(This will be a rather long and philisophical post, so I will provide some music to listen while reading: Same Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come.)
Recently I read the literary classic, George Orwell’s ‘1984’, and I must say I was very much impressed! What a read, and that for a book that was written in the late forties. One quote that seemed of relevance to this blog is the following:
“How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before the Revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different.” (p 84)
This made me think about something a lot a people experience: a feeling that the life you live is not entirely the one you’d like to live. Like Winston Smith, the main character in ’1984′, you feel like something is missing, something is wrong, that some things are superfluous. Somehow, you instinctively know that in some ways life used to be better, could be better, and should be better.
Many people are looking for a better life, in a myriad of different ways. Some try to work harder, find a better job, earn more and try buying a better life. Some look and search for meaning in ancient spiritual traditions. Some even find solace in religious cults. But you don’t have to get esoteric and exotic: this search for a better life (in this life or the next) is what all major religions are about.
(And if these thoughts and feelings have never occurred to you, you at least must have noticed that the western way of life has some serious negative side effects: high incidence of diseases of civilisation, depression, suicide (to name just a few) and devastating ecological destruction. You can hardly assert that our ‘advanced’ lifestyle is the healthiest, for ourselves and for the planet.)
This is in stark contrast to all that I’ve read about hunter-gatherers. I’ve never encountered that desire for a different life, that longing for a better world, in hunter-gatherer societies. Life is what it is, what it always was, and what it always should be. Part of the responsibility is to live a life that makes it possible for the next generations to live a similar life. They consider their lives, although sometimes hard and difficult, to be good.
Since the recurrent theme on this blog is looking at humans from a biological, evolutionary perspective, this seems like an interesting thing to do for this subject. We are mostly adapted to live in a Pleistocene environment (our environment of evolutionary adaptedness or EEA), but we live in an industrial, digital age, and this creates a mismatch. So, how do hunter gatherers live differently from us?
In 1969, Australian human ecologist Stephen Boyden wrote a paper: “The impact of civilisation on human biology,” where I took this figure from:
“In the illustration (Fig. 1) a human organism is surrounded by a series of headings representing different aspects of his biology. The striking thing is that, no matter which of these aspects of human biology we examine, in every case we can describe changes brought about by the processes of culture. In fact, under some of the headings we can recognise not one but a whole series of different biological changes imposed on mankind by the processes of civilisation.”
You can already see that there is more that has changed besides diet and exercise. In 1973, the same Boyden wrote an article about evolution and health (yes, already in 1973!). I will use a long quote here:
Biological determinants of optimal health
We have already noted that, if the conditions of life of an individual deviate from those to which the species has become genetically adapted through evolution, signs of phylogenetic maladjustment (physiological or behavioural) are likely to arise. With this principle of phylogenetic maladjustment in mind, I have utilised our knowledge of the conditions of life of mankind in his evolutionary environment to draw up a tentative list of some of the biological determinants of health of the human organism.
Adequate food quantity – An appropriate intake of calories neither in excess of, nor much less than the requirements for basal metabolism, growth (in children), and physical work performed.
Adequate food quality – A well-balanced diet of a quality close to that of primeval mankind.
Clean air (note – the word “clean” in this list means “free of noxious agents and harmful products of technology”.)
Few pathogens – Minimal contact with pathogenic micro-organisms.
Noise levels in the natural range – not much above or much below the range experienced in the natural environment.
Minimal pollution – Minimal contact with noxious and chemical compounds.
No harmful drugs – Absence of accessible physiologically and psychologically harmful drugs.
A pleasing and meaningful visual environment – A visual environment which is interesting, which has aesthetic integrity, and in which a certain amount of change meaningful to the observer is taking place.
Goal-directed physical activities – Daily periods of physical exercise, at times vigorous, and with clear goal-direction.
Natural outlets for the sexual drive – Conditions which allow natural outlets for the sexual drive, and a reasonable balance between levels of sexual stimulation and sexual satisfaction.
Sleep and rest as needed – Opportunities to rest and sleep in response to the urge to do so (by night or day).
Opportunities for spontaneous conversation with relatives and friends on matters of mutual concern and interest.
Freedom to join and leave social groups – move at will from one social phase to another (i.e. from one small group to another or to and from a state of solitude).
Opportunities for friendship – Opportunities for companionship and close friendship with other members of the in-group.
Shared child care responsibilities – Opportunities for mothers to leave young children on occasion in the care of others.
Opportunities for optimal psychological health – Opportunities for frequent and unimpaired expressions of the universal behavioural tendencies of the species (e.g. tendency to seek approval, or esteem within the in-group, and to avoid ridicule, to compete with peers, to explore the unknown).
Opportunities for personal creative behaviour – Opportunities and incentives for personal creative behaviour preferably with clear goal-direction, involving especially the exercise of learned manual skills, or in story-telling, music making, etc.
Meaningful involvement in the day’s activities – A considerable degree of emotional involvement and a sense of immediate purpose in the main activities of the day.
Awareness of one’s roles in the social group – Conditions which result in full awareness of a role of oneself in the in-group or community.
Variety in daily experience and activity – A considerable degree of variety in daily experience and activity.
General opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfilment.
(Is Sam Cooke finished already? Here’s Keziah Jones’ song ‘Ancestors’)
Now let us look at another author who has written about this subject. Paul Shepard, an American environmentalist and known for ‘the Pleistocene paradigm’, wrote in his book ‘Coming home to the Pleistocene’ (p. 171):
Aspects of a Pleistocene paradigm:
Formal recognition of stages in the whole life cycle
The progressive dynamics of bonding and separation
Earth-crawling freedom by 18 months
Richly textures play space
No reading prior to “symbolic” age (about 12 years)
All-age access to butchering scenes
All-age access to birth, copulation, death scenes
Early access via speech to rich species taxonomy
Formal celebration of life-stage passages such as initiation
Rich animal-mimic play and other introjective processes
Parturition and neonate “soft” environment
Access to named places in connection with mythology
Extended family or dense social structure
Play as the internal prediction of the living world
Little storage, accumulation, or provision
Diversity of “work”
Handmade tools and other objects
Independent family subsistence plus customary sharing
Ecotypic economy – keyed to place
No landownership in the sense of “fee simple”
Little absolute territoriality
No fossil fuel use
No domestic plants or animals
Prestige based on demonstrated integrity
Little or no heritable rank
Size of genetic/marriage/linguistic group or tribe: 500-3000
Clan and other membership giving progressive identity with age
Limited exposure to strangers
Hospitality to outsiders,
Functional roles of aunts and uncles
Postreproductive advisory functions such grandparental roles
Size of fire-circle group: 10 adults (council of the whole)
Occasional larger congregations
Emphasis on mneumonics with its generational repository
Participant politics vs. representational or authoritarian
Vernacular gender and age functions
Totemic analogical thought of eco-predicated logos
Dynamic, emergent, and dispersed leadership
Intertribal tension-reduction rites (song duels, peacepipe)
Cosmologically rather than sociohierarchically focused ritual
Periodic mobility, no sedentism
Conceptual notion of spirit in all life, numinous otherness
Centrality of narrative, routine recall and story
Subordination of art to cosmology
Participatory rather than audience-focused music
Sensual science (“science of the concrete”) vs. intangible science
Celebration of social and cosmological function of meat eating
Religious regulation of the special effects of plant substances
Extensive foot travel
Only organic medicine
Regular dialogue on dream experience
The “game” approach – to love, not hate, the opponent
Attention to listening, to the sound environment as voice
Attention to kinship and the “presence” of ancestors
Attunement to the daily cycle and seasonality
No radical intervention on fetal genetic malformations
Immediate access to the wild, wilderness, solitude
Nonlinear time and space – no history, progress, or destiny
Sacramental (not sacrificial) trophism
Formal recognition of a gifted subsistence
Participation in hunting and gathering
Freedom – to come and go, to choose skills, to marry or not, etc.
Excuse me for the long lists, but the length of these lists illustrates just the point that I’m trying to make: our lifestyle differs from our biological normal lifestyle in a many ways!
You have probably heard about the diet and exercise differences, maybe even thought about the sun exposure, day-and-night cycles, and contact with and immersion in nature. But have you ever considered the differences in ‘houskeeping’ and the ‘periodic mobility’? Let alone have you thought about the ‘totemic analogical thought of eco-predicated logos’ and ‘sacramental trophism’?
Some of these points need a bit of explanation, for which you should read the book (you really should!). And of course you can argue about some, or even many of the points. But the fact remains that our western lifestyle deviates significantly from our ancestral one.
Maybe after considering all these differences, it makes even more sense that in ‘1984’ Winston Smith felt a “mute protest in [his] bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions [he] lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different.” Of course we don’t live in a totalitarian society as he does (although things can change; read Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’!), but maybe you can also understand that same feeling in your own bones?
We should and can not go back to a pure hunter-gatherer way of life. Paul Shepard (p. 173) articulates this nicely:
“Must we build a new twenty-first-century society corresponding to a hunting/gathering culture? Of course not; humans do not consciously make cultures. What we can do is single out those many things, large and small, that characterized the social and cultural life of our ancestors – the terms under which our genome itself was shaped – and incorporate them as best we can by creating a modern life around them. We take our cues from primal cultures, the best wisdom of the deep desires of the genome. We humans are instinctive culture makers; given the pieces, the culture will reshape itself.”
My task is not to tell you how to live, nor is it my style to do so. The goal of this blog is to bring to your attention the possibility of lifestyle changes guided by evolutionary and ancestral logic. Exercise and diet are just a few of the many ways our lifestyles have changed.
I will end with a Thoreau quote that always resonated well with me, maybe because I’m a drummer:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Maybe the “music which he hears” is worth listening to…
Maybe that rhythm is a more primal but more uplifting one…
Maybe that beat resonates better with the throbbing of your heart…
Maybe that song is more fun to dance to…
Maybe that cadence is more sustainable, for you and the planet…
Maybe it is Solomon Burke singing ‘Stupidity’!
Thanks for reading