The direction of evolution and the future of humanity

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Chapter 14.    Management by Morals         


In humans, it is not only our genes that can predispose us to behave in particular ways. Our behaviour can also be controlled by beliefs and emotional reactions that are instilled in us, usually when we are young. Through the process of socialisation, our parents and others inculcate us with ways of behaving that become part of who we are, and influence our actions for the rest of our life. As a consequence, inculcated behaviours, like genes, are able to organise cooperative groups by establishing distributed internal management. In this Chapter we will see how inculcated behaviours produced the cooperative bands and tribes of early humans that represented the sixth major organisational milestone in the evolution of life on earth.

Inculcated behaviours typically include moral codes and social norms that influence the way we deal with others. Norms differ between cultures, but they are likely to include beliefs that it is wrong to cheat and lie, to murder, to fail to return favours from friends, to ignore those in urgent need of help, and to commit adultery. And cultures usually include norms that support and authorise punishment of those who break norms. Commonly, these systems of norms are reinforced by religious beliefs[1].

Like genetic predispositions, inculcated behaviours are resistant to change during the life of the individual. Once a person is inculcated with a system of religious beliefs and norms, they are likely to be followed no matter what the consequences to the individual. The individual will continue to follow norms even though it may mean giving up more immediate biological and social satisfactions. History gives abundant examples of where individuals have been prepared to die for their beliefs. An individual can be as immutably hard wired with inculcated behaviours as with genetic predispositions.

Of course, most behaviours that humans learn during their life are not as fixed and inflexible as inculcated norms and moral codes. Practical behaviours that are used in our day-to-day activities such as preparing food and performing work can be changed and improved continually during a person’s life. We are able to adapt these behaviours in whatever way works best. In contrast, inculcated norms are followed even when they do not work well for the individual, and bring nothing but trouble.

But it is the ability of inculcated behaviours to control our actions no matter what the consequences that enabled them to produce a new form of cooperative organisation in humans. This ability enabled inculcated behaviours to establish distributed internal management[2]. Like genes, if inculcated behaviours are reproduced in each member of a group of individuals through time, they can control and organise the group. Inculcated behaviours can hard wire the individual to behave in ways that would not otherwise be in his immediate interests. They can cause individuals to act cooperatively, and to avoid non-cooperative behaviour that would otherwise produce immediate gratification.

Inculcated behaviours also have the potential to organise individuals to punish or expel from the group any individuals who do not apply the behaviours. This ensures that non-cooperators such as free riders and cheats do not undermine cooperation within the group, and take it over. Only individuals that contain the inculcated behaviours capture the benefits of the cooperation organised by the behaviours. As a result, cooperators organised by inculcated behaviours can do better than non-cooperators within a group.

Groups whose internal management is better at promoting cooperation and suppressing cheating will be more competitive than groups with less effective management. Competition between groups will favour those that are managed by clusters of moral codes and norms that are better at organising cooperation. Competition within groups will favour internal managers that are better at ensuring all individuals are inculcated with the clusters of behaviours, and that are better at capturing the benefits of cooperation.

The development in humans of a capacity to inculcate their children with behavioural predispositions enabled the formation of cooperative groups managed by these behaviours. Inculcation was made possible once individuals could learn new behaviours during their life. For its full development, it also depended on the evolution of language.

For most of the last 100,000 years up until about 10,000 years ago, humans lived as foragers in small multi-family cooperative bands of a few tens of people. These bands were typically linked into cooperative tribal societies of a few hundred to a few thousand people. The bands within a tribe met regularly and shared common beliefs and cultural backgrounds. Individuals could move between bands, but only if the bands were within the one tribe. Inculcated moral codes and social norms that were passed from generation to generation controlled the behaviour of the people within bands and within each tribe to produce cooperative organisation. And the codes also organised members of the group to punish any individuals who broke the codes[3]. Unlike the more complex hierarchical human societies that began to emerge about 10,000 years ago, powerful kings or rulers did not govern the earlier bands and tribes. External management played no role in the organisation of cooperation.

A distinctive feature of the codes and norms that organised these tribal societies is that they tended to produce egalitarian behaviour, and sanctioned the punishment of individuals who attempted to compete against others within the group. Sharing of food and tools was required by the codes, and any attempt to monopolise resources, accumulate personal possessions, or to set oneself above other members of the group was generally punished and discouraged[4].

The egalitarian behaviour within these early human groups contrasts markedly with the way in which groups of other apes are commonly organised. Typically, apes compete with one another for status with the group. A disproportionate amount of sex, food and other resources are monopolised by the dominant male. Cooperative behaviours amongst apes are also far less developed than those found in modern tribes of human foragers such as the people of central Australia[5].

The organisation of cooperative groups by inculcated behaviours has significant advantages over the genetic management that underpinned the fourth and fifth organisational milestones. Effective genetic management requires that each member of a group contain the same cluster of genes. But this can be achieved in a group of sexually reproducing individuals only if the members of the group are very closely related, sharing a very recent ancestor. Even then, sexual reproduction will inevitably produce individuals that do not contain the manager. If it is to continue to control the group, the manager must organise the expulsion of these individuals.

This requirement for very close relatedness greatly limits the effectiveness of genetic management. It means that genetic managers cannot organise large groups of sexually reproducing humans: as a group grows in size through the reproduction of its members, the members become less related. They become more distant from a common ancestor and, due to genetic shuffling and mutation, less likely to contain identical managers.

The social insects got around this problem to an extent by reproducing all the individuals in a society from a single fertilised female, the queen. So all the members of the group remain closely related, and are therefore more likely to contain the genetic manager, no matter how large the society grows. By organising the society so that all individuals are nearly genetically identical, the manager is largely able to prevent the emergence of cheats and free riders, and suppress destructive competition. But, as we have seen, there is also a down side to organising a society in this way. It prevents the testing out of new genetic possibilities during the life of the society. A society cannot adapt its genetic management during its life. New possibilities can be tried out only with the formation of new societies, which then compete with each other.

But there is a further down side to the way in which insect societies have suppressed internal competition. The problem is not just that genetic change and adaptation is prevented within the society in the genes that make up the genetic manager. Genetic change and adaptation is also prevented in all other genes. All genetic change is frozen within the society during its life, not just genetic change within management. In order to prevent destructive competition, the manager structures the society to suppress the emergence of alternative managers. But the method it uses to do this also suppresses change (and adaptation) in all other genes, even though they may have nothing to do with management. So, during the life of the colony, insects are unable to adapt the genes that establish their physiology, metabolism, structure, or feeding and other behaviour. In principle, this is a completely unnecessary restriction. Insect societies would be far more adaptable if genetic change-and-test processes could continually adapt these non-management genes in the light of experience during the life of the society, and if only changes in management genes were suppressed.

The fundamental advantage of management by inculcated behaviours is that it can overcome this limitation of genetic management. It can control the aspects of organisms that must be managed to produce cooperative organisation, but without preventing adaptation and change in other aspects of the organisms during the life of the group. Importantly, it can achieve this even in large groups containing individuals that are distantly related. The advantage of clusters of inculcated behaviours is that they can be reproduced in all individuals born into a band or tribe, irrespective of the relatedness of the individuals to other members. Genetic diversity does not have to be suppressed within the group. Nor does behavioural diversity have to be suppressed. Only the particular behaviours that are needed to control the band to produce cooperative behaviour have to be inculcated in all members of the tribe. It is only in relation to these behaviours that destructive competition must be prevented, and change cannot be tolerated. Alternatives can be tried out for all other behaviours, whether they are learnt or gene-based.

As a result, in tribes of early humans managed by inculcated behaviours, sexual reproduction could continue to try out genetic changes without producing destructive competition. And tribal members could continue to test out changes in learnt behaviours that were not controlled by the manager. They could attempt to invent better tools, weapons, cooking methods, and ways of collecting food. It was only behaviours that were part of the manager that had to remain fixed and frozen, and had to be reproduced accurately in all members of the tribe.

As a result, cooperative groups managed by inculcated behaviours could grow larger and live longer than those with genetic management, without having to freeze all other evolutionary adaptation within the group. So human foraging bands and tribes managed by inculcated norms and other beliefs were capable of a much higher level of evolvability than insect societies. Within the tribe, non-management features that were gene-based could be continually adapted. And individuals could continually search for improvements in non-management learnt behaviours, and pass their discoveries onto others, accumulating knowledge across the generations.

The emergence of this new form of distributed internal management enabled a significant increase in the scale and complexity of cooperation amongst early humans. Previously, some forms of cooperation had evolved amongst humans through genetical kin selection and reciprocal altruism[6]. These mechanisms were discussed in Chapter 5. But kin selection, a form of genetic internal management, could produce cooperation only within very small family groups of highly related individuals. As groups grew in size, kin selection was incapable of holding them together, and they would break up into smaller family units.

Reciprocal altruism was limited to producing simpler forms of cooperation, and then only within small groups in which members interacted repeatedly over long periods of time. As we saw in Chapter 5, it is only in these restricted circumstances that it is in an individual’s interests to cooperate rather than to cheat by failing to return cooperative favours. In a small group, non-cooperators may lose out because they will be branded as a cheat, and excluded from future beneficial cooperative exchanges. But reciprocal altruism will not work where individuals meet only occasionally. In these circumstances, individuals will not lose much if those that they cheat refuse to cooperate with them again. Individuals will end up in front by taking favours but not returning them, and moving on to do the same to other individuals who have no knowledge of their reputation.

In contrast, inculcated behaviours is able to organise cooperation between individuals who rarely meet. For example, a manager can include behavioural norms that require the individual to cooperate with other individuals who also contain the manager. In these circumstances, even if one of the cooperators gets more of the benefits than others, all the benefits of cooperation will be captured by the manager[7]. But for this to work, the norms must direct cooperation only towards other individuals who contain the manager. The norms must organise individuals so that they identify other individuals who have the same cultural background as themselves, and therefore the same codes and norms, and the same manager. And then the norms must ensure that individuals cooperate only with these others, and not with outsiders, so that only the manager benefits from the cooperation. Ethnocentricity is essential to the evolutionary success of distributed internal managers made up of inculcated behaviours.

A manager could also organise cooperation successfully between individuals who meet rarely if it includes norms that patch up the limitations of the reciprocal altruism mechanism. Such a manager could enable reciprocal altruism to operate more widely and effectively. For example, the manager could include a norm that prohibits cheating in cooperative exchanges. So in a tribe organised by such a manager, an individual could be confident that another person bound by the same codes and norms would return cooperative favours, even though the individual had little knowledge of the past behaviour of the other person in similar situations. But again, the manager would have to ensure that individuals cooperated only with others of the same cultural background.

So internal management based on inculcated behaviours could easily organise families into cooperative bands, and bands into cooperative tribes. It produced the multi-band tribal societies of a few hundred to a few thousand members that appear to have been typical of human foraging groups up to the present day. The members of each tribe shared a common language, religion, norms and moral codes. For most of the time these peoples lived in small foraging bands of a few families. But periodically they would meet in celebrations, mass rituals, inter-band marriages and other collective activities. Individuals could move between band within the tribe, and bands would cooperate with one another, sharing food in the case of emergencies, and joining together to defend against other tribes. In contrast to this cooperation within tribes, societies were generally aggressive toward societies organised by other sets of inculcated beliefs. Members of other tribes were often demonised and seen as sub human, in large part because they followed norms and codes that were different, and therefore unacceptable. To kill another within your tribe made you a murderer, but to kill a person from another tribe made you a hero[8].

Distributed internal management was able to exploit the benefits of cooperation more effectively and over wider scales than kin selection and reciprocal altruism. But it did not replace or overturn the smaller-scale cooperation produced by the earlier mechanisms. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism continued to operate within the larger-scale groups, organising cooperation between closely related individuals and amongst those who lived or worked together for long periods. Many of the behavioural predispositions that evolved to organise this cooperation are still in place today, producing the cooperation within families and inside friendship groups that are still a feature of modern human society[9].

Mechanisms that help ensure that inculcated behaviours retain their control over individuals throughout their life have been very important in the evolution of human groups. A manager can organise a tribe only while it controls the behaviour of the members of the tribe. If its inculcated behaviours lose their control over the members of the tribe, uncontrolled self-interest will reassert itself, and wider-scale cooperation will collapse. The difficulty faced by the manager is that to maintain control it must continue to cause individuals to behave in ways that might otherwise not be in their immediate interests. For example, it must stop individuals cheating in cooperative exchanges when to cheat might be to their immediate benefit. Individuals will be continually tempted to break the moral code and norms. The temptation will be at its greatest in circumstances where breaches could go undetected, and not be punished by the group.

The most successful internal managers would be those that are best at reproducing their behavioural predispositions in all the members of the tribe, and at maintaining their hold over each and every member throughout their life. Managers that failed to do this would be out-competed and fail to survive. The successful managers would be those that organised the process of socialisation to entrench their moral codes and norms in all individuals. Through effective socialisation they could ensure that the individual’s internal emotional reward system would punish behaviours that broke norms, and reward actions that obeyed them.

But the hold of the manager over an individual would be greatly strengthened if the individual’s mental modelling of the world led him to believe that the codes and norms were in his best interests. Of course, accurate mental modelling of the material world would not lead the individual to this conclusion in many situations. It would often not be in his immediate material interests to follow the codes and norms.

But this difficulty does not apply to mental models that include supernatural beliefs. For example, if an individual could be led to believe that there was an after life, and that he would find happiness in the after life only if he followed the tribe’s norms in this life, he would believe it in his interests to follow tribal norms. The same would apply if he thought that individuals who broke norms would eventually be punished in this life by supernatural entities. In this way, supernatural belief systems have the potential to sanctify moral codes and norms, entrench them in a group and ensure they maintain their hold over members throughout their life[10]. They can entrench behaviours that would not otherwise be in the immediate material interests of individuals.

Managers that were able to organise and inculcate religious and mythological belief systems of this type gained a significant evolutionary advantage. They would have been better at maintaining management control over the tribe, and therefore better at exploiting the benefits of cooperation. Tribes organised by such a manager could out-compete other tribes. And the tribes with the most effective religious and mythological belief systems would have been the most competitive. Evolution would have favoured religious and mythological belief systems that were better at entrenching moral codes and norms.

The types of belief systems that were best at inculcating codes and norms would have changed as human knowledge increased.  For example, as humans accumulated more and more information about their material environment and how it worked, only those belief systems that were not contradicted by this knowledge could retain credibility and control. The belief systems most likely to survive were those that were largely untestable in the material world, and that could accommodate new discoveries about the world. Belief systems that were more specific and concrete can be expected to have disappeared earlier. For example, many tribes believed that after death, tribal members went to live in the next valley, a far-off island, or some other specific place that the tribe did not visit. Such a belief could not survive direct knowledge of the other place.

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In summary, distributed internal management established by inculcated behaviours is able to produce cooperative organisations that are more adaptable and evolvable than those established by internal genetic managers. This is because only those behaviours that must be controlled to establish cooperation are fixed and frozen within the organisation. All others are free to adapt and evolve within the organisation. In contrast, in insect and other societies controlled by genetic managers, all genetic adaptations are fixed and frozen during the life of the society, not just those needed to produce cooperation. Like multicellular organisms, insect societies must evolve completely new internal change-and-test mechanisms if they are to search for better adaptation during their life.

But the evolvability of human tribes and other groups managed by inculcated behaviours is not as effective as it could be. The evolvability of these groups is limited because their management cannot be improved and adapted during the life of the group. As we have seen, the most successful internal managers will be those that organise the group to quickly stamp out potential cheats, free riders and competitors that arise within the groups. Any individual within the group who does not obey all codes and norms could be a free rider who would take the benefits of cooperation without contributing anything to the group. Unless he is brought under control or expelled, such an individual could undermine cooperation, and out-compete the manager.

For these reasons, successful human tribal groups, organised religions and modern cults that are managed by inculcated beliefs are intolerant of deviance from the group’s norms. Those who are different are generally hated and demonised. Individuals who do not follow the codes and norms of the groups are punished harshly or expelled from the group. Only managers that organise their group in this way can be successful. But the result is that changes in management that might improve cooperation or adapt the management to changing circumstances cannot be tried out within the group during its life. Like genetic managers, management based on inculcated beliefs cannot include a change-and-test process that operates within the manager during the life of the group. As a result, tribal societies, organised religions, and modern cults are notoriously conservative about their central codes and norms[11].

In principle, a manager could get around this limitation if it were smart enough. It could let changes in management arise within the group, and assess whether each change is harmful or beneficial. The manager could then suppress those that are harmful, and incorporate any changes that are better, improving the group and its management. But like genetic managers, management based on inculcated behaviours does not have the capacity to do this. Within the group, it cannot distinguish between management changes that produce cheats and those that produce better adaptation. To survive it must therefore suppress all changes in management that arise within the group, whether the changes are good bad. It must treat all changes as if they were bad. Moral systems must be paranoid, as well as intolerant[12].

For these reasons, in groups organised by norms and moral codes, new forms of management can emerge only in limited circumstances. For example, changed management may be established when a new group is founded by a small number of deviant individuals who are expelled from or choose to leave an existing group. Or new management may be able to take over an existing group when new behaviours are promoted by a charismatic leader, or in times of great crisis when many individuals in the group are likely to accept that their existing belief systems have failed them[13].

Social organisations would be more evolvable if their managers had the ability to search for improvements in management during the life of the organisation. As we will see in the next Chapter, human external managers who are capable of systemic mental modelling have this ability. Human rulers can continually adapt their management of a society in the light of experience if they are capable of systemic modelling. The emergence of humans with this capacity was essential for the 7th major organisational milestone in the evolution of life on this planet.

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[1].       For a discussion of moral systems from an evolutionary perspective, see Alexander, R. D. (1987) The biology of moral systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

[2].       Stewart, J. E. (1997) Evolutionary transitions and artificial life. Artificial Life 3: 101-120.

[3].       See Klein, R. G. (1989) The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4].       Boehm, C. (1997) Impact of the human egalitarian syndrome on Darwinian selection mechanics. The American Naturalist. 150: S100-S121.

[5].       See, for example, Rodseth, L., Wrangham, R. W., Harrigan, A. M. and B. B. Smuts. (1991) The human community as a primate society. Current Anthropology 32: 221-254.

[6].       Trivers, R. (1985) Social Evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.

[7].       This operates on exactly the same basis as the kin selection mechanism. In kin selection a gene organises an individual to benefit other individuals that also contain a copy of the gene. Here an inculcated belief does the same.

[8].       Alexander: The biology of moral systems. op. cit.

[9].       See Chapter 4 of Ridley, M. (1996) The Origins of Virtue. London: Viking.

[10].     Rappaport, R. A. (1979) Ecology, meaning and religion. Richmond, CA: North Atlantic Books.

[11].     Ibid.

[12].     For examples see Colson, E. (1974) Tradition and contract: the problem of order. Chicago: Adeline Publishing; and Posner, R. (1980) A theory of primitive society, with special reference to the law. Journal of Law and Economics. XXIII: 1-54.

[13].     Numerous detailed examples of how religious systems have mutated in this way are given by La Barre, W. (1970) The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion. London: George Allen and Unwin.

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