Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex (A falsehood) II

In the first part of this discussion, I reminded you that we are talking about "falsehoods." "Falsehood" is a term I and others have co-opted and have used for well over a decade in courses across the land on evolutionary biology and related topics. The idea is to identify a statement that, when uttered in some particular demographic or sociocultural context, invokes a relatively consistent set of meanings in the minds of those present, such that those meanings are at least iffy, probably wrong, and often (but certainly not always) offensive and destructive in some way. Such a construct ... this falsehood thingie ... can then be de-constructed in a way that becomes an enlightening learning experience.

To say "Things come in threes," is not to say that "things" (whatever "things" are) come packaged inside the number three. Rather, it is to say that events, usually untoward events, occur in sequences that are not two, not four, but rather, three events long. So even though the sophist could argue that this statement is about wrapping hockey pucks in the letter three, it is actually about a belief that there is a cosmic linkage between misfortunes so that when two of them happen, there is a period of time over which a third is very very likely to happen, but then when the third happens, there will be no more misfortune for while. That's a falsehood.

The falsehood "Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex" invokes a sense of undeserved privilege in those who feel they are part of a civilization. This sense of privilege has a number of negative side effects. Since the civilized privilege dude is usually white middle or upper class heteronormative suburbanite, everybody else gets to be at least a little primitive, and part of the falsehood is that "primitive" is a certain applicable label that has certain connotations. The people in the city, the people of some other religion, the people of some other country, the people of some other complexion -- all the people that are feared --- can be put in their place. This sense of privilege allows the modernized westerner to feel not too bad about the fact that many things he does have a negative consequence for people elsewhere in the world. Wars in the Congo support his use of a cell phone, and so on. Most commonly, though, he attains a sense of "betterness" or accomplishment. He is a smart, civilized guy and his very living in this civilized society makes him better, and generally, very impressive.

This sense of privilege and betterness comes out more clearly when it is suggested that people in "civilizations" are not better than other people, and it comes out with a special sharpness ... like when you crush the fresh basil instead of the dried basil, lots of extra insect poison floating around in the air ... when it is further suggested that people in "primitive" societies may be in some ways better than those in civilized societies.

An excellent example of this can be seen in the comments on Part I of this post where one commenter is making the claim that he, as a civilized person, has a capacity for abstract thought that exceed that of people living in "primitive" hunter-gatherer societies. What is especially important about that claim, to me, is not that the commenter is blindingly ignorant. That's true, and I'm sure its important to him though he doesn't know it, but more important is that anyone would go ahead and make statements that deeply denigrate entire groups of people on the basis of utter ignorance. It isn't just that he's wrong. It's that he has no basis whatsoever for what he is saying other than received knowledge and gut feeling flavored with the sense of privilege he got from being a middle or upper class European and/or American type white male. The sense of privilege allows him to simply think something (abstractly, I assume) and then somehow know that it is true. That is not a basis for explaining how an entire group of people (many groups, actually) are mentally inferior. Apparently, he was not listening in grade school and high school to some of the more important higher abstract thoughts that are taught, say, in geography class.

So, now the second part of the concept. Let's return to the question of how to get a meal on the table. (See my earlier post to learn why from this point on we are going to restrict our terminology to "western" vs. "Hunter-Gatherer" (HG for short))

As many of you wisely pointed out in the comments, there actually is complexity behind the process of putting the pre-made frozen dinner in the microwave. Need I describe it? The steps to get the microwave to the kitchen counter involve development, maintenance, and operation of research programs, manufacturing facilities, and transportation facilities that exceed in complexity anything that ever happened before in history. Same with the Lean Cuisine dinner. Not to mention the house the focal person (the eater of the dinner) is in, or the lazy-boy lounge chair he will recline in, or the TV he will switch on and the show on that TV he will watch before dozing off to sleep with a bit of pasta from his Cheese Lasagna with Chicken Breast Scaloppini dangling from his chin.

To survive as a Hunter-Gatherer you need to participate in, understand, be good at, and contribute to a rich and complex culture that is personally challenging on a daily basis. It is hard, but rewarding, and there is time for leisure. But the society you live in may be quite simple. The culture is complex, the society is simple.

To survive as a Westerner, you can get away with participating in a culture that requires of you, teaches you, or asks of you little more than understanding what the "one minute" button on the microwave is (people don't even set the time any more .... they just press the "one minute" button the approximate number of times needed to make the mac and cheese hot) and you need to know, or at least want to know even if you don't need to know, where the TV clicker is. You may also need a job but it may be a job that is not much more complex than operating at TV clicker. The culture is potentially astonishingly simple, the society is mind numbingly complex.

... to be continued continued ....

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


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Could you actually define "culture" and "society"? Your entire argument is based on the difference after all.

It is a falsehood to think that a primitive society implies the members are primitive (or a complex society has complex members). But it is equally a falsehood to think that highly competent individuals and rich traditions implies social or cultural complexity.

How about a much shorter version. Civilization is a property of how society is structured and says very little (if anything) about the individuals. Also, civilized vs primitive cluture is more of a continuum than a dichotomy.

I think what you are railing against is more like the Roman (or Chinese) version of 'barbarian'... ie. not like us = inferior. Civilized vs primitive certainly gets used like that, but it is a connotation so far from the actual meaning of the words it isn't so much a falsehood as just plain wrong.

Modern 'civilizations' do have much more cultural information (in the cultural evolution sense) than HG societies. HG societies have inferior (as in lower channel capacity) cultural inheritance mechanisms and just cannot maintain as much complexity. (All those books and more recently databases and webpages do count for something.)

Effective group size (accounting for connections/trade between groups) also limits the specialization possible in HG societies. A lot of the rules/norms which go along with 'being civilized' expand the effective group size by facilitating cooperation between disparate parties. Of course, communication and transportation technologies plays a big role too.

PS: The line about a witch doctor/shaman knowing as much as a medical doctor has a big flaw. Even stipulating the quantity, a lot of what a witch doctor/shaman knows is objectively false and not really useful.


Fair enough. I openly concede my ignorance, but I hope you at least also understand that I read your blog fairly regularly because I find what you have to say interesting and hope to learn. So I am enjoying this discussion thoroughly even though it is exposing some ugly ethnocentrism on my part.

I will make a response to your latest reply later today, time permitting, as I'm doing an experiment in a few moments (turns out I'm a biologist grad student, not a mathematician). I've chosen my words rather poorly so far, and you've done a good job on calling me out on it. I think there is some validity to some of what I've been trying to say, so I'll see if I can't sharpen my own thoughts and my writing.

Fair enough. I openly concede my ignorance

Good. And, to be very fair, we all share the basic post-HG ignorance. You just were not admitting it yet.

a biologist grad student

Well, you are obviously avoiding work on your thesis! Looking forward to both the thesis and the additional comments.

We are all of us blindingly ignorant. The most blindingly ignorant are those convinced they're not, because they are not only (like the rest of us) unaware of almost everything, they're wrong about the most important bits.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

"You may also need a job but it may be a job that is not much more complex than operating at TV clicker."

I think that this line gets to a basic unfairness in your comparison. In a hunting-gathering society, one's job - that is, what one has to do to obtain the necessities of life - is hunting and/or gathering, and individuals in that society are trained almost from birth to do that job. In a western society (because those orientals don't have industrialized societies, electricity, grocery stores, amirite?) there's one additional step: instead of job = food, it's job = money = food, and total complexity, on an individual level, has to take into account work, participation in a market economy, and then food gathering/prep. Take a college professor and tell him to go and forage in the wilderness, and unless he's had a great deal of experience in applied botany, he's screwed - but take a HG and tell him to teach a physics class and he's equally screwed. The analogy doesn't work unless you compare productive labor to productive labor.

I won't even get into the sheer, arrogant classism that causes you to dismiss "a job" as "not much more complex than operating a TV clicker" - what sort of jobs were you thinking of, Professor? Manufacturing and factory work? Agricultural labor? Plumbing? The sort of jobs your presumed intellectual inferiors manage to do, and so must be so simple monkeys could do them?

... not to mention the assumption that westerners don't actually cook, or hunt, or garden, or fish, or farm, in addition to everything else they do...

Also, this:

"[Living as a HG] is hard, but rewarding,"

is sheer, romanticized, noble-savage bullcrap, but that argument is going on in the previous thread :)

[fake edit: I don't actually disagree with your overall thesis, but in arguing against that falsehood, you go way too far in the opposite direction]

By mad the swine (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

In a western society (because those orientals don't have industrialized societies, electricity, grocery stores, amirite?)

Ironic that you use the word "oriental" in this context. Shame on you!

[fake edit: I don't actually disagree with your overall thesis, but in arguing against that falsehood, you go way too far in the opposite direction]

In real life, where these falsehoods are actualy used (in a classroom setting, mainly) they have to be calibrated. One does not just blurt them out. A blog post is a blurted out falsehood.

I will, however, classify you as someone who's nerve was touched.

Classify ME anyway you'd like but I tend to agree with mad the swine's comment. And I couldn't locate that article you recommended via web of science or google scholar, and I have my doubts about the whole brain size claim. I guess since I don't have time to spend hours researching, I'll never be able to argue with you, but it would be helpful to have some actual links to back up your claims, for your non-anthro readers...

I'll put up a post about the brain size thing tomorrow. I can't link to articles behind paid firewalls. Starting soon, I will only blog in relation to Open Access material for new stuff. We all have to start demanding Open Access.

Isabel -

Not the one that Greg reccommended, but...

There are more...It should be noted, however, that this fact is pretty common knowledge. Possibly not so much in the general population, but it was something I was aware of and have been for years. But then, I do have an especial interest in evolution of the brain...

Doesn't the use of "complex society" usually denote a complexity of the society as whole, with a great deal of differentatation in individual roles etc. etc. and NOT a greater complexity of those individual roles themselves.

In fact, isn't the point of that differentation the simplification of individual roles in modern society and a hoped for increase of productivity within those roles?

Oran: Go to part two of the post.

I don't know about a "hoped for increase" in anytying .. that's too systematic and planned sounding for my tastes. If society was planned at that level the planners would surely have been drawn and quartered by now.

Doesn't the use of "complex society" usually denote a complexity of the society as whole, with a great deal of differentatation in individual roles etc. etc. and NOT a greater complexity of those individual roles themselves.

Why would it?

In fact, isn't the point of that differentation the simplification of individual roles in modern society and a hoped for increase of productivity within those roles?

Who's point exactly? Modern society is almost entirely organic.

DuWayne, both of those articles are primary literature about neandethals, not current human HGs. I thought the claim was about HGs in the bush today and westerners today, otherwise the claim seems rather irrelevant.

Though even proper demonstration of that claim (which I do not doubt) is rather weak support for the statement that HGs are smarter than westerners.

Hmm - I missed something in translation and thought we were talking about both. Sorry, my bad...I honestly haven't been paying that close attention. This is what comes of multitasking - working homework for four classes and popping about here and there...

Yes, thanks for the link, but I assumed we were talking about our own species, past and current. Greg said that even HG today have bigger brains. I was aware Neanderthals had bigger brains, but find the other claims surprising.

I also wonder why we have to counter the claim of HG's being less complex with the claim that it's 'civilized' humans that are less complex. If Greg thinks people are mindlessly pushing buttons he needs to read (or reread) Stud Terkel's "Working" - it's like a class issue where the lower classes are seen as leading 'simple lives'

I didn't say that "civilized" people are less complex.

What I said is that complexity is differentially distributed beteen the cultural and social realms in different systems. I used "Western" and "HG" as two points, possibly the most extreme points, on a spectrum.

But how would you even go about comparing the complexity of the social interactions (if we're even trying to go with apples-for-apples)?

If HGs have "a rich and complex culture that is personally challenging on a daily basis" then non-HGs have the same thing in terms of different scenarios (workplace politics, family relations, going to parties/plays/public toilets etc).

Won't a real comparison just devolve into a shoppinglisting of the different challenges in each (HG/non-HG) culture?

Also I think what's being compared is the challenging aspects of the HG skillset (hunting) with the least challenging options in non-HG life (menial work that involves the click of a button).

By hunting I meant to include fishing and anything involves interaction with moving animals, not to exclude the electric eel gathering from post 1. But yes, maybe the omission of gathering did reveal a bias I have against it.

Isabel: Our friendly neighborhood blogger is neither reference librarian nor gofer. (Although he might technically be a Gopher.)

I'm with Michael - there's a serious case of apples/oranges going on.
If you want to compare
"unwrapping frozen prepared meal, microwaving it, sitting down and eating it in front of the TV"
you might try
"reaching up, picking fruit, remove peel then sit on rock eating it while you watch the sun setting".

The complexity comes into the full range of social interactions and other activities engaged in by the individuals.
Paying tax. Voting. Taking your neighbour to court because of their incessantly-barking dog. Finding and subscribing to the best cellphone deal. Hiking up a trackless coastal wilderness and catching and eating fish and abalone(yum) on the way.

I dunno Greg...I know what you're saying about all the people who simply coast through life, but they don't explain civilisation as we know it. *That* exists thanks to some pretty awesome organising by a lot of very active and intelligent people.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

"Isabel: Our friendly neighborhood blogger is neither reference librarian nor gofer. (Although he might technically be a Gopher.)"

And you appear to have way too much time on your hands. Be a good girl and find those references for us. Or maybe just mind your own fucking business?

And it is NOT common knowledge that extant HGs have larger brains,sorry. It was perfectly acceptable to ask for a reference.

Blog cops need to get a life!

I think I learned more about the kind of societies Greg described from reading his Africa posts than anyplace else, really, and yes, I took a butt load of Anthro courses back in school; the one where he chases a truck full of drunk soldiers on a river raft sticks in my brain and makes me laugh every time I think of it. More to the point is the way Greg interacts with the people of the story, particularly the points where he asserts indignation are illuminating to someone who wants to more fully understand the richness of those cultures.

Still. The only culture that I know to be complex is my own, and I don't think this piece adequately makes the case for explaining why getting dinner on the table is more complex in Africa than here in Naples.

I wanna believe, Greg. Come on. Give us more.

Still. The only culture that I know to be complex is my own, and I don't think this piece adequately makes the case for explaining why getting dinner on the table is more complex in Africa than here in Naples.

It isn't and it dosn't. I think I need to add couple of paragraphs to the end of part II. Which I will do after coffee and some morning chores. Including taking out the garbage which will be like the fourth time for me in as many years. I'm not sure if I can do it. It's a little complex.... (you think I'm joking but I'm not)

Couple of things: what I meant to say was what you are calling social complexity is what the terms you are dealing with here are SUPPOSED to involve, not issues of individual superiority/inferiority.

On the cultural level, I'm not at all sure that modern culture is impoverished to correspond to the increasing structural complexity of society. I don't think there's an equilibrium between the two categories--as culture becomes disengaged from "system," as it does, the "lifeworld" develops all kinds of other concerns--ranging from systematic philosophy to book collecting to Dancing with the Stars. Perhaps this is less rich than "primitive" cultures, but I don't think the difference is as radical as between the HG society and modern society.

Lastly, I don't think that modern society just grows up inevitably and unconsciously--there are periodic opt-ins that are necessary where people, more or less, have to decide to cede something else to the system--like today we debate more centralized medicine. And generally the lead argument in favor of opt-in is the increase in efficiency and living standards.

I don't know that there is a kind of "conservation of complexity" thing going on (see the THIRD post in this series, coming up any minute now). But sometimes it almost seems that there is. In any event, the minimum requirement (and resulting comlexity) for survival is different in distinctly different examples of this system.

As for the opt-in, I remain unconvinced, but you could convince me with a few examples, maybe.

Obvious examples of opt-in abound in command economies, of course, but that's cheating.

How about the rise of free public education, the curtailment of child labor and rise of a new kind of "childhood" over the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

Oran, I can certainly think of "things" that are part of society and list the. How are these "opt ins" (and what exactly do you mean by "opt in"?

I have no idea what a "command economy" is. Is it like a "command line"?

Command economy is like China: where a very small group of people can opt for huge social changes, like the wholesale industrialization of China.

By opt in I mean the people of a society make a more-or-less conscious decision to make such a change. The reason I cal lit opt in is because it involves moving an area of life that was managed informally via custom (like childhood education largely was) to something that is administered through a system--like the government, or some similar kind of institution.

Through many of these opt-ins--in favor of a large public highway system, a national currency, banking regulation, a uniform criminal code, etc., etc--over a long period of time, the institutional framework that allows society as we know it today, with all its differentiation and specialization--is created.

So I can largely ignore what goes into food provision and get on with my writing because I can feel assured that someone else is taking care of most of the food provision business.

The individual motives of those people "taking care of it" is profit, but profit did not drive every step of the creation of the framework--at some point crucial parts of the framework had to be opted for. That is, a "developed economy" is not just an inevitable outgrowth of the profit motive--it has to be opted for.

There is some validity to the claim about abstract thought as long as the claim is phrased carefully enough (especially the phrase "abstract thought"). Growing up in a Western civilization prepares one for a different type of thinking in general. An individual growing up in the West will have an easier time doing math. That's because they've been thinking about that class of abstract thoughts since a much younger age. The hunter-gatherer likely has a much better understanding of macroscopic biology than our random Westerner. That's because that individual has grown up having to think about it. The real problem is not this sort of claim so much as a) making this sort of claim extremely general rather than specific and b) assigning some sort of deep moral or philosophical conclusion as a result of this sort of claim.

The individual motives of those people "taking care of it" is profit, but profit did not drive every step of the creation of the framework--at some point crucial parts of the framework had to be opted for

It is not all profit. It is also power, other things, including coercion. The opting is what happens in theory when some people are trying to convince other people to go along with them (because it is the right thing to do) and it is what happens later as part of the post hoc self serving description of what happens.

In between, whan actually opting in would be actually happening, my assumption is that it is not really happening most of the time . Probably some times.

The term "primitive" is fine, if it describes something genuinely less derived and you can demonstrate that. The main problem is ascribing the idea of "primitivity" all this extra weight and moral judgement (as people generally do), which is, unfortunely a result of all this stupid "Progressivism" that equates progress and being less derived with the good. (Progressivism is seriously the dumbest ideology ever. Progress can be good or bad. Get. It. Through. Your. Fucking. Heads. That. You. Can't. Just. Waffle. About. Change. And. Expect. To. Be. Respected.) Another problem is that ascribing any particular feature weight is particularly hard to do, while treating all features as of equal weight just encourages "lumperism" and "splitterism", so people will just game the "primitive" versus "modern" divide to suit their own society, depending on which they are lionizing.

As to the specific thrust of your argument:

First of, it's interesting that you're still conflating complexity with good and that the complex life is better and that complex people are better. This is very ideological. Simpler can be better. Complex does not mean interesting or valuable. Is it good to go through some pointless though complex process to achieve an equivalent end? Especially when it does not appear to endow you with any other valuable of interesting qualities? Can you lionize this because it satisfies your arrogant notion of how human beings should be? Division of labour may be smart, rather than dumb. Your response is very normative to a macho Western rugged Individualist ideology (which is ultimately built off ideas of noble savages and such).

You're also remarkably ungracious and disdainful to people who just push buttons and do other repetitive labour, even though they undoubtably make contributions that you are unable to quantify to letting you live your life as you do. You're also simultaneously being hugely disdainful of the efforts of the people who let others live who might not be able to under a HG economy. It's good to know that you value cruelty and callousness so much. Your seem to subscribe to a typical ideology that dehumanises the unskilled laborours of Capitalism. Your arrogance and Privilege is showing Greg! You could've used yourself as an example, but then, that would require genuine humility (as opposed than "Duh! I can't perform socially low ranked manual labor such as taking the trash out. lol@myself.") and would make simultaneously make apparent the fundamental disingenuousness of your argument.

You're also an idiot for suggesting a simple model describing Western and Hunter Gatherer (all grouped together) societies as opposed points on a linear correlation (which you know is how the morons who read your blog will read this). They aren't.

You're also making a straw man. Do hunter-gatherers seriously not simplify societies they aren't part of? Do they not simplify the behaviour of people who aren't part of their society? Are humans not often chauvinistic and uncaring about foreign societies? I assume your response will be that it's okay to racially abuse one and caricature iit and not the other because one has "POWER!" and that abuse is a good way to "Speak truth to power!" and all the other creepy and socially retarded muscular liberalism bullshit that justifies them to behave like sadistic little bullies with social sanction.


I think it's appropriate to avoid having a normative value judgement here. In some ways it's good that Australian Aborgines for example, wander around, farting down tubes and learning much more than we would ever generally need know about and collecting bits of plants and animals they find. That's an interesting, original way to be human. In other ways it's good that people in civilizations do the variety of things that they do.

Ultimately, it's more true to say that agricultural societies are more diverse, and that we do indeed have people in them who effectively approach the level of fairly simplified machines who only perform a very narrow subset of the tasks humans have generally evolved to do well. We also have people who greatly exceed HGs on terms which overlap very strongly with their own.

Feh = point + missed X miles

i think he is right. the ethical implications of a 'civilisation' are thus they require blind adoption of the existing hierarchic pattern. that is very close to a total simplification. for lack of anything better to do, the more 'simple' society does not appear to cope with such subjective appreciation of reality.

Your sarcastic, patronizing writing style is getting in the way of me enjoying an interesting article.

By Nathan baldwin (not verified) on 16 Mar 2012 #permalink

I could be watching mash reruns but I'm searching anthropology articles on a science website, because I have an intuitive respect for all cultures. But I continually feel insulted by the presumptions you are making about others lives. How could you possibly feel qualified to comment on the complexity of a factory worker's life when you have never met them? You may believe it, and may be right, but do you realize you are putting off this unpleasant vibe that you are in some measurable, real way, better than others? It doesn't make for a rewarding read.

By Nathan baldwin (not verified) on 16 Mar 2012 #permalink