Friday, November 18, 2011

Herb Gintis Offers an Heroically Short History of Inequality

He gets it down to a page:
[H] uman technology ... is a seriously two-edged sword, in some eras liberating, and others enslaving, the human passions. Let me explain. Hominids developed lethal weapons at least 400,000 years ago, in the Middle Pleistocene ... .  Most important were sharpened wooden thrusting and throwing spears developed for hunting, but quite effective in killing or maiming the strongest male while asleep or otherwise inattentive. Because of these lethal weapons, there was no possibility of maintaining a political hierarchy based on physical prowess alone. By contrast, non-human primates never developed weapons capable of controlling a dominant male. Even when sound asleep, an accosted male reacts to hostile onslaughts by awakening and engaging in a physical battle, basically unharmed by surprise attack.

The reaction of hominid political structure to the emergence of lethal weapons was, logically, either to sustain leaderless social coalitions, or to find some other basis for leadership. The superior survival value of groups with leadership doubtless led to the demise of leaderless hominid social formations, and the consolidation of new hominid social relations based on novel forms of leadership. What might these may be? Clearly, if on cannot lead by force, one must lead by persuasion. Thus successful hominid social bands came to value individuals who could command prestige by virtue of their persuasive capacities. Persuasion depends on clear logic, analytical abilities, a high degree of social cognition (knowing how to form coalitions and curry the favor of others), and linguistic facility. For this reason, the social structure of hunter-gatherer life favored progressive encephalization and the evolution of the physical and mental prerequisites of effective linguistic and facial communication. In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens.

If this argument is correct, it explains the huge cognitive and linguistic advantage of humans over other species not as some quirk of sexual selection (the favorite theory through the ages of Charles Darwin, Ronald Fisher, Geoffrey Miller and many others), but rather as directly fitness enhancing, despite the extreme energy costs of the brain: increased cognitive and linguistic ability entailed heightened leadership capacities, which fellow group members were very willing to trade for enhanced mating and provisioning privileges.

With the development of settled trade, agriculture, and private property some 10,000 years ago, it became possible for a Big Man to gather around him a relatively small group of subordinates and consorts that would protect him from the lethal revenge of a dominated populace, whence the slow and virtually inexorable rise of the state both as a instrument for exploiting direct produces and for protecting them against the exploitation of external states and bands of private and semi-state-sanctioned marauders. The hegemonic aspirations of states peaked in the thirteenth century, only be driven back by the serious of European population-decimating plagues of the fourteenth century. The period of state consolidation resumed in the fifteenth century, based on a new technology: the heavily armed cavalry. In this case, as in some other prominent cases, technology becomes the handmaiden to oppression rather than emancipation.
 That's Gintis reviewing Fukuyama's End of History. Jump cut to the 20C:
It is clear today that the material basis for liberal democracy is no longer the armed infantry but rather a combination of the willingness of ordinary people to rise up, fight, and die for freedom, together with modern communications and transport technologies that are virtually impossible to suppress, especially if authoritarian states have an interest in promoting economic development. ...  For the most part, modern technology is highly emancipatory. Where [Fukuyama] is wrong, however, is in not contemplating the possibility of new technologies capable of controlling masses of people by a powerful few...
Gintis gives Fukuyama four stars.

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