Evolutionary approaches and history

I’ve been reading some interesting work on what evolutionary approaches can bring to the study of gender in human society, including Bobbi Low, Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look a Human Behavior (revised ed, 2015) and Richard G Bribiescas, Evolutionary and life history insights into masculinity and warfare. Current Anthropology 62 (2021), DOI: 10.1086/711688. These works are a lot more nuanced than some of the evolutionary psychology I’ve read in the past, accepting the interaction of social/cultural and ecological components with biology, rather than assuming an unchanging male psyche. I’ve heard historians call evolutionary psychology the enemy of history and especially feminist history, but this research doesn’t give that impression. But precisely because it’s careful and interesting work, it confirms my views in the limitations of the field’s use for historians.

This is made explicit at points, as when Bribiescas says (p. 2): “Because of the necessity of a deep time perspective and changes in populations, evolutionary and life history theories often lack the precision to predict specific events or individual behavior.” It’s precisely at that relatively small-scale level that much historical study takes place. Alan MacFarlane may want to look at the ten-thousand year old roots of the Industrial Revolution, but most historians studying the Industrial Revolution would look at a handful of countries over at most five hundred years, which in global and chronological terms is a tiny part of humanity.

Similarly, many of Low’s arguments rely on the “phenotypic gambit” assumption: that enough time has passed for the interaction of genes and behaviours to come into equilibrium, so that the most common behaviour is the (locally) optimal strategy for inclusive fitness. However, it’s a lot easier to assume that for mice (with generations of a few months) or even cats (with generations of 2 years), than humans (with generations of 20-25 years). Ten generations of humans (200-250 years) in most historical societies would see a lot of changes to the social and physical environment. With the possible exception of small-scale societies isolated from others, it’s unlikely that you’re going to reach that equilibrium position. Certainly, for Western Europe in the first fifteen centuries of the common era (the boundaries for my patriarchy project), it’s hard to think of societies that were that unaffected by outside factors for that long. And Low also comments (p. 164): “We cannot assume, for humans today, that any particular behavior is, or is not, adaptive.”

But I also want to talk in this post about a number of other reasons why evolutionary approaches are not very helpful for one of the main concerns of historians: theorizing people’s motivations in a particular historical society.

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Downward social mobility

A while ago, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman wrote about an aspect of social mobility that isn’t often discussed: the need for downward social mobility:

Part of the reason why a kid in a seat the Conservatives first won in 2019 is not getting a job as a barrister is because a barrister in a seat the Conservatives have held since 1906 is giving unfair opportunity to their idiot nephew, or to a friend’s child.

That’s the sharp end of the social mobility debate that politicians have generally been reluctant to touch. As Vince Cable, a rare exception to that rule, once observed, the son of an investment banker who ends up working as a cloakroom assistant is also an example of social mobility: indeed, for the most part, it is a necessary precondition of social mobility.

His suggestion was that there ought to be “hard discussions about unfair and opaque hiring practices that entrench rather than spread privileges”.

Jonn Elledge similarly complained about how:

Britain’s more privileged classes are very good at ensuring that those thicker, more useless offspring don’t tumble down the class ladder… but instead still go to university, before joining one of the white-collar professions that act as havens for thick and useless people.

Elledge gets nearer to the details of the process, but I think both miss some important points. And I want to approach them via an example of downward social and professional mobility: that of my paternal (adoptive) family.

My paternal grandfather’s house as it looks in 2021
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The invention of the housewife

All I am is just a housewife

Nothing special, nothing great

What I do is kinda boring

If you’d rather, it can wait

All I am is someone’s mother

All I am is someone’s wife

All of which seems unimportant

All it is is just my life

Do the laundry, wash the dishes

Take the dog out, clean the house

Shop for groceries, look for specials

God it sounds so, Mickey Mouse

Drop the kids off, pick the shirts up

Try to lose weight, try again

Keep the troops fed, pick their things up

Lose your patience, count to ten

Lyrics from “Just a housewife”, from the musical “Working” (1977)
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The best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire

A friend at my Oxford college once told me that their father had been described as “the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire”. I can’t remember if I realised the significance at the time, but a few years later I started to understand that phrase more fully, when I worked as a librarian at Plymouth College of Further Education.

Trainee bricklayers at City College Plymouth (formerly Plymouth College of Further Education)

We didn’t have agricultural engineers there, but we did have a construction department. I was responsible for liaising with them and going along to departmental meetings. It was clear from how those construction lecturers talked at the time that they felt looked down on by the rest of the college. And at the bottom of the construction department hierarchy, below the plumbers and the carpenters and electrical engineers, were the bricklayers and the staff who taught them. The brickies were the least academic students of all, the ones who needed the most help from the remedial maths and English teachers.

But then, at some point, I got to see photos of some of their final-year projects and they were amazing. There were people making curves in brickwork that I couldn’t entirely believe were possible and a lot of other impressive structures. These students, many barely literate young men, had a skill that I could never possibly match (despite the fact that I already had two degrees).

That was when my educational philosophy really expanded, beyond my previous default assumption that doing lots of qualifications made me a better person in some nebulous way. In Plymouth it dawned on me that the key role of (non-compulsory) education at all levels was finding the best course for a particular learner so they could develop the skills that mattered to them and lead a more fulfilling life. And it also reminded me that any job that benefited others was worthwhile and should be done well. (That probably came easier to me, having been raised as a child on George Herbert’s idea of any task as potentially “divine“).

Ever since, the endless debates about “vocational” as against “academic” education have seemed rather futile: it depends on what the learner wants to do. You can learn Japanese because you want to work for Toyota or watch Noh plays or read manga, and they’re all perfectly reasonable justifications. There are a few subjects you may have to study that you don’t really want to, like those brickies having to scrape through basic maths (and school children having to follow a basic curriculum), but the courses adults should be taking are what they want to learn, because they probably won’t gain much from other education.

I think that having this broad view of education has helped me avoid some common pitfalls. If you’ve spent almost all your life studying history, for example, as some of my friends have done, and you’ve benefited from it personally, it’s easy to start presuming that everyone should study history. There’s an added pressure when your continued employment as a lecturer depends on enough people studying a subject at university. But if you take a wider perspective, the question becomes whether a specific type pf course is the right one for that particular student to study at that particular time. If they would gain more personally from a different subject or one at a different level, we ought to be steering them towards that instead.

But equally, appreciating and valuing vocational education doesn’t mean rejecting academic education or presuming that it’s only for a select few. For a short time I taught history at Birkbeck, where mature students, often without previous qualifications, can study for degrees. I still remember the pleasure I felt when some of the weaker students improved in their essay writing or had a revealing comment to add in a discussion.  Ranganathan’s second law of librarianship is: “Every reader his or her book”. In the same way, maybe we should be thinking about “Every student their course”.

And perhaps, too, “Every worker their job.” I never met my friend’s father but being the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire strikes me as an honourable and admirable vocation. I’ve tried, with my own child, to make sure that I didn’t push them onto an academic path and to make it clear that if they wanted to become a hairdresser or a plumber or a nursery nurse or some other relatively non-academic career I would be fine with that. (Although I admit that education is sufficiently important to me that I’d have wanted them to be a really well-trained and fully-qualified hairdresser, plumber, etc). As it turns out they’re currently aiming for a more academic, but relatively practical career in computing. But it’s only by keeping these basic principles in mind, valuing all kinds of education/training and all kinds of jobs that we can put together a society that works better for all of us.

Excluding women in capitalism and anti-capitalism

For my patriarchy project, I’ve been reading Martha Howell’s Women, production and patriarchy in late medieval cities (University of Chicago Press, 1986). I’m trying to get a handle on her ideas of the family production unit and small commodity production and how that relates to the gradual exclusion of women from high status jobs that she sees happening in late medieval and early modern Northern European cities. Howell’s focus is specifically on crafts and trade, i.e., a wide  middle stratum of urban society. She defines high labor-status (p. 24) as status which:

accrues to individuals who, as part of their occupations, independently obtain their own raw materials and supplies (their means of production), and control the distribution of the products of their labor.

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The little princes in the Lombard tower

What difference would it make if Charlemagne murdered his two nephews, the sons of his brother Carloman and Gerberga? Some modern scholars (such as Jennifer Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (p. 160) have said outright that Charlemagne had Pippin and his younger brother (whose name we don’t know) killed. Others, such as Jinty Nelson, King and Emperor (p. 135) have suggested that he probably did; Jinty points to clause 18 in Charlemagne’s Divisio regnorum of 806 warning his sons against the mistreatment of their sons and nephews as evidence of a guilty conscience. (She also uses the Princes in the Tower analogy). In contrast, many previous biographies of Charlemagne have either said the fate of these boys is unknown or thought it likely that they were put in a monastery, as happened to other relatives of Charlemagne, such as Tassilo and Pippin the (Possibly Retrospective) Hunchback.

John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower
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Did Charlemagne’s daughters learn to work wool?

Einhard’s life of Charlemagne discusses how Charlemagne had his sons and daughters taught the liberal arts (c.19). But they also learnt more practical skills:

He had his sons, when they reached the right age, be taught to ride in the Frankish way, to use arms and hunt. He ordered his daughters to be taught to be accustomed to wool-working, with spindle and distaff, to devote themselves to work and all honest activity, lest they become sluggish through leisure.

Tum filios, cum primum aetas patiebatur, more Francorum equitare, armis ac venatibus exerceri fecit, filias vero lanificio adsuescere, coloque ac fuso, ne per otium torperent, operam impendere, atque ad omnem honestatem erudiri iussit.

The part about Charlemagne’s daughters has been recognised as having verbal parallels with a phrase from Suetonius’ life of Augustus (64.2):

He so educated his daughter and granddaughter that he accustomed them to wool-work (filiam et neptes ita instituit, ut etiam lanificio assuefaceret).

In contrast, there isn’t a close parallel to what Charlemagne’s sons learnt in Suetonius’ Augustus (who instead taught his grandsons reading and swimming, 64.3).

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One thousand years of history for the 53%

I gave up studying history at school after my third year of secondary school (year 9 in the current UK system, at age 14 or so). My daughter gave up history at the same age, though for different reasons. I had the choice of studying Social and Economic History or Modern World History at O level, neither of which thrilled me, since I was already hooked on the Middle Ages. My daughter had four options for GCSE, along with various compulsory subjects. Her final choice was between History or French: I encouraged her to pick French, on the grounds that it was easier to pick up history later in life than a foreign language (although the language teaching was so inadequate that I’m not sure now my advice was right).

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Nice extraction of surplus if you can get it

Dominus Corleone

Chris Wickham has a new article out on the feudal economy (10.1093/pastj/gtaa018), which has got me thinking about the topic from a different angle (though probably not the angle Chris was expecting). First of all, I’ll say that since I haven’t read a lot of Marx, let alone all the ins and outs of the Brenner debate, I’m not in a position to say whether Chris’ view of the feudal mode of production accords with traditional Marxist accounts of the medieval period. He does, however, specifically point out (p. 5) that Marx’s views aren’t really relevant, since:

no one working in the 1850s and 1860s knew enough about feudal societies to be able to make any kind of systematic analysis of their underlying economic logic. Probably, I regret to say, this is still true today.

Chris also gives a clear definition of his ideal-type feudal mode of production (pp.  9-10):

it is a socio-economic system based on the exploitative relations of production between peasants, that is to say subsistence cultivators, and lords. At its core are peasant family units, who work the land and raise animals, usually do some subsistence artisanal work such as weaving, and also, in regions where they are available, mine metals…The main relationship of dominance and system of surplus expropriation here consists of peasants giving surplus, often but not only in rent and services, to lords, in various forms, under the at least implicit threat of violence. The surplus that lords take thus depends on actual or potential class struggle, and is not based directly on the market. Lords can affect the production process by demanding different types of rent, and they frequently do. But they do not have a structural role in production, and their attempts to exercise forms of direct control over it, although these are certainly documented (indeed, quite well documented, as our records tend to be the work of lords), have seldom lasted all that long… Such external powers, which I am here generically calling ‘lords’, can be landlords extracting rent, or states and other political powers exacting tax or tribute, or both.

The feudal mode of production is thus fundamentally based on class struggle and Chris argues that a lot of economic “development” was just lords getting more out of peasants (p. 14). But he also goes on to discuss the fact that peasants in some areas (such as thirteenth-century England) were actually keeping quite a lot of their surplus themselves and finding ways to make extra money, such as the wage-labour from the young people in a peasant household.

What Chris focuses on (pp. 19-20) is the “high-equilibrium” feudal-mode economy in which lords are dominant, markets and towns develop, and peasants are also increasingly able to use these markets. What doesn’t happen, even in areas with proto-industry, is a move to industrial capitalism (pp. 28-29). Instead, Chris discusses the “economic logic of feudalism” which was (p. 35)

based on the fact that the peasant majority was necessary to the basic production process, and lords were not; this continued steadily to bring down rents and taxes, except when lords (and by now states) put the effort into increasing them, which meant that peasants tended to maintain their participation in this commercialized world.

So a general tendency of the economic logic of feudalism was to establish, eventually, reasonably high-functioning production and exchange systems, which in some cases showed considerable dynamism.

Chris’ concern here is with economics and particularly the role of peasants, who could always withdraw demand from the market and revert to more production for subsistence, and in this way sustain the feudal economy. But I want to add in, from a cultural history perspective, the lords’ logic. Since capitalism would have made them richer, why were they so slow to move towards it? As the title of my post implies, I think there’s one obvious reason; the feudal mode of production was an easier way of living well than the alternatives.

Leaving aide any moral scruples, if you’re going to extract surplus from agricultural workers, it’s easier being a lord than either a slave-driver or a capitalist. There were undoubtedly sadistic slaveowners who enjoyed forcing their slaves to do hard work, but it required sustained, routine effort by such owners to prevent resistance. (Of course, such enforcement could be delegated to others, but then there’s the principal-agent problem of your representative skimming off the profits). Running a capitalist enterprise also requires sustained effort by the business owner to ensure that you have a supply of wage labourers and that they are doing their work productively. Again, if that supervision is delegated, you have to do a lot of checking of the supervisors.

On the other hand, the most basic form of rent/tribute taking is you and a bunch of heavies going round once a year to a village to collect a chunk of the harvest. Even when you get more sophisticated forms of rent/tax, which is collected by a headman/steward, they don’t have to monitor the peasants every day, and if you have more or less customary rents/dues, you don’t have to do that much checking up on your agent. It all takes a lot less time, which means that you could spend more of your life living like a lord, which is, after all, what most people want.

It also probably required less of a state infrastructure than either capitalism or (most) slave-owning societies. The need for effective state-backed institutions to provide effective markets and capitalism has been frequently stressed by the new institutional economists. Karl Persson, “Markets and coercion in medieval Europe,” in The Cambridge history of capitalism. Volume 1, The rise of capitalism: from ancient origins to 1848, edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2014) (10.1017/CHO9781139095099.009 9) claims that the state was essential for enforcing medieval serfdom and slavery (p. 229):

The policy of the Crown, the central authority, was essential for the possibility of maintaining an agreement among landlords not to compete for labor from other estates, what we can call the “employ no fugitive” rule.

I think he’s mostly right about slavery. It’s possible for a stateless society to maintain slavery based on war-captives (as some hunter-gather societies do), but most large-scale slave societies have needed an elaborate legal system to enforce slavery: the southern US experience shows that maintaining a slave system without centralised support is very difficult.

But I don’t think Persson is right about the feudal mode of production more generally needing the state. He assumes that peasants can just relocate if the local lord is oppressive but ignores the sunk costs of their farm. Once you’ve got buildings, cleared land, animals, neighbours etc, only a very pressing reason is going to make you move. And in the absence of a state and at least some legal institutions, you’re not likely either to know about or trust the promise of another lord that they’ll treat you better. One of the reasons the feudal/tributary production mode is so successful is that while it can make use of the state, it doesn’t need the state to thrive in the way that capitalism and most forms of slavery do. Mafia protection rackets are run on the same economic logic: after all, what is a don, but a dominus?

The feudal economy, therefore, may not have been the most efficient form of surplus extraction, but as a quick and dirty solution it wasn’t bad. Even in the early modern period, capitalism may well not have looked terribly attractive to a lot of the gentry. Would you rather be Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, all of whose ships may have sunk, or the provincial squire watching the play, with an estate which even a bad harvest won’t ruin? Economists extoling the “creative destruction” of unfettered capitalism need to remember that lots of people don’t particularly want financial risk, especially long-term.

This ties into what’s been suggested as one of the key differences between the modern UK and the US attitudes to work, the Old Rectory syndrome:

Americans, said the author, want to be rich. The British, on the other hand, want to be comfortably off. The Old Rectory, he said, was the pinnacle of British middle-class ambition. The Americans would work until they were rich but the British would stop working once they had achieved the lifestyle epitomised by owning an old rectory in a village or country town.

Speaking as someone who grew up in small villages which had a “big house” or two, the family who owns one of those (or even more so an estate) is a big fish in a small pond, who gets local deference even from those who aren’t directly dependent on them. Being gentry, being the local landowner gets you social status that wealth alone doesn’t bring. The economic logic of feudalism helped it survive for a long time. But we also shouldn’t forget the psychological and affective side of it, which is even more persistent.