Romantic primitivism

This page is under revision - to be completed late-May 2010

"Romantic primitivism" is a 'sneer term': no one advocates "romantic primitivism", so arguing against it is pushing against an open door of one's own making, or attacking a straw man; criticisms of romantic primitivism are self-serving and often mischaracterize their targets in ways that make them appear foolish. It requirea some picking apart to identify what the writer is really arguing against and for. [4]

Although Evfit is critical of western consumerism and globalized industrial civilization and the damage that has done to the systems of the biosphere, magnified by human overpopulation (probably inevitably), our criticism is essentially of biophysical manifestations and consequences of some aspects of our culture. This is particularly so as the constraints of an ecological footprint score of more than 1.00 become unavoidable and the global population of Homo sapiens continues to increase to what are plague proportions by any biological definition. We do not necessarily condemn civilization itself but this depends critically on how 'civilization' is defined [1]

Evfit, in its turn, is a possible target of two criticisms, one likely but glib, ill-founded, simplistic and easily dismissed. The other no better-founded, but rather more sophisticated and so more difficult to deal with. Finally, we present the Evfit position.

Criticism 1:  "But we can't all go back to living in caves..." If you haven't already been confronted with a statement like this, you soon will be. What is happening here is that the speaker creates in their mind a superficial and uninformed "straw man" model of your aspirations and accuses you of having this flawed model in your mind and seeking to impose it on others.

Don't fall for it!

Of course, you could respond that, well, in fact it is the one thing that most of us could do - if there were enough caves to go around.

But the best response is one which invites them to open their civilization-encrusted mind and join you on a fascinating journey of discovery of human evolution and its implications for today, discovery through education, experience and experimentation both intellectual and practical it's fun!

Criticism 2There is, however, a history of ideas about romantic primitivism in western thought and you will be well-placed to avoid the trap if you are aware of this history. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in his Discourse on Inequality provided one of the most influential statements in support of romantic primitivism, but it was not the first. "Romantic primitivism the idealizing of social simplicity and the world of the 'noble savage' - has been around for a long time. You can find it in classical Greece 2500 years ago: the Cynics and the Stoics are examples ... In the words of [Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas] who looked closely at the subject from its first appearance in classical times, primitivism represents 'the unending revolt of the civilized against civilization'. This revolt has one invariable feature. As Rousseau himself dramatically demonstrated, those most excited by the idea of 'noble savagery' have no experience at all of true dirt-and-diseases tribal life. [8] What inspires them is an idée fixe in the mind ... the noisiest and most excitable [romantic primitivists] are always media folk or imaginative writers or campus intellectuals who haven't a clue what they're getting into. Romantic primitivism consists of fantasies inside the heads of urban dwellers delusions of a morally superior, Edenic world beyond the horizon - which are then projected onto primitive peoples themselves". [9]

This extensive quotation is from Roger Sandall's The Culture Cult and it depicts succinctly, a trap which some may fall for, but which Evfit does not. Sandall is an experienced anthropologist and retired academic who observed at first hand the fortunes of anthropological science over the second half of the twentieth century. His sharpest barbs are directed at those who are absolutists at home (in condemning the shortcomings of their own, western, culture) and relativists abroad (in condoning cruel and irrational actions elsewhere). We are well outside his target range.

Sandall's salutary critique is not directed at the Evfit approach nor at the approach of scientists like Dr Loren Cordain. Evfit does not advocate a 'return to noble savagery' and does not reject all that western civilization has to offer. Indeed, the sophisticated technologies, and the application of those technologies by trained and imaginative scientists, the scientific method, possible only in a mature civil society, are a requirement for Evfit's synthesis. Furthermore, recent developments in evolutionary psychology demonstrate that working practically for a 'primitivist' world is a dead end; human hard-wiring leads mass civilizations inevitably to the main problems confronting our species in the 21st century. Primitivism may, theoretically, forestall a major crisis [5] but even then the intervening period may well be unsettled (at least), turbulent (likely) or even perpetually strife-ridden.

Further, it is our scientific approach to the evidence that enables us to identify, for application today, the features of (a) our Pliocene origins, (b) the Pleistocene environment and (c) the Palaeolithic lifestyle with which our species evolved without being encumbered by romantic baggage.

The Evfit position: The evolutionary health principle is "The principle that if an animal or plant is removed from its natural habitat, or if the environment changes in some significant way, it is likely that it will be less well adapted to the new conditions, and will consequently show some signs of physiological or behavioural maladjustment. This principle applies to all species including Homo sapiens." [6]  It is this principle which enables us to identify the natural habitat of Homo sapiens, and to specify the differences between that habitat and the habitat in which we find ourselves today. [7] With that information, we can then choose to recreate aspects of our natural habitat (and our life within that habitat) so our genome can be expressed optimally. This is not an exercise in romantic primitivism (the world primarily of ideas), but is analagous to the work a team of enlightened veterinarians, naturalists, zoologists and primatologists might undertake to recreate in a zoo the natural habitat of, say, chimpanzees (the world that is primarily biophysical). The biophysical natural habitat would be the one most likely to elicit behaviours most consistent with our total genome's potentials for well being. These behaviours may not be those we today would find most congenial, but they are worth considering as a relatively complete and internally consistent, but dynamic and evolving system.

Three cautions
a.  There is a tendency among some writers to attribute to the Cro-Magnons 'noble savage' status. Donald Johanson, discoverer of 'Lucy' suggests that the Cro-Magnons were 'unnecessarily valorized' [2], originally in the nineteenth century and in contrast to the unnecessarily denigrated Neanderthals. Both characterizations can be caricatures.

b.  It goes without saying, of course, that Brooks Kubik's Dinosaur Training does not pretend to be founded in palaeontology any more than does the Flintstones. These are not examples of romantic primitivism.

c.  The hunter-gatherers extant today have all been touched in various degrees by western civilization and their ethnographies need be interpreted with caution. The allegations in the late 1990s about the extent to which anthropologists merely observed and recorded the Yanomami or actually intervened in Yanomami society is just a recent example of a century-old phenomenon.

Solastalgia

Glenn Albrecht's notion of solastalgia provides us with a means to understand the attraction of the primitive today and to see a possible biophysical basis for it, rather than a romantic one. And Stephen Boyden's Evolutionary Health Principle provides the scientific framework to analyse the dimensions of this attraction and to propose the nature and scope of remedial actions.

Notes

1. It is necessary to define our terms. In Derek Jensen's The World We Leave Behind, he refers variously to 'industrial civilization', 'this culture', 'the dominant economic system' (all on page vii) and 'the industrial economy' (page 260) but does not discuss formally the identifying and distinguishing characteristics of each. In Endgame, Jensen has a chapter devoted to such a discussion. In this he concludes that 'I would define a civilization ... as a culture ... that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities' (page 17). However, out of respect for Jensen, please note the two ellipses and the fact that his discussion takes a full chapter and the over 900 pages of his book embelish his definition. Stephen Boyden, in both The Biology of Civilisation (2004) and People and Nature (2005), defines civilization as 'all human societies with economies based on farming'. Keith Farnish cites the five characteristics of civilization identified on the Anthropik Network website (a site that tended to romantic primitivism [3]): (1) Settlements of cities of 5,000 or more people, (2) Full-time labour specialization, (3) Concentration of surplus, (4) Class structure, (5) State-level political organization. Farnish concludes that all civilizations have some social mechanism through which power and wealth can be accumulated by a few. John Gray takes a different approach: "Before it is anything else civilization is the restraint of violence". We take this discussion no further here, but point out that many writers have uncritically picked up Daniel Quinn's assertion that private control of food supplies is a key defining characteristic. Wrong. Control of food supplies is actually a consequence of land monopoly control of access to land that can be used for food production and more general self-sufficiency. Writing of Communism/Marxism, E O Wilson observed "Great idea, wrong species", thereby giving us a succinct model for an objective assessment for the long-term success of the civilization enterprise.

2. In From Lucy to Language (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1996) , page 244

3. The Anthropik Network attacked an unattributed 19 December 2007 article in "The Economist" Noble or Savage which appears to draw heavily on Steven LeBlanc's Constant Battles (2003) and the controversy LeBlanc's book invigorated. The Economist article has since been hidden behind a paywall, but I will send a copy of it in MS Word to anyone who requests it from me for private use.

4. Sandall's defensiveness can be read as a self-centred response to threats to the environment he has become adapted to and comfortable within. The Earth's processes are not centred on the preferences, whims and wishes of one of its species. Ecosystems are not bound to operate according to developing human perceptions of their key features and our incomplete understandings of their processes and interactions. That's your genes wanting to keep an environment they are adapted to, nothing more than pure selfishness. Your anthropocentric political agenda, if you will. Back to text

5. Pentti Linkola pleads for "a little more time for nature"   Back to text

6. See this reference in the glossary of Biosensitivefutures.org.   Back to text

7. See the list of the most important of these differences at our page on the Evolutionary Health Principle    Back to text

8. You will also hear people quoting Thomas Hobbes (1632-1704); his rhetorical flourish "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" is often trotted out by people who have never read it in the original. This catchy phrase has no basis in anthropology or palaeontology. In fact, although child mortality was high, those who survived to adulthood were generally healthier than their age peers today. Males, in particular, incurred serious injuries through energetic hunting or combat. Back to text

9. The last two sentences in the quotation from Sandall are probably a fair generalization. Back to text

Further reading:
Roger Sandall, The Culture Cult, Westview Press, Boulder Colorado, 2001
The books of Derrick Jensen (particularly Endgame), John Zerzan and the 'Ishmael' books of Daniel Quinn
Keith Farnish's reflections on the essential characteristics of civilizations
John Gray Gray's Anatomy, 2009
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, originally 1868
Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 1959
David McKnight's observation of the destruction of Mornington Island society

Viewing:
The movie Atanarjuat, 2002

Evfit home  On to relations between humans and other animals   Comment on the above

Page up-dated 4 June 2010