There are at least four fundamental ways of making a living--foraging, farming, herding, and trading. Foragers live by hunting and fishing for wild animals and gathering wild plants. Farmers live by cultivating domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals. The cultivation of plants ranges from horticulture (tending small gardens using simple hand tools) to agriculture (cultivating large fields with plows and draft animals). In some areas that are too dry for cultivation, people can become predominantly herders or pastoralists. Throughout human history, human beings have engaged in trading one thing for another; and some people have been specialists in trading. Over the past 500 years, beginning in parts of Europe (such as the Italian city-states, the Dutch Republic, and England), trading has intensified in commercial societies that have become urbanized and industrialized, and most people live by buying and selling goods and services in markets.
Political philosophers from Aristotle to Adam Smith have recognized that how people make their living shapes the character of their social order. Smith and other Scottish philosophers saw historical progress in the movement through the four fundamental ways of making a living, and they saw the emergence of modern commercial societies as bringing unprecedented growth in population, prosperity, and liberty, so that ever more people could satisfy not only their natural desire for a complete and healthy life but all their other natural desires.
Stephen Sanderson's Human Nature and the Evolution of Society is a survey of the evidence from evolutionary science that confirms the reality of those natural desires as constituting evolved human nature and of the evolutionary progress through the four ways of making a living.
As Sanderson indicates, the debates among anthropologists over how to characterize the life of human foragers have often been debates over political philosophy. I would suggest that these debates began with the dispute between Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx over the state of nature, because foraging bands are assumed to show evidence of how the earliest human ancestors lived and thus as showing original human nature. Rousseau wanted to see that original condition as a state of perfect peace and equality. Similarly, Marx wanted to see it as a state of communism. The inequality of modern bourgeois or capitalist societies could then be considered a departure from that original condition. By contrast, Hobbes and Locke saw human beings in the state of nature as hunter-gatherers living in small families but inclined to violent conflicts.
It is generally agreed that among foragers, men are the hunters and women are the gatherers, so that there is a sexual division of labor. Women do not usually hunt, because women do most of the child care, which is more compatible with gathering than hunting, and because men have the physical and mental skills that make them better hunters.
The importance of male hunting in providing animal protein has led some anthropologists to speak of early human evolution as the story of "man the hunter," which was the title of an important collection of papers on foraging bands published in 1968 and edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore. Lee was a Marxist anthropologist who wanted to see foraging bands as completely egalitarian. He also argued that most of the diet of foragers came from the food gathered by women rather than that hunted by men. This allowed some feminist anthropologists to say that the story of human evolution was the story of "woman the gatherer," and that foragers should be identified as "gatherer-hunters."
In the 1970s, some anthropologists (such as Carol Ember) disputed this conclusion by pointing out that Lee's evidence was too limited. Surveying 181 hunter-gatherer societies, Ember showed that the animal protein captured by both hunting and fishing provided over half of the calories for foraging people in most of these societies. Then, in 2001, Lewis Binford's survey of over 339 foraging societies showed that while Ember was generally correct, she failed to see that the relative importance of animal and plant foods varied according to climate as indicated by the latitude of the location of a society. Foragers living at lower latitudes (0-30 degrees) can easily find edible plants, and here gathering provides more than half of the diet. But at higher latitudes (46-60 degrees), hunting and fishing provide over 90 percent of the diet. This is an example of how the universal human nature of foraging varies in response to variable ecological circumstances. To understand this, we need a human behavioral ecology that explains how variable human behaviors are adaptive responses to particular social and environmental contexts.
Lee's claim that foragers are completely egalitarian has also been disputed. As I have indicated in previous posts (here), foraging societies do recognize informal leaders, although these leaders are checked by resistance to any arrogant dominance. Moreover, male hunters are unequal in their hunting skills. As Michael Gurven and Kim Hill (2009) have shown, hunting is such a difficult skill that some men never become successful hunters, and those men who are successful hunters have greater reproductive success, because women prefer skilled hunters, and men trade meat for sex. This suggests that Rousseau and Marx were wrong to assume that the state of nature was a state of complete equality.
As I have indicated in a previous post (here), anthropologist Marshall Sahlins tried in the 1960s to defend Rousseau's account of the state of nature by arguing that foragers lived in the "original affluent society." Like Rousseau, Sahlins claimed that although foragers were not affluent in the sense of being wealthy, they were affluent in the sense that their wants were so limited that they were easily satisfied with little effort, and therefore they were happier than people in wealthy societies whose artificial wants always exceeded their powers for satisfying them. Sahlins saw evidence that foragers had to work only a few hours a week to provide for all their subsistence needs, far less than the forty hours of work for typical workers in the industrialized societies. So it seemed that the foraging life was one of extensive leisure and little work. Anthropologists like Lee seemed to confirm Sahlins in pointing out that foragers like the !Kung in Southern Africa could easily feed themselves with Mongongo nuts and other edible plants that were abundantly available without any work required.
Although this foraging affluence thesis was accepted by many anthropologists, those who studied foraging societies had to admit that this idea was not well supported by the evidence. As surveyed by David Kaplan (2000) and Robert Kelly (2013), the evidence shows that foragers have to work long and hard to secure their subsistence, and that they often live on the edge of starvation. Sahlins and Lee had counted the hours devoted to foraging, but not the hours necessary for preparing and cooking food, for making and maintaining tools, and for building new huts when they move. All of these activities require far more than forty hours a week. And what Sahlins and Lee identify as hours of leisure are often hours of imposed idleness, as for example when !Kung must stay out of the midday heat of the African desert to avoid sunstroke and dehydration. Foragers like the !Kung show high rates of infant and child mortality, short average life spans, and stunted growth from insufficient diets. This hardly looks like affluence.
In overlooking this evidence of misery among foragers, and insisting that the foraging life is the happiest life for human beings, Sahlins and Lee were showing the bias of social scientists in the 1960s who wanted to criticize modern capitalist society by making the Rousseauian argument that the materialist consumerism, competitiveness, and inequality of capitalist life was depriving people of the happiness that their foraging ancestors had enjoyed. Lee made this clear when he observed that anthropologists studying foraging societies are looking for alternatives to the "poverty, injustice, exploitation, war, and suffering" of human beings in the modern world:
"When anthropologists look at hunter-gatherers, they are seeking something else: a vision of human life and human possibilities without the pomp and glory, but also without the misery and inequity of state and class society. . . . I am convinced that hunter-gatherer studies, far from being the fantasy of uncritical romantics, have a role to play . . . as part of a larger movement to recapture wholeness from an increasingly fragmented and alienating modernity" (Lee 1992, p. 43).The main Rousseauian idea for Sahlins and Lee is that while foragers don't have much, they don't want much, and they can easily satisfy their limited wants, while people in modern bourgeois societies have unlimited wants that they cannot ever satisfy, and thus they are miserable. There is some evidence against this idea that foragers have limited wants, because anthropologists have noticed that foragers are often eager to have the goods that come from agrarian and Western societies: steel tools, shotguns and rifles, aluminum pots and pans, clothing from textile plants, motor boats, and all the conveniences of industrialized economies. I have written about this in a previous post (here).
Sanderson refers to this in concluding: "Virtually all nonindustrial populations have a great interest in modern technology" (49). He seems to contradict this conclusion, however, when he says that foragers often prefer to live as foragers because it's an easier life, and "people have no inherent desire to advance their level of technology" (52, 58).
In any case, there is evidence that foragers understand how to plant and cultivate plants. After all, some foragers are horticulturalists who tend gardens to supplement the food coming from hunting, fishing, and gathering. So why did agricultural societies not begin to appear until about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago? Part of the answer, Sanderson indicates, is that world climates were generally too cold, too dry, and too unstable prior to 11,500 years ago to make agriculture possible. But while the climate change to a warmer, wetter, and more stable climate enabled agriculture, Sanderson suggests, population pressure caused it, because increasing populations would have forced people into cultivating crops to produce enough food to feed themselves.
Since about 3,700 years ago, some groups have relied on herding animals with little or no agriculture. These pastoral societies have been common in parts of the world where there is too little water or warm weather to sustain agriculture--areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian deserts, Central Eurasia, the Asian steppe, and Tibet.
Finally, the fourth fundamental way of organizing society for making a living--the modern commercial society--has become prominent only in the last 400 or 500 years and most prominent only in the last 200 years. The fact that capitalism has apparently arisen only very recently in human social evolution might suggest that it's a purely cultural invention with no roots in human nature. And, indeed, even proponents of the modern liberal social order like Friedrich Hayek have argued that market societies are contrary to the human nature that evolved in ancient foraging societies, and that the popular appeal of socialism can be explained as an atavistic yearning to return to the small foraging bands in which our prehistoric ancestors evolved. Evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have embraced this idea in claiming that there is a "mismatch" between the human nature shaped by the Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptation and the human culture of modern commercial societies.
In various posts (here), I have argued against this. Sanderson seems to agree with me. Although he concedes that the "mismatch" theory is at least partially true, because some innate propensities that were adaptive in the ancient past might not be adaptive today, he is skeptical about whether it is totally true (7-8, 126, 143). In particular, he suggests that capitalist social orders might satisfy the naturally evolved propensities for reciprocal exchange; and he cites Cosmides and Tooby as supporting this in a way that suggests that even they see capitalist social orders as satisfying some evolved propensities of human nature.
Adam Smith saw the opulence that results from exchange and specialization (the division of labor) as "the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."
Since capitalism has arisen so recently in human history and in such special circumstances. it might seem implausible for Smith to suggest that it is rooted in the innate propensities of human nature. But Sanderson suggests that we should understand this to mean that "capitalist relations lie dormant in human nature and develop when the preconditions appear" (68). The propensity to reciprocal exchange--the natural human tendency to truck, barter, and exchange--has been manifest throughout all of human history. There is some archaeological evidence for trading among ancient foragers hundreds of thousands of years ago. Large trade networks began to appear thousands of years ago. More recently, global trade networks have appeared with world commercialization.
To explain the evolutionary roots of this psychology of exchange, Sanderson quotes from Cosmides and Tooby's famous paper on "Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange," in which they presented their experimental studies of detecting cheaters (individuals who take a benefit without paying the cost) in Wason selection tasks. They saw this as an adaptive psychology for social exchange that evolved among our ancient forager ancestors. They thought this could be seen in studies of hunter-gatherer exchange:
"Despite the common characterization of hunter-gatherer life as an orgy of indiscriminate egalitarian cooperation and sharing--a kind of retro-utopia--the archaeological and ethnographic record shows that hunter-gatherers engaged in a number of different forms of social exchange (for an excellent review of hunter-gatherer economics, see Cashdan, 1989). Communal sharing does not exhaust the full range of exchange in such societies. Hunter-gatherers also engage in explicit contingent exchange--Fiske's 'market pricing'--in which tools and other durable goods are traded between bands, often in networks that extend over vast areas. A common form of trade is formal gift exchanges with carefully chosen partners from other bands. For instance, aboriginal Australians traded tools such as sting ray spears and stone axes through gift exchanges with partners from neighboring bands. These partnerships were linked in a chain that extended 620 km, from the coast, where sting ray spears were produced, to the interior, where there were quarries where the stone axes could be produced. Here, environmental variation in the source of raw materials for tool making allowed gains from trade based on economic specialization, and the laws of supply and demand seemed to operate. At the coast, where sting ray spears were common, it took more of them to buy an ax than in the interior, where spears were dear and axes cheap (Sharp, 1952). Similarly, the !Kung of the Kalahari desert range engage in a system of delayed reciprocal gift giving called 'hxaro' (Weissner, 1982; Cashdan, 1989), through which they trade durable goods such as blankets and necklaces" (Cosmides and Tooby, 1992, pp. 216-17).Here, then, Cosmides and Tooby seem to disagree with Hayek's claim that the modern extended order of liberal societies organized through trade requires a repression of the natural human psychology shaped by the evolution of social life in ancient foraging bands. On the contrary, the modern liberal order can be seen as an expression of the evolved propensity for reciprocal exchange in modern conditions that allow for the extension of that propensity to embrace ever expanding social networks of trade. This conclusion is reinforced by evidence of neuroendocrine mechanisms (such as oxytocin) that foster the trust that facilitate social exchange. (A post on this can be found here.)
A post on various explanations for the Industrial Revolution--including Deirdre McCloskey's appeal to the rhetoric of the "bourgeois virtues"--can be found here.