Friday, March 11, 2011

From low trust to high trust

Code of Hammurabi. Today, law is based on universality, impartiality, and non-discrimination. Yet, originally, its core principles were the very opposite.

A key stage in cultural evolution has been the transition from low-trust to high-trust societies. Originally, the “horizon of trust” encompassed only close kin and long-time friends. Then, in some societies, this horizon progressively broadened to include more distant kin, eventually millions of people. How was this done?

In part, through “fictitious kinship.” Patricia Williams describes how this approach has been used to integrate in-laws into kinship networks:

The way to accomplish this deep acceptance of one’s spouse’s relatives, surely, is to take the emotions regarding one’s own genetic kin that are already present, attach symbols to the emotions, and redirect them to nonrelatives by considering those nonrelatives to be symbolic kin. A strong way to do this is to transform them by exactly parallel terms—call his parents “Mom” and “Dad”; call his siblings “sister” and “brother.” (Williams, 1988, p. 564)

We have also seen this approach with religion, nationalism, and later internationalism: “Brothers and sisters in Christ”; “I am my brother’s keeper”; “We are all “brothers” and so on.

A related approach has been to expand the system of law that once existed only among kith and kin. The notion of “law” may seem out of place here, accustomed as we are to its principles of universality, impartiality, and non-discrimination. Yet, originally, its core principles were the very opposite. Law was not universal. It arose within the web of long-standing reciprocal obligations that bound together man and woman, parents and children, immediate kin and more distant kin within a relatively small clan. Beyond one’s kith and kin, there was no law—other than the law of war.

Things changed with the rise of larger entities. Agriculture spurred population growth, with the result that small clans ballooned into much larger groups. Later came State societies, and empires that encompassed a founding ethnic group and its conquered peoples. Typically, this situation was managed by letting conquered peoples keep their own laws and some internal autonomy. This was the case with the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and many others. Pre-revolutionary France was a patchwork of local legal systems—a relic of earlier regional entities that had been absorbed into the French state over the centuries.

To varying degrees, State societies eventually reversed the original intent of law—by creating universal rules that apply equally to everyone. This process began with the earliest law codes. The very act of putting a social norm into writing entailed some simplification. Ancient legal systems accepted that laws should vary on a “who whom” basis, but the different categories of “who” and “whom” were necessarily limited.

This process advanced further with certain empires, notably the Roman Empire, which sought not merely to conquer other peoples but also to assimilate them, eventually giving them citizenship. But it was the rise of Christianity, and its establishment as a State religion, that fundamentally changed things. The law was no longer the prerogative of a founding group whose claim to power ultimately rested on “might is right.” It became a moral principle that applied equally to everyone, even the Emperor. When a mob killed a Roman general in 390 AD and thousands were slain in retaliation, the bishop of Milan denounced the massacre and forced the emperor to do public penance (Frost, 2010; Lenox-Conyngham, 2005).

Francis Fukuyama makes this point in his forthcoming book The Origins of Political Order, although he places the influence of Christianity later in time:

[…] the concept of the rule of law emerged very early, largely because of the church’s development of canon law in the 11th century. So when strong rulers started to build states, they had to take account of the emerging codes of civil law.

Europeans then developed the unusual idea that it was the law that should be absolute, not the ruler. In pursuit of this principle, the English Parliament executed one king, Charles I, and deposed another, James II. This proved a durable solution to the problem of building a strong state, yet one in which the ruler was held accountable.
(Wade, 2011)

The last phase of this process began with the end of the Dark Ages, and the re-establishment of more orderly societies. Success no longer went to the “bad boys”—the plunderers and ruthless self-aggrandizers—unless they happened to be the ruling elite. And even ruling elites had to become less rapacious, especially after converting to Christianity and founding dynasties—if only to avoid fouling their nest and leaving nothing to their heirs.

People thus entered a new environment of natural selection. A process of self-domestication began, as described by the historical economist Gregory Clark:

[…] societies becoming increasingly middle class in their orientation. Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were imbuing themselves into communities that had been spendthrift, violent, impulsive and leisure loving. (Clark, 2009)

The above list leaves out another personality change. People began to show more empathy toward non-kin. Keep in mind that material success, and ultimately reproductive success, now depended on obedience to the law. And as the law became decontextualized and universalized, success went to those people who could understand universal rules, comply with them, and enforce compliance on others.

This predisposition to follow universal rules and live a rules-based existence might have been passed on culturally or genetically. Natural selection doesn’t “know” which is which, and in a traditional environment the outcome is quite similar. Whatever its cause, this predisposition would have gradually become more widespread with each passing generation. Clark (2009) does, however, make the case for at least partial genetic inheritance:

The chance a Danish adoptee would end up with a criminal record when neither set of parents had one was 13.5 per cent. When only the adoptive parent had a criminal record this chance rose very slightly to 14.7 per cent. However if only the biological parent had a criminal record the chance of the adoptee having a criminal record rose much more, to 20.0 per cent. If both sets of parents had a criminal record the chance of the adoptee having such a record was 24.5 per cent. Genetic influences on criminal propensities are much greater than environmental influences.

Such propensities might reflect weaker impulse control and a more present-oriented time orientation. But it could also indicate indifference toward others, especially non-kin, and a weaker ability to internalize and apply universal rules of conduct. Deceitful behavior in particular seems to have a significant genetic component (Barker et al., 2009). The shift to a high-trust society certainly involved learning new behaviors, but learning wasn’t the whole story.


Barker, E.D., H. Larson, E. Viding, B. Maughan, F. Rijsdijk, N. Fontaine, and R. Plomin. (2009). Common genetic but specific environmental influences for aggressive and deceitful behaviors in preadolescent males, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 31, 299-308.

Clark, G. (2009).The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin, ArtefaCToS, 2, 64-80

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

Lenox-Conyngham, A. (2005). The Church in St. Ambrose of Milan, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 5, 211-225.

Wade, N. (2011). From ‘End of History’ Author, a Look at the Beginning and Middle, The New York Times, March 7.

Williams, P. (1988). Kin selection, symbolization, and culture, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 31, 558-566.


Chris Crawford said...

Regarding the development of the concept of the rule of law: see Plato: The Republic as well as the dialog "Crito".

Harmonious Jones said...

Interesting story. I find it convincing.

The Chinese seem just as domesticated as Europeans (if not more so), but trust there seems to have been somewhat lacking. Perhaps they were under greater Malthusian competitive pressures?

Anonymous said...

These guys certainly did not have any compassion for the other.

Tod said...

The Wade link mentions Denmark:-
Of the European powers, only England and Denmark, in Dr. Fukuyama’s view, developed the three essential institutions of a strong state, the rule of law, and mechanisms to hold the ruler accountable.

Willets mentioned Denmark as well. A lot of the English are descended from Danes,(makes me wonder about submissiveness, trust and digit ratios).

Tod said...

Re. empathy:-

"Baron-Cohen's theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

High digit ratio (Danes) = greater empathy ?

Kiwiguy said...

The lack of looting in Japan suggests they managed to move to a high trust society. Cochran & Harpending discuss a gene associated with ADD & impulsive behaviour in 'The 10,000 Year Explosion':

"The polymorphism is found at varying but significant levels in many parts of the world, but is almost entirely absent from East Asia...

The Japanese say that the nail that sticks out is hammered down, but in China it may have been pulled out and thrown away.

Selection for submission to authority sounds unnervingly like domestication..." (page 112)

The 10,000 Year Explosion