Consciousness Blog 11 January 2010

Researchers at the University of Rennes have shown that younger monkeys in a group paid greater attention to their elders' vocalisations than to those of other group members, quite apart from any dominance or status effects.

Lead researcher Dr Alban Lemasson, says: "Age appeared to be a major factor in the contribution of individuals to vocal exchanges, with elders . . . eliciting more responses from their younger counterparts despite a lower call production." Monkeys over the age of seven often received 75% response from the rest of the group – whose ages varied from three to 15, compared with just 40% for those under two.

"It demonstrates that attention to elders’ voices finds its roots deep inside the primate lineage and leads to new lines of questioning on human culture and language evolution." said Lemasson.

Of course it is a marked characteristic of human groups that they pay respect to the accumulated wisdom of the elders, and there are sound evolutionary reasons for this.

Although the inter-personal emotional and ethical structure of the group can be constant in different environments, conflicts can arise and external circumstances can vary considerably, so that there is a need for a mechanism which can deliver experience-based guidance to group members, making use of the accumulated life-wisdom of the group – this before cultural transmission became possible, probably meaning before the emergence of conceptual language. Hence the evolution of 'The Fathers', being a tendency in individuals to look up to and respect the wisdom of elders, even if expressed only in behavioural terms – a hand on the shoulder to stop a young man's ill-advised movement into the line of fire of an enemy is every bit as compelling as a whispered warning. A group which makes full use of the wisdom available from its members is adaptively fitter than one that does not.

As with so many other components of the human group 'tool-kit', it is no surprise to find that such mechanisms evolved first among primates. In human groups, 'The Fathers' are always men, even in a matriarchal society. Later on, when conceptual language became available, The Fathers were the natural originators, guardians and transmittors of the law, and they became leaders, priests, educators, lawyers etc; but initially they merely represented a guidance principle. The Fathers are to be observed in almost every contemporary primitive society. And no need to point out the various types of 'Father' in our modern societies.

The monkeys studied at Rennes were female; it would be highly interesting to know whether comparable patterns exist among similar groups of males, and what differences might emerge between males and females as elders. Arguably, division of labour in a social sense might not have gone far enough among monkeys for the predisposition towards male 'elders' to have emerged.

Read more in Chapter Three of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Humans.


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