A few weeks back, Robin Hanson wrote an article about the nature of violence among early humans. Like many folks in the evolutionary camp, Hanson examined ethnographic data on isolated, tribal societies to get a sense of what early humans might have been like.

In reading his post, I became uneasy with the key empirical argument – that isolated tribal societies are a reasonable, though imperfect proxy, for early humans. On its face, plausible, but on deeper reflection, open to criticism. Here’s why:

  • A key feature of humanity is mimicry and adaptation. Humans are unique in having an extremely well developed ability to learn from each other and develop very deep reservoirs of knowledge.
  • A second feature of humanity is sociality – we tend to create these large amorphous social systems. At first, through kinship, but later through other institutions.

The early human population is diffusionist and expansionist. This…

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