Who Are You Calling a Starry-Eyed Romantic, Pal?
Many otherwise reasonable people seem to have a burning need to locate the roots of war deep in our primal past, to see self-sufficient foragers as poor, and to spread the misbegotten gospel that three or four decades was a ripe old age for a human being in pre-agricultural times. But this vision of our past is demonstrably false. ¿Que pasa?
If prehistoric life was a perpetual struggle that ended in early death, if ours is a species motivated almost exclusively by self-interest, if war is an ancient, biologically embedded tendency, then one can soothingly argue, as Steven Pinker does, that things are getting better all the time—that, in his Panglossian view, “we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on Earth.” That would be encouraging news, indeed, which is what most audiences want to hear, after all. We all want to believe things are getting better, that our species is learning, growing, and prospering. Who refuses congratulations for having the good sense to be alive here and now?
But just as “patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it” (G. B. Shaw), the notion that we live in our species’ “most peaceful moment” is as intellectually baseless as it is emotionally comforting. Journalist Louis Menand noted how science can fulfill a conservative, essentially political function by providing “an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.” “Why,” he asks rhetorically, “should someone feel unhappy or engage in anti-social behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth? It can’t be the system!” What’s your problem? Everything’s just fine. Life’s great and getting better! Less war! Longer life! New and improved human existence!
This Madison Avenue vision of the super-duper present is contrasted with a fictional, blood-smeared Hobbesian past. Yet it’s marketed to the public as the “clear-eyed realist” position, and anyone who questions its founding assumptions, as we do, risks being dismissed as delusional romantics still grieving over the death of Janis Joplin and the demise of bell-bottoms. But that “realistic” argument is riddled with misunderstood data, mistaken interpretations, and misleading calculations. A dispassionate review of the relevant science clearly demonstrates that the tens of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, while certainly not a time of uninterrupted utopian bliss, was for the most part characterized by robust health, peace between individuals and groups, and high levels of overall satisfaction for most of our ancestors.
Having made this argument, have we outed ourselves as card-carrying comrades in the Delusional Utopian Movement (DUM)? Is it Rousseauian fantasy to assert that prehistory was not an unending nightmare? That human nature leans no more toward violence, selfishness, and exploitation than toward peace, generosity, and cooperation? That most of our ancient ancestors probably experienced a sense of communal belonging few of us enjoy today? That human sexuality probably evolved and functioned as a social bonding device and a pleasurable way to avoid and neutralize conflict? Is it silly romanticism to raise the fact that ancient humans who survived their first few years often lived almost as long as the richest and luckiest of us do today, even with our high-tech coronary stents, diabetes medication, and titanium hips?
No. If you think about it, the neo-Hobbesian vision is far sunnier than ours. To have concluded, as we have, that our species has an innate capacity for love and generosity at least equal to our taste for destruction, for peaceful cooperation as much as coordinated attack, for an open, relaxed sexuality as much as for jealous, passion-smothering possessiveness … to see that both these worlds were open to us, but that around ten thousand years ago a few of our ancestors wandered off the path they’d been on forever into an inescapable garden in which our species has been trapped ever since… well, this is not exactly a rose-colored view of the overall trajectory of humankind.
Who are the naïve romantics here, anyway?