Thursday, September 3, 2009

199. Utopia, Then and Now -- part 4

Recent interdisciplinary work among Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists hints that there really was an Urrasse, and there really was an Urkultur . . . Both are represented in the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration about 80,000 years ago. This migration spread early symbolic culture; let us call it Urkultur. However, the relation between this Urkultur and the cultures of today’s so-called ‘indigenous peoples’ is no greater that that between this Urkultur and the cultures of all peoples (Alan Barnard, "Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate." Social Anthropology 14 (1), p. 13).
The above is almost certainly correct when it comes to the existence of a so-called Urrasse (i.e., "original race" -- Barnard is quoting a now outdated term beloved by the notorious Kulturkreis school of early 20th century anthropology), which must certainly have had a culture of its own, which would, indeed, have been, to stick with the Kulturkreis terminology, an Urkultur ("original culture"). However, as I argued in my paper, New perspectives on the Kalahari debate: a tale of two ‘genomes’, the last sentence of the above paragraph is almost certainly wrong. In the article, I demonstrated that at least one aspect of this Urkultur, its music, has in all likelihood come down to us essentially intact, most completely among the Pygmies and Bushmen of our own time. And now, on this blog, I have demonstrated, to my satisfaction at least, that what we can call the "core culture" of the ancestral group has also come down to us essentially intact -- also among certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups.

Barnard is a bit careless regarding an important point: "the ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens population that gave rise to the ‘Out of Africa’ migration" was not really an Urrasse, if by that we mean the original group of modern humans that arose with the speciation of our "race" (the human race, that is). The ancestral group whose culture matters to us was not some apocryphal founding band of "anatomically modern" humans, but the very real and specific group of common ancestors prior to the earliest divergence of the ancestors of the Pygmies and Bushmen (who were "our" ancestors as well). It is this group whose core culture appears to have been maintained among the various Pygmy and Bushmen groups.

It's important to realize that the ancestral group to whom I refer was not all that special in its day, since there must have been other bands living in more or less the same region at the same time, and we have no way of telling what their cultures were like, because, according to the genetic research, only that one lineage (the root of L0 and L1) managed to survive to our own time. The culture of the ancestral group can be regarded as an Urkultur only in retrospect, because this appears to be the culture that forms the baseline for the entire evolution of culture from that time to this, among all their descendants, the members of their lineage, from that time to this. I'll repeat the key phrase from the previous sentence, and highlight it: this appears to be the culture that forms the baseline for the entire evolution of culture from that time to this.

Meaning that any future attempt to trace the evolution of culture from its earliest beginnings must seriously consider the core cultural values of the aforementioned Pygmy and Bushmen groups, since it is their core culture, and that of no other people, which appears to have survived essentially intact from that of the ancestral group. Whatever we can learn about our ancestors will necessarily be based on what we can learn about them. (It's important to remember that I am not talking about "hunter-gatherers" or "indigenous peoples" in general, because, as we've already learned, many such groups have very different sorts of culture, often far more violent and far less egalitarian. Far too many anthropologists and cultural commentators tend to lump all these groups together, a huge mistake.)

So. If we can put aside that difficult and divisive word "Utopian," and simply consider the Urkultur of our early ancestors as mirrored in the culture of certain forest and desert foragers of today, we can hopefully agree that, in all likelihood, while by no means perfect or "ideal," it did apparently, more or less, conform to at least some of those idealist "stereotypes" so many love to roll their eyes over.

For me, there are at least two aspects that stand out as especially important for us, their "sophisticated," "globalized" descendants, to note: first, the avoidance of war, conflict, or any other type of violence; second, the "setting of all upon a level," to quote More, the imperative toward social equality in terms of individual liberty, indifference to personal property, and the equal sharing of goods. The fact that so much in the "common wisdom of the day" so confidently contradicts this view, on the basis of completely unsubstantiated assumptions is especially disturbing. Here, for example is a recent interview with economist Paul Seabright, from The American Scientist, which begins as follows:
Economist Paul Seabright is fascinated by human cooperation. Mistrust and violence are in our genes, he says, but abstract, symbolic thought permits us to accept one another as "honorary relatives"—a remarkable arrangement that ultimately underlies every aspect of modern civilization.
Everyone's favorite pundit, Steven Pinker, is particularly grating on this topic. In a recent talk, entitled A History of Violence, he ludicrously asserts that humans have, contrary to popular opinion, been getting progressively less violent through history:
Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion. . .

At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.
Once again, as with so many others, Pinker indifferently lumps all "contemporary foragers" together into one category of "inherently" violent representatives of humanity at its earliest stages. He continues, digging an even deeper hole for himself:
At one time, these facts were widely appreciated. They were the source of notions like progress, civilization, and man's rise from savagery and barbarism. Recently, however, those ideas have come to sound corny, even dangerous. They seem to demonize people in other times and places, license colonial conquest and other foreign adventures, and conceal the crimes of our own societies. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood"). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
Aside from this being utter nonsense on its face, a perfect example of the revisionist impulse at its most ignorant and embarrassing, it also reflects what has become an all too common article of faith, that humans are inherently violent, something determined, no doubt, by their genetic makeup, as has been "proven" evidently by our close affiliation with all those violent chimps (see earlier post). In full, self-satisfied, Victorian mode, Pinker is determined to set us straight on the value of the "improvements" civilization has provided in our battle against our own deepest and direst instincts. There is more. If Pinker can't convince us that violence is in our genes, maybe it's there because, after all, it's "only logical":

. . . Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don't strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.
While the above "logic" may hold for certain societies, past and present, in truth there is neither a "primal thirst for blood" nor an "inescapable logic of anarchy," mistrust, fear, and violent self-defense. We know this because there are peoples in the world who have lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors and one another for many thousands of years. And, indeed, there is strong evidence that our "pre-state ancestors" shared the same values. We in all likelihood did not begin as mistrustful, selfish, fearful and violent barbarians. And it is not necessary for any society to behave in such a manner in order to survive. The line from our early ancestors to the Pygmies and Bushmen of today is as long as any in history, and throughout the length of that line we see, in generation after generation, essentially the same picture: an image of survival through cooperation, equality, sharing, independence, mutual respect and non-violence, all the values we so cherish today, but have such a difficult time achieving.

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