The social cage

With all the current interest in the paleolithic lifestyle and the paleo-diet it is not surprising that some people will wonder what kind of social-political environment is most suited for hunter-gatherer descendants. One attempt to answer this question is provided in Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner’s The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. They write:

For individualistic primates, whose most “natural” state is hunting and gathering, state power and crushing stratification are hardly compatible with humans’ basic genetic tendencies. Hence, it is not surprising that, when possible, members of agrarian systems have traditionally revolted, migrated, and otherwise sought to escape the sociocultural cage of state power.

According to the authors, individualist (post) industrial society is more compatible with our inherited psychology and offers a prospect to escape from “the social cage” of the agrarian societies. They do not necessarily idealize modern (post) industrial societies, and even seem somewhat confused about “exploitation” in early industrial societies, but claim that, broadly speaking, the transition from an agrarian (aristocratic) to an industrial organization of society returns humans to conditions that are more line with the environment of hunter-gatherers.

In the final chapter they address the question why such an encouraging development is rarely recognized and appreciated by scholars and thinkers, and identify two major  reasons: (1) the collectivist bias of sociologists and intellectuals, and (2) the neglect of the biological basis of human conduct in sociology:

..modernists and post-modernists often appear to believe that humans are a monkey, requiring embeddedness in tightly woven social structures. They are not: humans are an evolved ape, a primate that has little trouble with weak tie relations, loose and fluid communities, mobility, and fluctuating social structures.

The authors are not blind to the emergence of new forms of social bondage and note correctly that modern democracies tend to produce big governments as a result of pressure group politics and the expansion of “rights.” To this one could also add that some of these developments (such as the demand for equality and income redistribution) are the consequences of people not biologically equipped to recognize the new non-zero sum nature of modern capitalism, a perspective that is worked out in great detail in Paul H. Rubin’s excellent book, Darwinian Politics.

One major weakness of this book is that it invariably talks about “humanity” as a homogenous concept and does not treat the topic of human biodiversity at all. One of the most robust observations of daily life is that the desire for freedom from bondage and aversion to state interference varies greatly within groups of people and between groups of people. The framework that is adapted in this book does not allow for a systematic treatment of this issue. As such, the book fails to explain the increasing polarization of human society into those who support the existing size of government (and benefit from it) and those who resist government control and seek to escape it.