December 31, 2007

The downside of "civilization"

Hunter-gatherers:  Noble or savage?

The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest[With the advent of agriculture] it seems that Eden came to an end. Not only had hunter-gatherers enjoyed plenty of protein, not much fat and ample vitamins in their diet, but it also seems they did not have to work very hard. The Hadza of Tanzania “work” about 14 hours a week, the !Kung of Botswana not much more.

The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.

They also got a bad attack of inequality for the first time. Hunter-gatherers' dependence on sharing each other's hunting and gathering luck makes them remarkably egalitarian. A successful farmer, however, can afford to buy the labour of others, and that makes him more successful still, until eventually—especially in an irrigated river valley, where he controls the water—he can become an emperor imposing his despotic whim upon subjects. Friedrich Engels was probably right to identify agriculture with a loss of political innocence.

4 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Survival strategies worldwide were based on success, not failure. Whole cultures must have 'vanished' because they made the wrong choices. Period. Thus, cultures that can be traced scientifically must have made right choices. Others, well, we may never know of them or about them. Mankind was evolving 'civilization' most everywhere and thus hunter-gatherers were about to settle down, unless they suffered culture-shaking shock. Was EuroMan's invasion of the Americas conducted by hunter-gatherers or by farmers? Now, THERE is an interesting question...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Re "Whole cultures must have 'vanished' because they made the wrong choices": I'm not sure if you're being serious or sarcastic here. If a culture "vanishes" because of drought or disease or invasion, I wouldn't call it a failure. I'd call it an unfortunate victim of circumstances beyond its control.

Perhaps inadvertently, you raise an interesting point. Namely, we're biased to see the present civilization as a success because, well, it's present. For all we know, our civilization may collapse in a century or two. Then Diamond's analysis of the non-Western cultures that "failed" will look silly.

Consider the Maya civilization. From the beginning of the Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period, the civilization lasted 2,700 years. Meanwhile, the United States is only 232 years old. In what sense is the American nation more successful than the Maya civilization?

Not in longevity, certainly. Perhaps it has a better standard of living, but so what? By that standard, Scandinavia is the best place in the world and the US is a relative failure.

You can make these comparisons on almost any dimension. In some cases the West will win and in some cases it won't. But I'm guessing Diamond doesn't address this point and hasn't considered it. In his mind, it seems, eventual collapse = failure and current success = success.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
But just as in real estate, survival can and does depend on "location, location, location." And THAT involves choice. The Minoans, now discovered to be the Atlanteans, were destroyed by volcanic eruptions and the subsequent Tsunamis. Possibly the most advanced culture of its day vanished because its denizens chose to live on the edges of a huge, seemingly-dormant caldera. Editing choice out of such scenarios merely downplays the axiomatic that humans are responsible for their choices and their own actions. The United States seems successful only to those who enjoy the full fruits of such 'success'...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

You'd blame people for living near a seemingly dormant volcano? Even when they had little or no knowledge of how and why volcanoes erupt? I wouldn't.

Would you also blame people who live where there are lots of earthquakes? Droughts? Fires? Floods? Blizzards? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Tsunamis? Where exactly do you draw the line?

I believe I read that Nevada (or someplace like that) is the safest place in the US. Should every American move there? Why or why not?

It's silly to think you could uproot the Minoans, with their site-specific culture and knowledge, and move them to...where? Some unoccupied corner of Siberia? Yeah, I'm sure they would've flourished there...not.

Why didn't your Kiowa people open up their land to Minoan refugees, Russ? I'm sure you could've handled another 100,000 people. If not, you could've moved to Nevada, where the land was (almost) empty and you'd be safe.