That Complex Whole
As problematic as modern society may be for organisms like us who evolved to deal with a different environment, it could be worse. Indeed, not long ago it was worse for quite a lot of the world's population. This is because, in many ways, the societies that are most unlike those in which we evolved are not modern, industrialized ones but, rather, the sort of rigid, hierarchical, and politically oppressive ones that sprung up after the development of agriculture like mushrooms after a rain. I am thinking in particular of the more elaborate chiefdoms and early state societies that first developed in places like Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley but that are better documented in places where they developed more recently such as the Americas, parts of Africa, and Polynesia. Admittedly, most available accounts of these sorts of societies were written by opinionated and often unfriendly folks with their own religious, political, and economic agendas, and so need to be taken with a grain of salt or two. However, the picture they paint is a consistently and painfully bleak one. These complex chiefdoms and early states appear to behave been remarkably nasty places, rife with torture, arbitrary killing, and religious doctrines that were designed to maintain the positions of the elites, sometimes even requiring human sacrifices. Rigid caste systems and onerously heavy taxation were routine. Typically, the status of women also dropped as the patriarchal state became a new tool for their oppression.
The extreme nastiness of such societies probably had a lot to do with their own novelty. Everything about them was new, including not only the differentiation of people into different social classes with different rights, privileges, and amounts of wealth but even the idea of the 'state' and its central monopoly on the use of force. In earlier societies, as in contemporary band and tribal societies, everyone had the right to use force as they saw fit. No one had the right to push anyone else around. But states involve the centralization of the right to use force, and making that concentration of force seem legitimate and right—or at least unchangeable—to the bulk of the population seems to have been a major worry of early state rulers. Ideology played its part in crowd control, with notions such as the divinity of the king being invented independently in several different times and places, but the basic tools of elite domination were often much more simple: violence and the threat of violence. Consider, for instance, the kingdom of Buganda in what is now Uganda. Buganda was a centralized, bureaucratic state ruled by an autocratic king known as the kabaka. It was similar to a series of other kingdoms around East Africa's great lakes, including Bunyoro, Ankole, Rwanda, and Burundi. Buganda's kabakas had an enormous amount of arbitrary power over the life and death of their subjects and, before the arrival of Islamic and Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century, their word was absolute law. If the kabaka decided, on the advice of a fortune teller, that everyone in the kingdom with cataracts should be put to death, it was done. When the kabaka Mwanga's rule was threatened in the late nineteenth century by conversions to Christianity, his response was swift and simple: the murders of two hundred Protestant and Catholic converts. Similar stories are told of despots from many similar societies. Tanoa, a nineteenth-century king of Fiji, for example, is said to have killed and cannibalized slaves and maybe other subjects with no provocation.
In comparison to such terror-filled, hierarchical, oppressive societies, our society bears some surprising similarities to those in which we evolved. As the power of despots has declined and the power of average citizens has risen, we have managed, mostly without planning, to recreate some of the practices and social patterns that are typical of simple, hunting and gathering band societies. For instance, while there is no arguing that our society is divided into social classes, it is much more egalitarian in ideology and in reality than were the rigid hierarchical societies of the not too distant past. This relative egalitarianism has many aspects. Economically, there is a great deal more movement among socioeconomic classes in our society than in most historically recorded ones. Politically, the expansion of suffrage over the past couple of centuries has done much to open the government to participation by many groups who were previously excluded, including the landless, religious and racial minorities, and women. Socially, modern societies take seriously the idea that we all should be maritally equal. In contrast to many historical societies, where men in the upper classes, especially rulers, typically had more wives and concubines than average men, in our society the rule of one spouse per person at a time is taken seriously. Sexually, although we still have a long way to go in creating a society without gender biases, it is safe to say that a persons gender has much less to do with his or her occupation or status in society than it has in almost all previous human societies. In terms of religion and ideology, we are a long way from the mandatory adherence to official dogma that characterized earlier state societies. Rather, we are free to believe and worship as we wish. Increasingly, phenomena such as the New Age movement have opened the door to personal spiritual experimentation, with each individual being encouraged to find his or her own mix of beliefs and practices with few worries about any form of orthodoxy.
These patterns are not that different from those found in band societies. In bands, there is no measurable 'wealth,' there are no social classes or heritable differences in status or prestige, and everyone has an equal voice in group activities. Typically in band societies, although men and women may have different economic roles, their status is roughly equal. Although polygyny and polyandry are usually permitted and occasionally found in band societies, monogamy is the norm for almost everyone. And the sort of individualized religion that is becoming so popular in our society bears some resemblance to the freedom people in band societies have been observed to have concerning precisely what to believe and how to worship.
In other ways, modern society actually makes good, constructive use of our evolved human nature. Adoption of the babies of strangers, for instance, is virtually unheard of in most traditional societies. In large part, this is simply because people in such societies almost never interact with strangers. Adoption does occur in traditional societies, but it almost always involves nieces, nephews, and other relatives. Our mass society, on the other hand, allows us to take advantage of the desire so many people have to nurture and care for babies and children by connecting them with children whose own parents are not in a position to provide such care. Perhaps this sort of creative coupling of our evolved psychological propensities with cultural innovations that are possible only in a mass society such as ours will provide a way to build a new society that retains the best features of our ancestors' worlds and our own.