Primitivist Assumption

A new study in Science investigated lethal aggression in 21 hunter-gatherer societies and concluded that most deaths were due to personal disputes rather than coalitionary aggression or “war.” This speaks to the larger and ongoing debate between those (such as Napoleon Chagnon) who think that humans are innately aggressive and war-prone, and those (such as R. Brian Ferguson) who contend that the human potential for aggression historically manifests as group violence or “war” only under certain structurally predictable conditions. While I think Ferguson has the better supported and more nuanced position, even-handed accounts on this politically-charged issue are rare. A few years ago, I wrote an encyclopedia entry on “Conflict and Aggression” that essayed both sides of the issue and came down on neither. As is usually the case, there are some good points on both sides.

But this interests me less than some comments made by an author of the new study. Speaking to the BBC about the 21 hunter-gatherer societies from which the data was derived, Patrik Soderberg stated:

They are the kind of societies that don’t really rely on agriculture or domestic animals – they are primitive societies. About 12,000 years ago, we assume all humans were living in this kind of society, and that these kind of societies made up about for about 90% of our evolutionary path.

No, no, and no. Like so many others, Soderberg is working within the progressivist paradigm generated by cultural evolutionism. These societies were not arrested in time or development; they are not frozen relics of the ancestral past. Like all other peoples and societies, they continued to evolve. Their decision not to settle and take up agriculture does not make them “primitive.” We need to stop equating (and conflating) the material and technical with the cognitive and symbolic. Hunter-gatherer lifeways are at least as complex as agricultural lifeways.

Soderberg’s comment is yet another example of deeply entrenched gradistic thinking when it comes to the classification of cultures. We need to be thinking cladistically. All cultures are equally evolved, with some being more derived from ancestral conditions than others.


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31 thoughts on “Primitivist Assumption

  1. Darryl Cooper

    How can we say that hunter-gatherer lifeways are as complex as agricultural lifeways when, in most HG societies, an adolescent boy is expected essentially to become a carrier for the entire store of that society’s knowledge and symbol system? In even early agricultural societies, boys typically weren’t considered responsible carriers until a later age, and then only a narrow field of behavior and vocation.

  2. Cris Post author

    I don’t think that adolescent males in HG societies have ever been expected to become carriers of the entire store of that society’s knowledge and symbols. In fact, I don’t think that any one person in any such society was ever expected to have all this knowledge. It was always a collaborative, ongoing, oral, inter-subjective and communal effort. Those expected to have the most such knowledge would be the elders in general and shamans in particular.

    In fact, I’d take my assertion even further and assert (with no way of proving, of course) that the average person in an HG had to accumulate more kinds of knowledge over a lifetime than an average person in a specialized agricultural society. So while I would like to claim that HG societies are in a sense more complex, I won’t.

  3. Joe Miller

    “How can we say that hunter-gatherer lifeways are as complex as agricultural lifeways when, in most HG societies, an adolescent boy is expected essentially to become a carrier for the entire store of that society’s knowledge and symbol system?”

    Care to substantiate this claim?

  4. Sabio Lantz

    Your constant illustration of this “gradistic” thinking is enlightening.
    But how do we measure the truth of your statement that “All cultures are equally evolved …”?
    What does “equally” mean? Can we give “equally” a definition that escapes being a mere truism.
    All cultures evolve — in that way cultural evolution is true. But as you say, the gradistic view of evolution of any evolving in a favorite direction is a pervasively wrong idea. But “equal” evolution seems wrong too — it seems to be agenda driven in the sense that it is a rescue effort for HG cultures which have been maligned.

    Like Darryl, my antennae went us when I saw this sentence of yours:

    “I’m sure you get my precaution, but I don’t know of better wording. Just thinking out loud”.

    I thought: How do we measure “complexity” and why is “complexity” a valuable measure? In genomes, is complexity measured by number of genes or number of apparent functions or molecular functions? What is the measure in cultures? Are all systems equally complex? I guess System Mathematicians have measures of complexity. Why is complexity a valuable measure?

    Point is, to judge cultures (if we are going to do that), we need to be explicit about our measures. “Equal” is not valid without stating what is measured, and “Complexity” is no more a virtue than “older”. So though it is good to call gradistic and progressivistic assumptions, maybe your language still contains some buy in to their odd measuring. Just a thought.

  5. Darryl Cooper

    Measuring cultural complexity doesn’t necessary mean valuing them according to it. Without assigning them values, it is still interesting to ask whether HG cultures were arrested at a certain stage of development, not because of any inherent limitation in the people or their culture, but perhaps simply because they were pleased with their way of life or because they lacked an external stimulus to change. I’m not in any position to argue with Cris about it, but it seems a bit of a stretch to hold that HG societies are as advanced and complex as agricultura civilizations, only in a different direction.

    “In fact, I’d take my assertion even further and assert (with no way of proving, of course) that the average person in an HG had to accumulate more kinds of knowledge over a lifetime than an average person in a specialized agricultural society.”

    That might be true, I don’t know. Maybe the intricacies of the hunt, of crafts, of understanding the environment, etc make up for needing to be literate, to use a variety of machines, to operate in a dynamic social environment made up of thousands or more people of uncertain status in the social system, etc… But my point was more about what the individual is expected to know relative to the total knowledge necessary to make his society operate. An individual in an urban civilization doesn’t know one tenth of one percent of all the skills, crafts, lore, etc that are required to keep his city going, and he never could. An adult male in an HG society, if I exaggerated by saying he takes it all in, at least contains enough of his own society within himself that he could probably start it again from scratch if he had to. It would take thousands of specialists to re-start a complex urban civilization from scratch.

  6. Joe Miller

    “An adult male in an HG society, if I exaggerated by saying he takes it all in, at least contains enough of his own society within himself that he could probably start it again from scratch if he had to.”

    Is this claim meant to apply to simple and complex societies as James Woodburn defined them, or are you lumping all HG societies together? Are you distinguishing between sedentary are nomadic types?

    I would be shocked if one person managed to remember all of the Dreamtime stories, or if he/she could recall the whole of Kwagu’ł mythology.

  7. Cris Post author

    Darryl: When you wonder whether HG societies “were arrested at a certain stage of development,” you are assuming there is a progression and teleology toward which humans are moving or striving. When it comes to evolution in general and human evolution in particular, there is no inner or necessary impulse towards “development.” The concept of development is deeply embedded in a qualitative and cultural story that we, as “moderns” living in “civilized” societies, like to tell ourselves.

    As for HGs being pleased with their lifeways and strongly preferring them, I think there is no doubt of this. Most of the historically known HG societies stoutly resisted “development” and detested agricultural lifeways. They looked at sedentism and agriculture as narrow, monotonous, slavish, boring, dirty, work-filled, and drudge-filled. Under the pressures of development which eventually overwhelmed them in their ever-diminishing foraging refugia, they lamented (and still lament) those lost lifeways.

    With respect to your last paragraph, I think you are confusing the issues. Let’s be clear about whose perspective we are taking: that of an average individual in a society. We aren’t talking about what it would take to create a macro-level society and make the whole thing function. We are talking about what an average person in that society needs to know in order to function within it.

    From this micro-level individual perspective, one would be hard pressed to say that a worker in a “developed” agricultural or industrial society needs to know more than an average HG. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. The latter must know how to make tools, navigate landscapes, handle weather, make clothes, build shelters, know animals, understand botany, etc. In addition, the social skills required to live in HG societies are formidable: they are literally matters of life and death. Kin is not limited to nuclear family and immediate relatives; the social circle of kin is large and all kinds of kin terminology, kin rules, and kin obligations must be learned and observed. And all this aside, there is a great deal of abstract cultural learning embedded in all of the foregoing.

    When I read HG ethnohistory and ethnography, I’m regularly amazed at what would have been required in order to maintain that lifeway. When I read about the majority (i.e., the always huge underclass) in large or complex societies, I rarely if ever think the same thing. I’m not much amazed by what underclasses need to know in order to survive in such societies. In my estimation, it’s not a whole lot and few social skills are needed. Some narrow specialization and a focus on a particular skill, along with a family and few friends, doesn’t seem very demanding.

  8. Cris Post author

    Sabio: The proper measure, the one I’ve been advocating in all these posts, is simply this: if an organism exists, it is equally evolved with all other organisms. Evolution is not qualitative or directional.

    We can of course impose qualitative ideas on evolution (and often do), and can make judgments about directionality (and often do), but we must recognize those for what they are: Homo-centric (in the case of biological evolution) and ethnocentric (in the case of so-called “cultural evolution”).

    In evolutionary biology, we don’t say that humans are more evolved than gibbons or aye-ayes. These taxa are equally evolved but derived in different directions. Each taxa has an evolutionary history that is unique. None of these taxa ever stopped evolving. None of them were ever “arrested in their development” toward some kind of human-like template. If a taxa exists, it is by definition equally evolved with all others.

    We should use this same procedure for cultures. If a culture exists, it is equally evolved with all other cultures. There are no “primitive” cultures.

  9. Darryl Cooper

    Arrested was a poor word choice. I didn’t mean to imply the existence of some internal impulse that was somehow short-circuited. Only that whichever environmental impulses that drove certain groups to agriculture did not exist for other groups. HG life certainly preceded agricultural life; agricultural groups were once HGers. Presumably, if the environmental impulses that drive some groups to agriculture were present for other groups, those groups would have taken up the plow as well (or died). That is all I meant, not a value-laden notion of progress. All were once HGers. Some we’re required by circumstances to take up agriculture. Others, not facing the same requirements, remained in the HG way of life.

  10. Jason

    Isn’t it rather peculiar that it just so happened that when human beings began living closer to each other in a more settled agrarian lifestyle that warfare took off?

  11. Jason

    All cultures are equally evolved. This depends on how you are defining the word “evolved”. Its a tricky word. If you go by population numbers. I think you will find something like 99% of the 6.5 billion people on the planet live in a state-level agricultural, industrial level of society.

  12. Cris Post author

    It’s not a tricky word in biology and that’s the way I am suggesting it needs to be used. If something is alive or if it exists, then it is equally evolved with all other life forms. All living organisms have evolutionary histories of equal time depth.

    Population numbers don’t have anything to do with the issue. If it did, we would forced to conclude that microbes are the most evolved of all organisms.

  13. Jason

    “We need to stop equating (and conflating) the material and technical with the cognitive and symbolic.” Perhaps equating or conflating is not helpful. But clearly the two are strongly dependent.
    A h/g society is not going to have written symbols like an agrarian society will. A culture that relies on heavily on fishing will probably have fish totems and “gods”, one that relies on hunting buffalo will probably have buffalo symbolism.

  14. Jason

    Darwins theory of evolution is all about population numbers. The less fit die out, the more fit, prosper.

  15. Cris Post author

    Along with survival, differential fitness is in fact the mechanism by which natural selection works on individual organisms.

    But population numbers say nothing about “simple-primitive” or “complex-advanced.”

  16. Cris Post author

    Nor will people living in a society dependent on reading and writing have the considerable (and now mostly lost) oral, hearing, and cognitive skills required to speak, remember, contribute, and function in a foraging society.

  17. Darryl

    Even though all existing species are working with the same temporal depth, I think it would be wrong to insist that a microorganism that has lived in an isolated sub-glacial antarctic lake is equally evolved with creatures subject to less stable environments. I assume this is a simplified version of the argument people would make with regard to cultures that survived in relative isolation and environmental stability, such as the examples Bellah uses in his book (the Kalapala, etc).

  18. Cris Post author

    From a biological and cladistic perspective, it is not wrong to insist that microbes are equally evolved. It’s just a fact. I realize that gradistic and anthropocentric perspectives die hard, but you should try harder. This is a quantitative issue, not a qualitative one. Now, if you want to talk about whether microbes are more or less derived from the Last Common Ancestor, that’s fine with me. But they are equally evolved with all other living organisms.

    So I don’t see this as a simplified version of any story about isolation and stability, ala Bellah and others. Bellah is a prime offender when it comes to gradistic views on “cultural evolution.” Never mind that cultures don’t evolve, but that’s a different issue.

  19. Frans Couwenbergh

    Dear Cris,
    Your firm view is: >>We need to be thinking cladistically. All cultures are equally evolved, with some being more derived from ancestral conditions than others.<>and that these kind of societies made up about for about 90% of our evolutionary path. — No, no, and no. Like so many others, Soderberg is working within the progressivist paradigm generated by cultural evolutionism.<<
    However, Cris, if you assume that those features are no instincts, derived from a million practiced way of life of our HG ancestors – a way of life acquired as best for the survival – how could they have been emerged in the present-day HG-bands and in our newborn children?

  20. Frans Couwenbergh

    Possibly my reply was too detailed. So here a short reply
    A cladistic view on our origin is a biological, a taxonomic view. It would implicate that we see our ancestors from earlier than 12.000 years ago as beings of separate species. Separate species cannot get beget fertile offspring.
    First: recent genetic research provides evidence of 4% genetic heritage of Early Humans.
    Second: human evolution is only partially biological, it is above all cultural. The relevant features are cultural, and not biological.

  21. Frans Couwenbergh

    There is a third argument for consideration about your opinion that HG societies continue to evolve like all other peoples and societies.
    That is that a species only changes if its environment changes. The same applies to cultural change. The lack of change in the HG-lifestyle of our Early Human ancestors – more than a million years of the same design of hand axe – is still astonishing. The first change among them was the transition from primarily sign language to primarily vocal communication among one population somewhere in East Africa around 200,000 years ago. It brought this population to be slightly less committed to conservatism and to start making tools also from bone and ivory. With the new materials they could fabricate harpoons. This new weapons opened a new niche: the water animals and water plants. This new rich food source enabled this population to live in larger bands: no longer the limited numbers of 15-25 people of the Early Human bands (three huts), but 50-100 people (10-20 huts).
    A new idea, emerging in a small group, gets little support and dies in beauty. But in a large group it gets more easily support. Larger groups split easily, so the number of groups increases. The exchange between those groups intensify, and with it the exchange of new ideas and techniques.
    It may be clear that this population are our nearest ancestors: the Anatomical Modern humans (AMHs).
    For the first time, after more than a million years of almost standstill, some development and change arose in human culture. But the real development and change that is so characteristic for today’s humanity, started very modestly some 12.000 years ago, with HG groups in transition to a new economy: agriculture. It’s the economy, stupid, that changes human’s lifestyle and mind. Most HG-groups maintained their ancestral HG lifestyle and mentality, until in modern times, with colonization and missionary, they went to their demise. But until then, there has been little or no change or development, and could those groups be considered as ‘frozen in time’, and reliable examples of ancestral lifestyle and mentality. Well ‘mapped’ by Peter Gray!

  22. Frans Couwenbergh

    I have to withdraw my comment of 21 August: I was wrong in interpreting ‘cladistically’ pure biologically. Of course one may view cultural evolution cladistically.
    Thinking cladistically, we see the AGR-branch culturally evolving from domesticating cereals and animals unto reaching the Moon in 1969. The GH-branch, however, until our times not seeing any need to swap the comfortable GH-lifestyle for the woesome AGR-lifestyle, did not further evolve and remained ‘frozen in time’, as a negativists will formulate it. You self emphasize that a GH- lifestyle is anything but shiftless, only primitive in the literal sense, and so sophisticated that only being (self-)educated as a GH, an AGR, even stepped out of an Apollo 11, could live this style.
    They are not ‘arrested in time’, but only not motivated to change a good lifestyle. The ‘development’ of the agriculture-branch may be interpreted as a further plodding on a wrong path. Once again. The first step of humanity was already on a non-evitable, wrong path. But a path of no return.

  23. Gyrus

    First off Cris, great blog – just discovered it and subscribed immediately.

    On this issue, obviously our language is a large part of it. Early in the discussion here, there arose two ideas of cultural complexity: one which was gauged by the complexity of the information an individual needed to function properly in society, and one which was gauged by the complexity of the information embodied in the entire society. The argument seemed to be going forward on the premise that one of these is what cultural complexity actually is. I’m not sure I can decide between them – and maybe we shouldn’t. Does anthropology have terms to distinguish them? They would help clarify the debate a lot!

    I suspect that if there are terms available, they’ll be hard to insert into popular discourse. And that’s another level of the issue. In one sense I’m find with the quote you give and critique. On something like the BBC, maybe they could have used slightly finer terminology, but there will always be a level of generalization outside specialist works. Obviously that’s exactly where the old prejudices of gradistic thinking happen, and need to be challenged. But I’m not holding my breath for terms like ‘grade’ and ‘clade’ to become widely known enough to drop into a mass media soundbite.

    You use the term “derived” in favour of “evolved”, which could be useful. But while – I must stress – I’m 100% with you in opposition to gradistic thinking, I don’t think terminology switches can work in themselves. I remember something James Hillman said about the shifting of words for mental illnesses: that while he appreciated the desire to shed old baggage, he felt that what often happened was that the new terminology allowed us to sweep the baggage under the carpet. He preferred to use older terms sometimes, in order to keep the baggage firmly in the room, to be dealt with directly. Charting the evolution (or derivation? 😉 ) of one term, he said that the frequency of shifts showed a kind of jittery cultural evasion, and that we would know the baggage had been properly dealt with when the term stopped changing. I’m not saying we should never change terminology, of course. But I’m wary of new terms becoming, in some cases, ways of not fully dealing with issues.

    I’m often trying to make people more aware of the distinction between simple and complex hunter-gatherers, fully aware of the teleological baggage there. But I struggle to find other suitable adjectives. And it becomes tedious to give a mini-lecture about evolutionary concepts each time! A toughie. I think the only thing to do for now is keep the terms, and periodically address the evolutionary issue.

  24. Cris Post author

    Hi Gyrus — glad you found and enjoy the blog. Sorry for the late reply; I’ve been out of town.

    As for the first question, I’m not aware of any terms that distinguish between the stock of knowledge/skill that a hypothetical average person needs to function competently in the two kinds of societies. This is simply an observation I’ve made after many years of reading hunter-gatherer ethnography-ethnohistory. I’m actually less interested in arguing that average people in agricultural-industrial societies are narrow dolts and more interested in causing people to understand that life as a hunter-gatherer is complex. It’s at least as complex (and I suspect more so) than idealized life in other kinds of societies. I think the key here is to evaluate “cultural complexity” not from the macro-perspective of the society as a whole, but from the standpoint of an idealized “average” person within the society. This helps bring things into focus.

    As for the terminology, your suggestions are well taken. My sense is that after 150 years of unchanged usage (i.e., “primitive” and “simple”), the underlying issues have not been addressed and the same terminology is being used. Thus, I’m strongly inclined to address the issues and change the terminology. This is something I’m doing on the blog and in my other writing.

  25. Gyrus

    What’s the range of terminology you’ve come to use with reference to “simple” vs. “complex” hunter-gatherers? I’m thinking of general usage in a book-length work that wouldn’t be cumbersome.

  26. Cris Post author

    It’s my sense that the only people who bother to distinguish between “simple” and “complex” hunter-gatherers are anthropologists (and archaeologists). When used in this professional or disciplinary way, I don’t have any objection to using the terms — it’s a useful shorthand. Most anthropologists understand what these terms signify, without the “primitive” baggage.

    Because I don’t think that this professional usage spills over into popular discourse (and thus does not reinforce the usual stereotypes), I have not given much thought to alternate usages for these typologies. I have occasionally seen people distinguish between the two using “nomadic” and “sedentary,” which clearly correspond to simple/complex. Now that I think about it, these are the terms I use rather than “simple/complex.”

  27. Gyrus

    I’m working on a book which in part is concerned with this distinction. And I think the fact that it’s largely restricted to specialists is something that needs addressing (as your original post demonstrates). But yes – “nomadic” and “sedentary” are a pretty good way forward!

  28. Larry Stout

    Darwin and a great many others have demonstrated that organic variation, evolution, natural selection, and adaptation operate. And geological history demonstrates that no species is eternal. In a purely paleoanthropological or historical sense, we may regard ANCIENT hunter-gatherers as primal, or primary, without resorting to the loaded term “primitive”. And, as Cris observes, modern hunter-gatherers are not culturally unevolved remnants of Stone Age man; they are diverse, unique groups as far along on the cultural phylogenetic tree as we who read and post here, on different branches. Cultural divergence does not place one group “ahead” of another on the evolutionary track. I am among those who believe that urbanism is wholly antithetical to our biological, and our concomitant cultural, adaptive state. We are seduced by and addicted to the materialism and excessive leisure (for some) spawned by sedentism, agriculture, and complexly integrative technologies, but we seem to be on what may be an ultimately maladaptive path of extinction. Keep in mind that in the big picture we are no less subject to natural catastrophe than trilobites (who did not survive the great Permian mass extinction), or the dinosaurs (some of which survive only as birds). Astrophysicists tell us that a coronal mass ejection from the sun could fry every electrical grid on the planet, and that it would take 50-100 years to replace it. What happens to 7 billion people waiting generations for the lights to come back on? Perhaps the few survivors would be hunting and gathering instead of rigging new wiring. And what will the inevitable (and now overdue) next big blow at Yellowstone do to us? Not to mention Chicxulub II. Sic transit.

  29. longtooth

    You stated: “Hunter-gatherer lifeways are at least as complex as agricultural lifeways.”

    Would you mind defining the term “complex” since the validity of your statement hinges on the definition you give the term. I make a simple comparison: Which is more complex? Building an atom / nuclear bomb (or flying machines, jet engines, radar, internal combustion engines, calculators, cannon’s, ad-infinitum), or creating an arrow-head from flint-stone (or hunting game, building a fire, creating crude shelters, coverings from animal hides… etc.)? Or I can make the comparison to building a wind-mill to pump irrigation water and the flint arrow-head if you want to restrict the definition of “complex” to early agricultural v. hunter-gatherer societies.

    If you restrict “complex” to comparisons’ of hunter-gatherer to early agro societies’ “lifeways”, then your definition of “complex” seems to be predicated upon something I can’t quite figure out. If you don’t restrict the definition to comparisons of hunter-gatherer and early agro societies, then your definition of “complex” appear to have any relationship to be the normal, commonly accepted definition of the term.

  30. Cris Post author

    I think I stated somewhere (in this post or another one) that I would argue this point even further, and contend that the average individual hunter-gatherer needs to know (and be expert in) a much broader range of subjects, and possess a much wider range of skills, than the average individual agriculturalist or industrialist.

    This is a hypothetical which compares what an average individual hunter-gatherer must know (and do expertly) versus what an average person living in an agricultural or industrial society must know (and do expertly) in order to survive and thrive. I think most anthropologists, especially those who focus on foragers or study hunter-gatherers, would agree that the range of knowledge and skill required for an average forager far exceeds the knowledge and skill required for an average peasant or factory/office worker. Heck, I would say that the average forager has a far greater range of knowledge and skill than lawyers in our society. And I say this as an attorney.

    In foraging societies, individuals have to know and do everything. Their lives depend on expert knowledge in geography, plants, animals, meteorology, seasonality, hydrology, self-made technology (i.e., tools), shelter, clothing, fire/cooking, and last but certainly not least: social skills both within the immediate group and outside the group (either friendly interaction via trade/marriage or aggressive interaction via raiding/war). Such people are generalists.

    In agricultural/industrial societies, the division of labor means that the majority of people or masses will learn only a narrow skill. Such people are specialists. Your examples of complexity require the input of large numbers of specialists, each of whom may contribute some tiny thing to the whole, but no individual is responsible for any of those things.

    I’m always amused when I hear people who possess a single narrow skill by which they earn money to buy the things they need (all things which foragers provide for themselves) state that hunter-gatherers were so “primitive.” It might be that specialization, at the individual level, is in fact the “primitive” state and constitutes a kind of existential regression, or reversion toward being idiot savants. I’ll the be the first to admit guilt.

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