Noble or savage?

From about a decade ago, in the last year of the Bush era, The Economist published the article “Noble or savage?” It is a typical piece, a rather simplistic and uninformed view, as expected. Rhetoric like this gets spun on a daily basis, but this particular example hit a nerve.

“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.”

That is plain fricking idiotic. Modern hunter-gatherers are under social, political, military, and environmental pressure that didn’t exist to the same degree until the modern era. Plus, they would be experiencing greater levels of pollution and introduction of new diseases that has been causing further stress and instability.

“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.”

Like modern hunter-gatherers, modern chimpanzees are living under unnatural conditions. The territory of chimpanzees has been severely impacted by human encroachment, environmental destruction, poaching, and violent conflict. Why would any halfway intelligent person expect anything other than dysfunctional behavior from populations of two closely related species experiencing the same dysfunctional conditions?

“Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile.”

Not necessarily. Hunter-gatherers have a lower birthrate, partly because of later puberty. Plus, they have higher infant mortality. Overpopulation is simply not much of a problem for most hunter-gatherers. They are usually able to maintain a stable population without needing warfare to decrease excess numbers. During boon times, population stress might become a problem, but that isn’t the norm.

“Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead.”

Maybe to some degree. But this would have to be proven, not claimed as empty speculation. Once past early childhood, hunter-gatherers have lifespans that are as long as and health that is superior to modern Westerners. Adult hunter-gatherers have low mortality rates, regularly living into old age with few if any of the stress-related illnesses common among WEIRD societies (low or non-existent rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, psychosis, trauma, etc).

“Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.”

Along with being ignorant of anthropology and social science, the author is likewise ignorant of history.

Most rural peasants didn’t freely choose to leave their villages. They were evicted from their homes and communities. The commons they had rights to and depended on became privatized during the enclosure movement of early capitalism. Oftentimes, their villages were razed to the ground and the then landless peasants were forced into a refugee crisis with their only option being to head to the cities where they found overcrowding, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and starvation.

In comparison, their rural life had been a quite secure and pleasant. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this in Dancing in the Streets. During much of feudalism, specifically earlier on, as much or more time was spent in socializing and public events (celebrations, holy days, carnival, etc) than in labor. The loss of that relatively easygoing and healthy rural life was devastating and traumatizing. This set the stage for the Peasants’ Revolt, English Civil War, and the revolutionary era. Thomas Paine saw firsthand the results of this societal and economic shift when he lived in London. It was a time of near continuous food riots, public hangings, and forced labor (either as convicts or indentured servants).

“Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.”

That probably had as much to do with environmental changes. There is still scholarly debate about how much of those extinctions were caused by over-hunting versus environmental stress on species. It was probably a combination of factors. After all, it was large-scale climate shifts that even made possible the migration of humans into new areas. When such climate shifts happened, ecosystems were dramatically altered and not all species were equally adaptable as their former niches disappeared. For example, neanderthals probably died because they couldn’t handle the warmer temperatures, not because they were massacred by invading homo sapiens.

“Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change.”

That is rhetoric being used to justify an ideology. All societies and species experience change, as they are forced to adapt to changing conditions or failing that to die out. That is the natural state of earthly existence for all species. But the narrative of ‘progress’ is a particular view of change. All of evolution has not been heading toward Western Civilization, as an inevitable march of history as foreordained by God’s plan for the dominance of the white race over the beasts and savages.

“It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.”

How shockingly simpleminded! Nothing is predestined. That sounds like the old Whiggish history of Manifest Destiny. This entire article is a long argument for Western imperialism in its genocide of the natives and the stealing of their land. No one is arguing that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is or was perfect, but let’s at least acknowledge the aspects of that lifestyle that were relatively better, such as low levels of social stress and mental illness. Do we really need yet another apologia for neoliberal hegemony and modern globalization? No, we don’t.

“There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too.”

There might be a modern moral in this story. But it might not be the one promoted by the ruthless dominators who have willfully destroyed all alternatives. The royal ‘we’ that supposedly have been solving these problems just so happens to be the same ‘we’ that has eliminated the natives and their lifestyle, often by way of one form of death or another, from war to disease. These hunter-gatherers, as representing an alternative, may seem problematic to the ruling class of capitalist nation-states. And no doubt that problem has been solved for the endless march of capitalist ‘progress’, such as it is.

“Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.”

So, the vision offered by the ruling elite is endless creative destruction that pulverizes everyone and everything that gets in the way. One problem ever leading to another, an ongoing Social Darwinism that implicitly presumes Westerners will continue to be the winners and survivors. They shall consume the entire earth until there is nothing left and then they will isolate themselves in post-apocalyptic biodomes or escape to the stars following their tech-utopian fantasies.

As for the rest of us, are we supposed to be apathetically submit to their power-hungry demands and world-weary pessimism threatening that resistance is futile, that no other options remain? Are we expected to unquestioningly accept how ideological realism denies moral and radical imagination, denies our freedom to choose anything else?

* * *

Noble or Savage? Both. (Part 1) And (Part 2)
by Jason Godesky

Romantic primitivism
by Evfit

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