In The WEIRDest People in the World (2020) Joseph Henrich discusses the problem of scaling up primitive societies and turning them into complex ones. Joseph’s answer is that intergroup competition (e.g. stealing and raiding of corn and cattle) made scaling up for protection a necessity (there is strength in numbers). This is usually how the transition from foraging to farming is explained, as farming was considerably harder labour and early farmers most likely had shorter life-spans than foragers.
Thus, early farming spread not because rational individuals prefer to farm, but because farming communities with particular institutions beat mobile hunter-gatherer populations in intergroup competition.
There is one huge catch to the scaling-up problem: tribalism. Most small-scale societies are very clannish and as they scale-up intra-group competition increases and the society starts to fall apart again. One need only think of warring Scottish clans a few centuries back.
On the other side of the world, the echoes of the culture of honor that were part of Scotland’s segmentary lineages still affect life and death: in counties of the U.S. South, the higher the percentage of Scottish or Scotch-Irish residents in the first U.S. census in 1790, the higher the murder rate is today. The cultural descendants of these migrants still tend to respond aggressively when their honor, family, or property is threatened. Globally, researchers have argued that the character of “Islamic terrorism” may be best explained by the honor psychology fermented in segmentary lineages. Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and Al Qaeda, for example, all recruit heavily from populations with segmentary lineages, and the character of their kin-based institutions may have shaped the particular religious creeds adopted by these groups.
I have argued that tribalism actually increased in the transition from foraging to farming-herding. Early farmers shared more among kith and kin than the whole tribe and there were many social and probably also evolutionary developments that increased tribalism:
- Transition to a patrilineal and patrilocal system
- Transition to a more hierarchical system and rising inequality
- Higher levels of conformity
- Loosening of kinship marriage taboos (e.g marrying first-degree cousins)
So, we get these two opposing forces:
Intergroup competition: pressure to scale up
Scaling-up increasing intragroup competition: pressure to scale down
bootstrapping problem of early civilization
Therefore the more in-group social the clans were there less likely that civilization could bootstrap. In fact, this phenomenon can be observed later in pastoralist conquests: these societies tended to rise very quickly (Mongols, Huns Vikings, etc.) but their empires dissipated as quickly as they arose. So, what prevented early civilizations from falling apart? There must have been catalysts: unifiers and pacifiers who had more interest in keeping peace than gaining profit for themselves and their clan. These catalysts were unlikely farmers or pastoralists themselves, as they had not such evolved instincts. Their instincts were geared towards maximising the profit for their own clans.
And yet such people did exist. When we look at history we can see such catalysts rise after the first few thousand years of farming. Michael E. McCullough writes in
The Kindness of Strangers (2020)
Even so, some kings eventually began to take action to protect society’s most vulnerable people from oppression. Consequently, ancient documents, such as the Reforms of Uruinimgina (2300 BCE ), the Code of Ur-Nammu (2050 BCE ), and the better-known Code of Hammurabi (1750 BCE ), suggest that the world’s first kings began to place some sort of priority on shielding society’s most vulnerable people-the orphan, the widow, and “the man of one shekel”-from the most flagrant forms of oppression. […]Hammurabi prevented army officers from stealing their subordinates’ property. Uruinimgina outlawed extortion and other Mafia-style methods to pressure poor people into selling their property at far below asking price. Another king even bragged that he had reduced the corvée labor requirement to only four days per month!
What was going on? Redistribution of wealth, curbing nepotism, protecting the underdogs, levelling inequality. All these are signs of egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds at work. Hunter-gatherers, who had been living outside farmer-herder societies for a few millennia after the onset of agriculture had been incorporated slowly into their societies and some of them had risen into the upper classes.
At first, these were just single cases, but as societies continued to scale up this became a regular pattern. During the so-called “Axial Age” There were egalitarian movements in all high-cultures, from Greece (Stoics) to India (Buddhism) and China (Confucianism), all stressing altruism and kindness and deemphasize materialism.
One thing common to many of these movements was self-discovery: Γνῶθι σεαυτόν — know thyself. These were people of hunter-gatherer descent who became aware that they were different from the farmer-herder people around them. The Buddha gave up all his wealth in order to live an ascetic life of contemplation and self-discovery — how does that make sense to farmer-herder people?
In conclusion, we can assume that these hunter-gatherer types provided the social kit for scaling up early farmer-herder societies. Whenever hunter-gatherer types ruled peace, trade, science and the arts flourished.
Bootstrapping of early civilizations
Unfortunately, tribalism is making a huge comeback with the election of populist politicians in many places all over the world. The hallmarks of these populist regimes:
- High degree of in-groupism (Make America Great Again)
- Nepotism, cronyism
- Creating the image of an external enemy (China, Mexico, etc.)
- Anti-intellectual, anti-science
- Separatist tendencies
- Increase of corruption
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on February 3, 2021.