Friday, April 15, 2011

Human Nature: Primitive Collectivism


A number of idealistic schemes turn out to work poorly. Socialism seems to be a good example, at least in its more extreme forms. I think that it fails to account for human nature.

It’s impossible to draw a bright line between us and our pre-human ancestors, but one prominent milestone is food-sharing behavior. A couple of million years ago or so, our ancestors seem to have started cooperating in the business of gathering food and sharing it among the members of a family band. It can hardly be overemphasized how important this kind of “collectivism” was in the development of the species. Speech, fire, and tool making all either stem from this or were greatly facilitated by it.

If more modern forms of hunter-gatherer societies are a clue, the forms of sharing became dominated by traditional familial and customary rules. The most fundamental threat to this (and every other kind of collectivism) is the slacker – he, or she, who takes but does not contribute. In a small band it’s pretty easy to identify such culprits, and it’s at least plausible that those fundamental human attributes of guilt and shame developed as social mechanisms to compel compliance.

What about those who lacked those traits? Well, they could be expelled from the band, and in a hard world that was a likely death penalty (Who is John Galt? – he was that jerk we kicked out last year – cave bear got him last winter!), unless they had some other compelling traits that would take others with them. In any case, it seems that despite the evolutionary advantages of cheating, mechanisms for dealing with it were strong enough to keep this type of society functional for millions of years.

At some point, an alternative mechanism of cooperation developed: trading. Trade has the great advantage of permitting effective cooperation among those who have no compelling reason to trust each other.