• Your life and health are your own responsibility.
• Your decisions to act (or not act) based on information or advice anyone provides you—including me—are your own responsibility.


Big Brains Require An Explanation, Part I: Why Did Humans Become Smarter, Not Just More Numerous?

(This is a multi-part series. For the index, click here.)

How did we get from this:

Australopithecus afarensis reconstruction

Australopithecus afarensis (reconstruction)

To both this…

Hadzabe hunting Maribou storks on the shore of Lake Eyasi, Tanzania.

Hadzabe hunting Marabou storks

And this?

Shibuya Crossing 163

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

That’s more than a tripling of brain size—and an astounding increase in cultural complexity—in under 3 million years.

I’ve previously written about the currently accepted explanation, in this article: “Why Humans Crave Fat.” Here are a few bullet points:

  • Chimpanzees consume about one McDonalds hamburger worth of meat each day during the dry season—mostly from colobus monkeys, which they hunt with great excitement and relish.
  • Kleiber’s Law states that all animals of similar body mass have similar metabolic rates, and that this rate scales at only the 3/4 power of size. Therefore, in order for our brains to grow and use more energy, something else had to shrink and use less energy.
  • It takes a much larger gut, and much more energy, to digest plant matter than it does to digest meat and fat. This is why herbivores have large, complicated guts with extra chambers (e.g. the rumen and abomasum), and carnivores have smaller, shorter, less complicated guts.
  • The caloric and nutritional density of meat allowed our mostly-frugivorous guts to shrink so that our brains could expand—and our larger brains allowed us to become better at hunting, scavenging, and making tools to help us hunt and scavenge. This positive feedback loop allowed our brains to grow from perhaps 400cc (“Lucy”, Australopithecus afarensis) to over 1500cc (late Pleistocene hunters).
  • In support of this theory, the brains of modern humans, eating a grain-based agricultural diet, have shrunk by 10% or more as compared to late Pleistocene hunters and fishers.

(For a more detailed explanation, including links, references, and illustrations, read the original article.)

The Teleological Error

When discussing human evolution, it’s easy to fall into the error of teleology—the idea that evolution has a purpose, of which intelligence (specifically, self-conscious intelligence recognizable to our modern philosophical traditions, and producing something recognizable to us as ‘civilization’) is the inevitable expression and end result.

Geology and archaeology proves this is not so. For instance, 140 million years of saurian dominance (far more than the 65 million years mammals have so far enjoyed) apparently failed to produce any dinosaur civilizations: they simply became bigger, faster, and meaner until the K-T asteroid hit.

Thus endeth the reign of the dinosaurs.

Thus endeth the reign of the dinosaurs.

Likewise, the increased availability of rich, fatty, nutrient- and calorie-dense meat (enabled in large part by the usage of stone tools to deflesh bones, first practiced by our ancestors at least 2.6 million year ago, or MYA) does not, by itself, explain the over threefold increase in human brain size which began with the Pleistocene era, 2.6 MYA. When a climate shift brings more rain and higher, lusher grass to the African savanna, we don’t get smarter wildebeest, or even larger wildebeest. We get more wildebeest. Neither does this increase in the prey population seem to produce smarter hyenas and lions…it produces more hyenas and lions.

Contrary to their reputation, spotted hyenas are excellent hunters, and kill more of their own prey than lions do. (Many “lion kills” were actually killed by hyenas during the night—whereupon the lions steal the kill, gorge themselves, and daybreak finds the hyenas “scavenging” the carcass they killed themselves.) One 140-pound hyena is quite capable of taking down a wildebeest by itself.

So: if the ability to deflesh bones with stone tools allowed australopithecines to obtain more food, why didn’t that simply result in an increase in the Australopithecus population? Why would our ancestors have become smarter, instead of just more numerous?

The answer, of course, lies in natural selection.

Natural Selection Requires Selection Pressure

I don’t like the phrase “survival of the fittest”, because it implies some sort of independent judging. (“Congratulations, you’re the fittest of your generation! Please accept this medal from the Darwinian Enforcement Society.”)

“Natural selection” is a more useful and accurate term, because it makes no explicit judgment of how the selection occurs, or what characteristics are selected for. Some animals live, some animals die…and of those that live, some produce more offspring than others. This is a simple description of reality: it doesn’t require anyone to provide direction or purpose, nor to judge what constitutes “fitness”.

“Natural selection” still implies some sort of active agency performing the selection (I picture a giant Mother Nature squashing the slow and stupid with her thumb)—but it’s very difficult to completely avoid intentional language when discussing natural phenomena, because otherwise we’re forced into into clumsy circumlocutions and continual use of the passive voice.

(And yes, natural selection operates on plants, bacteria, and Archaea as well as on animals…it’s just clumsy to enumerate all the categories each time.)

Finally, I’m roughly equating brain size with intelligence throughout this article. This is a meaningless comparison across species, and not very meaningful for comparing individuals at a single point in time…but as behavioral complexity seems to correlate well with brain size for our ancestors throughout the Pleistocene, we can infer a meaningful relationship.

Therefore, we can see that “The availability of calorie- and nutrient-rich meat allowed our ancestors’ brains to increase in size” is not the entire story. The additional calories and nutrients could just as well have allowed us to become faster, stronger, or more numerous. For our ancestors’ brain size to increase, there must have been positive selection pressure for big brains, because big brains are metabolically expensive.

While at rest, our brains use roughly 20% of the energy required by our entire body!

In other words, the hominids with smaller brains were more likely to die, or to not leave descendants, than the hominids with larger brains.

What could have caused this selection pressure?

Ratcheting Up Selection Pressure: Climate Change and Prey Extinction

Just as “natural selection” is simply a description of reality, “selection pressure” is also a description of reality. It’s the combination of constraints that cause natural selection—by which some animals live, some die, and some reproduce more often and more successfully than others.

The selection pressure applied by one’s own species to reproductive choices—usually mate choice by females—is often called “sexual selection.” Sexual selection is, strictly speaking, part of natural selection, but it’s frequently discussed on its own because it’s so interesting and complex.

In this essay, I’m speaking primarily of the non-sexual selection parts of natural selection, for two reasons. First, because this article would expand to an unreadable size, and second, because understanding the influence of sexual selection in the Pleistocene would require an observational knowledge of behavior. Lacking time machines, anything we write is necessarily speculation.

In order for selection pressure to change, the environment of a species must change. I believe there are two strong candidate forces that would have selected for intelligence during the Pleistocene: climate change and prey extinction.

The Incredible Oscillating Polar Ice Caps: Understanding Pleistocene Climate

I’ve discussed Pleistocene climate change at length before. (Note: the Pleistocene epoch began approximately 2.6 MYa.)

“Unlike the long and consistently warm eons of the Jurassic and Cretaceous (and the Paleocene/Eocene), the Pleistocene was defined by massive climactic fluctuations, with repeated cyclic “ice ages” that pushed glaciers all the way into southern Illinois and caused sea level to rise and fall by over 100 meters, exposing and hiding several important bridges between major land masses.” –“How Glaciers Might Have Made Us Human”

Here is a chart of the estimated average surface temperature of the Earth, starting 500 MYA and ending today. Note the logarithmic time scale!

Click image for larger version.

To appreciate the magnitude and severity of Pleistocene climactic oscillation, note the tiny dip in temperature towards the right labeled “Little Ice Age”. This minor shift froze over the Baltic Sea and the Thames River, caused Swiss villages to be destroyed by glaciers, wiped out the Greenland Norse colonies, and caused famines in Europe which killed from 10% to 33% of the population, depending on the country.

Furthermore, the climate was changing very quickly by geological standards. Let’s zoom in on the Quaternary period (2.6 MYA – present), of which the Pleistocene forms the overwhelming majority (up to 11,800 years ago):

5 million years of temperature estimates from ice cores.  Cool!

Click image for larger version.

Note that massive 41,000 year climactic oscillations, each far greater than the Little Ice Age, began approximately 2.7 MYA—and the first known stone tools made by hominids (the Oldowan industry) are dated to 2.6 MYA.

Coincidence? Perhaps not.

Genetic Vs. Cultural Change

The behavior of most animals (and all plants) is primarily determined by genetic factors (“instinct”, “innate behavior”)—so in order to adapt to a changing environment, selection pressure must be exerted over many generations. For a short-lived species which reproduces a new generation ever year, or every few years, it might be possible to adapt to a 41,000 year climate cycle via natural selection.

However, for a long-lived species like humans, with generations measured in decades, genetic change is most likely too slow to fully adapt. We would have had to move in search of conditions that remained as we were adapted to…

…or we would have had to alter our behavior in cultural time, not genetic time.

Culture is the ability to transfer knowledge between generations, without waiting for natural selection to kill off those unable to adapt—and it requires both general-purpose intelligence and the ability to learn and teach. While space does not permit a full discussion of these issues, I recommend the PBS documentary “Ape Genius” for an entertaining look at the differences between modern human and modern chimpanzee intelligence and learning. (And I can’t resist noting that spotted hyenas outperform chimpanzees on intelligence tests that require cooperation: more information here and here, abstract of original paper here.)

You can watch the full video of “Ape Genius” here if you are a US resident. (If not, you’ll have to find a US-based proxy server.)

However, climate change is insufficient by itself to cause the required selection pressure. The overwhelming majority of known species survived these changes—including the glacial cycles of the past 740,000 years which scoured North America down to southern Illinois on eight separate occasions—because they could approximate their usual habitat by moving. Even plants can usually disperse their seeds over enough distance to keep ahead of glaciers.

Therefore, to fully explain the selection pressures that led to modern intelligence, we must look farther…to the consequences of intelligence itself.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


This series continues! Click here to read Part II.

Since my last update, The Gnoll Credo received yet another stellar review:

“A tale told with simple words that are beautifully put together…The most scathing yet beautiful insights into “civilized” humanity that I have ever seen…This novel made me reconsider my life and make serious, long-term changes that have brought nothing but positive results. That is the sign of a truly powerful book. Reading this novel, you will see the names of fictional characters and places, but you are not reading about them. You are reading about yourself.

My conclusion: must read.” –Steven Gray, “Book Review: The Gnoll Credo”

I don’t advertise or have a donation button: sales of TGC keep gnolls.org alive and updated with fresh, meaty content. In addition to the usual online retailers (Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble), US readers can buy signed copies directly from 100 Watt Press. (Outside the US? Click here for a list of international retailers.)

The Paleo Identity Crisis: What Is The Paleo Diet, Anyway?

Remember back when “Are white potatoes paleo?” was the biggest question facing the paleo community? Now we’re seeing perfectly respectable paleo bloggers advocating butter and heavy cream…and some are even experimenting with white rice.

What sort of caveman diet is that?

And just what is the “paleo diet”, anyway? Is the term becoming diluted because we just can’t stop eating delicious cheat foods—or is it still a valid concept?

First, we need to define the paleo diet. Here’s one attempt, which I’ve chosen because it’s typical:

“With readily available modern foods, The Paleo Diet mimics the types of foods every single person on the planet ate prior to the Agricultural Revolution (a mere 500 generations ago).” -Dr. Loren Cordain, “The Paleo Diet”

This is a simple and concise definition, and it avoids the common pitfall of “eat only what cavemen ate”: we hunted mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, glyptodonts, wisents, and most other megafauna to extinction, so “what cavemen ate” is no longer an option. And the fruits and vegetables found in a supermarket have little to do with ancestral, wild varieties: they’re products of agricultural domestication. Paleolithic humans didn’t wander around the African savanna picking Paleolithic broccoli.

They probably tasted delicious, too: otherwise we wouldn't have hunted them to extinction.

Unfortunately, this definition is also misleading. “Every single person on the planet” didn’t eat the same diet during the more recent times (Upper Paleolithic, 10,000-40,000 years ago) for which we have good evidence—and during earlier times (Lower/Middle Paleolithic, 2.6 million-140,000 years ago), the direct evidence is too sparse to make specific recommendations.

Clearly we must do better.

Surviving Lean Times Is What Defines Us

The ability to survive lean times is what defines a long-lived, slowly-reproducing species like humans. It doesn’t matter how successful we are during good times if bad times kill everyone off.

Even if we thrived during “normal” years, but 90% of us died off during each 100-year drought, we would have gone extinct long ago—because hunter-foragers don’t reproduce quickly enough to grow their population ten-fold in 100 years. Even a terrible disaster that happens once every thousand years is basically a continual condition on the scale of millions of years of hominid evolution.

Nomadic hunter-foragers are hard-pressed to have more than one child every four years or so. Lacking blenders and convenient jars of pablum, hunter-forager children are typically breastfed for years; it’s very difficult to care for a second child until the first is big enough to keep up with the tribe on foot; and it takes a long time for the mother to build her nutritional reserves back up.

In contrast, one mosquito can lay thousands of eggs in just a few weeks, and bacterial generations are often measured in minutes.

Humans can’t depend purely on genetic selection to adapt us to droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions, hard winters, prey dieoffs, and other dramatic, short-term crises: each of us, as individuals, must change our behavior to survive the situation.

Adaptability: Why Intelligence And Omnivory Are Both Important

I’ve made the point before that general-purpose intelligence is selected for during times of change, which basically defines the entire Pleistocene…a repeating cycle of glaciation and warming that caused sea levels to fluctuate by over 150 feet and pushed ice sheets down to what is now southern Illinois. The combination of tool-using and general-purpose intelligence has allowed hominids to adapt to a bewildering variety of ecological niches, from the high Arctic to the jungles of Central America to the deserts of Arabia to the endless grasslands of the Great Plains.

However, intelligence does no good without the ability to digest and metabolize a variety of food sources. If mountain lions could speak, they still couldn’t live off of bamboo or eucalyptus leaves. If wildebeest could reason and make Gravettian stone tools, they still couldn’t live off of hunted meat.

Our Ancestral Diet: Just Because We Can And Did, Doesn’t Mean We Should

This poses an interesting question: which of our dietary adaptations simply allowed us to struggle through bad times, and which are our “ancestral diet”? To choose a modern example, humans can clearly survive and reproduce on a diet of donuts, Taco Bell, and Red Bull—but we all know such a diet isn’t optimal for health or long life.

To answer this, we need to ask a question: “How continual was this source of food during our evolutionary history?” If we only needed to eat something mildly poisonous (but not fatal) during the driest seasons of 500-year droughts, resistance to the poison might only have been weakly selected for—whereas tolerance to something we ate regularly would have been strongly selected for.

To choose one example, this is why a few thousand years of agriculture have only weakly and incompletely selected us for gluten tolerance: intolerance won’t kill you outright, and even celiac kills you very slowly.

Therefore, humans are likely to be well-adapted to dietary patterns for which we have frequent and robust evidence over a long span of evolutionary time.

The case for infrequent and weak evidence is less clear, because there are several possibilities. One, of course, is that we’ve simply not found very many such sites yet. Another, however, is that we’ve found evidence of crisis behavior: foods eaten only in extreme periods of hunger, and to which we’re not well adapted.

Try going without food for two days—if you can—and take a walk through the woods or your local park. I guarantee you’ll start wondering whether tree bark is edible, and if you can really catch those squirrels. Anyone living in a First World nation, and reading this article on their computer, is extremely unlikely to have a meaningful conception of hunger.

Then imagine what would happen if you had to fast for another day, or an entire week, and still maintain all your regular responsibilities. (Going on a retreat and sitting on a beach doesn’t count…and “juice fasts” aren’t fasting at all.) You’re going to eat anything that will fit in your mouth and doesn’t immediately kill you.

Another possibility is medicinal use: modern hunter-foragers collect a variety of plants that are never eaten, and which are only used occasionally in small quantities. And there is a final, more disturbing possibility: not every ancient group of hominids survived, and not all experiments are successful. Infrequently eaten foods could have been the last-ditch survival effort of a tribe that starved to death and left no descendants, or a failed experiment that slowly poisoned the tribe that depended on it. Human population was small, thinly distributed, and most branches of the hominid line went extinct. There’s no way, from looking at one single archaeological site, of knowing whether the remains came from successful or unsuccessful tribes or cultures.

For instance, sorghum residue in one cave, found 70,000 years previous to any other evidence of regular seed processing, could be a trace of a thriving culture of grass-eaters; it could be a temporary response to a drought or a crash in prey population; or it could be the final meals of a starving family. (“Early homo sapiens relied on grass seeds” is, in my opinion, a transparently silly assertion to make from such limited evidence.) And as Dr. Cordain points out in his response, there’s no evidence of all the other technologies necessary to make sorghum edible to humans. (Original paper, Dr. Cordain’s response.)

Be suspicious of these types of stories in the media, for reasons I outlined in last week’s article: in addition to turning “residue in one cave, with no evidence of cooking or other necessary dietary processing” to “CAVEMEN ATE BREAD!!11!!1!, these stories typically conflate “grains of starch” with “cereal grains”.

For some perspective on life in the wild during hard times, see the incredible National Geographic documentary “Last Feast of the Crocodiles”. It’s in four parts: here’s Part 1.

(I’ve linked you to Youtube because NatGeo has never released it on DVD, let alone released a downloadable or streamable version. If they ever make it available for sale again, I’m glad to link to that.)

Dietary Conclusions From Archaeology: Not As Robust As We Might Hope

In order to claim that archaeological evidence represents typical human behavior, or that its remains are representative of an ancestral diet to which we are well adapted, we need robust evidence throughout the time when selection pressure was shaping hominids into anatomically modern humans, but before we spread out from Africa—approximately 2.6 Mya to 65 Kya.

Stone tools are found in profusion, all throughout the Paleolithic: first the Oldowan industry, which are just round, easily grippable rocks with an edge smashed into one side. Then came the Acheulean biface industry, which lasted for well over a million years. Then the Mousterian and Aurignacian industries, and the microlithic technologies that allowed hunting with spears and projectiles…

…and from their earliest traces 2.6 million years ago, at Bouri and Gona, through to the present, they have been frequently associated with cutmarked animal bones, and frequently feature wear patterns consistent with skinning and butchering of game.

So the evidence for consumption of meat (and its associated fat) is robust. The evidence for eating anything else is relatively indirect, since plant matter doesn’t tend to fossilize, and we’re generally limited to inference based on things like tooth shape, jaw musculature, estimations of local weather and climate, and unambiguous evidence of controlled fire and hearths. Furthermore, evidence of any kind is extremely thin the farther we go back in time: entire ancestral hominid species are implied by a few reassembled bone and skull fragments.

Click for an article by the redoubtable John Hawks about these skeletons.

In conclusion: archaeology tells us that the ancestral hominid diet involved cutting meat off of bones and eating it. Beyond that, we’re a bit foggy on the details until we get into the Upper Paleolithic, where we can perform isotopic analysis of proteins, analyze plant residues, and run DNA analyses that connect the sites to modern populations of which we have historical knowledge.

And during the Upper Paleolithic, humans expanded to inhabit such a wide range of environments, from Siberia to the African rainforest, that the concept of “what Paleolithic humans ate” is dismayingly broad.

Direct Evidence: The Takeaway

  • Beyond meat, we don’t know that much about what Lower and Middle Paleolithic humans really ate from day to day. Direct archaeological evidence is extremely thin until perhaps 140,000 years ago.
  • The evidence in the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 years ago and newer), and from the few remaining Neolithic hunter-foragers, doesn’t point to a single “paleo diet”: it only allows us to speak of “a paleo diet”.
  • It’s impossible to recreate historical paleo diets anyway, because most of the meat animals are extinct, and the plants commonly available to us have all been domesticated.

Fun fact: Herd animals were domesticated long before cabbage was bred into its modern forms. Therefore, humans have been drinking milk for longer than we’ve been eating broccoli!

In short, it’s clear that the concept of “paleo re-enactment” has just been triangle-choked into unconsciousness.

Why Call It Paleo, Then?

We call it “paleo” for the same reason that we call it “Latin”, even though we have absolutely no idea how it was spoken. Just as Latin scholars attempt to maintain something syntactically analogous to written Latin, paleo dieters attempt to maintain something nutritionally analogous to an ancestral human diet.

This is where we have to start using science to draw tentative conclusions from the evidence we have. And while it’s tempting to get into speculative arguments about human prehistory, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: What is the biochemistry of humans? How does human metabolism work, today, right now?

So it is absolutely valid to question whether strictly Neolithic foods, such as butter or rice, have a place in the paleo diet. Eating butter because it’s nutritionally similar to animal fat is no different than wearing clothes you bought at the store because they’re functionally similar to animal skins.

That is why the paleo community is asking all these questions about clearly neolithic foods. Should we eat butter or cream? Should we eat white potatoes or white rice? And do snow peas really count as a legume?

This Is Not N=1/”Whatever Works For You”

There is an important difference between “We don’t know all the answers yet” and “Do what feels right, man.” These questions have answers, because humans have biochemistry, and we should do our best to find them and live by the results. Oreos are delicious, but there’s no contingency by which they’re even remotely paleo.

Wrapping It Up: Is There A Definition Of The Paleo Diet?

Here is my best attempt at a definition. If you can improve it or think of a better one, leave a comment!

A paleo diet is:

  • Eating foods that best support the biochemistry of human animals with a multi-million year history of hunting and foraging, primarily on the African savanna.
  • Avoiding foods, such as grains, grain oils, and refined sweeteners, that actively disrupt the biochemistry of these human animals.

I call this approach "functional paleo".

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Postscript: As several commenters have noted, there’s a useful intermediate step that involves only the second part of my definition, “avoiding foods … that actively disrupt the biochemistry of these animals”. Usually this means going gluten-free, sugar and HFCS-free, and eliminating heavily processed snack foods, i.e. Sean Croxton’s JERF. Often it’s softened to “minimizing foods …”: an example would be the WAPF, which advocates sprouting grains and beans to reduce their toxin and antinutrient load.

The Civilized Savage and the Uncivilized Civilization

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, of couse, is that humans are intrinsically foul, selfish, short-sighted creatures, and only with the blessings of civilization can we begin to transcend our bestial nature.

This common view is exactly backwards.

These “animal instincts of humans” are not something civilization can ever overcome, because they are not our instincts at all. These behaviors are caused by living in what we call “civilization”.

Ardipithecus ramidus, ~4.5 MYA. What sort of selection pressure would turn him into us? Hint: not the ability to digest grass seeds.

Note that when we say “civilization”, we actually mean “agriculture”—as if nothing at all happened during the millions of years before people were forced to start planting and eating nutritionally inferior grains due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion. These are the same millions of years that shaped small-brained, tree-dwelling, quadrupedal apes into Homo sapiens; the effects of a few thousand years of agriculture are trivial by comparison.

Here’s Robin Hanson on the characteristics of foraging societies. (Note that this means “every human and proto-human that has ever lived, including your ancestors and mine, up until a few thousand years ago.”)

“Using an existing dataset aggregated from diverse ethnographies, we collect statistics on the social environment of the studied cultures which most closely resemble our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Such foragers have neither formal class stratification nor slavery. While private property is usually present, most forager societies have no rich, and none have any poor or dispossessed.

Food sharing is always common. Compared to the most “modern” societies in the larger sample (which are different from us today), disease stress is similar, suicide and murder are rare, conflict casualty rates are lower, and fewer believe in an evil eye. Violence is never over resources, and when enemies are driven from a territory no one uses that territory.

A person wronged always directly punishes the guilty; they never use a third party. If there is a substantial dispute, one side will likely leave the community. Leaders carefully cultivate support before acting, and none have a formal leadership position. Polygamy is always allowed and usually socially preferred. Co-wives either live together or one lives with a husband while the rest live in entirely different bands. On average, about 35% of men have more than one wife, and 50% of women are in a polygamous marriage (vs. 3% and 7% in modern societies).

People are expected to have premarital sex, which is usually common. Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women. Adults talk about sex openly. While wife-beating exists, divorce is easy. Boys and girls are equally preferred, and women are considered equals of men.

Mothers are usually the main, but not only caregiver of kids. Relative to modern societies, kids are taught more to be generous, trusting, and honest. Parents more emphasize their love for kids, and kids are never punished physically. Adolescents sleep away from their parents.”

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

It seems that “uncivilized” people act far more “civilized” than we do! Presumably using their “animal instincts”, which are the same as ours—because those instincts have been selected for by millions of years of living as hunter-foragers.

(For anyone tempted to dismiss Robin Hanson as a hippie or Luddite: go visit his webpage. He’s a tenured professor of economics at George Mason University, a research associate at Oxford, and the chief scientist at Consensus Point. Did I mention the masters degree in physics?)

Additionally, war is essentially nonexistent in the historical record before the advent of agriculture. Robin Hanson again, with “Farmers War”:

The hunting and gathering adaptation, especially in its mobile form, does not appear to promote large-scale warfare, not only because groups are small, but because incentives are largely absent. Monogamy is the most common marital form (probably because women depend on men’s meat contribution and it is difficult to support two wives), so there is less incentive for bride-capture warfare. There can be territorial conflicts, but nothing in comparison to the conflicts that occur over precious lands when agriculture becomes the dominant way of life.

The scope for warfare has changed considerably as human economic systems have changed. Once people settle and the value of land varies from place to place, large-scale warfare becomes a persistent feature of human behavior, almost exclusively practiced among men. The riches to be had from control over productive river valleys (such as the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile) not only led to large-scale warfare but also to extreme differences in power and status, harems, and rape of women during and after war.

Make sure to follow the link at the bottom, or here, to the print article “Birth of War” (Natural History magazine, 7/03):

“In sum, if warfare were prevalent in early prehistoric times, the abundant materials in the archaeological record would be rich with the evidence of warfare. But the signs are not there.

In other words: the moment we settled down and became dependent on the accrued labor we invested into a specific plot of land and group of animals, someone came along and said “Do what I say or I burn your house and crops, kill your animals.” Then someone else came along and said “We’ll protect you from the barbarians…IF you give us half of what you grow and your youngest daughter,” and suddenly we had governments, taxation, slavery, armies, a privileged elite class—and war.

To summarize: the behaviors we call “uncivilized” are, in reality, entirely caused by what we call “civilization”. Until we understand that, all our efforts to “civilize” ourselves, to “control our animal instincts”, are doomed to dismal failure—

—because they create the very behaviors we hope to prevent.

It is no longer polite to state this truth so boldly: previous generations were much more frank. Here’s Alexander Ross, a European, writing about the Métis buffalo hunters of Manitoba in the late 1700s:

“These people are all politicians, but of a peculiar creed, favouring a barbarous state of society and self-will; for they cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life, believing all men were born to be free. In their own estimation they are all great men, and wonderfully wise; and so long as they wander about on these wild and lawless expeditions, they will never become a thoroughly civilized people, nor orderly subjects in a civilized community. Feeling their own strength, from being constantly armed, and free from control, they despise all others; but above all, they are marvellously tenacious of their own original habits. They cherish freedom as they cherish life. The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel. They are all republicans in principle, and a licentious freedom is their besetting sin.”

A strong, capable, well-armed, and consequently free people? “The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel.”

And for anyone who believes Hanson’s summary to be rose-tinted, this National Geographic documentary on the Hadza shows it to be essentially correct:

The Hadza do not engage in warfare. They’ve never lived densely enough to be seriously threatened by an infectious outbreak. They have no known history of famine; rather, there is evidence of people from a farming group coming to live with them during a time of crop failure. The Hadza diet remains even today more stable and varied than that of most of the world’s citizens. They enjoy an extraordinary amount of leisure time. Anthropologists have estimated that they “work”—actively pursue food—four to six hours a day.

The Hadza recognize no official leaders. Camps are tra­ditionally named after a senior male (hence, Onwas’s camp), but this honor does not confer any particular power. Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza. No Hadza adult has authority over any other.

Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment. Among the Hadza, women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup—woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly.

I don’t care if this sounds maudlin: My time with the Hadza made me happier. It made me wish there was some way to prolong the reign of the hunter-gatherers, though I know it’s almost certainly too late.

Of course it made the author happy: for the millions of years that shaped us from apes into humans, we have been continually selected for our ability to live like the Hadza! Hunting and gathering on the African savanna is, quite literally, what humans are for. Everything we’ve done in the few thousand years since agriculture is a hack, a makeshift repurposing of that basic machinery of survival. It’s like using a Formula 1 car to pull a plow.

We have forced proud, fierce, meat-eating, pack-hunting, ruthlessly egalitarian predators to sow and weed and reap, head down, hands to the plow and computer desk and cash register. We eat the birdseed we harvest, instead of the animal flesh that made us human. We give up our hard-earned surplus to the government or the corporatocracy or the King, and we obey every whim of their agents of authority on pain of imprisonment or death. And since authority claims every inch of the Earth, we can no longer leave tyranny, stupidity, or blind tradition behind to risk a new way of living—the act that separated us from the chimpanzees and made us human. We must fight its power or submit.

And we wonder why being clean and fed and comfortable doesn’t make us happy.

Once again: the behaviors we call “uncivilized” are, in reality, entirely caused by what we call “civilization”. Until we understand that, all our efforts to “civilize” ourselves, to “control our animal instincts”, are doomed to dismal failure—

—because they create the very behaviors we hope to prevent.

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


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