Civilized to Death Cocktail Party Cheat-Sheet

I know it can be difficult to confront the onslaught of doubt and dismissal provoked by suggesting that civilization may not be the most amazing thing ever, so I’ve put together a list of the most common objections I’ve heard over the past few years, along with concise responses. These conversations get both easier and harder when accompanied by martinis, so wield these rejoinders at your own risk!

Prehistoric life was a constant struggle to survive. No thanks!

Almost without exception, hunter-gatherers rarely “work” more than three or four hours per day, and these activities are the kinds of things we do on vacation: hunt, picnic, fish, play with kids. The idea that one has to do unpleasant things in order to “pay” for life is not present in hunter-gatherer societies — most of whom have no word for “work.”

But modern medicine saves us from many diseases that killed our ancestors.

In fact, most deadly diseases we face today didn’t exist in prehistory. They are by-products of civilization itself.

Before agriculture, humans didn’t live with domesticated animals from which pathogens mutated into dangerous forms that could infect us. Only after agriculture did infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, and influenza emerge in population centers with densities sufficient to allow them to easily spread once they’d mutated to human hosts from domesticated cows, chickens, ducks, and pigs.

The same applies to many noninfectious diseases. Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death globally, but were rare or absent among foragers. The same goes for obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, auto-immune diseases, and osteoporosis.

Don’t get me started on depression, chronic anxiety, and suicide — all of which are rare among foragers.

But dentistry!

Cavities, gum disease, and tooth decay are rare among foragers — as are impacted wisdom teeth and dental misalignment.

But we’ve doubled the human life span!

No we haven’t. Foragers routinely live into their 70s and 80s.

Here’s the thing: infant mortality is high among foragers — often, over a third of kids die before reaching puberty. A lot of these are kids born with disabilities that are now normally detected in pre-natal testing, often resulting in abortions. When these early deaths are included in calculations, average life expectancy at birth for foragers comes out to around 35 or 40 years. But this does not mean our ancestors routinely died in their 30s or 40s. No human being has ever been “old” at 35 — other than Mark Zuckerberg.

Our foraging ancestors who survived childhood generally enjoyed vigorous, active lives of at least the “three score and ten” (70 years) mentioned in the Old Testament. The true extension of our life expectancy is more like an added ten years or so in industrialized countries, and much of this is a slowing the dying process, rather than an extension of active life.

But there are so many more people in the world! Surely, that’s a sign of progress.

Does civilization work for us, or do we work for civilization?

What’s “good” for the species is not necessarily good for the individual. Consider the chicken. Charles Darwin first suggested that a wild species in Southeast Asia known as red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) is probably the ancestor of the modern chicken, a hunch confirmed by recent DNA testing. No one can say how many of these birds existed before being domesticated, but it was surely a tiny fraction of the 50 billion chickens alive today.

The vast majority of these chickens spend their lives in filthy sheds with tens of thousands of other birds. Selective breeding and the reckless use of growth hormones have resulted in animals that grow so quickly their legs often buckle under their own weight, and their internal organs are unable to function. In what sense is Gallus gallus a successful species?

Spend a day driving around Los Angeles, then tell me that more people equals better quality of life!

War was constant among tribes.

Nope. By definition, immediate return hunter-gatherers have no accumulated resources. No gardens, no pigs, no houses, no bags of grain, no gold. They carry as little as possible because they are nomadic, and know how to find/make what they need from their environment. They move across the landscape, so they have little need to stop and fight over any particular spot. Everyone is armed and knows how to use their weapons well. What would motivate you to risk your life attacking them? What do they have that’s worth dying over?

Aside from the illogic of assuming people with nothing to fight over were constantly fighting, there is a great deal of evidence, reviewed in Civilized to Death, that in fact, war only became ubiquitous when our species shifted to settled, expansionist, hierarchical agricultural social systems with accumulated resources well worth fighting over and a need to keep spreading into new territories.

I wouldn’t want to be a forager. I don’t even know how to light a fire! I wouldn’t want to live without my iPhone and other doo-dads.

True, but still nonsense. That’s like saying, “I’m glad I’m not French, I don’t even speak the language!”

If you were, you would.

It’s a common mistake to judge “quality of life” by the things one values in his or her own life. We look at the Inuit and think they must be miserable without central heating, microwaveable pizza, and Netflix. Meanwhile, they’re looking at us and wondering how we survive without sled dogs, open spaces, and seal blubber.

A more illuminating way to assess overall quality of life for human beings (as opposed to 21st-century Americans) is to begin by asking what is valued by all societies, and then think about how rich or poor a society is in those areas. Netflix and seal blubber are culture-specific, but free time, personal autonomy, plenty of sleep, low stress, good health, laughter, lots of friends, a rich sexual life, and a relatively quick and painless death are all valued in every society — so they suggest valid criteria for assessing quality of life. When we start to look at societies in these terms, we see that foragers come out way ahead of us in most areas.

If hunter/gatherer life was so great, why is civilization almost everywhere? It’s clearly the better/more dominant way to live.

This is a fair question, but just as total population is not a good indicator of quality of life, nor is the dominance of a given society an indication of the contentment of the people within it. The power of civilization is generated by a suite of interrelated factors — rapid population growth, political hierarchies, slavery, efficient economic systems that centralize power and foster technological development, and so on — all of which make civilization “stronger” than foraging societies simply because civilization creates far more people and better weapons. But none of this implies that agricultural people lived better lives than foragers. In fact, the evidence suggests quite the opposite.

You’ve convinced me, so what should we do now? Go back to living in the woods?

That’s not going to be possible, and I wouldn’t advocate it anyway. We’ve come a long way and learned so much that we shouldn’t abandon: birth control, passive energy production, permaculture, human rights, and so on. We’re going to live in a zoo, in other words, but it’s a zoo we design and create. Let’s create a zoo for ourselves that replicates as much as possible the world that created us.