A Historical Glance at Physical Dominance In Cultural Evolution

How do you defeat an empire? What is necessary for one culture to outcompete another? How does one group of people come to dominate another? I think it is fair to say that throughout history, the important factors for empires and cultures in their quest for domination and influence has changed. At different times through the course of human existence, different traits and characteristics have been more or less advantageous, and it is hard to predict exactly what traits and characteristics of empires and cultures are the most important for success at a given time.
It is likely that in the earliest possible days of Homo sapiens, physical strength and group cohesion were the most important factors for survival. At least, it can look that way as we look back in human history and try to understand where modern impulses for tribalism and paternalism originated in our species. If we all lived in groups of 12 to 25 individuals, the groups with the strongest males who could fight off other apes and other human bands for protection, and steal their resources while they were at it, likely had better chances of survival. If your group couldn’t survive a raid or a few rabid animals, then your chances of continuing on were slim. As a result more aggressive tribes organized around a single powerful figure probably had an advantage.
But the world that Homo sapiens inhabited changed, and the social structures and organizations of the species changed as well. The environment favored larger groups of human beings living and cooperating together. With more humans in a collective society, new traits became more important than pure physical dominance. As technologies changed, such as agriculture, fencing, and other innovates that made living in a set place safer and more secure, being the most aggressive and toughest human group was less advantageous for survival.
This process was slow and took place over a very long time. Physical dominance continued to play a crucial role, but slowly faded. By the time Christopher Columbus was ready to sail, merchants and bankers were beginning to be more important than physically impressive armies and rulers. Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the empires built by bankers and merchants in frock coats and top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes and shining armor.” The incentives had changed. Using financial resources wisely, making investments that could pay off in greater returns, and developing economies became more important than conquest and war through physical dominance. Economic competition displaced physical competition.
Today we are in a world that is being characterized as feminine. Often, when this framing is applied to changes in the world it seems to have an implicit negative quality to it. But in truth, we are simply responding to continued changes in technology and civilization. Physical dominance is continuing to fall in its importance to how we live and cooperate together. Many bemoan this decline in the importance of physical dominance and character traits traditionally characterized as masculine. But the reality is that cooperation, services, working in cross-functional groups and teams, is becoming more important than in the past. This means there are different incentives which don’t always align well with traditional masculinity. I don’t think it is something to bemoan, and I don’t think we need to mourn the loss of the manly-man in human cultures. Empires were once displaced by businessmen in frock coats, and today we are seeing a similar process play out.

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