906 – 858 thousand years ago
One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands.
Adam Smith famously observed the enormous advantage to be gained from a division of labor in the manufacture of pins. But in one form, the division of labor is far older than Smith’s pin factory: virtually every human society has a division of labor by sex. Here’s a chart from anthropologist George Murdock on the sexual division of labor across cultures.
The sexual division of labor is an unusual arrangement among animals: not just males and females cooperating in provisioning offspring (birds do it, wolves do it), but doing very different jobs.
It seems very likely that by today’s date on Logarithmic History, Homo erectus had a sexual division of labor, in particular a male specialization in hunting large animals. But there is a problem in figuring out how this arrangement could have gotten started. Smith listed “a tolerable administration of justice” as one ingredient in economic progress: his pin factory would have run into problems without property rights to keep people from swiping pins. In the context of the sexual division of labor, a similar problem arises if we assume that hunting is a form of “paternal provisioning.” How could this ever get off the ground, given an initial condition of promiscuity or alpha-male polygynous mating? (If we assume that monogamy is already in place, the problem is less serious. When paternal provisioning occurs in other mammalian species, it apparently evolves out of a prior condition of scattered monogamous pairs. However this sequence seems improbable for human ancestors.)
Maybe the assumption about hunting as paternal provisioning is wrong. Maybe hunting is about showing off, not providing for a family. (Hemingway is showing off; his family isn’t going to eat the lion.)
But a recent article considers another possibility: a “Dad” who provisions his family may succeed in a world of “Cads” if there are strong complementarities in economic activities between males and females, i.e. a sexual division of labor. In this respect, human dads may really be something special.