Thursday, June 13

Conceptions of violence

After last week, I've been catching up with some of Bowles' previous publications and related research. I've read A Cooperative Species, Bowles' masterwork with Herbert Gintis on the origin of altruism and modern society, but reading it once isn't really enough to have read it. It is a dense book filled with math and evidence, theory and data; it requires investiture.

However, Jung-Kyoo Choi and Bowles have included much of their argument in previous publications. It goes like this:
... parochial altruism could have evolved if parochialism promoted intergroup hostilities and the combination of altruism and parochialism contributed to success in these conflicts... under conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans, neither parochialism nor altruism would have been viable singly, but by promoting group conflict, they could have evolved jointly."
As we saw last week, they're leveraging the power of coevolution. But in this case, they're saying that group conflict, or war, as they go on to call it, would have been necessary for human altruism to have evolved. Also, they're effectively promoting group selection, but that's a topic for another time.
War is where the problem lies. This is a hot topic, steamy enough for Steven Pinker to rub his hands all over it. However, Steven Pinker's point is that war has decreased since the advent of agriculture. He has very little to say about pre-agricultural violence. Not so for Sex at Dawn, in which the authors' critically examine misconceptions about pre-agricultural life. In short, if early humans weren't violent, then A Cooperative Species' case might be invalid.

Sex at Dawn is a good book. It is thoroughly researched and well written, and one of their big points is that our ancestors are not as violent as they are often made out to be. The book has taken a lot of critical heat, which is not a surprise given the controversial views it espouses. It has many errors (one of which I am about to point out), but I think it has had a positive overall impact on the field. But I'm not here to defend the entire work, so I will discuss a single section.

I want to talk about a chimpanzee example in their chapter on violence. Chimps are not our ancestors, they are cousins, but it is informative to study them when attempting to understand our common origins, what humans used to be like. Chimps are frequently described as violent and aggressive. The best known example of this is Jane Goodall's chimpanzee group in Gombe, Tanzania. Her original study group split in two, and then one part proceeded to violently wipe out the other.

This is not evidence of innate violent tendencies in chimpanzees, says Sex at Dawn, this is merely evidence that human intervention, such as giving chimps food, will cause chimps to alter their behavior and become more aggressive. Same goes for the baboons around Cape Town: the groups with more human contact are more aggressive. They've learned that to get the most out of food hotspots (houses, stores, tourists carrying food), they must act decisively or else another baboon will gobble up all the food. When foraging in the trees for fruits and leaves, there isn't any fighting over food. Those nutrients aren't concentrated enough to be worth fighting over.

However, I must contest this implication by Sex at Dawn. I do not doubt that the Gombe chimpanzees tore themselves apart largely due to human involvement. Yet chimpanzees are routinely violent; they are simply not like their cousins, the bonobos, in this regard. I've heard both John Mitani and David Watts speak about the chimpanzee groups they study in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Mitani was particularly emphatic: these chimpanzees are violent, they fight with each other frequently, and it is not due to human involvement. It is their natural state.

This is hardly a deathblow to Sex at Dawn's argument. We are not chimpanzees; we may have as much (or more) in common with peaceful bonobos as chimps. Plus, this is only part of Sex at Dawn's argument about early human violence. Perhaps more important is the archaeological evidence.

Sex at Dawn points out that many modern scholars, including Pinker, are making their conclusions about early warfare based on sample groups taken from cultures which are not representative of early humans. For instance, the famous yonomamo tribes of South America are from the Amazon, which is a completely different environment from that which our ancestors developed in. Furthermore, the yonomamo aren't even immediate-return hunter-gatherers (like our ancestors were). These errors are not outliers, they are the norm.

A Cooperative Species is better than this. It does not throw caution to the wind and assume that it is acceptable to use modern hunter-gatherer groups as exemplars. It notes that archeological evidence is scarce, and specific evidence of violence even scarcer, and there's not much to be done about that. So it lumps other parts of the world (like Europe and the Americas) into the archaeological sample, and kind of just goes ahead with its story. It feeds in supportive bits of evidence here and there, but this is not the strongest part of the book, and not enough to convince me that war was a foundational part of early human life.

So the case goes to Sex at Dawn, whose points are enough to convince me that early modern humans were not inherently warlike. This is my belief... at least for now.

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