I was interviewing Desmond Morris today. I asked him if humanity had taken a wrong turn with the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. He said that humans were rather like zoo animals and suffer from the same problems as zoo animals; unhappiness, restriction, disordered behaviour, illnesses, violence and mental illnesses of every kind. Humans like animals or birds do not thrive in a caged environment.
Morris seemed to think that the fruits of civilisation such as the arts and sciences were compensation for the fact there is widespread violence and poverty. I don’t necessarily agree. I think that technology is largely meaningless and we were happier when we had freedom.
People will say ‘what about individualism’ wouldn’t it be terrible to live in a tribe stuck with the same people. The ‘tribe’ is the evolved social group for human beings. With so much alienation and anomie in the world maybe many people actually unknowingly crave the companionship of a tribe rather than atomisation.
William Blake the poet talked about this idea of ‘mind forg’d manacles’. That the thing keeping man trapped was social convention. The civilized society is full of manacles, real or otherwise and walls, and locks and prisons and fences and barbed wire and in real bad cases concentration camps.
Another track my thoughts were going down was that we live in the year 2016. The Tao Te Ching is over 2500 years old. Chinese civilisation is 5000 years old, Egyptian civilisation is around 5000 years old. Yoga is 5000 years old. The agricultural revolution was 10,000 years ago.
The Bhagvad Gita and Upanisads were written in the Indus Valley civilisation which goes back 5000 years. The written texts of the Vedic cultures record even more ancient shamanic knowledge that dates back to the earliest hunter gatherer roots of human society as a shamanic society, Vedic culture in Asia which then spread throughout much of the rest of Europe and Asia. Many of the languages of Europe and Asia have roots in or links to Sanskrit. I am tracing a path right back through ancient Chinese and Indian civilization, Greek and Persian and Babylonian, through the Fertile Crescent right back to the dawn of settled society and hierarchy. When human agriculture for the first time produced a surplus and allowed humans to settle in towns and cities, allowing people to specialise into different professions and castes. Before that humans lived a much more nomadic and subsistence existence. Although Marshall Sahlins argued in ‘Stone Age Economics’ that hunter gatherer people worked on average 15 hours a week to obtain his subsistence. They lived mostly in a rich environment, unspoilt by industrialism or widespread pollution and they were able to derive nutrition from surrounding plants and animals. It was only with civilization and serfdom that the notion of toil emerged.
I am tracing this path back to our common ancestors. The spirit people. The people of natural religion. The people of hearth and home and hunting and gathering of the seasons.
I am intruiged by these people because I feel they had an existence that had yet to develop the diseases and malaises of civilization. The iatrogenic illnesses that dog modern man. They lived in harmonious balance with nature and weren’t forever going to war with the world around them to contro, the next crisis and the next crisis. Maybe what I am saying is romantic rousseauesque drivel. I just feel that there was more freedom them, essential freedom and the trinkets, trappings and gizmos of modern civilization dont compensate for it. I would rather give up my iPAD and live as a hunter gatherer, not in some lame new age way of ‘going off grid’ but if it were possible.
I feel like this is why I like the Tao Te Ching so much. It’s a book about freedom. It is subversive. Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching when he had had enough of the excesses of civilization. Lao Tzu wrote things like “The great way is low and plain but people like short cuts over the mountains” or “the treasury is full of jade/the fields are full of weeds”. He hated overcomplication and excess. So much so that he turned his back on human society. At the point he wrote Chinese society had already been an empire for several thousand years but perhaps it was early enough that there were still memories of an earlier way of doing things. Indeed some scholars argue that Lao Tzu had female teachers, maybe ones who had passed down knowledge of matri focal hunter gatherer societies. Maybe these women were exasperated with the excesses of male dominated patriarchal Confucian society.
So the strands of history go far back and maybe there was more freedom millennia ago before people settled down in cities. As Daniel Quinn says maybe that is when food was put under lock and key. Maybe that is when humans became domesticated zoo animals and developed all sorts of problems caused by civilization.
Is civilization worth it? The poverty, the illnesses, the wars, the environmental destruction, genocide, ecocide. I just dont agree with dr Morris i dont think its. Worth.
Progress so far