Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A False Dichotomy

In the discussion section of the last post, the eternal argument about non-industrial people arose: were their lives (a) "nasty, brutish and short" (Hobbes), or were they (b) "noble savages" (Shaftesbury) living in Eden? The former argument states that they had awful lives, and we should be glad we're living int he 21st century. The latter argument implies that we should emulate them as much as possible. Each side is bursting with anecdotes to support their position.

Any time the discussion reaches this point, it stops providing us anything useful. The argument is a false dichotomy, one in which neither answer is correct. The correct answer is (c): none of the above. Some aspects of hunter-gatherer life are preferable to ours, and some aspects of our lives are preferable to theirs. Understanding that we spent a lot of evolutionary time as hunter-gatherers, as well as a few thousand years in small, tightly knit agricultural communities, may be useful in understanding how to work constructively with our own bodies and minds in the modern world.

So please, let's leave behind the false dichotomy and foster a more nuanced understanding of the lives our ancestors led.