Sunday, March 27, 2011

War, Peace, and Morality

One of the most valuable tools to anthropologists is the study of micro-cultures (my term). I am referring to isolated cultures whose development helps us understand the way human beings behave in groups. Examples of these analogs are the Cherokee Indians, Zulus, Peruvians, etc. These cultures contribute to our understanding of the people of European antiquity when knowledge about them is lost or incomplete.

I ran across a discussion of the Cherokee Indians society which posits an interesting idea about primitive society. The Cherokee were divided into a warrior group separate from the rest of the tribe and its religious leader. It is thought that this was a necessary division because the warriors needed to know how to fight and not make peace. Similarly, the religious leader was responsible for the anti-war point of view – that is the pursuit of peace and negotiation with outside groups. In this case, war and peace created a separation of powers because it was impractical (and possibly dangerous) to put both in the hands of one individual.

A Cherokee-like division of power is not as well differentiated in ancient Greece and Rome, although one would not expect it to be in a complex society. The Athenians elected ten Archons, and of them, one was the overall leader, one was the military leader, and one was the religious leader. But the Archons as a group made decisions on peace and war. In Rome, after the time of the kings, the religious function was separated from the administrative function, and the Pontifex Maximus was given the sole purpose to maintain the religious apparatus of the Republic. He had no say in any decision on war, which was the prerogative of the Senate, although some Pontifices were also Senators.

Protection from attack has been a unifying aspect of human society since the first time people came together in groups. In the primitive world as the Cherokee world, there was no concept of morality of war. If you were attacked, you fought back. In the more advanced political systems (Polis, Republic) that came later, the unified fear of an enemy was not enough, in itself, to bring on war. The government was structured to force rigorous debate before moving ahead.

Does religion have a place in this? Not in Greece and Rome. There were war gods and peace gods and warfare was considered part of life. Religion was a state activity, managed by officials of the state, so individuals played no part in the decisions regarding war and its morality.

Fundamental to Christianity is the concept of morality in life and in war, so in the United States, were religion is separate from government, the morality of war becomes a sharp debate when our justifications are weak. The historical notion of attacks on our culture have been replaced with an abstraction. Attacking Viet Nam was designed to block the designs of China – a step the government felt necessary to assert superiority in the cold war. Now we have a terrorist enemy who has no borders, and we don’t know how to attack him.

This means that a unifying perception of an outside threat to our culture is missing! We’re not threatened as Americans; we’re threatened as individuals – whoever happens to be close by when the explosion occurs, suffers. In other words, a physical threat has been replaced with a psychological threat, something that is less direct and harder to deal with from a moral standpoint.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sex, Darwin, and the Ancient Empires

It’s interesting to contemplate man as an animal versus man as an intelligent being – the great dichotomy of our life on earth. Originally we were animals with a big brain, unused until we learned to take control of our environment in a way that fostered practical thinking. Domesticating animals and agriculture ended man’s life as a nomad and brought people together in larger groups (villages). The size of these groups led to a division of labor, and man’s brain was finally put to work.

There seems to be a trend these days that seeks to suppress the animal part of us like it’s some barbaric mantle that keeps us from a utopian existence. The adherents of this point of view want us to become sensitive to the needs of all other humans -- logical, caring robots, mass produced in a political correctness factory who will not offend anyone. It’s an era of neglected responsibility where causes don’t matter – only situations.

My position is a bit different. I believe that the refusal to accept man’s animal nature is nonsense based on what would result from attempts to be “un-human”. Would it be bad for a man to be attracted to a woman, for example, because that would exhibit animal behavior? Should we accept a low paying job because the desire to do better is immoral or elitist? There is no question that biology has played an important role in our success as human beings. Men have striven for better lives, invented great things, and pushed knowledge forward because of a motivation to succeed, be the best, or win the race. You can’t legislate away humanness even though some utopians think you can. The progressive movement wants to see a “leveling” of society to make us all socio-economically equal, and part of the plan is to remove humanness as roadblock to societal equality. Strength must be replaced by equality.

I was asked to review the book The Dynamics of Ancient Empires by Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, published in 2009. Although a heavy academic read, the book presents some interesting ideas on humanness, especially in the last chapter, written by Professor Scheidel and titled Sex and Empire, a Darwinian Perspective. His point of view is that not only did the men of antiquity differentiate themselves by ability, but they also sought power because it allowed them access to more sexual partners and control over their own procreation.

Scheidel starts with the notion that humans are driven by their bio-molecules to interact with the outside world for the sake of energy consumption and replication.

“Since genetic survival is contingent on scarce energy resources, reproductive processes inevitably involve competition, which in turn drives evolution in response to natural selection. As a result, behavior of organisms is adaptive if it increases the chances of reproductive success.”

To put it another way, it was more useful reproductively for men to possess a harem of females than for females to possess a harem of males.

“Typically, resources, status, and power co-varied with reproductive success for males. In general, the acquisition of symbolic capital – honor, prestige, and power – translated into the accumulation of material capital, which enhanced reproductive success.”

Of course, a major criticism of this idea is that sexual urges are not known to prompt men to engage in warfare or the exploitation or resources, but the author counters that men can be motivated by a variety of causes and that the desire for warfare can be brought about by the desire to increase a man’s inclusive fitness; driven by such emotions as “we’re better than them” or “they have dishonored us.”

If you look at ancient history, the norm is polygyny (multiple wives) among elites. The data also shows that increased social stratification (based on wealth) increases the level of polygyny. But does this data support a Darwinian point of view?

“Because of the protracted childcare in humans, a premium has been placed on post-partum parental investment, so female mate choice is governed by the desire to obtain resources from long-term mates, an objective that conflicts with man’s desire for multiple partners.”

These forces put man in a position of wanting it both ways – stable long term partners associated with producing heirs and secondary partners used outside the accepted relationship. Indeed, Scheidel asserts that the first monogamous societies (Greece and Rome) were socially imposed. By this he means there was social pressure to monogamous based on the increasing importance of cooperation among coalitions (peer groups), needed to deal with external challenges. This pressure led to a moral standard that monogamy should be the only acceptable marriage practice.

In both Greece and Rome there grew to be severe penalties for having sexual relations with someone else’s wife, but no penalties for relations with slaves or concubines.
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Domesticated Man - Not as Smart as his Ancestors

I just finished reading an article discussing human brain size and its relationship to behavior and intelligence. It seems that over the past 20,000 years man’s brain has decreased in size from 1500 to 1350ccs (10%). Women’s brains are lighter in the same proportion.

What does this mean? We’re obviously smarter, so how can our brains be smaller? Throughout recent history our brain to body size ratio (EQ) has remained relatively constant, so the decrease in our brain size has been accompanied by a decrease in body size. There are theories that attempt to explain this phenomena, but no consensus has been reached in the scientific community.

One theory, which I label the Climate Theory, suggests that the warming of the earth has decreased the need for large bodies to protect against the cold. Twenty thousand years ago the earth was in the last stages of an ice age, and the earth has warmed steadily since that time. Natural selection, operating during this period, favored smaller bodies which use less energy, so humans began to shrink – body and brain.

There is a second much more interesting theory about the decrease in size of human beings; the notion that we small-brained moderns are “dumber” than our predecessors. The story goes like this. Among the thirty or so domesticated animals, the wild ancestors had bigger brains than their more docile descendants AND were more clever at surviving. For example, a wild dog is more resourceful than a domesticated dog. Of course, the domesticated dog has his master to help him get thorough life so he can give up whatever brain function the wild dog needed for survival.

What does this data mean when applied to human beings? Scientists have looked at brain size in people as a function of population density and have found that people living in larger groups have smaller brains. That is those living in densely populated areas had smaller brains than nomadic types. Of course, agriculture and the domestication of animals helped drive this because they set the stage for people to live closer together and created a differentiation of roles in those cultures. Over time, strength and the ability to fight became specialized so the majority of men could live their lives without having to be physically aggressive.

If we buy the analog with domesticated animals, then we too, like them, have become less clever – at least as it relates to the ability to survive. We have essentially domesticated ourselves, and, in doing so, taken advantage of our newly acquired free time to intellectualize.

But one question still remains. What would have happened if our big brained, clever ancestors would have had time to think? Would they have acquired knowledge faster than we have because they were more clever or is it a zero sum game?
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