I needed these authors at that stage of my intellectual life when I was caught in the toils of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – dismal yearsI needed these authors at that stage of my intellectual life when I was caught in the toils of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – dismal years of spiritual depression or oppression. But I didn’t have Goodreads then, to locate alternate ideas, and I’m not of scientific background, to find my way around. So I bought this secondhand a couple of decades too late.
I find it unreadable now. It’s far too politicised, from the calm waters I am since in. Biology is, of course, ideology (their slogan and title of another book). One way to see that – which made an impression on me – is to follow how evolutionary science went quite differently in a different culture: case study: Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. But it’s work on animals that gave me my alternative: Frans de Waal and others. In retrospect, for my spiritual salvation (I don't mean religious, which I've never been), I only needed to go back to Dostoyevsky, who was in a fight against an old determinism, whereas I had met a new. ...more
I am on-side with social selection, that allows for ‘human preferences’ in how we have evolved. Yes, we help pick who survives and define our own fitnI am on-side with social selection, that allows for ‘human preferences’ in how we have evolved. Yes, we help pick who survives and define our own fitness: we select for cooperation and ‘extra-familial generosity’ (altruism) that help everybody in the group eat well.
This doesn’t mark us out as distinct from animals, who cooperate in ways we can’t conceive.
Where he goes after this rests on the ‘human uniqueness’ argument, and in my personal search for understanding I have crossed that off, through the work of primatologist Frans de Waal. My one quarrel with Boehm’s first book was with his primatology: he was very conservative in what he granted to the apes, and his bonobos, notably, I didn’t even recognise from other descriptions. It is worse in this book: early on, when he claims human uniqueness, without which what follows is useless – he says – he spends two pages on proof that animals don’t internalise values such as fairness and a sense of wrongdoing; and he cites only apes and the domestic dog. On apes, again, I found Frans de Waal a far more sensitive observer; and domestic dogs – are domestic, for one thing. My dissatisfaction with these two pages turned bug-eyed when he uses the word ‘doggie’ in a serious book. I’ll echo another reviewer, about how much he hangs on the fact that ‘only humans blush.’ Hey, I bet aliens use other physiological mechanisms to exhibit shame. ‘Man is the animal that blushes’ works as a quip from Mark Twain, but not as evidence that we alone feel shame. When he talks of internalising values – which we do, and other species don’t – his distinctions become very finely drawn. Often, as he says, we, like doggie, are just ‘afraid to be found out’; reading his insistence on true internalisation, you start to wonder if you ever did yourself. By the way, I blush from embarrassment mostly, and animals certainly have expression of embarrassment. I’m not sure I can prove my internalisation of values to the world; and when he admits we can never get inside the mind of an animal – it’s too hazy.
Before I leave animals: bonobos are important. He equates them with other apes – who only make the most primitive efforts to solve their ‘alpha male problems’. Enough for humans to be going on with.
The anthropological content of his first book, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, is replicated here: on how hunter-gatherers use coalitions to defeat alpha males. Because nobody likes a bully, nor ever did. However, in his first book he acknowledged the existence of ‘untouched’ hunter-gatherers who are not egalitarian; if my memory is right he admits he has no explanation for why they diverge. In this book, he leaves them out of his study group: on grounds they are not egalitarian and therefore don’t resemble Late Pleistocene humans. Because they don’t fit his theory? If he has a reason to leave them out, he fails to give it to us. This shook my confidence early, too.
His anthropological material is worth reading, if you are concerned about the politics of our species; but it’s better read in his first book.
Now to the meat. Fortunately, for myself, I see the pathways towards ethics in emotions, and in empathy, which we share with animals and can study in them. So I did not have to believe we evolved a conscience through social selection, by means of group punishments.
Perhaps group punishment worked better in the Pleistocene, than in historic time, or than I see in us today. Perhaps hunter-gatherers use group punishment more wisely than contemporary states: on his evidence they do, but has he chosen his examples?
My discomforts were made very explicit by his keywords. These are ‘capital punishment’ and ‘deviants’, both used a thousand times. In the Pleistocene, we employed ‘capital punishment’ against ‘deviants’, and that is how we evolved a conscience.
I can see where this might go wrong.
But he doesn’t. He never discusses what a blunt instrument capital punishment, as we know it, is, or looks at what our definitions of a deviant have included. Why does he use these words? Maybe we ‘took out’ (another of his phrases) the bullies and the selfish non-cooperators, and ‘solved our alpha male problem’ – and made extra-familial generosity a fitness. But in my experience and knowledge, group punishment – with gossip, ostracism and other social distancing – is no way to evolve a conscience.
I find his language use crashingly insensitive. He has a chapter, ‘Work of the Moral Majority’ – without a smile. He can’t have forgotten the Moral Majority, whose era I grew up in. Within that chapter, a subtitle: ‘Killing Unbalanced Deviants.’ He says it unselfconsciously, as if he has no expectation that my mind flashes to when the coppers killed an unbalanced guy on my street.
Social selection is a great step forward for humanity from biological determinism. Why was this book just as repugnant to read?
Page 336: “If it began much more gradually, long, long ago, with an authority-hating, autonomy-loving Homo erectus or early archaic Homo sapiens that perhaps wanted better access to females, our moral evolution is likely to have become more genetically stablized...” Just an example of carelessness I suppose, but were the females of a different species? Obviously they had no input into the evolution of our conscience.
Two pages later: “...even though, very fortunately, at least a portion of these conscienceless monsters are taken out of circulation so that they can’t stock our gene pools.” Yes, he’s talking about putative serial rapists in the Pleistocene, but I don’t care who the fuck he’s talking about. He forgets he’s talking about human beings, and I’ve discovered science doesn’t have to be written like that.
The epilogue on Humanity’s Moral Future was a disposable piece of journalism on current world affairs, and included political opinion. A weak end to the book. ...more
I'd only heard of him as an anarchist until I began to read about emotion & the beginnings of ethics in animals -- in such authors as Frans de WaaI'd only heard of him as an anarchist until I began to read about emotion & the beginnings of ethics in animals -- in such authors as Frans de Waal -- where he was always mentioned as a forerunner. One of those books sent me to Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought... which was totally interesting, as a lesson in how scientific understandings differ in different environments. Kropotkin wasn't on his own, but part of a Russian trend. I wish evolutionary theory had continued on its Russian path, or perhaps, that I lived there.
At last I read the man himself. At this stage he's preaching to the converted, but he has great examples/anecdotes, about animal cooperation. From the sociability of animals he moves to human sociability, in 'savages', 'barbarians' and onto medieval & later. I was most interested in savage and barbarian society, where again, he's preaching to the choir, but that makes this book a feel-good read for me and in fact an escape from other lines of thought. I didn't read the later history. But community efforts in European medieval cities was a feature section. I've been struck elsewhere in the world by the independence of cities, community leadership in place of what we call government... this sheds light thereon. ...more
Too often I have seen the assumption that Mongolians, or historical Mongols, behave with their livestock, think of their livestock, more or less as peToo often I have seen the assumption that Mongolians, or historical Mongols, behave with their livestock, think of their livestock, more or less as people do in the West. Not so. There is a radical difference. As Fijn tells us, Western attitudes, whether we've forgotten or not, were determined by the Old Testament (even into the age of science). While Mongolians were and remain animists. An animal, though he be a food animal, isn't a commodity to a Mongolian, or a Mongol by extension. Nor is there a demarcation between human and animal -- there is a continuum. So too between the domestic and the wild, terms which convey Western practices and the Western philosophy. In a real sense Mongolia doesn't have domestic herd animals, unless you think of that as animals-attached-to-the-home. Fijn strives for a new terminology to describe the cooperation of herders and herd, the co-socialisation. Humans learn to become a part of the herd, as much as animals adjust to a life with humans. Animals are persons, with individuality and emotions: this is the essential of the animism Fijn talks of.
Here's a sample of the language she ends up with: "As young persons, both herder and herd animal become enculturated into herd society by means of interspecies communication."
Her book is of great interest, not only to readers about Mongolia but to readers about human-animal interaction around the world. The fieldwork part of the book I felt to be brief, but its conceptual importance forbids me to deduct a star.
Note. If you find the book expensive you can go watch the Mongolian documentary-drama The Story of the Weeping Camel, which she does mention. ...more
One of the 1st I read in evolutionary psychology - than which nothing is more fascinating. I didn't know how to judge it by itself. I'll rate it in hiOne of the 1st I read in evolutionary psychology - than which nothing is more fascinating. I didn't know how to judge it by itself. I'll rate it in hindsight. For me, the researches say of Frans de Waal has made this and a few others obsolete. Give me the straight observation of animals, and then construe that old question of humans and morality. ...more
Hard to rate, as I read it up to 30 years ago. I'll rate as I judged then. It was big and fascinating for me then and I felt a trust for the author anHard to rate, as I read it up to 30 years ago. I'll rate as I judged then. It was big and fascinating for me then and I felt a trust for the author and what he told me. These days, I have to wonder. I don't believe potty-training plays a critical part in the formation of the adult human mind. Still, I suspect the author is a wise soul even if he talks within a frame of the theories of the day. From memory I felt him kind and wise. I'd have given five stars at eighteen.
I felt violently against this book. A book has never been so much in danger of being torn apart by me. I wanted to investigate the subject but... notI felt violently against this book. A book has never been so much in danger of being torn apart by me. I wanted to investigate the subject but... not here. Nb. I didn't read this fully. There was no chance, with a reaction like that. 1st couple of chapters and a browse satisfied me I don't believe a word of what's in here. ...more
If you're going to read about animal intelligence - animal emotion - and onwards to animal ethics - oh, do start with Frans de Waal. He's so sensible.If you're going to read about animal intelligence - animal emotion - and onwards to animal ethics - oh, do start with Frans de Waal. He's so sensible. He's certainly not over-excitable (he's a trifle under-excited for me) and you can trust him. Explore further, but drop your anchor in Frans de Waal, that's my philosophy. And if you're like me, the fact that animals, yes, have ethics, which are built out of emotion, changes how you see the world. ...more