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An engrossing, lucid exploration of the origins of human morality that challenges our most basic assumptions, from the world’s leading primatologist
Is it really human nature to stab one another in the back in our climb up the corporate ladder? Competitive, selfish behaviour is often explained away as instinctive, thanks to evolution and “survival of the fittest,” but in fact humans are equally hard-wired for empathy. Using research from the fields of anthropology, psychology, ...
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An engrossing, lucid exploration of the origins of human morality that challenges our most basic assumptions, from the world’s leading primatologist
Is it really human nature to stab one another in the back in our climb up the corporate ladder? Competitive, selfish behaviour is often explained away as instinctive, thanks to evolution and “survival of the fittest,” but in fact humans are equally hard-wired for empathy. Using research from the fields of anthropology, psychology, animal behaviour, and neuroscience, de Waal brilliantly argues that humans are group animals — highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, and mostly peace-loving — just like other primates, elephants, and dolphins. This revelation has profound implications for everything from politics to office culture.
Biology, Left and Right
What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
—James M adison, 1788
Are we our brothers' keepers? Should we be? Or would this role only interfere with why we are on earth, which according to economists is to consume and produce, and according to biologists is to survive and reproduce? That both views sound similar is logical given that they arose at around the same time, in the same place, during the English Industrial Revolution. Both follow a competition-is-good-for-you logic.
Slightly earlier and slightly to the north, in Scotland, the thinking was different. The father of economics, Adam Smith, understood as no other that the pursuit of self-interest needs to be tempered by "fellow feeling." He said so in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book not nearly as popular as his later work The Wealth of Nations. He famously opened his first book with:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
The French revolutionaries chanted of fraternité, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy, and Theodore Roosevelt spoke glowingly of fellow feeling as "the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life." But if this is true, why is this sentiment sometimes ridiculed as being, well, sentimental? A recent example occurred after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005. While the American people were transfixed by the unprecedented catastrophe, one cable news network saw fit to ask if the Constitution actually provides for disaster relief. A guest on the show argued that the misery of others is none of our business.
The day the levees broke, I happened to be driving down from Atlanta to Alabama to give a lecture at Auburn University. Except for a few fallen trees, this part of Alabama had suffered little damage, but the hotel was full of refugees: people had crammed the rooms with grandparents, children, dogs, and cats. I woke up at a zoo! Not the strangest place for a biologist, perhaps, but it conveyed the size of the calamity. And these people were the lucky ones. The morning newspaper at my door screamed, "Why have we been left behind like animals?" a quote from one of the people stuck for days without food and sanitation in the Louisiana Superdome.
I took issue with this headline, not because I felt there was nothing to complain about, but because animals don't necessarily leave one another behind. My lecture was on precisely this topic, on how we have an "inner ape" that is not nearly as callous and nasty as advertised, and how empathy comes naturally to our species. I wasn't claiming that it always finds expression, though. Thousands of people with money and cars had fled New Orleans, leaving the sick, old, and poor to fend for themselves. In some places dead bodies floated in the water, where they were being eaten by alligators.
But immediately following the disaster there was also deep embarrassment in the nation about what had happened, and an incredible outpouring of support. Sympathy was not absent—it just was late in coming. Americans are a generous people, yet raised with the mistaken belief that the "invisible hand" of the free market—a metaphor introduced by the same Adam Smith—will take care of society's woes. The invisible hand, however, did nothing to prevent the appalling survival-of-the-fittest scenes in New Orleans.
The ugly secret of economic success is that it sometimes comes at the expense of public funding, thus creating a giant underclass that no one cares about. Katrina exposed the underbelly of American society. On my drive back to Atlanta, it occurred to me that this is the theme of our time: the common good. We tend to focus on wars, terror threats, globalization, and petty political scandals, yet the larger issue is how to combine a thriving economy with a humane society. It relates to health care, education, justice, and—as illustrated by Katrina—protection against nature. The levees in Louisiana had been criminally neglected. In the weeks following the flooding, the media were busy finger-pointing. Had the engineers been at fault? Had funds been diverted? Shouldn't the president have broken off his vacation? Where I come from, fingers belong in the dike—or at least that's how legend has it. In the Netherlands, much of which lies up to twenty feet below sea level, dikes are so sacred that politicians have literally no say over them: Water management is in the hands of engineers and local citizen boards that predate the nation itself.
Come to think of it, this also reflects a distrust of government, not so much big government but rather the short-sightedness of most politicians.
How people organize their societies may not seem the sort of topic a biologist should worry about. I should be concerned with the ivorybilled woodpecker, the role of primates in the spread of AIDS or Ebola, the disappearance of tropical rain forests, or whether we evolved from the apes. Whereas the latter remains an issue for some, there has nevertheless been a dramatic shift in public opinion regarding the role of biology. The days are behind us when E. O. Wilson was showered with cold water after a lecture on the connection between animal and human behavior. Greater openness to parallels with animals makes life easier for the biologist, hence my decision to go to the next level and see if biology can shed light on human society. If this means wading right into political controversy, so be it; it's not as if biology is not already a part of it. Every debate about society and government makes huge assumptions about human nature, which are presented as if they come straight out of biology. But they almost never do.
Lovers of open competition, for example, often invoke evolution. The e-word even slipped into the infamous "greed speech" of Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street:
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that "greed"—for lack of a better word—is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
The evolutionary spirit? Why are assumptions about biology always on the negative side? In the social sciences, human nature is typified by the old Hobbesian proverb Homo homini lupus ("Man is wolf to man"), a questionable statement about our own species based on false assumptions about another species. A biologist exploring the interaction between society and human nature really isn't doing anything new, therefore. The only difference is that instead of trying to justify a particular ideological framework, the biologist has an actual interest in the question of what human nature is and where it came from. Is the evolutionary spirit really all about greed, as Gekko claimed, or is there more to it?
Students of law, economics, and politics lack the tools to look at their own society with any objectivity. What are they going to compare it with? They rarely, if ever, consult the vast knowledge of human behavior accumulated in anthropology, psychology, biology, or neuroscience. The short answer derived from the latter disciplines is that we are group animals: highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace loving. A society that ignores these tendencies can't be optimal. True, we are also incentive-driven animals, focused on status, territory, and food security, so that any society that ignores those tendencies can't be optimal, either. There is both a social and a selfish side to our species. But since the latter is, at least in the West, the dominant assumption, my focus will be on the former: the role of empathy and social connectedness.
There is exciting new research about the origins of altruism and fairness in both ourselves and other animals. For example, if one gives two monkeys hugely different rewards for the same task, the one who gets the short end of the stick simply refuses to perform. In our own species, too, individuals reject income if they feel the distribution is unfair. Since any income should beat none at all, this means that both monkeys and people fail to follow the profit principle to the letter. By protesting against unfairness, their behavior supports both the claim that incentives matter and that there is a natural dislike of injustice.
Yet in some ways we seem to be moving ever closer to a society with no solidarity whatsoever, one in which a lot of people can expect the short end of the stick. To reconcile this trend with good old Christian values, such as care for the sick and poor, may seem hopeless. But one common strategy is to point the finger at the victims. If the poor can be blamed for being poor, everyone else is off the hook. Thus, a year after Katrina, Newt Gingrich, a prominent conservative politician, called for an investigation into "the failure of citizenship" of people who had been unsuccessful escaping from the hurricane.
Those who highlight individual freedom often regard collective interests as a romantic notion, something for sissies and communists. They prefer an every-man-for-himself logic. For example, instead of spending money on levees that protect an entire region, why not let everyone take care of their own safety? A new company in Florida is doing just that, renting out seats on private jets to fly people out of places threatened by hurricanes. This way, those who can afford it won't need to drive out at five miles per hour with the rest of the populace.
Every society has to deal with this me-first attitude. I see it play out every day. And here I am not referring to people, but to chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where I work. At our field station northeast of Atlanta, we house chimps in large outdoor corrals, sometimes providing them with shareable food, such as watermelons. Most of the apes want to be the first to put their hands on our food, because once they have it, it's rarely taken away by others. There actually exists respect of ownership, so that even the lowest-ranking female is allowed to keep her food by the most dominant male. Food possessors are often approached by others with an outstretched hand (a gesture that is also the universal way humans ask for a handout). The apes beg and whine, literally whimpering in the face of the other. If the possessor doesn't give in, beggars may throw a fit, screaming and rolling around as if the world is coming to an end.
My point is that there is both ownership and sharing. In the end, usually within twenty minutes, all of the chimpanzees in the group will have some food. Owners share with their best buddies and family, who in turn share with their best buddies and family. It is a rather peaceful scene even though there is also quite a bit of jostling for position. I still remember a camera crew filming a sharing session and the cameraman turning to me and saying, "I should show this to my kids. They could learn from it."
So, don't believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also to our closest relatives, the primates. In a study done at Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards; they licked their mates' blood, carefully removed dirt, and waved away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense, given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof.
What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It's a trick we have fallen for for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can't live by competition alone.
The Over-kissed Child
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as little value in human kindness as former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney did in energy conservation. Cheney mocked conservation as "a sign of personal virtue" that, sadly, wouldn't do the planet any good. Kant praised compassion as "beautiful" yet considered it irrelevant to a virtuous life. Who needs tender feelings if duty is all that matters?
We live in an age that celebrates the cerebral and looks down upon emotions as mushy and messy. Worse, emotions are hard to control, and isn't self-control what makes us human? Like hermits resisting life's temptations, modern philosophers try to keep human passions at arm's length and focus on logic and reason instead. But just as no hermit can avoid dreaming of pretty maidens and good meals, no philosopher can get around the basic needs, desires, and obsessions of a species that, unfortunately for them, actually is made of flesh and blood. The notion of "pure reason" is pure fiction.
If morality is derived from abstract principles, why do judgments often come instantaneously? We hardly need to think about them. In fact, psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes we arrive at them intuitively. He presented human subjects with stories of odd behavior (such as a one-night stand between a brother and sister), which the subjects immediately disapproved of. He then challenged every single reason they could come up with for their rejection of incest until his subjects ran out of reasons. They might say that incest leads to abnormal offspring, but in Haidt's story the siblings used effective contraception, which took care of this argument. Most of his subjects quickly reached the stage of "moral dumbfounding": They stubbornly insisted the behavior was wrong without being able to say why.
Clearly, we often make snap moral decisions that come from the "gut." Our emotions decide, after which our reasoning power tries to catch up as spin doctor, concocting plausible justifications. With this dent in the primacy of human logic, pre-Kantian approaches to morality are making a comeback. They anchor morality in the so-called sentiments, a view that fits well with evolutionary theory, modern neuroscience, and the behavior of our primate relatives. This is not to say that monkeys and apes are moral beings, but I do agree with Darwin, who, in The Descent of Man, saw human morality as derived from animal sociality:
Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.
What are these social instincts? What is it that makes us care about the behavior of others, or about others, period? Moral judgment obviously goes further than this, but an interest in others is fundamental. Where would human morality be without it? It's the bedrock upon which everything else is constructed.
Much occurs on a bodily level that we rarely think about. We listen to someone telling a sad story, and unconsciously we drop our shoulders, tilt our head sideways like the other, copy his or her frown, and so on. These bodily changes in turn create the same dejected state in us as we perceive in the other. Rather than our head getting into the other's head, it's our body that maps the other's. The same applies to happier emotions. I remember one morning walking out of a restaurant and wondering why I was whistling to myself. How did I get into such a good mood? The answer: I had been sitting near two men, obviously old friends, who hadn't seen each other in a long time. They had been slapping each other's backs, laughing, relating amusing stories. This must have lifted my spirit even though I didn't know these men and hadn't been privy to their conversation.
Mood transfer via facial expressions and body language is so powerful that people doing it on a daily basis literally start to look alike. This has been tested with portraits of longtime couples: One set of pictures was taken on their wedding day and another set twenty-five years later. Presented with separate portraits of these men and women, human subjects were asked to match them on similarity. For the set taken at an older age, they had no trouble deciding who was married to whom. But for the pictures taken at a younger age, subjects flunked the task. Married couples resemble each other, therefore, not because they pick partners who look like them, but because their features converge over the years. The similarity was strongest for couples who reported the greatest happiness. Daily sharing of emotions apparently leads one partner to "internalize" the other, and vice versa, to the point that anyone can see how much they belong together.
I can't resist throwing in here that dog owners and their pets also sometimes look alike. But this isn't the same. We can correctly pair photographs of people and their dogs only if the dogs are purebreds. It doesn't work with mutts. Purebreds, of course, are carefully selected by their owners, who pay high sums for them. An elegant lady may want to walk a wolfhound, whereas an assertive character may prefer a rottweiler. Since similarity doesn't increase with the number of years that owners have had their pets, the critical factor is the choice of breed. This is quite different from the emotional convergence between spouses.
Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence. This is why next to death, solitary confinement is our worst punishment. Bonding is so good for us that the most reliable way to extend one's life expectancy is to marry and stay married. The flip side is the risk we run after losing a partner. The death of a spouse often leads to despair and a reduced will to live that explains the car accidents, alcohol abuse, heart disease, and cancers that take the lives of those left behind. Mortality remains elevated for about half a year following a spouse's death. It is worse for younger than older people, and worse for men than women.
For animals, things are no different. I myself have lost two pets this way. The first was a jackdaw (a crowlike bird) that I had reared by hand. Johan was tame and friendly, but not attached to me. The love of his life was a female of his species, named Rafia. They were together for years, until Rafia one day escaped from the outdoor aviary (I suspect that a neighbor child had gotten curious and unlatched the door). Left behind, Johan spent days calling and scanning the sky. He died within weeks.
And then there was our Siamese cat, Sarah, who had been adopted as a kitten by our big tomcat, Diego, who would lick and clean her, let her knead his tummy as if she were nursing, and sleep with her. For about a decade they were best buddies, until Diego died of old age. Even though Sarah was younger and in perfect health, she stopped eating and died two months after Diego for no reason that the veterinarian could determine.
There exist of course thousands of such stories, including of animals that refuse to let go of loved ones. It is not unusual for primate mothers to carry their dead infants around until there's nothing left of them but skin and bones. A baboon female in Kenya who had recently lost her infant got extremely agitated when a week later she recognized the same bush on the savanna where she'd left its body. She climbed a high tree from which to scan while uttering plaintive calls normally used by baboons separated from their troop. Elephants, too, are known to return to the remains of dead companions to solemnly stand over their sun-bleached bones. They may take an hour to gently turn the bones over and over, smelling them. Sometimes they carry off bones, but other elephants have been seen returning them to the "grave" site.
Impressed by animal loyalty, humans have dedicated statues to it. In Edinburgh, Scotland, there's a little sculpture of "Greyfriars Bobby," a Skye terrier who refused to leave the grave of his master, buried in 1858. For fourteen whole years, Bobby guarded the grave while being fed by his fans, until he died and was buried not far away. His headstone reads "Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all." A similar statue exists in Tokyo for an Akita dog named Hachiko, who every day used to come to Shibuya Station to greet his master returning from work. The dog became famous for continuing this habit after his master had died in 1925. For eleven years, Hachiko waited at the appropriate time at the station. Dog lovers still gather once a year at the exit, now named after Hachiko, to pay homage to his faithfulness.
Touching stories, one might say, but what do they have to do with human behavior? The point is that we are mammals, which are animals with obligatory maternal care. Obviously, bonding has incredible survival value for us, the most critical bond being the one between mother and offspring. This bond provides the evolutionary template for all other attachments, including those among adults. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, if humans in love tend to regress to the parent-offspring stage, feeding each other tidbits as if they can't eat by themselves, and talking nonsense with the same high-pitched voices normally reserved for babies. I myself grew up with the Beatles' love song lyrics "I wanna hold your hand"—another regression.
One set of animal studies has, in fact, had a huge, concrete influence on how humans treat one another. A century ago, foundling homes and orphanages followed the advice of a school of psychology that, in my opinion, has wreaked more havoc than any other: behaviorism. Its name reflects the belief that behavior is all that science can see and know, and therefore all it should care about. The mind, if such a thing even exists, remains a black box. Emotions are largely irrelevant. This attitude led to a taboo on the inner life of animals: Animals were to be described as machines, and students of animal behavior were to develop a terminology devoid of human connotations. Ironically, this advice backfired with at least one term. Bonding was originally coined to avoid anthropomorphic labels for animals, such as friends or buddies. But the term has since become so popular for human relationships (as in "male bonding," or "bonding experience") that now we probably will have to drop it for animals.
That humans are controlled by the same law-of-effect as animals was convincingly demonstrated by the father of behaviorism, John Watson, who inculcated in a human baby a phobia for hairy objects. At first, "Little Albert" happily played with the white rabbit he had been given. But after Watson paired each appearance of the rabbit with the loud clanging of steel objects right behind poor Albert's head, fear was the inevitable outcome. From then on, Albert placed his hands over his eyes and whimpered each time he saw the rabbit (or the investigator). Watson was so enamored by the power of conditioning that he became allergic to emotions. He was particularly skeptical of maternal love, which he considered a dangerous instrument. Fussing over their children, mothers were ruining them by instilling weaknesses, fears, and inferiorities. Society needed less warmth and more structure.
Watson dreamed of a "baby farm" without parents so that infants could be raised according to scientific principles. For example, a child should be touched only if it has behaved incredibly well, and not with a hug or kiss, but rather with a little pat on the head. Physical rewards that are systematically meted out would do wonders, Watson felt, and were far superior to the mawkish rearing style of the average well-meaning mom.
Unfortunately, environments like the baby farm existed, and all we can say about them is that they were deadly! This became clear when psychologists studied orphans kept in little cribs separated by white sheets, deprived of visual stimulation and body contact. As recommended by scientists, the orphans had never been cooed at, held, or tickled. They looked like zombies, with immobile faces and wide-open, expressionless eyes. Had Watson been right, these children should have been thriving, but they in fact lacked all resistance to disease. At some orphanages, mortality approached 100 percent.
Watson's crusade against what he called the "over-kissed child," and the immense respect accorded him in 1920s public opinion, seem incomprehensible today, but explains why another psychologist, Harry Harlow, set out to prove the obvious, which is that maternal love matters . . . to monkeys. At a primate laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, Harlow demonstrated that monkeys reared in isolation were mentally and socially disturbed. When put in a group they lacked the tendency, let alone the skill, to interact socially. As adults, they couldn't even copulate or nurse offspring. Whatever we now think of the ethics of Harlow's research, he proved beyond any doubt that deprivation of body contact is not something that suits mammals.
With time, this kind of research changed the tide and helped improve the fate of human orphans. Except, that is, in Romania, where President Nicolae Ceaus¸escu created an emotional gulag by raising thousands of newborns in institutions. The world got a reminder of the nightmare of deprivation-rearing when Ceaus¸escu's orphanages opened after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The orphans were incapable of laughing or crying, spent the day rocking and clutching themselves in a fetal position (strikingly similar to Harlow's monkeys), and didn't even know how to play. New toys were hurled against the wall.
Bonding is essential for our species, and it is what makes us happiest. And here I don't mean the sort of jumping-for-joy bliss that the French leader General Charles de Gaulle must have had in mind when he allegedly sneered that "happiness is for idiots." The pursuit of happiness written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence rather refers to a state of satisfaction with the life one is living. This is a measurable state, and studies show that beyond a certain basic income, material wealth carries remarkably little weight. The standard of living has been rising steadily for decades, but has it changed our happiness quotient? Not at all. Rather than money, success, or fame, time spent with friends and family is what does people the most good.
We take the importance of social networks for granted to the point that we sometimes overlook them. This happened to my team of primate experts—even though we should have known better—when we built a new climbing structure for our chimpanzees. We focused too much on the physical environment. For more than thirty years, the apes had lived in the same outdoor enclosure, a large open area equipped with metal jungle gyms. We decided to get large telephone poles and bolt them together into something more exciting. During the construction, the chimps were locked up next to the site. At first they were noisy and restless, but upon hearing the huge machine that put in the poles, they turned silent for the rest of the time: They could hear that this was serious business! The poles were connected with ropes; we planted new grass, dug new drains, and eight days later we were ready. The new structure was ten times taller than the one we had before.
At least thirty workers of the field station came to watch the release. We even had a betting pool about which chimp would be the first to touch wood, or climb to the top. These apes had not smelled or touched wood for decades; some of them never had. As one might imagine, the director of the primate center guessed that the highestranking male and female would be the first, but we knew that male chimps are no heroes. They are always busy improving their political position, taking great risks in the process, but they literally get diarrhea of fear as soon as something new comes around the corner.
Standing in the tower overlooking the compound with all cameras running, we released the colony. The first thing that happened was unexpected. We were so enamored with our wonderful construction, which had taken so much sweat to cobble together in the summer heat, that we had forgotten that the apes had been locked up for days in separate cages, even separate buildings. The first minutes following the release were all about social connections. Some chimps literally jumped into each other's arms, embracing and kissing. Within a minute, the adult males were giving intimidation displays, with all their hair on end, lest anyone might have forgotten who was boss.
The chimps barely seemed to notice the new construction. Some of them walked right underneath it as if it were invisible. They seemed in denial! Until they noticed the bananas we had placed at strategic locations visible from the ground. The first ones to get into the structure were the older females, and, ironically, the very last chimp to touch wood was a female known as the group's bully.
As soon as the fruits had been collected and eaten, though, everyone left the structure. They clearly weren't ready for it. They gathered in the old metal jungle gym, which my students had tested out the day before, finding it most uncomfortable to sit on. But the chimps had known it all their lives, so they lazily lay around in it looking up at the Taj Mahal that we had erected next to it, as if it were an object to be studied rather than enjoyed. It was months before they spent significant amounts of time in the new climbing frame.
We had been blinded by our own proud achievement, only to be corrected by the apes, who reminded us of the basics. It made me think again of Immanuel Kant, because isn't this the problem with modern philosophy? Obsessed by what we consider new and important about ourselves—abstract thought, conscience, morality—we overlook the fundamentals. I'm not trying to belittle what is uniquely human, but if we ever want to understand how we got there, we will need to start thinking from the bottom up. Instead of fixating on the peaks of civilization, we need to pay attention to the foothills. The peaks glimmer in the sun, but it is in the foothills that we find most of what drives us, including those messy emotions that make us spoil our children.
Macho Origin Myths
It was a typical primate conflict over dinner in a fancy Italian restaurant: one human male challenging another—me—in front of his girlfriend. Knowing my writings, what better target than humanity's place in nature? "Name one area in which it's hard to tell humans apart from animals," he said, looking for a test case. Before I knew it, between two bites of delicious pasta, I replied, "The sex act."
Perhaps reminded of something unmentionable, I could see that this took him aback a little, but only momentarily. He launched into a great defense of passion as peculiarly human, stressing the recent origin of romantic love, the wonderful poems and serenades that come with it, while pooh-poohing my emphasis on the mechanics of l'amore, which are essentially the same for humans, hamsters, and guppies (male guppies are equipped with a penislike modified fin). He pulled a deeply disgusted face at these mundane anatomical details.
Alas for him, his girlfriend was a colleague of mine, who with great enthusiasm jumped in with more examples of animal sex, so we had the sort of dinner conversation that primatologists love but that embarrasses almost everyone else. A stunned silence fell at neighboring tables when the girlfriend exclaimed that "he had such an erection!" It was unclear if the reaction concerned what she had just said, or that she had indicated what she meant holding thumb and index finger only slightly apart. She was talking about a small South American monkey.
Our argument was never resolved, but by the time desserts arrived it fortunately had lost steam. Such discussions are a staple of my existence: I believe that we are animals, whereas others believe we are something else entirely. Human uniqueness may be hard to maintain when it comes to sex, but the situation changes if one considers airplanes, parliaments, or skyscrapers. Humans have a truly impressive capacity for culture and technology. Even though many animals do show some elements of culture, if you meet a chimp in the jungle with a camera, you can be pretty sure he didn't produce it himself.
But what about humans who have missed out on the cultural growth spurt that much of the world underwent over the last few thousand years? Hidden in far-flung corners, these people do possess all the hallmarks of our species, such as language, art, and fire. We can study how they survive without being distracted by the technological advances of today. Does their way of life fit widely held assumptions about humanity's "state of nature"—a concept with a rich history in the West? Given the way this concept figured in the French Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and other historical steps toward modern democracy, it's no trivial matter to establish how humans may have lived in their original state.
A good example are the "Bushmen" of southwest Africa, who used to live in such simplicity that their lifestyle was lampooned in the 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. As a teenager, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas went with her parents, also anthropologists, to the Kalahari Desert to live among them. Bushmen, also known as the San, are a small, lithe people who have carved out a very modest niche in a grassy, open ecosystem that for half of the year is so low on water that the few reliable waterholes seriously restrict human movement. They have lived this way for thousands and thousands of years, which is why Marshall Thomas titled her book on them The Old Way.
The old way includes minimal clothing made out of antelope hides, a modest grass shelter, a sharpened digging stick, and an ostrich eggshell to transport water on day trips. Shelters are built and rebuilt all the time by putting a few sticks into the ground, intertwining the top, and covering the frame with grass. It reminded Marshall Thomas of the way apes build one-night nests in the trees by quickly weaving a few branches together into a platform before they go to sleep. This way, they stay off the ground, where danger lurks.
When Bushmen travel, they walk in single file, with a man in the lead who watches out for fresh predator tracks, snakes, and other dangers. Women and children occupy safer positions. This, too, is reminiscent of chimpanzees, who at dangerous moments—such as when they cross a human dirt road—have adult males in the lead and rear, with females and juveniles in between. Sometimes the alpha male stands guard at the road until everyone has crossed it.
Our ancestors may have been higher on the food chain than most primates, but they definitely were not at the apex. They had to watch their backs. This brings me to the first false myth about our state of nature, which is that our ancestors ruled the savanna. How could this be true for bipedal apes that stood only four feet tall? They must have lived in terror of the bear-sized hyenas of those days, and the sabertoothed cats that were twice the size of our lions. As a result, they had to content themselves with second-rate hunting time. Darkness is the best cover, but like the Bushmen today, early human hunters likely opted for the heat of the day, when their prey could see them coming from miles away, because they had to leave the night to the "professional" hunters.
Lions are the supreme rulers of the savanna, as reflected in our "lion king" stories and the Bushmen's high regard for lions. Significantly, Bushmen never use their deadly poison arrows on these animals, knowing that this may start a battle they can't win. The lions leave them alone most of the time, but when for some reason the lions in some places become man-eaters, people have had no choice but to leave. Danger is so much on the Bushmen's mind that at night, while the others sleep, they keep their fire going, which means getting up to stoke it. If the glow-in-the-dark eyes of nightly predators are spotted, appropriate action will be taken, such as picking up a burning branch from the fire and waving it over one's head (making one look larger-than-life) while urging the predator in a calm but steady voice to go find something better to do. Bushmen do have courage, but pleading with predators hardly fits the idea of humans as the dominant species.
The old way must have been quite successful, though, for even in the modern world we still show the same tendency to come together for safety. At times of danger, we forget what divides us. This was visible, for example, after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, an unbelievably traumatic experience for those who lived through it. Nine months afterward, when asked how they saw relations between the races, New Yorkers of all races called those relations mostly good, whereas in foregoing years, they had called them mostly bad. The postattack feeling of "we're in this together" had fostered unity in the city.
These reflexes go back to the deepest, most ancient layers of our brain, layers that we share with many animals, not just mammals. Look at how fish, such as herring, swim in schools that tighten instantly when a shark or porpoise approaches. Or how schools turn abruptly in one silvery flash, making it impossible for the predator to target any single fish. Schooling fish keep very precise individual distances, seek out companions of the same size, and perfectly match their speed and direction, often in a fraction of a second. Thousands of individuals thus act almost like a single organism. Or look at how birds, such as starlings, swarm in dense flocks that in an instant evade an approaching hawk. Biologists speak of "selfish herds," in which each individual hides among a mass of others for its own security. The presence of other prey dilutes the risk for each one among them, not unlike the old joke about two men being chased by a bear: There's no need to run faster than the bear so long as you outrun your pal.
Even bitter rivals seek companionship at times of danger. Birds that in the breeding season fight one another to death over territory may end up in the same flock during migration. I know this tendency firsthand from my fish, each time I redo one of my large tropical aquariums. Many fish, such as cichlids, are quite territorial, displaying with spread fins and chasing one another to keep their corner free of intruders. I clean my tanks out every couple of years, during which time I keep the fish in a barrel. After a few days they are released back into the tank, which by then looks quite different from before. I am always amused at how they suddenly seek out the company of their own kind. Like best buddies, the biggest fighters now swim side by side, exploring their new environment together. Until, of course, they start to feel confident again, and claim a piece of real estate.
Security is the first and foremost reason for social life. This brings me to the second false origin myth: that human society is the voluntary creation of autonomous men. The illusion here is that our ancestors had no need for anybody else. They led uncommitted lives. Their only problem was that they were so competitive that the cost of strife became unbearable. Being intelligent animals, they decided to give up a few liberties in return for community life. This origin story, proposed by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the social contract, inspired America's founding fathers to create the "land of the free." It is a myth that remains immensely popular in political science departments and law schools, since it presents society as a negotiated compromise rather than something that came naturally to us.
Granted, it can be instructive to look at human relations as if they resulted from an agreement among equal parties. It helps us think about how we treat, or ought to treat, one another. It's good to realize, though, that this way of framing the issue is a leftover from pre-Darwinian days, based on a totally erroneous image of our species. As is true for many mammals, every human life cycle includes stages at which we either depend on others (when we are young, old, or sick) or others depend on us (when we care for the young, old, or sick). We very much rely on one another for survival. It is this reality that ought to be taken as a starting point for any discussion about human society, not the reveries of centuries past, which depicted our ancestors as being as free as birds and lacking any social obligations.
We descend from a long line of group-living primates with a high degree of interdependence. How the need for security shapes social life became clear when primatologists counted long-tailed macaques on different islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Some islands have cats (such as tigers and clouded leopards), whereas others don't. The same monkeys were found traveling in large groups on islands with cats, but in small groups on islands without. Predation thus forces individuals together. Generally, the more vulnerable a species is, the larger its aggregations. Ground-dwelling monkeys, like baboons, travel in larger groups than tree dwellers, which enjoy better escape opportunities. And chimpanzees, which because of their size have little to fear in the daytime, typically forage alone or in small groups.
Few animals lack a herd instinct. When former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott titled his memoir Herding Cats, he was referring to the impossibility of reaching consensus. This may be frustrating when it comes to politicians, but for cats it's entirely logical. Domestic cats are solitary hunters, so don't need to pay much attention to one another. But all animals that either rely on one another for the hunt, such as members of the dog family, or are prey themselves, such as wildebeests, have a need to coordinate movements. They tend to follow leaders and conform to the majority. When our ancestors left the forest and entered an open, dangerous environment, they became prey and evolved a herd instinct that beats that of many animals. We excel at bodily synchrony and actually derive pleasure from it. Walking next to someone, for example, we automatically fall into the same stride. We coordinate chants and "waves" during sporting events, oscillate together during pop concerts, and take aerobics classes where we all jump up and down to the same beat. As an exercise, try to clap after a lecture when no one else is clapping, or try not to clap when everyone else is. We are group animals to a terrifying degree. Since political leaders are masters at crowd psychology, history is replete with people following them en masse into insane adventures. All that a leader has to do is create an outside threat, whip up fear, and voilà: The human herd instinct takes over.
Here we arrive at the third false origin myth, which is that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around. In the 1960s, following the devastations of World War II, humans were routinely depicted as "killer apes"—as opposed to real apes, which were considered pacifists. Aggression was seen as the hallmark of humanity. While it's far from my intention to claim humans are angels of peace, we do need to draw a line between homicide and warfare. Warfare rests on a tight hierarchical structure of many parties, not all of which are driven by aggression. In fact, most are just following orders. Napoleon's soldiers didn't march into freezing Russia in an aggressive mood, nor did American soldiers fly to Iraq because they wanted to kill somebody. The decision to go to war is typically made by older men in the capital. When I look at a marching army, I don't necessarily see aggression in action. I see the herd instinct: thousands of men in lockstep, willing to obey superiors.
In recent history, we have seen so much war-related death that we imagine that it must always have been like this, and that warfare is written into our DNA. In the words of Winston Churchill, "The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending." But is Churchill's warmongering state of nature any more plausible than Rousseau's noble savage? Although archeological signs of individual murder go back hundreds of thousands of years, we lack similar evidence for warfare (such as graveyards with weapons embedded in a large number of skeletons) from before the agricultural revolution. Even the walls of Jericho, considered one of the first pieces of evidence of warfare and famous for having come tumbling down in the Old Testament, may have served mainly as protection against mudflows.
Long before this, our ancestors lived on a thinly populated planet, with altogether only a couple of million people. Their density may have resembled that of the Bushmen, who live on ten square miles per capita. There are even suggestions that before this, about seventy thousand years ago, our lineage was at the edge of extinction, living in scattered small bands with a global population of just a couple of thousand. These are hardly the sort of conditions that promote continuous warfare. Furthermore, our ancestors probably had little worth fighting over, again like the Bushmen, for whom the only such exceptions are water and women. But Bushmen share water with thirsty visitors, and regularly marry off their children to neighboring groups. The latter practice ties groups together and means that the men in one group are often related to those in the other. In the long run, killing one's kin is not a successful trait.
Marshall Thomas witnessed no warfare among Bushmen and takes the absence of shields as evidence that they rarely fight with strangers. Shields, which are easily made out of strong hides, offer effective protection against arrows. Their nonexistence suggests that Bushmen are not too worried about intergroup hostilities. This is not to say that war is totally absent in preliterate societies: We know many tribes that engage in it occasionally, and some that do so regularly. My guess is that for our ancestors war was always a possibility, but that they followed the pattern of present-day hunter-gatherers, who do exactly the opposite of what Churchill surmised: They alternate long stretches of peace and harmony with brief interludes of violent confrontation.
Comparisons with apes hardly resolve this issue. Since it has been found that chimpanzees sometimes raid their neighbors and brutally take their enemies' lives, these apes have edged closer to the warrior image that we have of ourselves. Like us, chimps wage violent battles over territory. Genetically speaking, however, our species is exactly equally close to another ape, the bonobo, which does nothing of the kind. Bonobos can be unfriendly to their neighbors, but soon after a confrontation has begun, females often rush to the other side to have sex with both males and other females. Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into a sort of picnic. It ends with adults from different groups grooming each other while their children play. Thus far, lethal aggression among bonobos is unheard of.
The only certainty is that our species has a potential for warfare, which under certain circumstances will rear its ugly head. Skirmishes do sometimes get out of control and result in death, and young men everywhere have a tendency to show off their physical prowess by battling outsiders with little regard for the consequences. But at the same time, our species is unique in that we maintain ties with kin long after they have dispersed. As a result there exist entire networks between groups, which promote economic exchange and make warfare counterproductive. Ties with outsiders provide survival insurance in unpredictable environments, allowing the risk of food or water shortages to be spread across groups.
Polly Wiessner, an American anthropologist, studied "risk pooling" among the Bushmen and offers the following description of the delicate negotiations to obtain access to resources outside their territory. The reason these negotiations are done so carefully and indirectly is that competition is never absent from human relations:
In the 1970s, the average Bushman spent over three months a year away from home. Visitors and hosts engaged in a greeting ritual to show respect and seek permission to stay. The visiting party sat down under a shade tree at the periphery of the camp. After a few hours, the hosts would come to greet them. The visitors would tell about people and conditions at home in a rhythmic form of speech. The hosts would confirm each statement by repeating the last words followed by "eh he." The host typically complained of food shortage, but the visitors could read how serious this was. If it was serious, they would say that they only had come for a few days. If the host did not stress shortages or problems, they knew they could stay longer. After the exchange, visitors were invited into camp where they often brought gifts, though they'd give them very subtly with great modesty so as not to arouse jealousy.
Because of interdependencies between groups with scarce resources, our ancestors probably never waged war on a grand scale until they settled down and began to accumulate wealth by means of agriculture. This made attacks on other groups more profitable. Instead of being the product of an aggressive drive, it seems that war is more about power and profit. This also implies, of course, that it's hardly inevitable.
So much for Western origin stories, which depict our forebears as ferocious, fearless, and free. Unbound by social commitments and merciless toward their enemies, they seem to have stepped straight out of your typical action movie. Present-day political thought keeps clinging to these macho myths, such as the belief that we can treat the planet any way we want, that humanity will be waging war forever, and that individual freedom takes precedence over community.
None of this is in keeping with the old way, which is one of reliance on one another, of connection, of suppressing both internal and external disputes, because the hold on subsistence is so tenuous that food and safety are the top priorities. The women gather fruits and roots, the men hunt, and together they raise small families that survive only because of their embeddedness in a larger social fabric. The community is there for them and they are there for the community. Bushmen devote much time and attention to the exchange of small gifts in networks that cover many miles and multiple generations. They work hard to reach decisions by consensus, and fear ostracism and isolation more than death itself. Tellingly, one woman confided, "It is bad to die, because when you die you are alone."
We can't return to this preindustrial way of life. We live in societies of a mind-boggling scale and complexity that demand quite a different organization than humans ever enjoyed in their state of nature. Yet, even though we live in cities and are surrounded by cars and computers, we remain essentially the same animals with the same psychological wants and needs.
1 Biology, Left and Right
2 The Other Darwinism
3 Bodies Talking to Bodies
4 Someone Else's Shoes
5 The Elephant in the Room
6 Fair Is Fair
7 Crooked Timber