232 – Of alpha-bullies, free-riders, and Bernard Machines

Posted on May 3, 2013 by

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About 6 million years ago, the chimpanzees, the bonobos, and hominids divided up the realm of Pan, their Common Ancestor. Looking at the apish offspring today, we see a shared tendency for alpha males/females[1] to appear at the top of pecking orders. There is a pre-disposition for hierarchical structures. There is also strong competition for high ranks. Subordinates, however, soon balk at the top male’s behavior and create counter-dominant coalitions in an attempt to defeat him.[2]

This tension seems to have been particularly present in humans.[3] What we know for sure is that, the end of humanity’s evolutionary process, homo habilis habilis was resolutely egalitarian.[4] How did we get to be that way?

It probably was a “just so” or contingent story. 400,000 or so years ago, we invented tools that could kill at a distance – spears. The scavenger ape became a big game hunter – but in a group only. This created a group management problem. How to divide the carcass within the group? An alpha-male grabbing too much meat for himself would leave the rest of the band with insufficient energy for the next hunt. All members needed feeding for the system to work. It looks as if hunting efficiency drove the group toward egalitarianism.

What did this entail? The group “declared” overbearing alpha-males (alpha-bullies in fact) “unfit” for reproduction and took them out of reproduction by ostracism, and even capital punishment. Among the first images from the distant past, there is one of a man pierced by arrows like a porcupine. It may have represented a warning to prospective alpha-bullies.

Fear-based control (as in other apes) was too crude an instrument to work all by itself. Nor did it work terribly well with free-riders – the other scourge of any collective effort – who disguised themselves while being anti-social, or were slick and charming characters. Also, the process was mainly genetic in origin, hence slow to evolve.

Active policing of alpha-male social predators by their own band-level communities emerged as a social tool. Pro-social behavior transformed us into altruists, but also terrible gossips and moralists. An “ethical project” emerged.[5] Building on biological pre-adaptations,[6] hominids internalized social i.e. cultural rules and linked them to emotions. Since then, an inner “voice” tells us what is right and wrong. When we say something we know to be morally wrong, we blush uncontrollably – this is a tell-tale sign of a link between biology and culture. Not only do we feel the voice, but we gossip about moral behavior all the time, validating and reinforcing a pro-social stance. Most likely, sexual selection (“reputation” as the basis for reproductive success) was also involved. [7]

Such culturally based purposeful inputs are both part of natural selection and a product thereof. “Their effects have gone beyond shaping everyday group life pro-socially, for they have helped to shape our gene pools in pro-social directions that are similar.” (Pg. 333) 250,000 years ago, we became egalitarian – some archeologists conjecture. BOEHM sums it up: we had developed a mechanism for “self-domestication.”

Characteristically, the moral sense is not absolute, but highly flexible. The inner voice urges pro-sociality. The individual may override this instinct – depending on material and social context – and be egoist. Christopher BOEHM regrets this “weakness” of mankind’s moral compass as compared to innate egoism.

He need not worry. The “ethical project” may just be the first instance of a social “Bernard machine.” “The Bernard machine is named for the great French physiologist Claude Bernard, who first pointed to homeostasis[8] as a central feature of living systems. Bernard machines are agents of homeostasis, and I discuss how design emerges from the action of Bernard machines that create new environments and impose homeostasis on them. Generation of design by Bernard machines contrasts in some fundamental ways from the Darwinist explanation for design, in which good design arises from a selection for “good function genes.”[9]

Once the “self-domestication” system got going, it shaped human evolution.[10] It was a balancing act aimed at moral homeostasis. Too little morality – and the alpha-bullies have it. Too much morality – and “self-domestication” leads to effete ineffectiveness. In order for the social system to survive, it needed curbing excesses either way in a flexible way. Rigid rules would destroy homeostasis. Only homeostasis ensures survival – including its own. Dialectic tinkering will ever so subtly yield this. The aim is “good enough”- keeping the social system from seizing up. To put it another way – social Bernard machines are dialectic: their dynamics is not based in action ó reaction, but just the opposite – contradiction. Bernard machines are adaptive, not directive.

Bernard machines are demanding. Once in place they “impose” their will on the living structure, be it biological or social. Of course, no intentionality is involved. But the effect is to yield stable design – necessary path-dependent outcomes. This is probably why moral systems the world over all look alike.

Having learned the usefulness of social Bernard machines, humans applied them everywhere unthinkingly. The “check and balances” system for a well-functioning democracy is such a Bernard machine. Most likely, society is a social “meta-Bernard machine” composed on many topical “sub-machines” and sporting many inconsistencies, poor interfaces, or contradictions that cancel each other out.

Bernard machines are not “beautiful” in a mechanical sense. They are not “well-structured”. In fact, they may look down-right ugly to our geometrically trained eye. A termite mound would not please Leonardo’s eye. On the other hand, discovering its inner working of homeostasis – so different from that of the mechanical contraptions he imagined – might have pleased Leonardo’s mind.

Funnily enough – we rely on analogies from mechanics and the inanimate world to describe such living structures. Our favorite metaphor is the “infinite complications” of a clock – even though Bernard machines are just the opposite of clockwork. We prize order and structure over functioning. With Bernard machines, function yields structure, not the other way around. This gives rise to no end of trouble. Fortunately an ability to “suspend disbelief” and ignore contradictions allows papering over such disconnects.

We may not be able to do so for much longer, however. Drawing on analogies from the physical world, we clamor for consistency and direction deducted from first principles. We yearn for the certainties of mechanical linearity, rather than the endless surprise of dialectics. In this view, everything is reduced to structure. Are we unwittingly destroying social Bernard machines in an iconoclastic drive for reductionist order? As Tacitus said about the Romans:” where they make a desert, they call it peace…”


[1]           Among the bonobos, we have matriarchs. Adult females migrate and boys stay under the wing of their mom. Such is diversity of life.

[2]           Christopher BOEHM (1999): Hierarchy in the forest: the devolution of egalitarian behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

[3]           Christopher BOEHM (2012): Moral origins. The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Basic Books, New York. Also: Frans DE WAAL (2013): The bonobo and the atheist. Norton, New York.

[4]           We did not stay that way: Kent FLANNERY – Joyce MARCUS (2012): The creation of inequality. How our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[5]           Philip KITCHER (2011): The ethical project. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[6]           Patricia S. CHURCHLAND (2011): braintrust. What neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton University Press, New Haven.

[7]               Christopher BOEHM (2012): Moral origins. The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. Basic Books, New York; (Pg. 166)

[8]           Homeostasis (from Greel: μοιος, “hómoios”, “similar”,[1] and στάσις, stásis, “standing still”) is the property of a system that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, relatively constant condition of properties. http://bit.ly/17zC9Kr Termite mounds are a good example. It is shaped by termites as much as termites shape it.

[9]           http://bit.ly/162KKHB

[10]          Another approach on this matter might be “niche construction”. See: F. John ODLING-SMEE – Kevin N. LELAND – Marcus W. FELDMAN (2003): Niche construction. The neglected process in evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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