Under The Yoke

As Rousseau wrote, "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains."15

In the days before agriculture, governments didn't really exist. Most of the hunter-gatherers were egalitarian anarchists: They didn't have chiefs or bosses, and they didn't have much use for anyone who tried to be boss. Bushmen today still laugh at wannabe "big men." Perhaps we could learn from them.

But farmers do have chiefs: It goes with the territory. Grain farmers store food, and so they have something valuable to steal, which wasn't the case among hunter-gatherers. Elites, defined as those who live off the productive work of others, came into existence in farming societies because they could. Interestingly, some peoples seem to have curbed the growth of elites just by growing root crops such as yams that rot quickly unless left in the ground, and thus are hard to steal.16 Another point is that the strongest early states often had natural barriers that made it difficult for "citizens" to escape the tax collectors. Egypt, with a strip of very fertile land embedded in uninhabitable desert, is a prime example.17

Of course, once your neighbors form states, there's pressure on your group to do the same, both for self-defense and for the benefit of those locals who will form the new elite. Today, practically everyone lives under some kind of government.

Once elites became possible, elite reproductive advantage kicked in. This is the most basic kind of class struggle—the struggle for existence—but it has seldom been noticed by historians, or for that matter by the participants. It could take various forms. In some cases, tremendous advantage accrued to a single male lineage—it's good to be the king! Researchers have found a surprisingly common form of Y chromosome in 8 percent of Ireland's male population. That Y chromosome is also fairly common in parts of Scotland that are known to have had close ties with Ireland, and among the Irish diaspora. Worldwide, 2 million to 3 million men carry this chromosome, and it appears to be the marker of direct male descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, a high king of Ireland around AD 400. For some 1,200 years (until 1609), his descendants held power in northern Ireland.18

The most spectacular example is Genghis Khan, otherwise known as the Scourge of God, the Master of Thrones and Crowns, the Perfect Warrior, and Lord of All Men. About 800 years ago, Genghis and his descendants conquered everything from Peking to Damascus. Genghis knew how to have a good time. Here's his definition of supreme joy: "to cut my enemies to pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those dear to them, and embrace their wives and daughters!"19 It appears that the last part of that list especially appealed to him. He and his sons and his son's sons—the Golden Family—ruled over much of Asia for several hundred years, tending to the harem throughout. In so doing, they made the greatest of all genetic impacts. Today some 16 million men in central Asia are his direct male descendants, as shown by their possession of a distinctive Y chromosome. It just shows that one man can make a difference.

The elite's reproductive advantage was usually less concentrated. For example, we often see cases in which a relatively small band of conquerors takes over a society and becomes the new elite. If that ruling elite has a strong reproductive advantage and doesn't intermarry much with the original population, the average inhabitant may eventually be largely descended from that elite, even without any obvious or deliberate genocide. This may have happened when the Anglo-Saxons conquered England; although they were greatly outnumbered by the existing Celtic speakers, they account for a large fraction of the modern English gene pool. There is evidence of an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England that would have furthered this trend.20

If it was possible for individuals to move into and out of the elite, which was often the case, traits that increased the probability of entry and continuing membership would have been favored by natural selection. This could happen in any class that had above-replacement fertility, not just in a ruling class. As long as there was significant gene flow, traits favored in that class would tend to increase in the population as a whole, not just in the high-fertility groups.

But if a high-fertility subpopulation was reproductively isolated (or nearly so) for long enough, selective pressures specific to that social niche might cause them to evolve in an unusual direction and become significantly different from the surrounding population. We think this happened among the Ashkenazi Jews, as we discuss at length in Chapter 7. Suffice it to say, for now, that the kind of natural selection that occurred among the Ashkenazim was possible because of the persistence over centuries of strong prohibitions against intermarriage and an odd social niche in which certain traits conferred high fertility. It's a very unusual case, since few populations appear to have experienced the long-lasting reproductive isolation and unusual job mix required to get those results. There are all sorts of ways in which that process could have been interrupted; it's being interrupted now, for example, through high rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and by changes in fertility patterns.

We've said that the top dogs usually had higher-than-average fertility, which is true, but there have been important exceptions. Remember that rulers, then as now, made mistakes, had bad luck, and in fact often had no idea what they were doing. Sometimes ruling elites lost wars and were replaced by outsiders, as in the Norman Conquest. Sometimes they got a little too enthusiastic about slaughtering each other, as in the Wars of the Roses. And often ruling elites just made bad choices—bad in terms of reproductive fitness, that is. The most common mistake must have been living in cities, which have almost always been population sinks, mostly because of infectious disease. By "population sink," we mean that city dwellers couldn't manage to raise enough children to break even: Cities in the past, before modern medicine and civil engineering, could only maintain their population with a continuing flow of immigrants from the surrounding countryside.

Wealth could make up for the risks that cities presented, if the disease risk wasn't too bad—immunity to famine is an automatic perk of the ruling class, and it's worth quite a lot. But if disease risks were severe, even complete immunity from famine might not be enough, and the ruling elite would gradually disappear—it may not have been obvious, but it sometimes happened.

The disease risks of cities must have gotten worse with time as new pathogens adapted to humans and as civilizations separated by geographic barriers made contact and exchanged pathogens (as happened to the Hittites). We know, for example, that falciparum malaria did not always exist in Italy, but arrived and spread gradually up the peninsula during classical times.21 Smallpox was also a latecomer to Italy, and it's possible that the addition of those two mighty diseases turned Rome into a population sink for the empire's elites.

Sometimes evolutionarily bad choices on the part of a ruling class are obvious. In classical times, there was a plant called silphium that grew in a narrow coastal strip of Cyrenaica, modern-day Libya. Its resin was used as a contraceptive and abortifacient. The resin appears to have been very effective, preventing pregnancy with a once-a-month pea-sized dose. Sil-phium eventually became too popular for its own good. Never domesticated, it was overharvested as demand grew. As it became scarcer, the price rose until it was worth its weight in silver, which drove further overharvesting and eventually led to one of the first human-caused extinctions in recorded history. However, during the centuries in which it was routinely used by the Greco-Roman upper classes, it must have noticeably depressed fertility, unless they were throwing money out the window.

Eventually, in some populations, elites turned into governments with a local monopoly of force. You would think that the resulting law and order would have been good for the peasants. They were safer, since they were no longer allowed to raid and be raided by their neighbors. This was a major change, since pre-state warfare often killed a larger fraction of the population than major modern wars do. Peasants still experienced war

Man with the Hoe The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Jean-François Millet About 1860-1862 Black chalk and white chalk heightening on buff paper 28.1 x 34.9 cm (111/i6 x 133/4in.)

Man with the Hoe The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Jean-François Millet About 1860-1862 Black chalk and white chalk heightening on buff paper 28.1 x 34.9 cm (111/i6 x 133/4in.)

with external foes, but the percentage killed by violence seems to have decreased. However, since births and deaths still balanced, every decrease in death by violence was counterbalanced by an increase in deaths caused by infectious disease (which hit everybody, including elites) and starvation (peasants only). Government, especially good government, eventually led to decreased standards of living, at least in terms of calories.

0 0

Post a comment