Resource Sharing at the Subsistence Boundary

Posted: June 30, 2018 in Culture, Debate, Ethics, History, Idealism
Tags: , , , ,

An ongoing conflict in sociology and anthropology exists between those who believe that human nature is competitive and brutal to the bitter end versus those who believe human nature is more cooperative and sociable, sharing resources of all types to secure the greater good. This might be recognizable to some as the perennial friction between citizen and society (alternatively, individualism and collectivism). Convincing evidence from human prehistory is difficult to uncover. Accordingly, much of the argument for competition comes from evolutionary biology, where concepts such as genetic fitness and reproductive success (and by inference, reproductive failure) are believed to motivate and justify behavior across the board. As the typical argument goes, inferior genes and males in particular who lack sexual access or otherwise fail to secure mates don’t survive into the next generation. Attributes passed onto each subsequent generation thus favor fitter, Type A brutes who out-compete weaker (read: more cooperative) candidates in an endless self-reinforcing and narrowing cycle. The alternative offered by others points to a wider gene pool based on collaboration and sharing of resources (including mates) that enables populations to thrive together better than individuals who attempt to go it alone or dominate.

Not having undertaken a formal study of anthropology (or more broadly, primatology), I can’t say how well this issue is settled in the professional, academic literature. Online, I often see explanations that are really just-so stories based on logic. What that means is that an ideal or guiding principle is described, something that just “makes sense,” and supporting evidence is then assumed or projected. For instance, we now know many of the mechanisms that function at the cellular level with respect to reproduction and genetic evolution. Those mechanisms are typically spun up the level of the organism through pure argumentation and presumed to manifest in individual behaviors. Any discontinuity between aggregate characteristics and particular instances is ignored. Questions are solved through ideation (i.e., thought experiments). However, series of if-then statements that seem plausible when confronted initially often turn out to be pure conjecture rather than evidence. That’s a just-so story.

One of the reasons we look into prehistory for evidence of our true nature (understood as biology, not sociology, handily sweeping aside the nature/nurture question) is that hunter-gatherers (HGs) lived at subsistence level for a far longer period of our evolutionary history than our comparatively brief time within the bounty of civilization. It’s only when surpluses and excesses provide something worth hoarding, monopolizing, and protecting that hierarchies arise and/or leveling mechanisms are relaxed. Leaving Babylon has a discussion of this here. Some few HG cultures survive into the 21st century, but for most of us, The Agricultural Revolution is the branching point when competition began to assert itself, displacing sharing and other egalitarian impulses. Accordingly, the dog-eat-dog competition and inequality characteristic of the modern world is regarded by many as an exaptation, not our underlying nature.

The reason all this comes up for me again is that I’m currently reading Sex at Dawn (2010). Co-authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá take none-too-subtle aim at common shibboleths surrounding human sexuality and mating practices, especially lifelong pair-bonding and monogamy. Their evidence (not merely argumentation), including historical, present-day, and cross-species comparison, demonstrates pretty effectively that human primates do not mate for life, practice monogamy, or enjoy sexuality primarily for the purpose of procreation as favored Christian or Puritan morality would have it. Rather, humans are hypersexual (unlike many species) and rather licentious (like many species) when it comes to choosing sexual partners. Proof is in behavior, not ideology.

In fact, at least two beliefs/practices reported in the book rather surprised me: (1) folk knowledge that babies come from build-up of semen from multiple sex partners (now known to be inaccurate) and (2) shaming of those who are stingy with their bodies. Especially in cultures still living according to ancient traditions at or near the subsistence boundary, even the body is regarded as a resource to be shared. Both details tend to obscure paternity, since women typically sleep with many men even after becoming pregnant, and as a result, men accept shared responsibility of all the children, not just those of a single mother.

In light of these examples, it makes me wonder if the restrictive sexuality practiced in much of the West, where women in particular are made into gatekeepers (or considered slutty if they don’t exhibit proper restraint), protecting their virtue (especially their virginity) like a sacred object, is in fact a lousy sociological development that has stigmatized, scandalized, and traumatized what ought to be a very natural part of human maturation. Ryan and Jethá report on numerous microcultures where sex is casual and open, largely neutralizing the concept of rape or unwanted sexual advance. Willingness to engage in sexual activity may not be as automatic as shaking hands, but it’s not cause for undue concern primarily because everyone shares in it. Presumably, there would be no such thing as involuntary celibates (incels); no one is in practice unfuckable.

Similar arguments would apply to property crime. Where sharing and cooperation are widely practiced, especially at subsistence where no one has much or anything to protect, possessiveness, jealousy, and hoarding are not present because those who refuse to share are sanctioned. I note that humans of both sexes are not immune to being treated as property for their labor and for sexual access. Long and tawdry history there, which isn’t over. Recent news stories of sex cults and sexual slavery demonstrate that pretty clearly.

This post isn’t about advocacy. I’m not recommending a new paradigm that will fix all of our social problems. However, it’s curious to recognize that lives of plenitude have an embedded ironic twist: isolation, estrangement, jealousy, covetousness, and some truly cretinous incentives manifested in behavior at all levels.

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