In The New York Times article “The Case Against Civilization,” author John Lanchester examines different aspects of human history using the views of two main sources. First, he examines the main points discussed in several books by James C. Scott, whose works focus on a “skeptical peasant’s eye view” of state formation. Discussions revolve around the human transition from hunters and gatherers to people of governed city-states following the technological advances that enabled us to develop as a species. Lanchester then parallels Scott’s opinions with two decades of observations made by anthropologist James Suzman, while visiting the Bushmen of the Kalahari, in southwest Africa. The article opens up with a contrast between science and technology, emphasizing technology’s vital contribution toward human domination over the world, long before science and its methodology even existed.
The oldest and possibly most important technology developed in the history of mankind is fire. As referenced in the article, in “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott explains the origin of fire and its implications. Homo sapiens are to credit the technology of fire to our ancestors, Homo erectus. In explaining how fire improved our ancestors living situations, Lanchester refers to Richard Wrangham’s argument in the book “Catching Fire.
” Fire enabled early people to cook, expanding our edible pallets and increasing caloric intake. Consequently, the Homo erectus was able to develop a larger brain size that consumes about a fifth of the energy eaten, in comparison to the brains of all other mammals that consume less than a tenth of energy. Lanchester returns to Scott’s book, explaining how humans learned to use fire to mold or manipulate the land in their favor to attract prey.
In addition to fending off any possible predators, the first step in the advancement up the food chain. Fire gave us the ability to eat rather than be eaten.During a majority of the two hundred thousand years of modern human existence, people were hunters and gatherers. Agricultural innovations and the domestication of animals, that allowed the formation of governed states, were only adopted twelve thousand years ago. This transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops is referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. To the common eye, this transition is perceived as a beneficial change from our pre-civilized “barbaric” ancestors into the bountiful modern life lived today. Experts on the topic beg to differ.
Lanchester explains Scott’s argument against this perception. In “Against the Grain,” Scott debates that our past “is not a story of linear progress, that the timeline is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong.” Lanchester continues with Scott’s account on Mesopotamia, “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” that became an example for others in neighboring lands. Initially, historians believed that the invention of agriculture made “sedentism,” or living in settled communities possible but new research shows a four thousand year gap between when the first settled communities began and when those communities adopted forms of agriculture and based their economies on them. Scott believes those settled in Mesopotamia were able to examine this farming lifestyle over such a long period because of the plentiful diverse wetlands they inhabited, speculating that their transition to an agricultural society was a result of climatic stress.
John Lanchester further explains the complexities of agriculture and the consequences involved with dependence on its technologies. Relying on a single crop for sustenance is a risky business. In fact, Lanchester describes the agricultural revolution as a disaster. Life for farmers was much more difficult than the life of hunters and gatherers. For example, fossil records show that their bones indicate signs of malnutrition and higher mortality rates due to living in such close proximity to domesticated animals prone to diseases. The first states formed following the cultivation of grains and cereal crops.
Lanchester refers back to Scott’s words stating that “only grains are “visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.'” These qualities led to the beginning of taxation, surplus, the division of labor, specialty jobs, writing, followed by, educational discrimination, and a hierarchy. The copious manual work involved with maintaining crop lands soon led to the adoption of slave practices.
Succeeding slavery came war, and even more frequent epidemic outbreaks. The collapse of a settled community was not an uncommon occurrence. And the general census agrees with an overall decline of life quality. When these aspects of life during the most pivotal turning point of human developments are put into consideration, it is no wonder why Lanchester and Scott question whether life before the Neolithic Period, when pre-civilized humans were hunters and gatherers, was better than what we interpret as the peak/ the grandest time period/idk of human existence. To answer this question understanding human life was before settlement and government is a necessity when evaluating the pros and cons of our transition into the governed state culture.
For example, if a nomadic life was truly as barbaric and rough as society makes it seem, then our transition was most surely beneficial. But if the lives of ancient people were contrastingly pleasant, then perhaps we should reconsider our modern ways. This is where the anthropologist James Suzman comes in to play. To get closer to an answer to the question previously stated, Lanchester examines Suzman’s book, “Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.
” In his novel, Suzman accounts visits, studies, and observations made on the Bushmen, or Khoisan tribes of southern Africa, over two decades. At one point the Bushman were the largest group of hunters and gatherers in anatomically modern human history, and despite the pressures from the outside world, it is truly a wonder that they are still there, thriving.