The Elements of Evolution (87) Materialism


The key to inequality lies in worldly goods. Nothing in the development of human society appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value; first associated with things, but came also to be associated with people, so that a relationship developed between high value among goods and high rank among people. In the creation of inequality, nothing succeeds like success. ~ English archeologist Colin Renfrew

Materialism originated with crafts of skill. Accomplishment prompted a sense of ownership. A million years ago an adept Homo erectus hung on to some of the flaked stone hand axes he made, bartering others, even if only for social standing.

With the onset of trade came a clearer conceptualization of material goods having fungible value. This faith was furthered as sedentism set in. As soon as a parcel of land became property it became heritable. Real estate became the foundation of wealth inequality.

Inequality arose before agriculture. The Natufians lived in settlements in the Levant 15–12 TYA. The bounty of food resources was abundant, at least early on: wild game, fruits, nuts, and wild cereals. Surpluses were hoarded by the ambitious.

Those surpluses could allow people to begin manipulating things, giving away food and so establishing some dominance behaviors. ~ American archeologist Douglas Price

An ancient village on Keatley Creek in northwest Canada was occupied by up to 1,500 hunter-gatherers 2.5–1.1 TYA. An ambitious few claimed possession to the richest salmon runs and fenced land where deer could be trapped. Lower-status families had to fish from public areas. Some of the surpluses were shared, to foster inequality while quelling rebellion against confiscatory practices. The valuable spots were passed from one generation to the next. Possession became ownership. Similarly, farming allowed those who claimed the most fertile acreage to gain material and social advantage.

The seeds of inequality were sown back in the Neolithic with heritable property. After that, there was no looking back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Industrial era, wealth inequality increased. ~English anthropologist & archeologist Alexander Bentley

Social stratification became a matter of social connection, which was primarily a product of possessions. By the onset of agricultural settlements, material assets were correlated with social rank.

If the multitudes scatter and cannot be retained, the city-state will become a mound of ruins. ~ early Chinese manual of governance

Along with the materialist mindset came valuing people as commodities. Tribal conflicts over real estate made subjugation a norm. From this slavery was a small step.

Slavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement, individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples. ~ James Scott

War helped to a great discovery – that men as well as animals can be domesticated. Instead of killing a defeated enemy, he might be enslaved; in return for his life he might be made to work. By early historic times slavery was a foundation of ancient industry and a potent instrument in the accumulation of capital. ~ Australian archeologist Gordon Childe

By the rise of the Romans, a yawning gulf separated rich from poor. Inequality during the Roman Empire rivaled that of the United States in the 2010s. Roman slaves that had to be fed were replaced millennia later by underpaid wage slaves working at fast-food outlets.

The basic precepts of materialism are now so imbued that it is considered the natural order: that certain individuals and groups should have exploitative dominion over natural resources to the exclusion of others. Even for socialists the only issue is about who is divvying up the spoils.

The human experience has been that materialism not only impoverishes the many for a few, it also ensures environmental destruction. The only possible stop – polity – is invariably corrupted into a conservative plutocracy. Such is the continuity of human history until its ignoble terminus.