Human Nature Writ Large

Human society is a compromise between the practical needs of people seeking to thrive and pass on the foundation of a good life to the next generation, and human nature, the general behavioral tendencies that evolved long before complex society. That compromise is not always comfortable. This lecture examines the interaction of our fundamental human behaviors and the complex societies we have built.

Like all other evolved characters, human nature consists of:

Consider: We often invoke "brotherhood" as a basis for cooperation, thinking that it is simply a metaphor. But maybe we literally make the idea of cooperation with strangers more palatable by psychologically associating it with the deep-seated urge to cooperate with our close kin.

The practical difficulties of being a food-producer

Farmers and the complex societies they support "won" the competition with hunter-gatherers because they were able to support a larger population. We've already said that this "victory" involved tradeoffs with nutrition and health. How did it interact with our behavioral dispositions?

Diamond's anthropological hierarchy of social organization

A Caveat:

The breakdown of societies into bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states described above is a generalization. Some historical examples fit it poorly:

The Rise of States

As we've seen, the switch from tribal societies to chiefdoms and states doesn't happen automatically or without misgivings. Like the switch from hunting-gathering to agriculture, individuals make sacrifices in order to live in more competitive societies. What do we know about such transitions?

In the modern world we don't see societies freely passing from band to tribal or tribal to chiefdom organization. What we see are bands, tribes, and chiefdoms being absorbed and assimilated by states. E.G.:

We do, however, have historical records of the rise of states from tribal societies. Four factors seem to propel these transitions:

The Fall of States

Just as agricultural societies can't revert to hunting and gathering without traumatic famine, societies organized as states can't revert to simpler models without trauma. Have people ever gotten sick of states and backed away? Yes, but rarely. Usually when a state fails, catastrophically, to live up to its promise (as with the modern Soviet Union). Normally, when a state fails, other states are waiting to pick up the pieces.

Exceptions occur when states drastically miscalculate through policies that render their people and environment incapable of supporting a state. The Classic Maya are the classic example. Classic Maya civilization was a group of city states that had arisen in response to:

They ultimately failed because individual cities overwhelmed the carrying capacity of their environment, and their ideology prevented rulers from voluntarily cooperating and subordinating themselves to one another. Eventually, their people decided that their nobility just weren't worth it and abandoned their cities. Note: The capital of the neighboring Itzas, Chichen Itza, sailed through the classic Maya collapse in good shape, thanks, in part, to a different model of social organization and ideology based on collective leadership.

The take home lessones of this and other collapses of civilizations are that: