In the millions of years that humans have walked the planet there have been two major lifestyle transitions. For most of our time here we were nomadic hunter gatherers who survived for that vast period only because we cooperated together in egalitarian communities. But about 5,000-12,0000 years ago a new lifestyle began to take root. In the highly fertile areas of the Middle East, nomads discovered that they could cultivate the grains that grew naturally there. Instead of wandering constantly through the wilds, they could settle down and farm. Thus began the agricultural revolution.
I won’t describe this first major lifestyle transition in any detail because a book based on the latest research does that: Against The Grain: a deep history of the earliest states (2017) by the scholar James C. Scott. My focus in this post is the massive political changes that farms and towns brought. Briefly stated, the cooperative egalitarianism that had persisted for countless millennia was replaced by autocracy in both community leadership and personal relations.
What caused this inversion of our innate political orientation?
Scholars have identified several forces, and missed one key explanation, which I will discuss. The most important of the well known factors was the ability for some farmers to produce a surplus of food beyond what they and their family required. Other farmers, perhaps settling on more unproductive land, could not produce such surplus and often could not even feed themselves. So farming brought inequality in food, unlike in nomad times where no food surplus could be accumulated — it would just attract hungry predators, and everyone shared almost everything.
With the surplus came extra power. If you have lots of food while most folks have much less, then you can trade your surplus for their labor to produce even more surplus. Now that extra can be used for non-agricultural ends, such as security. You need protection because the greater your surplus, the more likely you will be attacked by others, especially if they are hungry. So you build walls around your farm, and train fighters to repel interlopers. In time you are the head of a small army.
Your surplus radically changes the politics of your relationships. Rather than power being dispersed, as in a nomadic clan, power now is concentrated in your hands. You command not only farm laborers, but also those who build the fortifications and hold the weapons. Fewer and fewer of your relationships are truly reciprocal because nobody has the same power as you. And because by nature people prefer egalitarian relationships and do not like to be ordered around by others, you are always insecure, afraid of rebellion. You lose the social bonds and trust that exists in nomadic communities. Your security depends on your dominance over the community. Which of course radically affects the lives of your subordinates. Now more and more of their life involves coping with a person with radically more power than any nomad had to face. Dependence on the dominator also causes anxiety. If the Top Dog doesn’t like us, we are in serious trouble. Even if we retained nomadic skills, we can’t survive in the wilds without a clan. So we are forced to submit, as are our peers. In contrast, primal nomads had a very high level of independence. If they did not like their band, there were many other bands happy to welcome a productive member.
A concrete example of the political transition is the change in the way children were raised. In nomadic communities child care is intensely permissive. To strike a child is a serious offence. Children are not forced to do anything. Their games are non-competitive. Yet all nomads come of age as contributing members of nomadic society. In contrast, agriculture required the labor of children. Discipline was harsh. Obedience rather than autonomy was the child’s lot. The implicit training in democracy conferred by nomad rearing was replaced in the civilized family by autocracy that trained children in the legitimacy of inequality.
The upshot is that farming was contrary to our deepest political preferences. Everyone suffered emotionally. Now that cost might have been worth it if farming also provided greater food security, made us healthier and enhanced our lifespan. But in fact the opposite occurred. Now dependent on just a few grains for the bulk of our calories, crop failures could result in widespread famine. Our health actually got worse, our brains shrunk, and we died sooner than the average nomad. One famous scholar (Jared Diamond) opines that the agricultural revolution was “the greatest mistake in history”.
But worse was to come. Many such autocratic communities began to appear and while some of their leaders may have been benevolent, and stay true to their egalitarian roots by minimizing their dominance, it was only a matter of time until some autocrats had the outlier genes bent on domination. In fact, people with those genes are more likely to ascend up the power hierarchy. A person with that orientation who now commands a small army will not be content to rule over his small community. He (and almost always it is a male, as I shall show) will want to rule over neighboring communities. Thus begins the era of dominator-driven war. This further undermines the health and happiness of ordinary people.
The most predatory of the autocrats will soon take control of more and more communities. To do that they need a surplus of manpower and they often enslave the people in the communities they conquer. So not long after the advent of agriculture, the tragic history of slavery begins, an institution that persists to the present day, though not so prevalent as in the past. Sometimes autocrats would try to entice nomads to give up their primal ways and move to farms and towns, but the record of history indicates that when nomads encounter the lifestyle of farms and small towns, they reject it as entirely contrary to their nature – our nature!
Over time some small warlords managed to build empires, constructing major autocratic social institutions to maintain them. Violence was the ultimate force to maintain their vast power. As long as everyone submitted to domination they were relatively safe, but anyone who resisted did not live long.
Violence is an expensive method to keep order. You have to devote substantial resources to such an enterprise, including training and employing spies, enforcers and executioners. Many millennia ago, some autocrats discovered a less costly way to maintain order: convince your subordinates that you are a god, or have direct access to the gods. If the masses accept that idea, then they will follow you because of your special spiritual status, and not because you force them. Now the inner belief in the legitimacy of inequality replaces outward force.
This autocratic ideology is especially effective if it represents god as a dictator who demands obedience. If people come to accept that there is a Big Boss in the heavens, and even a jealous one who punishes any deviance, then they enter a new autocratic relationship, which can become more influential in their life than any of their relationships with a flesh and blood dominator. The more they engage with this god through prayer, worship and religious rites, the more they will practice dominance-submission relationship. Repeated over and over they can come to see that the autocratic relationship they have with god is the natural political structure of all relationship, especially in the private realm of their family.
For example, if every critical relationship has a dominator, then it is natural that adults dominate children, and beat them if they rebel. Now from the moment of birth, children are raised in the dominator model.
Gender relationships are similarly affected. If somebody needs to be the top dog and somebody the bottom dog, then in a community where god is male, men will naturally control women. Other social institutions designed to reinforce the power of autocratic leaders, such as monogamy and polgyny, also foster male dominance.
As more and more relationships have autocratic structure and children are trained in such politics from their earliest days, such relating becomes reflexive, almost like an instinct. Now mental structure deeper than beliefs — unconscious habit — drives the autocratic lifestyle. Yet this entirely inverts our egalitarian nature. Many scholars unfamiliar with the primal egalitarianism that birthed the human genome, and who witness the depth and prevalence of the autocratic relationship style today and throughout the history of civilization, mistakenly conclude that human nature is autocratic.
It is an understandable error, because civilized examples of egalitarianism are rare. To find such political structure you must go way, way back into the prehistory of the primal era, and then you find it everywhere and for vast periods of time. But such a primal perspective is rare, especially in the disciplines of history, philosophy and political science. The civilized era garners the vast amount of attention and therefore dominator politics is seen as the natural order rather than egalitarianism.
But in my view, once you understand how affective evolution works, and know that it operated for millions of years in egalitarian cultures, the case that our genes are by nature autocratic is not sustainable.
Further there is an additional perspective, that I am the first to introduce, that supports that conclusion. It is the subject of my next post.
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