• 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.


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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Permalink: The Civilized Savage and the Uncivilized Civilization
  • Asclepius

    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.

  • Franco

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

    Read themandus.org
    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.

  • Michelle

    “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!

  • ashlocklabs.com

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

  • 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.”

  • Jan

    Franco, I went over to themandus.org 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.

  • Elenor

    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.

  • Tom

    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

  • Adria

    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.

  • eddie

    “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.

  • 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. themandus.org, 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.

  • Asclepius:

    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.)

  • Elenor:

    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!)

  • Franco

    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

  • Michelle

    “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!

  • somachristou

    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.

  • tess

    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. 🙂

  • 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.

  • (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 Match.com, 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.)

  • Michelle:

    “I'll take civilization, thanks!”

    The problem with that is that choosing “civilization” is far more likely to land you in misery and slavery, based on deep religious and cultural misogyny, than choosing hunter-foragers.  Even today, much more of “civilization” is like Saudi Arabia or sub-Saharan Africa than like Denmark…and it gets worse the farther back in time you go.  Ask yourself what rights you would have had in the Roman empire, let alone the Hittites or Akkadians.

    So what you're really saying is “I choose where I am, right here, right now,” which I absolutely agree is the best time for women in civilization, ever!  But it's not clear to me that this utterly atypical and vanishingly rare arrangement is the inevitable endpoint of “civilization”…

    …or that it's even stable in the long term.  Depending on an overwhelmingly male-dominated power structure to enforce women's rights doesn't seem like a good idea to me.


    Yes, I know it's Old Testament…but I can never keep straight what part of the Word of God is to be taken literally, what part is to be taken metaphorically, and what part is superseded by what mutually contradictory other part.

    Just watching religious people argue over it makes my head hurt…and the arguments can never end, because there are no underlying facts to allow a rational decision to be made one way or the other.


    Exactly!  That's the sort of thinking I'm trying to promote.  When we see a modern behavior that seems strange or wrong, we should ask ourselves “Could this be the result of a behavioral adaptation to the hunting-foraging existence we are no longer leading?”

    No, it's not a universal solution: but when our lives are so wildly different from our evolutionary context, it's always an important question to ask.

    And you are correct: most of the worst Islam-bashers are part of a religion that featured the Crusades, the Conquistadores, and the Dark Ages.  I don't find it productive to argue which monotheistic, patriarchal religion is “better” for women, or anyone else.


    I'm intrigued enough to want to read it.  So far it looks a lot like Richard Wrangham: entertaining speculation ranging from totally plausible to utter bosh.


    Those observations aren't new to Dr. Hanson, but he summarizes them very well.  The classic essay on the subject is, of course, Jared Diamond's “The Worst Mistake In Human History”, though it spends more time on diet and physical health.

    Thank you for your support!  A growing number of people are realizing, as they achieve great health and fitness by changing their diets, that evolutionary discordance is very real.  One of my goals is to bring that understanding beyond simple diet and exercise, to encompass our entire way of “civilized” life, and how we might improve it.  I'm glad to see that you share that goal.


    Whew!  I'm caught up.  Special thanks to all of you for a stimulating and productive dialogue!  (And please feel free to keep going.)  I'm proud of my regular readers and commenters for helping make gnolls.org such a great place.

    Also note that these comments are actually threads in the forum, that posting as a registered user means the website you enter will actually show up as a link — and that there is another forum devoted specifically to talking about The Gnoll Credo, should you be inclined to do so.

  • Franco

    I didn’t read Wangham but might just do so. What I found online doesn’t sound too unreasonable so far.
    To parallel it with Them and Us, neanderthals were hyper-aggressive chimpanzees while our ancestors more like bonobos when they first met.

  • Anders

    The why of “The Worst Mistake In Human History” is explained in Them and Us. Read the book.

    I have to agree with Franco. The explanatory power of the NP hypothesis is amazing. This is the first narrative I’ve read that makes me feel like I know how sapiens evolved. For you to give this idea short shrift, and call it bosh and hogwash is an injustice. Bosh and hogwash are not arguments and they are not disproof. This idea is testable. Test it and provide the disproof or don’t. Dismissing this idea without testing lessens your credibility.

  • Adrian

    This is simply the most incredible blog post I’ve ever read. It’s like you took my thoughts and made them into a coherent, succinct article, in a way I would never have been able to.

    Congratulations on a fantastic post and brilliant blog.

  • Anders:

    Note that I haven't read it yet, which is why I say “So far it looks like…”

    The biggest problem I see is that the current genetic analysis says that there was gene flow between Neandertals and Eurasians (and even New Guineans!), but not between Neandertals and Africans.  This shoots a big hole in the idea that the Shul-Qafzeh humanoids were ancestral to the entire human population, as required by NP theory. 

    However, the ideas that Neandertals didn't just look like a burly version of the Geico caveman, and could have preyed on Homo sapiens in the Middle East (possibly preventing our expansion until after we figured out how to defeat them), seem to be supported by the evidence.

    Like I said, I'm intrigued enough to read it.


    You can summarize Demonic Males with “we're violent, just like chimps”.  The problem I have with it is that he regularly uses primitive agriculturalists (e.g. the Yanomamo, New Guinea highlanders) as examples of why hunter-foragers were violent, meanwhile ignoring true hunter-foragers like the Hadza — which is disingenuous.  But there is interesting reasoning behind, for instance, why bonobos are more peaceful than chimps, and the origins of violence in the social system of various primates.

    Catching Fire sounds like a great theory until you realize that he's assuming that fire was universally domesticated ~1.6 MYA, the evidence for which is — to put it politely — not widely accepted.  There are a lot of other factual and speculative bobbles in there, which I'll inventory if I ever get around to reviewing it.  But his speculations on the origins of sex roles via cooking are very interesting.


  • Franco

    Actually the sequencing of the neanderthal genom does support the claims of them and us. Check for yourself: sciencemag.org/content/328/5979/710.full

    “A striking observation is that Neandertals are as closely related to a Chinese and Papuan individual as to a French individual, even though morphologically recognizable Neandertals exist only in the fossil record of Europe and western Asia. Thus, the gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans that we detect most likely occurred before the divergence of Europeans, East Asians, and Papuans. This may be explained by mixing of early modern humans ancestral to present-day non-Africans with Neandertals in the Middle East before their expansion into Eurasia. Such a scenario is compatible with the archaeological record, which shows that modern humans appeared in the Middle East before 100,000 years ago whereas the Neandertals existed in the same region after this time, probably until 50,000 years ago “

    Them and us not only refers roughly to the same timeline but has a simple explanation for this too(and the research wasn’t published yet when Mr.Vendramini wrote his book):
    After wiping out all neanderthals from the Lavante, early homo split in 3 groups and while european and asian groups killed of all earlier forms of homo on their way and thus preserved the 1-4% neanderthal in them, the back to africa group did interbread with the existing populations of archaic homo (very similar to themselves) there and diluded their neanderthal-part beyound recognition.

  • Franco

    Btw, even that the Hadza, San and african pygmiy groups are less violent, have no real hierarchy and no big gender diffferences then the Yanomamo and New Guinea highlanders makes much sense in the light of this theory.
    Less neanderthal (and cro magnon) ancestry equals less aggression!

  • Andrea Reina


    In the sincerest possible manner, thanks for blowing my mind. It’s clear that the way our societies are set up makes true peace and harmonius living difficult, but it’s a worthy goal nonetheless. What is be impossible for an entire society can be possible for individuals or even groups within that society. It’s good to understand what we’re up against.

    The Gnoll Credo is near the top of my reading list, I’ll be placing an order very soon. The first chapter you’ve got up is great, and I am eager to read the rest of it.


  • Adrian:

    I'm honored: thank you.

    It's taken many years of thinking and living to cut through the fog.  Most philosophies and simple solutions come down to “If everyone would just do X we'd all be fine.”  And everyone spends all their time trying unsuccessfully to get other people to conform to their own ideals.

    Meanwhile, few stop and think: why is it that every successful “civilized” society is either broken or disintegrates under its own weight?  And why do none of these supposedly inevitable, eternal institutions (governments) usually last more than a few decades — a few hundred years at the outside?

    Andrea Reina:

    “What if everything were BACKWARDS?” is a great rhetorical device, but often that's all it is…just a shocking statement that doesn't withstand scrutiny.  

    In this case, though, it's quite true.  

    TGC explores these issues in detail, and I'm sure you'll find it fascinating.



  • Around the Web; It’s

    […] Stanton at gnolls.org had a nice essay. I don’t agree with everything in it; in particular, JS underestimates the violence of […]

  • Sofie

    “The first time and place in which women were given the unrestricted right to vote was 1893, in New Zealand!”

    Nope. The Iroqouis were founded in 1142, and their women had at least as much power & votes as the men. Read Iroqouian Women.

  • Sofie

    That’s Iroquois and Iroquoian, damn French.

  • Franco


    no, germans were the first (before AD):)


  • eddie watts

    that wiki page is chilling.
    thanks for the thoughts and site, am looking forward to getting into the gnoll credo, i am partway through a trilogy now but then i’ll be on it. (afterwards will be why we get fat by Taubes!)

    will be sure to give you my feedback once i’ve finished it

  • Around the Web; It’s

    […] Stanton at gnolls.org had a nice essay. I don’t agree with everything in it; in particular, JS underestimates the violence of […]

  • Juan

    Interesting article, JS; thanks! Lots of good comments, too.

    I have read Vendramini’s “Them + Us”, as well as Wrangham’s “Catching Fire”. Indeed, both books should be read by anyone interested in human evolution and, I would suggest, should not to be dismissed based on preconceptions or without having read them (or by simply reading what’s on the websites).

    I found NP theory (Neanderthal Predation Theory) as proposed in Them + Us to be singularly original and compelling. Although, I am sure there are things in it that one could quibble or argue with (such as the slit eyes of Neanderthal. After all, modern nocturnal primates all seem to have round pupils, so there wasn’t really a need to make Neanderthals slit-eyed. I can’t recall if the author went into this in any detail or not). I do feel, however, that NP theory goes a long way to explain many otherwise poorly reasoned aspects of human evolution (hairlessness for one). It should be pondered upon seriously. Vendramini is going out on a long limb with a comprehensive theory that, more or less, explains everything and is quite consistent throughout. I suspect he’d welcome objections since he’s probably dealt with all of them, or if not, would wish to.

    On the other hand, I found many of Wrangham’s ideas in Catching Fire to be (seemingly) grounded in his confirmation bias as a vegetarian. I admit that I skimmed his book more than read it as I did Them + Us. Frankly, the very idea that we evolved from our dim, pre-human past by being able to control fire sufficiently to eat tubers is more implausible on the face of it than is NP theory. Wrangham has spent a lifetime observing chimps, from whom our line separated, what, over four million years ago? It’s hard to accept a comparison between what a primarily fruit & insect eating primate does or eats, as being especially helpful for humans. He also, if I recall correctly, often compares modern H-G groups (or, perhaps more tellingly, Gatherer- Hunters) which are in either case, as someone pointed out, not living in the environments we evolved in. Anyway, just a few too many monkeys and vegetarians for me to latch on to with much gusto. Of course, this could be my own confirmation bias getting in the way.

    My two cents worth.


  • Sofie:

    The evidence gets more and more tenuous as you go back: the Confederacy most likely didn't exist then.  But even if it's true, it's still a tiny exception to the male-dominated rule.


    That's an interesting article, and I agree that whatever reverence was given was most likely a pre-agricultural survival.


    I look forward to hearing your thoughts!  Read it whenever you're moved to: TGC is both short and intense, and best given some mental and physical space.


    Is Wrangham really a vegetarian?  Well, that explains everything, then.  The more I re-read “Catching Fire” the more things I found that either don't make sense, are cherry-picked from among a lot of disputed data, or are simply wrong.  I can believe some of the behavioral speculations — but on the accepted timescale, not on the 1.6MYA schedule he apparently believes.  Among the many objections is that tubers don't have the DHA required to build big brains.

    Veg*anism is religious in origin, and in practice, it's a religious belief system that requires the same sort of faith.  I find I have to tiptoe around issues with veg*ans just as I must around religious believers.

    Like I said, Vendramini is on my schedule to read.


  • Dana

    Do you know where I think a lot of the liberal mindset comes from, the wanting the social programs and so on? I think it is another way civilization has hacked into normal, evolved human behavior. Many of us have bought into the line that our government is representative of us; therefore, we think of it as our “tribe.” And what do tribes do? They take care of their own. In an industrial civilization, that looks like collecting taxes and distributing the money out to the poor. It’s just like sharing food, only with money instead.

    Occupational hazard of being pro-nation state. Only when we understand that it is not natural to identify with a tribe of three hundred million might things start to change.

    Of course, part of the problem also is that when we do have people in our day to day lives, we do not take responsibility for them. I don’t know if you could blame the government for that. I think it is a chicken and egg argument at this point. Whoever’s fault it is, though, because we don’t take care of our own, we leave them vulnerable to falling through the cracks. And that runs counter to our evolutionary experience also. We don’t even have the courtesy to banish the people we no longer want in our lives. We just ignore them and hope they’ll go away.

    urgh. Have you ever read the Anthropik Network site? If you don’t, you should. The Thirty Theses are splendid.

  • Dana

    Oh and I’m a woman and I would rather live in a forager culture. I RESENT that I have to choose between supporting myself and raising my children. Yeah yeah, working at home, but I have to do it all by myself because my daughter’s father is at work all day long. And it isn’t just gathering food. It is making stuff that I hope will sell. And if it doesn’t sell then I’ve just wasted a tremendous amount of time. Going to work pays better and more reliably but then I leave my child in the care of strangers with possibly entirely divergent values from mine. Please do not tell me that is exactly like raising a child in a forager tribe, because it isn’t. Forager tribes are usually big families, or several families in one group. It’s like your extended family and two or three others all live in the same neighborhood and they all look after all the kids. When was the last time you lived in a situation like that? Me neither.

    Female straying from a marriage was frowned upon because they needed to know who the father was. They didn’t have DNA tests back then. I know the modern trend is to mix and match adults with children and to lie to some children about where they come from, either by making the father disappear or by adopting out the kid (don’t even get me started on sperm banks and surrogates), but that’s not our species experience, and it’s somewhat of a human rights violation to boot. Incest has always been a taboo in human culture as far as we know, even if it has not always been defined in the same way. The whole point of sexual reproduction is to mix genes; how are you mixing genes if your family tree does not fork?

    We have ways of telling who the father is now without restrictive sexual mores or marriage laws and that’s fine. What happens after the oil crash (assuming one is coming up–I say probably so) and we can’t afford all those lab tests anymore?

    This is not even getting into the fact that if you have babies closer together than three or four years apart, you nutritionally deplete yourself and doom your future children to deformity and other problems.

    There are reasons for the old rules. The only reason we think those old rules are bad now is because civilization used them as a pretext to oppress women and turn us into brood-mare chattel. That was not our reality in forager cultures, though. Think outside the box. And think about someone besides yourself, for that matter, next time you climb into bed with someone. Your actions may well have ramifications well beyond your next orgasm.

    And no, I don’t think of myself as a conservative, just a really strange philosopher, drawing on both observations and my own life experiences. Maybe it’s wisdom and maybe it isn’t. I like to think it is.

    I don’t care if it’s “modern” or not… I care if it’s hurting anybody. Context is everything.

  • Dana:

    Authority is absolutely about exploiting behavior patterns that once maintained a happy and functional tribal community.  Evolutionary discordance is at the root of almost all our social problems.

    And you're absolutely right that “there are reasons for the old rules”.  Living in cities and “going to work” are totally alien to the evolutionary context that shaped us.  I love the concept of “zoo humans”: it's what we are.


  • MFR


    “…that’s not Christianity – it’s a part of the Mosaic law given to Israel.”

    Marcionism lives on!

  • daniel

    why do people insist that human on human violence is a bad thing? “civilization” has made us pretentious, weak humans. to go WITH nature and not against it is the only way to truly live. if someone comes at me with aggression, i will certainly return it, hopefully 10 fold. that’s the way of things. back in the day if you didn’t have the strength or even the sensibility to strike back, you didn’t survive. it’s a state of mind indicative of your ability to survive.

  • Daniel:

    I'm reasonably sure that conquest, slavery, genocide, and other forms of institutional violence are bad things.  

    But I probably agree with you as far as individual-level violence: a small amount of well-placed personal violence can pre-empt a lot of bad behavior.  As it is, “civilization” reserves all punishment to the state, which can't possibly judge day-to-day behavior, so it basically enables people to be continually offensive jerks — secure in the knowledge that their behavior is protected by the law, while anything that could possibly make them stop is “illegal”.  

    In my opinion it's not so much pretension as simple offensiveness.


  • Another Halocene Hum

    My takeaway from all this is that we’re talking about economics. Any given set of inputs will create different incentives and a different outcome (gestalt).

    Some criticisms: polygyny on an extreme scale was practiced after the introduction of agriculture–why, then, is monogamy preferred today?

    Also, there have been relatively peaceful agrarian societies. My theory is that it again comes down to economics (not some intrinsic component of lifestyle), but what is your theory?

  • Another Halocene Hum

    I wonder, J. Stanton.

    Some research was done a few years ago attempting to quantify murder rates in medieval England up to the present, with an unexpected result: per capita murder rates have been dropping over the last 500 years, and cities seem to lead the charge while rural areas lag. Now, why would that be?

  • Another Halocene Hum

    Female straying from a marriage was frowned upon because they needed to know who the father was. They didn’t have DNA tests back then. I know the modern trend is to mix and match adults with children and to lie to some children about where they come from, either by making the father disappear or by adopting out the kid (don’t even get me started on sperm banks and surrogates), but that’s not our species experience, and it’s somewhat of a human rights violation to boot. Incest has always been a taboo in human culture as far as we know, even if it has not always been defined in the same way. The whole point of sexual reproduction is to mix genes; how are you mixing genes if your family tree does not fork?

    I enjoy your contributions on the MDA forums, Dana, but there are truly too many errors and omissions in this paragraph for me to let it pass without comment.

    Female straying from a marriage was frowned upon because they needed to know who the father was.

    Not remotely true w/r/t hunter-gatherer cultures in modern and near-modern times. Some had a clear idea of paternity and others did not. Some required fidelity of the male, or of the female, some of neither. I do not know of an agricultural society that did not have a clear notion of paternity. A knowledge of animal husbandry would preclude it. However, there are well-attested examples of HG societies which did not.

    I know the modern trend is to mix and match adults with children

    Extra-pair mating was probably MORE common before DNA tests! Research has indicated that in some communities with fairly homogeneous genetic backgrounds, extra-pair fertility could be 20-40% (the latter in fishing villages)!

    Adoption of young is very common in the animal kingdom (even adoption of the young of another species), so why would this be unnatural for humans? In an environment of high maternal mortality it might be the norm.

    either by making the father disappear

    Young fathers have a habit of disappearing on their own as the culmination of (probably quite adaptive) risk-taking behavior.

    it’s somewhat of a human rights violation to boot

    Until very recently, family histories were of precious little utility in actually TREATING disease.

    Although if I want to put on a Grok-hat and speculate, adoption in a close-knit HG community would probably entail adoption by a close relative who was aware of the family history and doubtless shared much of it.

    Incest has always been a taboo in human culture as far as we know

    The incest taboo is not cultural; it is instinctive. Close relatives, including parent/child or twins, have been known to experience extreme attraction to each other if they never knew each other. Meanwhile, even biologically unrelated children typically experience aversion to pairing with those they were raised with closely. (Although some sexual experimenting may be quite normal.)

    Exogamy is, IIRC, a bit controversial in anthropology? I certainly don’t know enough to make really declarative statements about that. However, I do know that endogamy is NOT as deleterious as once thought. (It can cause problems when taken to an extreme degree, however.)

    The whole point of sexual reproduction is to mix genes; how are you mixing genes if your family tree does not fork?

    Genes change because of DNA damage and copying errors. This affects sexually and asexually reproducing species alike. Sexual reproduction confers a very, very slight statistical advantage over asexual reproduction. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100121161238.htm

  • AHH:

    You're asking a lot of questions that would require whole articles to answer, and are still under debate.

    Re: turning social questions into economic questions, so long as we're talking about Austrian economics, sure.  People don't act to rationally maximize 'utility' (whatever that is).

    Re: polygyny, that's a big one.  However, contributing factors are:

    1) Relative male vs. female population in the available mating pool.  In a small tribe where lots of males die from war or dangerous subsistence strategies, a lack of polygyny would mean many women would die childless.  

    2) Concentration of power.  In a highly stratified society, the rulers will often take multiple wives because they can (and because they have the resources to support them), while low-ranking males go mateless.

    As far as peaceful agrarian societies, I think societies tend to become more peaceful over time in the absence of enemies to defend against.  Geographical isolation contributes to this.  But thre's a lot more to this question.

    Why would cities have become more peaceful recently?  I have some speculations, but nothing I'm willing to stake a career on.  What do you think?


  • Ryan James


    How do you feel about using organic toothpaste, or toothpaste in general for tooth brushing? I’m very curious although I’ve noticed that eating fatty ruminants has drastically freshened my breath throughout the day anyhow.

  • Elliott

    I’m willing to admit that life was pretty good while it lasted for hunter-gatherers who survived to adulthood. That statement, however, includes two huge caveats: “survived to adulthood” and “while it lasted.” Infant mortality was fantastically high in societies without modern medicines or other protections from the natural world, and infant and child starvation was also relatively common. Also, if you suffered any serious injury, you would probably either die directly from it or be unable to feed yourself and die of starvation later.

    Furthermore, there were no “rich” and “poor” in hunter-gatherer societies because the rich were the only ones left. The poor had all starved to death a long time ago. Food was scarce, and harsh necessity kept populations small. Sure, food sharing could keep people alive if they suffered a temporary setback or if times were generally hard, but if someone didn’t have the fundamental ability to provide for himself over the long term, he would starve sooner or later.

    The problems you describe are real problems that have caused a great deal of suffering for a lot of people. As some other commenters have pointed out, though, these problems were caused by one thing: more people living in less space. The only comprehensive solution to these problems is fewer people. Odds are that, had we been born into a hunter-gatherer society, both Mr. Stanton and I, along with most of the people who’ve commented on this post, would be dead.

    Most people don’t like sitting on their butts all day working drone desk jobs until they go home and poison themselves with unhealthy, nutritionally bankrupt food. They’d rather do that than not be alive, though. “What about war, genocide, or crime?” one might ask. The brutal fact of the matter is that the young men killed in war at least survived long enough to become men, which they probably wouldn’t have without civilization. Same goes for the rest. I’m not saying we should embrace the defects of civilization without trying to correct them, but there’s a reason we don’t all chase down our food and stab it with sticks anymore.

  • Ryan:

    Anything that's mildly abrasive, doesn't mess up your tooth enamel, and doesn't feed your mouth bacteria (e.g. no sugar or carbohydrate) is fine AFAIK.  Some people use a mix of baking soda and coconut oil, but that's tough in cold climates.  Some people use neem powder.  Both have worked fine for me, as has regular toothpaste when I'm lazy.

    I don't use fluoride toothpaste because I was given fluoride treatments at the dentist and see no need for it.


    See my replies to eddie and GZK, above.  I'm not pushing the noble savage myth, and I'm not recommending that we return to a Pleistocene way of life.  

    “Furthermore, there were no “rich” and “poor” in hunter-gatherer societies because the rich were the only ones left. The poor had all starved to death a long time ago.”

    Not true at all.  We know of no hunter-gatherer society in which one member has even three times the wealth of another, let alone millions of times the wealth, as in today's world.  The concepts of “rich” and “poor” have little meaning when your possessions must be carried with you, when land is defended by the tribe as a whole, and no one can confiscate years' worth of the accrued labor of another as they can in agricultural society.

    “The problems you describe are real problems that have caused a great deal of suffering for a lot of people. As some other commenters have pointed out, though, these problems were caused by one thing: more people living in less space.”

    Also not true at all.  The suffering of agricultural society is caused by the fact that agriculture depends entirely on living off accrued labor, invested over an entire season in a very small and defined area of land.  Once you've harvested and stored your grain for the season, it's trivial for a group of armed thugs to confiscate it.  Either the barbarians get you, or…”We'll protect you from the barbarians…if you give us half.  Otherwise we burn your house, rape your wife anyway.”  And that's basically the story of agriculture: palace economies make North Korea look like a block party, and the Earth had a fraction of its current population back then.  Also see my comment to Asclepius above.


  • PrimalNut

    Wow, I love this article.
    This explains EXACTLY what I’ve been feeling my entire life.
    I never understood as a teenager why I have to go to school/college and then work a job day in day out until I am old and die. Why do I have to be a slave to the Dollar? (or in my case it was the german Mark, now Euro).
    Why isn’t there an alternative to being a slave?
    Now I live in the states, in a small town but still suburbs. I am happy for the most part since going Primal, but I just don’t feel free!
    How lucky are those small farmers that grow their own food (including animals)!?

  • PrimalNut:

    “Why isn't there an alternative?”

    There is — but most people would rather exchange their freedom for the security of a regular paycheck, instead of living entirely by their own productivity.

    Of course, this is what hunting and foraging is…living by your strength and wits.  It is the perpetual condition of every animal — except “humans since agriculture”.

    It is also true that the modern world discourages living by our strength and wits at every turn.  A fearful, dependent populace is more easily controlled, and therefore far more profitable, than a society of proud, independent thinkers and warriors.


  • BPT

    I think you have overlooked a few key issues in the definition of civilisation. The fact that humans are intelligent and interested, curious and skilled in stuff other than the act of hunting and gathering. Before agriculture there were specialists who traded food for skill, arrow makers, leather workers, etc etc stuff thatwould not get done if they were all out for number one filling their stomachs. Agriculture was the first leverage where everyone could specialise in some way..even if it was just working for “da man”. Just because they settled down “as opposed to hunting and gathering does not logically follow they are civilised..as demonstrated by the screed about war and slavery. Society faced different challenges by settling and the way they fixed these issues are still with us today…we have to have a way to fix the rape and pillage of the biosphere from the smallest level to a planet wide level….problems we may never have faced as hunters but that is irrelevent, the issue exists and at this current time no one has been able to raise it to a sufficient level of urgency…so can we now blame the planters of grain for global warming and environmental destruction ?

    Living by our own wits and skill is all very well but will as of now not be sufficient to ensure survival.

  • BPT:

    You'll have to clarify: which key issues are you speaking of?

    Hunter-gatherers could specialize, but they couldn't do so at the
    expense of general survival skills, which everyone had to maintain.  So
    agriculture enabled a much greater degree of specialization — though
    this specialization has only generally been used to maintain a slave class.



    Wow I don’t know how I missed this article. I guess I just haven’t been spending enough time here. My personal view though is that we are a bunch of monkey’s fighting over bananas and sex. We are just in a self created zoo. The zoo has rules that give the resources that we work to hard for to the zoo keepers. Most of the monkeys don’t know any better. One day thought the zookeepers will end up burning the damn zoo down.


    I've written so many articles that it's easy to miss a few!  Fortunately, the index makes it easier to keep track.

    As I said, I think the problem is that the social and political systems enforced by “civilization” (by which we mean agriculture) force us to regress into “monkeys fighting over bananas”.  Forager societies are relentlessly egalitarian — and if a conflict is not solvable, one party usually leaves the tribe and joins another.  

    In contrast, in an agricultural society, those options are unavailable.  Individual land ownership means that we all have to pay rent to someone else and give our fealty to the ruling entity simply in order to exist on the Earth — and since such systems claim every square inch of the Earth, opting out is not an option either.  We are forced to passively acquiesce, or to stand and fight.


  • Daniel Taylor

    I choose fight! 🙂


  • DT:

    Learn from the gnolls: be a guerrilla, not a martyr.


  • […] The History Of The Human Race”—and that the invention of agriculture apparently coincides with the invention of organized warfare, among other “inhuman” practices—we need to ask ourselves which milestone is more important… Post your time to swod […]

  • eddie watts

    interesting. basically it seems HG peoples were all socialists then.
    they all worked togather to support all of them together.
    please note i am not a socialist or pro-socialism.

    maybe this is why so many people want socialism to work? because that is our evolved background, but of course it does not work due to dependants.
    and of course back then someone born with certain “defects” would not survive to adulthood and become a burden on the rest, whereas we encourage their survival and (at least in UK) then the state supports them.

    the main problem with capitalism in many ways is (in this context) that in a small tribe of say 30 some would be hunters and one would be the best (there will always be someone better at other people at something in groups. even if they’e all competent) that person would likely be looked up to and maybe even “lead” but not overly dominate. other hunters would still help support by providing food. (extend this to storage of food so it does not spoil, gathering, building of shelters even temporary, clothing etc everything a tribe would need)

    however in a capitalist situation and the modern one too we’d take the very best at their job, those guys who are in the top say 80% would all be useful, those between 40-79% are not needed. we tend to get the very best who get very well paid, they then lead less useful people and teach them enough to do a simplified version of the job but get paid next to nothing.

    in fact it all comes down to money: as soon as you can charge x amount for something it becomes problematic.
    and i can pay someone else to do my fair share of the hunting or whatever purely because my parents are rich and so i am born rich.
    i then never need to add value to the community.
    you can argue (and many will) that i add value through the use of my money, but i would argue that is my parents continuing to add value, even after their deaths, my own addition may not exist at all.

    it is however a tricky situation that we cannot resolve i feel.

  • eddie:

    Actually the “economics” of hunter-gatherers are not reducible to any modern political system, and they vary by tribe.  “The Old Way” (a book in my Recommended Reading list) goes into detail for the Kalahari Bushmen…the customs around food distribution differ radically from hunted meat to gathered tubers to gathered nuts.

    The key is that in foraging societies, group size is always small enough that everyone knows exactly who is contributing what…so no matter what system they choose to abide by, it's always enforceable.  And, to my knowledge, money has never been part of it (though they'll use it in trade with outside societies).

    Interestingly enough, the Nuer of Sudan (who were/are pastoralists) greatly limit purchase of cattle (the measure of wealth within the tribe) with currency, for the reasons you describe: external wealth became a massively distorting influence on their society.


  • Eugenia Lieu

    Ever since Mongolians won their Independence from China, that’s when there were Chinese Noble Savages, or Chinese Barbarians. Or otherwise described as a coarse-face. Not that we are who we look, but we are more civilized than savages themselves.

  • Eugenia:

    in general, any culture that attempts to conquer your own gets referred to as “savages”.

    The Mongols are a very interesting case of pastoralists conquering an agrarian culture — without the agrarian culture having basically collapsed first. I don’t know enough about Asian history to understand why that might have been.


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