I don’t dispute the reality of progress in certain contexts, but I have my doubts about how to conceptualize and measure it. We tend to confuse progress with adaptation, for example. Adaptation—and, by extension, evolution—doesn’t presuppose that a species is getting “better” as it evolves, merely that it is growing more suited to its environment. The “fittest” may survive and reproduce, but “fitness” is a concept that exists only within a specific ecological context, having no absolute, noncontextual meaning or value.
It’s difficult to settle on one element that sets Homo sapiens sapiens apart from all other animals. The list of failed candidates is long and includes things like tool use, cultivation of other species for food, nonreproductive sexual behavior, eye contact during sex, female orgasm, organized group conflict, and transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Here’s my pitch: We are the only species that lives in zoos of our own design. Each day, we create the world we and our descendants are going to inhabit. If we want that world to be more like the San Diego Zoo than the living tombs in Bukittinggi, we’ll need a clearer understanding of what human life was like before our ancestors first woke up in cages. We’ll need to know our species.
This Narrative of Perpetual Progress (NPP) claims to explain the superiority of civilization while taking it as a given.
A Spanish proverb holds that “habits begin as cobwebs, but end as chains.” In evolutionary terms, the mechanics of human self-domestication are complicated.
Haven’t we all been caught in such traps? Who hasn’t been in a situation that seemed to make sense at the time, but that ultimately made no sense at all? Who hasn’t been mired in a toxic relationship with someone we love too much to leave right now, tonight?
But in the decades since Freud, accumulating evidence has shown that foragers almost never join civilization willingly, and they flee it as rapidly as they can—even when it means retreating into the harshest environments on the planet.
This is a crucial, often missed, point about the transition from foraging to farming. The change wasn’t merely a pivotal point in how our species lived in the world. It marked a fundamental shift in what kind of world human beings inhabited, both materially and conceptually. It isn’t hyperbole to say that agriculture extracted humans from the world and pitted us against it.
When disaster struck, it came from the other side of the world. In North America, a massive lake had formed from the meltwaters of the retreating ice sheets. Now known to researchers as Lake Agassiz, this huge body of ice water extended from modern-day Manitoba to Minnesota, covering an area of around 440,000 square kilometers—larger than all the modern Great Lakes put together.
Once begun, the agricultural revolution was a one-way, ratcheting process. But what choice did they have? Only in hindsight has it become clear that in struggling for their own short-term survival, they were taking the first steps down a path that human beings had never trod before, a path that would lead us away from everything we’d been since the origin of our species. Because farming is so successful in temporarily producing more food per unit of land—often up to a hundred times more than foraging—already overpopulated areas soon swarmed with ever more hungry people. Since farming is labor-intensive work, pools of cheap labor were needed by those who owned the land. The notion of ownership—something that had been limited to a favorite spear, necklace, or piece of clothing—now took on almost magical power. Men could now own not only land, but surplus food and seeds, sources of water, animals, and soon enough, other human beings. Because babies could now be weaned much earlier with milk from domesticated animals, women became pregnant again just a year or two after giving birth—resulting in fertility much higher than that of foragers, who typically breast-fed their children for three or four years before becoming pregnant again.
The concept of property permeates the Old Testament—as it still does the modern world—which makes it easy to forget how radically new to our species the concept was. Ancient habits of egalitarianism and generosity were abandoned. Nomadism was displaced by a sedentary life allowing for the accumulation of possessions, from goats to wives to children to slaves. This shift represented the abandonment of a way of living that had served our species well since the beginning of time. Everything changed.
From then on, right through today and tomorrow, almost every “civilized” member of our species lived in a social world governed by institutions that demanded behavior often in direct conflict with innate capacities and predilections that had evolved over millions of years—years in which sharing and individual autonomy were essential elements of human survival. Our species went from living in the world to living in a zoo of our own making. Without understanding what was happening, our ancestors were being domesticated as surely as were their plants and animals.
There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages. —Mark Twain, Following the Equator.
One of America’s bravest anthropologists, Margaret Mead, caused an uproar when she reported that children and adolescents on the South Pacific islands she’d studied experimented freely with sex. For them, good sexual compatibility was the prerequisite for intimacy: “Personal affection may or may not result from acts of sexual intimacy,” Mead reported, “but the latter are requisite to the former—exactly the reverse of the ideals of western society.”
In any case, prosperity isn’t the key to life satisfaction. Italian economist Paolo Verme found the variable “freedom and control” to be the most significant predictor of self-reported quality of life, by far. The kind of freedom that leads most directly to happiness, in other words, is the freedom not to get up to the ringing of an alarm five days a week, not to be obligated to shave and put on a tie (or bra) if you don’t feel like it, not to pretend to respect someone you don’t just because he’s your “boss” just so you’ll have enough money to keep the bill collectors at bay for another month.
In an essay called “Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone—Especially the Wealthy,” Michael Lewis observed, “It is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: it triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen.”
Ryan, Christopher. Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress (p. 186). Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
One of the most prominent physicians in the country, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, published a bombshell article in The Atlantic in 2014 called “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”
In nearly every society, psychedelics have been considered among the greatest gifts bestowed on humanity by the gods. From ayahuasca in the Amazon to the peyote used by Huichol Indians in Mexico to iboga in Africa to amanita mushrooms in Siberia and India to LSD in the offices of European and American psychiatrists in the 1950s, psychedelics have been considered sacred substances to be used with reverence, ritual, and respect. The one glaring exception is here and now, where possession of these nonaddictive, nontoxic substances can result in spending the rest of your life in a cage. Hyperbole? I wish it were.
Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is mystified by our culture’s panic around psychedelics: “We ended up demonizing these compounds, [but] can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”
One of the scientists involved in this research was so amazed by the results that he questioned whether they could be real. “I thought the first ten or twenty people… must be faking it.… People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.” The dumbfounded researcher is Dr. Stephen Ross, associate professor of psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine. Another scientist involved in this study, Dr. Anthony Bossis, is a specialist in palliative care research. Bossis believes that psilocybin-assisted therapy could help patients by triggering a cathartic state of enhanced spiritual awareness. “Psilocybin and other psychoactive organic compounds have been used for millennia and have reliably been shown to activate what is known as the mystical experience in humans,” he said.
Drug policy is still more politics than science, but thanks to courageous scientists and academics such as David Nutt, Andrew Weil, Charles Grob, Stanley Krippner, Rick Doblin, and many others who have openly discussed the powerful healing potential of these substances and refused to be intimidated into silence, prohibitions against research and clinical use are beginning to loosen.