Saturday, July 24, 2010

Were the Bushmen in Locke's State of Nature?

In some previous posts, I have argued that modern evolutionary studies of human social life in the Paleolithic or "Old Stone Age" (2.5 million years to 12,000 years BP) confirms much of what John Locke described as the original "state of nature." Locke quotes from Joseph Acosta and other authors of books reporting on the primitive foraging societies of people in the New World and elsewhere. In his edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett indicates in his notes that Locke had many such books in his library, and that Locke's notebooks show evidence of his careful reading of these natural histories of politics. "In the beginning, all the world was America."

Later political philosophers--including the Scottish philosophers of the 18th century, Rousseau, and Marx--continued to debate the character of the original state of human beings as a standard for what is humanly possible. So, for Marx and Engels, for example, the idea that primitive human societies were communistic provided support for Marx's vision of a communistic future.

Here, then, is an example of a fundamental debate in the history of political philosophy that rests on empirical claims about the history of politics that can be judged true or false by whether or not they are confirmed by the science of Darwinian anthropology.

One important line of evidence comes from ethnographic studies of foraging groups that have survived long enough in the modern world to be studied by anthropologists. One of the most intensively studied groups are the Bushmen of southern Africa. In the 1950s to the 1970s, they were studied as one of the last foraging societies in the world. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, they adopted agriculture and were forced by governmental programs to give up their foraging way of life. Genetic studies suggest that the Bushmen show the great genetic diversity that one would expect if they were remnants of the original human populations of Africa.

Although it's a mistake to look at them as if they were living fossils of our original Pleistocene ancestors, the foraging life of the Bushmen does at least offer hints of the sort of life lived by the earliest human beings.

Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, has been studying the Bushmen since the 1970s. She reports some of her research in an article--"Norm Enforcement among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen: A Case of Strong Reciprocity?," Human Nature, Summer 2005, vol. 16: 115-145. The data for this article is taken from her field notes on hundreds of conversations among the Bushmen during 1974 and 1996-1997. Herbert Gintis cites this article in his response to my Cato Unbound essay.

Reading Wiessner's article along with Locke's Two Treatises is fascinating because of the remarkable parallels between her descriptions of the Bushmen and Locke's account of human beings in the state of nature. This shows how a Darwinian evolutionary anthropology can support Lockean liberalism.

In Locke's state of nature, everyone is equally free, and everyone has "the executive power of the law of nature." This "executive power" is the power of everyone to defend lives and property against transgressors, and to punish transgressors in any way that reason and conscience dictate as required for reparation and restraint, which includes the power to kill murderers.

Everyone acts to satisfy his natural desires--such as the desires for self-preservation, sexual mating, parental care, and property--and everyone assumes that others will have similar desires that they want to satisfy. They can conclude, therefore, that to satisfy their own desires, they must satisfy the similar desires of others whose cooperation they need. Their natural desires become natural rights when they reflect on the conditions for satisfying their desires. Their natural rights correspond to their strongest natural desires or inclinations. Equal natural rights to life, liberty, and property are thus rooted in the "principles of human nature."

In this state of nature, people live in foraging groups, like the Indians in the New World, who live by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Children are dependent on parental care, and kinship ties are primary bonds of social life. Parents exercise authority over children, and patriarchal fathers exercise authority over kinship groups. Occasionally, some individuals will exercise political leadership, particularly as military leaders in time of war. But this authority is limited and episodic. There are no formal institutions of government. There is no common judge with authority to rule over them. But they enforce norms of good behavior through informal, customary agreement, with everyone having the right to punish those who violate the norms.

The informal enforcement of social norms can keep the peace. But the tendency to unrestrained vengeance and feuding, particularly when most people are "no strict observers of equity and justice," can turn the state of nature from a state of peace to a state of war, which is "full of fears and continual dangers." As people settle into an agricultural way of life, and thus abandon their foraging ways, population increases, and the disputes over land and other property become impossible to settle without some formal institutions of arbitration and punishment. Moreover, persistant wars with outside groups tend to turn temporary war leaders into permanent military commanders. For all of these reasons, people in foraging societies eventually consent to the establishment of formal governmental authority.

Locke explains that although everyone is naturally equal in the state of nature,

"I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of Equality: Age or Virtue may give Men a just Precedency: Excellency of Parts and Merit may place others above the Common Level: Birth may subject some, and Alliance or Benefits others, to pay an Observance to those to whom Nature, Gratitude or other Respects may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the Equality, which all Men are in, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion one over another, which was the Equality I there spoke of, as proper to the Business in hand, being that equal Right that every Man hath, to his Natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man" (II, 54).

He adds that children are not born in a full state of equality, which they attain only when they reach adulthood (II, 55). Moreover, those with severe mental disability or madness are treated as perpetual children, if they can never attain the freedom of choice that comes to normal adults (II, 60).

Consider the many ways that Wiessner's study of the Bushmen coincides with Locke's depiction of human beings in the state of nature.

Among the Bushmen, Wiessner claims, "all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others" (117). There is a "strong egalitarian norm that no adult can tell another what to do" (126). "All people as autonomous individuals are expected to stand up for their rights," and so everyone has the right to enforce the social norms of the group by punishing those who violate them (135).

Kinship ties are primary social bonds. Parents care for their children. But parents can call on extended kin to help in rearing their young. Until they reach maturity, children have no authority independent of their kin. Unmarried young males are particularly unruly, and they are often the objects of criticism.

The common sources of disputes include food-sharing, claims on land, sexual misbehavior (such as adultery), jealousy over possessions, stinginess, laziness, fighting, power struggles, and "big-shot behavior."

Punishment can take many forms--from mild to severe--mocking, mild criticism, harsh criticism, ostracism from the group, or violent acts. Although peace was usually maintained, there was always an underlying threat of violence, and sometimes disputes escalated into general brawls. Although everyone is free to punish transgressors, those who are judged to be too critical or harsh suffer from their bad reputation.

The Bushmen show what Christopher Boehm calls "egalitarian hierarchy." That is to say, that while they enforce norms of equality, they recognize that people are unequal in their talents and temperaments, and therefore some people will have more property, higher status, or more power than others. They distinguish between those who are "strong" and those who are "weak." The "strong" are those skilled in persuasion, mediation, hunting, gathering, music, or healing. Some who are judged to be superior in their social skills for mediation and persuasion become camp leaders.

But those who are powerful or influential invite leveling by those suspicious of "big-shot behavior." Wiessner writes:

"Weak and average people feel free to criticize the strong and are not reluctant to do so in their presence. Despite the fact that the strong are frequently under fire, they are able to maintain their positive reputations. In fact, some criticism may help rather than hurt their reputations, as it establishes the impression of equality in the face of real inequalities in productive abilities and social influence. The strong generally take mocking or pantomime with good humor, swallow criticism, or make amends. Sometimes they engage in self-leveling by getting drunk or making fools of themselves, thereby remaining 'one of the boys'" (129).

But, sometimes, when leaders are perceived as too aggressively assertive, they can be deposed and thus lose their power.

The norms enforced by the Bushmen correspond to the principles of social cooperation recognized by evolutionary theorists. People cooperate with their kin. People cooperate based on reciprocal exchange with tit-for-tat behavior and based on people's reputations for being cooperators or cheaters. And people cooperate through norms of strong reciprocity, because people are willing to enforce social norms by punishing violators even when the punishment is costly. They do this because they want to live in stable, cooperative groups.

Wiessner observes:

"Norms enforced through reward and punishment conformed closely to desires expressed by Ju/'hoansi hunters and healers who do more than their share to support the community, namely, to eat well and live on their land in stable groups of close kin . . . They also created conditions for what Hrdy . . . has proposed to be the fundamental social organization in human evolutionary history: to live in stable, cooperative breeding communities" (139).

Thus, the Bushmen live by what Locke calls "the Law of Nature" for the state of nature.

Many of my posts over the last month or so are relevant here. Other related posts can be found here, here, here. and here.


Troy Camplin said...

"Among the Bushmen, Wiessner claims, "all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others" (117). There is a "strong egalitarian norm that no adult can tell another what to do" (126). "All people as autonomous individuals are expected to stand up for their rights," and so everyone has the right to enforce the social norms of the group by punishing those who violate them (135)."

Sounds like what classical liberals expect of and from people. Certainly socialism violates every one of these.

Anonymous said...

I would add that from what I understand, group decisions in foraging societies, such as when and where to move the camp, were undertaken through a process of open discussion until consensus was reached. This was a sort of informal democracy that unfortunately was lost in later eras, but then partially revived with modern liberalism.

--Les Brunswick