Cultures and Subcultures

The variety of human cultures is immensely rich and many anthropologists have tried to understand the underlying principles. Richard Nisbett adopted the then-fledgling science of evolutionary psychology to understand cultures, in particular, violent cultures:

Evolutionary approaches to behavior , so far from indicating that human behavioral patterns must be universal and ‘wired,” actually provide us with good reasons for expecting cultural diversity and good tools for showing how it might develop. Even gender-role related behavior may be very plastic. Highly “macho” male behavior may be an adaptation to dangerous ecological and economic constraints. Similarly, homicide rates differ massively from culture to culture and may be under the control of specifiable ecological and economic constraints.

In Culture of Honour (1996) Nisbett traces the southern US honour cultures with its high levels of violence back to Irish and Scottish immigrants who were descendants of herders rather than farmers and provides speculative evolutionary pressures for the emergence of heightened instintinct for honour/shame, that often leads quickly to aggression when one’s “reputation” is threatened:

We believe the southern culture of honor derives from the herding economy brought to the region by the earliest settlers and practiced by them for many decades thereafter. This assertion hinges primarily on the apparent association between herding economies and cultures of honor worldwide and on the conjecture that the herding economy and violence are related because of the inherent risks involved in such an economy. The herdsman continually faces the possibility of losing his animals through the actions of others. The issue of protection is therefore a very serious one, and the herdsman cultivates an acquaintance with violence and weapons to deter those who would prey on him. The sensitivity to insult is secondary: Its purpose is to preserve the individual’s reputation for being willing and able to carry out violence if needed. If this account of the origins of the culture of honor is correct, that would havean important implication, which is that cultures of honor should not be limited to herding economies. Such cultures should be found wherever the possibility exists that scarcity will be produced by the predatory actions of others, especially when the state is unwilling or unable to provide protection from such predation.

Nisbett also provides sound arguments why other economies (or subsistence strategies/environments as I prefer to call them) would be much more unlikely to cause such instincts:

Our hypothesis suggests that cultures of honor should be relatively rare for some kinds of economies, particularly, hunter-gatherer economies and stable agricultural economies. 15 Hunter-gatherer economies rarely have a large enough surplus for another group of hunter-gatherers to be willing to risk death to obtain it. And in any case, the energy of a hunter-gatherer would be better expended in finding food for himself than in trying to take the meager portion of another hunter-gatherer. Farmers in stable agricultural communities have a greater investment in remaining peacefully on their land than in stealing their neighbor ‘s surplus. Moreover, farmers usually have granaries that provide enough surplus for them to survive a number of poor harvests in a row. They would literally have to be starving to make it rational to steal bread from their neighbors with whom peaceful coexistence is essential to productive economic activity. In addition, the very stability of such societies often supports a state powerful enough to protect against theft and raiding.

While his book is mostly about the southern US honour culture, at the end of his book Nisbett notes the similarity between this US culture and other cultures, like that of the Mafia and inner city street gangs. In each of these subcultures there is a heightened sense of honour with an honour code and a propensity towards aggression when personal or the clan’s reputation is at stake.

I think that Nisbett, despite being criticised by many anthropologists, was spot on. The difference between an honourable gentleman and a criminal may often only be the status they start out with. Being a respected member of society would bring a much lower risk for deviance for such a “herder type” than having low status to begin with.

Colin G. DeYoung showed that the Big Five factors can be divided into two metatraits: Stability and Plasticity. Stability is defined by one’s maintenance of stability and hypothesised to be related to the neurotransmitter serotonin, while Plasticity is seen in one’s adaptability to novelty and hypothesised to be related to the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is exactly what we would expect from biological adaptations to sedentism vs nomadism, respectively.

We can assign these psychological profiles to farmers and herders-foragers, respectively. The dominant culture in each society will mostly be carried by stability-seeking farmer types, who usually will also make up the majority of the population and have predominantly stability values such as conformism, safety, order and hierarchy. Subcultures are often countercultures that disagree with these values and tend to be freedom-loving and bohemian. These subcultures will be made up of herder and forager types who rebel against society and its values and the (low) status they have in this society. Subcultures dominated by herder types and those dominated by forager types tend to differ in several respects, however. While both types tend to produce subcultures with very shallow hierarchies, foragers value universal egalitarianism whereas pastoralists are more in-group egalitarian, for example. The hippies had a huge influence from forager types with their focus on nonviolence, tolerance and openness. Other subcultures, like punks or motorbike gangs, were probably much more influenced by herder types.

Some common traits of pastoralist subcultures would be:

Not all of these tendencies are necessarily destructive. Youth culture has traditionally had an important democratic function with young people going into the streets protesting against state violence (war and oppression), injustice and corruption. Youth subcultures, like street gangs, have mostly disappeared in the past 20 or so years. I suppose stability-seeking farmer types would be happy about that, but to be honest, if I were to live in countries like China or Russia I would sorely be missing them.

The disappearance of subcultures is a phenomenon that would deserve its own research. One of the main causes is likely the increasing polarisation and fragmentation of mainstream culture itself. The absence of subcultures could be a sign of a healthy society, but it could also be a sign that there is something seriously wrong.

For more on using the forager-farmer framework in analysing cultures check out my book:

The Three Cultures that Create Civilization

Originally published at on October 9, 2022.



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