dominance & submission undergo new kind of evolution

The central insight of my life seeped in slowly during the decade after I left prison work for private practice. A dimorphism is the division of a species into two different types, like male and female. I was focused on the other dimorphism so prominent in primates, and in the prison: dominance and submission.  The basic insight was that if the principles that produced this linked and accelerated variety of evolution arose in one interactive dimorphism—male and female, it could arise in the other one, too—dominance and submission.

In the years after I left prison work, it began to seem transparent to me that dominance and submissive mentalities had evolved the capacity to select one another producing a closely coordinated division of labor “on the ground.” In small prehuman, hominid groups this dimorphism evolved to be expressed as authority and obedience.   

Crucial to understanding the ramifications of this concept is to draw the distinction between an individual with a dominant temperament, which is a lifelong proclivity to be dominant, and a dominant or submissive mentality. Dominance and submission mentalities are mutually exclusive (one mental state inhibits the other) so that both cannot exist within the same individual simultaneously. So here I was not merely postulating that two individuals could undergo an already strange and controversial process of evolution, but that two mental states or mentalities within individuals could do so.

Blithely unaware of the complexity of explaining all these concepts, in 1988 I did start communicating with other scientists about this phenomenon in the newly formed Human Behavior and Evolution Society. I had become so smitten with its power to explain so many mysteries in human evolution that that all these complications had entirely melted away and for me and it all seemed so clearly obvious. But it was not science. I had come away from my study of Freud with a belief in veracity of the process of identification in which the emotional experiences of others can be understood by experiencing them in oneself—also commonly known as empathy. Similar to the entire edifice of psychoanalytic theory, my proposals were being constructed by means of the “instrument” of empathy. The raw data were the prisoners’ firsthand descriptions of their emotional experiences. Meanwhile I had become conversant with the scientific thinking in the field.

The possibility that humans might be truly altruistic has been a classic problem for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. By definition, the altruist is in the business of promoting someone else’s survival and procreation. In 1971, Robert Trivers restated Darwin’s own speculation as to the evolution of morality, expressed concisely in The Descent of Man: “As the reasoning and powers of foresight . . . became improved, each man would soon learn from experience that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return.” Trivers named this “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” hypothesis “reciprocal altruism.”

A breakthrough in the understanding of this peculiar quandary occurred in the 1960s when William Hamilton observed and mathematically calculated that altruism in insects occurs in proportion to their genetic relatedness. Most concisely stated, Hamilton showed that altruism is favored when the fitness costs to the helper are outweighed by the benefits to the recipient from their genetic relatedness. Hamilton called this form of selection among kin, “inclusive fitness.” This concept was adopted by E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology (the biology of sociality), and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his classic, The Selfish Gene (1976).  

Another facet of the attempt to understand the evolution of cooperation was and is the purely mathematical field of game theory, which is the study of decisions made on the basis of how others will respond. This field flourished with development of computer models capable of testing “winning” interactive strategies that theoretically would be naturally selected. Mathematicians are held in awe in the academic circles because they have access to the arcane Platonic realm of absolute proofs. Hamilton’s mathematics convinced Edward Wilson of the correctness of kin selection (although recently a younger mathematician has convinced him to abandon it). However, even the most sophisticated models make the base assumption that the interacting entities are identical individuals who make decisions on the basis of their own self-interest. In my proposal, I envision that selection inclusion occurs between two different kinds of mentalities between individuals. The result of this evolutionary process is that two (or more) individuals combine into a new kind of relational entity. This entity is defined by the “internalized” division of labor between individuals into authority and obedience that then becomes orders-of-magnitude more powerful in competition with mere single individuals. After this proposed book is published, I would eagerly anticipate the efforts of mathematicians to model the selection inclusion of dominance and submission mentalities. The mechanism of sexual selection, which is the other example of this same process, was finally proven to be mathematically feasible in the 1980’s—over a hundred years after Darwin proposed it.

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