tribal societies and evolutionary social science

A few weeks back, Robin Hanson wrote an article about the nature of violence among early humans. Like many folks in the evolutionary camp, Hanson examined ethnographic data on isolated, tribal societies to get a sense of what early humans might have been like.

In reading his post, I became uneasy with the key empirical argument – that isolated tribal societies are a reasonable, though imperfect proxy, for early humans. On its face, plausible, but on deeper reflection, open to criticism. Here’s why:

  • A key feature of humanity is mimicry and adaptation. Humans are unique in having an extremely well developed ability to learn from each other and develop very deep reservoirs of knowledge.
  • A second feature of humanity is sociality – we tend to create these large amorphous social systems. At first, through kinship, but later through other institutions.

The early human population is diffusionist and expansionist. This is reflected in what anthropologists believe to be true about the relatively speedy spread of many institutions like agriculture. Social groups link up through trade and cross marriage. So when anthrpologists find a secluded foraging society, the first inclination is that they must have been refugees from some bigger society.

So here’s the criticism of the primitive society as early human proxy hypothesis: If you are still isolated and foraging after all this time, you are a statistical outlier and you were probably never like the norm, even millions of years ago. It’s like thinking that a dwarf is just like a child because of an observed lack of height. The lack of height is a sign that the person is not biologically average. Similarly, if a group is still isolated and foraging, isn’t it a sign that they aren’t typical? Isn’t there some massive selection going on if a group just refuses to adopt institutions and culture from other groups?


Written by fabiorojas

July 8, 2010 at 4:53 am

7 Responses

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  1. Exactly! The typical hunter-gatherer lived in what are now very fertile areas.

    On top of that, many Amazonian tribes, for instance, have practiced agriculture in the recent past, and many are now fairly sedentary.



    July 8, 2010 at 6:41 am

  2. Also, how isolated are these so-called isolated tribes now? All of them live on land controlled by modern states. They’re regularly affected by wars, loss of their land to the state or to private investors, participation in the modern capitalist economy, modern diseases such as HIV, the availability of industrial products including alcohol, and whatever else is going on in their area.


    Benjamin Geer

    July 8, 2010 at 8:34 am

  3. Does this mean I need to throw out my copy of Elementary Forms?



    July 8, 2010 at 12:37 pm

  4. Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus makes related points about early anthropological studies of tribal societies in the Americas. The assumption was that most American tribes were quite primitive, but the reality was that all of their observations were biased because they were studying groups of people decimated by war and sickness. Tribal society in the Americas would have looked a lot different to anthropologists if small pox had never been introduced to their societies.



    July 8, 2010 at 2:05 pm

  5. All good points, Fabio. However, a precision must be made. The interest in studying these societies is not because of their isolation, but because it is assumed their social practices are related to the hunter-gatherer mode of production. This is the basis for using them as proxies for early human societies. Of course, there are many caveats that have been mentioned, all of them valid.



    July 8, 2010 at 3:33 pm

  6. While I certainly agree that there is no unproblematic way to “equate” contemporary foraging social groups with early hunter-gathering human groups, I think that saying that the study of contemporary foraging societies sheds absolutely no light on early human societies is an exaggeration (see for instance Ingold 2000).

    Second, I believe that the argument that there is something wrong with contemporary societies who procure a livelihood through foraging comes dangerously close to begging the evolutionist question, since it presumes that it is “normal” that these people should adopt progressive technologies, incorporate themselves into larger (sendentary, agriculture-based) societies, etc. Most anthropologists reject this evolutionist assumption, and in fact see the growth of large-scale sedentary societies as the exception that needs explanation.

    Finally, as Michael Mann has argued, so-called large-scale societies grew by trapping foraging and pastoralist societies in circumscribed areas via a process of “caging.” From this perspective, procuring your own livelihood through foraging might actually be an “exit” option that makes perfect sense (in relation to let’s say slavery or enserfment).

    So even if contemporary foraging groups are indeed the “refugees” of some previous large-scale society, the fact that they were able to escape it without losing the skills necessary to procure their own livelihood signals that they might actually feature higher levels of cultural and ecological adaptation than the ones that didn’t make it. So they might be outliers, it is true but no in the “abnormal” “there is something wrong with them” sense, but actually in the “they are doing something right” sense. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the Whiggish assumption that incorporation of small-scale societies into large-scale systems is always good for the smaller-scale society when the historical record shows that this is almost always not true. Reading backwards from what happened in the one-shot reel that is human history (large-scale societies have destroyed most small-scale ones to what should have happened given inherent “tendencies” (e.g. mimicry, sociability, etc.) just comes perilous close the fallacious Spencerian argument (e.g. just substitute “industriousness” and “cooperation” for the above terms).



    July 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm

  7. Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.



    April 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

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