My “Short History of Evolution”, published by AHA last year, included discussion of a singularly important milestone in the long march of our species toward civilization as we know it. That breakthrough occurred about nine or ten thousand years ago when several or more villages had already begun to cooperate for common goals, and the nature of the cooperation morphed from a loose ad hoc alliance to a more structured system of inter-village government involving the establishment of new hierarchies of individuals who actually governed the aggregate rather than simply consulting other village chiefs. But for that key transition to occur, a major problem had to be solved, the problem of trust.
Trust within any size group means that the individual is reasonably confident, first, that if he cheats he will be found out and punished, and second, that if anyone else in the group cheats, that transgression will become known to all and the transgressor will be similarly punished. But how will everyone else find out? What if the cheater does it on the sly? At the village level the problem solves itself, because everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows a large enough portion of the whole so that through the universal human tendency to gossip everybody shares a consensus about everybody else’s reputation. Reputation in such a group can form a firm and comfortable basis for trust within the group. It’s a rare scofflaw who can get away with cheating.
When people start to aggregate in groups larger than the village that kind of trust isn’t enough, because there are too many of them. How can someone in village A trust someone in village B when the villages lie at opposite ends of the kingdom? Gossip alone doesn’t cut it. So something has to happen that reinforces gossip and personal reputation. There is an emergent need here for some new basis for trust. How different societies have managed to meet that need is the stuff of history, and studying history from this perspective can let us see the actual civilizing process in a new light.
Part of that need can be met by coercion. Law and order. Crime and punishment. If the state instruments of enforcement work effectively enough most individuals will accept the maxim that crime does not pay. But it helps if the individual behaves prosocially not just because she has to, but because she wants to. There is still a need for behavioral guidelines that keep you doing good because you want to do good. Morality provides one approach. Religion is another, closely related. If you believe in a God that instructs you to behave in ways that benefit the group, and you believe what that god tells you, you are powerfully motivated to obey.
It’s no accident that for several millennia after the first kingdoms emerged a wide variety of gods appeared, that reinforced the then existing social order. They were jealous gods, most of them commanding the loyalty of an individual kingdom, strongly motivating not only obedience within the system but hostility toward outsiders. It was an era marked by frequent warfare (think Old Testament). Trust thy neighbors as long as they are co-religionists, hate the infidel.
Our curious, ingenious species kept on evolving. Warfare changed as mounted warriors invaded from the great Eurasian steppes and attacked the ancient kingdoms in the cradles of civilization farther south. Smaller kingdoms went under; only large, multi-ethnic conglomerates were able to meet the challenge. One such built China’s Great Wall; empires farther west found other solutions. But they all faced essentially the same hurdle, the problem of trust. Gods and simple hierarchies that sufficed for a small aggregation of villages that shared a common language and history had to be replaced, or at least supplemented. The new empires needed a new kind of social glue that appealed across ethnic and regional boundaries. Enter the Axial Age and the great monotheistic religions.
The great religions arose because they met an emergent need for trust that extended beyond in-groups defined by ethnicity, language, and region. We needed to band together, first in empires and more recently in nations, and this needed us to trust each other on a new and more expansive scale. How did this work?
The new religions worked because they established the belief that there was a deity up there watching each and every one of us, who kept a kind of score card as to how well we observed His law. And there was a heaven waiting for those of us who that passed, and a hell for the others. Accountability followed by rewards or punishment, and no escape for the cheaters. But how did you know that someone you didn’t know was going to follow the same rules that governed your own moral behavior? Well, if he or she subscribed to the ritual observances and other manifestations of your belief system, if he or she prayed or fasted or took communion or whatever in the prescribed manner, you were entitled to assume that until proven otherwise, that individual shared your belief that there was a system of rewards and punishments up there somewhere. As long as you shared this belief, that in itself constituted a basis for trust.
This helps account for the tenacity with which the orthodox Christian believer confronts atheism. According to polls, atheists rank down with pederasts and other outcasts in terms of acceptability for high public office. Since we openly do not believe in God what do we believe in? What can we offer as assurance we can be trusted?
Fortunately, the true believers in our society no longer command the overwhelming majority they used to, and their numbers are shrinking, at least proportionally. However, I would submit that getting them to trust us remains a major challenge. We need to understand where this mistrust is coming from if we are to meet this challenge intelligently and, yes, humanely. After all, they are where we are coming from. We are like kids coming home from college to a family that never had anyone in college before. Patience and sympathy are indicated.
But we also have to have a belief system of our own. We are, after all, not rootless any more than they are. We believe in humanity and put our trust in our collective ability to solve the world’s problems using science and reason. Is this not reason to trust us, if we are true to this belief?
Note: Peter Turchin’s new book, Ultrasociety, spells out the trust argument as it applies to the great monotheistic religions. I am indebted to him for fleshing out that point for me.