Evolutionary Psychology: We are Domesticated hunter-gatherers

I dislike concept of Evolutionary Psychology (or in general evolutionary explanations for behavior).   I am not convinced of the validity of the concept, but I’ll concede that it is true.

One reason I dislike the concept is because what it implies about how we address behavior.

Usually, evolutionary explanations of behavior are introduced by trying to explain behaviors in the modern world that are considered odd, irrational, or unjustified given the fact we live in sophisticated societies.   The explanation is that these behaviors are inherited from our ancestors who had evolved to live in the world of hunter gatherer tribes.   There is too little time since then for evolution to have changed much so we retain many of their behaviors while we try to live within an increasingly global and civilized society.

These behaviors are instinctual and to the extent we exhibit these behaviors we are personally blameless for acting on them.   Given that these behaviors are inherited from ancestors and were evolved to adapt to more primitive living conditions, we need external help to adjust to modernity.   Evolution hasn’t had enough time to adapt to modernity, so we need external intervention in the form of authoritarian states, or medical (and pharmaceutical) treatments.   While there is an allowance for personal choice and personal development to achieve a comfortable role within modernity, this is not enough: we need help from outside ourselves or our immediate families.

Another objection I have is to the judgement that behaviors that contradict the conditions of modernity are necessarily anomalous.   I may not like some of these behaviors, but I’m not sure they are necessarily out of place in modern context.   They may actually be beneficial and even necessary for the advancement of society when aggregated over the entire population of varying individual compromises between adjusting to modern conditions and acting upon some presumably more primitive tendencies.

Yet another objection is a result of one my most vivid instruction from early education science classes: that is to not anthropomorphize observations of nature.   When observing nature, we shouldn’t project our own experiences on non-humans even though frequently animals and even plants seem to behavior as if they had some consciousness similar to our own.    In the case of evolutionary psychology, we are anthropomorphizing our ancient ancestors.   In the extreme sense, we are projecting our experiences on non-human ancestors in order to say our modern behaviors come directly from their experiences.   I don’t think we can do that.   Certainly, we have no access to directly observing our ancestor’s day-to-day lives.   In order to apply an evolutionary explanation for current behaviors, we have to assume they lived in conditions where such behaviors made sense.   I am not sure they had these behaviors, and I’m not sure they lived in conditions where these behaviors would have led to an evolutionary advantage.

I don’t even think we can understand the behaviors of even more recent ancestors such as those living in the time of the Hittites, or of the more recent ancient Greeks, or of the even more recent ancient Romans or high middle ages.   Even when we have their writings that describe experiences we can relate to, I seriously doubt my adult self would survive a single day if somehow I were to be dropped in their society.   We’d mutually conclude that the other is another animal.

I’ll set aside all of my objections and concede that evolution explains a lot of behavior of modern humans, especially those behaviors that appear irrational given modern conditions.

I don’t see how evolution can explain modern behaviors that would have no benefit at all in a more primitive context.   In my personal life, for instance, the majority of my day to day behaviors are exclusively modern with no primitive counterparts.   This comes up in modern discussions of survivalists or preppers who strive to accumulate stores or skills to survive a collapse in civilization.   Not only am I not doing that, but I don’t feel any strong instinctual urge to do so.   If we do have a major catastrophe, I’m pretty much out of luck.   Equivalently, if I were to be transported to the times of my presumed hunter-gatherer ancestors, I would not survive even assuming they don’t outright ostracize me on first contact.  How does evolution explain this behavior?

In general, how does evolution explain the precise behavior that allows humans to build complex societies in the first place?   Societies that thrive on specialization and impersonal trade.   In more recent years, where societies can exist entirely behind keyboards and screens or even in virtual fantasy worlds of gaming.   These behaviors seem to be defining behaviors of humans.   Similar behaviors must be been present even among the most ancient civilizations that may stretch back to 12,000 years ago given the recent evidence at Gobekli Tepe.  These behaviors would have no adaptive advantage to hunter gatherers, or even to multi-millennial transition period before there was a significantly sized population to allow these behaviors to thrive.

The concept of evolution, and more specifically of natural selection, came out of an analogy to the well known success of human directed breeding of domesticated animals and plants.   Human selection of next generation breeding pairs eventually result in breeds that are well adapted to benefit humans.   Coincidentally, the individuals in the resulting breeds appear to be comfortable in this arrangement.

An example that comes to mind are domesticated cats.   These animals are bred to be small so as to be easily managed by humans and they are useful for rodent control, yet the non-feral cats are also so comfortable with humans that they will seek out human attention.   Meanwhile, some of their behaviors such as eagerness to chase laser dots or play in cardboard boxes are nearly equally shared with their wild large cats (lions and tigers).

Similar comparisons are evident in just about every domesticated species, both animals and plants.   Human breeding and culling domesticated their wild ancestors to the point where they are no longer able to thrive in the absence of human nurturing.

Evolution provides an explanation for our primitive behaviors, especially those that are out of place in the modern context.   Using a similar analogy, I propose that selective breeding of humans provides an explanation for our modern behaviors, especially those that are out of place in the ancient primitive context.

We are modern because we have been bred that way.   Also, the diversity of humans arose out of the same processes that resulted in so many breeds of cats, dogs, farm animals, crops, etc.   We have been bred separately sometimes with different goals but often with a goal of being compliant to some level of civilization that extend beyond any familial or tribal relationships.

As noted earlier, the evolutionary explanation of behavior works backwards from current observations of baffling behaviors to imagine a living condition where such behaviors would have been evolutionarily advantageous.   Similarly, a selective breeding explanation of behavior works backwards from current observations of modern behavior to imagine some breeder making decisions as to what behaviors to propagate to the next generation.

It is not hard to imagine these breeders as the rulers of earlier civilizations whose dictates could easily prevent whole populations from propagating through warfare, slavery, or imposition of penalties that would prevent breeding.   There is no need for these rulers to be conscious of the consequences of their selective breeding, as I’m pretty sure that early breeders of early dogs were conscious that their actions would eventually lead to a modern german shepherd.

The human directed breeding of non-human animals works because we can safely assume that the very first breeders were humans who made the choice of which of the litter to allow to mature or to mate.   The first breeder of dogs was some human who tamed a wild wolf (or something similar).

We can assume that later breeding of humans was from humans who had some form of authority to impose their power to select who would be the next generation, preferring those that were more compliant with civilization.   Who was the first breeder of hunter gather humans, to get the process started to domesticate them into humans useful for civilization?   This another way to state of the general question of how did the first civilizations get started.

From my understanding, civilization gradually emerged after the invention of farming or herding that allowed settlements with relatively limited territories.   Within these territories, there became opportunities for specialization and trade that gradually matured to something we can recognize as a small village that was greater than a single tribe.   Selective breeding would have been from an invisible hand of economy where there was unequal distribution of market value of the different specializations especially for larger scale trades.

I guess I can see a natural extension of more primitive tribal behaviors of providing preferences for offspring of more valuable members, arranging marriages based on balance of wealth and power between the two parties, or of active practices to cull out the less productive lines.   This could be very minor choices for any generation, but repeated over thousands of years there would be people who would be more amenable to civilized life, and conversely less adapted to a more primitive life.

As with the assumption of conditions of our ancestral past that led to the evolutionary (natural selection) of behaviors that are maladaptive to modern life, we have to make an assumption of who were the earlier breeders (intelligent selection) of humans to produce civilization-beneficial humans.   As stated above, it may have been accidental consistent with the assumption of evolution being a series of accidents.    But this explanation is inconsistent with the analogy of human selection of domesticated animals and plants, selection made with intelligence by focusing on desirable characteristics despite the near-term usefulness of the alternatives.   Human or intelligent selection operates faster than natural selection because there is an intelligent recognition of traits that would benefit distant future generations even though they had little if any near term benefit.

Intelligent selection may be simply a aesthetic choice of preferring something that is more emotionally appealing.   A very early village may find appealing someone who is more cooperative or more capable of some advanced skill without having any concept of a future of skyscrapers, intercontinental jet flights, and global fiber optic networks.   But they would find appealing someone who is able to bring more wealth (or other benefit) to the community.

Back to the evolutionary psychology, we assume we know what living conditions were like for our hunter-gatherer ancestors by extrapolating backward the central premise of evolution through natural selection of accidental variations.   Following a similar line of reasoning, I am inclined to assume that first breeder was someone who adopted a few orphaned hunter gatherers and bred them to be compliant to a civilized life and prefer living within it than living in the ancestral alternative.

If that someone another human, who tamed him?



One thought on “Evolutionary Psychology: We are Domesticated hunter-gatherers

  1. Pingback: Evolutionary Psychology: Imagined Ancestors | Hypothesis Discovery

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