There has never been a natural way of life13 Mar 2021
Debates about which human social or psychological behaviors are ‘natural’ due to their similarities with behaviors in ancient societies are missing the point. These behaviors result from our cultural environment, which is endlessly complex and constantly changing - thus preventing a ‘natural’ way of life.
To understand our nature, history and psychology, we must get inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.
The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.
A reliance on artefacts will … bias an account of ancient hunter-gatherer life. One way to remedy this is to look at modern forager societies. These can be studied directly, by anthropological observation. But there are good reasons to be very careful in extrapolating from modern forager societies to ancient ones.
Firstly, all forager societies that have survived into the modern era have been influenced by neighbouring agricultural and industrial societies. Consequently, it’s risky to assume that what is true of them was also true tens of thousands of years ago.
Secondly, modern forager societies have survived mainly in areas with difficult climatic conditions and inhospitable terrain, ill-suited for agriculture. Societies that have adapted to the extreme conditions of places such as the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa may well provide a very misleading model for understanding ancient societies in fertile areas such as the Yangtze River Valley. In particular, population density in an area like the Kalahari Desert is far lower than it was around the ancient Yangtze, and this has far-reaching implications for key questions about the size and structure of human bands and the relations between them.
Thirdly, the most notable characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies is how different they are one from the other. They differ not only from one part of the world to another but even in the same region.
It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient hunter-gatherers was equally impressive, and that the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of different languages and cultures. This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the Cognitive Revolution. Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological conditions were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifested themselves in different norms and values.
In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and most of it is hidden from our view.* The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.
*A ‘horizon of possibilities’ means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological and cultural limitations. Each society and each individual usually explore only a tiny fraction of their horizon of possibilities.
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.
But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?