When I started my mandate as the UN Coordinator for Somalia in the second half of the 1990s, my security advisor, a colonel of the American Army, introduced me to some important features of the Somali way of life. Along the way, he forewarned me that Somalis were afraid of sundry things, but death was not one of them. Okay, I took note of that. For someone who is not afraid of death for himself, taking the life of someone else will come more easily. When I asked the colonel what then the thing was, that Somalis were most afraid of, without hesitation he answered, ‘social exclusion’. Twenty-five years later I read in my daily newspaper in Nairobi about a disciplinary intervention of the Elders of an ethnic Somali community in the Tana River Delta of Kenya. I was reminded of that briefing and had to smile: A boy and a girl, aged 17 and 15, had sex in a palm plantation after school and were caught in the act. Not only was the sex act sinful and prohibited in the community but it had also taken place during the Holy Month of Ramadan. The Elders disciplined the children with twenty strokes of the cane each. The parents were directed to send their children to boarding schools far apart, for the next two years. They were also fined 50 heads of cattle each because they had been warned of the sinful relationship of their children but had failed in their parental responsibilities to stop it. Failure to now obey these directives, the Elders ruled, would result in the two families being banished from the community: Social exclusion is the ultimate communitarian penalty.

I was lucky. In 1964, our family returned from Bangkok to Switzerland and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones replaced Elvis Presley in the music I listened and danced to. In Ferenberg, less than fifteen kilometers outside of Bern – not a big city, but all the same the capital – my father had built our family home. Some two hundred meters above Bern, from our house you oversee the city to the West, and to the South, you have a grand view of the Bernese Alps. This is the same village where I had already gone to primary school a few years earlier, a typical Swiss farming village, a community of 250 mainly farmers. When we returned there, I did not go to the local school anymore but rather to high school, down in Bern. But I still played football with the boys of the village. We underwent pre-military training together and, later, I did my military service with one of them in the same unit. We were confirmed together. Bern and my family are protestant. And, for a short time after confirmation, I was attracted to one of the girls of the village. There are no palm plantations in Ferenberg, but we scratched the surface of a romantic relationship – which didn’t last. All taken together, I came of age in Ferenberg. In the African communitarian language you would say, I went through the rites of passage from my youth to adulthood with the age group of the village.

Later, between my assignments abroad in the diplomatic service, I lived in Ferenberg repeatedly, when working in the capital. It was my Swiss home. And then, one day when I was sitting at a table alone in the ‘Alpenblick’, the only pub of the village, the regulars invited me to their table: ‘In a way, you also belong to us’, they reckoned. I know that the regulars of the Alpenblick are not elders. But I took their invitation as a way of saying that over all the years, I had not misbehaved or offended Ferenberg’s social rules. And that the community was now ready to embrace me. Today, when I am in Switzerland, I am still in the family house in Ferenberg, I enjoy the Alpenblick, the view of the Alps, and attend my friends and the garden. When I go to the Alpenblick, the pub, and it’s full of ‘tourists’, as we call the non-locals, I have my place at the regulars’ table which is always reserved for the Ferenberg community.

So, where does all this communal behavior come from? Remember the Stone Age? The time humans were closer to being animals and living in hordes and then, with first elements of organization, in groups of several dozen? Roaming around, hunting and gathering. Struggling for survival, pitched against nature in the dark impenetrable forest with all its hidden dangers and all the other predators, not to mention the crocodiles. In all of this and from the very beginning, humans were so successful because we are the most social of all the animals. First and foremost, the social rules of a community regulate the primal instincts of survival and sexuality. For humans, survival has always been a collective effort of the group and life was naturally social. Hunting and gathering for food were the lifestyle. And because they were done together and the spoils were shared, life was fundamentally communitarian. Sexuality is the other primal lifeforce. It is so strong that it can disrupt the social order and peace. That’s why communities have mating rights and, as the two children from the Somali village in Tana had to learn, control them.

In the time of the transition from the Middle to the Late Stone Age, roughly from about 70’000 to 20’000 years ago, humans became more human – in the sense of our modern understanding. Anthropologists often refer to this phase in human evolution as the Cognitive Revolution. Forget about the ever-better tools they were now making, the brain started forming modern human behavior. Cognition and consciousness extended Homo sapiens’ senses beyond the primal corporal ones. Mental senses evolved and our biology became physiological and psychological, integrating our bodily functions and instincts, with our feelings, thoughts, decisions, and doings. Instinctively, humans had been going with nature and where they consciously used their brain, they used it to better adapt their behavior to their environment. But now, human behavior started interfering with the environment and adapting it to their needs. Human behaviors started going against nature.

Communication and cooperation became distinct features of human being. Our dog Blacky is a strong communicator, and she has a rich vocabulary. She pokes her nose into our thighs or hands, she looks us in the eyes, she points her ears and wags her tail, she moans and sighs, whines, and growls to express herself. And mostly we understand her. But Blacky cannot speak. After the upright gait, the mastering of fire, and consciousness, speech became another human capacity which separated Homo sapiens from the other animals. Speech allowed humans to communicate in multi-faceted ways: They could now give and receive information vital for their survival, express emotions, exchange thoughts and ideas, and convey meaning. This transcends the scope of communication of any other animal. And it stimulated cooperation, increased the interconnectedness and interdependence of the individuals of the community and allowed social organization. And over the millennia, together with the satisfaction of the basic needs for physical survival and sexuality for procreation, community became a human need.

Cooperative animals in the wild, particularly primates, show fairness in food distribution. And experiments show that some animals can behave morally. Most mammals have what can be called an ‘altruistic impulse' in that they respond to signs of distress in others and feel an urge to improve their situation. They are sometimes willing to help others when there is no gain involved, or even when they incur a direct loss. Community being an innate basic need, humans learn by their very life experience that the good for all the people is the good of the community which includes all of them as individuals. Community before the individual. Living in and for communities, humans developed a distinct moral sense and became moral beings, again transcending the moral behavior of any other animal. The moral sense together with their consciousness gives humans the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. They can make moral judgments, acquire virtue, and ‘do the right thing’.

Interesting to note that while the brain was driving the Cognitive Revolution, it actually shrank. Homo erectus and early Homo sapiens had doubled the volume of Homo habilis’ brain and brought it up to close of 1’500 cm3. And that is 150 cm3 more than the 1’350 cm3 we and the modern Lucy of the film have. So, while the human brain was getting more powerful, it was getting smaller. An explanation of this phenomenon, again, comes from the animal world: Dogs, pigs, sheep, and other domesticated species differ from their wild ancestors by a number of physical and behavioral traits. These include tameness, reduced timidity, juvenile appearance into adulthood and smaller brains. The theory goes that in communities, cooperative and social individuals were more likely to survive and reproduce than combative, aggressive, and unsocial ones. And as we know from animal breeding, the same genes and hormones that determine social inclinations also determine the physical traits of body and brain size. It’s called the ‘domestication syndrome’.

The short version: In the Cognitive Revolution, the period of transition from the Middle to the Late Stone Age, Homo sapiens became more communal and domesticated himself. More and more, survival and procreation depended on an individual's behavior within the community. ‘Survival of the fittest’ became ‘survival of the friendliest’. And social exclusion became such a hard penalty because living outside of the communal principles in any group of humans, in any period of human evolution, would make life rough, lonesome, dreadful – and probably short.

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  • Again, an inspiring insight and imaginative summary of human evolution, from the big changes of cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago, to current events in Tana as well as in Ferenberg. Kind regards and greetings, Hans

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