Peer pressure, living the way your community expects you to live, helps regulate society informally.
Gossip is an important method for keeping each other accountable, and ensuring we all know what's expected.

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There are now 40 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. Linuxrocks123 says


    I am SO SO glad we do not live in this type of society anymore. True self-actualization depends on breaking free of caring what other people think of what you do. Only then can you truly make your own choices.

    Additionally, I don’t buy all the hormonal stuff from the last page. It smells way too much like a classic, unfalsifiable, evo-psych “just so” story.

    • You don’t have to buy the hormonal stuff—or any of this, for that matter. But I do try not to present anything that theorists posit as “just so.” As much as possible, I rely on peer-reviewed experimental studies when researching the science stuff—like which hormones do what and how—so at least it ought to be falsifiable. It may even be false! True, there is necessarily some speculation in details of early origins, but I am trying to limit it to ideas that seem to fit the observed data, by people smarter than me.

      Your thoughts on self-actualization are right in line with mine. (I probably ought to care MORE what people think of me!) But we are products of our time, and today’s world is almost unimaginably different from that one. What is true for us today, as you rightly suggest, is not necessarily true for others back then.

      Which leads to an interesting question I’ll throw out to everyone:

      If you lived back then, in that context, would you feel the same way as you do now? Would you feel frustrated if you couldn’t break free of caring how others perceive you? How much can we take the values we’ve acquired in our present context, and apply them to our state of nature?

      And more to my (eventual) point: what about the other way around? How much—and how meaningfully—can we take what we’re learning about our state of nature, and apply it to our own reality?

      • For your first question, I know I wouldn’t do too well. I don’t identify myself with groups or tribes, and being forced to do so for my livelihood would be a cage. (And obviously everyone around me would probably figure out quickly that I hated them – not a good recipe for my own survival!)

        I think that the place where we’re most likely to see something vaguely like the state of nature that you present is small towns where everyone knows everyone else. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is up to, people are expected to participate in shared rituals (early modern man may not have had religion, but I’ll bet every band had its own ritual practices), every adult has a certain degree of responsibility for all the town’s children, and there’s intense peer pressure to conform to local norms (with ostracism for those who don’t comply).

      • You know what this comic would benefit from? Dated comments! I check the comic regularly (along with a bunch of other comics), but since it hasn’t changed in a long time I haven’t looked at the comments in a long time, and now I don’t know whether the comment I am replying to is a week old or six months old.

        But anyway, to answer your question, If I had lived back then…. well, actually, that’s impossible. I couldn’t have lived back then! Someone might have lived back then with the same genes as me, and he would have looked like me and had a similar general personality (personality is about 50% genetic). But his lived experience would have been so vastly different than mine that in no reasonable sense could he have been considered to be me! Since childhood I have been exposed to and shaped by all kinds of sophisticated ideas and experiences that were utterly unknown back then, and as a result I see the world in a way that nobody back then ever did or could. So it really makes no sense to ask what I would have felt back then, since I could never have existed.

        It is possible though to ask what would happen if we applied “the values we’ve acquired in our present context” to “our state of nature.” This experiment has been repeated many times when more advanced societies have encountered more primitive ones, and the result always seems to be the disruption and destruction of the latter. This probably has implications for the second part of your question — what does learning about our state of nature tell us about our own reality — but I haven’t hashed through that enough to be able to give any kind of concise answer here.

        • I used to have dated comments, but I noticed that a number of readers were hesitant to join a conversation that had taken place months or years earlier. I want to encourage people to join in at any time, so I removed the dates from the public-facing side of the site (I still see the date and time on my end). It worked, and reader engagement on older posts has gone up. Think of all the cool insights we’d have missed if people thought it was too late to contribute!

          You’re absolutely right that previous eras of human history are entirely foreign to us. As we wend our way through this history of government, my hope is that people will be shocked at just how foreign those worlds were. But I also hope that this background will lend us all some useful insights and perspectives on the human condition when we examine “modern” constitutional issues.

          At the very least, we’ll have a common starting point for argument. In constitutional, social, political, and philosophical issues, it is often impossible to have a meaningful debate, because different sides are coming from completely different and incompatible worldviews. It takes a lot of work to dig down to core principals and assumptions that are so basic that we can’t even articulate them, much less share them, and so instead of useful debate we mostly get frustration at how stupid, wrong, backwards, or even evil the other side seems to be.

          From the first page of this comic, I’ve been trying to do a lot of that work for my readers, so we can start from core principles before getting to the more sophisticated and contentious concepts. It’s been good for me, too! Sometimes that work has led me to insights that even we in the law don’t generally see or express, but which seem obvious once put into words. If I ever go into academia, I have a long list of articles I can publish from all this research! Sometimes I can cover the background ideas in a page or less, but sometimes it can take 40 or 50 pages (think of that history of self-incrimination, or the science of eyewitness identification). Nobody’s complained yet.

          This section isn’t as long as the delays in posting have made it seem. Believe it or not, my goal is to get to the world of the Framers in fewer pages than we took for the intro to self-incrimination. (Of course, my ORIGINAL goal was to get there by early March 2018. I’d started writing and drawing this section that January. It’s now 23 months later, and I’ve put up a whopping… 8 pages! I’ve finally gotten some help with the severe depression I didn’t even realize I had, though, so hopefully we can finally get back to my usual snail’s pace!)

    • I personally do not like the idea of “breaking free of caring what others think of what you do”. Yes, self-actualization is important and can be at odds with that, but in the end we’re still social beings, and we desperately need each other. Insofar as we need others and others need us in return, I think it is not only normal but desirable to look for admiration by your peers.

      I think the problems start when the people whose opinion you depend on aren’t your peers anymore.

      • I think the problems start when the people whose opinion you depend on aren’t your peers anymore.

        An insightful comment. I have more than a little to say on this theme as we go.

        • In hierarchical societies, we’re not just concerned with what our equals say about us, but what our superiors say about us. A bad reputation among equals is fairly reciprocal – equals can only really judge you as much as you can judge them in return. Everyone has to care about their reputations. But when someone has political, economic, or other kinds of privilege compared to you, their ability to influence your reputation is much larger than your affect on them. If you get a bad reputation as an employee from one boss, that can have an effect on your ability to find employment anywhere. If you try to give your boss a bad reputation as an employer though, you not only need more people working with you to get those rumors any traction, but even if they do get that reputation, their ownership of their business still gives them economic advantages that you don’t, and other workers may still have to just put up with them as a bad employer if there is a competitive labor market.

          • “and other workers may still have to just put up with them as a bad employer if there is a competitive labor market.” A competitive labor market would imply many employers as well as many employees. So you wouldn’t need to put up with a bad employer in that case. That being said, I understand your point. Some people have a greater ability to influence the reputations of others than those others do. That being said, We now see extremely powerful people with bad reputations, like president Trump. So your reputation with people in general doesn’t really matter, in a material or economic sense. Your reputation with the people who are in a position to do something to you or for you is what matters in an economic sense. The aspect of your question that I find the most interesting is: What about when those people whose opinions you depend on for self-worth, as opposed to strict economic reasons, are people whom you will never actually meet? Like a leader of a political or religious or other movement that you are a part of? Or a celebrity? Or even a long-dead author or scholar whose ideals you adopted for whatever reason. Such that the people whose opinions you tie your worth-o-meter to are to a large extent imaginary people. In other words, what if we find ways to use people whom we will never really meet for self-worth, and divorce our feelings of self-worth from the opinions of those we actually interact with? Is such a thing possible? If so, what happens when it is the case?

      • Aksej,

        We only desperately need each other if we choose to be needy. It is true that, in one sense, we have never needed each other more than we do now, because the vast majority of people, at least in developed countries, never learn the skills necessary independent survival. Growing food, for instance, is a niche job occupied by small numbers of workers using large, industrial machinery — and those workers never learn how to build or fix that machinery. We are a specialized society.

        But that same specialization means that, in a much more meaningful sense, we have never needed each other less than we do now. If you don’t like the people you’re around, or the things they like to do, it has never been easier to find different people, and to never see the people you decided you don’t like ever again. Social interaction might be a human need — but it has never in the history of the world been easier to quickly sift through large numbers of people to find the ones with whom social interaction will be least contentious, most interesting, and most fun for all parties.

        Thus, it is not desirable to look to admiration from your peers. If your peers do not like you for who you really are and what you really think, you can easily find different ones who will accept the real you. If you one day discovered that everyone except five people in the whole world finds you completely disgusting as a person, that would be awesome — you just made five friends.

        So that’s why caring we don’t need to care about what others think of us. The reason self-actualization depends on breaking free of that is because self-actualization depends on DECIDING WHO YOU ARE, AND WHAT YOU WANT. And deciding what you want to do with your life is actually hard. If you let anyone else’s voice get in your head and confuse you, and make you think you don’t like or want what you actually do like and want, because you know others won’t approve of you if you like and want those things, you have no chance of ever actually figuring yourself out. And that would be a tragedy.

    • I think that most of the criticisms that Evo-psych gets in the press are not entirely fair. The article that you cited mentioned evo-psych only really looking at human universals, not human differences. That used to be true. But it isn’t true anymore, there are now lots of research on differences between humans both as individuals and as groups being done from an evolutionary perspective. For example, its isn’t news that children raised in stressful environments do worse in school, are more likely to commit crimes, and more likely to breed young. But now evolutionary behavioral scientists think that that is because stress signals the brain to adapt to a high-risk environment, one were waiting to have kids and focusing in school won’t pay off. For groups, we know that societies with an excess of marriage aged women compared to marriage aged men tend to be more violent and less happy. Whereas societies with an excess of marriage aged men tend to be repressive and socially conservative. Which evo-psych specialists think is because a marriage market favorable to men forces women to adopt short-term mating strategies, which leads to men fighting each other over women more fiercely. The piece also mentioned religion. Well now some scientists think that Religion evolved to maintain social cohesion by providing a collection of costly signals that distinguish insiders from outsiders. Which explains why religion tends to decline in developed countries with strong states, where the social support that religion provides isn’t necessary anymore. This is all from The Myth of Culture by Nigel Barber, by all means check it out.

    • We need to bring shame back into our culture. I’m tired of seeing “self actualized” barefoot women in pajamas holding a dog in line at Starbuck’s.

  2. I don’t know where you’re going with this exposition. I suspect that by the time you get where you think you’re going, it will rest on a chain of speculation at best suggestive, but too long to be at all persuasive.

    • I’m not super worried about my endpoint seeming speculative. If I do it right, it shouldn’t. But “too long to be at all persuasive”—that’s my fear.

      This whole digression of “government from the Paleolithic to Philadelphia” was supposed to have been complete by this page. It’s supposed to be over and done with, and we’re only just now wrapping up the Paleolithic! I’m spending entire pages on topics I’d planned to dispatch with a panel. Partly because I’ve been taking too damn long between pages (for a variety of reasons). I’ve denied myself the steady momentum that keeps writing from rambling. But mostly because I think this stuff is fun, and it feels like I have all the space in the world to play with it, so why not?

      It’s like a goldfish, expanding to fill the available space. Without deadlines or page limits, I’m only restrained by what I think worth covering. Not a good idea when I think it’s all worth covering! My typed notes for this section alone are nearly 130,000 words long. That’s not even counting the stacks of spiral notebooks I’ve filled as I read up and noodle through. A hundred and thirty thousand words? The Return of the King? For a digression?

      I don’t need an editor, I need a bulldozer.

        • Nah. A comic is better for learning actual content. A podcast you passively listen to while doing something else, but reading a comic is an act of active engagement. A podcast is linear, a comic you can go back, go back and forth, skip around, pause over a scene, skip to exactly the panel you want to see again… A podcast is stuck with whatever pacing the audio has, a comic you can read at your own pace, as fast or as slow as you wish. And a picture does paint a thousand words, saving a whole lot of extra description (or so I’ve heard, at least), which a podcast can’t do.

          The CLE series’ I’ve taught were like podcasts, and they were fun to do, but they were nowhere near as fun to make as the comic. That’s important, too.

          • Part of the fun of a comic is how the author illustrates abstract concepts. In the search and siezure arc, if I recall correctly, “stereotypes” (social, not cognitive) was illustrated with a Hispanic gardener. Try using 1000 words to succinctly capture how quickly people make certain judgements.

      • You’re not the first teacher to go off on giant, highly informative tangents that take up entire class periods.

        We’re learning. We’ll still be here – just keep at it!

  3. conan says

    I think I’d much rather have short-to-medium length pages like this. The super-long pages(when they aren’t that way because of Infinite Canvas/artistic reasons are a huge bother to mentally parse. Could you try to make future comics be a new page at new “clauses” like that?

  4. Since you seem to be getting some flac on this one, I just want to let you know – this is my favorite stretch of the comic since the beginning.

  5. Cyrus Nash says

    You wrote, “self-government was all the government humans needed for sixty thousand years,” but what you’ve really been saying is, it was all the government we *had* for that time, and more than zero of the people from that era survived to have posterity. That’s not the same as saying it was a good-enough system.

    Isn’t this practically the same as saying, “bleeding, leeches, and herbs were all the medicine people needed for sixty thousand years,” and suggestively wagging your eyebrows at penicillin and insulin?

    • Not quite. It’s all we needed because it worked very well for the kind of society we had. As we’ll start seeing in (I promise) just a couple of pages, once we started changing the kind of society we lived in, the kind of government we needed also changed. It’s a really cool story, but more importantly it’s a very useful grounding for the different points of view we’ll be encountering throughout the various debates of Constitutional Law, which is why I’m taking the time to work through it in this coda to Chapter 2.

      Imagine that there’s a “phase space” for government, a space with all the different forms of government that could possibly exist, including those that have never yet existed. As with everything else in nature, what you actually get is most certainly going to be the one that uses the least energy. Like a soap bubble⁠ — it could be shaped like a cube, or a tube, or an anorexic rhinoceros, but it invariably settles on a sphere. Because the surface is held together by the energy of surface tension, and a sphere has the smallest surface area (i.e., least energy) enclosing any given volume. Soap bubbles are spherical because, in the phase space of their possible shapes, the sphere get the best result with the least energy. Back to government. In a band-level society, the best result with the least energy results from natural, informal, self-government. Anything more than that is spending unnecessary energy to create institutions and hierarchies that are not only not needed, but may even be counterproductive. But in a larger, more complex society, self-government breaks down. You need more complexity and organization. Which costs energy. More energy needs to be spent, to hold the social soap bubble together. And that’s where government becomes necessary.

      So I’m not saying it was all we needed because we didn’t know better (à la leeches and bloodletting). I’m saying more sophisticated forms of government wouldn’t have been better. Formal, institutional narratives simply weren’t needed for that form of society to work really well. As with any other species, the natural way worked naturally well, so long as humans lived in their natural form of society.

      Of course, we haven’t done so for many thousands of years, and our default instinctive natural pre-tribal way simply doesn’t work any more. (And attempts to return to that way of life usually fail.) Instead, we’ve adapted our cultures and institutions, and we continue to adapt them to the realities of the world we live in. But our instincts are still there, and as a result we might see some conflicts and difficulties in governmental systems as they evolve over the coming pages.

      • “Nature” does not promise that what you get is whatever uses the least energy. Evolution is a heuristic system, which is not guaranteed to produce the best outcome. In fact, compared to other heuristic methods, evolution easily gets stuck in local maxima.

    • Bleeding and leeches were fads of civilization, which here would argue that the government civilization has imposed on us has been largely harmful. Other estimates of the value of civilized medicine are not much more enthused. “It is only in the last century that one could expect to benefit from going to the doctor.” [And while the quality of medicine in the last century has improved greatly, the quality of government has not. All we seem to have gained is an increase in quantity.]

      • At least part of that is perceptual. An increase in the quality of medicine is easily measured by how many patients live or recover. The quality of government is not so easily measured. For some of us, the only true measure of the quality of government is how small and ineffective it can be made. For others, it is the level of social or economic equality of the citizenry, while still others would measure it by the size of the military or the GNP.

        Without an agreed upon metric, quality is impossible to measure.

      • Government quality is subjective, but it can’t be denied that government has gotten far, far more sophisticated over time. The ability of any modern government to leverage the resources of its nation towards a given goal is far, far improved over what was possible in let’s say William the Conqueror’s day. The issue is that we judge governments not only by how well they do things, but whether we agree with the things they do to begin with – and politics is fundamentally a disagreement over what we should collectively do. Governments may get increasingly efficient, effective and corruption-free but as long as there are people who don’t want it to do something or want it to do something it isn’t, people can and will be dissatisfied with their government.

        And in case you doubt that government has improved in any way, keep in mind that for the vast majority of human history corruption was considered standard practice, largely since governments lacked the financial backing and institutions necessary to pay their servants an appropriate wage and so tolerated a degree of corruption so that said servants could, essentially, pay themselves. Modern governments are paragons of effective and honest governance compared to, say, the Roman Republic.

  6. Chris says

    Am I the only one who is reminded of high school? This “diversion” makes a much better guide to surviving that experience than all the books I read back then. Hope to see more soon.

  7. There was something about this concept that bugged me that I couldn’t put my finger on, until now. In our current society, social regulation through peer pressure is usually thought of as a bad thing. Everyone says that we should break away from societal expectations and think for ourselves. So the question is: When did we start thinking that living the way others expect you to live is a bad thing rather than a good thing? What changed?

      • I want to believe you. But we have been on this page for months, and you haven’t even gotten to reverse dominance or insulting the meat. So I expect us to get there sometime around when my grand children are old enough to drive.

        • First of all, how did you know that was in my outline? I’m not sure if I’ll keep it when I get there, but still…

          Second, this section was supposed to be completed in early 2018, but life happened then kept happening. Although I enjoy this project very much, other things have to take priority. Believe me, if I could have cranked this out faster, I would have! Nobody is more frustrated at how long this is taking than I am. My original schedule was to be finished—not with this chapter, but with all of Con Law!—by about now.

          • First, I didn’t know that it was in your outline in the strictest sense. I guessed that it was because those are the features of hunter-gatherer society that people bring up to explain their egalitarian social structure and social regulation to lay audiences, in my limited experience.

            Second, I understand stuff not getting done as fast as you want. My life got thrown 4 years off schedule because I have delayed phase sleep syndrome, which made going to college hard. Just don’t imply that things will be done faster than they will. Remember to under-promise and over-deliver.

          • First, I didn’t know that it was in your outline. I just guessed that you would take the same approach to explaining the egalitarian social structure of hunter-gatherer societies that Peter Grey did in Psychology Today because there are only so many ways to tackle this subject. So I figured that you would bring up the most well known example at some point.

            Second, I understand not being able to get things done as fast as you would like completely. I didn’t finish college until I was 26 because I have delayed phase sleep syndrome. It makes physically getting to class and getting enough sleep to focus on the assignments hard.

            • As one who has learned a lot via this illustrated narrative and is extremely thankful to Mr. Burney for these altruistic contributions, my two thoughts are 1) You get what you pay for, and 2) Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

          • I understand being busy, but really? You need to have priorities in life. Which is more important, your paying clients who rely on your legal expertise or us, a bunch of nonpaying fans awaiting you explanations of the law.

  8. The first one is true. The second one is just a myth. Really, familiarity is what makes the heart grow fonder. Its called the mere exposure effect.

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