Sunday, May 18, 2014

Civilization and its Discontents - Part 1

Some of you may be familiar with the work of Dr. Christopher Ryan. He, along with his wife, is the author of Sex at Dawn. Because the book deals with human prehistory, it spends some time debunking the notion that this time in the human experience was an unremittingly awful hell of starvation, poverty and sickness, where everyone died at age thirty if they weren’t eaten by some wild animal or killed by hostile tribesmen before the arrival of agriculture “rescued” us, and it’s been upward ever since.

So Dr. Ryan is doing a follow-up book expanding on that idea. The book, called Civilized to Death, argues that many of the tenets of civilization are leaving us sick, angry, depressed, frustrated, alienated, fatigued, and emotionally crippled. It makes the claim that we’ve actually gone downhill from an existence that was much more in-line with our natural biological needs and urges, and that we should start factoring these needs back into civilization rather than trying to double down on a way of life that most of us are not being served well by. Long time readers will know that this is a major theme of this blog as well, and I kind of wish I were writing this book myself.

Ryan hosts a podcast called Tangentially Speaking, and is a frequent guest on the Joe Rogan podcast. The following are highlights from a terrific podcast he did recently with Daniel Vitalis. Do listen to the entire thing. Some highlights are below, with some comments and links:
Dan Vitalis (guest): I'm fascinated by what happens when you take an organism out of wild nature and through breeding and through environmental controls and through food manipulation you actually turn it into a domestic subspecies.

I love to use the analogy of dogs. We call dogs 'man's best friend,' and I think people think 'Oh, that's like Bob's best friend.' But really it means 'man' in the old sense of man...So 'man's best friend' means 'human's best friend' because for about a hundred thousand years the geneticists tell us we've been autodomesticating alongside dogs. So this is the oldest kinship relationship between humans and another species.

So all dogs are gray wolves. [German] Shepherds are grey wolves and Chihuauhuas are gray wolves. We call gray wolf canis lupus, but we call the dog canis lupus familiaris. So that intraspecific epithet, familiaris, tells us we're talking about the domestic subspecies of the gray wolf. [Incidentally, a gray wolf recently appeared in Iowa for the first time in 89 years - and was promptly shot dead. Symbolic]

We're comfortable with that for dogs, cows, sheep, goats, but when it comes to human beings, we don't really talk about this. We act as if we are Homo sapiens. But my argument is this: if we look to wild nature, we see Homo sapiens the wild species. And there are what, about a hundred uncontacted tribes still in the world? These are wild peoples. Undomesticated. Domestic means 'of the household.' These people are not of the household - they don't live in houses. They still eat wild foods. They're still living in wild nature. They are, we could say, an endangered species - true Homo sapiens. We, I believe, are the domestic subspecies, right? We are very different. We do live in the house. We're not tolerant to the temperature conditions that they live in. We're not tolerant to the wild foods anymore. We breed in captivity.

And so I'm putting forth this postulation - that the we are the domestic subspecies. I've named us Homo sapiens domestico-fragilis. And I say it as kind of a joke, but... Because we are quite fragile and domestic compared to our wild predecessor.

So you know the first thing I want to put forward...we  sometimes do call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, the wise, wise man, as if we are somehow evolved out of those people, but what I would offer is that just as dogs are actually degenerated wild wolves, not evolved from the wolf. They haven't improved upon the wolf, in fact this is why when we purebreed dogs we see that they have all these degenerative diseases. Of course, degeneration is sort of the opposite of evolution, we see the same thing in ourselves, we're degenerating from the wild peoples.

So I think before we move forward we need to recognize culturally that we are a domesticated subspecies and then ask ourself how far down this path we really want to continue going. And I love this idea of rewilding. So my work is really about rewilding, how can we, as domesticated - you know we are domesticated; we're not going to become hunter-gatherers again - but if we're going to live in a zoo let's make the habitat a little more like our wild habitat.
This is actually true, see this from a recent story about the first people to arrive in the Americas and the discovery of a skull from 13,000 years ago in Mexico:

Chatters added that the changes we see between the Paleoamerican group and contemporary Native Americans is consistent with what happens in a lot of animals as they are domesticated. The Beringian woman discovered in Mexico would have been what biologists call a "wild type" human — her genome had not yet been altered by thousands of years of sedentary life made possible by agriculture and cities. Typically, Chatters said, domesticated humans develop more childlike faces, with their eyes set more closely together and their facial features softening.

This early Native American woman's ancestors migrated out of Beringia over thousands of years. She came from a population whose distinctive look and culture died out when humans traded a nomadic life for an agricultural one. Her progeny eventually made permanent homes in Central and South America, domesticating beans, corn, and squash as they slowly domesticated themselves.

Beringia, the Lost Territory Where Americans Evolved (io9).

Evolution at work
So yes, we are a different species. read on below:
Chris Ryan (host): That's exactly the core of the book I'm working on now - that human beings are the only animal that's lived in a zoo that they themselves constructed. And it's largely a shitty zoo. I you're going to live in a you say, were going to be in a zoo, that's just the way it is, but do you want to be the Calcutta Zoo or the San Diego Zoo?

I've also heard that sapiens sapiens thing described as, instead of wise, wise man, it's to know. So Homo sapiens is the Homo, the primate that knows. Homo sapiens sapiens knows it knows. So if we know we know, how come we can't take some control, right? We know we're on a bus. We know the bus has a steering wheel. Isn't the next stage to grab the steering wheel and turn away from the cliff?

DV: And you know it's interesting because sapiens sapiens refers to the gracilized version, the gracile or the more light version, the more graceful version, right? Or even of Cro-Magnon. Cro-Magnon is anatomically modern human 200,000 years ago emerges, and we are a more slimmed-down version, so we use this trinomial, sapiens sapiens, to denote that. But it's interesting to know to know, because they actually had larger braincases, that is, they actually had larger brains than us.

CR: So did Neanderthals.

DV: Right, so we see that even our neurology is degenerated from our predecessors. Now we seem so brilliant when we all work together, but on the individual level our awareness is so blunted. I think its interesting There's a verse in the Bible I really like - 'Thinking themselves wise, they became as fools.' [Romans 1:22-CH] And I think that's really fitting here. Thinking ourselves wise, we have, we've become foolish. The average person does not know what is even needed for survival.

CR: The difference between what's good for an individual and what's good for...even 'good' is the wrong term. What allows a species to proliferate and dominate the planet...evolution doesn't give a shit what happens to you as long as you reproduce and your offspring survive. That's the endgame. So you could be a thirty-year old alcoholic, obese fuck up, as long as you had ten kids, according to evolution you won, right? You can be unhappy. You can be miserable. You can be consuming carcinogens. It doesn't matter.

So I think a lot of people have this idea that evolution is a movement toward good, toward value, toward wisdom, toward whatever. It's not. It's value neutral.
Wolves versus dogs - progress?
Some good discussion on whether civilization is a parasite that acts similar to Toxoplasma Gondii, making us do things against our own individual best interest in the service of the parasite. Then looking at cities and cornfields as industrial monocrops, hospitals as an extension of the Catholic Church model (biggest building in town, white frock, nuns as nurses, wafer on the tongue...), and that diseases proliferate in hospitals as nature's attempt to bring more life back into such biologically sterile environments.
DV: Let's talk about dead babies...

CR: You know, my wife...she's from Mozambique. And she often talks about she had a lot of patients and she worked there for years, she's worked in Europe, worked in the U.S. and how much healthier the Africans were as compared to the Europeans and Americans. And yes part of that is diet, part of it is there's still more wild food, there's not as much cultivation, there's not as much pesticide, use, yada yada ya...but another part of it is, the unhealthy ones die when they're babies.

DV: Or, lets' take the taboo further. If we look back, a lot of them are killed.

CR: Yeah, infanticide sure.

DV: Right. I mean I personally should think we should bring a little infanticide back, but I mean not everyone agrees with me.

CR: Well, we do, but we call it abortion.

DV: Sure, and we're not selecting there, we're not selecting in the same way. So, yeah, what I see people are doing...its almost as if we came to understand how natural selection works, and we said what would happen if we did unnatural selection and we selected for the worst traits in ourselves and then we filled the world up. It's like a zombie movie, but instead of zombies it's people who have blunt awareness and whose bodies are falling apart roaming the streets blindly, unable to look up from their mobile phones as they bump into each other.

CR: I've been wondering why zombie movies and TV shows are so big these days.
A story came up this week that shows that this is true. A study showed that in the aftermath of the Black Death, the population of Europe in stricken areas was much healthier. This was probably caused by two factors - the sickest people died, as they say above, and there was more food and wealth to go around. That's something to think about to all those who say ever-more people and boundless population growth is a good thing. It's an iron law as well as common sense - if there are less people, there are more resources to go around and a higher standard of living. But the people at the top of the pyramid benefit from larger populations and intensification, so that is what they claim is best for 'society':

The Black Death, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, wiped out 30 to 50 percent of Europe's population between 1347 and 1351. But, this is just the most infamous of the little microbe's shenanigans. Y. pestis, which is one-millionth our size, has caused three major pandemics and continues killing people to this very day. The plague gets such a bad rap because it represents some of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the human race.

Can anything nice be said about the plague? As it turns out, yes. A new analysis by Sharon DeWitte in PLoS ONE suggests a silver lining: Black Death survivors and their descendants were healthier and longer-living, meaning that the plague served as a gigantic natural selection event eliminating many of the weak and frail from the population.

Because so many people died, it was widely assumed that the Black Death killed indiscriminately. But that's not true. Elderly people and those who were in poor health to begin with were much likelier to die. To be sure, the plague kills healthy people, too. But, as with most infectious diseases, healthy people have a better chance at surviving. Ironically, the Europeans who made it through the Black Death inherited a much better world. Food prices dropped, labor wages increased, and there was a boost in the standard of living.

Black Death: The Upside to Killing Half of Europe (Big Think)
DV: Which brings us to the parasite that makes people want to consume each other. But I think this is a really important thing because when we start taking about...when I heard you say the Flintstonization, I thought, God, why didn't I think of that; that's so we have this image of the noble savage image or the idea of the utopia of the hunter-gatherer, and then this little dark secret of infanticide and high child mortality rates comes up, and that one freaks people out.

So I'll hear that one from people, well, because I'll often say, 'Tell me one thing that civilization has offered us that makes it worth doing.' And don't give me 'Oh, the arts.' Like I'm sick of hearing about ...yeah art's great, I love art, but I would prefer freedom, honestly, right? I'd rather paint on a cave wall and have freedom than have a museum and live in slavery.

So I'll say, bring up one thing, and the only thing I can hear from people from people that I can kind of understand is, 'Well, more of our children survive past the age of one.' Okay. But at the same time here we are with our cognitive dissonance - somehow society's taught people to live with dissonance - this overpopulation issue. So people on one hand want to say, 'Well its so great were keeping kids alive we're able to increase the survival rate of our kids.' And then the next thought is, 'Oh my god there's seven billion people how are we going to make this work?' And its kind of clear that those two things are interrelated.

So how do we deal with that? I mean, I don't know. I'm not suggesting that we really do infanticide, but I think we need to understand that nature had that set up really well, and that we've hijacked a system that maybe we shouldn't have.

CR: And also...death, or absence of life, is assumed to be a negative in this way of thinking, right?

DV: For the uninitiated.

CR: Right. And my question is, what's the logical basis for that assumption? I don't think that anyone looks at the logical basis for that assumption. I don't understand how being dead is somehow something to be feared and avoided, but not having been born doesn't come up as an issue. Cause its the same state of being, or non-being, right?

So I mean, you were talking about our health care system. I don't remember the number but its something like 30-40 percent of all medical expenditures in the United States happen with people in the last three months of their lives.

DV: Well, we're living so much longer now, the quality's wonderful...

CR: No, we're just dying slower! It's like watching  basketball on TV. The last minute takes 45 minutes, you know. It's like all the time outs and the commercials...

DV: You need some time to extract the last bit of somebody's wealth before they are recycled back into...Soylent Green is people.

CR: Exactly. That's what they're doing. 'Oh, let's do a hip replacement on grandma, she's in her nineties.' Are you kidding me? Leave grandma alone. Let her die in peace with some money; with her house. 
 Here's a good link related to that: How Doctors Die: Showing Others the Way (NYT).

 Research shows that most Americans do not die well, which is to say they do not die the way they say they want to — at home, surrounded by the people who love them. According to data from Medicare, only a third of patients die this way. More than 50 percent spend their final days in hospitals, often in intensive care units, tethered to machines and feeding tubes, or in nursing homes.

There is no statistical proof that doctors enjoy a better quality of life before death than the rest of us. But research indicates they are better planners. An often-cited study, published in 2003, of physicians who had been medical students at Johns Hopkins University found that they were more likely than the general public to have created advance directives, or living wills, which lay out specific plans for care if a patient is unable to make decisions. Of the 765 doctors studied, 64 percent had advance directives, compared with about 47 percent for American adults over 40.

Patients and families often pay a high price for difficult and unscripted deaths, psychologically and economically. The Dartmouth Atlas Project, which gathers and analyzes health care data, found that 17 percent of Medicare’s $550 billion annual budget is spent on patients’ last six months of life.

“We haven’t bent the cost curve on end-of-life care,” said Dr. David C. Goodman, a senior researcher for the project.

The amount spent in the intensive care unit is climbing. Between 2007 and 2010, Medicare spending on patients in the last two years of life jumped 13 percent, to nearly $70,000 per patient.

Regarding Ryan's questions above as to what is the basis of the assumption that more equals progress and more is always better, reader Dan pointed out the following link: War & Progress (Genealogy of Religion):

The whole argument rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that violence and warfare have diminished since the Neolithic transition. This is, for the most part, progressivist and Panglossian bullshit coming from people like Steven Pinker. In “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality” (2013) (pdf), anthropologist Brian Ferguson meticulously demonstrates this fact. The argument also rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that preagricultural or “Stone Age” peoples lived Hobbesian lives, “solitary, poore, nastie, brutish, and shorte.” There is considerable evidence to the contrary.

But the most problematic assumption in this piece is that bigger and more is always better. This author naively (or neoliberally) assumes that every person added to the world results in an added-person prosperity increase of $25 per day. It should go without saying that this global income average, multiplied by population, tells us nothing about the total quantum of human health and well-being among the earth’s more than 7 billion current inhabitants.

Although hunter-gatherers may not have earned $25 per day while living in densely packed and polluted urban areas (as most moderns do), a great deal of anthropological evidence suggests they led long, healthy, and satisfying lives. I have no idea how the author can conclude that hunter-gatherers eked out a living on less than $2 per day. Dollarized income figures are meaningless in Stone Age settings and cannot tell us anything about the happiness of humans in those societies. These kinds of comparisons reek of positivist ideology.

Even if it were true that violent deaths due to warfare have decreased as a percentage of total population size, this alleged decrease is hardly comforting. If we assume (as this author does) that bigger populations are always better, this must also mean that each human life is an addition and every loss is a subtraction. In this context, absolute numbers are just as meaningful as percentages. Looked at this way, nearly 200 million war-related deaths over the past century should not be counted as “progress” simply because this was a relatively small percentage of the world’s total population.

But hey, let’s celebrate bigger populations, bigger societies, bigger governments, bigger incomes, and bigger wars. To this list, many cultural evolutionists would also add, and celebrate, bigger gods.

Part 2 next time.


  1. Hunter-gatherer idealization aside, a species with as large a pre-frontal cortex as homo sapiens was bound to develop some form of complex society eventually. Civilization arose multiple times independently, and while it obviously hasn't been perfect, it's a stage that we have to pass through. In a few thousand years, humans might learn their lesson and do civilization right, if they're still around by then. It's not practically feasible to go back to the caves since the planet can't feed 7 billion on pre-industrial technology.

    1. The industrial technology (and the associated political and financial systems) can't feed 7 billion people properly either. 1 billion obese, 1 billion hungry. It's also debatable whether we can continue to feed close to 7 billion (assuming we currently do), under future scenarios such as climate affected grain production (going down), declining soil health, desertification, land degradation and so on.

    2. Actually, the technical capacity to feed 7+ billion exists and has existed for many decades now. If you divide the total food output of the planet by the number of people, you get something like 2700 kcal per individual, which is quite sufficient, even with the enormously wasteful practices we currently employ. The problem lies in equitable distribution, sustainability, and with political, financial and social systems whose interest is to maintain their own power and competitive advantage.

  2. Yes. Good post. Need to follow some of those links. And thanks for the podcast link - that looks interesting.

    Somewhat tangential to this but Radiolab had an interesting podcast a while ago on doctors' preferences for end of life treatments ( - basically, in a hypothetical situation involving nonfatal brain injury, they don't want ANYTHING regular folk get in hospitals other than morphine and presumably they're in a better position to make informed choices than are the rest of us.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.