By Guy Dauncey –
Our deep history is so astonishing that we rarely pause to think of it. We may be curious about our immediate ancestors – did they come from Italy? Russia? –but beyond that we mostly draw a veil. We have to make dinner. We have relatives coming at the weekend.
How often do we pause to acknowledge that for hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors were hunter-gatherers? And that further back, we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas?
These thoughts have recently become important for me, as I am in the midst of the research for my next book, provisionally titled The Economics of Kindness: The Birth of a New Cooperative Economy. As homework, I am steadily plowing my way through 250 books on economics and economic history.
At the core of conventional economic thought are the twin assumptions that humans are rational and self-interested, and that this is good because free competition in the marketplace forces prices to find ‘equilibrium’—the best price for bananas, the best price for puppies, the best price for an hour’s labour. As long as the government doesn’t interfere, the argument goes, this equilibrium will supposedly bring the most beneficial outcome for everyone. Thus a business should think only of maximizing its profit: anything else disturbs the natural equilibrium that economists seek.
This was Adam Smith’s assumption in 1776; it was the economist Alfred Marshall’s assumption when he wrote his Principles of Economics in 1890; and it is still the central assumption in university microeconomics courses all around the world.
The tragedy is that it’s not true. Sometimes we are rational and self-interested, but the evidence shows that most people prefer to live by values of kindness and co-operation. Game theory shows that 25% of us are primarily self-interested, 25% of us are altruists, and 50% of us are conditional altruists, co-operating for the benefit of the larger group provided that others do so, too.
Meanwhile, our pursuit of self-interest lies behind the destruction of the rainforests, the denial of a $15 minimum wage, the lower wages that women receive, the growing inequality, and our continued use of fossil fuels instead of clean energy, casting the dark shadow of climate chaos over our future.
Hunter-gatherers all over the world, anthropologists have discovered, are highly co-operative and egalitarian, and they really dislike alpha male despotism. So, when we prefer to be kind and co-operative, this is where we get it from.
But here’s the fascinating thing. Hunter-gatherers know that people can behave selfishly, and they go out of their way to suppress it. This is a direct comment by a Ju’hoansi bushman from the Kalahari desert in Namibia: “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this … so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
The constant teasing that is common among First Nations doubtless has the same origins—to prevent a man from becoming self-important and thinking that he can lord it over the others.
But where does the chest-puffing and self-importance come from? We’ve all seen it. Sometimes we submit to it, choosing to become followers of a trumped-up alpha male. But mostly I think we react against it. Women in particular know far too much about men who act like jerks, especially when they’re in the company of other men.
So where does it come from? It’s obvious once you think about it. It comes from our primate ancestors. Among chimpanzees and gorillas, with whom we share a common ancestor, the alpha males are super-aggressive, using violence, threats and bullying to get a corner on the females and drive competing males away.
It was likely this behaviour that triggered the first political revolutions, when the non-alphas ganged up on oppressive alpha males, establishing with vehement insistence that they wanted to live together as political equals, without oppression. Above all, they wanted autonomy, which meant not being pushed around by a bossy, thuggish, self-appointed leader.
But 12,000 to 7,000 years ago in the Tigris-Euphrates delta, as the easy game was hunted to extinction, the long era of hunter-gathering came to an end. And with settlements and agriculture came grain storage, land ownership, hierarchies, kings, warriors, priests, debt, and the return of the despotic impulse.
Now let me turn back to economics. Over the last two hundred years, economists have built their models around the assumption that we are all rational and self-interested. Homo economicus, they call us. What they ignore is that this represents only a small part of our make-up.
As well as being homo economicus, we are homo aggressivus when we engage in trickery, deceit, tax-evasion, slavery and war; we are homo stupidus when we believe that an investment can guarantee a 20% annual return; we are homo ignoramus in most of our interactions with Nature; and we are homo amicus when we strive to be kind and co-operative.
As we face so many tragedies and crises, we must do again what our hunter-gatherer ancestors did: we must overthrow that alpha male selfishness, with its sexism, racism, corporate bullying and tax-evasion, and rebuild our economies on the basis of co-operation and kindness.
Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour, by Christopher Boehm
Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, by James Suzman
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James Scott
Guy Dauncey is author of the novel Journey to the Future: A Better World Is Possible. www.journeytothefuture.ca. He lives near Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island.