Home > Critical Thinking, Dystopia, Musings, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism > How Agriculture Led to Sociopathic Societies

How Agriculture Led to Sociopathic Societies

Some of you might have heard about Jared Diamond whose most famous book Guns, Germs, and Steel is widely reviled by right wingers for describing how the rise and changing fortunes of various people was based on luck rather than any innate ability. One of his more famous assertions is that agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race. While I partially agree with him on that and some of his other controversial claims, the reality is that we cannot go back- even if we wanted to do so.

But this post is not about why agriculture was a mistake. Instead I will write about how agriculture lead to societies dominated and run by sociopaths.

Many colonial and genocidal whites in previous centuries often wrote about how primitive hunter-gatherers were too trusting and naive. Whites saw this behavior as evidence of their racial inferiority. I see it differently..

First imagine that you were part of a stone age or early bronze age hunter-gatherer or pre-settled agricultural group. As many of you know this lifestyle was both risky as well as rewarding in ways that most “civilized” people cannot comprehend. On one hand- your health was much better (almost not infectious diseases- except through injury or exposure), food was good and pretty abundant and you had lots of free time. on the other hand- lethal fights and small-scale skirmishes with members of other tribes were common. But it was not a bad existence- as most of the humans and pre-human hominids lived that lifestyle since Australopithecines walked upright in Africa about 3-4 million years ago. The very fact that humans exist today is a testament to the ability of hunter-gatherers to survive and overcome odds over millions of years and changing climatic conditions.

Have you ever wondered about the social organisations of such groups of pre-humans and humans? While some of you might think that wolves or chimpanzees are a good surrogate proxy for hominid behavior- the reality might surprise you.

Rigid social hierarchies, such as those seen in wolves, lions, baboons or even chimpanzees have never been recorded nor observed in hunter-gatherer societies. While this finding might appear odd, it makes a lot of sense if you looked at the world through the eyes of a hunter-gatherer.

Human beings are not physically as tough as most animals of their size. We could not win in a one-on-one match against an angry rhesus monkey, let alone a wolf or a hyena. Yet somehow humans (and pre-humans) were able to evolve, hunt animals, spread across the world and become a successful species. So what made us successful?

Could it be a very high degree of co-operation?

Some of you might say that the same could be said about wolves, hyenas, lions and chimpanzees. There is however one important difference between those species and hominids. Our loyalty to the group over any significant length of time is not based on instinct, smell or even who we were born to.

Real long-term loyalty to groups in humans is based on observable reciprocity.

To put it another way, hunter-gatherer communities were and are remarkably egalitarian. It also helps that they could not store, hoard or accumulate food. As the group’s size rarely exceeded a few hundred, individuals who were slick nonreciprocating CONmen died in hunting ‘accidents’. Hunter-gatherers were therefore remarkably free of the power-hungry sociopaths.

Agriculture changed that.. The subsequent concentration of food, power and status allowed power-hungry sociopaths who might have died in hunting ‘accidents’ to thrive and lead such societies. Initially natural limits imposed by the size of their fiefdoms and exposure to the same risks as their fellow group members mitigated their ability to go nuts. However the rise of the first kingdoms allowed the ruling sociopaths to disengage themselves from the fate of their people such that they did not suffer for the consequences of their actions and mistakes.

Since then, actions of the ruling class and their flunkies have always been were driven by their own ego, megalomania, cruelty, stupidity and relative freedom from the consequences of their mistakes.

It goes without saying that the rise of sociopaths also changed the societies they ruled. The people they ruled also became far more duplicitous, phony and underhanded. Asian and European societies, civilizations and mores should then be seen as the end result of the rise of sociopaths to power. It is therefore not surprising that they found hunter-gatherers in the Americas, Africa and Australia to be too naive, trusting and easy to kill, swindle and enslave.

I would go so far as to say that the history of the “civilized” world makes perfect sense once you accept the possibility that those at top of tall ‘hierarchies’ are always sociopaths. A vast array of things from CONservatism, inequality, rituals, religions, socio-economic institutions and general social attitudes in “civilized” societies are all linked to ‘tall’ hierarchies run by sociopaths.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. March 12, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Non-agricultural hunter-gatherer peoples still exist:
    – Mongols,
    – Kirghizs,
    – Berbers,
    – Arabs,
    – Kurds,
    – Amazonians,
    – Bushmen,
    – Papuans,
    – Dinkas,
    – Jarawas,
    – Inuits,
    – Nenets,
    – Yakuts etc.
    Most of these do not rely on agriculture, but they do buy agricultural products.
    But I’m not sure if you’re including cattle raising into agriculture, because in this case these peoples become agricultural too.

    But, doesn’t the rise of the power of sociopaths has to do more with food?

  2. InT
    March 12, 2012 at 8:30 am

    My question: Is an agricultural, sociopath-dominated civilization needed for technological development beyond stone age or bronze age levels? Is there another way?

    Maybe a new system will arise in the future as technology continues to develop and resource scarcity plummets (big wildcard there).

    Also, industrial civilizations may be sociopathic to individual people, but they are very cooperative in aggregate.Look at how many thousands and thousands of people contributed to computer development, for instance. That’s a much wider scale of cooperation than you’ll get with warring hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s also the reason why such tribes were defeated.

  3. jackal
    March 12, 2012 at 8:33 am

    The Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Quakers and other agriculturally based societies do not have psychopaths. Neither do they have bullies, abusers, cheaters or, much less, have police departments or even need for padlocks for personal possessions. For anyone interested in detailed study of how agriculture mediated culture, read Alexis Zeigler’s “Conscious Cultural Evolution” — http://conev.org/.

  4. Webe
    March 12, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Yes. Most of the conquering heroes from the past are outright psychopaths.
    Yes, people in pre-modern cultures regarded individuals who secreted away stashes of stuff as malevolent, possibly even possessed/witches, plotting others’ downfall; the only good stuff will do you is by having a good time and sharing it.
    BUT, the part of the argument that mentions instinct is weak. Instinct is simply predictable behaviour of which we have no inner experience — I don’t think it’s true that animals act by instinct whereas human beings act by ??? I will grant that human behaviour and reality is quite different from animals (who are unaware of “history”), but I don’t think instinct is a helpful concept.

  5. Rockking
    March 12, 2012 at 10:32 am

    The first people in the North Americas were Europeans–New archaeological evidence suggests that America was first discovered by Stone Age people from Europe — 10,000 years before the Siberian-originating ancestors of the American Indians set foot in the New World:


  6. AC
    March 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Whatever happened to your old stories about doing petty sociopathic shit? I enjoyed the one where you stole a phone from some girl.

  7. March 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Is it Agriculture or the accumulation of a surplus over the minimum required to keep the group alive? They may LOOK like roughly the same thing but I doubt that they ARE the same thing.

  8. JP
    March 13, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Someone should read “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage”.

    Maybe you have read my post more carefully. The issue is not if hunter-gatherers can behave violently but whether agriculture created a world where sociopaths could rise.

  1. April 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm

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