To change today’s culture requires understanding the reality of our past.
To take up wellness-informed practices (in education, science, medicine, parenting, etc.), we need to have a clear picture of humanity’s existence on the planet not only today but in our deep past. Christopher Ryan’s book, Civilized to Death, provides interdisciplinary science-based insights into our sustainable (and happy) prehistory. “Indeed, nearly every aspect of our lives (and our deaths) is distorted by a misinformed sense of what kind of animal Homo sapiens really is.” (Ryan, 2019, p. 10)
Here are some of the tantalizing highlights of the book.
The Narrative of Perpetual Progress
Ryan explains the story we’ve all been told, the Narrative of Perpetual Progress (NPP), which he describes this way:
“We are descended from prehistoric ancestors whose lives were a constant struggle against starvation, disease, predators, and each other. Only the strongest, cleverest, most anxious, and more ruthless survived to pass their genes into the future—and even these lucky ones lived only to the age of thirty-five or so. Then, about ten thousand years ago, some forgotten genius invented agriculture, and thus delivered our species from animal desperation into civilized abundance, leisure, sophistication, and plenitude. Despite occasional setbacks, things have been getting better ever since.” (p. 14)
Everything I have bolded is false. Ryan takes all this apart with archeological, ethnographic, and ecological data. He says the NPP is not based on science, but is part of a marketing campaign, that also includes fearmongering, to keep people quiet and maintain the status quo. Generations of scholars, he says, have misinformed us:
“We are trapped in and by this distorting, demonizing view of human nature and the natural world, seen as the two faces of an enemy to be feared and conquered, rather than an ally to be honored and nourished…We live under suspicion of our own and each other’s natural impulses, ashamed to be animals, participating in the accelerating destruction of a natural world we’ve been taught is out to tear us limb from limb or gnaw away from inside. This is, all hyperbole aside, the deepest species-level psychopathology imaginable.” (p. 75)
He takes apart several mistaken/misleading cultural memes. Here is one: what it is like to live outside of civilization.
The Nature of Living Outside Civilization
The book overturns the widespread view perpetuated by Thomas Hobbes and Richard Dawkins that the natural state of humanity (and animal life generally) is misery. Here is the most famous passage from Hobbes:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, XIII.9)
I bolded the only things that are true for foragers: no big buildings, no tools to move the earth, and no writing. They need none of these things. Ryan shows how the rest of the assumptions in the quote are untrue. Instead of a life of misery, foragers enjoy a life of mostly leisure and relaxation with similar lifespans to ours (after childhood—similar to children in the historical period before 1850). Foragers felt comfortable living close to the earth, cooperating one another and even with predators. There was no war (no possessions to fight about).
Why was our precivilized past better for our health and wellbeing?
Our precivilized past was better for our health and wellbeing. Skeletal remains show no famine or obesity, good tooth health, stronger bones, better diets. The social structures bring about greater happiness, leisure and relaxation. They show us that human happiness is rooted in relationships—with family, friends and the earth.
Contemporary foraging societies, who represent the same kind of society that was universal until about 10,000 years ago, show us. All over the world, foragers have similar lifeways, developing the same logical ways of relating to one another and with sustainable practices.
Ryan points out three universal values among these groups: egalitarianism, gratitude and mobility.
Egalitarianism: No one is coerced and everything is shared. For example, food is shared with everyone, even those who had nothing to do with gathering or hunting it. In order to force everyone into wage or slave labor, civilization changed this orientation to ‘if you don’t work, you don’t eat.’
Gratitude: “Foragers tend to see themselves as the fortunate recipients of a generous environment and benevolent spirit world. The land is the source of all they need.” (p. 24) Civilization teaches its members to fear and distrust nature; capitalism takes freely (from nature, slaves, women) to bring about scarcity. Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David noted that western scholars both analyze and predict westerners’ behavior as if they believe they live in scarcity whereas analyzing and predicting hunter-gatherer behavior requires taking into account their belief that they live with abundance.
Mobility: Foragers migrate among several locales, returning to the same places in the season of their bounty. They settle for a short time in a particular place to harvest (and consume—no storage or hoarding) food sources and then move along to another place. Moreover, mobility is useful socially. The first way to deal with irresolvable conflict is to split up and move along. This is more difficult in modern societies.
The Problems of Civilization
The book is a litany of the problems of civilization which has domesticated us into less than who we could be, living in “zoos of our own design,” what truly distinguishes humans from other animals (p. 12). If we think of our ancestors as wolves or coyotes, most of us resemble poodles. We don’t realize what is going on because we are distracted from our current misery with ‘fairy tales’ about how awful life used to be. Civilization looks more like a pyramid scheme. In essence, civilization is set up to keep the non-rich off balance and unable to be self-sufficient so that they must work for the system that essentially destroys life to feed the rich.
“Civilization may be the greatest bait-and-switch that ever was. It convinces us to destroy what is free so an overpriced, inferior copy can be sold to us later—often financed with the money we’ve earned hastening the destruction of the free version.” (p. 121)
What’s missing in the book?
- Quite a number of references for his claims and quotes are missing–the reader has to go searching to find the sources.
- Evolved Nest provision as a universal characteristic among foragers; and the Evolved Nest effects on neurobiological and social capacities.
Fry, D.P., Souillac, G., Liebovitch, L. et al. (2021). Societies within peace systems avoid war and build positive intergroup relationships. Humanities & Social Sciences Communication, 8, 17. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00692-8
Dawkins, R. (2008). The River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books.
Diamond, J. (2013). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? New York: Viking Press.
Hobbes, T. (1651/2010) Leviathan, Revised Edition. In Martinich, A.P. & Battiste, B. (Eds.). Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press.
Ingold, T. (2005). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399-410). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Ryan, C. (2019). Civilized to death: The price of progress. New York: Simon & Schuster.