What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?

The 6 Civilizations?

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The first six civilizations–Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley (Harappa), Andes, China, and Mesoamerica– are supposed to have arisen independently of each other approximately 6,000 to 3,500 years ago.


Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure they arose completely independently of each other–people from the Andes could have traveled to Mesoamerica and influenced people there, or people from Mesopotamia could have been in contact with people from the Indus Valley or Egypt. But these civilizations are thought to have probably arisen fairly independently of each other, as mostly spontaneous responses to local conditions.

I set out to research the big six because I realized that I know approximately nothing about the Indus Valley civilization, despite it actually being significantly older than the Chinese–for that matter, it turns out that Andean civilization is also older than China’s.

Wikipedia has an interesting definition of “civilization“:

Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon farming as an agricultural practice, and expansionism.[2][3][5][7][8]

Read that carefully.


(Sorry this map is too small to be really useful, but the next one one is better:)


Interestingly, while Mesoamerica has corn and the Andes have beans, potatoes and peanuts, Egypt and Mesopotamia have… not a lot of locally domesticated crops.

It’s understandable how Chinese civilization, which got started much later, might have originally imported rice from further south. But if Egypt and Mesopotamia are the world’s first centers of agriculture, where did they get their wheat from?

Anyway, I have been reading about Gobekli Tepe, an archaeological site in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of modern-day Turkey, about 7 miles from Şanlıurfa, which radiocarbon dating suggests was constructed by 11,000 years ago:

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
Göbekli Tepe, Turkey

[The site] includes two phases of ritual use dating back to the 10th – 8th millennium BCE. During the first phase, pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were erected. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and a weight of up to 20 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. …

All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as less than 5% of the site has been excavated, … While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year.[27] …

The surviving structures, then, not only predate pottery, metallurgy, and the invention of writing or the wheel, they were built before the so-called Neolithic Revolution, i.e., the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry around 9000 BCE.

Hewing enormous monoliths out of the rock and then hauling them uphill to form some sort of mysterious structure that doesn’t even appear to be a house takes a tremendous amount of work:

But the construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPNA, or PPNB societies. Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters (330–1,640 ft) to the site.[28] The pillars weigh 10–20 metric tons (10–20 long tons; 11–22 short tons), with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons.[29] It has been suggested that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste—much earlier than such social distinctions developed elsewhere in the Near East.[7]

Eastern Turkey (modern Kurdistan): the first civilization?

There are several other sites in the area, though not as old as Gobekli Tepe, such as Nevalı Çori.

AgriKurdistanSo where did domesticated wheat come from? Einkorn wheat’s closest wild relatives have been found in Karaca Dag, Turkey, about 20 miles away. Wild emmer wheat appears to be a hybrid between a wild Einkorn variety and a not-quite identified species and grows from Israel to Iran, though our first evidence of domestication come from Israel and Syria. (Of course, we may have excavated more archaeological sites in Israel than, say, Iraq or Turkey, for obvious recent geopolitical and religious reasons.)


Regardless, we know that these first Anatolian farmers made a huge impact on the European genetic landscape:

From Haak et al, rearranged by me
From Haak et al, rearranged by me

The guys on the left, the ones with “blue” DNA, are European hunter-gatherers who occupied the continent before farmers arrived. The guys in the middle, “orange,” are farmers. The farmers appear to have arrived initially in Europe around Starcevo (in the Balkans) and spread out from there, eventually conquering, overwheliming, or otherwise displacing the hunter-gatherers. (The teal-blue group is “Indo-Europeans” who lived out on the Asian steppe and so did not get conquered by farmers.) From Europedia.com:

European_hunter-gatherer_admixture Neolithic_farmer_admixture


Of course, people have been referring to the region from the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Nile valley as the “Fertile Crescent” for a hundred years, though the major differences of Egyptian and Sumerian civilization make it sensible to speak of them separately. But it looks to me that they may both owe their origins (at least their crops) to some highly-organized Turkish hunter-gatherers.


Pets, part 2

Picture 5

Americans really love dogs.

So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.

As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.

Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)

Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?

The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)

So I propose a different theory:

Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.

Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.

Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.

Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.

These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.

For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.

Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.

Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.

In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.

(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)

I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.

Peter Frost has written a lot on empathy (and guilt), and the possibility that it varies between populations:

…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]

The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.

Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]

Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.

To sum:

1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.

2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.

3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.

4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.


Poll time!

1. Do you have a pet?

2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

A. Never!

B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.

C. Yes.

D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?