The Progression of Human Society

The vocabulary of evolutionary biology does not include the word progress, for evolution has no goal toward which progress might be made. But in the case of human evolution, this exclusion may not be entirely justified. People, after all, make choices. If those choices shape a society for generation after generation, and if they permit individuals of a certain character to have more children and propagate their genes, then the overall nature of society may come to be shaped, in part, by human choice. If the character in question is a tendency to cooperate with others, then such a society would become more cohesive internally and more conciliatory in its relations with neighbors. Other societies might become more aggressive in character, or more paranoid, or more adventurous. Yanomamo society, given that the unokais have more children, has surely been positioned to become more aggressive. But overall, despite many setbacks and reversions, human societies have made vast gains in peacefulness, complexity and cohesion in the last 15,000 years. It is often assumed that evolution works too slowly for any significant change in human nature to have occurred within the last 10,000 or even 50,000 years. But this assumption is incorrect. The development of new brain gene alleles 37,000 and 6,000 years ago, and of lactose tolerance 5,000 years ago, have already been mentioned; several other instances of recent human evolution are cited in chapter 12. There is no reason to suppose that human nature ceased to evolve at some finishing post in the distant past or to assume, as do some evolutionary psychologists, that people are struggling to function in modern societies with Stone Age minds. Genomes adapt to current circumstances or perish; the human genome is unlikely to be an exception. Human societies have progressed through several major transitions in the last 15,000 years, and it may well be that these transformations were accompanied by evolutionary as well as cultural changes. It was only after people had become less violent that they were able to abandon the nomadic life of hunting and gathering that they had followed for the last 5 million years, and began to settle down. The first settled societies appeared in the Near East some 15,000 years ago. Though they were probably egalitarian at first, they soon developed a hierarchical form, with elites, leaders and specialization of roles.

Once settlement began, human societies became larger and more complex, presenting a new set of environments for people to adjust to. Societies come in many forms, and each may have punished or rewarded different character traits. The anthropologists Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle have traced the emergence of human societies of various levels of complexity, arguing that each is a response to the environmental problems it had to tackle, notably those of food production, surpluses, defense and trade. They distinguish three broad levels of complexity—family-based societies, local groups and regional 222

polities. Each of these major cultural transitions could well have prompted changes in social behavior and these, though Johnson and Earle make no such suggestion, could have become genetically embedded as the individuals who best adapted to each new social stage left more children.

Hunter-gatherer societies, Johnson and Earle say, were based on fairly autonomous family groups, though with a degree of organization that extends beyond the family. To spread the risk of catching nothing, hunters like the !Kung have firm rules for distributing the meat from a kill beyond the hunter's immediate family. A large animal may have more meat than a single family can consume, so sharing it buys entitlement to a reciprocal gift in future.

Two themes already apparent in foraging societies—reciprocity and leadership—emerged more strongly in settled societies. Settled societies, in the Johnson-Earle analysis, needed assurance of food supply. But instead of sharing on an ad hoc basis, as foragers do, they had another option, that of generating and storing surpluses.

Surpluses, largely unknown to hunter-gatherers, were of critical importance to settled societies. The surpluses had to be stored, protected and distributed, activities that required a greater level of social organization than the loose associations of a family-based foraging group. Local groups emerged, like a Yanomamo village, in which there was a headman, though with few powers beyond those of personal persuasion. Religious ceremonies played a leading role in integrating group activities. Surpluses also generated items that could be traded. The increasing complexity of managing a local group's trade, defense and investment (such as in fishing weirs or irrigation) required stronger leadership. Eventually chiefs emerged, along with specialists and elites. These leaders integrated village-size communities into a regional economy by managing long distance trade and spreading the risks of food production beyond the family level.

The ground had then been laid, Johnson and Earle suggest, for the association of local groups into a larger society. Continuing intensity of economic activity led to the emergence of the first states, known as archaic states. In Japan, for example, people lived as hunter-gatherers until around 250 BC when the cultivation of dry rice was introduced. Foraging and dry rice farming existed side by side until AD 300 when wet rice began to be cultivated. This required large scale irrigation, and at the same period the first chiefdoms and archaic states emerged. Archaic states have existed only in the last 5,000 years. During Neolithic times, Johnson and Earle estimate, there were probably more than 100,000 independent political units of the family-based or local group level of organization. But at all levels of the social organization, from hunter-gatherers to archaic states, the goal was the same, that of organizing resources in a way that benefited the reproductive strategies of its members.

In the emergence of these early human states, two strong forces were at work, and still shape relations between states in the contemporary world. One is the need for defense, the other the dependence on trade. Both of these state behaviors spring from the deepest wells of human nature, the contrary instincts for aggression and reciprocity. Though war gets more space in the history books, it is the conciliatory arts of trade and exchange that have prevailed in the long run. According to the World Health Organization, only 0.3% of deaths in 2002 were caused by war.

Our bones are more gracile than those of our Upper Paleolithic ancestors, our personalities less aggressive, our societies more trusting and cohesive. An element of human choice, a preference for negotiation over annihilation, has perhaps been injected into the genome. And that might explain why there is an inescapable sense of progress about human evolution over the last 50,000 years: human choice has imposed a direction on the blind forces that hitherto have shaped evolution's random walk. In parallel with human social evolution, the human physical form continued to evolve. Because the human population was dispersed across different continents, between which distance and hostility allowed little gene flow, the people on each continent followed independent evolutionary paths. It was these independent trajectories that led over the generations to the emergence of a variety of human races.

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