Hunting, gathering and co-operating

Is a change in the basis of society from one of minority class ownership to one of common ownership against human nature?

Are human beings naturally lazy, aggressive, hostile to one another? Or are we by nature friendly and co-operative, ready to help others when they are in trouble and share what we have with them? Or alternatively, does it make little or no sense to say that we are anything very specific “by nature”, since the society and culture we live in play a great part in determining how we behave? Questions like these have been around for centuries, and they are important for the socialist case, for if people are bound to behave aggressively and take more than their fair share, then a socialist society, based on equality and co-operation, is presumably impossible.

The questions we raised above are part of the debate on human nature. One recent academic contribution to these issues is the theory of evolutionary psychology, which attempts to apply Darwin’s way of explaining biological evolution to human behaviour and psychology. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how organisms change by adapting to their environment and so becoming more fitted to survive and reproduce. Evolutionary psychology uses the same kinds of arguments in attempting to account for human behaviour and the nature of the human mind which underlies this behaviour. In the words of leading evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works:

“The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.”

This, to take one of Pinker’s own examples, according to evolutionary psychology our disgust at unpleasant food is not due to any innate dislike for particular tastes. Rather, it would be an adaptation that emerged as a safety device: we don’t eat things unless we are pretty sure that they are unlikely to harm us; thus we stand a good chance of avoiding foodstuffs that may well be poisonous-an invaluable trait in a world where humans relied on hunting and gathering but were surrounded by masses of potentially toxic plants and animals.

Hunting and gathering (sometimes known as foraging) is the way that humans lived for 90 percent of our species’ time on earth. People lived in smallish tribes, moving frequently from place to place, gathering wild plants and hunting animals. Money did not exist, nor did any form of government, and there was no distinction between rich and poor. The rise of settled agriculture about ten thousand years ago put an end to hunting-gathering communities in most parts of the world, though some are still just about surviving nowadays.

A lot would seem to rest, then, if the evolutionary psychologists are right, on the nature of hunting-gathering society: if it was essentially peaceful and based on sharing, then the human brain and mind would have evolved to fit in with a peaceful way of doing things, whereas if hunter-gatherers were often violent, then (on the evolutionary psychologists’ view, anyway) our minds are adapted to survive in a violent world. Let’s quote Pinker again, as he makes the political issues here quite explicit:

“One of the fondest beliefs of many intellectuals is that there are cultures out there where everybody shares freely. Marx and Engels thought that preliterate peoples represented a first stage in the evolution of civilization called primitive communism, whose maxim was ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’…

Foraging peoples, to be sure, really do share with nonrelatives, but not out of indiscriminate largesse or a commitment to socialist principles. The data from anthropology show that sharing is driven by cost-benefit analyses and a careful mental ledger for reciprocation. People share when it would be suicidal not to… warfare itself is a major fact of life for foraging tribes. Many intellectuals believe that primitive warfare is rare, mild and ritualized, or at least was so until the noble savages were contaminated by contact with Westerners. But this is romantic nonsense. War has always been hell.”

Most work in evolutionary psychology takes a similar view, that hunting-gathering society was built around-or at least marked by-power and aggression, and that therefore the human mind has evolved along lines designed to enable us to cope with power and aggression.

More recently, however, an alternative has begun to emerge within evolutionary plsychology itself. Andrew Whiten of St Andrew’s University in the U.K. has argued that egalitarianism, sharing and lack of domination were the most prominent features in hunter-gatherer societies, and that it is this is that lies behind human psychological evolution. In papers such as “The evolution of deep social mind in humans” and “Egalitarianism and Machiavellian intelligence in human evolution” (the latter co-written with David Erdal) he has presented a very different picture from that offered by most evolutionary psychologists. At a recent conference in Edinburgh, Whiten argued that our ancestors evolved through sharing and co-operation in line with socialist ideals, a claim that was even noticed in the press (Times, 19 August). Let’s look a little more closely at his ideas.

Examination of a wide range of studies of present-day hunter-gatherers shows that they share food, especially meat, and that this sharing takes place even when food is scarce. This sharing, Erdal and Whiten argue, occurs because it reduces the risk for all individuals, enabling them to get by on unlucky days, secure in the knowledge that some time soon they are likely to be successful in their own hunting. Sharing means that nobody has priority of access to food, and this ties in with the fact that hunter-gatherer societies lack any kind of dominance or rank. There are no permanent leaders, and anyone who has ambitions for dominance is ridiculed or ostracised. Co-operation extends beyond food-sharing and countering would-be chiefs, as it also involves co-ordination, such as the organisation of hunting expeditions and care for the sick.

Non-human primates (chimps and gorillas) do have dominance hierarchies, so the human capacity for egalitarianism is an evolutionary innovation. According to Whiten possibly people who put time and effort into trying to dominate others found they had less time to devote to foraging and enjoyable leisure pursuits, so the would-be leaders discovered that they were living less well than their more co-operative colleagues. This last part is speculative, but it does help to emphasise the point that humans are different from our closest non-human relatives, so that it is quite invalid to argue that whatever holds for chimps must be valid for people too.

So what does Whiten’s work have to say about the prospects for socialism? The answer is: not necessarily very much. It would be nice if we could conclude that human characteristics, as they have evolved over the millennia, have made us “naturally” egalitarian and co-operative. But what matters is not whether people are naturally like this or not. More important is whether our behaviour, influenced as it is not just by our evolutionary heritage but also by the social conditions we live in and our cultural response to these conditions, can fit in with the idea of a co-operative and egalitarian socialist society. Even under capitalism people often share and work together. Hunter-gatherer societies also show that people can live in a co-operative way, without bosses or governments. It might be nice to bolster this by claiming that humans’ long egalitarian heritage means that we are better adapted to sharing than to competing, but this extra, and more speculative, argument is not really essential.

We may conclude that humans are not condemned to be endlessly competitive or selfish, and that socialism is not contrary to human nature.