At the core of Ellis’ theory of anthropogenic ecological change is the argument that sociocultural processes are the ultimate causes of human transformation of the biosphere. Sociocultural niche construction is the primary means through which humans entrain ecological systems. Ellis sees a few characteristics of our species as crucial to explaining how humans have become such a factor in planetary systems. Of particular importance is our ultrasociality, or ability to communicate information (however manifested) coupled with a capability to create complex and cooperative non-kin social relationships. Not only does ultrasociality enable the kind of complex and dense habitation that has sometimes occurred in our history, but it is arguably the basis for the cooptation and manipulation of labor. If we accept that humans are ultrasocial as described, one important question is where does ultrasociality come from, and what might that say about the sociocultural niche more broadly?
One place to start answering this question is in our collective past. Origins research can be useful, in that it provides the opportunity to consider the ways in which our species is distinct, or to examine those features that would accommodate the eventual planetary impacts that we can see today.
In this article, Kim Sterelny tackles one of the more vexing questions regarding human origins: how did we become “behaviorally modern”? Under what conditions did humans engage in reciprocity, cooperative activities, and social alliance building? Furthermore, when did we begin to be bound and enabled by social rules? Somewhat contradictorily, there is evidence for individuals effectively like modern populations in terms of their anatomy by perhaps 500 thousand years ago (kya). However, the evidence for behavioral modernity, such as “symbolic” objects, funeral rites, and complex economic practices, emerges much later, between 120-60 kya or so. By 50 kya behaviorally modern humans had migrated out of Africa and were in the process of global colonization. One possible explanation for the emergence of modern human behavior is that there had to have been a genetic change, perhaps in the ability to produce language, that would have enabled the kinds of social and economic innovations we see in the last 100 ky. Sterelny challenges this perspective, suggesting that if such a genetic change were to occur, we should see evidence amplified through time. Instead, the record of more complex, ultrasocial behaviors is spotty, occurring only in certain times and locations. While one might chalk this up to a lack of data (it was a long time ago), there are alternatives.
Sterelny counters the genetic forcing model with a social one, arguing that increased social interactions led to “a new ideological life of norms and conventions mediated by the use of material symbols” (p. 5). New cooperative behaviors were the consequence of deepening encounters with kin and non-kin (dependent on a rise in population, or at least a perceived increase in demographics), which could have increased chances for interpersonal conflicts. Perhaps, too, larger group size would be advantageous, as information would be preserved (in terms of fidelity and through time) and extended across multiple individuals. Sterelny argues that there were, in fact, several attendant shifts. An important one regards changes in interpersonal relationships and planning horizons. While most great apes cooperate, they do so “in the now,” with little investment in future gains (what Sterelny refers to as immediate return economies). In contrast, behaviorally modern humans engage in reciprocal exchange, often with long intervals between exchanges of food, materials, or information (delayed return economy). They also do so with non-kin, although social networks often include fictive kin. For an alternative reading on immediate and delayed return economies see Woodburn (1982). Sterelny suggests that the transition towards delayed return economies would have allowed for increased divisions of labor as well as new kinds of seasonal gatherings and dispersals, effectively extending cooperative persons in time and space. Groups could become more specialized, and reliant on each other for food exchange. While such fission and fusion would have enabled greater resource flexibility, it would also put strain on internal relations of reciprocity and external social boundaries. So, too, Sterelny argues, these new social lives would have necessitated new social rules regarding debt, responsibilities, and obligations. New practices such as rituals, including those attending the dead, would provide a powerful context for generating kin or broader social ties while at the same time recreating the social rules of relatedness and debt. So too material symbols were a manifestation of these new norms, and facilitated complex transactions either in terms of trade or in ceremony. In either case, Sterelny argues, material symbols reduced social stress.
There is much to think about here. Evaluating this hypothesis is difficult, as Sterelny freely admits, in part because of a lack of evidence for significant population increases in the time period of interest. Indeed, origins research is tricky business. The archaeological and paleontological record of deep time is often thin, heavily fragmented, and preserved in only select places. The generally low density of finds makes broad inferences difficult, and subject to equifinality (wherein multiple distinct processes could plausibly result in the same record). We are also reliant on analogy with living populations, which is not without significant problems. There remain questions as to whether immediate return or delayed return systems would characterize our ancestors, or if they are more a product of recent world systems. So, too, one gets the sense that competition and violence were ever present threats in Sterelny’s view of our deep past, despite a lack of evidence. One result of these factors is an often sanitized view of cultural evolution. New lines of evidence often have the effect of muddying once clear waters. For example, up until 2 weeks ago it was generally understood that humans had interbred with Neanderthals after 50,000 years ago in Eurasia. However, a recent ancient DNA study demonstrated the presence of modern human DNA in a 100,000 year old Neanderthal genome, indicative of much earlier interchanges (Kuhlwilm, et al. 2016). Other genetic studies have also discovered previously unknown human lineages, suggesting that the past 400,000 years have been a lot more messier and complicated than we thought.
Certainly such studies remind us to be cautious about locating causality in the deep past that is fragmented. However, these same studies also provide a sense that Sterelny and others are on to something important. Humans have the unique capability of extending relationships, often in the form of obligations, across time and space. These same obligations can lead to intensification, as pressure is put on others to fulfill debts while at the same time managing local subsistence pursuits. While we certainly can extend relations to other humans, the appearance of modern human DNA in Neanderthals, as well as vice-versa, would indicate that these sorts of interactions may have been extended beyond ourselves (although how ancient behaviorally modern humans viewed their cousins is a matter of mostly speculation at this point). But it does not stop there. A reading of numerous works on non-western viewpoints highlights how humans can extend both personhood, kin ties, and reciprocal obligations to other species and even places (Ingold 2000; McNiven 2013), and they do so in ways that are not necessarily exploitative or competitive. The point is that although we are ultrasocial today, we should be cautious about how we envision that sociality playing out as a historical process.