Sunday, April 28, 2013

How Anthony Bourdain Became an Anthropologist and Found His Soul

Anthony Bourdain did a bit at Orlando's Hard Rock Cafe last night. Funny guy, and boy can he cuss. Later, when I got home, I took a look at his blog, and discovered that Mr. Bourdain allows that there was a time when he believed that people were no damn good and that “the human race as a whole was basically a few steps above wolves.

First of all, let me extend an apology to wolves everywhere, a noble species that, for example, is much better at parenting and other social skills than are most humans. But never mind.  Bourdain’s point was that after spending months in remote parts of the world, talking to ordinary people about their lives and their food, he decided that “…the world is, in fact, filled with mostly good and decent people who are simply doing the best they can.”

Welcome to the world of ethnography, Brother Bourdain, and if we ever meet, let me be the first to teach you the Secret Anthropologists’ Handshake.

                              Anthony in Paradise 
                           (Thanks, Baltimore Sun)

 Actually, the question of whether or not people suck is one that has haunted me since my adolescence (which did not, contrary to the claims of some, only end when I turned 65). Like Bourdain, I have ultimately decided that people mostly don’t suck, though they certainly can. And one crucial source of human suckiness comes from the yearning to dominate our fellow Homo sapiens. This yearning, it turns out, has been bestowed on us through honest Darwinian pathways, as is revealed when we compare ourselves to such human cousins as Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee.

According to Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, humans have a built-in propensity to dominate each other. Anthropologist Boehm draws his conclusion partly by comparing us to the chimp and other close human relatives. Of course, you may think it insulting to have one’s species compared to inherently savage and violent brutes, but so far no chimpanzees have complained.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

                                Professor Boehm

Anyway, a remarkable conclusion that Boehm reaches is that despite our propensity for bullying and self-aggrandizement, humans have thrived for hundreds of thousands of years in egalitarian communities. In other words, give us a chance and we will start pushing each other around, but for a great long stretch of human prehistory, we weren’t given that chance. What then, kept us in check? To a certain extent it was the fear of being scathingly satirized and ridiculed by our compatriots. Humans have for millennia lived in moral communities, and the agreed upon morality of these communities has provided a basis for keeping the jerks and shysters somewhat in line through growls, guffaws, and verbal chastisements.
But behind the moral community there has lurked the capacity for lethal violence that humans have commanded and that for a couple million years has made us, with our spears, clubs and poison arrows, much deadlier than our chimp cousins. In fact, the human capacity to kill efficiently, according to Boehm, has forced us to accept a moral code, or, better, a myriad of moral codes, each of which shared at their core such ideas as “bullying is intolerable,” and “greed and stinginess are bad.”

Boehm argues that moral systems, originally linked to religion, offered communities criteria according to which the jerks and assholes of the world could be kept in line, and that societies would therefore not devolve into murderous Survival shows in which only one man would be left standing. The propensity to dominate has continued to haunt human nature since we diverged from the apes, but for millennia this propensity has been kept in check by the power of society as a whole; among early Homo sapiens it was the social group that dominated the would-be dominators.

A lot of Boehm’s evidence comes from some of the same places where Bourdain found the gentler side of his own soul – the worlds of tribes and peasants. One point that Boehm doesn’t emphasize (and, understandably, neither does Bourdain) has to do with the origin of marriage. Like food sharing and the resentment of bullies, marriage is a human universal (except maybe among the Mosuo – see blog post on Love and Marriage – October 24, 2010). Since marriage occurs virtually everywhere that humans are found, there must be a strong genetic basis on which this institution is built, something beyond mere masochism. 

To tie in the marriage factor, we can look to Canadian anthropologist Bernard Chapais, author of a fascinating book -- Primeval Kinship: How Pair-Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society. Chapais describes the origins of human pair-bonding at length, and offers a compelling thesis to explain this human phenomenon. Briefly, Chapais’ argument is that pair-bonding first emerged in human evolution as a morality-based cognitive-behavioral system by which males would be discouraged from killing each other over females.  Professor Chapais, meet Professor Boehm.

Of course, there remains the question of why Brother Bourdain came to look down on humanity in the first place during his urban cookery days. A possible answer to this can also be found in Boehm’s work (and in Marx’s and Engels's, by the way): it has to do with the accumulation of property made possible when humans settled into agricultural civilizations. When some people found it possible to amass wealth, which they then used to manipulate others – that’s when we stopped being nice. You might say, that’s when we gave up our wolf-like sense of decency and turned vicious. The rest is history – history being a nightmare from which, following Stephen Daedalus, we all now need to awake.