The Ugly Side of Tribalism

by Jason Godesky

Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael is, undoubtedly, the most widely read work of primitivist philosophy ever written. It won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship in 1989 for $500,000–the single largest prize ever awarded to a work of fiction. It is taught in schools, which is where I discovered it, and where it turned a devout Catholic boy into the primitivist writer you read today. Quinn’s thesis talks about a “Mother Culture,” in analogy to “Mother Nature,” as an emergent, self-defensive property of every culture. Our particular Mother Culture essentially presents us with the challenge: “Take it or leave it.” Those who follow our Mother Culture thus become “Takers”; the others are “Leavers.” Quinn makes a surprising challenge: if we want to solve the problems facing our society, why don’t we look at societies that don’t have these problems, and see if we can isolate their causes that way?

Quinn’s criticisms of civilization are, in general, spot on. Where he goes awry is in his treatment of where “Takers” and “Leavers” differ. Quinn identifies their difference as one of ideology. He argues that “Leavers” lack the “Taker” mythology of controlling the world. Mother Culture is constantly reminding us that our place is to rule the world. The proliferation of the “man versus nature” theme in our literature, and the constant, subtle reminders of this myth throughout our culture all buttress this argument. Quinn points particularly to Genesis 1:28-30:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

There is no doubt that Quinn is correct in this part of his argument. The problem arises when he claims that “Leavers” believe any differently. From his basis of “ideology,” Quinn concludes that the Maya were “Leavers.” He argues that while “Takers” simply rebuilt after various collapses (like that of Rome), the Mayans did not. Their civilization never really recovered from their collapse. Yet, an actual examination of Mayan culture shows that they were obsessed with the idea of conquest, even more than their European contemporaries. Nearly all of their public architecture commemorates the conquest of their neighbors. It is the main theme in their entire mythology. Where Jews, Christians and Muslims could find a few scattered verses in their scriptures to justify their wars of conquest, the Mayans had myths where military dominance was given the pride of place that Christianity reserved for loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek.

Every culture believes itself superior to all others, and the belief in the primacy of humanity can be found around the world. Consider the Iroquois creation myth, which tells of how a woman fell from among the superhuman Sky People. She was helped by the animals of the earth, and gave birth to twins–the first humans. This sets humans distinctly apart from the rest of creation. Humans come from the sky, with a semi-divine heritage. They are decidedly in alliance with the animals of this earth, but they are certainly not one of them. They are a higher, nobler order of being.

In the Australian Aborigine creation myth, the Sun Mother was angered by the animals’ arguing and shape-shifting. Where the animals were spirits she had awoken and given form, the first humans were the direct children of the Sun Mother, “superior to the animals because they had part of her mind and would never want to change their shape.”

Even in the Ju/’Hoansi creation myth, the least anthropocentric of the myths we will examine here, humans are set apart. First, in the ingenuity we exhibit to make fire, and then separated from the animals by the fear that fire inspired.

By comparison, the Greeks believed that humans were the only creations of Epimetheus and Prometheus which were left with no natural gifts. Instead, angered that his brother had left nothing for his own creation, Prometheus stole fire from the gods for mankind, and was punished with eternal torture. This story provides humans a far less vaunted position than that we find amongst the Iroquois or Australian Aborigines; neither do we find much basis for a Greek belief in world conquest. Yet there is little doubt that the Greeks were “Takers,” or the Australian Aborigines “Leavers.”

Primitivists often use the term “tribalism” referring to the open, cooperative, egalitarian societies we see in tribes. This is not the commonly understood meaning of the term. “Tribalism,” to most people, means a small-minded, parochial view–disintegration into many small, hostile groups. It means an ethnocentric view where we believe our own small group superior to all others. This is not without basis. Ethnocentrism is a human universal. Every society believes itself superior to all others.

Many tribes in New Guinea believe that semen is the very essence of life itself, that women who want to have sex with men are evil witches trying to steal away their life-force, and that in order to grow up healthy and strong, young boys must be regularly inseminated by older men. We believe ourselves greatly superior to these pedophiles. They believe themselves superior to each other. The Etoro inseminate their boys orally; the Marind-anim prefer anal sex. Both believes the other to be a barbarous tribe of disgusting perverts that should be wiped from the earth.

So why don’t they wipe them from the earth?

The short answer is, they can’t. They’re both primitive tribes; they lack the food surpluses to field a large army of conquest, and the resources to arm themselves with metal weapons. They raid each other constantly, but neither can ever get a sufficient upper hand on the other to eliminate them. If they could, they would. It has happened before. Quinn’s “erratic retaliator” model of tribal warfare even allows for this possibility–when a tribe can eradicate a neighbor, they do.

If we are to look at ideology, then in fact, our “Mother Culture” ends up looking far more progressive than most. Christian ideals are quite lofty, and reconciling Jesus’ commands with our conquest of the world has always produced tension for many Christian theologians. Even Islam, which enjoyed many of the same advantages of resources as Christianity, has a far greater comfort with conquest and expansion. Yet it is Europeans and Christians who conquered the world. Why? Because they could.

Mayan civilization never again reached the zenith of the Classical period after its collapse not because of something they lacked in their memes, but because it was impossible. The climatological reality had changed, and could never again support agriculture on the scale it had in the Classical period. Mayan beliefs adapted to the new reality.

When the civilizations of the southwest United States collapsed, they left behind tribal descendants who relied on horticulture and developed a deep spirituality that connected with the land and one another. Though we have little in the way of archaeological evidence, I doubt that we would find much evidence for this in the ruins of Chaco Canyon. Their civilization collapsed amidst horrible warfare and grisly cannibalism. Those who survived could no longer live the same way they had; it had become impossible. They survived by finding a new, more sustainable way to live. Their deep spirituality followed from that.

Every day, a farmer gets up before the dawn and works for hours under the blazing sun. He takes a blade to the earth, to cut it into furrows. It fights him every step of the way. He forces his seed into it, he fights it every day to produce crops. In the ancient metaphor of plant growth to human sexuality, agriculture resembles nothing so much as it does rape. At the boundaries of the fields might lay wilderness. It constantly encroaches, and must forever be fought back. It is usually land that might otherwise bring forth more food. It goes to waste while the farmer and his family starves. It shelters all manner of vermin who steal the few scraps of food the farmer can force out of the earth. Perhaps the occasional, extraordinary person can live this life, day-in and day-out, and still think kindly of the natural world, but the beliefs of cultures are not made from the cognitive dissonance of the exceptional few. Agricultural societies must believe in the supremacy of humanity. Without the myth of our ownership of all the world, how can their daily chores be excused? Without the drive of mankind’s manifest destiny of world conquest, how can their laborious life be justified?

Compare this to the life of the forager. Their life is relatively easy, requiring no more than a few hours of work each day. The line between work and play bleeds and becomes indistinguishable. To obtain their food, they must know all the relationships between plants and animals. The interdependence of all life is not something they can afford to be ignorant of. Intimate knowledge of everything around them is key to their survival. While it may be possible for the exceptional few to believe they have some manner of destiny to rule that complex web, it is generally incompatible with an appreciation for how delicate and complicated that web of relationships is. Foragers can certainly believe–and often do–that they enjoy a special, priveleged place in that web, but to believe that it has any “ruler” outside the realm of the divine requires a level of cognitive dissonance few can reconcile.

What little difference there is in ideology between “Takers” and “Leavers” is a result of their differences, not a cause. Yet Quinn’s challenge remains: why are we so plagued with crises, while “Leavers” enjoy such a relatively easy, idyllic life? They possess all the same ideological ugliness we do, yet even when they war against each other, it is often without casualty. What is the difference?

Quinn used cultural materialism to diagnose the ills of civilization, but then abandoned it for his prescription. Cultural materialism teaches us that ideology arises out of day-to-day, material reality. If we want to reap the rewards of the tribal life, we need to live as they did. The ideological differences when it comes to the conquest of the world and the place of humanity in the universe are not so great, but what ideological differences do divide us will come on their own. They will have to, for few of us have the fortitude to endure such cognitive dissonance as to live like a Leaver, and still think like a Taker.

Categories: Articles

Tags: , , ,

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Daniel Quinn divides the world into “Takers” and “Leavers,” who are defined by multiple criteria throughout his corpus. Intuitively, we might classify the Iroquois as “Leavers.” Yet, the Iroquois creation myth–just like our own–sets people apart as a higher, nobler order, fallen from our grand origins. They share the same apocalyptic, Manichaean worldview as Judeo-Christianity, and the very same divine mandate to spread their “One Right Way” to all nations. […]

    Pingback by Exceptions that Prove the Rule, #1: The Iroquois » The Anthropik Network — 8 September 2005 @ 10:52 PM

  2. […] no greater than any other alpha predator would have made. Tribal societies suffer from the same ethnocentrism as all other human societies. Tribal societies are not idyllic utopias, and their members are not […]

    Pingback by The Anthropik Network » Thesis #5: Humans are neither good nor evil. — 31 July 2007 @ 2:40 PM


  1. Hm. You certainly provide some disgusting examples, at least to the ears of this acculturated person. Perhaps I’m a tad more ethnocentric than I’d previously imagined.

    This post leads to one big question — given a true choice, would tribes choose to have civilization and dominance of the world, with the enormous sacrifices that come about? Or would they choose to remain in their small tribes?

    Humans have best evolved to live in hunter-gatherer tribes, this is true… but what really is human nature? Do we want the hierarchy and the oppression, and do we really believe that we are superior to other life on earth? Will this change after a collapse? Perhaps I’m just a small minority, one of the more rare (healthier?) ones in this culture and civilization. Perhaps the majority of the the human race really DOES want to live in this scheme. There is no one right way, after all.

    Comment by Devin — 27 July 2005 @ 7:29 PM

  2. Most Americans over the past decade didn’t like Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but only the neocons actually plotted to do something about it. Ethnocentrism is a universal, but a willingness to sacrifice freedom, security, and happiness to effect the idle dreams of conquest does not necessarily follow. We all believe our culture to be superior to all others. Many–Taker and Leaver alike–believe humans to be superior to all other life. But hierarchy and oppression remain historical anomolies. This is my whole point. Quinn connects them, but there really doesn’t seem any evidence whatsoever to connect them with.

    We’ll probably never be rid of ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism. But ultimately, so what? Ethnocentrism flares into racial conflict only when those groups are forced into contact with one another–a situation tribes rarely, if ever, face. Anthropocentrism gives us some smug self-satisfaction, but if we are without the means to make good on our bid for world conquest, what harm does it do? We can have motive in spades; if we lack for means, it amounts to nothing.

    I suspect the same is true of all other species on the earth. Evolution is driven by every species trying to reproduce to the best of its ability–to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. To conquer the world. This, I think, is the underlying mechanism of life: everyone always trying to conquer the world, and always failing. A species that doesn’t try to conquer the world will be out-competed and join the 99% of all life in extinction. And if one succeeds … well, the current mass extinction is sufficient testimony to the consequences of that misbalance.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 27 July 2005 @ 7:50 PM

  3. Oh, and as to whether or not tribes would choose to have civilization….

    In almost every case, tribes fought nearly to the point of eradication before giving in to civilization’s onslaught, and in every case I know of where an elder survives who can still remember the old ways, she mourns the passing of a far superior life (and is summarily dismissed by her grandchildren for her nostolgia).

    “Tribalism” refers to the separation of society into small, warring factions. Ethnocentrism would, I think, ensure that most would prefer their tiny little tribe to the encroachments of some vast, alien (and thus inferior) civilization.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 27 July 2005 @ 8:11 PM

  4. Dear Jason,

    Hi my name is Josh and I enjoy reading the articles on the site. I have some comments on your last article.

    So we know that diversity among the life on this planet is what works. Diversity keeps systems stable and can go on being stable(environmental conditions permitting). Now you’ve stated that “This… the underlying mechanism of life: everyone always trying to conquer the world, and always failing. A species that doesn’t try to conquer the world will be out-competed…”
    With that we have this formula:

    Diversity=what works

    Life=works in diverse stable systems, but would gladly take over the roost if conditions permitted. At the same token, if any one species ignores the laws of limited competition, in the end they themselves will be eliminated.

    I would say that doesn’t sit too well with me. Conquering the world will get you no where eventually, therefore this strategy is not usually seen. Life wants to live, and therefore will compete and multiply. Life does this. But why would you say a strategy that doesn’t promote the life of individual species or entire biosystems is the driving force? It may seem like the driving force when you single out a species and place it in an extremely rare circumstance where growth is allowed to go out of control. Life would probably exhibit very different characteritics if conquering the world were it’s unconcious underlying agenda.

    I remember reading on the Yanamamo and asking myself questions about aboriginal warfare in general. Let’s say for argument sake that my tribe has an average of 50 people. I also know that a neighboring tribe have about the same average. I think I could decimate my neighboring tribe by:

    -Saving enough food for a 2 or 3 day battle
    -preparing enough arrows/weapons to continue for that duration
    -setting ablaze the enemy village in question
    -mentality that would allow me to achieve this

    I would have more land to hunt/gather/plant. I wouldn’t have to deal with those pesky neighbors anymore. I sincerely believe any tribal group could do way more crippling damage even without huge food surpluses. Sit down and think about if you where a Yanamamo. I could burn their village and shoot the unsuspecting victims in there confusion. I could burn their plaintain gardens which provide alot of their food, wait till they weaken and strike hard. I could find ways to poison them. A modern Warfare expert could go in there and think of a million strategies to kill off other tribes using only their primitive means. Yet we don’t hear of these extremes. Other tribes would have to step up to the same level and warfare would get more brutal and brutal until erratic retaliator was put back in place.
    Eventually my tribe would grow bigger due to more food and resources. So the next time I want to remove competitors, it will be even easier. Yet, oddly enough, I haven’t read about many tribal exterminations. I’m sure there are examples, but again this is the exception and not the rule. It fits nicely with the notion that diversity works. I know I’m not saying anything original here, but Quinns basics seem to work out. Of course when you mix in people who are playing annihilator and have totalitarian agriculture, you are going to get a radically different mindset with that extremly rare cultural exception. Take that and spread it across the globe, and you begin to feel as if everyone that ever headed towards civilization or had the resources is going to exhibit the same characteristics. It’s a shame that we will never know what course what have been taken in the new world.

    I know your a more knowledgeable and well read cat than I am, but I figured I’d throw that out there and see what you think.

    Comment by Josh Joseph — 28 July 2005 @ 12:45 AM

  5. “This, I think, is the underlying mechanism of life: everyone always trying to conquer the world, and always failing. A species that doesn’t try to conquer the world will be out-competed and join the 99% of all life in extinction.”

    Something about this strikes me as really… brr. Maybe it’s that evolution is being anthropomorphized. I realize that this is used as a metaphor, but it still sits with me uneasily. Perhaps it could be better stated as, “That species which is more aggressive, and constantly pushes the population envelope while retaining the ecological balance required to survive tends to be better represented than the species which does not push the population envelope, or the species that pushes the population envelope but destroys the ecology that supports it.”

    Now, that’s a mouthful. But there ain’t no anthropomorphism! There are very few species actively TRYING to conquer the world (maybe just one), it’s just that behavior that’s in line with this activity tends to make a species better represented in the community of life. Humans are accounted for in the above sentence as a species that pushes the population envelope but destroys the ecology that supports it. (You can say what you want about, ‘Hey, it’s just civilization that’s doing that,’ but it’s still humans, and the vast majority at that.) Needless to say, humans will undergo a drastic reduction in representation.

    Kickass post, though. I would like to think that the lofty ideals developed by civilization can be in some way combined with the practical lifestyle of tribalism. This is what I’ve always meant when I say that humans won’t go BACK, they’ll change into something entirely new. (Maybe I’m just caught up in the thesis, antithesis, catalyst and synthesis mentality.)

    (Oh, and forgive my lack of html knowledge… the gods of the microchip have been kind to me as a highly successful end user, and not much more. My Nahuatl is better than my html.)

    Comment by Chuck — 28 July 2005 @ 6:26 AM

  6. On anthropomorphosis. I tend not to have a problem with anthropomorphizing things, if it conveys the idea (anthropomorphosis is another of those cultural universals, by the way). In this case, your formulation is completely correct, Chuck, but I fail to see how it differs from the more concise, anthropomorphized version. We can talk about how our civilization is trying to conquer the world, even though each individual in it thinks no such thing. As individuals, we’re just trying to get by. Our conquest is an emergent group behavior that arises out of that. Likewise, no individual paramecium is trying to take over the whole planet. They’re just trying to get by. The result of that, though, is an emergent property of paramecia as a whole towards global conquest. That’s kept in check by all the other millions of species trying to do the same thing. Equal and opposite forces create a dynamic equilibrium. A balance is struck. That balance can come undone in one of two ways: if some species gives up its dream of conquest, or if some species makes good on it. Giving up the dream simply results in that species’ extinction. Making good, apparently leads to mass extinction.

    Josh–welcome! You raise a common criticism of that formulation, but I think at its base it goes to my core conviction that the same thing that is adaptive in one context is maladaptive in another. Take, for example, promiscuity. This is a very advantageous strategy for human males–unless you’re in a position like Africa where sexually transmitted diseases are all around you.

    This is why genetic drives are sledge hammers, not scalpels. Your genetic imperative is not, “Eat a healthy, balanced diet to provide your body with the specific profile of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals required by your physiology.” That’s much, much too nuanced. No, rather, the imperative is, “EAT!!!” In our evolution, a “sweet tooth” was selected for. We need a certain amount of sugar each day, but it was relatively difficult to come by. Individuals with a sweet tooth would seek it out, and thus get the sugar they needed; those who didn’t, wouldn’t put forth the extra effort. Sugar addicts survived more frequently than the alternative. Today, that adaptation has become maladaptive, because we have easy access to sugar. If genetic imperatives were as nuanced as you imply, this wouldn’t be a problem. We know that eating too much sugar is bad; why isn’t the imperative to only eat as much sugar as you need? Because genetic drives are sledge hammers, not scalpels. We never faced this situation before, so natural selection is working out the kink with all the health risks of obesity.

    Same thing here. No species has ever managed to actually fulfill their dream of conquest. When I say every species is trying to conquer the world, and always failing, I have in mind a principle like, “shoot for the moon and hit a star.” There’s no expectation of fulfilling the stated goal, but by pursuing it you get to a reasonable half-way line. Is any animal, even one as intellectually developed as us, capable of competing to the best of our ability, without trying to “win” the game? In that, capitalism becomes a decent model. Any company would love to take over the entire market–but if that happened, the market would completely break down. That’s why we break up monopolies.

    Obviously, I don’t see any contradiction here. Sustainable systems often (usually?) arise out of individuals pursuing goals that are contrary to the goals of the system as a whole. They’re two different levels. Unsustainable individual goals are often the key to creating an overall sustainable system. I think this is the primary example of that.

    As for the Yanamamo, why don’t they just concentrate their forces and wipe out their neighbors? Sometimes they have. But it takes a lot more than a few days to completely wipe out an enemy. Complete eradication is very, very difficult, and it must be done quite thoroughly. Even we can only rarely eradicate our enemies entirely.

    The Yanamamo have done precisely what you prescribe at times–when it’s plausible. But even with that, they can’t wipe out a hale and hardy neighbor. If their neighbors falter, and an opportunity arises, then they strike, with devastating consequences. But such opportunities arise only rarely, mostly because anything that might weaken their neighbors likely weakens them, as well.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 July 2005 @ 9:52 AM

  7. Hey Jason –

    I think I have to take issue with this a little bit….

    It occured to me, as I read Josh’s comment that he was hitting on something that he may not be entirely aware of, but nonetheless is a huge piece of evolutionary theory. Evolutionarily Stable Strategies.

    Thinking back over all of the examples that I read about in The Selfish Gene, I seem to recall that the stable point of most strategies generally represented a moderate case. For example, you mention promiscuity among men. But the most successful strategy for men to reproduce maximally is NOT full on promescuity. Rather it is a combination of monogammy (or other marriage custom) and promiscuity — because you need to look not only at inception rates, but also survival rates. A man that runs around impregnating every woman he sees is going to have a much lower rate of surviving children than a man that deadicates some portion of his effort to raising those children. Of course, in the modern world, this is one of those evolutionary controls that we are subverting with social policy… but before welfare (etc), this was a huge issue.

    I have to suspect that inter-tribal(etc) aggression also has a moderate ideal as well. The actual variation amongst groups is probably going to be fairly high, but there is probably a bell curve that could be created representing aggressiveness between groups, with the peak representing the actual ESS…


    Comment by Janene — 28 July 2005 @ 10:24 AM

  8. The survival of children is why women invest so much time in child-rearing. You actually have to make an investment into concieving a child, so losing that child is a much greater loss for you. We can take as little as two minutes. That makes promiscuity our best approach. Human males are very r selected; females are very K selected. That makes for a species that is very well-balanced, with vying forces in both directions keeping us stable. A dynamic equilibrium. Neither on its own would be very stable; it’s the fact that they work together that makes them so strong. Monogamy caters to female interests only; simple “swinging” caters to male interests only. Polygamy is the perfect balance between these two–and almost certainly the reason why the vast majority of human societies have been polygamous.[1]

    There’s the basic claim, that evolutionarily stable strategies are rarely made up of other evolutionarily stable strategies. More often, they are made up of a combination of very unstable strategies, which become stable only because they exist in the context of other unstable strategies. Me pushing you is unstable: you’ll fall down, and I might, too. Same with you pushing me. But if we are both pushing each other with equal strength, then that is stable, the same way a tension bridge is stable. But it’s made up of individually unstable components. Same principle.

    [1] Note, I say this as a male currently in a monogamous relationship, and utterly no interest in taking on any additional mates. A cultural oddity, am I.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 July 2005 @ 10:41 AM

  9. Hey Jason –

    yeah but :-)

    Of course there are various levels of stable strategies that create a complex whole.

    But that does not change the fact that all cultures have some sort of bonding strategy in which males take on a portion of child-rearing responsibility. And the point is that men with some moderation in thier behavior are more likely to find a woman that will have them as a mate. A woman and child alone in the wild have little chance of survival. A woman, a man and a child have a much better chance. Of course, human culture takes that a step further and creates societies to support and sustain mothers AND fathers… and those cultures introduce new pressures on men re: promiscuity in order to support that whole social order. But all of this is sort of beyond the original point.

    Do you remember the ‘hawk’ vs ‘dove’ discussion in Dawkins? Another example of moderated behavior being the most stable configuration.

    I really don’t think that it is neccessarily appropriate to take these various behaviors out of context, anyway — because they develop and adapt in context as a matter of course. So female adaptations play a role in modifying mens adaptions and vice versa…. the simple fact is that in a tribal culture it is unlikely that a woman will ‘keep’(or take) a man that is not available to provide support to her and her children. So the men that are most likely to get a woman in the first place are those that keep thier promiscuity somewhat in check… and that is passed down through the generations…. (while those that just run around may or may not have viable off spring — I can see it being the case that women that get prenant without a ‘husband’ will opt for various abortion or euthanasia techniques. On the flip, a woman with a husband that is overly nurturing, may well be having children of other men which again draws the successful strategy back towards the middle)


    Comment by Janene — 28 July 2005 @ 11:11 AM

  10. Not all. Not the Ik. Not … whatever that forager group in New Guinea was that Jared Diamond talked about in GGS…. There are some forager societies so simple that even the basics of a father’s support are not present. Ik mothers turn their children out by age three. Culture mediates the tension between male and female reproductive strategies, usually by offering the male sexual access only in return for guarantees of support. This gives the male what he’s after–sexual access–as well as the female–a guarantee of aid in raising the child. This is also the compromise of polygamy; the male has access to multiple partners, but is also bound to provide for those partners and their children. The successful mediation of that tension does not mean that the tension does not exist; it means that compromise is possible, necessary, and produces a greater good for all.

    Taking such behaviors out of context is entirely what we’re talking about, though. They develop in a context where it’s adaptive, often counter-balancing some other drive–like female and male sexual strategies. Our sweet tooth was an entirely stable strategy in its original context. It counter-balanced the relative difficulty of finding necessary sugar. In the new context, it’s maladaptive. In the context of our evolutionary history, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, and a drive toward world conquest was entirely sustainable. Now that we have the means to actually conquer the world, they’re extremely maladaptive. It’s all about the context. Running full speed is adaptive with a lion nipping at your heels. Running full speed into a wal is very maladaptive. It’s all context.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 July 2005 @ 11:37 AM

  11. Hey –

    hmmm… I was entirely unaware of any societies without some sort of bonding strategy… you say Diamond mentions one in GGS? I don’t remember that… I’ll have to check it out.

    And would you please stop referencing our sweet tooth? As I understand it, that was an adaptation of our ape ancestors that became irrelevant to hominids… still there kinda like our spleen (is that the right organ?), but totally irrelevant to our nutritional needs.

    So anyway, back to point. I’m not sure I am still on track with where you are trying to get to… are you suggesting that ‘wanting to conquer the world’ is a biological component or a complex component of our behavior?

    On a biological level, I can see translating the drive to procreate as wanting to ‘conquer the world’ — because that is a simple, one faceted biological drive.(although I find that too anthropomorphic) But as soon as we start talking about complexity, there are always pros and cons balanced out against each other — which then makes any extreme behavior maladaptive. Again, on the third hand, if you are saying that this is one aspect of the whole complex — one extreme of a range of pros and cons, then that I can dig.


    Comment by Janene — 28 July 2005 @ 1:39 PM

  12. Very early on in the book, at the beginning of one of the first chapters, if I recall correctly.

    Apes need sugar, too. So do humans. There was no sharp dividing line, no great break between us and apes when suddenly we emerged as a new genus. Homo habilis is almost identical to Australopithecus afarensis except for its massive cranium. Humans definitely need sugar; we usually get sufficient amounts from fruit, but we do need some, and it is relatively difficult to find. It’s the Ju/’Hoansi sweet tooth that motivates them to brave bee hives for honey, despite the dangers and inconvenience. In their context, it’s very adaptive. It gets them the sugar they need. We have easy access to sugar all around us. Combined with our genetic drive to get sugar, that means we get way too much. That doesn’t change the fact that we do need some amount of sugar. It just means that the same adaptation that’s so well adapted to Ju/’Hoansi life, is now maladaptive to our own. (And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the appendix–the spleen is actually very useful to the circulatory system to dispose of old red blood cells and other debris, rather like the gall bladder; and if you don’t think the gall bladder has an adaptive role in the body, go out to dinner with my dad and count the minutes before he has to hit the bathroom.)

    I am saying, on the most basic level, that the biological drive to procreate is simple and one-faceted. It doesn’t care about overpopulation or the ups and downs of demography. It urges you to procreate, regardless of anything else. Most of the time, this is adaptive–that’s why it exists. But, it is not always adaptive. In our own case, it is quite maladaptive. I am saying that this simple drive to procreate can be anthropomorphized as “trying to conquer the world.”

    I am also claiming that we have relatively common cultural consequences of this that manifest in a much more blatant desire to conquer the world. And why not? Culture is built on the base of our biology, constructed as a malleable extension of our biological needs. Culinary styles, cuisine and traditions are always suited to fit the unique ecological demands and requirements in the area they develop, answering the biological demands for the various chemicals and nutrients the body requires in various settings and conditions.

    It is a hypothesis of mine that “teenage angst” is a result of the mismatch between our culture’s social demands, and the biological demands of puberty. We treat teenagers as children, even as every cell in their body tells them they’re an adult. This is, largely, a result of industrialization and the much longer timetable for maturation required by higher educational standards and experiential requirements that system entails. That makes “teenage angst” a relatively new phenomenon, and sure enough I can find little evidence for it even 500 years ago.[1] The angst we associate with the teenage years is a prime example of what happens when biological drives and cultural beliefs are in conflict. It is an unstable situation–I would not expect the current situation of teenagers to persist more than another generation or two, even if there were no looming crash to complicate things.

    So, if culture is an accretion of biology, biological drives are very difficult to change, cultural rules are relatively easy to change, and biology and culture cannot exist in strict opposition for very long, then it stands to reason that most cultures will simply “go with the flow” of their reproductive imperative, and enshrine some ideal of “conquering the world” within their cultural mythology. This allows members to feel that their drives are “good,” rather than shameful.

    [1] I do not count the “coming of age” myth as evidence for such a phenomenon, as these myths are present in modern societies universally, while “teenage angst” appears in only a few societies.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 July 2005 @ 2:42 PM

  13. So, this will appear like a simple question on the surface: how do multicellular beings work? It would seem that, given the imperative to procreate at all costs, that the only successful organism would be a multi-faceted cancer.

    Given that, does the same kind of sacrifice apply to groupings of animals?

    (unfortunately, a short post but I’m swamped at work)

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 28 July 2005 @ 3:46 PM

  14. Hmmmm … no, I don’t think that’s the case. As Dawkins put it, we’re tools that our DNA uses to propogate itself. There are plenty of examples of cells propogating willy-nilly, as bacterial colonies, etc. To form a cohesive, multi-cellular organism, cooperation is required. The cells of your body are not constantly trying to destroy each other, because they all have exactly the same DNA. Brain cells, cardiac muscle cells, skin cells and stem cells all have the exact same DNA. They don’t need to compete, because each fulfills the DNA’s “goal” of propogating itself. The multicellular organism itself is a tool for further propogating those particular genes.

    Cancer occurs when the cells of your body no longer recognize one another as having the same genes. Then, they do begin to compete, since they no longer recognize the other cells as fulfilling their genes’ “goal.”

    This process then repeats itself, at a higher level. Plenty of animals are solitary; plenty of animals simply reproduce as much as possible. But in time, other, more nuanced strategies emerged which worked just as well, such as having fewer young, but taking care of them into maturity. Cooperation among multicellular organisms was a strategy that was successful for propogating multicellular individuals–and through them, their ancestors’ genes–for all the same reasons it worked for the individual cells of the first multicellular organisms.

    So, what happens when the individuals in a social group no longer see the group as fulfilling their needs? The group breaks down, just as cancer breaks down the multicellular organism.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 August 2005 @ 10:49 AM

  15. Devin
    Tribes may have a drive to rule the world, or maybe to take take over the nextdoor tribe. However, they would only try to accomplish that if they already have the means. That isn’t a goal “sacred” enough to switch to a miserable lifestyle. Civilizations happened, unintentinally, when hierarchy grew. I don’t even think tribes changed to agriculture as a matter of ideological choise. It probably mostly happened due to deterioration in food resources in their invironment.
    Comfortable, safe life would not be easily given up to give way to aggressive expansion.

    Comment by Quizzie — 6 August 2005 @ 6:53 PM

  16. It is entirely possible that civilization came about as a result of the nature of the crops associated with civilization: grains.

    Botanically, grain uses a very unusual strategy when producing its seeds; instead of producing an absolutely massive quantity of seeds, it produces a smaller number of super seeds, wrapped in a virutal smorgasbord of nutrients (this is the main reason that they are so useful as edibles). The incredible energy that goes into every grain seed fills a very unusual niche; they can grow where nothing else will grow, i.e., in soil without any of the services provided by other plants.

    Cereal seeds therefore, can grow without any accompanying plants, and also can grow in places where there ARE no plants at all. Like on a river bank that’s just been flooded. The current botanical theory is that grains fill the niche of disaster relief; when there’s a catastrophe, what’s the only plant type adapted to survive in such an environment? Grains. Guess who’s there to reap the reward? Grains. We have a belief that civilization grew up around rivers because that’s where the water is, but it’s just as feasible to assume that civilization grew up along rivers because the natural environment (like a yearly flooding) was conducive to growing their grains.

    But how did humans get started growing grains in the first place? Having already covered the fact that grains have all sorts of goodies attached to their seeds, we can make the leap that hunter/foragers would have extensively gathered these seeds in natural grain stands. (Not sure on the figure, but several bog people had grain preserved in their stomachs even though their culture wasn’t agrarian, giving some semi-evidence to this idea.)

    What’s the easiest way to harvest grain? You pick up the stalk and shake the seeds into your hand. Then, you pocket the seeds and proceed to the next plant. The next generation of wheat growing in the area is descended almost exclusively from seeds that didn’t fall out on the first few shakes. Follow this evolutionary pressure for a few thousand years and eventually you have a group of people (who may rely very heavily on grain for their foraging sustenance) who have a very difficult time getting the grain out of the plant.

    This group has to stay in one place for longer and longer to harvest the naturally growing grains - by hand. Slowly, over generations, the group becomes almost sedentary, moving to three or four grain fields a year to undergo the process of hand-threshing. No one even notices when the group starts aiding the grain by planting it, to ensure it will be there when they come back in eight moons. No one notices when the group starts planting the grain in a pattern that will make for more efficient harvesting when they stop through again. No one notices when they stop moving altogether and become full-time farmers, making tools to harvest the grain even faster and more effectively. And no one really notices when you start having a guy in charge, who ensures grain production and calls the shots. And no one notices when this guy, noting the burgeoning population, appoints lieutenants to help him keep everything under control. And nobody thinks it’s strange in a few dozen generations when the MIC says, “Look at all these people, guys… we may need more space.”

    Is this how civilization begins? Maybe; it certainly fits a lot of evidence. Is this a complete theory? No. It doesn’t take into account how corn growing or potato growing civilizations could come about. Is the theory a thought-provoking one? I certainly think so.

    Comment by Chuck — 7 August 2005 @ 6:37 AM

  17. All the bog people I know of were definitely agrarian–dating back to the Neolithic.

    While you are quite right that wheat and similar cereal grains do wrap quite a bit of nutrients around the seed, and that this is enjoyed by many animals–especially birds–this does not make them a very good human food. From Dr. Balzer’s introduction to the Paleolithic Diet:

    For millions of years, humans and their relatives have eaten meat, fish, fowl and the leaves, roots and fruits of many plants. One big obstacle to getting more calories from the environment is the fact that many plants are inedible. Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins. There is no doubt about that- please don’t try to eat them raw, they can make you very sick.

    Around 10,000 years ago, an enormous breakthrough was made- a breakthrough that was to change the course of history, and our diet, forever. This breakthrough was the discovery that cooking these foods made them edible- the heat destroyed enough toxins to render them edible. Grains include wheat, corn, barley, rice, sorghum, millet and oats. Grain based foods also include products such as flour, bread, noodles and pasta. These foods entered the menu of New Stone Age (Neolithic) man, and Paleolithic diet buffs often refer to them as Neolithic foods.

    Now, the idea that human civilizations grew up in flood plains is exactly as you describe–it is not a possible, fringe theory, but the accepted explanation that cities grew in these flood plains because those were the only places suited to growing wheat. Wheat is a very finicky plant, susceptible to more diseases than most, and only growing under very specific conditions. It makes up for this by being a “disaster plant,” as you said. After a flood, wheat may be the only thing around.

    Also, I think you have the evolutionary force backwards in some regards. With the end of the Pleistocene, the ice caps begin to melt, causing the sea levels to rise. There’s a lot of flooding, and a lot of regions that were once good gameland are now flooded. The traditional migrations of foragers through these areas now leave them with nothing but grains to eat. They need to cook them, and they need to process them. Harvesting wheat is easier than harvesting most seeds, because you can grab one stalk and slake the grains off with your hand, as you said. But rather than making wheat more difficult to process by leaving only the strongest behind, this created an easier to harvest kind of wheat, as the easiest to harvest would have all kinds of seeds dropped near the campsite. When they returned next year, they would find even more grain close to the camp, which was even easier to harvest.

    Foragers aren’t stupid, and they knew what they had going on. But cultivation is an investment: you’re planting seeds that you could otherwise eat, in the hopes of getting a massive return on that investment. Poor people don’t invest; rich people do. And when are people most likely to cultivate more seeds? In a good year that leaves a sizeable surplus, that immediately follows a bad year, so that the danger is still on your mind. The climate of our current interglacial’s beginning was full of such fluctuations. When they started growing grain, they knew that was what they were doing. They probably didn’t notice the intensification, but there had to be a moment when they decided to stay in one place.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 8 August 2005 @ 11:48 AM

  18. a) “superior to the animals because they had part of her mind and would never want to change their shape.” … where is the source on this? and lumping all australian aboriginal people into one sum creation myth is completely retarded.

    B) who cares about the terms “leaver” and “Takers”?Iriquois are largely consumed into domesticated life. might as well toss them out.

    c) which tribes conquered others that werent already devoured by some form of domestication (whether its tobacco, horticulture, dogs.. to even raising pigs as sacrifice in ritual.), hierarchy… etc? again… more sources.. more evidence. speculative nonsense at best.

    d) again, “many tribes” in new guinea. lame. this Marind-anim tribe is flooded with ritual/symbolic culture across the board with flute use, artwork, sacrifice, sexual division beyond laughable. they have the concept of village “big men” .. again horticulture - domestication comes to the front, “including their most valued items of exchange, such as crops or pigs - ” LAME EXAMPLE

    f) daniel quinn isnt a primitivist.

    Comment by doctorOFshit — 13 October 2005 @ 3:08 PM

  19. Hey Doc –

    Do you read the source materials offered before screaming for sources?


    Comment by Janene — 13 October 2005 @ 4:02 PM

  20. Doctor,

    a) HTML allows for a new manner of citation–with hyperlinks. I’ve used that technique liberally above. For example, the bit about “the Austrialian Aborigine creation myth” came from, which you will find linked in the original article. You are right, though; there is a great diversity in Aboriginal beliefs, and I’m sure most tribes have their own renditions of this story, but I doubt you’ll find much variation on this particular point.

    b) Fans of Daniel Quinn care about the terms, and this article was largely addressed to them.

    c) Well, for starters, you’d have a hard time disproving the contention that the Inuit regularly war with one another. See Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization.

    d) How can the tribes of the world’s largest population of extant tribes be a lame example of tribes? If that is a lame example, then no good example is possible. There are no better examples–today, or archaeologically.

    f) Perhaps if “primitivist” means “a parrot of John Zerzan.” I reject such strictness, particularly when we’re talking about an anarchist movement. If you find value in a primitive way of life, you’re a primitivist. Quinn finds value in a primitive way of life; he’s a primtivist. So does Zerzan. Their differences are differences of opinion within primitivism.

    Primitivism does not need to entail a philosophical rejection of technology or symbolic thought, as you seem to suggest. By that standard, there is no primitive society on earth. Even the Dobe Ju/’Hoansi have a rich symbolic life. Frankly, I think Zerzan’s case against art and symbolism is completely misguided. The genus Homo has been using some kind of technology for a million years–tool use defines the whole genus. A digging stick is technology. So obviously technology per se is not the problem. If that’s a fundamental principle of primitivism, then primtivism is total bunk.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 13 October 2005 @ 4:49 PM

  21. Be forewarned: tangent here.

    This reminds me of something I read by a primitivist author a while back. The writer claimed that it was very important during process of rewilding that humans stop looking each other in the eye. This was because in nature, direct eye contact is almost always a sign of defiance or competition. My thoughts were that if that was so we had better stop laughing, because showing teeth is a sign of aggression.

    It always strikes me as darkly humorous that some primitivist authors seem ashamed of being human. It’s like the white guilt syndrome.

    While humans ARE far more like the rest of nature than civilization claims, we are still VERY different than all other forms of life. Funny how primitivism as a movement seems to overshoot the mark.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 14 October 2005 @ 9:20 AM

  22. Well, as different from other forms of life, than, say, a beaver is different from other forms of life. Every species is unique in its own way.

    The “not looking in the eye” thing is certainly true of inter-species relations; is it still true of intra- species relations?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 14 October 2005 @ 9:37 AM

  23. I disagree. I stand by my comment that we are one of the most anomalous of all living species on Earth.

    Horses and zebras and donkeys are all similar; they have unique features… but they’re close. So their characteristics set is common.

    Genus panthera contains four well-known cat species; lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars all have their unique features, but they’re pretty much the same. They even roar. Their characteristics set is common.

    Foxes, wolves and coyotes are certainly different, but they’re close enough to be pretty much the same. Common characteristics set.

    Homo Sapiens, however, killed all of their close relatives that shared their “anomalous” characteristics set (or they died out for other reasons). This in turn made our peculiar mix of traits even more rare. Although you might accuse me of bad linguistics, I’d say that Humans, because we’re the only thing even remotely like us, are MORE unique than most species, because our characteristics set is more rare. Cognition, extended metaphoric and symbolic thought, tool use, color binocular vision, bipedal locomotion…

    As of this moment in Earth’s history, this is a very rare characteristics set, and I would challenge anyone out there to prove me wrong by showing me a species that possesses all of them.

    Beavers are a good analog to humans, because they, like humans, are the only surviving members of their genus. But even on this point, there are still two species of beavers (N-Am and Eur), and only one of humans.

    If we had more (surviving) close cousins, it would be easy to say that humans are no more or less unique than any other species. We don’t. Which makes our characteristics set very, very rare.

    This, in turn, makes us VERY different from other forms of life.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 14 October 2005 @ 11:52 AM

  24. As of this moment in Earth’s history, this is a very rare characteristics set, and I would challenge anyone out there to prove me wrong by showing me a species that possesses all of them.

    Chimpanzees. Bonobos. Orangutans. Gorillas.

    The genus Homo is defined by “tool use.” It’s a ridiculous categorization, built entirely out of our own sense of self-importance. I think any objective census of the similarities of the genus Panthera, compared to the similarities of humans, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans would have to conclude that there was no greater difference between humans and orangutans, then between lions and jaguars.

    We seperate ourselves into a separate genus because we’re inescapably ourselves, and it’s always easier to distinguish the differences near to you than far away. Mt. Everest can look about the same as Mt. McKinley if they stood side by side, and you might think they’re closer to each other than in height than you are to an elephant standing next to you–but that’s not the actual case, that’s just a trick of perspective.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 14 October 2005 @ 12:38 PM

  25. Whether or not a species should be classified by learned behaviors does not change the fact that all humans engage in these learned behaviors. These behaviors, as well as many physical traits (including the ability to make vocal noises, see with color binocular vision, and locomote via bipedalism) are what makes us human.

    NONE of the other species in order primate (or indeed, in the world) have this EXACT set of characteristics.

    Of course, it’s easy to simply say that lions and tigers are unique. Damn straight. Lions and tigers have different sets of characteristics; ergo, they are different species. However, the characteristics sets of tigers and lions are far closer to one another than the characteristics sets of humans and chimps (or gorillas, or orangutans, or even bonobos).

    Also, the characteristics set we carry is a unique one in that it allows us to make changes to the world in unprecedented ways (as clearly evidenced by, well, the existence of this website). It’s not only that humans have a unique set of characteristics, (which I still stand by), it’s that this characteristics set allows such an unusual pattern of behavior.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 14 October 2005 @ 2:42 PM

  26. “Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins. There is no doubt about that- please don’t try to eat them raw, they can make you very sick.” *Rolling my eyes.* So this is where you got that piece of malarkey from. I’ll grant that it may apply to raw shell beans. If eaten after soaking but before cooking, they can cause bloat, but they also taste pretty terrible until cooked. I say it is malarkey because I regularly ate raw wheat and potatoes as a child and still regularly eat raw rolled oats, all will no discernable ill effect. I have trouble believing that paleolithic people would avoid eating a food because of some slow-building long term effect any more than modern people do. I really think that that theory is a piece of paleo-diet propaganda.
    Chuck, what’s with the demand that similar creatures meet ALL of our distinguishing characteristics. That would be like demanding that all of the panthera species have males with manes. Oh, and I really do think that chimpanzees to show all of the characteristics you claim define humans, they just don’t display them to the same extent. Sort of like swimming as a characteristic of panthera species. all of them can do it, but only tigers and jaguars come close to making a habit of it and only tigers actually seem to LIKE it.

    Comment by ChandraShakti — 22 August 2006 @ 10:08 PM

  27. Just re-reading through this, and I noticed this:
    [quote from=Chuck]
    wolves and coyotes are certainly different, but they’re close enough to be pretty much the same.[/quote]

    I just wanted to duly note that wolves and coyotes are so close that can successfully interbreed.

    In fact in many parts of the US that’s exactly _how_ the species are adjusting to environmental pressures.

    Comment by jhereg — 23 August 2006 @ 9:04 AM

  28. I have trouble believing that paleolithic people would avoid eating a food because of some slow-building long term effect any more than modern people do. I really think that that theory is a piece of paleo-diet propaganda.

    You’re right, but these are also foods that were generally difficult to acquire on a large scale, so if they’re only slightly poisonous, it would have had little effect on them, while we, who eat them in bulk, could very easily kill ourselves. I remember as a child my mother stopping me from eating too much raw potato, lest I get sick.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 23 August 2006 @ 10:19 AM

  29. In truth, there’s not really that many foods that don’t have some nutritional downside of one kind or another.

    A highly varied diet does wonders to mitigate that tho’….

    So, I kind of come down on both sides of the “paleo” diet debate.

    Comment by jhereg — 23 August 2006 @ 10:34 AM

  30. Foragers enjoy the most varied, diverse diet of any subsistence type. A truly paleo diet is an incredibly diverse diet. Even grains, legumes and the rest can be tolerated in small quantities, but therein lies the key: small quantities. We’ve turned these things into staples! Even most people who think they’re just eating a little bit of grain are, in fact, eating far, far more than the human body can really take. Remember, a forager might have a few handfuls of grain in a whole year. That’s what our body’s tolerance for grain is, about.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 23 August 2006 @ 10:43 AM

  31. Re sugar: human beings do _not_ need dietary sugar. The brain and certain other tissues require minimum amounts of glucose, but in the absence of dietary carbohydrate this is synthesized in the process called gluconeogenesis. People don’t even need dietary carbohydrate, broadly considered, making it the only dietary macronutrient that isn’t actually required. (I am thinking here of the undergrad nutrition text I saw which admitted that ‘obligatory carbohydrate intake is apparently nil’, but then nonetheless went on to say everyone should eat at least 150 grams of carbs ‘to avoid catabolism of protein’… which later research is showing to be a myth.) Think of the Inuit. The ‘we need carbs’ stuff is a Neolithic thought pattern pushed in modern times by the USDA on behalf of ADM. Gotta sell that grain mountain somehow…

    Comment by Eric — 13 November 2006 @ 11:42 PM

  32. Quinns writing is “primitivist philosophy”? That’s a first one for me.

    Comment by Anthony — 8 September 2007 @ 9:10 AM

  33. What else would you call it?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 8 September 2007 @ 9:47 AM

E-mail It