Human Nature: There Are Weeds in the Garden of Eden

Prologue

“Humans are a social animal,” and, “Society precedes the individual.” (Aristotle)

‘Social animal’ is a portmanteau concept.  Open it, and a complete consistent model of human nature, temperaments and behaviors may be extracted.  The exigencies of social living have generated inherent temperaments: bonding, care, empathy, cooperation, and altruism in individuals.  Society precedes, produces and protects the individual.

Thesis

A social group must go in the same direction at the same time at the same speed for the same purpose and avoid conflict.  We have a bonding agent that glues individuals into a social group.  Humans have evolved hormones, temperaments and behaviors to coalesce individuals into a social group able to hold territory, extract its resources; and to enable individuals to survive to reproduce, and successfully raise offspring.  To be a member of the group requires specific temperaments and behaviors, and being a member enmeshes the individual in a web of responsibilities and social behavior controls.  Human social temperaments lie at the intersection of sociology, ecology and reproduction, and function to fit the individual into the constraints and requirements of these factors.

The original source for the first sentence of the thesis is of interest.  I clicked on a video of a murmuration of starlings – the fantastic flights of large numbers of the birds in the twilight as they twist and weave together in the air.  I was fascinated and did some research on how their movements are coordinated.  I discovered that three simple rules are sufficient for a basic description of their astonishing flights: Go in the same direction at the same time and speed, and avoid collisions.1  From those three rules I wrote my thesis statement.  While interesting and useful in developing my thesis statement, murmuration may not be a survival behavior for starlings.  The thesis is a statement of human survival behavior and is a portmanteau implying a range of sub-statements.

Individualism & Selfishness :: Mutualism & Altruism – A Dynamic Tension

Humans are a social animal, but “a social group is not a Pollyanic nirvana of happiness.  It is riven with the multiple dynamics of the entire corpus of social interactions from care to sociopathy, from heroic sacrifice to selfishness, and faithfulness to deception.  An individual member of a social species has, in addition to its basic survival and reproductive needs, a set of social survival needs.  Social animals live within a complex nexus of self and social needs.  There will be behaviors that favor the self and those that favor the group, and a complex set of motivations that release those behaviors.”

This is an early statement of behavioral dissonance, our individual behaviors can be dissonant, either selfish or social, with significant impact on our survival.2

My great-grandson, J, is a bit older than two years.  At a family dinner, his grandfather picked up a BBQ pork rib from his plate to cut some meat off of the bone, and J grabbed it back with “MY!”  My occurs early in child development, and precedes and underlies the development of yours, our, and fair which occurs about over 2 to 10 years later.3

That was all I needed to make a new Scientific Wild Assed Guess: a new meta-story, a hypothesis, an evolutionary story that would explain why, in a highly social species, children develop my earlier than our?  A first order guess would be that selfishness is easier to develop than mutualism.  A second order guess is that selfishness is a more primitive temperament appearing earlier in evolutionary time and that sociality and mutualism appeared later.  Together these hypotheses constitute a variety of ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ argument: that the development of temperaments in children occurs in (approximately?) the same order as their evolutionary development in the species.

As we evolved from a substrate of presumably non or low sociality to a highly social primate, we may expect some relict temperaments, that is, evolution has overlain my with mutualism and altruism rather than completely replacing it.  Individualism and selfishness are then primitive, and sociality and mutualism are secondary accretions or additions.  In the previous essay, I used Paul McLean’s triune brain hypothesis as an illustrative construct.  The human brain has evolved primarily on accretion, layering new primary social behaviors upon old primitive selfish behaviors.  I hasten to suggest that the presence of primitive behaviors does not imply that they are primary.  Social behavior – mutualism – has become primary in humans and individualism secondary in our paleo-morality.

We are then behaviorally dissonant, able to be both selfish and social: a dynamic tension leading to new and unexpected results.4   This is a useful concept and it is worth noting that a similar behavioral dissonance occurs in our mating system as well as our mating and reproductive system exhibits extra-pair copulations in an ostensibly monogamous pair bonding much to the distress of many.5

In From Utilitarianism to an Evolutionary Morality: We Were Moral Before We Were Civilized – Carl Wilson (jackofafewtrades.com) I argued that we were, in our state of nature as small-scale foraging hunter gatherers, inherently moral and in the above paragraph I posited that within that paleo-morality lies a behavioral dissonance: humans may be both selfish and social.  I appear to have a cognitive dissonance derived from a chance observation of a young child.  Avoid conflict – interpersonal conflict – is part of my thesis statement of human sociality.  Quite unexpectedly, I’ve descried intra-personal conflict in the individual which impacts the requirement to avoid interpersonal conflict.  This is a newly observed level of complexity in human behavior.6

Transgression, Measurement, Punishment, and Redemption

Peter Drake was a ‘sparky,’ a maritime radio operator responsible for communications with shore stations and other ships, in the days of Morse code sent via a manually operated switch, the ‘key,’ whose contacts sparked slightly as contact was made and unmade.  In the early days, the range of radios was limited, so ship’s radio operators acted as repeater stations.  They did not receive or transmit at random times.  Rather, they were on a schedule and ‘meeting the sched’ to retransmit all new and repeated messages was a responsibility.  Messages awaiting retransmission were said to ‘be on the hook,’ and they were transmitted before new messages thus first ‘clearing the hook.’

Sailors who previously were entirely on their own on the high seas, could now receive weather information that would make it possible to avoid or mitigate damage due to high winds and waves.  More important, radio made it possible to request help and rescue from nearby ships.  In the case of an emergency, it was Sparky’s responsibility to send the SOS and ship’s position, then ‘clear the hook’ if possible, and to lock down the key before evacuating the ship.  Locking down the key sent a continuous signal aiding another ship to use direction finding to proceed to the location.  The code of ethics of a radio operator required these responsibilities to be discharged even at the cost of his death.

Drake’s ship, an oil tanker, exploded and began sinking.  He sent the SOS and position, but neglected to ‘clear the hook’ and lock down the key before evacuating.  Messages on the hook were lost.  That was perhaps excusable.7  What was un-excusable was his failure to lock down the key.  The transmitted position was erroneous and his failure prevented a nearby ship from quickly determining the true location.  Five injured crewmen died in the thirteen hours before rescue.

Drake, alive and well in the life boat and knowing that he had failed in his duty, suffered the death of each fellow seaman.  He once had pride in his skill, “I never had to give my call (sign).  The minute I opened up, the whole damn ocean knew who it was.”8  Now he was a castaway from his ship and his own trade. “I lost my ticket.  No inspector took it away from me.  I took it away from myself….The first time Johnnie moaned, I knew that I had lost my ticket.”  Drake had measured himself against his code of honor and come up short.  Filled with dishonor, he shipped for 20 years as an ordinary seaman, and took to alcohol to ease the pain.

He was on a freighter in the North East Pacific when it hit a floating mine.  He took over the radio shack, made up broken connections, installed an old-style key that he had made in the ship’s shop, and cleared the air of traffic pounding out SOS and position.  Drake died at his key, and nearby vessels made the rescue in three hours.  Only one injured seaman died.  He at last lived up to his own code of honor and redeemed his transgression by discharging his responsibility.

“The Ransom of Peter Drake” by Jacland Marmur,9 is a fiction story of membership, skill, pride, significance, honor, and responsibility.  And in a moment of panic, it becomes a story of a failure to discharge responsibility, a story of selfishness, of transgression of a code of ethics, of self-measurement, of self-imposed dishonor, and excommunication.  It is a story of social pain, depression and self-medication.  In the end it is a story of redemption, wiping out twenty years of dishonor by self-sacrifice, saving the lives of other sailors at the cost of his own, living up to the code of honor of his trade, radio operator upon the high seas.  Redemption: buying back honor and membership.  Drake went down with the ship, “but he first cleared his hook.  He went back after twenty years and cleared his hook at last.  He’s got his ticket back.”

The conceptual schema of membership, responsibility, transgression, measurement, punishment, loss of membership, social pain, and redemption is essentially a Christian schema, minus a God.  But the source of that schema is the ancient social morality of the small-scale foraging hunter social group, which ab initio did not have a coercive God.  That arrives with the development of agency meta-stories with angry and punitive gods.  Christianity simply borrowed, codified, and institutionalized what was already there.

The behavioral dissonances between individual and social, selfish and altruistic, competitive and cooperative will inform Western psychology, sociology, philosophy, and theology for millennia.

Afterwords

Maritime codes of honor and ethics are of interest.  Approximately a century before the Peter Drake story, HMS Birkenhead, a troopship carrying a number of women and children, was wrecked on an uncharted rock off the coast of South Africa.  The soldiers aboard stood fast to ensure that women and children were first into the lifeboats.  Most of the soldier died for lack of enough lifeboats.  Women and children first, the Birkenhead Drill, became an unofficial code of maritime ethics.10  The male role of small-scale social group protection was extended to the protection of an ad hoc group of unrelated women and children, the future of a species.  The code of honor of the radio operator and the Birkenhead drill, both unofficial, evolved out of social and survival needs.

Further, formal codes of honor such as that of the United States Marine Corps11 instill the inherent code of honor of small-scale foraging hunter gatherer groups.  They are intended and designed to inculcate the same behaviors in a larger-scale ad hoc social group, behaviors which tend to be absent in an individualistic competitive society.

While writing about temperamental and behavioral dissonance, I got enthused about conflicting paleo and neo-morality as a moral dissonance based upon a brain dissonance and wrote the this:

There is an older model of evolutionary brain development that is of interest at this point: Paul McLean’s triune brain.  I prefer the phrase ‘tripartite’ brain because it appears that the ostensible three major parts of the brain are not unified but are in some conflict.  In the essay Into the Ring of Fire – Carl Wilson (jackofafewtrades.com) I set out the hypothesis of paleo and neo-morality which I can now conceptualize as a functional brain dissonance.  I find this to be sufficiently interesting and important to quote myself extensively here:

“Paul McLean propounded the triune brain in the 1960’s.  His thesis was that there were three basic functional parts or levels in the human brain: the reptilian brain with its aggression, dominance and territoriality; the paleo-mammalian brain responsible for, among other things, reproduction and sexual behavior; and the neo-mammalian brain with its language, abstraction, planning, and decision – each built upon the structure of the next lower brain(s).

“This model is no longer viable – brain imaging and comparative anatomy has shown that it is too simplistic.  That being said, the model may provide useful images and concepts.  The paleo-and neo-mammalian brains may be subsumed into this rubric: The paleo-brain tells the neo-brain what to do, when to do it, and how to justify and explain it.  The paleo-brain: the Ring of Fire, the drive and compulsion, the need and desire, and the hurricane.  The neo- brain measuring, calculating, evaluating and on that basis attempting to control the paleo-brain and the overall behavior.  And doing that with mixed success, variable in an individual and between individuals.  It is likely that the paleo-brain controls the neo-brain in many engagements, as some guys ruefully comment, “my little head (of my penis) was thinking for my big head.”

“With the concepts of paleo- and neo-brains, I have a useful heuristic that makes it easier to think about emotion, morality, immorality, and behavior controls.  It is a broad picture rather than detailed brain science.  It is a way of knowing, of managing data, of arranging stories in an order, a platform upon which to build new and better stories.”

Eric Coates is a schizophrenic who wrote about his disorder and I quoted him:

“’As I considered the voice I heard talking to me in my own head, it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening was, more or less, a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness, one which was not verbal itself but which was capable of understanding ideas that either did or didn’t use a verbal form, and which was, in fact, the actual seat and locus of my real awareness. In other words: the prefrontal cortex was like a separate being….’”

“Eric Coates, while describing his schizophrenia, nailed my conscious verbal mind and its unconscious substrate.  I have read and reread that quote, and marvel at how well he describes what I have been writing about.  While trying to understand schizophrenia, he clearly perceived the cross-connections between the word-conscious and the pre-word-conscious animal minds: a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness.’”

The idea of behavioral dissonances is brand new right here in this essay.  It ‘sparked’ the idea of a wide variety of dissonances in human behavioral.  Here is what popped into my head:

Paleo-brain :: neo-brain or early :: late brain

Paleo-morality :: neo-morality

Chemo-morality :: cultural morality

Higher nature :: Lower nature  and higher man :: lower man

Slow :: fast systems12

Pair bond :: cheating/EPC’s

Individual :: Social

Selfish :: Altruistic

Reptilian :: paleo-mammalian :: neo-mammalian

My :: our

Self :: social group

Kant’s ‘crooked timber :: straight and true timber

Humans are a neurologically, endocrinologically, and behaviorally complex, even dissonant, species.  From that derives much of our sociology, psychology, psychotherapy, religion, law, literature, and advice columnists.  There are the weeds of individualism and selfishness, fundamental and primitive behavioral dissonances in the social Garden of Eden.


  1. Swarm behaviour – Wikipedia and Flocking (behavior) – Wikipedia  Swarm or flocking behavior is most interesting and I recommend reading these articles for insights into human behavior.  Several explanations have been advanced for these behaviors but none of them singly account for the murmuration of starlings.  I suggest sheer joy, delight, fun, and play and those factors are part of our behavioral repertoire also. 

  2. About three years ago, in What is a Social Species? – Carl Wilson (jackofafewtrades.com) 

  3. Do Kids Have a Fundamental Sense of Fairness? – Scientific American Blog Network & The developmental origins of fairness: the knowledge–behavior gap (bu.edu) 

  4. A riff on cognitive dissonance: holding conflicting meta-stories at the same time. 

  5. EPCs may be described as paleo-mammalian selfish sexual behavior.  Cf. the discussion of the tripartite brain thesis in the Afterwords below for ‘paleo-mammalian.’ 

  6. Well, that is not really true.  This observation has been made by many before.  I’ve only re-conceptualized it in terms of intra-personal conflict and behavioral dissonance.  Abstract concepts are portmanteaus encapsulating a range of sub-concepts. 

  7. The author may have exaggerated the importance of clearing the hook as a story-telling device, a mnemonic for an action entailing high responsibility. 

  8. A telegrapher could be recognized by his ‘fist,’ his style which was individually idiosyncratic and characteristic. 

  9. Anthologized in The Saturday Evening Post Reader of Sea Stories, 1962 

  10. HMS Birkenhead (1845) – Wikipedia 

  11. What are the Marine Corps Values (marines.mil) 

  12. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Wikipedia