Do you think like a nineteenth century anthropologist?

September 20, 2023 by Joshua
in Education, Models, Nature

Sorry, today is a half-finished post. I’m not sure if anyone will read it all, but my main pursuit in it is the persistent myth people knee-jerk fall back on that if we don’t pursue technological progress and market growth then we risk reverting to the Stone Age.

After reading Atlas Shrugged and trying to learn what her fans like about her philosophy so much, I found an essay she wrote on ecologists. She bought this myth and let out all the stops attacking it. I’m no anthropologist, but her views and this myth seem founded on old imperial and colonial stories more designed to sustain a power structure and make people feel better about hurting other people than based on observation.

I start the post describing dated theories of linear cultural evolution giving way because evidence contradicted it in favor of multi-linear changes not “advancing” or “developing” so much as adapting to circumstances. Indigenous cultures today aren’t Stone Age. We aren’t “advanced.” For them to become like us isn’t “developing” and changes need not be positive.

I’m posting despite not having finished for future reference of all the theories and quotes. I suspect many people would be unpleasantly surprised at learning how much Ayn Rand anticipated their views and how much they are based on untested and ungrounded assumptions.

What would happen if you had to decrease the amount of energy you could use through the electric grid and burning fuels in motors? Do you think life would worsen? Do you think we might revert to the Stone Age?

Could you imagine your life improving with less energy? Nearly nobody I’ve asked about it can imagine it. They take for granted that technology improved our society and culture, end of story. They imagine that we used to have to spend most of our time washing clothes, couldn’t visit other countries, and died at 30 from diseases modern medicine can heal, taking for granted that that modernity resulted from greater access to energy and technology enabled by that energy.

They also take for granted that other cultures aren’t as advanced as we are. They call them “developing.” I did. Also, like them, I presumed they lived miserably in comparison. Without thinking about it, I took for granted a model of social development now called “unilineal evolution,” meaning, quoting WikipeShe bought this mythdia: “Western culture is the contemporary pinnacle of social evolution. Different social status is aligned in a single line that moves from most primitive to most civilized. This theory is now generally considered obsolete in academic circles.”

I didn’t realize how much that model underlay how I viewed “developing” cultures and nations. Two big names in that field, Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, developed in the late 1800s, again quoting Wikipedia:

Their analysis of cross-cultural data was based on three assumptions:

  1. contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more “primitive” or more “civilized”;
  2. There are a determinate number of stages between “primitive” and “civilized” (e.g. band, tribe, chiefdom, and state),
  3. All societies progress through these stages in the same sequence, but at different rates.

Theorists usually measured progression (that is, the difference between one stage and the next) in terms of increasing social complexity (including class differentiation and a complex division of labor), or an increase in intellectual, theological, and aesthetic sophistication.

Criticism: “Later critics observed that this assumption of firmly bounded societies was proposed precisely at the time when European powers were colonizing non-Western societies, and was thus self-serving. Many anthropologists and social theorists now consider unilineal cultural and social evolution a Western myth seldom based on solid empirical grounds. Critical theorists argue that notions of social evolution are simply justifications for power by the elites of society.”

Modern socio-cultural evolutionism rejects most of classical social evolutionism due to various theoretical problems:

  1. The theory was deeply ethnocentric—it makes heavy value judgements on different societies; with Western civilization seen as the most valuable.
  2. It assumed all cultures follow the same path or progression and have the same goals.
  3. It equated civilization with material culture (technology, cities, etc.)
  4. It equated evolution with progress or fitness, based on deep misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
  5. It is contradicted by evidence. Some (but not all) supposedly primitive societies are arguably more peaceful and equitable/democratic than many modern societies.

How differently do we think today? Consider today’s modernization theories.

Modernization Theories combine the previous theories of sociocultural evolution with practical experiences and empirical research, especially those from the era of decolonization. The theory states that:

  • Western countries are the most developed, and the rest of the world (mostly former colonies) is in the earlier stages of development, and will eventually reach the same level as the Western world.
  • Development stages go from the traditional societies to developed ones.
  • Third World countries have fallen behind with their social progress and need to be directed on their way to becoming more advanced.

The theories could have been plausible, but the more observations were made, the more societies didn’t fit the theory. As I understand it, societies don’t “advance.” They adapt to their conditions. When conditions change, like climate (like Holocene from Pleistocene), territory, neighbors, or themselves changing it, societies adapt, sometimes what our naive view would see as devolving. Some societies have stopped using technologies when they didn’t help.

What most people I talk to consider less “developed” or call Stone Age cultures, if they lived somewhere in some way for tens of thousands of years, aren’t backward. They’re adapted to their environment. Our society hasn’t adapted to our conditions.

If you only see societies developing linearly, you don’t consider our society adapting to our changing environment. You only consider us moving forward or backward. The only way you can see us adapting to our environmental changes is to “develop” more. You can’t see what over a century of observations have shown outdated.

I don’t know many people who ascribe to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though I know many find her the pinnacle of philosophy and action. I read her essay “The Anti-Industrial Revolution” and will comment on it based on modern anthropology, commenting on various quotes from it.

“In real life, there is no such thing as a gradual descent from civilization to savagery. There is a crash — and no recovery, only the long, drawn-out agony of chaos, helplessness and random death, on a mass scale. There is no such thing as retrogressing “a little.” There is no such thing as a “restrained progress.” You are hearing many voices today that object to an “unrestricted technology.” A restricted technology is a contradiction in terms.”

She asks “Have you ever looked at a map of the globe and compared the size of the area of industrial sites and cities to the size of the area of untouched wilderness and primeval jungles? And what about the greenery cultivated by man? What about the grains, the fruit trees, the flowers that would have vanished long ago without human care and labor? What about the giant irrigation projects that transform deserts into fertile, green lands?”

She says, “love for man is not a characteristic of the ecologists.”

She builds to

In order to survive, man has to discover and produce everything he needs, which means that he has to alter his background and adapt it to his needs. Nature has not equipped him for adapting himself to his background in the manner of animals. From the most primitive cultures to the most advanced civilizations, man has had to manufacture things; his well-being depends on his success at production. The lowest human tribe cannot survive without that alleged source of pollution: fire. It is not merely symbolic that fire was the property of the gods which Prometheus brought to man. The ecologists are the new vultures swarming to extinguish that fire.

It is not necessary to remind you of what human existence was like — for centuries and millennia — prior to the Industrial Revolution. That the ecologists ignore or evade it is so terrible a crime against humanity that it serves as their protection: no one believes that anyone can be capable of it. But, in this matter, it is not even necessary to look at history; take a look at the conditions of existence in the undeveloped countries, which means: on most of this earth, with the exception of the blessed island which is Western civilization.

She quotes

Oliver Weerasinghe, ambassador from Ceylon, said: “The two-thirds of mankind who live in developing countries do not share the same concern for the environment as the other one-third in more affluent regions. The primary problem for these developing areas is the struggle for the bare necessities of life. It would, therefore, not be realistic to expect governments of these areas to carry out recommendations regarding environmental protection which might impede or restrict economic progress.”

She posits causality without evidence:

In Western Europe, in the preindustrial Middle Ages, man’s life expectancy was 30 years. In the nineteenth century, Europe’s population grew by 300 percent — which is the best proof of the fact that for the first time in human history, industry gave the great masses of people a chance to survive.

Hygiene and diet account for most of that change, not technology, and our diet is growing less healthy. For that matter, while not the only factors, technology is causing declines in the form of industrial food, antibiotic resistance, and drug addiction.

She creates a straw man:

Make no mistake about it: it is technology and progress that the nature-lovers are out to destroy. To quote again from the Newsweek survey: “What worries ecologists is that people now upset about the environment may ultimately look to technology to solve everything . . .” This is repeated over and over again; technological solutions, they claim, will merely create new problems. . . The immediate goal is obvious: the destruction of the remnants of capitalism in today’s mixed economy, and the establishment of a global dictatorship.

Then she shares what’s motivating her:

If we are to consider nature, what about the fact that collectivism is incompatible with man’s nature and that the first requirement of man’s mind is freedom? . . . They are still struggling, however, to inculcate guilt and fear; these have always been their psychological tools. Only instead of exhorting you to feel guilty of exploiting the poor, they are now exhorting you to feel guilty of exploiting land, air and water. Instead of threatening you with a bloody rebellion of the disinherited masses, they are now trying—like witch doctors addressing a tribe of savages—to scare you out of your wits with thunderously vague threats of an unknowable, cosmic cataclysm, threats that cannot be checked, verified or proved.

She continues building:

What is the semiplausible bait? The actual instances of local pollution and dirt, which do exist. City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that the ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific, technological problem — not a political one — and it can be solved only by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

She contradicts herself that only technology can solve pollution:

As far as the role of government is concerned, there are laws — some of them passed in the nineteenth century — prohibiting certain kinds of pollution, such as the dumping of industrial wastes into rivers. These laws have not been enforced. It is the enforcement of such laws that those concerned with the issue may properly demand. Specific laws — forbidding specifically defined and proved harm, physical harm, to persons or property — are the only solution to problems of this kind. But it is not solutions that the leftists are seeking, it is controls.


the ultimate motive of the collectivists — the naked essence of hatred for achievement, which means: hatred for reason, for man, for life. In today’s drugged orgy of boastfully self-righteous swinishness, the masks are coming down and you can hear all but explicit confessions of that hatred.

Do you see her model based on unilinear evolution? She can’t see past it:

This phrase, “to leave well enough alone,” captures the essence of the deaf, blind, lethargic, fear-ridden, hatred-eaten human ballast that the men of the mind — the prime movers of human survival and progress — have had to drag along, to feed and to be martyred by, through all the millennia of mankind’s history.

The Industrial Revolution was the great breakthrough that liberated man’s mind from the weight of that ballast. The country made possible by the Industrial Revolution — The United States of America — achieved the magnificence which only free men can achieve, and demonstrated that reason is the means, the base, the precondition of man’s survival.

She can’t imagine adapting to conditions, only progress or regress:

As to the notion that progress is unnecessary, that we know enough, that we can stop on the present level of technological development and maintain it, without going any farther — ask yourself why mankind’s history is full of the wreckage of civilizations that could not be maintained and vanished along with such knowledge as they had achieved; why men who do not move forward, fall back into the abyss of savagery.

Even a primitive, preindustrial economy, run primarily on muscle power, cannot function successfully through the mere repetition of a routine of motions by passively obedient men who are not permitted to think. How long would a modern factory last if it were operated by mechanics trained to a routine performance, without a single engineer among them? How long would the engineers last without a single scientist? And a scientist — in the proper meaning of the term — is a man whose mind does not stand still.

She doesn’t know about people being happy in other cultures, seeing our planes, medicine, and technology, but choosing theirs, or people in our culture who leave it out of knowledge and experience, not ignorance:

What do they regard as the proper life for working people? A life of unrelieved drudgery, of endless, gray toil, with no rest, no travel, no pleasure — above all, no pleasure. Those drugged, fornicating hedonists do not know that man cannot live by toil alone, that pleasure is a necessity, and that television has brought more enjoyment into more lives than all the public parks and settlement houses combined.

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