Thursday, September 06, 2018

Evidence for Rousseau's Pure State of Nature as Solitary But Not Asocial: Lemurs, Galagos, Tarsiers, and Orangutans

I have argued (here and here) that the evolutionary science of primatology provides no evidence for Rousseau's claim that the earliest ancestors of human beings lived in a pure state of nature in which individuals lived utterly solitary and asocial lives.  Rousseau wondered whether savage man in the pure state of nature might have been an orangutan, and so "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons."  But studies of orangutans have shown that while adult individuals, and particularly male adults, often seem to be solitary, they do have a loose social structure.  Mothers are bonded to their offspring, their communities are organized around a dominant adult male who is intolerant of other adult males, and these communities have cultural traditions.  Consequently, orangutans provide no evidence for Rousseau's pure state of nature.

Nelson Lund--the author of Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy--has responded in the comments on a previous post by saying that I have misinterpreted both Rousseau and the orangutan studies.  Rousseau's "nascent man" is not "utterly solitary," Lund says, because Rousseau acknowledges that mothers care for their offspring, and individuals in the state of nature do "perhaps" recognize one another individually.  According to Lund, the life of orangutans looks "much like" this--"an original asocial state of nature in which our ancestors lacked speech and did not form families."

After thinking more about this, I will now say that while there is evidence that some primates--lemurs, galagos, tarsiers, and orangutans--live largely "solitary" lives, they are still social animals, and therefore there is no evidence Lund's "original asocial state of nature."  There is some evidence, however, that the earliest form of social organization in primate evolution was solitary but social.  So Rousseau could be right if we identified his "nascent man" in the pure state of nature as being like those primates who are solitary but not asocial.

Primatologists distinguish three basic categories of social organization--solitary, pair-living, and group-living.  All primates--nonhuman and human--are social animals.  So even "solitary" primates are still "social."  One primatologist explains:
"By definition, the adults of solitary primate species are typically encountered alone during their period of activity . . . . Because mothers may associate with their offspring, because some individuals may form sleeping groups regularly, because communication among neighbors by sounds and odors is widespread, and because individuals meet conspecifics regularly, 'solitary' should not be confused or equated with 'asocial.'  Instead, this term simply reflects the fact that, unlike those of group- and pair-living species, activities of individuals are not synchronized in a manner that results in permanent spatial association, and thus primatologists encounter solitary primates as single individuals most of the time.  A solitary lifestyle is therefore a highly complex and rather challenging system to study" (Kappeler 2012, 24).
About a third of all primate species are solitary in this sense.  Most of these solitary species are lemurs, galagos (also known as bushbabies), or tarsiers.  All of these small primates are nocturnal.  Orangutans are the only solitary ape species, and they are the only solitary species that is diurnal.  Could this be Rousseau's "nascent man"?

                                                                The Mouse Lemur

                                                   The Southern Lesser Galago
                                                        The Western Tarsier

Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar.  Galagos are found in Africa and Asia.  Tarsiers are limited to the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippine islands.  Orangutans in the wild are found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

Shultz et al. (2011) studied the genetic distances and phenotypic social-structural similarities of 217 living primate species, which showed that social organization tends to be similar among closely related species--and thus suggesting that social structure is genetically determined.  They also concluded that the earliest primates lived some 72 Mya as solitary foraging individuals who came together only for mating.  Then, multimale/multifemale groups appeared first some 52 Mya.

One could infer from this that the earliest hominids lived in multimale/multifemale promiscuous social bands, as is true for chimpanzees today (Gintis et al. 2015).  But still the earliest primate ancestors of these hominids would have been a solitary but social species.  

If Rousseau's "nascent man" is this kind of animal--a solitary but not asocial primate--then the evidence of primatology can be seen as confirming Rousseau's speculation about the pure state of nature.

In some of Rousseau's writing, however, he suggests that in the pure state of nature, each individual is completely solitary and thus asocial.  For example, in the Social Contract, Rousseau says that the natural condition for man is for each individual to be by himself "a perfect and solitary whole" (un tout parfait et solitaire) (Book II, Chapter 7).  If that is what Rousseau means by "nascent man," then the primatology of the "solitary but not asocial" primates cannot support his pure state of nature.


Gintis, Herbert, Carel van Schaik, and Christopher Boehm. 2015. "Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Political Systems." Current Anthropology 56:327-353.

Kappeler, Peter M. 2012. "The Behavioral Ecology of Strepsirrhines and Tarsiers." In The Evolution of Primate Societies, eds. John C. Mitani, Joseph Call, Peter M. Kappeler, Ryne a. Palombit, and Joan B. Silk, pp. 17-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shultz, Susanne, Christopher Opie, and Quentin D. Atkinson. 2011. "Stepwise Evolution of Stable Sociality in Primates." Nature 479:219-222.


Xenophon said...

The paper by Gintis , van Schaik and Boehm is avilable here:

W. Bond said...

From memory (i.e. if you'll excuse me posting this before having the chance to re-read the text) wouldn't this mean something like man is born free, but we find him everywhere in chains, because he evolved from a less social (orangutan-like in this sense) primate into a man? Leaving aside the fact that he doesn't posit this type of biological evolution, if "natural man" is not actually a man, doesn't this equally undermine Rousseau's argument, his positioning himself against both Hobbes/Locke and Aristotle on the state of nature and the nature of man?

Anonymous said...

A key point for political philosophy is that any animal
species that could survive in a solitary existence would
have to have a set of biological requirements and
capabilities that are not found in homo sapiens. Hence any
proposed asocial ancestors would need to be a different
biological species.

And as Aristotle made clear, and all modern biologists
affirm, a different biological structure designed for a
different sort of existence would have a different

This is of the greatest relevance to political philosophy
because political questions such as what is the best society
and how one can best get people to behave in the ways needed
for such a society are in part determined by psychology. And
since a proposed asocial ancestor would have a considerably
different psychology, its existence would be simply
irrelevant to political philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I forgot to include my signature in the comment above

--Les Brunswick