I and Thou

Close Relationships

Primate Tendencies

Humans are primates who live in complex, multi-tiered social systems in which different layers are functional responses to different environmental challenges. Chimpanzees, like humans, have a fission/fusion form of social system. The community is divided into a number of temporary foraging parties whose composition changes with changes in the environment. A larger group may divide into smaller foraging groups when food is scarce. Smaller groups may fuse when food is abundant or when an external threat makes alliances more attractive.

The cohesion of primate groups is maintained by grooming each other. Body contact and grooming establishes and services friendships and coalitions. Coalitions protect their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The more harassment an individual faces, the more important coalitions are. A coalition’s effectiveness is measured by its members' willingness to come to each other's aid and is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other.

Barbara Smuts pointed to an obvious human feature, that males are aggressive against females in order to mate with them, but females can and do resist. A females' ability to resist male aggression is increased by forming alliances with other females against males. Among the many primate species in which females bond together, this strategy works. Females disperse at maturity to join new groups where they do not have female relatives to protect them. Bonobo chimpanzees are able to form alliances with unrelated females in the new groups they join. These female bonds are developed through and supported by frequent homosexual relations between females. Thus, among common chimpanzees we see relatively high levels of male aggression against females, whereas among Bonobos male aggression is successfully resisted and males do not sexually coerce females. In human groups, males often stay in their birth group; females relocate and are deprived of the support of female kin and allies, leaving them more vulnerable to male aggression.

Human females tend to seek reproductive success by allying with male mates with the most resources in part by comply with rules that increase paternal certainty. [i] Linda Stone summarized the development of kin identification:” Kin recognition is known to be widespread among insects, birds, and mammals. In many species, behavior toward kin is markedly different from that toward nonkin. Nonhuman primates recognize one another individually and retain recognition over long periods. Related males form cooperative groups. An alpha-male achieves and maintains his status by forming alliances with other males especially related ones. Various authors have tried to show that monogamy or polygyny were natural, and that the first human societies were matriarchal, patriarchal, or egalitarian; but all theories run up against the same problem reading into human origins what one wants to believe. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers show variation in kinship systems. We do know that human kinship became important as a framework of social structure and was interwoven with economic relationships, politics, and religion. With the advent of pastoralism (livestock herding) and food production, kinship became more complex, since it would have been used to define rights over new kinds of productive property and to transmit these rights to subsequent generations .[ii]

[i] Smuts, Barbara B. 1995. The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy. Human Nature 6(1): 1-32

[ii] Stone, Linda. Kinship and Gender. 1997. Westview Press, Harper-Collins, Boulder. ISBN 0-8133-2859-4

  • The book, I and Thou, focuses on intimate relationships. Innate tendencies are hard at work when people meet, become lovers and end with arguments and fighting. The same tendencies determine how family members interact and explain why so many families are “dysfunctional.” When lovers form an enduring pair bond, they often become parents and everything changes. Humans seek bonding with others and are distressed when they become isolated. Humans bond to each other in several ways. The most enduring bonds are kin-related, based on closely shared genes. The deepest bonding occurs when mother and infant are together continuously from birth and mother breast-feeds the infant. Bonds among family members are the most enduring. Bonds to friends, lovers and spouses are the next most significant. Bonds to colleagues, neighbors and even strangers that are admired from a distance are next. Friendships are often temporary bonds, based on the need to affiliate with others for protection, social status, feeding, sex and fun.

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