Friday, 29 March 2019

Neither chimps or bonobos – In Defence of Enlightened Humanism

According to the primatologist Frans de Waal, humankind is suffering from “anthropodenialism” – a refusal to accept the complexity of other animals. Because, he says, if we reject the notion that animals can feel pain, possess a consciousness, a mental life or self-awareness – that they are in many ways similar to us (or we are similar to them) – then any amount of cruelty or instrumental treatment is justified. I remember reading about vivisectionist monks in the 17th century, who following the philosopher René Descartes, were convinced that animals were merely machines so when they strapped dogs to tables and cut them open the resulting screams were, in their view, just due to air coming out.

This is where the humanistic arrogance that humans are somehow unique seems to lead.

There has been progress since then but it’s been slow, attritional and selective. In March last year, for example, Switzerland became one of the first countries to make it illegal to boil lobsters without stunning them first. Italy had already made the practice illegal and in 2017 an Italian court ruled that freezing lobsters in ice before cooking them was cruel. In 2008 Switzerland, which seems to be a pioneer in animal welfare, made illegal to own a single guinea pig because it will get lonely.

The reason why headway is so fitful, I think, is fear of where giving ground on this issue will ultimately end. If they are sentient and feel pain, is it ever right kill animals for food? Or should we grade them and exempt those with ‘higher consciousness’ like octopuses and squid?

Hiding from ourselves

However, there is also an opposite danger – though one that is rarely voiced. That is in asserting that there is no human-animal duality, but rather a continuum, we lose sight of how humans are different – as a result of evolution – from every other animal species on earth. And how, in indulging in such denial, we evade responsibility for dealing with our own creativity and intelligence.

In fact, de Waal illustrates the danger. On one level, it’s hard to disagree with him that insisting on human uniqueness has justified – and still does legitimise – cruel behaviour that, in reality, has no justification. But de Waal does not leave it there. Since our emotions are no different from the emotions of most mammals, and since like most primates, “we are a hierarchical species”, the putatively civilised institutions we spend our lives within bear the unconsciousness imprint of our animalistic nature. They are, in fact, eerily similar to the social structures of chimpanzees, our closest animal relative (we share 98% of our DNA). In denying this affinity, we are hiding from ourselves.

The English writer Will Storr, clearly influenced by de Waal, elaborates. “By observing behaviours the human self shares with the chimp self,” he writes in Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, “we might find clues to which parts of us are so old they predate our ascent to the top of the world.”

These mutual behaviours include hiding feelings to get your way, bearing long-term grudges and manipulating others. Above all, there is a common preoccupation with hierarchy – younger chimpanzees engage in conspiracies and coups to topple the ruling alpha male, group members form shifting alliances and engage in ‘political’ beatings and murders. And once in power, the leader doesn’t just need prove his physical prowess; he needs to be an arbiter of disputes, to disrupt bonding amongst rivals and act as a protector of low ranked chimps.

“… despite the din and wizardry of modern life,” writes Storr, “despite how separate we feel from the beasts, the truth is that we are great apes that sit in the primate superfamily Hominoidea. We are modern yet ancient, advanced yet primitive. We are animals.”

The other side of the family

But if the chimp-human analogy is a little too right-wing for your taste – all that hierarchy, dominant alpha males and violence – there is an alternative. Step forward the bonobo, the so-called ‘caring, sharing’ ape that we are equally closely related to (we share 98% of our DNA with both chimpanzees and bonobos). Unlike with chimps, female bonobos are at least as important as males and dominance hierarchies are much less pronounced. Bonobos, who live the Congo basin and are classed as an endangered species, also share food with strangers, express empathy, hug, kiss, and use sex, rather than violence, as a means of resolving disputes (male bonobos, apparently, get erections at the prospect of food).

                                         A group of Bonobo apes

So, we have a choice it seems – we can prefer to believe we are more like chimps or more in tune with bonobos. There is no correct answer – why de Waal, who has written books about both chimpanzees and bonobos, feels we have more in common with chimps is not immediately obvious.

But what if the answer to the puzzle, ‘Are we more like chimps or bonobos?’ is neither?

This is not to deny that we ‘possess’ the suite of behaviours on show here. Clearly, humans can be aggressive, manipulative, deceitful, form informal alliances with others and jockey for power. They can also be empathetic, like the bonobo. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level say that we possess “mirror neurons” in our brain that enable us to make the same movements as others in sympathy. So, for example, people routinely flinch when they see someone experience pain in a film they are watching.

Open to subversion and change

However, crucially, our social arrangements do not simply stem from the way we behave towards each other. This can be seen in the hunter-gatherer tribes in which homo sapiens have spent 9/10ths of their time on earth, mostly dissipating from around 10,000 years ago. These were comparable in scope to chimp and bonobo bands. But they were qualitatively different and not just in terms of intelligence and the use of technology. Early humanity – in contrast to other apes or any other animal species – was quite aware of the danger of dominant individuals seizing power and took steps to ensure that the possibility of egalitarianism was preserved and that no social or political order became eternally fixed.

It’s actually not straightforward to establish how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. The assumption that traditional tribes that have survived into the present provide a window to life 40,000 years ago is a very big leap to make. But David Wengrow, Professor of Comparative Archaeology at University College and David Graeber, Professor of Comparative Anthropology at the London School of Economics, have together make a concerted attempt* to imagine what life was like many thousands of years ago, rather than relying on intuition or political preference.

Their conclusion is that hunter-gatherer bands consciously switched from hierarchical social arrangements at certain times of the year to resolutely egalitarian forms at others. “Strongly dualistic patterns of organisation” as the authors call them, existed, for example, in the glacial fringe of Europe during the last Ice Age (which began to end around 20,000 years ago), concurrent with tribes assembling in large numbers and then disassembling into smaller groups. “The same population might experience entirely different systems of economic relations, family structure and political life at different times of year,” they say. Features like territoriality, social ranking or material acquisitiveness would be put into effect at certain times of year and then reversed.

Note, this is not just a matter – as in chimp bands – of one alpha male seizing ‘power’ in summer, only for a rival to take the reins in winter. Human bands, by contrast, knowingly switched the nature of social arrangements.

“What makes us human,” say Wengrow/Graeber, “[is] the inherent complexity of our political repertories, and in particular the range of strategies for resisting domination, which far outstrip those available to other primates. At the psychological level, these include ridicule, moral censure and ostracism; at the social level they involve complex institutional arrangements to limit or subvert the exercise of power.”

The reference to institutions is significant because power in human societies is now mediated through institutions. In contrast to early humanity, social arrangements are not easily reversed because they are fixed in institutions which are intended to endure. These institutions control access to resources and political power. Within them, shifting alliances, coups, conspiracies, power grabs – ‘chimp-like’ behaviour if you will – may take place. But their existence and effectiveness does not depend on the prevalence of such behaviour. They rely on bare coercion and also obedience in non-privileged ranks – ideologically-induced feelings that their power is justified and morally correct.

'First' and 'Second' Nature

The social ecologist Murray Bookchin made an essential distinction between consciously designed human social structures and animal communities, the latter conditioned solely by instinct and idiosyncratic forms of behaviour. In this sense, no animal group is hierarchical; the word – derived from the ancient Greek meaning rule of the high priest – belongs firmly to the human realm of institutional power. When we speak of hierarchies among animals, we are merely projecting our own systems of social ranking, whose contingency and non-biological origins we can’t deal with, onto them. In his view:

… dominance and submission must be viewed as institutionalized relationships, relationships that living things literally institute or create but which are nether ruthlessly fixed by instinct on the one had nor idiosyncratic on the other. By this, I mean that they must comprise a clearly social structure of coercive and privileged ranks that exist quite apart from the idiosyncratic individuals who seem to be dominant within a given community, a hierarchy that is guided by a social logic that goes beyond individual interactions or inborn patterns of behaviour.  The Ecology of Freedom, p 94

Bookchin distinguished between ‘first’ and ‘second’, or social, nature. First nature is the realm of human beings’ animality. We are mammals, and primates and apes and have “natural, primal urges”. But at the same time – and singularly among living things – we exhibit choice and discretion about how we live together. Though human social forms might appear static, a cursory glance at history reveals that they do change both incrementally and explosively. Or as Noam Chomsky succinctly expresses it, “humans are unique in the natural world in that they have history, cultural diversity and cultural evolution”.

It is important to realise, however, that first and second nature are not isolated, abstract categories. As Bookchin emphasised, in the evolution of homo sapiens first nature gradually phased into second nature. Our propensity to function cooperatively with each other is a product of first nature, for example. “Quasi-biological institutions” around family, kinship, age and gender – neither definitively part of first or second nature – still play a major part in social life. Nationalism, racism and religious bigotry, for example, can be compared to the proclivity for chimp bands to aggressively attack strangers, in contrast to our awareness, however honoured in the breach, of the existence of a universal humanity. There is always the danger, said Bookchin**, of “our animality conspiring with our intelligence or cunning to yield unforeseeable terrors and unexpected horrors”. But the element – perhaps the burden – of choice is always present. This, at its most basic level, is what freedom means.

Beware the Lobster

So human beings are both like other animals and not like them. Perhaps this can be best illustrated by the aforementioned lobster. The psychologist and “classical liberal” Jordan Peterson, for example, claims that it’s inevitable “that there will be continuity in the way animals and human beings organise their structures”. The dominance hierarchy, he points out, is a “near eternal aspect of the environment”. Extreme economic inequality among humans has the same ultimate cause as the certainty that lobsters will fight over who has access to the best hiding places – a perpetual striving for dominance and survival that only a small minority can win. “It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies,” says Peterson, “where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent – and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion.”

He is quite enamoured of the revelation that anti-depressants can be successfully administered to lobsters – a defeated, hunched lobster, low in serotonin, can be perked up and readied for battle again by giving it Prozac. It will “advance on former victors and fight longer and harder”. Despite the evolutionary gulf that separates them, humans and lobsters share basic neuro-chemistry. “The drugs prescribed to depressed human beings, which are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” says Peterson “have much the same chemical and behavioural effect.”

But the fact that humans and lobsters share the same neurotransmitters – and both can feel pain – does not mean we share the same social structures. For one thing, lobsters don’t have a social structure. And for this reason, anti-depressants, while they similarly affect personal behaviour in both lobsters and humans, are less than useless when it comes to changing human social structures. In contrast to the revived lobster, the mass prescribing of anti-depressants that has taken place in the developed world since they were first introduced in the late 1980s – by 2004 Prozac had been prescribed to 50 million people – has not made the slightest impact on social structures or made those structures more permeable to people of low social rank. The same period that has seen the wholesale dispensing of anti-depressants, undoubtedly one of great business success stories of the last thirty years, has also witnessed sharp declines in social mobility in the US and UK. Rather than opening up careers and better incomes to people previously shut out from them, they have instead simply relieved the pain induced by increasingly segregated and mapped out lives.

Social classes and social strata are, in Bookchin’s description, “made of sterner stuff” than individual behavioural traits. Changing them, therefore, cannot be achieved by reforming individual behaviour. Ironically, however, the belief that socially-created forms of domination and hierarchy ultimately stem from the way humans behave – are biologically determined, in other words – can shield them from change. To free ourselves, we first need to stop believing.

*Wengrow & Graeber’s first paper on the subject – “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality and the Origins of Inequality” – was published in 2015. Another joint essay – “How to change the course of human history” – was published in 2018 and touched on similar themes. And I believe a book is forthcoming.

** Bookchin, who died in 2005, is a neglected thinker in my opinion. His books include Re-enchanting Humanity (where this quote is from), The Ecology of Freedom and Remaking Society.