Repost: Novelist reinvents ethology

From the old blog: Tom Wolfe, whose works often show a considerable pretentiousness in my opinion, has a piece in the New York Sun entitled "Darwin meets his match" [old link dead, so this will have to do]. In this he adduces Zola and Weber, and most of all the 1950s American sociologists whose works stressed status seeking and display, to show that there is something missing from Darwinian theory.

Like social dominance ethology and psychology never happened, right? Darwin talked about social dominance and submission several times, and much of Weber's dialectic comes from the tradition of social psychology one might suggest Darwin was influential in creating, if not being the originator (Hobbes has that honour in my view). The ethology of Lorenz and Tinbergen, and the creation of social dominance theory among various species (not often applied to our own species, although the sociobiologists of the 1970s tried, such as Lionel Fox and Robin Tiger, but were shouted down as being neofascists), explained how social animals form dominance hierarchies, and the theoretical apparatus of honest advertising (costly, and therefore hard to fake) of status explained why animals "spend" status advertising the way they do, from the peacock's tail through to conspicuous consumption of potlatch feasts.

What I especially object to here is Wolfe's implication that somehow evolutionary theory is inadequate to this task of social explanation. But the theoretical infrastructure of modern evolution not only is adequate to it, it requires it. If the fitness of an individual depends upon his or her (or its) position in the social group, then he/she/it will need to be able to badge that status to those from whom the organism is seeking aid or mating opportunities.

Humans are social animals. This is a point noted since Aristotle. We form social dominance hierarchies. But unlike many organisms, which have a single, often nontransitive, hierarchy, we humans are able to set up and maintain our status on several hierarchies at once. I suspect this is because we are (i) mobile, and can interact with different geographical bands of humans through trade, warfare, intermarriage and cultural exchange, and (ii) we are able to abstract and communicate status verbally. Yes, Tom, language is important, but you are wide of the mark if you think there is no work done on when we evolved it. The likelihood is that it evolved around 200,000 years ago in its present form.

So we have a rank hierarchy for our own tribe or community, as well as hierarchies of age cohorts, ethnic groups, and within-gender hierarchies (come on - you didn't think that jewellery or bling was to impress the opposite sex, did you?). We also have a rather more obvious hierarchy in sedentary urbanised cultures - class hierarchies. So what will the average human do to maximise his/her/its* status? Each individual will strive to maximise fitness on a vector sum of these hierarchical scales, based on the physical traits and inherited wealth they have at birth and maturation. It may pay to get much money irrespective of physical attractiveness (the Trump ploy), but mostly it pays to come to an optimal tradeoff. You might find it best to be the top dog in your class, or your ethnic group. You might find that aggression works for you. Or it might be that being a middle manager in a middle class is the best outcome for you.

We use status to increase our fitness, but it doesn't follow that this equates to mating opportunities. It may be that your inclusive kin benefit from being a warrior who dies. It may be that having status vicariously will mean others in your tribe or troop will look after the progeny who are left behind. Or it may be that favours are returned, and because Uncle Fred died in the War (a sacrifice to the common good), his nephew is helped through hard times. All that counts from an evolutionary perspective is that one's inclusive fitness is improved.

One point that is often overlooked when discussing this sort of thing, is that it means that our biological dispositions created modern society. Evolutionary psychologists often say that our evolved dispositions are maladaptive in modern society. I find that hard to accept - we are in our "natural environment", because we made it. So we ought to go looking for the adaptive benefit of our general tendencies in urbanised agrarian societies, and not naively assume that if only we lived like foragers of yore, we would all be much happier. Perhaps we would if things went well. But have a population explosion, or a change of climate, and we would be damned unhappy. I read recently that "traditional" forager societies have a murder rate around 2-5% over an adult lifetime. That's much worse than New York during the 1980s.

Wolfe's essay is entertaining, and has some nice case examples, but it's not exactly news...


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Baring space aliens and divine intervention, human beings somehow went from foraging bands to pastoral & horticultural tribes, agricultural villages, and eventually chieftaincies, and states. So it must be within human biological capacity to do so.
I think it overstates the case to say our DISPOSITIONS created non-foraging social groups.

Human beings seem to live as foragers as long as they have enough room to do so. There are, in fairness, at least two bits of evidence against this: 1) While pastoralists can switch to agriculture or horticulture and vice versa, they rarely go back to foraging. Of course pastoral, horticultural groups, etc have too higher population density for foraging so they can't switch back very easily. 2) Plains foragers in what is now the Western U.S. took up a form of pastoralism with the introduction of the horse. But here too it seems that they didn't start breeding horses so they could live in tribes instead of bands. Their tribal organization probably was a side effect of the population growth that came from higher birth rates, lower infant mortality, or eariler weaning.

Two things happen when foraging bands become tribes. 1) Headmen, councils of elders, clan patriarchs, and/or war-chiefs appear. We don't know why. 2) As population groups grow larger communities tend to be split into sub-groups: classes, clans, factions, etc. This tendency to have a group of friends and family apart from the whole is strong evidence that our biological dispositions are for forager-sized groups.

It is wise, as you do, to distinguish between 'status' within one's small group (How Doctor Brown treats Doctor Smith. How Garbage Man Joe thinks of Garbage Man Bob) and status between groups (How garbage men are thought of in relation to doctors.) Status within foraging bands and within SOME small groups of modern societies can be remarkably egalitarian. Foragers can be very rigid on matters of age and gender; but no foragers ever observed have the Alpha-Male type of hierarchy observed in Chimps, much less anything like a Silverback Gorilla. As you point out, foragers can be extremely violent, but for reasons unknown, foraging violence tends to have a levelling effect.

Given how obnoxiously long this comment already is, I'll spare you my blathering on about Hobbes.

Sorry. I should have said 'BARRING' space aliens, etc.

No, please blather.

Foraging societies do usually have alpha males, the local Big Man in Papuan society being a case in point. But we are usually much more like the dominance patterns of bonobos than common chimps or macaques. That is, the alpha is not all that far above the troop, and alpha status is fairly ephemeral. But beta status - that is a strong hierarchical signal, and once you are there, you remain there for the duration of your active life.

Three quick points:

1. The extent to which alpha males can lord it over the others in a hunter/gatherer societies is quite limited for the Hobbesian reason that anybody can kill anybody else. Indeed, I take it that one of the great questions is how it happens that individual human beings can be persuaded/forced to subordinate themselves to other individuals on a permanent basis. Why on earth would anybody live in a state if they could avoid it? Damn good question, which sociologists like Michael Mann have tried to address, c.f. his book, The Sources of Social Power, which is one of those works whose influence is all out of proportion to the number of people who have even heard of it.

2. Complaints about evolutionary explanations of human culture typically confuse two things, the existing attempts to explain human history using evolutionary ideas, which are often quite deplorable, and the prospect of an eventual evolutionary explanation, which is actually quite bright on a reasonable timescale.

3. As Rene Girard pointed out, the existence of multiple prestige hierarchies is what makes large societies possible. If we all were all competing in the same game, the ensuing struggle for dominance would destroy society itself. Indeed, it has been suggested that some of the ills of contemporary American society arise from a gross simplification of the standard of success. We can't all be richer or more famous than each other no matter how great the technological capabilities of our civilization become, but at present everybody is encouraged to only value money and celebrity.

What is your thought on Dawkins memes?

You talk about
"... we ought to go looking for the adaptive benefit of our general tendencies in urbanised agrarian societies,..."

In the meme theory many of these cultural entities, such as class, may be memes, that exist not because they are good for us, but because we are good hosts, and that we make them spread.

By Soren Kongstad (not verified) on 14 Sep 2006 #permalink

'Big Men' are a feature of some tribes (horticulturalists), not foraging bands. So, I should have included them with headmen, war chiefs, and councils of elders among the forms of proto-government. They are a fascinating phenomenon much debated by anthropologists, but foragers simply don't have them.

Everyone (including me at times) tends to confuse foragers and tribes. Even the word 'tribe' is used sometimes for foraging bands adding to the confusion. Humans evolved as foragers, then became agriculturalists, pastoralists and horticulturalists. If Nation-States are the 'children' of agriculturalists, think of horticultural tribes as your 'uncle.' The weird uncle with the cool stories.

Foragers do not respect all their members the same, nor in the same way, but the social dynamics are fluid--the successful hunter becomes more important when food is scarce, the one who is most diplomatic is more important when their is a social rift, the charming storyteller is more important when the honey is brought in and everyone sits around gorging themselves, even the angry vicious guy becomes important if the band is at war with another band. Different foragers in the same band can even rank people differently. I might admire the guy who makes the best spearheads, you might admire the guy who knows the most woodlore. It's strange admittedly.

For this reason Ethnographers living with foraging bands don't use 'Alpha Male' as far as I know. None whom I have read have ever used it. It is a little misleading as a term for tribal Big Men because Big Men build their status by giving gifts and holding feasts far more than by threatening other men, tho' they will threaten and kill. (which is probably why you need horticulture and semi-permanent villages for the food surplus; the social pressures of foragers compel immediate redistribution of food)

My pet theory agrees with Jim Harrison's-- the missle weapon was an equalizer. Anyone can chuck a spear in anyone else while their back is turned, which is why we evolved joking, teasing, and other social means of placating our neighbors. The wimpy chimp can't beat the brawny chimp but any foraging human can kill any foraging human. Those who couldn't be likeable bit the dust quickly. But no real Anthropologist, so far as I know, looks at things that way. Sigh. Why don't they call me?