To a large extent we take civilization for granted and consider ourselves civilized people. But was the development of civilization a entirely good thing and what was lost along the way?
What is civilization? Like pornography we know it when we see it but it is hard to define. According to Webster civilization is characterized by:
1. a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained
2. refinement of thought, manners, or taste
3. a situation of urban comfort
Today we would likely add a high level of technological development in areas such as transportation, communication, science and medicine as well as the developments of the arts - music, art, literature, dance etc.
When you are riding in your self driving vehicle, chatting on your smart-phone and anticipating oysters flown in fresh today at a good restaurant this all sounds like a good thing. But it wasn't always so wonderful and for many poor people in the world it still isn't.
This presents two interesting questions; was early civilization distinctly better than the hunter gatherer societies that preceded it? And if it was such a good thing why did it take so long to develop?
Why create civilization?
Why did humans exist for 200,000 years as hunter gathers and only develop agriculture and a settled "urban" lifestyle i.e. civilization in the last 10,000 years or so? What was the benefit? Scientists have provided a number of factors that made the change possible - a warming climate, brain development, domestication of crops and animals - but little to explain why humans made the change. One would expect that the benefits of a agrarian lifestyle must have outweighed the downsides. And while sustainable agriculture and larger and larger settled communities were necessary prerequisites for civilization the downsides were substantial and many of those downsides persisted into the twentieth century.
What were hunter gatherer societies typically like? In general hunter gatherer groups were egalitarian, without hierarchy, shared decision making, had no poverty or wealth and were highly cooperative. Although there is controversy on this issue, many believe that hunter gatherers were mostly non-violent and lived in peace. Dr Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, argues in Psychology Today that violence was rare and evidence to the contrary comes from studies of groups that had already been badly treated by encounters members of civilized societies.
Compelling evidence suggests that hunter gatherer societies were more egalitarian than industrial societies. There were typically no kings or chiefs. Women often had equal influence and status likely stemming from two factors. First, women were normally the "gatherers" while men hunted. And the gathering is what supplied most of the food for the group. Second, women were the source of children and like all creatures a fundamental driver is the need to reproduce, to perpetuate the species. Female fertility was a miraculous and mysterious thing. Some researchers suggest that it was not until after the domestication of dogs that the men figured out the relationship between sex and childbearing (we can be a bit slow on the uptake). Until then religion tended to be matriarchal featuring fertility goddesses who were often depicted as pregnant. The predominance of male gods mostly occurred after the guys realized that they had a part in this endeavor and started walking around with puffed out chests handing out cigars.
Hunter gatherers typically worked only12-20 hours a week, showed less stress and mental illness and were less susceptible to infectious disease. For example, at the time of first contact with Europeans, suicide among American Indians was virtually unknown. In addition Indians were taller, had much better hygiene were healthier and better feed. Oh and they lived longer. In a paper, Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers, Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan indicate that pre-modern populations shows an average modal adult life span of about 72 years, with a range of 68–78 years. It was well into the twentieth century before civilized societies achieved those levels.
The development of agriculture and the clustering of people in communities often brought starvation and rampant disease. Survival rates were very low but those that did survive passed on greater immunity to small pox, plague and other diseases . Most genetic lines died out. We are the descendents of the survivors.
Earlier farmers subsisted primarily on grains which caused cavities and tooth loss unheard of in hunter gatherers. Their poor diet and malnourishment weakened immune systems and their grain stores attracted insects, rats and other pests. Human waste and close proximity of people and animals polluted water and resulted in epidemics of smallpox, influenza, measles, dysentery and the plague. As a result they were smaller in size, less healthy and had shorter live spans.
Many of these things are a mixed blessing that bring benefits to some (or many as in the case of education) but at a cost to the members of the civilized society.
Increasing levels of civilization has brought increasing levels of anonymity or at least the opportunity for it. Hunter gatherer societies were a bit like small towns - everyone knows everyone's business. Living in small tight knit groups of 20-50 people everyone knew everything about everyone. There were no secrets, no privacy and for much of their time no strangers. With civilization and especially with increasing urbanization and mobility people live in smaller family units or none at all, often don't know their neighbors and spend increasing time among people they don't know and don't interact with except in the most superficial manner. Beyond the isolation, loneliness and depression that this engenders, it also allows the rise of the most abhorrent human propensities. This is epitomized on the internet with wide spread vicious anonymous attacks based on race, religion, disability, politics, gender and any other thing that differentiates humans into categories of "us" and "them". It is humanity at its worst. Civilization indeed.
While there have been many attempts to escape civilization including utopian communities, back to the land movements, hippies who dropped out and people who relentlessly moved to the "frontier", civilization seems here to stay short of nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster. But it is useful to know where we humans came from and to remember we can live quite well while working less, needing less, eating better and being more community minded. So when the modern world seems a bit too much get in touch with your inner hunter gatherer.
One Small Voice
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