Durkheim & de Waal on Human Sociality

I’ve just finished a close study of Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) and concluded that its entire premise is based on ignorance. Durkheim, in other words, is mystified by the fact that humans are social and live in groups. Because he cannot fathom this mystery, he spins an incredible (and ingenious) story about religion, in the form of totemism, making it all possible. People, in other words, would not be social and could not form groups were it not for binding properties of religion.

The supreme irony in this is that Durkheim claims that all religious beliefs are false and that the real reason people have them is because of these binding properties. This is, for Durkheim, the only possible explanation for the continued survival of otherwise bizarre rituals and mistaken beliefs.

When I study a book, I write notes in the margins. I’ve now read Elementary Forms several times so my copy has lots of marginalia. This marginalia is now dominated by a single word: Primates. Durkheim did not know anything about primates. If he had, he would have a written a different book. Or he might not have written it at all because he would have understood that being social and living in groups is not a great mystery.

Primates are social. Primates live in groups. Primate social life is rich, varied, complex, and plastic. Humans are primates. While we are unusual primates because we walk and talk, we are still primates. Our social ancestors have been living in groups for millions of years. We are good at it. We do not need an extraordinary explanation, such as Durkehim’s, for this non-mystery.

With these thoughts fresh in mind, I came across this Guardian review of Frans de Waal’s latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (2013). This excerpt, from Tessa Kendall, goes right to the historical heart of the matter:

There is a long history of thought that the natural world is a merciless struggle for survival and that humans decided to live together “by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes), that natural selection is “a Hobbesian war of each against all” and ethics are humanity’s cultural victory over the evolutionary process (Huxley), that civilisation is achieved through the renunciation of instinct and the action of the superego – which men are more capable of than women (Freud), that children have to be trained to be sociable through fear of punishment and desire for praise (Freud, Skinner, Piaget), that moral behaviour is achieved through reason alone (Kant).

These ideas have their origins in Judaeo-Christian teaching that morals have to be imposed from above, that in our “natural state” we are unfit for society (or heaven) because of original sin.

What they all have in common is a kind of dualism between our “better angels” and the beast within, our Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The idea persists even now, albeit stripped of its religious origins.

This was the idea that drove Durkheim. He premised his entire book on the (false) notion that human sociality requires an extraordinary explanation. Astutely, de Waal rejects this idea:

de Waal does not believe in any inner dualism, in the need to choose to be moral or to accept moral instruction from above (gods, philosophers or authority figures) because altruism, empathy and morality are innate in us. What’s more, they also exist in other social animals. They are part of an evolved package of behaviours that make it possible for us to be social animals.

He calls the idea that civilisation and morality are imposed on a violent, immoral, selfish nature Veneer Theory and concludes, “Everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.”

Human morality is “firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core” (De Waal, Our Inner Ape). The desire to treat others well comes from altruism which, in turn, comes from empathy.

This is not a new or radical idea. Darwin said something similar in The Descent of Man (1871). Durkheim apparently never read it or understood the implications.

Chimpanzee Group

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7 thoughts on “Durkheim & de Waal on Human Sociality

  1. Joe Miller

    I wouldn’t write off Durkheim just yet. His emphasis upon ritual as a means of fostering group cohesion has a great deal of explanatory power if placed within the proper theoretical context. The research of Richard Sosis Camilla Power and Ian Watts has also given it a great deal of empirical support. Moreover, I think that you greatly overemphasize the continuities between ourselves and other primates with regard to prosocial behavior. The differences are far more important (and interesting, in my opinion), and *do* in fact demand a series of extraordinary explanations.

    “Primates are social. Primates live in groups.”

    These are both true claims, but humans are exceptional in that we collaborate and live with non-kin. Our groups are also considerably larger than the typical primate group. Moreover, we have language. Language cannot arise among nonhuman primates due to how intensely they compete with and distrust one another, as Robin Dunbar and Michael Tomasello have painstakingly demonstrated time and time again.

    The contrasts on the level of energetics are also noteworthy, to say the least. For example, Kristin Hawkes, Sarah Hrdy, and Frank Marlowe have proven that the Hadza are able to regularly obtain far more calories on a daily basis than the members of any other primate species can because of their tendency to engage in demand sharing, among other things. Demand sharing is inconceivable amongst chimp populations, since they are chiefly concerned with ascending the ranks as opposed to leveling braggarts and churls. The consumption of this surplus energy is necessitated by the costliness of our large brains. The grandmothering hypothesis and the application of costly signaling theory with respect to male hunting efforts both go a long way in explaining how these needs were met. Both explanans entail behaviors that are without equal in the nonhuman primate behavioral repertoire.

    I have immense respect for de Waal’s work. That being said, I think that the findings of Aiello, Boehm, Dunbar, Hawkes, Hill, Hrdy, Kaplan, Knight, Marlowe, Power, Tomasello, and Whiten suggest that we should be more than a little skeptical with regard to his assertion that human prosociality is based first and foremost in our shared evolutionary heritage with chimps and gorillas. Comprehending the divergences between our behavior and theirs is even more vital to our self-understanding.

  2. Cris Post author

    I haven’t written him off completely, though in a forthcoming series of posts I’m going to deconstruct his argument and most of his claims. In the final post, I’ll discuss his arguments which have some merit and have received some empirical support.

    You observe that humans are exceptional because we “collaborate and live with non-kin.” Other primates collaborate with non-kin, so this isn’t exceptional. There are always large numbers of non-kin living within any given primate group (due to the primate equivalent of exogamy), and they collaborate in all kinds of ways. There is a qualitative difference in the level of collaboration between humans and other primates, but this kind of difference is observed across the comparative board so there seems no reason to single out this difference.

    The best and most parsimonious explanation for these differences is due to language, which is the ultimate product of cooperation. Our symbolic-linguistic abilities allow us to treat non-kin as kin. Fictive kinship is a product of language, and it is the single best explanation for enhanced cooperation and altruism.

    As for group size, the best evidence is that human and hominin group size was small and comparable to other primates until the Neolithic transition. All known hunter-gatherers have foraging group sizes of 15-150 (depending on local ecology), which is squarely within the primate ranges. Group size increased only after the Neolithic transition, and even then only for groups who settled and practiced agriculture.

    I’ve discussed the all-important issue of group size, and what we may know about it, in this post.

    I’m familiar with all the authors you’ve cited and read most or all of their work. I’m not sure it says what you assert it says, but that’s fine. I’m particularly skeptical of Sosis’ work, not because it is empirically lacking (it’s really good stuff), but because he studies (tiny) eccentric groups and his results cannot be extended or generalized to human evolution in general or “religious” evolution in particular.

  3. Juggernaut Nihilism

    I’m not sure I understand the objection. When you say, in your comment above:

    “The best and most parsimonious explanation for these differences is due to language, which is the ultimate product of cooperation. Our symbolic-linguistic abilities allow us to treat non-kin as kin. Fictive kinship is a product of language, and it is the single best explanation for enhanced cooperation and altruism.”

    Isn’t this something with which Durkheim would agree? He restricts the cause of non-kin cooperation to religion, but religion is just one particular way to use symbolic-linguistic abilities to create fictive kinship systems. He may be too restrictive, but the principle seems more or less intact.

    It’s not really necessary, though, to look back at primates to understand that non-kin cooperation is a relatively late development. We need only look at the vast majority of non-agricultural societies of which we have first-hand knowledge. In virtually all of them, the kinship system determines the not only the social structure, but also the sphere within which empathy and altruism are to restricted. Certainly it was possible, as with primates, for non-kin to live together and cooperate, but these are the exceptions that make the rule more obvious. These societies possess language, but no external factor (population density, common enemy, etc) that would make it necessary to move past the NATURAL order, that is, preference for kin and disregard bordering on hostility for the other. As you allude to in the text I quoted, even today we have not moved past this fundamental structure; we have merely devised very clever symbolic-linguistic substitutes for identity that has gradually allowed us to expand the sphere of “Us” beyond the borders provided by nature. Unfortunately, it seems that the need for a “Them” is equally natural and is here to stay.

  4. Cris Post author

    The big difference is that Durkheim posits a fundamental and essential link between kinship and “religion” or totemism. As a result, he implicitly contends that fictive kinship (i.e., what he calls the “clan”) is always tied to the totem or religion. This is patently false, based on what we know about non-agricultural societies. Shortly after Durkheim published, Goldenweiser definitively demonstrated that totemism is not universal and is not the key element in establishing kinship relations.

    My point is that we don’t need religion or totemism as an intervening factor or additional explanation. We start with language and then proceed directly to extended or fictive kinship, without all the woo about totems or religion.

    With language in place, people can (and do) simply start extending kin relations to non-biological kin. Thus, a child can have several “fathers” and several “mothers” and many “grandfathers” and “grandmothers” and huge numbers of “brothers” and “sisters” and “aunts” and “uncles” and “cousins.” None of this has to be mediated, as Durkheim insists, through totems or religion. It’s a simple extension of kinship through language.

    I really like the last paragraph of your comment and completely agree.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    I agree with much of what you say here and it opens my eyes to examine yet more presuppositions in theories. One problem:
    Kendall/DeWaal’s note says:

    “Human morality is “firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core” (De Waal, Our Inner Ape). The desire to treat others well comes from altruism which, in turn, comes from empathy.”

    It seems to me that “empathy” is merely a tool — the origin of that tool was probably to predict and/or manipulate others — its origin was not virtuous but the consequence ‘feels’ virtuous. Thus, human morality is neither pessimistic or optimistic, it just is. The dichotomy is artificial. Yet I hear people trying to push one way or the other as they try to affect each others religion, politics, morality, law and more. For they are certainly not trying to understand the truth of the matter, but instead, trying to use theories (or emotions) for their goals.

    But I suspect you agree — I am just sensitive to those that want to make humans look “at core” anything.

  6. Cris Post author

    This is a good point and I think that for methodological or polemical reasons, de Waal has chosen to emphasize only the positive-aspect of ape empathy because he is fighting a long and hard battle against those who initially opposed his ideas and work. For a long time, ethologists frowned on any anthropomorphic interpretations of ape behaviors and were more or less behaviorists in the Skinner mold. Many also opposed his ideas because he placed apes and humans on a “moral” continuum and this threatened the whole idea of human “uniqueness” (or “sacredness”).

    There is a big body of work on the other side of this Janus-face; it is known as “Machiavellian intelligence.” Apes and some monkeys are able to deliberately deceive conspecifics. In order to deceive, you have to be able to get into another’s mind and empathize, right? I think this is the case.

    I don’t think de Waal disagrees with this idea and line of research; in fact, I know he has studied and written about it. Here is a review.

  7. Larry Stout

    I find it noteworthy that contemporary researchers in organic evolution, including human evolution, seldom have occasion to mention Darwin, or to use such terms as Darwinism or Neo-Darwinism; whereas, contemporary anthropologists seem endlessly hidebound by the ghosts of Durkheim, Hobbes, et al. (not to mention Plato and Aristotle). Do non-Western anthropologists see everything through such ossified lenses (or are they just ignoramuses)? It somehow seems akin to something else endless (and pointless — just ask Hemingway): literary criticism. What is the relationship between scholarship and science?

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