Why Socialism Will Not Die: Meat!

Despite all the death, misery and poverty that socialism has wreaked over the past century on all scales from Stalin to Detroit, one would think that a species capable of learning would figure out that socialism’s negatives eventually outweigh its positives. Worse, looking back across the history of humanity, we see  the core socialist idea of forced redistribution occurring again and again across culture after culture. 

Why do humans seem to have an in-built urge for socialism? Why won’t it die? I think socialism will not die because primitive humans lacked refrigerators. 

Despite what many vegans may try to tell you, meat serves as the central critical nutrient for human beings. Without the fats and proteins in meat, pre-human hominids and hunter-gather humans could not get enough energy and raw materials to grow large brains. Therefore, hunting has been the central activity of humans for 99.75% of our four-million year long evolutionary history, long enough for behaviors related to hunting and the consumption of meat to become hardwired into our genes via natural selection. 

Although vital, meats present challenges for low-technology humans. Hunter-gatherers cannot store any significant amounts of meat. Firstly, it is very hard to preserve meat with the tools that hunter-gatherers have. Cooking and smoking help some but without salt and cold, such methods preserve meat only for a few days. (Cultures that live in the tropics do not bother to attempt to preserve meats at all.) Secondly, hunter-gatherers must move constantly. They must circulate through a territory so that they don’t over-hunt any particular area, or they must follow the seasonal migration of prey animals. Without vehicles or beasts of burden, moving a lot of food takes more energy than it consumes. These factors force hunter gatherers to eat all they catch immediately and to rely on stored body-fat as their only food reserve. 

Humans specialize in hunting animals as large as or larger than humans themselves. This creates a pattern of alternating feast and famine for individual hunters. On good days, a hunter will bring in far more meat than he or his immediate family can consume. On bad days, he may bring in nothing.  The obvious solution is for several individual hunters (or groups of hunters) to pool their kills. When a hunter has a good day he shares his catch with everyone in his immediate community who immediately devours the entire kill. When a hunter has a bad day, he eats the catch of the hunter who had a good day. 

In order to discourage parasites, i.e., hunters who eat but seldom contribute, hunter-gatherer cultures develop a sophisticated tally of obligations based on the sharing of meat. Since material goods mean little to hunter-gatherers, a “wealthy” hunter-gatherer is one to whom many others owe obligations based on that particular hunter-gatherer having provided them with food and other assistance in the past. Such successful hunters gain “wealth” in the form of status, i.e., a strong network of allies, who help the hunter when he needs it. 

Over the past four million years, this behavior has become encoded in our genes. These genes program us to immediately share any “surplus” we receive. These genes program us to expect that sharing evokes a sense of obligation in the recipients. These genes program us to expect others to share their entire surplus with us, and they program us to resent and even to attack those who do not do so (in order to prevent hunter-gatherer parasites). 

Our genes provide the basic template for all human societies.  All societies expect those that have, to share with those who do not and to receive loyalty in return. We experience the effect of these genes in our innate since of “fair” and “just”. No one can really define “fair” because no such thing exists beyond a vague emotion evoked by our genes in order to prevent others from hoarding meat. The amount of effort that a particular individual put into producing a resource does not factor into our genetic sense of fairness because the algorithm the genes follow assumes that: all individuals produce roughly the same amount over time, that excesses of resources are transitory and that expenditures of resources now will be rewarded with loyalty and reciprocal resource sharing later. 

(I think it important to note that our sense of innate fairness arises from our species particular adaptations to a particular environment. Had we evolved while able to, like weasels or polar bears, store meat or if we hunted smaller game, our genetic sense of fairness would be different.)

Our genetically programmed sense of a “just” economy, i.e., a system of exchange, is based on the assumption that resources are traded for obligations. We have no innate, genetically programmed sense,that resources should be exchanged for resources because hunter-gatherers do not routinely exchange meat-for-meat.

Most pre-industrial forms of human societies follow this pattern. Great rulers cement their right to rule by rewarding followers with gifts of resources, and the followers reciprocate with loyalty. In all human cultures, the highest-status individuals are those who affect not to care about material resources, but instead to care about “higher values” which in the end boil down to obligations. In most human cultures, military aristocrats, theocrats, philosophers and bureaucrats all affect not to care for material rewards. All human cultures hold in contempt those who do concern themselves with resources, such as merchants, bankers, artisans etc. (In most civilizations such occupations are the sole domain of a hated ethnic minority, e.g., Jews, Armenians, Bengals, expatriate-Chinese, etc.)

For 3,990,000 years (99.75% of our species’s existence), humans lived in a world where our genes created optimized behaviors for the circumstances of meat-eating hunter-gatherers. Less than 10,000 years ago (0.25% of our history), humans invented agriculture and started to settle down. For the first time in our species’s history, individuals could create surplus resources they could store. Individuals didn’t need to share any surpluses immediately or see them go to waste. Local populations grew so large that our intuitive obligation-accounting system began to break down. An individual could share with a stranger and never see any obligation in return. Parasitism became a serious concern. (Most parasites had horses and swords.) Our genetic sense of fairness collided with the learned behaviors developed to adapt to the new circumstances, and socialism was born. 

The socialist exploits our innate sense of the “fair” distribution of resources, in order to enhance his own status. Our genes program us to reward with loyalty and status the individual who gives us resources and not the individual who creates those resources. When a socialist says that it is not fair that one person or group has more resources than others, our genes tell us: “he’s right, those others should share their meat with everyone else.”

Capitalism, especially free-market capitalism, is genetically non-intuitive. It requires that we save surpluses, something our genes (unlike some other animal’s genes) do not program us to do. Specialization of labor means that some individuals must have access to different resources and in different amounts when our genes tell us to spread all resources evenly. Specialization of labor means that individuals must trade resources for resources instead of resources for obligations. Capitalism operates in societies composed of millions whereas our genes program us to live in societies of a few dozen. 

So, unless we genetically engineer a capitalist human whose genetically programmed sense of fairness incorporates the effort, skill and sacrifice that went into creating any given resource, we will always see socialism reassert itself in various guises again and again. People will always find ways to rationalize their genetic impulses. 

A socialist will always be able to gain power and status by standing up and saying, “I will share the meat!” 

25 thoughts on “Why Socialism Will Not Die: Meat!”

  1. Regardless of how many time the ugly head of the social illuminati progressive laws attempts to shove their will on us, I know that there will be many of us that will fight back. America is unique in its makeup and the freedom that we have, its sad that people are trying to change our core so that we can be more social responsible in their eyes.

  2. Mike Drew,

    America is unique in its makeup and the freedom that we have….

    Our culture is largely the result of historical accident and highly unusually circumstances such as the frontier expanding into a depopulated land. Those unique circumstances are disappearing and American culture is drifting back the human norm in which a non-productive, high status elite distribute material resources to their allies.

  3. Toad,

    It could just be the something for nothing syndrome?

    Humans actually have built in aversion to taking something for nothing (except for a small number of genetic sociopaths). As long as the barest relationship exist, humans expect reciprocation in some form. Humans would not survive long if most humans felt intuitively that they had a right to simply steal from others. Such behavior would destroy the cooperation that humans depend on for survival.

    The problem is we expect people to be satisfied with being well thought of when the circumstances of the modern world mean that they need actual resources to survive. We expect farmers to share food without thinking about replenishing the resources the farmer needed to create the food. We expect investors to share their profits without taking into account their failed investments.

    Our genes presume that everyone produces more or less the same amount of the same stuff (meat) over the course of their lives. They can’t deal with a circumstance in which different people produces different stuff that require different levels of effort, skill and resource replacement.

  4. Bradely,

    Have you ever read Thomas Hobbs?

    This is not a Hobbian argument. “Hunter-gatherer” does not mean “savage” as Hobbs conceived it. Neither does the Leviathan play a role since such organization has only existed in the last 0.025% of hominid history.

    Our genetic senses of “fair” are highly adapted to life of a hunter-gatherer. In such an environment, they do not result in the struggle-of-all-against-all but rather in a high degree of cooperation and mutual support. The problem we face currently is that we no longer live in that environment.

  5. Bradely,

    Have you read the Leviathan, (or did you just google it)

    I read it 20 years ago in college. Why? I don’t see the revelence of Hobbs, who wrote 200 years previous to discovery of evolution and natural selection, to this argument.

  6. Alan,

    An interesting story with not one shred of proof to confirm that it is true.

    It’s a blog post, not a book. What kind of “proof” would you like? What assertions in the parent do you find dubious?

  7. This is a huge topic, so I will try to restrain my normal tendency to go on and on.

    I just finished a fascinating book called “Before the Dawn” which uses genetic and linguistic research to track the development of humans from near primate ancestors through the key period of modern human development from about 50,000 years ago to the present age. While I have no idea if that book influenced your thoughts in this post, much of what the author posits is congruent with your sketch here, although his political orientation would seem to be removed from yours.

    I generally think that the truly ancient bases for our emotions are a much stronger influence on our behavior and decision making than is usually considered. Aggression, status seeking, our sex drive, and many other fundamental urges are rooted in the primitive reptilian brain underlying the more recent primate and human brain segments. I often wonder if what we term “genetic” is actually the release of rewarding chemicals by the older levels of our brain to reinforce behaviors more suitable to an ancient ancestor than to a modern human.

    I have long thought that the default social structure most natural to humans is some form of a “feudal” structure based on a strong central figure and the radiating webs of loyalty and obligation that such a format entails. This formulation is also congruent with some of the points you make here, and fits both the political and religious structures found in most societies, from primitive clan based social orders right up to modern political parties and business corporations.

    Finally, egalitarianism is a deadly trap when it is enforced by fiat instead of the result of natural social forces. The book cited earlier makes much of the generally egalitarian nature of hunter/gatherer societies, and the enormous changes in that conception of human society demanded by the development of agriculture, property, and surpluses which could be stored, stolen, and traded for other goods and services.

    As I have said previously, socialism derives a great deal of its power and attraction from its religious elements, i.e., its demand for faith and committment to bring about a future paradise of equality and freedom from want. The emotional response to this potentiality is deep and reptilian indeed.


  8. Veryretired: As I have said previously, socialism derives a great deal of its power and attraction from its religious elements, i.e., its demand for faith and committment to bring about a future paradise of equality and freedom from want. The emotional response to this potentiality is deep and reptilian indeed.

    Why Isn’t Socialism Dead? This piece is over two years old but is still spot-on as to your observation.

  9. Karl Marx is to economists what Khalil Gibran is to philosophers. In the real world there is no Marxist program, but inside the human brain he tickles the mood centers.
    – Alexis A. Gilliland, ‘Long Shot for Rosinante’ –

    Gilliland’s “Rosinante” trilogy is an interesting revolution story, like Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. No, not quite as good, but still very interesting and well done. And it has a lot of comments to make about socialism/communism

  10. My observation of shop, office, and academic politics is that it is mostly family and/or tribal based. There is a fuedal system in some of the larger compainies.
    To advance in a lot of companies you must find a mentor or lord to swear alligance to. You may have to become a Mason, Knight of Columbus, or join the right church. One plant was sewn up by about three families so you had to find out who drank where and or (shudder) marry into it.
    At one plant that I worked at they had this nice sophisticated testing system for getting skill class upgrades. It was so comprimised as to be a real joke. At the same place they had a union steward who was very effective. It wasn’t because he was the greatest negotiator in the world but the fact that he was big, bearded, and hairy. He loomed over every supervisor. It didn’t hurt that his hobby was semi-pro football on the weekends. During the first few days of the week when he was in recovery mode he really looked tough and ragged. Potential physical intemidation beats most negotiating class instruction when the hind brain goes Eeeep!

  11. Toad,

    My observation of shop, office, and academic politics is that it is mostly family and/or tribal based.

    Yes, it is only in the last century that the Western world has moved beyond an explicit system of organization around extended family units. Most of the rest of the world still functions this way (which is why they’re still poor).

    Meritocracy is an ideal we consciously struggle towards, not something that comes naturally to our species. It is imposed upon us by need, usually by a crisis of competition such as occurs in free-market competition or in a military invasion. Societies allow for merit promotion because they have to in order to survive. Once the crisis disappears or they begin to take the benefits of meritocracy for granted, we slip back into the genetic patterns and suffer the consequences their of.

  12. Shannon, your economics of primitive societies is in accord with most anthropology; the case is actually even stronger, because most big game hunting was done by most or all men of the tribe — it was almost always a collective effort and the skill differential was relatively flat. However, there’s no particular evidence that it became genetic. Cultural transmission models work just as well to explain the prevalence of those values, and require fewer assumptions; therefore, Occam’s razor favors the cultural model over the genetic one. These memes continued to have value after the Neolothic era introduced stored surpluses, because of the rise of military competition. Early warfare also involved all tribal males, and the skill differential was still very flat. The more spear on your side, the better your chances, and if any one person was a more accurate thrower it didn’t make that much difference. So even after stored food could be allocated individually it still made sense to share some of it, so as to keep as many able-bodied spear-carriers around your village as possible. Since then, there has always the tension between the value of rewarding individual effort and thrift, and the need for social solidarity to insure a healthy population of military effectives, and mothers to bear and raise more military effectives. In eras in which military skill distributions are flatter, this solidarity becomes more important; as skill differentials increase, it becoems less important. Interesting that after the invention of the levy en masse, with large conscript armies using bayonets or muskets in which individual accuracy is less important, you have the emergence of Prussian-style state welfarism, and social democracy. As skill differentials become more important again, and conscript armies become less useful, welfarism starts to wane again, and Laffer curves and high Gini ratios combine with the re-emergence of highly trained professional armies.

  13. Jim Bennet,

    Cultural transmission models work just as well to explain the prevalence of those values, and require fewer assumptions;

    I think a genetic explanation is required because of the universal nature of the behaviors I describe. If culture played the primary role, we would expect to see a great deal of diversity across thousands of documented human cultures but we don’t. All cultures seem to share the same basic concept of “fairness” especially when it come to dividing resources among individuals of equal status.

    Genetic explanations of behavior might seem far fetched to some but if a behavior provides reproductive success over long periods of time, genes that enable that behavior will evolve and spread through the population. Even throughly modern humans, who evolved only 50,000 years ago ( out of four million) spent 40,000-44,000 years a hunter-gatherers. That is enough time for evolution change. People repeating the same cultural pattern over tens of thousands of years would inevitably end up genes priming people for that culture.

    I agree with your ideas about the role of militarism and socialism. War brings about the highest degree of human cooperation and all socialism is inspired by the degree of cooperation and self-sacrifice that prevails during a military crisis. However, just because culture continues to reinforce the original hunter-gather patterns does not mean that no genetic predisposition exist.

  14. Re culture vs. genetics: maybe. It would be sufficient for the genetic predispositions to be neutral in regard to sharing vs. keeping. So long as cultural transmission is doing the job, where is the pressure for genetic selection? In any case, we will probably see the evidence for a “sharing gene” within the next ten years or so of research, if such does indeed exist.

  15. So long as cultural transmission is doing the job, where is the pressure for genetic selection?

    If the gene makes it more likely that a person will engage in a beneficial behavior then that generates selection pressure. Indeed, modern thinking on behavioral genetics holds that if you froze culture long enough (periods>100,000 years) almost any behavior could become largely genetically primed.

    I think “primed” is the key word here. People can and do override genetic based behaviors. For example, we’re all programmed to seek sex yet culture and reason allow us to control the urges. It is only when we’re unaware of the actions of our genes that they become dangerous. I believe we do have a genetic sense of fair distribution of resources that we inherited from our hunter-gather ancestors and that our unawareness of it leads us to assume that some forms of organization are superior to others even when evidence to the contrary exist.

  16. One issue is that while “Fair distribution” may be a very broadly-held value, the definition of “fairness” differs widely. Capitalist societies see a distribution of profits in a corporation in proportion to shareholding to be fair. Socialist societies see equal sharing, or needs-based sharing, to be fair. A traditional, kinship-organized society might see distribution in proportion to age or kinship status to be fair — primogeniture requires the eldest son to get all the land, but also defines what is a fair distribution to other siblings — an appropriate dowry to the daughters, an adequate stake (for instance, the purchase of an army or navy commission, or a plantation in the colonies) to the younger sons. Equal sharing is the primitive, hunting-based value; other modes date from neolithic agriculture, feudalism, or the rise of capitalism.

  17. Jim Bennett,

    I don’t disagree that cultures evolve many different modes of fair sharing. Instead, I argue that our genetic default is the sharing mode of the hunter-gatherer. That is why that idea of equal shares, immediately consumed, reoccurs time and time again in history even when the local culture says otherwise.

    People adopt different sharing modes when conditions warrant them but they do so against the force of the genetically programmed mode. Without constant pressure selecting for the non-genetic mode, we will revert to the genetic mode.

    I think it is the same reason why meritocracies are so rare and unstable in history. People are genetically programmed to cooperate and advance the interest of their blood kin. Empires arise when a polity abandons the family first model, develops an egalitarian and meritocratic structure. However, the family first tendencies eventually undermine meritocracy and the empire collapses.

    I argue that the hunter-gatherer mode is hardware while all other modes are software. We always gravitate to the hunter-gatherer mode. That is socialism is such an easy sell and always has been over the millennia.

  18. Shannon,

    I appreciate your analysis, but it is not just that you have no proof for it, it’s that it’s unprovable. It is a story, rooted in evolutionary biology, that provides an explanation for the eternal return of socialism. If one starts with the assumptions of evolutionary biology, one might find it helpful, even compelling. If, however, one starts with different assumptions, one will find it neither. Another story, rooted in different assumptions, also explains socialism’s perennial appeal. It can be found in Genesis 3. Please understand. I don’t mean to insult you nor am I advocating Biblical literalism. I am simply pointing out the story one tells about the ultimate origin of anything human depends upon the covenant one is bound by. It depends upon the covenant to which one has CHOSEN to bind oneself.

  19. Scotus,

    I do concede that my argument rest ultimately on the materialistic assumption.

    More narrowly, we can say with scientific certainty that any behavior that persist for long periods of time will drive the evolution of genes to support it. The hypothesis is falsifiable because it predicts the existence of genes that we don’t currently know about.

    So, once you make the materialistic assumption that all phenomena can ultimately be measured and quantified, then the hypothesis stands on fairly solid ground. It certainly stands on at least a firm setting as any other political hypothesis.

  20. Recent work on the emergence of high intelligence among Ashkenazic Jews says that genetic traits can shift by about one standard deviation in 500 years under sufficient environmental pressure.

    BTW I’m surprised you didn’t mention the feudal nature of Chicago politics. It is a prime example.

    What I find interesting is that Republicans do not tend to produce feudal cultures as often as Democrats.

    And you might want to do something on how mechanized warfare produces a military meritocracy – you did allude to it. It takes a lot of aircraft mechanics to keep the “knights of the sky” in the air.

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