Posts Tagged ‘culture’

3. Human nature

Human nature is a three stage rocket.

1. On the most basic level we are a life form, like bacteria. All existing life forms strive to take as much energy as possible out of their environment, to maintain and propagate their own organism. The me-myself-and-I- inclination. This is still an influential incentive in us and it is or becomes dominant when we are in danger or think we are. And when it is tolerated by our environment and situation (a situation of power, e.g.).2. But we are (as apes et al) a kind of group animals. A group animal will be able to gather more energy sources when it belongs to a group then when it is alone. A group animal has an interest in the power of his group (collective) , in competition with other groups. This means that a group animal has to give up a part of his ego-inclination on behalf of the power of his group. Two incentives fight in the soul of the group animal: self-interest and common interest! How can it live with that internal conflict? By culture, by norms and values. The chimpanzees, who live under permanent threat of war with other groups, are the best examples of this. We know it as the fight between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in our conscience. An aside: collectivistic systems like fascism and other forms of despotism always need to create a situation of war against a (foreign) enemy, to suppress opposition.

3. As group animals we bear in us both egoism and altruism. But as humans we bear in us a third incentive on top of both. In the cultural evolution of our ancestors, who lived for about two millions of years in small bands, as nomads on the verge of extinction, we couldn’t permit disharmony, not within our own band nor with neighbour bands from which we were dependent for sex partners, common hunting, exchange of knowledge and asylum in bad times. This human incentive is our nature of the ‘noble wild’ that each of us wants to be in his deepest desire. This deep incentive became frustrated in us some ten thousand years ago, when we came to live in an overpopulation situation, like the chimpanzees. Frustrated; but far too short ago to destroy this third stage in us.

How we acquired this third hyper-social quality, we will see in the next post: “How we became humans from apes”.

In modern philosophy, the thinking about human nature became frustrated by political correctness. The ongoing nature/nurture debate, a distinction made by Galton (1822-1911), is about what is most influential in our behaviour: the environment in which we are born and live, or hereditary and genetic factors. In post-modern philosophy the environmental factors were considered dominant. Scientific attention for hereditary and genetic factors was been associated with eugenics and even fascism. In reality both nature and nurture are playing their role in us, so in post-modernism, dominant in the years after World War II, the debate was severely biased. When I started in 1993 with the humanosophy-project, a friendly biologist still cautioned me for this pitfall. I’m happy postmodernism is ‘out’: it was a philosophical desert and standstill.

7. How we became humans 4: Language – linguisticness

In one australopithecus group, some 4 million years ago, the custom of imitating things with the hands appeared. This started (in my scenario, perhaps you have another) as a playful performance between some girls.

At first my idea was that the more complicated new foraging environment enforced a sophistication of normal ape communication. However, recent discoveries of savanna chimpanzee women who dig up roots with digging sticks – without language communication! – convinced me that our linguality is not the result of a need to survive. The only other scenario I could imagine was that it started as a casual girl play.

The alpha woman had decided this morning that the foraging route was ‘that way!’. The girl on the right knew that this would lead to the place with the delicious berries! She wanted desperately to communicate her excitement with her friends. And she imitated [berry] with her hand. The sitting girl tries to imagine what is in the mind of her friend. The girl left is only agitated because they are in danger: the others are already on the way and the predators are always on the look-out. But then the sitting girl will get it. And she makes the imitating gesture too! And then there is laughter! All day long they make the same gesture, and laugh. The next day the foraging route leads to another place, and the other girl tries to think over another gesture for another thing. And again there is laughter all day long.

That’s my speculation. I made this picture of the pivotal moment. Perhaps you can imagine another and better scenario. But it has to be started with something: we are language-using creatures now.

This casual girl play (or something like that) was a performance that never happened in the whole history of life on earth: an animal that communicates a thing that is not there on the spot. An animal that communicates not a feeling or emotion, but a special thing that is in her mind. The imitating gesture is a name. A gestured word. It is a handle, a grip, with which you can grasp a thing in your mind and put it in someone else’s mind. No other kind of animal has this capability.

A casual girl play; when that particular day the alpha women or man accidentally would have been bad-tempered and annoyed, this play could have been stopped and then we would have been still normal australopitheci today.

But is was a nice, a creative, a generative play and it didn’t stop. It became a special group culture; when the girls moved to another group to find a partner, they took the habit along and so the culture spread over the whole tribe. Our earliest ancestors.

What then makes having names for the things so important for human evolution?

1. The feeling of distance between the ‘namer’ and the named thing. Normal animals are part of their environment; for our ancestors there became ‘light’ between them and their environment. Not yet on individual scale, more as the feeling of ‘us’ (our group) and their environment. The distance between subject and object. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could objectify the world of things. Philosophers like Kant understand what I mean. Thanks, Kant.

2. Our ancestors became the first and only animals who could talk with each other about things that were not there, not on the spot or on that moment: a plant, a place, an animals, water, earthquake, volcano, yesterday, tomorrow, other season, you name it.

3. Knowledge obtained by the older generation could be transmitted more easily and in more detail to the younger generation; knowledge could accumulate in our ancestors.

4. Naming a thing gives a feeling of power over the thing. It is this aspect that helped our ancestors to lose of their animal fear for the fire and to use it; no other animal has ever achieved this.

5. Two know more than one, and with a group we can solve big problems: our ancestors could put together all individual intelligence, could brainstorm; they could develop plans, they could consult together. From the slow and scared new savanna-dwellers of the Miocene with names for the things, they soon became the hooligans of the Pleistocene African savanna.

Bigger brains perhaps? Oh no. It was long after the birth of the facility of names for things, long after the first use of fire, long after the spread over the African continent and the first Out of Africa, that our ancestors got bigger brains. The more social an animal species is, the bigger the brains. Linguisticness is the most social of all social behaviors. So bigger brains are the result of it, not the cause.

Linguisticness! Ever more names for more and more things… In the end the whole environment of our ancestors, their whole ‘world’, existed of named things. Our ancestors got to live in a named world, a words world. That’s a sort of ‘virtual world’, and we still live in it. For us a thing only exists when we have a name for it. Isn’t it, Kant? (He nods.) We are linguistic creatures.

13. lingual creatures

 

Our species is the only one in nature which controls fire. This unique capability was directly related to the fact that our ancestor-australopiths were the only species to become linguistic creatures, developing names for the things. Let me expound the new concept of linguisticness that I already mentioned before.

A linguistic creature experiences his world as a named world. It knows his world just like all other animals know their world. But with names for the things, it can confer about those things with companions: two know more than one, and a whole group can solve big problems. As mentioned before, names for the things created a (feeling of) distance between the namer and the named thing, the (experience of) distance between a creature and its environment. Between subject and object: our ancestors became the first and only creatures who could objectify things. Objectifying generates (a feeling of) power over the things. It resulted in the use of fire, and this in turn facilitated the jump forward of nightly gestural group communication. It generated a new kind of power over other species of animals, making our ancestors into the ‘hooligans’ of the savanna.

Names for the things is what made us humans. It may have been the result of a casual and fortuitous girls’ play. It was not necessarily caused by some gene mutation or brain growth or the emerging of syntax: such developments were rather result, not cause.

Having several names for several things is by itself not enough to become a lingual creature. Look at the family Washoe. This is the group of chimpanzees who were made to learn ASL (American Sign Language) when they were young and in a human family setting, presently living at the CHCI of Central Washington University of Ellensburg, in the lifelong care of Roger and Debbie Fouts[1]. The Washoe chimpanzee family is able to use some 300 different names for 300 different things. You may call this proto-language, but this does not necessarily mean they experience their world as a “named world”. What makes an ape into a lingual creature? In other words, what transforms animal gesture communication into a language?

Apart from the fact that the language competence of these apes-in-prison lacks roots in an inborn disposition like ours: inherent to language is a stock of words, a vocabulary, an inexhaustible stock of names for a countless number of things – linguists (language philosophers) speak of generivity. This makes one’s whole world into something that can be experienced primarily as a world of named things, and makes the consciousness of an ape with such a language competence into a linguistic consciousness.

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How do we produce our present spoken vocabulary? With phonemes: sounds that have no meaning of their own (the vowels and consonants of the alphabet), but are the building blocks of an endless number of words. We produce those phonemes with our speech apparatus: throat, tongue, lips and cheeks. But apes cannot produce enough similar phonemes, because their throat is too short and their tongue too narrow. Experiments in training a young chimpanzee to speak resulted in p-p for papa and c-p for cup, pronounced without vowels. The most serious handicap however is that apes cannot really control their voice. Their cries are neurologically driven by the limbic system: an evolutionary older part of the brain, the same that also produces our own cries of pain or anguish or rage or ecstasy. When we hit our thumb with a hammer, we cannot withhold a cry of pain: the older parts of our brain are beyond conscious control.

How could our ancestors – even Neanderthals may have lacked the modern speech apparatus – build up a stock of gestured words without being physically able to produce phonemes? In his groundbreaking research on modern sign languages of the deaf (such as American Sign Language, ASL) William Stokoe[2] has showed that gestured languages can be just as flexible in combining gestures as spoken languages can be flexible in combining phonemes. Stokoe named the sign language alternative for phonemes cheremes: gestures without intrinsic meaning which by combing them can be used as building stones for an endless number of gestured words. Just like we speak all our words by uttering a limited number of phonemes in countless different combinations, modern ASL achieves something similar by combining 55 cheremes (base gesture elements).

So the gestured ‘sign’ language of our ancestors may have evolved from simple gestures denoting specific objects, into a stock of names or a vocabulary using combinations of cheremes, making an unlimited number of ‘words’ from a limited number of base elements: small and quick hand configurations, hand locations and hand movements.

To illustrate this development, let me briefly go into a nice parallel: the similar development of script (written language). 8.000 years ago, ever more people in the Middle East lived as farmers in villages. Each family contributed a part of the yield of their fields and cattle to the ‘temple’ (the common hall for religious anniversaries, for meetings and barter with other villages, and for emergencies). To prevent parasitical behavior and envy, the temple functionaries needed to register each family’s contributions exactly. In early Sumeria, these notes were engraved in the clay of the storage urns (later of clay tablets). The first notes were pure imitations, drawings. These were at best ‘minimal art’: a representation divested of all that was not strictly necessary for identification.

In due course, these representations became more and more stylized symbols. This was the start of Sumerian writing: pictograms, simple representations of what was meant. A simple depiction of a head stood for <head> and two wriggling lines for <water>. But soon these two symbols combined meant <drinking> and even <drink>. In this way, the pictograms became more and more schematic. The big jump came when some pictograms got a sound value, mostly the initial sound of the word-symbol. Soon there was a complete alphabet. The symbols did no longer point to some specific object, but came to represent just sounds – initially mostly consonants. By combining these by themselves meaningless symbols, now every possible word could be written easily. Such written language made it possible to record personal messages, enactments and laws, oral traditions, heroism of the successive kings, important events, scholarship, philosophy, everything. This written language started the historical era (before the invention of script, it was prehistory).

The earlier development of signed language may have followed a similar route. The cheremes (snippets of sign language) initially came into human communication as very simple and direct gestures. In due time, some gestures got the function of syllables: they evolved into building stones (cheremes) for signed words. Didn’t those cheremes make the gestured communication slower? After all, instead of making one primitive object-sign, you now had to combine some small gestures (cheremes) to indicate the same object. This question can be answered in two ways.

In the first place we can refer to the universal linguistic abbreviating propensity: the aversion to repeat an already uttered word or sentence element – and when you repeat it nevertheless, you do it mainly to give it extra emphasis. We may assume that from the beginning there was a natural tendency (just like in modern sign language) to make the language gestures as fast and simple as possible, if only for communication efficiency: when just the start of a gesture is already enough to be understood, you don’t need to finish the whole gesture. The faster you can produce gestures, the shorter the time you need to make your point or to contribute to a discussion.

In some cases however, the use of cheremes (even when these were as small and fast as possible) may have resulted in more complexity. For instance, instead of one gesture for the object “ tiger” you might now need to use a combination of three quick cheremes to indicate the same object. So why would people opt for increasing complexity? Here the second answer comes forward. The price one may have paid for a little more complexity, at the same time bought a huge advantage: thanks to using cheremes, the number of possible words and expressions now became really limitless. While primitive sign language might have had a gesture indicating “tiger”, it may not have had gestures specifying “reddish tiger” or “wounded tiger” or “a cloud in the sky shaped like a tiger”. The use of cheremes made it possible to say (gesture) all this, and more.[3] Eventually, they made it possible to discuss even abstract concepts for which no simple gesture would ever have been adequate. How important this was, we will see when discussing the evolution of the creation story as a central factor in the evolution of mankind.

Now three other questions occur that have to be answered. Firstly, is it admissible to infer ancestral behavior from the cultures of present-day hunter-gatherer tribes? The humanosophic answer is: yes we may, because there is a continuum between our modern behavior and that from our ancestors, a continuum that is transmitted by genetic inheritance, tradition and inveterate habits. Old usages and practices and customs stay alive till they no longer fit. The same goes for language characteristics: deeply rooted in communication practice, they are transmitted from generation to generation as a vital part of a culture.

But if is this a valid comparison, then may we also assume that the signed communication of our ancestors developed towards the same level of sophistication (especially regarding the emergence of cheremes) [4] as modern sign languages such as ASL (American Sign Language)? Our deaf populations possess modern human brains, don’t they, and are integrated into a modern urban culture that requires more sophistication, for example in order to discuss the stock exchange by ASL? The humanosophic answer is: yes, we may, because the modern sign language is a flower out of the seed from the gestured linguality of our Early Human ancestors. In essence, it is the same flower as we can see sprouting when our modern babies pick up language from their environment, irrespective of whether this is gestured or spoken language.

The third occurring question is: why would people eventually switch from gestured to spoken language? The answer is that signed language may be adequate, but less so when you have your hands full, or in a situation that you can only hear each other. For this reason, from the very beginning visual communication has been supported by making sounds such as guttural and dental clicks, labial sounds, and emotional cries. Even from the beginning of gestured communication, such vocal additions were structural word parts. So we may suppose a continuum between the most primitive gestured communication and the ‘click!’-languages of nowadays San people of southern Africa (and our own gesturing even when we are talking on telephone). There has been, however, a turning point in this continuum: the rise of the ability to communicate with sounds alone, without gestures. We will talk about this in the paragraph Anatomical Modern Humans.

To summarize: in the paragraph about the first use of fire, we speculated about the Australopithic population to which we could attribute the wonderful innovation of controlled use of fire. We found Kadanuumuu (estimated 1,5-1,8 m. high) a good representative because of his humanlike posture, much taller than “Lucy” (1,1 m. high, dated 3,2 million years ago), and yet hundreds of thousands of years older. We supposed the use of fire here because such a taller population of Australopithecus afarensis must have had better food at his disposal. In its turn, control of fire in our view assumes the presence of linguality.

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Excavations between 2005 and 2008 in the Afar Region of Ethiopia uncovered an upper arm, a collarbone, neck bones, ribs, pelvis, sacrum, a thighbone, a shinbone and an adult shoulder blade. The partial Australopithecus afarensis fossil is dated 3.58-million-year-old and nicknamed Kadanuumuu, ("Big Man" in the Afar language).

Fragment of Kadanuumuu’s lower arm bone  to muse about: apart from throwing stones, this very 3.58 mya bone may have been used to gesture with companions. Kadanuumuu as a lingual creature!

‘Ardi’, Australopithecus ramidus, from 4,4 mya Afar Rift Ethiopia, had an ape-like short thumb. The hominid species Australopithecus sediba, recently found in South Africa, was presumably from A. africanus origin and possibly a transitional species to H. habilis and even H. erectus. It has a humanlike thumb but is only 1.98 million years old, 2.42 years younger than Kadanuumuu. Somewhere during those 2,42 million year-long interval, the more humanlike thumb of Sediba must have evolved. The skeleton of the much older Kadanuumuu, “Big Man” provides no hand- or foot bones, so in fact we cannot know yet what kind of thumbs he may have had. Hopefully, ongoing archaeological research will clarify this.


[1] see www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci

[2] William Stokoe (1919-2000), Professor at Gallaudet University of Washington, DC, was the creator of the linguistic study of the sign languages of the deaf. Before, the sign language used by the deaf was generally believed to be a corrupt visual code for spoken language, or elaborate pantomime. Stokoe’s first and eye opening book was Sign Language Structure (1963) and till the end of his life he was the indefatigable champion of the language of the deaf.

[3] cheremes emerged in thousands of generations of dancing/singing the creation story of their world. The story grew in detail and complexity; so did the gestured representation and performing.

[4] The research of Stokoe and others on signed language reveals how easy it is to produce adjectival or adverbial and other elements of syntax with modification of or additions to the gestured words by facial expression and posture changes: “Adjectives need neither to precede nor to follow nouns as physically distinct elements but can appear simultaneously as modifications in the performance of the sign language word. Likewise, adverbial modification of gesture action is natural effect of the way that visible gestures are performed.” Other grammatical elements of language such as the pattern of Subject-Verb-Object emerge spontaneously and inevitable in a social phenomenon as language: one cannot participate when one doesn’t know the meaning of the spontaneously emerged words, as little as one doesn’t follow the spontaneously emerged rules. Chomski’s speculation that grammar is the essential characteristic of human language doesn’t make sense. Names for things is the essential characteristic.

20. Good natured

 

This is the title of the philosophically most relevant book of primatologist Frans de Waal (1996). Now we get to the point I mentioned before: that during 95,5% of all the time that our species can be considered human, our ancestors lived as gatherers-hunters. In these millions of years, our human nature has been formed. In the most recent eight thousand years (0,5% of our history) that we have been living as settled farmers, our original gatherer-hunter nature has been frustrated, but not wiped out.

First, something about a question that has been much debated in the last few thousand years of philosophy: is human nature intrinsically good or bad? Many philosophers from the past, for example Plato or Hobbes, tended to the second option. In many forms of religious belief, for example ultra-orthodox Protestantism, an inherent badness – sinfulness – of human nature is postulated as well. On the other hand we have had philosophers, such as in the 18th century Enlightenment, who opted for a positive – sometimes even naively positive – view on human nature: just let Reason reign, install true democracy, and everything will be alright. Both views on human nature are simplistic and one-sided because implicitly, they are based on moral presumptions about what constitutes “good” versus “bad” behavior.

In more modern philosophy, the trend is rather to avoid such moral presumptions about human nature. Modern philosophy has often (and not always in a fruitful manner) been reduced to playing with words and abstractions, while claiming to not being able to contribute much when it comes to moral matters. Whether we like it or not, by avoiding such moral positions, modern philosophy does no longer function as the moral beacon it once, alongside religion, was in human society and has made itself in a social sense largely irrelevant.

As for the anthropologists, they too seem to follow a pessimistic philosophical view on human nature. In the 1950s, shortly after World War II, among them the “killer ape hypothesis” of anthropologist Raymond Dart was influential. According this hypothesis, war and interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution. Science writer Robert Ardrey expanded on this idea in African Genesis (1961), suggesting that the urge to act violently was a fundamental trait of the human mindset. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz also emphasized this pessimistic view of human nature with his book On aggression (1966). According Lorenz, animals, particularly males, are biologically programmed to fight over resources. Movies such as Planet of the Apes (1968) show that this issue affected popular opinion[1]. In 1996, Wrangham and Peterson followed the Dart/Lorenz trail in their influential book Demonic Males, suggesting an evolutionary connection between violent chimpanzees and violent man. However, in the same year the Dutch/American ethologist Frans de Waal countered with his influential book Good Natured.

The reader will already understand that the humanosophic view follows the latter view. Wrangham and Peterson even presume that our H. erectus ancestors deceived others and waged wars. We think that war emerged simply as the result of overpopulation: as the consequence of a social, not an inherent problem. H. erectus groups were sparse and needed each other for their survival. When two groups met each other, this was more reason for feast than for war: the groups needed each other for interchanging experiences and partners, and presumably for handing out sparks of fire[2]. As for the deceiving, we already presumed that H. erectuses were sign language communicators, for whom deceiving is more difficult: with body language, it would mean having to hold many muscles under more conscious control, which is difficult even for present-day sign language communicators.

Other convincing concrete evidence of our assumption of peacefulness is furnished by the most primitive people of present-day mankind: the scarce little populations of pure gatherer-hunters, like the Inuit and the San people. If it had been our ancestors’ nature to deceive each other and to wage wars, then these last of the gatherer-hunters would demonstrate a similar war-faring culture. But on the contrary, these are very peaceful people.

Many of the other primitive groups we know today, like the Yanomamö in the Amazon area and the Mountain Papuans in New Guinea, are not just gatherer-hunters anymore but rather horticulturalists. These groups live in a totally other situation than the gatherer-hunters: a situation of overpopulation, since too many groups have to share limited resources. This situation leaves them no other choice than to fight for survival. It is such overpopulation that forced them to give up the pure gatherer-hunter lifestyle. But in the long run of human history, this overpopulation is a relative recent phenomenon.

Human nature as we view it, is a three-stage rocket. The first stage we share with all living creatures, even with bacteria and plants. It is the individual drive to take as much energy as possible from the environment to stay alive and procreate. It is this self-centered survival drive that still gets the upper hand in real or imagined panic situations.

The second stage: our ancestors were group animals. By living in a group they were able to extract energy, to stay alive and procreate, in a more efficient way than an individual. Theoretically there are three kinds of groups: firstly the insect-groups like ants or bees where the individual is no more than a component of one collective organism, secondly the herd-groups like swarms of fishes or sparrows, and herds of zebras or buffaloes[3], and in the third place the social groups of highly self-conscious animals such as elephants, dolphins and apes.

We are apes, so for our second stage we have to look to the group animals and especially to the bonobos and chimpanzees: our next of kin. In the permanent survival fight between their groups, chimpanzees have an individual interest in being a member of the strongest group. To keep their group strong, they must minimize the internal fights. When two chimpanzee males do have a fight, then afterwards they try desperately to reconcile. Bonobos use sex for minimizing internal group tensions.

These group animals to which we humans belong, are driven by two contradictory impulses: egoism (the me-myself-and-I drive) and altruism (you have more chances to survive and to pass on your DNA in an harmonious group, so you must curb your egoism). These two impulses are at right angles to each other and would condemn individuals to a paralyzing indecision if they did not have a calming mechanism at their disposal: manners, rules for social intercourse, culture, ‘norms and values’. Basically this mechanism is present with all group animals,[4] and in a more complex manner, similar mechanisms still keep us humans together. In moralistic philosophy, the two opposite impulses (altruistic vs. egoistic) often correspond with concepts of good and evil.

This ‘norms and values culture’ only works within a coherent group. It does not extend across different groups: in fact, it is a form of egoism-as-a-group. It does allow aggression and violence against any other groups. But we saw that the groups of Early Humans were small (about 25 individuals) and rare, and so they needed each other. During the countless centuries that our ancestors were Homo, there was rarely any reason or opportunity for aggression and violence between groups at all. The groups needed each other for their survival: for exchange of sex partners, knowledge and experience. When two of these groups met, it was occasion for a feast.

However, as for the moralistic good and evil, how should we label violence against other groups of the same kind? Good or evil? So we have to define what is ‘good’. Good is what is conducive for the survival. For the individual survival? Then purely egoistic, self-centered behavior would be ‘good’! But usually such behavior is not good for the group as a whole: from the group perspective, such egoistic behavior is ‘evil’! So ape groups developed ‘norms and values’, developed a primitive form of morality: for a group animal, good is behavior that is conducive for the survival of the group.

As for the third stage of the human nature rocket, our ancestors developed a social norms and values culture that extended beyond the limits of one’s own group: as long as our ancestral Early Humans were pure gatherer-hunters, they were are able to behave as noble wilds, living in harmony with their natural environment, with each other, and even with other human groups. And because that long-long time has determined our human nature, we are still noble wilds in our deepest desires. For humans, harmony is good.[5] ***It is the result of natural selection: in the harsh environments groups with harmony flourished more than quarreling groups. After thousands of generations, inclination to harmony became an innate tendency.

We still long for harmony, we still feel that being kind to each other is the most livable basis for society. Since we became AMHs (the last 100.000 years after 2 million years of being gatherer-hunters) this basic social feeling got perhaps somewhat frustrated when larger groups of 150-200 individuals evolved. But it only got frustrated totally after we became horticulturalists, with all the warfare and machismo that this recent lifestyle implied. The lowest point was reached in the class-based societies since 5000 years ago, with slavery, mass cruelties and monotheism.

Today we have a chance for recuperation. The unique quality of humanity is that we are capable of reflection. This capability may be seen as a further refining step on the path of extracting energy from the environment and of passing-on DNA. On the basis of reflection we may become aware that all groups of humans have the same interest: surviving on the planet Earth. Beyond our own planet, there is no alternative place available for extracting our energy and for passing-on our DNA. Once we see the need for it, we humans have the capability to make the next step beyond group harmony: global harmony between all our groups.

Our universal basic story, the science-based new ‘creation story’, may serve as an essential building stone for this reflection.

So are Wrangham & Peterson wrong with their Demonic Males? No, not wrong, but biased and overlooking the long-long evolutionary human history of low population density that repeatedly brought us to the verge of extinction. Wrangham & Peterson and their adepts see only ‘stage’ 1 and 2 as human nature. They are obviously ignorant of the peaceful nature of our longtime pure gathering-hunting existence, unaware of the more recent effects of overpopulation, and therefore unacquainted with the overall historical development of human nature.


[1] perhaps influenced by the German/American humanist psychologist Erich Fromm, in 1986 under US auspices the Seville Statement on Violence stated that while patterns of human aggression may be inherited, warfare need not be a necessary consequence

[2] even today Andaman groups have to ‘lend’ fire when their own fire has been extinguished by accident

[3] the herd is still the best environment for the individual to realize its me-myself-and-I interests, but its survival is best served by being as un-individualistic as possible in appearance and in behavior

[4] Frans de Waal Our Inner Ape. Why We Are Who We Are (2005)

[5] *** Not for humans only. Recently biologist Radersma of University Groningen published his thesis (2011) about research on great tits. Nest with an equal number of male and female chickens flourished better than imbalanced nest: less quarrel and competition and loss of energy

33. The role of information

 

Over the last two millennia, information monopolies have gradually dwindled away. In the Middle Ages, the church (in the person of bishops and monks) had an information monopoly in several ways: not just because the monastical libraries had a virtual monopoly of guarding and hand-copying books, but also because the language of both the church itself and its books was Latin, a language not understood by most people. In the 16th century, Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing made it possible to print books in large numbers and in popular language, meaning that information reached a much larger public. This helped to propagate both the Reformation and other cultural changes, effectually limiting the church’s information monopoly. Gradually, books became merchandise: already for the 16th century impressions of 200-300 copies are known. Initially most of these were Bibles, but this was soon followed by Latin classics such as Cato, Boethius, Aristotle; and almanacs, grammar books, liturgy books. After a while, the scope of subjects and languages became ever wider.

Broadsides (single-side printed sheets) had been in use since the first invention of printing for papal indulgences, royal proclamations and similar ends. Throughout western Europe broadsides became also popular as political pamphlets. The early16th century humanist movement and the leading minds of the Reformation period – Erasmus, Luther, Melanchton and Calvin – used tracts as an easy method to widely circulate their opinions. In France in 1523, the publication of pro-Reformation tracts caused the Sorbonne to petition the king to abolish the diabolical art of printing.

However, the influence of printed opinions increased over time. In 17th century France, pamphlets dealing with the amours of the king and his courtiers found a wide reading public. The presses of the Low Countries teemed with tracts against politicians and Jesuits, exciting extraordinary attention throughout Europe. In the 18th century, writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert and D’Holbach also produced pamphlets. In the 1780s, the printing of cheap leaflets etc. made it possible to mobilize larger numbers of people for the French Revolution. The scope and influence of printed information between ca. 1520-1800 grew in similar ways in other countries such as Britain and the German kingdoms.

The influence of printed texts (and the number of texts specifically targeting and informing the lower classes) grew alongside with the gradual increase of literacy. While around 1500 only 10% of the Western-European population was able to write their own name, around 1800 this had risen to over 50%, and around 1900 it would get close to 90%. That this rising literacy level in combination with the rising number of popular publications was a powerful agent of social awareness and social change, goes without saying. In the 19th century, cheap newspapers meant that actual news reporting reached the masses. Just like many websites today, cheap “penny” newspapers were in fact subsidized by advertisers who wanted to connect to a wide public. In the late 19th century, new photographic techniques meant (among other things) that for the first time ordinary people could get a realistic idea of the actual horrors of war.[1]

Almost from the beginning, a special aspect of communication has been propaganda: the aim to influence public opinion. The specific goal can be commercial (advertising a product or service) or political (promoting a party or an ideology). The latter, by parties, action groups and governments, is ‘propaganda’ in the usual sense.

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1933 German Volksempfanger

Especially in times of war, propaganda has always been an important weapon. The first victim then is the truth: in world war II German propaganda minister Goebbels knowingly told lies, being confident that for the mass a repeated lie becomes the truth. The nazi regime also was one of the first to systematically use radio and movies for propaganda: they distributed millions of cheap Volksempfänger, radios that could receive only the state’s channels. During the war, the Germans relayed propaganda radio programs (by “Lord Haw-Haw”) to the British population. As for movies, the 1942 movie Jud Süss was a story specifically intended to foster antisemitism; the early-1945 color movie Kolberg was based on an 18th-century story, and meant to foster a spirit of resistance against the approaching Russians.

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Most important of all, however, was the new development after the second world war: the arrival of television in all households in the 1950s (USA) and 1960s (Europe). We want to propose here that the advent of television in fact heralded the end of monotheism in Western societies. For centuries, churches had been able to monopolize the moral and existential self-conception of the masses; but within a few decades, television destroyed this religious monopoly by confronting huge parts of the population with a different kind of “mirror”. The root of this change was the changing self-image of people. Formerly, the message of the churches had defined the human profile: the image of a sinner with only one fundamental choice (to sin or repent), for the rest being subjected to the grace of God. Most people got this message once a week: during Mass. The advertisements and shows of the free market television on the other hand showed every day, in everyone’s free time, the profile of a free, happy, woman- and child-friendly consumer: a much more attractive image for identification.

Our self-image is formed by the way parents and other family members, and later schoolmates and teachers, see and treat us. But we also actively build our own self-image by identification with mother, father, teachers and other ‘idols’. The culture in which we are living also provides influential building stones and idols. Today TV with its commercials and soaps, and the internet with its music videos, networking sites etc. provide identification objects that for many peopleespecially young people – are equally strong as friends and schoolmates. In today’s culture, people are also stimulated to actively construct their self-image by expressing their own identity explicitly, for example on Facebook.

The ongoing expansion of the free market society has furthered (and still stimulates) two important social effects. As discussed in the previous chapter, the advent of television gave popular consumption, information distribution and thus free market economy a boost. Because of its liberating character, it heralded the end of collectivistic monotheism in Western societies, and stimulated the rise of a non-religious self-image based on each individual’s identity as consumer. In due course, this also furthered the rise of democracy. A third effect: where the free market began to function in a more optimal way, it allowed for more human happiness than ever in the last 5000 years.

Unfortunately, this new self-image is lacking something. We will get back to that gap in the next chapters.


[1] The American Civil War (1861-1865) photos by photographers such as Matthew Brady showed for the first time real pictures of wounded and dead soldiers on the battlefield. Such photos had a tremendous impact on public opinion: after this, the old ‘romanticized’ view of war became much harder to accept.

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