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Why human societies developed so little during 300k years

Napoleon Chagnon in his older days

A few months ago I published a post called Overcoming male reproductive greed. I was then urged from the comments section to think it through more carefully and develop the idea further. So that’s what I did. I have now written it out more explicitly divided between two new posts. This first post is about why male reproductive greed mostly prevents human societies from developing. The second one is about why human societies started developing after all. 

If there were a prize for Most Maltreated Scientist of the 20th Century it should probably go to Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon was an anthropologist who dedicated his whole career to the study of the Yanomamö of the Amazon rainforest. Chagnon first met the Yanomamö in 1964, only a few years after their first contact with civilization. The Yanomamö were some tens of thousands of people in the rainforests between Venezuela and Brazil. They cultivated plantains and hunted for a living. They lived in villages of between 100 and 400 people. Their villages often split into smaller villages when disagreements arose. Inter-village warfare was rife.  

Napoleon Chagnon kept visiting the Yanomamö for over 30 years. He learned the language and got the nickname Pesky Bee because he always pestered people with his questions. He mostly did what anthropologists do: He observed daily life and studied kinship patterns. Inspired by the sociobiological thoughts of some of his colleagues, most notably O. E Wilson, he made calculations from his data in order to estimate evolutionary pressures. 

In spite of his rather ordinary anthropological fieldwork, Chagnon managed to stir more controversies than most. In part that was because he became more famous than most anthropologists. Chagnon had a favorable combination of gifts: He was both a good field worker and a good writer. His books became well-known even outside of academic circles.  

The controversies culminated in the year 2000, when journalist Patrick Thierny published Darkness in Eldorado, a book where he accused Napoleon Chagnon of several very serious crimes: of deliberately spreading measles to the Yanomamö, of arming them so they could kill each other more efficiently and, of course, of being wrong about everything. The book made Chagnon a canceled person in anthropological circles. Not because the accusations were proven true, but because it gave him a bad reputation that could spill over to the field as a whole. This was a sad prequel to contemporary cancel culture: Never mind who is guilty. Reputation is everything.

Patrick Thierny’s worst accusations were one by one proven fraudulent. After ten bad years, Napoleon Chagnon’s name was more or less cleared. The question whether Napoleon Chagnon was guilty of criminal behavior has been answered and the answer is a firm no. The question that remains is: Why did the accusations stick so well? What made Napoleon Chagnon such a plausible villain? 

In 2000, Napoleon Chagnon had been controversial in anthropological circles for several decades. The origin of the controversies were the reports from Chagnon that the Yanomamö waged war, a lot of war. According to Chagnon’s calculations about 30 percent of Yanomamö men and 10 percent of women died from human violence. Chagnon asked the Yanomamö what the wars were about, and got the answer that they were about women

. The Yanomamö had the habit of stealing each others’ women for polygynous unions, people got angry and circles of revenge started.

In his autobiography Noble Savages in 2013, Napoleon Chagnon reports that other anthropologists objected strongly to his findings. It couldn’t be that the Yanomamö made war over women, they claimed, because humans only make war over resources. Surely the Yanomamö lacked meat! Still in 2014, Chagnon seemed to be a bit surprised over his colleagues’ fact resistance. The Yanomamö were obviously well-fed and they obviously made war, what was the issue?

Napoleon Chagnon was a great fieldworker and a very gifted writer. But he was not deeply into theory. I get the impression that he never understood how his observations smashed the foundation of the edifice of social science that had been so carefully built since the 19th century. 

What Chagnon reported about, was a people living in a pre-Malthusian condition. That condition simply doesn’t exist in the theoretical framework we have inherited from the 19th century. The 19th century was itself heavily Malthusian. The population expanded rapidly and people had to work hard and be creative to find ways to feed themselves. Wherever one looked in the 19th century, there were men and women extremely busy, and extremely preoccupied, with feeding themselves and their children. So that was what most 19th century thinkers thought of human nature: Man’s life centered around making a living. For the lower classes, the opportunity to eat. For the higher classes, the mysterious drive to amass unlimited material resources.

When Napoleon Chagnon told his Marxist colleagues that the Yanomamö made war over women, the Marxists faced a choice: Either revise the whole foundation of what they thought they knew about humanity. Or declare that Chagnon must have gotten something wrong. They chose the latter. 

As time went by, evidence for Chagnon’s claims became too overwhelming to ignore for most anthropologists. Numerous other anthropologists came to the same conclusions as Chagnon, both before and after his work. From Australia to Papua New Guinea to South America, the same phenomenon has been observed: Men kill each other at high rates in conflicts that center around the distribution of women. 

But the acceptance of those observations have come slowly and gradually. There never was a moment when the scientific community got the information about the pre-Malthusian state of primitive societies and rewrote their history of humanity as a result. 

The obvious reason why the Yanomamö didn’t reach a Malthusian condition was their high level of violence. The Yanomamö simply killed each other efficiently enough to keep populations down. In practice they ran into violent neighbors long before they ran out of land to farm och game to hunt. For security reasons they had to leave large swathes of land as buffers between villages. These buffer lands made excellent hunting and foraging grounds, which helped feed the population, but any tribe that settled these lands more permanently would most probably be raided and killed by neighboring villages.

That degree of food affluence made Yanomamö men prioritize differently than people in Malthusian societies. In Malthusian societies, men fight over resources to feed their children. In the pre-Malthusian society of the Yanomamö, men fought over women to make children. With abundant resources, the women could provide for the children mostly by themselves. The men’s focus was instead to protect their women from other men. And to obtain other men’s women for themselves. 

Men also worked for subsistence. They did the heaviest work with clearing new fields and they provided proteins through hunting. But working for subsistence wasn’t that difficult, crucial part of their lives that made them winners or losers. It wasn’t the most hard-working, inventive farmer who had the most children, but the fiercest warrior deploying the cleverest tactics. So being fierce and socially clever was what Yanomamö men focused on, rather than being an efficient and hard-working farmer.

This is probably a general rule: In a society where children are difficult to feed, dedicated fathers focusing on feeding their children will have an evolutionary advantage. In societies where mothers can feed their children without much assistance, men who strive for many children with several women will have an evolutionary advantage. In periods of low population density, where females can provide most of the calories themselves, chasing females rather than resources will pay off.

I think this female-centeredness has vast implications. In itself, the idea of animals acting in a female-centered way is nothing new. Chimpanzees do that all the time. And other apes and most other mammals. What Chagnon actually said when he reported about men making war over women, was that man actually is an animal among other animals. 

In Demonic Males (1997), Richard Wrangham noticed that the raid warfare of the Yanomamö was principally similar to the raid warfare of the chimpanzees.

Of course Wrangham didn’t mean to say that the Yanomamö were more chimpanzee-like than any other humans. His point was that humans as such are pretty close to the chimpanzees.

I think Wrangham was onto something very important there. Obviously, humans are a bit different from chimpanzees: We are smarter, we cooperate better, we have less body hair… But despite all the differences, the chimpanzees and the Yanomamö had one thing in common: They were stuck at a developmental stage. As we all know, the chimpanzees are stuck eating fruits and using crude stones as tools in the jungle. The Yanomamö were stuck cultivating plantains and using stone-axes in the jungle. Neither among the chimpanzees, nor among the Yanomamö, males had incentives to focus on improving their material circumstances. Instead they both focused on fighting each other over females. 

I absolutely do not intend to single out the Yanomamö as unusually unindustrous. To the contrary, I think they represented a kind of human default. I think that humans have mostly existed in a stage of population equilibrium, where they have avoided developing just like other animals. When every man defends his own and his brothers’ reproductive interests against other men violently enough, the result becomes an equilibrium that can go on for thousands of years. 

The default condition of humans is no different from the default condition of other animals: Males fight each other over females. In humans, in apes, in deer, in insects. Despite apes being more intelligent than insects, they live in the same stability. And the same can be said about the human default: Despite being more intelligent than apes, humans are just as stuck in their ecological niches until the powerful among them get incentives to develop.

We are used to seeing human development as a line of progression. Step by step, generation after generation, humans are commonly thought to have added one small invention and observation after another, culminating in big breakthroughs and discoveries. I think it could be more useful to see human history as episodic. On some occasions, humans focused on the things that are possible to develop, that is, technology and teamwork. During most of the time, human males focused on a pursuit with little development potential: How to snatch as many females as possible from other males. However intelligent a species is, it will not develop as long as all its intelligence is used to play a zero-sum game. 

What made human males finally abandon that zero-sum game and develop more complex societies? I will try to answer that question in my next post.

Related post: Why do women have breasts?

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