I’m not much of a moralist, but if I were I imagine Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong would make me pretty mad. The driving question for the people I know with strong moral imaginations is How can I make myself a better person?, not How did I get to be so good? And the issues they deal with are the petty realities of striving for small advantages over one’s neighbor rather than toy “dilemmas” about whether it is or is not okay to flip a switch and alter the lives of other people. However, as I say, I’m not much of a moralist. From my perspective Hauser’s book does have some things to say that are of great interest to this blog.
Since its beginning this blog has noted that speech requires people who are willing to listen. We are not a race of Hamlets breathing soliloquies into the night air, but communities of speakers who listen to one another. Two people paying joint attention to something, that is the blog’s central image. Chimpanzees and gorillas are smart enough to use pidgin languages, but they don’t really care what one another has to say. Dominance displays get them up and down the social ladder. Hauser’s book looks at this peculiarity from a new angle, asking not, how did we come to speak?, but how did we have such a revolution in social relationships?
Anthropologist Chris Knight distinguishes between primate societies and human communities, and I think it’s a good one. Somehow the Darwinian priorities of the selfish gene are not the primary issues in our lives. Hauser quotes Thomas Huxley, a.k.a. “Darwin’s Bulldog,” no less as saying:
Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage. (p. 310)
Hauser makes it clear that the “brutal savage” Huxley disparaged also recognizes a duty to the community. All human groups have laws and moral precepts. Apes, however, do not have any sense of duty or community.
It is not that they don’t have a sense of themselves and a knowledge of when they have been cheated. It’s not even that they cannot sympathize with a fellow. One of my favorite images in the book is of rats who, upon seeing a fellow rat hoisted in mid air, lower the rat back to the ground, just as an act of mercy. There, there, brother rat; you’re okay now. Mammals, especially the great apes, are smart enough for all that, and they use their intelligence to their advantage.
Across several studies of chimpanzees, results show that individuals successfully use information about what another individual knows and intends to guide competitive interactions, while failing to use the same information to guide cooperative interactions. (p. 340)
That very nicely summarizes the difference between the histories of our two lines. Since our last common ancestor, chimpanzees have been competing, keeping fit, and struggling to survive in the shrinking African forest. Meanwhile, the human line has been cooperating, tending to one another’s needs, developing weaker eyes and limbs, while occupying the whole of the globe.
It seems that we have found a way around the constraints imposed through the selfish competition to convert food into babies. How have we escaped the limits of selfishness? By developing a set of habits likely to be recognized by any parent as things they tried to teach their kids:
- Patience: Most animals can, at best, delay gratification by a few seconds. “Humans given a similar task will wait for hours and even days. When it comes to patience, we are the paragon of animals.” (p. 344)
- Reciprocity: Concepts like tit-for-tat, barter, and favor banks are found in every human community. They exist only marginally in animal societies. Chimpanzees may trade meat for a favor, but they do so with kin and they expect to be paid back on the instant. “We are the only animal that cooperates on a large scale with genetically unrelated individuals and that consistently shows stable reciprocity.” (p. 378) “Reciprocation in animals, if it exists, is based on a highly scripted text for how to interact in a particular context with a particular commodity over a short window of opportunity.” (p. 391)
- Punishment: My own regular viewing of the TV program “Law and Order” has made me extremely skeptical about people who insist that punishment has some intrinsic rightness; however, I can see that punishment does serve several important functions. It assures the people who have not cheated that they are not being jerks, and it identifies the uncooperative people who cannot be counted on to keep their end of a bargain. Punishment is routine in human communities, but, “Among animal societies, punishment [is] weak or nonexistent” (p. 408).
- Imitation: “Monkey see; monkey do,” is a well known bit of contempt, but monkeys are very poor at imitating what they see. Humans are great at it, and adopt the ways of the world around them on very short notice.
- Conformity bias: Apes know their own mind and stick with their impulses. They are kept in line only by the random aggressions and intimidations of their more dominant betters. Humans get along by going along. Our heroes stand up for what’s right in the face of great community pressure to conform, but we call them heroes because we know how hard it is to resist that pressure.
I don’t think many saints and prophets would find much to admire in this list of elements that Hauser says provide the basis of a moral faculty. Yet he has done a splendid job at identifying elements of cooperation that are present in people and absent in animals. We can cooperate with strangers over a long period of time, waiting patiently for our input to be paid back.
He gives no clue as to how we started down this path, but he does note an interesting result of the process. Cooperation leads to different results in different societies. Darwinian selfishness keeps both species and results in line. Don’t be fooled by all the talk of chimpanzee culture and variation:
In a collaborative project among primatologists studying chimpanzees distributed across East and West Africa, several dozen social traditions emerged. Most of the traditions involved tool technologies, with some populations using stones to crack open nuts, others using fishing sticks to extract termites. Less frequently, observers noted differences in grooming techniques and a few other social gestures. As the cognitive scientist David Premack and I have noted, these differences don’t carry much emotional weight in chimpanzee life. … The lack of variation between animal groups, together with relatively high migration rates, virtually eliminates the possibility of group selection. In contrast, the significant variation between human groups creates an opportunity for group selection. (p. 416)
These details are quite provocative for a blog about speech origins. We see how none of the attention triplet comes naturally in the ape world. Potential speakers don’t care to enlist the attention of listeners. Potential listeners are not interested in what speakers have to say. And nobody gives a hoot about any topic you care to mention.
Once we got past that hoop (however we got passed it) then we could start talking, start our separate histories, and, here’s a startling idea, issues of group selection came into play.