Friday, January 22, 2016

THINKING BIG: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind"

In pursuit of understanding humans IN THEIR ENVIRONMENTS,  I have accumulated and borrowed through Interlibrary Loan a great many books over the last decade.  I have a basic kit of close experience with certain communities with quite different basic characteristics and an humanities education rooted in the Fifties ideas of “language and thought”.  Right now I feel as though I’ve found a book that is a handbook (so trendy that there’s a new verb:  “handbooking.”) that wraps around and illuminates all this stuff.

The book comes out of the United Kingdom, including most prominently Australia.  The basic argument is this: that we know a lot about human fossils and can now even reconstruct the weather and responding environment in fairly specific ways, including what there was to eat.  In the past scientists have taken a very strict approach to ideas about deep (pre-literate) history, esp. the transitions within and between the following groups:

Anthropoids (all primates including fossils, monkeys, hominins and humans), 
Hominids (all great apes (gorillas, orang utans, chimps, bonobos, gibbons), hominins and humans, 
Hominins (all our fossil ancestors),
Humans (us)
Anatomically modern humans without substantial evidence for cultural accoutrements (art, burials, ornament, musical instruments)

I don’t know where Neanderthals fit into this, since they genetically merge with modern humans.

There are three authors: 
 Clive Gamble, whom I already know from his book, "Origins and Revolutions"
John Gowlett, who is associated with “Radical Anthropology” (a school of thought with a journal), and 
Robin Dunbar.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar (born 28 June 1947) is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour.  He is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, and a visiting professor at Aalto University. He is best known for formulating Dunbar's number, a measurement of the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”.  The dependent theory is that the bigger a group of known and interacting people, the bigger the brain is likely to be.

These people, mostly English academics but researching in Africa, diverge from Cartesian object-and-logic thought, but have a  firm grip on the implied forces of evolution, which is what makes them radical.  Evolution is driven by the acknowledgement that time forces change and every change opens new possibilities.  The study of solid evidence of fossils and geology have reluctantly opened their more responsive minds in the face of the usual opposition of status quo thinkers.  The study of the evolution of the hominins AND all other humanoid forms (including us) in terms of brain development  (evolving along parallel to the rest of bodies), and the resulting social interactions between individuals, has been invisible.  A strong question has arisen:  why did the human brain-size in Africa remain the same for hundreds and thousands of years, but then suddenly -- without changing size -- explode into art, music, decoration and story?  Was it something they said?  Something they did?  

This book opens the door to a whole new realm.  These men often make distinctions: they repeatedly say, “two things are relevant” and then those two things are not opposed to each other, but either interacting in shaping ways or diverging from each other to explore new territory.  This is Bibfeldtian "both/and" thinking.  (Bibfeldt is a mythical scholar invented to counter "either/or" thinking.)

Lady bonobos

For instance, two things have shaped "apes".  One of the most intriguing little hints is that somehow our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, diverged because bonobos went with social interaction as the primary focus of life (including sex as greeting, much to the fascination of humans), and the chimps went with tools -- which might have led to our technologies.  (I’m waiting for the invention of a keyboard for chimps — but, wait!  Hasn't anyone tried to get a chimp to use a tablet computer?)  Modern humans evidently came from a branch that refused to exclude either society or tools, until now they've converged.  These authors speak of the sensory ability and the materials available, both expanding interdependently. 

A fascinating riff on the subject of the "occipital bun", which is a pushed-out part of the rear skull, suggests that populating the northern territories required big eyes to gather more light, and therefore needed more brain processing space, which is at the back of the head.  Neanderthals have big eyes and that "bun".  The thought is that this meant the pre-frontal cortex behind the forehead couldn't develop, which kept them from the abilities housed there.

The authors do not indulge in silly thoughts, but stick to the serious business of survival as the planet constantly makes our current arrangements obsolete, maybe even impossible.  What’s the most basic crucial understanding we need?

One element is group size and the basis of their cohesion, which turns out to be music and laughing.  The proposition is that the following table is pretty universal:

5 people are an intimate group.  The authors call them “soul
15 people are a foraging group, best friends or maybe co-
50 people are a band, which they rename as “overnight
  camp groups”, all of whom know each other and get along.
  I recognize this as the named Blackfeet traveling groups,
   partly family.
150 people are “Dunbar’s number” — I’ll come back.
500 people are mega-bands related by marriage or trade.
1500 people are tribes united by one language.

Print it out, maybe enlarged, and add the names.
Good workshop exercise.

150 is about as many people we can handle in terms of trust and obligation.  These are the people we greet by name at the post office and linger a few moments to trade information.  

You may notice that each increment is threefold.  The authors relate it to classic military unit sizes:

12 men in a section
40-50 to a platoon (3 sections)
150 of 3 platoons to a company
500 is a battalion (3 companies)
5000 is a regiment (3 battalions)
5000 is a brigade (3 regiments)
15,000 is a division (3 brigades)

Dunbar’s number, 150, is the size that will allow balance between enough interaction to maintain social cohesion (grooming in apes, greeting in humans) and the time that will economically work to support survival.  The less time spent on work, the more there is for social cohesion, and vice versa.  In hunter-gathers groups a great deal of time is devoted to what we consider to be "idling" but is actually bonding.  What we consider work is often divisive.

Our technological society has been hard on neighborhoods, which in my post-WWII childhood were about 150 people who knew each other, by spreading them out over space on the Internet.   We even shop there.  People are reading my blog around the planet, which always startles me, and impresses me with the obligation of somehow providing what they are looking for.  

Some are boys or were when I got to know them.  I am sharply aware of the universal tendency to exclude young boys from both social protection and individual reassurance, which are the purpose of groups.  When the leopards come, the hominins go up trees, grabbing the babies to carry as they climb.  Some children can climb.  But the youngest boys are left on the ground.  At some point the hominins also began to act like leopards and destroy the easy prey of their own young.   (Abraham was not sacrificing his daughter. Just saying.)  There must be some survival value to the vulnerability of boys, or it wouldn’t have persisted so many millennia.  But what is it?

I recently read a disturbing account of young males, tortured dismembered discarded — it turned out to be about male dairy calves who are seen to have NO value in terms of human society.  Value = Survival.

Grown but uneducated men in a tech society are in a similar fix.  They can’t even sell sex.  Their blood, maybe.  In some cities they can’t sleep outdoors or in cars.  Those who wish to help them are forbidden to provide soup kitchens where the “nice” people live.  No one will even do what baboons do for each other: pick off fleas.  We’re devolving.

You’ll notice that I’ve left Radical Anthropology now and entered upon Social Commentary.  The line between is permeable and that’s excellent, because it means there are more variables affecting survival.  I was intrigued to see that these authors appreciate what they call “hot” cognition empathy — which is sharing on an emotional level — and “cold’ cognition empathy (theory of mind) which is aware of what others are thinking and feeling, but emotionally detached, even Machiavellian.  Babies seem to be born with hot empathy, but don’t develop Cartesian-style “theory of mind” until maybe age five, kindergarten.

There will be more as I explore this realm of thought.

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