linked down

Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears

“In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.”

Bruce Charlton has made his a final proof of his 1999 book Psychiatry and the Human Condition available online in its entirety. The book book is described as, “an optimistic vision of a superior alternative approach to psychiatric illness and its treatment, drawing upon modern neuroscience and evolutionary theory.” From the parts of the book I’ve managed to read so far, this book could well be worth reading in full.

The part I’d like to focus on here is Charlton’s discussion of hunter-gatherers and their relative happiness. The subject of happiness and the human condition from a psychiatry/psychology perspective is of keen interest to me right now as I am just finishing up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (Also see recent discussion on Is Technology Making us Miserable?).

Charlton’s take is that H-G societies were “leisured and egalitarian” and H-Gs experienced a “Golden Age for humans.” Though I’ve yet to read it all, Charlton says that the “scanty” evidence available to support this statement is “consistent and unambiguous.” I believe part of the evidence is the apparent diminished health of agrarian societies combined with the greater stratification of class and status systems brought about by division of labor. That agrarian societies would migrate voluntarily to cities to partake in the industrial-mercantile society just furthers the argument.

I intuit that the hyper-specialization and -isolation experienced by modern human beings doesn’t fit with our evolutionary programming, even as it provides us with amazing new technology and toys. Having said that, I see no reason a balance can’t be struck between the perks of modern existence (technology) and the biological programming of functional/fulfilling community (family) and a more generalist approach to productive activities.

More on this later. And I have more reading to do. In the meantime, read the two bits from Charlton’s book below, which discuss in detail relative degrees of happiness and whether or not the human condition (which Charlton argues hasn’t been designed to be happy) can be improved.

From Chapter 1, Psychiatry and the human condition

Degrees of happiness

The lifestyle of nomadic foragers involve little forward economic planning beyond the communal decisions over when and where to move camp, and the logistics of hunting and gathering. This means that most problems of life related to the social realm – especially around the question of competition for mates – and this lay behind the power struggles, disagreement, discussions and violence. And the primacy of social life in hunter gatherer societies is what has been the decisive force in human evolutionary history – the main focus for natural selection is within-species, human versus human competition.

In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of anthropologist Jerome Barkow – and his opinion is widely confirmed by the reports of many independent anthropologists who have experienced the alternatives of foraging, agrarian and industrial society. The ‘naturalness’ of nomadic foraging is also shown by differences in the harshness of child rearing practices in different types of society. Child rearing involves varying elements of forcible training that are necessary to prepare children for their social role. Peasant societies typically employ extremely repressive forms of socialization, extreme discipline, restriction, and the use of child labour. Industrial mercantile societies (such as our own) are much less tough on children – but still require many unnatural behaviors (eg. sitting in classrooms or examination halls for long periods of time without speaking or moving). But nomadic foragers are able and willing to give their children even more freedom than the most liberal ‘modern parent’ – and such a relaxed upbringing of unstructured interaction with peers apparently prepares the child properly for the adult life to come.

Another line of evidence is patterns of voluntary migration. When industrial mercantile societies develop, they are popular with the miserable peasantry of agrarian societies who flee the land and crowd the cities, if given the chance. Not so the happier hunter gatherers who typically must be coerced into joining industrial life. My great grandparents left their lives as rural peasants and converged from hundreds of miles and several countries to work the coal mines of Northumberland. They swapped the open sky, fields and trees for a life underground and inhabiting dingy rows of colliery houses. Being a miner in the early twentieth century must have been grim, but apparently it was not so bad as being an agricultural laborer.

From a psychiatric perspective, then, there are sharp differences between ancestral societies and modern societies. In terms of their general social situation modern humans are faced with a wide range of new problems – although we console ourselves that for the bulk of the population life is much better in an industrial mercantile society than in a warrior-dominated medieval peasantry. Nevertheless we now live in a mass society, full of strangers who there is no reason to trust since they are neither family nor friends. Although resources are vastly more abundant, resources are linked to status and there are massive inequalities in their distribution.

This means that there is a much higher proportion of intractably low status people in modern societies than in the societies in which humans evolved. Since status is the most important factor in determining a man’s sexual attractiveness, this is a major source of dissatisfaction. Men will devote enormous effort and take great risks in pursuit of the highest status, but for most people in delayed return economies the odds are stacked heavily against them succeeding.

Improving human happiness?

Even if, somehow, the impossible were achieved and humans returned to the kind of egalitarian, immediate return, foraging societies in which we spent much of our recent evolutionary history – then unhappiness would still be common and intractable. Humans did not evolve to be happy – natural selection rewards reproductive success, not happiness. Happiness is – from this perspective – merely the ‘carrot’ which compliments the ‘stick’ of pain – a lure to draw us onwards, to make us strive – but happiness is a reward that we can never permanently grasp nor enjoy at leisure.

So much for the bad news. Happiness drives us, it is not a permanent state. And this really is bad news because there is little we can do about it, short of changing human nature. The good news is that this might prove possible – at least to some extent. Just as human ingenuity has landed us in the predicament of a sub-optimal modern human life, so the same ingenuity has proved a range of technologies of gratification through which we can attain a variety of surrogate satisfactions. – something that will be discussed more towards the end of this book .

Essentially the broad shape of society and its possibilities for happiness are the way they are for reasons that are accidental, unplanned, and intractable. We inhabit a society that grants few satisfactions and offers limited possibilities of fulfillment. It is also a society in which psychiatric symptoms are endemic and a major cause of human misery. In our favour we have increasing knowledge of the causes of human misery, including the understanding of psychiatric illness, and increased power to alleviate that misery provided by the armamentarium of psychopharmacology. All this understanding and therapeutic potential has arisen within the past few decades, and we have hardly learned how to use it.

My point is that the human condition of Western man is intractable in its fundamentals, but amenable to improvement in important ways. Things are worse than they might be. One aim of this book is to explore some of these means of improvement, and to do this will require an evaluation of the extent and nature of psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this book is therefore to suggest how knowledge and technology might be deployed to ameliorate the human condition. We are not talking about utopia, but we are talking about the potential for significant and worthwhile improvements in well-being for substantial numbers of people. However, power can be used for many purposes. And potential agents for good are almost inevitably also potential agents for harm. The possibilities for benefit from psychopharmacology is, although not universal, nevertheless immense. Whether these benefits can be realized under prevailing social conditions is altogether a different matter.

(H/T Mangan’s via Patri)

13 replies on “Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears”

Interesting article Justin, however I think it is dangerous to fall into the trap of imagining hunter foragers as living an idealic life a sort of eden from which our modern existence represents the fall.

Every type of human society has sufffered its own pit falls. Modern hunter foragers are very egalatarian, we don’t know that this was true of our paleolithic ancestors. Modern hunter foragers inhabit some of the least ecologically productive lands on the planet. The natives of the incredible productive pacific northwest show a different side to hunter forager existence including slavery, and highly hierarchical societies, archeological evidence indicates their were many more soceities like the pacific northwest in our paleolithic past before their lands were co-opted by numerical superior agriculturists.

Our paleolithic ancestors show every sign of being well nourished the were tall robust and had good teeth they’re agriculturist descendants were short, gracile and had terrible teath. However modern hunter foragers are among the smallest populations on earth and complain constantly to researchers about being hungry. As far as disease they may not suffer from our lifestyle diseases or the diseases we picked up from domestic animals the have plenty of disease of their own. Studies have shown aproximately 75% of Hadza, Kung and Agta for instance die of disease.

Among those hunter foragers societies were disease doesn’t kill you off warfare and violence are likely to, hunter foragers societies have extremely high rates of Murder and warfare, violence accounts for 55 percent of the death rate among Ache indians and 30 percent among the Hiwi and this may represent the ancestral condition as warfare seems to be more common in hunter forager societies with more resources according to Napoleon Chagnons work.

Finally hunter foragers maybe happy despite all of these things not because we still have stone age minds in a modern world but precisely because we don’t and they do. Happiness may have been more adaptive in their environment then ours. Gregory Clarks work as well as the recent work on accelerated recent human adaptive evolution indicates that human minds have changed in order to adapt to modern conditions. One of the primary changes has been decrease in temporal preference that is our ability to delay gratification has increased as this trait has become adaptive but research shows that low temporal preference is also associated with neurotic, anxious and depressed personalities.

Life is or at least was until recently malthusian, there was no Eden, there were always cost and benefits and happiness was always ephemeral understanding our paleolithic ancestors gives us great insight into ourselves but not if we idealize them or forget the last 10,000 years of evolution.

Rafe, interesting comments. I would argue with your statistics though.

A quick google search indicates over 75% US cause of death from disease (7% from accident/assault/suicide, 17% “other causes”). Now the US is not the world’s model of health care, but it’s better than most.

I will look into Napoleon Chagnon’s work but any analysis of murder rates in today’s world should include the state-sponsored type. In the 1900s 40 million soldiers died, so at least 100 million deaths due to war; add that to your small scale individual assaults and you’re over 10% as a very rough estimate. It’s hard to imagine a band of hunter-gatherers keeping up with something like that.

How is “happiness” determined amongst hunter-gatherers? Importantly, if “happiness” is relative, would it not be safe to say that a person who has survived in a society with low life expectancies (such as the Hiwi) may express happiness? If I were born in isolation within a community where it was expected that I would die by the age of 15, but lived long enough to be interviewed, I believe I would express happiness regarding my luck. Shouldn’t a happiness index take into account the opportunity cost of loss of life?

To back up Rafe Kelley’s point, take a look at Stephen Pinker’s Ted Talk:

Modern health, life expectancy, and violence are far superior to hunter-gatherer days, even including wars. The arguments that this article references flirts heavily with confirmation bias on leanings towards the Noble Savage fallacy. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some truth in it, but rather one needs to address life as a whole, not on a daily basis, and statistically. I have to agree with Rafe’s assessment. I tend towards the balanced center view as argued well in Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

It it certainly possible that some are less happy now, statistically speaking. But that does not mean than any individual would prefer to live in an H-G society no matter how bad things are. The worst off today tend to be better off than the best in H-G societies. Certainly there is unhappiness in the disparity of wealth and resources, but the cat is out of the bag. H-G societies didn’t know about modern health, plumbing, transportation, technology, and efficiency. If anyone chose to go back in time and live like they did, this potential happiness could only come from erasing their knowledge of what is possible. Ignorance truly is bliss in that case.

I think the main point is that hunter-gatherer societies had a much higher level of leisure time — time spent in relationships, laughing and joking with family and friends rather than just “working”.

An interesting phenomenon I see is that pictures from poorer countries such as India and Nepal seem to show a much higher proportion of people smiling than in the much richer western countries.

One guy I met from Fiji told me that the whole town would gather every night for a bonfire and they would roast the day’s catch together and laugh and joke.

I think the common element is that in the richer countries that deal with “affluenza” you spend a tremendous time working, but the work is never done and you can’t get away from it (vacations etc. become rarer and rarer) and your family and friends are either flung across the country or everyone is too busy working or stressed from paying bills to be spending time together.

So in the richer countries people don’t have time for relationships but end up in front of the TV, and maybe they’re not miserable but they’re pretty stressed about (healthcare / politics/ economy)and don’t seem to be smiling and laughing that much.

Seriously — how many people do you see each day smiling, laughing, joking?

“In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level.”

Life expectancy at a high level. Right.

anyone interested in this topic should read “ascent of humanity” by Charles eisenstein, it is a great book. personally, i think we could incorporate the hunter gatherer mentality into a technological framework. i do not believe it has to be this way or that way. their ethics could be easily synthesized into a working concept. the Venus project is doing just that. further i will add, just because we live a little longer today does not mean that those extra years are even worth living. {unless you find being full of pills and having just enough money to buy your next batch of pills a life worth living.} life is a quest for happiness, and happiness is nothing more than the lessening of pain, so i will ask, has modern man lessened his pain? i would argue that we have increased our pain exponentially, war, starvation, overpopulation, environmental degradation, the list can go on and on. there is absolutely nothing wrong with borrowing some of the beliefs and practices of the hunter gatherers, for they lived a long time without impacting the planet in the ways which we have managed to do so quickly. i think it is time we rethink what progress really means. i think a compassionate, peaceful and highly respectful existence should be our common aim on this planet. let us find a balance.
peace to all of you!

Sean, your points resonate with me because I just met with a former student of mine who spent three months in his ancestral homeland, Pakistan. On the one hand, he was appalled at what he saw there: crime, a thin work ethic, the risk of getting in a fight if he didn’t show an elder proper respect. Then after telling me a bunch of stories in that vein, he announced, “But people are happier there. They’re surrounded by family all the time.”

Not that I’m suggesting Pakistan is hunter-gatherer, but I think this speaks to the fact that our industriousness may produce great success, but at a very high cost, which is our general happiness. But thank god we make enough money to buy shrinks and medicine to manage the stress that all this success brings.

I came to this website because I started hunting three years ago at the age of 41 and fell in love with it, utterly and completely. I’ve been trying to figure out why I love it so much, when the ultimate goal of any hunt is to kill an animal, which is actually not pleasant. I keep coming back to the notion that I’m trying to be what I was meant to be, as a human. What we were, until about 10,000 years ago. The more time I spend in the woods and marshes, the more I disdain the trappings of modern society. Like, seriously, people set alarms to wake up in the middle of the night to harvest crops in FarmVille on Facebook. How perverse is that? Plant a real carrot, for chrissake.

What I’m seeking, I guess, is the deep connection to land, plants and animals that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is. I don’t know that I’m necessarily ready to chuck my computer, head into the woods and never come back. But I have to admit that if civilization were to collapse and we were all plunged back into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, I can’t help but think our descendents would be happier than we are.

You can “hunt’ game without killing. The real thrill is the stalking not the killing. You merely need to get the target animal in your sights and NOT pull the trigger (better still use a camera).

Hunter gatherers were probably happier because they didn’t have to deal with money. Money is the source of all evil and of stress that is for sure and stress brings unhappiness and all kinds of health problems. They didn’t have debts. They ate food that was better for them, the animals they ate were not fatty and fresh etc. and they probably got lots of exercise and fresh air. If they had more leisure time, it was probably in a healthier way, like creating something or dancing, playing music, singing together etc. versus what little leisure time we do have is often taken up if front of the T.V. or computer or video game playing devise and not doing things like this together. Parallel play? How many of us are frustrated are starving for more artistic creative play/expression in our lives? They lived in harmony with what was going on around them; nature the cycles of the seasons, the movements of the herds, food plant cycles etc. They must have also depended on each other, as we do today, but needed a very high level of cooperation, communication and interaction; working well together meant survival. It probably wasn’t easy but that was their normal and they probably did not suffer the lack of central heating, indoor plumbing or electric light. Do we really need all this modern stuff? Is it really making us better, healthier or happier? Probably not; it’s looking that way because the planet is now facing environmental degradation/pollution/garbage….the hunter gatherers did not do this to the planet and they (we) survived.

I recently read a comment by Andrew Petrie an early settler (1837) in my home city Brisbane Australia. He described how the local aborigines were always laughing and smiling while they gathered food. That being said the Brisbane climate is extremely mild with very abundant wildlife, many edible plants and no nasty parasites or infectious diseases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.