This is the third of three parts of this particular falsehood. (Here is the previous part)

I previously noted that to survive as a Westerner, you can get away with participating in a culture that asks of you little more than to understand the “one minute” button on the microwave, while to survive in a foraging society you needed much much more. Moreover, I suggested that the level of complexity in an individual’s life was greater among HG (Hunter-Gatherer) societies than Western societies.

However, this is not to say, in the end, that one form of economy and society is more complex than the other. I happen to think that the maximum level of complexity … of thought, social interaction, of meaning generation and use/misuse … that can happen in close quarters, in human relationships and the human mind is very high. One clue to this is the fact that a person who does have a job that involves great complexity working in a big complex company and so on can remain confounded by the day to day personal while s/he readily handles the world of systems analyses or air traffic control or whatever. I also concede that “complexity” compared across the social vs. the cultural may not in fact be (quantitatively) comparable. So it is quite possible that the total mount of “complexity” (though this surely can’t really be measured non-trivially) in a forager’s life may be much higher than you think, and as high as that experienced by, say, an industry in the West.

Whether or not that is true is not important. But consider a similar idea anyway: Imagine that there is a rule that says that he total amount of complexity is, say, kN, where N is the number of people in the system and k is some made up number that never changes (you always need that made up number). (The “Conservation of Complexity” concept, if you will.) But, in some systems the complexity is distributed mainly in the cultural realm, and in other systems it is distributed as well in the social realm. These are different scales. The cultural realm is the group effort among HG’s to get the meal on the table. The social realm is what it takes to get the microwave on the table.

I know there are major objections to this (I’ll make them myself in a moment) but just stick with this as a short term thought experiment.

Given this, in reference to the falsehood we are dealing with, people would be making the mistake of claiming personal (or ethnic, or job-related,etc.) complexity that they don’t “deserve” to claim. Being associated with a system with piles of complexity does not give YOU credit for coming up with the complexity, or effectively dealing with the complexity. Never mind the fact that people who are self assured of their superiority over “primitives” are doing so on the basis of “complexity” which we have not agreed is a good (or bad) thing.

In other words, the same amount of complexity is out there, and it is kind of strange that people living in The West (as an example of a system where the complexity is mainly social and not cultural) are taking credit for something they don’t deserve personally.

Of course, the idea of a fixed amount of complexity that is differentially distributed among the cultural vs. social realms is probably wrong. And here we actually get to the most salient part of this discussion. The guy who lazily pulls the Lean Cuisine out of the fridge and microwaves it can be a very non-complex person and survive in our society. He can know almost nothing, be able to do almost nothing, be utterly devoid of the abstract thoughts that foragers are constantly managing in their efforts to survive the complexities nature throws at them all the time, and the cultural complexities of face to face small scale society. But, the microwave and the lean cuisine themselves came to be, and came to be where they are, from a system of enormous complexity, as well as energy and resource use.

The forager gets the same meal using a system that is pretty complex but that is also quite manageable and flexible, that can be adapted as conditions change, and that almost always works … You don’t hear about foragers who are left alone starving to death too often. But the microwave/Lean Cuisine system uses probably two or three orders of magnitude more resources and energy to produce the same effect. For this reason, as population size increases, the entire system becomes unsustainable and downright dangerous. Complex societies, it turns out, have this little thing they do now and then, that they have always done, that no complex society has ever escaped:

They collapse.

Mayhem, chaos, widespread death and suffering occurs and few or none are spared generations of misery as the system falls, remains unworkable, and only slowly begins to piece itself back together again. Civilizations are moments of self-congratulatory faux brightness against a background of dark. As in dark ages. The Hobbsian dark ages that post-forager societies have been living in much of the time, in most places, is the ‘norm’ thanks to the rise of economic and social complexity. The crown civilizations speak to us loudly from their archaeological graves and we fetishize them, convincing ourselves that those impressive monuments, fine pottery and art, evidence of commerce among specialized entities and long-distance trade, and occasional interesting writing, accurately represent the days of old. In truth, most of the people contemporary with those shining bits of history were not involved in the glory (but rather enslaved, exploited, sometimes literally eaten to make the glory happen), and the moments of glory were fleeting and most of the time things were not that way.

Complexity. It is the hallmark of civilization, and it is one of the main features that gives “Teh Civilized” a sense of superiority over what they define as the primitive.

But really, complexity is a bitch.


Please have a look at the Archives, where you will find the other posts in the Falsehoods Category.

Comments

  1. #1 Sam N
    September 23, 2009

    I like this post best of the series.

    I’ve been thinking on something you mentioned in the first post, that many would take offense to being called primitive. I would take offense to it, because it indicates I am ignorant of certain more recent knowledge that I value more others. I value understanding of astronomy, physics, and above all, biology, more than I value the understanding of how to effectively forage and hunt for food. My skill set may be far far less than a hunter-gatherer, nevertheless, I value it more. This is not an objective condemnation, simply my own preference.

  2. #2 JefFlyingV
    September 23, 2009

    Sam, what would have been your preferences if you grew up in an HG society?

  3. #3 Sam N
    September 23, 2009

    I honestly can’t say, but would I be able to make an informed choice? Raised as a Westerner, I have had the opportunity to experience parts of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (certainly not the full experience). Additionally, I have the opportunities to dabble in a great deal of other types of skills, be it legal, mechanical, or social, and I have found a preference in certain sciences.

    That is not to say I don’t value other skills, far from it. I would be happy to learn more about foraging, but it comes at a cost of learning less of my current studies: at a cost to my preference.

    As a hunter-gatherer, would I really have as broad exposure to such disparate skills (I am interested in other people’s take on this statement, perhaps my classifications of skills are too unevenly distributed, as I would lump hunter-gatherer skills in a few categories compared to skills distributed throughout Western society). Would I be able to make as informed of a choice?

  4. #4 george.w
    September 23, 2009

    Jeebus, I have clients who can’t consistently paste content from Microsoft Word into Notepad before dropping it into a blog entry. They’d die painfully if left to survive without a microwave. Wouldn’t trust them to attempt using a pocketknife unless I had some disinfectant and a suture kit handy.

    All of our industry is aimed at reducing complexity for the consumer. For example automobiles are way simpler to own than they were back in the day, or even more so, before the day. But how is complexity measured? It’s tempting to think an iPod is more complex to operate than a record collection, until you try to carry a record player around with you. Makes that little wooden flute look like a model of simplicity, except for the complexity of learning to play it well.

    Mostly we just enjoy the benefits of collective process scaling. We don’t generate our own electricity, design our own microchips, or build them, or write our own software. The little bit we contribute back feeds into the whole effort. That’s collapse-proof, isn’t it? I mean, as long as nothing fundamental goes wrong?

  5. #5 lylebot
    September 23, 2009

    What is the complexity of social networks in HG societies versus Western societies? I have the impression that HG groups are largely based around family connections, so the people you work with, socialize with, and call family all overlap significantly. Whereas for many (most?) of us in the west, social networks are split into work colleagues, friends, and family, plus all the people we interact with on a more limited basis, often without much overlap. I assume the latter incurs a greater cognitive load to maintain, and we can “afford” that extra load because we don’t have the daily pressures that HGs have. Is that in any way accurate?

    I don’t mean this to be a value judgment, so I hope it’s not taken that way. And of course my assumptions about HG social networks or Western social networks could be completely wrong. Just interested in your thoughts.

  6. #6 travc
    September 23, 2009

    I’d very much like to agree with you, but your argument is all over the place and, frankly, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me overall.

    A few things…

    Could you please define society vs culture as you are using them?

    On collapse, you do have a point. But I think you are underestimating/discounting the much smaller scale but more frequent ‘collapses’ in HG groups. It leaves a mark when a ‘civilized’ settlement is abandoned, but how much more frequently to small bands of HGs die out or dissolve due to their own fragility/failings? I don’t know the answer, but my gut feeling would be “quite often”.

    “You don’t hear about foragers who are left alone starving to death too often.”
    True, but …
    1) You don’t hear jack about foragers too often since they are small disparate groups with little communication/contact with outside groups.
    2) Foragers do regularly die of common diseases which they don’t even understand, much less have the technology to deal with.
    3) Foragers do frequently exploit local resources to the point of exhaustion (especially when they are otherwise fortunate enough that their population has grown substantially over a few generations). In those cases, they have to move or face starvation.
    ect ect…

    Societal complexity can be (and probably is) much more of a stabilizing factor than a disruptive factor. Again, the ‘fall’ is big when it happens, but a lot of that is probably due to it being relatively stable to begin with.

    Complexity is not even remotely conserved. I think your really need to take a shot at defining it (or perhaps better, a metric or two).

  7. #7 psweet
    September 23, 2009

    I think we need to make a distinction here — the complexity that an individual deals with, and the complexity of a society as a whole. I get the point that someone living in a HG society has to deal with just as complex a world as I do. In fact, I would probably argue just that if any of my students made the opposing argument. However, at a society-wide level, there is a big difference. In a typical HG society, there is very little differentiation in roles between individuals. While every individual in the society is unique, the ways in which they make a living are very similar, as is the knowledge base they utilize to do so. In a modern industrial society, there are a multitude of potential roles to fill, each with it’s own knowledge base, only partly overlapping with others. Thus the overall complexity of the society is much greater.

  8. #8 Sam N
    September 23, 2009

    travc, I think you make some excellent points regarding collapses, but that said I would probably prefer life as an HG than living in the shanties of Tijuana or Mumbai, or fighting some ridiculous war to enrich folks living thousands of miles away. Our society is stable, I would prefer it be stable without the exploitation. Even if HG groups frequently collapse, it seems no worse than the vast portions of modern societies that face a similar fate through exploitation. In that sense, Greg’s right that complexity is a bitch.

    I like to think its possible to both have societal complexity, and its accompanying stability, without exploitation. I don’t see anything, in principle, that would make such a society impossible.

  9. #9 Katkinkate
    September 23, 2009

    Posted by: Sam N “I like to think its possible to both have societal complexity, and its accompanying stability, without exploitation. I don’t see anything, in principle, that would make such a society impossible.”

    I think the problem with complex societies is that increased complexity needs increased use of resources (including energy) to maintain and eventually those resources get used up in all the easy to access and cheap locations, resulting in a rise in costs as more distant and expensive sources need to be found and exploited to maintain the society. Eventually costs (money, labour, war, human life) gets high enough that it is impossible to maintain the society and it has to collapse.

  10. #10 mad the swine
    September 23, 2009

    “Complex societies, it turns out, have this little thing they do now and then, that they have always done, that no complex society has ever escaped:

    They collapse.”

    Um, no. They are collapsed. The vast majority of ‘complex societies’ – and in this context, I’m guessing, you mean any agricultural society from Sumer on down – come to an end due to outside forces, ie, invasion, or internal struggle between leaders, ie, civil war. And if you think war is a trait unique to homo agricolis, or that HG societies don’t suffer from it, I have some coastal property in Florida you might be interested in.

    “Civilizations are moments of self-congratulatory faux brightness against a background of dark. As in dark ages.”

    Tremendously exaggerated, unless you use definitions of ‘dark ages’ involving human rights, standards of living, etc, so stringent that all of human society until the 19th century was living in a ‘dark age’.

  11. #11 Recall
    September 24, 2009

    “Complexity. It is the hallmark of civilization, and it is one of the main features that gives “Teh Civilized” a sense of superiority over what they define as the primitive.”

    “”The guy who lazily pulls the Lean Cuisine out of the fridge and microwaves it can be a very non-complex person and survive in our society.””

    Oh, the irony.

  12. #12 rambler
    October 2, 2009

    Nice read.

    There are some weak points in the comparisons (which many commenters seemed happy to seize on rather than see the overall picture); but I’m happy to see someone taunting the sacred cow of “progress”.

    I don’t know if I feel it’s instinctive or cultural, but there is a firmly entrenched religion of technical and educational advancement; recycling the old tenets “You shall have no other god” and “Seek first these things and everything else shall be given you”.

    The main message being proclaimed is that mental, moral, and social progress are automatically carried along by the momentum of our technical and intellectual achievements. But television has not eradicated racism, the information age and complex economic theories have not eliminated fraud or unemployment.

    The author even goes a step beyond my normal objections by questioning whether we as individuals are even losing intellectual and technical progress in the momentum of societies advancement; questions that can properly be asked and addressed in a scientific context.

  13. #13 Lotharloo
    July 26, 2010

    I find this article very disappointing and too sloppy.

    I previously noted that to survive as a Westerner, you can get away with participating in a culture that asks of you little more than to understand the “one minute” button on the microwave,…

    First, what is get away? You definitely need more skills to survive in the western world (unless you are a newborn in which case you don’t even need the “one minute” button).
    Second, the complexities of living in the western world is not concentrated in operating the microwave but on how to acquire (afford) the microwave and the piece of meat. That you chose to compare the most complex part of a process from one culture against the simplest part of the same process from a different culture is intellectually dishonest.

    Complex societies, it turns out, have this little thing they do now and then, that they have always done, that no complex society has ever escaped:

    They collapse.

    Given enough time we’ll go extince so obviously all societies will collapse at some point (including the hunter-gatherer ones). Disregarding this trivial point, you seem to say that since all the societies that we know of have collasped (which btw, is obviously false, unless you believe US and Europe are not complex civilizations), then it follows that all the future complex civilizations will collapse as well; this is of course sloppy reasoning. Furthermore, you seem to ignore all those HG societies that have collapsed during history, or wiped out by neighboring societies.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 26, 2010

    You definitely need more skills to survive in the western world (unless you are a newborn in which case you don’t even need the “one minute” button).

    Sorry, you’re wrong. I could cite various sources of evidence for that, but instead I’ll just cite my own experience as a person who grew up in the western world (and lives there now) but who lived for a few years in a foraging society.

    Second, the complexities of living in the western world is not concentrated in operating the microwave but on how to acquire (afford) the microwave and the piece of meat.

    I think you think that shopping at Target is a lot more complex than it really is!

    all societies will collapse at some point (including the hunter-gatherer ones). Disregarding this trivial point…

    You speak out of a different orifice than your mouth. Can you name a foraging society that went extinct on it’s own? Can you name fifty? You’d need to be able to name at least a dozen to be even a tiny bit credible in making your generalizations.

    And no, no one thinks that civilization collapsing is a … trivial point. That made me lol.

    In referring to historical societies that have collapesed, we are not referring to those that are not historical. Obviously.

    Furthermore, you seem to ignore all those HG societies that have collapsed during history, or wiped out by neighboring societies.

    Name them. I.e., show that you have a clue about actual facts. Name the forager societies that went under because of their own internal workings.

    I suspect that tossing in this last bit about those wiped out by neighboring societies was your brain tapping on your head and telling you that you were stepping off an intellectual cliff by blurting out facts that were utterly fundamental to your argument yet little more than something you just made up.

    That, by the way, is sloppy. So now you know.

  15. #15 Lotharloo
    July 27, 2010

    Oh yeah, you are right. Afterall buying a Ferrari Enzo simply requires knowing the rules of its auction and the minimal writing skills to write a cheque, kinda makes me wonder why nobody around me owns one. So yeah, you win, I don’t argue with the absurd, I rather waste my online time not arguing with bloggers who demand dozens of pieces of evidence from the opposition while themselves providing none.

  16. #16 Nathan Baldwin
    March 17, 2012

    I like how the hypothetical systems analyst is a s/he and the idiot eating microwaveable meals is a guy. Reverse sexism is still sexism. And political correctness is a bore.

    Everything else I found much more rewarding to read.

  17. #17 Justin Bieberlake
    Lizardpiss Arizona
    October 31, 2013

    I came this blog because I wondered why my poop was green. I deduced it was from the orange frosting on some Halloween cupcakes I had eaten while visiting friends in Orange County CA.

    I was reminded that in the nearby (and not ironically named) city of Fountain Valley CA. my green poop and otherwise colored pee along with millions of gallons of other people’s poop and pee along with whatever illegally flushed bio-hazardous waste or pesticides or performance enhancing or mind altering substances and so on and so forth is collected and turned into perfectly safe and high quality drinking water.

    see here: http://www.gwrsystem.com

    I’m sure the HG societies figured out how to bathe downstream, poop and pee even further downstream and drink the water from upstream.

    I’m kind of wishing I had a stream right about now.