Back in the Day

Today's subject is about a problem I see often enough that I'm certain I've been guilty of it myself in the past, and will probably be guilty of in the future as well.  In fact, if you see me doing it feel free to call me out and link to this post.  I'm not shy about being wrong.  I've had a lot of practice at it.

The issue became apparent to me recently while reading a book whose author I'll not shame.  It was a kind of self-help book, which attempted to explain  ways to overcome normal human behaviors in order to make it easier to be happy (which is incidentally about the most generic explanation for a self-help book I can think of).  While explaining their shortcuts/insights into human behavior, the author explained that the reasons for the normal, maladaptive, human behaviors they were trying to correct all lie in evolutionary history.  You see, humans back on the savannas of Africa in hunter-gatherer societies were bad at [insert perceived failing of human rationality here] because their conditions didn't look like ours.  They didn't need to do statistical modelling, risk analysis of low-probability events, etc.  No, they needed to worry about other tribal members physically stealing their mates.  Only the strong survive in that kind of environment.

Finally, the worst offender of them all, the author repeated the fallacy that hunter-gatherer societies were idyllic compared to farming societies.  They ate better and worked fewer hours, living in a kind of Edenic paradise until farming/government/cities/etc. came along and ruined it.

These fallacies are repeated often enough that I want to devote this post not only to debunking them but also to working through a 'reasonableness check' to make them less persuasive when they crop up in slightly-modified forms in the future.

  • Ancient societies were bad at low-probability events
There's a great story is The World Until Yesterday, where the author is planning to set up camp in a specific location, but his guide advises against this because a tree limb might fall on them.  The author doesn't think this is a big deal, but acquiesces anyway.  Later it's revealed that a tree limb did fall on that location.  The point isn't that the guide was so attuned with nature that he could predict the falling of tree branches.  He was just overly cautious about all suspicious-looking tree branches and it happened to pay off in that case.  Indeed, there are other stories in the book where the author's guides are risk-averse for seemingly inconsequential things where the risk isn't realized.  The author's point is that in hunter-gatherer societies people have to exercise extra caution in being risk-averse to low-probability events.  He even goes so far as to advise we learn a lesson from hunter-gatherers and be more risk averse to low-probability events.  Why are they more cautious?  Well, one of the most common ways to die among all these societies is falling off a tree, or a tree falling on you.  Not only that, but if you don't die from the initial injury you might still die from later infection (in a world without antibiotics) or be permanently disabled because there aren't any doctors to set your bone and put you in a cast.  This was only the most striking case in which these people were thinking about and planning for the future using low-probability events as their guide.  The idea that modern societies and modern people are the only ones who think about things from a probability perspective is easy to imagine, but we're not imagining actual hunter-gatherer societies when we do this mental exercise.
  • "Back on the savanna"
There's this story I keep hearing of humans living in Africa on the savanna as the only fundamental etiology of humanity.  Yes and no.  I confess this isn't my area of expertise, but from what I've read on the subject I understand that there were multiple species from the homo genus out of which modern-day humans arose, not just homo sapiens.  (You're thinking maybe a two or three others, but the real answer - including those we probably haven't discovered yet - may be well over a dozen.)  Sapiens, to my understanding, donated the greatest amount of genetic material to current-day humanity, but multiple other branches of humans were around and not all of their kind were hunted down and killed by sapiens.  Some interbreeding occurred.  Indeed, the idea of sapiens battling it out against neanderthals on the savanna in a sort of genetic war of annihilation has far too little nuance and doesn't represent the complex incentives at play for individuals of both species.

Why am I bringing all this up?  Because there's this idea that humans all came from one place, and because of that we're really well adapted to living in a very narrow environment that doesn't match our current environment.  Therefore, any friction between how we might expect humans to react to certain situations and how they actually act is treated as a mismatch of environment.  Although we can't rule this idea out entirely for all situations, it seems a bit absurd to claim human survival is only suited to life in sub-Saharan Africa.  Before the advent of modern transportation humans had colonized six of the seven continents, most islands large enough to be worth living on, deserts, mountains, and tundra.  The case against a narrow-habitat humanity is evident in Inuit, Polynesian, Bedouin, Mongolian, and a dozen other cultures that were capable of adapting to whatever Nature sent their way.  That's not a claim that all future humans will perfectly adapt to new environments, like cities and suburbia.  But we should at least be skeptical of arguments that human behavioral plasticity is limited by the African savanna.
  • Club a mate and drag her back to the cave
I've always struggled with the concept of the Dominance Hierarchy.  Sure, it works in some situations, but in most other human interactions a pure application of dominance hierarchy fails miserably.  It wasn't until I was exposed to research about Prestige Hierarchies that a richer picture of human interaction started to take shape.  My understanding is that one of the reasons sapiens was so successful compared to other homo species was because it was particularly well adapted to work in groups.  Pro-social dynamics were the 'killer app' that made modern civilization possible.  Dominance hierarchies - something we see in many primate species - aren't enough to get you species-wide dominance like that.  You need a more nuanced system, where prestige, admiration, respect, and mutually-beneficial cooperation across iterative interactions are the basic building blocks of society.  Any explanation of why 'pre-historic people' are different than us that employs the assumption of a strongman-only solution to most problems is needlessly oversimplifying.  Yes, there have always been warlords willing to exploit, but that's a narrow explanation for human society that explains very little of either modern or ancient behavior.
  • Hunting and gathering as sustainable food sources
Finally, the problem of food.  First, I find it difficult to imagine an Edenic land flowing with milk and honey where people don't just overrun the place.  In the lab, when we grow bacteria in an incubator they expand to fill the available food source, then enter a state of senescence as resources become limited.  This is the fundamental insight of the S-curve, where any finite system will be constrained by some factor or another.  If a hunter-gatherer society isn't being constrained by availability of food, they'll either soon grow to the point where they are, or they're constrained by something else.  Something they'll spend their days trying to get more of.

The other problem with the idea that hunter-gatherers had it better than farmers is that this ignores the actual fears and concerns of hunter-gatherers.  There's a good reason to come down out of the forest to till the land: grain is great food storage.  We could be forgiven if we've forgotten this point, but human societies have historically been marked by periods of pestilence and famine.  This happens in farming societies as well, but the difference between them and hunter-gatherers is life and death.  There aren't great ways to store meat over the long term (salt works, but historically it wasn't as abundantly available as it is today), but grain will keep you going through the dry season, the unexpected herd migration, or the collapse of large game populations.  (Recall that Australia used to have large game, but it all disappeared soon after humans arrived on the continent.)  So the idea that there was no reason for humans to emerge from a lazy life in the trees to work long hard hours on the farms of the plains is a myth.  It's a story we made up that doesn't reflect the conditions the people who faced this decision had to grapple with.

Bringing it together

One of the common threads to all these ideas is the tendency to think of an idealized human or group of humans, but not to think of them as actual people who really lived.  People you could have a conversation with, if you had a time machine and a universal translator.  But that idealized vision isn't how we got from pre-human primates to today.  The people who got us here - hundreds of generations ago - were real folks.  They could tell you jokes, talk about their struggles with raising kids, and gossip about who is cheating on whom, and with whom.  The stories we tell ourselves about how a life we never lived must have happened are as misleading as statistics that describe a rich, diverse population with a single average calculation.  Applied correctly, statistics and models are great for telling us certain kinds of information that helps us understand a subject better.  But they're not real.  We shouldn't treat them like they are and keep coming back to them to tell us more about who people were/are, creating fictitious people out of statistics and stories.  When we treat models like they're real they give us a false sense that we know and understand the lives and struggles of actual people.  They make us think we understand a complex system because we reduced it to fundamental rules, like how physics can be understood by applying a defined set of equations.

They do more than that.  They strip those people of their agency, accountability, and humanity - presuming to know what all such people will do in a given situation simply by calculating the mean of a population, or by making wild guesses about the vanishingly few random bits of pottery they left behind.  The result isn't just that we don't know anything new - we should be so lucky.  The result is that we know less than nothing.  We 'know' new information that's wrong.  We've explained away a complex world with a simple model and it will be a hard matter to unlearn what we know.


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