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 or governmental system (or whatever) in the West.

Whether or not that is true is not important. But consider a similar idea: 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). Think of this as a “Conservation of Complexity” model. 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 kitchen counter.

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 simply do not 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, being imbued with the complexity or being “complex” because of the complexity. You may well be a simple co on a simple wheel that is part of a more complex system that you take for granted. 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 Western 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 prior complex society has ever escaped this fate:

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. “Dark ages” are dead civilizations. Civilizations are moments of self-congratulatory faux brightness against a background of dark. 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 and collapse of short lived complex economic and social systems. 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.


  1. #1 Brandon
    November 5, 2010

    I did not get to read through all the posts on here and want to make some general statements based on observation, education, self realization, tv, internet, music, art, and anything we encounter daily in a western society.

    We as humans are curious, inventors, explorers, followers, leaders, gathers, primitive or social and very complex in nature. We can all agree that civilizations all fail or fall? At least looking into history no matter how far you go back. Is there one particular place in time we can point and say we crossed the line and that is why we are here in this modern civilization? No matter how primitive we may have lived or live we are complex by nature. A primitive society is still a civilization just not a modernized one. We are dicussing on a wonder of the world, the world wide web. Talking and dicussing the very thing we question and yet use them to discuss them. How interesting? our population is exploding every second of every day.

    The planet is fighting back daily look at the “horrible” acts of nature. They get worse all the time. Why is that? My strong opinion is the planet can not be used at the rate we are using it. So it is fighting back and will win whether we want it to or not, wheteher it be through disease, natural disasters or war.

    Most everthing we all speak of is influenced one way or another. Yes they may be our thoughts, but these thoughts are made through everything I ststed earlier. We are all self taught, self learners this is primitvie by nature as being human. Primitive in a westren society or civilization what ever you or we wnat to call it. You can look at nature and see evidence of this. Birds build nest out of modern items, paper, metal, trash of anykind. Why is this? Adaptation. We all adapt to our surroundings or we may move to different surroundings then adapt to those.

    I often have thoughts of “simplifying my life” Go live like a hermit in the woods and survive of the land the planet and use only what I need. Simple life right? not complex? Not complex by what we may define in todays world. The world everyday is chnaging and being influenced by western civilization. Look around evidence is everywhere.

    We say that animals are over populated and we condone killing them becuase they are intruding into our civilizations, they are pests! All signs of humans becoming over populated, over civilized and unsustainable.

    Struggling in my own mind as a few or maybe many humans do creates a sense of loss, sense of where do I belong, sense of complexity that utimately leaves us contributing to the very civilization we live in. The mere fact that we discuss it on a laptop at home, or in public at a wi-fi hot spot in a coffee house, at university or library we are contributing to the very complexity we discuss.

    What is it that we want? Do we continue to discuss, negotiate, or argue points of view? All of which will have a slighty different or completely opposite point of view all going to the civilizations, we were brought up in. We are individuals with opinions none of which are right or wrong; but if truly want a simple life, then we should just do it. It only takes one person to completey anhilate a civilization. One person can change anything. The bottom line is what? We coexist and have one belief? What is that one belief? Right from wrong?! Can it be that simple, it could be. But as a huge complex world, complex societies, complex minds, and on and on. If every individual took this approach where would we be? Where can we go? Can we coexist as a world? Can we stop all the wrong. Al it takes is one individual to change it all and do one wrong thing and it will chnagethe world forever. We as human mostly want what is right and do what we may believe is right based on upbringings and surroundings. Influence surrounds us from the day of conception and that cannot be changed even if two people went out in to the wilderness and started living. They bring with them modern influences in their minds. The new human is still influenced not nearly as heavily but still influenced.

    I ask this question in all my humbleness and ignorance. Where did the decline of human nature start? Of course we will never evert back on our own the planet will do it fo us no matter what your belief is. We living today will never see it and never know.

    I apologize if I offend anyone as this is not my intentions at all. simply my thoughs expressed as I feel most all are doing on here. This is simply helping me hopefully find my way one day, my place in the existence that I am looking to live in. Whether I stay working for a corporation that I really don’t agree with or society that has become so over complexed unintentionally and yet somewhat intentionally of just a few to manipulate our existence into what they want what they lust for, what their greed eludes them to. Most all have good or even great intentions but no one has the true foresight of where we are headed and we all struggle day to day in pondering life as we know it, as we want to know it or as we want it to be. Simple would we awesome! primitive would be fantastic! Complexitiy should be left for nature as it is more complex than anything we will ever do, invent, or destroy. Complexity in nature is more than we can ever comprehend and yet it works so elagantly unlike the civilizations we create. There is one and only one perpetual machine and it will always be here and that is not even our planet but it is the universe. We invent many things that are so profound and interesting to us as humans and as easily intrigued at least I am.

    My rant is over for now and hoep that it makes sense to someone and if it doesn’t I feel better as I leave the coffee shop I am sitting in!