By then, our species had colonized almost every ecological niche on the planet—savanna, tropical rain forest, temperate woodland, boreal forest, and arctic tundra. It wasn’t because we were entering new ecological environments that genetic change speeded up. It was because we were entering new cultural environments.
One of them arose with the emergence of the State and its monopoly on the use of violence. This marked a sea change in human relations. Previously, men often used violence for their own advancement, and not simply in self-defense. The goal was to become a ‘big man’—someone who could dominate the local community through bluster, bullying, and charisma. Such men were more successful not only socially but also reproductively. They tended to attract more mates and sire more children.
The tables were turned with the rise of State societies. Over large territories, power increasingly fell into the hands of a few big men, often only one, and violence became a privileged instrument of their power. This left all other men with three options:
1. Forsake violence, or at least keep it under the radar screen of State detection.
2. Subordinate it to State goals, i.e., join the army.
3. Embrace it and become outlaws.
Thus, within the borders of Statist societies, survival and reproduction came to depend on one’s willingness to comply with the State, including its monopoly on the use of violence. Successful individuals were now those who had a higher threshold for expression of violent behavior, especially when acting on their own initiative. They also tended to be individuals whose relative inhibition of violence could be released only by the voice of authority. (In modern times, an American psychologist found that people are much likelier to inflict violence when told to do so by an authority figure. Does this finding hold true in all human societies? see Milgram, 1974).
This change in cultural environment is described by Liebeschuetz (2006) when he discusses Roman and barbarian societies:
In Roman law violence against individuals was treated as an offense that concerned the community. It was open to every citizen to launch a prosecution. The state provided the courts that established whether an injury had been inflicted, decided the punishment, and inflicted it. Moreover the imperial mandate to provincial governors stated, “The man in charge of a province must see to it that he clears the province of criminals.” Ulpian explains this as meaning:
“It is the duty of the … governor to see that the province he rules is peaceful. … This he will achieve if he takes careful measures [to ensure] that the province is free from criminals and searches them out. He should search out persons guilty of sacrilege, brigands, kidnappers, and thieves and punish them according to their offenses, and he should also repress them that harbor them.” (Liebeschuetz, 2006, p. 40)
In contrast, barbarians took the law into their own hands. Although law courts existed in Germanic society, their rulings had to be enforced by the aggrieved party. There was no State enforcement:
The injury was treated as an offense against the injured and his kin and it was left to the injured and/or his kin, not to the community, to compel the person who had caused the injury to give compensation for the damage he had inflicted. Unless the perpetrator or his kin paid compensation, it was the duty of the victim or his kin to take vengeance on the perpetrator or his kin. But the use of force was likely to start a chain of retaliation, in fact a feud. (Liebeschuetz, 2006, p. 39)
The threat of the feud might well have secured a reasonably stable society. But it certainly depended on a widespread readiness to answer violence with violence. It was, I would suggest, a society in which the private individual would have been more likely to have to act violently or to have experienced violence inflicted by others than he would have under Roman administration. (Liebeschuetz, 2006, p. 46)
Historiography often assumes that the Romans saw the divide between themselves and barbarians as a matter of learning and education. To a large degree, this assumption reflects a 20th century view that such a divide had to be culturally programmed. After all, many of the barbarians went on to become civilized Europeans. The picture is less clear, however, if we go back and read what Romans writers had to say. Many considered the divide to be rooted in nature:
Both explicitly and implicitly late antique writers created a generic barbarian identity that was intimately associated with violent behavior. This was only consistent with a classical literary tradition in which barbarians were associated with several violence-related traits, including crudelitas (cruelty), feritas (wildness), immanitas savagery), inhumanitas (inhumanity), impietas (impiety), ferocitas (ferocity), furor (fury), and discordia (discord). (Mathisen, 2006, p. 28)
Their violent nature also meant that barbarians were thought to be governed by their emotions rather than by their intellect. Seneca could claim that grief particularly affected “barbarians more than persons of a peaceful and learned people” and that barbarians were more likely to become angry. He also commented on barbarian lack of self-control: “Whom does one admire more than one who controls himself, who has himself under control. It is easier to rule barbarian nations and those impatient of alien rule than to contain and control one’s own mind.” Finally, Libanius suggested, “In this regard in particular I find the Greeks also to be superior to barbarians. The latter are akin to beasts in despising pity, while the Greeks are quick to pity and get over their wrath.” (Mathisen, 2006, p. 30)
To be sure, some believed that the barbarians could assimilate to Roman norms of behavior. In the 4th and 5th centuries, large numbers of them were allowed into the Empire and confident predictions were made that they would turn their swords into ploughs and scythes (Mathisen, 2006, p. 33). Events proved otherwise.
Like many of my readers, I am largely descended from barbarians who destroyed Roman Britain in the 5th century (Shaw, 2009). Maybe “destroyed” is the wrong word. They didn’t intend to destroy anything; they just wanted the same sort of things that the Romans had. Unfortunately, by their very presence, they made the continuation of those things impossible. Civilization was eventually rebuilt, but on a new foundation.
How did they become me? It was a long process stretching over some sixty generations. Like others before them, they too went on to create their own States. These States then strove to monopolize the use of violence, thus setting in motion the same behavioral evolution that has happened elsewhere.
Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, & R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.
Liebeschuetz, W. (2006). Violence in the barbarian successor kingdoms, in: Drake, H.A. (ed.) Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices, pp. 37-46, Burlington (Vermont) and Aldershot: Absgate.
Mathisen, R.W. (2006). Violent behavior and the construction of barbarian identity in Late Antiquity, in: Drake, H.A. (ed.) Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices, pp. 27-35, Burlington (Vermont) and Aldershot: Absgate.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.
Shaw, J. (2009). Who killed the men of England. The written record of history meets genomics, evolution, demography, and molecular archaeology. Harvard Magazine, July-August. http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/07/who-killed-the-men-england?page=0,1