Economics Advances Our Understanding of Human Society... Among the Neanderthals

Looking into human/dog co-evolution for my last post led me to this paper cited in Wikipedia: "Co-evolution of Humans and Canids, An Alternative View of Dog Domestication: Homo Homini Lupus?" by Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michale D. Shalter, in Evolution and Cognition (2003).

The authors make the fascinating point that modern human social behavior is characterized by much, much more cooperation than exists in the societies of our primate cousins such as chimpanzees. For their purposes, this demonstrates traits we picked up in our long association with wolves and, in particular, the sub-species known as domestic dogs.

A leap forward in social behavior may very well be the answer to what happened to our brother species of Neanderthal. Modern humans and Neanderthals had so much in genetic common that we were able to mate and produce fertile offspring. Their brains were actually bigger than ours and they were likely just as smart. Neanderthals were a  successful species living from 200,000 years ago until about 45,000 years ago as an apex predator across all of Eurasia.

So what happened? Dogs and humans, working as a team.

I just found the source of the ideas expressed in my last post. I probably heard the contents of this article in the Guardian on a podcast: "How Hunting With Wolves Helped Us Outsmart Neanderthals".

“At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” says Professor Pat Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University. “But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.”

Why did dogs team up with us and not with Neanderthals? Back to the Human/Canid co-evolution paper. Here they speak with Jane Goodall who famously studied chimpanzees, but also studied wild African dogs:

“Dogs have been domesticated for a very long time. They have descended from wolves who were pack animals. They survive as a result of teamwork. They hunt together, den together, raise pups together. This ancient social order has been helpful in the domestication of the dog. Chimpanzees are individualists. They are boisterous and volatile in the wild. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to get the better of each other. They are not pack animals. If you watch wolves within a pack, nuzzling each other, wagging their tails in greeting, licking and protecting the pups, you see all the characteristics we love in dogs, including loyalty. If you watch wild chimps, you see the love between mother and offspring, and the bonds between siblings. Other relationships tend to be opportunistic. And even between family members, disputes often rise that may even lead to fights... even after hundreds of years of selective breeding, it would be hard if not impossible to produce a chimpanzee who could live with humans and have anything like such a good relationship as we have with our dogs. It is not related to intelligence, but the desire to help, to be obedient, to gain our approval.” (GOODALL 1997). 

So why did modern humans supersede the Neanderthals? Why did we team up with wolves when they did not? Because modern humans were just a little bit more social than individualists like Neanderthals and chimpanzees. Dumb humans with our smaller brains out hunted the Neanderthals because we when we met wolves--and they met us--we mutually realized that we could make a great team.

But there is a still surviving human species that is just like the chimpanzee and the Neanderthal: homo economicus. Masquerading as a modeling assumption, economic man has become a moral imperative in the Reagan/Thatcherite world we live in. Adam Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand--meant to show how sometimes good can happen without anyone trying to do good--has been contorted into the notion that the only way to advance the public good is to rely on a world of individuals each seeking to maximize his or her own utility. A world of Neanderthals or chimpanzees!

So why do macroeconomic models fail to incorporate the variability and crash-prone nature of real economies? Why does theory predict minimum wage laws will hurt job creation while reality demonstrates the opposite? Why did the free market account for not one, not a single one, of the most important innovations of the 20th Century?1

Because economics describes the world of Neanderthals, while you, me, and the dog kicked their ass a long time ago!

Of course, we did interbreed with Neanderthals and some of their genes are still around. Turns out a small percentage of humans does behave like homo economicus. We call those people psychopaths.

1. Nuclear power was developed in universities and by government, the transistor was invented at Bell Labs which only existed thanks to the quasi-governmental status of AT&T as a state created monopoly protected from market competition, anti-biotic medicines were developed by the United States government for use in WWII at the Northern National Lab in Peoria, Illinois after the pharmaceutical company Merck failed at the task. The Internets were invented by Al Gore, duh!