Many of us wonder what the true state of our human nature is. The question of whether humans are most like Chimps or Bonobos has become a modern analogy and euphemism for the two polar states of humanity.
Are we more like the competitive, selfish, hierarchical, and aggressive Chimpanzees?
Are we more like the cooperative, selfless, egalitarian, and pro-social Bonobos?
Maybe we’re both.
Understanding the Human Animal
Ecology and ethology provide a simple lens to understand the emergence of cooperative and competitive behaviours in a species, through population ecology. The population size an environment and ecosystem can sustain is known as its carrying capacity. As carrying capacity is reached, populations become self-limited by a lack of resources. Resources may include food, shelter, space, mates, companions, social status, and any other resource necessary for survival.
Two broad forms of competition are integrated into the resource limitations imposed by carrying capacity. The competition for resources between species (interspecific); and the competition for resources within a species (intraspecific).
Not only have we humans dominated the competition with other species, but by artificially increasing the carrying capacity of our environments and ecosystems to support more and more humans, we have shifted the burden of competition from intraspecific to interspecific — i.e. onto other species, very much to their detriment.
However, we are still subject to the forces of competition between humans. In other organisms intraspecific competition is well studied. In animals in particular, increasing intraspecific competition is associated with increasing acts of aggression, violence, murder, cannibalism, and even acts of genocide; social species often form increasingly hierarchical societies with resource partitioning according to social status; the overall “fitness” of a population, i.e. their physical and mental health declines; mortality increases; migration increases, and so does territoriality. The overall effect is population growth slows.
I don’t know if anyone could read that last paragraph and not draw parallels to the current state of humanity. I know I can’t. Yet for all its obviousness, there is a black-hole regarding research of intraspecific competition in humans and its effects. Why?
It’s like we don’t want to know what this, is doing to us:
Instead we find human societies are filled with dogma that supports and glorifies competitive behaviour. We have entire philosophies and ideologies dedicated to it, e.g. capitalism, education pedagogy, etc. We are sold competition as a good thing, which can make us a winner or bring us better service and cheaper prices from people that don’t know or care about us.
We in western societies are bathed in competition from the moment we are born: every developmental milestone, every parental choice, every outfit, every toy, every gadget, every test grade, every trade apprenticeship, every university application, every competition, every sports match, every job application, every queue line, every “stolen” car park, every traffic jam, every rental application, every food item out of stock, every sold out show, every conflict, every house offer, every noisy neighbour, every law and rule that favours someone other than us, every time we have to compromise our needs due to the needs of another.
I believe that these experiences are switching on, and locking in place, genes to help us compete harder and harder. But the cost of devoting all this energy to competing is our health, our well-being, and our happiness.
Reversing the Trend
I would suggest our gene expression, our epigenetics, can make us more Chimp-like than Chimps. But also that the opposite can be true, as Robert Sapolsky found. Sapolsky, a Standford neurobiologist, has been observing a baboon troupe in Uganda since 1978. In the mid-eighties a disease outbreak killed nearly half of the troupe males. Over that time a cooperative, pacifist culture emerged in the troupe, which had previously been dominated by a hierarchical, despotic, and competitive culture. Remarkably, this culture has persisted to this day, despite no original members existing (Sapolsky and Share, 2004).
Sapolsky and Share hypothesised that the culture change was due to the removal of the more despotic males from the group, leaving the more pro-social individuals. Certainly this would have an effect. But can a large part of the culture change and its persistence be explained by the sudden reduction of intraspecific competition? Is there an epigenetic/behavioural tipping point, where a social animal’s best survival is favoured by cooperative behaviour when group sizes are small and resources abundant; which progresses to competitive behaviour as group sizes increase and resources become limited? I believe there is, and it is driving the dichotomy we see in our human nature.
The above hypothesis is what I arrived at in 2013, and inspired our family’s decision to move out of the urban environment and into the country. From a fifth of an acre, onto 100 acres. From inhibition to freedom. How did our genes react to this change? Very predictably.
The first few months after our arrival were intense. Competitive behaviours poured out of us, but instead of the endless supply of strangers to compete with that we had expected, we now had only each other. So we competed over EVERYTHING. As parents it’s not hard to find things to compete about, e.g. who’s had more sleep, who’s being a better parent, who’s done the most housework, etc. The Chimp in us wasn’t giving up without a fight.
But we were committed to letting all that space change us, and slowly over time our behaviours started to shift. More cooperative behaviours emerged and competitive behaviours became very obvious and got in the way of authentically connecting with ourselves and others. More and more harmony descended on our family.
Today I wouldn’t describe us as a troupe of Bonobos just yet, as there are a few things severely lacking to cement our transition. Spending a few decades living as Chimps is not an easy thing to undo, and even then there is a severe lack of social systems around us to support more cooperative ways of human relating and living. Our experience has been that being vulnerable enough to show that you desire authentic connection and mutual cooperation is often seen as a weakness to be rejected or exploited for a competitive advantage when your society is overwhelmingly geared that way.
The Future of Humanity
From here I see a few outcomes possible. Human populations will become increasingly self-limiting. The Earth (at least) will arrive at a carrying capacity for the human population. Our species will evolve to assume the ways of living afforded by this new carrying capacity. The adaptation of our needs will be necessary to need less space, freedom, wilderness, familiarity, and a greater tolerance for man-made environmental toxins and degraded resources. In a nutshell, most humans will adapt to living in greater density, with less personal freedom, less natural environment, and less specific community.
I believe this is already occurring in the cultures that have lived in higher densities for greater periods of history, and that this adaptation is leading to their ability to thrive and out-compete other cultures in high density environments. There is a lot to learn from them. Conversely, those same cultures are nearly completely absent in country areas.
The other stream is that those needing more space, personal freedom, and specific, cooperative community will continue to migrate to areas and lifestyles that support those needs, perhaps choosing housing co-ops, intentional communities, or off-grid living, or returning to traditional lands and lifestyles or rewilding. Ideally our societies should become much more tolerant and supportive of the full diversity of humans and their legitimate needs.
Nonetheless, our population density set-point is forever increasing from our human ancestors. As our evolution continues to play catch up to our population density, perhaps humans of the future will be more interested in the question, “Are We More Like Ants or Bees?”
Sapolsky R.M., and Share L.J. (2004). A pacific culture among wild baboons: Its emergence and transmission. PLoS Biol 2(4) e106. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020106
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