More Truths About Primitive Life

Note: While I provide a list of sources below, I do not provide in-line citations for this essay, which can easily be found online. I may add them if this is ever published anywhere other than online. The sources listed at the bottom of the essay review all of the cited evidence and more in single books. If you would like my sources for any specific claim in the essay, feel free to contact me

Introduction

In the 90s Ted Kaczynski wrote an essay critiquing a tendency for anarcho-primitivists to romanticize hunter-gatherer life. For example, anarcho-primitivists, who believe that hunter-gatherers are the most exemplary historical models of anarchist principles, often claim that original hunter-gatherers had gender equality, lacked any notable hierarchy in their societies, and sometimes that they were pacifist, kind to animals, or even vegetarians. Kaczynski’s essay, entitled “The Truth About Primitive Life,” did well covering anthropological evidence to the contrary.

Still, the essay is needlessly provocative, and doesn’t adequately frame the overall point Kaczynski was trying to make. Most importantly, he wasn’t claiming that the opposite of what anarcho-primitivists believe is true, that hunter-gatherers were across-the-board hierarchical, cruel to women, violent, etc. He was simply pointing out that there is great diversity among hunter-gatherer societies. Any primitivist politics, then, cannot claim that a reversion to the hunting-and-gathering mode of production will produce any particular social formation, especially not one invariably in accordance with egalitarian anarchist ideals. Rather, most social ideals are irrelevant to the main aim of primitivist politics: getting out of the industrial mode of life. In other words, we can expect that in the wake of a decline or collapse of industry, people in the collapsed regions may very well display what advocates of social justice consider problematic behaviors — indeed, some likely will. The point is only that people under these conditions will have more autonomy to control the circumstances of their daily lives.

Kaczynski’s essay also focuses more on narrative anthropological evidence, such as case studies of particular traditional societies and anthropologist’s observations during their study. This is not the worst problem, but for some of the most egregious anarcho-primitivist claims there is a stronger line of argumentation: a biological one. For example, it is unnecessary to counter many anarchist claims about gender in primitive societies with examples of societies that operated to the contrary. The claim, for instance, that there was little to no division of labor based on gender is easily refutable by evidence of psychological and physiological differences between men and women, as well as the evolutionary history of mammals. The claim that hunter-gatherers were mostly or even entirely vegetarian is easily refutable by observing the teeth of prehistoric and modern humans, and, again, by the evolutionary lineage of human beings.

This essay, then, will focus on refuting the claims of some of the more humanist variants of primitivism by focusing on biological evidence more than case studies, and it will attempt to better explain the implications the evidence has for the politics. The approach comes with the advantage of cleanly dismissing many popular humanist political positions, especially the theories that form the backbone of contemporary social justice movements. And it helps avoid the counter-arguments that this or that case study was not, in fact, representative of prehistoric hunter-gatherer life, a typical problem for any discussion around anthropology.

The Relevance of Hunter-Gatherers

The basic anti-industrial critique is that the industrial mode of life is incompatible with human needs. But this comes with a theoretical difficulty: how to define and root our concept of “needs.” Patricia Springborg’s The Problem of Human Needs and the Critique of Civilization sums up the problem well, arguing that human needs theories present a means for activists to always find a reason to rebuke society.  They can simply keep adding “needs” to human beings, ad hoc, until it becomes impossible for any form of social organization to accommodate them.

One way to avoid this problem is to examine the biological basis of human nature. In the 1980s, a group calling themselves “radical anthropologists” attempted to do just this, mostly to provide a more theoretically rigorous basis to Marxist concepts of “need.” They often drew from the first people to call themselves “anarcho-primitivists,” like Fredy Perlman, Jacques Camatte, or other writers for The Fifth Estate.

The Marxist roots of this school of thought help explain why, now, most anarcho-primitivists are strongly attached to the idea that hunter-gatherers were exemplars of humanist virtue. But other theories of human needs, neither left- nor right-wing in orientation, also rooted the concept of needs in biology. In particular, within the same decade there was resurgence in the sciences of human nature, with fields popping up like cognitive psychology and sociobiology. These scientists pushed what came to be known as the “Pleistocene paradigm,” or the idea that human nature is essentially Paleolithic. Evolution, they argued, works on far too great a time scale for humans to have undergone much biological change in the past 10,000 years of technological development, which means biologically, humans remain essentially the same as when they evolved under hunting-and-gathering conditions. Insights from primitive life, then, could help shed light on natural human behavior, and perhaps some of the consequences of a technological environment so vastly different from the conditions under which we evolved. This idea, the Pleistocene paradigm, later pervaded a number of fields, from biology to history to economics. It is now the mainstream scientific view.

Notably, the new biological perspectives on human nature came to shape environmentalist opinions. At around the same time as Marxists and anarchists were turning to primitive life as a basis for political critique, environmentalists of all political stripes were developing another brand of “primitivism,” arguing that human environmental problems largely originated with the invention of civilization, and implying that, perhaps, civilization has been a mistake. The position was — and is — a lot more mainstream than most realize. For instance, Jared Diamond published a now-famous essay in TIME magazine entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” in which he pointed out that agriculture was, for most humans, a step down from hunter-gatherer life. Of course, this kind of primitivism usually didn’t take the anarchist political tones of the “radical anthropology” school (although it sometimes did). Most environmentalists tended to agree that the way to move forward from the problem was a radical transformation in the character of civilization, even if they recognized that its invention was largely the origin of the kind of environmental destruction and human social problems they cited.

In any case, all biological theories of human nature found insight from hunter-gatherers because of the logic of evolutionary theory. If millions of years of human evolution were spent hunting-and-gathering, then contemporary hunter-gatherer societies could help shed light not just on a possible mode of human life, but the mode of life to which humans are most adapted, and the kinds of conditions that helped select their genes. Narrative anthropological evidence, then, only informs the more important nexus on which primitivist theory is based — biology — by revealing what behaviors may or may not be innate to the human animal. However, since the development of the “new sciences of human nature” mentioned above, there are a host of ways other than anthropological case-studies to discern possible innate behaviors, for example, cross-cultural psychological studies.

The Meaning of Human Nature

It is important to emphasize that the new biological perspective on human nature is not the same as those we usually think of, e.g., the perspectives of social darwinists. Human ecology views human nature as comparable to a landscape. Human nature, like any nature, can be modified according to man’s technological ability, and changes naturally through evolution. But the rate and kind of change is limited by the original conditions, and each change has consequence. Just as agriculture may make land more productive at the expense of a suitable habitat for thousands of millions of species, tweaking human sexuality to suit the demands of civilization will have physiological and psychological effect. Just as agriculture is hard, perhaps even impossible, to practice on rocky soil, so human nature has its own “rocky soil,” aspects that are difficult to change without a lot of technological power, or, again, impossible. Finally, just as humans have a wide spectrum of possibilities for living on a given piece of land — agriculturally, pastorally, whatever — so human nature only defines a spectrum of possibilities for social behavior or beliefs. There is no one-to-one correlation between biology and most aspects of complex human behavior.

But I must emphasize the “most,” since a few realms, particularly in the areas of sexuality and human development, are strong determinants of behavior. For example, the mother-child bond displays universal patterns across human cultures, and is so deeply rooted in mammalian evolutionary history that we are unlikely to eradicate it without technologically modifying the human genome. Similarly, males across cultures display more aggression during puberty, and all humans have a universal set of facial expressions. And there are, of course, the very basic physiological determinants of culture, such as bipedalism.

So when discussing the diversity of natural human social life, we must always keep in mind that the emphasis is neither on the particular social behaviors described, nor even on their diversity, but on the restraints that define the spectrum of behavioral possibilities. For example, although some hunter-gatherer tribes grant special positions and value to women and others tend to treat their women appallingly, the basic facts of procreation and physiological differences between men and women explain why, absent advanced technology, the gender relations of human societies always operate within fairly stable bounds.

The Meaning of “Egalitarianism”

Hunter-gatherers are often described as “egalitarian,” and in a very general sense this is true, especially compared to the intense stratification of complex societies. But even the most primitive of hunter-gatherer societies have divided themselves based on sex, age, and merit or prestige. When anarcho-primitivists cite anthropological literature that calls hunter-gatherers “egalitarian,” most of the time the anthropologists are referencing the absence of complex economic stratification. Certain special individuals in a band may, for instance, receive amenities during feasts or have privilege in some areas of mating, but for the most part, every individual in hunter-gatherer societies has access to shelter, food, sex, and pretty much the same social life. More, because of the nature of nomadic hunting-and-gathering, individuals in these societies are more likely to eschew even some of the smallest hierarchies; each person is mobile and has the skills to provide for their material well-being, so there is nothing to hold over his head for the sake of coercion.

The case is quite different for sedentary hunter-gatherers, usually near the coast or in tropical climates. The Jomon and Calusa, for instance, who lived near an abundance of food, developed characteristics typically only seen in horticultural societies. But even there, anthropologists from Western industrial nations are likely to call the societies “relatively egalitarian,” because, again, the economic disparities simply do not approach those found in civilized societies.

In any case, divisions based on age and sex are universal aspects of human social organization. The reasons for both are pretty clear, since the needs of men and women differ and the needs of humans in different developmental stages are different, and those in common condition are likely to commune with each other at least on this basis. In fact, social divisions based on age are in many ways more pronounced in traditional societies. Most primitive peoples have entirely separate societies for children before puberty, and only with coming-of-age rituals or the like are they initiated into adult social life. Up until that point, the children are mostly left alone to organize among themselves, solving nearly every conflict autonomously of the adult social-political structure. Of course, there is interaction between the two — and here primitive societies are more favorable toward children than civilized ones, since children were simply regarded as “little adults” — but in the main the social domains stayed separate.

“Rank-order behavior,” as it is called, is present across genders, but among males there is an especially strong tendency to create informal hierarchies based on merit and prestige. That this tendency is more present among males can be explained by the differences in male and female reproductive strategies. Women, who bear the children and cannot avoid maternity claims, must invest more energy and resources in the case of pregnancy, so can be expected to evolve “choosing mechanisms” when it comes to selecting mates. Men, who remain fertile until old age, do not have to bear children, and can easily avoid paternity claims, would be expected to evolve a more indiscriminate reproductive strategy. The psychological evidence bears this out. Men, for instance, are on average more concerned with social status than women, and women are more likely to consider social status when choosing a partner. We can therefore understand male hierarchies as probably the result of sexual selection, that is, a means not so much of establishing “dominance” as establishing status in the sexual economy. Other factors, such as male aggression, seem to contribute to a lesser degree, by, for example, providing clear social markers regulating the use of aggression to resolve conflict.

Sex and Gender

Some of the more radical social science claims about sexuality and gender are simply incompatible with evolutionary theory. This includes the idea that gender is wholly or mostly “socially constructed,” and it calls into question the dubious division between “sex” and “gender.”

On the latter point, biologists are unlikely to see the distinction as useful when so many things put into the category of “gender,” such as typical behavior or social roles, are strongly influenced by the individual’s sex. Diane Halpern in Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, explains, “I cannot argue (in this book) that nature and nurture are inseparable and then…use different terms to refer to each class of variables. The…biological manifestations of sex are confounded with psychosocial variables… The use of different terms to label these two types of contributions to human existence seemed inappropriate in light of the biopsychosocial position I have taken.”

This “biopsychosocial position” is essentially the position of human ecology, that is, the idea that human nature is a landscape. Earlier social science, motivated by theorists such as Durkheim, tried to explain culture as a process autonomous of biology, and hoped to explain cultural phenomena only in terms of other cultural phenomena, like power. But evolutionary views of culture cannot accept this model. If humans are entirely material creatures, then culture, though obviously extremely complex, arises from their biology. The fact that sexuality is malleable does not indicate that there is a separate cultural sphere to it (“gender”), only that sexuality can be cultivated and modified just like agricultural practices can modify the land; or that sexuality has different expressions under different environments, just like a food web changes by introducing a top-level carnivore. You can see how these two models of human nature present quite different questions.

And under the evolutionary model, it is a no-brainer that men and women, absent technological aids, must occupy quite different social roles. Among some humanists it is popular to say that the differences between men and women are “nothing more” than their sex organs. But evolution is entirely centered around the process of procreation! Just as in non-human animals, natural selection will choose for whatever psychological and behavioral tendencies help propagate the individual’s genes. Since the reproductive organs of men and women differ, so too do the relevant selection pressures, which logically results in different behavior, physiology, and psychology between the sexes.

The physiological differences alone explain the most intractable differences between men and women’s social roles. Women are on average shorter than men, have less muscle and more fat, and have less upper-body strength. Their hips are generally wider to accommodate the ins-and-outs of their reproductive system, and they have larger breasts. Such physiological differences naturally push men into more physically demanding social roles.

Most importantly, after procreation women are the partners who bear the children for nine-months. In our highly technological societies we tend to view traditional sex roles as odd, perhaps even manifestations of sexism. It is apparently easy to forget that modern contraceptive technologies were only recently widely available, and that in modern societies labor conditions are much more alienated from the physical aspect of life, an element that defined most jobs up to the early industrial era. It only makes sense, then, that women occupy more domestic roles and men more public and political ones. Indeed, there is not one case in the anthropological record of a matriarchal society.

Self-separation in general is also a universal phenomenon. Eibl-Eibesfeldt reviews a number of studies of pre-school children, who “display a clear preference to form play groups with members of the same sex.” The same pattern shows up in studies of traditional societies. In a study of 126 play groups among !Ko Bushmen children, 60 were exclusively boys, 48 exclusively girls, and only 18 were mixed.

The different selection pressures for men and women indicate that they would develop corresponding psychological differences. Recall again that women are inclined to be choosier in mate-selection, men more indiscriminate. Apart from the difference in attitudes toward status (men seeking status and women seeking status in their partner), there are other evolutionary consequences. For example, since women bear children, at great cost to themselves, they are more likely to be concerned with “parental investment,” that is, they look for indicators that men will be able to provide for her and the child. And since women become infertile at a much earlier age than men, men tend to favor signs of youth and beauty in their partners. Again, these are not only supported by psychological and anthropological studies, they are a logical consequence of evolutionary theory. If men tended to favor older women in mate choice, they would be more likely to mate with infertile women and therefore less likely to propagate their genes.

Neuroscience continues to shed light on psychological differences between the sexes. Women’s brains are less hemispherically specialized, and they have higher cognitive ability in language and emotional communication. They also have better fine-motor ability, and are more sensitive to touch. Men have significantly superior mathematical ability than women, beginning at puberty, and are better at single-minded concentration. Cognitive disorders like autism and dyslexia occur at higher rates among men, while depression is more common among women.

Body posture between men and women differ universally. Women smile more than men, are more likely to thrust their hips forward, and occupy less space with their legs and arms. Men, on the other hand, spread their arms and legs out, taking up more space, and often display “possessive” and/or “caregiving” behavior, such as placing their arms around friends and partners, a difference also found among chimpanzees.

Women are more likely to use expressions of doubt and have a higher rate of incomplete sentences in speech. Their linguistic ability overall is far superior to men, learning language faster and possessing a much larger vocabulary. In fact, speech disorders are twice as common among males.

The differences go on and on. Altogether they indicate that “social constructionist” views of gender are wrong. At the very least they are drastically overstated. So many recorded differences between the sexes — in neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, anatomy, etc. — point to biology explaining the greater part of the disparities in social roles between the sexes. For example, since women are superior at language and emotional communication, there will probably be more women in jobs that require these skills, such as nursing or teaching. Attempts to eradicate these differences in social structure, like the kibbutzim socialist experiments, show defined failures.

Regarding the more ambiguous elements of human sexuality, they are, well, ambiguous. Many traditional societies permit specific instances of homosexuality, almost always between males, but none seem to have the modern idea of “sexual orientation.” At most specific individuals, such as “shamans,” might occupy an explicitly androgenous sexual role, though, again, this is uncommon. Heterosexual marriage as an institution occurs in every traditional society, although, as with modern humans, in practice there are many exceptions, caveats, and hidden norms, and of course cheating is common. Certainly, though, there are no instances of societies that institutionalize the polyamorous, total-gender-equality, androgyne ideals of humanists who see primitive life as a social ideal. In fact, some societies explicitly punish homosexual behavior, usually between males. Once again, all this logically flows out of the theoretical assumptions of evolutionary theory. Heterosexuality is likely to receive a more favorable mention and privileged in the social domain specifically because it is the means by which humans procreate.

The patterns in cultural attitudes toward homosexuality jive with the biological evidence so far. Male homosexuality, for instance, is easily linked to biological factors. Males are more likely to be homosexual if they have older brothers, indicating that in-utero hormonal differences play a factor. Individuals who were shown moving silhouettes of both heterosexual and homosexual individuals were more likely to correctly identify the males as homosexual. Female homosexuality, on the other hand, is not as easily linked to biological cues, and there is a swath of cultural evidence suggesting that sexual experiences between women are quite common even if not understood as “homosexual.” This is very compatible with our knowledge of human social formations. Female homosexual behavior does not usually have an explicit place in the cultural consciousness, and seems to be practiced quietly by women in their female social domains. Male homosexual behavior is either tacitly tolerated, institutionalized in very specific instances, or culturally abhorred, which fits in with the idea that male predisposition toward homosexual behavior is an uncommon but often biologically rooted phenomenon. In any case, nearly all tolerated instances of homosexual behavior in premodern societies are quiet affairs, and not part of the overall institutional consciousness of the culture.

Much has been made about “two-spiritedness” among a few North American native tribes. It should be noted, however, that this is not the same as transgenderism, and it is not nearly as pervasive a phenomenon as some activists have led the public to believe. The concept of “transgenderism” is peculiar to the modern age, and suffers a lot of theoretical difficulty known even among transgender activists. Suffice it so say that attitudes toward phenomenon similar to “transgenderism,” when present at all, occupy a similar terrain as homosexuality.

A few final thoughts on sexuality. While human sexuality is quite malleable in practice, cultures have universal patterns that favor and institutionalize heterosexual behavior. Activism around the topic of sexuality is also very much shaped by modern concepts, such as “sexual orientation,” the sex/gender divide, and “transgenderism,” which are not applicable to traditional social formations. More, much sex activism is explicitly allied with transhumanist sentiments, that is, the idea that we must transcend natural limits to human ability or behavior, often through technological modification. Donna Haraway, for instance, argued that feminist goals are compatible with, and inherently tied to, attempts to transform humans into technological artifacts, which she calls “cyborgs.”

There is also an abundance of evidence that institutional norms around sexuality tend to become “looser,” that is, less heterosexual, prior to civilizational collapse. This should be no surprise. Homosexuality tends to be more common among wealthy populations, which again indicates hormonal and genetic responses to the environment. And while in our modern technological condition, alienated as we are from immediate environmental feedback, we do not clearly see the effect sexual practices have on our culture, demography is an extremely strong determinant for the shape a culture takes. When heterosexual norms begin to decay in the culture, so too does the rate and kind of reproduction, leading to overall detrimental effects. For example, although a person’s sex organs are increasingly seen as a personal domain, they are actually very relevant to social interaction. Cues indicating a person’s sex organs are universal to human cultures and help facilitate the kinds of social relationships humans are predisposed to. If these get sufficiently muddied, sexual behavior takes on odd qualities or decreases. Our current industrial societies are suffering from all these problems. In short, while one cannot say that unconventional sexual expression is some unholy aberration, there are many negative consequences to extolling it at the expense of traditional heterosexual institutions and hoping to make this attitude mainstream in the culture. In fact, that whole project is inherently incompatible with human rewilding, since it would require so much technological manipulation to implement.

Pacifism and Violence

Some environmentalists believe, or tacitly assume, that primitive peoples were mostly peaceable in their relationships toward each other and the natural environment. This is completely incompatible with evolutionary theory, and even the simple logic of survival. Certainly there were some hunter-gatherers who had very low rates of violence. Some, like the Moriori, explicitly institutionalized pacifism. But this seems to have been rare, and in any case it wasn’t always to the benefit of the pacifist societies. The Moriori, for instance, were brutally conquered by the agricultural Maori people shortly after the Maori’s discovered them, and the heinous accounts of the conflict show how much Moriori pacifism worsened the situation for them.

The simple reality is that peaceableness of the kind imagined by humanists is only possible for citizens of a well-organized society that outsources its violence institutionally, such as through the police or the military. The reality of violent conflict as an aspect of the human condition is not eradicated; it is only abstracted from the day-to-day life of most individuals. They might, then, have the ability to maintain peaceful relations toward each other, but their way of life is, as all ways of life, still sustained by a certain level of violence. This is inevitable in any situation involving agents who pursue their own self-interest at least some of the time. When those interests conflict, violence as much as cooperation presents itself as a way to resolve the issue, and it will sometimes be the chosen option.

Certainly there is altruistic and cooperative behavior in the animal kingdom. Evolutionary theory does not imply the stereotypical Hobbesian narrative of constant war and violence between all. But evolution is not just a general conceptual framework. It is rooted in mathematical models and our understanding of genetics, which demonstrate when, how, and to what extent we can expect altruistic behavior to play out in animal sociality. There is altruism, but it has limits.

For example, since evolution favors organisms that propagate their genes, the kinds of altruism it will select for will only be the kinds that advance genetic fitness. Sociobiologists have generally discerned two kinds of altruism that fit this description. Inclusive fitness is the idea that, since closely related organisms share a large amount of genetic material, they are more likely to evolve altruistic behaviors toward each other than to organisms less related to them. Thus, the tendency for organisms to expend energy and resources, often at their own expense, for their children or close family. Second is the idea of reciprocal altruism, a more general phenomenon, where altruism is selected for if the organism can expect the object of his care to return the favor later on, improving his own fitness. The classic example of this is mutual grooming among chimps. Importantly, though, reciprocal altruism will only be activated when environmental cues indicate to the organism that the favor will be returned, and that the favor will not be exploited by “cheating.”

Finally, there are physical limits. For example, in primates social behavior is directly affected by the size of the neocortex, which the scientist Robin Dunbar found limited human beings to approximately 150 stable, close relationships. After this point, group cohesiveness can only be maintained through more restrictive rules or norms. And in hunting/gathering conditions a number that large was unlikely because it would require a high amount of time devoted to social grooming, time that the society in question couldn’t often afford.

Altogether the biological evidence limits naturally occurring altruism to small groups and kin groups, except in some insects that share most genetic material within the entire colony. And the underlying functional cause of the altruism — to propagate genes — explains why even where altruism is present violence and aggression are also present, since it is just as legitimate means, and often a more effective one, of increasing genetic fitness.

So in the rare pacifistic societies that we observe, we should be able to also discern unique environmental factors that favor altruistic behavior within the group at much higher rates than is normal. The Moriori, for example, faced food scarcity and certain demographic troubles that made it imperative for them not to uselessly lose members of their bands to violent conflict.

Apart from the general implications of theory, genetic studies have revealed too much information about the biological roots of criminal and violent behavior for us to expect hunter-gatherer societies to have been commonly pacifist. For example, one researcher, Kent Kiehl, was able to predict which criminals were most likely to return to crime after leaving prison based on their brain scans alone. Certain genes are linked to increased aggression. Males universally commit the majority of violent crime, and are also more aggressive during puberty (which leads to an observable decline in life-expectancy during this period). Trends in homicide, from plain manslaughter to infanticide and abuse, have common patterns across cultures, such as the higher likelihood of being abused by a step-parent than a biological parent. Given data of this kind it would be impossible for violence not to have had a consistent place among primitive peoples.

Racism and Ethnocentrism

Determining racial prejudice among hunter-gatherers is a murky territory, because most of the studied hunter-gatherers consist or consisted of one race, and presumably the prehistoric ones had little contact with individuals outside of their race. Still, there is a myriad of evidence that known hunter-gatherers are generally skeptical, and sometimes hostile, to outsiders, and the language describing these outsiders often mentions race.

Psychological studies suggest that racial prejudice is an ineradicable aspect of human behavior. For example, the psychologist Henri Tajfel once split experimental participants into groups based on a coin flip and then asked them to appraise a piece of art in a style none had seen before. Tajfel found that, in spite of the group membership’s irrelevance and arbitrary nature, participants “liked the members of their own group better and they rated members of their in-group as more likely to have pleasant personalities.” And the biases affect behavior. In a number of studies, experimenters divide their subjects into arbitrary groups and tell them to allocate objects of value, like money or points, to other subjects, who are identified only by a number and group membership. Participants give more than would be expected if they were purely self-interested, but they have an undeniable tendency to allocate more resources to members of their in-group. Given this, it would be quite a surprise for humans not to tend to divide themselves based on some of the most obvious and pervasive differences between them, that is, racial differences. Indeed, studies indicate that as early as a few months old human babies will prefer faces of their own race. We also frequently see insults in societies with two or more races refer to the racial characteristics of the “other” group, even if this is not reflected as institutional stratification in the culture.

None of this is to say that racial segregation is a universal mode of social organization, or the most natural mode. Humans are obviously capable of living in multiracial societies. Still, in the absence of technological infrastructure to manage human behavior, humans are likely to self-separate based on race at least some of the time, and, indeed, form community identities on the basis of race.

Attitudes Toward Nature

Environmentalists in general like to extoll traditional people for their attitudes toward nature, claiming that this compels them to treat the natural world with veneration or respect. In reality, hunter-gatherer attitudes toward nature are not universally positive, and even in cases of positive attitudes this does not always result in environmentalist-type behavior.

For example, some hunter-gatherers were, by modern standards, quite cruel to animals. Kaczynski cites a few instances, but one from Turnbull’s The Forest People stands out:

At other times I have seen Pygmies singeing feathers off birds that were still alive, explaining that the meat is more tender if death comes slowly. And the hunting dogs, valuable as they are, get kicked around mercilessly from the day they are born to the day they die.

And, of course, an inherent part of hunter-gatherer society is hunting, and anyone with knowledge of hunting knows that it can sometimes be a cruel affair. Some environmentalists seem to think that all people had special prayers or other rituals to respect the dying animal. But these rituals are not universal, and in any case they do not necessary imply an attitude of reverence. Consider the story of one anthropologist, who observed the people he was studying spitting in their hands and raising their palms toward the sun. When he asked why they did it, they looked at him confused. He repeated the question a few times until, finally understanding, one of the individuals said that it was just the way things were done. The anthropologist mentions that other members, perhaps, could have given a complex mythological reason, but for most individuals, the fact that it is “just the way things are done” is enough — just like in modern society. Humans have not changed.

This is because, from an ecological point of view, many rituals have less to do with the actual  beliefs attached to them and more to do with their function in regulating economic or political behavior. Anthropologists sometimes refer to this as the “emic / etic distinction.” Anthropology done from an emic perspective records the ideologies and justifications the group in question gives for its culture; on the other hand, etic anthropology analyzes cultures as observed phenomena, hoping to find the material forces that give rise to specific practices and beliefs. For example, violence is endemic to Yanomamo society, and successful warriors and hunters gain great prestige. The Yanomami people themselves might give justifications for this behavior in terms of mythologies or character (e.g., “he displays great manliness”). But sociobiological studies that trace kinship patterns among the Yanomamo show that men who had killed have a striking reproductive advantage over the men who do not. It has also been suggested that peculiarities of the environment, such as a scarcity of protein, led to hunting as the means by which the society allotted merit and prestige. Recall “parental investment” theory: in an environment where protein is scarce, men more likely to acquire it will also be more likely to be able to provide for a pregnant woman and her child.

This kind of analysis often explains disparities between professed cultural beliefs and actual behaviors. For example, Marvin Harris demonstrated that the Indian taboo against killing cows, which in emic terms is justified by the Hindu religion, arises from the simple economic utility of cows, which provides labor, dairy, fertilizing manure, and money to the families who own them. The analysis might at first seem overly reductionist, but Harris goes to great lengths to demonstrate how vital cows are to the economic well-being of Indians. More, he shows that exceptions or caveats to cow worship correspond to the economic explanation. For example, in times of water or food scarcity, bulls are treated better than cows; and farmers will — quietly of course — not hesitate to kill a cow that is an economic burden. More, dead cows are not simply disposed of. Members of the lower-caste of Indian society, the “untouchables,” will skin the cow, sell the hide, and even eat it. The behavior does not at all correspond to the cultural belief.

In other words, even in cases where a traditional society can be seen to venerate nature ideologically, their behavior may not necessarily correspond to the first-glance implications of the belief. Again, from a materialist evolutionary perspective, we must understand moralities, institutions, and other structural components of society as mostly arising in response to certain material problems, such as the need for food or the necessity of reproduction. On a cultural level, moral or ideological beliefs serve largely to justify or stabilize behavior, rather than being the root cause of a cultural institution.

For example, it is true that hunter-gatherers will practice contraception, including infanticide, much more often than their corresponding agricultural societies. This does not, however, indicate that the hunter-gatherers had some political consciousness about population growth and its effect on nature. Animals populations across the animal kingdom will see a population increase with greater food availability or less threat from predators. Humans, too, only seemed to reproduce on such a massive scale with the advent of agriculture and the associated changes in climatic conditions. Their change of behavior was not linked to an ideological shift so much as a shift in material conditions.

And in fact primitive peoples can be observed to practice all manner of ecologically damaging behavior. Some North American Indian tribes, for example, would hunt buffalo by driving whole herds off a cliff and take less than half of the kill. Others extensively used fire to burn large portions of the forest and make it more suitable to their food needs. In none of these cases are the people in question nomadic hunter-gatherers, but they point to the overall theoretical validity of materialist theory.

The Point

The overarching point of all of this returns us to the fundamental premise of primitivist politics: humans are still essentially Stone Age creatures. Anarcho-primitivists who form a kind of utopian politics by idealizing specific hunter-gatherer societies or behaviors betray this premise. They seem to think that, somehow, the earliest of humans escaped the human condition. But the biological and anthropological evidence suggests that humans have always negotiated issues around violence, sex roles, their relationships to nature, and the like. These are inescapable. More, the observed patterns of human culture show that many popular modern positions on these issues are unlikely to arise in a culture without strong methods of behavioral control.

Primitivist politics, then, cannot be a utopian exercise, a promise of some particular social formation. To the contrary, the shape societies take is unpredictable and subject to selection pressures far more powerful than human morality, like climate, food availability or technological capacity. Such a perspective fundamentally transforms the way we even think about politics, usually a moral exercise. If the point is to rid ourselves of a specific mode of production and live through the consequences, which we accept as unpredictable, then we will never know enough about our conditions to ensure that the resulting cultures will have some specific shape or form. In fact, any attempt to ensure such a thing would mean that the politics entails exercising the very control over nature, including human nature, that rewilding is opposed to.

Certain strains of anarchism recognize that primitive societies were not universally good models of their values. Still the anarchists lump their opposition to patriarchy, structural racism, and other hierarchical ills in with their opposition to industrial society. To them, industrial technology does not necessarily cause patriarchy or racism, but the two are deeply intertwined, specifically because industrial modes of organization exacerbate the problems of racism and sexism. For example, while small bands of humans might hold prejudiced views, only in industrial societies could you achieve such large-scale disenfranchisement as the U.S. saw during Jim Crow or the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Eradicating industry might not eliminate racial prejudice, but it would at least eliminate some of the worst components of structural racism.

This is mostly true. (It is, by the way, an early argument Kaczynski made when anarchists asked him about social issues.) But there remain a handful of problems.

Hunter-gatherers might give insight into human nature, but the politics associated with primitivism — technological decline and collapse — does not mean everyone will become a hunter-gatherer. There are all sorts of “intermediary” modes of production to consider that people might take up in the absence of a functioning industrial infrastructure. In these, sometimes problems related to racial and sexual hierarchies were worse. For example, caste systems in India. So while there is nothing about opposing industry that means you can’t be against racism, sexism, etc., and in fact there is some evidence that industry makes some aspects of the problems worse, the social issues are mostly independent variables, enough to make them irrelevant to the main point.

Second, the proposed solutions to structural racism, sexism, etc. are usually right in line with humanist values; and most of them are incompatible with the idea of rewilding. For example, eradicating social differences among the sexes would only be possible with genetic modification, and to the extent that it has already been done, has only been enabled by strong technological control. Focusing on the social issues, then, is not only mostly a distraction from the main point, but threatens to blur the lines between those who wish to preserve man and those who wish to remake him. This becomes a pressing problem when activists especially loyal to some social cause within our current society overpopulate a movement or group intended to focus on ecological or technological issues. Beyond sowing discord and confusion, their primary loyalty is to the existing society. But why would you ask for black astronauts and gay CEOs when you don’t want astronauts and CEOs? Why try to fix a car that you want to throw out?

Finally, many of the theoretical concepts underlying social justice theories, like the idea of “patriarchy” or “capitalism,” are not very compatible with ecological thinking, calling the the causes against them into question. Capitalism, for instance, is an incredibly ill-defined concept, more compatible with historical-economic perspectives on culture than the emphasis of human ecology on materiality. This is why cultural ecology generally references industrial society, but not so much capitalist society. And patriarchy, of course, becomes a much more ambiguous topic of discussion given the sex differences explained above. This is not of course the most important point. People believe all sorts of things that are technically incompatible with each other. But it only accentuates the primary problem facing rewilders who hope to make rewilding a politics in its own right: the common way of thinking about politics simply does not apply.

In the end, the emphasis on hunter-gatherers remains useful for one main reason: hunter-gatherers, because of the limits inherent to their mode of production, had much more autonomy than modern man. They largely controlled the circumstances of their day-to-day lives, and even in cases where tradition mostly determined their behavior, exceptions were allowed and directly negotiable. Most importantly, it did not come with the psychological burden imposed by the necessarily extensive regulation in mass society. With more people and more complex systems to protect, human behavior must be increasingly subject to control. In less complex societies, individual humans and small groups, while of course having morality and tradition, needed a much less extensive system to regulate themselves. Reliance on the processes of wild nature for material well-being is absolutely essential to this autonomy. None of this solves the intractable problems of the human condition, but it sets us up for dealing with them in a way that aligns with our own needs.

Sources

See also “Reading List: Rewilding Theory

  • Human Ethology, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt
  • Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson
  • The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker
  • Cultural Materialism, Marvin Harris
  • The Adapted Mind, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Jerome Barkow
  • Homicide, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson
  • On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz
  • The Problem of Human Needs and the Critique of Civilization, Patricia Springborg
  • The Anatomy of Violence, Adrian Rice

2 Comments

  • Hoot says:

    From the article above: “Beyond sowing discord and confusion, their primary loyalty is to the existing society. But why would you ask for black astronauts and gay CEOs when you don’t want astronauts and CEOs? Why try to fix a car that you want to throw out?”

    There are many I'm sure, that don't nessecarilly have a loyalty towards society, but are using it, defying its form of extortion, stealing from said society, and funding themselves. All this, with what some are hearing, is assuming that the ball will get rolling soon.

  • Hoot says:

    Yah,it’s Hoot again. I was convinced to stay online for now.
    Some things are worth reading twice. This essay is one of them. Ted’s books are too.
    Maybe those of us that have experienced ample amounts of time in nature combined with ample amounts of time in society are best suited to receive the gift of anger. Our natural desires to live simply are being attacked. The places where we can go to and find solitude are noticeably disappearing. Two things that many are going to have to come to grips with in order to help with the necessity of fucking things up are:1) There is no where to hide from the rapidly advancing evils of science and technology. We’ve all found utopia here or there, and many are blessed enough to live in it. I wish upon every person living in more ideal places than most, the desire to release amounts of strategically applied anger. I don’t wish you peace. Not yet anyways. The pictures of the happy homestead dad with his kids holding a chicken or kissing a cow. Hopefully this dad will soon realize what he needs to do in order to counter the evil that he may not currently know is right at his heels.
    2) (this applies to me as well) We need to defeat the system as a whole. We need not be distracted by specific “grudges”. I know of many that are opposed to wind farms and transmission lines running through “their wilderness”. Almost all that I know of are driven by reform. They see one part of the system immediately impacting the area they live in ( or recreate in), so they spend much time focusing on just that tip of the iceberg. Same goes for the anti-vaxx out there. Attention on just one of many evils that contribute to the whole problem. Big Pharma is a priority on my (shit) list. A few reasons for that are in the above essay. Here’s one: “Apart from the general implications of theory, genetic studies have revealed too much information about the biological roots of criminal and violent behavior for us to expect hunter-gatherer societies to have been commonly pacifist. For example, one researcher, Kent Kiehl, was able to predict which criminals were most likely to return to crime after leaving prison based on their brain scans alone. Certain genes are linked to increased aggression.” Although Big Pharma is no doubt a big threat to humanity, there are many threats to humanity, and many more to mother nature. We need to forget individual grudges and focus on effectiveness within our abilities, towards the largest contributions we can make.
    Are there others here that are surprised that a twenty-something is helping to show us the way ? I’m surprised, with what I’ve seen with most twenty-somes,but am sure OK with it. Nice efforts all around, Jacobi.

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