Thursday, 10 May 2012

The State of Nature: Socioeconomics of Hunter Gatherers

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
The Conquest of Granada (1670)
John Dryden (1631 – 1700) English poet and playwright

This is the second part in the series of comparative analysis of hunter gatherers and agricultural societies which will be focusing on socioeconomics. My other post laid out the empirical nature of the health nutrition of both societies demonstrating that the diet of hunter gatherers was far more healthy and diverse than that of agricultural societies. I qualified this by conceding that, in theory, through modern medicine and preventative health we can offset the harms of the Western diet to our Palaeolithic genome and this has translated into higher life expectancy since the Renaissance for Europeans. This post I will be looking at three areas – cooperation and egalitarianism; labour and leisure; and peace and conflict – and providing analysis and comparison between hunter gatherers and agricultural societies. In this post I aim to address some misconceptions commonly found about hunter gatherer socioeconomics in an empirical manner without making any serious normative value judgements. Let us begin with some context to this interesting topic.

Hadza Bushmen of Tanzania having lunch

The State of Nature from Leviathan to Stone Age Economics
Throughout the history of western philosophy the state of nature has been a central concept for expounding and justifying various political, social, economic and moral ideals. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) was one of the first to employ this though experiment in his book Leviathan (1651) written during the English Civil War (1642–1651). In it he proposed the necessity for an absolute monarchy and strong central government to constrain and curb the brutish instincts of humans that are found in the original position where there is no civil society. According to Hobbes, the state of nature was marked by bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) and that there was:

No Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Indeed this perspective of the state of nature by Hobbes has been one of the prominent interpretations for humanity’s instincts and has been employed by various political philosophers and national leaders to justify certain policies throughout history. Yet, in 1689, the English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) offered and expounded a fundamentally different perspective on the state of nature. In Two Treatises of Government Locke argued for democratic governance in opposition to Hobbesian absolute monarchy and came to a conclusion about the state of nature:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all humankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and interdependent; no one ought to harm another in his life, health, and liberty. The natural state is also one of equality in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal and no one has more than another. It is evident that all human beings – as creatures belonging to the same species and rank and born indiscriminately with all the same natural advantages and faculties – are equal amongst themselves.

Indeed, this interpretation of the state of nature as being far from the Hobbesian struggle lead to various characterisations of those living in the state of nature as being “noble savages”. This concept is commonly associated with the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), but interestingly the first use of the term appears in 1670 in The Conquest of Granada, a play by English poet and playwright John Dryden. Certainly, Rousseau took on board this concept and in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1754) he states:

I know that civilized men do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains. But when I see barbarous man sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness.

When the British explorer Captain James Cook came across Australia he was of a similar opinion to Rousseau. In the entry of 23 August 1770 into the Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, Cook opinionated:

The natives of New Holland may appear to some to be the most wretched people of earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans, as they are wholly unacquainted with the superfluous conveniences so much sought after in Europe. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not magnificent houses, household-stuff. In short they seemed to set no value upon any thing we gave them. This in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessities of life and that they have no superfluities.

It must be noted that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all lacked any empirical evidence to substantiate their claims of the original position and state of nature of humankind and even Cook lacked the thorough methodology to make such empirical claims. Indeed, it is contested to weather Hobbes even proposed his Leviathan as the reality of the state of nature or rather proposed it as a philosophical though experiment. Either way, with the wax and wane of colonialism and the decline of racist anthropology, by the 1960s a number of anthropologists were conducting ethnographic fieldwork in some of the last hunter gatherer societies in existence. A prominent radical anthropologist was Marshall Sahlins, now Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 1974 he wrote The Original Affluent Society in Stone Age Economics arguing that hunter gatherer societies were actually affluent insofar as their material expectations closely matched their means to obtain those expectations and they had limited wants and unlimited means. As stated:

Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other than the hunter and gatherers in which all the people's material wants were easily satisfied. To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognise that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.

This concept of the Original Affluent Society seriously challenged the orthodoxy of the time of Hobbes in political and social philosophy and of Homo economicus in classical economic theory. It is with this context that I shall begin my analysis of the empirical evidence from the archaeological and ethnographic records of hunter gatherer societies – the state of nature.

Cooperation and Egalitarianism: Equity, Gift Economy and Challenges to Homo economicus
Inequality is not an intrinsic or natural feature of human societies – the social, political and economic organisation of hunter gatherers, from the Hadza to the Inuit, inevitably tends to be that of egalitarianism. This fact comes down to a number of factors spurring it on: ecological constraints necessitating equity for the group, the natural selection of cooperative and prosocial behaviours, but also through cultural constructs and social networks to maintain, facilitate and enforce equality. Cooperation is fundamental in these hunter gatherer societies, and as a David Attenborough documentary shows, it is possible through cooperation that 3 Dorobo hunters of Kenya can scare off 15 hungry lions from a recently deceased game and go home with free meat to feed the tribe. Indeed James Woodburn, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, states that hunter gatherers are “aggressively egalitarian” because this egalitarianism is a necessity for their survival. Some of the most profound examples of altruistic punishment of freeriders occur in these hunter gatherer societies, and some of the most profound examples of how cooperative and prosocial behaviours are incentivised are found in hunter gatherers societies. Recent ethnographic research and statistical modelling – published in Nature by a team of anthropologists and statisticians from Harvard University, University of California at San Diego and University of Cambridge – has uncovered the networks of cooperation of the Hadza in Tanzania and how cooperators cluster together in order to outcompete freeriders and egotists and how these networks are found in modern social interactions (Coren L. Apicella of Harvard University explains it here). Hunter gatherers are profoundly the antithesis to Homo economicus – their society is based on the gift economy where there is complete communal sharing of resources and selfishness is fundamentally taboo and dominators are abhorred.

The market economy is a myth when it comes to the subsistence gift economies of hunter gatherers, as John M. Gowdy, Professor of Economics and Social Sciences at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, shows in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Among the Hadza people of Tanzania there are elaborate rules to ensure that all meat from a hunting expedition is equally shared. Hoarding, or even having a greater share than others, is socially unacceptable and egotists are punished. Apart from personal items, such as tools, weapons, or jewellery, there are sanctions against accumulating possessions, not least because the nomadism of hunter gatherers makes possessions a nuisance. Gowdy proposes that the study of the state of nature, that of our first way of life as hunter gatherers, offers fundamental challenges to the economic orthodoxy of the neoclassical and neoliberal philosophy of Homo economicus:

-   The economic notion of scarcity is a social construct, not an inherent property of human existence.

-   The separation of work from social life is not a necessary characteristic of economic production.

-   The linking of individual wellbeing to individual production is not a necessary characteristic of   economic organization.

-   Selfishness and acquisitiveness are aspects of human nature, but not necessarily the dominant ones.

-   Inequality based on class and gender is not a necessary characteristic of human society.

There has been extensive ethnographic research on the socioeconomic structures of hunter gatherers around the world and the majority of evidence suggests that there are indeed profound egalitarian. In Egalitarian Societies, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute, Woodburn lays out the social and economic organisation and structures of hunter gatherer societies that are egalitarian. These societies (such as the Mbuti of the Congo, the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Batek of Malaysia, the Paliyan of South India, the Awá-Guajá of Brazil, the Aeta of the Philippines, and Mardu of western Australia) display profound social, economic and gender parities which are maintained by cultural constructs to enforce and coerce egalitarianism and social networks of clustering cooperative and prosocial behaviours. Woodburn establishes four key characteristics of such immediate return societies that are conducive for egalitarianism:

-   Social groupings are flexible and constantly changing in composition.

-   Individuals have a choice of whom they associate with in residence, in the hunting and gathering food quest, in trade and exchange, and in ritual contexts.

-   People are not dependent on specific other people for access to basic requirements.

-  Relationships between people, whether relationships of kinship or other social exchanges, stress sharing and mutuality not involving long-term binding commitments.

The equality found in these hunter gatherer societies is achieved through direct individual access to resources; through direct individual access to means coercion and means of mobility which limit the imposition of control; through procedures which prevent accumulation and impose sharing; through mechanisms which allow goods to circulate without making people dependent upon one another. With these value systems of non-competition, egalitarian hunter-gatherers limits the development of social stratification and in principle extend equality to all.

Ethnographic research on the Mardu people in Western Australia by Robert Tonkinson, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia and author of The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert, shows similar structures and characteristics. The potential for inequality in Mardu society is submerged due to the considerable weight of an ethos and praxis of mutual aid and a notable stress on individual autonomy. Relationships that are structurally asymmetrical, as is the case between most adjacent generational members, have both parties appealing to the same imperative, namely of nurturance, reciprocity, and to assert equality of responsibility. The ecological constraints, such as unreliability of rainfall, are fundamental for such social and economic organisation. The dominant cultural logic – which favours permeable boundaries, a decidedly regional world view, and strong stress on interdependence rather than competition – is thus underlain by an ecological imperative. Whilst individual autonomy is stressed, egotism by individuals is not tolerated. Selfishness and egotism are considered Gurndabarni, or shameless, and the group will outcast individuals that abuse the ethos of mutual aid. Much time is spent together, in family groups and as parts of multifamily bands whose members camp in close proximity to one another. In these domestic situations, there is not gender dominance of the males over the females due to the norms of kinship that significantly constrain behaviour after being enculured from a young age.

The distain for arrogance is also observed with the !Kung. !Kung groups are typified by strong and continual socialisation and enculturation processes against hoarding and against displays of arrogance and authority. The proper behaviour of a !Kung hunter who has made a big kill is to speak of it in passing and in a deprecating manner; if an individual does not minimise or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him. As Richard B. Lee, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology of University of Toronto, stated in The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society (1979):

None is arrogant, overbearing, boastful, or aloof.  In !Kung terms these  traits  absolutely disqualify a person as a leader and may  engender  even stronger  forms of ostracism. Another trait emphatically not found among traditional camp leaders is a desire for wealth or acquisitiveness. Whatever their personal influence over groups decisions, they never translate this into more wealth or more leisure time than group members have. Their accumulation of material goods is never more, and is often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in the camp.

Comparatively, every single agricultural society throughout history until modernity, from Ancient China to Tsarist Russia, have been totalitarian, fascist or authoritarian and based on profound social stratification and hierarchies of power. Private property, competitive trade, asymmetrical access to resources, and formalised rules led to the formation of classes. The philosophies of nationalism in ancient civilisations (or namely its abuse by leaders and the upper classes) and individualism in modern nation states completely disregarded the common good and egalitarianism became impossible. The development of agricultural societies placed new barriers between individuals and flexible access to resources, because trade often siphoned resources away, because some segments of the society increasingly had only indirect access to food, because investments in new technology to improve production focused power in the hands of elites so that their benefits were not widely shared, and perhaps because of the outright exploitation and deprivation of some segments of society. The clear class stratification of health in early and modern civilizations, and the general failure of either early or modern civilizations to promote clear improvements in health, nutrition, or economic homeostasis for large segments of their populations until the very recent past all reinforce competitive and exploitative models of the origins and function of civilized states.

Labour and Leisure: Hunter Gatherers as the Original Affluent Society
There has been an immensity of ethnographic research showing that the average weekly working time for a hunter gatherer is far less than their horticultural, pastoral, agricultural and early industrial counterparts. Indeed this may seem counterintuitive for a hunter and gatherer to have an easily life in terms of labour and leisure, but there is substantial energy expenditure involved in non-hunter gatherer economies. The seasonal nature of harvesting, the susceptibility to pests and plagues, the grounds for epidemics, and the incentive for conflict over land all contribute to offsetting the benefits of surplus and the division of labour that agriculture yields. Whilst hunter gatherers are subject to episodic patterns of starvation due to natural disasters and limited ability to store food, these costs are offset by their nomadic mobility to search for new food sources and natural resources. The BBC documentarian Bruce Parry found out this leisurely existence when he lived with Babongo people of Gabon. Indeed, the Hadza are ingenious survival experts when it comes to their harsh environmental conditions and yet they still manage to live an affluent life when all their material wants easily met. A BBC documentary by Ray Mears shows the rather straightforward life they Hadza people have. The !Kung people are another profound example of the effectiveness and ease of hunting and gathering. As Yehudi Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, points out in Man in Adaptation: The Cultural Present and the Biosocial Background (1974):

In all, the adults of the camp worked about two and a half days a week. Since the average working day was about six hours long, the fact emerges that !Kung Bushmen, despite their harsh environment, merely devote from twelve to nineteen hours a week to getting food. Even the hardest working individual in the camp, a man named Oma, spent a maximum of 32 hours a week in the food quest.

Conversely, the agricultural process is a long and labour intensive one: the land must be cleared and the crops must be planted, irrigated, tended to, protected from pests, harvested and transported, processed and stored and then prepared for consumption. Animals as cattle must be domesticated and reared, grazing grounds must be cleared, cattle must be tended to and protected, herds must be culled, sheep to be sheared, cows to be milked or butchered, and waste must be disposed of. The amount of work per capita increases and the amount of leisure decreases with the development of agriculture where inversely a subsistence labour intensity is characteristically intermittent, a day on and a day off.  Thus agriculture is immensely labour intensive and agricultural land has diminishing marginal returns due to soil depletion, water erosion and other environmental weathering processes. As Mark Nathan, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York, notes in Health and the Rise of Civilization (1999 Yale University Press):

The strategies that sedentary and civilized populations use to reduce or eliminate food crises generate costs and risks as well as benefits. These advantages may be outweighed by the greater vulnerability that crops often display toward climatic fluctuations or other natural hazards, a vulnerability that is then exacerbated by the specialised nature or narrow focus of many agricultural systems. The advantages are also offset by the loss of mobility that results from agriculture, the limits and failures of various storage systems and the vulnerability of sedentary communities to epidemic disease, raiding and sacking, and political expropriation of stored resources.

Peace and Conflict: Mengalah and Naklik or Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes
There are many perceptions of violent intertribal warfare and brutish conflicts plaguing hunter gatherer societies. Indeed, some hunter gatherer societies have been and are ones of warriors (such as the Surma people of Ethiopia and their stick fighting, and various Native American tribes), but the misperceptions stem from the misunderstanding of what hunter gatherers are, what constitutes conflict and violence, but also an inability to reflect on the history of violence in agricultural societies. Douglas P. Fry, a Professor of Anthropology at Abo Akademi University in Finland and the University of Arizona in America, has done extensive research in cultural variations of conflict resolution and the nature of peace and violence in societies around the world. His The Human Potential for Peace:  An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence (2006 Oxford University Press) challenges the flawed perceptions of the innateness and inevitability of violence and warfare in our species and provides an overview of the existence of peaceful societies throughout history. Fry argues that the inevitability of conflict is real for all societies but that this does not at all translate into violence and warfare, and that hunter gatherers have some of the best examples of conflict resolution systems and norms of peace.

The Semai people, of the Orang Asli hunter gatherers in the centre of the Malay Peninsula, are a profound example of this. Their way of life is marked by the archetypal gift economy and the dichotomy between public and private is non-existent. The Semai proverb “there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger” is the basis for their social interactions and all conflicts and disputes are resolved through Becharaa, a public assembly whereby justice is distributed through communal consensus. The philosophy of Mengalah, or to yield, is the norm with the Semai and, through the process of enculturation, children are taught these principles of peace, cooperation and the preservation of harmony. Overall, Mengalah manages to manifest in Semai society as the complete absence of noncompetitive children’ games, the essential absence of murder and rape, and the characterisation of social interactions through mutual benefit.

Another hunter gatherer society where violence is rare is with the Inuit. Jean L. Briggs, Emerita Professor of Anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has conducted an immensity of ethnographic surveys on the Inuit of the central Canadian Arctic. In The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Groups in The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, Briggs examines the emotional, educational and developmental processes of Inuit children in a society of contradictory beliefs. Whilst a hunting and fishing people, values of nonviolence are equally essentially in maintaining Inuit society. Briggs observed an essential lack of interpersonal aggression, from pushing and shoving to even shouting. Children are taught to internalise cooperative values, abhor interpersonal conflict, to associate danger (environmental risks) with aggression (animal or personal hostility), and to realise the possibility of revenge. Moreover, potentially hostile requests are pacified through non-threatening jokes, the proposals of commitments are frowned upon, conflicts are expressed through subtle hints and people counterbalance escalated disputes with emphasised nurturance. The philosophy of Naklik underscores Inuit social interactions entailing the warm concern for the welfare of others.

It can be seen that the majority of peaceful societies through history and around the world of been hunter gatherers. The Encyclopaedia of Peaceful Societies collated by a team of anthropologists from the United States provides a systematic overview of the existence and nature of peaceful societies through history and around the world. Identified are twenty five peaceful societies where war and violence are essentially absent and twenty of these societies are indeed hunter gatherer societies. This comes down to the socioeconomic organisation of these societies as well as the cultural norms that are taught to children and enforced through various measures. Comparatively, agriculture fundamentally incentives and leads to warfare. With the first cities thanks to agriculture came the first standing professional militaries to protect land and trade routes and to expand land due to population growth, along with an immensity of other social and economic issues.

The Agricultural Path to Warfare

Every agricultural society from the ancient civilisations to the modern nation states have been to war on large scales – from the Peloponnesian War to the Saxon Wars, from the Crusade to the Mongol conquests, from the Thirty Years War to the American Independence War, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Crimean War, and from the First World War to the immensity of civil and ethnic conflicts in Africa and Asia. Overall, far from being the Hobbesian Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes, many hunter gatherer societies are far more likely to be peaceful and some display profound norms of this, such as Semai Mengalah and Inuit Naklik.

Thus, the state of nature is not as brutish or as poor as Hobbes proposed in 1651. Indeed, whilst living as a nomadic foraging might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it does indeed seem that is one of less work, less violence and more social and economic equality – not that these traits are normatively good or bad. Empirically, the average person in a hunter gatherer society would have more access to food, have to work less and have more leisure time and be subject to less violence than the average person in an agricultural society throughout history. Hunting and gathering has all the strengths of its weaknesses. Periodic movement and restraint in wealth and adaptations, the kinds of necessities of the economic practice and creative adaptations the kinds of necessities of which virtues are made. Precisely in such a framework, affluence becomes possible. Mobility and moderation put hunters and gatherers ends within range of their technical means. An undeveloped mode of production is thus rendered highly effective. The hunter gatherers life is not as difficult as it looks from the outside. Indeed the higher level of inequality agriculture permits allows some people to be completely better-off than any hunter-gatherer, but average living standards plummet even as pure quantity of people alive goes way up, as per Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion along the lines of the Malthusian growth model.

Even if the Hobbesian Leviathan was accurate in being the life in the state of nature is brutish and poor, what does that make the life in the state of agricultural based societies? The archaeological and palaeopathological evidence shows that life expectancy in the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Middle Ages, and Early Modern period right up until the Renaissance and scientific revolution was far less than that of hunter gatherers. Indeed, the Swedish life expectancy in 1750 was on par with hunter gatherers around the world.

The Swedish Life Expectancy of the 1750s and Hunter Gatherer Life Expectancy

Life in agricultural societies, from the Neolithic to early modern history (and still for developing nations) was a plagued, unfair, chronic, violent, and politically exploited existence. It has only been with the scientific revolution and the spread of liberalism and civil rights have agricultural based societies been able to match the health and socioeconomic benefits of hunter gatherers.

The only reason agriculture has become dominant through history is because of the massive capacity for reproduction of the human species it allows. Natural selection does not care about the social, economic or indeed medical realities an organism exists in – all it cares about is replicating and thanks to agricultural surplus this can take place. Population density dramatically and exponentially grew with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic transition, and yet was marked by lower life expectancy than those living in the Palaeolithic hunter gatherer subsistence. Agriculture does indeed have benefits, but these benefits are largely short term. Even if you reject the normative position taken by Jared Diamond in describing agriculture as the worst invention in human history, his analysis in Guns, Germs and Steel as to how agricultural societies dominant others is still completely valid. But just because agricultural societies have been the dominant and yielding the largest populations, it does not necessarily make them the best empirically to live in. Natural selection does not care about subjective wellbeing or the socioeconomic conditions an organism lives in and agricultural societies, whilst producing massive inequalities and health hazards, enabled the human species to exponentially grow. Indeed hunter gatherers would have all taken the step to agriculture if their environmental conditions allowed.

Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

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