CHAPTER 10. SOCIAL EVOLUTION: SURVIVAL OF THE KINDEST
This chapter deals with the social evolution of man. The study of the impact of social factors on evolution will go a long way to reveal which of man's characteristics are innate as opposed to those learned from social interaction with others. This effort will help delimit human nature itself and, thereby, avoid nebulous philosophical arguments as to whether, in an overall sense, humans are by nature good or bad.
The discussion of social evolution borrows from writers in the field of sociobiology. Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory to the study of social behavior in biological organisms. This relatively new subdiscipline stresses that social behavior patterns are just as subject to evolution by natural selection as any of the purely biological patterns.
Although the chapter uses many sociobiological concepts, it does not share the supposed exaggeration of biology on human behavior. The purpose of the chapter is not to show that biology is all important to the behavior of man, but only that it is important. Nor do we want to overthrow the work of scholars such as Ward and James. Obviously, there are differences between man and animals, and there is an element of free will in human behavior. The chapter only stresses how man is similar and related to the other animals, and that freewill should be pushed back conceptually to allow for biological influences.
Bias Against Sociobiology
There is a very strong bias against sociobiology in the social sciences, and, therefore, it should not be surprising that most of the reviews of the subdiscipline are quite hostile. This hostility is the same hostility that met Darwin's work on the evolution of man over one hundred years ago.
One of the leaders in sociobiology is E. O. Wilson. Other popularizers in the field are the ethologist Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith, and the biological anthropologist Melvin Konner. The work of the sociobiologists, especially Wilson, has been criticized by the Boston-based Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People, which includes such distinguished Harvard colleagues of Wilson as Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, and Stephen Jay Gould. They are basically Marxist in orientation and provide an interesting example of knee-jerk radicalism. Kaye notes the critics ignore the fact that Wilson is no defender of the status quo.
Many of the critics of sociobiology also overstate the case. For instance, Kaye (1986) writes that sociobiologists are claiming that obedience to our genes -- not salvation, justice, or material well-being -- is and must be the central guiding principle in our lives. Kaye warns that this biological, reductionist view of culture, buttressed as it is by unwarranted claims of scientific objectivity, may prove "dangerously" attractive and "dehumanizing" to a culture "fearful" of its own survival. Kaye obviously brands sociobiology as dangerous and fear inducing. This fear is quite overstated. For instance, critics of sociology can easily cull from the literature many exaggerated statements that might spread doubt among the populace as to the sanity of the discipline. Critics of sociobiology are afraid that society will self-destruct or fall into fascism if sociobiology is given a fair hearing. For instance, Kaye (:49) notes that some sociobiologists believe that the new scientific discoveries will destroy Western beliefs and values.
The moral criticism of sociobiology is unfair because human ethics always has to be above science anyway. Morality is not and can not be determined by science. Morality, however, can be informed by science. Any decent code of ethics has to be grounded in some sense of reality, and science can inform this reality. The conclusions of science, the going beyond the data, can be attacked by critics, but science itself should be allowed to continue without political interference. Looking on the positive side, sociobiology could be the start of the construction of a non-racist, non-moralist moral code. The American moral code is simply too harsh and a biologically more friendly moral code should be highly welcome. Barash (1982:160) has argued that sociobiology could even provide an antidote to racism because it emphasizes biological universals that underlie the superficial cultural differences that many people think are so important in defining human beings. Biologists are used to dealing with an incredible amount of diversity of life forms. Therefore, to a biologist the cultural patterns of human beings tend to appear highly homogeneous. The anthropologist sees an amazing array of human activity, whereas the biologist sees pattern commonalities.
A big obstacle to considering evolution as applied to man is the traditional emphasis on "survival of the fittest." This is still true even though, as we have already seen, many thinkers, such as Sumner, had already modified the theory to include moral evolution. In this chapter we continue the assault on the conception of evolution as somehow naturally conservative by providing an alternative view of evolution as "survival of the kindest" or "survival of the most cooperative," rather than "survival of the fittest."
Evolution Applied to Social Behavior
A big problem for Darwin and other evolutionary thinkers has been the existence of altruism among species. Actually, the increasing number of sociobiological studies have found an astounding number of species that exhibit altruistic behavior. In fact, it is fairly common among animals, and not just human beings. Evolutionists stressed the survival by natural selection, a concept which they thought should have nothing to do with altruism. For instance, the prairie dog on guard, upon seeing a coyote, will give out an alarm call to his associates. By doing so, however, the caller subjects himself to attention and thus the possibility of being caught by the coyote.
William D. Hamilton provided an answer to the puzzle provided by altruism (Barash, 1982:68-69). In two important papers published in 1964 he argued that animals, like the calling prairie dog, acted in an altruistic manner because natural selection works to insure a maximum number of an individual's genes in future generations. Therefore, natural selection does not simply maximize the personal reproductive success of the individual prairie dog, but his chances of improving group survival so that his genes can continue to exist.
This new understanding of natural selection is corroborated by studies of altruism among kin members in animal groups (Barash, 1982:77). Just as would be expected from the principle of improving genetic survival in future generations, altruism has been found to be more common among closely related individuals, and among species that have little geographic dispersal (thereby allowing kinship ties to be maintained). Species that show altruism also tend to show greater tendencies to expel outsiders from the group and afford special favors among individuals in the kinship group. This action, obviously, tends to favor the continuance of the kinship members genes into successive generations.
Nature as Cooperation
American culture emphasizes conflict and competition. Not surprisingly, these cultural themes themselves raise their ugly heads even in the programs given at our local nature preserves. These approaches stress the negative side of nature more than the positive side. A popular teaching technique is to emphasize the food web where the teacher has various students pretend they are plants and animals that are eaten by other larger or more efficient animals. The emphasis is on a kind of survival of the fittest here. Another approach is to stress the competitiveness of nature in an economics approach. This approach sees nature as a symbol of one big laissez-faire economic system in which the fittest and most efficient survive. It sees nature as a kind of structural-functional model, as a complex system of interacting parts such that affecting one part of the system will affect many other parts of the system. There is a conservative bias in this approach that stresses balance. The fact is that in the long run many entire species disappear from an area, while many new ones are introduced. And yet life goes on in spite of these very large scale changes. In the short run nature appears balanced, but in the long run it seems chaotic.
Evolution, however, is more a story of the limitation of competition and the triumph of overall cooperation than of survival of the fittest. Plants and animals limit competition through the refinement of a complex of interacting niches. A niche is a set of ecological conditions under which a species can exploit a source of energy effectively enough to be able to reproduce and colonize further such sets of conditions. Certainly in the short run, the story of nature is one more of cooperation than conflict. When one walks through a nature preserve the overwhelming impression is one of cooperation, especially between plants and animals. Plant species do not have to struggle constantly with one another because they have developed various niches in the environment. More dramatic instances of plant competition in the northeast United States often involve so-called alien species that are more recently introduced into an area, such as Multiflora Rose, Japanese Knotweed, and Purple Loosestrife.
From a day-to-day, year-to-year perspective the impression at a nature preserve is on how well plants are matched to various niches available and how plants in the various niches bloom at different times to take complete advantage of the sun's changing energy levels over the seasons. All living behavior can be traced back to the necessity of capturing the sun's energy, and all the activities of living organisms center around variations in the sun's energy. The dependence on the sun is especially noted in the plant world, where the changing of the seasons produces dramatic effects on plant species. Since plants are so dependent on the sun's energy, and animals are so dependent on plants, animals too have to dance to the tune of the sun. This creates certain commonalities in the patterns of plant and animal behavior and creates a tremendous interdependence of species, both plant and animal. Many events of the forest spring, even if not timed to lengthening days, are synchronized with each other, and for obvious energy reasons. For instance, leaf-eating insects do not emerge until there is foliage for them to eat, and northern songbirds do not normally arrive from the south in advance of foliage and insects.
Heinrich (1979:182 & 190) provides some excellent examples of cooperation between plants and bumble bees and between different species of bees. Each of the different plant species provides a link in the temporal chain of food necessary for the bees', and ultimately the plants', survival. From the perspective of animals the food available from plants in a habitat is partitioned in ways that are mutually beneficial. A very important example of partitioning is the blooming at different times of those plants pollinated by bees. Flower staggering arose from the interaction between plants and plants and plants and animal pollinators. Plants blooming at the most popular times had to contend with greater competition for pollinators. Other time slots, however, were available. Flowers prospered simply by shifting their blooming period to times when few competing plants were in bloom. (Moreover, no one habitat can be seen in isolation. Bees are known to fly many miles. The timing of flower blooms has to be considered between habitats and not just within one habitat.)
The more man has learned about animals the more it is apparent that we have underestimated the animals. Indeed, animals have a certain amount of culture. For instance, one of the old definitions of man was that he was the only animal that used tools. It has now been learned that many animals use tools and that animals even pass this knowledge on to their offspring. Therefore, if one member of a species learns how to use a tool other members of the group will acquire the usage also.
A study of animal evolution shows that both society and culture arose before the appearance of man. Indeed, one cannot fully understand animal and human evolution without including the impact of social evolution. Like man, many animals developed within a social and community context.
Social evolution works quite like regular evolution not involving social factors, but instead of natural selection, there is a social selection of characteristics. Indeed, biologists are demonstrating how most social behaviors are evolutionally based. Animals that can cooperate in groups have definite advantages over those that cannot cooperate. Natural selection will then insure the survival of those traits of sociability because the more communal animals survive in the struggle for existence. In a similar way, cultural factors become important, for those animals that can adjust to social demands have a better chance of survival.
Just as in human societies, social interaction and hierarchy are important in many animal species. Many mammals hunt in groups and share food. Such animals include the wild dogs, hyenas, and lions. Some animals even have a definite form of culture (Bonner, 1980). Animals use tools, transmit local traditions, and even have rudimentary forms of language.
Especially revealing have been studies of primate societies other than humans. The leader in this research has been the team led by Jane van Lawick-Goodall at the Gombe Stream Research Center in Tanzania. The on-going studies have been conducted since 1960 (Goodall 1990). Among other things, such research has shown that non-human primates form deep and lasting attachments with fellow members of their species (Goodall 1975:132). For instance, among chimpanzees, mothers and offspring form long-lived relationships, as do siblings. Social cooperation exhibits itself in areas such as finding food and water, avoiding predators, caring for the young, and preparing the young for adulthood. Chimpanzees also use and make primitive tools and hunt in co-operative groups. They communicate with a primitive language of calls, postures, and gestures. Similarities with humans include a long period of childhood, an extended period of adolescence, deep family relations (with the exception that the father plays no role in childrearing), and non-verbal communication. Even more importantly, chimpanzees can conceptualize. They can be taught to communicate important needs in the sign language of the deaf. They also show emotions such as self-awareness, altruism (seeking to reassure other members of the troop), and some awareness of death.
In addition to studies of chimpanzees, studies among the olive baboons have shown that the baboons are actually far less aggressive than once thought (Strum 1987). The male olive baboons may rule the groups as a whole, but the females control most of the events in the extremely important and central family and kin system. Baboons use more finesse than force through an elaborate exchanges of social and sexual favors. Strum (1987:160) even goes so far as to say that "Real power resided with those who were 'wise' rather than those who were 'strong, those who could mobilize allies rather than those who try to push through with brute force." Some may accuse the sociobiologists of anthropomorphism, but to deny the sophisticated nature of these animal societies is related more to anthropocentrism than anthropomorphism.
Sociobiologists are illustrating that aggressiveness is far less characteristic of animal societies than was once thought. The emphasis on aggression in animal societies was largely due to superficial studies of these animals. The overemphasis on aggression was also due to studying just a few species. For instance, chimpanzees and baboons are relatively easy to study because the places they live are readily accessible to humans. But it is the very habitat in which these species live that contributes to their aggressiveness. New world monkeys are very much harder to study because these monkeys live in dense tropical jungles rather than open shrub forest. The fewer studies of the new world species reflects this difficulty of access. The few studies that have been done indicate that these species are far less aggressive than their better known African counterparts (Moynihan, 1976).
When sociobiologists study animals societies, they consider many of the factors that Durkheim and other sociologists consider when studying human society. The sociobiologists ask the question of why should animals be social and come up with similar responses to sociologists. The reasons Barash (1982: chapter 9) gives for being social include: reproduction; avoiding predation; food gathering; social facilitation (some form of socialness appears to be a normal environment of all species); minimizing internal competition and maximizing competition against other species or groups; division of labor; and social transmission of information.
The Social Evolution of Humans
In discussing the evolution of man from the hominids (members of the Hominidae family with erect posture) to modern man, we have come to understand that this evolution was not just biological in nature, but also highly social. In other words, those social traits of man-like creatures and man himself that aided both individual and group survival became naturally selected. Indeed, both animals and plants have much more complicated social interactions and communities than was ever contemplated just a mere two decades ago. Such discoveries have made it clear that both society and culture preceded modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) (who only arose some 140 thousand years ago at the most). Furthermore, the evidence indicates that social evolution was a primary factor in biological evolution, not only of animals in general, but of modern man in particular. This reinforces the idea that man is indeed an animal.
Both society and culture arose among the animals prior to the evolutionary appearance of man. Therefore, man, like other social animals, developed within the context of society. Indeed, there would be no modern man if it were not for his social setting, for the process of evolution socially selected those traits that made man human.
In the social evolution of humans, one of the social factors working to select cooperative males and bands of males was the degree of cooperation in the hunt. Human social development got a big boost when men cooperated enough to drive away from their kills large predators such as lions, hyenas, and other carnivores. And this very cooperation allowed man eventually to become the primary hunter, that is, the real "king" of the jungle.
Another important factor in social evolution was sexual selection. According to Fox (1972), the need for a high level of cooperation within the band led females to select those males who had shown hunting prowess, leadership, skill at tool making, and any other virtues contributing to the success of the family and the social group. Females also avoided males who were too aggressive. This type of sexual selection worked to produce more socially amenable offspring. As young males learned that females selected socially cooperative males, they became even more socially cooperative. For instance, they became less aggressive both sexually and toward others, trying more to fit in with the group rather than to become the group's leader. This behavior in turn reinforced the social stress on cooperation rather than conflict in mate selection.
Still another group of social factors influencing evolution were those involved in familial behavior. A factor favoring the socially cooperative male was that such a male would be around to protect the child and its mother. Those males that stayed around also could teach their children survival skills. This gave their children a differential survival rate over those children with fathers who were less family oriented. These offspring in turn would be better fathers or mothers. Similar factors also apply to the mothers, but the crucial factor seems to be the selection of the more cooperative of the males.
An interesting area, and one that applies to the prejudice against sociobiology itself, is the possible evolution in man of a genetic basis for self-deception. R. D. Alexander (1979) in his Darwinism and Human Affairs has argued that the ability to follow the lead of the group is increased if one believes in the validity of the group. Therefore, those showing more social compliance may have been socially selected because they were more likely to meet with social approval, and therefore receive higher rank and a greater chance of reproductive success in future generations in terms of genetic transmission. Those most successful in society are those who actually believe what they say and do, even if others regard this as self-deception. Humans, therefore, are naturally reluctant to believe that their thoughts and activities are the result of biological self-deception, or anything else shore of the purest of motives.
Chemical Basis of Human Social Evolution
Panksepp (cited in Benton and Brain, 1988:229-230) has an hypothesis that there are circuits in the brain that modulate social interactions of various kinds. This idea has been supported by a number of pharmacological studies. Virtually all types of social behavior that have been examined (including maternal behavior, play, social affiliation, and aggression) have been found to be influenced by one type of opioid drug or another. But these studies are still very limited in scope. Any and all social behaviors are modulated by a range of neurochemicals.
An example of the interrelationship between behavior and body chemistry is provided by the relationship between male sexual behavior and aggression (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1987:159; documented by Zillman 1986). Studies of various mammals demonstrate this linkage on the physiological and behavioral levels. In humans one can observe a significant increase in the plasma-testosterone level after young males win in a tennis match and a significant decrease when they lose (Mazur and Lamb, 1980). Medical students show a similar increase in the plasma-testosterone level if they pass their examination and a decrease if they fail.
Research in Genetics
Aiding the impact of sociobiology has been the improvement in the understanding of human genetics. Biology started to make an intellectual comeback with the 1953 discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick. The unity of the genetic code seemed to establish the fundamental unity of all life and thus appeared to challenge the belief in human uniqueness.
According to Robert Plomin (1990:111), genetics has been found to play an important and substantial role in all examined behaviors including IQ, specific cognitive abilities, school achievement, reading disability, mental retardation, numerous personality traits, attitudes, vocational interests, schizophrenia, affective disorders, delinquency, crime, and alcoholism. In some cases genetic influence explains as much as half of the variance, a rare amount in the behavioral sciences. Plomin (1990:112) went so far as to write that "Genetic influence is so ubiquitous and pervasive in behavior that a shift in emphasis is warranted: ask not what is heritable; ask instead what is not heritable." So far, the only domain that shows little or no genetic influence involves beliefs such as religiosity and political values, and creativity independent of IQ. These characters may, however, be indirectly related to behaviors that have a genetic basis. Further research in this area obviously has to be done.
Return to Main Page Table of Contents
Return to Home Page