Individual Motivations and Their Strategies
The argument thus far is that new storage, procurement, and processing technologies created abundant extractable resources in locations where seasonally abundant animals, fish, or plants occurred. This combination of factors resulted in recurring surpluses. It is now necessary to determine how surpluses could have been used to create inequalities in power and wealth. On the face of it, and according to the model of simple hunter/gatherer sharing adaptations, it might seem that individuals could not really use any more food than they could personally eat. Nor could they use food to create debts because sharing food was mandatory and reciprocity was generalized.
However, from my own ethnographic work in Mexico, and my readings of the ethnographies, it soon became apparent that the situation was very different among complex hunter/gatherers and other transegalitarian communities. In those communities, surplus food was used to create debts and advantages. Sharing was no longer practiced on a community-wide basis. Reciprocity was not very general.
In contemplating a number of different scenarios and possible pathways from strictly enforced egalitarian social systems to ones with private property and storage, I gradually began to conceptualize two critical aspects that could account for the differences between simple egalitarian hunter/gatherers and the more complex hunter/gatherer communities. First, conditions of abundance could logically lead to the eventual relaxation on proscriptions against the expressions of, and pursuit of, individual self-interests provided that such behavior did not adversely affect survival prospects of the rest of the community, or large segments of it. Strictly egalitarian communities were expensive and difficult to maintain because of freeloaders, the excessive time and efforts spent inculcating and maintaining strict egalitarian values (via painful and lengthy rituals, regular visiting, social networking, and constant vigilance over virtually everyone together with enforcement against any deviations or transgressions by people pursuing self-interests or indicating that they might do so). The unusual nature and disadvantages of egalitarianism had been noted by others (Wiessner, 1996; Cashdan, 1980; Ames, 2007) and began to make sense.
The second key element that I postulated to be important in the development of nonegalitarian societies was the existence of individuals within egalitarian societies who were willing to pursue their own self-interests, at considerable risk of ostracism, injury, or even death. Could the desire to pursue self-interests have somehow always been present in portions of egalitarian societies but simply been culturally suppressed, later to emerge under more permissive conditions, and then acted to transform those societies into more complex, unequal social systems? Boasian cultural anthropologists maintained that people were molded by the cultural values they were taught in childhood. While this was certainly true of some aspects of behavior, I argue that there is a strong genetic component to much human behavior as well. And of all the Darwinian imperatives for survival, the pursuit of self-interest is perhaps the most fundamental. Altruistic behavior is the most difficult to account for in terms of natural selection.
Thus, I reasoned that while scarcity and fluctuations in resources might induce communities to curtail self-interested behaviors (or at least channel them into avenues other than resource exploitation), egalitarian communities were unlikely to eradicate expressions of self-interest entirely, even with systematic indoctrination and elimination of individuals who could not or would not refrain from overtly pursuing their own economically based self-interests. In fact, there were a few accounts in the ethnographic literature of self-centered individuals in egalitarian hunter/gatherer societies who intimidated and terrorized others to achieve advantages for themselves. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of an Inuit shaman who wanted to marry a woman in opposition to her family’s wishes. To fulfill his own desires, he killed the woman’s family and others who opposed him (seven in all) and took the woman for himself (Campbell, 1983, pp. 20, 164-170). Accounts of killings from conflicts over women, or elopements despite the death penalties for such behavior, are not uncommon even in the Western Desert of Australia (I was told of several cases when I was in the field) or in !Kung or Hadza communities. These were clear examples of individuals who did not accept the values that they had been taught and who had chosen options that favored their own emotional and reproductive interests, all at considerable risk. In North Australia, there was also an early account of a tribal Aboriginal who murdered for small economic gains (Love, 1936, pp. 103-112). In addition to this, I found that Aboriginal life, both now and in oral accounts of life before contact with Europeans, was rife with factions and constant grievances being lodged against individuals for social infractions or infringements. Certainly, this was the dominant means of curtailing the pursuit of self-interests, but these societies were far from peaceful, indicating that allegations of violations of the egalitarian ethic were constantly occurring and in constant need of vigilance and repression. Thus, it seems that individuals aggressively promoting their own self-interests appear to have existed in many, if not all, egalitarian hunter/gatherer societies, but their behavior was systematically constrained, or they were eliminated.
It also seems apparent that these were exceptional cases and that most people, most of the time, were, in fact, following egalitarian principles of behavior. I thus began to develop the idea that in all large human populations, there was a naturally occurring range of variability pertaining to the pursuit of self-interests. At one end were personality types who behaved extremely altruistically. In today’s societies, they devote their lives to helping the poor, they give away most or all of the money that they earn, and they even risk their lives for others by working in epidemic contexts or in conflict areas. They are the Mother Theresas of the world and the volunteers in Medecins Sans Frontieres. I am sure that most readers at least know of a few people with such tendencies.
At the other extreme there were people who thought only of their own self-interests, or thought of others’ interests only when it was part of a scheme to advance their own benefits or advantages. Often they did not care what effects their pursuit of wealth and power had on other people. Thus, it was common for some entrepreneurs to develop industries that polluted or poisoned streams so that businessmen could make profits, to kill off native groups so that colonists could farm or mine the earth, to indebt factory workers, to scam the elderly of life-savings, to prostitute children, and many other such kinds of behaviors. At the very extreme end of the spectrum are what we refer to as “sociopaths” or “psychopaths”: personalities that exhibit no emotional empathy for other people and seem to have no moral or social conscience—people who are frequently aggressive in the pursuit of their own advantages. In Without
Conscience, Robert Hare (1993) makes the important point that socio- pathic personality types occur in all societies, in all social classes, and in all kinds of family upbringings. He, therefore, concludes that there is (and presumably always was) an important worldwide genetic component to this type of personality.
As with other genetically influenced traits, like height or weight, and other personality traits (Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman, 2003) the distribution of behavior along the altruism-to-self-interest dimension of values seems to be represented by a bell-shaped curve with a few extreme cases in any large population, but with most people exhibiting moderate values. And, in fact, most people prefer to devote most of their time and energy to achieving their own goals but are usually happy to spend time or resources to help others as well. Most people save or spend their earnings for their own projects and pleasures, but also contribute to charities or make loans to friends in need or buy presents for others. The average behavior (the equilibrium point between communitarian helping of others and the pursuit of individualistic goals) may shift depending on economic or other conditions, but the important point is that the full range of behaviors is always present in any large population. In evolutionary terms, both extremes may be adaptive under some unforeseen future conditions, and so the full range is maintained to draw upon if necessary under a range of different circumstances. Thus, in times of scarcity, sharing of resources and mutual help is highly adaptive. Poor communities are often noted for their generosity. In contrast, when resources are abundant, evolutionary advantages are most rapidly and effectively achieved by self-interested pursuits. The important point from an evolutionary perspective is to maintain within populations the potential possibility of switching from one strategy to another, and this requires maintaining genetic and behavioral diversity. However, the most common values are generally adapted to the prevailing circumstances much as individuals change their adaptive strategies throughout their life history and according to life circumstances, from childhood, to mating, to family life, and heritage years (Roff, 1992; Stearns, 1992).
Some criticisms of my approach pretend that I view all people as being Machiavellian. This is far from the case. In fact, I try to describe the full range of people’s personalities. What I do maintain is that individuals who aggressively pursue their own self-interests constitute a small but extremely powerful element in the personality types that occur in all populations. They are highly motivated to create changes away from egalitarian constraints, and I suggest that they are probably responsible for the fundamental transformations of culture that archaeology has been able to document over the past 40,000 years.
Thus, as social value orientation studies in psychology inform us, we can expect at least a few people who uncontrollably pursue their own self-interests to occur in all large populations (even in the most egalitarian cultures) and to take risks to achieve benefits for themselves. These are the individuals I refer to as “aggrandizers,” or “triple A” personality types: ambitious, aggressive, accumulative, aggrandizing, abrasive people. Among simple hunter/gatherers, individuals who could not control these impulses, even with severe sanctions and acculturation practices, were driven from communities or killed. Today they are incarcerated or confined in other institutional ways. In times of war or intense economic competition, their ruthlessness may be much more positively valued. But people with less extreme expressions of this type of behavior often become successful in business and politics in contemporary societies and constantly push for changes in policies that will primarily benefit themselves or their associates. It seems reasonable to suggest that, in the past, similar people were also exerting pressures on societies to change and to accommodate their ambitions to pursue their own self-interests. Once it no longer became necessary to rigidly enforce egalitarian behavior, these individuals became freer to find ways to achieve their own goals.