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Van Reybrouck 2012 - From Primitives to Primates

Van Reybrouck 2012 - From Primitives to Primates

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Published by Sidestone Press
Where do our images about early hominids come from? In this fascinating in-depth study, David Van Reybrouck demonstrates how input from ethnography and primatology has deeply influenced our visions about the past from the 19th century to this day. Overviewing two centuries of intellectual debate in fields as diverse as archaeology, ethnography and primatology, Van Reybrouck’s book is one long plea for trying to understand the past on its own terms, rather than as facile projections from the present.
Where do our images about early hominids come from? In this fascinating in-depth study, David Van Reybrouck demonstrates how input from ethnography and primatology has deeply influenced our visions about the past from the 19th century to this day. Overviewing two centuries of intellectual debate in fields as diverse as archaeology, ethnography and primatology, Van Reybrouck’s book is one long plea for trying to understand the past on its own terms, rather than as facile projections from the present.

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Published by: Sidestone Press on Jan 07, 2013
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When Tooby and DeVore compiled their list of principles for conceptual modelling,
one of the main sources of inspiration apart from sociobiology and evolutionary theory
was behavioural ecology, the currently popular attempt to explain the uniquenesses of
an animal’s behaviour from ecological variables. At first sight this seems quite similar to
the socioecology of the 1960s (cf. Crook and Gartlan 1966), but there are important
differences. Firstly, whereas socioecology drew a one-to-one relationship between envi-
ronmental context (understood as predator pressure and the availability and dispersion
of food) and a type of social organization (Richard 1981), behavioural ecology is less
rigid, less typological and prefers dynamic feedback systems with multiple variables over
unilinear, causal relations (Dunbar 1989): ‘there is no one-to-one correspondence be-
tween traits and selection pressures’ (Tooby and DeVore 1987: 191). Secondly, whereas
1960s socioecology considered the group as the level at which selective pressures were
most at work (simply because the group was taken as the unit of analysis, cf. Ghiglieri
1987: 322), behavioural ecology believes that ‘selection acts at the level of the gene’
(Tooby and DeVore 1987: 189).57

Behavioural patterns are not explained in terms of the
benefits they accord to the group but in terms of the individual’s reproductive success
and its genetic contribution to subsequent generations. If ‘group survival’ was the key
to understanding primate behaviour in the socioecological paradigm, ‘inclusive fitness’
was the central notion for behavioural ecologists.58

Inspired by game theory, individual
animals were seen as strategic actors maximizing their own genetic potential in the given
ecological and social context ‘rather than inflexibly committed to the same behavior’

56 Of course, uniquely derived characters of the human lineage can be ascertained (they are simply
the ones not shared by any other species) but Cameron rightly states that it would be tautological
to use these to explain hominization, that is to explain their own emergence: ‘Te uniquely derived
behavioral characters of extant human groups cannot be used to explain the behavior of the earli-
est hominids, just as an analogy based on contemporary chimpanzee populations cannot explain
what the early Pliocene hominids were doing 4 million years ago’ (Cameron 1993: 408). Human
language, for instance, cannot be used to explain hominization. However, Dunbar (1997) compared
grooming activities as related to group size and concluded that human speech emerged at the point
that the size of communities went beyond a normal grooming capacity. Observng a close relation-
ship between the size of the neo-cortex and the size of social groups among primates, he reasoned
that speech emerged as a verbalized form of grooming in bigger groups, and that gossiping, i.e. the
exchange of information on social affiliation, was its predominant function (as grooming is supposed
to do among the great apes). Dunbar thus started from a shared phylogenetic basis (grooming) but
by invoking the variables of group size and neo-cortex size he could account for a unique human
feature (speech).
57 More recent forms of socioecology, however, avoid the pitfall of group selectionism (cf. Smuts et al.


58 Ghiglieri (1987: 322) phrases it very sharply: ‘rather than being units of natural selection, social
groups are ultimately the evolutionary consequences of individual adaptations, or strategies both to
survive and to increase reproductive success by being social.’


(Tooby and DeVore 1987: 191). Tooby and DeVore developed the theoretical outline
of such an approach, Wrangham saw it as promising but still in its infancy, but it was C.
Owen Lovejoy who had already presented the first elaborate case of such reasoning.
In an often cited article published in Science, Lovejoy (1981) drew a picture of hu-
man evolution following the premises of behavioural ecology and sociobiology. At the
outset, there was the basic assumption that evolution would strongly favour ‘any be-
havioural change that increases reproductive rate, survivorship or both’ (Lovejoy 1981:
344). He noted that among chimpanzees infant mortality was high due to the require-
ment of mother-infant mobility in subsistence activities. Tis mobility was also the
principal restriction on birth spacing. If chimpanzee mothers would not need to travel
with their young offspring, more infants would survive and births could be more fre-
quent, so that survivorship and reproductive rate would increase. Tis was very much
the ‘demographic dilemma’ (347) also faced by early hominids. Whereas chimpanzees
stuck to their fragile solution, early hominids developed an alternative and ultimately
more successful solution: females with offspring could stay at one place if they and their
infants were provisioned by food-gathering males. For a male this would be a sensible
thing to do if he was certain that the female’s offspring was also his: in that case, his
efforts were no blind altruism but a way to promote the survival of his own genes. In
other words, such form of male provisioning (or more in general, increased male paren-
tal investment) would only work if it evolved simultaneously with monogamous pair
bonding between the sexual partners. Tis, Lovejoy held, was the behavioural base from
which hominization started and he went on to argue that bipedalism, loss of sexual
dimorphism, unique human epigamic features, and even the distribution of hominids
over the world were the consequences, not the causes, of increased male parental invest-
ment and monogamous pair bonding.59
Lovejoy’s evolutionary scenario received criticisms from several angles (cf. the
discussion in Science 1982: 295-306). Wrangham with his reserved enthusiasm
about behavioural ecology regretted that ‘even Lovejoy’s scheme, which is the most
elaborate to date, is riddled with speculation’ (Wrangham 1987: 52). Feminists,
not surprisingly, strongly disliked the minor role bestowed to women in this view
of human evolution (Zihlman 1985; Fedigan 1986). Zihlman (1985: 374) named
it a ‘used vehicle, propelled by outworn but retreaded notions’ which at one stroke
‘rehabilitated Man the Hunter but by co-opting Woman the Gatherer: now it’s
Man the Gatherer, and Woman the Gene Receptacle is relegated to utter passivity.’
For our analysis, however, it is more important to see the limited attention given
to phylogenetic issues in Lovejoy’s argumentation. Although chimpanzees func-
tion as a heuristic source, there is no consideration for the ancestral traits present
in the early hominid. Lovejoy reasons from ecological conditions (food distri-
bution, nature of food resources, required subsistence mobility) and life-history
parameters (infant mortality, birth intervals, infant dependency and longevity).
The particular nature of this ecological emphasis becomes clear when we contrast

59 Lovejoy was not the only one to work on such issues. Around the time of his influential article in
Science, other sociobiologists discussed the evolutionary relationships of adaptations like paternal
investment, concealed ovulation, menstrual synchrony and primate monogamy (Alexander and
Noonan 1979; Benshoof and Tornhill 1979; Turke 1984).


Lovejoy’s conclusions with the ones reached by Ghiglieri: whereas Ghiglieri’s phy-
logenetic comparison had shown polygyny to be the ancestral trait, Lovejoy’s be-
havioural ecology held that monogamy was the key feature for the same period.
Male kin bonding with Ghiglieri had now become monogamous pair bonding
with Lovejoy! This remarkable divergence was largely due to the methods used:
phylogenetic comparison describes similarities between species; behavioural ecol-
ogy explains differences between them. The first looks for conservative traits in
the ancestral phylogeny of a species; the second for innovative traits induced by
ecological and sociobiological factors. Typically, the first presents a list of shared
traits whereas the second comes up with a narrative scenario. With conclusions so
diametrically opposed, one wonders whether there was any notion of consensus
in sight.

The most successful attempt to integrate behavioural ecology and phylogenet-
ic comparison to date can be found in the work of Robert Foley and Phyllis Lee
who held that ‘while social states are partially constrained by phylogeny, they are
also strongly influenced by immediate costs and benefits, and therefore can be an-
alysed in terms of the principles of behavioural ecology’ (Foley and Lee 1996: 54).
Their 1989 Science article (but see Foley and Lee 1996 for a more extended argu-
ment) started with a list of previous models for the evolution of hominid social
behaviour. Frustrated by this bewildering amount of conflicting interpretations,
they provided an ingenious argument to limit the number of possible explana-
tions. Firstly, they argued, the variety of social strategies is limited: if you see that
the males and the females of any species have four basic social options (being soli-
tary, associating with kin, with non-kin or with extended kin), the combination
of both shows that no more than sixteen social strategies can be possible. Even
admitting that each of these strategies can be stable or transitory does not bring
the number above 32 potential options. (The 1996 paper leaves out the category
of extended kin which reduces the number to 18). Secondly, not only the number
of social states is finite, the number of viable evolutionary pathways from one state
to another also is. A social system based on stable alliances between non-related
males (as with the baboons) cannot evolve into a totally different chimpanzee-like
sociality with kin-related males and nonkin-related females without losing evo-
lutionary fitness. Thirdly, constraints on the evolutionary pathway are not only
determined by the distance between two social systems, but also by the ecological
context in which the evolving species lives. Social evolution is thus limited by a
finite number of options, by phylogenetic constraints on the possible evolutionary
pathways and by ecological constraints in which evolution takes place. Foley and
Lee repeatedly stressed that phylogeny and ecology complemented each other:

any evolutionary change is the outcome of the interaction between novel selective
pressures and the existing structure of behaviour. Evolutionary change is therefore
not just a product of a new environment, but of how the existing structures inter-
act with the new environment. (1996: 53)


To understand human sociality, they started with a cladistic phylogeny of Old
World primates in order to identify ‘the most probable social characteristics at the
various branching points that have occurred in the evolution of the Hominoidea’
(1996: 55; cf. figure 20). This showed that male residence (combined with female
dispersal) and male kin-bonding was a typical innovation in the African ape/ho-
minid clade (contra Ghiglieri who believed that this pattern only evolved in the
chimpanzee/human clade). Though this conclusion was ultimately based on liv-
ing species, Foley and Lee stressed that ‘it is not individual species that are being
used to determine the ancestral state (in the form of an analogue model), but the
overall pattern of variability’ (1996: 57). They then went on to study how these
ancestral states interacted with the selective conditions posed by new environ-
ments. Their interpretation of the earliest hominid social structure as consisting
of ‘mixed sex groups, with males linked by a network of kinship’ eventually built
‘the selective pressures of open tropical environments onto the social state of the
evolving African hominoids’ (1989: 904).
Though their eventual interpretations are not always original nor entirely de-
void of speculation, the importance of Foley and Lee’s work lies first and foremost
in the combination of a phylogenetic approach with an interest in behavioural
ecology. They thus escaped several of the criticisms from the Kinzey volume: they
explicitly refused to draw upon single-species models but used a phylogenetic
comparison instead, they sought for explanatory principles based on behavioural
ecology and life-history theory, and they accounted for unique patterns in the
hominid clade. Although this model made considerable use of fossil evidence and
palaeoecology, the concern for the archaeological record was rather poor—a flaw
also present in Wrangham’s and Tooby and DeVore’s work. In this sense, the final
critique of the Kinzey volume was still left open for correction. Ethoarchaeology
was an attempt to solve this problem.

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