Posts Tagged ‘civilization’

Humanity: The Fall?

November 18, 2012

Civilization is often decried as a “fall” from a more blessed state of nature. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden because of their “sin;” recently I reported on a talk about the “Sins of Civilization.” And now I’ve read a book titled The Fall, by Steve Taylor.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers. Reaching that lifestyle’s ecological limits about 8000 BC, we invented farming. This enabled settling down in villages, which grew into cities, and eventually nations. That’s where some think it all went wrong.

Taylor places “The Fall” about 4000 BC, ushering in 6000 years of “insanity.” The trigger was climatic, drying out a swath of terrain between northern Africa and Central Asia, launching these lands’ “Saharasian” peoples on the move and warping their psyches. In particular, Taylor’s villains are “Indo-Europeans” (or “Aryans”), apparently originating in the Black Sea region, who swept through the whole area and basically fathered “Western” civilization.

Typically, Taylor romanticizes what he calls “primal” peoples – pre-civilizational, with some remnants among still existing native cultures. This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage: Peaceable, non-violent, with women honored and powerful (“matrist” Taylor says); sexually free and open; an empathic, egalitarian, sharing culture with no notions of property or wealth, “spirit” based religions, and people seeing themselves as embedded in webs of connection with other people and all of creation, respectful of nature and living in harmony with it. Result: happiness.

In contrast, after the “Fall” we became violent and warlike, despoilers of nature, hierarchical, greedy for wealth and property, unequal, with women oppressed (“patrism”); and sexually uptight with theistic religions and a psychology of ego and individualism, causing alienation and anomie.

Taylor blames all this on the climate change’s unique stresses and challenges, requiring a new mental adaptation, entailing sharper thinking and the Saharasians’ “ego explosion,” shifting people from a sharing ethos toward greater selfishness. However, it seems equally plausible that more cooperative sharing would have been a better survival strategy. But anyhow, the idea that humans before 4000 BC had an easy time of it is ridiculous. In fact, the modern human mental apparatus evolved tens of thousands of years earlier in response to the severe stresses of those times. (We apparently went through a population “bottleneck” which very few survived.)

I recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s book on declining violence; he discusses and rejects most of the “Noble Savage” trope. Now, Taylor does adduce a great deal of claimed evidence. But it’s virtually all anecdotal: such-and-such tribe in such-and-such valley supposedly practices such-and-such. This contrasts with Pinker’s focus on statistical analysis based on comprehensive global data.

The most famous piece of anecdotal evidence for Taylor’s picture, particularly of sexual openness among “primal” peoples, was Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Yet Taylor never mentions Mead. And for good reason: she was wrong, bamboozled by lying Samoans having fun with her. But such problems were not unique to Mead.

And there’s a bigger one. Taylor uses modern anthropology to extrapolate to prelapsarian life, before 4000 BC. However, that predated writing, so we have zero verbal sociological evidence, and only the archaeological evidence of objects, whose interpretation can be problematical. For example, Taylor says the absence of weapons in early graves shows people weren’t warlike. Well, maybe weapons were too important to bury! And archaeology is pretty mute about whether people were sexually open, empathic as opposed to individualistic, reverential about nature, and so forth.

Thus, Taylor’s book is more like fiction than non-fiction, and often unconvincing fiction at that. Indeed, he writes at length about the supposed horrible psychological pain of “fallen” life. He sees almost all human activities (such as work) as vain attempts to hide from a black hole at the center of our souls. Maybe that describes Taylor – but not me, nor anyone I know.

I’m actually sympathetic insofar as Taylor contends that our underlying human nature is benign, and a lot of what civilization wrought, like war and organized religion, is kind of nuts. I argued, in my own last book, that people are more good than bad. And civilization, with technological advancement, does enable acting out our worst impulses. “Primal” peoples simply lacked the capability for warfare on a modern scale; but they didn’t wear “Make Love Not War” buttons. They did the best they could at killing, and there’s plenty of evidence that, for all their technological limitations, they were pretty effective.

As for harmony with nature, undoubtedly our forebears had us beat in woodsy knowledge. They had to; no supermarkets. But their rape of nature was, like war, limited more by technology than psychology. Yet here again they could be pretty effective. Western Hemisphere large mammals were wiped out soon after Man’s arrival.

At least Taylor, unlike some misanthropes, believes we’re now recovering from the “Fallen” paradigm’s “insanity” and returning to a lost golden age. But I don’t believe pre-4000 BC was any kind of paradise; what we’ve seen is simply progress. And Taylor’s explanation for it is (like much of his book) kind of strange. He says, “The fundamental difference between us and our ancestors 300 years ago may be that we are more alive than they were” (his emphasis). I don’t think so. He also holds that our cultural progress is actually somehow biological, and that biological evolution may be “not accidental, but propelled by a kind of force within living beings which makes them develop along predetermined lines.” No serious scientist believes such moonshine.

Of course civilization, in this imperfect world of imperfect people, has been a mixed blessing – but a blessing nevertheless. Its main role is literally to civilize us. It’s within civilization that we are socialized to master our baser impulses and settle down to live in relative peace and harmony. This civilizing process is a key theme in Pinker’s book, showing how it has increasingly relieved humankind of the blight of violence.

Thus we enjoy lives far more rewarding than our “primal” ancestors could have experienced. Taylor’s halcyon picture of carefree ancient people living it up, off the fat of the land, in some Woodstock-like paradise, is absurd. I’ll take modern life – with dentistry.

* Taylor notes Julian Jaynes’s theory that modern consciousness only arose around 1000 BC in response to supposedly unique stresses at that time. That crock of hooey will be addressed here by and by.

“The Sins of Civilization”

September 27, 2012

 I had to go hear Peter Heinegg on this topic. He’s a Union College Professor whom I previously heard speak about his book, The Case for Pessimism, a catalog of everything bad in life; I asked him, why not just kill yourself? His answer (quoted in my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism): “Squeeze the damn fruit till it’s dry – why would I throw it out before I’m finished?” So this nattering nabob of negativism found life worth living after all.

Heinegg’s latest opus is an indictment of civilization. His foundational premise: that human beings are just machines programmed only to advance selfish interests, with civilization the unfortunate result.

True, people try to get the most they can for themselves, all else equal. But all else is never equal, and human life is vastly more complicated than that. I keep pointing out that we evolved in groups in harsh environments, where social cooperation and even some altruism was vital for survival, and this also provides a key for understanding human behavior. We are engineered by evolution to care not just for ourselves, but for others too.

Heinegg proceeded to his numbered list of civilization’s crimes – what I call The Litany – a drearily familiar rehash, presented as if it’s some insightful new revelation. And while Heinegg did inject some flashes of humor, his hit parade of well-worn whines quickly palled.

One point, I’ll admit, resonated: meat eating = animal cruelty. I am frankly conflicted here. As Homer Simpson said, “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?” However, that doesn’t justify inflicting needless suffering on feeling creatures, which the meat industry does. But, as are most problems, it’s a complicated one.

Heinegg’s facile pot-shots at popular culture (TV a “vast wasteland” and so forth) reeked arrogant elitism, looking down his nose at proletarian pleasures. I may not share those tastes, but try to avoid such condescension. A preference for porn over Proust is at least understandable. And I’m mindful that through most of history, ordinary people led squalid lives unrelieved by entertainment of any sort.

Such lack of historical perspective pervaded Heinegg’s talk. While many points had some truth, missing was any recognition of improvement. Civilization is a work in progress, actually a relatively new phenomenon, and we’re still getting the kinks out. We are changing, a lot, and mostly for the better. (Read my book.)

Take population. Heinegg regurgitated the tired old trope of an overcrowded world with population out of control, even positing a basic human desire to have as many children as possible. What utter nonsense. In fact, as people become more prosperous, they prefer smaller families, and hence fertility rates have been plunging all over the world, with some countries now facing a population loss problem.

One questioner asked Heinegg whether, after all his talk of problems, he had any solutions. He answered that people should “wake up” and repent their sinful ways. How lame.

Life is complex and always about trade-offs. Rarely is anything purely good or bad. Civilization was an evolutionary development that certainly has entailed problems, but it began, and has flourished, for the very good reason that it has been spectacularly beneficial in improving quality of life for ever greater numbers of people.

Hence my own question: Please describe what life would be like for your listeners if civilization had never happened (on the unlikely assumption that they’d even have survived to their present mostly graying ages).

Heinegg conceded that, on balance, civilization is not a bad thing for human beings.

Thank you; the witness may step down.


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