Crumbling Cosmopolitanism and Proliferating Parochialism
When the Berlin Wall fell the world was full of optimism and I had the feeling the world would become more open and cosmopolitan. Only a decade later the Austria right-wing (and xenophobe) party FPÖ came in second in the elections of my native Austria and my friends abroad kept asking me about returning Nazisim to Austria. But it wasn’t only Austria: Italy, France, and even the so liberal Netherlands followed suit. In 1992 Italy won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Insieme (unite, unite Europe). Only a few years later Italy started to struggle with separatist movements within its own borders. It had all been an illusion, the world wasn’t going to unite, on the contrary parochialism became stronger where it had existed before: Catalonia, Northern Ireland, Scotland. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia fell apart. The unification of Germany had been the exception. Thirty years later and most Europeans see the European Union as a mere bureaucratic institution.
In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) David Graeber and David Wengrow make the claim that the world has been on a trajectory towards parochialism rather than globalism for a long time:
[…] the overall direction of history — at least until very recently — would seem to be the very opposite of globalization. It is one of increasingly local allegiances: extraordinary cultural inventiveness, but much of it aimed at finding new ways for people to set themselves off against each other. True, the larger regional networks of hospitality endured in some places.6 Overall, though, what we observe is not so much the world as a whole getting smaller, but most peoples’ social worlds growing more parochial, their lives and passions more likely to be circumscribed by boundaries of culture, class and language.
In order to understand this trend, we have to go back 10.000 years, briefly after the Neolithic Revolution. We find three “tribes”, hunter-gathers (foragers), farmers and pastoralists. Of these, only foragers were truly cosmopolitan:
Research among groups such as the East African Hadza or Australian Martu shows that while forager societies today may be numerically small, their composition is remarkably cosmopolitan. When forager bands gather into larger residential groups these are not, in any sense, made up of a tight-knit unit of closely related kin; in fact, primarily biological relations constitute on average a mere 10 per cent of total membership. Most members are drawn from a much wider pool of individuals, many from quite far away, who may not even speak the same first languages.3 This is true even for contemporary groups that are effectively encapsulated in restricted territories, surrounded by farmers and pastoralists.
Forager pastoralism has a lot to do with exogamy. Early food-producing farmers and pastoralists seem to have become much more endogamous in an effort to keep wealth within the extended family. Marriage between first cousins wasn’t that rare. We can understand wealth as an “extended phenotype” that confers reproductive advantage. Endogamy makes sure that these favourable extended “phenes” don’t get dissipated.
Being more closely attached to one’s family, ethnic group, and place of birth is sometimes referred to as tribalism. This tendency affects political orientation. For example, conservative opposition to immigration reflects xenophobia whereas the liberal acceptance of other ethnic groups is xenophilia. We can understand cosmopolitanism as a form of xenophilia.
Some evolutionary psychologists make the claim that we all have an in-group bias and fear of out-groups. This may be true, however, there are clearly huge differences between people and cultures regarding this in-group bias. Scientists have found a solid correlation between the presence of pathogens and xenophobia.
As we move from the poles to the equator, the number of languages and religions per region increases, and people become more xenophobic. These effects may seem to be unrelated, but all three processes serve to keep groups apart. When you don’t speak the same language, when you don’t share a religion, and when you tend to dislike members of other groups, you’re much less likely to intermingle with them. Why would languages and religions proliferate around the equator, and why is their frequency also related to ethnocentrism? The answer to these questions lies in the fact that pathogen density is much higher in the tropics than it is in temperate and cold climates. (The Social Leap, 2018)
While xenophobia as an avoiding pathogens strategy could potentially be an evolutionary adaptation, I don’t think it’s the whole story. Pathogens are naturally also more common in agricultural societies with high population densities and livestock. And cold climates prevented farming until very recently. The real reason for evolving xenophobia in ancient farmers was more likely the risk of predation from neighbouring farming tribes, pastoralists, and perhaps even foragers who do not consider food personal property and might not have seen anything wrong in helping themselves to a meal. In this case, the correlation between pathogens and xenophobia might be a mere correlation and not causation.
Map of linguistic diversity
Papua New Guinea is the place with the highest linguistic diversity in the world. A staggering 840 languages are spoken there, the economy is mostly subsistence farming. The story of the Tower of Babel is the story of subsistence farming with single groups rapidly closing themselves off against each other.
An interest in foreign languages and cultures is part of being cosmopolitan. Our evolved preferences aren’t our fate, however, as history shows. Otherwise, people would have never formed states and high cultures. The best leaders in history were the cosmopolitan and inclusive ones: Ashoka, Charlemagne, Peter the Great, Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately, we haven’t had an abundance of such world leaders recently.
National parochialism is widespread and it seems it is continuing to spread.
For more on foragers and farmers in history check out my book
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on December 30, 2021.