August 12, 2012

Three lessons learned from primates

Some scientists are prone to comparing humans to chimpanzees. This is largely the result of the obsession of one woman, Jane Goodall. Don't misunderstand me. Dr. Goodall spent her lifetime studying one particular faction of the world of chimpanzees. She studied it in great detail and learned more about chimpanzees than any researcher before or since. However, far too many people who quote her research draw vast, universal conclusions about both primate and human behavior from this one tribe of chimpanzees. This assumption that what is true for one is true for all is typical collectivist thinking.

In recent years research has been expanded into other primates including but not limited to bonobos, orangutans, Japanese macaques, and even gorillas. Although it should have surprised no one, it turns out that there is a wide range of "normal" primate behaviors. Different types of primates have different behavioral patterns and different tribes within each primate group have different behavioral patterns. Not only does Jane Goodall's research have only limited applicability to other primates, it has even less applicability to humans. It also turns out that primates are just as individualistic as humans are and within each tribe there is always a wide range of behaviors as each individual adjusts to, or fails to adjust to, changing social conditions within the tribe.

As I brought out in a post I wrote in 2005 (In search of a better world) for some bizarre reason, as globalization spreads and we move ever closer to a truly global society governed by a global body politic, there is a powerful tendency for those making the decisions to think in collectivist terms. This is largely due to the overwhelming influence exerted by traditional monarchies, oppressive dictators, and rising militant groups such as warlords, Islamic terrorists, and tribal groups seeking to opt-out of the modern world. Despite the violence of groups like the Taliban and the Somali warlords, the recalcitrance of groups like the Amish and the Hutterites, the growing move toward fascism throughout the Arab and Persian worlds, as well as the alarmist rants of Christian groups like the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, sooner or later we will have a single global government. Sooner or later we will have a world with completely open borders, free movement of both rich and poor throughout the globe in search of better opportunities, and so on. I know this for an absolute fact and I can promise that it is coming not because I am a John Titoresque traveler from the future, but because we already have global businesses, global police forces, global criminal enterprises, and global terrorists. The past few years have even brought about our very first global political action groups in the form of Anonymous, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and of course, Wikileaks. (As I write this, the Wikileaks website is unavailable.) By leveraging the power of the internet these three groups have had a far greater global impact than the world's diverse Marxist advocacy groups ever dreamed possible.

I do not belong to and will not join any of the current movements toward a one world government. Nor am I inclined to join zealous anti-immigration and anti-globalization groups. So far, none of these groups have displayed any genuine human compassion nor any genuine respect for the rights of the individual. All of them, on both extremes, are radical collectivists demanding absolute conformity to their own group vision of what the world should be, how it should be organized, and who should be in control. If any of the current crop of globalism advocates or opponents have their way our world will be thrown back into a world based on peasant farmers and local kings with absolute authority over their local domains. The only difference between the pro and anti forces is that the pro-globalization forces would unite these disparate domains under a single global dictator with absolute authority whereas the anti-globalization groups would have zero political governance beyond the limits of each small, self-sustaining community of peasant farmers.

This is not progress. This would be digression of the worst sort.

Jane Goodall's research taught us that we are not so far removed from our animal cousins as we like to think. Every primate species (including humans) that has survived into modern times demonstrates a few common behaviors. These behaviors are very few in number and how each primate species exercises them is different, but it seems obvious to me that these behaviors are essential to the survival of each species, including our own. I find there are no more and no less than three lessons our civilization must learn from our primate cousins if we are to survive into the distant future.

First and most important of all, every primate is highly mobile. They move with the seasons, but they do not migrate like birds or insects. Rather, they are completely opportunistic and follow their favorite food sources rather than relying on weather to guide their movements. Our earliest human ancestors displayed exactly the same behavior when they followed migrating herds of animals. It was only after the large animals had become extinct that humans in East Asia, Northern Africa, Europe, and even North America gave up their wandering and developed some form of agriculture. This drive toward mobility is what carried humans throughout the globe and it is the main force behind all of our modern transportation systems. We are not naturally a sedentary species. As the world grows ever smaller and easier to grasp, we will continue to seek better, faster ways to move from one place to another. We cannot stop our drive toward mobility. It is part and parcel of our primate nature.

Secondly and almost as importantly, every successful primate species is child-focused not adult-focused. Every successful human civilization has also been child-focused rather than adult-focused. Many primate mothers have been documented carrying the dead bodies of their child because they cannot bear to be parted from them. Many human mothers and fathers who have lost children become obsessed with and fixated on the grave where their child lies. In every species of primate the adults throw themselves into the jaws of predators in order to provide their children time to escape. Likewise, countless human mothers have stepped between their child and an attacker. One blog, A Girl and her Gun, was specifically created by its owner to document her path to personal empowerment and self-defense after she and her children were accosted in the parking lot of a local grocery store. During that encounter she was horrified to realize that if the perceived threat had been realized she would have had no way to protect her children. Children are the future. Protecting and providing for them is key to continuation of a species. Not only primates and humans, but the vast majority of animal species have some instinct driving them to protect their young.

One of the reasons collectivism is such a profound danger is that it is centered on conformity to a pre-defined adult group of some kind. "All bankers and industrialists are evil", "all criminals are lost souls needing assistance", "all victims are to blame for provoking their attackers", etc. This kind of thinking is adult-centric. Children are not the future, they either an annoyance or a means to an end. Children are sex toys, slave labor, sadistic troublemakers, or at the very least, an inconvenience. Collectivists are so focused on conforming to adult society that they don't have time or energy to care for children. If they have children of their own and the resources to do so, they force someone else to do the nurturing and child-rearing because they cannot be bothered. The purpose of this is not to ensure survival of the species, but to ensure survival of their adult legacy and reputation so that they themselves will not be forgotten or ignored by future generations. It's not about the children at all. Instead, it is about what benefit if any a child can bring them. This attitude is anti-survival and always results in the collapse of that family rather than its perpetuation. Most troubling of all are the collectivists that cannot be bothered to care for their own children because they are too busy advocating for the children of everyone else. This double-edged sword of hypocrisy not only brings about the collapse of their own family, it also makes it nearly impossible for other parents to protect and provide for their children because all of the group's children are seen as the property of the collective rather than the future of the species.

The third quality shared by all successful primates including humans is cooperation. Cooperative behavior is not collectivist because it does not demand conformity. Each individual is free to either join in on the co-op project or go off on their own and work on some other project. The individual is even free to sit in the shade of their favorite tree and do nothing at all. The fruits of the co-op project are shared among the participants, and the exact system used to divide it up is agreed upon by those who participated. Adult chimpanzees will cooperate together to pass difficult to reach fruit to their tribe's children for example. Adult orangutans have a very complicated cooperative system of linked arms or legs to form bridges so that children can pass over streams or between trees with gaps too wide to jump. Humans, naturally, cooperate in farming, in clubs, in business enterprises, in staging social functions, and so on.

A collectivist can join in on a co-op project, naturally, and share in the fruits of it. Friction usually develops at some point because the collectivist demands to either command the project or determine how the fruits of that project are divided up. Sometimes the collectivist demands to both command a co-op project and determine how the spoils are divided, inevitably taking for themselves the largest share. Individualists, on the other hand, will take the time negotiate in mutual respect over both the organization of a cooperative project and the division of its fruits. The collectivist, being conformity-driven, simply makes demands and issues commands. Collectivists will also go to great extremes to make certain that any shortcoming or failure on their part is blamed on someone or something outside their control. While it is true that outside forces can have a negative impact on any cooperative project, the collectivist is the one who consistently fails to carry the burden they have agreed to carry and then blames outside forces.

Very few non-human primates exhibit collectivist organization and conformist instincts. For example, even though orangutans tend to be solitary or to travel in pairs, when two individuals or pairs first meet their initial greetings are conciliatory rather than aggressive. Even within the ranks of primates with strict hierarchies, as long as the chain of command is observed individuals are free to roam in and out of the pack in search of food, water, bedding, and so on. Displays of dominance or aggression are mostly confined to instances of ignoring the social hierarchy or opening an encounter with some kind of a threat such a thrown rock or raised hand. Disparate Eastern chimpanzee tribes, despite their popular reputation for aggression, will frequently share feeding grounds or watering holes without any aggressive actions at all. Individuals from each group will even sometimes help individuals from the other group when they encounter an obstacle or difficulty. In another example, a research team in Japan documented two disparate Macaque tribes who stumbled into the same berry patch at the same time. They circled each other as they harvested berries, always careful not to intrude on one another as they fed. At one point one young Macaque lost its grip on its mother and fell into a hole. A male from each group ran to the hole and worked together to free the child then simply parted ways as if nothing had happened.

Despite Jane Goodall's fixation on aggressive behaviors in the tribe she spent her life observing, other researchers who have come behind her or who have assisted her have documented far more cooperative behaviors than aggressive. Researchers observing other primates have returned similar findings. Cooperation, not competition, seems to be the primary driving force behind the social organization of most non-human primates. Competition does occur, but other than a few very rare occurrences, it is quickly settled with growls, a display of fangs, or other low-level highly ritualized and very short aggressive behaviors. There are exceptions, naturally. Two tribes of chimpanzees once fought over a baboon pack that both were hunting. As soon as they realized the baboons had escaped, the fight ended.

There are three lessons I have learned from reading research papers and watching documentaries about primates. Like us, the keys to their success as a species revolve around mobility, protecting children, and cooperation without forced conformity. All of the most successful primates, and all of the most successful human civilizations, have shared these same three priorities. The modern ranting and raving over "diversity", "homosexual marriage", and even "abortion" are creating deep rifts in our political and social landscape. If we do not recognize that no individual has the right to dictate the lifestyle choices made by another individual, and recognize it soon, then our worst dystopian fears will be realized. If history is any guide at all, then this will be the generation that either once again learns to cooperate as free individuals or oversees the violent dissolution of our emerging global community.

Radical Muslims, fearful tribal groups with entrenched power structures, militia warlords, drug cartels, human traffickers, collectivist revolutionaries, and other fascist movements are tearing our modern world to pieces right before our eyes. If we do not step aside from our petty political debates and start addressing these very real global problems then it won't matter if homosexuals fall in love or single women want to abort their unborn child. The reason it won't matter is because the collectivists with their drive toward social isolationism and conformity will have won the day. They will have destroyed our individuality beneath a rising, anti-survival trend of adult-centric behaviors that view children as property, women as baby factories, and the vast majority of us as slaves to their all-encompassing vision of utopia.

If the collectivists succeed in achieving their one world dictatorship then humanity will be dead within three generations. That is the lesson of Sumer, Akkadia, Athens, Samarkand, Pharaonic Egypt, the Roman Empire, and the Third Reich. The only reason any of these lands still have people in them is because in the midst of their collapse refugees had somewhere else to go in order to survive. After the collapse, some returned, some migrated in, and cities regrew from the ruins. If our modern global civilization collapses beneath the oppression of a collectivist regime there will be nowhere for the refugees to seek shelter and no outside population to migrate in and refill our abandoned cities. Our generation is the generation that must decide. Will we build a world of free individuals who cooperate when it suits them or will we build a collectivist empire where people are the pawns of masterminds?