Monday, July 30, 2012

The Evolution of Human Thought: Embracing artifice, abhorring nature

By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.
~The Confucian Analects

Imagine a tribe of farmers who have no myths or storytelling, few rituals, and who sometimes use harsh physical discipline to enforce a ban on their children playing. Such a peoples exist, and in their own way they embody many of the apparent paradoxes of human nature.

All Work and No Play Make the Baining the "Dullest Culture on Earth" | Psychology Today:

'via Blog this'

We humans have a nature that is a product, of well, nature. It's a result of the selective survival dilemmas and demands placed on our ancestors' brains in order to thrive as hyper-social, meme-swapping omnivores. At the same time, we have a combinatorial forebrain that allows us to link together chains of concepts and in doing so generate emotion-modifying perspectives that can be captured and preserved in cultures as ideas and norms. Those viewpoints and the behavioral flexibility that the neocortex and its associative& areas make possible also allows us to suppress& our nature, both as individuals and as societies.

In the closest mode that we have to a baseline state--life in hunter-gatherer bands and tribes--our children play for most of the day. Such loosely structured, fun-driven activity among juveniles and youths is a behavior we share with our fellow primates. I've spent who-knows-how-many hours watching the young of various sub-species of macaque monkeys as well as vervets roughhouse and wrestle and play tag. We've seen similar behavior in hunter-gathers around the globe, even separated between the New and Old Worlds for nearly ten thousand years since the end of our planet's last major glaciation period.

However, at some point in our cultural evolution as members of H. sapiens we break with the natural world and defy impulses that are readily expressed among hunter gatherers. Eventually we end up insisting that our children spend their days sitting still and learning Greek and Latin, or how to write Classical Han characters, or memorize long verses of the Prophet's revelations, or mastering abstract manipulations of numbers, rather than running around outdoors. Or we set them to work in fields or sign them into arduous apprenticeships in trades, whether in the small and often brutal kingdoms of medieval Northern Europe or in the repressive Aztec Empire. We eventually take the historically unusually step of forbidding our offspring marry and begin reproducing at around age thirteen, and instead push the age of adulthood up to 18 in order to further their educations.

This isn't to say these changes are good or bad or represent progress, but rather that they simply are.

From what I've read, this suppression of human nature doesn't take place when we move from tribes to larger, more complex chieftainships. Rather it predates that change in social organization, and it seems to start when a tribe abandons full-time hunting and foraging in favor of agriculture.

This is a shift that certainly seems to engender significant changes in worldviews. In the case of the Baining Peoples of New Guinea described in the article above, they apparently come to value a separation& from nature. They pride themselves on transforming the natural into the man made, and view work as the defining factor that separates people from animals. They look down on sex as a base necessity, and employ sometimes severe forms of corporal punishment to punish children from playing. They fear the wilderness, devalue personal initiative and expression, and praise landscapes that have been re-shaped to the needs of farming.

In other words, their paradigm to a large degree reflects the necessities of their mode of production and survival.

A similar disparagement of nature and natural behavior is well known in the feudal agricultural societies of Christian Western Europe. Among philosophers and elites the underpinnings of these beliefs did not start to come into sustained question until the Enlightenment, and it wasn't until the Romantic Era that a celebration of nature's beauty and the desirability of a more natural, less artificial life began to filter down into the emerging, industrial middle class. 

The drive for a return to a less-constrained lifestyle has accelerated in the West since then. Especially with the emergence of post-industrial economies. There have been famous cultural and sexual rebellions against agrarian mores, and in the Post-Margaret Mead era, a multi-decade glorification of a simple but more humane way of life to be found in hunter-gather societies.

Of course much of that glorification was based on a very romanticized view of life in pre-agricultural tribal societies. One that was largely constructed by Western academics to contrast with and highlight the shortcomings of industrial societies during a time of horrific world wars, and it was based on research that can only politely be termed as highly selective. It's view that overlooked the endemic violence of tribal life, and it lost much of its luster at the end of the Cold War with the resumption of ethnic-based warfare in many areas of the Developing World.

It turns out that along with restrictions on play, self-expression, and personal independence, agrarian cultural standards were highly effective at restraining blood feuds, competitions for social status, and polygamy. Societies so constrained built law-enforcement systems that--while often suborned to structures of political and economic power--did a good job of reducing levels of intra-societal violence.

Applications in speculative fiction 

The romantic view of tribal and band societies has had a huge impact on science fiction and fantasy. Much of what I read and watched as a child was product of the Post-Mead period, with heroes and heroines discovering wisdom, sexual liberation, and tolerance from shamans, tribesmen, and noble natives in exotic locations. This certainly wasn't a bad thing, as traditional agricultural norms often glorified racism and ethnocentric views that were quite cruel. They were also increasingly dangerous in a world growing smaller and more interconnected, and in which an ethnic group could conquer and rule a continent in a violent spasm of imperialism, or implement ideologically driven agendas of genocide in expansionist totalitarian systems.

Still, deep-seated conceptual flaws remained in the well-meaning rebellions against traditional agrarian beliefs. Entangled with the unrealistic vision of peaceful life in a hunter-gather world was the myth of the blank slate. The belief that there is no human nature aside from an innate goodness, and that stripping away the "arbitrary" repressive restrictions of our agricultural and industrial cultures would allow people to be happier, kinder, and less violent.

Rather than speculative fiction in the Post-Mead world, we need something more in the vein of Post-Guns, Germs, and Steel. We need fiction that does not see human culture as arbitrary, but rather as geographic adaptations that evolve in response to both the environment and historical events, as well as the emergence of new technologies. We need fiction that examines rather than reflexively damns the traditional agrarian mores that are still important to large sections of the working and middle classes, and that does not throw out the baby with the bathwater by tossing out social judgments and shame standards that restrained human greed and personal violence along with those that encouraged racist views and behaviors. We need fiction that can describe societies as a series of rocky, tension-fraught compromises between elites and the masses, rather than black-and-white conspiracies of oppression.

We also desperately need speculative fiction that incorporates what we are learning about human nature from our genes and neurology at a time when technology is starting to allow us to manipulate both these facets of who we are.

The tensions between human nature and human agricultural cultures have been with us now for about 5,000 years. We can see them in the lives individuals around the world, including those of the Baining Peoples. If we're going to find our way to a future that either resolves or peacefully harnesses those internal conflicts, we need to do a better job of acknowledging just how complicated we are as a species that lives caught between our genes and our cultures.

Capturing all that in speculative fiction would be a great place to start.

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