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The False Allure of a “Natural State” of Man

The heated debate about Sapiens’ “natural way of life” is missing the point.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens.

— Yuval Noah Harari

A Natural State of Curiosity 

We modern humans have a fascination with trying to figure out our “natural” state. What do we eat — “naturally”? What sort of world are we “meant” to live in? What sort of family dynamic are we “meant” to have? Are we supposed to have sex with only the opposite gender, or is it perfectly “natural” to prefer your own? How much violence is natural and acceptable?

(The line of reasoning is a bit strange once we dig into it. Are modern humans not part of the natural world? Isn’t anything we do basically “natural”? At what point did we divert from “natural” to “unnatural”? We digress…)

One of the central conceits of the “man’s natural state” argument is that if we go back to some point in time, we’ll find it. We’ll finally come across the state of being where man lived totally in harmony with each other and with nature; eating the perfect diet for health, worshipping the correct gods, having sex in the natural and acceptable way. And besides studying religious texts, the tool that’s most frequently employed is the study of ancient, “pre-historic” man and woman. We hope that, by going back far enough, we’ll hit some arbitrary Point of Naturalness. That’s partially the approach used, for example, by the Paleo movement which has become such a popular force in nutrition. We evolved to eat bacon, right?

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What Is Natural?

These types of “meant to be” questions presuppose that we existed in some homogenous state in the past, and that we should be striving to get back to that place; that nature has given us a sort of natural endowment that we are best to stick to. Not so, says Yuval Harari.

The value of a book like Harari’s Sapiens, with its broad sweep of human history, is that we learn that ever since our Cognitive Revolution, the point that what we call history diverges from what we call biology, human society has been consistently molded and remolded; changed to suit the temper of the moment. That’s what makes humanity so unique relative to other intelligent creatures. Culturally, we change rapidly and unpredictably. There are very few absolutes, there are very few arrangements we haven’t tried yet. What’s “natural” depends on which society you’re looking at and at which point in time you’re looking at it.

From Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient hunter-gatherers was equally impressive [as those found in Australia by European settlers], and that the 5 million to 8 million foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of different languages and cultures. This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the Cognitive Revolution. Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological conditions were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifest themselves in different norms and values.

For example, there’s every reason to believe that a forager band that lived 30,000 years ago on the spot where Oxford University stands would have spoken a different language from one living where Cambridge is now situated. One band might have been belligerent and the other peaceful. Perhaps the Cambridge band was communal while the one at Oxford was based on nuclear families. The Cambridgians might have spent long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits whereas the Oxonians may have worshipped through dance. The former perhaps believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense. In one society, homosexual relationships might have been accepted, while in the other they were taboo.

In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and much of it is hidden from our view. The heated debates about Homo Sapiens’ “natural way of life” miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of [biological] possibilities.

Take the debate between monogamy and polygamy. Both have certainly been tried before and exist in some form in modern society, with each achieving various levels of success. It’s likely that most modern humans consider monogamy the most “natural” arrangement since it’s the most popular one, but we see the evidence of its failure all the time. Divorces are as common as death-do-us-part marriages, at least in most of Western civilization. We have a host of psychological problems tied to the constant trials of a long term one-to-one relationship. The proponents of polygamy would point to the failures of marriage as being due to the biological prison of monogamy, the unnaturalness of it all.

Wait, no no, say the monogamists. Our biology points the other way: We are meant to live in a tight-knit nuclear family with one spouse. This encourages caring and survival, and strong, unavoidable emotions like jealousy give us evidence that it’s probably right there in our genes. The prevalence of monogamy in modern society must be some evidence that it’s the real contender.

Who’s right? The truth is we don’t really know, and a study of the past is not as revealing as you might think. The Monogamy v. Polygamy debate also points to an even greater problem with our understanding of man in the period before he started writing things down, which is that our knowledge is dwarfed by our lack of knowledge.

Searching for Keys in the Light

Compared to the many things we do know about our past, there are many times more things we don’t know, and in fact can’t know. Our historical methods have deep limitations:

Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager ancestors. The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and the ‘eternal monogamy’ schools is based on flimsy evidence. We obviously have no written records from the age of foragers, and the archaeological evidence consists mainly of fossilized bones and stone tools. Artifacts made of more perishable materials — such as wood, bamboo, or leather — survive only under unique conditions. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.

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Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs. There were no moving companies, wagons, or even pack animals to share the burden. They consequently had to make do with only the most essential possessions. It’s reasonable to presume, then, that the greater part of their mental, religious and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artifacts. An archaeologist working 100,000 years from now could piece together a reasonable picture of Muslim belief and practice from the myriad objects he unearthed in a ruined mosque. But we are largely at a loss in trying to comprehend the beliefs and rituals of ancient hunter-gatherers. It’s much the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the social world of twenty-first century teenagers solely on the basis of their surviving snail mail — since no records will remain of their phone conversations, emails, blogs and text messages.

This archaeological bias, as Harari terms it, calls to mind the drunk looking under the streetlight for his keys because “That’s where the light is!” We study what is most study-able. The problem is that this bias leaves behind a whole bunch of interesting questions, a whole lot of interesting stuff that probably occurred.

Take the difference between understanding the diet of the ancient person and understanding how they actually felt about their food, and what that said about who they were:

The basics of the forager economy can be reconstructed with some confidence based on quantifiable and objective factors. For example, we can calculate how many calories per day a person needs in order to survive, how many calories were obtained from a pound of walnuts, and how many walnuts could be gathered from a square mile of forest. With this data, we can make an educated guess about the relative importance of walnuts in their diet.

But did they consider walnuts a delicacy or a humdrum staple? Did they believe that walnut trees were inhabited by spirits? Did they find walnut leaves pretty? If a forager boy wanted to take a forager girl to a romantic spot, did the share of a walnut tree suffice? [Ed: Did the concept of romance mean anything to them?]

That’s the thing: We don’t even really know how they felt about these things. They didn’t leave us any memoirs.

An Animated View of Religion

Some of the more interesting sets of questions surround religion. One thing we can reliably suppose is that man has been in an essentially constant state of religious belief.

Most scholars suppose that most ancient humans were animists, believing that all things contained a life-force, be it a rock, a tree, a squirrel, or a human. In addition, there were spirits, fairies, angels, and other mystical creatures that play a role in the world. Human beings, in this worldview, are just part of a larger system; there are no Gods puppeteering our outcomes or watching us with a particularly close eye. We’re not the center of the universe.

But even if we can reliably suppose that most forager humans were animists, and it’s up for debate how reliable that is, there were very likely to be hundreds or thousands of varieties within that framework. It’s really the same as the “theistic” view of the world, which has been shared by billions of modern humans in widely varying forms:

The generic rubric ‘theists’ covers Jewish rabbis from eighteenth-century Poland, witch-burning Puritans from seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Aztec priests from fifteenth-century Mexico, Sufi mystics from twelfth-century Iran, tenth-century Viking warriors, second-century Roman legionnaires, and first-century Chinese bureaucrats. Each of these view others’ beliefs and practices as weird and heretical. The differences between the beliefs of groups of ‘animistic’ foragers were probably just as big. Their religious experience may have been turbulent and filled with controversies, reforms, and revolutions.

[…]

We assume they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understand of human history.

The Original Conquistadors

Conquest is another fascinating aspect of history. It’s comparatively easy for us to study Columbus and Pizarro and understand why they sought to explore new worlds, and why their wealthy backers supported the cause. Much of it is recorded and has been analyzed, summarized, and synthesized for our modern study.

But what of the conquests of the vastly longer period of pre-recorded history, what of them? We know they happened: The fossil record tells us that we started out as a species in the African/Asian landmass, bounded by the sea, and clearly, we broke free. Our technology was likely to have been barely up to the task, but we went ahead anyway.

Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired technology, the organizational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of Afro-Asia and settled the Outer World. Their first achievement was the colonization of Australia some 45,000 years ago. Experts are hard-pressed to explain this feat. In order to reach Australia, humans had to cross a number of sea channels, some more than 60 miles wide , and upon arrival they had to adapt nearly overnight to a completely new ecosystem.

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The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system — indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia.

Imagine what it must have been like arriving in Australia, with the entirety of human history having taken place on another continent with different animals, weather, plants, and geology. It makes the Moon landing seem kinda tame by comparison.

The Curtain of Silence

But the even more salient question is why? What would have motivated a band, or many bands of ancient human foragers to take a risky journey across the sea to new land? Were they trying to escape persecution? Were they curious conquerers? Were they trying to prove something? Were they guided by spirits? At current, we can’t know those answers, and thus our understanding of deep history has limits.

Harari calls this The Curtain of Silence.

This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces. The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes; and charismatic prophets who revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a creator god. But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred — let alone describe them in detail.

In the end, though, our guesses make the study of history a fascinating adventure.

Still Interested? Read our previous post on Sapiens, the book itself, or read about some of the biological lessons of history.