Friday, September 20, 2013

The Evolutionary Science of Rousseau's "Second Discourse": Flannery and Marcus on The Creation of Inequality

In his "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men," Rousseau thought that he had explained the evolutionary origins of war, property, and inequality.  While he relied on the best anthropological evidence available to him, he looked forward to the time when scientists would take long voyages around the world to collect the evidence for human evolution that would allow them to write "the natural, moral, and political history" of humanity (translation by Roger Masters, p. 213).  Over the past couple of centuries, that work has been done by biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, so that now we can write the social history of humanity foreseen by Rousseau, which allows us to judge whether Rousseau's account is true or not.  Here, then, is an illustration of how the history of political philosophy can be studied as an empirical science.

A brilliant compendium of that evolutionary political anthropology is Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus's The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2012).  Flannery and Marcus are prominent professors of anthropological archaeology at the University of Michigan.  This book is especially good for assessing Rousseau's "Second Discourse," because the general theme of their book is that research in archaeology and cultural anthropology over the past 150 years largely confirms Rousseau's account of the origin of inequality.  The epigram for their book is Rousseau's famous declaration at the beginning of the Social Contract: "Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains."

My conclusion, however, is that anyone who reads their book carefully and compares it with Rousseau's "Second Discourse" will see that most of his major claims have been refuted, and that the evidence today supports Locke's account of political evolution and thus supports Lockean liberalism.

Oddly, Flannery and Marcus are completely silent about what Rousseau says about the first stage of human evolution--"the pure state of nature"--in which human ancestors wandered as solitary animals with no social bonds and no language.  As I have indicated in my previous post, there is no empirical evidence for this.  Even if we see Rousseau's natural man as an orangutan, we would have to see that even orangutans have some social structure in their lives.  All of the anthropological and archaeological evidence suggests that for most of their evolutionary history, human beings have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers for whom the largest social groups were extended families.  Flannery and Marcus agree with this, and so for them the "state of nature" is the social life of nomadic foragers living in families.  They thus silently throw out Rousseau's fantasy of solitary human beings in a state of nature, and they begin with Rousseau's second period of human history--the "nascent society" that arose with the establishment of families (SD, 146-50).

Having silently made that one major modification in Rousseau's history, Flannery and Marcus suggest that what remains in Rousseau's history is a roughly accurate account of the origins of war, property, and inequality in human social history.  Summarizing and integrating the work of hundreds of anthropologists and archaeologists, Flannery and Marcus divide this history into four parts:  (1) hunter-gatherers with equality, (2) early agricultural societies with achieved inequality, (3) agricultural chiefdoms with hereditary inequality, and (4) finally inequality in kingdoms and empire.  They conclude their book with their recommendation that we use this knowledge to resist inequality by asking ourselves: what would hunter-gatherers do if they were in charge?

Flannery and Marcus agree with Rousseau that our earliest human ancestors were free from war, and therefore that war is not a natural human propensity but a purely cultural invention of agricultural societies and bureaucratic states (18, 32, 40-42, 55, 106, 109, 178-79, 226).  So they are on the side of the Rousseaueans against the Hobbesians in the continuing debate over whether war was part of the human state of nature.

According to Flannery and Marcus, war arose for the first time with the formation of clans, which created a xenophobic "us versus them" attitude that fostered the first group violence, which did not occur among clanless foragers.  And yet they admit that there are some exceptions to this rule, because there were some clanless foragers that engaged in group violence--such as the Andaman Islanders (40-45). 

Flannery and Marcus are silent, however, about the fact that the Andaman Islands were one of the few areas where at least two societies of nomadic foragers had a common border and had no contact with pastoralists, farmers, or state societies.  As Richard Wrangham and Luke Glowaki have argued, it is only in these circumstances that nomadic foragers can show their natural propensity to the same kind of warfare that one sees among chimpanzees.  I have written about this in a previous post.

So the evidence does not clearly support the conclusion that clanless foragers were free from war.  It seems, then, that Hobbes and Locke were right about how easily the state of nature moved from a state of peace to a state of war.

Although there was no property in Rousseau's "pure state of nature," Rousseau thought the establishment and differentiation of families would create "a sort of property--from which perhaps many quarrels and fights already arose" (146, 151).  So, for example, he suggested that families would own their huts.

Flannery and Marcus believe that foragers have always lived in families, and they seem to confirm Rousseau's point that families would claim some form of property.  There is a sexual division of labor in which men hunt wild animals, and women gather wild plants.  Hunting is risky in that the hunter can never be sure that he will be successful.  So as a kind of insurance against this risk, foraging hunters are expected to share their meat with those who were unsuccessful in their hunt.  But the gathering of food is not so risky, and so there is less need for sharing.  And, indeed, the food gathered by the women is shared only with their own families (32, 36, 43).  With the development of agriculture, property became more extensive.  Farmers claimed ownership of what they harvested as being the fruit of their labor, and in some cases they could claim ownership in the land they farmed.  The privatization of labor then created incentives for more intensive and productive agriculture (254-58).

So it seems that Marx was wrong in believing that primitive societies were communistic in denying private property, and Locke was right in believing that individuals in the state of nature would claim ownership in themselves that would be extended by labor into ownership of goods.  The evidence supports the Lockean liberal account of the evolution of private property.  This same point has come up in a previous post.

Rousseau recognized that even in the state of nature, human beings would be naturally unequal in age, health, strength, intelligence, and talents.  But he thought these differences in natural potentiality would not be developed very far so long as human beings were not moved by an ambitious desire to appear superior to others (SD, 101, 127, 138, 140, 149, 155, 171, 174-75, 180, 201-202, 227-28).  This desire for superiority over others and being admired by others (amour propre)--as distinguished from love of oneself (amour de soi meme)--was the cause of the social competition and the oppressive social hierarchy that arose after the invention of agriculture allowed the emergence of civilized societies.

Flannery and Marcus agree with Rousseau about this.  They think that nomadic hunter-gatherers showed the "self-respect" necessary for self-preservation but not the "self-love" that leads one to desire superiority over others and admiration by others (ix).  They also think that foragers show natural inequality in "strength, agility, and intelligence," but that foraging societies are egalitarian in that people are punished for going too far in asserting their superiority over others.  And yet they sometimes suggest that the desire for superiority was there at the beginning in hunter-gatherer societies: "Rousseau considered the replacement of self-respect with self-love an important moment in the creation of inequality.  It now seems obvious, however, that both self-respect and self-love were there from the beginning.  The tug-of-war between them may have been one of Ice Age society's most significant logical contradictions" (551, compare 66, 87, 97).

Although they agree with Rousseau that as a rule the invention of agriculture was the great revolution that led to social inequality, they note that there are a few exceptions to this rule.  We now know that there are cases--unknown to Rousseau--of complex foraging societies that established unequal social ranking.  For example, there is archaeological evidence that foraging societies along the west coast of North America had social ranking with chiefs and their clans being superior over others (66-87).  This suggests that the desire to be superior over others is natural even for foragers (87).  Even Rousseau admits that amour propre appears as soon as human beings live in familial groups, and this is "precisely the point reached by most of the savage peoples known to us" (SD,149-50).

Rousseau believed that the evolutionary history of society showed that the power of rulers over their subjects could not be legitimated by reason alone, and that rulers had discovered that they needed to pretend that they ruled by divine right--that political rule was sanctified by a religious cosmology (SD, 103, 154, 170, 172, 180).  Originally, the first human beings had no rulers other than the gods, but eventually they were persuaded that some human beings could rule with divine authority (Social Contract, IV, ch. 8).

Flannery and Marcus argue that the evidence from archaeology and anthropology confirms this (21-23, 30, 47, 54-65, 191-93, 198-99, 206-209, 212-13, 237, 241, 249, 254, 300-303, 333, 347, 409-16, 477-78, 561).  Every society has some cosmological explanation for how human beings and their world came into existence, and this cosmological creation story provides moral sanction for their social order.  Typically, the world begins as a formless chaos, and then some supernatural spirits create order out of this chaos, including the creation of human beings.  This creation story constitutes the moral charter for a society because it provides a sacred origin for the moral rules of a society. And thus religious belief is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people together into social groups.

Originally, among nomadic hunter-gatherers, the cosmological creation story sanctioned a celestial dominance hierarchy: the invisible supernatural beings were the alphas, the invisible ancestors were the betas, and the living human beings were the gammas.  Therefore, originally, all living human beings were equal in their subordination to the invisible gods and ancestors.  Inequality of social ranking arose when some living human beings successfully claimed that they or their clans were divine or divinely sanctioned for rule over others, and thus there was a cosmological justification for inequality (59-60, 65, 208-209, 301, 548, 563).

Notice, however, that when evolutionary scientists like Flannery and Marcus offer such scientific explanations of the evolution of religious cosmology and creation stories, they expose the falsity of these religious traditions and thus subvert the religious support for social order.  Does this show us how evolutionary science deprives morality and politics of any grounding in religious cosmology?

Adopting the argument of anthropologist Roy Rappaport, Flannery and Marcus see three elements in such religious cosmology.  First, there are some ultimate sacred propositions that must be considered absolutely true despite there being no empirical evidence to support them.  Second, there must be rituals that repeatedly reinforce belief in these propositions through art, music, and dance.  Third, these rituals are successful if they create emotional experiences of awe and fear that induce belief in the sacred propositions even without rational proof (57-58, 561).  But notice, again, that in teaching us this, Flannery and Marcus are puncturing the magic of religious belief by exposing it as a mere magic trick.

Notice, also, the ambiguity in this evolutionary story of the origin of inequality.  On the one hand, Flannery and Marcus want to present the original state of hunter-gatherer society as one of complete equality.  On the other hand, they intimate that even hunter-gatherer society shows an inequality that is only amplified in later social orders.

This ambiguity comes up in their appeal to Christopher Boehm's account of human social evolution.  They say that according to Christopher Boehm "hunting-and-gathering people usually work actively to prevent inequality from emerging" (x).  But why do they have to work so hard at this if no one shows any desire for dominance?  They explain:
"Our Ice Age ancestors temporarily put an end to leadership based on confrontation.  As Christopher Boehm reminds us, the headmen of foraging groups were not bullies.  They were generous, modest, and diplomatic, because their constituents were too skilled at alliance-building to put up with bullies.  The fate of a bully was to be lured into the bush and shot with poisoned arrows" (59).
So now they acknowledge that foragers had "headmen," which is why foragers had to work so hard to keep those dominant individuals from becoming bullies.  In fact, Boehm's argument--in Hierarchy in the Forest (1999)--is not that foragers have absolute equality without any individuals in positions of dominance or leadership, but rather that they have "moderate leadership" by dominant individuals who are constrained by the disposition of others to resist bullying.  This is what Boehm calls "egalitarian hierarchy."

And, in fact, Flannery and Marcus repeatedly recognize that in forager groups, some individuals have more influence and higher status than others, because some individuals naturally desire to be superior, and that foragers do rely on some informal and episodic leadership, although this leadership is not formal and permanent (23-24, 32-33, 36-38, 44-45, 49-50, 54-55, 59-60, 75,  86-87, 94-97, 109, 112, 208-10, 547-64).  For example, while foragers do not have a formal priestly class, some individuals will become shamans because they are especially skillful in religious story-telling and rituals.

Boehm concludes from this that "utopian democrats" like Marx are wrong to think that we can have a completely equal society.  But instead of that, Boehm suggests, we can see an approximation to the "egalitarian hierarchy" of our foraging ancestors in a modern liberal democracy, where ambitious people can compete for dominance, but they are constrained by constitutional limits, free markets, and liberal pluralism, so that subordinates are free from tyrannical bullying.   (A similar kind of argument has been made by Jonathan Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, and Paul Rubin.)  If so, then Lockean liberalism is vindicated.  I have written about this in some previous posts.

By contrast to this, Flannery and Marcus end their book with a very weak recommendation for how to resist inequality:
"It is no one's fault but our own if we allow our society to create 'nobles by wealth.'  We can resist just as surely as any self-respecting !Kung would do.  So the next time a pampered star tells you that his last film made him $20 million, tell him which charity to give it to.  Then explain that you have not actually seen the film, but that you and your dog have discovered that the DVD makes a great Frisbee" (564).
Actually, as Flannery and Marcus indicate in their book, show business began among hunter-gatherers, who rewarded superior singers and dancers (63-65).  At least in a liberal capitalist society, we are free to choose how to reward or punish our entertainers.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

In a later post, I have conceded that Rousseau could have been right about the pure state of nature if his "nascent man" were identified as a solitary but not asocial primate like lemurs, galagos, tarsiers, and orangutans.

In another post, I have written about the evidence that the inequality in hunter-gatherer societies (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) was probably similar to that in some liberal democratic states today.

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