How far can cultural differences be traced back?

Cultural differences between countries are quite large, and likely affect differences in economic development. But how did these differences arise in the first place? Consider recent history: it’s not a stretch to believe that Europeans who immigrated to the US were generally individualistic, adventurous, entrepreneurial people who potentially did not fit in well with their existing society; they were possibly non-conformist, less obedient that those who stayed.

Values such as individualism, innovativeness and entrepreneurialism gave these immigrants an edge in the longer term, and this made the US very successful, even relative to Europe. Can such a story apply over the much longer term? Can it explain how cultures diverged thousands of years ago?

Olsson and Paik (2015) argue that it can. Let us go back in time to the emergence of agriculture, so sometime between 5,000-10,000 years ago. To present the theory, let us start with the three main foundational ideas/assumptions it is based on.

Central administration important in early agricultural societies. Early agricultural societies generally required centrally administered irrigation systems (e.g. Mesopotamia, Egypt). So they had a need for a strong, central body to organize this kind of infrastructure. Hence, these societies were quite collectivist, and also autocratic. They rewarded obedient, by-the-book people.

I suppose, a need for central irrigation is not a prerequisite for early agriculture per se. But given that agriculture arose in the Near East, where rain-fed agriculture is difficult, in the particular case of human history, this assumption makes a lot of sense.

Agriculture spread via individualistic farmers. It is a fact that agriculture was initially spread to Europe by migrating farmers from the Near East. Some studies estimate that about 50-65% of the current European gene pool was contributed by these Near East farmers (the rest I assume are mostly Steppe peoples, hunter gatherers and Neanderthals). The first big expansion to Europe was the LBK expansion roughly 7,500 years ago. This culture was quite different from Near East societies: it seemed to lack social stratification, big temples and other things associated with a strong central rule. The authors thus argue that the farmers who left the Near East were those who were incompatible with those societies’ collectivist, autocratic culture. Therefore, the assumption here is that the migrants were more individualistic and democratic.

Cultural norms persist. A fairly benign assumption. A variety of cultural norms or institutions have been shown to persist in various studies. Two posts I’ve written on this in the past include one on the persistence of Islamic culture, and one on the persistence of labor market rigidities in the Midwest.

With this in mind, let us get to the authors’ model. We have a core agricultural region (e.g. the Near East), and a frontier region which is currently populated by hunter gatherers (e.g. Europe). People’s utility depends on consumption, the number of children they have, and whether their child has the same cultural trait as they do. There are two culture traits: collectivism and individualism. Collectivist parents want collectivist children, and the same for individualists.

The cultural norms of kids can be affected by society at large. Basically, children randomly interact with a variety of collectivist/individualist adults, and they thus have a certain probability of picking up these values. Obviously, the more widespread a trait is, the more likely the child is to pick it up (because they interact with more adults of that type). In the core, as per our first assumption, collectivists are the majority. Therefore, individualists are less happy (because their children are less likely to share their cultural norms).

The next important element of the theory is that people are allowed to migrate out of the core into the frontier to start a new colony. This has a variety of costs such as adapting to new climate/soil, or conflicts with local hunter gatherers. Only individualists will choose to migrate, for collectivists it’s not worth it.

So the frontier will be more individualistic, but collectivist norms will arise with time as there is a need for some central administration in order to e.g. defend the colony from hunter gatherer attacks.

It can also be easily shown that if there are many frontier regions, each farther from the core than the other, then the further farmers migrate, the more individualistic (and less collectivist) they’ll be. This leads to the theory’s main prediction: that the time elapsed since the adoption of agriculture at a particular site should be negatively associated with individualism. In other words, regions that adopted agriculture more recently should be more individualist, while early adopters should be more collectivist.

Do the data bear out this prediction? In short, yes it does. As illustrated by the two figures below, obedience is positively correlated with time elapsed since the adoption of agriculture, while control over one’s life is negatively associated with it.

Obedience vs. time since agricultureLocus of control vs. time since agriculture

These results are robust to a large number of controls, and are significant at both the country and regional levels. Obedience, as discussed above, is associated with the collectivist, hierarchical, centrally planned early agricultural societies. Control over one’s life, on the other hand, is a proxy for individualism: being in control means the individual believes in freedom of choice, and in the fact that individual effort is likely to pay off.

So the positive relationship with obedience suggests that early adopters of agriculture are more likely to be obedient. The negative relationship with control suggests that early adopters of agriculture are less likely to think individual efforts pay off. Both of these are in line with the theory’s predictions.

The data included 765 Neolithic sites in 492 regions in 64 countries. The sites included are located in Southwest Asia (e.g. the Near East), North Africa, and Europe. Data on obedience and control came from the World Values Survey.

Finally, to conclude let me say that this paper mostly focused on the diffusion of agriculture from the Near East to Europe. But the findings may very well apply to other situations such as the Bantu expansion, the Greek colonization of the Western Mediterranean, or the Austronesian settlement of Pacific Ocean islands. Furthermore, as I argued in the intro, a similar cultural divergence likely arose much more recently with the migration of Europeans to North America.


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