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An Introduction to Anti-Civilization Anarchist Thought And Practice
April 11, 2007 12:06 PM   Subscribe

An Introduction to Anti-Civilization Anarchist Thought And Practice What Is Primitivism? . . . Biocentrism vs. Anthropocentrism . . . A Critique of Symbolic Culture . . . The Domestication of Life . . . The Rejection of Science . . . Against Mass Society . . . Beyond Leftism . . . Rewilding and Reconnection
posted by jason's_planet (221 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whatever, kids. Just keep it out of my neighborhood, thanks.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:22 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitivism recognizes that for most of human history, we lived in face-to-face communities in balance with each other and our surroundings, without formal hierarchies and institutions to mediate and control our lives.

But formal hierarchies are seen in almost all civilizations that we know, either with a chief or wise man or priest. And many primate species show a dominance hierarchy.
posted by demiurge at 12:23 PM on April 11, 2007


Well, fantasies of the noble primitive aside, I've worked in non-hierarchic structures that were quite effective.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:26 PM on April 11, 2007


Yeah, it's hard to read that primitivism paragraph without cringing.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:26 PM on April 11, 2007


This is from the Green Anarchy Collective. They often seem to position themselves as the "orthodoxy" of anti-civilization anarchy, but there's plenty going on beyond this, particularly in opposition to their points about the role of science and symbolism. Derrick Jensen's pretty close to them, but Daniel Quinn is not. Online, there's Ran Prieur, Jeff Vail and, I hope I'm not being too immodest here, my own tribe.

But formal hierarchies are seen in almost all civilizations that we know, either with a chief or wise man or priest. And many primate species show a dominance hierarchy.

They're anti-civilization. Civilization is defined by the institutionalized exploitation of formal hierarchies. But civilizations are in the minority of human societies. For most of our existence as a species, there's no evidence of human hierarchy, until the Agricultural Revolution. Sure, there are lots of naturally hierarchical animals, but Homo sapiens isn't one of them.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:27 PM on April 11, 2007


And while you're at it, GET OFF MY LAWN !!!
posted by ZachsMind at 12:29 PM on April 11, 2007


These people, some of them quite thoughtful, seem to think that it's just a matter of having enough resolve, or willpower, and we can all revert to pre-agricultural bliss. Which, uh, no. That toothpaste is not going to go back into the tube barring some kind of Riddley Walker-type cataclysm.
posted by everichon at 12:30 PM on April 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


I, for one, look forward to the inaugural episode of the Eusa Show.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 12:32 PM on April 11, 2007


And the young earnest anarchists do need to get off the lawn of the food coop where I work. Jeez. Go to the goddam park.
posted by everichon at 12:32 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Swossage!
posted by everichon at 12:33 PM on April 11, 2007


everichon -- that is true, and most primitivists address that practical concern with the retort that understanding what has worked in the past can not only illuminate our current problems, but can also help us create solutions that absorb some of the patterns that have worked in the past, even if a wholesale abandonment of civilization remains untenable.

I and some others have made the argument that civilization is not just bad for people, but it is also self-destructive, and ultimately leads to its own collapse. In this case, it was a doomed enterprise from the start, and primitivism offers the best chance humans have of surviving such a catastrophic overshoot.

Others have tried to dismiss primitivists as genocidal sociopaths by suggesting that they intend to engineer a total holocaust wiping out the vast majority of humans on earth, and proceed to judge primitivists as if they were already proceeding on such a plan. I've never met any actual primitivist who holds such a view, though.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:36 PM on April 11, 2007


Funny, Zachsmind, originally I was going to say "you kids go foment whatever revolution you'd like, just as long as you keep it off my lawn."
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:37 PM on April 11, 2007


'Primitivists' who are 'against civilization' on the internet. That's cute. Enjoy your grazing and foraging for grubs whilst I crank up some digital music and grab a pasteurized beer out of my fridge.
posted by jonmc at 12:37 PM on April 11, 2007 [7 favorites]


The Rejection of Science . . .

That bit alone is enough to burn my biscuits. Seriously, I had one of these types try to tell me (via a Yahoo! Groups post) that (I quote):

"Tsunami aid is like a denial of the truth - trying to keep the technocratic/earth-playground dream alive."

Erm...EFF OFF.
posted by retronic at 12:38 PM on April 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Others have tried to dismiss primitivists as genocidal sociopaths

no. delusional dimwits.
posted by jonmc at 12:39 PM on April 11, 2007


'Primitivists' who are 'against civilization' on the internet. That's cute.

How so? We think such things cause more harm than good, but they're here. You don't kick a crutch out from under somebody with a broken foot, do you? Does that mean you think it's great to be crippled?

That bit alone is enough to burn my biscuits.

As I mentioned, not all primitivists are also anti-science. I fail to see why my fellow primitivists cannot recognize the long-standing scientific tradition in primitive societies, going all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:42 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Glad my uncle finally gets a shout-out.
posted by parmanparman at 12:44 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


For most of our existence as a species, there's no evidence of human hierarchy, until the Agricultural Revolution.

For most of our existence as a species, there's very little evidence period. Too little to make firm assertions either way about prehistoric social hierarchies, though knowledgeable anthropologists are welcome to correct me.

Anyway, I too, love that all these guys have blogs.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:47 PM on April 11, 2007


How so? We think such things cause more harm than good, but they're here.

If you believe in 'primitivism,' put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, it's all mental masturbation, sir.
posted by jonmc at 12:47 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have no patience for this kind of thing. These people would be the first to be killed and eaten in a pimitive society.
posted by mert at 12:50 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


For most of our existence as a species, there's no evidence of human hierarchy, until the Agricultural Revolution. Sure, there are lots of naturally hierarchical animals, but Homo sapiens isn't one of them.

I don't buy that. In still-extant human hunter-gatherer cultures there do tend to be leaders and followers, even when we're talking about very small social groups. Those with the best combination of competence, experience, and assertiveness tend to be leaders. (And this can be situational; maybe Grandma leads the social order where it comes to etiquette/customs/spirituality but Dad leads the hunt, etc.)

Also it's pretty clear that modern society has, and still is, stomped all over primitive cultures in terms of evolutionary success... for good or ill.

Now time for me to rtfa I guess.
posted by Foosnark at 12:50 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


retronic, you pretty much captured what makes me cringe in this movement.

A return to some sort of pre-hierarchical bliss (supposing for the moment that such a thing ever existed) would require most of the world's population to die. Which might sound really fun and cute to people who spend all day reading sentences on the internet like Primitivism is simply an anthropological, intellectual, and experiential examination of the origins of civilization and the circumstances that led to this nightmare we currently inhabit., but to most people sounds maniacal.

Rejecting technology because it can save lives is just gross.

But having said that, Anarchists are among the few people admitting that the current political milieu is just a symptom of much deeper troubles, so I do like them for that.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2007


Anarchists are among the few people admitting that the current political milieu is just a symptom of much deeper troubles, so I do like them for that.

Maybe. But a society without laws or government ultimately leads to rule by the most ruthless. It'd be like living in Al Swearingen's Deadwood. Of course, most governments arent that far off from that either, but under democracy there's at least some hope of redress.
posted by jonmc at 12:57 PM on April 11, 2007


There's something intrinsically Fred Phelpsian -- or, I guess, cultish in general -- about primitivists. Namely: "Here is what we think. It stands in opposition to what almost everyone else on the planet thinks. Everyone else in the planet is deluded and wrong, and we are the only ones with moral authority."

That said, I think a lot of "Primitivism Lite" stuff like a rejection of the modern food supply trends has a lot going for it.
posted by gurple at 12:59 PM on April 11, 2007


I don't buy it.
The march of civilization is fraught with problems and bloodshed, but it's inevitable and essential. It moves toward greater populations, which is a natural move for a species. We are capable of complicated social hierarchies that improve our lot as animals. It's a way of putting all our eggs in one nearly indestructible basket instead of carrying them around in our pockets. Our current system is not optimized - corruption and poverty still reign over most of the world, but that doesn't mean civilization is a failure - it just means it's struggling.

As for evidence of human hierarchy before the Agricultural revolution, as octobersuprise said there is little evidence at all, but what evidence do we have? Huge graves for shamans, for one thing, which throws that idea right out the window. There were hierarchies among the hunters and gatherers almost certainly - based on age, ability, and experience, the same things which our current systems should (but isn't really) be based on.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:01 PM on April 11, 2007


Oh yeah, jonmc, I'm totally with you there.

I don't think they know exactly what those "deeper troubles" are, and they definitely don't have a clue about the solutions, but they're going beyond "anything but Bush/Blair/etc." thinking, which is good.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2007


or i could hit preview and not just repeat what foosnark said
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:03 PM on April 11, 2007


the long-standing scientific tradition in primitive societies, going all the way back to the Upper Paleolithic.

Really? You mean to say that primitive societies were aware of and employed scientific method? Really?
posted by c13 at 1:09 PM on April 11, 2007


Rejecting technology because it can save lives is just gross.

Well said, roll truck roll.
posted by retronic at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2007


Chellis Glendinning apparently tried to put her money uh lifestyle where her mouth is.

I appreciate the yearning behind this kind of thought, but then I also appreciate the yearning for Narnia in a wardrobe.
posted by everichon at 1:12 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


These kids aren't anarchists any more than "anarchocapitalists" are anarchists. Wanting to get rid of the government does not make you an anarchist.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Your ism is lacking.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2007


Listen, I know Civ4's a resource hog and not really that much of an improvement over Civ3, but I hardly expected it to turn anyone to anarchism.
posted by COBRA! at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Hobbs said it best: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Yeah, that would be a fun thing to return to.

And do they not realize that even some primates have a hierarchical structure? I mean, how much further back do they want us to go?
posted by quin at 1:18 PM on April 11, 2007


This guy's work with border-crossers in the Sonoran desert is the closest thing I've seen to an intelligent, useful practice of these ideas, and he didn't refer to himself as an anarchist. He wrote a very interesting book.
posted by everichon at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2007


"In your typically egocentric way, you pretend you're the vanguard, freeing the oppressed from the shackles of ignorance. You conduct a sorry crusade to recast the world in your image. You're dumb enough to think you'll make a difference. You feel that if everyone was like you, society would be wonderful. Yet you walk away scratching your head when the truly oppressed don't want anything to do with you. You've never fought for anything but the right to be infantile.

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, political rhetoric is a cubbyhole for dullards. The political is merely the personal in a cheap, quivering act of sublimation. You oppose power, which is like protesting the sun - scream all you want, but it'll still scorch you. As you cry about global warming, global corporations, and global revolution, I stare into the vacant globes of your eyes. The only anarchy going on is the mutinous misfiring of your brain cells. The 'A' stands for "asshole."

You whine about your "sexuality," how your body is a political combat zone. You're a simple rodent with boring bodily functions which you seek to ennoble. With your flagrant vanity and dishonesty in personal interactions, you reveal yourself to be equally as rotten as the leaders you despise. You invariably wind up imitating the oppressor. Unfortunately, you weren't oppressed to begin with.

For not only are you a liar, you're a hypocrite. You're fascinated by violence until you're confronted with it. You romanticize trauma but have never been traumatized. You demand grant money from a government you seek to destroy. You idolize primitive cultures but would slash your wrists if your CD player broke. You condemn religion but consider yourself enlightened. You're as self-righteous as the moralists upon which you spit. You hate hatred, won't tolerate intolerance, and conspire with others against conformity. " - Jim Goad
posted by jonmc at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2007 [17 favorites]


*scrawls a "circle-A" on backpack*
posted by everichon at 1:22 PM on April 11, 2007


how could chaos possibly require this much homework? How can chaos possibly be somthing that there is a right or wrong way to do?
posted by BeerGrin at 1:26 PM on April 11, 2007


I was going to write something defending anarchism, but it's pointless--the level of self-congratulatory backpatting in this thread is disgusting. I see even jefgodesky's given up.

jonmc, I'm sorry, but no matter how many ad hominems you string together, it still doesn't make an argument.
posted by nasreddin at 1:27 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


Ah'd like to put the anarchists and Jim Goad in a cage and make'em fight. Ah would.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:30 PM on April 11, 2007


I'm sorry, but no matter how many ad hominems you string together, it still doesn't make an argument.

That's not an apology, asshole.

:-) I am joking
posted by roll truck roll at 1:31 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


For most of our existence as a species, there's very little evidence period. Too little to make firm assertions either way about prehistoric social hierarchies, though knowledgeable anthropologists are welcome to correct me.

I have a degree in anthropology, though I'm not a professional anthropologist, and this has been a particular interest of mine, obviously. Rather than rehash the same arguments, I'll point you to this recent thread, in which Pastabagel made precisely the same error. While one can never argue definitively from negative evidence, the proponderance of it is quite striking. The sudden explosion of evidence for hierarchy after the Agricultural Revolution is so deafening that it stretches incredulity to suggest that we actually did have hierarchy prior, we just hid it meticulously, and then suddenly left it out for ayone to find starting 10,000 years ago.

If you believe in 'primitivism,' put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, it's all mental masturbation, sir.

But part of my belief in primitivism is that while it continues to grow, no one can escape civilization. Anyone who tries gets swallowed up by it--sometimes violently. So, I fail to see the hypocrisy. Isn't my money already as much where my mouth is as it could possibly be? For me to do otherwise would force me to enact your caricature of my beliefs, rather than my actual beliefs, wouldn't it?

I have no patience for this kind of thing. These people would be the first to be killed and eaten in a pimitive society.

Can you document a primitive society where people are killed to be eaten? There are societies with funerary cannibalism, I'll give you that, but the only examples I can think of where people are killed so that they can be eaten are the likes of the Donner Party, or the soccer team caught in the Andes, who were all quite civilized (which is why they could not find alternative food sources, such as the Donner Party, who were camped in a grove of pine trees, and could have lived happily off of their needles in tea, or their nuts). I'm afraid it's statements like this that reinforce my conviction that opposition to primitivism is largely a function of one's ignorance of life in primitive societies.

In still-extant human hunter-gatherer cultures there do tend to be leaders and followers, even when we're talking about very small social groups. Those with the best combination of competence, experience, and assertiveness tend to be leaders. (And this can be situational; maybe Grandma leads the social order where it comes to etiquette/customs/spirituality but Dad leads the hunt, etc.)

OK, now follow that through, as well as the implications of the lack of any coercive recourse. If A wields the most influence in one situation, and B in another, and C in still aother, what happens when we map the total influence each member of the society has? Some are respected for their expertise in one field or another, but when we consider the full human experience, the total influence of each members approaches the same baseline. While in any given situation, one person or another may wield more influence, overall, everyone's influence is roughly equal.

It's also been noted that nearly every primitive society extant today has some very elegant methods for limiting the rise of one person to too much power, such as the Bushman custom of "cursing the meat." In fact, your statement seems to fly in the face of most of the ethnographic evidence I know of. Could you provide some ethnographic examples of your claim?

Also it's pretty clear that modern society has, and still is, stomped all over primitive cultures in terms of evolutionary success... for good or ill.

There's two different types of "evolutionary success" here which are being confused. Short-term success bought at long-term detriment ensures evolutionary disaster, because it wipes out stable varieties in the short term, but then collapses itself shortly thereafter. The best biological model I know of for our civilization is that of overshoot, as argued by William Catton in his book of that name (Overshoot). Would you call the profligation of the reindeer on St. Matthews' Island an evolutionary success?

But a society without laws or government ultimately leads to rule by the most ruthless.

How do you square this with the established, ethnographic fact that "ruthlessness" occurs almost solely in societies with both laws and governments? If this were true, then how did humanity survive the million years of evolution it took before we could develop laws and governments? Why, do you suppose, is humanity the only species on the planet that has this problem?

There's something intrinsically Fred Phelpsian -- or, I guess, cultish in general -- about primitivists. Namely: "Here is what we think. It stands in opposition to what almost everyone else on the planet thinks. Everyone else in the planet is deluded and wrong, and we are the only ones with moral authority."

So, your position is that if one does not agree, in large part, with the majority of people at any given time, then one must be "cultish," or, one presumes, wrong? How do you reconcile this with the fact that the majority now disagrees significantly with past majorities? Until very recently, most people on the planet thought civilization was a deadly cancer that would wipe us all out (because until very recently, most people on the planet were not civilized).

The march of civilization is fraught with problems and bloodshed, but it's inevitable and essential.

"Inevitable"? That really gets into the bad old days of pre-Boasian, unilineal cultural evolution, doesn't it? How do you explain the genetic inferiority of the Ju/'hoansi, who have been incapable of getting on board with this "inevitable" development, then?

It moves toward greater populations, which is a natural move for a species.

That's a little bit insane. Just think about that for a moment. If greater population was really "a natural move for a species," then all life on earth would've been wiped out from overpopulation long, long ago. The "natural move for a species" is to establish a dynamic equilibrium of one's population. Constant growth can never be sustained, and any system that depends on it dooms itself to failure.

We are capable of complicated social hierarchies that improve our lot as animals.

It actually reduces our quality of life by essentially every metric.

It's a way of putting all our eggs in one nearly indestructible basket instead of carrying them around in our pockets.

That "basket" is actually guaranteed to be destroyed.

Our current system is not optimized - corruption and poverty still reign over most of the world, but that doesn't mean civilization is a failure - it just means it's struggling.

If we're going to use corruption and poverty as our metric, and that seems fair enough to me, can you point me to the corrupt, poor hunter-gatherers of the past for whom the civilized project was such an improvement? If you try to solve a problem that did not exist before your solution, and your solution simply causes a little bit of it, then you were better off without it.

Huge graves for shamans, for one thing, which throws that idea right out the window.

Where? I'll admit there were a few exceptional cases, such as Sungir. These actually prove my point much more than they detract from it. First, they are remarkable for how rare they are in the Paleolithic, and more importantly, they arise only in geographical flukes that mimic the kind of concentrated food stores that can only be provided systematically by farming. The Kwakiutl show the same pattern. This really just goes further to prove that unless a society has farming, hierarchy is extremely exceptional.

There were hierarchies among the hunters and gatherers almost certainly - based on age, ability, and experience, the same things which our current systems should (but isn't really) be based on.

Since this flies in the face of anthropological consensus, would you mind providing some ethnographic examples to back up such a paradigm-shattering conclusion?

Really? You mean to say that primitive societies were aware of and employed scientific method? Really?

For starters, see Louis Liebenberg's The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science.

Hobbs said it best: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes also argued with Francis Bacon over whether evidence should have anything to do with science. Hobbes argued that an argument involving evidence was compromised for it, and that the only legitimate form of argument should be the pure thought experiment. "Nasty, brutish and short" is a fine example, actually; a good enough thought experiment, but at this point, utterly and completely shattered by the anthropological data.

And do they not realize that even some primates have a hierarchical structure? I mean, how much further back do they want us to go?

Some do. Homo sapiens do not. Contrary to the assertions made here without any reference, source or example, even the most basic anthropology textbook will tell you that observed hunter-gatherers are overwhelmingly egalitarian, and the archaeological record indicates that hierarchy among Homo sapiens appears only with the Agricultural Revolution, in the last 0.016% of our time on this planet.

I see even jefgodesky's given up.

Actually, you're all just typing faster than me.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2007 [14 favorites]


So what will one of these geniuses do when they have acute appendicitis? Or an abscessed tooth? Or a strep infection? My sister, mother and wife would all be gone if it hadn't been for civilized medical technology. These folks are as moronic as the people waiting for the rapture to come.
posted by octothorpe at 1:36 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


But part of my belief in primitivism is that while it continues to grow, no one can escape civilization. Anyone who tries gets swallowed up by it--sometimes violently. So, I fail to see the hypocrisy. Isn't my money already as much where my mouth is as it could possibly be? For me to do otherwise would force me to enact your caricature of my beliefs, rather than my actual beliefs, wouldn't it?

Translation: I like to type platitudes, but I won't actually practice what I preach. There's a word for that.
posted by jonmc at 1:37 PM on April 11, 2007


i've enjoyed encounters with folks from green anarchy, the eugene scene, talks by zerzan, books by jensen, the air of a outsider element as it makes its brackish mix with the well-heeled environmental community. the most important contribution it made to my environmental education was not its orthodoxy, but the willingness to explore practices beyond the co-opted program of the 1970s.

ecological thought has exploded nto a complex network of praxes around ghettos, municipalities, suburbs, farms, industries, the wilderness, and everything between. this creative energy, this open-sourcing of the human habitat, is fantastic. primitivists are just one working group of many.

i'm, however, critical of the rhetoric of an edenic past as a motivator. the past has a lot to teach us, but being anti-time, anti-historical change, is not very ecological. resurgence of some lost values, on the other hand, might be very nice.
posted by ioesf at 1:44 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Actually, you're all just typing faster than me."

Civilization has its benefits.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:44 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's something intrinsically Fred Phelpsian -- or, I guess, cultish in general -- about primitivists. Namely: "Here is what we think. It stands in opposition to what almost everyone else on the planet thinks. Everyone else in the planet is deluded and wrong, and we are the only ones with moral authority."

Unpopular != incorrect.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:47 PM on April 11, 2007


So what will one of these geniuses do when they have acute appendicitis? Or an abscessed tooth? Or a strep infection? My sister, mother and wife would all be gone if it hadn't been for civilized medical technology.

There are primitive remedies for all of those which are just as effective as our own. In fact, most of our most effective pharmaceuticals simply turn indigenous herbal remedies into pills. Primitive societies were even performing brain surgery all the way back in the Mesolithic. If your sister, mother and wife died from such simple things in a primitive society, you would have only yourself to blame for not utilizing the many medical resources available to any primitive society. Civilization has no monopoly on medicine, but it does make you sick.

Translation: I like to type platitudes, but I won't actually practice what I preach. There's a word for that.

Could you answer my question? You've really confused me. What I've argued is that civilization cannot be escaped while it's still growing, and it will kill anyone who tries. I've also said that it's self-destroying, and will soon tip into collapse, at which point we should jump ship as quickly as possible, for our own welfare and for the survival of our species. Now, it seems to me that "practicing what I preach" would mean learning primitive skills, herbalism, tracking, hunting, fishing and so forth, so that I'm ready when things start to go bad. But you say "I like to type platitudes, but I won't actually practice what I preach." Could you enlighten me as to how exactly that is? Because what I've been preaching is that we should all be getting ready now as much as we can, rather than fleeing to the woods immediately. Or do you mean that I'm not practicing your caricature of what I preach?
posted by jefgodesky at 1:49 PM on April 11, 2007


(also, jason's_planet is a drinking buddy of mine, so don't take my comments as personal attacks. I just happen to think that this is bullshit is all)
posted by jonmc at 1:50 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitivists implicitly assume or maybe even cling to the notion that all men are essentially "good", they imagine basic man to be a noble savage.

These people have never really lived outside the protection of society and with all its rules and laws.

They do not have slightest idea how creative in treachery and deceit people can be either by choice or necessity. They probably also have never worked in larger companies or bureaucracies, otherwise they might have a slight hint of what people can be capable of.

Not that I agree that most of man can be noble most of the time, but it so happens man is an animal like all other animals, an animal that had to compete for limited resources in the harsh reality of nature. All strategies that lead to self-perpetuation are reinforced.

If actually there only were noble savages once "a long time ago", just imagine what a phenomenal evolutionary advantage a lone rogue savage, that tricked, cheated, robbed, plundered, raped, murdered, brutalized and manipulated all others, would have had. Wow. Now imagine how many children such a rogue could father in the course of his evolutionary career. Scale it up. Imagine what an advantage a gang of rouges would have had in a world full of noble savage villages. And then imagine what a really large gang of rogues in a "friendly world of peaceful pink coexistence" could achieve. Imagine how successful in a biological sense these guys would have been. It is BTW no coincidence that all this is not to hard to imagine.

Thus such strains have an evolutionary justification. But on the other hand people that bundle their resources in cooperatives, develop culture and society have a higher chance of managing the "bad strains" and perpetuating themselves. Thus the "good strains" also evolve. These attributes give everyone an advantage, thus people will have a bit of both, some more some less.

Steven Pinker, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, also debunks the misconception of the noble savage. He also held a talk about this at the last TED Conference in Monterey, California.
posted by umop-apisdn at 1:55 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


Civilization has no monopoly on medicine

A good solid placebo effect beats out a lot of modern medicine, especially when you factor in the lack of fatal side effects. But, like said above, we can't just go back to beliving in Shamans.

FWIW, the anarchists I've known, East Village squatters and such, have all been real nice people.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:55 PM on April 11, 2007


There are primitive remedies for all of those which are just as effective as our own.

Sure. Which is why life expectancies were so long before the advent of modern medicine.

But you say "I like to type platitudes, but I won't actually practice what I preach." Could you enlighten me as to how exactly that is?

Because you're preaching that technology is bad, science is bad, civilization is bad, yet we're having this conversation on a set of devices that is irrefutably a product of modern science, technology and civilization.

Is society going to crumble? Who the hell knows. If it does I'll go down with the ship. I, like most of humanity, am pretty much helpless against the tide of history and time, no matter how much we like to delude ourselves.
posted by jonmc at 1:55 PM on April 11, 2007


Contrary to the assertions made here without any reference, source or example, even the most basic anthropology textbook will tell you that observed hunter-gatherers are overwhelmingly egalitarian

OK, Jeff. Maybe they don't have kings or CEOs or executive washrooms. But human beings differ in personality, leadership abilities and skills. We don't esteem everyone equally. So how could someone with demonstrated leadership abilities or hunting abilities not rise to the top of a band of hunter-gatherers? And what position would someone who was a lousy hunter, a whiner, a weakling occupy?

Just curious.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:57 PM on April 11, 2007



Primitivists implicitly assume or maybe even cling to the notion that all men are essentially "good", they imagine basic man to be a noble savage.


When you tell someone what they're implicitly assuming, make sure it's actually the case. I don't think anyone's said that all primitive people are happy joy-joy folk who all love each other. But I will still repost the Thomas Jefferson quote I ended that last thread with:
We are told that the Powhatans, Mannahoacs, and Monacans, spoke languages so radically different, that interpreters were necessary when they transacted business. Hence we may conjecture, that this was not the case between all the tribes, and probably that each spoke the language of the nation to which it was attached; which we know to have been the case in many particular instances. Very possibly there may have been antiently three different stocks, each of which multiplying in a long course of time, had separated into so many little societies. This practice results from the circumstance of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government. Their only controuls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature. An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them: insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The Savages therefore break them into small ones.
posted by nasreddin at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2007


So what will one of these geniuses do when they have acute appendicitis? Or an abscessed tooth? Or a strep infection?

They'll die. And......? What? Would you rather live a short, free and simple life or a very long miserable one?
Civilization cannot go back in time but, in my very humble opinion, where it's at is not so great.
posted by bobobox at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2007


In fact, most of our most effective pharmaceuticals simply turn indigenous herbal remedies into pills. Primitive societies were even performing brain surgery all the way back in the Mesolithic.

What is the herbal basis for Prozac? Or Lithium?

If you ever needed surgery or other serious procedure, would you prefer to have it done in a Western hospital, or would you prefer to use traditional medicine?
posted by jason's_planet at 2:05 PM on April 11, 2007


There are primitive remedies for all of those which are just as effective as our own.

Hmm. What's the word that I'm looking for here? Oh I remember, "Bullshit". We're getting deep into timecube territory here.
posted by octothorpe at 2:05 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


Would you rather live a short, free and simple life or a very long miserable one?

Oh good god, I hate nightmares where I'm back in highschool. Snark aside, do you really think these are the only two options?
posted by everichon at 2:10 PM on April 11, 2007


"This really just goes further to prove that unless a society has farming, hierarchy is extremely exceptional."

Conversely, you could infer that establishing hierarchy is an inherent human tendency, which crops up everywhere in the world, in any situation at any time throughout human history when people aren't spending all of their free time scratching around for sustenance...
posted by stenseng at 2:11 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitivism.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:12 PM on April 11, 2007


So, jefgodesky, what do you think of these passages from the article?
Most anarchists and “revolutionaries” spend a significant portion of their time developing schemes and mechanisms for production, distribution, adjudication, and communication between large numbers of people; in other words, the functioning of a complex society. But not all anarchists accept the premise of global (or even regional) social, political, and economic coordination and interdependence, or the organization needed for their administration. We reject mass society for practical and philosophical reasons. First, we reject the inherent representation necessary for the functioning of situations outside of the realm of direct experience (completely decentralized modes of existence). We do not wish to run society, or organize a different society, we want a completely different frame of reference. We want a world where each group is autonomous and decides on its own terms how to live, with all interactions based on affinity, free and open, and non-coercive.

The emphasis on the symbolic is a movement from direct experience into mediated experience in the form of language, art, number, time, etc. Symbolic culture filters our entire perception through formal and informal symbols. It’s beyond just giving things names, but having an entire relationship to the world that comes through the lens of representation. It is debatable as to whether humans are “hard-wired” for symbolic thought or if it developed as a cultural change or adaptation, but the symbolic mode of expression and understanding is certainly limited and its over-dependence leads to objectification, alienation, and a tunnel vision of perception. Many green anarchists promote and practice getting in touch with and rekindling dormant or underutilized methods of interaction and cognition, such as touch, smell, and telepathy, as well as experimenting with and developing unique and personal modes of comprehension and expression.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2007


this thread is omitting the context of the neoprimitivists.

1. post-punk kids send wastewater to reed bed, make zine
2. bored architecture students fetishize zine's dramatic rhetoric, get government jobs
3. municipalities build wetlands for water treatment

call them "posturers" but these folks are affecting land-use in a city near you.
posted by ioesf at 2:21 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Primitivists implicitly assume or maybe even cling to the notion that all men are essentially "good", they imagine basic man to be a noble savage.

Not true. Primitivists implicitly assume that humans are essentially, well, human. That we are malleable. That we are driven by basic, biological impulses, so what matters is not "human nature" nearly so much as cultural context. In our society, because it operates on such a massive scale providing such effective anonymity, for instance, "greed," the basic, biological impulse to accrue as much wealth as one can, leads to, well, Ken Lay. Put Ken Lay in a hunter-gatherer context, primitivists argue, and watch how things change. First, nomadism makes the direct hoarding of material goods self-defeating. Instead, wealth is counted in human relationships--friends and family that will share with you when you're not doing as well, who will defend you if you get into a fight, and so forth. In this context, Ken Lay is equally greedy, but stealing from those around him won't get him much. Instead, the same greed that led civilized Ken Lay to rip off so many people, leads hunter-gatherer Ken Lay to treat people around him as well as he can, to throw elaborate parties for them, and try to make everyone like him. Same impulses, same "good" or "evil" or whatever you want to call it; all that changes is the cultural context.

They do not have slightest idea how creative in treachery and deceit people can be either by choice or necessity. They probably also have never worked in larger companies or bureaucracies, otherwise they might have a slight hint of what people can be capable of.

Ah ha, now see, when you look for your best examples of how treacherous people can be, what do you turn to? Larger companies or bureaucracies. In larger hierarchies, treachery is rewarded, so people in them become more treacherous.

Now, even if you are not inclined to examine how primitive societies work, look at the lack of this kind of treachery and subterfuge in documented primitive societies, to the point where the myth of the noble savage can be maintained. No one's ever believed in a myth of the truthful politician, have they? The very fact that the myth is so widely believed indicates something.

If actually there only were noble savages once "a long time ago", just imagine what a phenomenal evolutionary advantage a lone rogue savage, that tricked, cheated, robbed, plundered, raped, murdered, brutalized and manipulated all others, would have had.

Yes, let's imagine that. A nomadic hunter-gatherer band has a nefarious, robbing bastard in their midst. Naturally, he is quickly discovered, since there isn't all that much to steal (and even less that wouldn't be freely given, to improve a friendship in which actual wealth in such a society lies), and that person is now booted out. It's very difficult surviving in the wilderness alone, so he's dead by the end of the year.

Sounds like a phenomenal evolutionary advantage to me.

But, like said above, we can't just go back to beliving in Shamans.

No? The more I've objectively researched the subject, despite my heavy pre-disposition to write them off as frauds, the more I've ended up believing in them. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous is really phenomenal in this sense; it makes magic not only make sense, but makes it absolutely unavoidable. It puts the denial of animism and magic on par with, say, denying the existence of light, or wind.

Sure. Which is why life expectancies were so long before the advent of modern medicine.

Well, they were much longer before agriculture. We've been recovering from the Neolithic Mortality Crisis for 10,000 years. Today, a normal human lifespan is the sole providence of the industrialized elite. The increase in longevity in industrialized countries at the turn of the last century really has much more to do with basic hygiene than modern medicine.

Because you're preaching that technology is bad, science is bad, civilization is bad, yet we're having this conversation on a set of devices that is irrefutably a product of modern science, technology and civilization.

Right--because they happened. They were disastrous, but they happened. To deny them simply because they're bad would just be delusional, akin to suggesting that there is no Rwanda, or denying the Holocaust.

So how could someone with demonstrated leadership abilities or hunting abilities not rise to the top of a band of hunter-gatherers?

How could someone in our society with demonstrated cracklefrazznitz not become our top cracklefrazznitzer? Because "leadership," as we know it, simply does not exist for them. Leadership in primitive societies is limited in both scope and time, like the leader of a given rabbit hunt. Permanent, absolute leadership meant as much to them as cracklefrazznitz means to you--it simply did not exist in their world.

And what position would someone who was a lousy hunter, a whiner, a weakling occupy?

Have you ever met anyone who was terrible at everything? I have not. I've met people who seemed like it, but dig a little deeper, and you find they have some secret talent no one can match. Tribal societies employ a rare kind of genius at finding people's talents, whether we're talking about Two-Spirits, or the connection between shamanism and schizophrenia. A lousy hunter would have very little to say about hunting schemes, but since he's a genius toolmaker, everyone will listen to what he has to say about what kind of tools to make for next year. Likewise, that great hunter will have a lot to say about the local deer herd, but when it comes to making tools, it'll be time to shut up, because everyone knows he couldn't knap a flint knife to save his life.

The key to egalitarianism is that equality does not mean uniformity.

What is the herbal basis for Prozac? Or Lithium?

I said most, but I also said most effective. The ramifications of SSRI's are hotly debated. Meanwhile, aspirin, "the wonder drug that works wonders," comes from the willow bark used by Native Americans for headaches.

If you ever needed surgery or other serious procedure, would you prefer to have it done in a Western hospital, or would you prefer to use traditional medicine?

Personally? Traditional medicine.

Hmm. What's the word that I'm looking for here? Oh I remember, "Bullshit". We're getting deep into timecube territory here.

Or the anthropology of medicine. A good universtiy library should have a shelf there backing me up on this.

Snark aside, do you really think these are the only two options?

Not at all. Primitive societies actually enjoyed lives that were both longer and happier.

We reject mass society for practical and philosophical reasons.

Mass society lies at the root of most of our current problems. Humans are fundamentally incapable of dealing with such massive societies. The means we invent to try to do so--from hierarchy to market economies--are all meant to divorce as much as possible from the social context into which tribal societies, the societies humans evolved with, embedded every aspect of their lives. That makes our society inherently anti-social, and it creates massive populations of trained sociopaths.

...but the symbolic mode of expression and understanding is certainly limited and its over-dependence leads to objectification, alienation, and a tunnel vision of perception.

On my own site, I've often challenged Zerzan's critique of symbolism. Primitive societies have a rich symbolic life. Symbolic thought is necessary, but not sufficient, for the emergence of hierarchy. You could just as well blame the opposable thumb.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:22 PM on April 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


In fact, most of our most effective pharmaceuticals simply turn indigenous herbal remedies into pills. Primitive societies were even performing brain surgery all the way back in the Mesolithic.

Seriously, every time a thread like this comes up - in came up in the Pomo tribe thread a week ago and in came up again a week before that, this argument shows up.

This is stupid and completely false. To the extent that occaisionally a chemical is discovered in a plant, it is identified, extracted, synthesized in mass quantities and delivered as medicine seperately from all the other chemicals in the plants.

And lest you think you are clever for pointing this out, you aren't. Most medicines simply replace or introduce a chemical process that supposed to occur normally anyway.

Furthermore, the hierarchy argument has been discussed on mefi before.

You know why the primitive appeals to people? Because it's easy. It takes a lifetime of study to understand why a Mozart symphony is qualitatively different that a polyphonic pygmy song. IT takes a lifetime of study to understand why medicine is not just picking herbs and boiling them, or to understand why the stars move as they do and what that means. These things are hard.

The difference between civilization and the primitive is that civilization appreciates that pursuing the understanding of these difficult things will lead to an improved and enriched life for all. The primitive does not pursue these things because they are hard, and rather concocts a story from whole cloth into which things can fit.

Those of you endorsing the idea of returning to the primitive, please explain why any of us should want to agree with you. What is the benefit of returning to the primitive?
posted by Pastabagel at 2:25 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


jefgodesky, I don't agree with you, but I want to laud your consistently on-topic responses in this thread, and your apparent resistance to wiseassery. Speaking as a wiseass, myself.
posted by everichon at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2007


stenseng -

when people aren't spending all of their free time scratching around for sustenance...


Hunter-gatherer's have more leisure time than farmers.

The linked article is very interesting (and I'm pretty sure has appeared here before). Between hunter-gathering and pre-industrial life, hunter-gathering seems like a clear win. Industrial life is another matter. Sure, if I get appendicitis, I can have it taken care of surgically, but I'm not a randomly chosen member of the human race. Pick a person at random from the 6 billion to choose from and they'll likely meet the same end as our theoretical Bushman.

Still, the last 100 years has brought human lifespans past their previous, pre-agricultural high (although the Bushman still works a lot less). The question is, is it sustainable? And the lifestyle that most people here are contrasting with hunter gathering - the wealthy, western one - since it isn't universalizable (certainly, the average chinese citizen isn't going to be using oil like the average american), isn't the right one to compare against. It's like claiming that feudalism is better than hunter-gathering, since in a feudal society you get to live in a castle and have servants.
posted by bonecrusher at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky's arguments in this thread are pretty much why anarchists laugh themselves silly at primitivists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:31 PM on April 11, 2007


Hunter-gatherers may have had more leisure time than I do, but I would quicky die without the New Yorker. And Powells. And MeFi, for that matter.
posted by everichon at 2:32 PM on April 11, 2007


If you ever needed surgery or other serious procedure, would you prefer to have it done in a Western hospital, or would you prefer to use traditional medicine?

Personally? Traditional medicine.


Then, my friend, you are either a liar or an idiot. You'd rather get a traditional remedy for coronary artery blockage rather than an anticoagulant or a bypass? What would that remedy be? A traditional remedy for prostate cancer or brain cancer perhaps? How about a traditional remedy for schizophrenia? Know any good folk remedies for the measles? Polio? Smallpox?
posted by Pastabagel at 2:32 PM on April 11, 2007


Yeah, I thought this stuff was a good idea... back when I was 15.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:33 PM on April 11, 2007


Sure, there are lots of naturally hierarchical animals, but Homo sapiens isn't one of them.

I'd like to point out that a hierarchy is not the same as a pecking order. A pecking order is what you observe in chickens and chimps. A hierarchy is what you observe in human civilization. A pecking order is when one member of a group gains a monopoly on a certain resource. Or it may be that several members do, and they arrange in a queue -- a pecking order. A stable linear arrangement in time. In contrast, a hierarchy is when labor is divided into higher-level tasks, like management, and lower-level tasks, like digging a hole. Is there a linear succession here? Is the higher-level task always completed before the lower-level task? Or vice versa maybe? It's not so clear. I really wish more people acknowledged this distinction. Clarity is very important when you are discussing sensitive ideas like the fate of civilization.
posted by Laugh_track at 2:40 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitive societies have a rich symbolic life. Symbolic thought is necessary, but not sufficient, for the emergence of hierarchy. You could just as well blame the opposable thumb.

Oh, I do. I do. It's the root of all opposition.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:41 PM on April 11, 2007


Meanwhile, aspirin, "the wonder drug that works wonders," comes from the willow bark used by Native Americans for headaches.

No, it doesn't. Aspirin, the kind you get in a store comes from, surprise, phenol from coal tar. Salicylic acid was discovered in willow bark, but and here's the point, it would be impossible to obtain aspirin in quantities useful and inexpensive to the world by relying on willow trees.

Again the difference between the primitive and civilization is highlighted here. The primitive happens upon the properties of willow bark, but doesn't explore it further than that. Science using a single process is not only able to determine what it is in willow bark that is useful, but can also synthesize entirely different chemicals that do what aspirin does but better, and without the side effects. Please identify a primitive society that developed tylenol.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2007


Well, this is certainly the kind of non-society I want to live in:

...Naturally, he is quickly discovered, since there isn't all that much to steal (and even less that wouldn't be freely given, to improve a friendship in which actual wealth in such a society lies), and that person is now booted out. It's very difficult surviving in the wilderness alone, so he's dead by the end of the year.

Yes, to be completely dependent upon my small band and to fear being banished should the whim strike them. That would be awesome!

From what reading I've done of the Saharan nomads (admittedly in the 1800s, although Western civilization had not always had a significant impact upon them), their lives seemed completely miserable (I don't know how they are today), impoverished, tenuous, and in constant jeopardy. And they treated most outsiders with complete savagery, robbing them and then either killing or enslaving them. Not sure that's an admirable model.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 2:48 PM on April 11, 2007


"Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time than farmers."


I sincerely doubt that, and one article sure ain't gonna change my mind.
posted by stenseng at 2:59 PM on April 11, 2007


This is stupid and completely false. To the extent that occaisionally a chemical is discovered in a plant, it is identified, extracted, synthesized in mass quantities and delivered as medicine seperately from all the other chemicals in the plants.

This is stupid and completely false. It rambles over the fact that divorced from the rest of the plant's chemical context, the "active ingredient" often entails crippling side-effects that sometimes overwhelm the drug's effectiveness. Herbs can have side-effects, too, but as a rule, they tend to be much less severe. Just as with our own drugs, knowledge about the herbs used is essential, but I think this should suffice to show that there's been a lot more give-and-take than improvement involved.

Anthropologists of medicine have yet to find any ethnomedicine, including our own, that can be proven to be more or less effective than any other. Despite that, every culture, including our own, believes its own medicine to be superior, and argues for its superiority in terms of its own etiology and assumptions--a cultural tautology we call "ethnocentrism." It is as baseless as it is universal.

And lest you think you are clever for pointing this out, you aren't. Most medicines simply replace or introduce a chemical process that supposed to occur normally anyway.

Obviously; I thought we were more interested in what was real, I didn't realize that "cleverness" was being evaluated as well.

You know why the primitive appeals to people? Because it's easy. It takes a lifetime of study to understand why a Mozart symphony is qualitatively different that a polyphonic pygmy song. IT takes a lifetime of study to understand why medicine is not just picking herbs and boiling them, or to understand why the stars move as they do and what that means. These things are hard.

Holy hell, that's such a piece of ethnocentrism it makes me queasy. Spoken truly as someone who knows nothing about herbalism, much less any system of art or music that doesn't come from Europe. You know why the civilized appeals to people? Because it's easy. It takes a lifetime of study to understand why a Pygmy song is qualitatively different than some Mozart symphony. It takes a lifetime of study to understand why medicine is more than just popping people full of drugs, or to understand how to create a sane society that doesn't rely on the madness of constant growth. These things are hard.

The difference between civilization and the primitive is that civilization appreciates that pursuing the understanding of these difficult things will lead to an improved and enriched life for all. The primitive does not pursue these things because they are hard, and rather concocts a story from whole cloth into which things can fit.

You make it sound like science, or art, or philosophy are the sole domains of civilized societies. They are most emphatically not. They are the universal heritage of the whole human race, civilized or not, and as old as the Upper Paleolithic. Primitive societies have art and music and knowledge completely comparable to our own and it is, quite frankly, nothing short of straight-out racism and ignorance that could ever lead anyone to believe otherwise. If you are simply ignorant of the depth and richness of primitive cultures, then I urge you to investigate them further. I know Europe's cultural heritage as well as you seem to, but you do not seem to have any awareness at all of the achievements of other societies. If, on the other hand, your ethnocentric salute here is as racist as it seems, then I am truly disgusted. Europe does not hold the one right way for everyone to live, and the rest of the world does not judge its cultural success by how far it falls from Europe's shining example of endemic warfare and plague.

Those of you endorsing the idea of returning to the primitive, please explain why any of us should want to agree with you. What is the benefit of returning to the primitive?

Improved quality of life, while retaining equal (or sometimes greater) richness in knowledge, medicine, philosophy, art, and every other area of cultural endeavor. Moreover, it is the only form of human society proven to work in the long term, and the only one that does not actively destroy its ecological foundation.

Pick a person at random from the 6 billion to choose from and they'll likely meet the same end as our theoretical Bushman.

Appendicitis and major colon diseases are almost totally absent in primitive African regions, but as these natives move to more developed countries, these diseases rapidly increase.

Appendicitis is caused because humans do not have the biology to digest wheat except in the most nominal sense. Many of our common ailments stem from this fact. So, this is something of a straw man--denouncing primitive life because it cannot address a health issue that it eliminates from ever occuring. You'll find this is extremely common; just as important as the equally effective medicine of primitive societies is the fact that they don't make us sick, so there's less to cure. Although, primitive societies do perform regular, successful surgery when such things do arise (which is much more rare than among us, for reasons like this; it's really amazing what the human body can do when it's operating in its evolutionary context, rather than swimming upstream from it).

Still, the last 100 years has brought human lifespans past their previous, pre-agricultural high (although the Bushman still works a lot less).

Only in the most industrialized, elite countries, and we've observed a general trend in rising longevity since the Upper Paleolithic. Unfortunately, the only extant hunter-gatherers we could compare this to live in some of the world's most marginal ecologies. Still, once the cultural variables are accounted for, their life expectancies come close to that of Americans'. That is to say, hunter-gatherers in the worst possible ecological context live nearly as long as the wealthiest, longest-lived elite of our modern civilization. So, I think there's some ambiguity here.

jefgodesky's arguments in this thread are pretty much why anarchists laugh themselves silly at primitivists.

Would you care to elaborate?

Hunter-gatherers may have had more leisure time than I do, but I would quicky die without the New Yorker. And Powells. And MeFi, for that matter.

Remember, you also get a real, close-knit community, too. You'd rather have MeFi, than a rich oral tradition and a real community? I find that rather sad if it's true, but I suspect you're kidding yourself. Far too many people react to primitivism with, "How will I manage without my crutch!" forgetting that it also means taking the cast off.

You'd rather get a traditional remedy for coronary artery blockage rather than an anticoagulant or a bypass?

Well, in a primitive society, I'd never have that coronary artery blockage to begin with, which I find much preferable, don't you? Why would I have to be a liar or an idiot to not prefer to have such a condition and then need such invasive surgery?

A traditional remedy for prostate cancer or brain cancer perhaps?

Granted, primitive societies tend not to come up with remedies for afflictions they don't suffer.

How about a traditional remedy for schizophrenia?

That's shamanism. You integrate that person into your society and give them the means to turn it to their advantage.

Know any good folk remedies for the measles? Polio? Smallpox?

Again, those are zoonotic diseases, the product of animal domestication. Primitive societies only get those diseases when they run into civilized people.

Salicylic acid was discovered in willow bark, but and here's the point, it would be impossible to obtain aspirin in quantities useful and inexpensive to the world by relying on willow trees.

Which indicates the problems of mass society, not herbal medicine. For an individual Native American, chewing on willow bark is as effective as aspirin. Does it scale to a population of billions? Of course not, but that wasn't the goal, either.

Science using a single process is not only able to determine what it is in willow bark that is useful, but can also synthesize entirely different chemicals that do what aspirin does but better, and without the side effects.

Like the upset stomach--nobody gets that from aspirin. Actually, you don't get it from willow bark. There's another chemical in willow bark that stops that from happening, but it was cut out when it was isolated for aspirin. Tylenol put that same chemical back in, to better emulate chewing on a piece of willow bark.

Again the difference between civilization and the primitive is illustrated. The primitive knows a good thing when he sees it, while the civlized person needs to play god and inevitably screw it up because a single human being can never account for all the variables that evolution has already taken care of.

Yes, to be completely dependent upon my small band and to fear being banished should the whim strike them. That would be awesome!

Well, that's certainly a fairly Machiavellian way to take it, except banishment wasn't really the kind of thing you did on a whim. Betray the whole band, sure, but you might as well paint our society as hellish because we executed Timothy McVeigh. I do paint our society as pretty hellish, but not for that.

From what reading I've done of the Saharan nomads (admittedly in the 1800s, although Western civilization had not always had a significant impact upon them), their lives seemed completely miserable

I agree. They were pastoralists (a kind of agriculture), living in the Sahara. Not exactly primitive.

I sincerely doubt that, and one article sure ain't gonna change my mind.

OK, try an introductory anthropology book, because it's very well attested, the kind of thing you normally find on an anthro 101 midterm.
posted by jefgodesky at 3:01 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


YOU ARE ALL CIVILIZED STUPID!!!
posted by pyramid termite at 3:06 PM on April 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


OK, try an introductory anthropology book,

Printed on a computerized printing press powered by electricty, natch.

(look jeff, you wanna go out in the woods and cavort with the fucking squirrels, be my guest, but don't be sanctimonious about it)
posted by jonmc at 3:11 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitivism can't ever work unless the entire planet agrees on it as a whole, which will never happen. Why? Primitive societies have no ability to defend themselves against technological ones. If the entire first world voted to return to a tribal existence, rogue states like North Korea would have a field day conquering the place. You'd either have to scour them from the Earth with your weapons before you dismantled them, or keep weapons around after (in which case they'd quickly fail or become obsolete in the absence of the science, industry, and economy needed to maintain them.) One solution is unacceptable, and the other won't work.

Furthermore, primitivism means death for the majority of mankind. The planet cannot even come close to supporting 6 billion hunter-gatherers. Also, this population density cannot be maintained without modern medicine and hygiene. If we all went back to living in tribes, at least 98% of the population will starve or be wiped out by diseases. It's even possible that we'd all be wiped out - the transition back could easily be enough to kill everyone if a strong plague got out of hand.

Finally, primitivism is temporary. Without technology, history cannot be maintained. Maybe you can carve rocks or tell tales, but will those survive for 2000 years? Will they survive the loss of the historians to disease or famine? The memory of technology will be lost, and it will inevitably rise again.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:12 PM on April 11, 2007


Well, the specifically anarchist critique of primitivism is that its implementation would involve the deaths of the vast majority of the human population, its anti-intellectualism, its anti-human demand that humanity embrace modes of living which involve a shorter lifespan, an embrace of bullshit primitive mysticism, and a general contempt for humanity. None of that is even vaguely in line with anarchist principles. Hell, have a more complete answer.

There's also the fact that you fuckers keep calling yourselves anarchists when nine tenths of you don't know who Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Buenaventura Durruti, Nestor Makhno, Emma Goldman, or any of a long list of anarchist writers are (Bob Black and John Zerzan don't count). You're not anarchists, and sweet holy fuck am I sick of hearing about "green anarchy".
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:16 PM on April 11, 2007


Also,

Like the upset stomach--nobody gets that from aspirin. Actually, you don't get it from willow bark. There's another chemical in willow bark that stops that from happening, but it was cut out when it was isolated for aspirin. Tylenol put that same chemical back in, to better emulate chewing on a piece of willow bark.

You don't know what you're talking about. Tylenol isn't aspirin- it's an entirely different chemical called acetominophen.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:18 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitivism can't ever work unless the entire planet agrees on it as a whole, which will never happen.

This goes for nearly all "isms". Except maybe totalitarianism. Then it wouldn't matter if anyone agrees on it. Communism would work if everyone agreed to make it work. Capitalism would work for everybody too if everyone agreed on it. I don't believe any of these would ever work on a global scale.
posted by bobobox at 3:24 PM on April 11, 2007


I can understand the impulse behind this. I'm actually a primitive technology buff, myself. As in, I study it as a subject. As an answer, I find it lacking. Thing is, neither primitivism nor anarchy scale well. Even Libertarianism (anarchy lite, IMO) is idealistic. And any social model that depends on an idealized version of human nature is inherently unstable. So barring forced reeducation, wilderness survival, or SHTF scenarios, I don't see this subject as anything more than wishful thinking or intellectual curiosity. And no - I can't prove any of these opinions, except to point out that history isn't exactly brimming with successful examples of dense populations willingly relinquishing order.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:32 PM on April 11, 2007


Furthermore, primitivism means death for the majority of mankind.

And I bet that would suit the bulk of these deluded Trustfarians just fine.
posted by MikeMc at 3:40 PM on April 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Printed on a computerized printing press powered by electricty, natch.

(look jeff, you wanna go out in the woods and cavort with the fucking squirrels, be my guest, but don't be sanctimonious about it)


The anthropology text book made by the computerized printing press powered by electricity only being necessary to correct the ignorance of primitive societies, which we would not need if the civilization with its electricity and computerized printing press and its anthropology text books had never existed. I don't think this line of argument is going well for you; no matter how much you try, using the artifacts of civilization to begin to address some of the incalculable damage civilization has done will never make it hypocritical.

Primitivism can't ever work unless the entire planet agrees on it as a whole, which will never happen. Why? Primitive societies have no ability to defend themselves against technological ones.

This is kinda sorta not really true. When a civilization is in its anabolic growth stage, no primitive society can withstand it. It is driven to consume all other ways of life, even if the individuals in it might not want to. However, in catabolic collapse, the trend reverses itself, and primitive societies prosper over civilized ones.

Furthermore, primitivism means death for the majority of mankind. The planet cannot even come close to supporting 6 billion hunter-gatherers.

True. In fact, the only thing that can support 6.5 billion people is industrialized agriculture--which is unsustainable, and destroys its own ecological foundation at a terrifying rate. So, in the long term, industrial agriculture cannot support 6.5 billion people, either, because it isn't sustainable. Only sustainable subsistence technologies can provide an ongoing basis for a society, and none of the sustainable methods can support billions of people. It's a classic example of overshoot (again, I reference Catton's book), and it makes this argument a complete red herring. No, primitivism cannot support 6.5 billion people, but then, nothing can.

Without technology, history cannot be maintained.

Wrong. Oral traditions are incredibly good at preserving memories.

...but will those survive for 2000 years?

They have before. We have cave art from 40,000 years ago in Europe, and older in Africa. The Bushmen painted rock art 2,000 years ago, and they still know what it means. Anthropologists couldn't figure them out until they finally asked the natives. Oral tradition is extremely effective, in some ways even more effective than writing. See Ong's Literality & Orality.

Will they survive the loss of the historians to disease or famine?

Primitive societies have far less disease (most of our diseases are zoonotic epidemics), and famine--the way we know it--is veritably the product of agriculture (see Richard Manning's Against the Grain).

The memory of technology will be lost, and it will inevitably rise again.

Depends on the technology in question. Technology arises when it is useful, and when it is possible. Today, there are no more near-surface deposits of fossil fuels or economic metals; that's why we mine so deeply for them. Geological time will pass before they're pushed up to the surface again, by which time we'll be an entirely different species altogether. As it is, you need an industrial society in place in order to extract the resources an industrial society needs. Or, to quote Sir Fred Hoyle in Of Men and Galaxies:
It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence this is not correct. We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.
It's unfortunate that Sir Hoyle was such a product of his time and called complex societies "high intelligence" (with its racist implication that extant hunter-gatherers are just too stupid, to say nothing of the empirical evidence that such "high intelligence" is pretty dumb on a lot of levels), but you get the point.

Well, the specifically anarchist critique of primitivism is that its implementation would involve the deaths of the vast majority of the human population...

Yes, and if you take primitivism, as I do, as the best solution to the fact that the vast majority of the human population is going to die, just like any other species would in the same ecological situation, then much of that critique evaporates, I think.

...its anti-intellectualism....

Where? I can see it in the Green Anarchy Collective, but there's more to primitivism than just them. One of the things I've most commonly extolled about primitive societies is their rich intellectual life.

....its anti-human demand that humanity embrace modes of living which involve a shorter lifespan....

No, no, we're opposed to civilization, which is anti-human (in that it contradicts the context of human evolution and the cultural expectations we developed in that context), and involves a dramatically shorter lifespan (look up "Dickson's Mounds," for example).

...an embrace of bullshit primitive mysticism...

Well, I can somewhat confess to that, but I have to say, such an embrace came quite reluctantly, and only because the evidence overwhelmed me. Again, I cannot recommend Abram's Spell of the Sensuous heartily enough.

...and a general contempt for humanity.

Primitivism is the only outlook I've yet found that doesn't have such a contempt for humanity. It suggests that humanity, in its evolutionary context, is as harmless as a wolf pack or a pride of lions, that we have a place in this world and aren't some evil alien species just overrunning it, and that we can have that place again. It's the Hobbesian assumptions of civilization, or the unproven thought experiments of most anarchist "utopias," that I find such great contempt for humanity, and the unspoken assumption that we are the uniquely failed products of evolution. While the whole world around us operates with such beautiful, awe-inspiring wonder, we alone are so imperfect that we need dreamed-up schemes to make our species work, never mind our million year track record to the contrary. Now that is contempt for humanity.

There's also the fact that you fuckers keep calling yourselves anarchists when nine tenths of you don't know who Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Buenaventura Durruti, Nestor Makhno, Emma Goldman, or any of a long list of anarchist writers are

I consider myself "anarchist" only coincidentally (you'll note I've mostly called myself a "primitivist" here), in that I don't think humanity should have any kind of rule over it. But I am familiar with all of those people. I can't answer for anyone else, though, but you did say "jefgodesky's arguments in this thread are pretty much why anarchists laugh themselves silly at primitivists." In your elaboration, I don't see much about any arguments I've made.

You don't know what you're talking about. Tylenol isn't aspirin- it's an entirely different chemical called acetominophen.

You're right, I was wrong on that point. Acetominophen (a.k.a. paracetamol) was first synthesized when the cinchona tree became scarce, starting in the 1880s, in part due to over-harvesting for medicinal uses.
posted by jefgodesky at 3:42 PM on April 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


jefgodesky - do you have any data on what the average lifespan of pre-historic hunter-gatherers was? Because I've never seen anything that claimed it was anywhere near today's global average of around 60 years at birth.

And, yes, jonmc. We all get that jefgodesky is making claims about the superiority of a primitivist lifestyle without actually living one himself. We also all know by now that you don't understand why that is completely irrelevant to whether or not what he claims is true or not. Instead of boring us all with another emotional tirade, amuse yourself by reading this.
posted by bonecrusher at 3:43 PM on April 11, 2007


The primitivists are probably right. It's almost certainly the case that civilization has had a highly corrosive effect upon both humanity, as an object and an ideal, and the planet. At best one can make a utilitarian argument that 'net happiness has increased' but this is (1) likely not true (2) a stupid argument. And it's probably also the case that civilization will have even more damaging effects in the future. Even before global warming became popular it's become quite clear that we've entered into a kind of positive feedback loop resulting in ever increasing unsustainable growth, environmental damage, and debasing of human dignity. But all this being the case the primitivist prescribed solution just isn't very compelling. We don't have to resort to bullshit reasoning about population density (as if population density is a good thing to be sought after) or even silly claims that civilization is 'necessary' and 'inevitable'. In the face of primitivist critique we ought to come clean and just admit that we don't care. We want to play videogames and commute to work and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of over consumption. Nothing more and nothing less. This is our choice and if it leads to the destruction of the planet, so what? It's not like anybody else is using it. Humanity has explicitly chosen to reject the primitivist alternative and embrace a future that requires the domination and exploitation of the entire planet. We'll buy now and worry about tommorow never. Really the primitivists are just sore losers.
posted by nixerman at 3:53 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky - do you have any data on what the average lifespan of pre-historic hunter-gatherers was? Because I've never seen anything that claimed it was anywhere near today's global average of around 60 years at birth.

Indeed. I went through the data in detail in "Thesis #25: Civilization reduces quality of life," part of my Thirty Theses, which I wrote largely to avoid having the same discussions over and over again. I linked it above, when I first made the claim, but it was certainly easy enough to miss.

We want to play videogames and commute to work and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of over consumption. Nothing more and nothing less.

I hope you're wrong. I hope we really do still want real communities, even if we can't articulate that need, and that we look to video games and the like to fill in the void. I think humanity's evolutionary track record indicates that.
posted by jefgodesky at 3:56 PM on April 11, 2007


Indeed. I went through the data in detail in "Thesis #25: Civilization reduces quality of life," part of my Thirty Theses, which I wrote largely to avoid having the same discussions over and over again. I linked it above, when I first made the claim, but it was certainly easy enough to miss.

It may have reduced quality of life in the long term, but the past hundred years or so have been pretty sweet.
posted by delmoi at 4:09 PM on April 11, 2007



There's also the fact that you fuckers keep calling yourselves anarchists when nine tenths of you don't know who Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, Buenaventura Durruti, Nestor Makhno, Emma Goldman, or any of a long list of anarchist writers are (Bob Black and John Zerzan don't count). You're not anarchists, and sweet holy fuck am I sick of hearing about "green anarchy".


You call yourself an anarchist? That sounds like old-fashioned Leninist vanguardism and appeals to authority. Look, I'm an anarchist (though not emphatically a primitivist, I'm sympathetic to their arguments). I have heard of these people. But this bullshit you're spewing, threatening to take away people's anarchist party cards for not being educated on the ideological line of the Central Anarchist Committee, is pure authoritarianism.

I've read Bakunin, and I think he's an asshole who has no idea what he's really advocating. I've read the other people, and I do occasionally like Goldman and Kropotkin and Malatesta. I've read the literature from the Spanish Civil War that you people always bring up. And you know what? The FAI and the CNT weren't really anarchists in any sense I can morally support. They were proletarian-dictatorship kill-the-capitalists class-warfare advocating pseudo-Marxists who occasionally had the courage to tell Stalin to fuck off. One pamphlet I read (written by "anarchists") said, literally, that if the anarchist revolution in Spain were to survive it required a revolutionary junta to lead it, as well as an elaborate system of rationing. That's not anarchism.

As long as self-proclaimed anarchists keep trotting out the dozen or so anarchist apostles with some sort of holy reverence, anarchism will remain an entirely irrelevant movement masturbating over the days of its past glory. Anarcho-syndicalism was repeatedly demonstrated to be an ineffective strategy for toppling the State, yet you still think the Wobblies and the Emma Goldmans and whatnot represent your Golden Age.

I guess it just goes to show that even the most avowedly antifascist philosophy still attracts the authoritarian personality type. I wish they would go poison the well somewhere else, but they don't, so I stay away from your godforsaken movement.
posted by nasreddin at 4:09 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


"For an individual Native American, chewing on willow bark is as effective as aspirin. "

I'd be willing to guess that if you performed a small study, and asked any indigenous peoples "would you prefer this tasty glop of willow bark here, or these two little white buffered aspirins, and a nice cup of tasty tap water," I'd be willing to guess that the number of takers of the former would be darned near zero.

I'd further be willing to bet that this would hold true with nearly any modern amenity, be it toilet paper, antibiotics, ballpoint pens, or individually wrapped snack sized granola bars.

You won't find anyone from an indigenous society, developing nation, what have you sitting back smugly all like "you guys can keep your polycotton blends and ipods, I'm totally stoked on dugout canoes, malaria, and tooth decay, thx."

All this neo-nativist anarchic stuff is intellectually masturbatory bs propagated by a bunch of upper middle class pseudo-intellectuals who've never had a cut that became terribly infected, or a broken bone that wasn't properly set, or really gone without the basic modern amenities they take so for granted, and that are a direct result of society, technology, and progress.
posted by stenseng at 4:24 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]



I'd be willing to guess that if you performed a small study, and asked any indigenous peoples "would you prefer this tasty glop of willow bark here, or these two little white buffered aspirins, and a nice cup of tasty tap water," I'd be willing to guess that the number of takers of the former would be darned near zero.


Please read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and come back. Thought experiments about hypothetical primitives have been invoked far too often in this thread, and, as jefgodesky has shown, have essentially zero relationship to reality.

The reason relying on these thought experiments is so dangerous is that it leads us to depend on false conclusions suggested by our own prejudices, which are of course heavily skewed toward our own way of life. It's always this sort of argument:

1. Everyone everywhere thinks like I do.
2. I like modern medicine and if there weren't a government, I'd be killin' people all over the place, yeehaw.
3. Therefore, in a society without government and modern medicine, everyone will be suffering and killing people.

There needs to be a substantial amount of empirical evidence for premise 1 before this argument can legitimately be made. The extant empirical evidence points squarely toward premise 1 being false.
posted by nasreddin at 4:31 PM on April 11, 2007


1. Everyone everywhere thinks like I do.
2. I like modern medicine and if there weren't a government, I'd be killin' people all over the place, yeehaw.
3. Therefore, in a society without government and modern medicine, everyone will be suffering and killing people.

There needs to be a substantial amount of empirical evidence for premise 1 before this argument can legitimately be made. The extant empirical evidence points squarely toward premise 1 being false.


Agreed. Unfortunately, it is the falsity of 1 that leads to the likelihood of 3.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:35 PM on April 11, 2007


Unfortunately, it is the falsity of 1 that leads to the likelihood of 3.

That's pretty glib, IRFH. The anarchist argument is that not having a massive state makes it a lot more difficult to persuade millions of people to kill and die for their beliefs.
posted by nasreddin at 4:39 PM on April 11, 2007


It may have reduced quality of life in the long term, but the past hundred years or so have been pretty sweet.

Over the past hundred years, the most industrialized elites have enjoyed a quality of life roughly on par with (but probably not exceeding) that of hunter-gatherers. They have done so by essentially appropriating the quality of life of the majority of the world, and they have done so with intense sacrifices in areas like stress and social isolation.

I'd be willing to guess that if you performed a small study, and asked any indigenous peoples "would you prefer this tasty glop of willow bark here, or these two little white buffered aspirins, and a nice cup of tasty tap water," I'd be willing to guess that the number of takers of the former would be darned near zero.

I'd guess the same, because most Native Americans today have about as much experience with willow bark as you do (I presume, none). For myself, I much prefer the willow bark--same effect, without the side effects.

You won't find anyone from an indigenous society, developing nation, what have you sitting back smugly all like "you guys can keep your polycotton blends and ipods, I'm totally stoked on dugout canoes, malaria, and tooth decay, thx."

Malaria comes from the mosquitos who nest in ponds formed from tropical agricultural practices. Tooth decay sets in from high-carbohydrate, agricultural diets. Both appear with civilization.

But you do find many, many indigenous societies that prefer their way of life, often fiercely. Historically, most indigenous societies have preferred death to civilization. The only position worse than inside civilization is to be caught on its periphery, and you do see some societies trapped in that particular hell preferring to be wholly civilized, rather than caught between. But among the Ju/'hoansi, it's become a proverb: "Why would we farm, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

...who've never had a cut that became terribly infected, or a broken bone that wasn't properly set, or really gone without the basic modern amenities they take so for granted, and that are a direct result of society, technology, and progress.

If that's all thanks to "progress," how ever did humanity survive its first million years? If every scrape meant death by infection, if no broken bone could ever be set. Every primitive society on the planet can deal with these problems as easily as we do. They are the result of society and technology, but that "progress" happened long, long ago. I'm a big fan of society, and yes, even technology. What I don't like is civilization, because of its unhealthy attitude towards technology (namely, it always needs more of it), and the way it twists society (we invent societies to improve human life, but civilization twists humans into an anti-social society).

Agreed. Unfortunately, it is the falsity of 1 that leads to the likelihood of 3.

Which is why Homo erectus, without the benevolent and wise rule of a government, immediately slaughtered each other, putting an end to the human experiment at its very beginning. The end.
posted by jefgodesky at 4:45 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thought experiments about hypothetical primitives have been invoked far too often in this thread, and, as jefgodesky has shown, have essentially zero relationship to reality.

Good point. But in reality -- primitive people exposed to Western technology that they find useful don't exactly cast it aside in principled disgust. They find uses for Western technology. And they are not above using it to gain advantage over local rivals.

There was an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea who flew in to his assignment on the very first airplane the locals had ever seen. The headsman, the chief, whatever you want to call him, found the airplane quite fascinating. He asked the anthropologist to take him for a ride on that airplane. The anthropologist wanted to make a good impression on the local people in order to do his work. So they set a time and a place for the flight.

At the time of the flight, the chieftan showed up with two strong young men carrying BIG rocks. The anthropologist said Hey, what's the deal here. The chieftan said Oh, I'd like for you to fly over that village over there. We're going to drop these rocks on them.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:46 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Modern amenities and medical miracles aside, the reality is that anarchist thought is as much bunk as is hardline socialist thought, as is dogmatic laissez faire market driven capitalism, in that it's flat out disconnected from the realities of human nature. The reality is that people are not all gentle souls, sharing caring tranquil flowers.

The reality is that some people like power, they can be fuckers, and they will screw you over given opportunity. I'm not saying all people, or even a majority, but enough so that any sort of reduction to tribalist social structures, or even further to pure governing body-less anarchy, simply means that there ain't anyone watching your back when some asshole decides he wants your stuff, your house, your land, your wife, husband, child, whatever.

No press to cover the story, no police to protect you, no government to seek redress of grievances.

Anarchism is stupid. It's stupid in the same dreamy way these other masturbatory "isms" are stupid, in that they aren't realistic, and will likely just end up getting a lot of people killed if put into practice. Luckily, Anarchism hasn't gotten the traction that hardcore communism or capitalism have, likely because it's so absurd and counter to human nature on it's face.
posted by stenseng at 4:52 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Guns. Germs. Steel.
posted by everichon at 4:53 PM on April 11, 2007


Good point. But in reality -- primitive people exposed to Western technology that they find useful don't exactly cast it aside in principled disgust. They find uses for Western technology. And they are not above using it to gain advantage over local rivals.

Absolutely. As I mentioned above, humans are innately human. Introduce civilized goods, and you've changed the cultural context, so you change the behavior. The "nobility" of "savages" is not an innate racial trait; to the extent that it's real, it's the product of a human in a human context, i.e., a tribe or band.

But they also haven't always adopted any and all civilized tools--only the ones they found useful. Just as often, they've turned down offers, again not out of any kind of principle, but because their own ways work better. Indigenous people tend to be pre-eminently practical.

At the time of the flight, the chieftan showed up with two strong young men carrying BIG rocks. The anthropologist said Hey, what's the deal here. The chieftan said Oh, I'd like for you to fly over that village over there. We're going to drop these rocks on them.

Sounds about right. Firstly, of course, this is Papua New Guinea, one of the original sites of the Agricultural Revolution, and it hosts some of the most warlike societies on the planet. But more generally, one of the bulwarks that maintains peace between primitive societies is the inability to do lasting damage to one another. Given the opportunity, any tribe would take it. That's how our civilization got started; or, how an algae bloom starts, or how the reindeer herd acted on St. Matthew's Island.

Modern amenities and medical miracles aside, the reality is that anarchist thought is as much bunk as is hardline socialist thought, as is dogmatic laissez faire market driven capitalism, in that it's flat out disconnected from the realities of human nature.

Yeah, human evolution is just flat out disconnected from the realities of human nature!
posted by jefgodesky at 4:55 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not being glib at all (unusual for me, I know). I was being dead serious. It is the fact that people are not the same that practically guarantees that no matter how idyllic and well-behaved some percentage of the population becomes, there will always be plenty of other nasty people out there ready, willing, and able to take advantage of them. This is not an excuse to be one of the bad guys, but ignoring the fact that our ideals - whatever they may be - will never be acceptable to some significant portion of the planet would be folly. Therefore I see this statement...

The anarchist argument is that not having a massive state makes it a lot more difficult to persuade millions of people to kill and die for their beliefs.

...and conclude that the "anarchist argument" has no answer for self defense in the face of massive states that can persuade millions of people to kill and die for their beliefs.

That's a sad conclusion, and pessimistic, no doubt - but not at all glib. I am writing this hurriedly, though, as I'm about to run out the door, so hopefully I'm expressing myself okay and this doesn't come off as dismissive. Like I said above, I'm sympathetic to the ideal, I just can't find a way to believe in it. I'll check in later to see if I totally screwed up how that came out. Cheers.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:58 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Before I go to far here, I want to get a better picture of what it is you're actually advocating, jeff.

What I'm saying is a: you can't put the genie back in the bottle, no matter how swell you hypothesize it might be. THAT is human evolution. That's not to say that we can't think about and work toward better ways to live (that is also human evolution,) but if you think we're all gonna give up the medicine, the social safety net, and the cool stuff, to go back to being nomadic hunter gatherers living in yurts, you're off your willow bark prescription...
posted by stenseng at 5:00 PM on April 11, 2007



The reality is that some people like power, they can be fuckers, and they will screw you over given opportunity. I'm not saying all people, or even a majority, but enough so that any sort of reduction to tribalist social structures, or even further to pure governing body-less anarchy, simply means that there ain't anyone watching your back when some asshole decides he wants your stuff, your house, your land, your wife, husband, child, whatever.


....except that in a governmental system, the asshole who wants power gets to be president and then use the authority of a million people with guns to dispossess me of my life, liberty, and property.

You're retreading a tired anti-"noble savage" argument that we dealt with long ago, in this thread and others. If you can't be bothered to follow the discussion, why even comment?
posted by nasreddin at 5:00 PM on April 11, 2007


and b: "At the time of the flight, the chieftan showed up with two strong young men carrying BIG rocks. The anthropologist said Hey, what's the deal here. The chieftan said Oh, I'd like for you to fly over that village over there. We're going to drop these rocks on them."

see what I mean about people being dicks?
posted by stenseng at 5:02 PM on April 11, 2007


Agreed. Unfortunately, it is the falsity of 1 that leads to the likelihood of 3.

Which is why Homo erectus, without the benevolent and wise rule of a government, immediately slaughtered each other, putting an end to the human experiment at its very beginning. The end.


That's not the argument and you know it. The same argument from your side would be

Which is why Homo erectus, without the benevolent and wise rule of a government, never committed murder again, putting an end to human violence at its very beginning. The end.

Conflating extremes not argued do nothing to defend your points.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:03 PM on April 11, 2007


stenseng - "you guys can keep your polycotton blends and ipods, I'm totally stoked on dugout canoes, malaria, and tooth decay, thx."

Tooth decay is the result of civilization. Hunter-gatherers don't suffer from it - you only get it if you eat high-starch, agricultural foods. I'm not sure about malaria - pandemic disease is a feature of civilization, though. You typically need large, dense populations to sustain disease (and they often originate in livestock). But malaria apparently affects chimpanzees as well, so who knows. Still, as an argument for the superiority of civilization, "freedom from malaria" has some pretty obvious problems.

jefgodesky -

You've got your lifespan stats wrong. You're comparing world life expectancy at birth to Ache life expectancy at 45. The document you cite quotes it Ache life expectancy at birth to be 37. Higher than pre-industrial agricultural lifespan, but much lower than modern lifespans. I accept that the fact that modern hunter-gatherers have been driven to harsher environments and it's not exactly a fair comparison.
posted by bonecrusher at 5:03 PM on April 11, 2007


"....except that in a governmental system, the asshole who wants power gets to be president and then use the authority of a million people with guns to dispossess me of my life, liberty, and property.

You're retreading a tired anti-"noble savage" argument that we dealt with long ago, in this thread and others. If you can't be bothered to follow the discussion, why even comment?"

Because, I think that the fact that in a non-governmental anarchist society, the asshole who wants power can just shove a knife in your gut personally, is a salient point.
posted by stenseng at 5:04 PM on April 11, 2007



...and conclude that the "anarchist argument" has no answer for self defense in the face of massive states that can persuade millions of people to kill and die for their beliefs.


I agree with this to an extent (read up on social defense, though). But jefgodesky made a great point when he said that the current competitive advantage of a massive civilization will inevitably vanish once the system reaches a state of collapse. Even if it doesn't, though, I'm an anarchist on a moral basis; realistically, achieving significant structural change is impossible, whether as anarchists or as democratic socialists or liberals or conservatives (I have many justifications for this claim, but it's a derail and a very nasty argument to get into), so I defend the position which seems most defensible to me.

you can't put the genie back in the bottle

There is a car with no brakes. People are yelling, "Get on or get out of the way! You can't stop this!" Eventually the car runs out of gas and smashes into a wall, leaving all the people inside in a pile of gooey bits.
posted by nasreddin at 5:10 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty:
...an embrace of bullshit primitive mysticism...

jefgodesky:

Well, I can somewhat confess to that, but I have to say, such an embrace came quite reluctantly, and only because the evidence overwhelmed me. Again, I cannot recommend Abram's Spell of the Sensuous heartily enough.


Wowwwww, this is like, the entire argument we're trying to have, contained right here, in this one point. It all really comes down to identity... none of us can see the future or the past. Thus none of us can make any of the claims we have been making with certainty, yet we make them with double the ferocity to make up for the certainty we lack. Jefgodesky is smart, smarter than most of us sheltered Mefi-ites as evidenced by his cool demeanor and rational poise, but he can't persuade any of us. The reason is, he is coming from a fundamentally different place from all of us... not in personal background but in identity, in his interpretation of spiritual "truth". He identifies with a form of spirituality which many of us just simply don't accept, a spirituality that says...hey!! we can perform miracles like shamans of old, we can use magic and enchanted rings, we can bark at the moon, like, like WOLVES I say.... ARF! ARF!!! Why, this is a kind of spirituality that civilized people have been occupied in hammering out for the past several millenia! Nevertheless... he's thrown himself to it, dedicated himself to it, and none of us can change his mind. Most of us haven't had the same personal connection with "civilization" as he has had with "primitivism", at least on such a conscious level, because civilization has already attained a state of hegemony. And as such, Jefgodesky's struggle is a very personal struggle, an uphill battle, a sort of jihad, even. He may be fighting it his entire life. Very inspiring.
posted by Laugh_track at 5:10 PM on April 11, 2007


"Isms", in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an "ism". He should believe in himself. John Lennon said it on his first solo album. "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me."
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:16 PM on April 11, 2007


Look, an anarchist society does not depend on people being angels, whatever John Adams may say. The point of anarchism is to reduce the concentration of power so that people's assholery has the smallest possible impact on the smallest number of people. If Hitler was limited to killing only the Jews he could kill with his own hands, the Holocaust would be only blip (20 or even 100 dead Jews, while tragic, is nowhere near 6 million).

Anarchists don't claim to solve for every bad thing imaginable; at least, the responsible ones don't. Murder will still happen, theft will still happen. But in the world today, individual crimes are dwarfed by massive structural calamities caused directly by states or corporations.

Of course, an anarchist society based around communities has strong ways to resist individual violence; look at the Thomas Jefferson quote above for an example.
posted by nasreddin at 5:17 PM on April 11, 2007


Laugh_track: Your lack of a grasp of basic principles of argumentation (appeal to ridicule) is astounding. You are nowhere near as funny as you seem to think you are.
posted by nasreddin at 5:19 PM on April 11, 2007


It is the fact that people are not the same that practically guarantees that no matter how idyllic and well-behaved some percentage of the population becomes, there will always be plenty of other nasty people out there ready, willing, and able to take advantage of them.

For a million years, humanity evolved in egalitarian bands. A million. By contrast, the "nasty people" have been running things only for the past 10,000. That's one one-hundredth of our time on this planet. 1%. Obviously, something is amiss in your thought experiment, some element you haven't considered.

And sure enough, a cursory examination of the egalitarian societies that still exist today show us what it is. Cultural context. If there's no material wealth that can be hoarded up, then wealth takes on an entirely different meaning. Everything--economy, education, health--all of it is embedded in a social context. Wealth becomes a matter of social connection. In our context, someone who wants power will lie, steal, cheat and kill, because really, that's what our civilization rewards. We build up laws because we need artificial disincentives to balance the fact that the basic nature of civilization rewards such behavior. Take the same greedy bastard and drop him in a hunter-gatherer context, and the very same self-serving greed in this context motivates him to tend to the sick, share everything he has, act generously and kindly with everyone he can, in order to build a big network of social capital, because in that cultural context, that's what wealth is.

Same person, all that changes is context. And that suggests a basic model of human history, because it means that humans "work" as much as any other animal species, until we were removed from our cultural context by the radical departure of the Agricultural Revolution, and began building societies maladapted to us. It's nothing more or less than a "square peg, round hole" problem. In a few hundred thousand years, we'll adapt to such a radical departure fully, and the problem will be resolved. That is, if we can survive that long. But the ecological unsustainability that follows from so many humans living in such a dehumanizing fashion will almost certainly preclude that possibility.

...but if you think we're all gonna give up the medicine, the social safety net, and the cool stuff, to go back to being nomadic hunter gatherers living in yurts, you're off your willow bark prescription...

Voluntarily, probably not. But because all "the cool stuff" is based in such a wildly unsustainable way of life, it's going to go away. The efficacy of primitive lifestyles is why we can have hope for the future. I wish we could convince people of that, as it could greatly reduce the kind of "gigadeath" overshoot scenarios like this invariably lead to, but I'm afraid I don't share Richard Heinberg's optimism. I'd love to think Powerdown is possible, and I've done everything I can to help try to make it so, but I agree with you that it's just not plausible. When civilization inevitably consumes itself, I fear most people will die rather than consider other ways of life.

That's not the argument and you know it.

It very much is. I'm not saying primitive life was perfect, I'm just saying it was at least as good, and often better. More immediately, I'm saying that our very existence here proves that government is not necessary. If it were, if you were right, then how did we survive to this point? If we need government, how do you explain the million years we went without one?

You've got your lifespan stats wrong.

Not wrong, I argued at some length why I used the "at 45" figures. Many of these societies view infanticide the way we view abortion. We have differing views of when life begins in our own society, so why would we expect it to hold cross-culturally? Counting infanticide is unfair, it skews the numbers heavily in our favor. You might as well count all abortions in our own average as negatives, like this Christian pro-life group did.

Laugh track,

I mentioned a book in there. Abram has a PhD in philosophy, and in The Spell of the Sensuous, he comes to animism through an examination of phenomenology. Moreover, my spiritual beliefs are tangential (albeit supportive) to the arguments I'm making here. You'll notice I haven't said much in this thread about "magic and enchanted rings." Instead, I've kept it to evidence that applies as much to you as it does to me. I've had my mind changed by a good argument before; I wasn't raised as a primitivist, after all. I came to my conclusions because the evidence convinced me, and if I found compelling evidence to the contrary, I would do so again. I'm no stranger to changing my mind, even on publicly stated opinions, when the evidence is there. This thread has been rather heated, and while some might have tried to dodge it, I was quite forthright upthread when I admitted that I was wrong about acetominophen. So please, if you disagree with me, give me the reasons why, but please don't patronize me.
posted by jefgodesky at 5:22 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, this has been something.
I certainly can't set myself up as an authority (ho ho), but I've been in and around the anarchist movement for decades now. I came to it from a very different perspective to the primitivists, and whilst I have learned a few things from their writings, politically I'm a long way from them despite the name. The lack of a party line is both a strength and a weakness - I think primitivism is actually something other than what I call anarchism.
I also disagree with nasreddin's critique up-thread. It's not about an appeal to authority, it's about building on a history and a tradition. If you see fit to discount that tradition because it didn't topple the state, or sieze power, you're to my mind effectively condemning the utility of a braod swathe of progressive action. One thing I think the history of human progress teaches us is that apparent defeats may move us forward, and apparent victories hold us back or worse.
For me what counts with anarchism is the rigorous critique of power, the theories of organisation and emphasis on justice. It's also about linking means and ends. At its best it seems to me closest to the ideal of liberation enacted by us all as equals. I don't see it as a rejection of civilisation but rather as its next best move forward.
The insights and values of the anarchist legacy have informed my work in social development and other justice issues in China. They've enabled constructive solutions to real-world problems in the here and now. Most of all, I still believe that it, or something very like it, is how liberation will come if it comes at all.
posted by Abiezer at 5:23 PM on April 11, 2007


It's not about an appeal to authority, it's about building on a history and a tradition. If you see fit to discount that tradition because it didn't topple the state, or sieze power, you're to my mind effectively condemning the utility of a braod swathe of progressive action.

I'm not saying all tradition is bad (I'm a historian, fer chrissake!). I'm saying that the contemporary anarchist movement has a myopic focus on a half-dozen big names, familiarity with which is a prerequisite to being taken seriously. I think this attitude is authoritarian and counterproductive.
posted by nasreddin at 5:32 PM on April 11, 2007


I might be tempted to join an anarcho-syndicalist commune now, if only one were near me. But primitivism? Eh. I am not sure that any of your pre-agricultural societies came up with such awesomeness as Everquest, board games, Battlestar Galactica, comic books, and disk golf. So that's a strike against them.

And maybe tribal living provides all sorts of intangible benefits about connectedness and sharing and interpersonal networks. Well, that might work for some, but for the most part I can scarcely stand to be around people. So the appeal of a primitivist culture based on mutual support and a rich social life is completely lost on me.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 5:44 PM on April 11, 2007


You'd rather get a traditional remedy for coronary artery blockage rather than an anticoagulant or a bypass?

Well, in a primitive society, I'd never have that coronary artery blockage to begin with, which I find much preferable, don't you?



Wow, that whole comment is spectacularly misinformed. First of all, coronary artery disease, caused by high cholesterol, is more often the result of genetics than diet. Many people can't control their cholesterol even through diet, because they genetically produce too much. So you don't have a choice. Same with many cancers - many are the result of genetic predispositions.

The reason primitive people don't get these conditions is because they die so early these conditions haven't had time to manifest.

Furthermore you're point about measles, smallpox, and polio being the result of contact with animals is idiotic for two reasons. One, they are ancient diseases - the Egyptians suffered from polio. Second, you are descended from Europeans and live in a world where these diseases exist. Whether or not isolated primitive societies would have these diseases is irrelevant - you personally would get these disease if vaccines didn't exist, assuming you parents didn't get killed off by them before conceiving you.

Finally, your attempt to convince people here that the life expectancy of these cultures was 60 is intellectually dishonest. This is what you say on your site:
It does not weight the average with abortions, for example, even though there is disagreement even within our own culture of when life begins. Given such disagreement, we should not be terribly surprised to learn that other cultures have different measures of when life begins. Foraging cultures, for example, often believe that life begins at age two, and thus classify infanticide and abortion in the same category. Children are often not named or considered persons until that time.
Life expectancy is a simple concept. The ways of measuring it are completely objective. The paragraph in your article that follows the one quoted here is even worse. You cite how much longer people of a certain age are likely to live, without considering what percentage of people reach that age. And have you ever heard of an actuarial table, because I think you read that Jones 2002 article wrong.

It may surprise you to learn that in the US in 2003, a 65 year old person could expect to live another 17 years to 82. And that is increasing.

Your point about me being ethnocentric is ridiculous. I'm not glossing over the negative aspects of Western culture. But you take the position that primitive culture is superior in every positive characteristic someone brings up. Isn't that ethnocentric? Or do you get a pass because you're a Westerner and the culture you champion isn't your own?
posted by Pastabagel at 5:45 PM on April 11, 2007


Pastabagel typed "It takes a lifetime of study to understand why a Mozart symphony is qualitatively different that a polyphonic pygmy song."

Actually, the sophistication and complexity of indigenous music is pretty much the best argument we have against all this "primitive" bullshit.

Tuvian throat singing != the guy outside Rainbow Grocery playing the didgery-doo.
posted by roll truck roll at 5:54 PM on April 11, 2007


nasreddin - fair enough, but if you take the name, to my mind it does imply you are in part laying claim to the legacy, and so it behoves you to understand it. Otherwise, why the association?
posted by Abiezer at 5:57 PM on April 11, 2007


By the way, I love it how linking to Wikipedia is like the new code for "you're dumb."
posted by roll truck roll at 5:59 PM on April 11, 2007


Wowee, what a pile-on. In college I remember learning from the great Robert Murphy that hunter-gatherers work less than farmers. What he didn't mention was that, to convert to such a way of life today would necessitate cutting the population down by, oh, ninety percent or so. Tell me how the millions in Manhattan, Shanghai, or Bombay are going to collect enough nuts to feed their families in those 10 hours a week.

Many green anarchists promote and practice getting in touch with and rekindling dormant or underutilized methods of interaction and cognition, such as touch, smell, and telepathy, as well as experimenting with and developing unique and personal modes of comprehension and expression.


Why wasn't their Website content submitted telepathically, then?
posted by QuietDesperation at 6:00 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Abiezer - I think it's an attitude that harms understanding because it prevents critical and pragmatic examination of their ideas; count how many times Bakunin is name-checked versus how many times he is intelligently critiqued. There are many fascinating anarchist (and related) thinkers who go completely ignored because people interpret anarchism to be Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and the Wobblies. I think it's important to be aware of their theories, but at some point you have to accept that the One Big Union/general strike strategy belongs to the world of 1930, not 2007.
posted by nasreddin at 6:05 PM on April 11, 2007


Thanks for this! I never quite grasped how intellectually dishonest and hypocritical these people are. Reading their stuff is just...wow.
posted by kjs3 at 6:08 PM on April 11, 2007


using Maxwell’s equation of time travel if all of reality is based on my INCOMPLETE rpg, HYBRID, which I’m unsuccessfully trying to complete, which is NOT easy, considering I have only a few points to play with.

Whoa.
posted by nasreddin at 6:15 PM on April 11, 2007


That was intended for this thread...I swear....
posted by nasreddin at 6:16 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky: This is kinda sorta not really true. When a civilization is in its anabolic growth stage, no primitive society can withstand it. It is driven to consume all other ways of life, even if the individuals in it might not want to. However, in catabolic collapse, the trend reverses itself, and primitive societies prosper over civilized ones.

Primitive societies can never prosper over civilized ones. The simple fact of the matter is that a thousand or so modern troops could completely eradicate a primitive civilization. If the technological civilization starts to fail because of environmental destruction and the primitive civilization is thriving, they'll simply be slaughtered and the technological civilization will move in and claim their land. The two can never co-exist unless the technological civilization is able to thrive.

No, primitivism cannot support 6.5 billion people, but then, nothing can.


I disagree. There's nothing fundamentally impossible about keeping 6.5 billion people alive on the Earth - it violates no conservation or thermodynamic laws. We simply have to learn how to do it. Furthermore, we could slowly reduce our population over time through reproductive controls, and thus arrive at a lower population without mass death.

Depends on the technology in question. Technology arises when it is useful, and when it is possible. Today, there are no more near-surface deposits of fossil fuels or economic metals; that's why we mine so deeply for them.

Did you somehow forget that we've covered the surface of the planet in refined metal? And we made it up to the middle ages without relying too heavily on fossil fuels. The lack of oil would slow down civilization, but it wouldn't stop it, and they'd have an easier time recycling our trash than we had mining it in the first place.

They have before. We have cave art from 40,000 years ago in Europe, and older in Africa. The Bushmen painted rock art 2,000 years ago, and they still know what it means. Anthropologists couldn't figure them out until they finally asked the natives. Oral tradition is extremely effective, in some ways even more effective than writing. See Ong's Literality & Orality.

Selection bias. A tiny proportion of information survived, and we know about them. The vast majority of ancient knowledge is gone.

Furthermore, that's only a few thousand years - your plan would have to work for hundreds of thousands of years.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:23 PM on April 11, 2007


nasreddin - that I wouldn't disagree with, and I certainly don't pretend to be a great student of some canon myself. Tactics should suit the situation and times; there's lessons to learn in that regard from history, but I freely admit much of what I've got out of my none-too-wide reading is about a moral compass and a spirit.
Anarchism to me means building. To my mind industrial capitalism (be it free market or state) has done a bang-up job of tearing the old world down (and I suppose hence one source of the primitivist response), so as it's always been, it's time to build a better one. There's no shame and much to gain if that starts with small things and everyday life where we are now.
posted by Abiezer at 6:35 PM on April 11, 2007


You don't need to be ruled to be oppressed, hurf durf.
posted by tehloki at 6:56 PM on April 11, 2007


I will admit that I am somewhat sympathetic to the primitivist argument. That said, I have to say I'm quite disappointed in the quality of discussion put forth by the opponents of primitivism here. This thread has been filled with insults, jibes, pointless attacks, and opinion touted as fact. Almost no one has countered jefgodesky's statements with evidence or fact or anything, relying instead on emotional response...not even anecdotes.

I find it wholly ironic that of the people arguing here, the person who is arguing against civilization is the one who has behaved in the most civilized manner.
posted by nightchrome at 7:12 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


And I find it amusing that you choose to praise him in terms he'd likely reject (arf - I'm sure jefgodesky will continue to speak eloquently for himself).
posted by Abiezer at 7:18 PM on April 11, 2007


I don't know that I would call myself a primitivist, but I do have a lot more sympathy for their arguments than most here. (Mostly, what I am is an environmentalist of the tree-hugging deep green sort, and to paraphrase one noted primitivist, "I want to see a world where every year, there are more wild salmon than the year before." If that's possible to achieve in the context of our current civilization, wonderful, I'm all for it, and will support whatever might bring it about, but I have to say I'm not optimistic about it.) A few thoughts on reading this thread-

- I swear, so many strawmen have perished in this thread that some sort of memorial plaque should be erected here. jefgodesky may indeed have an idealized view of hunter-gatherer life, but he's also pretty much the only one posting in this thread who gives the impression of having studied them at all. This thread could have been so much better if he'd had an opponent in this debate who was also a student of anthropology. As it is, when you have a debate, and one person is calmly making his arguments and backing it up with cites, and almost everyone else is hurling insults and falling back on what basically seems to amount to stuff that they just "know"(like the tooth decay thing), well, it doesn't make the latter group look like the one with truth on their side. Doesn't necessarily mean the former does, but...

- nasreddin's critique of the anarchist movement upthread summed up a lot of the problems I have with it. I don't know why a certain type of authoritarian personality is so attracted to anarchism, but I've definitely noticed what he describes. I also liked his car analogy, which goes to one of the misunderstandings I think people have about primitivism- the goal of it isn't imposing itself on all 6.5 billion people in the world now, it's more about preparing for what happens after the car crashes.

- Sadly, I think nixerman might be ultimately be the most correct person in the whole thread, and it applies to me as much as anyone else.
posted by a louis wain cat at 7:25 PM on April 11, 2007


I am not sure that any of your pre-agricultural societies came up with such awesomeness as Everquest, board games, Battlestar Galactica, comic books, and disk golf. So that's a strike against them.

Read some of the oral traditions of hunter-gatherers, and you'll see where Battlestar Galactica got its start. You know what they did with their prodigious free time? Storytelling, and lots and lots of gambling.

Well, that might work for some, but for the most part I can scarcely stand to be around people. So the appeal of a primitivist culture based on mutual support and a rich social life is completely lost on me.

I'll bet good money that that's mostly because your relationships with the people in question are so shallow that you get nothing from the exchange, and that if you think back, the best moments of your life all revolve around relating to another person.

The reason primitive people don't get these conditions is because they die so early these conditions haven't had time to manifest.

Wow, that whole comment is spectacularly misinformed. Primitive peoples live as long as we do. They don't get coronary disease because even with genetics against you, diet and lifestyle is more than enough to keep cholesterol in proper alignment. And hunter-gatherers tend to have spectacularly high cholesterol--yet they don't get coronary disease, even when they're older than us (as they often are). We don't fully understand everything that goes into coronary disease, though I remember forgetting a good reason for this that we covered in my old Anthropology of Food course years back.

One, they are ancient diseases - the Egyptians suffered from polio.

Oh, right, and I forgot that the Egyptians didn't have domesticated animals! It's been well-established that most of our epidemics are zoonotic. Polio is a rare case; it's actually not, it's just so easy to develop an immunity that most babies do in the first two weeks, before their mother's blood (and its antibodies) have cycled out. It's telling that the Egyptian case you're referring to was a priest, from the upper class. Polio only became a problem as a backlash from the hygiene efforts in the 1900s to try to combat cholera. Suddenly, babies were being born in conditions clean enough that they wouldn't encounter polio until they were weeks, months, or even years old. A fine example of how even our greatest technological achievements yield unexpected new problems.

Whether or not isolated primitive societies would have these diseases is irrelevant - you personally would get these disease if vaccines didn't exist, assuming you parents didn't get killed off by them before conceiving you.

Granted, but without a proper population density, most of these diseases die out pretty quickly, too.

Finally, your attempt to convince people here that the life expectancy of these cultures was 60 is intellectually dishonest.

I think your attempt to ramble over cultural differences is far more intellectually dishonest. Applying our standards of longevity to other cultures without considering differences in cultural beliefs about things like infanticide and abortion doesn't prove anything but that our culture says we're the best. That's to be expected; it's ethnocentrism. Every culture believes it's the best. If you don't overcome those obstacles, then you're not trying to learn anything, you're just doing apologetics for your culture.

Your point about me being ethnocentric is ridiculous. I'm not glossing over the negative aspects of Western culture. But you take the position that primitive culture is superior in every positive characteristic someone brings up. Isn't that ethnocentric? Or do you get a pass because you're a Westerner and the culture you champion isn't your own?

All I hear from you is how Europe is better than everyone else in the world at everything. There are more than two cultures in the world: it isn't "Europe" vs. "not Europe." There are thousands of cultures in the world; if Europe were the best even at just one thing, it would be exceptional. That you seem to believe it has the only science, the only art, the only philosophy that mankind has ever produced that's worth anything isn't just glossing over the negative, it's the very definition of ethnocentrism.
Primitive societies can never prosper over civilized ones.
Shall I tell Romulus Augustulus that Rome never actually fell, or would you like to?
If the technological civilization starts to fail because of environmental destruction and the primitive civilization is thriving, they'll simply be slaughtered and the technological civilization will move in and claim their land.
That wouldn't make any sense, any more than the U.S. is eying the Kalahari today. Civilization cannot turn the same resources foragers use for themselves. It's useless to them.

There's nothing fundamentally impossible about keeping 6.5 billion people alive on the Earth - it violates no conservation or thermodynamic laws. We simply have to learn how to do it.

No, it doesn't violate any fundamental laws of physics, but simply because you'd very much like there to be one doesn't mean that there's a way for us to learn. I doubt very much that any such way exists, and the fact that we've yet to come up with one, despite the massive pressure to do so, is certainly telling. To believe that there must be a way that we just have to discover is a pretty glaring faith in exceptionalism. Did the reindeer of St. Matthew's Island have a way they simply missed? Does an algae bloom?

Furthermore, we could slowly reduce our population over time through reproductive controls, and thus arrive at a lower population without mass death.

The Powerdown scenario. I hope it's possible to transition back to a primitive way of life so easily, but I doubt it. In the meantime, spreading primitivism is probably the best way to actually achieve that end, if it's possible at all. Permaculture, and beginning to move some populations towards hunting and gathering, are the best chance we have for a gradual descent, but I'm afraid as a practical matter, I find even that unlikely.

Did you somehow forget that we've covered the surface of the planet in refined metal?

Mostly steel alloys, which require temperatures much too hot to work in a primitive fire. Metal rusts, and when it does, it becomes lower quality than regular ore. The quality of ore operates a lot like EROEI: it sets a very important limit to a society's possible technological level.

And we made it up to the middle ages without relying too heavily on fossil fuels.

Yes, largely with metals, for which we had regular ore. We also used coal to get hotter fires to work harder metals, which won't be available on the second round. You can work iron in charcoal, but the only good source of iron will be bog iron, and that will place some strict limits on iron production.

The lack of oil would slow down civilization, but it wouldn't stop it...

No, soil exhaustion would do that. In their usual evolutionary context, plants grow together. Some put chemicals into the ground, and others take those same chemicals out. When you monocrop, you kill the soil, because all the plants are putting all the same chemicals in the ground--same reason why locking yourself in the garage with a running car is hazardous to your health. Under a blanket of natural gas-derived fertilizers, the Great Plains are already a desert. The Green Revolution came just in time, under market pressure because we'd run out of land to move onto. There's very little land left that's good for agriculture without fertilizers from fossil fuels.

That's the short term. In the long term (century plus), we're looking at the end of the Holocene thanks to global warming. Agriculture is uniquely suited to the Holocene, and with the end of this interglacial, we're really looking at the end of a global climate friendly to such things, even when the soil eventually regenerates.

Selection bias. A tiny proportion of information survived, and we know about them. The vast majority of ancient knowledge is gone.

Sure doesn't seem that way. Can you prove it? If so, you'll be absolutely overturning a good chunk of anthropology, so there's probably a good bit of fame and fortune in it for you if you succeed. But I think you're more likely just speaking from ignorance here.

Furthermore, that's only a few thousand years - your plan would have to work for hundreds of thousands of years

Not really. My "plan" if you want to call it that doesn't rely on memory of civilization's ills or moral fables keeping people away from it. It has to do with the realities of building a complex societies, the energy throughput required, and the lack of the physical resources such an enterprise requires.

I find it wholly ironic that of the people arguing here, the person who is arguing against civilization is the one who has behaved in the most civilized manner.

Heh, well, thank you, but of course, by my estimation, that's only natural--there's nothing as "uncivilized" in that sense as civilization!
posted by jefgodesky at 7:25 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's kind of why I phrased it as I did. To hilight the double-meaning "civilized" has come to have, and the reality of it within this discussion. Which I find sadly amusing.
posted by nightchrome at 7:25 PM on April 11, 2007


The Poverty of Primitivism (a situationist critique of primitivism and technophobia).
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 7:29 PM on April 11, 2007


Yeah, that's kind of why I phrased it as I did. To hilight the double-meaning "civilized" has come to have, and the reality of it within this discussion. Which I find sadly amusing.

I didn't doubt it. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' argument about using "Christian" as a synonym for "nice," in Mere Christianity, and how it robbed both terms, and made it more difficult to say anything meaningful about either one.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:29 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky: On a side note, since I appear to have your attention here for a second. What's the deal with your blog? Is it skype-only now? I had it in my "daily read" folder along with mefi etc. but there don't appear to have been any updates since the skype entry.
posted by nightchrome at 7:34 PM on April 11, 2007


My bad for missing the joke nightchrome.
On a louis wain cat's point about authoritarian personality types, I can't say I've been overly troubled by this down the years, in so far as if you're hoping for a politics that can address common needs, you're going to be dealing with all sorts, and I'm less concerned by forceful people who at least subscribe to a something that in theory at least won't give them the chance to be Stalin (then I suppose we're back to the tyranny of structurelessness again).
posted by Abiezer at 7:36 PM on April 11, 2007


Oh, a fan, awesome! Well, meatspace dealt us a real one-two that's put us in a bit of an unplanned hiatus. We're planning on getting some new stuff sometime in the next week, actually.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:39 PM on April 11, 2007


This horribly obtuse and long thread should be prove enough that primitivism/anarchism is a bunch of long winded impractical nonsense.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:42 PM on April 11, 2007


prove that it is proof as well.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:43 PM on April 11, 2007


This horribly obtuse and long thread should be prove enough that primitivism/anarchism is a bunch of long winded impractical nonsense.

Or that deep-seated, unexamined convictions are the hardest to shake? I heard a quote, and I thought I heard it attributed to Thomas Jefferson, though I've never been able to corrobotate that, but it was something along the lines of, "The hardest thing to talk a man out of is something he was never talked into in the first place."
posted by jefgodesky at 7:46 PM on April 11, 2007


Au contraire, frere Burhanistan, it has been the dynamic in all but a very few of the best human moments and the most sustained practical solutions I've been witness to.
posted by Abiezer at 7:49 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky: Excellent. I wouldn't call myself a primitivist, but many related topics appeal to me. More importantly though, I like reading what thoughtful, well-read, reasonable people have to say about things I don't know very much about. It's one of the reasons I stick around mefi as well.
posted by nightchrome at 7:59 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky: I doubt very much that any such way exists, and the fact that we've yet to come up with one, despite the massive pressure to do so, is certainly telling.

What pressure? People are shortsighted, and the planet is sustaining us now. Until we actively need such a method, there's very little pressure to produce one. Plus, we're making scientific progress faster now than ever before - the fact that we haven't accomplished it in the past doesn't mean anything.

To believe that there must be a way that we just have to discover is a pretty glaring faith in exceptionalism. Did the reindeer of St. Matthew's Island have a way they simply missed? Does an algae bloom?

We are exceptional! We're the planets solitary sapient species (well, we don't know about apes and dolphins, but neither uses tools.) No other species in the history of the Earth has ever done anything like creating a jet aircraft, but that didn't mean we couldn't do it. We play by some of our own rules, and other species' failure to save themselves via science doesn't say anything about our future.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:11 PM on April 11, 2007


Plus, we're making scientific progress faster now than ever before

This is a common misconception, but it isn't true. Our technological innovation has actually slowed down since the turn of the last century; Joseph Tainter made mention of some of the evidence for this in Collapse of Complex Societies.

We are exceptional! We're the planets solitary sapient species

Another common misconception; there is significant intelligence in dolphins, crows, and several apes; the last two make tools. Orangutans not only build shelters, make napkins and even gloves, they have regional variation--their shelters have architectural styles. We're not nearly as exceptional as we like to believe.

We play by some of our own rules, and other species' failure to save themselves via science doesn't say anything about our future.

Famous last words. With all of our vaunted intelligence, we've yet to transcend basic biological laws, but we do tell many stories all around the world, in every culture, about the dangers of such hubris.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:27 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins
posted by Wolof at 8:29 PM on April 11, 2007


Oh hell yeah, I'm in! As long as there's plenty of coke and I can fuck a bonobo or two, wake up every morning in a tree in the jungle, man, catch rats for breakfast, fuckin' A! Primitive is the way to go, dude, I'll make my own brood of proto-human homo bonobos, we'll rock the jungle, bare our teeth at your pussified civilization, grow big long bonobo dicks and jack off at you if you come too close. My dialectic is a thirty-yard shit fling. Hoo-hoo-hoo-hawww!
posted by breezeway at 8:29 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I ..... guess you could ... do ... that ....
posted by jefgodesky at 8:37 PM on April 11, 2007


Can you document a primitive society where people are killed to be eaten?
Laboratory tests on some of the artifacts, including a piece of human excrement, have revealed traces of a human protein that scientists say is the first direct evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi, whose empire stretched into present-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
A fellow by the name of Tobias Schneebaum supposedly engaged in cannibalism when he disappeared into the Peruvian jungle in the mid-50s. He wrote about his experience in his memoir.


And then there's the South Pacific, where cannibalism is supposed to have been fairly common up until the last World War.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:37 PM on April 11, 2007


Yes, cannibalism occurs, but that's a very different thing from killing people to eat them, as I mentioned when I asked for documentation. One uses cannibalism religiously (c.f., the eucharist), and the other makes humans a food source. Schneebaum's account is generally considered to be at least partly fantastic, and South Pacific cannibalism is generally of the funerary variety I already mentioned.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:53 PM on April 11, 2007


cubbyhole for dullards

That's going right on the welcome mat!
posted by YoBananaBoy at 8:55 PM on April 11, 2007


jason's_planet: The Anasazi aren't the best example, since they were a civilization. Ishmael author Daniel Quinn even mentions their collapse several times as an example of the type of overshoot that our own civilization is heading for.

The last paragraph of the CNN article does much to support this point:

The Cowboy Wash investigators now are developing a new scenario. According to University of North Carolina archaeologist Brian Billman, who coordinated the excavation, drought gripped the area in 1150 and the social order frayed. Marauders probably terrorized and cannibalized the families living at Cowboy Wash.

Billman described the coprolite as "a final insult" by the killers.


Not only does a primitivist author use the Anasazi as a textbook example of the unsustainability of civilization (though Quinn doesn't identify himself as a primitivist, let's face it - he basically is), but this specific example of cannibalism comes from that very collapse.

All in all, the article says nothing about cannibalism as practiced by hunter-gatherer tribes and/or bands.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 9:02 PM on April 11, 2007


jefgodesky:

This is a common misconception, but it isn't true. Our technological innovation has actually slowed down since the turn of the last century; Joseph Tainter made mention of some of the evidence for this in Collapse of Complex Societies.

Do you mean since 2000, or 1900? If you mean 2000, I'd say we don't have a significant amount of data yet. If you mean 1900, I'd say you're dead wrong - the computer revolution being the most significant counter-example.

Another common misconception; there is significant intelligence in dolphins, crows, and several apes; the last two make tools. Orangutans not only build shelters, make napkins and even gloves, they have regional variation--their shelters have architectural styles. We're not nearly as exceptional as we like to believe.

You know, I'm pretty sure that I said the non-sapience of dolphins and apes was in question. As far as crows, you've got to be kidding me.

You're side-stepping my point anyway - we are the only scientific and technological society there has ever been on the Earth. We are our own data point. There is no good comparison to draw with any other species.

Famous last words. With all of our vaunted intelligence, we've yet to transcend basic biological laws, but we do tell many stories all around the world, in every culture, about the dangers of such hubris.

How would they know? We're the first known society to ever try to live technologically. The ancients did not have the data or the methods to determine if technological lifestyle was sustainable in the long term. Their anecdotes are meaningless.

Living in a sustainable technological society does not break any 'laws' - it may be counter to things like population dynamics and such, but we've been outside of those for a long time now.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:03 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitive peoples live as long as we do. They don't get coronary disease because even with genetics against you, diet and lifestyle is more than enough to keep cholesterol in proper alignment.

People with a genetic predisposition could eat ZERO cholesterol and still have dangerously high cholesterol. And exercise has negligible impact on cholesterol. This is not up for debate. It's a known fact.

Primitive people do not live as long as we do - the chart in the Jones 2002 article that you cited demonstrates that. Some do, but not with the probability that we do.

Whatever, I'm done. Nothing will convince you or persuade you because you cling to this like a religion. I could say 2+2 does not equal 5, and you would respond with "depends what the definition of 5 is". You concoct a bizarre definition of longevity to prove a meaningless point that they live as long. Pygmy music that is improvised is exactly the same as a symphony, which is composed and labored over with the intended purposed of communicating an emotional and intellectual thought.

Whatever you say. I'm sorry I wasted my time.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:21 PM on April 11, 2007


Yes, cannibalism occurs, but that's a very different thing from killing people to eat them, as I mentioned when I asked for documentation.

The Anasazi aren't the best example, since they were a civilization.


OK. You guys are right. My examples were pretty weak.

But I can think of an example of a hunter-gatherer society engaging in war cannibalism:

The Wari
posted by jason's_planet at 9:32 PM on April 11, 2007


Read some of the oral traditions of hunter-gatherers, and you'll see where Battlestar Galactica got its start. You know what they did with their prodigious free time? Storytelling, and lots and lots of gambling.

I dunno, man. I reckon your average primitivist band would be pretty small in size. So wouldn't you fairly rapidly reach the point of "Oh, Goddess, here comes Groklor again [it's well known that everyone in tribal societies has names like that]. He's probably gonna bust out that tired story about Otter Woman and the Giant Rat of Sumatra for the eleventy-hundredth time." And there would be no way to fast-forward through the boring parts.

I'll bet good money that that's mostly because your relationships with the people in question are so shallow that you get nothing from the exchange, and that if you think back, the best moments of your life all revolve around relating to another person.

Money is an artifact of non-sustainable capitalist societies! I reject your ideology! But you're possibly right about the shallow part. Like Victor Mature, I wish I was deep instead of just macho.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 9:35 PM on April 11, 2007


Primitive people do not live as long as we do - the chart in the Jones 2002 article that you cited demonstrates that. Some do, but not with the probability that we do


Uh, who gives a shit?

Is life expectancy now some sort of transcendent criteria that determines the worth of a society?

What's so bad about dying young? Do you imagine that older folks wasting away in retirement homes are having the time of their lives?

Do you think a long life is a boon if you spend the first sixty years plugging away at a series of pointless jobs?

Who do you really think benefits from long life expectancy? Is it long-lived individuals or the states that get to squeeze out greater tax income per a head?

If the destruction of the planet worth that extra 20 years of old age?

The life expectancy argument is just... blah. Who cares. But, look, if you are going to make the (nonsensical) argument that primitive societies are 'bad' because of low life expectancy then you should just go whole hog and declare there's no argument at all. Long lives is just one of many luxuries. Consider Playstation 3's, pop music, and heated driver and passenger seats. So just go ahead and say that civilized life is more comfortable than anything primitivism model. As I noted above, the argument a comfortableness is a perfectly valid critique of primitivism. So embrace it and enjoy.
posted by nixerman at 9:54 PM on April 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who do you really think benefits from long life expectancy? Is it long-lived individuals or the states that get to squeeze out greater tax income per a head?

Actually, as I understand it, the main reason life expectancy went up so much in modern society is that a lot of people used to die as infants and children.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:09 PM on April 11, 2007


Abiezer: On a louis wain cat's point about authoritarian personality types, I can't say I've been overly troubled by this down the years, in so far as if you're hoping for a politics that can address common needs, you're going to be dealing with all sorts, and I'm less concerned by forceful people who at least subscribe to a something that in theory at least won't give them the chance to be Stalin (then I suppose we're back to the tyranny of structurelessness again).

Oh, it's certainly not universal, and I don't want to be too hard on anarchism as I think quite a bit of good stuff has come out of the tradition, but reading up on it, I often had the impression that the authoritarians had become, in many places, the voice of the movement- the amount of dogmatism and in-your-face macho posturing that I ran into was a bit excessive. To be fair, I think that's a problem with most political movements, and it's true that anarchism, as you say, at least makes it more difficult for the dogmatic macho posturer to become a Stalin. (If not completely impossible- I don't think I came across the pamphlet nasreddin mentioned advocating an "anarchist" revolutionary junta, but I can so easily imagine it.)

jefgodesky: Voluntarily, probably not. But because all "the cool stuff" is based in such a wildly unsustainable way of life, it's going to go away. The efficacy of primitive lifestyles is why we can have hope for the future. I wish we could convince people of that, as it could greatly reduce the kind of "gigadeath" overshoot scenarios like this invariably lead to, but I'm afraid I don't share Richard Heinberg's optimism. I'd love to think Powerdown is possible, and I've done everything I can to help try to make it so, but I agree with you that it's just not plausible. When civilization inevitably consumes itself, I fear most people will die rather than consider other ways of life.

This is the great tragedy of the whole thing. On re-reading nixerman's first comment, I can't entirely tell whether it was a semi-satirical summary of how people think about and react to this issue (what I took it for) or an actual endorsement of it, but I think it pretty much sums up the general human attitude. Even if a non-primitivist, environmentally sustainable civilization is possible (and when I picture my ideal world, it may have a lot more wilderness and green space, but it does still have indoor plumbing and recorded music- I am rather attached to those things, I have to say), I seriously doubt we'll ever see it. People simply will not want to give up what they have. It's perfectly understandable, on the individual level- it's the tragedy of the commons, basically. And so the collapse will come, and the primitivist lifestyle, from that standpoint, looks like the one tiny, remote glimmer of light that may come at the end of a very dark future indeed.

(As far as I can tell, the only other possibility is the techno-optimist crowd actually being right, by some miracle, in which case the Earth probably ends up looking like Trantor, and frankly I think I'd rather be dead than live there. Anyway, my impression is that that's maybe slightly more likely than Jesus coming back and fixing everything.)

Anyway, I might as well mention that I've become a pretty regular reader of your blog as well and I'm happy to hear that there's new stuff on the way. Like nightchrome said, it's good to read different perspectives presented intelligently.
posted by a louis wain cat at 10:35 PM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


C'mon jefgodesky, didn't you ever see that star trek episode with the guy who had big ears who kept calling Captain Kirk "Herbert" and wanted to be taken to the planet Eden? They all died dude.
posted by vronsky at 11:35 PM on April 11, 2007


Or that deep-seated, unexamined convictions are the hardest to shake? I heard a quote, and I thought I heard it attributed to Thomas Jefferson, though I've never been able to corrobotate that, but it was something along the lines of, "The hardest thing to talk a man out of is something he was never talked into in the first place."

This is hi-larious coming from someone who says primitivism is perfect in every way, that you can't really be happy in a agricultural society, and that any problems you have now are solely due to you living in civilization. Oh, and things like life expectancies are relative, and that anthropology is the only worthwhile study of humanity.

Primitivism is more than a result of your study, it's a magical paradigm where you are more enlightened then the teeming masses, where you affect a pseudo-sadness that billions of people will die horribly (according to you, anyway,). It's one thing to say that our current technological civilization is unsustainable, it's wholly another to say, that primitivism is the only possible alternative and it will be wonderful in all possible ways and all human needs will be fulfilled and we will live out our long, healthy, comfortable lives in idyllic pleasure.

If hunter-gatherer life was so great, why was agriculture developed? Maybe there was a vast stupidity causing virus? Maybe women, having responsibility for 80-90% of the caloric intake of the tribe, but having little recognition for such, in addition to being controlled by primitive superstition about their bodies and immutable gender roles, (glossed over a little, huh?) began to notice the connection between seeds and plants, and were pissed about the current state of affairs.Who knows? I find it amusing that you don;t really bring it up, but that if agriculture was just so markedly inferior, why did it develop?

Oh, and maybe, just maybe, people don't react with derision because you're truth is tough for them to understand, but that you don't make sense, proselytize, and argue from naked assertion.
posted by Snyder at 1:35 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky,
I think part of the reason people seem to be getting riled up is that some of your answers do seem to be side-stepping the questions asked of you. For instance:
Another common misconception; there is significant intelligence in dolphins, crows, and several apes; the last two make tools. Orangutans not only build shelters, make napkins and even gloves, they have regional variation--their shelters have architectural styles. We're not nearly as exceptional as we like to believe.
Mitrovarr is right, this is almost deliberately disingenuous. Humans may not be the only beings with any level of intelligence, but we are the only creatures so far known capable of the kind of planning, development, and learning needed to create science and a technological society. It seems wrong to say, therefore, that it's hubris to think it can work, because it's never been tried. To point to past failures of specific societies is not evidence that no technological society can work.

At the core of your beliefs, it seems to me, are a set of fundamental, almost-religious concepts. The idea of the inevitability of societal collapse, for instance. I am familiar with the concept of increasing complexity in society, but it seems logically impossible to show that this inevitably leads to catastrophe, only that there is danger. And can you even really show that complexity leads to diminishing returns at all? Can you provide some numbers showing that global (not just American) innovation is going down? Not just in some places, but everywhere?
You've held out that no society can sustain a population of 6.5 billion, which seems wrong. Even now, we have enough food to feed all humans alive, we just have poor delivery systems and corrupt governments. The challenge then is to find a way to fix that. Your answer to that seems to be that humans inevitably won't or can't find such a solution, which seems unprovable.

You are obviously a very intelligent person, and I'm glad that you have offered such polite, well-though out argument in the face of great hostility here, but ultimately you seem to be arguing on faith. Your evidence indicates that mankind faces many problems generated by itself (soil erosion, pollution, disease, etc.) But those are problems that can be solved, and humans are unique in that we have the capacity to analyze our situation and look for solutions. There's no proof that solving any of our problems is impossible, or even that our ability to do so is slowing down. You yourself have noted that there is no physical reason why we can't solve our problems, it's more a matter of will and leadership, which I would agree with.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:43 AM on April 12, 2007


I'd also like to add that people here seem to be arguing two different things here: the physical aspects of society, and the psychological aspects of society. The former seems to be causing much consternation, but the latter seems more straightforward. Recent studies into happiness and satisfaction (some even linked here on MetaFilter) indicate that happiness is relative, that how happy you are really has to do more with how you perceive yourself relative to others rather than some absolute measure. That being the case, complex and primitive societies are equally useful in terms of the happiness of their denizens. If you're measuring them, then you have to use other rubrics, and it really seems to boil down to non-logical personal tastes. Complex societies obviously offer a huge range of things (from Mozart symphonies to nanocomputers) that primitive ones can't reproduce, while at the same time offer less stability and more environmental impact. Primitive societies would be the reverse, so it just seems like a matter of personal preference. You can't quantitatively measure society's offerings against primitivism's stability, so trying to is pointless. How can you define how much benefit the world derives from a Bach concerto or Einstein's theories? All these discussions and presentation of numeric evidence seems silly and beside the point.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:52 AM on April 12, 2007


Primitivism, ultimately = death. Sorry, it's true. There is no escaping that enivitability, and I'm rather surprised no one here has raised this fact.

The sun will eventually consume the Earth. End of primitive, Earth-bound life. If the human race is still Earth-bound, then it's over for us. So what if it's billions of years away? The end is still the end.

Technology alone can save us from the fire. Unsustainable? Ooopsi, we best get our brains in gear and solve that problem! Who knows how painful the solution might prove, but solve it we must, or die.

Perhaps no one brings this up because you've 'drunk the koolaid' of those saying interstelar travel is impossible. I'm old. The koolaid I drank was the kind that says anything we can think of doing is possible. I'll stick to that brand, as it's flavored with hope.
posted by Goofyy at 2:48 AM on April 12, 2007


Goofyy brings up a good point. We are the only species on the planet that has the capability of preventing or overcoming extinction level events. I was thinking more along the lines of asteroids and whatnot, but in the even longer term, what he says his true, even without FTL travel.
posted by Snyder at 2:53 AM on April 12, 2007


Thanks jeffgodesky (and others) for your discourse.

It is not suprising that people who are within a particular society think that it is the 'natural' way to be.

Technology is only of any use if it is sustainable.

I worry about the amount of information that is lost when peoples are 'civilised'. Between that, the wholesale environmental destruction and man-made mass extinction we will be lucky to have enough quality of biological information to survive in the future. No amount of gene mapping and computer modelling will make up for the gaping hole in our knowledge.

The indigenous Australians lived a primitive lifestyle for between 40,000 and 200,000 years successfully. I wonder how long the 'civilised' society that has attempted cultural genocide on them will last there?
posted by asok at 4:26 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


We are the only species on the planet that has the capability of preventing or overcoming extinction level events.

Or maybe we are not. Maybe we are a high maitenance species that does not have much chance of surviving in a world with lower resources. Conan the Bacterium, however will thrive.

The sun will eventually consume the Earth. End of primitive, Earth-bound life. If the human race is still Earth-bound, then it's over for us. So what if it's billions of years away? The end is still the end.

What would be the point of getting some members of the human race off the planet? To preserve our knowledge? To preserve our genetic make-up? At what cost?

What would a space-faring human derived being be like? How much 'humanity' would they contain?

Time is still the problem for your macrolife solution. Time and distance. That and sustainability.
posted by asok at 4:43 AM on April 12, 2007


This thread could have been so much better if he'd had an opponent in this debate who was also a student of anthropology.

actually, no, we've already got too much anthropology in a thread which is attempting to discuss major philosophical, historical and ecological questions ... jefgodesky's arguments are irrelevant to the real questions before us here, and i'm surprised no one's really called him on it ... i have no intention of debating him on anthropology; he is much more familiar with the territory than we are, but, again, this is NOT an anthropological debate

the questions -

1) why did we come up with civilizations to begin with?

2) why, when these civilizations fall, other people ... or the descendants of those people, who are aware of the fall of this civilization, nonetheless, go and start up civilization again?

3) how does one convince 6 1/2 billion people who are ill-equipped to live as primitives that primitivism is best for them?

4) if one manages to convince everyone of this ... or things just go to hell ... how, in the future, can one be sure that people won't start up civilization again?

5) someone claimed that going on the internet to argue against civilization is hypocritical ... the answers to that was that it was an ad hominem ... (can't be ... the objection wasn't what the anti-civilization person IS, but what he DOES) ... or that primitivism isn't possible in a world where civilization exists, because civilization would eliminate it ... (substitute "communism" for "primitivism" and "capitalism" for "civilization" and one recognizes an old weak argument) ...

can i argue that the only way that anyone could know that civilization was "bad" was to have the tools of civilization to investigate it? ... that the argument that primitive man had a better life than civilized man can only be made by people who have the physical and mental tools, ability to travel, learn and communicate that a civilization provides? ... that, although a primitive man may feel in his gut that something isn't right about civilization, he can't prove it, or make a rational argument against it, because only the tools civilization provides can make such an argument possible?

if this paradox holds, that only civilized people can analyze and debunk civilization, doesn't that explain why primitive people start civilizations? ... that they don't know any better until it's too late?

and ... if this is true, then isn't civilization, given the necessary resources, inevitable? ... if it's really not a stable state, and yet we don't seem to be able to avoid entering it, due to our forgetfulness that it doesn't work, do we just wring our hands and await our doom hopelessly, or try to fashion a civilization that has a chance of transcending this, by moving beyond the planet?

isn't that our real choice? ... getting over and OUT, or just moving up and down like a yo-yo until our species is extinct?

i prefer over and OUT
posted by pyramid termite at 5:20 AM on April 12, 2007


Pygmy music that is improvised is exactly the same as a symphony, which is composed and labored over with the intended purposed of communicating an emotional and intellectual thought.

Who said anything about Pygmy music being improvised? Do you really think it impossible that primitive people could compose and labor over a piece of music before playing it? Not even to mention traditional songs passed down from generation to generation. Once again, Pastabagel, your arguments are colored by some very racist assumptions.

But I can think of an example of a hunter-gatherer society engaging in war cannibalism:

The Wari


But by your own admission, that's war cannibalism. This was the original challenge:
Can you document a primitive society where people are killed to be eaten? There are societies with funerary cannibalism, I'll give you that, but the only examples I can think of where people are killed so that they can be eaten are the likes of the Donner Party, or the soccer team caught in the Andes, who were all quite civilized.

Plus, I'm pretty sure the Wari are horticulturalists.

I dunno, man. I reckon your average primitivist band would be pretty small in size. So wouldn't you fairly rapidly reach the point of "Oh, Goddess, here comes Groklor again [it's well known that everyone in tribal societies has names like that]. He's probably gonna bust out that tired story about Otter Woman and the Giant Rat of Sumatra for the eleventy-hundredth time." And there would be no way to fast-forward through the boring parts.

Oh, Midnight Creeper, I have got to tell you about the fairs! This is wonderful - hunter-gatherers would have these giant fairs every so often, bringing in thousands of people from all around. Obviously, there would be a lot of trade (which is how you get seashells from the Gulf of Mexico ending up in Minnesota and stuff like that), but in general it would be basically a giant party that sometimes stretched on for weeks at a time. During these fairs, storytellers from all over the continent would get together and exchange new stories and new techniques of telling them.

But even within a band, let me tell you... We regular civilized folk kind of suck at telling stories. We've outsourced all our storytelling to novelists and filmmakers, and we figure they've got it covered, so when we find ourselves in a position of telling a story orally to our friends, yeah, it's kind of boring. But you have to imagine someone well-trained in the art. Primitive storytellers worked their entire lives to hone their skill, which you could consider a combination of writing and acting. If you've ever seen, say, a Native American storyteller at work, believe me, you don't get bored.

Oh, and maybe, just maybe, people don't react with derision because you're truth is tough for them to understand, but that you don't make sense, proselytize, and argue from naked assertion.

Well, I can't argue with your first point, since what makes sense and what does not is quite subjective. He certainly makes sense to me, but then again, I'm a primitivist too, as well as being married to him. ;-) Same goes for proselytizing: what might make one person feel preached to might not effect another the same way. But I certainly can speak for his "argu[ing] from naked assertion." Here's a list of all the books and articles he's cited in this thread:

Overshoot by William Catton
The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg
Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
http://www.health-science.com/tissue_cleansing.html
Literality & Orality by Walter Ong
Against the Grain by Richard Manning
Of Men and Galaxies by Sir Fred Hoyle
http://www.kolbecenter.org/bennett_prolifeexpectancy.htm
Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter (Might I add, this is considered the definitive work on collapse.)

And here's a list of his own articles he's linked to, every last one of which have bibliographies:
Thesis 25: Civilization Reduces Quality of Life
Thesis 14: Complexity is Subject to Diminishing Returns
Exceptions that Prove the Rule #3: Paleolithic Royalty
Thesis 22: Civilization Has No Monopoly on Medicine
Thesis 21: Civilization Makes us Sick

If that counts as arguing from naked assertion, particularly in a blog thread on the Internet, then you must have one hell of a bibliography.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 7:05 AM on April 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, and as for the question of why agriculture happened in the first place, jefgodesky dedicated a thesis to answering that question over a year ago: Thesis 10: Emergent Elites Led the Agricultural Revolution
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 7:10 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky's arguments are irrelevant to the real questions before us here, and i'm surprised no one's really called him on it ... i have no intention of debating him on anthropology; he is much more familiar with the territory than we are, but, again, this is NOT an anthropological debate

For the record, I did call him on it in another thread. In any case, since then I've done a bit of reading both of some of the sources that jefgodesky cited in that and other threads as well as critiques of those sources that he chooses not to cite (which is a no-no, btw). I'm also amazed at how intensely politicized anthropology has become since the late 80's. It appears, based on accusations in the discipline, that many academics are twisting their research to suit a present political agenda.

There's evidence of that in this thread too, with people going on and on about the sustainability of present society. This is not an anthropological question unless you choose to simply skip to the unfounded conclusion that present society is not sustainable. It is an economic and scientific one.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:35 AM on April 12, 2007


But by your own admission, that's war cannibalism. This was the original challenge:

You are nit-picking in order to dodge the real issue: do primitive people engage in aggressive cannibalism? Do primitive people depersonalize their enemies and consider them fair game in the same way they would consider a animal fair game?

Yes. They do. (Or have, excuse me, up until very recently. The point being, that this practice has existed and can't be explained away as a harmless, though disgusting, funerary tradition.) The Wari language, for example, divides objects into edible and inedible. Rocks, the moon and other (live) Wari are inedible. Fish, small animals and human beings who are not members of the Wari tribe are edible, as one anthropologist discovered when he was doing field work with them. He was a little dismayed to learn that people he considered friends were addressing him and describing him this way.

Every time someone here cites an example that refutes your theory, you and jefgodesky try to play fast-and-loose with the defintions in an attempt to invalidate that example. If I cite an example of primitive people in New Guinea enthusiastically adopting Western technology against their enemies, you point to a sweet potato patch -- that these particular people may or may not be cultivating
--and say that my example isn't truly valid, that they are not actual primitives.

It would be nice to hear what you guys think of the difficult questions pyramid termite has posed above:

1) why did we come up with civilizations to begin with?

2) why, when these civilizations fall, other people ... or the descendants of those people, who are aware of the fall of this civilization, nonetheless, go and start up civilization again?

3) how does one convince 6 1/2 billion people who are ill-equipped to live as primitives that primitivism is best for them?

etc.

posted by jason's_planet at 7:53 AM on April 12, 2007


I don't think the cannibalism thing is nearly as damning as you think it is. First, the Wari are agriculturalists. Second, so what? Are you saying that primitivist society will inevitably be cannibalistic? That's not true. Third, why is cannibalism any morally different from plain murder?(the wari eat their dead relatives too)

An attempt to answer pyramid termite:
1) "We" never came up with civilizations. Civilizations arose when food production allowed more food to be eaten, increasing the population and creating a surplus. Control over the surplus led to social stratification and what we refer to as "civilization."

2) A civilization never really "falls"; that's a pretty outdated conceit. A civilization can be conquered, suffer fragmentation, and so on, but that's a political change and not a profound social one. There's never been a case where we have civilization, then go back to being hunter gatherers, then back to civilization. The population growth imposed by civilization means going back is impossible without a cataclysm such as the inevitable collapse of industrial society.

3. Once the stage is reached where we can entertain large-scale withdrawals from collapsing society, we won't need to convince anyone, since the advantages of primitivism will be obvious. Withdrawals will happen spontaneously, since people cling to those around them in a time of such profound crisis and it is inevitable that small mutually reliant communities will emerge.
posted by nasreddin at 8:20 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


a cataclysm such as the inevitable collapse of industrial society

Why is a collapse inevitable?
posted by Pastabagel at 8:25 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky argues with the fervor of a convert, which both aids and weakens his argument. The aiding is evident in his ability to sustain the argument, for which I commend him. The weakness, unfortunately, affects the nature of the argument.

The essential nihilism of the argument is easy to see, and although called realism by jefgodesky (billions of people are going to die anyway), it's a real flaw. It trades one elite (the financial elite) for another (those who get to make it into the next society). The fact that they may be the same (since elites will be able to preserve themselves for longer as collapse threatens) is an added dollop of irony. In other words, as has been clear all along, his argument isn't about how to make this world a better place, it's an argument about how he hopes the next world will be better. The obvious religious overtones of this position go a long way toward explaining the justified feeling that there's a lot of self-righteousness in the primitivist position.

This disdain is amplified by suggesting that people can't solve population problems because reindeer and algae blooms can't solve population problems. Intelligence and civilization (which is often, but not exclusively the operationalizing of intelligence, for good and bad) are dismissed because animals somehow represent something more essential about how the world works. It's an argument that is at once moralizing, and devoid of ethics, the same argument that attempts to pillory homosexuals because homosexuality isn't found in the "animal kingdom," or, conversely, tries to excuse being gay as "natural" because it is. Neither position is a grown-up human response to human issues which acknowledges that the lives of birds may fascinate, but fail as a prescriptive (or even descriptive) determinant for human behavior. (Which is not, by the way, an argument for human exceptionalism. Bird behavior is also not determinant of lion behavior. It is, however, an argument against the fatuous nature of "evolutionary psychology" (sic).)

Much more problematic for jefgodesky's position, however, (and almost as distasteful) is the notion of purity that runs underneath it. The argument is quite specifically not that a less complex society might be better, but only that a pre-agricultural human society is the only hope. Agriculture makes it all collapse, letting in the spectres of famine, disease, wealth and greed, and hierarchy. This is stressed by jefgodesky time and again in his arguments. When responding to objection after objection he states that even ancient but agricultural societies suffer from the infection which he is arguing primitivism avoids. The thing is, and the reason this is so damning to his argument, as many have pointed out, while primitivism may avoid those problems, it does not inoculate against them, and so it must be kept pure. The thought that you might like to be guaranteed a tomato next summer, leading to the action of saving a seed, is the start of the dissolution of the whole project. In order for it to work, there must at least be a hierarchy which preserves the purity of the anti-agriculture ban.

But what's most disturbing about the undercurrent of an argument from purity is its larger manifestation which suggests that it's appropriate to limit human behavior and expression in pursuit of that purity. Here jefgodesky walks an interesting line, since of course he knows the genie can't be put back in the bottle. So, while what he's really describing is a future society, he's not making an argument from necessity (this is what will happen and we should make the best of it), but from desire (this is a good way to be and I wish the world were like this now). But rather than seek solutions to the world's problems now, THE solution is to suggest (impose) an overarching solution which destroys human choice. This isn't even an argument for voluntary simplicity, but an imposition of limited choice that jefgodesky repeatedly suggests should be all we might want. Battlestar Galactica? Storytime! Board games? Gambling! Playing your violin? More leisure time! Bread? Bark!

There is, indeed, a hierarchy represented here, it's just that it's imposed at the meta-level, and so is supposed to be unremarked. "You can go anywhere you want, as long as you don't leave this room." It's a distasteful romaticization of limiting human choice (not just the choice to drive an SUV, but the choice to think about certain things, or do certain innocuous things) in the name of the greater good. It's like a Volksfrie movement without the Volkswagen.

This is getting long, but there's also another problem, which is indicative, I think, of the circularity (and paucity) of some of jefgodesky's arguments from the anthropological evidence. This is most easily seen in the equation of shamans with schizophrenics. The evidence that shamans were schizophrenic (in primitive societies) is open to debate, I've read things on both sides, but what I don't think is open to debate is that schizophrenics have disordered thoughts and frequently suffer from delusions. Some of these may fit within a religious tradition which makes them useful to a society as a product of culture. However, anyone who has worked with schizophrenics knows that this is far from universal (and is arguably uncommon). I have a schizophrenic patient who collects and stores (in a safe deposit box he pays for) take-out menus with Chinese characters, or ones which mention "Atomic!" wings. He's convinced that these menus represent to infiltration of the US by North Korean agents, and that they are coded communications that betray the coming invasion. While integrating him into society as a shaman may help him, I'm much less sanguine that it will help society. I'm even more sure that I don't want him to be responsible for my major medical care.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on April 12, 2007 [10 favorites]


Do you mean since 2000, or 1900? If you mean 2000, I'd say we don't have a significant amount of data yet. If you mean 1900, I'd say you're dead wrong - the computer revolution being the most significant counter-example.

1900; you would be right about 2000, but your counter-example for 1900 rather proves my point. I didn't say invention ended, I said the rate of invention has decreased. New things continue to be invented, and the so-called "computer revolution" is one of the few examples of a sub-field of technological invention that's still seeing some acceleration, but even Moore's Law is beginning to break. By the same logic, you could argue that the stock market must be going up because one company's stock has done really well. It doesn't follow. (No, I'm not suggesting that the stock market is actually plummeting right now, the way our rate of technological invention is.)

I summarized some of the evidence for this in "Thesis #15: We have passed the point of diminishing returns." You may also want to read Simon Jenkins' Guardian article, "The age of technological revolution is 100 years dead." I've already mentioned Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. There's also Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Ingenuity Gap.

There's little doubt that this is happening. The common myth to the contrary is built on unexamined assumptions.

You know, I'm pretty sure that I said the non-sapience of dolphins and apes was in question. As far as crows, you've got to be kidding me.

You did mention it, but you also said that neither makes tools. In fact, both make tools. And no, I'm not kidding about crows.

You're side-stepping my point anyway - we are the only scientific and technological society there has ever been on the Earth. We are our own data point. There is no good comparison to draw with any other species.

I could just as well say that crows are the only species with crow-intelligence, or chimps with chimp-intelligence, and they're all their own data points. What makes us so sure that our scientific method is so qualitatively different? It has not, to date, led us to behave in any qualitatively different way. I'm not side-stepping the point at all, I'm calling it out as nothing but hubris.

People with a genetic predisposition could eat ZERO cholesterol and still have dangerously high cholesterol. And exercise has negligible impact on cholesterol. This is not up for debate. It's a known fact.

I'll tell my doctor that the next time he tells me about how to eat this or that to bring down my cholesterol.

Primitive people do not live as long as we do - the chart in the Jones 2002 article that you cited demonstrates that. Some do, but not with the probability that we do.

Well, if you just railroad over differences in cultural understandings you could get to that. But that's as valid as the "Expected Pro-Life Expectancy" I linked above. All it proves is that your culture thinks your culture is better--surprise, surprise.

Nothing will convince you or persuade you because you cling to this like a religion.

Well, I'd settle for evidence, if you have any.

Pygmy music that is improvised is exactly the same as a symphony, which is composed and labored over with the intended purposed of communicating an emotional and intellectual thought.

Is there no end to your ignorance of all other cultures? Yes, Pygmies have a rich tradition of improvised songs. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about traditional songs. Now, they do "riff" on these, akin to a jazz band, but that just makes me respect it all the more. These are ancient songs, communicating deep emotional and intellectual thoughts, but unlike Mozart locked into its dogmatic canon, they're also open to interpretation and re-interpretation. These are products of labor, thought, and musical genius, just like Mozart's symphonies. Unlike Mozart's symphonies, they invite other geniuses to elaborate on it. It is an oral approach to music, rather than a literate one (again, see Ong's Literacy & Orality)

But I can think of an example of a hunter-gatherer society engaging in war cannibalism: the Wari

That's a much better example, but it's still funerary (religious) cannibalism. Wars aren't fought the way they carry out hunting parties, and only specific figures in Wari society eat the dead. The warriors themselves, notably, are strictly forbidden from eating the flesh of dead enemies. "Giving cannibalism a human face" starts to scratch the surface on the complexities of Wari cannibalism, and it's much more than just killing people to be eaten.

Another important point, I think, is that as an Amazonian tribe, the Wari are essentially what we would consider a "post-apocalyptic" culture. Charles Mann gives a sense of this in 1491. It's been a while since said "apocalypse," but the transformation into the current culture we see certainly makes a lot of sense in those terms.

He's probably gonna bust out that tired story about Otter Woman and the Giant Rat of Sumatra for the eleventy-hundredth time." And there would be no way to fast-forward through the boring parts.

Actually, oral tradition means you never have to sit through re-runs. Every telling differs slightly. Literacy trains you to look for a tightly-woven, well-structured story, while orality trains you to listen to the flow and rhythm of the story, so it becomes more musical. Again, take a look at Ong's Literacy & Orality.

Is life expectancy now some sort of transcendent criteria that determines the worth of a society?

Part of the mythology is that primitive peoples live such meager and awful lives that they keel over at 30. In actual fact, such low life expectancies only became the norm with the rise of agrarian societies. Industrialized societies have largely restored the typical human life span--for the elite few who can live in them, but such societies can only function when they have a larger number of agrarian societies to externalize their costs to.

Who do you really think benefits from long life expectancy? Is it long-lived individuals or the states that get to squeeze out greater tax income per a head?

That's probably a good enough argument all in itself, even if we were to accept the notion that primitive peoples are keeling over from their meager lives in their youth. Fortunately for us, even that much isn't true. There's no need to compromise on this, the evidence is there, and it takes willful ethnocentrism not to see it.

This is hi-larious coming from someone who says primitivism is perfect in every way, that you can't really be happy in a agricultural society, and that any problems you have now are solely due to you living in civilization.

You really think those are unexamined assumptions? Where the hell could I live where those would be my unexamined assumptions? I'm sorry, but you can't come to conclusions like that without examining your assumptions. To say nothing of the fact that I've never said primitive life is perfect (just better), or that all of our problems are due to civilization (just a surprising majority of them).

Oh, and things like life expectancies are relative, and that anthropology is the only worthwhile study of humanity.

I didn't say life expectancies is relative, I said how we define it has a lot to do with cultural beliefs, like when life begins. I would think that the pro-life adjusted life expectancies I linked to above would be enough illustration of how that can vary even in our own culture. If you can have such variance even within a culture, why would't you expect an even greater variance between cultures?

Neither did I say anthropology is the only worthwhile study of humanity, but it certainly does bracket other studies within a cultural context, and illuminate just how much cultural context shapes us, even on levels we presumed to be fundamental and untouched by cultural construction. Since we are talking about cultural context and the impact that has, anthropology is certainly the most salient field of inquiry here. Were we discussing First World trade relations, economics would take that place, but that's not the discussion here. You might as well criticize someone for all their talk about physics just because you're discussing how billiard balls bounce around.

Primitivism is more than a result of your study, it's a magical paradigm where you are more enlightened then the teeming masses, where you affect a pseudo-sadness that billions of people will die horribly (according to you, anyway,).

You don't think it's just a little presumptious that you claim to know how I came to my beliefs better than I do? I don't make any claim to any kind of "enlightenment" any more than any person with a point of view who presents evidence to back it up. My conclusions weigh heavily on me, as they would anyone who came to the same conclusions and had a shred of humanity, but I distinctly remember not wanting to believe any of this, looking desperately for some kind of good evidence to knock it down, and finally giving in to the fact that the evidence was simply overwhelming. I'd love for somebody to prove me wrong so I can get on board with the whole civilized project and put this all out of my mind. But so far, all I've ever heard is the repetition of overturned myths, like a chanted litany to ward off the "bad thoughts." If I could be satisfied with that, I never would've left the Catholic Church, either. I've overturned everything I believe in, because the evidence convinced me, time and time again. There's lots of things you can pin on me, but when you try to pin this one, it just doesn't stick. It just shows you know nothing about me, no matter how much you pretend you do. And it makes you look like a fool.

If hunter-gatherer life was so great, why was agriculture developed?

That's something that anthropologists have been grappling with for years, ever since it became apparent that agriculture was a massive step back on almost every level. Most likely, it was because of climate change, and because it happened so gradually no one could see what was happening. That's the consensus thinking on the subject, anyway. See Nicholas Brooks' "Cultural responses to aridity in the Middle Holocene and increased social complexity" (PDF)

Maybe women, having responsibility for 80-90% of the caloric intake of the tribe...

This idea of the "gatherer-hunter" was based on Lee's study. Turns out Lee was focused almost solely on the !Kung, who have a peculiar fascination with mongongo nuts (as suggested by the proverb I cited upthread). Cordain, et al set out to correct this with a more longitudinal study, and came up with their results in "Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets" in 2000 (PDF) which effectively overturned this idea, and showed that while ratios varied by latitude, even at the equator where plant consumption is highest, most hunter-gatherer groups still get the majority of their diet from animal sources. Unfortunately, though discredited, Lee's conclusions have gotten a lot more track in more popular media, and Cordain's response remains mostly limited to academic circles.

...in addition to being controlled by primitive superstition about their bodies and immutable gender roles, (glossed over a little, huh?)...

Actually, no. Foragers have remarkably equal gender roles; the "primitive superstitions" I believe you're referring to arose with agrarian societies. In fact, some have even gone as far as to call some hunter-gatherer societies "matriarchal," a misnomer since the women are no more "in charge" than the men, but by comparison to our own patriarchy, I suppose I can understand the confusion. Now, most hunter-gatherers do have plenty of taboos about gender, both male and female, and they tend to have very conservative social roles. Then again, they also have more social roles, with a society more engineered to finding a place for people who are different, rather than pushing them out. Again, I refer you to the "Two Spirit" tradition among Native Americans. Other examples of "third genders" also abound. So no, I didn't gloss over it, you're simply confusing agrarian practices for hunter-gatherer ones.

I find it amusing that you don;t really bring it up, but that if agriculture was just so markedly inferior, why did it develop?

This isn't a dodge at all. It's a big question, one that I've dealt with on my site in several articles, and one that anthropologists have struggled with for the past few decades, ever since discoveries like that at Dickson's Mounds led them to examine the unexamined assumption that agriculture was a great improvement in quality of life, and found nothing of the sort.

Oh, and maybe, just maybe, people don't react with derision because you're truth is tough for them to understand, but that you don't make sense, proselytize, and argue from naked assertion.

I didn't say my "truth is tough for them to understand," I said it's difficult to face unexamined assumptions. That's a very different thing. Assumptions we've simply recieved without any examination form the foundation for everything else we know. Challenging them challenges our whole world-view. There's a deep-seated emotional need to reject it. I know, because I felt that same need, and tried as hard as I could to reject it. I've offered plenty of books and articles to support my arguments that "don't make sense," though I don't see any such citations from your side, so "naked assertion" seems like a wee bit of projection. As for proselytization, take a look at the subject of the thread. Defending my point of view when my point of view is being derided does not fit under the usual definition of "proselytization." Or, to put it into MeFi snark: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I am familiar with the concept of increasing complexity in society, but it seems logically impossible to show that this inevitably leads to catastrophe, only that there is danger.

Are you also familiar with the notion of diminishing returns on social complexity, as argued by Joseph Tainter? This suggests that it also produces an escalating probability of disaster. My belief that our society is headed towards collapse is not in any way a "religious" belief. I have marshalled significant evidence to support the claim in the Thirty Theses, but most importantly, it is an unsustainable system. Unsustainable systems cannot be sustained--that's their defining characteristic. Even in purely logical terms without any recourse to evidence whatsoever, no system based on perpetual growth can last.

And can you even really show that complexity leads to diminishing returns at all?

This was already done by Joseph Tainter in Collapse of Complex Societies.

Can you provide some numbers showing that global (not just American) innovation is going down? Not just in some places, but everywhere?

I provided several sources for this above.

Even now, we have enough food to feed all humans alive, we just have poor delivery systems and corrupt governments.

More importantly, that amount of food is created by an industrialized agricultural system that relies on massive inputs of fossil fuels and petrochemicals, so it is a subsistence technology based on resources that are renewable only on a geological time scale. It is a fundamentally unsustainable means of producing food, but it is the only means we have of producing enough food for 6.5 billion people. Issues of hunger created by poor delivery systems aside, the fundamental means by which we produce the food we need is unsustainable.

You are obviously a very intelligent person, and I'm glad that you have offered such polite, well-though out argument in the face of great hostility here, but ultimately you seem to be arguing on faith.

Thank you, but I don't know how you can call it "faith" when so far, I've been the only person in this thread to point to evidence to justify my claim. Even were I not, doesn't the burden of proof lie on those claiming that the status quo can be maintained?

The sun will eventually consume the Earth. End of primitive, Earth-bound life. If the human race is still Earth-bound, then it's over for us. So what if it's billions of years away? The end is still the end.

And one day, the universe will either crunch back together, or become too cold to support life. And one day, you, and everyone you know, are all gonna die.

Yes, primitive life ends in death. So does civilized life. Life ends in death. That's the thing about living: nobody gets out of it alive.

Technology alone can save us from the fire. Unsustainable? Ooopsi, we best get our brains in gear and solve that problem! Who knows how painful the solution might prove, but solve it we must, or die.

And I'm the one arguing on faith and promulgating my religion? You're talking about stopping the expansion (or contraction) of the universe and granting immortality through technology. Fifty years ago they were talking about flying cars of the year 2000, too. This is nothing more than the technophile's equivalent of waiting for Jesus to come in a cloud of glory to judge the living and the dead.

You're going to die. It doesn't matter what you invent--you're going to die. It's probably best you accept that now, because if you spend your whole life trying to outrun it, one day you're going to lose, and you're going to look back and realize you sepnt so much time afraid of death that you forgot to live.

Perhaps no one brings this up because you've 'drunk the koolaid' of those saying interstelar travel is impossible. I'm old. The koolaid I drank was the kind that says anything we can think of doing is possible. I'll stick to that brand, as it's flavored with hope.

Well, my "koolaid" is also backed up by our current understanding of physics. But mine has lots of hope, too. No, not the, "Mwahahaha, we shall be like unto gods and rule over all!" megalomania yours does, but the hope that we can live good lives here and now, we don't need to wait for technology to come and save us. Since people keep telling me about my religion, I'll mention this much--every time I eat or take a breath, I take in the sacrifice of the living world around me. A plant or animal that's given its life for mine. That binds me into a sacred covenant to do everything I can to make that ecology better, healthier, and more vibrant, and one day, I'll make that sacrifice, too. I'll be food for worms and bugs, my flesh will become soil, and that will become plants, and that will become animals, and one day, my grandchildren will kill that animal and eat it, and I'll live again in them. You can talk about hope, but a sweeter promise of an afterlife I've never heard. Even the pursuit of eternal life is a betrayal of all the living things that gave their lives for you. You take their lives and you spit in their face. You want to be the ultimate Taker--take without ever giving back. Fortunately for all of us, there's nothing real to it. It's just another technophilic fantasy, like the flying cars.

We are the only species on the planet that has the capability of preventing or overcoming extinction level events.

That has yet to be proven, but we've certainly caused one.

this is NOT an anthropological debate

I couldn't disagree more. We're talking about the range of human lifeways, the quality of life in primitive societies, and the cultural context of civilization. These are all anthropological questions. They are not philosophical questions. Rousseau and Hobbes wrestled with these, and they got precisely nowhere, because they were arguing from thought experiments without any data or evidence. If you want to start from a foundation of some data about humans "in the state of nature," you're entering the realm of anthropology. If you try to address these questions without that basis, then you're just engaging in ethnocentric masturbation, enshrining your unexamined assumptions as axioms in grand philosophical arguments that amount to nothing more than an illustration of the GIGO principle, because your initial assumptions were B.S. to begin with.

1) why did we come up with civilizations to begin with?

This is a big question in anthropology, but the general view is climate change, as I mentioned above.

2) why, when these civilizations fall, other people ... or the descendants of those people, who are aware of the fall of this civilization, nonetheless, go and start up civilization again?

Because the conditions were still there. I'm a cultural materialist, so my thinking is that ideology follows material way of life. Of course, not all civilizations were rebuilt. Where the material resources were used up by the preceding civilizations, "neo-primitive" societies followed, as the Pueblo followed the Anasazi.

3) how does one convince 6 1/2 billion people who are ill-equipped to live as primitives that primitivism is best for them?

You don't. You convince whoever's willing to listen, and maybe that can help move us towards a gradual "powerdown" and let civilization deflate slowly. More likely, you just plant the seed of an idea, and when civilization collapses, some of them think to try it, giving us a few more survivors.

4) if one manages to convince everyone of this ... or things just go to hell ... how, in the future, can one be sure that people won't start up civilization again?

One doesn't. The lack of resources does.

can i argue that the only way that anyone could know that civilization was "bad" was to have the tools of civilization to investigate it?

I suppose--after all, you would need a civilization to decide if it was "bad." Wouldn't I need a cracklefrazznitz in order to decide that cracklefrazznitzes are blue?

if this paradox holds, that only civilized people can analyze and debunk civilization, doesn't that explain why primitive people start civilizations? ... that they don't know any better until it's too late?

How is that a paradox? You can't analyze something unless is exists to be analyzed--there's nothing whatsoever paradoxical about that. And yes, that's essentially the consensus opinon, that civilization's founders essentially didn't know what they were getting into.

But civilizations do not arise willy-nilly just because someone has the idea. They're driven by a unique (and rare) constellation of biological and geographical resources. Most of these resources have been consumed by this round of civilization. The ideology may rise and fall any number of times, but humans generally have a good way of quickly coming up with whatever ideology suits their material needs best. I know of no instances in history where ideology was really the prime motivator; it comes later, as a justification for actions taken for much more materialistic reasons. So civilization won't rise again for the same reason that a space shuttle does not immediately form beside you when you picture it in your mind: because it takes more than the idea, it takes the resources to do it.

if this is true, then isn't civilization, given the necessary resources, inevitable?

Yes, it does. That's what I've argued, anyway. With the right combination of domesticable species, with the right climate (a Holocene-like interglacial in an ice age), and the right geological resources (high-grade metal ores, for instance), civilization will arise. However, that combination will not be available again on a geological time scale, at which point we won't even be Homo sapiens anymore.

isn't that our real choice? ... getting over and OUT, or just moving up and down like a yo-yo until our species is extinct?

You can't make an unsustainable system sustainable just by going to another world. This video illustrates the problem well. If exponential growth continues, then you're just adding petri dishes. If we have a population big enough to consume one planet this generation, then in the next doubling period (we're down to 40 years now, global population was 3 billion in 1960) we'll consume two planets. Can we so thoroughly colonize not one, but two planets in just 40 years? Can we colonize four planets in the 40 years after that? Your plan would leave eight dead planets in our wake just by the end of this century. Exponential growth cannot last. It's always a temporary thing. We're subject to periodic overshoot, just like any other species under the right circumstances. Fortunately, it takes a very rare combination of circumstances for us to reach the levels we have today.

For the record, I did call him on it in another thread.

You did, and it was equally dumb there.

This is not an anthropological question unless you choose to simply skip to the unfounded conclusion that present society is not sustainable. It is an economic and scientific one.

That part is true. Of course, I haven't been using anthropological data for that part, I've been citing scientific data.

Yes. They do.

Evidence? As I mentioned above, the Wari certainly don't prove that assertion. They do not treat cannibalism as they do hunting for game; it's highly ritualized. It's a matter primarily of religion, not obtaining food.

...you point to a sweet potato patch -- that these particular people may or may not be cultivating --and say that my example isn't truly valid, that they are not actual primitives.

Ummm, New Guinea's farmers had their own Agricultural Revolution, on par with the one in the Middle East. They're some of the most intense cultivators in the world. That's no nit to pick, you might as well use medieval English serfs as examples of "primitive" societies.

Why is a collapse inevitable?

The long answer.

The short answer: Nothing can grow forever, so any system that requires constant growth is unsustainable. Since the defining characteristic of an unsustainable system is that it can never be sustained, that makes collapse inevitable.

It trades one elite (the financial elite) for another (those who get to make it into the next society).

What differentiates this elite is imagination, more than anything else. I believe the bottle-neck will not be resources, but the imagination to try a different way of life in the first place. Which is why I argue my point of view so forcefully and consistently; if I'm right (and that's certainly what the evidence tells me), then we're in store for the greatest loss of human life ever. It may not be avoidable at all, but if it is, this is how it would be possible. If it's not, then this is still the best way I can help the most people, so yes, I'm quite committed to that.

Whether you want to call it an elite or not is neither here nor there. It's a classic overshoot scenario, a textbook example of natural selection. You can call the black-colored moths elites all you like, but that doesn't really change much.

The fact that they may be the same (since elites will be able to preserve themselves for longer as collapse threatens) is an added dollop of irony.

Many people have suggested this, but I don't buy it. Money doesn't count for much when the economy collapses. As wealth transforms from a material matter to a social matter, elites who have alienated and abused others to hoard material goods will, I think, find the tables turned.

Intelligence and civilization (which is often, but not exclusively the operationalizing of intelligence, for good and bad) are dismissed because animals somehow represent something more essential about how the world works.

No, I'm dismissing intelligence because there's no evidence that it's ever led to different behavior. All we have is that intelligence might lead us to a different end, but we still need to hasten to add that this would also be the first time this has ever happened. That's why I dismiss it. It's never changed these things before--why would it start now?

It's an argument that is at once moralizing, and devoid of ethics....

...and completely unrelated to the argument I'm actually making. It's a straw man.

The thought that you might like to be guaranteed a tomato next summer, leading to the action of saving a seed, is the start of the dissolution of the whole project. In order for it to work, there must at least be a hierarchy which preserves the purity of the anti-agriculture ban.

Considering that I've specifically rejected that argument, ascribing it to me is an even more egregious straw man. Foragers utilize all manner of methods to favor the regrowth of their favored foods, and horticulture (see also, permaculture) seems like it could be perfectly sustainable as well. There's no need for any kind of vigil of the pure, because the changing resources and climate themselves preclude a return to agriculture.

But rather than seek solutions to the world's problems now, THE solution is to suggest (impose) an overarching solution which destroys human choice. This isn't even an argument for voluntary simplicity, but an imposition of limited choice that jefgodesky repeatedly suggests should be all we might want. Battlestar Galactica? Storytime! Board games? Gambling! Playing your violin? More leisure time! Bread? Bark!

A fine example that when you build straw men on top of other straw men, you just get something even more ridiculous. What I've illustrated is the wide range of choice and freedom available in primitive societies. Civilizations are remarkably homogenous the world over, for the simple reason that agriculture provides such a marginal existence that it cannot work very many different ways. The overwhelming majority of human cultural diversity is to be found in primitive societies. This isn't taking away freedom, it's granting it. There is no comfort in civilized life that isn't either (1) exceeded or matched in primitive life, or (2) answering a need that civilization itself creates. So no, I don't expect you'll find any activity that answers a real desire or need that primitive societies don't also answer. Why would you expect otherwise? Do you think they'd simply sit around for a million years, waiting for some smart white guy to give them what they need?

While integrating him into society as a shaman may help him, I'm much less sanguine that it will help society. I'm even more sure that I don't want him to be responsible for my major medical care.

Which is a common attitude in a society more interested in labeling pathologies than in correcting problems. The link between shamanism and schizophrenia has been debated, but to the extent that it's real, most shamanic traditions also incorporate some truly brilliant means of compensating for and treating the most pathological end of the schizophrenic experience. Integration into society, rather than rejection from it, also goes a long way to helping "dull the edges" of schizophrenia, if you will.

a louis wain cat -- Thanks for reading my site, and I agree wholeheartedly with you, that is the great tragedy of the whole thing.
posted by jefgodesky at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


What I've illustrated is the wide range of choice and freedom available in primitive societies.

Don't come to me with "straw man, straw man" and then suggest that I suggested that I think people in primitive societies are sitting around "waiting for the white man." Of course human needs and desires are supplied by such societies, but that doesn't make them not circumscribed by those societies. You can't both argue for cultural diversity and suggest that the only diversity worth considering is the diversity of "primitive cultures." You haven't explained why playing the violin (or just wanting to play it) is incommensurate with a just world, except that it's a product of a post-agriculture society. You've said exactly what I claimed: you'll get all of your needs and desires met as long as you agree to circumscribe your needs and desires. Of course you know that, what's at issue is that you think that it's acceptable because you believe in it so much.

I think the difference here really is between a utopian nihilism of inevitable collapse and a desire to change the world we have for the better. You've argued stridently for the former without explaining why the latter is impossible. (It may be, but you haven't argued it.) I think you've done that because you love the idea of the primitive society to come.
posted by OmieWise at 9:31 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky typed "A fine example that when you build straw men on top of other straw men, you just get something even more......"

Naw man, it's going to take way more than that, if you're seriously going to argue with OmieWise on that point. I don't agree with a lot of what OmieWise says, but he hit the nail on the head right there.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:54 AM on April 12, 2007


Which is a common attitude in a society more interested in labeling pathologies than in correcting problems. The link between shamanism and schizophrenia has been debated, but to the extent that it's real, most shamanic traditions also incorporate some truly brilliant means of compensating for and treating the most pathological end of the schizophrenic experience. Integration into society, rather than rejection from it, also goes a long way to helping "dull the edges" of schizophrenia, if you will.

What is it that you're trying to say here? Leave aside, for a minute, your valorization of primitive cultures and explain to me how and why certain schizophrenics are shamans and others are treated, and how the "most pathological" end of the schizophrenic spectrum is identified and dealt with. Your original argument was that schizophrenics are made into shamans, which is itself some form of integration of schizophrenia into culture. Now you seem to be suggesting that this is a carefully modulated process and that some schizophrenics aren't entrusted with a big portion of the spiritual and physical health of their communities, but are instead treated. By what?

And, very much as an aside, when I talk about schizophrenics and the pain and horror that many of them suffer in their lives, I'm not talking as a "society" interested in diagnosis, but as a clinician interested in cure. So keep your righteousness to yourself, especially if you don't have commensurate experience.
posted by OmieWise at 10:04 AM on April 12, 2007


Of course human needs and desires are supplied by such societies, but that doesn't make them not circumscribed by those societies.

In the general sense, yes, every society places certain limits on posssibilities. But this is a bizarre, bass-ackward argument in this case. Civilizations are intensely restrictive; primitive societies are incredibly permissive, and individualistic (Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher). You're talking about a massive expansion of individual freedom and cultural diversity. Civilizations are incredibly homogenous; most of the freedom and diversity in the human species comes from primitive societies. So, it's kind of a ridiculous point.

You can't both argue for cultural diversity and suggest that the only diversity worth considering is the diversity of "primitive cultures."

Actually, it's fairly easy. Even taking the most diverse civilizations, the biggest differences are largely cosmetic. It's fairly easy to translate the titles of even petty bureaucrats from one civilized language to another, for instance. Try wading into the debates about "Big Men" or "shamans," and their cross-cultural applicability, by comparison. The loss of civilization would only slightly reduce humanity's cultural diversity, since they're all so alike. But the effect civilization has on other cultures, and the ongoing "ethnocide" of the world's cultural diversity brought on by civilizations' expansion, leads to massive losses of cultural diversity. So, the overall effect on human cultural diversity of civilization's loss would be overwhelmingly positive: losing one small group of almost identical societies, in exchange for removing the pressure that is exterminating large numbers of highly diverse societies. Since essentially all of humanity's cultural diversity is found in primitive societies, yes, arguing for greater cultural diversity must be an argument about the diversity of primitive cultures. That's where essentially all of the diversity is.

You haven't explained why playing the violin (or just wanting to play it) is incommensurate with a just world, except that it's a product of a post-agriculture society.

I never said it was. We'd need to figure out if violin-making is something that can be done sustainably. If it is, all the better. If it isn't, this is no great loss, because there are many, many instruments we know can be made sustainably, with all the same musical and tonal richness and nuance, so in terms of musical quality, no sacrifice is necessary. Different, yes, but there's no need to sacrifice for something worse.

You've said exactly what I claimed: you'll get all of your needs and desires met as long as you agree to circumscribe your needs and desires. Of course you know that, what's at issue is that you think that it's acceptable because you believe in it so much.

That's not what I've said at all. I'm not talking about circumscribing anyone's needs or desires. I have said that some of the needs and desires we consider pertinent today are themselves created by civilization, so worrying how a primitive culture would satisfy needs and desires that simply don't arise in a primitive context is completely disingenuous. That's not circumscription; nobody's saying those needs or desires are illegitimate. They simply don't arise. In a primitive society, you won't have those needs or desires at all. There is no circumscription involved; it's a simple consequence of a way of life. Of course you know that, you're just grasping at a straw man.

You've argued stridently for the former without explaining why the latter is impossible. (It may be, but you haven't argued it.)

I have, at great length, but rather than reproduce it here, I've simply linked to it instead.

I think you've done that because you love the idea of the primitive society to come.

That's just plain wrong. I fought it as much as I could. But the evidence is overwhelming. What I think of it is irrelevant.

I don't agree with a lot of what OmieWise says, but he hit the nail on the head right there.

By attributing to me a series of beliefs that I have expressly rejected, and provided detailed reasons for? Seems a little odd, that.

Now you seem to be suggesting that this is a carefully modulated process and that some schizophrenics aren't entrusted with a big portion of the spiritual and physical health of their communities, but are instead treated. By what?

No, you're reading in implications that aren't there. They are treated by being shamans. Shamanism is very much tied into the "wounded healer" view; shamans often see themselves as healing themselves as much as others. Shamanism is highly integrative, which also helps contain schizophrenia and make it more controllable. Isn't this also what most of our therapy methods revolve around? Michael Winkelman goes into the neurology of shamanism in great detail in Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing (don't let the title fool you, it's heavy on the neurobiology).

And, very much as an aside, when I talk about schizophrenics and the pain and horror that many of them suffer in their lives, I'm not talking as a "society" interested in diagnosis, but as a clinician interested in cure. So keep your righteousness to yourself, especially if you don't have commensurate experience.

That's essentially part of the problem. As a clinician looking for a cure, you pathologize the condition all the more, rather than trying to integrate it and help make it less problematic. I'm sure you're familiar with Marinker's distinction of disease, illness and sickness. I'll assume your approach is very effective at treating the disease, but the coincident neglect of both the illness and the sickness inherently compromise the possible effectiveness of such an approach.
posted by jefgodesky at 10:57 AM on April 12, 2007


nasreddin said:

I don't think the cannibalism thing is nearly as damning as you think it is. First, the Wari are agriculturalists. Second, so what? Are you saying that primitivist society will inevitably be cannibalistic?

I mentioned the Wari as an example of a people who practice aggressive, war-related cannibalism. They kill their enemies and eat them afterward. I mentioned them because of the primitivists’ tendency to reduce cannibalism to a benign funerary practice, one done out of respect for the deceased. Much of the time, that is the case. But there are exceptions, which the primitivists seem to be waving away because war cannibalism is inconsistent with their idealized notions of primitive people.

I do not think that primitivist society – hypothetically, of course – would inevitably lead to cannibalism. But I do note that jefgodesky has described primitive people as very practical people and I don’t doubt his assertion, especially in light of their often-harsh material circumstances. When you combine that kind of mindset with the Us-And-Them schemas that human beings seem to cook up no matter where you put us . . . well, I don’t think it would take too much imagination to figure out what the occasional result might be.

I’d also like to comment on the primitivists’ use of the word “primitive.” It reminds me of how I used to use the word “socialism” when I was a painfully earnest young Trotskyite. I would sing the praises of the great new world to come and then someone would point out the many flaws of the existing communist states. My response was always that the government they condemned didn’t represent real socialism. No, no – that atrocity or abuse was the result of Stalinism. That regime wasn’t a workers state; it was a deformed workers’ state.

I see a similar semantic game taking place here in this discussion. The primitivists praise primitive life, primitive culture. Someone mentions that primitive life has its drawbacks, its cultural weaknesses. They dismiss the example given as unrepresentative of real primitive life. And so on and so forth.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:30 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky-

Here's why so many of us are frustrated. You argue like an academic, encapsulated in theory and insulated from unpleasant realities that render your theories wrong. The frustration I have is that you appear to be willfuly insulating yourself for the realities. You state things categorically that are either completely wrong or the subject of debate. You suggest that people in primitive societies don't get cancer? Do you realize how crazy that proposition is?

I have to question your motives here because you write well and are therefore not an idiot. Are you trying to get a book deal or something? Are you trying to package this idea and sell it somehow? That would explain the stubborn refulsal to move on the position, because that would entail constantly revising everything on your site. The idea that you want to market this is the only thing that would explain the bizarre opposition to modifying your worldview even slightly to fit the reality.

There are people here who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, historians, musicians, composers, energy experts, biologists etc. Do you really think that because you read something in a book or paper that means your knowledge trumps what other people know after decades of study and work?

I'm sorry if thios sounds like an ad hominem attack, but it seems to me you have no experience outside of your chosen fields of study which I'm guessing would be anthropology and computers(?). Have you ever sat down to compare a pygmy song to a symphony? To ascertain what are the characteristics of each, what makes them qualitatively similar, what makes them qualitatively different, and then to determine why perhaps I chose Mozart as the example, and not Beethoven, or Brahams or Haydn or somebody else? To say I'm being ethonocentric to state that a Mozart symphony represents a greater accomplishment than a pygmy folk song is absurd because a Mozart symphony is also a greater accomplishment than most other contemporary symphonies. It's a greater cultural achievement than German folk songs as well. Do you understand why other people think that? Entire sections of libraries have been filled with objective frameworks to consider this question and why it is so. But you see a reference to a European cultural achievement and your instinct is to attack it as ethnocentric, because that's a discussion you know how to have.

It is blatantly obvious that Omniwise is a mental health professional. Have you ever met a seriously ill schizophrenic? Do you understand that they are in pain, that they want to rid themselves of the disease?

Suggesting they should be shamans forces them to be imprisoned by their disease for the rest of their lives and to like it, but also forces the rest of us to repress our empathy. Are we supposed to take the shaman seriously when he rants about North Korea, or sun gods? Is this what the primitive world requires of us, to be brutal and uncaring of one another when we don't understand or can't help them?

You have an opportunity here to meet and connect with people who understand the world differently than you and to ask them why they think what they do. Or do you think they are all stupid? Are the rest of us the primitives, and you're the only enlightened one?
posted by Pastabagel at 11:35 AM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky, I was going to quote your whole paragraph on the relative diversity of culture, but it's too long. Suffice it to say that I really don't know what you mean. Mayan civilization and Tuareg civilization and French civilization and Breton civilization are largely homogeneous? Why? I understand that in terms of number of languages and different societies primitive peoples may represent a larger overall number, but I don't understand why that discounts the cultures and languages represented by civilization. I'm genuinely puzzled about this point.

My larger response, though, is that you're kind of a crackpot who isn't quite as smart as you think you are. I'm sorry to resort to that kind of a personal statement, but I've read through several of the "Theses" and your arguments here, and they all suffer from the same flaw, which is that you argue from a foregone conclusion. That's fine, but impossible to argue with, as the conclusion always comes first. Your thesis on Diversity as the Greatest Good is a great example of this, you seem to derive first principles without actually deriving anything. Although I see, that like Eichmann, you can quote the categorical imperative.

You also frequently argue beyond the evidence that you think you're providing. Your Small Band thesis is a good example for this, where you 1) reduce the proper structure of human society to biology and 2) call the evidence for it "all but proven" when only the correlation has been established. I would not go so far as to suggest that you're being disingenuous, but I would suggest that you have an almost astonishing ability to ignore disconfirming evidence and hard questions. (Although one of your greatest flaws as a thinker is that you seem to think that you're confronting the really hard stuff.)

Your take on my work with schizophrenics is indefensible, and it leads me to suggest that you probably have no practical experience with anything about which you write, for if you're able to be that glib about something you obviously have no real experience with, I have no reason to take any of your other views particularly seriously.

Good day.
posted by OmieWise at 11:49 AM on April 12, 2007


I'm sorry, I now realize that for months now I thought your username was "Omniwise" and called you by such above, instead of "OmieWise". My fault.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:04 PM on April 12, 2007



Here's why so many of us are frustrated. You argue like an academic, encapsulated in theory and insulated from unpleasant realities that render your theories wrong. The frustration I have is that you appear to be willfuly insulating yourself for the realities. You state things categorically that are either completely wrong or the subject of debate. You suggest that people in primitive societies don't get cancer? Do you realize how crazy that proposition is?


The fact that primitive people get cancer at rates much lower than civilized societies is tremendously well-established. Cancer is largely a lifestyle disease.


There are people here who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, historians, musicians, composers, energy experts, biologists etc. Do you really think that because you read something in a book or paper that means your knowledge trumps what other people know after decades of study and work?


DO YOU EVEN REALIZE WHAT YOU'RE SAYING?!
--
I have yet to see any of these alleged experts bring in any knowledge from their field. I have seen smug reiterations of the same, long-refuted arguments.

Wake me up when you can provide a fact and evidence-based refutation of jefgodesky. If you can find your argument in this list (I have found nearly all of them there), it doesn't count.
posted by nasreddin at 12:04 PM on April 12, 2007


I see a similar semantic game taking place here in this discussion. The primitivists praise primitive life, primitive culture. Someone mentions that primitive life has its drawbacks, its cultural weaknesses. They dismiss the example given as unrepresentative of real primitive life. And so on and so forth.

There is a problem with definitions, but I don't think it's the exact problem you're describing. To be fair, we should have corrected this misunderstanding a while ago.

The problem is with the term "primitive." jefgodesky and I are advocating hunter-gatherer bands, and dipping our toes into the possibility of horticultural tribes. We usually try to avoid such vague terms as "primitive," which can be used to describe everything from the Bushmen of the Kalahari to the Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But that's the language that this thread started out using (and we really should have corrected it long ago): industrial civilization vs. everything not industrial civilization.

Because "primitive" encapsulates "everything not industrial civilization," a lot of people in this thread perceive us as advocating that. But we're not. Horticulturalists tend to be extremely violent, and so that's not the kind of society we'd like to create. We should have made that clear from the get-go, and I regret that we didn't.

This isn't some kind of sinister semantic game we've cooked up to confuse or mislead people; it's just a simple misunderstanding of definitions.

You have an opportunity here to meet and connect with people who understand the world differently than you and to ask them why they think what they do.

Do you think jefgodesky was raised in a primitivist home or family? He used to agree with everyone else in this thread, as did I. Since he used to hold your position, and you have never been a primitivist, shouldn't it be you who tries to ask him why he thinks what he does, rather than shouting him down and insulting him, as you've done consistently here and in other threads?
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 12:06 PM on April 12, 2007


The fact that primitive people get cancer at rates much lower than civilized societies is tremendously well-established. Cancer is largely a lifestyle disease.

That's because they die of other things first. While cancer rates in the third world are lower, this is because more people in the third world on a percentage basis die from injury or infectious disease than in the industrialized world. As infectious diseases comes under control, it's expected that cancer rates will increase. As people live longer, the incidence of cancer increases.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:19 PM on April 12, 2007


Anyamatopoeia typed "Do you think jefgodesky was raised in a primitivist home or family? He used to agree with everyone else in this thread, as did I."

Well, in fairness, discovering an overarching worldview really doesn't make you more intelligent. Most Scientologists started off as non-Scientologists too. (Not equating those things, obviously.)

Ideally, the learning should be going both ways, but very little of that has taken place. It's hard to fight dogma with dogma, but dang near impossible to fight dogma with listening.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:24 PM on April 12, 2007


jefgodesky: I could just as well say that crows are the only species with crow-intelligence, or chimps with chimp-intelligence, and they're all their own data points. What makes us so sure that our scientific method is so qualitatively different?

Stop being intentionally stupid. Look directly ahead - see that computer? There's all the proof you'll ever need that human science is vastly different from that of any animal on the Earth.

No animal on Earth makes artifacts that even approach the complexity of a single electronic component of that machine. Hell, no animal makes anything even resembling the complexity of a simple artifact like a bow.

Yes, you may consider it to only be a quantitative difference, but it's still a difference on the scale of the difference between a few atoms of hydrogen and a star.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:28 PM on April 12, 2007


Well, in fairness, discovering an overarching worldview really doesn't make you more intelligent. Most Scientologists started off as non-Scientologists too. (Not equating those things, obviously.)

My argument is not that jefgodesky is smarter for having changed his worldview, merely that he has already experienced Pastabagel's worldview and therefore already knows what the logic is behind it. PB's assertion that this is jef's big opportunity to communicate with people who disagree with him and ask them what's behind their beliefs is based on the assumption that he has never spoken with people who disagree with his current worldview. On the contrary, he has been one of those people.

Ideally, the learning should be going both ways, but very little of that has taken place. It's hard to fight dogma with dogma, but dang near impossible to fight dogma with listening.

No matter how many times you claim jefgodesky is arguing from dogma, the fact remains that not only has he provided logical arguments and a lengthy list of citations, but he is the only person in this entire thread that has provided a single citation to support his arguments.

To everyone here: name a book. Name an article. Name some source other than "everybody knows this, it's common sense." Just name one book before you start accusing of dogmatism the only man here who's cited any sources at all.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 12:40 PM on April 12, 2007


I should add: jason's_planet, for example, has also cited sources, and probably others I'm forgetting. I exaggerated; jefgodesky is not the only man in the thread who's cited sources. But he's damn close to it.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 12:42 PM on April 12, 2007


Since he used to hold your position, and you have never been a primitivist, shouldn't it be you who tries to ask him why he thinks what he does, rather than shouting him down and insulting him, as you've done consistently here and in other threads?
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 3:06 PM on April 12

I have in the past asked him, and he's very forthcoming with what he knows and his opinions, to be sure. I've never seen him do the same. This thread is an example. If he feels insulted, I apologize, that's my frustration talking.

As for nasreddin's comment asking for facts and evidence, I keep offering them up, and they are ignored or dismissed as wrong when they aren't. Scroll up a bit to where schizophrenia was first mentioned in this thread. I brought it up as specific example - a refutation of his statement that he'd rather have a folk remedy to ailments rather than a "western medicine" remedy. I brought up a list of things, which have no known folk remedy - coronary artery disease, cancer, schizophrenia - and the response was that with respect to the first two, he wouldn't get them because primitives don't get them (even though he isn't a primitive), which you yourself have admitted they do, and to the latter, that schizophrenics should be made shamans, a destiny which apparently the schizophrenic has no say in.

I gave specific examples, the response was to dismiss the question.

Furthermore, I'm not sure what I'm refuting in these threads. What's the argument that you folks are proposing?
I suspect neither you nor he knows, because of the way you 'fisk' your way through other people's comments. I confess to be guilty of this myself at times in the past, by I've been careful not to do it here.

What is the argument, that primitive culture is better or more sustainable? Which primitive culture? An ideal primitive culture? Define better. Define sustainable. Is it better to be more sustainable if that happens at the expense of technological or scientific advancement? How do we measure it? And better or more sustainable than what? Our culture now? Victorian England? 16th century Japan? Ancient Greece? An ideal technologically advanced society? What?
posted by Pastabagel at 12:43 PM on April 12, 2007


he has already experienced Pastabagel's worldview and therefore already knows what the logic is behind it....

He has experienced my worldview? And you know what my worldview is? I'm no mind-reader, but my hunch is that what you don't know about my worldview could just about fill the universe.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:59 PM on April 12, 2007


(still not a primitivist, but I feel obliged to respond anyway)

What is the argument, that primitive culture is better or more sustainable? Which primitive culture? An ideal primitive culture?


Any non-agricultural society. But really, it's about seeing how primitive people do things and learning from that. So the aggregate of all primitive cultures.

Define better. Define sustainable.

I can't define better, ask Aristotle. Sustainable, here, means "not leading to resource scarcity and overpopulation-fueled near-term environmental, social, and political collapse accompanied by global thermonuclear war."


Is it better to be more sustainable if that happens at the expense of technological or scientific advancement?


Yes. And you think so too; what if I said we should use all our resources to build ten thousand supercolliders?

How do we measure it?

Why do we need to? It's pretty much a binary variable: either your society leads to global destruction or it doesn't.

And better or more sustainable than what? Our culture now? Victorian England? 16th century Japan? Ancient Greece? An ideal technologically advanced society? What?

Our culture now, which is, primitivists would argue, broadly speaking an inevitable result of agriculture.

Why is this so hard to understand?
posted by nasreddin at 1:03 PM on April 12, 2007


But there are exceptions, which the primitivists seem to be waving away because war cannibalism is inconsistent with their idealized notions of primitive people.

The Wari once had a fairly vast civilization, until it was wiped out by smallpox. Even today, as I showed above, their war cannibalism is more religious than dietary. This is hardly waving away; these are major complications to consider. I don't have idealized notions of primitive peoples; cannibalism and all manner of other nasty things take place in primitive societies. But dietary cannibalism is just the kind of myth that one group makes up to defame their neighbors. Even the Greeks were alleging their neighbors were dietary cannibals, but it's always been an empty charge.

I’d also like to comment on the primitivists’ use of the word “primitive.” It reminds me of how I used to use the word “socialism” when I was a painfully earnest young Trotskyite. I would sing the praises of the great new world to come and then someone would point out the many flaws of the existing communist states. My response was always that the government they condemned didn’t represent real socialism. No, no – that atrocity or abuse was the result of Stalinism. That regime wasn’t a workers state; it was a deformed workers’ state.

Frankly, I'm not too thrilled with the word "primitive." It's loaded, and it's not entirely accurate. Hunter-gatherers are my real role models, and to a lesser extent, some horticulturalists. I've come around to thinking that horticulture may be sustainable, but it's certainly not the nicest way of life, but it could fit into the millieu. This isn't hand-waving at all, but rather the ambiguity of the term "primitive." What you're talking about--the Wari and the farmers in New Guinea--are, by my estimations, nearly as civilized as we are.

If you'd like a list of what cultures I'd call the "core" that I look to most, I'd point out the San Bushmen, the Australian Aborigines, the Pygmies, and to a lesser extent the Inuit (they do what they have to to get by, but living in the Arctic made them a very unique kind of hunter-gatherer). I'd happily consider any other example of hunter-gatherers, though I do see some cultures as being unique, like the Kwakiutl and related Pacific Northwest foragers, or the Plains Indians (largely formed from the shattered remains of other tribes, formed around the European artifacts of guns and horses).

Pastabagel -- Promises, promises ... I thought you were done with this thread?

Here's why so many of us are frustrated. You argue like an academic, encapsulated in theory and insulated from unpleasant realities that render your theories wrong. The frustration I have is that you appear to be willfuly insulating yourself for the realities.

I didn't think my personal experience would really matter all that much--wouldn't that be an ad hominem fallacy? Arguing based on who I am?

You state things categorically that are either completely wrong or the subject of debate.

Like? There are sides of debates I've agreed with, and I've pointed out where they are still debated as well as the evidence why I agree with the side I do, but I'd like to know what I've said that was "completely wrong."

You suggest that people in primitive societies don't get cancer? Do you realize how crazy that proposition is?

Certainly sounds crazy, but after Stanislaw Tanchou declared that no primitive would ever be found with cancer, there was a mad dash to prove him wrong. Even today, examples of someone living a hunter-gatherer life with cancer remains non-existent. As our understanding of cancer has broadened, this has become increasingly sensible; our bodies produce cancerous cells at a given rate, slow enough for our immune systems to identify and destroy them. We get cancer when the immune system is depressed, or the rate of cancerous cells being produced goes up. Wheat-based diets do both, to say nothing of all our modern pollutants.

That would explain the stubborn refulsal to move on the position, because that would entail constantly revising everything on your site.

I've changed my mind there a few times. I don't bother revising, that would be deeply dishonest. My "stubborn refusal to move" is because you haven't convinced me. You haven't presented ay good evidence that I'm wrong. Do so, and then we can talk about stubbornness. But I've really got to question your motives and your stubbornness, since I've marshalled a good bit of evidence here, and you have presented absolutely nothing of the sort.

Do you really think that because you read something in a book or paper that means your knowledge trumps what other people know after decades of study and work?

No, but neither do I submit humbly to their opinions simply because they're doctors or lawyers. I want evidence, not just the voice of authority. Again, if I were satisfied with the word from on high, I'd still be in the Catholic Church and listening to the pope. I want evidence before I'll change my mind. What's more, specialization often costs as much as it provides. It gives sharp, incisive insight into a narrow niche. We're talking about the very kind of issue that specialists are systematically blinded to by their own specialization.

And it's not something I read in a book or paper. It's something I read in many, many books and papers, over years of intense study.

To say I'm being ethonocentric to state that a Mozart symphony represents a greater accomplishment than a pygmy folk song is absurd because a Mozart symphony is also a greater accomplishment than most other contemporary symphonies.

I'll admit that I've not studied any kind of music, Western included, with any special intensity. I am vaguely aware of some of the nuances of Mozart vs. Beethoven vs. Haydn, though I would hardly call myself a specialist on it. And the symphonies Mozart composed are truly works of genius. I concede that readily. But genius is not confined to the West, either. Pygmy songs are likewise genius. I have no dobut that few of them could match Mozart's symphonies, since you're comparing the very best the West has come up with. But by the same token, compared to the very best Pygmy songs, I also doubt the gap would be very great. They are qualitatively different, absolutely, no doubt about it. But better? Is the human race impoverished if we lose Mozart and gain something new on par with Pygmy songs, versus losing Pygmy songs to keep Mozart? I doubt it very much.

Have you ever met a seriously ill schizophrenic? Do you understand that they are in pain, that they want to rid themselves of the disease?

Yes, I have met seriously ill schizophrenics, and yes, I understand that they are in pain and want to rid themselves of the disease. Do you understand that this has as much to do with cultural factors as it does with the disease itself? Illness (the psychological experience of disease) and sickness (the sociological experience of disease) are equally important in creating that pain. I have no doubt that OmieWise's methods are much better at treating the disease, but they do not treat the illness or the sickness. By contrast, shamanic traditions treat illness and sickness exceptionally well, thus greatly easing the pain of the disease.

Suggesting they should be shamans forces them to be imprisoned by their disease for the rest of their lives and to like it, but also forces the rest of us to repress our empathy. Are we supposed to take the shaman seriously when he rants about North Korea, or sun gods? Is this what the primitive world requires of us, to be brutal and uncaring of one another when we don't understand or can't help them?

That's ridiculous. Shamanism is a very wide category, and it's hardly a great imposition. Rather, it gives context to their condition. It doesn't require any repression of empathy at all; the shaman is a "wounded healer," regarded at once with both empathy and respect. It doesn't repress your empathy, but it does require you to respect that person as more than just the "victim" of a "disease." That very label robs them of their self-respect, and puts them into a social role that greatly compounds the effects of the disease itself. By providing a context for them, the disease is eaed. You don't get rants about North Korean plots. What primitive society requires of you is to find the good in everyone, to find the talents they have, and to expand your empathy rather than falling back on crutches of victimhood, where you can feel like you're being "empathetic" while putting them into a position that robs them of their self-respect. It forces you to deal with people, rather than labels. That's what primitive societies require of you.

Civilizations, now, they require us to be brutal and uncaring of one another when we don't understand or can't help them. They require us to label everything we don't entirely understand "schizophrenia" (largely regarded as one of the biggest, broadest waste-bin categories in the DSM IV), filed under the larger heading of "mentally ill," so that we don't have to deal with the ramifications of calling them "human beings." We can shuffle them into a mental hospital and feel smugly superior. I respect the work psychiatrists and other mental health professionals do to try to ease their problems, but inside of a cultural system that so exacerbates the illness and the sickness, it's an uphill battle. They do some great things, but they could do even greater things if they weren't working in a cultural context that was outright hostile to such people.

Or do you think they are all stupid? Are the rest of us the primitives, and you're the only enlightened one?

I don't pretend to know who's stupid or enlightened, including myself. By the same token, I don't believe everything someone says just because they say they're smart. I've met some brilliant people who have believed some cockamamie bullshit. Intelligence is very contextual; someone can be a genius at one thing, and an idiot at another. Most importantly, I don't believe something just because Mr. Smarty told me so. I don't trust arguments from authority. I want evidence. It eliminates any question of who's smart or who's not or who we should listen to or who we shouldn't. We put forth the evidence, and we let the evidence do the talking. I wouldn't believe Einstein unless he could put forth some good evidence.

Mayan civilization and Tuareg civilization and French civilization and Breton civilization are largely homogeneous? Why?

This is difficult to quantify, obviously, but let's take a look at the structure of each society. The Mayans had kings, who had ministers, who ordered the people around. The French had kings, who had ministers, who ordered the people around. Today, they have ministers, who have bureaucrats, who order people around. Bretons, the same. It's easy to translate "king" in each language, because they're all had one. They live lives that are largely the same.

Now, look at how difficult it is to use "Big Man" or "Shaman" in a cross-cultural context. In the American southwest, shamans were nearly priests wielding secretive religious power. The Iroquois didn't have "shamans" nearly so much as they had medicine societies--entirely different. There are aquatic foragers, they are foragers that hide in the jungles (Pygmies), there are equestrian foragers (Plains Indians), there are arctic foragers and there are foragers in the Kalahari. Let's look again at the structure of these societies. The Bushmen of the Kalahari live in bands that fission and fuse regularly. The Plains Indians have largely, tribe level organization that also criss-crosses bands with clan identities and sodalities. The Kwakiutl had a forager chiefdom.

The differences between civilizations are mostly cosmetic--whether we call him a "President" or a "Prime Minister." The real cultural differences in humanity are found in primitive societies. See also The Foraging Spectrum by Robert Kelly, or Cultural Diversity among Twentieth-Century Foragers, edited by Susan Kent.

...but I've read through several of the "Theses" and your arguments here, and they all suffer from the same flaw, which is that you argue from a foregone conclusion.

I'm defending a conclusion with evidence. That's different from a foregone conclusion. My Theses are in the original sense: a thesis, an idea. I present the evidence to support it. That's not a foregone conclusion; the argument I present is why the conclusion is true. It's true that I worked out the conclusions before I began writing the theses, but that doesn't mean they can't be argued. They can be argued quite easily: provide evidence to the contrary.

Your Small Band thesis is a good example for this, where you 1) reduce the proper structure of human society to biology and 2) call the evidence for it "all but proven" when only the correlation has been established. I would not go so far as to suggest that you're being disingenuous, but I would suggest that you have an almost astonishing ability to ignore disconfirming evidence and hard questions.

Well, I said that Dunbar's number is all but proven, and I believe that illustrates that the human capacity for a society's scale has become a matter of biology due to our evolution in a given social context. This is much more than a causation, as it also provides a mechanism (humans only have sufficient neurological capacity for rather small-scale societies, so large scale societies are only possible through significant compromises, like stereotypes and hierarchies).

Your take on my work with schizophrenics is indefensible, and it leads me to suggest that you probably have no practical experience with anything about which you write, for if you're able to be that glib about something you obviously have no real experience with, I have no reason to take any of your other views particularly seriously.

There's nothing glib about it. Surely you understand how important social constructions are in a problem like schizophrenia. Such is the stuff that the whole of anthropology of medicine is made up of. If you're not aware of that context, then I have given you too much credit.

That's because they die of other things first.

How many times does this need to be proven untrue before you'll stop throwing this back up as if we haven't already been through this, in detail?

While cancer rates in the third world are lower, this is because more people in the third world on a percentage basis die from injury or infectious disease than in the industrialized world.

Yes, in the agrarian Third World. The Ju/'hoansi pastoralist neighbors are lucky to reach 30. They live into their 60s and 70s.

Well, in fairness, discovering an overarching worldview really doesn't make you more intelligent.

We're not talking about intelligent, we're talking about unexamined assumptions. One can stay very easily in the same worldview without challenging any of one's unexamined assumptions. It's changing your worldview that entails that. So, you could call me naive, and that could stick, but saying that I've never examined my assumptions? It just doesn't work.

Ideally, the learning should be going both ways, but very little of that has taken place. It's hard to fight dogma with dogma, but dang near impossible to fight dogma with listening.

I'm not really here to convert anyone. This thread opened up to mock and deride my point of view. I'm just here to argue why it isn't insane, why it's a viable point of view. If I trigger a few imaginations along the way, so much the better, but I'm mostly here to defend my point of view, not to try to promulgate it. I am listening, I just don't hear anything but people repeating the same old tired canards that I'd disproven long, long ago. It doesn't matter how many times Pastabagel says, "They die of other things before they get that old," it won't change the fact that there's really very little difference between the life expectancies of hunter-gatherers in the world's most marginal ecologies, and the longest-lived, healthiest elites of the First World. Repitition is not evidence.

Stop being intentionally stupid. Look directly ahead - see that computer? There's all the proof you'll ever need that human science is vastly different from that of any animal on the Earth.

Stop being intentionally stupid. This computer is not fundamentally different from any other tool we or any other animal has ever created. More importantly, the Maya had some pretty snazzy kowledge and technology. So did the Anasazi. Stuff that stll impresses the hell out of us today. It didn't change anything for them. If you want to argue that things will go differently for us because we have science and technology, I can grant that as a possibility. But you also need to acknowledge the inescapable historical truth that this is nothing more or less than a statement of faith, because despite ample opportunity, it's never happened before.

I have in the past asked him, and he's very forthcoming with what he knows and his opinions, to be sure. I've never seen him do the same. This thread is an example. If he feels insulted, I apologize, that's my frustration talking.

I'm confused, I couldn't really follow what you meant by this. What exactly is it you'd like to see from me? When you say, "I've never seen him do the same," I lose you there--what did you mean by that?

I brought up a list of things, which have no known folk remedy - coronary artery disease, cancer, schizophrenia - and the response was that with respect to the first two, he wouldn't get them because primitives don't get them (even though he isn't a primitive), which you yourself have admitted they do, and to the latter, that schizophrenics should be made shamans, a destiny which apparently the schizophrenic has no say in.

Take "shaman" to mean "schizophrenic." There are certain things none of us have any say in, regardless of society. But where we call them "schizophrenics," to mean they are victims of some terrible disease, they call them "shamans," to mean someone who both suffers, and through that suffering, possesses great power worthy of respect. It's a social construction that takes away a lot of the damage the disease does in our context.

Now, I'm not a primitive now, and I may well suffer health effects for my civilized years, but my children won't suffer from coronary disease or cancer, as we've already discussed. Yes, to be the transitional generation sucks, but at least this way it gives a future to my children, and for at least a few decades I'll get to live a real human life.

I gave specific examples, the response was to dismiss the question.

The question was not dismissed at all. You were trying to point out that primitive societies are inferior, because they cannot deal with these medical problems. But if they also eliminate those problems from arising in the first place, then that eliminates any argument about primitive societies' inferiority, doesn't it? In fact, isn't it better to prevent a condition from ever occuring, than to have risky surgical procedures that usually can address them when they do?

Furthermore, I'm not sure what I'm refuting in these threads. What's the argument that you folks are proposing?

That primitive societies enjoy a generally higher quality of life.

What is the argument, that primitive culture is better or more sustainable?

Well, I take more sustainable for granted, but we can argue that, if you like. You might say "better," but I prefer higher quality of life.

Which primitive culture? An ideal primitive culture?

Hunter-gatherer cultures, as a group, compared to civilized cultures, as a group.

Define better.

Higher quality of life.

Define sustainable.

Where r is the total resources a society requires, D(r) is the rate at which r is depleted, and R(r) is the rate at which r is replenished, for a sustainable society:

D(r)/R(r) >= 1

For an unsustainable society:

D(r)/R(r) < 1 or, in less formal terms, a sustainable society does not eliminate itself. it will still eventually end, due to climate change or some other outside input, but it does not create its own impetus for collapse. collapse will happen em>to it. The difference between a gun shot and dying from a coronary blockage because you had french fries for every meal, every day. In one, your end is something that happens to you; in the other, it's something you did to yourself.

Is it better to be more sustainable if that happens at the expense of technological or scientific advancement?

Absolutely. Who cares about technological or scientific advancement if your society is destroyed in the process? Do any of us care about the science or technology of Chaco Canyon?

How do we measure it?

Measure what? Sustainability? Quality of life? Both have established metrics.

And better or more sustainable than what? Our culture now? Victorian England? 16th century Japan? Ancient Greece? An ideal technologically advanced society? What?

Civilizations as a group. They're all so homogeneous that it doesn't make much difference, really. We'll take the most impressive examples we can find from any of them, just to be sure we're comparing against the very best civilization is capable of.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:06 PM on April 12, 2007


I brought up a list of things, which have no known folk remedy - coronary artery disease, cancer, schizophrenia - and the response was that with respect to the first two, he wouldn't get them because primitives don't get them (even though he isn't a primitive), which you yourself have admitted they do, and to the latter, that schizophrenics should be made shamans, a destiny which apparently the schizophrenic has no say in.

This is a gross misstatement. First, I admitted that on rare occasions, coronary artery disease and cancer do occur in primitive cultures, but much more rarely.

You say they don't get cancer because they don't live long enough, but the life expectancy argument was disproved upthread. You have no independent evidence for this.

And really, who do you think you're kidding? Heart disease rates have shot up over the last few decades, not because our genetics changed, but because of lifestyle differences. Same thing with cancer.

The schizophrenia thing is pretty silly. No one is forced into being a shaman. And are you saying that mental health treatment in our society is non-coercive?
posted by nasreddin at 1:11 PM on April 12, 2007


What's the argument that you folks are proposing?

The Thirty Theses

I brought up a list of things, which have no known folk remedy - coronary artery disease, cancer, schizophrenia - and the response was that with respect to the first two, he wouldn't get them because primitives don't get them (even though he isn't a primitive), which you yourself have admitted they do

When on earth did I say that? I just got here and I haven't even mentioned medicine.

I suspect neither you nor he knows, because of the way you 'fisk' your way through other people's comments.

I readily admit that I haven't been responding to everything people are saying, primarily because I view this as jefgodesky's fight and I'm just providing a little backup where I can. That certainly isn't evidence that we don't have a coherent worldview. And anyway, I don't see jefgodesky doing that.

Even if this debate weren't founded on problematic terms (as you pointed out, which "primitive" culture?), the dynamic of this thread has primarily been jefgodesky and a few others defending primitivism. When you're on the defense, you're working within others' framework to explain specific beliefs one at a time, which makes it difficult for the opposing side to grasp your overall worldview.

I have in the past asked him, and he's very forthcoming with what he knows and his opinions, to be sure.

If you have, those questions are buried quite deeply beneath everything else you've said to him. In the same post in which you brought up a list of diseases, you told him he was either a liar or an idiot for not wanting modern medicine. From what I've seen, that comment is pretty representative of the overall tone you've taken with him.

But if you want me to ask, I'll ask: what has led you to believe what you believe? And what makes you so utterly sure we're wrong? Is it because you want to get a book deal?
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 1:12 PM on April 12, 2007


When on earth did I say that? I just got here and I haven't even mentioned medicine.

Oy. I need to use the preview button more often. Pastabagel was addressing nasreddin, not me. Sorry about that.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 1:25 PM on April 12, 2007


Stop being intentionally stupid. This computer is not fundamentally different from any other tool we or any other animal has ever created.

Computers vary fundamentally from animal tools on three levels:

Reason - we understand how and why they work. It is very difficult to demonstrate that an animal tool-users has any idea how his tools work - most of them are simple enough to operate using behavioral conditioning. Those that aren't, are generally those produced by quasi-sapient animals (chimps, dolphins, etc.) that tend to have self-awareness and other characteristics.

Layering - Computers rely on previous advances, some of which are in other fields. Animal tools are mostly singular discoveries - a raven might learn to use a stick as a tool, or a sharp rock, but it isn't likely to ever attach the two and make a spear. And if it does, it isn't going to ever make it to the spear-thrower, or the bow and arrow. Humans, on the other hand, stack advances in technology and science upon one another to reach unprecedented heights.

Complexity - Of course, human technology is at least thousands of times more complex than animal tech.

More importantly, the Maya had some pretty snazzy kowledge and technology. So did the Anasazi. Stuff that stll impresses the hell out of us today. It didn't change anything for them.

How do you know that? It might have helped them survive for far longer and given them vastly better qualities of life. Sure, they're gone now, but everything ends eventually - going primitive will not make humanity eternal. We might make it for a few million years but eventually a good plague, famine, or planetary catastrophe would destroy us.

If you want to argue that things will go differently for us because we have science and technology, I can grant that as a possibility. But you also need to acknowledge the inescapable historical truth that this is nothing more or less than a statement of faith, because despite ample opportunity, it's never happened before.

Wasn't I the one just arguing that we couldn't tell if science and technology would save us because it had never occurred before? Yes, I believe I was:

"We play by some of our own rules, and other species' failure to save themselves via science doesn't say anything about our future."

"You're side-stepping my point anyway - we are the only scientific and technological society there has ever been on the Earth. We are our own data point. There is no good comparison to draw with any other species."

Anyways, I think at the end of the day, we agree on the stakes - your primitivism sacrifices ~98% of the population to create a primitive way of life for ~2%, and my technology risks 100% of the population in hopes of sustaining a technological existence for most of them. I favor the technological end for a few reasons:

1. I don't consider survival in an endless primitive state to be worthwhile. That represents the end of all progress and achievement for humanity - no deeper knowledge will ever be discovered, nothing great built, nothing worthwhile achieved. Nothing would ever improve except on petty, local scales. It's like an endless coma for intelligent life.

2. I don't consider 98% death to be much better than 100%. First of all, as pampered first-worlders, we're both on the wrong side of that 98%, as is everyone we know. Secondly, the survivors will be a wreck.

3. I think the probability of technological survival is quite good. There's nothing theoretically impossible about keeping a technological population alive. It's quite possibly more achievable than getting everyone on the planet to achieve primitivism. Furthermore, I think the possibility of primitivist death is also quite good. Genetic evidence suggests that the species was reduced to 10,000 or so members not that long ago in geological time - our species is not terribly viable without high technology.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:50 PM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


As a fellow primitivist, I must ask jefgodesky to stop. Jefgodesky, you are falling into the same trap as the technologists you are arguing against. You see a problem with the world, and so you try to solve it with posts to MetaFilter and webpages and flash games about the evils of horticulture and its proponents (goddamn Harvest Moon).

Unfortunately, thesis 14 proves that your efforts are doomed to failure. In fact, by employing tools of increasing complexity you are just speeding up the inevitable crash. So please, stop investing in this technological, horticultural, and civilizational course of action. It can only bring you diminishing returns, cancer, and the eventual collapse of the MetaFilter servers.
posted by Balna Watya at 3:26 PM on April 12, 2007


We're talking about the range of human lifeways, the quality of life in primitive societies, and the cultural context of civilization.

no, we're not ... we're talking about the future and meaning of human life and what the purpose of it should be

If you try to address these questions without that basis, then you're just engaging in ethnocentric masturbation, enshrining your unexamined assumptions as axioms in grand philosophical arguments that amount to nothing more than an illustration of the GIGO principle, because your initial assumptions were B.S. to begin with.

the only assumption i've made is that you're seeing the question too narrowly through the lens of your expertise, and can't see the forest for the trees

in fact, i didn't even attempt to answer these questions in my post, so what assumptions have i made?

1) why did we come up with civilizations to begin with?

This is a big question in anthropology, but the general view is climate change, as I mentioned above.

that only would explain the circumstances that made it possible ... it doesn't explain the motivation of those who did it

you dodged this one ... is that because anthropologists can't answer it using their discipline by itself?


2) why, when these civilizations fall, other people ... or the descendants of those people, who are aware of the fall of this civilization, nonetheless, go and start up civilization again?


Because the conditions were still there.

you're still dodging the question of motivation

and it's plain to see why ... if we examine the question of motivation, of WHY people make changes in their cultures to produce civilization, it's because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that these are improvements over their primitive lifestyle ... which calls into question the whole issue of whether primitives have a better life than the civilized, doesn't it?

you SAY they do ... but i'm observing what people with a choice have DONE not what they SAID

people WANT civilization

3) how does one convince 6 1/2 billion people who are ill-equipped to live as primitives that primitivism is best for them?

You don't.

that's right

4) if one manages to convince everyone of this ... or things just go to hell ... how, in the future, can one be sure that people won't start up civilization again?

One doesn't. The lack of resources does.

and is it your belief that we would lack resources for any kind of civilization after the collapse of our current one?

we would certainly be unable to recreate modern civilization ... but something on the level of sumerian, early chinese, aztec, etc etc doesn't seem impossible to me

so people would recreate civilization ... it seems to me that this whole argument for primitivism is an exercise in futility

How is that a paradox? You can't analyze something unless is exists to be analyzed--there's nothing whatsoever paradoxical about that. And yes, that's essentially the consensus opinon, that civilization's founders essentially didn't know what they were getting into.

it is a paradox, but in the last sentence you've come to my point, so we won't argue it

But civilizations do not arise willy-nilly just because someone has the idea. They're driven by a unique (and rare) constellation of biological and geographical resources.

but they don't arise just because people have those resources, either ... someone has to have the idea, too

With the right combination of domesticable species, with the right climate (a Holocene-like interglacial in an ice age), and the right geological resources (high-grade metal ores, for instance), civilization will arise. However, that combination will not be available again on a geological time scale, at which point we won't even be Homo sapiens anymore.

in the next few thousand years, sufficient conditions would still apply ... as far as geological time scales go ... that's too speculative to get into

You can't make an unsustainable system sustainable just by going to another world.

which is why you build things like dyson spheres and independent man-made habitats ... and genetically engineer people to better adapt to the new environment

If exponential growth continues, then you're just adding petri dishes.

what's the birth rate for modern western countries? ... hint - it's not exponential

here's the thing - you know anthropology well, but to continue this argument, you need to be familiar with some other sciences and their data also, and you don't seem to be ... you speak of people going offworld to other planets, which is the LEAST desirable outcome ... and you speak of exponential growth in societies where growth is actually slowing down ... (whether it's slowing down enough is another issue)

your horizons aren't broad enough to sustain this argument
posted by pyramid termite at 3:37 PM on April 12, 2007


You don't think it's just a little presumptious that you claim to know how I came to my beliefs better than I do?

You don't think it's presumptous to say to someone (paraphrased): "You don't like being around people now, but in a hunter gatherer society, you would," or that anything else a person finds value in that is a result of civilisation is really false consciousness. In addition to calling Gooffy a megalomaniac and your ignorant condescension towards Omiewise, which is both insulting and arrogant, as you pretend to have more knowledge and empathy then any mental health professional. Nothing I've said has been more presumptous.

As for birth rates/life expectancy, food, and gender roles, to continue with the example of the !Kung San, yes they are in the minority w/r/t the ratio of animal/vegetable food sources, but, to take your claim that there is more cultural diverstiy among hunter-gatherers then civlisations, it can be difficult to find a wholly representitive one, correct? You claim that most hunter gatherers don't even cosider anyone under the age of 2 to be human, and women give birth alone, with a 'no questions asked' culture of silence.

You neglect to mention that young death, and even infanticide is still considered a deep emotional trauma among the !Kung San and that on average, most women will have 2 (out of 5 total) childern that will die of violence, accident, or disease before childbearing begins, while only 1 will die before the age of 1. Even so, babies returned to the group after birth are considred group members immediatly. So, even among the !Kung San, 2/5 of childern die who are older then your "2 year old" line, and all child death, of any age, is considered a tragedy. In any event, there is no movement or felxiable gender roles, vis a vis childcare. (As an aside, the !Kung San, who have fought no known wars in any memory, still have a homocide rate comparable to many western cities, (29.3/million per year,) and they are a "gentle people," especially in comparison to say, the Yanomano. Keeping in mind the relativly small population density of the !Kung San.

Oh, why do you say this:"...!Kung, who have a peculiar fascination with mongongo nuts (as suggested by the proverb I cited upthread.)"

When you actually said:"But among the Ju/'hoansi, it's become a proverb: 'Why would we farm, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?'"

As to naked assertations:
"Until very recently, most people on the planet thought civilization was a deadly cancer that would wipe us all out (because until very recently, most people on the planet were not civilized)."

"No? The more I've objectively researched the subject, despite my heavy pre-disposition to write them off as frauds, the more I've ended up believing in them. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous is really phenomenal in this sense; it makes magic not only make sense, but makes it absolutely unavoidable. It puts the denial of animism and magic on par with, say, denying the existence of light, or wind."
(A book by a philosophy Ph.D that proves magic? Jesus Christ.)

"Humans are fundamentally incapable of dealing with such massive societies."

"Civilizations are remarkably homogenous the world over, for the simple reason that agriculture provides such a marginal existence that it cannot work very many different ways."

"There is no comfort in civilized life that isn't either (1) exceeded or matched in primitive life, or (2) answering a need that civilization itself creates."

"Since essentially all of humanity's cultural diversity is found in primitive societies, yes, arguing for greater cultural diversity must be an argument about the diversity of primitive cultures. That's where essentially all of the diversity is." (Actually, the whole paragraph)

"As a clinician looking for a cure, you pathologize the condition all the more, rather than trying to integrate it and help make it less problematic. I'm sure you're familiar with Marinker's distinction of disease, illness and sickness. I'll assume your approach is very effective at treating the disease, but the coincident neglect of both the illness and the sickness inherently compromise the possible effectiveness of such an approach."

"They require us to label everything we don't entirely understand "schizophrenia" (largely regarded as one of the biggest, broadest waste-bin categories in the DSM IV)..."

I found a few.

Oh, and here's my source (PDF) on the !Kung San:
posted by Snyder at 3:58 PM on April 12, 2007


i haven't had a chance to read thru much yet, maybe this was covered already. the thing that gets me about primitivist thought is the rejection of developmentally disabled adults. so people that require technology not only to live on a daily basis, but also for mobility, communication, etc. are just shit outta luck? so when we're hanging out in a utopian wilderness we'll just have to put the kids with cerebral palsy into a sack with the kittens to be tossed into the lake?

i spent a few years working with a lady that is non-verbal and quadriplegic, born with cerebral palsy. i ran the study for her doctoral dissertation (while also doing her personal care). she has a power wheelchair that she steers with her head and switches at her temples. she also typed her dissertation on a laptop, using morse code with those same switches at her temples (wheelchair turned off of course). granted, for her to communicate with me her father and her devised a form of "language" using her eyes. she looked at certain places for letters: my hair = W, eyes = I, armpits = O, elbows = L, etc. so she had a means other then technology. but stripping someone who's strapped with severe physical disabilities of the technology they use to achieve a minimal amount of independence, is akin to me placing you in solitary confinement, literally. but that doesn't even go far enough, in solitary confinement you can still walk around, write your thoughts, speak. you (whoever you is, no one in particular) are asking for a return to the time (we as a society aren't far from times like these actually) when we placed people who couldn't use their body, into a padded room and propped them up against a wall. if for some reason i ever went mute or deaf, i'd certainly like to have the option of an artificial means of communication that allows me more freedom then relying only on ASL.

briefly... i think anarchism has it's points from what i've read. but so does socialism, capitalism, communism, etc. i think parts of all -isms make a hell of a lot of sense to some degree, just sticking to one is when things break down, for me at least. primitivism always struck me as particulary selfish and ignorant of the fact that they would disenfranchise and torture hundreds of thousands. simply for being born one way. which i guess is part of evolution, but we're gifted with intelligence (well, i guess that's open for debate after a viewing of springer or something) and i think that goes alot further then being strong and dumb as a brick.
posted by andywolf at 4:21 PM on April 12, 2007


Horticulturalists tend to be extremely violent, and so that's not the kind of society we'd like to create.

um, what in the world makes you think that you, or people like you, are going to be the ones who get to create a post-catastrophic society? ... in fact, given your statement that hunter-gatherer societies are more diverse, isn't it a foregone conclusion that even if you do get to create one, others will be creating others?

diversity ... why is diversity by itself a desirable trait?

re citing sources etc - we have all around us evidence of a functioning, successful civilization ... it is YOUR burden to prove it is neither functioning or successful ... and proving that so called primitive societies are successful at dealing with, or don't create, certain health problems ... or debating the worth of pygmy songs vs mozart symphonies are pretty much irrelevant to this

it's been my observation that you're just as dead from one thing or another and that there's no accounting for taste

why is death from "civilized" causes worse than death from "natural" causes, especially if there's no difference in lifespan?

in some ways the anti-civilization people have been indulging in circular reasoning ... they define certain things as good and other things as bad, simply because of what kind of society produced them ... thus a civilized death from cancer is bad and yet a primitive death from old age is good ... schizophrenia in civilization is bad, but it's good in shamanistic societies ... (why not argue that schizophrenia is a disease of civilization? ... do we really know that schizophrenia and shamanism are the same state of mind?) ... non-hierarchical societies are good, hierarchical ones are bad ... why?

you're just as dead from cancer as you are from old age ... you can be just as repressed by circumstances as you can by that guy with the crown or the business suit

the whole thing is that there are philosophical assumptions being made in this argument by both sides that aren't being debated ... instead, jefgodesky is giving us copious anthropological data which don't really address the real questions and his opponents are trying to argue with that

no, i don't have sources or facts to debate you with, for the most part

all i've got is questions ... such as "why do people WANT civilization if it's so bad for them"?

if you can't answer the right question, you don't have the right answer

and while you're questioning everyone else's assumptions, make sure you question your own ... and the idea that "we" are going to "create" any society is the first one you ought to question, as you might go down with the rest of civilization yourselves ... in fact, the odds are greatly for it
posted by pyramid termite at 4:30 PM on April 12, 2007


andywolf and pyramid termite bring up good points, and this is one I wanted to mention and elaborate on this one myself:

re citing sources etc - we have all around us evidence of a functioning, successful civilization ... it is YOUR burden to prove it is neither functioning or successful ...

jefgodsky, Anyamatopoeia, and others have demanded we show evidence for our support of civlisation. Thing is, we don't have to. You are the ones arguing for a complete dismantling of the status quo of civilization, a creation which 99.9% of hunter-gathers decided to go with, for, using your assertions, they had no, none, zero benefit from. jefgodsky even says in one of his thesis, concerning the Dickson Mounds that the "literal" children of 6' hunter gatherers who lived to 60 and 70 were dying at 20 and 30. I'm not sure, but it strikes me that if I were doing something that drastically reduced my lifespan and quality of life from my parent's own, I'd stop, unless I was profoundly stupid. Which is absurd. I mean, maybe hunter gatherers were profoundly stupid, so they didn't realize what they were doing to themselves.
posted by Snyder at 5:30 PM on April 12, 2007


I understand that we have a sincere difference about the terms of the argument. You were not being deceptive. But at the same time, I’m not going to argue about those terms further because of this comment:

What you're talking about--the Wari and the farmers in New Guinea--are, by my estimations, nearly as civilized as we are.

If you can, with a straight face, put an “equals” sign between my culture and way of life and those of a New Guinea Highlander, I just don’t see a whole lot of common ground in our views on this topic. There just isn’t enough of a common vocabulary there to bridge the differences.

What I am interested in discussing is your view of Shamanism. Wayyyy back in this thread, you said:

But, like said above, we can't just go back to believing in Shamans.

No? The more I've objectively researched the subject, despite my heavy pre-disposition to write them off as frauds, the more I've ended up believing in them. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous is really phenomenal in this sense; it makes magic not only make sense, but makes it absolutely unavoidable. It puts the denial of animism and magic on par with, say, denying the existence of light, or wind.


And then you go on to say:

[Schizophrenics] are treated by being shamans. Shamanism is very much tied into the "wounded healer" view; shamans often see themselves as healing themselves as much as others. Shamanism is highly integrative, which also helps contain schizophrenia and make it more controllable. Isn't this also what most of our therapy methods revolve around?


So, on the one hand, you believe in ghosts and ancestor worship and spirits the way that a Bible-Believing Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the literal Son of God, was crucified by Pontius Pilate and eventually rose from the dead and will, at some future point, return to Earth. And the Shaman who negotiates this ethereal world, who gives voice to the spirits, has a mental illness, a brain disorder. A world that is as real as light or wind must be accessed by someone who is utterly out of touch with reality.

That doesn’t make any sense at all.

What primitive society requires of you is to find the good in everyone, to find the talents they have, . . . It forces you to deal with people, rather than labels. That's what primitive societies require of you.

You are making a virtue of necessity here. Hunter-gatherer bands are engaged in a struggle for survival. You have to be able to maximize people’s talents because there is no room for laziness. A society that has to face the challenges posed by an Arctic environment can’t support useless trust-fund hipsters. So, yeah. They do find the good in everyone. They have no choice.

Even hunter-gatherer societies have limits to this kind of tolerance. If the material circumstances get too bad, or if people start to starve, some Inuit groups have been known to abandon the old, weak and sick. This wasn’t very common, to be sure. And many Inuit found the practice repulsive. But it did happen. The most recent case was in 1939.

You've also made a few comments to the effect that civilized societies are homogenous and that hunter-gatherer societies represent true diversity. I think that you falling into a fairly common error. We form much richer, more complex schemas about things we like or find interesting than things that we hate or that bore us.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:08 PM on April 12, 2007


Funny how many people seem to be unable to grasp the concept that the present industrial society is not necessarily any different to any previous society that has dominated the world. We may be living in a giant of a society compared to the largest of the previous ones, but that means we can fall further. We have actively removed the environmental support mechanisms for our future survival for short term profit. We have salted our own land. There will be a mass extinction of human beings and/or a dramatic loss of quality of life for the majority, and lets face it, life for most of the population is pretty grim as it is. Most people on the planet are suffering to support the enormous global middle class and the few very rich. Most people are serfs, some people are aristocracy (this includes everybody posting to this thread, unless I am very much mistaken). Unless we do something about it urgently, the suffering will be appalling when the house of cards collapses.

How long to dominant civilisations usually last? 1000 years is above average. The Chinese can claim that they are part of the longest running contiguous civilisation ever, at 5,000 years or so. Compare this to the length of time that the Kooris' societies in Australia who have been going; upwards of 40,000 years.

we have all around us evidence of a functioning, successful civilization

The opposite can easily be argued. This is why it would be interesting if someone could link something that will back up the assertion that we have never had it so good.

We are generally so divorced from nature and so well ensconced within the societal constructs that we cannot conceive of the notion that these conditions themselves may be the cause of our malaise. The incredible array of synthetic chemicals that we absorb on a daily basis, the poisons we breathe, eat and surround ourselves with may also contribute. One thing is certain, stress leads to a lowered immune system response which leads to all manner of problems.

We are all diabetics, our lifestyle has caused our condition and we are reliant on cures that work within our terms of reference, which are very limited. It is quite normal that we can be limited in this way, but it is not somehting to be smug about.

Why do people want civilisation?

Maybe greed plays a part. A throwback to the normal lifestyle (primitive) that we have lived for the majority of our time on this planet. Greed would be useful in order to eat as much as possible when food is abundant, for instance. Civilisation locks us into a pattern of increasing consumption and decreasing interaction with our natural environment. Infantilised we cry whenever there is a threat (whether real or imagined) that someone will remove our pacifier, take away our bottle and our favourite blanket. Just a suggestion. You can prize my broadband connection from my sweaty palms etc.

Tis a pity we are all so thick. This debate is quite interesting, but I feel that we are all missing something. A chord remains un-played, a colour un-painted and a spice remains un-tasted. Anyway we muddle on in our own way, don't we? This is not an attack on anyone in particular and I include myself in our ship of fools.
posted by asok at 5:12 AM on April 13, 2007


The opposite can easily be argued.

but not proven

This is why it would be interesting if someone could link something that will back up the assertion that we have never had it so good.

on what criteria? ... and how would this not be subjective?

it's not that i see civilization as a totally good thing, or that the future of civilization is assured - i'm not that complacent ... i simply fail to understand how an outsider like jefgodesky can argue that hunter gatherer life is better when he hasn't actually been born and lived that life ... or come up with a metric for "better" ... he's accused the pro-civilization people of "ethnocentrism" (which isn't a really accurate choice of word, seeing as we live in a mixed ethnic society), but i'm failing to see how adopting what seems to be hunter gatherer ethnocentrism is an improvement

i also don't see how a return to primitivism is inevitable after the collapse of our civilization, if it comes to that ... anything from total extinction to an 18th century level existence is possible afterwards

The Chinese can claim that they are part of the longest running contiguous civilisation ever, at 5,000 years or so.

our civilization can reasonably claim 2500 years ... and seeing as there were years of chaos and disruption in china that were equal to what happened in our antiquity, we might argue that they didn't have a straight 5,000 year run ... or we had a straight 6,000 year one

Compare this to the length of time that the Kooris' societies in Australia who have been going; upwards of 40,000 years.

the same societies? ... the same traditions? ... are you saying that a koori of 1700 a d could be time machined back to 38,000 b c and there would be no culture shock?

this can't be proven ... and it seems somewhat unlikely

*shrugs* ... cockroaches have been around for 140 million years in their present form, more or less, so ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:24 AM on April 13, 2007


This has gotten really ridiculous, but unfortunately, I really need to be about some more productive things. I hope to come back to this sometime this weekend and point out some of the major problems with the above arguments, but in the meantime, please don't mistake my silence for acquiescence--I just need to take a breath for a moment and get to some more important things going on (and, thankfully, things that are a whole lot more reasonable).
posted by jefgodesky at 9:41 AM on April 13, 2007


some people are aristocracy (this includes everybody posting to this thread, unless I am very much mistaken).

yes, you are very much mistaken.

Tis a pity we are all so thick. This debate is quite interesting, but I feel that we are all missing something.

i agree, i think a lot of it is overintellectualizing the debate. maybe i'm wrong, but i think a huge failing on our species part is the refusal to cop to the fact that we're monkeys. sure we're smart enough to go to the moon, but at the end of the day we're primates beholden to our base instincts and desires. some of the biggest industries ever, porn (or just sex in some form), religion and drugs (to name just the first to come to mind) stem from our very root. pardon no documentation, just seems common sense to me. this isn't meant to say one should just throw up one's hands and have and orgy on a pile of cocaine or anything. i think blaming technology, science, hierarchies or whatever is missing the point and putting blame on an aspect of what it is to be human. at the root of all of this, what's supposedly the downfall of human beings, is just a result of curiosity, creativity or ambition. incentives are a driving force that people starve for. science isn't to be blamed for the atomic bomb, it was that spark to solve a problem. you can take us back to some utopian idea of civilization that most likely never existed (cause it's being idealized, seriously) and eventually you'll get to the same place we are right now.

i totally agree with the idea of civilizations eventual collapse, etc. our hubris will catch up to us eventually, but without the advancements made now in science and general knowledge those that come after would have less of a chance of going forward for several thousand years. but really... when it comes down to it, my existence, ours in general is less then the equivalent of a nano-second in terms of the cosmos, so i don't really give a shit about 2,000 years from now. the only concern i have is making myself and immediate surroundings better. through that is the only way i've witnessed anything even remotely lasting. is this really about anything other then validating the concept of ourselves being smart or having a better grasp on the world then "that guy" we disagree with at the moment? interesting regardless. i just realized i'm totally annoying myself.
posted by andywolf at 12:27 PM on April 13, 2007


Mankind is geared to breed, explore, and colonize. It's what we do. At the basest level primitivism is counter to human nature in that it precludes the possibility that technology affords us. The ability to reach out to the stars.

Earth ain't gonna hold us all for long. Lets get building.
posted by stenseng at 12:40 PM on April 13, 2007


"For most of our existence as a species, there's no evidence of human hierarchy, until the Agricultural Revolution."

For most of our existence as species, there's no evidence of human language, until the Agricultural Revolution.
Obviously, we must not be a species that has innate linguistic tendencies.

(Or, the "Hi, I'm the arguing from lack of evidence fallacy.")
posted by klangklangston at 12:59 PM on April 13, 2007


GREAT THREAD! I'm only halfway through and this is fantastic.

My only question - and I hope jefgodesky is still reading this -

It's vitally important to me that humankind continues its exploration of outer space. I cannot overemphasize how important I believe this is.

I'm a country boy and you can count me in for the primitivism stuff if you can promise me that you people will be able to get us a functional research lab on Mars in my lifetime.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:59 AM on April 15, 2007


oh, man. heh. Just read the dates. this thread is probably way dead.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:59 AM on April 15, 2007


You have to be kidding me.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 7:26 PM on April 16, 2007


Reason - we understand how and why they work. It is very difficult to demonstrate that an animal tool-users has any idea how his tools work - most of them are simple enough to operate using behavioral conditioning. Those that aren't, are generally those produced by quasi-sapient animals (chimps, dolphins, etc.) that tend to have self-awareness and other characteristics.

The "quasi-sapient animals" you refer to are precisely the ones I'm talking about—a fairly large category all on its own. Given that they innovate and improve on their designs, complete with regional variations, I'd say there's plenty of reason to believe they understand how their tools work.

Layering - Computers rely on previous advances, some of which are in other fields. Animal tools are mostly singular discoveries - a raven might learn to use a stick as a tool, or a sharp rock, but it isn't likely to ever attach the two and make a spear.

That's a difference of scale, as I mentioned before. There's no doubt that we're the best at this kind of thing, but it's the same as how a cheetah is the best at running. That doesn't mean cheetahs ignore biological principles that operate with every other species—and it doesn't mean that we do, either. But of course, plenty of animals do this, too; chimps have made stone tools, inhabit caves and make spears, while orangutans have discernible culture.

Complexity - Of course, human technology is at least thousands of times more complex than animal tech.

Sure—of course, complexity is subject to diminishing returns, so that also means that animals are using the most efficient tools. Tainter's theory, generally accepted by archaeologists, is that it's our fascination with increasing complexity that best explains why civilizations always collapse.

We might make it for a few million years but eventually a good plague, famine, or planetary catastrophe would destroy us.

Sure, everything ends eventually. But if that's a reason to remain civilized, why don't we just kill ourselves? After all, we'll die one day anyway. Not killing yourself won't make you immortal. To repeat E.O. Wilson's question, "Is humanity suicidal?"

Anyways, I think at the end of the day, we agree on the stakes - your primitivism sacrifices ~98% of the population to create a primitive way of life for ~2%, and my technology risks 100% of the population in hopes of sustaining a technological existence for most of them.

Don't forget all of the non-human life involved: my scenario leaves a habitable world. Even in the best case scenario, yours does not.

I don't consider survival in an endless primitive state to be worthwhile. That represents the end of all progress and achievement for humanity - no deeper knowledge will ever be discovered, nothing great built, nothing worthwhile achieved. Nothing would ever improve except on petty, local scales. It's like an endless coma for intelligent life.

Wow—so whaddya think of the Ju/'hoansi? Or the Pygmies? They've been going around for thousands of years thinking their culture is plenty worthwhile, with lots of deep knowledge to keep them busy with (Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher). Are you going to tell them that they were wrong about all that?

There's a couple baseless assumptions in your assessment here: (1) that "progress" (however you define it) is "good" or necessary, (2) that unless you're "progressing," nothing is "worthwhile," (3) only complexity is "worthwhile." Cultural mythology aside, doesn't it stand to reason that "progress" really only matters if you don't like where you are to start with? That would explain neatly why civilization is so entranced by that promise, and why primitive societies ... well .. aren't.

I don't consider 98% death to be much better than 100%. First of all, as pampered first-worlders, we're both on the wrong side of that 98%, as is everyone we know. Secondly, the survivors will be a wreck.

Humanity's been through similar bottlenecks before. For the species, 0% to 2% is all the difference in the world.

I think the probability of technological survival is quite good.

Well, this is the most important point—I don't think we have any say in this. I will be shocked if there's any "technological survival" even in a hundred years.

There's nothing theoretically impossible about keeping a technological population alive.

Well, yes, there's nothing theoretically impossible. Like flying pigs. What you have instead are massive, even global forces that have never been overcome before. If you want to believe that this time will be different from all the other times, there's nothing categorically eliminating that possibility. But it's faith—no more, no less. There's no evidence for it, and overwhelming forces acting against it. You'll need diminishing returns to stop acting on complexity, you'll need technological innovation to operate in entirely new ways, and you'll need the century-old stagnation in technological innovation to suddenly end—all with apparently no reason other than we might want it really badly. We all have things we believe in without reason, of course; this is a particularly popular one, but it's still nothing but belief.

... our species is not terribly viable without high technology.

We survived, even in spite of massive global changes, for millions of years with primitive technology. We've had "high technology" for some two centuries, in which we've brought on a mass extinction, global warming, and now have to face our own extinction. I'd say with a track record like that, we're not terribly viable with high technology!

that only would explain the circumstances that made it possible ... it doesn't explain the motivation of those who did it

you dodged this one ... is that because anthropologists can't answer it using their discipline by itself?


This is absolutely ridiculous. Motivation is like random genetic variation—it's what cultural materialism acts on, because it's all over the place. There are different people with different ideas and different motivations all the time; which ones succeed and which ones don't comes from the material reality. So really, motivation could hardly be more irrelevant. The motivation is that people are curious and generally, you can always find someone willing to try something, at least once.

Your implication that civilization must be something people want because otherwise we wouldn't have made it stands in stark defiance even of recorded history. Serfs must have loved their back-breaking labor, or else why would they have submitted to it? Slaves must have loved slavery, or else why would they have been slaves? And of course, the Jews just can't get enough of being genocidally massacred. We cling to the notion of "free will" religiously, no matter whether or not we have any evidence for it. We call it "agency" in social sciences, and denounce anyone who dares call it into question just because it's nothing more than a statement of faith. But in the final analysis, humans are just one group of organisms in a much bigger world. It should come as no surprise that we spend most of our time reacting to that world, rather than dictating our own terms. History is mostly something that happens to us, rather than something we really take charge of.

and it's plain to see why ... if we examine the question of motivation, of WHY people make changes in their cultures to produce civilization, it's because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that these are improvements over their primitive lifestyle ... which calls into question the whole issue of whether primitives have a better life than the civilized, doesn't it?

It's not a dodge, because there is no question. But if we want to talk about motivation, it certainly doesn't make the argument you're suggesting. After all, even from its earliest inception, the first farmers couldn't find many volunteers among their neighbors—archaeologists call it "demic diffusion" to be polite, but the more common phrase would probably be "invasion," and possibly, "genocide." More historically, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote in his Letters from an American Farmer:
There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of Nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he would secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot; and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressable joy to lie on the mats of his fathers.
Or, you may prefer Benjamin Franklin's assessment:
No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies. ... The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and fashionable Wants, the sight of so many Rich wallowing in superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distress'd for Want, the Insolence of Office ... the restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them with what we call civil Society.
The historically attested flow is entirely one-way. At every opportunity, civilized people have "gone to Croatan," "joined the Indians" and "gone native." Yet these same people, though they might be content to let us visit and might be quite happy to accept a useful tool, consistently prefer their own ways of life—and prefer death when we try to force them to live as we do. Could it be because we, ultimately, agree with Sitting Bull, when we see a human way of life for ourselves?
White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo as their fathers did. White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their tepees here and there to the different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion. ... The white men had many things that we wanted, but we could see that they did not have the one thing we liked best—freedom. I would rather live in a tepee and go without meat when game is scarce, than give up my privileges as a free Indian, even though I could have all that white men have.
and is it your belief that we would lack resources for any kind of civilization after the collapse of our current one?

More than just belief—I've presented the evidence for it (also see this correction). Nor is it only my opinion—I've already quoted Sir Hoyle's assessment, and it's a common one.

...but something on the level of sumerian, early chinese, aztec, etc etc doesn't seem impossible to me

Those were creatures of the Holocene. The specific climate patterns of the Holocene made them possible. In the short term, massive soil depletion makes it impossible to farm anything but petrochemical fertilizer. In the long term, global warming is already in a positive feedback loop—the Holocene is ending. There might be a few exceptional pockets where a neolithic level of civilization might still be possible, and in those places it may well start up, but without any arable lands to expand into, they'll just burn up the soil in a few centuries and collapse again.

so people would recreate civilization ... it seems to me that this whole argument for primitivism is an exercise in futility

People would do anything that's possible, if it's really possible (not just in the theoretical sense, but also taking into consideration economic problems, scale, energy, etc.), so this whole argument for anything other than primitivism is an exercise in futility.

but they don't arise just because people have those resources, either ... someone has to have the idea, too

Ideas are bouncing around all the time. If the resources are there, someone is going to have the idea.

in the next few thousand years, sufficient conditions would still apply

No; the Holocene will be gone in a few centuries, a shorter time than soil takes to regenerate from its current state of depletion. The only reason agriculture is possible now is because of petrochemical fertilizers; take that away, and we are talking about geological time before that window opens up again.

which is why you build things like dyson spheres and independent man-made habitats ... and genetically engineer people to better adapt to the new environment

You rather missed the point of that, so let me try this again. Let's say you have some bacteria in a petri dish. It's 11 AM, and the population doubles every minute. At noon, the petri dish is full. At what time is the petri dish half filled? You might guess 12:30, but that's far off. The correct answer is 11:59 AM—it doubles every minute, so at the last minute, it doubles to fill the whole dish.

What this illustrates is how exponential growth defies our intuitive understanding. We have no sense of it. So here we are at 11:59 AM, considering what we should do. My suggestion is that we should stop with the exponential growth. Your suggestion is that we use our technology to keep expanding.

If those bacteria could start taking over additional petri dishes, then at 12:01 PM, the population doubles again—filling up two petri dishes. At 12:02, four petri dishes—at 12:03, eight petri dishes; at 12:04, sixteen. Just five minutes after noon, they need 32 petri dishes.

Right now, Homo sapiens needs the resources of one earth; our last doubling period was just 40 years (3 billion in 1960, and 6 billion in 1999). So, in forty years, we'll need another planet. In eighty, we'll need four planets. In one hundred and sixty years—the amount of time since the Civil War—Homo sapiens will need sixteen planets to support its population.

Genetically engineer all you like, cover every star in a metal shell (though Dyson spheres remain pure science fiction), you can't escape the implications of exponential growth. Eventually, it has to end. Growth can never go on forever. The end remains inevitable. The only difference is that in the best case scenario that "high technology" has to offer, we get to become the alien invaders from Independence Day, on some mad campaign to wipe out every planet in the universe before we finally give in ourselves.

Or, we could find a sustainable way to live and enjoy the happiest way of life humans have ever known, right here on earth. Fortunately, I don't think we actually have any choice in the matter.

what's the birth rate for modern western countries? ... hint - it's not exponential

Oy—not that old canard again. I've already dealt with this, but to sum up, the Western birth rate is due to Western living standards and Western ecological footprint. This is made possible only because there's a Third World to externalize our costs to. It's about as convincing as assessing the birth rate of just medieval nobility, and ignoring the serfs that afforded them that way of life.

In addition to calling Gooffy a megalomaniac...

I didn't call Goofyy a megalomaniac, I said the hope he espoused was megalomaniacal, and what else can you call it? He's talking about gaining eternal life and reigning forever from the stars as gods—so we can change the very physical fate of the universe itself. It's not his own, personal hope, of course; it was espoused as early as Sumer, and it's been at the root of every civilization, but it's still about the best example of megalomania you could ask for.

...and your ignorant condescension towards Omiewise, which is both insulting and arrogant, as you pretend to have more knowledge and empathy then any mental health professional.

Where do you get that from? All I alluded to was basic knowledge, knowledge I'm sure he also has—the importance of social factors in constructing schizophrenia. That's well known, and I'm sure Omiewise knows about it as much as I do. But nowhere did I make any claim to greater empathy.

As for birth rates/life expectancy, food, and gender roles, to continue with the example of the !Kung San, yes they are in the minority w/r/t the ratio of animal/vegetable food sources, but, to take your claim that there is more cultural diverstiy among hunter-gatherers then civlisations, it can be difficult to find a wholly representitive one, correct? You claim that most hunter gatherers don't even cosider anyone under the age of 2 to be human, and women give birth alone, with a 'no questions asked' culture of silence.

Exactly. There's no representative forager culture, and there's plenty of variation, even on these questions. Which just goes to show how difficult it can be to construct a culturally-neutral measure of life expectancy. That's why it's better to measure from some age well after infancy, once everyone agrees that a person really is a person.

You neglect to mention that young death, and even infanticide is still considered a deep emotional trauma among the !Kung San and that on average, most women will have 2 (out of 5 total) childern that will die of violence, accident, or disease before childbearing begins, while only 1 will die before the age of 1.

You neglect to mention that plenty of women consider abortion a deep emotional trauma, too; but that's because it doesn't really change the demographics we're talking about. That might be why it wasn't brought up.

In any event, there is no movement or felxiable gender roles, vis a vis childcare.

No, but childcare is also communal, so how much flexibility in gender roles could there be?

As an aside, the !Kung San, who have fought no known wars in any memory, still have a homocide rate comparable to many western cities, (29.3/million per year,) and they are a "gentle people," especially in comparison to say, the Yanomano

That's right. Of course, there's no Ju/'hoansi Police Department. Primitive society does eliminate the option of outsourcing your violence: you have to see to it yourself. So again, a fair comparison would have to also include all the people who die in police custody, in police encounters, in prisons, in wars, and all the other ways that we pay people to handle our violence for us, rather than just the deaths we consider "wrong," by which we generally mean, done by someone who isn't one of those sanctioned violence professionals.

Oh, why do you say this:"...!Kung, who have a peculiar fascination with mongongo nuts (as suggested by the proverb I cited upthread.)"

When you actually said:"But among the Ju/'hoansi, it's become a proverb: 'Why would we farm, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?'"


You make it sound like a contradiction—they talk about mongongo nuts like they're the only food in the world. How much more of a peculiar fascination can you ask for? (Or do you not know that the Ju/'hoansi are one group of the !Kung?)

"Until very recently, most people on the planet thought civilization was a deadly cancer that would wipe us all out (because until very recently, most people on the planet were not civilized)."

See the Sitting Bull quote above for starters.

"No? The more I've objectively researched the subject, despite my heavy pre-disposition to write them off as frauds, the more I've ended up believing in them. David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous is really phenomenal in this sense; it makes magic not only make sense, but makes it absolutely unavoidable. It puts the denial of animism and magic on par with, say, denying the existence of light, or wind."

That's actually the definition of a citation there.

(A book by a philosophy Ph.D that proves magic? Jesus Christ.)

Could always try reading it—or, if you're not up for that, a simple search for "David Abram" would've given you plenty of feel for what he was writing about, with this interview, or the first chapter. Dr. Abram's extremely well-respected, and Spell of the Sensuous is an important work of ecopsychology. So perhaps this might be an object lesson in the value of investigating sources cited before judging their value, hmm?

"Humans are fundamentally incapable of dealing with such massive societies."

There's a difference between a naked assertion and a conclusion. But, for the sake of redundancy.

"Civilizations are remarkably homogenous the world over, for the simple reason that agriculture provides such a marginal existence that it cannot work very many different ways."

"There is no comfort in civilized life that isn't either (1) exceeded or matched in primitive life, or (2) answering a need that civilization itself creates."

"Since essentially all of humanity's cultural diversity is found in primitive societies, yes, arguing for greater cultural diversity must be an argument about the diversity of primitive cultures. That's where essentially all of the diversity is." (Actually, the whole paragraph)


Wow, all of those were conclusions, which I presented evidence for throughout this thread. Damn, do you know what a naked assertion is?

"As a clinician looking for a cure, you pathologize the condition all the more, rather than trying to integrate it and help make it less problematic. I'm sure you're familiar with Marinker's distinction of disease, illness and sickness. I'll assume your approach is very effective at treating the disease, but the coincident neglect of both the illness and the sickness inherently compromise the possible effectiveness of such an approach."

Is that what you meant by my "presumption"? That's a systemic problem—that has nothing to do with Omiewise. But do you notice "Marinker" in there? That's a person's name, what we call "a reference." A very well known one, at that, one I'm sure Omiewise is quite familiar with.

"They require us to label everything we don't entirely understand "schizophrenia" (largely regarded as one of the biggest, broadest waste-bin categories in the DSM IV)..."

I figured everyone knew that one, but if not....

I found a few.

Oh, and here's my source (PDF) on the !Kung San:


OK, you have one source. I had more than that just in the "naked assertions" you quoted.

the thing that gets me about primitivist thought is the rejection of developmentally disabled adults. so people that require technology not only to live on a daily basis, but also for mobility, communication, etc. are just shit outta luck? so when we're hanging out in a utopian wilderness we'll just have to put the kids with cerebral palsy into a sack with the kittens to be tossed into the lake?

Where do you get that from? Primitive societies were caring for the infirm and the disabled since the Paleolithic. Why would we stop now? To conform to our myths of primitive society? That's not how primitive peoples actually live, you know?

diversity ... why is diversity by itself a desirable trait?

(1) Because diversity allows more things to live.

(2) Because diversity is what best ensures survival at every level. Cultural diversity ensures human survival, and biodiversity ensures life's survival. It all ultimately fails, but without diversity, it fails a lot sooner.

e have all around us evidence of a functioning, successful civilization

Global warming, exponential population growth, mass extinction—that sounds very much like the opposite of a functioning, successful society.

it is YOUR burden to prove it is neither functioning or successful ... and proving that so called primitive societies are successful at dealing with, or don't create, certain health problems ... or debating the worth of pygmy songs vs mozart symphonies are pretty much irrelevant to this

No, it's your burden to prove that this civilization is actually successful and functioning. Primitive societies have already proven that they work. The jury is still out on civilization.

Well, that's not true. It's already been proven that civilization doesn't work. They inevitably collapse because nothing can grow forever. That's already known. So, really, there's no discussion here.

why is death from "civilized" causes worse than death from "natural" causes, especially if there's no difference in lifespan?

There's a couple different reasons here, among them: (1) that life span's only possible for the elites, at the expense of 90% of the population that has to live, effectively or literally, as serfs, (2) that lifestyle allows other things (other humans, and other species) to have the same chance.

they define certain things as good and other things as bad, simply because of what kind of society produced them

No, I'm defining things "good" or "bad" based on whether or not they're sustainable. Even our civilization makes some sustainable things, and primitive societies make a handful of unsustainable things.

schizophrenia in civilization is bad, but it's good in shamanistic societies

See Marinker. Basic medical anthropology. The social construction of sickness often causes as much suffering as the disease itself—this is well known. There's a whole sprawling literature on this.

do we really know that schizophrenia and shamanism are the same state of mind?

No, that's actually almost completely disproven. Related, perhaps, but not the same. But it's often used to discredit shamanism, so I accepted it above, with this caveat, for the sake of argument.

non-hierarchical societies are good, hierarchical ones are bad ... why?

Well, bad for humans—they cause incredible stress and misery, both for those at the bottom, and those at the top. Hierarchies are simply too dehumanizing, turning human beings into simple slots to be filled in a rigid hierarchy.

and the idea that "we" are going to "create" any society is the first one you ought to question, as you might go down with the rest of civilization yourselves ... in fact, the odds are greatly for it

Odds have nothing to do with it. This isn't a random game of Russian roullette. Collapse doesn't come like the Angel of Death to take nine of every ten people at random. Those who rely on civilization to stay alive will have their means of survival pulled out from under them—those who don't, well, won't. There's the systematic distribution—90% will not leave civilization under any circumstances, just like all the other collapses in history. Inertia is always a powerful force. Of course, whether you, or I, fall into that 90%, or the 10% tail, is largely a question of imagination. And that's largely a question of whether you happened to have brushed against such an idea at the right moment, when you were ready to consider it. That's where the luck comes in. So that's what I remind myself when a fight like this starts to tax me: maybe I'm helping someone's chances.

Thing is, we don't have to. You are the ones arguing for a complete dismantling of the status quo of civilization

Actually, I've been arguing that it's going to destroy itself. Never said anything about dismantling anything.

a creation which 99.9% of hunter-gathers decided to go with, for, using your assertions, they had no, none, zero benefit from

That's just plain not true. 99.9% of hunter-gatherers decided they'd rather die than live like this, and most of them did. The rest were conquered, subjugated and forced into it.

I'm not sure, but it strikes me that if I were doing something that drastically reduced my lifespan and quality of life from my parent's own, I'd stop, unless I was profoundly stupid. Which is absurd. I mean, maybe hunter gatherers were profoundly stupid, so they didn't realize what they were doing to themselves.

They weren't stupid, but hundreds of starving farmers can overwhelm even a healthy band of foragers.

If you can, with a straight face, put an “equals” sign between my culture and way of life and those of a New Guinea Highlander, I just don’t see a whole lot of common ground in our views on this topic. There just isn’t enough of a common vocabulary there to bridge the differences.

Perhaps not, but assuming you live like I do, similar to the lives of most Westerners today, I'm afraid I really can't see more than some superficial differences between your way of life and theirs.

So, on the one hand, you believe in ghosts and ancestor worship and spirits the way that a Bible-Believing Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the literal Son of God, was crucified by Pontius Pilate and eventually rose from the dead and will, at some future point, return to Earth.

That's not at all what I said. Obviously none of you read the source I cited, so I'll do my best to summarize, since you've missed my point completely. The idea that "spirits" are occult ghosts—on par with your view of Christianity—is the projection of Western missionaries. When animists talk about spirits, they mean winds, rains, light, etc. Not in an anthropomorphic sense, but specifically in that they are non-human modes of being. We experience them as persons, phenomenonologically. We need to be trained to not extend our empathy in such a way. We are able to communicate even with one another only through this extension of empathy. When you understand what animal calls mean, and you can mimic them precisely enough to be understood, then you are quite effectively speaking with animals, aren't you? When your own language builds, like so many animist languages, from the sounds and calls of the ecology you live in, in what way are you not engaging in a grand discourse with the whole world around you? They read the landscape the way we read a book (see Australian songlines, for instace); the classical rhetoricians' trick of storing speeches in imaginary palaces carried on the last echoes of that tradition. Our own word for "spirit" contains a hint of its past, too, in the Latin word for "breath." The anthropomorphic, "supernatural" connotations you're attaching to these terms are precisely what Christian missionaries attached to animism in order to destroy them. That's exactly what Abram showed.

And the Shaman who negotiates this ethereal world, who gives voice to the spirits, has a mental illness, a brain disorder.

That's the idea put forth by those with an agenda to discredit shamanism, but as I mentioned, it's probably not entirely true.

A world that is as real as light or wind must be accessed by someone who is utterly out of touch with reality.

Schizophrenia does not necessarily mean someone is out of touch with reality. The key to shamanism is its integrative functions. Dreams are also related. The key to animism, as Abram discussed, is its phenomenological truth. The only reality we really know is our phenomenological experience. Animism is an incredibly deep exploration of that reality. They don't show any concern for any theoretical objective reality that may or may not exist. That elevates integration and harmonization to a much greater importance—the kind of integration that really only takes place when you're able to use both conscious and unconscious brain functions at the same time. That just doesn't happen during the standard, waking state of consciousness we spend most of our time in. If it's true that shamans are schizophrenic, their famliarity with different states of consciousness can certainly make it easier for them, with training, to not only control their schizophrenia better, but also shift between one state and another.

The difference, of course, being that we consider normal, waking consciousness to be a privelaged view of reality. Not all cultures agree on that. We can sneer at that if we like, but at the end of the day, Humean skepticism illustrates how little basis we really have for our positivist conviction.

You are making a virtue of necessity here.

Well, the challenge was that primitive societies require us to give up our empathy. In fact, they require us to expand it.

Hunter-gatherer bands are engaged in a struggle for survival.

To a somewhat lesser degree than our own "struggle for survival." It's not much of a "struggle," and much less so for hunter-gatherers.

You have to be able to maximize people’s talents because there is no room for laziness.

From the Arctic to the Kalahari, colonial powers have complained of the "laziness" of hunter-gatherers. They enjoy far more liesure time, and have no "work ethic." It's only in agricultural societies that industriousness becomes a virtue. Since agricultural centers are famine centers (Manning, Against the Grain), there's no room for laziness among farmers. Among hunter-gatherers, "laziness" is a virtue (see also "Idle Theory").

If the material circumstances get too bad, or if people start to starve, some Inuit groups have been known to abandon the old, weak and sick.

Sometimes, elderly volunteered for that, the way we have elderly who ask for assisted suicide. The family fought it tooth and nail, but sometimes they got their way. Not exactly the euthanasia the myth makes it out to be.

You've also made a few comments to the effect that civilized societies are homogenous and that hunter-gatherer societies represent true diversity. I think that you falling into a fairly common error. We form much richer, more complex schemas about things we like or find interesting than things that we hate or that bore us.

This is the kind of thing you can measure, and that's what's borne out. I wish I could dig up that source again, but it's been years.

i simply fail to understand how an outsider like jefgodesky can argue that hunter gatherer life is better when he hasn't actually been born and lived that life

I'm just citing the data. Whether you consider "living longer" or "being healthier" or "having more free time" a good thing is up to you. If your dream is to toil for your boss's benefit until you finally keel over from a stress-related disorder at 42, then you can't beat the modern, post-industrial West.

he's accused the pro-civilization people of "ethnocentrism" (which isn't a really accurate choice of word, seeing as we live in a mixed ethnic society)

Not as much as we think. We suppress other cultures as much as we can. There's a dominant culture. It's ethnocentrism.

i also don't see how a return to primitivism is inevitable after the collapse of our civilization, if it comes to that ... anything from total extinction to an 18th century level existence is possible afterwards

Well, somebody's going to try living primitively, and there's nothing standing in their way post-collapse, so it'll work out. Meanwhile, any way of life dependent on farming becomes impossible. So that leaves primitive societies.

the same societies? ... the same traditions? ... are you saying that a koori of 1700 a d could be time machined back to 38,000 b c and there would be no culture shock?

Maybe a little, just like you'd have a little culture shock if we dropped you in 1945. But there's a LOT more continuity there than between our current civilization and the Roman Republic you tried to extend our continuity to.

Mankind is geared to breed, explore, and colonize. It's what we do. At the basest level primitivism is counter to human nature in that it precludes the possibility that technology affords us. The ability to reach out to the stars.

Which is why we spent 99.9% of our time in sustainable, primitive societies.

If it's our divine mandate to expand and conquer as you suggest, then someone does need to wipe us out—we're obviously the evil aliens from some B sci-fi movie.

Or, could it just be that it's our culture that breeds us for conquest and puts us at war with our own home in the world? Other cultures find a home here, rather than just a battlefield. So, is it human nature, or just our culture? Are we—this culture—the whole of humanity?

For most of our existence as species, there's no evidence of human language, until the Agricultural Revolution. Obviously, we must not be a species that has innate linguistic tendencies.

Language never leaves archaeological evidence. Writing does, but that's only half as old as agriculture. See, the difference here is that with the Agricultural Revolution, archaeological evidence for leadership and warfare appear all over the place. That's the real damning part, not the lack of evidence before that, but the sudden explosion of it. It means that we're getting enough material, there's just not much there, if there's anything at all.

It's vitally important to me that humankind continues its exploration of outer space. I cannot overemphasize how important I believe this is.

This keeps coming up. As I stated at the outset, there's variation in primitivism. Some see technology as innately bad (they generally call primitive technology "tools," rather than technology, which by my call falls somewhere between hypocrisy to simple ignorance). I'm not one of them. My principle is sankofa. Maybe there's a way to go into space. Maybe there's not. Does it matter that much? Everything and everyone eventually dies—even species. There's no cheating that. What matters is a good life while you're here, and trying to leave more than you take.

One thing primitivism has learned from ecopsychology is just how much we take as human beings from this earth. Most animists see their imagination and intelligence as something they breathe in like the air, not an innate function inside their skulls, but equally something borrowed from the world around them. It nourishes our language, teaches us how to relate to one another, and makes us who we are (Abram's book does an excellent job of illustrating this point). Outliving the earth would mean outliving a significant part of ourselves. We can already see how diminished we are, just being this cut off. Without it, the very best things that makes us human will be gone.

I'm much more interested in coming home, frankly, than going off to wreck someone else's.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:53 PM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Motivation is like random genetic variation—it's what cultural materialism acts on, because it's all over the place. There are different people with different ideas and different motivations all the time; which ones succeed and which ones don't comes from the material reality.

as manipulated by those with the motivation to manipulate it ... reality isn't something that's just out there ... it's interactive ... it can be changed

Your implication that civilization must be something people want because otherwise we wouldn't have made it stands in stark defiance even of recorded history. Serfs must have loved their back-breaking labor, or else why would they have submitted to it? Slaves must have loved slavery, or else why would they have been slaves? And of course, the Jews just can't get enough of being genocidally massacred.

civilization is not necessarily serfdom, slavery or massacres ... all of which, by the way, have been known to exist in non-civilized societies, too

for a person whose 5th thesis states that "humans are neither good or evil", you spend a lot of time assigning good and evil to what people DO

(1) Because diversity allows more things to live.

quantity is not quality

(2) Because diversity is what best ensures survival at every level. Cultural diversity ensures human survival,

stop right there ... the way you define cultural diversity is as

Our own civilization is a unique data point, but its existence requires the expansion of its markets and influence. It gobbles up other cultures to create new customers. Though it is itself another point of diversity, it requires many other points to be sacrificed. Its overall effect, like sitting at home on acid, is profoundly negative.


1) if civilization is human, how can it be "negative" when humans are neither good or evil?

2) a civilization is NOT a unique data point, it's a collection of data points, as is any society ... a hunter gatherer society is, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of data points associated together ... a civilization is BILLIONS or more data points associated together

you're playing fast and loose with your definitions of data points ... your whole diversity thesis is based on rhetorical sleight of hand, and doesn't work

and biodiversity ensures life's survival.

survival is neither good or evil ... if you can say that about humans, why can't i say it about just about any of the things YOU think are positive or negatives

using your first thesis alone, i can pretty much extend it into pure nihilism and refute you with that, whatever you say ... so i guess you need to stop using value judgments or start facing the question of good and evil in humanity ... which, could well raise the question of whether the evils you see in civilization are from the state of civilization ... or simply the state of those who ran that civilization at that time

archaeologists call it "demic diffusion" to be polite, but the more common phrase would probably be "invasion," and possibly, "genocide."

at 1.3 km max a year ... hell, i could slither on my belly like a snake faster than that in one day ... these "invaders" of yours weren't very fast were they? ... nor were they models of military efficiency if they could only conquer 1.3 km per annum

i have an alternate explanation for the data ... they weren't invading their neighbors, they were fucking them

Global warming, exponential population growth, mass extinction—that sounds very much like the opposite of a functioning, successful society.

no, it's just what YOU want to see in this one ... and much of that is potential ... and yet, the potential for self-control, space colonization, and more ecologically friendly technology is being ignored by you

No, it's your burden to prove that this civilization is actually successful and functioning.

it IS and it HAS been ... how else could i be sitting in front of this computer with a full stomach and a beer, typing in a warm house, communicating with people all over the world?

you do NOT get to brush that away as if it doesn't exist

. The jury is still out on civilization.

Well, that's not true. It's already been proven that civilization doesn't work. They inevitably collapse because nothing can grow forever. That's already known. So, really, there's no discussion here.


it has not been proven that it doesn't work ... it has not been proven that they inevitably collapse ... (in fact, history seems to indicate that civilizations tend to mutate after descents into dark ages ... civilization has not yet collapsed into hunter-gatherer culture in europe or the middle east) ... and it has not been proven that a civilization cannot choose to be steady state

your claim that there is no discussion here, is an admission of closed-mindedness, nothing more

More than just belief—I've presented the evidence for it

you have presented evidence for why 21st century civilization would not be possible to build again ... which, by the way, i agree with

you have claimed that coal and oil would be impossible to come by with primitive technologies ... fine ... but

how plausible is agriculture after the collapse? Again, all but impossible. Plants, like any other organism, takes in nutrients, and excrete wastes. For plants, those are nutrients they take out of the soil, and waste they put into the soil. In nature, what one plant excretes as waste, another takes in as nutrients. They balance each other, and all of them thrive. But monoculture--planting whole fields of just one crop--sets fields of the same plant, all bleeding out the same nutrients, all dumping back in the same wastes. (thesis #29)

doesn't wash ... because all you've proven here is that 21st century agriculture would not be possible without 21st fertilizer

in some areas, there would still be enough topsoil left that something like medieval crop rotation would be practical ... and if the medievals could build a civilization on that, so could we

No plow, however ingenious, can ever be made out of rock. (thesis #29)

most were made with wood, with metal tips until the 19th century ... your old basic moldboard plow

and then there's your basic scratch-plow ... no metal needed

true, you're not going to build 18th century civ with that ... but early civ? ... why not?


There's a couple different reasons here, among them: (1) that life span's only possible for the elites, at the expense of 90% of the population that has to live, effectively or literally, as serfs,


is that true of american society? ... or, better question ... at whose expense is the similar life span of the average cuban ... Life expectancy at birth m/f: 75.0/80.0 ... you might claim that our lifespan is due to our exploitation of overseas people ... but the cubans?

No, I'm defining things "good" or "bad" based on whether or not they're sustainable.

nothing's sustainable in the long run ... but i suppose rocks, therefore, are the best thing on this planet, according to that critieria

sorry, but that definition of good or bad is severely lacking ... not that a person who believes humans are neither good or bad should need one ...

No, that's actually almost completely disproven. Related, perhaps, but not the same. But it's often used to discredit shamanism, so I accepted it above, with this caveat, for the sake of argument.

but you didn't state that caveat in your argument ... so, if schizophrenia ISN'T the same as shamanism, what are the possiblities for a hunter-gatherer society to deal with those who are schizophrenics? ... or is it a social construct, as you said? ... if so, how do you explain the proven differences in brain chemistry?

i suspect you accept many things you shouldn't for the sake of argument, but ...

Well, bad for humans—they cause incredible stress and misery, both for those at the bottom, and those at the top. Hierarchies are simply too dehumanizing, turning human beings into simple slots to be filled in a rigid hierarchy.

many things ... including drought, starvation and long futile hunts can cause incredible stress and misery ... you claim that hierarchies are dehumanizing, but yet, it's humans that basically create them, isn't it? ... you claim that we are simple slots to be filled in a rigid hierarchy, and yet, we rebel, pick and choose, use passive aggressive tactics and often just plain walk away from those slots we don't like, don't we? ... and a hierarchy that can exalt anna nicole smith from the wife of a small town chicken fryer in texas to the 2007 version of marilyn monroe, national boobie goddess can't be all that rigid, can it? ... extreme example, but people recreate their roles in this world quite often

abe lincoln, for example ...

Odds have nothing to do with it. This isn't a random game of Russian roullette.

no it's a random game of interactive genetic mutation and evolution, isn't it? ... and, on a more human, macro level, it's who happens to be in the best places when the whole house of cards fall down ... something that your or my guess would be very much like a gamble

Those who rely on civilization to stay alive will have their means of survival pulled out from under them—those who don't, well, won't.

and whether i live in phoenix or kalamazoo, jacksonville or fairbanks will have nothing to do with it? ... whether i know how to farm has nothing to do with it? ... whether the ibcm the chinese have aimed at my hometown gets there or not has nothing to do with it?

here you are, faced with a chaotic situation, and yet you feel that you might be able to think your way through it to survive ... is it an outrageous suggestion to say that in extreme cases, such as the collapse of civilization, random factors play a huge role ... such as which direction the local gang of thugs chooses to go on their raids? ... or which direction the wind blows the fallout?

but faced with your will to power, i mean survive, in the name of primitivism, all such random obstacles will yield to you ... and not only will you be able to survive, you will be able to spread the light of primitivism over all the world, (using only primitive methods, such as smoke signals, i guess), and those people 200 miles away who are managing to get a truck patch going and have enough scrap metal to provide them ammos for their guns, will be persuaded NOT to start up some kind of civilization again?

no, the truth is that unless you're in loose gravel, nowhere and perhaps even then, you're probably going to die from this, just like i probably am

if it happens

I'm just citing the data.

as selectively as you can

Whether you consider "living longer" or "being healthier" or "having more free time" a good thing is up to you.

unless, of course, i tell myself that humans are neither good or bad and therefore nothing they do or believe is good or bad ... because if it was, then they would be good or bad, wouldn't they? ... this is all just rhetoric ... where's your data that says the average hunter-gatherer had a life expectancy over 75 years? ... or is healthier than the average cuban?

where's all that demographic and medical data from 10,000 bc on back? ... and no, dug up bones and such aren't good enough ... i want statistics

you can't provide them ... no one can

as far as having more free time goes ... well, to do what? ...


If your dream is to toil for your boss's benefit until you finally keel over from a stress-related disorder at 42, then you can't beat the modern, post-industrial West.

well, damn, how'd i ever get to be 49, doing that? ... by the way, average life expectancy for u s males is 76 years, so let's talk about THAT figure and drop the facile rhetoric, shall we?

Not as much as we think. We suppress other cultures as much as we can. There's a dominant culture. It's ethnocentrism.

no ... call it civicentrism or poliscentrism, but it's NOT ethnocentrism

Well, somebody's going to try living primitively, and there's nothing standing in their way post-collapse, so it'll work out.

oh, far out, man ... nothing standing in their way except heat and cold and hunger and thirst and possibly psychotic bastards armed with guns who haven't gotten the big message yet

Meanwhile, any way of life dependent on farming becomes impossible. So that leaves primitive societies.

not proven

but to sum up, the Western birth rate is due to Western living standards and Western ecological footprint. This is made possible only because there's a Third World to externalize our costs to.

except that as the third world becomes more affluent, their birth rate goes down, too ... it looks exponential now ... but in 300 years?

dubious assumption

Those were creatures of the Holocene. The specific climate patterns of the Holocene made them possible

you have no proof that the holocene could never come back, do you?

Let's say you have some bacteria in a petri dish. It's 11 AM, and the population doubles every minute. At noon, the petri dish is full. At what time is the petri dish half filled? You might guess 12:30, but that's far off. The correct answer is 11:59 AM—it doubles every minute, so at the last minute, it doubles to fill the whole dish.

let's say we're thinking animals and don't have to reproduce mindlessly like bacteria do

Genetically engineer all you like, cover every star in a metal shell (though Dyson spheres remain pure science fiction), you can't escape the implications of exponential growth. Eventually, it has to end.

and we have the capacity to choose to end it, don't we?

The only difference is that in the best case scenario that "high technology" has to offer, we get to become the alien invaders from Independence Day, on some mad campaign to wipe out every planet in the universe before we finally give in ourselves.

that's one thing about becoming a primitivist ... you'll still have the capacity to build straw men
posted by pyramid termite at 8:02 AM on April 17, 2007


as manipulated by those with the motivation to manipulate it ... reality isn't something that's just out there ... it's interactive ... it can be changed

Yes, it can be changed, but it just as often changes you. What I'm talking about when I say "the material reality," is the infrastructure. What plants are available, what mineral resources are available, the climatic and geological conditions, and so forth. Complexity is a function of energy, and if the energy isn't available, it doesn't matter what you want, you won't have that much complexity. And if it is available, you have a Prisoner's Dilemna: if you don't maximize your complexity, you simply get rolled over by the first person who does. So, where does choice and motivation fit into this? Sure, there's those that can manipulate the motivations of others, but more fundamentally, what is it that gives them the energy needed to do that? Whether that energy takes the form of food to feed a standing army or gather a religious following or to throw big potlatches to make everyone like you, the political power to manipulate others' motivations is just another level of the same energy that plants convert from sunlight and your body stores in fat.

civilization is not necessarily serfdom, slavery or massacres ... all of which, by the way, have been known to exist in non-civilized societies, too

But not non-agricultural societies. Meanwhile, no civilization has ever existed without serfdom, slavery or massacres.

quantity is not quality

What, human life counts more than the others? That is a fundamental axiom required for civilization to make any sense, but no less self-obsessed for that.

1) if civilization is human, how can it be "negative" when humans are neither good or evil?

Because of what it does to humans. The essentialism necessary to even ask a question like that is profoundly stupid. Even if we assume that "good" or "evil" are innate qualities that can be assigned to something (which is already a monumentally stupid leap), how does it follow that these qualities are necessarly inherited by anything someone or something creates? At best, "good" or "evil" can only have meaning (1) in reference to events, and (2) in the context of a given ethical system.

a civilization is NOT a unique data point, it's a collection of data points, as is any society

Which constitutes its own data point in total, since each of those individual data points are likewise summations of other data points. That's a silly quibble, even if it weren't the case that this is the language used by one of your companions here that I was responding to, and not my own language.

you're playing fast and loose with your definitions of data points ... your whole diversity thesis is based on rhetorical sleight of hand, and doesn't work

Not at all. We always choose a level at which to examine something. Sure, you can break down a culture to its various norms, values, artifacts, etc. But even then, when we consider all the individual artifacts, we're only considering the normative form of a class of objects. Even if we follow it down to the object itself, we're examining a collection of materials, which is a collection of atoms, which is a collection sub-atomic particles, and so on. So your objection is just silly.

When we look at the level of cultures, we can easily compare one culture to another. Civilizations are very complex cultures, with many constituent elements, but there's very little variation from one civilization to the next. A Japanese katana is not so very different from a Scottish claymore, and even in the New World, Aztecs made "swords" by lining clubs with two rows of incisors on opposite sides. Hunter-gatherer cultures are not as complex, yet they represent a far greater diversity. Igloos employ fundamentally different architecture and physics from the grass huts used by Kalahari Bushmen, and neither one operates the same as a Lakota teepee, and a wigwam is another thing altogether. The way an Inuit hunts for seals is nothing like the way a Kalahari bushman hunts for antelope, and yet from Mesoamerica to the Middle East to the Yangtze, agriculture always takes the same form: reliance on flooding, massive serf labor, complete reliance on a small group of closely related cereal grains, long-term food storage, and a permanent elite.

survival is neither good or evil ... if you can say that about humans, why can't i say it about just about any of the things YOU think are positive or negatives

That's true, strictly speaking. The better question is, would you like to survive? Would you like to leave the possibility of survival open? Are you, personally, comfortable with taking part in a system that's doing its level best to end multicellular life on this planet?

using your first thesis alone, i can pretty much extend it into pure nihilism and refute you with that

No, you really can't. If you'd read it, you would have seen that it's no mere utilitarianism. I actually dealt with that problem. I inferred an ethical maxim from the way the universe operates (expanding diversity), and applied that to come up with the most independently extensible criteria for ethical decisions possible: what maximizes diversity is "good," and what inhibits it is "evil." It's not nihilistic. By the maxim I derived in my first thesis, your above statement does not stand. Survival could be good or evil. If your survival costs more than it gives back, then it's "evl." But, if your survival breaks even (or even more, gives back than it takes), then it is "good," because you yourself add a certain amount of diversity. So, the survival of a permacultural society would be "good," because besides its own diversity, it also creates greater biodiversity than would otherwise exist. By the same token, the survival of an agricultural society would be "evil," because it survives only by wiping out diversity through monocropping and the mass conversion of biomass into human flesh. But if you forced me to simplify it further, to simply, "is survival good or bad," since the possibilities for "evil" survival encompass the infinite set of negative numbers, and the possibilities for "good" survival encompass the infinite set of positive numbers and zero, the possibilities for "good" survival contains a larger infinity, so on balance, survivial has more potential for "good" than "evil," so we'd have to call it "good." According to the maxim derived in my first thesis.

So no, in fact, you can't extend it to any kind of nihilism. Or more precisely, you can, but only by ignoring most of what I actually wrote in that thesis.

which, could well raise the question of whether the evils you see in civilization are from the state of civilization ... or simply the state of those who ran that civilization at that time

The people have changed constantly. We've even, from time to time, had some good people running civilization. It didn't change the systemic problems that arise from a way of life premised on continual, infinite growth.

at 1.3 km max a year ... hell, i could slither on my belly like a snake faster than that in one day ... these "invaders" of yours weren't very fast were they? ... nor were they models of military efficiency if they could only conquer 1.3 km per annum

They weren't out to conquer the world. Their lands failed as monocropping turned them to desert, and they would need more land. There would be a new conquering spree as they wiped out the people around them, and they would then proceed to begin killing off that land, too. For an average over centuries of this, 1.3km per annum is pretty impressive. It was only centuries later that they became megalomaniacal enough to start banding together for the purpose of conquering the world.

i have an alternate explanation for the data ... they weren't invading their neighbors, they were fucking them

That would be an alternative explanation, but not for the data. The data shows clear evidence of replacement, not mingling. These weren't people picking up agriculture because it was such a great idea, or even because it's what hubby used to do. They picked it up because they were conquered.

and yet, the potential for self-control, space colonization, and more ecologically friendly technology is being ignored by you

There's no evidence that"ecologically friendly technology" works. Neither do we have any historical evidence for any kind of self-control, though game theory gives us a very good model of why self-control doesn't work and why it hasn't worked, in the Prisoner's Dilemna. As for space colonization, as I've explained already, that's not a solution at all. So yes, I'm ignoring those things, precisely because they're nothing more than delusional fantasies that ignore all economic principles and historical precedent.

it IS and it HAS been ... how else could i be sitting in front of this computer with a full stomach and a beer, typing in a warm house, communicating with people all over the world?

Because even the tactic of staying warm by burning down your house will work for a little while. There are very few ideas so catastrophically bad that they won't work out for at least some people, for at least a little while. That doesn't make it successful. What about the 90% of the world's population that live in abject poverty to provide you with your computer, your internet, your warm house and your full belly? What about the fact that this industrialized civilization has only been around for two centuries, and we're already running into peak oil and global warming and mass extinction? That's an astonishingly quick period for any culture's failure. Even celibate societies have lasted longer than this, and it's hard to think of a more obvious way of running a group out of existence than that.

you do NOT get to brush that away as if it doesn't exist

It does exist, but what exists is one of the most monumental failures in history. No culture has ever crashed and burned this quickly or this spectacularly before. It's hardly a track record of success. And you don't get to brush that off as if it doesn't exist.

in fact, history seems to indicate that civilizations tend to mutate after descents into dark ages

That's not true at all. Most civilizations simply collapse. The Greek Bronze Age and the Roman Empire led into dark ages, but that's it. Two out of dozens. When Teotihuacan or the Toltecs collapsed, there was no dark age, just a political vacuum where the ecological conditions still prevailed, so eventually a new group did the same. Same with the Moche in Peru.

and it has not been proven that a civilization cannot choose to be steady state

Yes it has. In a steady state, the return on any investment must approach zero. Some will still be winners, and some will still be losers, but overall, the ROI must approach zero. That means that investment ceases to be economically worthwhile, but much of civilization's infrastructure requires constant investment. That means that civilization can only exist when investment is profitable more often than not, and that means that the economy must always be growing.

because all you've proven here is that 21st century agriculture would not be possible without 21st fertilizer

Not at all. Agriculture requires soil fertility. There essentially is none right now. Without 21st century fertilizer, you don't just wipe out 21st century agriculture, you wipe out the possibility of any agriculture at all. The Green Revolution came just in time to save us from the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution. We'd previously dealt with the way farming kills the land by moving onto new land, but in 1960, we finished farming essentially all of the earth's arable land. The Green Revolution essentially lets us farm up the whole biosphere, by depleting mineral and chemical wealth, and using it to make soil that's no longer naturally arable, artificially arable. Take that away, and what you have underneath is dead dust. There's no "Little House on the Prairie" scenario still open. Without petrochemicals, the Great Plains are about as fertile as the Sahara.

in some areas, there would still be enough topsoil left that something like medieval crop rotation would be practical ... and if the medievals could build a civilization on that, so could we

In very small, isolated areas. There's no large regions on earth where that's true. You might find small pockets, but nothing large enough to build up anything much past the Paleolithic.

A key to the medieval level of complexity was metallurgy. Where will you be making your metal from? Most of our metals aboveground are alloyed, so they take much higher temperatures to work, usually requiring coal. Charcoal can burn hot enough to work iron, but there's not a lot of unalloyed iron above ground. What's more, it rusts, and while you can rework rusted iron like an ore, it's much poorer quality. The quality of the ore had as much to do with the Iron Age as the iron itself. After a century or so, you're looking at bog iron, and that limits you to a sustainable rate of iron production, where iron tools become very, very rare. In the meantime, that isolated plot you found where the soil was still healthy, you've killed off by farming it, and there's nothing around you to expand into, because it was an isolated parcel to begin with. You've just postponed your collapse.

I expect smaller undulations like that to continue for some time to come as the Holocene ends, but that doesn't change the overall picture, nor does it change the ultimate fate of any civilization.

is that true of american society?

Yes. All we've changed is the distribution. Medieval kingdoms distributed this inside the kingdom, with the elites at the 10% and the serfs in the 90%. What globalization has allowed us to do is to redistribute this geographically, with our 10% in the U.S., and our 90% in the Third World. Rome managed to do much the same, with its 10% largely in Italy, and its 90% largely in the provinces.

you might claim that our lifespan is due to our exploitation of overseas people ... but the cubans?

Cuba is not nearly as isolated as the United States would like.

nothing's sustainable in the long run

If by "sustainable" you mean "immortal." But that's not what sustainable means. Sustainability means it doesn't undercut itself--it doesn't commit suicide. A sustainable process, left all on its own, could last forever. Of course, it's never left on its own, so it will eventually end, but when that end comes, it's something that happens to it, not something it does to itself. That's all the difference in the world.

but you didn't state that caveat in your argument

The original question was what did primitive societies do with schizophrenics. And it's true, they generally become shamans. It's also important to note that schizophrenia doesn't happen as often in primitive societies (if at all), perhaps in part because of the impact of famine, which just doesn't occur among hunter-gatherers. So even among shamans, schizophrenia is fairly rare, but certainly plenty have argued that shamanism is connected to schizophrenia, and to what extent it occurs in primitive societies, I'd say that my original statement is correct: the sickness is eliminated and the illness treated by making the schizophrenic a shaman. The techniques of shamanism, finally, provide a fairly effective therapy regimen for the disease.

or is it a social construct, as you said?

Every disease brings with it sickness (the social construction of the disease) and illness (the psychological experience of the disease). It's not an either/or problem; they are simultaneous and concurrent.

many things ... including drought, starvation and long futile hunts can cause incredible stress and misery

Yes, which is why we have a certain capacity to handle such things. What's more, these things happen; they are not states of being. There's a difference between enduring bad things that happen, and creating systemic problems for ourselves, as with hierarchy.

you claim that hierarchies are dehumanizing, but yet, it's humans that basically create them, isn't it?

Yes. I'd be hard pressed to think of anything dehumanizing that humans haven't made. Humans made Gitmo, too. Only another human really knows how to dehumanize another.

you claim that we are simple slots to be filled in a rigid hierarchy, and yet, we rebel, pick and choose, use passive aggressive tactics and often just plain walk away from those slots we don't like, don't we?

That's right; at times, it's simply too dehumanizing, and we refuse to accept hierarchy. At other times, we're too beaten down, and we submit.

and a hierarchy that can exalt anna nicole smith from the wife of a small town chicken fryer in texas to the 2007 version of marilyn monroe, national boobie goddess can't be all that rigid, can it?

It certainly can. That simply tells you the criteria by which the hierarchy orders itself; it doesn't tell you anything about the rigidity.

extreme example, but people recreate their roles in this world quite often

abe lincoln, for example


Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States. The Presidency existed before Lincoln, and existed after him. He didn't create the role. He just filled the slot. Anna Nicole Smith didn't invent the position of "boobie goddess," she just filled it.

no it's a random game of interactive genetic mutation and evolution, isn't it?

No, it's a matter of cultural variation, and that means it isn't random.

and, on a more human, macro level, it's who happens to be in the best places when the whole house of cards fall down ... something that your or my guess would be very much like a gamble

Not at all. These things can very easily be analyzed, and since we can move, we can put ourselves in a better position. But more important than where we are as things start to turn sour will be our foresight to see where this is going, and our imagination to consider life beyond civilization as a possibility.

and whether i live in phoenix or kalamazoo, jacksonville or fairbanks will have nothing to do with it?

Not too much, no. You can walk across all of North America in a year, and even the desert is a garden if you know where to look for food and water and all the other things you need. The biggest deciding factor will be imagination, and after that, rediscovering your relationship with a given ecology.

whether the ibcm the chinese have aimed at my hometown gets there or not has nothing to do with it?

Nukes are an X factor I don't even bother worrying about. If it comes to nuclear war, we're all dead anyway, so what does it matter? I don't see why you'd nuke someone just because you're both in a huge depression, but if it happens, then we're all dead, end of story, so why bother worrying about it? Better to act as if it's not going to happen, because if it does, that'll be the end of all your worries anyway.

is it an outrageous suggestion to say that in extreme cases, such as the collapse of civilization, random factors play a huge role ... such as which direction the local gang of thugs chooses to go on their raids?

These kinds of things don't just happen randomly. Look at previous collapses. There's a pattern. Raiders raid populations that have something worth taking: i.e., farmers. Hunter-gatherers don't have anything that can be taken.

and not only will you be able to survive, you will be able to spread the light of primitivism over all the world

Really, I foresee a much nastier evolutionary process. Lots of people I wouldn't necessarily agree with will stumble into primitive lifestyles simply because they work, and their myths and mindsets will follow suit (motivation generally follows social reality, rather than vice versa), but in general, primitivism will prevail not because we managed to convince anyone, but because civilization collapsed, so all that's left will be primitive societies. That's not something I'm happy about, and most of my efforts are geared towards trying to stop that, but it's really more like the Aesir preparing for Ragnarok: I know that no amount of effort will ever be able to change it. All I can ever possibly do is just shave a bit off the edge. But this is really more of a question of natural selection, in all its apathetic cruelty. Primitive societies will succeed because they'll be the only ones left alive, and I don't expect primitivists to all necessarily be in that group. Too many neglect the fundamentals of primitive life, like the wealth of a good social network, and engaging your environment like an animist.

...and those people 200 miles away who are managing to get a truck patch going and have enough scrap metal to provide them ammos for their guns, will be persuaded NOT to start up some kind of civilization again?

No, they won't. They'll spend all their time and energy planting seeds. And then the seeds won't sprout, and they'll wonder why. Their efforts will be wasted, and they'll only figure that out once it's already too late. They'll make some mad, desperate dash. Maybe somebody will have a bunker they can steal. If they try to raid hunter-gatherers, they'll find light-footed nomads who melt into the forest and know they're coming from miles away, and they'll find no food stores or material goods that can be stolen. By the end of their first year, they'll starve to death. Those people won't have any effect on the future, not because they don't want to, but because they lack the imagination to try anything else. Because of that, they'll be dead. Natural selection, in all its apathetic cruelty.

unless, of course, i tell myself that humans are neither good or bad and therefore nothing they do or believe is good or bad ... because if it was, then they would be good or bad, wouldn't they?

No, they wouldn't. That's a complete non sequitur.

where's your data that says the average hunter-gatherer had a life expectancy over 75 years? ... or is healthier than the average cuban?

We already went through this.

where's all that demographic and medical data from 10,000 bc on back? ... and no, dug up bones and such aren't good enough ... i want statistics

Health and the Rise of Civilization

no ... call it civicentrism or poliscentrism, but it's NOT ethnocentrism

My wife pointed this out, and I didn't understand that you were actually that ignorant. Ethnocentrism has nothing to do with ethnicity, it's the belief that your culture is better than all others.

nothing standing in their way except heat and cold and hunger and thirst and possibly psychotic bastards armed with guns who haven't gotten the big message yet

Heat, cold, hunger and thirst are all things primitive societies deal with in stride, just like ours. As for "psychotic bastards," even if that does happen (and there's scant historical precedent for it in previous collapses), a forager is still the best equipped to dodge the bullet. It's very hard to find a nomadic omnivore in a great big forest. It takes a concerted hunting effort, and for what? They have nothing that can be taken. What's more, a proper forager learns to pay attention to the wildlife he or she is always hunting. Birds and other animals become an extended set of senses. Those "psychotic bastards" aren't paying that much attention, and our foragers in this hypothetical can hear every bird and rodent in the forest going nuts from miles out. You could hardly ask for a better alarm system. Long before they reach the foragers' camp, they've all taken to their favorite hiding holes, and if they're not the type to entertain strangers, they've probably also set a few traps and have a whole population that make their living as hunters, with poisoned arrows trained on every last one of them.

except that as the third world becomes more affluent, their birth rate goes down, too ... it looks exponential now ... but in 300 years?

Absolutely, just like it was 300 years ago. Because if the Third World becomes too affluent, then the First World loses the basis of its prosperity, and its standard of living slips, and then collapses. You can have the center of gravity move around the world, but you can't get around the fact that agriculture requires more calories in labor than it provides in food, and because of that, you'll always need a "cheat" to make it just break even, much less come out ahead. Whatever form that "cheat" takes—irrigation, domesticated animal power, granaries, petrochemicals—it's always going to be something that an elite can control. What makes agriculture viable is the dominance of a minority. You can shift that dominance around; you can distribute it socially or geographically or any number of ways, but you cannot eliminate it without eliminating agriculture itself. The prosperity of the Third World can only come at the cost of the First. We might switch places, but if we ever even begin to approach a level playing field, then agriculture will fail. So yes, it will always be exponential, because the differential is not incidental to the agricultural system, it's the key to making it work at all.

you have no proof that the holocene could never come back, do you?

Actually, we know that it eventually will. Global warming's going to create a situation rather like the Eocene. Remember, as far as earth's climate is concerned, the real long-term challenge is to stay cool as the sun grows hotter over its lifetime. It's achieved this with life, by capturing carbon and putting it in the ground. A billion years of this success created our oil and coal deposits, and made it cool enough for the earth to have an ice age, of which the Holocene is but an interglacial. So, consider the consequences of the fact that in 200 years, we've taken half of all that carbon and put it all back in the atmosphere all at once. The Holocene—the Pleistocene—is over.

But, life will persevere, with or without us. The carbon will be put back in the ground again, another ice age will eventually come, and that ice age will have an interglacial, and eventually, one of those interglacials will look like the Holocene. The Eemian interglacial looked a lot like the Holocene, too, but humans weren't in the right place to turn it into agriculture at the time.

But notice the time scales we're talking about here. This is geological time before these conditions appear again, doubling the total time our species has existed a few times over before we get that far. If we're still around, we'll be an entirely different species. At that point, who can predict what will happen? And if all we've bought ourselves is a few tens of million years before we get to killing ourselves again, I think I can live with that, can you? Or do you think it amounts to nothing if you talk somebody out of killing themselves, but they still choose to suspend life support 80 years later?

let's say we're thinking animals and don't have to reproduce mindlessly like bacteria do

Show me some evidence that we actually do that. The problem is that if the resources are there, there's simply too much variation. If you decide to be responsible and have fewer children, your neighbor will simply use the resources thus freed up to have even more. To quote Charles Darwin's grandson, Charles Galton Darwin, "It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus."

You might be a thinking animal as an individual, but as a group, we're as mindless as bacteria, and history bears that out. We redistrbute it geographically though means of trade, politics, and any number of other systems, but global population has always moved in lockstep with global food supply.

and we have the capacity to choose to end it, don't we?

Maybe. I hope so. We've never shown any capacity for it, but hope springs eternal, no? More likely, we'll keep going until we run out of the means to do so, and then collapse violently, and this brief blip in human history will be over. But if there's a way to make a more gradual transition, it lies in creating simpler, more sustainable societies.

that's one thing about becoming a primitivist ... you'll still have the capacity to build straw men

Well, you're not talking about stopping growth, you're talking about space ships and science fiction to keep it going forever. So, is it just that you've never followed through the implications of that logic? Because to keep it going, you'll need to keep growing exponentially. This generation needs a planet; the next will need two. Then four, then eight. Either you end exponential growth—that is, initiate a collapse—or you go to a world, consume every resource it has, and move onto the next. I'm telling you, I saw that movie.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:25 AM on April 17, 2007


What I'm talking about when I say "the material reality," is the infrastructure. What plants are available, what mineral resources are available, the climatic and geological conditions, and so forth.

i'm well aware of that and i'm also well aware that you are taking the most negative view that is possible of those

Meanwhile, no civilization has ever existed without serfdom, slavery or massacres.

you haven't proven that these things don't exist without civilization

What, human life counts more than the others?

how do you get that from "quantity is not quality"? ... in fact, how do you argue that we're overpopulated, use too many resources and don't have a sustainable civilization without arguing that quantity isn't quality?

what DO you define as quality ... is it measurable? ... does human life have anything to do with it?

Even if we assume that "good" or "evil" are innate qualities that can be assigned to something (which is already a monumentally stupid leap)

then why are you constantly doing it with those terms, or terms meant to imply "good" or "evil"? ... am i to believe that "good" and "evil" cannot be assigned to something but "stupidity" can?

what you're really trying to do is disallow other people's definitions of good and evil while sneaking your own into the discussion

not allowed ...

Not at all. We always choose a level at which to examine something.

but not every level we examine is rewarding or informative enough

Even if we follow it down to the object itself, we're examining a collection of materials, which is a collection of atoms, which is a collection sub-atomic particles, and so on. So your objection is just silly.

no, it's not ... you are willing to dissect primitive societies with the sharpest eye but insist on describing civilizations with the grossest generalizations possible ... you don't get to examine one with a magnifying glass and the other with a scrawled map and claim you're giving them equal examination

you also don't get to define civilization as one data point or dictate what level we look at things ...

Civilizations are very complex cultures, with many constituent elements, but there's very little variation from one civilization to the next. A Japanese katana is not so very different from a Scottish claymore, and even in the New World, Aztecs made "swords" by lining clubs with two rows of incisors on opposite sides. Hunter-gatherer cultures are not as complex, yet they represent a far greater diversity. Igloos employ fundamentally different architecture and physics from the grass huts used by Kalahari Bushmen, and neither one operates the same as a Lakota teepee, and a wigwam is another thing altogether.

except that a person of my civilization can choose to build ALL of those, not just the one he's familiar with ... we can build igloos, grass huts, teepee, wigwam, longhouses and whatever else we know about

how can we be less diverse when we have more diverse knowledge and capacity?

That's true, strictly speaking. The better question is, would you like to survive?

a "better" question? ... that good and evil thing again ... in any case, according to actuarial tables, in 40 years whether i would like to survive will mostly likely be irrelevant anyway

I inferred an ethical maxim from the way the universe operates (expanding diversity)

i don't argue with people about their religious faith on this board ... you have yours and i have mine ... and just as my religious views are not provable, neither are yours

and yes, when you infer ethical maxims from the way the universe operates, you ARE indulging in religious faith

But if you forced me to simplify it further, to simply, "is survival good or bad," since the possibilities for "evil" survival encompass the infinite set of negative numbers, and the possibilities for "good" survival encompass the infinite set of positive numbers and zero, the possibilities for "good" survival contains a larger infinity, so on balance, survivial has more potential for "good" than "evil," so we'd have to call it "good."

this is sheer geek overthinking ... translating a philosophical question into a mathematical formula in order to "solve" it

It was only centuries later that they became megalomaniacal enough to start banding together for the purpose of conquering the world.

then your use of the words "invasion" and "genocide" was a gross distortion ... more rhetoric

i had no idea all of europe was a desert, anyway ... another example of how you cherry pick the data

For an average over centuries of this, 1.3km per annum is pretty impressive.

hmm ... europe is several THOUSAND km wide, so we are talking thousands of years, not centuries

It was only centuries later that they became megalomaniacal enough to start banding together for the purpose of conquering the world.

or 3 or 4 THOUSAND years later, you mean ... nice rhetorical trick, there

The data shows clear evidence of replacement, not mingling.

would that be the genetic data or the site data? ... and should i trust you to interpret that, or any data properly when you change thousands of years to "centuries"?

There's no evidence that"ecologically friendly technology" works.

it's 1900 and there's no evidence that jet airplanes work, either ... please

Neither do we have any historical evidence for any kind of self-control

and yet, your whole mindset of "let's go primitive" is in fact based upon that ... people won't build civilization again ... or if they can't, they won't enslave, enserf or massacre one another ... yeah, yeah, yeah, our primitive ancestors didn't do those things according to you ... leaving that aside, that's no proof that our primitive DESCENDANTS won't, is it?

What about the 90% of the world's population that live in abject poverty to provide you with your computer, your internet, your warm house and your full belly?

two problems - it's not 90% ... look it up ... and although economic exploitation by the west is a contributing factory to world poverty it is not the ONLY one

What about the fact that this industrialized civilization has only been around for two centuries, and we're already running into peak oil and global warming and mass extinction?

it is worrisome ... but it's not been proven that we CAN'T find a solution

Even celibate societies have lasted longer than this

the shakers were a subculture not a society ...

It does exist, but what exists is one of the most monumental failures in history. No culture has ever crashed and burned this quickly or this spectacularly before. It's hardly a track record of success. And you don't get to brush that off as if it doesn't exist.

yes, i do, because it hasn't happened yet ... don't count your cultures before they crash and burn

The Greek Bronze Age and the Roman Empire led into dark ages, but that's it. Two out of dozens. When Teotihuacan or the Toltecs collapsed, there was no dark age, just a political vacuum where the ecological conditions still prevailed, so eventually a new group did the same.

dark age = political vacuum ... more rhetorical games ... and you've ignored chinese history ...

That means that investment ceases to be economically worthwhile, but much of civilization's infrastructure requires constant investment.

NOW who's seeing things ethnocentrically?

Agriculture requires soil fertility. There essentially is none right now.

in EVERY part of the world? ... come on, guy

Without petrochemicals, the Great Plains are about as fertile as the Sahara.

we don't all live in the great plains

you still haven't proven your case ... and, as with so much of your argument, the only real proof of it will be future events ... and as usual, you've taken the most extreme possibility as a certainty

A key to the medieval level of complexity was metallurgy.

true ... now what about sumerian or egyptian levels? ... or other possibilities for low footprint civs that haven't happened historically?

I expect smaller undulations like that to continue for some time to come as the Holocene ends, but that doesn't change the overall picture, nor does it change the ultimate fate of any civilization.

in other words, there will be areas where agriculture can be continued and some tools left ... you've YET to prove that the holocene will end, that what will follow it will make agriculture impossible world wide in EVERY part of the world, or that such conditions could not come back ... you CAN'T prove it and you know it

also, it's quite possible that man will retain much knowledge that our primitive ancestors didn't have, including reading and writing ... that's an advantage that shouldn't be underestimated

Rome managed to do much the same, with its 10% largely in Italy, and its 90% largely in the provinces.

which is why rome went to hell and byzantium flourished, right? ... that's a gross simplification of the reality ... there were slaves in rome and elites in the east ... and eventually, the elites in the east became more powerful and able to prevail than those in the west

Cuba is not nearly as isolated as the United States would like.

who are the cubans exploiting?

I'd be hard pressed to think of anything dehumanizing that humans haven't made.

including theories that we should all go back to foraging for nuts and berries in the woods? ... you have a relentlessly negative outlook and everything you say is biased by it ... you have no objectivity to speak of

There's a difference between enduring bad things that happen, and creating systemic problems for ourselves, as with hierarchy.

except that if i go off to the woods to live and am cold, wet, hungry and miserable, i've created that problem, as long as i have a choice, haven't i?

Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States. The Presidency existed before Lincoln, and existed after him. He didn't create the role. He just filled the slot.

bzzzzt! ... wrong ... for one thing, he established that the president of the united states would preside over a FEDERAL union of states that was indivisible, not a collection of states that could come and go at will ... that is a change of his role and the society ... a creation

you are aware that's what the civil war was about, aren't you?

by the way, where was the president of the u s 100 years before lincoln? ... (and if you answer that it's really the same as being a king or a pharoah, i'm sending you back to high school civics)

(i'm skipping the whole "would i survive" debate ... it's just wishful thinking on your part and you can only prove it by doing so)

Hunter-gatherers don't have anything that can be taken.

meat

No, they won't. They'll spend all their time and energy planting seeds. And then the seeds won't sprout, and they'll wonder why. Their efforts will be wasted, and they'll only figure that out once it's already too late. They'll make some mad, desperate dash. Maybe somebody will have a bunker they can steal. If they try to raid hunter-gatherers, they'll find light-footed nomads who melt into the forest and know they're coming from miles away, and they'll find no food stores or material goods that can be stolen.

except, seeing as civilization has just collapsed, these light footed nomads won't have even determined their lifestyle or learned the skills of being light footed yet

That's a complete non sequitur.

no, it's not ... if humans would be good or bad, what could make them good or bad?

their actions

We already went through this.

ah, so you DO have life-expectancy data ... hmm ... and it proves you WRONG ... and when it does, you redefine the argument to say it doesn't matter because the figures are all biased towards civilization

if you can't refute the data, explain it away as meaningless

Health and the Rise of Civilization

lots of opinions, no statistics ... i asked for statistics

My wife pointed this out, and I didn't understand that you were actually that ignorant. Ethnocentrism has nothing to do with ethnicity, it's the belief that your culture is better than all others.

i can't believe that you think the chinese, japanese, american, european and etc members of this modern civilization all share the same culture

no, actually, i do ... it's a sign of the constantly sloppy thinking you indulge in

Heat, cold, hunger and thirst are all things primitive societies deal with in stride, just like ours.

yeah, they survive or they die

Because if the Third World becomes too affluent, then the First World loses the basis of its prosperity, and its standard of living slips, and then collapses. You can have the center of gravity move around the world, but you can't get around the fact that agriculture requires more calories in labor than it provides in food, and because of that, you'll always need a "cheat" to make it just break even, much less come out ahead.

the next "cheat" will be solar power ... and seeing as we live in an open system, we can cheat

Whatever form that "cheat" takes—irrigation, domesticated animal power, granaries, petrochemicals—it's always going to be something that an elite can control.

except that has civilization has gone on, the relative power of the elite has decreased and their methods of control have had to become more subtle and indirect ... in fact, often these days, they just have to settle for a bigger part of the pie than others and forgo absolute control

let's see ... further on, you admit that conditions like the holocene WILL come back ... and i'm not going to argue about when because that's unanswerable

you even admit, although you won't come right out and say it, that eventually, in a distant age, the same pro-civilization factors would exist again, although a different species would probably enjoy them

you ask me to prove that humans do not reproduce mindlessly like bacteria ... ever hear of birth control? ... and just why are we debating global warming, anyway?

Well, you're not talking about stopping growth, you're talking about space ships and science fiction to keep it going forever.

i'm talking about what's possible, the same as you ... the difference is that i'm not so foolish as to say that the collapse of civilization is impossible, that i don't let my bias allow me to discount ALL the possibilites

you do, because it interferes with your idealogical and faith-based viewpoint

i'm established that you've indulged in rhetorical tricks, cherry picked data, redefinition of terms and used faith based assumptions to "prove" your point of view

i don't have time to debate this any more ... one of your most insidious tactics is to throw more "facts" at people here than we really have time to deal with or to refute effectively

next time, i'll just have to refer people to this discussion
posted by pyramid termite at 5:55 PM on April 17, 2007


one of your most insidious tactics is to throw more "facts" at people here than we really have time to deal with or to refute effectively

I don't really have the time or inclination to respond to all of your points, since they've all been effectively rebutted here and elsewhere, but thank you for mentioning this—I think that pretty much says it all.
posted by jefgodesky at 4:08 PM on April 21, 2007


i doubt very much you have rebutted them ... and i know you haven't rebutted them here

by the way, this -

one of your most insidious tactics is to throw more "facts" at people here than we really have time to deal with or to refute effectively

was a polite way of saying you shovel more bullshit than we have time to shovel back

i made several points and you were able to refute none of them

now i understand why people just respond with ad hominems to your screeds ... debate with you is an utter waste of time ... you dodge, claim refuting data is biased toward civilization, refuse to define terms in any manner that isn't tilted towards your argument, refuse to recognize what you have not proven, and cherry pick the evidence to solely support your point of view

and when you get called on it, you run like a scalded cat

there's no arguing with a true believer like you ... this isn't a matter of scientific proof, but of faith ... it's about what you believe, not what you know and i can't be bothered with that
posted by pyramid termite at 4:58 PM on April 21, 2007


i doubt very much you have rebutted them ... and i know you haven't rebutted them here

All I see is you making the same foolish points I've already rebutted upthread.

and when you get called on it, you run like a scalded cat

That's funny, because I'm really just tired of answering the same B.S. over and over again because "you shovel more bullshit than we have time to shovel back."

there's no arguing with a true believer like you ... this isn't a matter of scientific proof, but of faith ... it's about what you believe, not what you know and i can't be bothered with that

Yeah, that's about where I'm at with you, so think of a "scalded cat" if you like, but I've really got better things to do...
posted by jefgodesky at 5:27 PM on April 21, 2007


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