Sunday, June 09, 2013

On hunter-gatherer killers

In a comment, CIP wrote:
Humans are a species where murder is pretty common in primordial cultures (hunter gatherers). The few direct studies that have been done suggest that in such societies, killers are more successful.
Do you see the assumptions hidden in this? 

I'll give you the simplest of them.   Humans today are mostly **not** hunter-gatherers.  That too, is a fact that presumably has to be explained.   Perhaps the supposedly "primordial" cultures that exist today on which direct studies have been done,  exist as "primordial" cultures **today** precisely because killers remain more successful in those environments.  In the bulk of environments humans lived in, perhaps killers were not successful - whether because of physical environment or because of other cultural reasons - and most human cultures moved on to other more cooperative strategies.   When did this occur? We don't know.  Did it have a significant impact  on human evolution? We don't know.

Peeling back assumptions a little further: primordial cultures existed in rather different circumstances.  They had essentially unlimited room in which to move.  Today, they can't move far without bumping up against human cultures in which they have no space.  Who has demonstrated that the successful strategies remain the same in both cases?

I remember one historian writing that until about the 12th century in India, villages were saved from arbitrary burdens placed on them by a raja by the simple fact that if e.g., taxation grew too onerous, they could simply up and leave and settle their village elsewhere out of his reach.  There was enough cultivable wilderness in order to do that.   Whether that turns out to be true or not, it points to the dangers of extrapolation, e.g., of confounding 17th century despotism with that of the 10th century.   If one readily available mechanism is there to curtail the power of rulers is present, another one is unlikely to arise (e.g., a Magna Carta).  After the available mechanism no longer works,  then possibly another one will arise.