On Sex & Violence

Sex and violence, the most-complained-of classic movie draws, also seem to draw the most complaints re my forager-farmer hypothesis, that many non-functional industry-era trends are due to a natural human tendency to return from farmer to forager ways with increasing wealth and comfort. So let me try again to clarify.

On violence, Bryan Caplan “suspect[s] forager societies had plenty of internal violence.” But I’ve talked mainly of farmers having more organized violence like war. (Quotes below.) Foragers may well have high murder rates, but those are individual acts of passion and retribution. It is farmers who taught themselves to be professional and organized killers, who could benefit from that, though yes with time farmers learned to have less war.

On sex, I responded to Roissy here, and Razib Khan complained:

Hoe vs. plough agriculturalists shows that a simple hunter-gatherer vs. farmer narrative does not suffice. In some ways the hoe agriculturalist remains more like the hunter-gatherer, and in some ways more like his or her fellow agriculturalist. The most polygynous societies for example are arguably those of hoe based agriculturalists, as well as nomads. In contrast, hunter-gatherers and ploughman tend to be more monogamous, at least in a genetic sense.

On sex, I’ve consistently talked of “promiscuity,” not monogamy vs polygamy. (Quotes below.) The issue is how long relationships lasted, and tolerance for mating outside official relationships. Compared to farmers, foragers had shorter relations, and tolerated more unofficial mating. Polygamy is a stable long-term relation, and by tolerating more inequality is actually more farmer-like.

Now for those promised quotes.

[Foragers] talk more openly about sex, are more sexually promiscuous, and more accepting of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital and extra-marital sex. … They are less comfortable with war, domination, bragging, or money and material inequalities, and they push more for sharing and redistribution. …

[Farmers] have more self-sacrifice and self-control, … [and] are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules. … They … believe more … in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A). … They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. (more)

Sex at Dawn … is passionate, partisan, even snide. … But on their key claim, that forager females were sexually promiscuous, I am persuaded: they are basically right. … [It] also gets forager peacefulness right – see Chapter 13. …. our two closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, are quite sexually promiscuous. … when did the biologically-rare (3% of mammals) phenomena of (near) monogamy arise in our lineage, millions of years ago with the rise of humans, or ten thousand years ago with the rise of farming? And since our data on modern foragers suggests that farming at least greatly reduced promiscuity (especially for females), the big question is really whether lightning struck once or twice. (more)

Hadza man hunts big game to look sexy, even though that retrieves less food. Except that when a women he has sex with has a kid he thinks is his, he’ll gather more but less-sexy food, to give this woman ~1/2 of her food for one year, ~1/4 for the next two years, and declining amounts thereafter. Now, yes, this may be more pair-bonding than in chimps or bonobos. But it is also far less than the farmer ideal of life-long monogamy! (more)

When I say foragers were more promiscuous than farmers, I don’t mean they weren’t picky about sex partners, nor that they didn’t get jealous. I mean they changed partners lots more often than farmers do. (more)

Most confusion comes from seeking a one-way trend, as in “is there more or less war than in ancient times?” Problem is: overall, warfare increased, then decreased. … Yes, most of the “tribal” societies that anthropologists study have high rates of war. But most of these are intermediate forms between very distant ancestors and very modern societies, with many relatively modern features. … The rise in density before, during, and after farming seems to have been associated with a huge increase in war. Long ago, strong social norms limited violence within nomadic forager bands, and the fact that one gender typically moved to neighboring bands to find mates greatly discouraged attacking such bands. War was hard for foragers, as hostile victims were far away, at unpredictable locations, and with few physical goods worth taking; women taken in war could easily escape. Trading places, with predictable locations and trade worth taxing, made the first good war targets. (more; see also)

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  • Ray

    I’m not sledding back through Pinker’s “Blank Slate” just now, but he cites several references about foragers and their penchant for warfare if anyone wants to pull that off the shelf.

  • rapscallion

    “Foragers may well have high murder rates…”

    But isn’t one of your main motivations for analyzing disputes within a farmer/forage framework that being rich and safe makes us revert to forager norms? Well, if foragers had higher murder rates, they at least sure weren’t safer, so that makes it seem less likely that the farmer/forager conflict is the great underlying divide behind modern social conflict.

  • You should have linked to your post responding to Razib.

    Here’s a stupid punk song.

  • Ray, Pinker does a bad job of distinguishing the many types of “primitive” people – nomadic foragers most like our distant ancestors are rare in anthropological data.

    rapscallion, we don’t revert to foraging style when rich because foragers were rich, but because it feels natural and we have less fear to push us away from that.

    TGGP, done.

  • Sister Y

    Foragers may well have high murder rates, but those are individual acts of passion and retribution.

    Coalitional violence, if I recall correctly, is very important among studied hunter-gatherers. (“Males engage in more coalitional violence” is on Brown’s list of human universals, for what it’s worth.) Are you saying their coalitions are smaller than farmer wars? Isn’t that just a trivial conclusion from population size?

    No genocide in the EEA? Wouldn’t it be super-beneficial to kill off an entire neighboring tribe?

    • Jehu

      More typical Bronze Age and earlier genocide is just killing all the males and the women who have children or husbands. This is a strong genetic strategy for men (kill your competitors and take their virgin women) but a pretty neutral one for women (since it doesn’t allow them to increase their own fertility/genetic frequency really, because of the bonus war brides added to the population.

  • Matt

    When it comes to war, I think what’s interesting to me is the proportion of the population indulging in warfare. It’s seems clear that the large populations whether nomadic (pastoral and swiddening, broadly) or settled (intensive agricultural, broadly) fought larger and more organised wars (in terms of numbers of participants) and it is plausible that training is more intense at least for a subset involved in those wars.

    Its not clear (to me) that the probablity of any randomly selected individual in a farming society being part of a war effort (let alone actually fighting) was higher or lower than for foragers.

    I think it’s pretty plausible that it’s lower. If it is lower, and if interpersonal violence was also lower, then how likely is it that the typical farmer is more comfortable with violence? Especially assuming we have warrior elites trying very badly to discourage the average farmer from being okay with violence to avoid peasant revolts…

    Also, where does the violence against animals thing come from? Foragers hunt and typically gain a higher proportion of their diets from animal foods than farmers do… Being more OK with subordinating, confining and controlling animals and also conversely protecting, interacting with and feeding animals, that I can see…

  • Kenny

    Forager and farmer characteristics sound (suspiciously) like liberal and conservative stereotypes.

  • Sister, Jehu, Matt, you all seem to be confusing “primitive” with forager.

    Kenny, that is the whole point of my forager-farmer divide hypothesis.

  • Anonymous44

    I think herders (shepherds, cowboys) should be considered “farmers”, not foragers.