NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

THE INVISlBLE BRAIN

All thought draws life from contacts and exchanges.          —Fernand Braudel

 

Explaining the affluence of the Northwest Coast Indians seems simple at first. They lived amid natural abundance. And abundance, after all, is affluence. Presumably that's why so many of the affluent hunter-gatherer societies recently discerned by archaeologists lived near large bodies of water. If you want to be rich, settle on rich land.

But this explanation won't wash. For starters, population tends to rapidly reach the "carrying capacity" of the environment. Although it's true that an acre of Northwest territory offered more food than an acre of the Shoshone's desert, it's also true that an acre of Northwest territory had a lot more mouths to feed.

Granted, even on a per capita basis, a day's work brought in more food for the Northwest Coast Indians than for the Shoshone. Bushels of fish were hauled in and packed away for winter dining. But this efficiency was due to high technologies—the massive salmon traps, the smokehouses, the storage cellars—as well as the social structures that governed them. And the technology and social structure are part of the Northwesterners' advanced economic development—part of what we're trying to explain when we seek the causes of affluence. To make them the cause as well as the effect would be cheating.

Besides, the Northwesterners' affluence goes well beyond food, and thus can't be merely the direct outgrowth of a fertile homeland. The designer robes, the spacious homes—these things don't grow on trees.

Earlier this century, anthropologists thought it easy to explain such arduously crafted wealth as the indirect outgrowth of a fertile homeland. The key was "surplus." (This scenario assumes that the "carrying capacity" of the environment wouldn't quickly be reached—perhaps because there's a limit to how many hunter-gatherers can peacefully coexist in a small space.) With tons of salmon just begging to be eaten, you could meet your daily food needs in an hour or two and have plenty of time left over to weave robes and build homes. After all, such industriousness comes naturally to people, no?

Apparently not. In 1960, the anthropologist Robert Carneiro published an influential paper about the Kuikuru, who inhabited the jungles of Amazonia and tended gardens of manioc, a staple food (once you remove the poison, which they did) and the source of tapioca. The Kuikuru could have doubled or tripled their manioc output, Carneiro calculated, but they preferred leisure time. Since then anthropologists have found various hunter-gatherer societies that, similarly, had time left over after their daily food gathering. And, as one scholar tartly put it, they "rarely spend this time designing cathedrals or in general 'improving their lot.' "

So much for the theory that potential surplus always equals economic development. Indeed, against the backdrop of the Kuikuru and other apparently laid-back societies, it almost seems that the conventional wisdom about the Northwest Coast Indians might be right: they weren't examples of a general trend in cultural evolution; they were just weirdly ambitious.

If surplus isn't the ticket to wealth, what is? What did create all the specialization and trade found in "complex" hunter-gatherer societies? What did the Northwest Coast Indians have that the Shoshone didn't have? What was the key to prehistoric economic development?

WORKING OVERTIME

Maybe we should direct these questions to a noted authority on economic development (and on non-zero-sumness, though he long predates such terminology): Adam Smith.

Two factors, Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, are especially conducive to the growing division of labor that characterizes economic advance. One is cheap transportation. Spending your afternoon making yarn for a Chilkat robe makes sense only if the finished product can be transported at a cost acceptable to its buyer. The second factor is cheap communication...

[SNIP]

The "negative" side of population growth—environmental stress that makes subsistence precarious—may or may not be a big part of the story, but it is certainly not the whole story. The gadgets that pile up at an ever faster rate as population grows are not just subsistence technologies. Even back during the Middle Paleolithic, more than 50,000 years ago, people were intrigued by ochre (for painting) and pyrite crystals. And, as we've seen, during the Mesolithic, such "prestige technologies" as jewelry became an appreciable chunk of gross domestic product.

Great effort went into getting these status symbols. They seem to have been traded over hundreds of miles, back in a time when hundreds of miles was nothing to sneeze at. Even by 30,000 B.C., long before the Mesolithic, beads made of pierced seashells were migrating 400 miles from their point of- origin. Later, regular networks of exchange blossomed, linking local invisible brains to distant invisible brains. The faint outlines of giant regional brains began to form. And the driving force wasn't periodic environmental "stress" but a more constant force: human vanity, powered by the status competition that is part of all known societies and seems to be innate.

The fitful but relentless tendency of invisible social brains to hook up with each other, and eventually submerge themselves into a larger brain, is a central theme of history. The culmination of that process— the construction of a single, planetary brain—is what we are witnessing today, with all its disruptive yet ultimately integrative effects...

[SNIP]

Certainly, as we'll see, social advance can be retarded by things other than scanty population. Still, population is vital. It helps explain why we can call a people "less advanced"—the Shoshone compared to the Northwest Coast Indians, native Americans in general compared to Europeans—without insulting them.

After all, an individual Shoshone's brain could house as much information as a European brain. A hunter-gatherer is a vast and general data bank, featuring arcane knowledge about local flora and fauna and a basic grasp of all known technology. The average European in Columbus's day knew much less about nature, and very little about most European technology. He or she used the cerebral space thus saved by specializing in one narrow economic task. It was the synergy of many such specialized European brains that created the technology with which Columbus and other such men intimidated Indians. Individual native Americans weren't stupider than individual fifteenth-century Europeans—they just had the disadvantage of being Renaissance Men...

[SNIP]

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