How to Make a Social Species

In my previous essay I asked the question “what is a social species?” and gave operational and observational definitions in the form of if-then questions.  A naturalist could go walkabout with these questions and see that primates, and in particular the great apes, tend to be found in groups with a species-specific typical range of sizes.  With the exception of humans, the great apes have few activities away from their group or a sub-group.  They are ‘groupies.’

A lot of their time is spent in social interactions ranging from dominance contests to play, or competition to sharing.  They tend to be very close to each other and appear to be quite happy all squashed together.  They spend a lot of time grooming parasites from each other’s hair and other touching.  Activities are accompanied by a variety of vocalizations – they are communicating to each other, not telling stories, but real time communication of mental states.  They are mindfully aware.

Look at their intent interest, at the expression on the face of the chimp near the center of the picture, and think ‘brain reward’ gluing them together.  They are a social species, glued together by carinance.[note]See previous essay for carinance.[/note]

I waxed eloquent about care in the previous essay after I had realized that a social species had a variety of dissociative forces and therefore needed associative forces that were greater.  I found an associative force in care and its consequent brain reward.  And I knew that because individual survival occurred within the context of the social group, that there would be, within the survival rules of each individual, behaviors that favored the interests of the group over that of the individual.  I’ll tell another chimpanzee story:

One morning some of the males quietly begin to gather together and they moved silent and single file into the savannah with a determined mien.

They were the band of brothers[note]Occasionally a female will join the patrol.[/note], warriors showing the flag, protecting their territory and females, discouraging territorial incursions by neighboring troops, and possibly killing their conspecifics[note] See for a general discussion of chimpanzee territoriality and for an excellent technical discussion of some factors in chimpanzee territoriality.[/note].  Chimpanzees are a social species united by carinance into a troop and divided by tribalism and territoriality into competing and conflicting troops.

Going on patrol is also going into danger of injury or death.  At this point individual survival is superseded by the necessity of protecting the territory within which the individual performs its survival behaviors such as locating food and mates, and sleeping.  It is a necessary tradeoff.

That’s Funny: The Asimov Dictum

Isaac Asimov famously observed that science began with the observation “that’s funny” and there is an interesting detail about this territorial behavior.  There was no provocation.  The simplest model for behavior is a linear cause and effect with the effect typically being proportional to the stimulus.  But in the examples of territoriality cited in the literature there does not appear to be an external stimulus, that is, territoriality is not a response to immediate evidence of an incursion onto their territory or any other threat.

One morning the dominant male wakes thinking that it is about time to patrol the boundaries.  He begins a special soft hoot that says ‘let’s man-up and go on patrol, show the flag, maintain our territory and its resources, and protect our females.’  Dominance in social territorial species incurs the responsibility of territorial maintenance.  Dominance incurs danger: the dominant male in the neighboring troop was killed.

A group, troop or band has an identity, a self-concept, a knowledge of inside and outside, self and non-self at a larger scale than the individual and has the equivalent of an immune system that protects itself and attacks dangers both internal and external.  As individuals in the group display dominance and competitive behaviors, so too do groups.  Individuals in the group display intra-group associative and protective behaviors but do not display those behaviors towards neighboring troops.  That is the province of territoriality, tribalism, and warfare.  The boundary of care is the boundary of the troop where care becomes conflict.[note]That boundary is somewhat porous.  Females transfer or emigrate to a neighboring troop when they mature.[/note]

A Social Species: Chimpanzees and Humans

I have so far described a minimal set of attributes of chimpanzees that might also be characteristic of H. sapiens: living in social groups of some species-specific range of sizes with inward directed dominance and carinance, competition and cooperation, and outward directed group protective behaviors of territoriality and tribalism.  Can I animalize our behaviors to better understand them?

There are difficulties in animalizing our behavior as there are in anthropomorphizing theirs.  I have no problem ascribing similar emotions to other animals as we share neural structures and chemistry.  But our behaviors may be significantly different and this implies a difference in our survival rules, those neural attributes that map perception onto behavior via motivation.

In something like a three-way tie, the three species of closely related great apes, chimpanzee, bonobo and human share approximately 98% of their genetic makeup, but our respective behaviors are significantly different.  Further, the morphologies of chimpanzees and bonobos are so close that they were assumed to be the same species for many years.  But there is no mistaking humans including most of the archaic humans for chimpanzees or bonobos.  Human morphology is substantially different.  We have flat faces and larger brains.  We walk upright rather than on our knuckles.

There is a large amount of evidence that morphology and behaviors are in some cases linked.  Domestication and selective breeding of animals for morphology may change behavior in a way that is not expected and vice versa.  Our morphology is substantially different from both the chimpanzees and bonobos and our behaviors, while they may be similar, may have substantial differences.  What I can observe in one species is then only a suggestion to look for a similar behavior in another.  The behaviors may be there but expressed differently in different circumstances and in different amounts or intensities.

We can observe our morphological and behavioral differences and to them add that we are more intelligent and conclude that we are ‘more highly evolved.’  This is a portmanteau phrase containing a moral judgment that our differences make us better, fitter or closer to an evolutionary goal.  I can turn that thinking around and suggest that we are, for some reason, a significantly more evolutionarily unstable species – some factor(s) triggered a suite of relatively rapid morphological and behavioral changes such as increased intelligence, brain and head size, premature birth and the development of the pair bond.  As a result, our survival rules are substantially different than those of chimpanzees and bonobos.

Another problem that may arise in the process of animalizing human behavior is the assumption that what appears to be natural in one species is ipso facto good, evolutionally and thus morally right and to be expected in another: the naturalistic fallacy.  Each species is characterized by a suite of survival rules that map perception onto behavior and closely related species may, and do have, different survival rules and behaviors.

Further, those behaviors will be subject to environment constraints and some behaviors that appear to be normal, are in fact, due to environmental stressors which release abnormal behavior.  There are at least two clues about chimpanzee warfare hiding in the scientific literature: first, that particular example occurred in a sanctuary and the troop in the photographs was unusually large.  The authors of the paper concluded that the best predictor of territorial behavior is the number of males in the group.  This troop was larger than the optimum number of individuals and this is a fundamental source of abnormal behavior such as warfare.  It is also likely that the two troops were closer to each other than their normal spacing.  The competition for the territory necessary for sufficient resources may be abnormally increased.  In a different environment that troop would have fissioned and dispersed[note]It is of more than passing interest that I developed my ideas about demographic fission from thinking about the function of heresy in humans.  More on this in a future essay[/note] thus reducing the number of males.  If there is geographical room to establish a new territory, demographic compression will reduce and correspondingly reduce or even eliminate inter-troop conflict.  The occurrence of warfare indicates internal and external demographic compression, which may be an abnormal state.

How to Make a Verbal Social Species

Chimpanzee behavior is a waypoint in my journey to a verbal social species, e.g. humans.  Communication mediates the full suite of our common behaviors such as dominance and care, competition and cooperation, territoriality and tribalism.  Speech and its later development of writing is functional – it does something useful and valuable.  It primarily provides information about our state of mind as does the vocalizations of the chimpanzees.

Speech affects the state of mind of its recipients.  The power of stories arises from creating, telling, remembering, re-telling and hearing them.  They organize our personal mental lives and our communal lives.  Stories generate care and tribalism, exculpate dominance and competition, sound alarms and gather warriors.  Stories manipulate other minds to be like others of the tribe thus gluing us together into the same story ecology.  Stories develop within the ambit of the tribe and tribalism thus dividing one tribe from another.  Stories are an essential part of our survival behavior.  And they do much more.