Evolutionary Psychology: Imagined Ancestors

This is a continuation of my last post, in particular, about the concept of observing present-day behavior and projecting back in time when such behavior was first acquired.

My first impression of evolutionary psychology (or sociology) was that it was an expansion of evolutionary theory applied to human behaviors.   We owe not only our biological anatomy to evolution, but also our behavior.   In either cases, there are aspects of our reality that are not optimal but these are readily explained as being continuations of these features that somehow benefited our distant ancestors.   We have a tailbone because at some point we had ancestors with external tails and these tails provided some form of evolutionary advantage in terms of producing surviving grandchildren.  Just as we have vestigial anatomical parts, we have vestigial behaviors.

It was later when I recognized a completely separate motivation as an extension of psychology from the personal to the population.   In particular, earlier psychology placed a large emphasis on the importance of childhood experiences on determining adult behaviors, particular those behaviors that are maladjusted to modern life.   Just like an individual’s sub-optimal adult behaviors can be traced to childhood experiences, then a common behavior shared within large populations of humans or of all of humans may be traced to experiences of our ancestors.   In both cases, the individual’s childhood, or the population’s ancestors, there was a time when the behavior was a successful response to the current experience.   It is obvious that an adult would inherit behaviors from his childhood, and science has shown that many behaviors are genetically inherited.

The concept of evolutionary psychology was a natural extension of both disciplines: extending inherited evolved behaviors to humans and extending individual psychology to the broader population.

With evolutionary psychology in our scientific toolbox, we now have a way to discover things about our past that we cannot directly observed.   Instead of postulating conditions of childhood based on observed adult behaviors, we can postulate behaviors on our very distant ancestors.   The fact that the current behaviors exist means that there was a time in the past where such behaviors were beneficial and justified, and probably considered at the time to be very normal and well adjusted.   Implicitly, we can assume the same behaviors were expressed at the time, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t have offered any advantage to survival, and thus never would have been inherited by large populations of modern humans.

In my last post, I asked about the origin of modern behaviors, particularly those that benefit the modern person in thriving in a modern environment.   These are behaviors that would not have benefited distant ancestors who only knew of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.   These are behaviors that come naturally to us today despite the full range of intensities of indoctrination in schools and supervision of childhoods.  There must be some kernel of these behaviors that are inherited, and thus there must have been some time when these behaviors were selected against the natural behaviors of hunter gatherers.   There must have been a period of time of human experience that was between the period when we were all hunter gatherers and the civilization behavior starting a few thousand years ago.

Evolutionary psychology permits us a justification to at least propose a condition where such behaviors would be rewarded and thus passed down through future generations.   The problem is that the historic record doesn’t provide clear evidence of this transitional period between hunter-gatherer tribes and settlement tribes.   Instead we see evidence of the nomadic tribes tracking and following the food sources through the seasons, and we see evidence of the first settlements.   Missing is a condition in between, a period where humans would acquire the behavioral traits to live in a more complex arrangement of even the simplest settlements.

At some point, our nomadic tribe ancestors decided to settle and reinforce civilized behaviors, independently all across the globe.   From an evolutionary psychology perspective, there must have been some common ancestor to these behaviors, a common period where all these ancestors experienced the conditions that would eventually foster successful permanent settlements that can last many generations.

I find the extension of psychology to evolutionary psychology to be a little annoying because it implies that our distant ancestors are somehow immature (childlike) compared to our modern selves.   The distant hunter-gatherer ancestors never had the opportunity to grow up.   However, this model does suggest there was some period where our ancestors were allowed to grow up.  In order to work in an evolutionary sense, these behaviors would have to become inheritable.   This period of learning of a more civilized behavior must have been present for many generations in order to develop an inheritable behavior that would allow humans to maintain permanent settlements that would last for many generations.

So far in this discussion, I’ve been talking about positive behaviors, behaviors that are beneficial to both the individual and society as a whole while living in a large economy of specialized activities where such specializations are contrary to survival if the individual became isolated from society.

There are also some negative behaviors that we must have acquired at some point between our primitive hunter-gatherer past and our modern civilization.   One example is the enslavement of others though various arrangements particularly how it occurred during antiquity.

Most ancient civilizations had slavery.   Historians often complain of the unfairness of the practice being so essential to the success of many such civilizations, and in particular of their largest achievements such as the construction of large monuments and temples.  Even today, despite the near universal prohibition of slavery, it still persists in corners of civilization that escape policing by the state.

What occurs to me is that slavery is an innately human behavior that arose recently in evolutionary terms, and it is common across most civilizations over the full historic period.   This is a human behavior to impose slavery or at least to permit its continuation.   Of course, our most modern sensibilities categorically rejects slavery on moral grounds, but the fact that we have to keep reminding us of this prohibition at least hints that the tendency still remains as stubbornly persistent as any other behavior attributed to evolution.

The human genome somehow records the behavior that fosters slavery as being somehow rewarding.   It may have been rewarding in the past.

The first guess is that the reward would have come to the slave owner or the slave trader.  They would have benefited economically from the predictable source of labor (though slavery was often more expensive than the more unpredictable free labor).   However, it is hard to see how this benefit would have become encoded into the genetic makeup of humans as a whole.   While slavery in antiquity was widespread, the slaves generally outnumbered their masters, and generally were more procreative.   In addition, most advanced civilizations met tragic ends that often led to the annihilation of the ruling class either through direct slaughter or through disease or through their members being unable to survive on their own after their society collapsed.

Remember that I’m considering the very first emergence of this behavior in our ancestors.   All of the historic record stretching back to Sumerian times or before, slavery was already a human behavior.   In fact, we often claim many of these societies would have been impossible to achieve what they did without slavery.   The human behavior to have slaves must have originated long before that time.   Also, the historic civilizations existed too soon in the past for evolution to have introduced this behavior into our genes.

Again, accepting the concept of evolutionary psychology, there was likely a period before the first large civilizations when slavery was beneficial in evolutionary terms.   The practice of subjecting to bondage an unrelated human would not offer much benefit a nomadic tribe of hunter gatherers where survival was just subsistence.   It is unlikely that such a practice would be practical over a period of just a few days or a single season.

The eventual behavior of an ownership that lasts multiple generations must have arose later in history, sometime between the hunter-gatherers and the emergence of larger settlements.    For evolution to work in encoding this behavior into the genome, this period would have lasted for a large number of generations.   Meanwhile, there must have been some external condition allowing for this behavior to propagate through the generations.

My hypothesis (given the premise of evolutionary psychology) is that there was a period in time when all of our ancestors were living under some form of bondage to another race.   Some people living in isolated remote tribes may be continuing an uninterrupted inheritance of their hunter-gatherer ways, but most people who are living in modern cities probably have ancestors who themselves were part of a slave class that lasted for a large number of generations.

According to this hypothesis during that period, all ancestors of modern humans were enslaved at the same time.   This would have been a period when this subjugation was world-wide involving multiple civic centers under one or more populations of a master class, a separate bloodline of humans, or perhaps of something we would not recognize as fully human.   Eventually, this master population died out, possibly abruptly through some global catastrophe that made their way of civilization (and thus their survival) unsustainable.

In this hypothesis, the collapse of this intermediate civilization fully freed the enslaved populations that would eventually give rise to modern humans.   Though the passage of time, the stories of the past would change into legends about this prior period.  The master class would have attained some mythical status and gained qualities of admiration.   While we may from our perspective consider the conditions of that distant past to be unfair and abhorrent slavery, the survivors may have seen it differently.   This was a condition that may have lasted for hundreds of generations, it was the only life they knew.   Also, there was some quality of the masters that were recognizably different from the enslaved humans, they may have been giants, or they may have had recognizably non-human features.   So goes this conjecture.

Given this hypothesis, this population of humans survived through the period of enslavement by a master race because they were slaves.   During this period, they acquired behaviors that were conducive to slavery.   However, after the global collapse of this master race’s civilization, these slave-compatible behaviors would continue to be inherited without any survival benefit.   They would either have to compete directly with the better adapted (never enslaved) hunter gatherer tribes, or they would have had to congregate in small settlements in some approximation of what they experienced before.   Given this choice and their mythical memories of the past, it is curious that they would try the second option, to emulate what came before, including some form of slavery.

My theory is that this period of universal enslavement of our human ancestors had some benefits, especially when compared to the conditions that followed the collapse of that unrecorded period of civilization.   While the humans would not have the rights and privileges of their masters, they would have enjoyed the fruits of a relatively secure existence with steady source of food and shelter and occasional spectacle of festivities or the appearance of new buildings or monuments.    There was something to admire about this past and this most likely became part of the post-collapse mythology of a lost golden age, an age of supervision of a superior race that coincidentally relegated humans to a second class subordinate status.

To repeat again my objections about evolutionary psychology: I don’t like the concept as a whole and especially as a tool to reconstruct the past.   In this writing, I’m merely imagining how evolution could explain a modern human behavior the lurks even within our modern society.   Part of human behavior is the easy recognition of the possibility of being enslaved by other humans.

Slavery is a rough word.   In the last post, I made the analogy of domesticated animals.   If we assume animals have human qualities of consciousness and intelligence, then how we treat domesticated animals are similar to practices of slavery ranging from the relatively benign (or even beneficial) treatment of domestic pets to the more brutal treatment of beasts of burden or of factory-farmed animals.   In each case, the domesticated animals are bred to some extend to be compatible with their treatment (at least in the sense of minimizing the need for their control) and while they live they do enjoy some security in terms of source of food and shelter.

The supposed golden age above may be an interpretation of the human condition at the time as being domesticated animals for a master class instead of how we think of slavery.   Our ancestors had some benefits under that arrangement.   Also, during this period, they gradually acquired beneficial behaviors of specialization, of obedience to a larger community despite no direct family relationship. and of the value of imposing ones will on others to meet some larger goal that sufficiently justified.

In particular, they gradually inherited the behavior to appreciate there is a benefit of their previous arrangement in the gradual (multi-generation) conditioning of other people to be more civilized in the way that appears to be working well at the moment.   Slavery was learned option through selective breeding within generations under that earlier period.   As such, this behavior was acceptable in antiquity, certainly not automatically dismissed as amoral.

The hypothesis is that by the time of the known civilizations, the practice of slavery was already part of the human behavior, acquired from a period of human history so far missing from the record.

Usually slaves came from conquest of a lesser community by the greater one, where the fact of the conquest itself would be considered as evidence of their superiority before finding out that it would eventually collapse later.  In the immediate aftermath of a conquest there became the options of what to do with the conquered, especially of the conquered males.   The easiest solution would be to slaughter them, as is often recorded that only the women and very young children were spared.   Using conquered males as slaves would be very difficult since the slaves could use their numbers to successfully revolt.  This option to enslave adult males required considerable investments to restraint them.   In some cases, perhaps the near-term benefit of their used in forced labor in difficult conditions such as large construction efforts, mining, or other difficult tasks.   But this labor likely would be easier to obtain within the local population of lower economic status with much less of a need for restraint because they belong to the community.

There was probably some additional motivation other than economic ones to choose to enslave conquered population rather than just slaughtering them, or leveling their infrastructure leaving the population to die off from that loss.    That motivation may have been an expectation that the arrangement would benefit the distant descendants of the enslaved, based on a recalled mythology of their own past.   Eventually, the descendants would become productive free men in the society that long forgot the earlier conquest.

This conjecture is following the logic of using evolutionary psychology to uncover the past.   Lifelong and multi-generational slavery is a recent innovation in human behavior that would not have benefited our hunter-gatherer ancestors.   If they had anything that appeared to be slavery, the relationship would unlikely last more than a season, at least for the male slaves.    In order for this to be a persistent modern problem, there may have been a period in all our history where our ancestors experienced slavery, perhaps universally to a seemingly superior race and certainly a superior way of life for the time.

We somehow were taught this lesson that we have so much difficulty getting rid of.    In evolutionary psychology terms, we learned slavery behavior through artificial selection involving selective breeding by our distant masters.

Even when slavery is not visibly present, we can’t eradicate the concept out of our daily discourse and politics.   At some level, slavery is a human truth, a behavior we may successfully suppress as morally repugnant.   But we can not fully forget that all of our ancestors were all once slaves in the process of developing civilized behaviors that would later lead us to prefer modern civilization to hunter-gatherer survivalist lifestyle.


2 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology: Imagined Ancestors

  1. Great post. Excellent analysis. However, I felt that you really needed to unpack the idea of slavery to a greater degree which would have strengthened your arguments as there are many different forms and definitions of it and its a very complicated socio-economic phenomena, exsisting both within and outside of state boundaries. Also there would be a lot to be gained from including references to the founding mythologies of some of the ancient cultures which still have their influence on modern society. The Summerian Epic of Gilgamesh would be a great one, for example. I would also highly recommend watching the documentary the 13th Ammendment about the US prision industrial complex. It marjorly reframes the debate about the presence and forms of slavery in modern society. Again that you for all the stimulating debate. I look forward to reading more of your stuff in tge future. Warmest wishes.

    • I appreciate the thoughtful response. This is a topic that interests me and I’ll return to it in the future, I hope you don’t mind putting up with my interim posts jumping around on other topics.

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