Monday, June 18, 2007

Trends in Violence: Is the “Worst” Civilization Ironically the Best?


There is a perennial topic that merits relentless attention, if this bitterly cynical first decade of the Third Millennium is ever to give way to a resurgent spirit of confident problem-solving.

Is modern civilization -- with its fermenting brew of technology, science, consumerism, production, trade, education, social mobility, egotism, extravagance and argumentation -- a worthwhile step along the road to something progressively better and wiser...

...or a mistaken wrong turn in human destiny? One that would be best corrected by a return to older and wiser ways?

Elsewhere, I have posed this as a fundamental question of our times, creating tension as a far deeper level than all of our superficial dogmas of politics and religion. See J.R.R. Tolkien vs. the Modern Age.

BetterAngelsNow, on the intelligencia site “The Edge,” philosopher Steven Pinker has resumed his ongoing effort to debunk what may be one of the most pernicious of all ubiquitous romantic notions - one that is reflexively (though unnecessarily) associated with extremes of liberalism. (Indeed, we’ll see that it shares deep roots with the far more dangerous extremes of the far-right.)

I refer to the wholly-unsupported and ultimately unhelpful tenet that, in less politically-correct times, used to be called the theory of the noble savage. Or the widely-shared mythology that life was far more pacific and beneficent in non technological tribes, than it is in our own benighted, arrogant and self-indulgent age of commerce and machines.

Pinker demurs:

“This doctrine -- the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood")."

"But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."


Pinker is not the only one speaking up about the mythos of Noble Native Peoples, which has become such a reflex cliche in so many Hollywood films that a counter-reformation was only to be expected. (Some critics -- like Pinker -- appear sincerely inquisitive and should not be conflated with those driven by political or social motives.)

My own memic contributions to this topic have been:

1) To set it all in a wider perspective, by appraising a mythology that is strangely similar. Among those engaged the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) -- from radio astronomers, their associates, to many thousands of supporters -- there appears to be a widely-shared and seldom-questioned assumption that altruism must be a universal trait among advanced extraterrestrial species.

This tenet of faith -- in the inherently pure motives of aliens who are seen as far more technologically adept than us -- may have a lot in common with the impulse that Pinker critiques. The drive to romanticize bucolic tribes who were less technologically endowed.

NewOthernesscoverIndeed, the picture may be bigger than even Pinker realizes. I have suggested a common theme, under which some of the brightest members of western civilization have acquired a fascinating and somewhat paradoxical new habit -- perhaps an “emergent property” -- a reflex to extol the moral superiority of the other... the more different the better... a theme that I explore in my book Otherness.

2) To point out how much of this clash may be rooted far below the surface, in deep-down differences of personality. Between people who dwell on the comparative awfulness of contemporary civilization and those who nurse an equally alluring idealization -- perceiving our present stage as one of many along a generally rising trend.

Between those who see change as a lapse from eternal verities and those who invest hope in the possibility of rapid, positive-sum progress.


Let’s try to lay out this division in simple terms.

Do you believe in a basic improvability of human beings and human institutions?

Or, like so many, do you find talk of “improvement” worrisome, smacking of arrogant hubris on the part of a species -- and especially a (western) civilization -- that tries repeatedly -- and woefully -- to play God?

I contend that this contrast -- between those who see any Golden Age lying far away -- generally in the deep past -- and those who plant their idealized era in a gradually hand-built future -- goes much, much deeper than mere superficialities, like religious dogma. The split between “look-back” and “look-forward” worldviews may be so ingrained and psychological that it affects and alters perception itself.

Can people who are devoted to one fundamental, emotion-drenched viewpoint even notice evidence supporting the other, let alone engage their counterparts in useful discourse?

A hard lesson of the ages is that we humans are all subjectively biased... though science offers a few tools and habits that let us examine our biases, from time to time.

In this case, as we’ll see, some ironies seem to have emerged from the very best aspects of modern civilization. The very thing that we should most be proud of appears to prevent us from even noticing how very far we’ve come.

Next time: The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?


Anonymous said...

David, may I recommend (if you haven't already read it) Lyall Watson's book Dark Nature?

One point he makes there is that the 'gentle' Bushmen of the Kalahari have a higher homicide and assault rate than New York during the height of its gang violence.

Anonymous said...

San male in the Kalahari, or denizen of Five Points in the 1850's? I'll take San Male.

San Male or the Upper West Side in the late 1980's? Well, I'm not clinically retarded.

Bear in mind, also, that Watson considers societally sanctioned execution to be "homicide" which tends to inflate his numbers although it does not invalidate his point - which is that the San are far more violent than modern Western Culture.

Inuit were horrified to learn that whites struck children, and yet the Inuit let their children starve if necessary in order to preserve valuable adults.

There is a whopper of a false dichotomy here.

Sitting Bull, who had killed many men and had watched women torture wounded captives as well as seeing the horror of his people slaughtered, was appalled to see homeless children in New York City. The very *idea* that any adult could fail to take in a needy orphan when they had the resources was beyond his comprehension.

Yes, "primitive" Society tends to be much more violent than ours with only a few exceptions, privacy is a foreign concept, most tribal peoples are very xenophobic, and innovation is usually frowned upon.

However, in pre-agricultural societies you have a virtually flat level of wealth, people do not sit by and watch as fellow tribesman starve, family bonds are very strong, and the weak are given as much help as can be afforded without taking down the entire social unit.

Would anyone with any sense say that we have nothing to learn from cultures which hold it to be the greatest possible shame not to offer hospitality?

Yearning to suffer constant food insecurity, have no treatment for common illnesses, and to live without recourse to the rule of law is either naive or masochistic.

The belief that every choice that we have made on the path away from that life has been, without exception, for the better boggles my mind.

Our best days are, or can be, ahead of us. Part of how we improve, however, is an honest review of the choices we have made and constant revaluation of those choices.

Stefan Jones said...

Nice post, anonymous.

zorgon the malevolent said...

Jared Diamond has penned the least ridiculous critique of the move away from hunter-gatherer civilizations:

Diamond's argument remains unconvincing for several reasons.
First, history shows that population growth plateaus and eventually plummets when cultures reach first-world levels of development. Indeed, the single biggest challenge faced by the G8 in the next 50 years will be the demographic crash caused by decline in birthrates. Japan and Italy and Germany face a serious crisis in that regard. Note that America does not face a demographic crash...because America encourages high rates of immigration and readily assimilates foreign citizens. People who scream about the current immigration situation in America ought to bear this in mind.

Second, Diamond identifies "deep class divisions" and an alleged evil that sprang from the development of modern agriculture and the end of the hunter-gatherer phase of civilization. This sounds very noble and politically correct, but I'm going to say something highly politically INcorrect here by reminding everying that essentially everything we cherish about human civilization comes from deep class divisions. Want Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling? Gotta have someone in the elite upper class to build it and gotta have someone with leisure enough to paint it. Like Shakespeare's plays? Gotta have a civilization with enough wealthy idle people to go see plays, and
perform in 'em, and write 'em. Like Bach's music? Gotta have a culture with enough princes to employ guys like Bach, and the culture has got to have enough wealth at the top to keep guys like Bach employed doing nothing other than compose and perform music. Egalitarianism sounds great...until you realize it means forcing Richard Feynman to wash dishes for a living.

Lack of "deep class divisions" in hunter-gatherer societies sounds wonderfully egalitarian 'n all... But the harsh reality remains that we have precious few cultural artifacts from hunter-gatherer societies anyone gives a damn about. No set of Shakespeare plays has come down to us from any Neolithic tribe. No Michaelangelo-type paintings have come down to us from hunter-gatherer tribes. We have some neat cave paintings at Lascaux and elsewhere, but I honestly wouldn't compare these with the stunning excellence and diversity of art produces by modern civilizations.
Those cave paintings look nice, but they just don't compare with the work of Remabrandt or Hokusai's woodblock prints or the sand-paintings of Tibetan monks or
Zen rock gardens or Rodin's sculptures or Da Vinci's paintings and drawings.

A flat classless hunter-gatherer culture means you have no poor people and no superrich people but you also live in a world full of crap, without excellence, without
Shakespeares and without Bachs -- because the erstwhile Shakespeares are too busy foraging to write. Thanks, but I'll take the deep class divisions.
Does this make me an elitist? You bet your ass. Some painters are better than others. Some scientists are better than others. Some writers are better than others. Trying to deny this is one of the bestting sins of the left wing of the political spectrum, and
trying to create a society that's so flat these people get pounded down into mediocrity would be a disaster.

Third, ethnographic and historical studies have shown that hunter-gatherer societies suffer from staggeringly high rates of violence.

Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary - from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.

To amplify on Stephen Pinker's point, most of that horrifc violence in hunter-gatherer tribes
comes from literal witch hunts. Whenever something bad happens in a hunter-gatherer society, there's an overwhelming lynch-mob attempt to identify an "evil sorceror" who
"cast a spell" that allegedly caused the problem, and kill him.

Life in a hunter-gatherer society is not fun for those identified as evil sorcerors...and it's pretty much random. They use "tests" like slitting a chicken's throat and then identifying as the evil sorceror the guy at whose feet the chicken dies.

Thhnk about it. Would you want to live in a society in which, if your neighbor
broke his leg, everyone in the neighborhood started a frantic search for the evil sorceror
who caused it -- and then killed him? And it might be you, even though you did nothing at all!

Your child gets a fever? Find the evil sorceror who caused it -- kill him. Your friend's wife miscarries? Find the evil sorceror who caused it -- and kill him. Your cattle die of anthrax? Find the evil sorceror who caused it -- and kill him.

Since the tribe could easily pick you as the alleged "evil sorceror," this is not the kind of society you want to live in.

One penultimate note -- modern civilization still suffers from this "find the evil sorceror and kill him" mentality, albeit in muted form. The Stalinist purges, Pol Pot's mass murders,
Hitler's Holocaust, and even the recent Satanic Panic in 1980s America... Faint modern echoes all, of frantic Neolithic efforts to identify an allegedly evil "other" who supposedly "cast a spell" over people in the tribe (= nation), and exterminate that person. (Since geniuses tend to be eccentric, this also culls your best and brightest. Not good.)

I would argue that fighting against this primal urge to "find the evil sorceror and
kill him" whenever something goes wrong is one of the great achievements of modern civilization. Would you rather get a modern jury trial with modern rules of evidence and modern forensic science if you were accused of a crime...or have some shaman slit a chicken's throat and let it wander around in front of you, knowing that if it dies
at your feet, you're going to get skinned alive?

Sitting Bull would never have let children from his own tribe starve...but I bet he wouldn't have had a problem letting children from other tribes starve. Most of the world's great culture heroes, from Buddha to Jesus to Ghandi, were notable for how far they expanded the cirlce of people they cared about, while most of the world's great cultural villains like Hitler and Pol Pot, were notable for how narrowly they constricted the circle of people they cared about (pretty much only the inner circle of confidantes for Hilter and Pol Pot -- and even they weren't safe. Viz., Ernst Roehm).

Modern civilization has consistently expanded the circle of people about whom the average person cares. We really feel distress knowing that people we've never met in Darfer are suffering and dying. Hunter-gatherer societies constrict and tightly encincture the circle of those they care about. Modern civilization is morally better.

Pat Mathews said...

I live near a large number of communities which have no illusions about the altruism of any technologically advanced aliens who might contact us. They've been through it before. In the 1500s.

Pat in New Mexico.

Monte said...

In "Nasty and Brutish, Noble and Free," an article in Psychology Today 20-mumble years back, I argued that we're never likely to agree on a balanced picture of hunter-gatherer life, because every characterization of it -- "objective" anthropological accounts emphatically included -- has an axe to grind about the merits or demerits of progress.

"Once upon a time—say, 20,000 years ago—there was a primate species we’ll call Homo sapiens, with a distinguished family tree. Its ancestors had been foragers, scavengers and hunters for millions of years. Its tools, skills and adaptability had brought it through several glacial periods to populate much of the world. It was, by most standards, an evolutionary success.

"Then a funny thing happened. First at a few scattered sites, and then with increasing speed in the last 10,000 years, human beings became farmers and herders. Instead of following their food sources across the land, they altered the land with tilled fields and pastures. They settled down, all but a few, and began what we call civilization.

"Soon afterwards, they began arguing over whether it had been a good idea."

Mark said...

zorgon, you say:

"Some painters are better than others. Some scientists are better than others. Some writers are better than others. Trying to deny this is one of the bestting sins of the left wing of the political spectrum, and
trying to create a society that's so flat these people get pounded down into mediocrity would be a disaster."

I just wanted to point out that you seem to be conflating a very tiny portion of the left with the entire population, not to mention grossly distorting the idea of egalitarianism, assuming that the only form of egalitarian society is a communistic one.

There is a huge difference between a society that insists everyone be exactly the same, and one that insists everyone be given the opportunity to do great things. Only a few will actually do them, but everyone should have the chance.

Overall, I do agree with the point you are making in the post that the article concerned is a good example of someone looking back at the old days and ignoring crucial facts to make the case that life was better back then. However, you spend most of the post going off into a tangential rant that completely misrepresents people on the left, which I had to respond to.

Enterik said...

Dr. Brin;

The answer to your question is another question...

"Has the dog buddha-nature or not?"

In the context of your query, I can say that I both look forward and look backward in my search for solutions.

What I sense has been lost in much of modern debate that allows society to judge and pursue new/old solutions is any sort of discovery process where common agreement is sought. Instead we get diplomatic wrangling where the frame for every fact, factoid and non sequitar is a tactical goal unto itself.

hawker hurricane said...

Zargon, just a commentary on your post, not a rebuttal.

When it came time to play "hunt the sorcerer who caused *this* evil", who was the safest?

Well, the tribal leader who ordered the search was pretty safe. He was often the best hunter/warrior, and no shaman in his right mind would let the chicken die anywhere near him. But the safest man in the tribe was the shaman himself! Any shaman worth his tattoos would make sure that the chicken would die someplace far away from himself...

The toughest/cagiest/nastyiest hunter/warrior was the chief. And he got the first cut of meat, the prettiest girls (the most girls, too). But the smartest was the shaman, who often got the 2nd cut, 'first night' with the girls, and other goodies, with almost all the bennies of chiefdom and none of the risks.

Nate said...

Something kind of along these lines I noticed recently. There's a lot of stories out there which give credit to things like, well, all of modern technology, to things we found or were handed down to us. Secret government conspiracies pulling apart UFOs or Atlantis or whatever. Great respect for the ingenuity of humanity there, dudes.

Of course, the question with things like that is where did the aliens/atlanteans/whatever get the tech in the first place? But these all seem to share the same idea of not so much a past being better, but people being so stupid we couldn't figure things out unless they were handed to us on a flaming tablet or crashed spaceship.

Anonymous said...

Regarding body counts, it does seem to be the case that they have been steadily dropping as a percentage of total human population. The peak per capita body count due to human violence may be around a thousand years ago -- Genghis Khan may have literally decimated the human population, with his vast armies killing one in ten.

10% then; maybe 1% during the world wars, Holocaust, and Stalinist purges; and by the same measure there hasn't been a major war since Vietnam(!)...

Regarding ETIs -- the problems solved in crossing interstellar space, including the economics, vastly exceed those solved in crossing the Atlantic. *THAT* only threatened to beggar kings. Interstellar contact by a large invading army makes for a thrilling special-effects movie but appears unlikely in reality: a civilization with the economic capacity to do anything of the sort has nothing to gain by doing so, any more than we would spend Apollo-program-level resources to occupy a small Pacific island with no proven oil reserves or diamonds or anything. Indeed it's likely their labor class is fully automated and their resource needs are adequately met by asteroid harvesting and use of all those initially-unoccupied worlds and materials closer to their home. The two real invasion scenarios are:
* A less-advanced civilization that places a big premium on genetic survival and not just personal survival and wealth sends a probe, then a second with a tailored bioweapon, then a third to seed a replacement ecosystem and eventually populate it with clones or test-tube babies of their own race;
* An extremely advanced civilization begins the runaway conversion of matter into computational hardware. This one might have the good grace to quietly port us to a virtual Earth, perhaps without us noticing anything had happened, but which now runs on something the size of a sand grain; they get the remaining 16 sextillion tons or so of matter. In that case we *have* still been robbed, as we'd find out on attempting any really ambitious growth in our own computing resources ... or maybe not. Maybe we'd just slow down our clock rate by trying, and with no outside reference against which to measure this, notice nothing. On the other hand, we might still get a "disk full" error from the universe much sooner than anticipated...and it might be the only sign of ETIs we ever receive, unless they intercede to grant us more space, or give us access to their virtual worlds as we're now apparently sufficiently advanced to treat with them...

Regarding the original matter under discussion, it stands to reason that building a civilization requires becoming more civilized. As such, advanced civilizations necessarily should develop peaceful methods of dispute resolution and scarce-resource allocation, as well as an agenda of attacking scarcity itself.

The evidence from the rather limited samples supports such a conclusion: the most prosperous societies, and the most militarily advanced, tend to also be free-market democracies to a significant degree of fidelity to the ideal of such, and to be employing increasing degrees of automation in the war against scarcity.

The expectation is thus that any beings with hominid-type psychology that form a civilization would gravitate toward free-market democracy; of course if the base psychology is substantially different, the outcome also would be. An advanced form of naked mole rat might tend towards communist monarchies instead, as the decision making and resource allocation system most conducive to peace and prosperity for their eusocial sort of base psychology. At the other extreme, a highly individual species like the housecat would simply fail to ever develop a civilization ... though they might make great pets. :)

It's also the case that the above characteristics vary due to genetic in/outbreeding. Inbreeding produces eusocial hives that are very peaceful internally, but may war fiercely between them. Pure outbreeding produces highly individualistic organisms that don't form a civilization. Returning to the issue of ETIs, the biggest danger would probably be from the hive variety, which would be capable of becoming extremely advanced while still being extremely xenophobic, and might be the type to use a probe to wipe out other worlds, xenoform them, and plant new hive seeds on them. And a hive would also unquestioningly pool its resources towards such a thing if its queen was determined to do so. Maybe the biggest danger of conquistadores is always from monarchies?

Of course, the cause of these differences in social order based on genetic mixture is kin selection. This implies that humans might evolve in one direction or the other. Indeed we do find insular and inbred human cultures that are xenophobic, though often not very internally peaceful, and that assimilated peoples lose cultural identity when they lose their social and genetic isolation and often become highly individualistic -- in the form of becoming drunks or similarly, anyway. This is likely to be self-limiting, though -- there's not many tribes left to assimilate, and any subculture that becomes insular and cuts itself off from the world economy and the Internet likely becomes unable to compete in the long run.

Of course, this assumes no intentional tinkering with human nature, but that will soon be increasingly possible, with unknown consequences.

Once the present phase of rapid, accelerating change is completed, "violence" might be more difficult to define precisely, particularly with a lot of interactions occurring in virtual worlds. We don't (mostly) deplore the violence going on in Azeroth, for instance. (Azeroth being the virtual world visited by players of Blizzard's MMORPG, World of Warcraft.)

Thinking about it for a bit, it becomes clear that what's "violent" or "criminal" to an advanced form of mind is intentional restraint or curtailing-of-options, denial of (computational and other) resources, or being coerced, particularly coercively modified.

To us, now, the usual forms of these are indeed the acts most societies agree are criminal -- kidnapping/confinement, murder/denial of access to food etc., robbery, armed robbery, assault, mutilation, rape, and the like. The forms they take for upload minds, AIs, souped-up embodied minds, and so on will generally differ from the above, of course; we don't now worry about the landlord running us at a lower clock-rate until we can't compete in the economy and become increasingly indentured, or simply miss the big game and have to catch it on replay because it was all a 3-subjective-seconds-long blur, or about an unruly neighbor's too-curious child or a terrorist fork-bombing our residence, but uploads might. (An excellent reason for uploads to own their own hardware or go co-op, IMO.) All kinds of interesting questions will arise real soon now -- for example, how does one maintain habeas corpus rights when disembodied? I'm not sure some cryptographic signed hash wizardry will cut it. And what about that copy I'm fairly sure they made and are still interrogating in secret? Perhaps there is a use for DRM and trusted computing after all, when it's applied to peoples' actual minds to preserve their self-determination.

Two things clearly emerge from all of these disparate musings.

One is that those species that achieve a civilization do so partly by being brainy, but partly by having an interesting but often unremarked-on human tendency and capacity, namely that of having pets. Not only does domestication of wildlife play a key role in the early growth of civilization, but so does self-domestication. Becoming civilized is basically the process of a species domesticating itself, and we see the same differences between modern humans and pre-human hominids that we do between domesticated dogs and cats and wolves and the small African wild cats the Egyptians began breeding pets from thousands of years ago: besides reduced aggression, there's also a bunch of neotenous traits such as bigger eyes in proportion to the head, bigger heads and shorter limbs in proportion to the body, a stubbier tail in proportion to the body (to the point that humans' disappeared entirely, millions of years ago), a retention of curiosity and substantial learning capacity later into adulthood...indeed, the smartest humans show the most extreme variations on those traits, with big-headed Einstein, for example, retaining curiosity and a capacity for substantial learning from cradle to grave. The process of human evolution, and of late self-domestication, has clearly been ongoing right up until the moment when it will be superseded by more directed and intentional self-modifications, real soon now (a couple of decades or so).

The other big thing to arise, besides self-domestication as giving rise to civilization both by reducing violent tendencies and by increasing the learning/curiosity traits that enable innovation and advancement, which in turn enable productivity boosts, then expansions of leisure time, then yet more learning/curiosity..., is that the basis for a universal rule regarding "right and wrong" can't be a specific laundry list of crimes (how often do you think some scam must be against the law, but you can't think which law? How often that some often-victimless "crime" is nonsense law?) or even "the right thing is to make a democratic government, and then have it pass law" (what about those communist monarch mole rats?), but "right is maximizing self-determination, and wrong is impairing someone else's ability to self-determine beyond the minimum necessary to stop them from similarly impairing yet another someone.) This, and a notion of property ownership (including a non-transferable ownership of your hardware implementation and source code -- currently enshrined in law as the abolition of slavery and inability to sell yourself, combined with the laws against violent crimes against persons, particularly rape, assault, and murder), is the only basic "right and wrong" rule that seems able to derive all the usual non-victimless crimes (and pretty much no victimless ones) and would continue to make sense to advanced mole rats, uploads, AIs, and so on.

Anonymous said...

The priesthood having the most secure position and the second-best bennies, and the king the most bennies, continued in feudal cultures the pattern you describe for tribal cultures.

H.H. said...


Sure. What's fuedalism but tribalism with the rules written down and chiefs by inheritance instead of merit?

Enterik said...


Read Anthem lately? You seem to be channeling Ayn Rand :-P You've also savaged something of a strawman in your caricature of left leaning sentiment as naively atavistic. Most [left, right, center or wu] do not think things were better way back in the mythic then than now. Still many seek to cherry pick some historic dynamics old and the new. What's intrinsically wrong with that?

Enterik said...


Still many seek to cherry pick some historic dynamics in order to syncretize the old and the new. What's intrinsically wrong with that?

Brother Doug said...

I finished this book

and it is important to note that the murder rate in studies of the Kung and Yanimamo society were compiled while their territories were being taken by outside forces and a shrinking food supply. The murder rate would be much lower under traditional circumstances. I am sure it is not as low as say Beverly Hills with quick and effective police forces but normally far less than 60% of adult males. And the evidence is that these ancient societies see the value of a modern legal system to arbitrate disputes they just do not have the resources to make it happen.

Jumper said...

Primeval man as peaceful? No way. Noble? Opinions are allowed to differ.

My anthropology classes taught me that agriculture allowed specialization to occur, usually seen as a good thing. It did not teach me that any one specialty is "better" or more superior than another.

To me, what might be superior in nontechnological civilizations is that self-actualization might have been more directly perceivable although not any more attainable - an unskilled fighter might more readily accept his place in the pecking order because he knows his own abilities. What I'm trying to examine is the idea that "lack of self esteem" may have somehow been less of a problem in the past. I posit that it is esteem, not "self esteem" that might have nourished human social selfhood, i.e., what we now know as "happiness."

Raven Windrider said...

As an ecologist/wildlife biologist by training, I often note that we describe human behaviors differently than the exact same behaviors we find in animals. A prime example relates to this thread. Dr. Jane Goodall's studies of the chimpanzees of Gombe noted behaviors that she described as genocide, infanticide, cannibalism and war. Considering that Pan troglodytes has 97% of its genetic material identical with Homo sapiens, it certainly would be logical to conclude that hunter-gather humans engaged in similar behaviors. I realize that there are still scientists who will argue the nurture vs. nature dichotomy when it comes to behavior. However, the recent gene mapping of the domestic dog is lending strong empirical evidence that some behiors have some genetic basis.

My next point concerns the comment someone made that the domestic cat is an individualistic species. I would like to note that there have been some studies of large assemblages of barn cats in England that were resource rich (lots of rodents, birds and other food resources). In those studies, the cats DID exhibit a hierarcal social organization. That certainly seems to tie back in with the notion that human civilization did not start to develop until stable food resources were developed (via agriculture, animal husbandry, technologically enhanced warfare to expand a tribe's "home range").

Seems to be a strongly developing case for debunking the "noble savage".

Lastly, all this speculation about ETIs should be recognized as just that - IDLE SPECULATION. We have no way of knowing the thought processes of ETIs. We have made the same mistake with many animal species that we share this planet with. Recent work by some animal behaviorists (Bernd Heinrich with ravens, for example) is revealing that humans may be selling the intelligence of other animal species short.

Certainly seems to be tying in with your Uplift genre, Dr. Brin, don't you think?

Doug S. said...

Well, primitive subsistence farming is a pretty awful life (hunting and gathering may very well be better if you can support your population with it), and it took a long time before people figured out how to produce mass quantities of good food instead of having to choose between mass quantities of poor food or small quantities of good food. Still, I don't particularly want to be either a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer.

TheRadicalModerate said...

I don't think that the "noble savage" thesis holds up even slightly, but it's really the wrong paradigm. Humans are evolved to live in clans of about 40-60 individuals. Coincidentally, those clans were hunter-gatherers back when evolution was the domininant form of generating complexity.

When human society began to evolve (explosively), it dramatically outpaced biological evolution, leaving us with societies that supported millions of individuals, but a phenotype that still preferred groups of 40-60. As a result, modern society feels...wrong.

Nevertheless, it's a no-brainer that modern society is better for the individual and better for the human species. Metrics on population growth, life expectancy, and reduction of violence are unambiguous. But that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be nice to engineer social forms that dovetailed better with our biology, while still enjoying the benefits of modernity.

(Hmm--how many people actively comment on this blog? 40? 60?)

Tony Fisk said...

It has been long assumed that the Saxons intermingled with the native Britons following the departure of the Roman legions. Genetic analysis shows this to be untrue. No mingling occurred, and the Celts were either driven West or exterminated.

Things were a little improved by the time of the Norman conquest, although William's 'harrowing of the North' shows that civilities to the conquered were still rather shallow.

Now, jumping forward to the fifteenth centuries, we see expanding commercial empires coming into contact with relatively weak societies, dubbing them savages, and generally dehumanising them.

However, by the eighteenth century, we see emergence of romanticism and the 'Noble Savage' myth.
The wikipedia article on this topic takes the words out of my mouth:

"...The idea of the "noble savage" may have served, in part, as an attempt to re-establish the value of indigenous lifestyles and illegitimatize imperial excesses - establishing exotic humans as morally superior in order to counter-balance the perceived political and economic inferiorities..."

ie a culture which would, a thousand years earlier, have performed ethnic cleansing without comment, now has elements striving to establish minorities on a more equal footing.

I find it a little ironic, therefore, that romanticism, which David attacks for assuming we get worse as we go, appears to have arisen in part, because we are getting better!

RM just raised an interesting point about social sizes. We actually have much larger social groups than our simian cousins. An old New Scientist article suggests this might be due our use of conversation as a social grooming tool. (why pick the fleas out of the coat of one buddy when you can gossip with 3-4? The fleas might be more nourishing, however)

I recently saw an intriguing corroboration of this notion: one of Attenborough's 'Planet Earth' episodes ('mountains', I think) shows troops of cliff dwelling baboons, who live together in large numbers. They chatter quite a bit, as well.

Zechariah said...

Off topic, but I know Gerrymandering is one of Dr. Brin's pet peeves. If you'd like to try a little flash game on the subject, go to

I'll admit it seems more formulated towards junior high students, but it does provide good examples.

Kelsey Gower said...

(Hmm--how many people actively comment on this blog? 40? 60?)

That's a good question. I'd place the number around 15-20. You would probably count occasional commenters like me as active though if you think the number's around 40-60. It depends on what you consider active.

Let me look around at the names and see if I can find an answer.

Gyrus said...

If Pinker is worth a read to a least challenge simplistic romantic notions of forager cultures, this is worth a read to challenge equally simplistic dismissals of the virtues of "primitive" cultures:

"The Savages are Truly Noble"

One point I find worth bearing in mind when considering studies like those of Lyall Watson is that they're often based on forager cultures that have been catastrophically impacted by agricultural and industrial societies, and hence are of limited value in assessing hunter-gatherers per se.

We are mired in subjectivity on the whole issue, but simplistic "modern vs. primitive" ideological deathmatches are surely a waste of time. Despite the over-hunting and, yes, some deforestation, foragers sustained for hundreds of thousands of years. Industrial civilization should probably give it a bit longer before drawing comparisons.

In the meantime, if we drop the polarisation, the useful question to draw from Brin's "looking back" / "looking forward" insight is: can either of these views inspire us to improve where we're at? Drop "have we progressed?" and try "can we progress?" Drop both the romantic "noble savage" distortions and the "hysterical brutish savage" distortions, and ask, "Can we learn anything from the Other?" - however we envision it.

Some people overshoot the mark, but contemplation of the Other surely, at least, serves to allow some precious humility into our self-image.

Sam Taylor said...

Not that I'm an expert, but it seems to me that a lot of these concerns, on both sides, are hot air.

The real drive here -- the one lurking under the surface, causing the havoc -- isn't the noble savage at all. It's each of us, remembering when we were innocent.

Almost all of us grew up ;). At some point int that growing up phase, we realized that the world seemed darker, more dangerous. That "yesterday" was safe, but today wasn't.

When we really look at the time we were growing up in, we realize that it's not much better than today. We know that in our mind, but our emotions don't believe it.

That, I believe, is where we get the basis for the noble savage -- the dream/concept/ideal that there must have been some piont in the past where things were innocent, simple, and pure.

Since many have made an industry from the noble savage, others have made an industry from tearing the concept down with facts and figures.

But, in reality, the whole argument -- the archetype of the Noble Savage itself -- is a ghost of something else, something fundamental to most of us: That being a kid was usually a lot more fun that being an adult.

To quote Andrew Lloyd Webber: "There will be poor always/pathetically struggling/look at the good things you've got." Move along. There's nothing to see.

Blake Stacey said...

sam taylor:

That's a good point, but you're neglecting an important datum. Some of us refuse to grow up.

That's why I went into science. ;-)

Has anyone here discussed or planned something in connection with the upcoming YouTube-fueled debates?

Anonymous said...

The "things were more cheerful and fun as a kid" insight could also explain the widespread golden-age and booted-out-of-Eden myths that pervade most cultures.

As for counting blog participants, you'd also need to avoid counting sock puppets like Zorgon the Malevolent (who I suspect is David Brin himself) and try to guess how many people are behind the moniker "Anonymous Coward"...

Sam Taylor said...

Blake: I think I did make an allowance for that in the theory. At least, I tried to leave a Navajo-style flaw in the rug, so the ghosts could get through.

I had to--I haven't really grown up either. =)

But, seriously, Brin's post was pure gold for me. I've got a "noble savage" type in the novel I'm trying to write (aren't we all trying to write one? ;) ).

Anyway, to make him real, I realized that he couldn't be innocent. That, indeed, he wasn't noble and he wasn't a savage.

Then I stumbled head-long into this discussion, and thought I should share. :)

Let me go off on a somewhat related tangent, here:
John the Savage is one of the things that's always bugged me about Huxley's _Brave New World_. To me, he felt a little too sketchy and unnatural. Forced, is the term.

I guess when you're concentrating more on theme than on character, this can happen. But it still bugs me.

That's just my humble opinion, though. For every person that dares to question, three more are worshipping at the font of common knowlege.

David Brin said...

Ergon, see my own comments on Jared Diamond at:

I think he’s a perfect example of brilliant people who are fine at offering CITOKATE but whose grumpy/cynical habits and disposition make renunciation the only prescription that seems plausible to them. Certainly by far the weakest part of COLLAPSE is where Diamond extols some of the most brutal, pastoral-feudalist societies for their eco-management skills, while ignoring the fact that such civilizations make the whole business of being human seem not worth the effort.

Might as well BE trees, for that matter.

I will demur with you partway about class divisions. To SOME extent these were essential, in order to subsidize specialized labor in societies that had very little surplus. It allowed the development of writing and metallurgy and other skills... and ruling castes to ensure that it all happened smoothly. Moreover, in ill-educated times, the best “social contract” you could hope for was the IMPLICIT one Locke described, in which peasants expected to be dominated WELL, and in exchange would not cut off the king’s head.

(See elsewhere, as I discuss the flow toward an EXPLICIT social contract, which happens when education passes a series of critical phases.)

Still, let me swing around and get all radical on you and say that 90% of social stratification has always been about those who HAVE power frantically heaping on more, so that they can (1) keep it, (2) pass it on to offspring who never earned in and (3) maximize the NUMBER of offspring at the expense of others. Yes, Darwin. He’s our friend, and also the challenge of a myriad residual nasty animal traits that Enlightenment Civilization was invented to overcome.

Please, though, don’t over-push the “sorcerer” explanation of tribal violence. These anecdotes are scary, but this is not the pattern in all tribes. What DOES seem consistent is that violence can flare. And it does. Even among “peaceful” tibes.

Moreover, who is a member of your tribe - a “human being” - varies according to conditions! Sioux bands killed other Sioux bands that were members of the same clan, when droughts cut the bufflo herds down. After the herds returned, satiation allowed the horizon of inclusion to sp[read outward.

Much of the fuss in Western civ - e.g. between left and right - is over this process of allowing our wealth and comfort and safety and satiation to push our tolerance/inclusion horizons outward. I think almost a defining element of conservatism is some degree of skepticism toward this phenomenon and reluctance to give up familiar-comfortable definitions of us-them. In contrast, extreme lefties allow the process of inclusion to become a heady and self-righteous one, so fervent and perhaps even fetishistic that all of the older versions of “us” become loathesome and are seen as inherently bigoted, racist, sexist, chauvinist or losts of other ists...

...while the phenomenon I call “Otherness” becomes detached from its very simple and logical and natural causal source. The horizon expansion that happens when satiability-sanity combines with wealth and curiosity and a rising sense that empathy can mean sympathy. It is the moserate-classical “liberals” who have taken this process forward at a steady pace, perhaps stoked with a little righteousness, but also capable of accepting that the old loyalties do not need to be abandoned entirely - or spat upon - in order for inclusion and otherness and tolerance to grow.

Still, I like Sam’s psychological riff about the Noble Savage being our idyllic childhood.

Frankly, the greatest disappointment of the 20th Century was not all the wars o r the failure to get jetpacks, but the total collapse of all of the big promises of psychology around 1900. Today, even Psychiatrists have abandoned the unconscious, in favor of drugs. Ironically, I think this nadir deeply under-rates how close we may be to finding windows to that dark realm.

A number of you commented on links to uplift as a theme. I liked “anonymous’s” (pick a shorter name!) discussion of pets. In fact though, I believe that humans may be rare among sapient species in having originated as gregarioussocial omnivores with astonishingly large fractions of our population eho spend parts of their lives helpless and dependent, with anomalous amounts of our intelligence software (culturally) derived rather than wired and with strong but remarkably pliable ability to identify self with others and even abstract notions.

SOrry, I ain’t Zorgon. He does have a flair for words, though. And says cool things now and then. And is probably good looking. But we’ve never met - i think.

Kelsey you depress me. 15-20 blog members? I really need to quit this unproductive habit that takes time from other writing....


Markbnj said...

David: you asked:

Is modern civilization -- with its fermenting brew of technology, science, consumerism, production, trade, education, social mobility, egotism, extravagance and argumentation -- a worthwhile step along the road to something progressively better and wiser...

...or a mistaken wrong turn in human destiny? One that would be best corrected by a return to older and wiser ways?

Well interesting question.

Given our current government and its attempt to start a third war against Iran (thank heavens after listening to Terri Gross and today's Fresh Air it sounds like the "Cheney-ites" are losing)

I wouldn't be suprised if the two new nuc-ul-ear nations that Pres "W" has created (Iran and N. Korea) started wars that may have LEFT what was LEFT of us (if anything...) after the global winter back at the caveman days...

Which book was it with the society with 5 moons that had an eclipse every 20,000 years and kept destroying themselves (except for the priest caste, that figured this out?)

At any rate, I am surprised we haven't had a bio-terrorist attack on the US's food infrastructure yet.

Yes, we've gone the wrong way. TV destroyed our world. Radio was ok. TV was about 100 years too early...and I am writing a story about it!

NEXT QUESTION for the Cracker-Jack contributors here:

(My opinion: Hillary, Obama, are deeply flawed, with excess baggage.
Richardson is interesting, I like Bob Edwards (and he 'ain't a senator now!)

BUT.... against Rudy Gulianni (as ex ny'er I can safely say Dictator in WAITING)
and ...

They aren't what I've wanted to DEVOTE myself to this time

BUT now

MICHAEL Bloomberg (who is term-limited from having another term as mayor of NY)

has declared as independent.

I say "Go Mikey Go!!!!"


* Built a multi-billion dollar business in less then 20 years
* Good administrator, has proven in NY, he is Chief Executive officer/)PRESIDENT material
* SELF FINANCING is a NO BRAINER. He spent $150 MILLION to win his 2 terms in NYC
* almost 80-90% (not sure. need details) approval rating
* Possible savior to campaign financing Scandals??? to push reform through?
* Viewed as a positive or consencious builder, not a "tear-down" or dicatator, or wishy-washy.
* No NEGATIVE perceptions of him vis-a-vis "9-11", as opposed to "Rudy"

* A jew for President, in my lifetime??? Be still my heart (shades of JFK!)
* MUCH question about motives.
* Buying presidency?
* Vs. Rudy and Hilary? A 3 way NY race?
* Will rest of country think of this as viable?

Ideas? comments? thoughts?

Feel free to place them on my blog here

Mark Brown

Oh, and with regard to the question on the bushmen, which touched on the indian culture,
I think that the culture of the Native Americans was MUCH less "difficult" then our current civilization.

Anonymous said...


Ah, Witch Hunting..that died out with the adoption of agriculture and the start of Civiliation, right?

Oh, that's right, we abandoned it (mostly) all of 400 years ago.

It's funny, at least to me, that not one person so far has advanced a belief in "Noble Savage" gibberish, and yet we've got quite the "nasty brutish savage" contingent.

In the 18th century, it's pretty easy to understand how anyone comparing the slums of London or the life of a starving Serf in Russia to the life of a free-roaming Beduin or that of a Suix hunter would come to the conclusion that "primitive" was superior.

Today, even life in Watts is clearly superior to life as an Aboriginal - TAKEN AS A WHOLE. "As a whole", however, is not the only way to evaluate a society or culture.

When I note the close bonds among extended family in rural Mexico, and how they allow people to survive and even escape crushing poverty, I can see that it's something we may be wise to emulate without wishing that we had crushing corruption at all levels of society, and without judging Mexican society "superior" to ours.


It's true that we share over 97% of our DNA with Pan Troglodytes.

We also share over 97% of our DNA with Pan Paniscus.

Dr. Brin

Your level of readership FAR exceeds the number of active participants.

I don't know if you ever listen to the Left Wing Extremists on Pacifica (KPFK Los Angeles, cuts out around Oceanside, so probably not) but I've heard one of their hosts quote stuff from your blog twice.

People are reading, they just aren't all commenting.

Hawker the H said...

"Which book was it with the society with 5 moons that had an eclipse every 20,000 years and kept destroying themselves (except for the priest caste, that figured this out?)"

It sounds like "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov. The story was that the world had 5 (or 6?) suns, and every couple of thousand years, all 6 would line up and be eclipsed by a (unidentified) dark body, and civilization would collapse. The Church had NOT figured it out, they just knew that civilization would collapse 'in the dark time'.

Doug S. said...

Robert Silverberg expanded Asimov's short story "Nightfall" into a novel.

Tony Fisk said...


I think you know how it goes:
- if you want to reach a passive audience of millions, write novels.
- if you want to reach a more engaged, but still fairly passive audience of thousands, give speeches.
- if you want to reach an interactive, 'kate citing audience of a few dozens, then blog.

I, for one, appreciate the time you spend blogging, but only you can decide whether or not the benefits are worth it.

Meanwhile, you could always settle the question by setting up a web counter (if you haven't already got one stashed away somewhere.)

Kelsey Gower said...

Kelsey you depress me. 15-20 blog members? I really need to quit this unproductive habit that takes time from other writing....

You should not be so sad. I'm referring to 15-20 posters at any given time. I've been watching this blog for about 3 years. I've seen new commenters post for awhile and then become inactive. And a few months later I'll see them post again in one of the large threads, which means most of them are still lurking.

Don't think that the only people you are affecting with your blog writings are the people who choose to comment below.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin, are you sure you're not Zorgon? He writes exactly like you -- from general style of polemic right down to the use of punctuation, bold, links, etc. and a tendency to make non-functioning links. :)

Naum said...

Much of the fuss in Western civ - e.g. between left and right - is over this process of allowing our wealth and comfort and safety and satiation to push our tolerance/inclusion horizons outward. I think almost a defining element of conservatism is some degree of skepticism toward this phenomenon and reluctance to give up familiar-comfortable definitions of us-them. In contrast, extreme lefties allow the process of inclusion to become a heady and self-righteous one, so fervent and perhaps even fetishistic that all of the older versions of “us” become loathesome and are seen as inherently bigoted, racist, sexist, chauvinist or losts of other ists...

A spot on assessment, though I'd add not just "…ists" but "…isms" too to the list…

…15-20 blog members? I really need to quit this unproductive habit that takes time from other writing....

No!… …as an avid reader here, and one who on rare topic occasion, chimes in (and sad thing is, the minority of occurrences where I have a divergent view is when I'm more likely to post…), I'd assess that that mark is extremely low AND the readership volume is easily 100x - 1000x. Also, you're site is linked in from hundreds (that Google is showing now) or maybe 1000's of other sites and your writings are a treasure store, at least for me, as you've put into words a lot of concepts and memes that have been swirling in my mind (and probably many others). The blogging exercise is laborious, and I have been relatively inactive on my own blog (… …so I understand the time deal (there's only so many hours in a day)…

Remember too, that by pouring your thoughts on to the web, you're creating an accessible archive, for visitors to discover in coming months, and even years…

Gilmoure said...

how many people actively comment on this blog? 40? 60?

There's only one person posting here; myself. All the rest of you are strangers and thus, not people.


Markbnj said...

Gilmore said: many people actively comment on this blog? 40? 60?

There's only one person posting here; myself. All the rest of you are strangers and thus, not people.

TO quote my brain dead teen-ager:
"OMG" it IS so DARN simple!


H Hurricane said...

I know I exist, but where did all you zombies come from?

Tony Fisk said...

"Dr. Brin, are you sure you're not Zorgon? He writes exactly like you"

I think I have it:

Fyunch *click!*

(Am not a zombie: just want brainzzzz!)

Mark said...

I've heard it said that for every one commenter on a blog, you have 1000 readers (roughly speaking), so you shouldn't have anything to worry about, David.

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