Robert L. Bettinger


On his book Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

Cover Interview of October 19, 2016

The wide angle

Orderly Anarchy is about hunter-gatherer California specifically but has three broader theoretical implications.

The first is that self-interest is central to much of the human evolutionary trajectory. This becomes clear if it is understood that human populations can grow very large, very fast, and yet did not do so until relatively late in time, even though many of the behavioral or technological innovations directly responsible for that growth are of themselves unproblematic. The storage of food, for example, is not technically demanding, yet develops very late in time in California, owing to the freeloader problem mentioned earlier: that freeloaders benefitted from the extra effort expended by others was a strong disincentive to the acquisition and caching of food by individuals beyond their immediate needs. The privatization of food incentivized its acquisition and storage in bulk and the California population almost immediately exploded. I have argued that the development of agriculture was delayed for the same reasons, until the privatization of grown food incentivized that mode of production, and there are doubtless other examples.

The second implication for theory has to do with the course and scope of human cultural evolution, which has traditionally been viewed with respect to the suite of trajectories leading through agriculture to state-level systems as they emerged in Mesoamerica, South America, Africa, and Eurasia. This is certainly an important trajectory, but it ignores the many equally interesting evolutionary trajectories of groups that were hunter-gatherer from start to finish, as though nothing interesting had happened, nothing of importance had evolved, over the thousands of years these groups were in existence. It was largely to correct this misunderstanding that I wrote Orderly Anarchy.

The third implication has to do with the susceptibility of different foods to expropriation, which has to do with where the bulk of labor is expended in their procurement and processing. The basic contrast is between what I have termed front-loaded and back-loaded resources. Front-loaded resources are costly to acquire and store but easy to prepare for consumption. Salmon, for example, require sophisticated technology to capture (spears, nets, traps), and must be carefully dried to prevent spoilage, but from that point on require relatively little to be made ready to eat. In contrast, back-loaded resources are easy to collect and store, but costly to prepare for consumption. Acorns, for example, are easily collected by hand and stored in some sheltered place, but after that must be processed to remove tannic acid before they are consumed, which is very costly. The difference between the front-loaded salmon and back-loaded acorn has huge implications for expropriation. Because most of the work has already been done, caches filled with front-loaded salmon are much more attractive to freeloaders, thieves, and raiders than are caches filled with the back-loaded acorn, for which most of the work has still to be done. There is evidence that some northern California groups that had access to both selected acorns over salmon because acorns entailed less risk of expropriation. The same logic certainly applies more broadly to agricultural crops and industrial products in both ancient and modern contexts.