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Hobbes's avatar

Do you think we are better off today than our ancient ancestors?

Asked by Hobbes (7355points) February 11th, 2011

I came across this article by Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he argues that the invention of agriculture did not in fact improve quality of life and in fact caused many terrible problems, the consequences of which we are living with today.

It is certainly worthwhile to question the Myth of Progress, and the evidence he presents is quite convincing. He doesn’t really address the high rate of infant and child mortality among hunter-gatherers, or violence within and among groups, but other sources I’ve found do seem to show that hunter-gatherers often lived well past 60 and generally only worked at procuring food and making tools around 20 hours a week, sometimes much less.

What do you guys think of all this? Of course, we can’t all go back to being hunter-gatherers, since there are about 6 billion of us now, but it’s certainly food for thought.

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81 Answers

incendiary_dan's avatar

I think it happens to be true, particularly based on my 5 years studying anthropology in college. It’s kind of what I’ve based a lot of my work on, and my experiences learning to be a hunter-gatherer-gardener have reaffirmed what the research says.

Plus, you say we can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers because there are too many of us…but hunting, gathering, and gardening are the only sustainable way to produce food, and produce more per acre than monocrop agriculture. Monocropping’s only “advantage” is the ability of tyrants and autocrats to consolidate power. It doesn’t feed people adequately, and it doesn’t keep us healthy. The best chance we have is to learn how to apply these ways of subsistence to our landbases once again, particularly implementing methods like permaculture to build soil back up and feed us while reinforcing biodiversity.

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incendiary_dan's avatar

Also, rates of violence in the handful of studies often used to easily debunk the straw man Noble Savage trope are specifically overstated by examining only populations that themselves have already been subject to extreme stress due to pressure from “civilized” cultures. In some cases, these peoples were basically a post-apocalyptic culture, having gone through the extreme stress that characterizes culture-wide catastrophe.

The numbers also overlook the absence of real warfare in most (basically all) hunting-gathering people. Primarily the “exporting” of violence necessary for city-based ways of life is ignored, though that’s understandable to some degree because much of that is less obvious.

Hobbes's avatar

It certainly makes sense that there would be no widespread, organized warfare, since there would be no centralized resources to make such an effort worthwhile.

zenvelo's avatar

On the other hand, improvements in dealing with infectious diseases, improved sewage handling and water supplies, development of structures for shelter, and distribution of food over wide areas so that there is variety in one’s diet, all seem pretty comfy to me.

Hobbes's avatar

But living in such dense populations in such proximity to each other and to domesticated animals caused the spread of many diseases. Sewage handling and water supplies are only necessary for large groups of humans living in one place. The shelters of ancient people were generally very efficient and effective, and farming actually drastically reduced the variability of our diet, because it made us dependent on wheat, rice, potatoes, etc.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@zenvelo H-g-g peoples have complex and extremely effective ways of dealing with infectious diseases. Most are the result of centuries of medical tradition, though we all know of cases when new diseases presented problems (and it should be noted that these all were the result of animal husbandry and related social features). Sewage handling, likewise, has never been a problem (humanure, anyone?), and water supplies aren’t so much a problem when you aren’t despoiling the rivers (Plato once opined the drastic reduction in water quality in Greece due to deforestation).

H-g-g peoples also have much wider variety in their diet than any agricultural people. The average person in these societies eats more species in some days than rich people in our culture eat in their lives.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Or in other words, yea, what @Hobbes said.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Actually warfare between hunter/gathering groups was quite common. The various groups were always fighting over the best hunting grounds or food patches.

It was mostly low intensity warfare, as the groups had to spend the bulk of their time hunting and gathering.

Also hunter gatherers would often have to deal with feast or famine. If you don’t have a successful hunt, or if the pigs got to the sweet potatoes before you did, you would go hungry.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@WestRiverrat And yet, the actual occurrence of famine in hunting and gathering people is quite rare, even in environments we would easily consider hostile. Much of this has to do with two things: diversity of food sources, and gift economies.

Skirimishes occur, but warfare in a real sense has always been scarce or non-existant. Your premise that they tend to spend most of their time hunting and gathering falls short; the average hunter-gatherer only spends an average of 2 hours a day on subsistence. Far more of their time is spent on crafts and socialization (gambling and games of chance being a prime past time in almost all groups).

Hobbes's avatar

I’d agree with all that, though from what I’ve read 2 hours a day is on the low end of the scale, and depends on season and circumstance.

The point about gift economies is interesting. How prevalent were they among these groups?

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Hobbes Gift economies are universal to hunting and gathering peoples.

The average is a really spotty one and subject to all sorts of scrutiny, but it’s still useful. Yea, it’s more of a seasonal thing; during huge parts of the year you might do little food procurement, maybe just some trapping and fishing for fun. Then during the fall you spend half your waking hours or more gathering and processing acorns (one of my favorite wild food sources) to save for the year, and then you get a month off until hunting season picks up, etc.

incendiary_dan's avatar

There’s also one thing to consider: most of this “work” is stuff people do for vacation. Typically, hunting and gathering peoples view their work as play.

Hobbes's avatar

@AdamF—He presents a statistic, then uses the Bible as a historical document, then talks about Europe during the Middle Ages and 17th Century France. Then he talks about the period from 1945 to the Present. Later on he makes the (unsubstantiated) statement that hunter gatherers all preemptively invade their neighbors out of fear of being invaded first. Most of the talk doesn’t mention hunter-gatherers, and the other evidence he gives isn’t very convincing.

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incendiary_dan's avatar

An associate of mine wrote a series of essays to dispute a lot of the common objections to these ideas, showing that most of them are based on unexamined assumptions, cultural bias, and pure fiction.

LostInParadise's avatar

We have to be careful about over-romanticizing the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. The homicide rate among them is much higher than ours. Their tribal units are closely knit, but warfare between tribes is constant. As an academic at heart, I prize the knowledge that we have accumulated and would not be willing to forfeit it.

I agree that there are serious problems with our consumer society and that there are aspects of hunter/gatherers that we should emulate. I believe that the best form of society is one that has not previously existed.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@LostInParadise I already shot those ideas concerning homicide down, as has my friend whose essays I linked above (twice). To speak the truth in spite of offending the assumptions of the populace is not by any means romanticizing.

In particular, see the essay Civilization has no Monopoly on Knowledge. ;)

LostInParadise's avatar

Homicide in New Guinea I have read that South African bushmen also have a high homicide rate.

I would agree that the average person in an industrial society has much less knowledge of wildlife than hunter/gatherers, but our knowledge of scientific method and formal reasoning is far superior.

Hobbes's avatar

I do think it’s important not to fall into the “Noble Savage” trap, but I don’t think we’re doing that. @incendiary_dan said earlier that “warfare” did not exist in the same way. There were disputes, and people sometimes got killed, but nothing like the kind of organized violence which comes with Civilization.

Hobbes's avatar

I’ve started reading about Anarcho-Primitivism, which talks about a lot of these same ideas.

Samiam32's avatar

In some ways we are better off than our ancestors and some ways wer are not. I know get off of the fence right..We are better because we have things that can assist us in our daily living. Cars, planes, phones and computers jus to name a few. We have made great advancements in the medical field. In some ways we aren’t better off. We have become lazy. Most of us are out of shape and with that comes many health problems. Also we do not spend time with our families. Things like eating dinner together or sitting on the front porch seem to be a thing of the past. We do not care for our neighbors like they did in the past.

jca's avatar

When I think about advances in medicine and medical technology, I am grateful I live in the present. I am not referring to disease, I am referring to things like every time I have broken a bone, it’s been set properly due to medical technology. As far as dental issues, think what would happen if you never brushed your teeth, never got a cleaning or cavity filled. Even watching nature documentaries, if a wild animal breaks a tooth or a bone, that could cause an early, painful death (there was one show where a lion broke her jaw and starved to death). It would have been no different for our ancient ancestors. When I think about the two day labor I endured to deliver my daughter, she would not have survived and I probably would not have, either. Even looking at mortality rates for women of childbearing years from the mid-1800’s, and mortality rates for infants and children of the same era (ever visit an old cemetery and see the ages of the people on the tombstones?) makes me think I am very grateful for the medical technology we have today, and I would not trade this with any other era in history as a result.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Hobbes The whole “Noble Savage” idea has actually always existed as a straw man, and never really existed as an argument put forth by anyone. In that respect, it’s an interesting concept to examine.

@LostInParadise One example does not a pattern make. There are a few examples like this, in fact, which end up being the exceptions that prove the rule.

@Samiam32 How about all the work you have to do to maintain those things? We quite literally end up working most of our hours to maintain “conveniences” that often don’t better our standard of living, overall.

@jca Even homo neanderthalensis had figured out how to set bones, and every single hunting and gathering society of homo sapiens sapiens has been able to set bones correctly with high success rates. Dr. Weston A. Price showed in his research that indigenous peoples worldwide had perfect teeth, often without brushing (but often also using frayed sticks) because traditional diets that nourish the body keep the teeth in good condition. And, those nourishing diets have, in fact, been proven to make childbirth easy. There are many accounts from a variety of cultures telling of women basically walking off into the woods with a friend and dropping the infant onto the ground. Had you been a hunter gatherer, not only would you and your daughter likely survived, but the labor would likely have been far easier.

Don’t confuse early civilized life for the life of hunter gatherers. Much of what we assume we know about “Progress” (capitalized on purpose) is sheer bullshit. I really suggest people read those links I’ve put in my comments if they’re genuinely interested.

Cruiser's avatar

Yes! We live twice as long and have Captain Crunch. It’s a no brainer.

AdamF's avatar

@Hobbes I think the Keeley data was interesting and relevant.

AdamF's avatar

Here’s Keeley’s argument as paraphrased in Wiki

“In War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor at the University of Illinois, calculates that 87% of tribal societies were at war more than once per year, and some 65% of them were fighting continuously. The attrition rate of numerous close-quarter clashes, which characterize endemic warfare, produces casualty rates of up to 60%, compared to 1% of the combatants as is typical in modern warfare.[29] Stephen Pinker agrees, writing that “in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher.”[30]”

And an article from the economist…not sure how much weight to put on it, but it might be worth checking the author’s cited.

“Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. From the
!Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25–30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century.

At first, anthropologists were inclined to think this a modern pathology. But it is increasingly looking as if it is the natural state. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species. Steven LeBlanc, also of Harvard, says Rousseauian wishful thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of constant violence.”

Coloma's avatar

I think there is much truth to this.

I have always liked Sam Clemens quote ’ progress was once a fine thing but it has gone on far too long.’

While we have enjoyed many remarkable advances as a species we have also lost much of our connection to the earth and become grossly selfish in a disposable society.

The stress that everyone is forced to endure just to make ends meet is extremely damaging to ones mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention the toll it takes on all relationships.

The gross pervasiveness of addictions to cope, people being forced to work 50, 60, 70 hour weeks, kids raised in daycare, the divorce rates.
All of this stress is killing us and our relationships.

Personally I don’t think anyone should work more than 6 hours a day, that’s plenty, but….fantasy for most.

I truly feel that what it takes to survive in modern life is very detrimental to well being on every level, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.

I see the double edged sword getting sharper.

12Oaks's avatar


Hobbes's avatar

@AdamF – Some preliminary problems with that data: using modern-hunter gatherers is problematic because these groups have been exposed to pressures from industrialized societies. I don’t think the “1% of combatants die” statistic takes into account population inflation or the killing of non-combatants. It also ignores the buildup of atomic weapons, which has not yet lead to much death (relatively speaking) but which could completely destroy the planet and all life on it, and almost did during the Cold War.

Also, the statement “The attrition rate of numerous close-quarter clashes, which characterize endemic warfare, produces casualty rates of up to 60%, compared to 1% of the combatants as is typical in modern warfare” seems to only be referring to up-close-and-personal fights, ignoring the many and varied ways we currently have for killing people impersonally and from a distance. It also seems to ignore the many and varied indirect means of death which have been used throughout civilization’s history, such as starvation/malnutrition, forced displacement, intentionally spread disease, etc.

Soubresaut's avatar

Watching the Dog Whisperer, he caught my attention with a comment: That dogs in the wild don’t have psychological issues, because they’re getting what they need. It’s only in our modern society where they have to sit in a house without exercise, without working for their food (and life), and getting too much affection that they have these issues. That’s not so different from people, is it? Aren’t the rates of “mental illness” on the rise?

All these people saying they wouldn’t want to give up modern technology like medicine, things that save their lives. I don’t think anyone wants to lose good knowledge. That’s why they (and me as well here) are talking about the hunter-gardener-gatherers. We’ve gotten so caught up in all the rules and things we’ve created to make this “modern” world work, we’ve forgotten how much simpler and more fulfilling we can make life, when we aren’t living for little paper rectangles and serving a society that often seems to care more about its inanimate self than the people living in it. When we’re living for sustinance and creating for our enjoyment, rather than because we “have” to because someone says we do.

We write all the rules ourselves. Nothing’s making us do what we do except for our own beliefs that there’s no other way. How is there no other way? Are we really such an advanced society now that we’ve created the perfect world? A world full of disparity and poverty and weapons, where obesity is actually an epidemic in places that have the money—an artificial creation we feel we have to use as motivation. Where people get to stand in factories for hours on end doing repetitive motions (better now than earlier, but that still exists). Where because Tobacco, Oil have so much money they’ve become powerful enough to trump science showing just how bad they are for us, for the environment. Where companies are willing to put known poisons into our things and our food because it’s cheaper, are willing to play with the money of their employees and consumers to make a few more bucks themselves.

Yes, we have a lot of good things early humans didn’t. But we also have a lot of bad they didn’t have, either. We’re taught to accept that bad because we’ve got it ‘so much better’ than before. It’s an indoctrination we ingest with the rest of our teachings of how to be a good citizen. We don’t naturally have a rulebook, we don’t naturally accept things we don’t like and don’t agree with.
Just like we don’t naturally see things in only terms of “good” and “bad”—a thing taught to us by people in power, so they can tell us that we we’re either with them or against them. We only see our lives as so very good and previous lives as so very archaic because we’ve been told it’s that way.

AdamF's avatar

@Hobbes I agree. I think there are bound to be confounding influences, problems with extrapolation, how long we give modernity a chance to fuck itself, etc.

I haven’t read his book, but it seems from the description (once again from Wiki), that Keeley ( a name which seems to keep coming up,... always something to trigger the warning lights…) does however seem to be working from a variety of sources to make his claims, some of which remove the impact of modern influence. With respect to that, perhaps we need to be careful not to assume that impact from modern societies necessarily leads to greater within group violence…it might, but it might have the opposite effect. It would have to depend on the circumstances I imagine.

“One half of the people found in a Nubian cemetery dating to as early as 12,000 years ago had died of violence. The Yellowknives tribe in Canada was effectively obliterated by massacres committed by Dogrib Indians, and disappeared from history shortly thereafter.[citation needed] Similar massacres occurred among the Eskimos, the Crow Indians, and countless others. These mass killings occurred well before any contact with the West. In Arnhem Land in northern Australia, a study of warfare among the Indigenous Australian Murngin people in the late-19th century found that over a 20-year period no less than 200 out of 800 men, or 25% of all adult males, had been killed in intertribal warfare.[citation needed] The accounts of missionaries to the area in the borderlands between Brazil and Venezuela have recounted constant infighting in the Yanomami tribes for women or prestige, and evidence of continuous warfare for the enslavement of neighboring tribes such as the Macu before the arrival of European settlers and government. More than a third of the Yanomamo males, on average, died from warfare.”

I’m not an anthropologist, so I can’t comment on whether Keeley (the author) is seen as a contrarian in his field (perhaps overstating the case to make his point), or is being increasingly supported by other indepedent sources. I simply don’t know. But as his book has been out for over ten years now, if there is to be a case made against him, presumably someone has made it by now (I’ll see if I can find one).

At this stage, all I can say is that as an outsider, there certainly seems to be some data to suggest that a number of these hunter gather societies had pretty violent lives.

What I’d really like to see is a discussion amongst leading anthropologists of the case for and against to get some perspective on the relative weight of evidence each side brings to the table. ...I imagine, like always, the issue is far more complex and nuanced than my current limited understanding allows for.

The Dunning Kruger affect is always hovering. :)

anartist's avatar

We live longer, healthier lives. But not much else has changed.
People are still people and deal with the same old issues in new forms.

Coloma's avatar


Yes, I have heard of the neurotic dog syndrome as well, but, my source is a spiritual author/teacher, Eckhart Tolle.

He speaks of animals as being pure awareness, as we all are, and that they ( mostly dogs ) exhibit all sorts of neurotic behaviors associated with living with neurotic owners and a life of confinement.

He humorously shares that in the wild dogs don’t have to ‘wait’, to go for a walk or be fed or to play.

‘Waiting’ and constant anxiety ridden anticipation is the bane of domestic dogdom. lol

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Hobbes's avatar

@AdamF- Those are troubling numbers, and I have no doubt that violence did occur between groups long before any contact with Western Civilization. However, using statistics like that to generalize about large groups of people who no longer exist is something I’m wary of. I’m no statistician, but I’m taking a class on statistical thinking at the moment and if there’s one thing I’m learning it’s that statistics can be valuable, but can also easily be misleading. I’m not dismissing those numbers, but I think you’re right that a more detailed, comparative look at evidence is necessary to get a clearer picture.

It’s also unclear how many of the groups he’s talking about are actual hunter-gatherers and how many practiced early forms of agriculture.

One of my other problems with Keeley’s argument is that he seems to assume that he is in the minority position. In his TED talk he seems to believe that the current trend is toward vilifying Civilization and that he’s arguing against popular opinion. To me, the opposite seems to be the case – the narrative of life before Civilization as being “nasty, brutish and short” appears to be the dominant one. This doesn’t actually refute what he’s saying, but it does make me question it.

Also, the link to the Kruger Effect seems to be broken. What is it?

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Cruiser Actually, we tend to live ⅔ as long (unless you’re rich and white), and Cap’n Crunch hurts the roof of my mouth!

@AdamF I’m guessing you didn’t click my links, since one of the first ones was a careful scholarly debunking of that article in the Economist, and also answers many of the points you’ve brought up. The summary: hunting and gathering peoples fight, occasionally have small scale wars, but it’s nothing compared to civilization and the empires it engenders.

@DancingMind Nice analysis. Several of my favorite authors on the subject of civilization and its abusive nature point to the fact that many of the supposed “accomplishments” of civilization, particularly industrial civilization, are “toxic mimics” of needs and desires that are fulfilled more holistically and healthily in traditional societies.

@Coloma Thanks for making the quick point about not everyone being able to afford the luxuries and benefits of civilization. Do you know where the term Noble Savage originally came from? An explorer noting that all of the indigenous people in the North American continent lived like nobles do in Europe (that is, all the indigenous groups he met, mostly east coast). That’s the kind of “affluence” hunting, gathering, and gardening combined with gift economies can provide.

@Hobbes Can I just point out the small irony of you not only arguing these points, but using the quote “nasty, brutish, and short”, originally penned by Hobbes? :P

Hobbes's avatar

@incendiary_dan – I did catch that irony. I was wondering whether someone would point it out ;-) It’s amazing how often that quote gets used. In fact, pretty much every piece I’ve read which attempts to argue that hunter-gatherers lead unpleasant lives uses it at some point.

I always thought the “Noble” referred to some moral characteristic they were presumed to have. I had no idea it had to do with their standard of living, though it makes sense in light of this conversation. Do you have the source for that info, by the way?

Also, could you perhaps point me to other sources that argue these ideas, besides Jared Diamond’s article and the ones you’ve already linked?

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Hobbes A friend of mine used to use that quote to describe himself on rewilding forums. :P

In most incarnations that is what the Noble part describes, because the term quickly became used as a convenient strawman for European scholars to use in order to make poor arguments without having their assumptions questioned.

Well, The Thirty Theses (linked above) is certainly one of the best compilations of scholarly research on the matter. There’s also Derrick Jensen’s Endgame Vol. 1: The problem of civilization, which is not strictly research but contains a lot of important ideas related to, not surprisingly, the problems inherent in civilization. Chellis Glendinning’s work is also good, particularly for the psychological health aspects.

Also, as I was just driving around at work it hit me that I didn’t mention an important point about violence in hunter gatherer cultures: civilization is based on violence, and systemically addicted to it. Why is civilization based on violence? you ask.

Well, what is civilization? Civilization is any way of life based around the growth of cities, as opposed to towns, villages, nomadic bands, etc. What is a city? A city is a settlement in which people live in numbers too high for the immediate landbase to support. What does that mean? It means that your way of life is necessarily based on the importation of resources, because you’ve necessarily denuded your landbase. And when your way of life is based on (i.e. would collapse without) importation, and one day the people in the next watershed won’t trade enough, you’re going to go over and take it by force.

That is a paraphrase from Mr. Jensen. To put it more succinctly, I turn to Stanley Diamond: “Civilization originates with conquest abroad and repression at home.”

LostInParadise's avatar

We are not going to become hunter/gatherers. We simply know too much. One way or another we are going to get to a sustainable economy. Hopefully, we will get there through planning rather than having it forced on us. Getting to a steady state, as opposed to steady growth, economy does not mean the end of civilization. As has been mentioned, permaculture is a high yield environmentally friendly form of agriculture. It is true we will have to get by with less, but that does not mean the end of cities and industries. Things will be done on a more local level. Suburbs will probably disappear. It is my hope that we will become more respectful of the natural world and will become less religious but more spiritual.

Uberwench's avatar

@incendiary_dan Your “definitions” of “civilization” strike me as a bit fallacious. Maybe there are reasons to take them seriously, rather than to assume that they are merely satirical, but you’ll need more than a paraphrase and a quip. Usage, after all, is against you (e.g., the term “cradle of civilization,” which need not presuppose the existence of cities rather than towns even if it does suggest sedentism).

Coloma's avatar

Well, I am grateful that I don’t have to stuff grass into animal skins and tie them around my feet in the winter. lol

incendiary_dan's avatar

@LostInParadise The only sustainable economy is one based on hunting, gathering, gardening/permaculture. That’s just a matter of physical reality and thermodynamics.

@Uberwench That definition of civilization is the only one I’ve found thus far that isn’t just propaganda dripping with cultural bias, and indeed the only one with any sort of functional legitimacy. It’s also historically and linguistically the most correct definition (from Latin civilis). Any other definition I’ve found is not only not descriptive of the societies it attempts to describe, but does so in ways that are simply untrue.

More to the point, it doesn’t matter what you think of the definition. If we base an argument on it, we can at least know what is being talked about with it.

@Coloma I remember reading in college about tests done on an intact pair of paleolithic hunting boots made from bear skin and grass. The archaeologists concluded that they were warmer, more comfortable, and breathed better than the majority of hunting and hiking boots produced today. I found it fascinating. :)

Also, just frickin’ read/view the links! It’s really good information, and basically every issue that someone’s brought up have not only been answer in my links, but in the original one @Hobbes posted.

Uberwench's avatar

@incendiary_dan You can stipulate definitions if you want, just be clear it’s what you’re doing. Someone with a different view on the relative merits of civilization would probably find your definition to be propaganda dripping with cultural bias. As for etymological arguments, they don’t really impress me. Plenty of words have only tenuous ties to their origins, and others may have origins that we would now consider mistaken.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Uberwench And I notice you also ignore the historical basis for the word, and really that it’s always been used to describe “ways of life characterised by the growth of cities”, which is the only definition I’ve given and everything else is just anthropological extrapolation.

Edit: Also, how would a civilized person have a culturally biased definition against their own culture? The very idea implies something at least slightly more aware of cultural biases.

Uberwench's avatar

@incendiary_dan The word “city” is itself subject to various definitions, though, so that’s only so helpful. But again, I was only suggesting that you needed more than what you had already provided. I didn’t say you couldn’t vindicate your position.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Sooo, I need to provide more thorough definitions on words I’ve basically described into the ground? I call shenanigans! :P

Seriously though, I gave a pretty good definition of the word “city”, and while perhaps it doesn’t every aspect of what makes cities, it’s a functional definition appropriate and pertinent to conversations of subsistence methods and their cultural repurcusions. If we want to get into a deep conversation about why it is civilizations/agriculturalists produce hierarchies and hunter-gatherer-gardeners are egalitarian, maybe I’ll add something pertinent. But I’ll keep it purely to functional definitions, as anything else doesn’t have much value.

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Uberwench's avatar

@incendiary_dan Yeah, fair enough. I just felt that I needed to do at least some pushing on such caustic definitions.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Uberwench If you think those are caustic, check out the ones in the dictionary. ;)

mattbrowne's avatar

Absolutely. Everything else is a myth, romanticizing the past.

Civilization is a blessing.

Here’s just one thing you would miss: a modern dentist in case your teeth hurt.

No agriculture, no towns, no written language, no science, no enlightenment.

Hunters and gathers got sick. They had to endure a lot of pain.

I disagree with Jared Diamond.

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Hobbes's avatar

@mattbrowne – The article I linked specifically argued that agriculture and towns/sedentary living were a mistake and created many problems. What specifically in the article do you disagree with?

Medical technology is, I think, the main arguable benefit of modern society. However, I would also argue that modern society has caused many of the problems medicine is attempting to fix, and in fact medicine has created some problems for itself (overuse of antibiotics for example).

As to the question of dentistry, I have read that most hunter-gatherers had extremely good teeth. I have no hard data on this point, but it makes sense to me as a combination of better diet (no refined sugars or grains) and the fact that most did actually practice dental hygeine (frayed sticks are actually very effective at cleaning teeth).

As far as treatment of injuries and infections go, I again have no hard data on this point. @incendiary_dan has stated that many indigenous groups had effective methods for setting bones and combating infection, though I’d agree that modern medicine is probably more so.

It’s arguable that written language, science and the “Enlightenment” (a culturally biased term if ever there was one) did not actually improve quality of life as compared to our ancient ancestors (as opposed to the European Dark Ages). Written language didn’t develop until Civilization began because it only became necessary once you needed to administrate a hierarchy and keep records.

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incendiary_dan's avatar

@Hobbes The best source for dental health related to this issue is Dr. Weston Price.

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everephebe's avatar

Having read the article and having noticed the typo of the first sentence of the last paragraph (I only mention this to prove I’ve read it, not that I have a stronger hold of grammar), & on a side note highly regarding the works of Jared Diamond, I must disagree with him.

I think we are better off today than our ancient ancestors, not because we have a better longer nice and most pleasant life then they did. They had a beautiful planet, untarnished by “progress” and plenty of food and down time but they didn’t have the internet, or a hope of traveling to other planets. If we want to survive as a species we must travel the galaxy. We have made many poor decisions, but I don’t think we are capable of making mistakes so long as we continue to learn from the past. I don’t think the reaction of the Luddites, Neo-Luddism, Amish or Anarcho-primitivism address a sustainable future. They have some good ideas and thoughts among them but, the solution is forward moment, progress, science.

The world is getting better, and while it doesn’t always look that way, it is.

I think that growth occurs the same way as in nature, and we are nature. We go out up, down, and to the side. Progress is not a linear belief, it is a fact of nature. I must assert my belief that any arguments that we are not better off today, even ones made by dear old Jared Diamond are quickly quelled by the reality that we could not have this discussions without continual technological progress including written language since our time of hunting and gathering.

We have possibility.

And we are nature’s children. Everything is nature including us, what is, is. For me that is reality. Conjecture is foolish the supposes it knows better than nature.

Hobbes's avatar

We are a part of nature, and our technology is an outgrowth of nature, but that doesn’t mean our civilization is sustainable, or that it’s not based on violence and exploitation.

Progress and growth aren’t the same thing. The idea of Progress is a belief in a linear progression, which is not what we observe in biology. Evolution has created ever more complex forms of life, but that doesn’t mean it’s “progressing”. Things aren’t “better” now than they were a hundred million years ago, just different.

Of course we couldn’t have this conversation without written language and computers, but that doesn’t mean that the system which produced these things is good. If these thing’s hadn’t been produced, this conversation wouldn’t be necessary.

Has the internet actually improved anyone’s quality of life? I’ve used it a great deal, and I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually made my life better. The fact that I can communicate with people around the world is impressive, but the system which allows that to happen is horrifically destructive. I would trade the internet away without a second thought if it meant we could transition to a sane, sustainable way of life. But me giving up the internet isn’t going to stop the system, so I might as well use it to try to spread these ideas.

As much as I respect Mr. Hawking, I disagree with him almost entirely. How could expansion to other planets be viable if Earth is devastated? Where would we get the resources to sustain such colonization? What would all those people eat and drink and breathe? What planets would we go to that could sustain human life? There are none in the Solar System that I know of, and large-scale interstellar flights within the next century? Maybe, maybe for a tiny percentage of the population it would be possible, but the vast majority will be left among the ruins. I would say that our only chance of survival in the long term lies in “inward looking” as he puts it, and reshaping our relationship with this planet.

As to the videos you linked, I like TED Talks, and I do not question Hans Rosling’s numbers, but his primary measure for improvement is that people are living longer lives, having smaller families, and increasing their income. This ignores many other factors, and does not address the issue of environmental sustainability. The world population is still increasing at a drastic rate, and all the income and long life expectancy in the world won’t matter when the price of oil starts skyrocketing, when the fish are all gone and the water is full of poison, when climate change starts kicking in, when the coal and aluminum and plutonium start running out, when there are no more trees.

Finally, I would argue that the timescale he’s looking at is not long enough. He’s comparing against conditions 200 years ago, not from before the rise of Civilization.

The second video with Steven Pinker was already linked earlier by @AdamF – take a look near the beginning of the thread for my rebuttal.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Several off-topic and/or inflammatory posts have been removed. Let’s stick to the topic at hand and please remember to disagree without being disagreeable. Thanks!

mattbrowne's avatar

@Hobbes – I disagree with Diamond’s view that negative effects of a significant new invention outweigh the overall positive effects. Yes, agriculture had some negative effects too as outlined in the article. Yet take a look at this:

“Although localized climate change is the favored explanation for the origins of agriculture in the Levant, the fact that farming was ‘invented’ at least three times elsewhere, suggests that social reasons may have been instrumental.

By the Bronze Age, wild food contributed a nutritionally insignificant component to the usual diet. If the operative definition of agriculture includes large scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation, and use of a specialized labour force, the title “inventors of agriculture” would fall to the Sumerians, starting c. 5500 BC. Intensive farming allows a much greater density of population than can be supported by hunting and gathering, and allows for the accumulation of excess product for off-season use, or to sell/barter. The ability of farmers to feed large numbers of people whose activities have nothing to do with agriculture was the crucial factor in the rise of standing armies.

New agricultural practices like enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation and selective breeding enabled an unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped drive the Industrial Revolution.”

Sumerians invented written language.

You and I wouldn’t have this conversation over the web right now without the invention of agriculture.

Are we better off today with all our cars than our ancestors 200 years ago?

Worldwide, the WHO reports that 38,848,625 injuries were received by people involved in motor vehicle accidents in 1998.

Should we walk and carry someone having a heart attack to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance car?

Are we better off without vaccines? After all there are occasional side effects.

Makes sense?

everephebe's avatar


“We are a part of nature, and our technology is an outgrowth of nature, but that doesn’t mean our civilization is sustainable, or that it’s not based on violence and exploitation.”

No it doesn’t you’re right and I agree with you. But you are talking about what is now, not what tomorrow brings.

Things aren’t better. Unless you think they are. Better is a fairly, relative term. So yes, things are just different, I think that’s very important though, our current difference to the past. A contrast will show us the merits and drawbacks of both.

I was using progress as a word to define the elapse of time. Not necessarily the “betterment” of time. Time may be perceived linearly, but I don’t perceive progress that way, it’s growth in all directions, positive and negative. Like in nature the what survives is the fittest. The fittest of positive and negative.

“Of course we couldn’t have this conversation without written language and computers, but that doesn’t mean that the system which produced these things is good. If these thing’s hadn’t been produced, this conversation wouldn’t be necessary.”

See that there is another reason I think we are “better” off the way we are. Questioning the fundamental way we live and act! Brilliant! This is a necessary conversation, and if it wouldn’t be for hunters and gathers, fuck that. Don’t sign me up for that life.

“Has the internet actually improved anyone’s quality of life? I’ve used it a great deal, and I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually made my life better. The fact that I can communicate with people around the world is impressive, but the system which allows that to happen is horrifically destructive. I would trade the internet away without a second thought if it meant we could transition to a sane, sustainable way of life. But me giving up the internet isn’t going to stop the system, so I might as well use it to try to spread these ideas.”

Has the internet actually improved anyone’s quality of life. Yes, and you know that. I don’t need to cite a single example there. The internet is what will help to bring about sustainable ways of life, the internet is what will help to teach the masses to learn for themselves.

The earth won’t be devastated, not by whatever we do. Listen the planet can take care of itself, we’ll die off long before this planets resources are an issue. I say that because if we are stupid with the resources we’ll have killed ourselves off. This planet will bounce back just fine.

Dr. Hawking was saying, we need to think about not fucking over ourselves and our planet, and if humanity wants to survive it’s infancy we should spread out. Hell, we go to other planets where we can start over, and do the whole hunting and gathering thing. Not a bad idea. His point was we need to assemble the resources to sustain future colonization of planets, and find planets that could support us, and of course that we need to provide ourselves with the transit to get there. And the process of getting ready for that sort of thing will lead us down a good path. He said two centuries. And frankly I think we have more time than that. I look around the world and I see doom and gloom but hope too. Shit will go bananas here and there. We’ll either deal with it, or die.

Hunters and gathers would have no choice but to die here on this planet. But our “civilization” offers the potentially of not ending here on Earth. I think that’s something worth going for. I mean I’m gonna die on Earth but do I want the whole human species to? No. I want to be able for humanity to share with the galaxy when we’ve grown up, to explore, and continue learning. The planet isn’t going to go up in smoke, we might, and not for a while if we play our cards right. Outward thinking means unity, we are human. Everyone. Inward thinking can be divisive, I, me, mine, ours not yours. That will screw us faster than anything else. That form of selfishness. We have to be humans. We can’t be members of groups, or nations. And we don’t need government to unite us. We are already united, we never were or will be separate. We are nature, we never were or will be separate. Change is slow, and if you want the society or the civilization to change, you can do that. Vote, vote with you money, with what you buy or don’t buy. Allow survival to be a possibility for humanity, sustainable. Here now on this planet. And if we advance technologically we can do great things.

We are still hunters and gathers, but now we hunt knowledge and gather wisdom.
In 200 we could anything, the industrial revolution was nothing to what we can accomplish. We can counteract all self-made dangers. But it will take teamwork, and individuals who, give a fuck.

Hans Rosling is not ignoring other factors. Live being increased is due to better choices, like having smaller families and supporting rather than undermining the environment. The world’s population doesn’t concern me as much as it use to. I worry about the fish, but not as much as I worry about all the people who will die because of the ripple effect of mass extinctions. Let the price of oil rise, that will be incentive to replace it’s use with something sustainable. There will always be trees, they are highly evolved beings, and we need them.

HungryGuy's avatar

Well let’s see…

Antibiotics? Us, check! Ancestors, no.

Advanced life saving surgical techniques when medicine just won’t do the job? Us, check! Ancestors, no.

Anesthesia for use during said life saving medicine? Us, check! Ancestors, no.

Refrigeration so our food is safe and healthy? Us, check! Ancestors, no.

A/C so we don’t suffer in agony during the hot summer months? Us, check. Ancestors, no.

Well, looks like a no-brainer to me…

Coloma's avatar

True, lots of ‘advances’ that have cushioned us and extended our life cycle, but, ya know, I envy those early peeps that didn’t have to compete in our modern day fight for survival. I think I’d take a 40 year life span in my little hut with a bowl of figs over living to be 100 and running out of cash in some decrepit nursing home. lol

incendiary_dan's avatar

@HungryGuy Actually, aside from the A/C you’re wrong on all counts. And indigenous peoples have ways to deal with the heat, too.

@Coloma In most places, the life expectancy for “Stone Age” people is what middle and upper class first worlders enjoy now.

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dreamwolf's avatar

Just remember this, any decent writer, can make a good thing sound bad and vice versa. Only the decent ones.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@dreamwolf A better way to put that would be “All writers are propagandists”

What makes the difference, I think, is hiding one’s premises, which is why when I write, I try to lay out my premises so they can be evaluated fairly. Slipping premises by is just dishonest.

dreamwolf's avatar

@incendiary_dan Well I wouldn’t say propagandists. Just because, a decent writer seeks balance within his or her own facts. A story should always be well balanced. Slipping premises is horrible, unfortunately it happens based on people with opinions more than usual, good writers, in this case a journalist, based a lot of his thoughts off of facts and came up with his own conclusions which is to say pretty fair in my opinion.

HungryGuy's avatar

@incendiary_dan – I’ll concede that stone age people had ways to stay (relatively) cool, preserve food, and treat maladies. But I hardly consider living in caves, burying food, cutting themselves with stone knives, and rubbing sap on themselves to be on par with refrigeration and modern medicine.

Coloma's avatar


Maybe, but….to them, they were high tech! haha

Gary Larsen cartoon time
Cave woman looking at cave husband and saying….

” Ooooh Grog, must get me one of those cold caves like the Larsons just got.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@HungryGuy Very few peoples have ever lived in caves. In fact, until relatively recently most dwellings in the world were basically the same as they have been for all of our history: frames of wood covered by bark sheets, grass mats, mud walls, stone, or some combination. Hell, even many people in the world now build them the same, just with polypropelyne tarps in some cases. Having lived in a poly-tarp wigwam, I can say it’s pretty nice if you know what you’re doing. My partner and I have considered moving into a yurt.

Putting food into a prepared cache-hole is functionally the same as putting it into a refrigerator, except you have to bend down more.

Cutting oneself (or rather, having an expert do it) with a stone knife for surgery is exactly the same as what is done now with metal scalpels. Or, as I said in one of those deleted responses, many surgeons today still use obsidian flakes, which are sharper than steel (but brittle).

As for the medicine thing, I’ll point back to the series of essays I posted earlier, in one of which my friend talks about ethnomedicine’s relative effectiveness, and points about quality of life. One reason “modern” medicine is so dang good is because it has to make up for all the things industrialized living has done to us. The fact that many major advances in medicine, such as blood infusions, came from wartime medical practitioners, should be telling.

In my opinion, it seems the only areas in which industrial civilization has indigenous socities beat is warfare and information technology. The fact that the internet was a military technology is also telling. Oh, and I almost forgot resource extraction, for which much of that knack for killing was developed to facilitate.

And speaking of rubbing sap on oneself, pine oil is a great disinfectant, with a ton of antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. I was just talking about making an essential oil still on the chat, with pine needle oil as my primary interest.

28lorelei's avatar

We are in some other ways, but not as much in other ways. There are major advances that we have made in terms of being able to find food, cure illnesses, create amazing art and architectural structures, understanding more about how this planet works and other things.

In the process though, we’ve done a good deal of harm to this planet- back in ancient times, we did not emit toxic fumes into the atmosphere like we do now. Our food is also more filled with chemicals that are unhealthy to us.
Moving back would be a difficult process, and I would have to give up many things that I use every day. Their life wasn’t all bad though, even if it was far more difficult than ours.

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