The evidence of palaeontology (the scarcity of hominid remains), of archaeology (the absence of evidence of large scale human settlement anywhere before about 7,000 BC), of anthropology (studies of extant hunter gatherers), extrapolations from non-human primate behaviour and the practical implications of being a very large animal, (Man is within the top 5 per cent of land animals by size.) make it certain that Man’s roots lie in small groups of hunter gatherers. Man’s natural group “in the wild” is that of the small band of perhaps 25-100 people.
Hunter gatherer societies are based primarily on knowledge not reasoning. To survive the individual members have to know a great deal about the world about them but they are not often called upon to solve absolutely novel problems. They live in a world which remains broadly stable. Once something is learned it will normally remain useful throughout an individual’s life, for example, the behaviour of an animal species will remain the same in its general aspects. That is not to say life in such societies is undemanding – as Stephen Pinker puts it in his “How the mind works”, being a hunter gatherer is akin to enduring a lifelong camping trip without mod cons or rescue services – but the demands made are different from those arising from other forms of human society.
Survival in such circumstances requires a detailed knowledge of the animals and plants in the habitat – their appearance, behaviour, locale and uses, including the medicinal and the usefully toxic such as curare. Close familiarity with the terrain within the group’s range is a must, as is knowledge of the weather and the seasons. To be an efficient member of the group the male hunter-gatherer will need to learn to stalk game and have the courage and ferocity to deal with dangerous animals and other hostile groups of humans. To aid direction finding, some knowledge of the stars will probably be acquired.
That is just the start. The hunter-gatherer will also need a number of manual skills ranging from those needed for hunting – spear throwing, arrow shooting, trap setting, the making of fire and so on – and for the manufacture of all artefacts which cannot be found in nature – clothes, bows and arrows, spears, fish-hooks, baskets and suchlike.
The female members of the tribe, in addition to needing many of the skills required of the men, will have to deal with the problems arising from childbirth and maternal care.
To be fully integrated into his group the hunter-gatherer will need a deep knowledge of the accumulated customs, ceremonies and beliefs of his tribe or band and also knowledge of other neighbouring groups to be able to participate in the resolution of inter-tribe disputes within the confines of the belief system of the tribe.
This might seem a tremendously demanding catalogue of learning, but it is not onerous in reality because the information and expertise is acquired over a long time and under the most propitious circumstances. The child learns in the easiest way by directly observing how others do it and by tuition which is either one-to-one or given within a small group.
Nor is the required knowledge very intellectually demanding. It is almost all concrete information. Even knowledge of the group’s myths can be no more than the acquiring of concrete data because the myths can be treated as a set of narrative stories which are simply passed down from generation to generation without causing intellectual enquiry. Indeed, questioning of the myths will almost certainly be seen as mortally dangerous and be discouraged by severe punishment because it will be deemed to risk angering either a god or gods or cause some other form of cosmic disturbance such as creating bad karma.
Of course, building up such a suite of skills and knowledge means that an individual has, or a group of people have, at some point originated the acquisition of the various skills and elements of knowledge, but the large majority of those skills and knowledge can plausibly be ascribed to the normal process of finding solutions to immediate problems raised by the environment rather than to individuals looking beyond the obvious. It is the difference between devising a simple trap to catch an animal based on observation of the animal’s behaviour – which gives the basic information needed to devise the trap, for example, dig a pit here – and working out that fibre can be gathered from an animal and converted into cloth, a process which requires an act of imagination beyond the information supplied by observation.
Regardless of the origin of the skills and knowledge of the hunter-gatherer, the individual will be able to acquire them simply as learned skills. There will be no necessity to change things. Indeed, as mentioned above, it will probably be dangerous for the individual member to try to innovate because the tribe as a whole will view any deviation from tried and tested ways as dangerous. Such a brake on innovation is almost certainly a valuable attribute at the level of the hunter-gatherer tribe which is necessarily very reliant on social cohesion.
The nearest the hunter-gatherer gets to an intellectual life is in the creation of tribal myth, especially the explanation of the tribe and the world’s origin and the assignment of animate qualities to the inanimate, spirits in volcanoes, the sky, rivers and so on. That Man should create myths is natural for a self-conscious being will necessarily wonder about such things as mortality and existence. Of course, the creation of myths is an exercise of the imagination, but it is difficult to see that it makes any heavy intellectual demands. There is a world of difference between a creation myth which simply asserts that this or that happened (for example, Genesis) and the theological/philosophical consideration of what existence entails (for example, Aquinas’ attempts at a proof of God). The former is simply storytelling to provide an answer, the latter an attempt to use reason to provide an answer from the observed and necessary facts of existence.
Change generally will tend to be seen as dangerous. What is known to work through long usage is safe; that which is novel is potentially dangerous. To that may be added the fact that it is simply psychologically easier to do what you already know. Learning new things is mentally demanding.
The fact that Man spent hundreds of thousands of years (including most of his “modern Man” period of the past 200,000 years or so) with precious little cultural change is powerful circumstantial evidence of the very strong innate reluctance of human beings to depart from customary ways. Even in historical times we know that change has often been extraordinarily slow in societies which were the most advanced at the time, for example, the stereotypical artefacts of ancient Egypt which change very little over several millennia or the dress of the Chinese which was much the same in 1,800 AD as it was in 1,000 AD. Even those living lives in advanced societies today show a strong reluctance to alter their ways, although their ability to resist change is increasingly limited (see appendix B).
The concentration on concrete thinking probably underpins a reluctance to change because the understanding and acceptance of radical change requires abstract thought. The individual has to think through the consequences, construct a mental model of what will happen. Someone may stumble by accident on a simple new behaviour which advances Man’s ability to control his environment, for example, that a prey animal is attracted by a particular bait or that a plant has medicinal effects. But no complex advance, for example, the invention of the wheel, is going to occur by simple observation and copying because it requires someone to go beyond copying and visualise something which does not exist.
The physical senses of people living as hunter gatherers are much heightened compared with those living in modern industrialised urban societies. This is scarcely surprising because the hunter-gatherer has to concern themselves with the natural world in the same way that an animal in the wild does: both must be on constant guard against predators or other forms of danger and be alive to the opportunities for obtaining food and other materials. The heightened senses and the need to concentrate on the present may effect how people think by either training the mind in that direction or by selecting individuals with such innate traits. Perhaps it is impossible for a mind to efficiently perform radically different functions such as a concentration on the immediate and concrete and deal with abstractions. If so, this could either be a consequence of innate difference or a difference in experience which programs the mind.
The fact that the life of a hunter-gatherer is very physically demanding, both in terms of simply surviving and in the manual skills which must be routinely exercised, may have an effect on intellectual development. Perhaps a concentration on physical activity may dull the intellectual processes even if the brain is equipped to potentially do far more intellectually, or to put it another way, the brain is programmed to do manual work by the demands of the society in which the hunter-gatherer lives and has less inclination for intellectual activity because of that programming. The hunter-gatherer will also have his concentration on potential dangers from predators and other bands of men, just as a prey animal will be constantly looking out for danger.
In summary, the hunter-gatherer has a large suite of skills and knowledge which allow him to deal with circumstances as they arise, but there is little or nothing which requires high level reasoning or invention. The knowledge of the group is passed from generation to generation with little change.
What is required in such a society is a very strong memory, especially as such societies are pre-literate (it has long been noted that people in pre-literate societies frequently have extraordinarily powerful memories and good powers of recall), and the ability to readily access and apply the knowledge.
The implication of all this is that a hunter-gatherer society will require a substantially smaller aggregate intelligence than more complex societies. Alternatively it could be argued that a lesser aggregate intelligence is what is actually required in less complex societies, that is, it is optimum state for the ecological niche into which they naturally fit. Increase the average IQ of the group and the society will have the potential to develop different behaviours, for example, it may become less socially cohesive because there are more individuals who require less social support to cope or whose greater intelligence leads them to innovate. That could reduce the fitness of the hunter-gatherer group because higher IQ behaviours are inappropriate.
None of this means a simple society is biologically unfit per se. They fill their niche in the Natural world successfully, indeed, have filled it for most of the vast stretch of hominid existence. In parts of the world they fill it to this day. Their evolutionary fitness is only called into question when they meet more complex societies with which they cannot compete. When they do, this can have the most traumatic effects. Take the case of the Australian Aboriginals who have long experience of living in state-sponsored reservations. The amount of aboriginal self-determination has varied over the years, with the general trend being towards ever more self-governance. This trend is now being reconsidered because of its ill-consequences, viz:
‘Releasing a new report into the nation’s health, Mr Abbott [Tony Abbott, the Australian health minister] said the system of self-governing Aboriginal communities created “appalling living conditions” where problems such as petrol-sniffing, domestic violence and child sexual abuse were rife…
‘The report said Aboriginal health was declining at a time when that of the rest of community was markedly improving. Death rates for indigenous infants are three times higher than for the general population.
‘Mr Abbot’s audacious plan proposes giving administrators wide-ranging powers to organise basic services such as water, transport and sewerage – and reverse what he calls the pervading “culture of directionlessness” in remote Aboriginal settlements.’ (Daily Telegraph 22/06/2006).
A plausible explanation for this state of affairs is that the Aborigines are being asked to live a life for which they are not equipped. and that at least part of that unfitness is down to Nature. The nurturist will of course argue that the present state of Aborigines is simply a consequence of the destruction of their traditional way of life, which in one sense is true. What the nurturist does not and cannot explain is why populations adapt to meeting more sophisticated cultures with differing degrees of ease. It is never an easy or pleasant thing to put aside old ways which are comfortable, but the experience of white and Asian societies in adapting to new, more intellectually demanding circumstances is utterly at odds with that of peoples such as the Aborigines. Europe and its colonial offshoots such as the USA industrialised quite rapidly when shown the way by Britain; Japan took up the industrial banner in the 19th century and China almost certainly would have done if it had not been emasculated by foreign powers. Korea and China itself have shown since the Second World War how readily they can create an industrial society. Most tellingly whites and Asians adapt to more intellectually demanding circumstances regardless of where they are. This is almost certainly because of their superior IQ distribution.