Blog Post

Nature Red in Tooth and...Companionship? Evolution as Dogs v Chimps

I'm fascinated by how quickly the paradigm of evolution is changing.  Seemingly everywhere one looks these days there are arguments for empathy, collaboration, cooperation, and kindness as the motor of human evolution and human civilization.   Most recently, in an article in the Boston Globe, we find an argument based on canine development and on "companion species" and co-evolution.   Interesting, we've gone from the paradigm of the aggressive chimp (itself a not very accurate observational model) to the companionate dog.  

 

Here's the link to the original article, "How Kindness Built Civilization":  http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/0...

 

Since the Social Darwinism of the 1880s (a misreading of Darwin, to be sure) that insisted on "nature red in tooth and claw," a whole lot of scientific and social scientific ink has been spilled proving, justifying, protesting, and responding to an interpretation of the evolutionary evidence that makes combat, violence, "sexual selection," aggression, power, dominance, and other traits deemed quintessentially he-man male the motor of natural selection.   And the metaphors continue through many other kinds of social science too.  You don't have to scratch too deeply into Rational Choice economic theory to find a bit of sociobiology.   A lot of bad behavior has been justified by the primal urge to dominate others (physically, socially, financially) that all goes back to evolution's purported imperative to plant your seed in order that your own progeny shall inherit the earth. 

 

But what we know from evolution is found in rocks and river beds, the hard-and-fast traces of species that evolve over millenia.   What we as humans supply is the explanation.   The Industrial Age explanation for just about everything was dominance of the strong over the weak, humans over animals, the rich over the poor, the powerful nations over the weaker, the ruling class over the subordinate, the foreman over the worker, the CEO over the middle manager, the expert over the amateur, the specialist over the generalist, the credentialed over the autodidact, the teacher over the student, and of course the White Race over all others and men over women.   How to be in charge was the issue and the most brutal form of Adam Smith liberalism made as a tenet of social and economic policy that helping the weak only weakened the entire system.   

 

Welcome to the 21st century, where a superpower happens to be a Communist form of high capitalism and where the paradigm of human interaction is collectivism not individualism.   Welcome to the 21st century where the most powerful tool in human communication since the Industrial Age's invention of mass printing happens to have been the Internet and the World Wide Web created by intellectuals working worldwide, often anonymously and collaboratively.  Yes, there was a good bit of military in there, but not even the military understood what was happening as the open web was evolving.  Who runs the Web?   The World Wide Web Consortium?  Really?   That's not very nature-red-in-tooth-and-clawish of it!   Social media?  Offering advice for free to one another, teaching one another, learning from one another, communicating without a central publishing node to one another:   there is a lot happening now on a massive, worldwide scale that simply does not "fit" into old ideas of the human.

 

Enter Fido.   The dog and the very concept of "companion species" has suddenly taken hold of the imagination and helped us see that evolution's motor might possibly be collaboration not competition.   It's possible that, to survive and thrive as a species, humans had to learn not how to kill one another but how to work together successfully.   Every day, it seems, we have no compelling interpretive models in this direction.   It's about time.  Next up, is changing all the other power relations that go with the evolutionary nature-red-in-tooth-in-claw that supports them on what used to be purported as a "biological" level.  . . ."the dominance of the strong over the weak, humans over animals, the rich over the poor, the powerful nations over the weaker, the ruling class over the subordinate, the foreman over the worker, the CEO over the middle manager, the expert over the amateur, the specialist over the generalist, the credentialed over the autodidact, the teacher over the student, and of course the White Race over all others and men over women."   What if the issue isn't about "over-lording", me claiming superiority over you?  What if civilization evolves because we find ways, despite myriad obstacles, of successfully working together, filling in one another's weaknesses not exploiting them?   Now that's what I call a paradigm shift that could change a lot in our world.   Interesting!

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1 comment

This is a fascinating post and source article.  And as usual, Cathy, you make my brain gears grind away!

I am interested in the thesis "To become smart, first play nice". Maybe "nice" is already a kind of smartness? Were the canines who were "nice" to humans not displaying a kind of intelligence and then simply learned the "language" of humans later? To say that they became intelligent just because they learned to understand our ways and gestures is a bit of a leap, I think, as it would be a leap to suggest that as we humans learn the "language" of dogs, we are fundamentally smarter: Perhaps we are just better informed.

It is implicit in the article that there is a "nice", or human cooperative, gene, or else the foxes who were nice wouldn't have been bred into even "nicer" foxes. Is that possible? The Evil Seed is a concept that we've dealt with artistically and scientifically in our culture, but never have we thought that there might be a doppleganger Good Gene! Perhaps we could posit the Angel Gene?

I like the idea that somehow teaming up, or having an inherent spirit of cooperation intra-group (wolf pack) and inter-group (with other species) is a key to intelligence. It goes nicely with a little theory of mine based upon my work as a Spanish teacher and student of language. In Spanish there are only four verbs that, in the first person form, end in "OY": They are Soy (I am), ESTOY (I am here), DOY (I give) and VOY (I go). The Y (or Greek i) is a special letter that, for me, has deep spiritual implications. It is the symbol of a man, feet on ground and arms stretched up to Heaven, the connection of the material and the spiritual, the real with the aspirational. That this letter, Y, is found only in these four verbs in Spanish is a clue, I believe, to the earliest language and conscious priorities of our ancestors. That is, as consciousness developed, humans spoke first and most importantly of 1) their conscious existence 2) their location in space 3) their movement, as tribal nomadic folks would, and 4) their sharing of things with each other. Based on this (and life experience of course!) it seem to me that Giving is the cement of any group or society, and should not be thought of as an extra or add on, but rather as a fundamental building block for the health and stability of human kind. Giving requires compassion, the knowledge that the good and the subjective reality of the other is fundamental to the good of one's self. Which is kind of what we mean when we say nice, no?

Thanks for making me think again. And congratulations on your appointment by the President to The National Endowment for the Humanities. Well met!

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