Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Original State of Human Nature

In an earlier post, I briefly discussed my thoughts on Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.  The book attempts to explain why certain societies came to dominate over others.  What I found fascinating was learning how technology developed, and the role that it played in the history of nations.

Now, I'm interested in how culture is affected by technology.  In order to get a better handle on this project, it's helpful to know what culture was like at the dawn of human civilization.  Did individuals during this time have moral beliefs?  If so, what were they?  How can we even know if these individuals had moral beliefs, and if they did, what these beliefs were?

Diamond, in his new book, The World Until Yesterday, speculates on the culture of proto-societies by observing hunter-gatherer groups still present today.  How much one can infer about the state of humans back in the day by observing these groups is a matter of debate.  For one thing, these groups have often interacted with modern societies, thus introducing some cultural contamination.

Another possibility is to make inferences based on archaeological findings.  We can look at the sort of stuff these people had and infer what might be important to them.  The argument goes as follows.  If people are willing to take the time and effort to make stuff, then the function of the things that they make reflect their own values.  Something like that.

I don't know very much about archaeology, but I think I can make some rather general claims about the values of early man.

Early man valued survival.  This much is obvious.  It seems that the first stage in the development of technology was the crafting of rudimentary tools to hunt and to gather food.

Other than survival, what did early man value?  How about procreation?  That would be the second part of the Darwinian theoretical tag team.  It's obvious that early man reproduced.  It might be safe to say that reproduction was important to early man.  But here there are some questions.  Why not reproduction with anyone and everyone?  Was early man selective in choosing their mating partners?  If so, why?  One standard answer might be that human infants are not like other animals in that they can hit the ground running.  They require a lot of care and maintenance before they become independent.  Just making babies without caring for them would result in a lot of dead babies, and a lot of wasted effort.  However, caring for babies is costly.  The woman caring for the baby incurs a large cost, and thus may have an incentive to be picky about who she mates with.

This might explain that it's not just reproduction that matters, but reproduction of a certain kind.  It's all about the guy trying to woo the girl, and the girl trying to keep the guy after.  This narrative is present in all of human history.  I'll call this sort of thing, "courtship reproduction."

So, it might be safe to say that there were at least two values held by early man, survival and courtship reproduction.  A few questions follow.  First, were these the only values?  Are all other values derivative of these two.  Second, how were these values affected by the development of technology?  For instance, the development of technology can make survival easier.  If survival isn't as hard as it used to be, what happens then?  How are human values affected?

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