When the philosophers of the eighteenth century made religion out to be an enormous error conceived by priests, at least they were able to explain its persistence by the interest the sacerdotal caste had in deceiving the masses. But if the peoples themselves have been the artisans of these systems of erroneous ideas, at the same time that they were their dupes, how has this extraordinary hoax been able to perpetuate itself throughout the course of history?
Three centuries ago, when Europeans in North America encountered the chief of the Natchez Indians, they couldn’t help but notice his high self-esteem. One Jesuit priest observed that he "knows nothing on earth more dignified than himself." And, since the chief knew nothing in the heavens greater than the sun, it seemed only natural to deem himself "brother of the Sun." This logic made sense to the sunwor hiping Natchez people, who vied for proximity to the chief ‘s divine aura. Upon his death, those who had the honor of accompanying him into the afterlife would swallow enough tobacco to lose consciousness and then be ritually strangled.
From a modern vantage point, it is hard to relate either to the chief or to his followers. Few politicians today consider themselves gods or demigods—or, at any rate, few would admit it. And few citizens aspire to spend eternity in the company of politicians. It’s tempting, indeed, to dismiss the Natchez people as a bizarre aberration. But they were actually pretty typical—typical of human beings living in a particular phase of cultural evolution: the chiefdom, in which numerous villages are subordinated to firm, centralized political leadership, and that leadership is distinctly institutionalized.
So far as we can tell from the archaeological record, all the ancient state-level societies were preceded in cultural evolution by chiefdoms. So far as we can tell from the ethnographic record, the leaders of chiefdoms have routinely claimed special access to divine force. And, remarkably, their people have typically considered this claim plausible.
How can we say with confidence that "chiefdom" is a standard phase of cultural evolution, a natural transition between the "Big Man" society and the states of the ancient world? Since the rubble of prehistory by definition holds no written records, what lets us discern the social structure of a long-lost people? Here the chief ‘s characteristically large ego becomes a good source of illumination.
We know from chiefdoms observed over the past few centuries that chiefs go to great lengths to underscore their chiefliness. Some Polynesian chiefs turned their entire faces into ornate works of art, enduring a painful, tattoo-like engraving process that leaves the skin looking like the leather on a fancy cowboy boot. Other chiefs have force-fed their wives into obesity, creating vivid testament to their affluence. Unfortunately for archaeologists, fat cells and engraved skin don’t fossilize well. But other common forms of chiefly self-advertisement are more enduring, such as monumental architecture, often built in tribute to (and as a reminder of ) the chief ‘s distinguished lineage.
Hence the huge mounds built in North America as tombs for past chiefs. Or the pyramidlike temples on Tahiti, or the earliest ziggurats in Mesopotamia. The giant stone heads on
Easter Island, up to ten meters tall, also suggest social organization beyond the Big Man level. Using these and other hallmarks of a chiefdom, archaeologists have found a clear pattern: After agriculture first spreads across a region, chiefdoms tend to follow.
This doesn’t mean that farming is a prerequisite for a chiefdom. Natural abundance, and attendant population density, will occasionally do the trick. As we’ve seen, the Northwest Indians were on the verge of chiefdomhood. And the Calusa of Florida, also coastal hunter-gatherers, were a full-fledged chiefdom, whose leader dispatched an armada of eighty canoes (not enough) to battle Ponce de Leon.
Nor, on the other hand, are we saying that chiefdoms inevitably follow fast on the domestication of plants and animals. In the jungles of Amazonia or New Guinea, farming doesn’t become very productive very fast. But given a friendly environment and a millennium or two, widespread agriculture does seem to propel social organization into the age of chiefdoms.
Thus, farming and cattle ranching come to England around 4000 B.C., and within a thousand years "megaliths"—orderly arrangements of boulders, as at Stonehenge—start appearing. The same pattern—first farming, then chiefdoms—is found earlier in continental Europe. (Julius Caesar would happen upon chiefdoms when he ventured into Germany and Gaul.) In Mesoamerica—Central America and the south of modern Mexico—farming villages were common by 2000 B.C., and within a thousand years, immense stone heads, in the Easter Island genre, had been carved. And so on. Chiefdoms, the scholar Randolph Widmer has written, "were at various times the most common form of society found throughout Europe, Africa, the Americas, Melanesia, Polynesia, the Near East, and Asia." Around the world, with the multiple invention and rapid spread of agriculture, cultural evolution marched on. Chiefdoms sustained the basic trend toward larger and more complex social organization.
They seem to have flourished in part by harnessing large quantities of non-zero-sumness. The chief, like the Northwest Indians’ Big Man, orchestrated much of the necessary coordination. But the orchestra was larger—thousands, even tens of thousands of people, sometimes spread over diverse landscapes, with diverse resources. So economic integration could be deeper and broader, with more division of labor and larger swaths of regular economic intercourse. Capital projects could be more ambitious—irrigation systems, even the occasional dam.
Sounds wonderful. But it poses two puzzles.
First, how could the cold logic of non-zero-sumness thrive in a hotbed of ridiculous superstition? How, if at all, did things like sun worship and ritual strangulation translate into economic efficiency?
The second puzzle is how the stereotypical chief could be a faithful steward of the public good. Chiefs, after all, aren’t known for their sensitivity to the welfare of others. Just ask four sixteenth-century Calusa village leaders who were subordinate to the paramount chief. Not subordinate enough, apparently. He cut off their heads and displayed them at a party. The follower of Chief Powhatan (father of the Indian princess Pocahontas) were described this way by the Englishman John Smith: "At his feet they present whatsoever hee commandeth and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare." This attitude is not a good antidote to a politician’s self-aggrandizing tendencies.
One standard response to this puzzle is simple: Chiefs actually didn’t serve the public; they duped the public into serving them, and religion was part of the duping. As one archaeologist puts it, "Chiefs coopt the religious authority of the community for themselves." In this view, a chiefdom’s division of labor and its public works did yield positive-sums—more output than the same people could have produced working alone— but the chiefs then appropriated the gains rather than returning them to the people whose synergy created them. Chiefs, in short, were parasites.
Here we revisit a venerable debate we’ve already touched on, a debate that applies to much of human history: the question of exploitation by ruling elites. At one extreme are Panglossian optimists, often of a rightward political bent, who can find the sunny side of the most gratuitous social inequality. At the other extreme are those—typically on the left, and sometimes Marxist—who see exploitation everywhere they look.
One place to seek evidence in this debate is Polynesia. This vast stretch of the south Pacific, dotted sporadically by islands, is a laboratory of chiefdomhood. Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 1000 settlers leapfrogged from island to island, starting new societies. In some cases, such as Hawaii (settled around A.D. 400), these social experiments were thereafter isolated from the others. Such seclusion notwithstanding, a general pattern emerged across Polynesia: the blossoming of chiefdoms that grew more complex over time. The question is: Was it "good" complexity, fairly equitable in its benefits, or was it "bad" complexity? And where did religion fit in?
THE POLYNESIAN CHIEFDOMS
The generic Polynesian chief had plenty of sacred clout. He was an earthly representative of the gods, the conduit through which divine power, or mana, flowed into society. Indeed, he possessed tapu—such sanctity that commoners were not to come in direct contact with him. (Hence the modern word taboo.) Some chiefs were carried around on litter and had trained spokesmen, "talking chiefs," who handled the dirty business of public communication. The Polynesian chief, observed one western scholar, "stands to the people as a god." At first glance the chief ‘s sacredness would appear to give him nearly infinite license to exploit. But to some extent, at least, he seems to have served the people, solving such classic non-zero-sum problems as risk diffusion and public works. His spiritual aura helped him compel contributions to the communal pool of starch paste that, on various islands, was then centrally stored in case of famine. Other donated foods—tax proceeds, that is—went to feed laborers who built irrigation systems. In Hawaii, chiefs laced the coast with more than four hundred saltwater "fish ponds," set off from the ocean by stone walls. Chiefs also handled the making of canoes and the training of navigators. And then there were great, taxpayer-financed feasts. Through this "redistributive" ritual the commoners ate delicacies that they themselves didn’t grow, playing a non-zero-sum game that people in a market economy take for granted.
Sound like paradise? Not so fast. Especially in the large, highly stratified chiefdoms, the division of labor the chief fostered as a proxy for Adam Smith’s invisible hand sometimes did little good for the laborers. In Hawaii, the feathers, dogs, and bark cloth collected for "redistribution" seldom trickled down to their level of origin; they were largely a kind of patronage for the chief ‘s key subordinates, many of whom, conveniently, were close relatives. And many of the fish in those arduously built ponds were destined for elite dinner tables. In Tonga, the official stonemasons, fed by the toil of commoners, spent their time making chiefly tombs.
Still, if power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we must wonder why a man who "stands to the people as a god" wasn’t even more self-aggrandizing than Polynesian chiefs generally were. The question isn’t so much why chiefs weren’t wholly equitable as why they bothered with equity at all. What might keep a chief on moderately good behavior, notwithstanding his awesome stature and the greed inherent in human nature?
For starters: fear. Surprisingly, demigods can lead a precarious existence. As Elman Service put it, "the ‘rise and fall’ of chiefdoms has been such a frequent phenomenon that it seems to be a part of their nature."
There are two main sources of chiefly demise. One is losing war . Here are some descriptions, by various anthropologists, of various Polynesian islands: "a chronic state of war" (Samoa); "in a state of more or less incessant warfare" (Niue Island); "constant fighting and warfare" (Tongareva). In this regard Polynesian chiefdoms parallel other chiefdoms, such as those in the Cauca Valley of Colombia, where war was "universal, acute, and unending."
One property is economic vigor—enough wealth to make weapons and canoes, enough food to let large numbers of men live close together, in formidable density. Thus does war encourage chiefs to do a good job of imitating the invisible hand. And one key to the invisible hand’s success is rewarding people for their labor. That is: return non-zero-sum gains to the workers who produced them, as an incentive to produce more; resist the parasitic temptation.
But why worry about the commoners’ incentives? Why not just command them to work harder—since you are, after all, a demigod? That brings us to the second source of chiefly demise: popular discontent. One of the great misunderstandings about evolved human nature is that people are sheep; that, because we evolved amid social hierarchy (true), we are designed to slavishly accept low status and blindly follow the leader (false). People by nature seek the highest status they can attain, under the circumstances, and they accept leadership only so long as it seems to serve their interests. When it doesn’t, they start to grumble. The Tahitians had a phrase for chiefs who "eat the power of the government too much."
The upshot is that certain kinds of theoretically possible outcomes of non-zero-sum games are not much seen in the real world. Consider the following "payoff matrix" for a game we can call the utter-exploitation-of-the-hapless-commoner game. If the chief and five commoner don’t play the game cooperatively (that is, don’t constitute a smoothly functioning chiefdom), then the chief gets zero points and the commoner get zero points each. If chief and commoner do play the game cooperatively, then the chief gets five points and the commoner still get zero. Even though this game has no win-win outcome, it qualifies a non-zero-sum because the players’ fates aren’t inversely related; the total payout isn’t fixed at zero, but rather can go up via cooperation. Still, I would argue, this is the sort of positive-sum outcome that history doesn’t much feature, and one reason is that human nature won’t permit this degree of exploitation—pure parasitism—under any real-world conditions short of literal slavery.
In fact, human nature doesn’t often permit this sort of exploitation under fake-world conditions, either. In one classic game-theory experiment, a pair of subjects is offered a collective windfall—money for nothing. The first subject (the chief, in this analogy) decides how to divide up the money between the two, and then the second subject (the commoner) chooses between accepting his allotted share and vetoing the deal, vaporizing the windfall for both of them. Time and again, commoner veto deals that are radically unequal; an offer of $20 out of $100 gets vetoed about half the time, and any offer of less than that is probably doomed. Imagine: college students turning down real money for no work! Apparently there are some kinds of non-zero-sum games that people just won’t play. And this pride is found cross culturally; experiments in Japan, Slovenia, the United States, and Israel yield the same basic results.
To say that people naturally resist extremely raw deals isn’t, of course, to say that raw deals don’t happen. In 1994, the game theorist John Nash won the Nobel Prize for, among other things, rigorously exploring how various circumstances could weaken one’s bargaining position, so that "logical" outcomes of non-zero-sum games may not be what most of us would call fair. Thus, when people of different income levels bargain over how to divide the benefits of their joint and equal labors, the richer person is in a stronger position; the player who needs the money less can more credibly threaten to drop out of the game altogether.
In chiefdoms, the commoners’ bargaining disadvantage went beyond their low incomes. At sub-chiefdom levels of social organization, people can often "vote with their feet." Northwest Coast Indians peeved at their Big Man could shift allegiance, signing on with another Big Man. But when you live in a chiefdom, there’s often no easy way out; the village next-door has the same boss a your village. (Powhatan’s chiefdom covered more than 100 villages.) Besides, the chief may not have an open emigration policy. This bargaining disadvantage—not being able to go find another game altogether—helps explain why social inequality became stark and sometimes rigid with the advent of chiefdoms. The Natchez, for example, divided their society into "Sun People," "Nobles," "Honored People," and "Stinkards."
Nash’s work—and the Natchez class system—is a reminder that non-zero-sumness, though a mainly good thing, isn’t goodness itself. That it tends to grow naturally during history doesn’t mean that common conceptions of justice and social equality will magically prevail "in the end" without extra guidance. Still, human nature does tend to place some limit on injustice. For a tiny elite to monopolize the fruits of mass labor is not generally feasible. The commoners grow restless.
God knows the average chief would be willing to brutally suppress discontent. But his power is finite. He may have some reliable henchmen, but he doesn’t have the sort of large police force or army found in state-level societies. (One standard distinction between a chiefdom and a state is that a chiefdom lacks a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Victims of crimes, in concert with kin and friends, may take justice into their own hands, though they’re well advised to do so with the chief ‘s blessing.) Thus, tyrannical though chiefs may be, chiefdoms ultimately have a certain diffuseness of power. Indeed, the tyranny is in part to compensate for this fact. When South American chiefs decorated the fronts of their homes with the impaled skulls of past enemies, lest the awe of a passerby should flag, this was, in a sense, a sign of insecurity.
Even in the highly stratified chiefdoms of Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga, observes the archaeologist Patrick Kirch in The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, "chiefs were still expected to work for the communal welfare, and an overly bloated chieftainship might raise the spectre of rebellion." Consider the Hawaiian storehouses full of tax revenues: craft items and food. They served some genuinely non-zero-sum functions— social insurance, capital to support public works, and so on. But from the chief ‘s perspective, this economic function served a deeper political function. As one nineteenth-century Hawaiian chief explained, the storehouses were "designed . . . as a means of keeping the people contented, so they would not desert the king." (After all, "the rat will not desert the pantry.") This is why leaders serve the public interest: not because they are public-spirited, but because neglecting the public welfare can diminish their own welfare. That same nineteenth-century chief said that a number of Hawaiian rulers "have been put to death by the people because of their oppression of the maka ‘ainana’ [the commoners]."
A FEW KIND WORDS ABOUT CHIEFS
Scholars who stress only the exploitative side of chiefdoms underestimate the difficulty a chief faces in trying to get things done in a moneyless economy—the difficulty of being a one-man invisible hand.You don’t have money, you don’t get access, and the way to get money is to work.But sometimes, at least, that’s a questionable description. What can we say about the Hawaiian chief who rewarded those who helped build a dam with parcels of land watered by the resulting irrigation? Well, first of all, he got the dam built. Second, he overcame an impediment to non-zero-sum gain, the free rider problem; he made sure you couldn’t benefit from the project unless you helped pay for it.
Given the good done by chiefs, it’s dubious to assume, a some archaeologists have, that the ornate Polynesian "grand houses, assembly places, and temple platforms" signify wealth being commandeered toward "the apex of the socio-political pyramid." Temples and public assemblies are an integral part of a religion that, while abetting some exploitation, also foster some public welfare.A Marvin Harri has written: "Viewed within the living context of a redistributive system, tombs, megaliths, and temples appear a functional components whose costs are slight in comparison with the increased harvests which the ritualized intensification of agricultural production makes possible."
Enough kind words about chiefs. By and large, they seem to have been ruthlessly self-serving, power-hungry monsters. Then again, aren’t we all? Or, at least, wouldn’t we be if we found ourselves playing for sufficiently high stakes? In any event, politicians often have been—in chiefdoms, in authoritarian states, in democracies. In assessing how exploitative different governments are, the key question is: How much greed can leaders get away with before it comes back to haunt them?
The answer depends partly on the level of cultural—especially technological—evolution. The technology of money, for example, eventually came along and made it easier for ordinary people to enjoy non-zero-sum gain via markets, with less meddling from on high. But in the pre-monetary economy of the chiefdom, much non-zero-sumness flowed through central channels, inviting exploitation.
On balance, this topic will argue, the technological evolution of the past 10,000 years has been bad news for centralized parasitism. Indeed, the liberating upshot of some new technologies—information technologies, in particular—is one of the cheerier themes in the unfolding of cultural evolution. But for now the point is just that, whatever the prevailing technology, however dependent people are on centralized guidance, self-aggrandizement has its limits.
Indeed, in the case of Polynesia, the religion had a kind of built-in safeguard against disastrously autocratic government. Mana was not monopolized by the chief. Through him mana flowed to his subordinates, who possessed less of it than he, and then to their subordinates, who possessed less of it than they. (Thus mana was what rank is to the modern military: a degree of authority geared to your degree of responsibility—a useful property in a top-down, "command" economy.) What’s more, the chief ‘s king-sized share of mana was supposed to be manifest in good governance. So if a chief, say, suffered military defeats, then, as Kirch has written, "the stigma of low mana would attend him, and his authority and power might well be challenged." He might be usurped by a warrior whose triumphs had evinced high mana.
Thus mana was, among other things, a feedback mechanism, a way of ushering inept chiefs offstage. It wasn’t as smooth a conduit for discontent as regular elections, but it wasn’t the handy tool of subjugation that the chief might have liked. The standard cynical view of religion in chiefdoms—that, as one archaeologist put it, chiefs simply "invent supernatural sanctions . . . to strengthen their authority"—make the theologizing, and the politicking, sound easier than they were.
A FEW KIND MEMES ABOUT MEMES
The academic fountainhead of cynical views of religion is Marxism. In tempering the cynicism, I don’t mean to dismiss the whole Marxist view of the world. Marx gets nothing but applause from this corner for depicting religion as a mediator of deep economic imperatives. Kudos, too, for the more general Marxist claim that a society’s "superstructure" (religion, ideology, morality) reflects an underlying "infrastructure" (technology, and the relations of economic power implied by the technology). Even a certain amount of Marx’s specific cynicism about religion is hard to argue with. Religion does sometimes function as the opiate of the masses, and elites do try to use their power to shape ideas to their ends. Marx just went a bit too far. And this century more than a few archaeologists and cultural anthropologists joined him.
Toward the end of the century, a new source of excessive cynicism about religion sprang up—not Marxist in orientation but Darwinian. Arch-Darwinian Richard Dawkins titled the last topic of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene "Memes: The New Replicators." Trying to accent the parallel between cultural and genetic evolution, Dawkins posited the existence of "memes"—units of cultural information that can spread through a culture rather as genes spread through a gene pool. It’s worth taking a quick look at the Dawkinsian view of cultural evolution—in part to see where it goes awry in depicting religion, but also for a larger reason: this initially disorienting, topsy-turvy view of cultural change is ultimately fertile, and will surface repeatedly in this topic.
A meme can be just about any form of non-genetic information transmitted from person to person: a word, a song, an attitude, a religious belief, a mealtime ritual, an engineering concept. Bodies of memes can be whole religions or ideologies or moral systems or technological systems. The positing of basic units of cultural information, analogous to genes, is far from new. ("Idene" was among the previously proposed labels.) But, more than most past thinkers, Dawkins was willing to see memes as active—even, in a certain sense, alive. He asked us to invert our usual worldview. Don’t think of songs, movies, ideologies as passive bodies of information that you, the active agent, choose. Think of them as competing for access to your brain, which they use to propagate themselves. When you whistle a favorite ong, that song—that meme—has successfully manipulated your brain to its ends.
You may object that memes surely aren’t conscious—they don’t actually calculate stratagems for penetrating your mind. True enough. Then again, genes aren’t consciously calculating, either. In fact, in a certain sense, genes aren’t even active; their chemical environment just reacts to them in predictably constructive ways. Yet biologists find it useful to view genes as active agents that "replicate themselves" and "compete" for precious pace in the gene pool; biologists talk about effective "strategies" of replication from the "gene’s perspective." The justification for this metaphorical shorthand is that natural selection preserves those genes that happen to act as if they were pursuing a strategy. And so it is with memes. Songs that affect your brain in a way that causes you to whistle them—songs that deftly "manipulate" your brain—are the kind of songs that evolve. You are their breeding ground, like it or not. Short of committing suicide or living in a cave, there is no way to avoid that role.
So far so good. Now here comes the problem. Dawkins compares memes not just to genes but to viruses. Memes hop from one person to another much as viruses do. Moreover, memes, like viruses, can be bad for the people who help spread them. The meme of injecting heroin is so pleasurable that a person may do it repeatedly, and eventually die from it. The meme then dies with him, but that’s tolerable from its point of view so long as some of his friends have picked up the habit from him. The heroin-shooting meme, like the AIDS virus, can thrive even while killing its host, so long as it waits long enough for the execution and transmits copies of itself in the meantime.
The problem here isn’t that there aren’t prolific memes that are like viruses. (Heroin shooting is indeed one.) The problem is that there aren’t many. Human brains, having spent the last couple of million years of their biological evolution in a cultural milieu, are pretty good at selectively retaining memes that are good for them, while aggressively repelling memes that are bad for them. This is one problem with the idea of ruling elites whimsically imposing whole ideologies on brain-dead common folk.
Notwithstanding the rarely viral nature of memes, "mind virus" has now become almost synonymous with "meme." And this parasitic view of culture gets applied with particular zeal to religion. The philosopher Daniel Dennett writes of "the religious memes themselves, in effect, parasitically exploiting proclivities they have ‘discovered’ in the human cognitive-immune system." Dawkins himself (whose hostility toward religion approaches religious intensity) has compared belief in God to a virus.
Well, it depends on the god. Members of the Heaven’s Gate commune, who in 1997 got all dressed up and committed mass suicide, indeed seem to have indulged a virulent theology. But many, if not most, religious people are happy and productive, and enviably free of existential angst. Meanwhile, the theology of Heaven’s Gate doesn’t seem to be catching on.
NON-ZERO-SUMNESS WINS AGAIN
The casual ascription of "viral" or "parasitic" properties to religion often rests on the conflation of two separate issues: truth and value. Religious doctrines have indeed often entrenched themselves in people’s brains notwithstanding the fact that they are probably false. (Heaven and hell, for example.) But being false is not the same as being bad for the believer. Though all religions can have unpleasant side effects (neurotic aversion to "sin," say), it is hardly clear that religious belief is on balance worse than the various alternatives (heroin addiction, say).
Maybe the biggest problem with the "viral" view of culture is the way it ignores or at least downplays the various levels of social organization at which memes do battle with one another. Cultural evolution isn’t just memes leaping from person to person; often memes leap from group to group. Chiefdoms fight each other, and the culture most conducive to victory tends to prevail. Meanwhile, within a chiefdom, villages vie with other villages for status, clans vie with clans, families with families, and finally individuals with individuals. Since this competition is typically nonviolent, people don’t die, but memes do, because successful individuals and families and clans and villages get imitated. Their memes displace other memes through cultural selection.
A premise of this topic is that memes which manage to pass through this gauntlet of cultural selection, and come to characterize whole societies, often encourage non-zero-sum interaction. After all, a common reason that groups of people get emulated—families, clans, villages, baseball teams, corporations, sects, nations, whatever—is their productive and (relatively) harmonious interaction. So memes that bring productive harmony get admired and adopted.
Consider, again, the heaven and hell memes. Almost all religions have the functional equivalent: good or bad consequences that are said to result from good or bad behavior. And, almost invariably, the "bad" behavior includes cheating in one sense or another: stealing your neighbor’s property, lying about your contributions to the communal effort. By discouraging such parasitism, these religious memes help realize non-zero-sumness.
Cultural evolution, as various scholars have noted, is quite different from genetic evolution—in particular, faster and messier. Cultural innovations—new memes—can be introduced purposefully, not just randomly, and can spread like wildfire. And defining particular memes is famously difficult, given the fluidity of cultural information. Still, memes can leave distinct footprints that help us track them. The footprints may be in the earth—styles of pottery that spread across early Europe, say. Or the footprints may come in the form of words. When languages evolve over millennia from a single, common source, linguists can reconstruct the vocabulary of that mother tongue by comparing its living descendants. For example, we know from studying languages in Europe and India that the ancient speaker of proto-Indo-European had horses and harvested grain and mined metal.
When a language family spreads across a large area—as Indo-European did, as the Polynesian languages did—it is tempting to look at the reconstructed proto-language for keys to the culture’s fertility. It is not surprising, for example, to find that proto-Polynesian contained words for sail, paddle, cargo, and voyage. These cultural elements, these memes, no doubt helped move the larger Polynesian culture across the south Pacific and keep it robust.
What else might have helped propel and sustain Polynesian culture? It turns out that proto-Polynesian also contained words for mana and tapu. The details of the concepts have no doubt changed, and indeed came to differ from island to island. Still, the basic ideas proved robust over two millennia of manifest cultural fertility; societies that survived the frequent warfare of Polynesian life were societies that took mana and tapu seriously. This robustness suggests that these concepts were doing more than burnish the vanity of chiefs, and were not simply "parasitic" on the societies that hosted them. (It suggests, you might say, that the memes and their host societies had a positive-sum relationship.) So does the fact that notions strikingly like mana and tapu have evolved separately in various cultures, ranging from the Tiv of Africa to the Iroquois of North America.
CHIEFS AS SOUL SAVERS
There is a sense in which many Polynesians—and many residents of other chiefdoms— owed their very lives to the prevailing system of governance, complete with its religious underpinnings. People, remember, were not designed to live in close proximity to many other people. Homo sapiens evolved in small groups on sparsely settled land. When a hunter-gatherer band exceeds critical mass, tensions typically force a "fission" into two separate residential groups.
The population density on Polynesian islands—and in mainland agrarian societies, too— was in this sense well beyond a "natural" level. Such density wouldn’t have been generally possible but for the coming of farming, and even then it wouldn’t have been feasible but for a form of governance that subdued social frictions. One of the Polynesian chief ‘s vital functions was heading off disputes—between individuals, between clans, between villages. For example, amid droughts, when people get edgy, he had to allocate scarce water in a manner perceived as equitable. (The Hawaiian word for "law" means "pertaining to water.")
Had the chief not possessed religious authority, he might not have been able to solve this non-zero-sum problem—or to "wage peace" more generally; a mere Big Man—who lacks formal, divinely sanctioned power of office and must cajole his follower into following—wouldn’t have been up to the job. Thus the chiefdom form of government— whatever its brutalities, its inequalities—did have the saving grace of cramming more and more souls onto the planet.
In addition to being good news for the souls in question, this was good news for social vibrance. The residential density of the chiefdom meant a big drop in the costs of transmitting information. An "invisible brain" could now have more tightly packed neurons—and more total neurons—than ever before.
Cultural evolutionists customarily call farming an innovation in "energy technology"—in the way people obtain the fuel that keeps them alive. And it was. But, given these lowered costs of communication in agrarian chiefdoms, it may make sense to think of farming as an advance in information technology as well. Indeed, farming may have ushered in the first true revolution in information technology.
Among the functions of the chief was to harness this new technology. The economy he presided over was a more complex information-processing system than the Big Man economy; its signals—many of them sent by him—orchestrated a greater division of labor, the production of a greater array of goods, and the undertaking of more ambitious capital projects.
But perhaps more important than what a large and thick invisible brain did for the daily workings of the economy was what it could do for the long-run evolution of culture, spawning new technologies, even new ideas about how to run a society. In the New
World, it took little more than a millennium—sixty, eighty generations—to get from the first chiefdoms to the first state-level society. In China and the Middle East, the pace was comparable. Once political organization reached the multivillage level—once the age of chiefdoms dawned—great things were possible.