The human political animal

Suppose you come from Mars, freshly minted with your PhD degree in the ethology of terrestrial mammals, and you decide to study this ape species that uses language and technology. Suppose further it's about 10,000 years before now. What would you describe? That is the topic of this post.

It's not the first time the "anthropologist from Mars" gambit has been used. Alfred Russel Wallace, who I suspect had some form of Asperberger's, described himself that way, and of course Oliver Sachs, who obviously does, did so too. I have spent my life thinking that somehow I was inserted by accident into the wrong species, so I guess I do too. But it means that I am not so connected to the kinds of prejudices people have when they try to defend the "specialness" of humans compared to other animals. I have my own precious set of prejudices, though, so don't think I am trying to present myself as superior in any way. It's up to you, dear Reader, to point out my flaws.

Usually when people make some point about how humans are different, they attend to the unique traits we have - language, conceptual and symbolic capacities, trade, and the like. And these things are indeed different among humans (and possibly some now extinct hominids like Neandertals) compared to other organisms. But the emphasis on the different tends to shade the things we have in common. One does not approach a primate, or a butterfly, by focusing only on the things they share with others of their kind (which is to say, their phylogenetic branch of the evolutionary tree). Instead, we must look at similarities and differences. Differences mark out that the organism is a member of a different species. Every species is special, and as Darwin noted, every species would, if they could talk, praise the high degree in which they have some trait compared to others (Darwin used a honeybee as the prime example). But the specialist, the Martian anthropologist, would take a different tack. Assuming his studies had taught him cladistic thinking, which is the classificatory logic designed to deal with evolution, he (assuming Martians have genders) would describe both the similarities and the differences and try to see how they relate. And as a naturalist, he would describe things without the prejudices of giving priority to the "specially human", because they would just be another set of traits. Special, yes, but everything unique to a species is special: "special" is just the adjective of "species".

So, in your role as Martian ethologist, what are you going to note? I'm assuming that our Martian is not a Linnaean in terms of nomenclature, as study animals rarely provide their biologists with names, and that the terms used below will be a direct translation of some Martian equivalent:

Report on the social dynamics of the human animal

Humans live in social groups, ranging from a few dozen, to a very large number depending on resources available in the environment. Typically they are arrayed in kin groups of increasing attenuation. Most human social groups render aid in direct proportion to relatedness of the individual. However, they trade amongst themselves, often over very large distances, despite treating outsiders as suspect. They rely heavily on ritualised behaviours in their trade and everyday life, and these conventional rituals appear to reduce the cognitive load of social exchange. They have a wide variety of superficial social structures, but they seem mostly to have the same basic underlying rationales.

Humans are social dominance pack animals. That is to say, they assert status in various ways and use a variety of methods involving social disapproval and force to maintain that status against challengers. Often, human social groups have more or less hereditary castes from which dominant individuals are drawn, although it is unclear whether the castes are in fact biologically based or, more likely, constructed by dominant individuals.

In many other species, some not so closely related, dominance is directed towards mating opportunities. In a species quite close to the human clade, the gorillas, there is typically one dominant male, guarding a harem of females, but with peripheral males sneaking mating opportunities, so that the dominant male is the father of about 85% of the progeny, but not all. Humans share the dominance behaviour, but their social pack is polyandrous, and it is rare that a male will not get any mating opportunities, and even rarer that a female will not. An even closer species, the bonobo, is similar in this regard.

This dominance behaviour tends instead to be directed towards access to food and resources, in both bonobos and humans. Dominant individuals get more and better food than lower status individuals. This has a self-reinforcing effect: by getting better food and resources, dominant individuals are better able to maintain their status. As a result, in humans, access to food and resources is both the outcome, and indicator, of high status.

Humans, like many independently evolved lineages, are cultural animals, but they appear to have the highest complexity of cultural inheritance of any animals so far studied. They have a complex syntactical signalling system that has abstract referents, and so they tend to make post-hoc linguistically transmitted rationalisations of their social behaviours. Much of their culture has to do with ecologically important means of acquiring food and resources, of course, and the behaviours needed to avoid injury, predation, and illness. But a much larger share is concerned with these post-hoc conceptions that are merely to do with maintaining social cohesion and structure. They "tell stories", or narratives that serve to provide cohering myths, that mark out those humans that are within the group, and those that are outside the group. These "tribal markers" are reinforced by clothing styles, jewelry, skin decorations, and language.

When humans are able to live in larger settlements, matters get more complex. What was a single hierarchy of (largely) males with female hierarchies partly determined by mate status, becomes a number of different dominance hierarchies, along the lines of ethnic divisions and class. In sedentary societies, which control land for foraging and hunting, and recently [remember, this is 10,000 years ago - JSW] the tending of crops and animals for food and other materials, a warrior class tends to develop out of which leaders are selected, either by custom or by approbation of the warrior class. Also, there appears to be a dominance hierarchy within age cohorts, roughly 3-9, 10-16, and 16-25, and older. Dominance is often established through physical attributes of attractiveness, strength, or strategic skill.

Like all primates of their clade, humans form alliances within their group, so that they engage in constant maneuverings for position. Any one individual's overall social status is the vector sum of these factors: personal attributes, age, gender, ethnicity, parental class, and alliances, and the individual "strives" (consciously or not) to maximise their position on the resulting surface of tradeoffs these constitute.

At this point, the report ends. What sort of political system should we expect to develop? This is a descriptive question, not a normative one, yet.


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