Our World In Ape Eyes

While humans have adapted a bit to our modern world, we are mostly forest apes tossed into tech cities and told to deal or die.  So we deal.  But to understand how exactly we deal, it would help to see how our world looks to a forest ape, especially in terms of their cues for conditional behavior.  Let me explain.

The environment of our ape ancestors varied from time to time and place to place.  So our ancestors evolved not just a typical behavior for a typical environment, but they also evolved ways to condition their behavior on environmental changes.  For common types of environments, flagged by cheap noticeable clues, our ancestors should have evolved to notice those cues and then switch to environment-behavior.

So what does our world look like, in terms of the clues that our ancestors might have used to condition their behavior?  We are:

  1. Exposed to an unusually large number of unknown people, with varied customs, as if two tribes had just merged.
  2. Exposed to strange new things, as if just entereing a new region with new terrain, plants, animals, etc.
  3. In a time of great plenty, as if the weather had been favorable lately, or we had just entered a rich unpopulated region.

So what should we have expected our ancestors do in such situations?

  1. When tribes merge, and new coalitions are not yet clear, you should start out being nice to most everyone; tit for tat begins as nice.  You should be interested to learn about many folks, seeking good allies, and be eager to make good first impressions on those you meet.
  2. In a new region with strange terrain, plants, animals, etc., you should be cautious in actions, and eager to hear of news about new things.  You’ll want to affiliate with folks who consistently have news first, and want others to think you are such a person.
  3. In good times, invest in assets that will last until the coming bad times.  Groups may clear a path, explore a cave, send a colony to a new place, or settle old scores.  Individuals may collect body fat, have kids, and collect allies.  To get and keep allies, signal your long-term abilities and loyalties, via feasts, medicine, building homes, and revenge killings.  Perhaps do something dramatic that folks will talk about for years.

So, in summary, to our ancestor’s eyes, compared with their world our should look like a place to be: nicer, fatter, more fertile, more curious about new folks, things, and places, and more eager to signal our long-term abilities and loyalties.

This theoretical analysis gets many things right, though not our reduced fertility.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • ECM

    Actually, even if you buy into macro-evolution, we are no longer believed to have evolved from apes. (They are, at best, very, very distant cousins but not actually ancestors in any meaningful sense, having split off from some alleged common ancestor millions of years ago, with the takeaway being that looking to apes for any sort of explanatory powers vis-a-vis man is a fool’s errand.)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    John Maynard Smith’s “The Theory of Evolution” has a great discussion of conditioning.

    For some pushback against the common “Evolutionary Adaptive Period” talk of evolutionary psychologists, see Greg Cochran & Henry Harpending’s “The 10,000 Year Explosion” and related work, which argues that we’ve undergone accelerated evolution in the modern (i.e post-huntergatherer) world.

  • rob

    I like the revenge killings part. I say more revenge killings. Even if there is no real revenge involved.

    Some people think we are at the end of history. I suspect we are in for another great wave of revenge killing soon. We all want to appear heroes, after all. We just need to figure out how to frame the narrative as legitimate revenge and we are off to the races…

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    In a new region with strange terrain, plants, animals, etc., you should be cautious in actions, and eager to hear of news about new things. You’ll want to affiliate with folks who consistently have news first, and want others to think you are such a person.

    i wonder about this one–wouldn’t new things on average be worse for you than old tried and true things, and so by being uninterested in new things, one would focus more on the tried and true, and would only integrate new things into one’s life after others have tried them out?

    i guess what i’m wondering is, when you go to a new region, is it better to be more, or less, interested in novelty. i’ve heard immigrant populations who move to new lands tend to stick to older forms of language than the same people who remained at home, for example.

    • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

      the italicized first paragraph of my comment above should be in quotation marks, quoting robin.

  • Anna Salamon

    “So, in summary, to our ancestor’s eyes, compared with their world our should look like a place to be: nicer, fatter, more fertile, … ”

    I’m not sure why you say our world is a place to be fatter, relative to the ancestral environment. I would think fat especially worth storing at times when food appears to be scarce, insofar as one can manage to store it.

    Cool analysis overall, though.

    • Doug S.

      A “lean time” is one in which calories take more time and effort to get. When times are good, food is cheap so animals eats more; when food is scarce, it pays for animals to do other things (such as sleep) instead of investing time and energy searching for those few extra calories.

  • jps

    could “reduced fertility” simply be an adaptation related to the relative complexity of raising a child in more developed societies?

    Obviously there is much more to teach which takes more resources and time.

    Not the mention the increased emphasis on individualism, social development and nurturing found in modern western based societies . . .

  • Philo

    “[W]e are mostly forest apes tossed into tech cities and told to deal or die.” I have two reservations about this. First, while our ancestors were forest apes for quite a while, they were other things before that, and they were other things afterwards. Why focus on the forest ape period? Second, we and our fellows have created the tech cities, in considerable part to suit ourselves. No one “tossed us into” them.

  • Mike

    Robin, you might not be wrong about increased fertility – the relevant causal path is that prosperous times lead to increased sex drive which leads to more babies. Well, we might not be having more babies, but our sex drives might be comparable. Humans can channel the drive into less fertile behavior. prosperity leads to fertility in other forest apes because they have no way to get around pregnancy. with us, maybe we don’t get more babies, but we do get more blow jobs, or something like that.

  • Popeye

    While humans have adapted a bit to our modern world, we are mostly forest apes tossed into tech cities and told to deal or die.

    Who exactly built these tech cities? God? Aliens? Forest apes? Who’s telling us to deal or die? Who’s tossing us?

  • mjgeddes

    more eager to signal our long-term abilities and loyalties.

    Emotions (signals) are far, desires (drives to action) are near. (e.g. opiates – pleasure signals – are far, dopamine – desires for action – are near). I predict people in modern cities are more eager for far mode thought.

    (PS the above is an example of a result supported by scientific studies which matches my proposed grand near/far pattern in Open Thread).

  • Pingback: In Mala Fide