By Roland Watson

In this series, I intend to talk about human society. I want to begin by looking at how our society originated, and how it has developed to the present day. Over the course of our history, a lot has changed.

Indeed, the modern world that humans have constructed is significantly different from the traditional world, the natural world, which we occupied. For example, unless you are a farmer, or a hunter or fisher, or work in an abattoir, you probably do not kill other living things very often. In the modern world, most of us have our killing done for us.

One consequence of this is that killing is now remote, and distasteful. We think, it's not me. I'm not a killer. But, you are. You just subcontract it out. It still goes on, all the time, and it's done for you.

So, where are we now? What is this modern world, and how did we get here?

Early humans

I discussed in the last series how individuals and families grouped together to form small communities, to help each other satisfy their needs. In the earliest stages these communities were nomadic, and as they traveled about they created the first enduring human accomplishments. People learned to start fires, to clothe their bodies with rudimentary garments, and to tame wild animals, probably starting with wolves. This was a natural choice, since these forerunners of dogs were useful in hunting, and protection.

Life for early humans was hard, or at a minimum subject to great risks. The average life expectancy was probably less than forty years. Most girls would have been fertilized for the first time shortly after reaching sexual maturity, and in many cases this would have been via rape.

What this implies is that sexual abuse and rape have been common during the entire human experience. This form is entrenched. It is the main reason why it is still so widespread today.

Many mothers and children died in childbirth, but a new generation began approximately every fifteen years. This is some 6,700 generations for every one hundred thousand years, or 134,000 generations for two million years. We have a lot of human - and genus homo - ancestors!

Finally, early humans were illiterate, and had limited language skills. This implies that their thought processes, and hence their nature, also were relatively simple.

The big change

At some point, but less than ten thousand years ago - since the end of the last ice age, we developed a more aggressive approach to our environment. This included the construction of better dwellings, the beginnings of agriculture, the domestication of animals that could be used for food and other purposes, the making of pots for food and water storage, the development of weaving and leather-tanning and, ultimately, of advanced tool-making and metallurgy.

All of these developments in turn fueled economic systems, first non-monetary, based only on barter, but then with coinage, leading to the first modern economies.

It is not unlikely that population pressure was the leading factor behind these developments. As time passed, and weary of the difficulty and danger of our lives, we found ways to improve our chances, and hence more of us survived.

The rise of competition

As I have described, one of these methods was to group together, first in villages, and then in larger and larger communities.

This population pressure in turn led to competition, between the first distinct groups of people, the first tribes that had evolved, over land, water and other resources. In many cases, the competition took the form of war.

Of course, these developments had positive effects as well. Contact between groups furthered the spread of new ideas.

However, population pressure also fueled competition within groups. Cultures that were characterized by internal harmony and mutual support no longer had enough resources for everyone. This undermined group unity, and turned members against each other. It turned them into competitors.

The start of institutions

The increasing size and complexity of social groups also led to the formation of subgroups responsible for certain distinct tasks. Among these were the forerunners of our modern social institutions.

The first institutions to develop were governments, and their subset, militaries, to assist in protection, and to engage in conquest.

Simultaneous with or just after this would have been the development of religion. Life was inexplicable, and people needed a source of solace, hope and explanation. The first spiritual ceremonies were closely linked to protection and conquest, through sacrifices and other blessings, as well as with general welfare, in other words, with food supplies and fertility.

Next, as economic activity and trade increased, merchant institutions developed, in the form of markets and specialized occupations, with the latter organized into castes and cooperatives, and then guilds, and now corporations.

Educational institutions - schools - were established as well, often with military or religious backing. And lastly, as language and communication evolved, and diversified, the need for a common media arose, and this was fulfilled through the invention of printing, and then radio, telephone, film and now computer technologies.

The rise of leaders

The development of institutions also fueled role-specialization and the need for leaders. Initially, these positions were filled by those people best equipped to satisfy the demands of the job.

Military groups were led by the best warriors. Governments, economic institutions and religions were led by those people best suited intellectually: who could design more complex social systems, and/or solve the problems they created; who had great knowledge of hunting and farming, and of the uses of plants as medicines; who had the inclination to be good at trading; and who were imaginative enough to create stories about the origins and mysteries of life.

In other words, in our earliest social groupings positions of leadership were usually allocated on the basis of merit. People chose to follow those individuals who through their skills and knowledge demonstrated that they were the best suited for the responsibility.

The intrusion of nepotism

Unfortunately, such a merit-based system didn't last long. Role specialization led to nepotism, and it is still with us today.

The earliest nepotism was simply family control of land and water. Individuals, in their nomadic travels, found fertile areas and established claims to them. These claims, which became property rights, were then passed down.

The same thing happened with social roles as well. If your parents were farmers, then you became one, too. If your father or mother knew a particular craft, or possessed knowledge of plants, or was a good storyteller, then you learned this craft, or knowledge, or these stories. Finally, if your father was a leader - or, in rare cultural circumstances, your mother, then you became one, too. He used the power that derived from his position to ensure that you would inherit it. Such are the origins of lords, and kings, and priests.

This is simply one more manifestation of human selfishness, of the desire to extend our personal line. The instinct is not just to have babies, but to see that they succeed, by ensuring that they have all of the advantages that we can provide.

Inequality and class structure

This combination, the natural process of social evolution, and human selfishness, is the source of most of the inequality, and all of the class structure, that exists around the world today.

Parents passed their advantages onto their children who, if they were able, developed them further, and then passed them on, and this was repeated again and again. And, it is still happening today, in every family everywhere.

This is also one of the major ironies of life, that a good form, parents helping their children, is actually the foundation for some of the most persistent problems of society.

This is because some people didn't have any advantages. Or they lost, or were robbed, of what they did have. So, they had nothing to pass on.

The children of these parents, in today's world, where everything is based on what you have and who you know, are truly out of luck. The probability that they, or their children, or their children's children, will rise up and improve their circumstances, is very small.

Class mobility is fundamentally limited, and this is so even in a society like America, which retains some semblance of being a meritocracy. The only people who actually get ahead, who break free of their class, are the high achievers, the top ten percent. But this leaves the other ninety percent? What about them?

The answer is that they are stuck. In other words, for many, many people, even with modern science and technology, life remains unfair. Like death and the unfathomability of the universe, this situation is now a fact of life.

The major question for society is, can this be changed, and if so, how? One thing that is for sure, it is not going to go away on its own.

In the next article, I will examine the inheritance of power in more detail.

© Roland Watson 2014