Tuesday, September 1, 2009

198. Utopia, Then and Now -- part 3

So, was our ancestral society a Utopia? Not exactly. For one thing, Thomas More's Utopia was an agricultural society, while early homo sapiens were almost certainly hunter-gatherers. Utopia had towns, but there's no evidence of towns during the Old Stone Age. Utopia had fortifications, but there's no evidence of Old Stone Age fortifications either. Perhaps they weren't needed. Utopia was a hierarchical society, with magistrates of varying degrees of power, and also a prince, but, as seems likely, our ancestors, like today's Pygmies and Bushmen, were non-hierarchical and acephalus. Also, the Utopians, believe it or not, had slaves.

More's remarkable book notwithstanding, the word "Utopia" has come to imply some kind of ideal society -- too ideal, perhaps, to actually exist. So did our ancestors live in an ideal society? A paradise? Was theirs a Golden Age? A "Utopia"?

For an answer, you can read any number of books and articles on the Pygmies and Bushmen, listen to their recorded music, watch the films -- and decide for yourself. You'll find opinions pro and con, and you can make up your own mind. Sadly -- tragically -- you may not be able to find any of these societies actually functioning in the world of today, since most have been hobbled or destroyed by forces beyond their control -- from the inroads of farmers or logging camps, the social pressures exerted by missionary groups, or, more recently, the forces of what is known as "market reform" or "the global economy," the same forces that are currently tearing our own world apart.

I personally find it difficult to see Pygmy or Bushmen societies as Utopias, either in the literal sense, as more primitive replicas of the community fantasized by Thomas More, or in the generic sense of an ideal society, where everyone gets along perfectly, disputes are rare, and always settled fairly and without violence. On the contrary, what we learn from those who've spent time with them in the field is that individuals can be quick to speak their mind if something bothers them, which means that disputes, especially marital disputes (with the wife often the aggressor, according to Kisliuk (p. 141)) are not unusual and serious violence, though rare, is not unheard of. This is only to be expected. In any society that values both group integration and individual autonomy, tensions are going to emerge, people are going to assert themselves, and there is always the possibility of violence.

What especially troubles me, to be honest, is the tendency by many of our intellectuals and public pundits to make exactly the sort of "romantic," idealizing statements descried by Kisliuk and ridiculed by the revisionists. While I've been defending my own findings against their dismissive attacks, their attitude is understandable given the widespread tendency for laymen and even professional anthropologists to make unwarranted assumptions when writing about hunter-gatherers. A case in point is a book I'm currently leafing through, entitled After Eden, by Kirkpatrick Sale, who decides, on the basis of very little evidence indeed, that homo erectus must have lived in much the same manner as contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, or what he calls "immediate-return" societies. Quoting some of Colin Turnbull's more enthusiastic descriptions of the Mbuti, he concludes, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, as follows:
Thus the ethnographic record provides a striking picture of the coherence and concord of immediate-return societies, who are after all managing for the most part . . . to carry on traditions that in many respects date back more than a million years. Back to the Erectus, who, if we accept the premise that all immediate-return societies must look pretty much alike, can be regarded as having lived in some generally similar way.

The worldview of the Mbutis: that is what I take to be the worldview of Erectus (p. 118).
Far too much of this sort of rubbish has been written and uncritically accepted by far too many. So much so, that it's not surprising when we find serious professionals responding with dismissive and insulting knee-jerk reactions in the opposite direction. What too often gets lost in all the posturing and rhetoric is exactly what was neglected in the first place: the evidence. As someone who prides himself on following the evidence, I find myself caught in the middle, where it's all too easy to be mis-perceived as yet another one of those hopeless "romantics," drawing extravagant conclusions on the basis of unwarranted assumptions.

As far as the evidence is concerned, it's important to emphasize the fact that all "immediate-return societies" do not look alike. For one thing, a great many such societies around the world, whether strictly hunter-gatherers or nearly so (e.g., part-time swidden gardeners), can be extremely violent, waging continual warfare with their neighbors and in some cases, until recently at least, engaging in head-hunting and cannibalism. While a great many such groups worldwide do tend to be egalitarian and non-hierarchical, strong leaders do emerge, in the form of so-called "big men," and what may well have begun as pygmy/bushmen-like customs of communal sharing have sometimes morphed into elaborate and occasionally destructive systems of extravagant gift-exchange, not too different from what we would call conspicuous consumption.

It's also important to understand that we have very few means of uncovering any aspects whatever of the non-material culture of either homo erectus or neanderthals, known to us only through a sparse and incomplete fossil and archaeological record. While, in my view, it is possible to extrapolate backwards into our deep past, on the basis of comparative studies of the culture and genetic makeup of living peoples, sifting the evidence and drawing inferences, there is nothing in the culture or genes of living people that can tell us anything at all regarding what amounts to a completely different species, either homo erectus or neanderthal, with what are in all likelihood completely different histories. We cannot even say very much about the earliest homo sapiens, because, for all we know, they may have been very different from the Pygmies and Bushmen of today. I've been very careful on this blog and elsewhere to draw conclusions only where they are warranted by the evidence and reasonable inference therefrom. On such a basis I've concluded, as you know, that it is acceptable to draw certain conclusions regarding the common ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen as of the period of earliest divergence. Prior to that cutoff, we are no longer in a position to draw meaningful inferences -- though we are certainly free to speculate.

Returning to the question of "Utopia," I want to make one additional point before concluding this post. Regardless of all the many differences between More's original vision and the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers we've been focusing on, we do in fact find some striking similarities when we, once again, pay special attention to the "core premises and embedded values" highlighted by Cornelia van der Sluys. Note, in the excerpt from More's Utopia at the outset of the previous post, the references to the elimination of private property, the elimination of money as a "standard of all things," the praise of a society "with so few laws; where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty . . .," and the praise of Plato for advocating "a community of all things," and "setting all upon a level." In this statement, More encapsulates what could be called the "core premises and embedded values" of his Utopia, which, as should be obvious, are all but identical to those of the Pygmy and Bushmen groups we've been discussing. Which tells us that the same premises and values may well have been shared by the ancestral group -- their, and our, ancestors. Which would, in that sense at least, have made their society, if not a Utopia, then at least: Utopian.

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