I’ve become increasingly interested in evolution, paleolithic man, and the implications that the Neolithic Revolution have had on the modern world. I recently finished reading Sex at Dawn. The book explores what archaeological evidence combined with modern science can tell us about human sexuality and what shape it might have taken in pre-agricultural societies. It is a specific example of a larger trend in recent literature that looks at the effects of the Neolithic Revolution on modern society. Jared Diamond’s article, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, is a great introduction into what a lot of what those effects could be.
Most of the literature agrees that up until the Neolithic Revolution, humans lived in band of hunter-gatherers no larger than 150 people in size. Modern research supports this by demonstrating that we aren’t very good at maintain any more than 150 relationships at any given time.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Try imagining what it would be like to spend your whole life only knowing 150 other people. On one side, it seems limiting. There would be so few opportunities to meet new people and share new experiences. On the other hand, imagine how strong those relationships would be. You would feel like an essential part of all those people’s lives and they yours. I think it would be pretty empowering to know how much of a difference you make to them.
Can you imagine having 150 close personal friends and family members? I think there are maybe twenty people in my life that I could honestly say I’m close with and that’s probably stretching it. Even so, I imagine that’s probably a lot more than the average American or Westerner has. As a species we are geographically more concentrated than we have ever been in human history. Yet socially, I think we have never been more alone.
I’ve spent the last week with my parents in Amory, Mississippi. It’s a town of probably around 15,000 people. Large by hunter-gatherer standards, but much smaller than most of us are used to. People joke about how small it is, how everyone either knows everyone else or “is kin to ‘em.”
While I can’t imagine myself living in a somewhere so small at this point in my life, I can see why people like it. There seem to be commonalities in people’s lives that make forming social bonds a lot easier. Everyone shops at the same Walmart and goes to the same hospital. When I walked into a store with my dad on Saturday, everyone in the store, including my dad, knew all the same people if not one another.
This is something I could never imagine happening in a larger city. From a hunter-gatherer perspective, it’s amazing how unsociable we have become. When’s the last time you talked to a stranger in an elevator? Think about that. You are an a small enclosed space with other people and what does everyone do? Talk? Nope. Everyone stares at the door and tries to ignore the awkwardness. I am convinced that the concept of “awkward” is an entirely post-Neolithic one. We feel awkward in social situations that we aren’t adapted for. I think a lot of that awkwardness can be overcome by learning to be more extroverted and outgoing around other people. It’s certainly something I have and continue to work on. But sometimes I wonder if it isn’t a losing battle.
From a social perspective, aren’t we a lot worse off now than we were ten thousand years ago? Is there a way to recreate those social bonds? I think the deterioration of that social support structure is at the base of a lot of modern societal problems: depression and suicide being the worse. Why would someone with a strong societal support system become depressed or suicidal? They wouldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize the irony of writing about how much better off we were 10,000 years ago on my MacBook Pro and publishing it on the internet. I’m a 21st guy. But I think there is a lot to be learned from our ancestors. It may be that the solutions to many of our modern problems, lay in our not so modern past.