Tag Archives: huntingandgathering

The Kindness of Strangers

There is no other species that is as dependent on cooperation as humans are, even on the basic level of trying to get enough calories to meet basic health needs. Humans evolved to be completely dependent on mothers and other caregivers for the first several years of life, unique to our species. And we continue to cooperate with others through the rest of life in order to accomplish countless other tasks.

One important cooperative task for our ancestors was large-game hunting. Large-game hunting, as physical anthropologists have documented, is mostly an exercise in despair and disappointment. Most days of hunting are failures, with nothing to show for them. However, our ancestors were able to ensure themselves against those failures by sharing with each other, especially when they were successful in bringing down big animals that could be shared with multiple families and households. Ancestral humans also cooperated in processing the other foods, aside from meat, that they gathered from their environments, but communally sharing the spoils of hunting is a big deal because of meat’s nutritional density and support for survival.

In more recent times, there are other historical touchstones that have helped to illuminate the trajectory of concern for strangers, such as the development of the Golden Rule; the philosophical and scientific writings of people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith, who gave us the ideas of natural rights, individual dignity, and distributive justice; and the Geneva Conventions in the 20th century, which insisted on basic humanitarian norms for nations. We started on the path to interdependence as hunter-gatherers, but for the past several thousand years we have been capable of using our intellect, creativity, evolved frontal lobes, and inventiveness to significantly stretch our capacity to care about the welfare of strangers.

In these times of pandemic and social chaos, we need to remember this more than ever. 

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