Did The Move From Hunter-Gatherer Life Make Us Better Off?

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Freedom is not simply a relationship between human beings: it is, above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind.

One of the themes that most strongly pervades the work of John Gray is the myth of human progress. In his works, he tries to debunk it on every single step and takes as his starting point a variety of sources from literature, philosophy and religious teachings.

There are two sources of the myth of progress: the first one is science itself, and the second one is the hardwired disposition of humans towards delusions and self-deception.

Science and The Myth of Human Progress

According to Gray, science plays an important role in promoting the myth of progress.

Scientific fundamentalists claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. But representing science in this way is to disregard the human needs science serves. Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress. If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up. The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.

In Straw Dogs, Gray rightly points out that advances in science can certainly make our lives easier. However, the belief that scientific improvement itself brings improvement of the human condition is a myth.

In the early nineteenth century, Thomas de Quincey wrote that a quarter of human misery was toothache. He may well have been right. Anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.

Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.

The growth of knowledge is real and – barring a worldwide catastrophe – it is now irreversible. Improvements in government and society are no less real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be. History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss. The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows that we are not.

Is It Getting Better For Everyone?

So by believing in scientific progress, you can easily start believing that all the things that happened side by side with scientific progress have made humans better off.

However, Gray makes some interesting points when trying to show that move from hunter-gathering to farming actually didn’t bring improvement in some key areas of life such as freedom or well-being.

We think of the Stone Age as an era of poverty and the Neolithic as a great leap forward. In fact the move from hunter-gathering to farming brought no overall gain in human well-being or freedom. It enabled larger numbers to live poorer lives. Almost certainly, Paleolithic humanity was better off.

Hunter-gatherers normally have enough for their needs; they do not have to work to accumulate more. In the eyes of those for whom wealth means having an abundance of objects, the hunter-gathering life must look like poverty. From another angle it can be seen as freedom: ‘We are inclined to think of hunter-gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free,’ writes Marshall Sahlins.

The move from hunter-gathering to farming harmed health and life expectancy. Even today, the hunter-gatherers of the Arctic and the Kalahari have better diets than poor people in rich countries – and much better than those of many people in so-called developing countries. More of the world’s population is chronically undernourished today than in the Old Stone Age.

The shift from hunter-gathering to farming was not only bad for health. It greatly increased the burden of work. The hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age may not have lived as long as we do, but they had a more leisurely existence than most people today. Farming increased the power of humans over the Earth. At the same time it impoverished those who turned to it.

Progress or the Reverse? The Case of Middle Class

Gray takes an example of the middle class and the institution of career to show how the progress is delusion rather than a real, linear improvement of the way humans live and work.

The chief effect of the Industrial Revolution was to engender the working class. It did this not so much by forcing a shift from the country to towns as by enabling a massive growth in population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.

Today the Industrial Revolution that began in the towns of northern England has become worldwide. The result is the global expansion in population we are presently witnessing. At the same time, new technologies are steadily stripping away the functions of the labour force that the Industrial Revolution has created.

In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.

Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone.

Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times.

Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.

In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and America it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.

How Humans Ended up in This Trap?

Yuval Noah Harari tries to explain how humans ended up in a trap that came with farming and settling up. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari explains how plants, such as wheat, domesticated Homo Sapiens rather than vice versa. He calls agricultural revolution the History’s biggest fraud.

The irony of the story is that wheat manipulated Homo Sapiens to its advantage. According to Harari, the wheat didn’t give people economic security, because the life of a peasant is less secure than that of the hunter-gatherer. Nor did wheat offer security against human violence – “The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so”.

Humans became slowly more and more trapped in the way of life that wheat brought to them. The change happened in stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life. And when looked from a broader perspective, the state into which people ended up is a giant trap.

Here is how Harari explains the mechanism by which this trap evolved:

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.

And finally, this decision is just another one in a series in which humans couldn’t predict the overall effect it will bring to them.

Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life.
That was the plan.

So Are We Better off Today Than We Were Back in the Paleolithic Age?

Let’s go back to the question from the title of this article. Aren’t we better off today than we were back in Paleolithic times?

One of the pillars of the myth of human progress is certainly the idea of human freedom. A man who is free to choose is a free man. And if we turn to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he claims that “a man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.”

Leaving aside the claim that “man is born free”, what do we make of the cult of freedom itself? Is freedom what makes us human? Is freedom of conscious choice what makes us superior, better than animals?

In The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom, Gray goes back to Heinrich von Kleist and retells some points of Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre”. In the essay, Kleist builds a story about a man (called Herr C.) who says that he is “aware of the damage done by consciousness to the natural grace of the human being.”

According to Herr C., both puppets and animals are freer than human beings. And that is because neither the beasts nor the puppets are cursed with self-reflective thought. And precisely because of that they are free. They do not labor under the burden of choice.

For Kleist,

freedom is not simply a relationship between human beings: it is, above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind.

So where does the journey of scientific progress and human beings conquering their freedom ends? Where will our freedom to choose ultimately lead us?

According to Kleist, one of the two outcomes will occur:

Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.


For a deeper understanding of Gray’s views, make sure to check his books: The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom and Straw Dogs.

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