Conspiracy Capacities

Huge brains helped primates fight via coalition politics, and language let human foragers enforce egalitarian norms against such fights.  If neutrally applied, such norms should have cut the gains to huge brains, yet we had the biggest brains. This suggests hierarchy and coalition politics continued via covert rule bending.  Support for this hypothesis comes from our highly evolved capacities for covert coalitions:

  • Body Language – Winks and nods and other body language are not just redundant or complementary to our words. “A wink and a nod” is a common expression for a communication intended to be less visible to third parties, in particular to enable corruption.  Since we are very good at seeing where other eyes look, we can often communicate via the direction of our gaze. Our unconscious status moves include the high status looking directly and the low status looking away; this grants more eye-talk conspiracy power to the high status.
  • Indirect Language – When talking with words, we commonly veil our language, instead of speaking directly.  Indirection makes it harder for others to interpret what your mean. So those who are very socially distant, lacking local context, may just not understand, while those closer may understand but be unable to prove what was meant; you’d have plausible deniability.  By varying the indirection of our language we can control how close a circle can understand or prove what we say. Extreme indirection can also signal; if we see that we understand each other, we confirm our intelligence and close connection.
  • Rumors – Even when rumors are expressed in direct language, they are not intended for all ears. We explicitly say to not tell certain others, or implicitly understand to only tell a shared coalition. At a minimum, we understand not to tell the subject of the rumor.  Spreading a mild rumor about a person allows us to test how well connected is that person.  If they never complain, perhaps they never heard of the rumor, and so are poorly connected, and thus can be conspired against more easily, perhaps via further rumors.

These skills seem to me too well developed in humans today to have only begun with farming ten thousand years ago.  Compare them to our clumsy farming, war, and writing skills that have to be explicitly taught.  Clearly, foragers had great conspiracy capacities, and so often conspired, bending their egalitarian rules.

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  • elmo

    I don’t buy it… other animals seem to have these abilities as well, but they don’t have our level of social cooperation.

    I think that this paper has a better explanation.

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  • Jess Riedel

    As usual, I think the theory put forth in the blog post is much too detailed to possibly be supported by the scant evidence available, though perhaps I am missing evidence that you haven’t bothered to post on a daily blog. However, I am fascinated by the plausible deniability aspect of socializing. I notice this all the time, and not just in romantic interactions. There is a whole game behind “feeling the other person out” which I don’t understand. I would love to hear more experimentally-supported theory describing the purpose of vagueness / plausible deniability.

  • Future Chimp

    “These skills seem to me too well developed in humans today to have only begun with farming ten thousand years ago. Compare them to our clumsy farming, war, and writing skills that have to be explicitly taught.” Is war found among neighboring groups of chimpanzees? Are body language, indirect language, and rumors important aspects of war among tribes of hunter/gatherers? Among the pre-Columbian Amerind tribes were wars sometimes caused by tribes splitting apart into warring factions?

  • elmo, that link won’t work for me; have a title?

    Future, chimps find war natural, but humans must be trained to fight.

  • Humans must be trained to fight?? Their may be gains to training in terms of fighting effectiveness, but is there evidence to suggest that, say, pillaging is any less natural than foraging?

  • Your first two methods are discussed in chapters IV and V (“Discrepant Roles” & “Communication Out of Character”) of Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life”. It’s a classic for a reason, I highly recommend it, particularly if you liked “Improv” (which I admit I haven’t read).

  • TGGP, yes Groffman’s book is a great classic.

    Mike, see the stats on soldiers who fired their weapons in WWII.

    • Former 3L

      If you mean S.L.A. Marshall’s “stats”, there are good reasons to doubt them. Marshall’s data collection methods were slipshod at best, and he documented his conclusions poorly. For more detailed source, see

      • Other scholars have gotten similar percentages. I quote from Randall Collins’ “Violence: A Microsociological Theory” here.

      • Former 3L

        (Sorry the program won’t let me respond directly to TGGP’s comment).

        The selection quoted by TGGP does not appear to reference any non-S.L.A. Marshall source for “the stats on soldiers who fired their weapons in WWII”.

        If any such exists I would be interested in hearing about it.

      • Whoops, I actually misremembered my post as containing data about non-fired weapons in the Civil War (which Collins does cite in his book). That still wouldn’t be WW2 though.

  • J

    Phil Rushton says there’s a tradeoff for huge brains…

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