Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A False Dichotomy

In the discussion section of the last post, the eternal argument about non-industrial people arose: were their lives (a) "nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes), or were they (b) "noble savages" (Shaftesbury) living in Eden? The former argument states that they had awful lives, and we should be glad we're living int he 21st century. The latter argument implies that we should emulate them as much as possible. Each side is bursting with anecdotes to support their position.

Any time the discussion reaches this point, it stops providing us anything useful. The argument is a false dichotomy, one in which neither answer is correct. The correct answer is (c): none of the above. Some aspects of hunter-gatherer life are preferable to ours, and some aspects of our lives are preferable to theirs. Understanding that we spent a lot of evolutionary time as hunter-gatherers, as well as a few thousand years in small, tightly knit agricultural communities, may be useful in understanding how to work constructively with our own bodies and minds in the modern world.

So please, let's leave behind the false dichotomy and foster a more nuanced understanding of the lives our ancestors led.

27 comments:

Glenn said...

Good addendum to your last (interesting) post.

False dichotomies often arise out of what are in fact paradoxes: two things which seem to contradict each other, and yet bothe are true.

I think the pertinent paradox here is that agriculture was good (in fact, necessary) for human civilization, but bad for humans--at least on the level of diet, sunlight, exercise, etc.

Medicine, the internet, and Ipods are very good things, which are only possible because agriculture made civiliation possible. At the same time, the foods and lifestyle habits that arise in civilized life are wrecking our bodies, and as Steve eloquently argued yesterday, perhaps our minds as well.

RLL said...

I am dismayed that I cannot remember the author or title of a very recent book, read it last month, discussing warfare amongst hunter gatherers. His conclusion is that about 25% of all males died in tribal warfare and this was near universal in all tribes studied. It may even have been a U of WA professor who wrote it. I have been trying to google it. Our library trashes records of book checked back in (for good reasons).

Mike said...

I don't know about "a false dichotomy".

I hadn't seen any statement that "non-industrial" people's lives were "nasty brutish and short". And, in fact, life tended to be short and fairly unpleasant in early *industrial* society.

I do recall that the original post made some sweeping comments about hunter-gatherers, reiterating claims to do with supposed pacifism, non-violence, equality, and "gender roles". I commented on it myself. It's not hard for anyone who, like me, is acquainted with some of the body of ethnographic material to cite examples of behaviour at odds with each of these claims.

Commenting on "non-violence", I referenced Samuel Hearne's account of the "Bloody Falls Massacre". Well, "Stone Age" people did that.

And that certainly does not mean that all people with a similar form of life would have. It just means that those people at that time and in that place did. But it does demonstrate that not all hunter-gatherers have been non-violent.

We're actually talking about *vast* stretches of time here, so any claims about specific social or moral attitudes supposedly peculiar hunter-gatherers as such, as were made in the original article, have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

It was said, and I quote:

"... being a hunter-gatherer has its advantages. One of these is a minimal social structure in which each person is has full authority over himself"

Until you're told what to do by someone stronger than yourself, as you certainly would have been among some groups of hunters we know about. Again, read the accounts ...

"... the Indians we were with quarreled with each other over a woman and struck and beat and injured one another; and because they were so angry, each took his house and went his own way ... I tried three times to escape from my masters, and all of them went looking for me and did their best to kill me ..."

--Alvar Núñez Cabeza

Is it necessary to note that no one who has "masters" has "full authority over himself"?

JBG said...

"Medicine, the internet, and Ipods are very good things, which are only possible because agriculture made civiliation possible."

Jane Jacobs, the late, self-taught urbanist, speculated that cities, and trade between cities, came *before* agriculture, and indeed gave rise to it. I don't know what best current opinion is on the matter, but I definitely believe it is in principle possible to have most of the real advantages of civilization while practicing something not too distant from hunting and gathering. The obstacle is population control, but historical accounts of the plenitude of game and fish would seem to make it clear there could be plenty for all if only there were not so many of us.

Oh, and I'm not so sure modern medicine is a net advantage.

JBG said...

"I do recall that the original post made some sweeping comments about hunter-gatherers, reiterating claims to do with supposed pacifism, non-violence, equality, and 'gender roles'."

There is another false dichotomy here. The original post spoke of the characteristics of a specific H-G group. I detected no strong implication that all H-G peoples have the same characteristics. It is plain that they do not. Eskimos, among others, are famously pacifistic, whereas many cultures from places like Borneo are as famously fierce and cruel. The diversity in North America includes examples across the spectrum. So the point is not what is true of everybody, but what is proved by existence to be possible.

Jenny said...

Understanding the REAL lifestyle of so-called "Hunter-gatherers" would help too.

The anthropological data suggests that in most hunter-gatherer societies studied, hunting--male activity--provides a much smaller percentage of total calories than gathering--female activity.

The paleo fantasy is very much a Male Golden Age fantasy. In fact, traditional non-agricultural human societies eat lots of roots, tubers, greens, and fruits gathered over surprisingly large ranges by women who work their butts off.

Stephan said...

Hi Mike,

This post was not directed at you.

I believe you misunderstood my last post. I did not say that HGs were non-violent, in fact, I said quite the opposite. You seem to have seized on my quotation that the Hadza don't engage in warfare, and extrapolated it to mean that I think all HGs are pacifists. I understand that there was violence, frequent homicide, and in some cases what could rightfully be described as warfare.

You seem to have gotten the impression from my post that I was romanticizing HG cultures. I think you saw what you wanted to see in my writing, since you ignored the sections where I mentioned homicide, infectious disease, predation, accidents, etc.

My point is that we can gain some understanding of ourselves by understanding where we came from. Would you disagree?

Tuck said...

Hoo boy. Sorry for posting that link about the Noble Savages, I didn't mean to contribute to the battle.

Romantic views of the past are clearly not optimal, any more than the "nasty, brutal, and short" viewpoint is; but a level-headed assessment of where we may have gone wrong as the species progressed is a worthwhile endeavor.

I think you do an excellent job of that assessment.

Helen said...

Stephan,

Agreed! We couldn't go back to hunter-gatherer lives even if we wanted to. The point is to learn from what seems/seemed to work well for them and see how it might inform our own way of life.

Which is what you said.

Again, thanks.

Helen

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn said...

@JBG
"Jane Jacobs, the late, self-taught urbanist, speculated that cities, and trade between cities, came *before* agriculture, and indeed gave rise to it. I don't know what best current opinion is on the matter, but I definitely believe it is in principle possible to have most of the real advantages of civilization while practicing something not too distant from hunting and gathering."

I'm not an expert, but that seems like pretty far-fetched speculation to me. I think a "city" as opposed to a semi-permanent village or encampment means at least a few thousand people. That's a lot of wild game to pull out of the local environment _every day_. Plus, why would people who dieted on (migratory) animals and whatever edible plants and tubers they came across, invest the effort in building permanent structures and tying themselves to one spot unless they were beholden to crops?
Not impossible, but a stretch, IMO.

olddude said...

"My point is that we can gain some understanding of ourselves by understanding where we came from. Would you disagree?"
Yes I would agree and also state that we a have a good understanding of the hunter gatherer because not much has changed. Cultural effects are transient to human nature.Turn off the power and wait a few days...
Rod

Ms. X said...

How much stress-free life do we really want? Perhaps the dichotomy here is the notion that avoiding stress is good, and our modern lifestyle stress is bad.

From a newstory this morning: Stress Changes Who Men Find Attractive

The money quote: "However, stress could alter mating preferences, according to past research in mice and flies and, now, in humans as well. When times are dangerous, the researchers conjectured men might not want women too similar to them, as inbreeding might lead to offspring not genetically diverse enough to deal with the varying circumstances that a risky and stressful environment might impose on them."

The key word of course is "conjecture", but then that's all any of this is.

Kurt G. Harris MD said...

@RLL

war before civilization by Lawrence keeley

constant battles by steven leblanc

the ecological indian by shepard krech

was it one of these, perhaps?

All very good books, by the way.

JBG said...

Glenn, as I recollect Jacobs laid out her conjecture early in her book The Economy of Cities, and the story went something like this:

People began trading. Over time they began to do it in institutionalized fashion, with regular meeting places and times.

In due course, some people became, in essence, brokers and took up permanent residence at settled trading stations.

These settled places gave rise to new kinds of work, becoming, functionally, cities. (For Jacobs, giving rise to new kinds of work is what distinguishes a city from just a settlement.)

At the trading stations, the brokers (my term, not Jacobs') had to manage many kinds of goods being held for trade. Understandably, they unloaded troublesome animals first, and learned that manageable ones, given the chance, would produce more. Thus, domestication.

They also likely observed that spilled seed sometimes gave rise to food that was easy to "gather". Thus, crops.

All this is from recollection; I don't have the book handy.

My own guess about crops is that many HG groups understood they could grow things, they just chose not to, until population pressure forced them into it. The sense of continuous, calendar-driven, obligation that Stephan speaks of is inherent to agriculture, and it is easy to understand why HGs might choose not to bother until they had to.

Gabriella Kadar said...

With some exceptions, one way and the other, television was the best form of birth control during the 20th century.

One laptop per child has the potential to be even better.

Recently I've been wondering if all the 'seniors discounts' are contributing to the alarming increase in life expectancy.

;)

...just thoughts...

cheers,

g

Stephan said...

Hi Jenny,

Just as it's false to think all HGs subsisted on meat, it's also false to think that gathered foods were the main food for all HGs. It really depends on the group. In some, male hunting activities brought back most of the calories, and in other groups, female gathering activities did. I know there's been a feminist-inspired tendency to reject the male-as-provider concept of HG cultures, but we have to acknowledge the large variability among these groups.

Roger Kaza said...

Jared Diamond has written some remarkable books on the subject. He spent a good deal of time with tribes in the remotest parts of New Guinea. Read his New Yorker article, "Vengeance is Ours," about the cultural imperative of revenge in a world removed from the rule--and concept--of law.

Fat Bastard said...

This is a matter of life and death. Every year over 1 million innocent Americans die as a result of medical blunders. Each year over 2 million Americans contract a hospital acquired infection and 70K will die.

Please visit my blog Medical Holocaust and pass it onto others. People are DYING!

http://medicalholocaust.blogspot.com/

US health care is is the leading cause of death and injury. Please help stop it.

Thank you, CG Brady AKA Fat Bastard.

RLL said...

Kurt - thanks for the hints, Constant Battles it was.

Steven - supporting HG as a Golden Age were some of the comments of the ever wise Benjamin Franklin who observed that both men and women who had been kidnapped/captured by tribes were almost uniformly reluctant to go back to regular society. I am not remembering if the age at time of capture was mentioned. I don't know if there are any sociological studies of this phenomena.

AngloAmerikan said...

The title of the last post is “The Paleolithic Mind”. Now the Paleolithic era is rather a long one characterized by the use of stone tools and covers over two million years. During that time the paleolithic mind developed very, very slowly progressing from using rocks as tools to actually sharpening rocks and using them as tools. Tool development developed at a rate similar to biological evolution which makes me wonder if there was any real thinking going on inside the paleolithic mind. Two million years from rock to flint arrow head? There is something very different about the Paleo mind and the modern human’s mind. Could Neolithic agents have produced the inventive, crazy, minds we have today? I wonder if grains and the possible association with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia could have anything to do with the remarkable transformation of human consciousness in the last 40,000 years.

Taylor said...

Anglo - don't forget, there weren't that many people - thats a big part of technological progress.

AngloAmerikan said...

It possibly is a factor that with fewer people there was less information around yet there is no evidence yet of any sense of the aesthetic (art), expressed by a Paleolithic mind, for 2 million years. That's an interestingly long time considering that stone artifacts are very durable.

Neonomide said...

I did a bachelor's thesis on Geoffrey Miller's thick book Mating Mind (2000) which was about sexual selection in humans. My field is really gender studies yet I'm interested in "old life" as a literary and conceptual reference point. Miller had a lot to say on paleolithic lifestyle.

His take is that HuGas like the !Kung actually have lots spare time - apparently to do their "choosing" who seems the best mate sociopsychoogically. But then, the !Kung are rather isolated tribe. !Kung are often considered the oldest cultural example of modern Homo sapiens.

Adding to that, Miller considers nature's most common state is apathy. Nothing much happens. Same for people as well. Sounds logical, if being a bit boring. Not boring for gender research anyway. ;-)

But then, as an evolutionary social psychologist who concentrates on sexual selection, of course he would say that, no ? ;-)

David Lawrence said...

Stephan,

What do you think of the following article in this week's Economist:

Metabolic syndrome :A game of consequences?

One of the scourges of modern life may have been profoundly misunderstood

http://www.economist.com/science-technology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15660902

They seem to say that excess lipids are the cause of metabolic syndrome, which does not seem to be consistent with your writings on EFAs. Of course, the problem could be about the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. What are your thoughts?

Melissa said...

Uh, I see the dreaded women the gatherer meme has cropped up here. Women did do a lot of "gathering" but there is a misconception they were just gathering plants. Anthropologists count the hunting of small game and insects as gathering.

trinkwasser said...

"What do you think of the following article in this week's Economist:

Metabolic syndrome :A game of consequences?

One of the scourges of modern life may have been profoundly misunderstood

http://www.economist.com/science-technology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15660902"

Looks to me like yet another false dichotomy!

They should study me. Seriously, also the side of my family that has some or all symptoms of metabolic syndrome including Type 2 *without* being overweight.

A small but significant proportion of Type 2s are non-overweight, some authorities claim up to 20% which is hard to verify as many will not be diagnosed.

What would be useful would be to determine what differs between them/us, "normal" overweight Type 2s and overweight nondiabetics. My money is on significant differences in the relationship of leptin/resistance (and possibly adiponectin) to insulin/resistance.

Our lipids (obtained from eating excess carbs) seem to stay in the blood rather than be deposited as fat, plumper relatives show fewer symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome. 80% of obese people are not diabetic, would be interesting to know what percentage lack other symptoms of MetS.

Everything You Know Is Wrong