Thursday, November 02, 2006

O Brother, continued...The Neandertals, Part II

Without further ado,

Part the Second: In Which C Begins by Tossing Off a Flagrantly Obvious Reference to an Early Episode of Star Trek, and All Pretense of Serious Analysis Begins to Crumble

It was in the discussions on paleolithic family matters that I started watching the watchers. Getting in his requisite little dig at traditional marriage advocates (is this some kind of rite of passage you have to go through to prove yourself a suitably detached academic?) Shreeve goes on to outline the economic arrangement that he thinks may have led to our survival as a species: monogamous pair-bonding. Maybe not lifelong monogamous pair-bonding yet, but monogamy just the same--what anthropologists call 'the sex contract', or by less businesslike names.

One thing that came to my mind reading this was the lack of interest in the importance of the extended family or clan (except as a vehicle for forming alliances with other clans through exogamy.) Not that I don't have the utmost respect for lifelong monogamous pair-bonding; I just have a hard time envisioning it as the sole, or even primary guarantor of species survival. It may have been what set us apart from the Neandertals; it probably was an overall good, but I think that whole alliance complex must have been at least as important. I wouldn't bet on the survival of a couple with small children in the dangerous prehistoric world. Dad can't be on guard all the time; Mom can only forage for so long before the kids go off and get in trouble. Hunting large game with spears is dangerous business, but nutritionally almost essential. Hunters working in teams enhanced their chances of success and of survival. Even so, hunters risked being incapacitated or killed. A clan structure could have ensured that, if a hunter gave his life in the service of the clan, his wife and kids weren't going to starve. Thus, the avoidable mortality rate for a particularly vulnerable segment of the population would have gone down.

A clan structure, however, is a little more involved a social construct than is a 'sex for meat' arrangement. You have to figure who's in, and who's out; who's connected to whom in what way, and who has the final say in all decisions. If your youngsters are taking mates from outside the clan, you have to have a system for bringing in the new members, and for how you deal with those new members if their spouses die (do you keep her around? Send her home to her parents? Marry her to someone else? Let her decide?) A clan can also act in an enforcement capacity (Go take care of your wife and kids, and leave the other women alone! What are you, a troublemaker?) and as an organizer (Og's leg hasn't been the same since the run-in with that buffalo, so he can knapp spearpoints for the rest of us and tend the fire while we go out hunting,. We'll bring him and his family some food.) Sex-for-meat may be a convenient, short-term economic arrangement, but I don't think it has much potential either for long-term survival or for the social networking that civilization requires. My inclination is that in this case, it took a village. Possibly monogamy facilitated order within the clan. There are risks to going out spearhunting with the guy you've just cuckolded.

But I need to get back to the 'sex contract' issue, because it leads to my original question of whose worldview was coloring whose. Shreeve, having theorized on possible differences in mating behavior between Neandertals and moderns being a population isolator, goes on to explain the presumed role of the human female reproductive strategy in ensuring the production of the next generation. He focuses on the more-or-less constant receptivity of females, and on 'concealed' ovulation:
A human female does not display [obvious external signs] when she is fertile, and ovulation is carefully concealed, both behaviorally and psychologically. Not only do the female's mate and the other males remain uninformed...so does the woman herself, suggesting that it is somehow to her evolutionary advantage not to know.
Concealed ovulation is seen to have evolved to reduce competition for estrus females among the males in the group, making cooperative hunting possible... [This, incidentally, is presented as a 'traditional theory...thought up by traditional males.' It may be, but I think it's also realistic, in a way. You don't want to tick off a guy with a spear.]
Concealed ovulation, some investigators say, compelled the male to stick around through her whole reproductive cycle to ensure [paternity]...providing for his sure-bet offspring rather than [fathering children at random]who would not benefit from his aid...Another theory has it that concealed ovulation did not assure the male's knowledge of paternity but rather confused it...potentially infanticidal males...would be less reluctant to kill her offspring if it might be their own. (Oops! I think he meant more reluctant there.) Yet another theory suggests that if the female's ovulation were not concealed even from herself, she would assiduously avoid sex when she knew she was fertile....

By this point, the NFP alert warning flashers were going off in my head like nobody's business. All this theorizing, IMHO, is suffering from just a touch of Modern Cultural Blindness Spillover. The fundamental assumption of the theorists, on which all these ideas rest, is that the lack of obvious external signs of fertility means that our primitive ancestors didn't have a clue about it. I'm not so sure this was the case, and if it was the case briefly early on, I'd bet Billings charts to basal temp thermometers that it wasn't for very long.

Conclusion tomorrow, so help me Hannah.

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