dominance, but keeps to his standard picture, whereas I see those differences as enhanced by the desire to control land and labor in successful farming. There is a predisposition, 137, to assemble into families; but again, is it a predisposition suppressed within the mutually supportive band or just the organization that arose out of the need to control farm labor?

Although he allows that cooperation arose a couple of million years ago, he asserts the male post-Neolithic scam that women with new-borns were encumbered and so needed to secure male allegiance through exclusive sex, thus resulting in the near universality of the pair bond. And I do not mind here jumping out of the pre-Neolithic to point out that this "universal" is challenged by many forms of connection today. And, I would argue, that is just because Homo sapiens has the capacity for a variety of relations, which has been suppressed and regulated for millennia by the need for control over labor. That is, we are actually well equipped genetically, men and women both, to deal with the societies we are now developing and living in. 

However, one thing that will be required is dropping even more of the pseudo-scientific explanations of how things must be, as evidenced by this: the sexual bond and emotional satisfaction of family life are based in the physiology of the brain through genetic hardening. Wilson then flouts common sense when he parrots, 140: Women are extraordinary in lacking the estrus; ovulation being hidden, women are always receptive (oh, yeah?). This facilitates bonding, more tightly joining members of "primitive human clans". "Unusually frequent" sex cements the PAIR BOND (were you ready for that?). Even though, concealed ovulation would, without the social controls arising from the need for (male) control over land and labor, facilitate exactly the opposite, i.e., the propensity for any set of male and female to bond for a time and copulate. The chemical basis for attraction and "falling in love" is notorious for its lack of longevity, but evolutionarily it is a successful strategy since it keeps a couple involved over a long-enough time (months maybe in the sometimes tough environments of the pre-Neolithic) for conception to occur. As far as genetic diversity goes, the combination of the above genetically based characteristics, is a thorough winner, and I think, even more important given our migratory impulses. A mutually supportive band, that may move on, with child care and education embedded in the entire group would have no need for "male allegiance through exclusive sex". Such a band, with all members participating in support is a far stronger unit for nurture and protection than a simple pair bond. He throws out that homo- and bisexuals may help in bonding to help out relatives. But of course, within a mutually supportive band, that is even truer, especially when you realize that language leads to narrative, song, poetry, myth, and other forms of imagination that help perpetuate and educate band members. 

His chapter 7 on altruism was, Im sure, a big challenge. I like this, on 157: "True selfishness is the key to a more nearly perfect social contract." If altruism were only tied to kin, it would be selected for less than if tied to a wider ability to share. Sharing then becomes, 159, a vehicle of individual welfare. I would ask if language, even thought, is a vehicle that enhances both individual and group. On 163, altruism in humans is characterized by strong emotion and protean allegiance; we have a selected-for impulse to want to make connections. We survive better if we share, i.e., give some, get some. And this would hold true within a band, with neighboring, somewhat related bands, or even unknown bands encountered in migration. And this is why the question of aggression and violence being innate is so important. Altruism, sharing, mutual support, strengthens the band and evolutionary success for the individuals in it, differentially compared to single or couple-only combinations (which, in reality, are not even conceivable as being selected for). For him, morality was invented and promulgated to reiinforce the group as the best form to enhance the individual's survival.  Well, it took lots of his pages, but here, we are together. I suspect our different views have more to do with where we start; me with the genetic strengths of language, migration, and the mutually supportive band; him with chimps. 

His last two chapters, on religion and hope, raise no new points. Rituals are a form of education in the band, narratives for reinforcement. He could have spent some time considering where our devotion to mystery comes from. He does say that myth, 192, comes from natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the brain, which I think must mean it strengthens our brain's ability to handle language and the social relations it fosters. Religion itself is another product of language, of communication and story-telling, helping bind the group. What happened to it post-Neolithic, in service to the state and its chiefs, is not part of this story, and though there are those who make a religion out of the Canyon, I hope it never becomes the kind of post-Neolithic activity that sacrifices individuals for the greater glory of the church. But then, is it all perspective? What exactly would a dam-builder think?

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