New Historian

What We Are: Nasty, Brutish… and Compassionate

Bonobo Group with various ages (2)

<![CDATA[Relinquishing an idea that is lodged deeply into your mind is a challenging task, especially when the lodging took place a long time ago. “Survival of the fittest” is perhaps one of the best-known concepts in science, a concept a lot of us grew up with if we studied Darwinian evolution at school. “Fittest” in the traditional, widely accepted view of the concept usually means “strongest”, “most aggressive”, and “most adaptable”. In other words, we tend to think of evolution as a constant fight to gain the upper hand over your immediate competitors, that is, the rest of your species and any other species that stands in the way of survival. But what would you say if “fittest” actually meant “most compassionate”? This is exactly what two scientists, Nick Winder and Isabelle Winder, have suggested with their Vulnerable Apes hypothesis, a hypothesis that challenges some of the foundations of the traditional understanding of human evolution. The central idea is just as fascinating as it is simple to grasp: compassion, the ability to accommodate less than “optimal” individuals in the community and help them survive, gave evolution a major push and demonstrated our ability to learn new behaviours when circumstances call for them. This compassion, the willingness of parents to take care of their infants that, unlike the babies of other primates, go through a longer period of complete dependency and have straighter feet, shorter arms and hairless bodies, is what spurred human evolution onward, ultimately turning those flaws into evolutionary advantages. I had the pleasure of talking to Nick Winder a while ago. He shed further light on why the heroic model of evolution, the model that describes natural selection as a constant battle against survival odds of varying importance, is oversimplified and therefore wrong, and on why it is important to rethink basically everything we have long taken for as an indisputable truth in the evolution field. Thomas Hobbes, Nick recalls, described the lives of our ancestors as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Well, it seems Hobbes and a lot of other authorities may have got it wrong. The pinnacle of evolution The fundamental concept around which this new evolutionary hypothesis is organized is the ability of an entity, or organism in this case, to perform an activity purposefully, intentionally. This ability science refers to as agency. Agency, Nick says, was not recognized by social or political sciences for a very long time; in fact, until the emergence of the modern computer in the 1960s. Until then, he says, scientists by and large plainly refused to accept that anyone different to white western Europeans, let alone their hominin ancestors or non-human animals, was capable of agency. Nick points out that the main reasons behind this were the socio-political environment in which Darwin’s theory was born and the fact that much of early evolutionary theory was produced by Britons, shaping future attitudes and perceptions. In that highly stratified environment, where institutional constraints (which we’ll come to later) discouraged individual agency, Queen Victoria was all but considered the pinnacle of human evolution. Even today, says Nick, natural scientists find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of individual agency, not just among humans – who have time and again been proven to be capable of purposeful action – but also among animals. Still, the paradigm is shifting, thanks in no small part to the emergence of interdisciplinary studies in recent decades, which are beginning to reveal evolution as a process much more complex than early evolutionists and even not so early ones could have imagined. The reason – those socio-political factors that dominated science for so long prevented physical and social scientists from grasping its complexity. “There are certain math problems you can solve,” says Nick, “if you ignore certain parts of their complexity.” Agents and plesionic systems Agency is the central idea in Winder and Winder’s hypothesis, the idea that both human and non-human animals are capable of intentional actions. But agents do not function in a vacuum, they function within what Nick calls plesionic systems, from the Greek word plesion, meaning “neighbour”. A plesionic system is an interval of space and time, called an arena, containing one or more agents (as well as other things) and these agent/s work within the arena to understand or perhaps even influence another plesionic system which they come into contact with at a certain point in time. Nick explains plesionic systems using time geography, an interdisciplinary framework created by Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand in the 1960s. One example of a plesionic system is a person walking on the street and texting. Or someone driving a car. Any agent doing something purposeful, in short. In this purposeful activity, the agent is naturally constrained by spatial factors: we can’t see through walls, for example, and we can’t hear someone talking if we are a mile away from them. Yet, in spite of these constraints agents find ways to come into contact with other agents in other plesionic systems and the points of these contacts are called pockets of local order. A Skype connection is possible because of a pocket of local order called a computer. A geographical feature that has been consistently occupied through the ages, like a city or an ancient monument, is also a pocket of local order, Nick explains. Context is king From these pockets of local order we can reconstruct past plesionic systems that came into contact there and this is possible because of one very important aspect of plesionic systems: they have a context, which is created by the agent. Agents don’t move through time and space in jumps, says Nick, they carry a sort of “lifeline” with them that unwinds as they move and interact with other agents and plesionic systems. The movements of agents create a fabric of plesionic systems, in which each plesionic system has its own memory. This memory is contained in the arena and is created by the constraints inherent in every arena but also by the ways in which the agent themselves change the arena, by rethinking it. Each instance of rethinking an arena creates a context for it. Context, says Nick, literally means an interweaving of information. This interweaving happens over time and results from “the friction between the agent and their arena.” What’s more, this context changes all the time, we constantly recontextualise our arenas. We do this every time we make a decision, then change it, take actions and remember these actions. This recontextualisation lays the foundations of learning new behaviours. The ability to learn new behaviours, in its turn, is an essential aspect of evolution. This itself is not a new discovery: the ability to learn new behaviours, to recontextualise our arenas, has long been recognized by science, just not in its full complexity. Back when Homo sapiens was fresh off the trees (even before that), when hominins lived in small communities in places with relatively sufficient resources to survive but a limited gene pool because of the size of the community, some individuals were hard pressed to pass on their genes. They had two choices: not pass their genes at all or mate with close kin, taking the risk of producing offspring that was at a disadvantage to the rest of the community. To help this offspring survive, the parents had to learn new behaviours, they had to be compassionate. Compassion, in this context, meant the ability to cope with genetic disadvantages, a biologically determined ability, rather than an acquired characteristic that developed as part of later evolution, with the emergence of highly organized societies. The irony of institutions You might well be wondering where these vulnerable apes that we used to be went as evolution progressed and humans started settling down and forming communities and societies. It seems that with the emergence of societies and social constructs like institutions the vulnerable apes gradually turned into genocidal apes, as Winder and Winder call them. Should institutions be blamed for this? To an extent, and it is a considerable extent, yes, they should. Institutions aim to create and maintain order, to rein in the forces of chaos while at the same time placing significant constraints on individuals, on agents. Some of these, the agents put in themselves, and others are imposed externally, so to speak, by the institutions themselves, says Nick. Take the church, for instance, any church. It has a dogma that believers follow, for the most part voluntarily. But even if an individual believer has a problem with some aspect or element of the dogma, they will, if they are sincere in their belief, accept that aspect or element because it is part of the dogma. What’s perhaps more fascinating than this kind of cognitive dissonance is the fact that institutions are in a sense no more than “artefacts of human opinions.” Every individual has a certain opinion of an institution, a different idea of it. Take the above believer – they will probably have an opinion of their church of preference that is very different from the opinion of an atheist. Since both the believer and the atheist are agents and as such equal, both their opinions, albeit different, are valid. More importantly, however, despite these differences in opinion, institutions are, as we have all felt at some point or other, very real constructs, a sort of virtual agent whose main purpose, just like individual agents, is to take care of its vested interest. Obviously, sometimes the interests of one individual agent and an institution are at odds, and it is not the individual agent that usually comes out of such a situation as the winner. Institutions are powerful and there is a good reason for it – remember, they create and maintain order. They are not evil constructs whose aim it is to constrain individuals. Yet the irony in all this is that the inherent compassion of the vulnerable apes started declining when institutions started being created. Suggesting a causal relationship between the two would be too speculative but it is a fact that historically, modern humans at least have for the most part been non-compassionate to their fellow human beings. Only recently – within the last hundred years, which is a second on the scale of human evolution – have we begun to appreciate agency for what it is, to recognize it in humans and even non-human animals. Incidentally, it’s only been recently as well that we have started questioning the merits of this or that institution on a large scale. So, we were once compassionate apes who had compassion and co-operation among their survival tactics. These evolved along with competition, and may well be seen as the second major driver of evolution. Yet over the millennia, the vulnerable ape gave way to a smarter, more dangerous species, the genocidal ape. “Genocidal” may sound like too harsh a word but if we think about it, it is an accurate description. Human activity has been established as a major contributing factor for the sixth mass extinction, which is already taking place. We are literally wiping out hundreds of species at rates that are anything but natural. We are also trying to wipe out ourselves, so we are not just homicidal but suicidal as well. So, what do we do now? Sadly, there is no ready answer. Becoming more aware of our environment, the same environment that sustains us, is one step in the right direction. Another step, in the scientific field, is the increase of interdisciplinary studies; it seems that interdisciplinary research can and does help overcome a lot of obstacles such as obsolete ideas and concepts that have long plagued the science world, effectively preventing research from moving beyond a certain boundary.]]>

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