Robert L. Bettinger


On his book Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

Cover Interview of October 18, 2016

In a nutshell

Orderly Anarchy places the Indians of California in modern evolutionary perspective. It disputes the traditional, stage by stage, cultural evolutionary interpretation in which hunter-gatherers represent a primitive, unevolved stage of a developmental sequence that advances with the development of agriculture, the widening of social inequality, and emergence of ever more complex hierarchical social systems, eventually to civilization and the state. In that view, the simpler forms of social organization centered on the nuclear family or a few such families that characterize many California groups represent the earliest form of human sociopolitical development. Orderly Anarchy shows the opposite: these small social groups are a highly evolved organizational form that appeared quite recently, triggering development of an orderly anarchy: a beneficial arrangement between otherwise autonomous, wholly self-interested family-based units in the absence of a higher level of authority to guarantee their good faith interaction. A question immediately raised is why the California version of orderly anarchy developed so late in time, within the last 1500 years?

Orderly Anarchy argues that this was the result of a major technological breakthrough, the development of bow and arrow technology, which made hunters much more efficient food providers. While this could have encouraged the formation of larger social groupings, in California and the adjacent Great Basin it often had the opposite effect. Groups that once needed to be large, to pool and share scarce resources owing to the inefficiencies of ill-equipped hunters, could now be smaller. Quite surprisingly, this had the effect of incentivizing more intensive plant procurement, which had formerly been discouraged by what is known as the “freeloader problem”, the tendency of individuals to limit their contribution to collective enterprises (in this case the acquisition of costly plant foods), for fear that others will contribute less while enjoying an equal share of the proceeds. The smaller, more closely related groups that developed with the introduction of the bow ended the freeloader problem, and the subsistence balance quickly shifted toward abundant, albeit costly to procure and process, plant foods, the acorn (Quercus spp., Lithocarpus) specifically.

The key development following this shift was the privatization of plant food; the convention that collected plant food was a private, not public, good. This permitted small groups, which had formerly lived in isolation, to pursue intensive plant procurement while co-residing with other groups, secure in the knowledge that the hard work they expended would go to their families exclusively. The capstone development in this trajectory was the development of money, which facilitated on the spot transfer of resources between individuals and families without compromising their autonomy. That gathered food could be sold and the proceeds used to buy other things (dowry, tools, ornaments) further encouraged subsistence intensification. In the upshot of these developments, California became more densely settled than any other place in aboriginal North America - hunter-gatherer or agricultural - while group size remained remarkably small, as shown by the remarkable linguistic diversity one sees in California, which accounts for only 2% of the land, yet nearly a third of all the native languages spoken north of Mexico.