Human Nature, 2014




1. Human beings are a product of evolution

Why is there so much selfishness and cruelty in modern civilisations? Why capitalism, war, racism and so on? The traditional explanation is that human beings are a bad lot. We are motivated by competition, aggression, greed, power-seeking, lusts of various kinds, and even murderous and sadistic urges. These are our natural instincts. Civilisation only partially tames them. And Darwin's theory – or a naοve 'survival of the fittest' reading of it – seems to back this story up. We need to be mean to survive.

Well, it's certainly true that people can behave badly, and sometimes very badly. But this might not be because bad behaviour comes naturally to us. In fact, the explanation for bad behaviour could be pretty much the reverse of what the bad-lot theory says.

Until 150 or so years ago our culture relied, like every other culture, on myths and metaphors to explain the origin of human beings. 'God made us', 'the Garden of Eden' and the rest. Then Darwin worked out a literally true and scientifically verifiable explanation. Like other animals, we are a long-term product of random genetic variation and natural selection, i.e., evolution. The implications of this idea are still sinking in.

We tend to think, simplistically, of evolution as adapting an animal's anatomy to its environment. But the animal's behaviour plays an essential intermediary role. It's the behaviour that adapts to the environment. The anatomy adapts to the behaviour. Roughly speaking, each animal species acquires its own set of behaviours to cope with a given environment or range of environments – and evolution adapts the species' anatomy so as to make these behaviours easier and more effective. It is a bit chicken-and-egg. The more the giraffe's ancestor commits to high grazing as its survival strategy the longer its neck gets, and the longer its neck gets the more it commits to high grazing. But overall, it is to assist the animal's survival strategy, its behaviour, that evolution configures or 'makes' the animal.

Darwin correctly speculated that pre-humans started evolving away from a chimpanzee-like creature in Africa about seven million years ago. It's recently been established that fully-modern humans appeared around 200,000 years ago. What was the survival strategy that led their evolution? Well, for nearly all those seven million years, right up until about twelve thousand years ago, our prehuman and human ancestors kept to one and the same lifestyle. They lived in small nomadic groups (of between 50 and 150) and survived by hunting and gathering. And to assist this small-group nomadic hunting and gathering they developed a variety of simple technologies – use of weapons against prey and predators, fishing and trapping, shelter-building, tool- and garment-making...


2. Teamwork was the basis of the human survival strategy

However, the distinctive feature of the early human strategy was not so much the nomadic hunting and gathering, nor the supporting hardware-based technologies, but a behavioural technology – namely, teamwork. The pre-humans specialised in teamwork. And they raised it to a level of sophistication unique in the animal kingdom. The group's ability to act as a team conferred a huge advantage in terms of both intelligence and physical strength and this advantage greatly empowered and unified the whole pre-human repertoire.

Teamwork includes both acting in concert, that is, doing the same thing together, and cooperating, which is doing different things but to the same end, and to that extent acting in concert. Small-group teamwork, involving teams of 2 to 150 or so, is the basis of the human survival strategy. Acting in concert is the key ingredient in teamwork. It is concert that drove our evolution. We are made for concert. Concert made us.

One kind of evidence of the early human commitment to teamwork is the presence in all human cultures, including surviving hunter-gatherer ones, of five practices that underpin teamwork: use of language, shared knowledge of the world, consciousness, solo rational agency, and morality. Presumably, all these practices began sometime during our seven-million-year evolution – and not necessarily recently. The main function of all of them is to facilitate small-group teamwork. How do they do this?

The function of language is to specify and solicit concerted activity. It also enables the rapid adaptation of existing group practices, or the invention of new ones, to fit new circumstances.

Shared knowledge of the world ensures that our perceptions, as well as our actions, are in concert. Learning about the world is like synchronising watches prior to a joint operation.

Consciousness is the individual's more-or-less continual private, covert rehearsing of likely teamwork scenarios. This constant brain-and-behaviour-readying is necessary because of the number and variety of our roles in shared undertakings. We need to keep reminding ourselves what to do.

Solo rational action is solo action motivated by prior agreements with others. Contributing to a collective project whilst alone is one of the things consciousness makes possible.

Morality is our actively maintaining our team's physical and psychological well-being. Just as important as keeping everyone fit and able to participate, is keeping them wanting to participate – maximising morale, team spirit, solidarity – that fundamental enthusiasm needed in all collective undertakings.

So: speech, information-sharing, mind, solo rational action and morality all imply a prior commitment to teamwork. Facilitating teamwork is their raison d'κtre. If they've been around for millions of years, then teamwork has too.

Our anatomical adaptations to concert include our tall, hairless bodies and our expressive arms, hands, faces and eyes – all of which facilitate demonstrating and imitating; our strong and versatile voice; the flexibly jointed all-purpose physique for actioning not only natural but also cultural commands; and wired-in brain mechanisms that facilitate concert and empathy and reward them with the neuro-chemical high we experience as solidarity.

But perhaps the best evidence that our ancestors had an established teamwork culture is our large and plastic cerebral cortex. Teamwork is a whole new kind of technology, with innumerable applications, and you need a big and adaptable brain to operate it. More to the point, a cortex the size and plasticity of ours requires and presupposes an external culture. We need to be in concert with others just to keep our heads together. We need external reference points, guidelines. We need others' example – to first program in, then to corroborate and keep in good shape, the behaviour-recipes, the neural algorithms for behaviours, that our cortices are made up of. The biggest increase in cortex size occurred about two million years ago with the advent of homo erectus.


3. Basic strategy implies basic motivation and basic need

Evolution ensures that an animal is motivated to do what it needs to to survive. It programs the animal's brain with pleasures and desires that reward successful applications of its primary strategy. The reward manifests as enthusiasm at the time, long-term psychological well-being and resilience, and motivation to use the strategy again. The reward humans get for successful teamwork is solidarity – the team spirit, high morale, camaraderie and sense of belonging mentioned earlier. Solidarity is love, actually: the excitement before and during shared activity, the long-term equanimity, and the need to do it again.

If acting in concert is our primary strategy, then solidarity must be the primary and most powerful human motivation. Everyday experience suggests it is. Our most intense pleasures and our deepest long-term loyalties and incentives come from being together and acting together.

Another indication of solidarity's primary importance to us is what happens when we're starved of it. Being humiliated, rejected or ignored, being left out, is probably our greatest long-term anxiety. As I mentioned, our brains require us to be in concert with others. Babies can die if they don't get enough togetherness early on. Their brains literally shrink and stop working. And solitary confinement can derange an adult in a matter of weeks. So evolution didn't hold back in committing us to teamwork. Our delight in it is matched only by our dire need for it.

Teamwork varies in its ability to generate solidarity. It can be compromised by things like coercion, participants' lack of information, an unfair sharing of benefits at the end, lack of solidarity to start with, carelessness of participants' wellbeing, and so on. Presumably our ancestors did their best to minimise such demoralising factors.

Solidarity powers not just mainstream teamwork but the five ancillary practices too. The effectiveness of speech, knowledge of the world, consciousness, solo action and morality also depends on the level of solidarity that participants can bring to them.

OK. The argument so far is that we humans evolved – over seven million years or so – to specialise in teamwork, and this has left us with a wired-in need for teamwork. This implies that, as far as human nature and our brains are concerned, it doesn't matter how we survive now. We still need teamwork and solidarity in our lives.


4. Settlement and teamwork deprivation

Twelve thousand years ago, a major long-term improvement in the weather resulted in a huge increase in the human population – from the low hundreds of thousands to about ten million worldwide. People chose, or were obliged, to start farming and living in settlements. However, the large settlement populations made teamwork more difficult. This led to methods of people-management (perhaps inspired by the new pastoral farming practices) that relied on authority hierarchies, and on coercion, permanent divisions of labour, secrecy, exploitation, land ownership, carefully measured incentives... Because they compromise natural concert, the new methods tend to diminish solidarity. And this increases settlers' reliance on them.

As well, settlement precludes two important solidarity-generators from the old life. First, the nomadism – that primeval form of concert, walking together, all of us on the move going somewhere together. After seven million years this stops. Second is the being-in-nature. Nature highlights 'us' by contrast. Also vitiating solidarity is the fact that settlement populations are too large, too dispersed and separately domiciled, and too seldom assembled, for members to have a visual concept of their 'team'. Nomads constantly see their whole group together. But for settlers the collective is an abstraction.

The result is that a lessening of teamwork and solidarity becomes endemic and chronic in settlements. Yet solidarity is still necessary for motivating settlement economies, however well-managed from above they are. At the very least, we still need language, empirical knowledge, consciousness, solo rational agency and morality. Some of the morale deficit is made up by recreational and ritual concert: the arts, sport, religion, popular music and dancing, orgies and festivals, dancing in the streets...

Most people can cope reasonably well on the short rations of teamwork in the settlements. They keep their faith in teamwork, continue to behave morally, and keep smiling. They provide moral support to others. Sometimes their stoicism extends to actively promoting a more concerted approach, protesting at failures of teamwork, and appealing to people's latent solidarity – of which there is usually plenty.


5. Responses to severe teamwork deprivation

Sometimes – if crops fail or something else dreadful happens – community morale can decline sharply and this puts more stress on individuals. At the personal level, severe loss of morale is mostly caused by loss of a companion or perceived social humiliation. Or it is a series of such events. Although many people can maintain the stoic attitude even at quite high levels of loss or rejection, there are many also, especially those neglected or abused in childhood, who are more sensitive to concert deprivation, who can't keep smiling and who react badly to any humiliation. These people may react defensively in what are merely potentially humiliating situations, or even in quite normal interpersonal scenarios.

One result for these less resilient people is mental illness. It's much the same as with the neglected or abused infants. With too much concert deprivation, brains lose their integrity and functionality. Social anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, even schizophrenia, are just the kinds of 'systemic repertoire collapse' that one would expect to result from chronic severe solidarity loss.

Apart from the stoic approach we have two main ways of coping with severe loss of morale: withdrawal or aggression. These correspond roughly to the animal stress responses, flight or fight. Withdrawal and aggression are defence mechanisms. We use them to protect ourselves from perceived actual or impending humiliation – in particular interpersonal scenarios or in life generally.

By withdrawing or becoming aggressive, the concert-deprived person is escaping or sabotaging a present threatening scenario and unilaterally convening a new, safe one. Defection from an agreed scenario itself risks social rejection. But this risk is covered by the rewards that the new scenario offers – not only protection from humiliation but an additional reward in the form of a solidarity substitute.

Withdrawal can manifest as shyness, or pursuit of the 'protected person' status afforded by wealth, fame, power, beauty or whatever. Or it may involve use of drugs like tobacco and alcohol, use of pornography, acquisition of essentially self-aggrandising material goods, use of pets as companions, loyalty to sports teams, cleaving to fashion, reading novels, writing novels, and so on. The reward that withdrawal offers is simply opportunities, and/or theatrical-type props, for make-believe solidarity. The recluse imagines appreciative companions. The rich man looks at his possessions and imagines others' admiration and respect. The solitary smoker or drinker subconsciously imagines he is having a good time with friends. [Maybe social drinkers do that too. That alcohol taste is complex. Behind the bold bouquet of camaraderie up front there are strong fruity hints of loneliness and self-deception.] Selfishness – not self-care but selfishness, with narcissism – is also a kind of retreat into fantasy.

Aggression supplies a quite different kind of solidarity substitute – a forced intimacy between perpetrator and victim. Forced intimacy is a kind of parody, a grotesque caricature, of solidarity. This is clearest in extreme aggression such as torture and rape but it is still there in, say, sarcasm or commercial exploitation. [Aggression is perhaps more a failure to cope than a way of coping – a kind of mental illness itself. There's the 'sociopath', say.]

Like most substitutes, neither kind of solidarity substitute satisfies as well, nor for as long, as the real thing. You have to increase the dose. However, in the brain, both fantasy solidarity and forced intimacy sufficiently resemble real solidarity to press some of the same buttons and thus temporarily assuage, or just distract, the craving for concert.

Some come to prefer the substitutes over the real thing. At least they are reliably available. But there are costs. Apart from the obvious social costs of aggression – and the cycle of violence it generates – and the less obvious social costs of withdrawal, reliance on either can have serious consequences for the individual. A person who habitually resorts to escapist fantasies or to aggression gets out of the habit of engaging properly with others. This further reduces his or her ability to participate in real teamwork, and enjoy real solidarity, when safe opportunities do occur. This in turn increases dependence on the substitutes.

[The substitutes get really addictive when you combine them with the real thing, that is, when you do withdrawal or aggression in concert with others – as in pop star worship or mob violence or war. In that movie (and it's a blockbuster) real solidarity has only a bit part. The star is group self-deception.]

One result is that, in cultures in which satisfying teamwork is consistently scarce, opportunities for withdrawal and/or aggression can function reliably as incentives – and can supplement, or even largely replace, solidarity as motivator of the economy. Capitalism, for example, supplies a very more-ish blend of fantasy and aggression. It makes sense, to the managers of such cultures, to ensure that community solidarity stays at a low level.

The bad-lot theory of human nature claims that self-seeking and aggression are fundamental human urges. The concert theory claims that the fundamental human urge is a very different one – namely, to participate with others in satisfying joint activity and so achieve solidarity with them. And it claims that self-seeking and aggression are due to the frustration of this urge. According to the concert theory, self-seeking and aggression are attempts to escape a modern reality that frustrates solidarity and to instead pursue fantasy-based substitutes for solidarity. So the prevalence of self-seeking and aggression shows not what a bad lot we are but how unobtainable real solidarity is these days – and how hard it is to do without.