Or “Progress” and “The Good Old Days” Were Neither
There are a lot of anthropological ideas among the general public that can range from wrong to outdated to an overly simplified understanding of something that is far more complex and nuanced. In this post I will tackle two of them in particular: our assumptions about progress, and the morality of “natural” ways of life.
Progress (better known as) Cultural Change
I’ve already talked about misunderstandings of biological and particularly human evolution. One of the common themes is an assumption that evolution is progressive; that it moves along a linear path from “primitive” to “advanced.” But evolution does not have an agenda or a goal. It doesn’t produce an organism that is perfectly adapted in the most efficient way possible. Instead, it simply adapts in the easiest way given the biological parts that it already has to work with. As an example, walking on two legs gave us many important advantages (like freeing up our hands for tool use), but we pay for it with back problems and the most difficult childbirth among mammals. Humans are the first dedicated bipedal animal. But evolution had a four-limb body map to work with. If you were designing the most efficient bipedal creature, you might come up with something quite different.
(I did a Google search to see if anyone has come up with a robot or computer model of a bipedal creature that is perfectly designed, without our human disadvantages, but I couldn’t find any! Why hasn’t someone done this yet? Get on that, engineers! I’m available for consulting. Here’s a link about why that might be. In fact a six-or even eight-limbed creature might have more advantages than a bipedal one, but evolution doesn’t just randomly start growing extra limbs. Each stage along the evolutionary path of a feature, like a limb, must also be adaptive for it to remain in the population and continue to evolve. Find out more in this video about robotics.)
Similar assumptions about cultural “evolution” abound. That human society has progressed in a linear fashion from simple to complex, from primitive tribes to advanced societies. There is an assumption that these cultural changes were always advantageous to the people affected by them. Let’s take the agricultural revolution (or Neolithic Revolution) as an example.
It seems logical to conclude that farming and a sedentary life is somehow easier, or at least more stable, with a reliable food supply and more security. It is easy to imagine “primitive tribes” eking out an existence, always in a desperate search for prey and edible plants, barely surviving and in constant danger. But this is not the reality. “Primitive tribes” are more accurately described as hunter-gatherers who live in small nomadic bands of 30 to 50 people. They follow seasonal hunting and food-gathering practices, returning to campsites on a cyclical basis, interacting with a network of other bands in culturally determined ways (like rituals, hunting parties, marriages, warfare). They have sophisticated knowledge about animal migration patterns, seasonal plants, weather patterns, navigation, not to mention the manufacture and use of specialized technology, as well as a host of other forms of knowledge mostly lost today. Many of these groups also cultivate wild plants to some degree, though this is not the same as farming. This can involve burning or cutting unwanted plants, and only harvesting certain plants in certain seasons to allow them to reseed. These forest “crops” are visited at intervals as bands make their seasonal rounds. As far as eking out a living and barely surviving, it has been accepted fact in anthropology for some time that hunter-gatherers actually spend less time working and have far more leisure time than modern urban people.
And while it may be true that their average life expectancy is lower than ours, this is mostly due to higher infant mortality. Once you pass age five, your chances to living into your 60s or 70s increases dramatically.
Homo sapiens lived like this for about 185,000 years, or 90% of our existence so far. And before that (and also concurrent with it – remember we shared the planet with other species early on), every hominin species lived like this for their entire existence. A recent discovery of the oldest stone tool found so far is 3.3 million years old, which predates genus Homo and was likely made and used by Australopithecus.
So it is safe to conclude that this strategy of survival was highly successful. This begs the question then: Why bother with agriculture at all? This is somewhat of a mystery to paleoanthropologists. Jared Diamond dramatically titled his 1987 article about the agricultural revolution, “The Worst Mistake in Human History”. It seems that once agriculture takes hold, it spreads quickly and transforms societies. Or at least, this is what most evidence seemed to suggest until recently. But new findings show that hunter-gatherers and farmers lived side by side in Paleolithic Europe for two thousand years.
One thing agriculture always accomplishes, and that is a rapid increase in population. But more is not always better, and as crowded sedentary communities multiply in number, diseases spread unchecked. When a small band is infected with a deadly disease, the worst case scenario is that the entire band dies, but its spread to other bands is limited. In an agricultural society a disease can wipe out huge populations, as is evidenced by The Black Death in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, which killed millions. Agriculture means relying on a very limited number of crops and domestic animals. A bad growing season or a disease that wipes out a herd can mean famine. In a nomadic society, alternative food sources are easier to come by. But there’s more. Agriculture is also hard work, much harder and more time consuming than hunting and gathering, and this leads to greater inequality between groups of people. The legacy of agriculture is with us still. In today’s society, the environmental toll of farming to feed an overpopulated planet is a danger to our very survival as a species, and income inequality has created desperately impoverished people.
(If you’d like to know more about the transition to agriculture, this video is really good.)
The Good Old Days
Which brings us to the second common misunderstanding about ancient peoples. That everything was better in the olden days or that “primitive” people are more “pure,” untainted by the artificiality of modern civilization. But it would be a mistake to romanticize hunter-gatherers as morally superior because they are “closer to nature.” Just because that lifestyle has many advantages doesn’t mean that I think we should all give up our iPhones and hot showers to learn how to forage and track game. This just won’t happen, certainly not on a global scale with the population and technology we have. (Although in the face of global climate change we may find ourselves one day with some difficult choices. I believe that adapting some ancient practices and principles to a modern world could lead to solutions.)
This idea is known as an appeal to nature, which is the mistaken belief that things that are found in nature are morally good and right. But all that is found in nature is not beneficial. Deadly bacteria is “natural,” for example. I’ve seen this naturalist argument used to claim that it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from rape and not men who should be taught not to rape, using the claim that it’s “natural” for men who have a “natural biological need” to procreate. That it’s human nature. Ideas about what constitutes human nature is a very slippery slope.
The size of a hunter-gatherer band is deliberate. It corresponds to the sustainable resources available in a given geographical range. One of the factors contributing to a high infant and child mortality rate among such bands is sometimes infanticide. If you don’t have reliable birth control, or are not clear about which sex acts lead to reproduction, then, tragically, if more babies are born than can be supported by the group, they are sometimes left to die in the wild. This is done to ensure the survival of the group. I don’t think anyone can argue that this practice is natural and therefore morally superior to an artificial, “man-made” condom. In addition, practices like female genital mutilation, cannibalism, warfare, and slavery (which is absolutely not a modern invention) can be found in modern and ancient hunter-gatherer (and other) groups. But at the same time, it is important not to assume that all members of every society are in agreement with all current cultural practices. There are always dissenters, although resistance can be risky. We all need the support of social groups to survive, and losing social ties can mean social and even biological death. This is why some acts of resistance can be passive or subversive, which does not always show up in the archeological record.
But What Does It All Mean Then?
Our modern way of life is neither morally superior nor inferior to ancient ones, which were in any case not uniform. If you think about the fact that, since you wouldn’t expect someone living in another region or another time period to have the same culture as you, you’ll realize that we cannot expect there to be a uniform Paleolithic “culture.” There could have been significant differences between groups living practically next door to each other, or living only one hundred years apart, which in paleoanthropological terms is a tiny amount of time.
None of this is to say that there is no such thing as progress or that we can’t make moral judgements on cultural practices. But we can ask some questions: Who defines progress? The people living at the time, or our perspective, stuck as we are in our own time period and culture? Who within the society does this “progress” benefit and is it sustainable over time? Instead of imagining a linear and uphill march of progress, we can think in terms of cultural change or renewal, which is constant and can be influenced by things like contact with new groups, and demographic or environmental shifts.