From Sat Jun 19 15:45:08 2004
Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2004 20:41:34 +0100
Subject: A brief history of humanity

A brief history of humanity

By Richard Moore, Wexford, Ireland, 19 June 2004

[Chapter I of Richard Moore's book, Escaping the Matrix: How We the People can change the world]

Primordial societies and cultural evolution

Millions of years ago, somewhere in Africa, our earliest ancestors lived probably much like modern chimpanzees or baboons. Our ancestors were undoubtedly very social beings. All other primates are highly social, and everything we know about early humanity indicates a social existence—small bands foraging and hunting. We were social even before we were human, and it was as members of societies we evolved into homo sapiens sapiens. The notion that individualistic “cave men” entered at some point into a conscious “social contract” is utter nonsense, a figment of the Enlightenment's imagination. We were members of societies first, and then gradually we and our societies became human.

For the past hundred thousand years and more, there has been negligible change in our basic biological nature—we have been full homo sapiens sapiens that long. For that whole time, people have had just as much capacity for imagination, for language, for telling stories, for lying or being truthful, for competing or cooperating, for wondering about the universe, for dancing and making music—as we do today. There were undoubtedly individuals ninety thousand years ago with the same potential for genius as an Einstein, Mozart, or Da Vinci. To the extent there is an innate human nature, it has not changed in the past hundred thousand years. What has changed during that time is our cultures.

For millions of years, until about ten thousand years ago, humans and their ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer bands, which I will refer to as “primordial societies”. After about ten thousand years ago—in the last ten percent of our existence as homo sapiens sapiens—a new cultural paradigm emerged, one that departed in fundamental ways from all primordial societies. This paradigm shift involved the development of agriculture and led to the emergence of civilization, and we will return shortly to an examination of that shift. For now, let's take a closer look at the nature of primordial societies.

Many hundreds of still-primordial—and very diverse—societies have been encountered by modern humans, and many of those societies have been studied and documented in great detail. This provides us with a rich database of knowledge regarding the beliefs, cultures, economies, and the scope of diversity of those societies. To what extent can we extrapolate from this knowledge, and reach conclusions about early primordial societies? Such extrapolations are very tempting, but we must inquire into their validity before attempting them.

If only a few primordial societies had been studied, or only ones in similar environments, then extrapolation would not be possible. We would be seeing in that case only anecdotal evidence regarding the possible scope of primordial societies. We would be like an astronomer who could view only a tiny portion of the sky. But since the number of studied societies is so large and exhibits such great diversity, and because the full range of possible environments is represented, our “scientific sample” is sufficiently rich to enable us to gain some insights about primordial societies generally. If, throughout the very diverse range of societies studied, certain characteristics can be identified that ALL those societies share, then it is not unreasonable to assume that those same characteristics were also shared by early primordial societies—particularly those of the past hundred thousand years, during which time the biological and genetic component has remained largely unchanged. By similar reasoning, astronomers can assume that stars in distant galaxies exhibit much the same diversity as stars in our own galaxy.

And we do find quite a number of universally shared characteristics in observed primordial societies. Every such society has a complex language, capable of abstract and imaginative expression. Every such society has its own culture, supported by myths, beliefs, taboos, and stories which are passed down verbally from generation to generation. In this way mores, history, discovered knowledge, and adaptive behaviors are preserved and reinforced in the culture. Frequently poetic, rhythmic, and musical forms are employed—which aids greatly in preserving intact the verbal cultural heritage through the years. Typically there is a creation story in which some kind of spirits or gods lay down the foundation of the cultural beliefs and explain the society's place in the world.

Every such society, except those going through some kind of adaptive transitional phase, lives sustainably in its environment. Although the observed mythologies are very diverse, they all place humanity within the context of nature, as part of nature, with a kind of karmic responsibility to live in harmony with nature. The members of every such society cooperate systematically in their economic endeavors—mostly hunting, foraging, and territorial defense—with culturally specified roles for different ages and sexes. Every such society is egalitarian, apart from gender and age differentiation, and decisions tend to be made by consensus—with no individual or clique being given the power to decide for the group. There may be chiefs, selected for their wisdom and knowledge, but only in Hollywood films do they have the power to command obedience.

While the cooperative band is the fundamental economic unit in these societies, the cultural unit is typically larger—a kin-related tribe. The different bands of a tribe share the same culture, but each band is autonomous and is responsible for its own economic welfare. There may be token exchanges between bands and between tribes, but each band is economically self-sufficient. Raids and fights occur between bands, even within the same tribe, and sometimes bands are forced by such pressures to migrate to new territories. But bands and tribes do not conquer one another. Conquest for primordial societies makes no economic or social sense. Each band is busy foraging and hunting—it has no otherwise-unemployed warrior class that can be devoted to ruling over some other band. And socially, there is no administrative or governmental structure that could be extended to incorporate a larger social unit. It was just as in the animal kingdom, where a pride of lions might seize the territory of another pride, but it would never attempt to “conquer” another pride.

I think it is safe to assume that these same characteristics were present in most or all human societies during the period from a hundred thousand years ago to ten thousand years ago. For a start, we can assume the societies had complex languages. Individuals had the same brain capacity as today, and there have been many modern cases reported where young siblings have developed their own complex languages in only a few years. Indeed, the development of the capacity for complex language—which has a central role in planning and coordinating group activities—is probably the key factor in the development of our uniquely-large frontal lobes. I think it is also safe to assume that these languages were used to transmit cultures from one generation to the next, by means of stories and myths.

As regards the characteristics of band size, cooperation, sustainability, and egalitarianism, we find corroboration by considering the economic conditions of primordial societies. In order to survive by hunting and gathering, it is necessary for everyone to work together cooperatively, and the band size must be limited to the carrying capacity of the foraging territory. And if such a society depleted its environment in an unsustainable way, then it could not long survive. We also do have a significant amount of direct archeological evidence, from burial sites, food remnants, and simple artifacts that have been uncovered, which sheds additional light on early primordial societies.

Animal species, over millions of years, evolve behavior patterns that enable them to survive in some range of ecological niches. The behavior patterns are passed down genetically. Primordial societies, over much shorter time spans, evolved cultural behavior patterns in response to various ecological niches. These behavior patterns were not passed down genetically, but rather by means of stories, myths, and belief systems. It was not the case that each generation worked out logically an economically viable life style. Rather each generation was raised into a belief system, and that belief system supported a certain culture— a culture that had evolved over time to survive within certain ecological circumstances. Each society believed its way of life was “natural”, or “required by the spirits”, or “decreed by ancient gods”, or something along those lines. Beliefs, culture, and economic practices mutually co-evolved, reinforcing and harmonizing with one another.

Humanity, both individually and as societies, is characterized by an amazing ability to adapt to different circumstances. In terms of diet, humans can survive on almost anything with inherent nutritional value, from insects to whales, from grains to fruits and nuts. Primordial societies have managed to eke out a living in every kind of conditions, from the tropics to the Arctic, from deserts to mountain tops. When groups migrated to new conditions, they were able to rapidly assess (within about three generations) the local plants and animals—learning which were edible, which were dangerous, which required special preparation to be edible, and which could be used for medicinal purposes. During such a transitional time new stories and taboos would be created, reflecting the new discoveries, and updating the cultural belief system and knowledge base. Many mythologies include descriptions of migrations and adaptation episodes.

If we think of a society as a system, then its culture can be seen as a kind of stabilizing gyroscope. The cultural gyroscope maintains the stability of the culture through time, and preserves the knowledge and adaptive behaviors that have been learned by the society over the generations. This gyroscope is sufficiently flexible, however, that it can be re-oriented when the society needs to adapt to new conditions.

This combination of stability, flexibility, and adaptability enabled humanity to become very successful at migration. If environmental conditions became unfavorable or if competing groups became troublesome, a group could consider migrating to some new territory. The people and the culture would soon adapt, diet and clothing might change, and the group could settle quickly and effectively into a new lifestyle and economic regime—supported by an updated set of cultural beliefs and insights. Extensive migration, for whatever reasons, did in fact occur—leading to an incredibly rich diversity of primordial cultures and economic regimes spread over most of the globe.

Ten thousand years ago most inhabitable regions of the globe were populated by primordial bands and tribes. these bands were autonomous, egalitarian, and economically self-sufficient. Each band employed sustainable economic methods, and each band kept its size within carrying-capacity limits, by one means or another. Decisions within bands and tribes, when circumstances required that a decision be made, were reached by consensus. Each tribe had its own unique culture which was passed down from generation to generation as stories, myths, and beliefs. This was in no way a static world—migrations and new cultural adaptations continued—but we can say with reasonable certainty that the various societies conformed to the characteristics that we have identified here. Gaia was a dynamically stable system, and humanity in all its diversity operated harmoniously within the constraints of that system.

Agriculture and the emergence of elite-ruled civilizations

Earlier I spoke of a cultural paradigm shift that began to emerge for the first time about ten thousand years ago, and eventually led to the development of civilizations. This shift occurred early in some places and much later in others, and it proceeded at various rates and with varying intensities. It led to fundamental changes in beliefs, in economics, in the relationships between the members of a society— and in the relationship between societies. Today all societies have succumbed fully to this paradigm shift, apart from a few remaining remote primordial societies.

In economic terms, the initial shift was from primordial hunter-gathering to the systematic raising of plants and animals. Instead of harvesting what nature provided, some societies began to systematically modify nature's patterns in order to provide a more stable and predictable food supply. This shift is usually referred to as the “Agricultural Revolution” and it is usually explained as being the result of technological discoveries. To be sure, the shift to agriculture was accompanied by the use of new tools and new practices—but that is no reason to assume that technology was the primary cause of the shift. Indeed, there are many reasons to think otherwise.

First, the technological changes that accompanied early agriculture were rather simple, such as the use of sticks to poke holes in the soil for seeds. Even a chimpanzee of average intelligence could invent that if it had any instinctual motivation to put seeds in the ground. Second, the early agricultural life style was much more difficult than the hunter-gatherer life style. We know from burial excavations that hunter-gatherers were healthier, better fed, and lived longer than members of early agricultural societies. Finally, agriculture did not automatically spread from one society to another, just because the “technology” became known. All indications are that primordial societies were typically very conservative and resistant to cultural change—an expression of the gyroscope effect of evolved cultural beliefs.

Jared Diamond, in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” traces the role of environmental conditions, such as the availability of protein-rich indigenous grains and domesticable animals, in the development of agriculture and civilization. He makes the case very convincingly that such conditions have been critical enablers of these transitions, but he sheds no light on why societies chose to make the transition in the first place. Indeed, he claims that historically no primordial society has ever given up its ways willingly when confronted by civilization and its purported “benefits”.

Daniel Quinn, in “Ishmael” and subsequent novels, argues that the agricultural revolution was primarily the result of a paradigm shift in world view—from being in harmony with nature to having dominion over nature. There's no way to tell if he is right about primary causation, but it is obvious that such a new myth would be supportive of a nature-altering lifestyle, and we know that the adoption of a dominion myth came very early on the various paths to civilizations worldwide. In the case of Western Civilization, the shift in mythology is memorialized in the Old Testament's Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve in the Garden represent primordial humanity, living in harmony with nature—part of nature. When God is presented with agricultural products, he rejects them as being unsuitable. Adam's tribe has known “good and evil”—the power to change nature—and is banished from the Garden. God sends them forth, ironically, with instructions to take dominion over the beasts, the birds, and the fishes. As part of Christian doctrine, this ancient (but less than ten thousand years old) Hebrew myth of divinely mandated dominion has become deeply rooted in the belief systems of Western civilization.

Once societies began to master agriculture and animal raising—for whatever reason—their economy enabled radical and unprecedented cultural transformations to take place. The critical enabling factors were the ability to produce food in excess of immediate requirements, and the ability to store quantities of food for later use. It was these developments that enabled a radical paradigm shift in cultural evolution, and eventually led to civilization as we know it. Let's consider some of the obvious consequences that follow from these enabling factors.

We might first note that an increased food supply permits a society's population to grow. And wherever early agriculture was developed, we find evidence that populations did rapidly increase. Next, the number of roles for society members increases with agriculture and animal raising. Instead of just hunting and foraging, we now have roles like planting and gathering seeds, tending plants and animals, harvesting, food preparation and storage, and the fashioning of storage artifacts, animal pens, and agricultural implements. And there is the need to allocate food to society members and to livestock by some formula—it is no longer a case of simply splitting up the day's take amongst a small band.

Such developments put a strain on the primordial social arrangements. The social dynamics of a large group are inherently more complex than those of a small group, particularly if any kind of role-specialization emerges in the culture. While the dynamics of a small band—with only a few shared roles—leads with seeming inevitability to an egalitarian and cooperative culture, the dynamics of a larger group—with a greater variety of roles—enable other kinds of social arrangements to emerge.

It becomes possible for competitive cliques to arise, for example, most likely along kinship lines. The existence of a stored food supply provides an incentive for power struggles among cliques. If one clique can seize control of the food stores, then it has a lever by which it can exercise power over the rest of the group. It becomes possible for cultures to develop which are organized hierarchically, with rulers and subjects. The capture of slaves from other tribes becomes an attractive option—to carry out the back-breaking work of early agriculture. With excess food, it becomes possible to support a professional warrior class, which can be used to maintain local rule, to capture slaves, or to conquer other groups and annex their territories. Hierarchy and conquest make economic sense in an agricultural context, while they did not make any kind of sense in a primordial context.

This does not imply that all agricultural societies were hierarchical, slave owning, or engaged in conquest. Some societies adopted agriculture and kept in on a small scale, retaining their local autonomy and egalitarianism. Many other societies kept to their primordial ways, and there were most likely many gradations expressed between the extremes. But in every part of the world where agriculture emerged, there were always some societies that evolved according to a particular pattern—a pattern that involved hierarchy, autocratic rule, conquest, and slavery. That is the pattern that we see played out in our school textbooks, when we are taught about “human progress” and the “rise of civilization”—an important part of our own cultural mythology and conditioning.

That pattern, which played out independently in many parts of the world, is a pattern of growing hierarchical power, consolidated on an ever-increasing scale. First local Chiefs emerge, usually claiming some kind of divinity, and who exercise absolute power and have control over the food stores. Wars of conquest and defense are fought, leading to larger-scale societies, and the emergence of regional Kings, again with autocratic power. Administrative hierarchies are developed along with military hierarchies. Kings do battle, leading to larger-scale realms, more complex administrative arrangements, and the emergence of empires and Emperors, again all powerful and descended from gods.

Somewhere along this hierarchical path, particularly when cities and writing develop, historians tells us that “civilization” begins. That's the part of our history we’re supposed to be interested in, that's our “heritage”, the part that describes our “rise” from undifferentiated primitiveness—the part that leads us to believe that hierarchy is an inevitable part of human culture. Our schools feed us the myth—the same one as in the biblical texts—that our history began less than ten thousand years ago when, after millions of years, primordial man began to be expelled from the Garden. Our much longer history in the Garden is something we can learn—if we ever do—only after the cultural myths have been deeply implanted in our formative psyches.

Even if most societies preferred to keep their hunter-gatherer ways over the past ten thousand years, and even if most of those who chose agriculture preferred a small-scale version, it was the few more aggressive and aggrandizing societies that ultimately determined the direction of human history since the first agriculture. The societies that were successful at conquest imposed their cultures on the peoples they conquered, or else they exterminated or enslaved them. The more aggressive cultures thus became, eventually, everyone's culture—except for the ever-receding primordial hold outs. Those of us today who live in the most “advanced” societies are the cultural descendents of the most successful aggressive societies of the past, and to this day we have the largest military budgets and the most potent arsenals.

There is much justice in saying that the evolution of civilization has been the by-product of a game played among elites, who deploy their pawns and soldiers, and defend their castles, competing to see who can conquer the others, and who can gain the biggest kingdom and capture the grandest treasure of gold and minerals. The game goes on to this day as the last remaining super power—acting in service to its corporate elite—seeks to increase its control over petroleum resources in the Middle East.

I am not trying to argue here that civilization was a mistake, or that we would be better off attempting to return to hunter-gatherer ways. The point I’m trying to make is that the way in which civilization and technology have been pursued has been only one of many possible paths that could have been followed. This path has been the one chosen by the most aggressive elites in charge of aggrandizing societies. There is no cosmic law that says hierarchy and elite rule needs to be the dominant paradigm in a civilized society. When hierarchy is allowed to emerge, then it inevitably dominates the alternatives. If there had been some way for more egalitarian-minded societies to prevent that emergence, civilization might have had a happier and more equitable history, and one that preserved its harmony with the Gaian system.

The evolution of hierarchical organizations

Civilization has co-evolved along with the elaboration of hierarchy—from the first chiefdoms, to the Pharaohs & the Priesthood, the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, European empires, Republics, bureaucracies of all kinds, Corporations, the Pentagon, the World Trade Organization, etc. If we survey these various kinds of hierarchies, past and present, certain patterns stand out clearly. Regardless of how benevolent may have been their establishment, hierarchical organizations always exhibit certain characteristics eventually—from small organizations all the way up to nations and empires.

There is a certain internal culture that develops, where social dynamics play a major role independent from the functional objectives of the organization or its formal structure. Internal politics always emerge, with intrigues and with factions competing for power in the hierarchy. The ability to play the political games usually pushes one up the hierarchy faster than any other competence. Control becomes increasingly centralized and is supported by internal political networks as well as by formal chains of command. The top leadership of the organization typically seeks to extend the power of the organization and to ensure its long-term survival—with at least as much passion as is devoted to accomplishing the official objectives of the organization. The leadership clique communicates with the internal organization and with outside world using PR tactics, clouding over their operations and intentions sufficiently to provide cover for whatever machinations they might be up to.

We see these kinds of patterns in large corporations, in military organizations, in the the Executive Branch and it's Intelligence Community, in the UN, in political parties, in labor unions, in parliamentary procedures, in local governments, and often we see it in reform organizations and activist groups as well. Hierarchies are evolving machines which have a predictable behavior that emerges once they mature. They are aggrandizing and secretive, and they are controlled internally by cliques whose agenda is not necessarily in alignment with the presumed mission of the organization—nor with the sentiments of the organization's avowed constituency (eg., the stock holders or the public).

Our civilized societies are plagued by all manner of hierarchical organizations, controlling every aspect of our lives—our jobs, our leisure, our food and energy supplies, our economies, and the actions of our governments. Just as international affairs are played out as a competition among ruling elites, so are the internal affairs of a nation largely the result of competition and deals that are made among the cliques who run our hierarchical institutions, corporations, and agencies. The top cliques dominate the lower cliques, and so on down to us ordinary people who have no say in how our society operates.