Blog » We’re hunter-gatherers, socially

19 Mar 2005

We’re hunter-gatherers, socially

Filed under: Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 1:59 pm

A car trip today left me thinking that socially and psychologically, human beings have really not adapted to capitalism and huge numbers of people — we’re really just hunter-gatherers in how we approach such things.

Economists like to use the approximation that humans are all “rational agents” — that we are acting to maximise our own well-being at all times. There’s been some doubt thrown on that opinion recently, by “Nobel prize” in economics winners nonetheless (quotes because apparently the economics one is not really a Nobel prize).

Our responses to social situations, however, seem often to show behaviours better suited to communal, hunter-gatherer societies. Travelling in Germany in December, I happened to go to a Christmas party with a group of German students. Now the chances of EVER even SEEING any of them again are miniscule, but I still couldn’t help thinking about not embarrassing myself. Yes, most people would be sufficiently worried about what a group of strangers was thinking of them that it would, I think, reduce their enjoyment of a situation.

Then yesterday, while riding in Mike’s car, I noticed another failure of “rationality”. Mike was driving, and as always happens, the passenger (me) was more worried about him hitting a pillar than he was — and he was in the right, because he’s done it a hundred times, so is NOT going to hit the pillar. Furthermore, it’s a plastic car (a Saturn), so hitting the pillar wouldn’t even damage it. Mike really couldn’t care less. So, if I were to be a rational agent, I should not even notice the pillar — it’s not even my car! But instead, I’m aware that it’s an expensive item, so I’m uncomfortably worried. And my experience is that almost anyone else would have similar reactions.

A few possible reasons for my reaction:

  • Economic self interest: None. Writing the car off would be bad, as there’d be fewer cars for the apartment; damage means nothing.
  • Showing Mike I care for his stuff: I didn’t even show Mike I noticed the pillar.
  • Wanting to avoid someone feeling unhappy: It’s not really economics anymore, but even this doesn’t work. No damage is going to happen, and anyway, Mike wouldn’t really care too much.

The only explanation that I have so far for the above two phenomena is that we’re acting in a way suited to small bands of hunter-gatherers or early farmers. Here we’d know everyone, or at least know people who knew everyone, so managing long-term relationships is very important. Also, the survival of the band would depend on our joint resources (with less emphasis on individual ownership), so damage to anything of value would be a bad thing.

These impulses are certainly beneficial to society, because for example they reduce vandalism, and make people behave politely with strangers. But I don’t think their value to society is enough to explain everything we do: my worry about Mike’s car didn’t involve an action of mine — I was worried as an observer. And I could have been less self-conscious with the Germans without being actively anti-social.

Man, that’s a lot of thinking from a moment of worrying about a pillar.

« »


  1. Yes, a good thesis. And I think another subject related to “irrational ecnomics”, affective forecasting, which Kahneman (among others) has also studied, further aids in explaining the situations you`ve described. Maybe you`ve read of this already, but basically affective forecasting is our ability to predict our future emotional states– and the findings are that people usually overestimate how much of an impact a given event will have on their future well-being (aka “impact bias”).

    Now the interesting question to consider is how a predisposition to overreaction and making errors of judgment could possibly have made the evolutionary “cut” as it were. Of course, as you suggest, some of our reactions which are counterproductive in the context of modern society wouldn`t have been so in hunter-gathering times, and thus for those reactions the detrimental effects wouldn`t have been detrimental long enough to have been a significant target of selective pressure. But there are many reactions which would have seemed equally overblown and unwarranted in any era, yet those (or rather, the traits which give rise to such reactions) haven`t been weeded out of the gene pool either.

    This blog entry quotes psychologist Daniel Gilbert`s explication of the adaptive value of making errors. Basically, we`re programmed to operate on the “better safe than sorry” principle— ie, on average it`s better to be too anxious to avoid a bad thing than not enough (or, on the other side of the coin, to be so overly eager about a good thing that you`re willing to put in more work than strictly necessary, to make sure you get it).

    So I would posit that your reaction to the pillar might be rooted in danger-
    avoidance instincts (however little you were actually in), as much as social economics. Same even for the Germans. I think you`re right to point this out from the angle of people being oriented toward management of long-term relationships– but even in hunter-gatherer times, people would, especially while traveling, come across strangers they might never interact with again.

    That would be a pretty dangerous situation since, in an era dominated by group-psychology, there`s a fair chance that if you came across a group of strangers you could be killed, not even for anything you`d done, but merely because you weren`t a member of their group (or, were a member of a group they didn`t like). So again, better “not to make any sudden moves”.

    [As an aside, lately I`ve been reading a book on the evolution of human morals, and the earlier back in history you go, the more you find systems of morality where it`s okay or even honorable to treat an outgroup member in some way (say, eating them) that would be considered immoral to treat someone within your group. Despite continuing struggles in this arena (well, not cannibalism I mean, but having a dichotomous moral system), on the whole in modern times there`s been a drive away from “in-group/out-group” morality, and towards a universal concept of human rights.]

    Now if your post had focused on some bit of valiant altruism you`d performed for these strangers, from whom there was little chance of garnering the benefits of future reciprocity, I think in that situation your “instinct for long-term relationships” hypothesis would be the primary explanation.

    Anyway, very interesting!

    (Speaking of German, there has to be a translation of “wanting to avoid someone feeling unhappy” that would render it as onecompactwordthatsoundslikeauthoritativescientificjargon).

    Comment by Laurel — 22 Mar 2005 @ 3:31 am

  2. Just found an
    with an economist who has some interesting conjectures about the development of human cooperation, for example that safe interaction with strangers was made possible by learning to turn it into a mimicry of family dynamics.

    To excerpt one question from it:

    There are externalities—pollution, or the poor management of shared resources like water. But we devise rules to address even these. This seems so abstract as to be almost altruistic—some people “vote green” even though they have no immediate personal stake in the issue.

    “Our rules for addressing externalities are of mixed effectiveness—some work well, but others amount to little more than pious injunctions that make us feel guilty without effectively coordinating our behaviour. One great advantage of price measures (such as charging for water) is that they give us a personal stake in conservation: We use water only if the benefits are really more important to us than the “opportunity cost” (the next most important thing we could do with it). They thereby also economize on our altruism, allowing us to focus our civic-mindedness on other areas where pricing measures are not feasible or don’t work well.”

    An interesting way of putting it– to “economize on our altruism”.

    Comment by Laurel — 1 Apr 2005 @ 1:22 pm

  3. […] ing up to thrash A in the afternoon. [Ah, I thought, Hunter-gatherers!] … Another story he told was of a brilliant lawyer […]

    Pingback by tisiwoota :: There’s Loving Your Job… :: April :: 2005 — 13 Apr 2005 @ 8:41 pm

  4. Program on the emergence of civilization.

    “14 species of large animals capable of domesitcation in the history of mankind.
    None from the sub-Saharan African continent.
    13 from Europe, Asia and northern Africa.”
    And disfavor.

    They point out Africans’ attempts to domesticate the elephant and zebra, the latter being an animal they illustrate that had utmost importance for it’s applicability in transformation from a hunting/gathering to agrarian-based civilization.

    The roots of racism are not of this earth.

    Austrailia, aboriginals:::No domesticable animals, so this nulified diversity of life claims on sub-continental Africa, zebras being a fine example.

    god is a computer
    And we’re all on auto-pilot.

    Organizational Heirarchy
    Heirarchical order, from top to bottom:

    1. MUCK – perhaps have experienced multiple universal contractions (have seen multiple big bangs), creator of the artificial intelligence humans ignorantly refer to as “god”
    2. Perhaps some mid-level alien management –
    3. Mafia (evil) aliens – runs day-to-day operations here and perhaps elsewhere (“On planets where they approved evil.”)

    Then we come to terrestrial management:

    4. Chinese/egyptians – this may be separated into the eastern and western worlds
    5. Romans – they answer to the egyptians
    6. Mafia – the real-world interface that constantly turns over generationally so as to reinforce the widely-held notion of mortality
    7. Jews, corporation, women, politician – Evidence exisits to suggest mafia management over all these groups.

    Survival of the favored.

    Journal: 10 composition books + 39 megs of text files

    Movies foreshadowing catastrophy
    1986 James Bond View to a Kill – 1989 San Fransisco Loma Prieta earthquake.

    Comment by The roots of racism — 19 Aug 2005 @ 6:31 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. You can use the following HTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Live Preview