Posts Tagged ‘civilization’

Fear and Loathing at Sears Auto Center

February 5, 2015

UnknownOnce, at a fancy New Orleans restaurant, we didn’t get bread like other tables. I told the Maitre D’. He shrugged and said, “Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.”* This has become a family catch-phrase.

Recently my car battery needed immediate replacement. Unknown-1I went to  Sears in Albany, phoning first to confirm availability. After a 15 minute queue, Tim at the front station went to the shelf, and came back saying, “You’re in luck, we have one left.” So we did up the paperwork; he said installation wouldn’t take long.

An hour later, I checked with Tim; he said my car was next. After almost a further hour, enduring daytime TV noise in the waiting room, I asked him what was going on. I might have sounded frustrated. Tim snarled, “You can take your car and leave if you want.” I didn’t reply. A little while later, he finally called my name.

images“We don’t have the battery,” Tim said, without even the word “sorry.” Dumbfounded, I pointed out that he’d told me they had it. Tim denied this.

Sometimes you get a battery and sometimes you don’t.

Luckily my car would still start and I got one quickly at Hyundai. Then I phoned the manager at Sears Auto, Steve, to complain. After several attempted excuses, he finally conceded, “I have no excuse.” But I never actually got an apology.

This was certainly one of my most egregious consumer experiences. I’m still literally incredulous that a major business like Sears would operate like that. Unknown-2But after I calmed down and pondered, I was bemused to consider how minor this was, in the great scheme of things, and how rare even such minor foul-ups are in an advanced country like America. My Sears episode, standing out like a sore thumb, really points up how beautifully our society functions ordinarily. We should be tremendously grateful, not taking it for granted. Life wasn’t always like this, and still isn’t in many places even today.

I was put in mind of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel which I’ve reviewed. After living in several Muslim societies, she washed up as a refugee in the Netherlands; straight off the plane, she encountered a policeman, who helped her, rather than trying to victimize her. This blew her mind; an epiphany in which Hirsi Ali instantly understood that, so unlike all her past experience, here is a society that works.

My car works too now. It only took three and a half hours.

Unknown-3*I whispered to my wife, “Sometimes you get a tip and sometimes you don’t.”

The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

July 27, 2014

imagesJared Diamond authored Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, tackling big questions of the human story. His latest is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Is this yet another argument bashing civilization as really all a Big Mistake?

I’ve reviewed two such: Steve Taylor’s The Fall, and Peter Heinegg’s Crazy Culture: The Sins of Civilization. It’s an all too common trope, that humanity has lost its way, and did “fall” from an Eden of virtue, harmony, and purity; seeing us now on an evil path, doomed to deserved punishment via wrecking the planet.

But Diamond is saying no such thing. His subtitle question is sincerely posed. images-1Without suggesting we should forswear civilization and revive the stone age, he does think we’ve lost some valuable things. And that’s unarguable. All of life is trade-offs. We did give up a lot in creating civilization. In fact, for most of history that trade-off has probably been unfavorable; while inventing agriculture was perhaps necessary for survival, it did reduce quality of life, and only in very recent times have we finally achieved the payoff in human welfare. Only now are most of us truly better off than in the stone age. It’s ironic that only now do so many people question the trade-off.

Diamond compares “traditional” and modern societies in numerous aspects, and is pretty even-handed, refusing to romanticize primitive peoples. This comes from knowledge: he spent much of his scientific career among the pre-modern inhabitants of inner New Guinea.

images-3We must realize that, in the big picture, our transition to modernity has been incredibly swift, and we’re still working things out. For example, as Diamond explains, we evolved to cope with a feast-or-famine existence, which becomes a problem in our all-feast environment, causing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc. So we are actually less healthy than cavemen. Yet their average lifespan was around thirty.

One topic is war, central to critiques of modernity. That indictment says that only with civilization did we invent war; before then, in the virtuous pre-lapsarian Eden, people lived in harmony not only with nature but with each other; war was, at most, ritualized and basically non-lethal combat, certainly nothing like the bloody destructiveness of civilizational warfare. All nonsense, Diamond firmly concludes from the evidence (as did Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined). images-2Warfare in primitive societies has been far the more frequent and deadly (per capita). While it’s true that civilization’s “intrusion” can cause a transient spike in such violence, people then settle down, and living in civilized, organized states is a great dampener of violence, both within and among societies.

Yet the “fall from Eden” belief remains tenaciously persistent. Why? Diamond actually addresses that very question, and suggests a number of answers, all of them academic. But, oddly, he doesn’t mention what seems to me the obvious, overriding reason: self-hating cynicism toward one’s own society. For many, it flatters their moral vanity to see themselves as superior insightful beings among benighted fools and knaves. Hence the idea that civilization merely aggravates a basic human propensity for violence and bad behaviors of every sort.

Unknown-1Fundamental to that stance is viewing modern life as a rat’s nest of pathologies (see again my review of The Fall), with the resulting bottom line being that for all its supposed advancements, benefits, and creature comforts, modernity actually leaves us less happy than our primitive ancestors. And if that’s so, what good is civilization anyway? What have we gotten for all we’ve given up?

Well – if you have that mindset, it’s no surprise you’re unhappy. Seeing everything around you as a travesty is not conducive to good cheer. And it isn’t a posture of realism. Despite how such cynics may fancy themselves, their viewpoint acts as a reality-distortion device, just as powerful as, say, a religious faith. Neither enables one to see reality. It’s exemplified by the dogged (and wholly wrong) insistence that modern societies are more violent than primitive ones.

Most people, however, don’t think about such things one way or the other, just taking for granted that things are the way they are today, and never pondering how they might be (and were in the past, and in some places continue being) vastly different.

But I’m acutely conscious of what it took to get us where we are today, and what that means for our quality of life. With total commitment to realism and objectivity, I try to see what is rather than what I want to see. I don’t forget the trade-offs, all the things we’ve sacrificed for what we’ve achieved, as Jared Diamond explicates well in his book. But for me, in my own life, that trade-off is tremendously positive. I am continuously and profoundly mindful and thankful for modernity’s blessings – blessings unavailable in “The World Until Yesterday.”

images-4The foregoing recalls what Barry Schwartz called the “adaptation effect” in his book The Paradox of Choice.  People whose circumstances improve soon adapt to the “new normal” as merely how things are and should be; since what they’ve got is merely what they now expect, they don’t feel happier. Humanity as a whole suffers from this adaptation effect in regard to civilization’s benefits. If more people shared my mindset of not taking it all for granted, we’d be happier.

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.