In our society, we think of human beings being, primarily, the product of our upbringing, experience and environment, but if we know other advanced animals have a deep nature, and we evolved as a species of animal, it seems inescapable that our species must have a deep nature too.
This episode will consider what our deep nature might be by contrasting it to that of other closely related species. It also considers whether aspects of human behaviour like patriotism could be part of our deep nature and why it evolved as it did.
Incidentally this investigation throws up the intriguing thought that human beings have two sex drives.
Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.
Episode Seven: Putin, Patriotism and Peacocks.
Welcome to Episode Seven. Here we’re going to start looking down through the human awareness horizon, and, in doing so, we’ll find out just what an old softy Vladimir Putin is, and why human beings have, not one but, two sex drives.
But first we need to understand why the animals we talked about in the last episode behave differently. What makes them have their particular genetic predispositions? Why do they have different deep natures?
Most people will know about the very different behavioural patterns of more familiar species like domestic cats and dogs. Cats are relatively solitary, private, territorial and in many cases, more timid creatures when compared to dogs. If you ever move house with your cat, if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll see its face screw up in distress as it nervously and intently sniffs around its new environment, while a dog won’t be bothered at all as long as he, or she, knows their owner is there. A cat will often go off on its own happily all day, while dogs are likely to fret if their owners go missing for an hour or two. Roll a large object, such as a football along the floor and a dog will chase it enthusiastically while any nearby cat will disappear behind the sofa. Alternatively make a small, unexpected scratching sound with your fingernail on the fabric of the sofa and any nearby feline will investigate intently, while a typical canine will look at you as if to say, “What are you doing that for?”
Now we are going to do something that these animals cannot do for themselves. We are going to look down through their awareness horizons to discover why they might behave as they do.
Dogs’ wild ancestors, grey wolves, are apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain and therefore don’t need to be as nervous as the smaller cat species who might find themselves prey to other species, like wolves. Wolves generally hunt animals larger than themselves, while cats hunt animals that are smaller than themselves. In the case of wolves, a lone wolf, although it might manage to survive on smaller prey, would find it hard to pull down large animals like an elk or even a fully grown red deer, so wolves, like domestic dogs, are sociable creatures that usually hunt co-operatively, or in the case of domestic dogs, happily go for long walks, hunting tennis balls, with their human pack leaders. While it is in their interests to have a home range so they know where water and food resources might be, wolves need to be able to roam freely if they are going to pursue their prey over large distances. On the other hand, it doesn’t take three cats to kill a mouse so it is in the interest of female cats to have a territory so they can exploit all the small mammals, birds and other prey creatures in their territory for themselves and their offspring, and they’ll want to keep other cats away. Little wonder cats get distressed when their owners take them somewhere they don’t know, which potentially could be the territory of a hostile feline competitor. It will also be obvious that the small mammals that cats prey on often make little scratchy sounds. There are many other differences between cats and dogs that I could point to that are easy to explain by looking below their awareness horizons but there isn’t time here.
Now it’s time to find out why the non-human great apes’ deep natures are different. All of these species spend a huge amount of time finding food and eating, which takes up most of their day. This is because much of their food is made up of vegetable matter, which contains complex sugars that are difficult to digest. As Richard Wrangham has noted, because these sugars can be broken down by heating, humans, unlike other great apes, can get away with three or four short meals a day because we cook our food. The other great apes don’t have that luxury, gorillas, especially, eat large amounts of tough tubers and shoots which are of low nutritional value. I sometimes think of gorillas as being the cows among the great apes. This is because, like cows they spend huge amounts of time eating low value food. This is why they are generally placid: fighting over food would be like cows fighting over grass. But unlike cattle they do not have the great advantage of having four stomachs to break down their fibrous food. Unlike, as far as I know, all the other great ape species, gorillas sometimes eat their faeces, and Dian Fossey described them doing so with “lip-smacking gusto”. In this way their digestive systems get a second chance to get the best from their ropey, fibrous fare. And, like cattle, male gorillas are much larger than the females. The ancestors of modern cattle, the aurochs, are extinct, so it is hard to know quite how their societies worked in the wild, but the males had huge horns which might have been used for fighting other males for access to a small herd of females, just as the great silverbacks fight with each other to secure and protect their family groups.
Chimpanzees live to the north of the Congo River where there are gorillas, while bonobos live to the south where there aren’t, so bonobos have access to more medium quality food than chimps. Has this had some moderating effect on the levels of aggression in their species? Both species hunt various kinds of animals, although in bonobos both sexes are involved in hunting, while in chimpanzees it is only the males that hunt. Is it the subtle difference in their environment that has triggered such profound differences in their societal and sexual behaviour we discussed in the last episode? Or was there perhaps some minor initial difference in the two ancient chimpanzee groups when they separated, about two million years ago, that evolved gradually into such radically different behaviour? Here, I think the jury is still out.
In the case of orangutans, the Asian forests differ markedly from the African ones in one hugely important respect which can be described with one word: tigers. There are no tigers in Africa, so it is not hard to work out why orangs spend so much time high up in the trees. Galdikas describes how food resources are spread thinly in the Asian rainforest, so it isn’t at all in the interests of orangs to clump together into family groups. Orangutans are large animals and if a particularly productive tree comes into fruit, one orang could easily consume all the food the tree produces on its own. If there was a group of orangs round the same tree they would quickly run out of food.
If you see orangutans on film, or in a zoo, you will get the impression of them being slow and cautious. A big animal like this needs to be careful if it is going to spend most of its time high in the rainforest canopy; a fall could be disastrous. Little wonder you don’t see the noisy, enthusiasm of volatile, status-driven conflicts of the kind seen in chimps as they chase each other on the forest floor. Female orangutans don’t have sexual swellings. Raising a young orangutan takes many years, and like other mammals, fertility is supressed while mothers are providing milk for their young. The general rule seems to be that the young orang spends several years with its mother until it is weaned and independent, at which point the mother comes back into season and starts looking for a mate. Like gorillas, the adult males grow much larger than the females. Male orangs have an extremely loud “long call”, which they use to attract interested females who might be some distance away. While it is clear that orangs are much more independent than the other great apes, the research is also clear that friendships and what look like loving family bonds can, and do, persist throughout their lives.
So we can infer that the deep nature of each of the great apes can, at least partly, be deduced from the kind of world in which they live, and now we can get to the part you might well think is the important bit. Us!
Let’s start out with our sexual behaviour.
The most obvious difference is that, unlike our nearest evolutionary cousins, human beings have not one, but two, sex drives. We have the drive to find partners and have sex with them as do other animals, but we have an opposing drive. I’m going to call it sexual fastidiousness. While we typically enjoy sex when we’re doing it, sex is often seen as being somewhere between unseemly and immodest, and dirty and immoral. In contrast to chimpanzee society where dozens of male chimps, proudly sporting erections, excitedly chase round a “pink” female trying to mate with her. In most human societies, we decorously hide our genital organs and usually our breasts and buttocks: what scientists call secondary sexual characteristics, from everyone except our closest family members. The only exceptions being carefully specified and delineated situations such as medical examinations. Females especially are discouraged from having sex too early, or with partners who are unlikely to commit to them over the long term.
This perfectly illustrates a point I alluded to when I was talking about the caveats to the suggestion that we have a deep nature. We are not programmed to behave in a consistent way. The sexual drive and the sexual fastidiousness drive are in competition with each other. It is the balance between these two drives that produces the behaviour that is most likely to succeed in getting people’s genes into the next generation.
It seems that we have been sculpted, by the evolutionary forces that made us to keep the sexual act back primarily for our intimates. Or to put this another way – and speaking very generally as we must when we talk about deep nature because not everyone will conform to our species’ norms, it looks very much as if we are designed to find a single life partner, or at least a series of life partners. We are built to fall in love and stay together. My first thought when I was writing these podcasts, was to say that we were built for monogamy – this is where men have one wife – but then I realised that the drive is not that specific. Some people are sexually attracted to those of the same gender, but they still fall in love and often spend the rest of their lives together. We seem to be primarily programmed for romantic love, and long-term pair bonding rather than monogamy, although monogamy seems to prevail. Looking below the awareness horizon in respect of gay people, one might be forgiven for thinking that gay relationships should be strongly selected against by natural selection because such people are less likely to produce children and pass on their genes. But that isn’t the full story. All this is complicated and there might be a number of possible explanations but there is a well-known evolutionary principle called kin selection which means that a gay family member, if he, or she, provides help and support to their family, assists their tribe’s survival, and is effectively helping his or her own genes get into the next generation, because they all share the same family genes.
Monogamous relationships are not uncommon in the natural world, and although they are unusual among primates, they aren’t unknown not even in apes. The so-called lesser apes: gibbons and siamangs are principally monogamous. In birds, monogamy is extremely common, and when we look below their awareness horizons it isn’t hard to see why. Because birds fly, it is better for them to lay eggs which can be produced quickly then laid in a nest, rather than having to carry a large foetus with all the paraphernalia needed to support it such as a placenta and a fluid filled amniotic sac inside them as they fly around during the inevitably long period of the development of the foetus. The problem with eggs is that they need to be kept warm until they hatch, then in most species the nestlings need to be protected and fed until they fledge. This would obviously be easier if both parents contributed to rearing the young, and so, most birds form a mutually beneficial pair bond, which they adhere to with varying amounts of commitment depending on the species. Which isn’t to say egg-laying is an essential requirement for flying animals, bats evolved from mammals which couldn’t fly, but managed to get round the problem by hanging their young upside down from the ceilings of caves, in the way you can’t hang an egg.
Flight is not a consideration for humans, so carrying our unborn offspring round with us is not so much of a problem. It also has the advantage that we are spared the chore of keeping eggs warm. So why form pair bonds? One of the things that seem to be unique about our species is the enormously long period of the development of our young. Most mammals have grown old and died over the fifteen years or so that it takes for human children to reach sexual maturity. However, we know that chimpanzees reach sexual maturity at about the same age as humans, and in fact they are weaned later than human children, at about four or five years old. At this time chimpanzee mothers push their youngsters away, and although the youngsters will often remain near their parent for a time, and the emotional bonds with their mothers will remain, they are sufficiently independent to be able to make their way in their society and will spend much of their lives with other chimps in their community. The essential difference here is that at five years old human children are still highly dependent on their parents for education, protection and emotional support, which they continue to need for many years after this. In the time before contraception, it is conceivable that, if all her children survive, a lone human mother might have ten or more dependent children of varying ages, and it wouldn’t make sense that a single mother, in the times before state support, would manage to successfully rear so many children on her own. It seems reasonable to suppose, then, that human offspring need the extended support of both the male and the female parent during this extremely long period of development.
In the cold rationale of the world below the awareness horizon, we can see why a divergence in the way men and women approach sexual relationships evolved. It would have been in the interests of a man to cheat his partner if in so doing he got another woman pregnant and duped another man into raising his child, although this lack of commitment to his primary partner, would have come with the risk of breakup and the danger that his own children might not do as well as other children who were supported by their own father. Fortunately, we do not live in that world we live in our world, the world of feeling, above our awareness horizon, where we can see that the cruel betrayal of trust of one partner by another, where it causes distress and pain can be construed as being wrong, purely on the basis of the pain it causes. It is feelings that matter. We can derive no justification for such behaviour from the mechanistic world below our awareness horizon.
All human beings will lie somewhere on the spectrum between being very prudish at one end and sexually open at the other. But in the interests of making sure of the support of their male partners it seems likely that women will be more likely to cluster around the prudish end of the spectrum, while men will generally cluster at the other end. I don’t know of any scientific evidence about this, but a stereotype seems to have emerged in our society around the suggestion that gay men are often very promiscuous, while no such assumptions seem to be attached to lesbians.
Recognising that these differences exist could, in theory, build a better common understanding of our sexual roles, and a unifying influence between men and women.
Hopefully, now we can see more clearly why humans have two sex drives, and why sexual fastidiousness is likely to be more strongly developed in women than men as long as extremes are avoided, if overdeveloped, sexual fastidiousness, might make a woman not ever want to have sex and not have children.
At this point you might be forgiven for thinking that human societies are built to be defined by the nuclear family, as gorillas are: where mother, dad and however many kids, live together independently, but this would not have worked out on the African plains. I don’t know that much about the African savannah, but I do know that human beings can’t survive by eating grass, and I’m guessing that there probably wouldn’t have been enough fruit and vegetable matter on the grassy plains for our ancestors to survive on those alone. If this analysis is right, it would explain why our ancestors needed to become hunter gatherers. It is easy to see that this wouldn’t have worked for small nuclear family groups. If dad is out hunting and mum’s gathering food for tea, who’s looking after the kids? Human beings are inherently slow creatures without natural weapons like claws and large teeth, so, individually, they would have been unable to defend themselves against dedicated African predators such as hyenas, lions and leopards, nor would they be able to counter the threat from other animals like elephants, buffaloes and hippos all of which can be extremely dangerous. A single man or woman hunting or gathering would have been extremely vulnerable. A man, even if he was armed with a spear, might find it impossible to fight off a persistent attack from a pride of lions or pack of hyenas. It is also fairly obvious that a man on his own would not be as successful a hunter as he would as part of a group of hunters with the capacity to develop tactics and strategies needed to hunt large animals. So the nuclear families composed of the pair-bonded adults and their children would have needed to form small communities with members of their extended family, so that bands of hunters, made up predominantly of adult males, could go out and hunt large, and small, animals, while other groups predominantly made up of women and adolescents could collect other food resources, while younger children could have stayed with other adults, or sub adults, perhaps at some kind of crèche at a home base which might have been temporary or permanent. We can also say that we needed to be a territorial species so we could capitalise on the food resources nearby. But even if we formed small, isolated communities, this would not have worked either. Without contact with other groups, small, familially related bands of humans would have become hopelessly inbred, so contact between groups would have been important too. So now we can see why our ancestors evolved to live in tribal units.
But because of the cold, amoral influences from below our awareness horizon it would be in the interest of one tribe to wipe out another if it could get access to more territory and food resources, and for the males to have sexual access to women from outside their group who are of childbearing age. It is for this reason that tribalistic warfare would have become part of our deep nature. Balanced against the urge for conflict, though, is the need for relatively stable societies. Because our children take so long to mature, there would be a selective pressure against tribal warfare happening too often. If I’m right about this, we can see why the human species would have needed to be calmer, less violent and less volatile than our nearest evolutionary cousins such as chimpanzees, or even bonobos. But, and it is an important but, when tribal communities were threatened by war from another group the potential effect on the tribe might be devastating. This means that the tribes would need to garner all possible resources and go onto a war footing, or what I think of as the emergency mode, where ordinary everyday activities, and the usual social norms are suspended while the war is being prosecuted or defended against.
Now I’m going to make a statement, and as you’ll see there’s something a little weird about it, or maybe, a lot weird about it. Here’s it is: “That old softy, Vladimir Putin, is a hopeless sentimentalist, I mean he really lurves Russia, ahh, it’s so sweet.”
Let’s think about this. Let’s suppose I take the word, “Russia” from the statement, and replace it with the expression “fluffy bunny”: “That old softy, Vladimir Putin, is a hopeless sentimentalist, I mean he really lurves fluffy bunnies, ahh, it’s so sweet.” Now the statement doesn’t sound strange, it just sounds wrong. From what I understand of Vladimir Putin, he isn’t the kind of person who goes gaga over cute animals. Those around him, and more widely in his country, seem to have given him the strong, alpha male image of a leader. Now, I’m not a great fan of alpha-maleism. That’s on account of the fact that I’m not a gorilla, and by gorilla, I’m obviously resorting to a stereotype, because we already know that silverback gorillas aren’t anything like their macho-man image, but you knew exactly what I meant didn’t you? And here I need to be clear that I’m not saying that Vladimir Putin is a gorilla, because that would be slanderous wouldn’t it, so I am emphatically not saying that, and you are all my witnesses, aren’t you?
So why does the first statement feel so weird? Part of the reason must have something to do with the reputation of the object of attention. Nation states like Russia are deemed to have prestige, they are thought to be high-status objects while cuddly little creatures like fluffy bunnies are deemed to be of a low status. But is that it? Status? Let’s think about what Putin means by Russia? He can’t mean the geographical territory, because he has said that Russia had lost respect after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the soil and rocks that make up Russia can’t feel anything like respect. He could have meant the people of course, except that countries are not usually thought of as consisting of the people alone. There are sixty-seven million people in the UK, but I am surely not one sixty-seven millionth part of the UK, and Putin seems to have little regard for the Russian people anyway. Russia, like all other nations is an identity block, defined in part by its history, ethnicity, culture, and religion. Nation states exist ultimately as the emotional attachment people have for them. They are abstract entities made of feeling, which is not to say that they aren’t real, the feelings exist so the countries exist. Nationalism is created by, and made of feeling, and feelings are what provide meaning in the universe, so love of your country matters, but this leaves open a deeper question. Now that we’ve looked down through the human awareness horizon, we can start to ask whether it should matter and why it is that the love of a country feels superior to the love we might feel for other things. We’ll consider the extent to which it should matter in the next episode.
But one other point to consider is this: The countless millions of people around the world who have their lives enhanced as they innocently spend their time cooing over YouTube videos of playful puppies, or Facebook pages with images of cute kittens can at least console themselves with thought that puppies and kittens are real entities in the way that nation states aren’t.
So, we can say that we have patriotism. We have a proud, noble, high-status attraction to little fluffy bunnies, and a wimpy, low-status attraction to our nation states. Err, sorry, just a minute, did I get that the right way round?
Human beings are extraordinarily complex beings; we don’t just have feelings, we have feelings about feelings.
One more question needs to be answered about the evolution of human beings. Why do we have such massive brains compared to the other great apes? Why are we so intelligent? On the face of it, it doesn’t seem that we would need the kinds of minds capable of achieving university degrees and PhDs to make stone tools and hunt game on the African plains. This didn’t make sense to me, and it troubled me for years. At least that was, until I read a book called “The Mating Mind” by psychologist Geoffrey Miller. He put forward an interesting and totally compelling argument, which I found utterly convincing. The idea comes from Charles Darwin’s other theory which the grand old gent called sexual selection. Darwin realised that female animals were choosing males they thought would make better partners. This explains the extraordinary beauty of the peacock’s tail. Generations of peahens had chosen males with more and more spectacular tails until they reached the sublime heights of baroque beauty we see in their tails today. This, according to Miller, was a similar process to what happened with human brain size. Putting it in colloquial terms, women don’t like low status men who come over as stupid, so such men are less likely to find partners and have children. It is possible, of course, to flip this argument. Clever young men can pull clever girls, but they can also pull girls who aren’t so clever. Less intelligent men, who don’t have a similar capacity for intelligent conversation are much less likely to find partners and pass on their genes so they would be at an evolutionary disadvantage. As in peacocks, there was a runaway evolutionary process, so that over hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of generations the more intelligent, socially adept members of our species were more successful than those who were less so, and their brains, and the skulls that contained, them grew bigger over time. For me that answers the question. What do you think?
Thanks for listening.