Friends and Bullies: A Simplified History

hunter-gatherersMy “history” has only three dates: the beginning, the great change, and the present.

200,000 BC – origin in paradise. We humans have existed in our present form for about 200,000 years. For most of that time, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers in small tribes. We had few material comforts, but most archaeologists and anthropologists are agreed that we had good social relations, and that may be the main ingredient for human happiness. We were friends, egalitarians, sharing everything of importance. Dominance was not compatible with survival of a hunter-gatherer tribe; anyone who persisted in dominance would soon be exiled. Sharing is still what we teach our kids, still where we turn in crisis, still who we are genetically.

babyTo some degree, all mammals are social animals: Our first experience in life is helplessness, being cared for by parents or other caretakers who expect nothing in return. No infant would survive without that care. But the dependency lasts longest in humans, because we are born with fewer instincts; we are as flexible as a computer that has not yet been programmed. We are heavily influenced by culture.

Sapolsky baboonDifferent human cultures have existed in different times and places on Earth. Indeed, some other primates are capable of cultural change too. The biologist Robert Sapolsky made a wonderful 9-minute video ( about how one tribe of baboons accidentally made a lasting change in its culture, from a hierarchy of bullies to a horizontal network of friends.

10,000 BC – fall from grace. Starting about 12,000 years ago, human culture changed from friends to bullies, the reverse of Sapolsky’s baboons. How did that happen? Well, the ice age ended, and farming began in several places. Farming made possible – not necessary, but possible – a switch from sharing to hoarding. That economic change has had terrible consequences, which I would broadly classify as alienation, inequality, and externalities.

Alienation. We are alienated from nature, from our work, and most importantly, from each other. Separate property gives us separate lives. Your loss is not my loss and might even be my gain. The rich must compete against each other to stay rich; the rest of us must compete against each other just to stay alive. Winners, seeking to justify the system, perpetuate a myth that “competition brings out the best in us,” but that simply is not true. Empathy is replaced with fear, hate, lies, greed, wars. And even our games are competitive, though cooperative games are just as possible.

Dominance and corruption are common; we see them in domestic violence, workplace bullying, killer cops, prison torture, and wars based on lies for profit. Power corrupts the powerful, because they become insulated from and indifferent to everyone else. And power attracts those who are already corrupt: Sociopaths are the best climbers of competitive hierarchies.

Inequality. Cultures and empires have risen and fallen, economic and governmental systems have changed, but through it all we have been ruled by the rich. Wealth has been concentrated in few hands nearly all of the time since separate property began. This has been too consistent to be a result of random chance; in some simple way inequality must be inherent in property itself. I believe this is the explanation:

better bargaining positionIf we don’t share, we must trade – for labor, food, rent, interest, influence – for everything. Trade may bring profit to both traders, but more to the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position. Thus trade, even when voluntary and honest, increases inequality. And coercion and deceit can improve one’s bargaining position still further, because influence and knowledge are among the items being traded.

The rich claim that they pay according to productivity. Even if that were true, it would be cruel and uncaring: It makes no allowances for our needs, which are not proportional to our productivity. But at any rate, the claim is false. Capitalism pays most, not to those who produce most, but to those who control most. Your boss gets more money than you only because he stands between you and the money.

Gilens PageMoney is influence, and so the small wealthy class of bullies ends up ruling. That’s called plutocracy. In recent centuries, it has disguised itself as democracy, but the rich still get the public policies they want regardless of elections. Without other changes, a real democracy wouldn’t be much improvement anyway: Lacking empathy and misled by the corporate press, we can’t vote wisely; 51% ride roughshod over 49%.

Externalities. Any trade is negotiated between buyer and seller. Side effects on other parties are outside (external to) their considerations. Thus they may bring great harm to their workers, the community, the ecosystem. The ecosystem is nearing collapse; that would kill us all. But the rich can’t concern themselves with that, because our economic system forces them to compete for the short-term profits that their investors want. Evidently the “efficiency and wisdom of the market” is only a myth.

nuclear blastNOW – extinction or rapture. Modern technology magnifies all we do, wise and unwise. The unwise is about to kill us all by nuclear war or climate apocalypse. To survive we must finally find wisdom, and switch to an entirely different way of life. Like Sapolsky’s baboons, we must turn to friendship and sharing. But that change will bring us more than just survival. Poverty, wars, fear, hate will be replaced with empathy, friendship, love, joy.

Unlike the baboons, our change won’t be accidental; it must be conscious and intentional. The first step surely is to get more people talking about it. Pass this essay along if you like it.

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2 Mar 2022, version 2.03. The leaflet fits on two sides of one page.

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