Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live, by Marlene Zuk, Norton, 304 pages, $27.95
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, by Jared Diamond, Viking, 499 pages, $36
Modern anthropological research may be settling the great debate between the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Was the state of nature a “war of every man against every man” in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes wrote? Or did “savages” live in utopian bliss, thanks to “the tranquility of their passions and their ignorance of vice,” as Rousseau believed?
Two new books, Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, examine the data on how hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers have eaten, loved, socialized, fought, reared children, and lived. Both side mostly with Hobbes.
Yet the books offer a radically split decision on what lessons we can draw from Hobbes’ triumph. Zuk, a biologist at the University of California–Riverside, aims at destroying contemporary myths, or as she calls them “paleofantasies,” about our Stone Age ancestors. She rejects the idea that there was “a time when everything about us—body, mind, and behavior—was in sync with the environment.” For Zuk, anthropological knowledge mainly raises questions about how we moderns should live, without providing much in the way of answers.
Diamond, a geographer at the University of California–Los Angeles, is more prone to prescription. He blends his personal experience of living and working for decades among contemporary subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers in New Guinea with extensive anthropological and ethnographic data from around the world to draw conclusions about how we moderns ought to function.
Both Zuk and Diamond are unconvinced by Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage. In his 1754 Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, the Frenchman claimed that “more murders were committed in a single day of fighting and more horrors in the capture of a single town than had been committed in the state of nature during entire centuries over the whole face of the earth.” But archaeological and modern ethnographic data show that small-scale stateless societies—which were once called “savage” or “primitive”—are far more violent than are modern state societies. To the extent that they are a good proxy for Rousseau’s state of nature, they reveal Rousseau to be wrong.
Zuk cites archaeological and ethnographic work finding that 14 percent of deaths in ancient and contemporary pre-state societies resulted from human violence. Diamond notes that while the level of violence varies among traditional societies, it “usually ranks as either the leading cause or (after illness) the second-leading cause of death.”
These arguments jibe with the data reported by the Harvard neuropsychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking). After examining evidence from 20 sets of archaeological data from all over the world ranging from 14,000 to 700 years old, Pinker reported that societies were very dangerous, with the percentage of human deaths attributed to violence ranging from 60 to 15 percent. Similarly, data from 27 stateless societies studied by modern ethnographers found war deaths averaged 500 per 100,000 people, whereas all deaths from wars, genocides, and man-made famines in modern societies in the 20th century amount to a mere 60 to per 100,000.
“It may astonish you readers, as it initially astonished me,” Diamond writes, “to learn that trench warfare, machine guns, napalm, atomic bombs, artillery, and submarine torpedoes produce time-averaged war-related death tolls so much lower than those from spears, arrows, and clubs.” So how can this be? Because “state warfare is an intermittent exceptional condition, while tribal warfare is virtually continuous.”
Activists on behalf of tribal societies, such as Stephen Corry of Survival International, have pushed back against Diamond, arguing that the researchers he relied upon have jiggered the statistics on violence in ways that flatter moderns. Researchers will continue disagreeing about the extent of violence in traditional societies, but Diamond is correct when he observes, “If scholars have been denying traditional warfare’s reality for laudable political reasons, the discovery of the facts will undermine the laudable political goals.”
He adds, “The rights of indigenous people should be asserted on moral grounds, not by making untrue claims susceptible to refutation.” Meanwhile the balance of the evidence suggests that Hobbes was far more right than wrong when he asserted that life in pre-state societies boils down to “war of every man against every man.”
One of the chief paleofantasies that Zuk takes on is the view that modern humans are little more than “cavemen in condos,” which is her way of characterizing the claim that we’re stuck with the same set of genes as the people who walked out of Africa 60,000 to 40,000 years ago.
In this fantasy, our paleolithic ancestors were perfectly adapted to their environment and we are the ones who are out of place. The agricultural and industrial revolutions, this theory suggests, have created novel environments to which our bodies, brains, and behaviors are maladapted, resulting in increased disease, disorder, and discontent. Relying on recent findings in genetic science, Zuk shows that people, like all other creatures, are constantly evolving and adapting to whatever environments they find themselves in.
For example, Zuk takes on the current paleo-diet fad, in which proponents argue that because our hunter-gatherer ancestors supposedly ate a lot more meat and a lot less starch than we do, we should do likewise. If it was good enough for great-granddaddy Og, it must be good for us. Zuk points out that the diets of various groups of ancient peoples and modern hunter-gatherers vary quite considerably with regard to the relative proportions of how much protein and starches they consumed. In fact, natural selection has inscribed that dietary disparity among groups in our very genomes.
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