Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Golden Age of Human Decency

I have been listening to Prof. Jeremy Adams' excellent lecture series, Neolithic Europe (Teaching Company, 2005). I am fascinated by his account of the transition from the paleolitic (hunter-gatherers) to the neolithic (agriculture and pastoralism), a sort of cultural earthquake which began around 10,000 BC (end of last ice age) in the Middle East. It involved, says Adams, a "moral revolution" in addition to the more obvious technological one. His account confirms something I have long suspected: that the preceding era, the age of hunter-gatherers, was the golden age of human morality, and that this "revolution" was a terrible fall from grace, whose horrors still afflict us today.

Here are the main points I take away from his account (which is mainly based on studies of hunter-gather cultures that survived into modern times):
The paleolithics lived in tiny groups in which they dealt with others on a face-to-face basis. In such a world, individual human life is precious. Even the life of a malefactor has value. These cultures try to avoid imposing the death penalty, and even exile is viewed with distaste.

Throughout the paleolithic and well into the neolithic, war as we think of it was rare to nonexistent. (I would say there is a big ethical difference, which is not just a matter of degree, between raiding and feuding on the one hand and war on the other.)

Paleo cultures were egalitarian. Decisions about the group were typically made by the elders, who could be men or women. Decision-making authority was thus based on age, which indicates possession of natural values such as experience and relative wisdom.
Paleo social organization was often either matriarcal or matrilineal or both. Well into the neolithic, the principal deity was often female.

With the neolithic came a population explosion and people became more expendable. [They lose what Jeffers called "the value of rarity."]

At the same time, decision-making authority is based more and more on brute force (the strong man) and inheritance (ie., on convention) instead of natural merit. Broad, long-range social organization begins.

Meanwhile, stores of neolithic food surpluses become thief-magnets. People use the new, coercive forms of organization to steal the food of others. Proto-states arise and, with them, organized warfare. Large numbers of morally innocent human beings are coldly slaughtered.

Among the goods stolen in wars are human beings. Slavery is born.

Life-long monogamy is the paleo form of marriage. In the neo world, polygamy arises: mainly polygyny, which priviledges men. It also increases class inequality, as it draws potential mates away from lower-caste men. If it spreads far enough, many lower caste men will not be able to reproduce at all. [I also wonder if it also tends to propagate the thuggish traits that enable one to achieve a position of artificial privilege.]

Beginning in the neolithic, there is a tendency for human wealth, regardless of who produces it, to be channeled to a privileged few. The first taxes are collected.

Because people now live in the same place from generation to generation (no need to follow the mastodon herds) they acquire special holy places (eg., Stonehenge) where they can go and perform the same repetitive rituals in the same place over and over again. Organized religion begins to displace the individualistic spirituality of the paleos. [I would add that this makes possible priestly castes, with coercive power undreamt of by the medicine men of the paleolithic.] Eventually, the religious practice of human sacrifice [the ultimate expression of the subordination of the individual to the group] begins.
At the heart of the moral revolution of the neolithic is a sort of moral anesthesia, caused by a number of factors, not the least of which is the organization of activity under that the Nazis called the F├╝hrerprinzip. It is an occasional convenient blindness (which could never become constant lest culture itself should collapse) to the inviolability of the individual.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

Hmmm... the idea of a moral golden age is nice, but this is at odds with other things I've read about anthropology.

Most notably, the per capita murder rates in hunter-gatherer societies tend to be quite high, a fact often missed because the low number of capita means a low *absoute* murder rate. Though there may be something initially tempting about the idea that "war as we think of it" is morally better than "raiding and feuding," the latter can be just as brutal and just as pointless.

As for leadership, while hunter-gatherer societies do rely on elders for direction on practical matters where experience is important, the highest-status individual is often a cheif or "big man" who, in most cases, is just the biggest bully.

Finally, on gender equality, many hunter-gatherer societies are moderately polygynous, with no huge harems but many men who have two or three or four wives. Also, the men will spend no time at all taking care of their wives and children. Instead, they spend their time hunting, an activity that is often inefficient from a food-getting perspective, but is useful for impressing the women the men hope to have affairs with.

Anyway, though, I'd be curious to know if there's a bibliography for the talks. Mayve if I saw his sources I'd change my mind.

N. Hunt said...

Bashing polygamy? Did you learn anything from reading Heinlein?

How come no bullet point about art, with a thumbnail like that?

Lester Hunt said...

Dear Uncredible (gosh I love saying that!),

Well, I'm not sure you are really disagreeing all that much about the facts. Note that you speak of some H-G societies as "moderately" polygyous. Personally, in my readings on such societies, I have never noticed one that has any sort of polygamy at all, though admittedly I was not looking for that. Since this is the sort of society in which it is very difficult to stop anyone from doing anything, I have to admit though that there must have been some. However, the necessity of moving residence would discourage the accumulation of a large entourage of wives and concubines, and Adams would probably say that the (compared to other societies) egalitarian ethos of the age would also militate against it.

As to whether the leader was a strong man, Adams says that typically in such a system a man who insists on having decision-making power just because of strength and body size would be expelled. I've never seen any concrete evidence that he is wrong about this.

As to the higher murder rate among hunter societies, you are of course right. But I would claim that as far as the "moral anesthesia" point that I am making here, feuding and war are not only absolutely different, they are opposites. To kill another individual out of anger, envy, revenge, or hate is an affirmation of their personality, their individuality and especially of their moral responsibility. You see them as deserving somethings and not others. In particular, you think their unique individual personality deserves death. On the other hand, the man who drops a bomb, or hurls a catapult projectile, into a city full of women, children, and old men, does not see them as deserving this sort of treatment. To him, they are not even persons, they are targets.

When you say that feuding can be just as brutal and pointless as war, you are right, but I am focusing on a different aspect of the situation.

As to sources, there is an ample annotated bibliography at the end of the booklet that comes with the lectures which looks very useful. Comments he makes suggest that his view of H-G societies is influenced by, among others, De Vore's classic work on the !Kung and the so-called Hottentots. [I would add that Turnbull's immortal "The Forest People" gives a similar sort of picture. Everyone should read this wonderful book, BTW.]

Lester Hunt said...


Yes, IMHO the neolithic represents an artistic falling-off as well as an ethical one. The cave painters of the ice age achieved a level of greatness in visual art that was not not surpassed until the Greeks of the iron age, 10,000 and more years later.

I didn't mention it because I couldn't figure out how to fit it into the ethical point I was making.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

OK, it does look like we agree on the facts, but are emphasizing different things. But it seems to me that whether or not people are being treated as individuals is a relatively trivial concern compared to being killed for no good reason. And mass killing is compatible with hating the victim and believing they deserved it, but the US bombing of Japan would not have been morally improved if it had been done out of the belief that all Japanese needed to die simply for being Japanese.

As for leadership: my understanding of what goes on in HG societies is not that someone will proclaim himself leader on the explicit grounds that he's the biggest and strongest. Rather, the societies are small enough that one-on-one fights will, once in awhile, decide something important, and hen that's known people will defer to the bigger, stronger guys. This means that, all else being equal--and of course it not always is--the "big men" will end up in charge.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

P.S.--what's the title of De Vore's book? I'm having trouble finding it...

Scott Lahti said...

The Uncredible Hallq: "what's the title of De Vore's book?"

See the works of Irven DeVore.

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Unfortunately, Adams doesn't give a title in the bibliography. I imagine his anthologies "Man the Hunter" and "Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers" would have relevant stuff, though I haven't read them.

One relevant book that he does list, and I am reading right now, is "Origins of the State and Civilization" by Elman R. Service (Norton, 1976). Specially relevant is Ch. III: "Man in a State of Nature: The Egalitarian Society."

Another book I can recommend, in addition to that one and the Turnbull book, is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' "The Harmless People" (about the !Kung). A great read!

As to your point about leaders being whoever won a violent fight with the previous leader, I have never read an account of an HG group that works that way. It doesn't seem like ones who do would survive in the long run. After all, if we need to have someone who will make certain decisions for the group, that would be a terrible way of selecting the one who is best suited to do it. The ability to win a fistfight and the ability to lead an effective horse-stealing raid at night probably don't reliably go together.

About the other point, you are right in a way: I was thinking in terms of character ethics and not in terms of consequences. Not how many are killed, but in what "spirit" are the homicidal acts (or any acts) done. In my point of veiw, the former considerations, mere numbers, are not per se ethical ones. And I was only addressing the ethical issue, not the wider issue of whether paleolithic or neolithic societies are preferable.

However, it seems to me that organized warfare is worse than feuding, raiding, and "individualist" murder in both ways. After all, murder is to warfare as retail is tho wholesale.

pappy d said...

It seems to me we've been hunting & gathering for an awful lot longer than we've been ploughing & reaping. HG societies were where our moral instincts evolved. They may appeal to us because that's the life to which we are best emotionally suited. It's a world where good & evil are unambiguous. Society is drawn together by love of family & pressed in on all sides by gods & monsters. The world is mysterious & seems pregnant with meaning. There is an outside to society which gives it context & completeness. Today, there's no outside to civilisation, just pockets of "wilderness preserve". Our emotions don't serve us well in daily life any more & we have nothing to fall back on except reason.

Oh! And beer! (There's gotta' be a bright side.)

Monogamy isn't necessarily the best possible system for women. If Warren Buffet had 200 wives, each one of them would have more shoes than mine does.

Lester Hunt said...


I think everything you say is true, but I would list all the things you say in your first paragraph as things that count in favor of HG society. In a way, it is our home.

As for beer, yes, it probably was neolithic. However, the paleos apparently invented smoking, and I like to think of them as discovering the joys of hemp.

Scott Lahti said...

"I like to think of them as discovering the joys of hemp."

That would explain the cave inscription, only recently deciphered, arising from a c. 999,996 BC campaign for the authority vested in that tribal elder in charge of deciding which newly-discovered psychotropic plants and beverages would be adopted and which discouraged, and which translated roughly as:

Jak Hemp for Precedent of Vice '96

M. Simon said...

I think the Japanese had a very important decision to make: surrender or die. On the day of the surrender there was a group of military guys who tried to assassinate the emperor. So war fever was high. Still. After 2 atomic bombs.

An invasion of Japan (planned for November 1945) was expected to KILL 1 million Japanese and 100,000 Americans.

Dropping the bombs was a mercy.

And now we are friends. I like that.

And you know how that war started? A bunch of resource scarcity talk. Lebensraum. etc.


How to end war: peace through superior fire power. On the small scale it is called policing.

Here is another way to help bring peace. Raise living standards:

Neighborhood Development Package