An introduction to the Atavist's general approach to history, in question and answer format. Only dusty if you need to clean your computer screen.
If humanity evolved to live in hunter/gatherer tribes, why have agricultural societies been able to last so long?
Mostly because they're efficient at production of food, and therefore they out-competed and out-bred hunter/gatherer cultures and conquered their lands.
Okay, but if they're so bad for us individually, why have agricultural cultures been stable for so long? Not everyone is miserable in agricultural societies...
True. For one thing, the increased production of agricultural societies allows for the pooling of more wealth and power among the rich, who at least believe themselves happier because of their wealth and have a vested interest in creating a culture that allows them to maintain it.
But there are certainly happy 'commoners' in agricultural societies as well. While the advent of agricultural changed the nature of society drastically, paving the way for small, insular family groups within much larger social entities, for most of agricultural history people found ways to compensate for the loss of close community ties.
For one thing, the world’s horizons were a lot smaller for most people living in agricultural society. Until the industrial revolution, it was more common to live in small towns and not travel much. So, most people knew their neighbors much better than they do now, and were less likely to move. This had positive and negative effects on people. While it captured some of the benefits of living in a community, it also set up the conditions for jealousy, pettiness, and gossip.
Even after the industrial revolution, people found ways to compensate for losses in community structure. Many people were very attached to church groups, for instance. Workers not only stayed in their jobs for much longer than they do now, but were much more likely to belong to a union that felt, in many ways, like a brotherhood.
Ah, the good old days.
But now consider life in the modern, post-industrial west. Not only are we restricted by the normalized nuclear family, the other areas of community support have been eroded by the persistent demands of capitalism. Job turnover is up, people move more often, unions have been mostly demolished. Even if you trained for a good and valuable career, changing technologies can make you superfluous and require you to change careers or adapt to a much lower standard of living. This creates an overhanging anxiety that all workers have to live with. And with the increased labor supply available to capitalists, workers are in more competition with each other than ever before. For all of these reasons, communities are dying, as documented by Robert Putnam's classic 'Bowling Alone'. And religions, a major source of community all the way back to before the advent of agriculture, are failing to create the strong communities they used to, for many reasons.
But at least we have Facebook now, right?
The popularity of social media shows the incredible desire we have for social connectivity, but does little to satisfy that desire. Instead of creating relationships with actual, flesh and blood people, online social networks connect us to press releases: affected, managed versions of people we'd like to get to know. Everyone wants to put their best face forward on Facebook, so they only post pictures of them where they look good, only post updates about the fun things that they’re doing. When we look at other people’s profiles, we tend to feel jealous of their apparently awesome lives, and manage our own profile to make our own life sound better. This is one reason why social networking can feel so addicting. They make us lonely and disappointed with our own lives, making us want to connect with a community. They hold themselves out as the way to connect with other people, but just as drinking soda actually makes you thirstier because of the high sodium content, the fake interactions we experience through social networks only make us hungrier for the real thing.
Okay, well if the modern world is so bad, why don’t we try to go back to, like the 50’s or 60’s? Why do we have to look all the way back to pre-history?
There are many eras in history that are capable of being idealized. Some might idealize the Leave it to Beaver era, others Paris in the 1920s, others feudal Japan. It’s easy to romanticize the past and gloss over the nastier elements of any age, or the reasons why such an era couldn’t last forever. Because past eras were all, for one reason or another, unsustainable, practically by definition. If they had been sustainable, past eras would have continued into the present.
The stories that get retold about any era tend to be stories about the winners that that society produced. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that classical roman and greek societies were dependent on slave labor, or that modern western affluence is dependent on sweat-shops in Asia.
With regards to post-war America, there was, at least on the surface of things, more social stability, coupled with widespread economic gains. But those happy nuclear families concealed psychological distress, especially for women, who faced unfair conditions and limited hopes. Of course, many people at the time bought into the system and internalized it psychologically. The stern, buttoned-down fathers and domesticated, buttoned-down mothers of the age wouldn’t say that they were in distress, but that doesn’t mean they were flourishing.
And economically, post-war America was buoyed by several factors - we were smack in the middle of a huge expansion of fossil fuel production and utilization that was fueling growth, and industry benefitted from the huge amounts of money spent rebuilding Europe after the wars, which allowed for a relatively affluent industrial middle class. These were one-time events, special conditions that created massive growth. And economic growth papers over sociological distress - people might be living lives of quiet desperation, but they’re able to buy fancier cars and nicer clothes and fancier dinners, so it at least looks like they’re happy, and if they've had some success, however limited, they're more likely to believe that they can improve their lots and get richer, and that getting richer will actually make them happier, even if the data doesn't support that claim.
Okay, okay, maybe the 50s weren’t that great. But there are plenty of other models of community we could try to exemplify. What about the Amish? Maybe we should all be Amish?
There would be worse fates. There’s a lot that we can learn from the Amish, with their dedication to community and hand-crafted products. But their model has a limited upside - they will always be outcompeted economically by societies that take more advantage of modern technology, and thus they will always be susceptible to the influence of those societies. And if resources get scarce, they will not be able to protect themselves from foreign invasion. Plus, their puritanical social code, while stable, takes a lot of unnecessary social work to enforce, and doesn’t allow for the expression of true humanity necessary to truly flourish.
Well, we could go on and on like this breaking down other models for society. But if it’s bad to romanticize the 50’s, isn’t it just as bad to romanticize hunter-gatherers?
Definitely, and that’s something that Atavists need to be on guard against. Sure, in some ways prehistory would have been a great time to be alive, but in other ways it was probably incredibly tough.
And moreover, even if we could get the entire world to go back to a hunter-gatherer society, it wouldn’t be sustainable. Eventually, a change in climate or other conditions would make agriculture more advantageous, and the whole cycle of civilization would begin again.
To build a better future, we need to learn from hunter-gatherers, who can teach us a lot about how we evolved to flourish. But then we have to apply that knowledge to the world as it now exists.
I think we have a lot to learn from the Ewoks, like the importance of cuteness in guerilla warfare! Do Atavists think we have a lot to learn from the Ewoks, too?
Sure, why not.