This is yet another in a series of posts on falsehoods. To refresh your memory, a falsehood is a belief held by a number of people that is in some way incorrect. That incorrectness may be blatant, it may be subtle, it may be conditional, it may be simple, it may be complex. But, the unraveling of the falshoodosity of the belief is a learning experience, if it is accomplished in a thoughtful manner and without too much sophistry. In order for a falsehood to “work” as a learning opportunity it is important to define the statement in terms of the thoughts the falsehood invokes in the target audience, which may be very different than the logic intrinsic to the statement itself. For instance, with the present falsehood, I will argue that civilizations actually are complex and primitive cultures actually are simple, when looked at in a certain way. However, most people look at this issue a different way, and get it wrong. Yes, I will be deconstructing some of your cherished beliefs if you are a run of the mill Caucasoido-occidentalonormative middle class suburbanite. Which I’m sure you’re not, but if you were…

Many people think of cultural evolution, or historical change, over the last several thousand years as being a shift from a hunting and gathering way of life, through various stages of development of agricultural or pastoral systems (growing plants and animals), through development of cities, irrigation systems, state societies, etc. Somewhere along the line what humans are doing could be described as “civiliation” and most people think of this transition as in increase in complexity. Some definitions of “civilization” that you would learn if you took a course in “the rise of civilization” include “increasing complexity” as one of the criteria for this economic, social, and cultural change.

Along with this belief comes another important concept: That the people who live in these developing civilizations needed to be able to deal with all this increasing complexity. People needed to be smarter, perhaps more adaptable, more long-range thinking, and so on. And along with that belief often comes the very personal belief than an individual who is part of one of these civilizations today might have: “I am a civilized person. Therefore I face challenges that my primitive hunter gatherer fore-bearers did not face. I live in a more complex world than has ever existed before. Indeed, I am this complex world. I. Am. Complex.”

Admit it. You were thinking that just now, weren’t you?

I’d like to offer a way of thinking about the difference between what we call “civilization” and what some people call “primitive cultures” that will be more useful and less falsehood-prone than the above simplified model. But first, I want to problemetize the word “primitive.” The word has connotations that are almost always associated with negative things. If you were to be compared to another person, in terms of your taste in clothing, your mental capacity, your talents and skills, your understanding of the world around you, your ideas, and so on, you would feel bad if in each of those comparisons those doing the comparison decided that you were primitive relative to the other person. From this I’m sure you get the idea, and I don’t think I really need to explain in great detail why primitive is negative.

Two of the most important areas where primitiveness is often assumed are morality/ethics and intelligence. If we go along with the hunter-gatherer vs civilization = primitive vs. not primitive concept, then it falls apart immediately. We don’t have IQ data on hunter-gatherers, but we do have some brain size data. Absolute and relative brain size is larger for hunter gatherer populations, both living and prehistorically. With respect to the moral/ethical side of things, that’s hard to judge because of cultural differences, poor sample size, and a complete absence of a comparative methodology that is not either trite or bankrupt. (Missionaries will tell you that the primitive people are morally inferior. Missionaries suck.) All I can tell you is that Stalin was not a hunter gatherer. Hitler was not a hunter gatherer. Kirk Cameron is not a hunter gatherer. And so on. None of the great moral or ethical transgressions that have been written down in the history books have anything to do with hunter gatherers. Assuming that they are morally inferior is just made up. At worst, there is no evidence pertaining to the question.

So let’s dispense with the term “primitive” society vs. civilization and switch to saying HGs (for hunter-gatherers) vs Western. Why not “civilized”? I’m sorry you asked that. You don’t really think you’re “civilized” just because you say you are, do you? Abu grave anybody? Fraternities? Astroturfers? Civilized? I don’t think so. Just “Western” will do for now although it may not be the best term, and in this sense we mean people who have lived over the last centuries in cities, states, industrially and technologically high energy consumption and industrially based cultures and economies, with the comparative sample we will use for this discussion being you and me, people who live in “the west” or something like it, have electricity, grocery stores, etc. etc.

So HG vs. Western.

The way I suggest we should best think about this comparison can be illustrated by using the simple case study of how one might go about getting a meal on the table. What do you, a Western person, need to do to have dinner and what does that entail, vs. what does a HG have to do.

At first gloss, this is where the “primitive people are simple but civilized people are complex” thing completely disintegrates. To get a meal on a table, a meal that has a piece of meat, a starch, and a vegetable or fruit, here’s what you have to do:

Step one: Open the refrigerator or freezer and take out a prepared meal in a box.

Step two: Put the meal in the microwave and set the timer and press start.

Step three: (Careful not to burn yourself!) take out the meal and put it on the table.

For a HG to get the same meal, the following has to happen:

Step one: The camp (that is the usual word we use for residential groupings of most foragers) divides up over the course of the day with different groups of people, or individuals, seeking out different types of food. The product of these efforts will later be shared.

Some of the men hang out for an hour or two fashioning pieces of equipment that they will need in their toolkit. Eventually they do some magic and get up and go hunting, with spears, bows and arrows, knives, traps, and other implements that they have manufactured and maintained themselves with materials they have gathered, some quite rare some more common. They will use these tools in a manner that only a lifetime of experience and training will allow. Some of the men are well known for specific techniques they’ve developed or advanced, some are known for being especially skilled at a particular aspect of hunting. They also have one or more properly trained dogs with them. Most likely the dogs were trained by a specialist in dog training.

They do some hunting magic.

Hunting can be done in a lot of ways, in groups or singly, but I wont’ go into that now. Suffice it to day that you need to know a lot of different steps and you need to be quite skilled to carry them out. So let’s say that step one is actually steps one through ten, which is probably an underestimate.

Step eleven: Some of the women do some magic and then go, with their children, to a clearing where they know there will probably be roots. They find the small, almost impossible to see vines of various plants coming from the ground and trailing up into the canopy overhead. Some of these vines lead to a root that is used for fish poison, and if you even touch the root you may get sick, so when you are foraging for food, you don’t want to accidentally dig it up. Other vines indicate roots that are not ready to dig up yet. The women consult with each other, and the older women instruct the younger women on some of the nuances, and they decide which plants to dig. They sharpen their digging sticks using a knife that they had sharpened earlier that day (the day before, one of them replaced the handle on the same knife) and dig up the roots. They package the roots up in a container skillfully made on the spot, and leave a bit of the roots attached to the vines and replace them in the holes they dug in a certain way so that the roots will regrow in the future. They do some more magic. When they bring the roots back they will have to be processed properly and cooked in a special manner. Even though these particular roots do not have the fish poison in them, they are still highly toxic and the very young and the very old, or the sick, can die from eating them if they are not properly processed.

Another group of women and two men who are disabled go to a stream. The do some magic. They build a two dams on the stream to isolate a 200 foot long section, and empty that section out using ‘buckets’ they skillfully fashion on the spot. When the stream is half empty, they mush the leaves of a nearby plant into the water, and this causes most of the fish to come to the surface, where they are harvested and wrapped up in packages skillfully made on the spot. Then they start to probe under the partly exposed bank for crustaceans and more fish. Two of the younger women are less careful and are badly shocked by an electric eel, but an older woman administers medicinal aid and explains how to avoid that next time. The women who are shocked do not think this is funny but everyone else does. As the women are finishing up this job, the two disabled men and one of the women gather up and package fruit fallen on the ground from a nearby tree, selecting only the fruits that are fresh and not munched on by the forest antelopes. They note, however, that the forest antelopes have been here, and plan to come back the next morning to set up an ambush.

OK, so that’s steps 11 through 64.

Eventually, after a few hours out foraging, all of the people manage to get back at roughly the same time. Two of the women who stayed in the camp hear people returning and skilfully stoke up their fires. Some of the children, as they return, are sent out to get more firewood. Some of the women take burning firebrands from the women who had stayed in camp to make their own fires. Water is fetched, food processed, food put into pots of clay that had been manufactured by some of the women a few months back, and one of the children comes back without water but instead a bunch of peppercorns from a nearby vine.

Eventually all of the food is processed and cooked. Not counting messing with the hunting implements in the morning, the entire process took four hours. And it was a hoot. This was a series of social events, jokes and stories were told, songs sung, tricks were played, people laughed until their sides hurt, people reminisced about a recently dead relative who had always liked to fish this particular stream (but got shocked by the eel that time and swore up and down for an hour, remember???). This wasn’t just a trip to the grocery store. It was the expression of a lifeway. Westerners pay extra money to spend a few days every few years doing this.

That was approximately steps 64 through 92.

You! Civilized person! Switch places with the hunter gatherers and see if you can make their meal. You would starve. You would die in the bush. You just would not be able to do it. Well, of course, this is a group effort, so that is an unfair comparison.

So, you, and 16 of your best friends and their kids and grandparents! Let’s see you do it! Well, no, you’d all starve. Eventually a group of “Westerns” might be able to learn how to do this, but if you sent a hundred such groups out into the bush to see how well they did (and equip them with books and videos showing how to do all that they need to know) they still starve or die of mishap long before they got the hang of it. They just would not be smart enough. They just would not be good enough.

On the other hand, if you take a forager and try to teach him or her to open a fridge and operate a microwave, he or she would probably starve to death as well, right?

Keep kidding yourself about that. In part two of this falsehood (yes, this is a two parter) we’ll look at the other side of the equation. For now, the immediate point should be apparent: When it comes to the basic daily task of putting food on the table, and for that matter for virtually all other daily tasks, you the Westerner can have the capacities of a relatively smart cucumber and you’d be fine, but in the hunter-gather world, it takes a team of highly trained experts working hard and working together doing very complex things every day to survive.


Please check the archives for the other posts in the Falsehoods Category.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    September 21, 2009

    Well, no, I wasn’t thinking that, but I’ve done some rudimentary studying of labor, which makes this sort of thing more apparent. I may, however, have to stop apologizing, even to myself, for not being a specialist.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 21, 2009

    My impression has always been that every individual in a hunter-gatherer-type society needs to know a lot of different stuff to survive, while in an “advanced” civilization the overwhelmingly vast majority of people don’t need to know jack diddly fucking shit to survive.

  3. #3 DuWayne
    September 21, 2009

    You forgot the part where the hunters might well track a larger kill for days, following the animal – not a particular path – and then will manage to find their way back “home.” Of course home is relative to season and not exactly the same place as last and they don’t wander back through the exact route they took getting there.

    And for “primitive” people, HG’s seem to manage an awful lot of leisure time…Time they don’t fill with arguing on the intertubes. Instead doing “primitive” things like singing, dancing and playing with the children. Or telling stories, nursing wounds and laughing about what caused those wounds.

    Or hopping on a plane to go stand in solidarity with other “primitives” who are at risk of losing their homes, because westerners – who have wreaked more destruction to the environment in the last hundred years, than earth has seen in millions of years – think they need to manage the lands on which said “primitives” live and have lived for millenia.

    Totally uncivilized…

  4. #4 Mountain Humanist
    September 21, 2009

    I’m pretty damned happy to be a simple “civilized” person. Division of Labor rocks.

    One could argue (and I’m not really ready to necessarily sign up for this argument — just fleshing it out as I think) that we also have to do a series of complex tasks in order that we get the benefits or our “camp’s” labor even if we do not directly participate in the process of food gathering. We make it possible through our other work. I understand Greg is not saying we that. His valid point is that human societies were never idyllic, Gaughan-esque simple places. Complexity has been with us ever since we started striving to survive. I personally love living in a society where I can focus on cultivating simplicity thanks to the shared “brain trust” of my fellow humans.

  5. #5 D. C. Sessions
    September 21, 2009

    Hmm… aside from the details of how “refrigerator,” “microwave,” “package,” etc. happen to appear …

    Yup. Pedagogy.

    FWIW, my own background has rather functional definitions of “primitive” and “complex,” but then again we don’t typically use them to describe humanity and the terms aren’t judgmental. In that particular context, “primitive is simple” becomes tautological.

    [1] The equation of “living in cities” with “well-behaved” is itself a fallacy, isn’t it?

    From a functional perspective, “civilization [1] is more complex than X” is a testable proposition based on degrees of freedom. Since I rather doubt that’s what you have in mind, I await Part Two.

  6. #6 Sam N
    September 21, 2009

    So I read the post, and I still think western civilization is more complex than hunter-gathering. Sure, we have plenty of people doing trivial tasks, and even our highly specialized work force doesn’t require the same sheer amount of knowledge and skills as hunter-gatherers. But civilization isn’t really about individual people doing their own thing, is it? It’s all about the interactions between the people, and the success of our civilizations I would pose requires the interactions of around 100,000 people to provide the levels of comfort we enjoy, and I might be low-balling that number tremendously. While hunter-gatherers, well maybe 10 for the comforts that they enjoy?

  7. #7 Sam N
    September 21, 2009

    By the way, the statement that groups of westerners would not survive because they are not smart enough or good enough is unfair.

    It would be like me saying take 100 groups of hunter-gatherers, and see how quickly they solve a system of partial differential equations. They won’t do it in their lifetime. Heck, they won’t even understand the problem because they aren’t good enough, they just aren’t smart enough.

    No, it’s a matter of training, not intelligence.

    Have westerners instructed for 10 years by hunter-gatherers, and I think they would do OK, of course life as a hunter-gatherer is hell, so good luck finding volunteers.

    Now take hunter-gatherers, and let me instruct them for 10 years about mathematics, and I think they just might be able to solve those partial differential equations, assuming they are motivated and we don’t have barriers of language, etc. to overcome.

  8. #8 Isabel
    September 21, 2009

    As far as I can see you’ve just broken down one version of getting a meal together into 100’s of steps, but grossly simplified the other….put a HG in a city or suburb and offer them no help except how to open a refrigerator and place something in a microwave and push a button, and yes, they’d probably starve also. Pretty soon that fridge would be empty. Then what? I guess I’ll wait for part 2…

    Also why is ‘Western’ industrialization a requirement in your definition and example? It seems like you’ve set off to prove how industrialization has led to de-evolution of the human race, which is a pretty different argument:)

    I interpret what makes a civilization complex to be that it contains many subcultures, some of which overlap, but many do not. This is based on division of labor and inevitably stratification, so it’s not about how complex individual lives are. I agree they are probably no more complex on that level. I guess I am having trouble seeing ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ as equivalent: a civilization can and does include many cultures that coexist and know little about each others’ day to day operations, and includes complex interactions through trade with many more cultures than many are even aware of.

    But I agree it is not more ‘civilized’ – after all humans in ‘complex’ societies usually suffer (or enjoy) more inequality than HGs.

  9. #9 qbsmd
    September 21, 2009

    By the way, the statement that groups of westerners would not survive because they are not smart enough or good enough is unfair.

    It would be like me saying take 100 groups of hunter-gatherers, and see how quickly they solve a system of partial differential equations. They won’t do it in their lifetime. Heck, they won’t even understand the problem because they aren’t good enough, they just aren’t smart enough.

    I was going to make a comment similar to that. A more appropriate comparison would be to take a group of hunter gatherers, provide them with films on how to run modern farm equipment, food processing factories, drive trucks, run retail outlets, repair the trucks and farm equipment, run the refineries that produce the gasoline to run them, etc.

  10. #10 D. C. Sessions
    September 21, 2009

    A more appropriate comparison would be to take a group of hunter gatherers, provide them with films on how to run modern farm equipment, food processing factories, drive trucks, run retail outlets, repair the trucks and farm equipment, run the refineries that produce the gasoline to run them, etc.

    Now you’re just back to arguing by long lists that technological city-based societies are more complex (in the mathematical sense.) It’s not at all clear that Greg is using “primitive,” “simple,” and “complex” in that sense.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    Sam N [7]: I’m interested to know why you think that life as a hunter-gatherer is hell. I’m also interested to know why you think you can eat a differential equation, but we can save that for another time.

  12. #12 MadScientist
    September 21, 2009

    I always marvel at the city folk thinking they’re so clever they can survive by going to McDonalds. A lot of people these days don’t even seem to realize that meat comes from dead animals and they’re offended if I say I’m going to have cow carcass for dinner. It’s not only the food supply though; most city folk are absolutely ignorant about most things around them – where their electricity comes from, how it’s created, where that fuel for those huge gas guzzlers come from. Water and cooking gas come out of magic pipes. Without such ignorance of most matters associated with day to day life, how else can society evolve to pay such huge sums of money to some of the most useless people – corporate CEOs? The notion that some people are worth literally hundreds of others even though they cannot do the work which creates the product people pay for is stupefying. Parasitism at its best – in what other situations are parasites idolized?

  13. #13 Sam N
    September 21, 2009

    The reason I think living as a hunter-gatherer would be hell is because I’m getting old for that lifestyle, especially having so much experience with my current lifestyle. I.e. I’m 28.

    For example, were I a hunter-gatherer at this age, the root canal I had 2 months ago would not have occurred. The infection would be slowly worsening, and I would be living day in, day out with a horrible tooth ache. Although this would be one painful part of the hunter-gatherer experience, it would in no way be the only one.

    And I do not mistake a partial differential equation for the purchased lunch that was prepared for me, but I do wish to draw a comparison with the skills required to obtain food as a hunter-gatherer and to solve mathematical theorems. Both are skills that are taught, and not innately held. So I do not see how failure to accomplish one or the other makes one too stupid or not good enough, but I do see how it indicates a deficiency in training.

  14. #14 Russell
    September 21, 2009

    I agree with Sam N’s first point, that Greg seems to be conflating a) the complexity an individual faces living in a particular culture, with b) the complexity of a particular society. On quite a broad variety of measures, modern metropolitan society is more complex than a hunter-gatherer society. Count, for example, the number of distinct, non-interchangeable jobs required to maintain the respective societies. I agree with Greg that that has nothing to do with the respective intelligence of the members of the two societies, or with the complexity faced by the average individual. But just as it is a fallacy for those living in a more complex society to therefore conclude that they are more complex, it is equally a fallacy to conclude from the complexities faced by a hunter-gatherer or the subtleties of their culture that therefore their society as a whole is equally complex to a modern society. Size matters, and the specialization and partition and interaction among parts that follow.

    That said, 28 is not to old to live as a hunter-gatherer. Exercise, and stay supple.

  15. #15 Austin
    September 21, 2009

    I’d also agree that the amount of effort that goes into opening a fridge, taking out a microwave-ready meal, and microwaving it is extremely easy – if you ignore the facts of where the microwave, fridge, and meal came from in the first place.

    Again, not to say the basic premise is incorrect – but to imply that the complexity that goes into feeding millions of people in cities doesn’t exist is ludicrous. HGs have one kind of complexity, city folk another. Different does not mean better or worse, just different.

  16. #16 Comrade PhysioProf
    September 21, 2009

    The notion that some people are worth literally hundreds of others even though they cannot do the work which creates the product people pay for is stupefying.

    This is a staggeringly stupid statement. Whether the CEO of Frito-Lay is or isn’t worth a salary hundreds of times that of the Cheetos bakers has fuck all to do with whether the CEO can bake a motherfucking Cheeto.

  17. #17 JefFlyingV
    September 21, 2009

    The idea of a hunter gathere not being smart enough to function in a modern society is BS. Many hunter gatheres have had prodigous memories for long stories that would astound folk with writing skills. The only difference between the 2 groups is technology, not intelligence.

    Thanks Greg for the cultural anthro lesson.

  18. #18 Jim Thomerson
    September 21, 2009

    A little historical aside. Darwin and Wallace parted company on whether the human brain was the result of natural selection. The general thinking at the time was that primative people were both less intelligent and lived simpler lives than the European upper crust. Wallace realized that primative people were just as intelligent as the upper crust, but he still thought they lived simpler lives. Therefore their intelligence could not be explained as a result of natural selection.

    I think that HG’s are very smart and know a lot. They may also have more complex personal interactions than most of us. I was told in a cultural anthropology class, in 1955, that a tribal shaman had as much knowledge as a modern MD. I doubt that this is quite true because of the greater organized intensity of modern medical training and the intense daily application of knowledge. I think the shaman’s learning and application are more leasurely.

    Mother used to take out the 22 and pop off a couple of squirrils for lunch. She would make wild plum jelly and cook up poke salid. We would go over to the creek to fish and gather pecans and watercress. Bunch of my kinfolk are the same way.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    Sam: There is a distinct difference between life being hell (which is a powerful and meaningful, and thus potentially very offensive to say about an entire category of people, though I suspect you did not mean it that way) and saying that certain things are very different in very important ways.

    I could counter your root canal with the Draft. For years and years, being a 17 year old American Male meant a good chance of getting drafted, then a reasonable chance of going to war, then a certain chance of getting your leg blown off or a bullet in your head. Some huge percentage of the male population of Russia born between certain years died in combat or war related disease (you can fill in the blanks). 100% of Congolese women are violently raped, one in ten of those are murdered. And so on.

    But I would also say that you would not need the root canal if you were a hunter gatherer. I don’t want to pretend that the wonders of modern medicine are not wonders, but many of our modern cures cure “western” diseases that foragers don’t get often.

    In the best of all possible worlds, you get the tooth problem when the local medical clinic is operating and you actually get to be a hunter gatherer and get the tooth taken care of. Hunter gatherers DO live in the modern world. They just happen to be hunter gatherers.

    Both are skills that are taught, and not innately held. So I do not see how failure to accomplish one or the other makes one too stupid or not good enough, but I do see how it indicates a deficiency in training.

    I get your point. It is distinctly possible that the non-hg Euro-farmers are simply innately not as smart as foragers. The brain size is different. Sorry. You might have to live with that fact.

    Let me know if you need me to explain that more slowly and carefully!!! (You being a Westerner and all…)

    (Bwahahahaah!!!! :)

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2009

    I agree with Sam N’s first point, that Greg seems to be conflating a) the complexity an individual faces living in a particular culture, with b) the complexity of a particular society.

    Not at all, not at all. This is a two parter.

  21. #21 Gray Gaffer
    September 21, 2009

    It’s a matter of population density vs division of labor. In HG, because of the low population density, the minimum unit of labor that works for division is quite large, and all tasks require dedication and hard won skills and the existence of experienced mentors.

    OTOH, in WS, population density has gone up so much, and the cultural tools for dividing labor come to grind so fine, that for most of us the skills needed to earn enough to buy and stock that refrigerator+microwave are quite miniscule. It is the relationship between population and division of labor granularity that makes WS so much more complex relatively at the macro scale, whilst being so much simpler at the individual scale.

    I’m thinking that WS has a much relaxed evolutionary pressure on IQ as a survival trait. It doesn’t take quite as much nous to survive today as it did in our fore-fathers HG society, so a consequence is that the spread of IQ over the population is (probably) increasing, with the lower end much more likely to survive and reproduce today than probably ever in the past, and with the high end not moving very much upwards because we have always had the same neurological limits on IQ and there has been little change in pressure at that end.

    Idiocracy, anyone? A silly, stupid, movie, that has to be seen.

  22. #22 Russell
    September 21, 2009

    Let me second part of what Greg said above: If you want to feel like you’re up to hunting and gathering when you’re 50, not only does it pay to exercise, but also to eat like a hunter and gatherer: plants and animals. Recognizably so. Real food. If it comes in a plasticine wrapper, is squeezed out of an aerosol can, has ingredients that takes a chemist to understand, or has been processed 10 ways from Sunday, leave it alone.

  23. #23 Martín Pereyra
    September 21, 2009

    It’s obvious that microwaves and refrigerators don’t poof into existence and that a lot of abstract knowledge is needed to get a microwave and a fridge. It might not be that obvious that most of those who designed, made, sold and transported those appliances are as clueless as the final user regarding the entire food production process in “civilized” societies (because of the high granularity of “civilized” labor division) and cannot perform most of the other steps in such process, and that all of them will starve if suddenly forced to live as “primitive” hunter-gatherers.

  24. #24 Sam N
    September 21, 2009

    Well, I will admit that my first post was a bit hasty, and I should have reread what you actually said, rather than replying to what I recalled you said after a single read-through. I would be willing to agree that a hunter-gatherer is certainly not less complex than myself.

    Now you mention brain-size is larger, but size alone does not convince me that they are smarter. Even presuming they maintain a larger repertoire of skills than I, I still question whether it is accurate to call them smarter. I guess I need some concept of what you actually mean by smarter. Would they be able to pick up a new skill any quicker than me? Maybe, maybe not. I think it would depend on the type of skill. If it involved highly abstract thinking I would bet on me. If it involved manual dexterity I would bet on the hunter-gatherer.

    As to my comment regarding it would be hell. Well I think it would be like hell for me, but I haven’t exactly adapted to their way of life. If I had grown up in that society, well I would likely accept it, maybe even happier than I am in western society. Nevertheless, and perhaps I am a bit pompous, but I would assume that most people who experience modern western life and hunter-gathering would tend to prefer the modern western life (a bit hard to make the comparison, since being raised in one culture would likely skew the perspective).

  25. #25 Isabel
    September 22, 2009

    “Absolute and relative brain size is larger for hunter gatherer populations, both living and prehistorically. ”

    Are you serious? Citation, please.

    Is this not a serious post? Maybe that’s why I don’t understand it:)

  26. #26 JefFlyingV
    September 22, 2009

    Sam N, do you think HGs make a quick adoption of more technological societies or does a loss of culture create problems for the HGs? You might want to take a look at native American cultures of the Southwest, the upper great plains and Inuit.

  27. #27 Vince Whirlwind
    September 22, 2009

    I have a thought experiment for you Greg –

    A Boeing 747 goes down in a remote part of the Pacific.
    50 survivors make it to Island A.
    50 survivors make it to Island B.

    100 years go by.

    A ship discovers Island A – the descendants of the survivors live as you describe. They have identified about 20 different types of roots and grubs that don’t kill them.

    A ship discovers Island B – the descendants of the survivors have built a supermarket in which 10,000 different product lines are available.

    Now tell us which society is complex….

    I have friends who have had the misfortune of being stuck on remote islands near Papua New Guinea – the lifestyle is simple and primitve. It is brutal and utterly unrewarding. Pink-eyed lenses applied to the savage lifestyle of our savage forebears are not particularly useful in understanding the world.

  28. #28 Michael
    September 22, 2009

    General point taken and agreed with.

    But isn’t the specific comparison of food gathering (a lifetime of training in gathering food vs a lifetime of training in the profession used to earn money for food) a bit reminiscent of comparing Nigeria and Canada that we’re supposed to fail for?

    And yes this does not seem to focus on comparing complexity of actual civilisations. Perhaps the best way to do that would be something from information theory in terms of the number of bits needed to describe the experience of an average person within that civilisation. I suspect any society with mass media and the printed word would take more bits to describe, but probably not by much since non-literate societies may well have more complex social roles and relations. In fact, this would be an interesting study to do (although almost impossible to do properly)…

  29. #29 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    [24]I would be willing to agree that a hunter-gatherer is certainly not less complex than myself.

    The survival skill set for HG’s is larger, deeper, leaves less room for slop, and is more complex.

    Now you mention brain-size is larger, but size alone does not convince me that they are smarter.

    I’m actually the last person to suggest that individual variation i brain size determines individual intelligence. But prior to agriculture, human brains were larger world wide, and today the large brains popluaton wide seem to be in HG groups. Plus, having living in “Western” settings most of my life and with “HG”s for a substantial period of time, I just think from personal experience that they’re smarter.

    I guess I need some concept of what you actually mean by smarter.

    This concept we are working with right now is indeed too vague. But yes, this idea of being able to pick up new skills quickly could probably be tested. I’ve not met you, but I have a feeling you would be averge or below average in comparison to the HG’s I know. So I doh’t think it’s a maybe, I think it’s a yes, depending on skill.

    I have no idea why you keep coming back to highly abstract thinking. Do you honestly believe that HG’s have no abstract thinking abilities, or are limited in this way? I predict that next you will insist that the particular math you do is the ultimate abstract thinking, then challenge the HG’s to do that. Think about what you’re doing here. You’re giving them manual dexterity and you’re keeping the abstract thought. How terribly … oh, never mind.

    perhaps I am a bit pompous, but I would assume that most people who experience modern western life and hunter-gathering would tend to prefer the modern western life

    The actual experience of a lot of people is the opposite of yours. Western people very often go out of their way to experience the HG way of life, or parts of it, or perhaps you have not noticed, because you were off thinking abstractly about something, this aspect of the tourism industry, the recreation industry, and so on. You are abstractly thinking that the comparison can’t be made, but in fact it is being made on an ongoing basis.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    Isabel: This is a serious post. The late Pleistocene decreases in brain size have become fairly axiomatic over the last decade. Funny how certain widely known things end up being so widely ignored. The situation is somewhat more complex that indicated above. Not only does brain size decrease (once or twice, depending on the data) but the last couple/few increases probably don’t count. It may well be that our brain size has been about the same since well prior to the rise of “modern humans.” The best place to start with this is provably Henneberg’s 2007 paper.

  31. #31 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    Vince: Your thought experiment is sorta bogus because it couldn’t happen. The people on Island build a supermarket. As to the rest of your remarks, they are inappropriate and if you turn into a troll I’m not going to give you much truck, so please rethink.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    [28]But isn’t the specific comparison of food gathering (a lifetime of training in gathering food vs a lifetime of training in the profession used to earn money for food) a bit reminiscent of comparing Nigeria and Canada that we’re supposed to fail for?

    Yes. This is a kind of comparison (the one I”m making here) that requires a much more meta look. It can be done but only in a limited, yet very interesting, way.

    Perhaps the best way to do that would be something from information theory

    Information theory has gone through the filter of ecological theory as well, and produced some useful ideas for how to measure complexity.

    The point of my two part post, which will be … and remember, this is about “falsehoods” (and remember what they are … see posts above by Vince and Sam N and just think about the self-serving racist crap going around in their smaller than HG brains) is that people are generally uncritically assigning “great and good” to the property of “complexity” and the property of “complexity” to themselves. Then, they assign “simplicity,” “lower intelligence,” “primitive” to “Them,” with “Them” being those other people, or the wayback people.

    I’m surprised that no one has made the mistake yet of citing something about some people some where who are not HG’s and calling them HGs.

  33. #33 Jim Thomerson
    September 22, 2009

    I have a vague recollection of reading an article which stated that an Eskimo, who had never seen an outboard motor, was confronted with one that didn’t work. He took it apart, fixed it, and went motoring off into the sunset. The general idea was that Eskimos had a broad general understanding of how things work, much greater than one would expect. I suppose one could expand this to HG’s in general.

    Do HG’s on adapting to a more “civilized” life style, show populstion increases? I would think there should be an initial population decrease as they adapt the the new environment.

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    I have a vague recollection of reading an article which stated that an Eskimo, who had never seen an outboard motor, was confronted with one that didn’t work. He took it apart, fixed it, and went motoring off into the sunset.

    I have seen things like this happen frequently.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    September 22, 2009

    Vince Whirlwind Said:

    Why is it bogus? Is a supermarket carrying 10,000 product lines more/less complex than a list of 20 grubs/roots that can be dug out of the ground and safely eaten? Simple question. Where the supermarket comes from is irrelevant. Civilisation is indeed extremely complex, which is why at any one time a lot of the planet struggles to achieve/maintain it in the face of the tribal free-for-all which otherwise reigns. I spend a lot of time in the bush. I’ve often wondered about this myself, and I believe most relevant survival skills can be taught to a child by the age of about 6-8. Teaching them to read and write however takes a bit longer, because that’s far more complex. Actually, the first complex bit comes after you’ve dug up your grubs and roots – civilisation takes care of its waste (except when capitalists are in charge), primitives shit in the water and come down with cholera.

    Vince, you have pulled your comparative learning data out of your ass and it is simply wrong, and your absurd remarks about primiives shitting in the water just got you banned from this blob. Bye.

    (Why are all the most intense racists in this particular area Australians?)

  36. #36 Sam N
    September 22, 2009

    I have no idea why you keep coming back to highly abstract thinking. Do you honestly believe that HG’s have no abstract thinking abilities, or are limited in this way?

    Now that you mention it, I suppose I came to this point because I was not thinking of a typical Westerner, but of myself. I was comparing my own skill set to that of a HG and thinking about where my individual strengths would likely stand compared to the average HG. In retrospect, this line of argument is flawed because I’m comparing a Westerner in the top 10% of a particular skill to the mean HG.

    Even then, abstract thinking was really too broad a category. (And I can assure you, I know with certainty that HGs employ abstraction). Something more specific like working with formal systems would have been more accurate. My best guess is that I would pick up a novel formal system more quickly than an HG, though I have no reason to believe the average Westerner would. No data though, especially as I have not even met an HG.

    Think about what you’re doing here. You’re giving them manual dexterity and you’re keeping the abstract thought.

    Well, I actually wasn’t trying to be condescending, as if HGs have trouble thinking. And I know with certainty that HGs utilize and rely upon abstraction. I was thinking more along the lines that there are certain things I spend a great deal of time thinking about that are rather abstract, and have minimal utility to the HG way of life, like working explicitly with formal systems. Whereas an HG might more easily come upon an optimal solution to a problem, I would guess that I would be more capable to formally prove that the solution is indeed optimal (assuming A, B, and C, of course). What use is the proof to the HG if they have an effective method for doing what they need to do? Nevertheless assuming my assessment is correct, the point is still moot if I consider Westerners in general.

    Ah, and now I have exposed my ugly elitism in addition to my ethnocentrism. “I’m not dumber than the average HG, but the average Westerner is.”

    Western people very often go out of their way to experience the HG way of life, or parts of it

    There’s a real difference between experiencing the HG lifestyle for a month, something I would be open to, or even a year, something I probably would not, and living it–for the rest of my life. Sure, I find it fascinating to experience different ways of living. One summer I did door-to-door sales, erroneously thinking I could make a decent wage, but also out of curiosity. It turned out to be a miserable experience, but I don’t regret having that experience, and there were enjoyable moments among the misery. I am sure I would have enjoyable moments as an HG, but, oh the misery.

  37. #37 Sam N
    September 22, 2009

    Just a remark, if you want to further explore why I am relatively certain I would be miserable as a HG I will explain further. Even presuming I never go hungry without knowing when my next meal is, and that I have regular access to a clinic that provides modern medicine (my two greatest concerns when calling the lifestyle hell, we can upgrade it to miserable). I still doubt I would enjoy it any more than I enjoyed selling door-to-door, or factory work for that matter (which I have also tried). I thoroughly enjoy using my brain to earn my living, I enjoy the freedom given to me.

    And is it any worse for me to call factory work miserable than calling work as a HG miserable?

  38. #38 catgirl
    September 24, 2009

    Well, I never thought that Western societies are less primitive than HGs, but I still think that your analogy is not very strong. For the HGs, you described the process of obtaining the food and then preparing it, but you left out the “obtaining it” part for the Western cultures. Food doesn’t magically show up in our refrigerators. We have to go to a store and buy it, after first earning money to buy it. It can get pretty complicated, especially for people on a budget, or for people who don’t have cars. Then factor in all the conflicting media messages about nutrition and finances, and it can pretty complex pretty fast.

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2009

    Catgirl: Now go read parts II and III!

  40. #40 Lotharloo
    July 26, 2010

    Sorry Greg but I don’t see the reason for the lenght of this post. It seems you just say that a hunter-gatherer has to deal with a lot of complexity, as demanding as living in the western world. Sorry but that’s obvious as our brains evolved due to the selective pressures of dealing with the complexities of life as a HG. The only difference is that we specialize much more.

  41. #41 Greg Laden
    July 26, 2010

    Sorry Greg but I don’t see the reason for the lenght of this post. It seems you just say that a hunter-gatherer has to deal with a lot of complexity, as demanding as living in the western world. Sorry but that’s obvious as our brains evolved due to the selective pressures of dealing with the complexities of life as a HG. The only difference is that we specialize much more.

    To understand why this set of posts requires such ‘length’ all you need to do is to look at the comments that show that people have a very very hard time understanding these concepts.

    Like this one: http://xrl.in/5xtg

  42. #42 Nathan Baldwin
    March 17, 2012

    Firstly, there is a falsehood touched on in this article, that being, big brains (overall or relative to body weight) are a trait of more intelligent animals. There is a lot of contradictory evidence in brain/intelligence research. Intelligence itself may prove to be too abstract to measure.

    Secondly, reading these posts as a whole, commenters seem to be polarized, half arguing that the hg lifestyle is ideal, and the other half arguing the western lifestyle is ideal. The argument isn’t being made in these words, however. The words “better” or “more ideal” are being replaced with “complex”. Why has no one implied that the hg lifestyle is simpler AND more fulfilling? Why is it implied in all these posts that complex is better than simple? Why is it implied that intelligence is most important? Not enough people are posting about happiness.

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    March 17, 2012

    I agree that “complex” is very often, falsely, used as a euphemism for something like “better” (though not really ideal, but perhaps). Superior, anyway.

    That is something that those of us who think/write/teach about these things actually did notice right away when that term started to be used.