A reader responds and highlights contrast between philosophies

“…It is ironic to think that once energy, both kinds, were free and available to everyone,…”  from your column is wrong.

“Energy (and/or food) were never free.  It took enormous amounts of work by individuals and teams to obtain it (in pre-history) only becoming cheaper and easier to obtain with the advances of rule of law and property rights.  Initially it was hoarded and prized as a possession.  It was fought over always.  Many didn’t have enough or any and died in harsh weather.  Whole communities who didn’t manage this properly were eradicated through their own lack of knowledge or skills at obtaining it.

“Pollyanna didn’t exist at any time in history, but rule of law and property rights has promised her appearance as soon as the communalists, re-distributionists, religious zealots, and do-gooders get out of the way.”

— Chuck  (Dumas)

The above excerpt is from Chuck, a reader who took exception to my column last Friday, especially what I had to say about gatherers and hunters.  Chuck is right, energy (ie. food and fire) were not “free.”  That is a market concept.  Both fire and food were available for the work you put into getting them.  However, anthropologists now call the gathering and hunting people the first leisure society since they worked about three hours a day to obtain their needs in order to live.  They spent their leisure time telling stories, playing games dancing and playing with their children. Or they were trekking to the next location. It is difficult to hoard fire and since reciprocity was a tenet of life, sharing with visitors was the custom as it still is, especially notable in the Middle East, where hospitality continues to be a salient value.

By coincidence, two of my dearest friends have been in Costa Rica this week. Both are anthropologists.  Peter Reynolds has his doctorate from Yale and his wife, Nicole, received hers from U.C.L.A.  Both have done field work; Peter with hunters and gatherers in Malaysia and Nicole in a farming society in Mexico.  I am really paraphrasing them in this column.

A signature trait of the gathering and hunting societies was that they lived lightly on the land, which is one reason it is difficult to find traces of their being here.  Food and energy were shared, and often their survival depended upon reciprocity.   It simply is not true that groups fought one another for food.  There were far fewer people per square acre or mile until colonization by outsiders pushed the people into smaller and smaller areas.  But, of course, they continue to survive in the parts of the world that civilizations have found difficult to develop.

I think part of the reason for the difference in Chuck’s and my opinions is that I was talking about the time in prehistory when gatherers and hunters were the primary residents on this earth, which has been between 150,000 to 200,000 years.  He was referring to a much later period.  Civilizations did not appear until after the end of the last Ice Age 14,000 years ago.

I am sure dates will change with new discoveries, but it seems that Chuck finds it very difficult to believe that humans ever lived lives that could be described as Pollyanish, that is, being cooperative and not in competition for every mouthful of food, or that the earth had plenty of energy and food to satisfy the needs of what were much smaller populations until humans learned how to control the means of production through farming and husbandry and to claim ownership of land with laws to protect them.

Chuck argues that today, thanks to laws and the market, more food is produced to feed the hungry than ever before, but he cannot deny that it does not get to everyone.  Nicole says that scarcity was created in order to control  people.  Today, it is true that the means of production can be privatized.  It was pretty difficult in prehistoric times to control what fell from trees or that grew or ran wild or to patent fire.  Besides, early societies focused on living in balance with the land, not trying to control it.

I think the difference is that those who think in terms of social Darwinism see a world of competition, of winners and losers.  Those who see the world in terms of evolution, see a world that has historically been more successful through cooperation.

According to Nicole, the worst thing you could say about someone in the early societies was that he or she wasgreedy. Such a person would be shunned, even ostracized from the community.  Greedy meant one who stole the fat.  Perhaps that is why today we have the phrase fat cats. It depends upon who you are whether you admire or scorn the person who wears the sobriquet.

My thanks go to Nicole Sault and Peter Reynolds for help with the research, as well as to the Kahn Academy and Wikipedia.  (Nicole pointed out to me that since gathering provided most of the sustenance for early societies it puts one’s thinking more in balance to call them gatherers and hunters.)

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