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.

2 thoughts on “Anthro-Ecology

  1. Helga: I just saw a blog post from Greg Laden (an anthropologist; I’m guessing you know each other) that showed your map of movements in an African tribe (it was reduced in size so I couldn’t read the text). I Google Scholared your name but couldn’t see an obvious paper that might have included this figure. Would you please send me the citation? Reason: One of my retirement projects is a historical novel on the early Puebloans in the SW U.S. I’ve studied modern urban ecosystems (biogochemistry/environmental engineering), so I am using the “ecosystem determinant” school of anthropology to shape their culture, augmented by a lot of archaeological evidence and my imagination for the rest (it is a fiction after all). One of my gaps in knowledge is how they moved and traded – hence the diagram in your paper almost matched my imagined view! I would love to read the full paper to gain a more fulsome truth. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If it is the map I think it is, it was from a paper prepared for the hunter-gatherer conference held in 2015 in Vienna. It certainly shows movements, based on the accounts of visits between people within the network of an individual person. It shows the locations (at time of interview) of all the people that that individual visited, or was visited by, or joined a camping party with, within the the year and a half before that interview. The conference papers from that session have so far not been published. I am not sure what to do about this, or about the paper prepared for the subsequent conference held in 2020. I made some of this material available on this blog, but not the maps. Send me an email at and I can send these papers to you. By the way, after completing my thesis in 1981, I subsequently spent four years in West Africa studying the horticulturalist and pastoral cultures there.


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