Thursday, 31 May 2012

'An unjust law is no law at all': Homophobia and QLD's Defence of Provocation

In 2008, when Wayne Ruks made sexual advances towards two men outside a church in Gympie, he was unaware that his actions would invoke a response that would cost him his life. The defence that was successfully relied upon to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter is known as the homosexual advance defence, which is a form of provocation.

In 2003, Tasmania abolished the defence of provocation for murder with Victoria doing the same in 2005. Although all other Australian jurisdictions still allow this defence, New South Wales and the Northern Territory have excluded non-violent sexual advances from this defence. The current law in Queensland is stated in section 304(1) of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld):

When a person who unlawfully kills another under circumstances which, but for the provisions of this section, would constitute murder, does the act which causes death in the heat of passion caused by sudden provocation, and before there is time for the person’s passion to cool, the person is guilty of manslaughter only.”

Critics of the defence argue that it was relevant prior to the defence of manslaughter being introduced so that those accused could escape the previous punishment of the death penalty. This being the case, the question raised is whether or not this defence serves a purpose in modern criminal law and whether it’s application in cases such as Green v R (1997) is extending the definition too far.

The Reasonable Person
The general test that has been applied throughout common law (R v Sabri Isa [1952]) is that of the reasonable person. More specifically, what was the effect of the provoking actions, not on the individual but rather on a reasonable and objective person? Gibbs J extended this in Moffa v R (1977) to say that the reasonable person is not one who acts reasonably, but rather one who has reasonable powers of self-control. Basically, would an objective third party believe that it was reasonable for the accused to act in that manner?

The opposition to this is that it is impossible to create a model of reasonableness when it comes to provocation, as one must be able to view the characteristics of the accused in order to truly understand why they acted in the way that they did. Although it is reasonable to suggest that the characteristics of the accused be taken into account, a major issue that arises is does this defence protect people who are inherently violent and easily provoked? When someone is easily provoked due to any number of characteristics, the chances of this defence being used are increased. Additionally, it is very difficult to prove and understand how each individual person reacts to different actions. This then has a negative impact on the victim because their killer is given a lesser sentence due to the fact that they reacted to words or actions differently to what a reasonable person generally would.

Although the reasonable person test may go against the rights of the accused, the objective test is the most suitable test to apply due to the fact that it is generally consistent with the views of wider society.

The Homosexual Advance Defence
The homosexual advance defence is a form of provocation in that following a sexual advance; the accused loses control and kills the person who made the advance. Although being used in a handful of New South Wales cases previously (R v McKinnon (1993) and R v Bonner (1995)) the full extent of the homosexual advance defence was seen when it was upheld by the High Court in a 3:2 split in Green v R (1997). In this case, a close friend made a gentle advance (rubbing the groin and backside) towards the accused and this then evoked memories of sexual abuse that occurred between his father and sisters. Because of this, the accused lost control and repeatedly punched the victim’s face and then proceeded to smash his head against a wall causing large cuts on the victim’s head. As if this wasn’t enough, the accused then grabbed a nearby pair of scissors and stabbed him upwards of ten times. During this attack the victim was never able to defend himself. This attack was in no way proportional to the actions of the victim. This mans homophobia caused him to kill one of his friends, and then because of the reasons behind the death, he was able to reduce his charge. The most famous line from this case is when the accused said “yeah I killed him, but he did worse to me” and upon being asked why he killed him the response was “because he tried to root me.” 

On the issue of the reasonable person, McHugh J commented that in this instance it should be viewed as a reasonable person who was subjected to a sexual advance by a close friend that was aggravated by the attackers sensitivity to sexual assaults. From the dissenting view, Gummow J argued that as the acts of sexual abuse we towards his sisters rather than himself, the actions were insufficiently related to the actions of the deceased that caused the provocation. This then raises again the question of whether or not the characteristics of the accused should be taken into account. On this, the other dissenter, Kirby J argued that as a society, Australia is not that homophobic that the response to a non-violent advance would be to brutally murder the victim. Although there are members of society who are genuinely that homophobic, as a whole, most Australians would not see this as a proportionate response.

More recently, in 2008 two men outside a church in Gympie beat a man to death. As the man had made sexual advances towards them, they successfully used the homosexual advance defence. Following the attack outside his church, Father Paul Kelly began a petition to eliminate the gay panic defence from Queensland law. This petition as garnered much support much support including that of British comedian Stephen Fry. The growing public support against the defence shows as a society, views towards homosexuals have improved dramatically and the reasonable person test would not extend to this form of provocation.

Those who oppose the homosexual advance defence claim that it is only used to protect homophobes and there could not be a reasonable justification for allowing it. The defence of provocation is also available for charges of assault, and although the same issues apply, it is more reasonable to see how someone could lose control to the extent of assault. Because even though they have lost control, they still have the self-control to know when to stop, however this is still bad. When the homosexual advance defence is used, it has been in cases of non-violent sexual advances; it has not been in cases where the actions of the victim have been enough to incite a violent response. 

This then raises the question of, is it possible for someone to be so overcome with panic upon being ‘hit on’ that they lose control to the extent that the result of their actions is death? Although there are still many instances of homosexuals being attacked, it is mostly done out of pure homophobia as opposed to responding to sexual advances. It is difficult to say whether or not it is impossible for this level of panic to occur; however even if it is possible for an accused to legitimately lose control and beat someone to death because of homosexual advances, this is not something that society accepts as reasonable or acceptable behaviour. 

It was raised in the dissenting judgement of Green v R that the defence should be abolished “because it reinforces the notion that fear, revulsion or hostility are valid reactions to homosexual conduct.” When allowing a defence like this to exist, it sends the message that this type of reaction is acceptable and this is a contradiction of the views that are held by our modern society.

Kirby J raised one of the biggest arguments surrounding this defence in his dissenting judgement. It was put forward that this defence seems to only apply to homosexual advances as opposed to advances by heterosexuals. He argued that if a woman who had non-violent sexual advances made against her, tried to use provocation as a defence for murder, it would extend the definition of provocation would be unreasonably extended. If it is unreasonable to extend the definition of provocation to non-violent heterosexual advances then why do we continue to allow this defence to be used for homosexual advances? The fact of the matter is that provocation should extend to neither as it is extremely unreasonable that someone should be able to claim that they lost control of their actions when the supposed provoking actions were non-violent sexual advances.

What are the alternatives?
Although there are major problems with the provocation defence, some say that there are certain crimes where the defence should be allowed; such as domestic violence where the accused is reacting to violent situations. In response to this I still recommend that the defence of provocation for murder be removed however in addition to this, I suggest the, what some would call controversial, step be taken and the mandatory life sentence be removed from the charge of murder and allow for the judge to use his or her discretion when it comes to sentencing. In doing so it allows for judges to take into account mitigating factors but without reducing the sentence of murder to manslaughter. It is completely reasonable to charge this people with murder because even if they have ‘lost control’, when one viciously attacks a person to the point of death it is difficult to argue that they lacked the required intent to cause death or grievous bodily harm.

Andrew Suffern is a 2nd year Law/Justice student at Queensland University of Technology. He previously took a year of Film, of which he retains a keen interest. He is particularly interested in questions of legal ethics, especially surrounding the death penalty debate in the US. He is a keen debater.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Deep green hypocrisy — can we ever be ‘green’?

More and more we see the masses crying out for the protection of the environment — whether unkempt Marxists or wealthy philanthropists, they all exclaim: ‘please, won’t somebody think of the Childers flying fox?’ I jest, of course.  But aside from ruthless stereotyping, there are some important questions as to whether or not we can truly care about the environment in the extreme sense of ‘deep ecology’, where humans should seek ‘consistency within ecosystems’, not the manipulation of nature for their own ends.  In attacking this deep ecology framework, I don’t seek to argue against caring for the environment, since humans obviously benefit from its preservation, whether through beauty, resources or for future generations, but merely to undermine the philosophical basis of deep ecology, and explain how it is impossible to be truly green.  

The quest to protect the environment for the benefits it affords humanity broadly fits within the frame of what is labelled ‘shallow’ environmentalism, whose critics, the ‘deep’ ecologists, claim by continuing to accept anthropocentrism, the shallow ecologists simply perpetuate the exploitation of nature.  At the core of deep ecology or ‘deep green thinking’ is, most simply, the rejection of any sense of anthropocentrism and instead an acceptance of humanity as a part of nature, and not above it or separate.  

Deep ecology
The conclusion deep ecology reaches is that we must protect and preserve nature: we must be green, as we are merely part of the natural world, not above it.  This of course begs the question, what do we seek to preserve? What is it to be ‘green’?  The very word itself seems loaded with meaning, aside from its political connotations; it suggests that what humans should seek to preserve is those beautiful parts of wilderness: the old growth forests of Tasmania, the crystalline fjords of northern Europe and the pristine ice sheets of the poles.  Or is it the radioactive green of low-carbon nuclear energy?  So let us test this idea of natural preservation as an end in itself.  

While various frameworks are adopted by different groups, the focus is generally in fairly amorphous constructions, such as the ‘encouragement of nature to flourish’, which though evoking beautiful tableaux of flora and fauna in readers’ minds actually mean very little in terms of real goals.  In what seems like a more specific description, some proponents support preventing acts ‘inconsistent’ with particular ecosystems.  This remains unclear — what makes something inconsistent with nature?  It could be inconsistent with its appearance, such as a bitumen car-park in a rainforest, or even a wind turbine in a field.  However let us assume that it is not motivated purely by aesthetic considerations, given that many things in ‘nature’ (always said as if humans are not part of it, seemingly contradicting the anti-anthropocentric approach) can look out of place, and given the deep ecologists’ apparent loathing for ‘shallowness’.  

Inconsistent with nature?

To decide how to protect nature we must reach one of three conclusions, as I will explain, namely:
I.         Assume we can make choices regarding what is best for nature and then act along those lines, as deep ecologists suggest;
II.         Accept that, given the integrity of nature which must be preserved, we should remove humans from the planet; or
III.         Accept that the only consistent part of nature is its process of natural selection, and thus we should act with what is best in the eyes of humans, noting that this does not necessarily exclude the protection of nature as we decide.  

I. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ — can humanity make choices about what is best for nature?
If we accept the idea of humanity as one with and not above nor divisible from nature, we cannot therefore make decisions regarding how to protect nature as an end in itself.  To make these decisions, in what I have already explained seems a value-laden process, it assumes some level of anthropocentrism, accepting that humans are in a position to make normative judgements to interfere with nature, even if the aim is its benefit.  Take climate change, for instance.  Why is nature better served by emitting less carbon dioxide and having a cooler planet?  Obviously there are human protection and lifestyle imperatives, such as rising sea levels and agricultural issues, but these are not our focus.  How is nature any less flourishing, or less consistent?  It could be the extinctions which cause the worry, however these are not inconsistent with the changes in nature which have occurred in the past.  What is the difference between extinction of a prehistoric frog as a result of natural flying predators and the extinction of a bird due to anthropogenic climate change?  The argument that such changes are differentiable seems strangely to put humans in the centre, as with anthropocentrism, or at least assign some sort of anthropo-polarity, with humans at one pole of some spectrum of nature, still distinct.  This seems contradictory to deep ecology’s stated basis.  

II. Should we kill the environmentalists?
There are some groups which propose gradual extinction or reduction of the human population, however this author dismisses the former leaving it to others to consider, and feels the latter is a discussion for another time.  Not only does it seem absurd to countenance, but is contrary to allowing nature to flourish, if, as deep ecologists say, humans are part of nature.  Again, our meta-reasoning ability as a race distinguishes us, and to use that very distinction to reason that we and nature are indistinguishable seems odd.  

III. ‘...until soft peaks form’ — is there only one way to measure consistency?

In adopting a model by which to measure consistency for the purposes of deep ecology’s aims, this author can only find one possible measure: the process of natural selection and Darwinism.  All of nature, including, as the deep ecologists wish, humanity, has developed through the process of natural selection: the random mutation of genes which then, through the ‘survival of the fittest’ leads to the prominence of optimal genetic features.  This evolution occurred and still occurs not only through survival of the fittest individual, but often the fittest groups, with much current research, for instance, about the evolutionary origins of altruism.  Whether we look at bonobos working (and sleeping) together for the benefit of the community or fish clinging to aquatic mammals in symbiotic relationships, we see that cooperation such as that of humans is not against this principle of natural selection.  So it seems that only if we interfere with that principle then we interfere with nature.  Can we ever interfere with this?  I contend that we cannot, which finally places humans as truly part of nature, equal with the other animals in our inability to modify the process.  Moreover, the conservationist tendencies of deep ecologists betray their true failures: by seeking the protection of nature as it exists now, they act antithetically to nature’s consistent, gradual development, and implicitly oppose the flourishing they wish it to undergo. 

The path ahead

So does this mean we should just go about the destruction of nature, emitting carbon dioxide as we please and hunting rhinos for their alleged aphrodisiacal properties?  Only if that is what we think is best for humans.  I certainly do not want to live in a barren, salinated wasteland at higher temperatures without exotic creatures, and neither do many, so even if we reject deep ecology we need not fear for that.  

It seems that for all its grand ambition, deep ecology fails to maintain the consistency it so prizes through its untenable basis.  Shallowness knows no bounds. 

James Rigby is a first year student completing a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Economics at the University of Queensland.  He has interests in politics and science, and intends to enjoy the best parts of Arts vicariously through his learned colleagues.  

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Sun is but a Morning Star: On the Importance of Science Literacy

The Neil deGrasse Tyson Meme

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”
Carl Sagan

“Science literacy is a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

“Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers; you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age”
Richard Feynman

“The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened, it's just wonderful. And the opportunity to spend 70 or 80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.”
Douglas Adams 

Being scientifically literate enables you to comprehend the universe.

The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution bequeathed a certain and profound concept that has enabled us to fully grapple with and comprehend reality. From Galileo Galilei to David Hume and from to Charles Darwin to Steven Hawking, empiricism, scepticism and the scientific method  has been at the fore of the human endeavour to understand the world. And yet, whilst we pride ourselves on our technological civilisation that does not subject itself to the supposed irrational superstition of backward tribal cultures, pseudoscience and an apathy and ignorance of science is rife. Shamefully, as Carl Sagan pondered, the majority of newspapers have astrology sections, but how many of them even have weekly science columns? Indeed the majority of people can name many of the astrological star signs, but simply cannot list the planets of our solar system. Important public issues around science are being distorted and hijacked by fringe groups and science curricula around the world is being dumbed down or even rejected in place of pseudoscience or politicised and selective data.

Fundamentally, normatively and empirically, science literacy is an imperative for a citizenry in this modern age of information technology and climate change. It is important to note that science literacy doesn't translate into the ability to understand the basics of quantum electrodynamics or the ability to perform advanced calculus. Importantly, to be scientifically literate is to possess a certain frame of mind  and recognition of the world in a certain way. Moreover to value science literacy is not to degrade or criticise the liberal arts and humanities, they are equally of importance – as Jacob Bronowski states “It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests”. Thus it should be of equal shame and hypocrisy for a liberal arts graduate to be oblivious to who Watson and Crick were just as it is for a theoretical physics graduate to be ignorant about Shakespeare or Chaucer. Scientific literacy empowers individuals to comprehend the world and make more rational decisions about their place in it. Moreover, science is similar to the arts and music – it is possible and indeed important to atheistically appreciate the discoveries of science. Indeed the scientific understanding of reality is one of beauty too – as Richard Feynman states “there are all kinds of interesting questions that come from the knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe and beauty”. There exists a gulf between the science cognoscenti and the public – when, for example, was the last time a scientist appeared on Q&A along with the politicians as opposed to a writer, actor or musician? Importantly, where does the fault lie – with the scientists themselves not being willing to engage with mainstream media, with the mainstream media not willing to engage with the scientists, or with society in not valuing science leading to the scientists and the media not bothering to engage society? Evidently it is a combination of all three demographics to blame.

The Current State of Science Literacy
Suffice to say, be it with evolution or climate change, the population of the United States is one of the most scientifically illiterate of the developed nations. The 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators by the National Science Foundation paint a very poor picture for the United States in terms of public science literacy. Indeed there exists a massive disconnect from the scientific community and the general public due to a number of social, cultural and political factors. Fortunately, Australia is far more scientifically literate than the United States, but only marginally. When it comes to nuclear energy or genetically modified food, scientific findings are just as likely to be politicised in Australia as the United States. A 2010 report of science literacy in Australia by the Australian Academy of Sciences shows that public science literacy is at a low. The report consisted of asking over 1500 individuals from a diversity of backgrounds six basic questions, such as “How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?” and “Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.” Only about 30 per cent of the sample answered all six questions correctly. And yet individuals were asked “In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?” and 42 per cent answered “absolutely essential” and 38 per cent answered “very important”. Thus the Australian public understands the importance of science education, but this understanding is not being translating into science literacy. The Health of Australian Science Report by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia this year has a largely positive account of science in Australia. Our researchers are punching well above their weight in terms of output and recognition and those that are enrolled in high school science are preforming well comparatively to other countries. However the report does point to some trends that will prove problematic in the long term. There have been declining rates of enrolment in high school science, especially in chemistry and physics, with the recent years being at an all-time low since 1980. Moreover, there have been declining rates of science teaching graduates. This is bad in terms of science literacy for the broader public.

The Ascent of Science Documentaries
The opening titles The Ascent of Man (BBC 1973), Connections (BBC 1978), 
Life on Earth (BBC 1979), and Cosmos (PBS 1980)

In 1969 David Attenborough was Controller of BBC Two and commissioned a thirteen part documentary series about the history of western art. Entitled Civilisation it was presented by Kenneth Clark and showcased not only the history and aesthetics of western art but also the quality of the new UHF colour television broadcasting the BBC was then offering. The series was met with universal acclaim and thus set the blueprint and precedence for landmark documentary series. Also in 1969, BBC commissioned the television documentary series Horizon which began airing regularly and each episode looked at individual topics in science. To complement the claims of Clark in Civilisation, that the arts reflected and was informed by the major driving forces in cultural evolution and with the popularity of Horizon, Attenborough specifically commissioned The Ascent of Man in 1973. Presented by Jacob Bronowski, the thirteen part documentary series looked at the development of human society through the development of science. Then in 1974, America’s Public Broadcasting Service was inspired and supported by Horizon to produce a regular science documentary series using its same model – thus culminating in Nova. In 1978 came, along similar lines to The Ascent of Man, Connections, a ten part documentary series by James Burke. It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and demonstrated how various scientific discoveries and historical events were interconnected paving the way for modern technology. Inevitably and evidently Attenborough, who was always interested in natural history, was inspired to present his own documentary series. His passion culminated in the thirteen part series in 1979 entitled Life on Earth. In 1980 across the Atlantic Ocean, PBS commissioned the landmark Cosmos. Presented by Carl Sagan, Cosmos proved to be was a fundamental turning point for science education and the public understanding of science. To this day science documentaries have proliferated from Bill Nye the Science Guy to ABC’s Catalyst and even Mythbusters is an example of the popularity of science. Both BBC’s Horizon and PBS’s Nova are still running, David Attenborough is still producing and narrating natural history documentaries and clips of Cosmos have received millions of views on YouTube. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe have proved popular during mainstream television hours, and new documentary science communicators have taken the stage such as Alice Roberts and Michio Kaku. Suffice to say there is a market for science documentaries.

Popular Science in Popular Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

Popular science and science documentaries have become prominent in society. From online blogs, magazines, television series and books, popular science has are exponentially increased since the 1980s. Interestingly the rise of the public intellectual and science communicator, namely Carl Sagan, was originally decried by the scientific academy as dumbing down scientific research. Now this has been embraced as a critical role of the scientific cohort. Organisations such as the Royal Society, the British Science Association and the Royal Institution all value and realise the necessity of engagement with popular discourses. Many research scientists have turned their hand from laboratory work to writing popular science books, ranging from theoretical cosmology to evolutionary game theory. Steven Hawking set the precedence for this trend with his landmark and bestselling A Short History of Time in 1988 and to this day, with A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson in 2005, tautologically popular science books prove popular. Even The Big Bang Theory, CSI and Numbers are examples of the growing significance of science in popular culture.  It is perhaps a positive indicator that a group of scientists and nerds can be stars on popular prime time television shows in the United States. Scientists and science communicators have noticed the significance of this and Neil deGrasse Tyson even appeared as a guest on an episode of The Big Bang Theory. There are numerous YouTube channels and videos for science and increasingly universities, such as MIT and Harvard have been uploading videos of course lectures. Newspapers and radio stations have increasingly expanded their science sections, from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian to The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4.

Current Issues with Public Understanding and Awareness of Science
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it.” 
Jacob Bronowski

It is important to delineate the differences between the public understanding and awareness of science. Science outreach (university community engagement, public lectures), science communication (documentaries, museums, festivals, journalism, popular science books) and science education (primary and secondary science curriculum, university science courses) are avenues that fall under contributing to science literacy.
The Avenues of Science Communication

There exist a number of problems with the way science curricula are taught. For many people science is something to be tolerated in high school, details of which are promptly forgotten after tests are over. This may be understandable since regrettably basic science curriculum can often consist of lectures on taxonomy or analogous facts about what science has discovered, along with the painful need to memorize long lists of strange words. Rather than learning the cold hard facts, it is important for students to experience and understand the scientific method and to critically, experimentally and sceptically engage with data and reality. Recently, the National Science Education Standards agreed on by the the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association, stresses teaching the paradigm of  scientific thinking rather than the learning of facts. It serves as a curricula foundation for primary and high school science which emphasises an inquiry-based approach in the context of concepts and principles rather than vocabulary and rote memorisation. 

When it comes to science communication, the University of Oxford was the first university to established a Professorship of the Public Understanding of Science through an endowment from the Hungarian-American computer executive Charles Simonyi in 1995. Richard Dawkins was the inaugural holder of this Professorship and he lectured, published and broadcast widely to improve the public understanding of science. That said, I am inclined to criticise Dawkins for quite explicitly pushing his agenda of atheism and focused less offering science to the public in an accessible, non-polemical manner. Whilst the relationship of science and religion is indeed a contentious one and whilst I personally believe the calculus of the justification of faith is as dead-end in the logical pathway from science and thus the two are irreconcilable, it is not the role of science communicators to push atheism or to critique personal religious beliefs.  Realistically, science and religious belief are commonly not mutually exclusive and it is quite alright to hold religious belief and value the scientific endeavour. But this is another discussion to be had. Dawkins’ successor, Professor Marcus du Sautoy, said he would be focusing “very much on the science and less on religion”.

Current practices and policies for science communication to the public are too top down. Whilst this may not be an issue for the classroom or university, but outside this educational context it becomes a massive problem. But more over it is not at all enough to recite the laws of thermodynamics or to know the boiling temperature of water. Indeed I. B. Cohen, a pioneering Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University from the 1950s, called this “the fallacy of miscellaneous information”. The average person does not take kindly to being lectured to by what they perceive to believe elitist and esoteric scientists in terms they don’t understand. Climate change science communication is a profound example of this. The Science Centre in Brisbane, and other similar institutions around the world, attempt to make science fun and visually stimulating without providing an avenue for critical thinking. Whilst these types of science communication have their place, they may be undermining the hard work and complexity of science. Science isn't a fun and visually stimulating endeavour for all scientists for all the time. To have children exposed to such perceptions is necessarily flawed. Outside of the high school laboratory it is important to incentivise the public to become scientifically literate – to make them stakeholders, to allow them to interact with the scientific method and to have their voices to be heard and to give them the chance to influence research priorities. Science is as much a part of society as the arts. As Jon Turney, a science communicator at University College London, states “should we work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please.”

Overall, whilst the popular science industry is growing, this hasn't necessarily translated into a great science literacy in the general public. There still exists structural and pedagogical problems in communicating science from the classroom by the teacher to lounge room by the documentary.

Economic Benefits of Science Literacy
A scientifically literate public are more than likely to push for prioritising scientific research, be it basic research or applied research. Indeed there are an immensity of economic benefits in having a scientifically literate public. In an information and industrial economy there is a growing demand for SMET (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) graduates likewise as the markets begin transitioning to a greener economy. Investments in sustainable energy, space exploration and nanotechnology all have immense long term benefits to the economy. The 2007 Public Support for Science and Innovation Report by the Productivity Commission lays out the economic basis for the public support of science. Economic arguments for the public support of science come from recognising that science has the elements of being a public good. First, it is non-rival in that it can be widely applied without the cost of providing it to marginal individuals being high. Second, it is partially excludable as when someone makes use of science they can only appropriate a fraction of its returns and actions can be taken that prevent excludability. The traditional argument for the public support of science was first developed after the Second World War by Vannevar Bush, who was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, an independent federal agency. In Science: The Endless Frontier, a report to President Truman in 1945 on future science and technology policy, Bush outlines the distinction between basic research and applied research. He propounded that basic research was a critical input into the production of useful knowledge, being “the pacemaker of technological progress”. This is the one-dimensional linear model: science leads to innovation leads to productivity – the economic argument of spillovers. 

Public Policy
“By definition, I begin
Alternative medicine, I continue
Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call alternative medicine
That's been proved to work?
Tim Minchin

It is imperative for the public to be engaged with science especially when it comes to government making policy decisions about science. The existence of a democratic process, with voting rights and a transparent and representative governance structure, is fundamental but not sufficient. Individuals that are scientifically illiterate are increasingly at a disadvantage when they lack the information to engage in these important public policy dilemmas as a critical and independent thinker. For example, the many causes and effects that impact human health are questions of science: alternative medicine has no cause outside the placebo effect on treating disease; smoking is a cause of lung cancer; obesity is a cause of diabetes; lead poisoning is a cause of brain damage in the young; alcohol and drug use by pregnant women are a cause of brain damage to their unborn children. The public must also grapple with important public policy questions that must be informed by science. For example, an understanding of the science of embryonic stem cell research is critically important to inform policymakers who are advocating or opposing this research; an understanding of climatology is essential to those concerned with regulation of fossil fuel consumption and energy policy; astronomy and cosmology must inform wise investment in space exploration. Moreover, when it comes to the judicial system it is important to have a grasp of the scientific method. Legal principles when it comes to determining admissibility of scientific evidence, such as the Frye standard and the Daubert standard, are important is many cases. Once a population begins to start thinking critically and rationally about the world they are evidently less likely to support the  fringe or mainstream distortion of science by politicians and the media. A scientifically literate population would value and vote for evidence based public policy, especially when it comes to crime and public health.

Values, both Ethical and Aesthetic, from a Scientific Outlook
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan

Science is beauty

Normatively and empirically, I believe the scientific method lends itself to humanism and progressive social policy. Science is an incredibly humbling endeavour which allows us to understand our position in the immensity of the cosmos.  The image of earth as a pale blue green dot, as Carl Sagan said,  “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”. Even Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, stated  “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!” During the Cold War many scientists joined the disarmament and peace movements. The Russell–Einstein Manifesto of 1955 at Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs is a profound example of this. All this is not to exclude or play down the horrific outcomes of science - from the nuclear bomb itself or to the eugenics of the Nazi regime. But it is important to note that these horrific outcomes are not due to the failings of science, but rather the politics and public policies around the science. I certainly reach many of my personal ethical values from a scientific knowledge of the way the world is. Knowing the Newtonian physics behind the rotation of the earth around the sun does not at all detract from the beauty I see in a sunset. It enhances it. I am humbled to know that that sun is but a morning star in the cosmic immensity. I was a member of the astronomy club at my high school and I still remember the feeling or gazing at the rings of Saturn or looking at the craters on the moon. A scientific outlook is a sublime one.

The rings of Saturn as taken by NASA’s Voyager 1

It is indeed perhaps a truism that education is a good and ideal aim for everyone. This is important when it comes to science. The public tends to be either apathetic and ambivalent to science or fearful and troubled by science. It is important to recognise that there is a cognitive diversity in society – different people have different interests and cognitive capacities when it comes to arts and sciences. Indeed the demographics involved would be those that will never be engaged by science, those that are aware of it but do not care, those that are on the fence either way, those that appreciate science, and those that are fully engaged with science. As Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution and Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, stated “Once we have a society where science is as exciting as football, and where attending a science lecture or debate is as relevant and fun as going to the cinema, only then will we be truly empowered as a society to harness science for what we want in life, rather than the other way round.” This indeed an ideal that may not conform to the basic cognitive psychologies of the average person, but is an ideal we should strive for nonetheless. To suggest the average person can’t appreciate the scientific method, just like they can’t appreciate classical literature is offensive. It is a failing of our education and our cultural norms that the average person goes to sleep when they hear Newtonian laws of motion or Shakespeare. Indeed it is imperative that we rectify this. Science literacy is as fundamental for a society as access to clean water, sustainable energy, and healthcare. Amazingly, all these requirements for a healthy society stem from scientific knowledge.

Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

'You've Got a Friend in Me, When the Road Looks Rough Ahead': On Patterns of Friendship

Introduction: 'I get by with a little help from my friends'
Humans are deeply unusual creatures- we are the only species to form 'long-standing, non-reproductive unions'- that is, we have friends! From C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien to Boswell and Samuel Johnson to Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway to even fictional friendships like that of Achilles and Patroclus- friendships are some of the most important relationships we have. Indeed, a decline in friendships in the United States (an American Sociological Review study found the number of people with at least one close confidant has dropped from 80% to 57% from 1985 to 2004) has been linked to an increase in psychological disorders. But why do we have friends at all? And perhaps more interestingly: who are we likely to be friends with?

I will trace evidence that cooperation is important in human societies and that this likely explains the psychological rewards of friendship. I will also explore new evidence that even in tribal societies we tend to befriend people who cooperate similar amounts to us, have similar genes to us (even among non-relations) and are physically and socially similar.

'Lean on Me, When You're Not Strong': The Evolution of Human Cooperation
There is strong evidence from chimps on the antecedents of friendships- for chimps non-reproductive connections provide a form of direct reciprocity- support in a fight, borrowing valuable tools, food in time of scarcity (this has been particularly documented by Pruetz and Lindshield). While these aren't exactly friendships as we'd categorise them- they are based too much in reciprocal giving and taking- they do provide clues on why friendships make evolutionary sense.

Further, it has been documented in primates that those who have a better ability to form coalitions have an evolutionary advantage over their competitors- which has been posed as a possible explanation- the logic being that many of the same characteristics (a giving nature etc.) are the same as we prize in friends and potential members of an alliance.

Baboons who form strong non-reproductive bonds also have better immune function and energy savings, which have been explained as being relieved of the burden of being continuously vigilant of potential challenges and attacks and the potential reduced sense of vulnerability.

As Bowles and Gintis (who on a side note wrote papers for MLK Jr.'s Poor People's March back in the day) document in The Cooperative Species, the relatively warlike nature of the hunter-gatherer existence and the rapid extinction of many groups precipitated the genetic and cultural evolution of social emotions such as shame and guilt because they conferred an advantage on any member of a relatively cooperative group. It is theorised that these emotions provided the jump from so called 'contingent cooperation' (think: if you buy coffee for your co-workers, then you expect them to buy you coffee back at a relatively fixed point in the future) and true friendship.

But can we thus shed any light on who we become friends with?

'Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend': Who are we more likely to be friends with?
Friendship is obviously a culturally contingent phenomenon- witness the breakdown in affectionate male friendships in particularly Anglo-American society that occurred after the Oscar Wilde trial (and from which the Anglo-American world has never really recovered- men used to walk arm in arm in Hyde Park- would many straight men ever do that again?). However, studies have shown amongst groups as diverse as Americans and the Hadza people of north-central Tanzania that there a few common threads amongst those who we choose to be friends with. Broadly speaking, interpersonal similarity is the strongest predictor: we are rarely friends with those who are completely dissimilar to us (except in the case that through repeated interaction we grow to like them).

Much like Erving Goffman's 'matching hypothesis' for couples, there is evidence that people often pick people of similar 'worth' as defined by different cultural characteristics e.g. looks, intelligence, interests etc. Apicella et al found that the strongest predictors of what they call 'social assortativity' (a measure of the regularity of interactions based on the idea that we tend to interact more with our friends) is highest amongst those who cooperate in similar amounts (this is unsurprising- we like friends who are friendly!). A similar result has also been found for US students and Honduran adult villagers- meaning it is likely to be robust to cultural variation. Physical similarities are also prized amongst the Hadza -- after all foraging is labour intensive and if you've got friends who can physically help more, they are going to be contributing more to your life or group. This may also explain why it has been observed that even in modern society we tend to group with people of reasonably similar physical attractiveness to us- although this is obviously also socially attuned- more attractive people are also more popular. Similar positions in a social group are also a strong predictor of friendship- they both bring people together more often and increase the desire for continued social interaction. 

There is also interesting new evidence that people may befriend those with similar genotypes- in particular a study by James Fowler found that whether a person carries DRD2 (which has been linked to alcoholism) and CYP2A6 (which has been linked to openness) is strongly linked to whether they befriend another person with or without those genes, even accounting for social proximity. This of course is particularly bad news for alcoholics, it turns out that not only are they more likely to be genetically predisposed to drink to excess, they may be genetically predisposed to be friends with others who are also predisposed as such. But it provides an interesting broader point- is friendship also for the benefit of the genes? If we follow a Dawkins logic, some of the purpose of friendship may actually be to benefit our genes. It should also be noted that the Fowler study found that 4 other genes were not linked to friendship- so this question needs further exploration. 

Some Further Questions
Obviously this is an area where many new discoveries are being made- studies of the evolution of cooperation more broadly are on the frontier of science after having been largely ignored by evolutionary biology for so long. But there is interesting evidence that far from just being social constructs, friendships were evolutionary advantageous to humans as a form of reciprocity, social association and possibly even genetic association. None of this of course is to downplay how important and varied friendships really are- it just asks an interesting question: how was I able to feel this way towards others in the first place?

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

'Baby I'm Your Biggest Fan, I'll Follow You Until You Love Me': Why pop culture isn't 'low culture'

Popular culture, in particular pop music is attacked from the right and the left- by the former for attacking 'traditional values' and the latter for embracing what Theodor Adorno termed the 'culture industry' (think EMI, the Murdoch Group, Disney etc.). It is also generally attacked by a lot of bourgeoisie, hipsters and other intelligentsia for lacking 'substance'- a charge I'm certainly guilty of making in the past.

It is often ignored by academics (though this trend is changing)- which is deeply silly, because in examining popular culture we learn a lot more than by reading texts (some of which I certainly enjoy) which no one else reads. It is wrong to cast aspersions on all pop culture as 'valueless' and to treat it as an undifferentiated mass- both the music, books etc and the reactions to them are often as heterogenous and interesting as their alternatives.

I want to make to contend that the label of 'low culture' indicates more about those who wield this distinction than those any medium that fits into either category. I'd like to deconstruct two main arguments about the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture: 1) whether pop culture is 'contentless' and 2) whether commercialisation has somehow 'cheapened' culture or enslaved us (the argument about whether the culture industry has captured as all has some merit I think- with qualifications).

'So, Call me Maybe': Is all pop culture free of 'content' and what is 'content', anyway?
It is often claimed (perhaps fairly in the case of say Rebecca Black's 'Friday'), that pop culture lacks 'content' (Theodor Adorno in particular in The Culture Industry- claims that modern society had invented the concept of a contentless 'free time' and 'leisure' in order to tie entertainment to the culture industry).

The first issue with this is that the word 'content' is a loaded one- for instance in what way does Beethoven's 9th Symphony contain more 'content' than say Lady GaGa's 'Alejandro'? One could claim that the 9th Symphony has stood the test of time and that is certainly true (but how can we tell what of modern culture will last? My guess is that it won't be an indie band, though). However, much of what we now think are classics were once 'pop culture' and some classics we might even consider crude and relatively 'content-free' now. I am thinking of many of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in particular- they are more vulgar than most modern fiction, not to mention that The Prioress' Tale is one of the more anti-Semitic texts in existence. If we take 'content' as requiring 'skill', this is a problematic test as skill is both subjective and that which we now value isn't necessarily the most ornate- it is mostly just what previous generations valued (who says objectively for example that Shakespeare was a more skilful playwright than Marlowe?).

The second issue with this charge is that even if we take a less vague definition of culture- say 'emotional range' or 'thematic range', then pop culture can live up to this test. It is first worth noting that the judgment of the present will make little difference to what is remembered later- the Impressionists were considered vulgar in their day and Ernest Meissonier was considered the height of French art, yet who is remembered now? Conversely, popular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has notable range- from the almost mythological Lord of the Rings to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, from the kitschy pleasures of Glee to the geeky Big Bang Theory, from the haunting satire of American Beauty to the classic romance of Casablanca and from the iconic Elvis to the rather controversially Grammy Award-winning Arcade Fire.

The key problem though is that the charge of 'lacking content' really indicates something about those who say it. Most people who reflexively claim to hate anything popular actually look down upon either the masses as commercial slaves or the masses as cultural proletariat. Disliking anything popular has become the social equivalent of sumptuary laws- one thing for a 'higher' class of connoisseur, another for the rest. I would not claim that certain aspects of popular culture can be without harm- it can be sexist, racist, voyeuristic and deeply glib at times (and I think a lot of it is terrible- but probably much of most media forms is terrible- you have to churn through a lot of any sort of music, literature or art etc. to get to a few gems, look at poetry). But it should not be dismissed out of hand just because it is popular. And these charges are not exactly new- ballads, the pop music of the Middle Ages, were accused by authorities of 'debasing' those who heard them (and indeed they were often deliciously subversive of chivalric or social norms).

But does the commercialisation charge have any weight, then? This brings us to whether culture has been 'cheapened'.

'We are Living in a Material World, And I am a Material Girl': Are we the slaves of industry? Has Culture been Cheapened?
Adorno saw all mass culture as creating false needs, of supplanting the 'true needs' of freedom, creativity and genuine happiness. The issue with this theory is that for the longest time, humans have turned to others to produce entertainment for them that merely entertained- from ancient Greek theatre to modern television. Indeed, very little of modern culture is as debauched as the ancient Bacchanalia!

A more serious inditement might be that the 'culture industry' of which Adorno speaks has taken control of our culture- which carries weight given the influence of News Corp. and all its subsidiaries- Murdoch's tendrils run deep.

However, while corporations have certainly used cultural media to make a profit they are not the only source of culture and various sub-cultures and counter-cultures demonstrate that hegemony can be resisted (e.g. gay subcultures, the Beatniks, mods etc.).

Certainly, modern pop culture is displacing many traditional cultures, which is a cause for concern throughout many societies. Further, even in Western societies it may be causing culture to be homogenised, an accumulation of American tastes and values. These are serious concerns- but rarely actually addresses by those who raise them. I have no comprehensive solution to note here, save that there may be a role for governments and other organisations to foster language and other cultural customs especially for indigenous groups- provided those customs do not actually harm the participants (practices which oppress women or minorities should not be encouraged, no matter their importance to anyone's culture).

On cheapness, I would argue that culture is as 'cheap' as it has always been- mostly people look for the same sorts of things from their entertainment- as Sherman Young points out in The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book, the idea that there was ever a vast, educated reading public reading literary classics is a fallacy.

'Don't You Step On My Blue Suede Shoes': Some Conclusions
Pop culture can be as terrible as any art form, but it is wrong to hate something just because it is popular. So dislike Lady GaGa if you think she is derivative or dislike sex-positive feminism (I think you're missing out on how fun her music is but whatever), dislike Britney if you think her music doesn't mean anything to you, dislike Game of Thrones if you think it is too violent or bad fantasy, dislike Glee if you think it is poor quality music (again missing its kitschy fun appeal, but again whatever) and dislike Lord of the Rings if you think it is too long-winded. But don't hate anything just because it is mainstream, especially not if you consider the mainstream 'below' you. I certainly know I've been guilty of this in the past, but it is a poor error to make.

Now certainly there are some questions that should be considered:
1. How much do corporations really control modern culture and is this actually new?
2. How much does modern culture alienate minorities, the poor etc.?
3. Is pop culture any more derivative than other art forms?
But none of these take away from my key point- pop culture is an important part of our society and doesn't deserve to be reflexively looked down upon or ignored by the chattering classes.

And who knows, if you're like me up until recently and you'd ignored large swathes of pop culture- maybe you'll actually find a lot of it deliciously fun.

For those who are interested, some interesting texts on this subject are:
- Theodor Adorno's The Culture Industry
- Ross King's The Judgment of Paris (on the rise of the Impressionists)
- Ken Gelder's Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practice of a Literary Field
- Hannah Arendt's The Crisis in Culture

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The State of Nature: Socioeconomics of Hunter Gatherers

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
The Conquest of Granada (1670)
John Dryden (1631 – 1700) English poet and playwright

This is the second part in the series of comparative analysis of hunter gatherers and agricultural societies which will be focusing on socioeconomics. My other post laid out the empirical nature of the health nutrition of both societies demonstrating that the diet of hunter gatherers was far more healthy and diverse than that of agricultural societies. I qualified this by conceding that, in theory, through modern medicine and preventative health we can offset the harms of the Western diet to our Palaeolithic genome and this has translated into higher life expectancy since the Renaissance for Europeans. This post I will be looking at three areas – cooperation and egalitarianism; labour and leisure; and peace and conflict – and providing analysis and comparison between hunter gatherers and agricultural societies. In this post I aim to address some misconceptions commonly found about hunter gatherer socioeconomics in an empirical manner without making any serious normative value judgements. Let us begin with some context to this interesting topic.

Hadza Bushmen of Tanzania having lunch

The State of Nature from Leviathan to Stone Age Economics
Throughout the history of western philosophy the state of nature has been a central concept for expounding and justifying various political, social, economic and moral ideals. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) was one of the first to employ this though experiment in his book Leviathan (1651) written during the English Civil War (1642–1651). In it he proposed the necessity for an absolute monarchy and strong central government to constrain and curb the brutish instincts of humans that are found in the original position where there is no civil society. According to Hobbes, the state of nature was marked by bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) and that there was:

No Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Indeed this perspective of the state of nature by Hobbes has been one of the prominent interpretations for humanity’s instincts and has been employed by various political philosophers and national leaders to justify certain policies throughout history. Yet, in 1689, the English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) offered and expounded a fundamentally different perspective on the state of nature. In Two Treatises of Government Locke argued for democratic governance in opposition to Hobbesian absolute monarchy and came to a conclusion about the state of nature:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all humankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and interdependent; no one ought to harm another in his life, health, and liberty. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings – as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties – are equal amongst themselves.

Indeed, this interpretation of the state of nature as being far from the Hobbesian struggle lead to various characterisations of those living in the state of nature as being “noble savages”. This concept is commonly associated with the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), but interestingly the first use of the term appears in 1670 in The Conquest of Granada, a play by English poet and playwright John Dryden. Certainly, Rousseau took on board this concept and in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1754) he states:

I know that civilized men do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains. But when I see barbarous man sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness.

When the British explorer Captain James Cook came across Australia he was of a similar opinion to Rousseau. In the entry of 23 August 1770 into the Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, Cook opinionated:

The natives of New Holland may appear to some to be the most wretched people of earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans, as they are wholly unacquainted with the superfluous conveniences so much sought after in Europe. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not magnificent houses, household-stuff. In short they seemed to set no value upon any thing we gave them. This in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessities of life and that they have no superfluities.

It must be noted that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all lacked any empirical evidence to substantiate their claims of the original position and state of nature of humankind and even Cook lacked the thorough methodology to make such empirical claims. Indeed, it is contested to weather Hobbes even proposed his Leviathan as the reality of the state of nature or rather proposed it as a philosophical though experiment. Either way, with the wax and wane of colonialism and the decline of racist anthropology, by the 1960s a number of anthropologists were conducting ethnographic fieldwork in some of the last hunter gatherer societies in existence. A prominent radical anthropologist was Marshall Sahlins, now Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 1974 he wrote The Original Affluent Society in Stone Age Economics arguing that hunter gatherer societies were actually affluent insofar as their material expectations closely matched their means to obtain those expectations and they had limited wants and unlimited means. As stated:

Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter and gatherers in which all the people's material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognise that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.

This concept of the Original Affluent Society seriously challenged the orthodoxy of the time of Hobbes in political and social philosophy and of Homo economicus in classical economic theory. It is with this context that I shall begin my analysis of the empirical evidence from the archaeological and ethnographic records of hunter gatherer societies – the state of nature.

Cooperation and Egalitarianism: Equity, Gift Economy and Challenges to Homo economicus
Inequality is not an intrinsic or natural feature of human societies – the social, political and economic organisation of hunter gatherers, from the Hadza to the Inuit, inevitably tends to be that of egalitarianism. This fact comes down to a number of factors spurring it on: ecological constraints necessitating equity for the group, the natural selection of cooperative and prosocial behaviours, but also through cultural constructs and social networks to maintain, facilitate and enforce equality. Cooperation is fundamental in these hunter gatherer societies, and as a David Attenborough documentary shows, it is possible through cooperation that 3 Dorobo hunters of Kenya can scare off 15 hungry lions from a recently deceased game and go home with free meat to feed the tribe. Indeed James Woodburn, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, states that hunter gatherers are “aggressively egalitarian” because this egalitarianism is a necessity for their survival. Some of the most profound examples of altruistic punishment of freeriders occur in these hunter gatherer societies, and some of the most profound examples of how cooperative and prosocial behaviours are incentivised are found in hunter gatherers societies. Recent ethnographic research and statistical modelling – published in Nature by a team of anthropologists and statisticians from Harvard University, University of California at San Diego and University of Cambridge – has uncovered the networks of cooperation of the Hadza in Tanzania and how cooperators cluster together in order to outcompete freeriders and egotists and how these networks are found in modern social interactions (Coren L. Apicella of Harvard University explains it here). Hunter gatherers are profoundly the antithesis to Homo economicus – their society is based on the gift economy where there is complete communal sharing of resources and selfishness is fundamentally taboo and dominators are abhorred.

The market economy is a myth when it comes to the subsistence gift economies of hunter gatherers, as John M. Gowdy, Professor of Economics and Social Sciences at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shows in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Among the Hadza people of Tanzania there are elaborate rules to ensure that all meat from a hunting expedition is equally shared. Hoarding, or even having a greater share than others, is socially unacceptable and egotists are punished. Apart from personal items, such as tools, weapons, or jewellery, there are sanctions against accumulating possessions, not least because the nomadism of hunter gatherers makes possessions a nuisance. Gowdy proposes that the study of the state of nature, that of our first way of life as hunter gatherers, offers fundamental challenges to the economic orthodoxy of the neoclassical and neoliberal philosophy of Homo economicus:

-   The economic notion of scarcity is a social construct, not an inherent property of human existence.

-   The separation of work from social life is not a necessary characteristic of economic production.

-   The linking of individual wellbeing to individual production is not a necessary characteristic of   economic organization.

-   Selfishness and acquisitiveness are aspects of human nature, but not necessarily the dominant ones.

-   Inequality based on class and gender is not a necessary characteristic of human society.

There has been extensive ethnographic research on the socioeconomic structures of hunter gatherers around the world and the majority of evidence suggests that there are indeed profound egalitarian. In Egalitarian Societies, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute, Woodburn lays out the social and economic organisation and structures of hunter gatherer societies that are egalitarian. These societies (such as the Mbuti of the Congo, the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Batek of Malaysia, the Paliyan of South India, the Awá-Guajá of Brazil, the Aeta of the Philippines, and Mardu of western Australia) display profound social, economic and gender parities which are maintained by cultural constructs to enforce and coerce egalitarianism and social networks of clustering cooperative and prosocial behaviours. Woodburn establishes four key characteristics of such immediate return societies that are conducive for egalitarianism:

-   Social groupings are flexible and constantly changing in composition.

-   Individuals have a choice of whom they associate with in residence, in the hunting and gathering food quest, in trade and exchange, and in ritual contexts.

-   People are not dependent on specific other people for access to basic requirements.

-  Relationships between people, whether relationships of kinship or other social exchanges, stress sharing and mutuality not involving long-term binding commitments.

The equality found in these hunter gatherer societies is achieved through direct individual access to resources; through direct individual access to means coercion and means of mobility which limit the imposition of control; through procedures which prevent accumulation and impose sharing; through mechanisms which allow goods to circulate without making people dependent upon one another. With these value systems of non-competition, egalitarian hunter-gatherers limits the development of social stratification and in principle extend equality to all.

Ethnographic research on the Mardu people in Western Australia by Robert Tonkinson, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia and author of The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert, shows similar structures and characteristics. The potential for inequality in Mardu society is submerged due to the considerable weight of an ethos and praxis of mutual aid and a notable stress on individual autonomy. Relationships that are structurally asymmetrical, as is the case between most adjacent generational members, have both parties appealing to the same imperative, namely of nurturance, reciprocity, and to assert equality of responsibility. The ecological constraints, such as unreliability of rainfall, are fundamental for such social and economic organisation. The dominant cultural logic – which favours permeable boundaries, a decidedly regional world view, and strong stress on interdependence rather than competition – is thus underlain by an ecological imperative. Whilst individual autonomy is stressed, egotism by individuals is not tolerated. Selfishness and egotism are considered Gurndabarni, or shameless, and the group will outcast individuals that abuse the ethos of mutual aid. Much time is spent together, in family groups and as parts of multifamily bands whose members camp in close proximity to one another. In these domestic situations, there is not gender dominance of the males over the females due to the norms of kinship that significantly constrain behaviour after being enculured from a young age.

The distain for arrogance is also observed with the !Kung. !Kung groups are typified by strong and continual socialisation and enculturation processes against hoarding and against displays of arrogance and authority. The proper behaviour of a !Kung hunter who has made a big kill is to speak of it in passing and in a deprecating manner; if an individual does not minimise or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him. As Richard B. Lee, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology of University of Toronto, stated in The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (1979):

None is arrogant, overbearing, boastful, or aloof.  In !Kung terms these  traits  absolutely disqualify a person as a leader and may  engender  even stronger  forms of ostracism. Another trait emphatically not found among traditional camp leaders is a desire for wealth or acquisitiveness. Whatever their personal influence over groups decisions, they never translate this into more wealth or more leisure time than group members have. Their accumulation of material goods is never more, and is often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in the camp.

Comparatively, every single agricultural society throughout history until modernity, from Ancient China to Tsarist Russia, have been totalitarian, fascist or authoritarian and based on profound social stratification and hierarchies of power. Private property, competitive trade, asymmetrical access to resources, and formalised rules led to the formation of classes. The philosophies of nationalism in ancient civilisations (or namely its abuse by leaders and the upper classes) and individualism in modern nation states completely disregarded the common good and egalitarianism became impossible. The development of agricultural societies placed new barriers between individuals and flexible access to resources, because trade often siphoned resources away, because some segments of the society increasingly had only indirect access to food, because investments in new technology to improve production focused power in the hands of elites so that their benefits were not widely shared, and perhaps because of the outright exploitation and deprivation of some segments of society. The clear class stratification of health in early and modern civilizations, and the general failure of either early or modern civilizations to promote clear improvements in health, nutrition, or economic homeostasis for large segments of their populations until the very recent past all reinforce competitive and exploitative models of the origins and function of civilized states.

Labour and Leisure: Hunter Gatherers as the Original Affluent Society
There has been an immensity of ethnographic research showing that the average weekly working time for a hunter gatherer is far less than their horticultural, pastoral, agricultural and early industrial counterparts. Indeed this may seem counterintuitive for a hunter and gatherer to have an easily life in terms of labour and leisure, but there is substantial energy expenditure involved in non-hunter gatherer economies. The seasonal nature of harvesting, the susceptibility to pests and plagues, the grounds for epidemics, and the incentive for conflict over land all contribute to offsetting the benefits of surplus and the division of labour that agriculture yields. Whilst hunter gatherers are subject to episodic patterns of starvation due to natural disasters and limited ability to store food, these costs are offset by their nomadic mobility to search for new food sources and natural resources. The BBC documentarian Bruce Parry found out this leisurely existence when he lived with Babongo people of Gabon. Indeed, the Hadza are ingenious survival experts when it comes to their harsh environmental conditions and yet they still manage to live an affluent life when all their material wants easily met. A BBC documentary by Ray Mears shows the rather straightforward life they Hadza people have. The !Kung people are another profound example of the effectiveness and ease of hunting and gathering. As Yehudi Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, points out in Man in Adaptation: The Cultural Present and the Biosocial Background (1974):

In all, the adults of the camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen, despite their harsh environment, merely devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest working individual in the camp, a man named Oma, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.

Conversely, the agricultural process is a long and labour intensive one: the land must be cleared and the crops must be planted, irrigated, tended to, protected from pests, harvested and transported, processed and stored and then prepared for consumption. Animals as cattle must be domesticated and reared, grazing grounds must be cleared, cattle must be tended to and protected, herds must be culled, sheep to be sheared, cows to be milked or butchered, and waste must be disposed of. The amount of work per capita increases and the amount of leisure decreases with the development of agriculture where inversely a subsistence labour intensity is characteristically intermittent, a day on and a day off.  Thus agriculture is immensely labour intensive and agricultural land has diminishing marginal returns due to soil depletion, water erosion and other environmental weathering processes. As Mark Nathan, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York, notes in Health and the Rise of Civilization (1999 Yale University Press):

The strategies that sedentary and civilized populations use to reduce or eliminate food crises generate costs and risks as well as benefits. These advantages may be outweighed by the greater vulnerability that crops often display toward climatic fluctuations or other natural hazards, a vulnerability that is then exacerbated by the specialised nature or narrow focus of many agricultural systems. The advantages are also offset by the loss of mobility that results from agriculture, the limits and failures of various storage systems and the vulnerability of sedentary communities to epidemic disease, raiding and sacking, and political expropriation of stored resources.

Peace and Conflict: Mengalah and Naklik or Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes
There are many perceptions of violent intertribal warfare and brutish conflicts plaguing hunter gatherer societies. Indeed, some hunter gatherer societies have been and are ones of warriors (such as the Surma people of Ethiopia and their stick fighting, and various Native American tribes), but the misperceptions stem from the misunderstanding of what hunter gatherers are, what constitutes conflict and violence, but also an inability to reflect on the history of violence in agricultural societies. Douglas P. Fry, a Professor of Anthropology at Abo Akademi University in Finland and the University of Arizona in America, has done extensive research in cultural variations of conflict resolution and the nature of peace and violence in societies around the world. His The Human Potential for Peace:  An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence (2006 Oxford University Press) challenges the flawed perceptions of the innateness and inevitability of violence and warfare in our species and provides an overview of the existence of peaceful societies throughout history. Fry argues that the inevitability of conflict is real for all societies but that this does not at all translate into violence and warfare, and that hunter gatherers have some of the best examples of conflict resolution systems and norms of peace.

The Semai people, of the Orang Asli hunter gatherers in the centre of the Malay Peninsula, are a profound example of this. Their way of life is marked by the archetypal gift economy and the dichotomy between public and private is non-existent. The Semai proverb “there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger” is the basis for their social interactions and all conflicts and disputes are resolved through Becharaa, a public assembly whereby justice is distributed through communal consensus. The philosophy of Mengalah, or to yield, is the norm with the Semai and, through the process of enculturation, children are taught these principles of peace, cooperation and the preservation of harmony. Overall, Mengalah manages to manifest in Semai society as the complete absence of noncompetitive children’ games, the essential absence of murder and rape, and the characterisation of social interactions through mutual benefit.

Another hunter gatherer society where violence is rare is with the Inuit. Jean L. Briggs, Emerita Professor of Anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has conducted an immensity of ethnographic surveys on the Inuit of the central Canadian Arctic. In The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Groups in The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, Briggs examines the emotional, educational and developmental processes of Inuit children in a society of contradictory beliefs. Whilst a hunting and fishing people, values of nonviolence are equally essentially in maintaining Inuit society. Briggs observed an essential lack of interpersonal aggression, from pushing and shoving to even shouting. Children are taught to internalise cooperative values, abhor interpersonal conflict, to associate danger (environmental risks) with aggression (animal or personal hostility), and to realise the possibility of revenge. Moreover, potentially hostile requests are pacified through non-threatening jokes, the proposals of commitments are frowned upon, conflicts are expressed through subtle hints and people counterbalance escalated disputes with emphasised nurturance. The philosophy of Naklik underscores Inuit social interactions entailing the warm concern for the welfare of others.

It can be seen that the majority of peaceful societies through history and around the world of been hunter gatherers. The Encyclopaedia of Peaceful Societies collated by a team of anthropologists from the United States provides a systematic overview of the existence and nature of peaceful societies through history and around the world. Identified are twenty five peaceful societies where war and violence are essentially absent and twenty of these societies are indeed hunter gatherer societies. This comes down to the socioeconomic organisation of these societies as well as the cultural norms that are taught to children and enforced through various measures. Comparatively, agriculture fundamentally incentives and leads to warfare. With the first cities thanks to agriculture came the first standing professional militaries to protect land and trade routes and to expand land due to population growth, along with an immensity of other social and economic issues.

The Agricultural Path to Warfare

Every agricultural society from the ancient civilisations to the modern nation states have been to war on large scales – from the Peloponnesian War to the Saxon Wars, from the Crusade to the Mongol conquests, from the Thirty Years War to the American Independence War, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean War, and from the First World War to the immensity of civil and ethnic conflicts in Africa and Asia. Overall, far from being the Hobbesian Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes, many hunter gatherer societies are far more likely to be peaceful and some display profound norms of this, such as Semai Mengalah and Inuit Naklik.

Thus, the state of nature is not as brutish or as poor as Hobbes proposed in 1651. Indeed, whilst living as a nomadic foraging might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it does indeed seem that is one of less work, less violence and more social and economic equality – not that these traits are normatively good or bad. Empirically, the average person in a hunter gatherer society would have more access to food, have to work less and have more leisure time and be subject to less violence than the average person in an agricultural society throughout history. Hunting and gathering has all the strengths of its weaknesses. Periodic movement and restraint in wealth and adaptations, the kinds of necessities of the economic practice and creative adaptations the kinds of necessities of which virtues are made. Precisely in such a framework, affluence becomes possible. Mobility and moderation put hunters and gatherers ends within range of their technical means. An undeveloped mode of production is thus rendered highly effective. The hunter gatherers life is not as difficult as it looks from the outside. Indeed the higher level of inequality agriculture permits allows some people to be completely better-off than any hunter-gatherer, but average living standards plummet even as pure quantity of people alive goes way up, as per Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion along the lines of the Malthusian growth model.

Even if the Hobbesian Leviathan was accurate in being the life in the state of nature is brutish and poor, what does that make the life in the state of agricultural based societies? The archaeological and palaeopathological evidence shows that life expectancy in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Middle Ages, and Early Modern period right up until the Renaissance and scientific revolution was far less than that of hunter gatherers. Indeed, the Swedish life expectancy in 1750 was on par with hunter gatherers around the world.

The Swedish Life Expectancy of the 1750s and Hunter Gatherer Life Expectancy

Life in agricultural societies, from the Neolithic to early modern history (and still for developing nations) was a plagued, unfair, chronic, violent, and politically exploited existence. It has only been with the scientific revolution and the spread of liberalism and civil rights have agricultural based societies been able to match the health and socioeconomic benefits of hunter gatherers.

The only reason agriculture has become dominant through history is because of the massive capacity for reproduction of the human species it allows. Natural selection does not care about the social, economic or indeed medical realities an organism exists in – all it cares about is replicating and thanks to agricultural surplus this can take place. Population density dramatically and exponentially grew with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic transition, and yet was marked by lower life expectancy than those living in the Palaeolithic hunter gatherer subsistence. Agriculture does indeed have benefits, but these benefits are largely short term. Even if you reject the normative position taken by Jared Diamond in describing agriculture as the worst invention in human history, his analysis in Guns, Germs and Steel as to how agricultural societies dominant others is still completely valid. But just because agricultural societies have been the dominant and yielding the largest populations, it does not necessarily make them the best empirically to live in. Natural selection does not care about subjective wellbeing or the socioeconomic conditions an organism lives in and agricultural societies, whilst producing massive inequalities and health hazards, enabled the human species to exponentially grow. Indeed hunter gatherers would have all taken the step to agriculture if their environmental conditions allowed.

Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.