A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In “Civilized to Death,” Christopher Ryan argues that our nomadic ancestors were better off than we are today.
As the 21st century progresses, it seems clear society has gone cattywampus in an astonishing number of ways. Our elected leaders appear to be more bumbling, sinister, and narcissistic than ever before. Our waterways are choked with cup lids and chemicals. Our relationships are strained and distant. And technology is nudging us ever closer to blowing up the planet, whether literally or metaphorically.
The way out of this global maelstrom, says author and podcaster Christopher Ryan, is to look closely at how our early human ancestors chose to live — and to tear down the structure of values, innovations, and social hierarchies that supports modern civilization. Prehistoric life wasn’t always as short, nasty, and brutal as we assume, Ryan argues in “Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress,” and what we’re conditioned to call progress must be uprooted. “Civilization,” he says, “is like a hole our clever species dug and then promptly fell into.”
Ryan launches his argument with the caveat that he’s not interested in rewinding the clock. “I harbor no illusions about ‘noble savages’ or ‘getting back to the garden,’” he writes. But the bulk of the book suggests just the opposite: that hunter-gatherer societies should be emulated, despite vanishingly rare opportunities to do so in an urbanized world.
In chapter after chapter, Ryan makes the earnest case that modern civilization is inferior to our ancestral past. Tens of thousands of years ago, he writes: “Life was good. Plenty birdies. Plenty fishies. Plenty mongongo nuts.’’ His prose — often zingy and colorful — outlines a dark vision of how short we fall compared to our forebears, without offering all that much in the way of solutions.
When humans lived in roving hunter-gatherer bands, Ryan asserts, they were generally egalitarian, with no entrenched power structures locking them into a certain lot in life. If a group member grew too big for his or her britches, the rest of the group could move on and leave the power-drunk upstart behind. But that egalitarian idyll slipped away when humans took up agriculture. Once farming anchored people in place, he says, social hierarchies solidified and the fates of many grew subject to the whims of a few, spawning modern afflictions like wealth disparities, monarchies, and even slavery.
“The change wasn’t merely a pivotal point in how our species lived in the world,” Ryan writes. “It marked a fundamental shift in what kind of world human beings inhabited.” He grounds his argument in the research of Brian Fagan, an archaeologist who has studied how humans’ social mobility decreased once they were tethered to static locations. Maybe so, but Ryan downplays the fact that agriculture also allowed many more humans to exist in the first place.
The malaise isn’t just cultural, according to Ryan: It’s biological. Civilization itself, he says, has spawned scores of diseases that have felled millions. He bolsters his argument with research showing that illnesses like smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis arose when humans took up agriculture and started living in close quarters with animals. Again, though, he focuses on one side of the story, failing to acknowledge some of the health risks that accompany the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, for example, first appeared when a simian virus made the leap to humans who hunted primates, perhaps when a chance knife slip allowed a hunter’s blood to mingle with that of a prey animal.
Continuing this pattern of tailoring examples to fit his theory, Ryan posits that modern society also falls short on the nurturing front. In a paean to attachment parenting, he describes numerous anthropology studies showing that babies born into egalitarian bands are given near-constant attention and soothing. This, he states, while referencing the work of author Jean Liedloff, gives them “a precognitive sense of being wanted and loved.” Perhaps, but what goes unsaid is that such conditions already exist in many pockets of modern society, in the form of more liberal parental leave policies and parenting support groups, for example, and even the “babywearing” movement. Not to mention that children in foraging bands are far less likely to make it to their first birthdays.
Given the fulfillment and strong bonds hunter-gatherers enjoy today in places like the Brazilian rainforest, Ryan argues, they nearly always shun the modern world when they’re exposed to it. “Foragers almost never join civilization willingly,” he states, citing linguist Daniel Everett, who was surprised by how little interest members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe had in entering modern society.
While that may be true, there are very few hunter-gatherer societies that are able to make such a decision in today’s increasingly urban, deforested world. And even though his claim that we should aspire to foragers’ close social ties is on target, it’s very hard to envision most people in modern society giving it all up to join a hunter-gatherer clan.
None of these critiques detract from Ryan’s many salient points about modern ills. It’s true that social change is outpacing our brains’ and bodies’ ability to adapt to it, and that we have failed to tailor our resource consumption to our planet’s available limits. It’s also true that we’re allowing our technology to control us.
What’s more, Ryan’s book is unquestionably well-timed. With outsized wildfires raking the American West and high seas swallowing coastlines the world over, the reading public is primed to accept the notion that civilization has reached critical condition.
Ryan’s cardinal sin, however, is overreach. He refers darkly to “the otherworldly price we and other creatures on this planet are paying” for our species’ crowning intellectual achievements. But this framing suggests causality where there is none. It isn’t the fault of artists or scientists that our states and ecosystems have fallen into crisis.
Rather than leaning on the sexy-but-unpersuasive case that civilization is plain poison, Ryan might have focused more on what hunter-gatherers have done right and pivoting sooner to how we might recreate the best aspects of our ancestral past — insofar as it’s possible.
He does devote several pages to suggesting we try psychedelic drugs to refresh our perspective and reduce our suffering, much as ancient shamans did. He also proposes that we swap corporate hierarchies for egalitarian “peer networks,” a term coined by pop-science author Steven Johnson — this arrangement Ryan says would better reflect “the social networks in which our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years.” And he argues for a global guaranteed basic income that would somehow discourage people from having children. (How this would work is unclear.) But compared to the depth and breadth of his argument against civilization, his proposed fixes are short on details.
Ryan is right to highlight the aspects of modern life that have gone off the rails. Our habits of mind, of innovation, and of consumption have brought us closer to a precipice. But it’s going to take still more innovation — and, yes, progress — to pull us back from the edge.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.”