Hunter-gatherers in a world of machines
Gwydion M. Williams considers the odd fact that humans have built a world in which they feel out of place. Do we decide that all human progress has been a mistake, not excluding even the invention of agriculture? Or is there a more hopeful alternative?
There is a widespread view that modem civilization has in some way violated the natural order, broken away from the proper roots of human behaviour. This view is attractive, because it identifies some of the obvious faults of modem society. But it cannot explain, understand or respect the feelings that have led us to go from hunter-gatherers to inhabitants of a vastly powerful global civilization.
For some hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived simple lives in small bands on the plains of Africa. Just how long is a moot point, and new discoveries keep upsetting it More or less human creatures have been evolving for some four million years. A lot of the ape-people who used to be hailed as our ancestors may actually have been failed side-issues, though this is controversial. It has even been suggested that certain types of ape- people retreated from human competition and became the chimpanzees and gorillas. Genetic studies do show that humans, gorilla and chimpanzee are much closer to each other than any of the three are close to the other species of apes – let alone monkeys, which are fairly distant relations. Not only is the chimp our closest relative, we are its closest relative.
What is definite is that we evolved as hunter-gatherers, probably similar to the modern Kung bushmen of Southern Africa. It was only some tens of thousands of years ago that a few groups of people started leaving this well-established way of life. Agriculture and city-dwelling seem to have only developed in the last few thousand years, industrial civilisation over the last few centuries.
It had taken some millions of years to turn primitive apes into ape-people, and then into people essentially the same as ourselves. Subsequent changes have been cultural – and they have been very much more dramatic. From being apes with some sophistication, humans suddenly gained the power to reshape the planet
Even as hunters, humans seem to have had quite an impact – especially outside Africa, which seems reasonably confirmed as our first home. Only that continent has really large mammals like the elephant, rhinoceros and hippo. Other continents used to have similar beasts. No one can prove for certain what finished them, but they very noticeably went extinct at about the time when modem humans turned up in their part of the world.
But it was agriculture and pastoralism, the growing of crops and the herding of animals, that made the really dramatic difference. Suddenly there was much more wealth available. There was also suddenly the possibility of stealing it, or extorting it by threats of violence. One group of humans might view other groups as a resource, open to profitable exploitations.
Even among hunter-gatherers, hunters might choose to view other humans as prey, as food on two legs. The evidence is mixed. European explorers who spread across the globe in the past few centuries – the first human group to have some reasonable idea of what the whole world was like – brought back many tales of cannibals. But equally, many of the peoples they visited were no less convinced that the white explorers themselves were cannibals. People are always ready to believe the worst of strangers. It is definite that some peoples included cannibalism as part of their burial rituals, and that all sorts of people will resort to it as a matter of survival. But if routine cannibalism existed at all, it was rare.
Where wealth exists, there are many more possibilities for conflict and exploitation. Even hunting peoples may quarrel over hunting grounds. But flocks of sheep or herds of cattle make a particularly easy target Moreover, while all hunters can handle weapons, and pastoralists usually know how to fight, people who turn to growing crops are much less able to defend themselves. You can very easily get a pattern of class exploitation, perhaps arising when a tribe of hunters or pastoralists move in on a settled agricultural community, or perhaps when one part of the settled community is delegated to prevent such raids or attempted conquests. The net result would be much the same – a ruling class skilled in the use of weapons, supported by a crop-growing peasantry
Both hunting and warfare tend to be male occupations. In both cases, there can be individual exceptions. But almost all groups of humans, up until very recent times, have divided up work between the sexes. The divisions vary from group to group, but risky and violent occupations are normally part of the male responsibility. With a birth-rate that was generally only just ahead of the death rate, it would be suicidal to do anything else. A few individuals might take on a social role that contradicted their biological sex – most cultures allow for that But it would only be possible for as long as such behaviour was exceptional. A tribe of ‘Amazons’ would rapidly die out, for lack of children and good child-care.
Developing a ruling class based on warfare would downgrade the status of women. In hunter-gatherer societies, there is rough equality, because more food comes from gathering than from hunting, and gathering is mainly a female task. (It might indeed be more accurate to call them ‘gatherer-hunters’, but I will stick to the standard term.) The point is, when hunting or protecting herds turns into warfare, the power and the wealth suddenly shift to the males. Moreover, men had the advantage of being able to capture women and use them as a resource, force them to produce more male heirs. The reverse was not unknown, but was not an efficient form of exploitation. The male’s role in reproduction need take no more than a few minutes, whereas the female’s takes at least nine months, and normally much more if children are to be raised successfully.
Once large-scale crop growing had begun, the logic of the situation was likely to lead both to a class society and to male domination. There is no need to go in for deep psychological explanations, or to venture into the murky depths of sexual politics. The basis for a successful strategy of exploitation existed: therefore it came into existence. Not without mitigating factors, of course. Although a harem might seem to be ideal from a selfish male viewpoint, in practice such arrangements were less successful than the dominant males hoped. Males tricked each other, and females played them off against each other. Also, the whole mother-son relationship counter-balanced matters somewhat, especially when fathers played little role in raising their own children. The stream of life runs through the female, with males having only a walk-on part, biologically speaking.
Engels’s The Origins Of The Family, Private Property And The State Cover some of the same ground that I’ve been talking about. But we now know rather more about early societies than was known in his day, and vastly more than he could have known about early humans and ape-people. Also, his schemas are decidedly too schematic, and include some astonishing omissions. For instance, he says hardly anything about Egypt, which had a sophisticated urban culture long before the discovery of iron (defined by Engels as marking the start of the upper stage of Barbarism).
The broad conclusions – a breakdown of common property into individual property, the loss of status by women and the development of states in place of tribal institutions – I do accept. But the method he favours – fitting together vaguely similar institutions from various parts of the world into an ‘evolutionary schema’ – makes far too many assumptions. In general, the more we find out about the human past, the more we find both diversity and complexity. Moreover, even though Engels is sometimes dismissed as a technological determinist, he in fact gives very few reasons why a particular level of culture should lead to a particular sort of society, and pays little attention to local geography.
The different cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece do relate quite logically to what those lands were. Egypt was a fertile river valley surrounded by almost uninhabitable desert. Therefore, it saw the early development of a high culture, and a single strong state that had little interest in an extensive empire. Mesopotamia, the land of the two rivers, was just as favourable to early civilization. But it was close to moderately fertile land, and highly exposed to various groups of invaders. There tended to be many states, or a small number of states with extensive empires. Greece, geographically fragmented and much less fertile, was of little importance until civilization was already some thousands of years old in Egypt and Mesopotamia. When it did develop, city-states ran their own small territories, and expansion by sea was frequently easier than expansion by land.
Further east, both India and China had extensive rich lands protected by major geographical barriers. Each evolved its own highly individual way of life, with a capacity to absorb and change invaders. India, being closer to other major centres of civilization, tended to have more in common with them. Being also much hotter, and thus more prone to various tropical diseases, India probably evolved its elaborate system of castes as a form of public health. Many of the cast rules do make sense, from that point of view. No one goes near an untouchable, because untouchables have contact with dung and carrion and other likely sources of infection. Anyone can accept food from a Brahman, because they follow the strictest rules of hygiene and have the least contact with possible sources of infection. And the very separation of castes and sub-castes would have served as a barrier to communicable diseases.
In large measure, each pattern of culture that evolved made sense in the particular locations where it evolved. Hunter-gatherers generally survived in places that were not open to any more sophisticated way of life – until, like the North American Indians, they were displaced by other peoples who had the capacity to do different things with the same territories. Europeans seized and colonised all the lands they could make use of, simply because it was such an attractive prospect.
Let me make it quite clear that I do not regard a successful pattern as being the same as a desirable pattern. The tape-worm is a highly successful and sophisticated creature, well adapted to its own peculiar way of life. Yet no one admires this creature, which spends its whole life coiled in other organism’s intestines.
Like most parasites, the tape-worm has lost the ability for anything except further and even more successful parasitism. Free competition between species leads naturally to parasitism, among other things, and there are more species of parasites than non-parasites. But no one views this as a desirable outcome.
Ideally, one would have wished humanity to have advanced out of the Stone Age without the loss of sexual equality or the supportive tribal community. Probably development through exploitation was faster than development without exploitation would have been. But the Earth should be inhabitable for at least another hundred million years, and perhaps very much more. The developments of the last ten thousand years or so did not have to proceed at such a rush.
In any case, progress through exploitation was the way human development actually went. Once the process had started in any one part of the globe, it was almost bound to spread elsewhere. Exploitation by warrior ruling classes was a highly successful strategy, and continuous conflict between such ruling groups made them ever more skilful at gaining and keeping power. In advanced civilisations, the ruling class would tend to specialise into different groups, priests and non-military nobles as well as warriors. But it was always open to the warriors to upset such a system, or for some cruder but tougher military ruling class to sweep in and change everything.
Why should such a system ever break down? One weakness is that ‘you can’t keep a man down without staying down with him’. (Equally, men cannot oppress women without also oppressing themselves.) Once any society had a sufficient surplus to provide a decent human life for everyone, the temptation to do so would be quite strong.
Industrial civilisation could have developed in India or China, or in the Muslim world. In each of those cases, however, there were immensely powerful conservative forces that stopped any such possibility. (Such forces were also present in Europe
Marx has quite a lot to say about them in Capital). What happened finally to upset things was that the ruling class of England and Scotland in the 18th century allowed an unprecedented disruption of their social order, the Industrial Revolution.
Motives were mixed – pure greed played a large part, as well as the desire to be stronger than rival European powers. Yet the notion that. these new powers would in the long run benefit everyone was also present. And it was rapidly picked up by the new class of industrial workers that was created, giving rise to modem socialism.
In the abstract, the introduction of machines need not have been either so disruptive or so cruel. Had the matter been in the hands of the workers, they could certainly have found a humane way to make use of the new possibilities. But the driving force was always the desire of the ruling class for power and wealth, and the desire of the new industrialists to join the charmed circle.
Machines do not have to take away either human skills or the joy of work well done. But it was strongly in the interests of the industrialists to use machines for such ends. Indeed, even non-mechanised work was organised so as to take away both the skill and the power of workers to control their own work – E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class gives details of this process. Skilled workers always have a large measure of power and independence – they cannot easily be replaced. Unskilled workers, or workers who can be trained in a few weeks, can be squeezed as hard as the industrialist chooses.
Thankfully, there were counterbalancing factors. Not everything could be reduced to unskilled work. Moreover, workers were able to organise themselves and gradually force up their standard of living. In addition, the threat of revolution led the ruling class to decide that it was wise to give workers a larger stake in society. An industrial society with workers as a permanently oppressed under-class might perhaps have been possible, but I think that any such danger is now passed.
Leninism over the course of half a century moved the whole world very much in the direction that its founders had desired. Its great weakness was that once it came to be run by people who had grown up ‘within the system’, it lost coherence and decayed. Leninism had a lot of truth in it, and this enabled the first generation to go from being fringe politicians to virtual miracle-workers. But its truth was incomplete, and therefore its very success in rooting out hostile or unorthodox opinions was fatal to it
What we have now is global economy in which both competition and cooperation are powerful. Thankfully, the New Right option that was tried in Britain, America, Australia etc. has not in fact proved very successful, even by its own narrow definition of success as successful money-making. Almost all of the ‘entrepreneurs’ of the Thatcher era have now failed – even Rupert Murdoch is now very close to bankruptcy. Economic power is passing to the much more cooperative societies of Western Europe and East Asia.
There was a brief time in the late 1980s when the New Right supposed themselves to be triumphant, with Leninism visibly falling apart and their own heroes riding high. But Leninism was highly successful for its first half-century, whereas the New Right is visibly falling apart after only one decade of real power. Socialists have nothing to feel gloomy about, if only we look at things from a long-term view.
What should we now be aiming for? The Green Party talks about ‘limits to growth’ and wants everything redesigned to favour small property owners. But, apart from every other problem that might be involved, there is no particular reason to think that such a system would be better ecologically. Public enterprises, large companies, small companies and tiny one-person enterprises all show a mix of the ecologically good and the ecologically bad. Almost any case can be made by selectively choosing only the good from one category and only the bad from another. On the whole, large enterprises are more likely to bow to public pressure or to have some sort of effective public service ethic.
Small property owners often do a lot more damage than the large ones; it is peasant farmers who have pioneered a lot of the destruction of the rain forests. And they are less vulnerable to pressure of public opinion, because they themselves form a large and self-sufficient section of the public. Small property owners in the Republic of Ireland are busy destroying natural resources like peat and salmon, and are all in all decidedly un-Green in the ecological sense.
The socialist alternative would be to concentrate on improving the quality of life. The Earth is good for at least another hundred million years, unless we humans mess it up with short-sighted greed. Wind, wave and solar power could keep industrial civilisation going indefinitely. Nuclear power is probably just as valid an option, but it is not essential. The political effort that would be needed to restore public confidence would be more usefully directed elsewhere.
We hunter-gatherers in a world of machines need to learn to stop competing with each other. Competition leads people to do things that they would not wish to do, just to remain in business. Human values get played down, in the drive to accumulate wealth. A democratic, planned and cooperative economy might not be hugely efficient economically, but then why should it be, provided that it was stable in the long term? If it was organised on a world scale, there would be no outside competition to disrupt it. (Non-human intelligences, if they exist at all, would be either still primitive or else thousands of years ahead of us. Moreover, existing physics allows for no cheap or easy way to travel between stars, and no way at all to travel faster than light. The notion of humans competing with hostile aliens makes for good entertainment, but is not at all realistic.)
If we could get a united world, the first priority would be a global equalisation of wealth, followed by as much growth was possible without long-term environmental damage. Again, the goals could be quite modest – why should people kill themselves just to get rich a little quicker? Something modest like 1 % annual growth continuously over thousands and even millions of years would allow for almost any possible development of human potential.
You can find a later expanded view at ‘How Humans Became Citizens‘
This article appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.