May 19, 2010
Giving and taking: an exploration of hunter-gatherer values
Christopher Columbus couldn’t believe his luck. He’d finally landed in the New World on the island of Hispaniola and was ready to do battle to get what he could for himself and the King of Spain.
But instead, there was no battle to be fought. Anything he or his crew wanted, the natives would just give to them with a smile. Here’s how he described it in his journal:
[T]hey are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.
And it wasn’t just like this in the New World. Three hundred years later, on the other side of the world, Captain James Cook arrived in what would become New South Wales in Australia, and was equally flabbergasted by the natives’ lack of attachment to possessions, writing:
They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d 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 etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.
No wonder the romantic myth of the Noble Savage grew up in Europe in the age of colonialism. In both cases, the indigenous people discovered by Columbus and Cook (and soon to be devastated by violence and disease) were hunter-gatherers, people who still lived their lives using an approach that had served humans well for hundreds of thousands of years, or about 99% of our history. In fact, as evolutionary psychologists explain, our minds evolved in the hunter-gatherer environment, as “generation after generation… natural selection slowly sculpted the human brain, favoring circuitry that was good at solving the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” The result being that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind.”
But wait a minute… If we all have hunter-gatherer minds, how come none of us are “artless and free” with what we possess, and as for living in “Tranquillity”… well, if only! My “layered values” hypothesis argues that, in fact, our modern values are formed through several layers of “value constellations” that have evolved culturally over thousands of years. In this hypothesis, the hunter-gatherer values form the core of everything that follows. So those values may be very different from the way we live our lives today, but they’re fundamental to understanding how we choose right from wrong even in our modern world.
And sad to say, it wasn’t all artless tranquility. Far from it. As hunter-gatherers, we humans were continually fighting each other, in the form of one clan against the other. In an influential book published in 1996, Lawrence Keeley systematically showed how warfare has been a human constant since well before the beginning of recorded history. But controversy still rages over whether we should view that prehistoric aggression as warfare or merely skirmishes, feuds between two closely-knit groups fighting over a woman or a breach of honor. Regardless of how we characterize it, though, most people nowadays agree that your chances of meeting a violent death were far higher as a hunter-gatherer than any time since, even during the ghastly world wars of the 20th century.
Which leads back to that question that’s been asked over and over about human nature: are we fundamentally warlike or peace-loving? This is a theme that has frequently been hijacked by political agendas: liberals may claim that fundamentally we’re all a brotherhood of man, while conservatives may argue that we need strong values imposed on us to prevent us from falling back to a state of nature. But what are we really?
In a series of recent papers, Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles offers a convincing answer to this question, arguing that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved as “parochial altruists.” The “parochial” refers to the fact that they identified only with their particular group. Within that group, they would share generously, to the point of sacrificing their own lives to defend their community. But when it came to fighting against another community, there would be no holds barred. Bowles’ argument is that in a battle between two groups, a group of “parochial altruists” ready to sacrifice their own lives for their compatriots is more likely to prevail than a selfish group where every man is just looking out for himself or his direct family.
In fact, in modeling these scenarios, Bowles has shown a “markedly higher reproductive success of predominantly parochial altruist groups when interacting with groups with fewer parochial altruists,” resulting in the possibility of very rapid evolution of these traits, “occurring in less than 200 generations, or about 5,000 years.”
Interestingly, even within the group, the kind of altruism that evolved was different from the good-natured charity that we idealize in our modern era. Rather, there was generally an assertive egalitarianism, an intense social pressure towards sharing that would have made modern philanthropists mighty uncomfortable. Anthropologist Nicholas Peterson describes what he calls “demand sharing,” where in a typical hunter-gatherer group, someone might come up to you and announce what they want from you, expecting you to give it to them without hesitation.
A related phenomenon to this is the scorn that might be heaped on someone who gives a big gift to the community. We would normally expect a sizable gift to be met with gratitude, but anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan explains this response as part of the intense social pressure towards egalitarianism:
Bushman groups… are … typified by strong and continual socialization against hoarding (i.e., toward economic equality) and against displays of arrogance and authority (i.e., toward social and political equality)… [Richard] Lee has eloquently described how his attempts to provide a large ox for a Christmas feast were met with scorn by the !Kung recipients, the scorn succeeding as a mechanism that prevents any tendency on the part of a good hunter or provider to become arrogant and think of himself as a “big man.” The proper behavior 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 minimize or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him.
Once again, our economic theorists have explanations for this type of behavior. For decades, it’s been known that the “reciprocal altruism” or tit-for-tat strategy – otherwise known as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – is a powerful force in evolution, not just for humans but for other species interacting with each other. But recently, using lab experiments and game-theory models, Fehr & Fischbacher have shown that people have a natural tendency for something that goes beyond reciprocal altruism, which they refer to “altruistic punishment,” or “a propensity to impose sanctions on others for norm violations.” In other words, people are generally willing to “bear the cost of rewarding or punishing” someone who breaks the rules “even if they gain no individual economic benefit whatsoever from their acts.”
Fehr and Fischbacher have modeled this trait and shown that groups with members committed to altruistic punishment are more likely to be successful over the long-term than groups without a punishment mechanism. And interestingly, groups that go further and punish the non-punishers (those laissez-faire types who don’t do anything wrong but let others do what they want) are the most successful of all.
With all this intense social pressure on you, is it any wonder that you’d want to give anything you had to the group, rather than risk some kind of social punishment? Anthropologist Woodburn describes what this means in real life to a member of the Hadza hunter-gatherer group:
The unremitting demands Hadza make on one another are highly conspicuous and often go beyond asking for things for which the owner has no immediate need. A man who obtains a ball of tobacco, a shirt or a cloth by trading with or begging from non-Hadza is unlikely to keep it for long unless he is very determined and willing to make himself unpopular. He will be asked for it endlessly.
As a result of this, Woodburn believes that “greater equality of wealth, of power and of prestige has been achieved in certain hunting and gathering societies than in any other human societies.” Woodburn explains that these kind of “assertively egalitarian” groups have economies based on “immediate return,” rather than delayed return. That is, in these societies, people go out hunting or gathering, and eat whatever they obtain that same day or the over the next few days. They don’t process or store their food. The tools and weapons they use are fairly simple, portable and easy to replace. These were the “easy come, easy go” kind of people that Columbus and Cook came across hundreds of years ago.
And they generally extended that “easy come, easy go” attitude to the natural world around them. There was, after all, no need to store things if Nature did the storing for you. Depending on the season, it might be the best time for berries or grubs, pigs or deer, root vegetables or nuts. But there was always something around. And for this reason, hunter-gatherers tend to view the natural world as what anthropologist Bird-David calls a “giving environment.” Here’s how she describes the worldview of the hunter-gatherers of South India, called the Nayaka:
Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father. For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children. Nayaka refer, for example, to the spirits that inhabit hills, rivers, and rocks in the forest and to the spirits of their immediate forefathers alike as dod appa (‘big father’) and dod awa (‘big mother’)… They believe that dod appa and dod awa look after them and provide for their needs. If Nayaka misbehave, as parents do these spirits inflict upon them aches and pains, removing them when they express regret and promise to mend their ways; they never punish by withholding food.
So maybe Captain James Cook wasn’t so far off when he observed that the indigenous people “live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition,” and “think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life.” But the clichés that have developed since then – whether it’s the “noble savage” or the “warlike savage” – tend to reflect the modern moral values being applied to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than telling us about the people themselves. Liberal thinkers who view hunter-gatherers as ideals of egalitarianism, and conservative thinkers who view them as warlike brutes, are really just creating anachronisms, since the values they’re using to judge early hunter-gatherers hadn’t even come into existence at that time.
Here’s what we really can say, in general terms, about the hunter-gatherer value constellation:
- They tend to be fiercely generous, altruistic and egalitarian within their group;
- They may sometimes be fiercely aggressive towards other groups;
- They place minimal value (or even negative value) on possessions; and
- They view the natural world as a giving environment, intimately connected to them.
So, when we look at this set of values, similar in some ways to our own but also so different in other ways, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves how did we ever get from there to here? What happened to the human race? The answer, in one word… agriculture. And in my next post, we’ll explore the layer of values that the rise of agriculture placed over these core hunter-gatherer values.
 Quoted by Stannard, D. E. (1992). American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, New York: Oxford University Press.
 Quoted by Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
 Cosmides, L., and Tooby, J. (2006). “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.” Center for Evolutionary Psychology, UCSB. City: Santa Barbara.
 Keeley, L. ((1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press.
 Bowles, S. (2008). “Conflict: Altruism’s midwife.” Nature, 456, 326-327; Bowles, S. (2009). “Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behaviors?” Science, 324, 1293-1298.
 Choi, J.K., and Bowles, S. (2007). “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.” Science, 318, 636-640.
 Cashdan, E. A. (1980). “Egalitarianism among Hunters and Gatherers.” American Anthropologist, 82(1), 116-120.
 Fehr, E., and Fischbacher, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.
 Woodburn, J. (1982). “Egalitarian Societies.” Man, 17(3), 431-451.
 Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.
 Although agriculture is the major driver of the next value constellation, there is a strong line of argument that sees “sedentism” – hunting and gathering within an increasingly settled and fixed location – as an intermediary stage between true hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyles.