Monday, April 08, 2024

The Natural Desire for Membership in a Society: The Roots of Nationalism in the Lockean Evolutionary State of Nature

I have argued against the claim made by people like Frank Salter and Stephen Sanderson that there is a natural desire for ethnic nationalism that is part of our evolved human nature.  But I do recognize that there is a natural desire for membership in a society, which arose in the evolutionary state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that this natural desire for social membership can be satisfied in a multiethnic Lockean liberal nation like the United States.  

Furthermore, I suggest, the national identity of the American people can be best formulated through Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the American people as dedicated to fulfilling the Lockean liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence.  In this way, the identity of the American nation has evolved through the cultural history of Amerca and the individual history of political agents like Lincoln as a symbolic niche construction of Lockean liberalism.

I have found support for these conclusions in Mark Moffett's book The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (2019), although Moffett would not completely agree with me.


As I indicated in my previous post, Moffett is a field biologist who has wondered whether the capacity of invasive Argentine ants to form massive supercolonies might help to explain the human capacity for living in nations with huge populations of people whose society cannot be based on individual recognition of all the members of the society.  An Argentine ant colony is an anonymous society in which membership is marked by the distinctive scent of the colony, which distinguishes us from them, so that individual ants will be accepted into the colony if they carry the colony's scent, but if they carry the scent of a foreign colony, they will be attacked.  Similarly, a human society is an anonymous society with markers of social membership that distinguish those who belong to the society from those who are outsiders; but for a human society the markers of membership are not chemical signals but shared symbols (such as the flag, the language, or the history of a society).

Here Moffett agrees with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (first published in 1982), which has become perhaps the most influential book on the origins of nationalism.  Moffett agrees with Anderson's claim that a nation is an "imagined community," and it "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion" (Anderson 2016: 6).  Moffett observes: "By serving to distinguish us, those who belong, from them, the outsiders, shared imaginings are all we need to create societies that are true and tidy entities" (2019: 18).  

Moffett disagrees, however, with Anderson's claim that nations as imagined communities are artificial products of modern cultural history beginning towards the end of the 18th century.  Our shared imaginings of national identity are not "artificial," if that implies they are fanciful or unreal, because they "bind people with a mental force no less valid and real than the physical force that binds atoms to molecules, turning them into concrete realities."  Moffet also insists that the concept of imagined communities "holds true not just for modern societies, but for all the societies of our ancestors, likely from their remote, prehuman origins," and therefore human societies are rooted in nature--in our evolved human nature.

Actually, Anderson himself sometimes intimates that nations as imagined communities are not modern inventions: "In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (6).

In any case, Moffett and Anderson seem to agree that the social identity of human societies or nations arises as a shared mental creation of what John Locke called "mixed modes" and John Searle called "institutional facts."  As I have argued, this confirms Locke's account of how, beginning in the hunter-gatherer state of nature, human beings have created society by social consent.  The first human society was created by informal consent--collective recognition or acceptance--through language, and language itself was a social creation in which certain sounds were given symbolic meaning by a "tacit consent" (ECHU, II.2).  But this first society in the state of nature was not a political society, because there was not yet any consent to a formal government or legal system (First Treatise, pars. 86-93; Second Treatise, pars. 6-14, 25-35, 77-90).  

Although he does not mention Locke or the Lockean tradition of social contract reasoning, Moffett's survey of the evidence and theorizing from the evolutionary social sciences explaining the human capacity for living in anonymous societies supports Locke's reasoning.


Moffett's brief definition of "society" is "an enduring territorial group whose members recognize each other as belonging" (2024, 3).  He also provides a longer definition:

"A society is a group extending beyond an immediate family, capable of perpetuating its population for generations, whose members ordinarily perceive one another as belonging together and set apart from other groups (notwithstanding transfers between societies, either mutually agreeable or initially forced) and which regulates access to a space or spaces it ultimately controls, across which its members travel with relative impunity" (Moffett 2024, 13).

Societies so defined include prehistoric hunter-gatherer and horticultural groups, modern nation states, and some groups in other species.  Thus, beginning in the evolutionary state of nature, human beings have always lived in societies.  And that suggests to me that a natural desire for membership in a society is part of our evolved human nature.

Locke understood that the earliest human ancestors in the state of nature were hunter-gatherers who lived in small nomadic bands and in larger societies of multiple bands that would satisfy Moffett's definition of societies.  Locke learned this from the hundreds of books of travel literature in his library.  Particularly important were the books by European explorers of the New World, because Locke believed that "in the beginning, all the world was America."

In the two hundred years before Locke's death, for the first time in human history, a global network of trade and travel extended to almost every part of the Earth.  In the three hundred years since Locke's death, the European exploration of the many parts of the world where hunter-gatherer societies could be found has been greatly extended--to Australia and New Zealand, for example.  And since the early in the 19th century, the explorers have included scientific researchers--biologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists--so that the scientific study of human social evolution has been deepened.

Moffett's broad examination of this research in support of his general theory of human social life can verify the Lockean explanation of how societies arise by consenting to the symbolic markers of social membership, and how liberal societies arise by consenting to the symbolic principles of a free society.

Ever since the publication in 1962 of Elman Service's Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective, evolutionary archaeologists and anthropologists have assumed a developmental sequence in human social evolution--band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.  Moffett applies his idea of collective markers of social identity to each of these four stages of evolutionary development.

Each hunter-gatherer band consisted of an average 25 to 35 individuals in several unrelated families.  Each band was small enough that the individuals recognized one another from their face-to-face interactions.  But each band belonged to a multiband society consisting of several bands, and this society could have a population ranging up to several thousand individuals.  This multiband society would therefore be an anonymous society with membership based on some markers of social identity rather than individual recognition.  These multiband societies claimed an expanse of territory, and they were hostile to outsiders entering their territory.

Moffett speculates that the first marker of social membership for the earliest hunter-gatherer societies could have been a password--a vocalization distinct to each society, so that anyone uttering this sound could be identified as a member of the society.  Something similar has been identified among chimpanzees:  one of the three dozen or so distinctive calls uttered by chimps is the pant-hoot.  I remember well hearing this the first time I saw Jane Goodall.  It was at a conference in 1986 on "Understanding Chimpanzees" at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  When Goodall came out on the stage to give her lecture, her first sound was a loud pant-hoot that reverberated throughout the hall.  This evoked more loud pant-hoots from the audience of primatologists who recognized this chimp call.  

The pant-hoot seems to be a group coordination signal that chimps use to assemble and mobilize the members of their community.  There is some evidence, although it is not proven, that they learn the same pant-hoot sound that is shared across a community, with other chimp communities having different sounds (Moffett 2019: 148-50).  This suggests the possibility that the earliest human ancestors living in multiband societies could have developed a vocal sound distinctive to each society by which they could distinguish members of their society as opposed to outsiders.  This could have been the first vocal flag of social identity.  Unfortunately, if this happened, we are not going to find any archaeological evidence for it.

In any case, the ethnographic record of living hunter-gatherer societies shows that they have had many markers of social identity--such as differences in language (different languages or different dialects), bodily appearance (such as tattoos, scarification, clothing, personal ornamentation, and hairstyles), and cultural practices (such as rituals and religious beliefs).

As an illustration of how aboriginal band societies in Australia distinguished insiders from outsiders based on cultural identity, Moffet quotes from anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt recalling a conversation with one aboriginal individual:  "'There are two kinds of blackfellows,' they say, 'we who are the Walbiri and those unfortunate people who are not.  Our laws are the true laws; other blackfellows have inferior laws which they continuously break.  Consequently, anything may be expected of these outsiders.'" (104)

What this person identified as the "laws" of aboriginal society correspond to what Locke called "the laws of nature" in the state of nature--customary norms of proper behavior enforced by the "executive power of the law of nature"--the natural right of every individual to punish those who violate the laws of nature.  And yet in the state of nature, there is no formal government or legal system, so these laws of nature are informal rules of conduct enforced by sanctions of social approval and disapproval.

Notice also that in speaking of "other blackfellows," the Aborigine shows some awareness of racial differences between the black aboriginals and the white Europeans.  But before the arrival of the Europeans, the aboriginals would probably not have seen any racial differences among themselves, and so their membership in different societies would not have been based on race.  If prehistoric hunter-gatherers rarely had any contact with different races, then racial identity would not have been part of their thinking about social membership.

Moffett agrees with Locke that formal governments and laws do not appear until the emergence of states: "We think of nations, which academics call states, as having governments and laws, and band societies have neither, formally speaking" (104).

Locke believed that among hunter-gatherers in the state of nature, "all men by nature are equal."  They were not equal in all respects because some had higher status or influence than others based on age, birth, talents, and social ranking.  But still they were equal in "that equal right that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man" (ST, par. 54).

Moffett seems to agree: "Certainly the dictum that 'all men are created equal' applied to egalitarian, ethnically uniform hunter-gatherer bands more than any society since" (334).  Hunter-gatherer bands displayed what I have called "egalitarian hierarchy"--there were differences of rank, but no one was permitted to tyrannically dominate others.

But even egalitarian hunter-gatherers could think of the foreigners outside of their societies as less than human.  And in rare cases, hunter-gatherers took captives from foreign societies and held them as slaves.

As opposed to multiband societies, tribal societies are clusters of villages that change their locations less often than bands.  Tribes could show even more complex ranking of individuals, with some exercising leadership, but the leaders had no authority to force their will on anyone.  In addition to hunting and gathering their food, tribal people practice horticulture (the domestication of plants in gardens), and some are pastoralists who herd domesticated animals.

Like multiband societies, tribal societies signal their social identity with linguistic and cultural markers that separate one society from another.  So, for example, the Yanomami are an indigenous tribal people (about 30,000 people in 200-250 villages) in the Amazon rainforest along the border between Brazil and Venezuela.   They have diverged into several tribal societies based on differences in their Yanomami languages.

Multiband and tribal societies are small societies (a few thousand individuals at most) that contain mostly the descendants of a homogeneous stock of people.  By contrast, chiefdoms and states are huge heterogeneous combinations of smaller societies that have merged into one.  It is hard to explain how these multiethnic societies merged into one society and how this heterogeneous society developed and maintained shared markers of social identity.

Moffett agrees with those evolutionary archaeologists--like Robert Carneiro (1998; 2017)--who argue that this merging of societies into chiefdoms and states was not voluntary but arose through military conquest.  This might seem to deny Locke's idea of government arising by popular consent.  But Locke understood the importance of military conquest in political history:

"Though Governments can originally have no other Rise than that before mentioned, nor Polities be founded on any thing but the Consent of the People, yet such has been the Disorders Ambition has fill'd the World with, that in the noise of War, which makes so great a part of the History of Mankind, this Consent is little taken notice of: And therefore many have mistaken the force of Arms, for the consent of the People; and reckon Conquest as one of the Originals of Government.  But Conquest is a far from setting up any Government, as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place.  Indeed it often makes way for a new Frame of a Common-wealth, but destroying the former; but, without the Consent of the people, can never erect a new one" (ST, 175).

Government by conquest without the consent of the people is still in the state of nature, because legitimate government cannot be the product of pure force.  Locke did recognize, however, that the first governments arose as chiefdoms, in which someone with the skills of a war leader could be chosen by the people to lead them in war. Locke had learned this from his reading of people like Gabriel Sagard and Jose de Acosta writing about the social evolution of foraging bands and horticultural tribes in the New World (ST, 74, 94e, 101-112). 

Locke recognized the point that was elaborated some years ago by Carneiro (1998; 2017)--that the chiefdom was the single most important step in social evolution from band and tribal societies in the state of nature to civil societies with formal governmental and legal institutions.  Until ten thousand years ago, all of our human ancestors lived in small bands and tribal villages. The turning point in this evolution was the appearance of the first chiefdom in Mesopotamia around 5,500 BCE.  When the Europeans began exploring the entire globe after 1492, they discovered hundreds or thousands of chiefdoms around the world.  But by the end of the nineteenth century, most chiefdoms had disappeared, and almost all human beings lived in states with large populations.

Carneiro agreed with Locke that chiefdoms originated through war.  Men renown for their military skills become temporary war leaders during time of war, and they could lead an alliance of many villages against their enemies.  But they had no right to command their people once the war was over.  If warfare became prolonged, however, a war leader could become a perpetual ruler over villages merged into one society, which became a chiefdom.

If a chieftain established a formal bureaucracy of government officials and priests to enforce autocratic power, that could become a state.


The centralization of seemingly absolute power in chiefdoms and states would appear to deny Locke's claim that government rests on consent of the people, who will rebel against oppressive government that fails to secure their natural liberty.  But as I have argued, there is plenty of evidence in the history of ancient chiefdoms and states that their propensity to autocracy was checked by popular rebellion and resistance.

Occasionally, Moffett recognizes this:

"Few chiefdoms lasted long.  For one to persist, its chief had to put a stop to insurrections over the long haul.  Like a Big Man, a weak chief had to continue to earn his people's respect, and their faith in him rarely lasted and seldom automatically extended to his children" (2019, 289).

The establishment of autocratic states might seem to set up a state power that could enforce repressive rule.  But even here, as Moffett notes, state societies were prone to collapse and fragmentation.  For example, when a Maya civilization collapsed, there was evidence that the king lost control and the nobility vanished.  Moreover, there is evidence that the "commoners" desecrated the sacred symbolic objects and monuments that had previously given divine sanction to the state (Moffett 2019, 291-301).

In my next post, I will consider whether the social identity of a nation must be closed to outsiders by enforcing the dominance of one racial or ethnic group.  Or whether a multiethnic nation like America can be become "one people" through its dedication to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence.


Anderson, Benedict.  2016.  Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Carneiro, Robert.  1998.  "What Happened at the Flashpoint?  Conjectures on Chiefdom Formation at the Very Moment of Conception."  In Elsa M. Redmond, ed., Chiefdoms and Chieftancy in the Americas, 18-42.

Carneiro, Robert.  2017.  "The Chiefdom in Evolutionary Perspective."  In Robert Carneiro, Leonid Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev, eds., Chiefdoms Yesterday and Today, 15-59.  Clinton Corners, NY: Eliot Werner Publications.

Moffett, Mark.  2013. "Human Identity and the Evolution of Societies." Human Nature 24: 219-267.

Moffett, Mark.  2019.  The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall.  New York: Basic Books.

Moffett, Mark.  2024.  "What Is a Society?  Building an Interdisciplinary Perspective and Why That's Important."  Behavioral and Brains Sciences, forthcoming.

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