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Peter J. Wilson: The Domestication of the Human Species
(Yale University Press:1988)


“Anyone who writes today about tribal, peasant, rural, village, Neolithic, or domesticated societies invariably does so from the perspective of membership in an urban industrial society. This includes anthroplogists as much as sociologists and historians.... From this point of view ‘they,’ the other world of tribespeople, ‘natives,’ and peasants, live in societies that are ‘kinship based,’...where we have developed democracy, they espouse one way of thinking while we embrace another: they are ‘pre-logical’ or ‘bricoleurs’ while we are scientifically rational; they are pre-literate but we are literate; they are pre-capitalist, we are capitalist; they are pre-modern, we are modern. They tend to lack privacy whereas the right to privacy and freedom is central to our view of life; they are close to nature and we are buffered from nature by our technology; they are collectivist and we are individualist; they tend to emphasize the social costs and benefits of undertakings whereas we accentuate the rational, economic aspects in a search for efficiency. The position we take is one that looks back and across from the urban society of which we are members.... What I want to do is to look at ethnography’s societies (or what I shall call domesticated society) from a ‘Paleolithic’ viewpoint, from the basis of [mobile] hunter/gatherer society.... Instead of looking back and down, I shall try to look up and around.”
(Wilson, pp.ix-x)

Now, that is a fascinating prospect... And, however flawed the attempt may be - albeit I would argue that it is is astonishingly successful - to attempt it at all is to try to be true to the actual course of human social history. In doing so, I believe Wilson has unearthed one of the key transitions in human thinking which are so difficult to conceptualize properly...and one that has been even more neglected than the oral/literate divide, to the extent that this is the only text to seriously address the question.

But first, a brief note on terminology. Wilson’s model clearly (and I think, correctly) draws a major distinction between mobile and settled “hunter/gatherer” societies, reserving that traditional term for the former, contrary to regular anthroplogical practice. The reason for this is simple: the latter, like us, are “domesticated”.


“In trying to see beyond the ethographic trees to the evolutionary wood, I think I discern that a major modification of the human organism, namely in its ability to pay attention, occurred when a major cultural innovation, domestication, was adopted. This has not hitherto been considered even as a possibility in the body of social theory, while it has been considerably downplayed by archaeologists in favor of agriculture and pastoralism.... My purpose is to point out that, from a  hunter/gatherer point of view, domestication is the most radical and far-reaching innovation that happened, and to try therefore to analyze its consequences.... There may be cultural variations of domestication, but if there are, they are variations on a theme. And what I want to do is establish the theme.”
(Wilson, pp.xi-xiii)

As Wilson argues, “hunter/gatherers govern, organize, and monitor their interaction and activity by an uninterrupted and unimpeded attention...in contrast to domesticated societies, which are distinguished by an emphasis upon the boundary” (Wilson, p.5). In order to flesh this out, however, he has had to develop the best comprehensive theory of hunter/gatherer social organization I’ve yet seen:


“Hunter/gatherer nomadic groups are small, face-to-face units that range over [large territories].... The prime way in which tension is relieved and open conflict forestalled is by exercising what Albert Hirschman has gone on to elaborate as the ‘exit option’,...[and] the relation of person to materials is basically one of sharing, [which] is an ethical rather than a natural or altruistic relationship..... Hunter/gatherers revolve around a focus, sometimes physically, always spiritually and socially.... Since these foci and zones are unbounded they can hardly exclude others. But people moving in and out come within and move out of a ‘zone of influence’ or of another’s belonging, and it is in this respect that ‘permission’ is asked (and granted) to enter. This is a way of life that emphasizes openness, and I suggest that any notion of closure such as might be imposed by the concept of a boundary is foreign. On the other hand, any tendency for formlessness or anarchy is counteracted by emphasizing focus, attraction, identification with, and belonging to.”
(Wilson, pp.28-30)

Privacy is created via “civil inattention” rather than boundaries - a key example of the heightened sensitivity to interpersonal affect characteristic of such groups; as is their marked aversion to violence, and frequent reserve in bearing. Similarly, reputation is essentially a limited & private matter, which does not spill over into general affairs, thus forestalling incipient hierarchy in a manner which is strongly enforced, as Christopher Boehm has also carefully analyzed in Hierarchy in the Forest:


“The supremely competent or the supremely self-reliant individual is not held up as an ideal, or rewarded in any way by others. On the contrary...the individual who boasts of his or her skill, of generosity, or of any achievements, is quickly put down in no uncertain terms.... [And] valued though self-sufficiency may be, the fear of abandonment and of an involuntary independence is deeply felt.... Self-sufficiency and abandonment are continuous but contrasting, yet both illustrate the social quality of life. Self-sufficiency, or independence, is admirable not because it allows one person to do without others but because it minimizes the demands of one person on another, and thereby reduces the extent of intrusion and the accumulation of obligations. By reducing intrusion people gain authority over themselves, and by reducing obligation individuals reduce the degree of commitment and formality among themselves. One could say, perhaps, that commitment and formality are excluded as elements of social structure, and in this way issues of power in social relations are diminished, although not excluded.... Commitments are personal, not formal, institutionalized, or rule governed. Relationships [including kinship] are activated and animated through proximity, and proximity is determined by affection and friendliness rather than any formal or even ideal ‘norm’ of status. Neither extreme competition nor extreme cooperation have any place in hunter/gatherer social psychology because they require formal structure and rules, which are incompatible with a way of life that rides with the environment instead of attempting to control it.”
(Wilson, pp.33-5)

The resulting picture of “the” hunter/gatherer ethos thus developed is startlingly coherent - particularly to someone all-too-familiar with the “negative” approaches which dominate the ethnographic literature, in which their societies appear to be mostly characterized by what they lack. On this count alone, The Domestication of the Human Species amply deserves its inclusion here. But, this is merely the start of Wilson’s argument. Returning to the contrast proposed earlier, he then procedes to perform as advertised: attempting to characterize “domesticated” society from the vantage-point of our hunter/gatherer forebears, as well as frequently making observations which also suggest unusual parallels to our modern urban “post-domestic” lifeways and values.


“Domestic society made many technological achievements, and archaeologists have given them much attention. But...what to my mind is among the farthest reaching...has been almost completely overlooked. This is the creation in space of a distinction between the private and the public, accompanied by ideological and behavioral analogues, built upon this structural division.”
(Wilson, pp.165-6)

“The development of domestication ‘meant,’ among other things, the construction of a technology that simultaneously enhanced the opportunities for concentration by erecting physical barriers against intrusion and interruption; reduced the chances of distraction; and hindered the free-flow capacity of people to pay attention to one another as an undifferentiated feature of the routine of everyday life. The unexpected positive advantages of a materialization of privacy helped set the scene for an expansion of creativity.... The unexpected negative drawbacks of such privacy added complicating factors to human interrelationships and communication.... [But] the privacy I have claimed came into being through domestication is not the privacy within a house, the privacy we associate with intimacy, but the privacy between houses and their respective members.... Because domesticated privacy is between houses and households, rather than within them and between individuals, privacy assumes a high degree of political and moral significance.”
(Wilson, pp.176-9)

Arguably, it is only since the rise of individual privacy, mass literacy & economic “rationality” that we have started to move decisively out of the “domesticated” mindset, with the consequence that the latter is now difficult for us to properly conceptualize...even for anthropologists:


“Although virtually every study of tribal, or Neolithic, people ever made has been of a village or some similar community, the reality that these villagers live together as neighbors has received little if any conceptual recognition. Instead the ethnography of domesticated people has been conceptualized as revolving around kinship structures.... [But] kinship, rather than being the primordial basis by which people organize their relationships and govern their lives is...a dialectic response to the problems of a domestication, especially the problems deriving from privacy.... Kinship and descent...are, to put it bluntly, not the empirical but the fictional structures of an ideal or hoped for unity.... [Still,] it has a strong ideological function to play as both a reinforcement for the weaknesses of domestication, and a counterweight to the inherent individualism of such a life. In effect, kinship, and especially descent, by virtue of their emphasis on generation, genealogy, and ancestors, contribute in a most important way to the creation of a sense of permanence, one of the primary aspirations of Neolithic life.”
(Wilson, pp.168-9)

Another crucial sign of domesticated life, as Wilson sees it, is the rise of social paranoia, most dramatically expressed by the accusations of witchcraft which are alien to hunter/gatherer belief systems. The flipside to this is the creation of hospitality as display...which (along w/storage) creates the possibility of big men, chiefs, and - eventually - the spectacular forms of archaic display we still marvel at to this day.


“Common good or no, in the course of everyday living in a domesticated environment people living in separate households can, under the cloak of privacy, pursue courses of action that may undermine the life and programs of people living in nearby households, their neighbors.... There is, therefore, an intrinsic undercurrent in Neolithic life that may, according to circumstances, become more or less explicit: an undercurrent of curiosity that may become suspicion, an undercurrent of caution that may become paranoia, an undercurrent of inquiry that may become surveillance.... They are part of the routine of daily life.”
(Wilson, pp.166-7)

“Whether kinship or economic relations are fundamental, once people become domesticated they must confront and are confronted by...the structure of relations between people as neighbors, and as host and guest.... Hospitality, as well as victualing, is the controlled exposure of the private in public. A controlled exposure is a display or exhibition.”
(Wilson, pp.112-14)

“Granted, then, that precapitalist economies are submerged in the social, they do not work by rational economic thinking and are not motivated by the design for economic or purely material gain.... But respect and social standing, which is what no less an economist than Adam Smith claims to be exchangeable, are not material. It is therefore perfectly possible and logical that the material product of labor is not the object or aim of the labor, but the means...[and that] what is exchanged is labor (work) for respect (esteem or prestige). The tangible objects that might change hands (or more often, as I shall claim, the displays offered for consumption) are merely indicators of the real goods: labor, effort, ingenuity, talent, and skill. And these are exchanged for commensurate goods - prestige, reputation, esteem, rank, and so on. [And] economic rationality is quantitative; literally, it is the ratio of cost to product measured in numbers. Precapitalist or domesticated rationality is qualitative, and though numbers or relative size may still be a factor,...the objects produced under this form of rationality are more likely to stress quality, beauty, refinement, or whatever aesthetic properties are valued in a particular culture.”
(Wilson, pp.80-81)

“The mandala centered on Angkor Wat or Isanapura, or a brilliant court society such as that of the Sun King at Versailles, differ more in degree than in kind from the simple domestic structure of the Para-Pirana longhouse.... The break came when the politics of the household separated from the politics of the kingdom, and each gained its own chambers.... This class of domestic states, which is the limit of the political possibilities of the household, is missing from the classifications of political systems.... [Such] magnificent monuments of departed civilizations are the pinnacles of Neolithic aspiration. They are what other, humbler domesticated societies would like to have become.”
(Wilson, pp.161-4)

Not content with elucidating this pattern - which would be very difficult to deny - Wilson also ventures into more speculative philosophical territory, arguing that the human conceptual world was also radically transformed during this process. And, although such arguments are much more difficult to support, it seems clear enough that the weight of evidence along these lines is definitely in Wilson’s favour.


“Between oral and written traditions there exists architecture as both a mode of information communication and storage and a tool of thought....Even without writing many Neolithic cultures advanced geometry and the arts based upon it: this was their ‘scientific’ accomplishment, and it is in perfect accord with modern scientific thought. We are the direct heirs of Neolithic geometry and the arts and sciences that derive from it: tonal music, perspective painting, architecture, mechanics, ballistics, formal gardens, town planning, and theater, to mention but a few.... The cosmological symbolism of the house, the palace, the temple, the tomb, and the city not only has its own development within cultures and civilizations; it is solid evidence of the communication and information storage functions of buildings as well as their political functions....The building is a diagram of the system. This diagrammatic quality is what seems to me most distinctive about the role of the structure of place in domesticated life.... People coming into the society, whether as strangers or particularly as children, have in their built surroundings a diagram of how the system works.... This is neither the only information available nor the only mode by which principles are represented; myth, rituals, and precedent present the same information and ideals in different forms. But in architecture and settlement plans a person’s and a people’s visual and material diagram of themselves is presented most systematically and, perhaps, invariantly. This, I claim, is a primary reason why Neolithic domesticated societies strike ethnographic observers as living their lives as if with some sort of reference to a structure, whereas observers trained in the same tradition but studying hunter/gatherers, have great difficulty overlaying their thought and practice onto a structure. Domesticated society is founded on and dominated by the elementary and original structure, the building, which serves not just as shelter but as diagram and, more generally, as the source for metaphors of structure that make possible the social construction and reconstruction of reality. Hunter/gatherers, or people who organize social life by focus, might be described as using maps rather than diagrams, by modes of thought that concentrate upon locating people and relocating them - in the environment and vis-a-vis each other.... But in domestic life location tends to be fixed, and the increasingly important fact is to know how things ought to be if they are going to work properly, as expected.”
(Wilson, pp.152-4)

“The most far-reaching difference between open and domesticated societies...is that in the former the sense of structure and constraint is tacit, subjective, personal, and focused, whereas in the latter it is explicit, embodied, objective, and externally bounded. The source of this difference, its origin, lies in the adoption of architecture as the permanent living environment.... In a very real sense the adoption of architecture is an acceptance of structure and constraint.... But this difference does not mean that informal behavior and relations are superseded or canceled. It seems rather that they come to be conducted in the shadow of the social structure.”
(Wilson, pp.77-8)

Peter J. Wilson’s The Domestication of the Human Species is a genuinely important work, which sets the stage for rethinking many of our most basic assumptions in social theory, not to mention portraying a key shift in our social & cognitive world. Although little-known outside specialist circles, it amply deserves a much wider readership, which should have no trouble with Wilson’s clear and incisive prose. And, much like Eric Havelock’s The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics - not to mention Christopher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest - it also provides a strong historical precedent for reconsidering how “natural” our current apologetics for hierarchy and social power actually are:


“We take living with a roof over our heads, and within four walls, so much for granted as the fulfillment of a “need” for shelter, that we really have not questioned whether shelter is a   natural fact of life, and whether it makes a difference to the way we are.... Organizing aggressive drives into a military pattern is an accomplishment of civilization. It is nearly impossible to infer such organization from Paleolithic archaeology, but evidence of such an organization becomes increasingly insistent in the archaeology of the Neolithic era, the period of the domestication of society. The ethnographic parallel is that organized fighting is rarely reported for contemporary hunter/gatherer peoples, but is commonplace among domesticated peoples. We must reckon this organization of aggression, as well as other modes such as gossip, witchcraft, displays, the evil eye, and so on, as being amon the evolved characteristics of civilization or domestic society, in the same way we acknowledge pottery, sculpture, or writing to be among the constituents of civilization.”
(Wilson, pp.180-1)



John Henry Calvinist