Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Urge to Simplify

It is funny, those who try to "revise" the past, the militant revisionists who take apart the most common errors of our views about history, in the end, more often than not, most of them end up falling into the exact same errors, simply from a different perspective. Perhaps the best example would be the "people's historians" who rebelled against the "Great Man" school of history. In their absolute insistence that history is driven by great forces and ideas, and not shaped by heroic individuals, they manage to forget that it is still people who carry out historical events, who act on those ideas and trends. In the end, we are left with a choice between history where it seems one man alone moves masses, and another were disembodied ideas move them. Somehow, both the great man proponents, and, more shocking, the "people's" proponent seem to forget the actual people*.

I was thinking of this today because I ran across a complaint about the traditional depiction of primitive societies. This author, upset about the normal portrayal of early man as cut throat, brutal individualists**, argued that modern hunter gatherer societies show that primitive man was probably given to spontaneous altruism and a sense of fairness.

Before I point out the larger issue, let us look at the more basic question, what do modern hunter gatherers tell us about primitive man? Well, not much. You see, just because they are hunter gatherers does not mean their society is identical to primitive man. If anything, that is a pretty bigoted and absurd idea, that because their culture looks simple to us, it must not have changed in a hundred centuries or more. Is a German farmer's life close to that of his forebearers' in the 6th century? Or a herdsman in Morocco? While we immediately recognize the former is not, some may be tempted to find the latter largely unchanged, ignoring the shift from Catholic Christian to Arian to Moslem that took place in the centuries since, as well as the many differing cultures which have passed through that realm (Arab, Berber, Vandal and others). So, even if his life is superficially "primitive" odds are very good his distant ancestors would be as alien to him as to us. And the same is true of hunter-gatherer tribes of today as opposed to the earliest men. In other words, in attempting to correct a misperception of the past, these revisionists fall into one of their own.

But there is a larger trouble, and in this case it is an error shared by the original theory and the revisionist version. The problem is embodied in the way the critic uses the description of modern hunter gatherers. You see, in so doing, he engages in absurd reductionism. There simply IS no single set of behaviors common to hunter gatherers. I don't know which groups he is relying upon for his vision of altruistic, cooperative tribes, likely some groups in the Kalahari, as they seem to be the favored evidence for such arguments. However, there are reports of other groups, both among hunter gatherers and very primitive herders, who behave in exactly the opposite way, laughing at the suffering of others, refusing to share and so on. If we extend our definition to include fishing tribes of Oceania we can see quite clearly, even with a fairly undeveloped technology and a relatively simple social order, there is a massive range of possible human behaviors.

And that is what makes this sort of revisionism so amusing. Rather than taking the old, overly simplified image of the brutal "cave man" and explaining that man has always displayed a wide range of behaviors, and, with the birth of language and culture, the ability to pass along knowledge, and enforce expectations would amplify those differences even more, instead they try to portray early man in light of their own cherished beliefs. In short, rather than finding real human beings, they too find exemplars of their own prejudices.


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* To be completely open, I tend to fall somewhat closer to the Great Man end than the disembodied ideas end. I believe there are popular movements in history that would be difficult for an individual to go against, but there are also enough cases of singular individuals actually diverting what appears the natural course of history for me to think there is some role for individuals in the historical process. (Not to mention that, whether you believe in "great men" or not, history is still acted out by individuals, not aggregates, which exist only in our minds. There is no "Russia", for example, just a whole lot of individuals making up that concept.)

** The writer, for what it is worth, holds a distinctly Marxist philosophy, so it would not be surprising to see him viewing man's natural state as cooperative. Then again, since communism is, to Marx, the final outcome of man's progress, would it not be natural for less developed individuals to be farther from the communist ideal, and thus even more individualist? Then again, pointing out contradictions in Marxist theories -- and for a group which claims to follow the teachings of one individual, the Marxists rival the Christians for diversity of concepts and with only about 5% of the time to have developed them -- is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.


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