Why horticultural societies act like hunter-gatherers

Writing in a hurry to get the ideas down…

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org
(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to Edge.org

So I was reading this excellent interview the other day with Napoleon Chagon, (famous for his ethnography of the Yanomamo, a formerly isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest) and  Steven Pinker, (who wrote The Better Angels of our Nature and has generally been the guy pushing the notion that humans have become radically less violent over time,) Blood is Their Argument. Serious HBDers like Peter Frost have picked up this notion; one important idea is that humans have been self-domesticating, often by getting together in groups and executing the more violent among us.

Graph from the Wikipedia

Frost goes into a great deal of detail about his theory that European states, by executing murderers and other ne’er do wells, changed the genetic distribution of traits that code for violent behavior in European pops, leading to the relatively nice, non-violent people we see today. Chagnon, in his study of the Yanomamo, not only documented that thy are super-violent, but also that the Yanomamo who had killed the most people were also the ones who had the most offspring, providing evidence for the idea that evolutionary pressures could act on human populations, pushing them to be murderous (or not.)

Chagnon has suffered tremendous pushback from his “colleagues” in anthropology because there is a very vocal myth that pre-agricultural, pre-modern people were lovely innocents in a state of nature who never did bad things like murder or hate and that these were all just invented by evil white male cishetero colonizers, and that if we were only more like the virtuous mother goddess-worshiping innocent pagans, we could all be peaceful again.

The attacks on Chagnon have been shameful and, to be frank, horrible. There are powerful people trying to destroy a man and his life’s work because it conflicts with their narrative about human nature. Note also that Peter Frost has stopped writing because he is concerned about getting prosecuted by the Canadian government and James Watson, Nobel Prize winner, getting watsoned.

This is a myth I have been roundly trying to fight since about day one on this blog: No, hunter-gatherers were not peaceful paragons of gender equality.

Anyway, in the interview, Pinker noted that people often object to him that some of the tribes he documents are not hunter-gatherers, and he responds that limiting the inquiry solely to HGs doesn’t help matters and that the real division is between state and non-state. To quote a bit:

CHAGNON: … All I’ve been claiming in my writings is that the Yanomamö are not necessarily the modern day survivors of the Stone Age. They are, however, the best approximation that we have in the ethnographic world today of peoples living in a kind of environment—a kind of political system, okay, social system—that approximates as closely as you can find human beings today living in a condition—a state of nature, as it were—that is quite comparable to what must have happened during most of human history. And to that extent, we can learn a lot of things about politics, political attitudes, violence, agression, etc. from people like the Yanomamö. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people like the Yanomamö left, and that’s what awed and astonished me the first time I saw them.

PINKER: When I’ve cited figures on violence from a variety of hunter-gatherer, hunter-horticulturalist, and tribal peoples, I often get the criticism, “Well, these aren’t all hunter-gatherers.” My response is, “Well, that’s irrelevant.” For the purpose  of testing a specific hypothesis,  say, whether government reduces violence, it doesn’t matter whether they’re literally hunter-gatherers. What matters is the value of the independent variable you’re testing, for example, Is government present, or is government absent? My attitude is that the value of studying these peoples is that there are many features of our present environment that we can’t subtract other than by looking at such people. Whether or not they survive only by hunting and gathering is irrelevant to the effect of that variable.

CHAGNON:  I’ve had this argument with Marvin Harris and people like that. You’re not exactly what you eat, though in some cases you might be.

The important thing that I’ve discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, “Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…” And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don’t think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

I also sometimes get this same objection, but the Yanomamo are so much closer to “the state of nature” than ourselves that it is really quite silly. Obviously there is not a sharp difference between societies where merely raising a few yams or bananas will automatically make you peaceful.

Anyway, so I was reading Buckley’s account of life among the Aborigines and thinking to myself, How do you get states to start forming so that criminals can be punished and revenge spirals halted? and of course thinking about Gobekli Tepi and organized religion and accounts of missionary work among the Samoans, where the missionaries and local pagan witch doctors got into conflict because the missionaries were trying to stop the violence cycles with their pleas that god doesn’t approve of murder, and the local witch doctors were trying to keep them going because they benefited from them.

And it occurred to me that an important distinction here, that I think may be helping drive state formation, is between agricultural and horticultural societies.

Okay, what is agricultural and what is horticultural?

Horticulture is gardening, often of foods like squash, yams, and potatoes. Gardens are not too intense and can be grown by women. Horticultural societies are often dependent on female labor for growing food, because you don’t need men for it.

Agriculture is full-scale farming, generally of cereal crops like rice, wheat, and corn. Agricultural work is intense, difficult, and requires men. In agricultural societies, men plow fields and women tend gardens.

Obviously there exist a wide variety of hunter gatherer, horticultural, and agricultural societies throughout the world. As Richerson et al note in Principles of Human Ecology (ch. 4):


The range of variation in political institutions is large under horticultural subsistence. Note in Steward and Faron’s (1959) maps and tables that there is a pretty close cor-relation between ecology, population density, and political and social complexity. We looked briefly at the Gebusi in the last Chapter, who are as simple politically as the simplest hunting and gathering groups (Knauft, 1985). They lack any sort of formalized political
roles. Kin relations and personal ties are all that order Gebusi society. The weak headman is also found among the simpler horticultural societies, such as those of the Amazon Basin, while full-fledged imperial states are found in the most advanced societies, such as the Inca Empire of Peru. More typically, horticultural societies are either organized around “Big- men” or Tribal Chiefs.

In the simpler horticultural societies, differences compared to hunters and gatherers are, to repeat, modest. Kinship remains the most important means of organizing social interactions, and plays almost the same role as described for these societies.

We tend to think of agricultural and horticultural systems as essentially equivalent because they both involve the technology of growing food instead of hunting it, but they are often structurally quite different. In a horticultural society, women are busy and men are not; the men have plenty of leisure time to spend hunting or raiding other villages and killing people in them. One of these raids might result in a few men dying, but may also result in a few women captured, who can be brought back to the village and then employed in further food production. To get more children (evolution’s “goal,” as it were,) a horticultural tribe sacrifiices so me of its men to get more women who’ll make food and babies, and ends up polygynous.

By contrast, the men in an agricultural tribe are BUSY much of the time, plowing and hoeing and harvesting and so on, and so have far less time for war. The death of men in an agricultural society means one less farmer to bring in crops and so hunger for his wife and children. Bringing more women into an agricultural society is not particularly useful, especially at the expense of male lives, as these women cannot support themselves by producing their own food. (The upper class is an exception, who by taxing other men can support a harem for themselves.) For agriculturalists, war quickly becomes famine.

This may be, then, the long-term beginning of the process by which agricultural societies begin to pacify their people, start developing a state that manages conflicts, etc.

There is no hard line where “pre-modern” ends and “modern” begins. It is all a process of transition from one to the next.


Thoughts on Frost’s The Adaptive Value of “Aw Shucks”

Peter Frost recently posted on female shyness among men–more specifically, on the observation that adolescent white females appear to become very shy among groups of males and suffer depression, but adolescent black females don’t.

Frost theorizes that women are instinctually deferential to men, especially when they are economically dependent on them, and that whites show more of this deference than blacks because traditional white marriage patterns–monogamy–have brought women into more contact with men while making them more economically dependent on them than traditional African marriage patterns–polygyny–and therefore white women have evolved to have more shyness.

This explanation is decent, but feels incomplete.

Did anyone bother to ask the girls why they felt shy around the boys? Probably someone has, but that information wasn’t included in the post. But I can share my own experiences.

For starters, I’ve never felt–and this may just be me–particularly shyer around males than around females, nor do I recall ever talking less in highschool due to class composition. Rather, the amount I talked had entirely to do with how much I liked the subject matter vs. how tired I was. However, in non-school settings, I am less likely to talk when conversations are dominated by men, simply because men tend to talk about things I find boring, like cars, sports, or finance. (I suspect I have an unusually high tolerance for finance/economic discussions for a female, but there are limits to what even I can stand, and the other two topics drive me to tears of boredom. Sports, as far as I am concerned, are the Kardashians of men.) I am sure the same is true in reverse–when groups of women get together, they talk about stuff that men find horribly dull.

Even in classroom conversations that are ostensibly led by the teacher, male students may make responses that just aren’t interesting to the female students, leading to the females getting bored or having little to say in response.

So, do black adolescent girls and boys have more conversation topics in common than whites?

Second, related to Frost’s observations, men tend to be more aggressive while talking than women. They are louder, they interrupt more, they put less effort into assuaging people’s feelings, etc. I am sure women do things men find annoying, like ramble on forever without getting to the point or talking about their feelings in these weirdly associative ways. Regardless, I suspect that women/adolescents (at least white ones) often find the male style overwhelming, and their response is to retreat.

When feminists say they need “safe spaces” away from men to discuss their feminism things, they aren’t entirely inaccurate. It’s just that society used to have these “safe spaces” for women back before the feminists themselves destroyed them! Even now, it is easy to join a Mommy Meetup group or find an all-female Bible study club. But, oh wait, these are regressive! What we need are all-female lawyers, or doctors, or mathematicians…

*Ahem* back on subject, if testosterone => aggression, it would be interesting to see if the difference in black vs white females is simply a result of different testosterone levels (though of course that is just kicking the ball back a bit, because we then must ask what causes different testosterone levels.)

I suspect that Frost is on the right track looking at polygyny vs. monogamy, but I think his mechanism (increased time around/dependence on men => increase shyness) is incomplete. He’s missed something from his own work: polygynous males have higher testosterone than monogamous ones (even within their own society.) (See: The Contradictions of Polygyny and Polygyny Makes Men Bigger, Tougher, and Meaner.) Even if women in polygynous societies were expected to behave exactly like women from monogamous societies, I’d expect some “spillover” effect from the higher testosterone in their men–that is, everyone in society ought to have higher testosterone levels than they would otherwise.

Additionally, let us consider that polygyny is not practiced the same everywhere. In the Middle East, sexual access to women is tightly controlled–to the point where women may be killed for extra-marital sexual activity. In this case, the women are effectively monogamous, while the men are not. By contrast, in the societies Frost describes from Sub-Saharan Africa, it sounds like both men and women have a great many sexual partners during adolescence and early adulthood (which explains the high STD rates.)

If polygamy increases male aggression and testosterone levels because them men have to invest more energy into finding mates, then it stands to reason that women who have lots of mates are also investing lots of energy into finding them, and so would also have increased levels of aggression and testosterone.

Speaking again from personal experience, I observed that my own desire to talk to men basically cratered after I got married (and then had kids.) Suddenly something about it seemed vaguely tawdry. Of course, this leaves me in a bit of a pickle, because there aren’t that many moms who want to discuss HBD or related topics. (Thankfully I have the internet, because talking to words on a screen is a very different dynamic.) Of course, if I were back on the dating market again (god forbid!) I’d have to talk to lots of men again.

So I think the equation here shouldn’t be +time with men => +shyness, -time with men => -shyness, but +pursuit of partners => +aggression, -pursuit of partners => -aggression.

None of this gets into the “depression” issue. What’s up with that?

Personally, while I felt plenty of annoying things during highschool, the only ones triggered by boys were of the wanting to fall in love variety and the feeling sad if someone didn’t like me variety. I did feel some distress over wanting the adults to treat me like an adult, but that has nothing to do with boys. But this may just be me being odd.

We know that whites, women, and the subset of white women suffer from depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness at higher rates than blacks, men, and pretty much everyone else. I speculate that anxiety, shyness, disgust, and possibly even depression are part of a suite of traits that help women women avoid male aggression, perform otherwise dull tasks like writing English papers or washing dishes, keep out of trouble, and stay interested in their husbands and only their husbands.

In a society where monogamy is enforced, people (or their parents) may even preferrentially chose partners who seem unlikely to stray–that is, women (or men) who display little interest in actively pursuing the opposite sex. So just as women in polygamous societies may be under selective pressure to become more aggressive, women in monogamous societies may be under selective pressure to have less interest in talking to men.

Eventually, you get Japan.

Amusingly, the studies Frost quotes view white female shyness as a bad thing to be corrected, and black female non-shyness as a good thing that mysteriously exists despite adverse conditions. But what are the effects of white female shyness? Do white women go to prison, become pregnant out of wedlock, or get killed by their partners at higher rates than black women? Do they get worse grades, graduate from school at lower rates, or end up in worse professions?

Or maybe shy girls are perfectly fine the way they are and don’t need fixing.


Yes, Women think male Sexuality is Disgusting (Part one of a series)

(See also: Part 2, Is Disgust Real?; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust, and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

And they ought to.

So, I’m going to let you in on a little not-so-secret: childbirth is horrendously painful. Don’t believe those bastards with their natural birth hoo-ha. There is nothing magical or wonderful about childbirth. You bleed copiously, you can barely walk for the next two weeks, and before modern medicine, you stood a good chance of dying in the process.

The US’s homicide rate is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 people per year. The UK’s is 1. Japan’s is 0.3. (Source.)

The “developed nations” have a maternal mortality rate of 16 women per 100,000 births. (Source.) (Note that one woman may give birth to more than one child in her lifetime.)

The “developing nations” have a maternal mortality rate of 230 per 100,000 births (and a much higher number of children per woman,) and some countries have maternal mortality rates around 1,000 per 100,000 births. If the average woman in these countries has 5-7 children, that works out to 5-7% of women dying in childbirth. (Though not every year.)

In other words, in the state of nature, childbirth is kind of like being stuck in the middle of WWII.


Let’s consider the male side of things. Given enough available females, a male could, hypothetically, sire one child every night for 30 years, resulting in 10,957 children, plus or minus a couple depending on the leap years. We’ll call 11,000 our “hypothetical male maximum.”

The man stands approximately zero chance of dying in the process of siring children, does not endure pregnancy or childbirth, and even if he depends on someone else to do all of the childcare for him, he still has a reasonable chance at his offspring making it to maturity. (After all, Genghis Khan didn’t get to be the most evolutionarily successful man in recent history by raising all of his bastards.)

In other words, for men, there is basically zero cost to impregnating a woman (other than, obviously, finding one.) Even under harsh economic/environmental conditions, every additional woman a man mates with is an additional chance at offspring. The only limiting factor is how many women he can convince to mate with him.

A woman, by contrast, can produce at max only about 20 children (9 months gestation + 6 months nursing / 25 years fertility). (State of nature does not have baby formula.) She needs a maximum of 20 mates, and can make do with <1 if she has to share.

Where the male number of potential offspring is practically limitless, by human standards, the female is decidedly limited. Which means that women must be picky. A male who has sex once with someone kind of meh is not seriously limiting his ability to have tons of awesome children. A woman who has sex with a guy who’s kind of meh is potentially wasting one of her very limited chances of having children on a loser.

Note: I am not claiming that 11,000 is a realistic number. Obviously even Genghis Khan himself probably didn’t have 11,000 children. The point is that male and female reproduction are vastly different, creating very different incentives.

The average male has approximately zero to lose and all the offspring to gain from a random fling, and thus is mentally ready to consider the majority of women as potential mates. If some of those women happen to not be particularly attractive, well, it’s no big loss.

Women, by contrast, endure high-risk pregnancies and births, for a very limited set of children. They therefore cannot risk having children with inferior males.

So it is in the male’s interest to mate with everyone in sight, but in a woman’s interests to eliminate the vast, vast majority of potential mates, winnowing her selection down to the best 1-4.

Which means that all other potential suitors, whether they’re 14 men in a small hunter-gatherer band or 4 million men in Tokyo, are sexually useless.

In fact, they’re less than useless: they’re a threat. Because it takes only one act of violence for one of those men to get another potential offspring, and for a woman to lose one of hers.

The difference between optimal male and optimal female strategies leads to conflict–not just between men and women, but also between men and men. If one man mates with 550 to 11,000 women, (11,000/20 children per woman = 550), that implies that 549 to 10,999 men are not mating with those women. And those men are going to be pretty pissed.

Monogamy is one of the more elegant solutions to this issue. The relative guarantee of one mate per person reduces conflict and increases parental investment in the children. But monogamy requires fidelity–reducing female interest in the sexual desires of the majority of men even further.

Disgust in the face of unnecessary male sexual attention helps keep women loyal to their husbands and protects their long-term evolutionary interests, even if people express it in really annoying ways.

(See also: Part 2, Is Disgust Real?; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust, and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

America and the Long Term


If there is some general effect of latitude on IQ, then I would not expect America to look, long-term, like Britain or France. Indeed, I’d expect about half of the US to eventually look like North Africa, and the upper half of the US to look more like Spain, Italy, and Turkey.

The US has historically been a land of great abundance–a land where a small founding population like the Amish might grow from 5,000 people in 1920 to over 290,000 people today.

One of the side effects of abundance has been lower infant mortality; indeed, one of the side effects of modernity has been low infant mortality.

In the Middle Ages, a foundling’s chances of surviving their first year were down around 10%. What did orphanages do without formula? (Goat’s milk, I suspect.) Disease was rampant. Land was dear. Even for the well-off, child mortality was high.

My great-great grandparents lost 6 or 7 children within their first week of life.

Things were pretty harsh. An infant mortality rate of 50% was not uncommon.

American abundance, warm climate, industrialization, and modern medicine/hygiene have all worked together to ensure that far more children survive–even those abandoned by one or more parents. (As someone who would have died 3 or 4 times over in infancy without modern medicine, I am not without some personal appreciation for this fact.)

I recently read an interesting post that I can’t find now that basically posited the theory that all of these extra surviving people running around are depressing the average IQ because they have little sub-optimal bits of genetic code that previously would have gotten them weeded out. There’s a decently strong correlation between intelligence and athleticism–not necessarily at the high end of intelligence, but it does appear at the high end of athleticism. Good athletes are smarter than bad athletes. Smart people, Hawking aside, are generally pretty healthy. For that matter, there are strikingly few fat people at the nation’s top universities. So it is not unreasonable to suspect that a few deleterious mutations that result in some wonky side effects in your kidneys or intestines might also cause some wonky side effects in your brain, which could make you dumber or just really fond of stuffed animals or something.

Okay, but this post is not actually about the theory that low infant mortality is turning us all into furries.

My theory is that America + Modernity => more children of single mothers surviving => long therm changes in marriage/divorce rates => significant long term changes in the structure of society.

Historically, if we go a little further south to Sub-Saharan Africa, monogamy has not been a big thing. Why? Because the climate is generous enough that people don’t have to store up a ton of food for the winter, and women can do most of the food production to feed their children by themselves, or with the help of their extended kin networks. In these places, polygyny is far more common, since men do not need to bear the burden of providing for their own children.

As we head north, the winters get colder and the agricultural labor more intensive, and so the theory goes that women in the north could not provide for their children by themselves. And so Fantine, unwed, dies attempting to provide for her little Cosette, who would have died as well were it not for the ways of novels. The survivors were the men and women who managed to eek out a living together–married, basically monogamous.

But take away the dead Cosettes and Olivers–let them survive in more than just books–and what do we have? Children who, sooner or later, take after their parents. And even if one parent was faithful ’till death, the other certainly wasn’t.

Without any selective pressure on monogamy, monogamy evaporates. So now you can get a guy who has 34 children by 17 different women, and all of the children survive.

Meanwhile, neurotic types who want to make sure they have all of their career and personal ducks all lined up in a row “just can’t afford” a kid until they’re 38, have one if they’re lucky, and then call it quits.

Guess who inherits the future?

Those who show up, that’s who.

I suspect that the effects of low infant mortality have been accumulating for quite a while. Evolution can happen quite quickly if you radically change your selective parameters. For example, if you suddenly start killing white moths instead of grey ones, the moth population will get noticeably darker right after you kill the moths. Future generations of moths will have far fewer white moths. If you then top killing the white moths, white moths will again begin to proliferate. If white moth start having even more babies than grey moths, soon you will have an awful lot of white moths.

Long term, I expect one of the effects of abandoned children surviving is that the gene pool ends up with a lot more people who lack a genetic inclination toward monogamy. At first, these people will just be publicly shamed and life will continue looking relatively normal. But eventually, we should get to a tipping point where we have enough non-monogamous people that they begin advocating as a block and demanding divorce, public acceptance of non-marital sex, etc.

Another effect I would expect is a general “masculinization” of the women. Women who have to fend for themselves and raise their own children without help from their husband have no practical use for femininity, and the more masculine among them will be more likely to thrive. Wilting, feminine flowers will fade away, replaced by tough dames who “need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Only time will tell if the future will belong to the Amish and the Duggers, or to Jay Williams’ progeny.