The Natural State of Man

Natural Man
Natural Man

Many older philosophies start out with the natural state of mankind. The trouble was, they didn’t know diddly about the natural state of mankind but went on to build elaborate narratives on a foundation of marshmallow fluff.

Thomas Hobbes famously said that the natural state of mankind was a “war of all against all” and that life in a state nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Although he was wrong, this story is alive and well and is used as a basis for free market fundamentalism. We are supposedly selfish and competitive and because of the Invisible Hand of the Market, this works out best for everyone. They misquote Adam Smith to back up this wrong assumption of Hume, who had a political agenda: mankind needs a king to keep them from destroying each other.

Free market fundamentalism has a political agenda as well. “The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.” A.E.G. Robinson

Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” to answer the question: Why has the West come out on top, when others are just as smart? He also wrote “The World until Yesterday” about traditional or tribal life. Mankind lived in tribes for at least 90% of his time on planet earth and settling down in towns and building empires is a very recent development.

So what is the natural state of mankind? Obviously traditional hunter-gatherer societies vary, but they do have some things in common. They are relatively egalitarian; that is, everyone contributes to decisions. While they have a leader, he (or she) is chosen because of trust and the leader can be removed as easily as he was chosen. It is not possible for a dictator to last for long, since such an abusive person has to sleep sometime and rocks are readily available for head-crushing. I believe our deep longing for democracy is a vestige of this.

Tribes lived together in relatively small kinship groups. Depending on the richness of their environment, they worked at getting food for a few hours a day and spent the rest of the time relaxing and making things, like jewelry, arrowheads and clothing. When few people roamed the earth, the freedom must have been wonderful. Clever and adaptable as we are, our ancestors spread rapidly, reaching Australia from Africa perhaps 60,000 years ago.

Once tribes established territories they respected each others boundaries or war broke out. When Diamond tried to tell his New Guinea friends that we had two world wars, they understood. They only wanted to know if they started because of pigs or women, valuable resources to New Guineans and worth going to war over.

Sharing food is ubiquitous. If starvation comes, the whole tribe will starve. Generosity is admired and greed is disdained. Gift culture is common. A gift is given and to offer to pay for it or return a gift of equal value is highly insulting. Gifts are given to establish relationships. Eventually the recipient will also give a gift. Co-operation is essential for survival-mankind has NEVER lived as a solitary predator as some economic theories seem to claim.

Justice is carried out usually within a system of compensation. If this fails a terrible string of revenge-inspired violence may break out. The extended family is also responsible for the rearing of children and if one breaks a law, often the whole extended family may chip in to pay the compensation. The perpetrator is on the shite list for awhile and this pressure tends to make people behave pro-socially. The worst punishment, tantamount to a death sentence, is to be banished from the tribe.

“Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Genesis 4:14

Rugged individualism is a fairly recent development as is the solitary nuclear family. We lived in tribes and we still form tribes whenever we can. We are alone and alienated and need a tribe. This takes strange forms nowadays. We may identify with a political party, an economic class, an ethnic group or our own circle of friends.

Benjamin Franklin said that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” About 11,000 years ago and very gradually, our ancestors traded security for liberty. We should not judge them harshly. To have your whole extended family starve to death is pretty apocalyptic. They found that wheat could be planted and harvested year after year and animals could be tamed for meat and milk. A man could harvest enough wheat in a month to feed a family of four for a year. The whole tribe could harvest a surplus of wheat, which has the advantage of being storable.

With a surplus of food, raiders from other tribes were a problem. Gradually the leader and his warriors became more important. Land was still held in common or rather was considered a gift from whoever they considered the creator to be; something of which they were part, where their ancestors were buried and of which their descendants would also be a part. The tribe was not only local; it extended back into the past and forward into the future.

As the tribe grew and the power of the leader grew, labor became divided. The leader ruled, the warriors fought and the people supported them. The surplus was centrally stored and parceled out as needed. It was a short step to the leader designating certain choice plots of land to his inner circle in perpetuity, and thus land ownership was born. This went against millennia of tradition, but the innovation could easily be enforced by the warriors. The embryonic modern state was conceived and even as early as 5,000 years ago in the epic of Gilgamesh we find the people complaining about the king.

One could argue that this was the new natural state of man, though hunter-gatherers exist down to our time. Almost all cultures have a Garden of Eden story, a time when men were free, food was plentiful and work was just gathering the food that they did not grow. These stories have a basis in fact.

We still want to live in tribes and will create one where none exists. We still want our voices to be heard and we still expect our leaders to be trustworthy and look out for the interests of all of us. We still share, despite a concerted effort on the part of a few to convince us that greed is good. We still get in conflicts, resolve most of them and sometimes resort to violence when that does not work. We still long for wide open spaces, a homeland and feel strangely comforted by a ready supply of water, as evidenced by the location of resorts on lakes and rivers. We still enjoy sitting around a camp fire and telling stories. In a way, the campfire we sit around now discussing tribal matters, is Twitter.

We still want to stay alive, to love and be loved and for our life to have some meaning. We still want to get a rock and crush the head of evil leaders. We are natural men and women in a rapidly-changing un-natural world of our own design. But we are still clever and adaptable and I have hope we will avoid the threats that assail us, just like our ancient grandparents did.


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