Gaia’s Problem Children: Humans

Nov 30, 2018 10: 47 am

Ecological engineering and a keystone role in any local ecosystem is the human cultural adaptive niche. Maybe we should call this a “hyper-keystone” niche, since humans have managed their ecosystems by making use of a host of other keystone species like beavers, wolves, bison, and giraffe in the past when living as hunter-gatherers, in addition to reduced wildfire risks and creating ecological mosaics through the use of small controlled burns.The development of domesticates was an intensification of this hyper-keystone role, under conditions of increased seasonal risks and longer term risks of drought or other temporary decline in food supply. Boserup’s model addressed the next step; development of more intensification under conditions of denser population and more limited options to utilize wild species as these become locally extinct.

Boserup’s theory of intensification has been challenged over the years but has stood firm as the core theory of agricultural land use (Turner II 2010, Stone 2001). Better still, Boseruppian theory is alive and well- witness the recent (and wonderful!) Ester Boserup Centennial Tribute Conference; and is still inspiring. Her theory has been expanded to include all sorts of complexities (Boserup 2.0), including periods of increasing population with only minimal increases in productivity (“agricultural involution”; Geertz 1963) and even “Malthusian” phases, when populations briefly “overshoot”- though usually agricultural systems change dramatically long before this happens (“regime shifts”). The figure at right puts these theories in their most general form: the theory that human systems adapt to and evolve around environmental obstacles (Figure inspired by Billie Turner II’s presentation at the Boserup conference; used in my AGU 2010 poster).” SOURCE

Intensified agriculture also was a response to inclusion in expanding states that had urban food needs, necessitating higher local surplus production to supply them. Humans, in other words, have until very recently, always raised the carrying capacity of every ecosystem they inhabited in ways that successfully supported a steady increase in population (averaging about .04 – .07 % per year).

There has not been, so far, any hypothesized carrying capacity that humans have not manipulated upward in their own favour eventually, given time.

The Green Revolution, especially use of improve varieties and chemical fertilizers and other inputs, is one such wizardry of ecological upward manipulation. Adding chemical fertilizers and other inputs to crop varieties vastly improved by the breeder’s art: experimental crosses and hybridization, was among the factors credited with averting starvation in the last decades of the 20th century.

I worked for a Green Revolution Institute, the International Crops Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics, (ICRISAT) during the 1980s. There I found a common assumption that people in subsistence economies, in developing nations, were suffering frequent short falls of food production. They were not able to keep up with their rising population: it was assumed they had hit a ceiling of carrying capacity. Adding improved crops, augmenting soil fertility with chemical fertilizers, and yield improvement though other inputs like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides; these were the wizard’s gifts to prevent famine and starvation.

Here is my own dilemma: I did not find starvation within the rural areas where I was stationed in Burkina Faso, which was then one of the poorest countries in the world (lowest $.day figures).

My genealogical data indicated a rate of infant and childhood mortality that was similar to that in another semi-arid environment: among the Kalahari people of Botswana – both the BaKgalahadi and the forager Kua and G/wi. It was close to 40%, on average. Annually, factored against the death rates for all adults, this gave a modest annual growth rate of about .07%, a bit higher than the .05% I found in Botswana. I also did not see evidence of extreme poverty – if families were put at risk by illness or the death of a parent, they were allotted sufficient cereal from the headman’s granaries (consisting of the collective surpluses of all households in the lineage) until they could recover. The youngest families in the genealogies, however, had much lower infant and childhood mortality. Their completed family sizes looked much larger. The differences appeared, to me, attributable to vaccination programs initiated in the country.*1 In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, there had been efforts through the WHO and Save-the-Children funded campaigns, and some had extended vaccination to rural areas such as those where our study villages were located. Before this there had been a general resistance to such campaigns among rural populations in French West Africa.

As a result of these observations, I am sceptical of the idea that most people, in traditional subsistence economies, go hungry because of inadequate yields. I found substantial surplus production was being concentrated in the granaries of headmen and village chiefs. These leaders traditionally deployed these surpluses when drought caused famine*2.

Of course some families in the ICRISAT villages appeared more prosperous than others. All human societies are marked by disparity of effort and luck, which sometimes manifests as a difference in family size, and may also translate as differences in conservative “traditionalists” and progressive “entrepreneurs”.

I observed this difference deepen through the extension of Green Revolution technologies to the rural Sahel villages. As chemical fertilizers became available, the primary effect was an increase the length of time a piece of land could be cultivated. Instead of being fallowed after a few years and thus returned to the commons, such land was now cultivated for decades with only brief fallows. And it was even being passed down within the family, as a kind of “farm tenure”. 

Secondly, the chemical fertilizers, and other inputs like herbicide and insecticide, were subsidized for farmers who were willing to grow a commercial cotton crop. This was done through policies of the agricultural extension services operating in Burkina Faso at the time. I am certainly not suggesting that all of this was down to the “green revolution” efforts of scientists at my institute. They were more interested in promoting cultivation of the sorghum and millet varieties they had been developing. The increased length of cultivation on any one piece of land, and the fact that this pattern was often tied to a commercial crop meant that “entrepreneurial” farmers generally had far more land under cultivation than traditional subsistence farming families. Only some, of the traditionalists, were able to afford the chemical fertilizers. Others often lacked the extra labour (being younger households or those with few sons) to tackle clearing extra land for a commercial crop, as well as for a food crop. 

Social stratification was beginning to appear, as well as a shift in land tenure. 

A few of the bigger and more entrepreneurial family farms enlarged their holdings from year to year, while everyone else continued to farm small and temporary plots. Some particularly small or older households began to work as additional labourers for larger households. When this was not arranged along lines of kinship, but rather as a contract paid “in kind”, they got some of the crop. If it was arranged by kinship, these households were provided for during the rest of the year from the granaries of their lineage headman. Essentially, however, a landless class of rural labourers was being created. The children of these landless families got discouraged and migrated out of the village to seek work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or in the growing cities like Bobo-djuolasso or Ougadougou. It was among these migrants, in the poor neighbourhoods of these cities, that I saw some evidence of malnutrition.

Can it restore our place in nature – can we regain our hyper-keystone niche and save enough of our fellow travellers on this planetary adventure to see a common future? 

Of course. It is human nature: we are the ecosystem-manipulating and engineering species. 

If intensifying agriculture – as Boserup suggests – helped offset risks of hunger as population rose, there is still the kind of catastrophic famine that Malthus foresaw, due to the exponential increase in human numbers outpacing the modest increases in crop yields: his calculation is mathematically flawless. But we know a lot more about niche construction now, and the human animal is the champion at that, using all kinds of other species to create intensified ecological productivity. Furthermore, human economies integrate the productivity of a variety of ecosystems: many populations exploit aquatic as well as terrestrial systems, and use a variety of ecological communities. I would suggest that such subsistence economies were not prepared, however, for human population growth rates resulting from vaccination and other modern health care practices.

In discussing this with other observers, I have subsequently realized something must be added to this picture. Bill Everett reminded me that what Borlaug encountered in Mexico might have been analogous to the the situation with the Irish potato famine. He point out that the poor in Ireland starved while the rich landowners, after appropriating the fertile land, were exporting food to England. The very desperate poverty and exhausted soils situation that shocked Norman Borlaug in rural Mexico was not caused by overpopulation but rather due to a long history of land expropriation and misuse, and the poorest peasants, especially the indigenous people.

Gene Anderson also reminded me that bad governance, or even “deliberate policy”, was a frequent cause of starvation – it was not all due to overpopulation or actual food shortage. I thought immediately of Yemen. He suggested, furthermore, that we should be cautious about Boserup’s optimistic take on the raising of carrying capacity through intensification, because her model did not take into account the effects of increasing socio-economic stratification. Wealthier classes often did not support improvements and development efforts to improve the security or income of lower classes, since this inevitably increased their own labour costs. Since commercialized farming is done for profit, having to pay seasonal labourers higher wages was not welcomed. This effects other economic sectors too. As income for small family farms improves, off-farm wages had to keep up with these rising opportunity costs.

There has not been, so far, any hypothesized carrying capacity that humans have not manipulated upward in their own favour eventually, given time. 

International programmes through the United Nations and the World Health Organization, as well as development assistance from individual industrialized states, have helped initiate policy improvements in social assistance, credit, and opportunity were all helping to alleviate these problems in recent decades. However, loans and other development assistance became increasingly tied to foreign corporate mining, logging, and commercial agricultural production, and recently, with a worldwide recession in 2008, the situation is deteriorating as IMF and other creditors increasingly insist on government austerity programs and repayment of debts.

Governments in many places have begun to scale back on assistance to the poor. Under such circumstances, the elites gain not only income, but also political prominence. The development of a more parasitic role, where an increasingly concentration of wealth coincides with political influence, follows. Just to make the most of the metaphor, let us play with it: think about that parasite class. It is completely dependent. The parasitic behaviour of a tiny and apparently unaware and/or intractable minority slows down any investment in overall prosperity, directs government efforts more and more to control of crime and drug addiction – symptoms of distrust and insecurity, and often becomes not just cruel, but also corrupt.

Such excesses have in the past led to bloody revolutions, so that parasitic class can be terminated, temporarily, but that has been tried. Alas, it seems a flaw of the human psyche to swell into a hubris-soaked parasitic monster when presented with the illusion of superiority. We are all potential parasites if elevated above our fellowship. And once a culture of inflated self-justifying wealth and power is created, it tends to protect its own interests. Totalitarianism, whether right wing fascism or “communist” elites, is a tightening of the hold over the parasitic niche. The only other option is that the immunity of the parasitized host will be strengthened until the both can survive as they once did, as a kind of symbiotic dual organism.As it is, the “parasitic” classes were very threatened by the development of the United Nations and have done everything they can to undermine the effort to reduce poverty, warfare, and other abuses of power.

They strengthen the paradigms of social Darwinism, of divisiveness and competitiveness, and will scapegoat innocent minorities: all the common tactics that are manipulating the host as it is being sucked dry: and the toll of human misery rises. The parasitic class, like all parasitic organisms, appears to be unaware this will mean total oblivion for itself as well: it imagines it will be safe in remote guarded bunkers or Martian colonies.

How can we counter this in time, so that a sustainable ecological engineering can be rebooted? We have been experimenting with the dilemma of hubris since the beginning, it seems, and hence we have sarcasm, shaming, and peaceful protest, as well as more aggressive measures, up to, and including, the guillotine.

Ethics, an admiration for courage, honesty, generosity, and simple compassion, and a kind of democracy based on universal human rights, all counter the tendency to let individual success go to one’s head. For all its faults, democracy that has some fierce watchdogs seems the best bet. That interesting concept of “balancing” powers, Alertness and redress to any signal of disparity of opportunity for each child born is the root of democracy, surely, not equality of outcome: human beings have too much variation in potential talents and contributions for that to be a danger even in the most egalitarian of playing fields.

So can a devotion to democratic and humanitarian principles save us from our current crisis of mismanagement?

Can it restore our place in nature – can we regain our hyper-keystone niche and save enough of our fellow travellers on this planetary adventure to see a common future?

Of course. It is human nature: we are the ecosystem-manipulating and engineering species.

Unsustainable mono-cropping with chemicals, I think, will be abandoned as soil degradation makes them untenable, but the destruction, of all the other ecosystems, is a disastrous departure from all past successful and sustainable niche construction methodologies.

 There are encouraging signs. We are already beginning to undo the damage, in small experimental forays. Reforestation, soil regeneration, the re-introducing beavers and other missing ecosystem engineers, preserving keystone species, and extension of the systems of rice intensification (SRI) to other crops, are all being developed. Mosaic food production ecosystems can be generated by forest gardening, various kinds of permaculture, and by regeneration of high biomass grassland savanna. These may be the only long term food production systems capable of mitigating the looming climate disaster. Similarly, giving marine and other water ecosystems a chance to recover, by severely curtailing industrial scale harvesting, might be enough to bring many back, although the corals may never recover. To achieve sufficient coverage on these efforts, however, we face an uphill battle against the intrenched infrastructure and dense urbanization that has resulted from industrialization of the global economy.

We also face the resistance of the wealthiest corporations and classes on the planet, who have derived enormous wealth and influence from the fossil-fuel driven energy systems that powered this economy. What if Marion King Hubbert was right about peak oil? He seems to have been. It is increasingly uneconomical and ecologically problematical to prolong the peak with fracking and other desperate measure like mining tar sands. 

A quick look at the rate of oil consumption shows that it has continued to climb – it was 85 million barrels a day ten years ago, and today it is closer to 100. But the rate of new oil field discoveries is dropping steadily. Even if there is a huge pool of oil under the Arctic, as Russia and the USA oil corporations (among others) seem to hope, can we really afford to tap that, given that climate change is the only reason the arctic ocean is open to offshore drilling in the first place. I don’t think so.

“…This graphic is worth careful study… It shows oil discoveries and oil consumption since 1930 to 2008. The black line shows oil consumption. Notice the peak in consumption in 1979 corresponding to the first oil crisis. The subsequent 5 year decline in oil consumption is attributed to more fuel efficient transportation and a slowing world economy. The grey bars show oil discoveries. Notable grey bar features include Kuwait’s big oil field, Burgan, which was discovered in the late 30s and Ghawar, the world’s largest oil field, which was discovered in 1948. Note that the discovery rate peaked around 1966. Note also that consumption exceeds discoveries every year since 1984. Now there is a large gap between discoveries and production. None of this is controversial–it is only history….”

I am concerned that there is so much vested interest devoted to industrial scale mono-crop farming systems that it will be tempting to just do more of the same, using genetically manipulated crops. Since these are generally just as dependent on oil and other fossil fuels as other aspects of the current industrial farming system, I doubt this can be a magic bullet to “feed the world”, let alone preserve sufficient ecological integrity to stop the frightening scale of species extinction now underway. 

I think George Monbiot already put it into better words than I could find, when he said “(B)ecause we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.”  This is quoted above from his essay “Hopeless Realism”.*3 

Truly, unless can achieve regenerative and intensified food production systems, that generate positive trophic flows; unless we convince governments to support a democracy of rights and opportunities to allow even poor people to contribute to the pursuit of such initiatives; unless all governments make investment in sources of energy alternative to fossil fuels a priority; we will not meet targets that will prevent runaway greenhouse effects, we are literally out of better options

We are already beginning to undo the damage, in small experimental forays. Reforestation, soil regeneration, the re-introducing beavers and other missing ecosystem engineers, preserving keystone species, and extension of the systems of rice intensification (SRI) to other crops, are all being developed…These are all, without exception, forms of ecological engineering that people all over the world are working on.

All of these efforts may involve short-term but very high labour intensity and even a fairly desperate struggle to initiate, however. And personal danger. Political shifts toward more authoritarian control appear to be happening today, as increasingly right wing governments are elected, which tend to deny climate change and support the conservative elite agenda – business as usual.

Business as usual does not appear to respond to awareness that the future does not belong to the fossil fuel phase of an industrial economy. It is dying. We need all our courage to engineer the ecological revival and keep our caretaker pact with Gaia alive. 


*1 My own experience indicated that perhaps the take-off of population growth in these regions had more to do with the success of vaccination programs and the extension of other aspects of medical care and sanitation, which reduced infant and childhood death rates. I was particularly struck by an example of a couple who had lost all but one of a dozen children (born during the 1940s and 1950s) to what appeared, from the descriptions given, to have been tetanus infections following the cutting of the umbilicus; this was striking in contrast to their only child, a son, who had eight surviving children ranging in age from 16 years to 18 months, all born during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I interviewed this extended family in 1982. They had only lost two children during that time, both during an outbreak of some kind of fever, possibly dengue or yellow fever. I personally got dengue while I was in the field. It is still fairly common there.

*2 People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position. Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund. SOURCE

*3 “…I don’t believe that such a collapse is yet inevitable, or that a commensurate response is either technically or economically impossible. When the US joined the Second World War in 1941, it replaced a civilian economy with a military economy within months. As Jack Doyle records in his book Taken for a Ride, “In one year, General Motors developed, tooled, and completely built from scratch 1000 Avenger and 1000 Wildcat aircraft … Barely a year after Pontiac received a Navy contract to build antishipping missiles, the company began delivering the completed product to carrier squadrons around the world.” And this was before advanced information technology made everything faster.

The problem is political. A fascinating analysis by the social science professor Kevin Mackay contends that oligarchy has been a more fundamental cause of the collapse of civilizations than social complexity or energy demand.

Oligarchic control, he argues, thwarts rational decision-making, because the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society. This explains why past civilizations have collapsed “despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises.” Economic elites, that benefit from social dysfunction, block the necessary solutions. The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires, the influence of the Koch brothers, the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial, the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.It is not just governments that have failed to respond, though they have failed spectacularly…” 


Symbols:when a picture is worth a thousand words…

Nov 7, 2018 11: 50 pm

Symbolic communication can be visual or auditory: it can, of course, also be tactile and olfactory. Spoken language is made up of vast numbers of arbitrary combinations of vocal sounds, which the invention of writing and numeracy transformed into visual symbols for communicating across time and space. It seems that most human societies throughout history and prehistory have also used pictographs or even arbitrary abstract symbols, painted with ochre and other pigments, on rocks, on sand, on tools, on clothing, and on their own bodies.

One variation on this theme are the decorative etchings commonly seen on the Ostrich eggs used as water containers, and also in making craft items like necklaces, by the Khoisan people of southern Africa. Some evidence of eggshells indicate that humans were using eggs as food – shell fragments from swan, crane, and duck eggs appear in archaeological sites as old as 300,000 years, but using birds’ eggs for carrying water and decorative jewelry seems to be a later development. the earliest decorative jewelry seems to have been fashioned from animal teeth and the shells of aquatic organisms.

Among the Kua – a hunter-gatherer community of nearly 1400 people I was privileged to live among in the late 1970s, Ostrich eggs are usually etched with abstracted shapes – some were apparently symbols for animals (there were fish on one egg, for example) and  also more abstract shapes like circles and rectangular designs. When I was leaving the field, I had a visit there after I completed a consultancy of the effects of the 1979/80 drought, and children made me offers of shells. The children were among the most enthusiastic etchers. I received one egg and, curious, I asked if a certain shape was a snake.  DSC01980

The boy shook his head, and pointed to the constellation Hydra, just visible in the darkening sky. images

I asked about other etchings, and was told the circular one was the sun, the moon being a line like half a bracket. Various animal pictures, which seemed crude to e at first sight, also were also explained as constellations. The fish, however were just fish, taken from the illustration on a can of pilchards.

Years later, I happened to spot very similar Hydra symbols in various photos of rock art – from Australia, North America, and Europe. Interesting, isn’t it? 85254189e157-1rochester-10_0

Here is one suggestion about the design on the rock fragment found in the Blombos cave in south Africa: it might be part of a constellation symbol. 

It resembles Gemini as well as a number of  other  abstract-looking shapes formed by linking star patterns together.

Gardening in Eden

Nov 7, 2018 11: 50 pm

The extended phenotype, the capacity for a learned and shared system of transmitting information between individuals and across generations,  is culture, a secondary adaptive system that many social animals have. Humans developed culture into a major adaptive system. In humans this is a learned and shared collective “cognitive niche”,  the “specialist” behavioural and cognitive adaptation of a highly plastic phenotype. Recently there was a paper published by two researchers affiliated with the Max Planck institute that suggested that anatomically modern Homo sapiens had successfully colonized the world and outcompeted “archaic” humans because it developed a new ecological “generalist specialist” niche. (ROBERTS AND STEWART. 2018. DEFINING THE ‘GENERALIST SPECIALIST’ NICHE FOR PLEISTOCENE HOMO SAPIENS. NATURE HUMAN BEHAVIOUR.)At first I hoped that this would be a further refinement of another Max Planck associated bit of research that at least suggested an “ecological engineering” niche. But I was disappointed. “Specialist generalist” describes aspects of a species’ specific behaviour – a biological rather than an “ecological” niche.

Ecological niches are parts of ecosystems that a biological organism can fit itself into. Hominins tend to use culture to fit themselves into a role within an ecosystem. Very few human behaviours, economic or organizational, are obligatory and can be predicted by the attributes of the phenotype. I suppose being a “specialist” in “generalist” adaptations to ecosystems is an inventive way to get around simply calling it culture, but from my perspective it is equivalent to prevarication: like calling rivers ‘collective water molecules responding to gravity’.

The reason I wrote all this, just now, is because I am concerned that this “specialist generalist” adaptation will be thought to arise through some change in gene frequencies. I would argue that this is an unwarranted causal directionality. What “anatomically archaic” humans might have lacked was the kind of environmental bottleneck that honed their culture for greater efficiency. The Middle Stone Age was characterized by smaller stone tools, use of bone, ochre, possibly poisons, and compound technologies and practices such as the atlatl to throw spears, blows and arrows, nets, and bolas.  These “distance hunting” refinements were at first piecemeal and often ephemeral: perhaps indicative of temporary experiments in specialized tool designs to decrease danger and increase efficiency during lean times.


Increasing marginal returns through extra effort may at first have appeared relatively unattractive; such innovations get people through some tough times but are then abandoned in favour of the sloppier and easier ways that were “good enough” when game was abundant.  

Our species was, however, subjected to more than temporary hardships starting around 300,000 years ago. Periods of “mega”-drought in equatorial areas seem to have occurred as glaciers advanced in the Northern Hemisphere. These droughts would have heralded the onset of massive and very dangerous wildfires; meanwhile lakes and rivers dried up. Lake Malawi repeatedly lost over 90% of its water. The use of smaller burns to reduce dry “fuel” loads, seen in economies of most hunter-gatherers, may well have begun as a defensive measure. As people noted and discussed the observed consequences of burning in terms of creating succession communities and thus effecting food plants and animals, people learned (and shared with neighbouring communities) effective ways of engineering their whole ecosystem, not just greater fire safety, but also long term productivity. Thus, these forms of cultural knowledge and many associated technological, conceptual, and practical innovations developed to solve problems of adaptation to severe climatic flux, and seasonal risk, during bottlenecks caused by droughts and ice ages.


It need not have started with any change in the biology or genetics underlying cognitive prowess. In the evolution of Homo we see a more cognitively plastic behavioural potential and the emergence of a kind of hyperactive event sequence analysis. It is not simply rapid learning of cause and effect – all animals can be conditioned by regular event sequences. A few other animals even try to manipulate them. However, tinkering with a plan to more effectively stalk an antelope, or to drive a herd into an ambush – or over a cliff – is taken to a whole new level in the Middle Paleolithic. Sally McBrearty and Alison S. Brooks had a similar suggestion in The Revolution that Wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior: (Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 453–563 Academic Press.)

“It is clear that the features diagnostic of physical modernity emerge in conjunction with MSA technologies. In this paper we present evidence to support the presence of modern human behaviors in subsaharan Africa at remote times far predating any such traces outside Africa. We contend that the appearance of modern behaviors accompanied or even preceded the appearance of H. sapiens during the African MSA, suggesting that the behaviors may perhaps have driven the anatomical changes seen in the fossils. We also suggest that these behaviors developed gradually over a substantial period of time and sporadically in different parts of the continent.” (page 487 – my emphasis)

When you begin to devise and execute plans that will reward you with higher numbers of buffalo in twenty years, and to devise and executive plans for increasing secondary growth meadowland and younger forest, to achieve resource goals unlikely to be realized in a single lifetime, it is no longer just reacting in instinctive or even conditioned ways to your environment.

You are no longer just an animal in a ecological niche, you transform each ecosystem to your own needs by conceptualizing the needs of all the other living things in that ecosystem, and promoting an overall diversity and a stability that favours human survival. You need not find your niche, you make it.

You need a different order of conceptual models. You will have think more comprehensively, and in longer chains of causality that last for hundreds of years. These kinds of cultural paradigms cannot become normalized, nor even appear, overnight. It takes generations of observation and discussion to reach the level regularly found among hunter-gatherers. To give one example: when I first arrived to begin my fieldwork among the Kalahari hunter-gatherers, I expected to find them occasionally hunting giraffe. I had seen the film made in the far western Kalahari by John Marshall, a film called “The Hunters” – which showed a giraffe hunt. So I was puzzled to see plenty of giraffe herds but no evidence of their being hunted by the Kua. I asked about this. I was told that a giraffe that “offered itself” would not be refused, but that this was extremely rare, and that giraffes were not generally targeted. If I wanted the whole story, I was told, I should go and see a certain woman.

So I did.

I found her in a campsite deeper into the remote area, very near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. She was tending her grandchildren and eagerly agreed to answer my questions about giraffe. Apparently she has the local expert; obsessively interested in anything to do with giraffe since childhood. She had assembled a massive number of observations, both on her own, and from accounts of hunters and other people, and handed down through many generations. I found this out in later interviews. Her answer to my query was masterful in its simplicity and accuracy. Hunting giraffe is unwise, she said “because they were the midwives of the Acacia trees.” God had made the giraffe, she told me, just tall enough to eat the leaves and harvest the pods of the tree, because they would then deposit the offspring of the tree far from the parent plant. She had often noticed the young sprouting from giraffe dung heaps.


I noted all this down and essentially forgot about it until many years later when I learned that these Acacias are, in fact, woody legumes: through a symbiotic bacterial colony in their roots, they fix nitrogen. In the sandy Kalahari, these trees and other legumes were an essential species that permitted grasses and herbs to flourish.

Giraffe and Acacia were also symbiotes, equally critical in keeping the savanna green.

She knew.

This level of conceptualization, of relationships between plants and animals, as parts of integrated communities, and the operationalization of this understanding into deliberate and practical interventions, goes beyond mere “planning ahead”.

To develop such a sophisticated understanding, even among a minority within a population, involves the integration of many empirical observations, verified and accumulated, over many lifetimes. The wider this effort is shared, the more people are involved in discussions of all relevant data and concepts, and the larger the geographic area involved, the more comparative material can be assessed, and the more continuities – as well as exceptions and special cases – can be discovered. Provided the dedicated observers and discussants can explain and demonstrate that certain new ideas and practices achieve better results than the previous customs and technologies, there can be a shift within the whole society, a shift that may accelerate the “borrowing” of any successful innovation over much larger culture areas.

The comprehension of whole cascades and feedbacks, involving multiple variables, may have begun with the processional learning involved in the manufacture of stone tools for specific purposes, and especially for making compound technologies. However it began, adding analogy to processional thinking enables other applications to longer and more complex feedbacks as well. This is however, exactly the kind of analytic thinking seen among modern people in all economies, even if they apply it to city planning, architecture, compound interest, fine cuisine, plotting novels, designing fashions, creating nuclear plants, testing and applying scientific hypotheses, calculating annual sales increments, planning retirement financing, or putting a man on the moon.

I think this level of cognition was clearly in place before people could even begin to visualize how a whole ecosystem could be manipulated – “taken care of”- over generations.

The level of thinking, required to understand an entire ecosystem well enough to effectively manipulate it, had to already exist before this kind of cultural adaptation could happen. So I find it telling that the ecosystem management and technologies seen in today’s hunter-gatherers requires cumulative observations and processional learning, likely over many generations and across many resource landscapes, to create innovations that solve technical adaptive problems in conceptually challenging ways.

As this cultural system was coming together, it is very plausible that successful components of it appeared here and there and were discovered and lost again, like elements of any other cultural knowledge. During the extreme drought bottlenecks, practices that worked were the kinds of long term ecological wisdom incorporated into practices that not only allowed parents to kept their children and grandchildren alive, but even to remedy the ecological destruction caused by African mega-droughts and Eurasian glacial advances. As these populations in refuge areas were doing whatever they could to hang on, knowledge of successful long term strategies may have spread rapidly.


Very plausibly, the technology, ideas, and practical applications, were already occurring in a similar piecemeal fashion among all archaic humans in Africa and Eurasia throughout at least the last 400,000 years, as the scale and frequency of climate oscillation increased. I suppose it is possible that there was a shift in gene frequencies, during the middle Pleistocene, increasing proportions of people who were reflective, analytical, tinkerers, or possessed gifts of conceptual or integrative intelligence. I would be surprised, however, if such shifts were not also occurring in all human populations on the planet… and for the same reasons. It was just that the population in SE Africa appears to have been the single largest gene pool for well over 300,000 years.
Throughout tumultuous climatic reversals of massive droughts in Africa that appear somewhat linked to glacial epochs in the northern Hemisphere, this larger and more interconnected set of communities along coastal and riverine refuge areas had more accumulated diversity, both genetic and cultural, to be going on with.

The occasional use of fire to attract game or to clear camping sites of ticks and other vermin was probably much older, as was cooking food and using heat from hearths to alter the chemical properties of wooden digging poles and stone spear tips. The practice of hunting regularly also produced a recognition by game species – and other predators – that humans could be dangerous and were best kept a a bit of distance. This is the classic pattern of the keystone predator. But such a hunting strategy in more open environments requires the development of coordinated pack or group hunting: well illustrated by wolves, wild dogs, and lions. Archaic humans such as Neanderthals (and Archaic Homo sapiens in Africa?) appear to have used group hunting as well as ambush from blinds.

But group hunting with spears is inefficient and dangerous compared to “distance hunting” with compound technologies and poison. Furthermore, there is plenty of skeletal evidence in “archaic” Homo sp. ( like Neanderthals) of injuries like broken bones. Hunting with spears – whether they were wooden or tipped with stone, was very dangerous. Even if you had a larger group of hunters, trying to kill an animal – even a smaller deer, can mean grappling with a terrified animal fighting for its life – and a blow to the head can be fatal, and broken arms and legs were probably pretty common. I once heard a specialist in paleo-anatomy remark that the only humans he knew of with a pattern of injuries in the same range as the ones he saw in Neanderthal skeletons were bull riders and rodeo clowns – whose job is to lure angry bulls away from thrown cowboys.

Frequent injury rates obviously would have favoured robust bones, especially skull bones, and powerful musculature, as this would have reduced the risk of severe injuries, especially head injuries resulting in concussion or bleeding on the brain. With distance hunting, risks like this were reduced, and a leaner finer-boned hunter would even be at an advantage as he would expend fewer calories hunting the same size of animal.

Safer hunting technologies would have really helped to keep populations stable if not growing during these hardships of cold and ice. As during the massive droughts in Africa, one of the major shifts that happened in the middle stone age was safer “distance hunting” technology. That might have had an immediate effect on the rates of adult injury and death, and of course children have a better chance of survival if both parents and grandparents and other relatives are healthy and regularly returning to camp with provisions. Beside the positive effect of preventing populations collapse and local extinction, such technologies would have altered the selection pressures.

Furthermore, hunters could go out individually or in pairs. They need only call on the larger group, to help track and butcher, if they were successful in mortally injuring a large animal. Regularly dividing the hunting labour force into smaller units would also increase the chances of success. Most studies have found a success ratio of one in four hunts. Two hunts per week by two teams going in different directions double the odds in favour of getting regular meat. In smaller refugia, where game populations were smaller and vulnerable to extinction, humans, even today in the Arctic, successfully practice prey switching and reduce predator fear by limiting numbers of other predators. 

Did humans gradually become behaviourally and anatomically “modern” as they developed a hyper-keystone niche by combining a keystone predator niche with ecological engineering that used other keystone species to diversify and thus stabilize food sources and aquifers? I think it is plausible.  . By means of distance hunting, they inadvertently set in motion changes selection pressures that reduced skeletal robustness and a leaner musculature.

Individual and group survival, was enhanced by a steadier food supply; indeed a new degree of coordinated meat provisioning, that was calculated over a period of weeks (rather than one-hunt-at-a-time), may have been a major advantage of the Homo sapiens culture that developed in the larger refuge areas along the eastern and south African coast and river deltas. This was plausibly enhanced when it incorporated the use of aquatic and marine resources as well. Each hunter going forth in a different direction would almost guarantee at least some fish, or game, meat several times a week.

Thus, the changed technologies of the MSA in Africa plausibly represented a safer, and more efficient use of hunting labour.  In turn this may have increased childhood survival rates and led to the modest rates of population growth we see even today among hunter-gatherers even in the harshest environments. We might expect to see evidence of population declining, and then gradually starting to grow again, in hunter-gatherer sites as these behaviours spread all around the African northeastern and Mediterranean coastlines, despite on-going climatic fluctuation and hardship. Current data on hunter-gatherers suggest population growth rates averaging 0.05% a year – a doubling time of roughly 1400 years, and this is sufficient to reach Australia as early as 90,000 years ago via a coastal route. (Doubling time is calculated by the formula: Td = log(2) / log(1 + r) Where: Td = doubling time and r = a constant growth rate)

When representatives of this culture encountered other, more “archaic” people throughout Africa, it is possible that they passed on practical concepts and technical elements. This, very plausibly, consolidated the patterns already in play among these other communities as well. Furthermore, as this gradually spread throughout Africa I would expect that intermarriage and the exchange of information and materials to the next group and the next, even over vast distances, gradually started that same altered selective process in the anatomy of these other groups. This would have taken thousands of years to have a visible effect on skeletons, but we know now that this process literally had thousands of years: at least 200,000 and possibly even longer.

I might add that by intermarrying with other groups, “anatomically modern” humans increased their own genetic diversity, even if it occasionally meant importing some problematical recessive alleles. At the same time, they were living demonstrations of a successful economic pattern. Indeed, as these technologies and practices permitted population growth, the tendency would have been to increase the flow of information and personnel in both directions. This would have happened each time this culture come into contact with others all over Africa, and it also happened between groups that had trickled into Eurasia. 

I personally doubt that “leaving” Africa was a single event; however, I think the genetic data appears consistent with Eurasian AMH colonies stemming mainly from one ancestral culture area within Africa. this was most likely to have been a culture developing in the Great Rift Valley lakes, the coasts and river mouths of the entire continent of Africa. Such a culture would have developed exploiting several ecological ones – the near-shore aquatic resources, (even along the the coast where there were still freshwater rivers and marshlands with fish and bird breeding grounds), and the upland areas of dwindling savanna and riverine forests.


Possibly, this culture area represented a set of linked demes speaking an array of dialects. I think it is plausible that the people in these remained interconnected by networking ties that permitted a constant flow of information and personnel. People in such a culture area would have been the likeliest candidates to become the first to pull all the strategies of ecological engineering together. Once this happened, this would furthermore be the one linked “culture area” capable of budding new communities up and down the coasts rivers even in the worst times of drought and hardship. Especially during the height of inland mega droughts, even at very slow rates of population growth (,01% a year) they could still have eventually spread south toward the Cape as well as north past the Horn and up major rivers such as the Nile, and around the shores of the Mediterranean, as well as across southern Arabia towards the Tigris, and the Euphrates and onward.  These people would, of course, neither be aware of leaving one continent and entering another. I doubt they were even likely have completely lost touch with the communities their ancestors had come from. It seems probable that many would have developed rafting and even boats from time to time, to explore offshore islands, and to cross deeper stretches of water

It is astonishing to realize that people likely did not have a goal of “leaving Africa”; rather, in the process of doubling every 1400 years would still fill up the world,  NO ONE need ever have moved more than a few hundred miles, in a whole lifetime.

Try the calculation.

a) Assume a SE African culture area of hunter-gatherers who occupied the coastal region and river deltas. Around 200,000 years ago, a small daughter colony of this coastal culture has been established here and there “outside of Africa” – 1000 people scattered in 40 camps along the eastern Mediterranean coast, 1000 people scattered in 40 camps in the southern Arabian peninsula. There is some archaeological evidence of this, although at a slightly later date.

Note: I am assuming a set of demographic units that range over a territory of about 8,000 to 12,000 square km, a pretty average figure for a mobile hunter-gatherer group of about a thousand. Since they have a riparian, lacustrine, or coastal adaptation with some inland hunting, one can imagine an elongated territory stretching 200 kilometres along the lake shore, the coast, or the river, augmented by gathering and hunting resources perhaps 50 kilometres inland. Both of these would be, in our OOA model, derived from one of the northernmost groups of the chain of African cultures which appear to have had this dual ecosystem adaptation – using the aquatic as well as terrestrial resources, as well as the rich mixture of both represented by river deltas.

b) So we assume a starting population in the Middle East and along the south coast of Arabia of 2000 people. Now let us calculate how many there would be, at the modest rate of 0.05% increase per year, after 10 to 12,000 years.

After 1400 years, it is 4000, after another 1400 years, it is 8000, then 16,000, then 32,000, then 64,000, then 128,000, then 256,000, then 512,000, then 1,024,000 – and it is only 187,400 years ago. .

c) Over a million people in Eurasia within about 12,000 years. Even if we assume all kinds of setbacks through diseases and adverse climatic events, and double that time, there could still be still over a million Homo sapiens in Eurasia by 175,000 years ago. Does this make the genetic data that supports the idea of “out of Africa” more plausible? I doubt was as neat as this, but the exponential function is relentless. One way or another, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty successful, not just in Africa, but all over the world.

We could change the starting date.. make it 190,000 or even 150,000 years ago. (if we start the clock at 150,000, there would still be that number by 125,000 years ago, for example). But it is still just as valid. It did not take a huge exodus out of Africa to populate the world. A little squirt across the Red Sea, a little squirt across to Arabia… mission accomplished. Nor need the ancestral roll call have to be lengthy even in Africa. It was obviously a longer roll call – the population remaining in Africa was likely at least ten times larger: most genetic variation was left behind when those squirts left.

All in all, I think what was “special” about the generalist hunter-gatherers with modern anatomy was indeed, a new ecological niche. But it was not because we became a new kind of biological animal, it was because we doubled down on what humans were, and still are, really good at adapting through feedback between culture and biology.

Developing a highly durable cultural system, one that manipulated whole ecosystems, was doing something new, ecologically. Despite evidence of use of fire for cooking and modification of material technology dating back at least two million years, no previous humans used fire ecology, or deliberately replanted, to promote plants and animals that they liked to eat. They may have had division of labour, but not the level of specialization in economic activities and conceptual realms common among hunter-gatherers today. You find quirky tinkerers as well as obsessive geniuses among all modern humans. I think cognitive variability may be a necessary and biological consequence of the kind of genome that can actually support long term investment in culture as a main adaptive strategy. Of course these kinds of minds are but leavening: for human culture to work, you also need a solid doughy lump of retentive rationality.

Even if only a tiny minority of people in any deme pondered particular issues and came up with wild ideas as well as practical innovations, any real conceptual breakthroughs, and resulting practices, could be demonstrated to others. The successful application of concepts generally is what reinforces their utility. Thus, even when few people in the rest of the culture actually understand the causal relationships, they can still make use of the resulting practical ideas. Any culture can change successfully as long as a sufficient minority of observers ponder and tinker with materials and ideas exist within them, and such people are indulged – or at least, given an audience and a fair opportunity to show how their discoveries work.  In the later Pleistocene, when people were coping with extremes of fire and ice, receptivity to new technologies and ideas must have peaked at times.

I find it significant that all the survivors, of this exercise in cognitive shape-shifting, appear to be the anatomically modern human beings we identify as “ourselves”.

Is it plausible, then, that the absorption of any remaining “archaic” people was as much cultural as biological? Why not consider a model of intermarriage, not “interbreeding”?  Why not envisage the children of unions between these “archaic” and “modern” people being raised by their parents and grandparents, speaking two or more languages?  Why not explore the implication that these children, although showing more robust anatomy initially, leaving descendants who were more and more anatomically “modern” as time went on, transformed by the elixir of humanity’s cleverest culture: the one that gardened Eden?


The ecological engineering associated with these early “hyper-keystone” human economies represents the single most successful collective cognitive niche that humans ever developed.

Sadly, today, only a small number of humans on the planet still know how to do this.

I wonder if Woodstock got this one right – maybe we really must get back to the garden, before our current global civilization foolishly undoes what took thousands of years of observation, empiricism, work, and passion, to create.

Man-camps for oil, timber, mining… are “wretched hives of scum and villianry”? Reflections on resource extraction.

Jul 7, 2018 8: 44 pm

Want to understand the brutality at Standing Rock? This banal evil has deep roots in extractive industries..


The problems with the kind of work and other conditions in the “oil patch” that many Albertans (and other regions in both Canada and the USA – indeed all over the world) have ignored. A “wretched hive of scum and villainy” describes many work camps at fracking sites – and parts of Fort McMurray as well.

Sexual predation, trafficking, and prostitution are always seen in association with zones of extractive industries, and tend also to be a feature that developed with socio-economic stratification.. Like slavery, sexual serfdom and economic serfdom are by-products of the devaluation of some human lives.

This photo illustrates a man camp from an article “Pipeline ‘man camps’ loom over B.C.’s Highway of Tears | National Observer

The history of mining, logging, commercial fishing and state level army and navy and “merchant marine” have all been associated with massive numbers of men concentrated together for long periods of time, giving rise to a set of shady practices. Gambling “dens”, drug and alcohol venders, prostitution and sexual exploitation of both female and male minors and – sadly, local minorities like the indigenous – have all been the outcome of industrial processes recently unleashed on a massive scale – mostly to make a tiny minority of “investors” rich. Very rich.

If you want to blame the political left for decriminalizing homosexuality and “kink” between consenting adults, it is to the political right that you must look for the source of softening attitudes toward sexual predation and abuse of various forms.

Glamourizing or even normalizing pedophilia, bondage, prostitution, and sexual trafficking benefits one main segment of society, and it is not those whose bodies get penetrated. It is not even, ultimately, benefitting those who do the penetrating… it is those who set things up so masses of human beings live lives bent to the will of implacable hierarchy, coercion, and even, sadly, hope of something better.

These are the masters who own the penetrators, people who, mollified by their uniforms and sense of belonging to the bosses of the world, who are on the road to obedient dehumanizing and genocide… We have reason to be disgusted and even terrified. “….Man camps are temporary housing facilities constructed for predominantly male workers on resource development projects in the oil, pipeline, mining, hydroelectric, and forestry industries. Reports show a direct correlation between these encampments and violence against women.

Located on Indigenous territories, away from cities, and often in close proximity to Indigenous communities, resource projects bring an influx of mostly non-Indigenous, …male workers who come to the territory to profit from the resource economy, in some cases more than doubling the local population. Sometimes called “work camps,” “industrial camps,” or more commonly, “man camps,” large-scale facilities are set up to house this “shadow population” of transient men.

Man camp accommodations can range from RVs and trailers, to lodges, to barracks-style portables. While some are designed to be company-regulated, self-sufficient “communities,” with dining, laundry, and recreational facilities, communities have also reported undocumented, unregulated camps, on land rented out by local ranchers or farmers.

“Camp culture” has been reported to exacerbate isolation, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, misogyny, and racism among the men living there. Away from family, friends, and social supports, these men face stressful, difficult, and potentially dangerous working conditions, including long hours, shift work, and ‘two-week in, two-week out’ work schedules. In this environment, and with heightened disposable incomes, increased substance abuse is well documented. Amidst a culture of “hyper-masculinity, sexism, and apathy towards self-care” direct and indirect impacts shift onto women, children, and two-spirit people.

Impacts on women include higher levels of sexual assault and harassment, and family and domestic violence. Increased gender inequality as a result of high wages for resource sector workers that drive up food and housing prices, while straining community services put women and two-spirit people into even more economically precarious situations where they are increasingly dependent on male partners and family members. Meanwhile, environmental assessments of resource projects in Canada have consistently failed to consider the impacts on Indigenous women. However, research, the media, and communities have become increasingly vocal about the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women, children, and two spirits as a result of the colonial capitalist resource sector…”

“…The rapid industrialization of North America’s countryside has brought a litany of big city problems to rural America. While critics accuse frackers of fouling air, drinking water, and farmland with swamp gas and carcinogens; prostitution, methamphetamine, and sexual crime have stalked drilling operations.

“There’s like 80 guys for every woman,” said an industry veteran who has watched a rising sprawl of trailer parks, dive bars, and strip clubs consume the North Dakota prairie in recent years. “A friend of mine brought his wife here with him. If he turns his back on her at Walmart, there are guys talking to her when he returns.”

To fill the gap in available housing for a surging transient workforce, company-housing units—known as “man camps”—have sprung up on the outskirts of once meager population centers. It’s work hard, play hard. You are 7.6 times more likely to die working on an oil or gas rig than in any other industry, so it’s understandable that when payday comes, these guys want to burn off steam. Unfortunately for many small towns around the country, a fracking worker’s idea of fun can be a bit debauched…”


Drugs, gambling, prostitution, and even sexual trafficking have all been swept under the rug. If ever there was a hot potato that most authorities do NOT want to handle, it is the relationship between extraction industries (not just oil either) and criminal activity – whether it is drug gangs, human trafficking for sex, domestic violence, break-ins, or murder rates.

When these extractive industries locate mostly male labourers in remoter locations, where indigenous reserves are often the nearest settlement, the results are not just occasional employment of “locals” but also the disappearance and even murder of local women… and men. “Former Rosebud Sioux Tribe Police Chief Grace Her Many Horses took a temporary job working in the Bakken Region near Newtown, North Dakota. This Bakken Basin stretches from Montana to North Dakota and it is rich in shale oil supplies. She began work in June of last year until October of the same year. It was her first experience with Man Camps… This seasoned professional would be in for a rude surprise.


“When I first got there some of the things they talked about, in any of these areas, was they told the men ‘Don’t go out and party. Don’t get drunk and pass out. Because you’re going to get raped,” she said without hesitation.


It’s not exactly something you would expect to hear from a workers’ camp but these places are not exactly your ordinary laborers’ camps. The depth of depravity and dubious behavior are commonplace in these so-called Man Camps… 

There are identifiable variables that remain constant: These oil workers usually come from desperate conditions. These workers usually have a family they have left elsewhere so they are not looking to start new relations. These workers are paid an excessive amount of money. These workers are well aware their employment is only temporary. These workers know they are living in a remote environment where law enforcement is already stretched beyond its limits and the temptation for criminal behavior is very strong. Unfortunately, most of America still cannot comprehend this information.


“Sexual assaults on the male population has increased by 75% in that area,” she continued. That kind of statistic makes maximum security prisons look like the minor league. “One of the things we ran into while working up there was a 15 year old boy had gone missing. He was found in one of the Man Camps with one of the oil workers. They were passing him around from trailer to trailer.”


… Everyone has heard by now of the missing school teacher that was kidnapped as she was out jogging, repeatedly sexually assaulted, and murdered near one of these Man Camps. The age of the Man Camp victims varies. The assailants are not necessarily looking for male and female adults. They are also going after little girls.

“We found a crying, naked, four year old girl running down one of the roads right outside of the Man Camp. She had been sexually assaulted.”



There has been a significant rise in prostitution, gambling, and organized crime in these Man Camps too. The oil workers enjoy being compensated at salaries far above that of the average American blue collar worker…


“…This former tribal police chief’s first experience talking with prostitutes that cater to Man Camps came here on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. She pulled over two vans heading out of town. They were filled with female passengers, again, of varying ages. They were heading in the direction of the Man Camps. One of the brazen occupants declared outright to this officer, “Well, you know why we are going up there.”

She spoke with local Indians that said they used to frequent their casino but they stopped. Things had changed so much that a large number of locals dare not venture outside at night. There are strangers everywhere. Again, this is coming from a small town where most of its population is Native American and everyone had known each other’s first names and origin. Now it is hardly recognizable. Businesses were forced to open only to be shuttered later. Trash and debris has increased. Violence of all types has surged and the beauty of the land has been replaced with heavy construction vehicles and the destruction of lands once referred to as God’s Country. …Meth has been seen as having destructive effects on Indian communities before but now there are new drugs filtering onto Indian reservations from these Man Camps…”

“There is a new drug called Crocus. When you ingest it your skin boils from the inside-out. It leaves you with permanent scars on the surface of your skin that resembles the scales of a crocodile. It will literally eat your feet off, eat your limbs off. It’s horrible. That’s been introduced up there and it is more addictive than heroin. The drug trade is rampant up there.”


The sex offenders are very prevalent. “We found thirteen sex offenders in one Man Camp and that Man Camp is found directly behind the tribal casino. Our supervisors would tell us “Watch your kids. Don’t let them run through there.” It leads the common Rosebud resident to ask if we have enough police officers to cover the proposed Man Camp being built nearby the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. She was not hesitant to argue: “No we do not have enough members on the police force. We barely have enough people to cover our [Indian] reservation right now. If you were around for the first week of January we had a double-homicide, we had unattended deaths, we had shootings, we had a major car accident, and that’s just in one week…. I don’t know how we are going to deal with that just yet. We are overwhelmed as is stands right now. Once the Man Camp moves in…” Basically, it’s not a future everyone wants to see.”


“…A response that both operations in North Dakota and Alberta have taken to these problems is the construction of ‘man-camps’, or small concentrated areas of mostly men living in dorm or camp like conditions. Their presence in the community along with general population growth causes escalated crime, and law enforcement is having a difficult time managing the chaos. The disenfranchised First Nations people also commit crimes due to loss of hope.


Violent crime is particularly concerning in boom towns. An often underrepresented demographic, women experience more incidences related to violent crime and domestic violence as the population of their towns increase.

The publication “Breaking Ground: Women, Oil, and Climate Change in Alberta and British Columbia” written by the Nobel Women’s Initiative offers a rare glimpse into the lives of women directly affected by the tar sands, gathering data from a delegation to discuss the topic. The general sentiment of women at this delegation in regards to domestic violence and violence is grim.”


Violence continues in North Dakota outside the reservations. “Rural North Dakota’s Oil Boom and Its Impact on Social Services” by Bret A. Weber, Julia Geigle, and Carenlee Barkdull is a study that includes a focus group of mostly women (65%) to find out resident’s most pressing issues. Then, the researchers compiled statistics to support the concerns they had. … The authors summarized “Although it would be a mistake to assume cause and effect in relation to the oil boom and these increases in domestic violence, the literature on boom communities suggests that this is not atypical.”” Then worse things become more probable. What is worse than sexual trafficking and abuse, violence against women and children, prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling? Genocide.
“Dehumanization; it is the first step to war. Long before the tanks roll onto ships, or planes fly overhead, propaganda strips the enemy of their humanity. The simplest way to dehumanize is to demonize. The Morton County Sheriff and local press are knowingly and calculatingly taking aim at the safety of the Standing Rock Water Protectors’ by slowly tainting the perception of their character and stripping them of their humanity.

On October 16, 2016, the Morton County Sheriff published on their Facebook page an article from with the headline “Butchered and missing livestock reported near Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp” The article connected the Standing Rock Water Protector camps to 30 missing cows, and the deaths of four cows, three bison and a saddle horse by saying it happened near the camps.”


“ …With just over a day to go before the evacuation deadline arrives at North Dakota’s Oceti Sakowin camp, protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation have issued a plea: Come help — now.


In a viral video shared by social justice journalist Shaun King on Monday, a group of indigenous women remind viewers that demonstrations against the Dakota Access pipeline are about much more than a single issue. They’re about clean water, police brutality, treaty rights and the rights of future generations…”


Here is a sample of some of the other research work that has been done:
Amnesty International (2016). Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, And Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada:
Amnesty International (2017). The Point of No Return; The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada Threatened by the Site C Dam:
Clarice Eckford and Jillian Wagg for The Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society (2014). The Peace Project: Gender Based Analysis of Violence against Women and Girls in Fort St. John:
The Firelight Group with Lake Babine Nation and Nak’azdli Whut’en (2017). Indigenous Communities and Industrial Camps; Promoting Healthy Communities in Settings of Industrial Change:
Honour the Earth. Man Camps Fact Sheet; Chasing Out the Specter of Man Camps:
Karina Csyzewski and Frank Tester for the Canadian Women’s Foundation (2014). The Impact of Resource Extraction on Inuit Women and Families in Qamani-tuaq, Nunavut Territory:
Linda Archibald and Mary Crnkovich for Status of Women Canada (1999). If Gender Mattered: A Case Study of Inuit Women, Land Claims and the Voisey’s Bay Nickel Project:
Mining Watch (2014). Overburdened: understanding the impacts of mineral extraction on women’s health in a mining community:
The Mokami Status of Women Council and FemNorthNet (2011). Out of the Rhetoric and Into the Reality of Local Women’s Lives; Submission to the Environmental Assessment Panel on the Lower Churchill Hydro Development:
Victoria Sweet (2014). Extracting More Than Resources: Human Security and Arctic Indigenous Women:
Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network (2016). Violence on the Land, Violence on our Bodies: Building an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence:
Photos and videos:
Slate, photos by Kyle Cassidy. “Inside the Temporary Homes of North Dakota Oil Workers”:
Associated Press. “Video Essay: Life in an Oil Field ‘Man Camp’”: A NEW FILM EXAMINES SEXUAL VIOLENCE AS A FEATURE OF THE BAKKEN OIL BOOM (…“In her film “Nuuca,” Michelle Latimer explores the traits of the Bakken oil boom through the eyes of a young woman who grew up on the reservation. Some of the boom’s features are obvious: the cylinder of the derrick creaking as it pumps in and out of the earth, tanks full of crude oil buzzing with electricity, pipes rusting in a field, gas flares, and huge semi-trucks speeding down country roads, one after another.
But Latimer explores attributes of the boom that go beyond the infrastructure: rising rates of sexual violence, women being bought and sold, and daily harassment by transient male oil workers.
The film raises questions: Should crime and sexual violence be seen as a feature of the oil industry, like an oil derrick? Should women’s fear be considered another kind of fossil fuel pollution, akin to carbon emissions and oil spills?..”
In the News:
The Atlantic (2013). “On Indian Land, Criminals Can Get Away With Almost Anything”:
Huffington Post (Oct 5, 2013. “Man Camps and Predator Economics Threaten Heartland Native Communities”:
Indian Country Today (Aug 28 2013). “Brave Heart Women Fight to Ban Man-Camps, Which Bring Rape and Abuse”:
Indian Country Today (Jan 27 2014). “Will Keystone XL Pipeline Pump Sexual Violence Into South Dakota?”:
Lakota Country Times (2014). “Firsthand Account of Man Camp in North Dakota from Local Tribal Cop”:
Native News Online (Jan 21 2014). “UN Special Rapporteur: Oil, Gas & Mining Operations Brings Increased Sexual Violence”:
The Toronto Star (April 3 2016). “Fort St. John ‘a dangerous place for our women,’ indigenous activist says”:
Check it out

When the Sacred Circle is Broken

Why don’t people don’t understand that teaching a child that the killing of an innocent creature is fun.. is entertainment.. or making these acts into signs of manly virtue is destructive of the compassionate spirit of the child? It is also destructive of the whole culture that normalizes it. It is a slippery slope: when societies start to teach children that animals are dumb mechanical creatures; that “nature” is be dominated, “tamed”, and controlled to our purpose, we will lay the groundwork for treating some people this way too.

Human Nature is shaped by Culture: here’s how…

Oct 9, 2017 3: 03 pm

Humans, unlike whales and elephants, developed a system of learned behavior that was specialized at environmental manipulation – using technology to do everything from getting and processing food, to maintaining body microclimate. Tool use is, of course, prehumen: indeed, it is not limited to primates, and furthermore, creation of behaviorally augmented micro-climates is also not limited to humans, it is something that all nesting birds, beavers, rabbits, and social insects do. But humans represent a life form, like our closest relatives, that evolved to have such behavioral systems developing, not primarily as instinctive behavior, but as learned and shared behavioral complexes. We learn to build huts, igloos, cathedrals and skyscrapers: our cognitive biology does not need evolve to achieve that variation: cultural change will do.

It follows then that natural selection took on a trajectory favorable to all and any variations that made the evolving creature more sensitive to all things inter-subjective: instinctively eager to learn, to communicate, and to collaborate. Culture, then, is a cooperative venture, but paradoxically it thrives on individualism. Cultural information is so vast it helps to spread it around. Let the more detailed stuff reside in specialists. Depending on both collective and networked basic information for short term adaptation, cultures meet longer term risks by making specialized or esoteric knowledge and skill a function of individualistic – even sometimes eccentric – phenotypes. This brings in a useful diversity within each culture; upon which the selective forces that cause cultures to change and evolve, can act. It pays off to have some quirky people around.

Human nature is biological, but it is, in all the ways it has exceeded the need for obligatory behavior, a cognitive adaptation to culture. There is evidence that cultural adaptation and evolutionary changes can stress the human biological phenotype and challenge the limits of its plasticity. Among the most compelling evidence comes from the study of the relationship between stress and cognitive development: there appears to be causal link. Cognitive function in adults is linked to stresses experienced in fetal life and early childhood. In another example, a new stress introduced with technological development – electric light – has been seriously under-estimated.

The operation of natural selection on human cognitive biology is thus revealed as a relentless driver of all polymorphisms that increase sensitivity to cultural environments, to increase the capacity to act collectively and cooperatively on the basis of shared information and goals , while still retaining any and all polymorphisms for individuality, since these increase both receptivity to innovation and conservation, of both knowledge and skills. It also, however, increases our vulnerability to stresses directly due to cultural systems.

I think we can safely identify some universals that reflect the direction that the biological evolution, which have generally created cognitive and behavioral capabilities inherent in human nature which are specific adaptations to a cultural environment. Human beings are the collective mechanisms of cultural evolution. When stresses arise due to a bad fit between a culture and its environment, individual human beings become engaged with the problem and even agitated and preoccupied with finding a solution.


This does not happen to everyone, but disproportionately afflicts those whose particular interests, skills, or training puts them in position to spot problems first. It is the healer – whether 21st century physician or shaman, who notices an uptick in the incidences of illness, miscarriages, or deaths; it is the person making nightly observation of constellations who notices the approach of an eclipse; it is the person whose passion is the study of wildlife who will be the first to sound an alarm because he notices that seal or elephant or reindeer numbers have generally declined over his lifetime, especially compared to the oral records passed down through many generations of such detail-obsessed observers. The same is true of all deep bodies of observations and knowledge within human cultures. And they do not just pertain to observation of the material environment.

Some of the most acute and specialized sensitivities are represented in individuals who are drawn to cultural auto-analysis. Philosophy, history, and “social” science are not universally appealing, of course. Indeed the more practical problem spotters and tinkerers, like modern-day engineers, mathematicians, and other practical architects and innovators, are often impatient with those whose preoccupations, at times, verge on cultural naval-gazing.

Questioning existing cultural narratives – especially pointing out that such stories are possibly system-justifying rather than empirical – arouses almost visceral antagonism from those committed to believing these narratives: heretics, atheists, and “apostates” exist in realms other than religion. The kinds of paradigm shifts that begin with a few philosophical musings about empirical outliers and inconsistencies, and then snowball among the obsessional specialists, at first arouse widespread conflicts with established narratives and their “believers”. This can get people ostracized or even killed. The fate and heroic intelligence of Sophocles becomes a parable repeated in Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. However it is endlessly repeated in the even more fraught when the revolution threatens establish elites: hence there is the constant creation of cultural narratives recounting the ordeals of narrative-revisionists; real or symbolic: Jesus, Marx , Ghandi, ML King, Kennedy, Lennon, – and even of reactionaries who led popular “counter-revisionist” movements, like Hitler, Stalin, Sheikh Mohamed Mutwali Sharawi , and Donald Trump.

Culture has been a relentless environment of adaptation; moreover it has not changed direction. If both Culture and genome DNA are replicators, acted upon by the forces of natural selection, and explicable in terms of Darwinian evolution, they dance a tango. It is an evolutionary trajectory of tremendous scale and time depth.

Culture, this epi-biological cognitive niche, might, I suppose, be considered an extended phenotype. If so, it is the extension that took over the phenotype. You and I are living proof. To comprehend it all, we have to face some hard realities.

These essentially are on a par with other historical patterns of localized genetic and plastic responses characteristic within most species. With regard to behavioral/cognitive traits, there has been a focus, especially common in evolutionary biology and psychology, on the possible consequences of differential reproductive success. A recent example of this is the finding that there was a bottleneck and a subsequent serial founder effect during adaptive radiation out of Africa, lowering variability as distance from the source population increased. This could essentially be viewed as part of the micro-evolutionary history of our species, not necessarily explaining much about its initial evolution, but tremendously interesting in sorting out the origins of present day genetic variation and cultural diversity.

The role of men’s participation in war, of their social rank, and of their material wealth, has also been emphasized. Such micro-evolutionary forces, it appears, might have become particularly important after the development of agricultural economies. Thus, the discovery that a second bottleneck happened as farming populations, with evidence of a loss of diversity occurred mainly in the Y chromosome, and suggested that only a few men reproduced relative to the number of women who did. Perhaps this indicates increased polygyny (the Genghis Khan effect). There might be some truth in this, but to me it seems that this interpretation tends to ignore the greater impact of malnutrition, higher parasite loads, and infectious disease on male children, coupled with the rise of violent conflicts and warfare, all stressors which again tended to increase male mortality, especially among the poorer socio-economic classes. Recent studies indicate, for example, a higher rate of male fetal loss, even during short stressful events.

This historical time scale, falling within the known history of Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens, is in contrast the much deeper timescales that measure and mark the emergence of a new genus, Australopithecus, and then another, Homo, and of speciation within each of those genera. It is over this time scale – of at least 5 million years, that we must plot the evolution, not just of the genetic replicator that made us human, but also of the second replicator, culture. The tango, between the two, helps to explain many of the attributes we commonly acknowledge as “human nature” and simultaneously, of the species whose biological nature it is.

Seen from this perspective, what support do we have for a hypothesis that human nature: identified as species-specific cognitive and “instinctive” behavior, has come under any new selective pressures since it emerged? Insofar as cultural systems constitute the main cognitive niche, people in all cultures continue to display similar stable behavioral traits, such a “cooperative phenotype”. Paradoxically this is a one aspect of the “psychic unity” of humans, existing in the presence of a persistent high variability of temperament and personality in every population. So a null hypothesis appears to have more support: culture is the same cognitive niche in all societies, regardless of how their economies adapt to their physical environments.

Being playful, sexually as well as in other ways like joking, pranking, dancing, making music, putting on skits, and rituals, all are strategies that give humans ways of showing common ground, and of developing bonds and friendships continuously over the course of a lifetime. Most human beings take great pleasure in maintaining networks of family and, just as importantly, of friendship. This facilitates higher mobility than kinship alone. It vastly enlarges the field of potential locations people can access over their yearly round. Hunter-gatherer bands, horticultural villages, pastoral camps, all have systems that facilitate intermarriage and exchange, often associated with exuberant ceremonies and rituals that bring together people from many bands, camps and villages. We see echoes of this in the way people even in urban industrial societies meet one another for drinks or lunches, give dinner parties, attend dances, and travel to visit others on holidays, and get excited about more exotic vacation destinations.


The voluntarily isolated “in-group” constantly competing and hostile to surrounding “out-groups” during our long evolutionary history is a myth. Cavemen sitting with clubs at the ready, to beat up intruding strangers or go capture wayward cave women, is fantasy.

Thoughts on human evolution: what if modern behaviour and cognition come first?

The emergence of Homo sapiens, as a distinct species, has been as contentious an issue as is the emergence of the particular variant  (hardly even a subspecies?)   most commonly seen since the late Pleistocene, with more fragile jaws, chins, reduced or absent brow ridges, and elevated cranial vault. Much has been made of brain size increases throughout human evolution, as indicative of conceptual augmentation – to explain traces of both technological and organizational behavior we recognize as “us”. “Behavioral modernity” is a subtle proxy for intellectual or cognitive abilities – and it seems that there are some who question whether this can be automatically assumed to coincide with the appearance of “anatomically modern” human.

Obviously, quality of the mind is inferential, not empirical. Students of human evolution do the best they can to interpret the traces that remain: but is there really plausible ultimate causality, some independent variable besides “intergroup competition” that can account for changes in gene frequencies specifically affecting neurological tissue? Can any such changes be reliably dated to support the idea that there was any time lag between the emergence of an anatomically modern form of Homo sapiens, hunter-gatherers living in small scattered communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, began to spread from a small group -somewhere in south east Africa to every terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, and the time of emergence of “behaviorally” modern humans that could, eventually put a man on the moon?

I have a suggestion: there was no time lag.

I think behavioural modernity, if anything, came first, and reduced selection pressures for skeletal robustness followed cultural changes in ecosystem use and management. It was a cultural change, not initially a biological change. The biological “modernization” came after this, much as did the shifts in skin colour, hair texture, gut enzymes and other more localized adaptations to specific organ systems that followed the radiation of this variant to the rest of the world.

The culture – the collective cognitive niche – gradually emerged out of the climatic trials of the last 300,000 years.  The largest human populations were along the coastal zones.

They all made similar cultural adaptations to the recurrent shrinkage of habitat and numbers of the whole integrated Pleistocene community. That major change was the following:  they added intensified “eco-engineering” and conceptually more nuanced “keystone” practices.  These were practices that rose out of information on ecosystem consequences of fires and foraging strategies.  I think it likely that this information and the preferred practices that resulted from experiments designed to keep ecosystems viable. I think they were cultural practices that were were deliberated upon and discussed over many generations and across many groups. The practices that were adopted were those that were considered most promising in terms of preserving the plants and animals within that community’s range. This cultural refinement can be glimpsed in the traces it left in the archaeological record: the appearance, here and there, of technologically “sophisticated” compound spears, as well as bows and arrows and other hunting technology.  Given the worldwide distribution of “distance hunting” among hunter-gatherers, it is plausible that the aim was to reduce the fear of the human as a  predator.  Also, the appearance of these across much of middle stone age Africa speaks volumes about the increasing importance of information exchange through far-reaching social networks. It was a function of signalling both local and common identity that we see the spread of ochres used in body decoration, jewelry, and the creation of rock art.

Recent evidence has suggested there might have been considerable genetic diversity among the populations of early Homo species and subspecies, not only in Africa but also in Eurasia during the middle Pleistocene. If these early humans were occupying “keystone” roles in a variety of local ecologies, could this explain the diversity? Was it the result of competition? Were they all, in their own ways, vying for the niche of “apex predator” in a suit of predators like lions and wild dogs? It might be possible that they competed with each other but given the low population densities it seems unlikely: but how to account for the fact that, within a mere 200,000 years, only one (sub)species survived of the whole genus Homo? Alternatively, what evidence is there of a less competitive and hostile interaction?

All we can infer, from the behavior of modern humans today, is that a certain penchant for far-flung networking seems to have been selected for. Network size appears to be relatively large in humans, and larger personal networks have been linked to cognitive and emotional intelligence.  As observed among the Kua, the “hubs” – the people with the largest networks – are “popular” – their presence enhances group size and harmony – which in turn stabilizes food supply and enhances the safety of camp sites, since in a larger group there is always somebody awake to keep fires burning and watch out for approaching predators.

The network “hubs” I observed among the Kua were men and women who pulled together the largest camping parties. In the case of men, it was not the hunting ability that did this. They were men who personified valued qualities: generosity, competence, courage, compassion, and humour. Such men had the biggest camps because more households gravitated to join the band that contained such a man. Perhaps, even 100,000 years ago, they already had a certain sex appeal? Sexual selection may even have taken off in the times of greatest hardship, honing female preference for popular men; but at the same time, the personal integrity that was in evidence in popular men, also was exactly the quality that attracted male companions. Can we imagine such a thing as social selection? These men were lifelong friends, not necessarily relatives, and clearly trusted each other. They did not appear to imperil each other’s marriages; and were observed to behave responsibly towards each other’s daughters and sisters.  Attraction to people who embody ideals is not a minor drive, it situates the fate of one’s genetic legacy within an intensely social life, where the choice of living companions has as much to say about chances of one’s children’s survival as the choice of a mate.

Charisma became a thing, yeah, but so did ethics.

Of course ethics and charisma are not just male attributes. Some of the most influential people I met among the Kua were older women, who often served as a counterpoint to male authority within kin-groups. They were vocal advocates, who reinforced fair sharing, justice, and insisted on self-control, sometimes in raucous and hilarious language and gesture. Grandmothers were far more than babysitters and helpful with provisions, they had as powerful a moral authority in these societies as grandfathers. And the role of morality being about living in conformity with a group is not to be underestimated. It can be a source of bigotry and hatred of “outsiders” or minorities, as well as a force for tolerance and diplomacy.

As Ernst Mayr once noted, speaking specifically of human adaptation to an intensely social life and the role of altruistic behaviour: “Reciprocal helpfulness worked as successfully with outsiders as with group members. Yet far more important was the diversity within human populations. Every population contains individuals with a particularly friendly disposition, and they help in the making of bridges between groups and populations.” (What Evolution Is, 2001; page 287)

Evolutionary implications?

The last 400,000 – 350,000 years, then, might just have been the time in human evolutionary history when it was the mental and emotional qualities of individuals made the greatest difference to group survival. Periods of isolation, during glacial advances in Eurasia, and mega-droughts in Africa, would have made inbreeding depression a real danger; it is plausible that even the persistence of “weak ties” would have been critical to avoid this.  Popular people, with the farthest mutually cordial links, might offer us a glimpse of how genetic and cultural “cul-de-sacs” were avoided. In addition to the utility – to genetic exchange – of having a certain number of such people who acted as “hubs” of communication between demes, useful innovations and concepts could easily be ghosted (as memes and curios) through half a dozen degrees of separation.

How to account for a pattern of “friendly” connections among scattered and somewhat dissimilar populations, especially if they infrequently encountered one another over the course of millennia of hardship? A mechanism for the passage of information through many degrees of separation actually does suggest itself: the plethora of non-material treasures I witnessed being shared among the different language groups during seasonal aggregations in the Kalahari.

People in every culture looked forward to lively gossip, music, and storytelling; so did the Kalahari hunter-gatherers. They chatted in eager groups, showing each other ostrich egg water containers where children had etched symbols for constellations and from popular mythology. I think the careful absence of outright trade and balanced exchange of material objects is very significant on such occasions. They clustered in the evenings to share in the singing and dancing performances, the shamanistic rituals evoking healing magic and divination: in short, they revelled in all the modest symbolic richness that can be displayed without hinting at any crass seeking after selfish material benefit from these encounters.

One of the most frightening conflicts I ever observed occurred when a person casually passed a gift to a youngster from another language group. This was swiftly punished – the father took the red t-shirt (originally from a Red Cross shipment I had helped distribute) and flung it angrily at the head of the woman who had given it away. How dared she presume that kind of intimacy when she and the boy’s parents were merely acquaintances? It spoke volumes to me about how sensitive people were to the possibility of “altruistic” behaviour being feigned or used as manipulative unless trust had been established; otherwise, to deliberately create a debt – implying future reciprocity – was considered outrageous presumption.

This explained why people took great care to avoid any hint that they wanted any material advantage from these encounters. A gift imposes indebtedness: and is thus a demeaning or even potentially hostile act. Trade and barter would be even more rude behaviour.

This delicacy was especially striking in contrast to the casual mockery, bawdiness, sarcastic wise-cracks, and eagle-eyed, jealous attention to sharing of meat – as well as other desirable material goods – that went on within Kua camps in everyday life.

Gifts require a certain level of intimacy; teasing and sarcastic wit require even deeper mutual trust.

So I was surprised to see ANY gifts. I was also surprised some of these objects, mostly beadwork and baubles, passed along with an offhand request that they might eventually reach some distant third party. I assumed, at the time, that these were tokens of affectionate longing and good wishes. I can’t be sure; not from the accompanying language. Clearly, with objects like bracelets, necklaces, and headbands, the best way to transport them is to wear them. A person so decorated is displaying social network connections, not material “wealth”.

Personal objects are decorated with individual markers, but even such objects can be given away and become conduits of sharing. This is very similar to the Hxaro sharing networks observed by Polly Wiessner hundreds of miles away in another language group. There are other similarities.[i] Each hunter marks the arrows he makes with distinctive grooves that are often darkened with ochre or ash. But then men frequently exchange arrows, the arrow itself is spoken of as being responsible for a successful hunt: so too is the maker of that arrow. If game is taken during an assembly where G/wi and Kua are camped together, a G/wi arrow, deployed by a Kua hunter, can mean that it is a G/wi who takes charge of distributing the meat to the mixed camping party.

Far more significant, however, were the immaterial joys that could be shared. Enhanced imaginative expression – especially in the new comedies, jokes, “magic”, and games, are among those ephemeral and intangible things that create a core of shared identity among people, showing each other we are human, even if we are strangers at first. How else can we explain the fact that every human being appears to have an evolved capacity to learn more than one language, and to adapt themselves to multicultural contexts, but to consider how useful it is, precisely in these inter-group contexts? We are none of us strangers to these delights, no matter what corner of the human family we live in today. Of such flimsy stuff channels are opened, whereby information and personnel can cross ethnic boundaries.

Thus information and innovation flow out – and into – every local cultural grouping. How old is this pattern? Many subtle traces of these cultural elements (rituals, jewellery, use of ochre, and so on), begin to appear sporadically in the middle Pleistocene, even among European Neanderthals, and later, these symbolically significant indicators turn up all over Africa; beginning at least 90,000 years ago. If they were used as icebreakers and attractors to create positive exchanges, along with a whole complex of other elements that can bring different communities together in an atmosphere of festivity, then here is a mechanism whereby ideas and skill-sets could have trickled between groups for a quarter of a million years – or more.

Even if not put to immediate use, the regular exchanges of “memes” and innovations enlarged the diversity of information available to everyone. From this, new ingenious solutions could be cobbled together as problems came up. The “ratchet effect”, then, is not just a product of local cumulative culture, but gains much more traction from cross- fertilization.

According to many estimates from the genetic data, the Neanderthals were reduced to a genetically fragile state – inbred and, according to some, almost irretrievably headed for extinction – by the time the last ice age advance was completed. They may not have been the only ones: humans at various times and locations apparently survived a horrific series of bottlenecks: glacial advances in Eurasia tied up vast quantities of water and were at least partially responsible for “mega-droughts” in Africa. I’m not kidding about the “Mega” – these droughts lasted up to twenty thousand years and reduced Lake Malawi to puddles of brackish sludge at the bottom of an African version of Death Valley at times[ii]. Bottlenecks, therefore, produced by this combination of drought and ice, came thick and fast in the later Pleistocene: not a single bottleneck, but a series. These very probably affected all varieties of humans, and also many other life forms on the planet as well.

I propose that the humans who survived the African bottlenecks developed new twist to their collective cognitive niche [iii]. This was so good it permitted them to start growing their numbers, expand their range, and tackle adaptation in every African ecosystem. Eventually, some of them tackled every ecosystem out of Africa as well; and they did a lot of this IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ICE AGE. In so doing, they may have absorbed (aka “rescued”? – why must we always model the deliberate extinguishing…?) any other human group they found along the way.

What was this twist?

What if they were doing something new, ecologically?  Despite evidence of use of fire for cooking and modification of material technology dating back at least two million years, no previous humans had used fire, and deliberate replanting of a whole range of important food plants, to manipulate whole ecosystems.  The technological innovations the modified hunting methods to reduce predator fear, the kind of “distance hunting” made possible by bows and arrows and long range spear throwers, as well as snares, blowguns, and boomerangs, all appear with Anatomically Modern Humans, as does the use of poisons.

What if these ideas and technologies spread fastest among and between groups most open to maintaining larger numbers of people in their networks and also of networking and mobility with greater geographic scope? The kind of long-range and individualized networking we see in modern hunter-gatherers, actively crossing local group and even language boundaries, is also characteristic go all people in the world today.

We cannot, of course, know the precise antiquity of the deliberate use of fire to set back ecological succession, the strategic management of prey species, the careful use of “distance hunting” technologies employing compound tools like bows and arrows, of use of poisons, of innovations like snares and nets, and of the replanting of roots and wild plant seeds, that I observed among the Kua. However, the frequency of such practices among foragers worldwide suggests considerable antiquity: at least a hundred thousand years. These behaviours signify a subtle alteration in the way these people conceptualized ecosystems. They saw themselves as care-takers: and clearly “took care” of their food sources in ways that paid off in better long term survival during leaner years.

The occasional use of fire to attract game or clear camping sites of ticks was probably much older, and the shift from unconscious dribbling of seeds by gathering women probably long predated the deliberate replanting of desired wild species. So too, did many hunting practices. However, tinkering with a plan to more effectively stalk an antelope, or to drive a herd into an ambush – or over a cliff – is taken to a whole new level in the late Paleolithic.

When you begin to devise and execute plans that will reward you with higher numbers of buffalo in twenty years, and to devise and executive plans for increasing secondary growth meadowland and younger forest, to achieve resource goals unlikely to be realized in a single lifetime, you need to train your young people differently. They will need a different order of conceptual models. They will think more comprehensively, and in longer chains of causality. These kinds of cultural paradigms cannot become normalized, nor even appear, overnight. It takes generations of observation and discussion to reach the level regularly found among hunter-gatherers. The empiricism that is evident in their conceptualization of relationships between plants and animals, as parts of integrated communities, and the operationalization of this understanding into deliberate and practical interventions, goes beyond mere “planning ahead”.

To develop such a sophisticated understanding, even if it originates among a minority of discussants, involves the integration of many empirical observations, verified and accumulated, over many lifetimes. The wider this effort is shared, the more people are involved in discussions of all relevant data and concepts, and the larger the geographic area involved, the more comparative material can be assessed, and the more continuities – as well as exceptions and special cases – can be discovered. Provided the dedicated observers and discussants can explain and demonstrate that certain new ideas and practices achieve better results than the previous customs and technologies, there can be a shift within the whole society, a shift that may accelerate the “borrowing” of any successful innovation over much larger culture areas.

Perhaps the processional learning, involved in the manufacture of stone tools and especially for making compound technologies[iv], is critically important in the genesis of processional thinking of other kinds as well. While comprehension of immediate “cause and effect” may be a function of individual trial and error learning, (plant a seed and see a new plant grow), it is the sharing and accumulation of such information, that by-passes individual trial and error breakthroughs. This is only when processional learning augments simpler results-oriented learning, that comprehension of whole cascading feedbacks, involving multiple variables, becomes normalized.

This is however, exactly the kind of analytic thinking seen among modern people in all economies, even if they apply it to city planning, architecture, compound interest, fine cuisine, plotting novels, designing fashions, creating nuclear plants, annual sales increments, retirement financing, or putting a man on the moon. It goes further: into the realm of imaginative apprehension assigning almost human moral equivalences to the natural world, with the expectation that actions showing respect will forestall future retaliatory danger. The practices resulting from empirical observations are thus tagged with mystical reciprocity reminiscent of the generalized reciprocity among humans. This makes it all fall into place within a socially-centred worldview: a kind of sacred naturalism infuses both the concepts and their practical operationalization. If you plant seeds, and replant dying roots, then you show respect for the spiritual connection between the plants, which feed everyone. Thus a kind of balance is honoured: we know we do harm by eating the “children of trees” and the flesh of our fellow creatures, but we repay this with gratitude and care. It is a kind of bulwark against the risky future: so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will find such plants and animals in sufficient abundance, we must also ensure the survival of the whole ecosystem.

I find it telling that, in documenting indigenous environmental knowledge in every sustainable economy on the planet, we can catch a glimpse, even today, of the kind of conceptually challenging synthesis of empirical observations – a synthesis that must have taken many generations, across many resource landscapes, shared among many cultural groups, to achieve.

The quality of minds, capable of understanding on this level, clearly existed before humans spread all over the planet. I will take that further: the level of cognition required, to visualize how a whole ecosystem could be manipulated – “taken care of”- over generations, was clearly in place before people could even begin to do it. Or, to state this another way: the level of thought and reasoning required, to understand an entire ecosystem well enough to effectively manipulate it, had to already exist before this kind of cultural adaptation could happen, just as the level of thought and reasoning required to launch humans into space and to the moon landing and back, had to exist before Kennedy made his famous speech.

Not everyone had to be a genius of course. But there had to be a certain number of reflective, questing intelligences in each deme, and a receptive majority fully capable of grasping the concepts well enough for practical application. No wonder our human genome has accumulated so many polymorphisms of small effect. You need quirky tinkerers as well as obsessive geniuses, but this is leavening: for culture to work, you also need retentive rationality. The successful application of concepts reinforces their utility. The culture would change: it does not depend on every individual being equally insightful. Just a few geniuses per generation are enough. Even if only a minority of people pondered particular issues and came up with practical innovations or conceptual breakthroughs, these resulting practices, and the reasoning behind them, could be demonstrated to others. I would even go further: I think there would have been at least some people born, among the hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene, who already possessed the cognitive capability required to get a team of astronauts to the moon.

Thus, critical cultural shifts appear to have permitted that population to survive despite a punishing series of droughts[v].  After this, at least some human demes in South-East Africa were more than just another keystone species within a predator suit. Conscious analysis of the causal processes within those systems, and the deliberate application of such analyses, seems to have created a pattern of culturally mediated ecosystem engineering, set in motion, not on the basis of instinctual or evoked behavior as is dam building in beavers, but rather by applying conceptualizations to fully rationalized practices: these people had cultural mindscapes about landscapes.

I am suggesting, therefore, that this was a cultural, not a biological, breakthrough. But it ultimately could not help but change selection pressures on regulatory, and other genes, effecting skeletal and muscular tissue systems. A shift to “distance hunting” technologies and practices not only reduced predator-fear and improved human wildlife management, it reduced the risks involved in more carnivore-like behaviour. When men cut down the probability that they will be direct grappling with desperate animals, they also reduce risks of broken bones, and of getting gored and trampling. Successful hunting no longer favoured robust bone and heavy muscle where lighter and leaner options returned more calories at lower risk.

What could have begun, with a cultural change incorporating more ecosystem management, might eventually have contributed to altered frequencies of polymorphisms affecting genes for tissue systems regulating cell division rates and targeting organ sizes.

You cannot ask for a more profound example of bio-cultural feedback. Hunting with bows and poisoned arrows and other “stealth” technology, using quiet methods of distance hunting in preference to outright aggressive predatory attacks, are practices that may well have changed the selection pressures operating on gross anatomical tissue systems. It was not necessary, anymore, to be robust and large to be a successful hunter – not when using bows and arrows, spear-throwers, blowguns, snares, nets, or boomerangs. In fact, a lighter and leaner hunter would be energetically more efficient. He would expend fewer calories during the hunt, leaving more to be shared. Also, of course, a smaller woman could expend fewer calories on her activities and metabolism, and devote more to her unborn child. She could support the costs of lactation more efficiently too.

Under severe climatic conditions during the African mega-droughts, higher energy efficiency, very plausibly, saved lives. Even the more robust individual could continue to eat when many in his group required more modest inputs. Most importantly, the less food was needed for adults, the more could go to the growing children. Over at least a hundred thousand years of intense environmental turmoil, shifts in hunting technologies and practices, by lifting selection pressures that had previously favouring heavy bone and muscle, added up. Any genetic polymorphisms the contributed to conserving energy, or created adults with less massive skeletons and muscles, would be advantageous.[1]

Thus, I would suggest that incremental shifts in the overall energy budget of a human deme, resulting from a cultural change, could have lowered the frequencies of polymorphisms linked to robust skeletal growth and large body size. Set in motion by the mega-droughts, each population bottleneck may well have shifted these selection pressures in enough to change their bodies, not just through ontogeny, but through a shift in regulatory genes for bone growth and muscularity.

They became anatomically modern humans.

Anatomical modernity arrived, according to this model, with a slow drumbeat of feedbacks, as droughts blasted sub-Saharan Africa again and again for a over a hundred thousand years. The transformation that aligned cultural practices with a dual ecological niche may have accelerated the bio-cultural tango to a fast crescendo through that final series of bottlenecks. This was what was gained: the essential collective shape-shifting cultural competence of those hunter-gatherers who had walked through the shadow of the valley of death, not once but at least four times, in late Pleistocene Africa.

Wherever these people went after this, they were carrying a rich inventory of successful applications and conceptual models. When the traditions that worked in a lowland forest by the sea coasts did not work well on a steppe environment, or in denser tropical forests, trial and error experimentation – even if only undertaken by a few, could be rapidly communicated, and demonstrated, and over the course of a dozen generations, the cultural ecology of the whole group adjusted to be a better and better fit with the new environment.

“…The ancient settlements of the tropics are also a reminder that Homo sapiens is an incredibly adaptive, flexible species, said Roberts. That’s why we can “occupy every environment on the planet, through periods of dramatic climate change, and became the last remaining hominin.” [vi]

When the Holocene began, this keystone species, now clever enough to engineer whole ecosystems, became sedentary in some parts of the world and started tinkering with the animals and plants, to not only keep them “tame”, but to remake them as part of a more energy-efficient domestic economy.


[1] A high frequency of inter-group fighting would hamper this process. A longer reach and greater strength is advantageous in hand-to-hand combat, and would stall positive selection for higher energy efficiency. Under conditions of intractable threat from another group, in fact, sudden ambush and total genocidal attack would be far more effective than what we call “warfare”.

[i] Polly Wiessner “Hunting, healing, and hxaro exchange: A long-term perspective on !Kung (Ju/’hoansi) large-game hunting” Evolution and Human Behavior 23 (2002) 407–436

Polly Wiessner Style and Social Information in Kalahari San Projectile Points

American Antiquity, Vol. 48, No. 2. (Apr., 1983), pp. 253-276. Stable URL:



[iv] Iain Davidson and William Noble (I989) “The Archaeology of Perception: Traces of Depiction and Language” CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 30, Number 2, April I989.
See also Joseph Henrich, James Broesch “On the nature of cultural transmission networks: evidence from Fijian villages for adaptive learning biases” 28 February 2011. 12 April 2011
Volume 366, issue 1567 from Discussion Meeting issue ‘Culture evolves’ organized and edited by Andrew Whiten, Robert A. Hinde, Christopher B. Stringer and Kevin N. Laland ”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 366.1567 (2011):1139-1148. Web. 01 Sept 2017. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0323
and see also:
Laland, K.N., et al., Niche construction, innovation and complexity. Environ. Innovation Soc. Transitions (2013),



Why the Ecological Imagination Matters


  • “..The watchwords of the nineteenth century have been, struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, commercial antagonism between nations, military warfare. The struggle for existence has been construed into a gospel of hate. The full conclusion to be drawn from a philosophy of evolution is fortunately of a more balanced character. Successful organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.” – Whitehead AN. 1925. Science and the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 265.

On July 14, 2016, a team of researchers at the University College, London, announced that species biodiversity worldwide had fallen below levels considered safe for ecosystem stability. [i]

“..For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries — an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study.

Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.

The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat…”

We cannot exist outside of nature. Our whole evolution as a species has been attuned to the rhythms and limits of nature. We forget that at our peril. From the looks of the latest reports from ocean biologists, climate scientists, and ecologists, our peril has never been greater.

That is why we need to stop discussing “the environment” and “nature” as if it was outside the world inhabited by humanity.[ii]

Models of human social and economic prehistory, despite the insights offered by Whitehead nearly a century ago, have also tended to overlook the role of ecosystem feedbacks. Most narratives about cultural evolution presuppose changes due to competition between groups leading to progressively more superior adaptations.

The common fairytales go like this:

1) mobile – or immediate-return – hunting and gathering economies represent an early “stage” of cultural evolution, associated with the Paleolithic technology (Stone Age) phase of human evolution during the Pleistocene;

2) more sedentary – delayed return – hunting and gathering communities, were made possible the next “Mesolithic” stage, set in in zones of “richer” wild resources during the early Holocene;

3) then the “breakthrough” of plant and animal food domestication occurred, and “Neolithic” technology appeared. Larger communities of farmer-horticulturalists and herder-pastoralists were now possible;

4) this was followed by intensive “agricultural” economies characterized by even larger and more stratified city-states, with organized religious ritual and monumental architecture. Each economic change allowed greater human biomass, thus won out over less productive economies by force, or by example;

5) this process has now culminated in colonization and on-going conversion of remaining pockets of inefficient subsistence economies in “small-scale” societies, by modernization and development practices connecting them to wider networks of global commerce and communication.

If all this sounds plausible to the reader, it testifies to ubiquity of the myth of progress. That’s right. It is a myth.

It is a myth about how inventing “more productive” economies, a “more secure” food supply, “better” sanitation, and “better” social controls (the rule of law)… made human lives healthier, longer, and less violent than they were “back in the Stone Age”. It is also a myth about the superiority of the kind of human being that inhabits modern civilization; as such it succors fantasies of racial – or genetic – superiority as well.

Until some cultural anthropologists set out to document just how rough the lives of hunter-gatherers really are, and they couldn’t do it. Granted, there was higher infant and childhood mortality, but it was still less than in the 17th century Europe. The general consensus of ethnographies was that hunter-gatherers were extremely competent people using simple technologies to live long, healthy lives of plentiful leisure: affluence without luxury.

You would think that it might be a relief to know that 99% of human evolutionary history was NOT played out in misery. But the idea of progress is important to people who identify with the ideals of the Enlightenment. Ideas about rationality, the rule of law, and the social contract were all closely entangled with the dawn of the “modern era” – the dawn of the age of Galileo and Copernicus that led inevitably to the likes of Hume, Hobbes, Darwin, Pasteur, and Henry Ford: thence to the explosive growth of our contemporary sciences and democracies.

It was the Enlightenment that made, of history, a magisterial progress out of the darkness of past ignorance. The idealization of the age of global colonial conquest by European powers as the “Enlightenment” was like taking a favourable selfie and posting it to Facebook. 

Both this myth and its opposite: a golden age represented by the “harmless” hunter-gatherer people; arise from a false duality.

If the data disproves the previous stereotypes – characterized by brevity, hardship, violence, and a constant struggle to find enough food – does the demolition of such a previous negative stereotype necessarily require that we now must consider the domestication of plants and animals the “greatest mistake in the history of the human race”? Does depreciation of civilization necessarily follow from research among modern day hunter-gatherers?

Surely not.

The “post-Neolithic” economies are riskier ventures, less stable in extreme densities, but no less stunning testimony to the adaptive scope and power of the collective cognitive niche; the fusion of two very different heritable replicators. Humanity is inexplicable except as a couples’ dance.

Most of my life has been devoted to testing hypotheses about human cultures as collective cognitive niches: systems that organized and operationalized learned and shared information, technology, and techniques to the management of ecosystems.

Modeling ecological systems feedbacks, and seeking tipping points leading to the domestication of plants and animals seemed a worthy objective. I also hoped that this exercise might indicate later critical links in the chain of those socio-economic changes culminating in the establishment of a number of centers of civilization around the world. A science of humanity must free itself of preoccupation with moral and magical agency, even if these still dominate public narratives today. If we are animals, evolving within the complex dynamic of our ecosystem, then our fate is about how well we function within that ecosystem, not about escaping to other planets after trashing this one.

Vesting any cultural variations with the moral baggage implied by terms like “mistake”, “pre”- or “post-Enlightenment”, or even “pre-state and state” societies still seems to me to trap our explanations in a dichotomy.

If we insist on moral interpretations, let them be bounded by the harm we do to each other, and to the survival of our fellow travellers on this planet. Consider this: what, after all, were any of these stories but system-justifications? It is not a practical kind of myth that insists that human advancement has always come at a cost – we killed off the mammoths and other mega-fauna – that is just what we humans do, so get over it? And it IS a myth.

Today the global industrial economy is destroying ecosystems, leveling mountains, and spewing hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals into the air and water, and it is not doing all these things to magnanimously create “jobs” or to improve the lives of humans in general. It is doing these things to make profit for financial investors. This is not about civilizational “progress”, it is about justifying continuing inequality and ecocide.

Don’t believe me? Well consider this: how can we miss the link between the supposed triumph of technocracy and the triumph of the current global elite?

When did “job creation” or “national security” become the dominant memes of democratic politics? When did “ecosystem services” become the watchword that determined whether a wetland or forest should be drained or logged as part of “development”? The only real beneficiaries if all this destruction are an increasing tiny number of very wealthy and powerful people, people who have throughout the history of state civilizations perpetuated a myth of their own superiority. In the past it was divine will and choice – only Arthur could draw the magic sword from the stone; later it was destiny to be ruled by those of “blue blood”, and then, as the colonial and industrial economy became global, myths emerged to justify world domination by a “great race”, and later more “scientific” bamboozlement was created in the form of eugenics – the elimination of the “unfit” from the breeding pool, and even today there are those who propose that the most “successful” (fittest?) have the highest I.Q. 

Are the motivations any different, when there is state sponsored exploration and conquest take land, liberty, or lives away from the “savages”, “barbarians”, non-Christians, “infidels”, “heretics”, or “lesser races” than when states make only token gestures to rein in industrial fishing fleets, commercial agriculture, mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction, activities that do nothing to improve most human lives – do those few jobs so generated really make up for the destruction of entire ecosystems? 

Why will it matter, to the ultimate destiny of the human species, if no elephants, polar bears, or other wild animals, and little “wilderness”, were to survive until 2100?

Well we are discovering today that it does matter. 


[i] Tim Newbold, Lawrence N. Hudson, Andrew P. Arnell, Sara Contu, Adriana De Palma, Simon Ferrier, Samantha L. L. Hill, Andrew J. Hoskins, Igor Lysenko, Helen R. P. Phillips, Victoria J. Burton, Charlotte W. T. Chng, Susan Emerson, Di Gao, Gwilym Pask-Hale, Jon Hutton, Martin Jung, Katia Sanchez-Ortiz, Benno I. Simmons, Sarah Whitmee, Hanbin Zhang, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Andy Purvis. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment.

Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201

[ii] The setting “aside: areas of wilderness” to preserve wild animals and ecosystems, and the forcible removal of indigenous people from these areas is something most of wildlife biologists and central planners find sensible, but it is not.. The ecosystems they so value are not endangered by the sustainable economies of tribal people; they are, literally, shaped by them. So the good intentions motivating modern state governments are predicated on a false assumption that wilderness is “pristine”.


Mar 10, 2017 5: 28 pm

The fact that humans have generated a behavioral niche, – an anthro-ecology – within which other species of mammals and birds have been integrated, through natural and “artificial” selection, is clear. And it may be quite true that humans, being part of nature, constitute agents of natural selection along with other species like wolves and ants, which also alter the selection pressures on their prey and/or symbiotic species. So, maybe the term “artificial” for human-associated selection pressures is special pleading… and, of course, even Darwin recognized this.

In addition to the regular “niche” humans construct for themselves within nature by building structures and making clothing and using combustion to create micro-climates and in addition to the “collective cognitive niches” they inhabit, this third aspect of the human niche-building activity is worthy of examination. That the development of this way of relating to other species goes a bit further than the effects of hunting or predator pressure and perhaps more closely resembles a kind of symbiosis that involves skills and beliefs overlapping within the collective cultural niche… is profound. Reverence for other animals, respect for the vital importance of forests and rivers and other parts of the natural world – and human ritual activity and story-telling that reifies and transmits this set of paradigms of “sacred Naturalism” to the next generation is not a minor part of human culture. Such views shape the uses a people will make of their environment – and what uses they will regard as profane and dangerous.

 Given worldwide resistance, among indigenous peoples from forager, horticultural and pastoral subsistence economies, resistance that often expresses reverence for wild animals, for forests, and for the natural flow of rivers; intense reverence for the living beings that are destroyed or displaced by industrial activities, it is odd that the belief persists that humans were much more violent and impulsive in the past, and that hunter-gatherers might represent a “wild” ancestor to the more “civilized” modern humans.   In such a schema, the tribal peoples, like the horticultural Yanamamo, and the nomadic pastoralists like the Ariaal [i] have often been cited and included, despite the fact that neither of their economies could have existed prior to the Holocene, that is to say, before the domestication of the plants and animals that constitute most of their diet.

However, what if we explore, not human “domestication” as the opposite of egalitarianism, but as its cause? What if we set back the timing of this hypothetical process by some 3 million years, and assume that our ancestors lived in groups typically incorporating an aggressive dominance hierarchy, which affected reproductive success? When would aggressive behavior towards subordinates become too dangerous to be tolerated? A cuff or bite is one thing, but getting hit with a big rock or tree branch is something else entirely.

What if we assume, therefore, that with the rise in frequency of stone tools, severely aggressive behavior was systematically disabled by groups of subordinate individuals ganging up and either killing or marginalizing the most aggressive males (as Christopher Boehm has suggested in “Moral Origins”)?  What this means is possibly that the domestication syndrome  (down-regulation of certain genes involved in the differentiation of the neural crest during fetal life; specifically targetting those involved in triggering the flight/fight response) had to shift gears at some point and become the egalitarian syndrome.    High courage became attached to the protection of the relatively weaker from the strong (big dominant males).

Furthermore, collective preventative action was the most likely to succeed. A violent individual is more easily ousted when faced with a unified gang of people who are rebelling against coercive aggression. However, such actions usually require a more impulsively courageous person – or resolutely rational self-propelled rebel – to instigate group action. Such an individual may not be the strongest or highest in rank.   There may be a very good reason humans almost universally root for the under-dog and tell stories of how youngsters -especially boys – learned to become men by stepping up and taking on a scary opponent, often with the help of friends who follow his lead.

Domesticated? Not so much. We mostly added a prefrontal cortex. A cognitive aptitude for planning, and self-control, has the capacity to convert rage, through language, into a vehicle for moral consensus and cooperation.

We humans could not afford to be domesticated, for it is courage in the face of injustice, that makes people cooperate to bring down a violent and dangerous person, that today brings out crowds at protests, that speaks truth to power, and fights for freedom and democracy all over the world. We punish thugs, thieves, and liars; celebrate poetry, music, and art, and plan a colony on Mars.

In creating a human cognitive niche, it was not domestication that was required, it was selection pressure that zeroed in, not on the regulators of the neural crest, but rather, on an enhanced frontal cortex. What is significantly augmented in humans is rational strategizing within a context of inter-subjective communication.

The prefrontal cortex acts as the seat of planning and impulse control; the active center of rational thought, where alternatives and consequences are considered: this is where chess moves originate. The prefrontal cortex, Ralph Holloway once told me, is “us”. More important still, humans DISCUSS alternatives with trusted associates. And so, who are we, but the species that can stop, think twice, and, often, seek inter-subjective context, and think again? Before we chose an action, in weighing the costs of starting a feud or a war, our ancestors, like the modern hunter-gatherers and all other humans in all other cultures, often chose, as a result of discussion and consensus, to be opportunistic, diplomatic and shrewdly generous. If people chose to resolve potential conflicts by showing understanding and empathy, and devising non-aggressive arrangements conducive to mutual benefit, this does not imply innate selfless altruism or passivism. Rather, this explains altruism and diplomacy as biological consequences of the points of confluence between the 1st and the 2nd replicator (cultural inheretance).

Humans, as all of us know, are not always kindly angels, or even, shrewdly benevolent. Our human nature incorporates emotionality and irascibility as well. This gives rise to social turmoil of a kind and quality not subject to the same leveling mechanisms discussed so far. The people involved in minor spats and disagreements seldom see these escalating into embarrassing incidents of lost tempers and regrettable violence. Sudden departures of individuals or families at the crack of dawn; private, tense, and often tearful exchanges expressing hurt and bewilderment; social ruptures during which people are “not on speaking terms” for weeks, months or years at a time, are all common dramas of social life in human communities.   For sheer turmoil and heartache, these more minor interpersonal spats probably contribute far more than all the more serious personal failings that make trouble. And they happen within families as often as between friends, neighbors, and lovers. Is this also explicable as an aspect of human nature?

People in all cultures appear liable to jumping to conclusions, taking things the wrong way, getting into hissy fits over misunderstandings, and flying off various handles.   I vividly recall the two elderly Kua siblings who sat companionably together while telling me about the times they had been so estranged they avoided camping together for years. Laughing as they recalled the issues that had sparked off various disputes, and proclaimed now, very silly in hindsight. Not all families among humans appear to have heard of kin selection; many appear to fly apart after minor-appearing disagreements.

How to explain this?

A people too phlegmatic, incurious, conformist, and reasonable generate little turmoil. So the adventurousness, the thirst for news, the impulsive rebelliousness, and the temperamental aspects of human nature, all causes more frequent fission. This happens within families as well as within larger social groupings, and it may actually be an adaptation, a behavioral trait that off-set, at least in this original human economy, the risk of degrading local habitat past the point of sustainability.  What if we evolved this way because it resulted in higher overall individual mobility, and probably an adjustable population density, making communities much less likely to overshoot and degrade their local resources?   To use Nassim Nickolas Taleb’s term, higher mobility among humans might have resulted in a cultural ecology that was ANTI-FRAGILE. [ii]

Caribou and starlings get restless and join together in flocks and herds to migrate with the changing seasons; humans get into arguments, walk away, find more congenial companions, and thus often fracture and rearrange their groups.

To compensate for this and keep it from getting out of hand and destroying social networks, was the other reason we evolved a prefrontal cortex that lets us “think twice” and “count to ten” and to analyze situations. We can evaluate our responses in terms of their various consequences. This is Kahneman’s type 2 or “slow” thinking, and it generates some impulse control – especially in adults. So perhaps, then, type 2 thinking, the gift of our prefrontal cortex, is an anti-fragile amendment to human nature, tacked on, as it were to make groups, with older members present, functionally more stabile. An evolutionarily significant adjunct to the grand-mothering hypothesis about contributing to provisioning the grandchildren, might be in order (a grandparentimg hypothesis?).   As they mature and gain experience, persons of both sexes, in many cultures, seem more given to philosophical approaches, see the futility of carrying grievances too far (“cutting off your nose to spite your face”) and counseling eventual forgiveness of faults and slights. Of course, this does not happen to all people as they age. I once asked why people in the Kua camp I knew best did not treat a certain old fellow with the same deference as other elderly persons, and the response was “he was a fool when young, and is a fool when old.  He will never be an Elder”.  So the capacity for reflection and that elusive quality we call ‘Wisdom” may be somewhat more independent of experience and age than most people would like to believe.

Our durability as a species may be grounded equally in having elders surviving their reproductive years to help with baby sitting and provisioning, as in their ability to supply of the kind of wisdom that permits even bitter resentments to eventually crumble before compassion and humor.  If living to see one’s own offspring reproduce has gained humans more than an enlarged inventory of stored skills and information with which to survive occasional ecological crises, then wisdom in getting along with other people despite these provocations might fit the bill.   If anyone invented the classic morality tale, the coming of age adventure, or the original parable of the prodigal son, it was probably a person trying to pass on such wisdom. [iii]

This brings us to another aspect of social turmoil and resulting high mobility: it can raise the stakes involved in formation and maintenance of marital ties and of friendships. Friendships and marriage among non-relatives can actually tag people as if they are relatives. This is a recurrent theme in many cultures, even today: people speak of blood-brotherhood, of fraternities, and of being bound to others by means of joint ideals and by sacred oaths. It is implicit in the vows of marriage, which are said to unite lovers in one flesh, and to transform each other’s kinship relationships “in-law”.

Vows and promises are not minor matters to human beings, they are the stuff of cognitive niches, of the cognitive shape-shifting, that arrives with inter-subjective symbolic language. A true brother can be anyone, if the two of you vow it is so. And so, human create groups – not necessarily based on geographic separation, or degrees of kinship, but based on boundaries of a symbolic kind. Ideological boundaries, interestingly enough, are often artifacts of the preferred causal explanations, or the identity markers people tag themselves with, or tag others with. Culturally, we can expand and contract our boundaries. Human groups can certainly be more inclusive and open to even more distant known connections than your average troop of chimps or bonobos. As with the added rationality that opts for maintaining peace to facilitate information flow, this extends opportunities for genetic exchange.

Cultural evolution imposes constraints on the kind of selection that can happen when founder effects and other kinds of bottlenecks prune the genome. What no population can afford to lose is the capacity for basic cognitive support of cultural learning, sharing and creativity. For over a million years, culture constituted an environment that was instrumental in selecting for certain specific cognitive functions, starting with the ability to assimilate languages, to learn to use, and improve, complex technological systems.

Finally, and just as significantly, cultural environments exert positive selection for any and all mutations that enhanced the ability to be rational, to reflect, and to weigh consequences, as well as other aspects of typically human cortical functions. Not all of these functions are necessarily conscious ones. Constantly running semi-conscious calculations of kinship, energy budgets, ecological resources, political alliance, advancement of personal rank, group rank, and long term investments in the future wellbeing of one’s descendants are all examples of such cognitive functions. We know this because such calculations are perfectly normal within even the “simplest” of human cultural ecologies. They are what motivates adult behavior in every cultural system. Fixing, at a consistently high level, all the genetic underpinnings for such intelligence, probably involved fairly brutal selection pressure at some point in our common human evolutionary past.

No other ape keeps track of the kind of kinship and scale of networks normal within all human societies. We evolved these abilities so human children are born with the innate drive and neurological capacity to assimilate a language and a cultural system. In fact, we evolved beyond that – for we have the innate capacity to assimilate many languages and cultural systems; although we still do not know just how many languages any one human being can learn.

These biological capabilities were under positive selection for a long time, reflecting the overwhelming role of interconnected human cultural systems in our survival. It is our interface with our physical environment. We make shelters everywhere, but we really learn to insulate and block air exchange when we live in a cold climate. We cook using some form of combustion everywhere, but in cold climates, we bring the fireplaces and furnaces indoors to heat our sheltering micro-climate.

Notes and references ——————————————————

[i] There have been attempts to revive the interpretation of the DR4 7repeat mutation as a genetic change leading to individual propensity for poor impulse control and higher levels of violence.   For example, see this discussion in which speculates about why native south Americans have and some pastoral nomads have higher frequencies of the mutation: “Why the mutation isn’t more common is a mystery, says Eisenberg. Another study found the impulsive variation in about 60% of native South Americans, but only 16% of Caucasian Americans. “It might be that there is a niche for a few people with more impulsive behaviour, but when there are too many of them those niches are filled,” he says.

Also unexplained is how a gene linked to ADHD promotes greater body weight in nomads, and not village dwellers. Campbell speculates that a short attention span and penchant for risk taking could benefit nomads who don’t know where the next meal will come from.

However, the mutation could also make food more gratifying, or it might affect how the body converts calories to kilograms. “We really don’t know,” Campbell says.

The mutation “predisposes you to be more active, more demanding, and not such a pleasant person,” says Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, also in the US. “You probably do better in a context of aggressive competition.” In other words, in lean times, violent men may feast while passive men starve.”

[ii] In biological terms it is, I think, about the way generalist systems (or creatures) develop (adapt) to an unstable and unpredictable environment. Some adaptations because specialized or obligatory – like the Panda that can eat only bamboo. This is the opposite of the black bear, which will eat any kind of plant or animal.

Humans developed a cultural system of adaptive behaviour under conditions of extreme environmental instability, because cultural changes can happen within a decade or a generation, rather than hundreds or thousands of years; plus we need not suffer increased mortality to undertake that change. Humans are far more anti-fragile than any known ape.

We have a weak spot NOW though, in that the current culture that most humans have been drawn into (industrial) is far more fragile than any previous cultural kind. This is because, about ten thousand years ago, the tumultuous environmental shifts and challenges that had honed the human adaptation and made it so NIMBLE it allowed us to spread to every terrestrial ecosystem during an ice age… stopped. The Holocene started, and so far it has been the longest period of warm and stable climate humans have ever known.

Human opportunism, the quality that emerged with culture and made our previous economic systems (especially mobile foraging) very anti-fragile, lead this time to various systems of closer and more intensive control of local ecosystems – of the plant stand animals in them (domestication).

One of the aspects of the human that made it so anti-fragile was that it could adjust its birth spacing to the energy densities of food supplies. With higher energy densities, weaning foods tended to prolong the time between lactations and speed up the timing of the next pregnancy. Humans with a lot of stored high calorie foods and low mobility could even double their population growth rates. This was probably one of the ways that humans over the course of a million years always managed to bounce back from the cold and dry glacial maxima. They congregated in coastal areas and other refuge zones that represented eco-tones (and thus offered a greater variety of plants and animals) and learned to store and cache against bad seasons.

They cooperated in the harvesting of certain foods, and developed organizational economies to regulate their management and fair distribution. Refuge zones, thus, despite increased population growth, also held some unpleasantness: higher rates of infectious and parasitic disease, of stress due to malnutrition, and the dangers of local inbreeding. Cultural systems could deal with these by elaborating protocols for the burial of bodies and disposal of other wastes, for the management of illness, including taboos against reuse of huts where people had died, taboos against mating with close relatives, and taboos about eating certain foods.

Once the climate became warmer and the environment more productive, the humans could expand explosively out of these refuges and recolonize outward, returning to the more mobile, less arduous lifestyle. They could then high-grade their diet away from the more labor intensive gathering of nuts, cereal grains, and marine resources like fish. They could hunt and gather throughout the week at a more leisurely pace and spend more time socializing.

These temporary less mobile economies were thus less anti-fragile than mobile foraging but they adapted culturally to that, developing systems of food and materials storage under management based on longer term community risk management: (lineage and clan systems where elders took responsibility for encouraging surplus production. Trade based on balanced reciprocity moved goods and food (and also personnel) among societies as a further risk averse measure, to safeguard larger regional linked cultures from occasional shortages and failed harvests.

Higher and higher levels of energy use (from wood fire and muscles in the hunter-gatherer, to use of water, wind and animal muscles to add to this in later economies) were involved in this cultural adaptation, very similarly in every locality on the planet where these more intensive economies sprang up.

Then, as all this trading and technology for moving goods and people longer distances lead to the development of token of exchange value (money) of made of metals like copper or gold. At the same time, to settle conflicts or to take over resources, the leaders of these communities sometimes began to use force – they sent armies instead of traders. This pattern accelerated as population densities increased.

The energy use increase outran the use of wood and turned to coal for fuel, leading to coal mining. This happened earliest in the relatively land poor areas of Europe.   Once coal and steam engines developed, and a system that sets in motion overshoot and environmental effects like climate change.

But, as a species, we have become pretty cocky. We’ve been anti-fragile for a long time; we are the magicians of our own reality, disorder just makes us do better and better magic… so we don’t understand that we have gone beyond the point where we can magic our way (culturally) out of the coming disorder.

The cultural systems also have a kind of fragile weak spot of their own, since to develop this system, we had to grow a brain that could master huge social networks and human relationships that had unfolded for generations, as well as all sorts of details about past and present behavior of our ecological environment and all the living things in them. finally, we had to master our local culture itself, with all its languages, its skills, and it’s stories and rules. Further, there is considerable evidence that this brain has evolved to learn multiple languages and cultures in one lifetime, and further form of anti-fragility that permits individuals to move among social groups.

All this anti-fragility in the species overall is based on one major biological adaptation: the cognitive one. However, paradoxically, counter-intuitively, this also points to a weakness in that anti-fragile system. That big brain takes a long time to grow and a lot of energy and nutrients to make. This all makes our children more vulnerable to suboptimal environmental conditions.   And, sadly they are not just vulnerable to toxins and malnutrition, they are also vulnerable to emotional neglect or abuse. And, thus, what they learn, what they take in, while that huge brain is taking nearly 20 years to mature, and a huge amount of information is being learned, can be corrupted. I say “corrupted” because it is the best way to shock the reader into thinking about how important it is for an adult human to have prosocial behaviours. Prosocial behaviours are what make culture work, they give rise to morality and compassion and mutually helpful cooperative behavior.

[iii] This has, moreover, implications for the rise of more sedentary groups during the Holocene, especially in terms of religious systems encoding many minor “trouble-making” foibles as sinful, and defining as criminal those actions actually detrimental to group survival.

How do we learn to think about war, peace, and civilization?

Once upon a time, Margaret Mead was in conversation, with James Baldwin, about the responsibility they felt for the future of their children.

He said “The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.”1032416766-change_-_james_baldwin-640405-300x253

Mead replied: “I know.”
Baldwin went on: “And the question is, how can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.”
Mead eventually said: “then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.” [1] They were discussing racially motivated murders that happened during the Civil Rights movement, and they were discussing war and suffering around the world.meadbaldwin

Mead’s comment about the importance of knowing “the long, long road that we’ve come through” really jumped out at me, because Mead was an anthropologist. Her “long road” is, therefore, not merely historical, it is evolutionary. Racism, terrorism, warfare and genocide are the scourges of history, but are they the scourges of our entire evolutionary past? Do they represent some inevitable and enduring aspect of human nature? There are many people who would affirm that humans have always been xenophobic and violent, both individually and collectively; that these are characteristics deeply engrained in our nature.

To explain human capacity for tolerance, charity, and gentleness many scholars refer to the effects of civilization. Thus, Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “war of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for states have since, that a stable society required leadership in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature.

By way of contrast, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Aynn Rand wrote that “Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” Rand advocated industrial capitalism to free humans of such fetters.

Meanwhile others were insisting that the human mind was a blank slate receptive to any social system to which it was exposed.

What a confused and tangled set of misconceptions about human nature! When otherwise educated people have a misconception, they tend not to take kindly to information that contradicts it. Of course, this is because they do not consider this to be a misconception, but rather a received truth.

And, in the case of war, genocide, and xenophobia, after many thousands of years of such practices being widespread in those same societies responsible for recorded history, the idea that such behavior arises primarily out of human nature is an understandable position. 10491975_10152620481200549_8124917204948740086_n1235330_10151813105460549_642176742_n

So what do we have to counter it? There are about a half dozen pieces of information: equally undeniable, that should give pause to even the most stalwart followers of Rand or Hobbes. These refute the fallacies that many people still believe today.

Fallacy  #1) Collectivism suppresses individuality.

This is clearly a fallacy. The human species is intensely pro-social, thus all human societies are collective endeavors, even capitalism. Thus the attribute “collectivism” does not entail suppression of creativity and individuality – even the most “simple” economies have innovation as well as conservation of knowledge and technologies. Their values and ideologies tend to channel, not prevent, individualism.

Fallacy 2) That modern civilization decreases violence.

The main effect of violence in human societies that concerns most people, is higher mortality. There is, in humans, a difference between three main causes of deliberate death by conspecifics. These are a) interpersonal violence, b) lethal social controls, and c) warfare. Genocide can occur due to lethal social control of whole sub-communities, or it can occur in the context of warfare.

While the first two categories of violent death appear to occur in most cultures, the final one, most definitely, does not.

There is also, however, another whole category of causality that has an effect on mortality, and that is “structural” violence. This is down to racism, socio-economic inequality, and finally, discrimination against “deviant” forms of sexuality, minority religious beliefs (or atheism), or even political ideology. These structural hardships and social rejection create extreme stress for disadvantaged people. Their lives are often shortened. Even the life expectancy of their descendants, if they manage to have any, can be reduced.

Fallacy 3) Humans are naturally prone to xenophobia.

Preference for, and defense of, known and familiar companions is not the same as hostility to unknown or unfamiliar people. There is no evidence that people, even in “a state of nature” are inevitably hostile towards strangers or neighbors.

Early encounters between explorers like Columbus and the native people of the Caribbean, for example, reported curiosity, friendly offers to trade, and high levels of hospitality – to the point that Columbus was enthusiastic about the potential enslavement of such innocents.

The later hostility that greeted European settlers had as much to do with these early experiences of misunderstanding as it did with the high handed attitude of outsiders who came, clearly, with intent to usurp the lands of the people.

Experiments have shown that assignment of people to outsider status does appear to happen quickly in very young children, and to possibly represent an evolved adaptation. Children do not show fear of age mates based on skin color, dress, or other aspects of superficial appearance unless specifically taught that these indicate inferior or wicked people.

However, this is not the same as xenophobia based on different appearance or language; it is usually based on adult assignment of inferior moral or intellectual abilities to others easily differentiated by some aspect of appearance or behaviour.

Certain antagonistic group role playing experiments have such profound effects (potentially creating “inhuman’ cruelty) that they are no longer considered ethical. oddly enough, role playing exercises are still hugely popular – especially re-enactments of some of the deadliest wars of recent history. And films about deadly conflicts are popular forms of entertainment.


National elites have understood the role-playing element of building inter-group hostility for a long time.

They combine condemnation of groups who are tagged as enemies with appeals to identification with particular state, religious, or ethnic groups. This makes for a formula of propaganda that works well to coordinate both war and genocidal violence.


Four additional fallacies concern hypotheses about historical trends, that interrelate with one another to underpin the myth of progress:

Fallacy #4) that human life span has been increasing since “the Stone Age”.

This one is very pervasive. In fact, however, it is life expectancy at birth which varies a great deal between cultures, not the age to which people CAN live. Life span appears to be species specific: humans can live about 30 years longer than most great apes; but many decades short of the life span of certain species of trees and tortoises. Life expectancy on the other hand, is a feature of death rates at various ages, and thus represents at statistical probability of surviving to various ages.In a cultural ecology with high rates of malnutrition, stress, or infection, life expectancy will be low. This was the case in 17th century France, where life expectancy for males was under 30, as it is among some Pygmies in the Congo. Life expectancy varies with income throughout the industrial world, and tends to be lowest among colonized people, whether they are Scots in the UK or native Canadians or Australians today.

Life expectancy might very well have got far lower in industrialized economies had it not been for the invention of vaccines and the discovery of antibiotics. Highest rates of mortality tend to occur at the youngest ages, when immune systems get their training wheels.  Thus, prevention of these early deaths caused a massive jump in life expectancy over the past hundred years.

Fallacy #5) that all economies, prior to the industrial, were inadequate in meeting human needs for food, shelter, and individuality.

The entire colonial program summarized by the unfortunate phrase “White Man’s Burden” as well as the overt racism in Rand’s view of “primitives” stems from this. This is related to the previous point, in that it mistakes the causes of innovation. Rand’s assumption was that things tend to be invented due to individual striving for perfection and are manifestations of genius. The historically accurate view is that innovations tend to occur to solve problems.

Seen thus, the whole industrial era could be seen as a scramble to innovate fast enough to solve all the problems arising from previous innovations! Not so much progress as redress, then. And it is not just the industrial age that experienced this.

Fallacy #6) that there was some kind of evolutionary master plan programmed into humans. The evolutionary trajectory – both physical and economic, is pictured as “progress”. Thus cultural “evolution” is tacked on to models of prehistory showing descent of bipedal creatures from tree-dwelling apes, gradual increases in brain size and technological sophistication, and the emergence of anatomically modern humans.

This creates the impression that there was increased cognitive prowess responsible for the change from a mobile “immediate return” hunter-gatherer economy to more intensive land use technologies, food storage systems, sedentism, plant and animal domestication, control of rivers and ecosystems, denser settlements, building of monumental structures, development of literacy, complex division of labour, hierarchical class, and centralized political states, and so on.

International food aid programs, the activities undertaken by the many institutes, created by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation, to spread “green revolution” technologies, were all predicated on the assumption that traditional societies had woefully inadequate systems of farming and animal husbandry. The idea was that this was responsible for malnutrition in the “third world”. In fact, there is considerable evidence that neither slash and burn horticulture, nor nomadic pastoral, or forager, economies were inadequate.

Certainly these economies featured higher rates of infant and childhood mortality. But the humanitarian concerns leading to widespread vaccination and health care also caused unprecedented population growth.

The fact that this in turn led to changes in land use and local competition over resources, which resulted in malnutrition, local competition, and suffering due to structural violence (incorporating racism and other xenophobia, as well as escalating levels of income inequality) tends to be overlooked.

Furthermore, all this humanitarian fervor ignores the fact that most such peoples have become encapsulated by various state societies over the past two centuries. The priorities of the leadership of these states do not always coincide with the welfare of those, whose land use is less intensive than the state determines to be optimal for maximum Gross Domestic Production.

Fallacy #7) Deaths by violence appear to have declined in a linear fashion historically, as a result of either cultural or genetic evolution.

This is not so much an empirical fallacy, but it is a statistical one, popularized by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature.

Transforming data on violent death, from the absolute numbers into percentages of total population, tends to produce a picture of declining rates. This is perhaps partly an artifact of the simple fact that population growth, in most agricultural economic systems, has far exceeded the increases in violent deaths for several thousand years now.

Accepting this idea of declining rates further implies that there is actually some sort of inevitable rate of murder and violent death built into human nature. If so, we then must ask what might be the cause of such rates, if indeed they are some inevitable part of the human condition. But, are they? And if they are real, have they got anything to do with warfare? If we plot deaths caused by epidemics and famines, we could play the same statistical game.

Indeed, some people have done so. But what evidence do we have that such things as epidemics of disease, and natural disasters resulting in starvation, occur at some regular rate?

Here we enter the intellectual territory well trodden by students of animal ecology. Population regulation is well understood. It appears to be achieved, in most natural wild populations of animals, as a function of predation, food supply, and disease. Most animal populations appear to exist well below carrying capacity. There are aspects of mortality that appear density dependent: as the numbers approach carrying capacity, deaths due to stress-induced aggressive competition and diseases increase, even if food supplies remain adequate.

“Calhoun, a research psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health for 40 years, discovered that severe crowding produced horrific behavioral changes among animals. The changes were so profound that social order broke down, and ultimately the entire rodent population collapsed.” 

The experimental research on mice and rats done years ago, and of relationships between wild hares and lynx, are interesting in this regard. They show that populations begin to fall long before food supplies run out.

In fact it appears now many of the deaths – even in epidemics, result not from the introduction of novel microbes but occur because of an over-reactive immune system or a stress of over-crowding: deaths by violence also increase in many species when they are overcrowded. Can we really posit that humans are so different from other animals that density does not matter? Does the idea that density dependent changes in behaviour occur in humans seem so threatening to modern people, most of whom live in densely populated urban areas… so threatening that we cannot even explore it?