What has civilisation ever done for us?

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Generally I try to read as much as I can, and often get quite obsessive about it; I am more than happy to, for instance, forgo sleep on a work night if it means pouring over a particularly gripping storyline into the small hours. Also I really must read to the end of a chapter before putting a book down; stopping halfway is wrong, WRONG. *ahem* Unfortunately the one thing a PhD fosters in you is the unnerving, haunting feeling that if you have time to read the latest science fiction epic, you have time to read something relevant to your damn subject. Work will set you free as they say! And will allow you to justify not getting a real job to taxi drivers.

So now I mainly read Popular Science books, and it is one of these I will be chewing over today. For me, a good popular science book should read like a witty literature review: It should cover the subject fairly well but with the tone more akin cocktail party come-on rather than a series of formal lectures (Although there is a fine balance to strike). One should also walk away genuinely knowing something about the subject; the main concepts, terminology and maybe how all this fits into the wider knowledge of the world, and of course with a few crazy intellectual nuggets to dazzle/distract said taxi driver with.

Oh, and it should also be fully referenced. Not only because some information may be of actual academic use to the reader, but because, while flawed, the peer review process is really the only way to sort a great idea from an hour-long Dan Brown conspiracy TV special.

This is not how the dinosaurs “may have” died out Discovery Channel!

With all this in mind, I come to one of the more recent books to make the perilous crossing from my “To Read” pile to the coveted “Currently Reading” spot on the bedside table

War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage

I bought this book for two reason, 1) because I actually needed some background on early human inter-group conflict 2) Because I fucking hate the myth of the Noble (or Peaceful as the tagline says) Savage. Some may remember this was one of my bones of contention with Avatar and is something of a modern archetype: The dancey glowly clappy native looking sad upon the brutish gun-metal grey ‘civilised’ man.

More specifically it also reminds me of the endless nonsense I encountered as a teenager from the sort of chakra-stone wielding ninnies who’d prefer root of scum-weed over chemotherapy for that nasty tumour, and the frustration at the time of not having enough knowledge to break the childish hold the vision of a perfect eden-esque, pre-technological, existence had on their intellectually devoid minds…

It’s funny how often incubators are left out of lists of modern horrors

Personal catharsis aside, the book itself is very interesting. The author opens with a brief history of the study of pre-civilization warfare and the intellectual ideologies that governed it: from imperial racism to anti-colonialism and the reaction to the atomic age of the post war period; and how these skewed research in the ways you would expect. Then it’s a case of going through archaeological and ethnographic studies demonstrating that while warfare as we know it – standing armies, pitched battles etc – was very rare in pre-state societies, chronic, low level, inter-group violence was the norm. The conceit is fairly straight forward: Without the surplus of a state, long term strategic warfare is impossible. Pre-state societies did not have the men or materials for protracted campaigns, nor to decisively ‘win’ a conflict or indeed control a population should they do so. Instead they used raids and ambushes against resources and the unsuspecting: and sadly guerrilla warfare is both cheap and effective in the way taking prisoners is not. Furthermore, such low-level antagonistic activity leads to an endless cycle or revenge and counter-revenge and results in a casualty-by-population % far higher than any State Vs State conflict. In the below link Steven Pinker points out to represent tribal conflict, WW2 should have killed around a billion people.

The book pretty effectively demolishes the belief everyone lived in peace and harmony prior to the emergence of state-based civilizations, demonstrating that a golden pre-technological world never actually existed. There was no utopia where man frolicked naked amongst the beasts and all was well. It centers the view of primitive societies between the extremes; not the (to paraphrase) brutish and short existence of Hobbes, but nor the idealised natural state of Cameron’s Pandora. Turn from the wonderful Human Planet on BBC 1 to the tank-based Egyptian escapades on BBC News and it’s easy to see why a belief in the superiority of a less technological and urbanised type of society is so pervasive. However this is indeed an idealised, and dare I say it partronising, view of non-state society that ignores the negatives while playing “what did the Romans ever do for us” with the last 10,000 years of human civilisation.

The book therefore is amongst other sources (including the seminal Germs, Guns, and Steel) demonstrating quite comprehensively that returning to a simpler, ‘natural’, existence will at best do little save dramatically increase the murder rate.

They’ll rape us to death, skin us, then eat us.
And if we’re lucky they’ll do it in that order

Moving away from the debate itself, if the book as a piece of non-fiction has any faults they stem from the author’s apparent frustration that for many years the presented information was ignored. Information at times comes across rather franticly, like the put-upon boyfriend who’s suddenly snaps at dinner with the in-laws. Perhaps because of this it does tend to be a little dry and very information dense; you’re not going to find any witty anecdotes or incidental asides within this text, and therefore is hard going at times.

Despite the above, overall it is fairly easy read, feels complete content-wise (citing literature from ancient archaeology to the folk tales of tribal descendants), is comprehensibly referenced, and full of interesting facts like how to tell if a group has come to raid or trade (Look for rain clouds) and how to make a people-skin poncho from your enemies; something I will admit has crossed my mind from time to time.

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One thought on “What has civilisation ever done for us?

  1. Sounds like a good read. I’ll have to pick up a copy when I get the chance. I recently finished The Artificial Ape and I could use a new book along the same lines.

    And I’m really glad to hear that there are people debunking the myth of the golden age. That’s been a thorn in my side for many years. :-)

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