Monday, August 31, 2009

197. Utopia, Then and Now -- part 2

"Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily . . . Therefore when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians--among whom all things are so well governed, and with so few laws; where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty . . . I grow more favorable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things: for so wise a man could not but foresee that the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy, which cannot be obtained so long as there is property: for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must needs follow, that how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. . ." [emphasis mine]

"On the contrary," answered I, "it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men's industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates fall to the ground? For I cannot imagine how that can be kept up among those that are in all things equal to one another."

"I do not wonder," said he, "that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution: but if you had been in Utopia with me, and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them; and during which time I was so delighted with them, that indeed I should never have left them, if it had not been to make the discovery of that new world to the Europeans; you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they."
St. Thomas More, Utopia

In their book, Demonic Males, evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson ask the question, "Where does human violence come from, and why?" Their answer? It is imprinted in us as part of our pre-human heritage. How do they know this? From studying chimpanzees:
The social world of chimpanzees is a set of individuals who share a communal range; males live forever in the groups where they are born, while females move to neighboring groups at adolescence; and the range is defended, and sometimes extended with aggressive and potentially lethal violence, by groups of males related in a genetically patrilineal kin group.

What makes this social world so extraordinary is comparison. Very few animals live in patrilineal, male-bonded communities wherein females routinely reduce the risks of inbreeding by moving to neighboring groups to mate. And only two animal species are known to do so with a system of intense, male-initiated territorial aggression, including lethal raiding into neighboring communities in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans. . .

. . . [A]re the similarities there, as we believe, because in spite of first appearances, similar evolutionary forces continue to be at work in chimpanzee and human lineages, maintaining and refining a system of intergroup hostility and personal violence that has existed since even before the ancestors of chimpanzees and humans mated for the last time in a drying forest of eastern Africa around 5 million years ago? If so, one must ask, what forces are they: What bred male bonding and lethal raiding in our forebears and keeps it now in chimpanzees and humans? What marks have those ancient evolutionary forces forged onto our twentieth-century psyches? And what do they say about our hopes and fears for the future?
The message encapsulated in the above excerpt has been widely disseminated and its premise widely accepted (though it's hardly the first of its kind -- viz. Robert Ardrey's equally influential The Territorial Imperative). Witness the response of Washington Post literary critic Daniel Pinchbeck, who is clearly convinced:
Such male aggression has structured the lives of humans as well as chimpanzees for thousands of generations. Every human society has been patriarchal, with men retaining most of the dominant spots in the hierarchy and using their power to control women and annihilate their enemies.
Actually, there are matriarchal as well as patriarchal societies, but you get the point. He continues, echoing an all too familiar refrain:
The authors regretfully dismiss the possibility of some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era or on a South Seas island, whether matriarchal or truly non-hierarchical and peaceful. Yet they do not believe that this means the future is a closed book. Evolution means continual adaptation and change, and the authors hold a rational faith that "to find a better world we must look not to a romanticized and dishonest dream forever receding into the primitive past, but to a future that rests on a proper understanding of ourselves."
Hope for humankind can be found, however, since there exists a close cousin of the Chimp whose social behavior does indeed suggest "some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era or on a South Seas island, whether matriarchal or truly non-hierarchical and peaceful": the Bonobo. According to the authors, "Chimpanzees and bonobos both evolved from the same ancestor that gave rise to humans, and yet the bonobo is one of the most peaceful, unaggressive species of mammals living on the earth today." On that point, we can agree.

As far as chimps and humans are concerned, however, thanks to the tedious argument I've been developing on this blog, over a great many hopefully not too boring posts, we know that Wrangham and Peterson are almost certainly wrong. As evolutionary biologists, they have done their job, granted. Their assumptions regarding chimp behavior may well be accurate. And their conclusions regarding human behavior would appear to follow quite logically from the evidence they present. Only they don't know what we know.

Almost all the Pygmy and at least some of the Bushmen groups whose music and culture we've been considering have time after time been described as non-hierarchical, egalitarian, (roughly) gender-equal, individualistic, non-violent, non-aggressive, socially integrated, with a socio-economic system characterized by lack of permanent leaders and the equal sharing of most property, including food. Their music can be understood, and has been enthusiastically described as, a perfect reflection of their social structure. And, for all the many reasons I've provided here and elsewhere (I won't bore you by repeating them), it's possible to conclude that the same musical and core-cultural traditions were most likely being practiced by their common ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, prior to the branching that produced everyone else.

Does that mean our ancestors once practiced exactly the same social, cultural and musical traditions as the Pygmies and Bushmen of today? Musically, as it seems to me, the answer must be yes. Because all the groups I've studied share essentially the same highly distinctive musical style and their singing and accompanying percussion (clapping, beating on sticks or other simple idiophones) are organized according to essentially the same remarkably intricate musical structures, which makes it all but impossible to believe such striking commonalities could have been produced independently by each group -- they must be survivals from prior to the time of earliest divergence. As for the social and cultural aspect, the picture is more complex, because, as both Barry Hewlett and George Silberbauer have reminded us, there are significant cultural differences between the various Pygmy and Bushmen groups.

Did our ancestors hunt with bows and arrows, spears, or nets -- or something else entirely, maybe just by tossing stones? We have no way of knowing, because there is no uniform hunting method among all the Pygmies and Bushmen of today, so we have no way of extrapolating backward to a common practice. (My best guess would be poisoned arrows, but it's not much more than an educated guess.) Did our ancestors speak using click consonants? We don't know, because the Pygmies now speak the languages of their Bantu neighbors, not the click language of the Bushmen. What sort of kinship system did our ancestors have? We can't tell, because Pygmies have kinship systems very different from those of the Bushmen. Were our male ancestors especially devoted fathers, as are the Aka Pygmies, as described by Hewlett? We can't be sure, because, as Hewlett informs us, Efe Pygmy males tend to be indifferent fathers.

If such questions provide no basis for comparison, then doesn't that tell us that such comparisons are futile? In relatively superficial terms, the answer must be yes. However, when we move away from relatively surface issues to consider what Cornelia van der Sluys refers to as a culture's "core premises and embedded values," then, despite the protestations of Hewlett and Silberbauer, reinforced by armies of determined revisionists, we must insist that the answer is no. Such comparisons are not futile, because when it comes to the very aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen culture corresponding most closely with Pygmy and Bushmen music, we find, in the many commonalities already noted, what can only be considered "core premises and embedded values." Here indeed, in those traditions shared among almost all Pygmy and Bushmen groups, traditions promoting close cooperation and free interaction, sharing, equal treatment for all, relative indifference to property rights, individual autonomy and freedom, non-violence, the independence of women and the loving indulgence of children, we approach a social structure remarkably similar to the one described above -- not in Demonic Males -- above that, in the excerpt I've quoted from Thomas More's noted volume.

It looks, in fact, as though our ancestors were closer to bonobos than chimps. And if so, then maybe it isn't so easy to "dismiss the possibility of some paradisiacal society that existed in a Golden Era." Nor should we be so quick to dismiss the possibility that our dreams of "utopian human potentials" could themselves be rooted in the enduring, but too often belittled and denigrated, traditions of our forgotten ancestors.

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