It’s our innate evolved form of government

Monday, September 26th, 2022

Erik Hoel describes the gossip trap:

Given that humans have been around for 200,000 years, why did civilization take so long to get started? Why were we stuck in prehistory for so long?


If we imagine being transported back to 50,000 BC, what would we expect to find? In the end, we have to give a metaphor to current life of how things were organized: a follower of Rousseau would expect Burning Man, a follower of Hobbes might expect to find a bunch of warring gangs, the Davids might expect to find the deliberation of a town council full of Kandiaronks.

But perhaps small groups of humans less than the Dunbar number were organized by none of these, since they didn’t need to be—instead, they could be organized via raw social power. That is, you don’t need a formal chief, nor an official council, nor laws or judges. You just need popular people and unpopular people.

After all, who sits with who is something that comes incredibly naturally to humans — it is our point of greatest anxiety and subject to our constant management. This is extremely similar to the grooming hierarchies of primates, and, presumably, our hominid ancestors. So 50,000 BC might be a little more like a high school than anything else.

I know the high school metaphor sounds crazy, but given that any metaphor we’re going to give will fail, I think this one possibly fails less than the others. After all, the central message of The Dawn of Everything is that prehistorical people were just people, with all the weirdness, politicking, cultural hilarity and differentness this implies. But, unlike what the Davids seem to want, most people aren’t Kandiaronk — he was exceptional. Most people are not exceptional. They are…well, like the people you remember from high school. So if we take the heart of the message of The Dawn of Everything seriously, perhaps entering a new tribe in Africa at 50,000 BC would not involve a bunch of mysterious rituals in the jungle enacted by solemn actors with dirt smeared across their faces. Maybe it was a bit more like the infamous lunch table scene from the movie Mean Girls (I encourage you to watch), with some minor surface alterations, like clothes (picture beads and furs instead).


What’s interesting is that anthropologists, from what I’ve read, seem to assume that raw social power is mostly a good thing (one wonders if they’ve ever seen social pressure applied). Mostly they focus on gossip, and if we look at the work of Robin Dunbar, and his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, he speculates that the need to gossip was why language was invented in the first place. And gossip has (as far as I can tell), an almost universally positive valence throughout anthropology. In the literature it is portrayed as something that maintains social relationships and rids groups of free-riders and cheats, i.e., gossip is a “leveling mechanism” that prevents individuals from accruing too much power.


But it never seems to strike Dunbar or others that living under a dominion of raw social power, with few to little formal powers anywhere, would be hellish to a citizen of the 21st century (which is why I say the closest analog is high

My mother used to quote Eleanor Roosevelt all the time:

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

A “gossip trap” is when your whole world doesn’t exceed Dunbar’s number and to organize your society you are forced to discuss mostly people. It is Mean Girls (and mean boys), but forever. And yes, gossip can act as a leveling mechanism and social power has a bunch of positives — it’s the stuff of life, really. But it’s a terrible way to organize society. So perhaps we leveled ourselves into the ground for 90,000 years. Being in the gossip trap means reputational management imposes such a steep slope you can’t climb out of it, and essentially prevents the development of anything interesting, like art or culture or new ideas or new developments or anything at all. Everyone just lives like crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down. All cognitive resources go to reputation management in the group, to being popular, leaving nothing left in the tank for invention or creativity or art or engineering. Again, much like high school.

And this explains why violating the Dunbar number forces you to invent civilization — at a certain size (possibly a lot larger than the actual Dunbar number) you simply can’t organize society using the non-ordinal natural social hierarchy of humans. Eventually, you need to create formal structures, which at first are seasonal and changeable and theatrical, and take all sorts of diverse forms, since the initial condition is just who’s popular. But then these formal systems slowly become real.


Of course we gravitate to cancel culture — it’s our innate evolved form of government.

Arnold Kling keeps saying that the smart phone and social media smash together the intimate world and the remote world:

In the intimate world, gossip is the strong social force. In the remote world, institutions with their formal roles are supposed to be the strong social force. But modern technology has weakened formal roles, and we are falling back on gossip.


  1. bomag says:

    Lots of explanatory power there.

    But the need to husband technology pushes us to organize outside the gossip network. Those in charge of hunts and war parties get serious. When humans moved north and faced winters, we had an explosion of seriousness.

    I suggest that today we have less need to be serious; the guys keeping the machines running are routine and quiet, allowing the Woke to cancel and bitch about slights from the past. They are assuming the lights will stay on no matter how much they degrade the human capital that builds and runs the physical plant. Tsk.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    Is it my imagination, or are people more obsessed with high school than they were 30-40 years ago? I mean, this theory may well be true, at least in part, but I have a feeling that if it had been put forth fifty years ago, it would have been phrased differently.

  3. David Foster says:

    “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

    This has always struck me as one of those sayings that sounds a lot more profound than it actually is. It certainly isn’t very complementary to Eleanor’s husband, FDR, who I guarantee you spent a lot of time discussing events, and also plenty of time discussing people. This will be true of anyone in a leadership position, of anybody who actually needs to get things done and to interact with other people to do so.

  4. Vlad says:

    Seriously 200k years ago? Ok. Those “humans” were not really human they were like many of the Stone Age “humans” still living today whose relatives we found not 100 years ago living in caves mud hut and the like. Those these humans are simply not civilization capable not even if you give them one ready made and maintain it for them it still ends up a pile of rocks.

    We humans Europeans and our racially close cousins were those half apes and didn’t even have the sense to get out of Africa till about 75k ago. So till the. Even we were not we. And how long did it take those half apes who left Africa to become human? Well, we were probably pretty civilized by 20k ago no I don’t think little villages I think much much more we had huge cities 12k ago that couldn’t be sudden.

  5. McChuck says:

    80% of people never progress beyond the high school mentality. They routinely vilify the 10% of people who learn to think and do.

    The remaining 10% never progress beyond the middle school mentality. They become politicians and social workers.

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