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Chapter Two


A common principle of intelligence meets us in the savage, in the barbarian, and in civilized man.—Lewis Henry Morgan


Mark Twain considered the Shoshone Indians of western North America "the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen up to this writing." They "have no villages, and no gathering together into strictly defined tribal communities." A young Charles Darwin, observing the Fuegian Indians of South America, reported that their dwellings were "like what children make in summer, with boughs of trees." After ticking off examples of Fuegian uncouthness and inhumanity, Darwin wrote in a letter, "I feel quite a disgust at the very sound of the voices of these miserable savages."

Such dismay was often expressed when nineteenth-century white men encountered native American cultures. That is one thing that bothered anthropologists such as Franz Boas about theories of cultural evolution. In placing western cultures atop a universal ladder of progress, they seemed merely the academic expression of an already too-common European supremacism. Boas wrote: "The tendency to value our own form of civilization as higher, not as dearer to our hearts, than that of the whole rest of mankind is the same as that which prompts the actions of primitive man who considers every stranger his enemy, and who is not satisfied until the enemy is killed."

There is arguably something paradoxical about criticizing the denigration of the primitive on grounds that it is primitive. Still, Boas's heart was in the right place. He had a genuine and courageous concern for the downtrodden. He worried especially that notions of cultural superiority would get conflated with notions of biological superiority, reinforcing racism. His book The Mind of Primitive Man, which traced the psychology of hunter-gatherers to a distinctive culture, not distinctive genes, was burned by the Nazis.

Boas's fear that racists would gleefully seize on notions of cultural evolution was not misplaced. Generally speaking, racism will use any tool that is handy. And if cultural evolutionism seems to imply that Europeans are biologically superior to native Americans, then it is a handy tool. Still, it is important to understand that, logically, cultural evolutionism implies no such thing.

One premise of cultural evolutionism is "the psychic unity of humankind"—the idea that people everywhere are genetically endowed with the same mental equipment, that there is a universal human nature. The psychic unity of humankind is the reason that around the world, on every continent, cultural evolution has moved in the same direction. The arrow of human history begins with the biology of human nature.

That arrow, as I've noted, points toward larger quantities of non-zero-sumness. As history progresses, human beings find themselves playing non-zero-sum games with more and more other human beings. Interdependence expands, and social complexity grows in scope and depth.

One way to start seeing this link between human nature and human history is to take a look at the "wretched" Shoshone and other basic hunter-gatherer societies—or, in the technical terminology of the nineteenth century, other "savages." They demonstrate how even the simplest societies are congenitally prone to increasing complexity; and how, nonetheless, quirks of environmental circumstance can slow the rate of increase.

There is one other reason to inspect these societies: to help us reconstruct the distant past. The ancestral cultures of all modern societies were hunter-gatherer cultures. Archaeologists have found their remnants—their spearheads and stone knives, the fireside bones of their prey—across Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas. But archaeologists can't reconstruct the social lives of these peoples in much detail. The closest we can come to that is studying the few existing hunter-gatherer societies and reading accounts of how other hunter-gatherers lived before industrial society changed them.

Over the past two centuries, anthropologists and other travelers have documented hunter-gatherer life on all continents, ranging from the Chenchu of India to the Chukchi of Siberia, from the !Kung San of southern Africa to the Ainu of Japan, from the aborigines of Australia to the Eskimo of the Arctic, from the Fuegians of South America to the Shoshone of North America. To study these vanishing—mostly vanished—ways of life is to dimly glimpse the early stages of our own cultural evolution. The Shoshone and Fuegians observed by Twain and Darwin weren't "living fossils"—they were anatomically modern human beings, just like you or me, but their were cultures living fossils.


Mark Twain is not the only person to have commented on the rudimentary social structure of the Shoshone, who inhabited the Great Basin of North America, around present-day Nevada. One book on native American cultures discusses them under the heading "The Irreducible Minimum of Human Society." The largest stable unit of social organization was the family, and the male head of the family was the "entire political organization and its whole legal system." The Shoshone did spend part of the year in multifamily "camps." But the camps were less cohesive than, say, those of the !Kung San, the much-studied hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert in Africa. For months at a time Shoshone families would go it alone, roaming the desert with a bag and a digging stick, searching for roots and seeds.

What might account for the small gradation of complexity that separates the !Kung and the Shoshone? One good candidate is the fact that the !Kung lived amidst giraffes. The tracking and killing of giraffes, and the retrieval of meat before scavengers get it, calls for cooperation. Perhaps more important, a giraffe is more than one family can eat before the meat spoils. So for giraffe hunters to live in family-sized groups would be to waste meat—and to waste a chance to collect the IOUs that come from sharing it.

Such IOUs are a classic expression of non-zero-sumness. You give someone food when his cupboard is bare and yours is overflowing, he reciprocates down the road when your cupboard is bare, and you both profit, because food is more valuable when you're hungry than when you're full. Hunter-gatherers everywhere act in accordance with this logic. One chronicler of Eskimo life has observed, "the best place for [an Eskimo] to store his surplus is in someone else's stomach."...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.