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.
- The assertive instincts drive us towards individuality.
- The nurturant instincts drive us towards community.
When we add cultural learning, the assertive instincts may be expressed
individuality, leadership, stratification, striving for success, etc.
nurturant instincts may be expressed by
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
tendencies they may have, but the social instincts that so easily lead
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
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
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
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.
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
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
inhabitants of both the Americas and Africa, of course), and a place
for thousands of malcontents to escape where they could -- perhaps --
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
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
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
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
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