• 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.


Does the world look different to you now? Want to argue? (Please cite Richard Wrangham: I double-dog-dare you.) Spread the word with the buttons below, and leave a comment!

Did this article resonate with you? My novel The Gnoll Credo is available from Amazon and my publisher in the USA, and from this list of international sellers. You can also make your other Amazon purchases through this link: it’ll cost you nothing, and I’ll get a small spiff. Thanks!