Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Stone Age 'Trinity'

Max Borders, Managing Editor of TCSDaily.com, contributes a thoughtful essay on the evolutionary pressures that, he argues, created a ‘Stone Age Trinity’ of ‘guilt’, ‘envy’ and ‘indignation’. The illustration fronting the essay is a ménage of four Hominids (proto-humans) advancing menacingly, over-shadowed with a drawing of Karl Marx, looking, Soviet style, to the ‘future’.

From this neo-auspices start, Max Borders develops his theme, using for reference the work of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two influential (and rightly so) evolutionary psychologists, who have done much to bring evolutionary sciences into the history of human behaviour, despite some early (and vicious) attacks on them from within their profession by, largely, ‘leftish’ (un)thinking psychologists.

The gist of the Cosmides–Tooby hypothesis is that the human brain developed throughout an evolutionary past dominated by the exigencies of life in east central Africa, where Homo sapiens evolved from a lineage of hominids whose ancestors had separated from the Common Ancestor of primates (today’s chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and humans). Border quotes a lineage lasting 10 million years; more likely 6 million, of which Homo sapiens have been in their modern form for only 200,000 years, while archaic humans (Homo Erectus, etc.,) were evolving from about 1 million years ago. All the hominid and proto-humans prior to the emergence of Homos sapiens became extinct, the last of them, the Neanderthals, about 30,000 years ago. (All these dates are estimates, with shifting certainties about them.)

The Paleolithic ‘stone age’ coincided with the first creation of stone tools about a million years ago (Homo habilis), and not ten million years ago.

Max Border’s interpretation of the evolutionary psychology model raises issues for me. He writes:

We carry with us all the equipment required to survive on the ancient steppe. Which brings us to egalitarianism: think of how it might have been important for our ancestors to behave in terms of hoarding and sharing. From an evolutionary perspective, it made perfect sense to behave in an egalitarian manner within the tribal band. For in the absence of refrigeration or other preservation practices, food spoiled, so hoarding made little sense. Most hoarders would have failed to pass on genes. Agriculture was absent until about 10000 years ago, so survival of the Stone Age group rested on sharing, reciprocity and division of labor.”

It was not a prescription against hoarding that imposed ‘sharing, reciprocity and the division of labour’, but the confluence of two related long-term trends: the steady growth in Hominid brain size from Chimpanzee size (450 grams), at the time of the separation of the species, to 1400 grams (Homo sapiens), which required a substantial increase in nutrients to feed it. And this gradually changed forever feeding arrangements, which until then were (as with modern chimpanzees) that females fed themselves and their infants; males fed themselves only. Life in the same environment did not produce strong ‘sharing, reciprocity and division of labour’ for chimps.

Plant food gathering (the dominant source of food) was supplemented by scavenging animal carcasses and later with hunting small animals, until hunting game bigger than humans became possible. These changes brought in the need for co-operation, because even scavenging dead animals exposed the scavengers to fierce competition with predators determined to eat the same meat and willing, and able, to kill anything in their way. Individuals could not scavenge or hunt alone.

Stone cutting tools were developed by tool-makers to cut portions off dead animals, and extract and smash bones, quickly to evade competing predators by fast withdrawals from the site. Skirmishers distracted threatening predators with noise, stones and sticks. This was a nascent division of labour. In short, co-operation was not an emotion; it was a brutal necessity. Those that discovered its benefits lived long enough to breed and their progeny lived long enough to become breeders. All these forces, once big game hunting came in, required increasingly more sophisticated intelligence (brain size?) to organise and strong relationships, founded on discipline, to complete successfully.

In times of severe scarcity, sharing of food was rationed by eliminating the older and the youngest. This was not a primitive form of Marxism. Infanticide was common (on second thoughts, perhaps it was Marxism: he that doesn’t hunt, nether shall he eat’).

Reciprocity is known among Chimpanzees in acts of mutual grooming: chimps groom only those who groom them (see Dunbar on Gossip; Google for the behaviour of bats). In short, reciprocity has never been egalitarian; it is always discretionary. It is a form of implicit quasi-bargaining: ‘if I do you a favour I expect you to do me a favour at some time in the future, otherwise I will never do you another favour.’ There is no reason to believe that it was different to the early humans (or the hominids – it still isn’t for the other primates).

Max Border concludes: “It means we are likely to remain in a protracted struggle against Paleolithic instincts”.

I am not so sure, because I think Max identifies Palaeolithic instincts incorrectly. The history of human kind is a growing dependence on each other, as true from the dangerous experiences of hunting (until tool-makers invented weapons to equalise and later triumph against competing predators). Dependence promotes co-operation by deed, not by affirmation (the proportion of liars, cheats and evaders is probably still constant in any human population), and it invokes its own discipline.

As human inter-dependence grew right through to the total dependence of humans on billions of unknowable others in market economies, the spontaneous, gradually evolved and operationally most successful human discovery in all evolutionary history, which along with the behaviour we call negotiating, or explicit bargaining (Adam Smith’s conditional proposition: ‘If you give me what I want, then I will give you what you want’) that has its roots in the discretionary reciprocity of the Palaeolithic era, the ‘instincts’ and behaviours of the distant past require our understanding; they do not require that we ‘struggle against’ them.

It was from them that humans acquired the means to ‘struggle’ against starvation, adversity, failure, predators, poisons, and diseases. With them, humanity has a future, whatever it brings. The Palaeolithic led eventually to markets. It is the imposition of romantic ideals from the last century that leads humanity to extinction.


Post a Comment

<< Home