We Are All Pleistocene Hunter-Gatherers

January 15th, 2012 

I have written elsewhere that we are all Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. By that I mean that the evolutionary changes that have taken place in the last 10,000 years, since we shifted from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the agricultural lifestyle, have not changed our basic psychology. Yes, there have been a number of evolutionary changes in the human mind in the last 10,000 years, but they have not made much difference. Human psychology is still mostly that of our hunter-gatherer times. Think of it this way: our ancestors for the last 5 million years were hunter-gatherers; the last 10,000 years, they were farmers. Do you really think that those 10,000 years have done much to erase the results of the last 5 million? As I’ve also written elsewhere, we’re just Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying to act like civilized people, and doing a rather bad job of it. To put it another way, let’s consider the Neanderthals, a subspecies of homo sapiens adapted for cold conditions. Imagine Neanderthals coming into a fleet of nuclear-tipped ICBMs. Can you really say, based on mental makeup, that we’d handle that situation any better than they would?

The implications of this are frightening, because the fleet of ICBMs is just the beginning. We’re coming into ever more complex and destructive capabilities. We’re creating a world that is ever more technologically sophisticated, creating causal relationships that are increasingly difficult to comprehend. In other words, we’re creating an environment that is ever more distant from the world that we’re mentally built to handle. Guess what happens to species that can’t adapt to a changing environment?

The inspiration for this essay is a pair of correspondences I have been carrying on with two different libertarians. Three fundamental components of libertarianism (live and let live, smaller government, and anti-militarism) are dear to me. However, I reject libertarianism as a whole, because at its heart lies a profound misconception. Libertarianism is predicated on the assumption that people are rational. The libertarian refuses to believe that the government is smarter than he is. He rejects the notion that the government should tell him how to live his life, or that the government should take care of him or anybody else. His attitude is that the individual is always smarter than the government. If the individual makes an error in judgement, reality will quickly impose its consequences, and that person will learn and improve.

A classic example of the contradictions inherent in libertarianism arose a few weeks ago. A group of motorcyclists staged a ride-in demonstration against helmet laws. Helmet laws are an ideal libertarian cause – they are a perfect example of the government telling people how they should live their lives, even when their decisions affect nobody but themselves. Sadly, some idiot had a bit of a spill during the ride and hit his head on the pavement. Had he been wearing a helmet, he would have suffered only cuts and bruises, but instead he died. His libertarian beliefs cost him his life.

The common libertarian response to this sad tale is a shrug of the shoulders and a declaration that the victim made his choice on his own responsibility and suffered the consequences on his own responsibility. What business is it of anybody else? 

The standard rejoinder to this is that the taxpayers end up paying for the motorcyclists who become vegetables and end up in public care for the remainder of their lives. The libertarian argues in response that we should just let the poor bastard die. I suppose that the libertarian would have us leave the body on the roadside to rot – after all, he doesn’t want to pay the cost of cleaning up the mess, either. 

There are two profound flaws in this thinking. The first, involving asabiya, I will not delve into here. The second concerns my point that we’re all Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. We simply don’t have, as individuals, the mental chops to cope with issues like wearing helmets. Wearing helmets belongs to a class of problems known as “low probability, high consequence”, which the human mind can’t handle. These are issues involving an extremely low probability but a very high cost if they were to take place.

Let’s address such problems with some simple probability calculations. Suppose that you are contemplating the desirability of installing a surge protector on your computer. The surge protector costs $20. The computer is worth $1000. You live in an area with lots of lightning, so the probability of a computer-killing surge is 1% per year. Over the next ten years, the probability of a strike is 10% (actually, it’s not exactly 10%, but let’s ignore that trivial detail). So the expected cost of a lightning strike over 10 years is $100 (the $1000 cost times the 10% probability), while the cost of preventing that loss is only $20. That’s an excellent cost-benefit ratio, so you buy the surge protector.

This kind of calculation is easy to do and we all carry out such calculations every day. We seldom actually do the math, but we make quick mental assessments that are roughly comparable in content. We can handle some low-probability, high-cost problems: most of us get health insurance, even though the probability of incurring major medical costs is low. But what happens when we get to very low probabilities, or very low costs, and very large consequences? Wearing a helmet is such a case. The probability of getting into an accident and hitting your head is very low. I drove more than 100,000 miles on my motorcycle in earlier years and not once did my head touch the ground. I could have dispensed entirely with a helmet and suffered no ill effects. But consider the consequence: the loss of my life. How much is that worth? When we multiply a very tiny probability by a very large consequence, what do we get? What do you get when you multiply 0 by infinity? 

Most people round off extremely tiny numbers to zero. A hunter-gatherer lived such a short life, and risked so many dangers, that the likelihood of suffering a very low-probability event was best treated as zero. You simply couldn’t afford to worry about the cave collapsing on your head when there were lions and tigers and bears lurking outside. Those conditions don’t obtain today: we’ve managed to eliminate all the medium- and low-probability threats to our lives. But the extremely low-probability events are still there, and the only rational course of action is to wear the damn helmet. Yet homo sapiens just doesn’t have the intelligence to cope with such problems. Most people do wear helmets, but there are always other risks. How many people wear seat belts? How many people try to fix their own electrical wiring? How many people stand on the highest rung of their ladders? I could go on and on with examples of irrational behavior among humans.

If EVERYBODY is irrational, then how can we expect them to make rational decisions all or even most of the time? Libertarianism assumes a rational citizenry – an assumption that is demonstrably wrong. The libertarian could argue that rationalism is a matter of degree, and that most people are rational enough to get by. That argument is viable in societies with low populations, low population densities, and low technology. But as we get more and more people, the number of irrational people increases, posing an ever-larger threat to society. As population densities rise, the number of interactions between people increases, thereby increasing the amount of damage one irrational person can inflict upon society. And as technology gains power, the ability of one irrational person to do injury to others increases. Witness the damage that one crazy person with firearms can do to groups of people. Witness the damage that 12 crazy hijackers inflicted upon the World Trade Center. Whatever sense libertarianism once made, it makes less and less sense each day.

It gets worse: as population rises and technology advances, the ability of large groups of people to inflict harm upon themselves collectively increases. Witness air pollution coming from cars. So long as cars were too expensive for most people to buy, it wasn’t a problem, but once everybody got a car, air pollution skyrocketed to health-threatening levels. We have done a pretty good job of handling that problem, but now we’re faced with the even bigger, even more diffuse problem of carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change, and we have failed to cope with that problem.

Both of the libertarians I have been conversing with acknowledge that children need to be taken care of, that libertarianism doesn’t apply to the young. But a child does not suddenly become rational on their 18th birthday. Indeed, nobody ever becomes completely rational. So if pure libertarianism requires a completely rational citizenry, then doesn’t it naturally follow that the degree to which we honor libertarian principles should correspond to the degree of rationality in the population? That certain freedoms should be granted to a citizen only at certain milestones in life?

I could support a libertarianism that recognized the limitations of human maturation. I would, for example, very much like to see possession of firearms limited to people over the age of 25, because the vast majority of homicides involving firearms are perpetrated by males of younger age. I suppose that I could acquiesce to a helmet law that exempted those over 50, or a seat belt law that exempted those over 60. But I’d go even further: sale of tobacco and marijuana restricted to those over 25, stronger recreational drugs to even older citizens. 

As I mentioned earlier, this addresses only one of the fundamental flaws in libertarianism. The other flaw arises from the libertarian’s adamantine conviction that he is not his brother’s keeper. I don’t maintain that anyone is ethically required to be his brother’s keeper; I maintain that it’s a damn sight safer to do so.