Consanguinity and Socialism

So I’ve been thinking about the connection between consanguinity and socialism.

In one account I read recently, a young man, attempting to better his lot in life, took out a loan, produced 30 loaves of bread, and began selling them along the side of the road. He managed to sell ten loaves before his father came along, spotted the bread, and took the remaining 20 loaves to feed his hungry children–the young man’s siblings and half siblings, of which there were well over a dozen.

Obviously the young man could not pay back his loan, and the business failed.

In Kabloona, de Poncins describes the extreme communality of the Eskimo lifestyle (including, it seems, some form of communal wife-sharing.) One man builds up a cache of fish and seals, and another family comes upon it and eats it all–it cannot be helped, says the author. No one was mad or even irritated. Life in the arctic is so precarious, the food supply so unsteady, that everyone would likely die if they could not depend on their neighbors’ catches in such a way.

He describes another case of a mentally retarded couple who were kept alive primarily through the generosity of their kin-folk.

Toward the end of Frederick and Josephine’s adventure through the Congo, they describe conversations with, IIRC, a white person living in the Congo. He noted that although he had lived there for many years, he had not become friends with the natives–that such was impossible, in fact, because friendship carries with it obligations, and those obligations would quickly bankrupt him.

In The Harmless People, anthropologist Elizabeth Thomas describes the distribution networks that determine exactly how a killed animal is distributed among everyone in the tribe. Obviously it makes sense to distribute a giraffe–no one can eat an entire giraffe, and the Bushmen (aka San) don’t have refrigerators. But even when people are hungry and there isn’t enough to go around, the rules still apply: you must share.

In another account (the name of which, forgive me, has slipped my mind over the intervening decade and a half since I read it,) the author discussed the difficulties of getting the Bushmen started on agriculture/animal husbandry. The crux of the matter was that people would give the Bushmen goats to raise, and then a while later some other Bushmen would come visiting, and the goats would get slaughtered to feed their guests. Pretty soon, the goats were gone and the Bushmen had nothing left to eat, until the outsiders donated some more goats and the round of visiting and goat-eating began again.

Apparently they solved this problem by giving the Bushmen cows. Because a cow has far more meat on it than a visiting family can eat in a week–even a large family–the social obligation to slaughter one’s livestock for visiting relatives didn’t apply to cows.

In The Continuum Concept, Liedloff describes life in an isolated Amazonian village. She relates a story about a young man who, after being raised in the hustle and bustle of the city, came back to his ancestral village (he’d been adopted.) He proceeded to sit on his butt for several years, supported by the rest of the village. He was not entirely idle–he managed to get marry and have children during those years. Eventually he got bored and began raising a garden of his own (it was a horticultural society.)

It took me a long time to figure out why people engage in ritual gift-giving, but one enlightening study on the subject found that Chinese folks with gift-giving networks that extended outside their own villages were less likely to starve during the famines–these folks, it appeared, had been able to call upon their networks when the local crops failed. People whose networks were limited to their own villages had no one to call upon when the village’s crops failed.

I recall someone–I think it was HBD Chick–claiming that Russia traditionally had a somewhat communal style of land inheritance/distribution among its serfs, but I can’t find it, now.

This “socialistic” gift-giving/distribution of wealth and catches is the essence of tribalism, and stands in contrast to capitalism. Westerners tend to either gush glowingly about the wonderful primitives who, in their Edenic state, know nothing of greed but share everything with their neighbors, or confusedly attempt to mush capitalism onto this tribal system and then wonder why it doesn’t work. The socialists tend to advocate that we should become more like the tribesfolk, while capitalists look for ways to get people to act more individually.

Of course, noble savages are a myth and people do not share because they’re morally pure; one glance at the homicide rates for tribal peoples dispels that notion. These systems exist (or existed) because they helped the people in them survive–or at least their DNA. You and your brother share quite a bit of DNA, so sharing your food with him can result in more copies of your DNA wandering around (via your brother’s children,) even if it doesn’t befit you, personally.

No man is an island; we all depend on each other for food and other resources. Where resources are few and times are tough, others become especially critical. Then the “rules” in these societies are often just as strict as ours–the young man with his loaves can no more resist his father’s claim than I can resist paying my taxes. And for the Inuit, the rules are even harsher: if you don’t share now, there will be no one left to share with you when you need them–and you will die.

Do such systems only work where people are closely related? Sharing wealth with my brother may be annoying, but that doesn’t mtter so long as my DNA gets passed on. My brother can be a total lout who takes advantage of me right and left and it doesn’t matter so long as my DNA gets passed on. But it is much more difficult to get people to cooperate with non-family–helping strangers does not lead directly to more of my DNA in the world, and if the helping harms me while helping them, then they may well increase the number of copies of their DNA at my expense.

This does not necessarily mean that cooperation with strangers is a bad idea–or that defecting on strangers is a good idea. Obviously if you’re caught out in a blizzard, it’s in your interest to cooperate with anyone around. And many, many groups have merged over the centuries of human history (and not just through warfare.) Groups can indeed merge, to their mutual benefit.

The question is whether some groups are genetically biased toward–or will reproduce better–under socialism or capitalism, and if consanguinity has any effect on this.

You see, not all brothers are created equal. If you and your brother are identical twins, then you share virtually 100% of your DNA, and giving your brother a cow is as good as giving you a cow; your brother having a kid is genetically as good as you having a kid.

Under normal conditions (as you tend to think of them, my reader), you and your brother share about 50% of your DNA–in this case, your brother has to have two kids to make up for the cost of you losing one.

If you and your brother are actually half-brothers, that % goes down to 25. Now your brother needs to have 4 kids to make up for the loss of one of yours.

But if you’re full siblings and your parents were first cousins–a pretty normal state of affairs throughout most of the world and most of history–then the DNA you share with your brother goes up. And if your grandparents and great grandparents were also cousins, well, you and your brother will start looking pretty similar to each other.

Let’s suppose that a gene for generosity pops up randomly among humans. These generous folks love cooperating. If they are closely related to their family, chances are their relatives also have this gene, and that they will all cooperate together. The less closely they are related to the folks they’re cooperating with, the less chance of those folks sharing the cooperating genes and thus, simultaneously, more chance of defection and fewer genetic gains from cooperating.

So it seems likely that the strongest norms for cooperating will exist within groups that are closely related. (Note that even Sweden-style socialism is quite weak compared to Inuit-style socialism.)

But most folks are, at best, neutral toward their out-group, and often highly antagonistic. (The few groups that are not antagonistic seem to mostly be folks who don’t have much experience with out-groups, due to geographic isolation.) But cooperation across groups may be possible if strong civic institutions / social norms exist to prevent defection.


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