[The] history of human societies from hunting and gathering to early industrialism is, in many ways, a history of structural elaborations that imposed constraints on individuals and that legitimated these constraints with ideologies.
In Darwinian Politics, Paul H. Rubin made repeated references to a book by Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner called The Social Cage – Human Nature and the Evolution of Society published in 1992. The present book from 2008 is by the same two authors and (from what I understand) revisits some of the same themes. Compared to Rubin, Maryanski and Turner discuss some of the same topics and even reach somewhat similar conclusions. However, they do it from very different perspectives. Rubin is an economist, while Maryanski and Turner are sociologists. Though anchored in their own academic discipline, On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection is as much a book in biology as it is in sociology and contains some powerful internal critique of sociology and the social sciences in general. Maryanski and Turner reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model that has downplayed biological and evolutionary perspectives and led to a "social constructivist" outlook in sociology and elsewhere in the social sciences. On the other hand, Maryanski and Turner also distance themselves from what they take to be “the other extreme”, that culture and social structure is to be explained largely by biology – “a mistake that early sociobiologists once made”.
As its title indicates, the book traces the evolutionary origins and transformations of human societies. The discussion is incredibly detailed and goes back to the very beginnings more than 65 million years ago to find the common ancestor of monkeys and apes. The first human societies (hunter-gather societies) do not enter the scene until chapter six. Chapters seven, eight and nine discuss horticultural societies, agrarian societies, and industrial (and post-industrial) societies respectively. By far the most interesting chapter of the book is the tenth and final one, entitled "Strangers in a Strange Land: Evolved Apes Living in Sociocultural Cages". This concluding chapter can be read by itself, and for many readers this will be all they need.
Rather than starting out with ideological assumptions or utopian presuppositions about "the good society", Maryanski and Turner ask "What behavioral propensities did natural selection install in hominids over the long course of their biological evolution?", and by answering this question they can answer another: "What patterns of social organization are compatible or incompatible with these propensities?" The general conclusion they reach is that industrial (and post-industrial) societies are far more compatible with human nature than any other societal formations since hunting and gathering.
For many generations, social critics of many stripes have held a highly romanticized view of pre-industrial societies as pleasant places to live. Whatever the hypothesized pathology of industrial society - alienation, marginality, egoism, anomie - early sociologists never questioned the validity of their comparisons of individuals living in pre-industrial to those in industrial societies. In fact, they tended to have a collectivist view of human nature that fit monkeys more than apes.
... criticisms of modernity are based on a flawed view of human nature. Humans are not the descendants of monkey ancestors, as most sociological criticisms of modernity imply. A monkey might like the world that sociologists hypothesize existed before industrialism [...] In contrast, an ape would find pre-industrial societies after hunting and gathering highly constraining. And, if we look at the historical record, humans left pre-industrial formations of horticulture and agrarianism as quickly as they could, once another option presented itself.
In contrast to the chronological disposition of the book, I will opt for a more thematic approach and comment on a number of the themes in the book.
On human nature
Maryanski and Turner note that "many sociologists reject the idea of talking about human nature, even as they incorporate untested assumptions about human needs". The authors insist that by ignoring biology, "we miss important insights that can add a great deal to sociological explanations". They appealingly suggest that we view human nature as "a weak but persistent pressure, manifesting itself as individual preferences or a sine qua non to behave in certain ways". These "subtle and persistent pressures from humans’ biological nature have always been present", they write, "pushing sociocultural formations toward those more compatible with humans’ ape ancestry". After all, humans are animals that evolved like all other animals, and
... despite the spectacular, if not dangerous, cultural systems and social structures that our large brains allow us to construct, these do not obviate the influence of biology on human behaviour and social organization, now or in the distant past.
The authors point out that "even with some hardwired bioprogrammers for sociality, there can be little doubt that the great apes (and the common ancestors of the great apes and hominids) revealed clear behavioral propensities for individuality". Humans are "programmed to feel comfortable in fluid, weak-tie groups". They further note that humans are indeed "far more individualistic than many sociologists feel comfortable admitting, given their collectivist ideological biases". Interestingly, the conflict between individualism and collectivism may, they think, "be lodged in human neuroanatomy, as much as in cultural ideologies" and that, "given a choice, humans appear to gravitate to sociocultural formations that give them choice and options".
On social cages
The history of human societies is, in many ways, a history of constraints imposed on individuals. Maryanski and Turner call these (systems of) constraints "social cages". They stress that there was not just one social cage, but many, and that they were often successively embedded in each other. They talk about the cages of kinship and power:
The cage of kinship was based on kinship-units like nuclear families, lineages, clans, phratries, and moieties, successively encompassing the entire population and leading to individuals being "trapped in a web of kinfolk".
This cage of kinship was eventually replaced the cage of power. A bureaucratic structure was first superimposed over the kin-based structure, eventually replacing the kinship system with a more bureaucratized state.
These social cages came increasingly in conflict with human nature as they
... limited individualism and mobility, imposed pervasive systems of authority from which there was no escape, and converted community into yet another cage that restricted rather than facilitated individualism and free movement.
On the evolution of the state
Once the economy could generate a surplus of resources over and above those needed for survival, this surplus could be taxed. As power was consolidated and centralized, more of the economic surplus was usurped and used to support elite privilege and repress dissent over the perceived unfairness. Ideologies are employed to legitimate the power of leaders and to convince subordinates of their obligations to conform. Religious beliefs also began to legitimate power, with leaders being seen as god-like or as sanctioned by the supernatural. Religious elites often entered into "unholy" alliances with political elites to justify and legitimate the use of political power to maintain elite privilege.
Later on, law was also used as a more secular alternative to religious edicts to increase the power of the state: "law increasingly gave polity the rights to regulate and control. When law was effective, it could bestow legitimacy on the state".
The authors emphasize that once political leadership was given, it could not so easily be taken away. Once consolidation of power was initiated, "it continued because those with power used their power to gain more power". As the state evolved, the options of individuals to escape the cage of power declined. They may have migrated when possible, "but they typically left one cage and entered another".
In the end, it remains somewhat unclear whether they see government as arising as a response to some societal need, or if governments took control simply because they could. They repeatedly talk about governments growing in response to "selection pressures from regulation", but never explain what they mean in detail.
It was possible to see trends that provided an escape from the many social cages which humans had been forced to live in: "The most significant trend revolved around the gradual expansion of economic activity outside the landed estates and the rise of markets". Over time, this emerging capitalist system "changed people’s cognitive orientations and beliefs, leading them to believe that it was their right to pursue, as individuals, the opportunities generated by markets."
A capitalist system [was] preferable to an evolved ape [over] the feudal system [with its] subordination to elites on landed estates [and] to clergy bent on controlling the masses for their own power and privilege.
However, Maryanski and Turner also think that capitalism was guilty of some “horrific early abuses”, mentioning the “truly degrading conditions” under which people had to work in factories during the early days of industrialism. The only reference provided for this claim is a quote by Friedrich Engels (sic)!
Maryanski and Turner point out that governments "increasingly had a vested interest in controlling the coinage of money and its viability in markets generating the wealth needed to finance government and elite privilege". Indeed, money became yet another aspect of the symbolic base of political power.
I recently listened to a podcast from Econtalk in which George Selgin talks about this subject. In his book The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply Under Competitive Note Issue, Selgin writes
States monopolized their coinage early in history. But this does not mean that they were the best makers of coin or that coinage is a natural monopoly. Rather, state coinage monopolies were established by force. Once rulers had set up their own mints they prohibited private issues, making their coins both a symbol of their rule and a source of profits.
Maryanski and Turner also argue that as markets grew and as more people in a society "became part of the market system as consumers, wage earners, or capitalists (large and small)", pressures thereby increased for new democratic forms of politics:
Once individuals have choices in new arenas within the economy, they begin to seek choices in political leaders [and in doing so] they begin to exercise resistance to the cage of power.
They point out that "humans have a desire to determine who their leaders will be and to have some ability to limit the power of these leaders". But they fail to note that, in a democracy, some people inevitably choses for others, which obviously entails that, in fact, only some will determine who their leaders will be, while most will be ruled by the leaders chosen by others.
Another slightly annoying aspect of their discussion is that they seldom distinguish between inequality of wealth and inequality of political power. They rightly point out that humans have a strong propensity to want to limit the power of dominants (as can be seen in hunter-gatherer societies, for example). But, as Rubin argued, this propensity is useful only when applied to power and it becomes wasteful and counterproductive when applied to material inequality. I think that Maryanski and Turner could learn a lot from Rubin's book in general, but their own book is worth reading as a compliment.