Once upon a time, humans lived in hunter-gatherer tribes of about 150 people. We gathered around fires to tell stories. We progressed from birth to death through a series of phases. We were initiated into the tribe. We had children. We progressed into old age and became respected elders valued for our insight and wisdom. And then, we passed on. Sometimes because of a primitive form of euthanasia where someone in the tribe would bash us on the back of the head with a rock. Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t perfect but it certainly wasn’t “nasty, brutish and short” as Hobbes suggested. Actually, hunter-gatherers were and are healthier than agriculturists. They also work far less than we do. While the French have a 35-hour work week, hunter-gatherers often spend as little as 12 hours a week gathering food. The rest of the time is spent singing, dancing, telling stories and other less PG-13 activities. Sounds pretty awesome. The basic narrative of human progress in the West requires to imagine that the prehistoric past was TERRIBLE. Unfortunately, the past that Hobbes imagined is a poor fit for how hunter-gatherers actually lived. Writers like Yuval Harari and Chris Ryan even go so far as to paint the decision to stop the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and start practicing agriculture as a mistake.
A mistake? What?!? Yep. Think about it and watch your mind try and rationalize why your life is better than that of a hunter-gatherer in a loin cloth. But, surely, the hunter-gatherers must have had a life that was “nasty, brutish and short.” Unfortunately, that’s not what the anthropology or archaeology show. Hunter-gatherers were and are healthier in many ways than modern humans. In fact, you don’t have to go spend time with the bushman of the Kalahari to understand that humans don’t like the rat race. We force ourselves to grind out TPS reports that we don’t care about. We balk at bosses who engage in petty micromanagement. We hate cubicles and dream of wide open spaces. At least farmers get to be outside. We don’t even get that! No wonder the movie Office Space features the necktie crowd smashing a printer. It is the symbol of their oppression!!! Everywhere humans are born nature-loving and yet everywhere in the modern world they are in cubicles!
Movies like Fight Club go further fantasize about tearing it all down and going back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Tyler Durden is the shadow version of our desire to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He is that voice inside us that knows all too clearly the discontents of modern life and he simply wants to tear it all down.
And what are those discontents? Well, we amass great fortunes, fancy cars and big houses. And why? Is it because more money makes us happy? Nope. Past a certain level of wealth money has been shown time and time again not to buy happiness. Not only that, spending money on others makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. Having more than others isn’t a good fit for human psychology. It makes us uneasy which is why humans who do have more money than others have to find ways to live with that. I’ve spent more than a decade tutoring the children of the very rich. There are coping strategies for handling income inequality among the 1%. Chris Ryan and I have talked about these. Gated communities aren’t just about security. They’re also about isolating yourself from having to see poverty. In the end though, the disconnect becomes too much for many of the uber wealthy. They feel the need to do SOMETHING. They have to reframe money in their mind thinking of it as a public trust. And they start foundations to give it away. Yes, some of this is done for social show but a lot of it is about living with that disconnect. Of course, not all rich people think this way. Some instead tell stories about themselves being somehow better than poor people. They dehumanize others so they can live with their own humanity. When you think of truly miserable rich people, these are them. The cartoon Pogo summed up the challenge of the human condition decades ago.
We can’t run from our evolved hunter-gather psychology. So, why don’t we go back to living that way? Well, as Sebastian Junger reports in Tribe, when we had the option we did.
Decades before the American Revolution, Ben Franklin noticed that Englishmen regularly fled to live with Native Americans. However, the Native Americans never felt any particular need to live like Englishmen. We are hardwired to want to live in tribes. This desire for belonging in small, tight-knit communities is why even in modern society people are so darn groupish. We form cliques in high school. We join churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. We form clubs around sports, hobbies, political causes and our favorite celebrities. We hunger for tribe. And yet, to turn Hobbes’ famous turn of phrase on its head, life in modern society is often “lonely, isolating and purposeless.” What’s more bringing home the bacon in modern society often has us working from dawn to dusk in ways that ruin our health. No wonder hunter-gatherers find this way of living so unappealing. Asked why he didn’t take up agriculture, one bushman famously responded “Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”
And yet, when hunter-gatherers make contact with modernity, they want our stuff. If you’ve already earned your white belt in Mixed Mental Arts, then you know all about cargo cults. Clearly, metal, high calorie foods and all the other technologies of modern life are BIG MAGIC! And as anyone who has read Jared Diamond’s World Until Yesterday knows, hunter-gatherers die of things like infected insect bites, trees falling on them and rival tribes killing them. There are good parts and bad parts to the hunter-gatherer life and to modern life. The question is how do we have both. How do we have a life that is primeval yet contemporary? A life that gives us the sense of community, lifelong purpose and low working hours that hunter-gatherers enjoy with the antibiotics, metal and possibilities for travel offered by planes, trains and automobiles. Can we go back to tribal living and take all the cool stuff with us?
Yes, we can. In fact, this is the point of the Hero’s Journey.
After studying myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell noticed that myths repeated the same basic rhythms. The hero(ine) goes out in quest of something. They face dangers and trials. They fear all is lost. And then, they are forced to dig deep within themselves to find the courage and confidence to face the final ordeal. That’s when they win the prize and return back to the tribe with the reward. Maybe it’s fire. Maybe it’s the princess they rescued from the dragon. Maybe it’s some magical talisman. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where people like Chris Ryan, myself and many members of the tribes that have grown up around The Tangentially Speaking and Mixed Mental Arts Podcast believe we’ve reached. We’re at the abyss. Things look pretty dark right now. But wait! Because it’s in that long dark night of the soul that we finally have a revelation about how we’re going to beat the darkness that has spread across the land and are going to bring peace and prosperity to all our people.
And while each of us live our own hero’s journeys within our lives, it is clear to me that humanity has actually been on one 10,000 year long Hero’s Journey. For some reason, we ventured out from the homefires of the tribes. We started practicing agriculture. We created massive Empires with God-Kings and God-Emperors that brought stability but that unchecked power corrupted those men. So, universalizing religions sprang up that united the warring tribes like Islam and Christianity taught us how to live in societies well past our Dunbar Number while at the same time allowing us to be part of congregations that gave us tribes within much larger society. And along the way, people like the Buddha and Ibn Haytham and the men who stood on their shoulders saw the problem of culture’s ability to bind and blind. We were capable of believing anything. And so, they evolved a system for testing our beliefs in light of the actual behavior of reality that we call science. And on and on. And, today, thanks to the internet. Humanity has become the most powerfully interconnected hive mind we have ever seen. And with this, we are trying to solve that problem that was created when we broke out beyond the Dunbar Number and started practicing agriculture: how do you build a large-scale society?
Right now, there are all these articles floating around the internet about Universal Basic Income asking if you can build a human society based on that principle. Can you? We already have. They’re called hunter-gatherer societies.
Hunter-gatherers are great at spotting people in their tribe who are mooching and not pulling their weight. They divvy up the mongongo nuts and the food amongst everybody without any problem. The challenge is not to build a village. It’s to build a global village of 7.5 billion people and counting. What values will we need? What beliefs? What should our schools look like? How do we handle health care? Crime? And how do we move from all these cultures shaped by agriculture to have culture biases towards honor and dignity and optimism and pessimism and atomism and holism towards the culture of that global village. Well, we use humanity’s superpower. And we gang up on the problem of figuring out the elephant rather than ganging up on each other.
In the end, the #Jobocalypse and the destruction of routine work is creating the pressures that will make this conversation louder and louder until we can’t avoid it. When people have no skills to sell and some people have all the mongongo nuts, then one of two things will happen. Either those with lots of mongongo nuts will share SOME of them or the people without will simply grab the mongongo nuts.
There are choices here but there’s really only one good one. Instead of ganging up on each other, we gang up on the problem. How do we build a society that is primeval yet contemporary? And I actually think that’s a problem that with the internet we can solve quite quickly. After all, I didn’t come up with that turn of phrase. And I didn’t come up with the idea of ganging up on the problem rather than each other. I got both those ideas from two artists in the UK named Fantich and Young who put human teeth on the bottom of modern shoes. They liked what we’d cobbled together with Mixed Mental Arts and wanted to add their mongongo nuts to the collective pot to help evolve Mixed Mental Arts. A lot of people are doing that. They want to help midwife in that global village that’s the best of both worlds. Don’t you?
The psychological and technological pressures are driving us towards a world where everyone has enough mongongo nuts. And, frankly, I’m excited for a world that is primeval yet contemporary. It seems pretty awesome.
We came from UBI and to UBI we shall return.