Self-Control is Culture-Control

Garrett Jones tells me that studies find a strong correlation between intelligence and conscientiousness (e.g., here), and he expects they have long been increasing together.   The (good) book 10,000 Year Explosion (HT Kaj Sotala) guesses at mental changes induced by farming: less laziness, more self-denial and deferred gratification, better reasoning about trade, and more “self-domestication,” via less aggression and more acceptance of dominance by elites. Farming also brought war, marriage, and religion (beyond simple supernaturalism).

A key common thread here I think is “self-control.”  While for the most part the intuitive inclinations of foragers tended to be well adapted to their circumstances, they also evolved social norms, such as against overt dominance, which used the threat of social sanctions to induce behavior contrary to ordinary inclinations.  With farming, cultures evolved to hijack this norm mechanism to induce quite different farming-adaptive behavior, such as marriage, deference to elites, courage in war, and saving food for future needs.  But this ability of culture to control behavior was limited by how much social sanctions could overcome other inclinations.

So it seems to me that if it was possible, the key change after farming would have been an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations.  This could have included genetic shifts, e.g., improved abilities to foresee sanctions and a stronger aversion to them, and cultural innovations, e.g., new forms of religion, patriotism, law, and policing.

This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.  Another reason to expect more far mode thinking is that intelligence seems to have increased and more intelligent people are better able to think abstractly.

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  • Jonas

    reading recommendation

    Historical Trends in Social Mobility: Data, Methods and Farming. Yu Xie

    Ferrie, Joseph, and XXX Long. Forthcoming. “Intergenerational Occupational Mobility in Britain and the U.S. Since 1850.” American Economic Review XX.

  • You have a bad typo in line one:

    Garrett Jones tells me that studies find a strong correlations between intelligence and contentiousness

    Should be:

    Garrett Jones tells me that studies find a strong correlations between intelligence and Conscientiousness

    • I wondered about that, “contentiousness” didn’t fit at all with the rest of the post.

    • Fixed.

    • Carl Shulman

      Also, “a strong correlations” should be either “a strong correlation” or perhaps “strong correlations.”

  • This is predicted by Dr. Paul Bingham in this paper:,_248-257.pdf

    • Thank you, Zach, for your post. We would like to expand on Zach’s preceding comment as we have recently moved this original work ahead substantially. This project resulted in our book detailing both theory and empirical evidence (see

      We make three brief points:
      First, humans are certainly powerfully “self-domesticated.” However, this process is not new. In fact, it has been going on for ca. 2 million years, with any new selection associated with the Neolithic almost certainly being minimal. We argue that Neolithic cultures are just the 2 million year old human social adaptation deployed at a new, enlarged scale (Chapter 12).

      Second, the central effect of this self-domestication has been our common humanity. Our ancestors domesticated one another to be prosocial and humane – almost certainly in a highly democratized setting. Only relatively recent elite concentrations of coercive power (beginning ca. 5500 year ago with the first states) have given the human public domain its sometimes toxic quality (Chapters 10 and 13).

      Third, we argue that the best evidence supports the view that hierarchy and Neolithic adaptive revolutions are orthogonal; the latter does NOT require the former. Indeed, more generally, humans appear to have evolved to produce more powerful adaptive revolutions under democratized conditions (in the ideal case, characterized by horizontal distribution of coercive power with hierarchies only consisting of public servants fulfilling cybernetic roles). In contrast, vertical concentrations of coercive power (power hierarchies rather than cybernetic ones) generally produce societies that perform very poorly by any reasonable standard of human welfare or aggregate economic productivity. All the salient differences between human societies are apparently determined by a single variable – who controls decisive coercive power.

      Joanne Souza and Paul Bingham
      Authors of “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”

  • ale

    Is that view of farming being the source of war, marriage and religion the consensus among historians? I thought the evidence for marriage and war among australian aborigine tribes was good (I’m not sure if you’d call their belief system a religion or supernaturalism)

  • Sensitivity to social sanctions might also correlate with greater agreeableness, too.

  • Buck Farmer

    Cool ideas, Robin. This seems to link well with the underclass self-handicapping their lying abilities in order to uphold the social order.

    Is there evidence for your far vs. near conjecture among current pre-agriculture societies (the few that exist)?

  • Microbiologist

    Ale, you are right. Marriage is a human universal, war very nearly so. Forager war only occasionally features pitched battles; it is largely an exchange of surprise massacres. But I see no reason to give it a separate name other than war.

    And why one would not call forager mating arrangements marriage, I have no idea. I’m pretty sure some groups have divorce, but the divorce rate is no higher than our divorce rate in modern America. And the divorce is followed by another well-defined marriage; it is certainly not some kind of free-for-all.

  • Microbiologist

    Let me emend that, marriage may not quite be a human universal. But it does look like an ancestral trait, and is pretty much universal among foragers.

    As Cochran and Harpending have pointed out (“In our genes”), there is some greater-or-lesser tendency for promiscuous arrangements, among proto-agricultural groups. They are flanked on both sides, conceptually (in terms of the means of production), by foragers and advanced agriculturalists, who have well-defined marriage.

  • “the key change after farming would have been an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations.”

    That was the impression 19th Century white Americans, such as Mark Twain, took away from their encounters with American Indians who were primarily hunter-gatherers: They saw Indians as “wild:” like the difference between a wild and domesticated animal: suspicious, ornery, and not very sociable. In contrast, Africans, from farming cultures, were seen as sociable and cooperative. (Twain’s books, for instance, are vastly more sympathetic to blacks than to Indians.)

  • ale, few things are a strong consensus, but those seem at least weak ones. Most of the “primitive” societies we know of are various intermediate forms between ancient nomadic foragers and modern farmers.

    Mike, yes more agreeableness seems likely.

    Micro, forager mating, even in pairs and for periods of a few years, is quite different from farming-style marriage, and that is quite different from modern “marriage” too. Farming wives were more property, abd divorce was strongly discouraged. Forager violence is different from farming-style war; nomadic foragers were too distance and unpredictably located for effective attacks.

    Steve, nice to know.

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