A Quick Historical Glance at Physical Dominance in Cultural Evolution

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.
Admitting Collective Ignorance

Admitting Collective Ignorance

I generally agree that we are too confident in our opinions and judgments about the world. We live with a lot of complexity and very few of us are superforcasters, carefully considering information and updating our knowledge as new information comes along. We rely on personal experiences and allow ourselves to believe things that we want to be true. However, there are some modern institutions which help push back against this knowledge overconfidence.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions “ (emphasis in original). As Harari notes, physicists openly admit that we cannot study what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang and scientists cannot explain what consciousness is or how it arises. On the largest problems science is great at admitting collective ignorance, something that is very unique among humans. Throughout our history many humans have attempted to answer the most important questions through narratives and stories, resulting in religions and dogmas. For modern science to eschew this trend is rather remarkable.
I would say that modern science actually goes a step beyond admitting collective ignorance in the largest questions we can ask. Something I often noted during my masters program, where we read a great deal of academic public policy and political science papers, was how often we could argue that authors were confident in their findings in the body of the paper (sometimes overstating the impact of their finding) only to admit in the conclusion that their study was limited in scope and could not be generalized to broader contexts. Within social sciences at least, papers encourage researchers to place their work within an appropriate context, and from my experience, the best papers do a good job of being honest and realistic about their conclusions. They admitted ignorance even when identifying effects that appeared to be real.
Humans cannot admit ignorance in business, politics, and religion. A CEO who admitted that the company didn’t really know what was happening and that they were operating from a place of ignorance probably won’t be CEO for long – especially not if they face a stretch of bad luck. Very few voters would elect a candidate who admitted to being ignorant on much of the world. Religions (in my view – which could be wrong) seem to provide more answers than admissions of ignorance (although Christians at least seems to admit that humans cannot understand their deity’s decision-making process).
Science is a unique place where we can admit that we don’t know much, even when announcing findings and things we have learned from careful study. This is one of the strengths of science and something we should do a better job communicating.  An admission of ignorance within science is a sign that scientific institutions are functioning well. That seems to have been forgotten at times during the pandemic, and often has been mocked by people who are unhappy with regulations and decisions by public policy officials.
On Social Roles

On Social Roles

My wife is a special education teacher, and she is truly excellent at what she does. She currently works with families with children between the age of 0 and 3 and helps teach them how to raise a child with disabilities or physical/intellectual delays. She is incredibly skilled at what she does, and performs a role for our society that I would be terrible at. I am simply not an infant person. I could learn a lot about them and become good at working with infants and their families, I am sure, but it is not something that would feel natural to me, at least not in the way that it does for my wife. Contrasting her, I am a good writer (in my own opinion at least) and I have a set of skills in working with data and information, in coalition and team building, and in speaking and communication that my wife does not have (she has worked to be good in all these areas, but again, it is more natural for me than her just as working with children with disabilities is more natural for her than me). The kinds of jobs and careers that come naturally to me would be a major challenge for my wife, just as her job would be a major challenge to me. We fill different roles within society based on our individual strengths.
I think about social roles a lot, especially how far back in our evolutionary history our varying social roles could possibly tie back to. In small hunter gatherer tribes, I can imagine people having many overlapping roles, but also many different specialized roles. It would be hard for people to bring children along on certain hunting or gathering expeditions, and that would necessitate a split in terms of social roles. It is natural then that some people who were better skilled at child rearing would watch over children at a central location while others would go off to hunt. This is the most basic presentation of the idea of social roles I can think of, and I recognize that it is probably too simplistic and vulnerable to abuse by those who want to limit women’s rights, but I think it is a helpful starting point to understand how we should think about the roles we all play within society and how our current social expectations of personal responsibility can run against our possibly evolved social roles. [I want to stress that I am not saying men are by default strong hunters and women are by default fragile childcare workers. I don’t see any reason why a spectrum of skills wouldn’t have some men be naturally more inclined to childcare work, cooking, or other typically feminine coded roles with some women more aligned toward hunting, fire fighting, or other typically masculine coded roles.]
In his book The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes, “In most cases we hold adults responsible for their own actions. But when people are too young, … or [too intellectually disabled], to be held responsible, society has to designate someone else to assume this responsibility. When people’s relatives cannot or will not play this role, society needs to create an institution to act in loco parentis.”
This quote highlights the role of personal responsibility and the conflicts between our social roles and our personal responsibility that can arise in the United States. Not all of us would be great at watching over an assisting a family member or friend who was dealing with severe depression, an addiction, or who had an intellectual disability that prevented them from working. However, for many people in our country, this responsibility is forced on them by a social system that provides minimal support to people with disabilities or who have had mental health challenges. Regardless of the role we are best suited for, sometimes we end up having to care for an elderly loved one with no other person to turn to, or for a spouse facing suicidal thoughts, or for a child dealing with a drug addiction. Not all of us are well positioned to help such individuals, and sometimes those people who need help and support find themselves on the street and on a path toward homelessness when the family around them cannot support them.
That is the warning that Liebow’s quote contains. Without solid institutions (I am not using “institutions” in the sense of a mental institution to warehouse people) we cannot provide the support that people really need. We will force everything into the personal responsibility framework that dominates our society. We force responsibility of others onto family members who may not be well suited to perform that role. The argument is that we need better social systems and structures that ensure that people who need help, whether it is counseling, healthcare treatment for addiction, or life services for those with intellectual disabilities along with assistance for their supporting families is necessary in order to reduce and potentially eliminate homelessness. We cannot solve our problem by continuing to heap greater responsibilities onto the shoulders of those who are not well suited or positioned to bear such responsibilities. Those who do manage to support people in our existing system deserve praise, but those who fail don’t fail entirely on their own. Their failure is a social failure, reflecting the over-reliance of personal responsibility in our society and the unreasonable demands such a system can place upon people who don’t have the right skills and abilities to handle such daunting challenges.
Only the Strong Survive - A flawed way to view the world? - Joe Abittan - Elliot Liebow - Tell Them Who I Am

Only the Strong Survive

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow included a short conversation about war he had with a homeless woman. The short conversation ended with the following quote from his conversation partner, “Some people believe that only the strong will survive. Can you imagine going through life believing something like that?” This line is almost a throwaway line in the book, and honestly within context the line seems relatively unnecessary and distracts from the larger point Liebow made with the larger conversation. However, I think the question is an excellent one to think about.
Our world has just wrapped up the 2020 Olympic Games, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. I watched a decent amount of track and field and caught a few commercials that reflect the general idea that most people have about the Olympics and the Athletes competing in the games. That typical notion is not far off from the idea that only the strongest survive, a message that is a little grating at a time where the pandemic is making another surge, right when we all hoped it would begin to fade away. Nevertheless, numerous commercials encouraged us to strive toward greatness, to be our best, to be strong, to persevere, and to overcome – by purchasing a new Toyota, using an American Express card, or doing/buying whatever the commercial was advertising. With this year’s Olympics, the idea was perhaps a little muted but still present – only the strong survive.
To live with this mindset is effectively to see the world as zero-sum. It is to see the world as split between the strong and the weak, the fit and the unfit, the survivors and everyone else. It is also to be constantly weary of not being enough and fearful of no longer being strong and able to survive. This mindset works within athletics and the Olympics, where people are pushing for gold medals and world records, but it doesn’t fit with life in modern, complex, and cooperative societies. As the woman that Liebow quotes seems to suggest, this mindset can be counterproductive and unhealthy in the real world.
A zero sum mindset means that you have to get all that you can, because if anyone else takes more than you, you are directly harmed. The strength of others is constantly a threat to you – potentially a mortal threat – since you can only guarantee your survival by being the strongest. This mindset also seems to dismiss the poor, the weak, and the disabled. It excuses a lack of concern for them, because our concern must be on making ourselves as fit as can be, and those who are weak are hopeless and helpless. Only one can win gold. The medal can’t be split among all, and trying to help those who you compete against means that you sacrifice your own strength and won’t end up winning in the end. An athlete who stops to check on a fallen competitor doesn’t get the gold, doesn’t get the world record, and doesn’t get the glory.
If instead we chose to believe in human rights, community, and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we have to abandon the idea that only the strong survive. We have to come together as a society and help each other all survive and pursue happiness in our own ways that allow us to work together. We have to create systems and structures that are positive sum, so that we increase the size of the pie, rather than compete for smaller and smaller slices as the strong take the most for themselves. To live in modern society we have to find ways to engage the disabled, to empower those who have been left behind, and to cooperate and coordinate together to make life better for all of us. In the end it is a less stressful and less threatening way to live, even if it means we will miss our individual glory of standing atop the podium, the strongest survivor of them all.

More on the Role of Weapons for Evolution

Weapons reduce the distance between the strongest and weakest members of a group, especially projectile weapons, and change what it means to become a powerful and dominant leader within a social group. When weaker individuals can band together in coalitions with the use of weapons to topple a physically dominant alpha, new skills become more valuable than physical dominance alone.


“Once weapons enter the picture,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain“physical strength is no longer the most crucial factor in determining a hominid’s success within a group. It’s still important, mind you, but not singularly important. In particular, political skill – being able to identify, join, and possibly lead the most effective coalition – takes over as the determining factor.”


Political skills are not so important if your species rarely interacts in groups. If you live mostly in isolation, occasionally meet another member of your species to mate or fight over food, being politically skilled is not too important. Hanson and Simler argue that weapons and a change in power dynamics is what set the human brain on a path toward ever greater evolution. Political skill requires mental acuity, deception, the ability to signal loyalty, and the ability to relate and connect with others. The better your brain is at doing the complex work required for these skills, the more likely you will survive long enough to reproduce. This created the environment for our brains to begin to enlarge, since individuals with bigger brains and more intelligence were generally favored over those who were a little less cognitively capable and therefor less politically and socially skilled.


I think it is interesting and important to consider the factors that shaped human evolution. Understanding how our brain came to be the way it is helps us understand why we act the way we do, why we see certain types of biases in thinking, and how we can overcome mistakes in our ways of thought. By acknowledging that our brains developed to be devious, and that our brains did not develop to give us a perfect view of reality, we can better think about how we design institutions and settings to help us think in the most productive ways possible.