In New Guinea, there is a group of nomadic people called the Fayu. The Fayu are a “group,” but they have little interaction with one another. They live in small families, and only gather together once or twice a year. They’re often violent to one another—one reason why they don’t interact in large groups frequently. Until the end of the last Ice Age, most of the human beings in the world lived in tiny, isolated societies like that of the Fayu. So what factors led humans to develop centralized forms of government and religion?
In this chapter, Diamond will study the formation of the modern state, attempting to answer why humans first began to form large, complex societies a few thousand years ago.
Diamond will use four categories to discuss the formation of government: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. His categories are necessarily imprecise: many kinds of government don’t fit perfectly into any of his categories. Still, they’ll be useful for approximating different “stages” in the history of government. Finally, Diamond defines a state as a government with over 50,000 followers, divided between many cities or villages, with centralized bureaucracy, and a system of written laws used to solve problems.
These four categories are approximations of the many different kinds of societies in human history. As with the other arbitrary categories Diamond uses, they’re chosen to give a sense for the large-scale changes in government over time; i.e., the factors that might have led a society to slowly transition from a recognizable chiefdom to a recognizable state.
A “band” consists merely of dozens of nomadic people and has no complex bureaucracy. People don’t specialize in any single activity or job; everybody hunts or forages for food. There are no true classes; to the extent that bands have leaders, they are just people who distinguish themselves with their strength and intelligence. Examples of bands include the Fayu Jive of New Guinea.
Bands, which are never truly agricultural, offer little to no specialization for their members (everybody has one job, getting food, which they perform with varying degrees of competence)—reinforcing the historical importance of agriculture in stimulating social specialization.
A tribe has hundreds of members, who reside in one fixed place. All members of a tribe tend to know one another closely, and as a result, any conflicts in the tribe are resolved personally (whereas in a country like the U.S., conflict resolutions involve going to court and speaking to a judge). Tribes do not need police or written laws, because everyone knows everyone else; the social pressure of family and kin maintains order. Examples of bands include the New Guinea highlanders.
Tribes are distinguished by the supremacy of family and family structures. Notice that Diamond classifies societies largely based on how order is preserved. While there are leaders and rulers in a tribe, the true source of order isn’t the leader himself, but rather an omnipresent family or community structure that connects everyone.
A chiefdom consists of many thousands of people, meaning that the structures of conflict resolution that dominated bands and tribes no longer work. Because people don’t necessarily know one another personally, they rely on the chief—the only one in the chiefdom who’s permitted to use violence—to settle all disputes. Chiefs usually rule by hereditary right. Beneath the chief, there are many different classes in society: artisans, hunters, etc. In return for the chiefdom’s leadership and help in settling disputes, the people in a chiefdom honor the chief with gifts, food, and other luxuries—the “tribute.”
One of the most important aspects of the chiefdom is the chief’s monopoly on violence. (Interestingly, the social scientist Max Weber, who lived more than a century before Diamond, defined the state as the form of government that monopolizes violence). At their best, chiefs provide a service—they moderate disputes and lead the people to military victory—and therefore demand payment in the form of a tangible tribute.
The important thing to notice in a chiefdom is that the chief receives money from his followers, which he can use either for his own selfish gain or for the betterment of the chiefdom as a whole. One could argue that a chiefdom is a kleptocracy (a society in which the people are deprived of their wealth for the benefit of the leader). But at the same time, a chief could use his people’s wealth to help them—not unlike the way a benevolent American president like George Washington used taxes to build public works that benefited most people in America.
The notion of the kleptocracy is useful for understanding the chiefdom and the state, because the leaders of these forms of government couldn’t maintain their power unless they persuaded their people to part with their own possessions. While the classification of kleptocracy might seem harsh, Diamond points out that it need not be—a leader can either squander his people’s wealth or use the wealth to help everyone.
The challenge for a kleptocratic leader, Diamond argues, is controlling the people while also depriving them of their wealth. Some kleptocrats throughout history have tried to disarm the populace to prevent them from rebelling, or make the populace happy by spending the wealth in popular ways. Kleptocrats also try to convince their people to obey them by maintaining order: thus, the people are paying a tribute in return for a useful service.
One could argue that it’s human nature to want to keep one’s belongings—therefore, the kleptocrats have their work cut out for them in persuading their people to pay a tribute. Kleptocrats, one could say, use “sticks and carrots” to persuade their subjects—they threaten to hurt the people who don’t pay, or else try to convince the people that it’s in their own best interest to pay.
The final way that a kleptocrat can encourage the people to obey him is to create a religion that justifies his own power. Many chiefs are also religious leaders in their chiefdoms, and spend much of the tribute on large religious structures. By popularizing religion, chiefs not only encourage their followers to respect and worship them; they also convince their followers to sacrifice their lives for their chiefdom in times of war.
Diamond’s observations about religion could be regarded as cynical, but, as before, he’s just describing social history as he sees it. Here, he argues that religions, regardless of their objective “truthfulness,” historically play a useful role in maintaining order in society.
The final kind of government that Diamond will discuss is a state—the government likely to be most familiar to a 21st century person. The earliest states were governed by hereditary leaders—for the most part, kings. Today, there are state democracies with elected officials. Yet even here, the elected officials have a near-monopoly on information and power. States have more complex and wide-ranging programs of economic redistribution than chiefdoms—people pay a kind of “tribute” called taxes. And in a state, people are specialized to the point where almost no one is self-sufficient; citizens of a state rely on one another.
The major difference between the state and the chiefdom, apart from the state’s greater size, is the greater complexity of society. Citizens of a state generally lack true self-sufficiency; they’ve become so specialized that they only know one small portion of what it takes to survive. Furthermore, states have extensive hierarchies of power, such that the central leadership can pass orders down to local leaders, who in turn enact these orders in society.
Early states had greater social hierarchy and specialization than chiefdoms: people who served the state government had different levels of power. Also, early state governments had different departments: someone who served the government could focus on law, taxes, the military, etc. Early states also had strong religious traditions, with the king often considered a divine being.
States, like chiefdoms, rely on specialization, kleptocracy, and religion. Religion is arguably even more important in a state than in a chiefdom, because states encompass a larger number of people who need to be united together around the same system of ideas.
In the last 10,000 years or so, the overarching trend of human history has involved the formation of more states and the dissolution or annihilation of tribes, chiefdoms, and bands. States are more powerful than other forms of government because of their size, their citizens with a military specialization, and their strong patriotic fervor, which convinces citizens to fight to the death for their rulers. Patriotism is almost inconceivable among tribes or bands: among the New Guinean Fayu, for example, the notion of dying for one’s state or king would be jeered. Diamond hypothesizes that the religious fervor that has driven some Christians and Muslims to die for God or Allah did not exist before the rise of chiefdoms and states 6,000 years ago.
Perhaps even more important than religion in the maintenance of a state is patriotism. Patriotism could be considered a religion in which the “ultimate” is the good of one’s state itself, rather than a god. (In many of the earliest states, religion and patriotism were one and the same, since the religious leader of the state was also the government leader.) Without patriotism, states would fall apart—such large, diverse groups of people would see no reason to protect one another or sacrifice their interests for the sake of the group.
For a long time, people have tried to understand how states arise. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that “man is a social animal,” meaning that it’s inevitable for people to gather together and form a state. The 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued instead that people agree to form states in a process called the social contract: people sacrifice some of their freedoms in order to gain the protection of the state. Both Rousseau and Aristotle have been disproven over the years: human beings form all sorts of communities that aren’t the state, and there are no known cases of humans literally agreeing to form a social contract, either.
For a long time, the people who theorized about the emergence of the state weren’t really scientists in the modern sense—they didn’t examine the data and draw appropriate conclusions from it. As a result, many of their ideas have since been disproven with evidence—there’s no empirical reason to believe that humans sit down and agree to a social contract, for example.
There’s a lot of data suggesting that regional population size and density correlates with the rise of a complex state. But it’s not clear why dense populations decide to form a state, or whether dense population is a cause or an effect of state formation.
As with many of the other variables discussed in the book, Diamond will have to determine whether state formation and population density is the dependent or independent variable.
One thing that stimulates the growth of a complex society is intensified food production—the agricultural innovations discussed in Part 2. Agriculture and social complexity stimulate each other. Agriculture stimulates social complexity in several ways: 1) because agriculture involves storing food for long periods, it gives farmers the free time to work for a centralized political leader, 2) agriculture can create food surpluses, which can then be used to compensate scribes, craftspeople, and other elites for their (technically nonessential) work, and 3) agriculture allows people to live more sedentary lives, which gives them the ability to accumulate possessions and therefore experiment with technology and crafts.
Diamond finds that agriculture and social complexity reinforce one another, for the reasons he discusses in this passage. As Diamond will discuss at the end of his Epilogue, social science of the kind he practices here can be more challenging than other forms of science precisely because so many of the variables reinforce one another—i.e., they’re both dependent and independent.
The state is by far the most successful and efficient form of government for a society of more than a few hundred people. There are at least four reasons why: 1) in a large society, people don’t necessarily know each other; therefore the kinship structures used to mitigate conflicts in a tribe or band break down, 2) in a large society, communal decision making becomes impractical—there isn’t enough time for everyone in the society to weigh in on what to do, as in a band, 3) in a large society, it’s inefficient to trade goods directly with another person, as in a band or tribe. It’s more convenient to transfer goods through a centralized authority of some kind, and 4) large groups of people have access to less space per person than do people in bands or tribes. Therefore, they have to depend on other people who may have better access to certain resources. For example, in a band of 20 people roaming around within five square miles, everyone would have essentially the same access to the same resources within that space. With a state of 100,000 people living sedentarily within the same space, certain people would have better access to certain resources, and people would have to trade resources, leading to specialization. In all, large societies cannot function as bands—they work best as kleptocracies (chiefdoms or states).
In this long section, Diamond discuss the different reasons why the state is the ideal form of government for a large group of people. With a small group of people, local forms of organization like family and face-to-face trading can survive. But in a large group with hundreds of thousands of people, there will inevitably be some exchanges and interactions between different families, people from different communities, and people with different jobs and backgrounds. Here, family and direct trade are no longer so efficient or successful—there needs to be a strong, central form of leadership to ensure that trades are fair, people treat each other with respect, etc.—a service for which the leaders are compensated with a tribute or tax. Again Diamond goes back to his original arguments, contrasting denser agricultural societies with smaller groups of hunter-gatherers.
How do small societies actually change into large states? Largely, the process is a matter of natural selection. The most stable, organized bands and tribes survive over the years while the weaker ones (those run with poor leadership or disloyal people) collapse and die out. Moreover, stable, organized bands stand a better chance of defeating other bands, leading to larger and larger societies. In essence, tribes tend to either die out or conquer other tribes and grow. There are also occasions when tribes merge voluntarily—for instance, in 19th century America, Native American tribes merged to form the Cherokee state.
As we’ve already seen, there is no perfect distinction between a state and a chiefdom, and therefore, no single moment when a society stops being a chiefdom and starts to be a state. However, structures of statecraft tend to emerge as tribes group together, until there are hundreds of thousands of people present in the same society.
Now Diamond raises a question: if people have always fought one another, why didn’t bands merge into large tribes before 13,000 years ago? The answer has to do with the fate of tribes after they’ve lost a war. In general, defeated tribes 1) run away to new territory, if population densities are low, 2) are murdered, if population densities are moderate, or 3) are enslaved and put to work, if population densities are high. The three options hold true for most of recorded history. Therefore, it wasn’t until the agricultural revolution, when population densities became higher, that tribes began to merge into large states.
Smaller groups of people will tend to merge with one another, either voluntarily or through military conquest. With the rise of the agriculture, it finally became feasible for societies to enslave or assimilate conquered peoples instead of just killing them—thus, by conquering others, societies became much larger and more stratified.
To conclude: “food production, and competition and diffusion between societies” led to vast differences in civilizations’ “germs, writing, technology, and centralized political organization.”
We’ve now seen how early differences in agricultural production can lead to large, apparent differences in the size, technological capability, and political organization of a society.