17 Apr 2021
Large-scale human societies depend on imagined orders (i.e. shared beliefs) to function, as they enable lots of people to cooperate effectively. These imagined orders can be maintained by coercion, but the most effective and efficient way is to make people truly believe in them, by institutionally embedding them into peoples’ lives. Changing or dismantling one of these beliefs requires an even more powerful belief to take its place.
All quotes are from Sapiens.
The population growth from the Agricultural Revolution required more depth and complexity of imagined orders:
The food surpluses [of the Agricultural Revolution] produced by peasants, coupled with new transportation technology, eventually enabled more and more people to cram together first into large villages, then into towns, and finally into cities, all of them joined together by new kingdoms and commercial networks. … Yet in order to take advantage of these new opportunities, food surpluses and improved transportation were not enough. The mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging.
When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth. … All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.
Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire. ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen. The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat. Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.
Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?
Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’
Imagined orders can be maintained by coercion, but the most effective and efficient way is to make people truly believe in it:
If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? … Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.
However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well. … A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.
An even more interesting question concerns those standing at the top of the social pyramid. Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves don’t believe in it? It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed. Yet a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy. It does not take much to provide the objective biological needs of Homo sapiens. After those needs are met, more money can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world, financing election campaigns, funding your favourite terrorist organisation, or investing in the stock market and making yet more money – all of which are activities that a true cynic would find utterly meaningless. Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who founded the Cynical school, lived in a barrel. When Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes as he was relaxing in the sun, and asked if there were anything he might do for him, the Cynic answered the all-powerful conqueror, ‘Yes, there is something you can do for me. Please move a little to the side. You are blocking the sunlight.’
This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.
Imagined orders are built into peoples’ lives to get them to believe in it:
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. … You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.
The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. In the limited space at our disposal we can only scratch the surface. Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:
a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.
b. The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.
c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.
In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them. Marie Curie, one of the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know, during her long years of studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body. While she did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of aplastic anaemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive materials.
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
Changing or dismantling these beliefs requires an even more powerful belief:
Peugeot, for example, is not the imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. The CEO believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby office, the tellers in the bank, the brokers on the stock exchange, and car dealers from France to Australia. If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental hospital and someone else would occupy his office.
Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful.
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
16 Apr 2021
The Neolithic (First Agricultural) Revolution marked a pivot from hunter-gatherer to farmer lifestyles ~10,000 years ago, creating powerful implications for the rest of human history. It enabled the development of modern society, including (delayed) benefits of population growth, cities, specialization, trade, and new forms of government; though it came with the immediate costs of disease, violence, poor nutrition, and grueling labor for the vast majority of the population, and opened the door for the long-term cost of increased inequalities.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari presents an initially dismal view of the Agricultural Revolution, characterized by the suffering of farmers without improvements in quality of life. This is consistent with Jared Diamond’s views as well.
… about 10,000 years ago, … Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution.
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. … [Sapiens] had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants.
How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return? It did not offer a better diet. Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
Wheat did not give people economic security. The life of a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Foragers relied on dozens of species to survive, and could therefore weather difficult years even without stocks of preserved food. … Farming societies have, until very recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety of domesticated plants. In many areas, they relied on just a single staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions.
Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting. The loss of pasture land to raiding neighbours could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise. When a foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses and granaries. In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation. Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end.
Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?
What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl? It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
However, Harari also recognizes the Agricultural Revolution was the foundation of modern society and the eventual quality-of-life improvements that came with it:
The stress of farming had far-reaching consequences. It was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.
These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
Aside: Harari notes agricultural revolutions occurred independently in several regions, rather than being exported from a single region. These occurrences depended on the region’s (opportunistic) environmental abilities to domesticate plants and animals, rather than certain regions being exceptionally intelligent. This is also consistent with Jared Diamond’s view in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Scholars once believed that agriculture spread from a single Middle Eastern point of origin to the four corners of the world. Today, scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. … From these initial focal points [of Central America, South America, China, North America, New Guinea, and West Africa], agriculture spread far and wide. By the first century AD the vast majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists.
Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question. The fungi were far too elusive, the giant beasts too ferocious. Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.
03 Apr 2021
Just because we don’t know what happened, doesn’t mean what did happen was unimportant.
If the larger picture of ancient forager life is hard to reconstruct, particular events are largely irretrievable. When a Sapiens band first entered a valley inhabited by Neanderthals, the following years might have witnessed a breathtaking historical drama. Unfortunately, nothing would have survived from such an encounter except, at best, a few fossilised bones and a handful of stone tools that remain mute under the most intense scholarly inquisitions. We may extract from them information about human anatomy, human technology, human diet, and perhaps even human social structure. But they reveal nothing about the political alliance forged between neighbouring Sapiens bands, about the spirits of the dead that blessed this alliance, or about the ivory beads secretly given to the local witch doctor in order to secure the blessing of the spirits.
This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a universal creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred – let alone describe them in detail.
Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect to answer. Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what political dramas they experienced. Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived back then did nothing of importance’.
The truth is that they did a lot of important things. In particular, they shaped the world around us to a much larger degree than most people realise. Trekkers visiting the Siberian tundra, the deserts of central Australia and the Amazonian rainforest believe that they have entered pristine landscapes, virtually untouched by human hands. But that’s an illusion. The foragers were there before us and they brought about dramatic changes even in the densest jungles and the most desolate wildernesses.
27 Mar 2021
Were ancient societies exceptionally peaceful or violent? As with most things, it depends; no sweeping conclusion can be made.
Finally, there’s the thorny question of the role of war in forager societies. Some scholars imagine ancient hunter-gatherer societies as peaceful paradises, and argue that war and violence began only with the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to accumulate private property. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was exceptionally cruel and violent. Both schools of thought are castles in the air, connected to the ground by the thin strings of meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present-day foragers.
The anthropological evidence is intriguing but very problematic. Foragers today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas such as the Arctic or the Kalahari, where population density is very low and opportunities to fight other people are limited. Moreover, in recent generations, foragers have been increasingly subject to the authority of modern states, which prevent the eruption of large-scale conflicts. European scholars have had only two opportunities to observe large and relatively dense populations of independent foragers: in north-western North America in the nineteenth century, and in northern Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both Amerindian and Aboriginal Australian cultures witnessed frequent armed conflicts. It is debatable, however, whether this represents a ‘timeless’ condition or the impact of European imperialism.
The archaeological findings are both scarce and opaque. What telltale clues might remain of any war that took place tens of thousands of years ago? There were no fortifications and walls back then, no artillery shells or even swords and shields. An ancient spear point might have been used in war, but it could have been used in a hunt as well. Fossilised human bones are no less hard to interpret. A fracture might indicate a war wound or an accident. Nor is the absence of fractures and cuts on an ancient skeleton conclusive proof that the person to whom the skeleton belonged did not die a violent death. Death can be caused by trauma to soft tissues that leaves no marks on bone. Even more importantly, during pre-industrial warfare more than 90 per cent of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and disease rather than by weapons. Imagine that 30,000 years ago one tribe defeated its neighbour and expelled it from coveted foraging grounds. In the decisive battle, ten members of the defeated tribe were killed. In the following year, another hundred members of the losing tribe died from starvation, cold and disease. Archaeologists who come across these no skeletons may too easily conclude that most fell victim to some natural disaster. How would we be able to tell that they were all victims of a merciless war?
Duly warned, we can now turn to the archaeological findings. In Portugal, a survey was made of 400 skeletons from the period immediately predating the Agricultural Revolution. Only two skeletons showed clear marks of violence. A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the same period in Israel discovered a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed to human violence. A third survey of 400 skeletons from various pre-agricultural sites in the Danube Valley found evidence of violence on eighteen skeletons. Eighteen out of 400 may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually a very high percentage. If all eighteen indeed died violently, it means that about 4.5 per cent of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were caused by human violence. Today, the global average is only 1.5 per cent, taking war and crime together. During the twentieth century, only 5 per cent of human deaths resulted from human violence – and this in a century that saw the bloodiest wars and most massive genocides in history. If this revelation is typical, the ancient Danube Valley was as violent as the twentieth century.
The depressing findings from the Danube Valley are supported by a string of equally depressing findings from other areas. At Jabl Sahaba in Sudan, a 12,000-year-old cemetery containing fifty-nine skeletons was discovered. Arrowheads and spear points were found embedded in or lying near the bones of twenty-four skeletons, 40 per cent of the find. The skeleton of one woman revealed twelve injuries. In Ofnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of thirty-eight foragers, mainly women and children, who had been thrown into two burial pits. Half the skeletons, including those of children and babies, bore clear signs of damage by human weapons such as clubs and knives. The few skeletons belonging to mature males bore the worst marks of violence. In all probability, an entire forager band was massacred at Ofnet.
Which better represents the world of the ancient foragers: the peaceful skeletons from Israel and Portugal, or the abattoirs of Jabl Sahaba and Ofnet? The answer is neither. Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates. While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious conflicts.
13 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?