an imaginative look a palaeolithic life

other primates

Cats win at evolution

The prehistory of primate-cat relations has always been a rocky one.  First there’s the fossa, a Madagascan cat-like predator that eats lemurs, thought to be similar to ancestral cats just as lemurs are thought to be like the ancestors of monkeys and apes.   Clearly this relationship has been a rocky one from its inception.  And can you be surprised?  Both are intelligent and adapted for an arboreal environment – primate ancestors adapted for eating fruit and insects, and cat ancestors adapted for eating, well, primate ancestors.

Then during the Miocene there were a wide variety of large cats with huge teeth preying on the large varieties of apes that flourished in the extensive rainforest that covered much of the Old World.

The hominin fossil record bears witness to the animosity between cats and primates.  There are archaeological sites that are basically collections of bones in the lair of large cats with plenty of hominin bones among them.  Poor, unsuspecting hominins that ended up as sabre-tooth cat food.

But primates haven’t been just passive victims in all this.  There’s archaeological evidence for early humans scavenging lion kill.  As in “we may not have big sharp teeth like you, but we have bigger brains and can steal your food.”  Some might just say that stealing the food of animals that evolved to eat your kind is a little reckless.  But early humans were clever and brave.  And as human brains got bigger and bigger, they got better and better at not being eaten by big cats.  They developed projectile weapons.  In the end, cats had no chance against humans.  They couldn’t get close enough for their teeth and claws to be effective if the humans were throwing spears and shooting arrows at them.  So it looks like primates finally won the war.


Cats had a plan.  Unable to match projectile weapons no matter how big their teeth were, they took a different evolutionary route.  A sneaky one.   By evolving to be small and good at catching vermin that ate the seeds stores of neolithic humans, they got to share the humans’ food, warmth and shelter.   If you can’t beat them, join them, right?  Wrong again.  That’s what happened in the past.  The evolutionary niche they have now is more parasitic than mutualistic.

The domestic cat – aka Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus – is the same size as a human infant.  Its mew sounds very similar to the cry of a newborn human baby.  It has a round face with big eyes, like a human infant.  The domestic cat has gone down the same evolutionary route as the cuckoo, only much further.  Its entire life-cycle involves imitating baby humans and being coddled, fed and protected as though it were a human infant.  Its success is such that the human knows full well that the cat isn’t a baby human, but loves and pampers it anyway, because it’s cute, cuddly and less troublesome to look after than a real human infant.   And even with the huge technological prowess of modern humans, what’s that technology used for more than anything else?  Sharing pictures of cats.

Cats have won.  Primates have thrown in the towel and taken refuge in cuddling their kitty-cats.

The bonobo algorithm

The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is one of our closest living relatives.   It’s actually joint closest with the common chimp (Pan troglodytes), as they are more related to each other than either of them is to us.  But they are generally considered to be more like humans than common chimps are.  They are also quite possibly the most sex obsessed species on earth.  You thought humans were bad; bonobos leave humans looking like the prudish maiden aunts of the ape family tree.

Here’s an algorithm for how to function as a bonobo:

bonobo algorithm

There is of course a lot more to bonobos than their sexual behaviour.   Bonobos have been taught how to use language, and one named Kansi has even been taught how to make Homo habilis style stone tools, making him better at flintknapping than me.  They are considered to be the most human-like of the two species of chimpanzee, on account of their troops having lower levels of violence, more co-operation, a greater ability in language in language than other non-human great apes (common chimps, gorillas and orangutans have also been used in language studies, but bonobos have shown the most ability in this), and also because they use sex for bonding, not just for reproduction.  According to wikipedia (yeah, I know…!  but I don’t have access to academic journals) bonobos have differences in their brains to common chimps that suggest a greater capacity for empathy and better control of impulses, which leads to a more peaceful social system.  (But don’t mistake them for hippies, they can still be violent when they want to be, so they’re kind of like humans in that respect too.)  They live in the Congo rainforest, separated from common chimps by the Congo river.  There are also some bonobos in zoos, and apparently feeding time is very popular with visitors.

Why can’t humans just disagree nicely?

The more time I spend on internet forums, the more evident it is that the way people behave in online discussions is due to the fact that we are primates.  When you understand how primate social systems work, the fact that people can’t seem to have a reasoned, thoughtful, intelligent debate on the internet becomes very clear.

What seems to happen is that when one human challenges another’s opinion online, it triggers some innate primate neural networks that makes them see it as a threat to their position in the dominance hierarchy rather than what it really is, i.e. a slightly different opinion to their own.   If it’s someone who’s fairly new to the forum that’s disagreeing with them, they see it as a challenge from someone who’s right at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, so they’re quite indignant about being challenged by them, because they consider themselves to be pretty high up the hierarchy, being a regular with a big friends list n’all, so they react the same way any other primate reacts when their position in the dominance hierarchy is challenged… by asserting their position.

If we weren’t so constrained by our primate brain wiring, we might be able to view their opinion objectively, consider it carefully, and argue against it using logic and reason. Instead we resort to chest beating and stick waving and argue back indignantly without fully considering what they have to say and whether we’re actually correct or not.  Then the newcomer feels that they have to establish their position in the new troop, they also don’t rationally consider the information being presented to them.  And so the internet exchange of slightly differing opinions degenerates into an unpleasant argument, as those having the exchange do the Homo sapiens sapiens equivalent to beating their chests in an attempt to assert their dominance.

You can see it in face to face arguments too.  I think that at some point in human evolution, verbal exchanges became an alternative to chest beating, jumping on things and waving big sticks as a means to assert dominance over another individual, and when this happened, humans lost the ability to simply have a disagreement about something.  Changing your mind about something based on what someone else says (however sensible and well reasoned) became an act of submission, and challenging the correctness of someone’s information (however bizarre or incorrect it may be) stopped being just that and became a challenge to that person’s position in the dominance hierarchy.  And thus innocent exchanges of opinion frequently descend into shouting matches and from there they may descend into actual chest beating, fist waving and jumping on furniture, and it’s possible, just as it is in other primate societies where neither one backs down, that it can come to blows.  Or, on the internet, it descends from an exchange of opinion into passive-aggressive snarky comments and sarcasm, and then politely worded insults… then someone turns on the caps lock and it finally descends into an all-out flame war.

So if you’re looking for an explanation as to why Homo sapiens sapiens people can’t simply have a minor disagreement without getting all affronted and turning it into a battle for supremacy… it’s because we’re primates.

creation evolution debate (2)