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The Civilized Savage and the Uncivilized Civilization
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May 18, 2011
2:24 am
Forum Posts: 2045
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February 22, 2010
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Many of my articles and essays are inspired by offhand comments which I'm inspired to expand on or debunk, like this one:

> But the nurture side is the whole point of the history of
> civilization, i.e. trying to control the animal instincts of humans to
> build a better life.

This common view takes many forms: "We're all just a bunch of monkeys" is popular, as is the cynical invocation of "human nature". Even Richard Dawkins falls prey to it when he writes about our supposedly unique ability—and, in his mind, imperative—to transcend our genetic heritage.

The unspoken assumption,…

May 18, 2011
5:38 am

An interesting analysis. I have read elsewhere something along similar lines. The idea being that settled agriculture allowed food to be 'commoditised' (ie. turned to commercial or other advantage), as we could store the food long-term. This in turn lead to society becoming stratified - and so everyone was no longer equal.

Stratification of society leads to concentration of power and as soon as individuals have an unfair proportion of power and influence, disproportionate behaviours follow (the law of unintended consequences). Power and influence can displace wisdom and knowledge.

We see this in commodity bubbles where individuals can manipulate whole markets for their own gain - and so it is that an individual with absolutely no skill or knowledge in farming can manipulate the living of an agricultrual worker on the other side of the world.

May 18, 2011
6:30 am

I usually like your entries but this time you were misleaded by a romantic picture of "the noble savage".

Best buy the book - you will like it! - and you have the single best non-contradictionary theory why we are how we are and how we became it.

May 18, 2011
6:53 am

"50% of women are in a polygamous marriage...Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women....wife-beating exists...Mothers are usually the main, but not only caregiver of kids."

As a woman, this certainly doesn't sound idyllic to me!

May 18, 2011
7:21 am

[...] great piece by J. Stanton over at gnolls. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Standing [...]

May 18, 2011
7:27 am
Samantha Moore

I just love this. Thank you. Have you read Paul Shepard? He said very much the same things throughout his many books. "It’s like using a Formula 1 car to pull a plow."

May 18, 2011
7:40 am

Franco, I went over to and read every darn page. All I have to say is, you have GOT to be kidding. That is the biggest load of bullshit I've seen in a very long time - it makes the whole "aquatic ape" thing look almost reasonable.

Excellent article, Mr. Stanton. Again.

May 18, 2011
7:58 am

I'm not entirely comfortable with the idealistic (or it is the "Noble Savage") depiction of H-G groups. (Yeah, I know, the guy's got credentials -- and so his livelihood DEPENDS on him fitting into his academic milieu. Isn't this just the obverse of an ad hominen argument, or maybe it IS ad hominem?) (That's an ongoing problem, to detour away for a sec, with *all* current academic research: the researchers DARE not publish stuff that conflicts with "the conventional wisdom" and jeopardize their reach for tenure or their status in their group. Don't we see that all the time in nutrition?)

"These oh-so-gentle, noble egalitarians rarely, if ever, had wars." Just as with chimps, when an "outsider" band enters their territory -- jeopardizes their resources -- they (absolutely) have wars. Because there were so FEW bands, and so much territory, they rarely had wars. When their neck-of-the-woods was invaded, they went to war. I'm certainly not applauding agriculture, which requires wars, but the rose-colored-glasses depiction of H-G groups may very well be ... contaminated ... by modern-day financial and status considerations on the part of the person doing the describing. How are we to tell?

And yes, I see that the researcher allows for small-scale warfare – and for the same reasons as large-scale warfare. Is that a function of group size or do they intend to point to some functional difference in the cause(s)? IF there are so few H-Gs, and so few women and so little competition for other resources, then of course there's no reason for bride capture/war. If, on the other hand, there IS pressure and competition, then there will be those negative (or is that necessary) results. That's NOT a function of H-G lifestyle; rather the lifestyle is a function of the small group size and lack of a need for resource control.

The idea that territorial control automatically requires war – or the protection of resources and the driving off of interlopers (and those description differ in *size,* not kind!) – seems to me to be the driving factor, and not that, in some weird way, H-Ging allows for a peaceful "Noble Savage" way of life.

May 18, 2011
8:12 am

Nice essay JS.
It's important to know that our instincts inherent in our genetic makeup are naturalized as a result of our synergy with nature, not seperate, or essentialized as we seem to be living today. It has an effect upon everything we do, becoming so uncivilized. We just used the label in a degragatory way towards the past, assuming we are inherently superior. If is to be quantified in non-economic or political ways, our balls and biceps are smaller today than those of our ancestors...some "civilization" progress eh

May 18, 2011
9:38 am

Their two major problems with that analysis, though. One is that the data is based on modern ethnographies. Two is that the assumptions underlying their exclusion criteria for the societies they included. They disqualified societies from their analysis for having fixed settlements, or for using fishing in their subsistence strategy. I am not convinced that these cultural features could not have been part of our evolutionary history. I wonder if an inaccurately narrow definition of hunter-gatherer societies biased their conclusions.

I think we need to consider more strongly the point (acknowledged by the authors) that the best-documented h-g groups are peoples in modern times who live in marginal land areas (often pushed their by agricultural neighbors). I think that the most salient feature of the groups from which the authors draw their conclusions about pacifist, egalitarian groups is that they have not-great natural resources available. I think I'd need to have it proved to me that groups that lived in areas with un-abundant natural resources were the dominant populations that were naturally selected and our main evolutionary ancestors.

It is clear that a group that had access to a significant concentration of natural resources could, without agriculture, naturally develop fixed settlements and denser populations. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest, for example, developed a stratified society that engaged in warfare and slavery; they enjoyed abundant marine resources that offered an easily acquired surplus.

Also, I'm not sure that I consider seven groups to be an adequate sample size to be making generalizations about prehistoric populations.

Also also, I'd feel more confident about their conclusions if they made at least an attempt to look at archaeological evidence for our prehistoric ancestors.

May 18, 2011
11:49 am

"women depend on men’s meat contribution"
sorry but this made me laugh very loudly at work!

the write up is interesting, not sure i believe that humans did not fight for resources then when they were scarces, sorry.

also is polygamy preferred to monogamy?
i can see genetic advantages being there, but preferred might be a strong word.

May 18, 2011
11:52 am
GZK limit

I enjoyed your essay, but would temper its message with some of Elenor and Adria’s caveats.

Re. Elenor’s comments on academics, I agree that they’re mostly herd animals with some nauseating habits. I’ve known Robin for long time, however, and he’s an exception to most rules, a maverick who entered academia late and from another field.

(J., Did you mention Robin’s PhD from Caltech?)

Re., Jan has it right: rubbish.

Re. Michelle’s notes on non-idyllic lives for women, well, nothing is very close to perfect. Whatever the defects of polygamy, it occurs to me that it does ensure that all women can marry without some of them being forced to pair up with the least-desirable males.

Re. The astoundingly positive aspects of some of the pre-European societies in North America, there’s an anomaly in their situation: Abundant resources, allowing societies to operate far from the long-term ecological limit. This allowed people to split off and live elsewhere without struggling against others, and by the same token, temporarily relieved pressures for inter-group conflict.

The cause for this abundance (much commented on by Europeans at the time) way the catastrophic collapse of population that resulted from successive waves of deadly Old-World diseases. This collapse preceded by generations European encounters with of most of these societies.

The book 1491 is well grounded and turned my view of the pre-Columbian New World upside down. I recommend it.

Re. your post in general: A big Bravo! for helping to spread understanding of the many ways in which the Neolithic was a catastrophe for human life.

May 18, 2011
3:11 pm
Forum Posts: 2045
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Exactly.  In forager society, the land itself is the food storage device.  Meat is stored in the form of living animals, tubers, nuts, and vegetables are stored in the form of living plants.  (Plants are generally seasonal, but the land contains many different plants, each with their own distribution and season.)  As that stored food is distributed throughout the land, it cannot be easily controlled or destroyed except by driving the tribe entirely off their land.

A grain-dependent society, however, harvests its few crops (or, in many cases, its single crop) once a year, and depends on that stored grain for the rest of the year.  That stored surplus can easily be controlled or destroyed…and it is much easier and more profitable to parasitize those who have already done the work of sowing, irrigating, weeding, reaping, and storage than to do the work oneself.

You'll see some of the practical differences, as they are expressed in human and gnoll society, in The Gnoll Credo.


I'll take a look — but I'm immediately suspicious of any illustrations that depict a hominid with vertically slitted, catlike pupils.  As far as I know, only a few prosimians have them…and even the big cats, like lions, have round pupils despite having excellent night vision.  And "Teem theory" sure looks like a load of hogwash to me.

EDIT TO UPDATE: I think the biggest problem with NP theory is that the current consensus is that the Skhul-Qafzeh humanoids were not ancestral to any modern human population, which makes the entire case fall apart.

However, as with most such theories, there is some underlying truth, which is that the modern depiction of Neandertals is most likely heavily anthropomorphized.  Even if they didn't look like big, black, scowling assassin-gorillas, his points about stance, gait, and build most likely stand — and even if they did have noses (which they most likely did), their faces wouldn't have looked quite so innocently human.


As a woman living in a modern non-sectarian Western democracy, you are in a vanishingly rare and privileged position throughout the ~12,000 year history of agricultural civilization.  

Even today, women have little to no practical right of self-determination in most political, social, and religious systems worldwide…and what little you have only came recently.  The first time and place in which women were given the unrestricted right to vote was 1893, in New Zealand! 

As the article notes, many Hadza women return to their tribe because they are treated far worse outside it: in Tanzania, rape within a marriage is only illegal if the couple is separated.  Rape in Sub-Saharan Africa is basically endemic: rapes of women in the DRC top 1000 per day, and 1 in 4 South African men admit to having raped a woman in their life.  

And let's not even start with the place of women in Islam — or even Christianity.  ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’ s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.")

This is not to hold any existing system up as a model, or suggest you should "settle" for anything.  It's just a set of facts about the situation as it exists.


Yes, I have.  I find Shepard to have a few startling and trenchant insights, floating on a sea of overly complicated academic analysis and heavily romanticized Noble Savage mysticism.  He's the sort of writer I prefer to see others build upon, rather than recommending everyone slog through it themselves.

That being said, he gets a pass for his insights, and for giving some academic respectability to points of view previously restricted to outsiders like Bob Black. "Coming Home to the Pleistocene" pretty much covers his bases, for those who wish to investigate.

EDIT to add: I'm probably less impressed than you were because the ideas are, for the most part, not new to me...if I had come to him before reading Bob Black, Raoul Vaneigem, Joe Kane's "Savages", and Lierre Keith's "The Vegetarian Myth", I probably would have been blown away.


Thank you!  I wasn't sure how this one would be received, given that I've been writing so much about diet lately: I'm glad people are enjoying what I write as I range farther afield.  Diet and exercise is not the most important part of evolutionary discordance.


(Note: more responses coming. I'm splitting this into two parts because it's getting long.)

May 18, 2011
6:08 pm
Forum Posts: 2045
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Note that the essays I quote speak only of in-group interaction.  There's plenty of room for hostility between groups...and reasonably good evidence that this, in fact, occurred.  However, you are correct that the low population density means this would be far less frequent than today even considering analogous levels of aggression.  In addition, the fact that a mobile society of hunter-foragers lacks fixed resources to steal makes inter-group aggression far less likely.  See my comment to Asclepius, above.

As far as academia, GZK is right: Hanson is generally a maverick.  And after a period of "noble savage" mysticism caused mainly by "Coming of Age in Samoa", the academic fashion has (AFAIK) swung the other direction, with people like Richard Wrangham positing modern chimpanzees as the model for hunter-forager behavior.

I don't want to push any sort of "noble savage" myth.  However, atrocities like the Cultural Revolution, the Rape of Nanking, the rape of the Congo by Belgium, the rape of Nigeria by oil companies (google Ken Saro-Wiwa sometime) -- let alone sending millions off to die in wars -- simply have no parallel in Paleolithic time.  Not even close.  Go here for a sobering reminder of "civilization's" death toll:

And then there is the daily grinding down of our humanity by huge, impersonal, arbitrary authority that demands instant, unquestioning obedience -- and is too large to fight.

Contrast this with the small-scale violence of hunter-forager conflict: battles that can be fought and won on an individual level.  That is what our movies are about, that is what our myths and legends are about -- because that is what we have been selected to fight for millions of years.


Agreed.  Our modern, self-constructed environment has so little to do with the environment that shaped us into what we are that it's amazing we manage to live at all.  

The challenge, of course, is to regain some of that convergence without simply regressing to a culture that "civilization" can slaughter like cattle.  If you're interested in those issues, you should most definitely pick up a copy of The Gnoll Credo.


There is no clear, bright line between hunter-foragers and agricultural sedentism, as the archeological record shows (e.g. Ohalo II).  I think it's clear that as dependence on fixed resources (e.g. productive fishing grounds) and accrued labor (e.g. dwellings, stored food) increases, conflicts over those resources will also increase.  

Further, accrued labor has the most incentive for theft or blackmail, because the resource has already been converted into a usable form.  It's easier to steal gold than a gold mine, and it's easier to steal stored grain (or "tax" it, or hold it hostage) than it is to capture territory with good fishing grounds.

It might be true that marginal habitat increases peacefulness -- but hunter-foragers still existing at all implies some degree of aggression, because any totally peaceful culture was exterminated by immigrants long ago.  The two factors balance out to some degree.

As far as archaeological evidence, well, that's the point, isn't it?  We've been looking for evidence of human-on-human violence previous to agriculture and finding very little, whereas the evidence after agriculture is plentiful.  It doesn't mean someone won't find more, somewhere -- I agree that foragers weren't peaceful -- but it's clear that human-on-human violence, both within a culture and between cultures, increased dramatically once we became "civilized".


PS: I note that most of the examples held up of high inter-group hostility -- by, for instance, Richard Wrangham -- are primitive farmers (e.g. New Guinea highlanders and the Yanomamo), not hunter-foragers.  I find this sort of argument to be disingenuous at best.

(Still more to come: this has become a three-parter.  Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful and perceptive comments!)

May 18, 2011
8:46 pm

The looks of them might be exaggerated (the eyes especially - I agree) but overall it makes more sense then any theory I read before.
And teems yes or no, there is certainly something that can forward abstract feelings/instincts to the offspring of any animal which isn't explained sufficiently with simple evolution theory.
And no, I'm not kidding! :p

May 19, 2011
5:58 am

"Modern non-sectarian Western democracy" is far closer to idyllic for womankind than the foraging society you put forth as idyllic in the article.

I'll take civilization, thanks!

May 19, 2011
6:57 am

And let's not even start with the place of women in Islam — or even Christianity. (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’ s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”)

Common mistake, but that's not Christianity - it's a part of the Mosaic law given to Israel. Per the apostle to the nations, for those in Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek. Do humans effect this imperfectly? Oh yeah.

And for a commenter above, you can *lead* a horse to water, but having *led* it there, you can't make it drink.

May 19, 2011
8:07 am

i understand that most polygamous societies were largely a way of "taking care of" the "extra" women in a group in which monogamy would leave a number unpaired, and thus unprovided-for. when male society-members engage in higher risk activities, and there's a slightly higher rate of female births.... it didn't originate as a wife-collecting, show-off activity, whatever it has declined into.

it's interesting to note, also, that islam originally afforded rights to women that they didn't have in europe, at the time. 🙂

May 19, 2011
10:05 am
Peggy The Primal Par

The excerpts by Robin Hanson remind me of observations Weston Price made in Nutrition and Physical degeneration. That book opened my eyes to the effects of civilization (modern foods). It's nice to see similar observations made by another notable scientist.

You write on one of the most profound concepts in Primal philosophy. I think you did a great job breathing life into the dusty and undervalued link to misinterpreted instinct and civilization.

May 19, 2011
3:30 pm
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(My apologies to everyone…my third reply, to eddie, GZK, and Franco, disappeared last night after being posted.  I don't know where it went.  I'll reply again, though perhaps not at such length.)


I am absolutely not pushing the "noble savage" myth.  I'm quite sure hunter-foragers fought for resources when they were scarce!  However, some things are clear:

-Violence within a tribe is rare to non-existent, compared to "civilized" societies.  Interpersonal conflicts are addressed immediately and personally, and all relationships (as has been noted) are fiercely egalitarian.  Most likely this is because it's difficult to maintain any sort of power when there is no accumulated surplus to tax or confiscate — and because tribes with members that don't cooperate tend to die out.

-When there is no accumulated surplus of stored labor to plunder, destroy, or hold hostage in exchange for tribute (e.g. storehouses of grain, livestock, houses and fences), the incentive for inter-tribal warfare is much lower.

We don't have to posit that people were intrinsically peaceful — just that agricultural "civilization", by making humans dependent on stored surpluses, creates massive incentives for war, slavery, blackmail, domination, and exploitation.  The horrors of "civilization"…the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the rape of the Congo by the Belgians, the rape of Nigeria by Shell and BP (look up Ken Saro-Wiwa sometime), Bhopal, the rape of Nanking…nothing in our evolutionary history as hunter-foragers can compare.  And the horror goes on, and on, and on…

As far as polygamy: most likely it was "preferred" for the reasons Tess states.  Hunting (and, most likely, occasional tribal conflict) is risky, and would tend to result in less men than women, over time. 

Also, hunter-foragers didn't have access to, or even to the thousands of potential mates in a small town: in a tribe of 30-150, many of whom are already married, the mating pool is tiny (and may actually be zero) if monogamy is required.


Absolutely.  I hope my comments above make it clear that I'm not pushing the "noble savage" myth: I'm demonstrating that evolutionary discordance causes the problems of "civilization".

That's a great point about North America being depopulated by the time Western explorers documented it…I'll have to find a copy of 1491 to read.  Thanks for the recommendation!

No, I don't think I mentioned Dr. Hanson's doctorate in social science.  Next time you see him, please give him my regards.  He's a brilliant and provocative thinker whose essays I always enjoy reading.

Thank you for your comments and support!  If we don't understand how discordant modern life is with the life we've been selected to live, we can't possibly improve our situation.


(One more to come…lots to talk about here.)

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