Primitive (innate) ideas on randomisation, divination and lotteries

No-one would accuse the classical Greeks, our heroes of the klereterion, of lacking insight into abstract, nay philosophical concepts. Yet it was not until Pascal & Co. in the 1600s that formalised concepts of Probabilty were established. So we can only speculate that the Athenians knew(?) that a lottery was best for implementing fairness, equal chances, descriptive representation — democratic values — across the citizenry. Even so we surely would never describe them as ‘primitive’?

But what of the widespread ‘folkish’ practise of divination, where some natural random phenomenon is used to decide—a lottery, in others words. This could be to  choose a course of action, or even decide guilt or innocence in trials. Many of its  practitioners would be pre-literate, and in the grip of a range of irrational, some might say primitive religious beliefs. What did they think this ‘lottery’ was doing?

A possible cultural/evolutionary explanation for the use of lottery decision making is given by Henrich (2016, 104-7) whose research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making and culture.  As he explains there is a wealth of research findings that we humans are evolved to over-rationalise, to see trends and patterns which may not exist. No harm if it’s a case of spotting a tiger in the bushes, but sometimes it can lead us astray. For example, if a run-of-the-mill footballer has suddenly scored in every game for several weeks, most punters would predict he will score again next week. Wrong! Or Gambler’s Fallacy as game theorists would describe it.

Since we humans have evolved from hunter-gatherers, it was always a good idea to use our superior brainpower to work out the best, next place to search for food. To do this we process prior information, and maybe consult with or maybe copy the most successful hunters in our group.  But oftentimes we are a bit too clever. The ‘reasons’ we invent just aren’t valid, and take us to a less, not more fruitful hunting ground. Often just heading out without thinking — at random you might say —would be better.

Henrich gives specific examples where this is true — caribou hunting in Labrador. Because these animals move about a lot, a random hunting strategy is better than a thought-out one. And the Nascapi tribe have developed a burnt-bone-reading strategy to tell them which direction to take, depending on cracks in burnt bones — a classic example of divination. “These rituals” says Henrich, “provide a crude randomizing device that helps hunters avoid their own decision-making biases.”  Anthropologists have found many examples of this behaviour — using divination (a lottery) to decide, using other-worldy rationalisations for their methodology.

He goes further: “The key point is not only do people not understand what their cultural practices are doing, but sometimes it may even be important that they don’t understand (my emphasis) what their practices are doing or how they work.”

Henrich is suggesting that a useful practice (divination, what is in effect the deliberate use of randomness) prevents false rationality. This a socially evolved practice, the reason for which has been deliberately blotted out from memory and consciousness.  This is truly a Veil of Ignorance, but certainly not as John Rawls weaved it.

Could this be a case of the arrationality of the lottery (to use Ollie Dowlen’s coinage) being used to supress the human trait over-rationalisation, a trait which might be described as irrationality? The mechanism for this, a lottery, is then according to Heinrich mis-understood, as a sort of deliberate cognitive dissonance?

Henrich, Joseph (2016) The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton University Press.

Joseph Henrich is Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology of Harvard University.

13 Responses

  1. That’s very interesting Conall, I’ve always been attracted to evolutionary psychology, although most political theorists dismiss it as a collection of Just So stories. Does this mean we need to revisit Fustel de Coulanges’ theory of the religious origin of lot?


  2. No need to change ideas about the ‘primitive’ use of randomisation. Using a mystical explanation which must not be discussed sounds very much like ‘religion’ to me.


  3. Yes indeed, but why was it that the Fustel de Coulanges theory fell out of favour?


  4. *** Keith Sutherland asks : « [ do] we need to revisit Fustel de Coulanges’ theory of the religious origin of lot [in Greek democracies] and « why was it that the Fustel de Coulanges theory fell out of favour? »
    *** Fustel did not only suppose a religious « origin » of lot, he supposed that the religious meaning founded the democratic use in classic times, writing about the classical City « For them the lot was not chance; it was the revelation of the divine will. » «The city believed that in this manner it received its magistrates from the gods »
    *** This theory fell out of favour because it was plainly false. Whatever the origin of the use of lot in very ancient Greece (a subject I am interested about as mythologist, not as kleroterian), the evidence for the secular motivation of sortition among classic democrats is overwhelming.
    *** First, as far as I know, there is simply no mention at all of any religious motivation in any democrat text. Not once. The comment by Plato often quoted (Laws, 690c) is a sarcastic jibe by an arch-foe of democracy ! To consider it as a piece of ancient democrat ideology is not far from bad faith.
    *** Second, Theseus in the Suppliants says clearly that lot establishes the rule of the People (not of the gods, or of goddess Fortune)
    *** Third, an allotted magistrate, as an elected one, was subjected to clearance (dokimasia) after the choice – which would have been impiety if he would have been considered as chosen by the Gods. The same for the rule of no iteration. Well, this is the less strong argument, as the consistency in such matters is not an absolute rule.
    *** When Fustel interpreted democratic lot as religion-based, he was clearly mistaken. But, as I already said two years ago, his mistake was part of a strong political bias. It is very clear from the introduction of “The Ancient City”, where Fustel reminds the readers about the use of Antiquity by the French revolutionaries: « We shall attempt to set in a clear light the radical and essential differences which at all times distinguished these ancient peoples from modern societies. In our system of education, we live from infancy in the midst of the Greeks and Romans, and become accustomed continually to compare them with ourselves, to judge of their history by our own, and to explain our revolutions by theirs. (…) Hence spring many errors. (…) Now, errors of this kind are not without danger. (…) Having imperfectly observed the institutions of the ancient city, men have dreamed of reviving them among us. They have deceived themselves about the liberty of the ancients, and on this very account liberty among the moderns has been put in peril. » Fustel de Coulanges intended to demonstrate that the Ancient Cities belonged to cultures radically different from the contemporary Western World, and that, therefore, using Greek and Roman institutions as models was foolish. And he exaggerated the point by systematically “archaizing” the Ancient Societies: classical Athens and classical Rome were conflated with their archaic and prehistoric forebears.
    *** The contemporary historian Paul Demont, without daring to follow Fustel, has a discourse rather insinuating (see in internet “Allotment and Democracy in Ancient Greece “). He quotes likewise Plato, and mentions that « according to an Attican orator (Aeschines, III, 13), the allotment of offices by the thesmothetai did take place ”in the sanctuary of Theseus”. » But Theseus was not a god, it was an hero, and the cult of Theseus was an heroic cult, the link did not imply that lot was Theseus’ will ! A symbolic link between Theseus and civic allotment was natural, given the hero was the unifier of the City and the mythical founder of the democracy. Anyway, if Demont puts some haze on the subject (wrongly, in my opinion), neither he nor I think any contemporary historian follows genuinely Fustel.
    *** Clearly, the religious meaning of lot could have helped its use by ancient democracy, in a underground way (as some anti-lot religious feelings may have worked later against political lot). But Fustel was wrong in giving a religious base to democratic lot.
    *** We must consider that in 19th century political lot was considered as a pure absurdity, had went outside « the circle of reason ». Fustel’s idea could supply an understandable motivation for its ancient use.

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  5. Gataker on p. 191 (my version) takes a very negative view of divination, how it may sometimes work, yet is often wrong and men self-delude about its success. This is a very rationalist (reformist Puritan even) view, whereas Henrich suggests that there can be valid collective socially evolved practices.

    Help! I’m only a mechanic, not a philosopher, so I’m out of my depth here. The mechanics of Darwinian evolution is fine, but social co-evolution as well? Cultural transmission of strange but useful practices? Hmmm!


  6. *** We can find a good example of arationality in Descartes’ Discourse on the method §3-1 (1637), when he mentions (I underline) « travelers who, when they have lost their way in a forest, ought not to wander from side to side, far less remain in one place, but proceed constantly towards the same side in as straight a line as possible, without changing their direction for slight reasons, ALTHOUGH PERHAPS IT MIGHT BE CHANCE ALONE WHICH AT FIRST DETERMINED THE SELECTION; for in this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they desire, they will come at least in the end to some place that will probably be preferable to the middle of a forest. » Better choosing a random direction and sticking to it, rather than changing the direction for slight reasons. But note it is a philosopher’s advice, against what he thinks being the natural impulse : looking for the best direction, even when we have no strong available reason.
    *** If the arational use of randomness is not a single philosopher’s advice, but an idea included in culture (= inherited ideology), that could be seen as a result of cultural evolution limiting some bad effects of an over-rationalising tendency which could have been established by natural (biological) evolution.
    *** The cultural evolutions Conallboyle was writing about brought good arationality to people under irrational disguise. Descartes gives rational reasons for arationality. Note that Descartes was not one of the founders of the Science of Probability, but belonged to the world of 17th Western century thinkers, the intellectual world which created this unprecedented science, the first intellectual world able to think about chance.


  7. Andre,

    > *** We must consider that in 19th century political lot was considered as a pure absurdity, had went outside « the circle of reason ».

    I suspect that this view has not changed much since. As far as the elite – political, intellectual, plutocratic – is concerned, the average citizen is to be managed, not be allowed to manage. Whatever uses the 21st century elite has for sortition, it is certainly not meant as a way to equalize power within society.


  8. *** OK, the elitist position may be basically the same. But for elitist and democratic thoughts we must distinguish the political orientation and the available political concepts.
    *** Around 1848 in Europe, some thinkers were for popular control of the society, meaning putting sovereignty mostly in the hands of ordinary citizens, and therefore rejected the electoral-representative ideologeme:
    Victor Considerant La solution ou le gouvernement direct des peuples, 1850 ;
    Moritz Rittinghausen, La Législation directe par le peuple ou la vrai démocratie, 1850 ;
    Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, Du gouvernement direct par le peuple & Plus de Président, plus de Représentants, 1851.
    But in the 19th century the political lot concept was in the limbo, it was not intellectually « available ». Therefore these thinkers could only imagine « direct legislation» through « primary assemblies », a very heavy scheme, unsuited to societies both big and dynamic ; a model which was easily dismissed as unpractical and utopian. And they had to have recourse to elected bodies to promulgate detailed regulations and to control the executive and the State apparatus, as we see in Ledru- Rollin; which would easily empty the « popular control » from real power – the same illusion than for the contemporary proposers of tele-democracy through referenda.
    *** Political lot became intellectually available only in the last quarter of the 20th century, especially following the spreading of the idea of « representative sample ». It is more and more difficult to dismiss it as absurd. Therefore some of the supporters of polyarchy give (more or less) reasoned discourses against it (they can no more dismiss it only by scorn) ; and some of the bolder and brighter polyarchic theorists elaborate ways of using it in an undemocratic way (see Rosanvallon’s model of « polyphonic democracy »). Conversely more and more people of democratic orientation are interested by the use of lot.

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  9. André,
    Exactly. The task at hand is to make the idea of democracy through sortition “intellectually available.” The challenge is determining when an imperfect implementation in the real world would help people imagine how it might work in lieu of elections, and when it is so distorted that it is a fig leaf for elite manipulation (through control of agenda, information flow, proposal options, etc.). Even faulty implementations, however, may allow many more people to have the concept intellectually available for better implementations in the future.

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  10. Terry:> Even faulty implementations, however, may allow many more people to have the concept intellectually available

    Surely that would just take us back to the 19th century, when (some) people knew about sortition but dismissed it as absurd. It’s far more important to get it right than to support token gestures that are bound to fail.


  11. Keith,
    Not all faulty implementations are token, nor bound to fail. The first Irish constitutional convention had 2/3 randomly selected citizens (with a lot of those initially chosen declining) and 1/3 partisan politicians… fundamentally a very flawed design, even undemocratic… yet the success with the gay marriage referendum that came out of it has sparked many people all over the world to think seriously about sortition for democratic reform for the first time in their lives. The second Irish mini-public had zero partisan politicians as members (though this was probably because they were afraid to tackle the abortion issue)… a marked improvement of sortition design.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. *** In the same issue (February 21, 2019) of the French weekly “Obs” (Center-left Establishment) we can find two references to political lot. In the first ( p 91), we learn that, in the « Grand Débat National », political lottery for all assemblies, including Parliament, is a recurrent topic. The second occurs in an interview of Martin Hirsch ; the topic is mentioned (p 91) by Hirsch, about a proposal of allotment for a third of Parliament, with a reference to Van Reybrouck’s book “Against the Elections”. Both mentions of a neutral or positive kind, without scorn or bewilderment. That can be found in a widely read magazine, not a specialized review.
    *** Clearly, even without any implementation for now, political lot is an “intellectually available” concept in contemporary France.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Terry,

    Your two examples (gay marriage and abortion) certainly demonstrate the attraction of unrepresentative sortition to social progressives. Added to this are those who propose sortition as a remedy for right-wing populism (Brexit and Trump). This has certainly encouraged many people to think seriously about sortition, but as an antidote to democracy. It may now be intellectually available, but there is a danger, if wrongly implemented, that it is dismissed by populists as an elite project.


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