A Psycho-Social History of the Human Species

Dr. C. George Boeree

We are a divided animal, with two social instinct complexes:
Both derive from older instincts: The assertive is based on our basic needs plus competition for mates and a place in the dominance hierarchy. The nurturant is based on infant care, mate pairing, herd instincts, and reciprocity.

When we add cultural learning, the assertive instincts may be expressed by individuality, leadership, stratification, striving for success, etc. Similarly, the nurturant instincts may be expressed by conformity, ethical codes, religions, and morality. Just like sexual needs can be expressed in dramatically different ways in different cultures, so can the assertive and nurturant instincts, providing the foundation for the many thousands of societies our species has created.

But note that these instincts may also contain the roots of their own transcendence.  For example, our assertive need to "show off" can be stretched into a desire for creativity and self-expression. And our nurturant need to care for our own children can be extended to a concern for all children, humanity, animals, and life itself.

The Band

It is an educated guess that our original society resembled what is now a rare form:  the band.  Our paleolithic ancestors were hunter-gatherers -- a style of life that lasted about 90% of our time on this planet.  Now we only find these bands in areas of the world so hostile that more sophisticated societies simply haven't wanted them:  deserts, the arctic, the deepest rain forests.

But back at the beginnings of human life, bands could be found everywhere, and especially in the lush savanna of Africa to which we owe our roots.

A band is an association of somewhere between 10 and 50 people, mostly related by birth or marriage.  It is thought that people were spread very thin back then -- between .2 and .02 people per square mile -- because of the large area of land needed to support even small populations surviving only by hunting and gathering.  For comparison, Pennsylvania has 260 people per square mile, the USA has 62, and even Alaska has .7!

Most members of a band could probably do any of the tasks required for survival, but men specialized in hunting while women specialized in gathering and child care.  Training consisted of children imitating adults and, early, actually performing the full range of adult tasks.  Work was life, and life was work.

Tools were developed early in our history -- in fact, it was our pre- Homo sapiens ancestors who invented them.  The band had all the basic tools:  scrapers, axes, spears, sewing needles, mortar and pestle, baskets, simple clothing to wear, and tents, huts, or caves to live in.  All tools were homemade.

Bands were fairly egalitarian.  Status was based on respect for someone's abilities, and that respect could change in different situations and over time.  Anyone with some respect could make a suggestion, but no one was in a position to give orders.  And others followed those suggestions because it was the rational thing to do.  The closest you get to a leader is a person that the Inuit call the ihumakortujok:  "person of wisdom in ordinary affairs."

The economy of the band is simplicity itself:  generalized reciprocity.  Each person got what he or she needed, and if there was anything left, it was shared.  Each band may have had set formulas regarding how to split up game:  Often the one who made the kill had the right to distribute as he saw fit.  Sometimes the kill would be split, with the front parts of the animal going to the one who made the kill, and the hind quarters split among his assistants.  Whatever the rules were, when the hunters returned, there would be a general feast.

The concept of private property only extended to a few decorative or ceremonial articles, and never to the necessities of life.  Neither were there exclusive rights to land use, watering holes, animal herds or plants.  These might be associated with a particular band, and it might be considered polite to ask first, but the idea of ownership as we know it probably didn't occur to them.

Theft was unknown, simply because there was nothing to steal.  Instead, the equivalent sin was not sharing, being stingy, or refusing a gift.  Even then, the response was likely to be a matter of ignoring or making fun of the culprit.

Relations with other bands was touchier, but scarcity tended to mean more sharing, not less.  If hostilities did break out, it was likely to be more a matter of aggressive posturing than anything physical, and if someone should actually get hurt, everyone goes home and feels bad about it.  Some plains Indian groups, for example, even though they had evolved well beyond the band level, still preferred to "fight" in the form of something called "counting coup," that is, in the form of ritualized contests involving sudden forays, the goals of which were nothing more than touching the enemy.

Besides which, bands were exogamous, meaning you had to find a spouse outside your band.  Marriage ties between bands meant that even they were relatives of a sort.

It is only when it comes to behaviors that threaten the solidarity of the band that we might have seen the far more drastic responses of murder or ostracism -- which was death as well -- in these societies.

This society, although our most basic, is nevertheless a far cry from what we see in the world of the chimpanzees or the baboons:  No power hierarchies, no alpha males or alpha females, no gangs of irritable bachelors.

What were the psychological motivations of these people?  Selfishness is sin; everything is in the service of the band.  So one would imagine that our ancestors had to suppress their assertive instincts rather severely and allow only their nurturant instincts to express themselves.  The only sense of assertiveness that might have been permitted is striving to model oneself after the best of your band, the role models who, of course, put the good of the band ahead of their own individual needs!

But notice: No band, no individual.  There is actually not a very great gap between what is in one's own interest and what is in the group's interest. The nurturant instincts and the assertive instincts, far from being in conflict, actually supported each other. Life was hard, no doubt.  But inner turmoil was probably minimal.

The Tribe

At some point, bands started evolving into tribes.  This probably first happened in the neolithic Near East, perhaps 10,000 years ago.  The innovation that made this possible was agriculture.  For the first time, we saw surpluses.  Farmers had to work hard, but that was a small price to pay for the security farming brought.

Agriculture meant a good deal less traveling.  Although it began with the slash-and-burn technique, which still required moving every few years, families could put down some roots (no pun intended!) and allow their population to increase.  Instead of 10 to 50, a farming community could support hundreds of people, and often in a smaller area.

Keep in mind that 10,000 years ago, there were only about 8 million people in the world -- less than now live in New York City.  Bringing it closer to the present, in 1500, just before the European expansion, there were only one million people living in the area now covered by the USA and Canada, as many as are now comfortably collected in the state of Rhode Island.

Tools now included hoes and plows, and would eventually be made with metal.  Clothes were more often made of cloth, which required looms.  Houses were made of wood and stone, which required the tools of construction.  Things were getting substantial!  This in turn encouraged a few people to develop their talents in one direction or another, rather than remaining generalists.

Most importantly, agriculture requires a new system of economics.  With surpluses come the concepts of food preservation and storage.  These in turn demand that the surpluses be collected and later redistributed.  And something this important demands that we find among ourselves someone of great character, and that we imbue the position with powerful controlling rituals and tokens.

In many tribal cultures, the chief is the hardest worker in the tribe.  He maintains his prestige by demonstrating the quality most valued in someone entrusted with the important task of redistributing surpluses:  generosity.  He must pay for the satisfaction of his position by giving things away!  A particularly dramatic example of this is the famous potlatch of the Indians of British Columbia.

As the populations of farming villages increases, they begin to split, first into moieties (two very extended families) and later clans.  These moieties and clans each resemble the earlier bands, with their own special cultural traditions, and they use each other as sources of spouses.  Of course, this means that it is less important to have good relations with other tribes.

Clans become lineages as the tribal structure matures. "Family trees" become very important.  This is determined, of course, in different ways in different tribes.  But in any tribe, the details of social behavior are heavily dependent on the way in which you are related to others.  This becomes especially important as positions originally based on respect become positions based on inheritance.

Surpluses, specialization, and a variety of ritual objects mean more property, and the concept of theft arises.  At first, this mostly applies to symbolic items, but eventually it includes areas of land, particular fruit or nut trees, totem animals, personal tools, and so on.  Adultery, too, becomes a greater concern, now that keeping  track of lineages has become important.  These lead to an increase in the amount of conflict within the tribe, and likewise an increase in the importance of explicit rules.

In the band, the rules were implicit, even unconscious.  "This is the way we behave....  This is the way we have always behaved."  In the tribe, though, we may have differences among the various clans.  We have more property to be concerned about, more surpluses to carefully redistribute, more feelings to be hurt.  So the rules become more explicit, more law-like.  Punishments, too, become more defined, and often harsher.

The psychology has begun to change a bit, it would seem.  People are beginning to be differentiated from each other, in specializations and rank, as well as on the basis of talent and reputation.  In the more "natural" world of the band, the crowded village would have long ago splintered.  People are behaving differently in the different clans and lineages.  Some have more clout than others, just because of the luck of a good birth.

The tribe still requires most individuals to suppress whatever assertive tendencies they may have, but the social instincts that so easily lead to conformity in the band now need considerable outside forces to support them.  Conformity becomes a real issue, with more rules and stricter punishments, precisely because there is less "natural" conformity!

But it won't be until the next stage of social development that the urges to self-promotion would actually start seeing some rewards.


Civilization comes with the development of the city-state.  As agricultural technology develops, fewer people need to be involved in farming.  And more people can be supported to engage in arts and crafts.  The complexity of a large population requires improvement in management techniques.  The transformation of the warrior from any able-bodied member of society to a professional specialty occurs.  With that comes the transformation of the war chief into a continuous leadership position.  Religious life as well transforms from a placation of nature spirits and appeals to the dead into an organized hierarchy of priests, with their own leadership position.

Eventually, we see the development of stratification:  Some people have power and some don't.  Some have everything they need and others have to make do with what's left to them.  Some have, some have not.  I should mention that this concept spread to the pristine tribes, which became the considerably less friendly societies we still find today.  There are no more "pristine" societies!

There are a number of possible scenarios for the development of stratification.  Perhaps a pastoral tribe has taken advantage of their mobility and warfare savvy to take over nearby farming communities, turning themselves into a ruling elite.  Perhaps, with the invention of irrigation, downstream people become dependent on the good graces of upstream people.  Perhaps a shortage of land develops, and the distribution of produce turns into the distribution of land -- for rent!

In bands and tribes, hoarding is antisocial.  In  stratified societies, it is institutionalized.  Property becomes private.  Instead of shortages increasing sharing, shortages raise prices (at first value in trade, later in labor and money).  You can even hold back necessities to raise prices, or create black markets and play favorites.

Because stratification is stressful, it is by nature unstable, and requires some strong organization to keep the society from flying apart.  We develop various bureaucracies:  military institutions, religious institutions, legal institutions, a treasury...  Even at a level closer to the non-elite, there are large farms worked by peasants or slaves, and large workshops of craftsmen and slaves, owned by the elite.  This is the beginning of what Karl Marx called the alienation of the worker from the product of his or her labor.

Stratification creates poverty.  When times are hard, it is no longer the entire group that suffers:  The elite takes what it thinks it is due, and the underclass does without.

Stratification institutionalizes war.  In order to feed the city's or state's voracious appetite, the elite look to what other cities or states have, and decide to take it.  Or they fear the greed of the other state, and attack to prevent attack.  The warrior class justifies its existence by making war.

Stratification breeds slavery.  In band societies, women and children are occasionally captured during raids, but they are usually absorbed into the society.  There is more slavery in tribes, but they are almost always a minority of the population.  The city state places slaves under threat of death and torture, and creates a class that is even lower than the underclass.

These city states continue to grow.  It seems that they need to grow in order to survive!  They may begin with a thousand people; they end up as empires with millions.  It has only taken a few thousand years for these social structures to dominate the entire planet.  Only in the last 500 years in Europe has a new form of social structure arisen.

Civilization adds considerable stress to its individual members.  On the one hand, selfish motivations are actively encouraged:  Survival depends on taking care of "number one" (and one's near and dear).  On the other hand, the institutions work by means of explicit rewards and punishments to control the assertiveness of most of the underclass and a good portion of the elite.  Within certain small groups, the kinds of conformity pressures we see in the band may still operate.  But beyond those, we see severe consequences instituted to keep people and groups of people in their "place."

One of the most significant psychological methods of promoting conformity is religion.  Since the society is split into many different groups and several classes, there is no longer a general "center of gravity" for norms to revolve around.  Instead, an otherworldly ideal is promoted, conformity to which is encouraged by promises of rich rewards or horrendous suffering in the afterlife.  The more effective the religious ideology, the less the elite needs to waste their resources on more physical incentives to conformity.

Under certain circumstances, a state or empire might enter into a steady-state period.  If there is relatively little threat from outside the society and relative prosperity within, and if the religious ideology is powerful and the bureaucracies efficient, a state may last for centuries.  Examples include ancient Egypt and China.  The closest we get to such long-lasting states in Europe are the Roman Empire and the culture of the Middle Ages, the first because of its military structure, the latter because of its powerful religious traditions.

Crucial to such steady-state societies is an image of reality involving a "great chain of being."  The society -- even the world -- is ordered into a huge stratification, from God and his angels down through the kings and popes, down through the various elites, down to the artisans and merchants, down to the peasants and the working poor of the cities, down to slaves and barbarians, down even into the realm of the animals.  This chain of being is understood as being established by God, or something in the nature of the universe for all time, such as karma.  The people of these societies saw this chain like we see the laws of nature.

And just like disobeying the laws of nature results in disaster, so does disobeying the laws of society.  God or karma or whatever forces hold the universe together will get you, now or in the afterlife, if you attempt to deviate.  This, of course, gives all members of the society -- but especially those on higher rungs -- the right, even the duty, to help God or karma along.  Disobey the social laws and you are truly an outlaw -- someone who is no longer a part of the great chain at all.

The age of the individual

In the last 500 years or so, beginning in Europe, a rather dramatic change in social structures and the accompanying psychological attitudes has occurred.  Bit by bit, we have magnified the role of the individual.  At the same time, society and its conformity pressures haven't really diminished, meaning that we have become "split personalities" in that the pressures to conform and the pressures to realize one's autonomy divide each of us, and often cause us to feel alienated from our societies, our communities, and even ourselves.

How did this come about?  The first step, I believe, was a shake up of the European order during the renaissance.  Before, the continent was at least unified culturally by the Catholic Church.  The great chain of being, for all the infighting amongst the nobility, held.  With the renaissance, the powers of the nobility increased, the boundaries between nobility and the church became blurred, and the authority of the pope diminished.  Aristocrats began to think of themselves as free agents, who could rise (and fall) in the great chain via wealth and politics, as well as warfare.  The church, which had the supposed last word on one's status, could be bought off or simply ignored.

The second step was the protestant reformation.  At first, it was simply an extension of renaissance power struggles.  But it also contained some slight variations on traditional beliefs that allowed people to essentially deconstruct the great chain of being.  In 1517, Luther (and others) said that our salvation was in our own hands, and not something mediated by the priests and bishops of the church.  God speaks to each of us, and judges each of us, and grants his grace to each of us, as individuals.  Lutheranism would, of course, simply become a minor variation of the Catholic Church in short order -- but a new "meme" had been introduced.

Calvin added another small idea to the mix:  Some of us, regardless of our blood lines or position in the church, were predestined to find our way to heaven.  The idea of the Elect was born!  People, of course, wanted to know what signs would indicate salvation, and found it in something that cut across old hierarchies of church and state:  wealth.  And, since wealth is far more variable than the older traditions of the great chain, people began compete for places on what was now more of a ladder than a chain.

Good old Christopher Columbus and his imitators played a big part.  By opening up the "new world" to Europe in 1492, he gave the European people two things:  An incredible surge of wealth in the form of silver and other products to compete for (at the expense of the prior inhabitants of both the Americas and Africa, of course), and a place for thousands of malcontents to escape where they could -- perhaps -- make fortunes independently of their social origins.

Another piece of the puzzle is the Gutenburg Bible.  The printing press meant that increasing numbers of people had access to the word of God, and had less need to rely on the priesthood.  In addition, reading was an asset to the middle classes, since it allows one to keep books and ledgers, allows one to keep score, if you like.  As printing expanded beyond the Bible, philosophical and technical thought became available to that literate middle class.  People were asking themselves:  How is the priest or the nobleman so different from me?  Why should they get all the respect?

A bit later, we see a few more literal revolutions:  The Great Peasant War of 1525; the Edict of Nantes in 1598; Dutch independence from Spain in 1648; the overthrow of the British monarchy in 1649; the Declaration of Rights in 1689; the rebellion of those pesky colonists in American in 1776; the overthrow of the French nobility in 1789; and so on.  The idea that "the people" (always defined with limitations, of course) had actual rights -- what a concept!  And what a boost to the individual!

Then there's the industrial revolution.  Beginning in England and rapidly expanding to the continent, the development of the factory system of production caused a massive reconfiguration of western Europe, with peasants moving from their traditional farms to the cities, exchanging their bondage to the land for bondage to the machine.  The aristocratic landowners become less and less significant, while the factory owners, usually of middle class origins, became richer and more powerful.

And late, very late, in all this, we see the freeing of 40 million serfs in Russia in 1861 and 4 million slaves in the United States in 1863, and similar events all over the western world.  The day to day conditions of serfs and slaves changed very little -- but the idea of individual freedom for even the lowliest among us is a genie you cannot put back in the bottle easily!  Even women -- that eternal underclass -- would achieve political equality in many places by the early 1900's.

All this was not without consequences, of course.  Wars became more extensive and sophisticated.  Churches of all denominations became more possessive of what power they had left.  The nobility hardly missed out on all the opportunities for wealth and power.  And the modern concept of the nation-state solidified, complete with patrolled borders, standing armies, heavy taxation, and huge bureaucracies.  England becomes Great Britain, France becomes a powerhouse, Italy and Germany finally become unified, Russia and the US enter the international scene.

Finally we have the socialist revolutions -- especially the Russian Revolution in 1917 -- with their dreams of economic equality for all.  Although the extreme versions have since failed, socialism has had a huge impact everywhere.  The worker was protected, education was spread more evenly, the poor were assisted, and the powerful industrialists were restrained.  There was something closer to a "level playing field," where each individual had similar opportunities to make of their lives what they wished, than ever before. Sadly, what should have been the final surge of freedom would coincide with the battles of huge nation-states that were World War I and II.

While the hunter-gatherer condition lasted hundreds of thousands of years, and the agricultural tribes lasted tens of thousands, and the traditional civilizations began only thousands of years ago, all these later changes happened in a mere few hundred years.  Change was actually noticeable to the people embedded in it.  We are still reeling from it all.

Psychologically, we are stretched rather thin today:  Society still asks us to conform, but that conformity is more a matter of law than of cultural tradition and religious ideology.  Although we rarely think in terms of great hierarchies or chains of being anymore, we still feel the pressures to conform "horizontally," to each other -- feelings strongly supported by the novel forces of mass media.  On the other hand, the variety of beliefs, cultural traditions, lifestyles, choices of careers, educational opportunities, and international movement, constantly confront our minds with the fact of our considerable autonomy and the responsibilities that come with it.  We can no longer say, when we feel unhappy with our lives, that this unhappiness is the sad but inevitable result of being born to a particular station on the great chain of being.

So here we stand at the beginning of the 21st century, burdened by our need to fit into society and the often conflicting need to be individuals, and clueless as to how to reconcile the two.  What happens next is anybody's guess.

© Copyright 2004, C. George Boeree