229 – Can we persuade Martians?

Posted on April 10, 2013 by

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I have been reading too much on persuasion, these days, and I have even done some pontificating on the subject matter. It is only while reading on humanity’s Pan Ancestor,[1] however, that I have to come to realize the complexity hiding behind the concept of “persuasion”.

Meat-eating apes (chimpanzee, bonobos, and humans) hunt as a group. Sustained success depends on the fitness of the hunting party. Consequently, the catch must be shared. Social rules govern both the hunt and the distribution of the meat.

These rules are socially enforced. An alpha-bully trying to hog too much faces the revolt of the subordinates. He/she (oh yes, the bonobo are a matri-centric society) will either tolerate or encourage meat-sharing as an insurance against (sometimes deadly) revolt. This process is opportunistic or, if one prefers, political and based on the calculation of fear. A quick survey of the situation will decide on the course of action. The chosen strategy is highly adaptive and inherently unstable.

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Humans are the only ape that blushes. Not only do we have social rules, we have internalized them. Breaking the rules will elicit our inner voice – the self-inhibitory conscience – warning us against infringement. Positive/negative emotions lead us reflexively. Of course we can override the rule: our conscience’s flexibility allows us to adjust our behavior to the situation (unless one is a religious fundamentalist, that is) as well as to navigate dilemmas arising from multiple objectives stretching over time. Collaterally, we may be tempted to break the rules if we think we can get away with it without too much damage to reputation. Still, unless we are psychopaths, we shall feel uneasy. Conscience – the internalized (i.e. emotionally grounded) rule of behavior – seems to distinguish us from our ape cousins.

For those interested in how this phenomenon might have emerged, humans started (relatively) big game hunting with hand-held weapons about 250’000 year ago. BOEHM argues – quite plausibly, I would say – that this shift strengthened pre-existing egalitarian tendencies.[2] This entailed socially taking alpha-bullies out of the reproduction business by shaming (giving them a bad reputation), ostracism or even execution (we have cave paintings from the Holocene in Spain, which may depict just such liquidations). In a sense we have “auto-domesticated” ourselves through punitive social selection.

I’d argue that chimpanzee and bonobos are calculators operating within a set of social rules. At any time a recalculation is possible and does not entitle feelings – except fear. With them, the situation dominates. For emotional reasons humans tend to give preference to rules over context.

Culture establishes the emotional link. Socialization of the young leads the way. We may use emotionally charged ritually to reinforce moral sentiment. Gossip and shaming reaffirm it. Deviants are punished – even killed. Compared to the opportunistic calculations of chimpanzee and bonobos this equilibrium is more predictable. Predictability facilitates generosity and long-term investment in the group. Of course, such “indirect reciprocity” is plastic.

Now to “persuasion”. The term has an honorable tradition best exemplified by its use in late Antiquity. From there it has entered political thought. The Roman Empire was autocratic. Subordinate elites used “persuasion” to mitigate the effects of autocracy as executed in the provinces. They did so by invoking the social values enshrined in paideia as practiced by Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers. Persuasion was a complex and subtle exercise (coached in uplifting terms) in shaming the autocracy’s representatives into following well-established socially internalized rules.[3] Critically, however, persuasion was the language of subordinates.

I would argue that we cannot persuade chimpanzee, bonobos, or for the matter Martians. Apes do not have emotional ties to their rules. As for the Martians, they do not share rules with us. Even if they are emotionally attached to their set, there is no guarantee that their set and ours is congruent. Persuasion fails because it does not lead to shame. Neither apes nor Mr. Spock (of Star Trek fame) blush.

We have conflicts when groups or nations apply incompatible social rules to each other. Sharing rules (possibly out of fear) will lead to conflict abatement – armistices and containment come to mind. Stasis ensues, but this equilibrium is unstable. Persuasion – internalization of rules – is needed. Going much deeper than securing an outcome on the basis of common rules, persuasion aims to establish emotional ties to common rules taking them beyond “realist” calculation.[4] The “historic handshake” that turns foes into friends signifies the shared emotional commitment.


[1]              Christopher BOEHM (2011): Moral origins and the evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Basic Books, New York.

[2]           I found one piece of evidence revealed by the butcher’s marks on bones of killed animals exhilarating. By 250’000 years ago the cutting up was done by just one person, who would have been in charge of the fair distribution of pieces.

[3]           See Peter BROWN (1992): Power and persuasion in late Antiquity. Towards a Christian Empire.  University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

[4]           This process occurs very fast. Seventy years ago Europeans accepted war in their midst. Today revulsion would greet any attempt to bring about war.