Unnatural Histories

Were humans happier as Stone Age hunter-gatherers? This is the question asked, but not answered, by historian Yuval Noah Harari in this Guardian piece which previews his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Weirdly, the book is being described as an “international best-seller” even though it won’t be published until February of 2015. That is quite an accomplishment! Those who don’t want to wait can take Harari’s Coursera class which apparently led to the writing of the book. In the course description, we get a much better sense for Harari’s answer(s) to the initial question:

  • We rule the world because we are the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in our own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
  • Humans are ecological serial killers – even with stone-age tools, our ancestors wiped out half the planet’s large terrestrial mammals well before the advent of agriculture.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud – wheat domesticated Sapiens rather than the other way around.
  • Money is the most universal and pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised. Money is the only thing everyone trusts.
  • Empire is the most successful political system humans have invented, and our present era of anti-imperial sentiment is probably a short-lived aberration.
  • Capitalism is a religion rather than just an economic theory – and it is the most successful religion to date.
  • The treatment of animals in modern agriculture may turn out to be the worst crime in history.
  • We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.
  • Humans will soon disappear. With the help of novel technologies, within a few centuries or even decades, Humans will upgrade themselves into completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities. History began when humans invented gods – and will end when humans become gods. 

This doesn’t sound very original, even if it is (as the course description states and book blurb promises) “provocative.” In fact, it sounds like a macro-historical rendering of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael (1992). The description of Lecture 4 (“The Human Flood”) also sounds familiar:

Following the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread all over the planet. While doing this, it drove numerous other species to extinction. In Australia, up to 95% of all large animal species vanished. In America, 84 of 107 large mammal species disappeared. Altogether, about half of the large terrestrial mammals that populated Earth became extinct. How could a few million individuals who possessed no more than Stone Age technology have caused such devastation?

These are questions asked, and persuasively answered, in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994). I just finished Flannery’s magisterial tome last week and can say it’s one of the better books I’ve read over the past year. Those interested in this topic should also read The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) by Bill Gammage. These two books are natural companions and essential background reading for those who wish to understand Aboriginal worldviews.


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11 thoughts on “Unnatural Histories

  1. Larry Stout

    Yes, we are ecological serial killers. Now we’re trying to kill the entire biosphere. Some experts contend that animal domestication preceded cereals domestication, which began as accidental plantings of foraged seeds around domiciles where animals were kept. No one can say how happy hunter-gatherers were; I good guess would be a mixed bag of very good days, very bad days, and a lot of ho-hum days in between, as now. Empires experience the rise-and-fall phenomenon in common with all other polities by any other name. Sic transit.

    Humans indeed will disappear, but it will be from extinction, not apotheosis. People don’t trust money: how high did the Deutschmark soar after WWII? A wheelbarrowful (and counting) for a loaf of bread, wasn’t it? And did you ever attempt to buy something at the Dubai duty-free with Pakistani rupees? I did (as an attempt at humor, but the oh-so-smartly-dressed sales lady was not amused).

  2. Steve Lawrence

    While we can’t know how happy hunter-gatherers were, it makes sense that a life lived in harmony with the way your specie evolved is likely to be a satisfying one. A dog that can’t be a dog is not as happy as one who gets to act dog-like. Humans might learn from this idea.

  3. Bob Wells

    Until his last point I agreed totally with everything he said. I’m not quite sure what his last point was, but at first blush I couldn’t agree.

    It does seem like all the valid research of H-Gs in he last century does point to them being much happier than we are today and for exactly the reason that Steve Lawrence proposes.

    It also seems like all the current research of who is happy today points to the most advanced counties as being the least content with their lives and the least advanced countries being the most satisfied with their lives.

    The research also seems to show that with every passing year, we seem to be less and less happy with our lives. Not a good trend.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,
    So I am unclear. Do you essentially agree with Harari, even if you want to point out “this ain’t new”? And you agree with Flannery, Gammage and Quinn, right?

  5. Cris Post author

    With respect to Harari, I haven’t taken his course or read his book (which has not yet been published), so I can’t say whether I agree with him or not. I became interested in his work by reading the Guardian article, which I thought did a fair job of going back and forth on the issue (i.e., were Stone Age hunter-gatherers “happier”?) without resolving it. It at least framed the issues in a way that makes us think. As for the bullet point list that accompanies his Coursera class description, it seems highly speculative and polemical (especially for a professional historian). Moreover, it’s not original.

    With respect to Quinn, I think Ishmael is a provocative book. It’s a book that is good to think with, and good to think about, whether one agrees with it or not. I had never read (or even heard about) Quinn and his novel until Connor Wood left a comment here stating that some of my points “sounded like warmed over Daniel Quinn” or something to that effect. This made me curious so I read Ishmael this summer. Although I quite enjoyed it (and recommend that you read it), I don’t disagree with it or agree with it. Quinn has some good points and provocative arguments, some of which I agree with and others with which I don’t. The value of the book, in my estimation, is that it interrogates the dominant narratives of our time, and forces us to think about the assumptions hidden and embedded in those narratives. I count this a good thing, whether I agree with Quinn or not.

    Flannery’s book is science (with some policy issues thrown in at the end), so the only basis for agreeing or disagreeing would be whether it’s good science or bad science. Though I’m no expert in Australasian prehistory, paleontology, geology, flora/fauna, ecosystems, and early Aboriginal culture, Flannery certainly is and he’s a splendid science writer. When his evidence is weak or uncertain, he frankly acknowledges it, which is always refreshing. In the end, I did not find much in the book with which to disagree. In fact, I so enjoyed the book (and Flannery’s expert style) that I just ordered The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples.

    Gammage’s book may have been inspired by Flannery’s contention that Aborigines have been “managing” (through firestick farming) Australian ecosystems for the past 50,000 years, and it too is a science book. So agreeing or disagreeing with it boils down to matters of data, theory, logic, and evidence. Again, I’m not expert in this particular field, but the science strikes me as being pretty good.

  6. Gyrus

    Cris, reading one Amazon review of Flannery’s book titled ‘The insatiable predator’, I can only assume, given your high praise for the book, that this reviewer is layering their own spin on here? I’ve never been able to take claims about “the myth of the Noble Savage” being demolished the same way since reading Ter Ellingson’s fascinating book on this topic. I have come across naive people who seem to believe in this ludicrous myth, i.e. seeing indigenous people as entirely peaceful, and “in harmony with nature” in a very simplistic sense. Obviously, none of these people have actually studied any relevant literature, and don’t realize they’re acting to flesh out a straw man which is vital to people who are opposed to any sympathies with indigenous people.

    Flannery’s book sounds great, and I don’t want to judge his attitudes based on a review. But I’m curious. Does he draw any contrasts between other animals entering foreign ecosystems, and humans doing the same? And between foragers entering foreign ecosystems, vs. agriculturalists / industrialists? I’ve no doubt that humans per se may be more destructive than other species in this sense. But I’m very wary of a loss of complexity, i.e. a lack of appreciation of the changes in dynamics between different human ways of life. The “Noble Savage” myth is most pernicious in this sense: that its naivety is easily demolished, and leaves one with an equally naive / one-dimensional idea of what is “natural” for humans (e.g. “the insatiable predator”). I guess it comes down to a pretty complex question: how can we compare and contrast the Quaternary and the Holocene extinction events, rather than just lumping them together into a “destructive humanity” excuse (why stop now? it’s what we do).

  7. Cris Post author

    This review is certainly a personal and/or political spin on Flannery’s book. While Flannery quite clearly, soberly, and scientifically recounts human impacts on new or novel environments, he does not do so in an overtly polemical way. The facts, to the extent they are known, speak for themselves without any additional glosses. I kept waiting for the part where he would take early Aboriginals and Melanesians to task for all these extinctions, but he never does.

    His point is that when behaviorally modern humans (i.e., prehistoric hunter-gatherers) entered new environments outside of Africa and some parts of Eurasia, the biomass was so huge — and naive of humans — that the easy-to-kill bounty seemed limitless. So the early generations of hunter-gatherers lived incredibly large, but later generations — now faced with extinctions and prey shortages — had to learn hard adaptive lessons about ecosystems, carrying capacities, and conservation. This means that the hunter-gatherer cultures that have been observed over the past 500 years or so have generally gone through a very long process (in the Australian case, tens of thousands of years) of cultural adaptation, all of which was forced by much earlier extinctions that were no doubt profligate and predatory.

    The Amazon review you linked is not entirely wrong because it’s reasonable to infer that earliest generation hunter-gatherers (e.g., Clovis in the Americas or the Maori in New Zealand) in new environments engage in large-scale overkill which prompts long and painful responses toward more sustainable equilibriums. One way of putting it would be to say that Early Generation hunter-gatherers are almost uniformly detrimental to ecosystems, but that Later Generation hunter-gatherers must grapple with these changes and adapt. It should go without saying that things get much, much worse when agriculturalists enter these ecosystems, and Flannery makes this case. I think you would really enjoy his book.

  8. Gyrus

    Thanks for the clarifications, Cris. Looking forward to the book, assured I won’t be having to wade through polemics!

    I’ve never read Daniel Quinn, but I recall someone writing about the Noble Savage myth quoting him as saying foragers as “as harmless as wolves and sharks” – making a striking and subtler-than-it-seems point. Foragers aren’t “harmless” in the “Noble Savage” sense, but relative to agriculturalists, they seem to be closer to the slow-motion rough-and-tumble of ecosystems.

  9. Chris Tolworthy

    are you sure the book is not yet published? Maybe it’s just delayed in America? Here in the UK I can download it today, and the reviews refer to particular pages, suggesting that others have finished it already,

  10. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure, but it’s pre-order on Amazon US and I couldn’t find it elsewhere. I’m sure that review copies went out early, perhaps in galley or review copy form.

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