Once upon a time, Margaret Mead was in conversation, with James Baldwin, about the responsibility they felt for the future of their children.He said “The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.”
Mead replied: “I know.”
Baldwin went on: “And the question is, how can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done. It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.”
Mead eventually said: “then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.” 
They were discussing racially motivated murders that happened during the Civil Rights movement, and they were discussing war and suffering around the world. Mead’s comment about the importance of knowing “the long, long road that we’ve come through” really jumped out at me, because Mead was an anthropologist.
Her “long road” is, therefore, not merely historical, it is evolutionary. Racism, terrorism, warfare, and genocide are the scourges of history, but are they the scourges of our entire evolutionary past? Do they represent some inevitable and enduring aspect of human nature? There are many people who would affirm that humans have always been hierarchical, xenophobic, and violent; that these are characteristics deeply engrained in our nature.
To explain human capacity for tolerance, charity, and gentleness many scholars refer to the effects of civilization. Thus, Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “war of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for states have since, that a stable society required leadership in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Aynn Rand wrote that “Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” Rand advocated industrial capitalism to free humans of such fetters.
Meanwhile others were insisting that the human mind was a blank slate receptive to any social system to which it was exposed.
What a confused and tangled set of misconceptions about human nature! When otherwise educated people have a misconception, they tend not to take kindly to information that contradicts it. Of course, this is because they do not consider this to be a misconception, but rather a received truth. And, in the case of war, genocide, and xenophobia, after many thousands of years of such practices being widespread in those same societies responsible for recorded history, the idea that such behavior arises out of human nature is an understandable position.
So, what do we have to counter it? There are about a half dozen pieces of information: equally undeniable, that should give pause to even the most stalwart followers of Rand or Hobbes.
Fallacy #1) Collectivism suppresses individuality.
This is clearly a fallacy. The human species is intensely pro-social, thus all human societies are collective endeavors, even capitalism. Thus the attribute “collectivism” does not entail suppression of creativity and individuality – even the most “simple” economies have innovation, as well as conservation of knowledge and technologies. Their values and ideologies tend to channel, not prevent, individualism.
Fallacy #2) That modern civilization decreases mortality due to violence.
This one is still hotly disputed. There are, in human societies, three main causes of deliberate death by conspecifics. These are a) interpersonal violence, b) lethal social controls, and c) warfare. While the first two categories of violent death appear to occur in most cultures, the final one, most definitely, does not. Warfare is a rare occurrence between groups in hunter-gatherer economies. This does not appear to be an artifact of recent history: there is very limited evidence of inter-group warfare from the archaeological record from the Pleistocene, when everybody was a hunter-gatherer.
There IS some evidence of interpersonal violence, even cannibalism, but murder and eating people happens in contexts other than war. Even genocidal violence, as when a whole party of men women and children are massacred, can happen in other contexts, such as retaliatory vengeance, fear of disease or of spiritual contamination.
The steady decline of violence in state societies – popularized by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, is not an empirical fallacy, but it is a statistical one, Transforming data on violent death, from the absolute numbers into percentages of total population, tends to produce a picture of declining rates. This is perhaps partly an artifact of the simple fact that population growth, in most agricultural economic systems, has far exceeded the increases in violent deaths for several thousand years now, and this has most clearly become exponential in the last hundred years.
Accepting this idea of declining “rates” further implies that there is actually some sort of inevitable rate of general mayhem, murder and violent death baked into human nature. If so, we then must ask what might be the cause of such rates, if indeed they are some inevitable part of the human condition? And how do some populations get stuck in more violent cultures than others?
More pointedly, we might ask ourselves what, if anything, does this ubiquitous human irascibility, and occasional lethal violence, got to do with warfare? If we plot mayhem caused by violence, crime, malnutrition, disease, toxic exposure, and poverty, we could play the same statistical game. Indeed, some people have done so. But what evidence do we have that such things as epidemics of disease, and natural disasters resulting in starvation, occur at some regular rate linked to any particular economy?
Here we enter the intellectual territory well trodden by students of animal ecology. Population regulation is well understood in other species. It appears to be achieved, in most natural wild populations of animals, by density dependent changes: as the numbers approach carrying capacity, deaths due to stress-induced aggression, reproductive failure, and diseases increase – even before signs of malnutrition appear.
The experimental research on rats done years ago, as well as studies of wild rabbit colonies, of wolf packs, of caribou, and of relationships between wild hares and lynx, are interesting in this regard. They show that populations begin to fall long before food supplies run out. In fact it appears now many of the deaths – even in epidemics, result not from the introduction of the novel microbes, but rather, due to the stress-induced drop in immunity attendant upon over-crowded populations. Moreover, deaths by violence also increase in many species when they are overcrowded. Hunter-gatherers generally live at lower population densities than people in other economies, and yet at the highest densities, as in huge modern cities, there are quite low rates of violence.
There is thus another whole category of causality that has an effect on mortality, and that is “structural” violence. This is down to racism, socio-economic inequality, and discrimination against “deviant” forms of sexuality, minority religious beliefs, or even political ideology (for example, communism has been targeted as well as capitalism). These permit levels of hardship and social rejection that create extreme stress for disadvantaged people, and such that their lives are often shortened. Even the life expectancy of their descendants, if they manage to have any, can be reduced. Such structural violence is unknown among mobile hunter-gatherers, and yet has been a feature of state societies, with very few exceptions.
Fallacy #3) Humans are naturally prone to xenophobia.
This is also known as the “in-group vs out-group” to “tribal” tendency. Here we enter an other very contentious area.
However, I think it IS a fallacy.
Why? Well, for one thing, preference for, and defense of, known and familiar companions is not the same as hostility to unknown or unfamiliar people. There is no evidence that people, even in “a state of nature” are inevitably hostile towards strangers – or neighbors. Early encounters between explorers like Columbus and the native people of the Caribbean, for example, reported curiosity, friendly offers to trade, and high levels of hospitality – to the point that Columbus was enthusiastic about the potential enslavement of such innocents. The later hostility that greeted European settlers had as much to do with these early experiences of misunderstanding, and exploitation, as it did with the high handed attitude of new outsiders who came, clearly, with intent to usurp the lands of the people.
Children do not automatically show fear or dislike of age or play-mates based on skin color, dress, accents, or other aspects of superficial appearance. Experiments have shown, however, that assignment of people to “outsider” status does happen very quickly in young children. Rather than an evolved “tribal” tendency, an instinctive xenophobia, this is usually based on teachings. It is when adults assignment of inferior moral or intellectual abilities – effectively “other-ing” those who are differentiated by appearance, behaviour, or symbolic tags. Jane Elliot’s work showed that children quickly catch on, and start actively being horrible even to former friends and classmates, and do so on the most arbitrary evidence of difference, such as eye colour. All they need is a specific and authoritarian assertion that some tag indicates who ls an inferior or wicked person.
Three additional fallacies concern hypotheses about historical trends, that interrelate with one another to underpin the myth of progress.
Fallacy #4) Human life span has been increasing since “the Stone Age”.
This one is very pervasive. In fact, however, it is life expectancy at birth which varies a great deal between cultures, not the age to which people CAN live. Life span appears to be species specific: humans can live about 30 years longer than most great apes; but many decades short of the life span of certain species of trees and tortoises.
Life expectancy on the other hand, is a feature of death rates at various ages, and thus represents at statistical probability of surviving to various ages. In a cultural ecology with high rates of malnutrition, stress, or infection, life expectancy will be low. This was the case in 17th century France, where life expectancy for males was under 30, as it was throughout most of human history, and is among some Pygmies in the Congo today.
Life expectancy might very well have got far lower even in industrialized economies had it not been for the invention of vaccines and the discovery of antibiotics. Highest rates of mortality tend to occur at the youngest ages as immune systems get their training wheels, so prevention of death caused by microbes caused a massive jump in life expectancy over the past hundred years. Life expectancy varies with income throughout the industrial world, and tends to be lowest among colonized people, whether they are Scots in the UK or native Canadians or Aboriginal Australians today.
Fallacy #5) The assertion that all economies, prior to the industrial age, were inadequate in meeting human needs.
The entire colonial program summarized by the unfortunate phrase “White Man’s Burden” as well as the overt racism in Rand’s view of “primitives” stems from this. International food aid programs and the activities undertaken by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation institutes to spread “green revolution” technologies, were often predicated on the assumption that traditional societies had woefully inadequate systems of farming and animal husbandry.
The idea is still very widespread that this inadequacy is responsible for malnutrition in the “third world”. This is related to the previous point, in that it mistakes the causes of innovation. Rand’s assumption was that things tend to be invented due to individual striving for perfection and are manifestations of genius.
In fact, there is considerable evidence that slash and burn horticulture, nomadic pastoral, and forager economies are adequate, and even produce abundant food at the cost of considerably less arduous labour than was typical of agricultural economies until the mechanization of farming. Certainly these economies featured higher rates of infant and childhood mortality, but so did the pre-industrial feudal society. Humanitarian concerns leading to widespread vaccination and health care also caused unprecedented population growth. What tends to be overlooked is the fact that this in turn led to changes in land use, which resulted in malnutrition, local competition over resources, and suffering due to violence, racism, and poverty.
Fallacy #6) The assumption that there is some kind of evolutionary master plan programmed into humans.
The evolutionary trajectory – both physical and economic, of our species, is often pictured as “progress”. Thus, cultural “evolution” is tacked on, to models of prehistory showing descent of bipedal creatures from tree-dwelling apes, gradual increases in brain size and technological sophistication, and the emergence of anatomically modern humans.
This sometimes creates the impression that the growth of population, and the shifts in economic and organizational complexity, over the last 10,000 years, occurred because of increased cognitive prowess – or “genetic pacification” or “self-domestication”. This is often presented as the march of evolutionary progress, in human welfare and even in consciousness.
Fallacy #7) That all human societies tend to be hierarchically organized, resulting from competition, so the strongest males dominate everyone else, and males tend to dominate most females.
This is clearly a fallacy, since most hunter-gatherers tend to have levelling mechanisms that create a relatively egalitarian access to food, shelter, solace, and reproductive opportunities. If anything, what has been proposed for much of the human evolutionary period, is a kind of reversal of dominance, where the strongest individuals actively ensure the welfare of the young and more vulnerable members of their groups.
Socio-economic inequality is not an inevitable outcome of the Neolithic revolution, either.
Fallacy #8) Humans are special snowflakes because God said so.
Can we really posit that humans are that different from other animals? Does the idea that density dependent changes in behaviour occur in humans seem so threatening to modern people, most of whom live in densely populated urban areas… so threatening that we cannot even explore it? Can we also look at how humans function as part of an ecosystem, in fact, often playing an active part for good or ill, in the web of life?
I would like to end by decrying a false dichotomy. This is created when someone presents the human past, evolving within a hunter-gatherer economy, as the representatives of a lost and peaceful Eden, and “evolutionary environment” that shaped our species and made us ill-suited to the denser aggregations, carbohydrate-rich diets, and fast pace of life in civilization.
There is no real evidence that humans are genetically shaped for the activities of any particular economy. People only a few generations removed from living as hunter-gatherers take readily to careers in livestock farming, computer science, banking, stand-up comedy, and so on. Conversely, hunter-gatherer diets even today vary considerably, and many are hardly lacking in carbohydrates from cereal or starchy roots. Indeed, it is because of this that these were among the first domesticated plants.
The point of most contention is always the issue of war – or, as some phrase it “coalitional inter-group lethal violence”.
The relative absence of war among mobile hunter-gatherers is often mistaken for assertions that all such societies, so typical of our evolutionary past, were pacifist paradises occupied by “noble savages”. Critics, having first erected this straw man, then contest the evidence by pointing to reports of violence and murder in ethnographic reports and archaeological discoveries. They also tend to confuse the issue by mixing in reports from extant or prehistoric sedentary hunter-gatherers, and even from horticultural or pastoral economies.
Few go so far as to publish insinuations that researchers specializing in the study of hunter-gatherers were, at best, suffering from romantic delusions, or, at worst, dishonest. The presentation of modern day hunter-gatherers, as if their economy survived only due to isolation, is of course closely linked to Fallacy #5. If you believe that hunting and gathering was riskier and more arduous than keeping livestock and growing crops, naturally what follows is an assumption that people only need to see these more desirable options and they will then emulate them. Closely linked to this fallacy is the assumption that there is a progressive directionality in economic and cultural change as innovations (like domestication and more substantial housing) are acquired because they “make life easier” or less risky.
What if the truth is stranger? What if sedentary life, food storage, plant and animal domestication, and institutions dedicated to leadership and social control were in fact developed to deal with the repeated failures? What if the accumulative inventory of creative solutions sometimes resulted in economic practices even MORE arduous and risky? Does this destroy anything at all beyond our myth of progress?
I would like to plead for another piece of middle ground. Research among modern day hunter-gatherers may have overturned Hobbes, but does demolition of such previous negative stereotypes necessarily require that we depreciate either farming or civilization? They are riskier ventures, true, less stable in extreme densities, but no less bear stunning testimony to the adaptive scope and power of the collective cognitive niche; the fusion of two heritable but very different replicators.