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We oh-so civilized humans seem to think we know everything – except perhaps how to behave decently and rationally all the time, as Dr Jane Goodall noted when comparing Donald Trump to an anthropomorphised image of the ‘male’ chimpanzee – and it is the methodologies and exalted stature of the sciences, including history, that have conferred upon us this mantle of knowledge.
As Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind author, Yuval Noah Harari, opines: “Today [humanity] stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.”
Long before Harari waxed lyrical about the potential omniscience of humankind the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach set down a far sounder reason than Harari has for humankind’s apparently transcendental consciousness (Nietzsche probably came up with the simplest and best). Feuerbach’s notion was generated from the ways he saw science changing knowledge. Humans, he argued, now had the ability to know everything – not as individuals but as a collective.
To explain with an analogy: people who use buses in a city know the routes they take, the numbers of the buses, the places they stop. But they don’t know all the routes. However, if you brought together all the bus users in the city then any question about how to get from one place to another by bus would be answered. The collective knowledge of the group would be a complete knowledge. The group would also actually know more than individual bus route planners, or coordinators, who would have to consult documents to obtain an answer.
In a similar way, any scientist has access to all the work of every other scientist and so, theoretically, the totality of scientific research, past and present, amounts to the full knowledge of the world at any particular time. Individual scientists do not know everything but as a group that has recorded its findings… they do. This final frontier of knowledge and science makes the human species, according to Feuerbach, special. Humans have – what amounts to – a collective consciousness, and modern science makes that consciousness omniscient. This collective consciousness – stored in libraries of various kinds – allows science to move very quickly in developing new technologies. This then enables what appears to us as an exponential growth in ‘progress’ over even very short periods of time… a technological ‘revolution’ every few years.
But this progress is not the progress of humans as humans, it is the progress of things. Yes, humans change because of the things that are around them, but the ‘purpose’ of progress is not to develop the human being – to develop enjoyment, leisure, connection and independence – the purpose is to make wealth. Steven Pinker, for example, argues that advances in technology, along with the development of the institutions that govern us, have made us better people – but he warns that most people, consciously echoing Hobbes, are essentially bad and if left to their own devices they would revert to all sorts of evil practices. Using this reasoning one can only conclude that the tribespeoples of the Amazon and elsewhere must be living in awful conditions as well as being unspeakably nasty to each other – and so, following Pinker’s logic, if we genuinely care about others, we should support the efforts of Brazil’s Bolsonaro to improve their lives.
Eminent thinkers, Richard Wrangham, Dale Petersen, Jane Goodall, Pinker and E. O. Wilson essentially share a common approach in how to interpret and understand what they view as ‘human nature.’ They share what is, for all intents and purposes, an ‘evolutionary psychology’ viewpoint. This strand of scientific exploration finds much evidence and justification in the famous studies of chimpanzees – ‘our closest relative’ – in Gombe National Park in Tanzania led by Jane Goodall. There is, I suggest, a direct methodological and theoretical arrow fired by Goodall that ends at Pinker… but – if we keep following the logic – it becomes apparent that the arrow does not stop at Pinker, it lands at the feet of Jair Bolsonaro.
Evolutionary psychology tells us that we can begin to understand what motivates present day ‘civilized’ humans by looking into how humans of the past reacted psychologically to the environments they lived in. A simple example: humans have a ‘fight or flight’ response to potential danger because in ‘caveman’ days humans were always being surprised by saber-toothed tigers that wanted to eat them. Evolutionary psychology also tells us that people can only be relatively free when they are released from the imperatives of survival and reproduction – and such freedom can only be found (of course!) in civilization. This means that all ‘primitive peoples’ are oppressed by the daily struggle to survive and reproduce. And all other animals are equally fettered. This is why other animals and tribal peoples have no decent art museums or concert halls and no bands like The Rolling Stones – they are too busy staving off hunger all day and trying to have more kids. (It’s interesting that the world’s population remained fairly static until the emergence of the first States – when the population exploded within those States… so maybe those ‘primitive,’ un-enslaved folk weren’t even very good at having children…)
These well-accepted academic notions about humans ‘before’ civilization contain some very stupid assumptions. They assume – if you follow the logic properly – that humans prior to civilization were not masters of their environment in the same way that any other animal is/was master of their environment. It projects back the notion of a modern/civilized human who has not been educated or taught how to dress properly and adds to this the image of a human who is constantly surprised and overwhelmed by the environment they inhabit. These weird fictional ‘projected-back people’ are only able to become better at living when they have discovered fire; when they have discovered the wheel; when they have learned to trade and to read; when they have discovered the refrigerator…
So, these fictional people of the long-ago past have two important features: they are simultaneously helpless and stupid. It is only on the long road to present-day civilization that they become less helpless and less stupid.
If we think more about how humans ‘like us’ coped in the wild before television we discover that we should see all other animals as helpless and stupid too – all of them only just managing to survive in their environments. And we must also see all the tribespeoples around the world – who live in the forests, in the hills, and on the plains – as equally helpless and stupid. We are forced to wonder just how these people are surviving right now – the misery they must be in! They must be so stressed by their helplessness and the fearful environment they inhabit. Then we are forced to wonder how the ‘anatomically-modern’ human species survived for the vast majority of its existence – 200,000 years at least – without the benefits of civilization (which began arriving around 7000 years ago) in this continually helpless and surprised state. If they were so helpless and stupid why didn’t they die out long ago, or did civilization save them just in the nick of time? And how come all the helpless and stupid animals that inhabit the world seem to carry on surviving? And how come the Yanomami are still here, or the Sentinelese? Questions, questions…
How do/did these groups – modern day tribespeoples; humans who lived between 200,000 and 7000 years ago; and all the animals – manage to persist in such awful circumstances? Their stress levels – due to their stupidity and helplessness – must be, and have been, through the roof! Once again – if we follow the line of the logic – we have no option but to support the humanitarian work of Jair Bolsonaro and others in trying to rescue ‘primitive’ peoples from their own foolish lifestyles and ignorance. And not only are the tribes of the Amazon stupid and helpless, badly dressed, not dressed at all, and lacking in civilized etiquette… they are in the way of making a few bucks. They need to be proletarianized, and if a lot of them die in the process… well, it’s no big deal… In this scenario – under the logical big tent erected by Goodall et al – Bolsonaro wins twice: firstly he is doing humanity a favour by bringing civilized behaviour to the savages, and secondly he is helping his friends make money.
This is the logic required in order to keep faith with the theories and fancies of experts such as Goodall and Pinker. If one uncovers and follows the Enlightenment logic and the civilizing sermon embedded in their writings one is drawn to this uncomfortable conclusion.
Our esteemed betters, who regularly appear on TED Talks, for example, think they can effectively know everything. It was Marx, interestingly – or alarmingly, depending on the depth of one’s investment in Marx – who taught us just how the human species is able to know everything. He went further than Feuerbach, turning Feuerbach’s notions of collective human possibility into the science of sociology – the discipline for which he is considered a chief founder. After Marx, sociological studies were grounded in the empirical collation of factors that amounted to the totality of the economic and social environments that people lived in. If one was to reveal true human motivations it was no longer any use listening to what people said about themselves, one had to investigate their economic and social circumstances. Marx wrote: “Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.” There is a lot to be said for this approach of course, but the problem with it is that it doesn’t always work – in fact, never in societies without economies, and it works less well in societies that have economies that are different to capitalist ones. Money makes liars and deceivers of us all, not always because we are ‘bad,’ usually because we just want to survive.
Jean Baudrillard pointed out in the early 1970s that the Marxist effort to explain human motivations through the economic environment does not work if the society does not have an economy. Marxists, for their part, have struggled with how to incorporate ‘primitive societies’ into Marxist methodology, and so have all the other anthropologists who look for the economic motor as the key to understanding human societies. The famous anthropologist Richard Lee, for example, tried his best to argue that ‘primitive society’ was a society of economic production with his theory of the ‘communal mode of production.’ But his argument is ultimately not very convincing, as I have explored elsewhere.
Marx’s sociology works superbly in a capitalist society and, being taken with it, the famous Annales School in France decided to study the history of previous epochs – societies with States and classes, not ‘primitive societies’ – using a form of this Marxist lens. But the broad and compelling histories produced by this school are riven with the same smug, self-congratulatory, vein that runs through the vast bulk of academic work. For them, as with most other historians, it was as if all previous hierarchical and exploitative societies were precursors to an inevitable capitalism. Their approach was to look at societies in the manner of a Sherlock Holmes – to place the whole society under their penetrating magnifying glass in order to discover ‘the truth.’ But like all such endeavours – maybe excepting those of Holmes himself – what they really got from their studies was only the ‘truth’ that they already had in their minds.
For example, Fernand Braudel was able to write of (nine-thousand-year-old) Çatalhöyük: “But what must be remembered is that the most important source of income for the town was trade.” The presumption of ‘town,’ ‘income,’ and ‘trade’ forces upon us a particularly modern representation of Çatalhöyük. Braudel encourages us to believe that we could look at what went on there through the eyes of a local some nine thousand years ago. But he could ‘discover’ these things only because that was all he was looking for: “[Çatalhöyük and other towns] had made a start, prefiguring the future… At some point these ventures received a mortal blow… [and they] would simply disappear [but] local setbacks notwithstanding, it was here [in the Middle East] that civilization would first spring to life.” Braudel was enamoured of modern civilization and wanted to uncover its glorious beginnings. Braudel, by-the-way, had no idea why these ‘early civilizations’ disappeared and he glossed over this fascinating problem – you see, if you are an intellectual you must ensure that people fail to notice the holes or problems in your theses. He was a Sherlock Holmes with rose-tinted spectacles, who felt able to pat what he considered to be a baby civilization on the head for its sterling efforts.
Braudel’s most famous student, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in 1990 wrote the ‘micro-historical’ account of a medieval French village titled, Montaillou. This was a painstaking investigation that claimed, as he wrote, to have “got down to the basic unit, the unit of the people, the peasants” in order to discover what “made a citizen of Montaillou ‘tick’ above such basic biological drives as food and sex.”
But Le Roy Ladurie should have tried harder – not in his meticulous research but in the effort to be remain humble or, rather, to intelligently acknowledge that despite all his research he could never see the world through the eyes of the people he studied, and so he could never really know them as he claimed.
To explain with an analogy: we can, for example, understand when someone tells us that medieval peasants lived by a cyclical calendar derived from agrarian existence but, despite this, we are unable to view time as a rotation because we cannot look up from this page and comfortably accept, or throw out the notion, that time is not linear. As the historian A. J. Gurevich writes of the transition from feudal to urban capitalist conceptions of time: “The alienation of time from its concrete content raised the possibility of viewing it as a pure categorical form, as duration unburdened by matter.” It was the success of the introduction of supply chains, distribution, and factory work, culminating in railway timetables, that led to the abandonment of any sense that time was ‘cyclical,’ ‘seasonal,’ or connected to the earth. This linear expression of time is now hard-wired into our brains.
We cannot see through the eyes of a person inhabiting a different mode of living. Our consciousness is determined by the daily life we live, and the principles and values generated by and acting upon this actual daily existence. Once a society is established, then that society becomes an organic whole, a mode of living (not necessarily an ‘economy’). A twenty-first century Parisian can as little decide to understand time as cyclical as a medieval European peasant could decide to understand time as a separate linear category of the universe.
So, Marx’s Sociology and the discipline of Evolutionary Psychology are the twin methodologies that tell us how humans work in the world – at any time and in any environment and situation. We are, according to these amazing know-it-alls, shaped and beset by the psychological inheritance of, for example, ‘fight or flight,’ or ‘the demonic male,’ and our need to survive economically.
In fact, our whole approach to the study of humans and other animals is based on the tenets of survivalism. Apparently, the world is a tough place, full of things that want to eat you or kill you for no reason. The primary task of every animal is therefore to survive these challenges and reproduce themselves, whether it be through surviving in a forest, or creating the technology that enables humans to live in houses and drive cars – and if we think that we have any other real motivations then the historians and sociologists can tell us that these other motivations are secondary to survival. Indeed, this perspective works wonders in explaining the way we live in modern civilization, or capitalism, where money is the meter of the rhythm of our lives:
Art is a function of money, discuss.
Philosophy is a function
of money, discuss.
Love is a function of money, discuss.
Too little, too much, or just
the life you lead
is a function of money.
Is survivalism the ethos of ‘primitive peoples’? No. They laze about in hammocks, and never ‘work.’ They live a life rich in dreams and connection to their environment, as Davi Kopenawa has explained in The Falling Sky.
One of the amusing consequences of the combination of evolutionary psychology with Marxist, or sociological, explanations of how societies apparently operate are these ridiculous lines from Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:
“On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all.”
The family group he describes could be any family group from present-day Los Angeles – but two million years ago! Really?! What kind of Fred Flintstone tomfoolery is going on here?
While all this apparent knowing of everything has been turned upside down by the present ecological and biological crises, we mustn’t think that the twin prongs of certainty about the nature of human beings – one prong being ‘primitive psychology’ and the other the imperative of survival and reproduction, or the ‘economy’ – will disappear. In fact, they are likely to become even more forceful in the coming years, as the ‘need’ for a more powerful State apparatus and a more disciplined populace becomes ever more necessary to keep the wheels of the anti-human economy in motion…