My wife and I foolishly bought a German Shepherd over the internet. The first sign of trouble as a puppy showed up when we left a side of pork in a bag by the door before leaving the house. When we discovered he had gotten into the bag and pulled him away, his snarling, snapping response gave us pause. He progressively became pathologically possessive, as you never knew what he might suddenly consider worth violently defending, and it went from bad to worse. He had a trial of Prozac, persistent behavioral training, and two weeks of hard-nosed military dog camp, during which time he bit all my daughters, my wife and me. In all instances we had stumbled into being perceived by him as threatening to take something (ball, toy, etc.) which at that moment he had seized fanatically protective ownership. Alas, we had to put him down after my wife got up one morning and flicked a stinkbug in his direction before going downstairs to get coffee. When she returned, she paused from across the room to look for the stinkbug for several moments. At the exact instant she made eye contact with the insect, the dog leaped clear across the room and viciously attacked and bit her badly.

         That got me to thinking about the evolutionary origin of possession. Wolves from whom dogs have been domesticated, exist in competing territorial packs, but a notable study comparing dogs and wolves raised in identical circumstances revealed that dogs are inherently more possessive (and hierarchical) than wolves. I maintain that my dog’s “possession disorder” was a sickness of a trait that humans bred into dogs in the process of their domestication. After all, the main reason I have them around, is for protection, particularly at night, which surely has been the case for the 10,000-plus years of our symbiotic relationship with them. We have bred them to consider us as their possessions to protect ourselves and our possessions. The adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law” actually means that possession is a 90% stronger legal argument than any other in a dispute, which, while not literally true, accurately reflects our preoccupation with possessions manifested by the passions stirred by Regain furiously proclaiming that he (temporarily) owned the microphone.

         Standard academic thinking is that possessions became prominent for humans only after the emergence of agriculture about 12,000 years ago (about the time we started domesticating dogs), because prior to that, hunter-gatherer life was hand-to-mouth without opportunity to accumulate possessions. However, I propose that our own special human brand of owning is more ancient and the result of sexual selection. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was rehabilitated by ornithologist Richard Prum in his acclaimed 2017 book The Evolution of Beauty. Sexual selection refers to Darwin’s answer to the puzzle of why and how the peacock evolved its extravagantly useless tail—which is simply that the peahen has a taste for beauty: the quality of the peahen’s desire for beauty, itself, has become causally linked to the escalating beauty that, in each succeeding generation, is selected into the peacock’s tail. Sexual selection is a self-contained evolutionary feedback circuit divorced from the environment. Prum, like Darwin, considers sexual selection to have been a large factor in the evolution of our own species, explaining everything from why human females are the only primates who retain rounded breasts when not lactating and why males have bulbous ends on their penises, to the idea that the temperaments of human males have been tempered by the female desire for autonomy.

desire to be desired

         So, how did sexual selection give rise to ownership? Sexual selection is the interaction of two motivations: the desire for a trait (on the part of the peahen), and the desire to be desired for a trait (on the part of the peacock). Humans are unique in that both sexes have both motivations simultaneously: all of us both desire beauty and desire to be desired for being, acting, or wearing something beautiful. We Homo sapiens compete with bonobos as the primate species that most desire one another.

pierced shells ca. 100,000 yrs.ago

         Many investigators think that 100,000 years ago early members of our species started to wear the pierced shells and beads (that have been found and dated) because genetically mediated cognitive advances enabled the conception of them as symbols for tribe or status. Consider the alternative that the motivations animating sexual selection were the cause. One dimension of the sexually selected response to beauty, in this case a beautiful shell, is to find it attractive and perhaps pick one up. But then, the other linked motivational component is that it is you (and not the shell) that wishes to be desired for being beautiful. The first step in the resolution of this quintessentially human dilemma is to possess the shell. But, although everyone needs to know that the shell belongs to you, what is the sense of owning it if you don’t show it off? So, ardently drawn by these two desires, how much brain power would it take to figure out how to display that pretty shell by poking a hole in it and fastening it around your neck with a reed? And once a couple of people started doing it, many more would have started imitating it, like an early fashion craze. The evolutionary principle here is: where there is a will (in this case two) the will finds a way.

         Of course there are many other dimensions that have accrued to the human motivation for ownership, such as rank, dominance, or just the sheer sentient pleasure attendant to controlling resources, but I claim these came much later with agriculture and the capacity to accumulate increasingly abundant wealth. However, the uniquely human dilemma of ownership continues to be the tension between the simultaneous motivations to 1) display desirable objects to others and 2) convince them that the objects are a proxy for you. What drives the human act of owning is the desire to be desired, and the magic of ownership is a short-cut to making it happen. Of course, the old-fashion path to being a desirable person is to have good manners, educate yourself, and work hard, which also can be interpreted as displays, but ones you actually do possess.

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2 Comments on “The Origin of Ownership”

  1. John, the phrase “the desire to be desired” confuses me. Consider the peahen and peacock. The peahen desires beauty, so the peacock tries to be beautiful. He tries to be beautiful, because he wants the peahen. The phrase “the desire to be desired” is truncated and doesn’t capture what’s going on in this sequence. The peacock desires the peahen for sex or whatever. He doesn’t desire to be desired.

    As for possessions, it seems to me that we would want them for various reasons. We might want them in order to make us desirable to women we find attractive, but we also might want them to make us desirable to guys who can advance our careers, participate in activities we want to be part of, etc.

    1. Hi Mark and thanks very much for the comment. In writing about what I call my evolutionary “narrative” in little chunks like this, the challenge is always, what do I choose to leave out, which is always tons more than I can include. In this case, when I discuss the motivations of the peacock and peahen, I use them as proxies for the analogous motivations in humans which is where my knowledge lies. Of course, I nave no way of getting inside of a peacock’s head, but as a psychiatrist, I have spent my career inside human’s heads observing them directly. The way I determined key emotions is that I early on concluded that major mental illnesses are disorders in which normal “chunks” of normal emotional function break down into pathological hyperactivity; I found over the years that these “blown up” emotions and motivations, retained their essential qualities such that it is like putting the normal emotions under a magnifying glass. Such is the case with the mental illness, mania, which I determined was the pathologically “blown up” emotions and motivations involved in human sexual selection. Over the years, in attempting to land on the most general characterization of the emotions involved, I concluded that mania is a positive feedback loop between desire (for others) and the desire to be desired (by others).
      As to possessions, I think I make clear that there are multiple motivations to possess something now, but that the origin of the uniquely human part of possession began with the need to own something being used as a sexual display.

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