I have written a long series of posts on the evolutionary science of John Locke's state of nature (here, here, here, here, here, and here). I have argued that the idea of the state of nature in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is an example of an empirical claim by political philosophers about human nature and human history that can be evaluated by the Darwinian science of how human beings originally evolved as hunter-gatherers, which we can identify as the evolutionary state of nature. I have said that if we apply that evolutionary science of hunter-gatherer life to the philosophic debate over the state of nature, we can see that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.
I was pleased, therefore, to see a recent article by Paul Seabright, Jonathan Stieglitz, and Karine Van der Straeten--"Evaluating Social Contract Theory in the Light of Evolutionary Social Science," Evolutionary Human Sciences 3 (2021): e20--which uses the evolutionary science of small-scale societies to evaluate what Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau say about the state of nature. They see these philosophers as distinguishing between human beings living in a state of nature and human beings living in societies with formal institutions, and they see "formal institutions" as institutional norms (usually written) that are enforced by legal and political authorities. They accept this distinction because they see the state of nature as the condition of human life in foraging bands before the invention of agriculture, which was followed by large-scale societies with formal legal and governmental institutions. But they conclude that these three social contract philosophers were wrong about the state of nature as studied by evolutionary scientists, because these philosophers "overlooked the central role of informal social institutions in governing human behavior" (1).
While this criticism is partly true for Hobbes, and mostly true for Rousseau, it is not true at all for Locke. This should be clear to any careful reader of their article who notices that their specific criticisms are directly more at Hobbes and Rousseau than at Locke. And any careful reader of Locke will know that he recognized the importance of "informal social institutions" in the state of nature, which has been confirmed by modern scientific studies of the human hunting-gathering way of life.
Seabright and his colleagues rightly criticize Hobbes and Rousseau for describing life in the state of nature as "solitary," because in fact hunter-gatherers always have a complex social life. But they also note that Locke never uses the word "solitary," and "his description of the state of nature does not seem to indicate solitude at all" (17).
"Across small-scale societies there is a modal pattern of social organization characterized by a three-generational system of resource flows (including co-resident offspring, parts and grandparents), a sexual and age-graded division of labor within long-term adult pair bonds . . . . and high levels of cooperation between kin and non-kin . . . . Human hunter-gatherers were probably highly inter-dependent long before the invention of agriculture, contrary to Rousseau's claim that agriculture and its associated divisions of labor paved the way for high inter-dependencies."
"Despite the popular idea that hunter-gatherers are organized in a system of small groups of co-residing kin, their social structure is actually quite fluid and comprises networks of interaction between spatially and genetically distant individuals that extend far beyond a local residential group" (11-12).
Seabright and his colleagues don't recognize that Locke sees all of this. He speaks of the human family in the state of nature as the "first society" (Second Treatise, sec. 77), first the conjugal bonding of husband and wife based on a "voluntary compact," and then the parental care of their children. He sees a division of labor based on sex and age.
Locke also sees social networks of cooperation and exchange extending beyond the family. In Locke's state of nature, there are networks of exchange and trade based on "promises and compacts" (ST, sec. 14). This extended order of cooperation is governed by social norms that Locke identifies as the "law of nature."
Seabright and his colleagues see that social norms are enforced among hunter-gatherers through violent punishment (including capital punishment), reputational costs for those who violate the norms, and third party mediation of disputes. But they don't recognize that Locke also sees this in his state of nature, where everyone has the "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who transgress the law of nature, where there is a "law of reputation" to enforce the law of nature through praise and blame, and where disputes are often settled by those known to be good mediators (ST secs. 6-14, 108; Essay Concerning Human Understanding II.28.5-14).
Locke's understanding of the state of nature comes largely from his study of the European reports about the American Indians, because he assumed that "in the beginning all the World was America" (ST 49), and that the American Indians provide a "Pattern of the first Ages in Asia and Europe" (ST 108). And while it is true that Locke did not have the extensive ethnographic record of hunter-gatherers that we have today, the books in his library about the American Indians did give him a good grasp of hunting-gathering societies.
So, for example, he saw in those reports that foraging bands were sometimes at war with one another, and so he did not make Rousseau's mistake of assuming that the state of nature was utterly peaceful (ST secs. 107-108; A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Mark Goldie, Liberty Fund, p. 76). Hobbes was partly right about the state of nature insofar as he saw this propensity to war. He was partly wrong, however, in that he did not see, as Locke did, that most of the time hunter-gatherers can live by social norms of peaceful cooperation.
Although Locke's state of nature is a roughly egalitarian condition, in the sense that everyone is equally free from the arbitrary absolute power of anyone else, some people have higher status or prestige than others. Seabright and his colleagues write:
"Status hierarchies do indeed exist across diverse small-scale societies, but rather than resulting simply from variation in material wealth, they are often linked to relational wealth (i.e. social ties in marriage, food-sharing, and other cooperative networks) and embodied wealth (i.e. physical and cognitive abilities, such as strength and knowledge/skill, underlying variation in food production and reproductive success)" (13).
They do not recognize, however, that Locke sees all of these status hierarchies in his state of nature (ST secs. 54, 74, 94, 105). While Locke saw the American Indians in the state of nature as showing relative equality compared with other societies, he also saw that all human societies will have some inequality due to individual differences in age, birth, talents, social networks, and luck, which will make some individuals more highly ranked than others. So, for example, among hunter-gatherers, some individuals would inevitably distinguish themselves as skillful hunters or as leaders of their groups. Borgerhoff Mulder and her colleagues (2009) confirmed this, and concluded that those Marxist anthropologists who wanted to find "primitive communism" in foraging societies were mistaken, because hunter-gatherers have a Gini coefficient of around 0.25. I have written about this in a previous post.
Nevertheless, the reputation of hunter-gatherers for being egalitarian is warranted when they are compared with herding and farming societies that have much higher Gini numbers. And yet, among modern nation-states, those that have Lockean liberal social orders have lower inequality. The United States has a slightly lower Gini number than the small-scale herding and farming societies. And the Nordic capitalist welfare states--such as Denmark, Norway, and Finland--have Gini numbers about the same as the foraging societies. (I have written about the Nordic social democracies as liberal regimes here.) This suggests that modern Lockean liberal social orders approximate the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature.
In all of these ways, the evolutionary science of the hunter-gatherer way of life as the original social life for our human ancestors confirms Locke's account of the state of nature.