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:
- Traits inherited from our distant ancestors, including the common behavioral legacy of the African Apes:
- Organization of society in small family units.
- Cooperation of coalitions of brothers.
- Use of displays (of dangerous behaviors and skills) to impress rivals, adversaries, and potential mates
- Individuals organized into a fluid dominance hierarchy.
- Evolutionary novelties unique to the human lineage:
- The human mating system, including females being in continuous estrous, menopause, and a preference for privacy in matings.
- Menopause - a person's knowledge improves their offspring's evolutionary fitness, even after she can no longer reproduce.
- Prolonged adolescence (interval between sexual maturity and termination of physical growth.)
- Language and cultural transmission of knowledge and skills.
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?
- Need to "intellectualize" kinship to allow us to affiliate with people we don't know well.
- Need to alter mating practices to "legitimize" ownership and inheritance of real estate.
- Need to live peacefully (more or less) with strangers in a complex society.
- Need to restrain and channel the energy of restless adolescents.
- Ultimately, need to surrender sovereignty to central authorities for the "common good"
The condition in which humans have lived for most of their history, in which the unit of society is a small family unit numbering up to dozens of members. In the modern world, bands are limited to physical environments that more powerful societies don't really want, such as:
- Khoisan "bushmen" of the Kalahari Desert, Namibia and Botswana.
- Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest, Congo.
- Fayu and similar peoples of New Guinea tropical forests.
- Aboriginal peoples of the Australian desert.
Typically, these localities are so food-resource poor that they can't reliably support any higher human population density. Prior to the invention of agriculture, virtually all humans who weren't lucky enough to live in some exceptionally rich environment lived in societies organized as bands. The specs:
- Settlement: Typical of nomadic hunter-gatherers such as Mbuti pygmies (right).
- Community identity based on: Close familial relationships.
- Decision making: informal and egalitarian
- Conflict resolution: informal
- Ownership of land: communal, but basically meaningless.
- Material culture: very modest
Before you decide that this is paradise, recall that in band-grade societies of which we have knowledge, murder is a major cause of death, and encounters with outsiders are occasions for great anxiety.
In especially productive environments like the Pacific Northwest or among settled agriculturists who had invented a way to concentrate resources, a new pattern of human settlement arose, featuring higher population densities clustered in relatively permanent settlements numbering hundreds of people. Just barely small enough that a person can be personally familiar with everyone else in the community. Affiliation is still base on family ties, but in this case they are somewhat abstract in that they are based on descent from some distant common ancestor. Typically, tribes are subdivided into more closely related "clans." The specs:
- Settlement: Typical of small farming or pastoral nomadic communities such as those of the Huli of New Guinea (right).
- Community identity based on: Broad familial relationships.
- Decision making: informal and egalitarian, but often dominated by a charismatic individual (a.k.a. a "big man" in Diamond's terminology, although as the Book of Judges shows, the big man might sometimes be a woman.) In many cases, the "big man's" authority may be temporary - E.G. for the duration of a crisis, as in plains Indian war-chiefs.
- Bureaucracy: none
- Centralization of authority, force, or information: none
- Conflict resolution: informal
- Ownership of land: by clan.
- Material culture and displays: Settled people can afford to won more stuff because they don't have to carry it around. With the rise of extensive material cultures, objects become important parts of the displays of fitness inherent to human nature. Non-utilitarian items become incorporated in displays indicating fitness, along with the, ostentatious consumption of material goods.
At this point, human nature has to be bent a little to make things work:
- People have to get along with others whom they may really not have meaningful practical "family" interactions with.
- The legitimacy of ownership and inheritance of the land requires the "legitimacy" of offspring, and the demands of agriculture demand functioning permanent family households. Result: the institution of marriage and the inevitable tension between the obligations of marriage and sexually opportunistic human nature.
- When you put this many people together, division of labor and the rise of specialized professions becomes possible.
- Most tribal societies, in one form or another, coped with adolescence by initiating cohorts of teenage warriors, who would take their full place in society if they survived to the age of majority.
The thing about agriculture is that it encourages higher population densities. Eventually, a point is reached at which:
- Population has to be spread out into two or more villages.
- Decision making and authority has to be centralized
- The transfer of power between successors to leadership ought to be orderly.
We see the emergence of chiefdoms in which the position of "big man" becomes a permanent specialized profession and a status that is passed down to the big man's descendants. In this case:
- Settlement: One or more villages.
- Community identity based on: Broad familial relationships, residence, class and profession.
- Decision making: Centralized in the chief and his/her assistants
- Bureaucracy: rudimentary. An official may have many roles, sort of a "Lord High Everything Else." (E.G. Samoan Manaia and Taupou. Link then scroll down to Taupou illustration and text.)
- Centralization of authority, force, or information: yes
- Conflict resolution: centralized in the chief and his/her assistants
- Ownership of land: either private or by chief.
- Redistribution of wealth: In hands of chief to some degree. Taxation to finance maintenance of emergency food supplies, public buildings and facilities, such as Trobriand Island "yam houses" (right.)
- Material culture: Permanent public works become possible. Chiefs typically monopolize luxury items (below right), are recognizable by badges of office, are owed deference by others.
- Warrior initiations and mobilizations take on more of the character of proper military recruitment and training. Restless youths become, for a while, members of a new specialist trade - soldiers.
Living in a chiefdom requires radical changes in human nature:
- One frequently encounters strangers that one must, somehow, restrain ones' self from killing. Thus, a certain amount of the right to use force is given up to the chief, who dispenses justice and organizes military activities.
- Use of organized force against neighbors, and the availability of menial public work makes slavery feasible.
- Being a chief is work. Societies that decide to accept chiefs must support them. Result: what Diamond unkindly calls "kleptocracy." In his book Collapse, however, Diamond points out that decision-making in the egalitarian tribal villages of central New Guinea inevitably involves endless discussions in which the views of all concerned are heard out. A tribal society may be the largest that can, in principle, be governed this way. (Indeed, in the modern era, utopian communities that embrace egalitarian principles tend to function best with a charismatic leader.) Running a larger society is work, and rulers need to be supported. But by making someone a ruler, society gives him/her the right and ability to take more than they need. The result is an equilibrium between:
- what society can afford
- what society will put up with (i.e. the line between acceptable and unacceptable coercion)
- people's desire that their chief be decked-out like a winner rather than a chump (see Samoan chief - right).
- the individual chief's urge to demonstrate that he/she specifically deserves the privileges he/she enjoys.
- Thus, there is a natural tension between the practical convenience of allowing a leader to routinely make decisions, and the inconvenience that, having empowered him/her to do so also enables the chief to coerce more support out of you than is strictly necessary.
- But the big thing: Society is no longer organized with the obvious natural goal of serving family. Motivating people to buy in requires:
- Some big short-term practical advantage like efficiency, long-term planning, and the power to overrule citizens with impractical views.
- Acceptance of an ideology. In traditional societies, this typically involved religious justification of chiefly status and privilages.
- In some cases, egalitarianism compromises with the practical need for leadership when citizens elect their leaders, as in ancient Athens.
Different from chiefdoms in extreme but not really in kind, representing continued enlargement of population and increase in population density. For our purposes, a society reaches the level of a state if it contains at least one city.
Specs. In this case:
- Settlement: Many villages and at least one proper city (where most people are not food producers). If more than one city, then one functions as seat of government.
- Community identity based on: residence, class, profession, shared ideology.
- Decision making: Centralized in organized ruling class and stratified bureaucracy
- Bureaucracy: highly developed, with specialized offices.
- Centralization of authority, force, or information: significant
- Conflict resolution: performed by judges with specialist knowledge who refer to laws.
- Military matters can absolutely no longer be left to teenagers. Professional career soldiers and officers arise.
- Ownership of land: either private or public.
- Redistribution of wealth: Organized and usually subject to law. Taxation finances a broad range of public works.
- Ruling class, to various degrees, typically monopolizes luxury items, but usually share the privilage with other social groups, including entrepreneurs. Indeed, states are sufficiently complex that it is difficult for the ruling elite to suppress upstart centers of power. Thus, politics often involve conflicts between rival elites, or the incorporation of rivals into the ruling class.
- Rulers forces to share power with rivals. E.G: Classic Mayan Copan (right).
- Rising wealthy commercial classes allowed to become rich but prohibited form ostentatiously displaying wealth. E.G.: Pochteca, the Aztec commercial class; and entrepreneurs of ancient Rome (For fun, check out Trimalchio's Dinner, a fictional Roman account of the pretentions of a nouveau-riche entrepreneur whose ostentation barely conforms to the letter of the law.)
- Monopoly of information by ruling class is significant. Writing systems develop in order to help maintain this monopoly. (In fact, they are frequently diabolically complex, specifically in order that only initiated members of the ruling class can read them.) The monopoly of information remains an essential of statecraft, even in modern democracies. Consider this: How many Americans knew about the choices of the Cuban Missile crisis when it was happening? How many were personally effected by the choices?
Life in a state requires truly significant constraints on human nature, and requires the sacrifice of much autonomy. Consider the relationship of Gilgamesh, legendary king of the ancient Sumerian city Uruk, and his subjects.
Gilgamesh does not leave a son to his father,
day and night he arrogantly...
Is Gilgamesh the shepherd of Uruk-Haven,
is he the shepherd. ...
bold, eminent, knowing, and wise!
Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother(?)
The daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man.
A more recent example: The People's Republic of China's one child policy, in which the state seeks to control people's most fundamental evolutionary imperative.
Why do we put up with this?
- The advantages in material wealth and security of being part of a large, complex society compensate for the loss of autonomy.
- People buy into ideologies that enable them to identify with the state as they would with their families. Indeed, the rise of states coincides with the rise of vigorous ideologies that bring people together in state-sized communities. In states, ideologies tend to play a much larger role in people's lives. Thus, in a tribal society one may fight in defense of one's kin or to gain material advantage, but only a state can persuade its citizens to sacrifice themselves for a concept.
A Caveat:The breakdown of societies into bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states described above is a generalization. Some historical examples fit it poorly:
- The 19th century kingdom of the Zulus had the laws, professional armies, and complex organization of a state; and governed a state-sized chunk of territory, but lacked anything you could call a city. Almost all its citizens produced their own food.
- The society of pre-Islamic Arabia had the proper cities and material culture of neighboring states, but was strictly tribal in its social organization.
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.:
- First century CE assimilation of tribal Celtic and Germanic societies into Roman state.
- 19th century assimilation of tribal societies of Oceania, Africa, the Americas into modern states
- Contemporary assimilation of tribal societies of New Guinea (like the Huli, mentioned above) into the states of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
- The availability of surplus labor: E.G.: Ancient Egypt. During the months of the annual inundation of the Nile valley, the agricultural labor-force was idled. This labor begged to be used in major public works projects. The organization of Egypt into states (and eventually a unified state) allowed that labor pool to be organized to make Egypt a very competitive society.
- Coping with neighbors who have made the transition: E.G.: The ancient Hebrews. The Book of Judges describes the centuries between the Hebrew occupation of Canaan and the founding of the Kingdom of David. During this time their land was a wrestling-mat for states like Egypt and the kingdom of the Hittites. Ultimately, leading citizens demanded that a king be chosen so the Hebrews could be "like other nations."
- Taking advantage of charismatic leadership: E.G.: The 13th century Mongol Empire. The Mongols, a tribal society, became united by a remarkable individual, named Temujin but known by the title "Genghis Khan," who for personal reasons believed that Mongol society should be redesigned. His success was such that within a century of his death, the Mongols ruled the geographically largest state the world has ever seen. Note: the Mongols quickly learned the best practices of statecraft from the peoples they ruled, demonstrating that there is no huge intellectual challenge in this transition.
- The rise of ideologies: E.G.: The first generation of Muslims. Arising in tribally organized Arabia in the early 7th century, the Islamic faith was quickly embraced by a far larger community than any tribe could accomodate. That community was compelled for practical reasons to organize as a state. Like the Mongols, the first Muslims were quick-studies in the art of statecraft and, within a century, were running one of the world's preeminent civilizations.
- But note: These factors aren't mutually exclusive: E.G.: The 19th century Zulu kingdom. The Nguni peoples of eastern South Africa had done well with a tribal society for centuries, but starting in the late 18th century strong chiefdoms (or proto-states) began to emerge and compete, probably in response to growing awareness of the competitiveness of British settlers to the south. But the winner of this Nguni political coalescense was the Zulu kingdom, founded by Shaka Zulu, a charismatic leader in the mold of Genghis Khan.
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:
- The example of neighboring states
- An agricultural system that made available an off-season labor force.
- The rise of the religious belief that their rulers possessed the power to open spiritual portals to the next world and receive revelations from it.
The take home lessones of this and other collapses of civilizations are that:
- The viability of a state absolutely depends on the ability of the environment to support dense concentrations of people
- the ideologies that give civilizations cohesion can become maladaptive under changing circumstances.