Origins of Northwest European Guilt Culture. Part II

Reconstructed Mesolithic roundhouse near Northumberland, Great Britain (source: Andrew Curtis)

At different times and in different regions, humans have entered larger social environments that are no longer limited to close kin. Because there is less interaction with any one person and more interaction with non-kin, correct behavior can no longer be enforced by the to and fro of family relationships. A moral code develops, with rules enforced by ostracism and shaming.

In Northwest Europe, the moral code is also enforced by guilt—a form of self-shaming where the wrongdoer inflicts self-punishment even when he or she is the sole witness to the wrongdoing. There is also a high degree of empathy; the wrongdoer literally feels the pain of the person who has been wronged.

When did this guilt culture emerge? Historians usually link it to the rise of Protestantism, the expansion of the market economy, and the emancipation of the individual from the kin group, all of which happened—or are said to have happened—over the last thousand years. Yet there is compelling evidence for an earlier time frame. At the dawn of history, the peoples along the North Sea and the Baltic already had relatively loose kinship ties, a tendency toward prolonged celibacy, and a high level of circulation of non-kin individuals between households.

This behavioral package would enable them to exploit the potential of later historical developments, particularly the rise of the market economy. Back then, however, its usefulness was far from obvious. The future seemed to belong to other peoples, and not to these barbarians on the edge of the known world.

So how did this package come into being so long before modernity? And why? At first, I thought the cause was the introduction of agriculture to Northwest Europe. Only farming can create a population density that is high enough for people to enlarge their circle of interaction beyond that of close kin. Previously, there was only hunting and gathering, and hunter-gatherers were just small bands of closely related individuals. That kind of social setting has little need for either shame or guilt, a good example being the Inuit of northern Canada:

That is, in the past, the individual was expected and encouraged to do what he wanted, and thus had little guilt over most acts. In fact, there was so little censure, overtly, that one could do whatever one could get away with. But there was always the shame — concern with what people would think. What guilt existed was very archaic and related to oral incorporation and “bad mother” fears. Taboo-breaking was always a problem but at least one was not “guilty,” but simply inappropriate in his acts. That is, one had to suffer the shame of exposing one’s inappropriate acts to the spirits as one’s inappropriate social acts would be noted and subtly censured by friends. (Hippler, 1973)

In these simple societies, “guilt” was little more than fear of retaliation, either from living people or from spirits. In both cases, there was no real empathy with the person who had been wronged. Mental anguish was produced by fear and not by any feeling of the other person’s pain.

The first complex societies of Northwest Europe

I was therefore surprised to learn that the first complex societies of Northwest Europe were hunter-gatherers, or rather hunter-fisher-gatherers:

The societies of the last hunters (and fishers and gatherers) of northern Europe appear to have evolved quickly toward increasing complexity in the period prior to the spread of agriculture. Complexity is defined by greater diversity (more things) and integration (more connections). Advances in technology, settlement, and subsistence are preserved in the archaeological record. During this period technology developed toward greater efficiency in transport, tools, and food procurement. Settlements were generally larger, more enduring, and more differentiated in the Mesolithic than in the preceding Paleolithic. Food procurement was both more specialized and more diversified-specialized in terms of the technology and organization of foraging activities, and diversified in terms of the numbers and kinds of species and habitats exploited. (Price, 1991)

We like to see hunter-gatherers as beautiful losers who were steamrollered out of existence by much savvier and more numerous farming peoples. In reality, from around 8,500 BP, these hunter-fisher-gatherers of the North Sea and the Baltic began to achieve ever higher levels of population density and social complexity that would put them on a par with farming peoples farther south. They were thus able to stop the advance of farming for two to three thousand years:

After a rapid spread across Central Europe, […] farming communities came to a halt in the North European Plain, leaving the coastal areas of the North Sea occupied by hunter-gatherers. […]

This could not have been due to ecological conditions. The frontier extends across a uniform geographical area, and the soils of southern Scandinavia are, in many places, light, fertile, and favorable for cultivation […]. The reason for the delay must be sought in the late Mesolithic communities of the region. Although regional differences exist […], hunter-gatherers in the southern Baltic region are likely to have had a greater population density than central European foragers […], larger and more permanent settlements […], and a complex economic pattern involving specialized extraction camps, seasonal scheduling, and seasonally intensive use of specific resources […] (Zvelebil and Dolukhanov, 1991)

These North Sea and Baltic peoples were semi-sedentary. Most of them lived from spring to fall in large coastal agglomerations where they fished, sealed, and collected shellfish. They then dispersed to small inland hunting stations (Price, 1991). Johansen (2006) has argued for a higher degree of mobility: “a number of small groups rotating between sites on a seasonal basis within a confined territory, but perhaps periodically aggregating at key localities.” Bang-Andersen (1996) states: “In certain areas such as the seaboard of central West Norway, particularly resource-rich marine and terrestrial environments may have made it possible to stay within restricted parts of the region all the year round on a diffuse sedentary basis.” Most areas, however, had “a permanent or semi-permanent base camp on the coast, a certain number of extended extraction sites for seasonal hunting, gathering and fishing activities, a larger amount of transitory sites, and an almost indefinite number of special purpose sites or single-activity loci.”

It was in the coastal agglomerations that Northwest Europeans began to develop social relations in a setting where most people were not close kin. Unlike farming communities, there seems to have been a continual demographic turnover, with people spending part of the year in small bands and then regrouping in much larger settlements. It was perhaps this fluid environment that made guilt more effective than shame, since shaming works to the extent that one continues to interact with those who have witnessed the shameful act.

But this raises another question. How did guilt become so dominant within these populations? What is to stop some individuals from exploiting the guilt proneness of others while feeling no guilt themselves? This free-rider dilemma may have been resolved in part by identifying such individuals and ostracizing them. It may also be that these semi-sedentary communities were conducive to evolution of altruistic behavior, as described by Maynard Smith’s haystack model (Wikipedia, 2013). According to this model, guilt-prone individuals are at a disadvantage within any one community and will thus become fewer and fewer with each generation. If, however, a community has a high proportion of guilt-prone individuals, it will have an advantage over other communities and thus expand in numbers at their expense. And if these communities disperse and regroup on a regular basis, the overall proportion of guilt-prone individuals will increase over time.


History is not always what we think it to be. This is not just because of bad data. There is also the way we imagine the stages of human progress, i.e., hunting and gathering, farming and, finally, modern industrial society. Each stage led to the next, and it was ultimately farming that prepared us for the modern world.
In reality, it was the hunter-fisher-gatherers of the North Sea and the Baltic who led the way to behavioral modernity, i.e., individualism, reduced emphasis on kinship, and the market as the main organizing principle of social and economic life. Their mode of subsistence was not wiped out by agriculture, unless one sees fishing as a kind of farming. They not only survived, but also went on to create what we now call the Western World. Not bad for a bunch of losers.

In a post, hbd* chick (2013) has shown how these societies were the locomotive of sustained economic growth within Europe long before Europeans began to expand their trade to Africa and the New World. She quotes a study by Greer (2013):

By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the ‘West’ begins its more famous split from ‘the rest.’

[…] we can pin point the beginning of this ‘little divergence’ with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time.

We can go farther back to the steady expansion of North Sea trade from the 7th century onward (Callmer, 2002). There were external influences here and there, but most of this growth seems to have been endogenous, the main external influence being an international context that made trade more and more profitable. The rest—mindset, behavior, culture—was locally supplied.