Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Novelist reinvents ethology

Tom Wolfe, whose works often show a considerable pretentiousness in my opinion, has a piece in the New York Sun entitled "Darwin meets his match". In this he adduces Zola and Weber, and most of all the 1950s American sociologists whose works stressed status seeking and display, to show that there is something missing from Darwinian theory.

Like social dominance ethology and psychology never happened, right? Darwin talked about social dominance and submission several times, and much of Weber's dialectic comes from the tradition of social psychology one might suggest Darwin was influential in creating, if not being the originator (Hobbes has that honour in my view). The ethology of Lorenz and Tinbergen, and the creation of social dominance theory among various species (not often applied to our own species, although the sociobiologists of the 1970s tried, such as Lionel Fox and Robin Tiger, but were shouted down as being neofascists), explained how social animals form dominance hierarchies, and the theoretical apparatus of honest advertising (costly, and therefore hard to fake) of status explained why animals "spend" status advertising the way they do, from the peacock's tail through to conspicuous consumption of potlatch feasts.

What I especially object to here is Wolfe's implication that somehow evolutionary theory is inadequate to this task of social explanation. But the theoretical infrastructure of modern evolution not only is adequate to it, it requires it. If the fitness of an individual depends upon his or her (or its) position in the social group, then he/she/it will need to be able to badge that status to those from whom the organism is seeking aid or mating opportunities.

Humans are social animals. This is a point noted since Aristotle. We form social dominance hierarchies. But unlike many organisms, which have a single, often nontransitive, hierarchy, we humans are able to set up and maintain our status on several hierarchies at once. I suspect this is because we are (i) mobile, and can interact with different geographical bands of humans through trade, warfare, intermarriage and cultural exchange, and (ii) we are able to abstract and communicate status verbally. Yes, Tom, language is important, but you are wide of the mark if you think there is no work done on when we evolved it. The likelihood is that it evolved around 200,000 years ago in its present form.

So we have a rank hierarchy for our own tribe or community, as well as hierarchies of age cohorts, ethnic groups, and within-gender hierarchies (come on - you didn't think that jewellery or bling was to impress the opposite sex, did you?). We also have a rather more obvious hierarchy in sedentary urbanised cultures - class hierarchies. So what will the average human do to maximise his/her/its* status? Each individual will strive to maximise fitness on a vector sum of these hierarchical scales, based on the physical traits and inherited wealth they have at birth and maturation. It may pay to get much money irrespective of physical attractiveness (the Trump ploy), but mostly it pays to come to an optimal tradeoff. You might find it best to be the top dog in your class, or your ethnic group. You might find that aggression works for you. Or it might be that being a middle manager in a middle class is the best outcome for you.

We use status to increase our fitness, but it doesn't follow that this equates to mating opportunities. It may be that your inclusive kin benefit from being a warrior who dies. It may be that having status vicariously will mean others in your tribe or troop will look after the progeny who are left behind. Or it may be that favours are returned, and because Uncle Fred died in the War (a sacrifice to the common good), his nephew is helped through hard times. All that counts from an evolutionary perspective is that one's inclusive fitness is improved.

One point that is often overlooked when discussing this sort of thing, is that it means that our biological dispositions created modern society. Evolutionary psychologists often say that our evolved dispositions are maladaptive in modern society. I find that hard to accept - we are in our "natural environment", because we made it. So we ought to go looking for the adaptive benefit of our general tendencies in urbanised agrarian societies, and not naively assume that if only we lived like foragers of yore, we would all be much happier. Perhaps we would if things went well. But have a population explosion, or a change of climate, and we would be damned unhappy. I read recently that "traditional" forager societies have a murder rate around 2-5% over an adult lifetime. That's much worse than New York during the 1980s.

Wolfe's essay is entertaining, and has some nice case examples, but it's not exactly news...