May 28, 2013

Coevolution of farming and private property rights

PNAS May 28, 2013 vol. 110 no. 22

Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene

Samuel Bowles, and Jung-Kyoo Choi

The advent of farming around 12 millennia ago was a cultural as well as technological revolution, requiring a new system of property rights. Among mobile hunter–gatherers during the late Pleistocene, food was almost certainly widely shared as it was acquired. If a harvested crop or the meat of a domesticated animal were to have been distributed to other group members, a late Pleistocene would-be farmer would have had little incentive to engage in the required investments in clearing, cultivation, animal tending, and storage. However, the new property rights that farming required—secure individual claims to the products of one’s labor—were infeasible because most of the mobile and dispersed resources of a forager economy could not cost-effectively be delimited and defended. The resulting chicken-and-egg puzzle might be resolved if farming had been much more productive than foraging, but initially it was not. Our model and simulations explain how, despite being an unlikely event, farming and a new system of farming-friendly property rights nonetheless jointly emerged when they did. This Holocene revolution was not sparked by a superior technology. It occurred because possession of the wealth of farmers—crops, dwellings, and animals—could be unambiguously demarcated and defended. This facilitated the spread of new property rights that were advantageous to the groups adopting them. Our results thus challenge unicausal models of historical dynamics driven by advances in technology, population pressure, or other exogenous changes. Our approach may be applied to other technological and institutional revolutions such as the 18th- and 19th-century industrial revolution and the information revolution today.



klevius said...

I'm surprised not to find myself in their citation list although I did this work deeper and more carefully already back in 1992 (available on line since 2004) with some assistance by George Henrik von Wright (Wittgenstein's successor at Cambridge).

I quote from the summary: Sedentism is a consequence of expanded demands for resources (EDFR) but not a necessary outcome. What was needed was a suitable climate with domesticable plants/animals (i.e. what was missing in other places during late Pleistocene/early Holocene, which produced high quality artefacts and sofisticated cultural traits without evolving into what we use to name civilizations). Why have humans been both progressive and static in their cultural development over time, and how is this connected to evolution? You want/demand what you need but you do not necessarily need what you want/demand.The latter is here described as Expanded Demand For Resources (EDFR). By using this as a basis a new way of characterizing human societies/cultures becomes possible. Departuring from C. Levi-Strauss idea on "warm" and "cold" societies, civilized societies are here described as representing dynamics, hence contrasting against the more static appearance of the economic setting (lack of investment) of e.g. hunter-gatherers. As a result the following categories emerge:

A. Uncivilized without EDFR
B Affected by EDFR but still retaining a simplistic, "primitive" way of life.
C. Civilized with EDFR

These categories are, of course, only conceptual. Applied to a conventional classification the following pattern appears:

1 The "primitive" stage when all were hunter/gatherers (A, according to EDFR classification).
2 Nomads (A, B, C).
3 Agrarians (B, C).
4 Civilized (C).

shenandoah said...

"Communism freed the Indian from ambition to acquire wealth as anarchy freed him from temptation to seek power. It made him improvident of the future, minimized class distinctions, reemphasized cooperation, promoted tribal solidarity. ...He held women in high regard, admitting them to share his private labors as well as his public counsels, imparting to them secrets which they frequently, unpenalized and apparently uncriticized, revealed, and conceding to them a freedom of action and immunity to regulation such as modern women have nowhere obtained" [R.S. Cotterill, Southern Indians: The Story of the Civilized Tribes before Removal (Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1954]

... "There is not a pauper in that Nation, and that Nation does not owe a dollar. It built its own capital, in which we had this examination, and built its schools and hospitals. Yet, the defect in this system was apparent. They have gone as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common. It is Henry George's system, and under that there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till these people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the lands he cultivates, they will not make much progress "[Senator Henry Dawes quoted in Janey Hendrix, "Redbird Smith and The Nighthawk Keetoowahs." Journal of Cherokee Studies 8 (Fall, 19)

Senator Henry Dawes' (ie the Dawes Rolls, upon which my people were forced to be documented and registered -- by non-Indians -- in order to retain or maintain our ethnic identity, mainly for the purpose of ~excluding as many people as possible from receiving justified legal, material compensations) definition of "progress": accumulation of wealth.

andrew said...

The open access paper's summary of the historical detail is quite good, but the mathematical modeling and game theory adds almost nothing that isn't patently obvious from the statement of the assumptions and conjectures involved. The math isn't doing any of the real work in this paper.

Also, the paper is not at all convincing on the score that people converted from foraging to farming while acting on their own best interests despite producing half of the calories per person.

Jim said...

" What was needed was a suitable climate with domesticable plants/animals (i.e. what was missing in other places during late Pleistocene/early Holocene, which produced high quality artefacts and sofisticated cultural traits without evolving into what we use to name civilizations). "

Klevius, that may have been needed in some habitats but not in all. There are habitats where the density of food is such that foraging will support sedentarism - California, the Pacific Northwest, pre-agricultural Japan, probably pre-agricultural northern Europe around the the North Sea.

klevius said...

The populous big scale structures in large fertile river deltas in an enough warm and light geographical setting were, at least back in the early 1990's, generally seen as the epitome of "civilizations", spiced with some prejudice against other cultural forms of human life.

The summary continues: As a consequence EDFR (expanded demand for resources) is here used as a concept tied to civilization (and its preliminary stage). The above also suggests a critique against our conventional conception of a simplistic connection between intelligence and performance as exemplified by C. Popper's scenario of a World 1-3 transition of human cultural development.

So, in short, whereas Marx, from his 19th century point of view, took economical greed for granted in all human societies, EDFR sees more thorough financial investment as a new phenomenon in the evolution of human societies.

Katharós said...

Inbreeding for instance is a strategy of agricultural communities to keep property among themselves, because small pieces of land are inefficient. Inheriting land with all its movable goods would therefore be of essential importance as a strategy of survival, still a common practice among Middle Eastern agriculturalists.

Grant said...

It seems to me that a fundamental premise here puts cart before horse (so to speak).

Doesn't it make more logical sense that some forms and notions of private property -- especially exclusive familiar or individual hunting rights -- preceded herding/crop-growing?

For instance, in 1798 David Collins, who 10 years earlier had been the first Judge-Advocate and Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, wrote about the indigenous Eora people of the Sydney area, especially a man called Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo.

"Their spears and shields, their clubs and lines, etc are their own property; they are manufactured by themselves and are the whole of their personal estate. But, strange as it may appear, they have also their real estates. Bennillong [Bennelong] often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was _his_own_property;_ that it was his father's [before him]. To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo [Barangaroo] feasting and enjoying themselves on it. [Bennillong] told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property..." [emphasis added]. (David Collins, Appendix IX, "Property", in: Collins,_An Account Of The English Colony In New South Wales: With Remarks On The Dispositions, Customs, Manners, Etc, Of The Native Inhabitants Of That Colony; London, T. Cadell Jr & W. Davies.)