The Way We Were (A Brief History of Humankind)

A common principle of intelligence meets us in the savage, in the barbarian, and in civilized man. —Lewis Henry Morgan

Mark Twain considered the Shoshone Indians of western North America "the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen up to this writing." They "have no villages, and no gathering together into strictly defined tribal communities." A young Charles Darwin, observing the Fuegian Indians of South America, reported that their dwellings were "like what children make in summer, with boughs of trees." After ticking off examples of Fuegian uncouthness and inhumanity, Darwin wrote in a letter, "I feel quite a disgust at the very sound of the voices of these miserable savages."

Such dismay was often expressed when nineteenth-century white men encountered native American cultures. That is one thing that bothered anthropologists such as Franz Boas about theories of cultural evolution. In placing western cultures atop a universal ladder of progress, they seemed merely the academic expression of an already too-common European supremacism. Boas wrote: "The tendency to value our own form of civilization as higher, not as dearer to our hearts, than that of the whole rest of mankind is the same as that which prompts the actions of primitive man who considers every stranger his enemy, and who is not satisfied until the enemy is killed."

There is arguably something paradoxical about criticizing the denigration of the primitive on grounds that it is primitive. Still, Boas’s heart was in the right place. He had a genuine and courageous concern for the downtrodden. He worried especially that notions of cultural superiority would get conflated with notions of biological superiority, reinforcing racism. His book The Mind of Primitive Man, which traced the psychology of hunter-gatherers to a distinctive culture, not distinctive genes, was burned by the Nazis.

Boas’s fear that racists would gleefully seize on notions of cultural evolution was not misplaced. Generally peaking, racism will use any tool that is handy. And if cultural evolutionism seems to imply that Europeans are biologically superior to native Americans, then it is a handy tool. Still, it is important to understand that, logically, cultural evolutionism implies no such thing.

One premise of cultural evolutionism is "the psychic unity of humankind"—the idea that people everywhere are genetically endowed with the same mental equipment, that there is a universal human nature. The psychic unity of humankind is the reason that around the world, on every continent, cultural evolution has moved in the same direction. The arrow of human history begins with the biology of human nature.

That arrow, a I’ve noted, points toward larger quantities of non-zero-sumness. As history progresses, human beings find themselves playing non-zero-sum games with more and more other human beings. Interdependence expands, and social complexity grow in cope and depth.

One way to start seeing this link between human nature and human history is to take a look at the "wretched" Shoshone and other basic hunter-gatherer societies—or, in the technical terminology of the nineteenth century, other "savages." They demonstrate how even the simplest societies are congenitally prone to increasing complexity; and how, nonetheless, quirks of environmental circumstance can slow the rate of increase.

There is one other reason to inspect these societies: to help us reconstruct the distant past. The ancestral cultures of all modern societies were hunter-gatherer cultures. Archaeologists have found their remnants—their spearheads and stone knives, the fireside bones of their prey—across Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas. But archaeologists can’t reconstruct the social lives of these peoples in much detail. The closest we can come to that is studying the few existing hunter-gatherer societies and reading accounts of how other hunter-gatherers lived before industrial society changed them.

Over the past two centuries, anthropologists and other travelers have documented hunter-gatherer life on all continents, ranging from the Chenchu of India to the Chukchi of Siberia, from the !Kung San of southern Africa to the Ainu of Japan, from the aborigines of Australia to the Eskimo of the Arctic, from the Fuegians of South America to the Shoshone of North America. To study these vanishing—mostly vanished—ways of life is to dimly glimpse the early stages of our own cultural evolution. The Shoshone and Fuegians observed by Twain and Darwin weren’t "living fossils"—they were anatomically modern human beings, just like you or me—but their cultures were living fossils.


Mark Twain is not the only person to have commented on the rudimentary social structure of the Shoshone, who inhabited the Great Basin of North America, around present-day Nevada. One topic on native American cultures discusses them under the heading "The Irreducible Minimum of Human Society." The largest stable unit of social organization was the family, and the male head of the family was the "entire political organization and its whole legal system." The Shoshone did spend part of the year in multifamily "camps." But the camps were less cohesive than, say, those of the !Kung San, the much-studied hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert in Africa. For months at a time Shoshone families would go it alone, roaming the desert with a bag and a digging stick, searching for roots and seeds.

What might account for the small gradation of complexity that separates the !Kung and the Shoshone? One good candidate is the fact that the !Kung lived amidst giraffes. The tracking and killing of giraffes, and the retrieval of meat before scavengers get it, calls for cooperation. Perhaps more important, a giraffe is more than one family can eat before the meat spoils. So for giraffe hunters to live in family-sized groups would be to waste meat—and to waste a chance to collect the IOUs that come from sharing it.

Such IOUs are a classic expression of non-zero-sumness. You give someone food when his cupboard is bare and yours is overflowing, he reciprocates down the road when your cupboard is bare, and you both profit, because food is more valuable when you’re hungry than when you’re full. Hunter-gatherers everywhere act in accordance with this logic. One chronicler of Eskimo life has observed, "the best place for [an Eskimo] to store his surplus is in someone else’s stomach."

Hunting big animals encourages sharing not just because leftover meat can spoil but also because hunting is a chancier endeavor than gathering—so using current surplus to insure against future shortage pays especially big non-zero-sum dividends. All told, then, it is not surprising that social complexity tends to be higher among hunter-gatherers who rely heavily on big game. The more important big game is, the more non-zero-sumness there is, the more society organizes to harness that non-zero-sumness—to turn it into positive sums.

So, to the cultural evolutionist, the explanation for the Shoshone’s having the "irreducible minimum" in social complexity is not (as Boas might fear) that the Shoshone are stupid. It’s that their surroundings were—in this respect, and in other respects that we’ll come to—less conducive to rapid cultural evolution than some other surroundings.

How can we be sure that the Shoshone would indeed have the wherewithal to evolve culturally if given the chance? Funny you should ask. Although the Shoshone had no big game to hunt, jackrabbits were afoot, sometimes in abundance. To harvest them, the Shoshone employed a tool too large for one family to handle—a net hundreds of feet long into which rabbits were herded before being clubbed to death. On such occasions, the requisite social structure would materialize. More than a dozen normally autonomous families would come together briefly and cooperate under a "rabbit boss." Though the Shoshone spent most of their time with the "irreducible minimum" of organization, the sudden appearance of non-zero-sumness brought latent social skills to the fore, and social complexity grew.

To say that reaping non-zero-sum benefits elevates social complexity borders on the redundant. The successful playing of a non-zero-sum game typically amounts to a growth of social complexity. The players must coordinate their behavior, so people who might otherwise be off in their own orbits come together and form a single solar system, a larger synchronized whole. And typically there is division of labor within the whole. (Some people make the nets, some people man the nets, some people chase the rabbits.) One minute you’re a bunch of independent foragers, and the next minute you’re a single, integrated rabbit-catching team, differentiated yet united. Complex coherence has materialized.

Note that this particular bit of social self-organization was mediated by a technology, the rabbit net. The invention of such technologies—technologies that facilitate or encourage non-zero-sum interaction—is a reliable feature of cultural evolution everywhere. New technologies create new chances for positive sums, and people maneuver to seize those sums, and social structure changes as a result.

A successful Shoshone rabbit hunt would culminate in a "fandango." Sounds like a spontaneous and carefree celebration—and indeed, fandangos featured, as one anthropologist put it, "gambling, dancing . . . philandering." Still, as scholars have noted, the fandango was eminently utilitarian. First, it distributed fresh meat among the rabbit hunt’s various kinds of workers. Second, it was an occasion for trading such valuables as volcanic glass. Third, it was a chance to build up a network of friends. (Even the ritual exchange of knickknacks, though economically trivial, can be a way to bond, forming the conduits for future favor-swapping of greater moment.) Fourth, the fandango was an opportunity to trade information about, say, the location of other food.

All of these are non-zero-sum functions, and the last is especially so. Giving people data, unlike giving them food or tools, has no inherent cost. If you know of a place where the supply of pine nuts far exceeds your own family’s needs, it costs nothing to hare the information with a friend. So too if you know the location of a den of poisonous snakes. Sometimes, of course, surrendering information is costly (as when the supply of nuts doesn’t exceed your family’s needs). Still, data are often of little or no cost and great benefit; swapping them is one of the oldest forms of non-zero-sum interaction. People by their nature come together to constitute a social information processing system and thus reap positive sums. The fandango, the academic conference, and the Internet are superficially different expressions of the same deep force.


Though Shoshone life, like life everywhere, seems to have been filled with non-zero-sum calculation, "calculation" isn’t quite the right word. When people interact with each other in mutually profitable fashion, they don’t necessarily realize exactly what they’re doing. Evolutionary psychologists have made a strong—in my view, compelling—case that this unconscious savviness is a part of human nature, rooted ultimately in the genes; that natural selection, via the evolution of "reciprocal altruism," has built into us various impulses which, however warm and mushy they may feel, are designed for the cool, practical purpose of bringing beneficial exchange.*

Among these impulses: generosity (if selective and sometimes wary); gratitude, and an attendant sense of obligation; a growing empathy for, and trust of, those who prove reliable reciprocator (also known as "friends"). These feelings, and the behaviors they fruitfully sponsor, are found in all cultures. And the reason, it appears, is that natural selection "recognized" non-zero-sum logic before people recognized it. (Even chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest relatives, are naturally disposed to reciprocal altruism, and neither species has yet demonstrated a firm grasp of game theory.) Some degree of social structure is thus built into our genes.

Actually, the genetic basis of social structure goes beyond reciprocal altruism. Love of kin is human nature. In every hunter-gatherer sgatherer ociety the family is the basic molecule ociety the family is the basic molecule of social organization. But the genetic logic behind families is another story, best saved for later. For now the point is that human nature itself, unadorned by technology, carries mutual benefit, and thus social structure, beyond the confines of family. The arrow of human history, the arrow that heads toward more non-zero-sumness and deeper and vaster social complexity, doesn’t begin at zero. A universal feature of hunter-gatherer societies, some anthropologists say, is "generalized reciprocity"—not just within families but between them.

It is important to be clear on what "generalized" does and doesn’t mean. Ever since Morgan wrote Ancient Society and Marx and Engels read it, people have been straining to portray our ancestral hunter-gatherer cultures as dens of communal bliss. Richard Lee, a pioneering observer of the !Kung San, contends that hunter-gatherer societies lend "strong support" to the idea that "a stage of primitive communism prevailed before the rise of the state and the breakup of society into classes." He writes that "the giving of something without an expectation of equivalent return" is "almost universal among foraging peoples," and he cites in particular the !Kung’s habit of sharing food "in a generalized familistic way."

Sounds great. Yet Lee also notes that the !Kung often argue, and that "accusations of improper meat distribution, improper gift exchange, laziness, and stinginess are the most common topics of these disputes." However "generalized" the giving among the !Kung, it is expected to be ultimately symmetrical.

Here again, though, the expectation isn’t merely a matter of conscious calculation. When we accuse others of laziness or stinginess, we are driven by something deeper and hotter than sheer reason—by a feeling of moral indignation, of just grievance. And that in evolutionary psychology’s view of human nature, won’t try to justify that view in detail. Readers can turn to my previous topic, The Moral Animal, for elaboration.


Why would this sort of vigilance have been so crucial to our ancestors’ prospects that genes conducive to it would flourish? There are two properties of non-zero-sum games— two kinds of pitfalls—that make instinctive wariness vital.

One is the problem of cheating, or parasitism. People may accept your generosity and never repay it. Or they may sit around getting a suntan while everyone else is rabbit hunting and then expect to have charbroiled rabbit for dinner. (Game theorists call this "free riding"—contributing nothing to the pie of positive sums created by collective action, yet cheerfully eating a piece.)

In the intimate context of hunter-gatherer life, moral indignation works well as an anti-cheating technology. It leads you to withhold generosity from past non-reciprocators, thus insulating yourself from future exploitation; and all the grumbling you and others do about these cheater leads people in general to give them the cold shoulder, so chronic cheating becomes a tough way to make a living. But a societies grow more complex, so that people exchange goods and services with people they don’t see on a regular basis (if at all), this sort of mano-a-mano indignation won’t suffice; new anti-cheating technologies are needed. And, as we’ll see, they have materialized again and again—via cultural, not genetic, evolution.

The other principle of game theory that makes wariness adaptive is subtler than cheating. Within almost any real-life non-zero-sum game lies a zero-sum dimension. When you buy a car, the transaction is, broadly speaking, non-zero-sum: you and the dealer both profit, which is why you both agree to the deal. But there is more than one price at which you both profit—the whole range between the highest you would rationally pay and the lowest the dealer would rationally accept. And within that range, you and the dealer are playing a zero-sum game: your gain is the dealer’s loss. That’s the reason bargaining takes place at car dealerships.

Oddly, such zero-sum games are ultimately a tribute to the magic of non-zero-sumness. Watch me pull thirty rabbits out of my hat: Just take twenty Shoshone who, if hunting individually, would be lucky to snag one rabbit each, and turn them into a team. Presto!—fifty rabbits instead of twenty! It is the question of how to divvy up this magical thirty-rabbit surplus that the zero-sum game, the bargaining, is about.

Of course, you could just divide the rabbits equally. But haven’t some people worked harder than others, or brought rarer talents to the project? Besides, if you do divide the spoils equally, the bargaining just gets subtler: some people may try to do slightly less work than average for their 1.5 rabbits—not so little work that their contribution isn’t a net plus, but less work than you’re doing. This zero-sum tension, this implicit bargaining, is the reason that hunter-gatherer societies feature gripes about laziness and stinginess. At least, it is the second reason, the first being out-and-out cheating.

These two reasons, applied over millions of year of biological evolution, have given people everywhere an innate tendency to monitor the contributions of others, whether consciously or unconsciously. In all cultures friendships have underlying tension. In all cultures workplaces feature gossip about who is a slouch and who is a team player. In all cultures people scan the landscape for the lazy and the ungrateful, and rein in their generosity accordingly. In all cultures, people try to get the best deal possible.

I stress the natural dearth of selfless giving—true, pure altruism, indifferent to ultimate payoff—not to show that truly communist economies aren’t practical. The twentieth century has already made that point. I’m just trying to get clear on the parts of human nature that, in conjunction with technological evolution, give history its basic shape. And one of those parts is firm self-interest.

This fact may be disappointing from some moral standpoint. But if you are a fan of complex social organization, it is a godsend. Human nature’s laser-like focus on ultimate payoff is a prime mover of cultural evolution. Instinctively enlightened self-interest is the seed that has grown into modern society. At the heart of every modern capitalist economy—as at the heart of the hunter-gatherer economies from which they evolved—is the principle of exchange. One hand washes the other, and both are better off than they would be alone—the very definition of a well-played non-zero-sum game. The difference between the two economies lies in the number of hands involved and the intricacy of their interdependence, two quantities that cultural evolution has a stubborn tendency to raise.


The bent for reciprocal exchange is not the only aspect of human nature that helps propel society toward complexity. Evolutionary psychologists—and, for that matter, non-evolutionary psychologists—have hown that human beings naturally pursue social status with a certain ferocity. We all relentlessly, if often unconsciously, try to raise our standing by impressing peers. And we naturally, if unconsciously, evaluate other people in terms of their standing. We especially value the friendship of high-status people (since alliance with the powerful tends to come in handy), and we especially fear their disfavor (since the enmity of the powerful tends not to). Human beings evolved amid social hierarchies, and our minds are designed to negotiate them.

This gives social complexity a head start in at least two ways. First, deference to the high and mighty (though the deference is far from reflexive, as we’ll see) paves the way for complex hierarchical organization. Hunter-gatherer peoples may or may not have a formally designated "headman," but they recognize a leader when the occasion demands. Just look at how readily a Shoshone "rabbit boss" pops up when the rabbits do.

Second, the ongoing quest for social status is a great spur to cultural innovation. We don’t know who invented the rabbit net, but we can safely assume it didn’t hurt his or her popularity. And so it is in all societies: one sure way to elevate your standing is to create something that is widely adopted and praised.

There is an irony here. To compete for high-status positions is to play a zero-sum game, since they are by definition a scarce resource.Yet one way to compete successfully is to invent technologies that create new non-zero-sum games. This is one of various senses in which the impetus behind cultural evolution, behind social complexification, lies in a paradox of human nature: we are deeply gregarious, and deeply cooperative, yet deeply competitive. We instinctively play both non-zero-sum and zero-sum games. The interplay of these two dynamics throughout history is a story that takes some time to tell. For now I’ll just say that, though they have been responsible for much suffering, the tension between them is, in the end, creative.

One point of dwelling on human nature is to stress that the arrow of human history, though awe-inspiring, is not mystical or uncanny. Technological evolution, and cultural evolution more broadly, are not alien forces, visited upon the human species from the great beyond, magically imbued with non-zero-sumness. Technology and other forms of culture come from within. The directionality of culture, of history, is an expression of our species, of human nature.

Indeed, cultural evolution is doubly reflective of human nature. Humans not only generate cultural innovations; they pass judgment on them. You can write any song you want, but other people will have to find it appealing if it is to pread. Your brain may give birth to any technology, but other brains will decide whether the technology thrives. The number of possible technologies is infinite, and only a few pass this test of affinity with human nature. One could invent, say, a battery-powered, helmet-mounted device that at random intervals jabs a sharp stick into the face of the helmet wearer. But a robust market for such a device is unlikely to materialize. So a battery-powered face jabber is unlikely to affect human history as profoundly as, say, the telephone. Or even the rabbit net.


The mixture of cooperative and competitive human instincts, the subtle but potent quest for status, the ingenuity it fuels—these were evident long before Darwinian theory came along to explain their reason for being. In the eighteenth century, for example, Immanuel Kant noted the "unsocial sociability" of man, with special emphasis on the "unsocial" part and its ironic consequences. "Through the desire for honor, power or property, it drives him to seek status among his fellows, whom he cannot bear yet cannot bear to leave." Via this quest for status, "the first true steps are taken from barbarism to culture, which in fact consists in the social worthiness of man." Thus commences "a continued process of enlightenment" as "all man’s talents are now gradually developed, his taste cultivated."

Without these "asocial qualities (far from admirable in themselves)," human beings "would live an Arcadian, pastoral existence of perfect concord, self-sufficiency and mutual love. But all human talents would remain hidden forever in a dormant state, and men, as good-natured as the sheep they tended, would scarcely render their existence more valuable than that of their animals." In that event, "the end for which they were created, their rational nature, would be an unfilled void. Nature hould thus be thanked for fostering social incompatibility, enviously competitive vanity, and insatiable desires for possession or even power."

Kant made those remarks in an essay called "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose," which suggested that human history embodied a "hidden plan of nature." Perhaps as history unfolds, he wrote, we will see "how the human race eventually works its way upward to a situation in which all the germs implanted by nature can be developed fully, and in which man’s destiny can be fulfilled here on earth." Kant imagined that this destiny would include enduring peace among nations, ensured by a kind of world governance—a final, ironic payoff for millennia of antagonism and "unsocial" striving.

This was all conjecture, Kant stressed. Writing in 1784, before the harnessing of electricity, before the telegraph or typewriter or computer, he admitted that so far there was just "a little" evidence of such a "purposeful natural process." Only time would tell. "For this cycle of events seems to take so long a time to complete, that the small part of it traversed by mankind up till now does not allow us to determine with certainty the shape of the whole cycle, and the relation of its parts to the whole." Well, that was then.

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