Anthropologists on the state of nature

Notes for February 20

Main points

Hobbes’s justification of the state depends on his ability to show that life without the state would be full of conflict and violence. He has a plausible story about why that would be so. But that’s no substitute for the facts.

As it happens, there is a debate among anthropologists between so-called Hobbesians and so-called Rousseauians about whether non-state societies are more or less violent than societies with states. The Hobbesians or hawks maintain that the rates of violent death are many times greater in non-state societies. The Rousseauians or doves maintain that war and high homicide rates are attributable to the state.

Archaeological vs. ethnographic data

There are two kinds of evidence: archeological and ethnographic. Ethnographic data comes from observations of non-state societies. Archaeological data comes from digging up the remains of ancient societies.

The eye-popping numbers about the rate of violent homicide come from the ethnographic studies. Doves like Ferguson maintain that the groups in these studies have all had contact with states and that their violent behavior is a consequence of that contact. So hawks need to show that the violence reported in the ethnographic studies isn’t an artifact of contact with the state. They try to do so in two ways. First, they look for groups that haven’t made contact with states: if the levels of violence are similar, that suggests the ethnographic evidence is genuine. Second, they look for archaeological evidence of widespread violence. That would have come before the state and so it would bolster their interpretation of the ethnographic surveys.

Gat does something interesting as well. He has an evolutionary explanation of the sources of human violence: for males, it’s a good strategy for getting food and women and so it fosters reproductive success. As evidence for his view, he tries to show that violence in primitive societies is similar to that among non-human animals. That suggests a common, evolutionary explanation

And Hobbes?

Three things struck me about this material.

First, even the doves concede that war started with agriculture and that scarcity is a cause of conflict. Both points are in line with what Hobbes said.

“if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass, that where an invader hath no more to fear, than another man’s single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.” (Leviathan, 13.3)

So even if the anthropological doves showed that violence is only natural to human beings who practice agriculture or experience scarcity, I think Hobbes could live with it. That’s enough, for him, to paint a grim picture “of the natural condition of mankind.”

Second, I was really interested in Gat’s analysis of first strikes. Roughly, the story begins with an observation that human beings are the only species in which adults regularly kill other adults. Gat hypothesizes that they do this because they have tools that enable them to kill adults at minimal risk to themselves, provided they achieve surprise. That sounded very much like Hobbes.

Third, even if hunter-gatherers lived peacefully, it’s not obvious to me that we could get back to that idyllic life. Even if that is a way of living that does not involve high levels of violence, I don’t see it as an alternative for us. So even if the state has corrupted us, we probably still need it.

On imperialism

One thing Ferguson said is that Hobbes provides a rationale for imperialism. If you buy Hobbes’s story about how bad life is without the state, then you can see a rationale for colonization: it gets the natives out of the brutal war of all against all.Ferguson, “Tribal Warfare”, Scientific American (1992), 108–109.

I don’t know how seriously he meant that. The colonial powers don’t seem to have taken their responsibilities as governors too seriously, so it’s a very weak justification for imperialism. And I’m sure Ferguson believes that they were motivated by their own interests rather than concern for the natives. Maybe he just means that this was a way of easing their consciences.

Hobbes himself, for what it’s worth, cast a rather dim eye on conquests. Among “those things that weaken … a commonwealth” is

“… the insatiable appetite, or βουλιμια [Bulimia], of enlarging dominion; with the incurable wounds thereby many times received from the enemy; and the wens, of ununited conquests, which are many times a burthen, and with less danger lost, than kept; as also the lethargy of ease, and consumption of riot and vain expense.” (Leviathan, 29.22)


Julio said he had read that Somalia is doing OK with anarchy. If so, that’s a problem for Hobbes. I asked for references and he supplied them.

  3. Migration patterns:
  4. Finally, a paper entitled “Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse”.
This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 28, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar