Manners are the Weapon

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Last week’s pop science debut of the remains of the early hominid species Ardipithecus ramidus was notable for a variety of reason’s, not the least of which was the secrecy and slow, careful approach of the scientists involved, so different from the half-baked, chuck out speculation for the slavering masses approach of so much of what crops up in my internet drain trap.  I particularly liked Carl Zimmer‘s summary of the findings, with this paragraph catching my eye:


White and his colleagues  found so many teeth of different Ardipithecus individuals that they could compare male and female canines with some confidence. The male teeth turn out to be surprisingly blunted. This result suggests that hominids shifted away from a typical ape social structure early in our ancestry. If this was a result of males forming long-term bonds with females and helping raise young, this shift was able to occur while hominids were still living a very ape-like life. Ardipithecus existed about 2 million years before the oldest evidence of stone tools, suggesting that technology was not the trigger for the evolution of nice hominid guys.

Paleoanthropologists and their ilk can only work with what they dig up and so quite often charting prehistory can be a little too reliant on tracing the minutia of stones tools and other artifacts, reducing our evolution to a technological arms race that sorted out the killer apes with the best kill sticks and honey diggers.

But what fascinates me are the inferences into social structure and group relations which I regard as a type of technology in its own right, even more more important to discerning why humans have been so prosperous in a world they are seemingly physically unprepared to thrive in.  A fire can keep you warm but so can rules governing the cooperation of individuals and acceptable norms of contact and exchange.

Social structure should to be regarded as a technology with profound effects on evolutionary adaptation.  The way we relate to each other in a group is a construct and one that is passed on intact from generation to generation even as outside pressures prompt innovation in its design.  Much as the technique of flint-napping was passed down an refined–yielding meat and defense, fueling population growth and fostering group stability–prodding and bending the ties that bind any two or more humans into a coherent structure that underpins a culture determines the fate of each unit of humanity, both in competition against the elements and against other groups of humans.

In short, some societies work and some don’t.  Those poorly configured prototypes of how a band of humans should treat each other reap destruction and stumble off into the cliche of cliches, the dustbin of history.  Jared Diamond has a better rap about that than me.

The lesson to take from this is neither conservative nor progressive.  Yes, this indicates that our social structure is a vital thing that has brought us very far, protecting us from much uncertainty.  So don’t break it, right?

But still, where would we be without innovations to it?  In the forest with our highly specialized rituals and mores about picking fleas off each others’ backs.  Instead, we’re riding the exponential upstroke of unprecedented connectivity, allowing cultures to meet, mix, exchange and clash like never before.  I’m not telling you anything new here.  You saw the commercial for this back when they still called it the Information Superhighway.

And so, reading about the ancient teeth of a long-extinct evolutionary cousin has me in awe of what millions of years of figuring out who eats what and when and who sleeps with who has wrought.

It strikes me that this process has never been entirely peaceful or without uncertainty and often our manners and social rules have been born of far more bloodshed than the usually just annoying culture wars we Americans seem to fixate on over who eats what and who sleeps with whom.  While the random spots where these conflicts burst into violence and hateful breaches of civility make me recoil in disgust, so far the body count has nothing on, say, the Protestant Reformation or European contact with the inhabitants of the Americas.

What I’m getting at is that while relations between genders, ages, cultures, classes and competing perceptions of reality are artificial constructs, they’re also the code of a society’s operating system.  That code is rapidly forking and millions out there are debugging it everyday.  Some of these will be dead-ends.  (How many versions of Linux are we up to these days?)  But certain codes of tolerance, order and patience at the center of modernity have so far kept this exchange thriving.  This is the promise of our connected future and something to take pride in as a citizen of the world right now.  Be bold, but know what’s worth keeping.

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