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Excerpt - How We Got Here


How social evolution works

1.The human revolution.

Only about 10,000 years ago the entire human race lived as small groups of huntergatherers. The adoption of farming and the domestication of animals set in motion a vast transformation of our lives, with the discovery of metals, the rise of powerful states,
writing, mathematics, philosophy, the harnessing of water and wind power, the emergence of modern science, and the technology of industrial society. In a few millennia man’s capabilities have been transformed, from a primitive state of ignorance and technological impotence, into being not just the dominant species of the earth, but
one whose achievements in thought, art, science, technology and government have taken him entirely beyond comparison with the animal kingdom.

This, in scope and speed, has been quite different from biological evolution because it was made possible by something uniquely human – culture – which was as radical an innovation as the emergence of life from non-living matter. By ‘culture’ I do not mean simply learning new behaviour and passing it down the generations, which many
animal groups can do. I mean the ability to use language to transmit ideas – knowledge, values, customs, and social institutions to other people. The origin of language is one of the most obscure and debated problems in human evolution, but however and whenever it began, once it had developed it allowed human beings to be linked
together not just by purely animal relations such as mutual grooming, or sharing the same odours, but by shared ideas.

Human society is therefore a new kind of system altogether because its institutions exist in people’s heads as ideas, but which are also public ideas communicated by language: one cannot see the Prime Minister, for example, but only a man, and someone who does not know what being a Prime Minister means has to be told. This can only be done properly by explaining how his role fits into the British Constitution, which in turn involves explaining cabinet government, the rule of law, democracy, and so on. Our whole society, then – the nation, the government, money and the banking system, trade unions, companies, local councils, and so on – forms a world of ideas, a
landscape, within which people have to interact with each other, and which powerfully affects their behaviour. [1]

So while we, like our primate ancestors, are still physical beings, who have to survive in the natural environment, we also inhabit the radically new environment of culture, in which people can behave in ways that, unlike the animal world, may have nothing to do with material needs. In April 1975, for example, the inhabitants of all the cities in Cambodia fled into the countryside. This was not because of some physical emergency, such as an outbreak of plague, or because the food supplies had run out, but because the Communist Khmer Rouge government regarded cities as the root of capitalism and social inequality, and wanted to enforce a completely equal society of peasants, without money or the family.

These extraordinary powers of culture over the individual have, however, led some anthropologists to make the extreme and foolish claim that there is really no such thing as basic human nature at all, so that everything we do is the result of the culture in which we have been brought up – even that all the differences between males and
females are culturally conditioned. The fact, however, that in all societies, past and present, males, and young males especially, are responsible for the great majority of physical violence is enough to disprove this kind of theory. There are many other universals in human thought, feelings, and behaviour that clearly have a biological
origin: our amazing ability to learn language from infancy, for example, is obviously innate, and the same six basic emotions of anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy, and sorrow, together with their facial xpressions, that occur in all human beings derive primarily from biological rather than cultural roots. [2] Throughout this book I shall refer to a number of other features of human nature, such as our love of bodydecoration, or our propensity to exchange gifts, which have also been of great importance in social evolution.

Just as some anthropologists try to deny the existence of human nature, some sociobiologists go to the other extreme, and claim that more or less everything in human society, from our patterns of kinship and marriage to religious belief, can be shown to have a genetic basis. While there are far more universals of human nature than some
anthropologists have been willing to admit, what we do, however, is not solely dictated by our genes – it depends on our cultural environment as well. We may have an innate ability to learn to speak, but we must still be brought up in a human society for this ability to be developed into actual speech. One can agree that the capacity for physical aggression is part of human, and especially male, nature, but it does not express itself willy-nilly whatever the circumstances, and the motivations for warfare in tribal society and in modern industrial states have quite different patterns. Killing one’s hated neighbours from across the river in revenge for their murder of one’s relatives, and thereby gaining the sexual favours of the women of one’s own group, has no resemblance to the motives of politicians who order soldiers in modern armies to kill complete strangers in distant countries, or to the motives of the soldiers who obey those
orders. Appealing to human nature and to ‘genes for aggression’ is entirely inadequate to explain these very different patterns of warfare: as one distinguished anthropologist has put it, ‘the reasons people fight are not the reasons wars take place’. [3] So while human nature has been an essential part of social evolution, this has obviously involved social and cultural factors as well as biology. [4]

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