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Def: Ultrasociality is the ability to cooperate with huge numbers (millions and more) of genetically unrelated individuals. It is apparently unique to humans. Ultrasociality is closely related to social complexity. In fact, these two concepts may be thought of as simply different approaches to the same general phenomenon, which are followed in different scientific disciplines: evolutionary science (ultrasociality) and anthropology/archaeology (social complexity). Yet a third closely related approach, within political science and history, focuses on the rise and evolution of states. In the following I will stick with ultrasociality because it is the most clearly defined concept (there are many rival definitions of the state; a similar terminological uncertainty surrounds the concept of social complexity).

The defining feature of ultrasociality is the social scale (the number of cooperating individuals), which raises the question of what sort of group we are talking about. At the most general level of inquiry it is best to leave this issue unspecified, because we are interested in cooperation at many different levels involving many different kinds of groups – trading networks, ethnic diasporas, religious cults, alliances of states, and, at the highest level, the whole of humanity. However, for the purposes of the workshop and the ensuing research agenda we need a more narrow conceptual and (especially) empirical focus, so the primary kind of cooperating group we will be focusing on is the polity.

Def: Polity is an independent political unit; it can be a village (local community), a simple or complex chiefdom, a state or an empire. It can be either centralized or organized as a confederation (for example, city leagues). What distinguishes a polity from other human groups and organizations is that it is politically independent of any overarching authority; it possesses sovereignty.

While the defining feature of ultrasocialty is social scale, there are many other differences between “simple” small-scale societies and “complex” large-scale ones. Of particular interest are the institutions that enable cooperation within large-scale groups; institutions that smaller-scale groups lack.

Def: Institutions are systems of culturally acquired rules that govern behavior of individuals in specific contexts. Individuals internalize aspects of these rules, termed norms. Institutions and norms are the foundation upon which a distinctively human form of society is based. Institutions can be thought of as self-reinforcing, dynamically stable, equilibria that arise as individuals’ norms converge and complement each other over time (Richerson and Henrich 2011). {jc} In political science, we make the distinction between formal (explicit, codified rules) and informal (socially 'understood' rules or conventions) institutions. Regarding norms, political scientists typically view them as distinct from institutions–norms may emerge or guide behavior, but institutions are usually thought of as systems, particularly with respect to formal institutions.

It is now well understood that sustained cooperation requires a solution to the collective action problem stemming from the tension between the public nature of benefits yielded by cooperation and private costs born by cooperating agents. Institutions are one of the most important ways of solving this problem. In order to understand how ultrasociality evolved we need to study ultrasocial institutions.

Def: Ultrasocial institutions are institutions that enable cooperation at the level of the largest-scale human groups. They are characterized by the tension between benefits they yield at the higher level of social organization and costs born by lower-level units.

Of particular interest are ultrasocial institutions that enabled the transition from middle-scale societies (simple and complex chiefdoms) to first archaic states, and then to empires and modern nation-states (and perhaps beyond, to such multinational entities as the European Union). The above definition implies an interesting diagnostic feature of ultrasocial institutions. Since their benefits are only felt at the larger scales of social organization and costs are born by lower-level units, fragmentation into lower-level units should typically lead to a loss of such institutions. For example, when a territorial state fragments into a multitude of province-sized political units (organized as complex chiefdoms), we expect that such ultrasocial institutions as governance by professional bureacracies, or education systems producing literate elites, would be gradually washed out from the system. Since fragmentation into smaller-scale units is something that has occurred repeatedly in human history, this observation provides us with an empirical basis for distinguishing ultrasocial institutions from others. However, given that institutions are locally stable equilibria, we should not expect an immediate effect of fragmentation. Rather, loss of ultrasocial institutions should be a gradual and stochastic process, with different lower-level units “flipping” from one equilibrium to another at randomly determined times.

To make this discussion less abstract, and also to guide future empirical research, it is useful at this stage to provide some examples of ultrasocial institutions. The following is primarily motivated by new institutional economics (Douglas North and others) that has been extended with the theory of cultural group selection (Bowles and Gintis, Richerson and Henrich). Later on we will connect this theory to the more traditional approaches in archaeology that aims to characterize social complexity in concrete historical and prehistorical societies.

A tentative list of ultrasocial institutions

Government by professional bureaucracies. This institution is one of the most thouroughly discussed one (and it provides the basis for one of the common definition of the state). Its benefits for sustaining large-scale societies is generally accepted, by social scientists and nomadic conquerors alike. In fact, there are probably no really large polities (with population of over a million) that managed to maintain themselves for any appreciable time (a human generation) without acquiring bureacracies. The costs are also significant. Some are direct – training and paying bureaucrats. A possibly more important cost is indirect, stemming from the agent-principal problem. Thus, governing a chiefdom can be readily accomplished by the ruler with the aid of relatives, companions, and clients. The last thing such a ruler needs is to share power with a bureaucracy.

Systems of formal education. Benefits: train scribes, administrators, judges, priests, and other government specialists. Generate a common language and common social norms either among the elites, or in the population as the whole. Examples: the Greek and Latin elite education from Classical to early modern times in Europe, Islamic education in Medieval to Modern times, the Mandarin educational system in China, the Modern mass literary educational systems. Costs: may appear not very significant. Yet, many imperial collapses are followed by “Dark Ages” so called because the degree of literacy and the rate of text production drops dramatically. In some cases, literacy is even lost. Example: the loss of Linear A and Linear B during the Greek Dark Age of early first millennium BCE. Note that education is closely related to Government by Professional Bureaucracies. This goes to show that many institutions are interlocked together in a mutually supportive web.

Universalizing religions and other ideological systems. Also known as “world religions,” they first appeared during the Axial Age. They provided the basis for integrating multiethnic populations within first megaempires, such as Achaemenid Persia (Zoroastrianism), Han China (Confucianism), and Maurya Empire (Buddhism). There is a question whether the presence of Moralizing Gods also belongs here. My inclination is to treat Moralizing Gods as a general prosocial institution, rather than specifically ultrasocial one, because a Moralizing God is useful to stabilize cooperation even at the village level, not only at the level of an empire. Costs: an argument can be made that smaller scale units should abandon a universalizing religion because it is likely to blur an ethnic boundary between it and other similar-sized societies with which they compete. Such an abandonment does not need to mean conversion to a different religion, but perhaps development of a distinct sect. Thus, splitting of Christianity in the post-Roman landscape into Monophysite and Chalcedonian varieties, with Chalcedonians later dividing into Catholics and Orthodox may be an example of such a process. But this needs to be studied empirically. One important consequence of world religions was that they decoupled definitions of what is human from narrow ethnolinguistic criteria that were probably universal before the Axial Age. Expansion of this idea eventually made (or is making?) it possible to extend the definition of “us” to the whole of humanity.

Institutions for large-scale economic integration, such as markets and money. The benefits at the larger social scales are obvious, yet I am not sure these institutions are ultrasocial in the strict sense, that is, that they have signifiant costs for smaller-level units. For example, what are the costs of minting money? Fairly trivial, and offset by the profits of seniorage. Thus, many smaller scale duchies and counties, resulting from fragmenting medieval kingdoms, kept minting money. On the other hand, deep division of labor appears to fit the bill. It is highly benefitial at the larger scales, but is costly and unsustainable at smaller social scales. One may also make an argument that professional bureacracies (and army officers, and priesthoods) are instances of division of labor.

Large-scale “doctrinal” rituals. Harvey Whitehouse makes an argument that small-scale societies sustain cooperation by high intensity, but infrequent “imagistic” rituals. As societies become larger in scale, the keep such imagistic rituals to create cohesion ins smaller subgroups (e.g., hazing military cadets), but add on top lower intensity, but frequent “doctrinal” rituals. More generally on the role of costly rituals in sustaining cooperation see Henrich.

Ideological systems for legitimating power and for restraining rulers to act in prosocial manner. These are often two sides of the same coin. For example, traditional monarchy in Europe was legitimated as a divinely ordained state of things, and simultaneously rulers had to answer to God for their transgressions. Today in democractic societies “we the people” are both the source of legitimacy and (at least in theory) a control on rulers via the elections. The question is whether this institution wrks about the same in small-scale societies and large-scale societies (that is, is it an ultrasocial, or simply prosocial instiution)?

Monogamous marriage. Its benefits are that it reduces fitness differentials within a society. The question is whether it is an ultrasocial institution in the narrow sense. {LF}: This view assumes that monogamous marriage is a mechanism of “reproductive levelling” — yet the archaeological and ethnographic records suggest instead that variance in male reproductive success among males may be as great in societies with monogamous marriage as in societies with polygynous marriage (Fortunato & Archetti 2010). The obvious example of this is ancient Rome, where marriage was strictly monogamous but wealthy men fathered children with large numbers of female slaves (e.g. Betzig 1992a, 1992b). {CA}: Mating systems vary along both overt and covert dimensions (social and sexual, respectively). So while there is variation in the marriage system (polyandrous-polygynous), there is also variation in the sexual system (e.g., ostensible partible paternity, single-father siring, etc.; Walker, Flinn & Hill, 2010). Perhaps the ultrasocial institution is one that is both socially and sexually (enforced?) monogamy.

Rulership succession rules. The question is what happens when the current ruler dies. Division among multiple male heirs certainly maximizes the personal fitness of the ruler, but it also may be a good strategy for chiefdoms. However, it is a disaster for states and empires. Division of the Frankish empire among multiple heirs was a source of recurrent civil war. So usually states make a transition to some sort of unigeniture (usually, primogeniture). But that could be tough on rulers themselves. I forget which Ottoman sultan it was who was forced to strangle his beloved brother. There is an interesting empirical project here: lost of data on different succession rules. But it appears that most preindustrial states evolved to primogeniture. Would be interesting to see how other methods (e.g., election for life) fared against each other in terms of preserving the integrity of the state’s territory.

Professional police, judiciary, military, priesthoods. Good examples all - these are variations on the theme of professional administrators (bureaucracy).

Other examples that are probably best classified as norms. So here I would put the willingness to pay taxes and obey the law, volunteering for military service in time of national danger, helping strangers, generalized trust, etc.

ultrasociality.txt · Last modified: 2012/01/26 21:18 by mesterton-gibbons