Monday, May 19, 2014

Civilization and its Discontents - Part 2


Continuing on with our transcript of the discussion between Dr. Christopher Ryan and Daniel Vitalis (part one). Before we resume, here are a few relevant links:

Human Evolution 'Definitely Not' Over, Expert Says (Live Science):
Humans are evolving at an increasing rate, thanks to medical advances and a larger population, Pobiner said at the “Future Is Here,” a two-day conference celebrating the future of humans, the planet, life beyond Earth and deep space, hosted by Smithsonian Magazine. But just as humans are continuing to evolve, human parasites are evolving, too.

“I invite you to look into the eyes of our ancient relatives,” Pobiner said. "Why did most human ancestors go extinct, while homo sapiens survived? The answer has a lot to do with human brains.

The human brain represents only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, but consumes 20 percent of its energy. The biggest evolutionary changes have occurred in the neocortex, the brain’s outer wrapping that processes abstract thinking, long-term planning, empathy and language, Pobiner said.

As human brains continue to evolve, will humans eventually develop gigantic heads and scrawny bodies, as depicted in some sci-fi films? Historically, the birthing process has limited brain size, because babies’ heads had to fit through the birth canal.

Today, however, Caesarian sections circumvent that process. As many as 46 percent of babies born today in China are delivered via C-section, Pobiner said. With advances in fertility and better postnatal medical care, she asked, "Are we screwing with natural selection?"
And as a counterpoint, from last year: Why it's unlikely we are more stupid than our hunter-gatherer ancestors (The Guardian):
Before going on to the ancestral roots of this idea, it's worth noticing one objection to his theory that fails comprehensively. If the hunter-gatherers were so smart, how come they are almost extinct? Over most of their range they seem to have been hunted to death (often literally) by more settled farmers. All that are left are a few scattered populations in places no one else wants to live, like the rainforest and the Kalahari desert.

This is true, but it is false to suppose that evolution must always select for intelligence. Domesticated animals have generally smaller brains than their wild ancestors precisely because they no longer need to make so many decisions. Yet they are also far more numerous and successful. All evolution cares about is how many of your grandchildren survive. It's not picky about how and why this happens.

The idea that civilised man is a degenerate and self-domesticated variation on the wild type is partly a cultural trope, a result of the anxieties of industrialised life. You'll find it in some of the most influential works of pre-first-world-war fiction: Jack London, for example. It's taken to a different extreme in EM Forster's novella, The Machine Stops.
But is the good of the collective opposed to the good of the individual human? Since agriculture, we are behaviorally more similar to ants than primates. Is that a good thing?
Dan Vitalis: My first experience into the world might as well have been a gray alien probing on a spacecraft. Here I come from the warmth of the womb into this bright, white lit environment where alarms are beeping, people are running around screaming like it's an emergency. Mom's on drugs so I'm on drugs and the first thing I see is a guy in a mask with forceps in his hands. That is the initial imprint in the limbic system of the brain. Then what comes for me next is genital mutilation...


DV: Alright, so we said it was a zoo before, that’s a fun way of saying what it really is, which is a factory farm for human labor, for taxation of human labor, right? So we don’t produce meat in this factory farm, we produce labor to further civilization’s undefined goal… I’ve often wondered, what is the purpose? Is there some goal? Does anyone know what it is? Is it collective? Is there a parasite driving us? But here we are in more a factory farm than really a zoo. I think the zoo helps me sleep at night…The reality of this place is I think it is it is a factory farm. You know, in a factory farm you do things like, we found if we cut the tails off, the pigs won’t gnaw at each other’s tails, which is a behavior that only happens in captivity. Well, we found if we cut the foreskin off, that men are less likely to pleasure themselves and to feel gratification sexually and less intimacy will happen.

It’s kind of like that kind of a thing, we clip tails on…we clip ears on dogs, we clip penises on boys, all these weird things that we do. So I was turned onto this at a young age and I realized that what doctors are doing, this weird cutting, slashing, burning, irradiating thing, could never lead to health. I saw that schooling was only suppressing my ability to learn. So I escaped all that and followed my passion.
I think a better analogy than circumcision is the mass drugging of modern society. Like the pigs with clipped tails to keep them from gnawing them off in confinement, we’re being medicated to get us to “fit” into modern society, and any personality traits that do not make us profitable for the one percent (sit still, passively absorb information, behave ourselves, and jump through the various hoops put up in school) are classified as aberrant and in need of ‘correction.’ More and more pharmaceuticals and technology are used to bang the "square peg" of human nature into the "round hole" of modern technological civilization. And those of us who can't or won't fit will probably not make it through the sieve of our form of unnatural selection.

We’re surely being “bred” for the purposes of the elites as surely as domestic cattle. And we’re used the same way as herd animals - we’re chipped at birth, led around by the nose, stuck inside a sensory deprivation box, molded to be a “productive” member of society (productive for the one percent, not for you), and then discarded when you’re no longer needed. People who are malleable to this agenda are allowed to breed, those who don’t are ruthlessly culled. The logic of the CAFO is the same logic that animates globalized corporate capitalism.It's all the same mentality.
DV: The strong effect of drugs made me ask what’s the subtler effects of foods. Eventually that kind of led me to realize that there’s only artificial distinctions between drugs and food, and that an interesting thing. And that led me to wonder, what is the natural feed of humans?  What’s the natural food for humans? And that led me eventually to realize….it took me like fifteen years to realize if I wanted to figure out what was natural for humans to eat, I could look at what hunter-gatherers eat. That took me a long time to figure out. Nobody was talking about it back then. And here’s the analogy, it’s like if you want to figure out what chimpanzees eat, you’re wasting your time asking  zookeepers. You need to ask the people in the field who look at wild chimpanzees. And what’s going on in our culture is, it’s funny is, people want to figure out what’s natural for humans and they ask all the experts, who are just zookeepers. They’re the zookeepers, they definitely don’t know what humans beings eat.
And just where do 'the experts' get their information anyway? See this:

I Went to the Nutritionists' Annual Confab. It Was Catered by McDonald's  (Mother Jones) and Top 11 Biggest Lies of Mainstream Nutrition

And see this: The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease Even though the most fatty parts of the animals are the most prized in H-G cultures, we were told that fat is bad and started eating 'low fat' foods filled with processed oils and sweeteners.
DV: So that led me to look at natural people, and the more I looked at that the more I realized, oh my God, why are we not at least basing our modern life off of this? Obviously we’re not going back to it, I get that, but why are we not basing; why are not even trying to approximate any of it? Yeah, and this is a course of over twenty years. It took me a long time to arrive at any kind of sanity around the idea of how we should live.
Some discussion about the anger that comes when you realize how messed up society is and how to deal with that. The host reveals how he always felt that there was something wrong with the society he was born into, and how he was into Native American cultures at a young age as a rejection of the mainstream culture.
CR: You might be one of the only people who truly agrees with me that civilization itself has been a colossal mistake.

DV: And a pretty short-lived one, honestly, right? It’s not like it’s been around that long. One of the things that’s interesting about civilization…civil, it means city, citizens are people of the civility, the polis; they’re members of the city-state, really, and the city states are what, about 6,000 years old? So we’re talking like 5 percent of our current form has lived this way. So it’s certainly an experiment.
But it’s not the first one, right? We’ve had several. So we see, okay we rise up in Sumeria, let’s say. And what happens? It tanks. And then out of it we get Egypt. And what happens? They turn the fertile valley into a desert with, I love to point out, organic agriculture. It’s not like they were using pesticide back then. They turned Egypt into a desert. I think people picture the Egyptians living in the sand dunes as if it’s the place that it is now. Organic agriculture, way better than what we call organic agriculture today, too, right? A much more conscious form of agriculture and yet they turn the place to a desert. They collapse. The Greeks try civilization. It collapses. The Romans try it. It collapses.

I mean, so far, the whole track record with civilizations are collapses. They always collapse. So the idea… I love the transhumanists’ futuristic agenda, the singularity agenda is, we’re going to escape that pattern somehow, right, even though we have no evidence of that. I love when people believe in unicorns, you know.

CR: And then if you question it, you’re being unrealistic.

DV: ‘You’re such a Luddite…’

CR: A Luddite, or a romantic, but wait a minute...

DV: Don't question it, yeah. I believe in this thing I call the intrinsic taboo. We have a lot of taboos, but I believe for civilization the formative taboo is against wildness. It's the intrinsic taboo because civilization is antithetical to wildness, therefore expressions of wildness must be suppressed because wildness feels better than civilization feels.

CR: It's the most subversive thing there is, it's a rejection of the zoo.

DV: So if I smell your body odor, you've got to cover that because that reminds me that you're wild. I like this one, nakedness is my favorite. If we take our clothes off and walk outside right now they'll arrest us. They'll lock us up and we'll be charged as sex offenders. Nakedness is actually a controlled substance so we can sell it with a license as pornography.
Some discussion about the Nazi experiment with the auroch, which can be read here:

The Nazi breeding program that resurrected an extinct species (io9)

DV: The further that we get away from our robust hunter gatherer ways, the less likely it is that we can ever reintegrate back. The more degenerated we get; the sicker we get.

So I said before domestico-fragilis, that being our subspecies. And my goal with the rewilding lifestyle is to try to become Homo sapiens neo-aboriginalis. The feral human, through rewilding practices.

But the direction we’re going in…I sometimes think about this gray alien thing.  As you know we've had this symbol that's come along in the last two decades. We’ve seen  these alien images everywhere. And I often say that’s the direction of our evolution. That’s what I think that thing is.
So we have the creature with the big, bulbous head, because humans beings can maintain maybe what, I think 150 friends in a social network is what our brain can handle,  but with Facebook you have 5,000, so we need a bigger brain. Staring into screens all day really hurts the eyes, so you need these big eyes with built-in sunglasses. And you’re never outside, so you don’t need any melanin in your skin, it can just be translucent. A little devolved mouth because all you eat is processed food. No sex organ because, let’s face it, we don’t even need to have sex, we can just reproduce through cloning. Long, spindly fingers for manipulating touch screens so your big human sausage fingers don’t push two buttons at the same time. A hive-minded being who can live isolation and who  can experience the world through technology rather than…that to me is, we have hunter-gatherers as our progenitor and the gray alien is like  the extreme Chihuahua of what humans could become in a way, the humanoid insect almost, right?

So my point is this, the more domesticated we become, the less able we are to heed that call of the wild and to actually go experience it again.
Related, see this article: Out of Contact (New York Review of Books):

...Indians were viewed as second-class citizens or worse, and treated with derision by the settlers who were pushing ever farther into the interior. The Indians’ culture of survival that had served them so well prior to their encounter with Western society had little relevance or value afterward. The lure of “things” (including alcohol) was irresistible and led to dependencies. Missionaries forbade them to go naked, thus requiring them somehow to obtain clothing. With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price.

Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens. Exploited by settlers and unscrupulous merchants, and with little prospect of achieving a level of prosperity, independence, and self-respect that would have carried them over the cultural divide into real assimilation, many indigenous communities became trapped in a state of demoralization and profound cultural poverty, being neither what they once were nor what Rondon had envisioned for them.

If Indians living in the path of the Transamazon Highway weren’t contacted (“pacified” was the term of choice) and relocated, the consequences for them would have been disastrous. Conflicts with surveying and construction crews were inevitable. So were Western diseases—measles, influenza, dysentery, malaria. Isolated people have no resistance to such diseases and first contact with Europeans frequently results in demographic losses in excess of 80 percent. After demographic collapse, many tribes simply ceased to exist as organized entities.

DV: We don’t realize that the things we think we love here actually just occupy us enough so that we don’t realize how much of a hell this is.


There is a glut of data that shows us that every time we make some synthetic thing that it’s toxic to us…so I just think it’s funny, we do these weird artificial things to ourselves and then we always act is if we expect they’re going to be good and then act surprised when we find out that they’re bad. ‘Oh BPA is bad? We had no idea! We thought that it would work.’ Like, it never works. I don’t ever see it work.
See this: Your Food Is Poisoning You (Outside)

Some discussion of Google Glass and that this is the year of the cyborg and the drone.
DV: This is the era of 3D printed food. This is the new food movement. If you guys aren’t aware, listening out there, Google it. 3-D printed food.  So what they’re able to do…I’ve got a great quote at home. It’s a guide from the 3d printing food manufacturing world saying ‘Well in the future, only the rich will be able to afford real food.’ Vegetables and meats. The rest of us will eat biologically appropriate food for our body type that we buy in print cartridges, bring home and print off the meals that we want. And everybody’s meals will be tailored to what the top-down sort of Obamacare decides what your body needs.

CR: Dog food.

DV: Dog food, right. Domesticated human food.

CR: We’re already there. Let’s face it, only the rich can eat real food now, however we define real food.
DV: It’s funny with processed food, because when you learn foraging you realize that wild foods need processing. Most wild foods need processing with the exception of certain shoots and fruits, for the most part humans have to process food. When processed food got popular, the idea was, you are now like wealthy people, someone else processes your food, you don’t have to do it by hand, you’re no longer a peasant. But somehow then that morphed into foods that were industrial foods. And we call industrial food, processed food which is a little unfortunate, because as a forager, if I gather seeds I have to dehull them. That’s a process and it takes time.

CR: Cooking is a process.

DV: Cooking is…right, Fire is…we use it to detoxify foods or render them edible. But when we say processed food in this culture we really mean industrial food. Now we’re moving to technological food. And again, earlier I made the gray alien metaphor and maybe it sounded a little weird. But what would gray aliens eat, exactly? Can you picture gray aliens sitting down to a salad, with steak? Some kind of wierd proecessed food...Soylent Green.

CR: Astronauts. That's what astronauts eat.

DV: NASA actually developed the 3-D printer for food. So they've been funding this research because they want to use it in space.
He says Soylent Green as a  joke, but it's not a joke! It's a reality, courtesy Silicon Valley. They're already promoting high tech drinks so we don't even get to eat real food anymore, and they're pushing it. Now we can spend even more time at our desks being productive without having to burden ourselves with the need for food (or rest...eliminating sleep is next):

Man cannot live by bread alone ­— but we can survive on Soylent, a powdered meal replacement that’s getting press in articles portending the “end of food.” Developed by Robert Rhinehart, an electrical engineer turned amateur biochemist, the product is something like Ensure on steroids, containing thirty-five essential nutrients in one tiny pouch. Mix it with water and an oil blend and you have not just a substitute for a single meal, but a cocktail you could live on for all eternity.

Rhinehart and his small team are straight out of Silicon Valley. They not only discuss their startup with the hyperoptimism of the TED set, but its early consumers are “lifehacking” tech types who find drinking meals at their desk a fine way to maximize their productivity.

This is the reason many commentators fear the rise of Soylent and products like it. Under capitalism, we spend most of our waking hours under the direction of our bosses. We’re under pressure to produce ever more efficiently — not for more pay, but simply to keep our jobs. With stable 9-to-5 employment increasingly scarce, companies are not only making the workday longer, they’re making sure workers achieve peak productivity throughout it.

Pervasive surveillance of employees, the division of work into mundane and tedious component tasks, and the relentless pace of production have always been associated with labor under capitalism. But in the unionless cubicle of the future, workers have even less of a chance to push back against these trends.

For those of us still lucky enough to have it, a lunch break is one of the last reprieves from the tyranny of the workplace. It doesn’t matter that we’re spending half of it standing in line for Chipotle — socializing with others and having time away from the grind has tremendous value.

Our biological need for food to perform effectively as workers is one of the few things employers have to respect. A labor force sipping Soylent all day at their desks would satisfy that need without disruptive pauses for food preparation, consumption and cleanup. Lunch breaks could come to be seen as an antiquated luxury, relics from a bygone era of 40-hour workweeks, paid vacation and sick days, and “Cadillac” health and dental plans.

Let's embrace the end of food (Al Jazeera) and Soylent 1.0 arrives at Ars: We mix it up and slurp it down (Ars Technica)
DV: And when we look at the whole agenda, it almost feels like the goal is, 'we don't like this planet, we gotta get out of here.'

Sometimes I’ll talk about … like you take a hunter gatherer and you take a backpacker on let's say  the Appalachian Trail. And then you take an astronaut from the moon. The backpacker looks more like the astronaut than the indigenous person, right? The big oversized boots, the crazy shiny clothes, the huge pack, the helmet, the gloves. It’s like, modern domesticated humans going into nature act as if they've come from another planet and they’re in some hostile environment. And they need this whole space suit to walk across a trail. It’s almost as if we act like were not from this planet. We act as if we’re a bit more angel than ape or something…I just never understood what's wrong with this place. I love it...


  1. No offense intended, but do we really need another voice telling us how awful things are and how much more awful they will likely become? I know all that—more than most folks in this culture. And do we really need another voice ascribing blame? Isn’t that the same adversarial attitude that has gotten us into this mess? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying evil doesn’t exist, or that there aren’t a lot of bad characters out there. But “they” didn’t invent Civilization. They’re just very good at exploiting it. As this blog has pointed out any number of times, all civilizations have finite lives, and this latest one is clearly senescent. Instead of wasting energy blaming, wouldn’t it be better if we were all finding ways to withdraw our support for a dying system thus hastening its collapse, while simultaneously experimenting with less exploitative ways of living on the planet?

    1. I think you missed the entire point of these posts. The point is not to point out how awful things are. You may think everyone knows that, but in reality, I don’t think most people think about many of the issues raised in this article at all as they scarf down their McDonalds on their morning commute listening to talk radio.

      Instead, the constant refrain is, ‘We’re living in the best of all times, everything is better than it ever was before, and everything will continue to get better for people forever thanks to global industrial corporate capitalism.” That is the fundamental message of our society that is broadcast – either directly or indirectly – on a 24-7 basis to keep people on board with the ongoing project of siphoning wealth upwards while destroying our bodies and the planet. And most people believe it! They think iPods, TV and computer games, and automobiles are worth being chained to your desk for 40+ hours in a cubicle, being a debt serf your entire life, and having to take ten pills a day to deal with all your health issues. If you don’t think this is the mainstream view, then you don’t talk to many people. Look around you. If you say, like the people in the article, that we’re going in the wrong direction you are an outcast from mainstream discourse. That is the point.

      So this runs counter to that narrative. More to the point, it’s an alternative narrative that says a better future comes not from doubling down on the path we’ve been going (more work, more technology, more growth), but by veering away from it. That is hardly obvious to many people, and the mainstream is dependent on people not thinking that. Countering this narrative is like trying to be heard at a heavy metal concert.

    2. No, I don’t think I missed the point, although I readily admit that I’m saturated with facts and figures and perhaps hypersensitive to them. I’ve followed your blog for a couple of years now (BTW, thank you for your dedication), and there’s scarcely anything you’ve presented that I don’t already know or disagree with. But that’s just me. I have talked with a lot of people, and while I agree that most don’t think about these issues per se, many are experiencing an inchoate anxiety they may not be able or willing to fully understand or articulate. Many (I dare say most) people know that something is up. How could you not, unless you’re rich enough or powerful enough to be able to insulate yourself from the real world? True, they often deal with it in any number of ways global industrial corporate capitalism will gladly make available to them. But they know. Maybe my gripe is with the approach. I find that *how* something is presented to be more important than *what* is being presented.

  2. It never kept me from seeking "self-gratification".

  3. Speaking of "Civilization and its Discontents," here is a link for you about what was lost during the time between the advent of agriculture and the rise of civilization: The Great Forgetting. I think it's completely on-topic for this entry and its predecessor.


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