Journeying Home

Latent within each of us lies a knowledge of what home feels like.

Of being at home on this planet. Within a human culture. Inside a body.

To build a viable human future on earth, we need to remember how to become at home in it again.

Part 2: How to Tell it Wrong [Prehistory - 1850]

Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health is a series exploring the role played by Western cultural narratives in our current social problems. Over four posts, it questions our notion that the forward march of technological progress is a force of social salvation, using bodily health as a metric for success. It asks what it would take to change our cultural narrative, and what a more effective Western cultural narrative might look like.

The first post in this series took us through a shocking review of archaeological data. We saw that civilization -- that form of society marked by large, dense populations and complex organization -- has been on average a detriment to human health. For most of the last 10,000 years, in terms of basic health and wellness, a case could be made that most of us would have been better off as hunter-gatherers.[1]

The data flies in the face of our common view of Western history. Our culture has a myth, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. It tells of an audacious and inspired rise from ‘poor, nasty and brutish’ life in the jungle, toward good health and good fortune; of slow and steady improvements in tools and technology over time, each one a victory of human ingenuity over the liabilities and limitations of living here on Earth. We have improved, we say, upon the basic frailty of living here.

We assume that this progress is documented in history. But it isn't. It actually just isn't. So says the archaeologist Mark Nathan Cohen, who led us through some of the historical record in Part 1.[2] When we take a closer look, we find that the social system we call civilization doesn't in general lift us up from hardship. Rather, in the final tally, it contributes to or causes some of the most pernicious social problems we have. [3] The technological developments of the last 10,000 years may have more often been attempts to recapture lost quality of life than they have been efforts to create it anew.[4]

So how did we just fudge the numbers entirely? If the history of human civilization represents a clear downward trajectory in human health and welfare, how did we manage to tell a story of exactly the opposite? How did we take a history of relative decline and build up from it a story of nearly unmitigated success?

The answer may lie in the way we define success. Civilization hasn’t been good for most people's health and welfare. But perhaps is has been good for something else that we just haven't asked about here yet. Cohen points to three such possibilities. Let's pick them apart. They show us how we might have managed to tell our story this way, and so maybe they can show us something about how to tell it differently.

The Simple Success Story

Civilization's first success has been in feeding growing numbers of people. As we saw in Part 1, complex systems of civilization arose during transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture. This change took place in five separate parts of the world almost simultaneously. Cohen argues that it happened when humans had spread to cover most of the land on the planet, so that once any local environment struggled to support a growing population on wild foods alone, there was nowhere else for people to go. They had to stay where they were and draw more food from the same amount of land.[5] Civilization has been good at enabling this.[6]

The catch, of course, is that while it has fed lots of people, through much of its history it hasn't fed most of them very well.[7] The overall quality of food declined, and grave inequality often affected the distribution of what food there was. Success of civilization number one, then, is as a survival strategy: worse than what came before, but better than mass starvation. That seems like a good enough reason to have gratitude for civilization, but it doesn't explain anything like the kind of swelling pride we have for it. Let's keep looking.

The Story of Some of Us

The second form of civilizational success strikes deeper. All along, civilization has significantly improved the lives of a select few of its members. Repeatedly, Cohen claims, the health data from civilized societies shows "a partitioning of stress by class and location, in which the well-to-do are progressively freed from nutritional stress... but under which the poor and urban populations, particularly the urban poor, are subjected to levels of biological stress that are rarely matched in the most primitive of human societies."[8] Where civilization has worked, then, it has been working for just a few of us.[9] Cohen believes that we have built our sense of history almost exclusively from the experiences of highly privileged groups.[10]

Think back through time, and you’ll likely alight upon images of cultured Greeks and Romans, sophisticated Indians and Chinese, or aristocratic American founding fathers. The archaeological record suggests that when we do this kind of remembering, we are calling to mind just a tiny slice of the historical population living well at the expense of thousands of slaves or peasants beneath them. We can judge civilization a success only by forgetting what life was like for everybody else. 

When Thomas Hobbes described life outside of civilization as 'poor, nasty, brutish and short,' by comparison with civilized life, Cohen opines that he was speaking at best for his own social class. For most of the people in Hobbes' own civilization, life was miserable. Cohen believes that “a good case can be made that urban European populations of that period may have been among the nutritionally most impoverished, the most disease-ridden, and the shortest-lived populations in human history." [11] When we think of how well-off we are in the modern West, Cohen says, we tend to compare ourselves to these European urban poor, and presume that life was worse and worse than that stretching back into prehistory. But that's an error, Cohen tells us, based on the assumption of an upward trajectory over time. And the medical evidence he has brought us, of course, showed us that that upward trajectory didn't exist at all. [11.1]

This answer gives us more to work with: civilization looks like a success when we remember the few people it worked for, and forget that it worked for them only by virtue of exploiting the rest.

Let's see one last answer.


The Story of Systems

There's a third and final way by which civilization has succeeded in Cohen's view. Complex civilized systems have been unambiguously 'successful' in their ability to conquer and displace less complex systems of all types. As we look back upon this history of conquest, we tend to presume it says something about the quality of complex civilization: if it can overcome all other societies, then it must be superior.

Cohen calls out the faulty logic. Civilized systems have been conquerors not because they were generally superior, but rather for their specific ability to amass and centralize resources -- through divisions of labour and coercion -- and then their tendency to spend those resources on raising militaries and monuments instead of raising social welfare. [12]

For the majority of their members, these are not positive attributes of civilization. As Cohen quips, "it is the systems, not always the people (or all of the people) that they represent, that succeed." [13] If we think back through time, we might also proudly call upon images of Roman legions, or the sprawling Nile region controlled from the Egyptian throne. Less often do we tend to remember the dignified cultures that Roman armies crushed, or the chained bodies who built up monuments to the empire's glory. In the third form of civilizational success, we have mistaken the success of a system for the success of the people governed by it. They are not the same.

Storytelling Praxis - How to Tell It Right

We have managed to celebrate what has really been a decline for at least this one broader reason: that a culture's story -- its myth -- is not a history. It is told to serve a goal. It explains who you are, and where you've come from, and what you should do. If we’ve neglected to investigate whether or not our ideas of civilization were true, maybe that was because their truth value was never the main point. A cultural story is meant to achieve something. You keep telling for as long as you think it's working.

For a long time, we've thought our story was still working. Perhaps at first it worked, if it helped us to navigate a needed transition to agriculture. Perhaps there were other options. By now, at the very least, we know that our story hasn't been working for us for some very long time. Having seen today where our story has been working all along -- in whitewashing systems of class exploitation and imperial conquest -- it's time to stop repeating it, and to find something new.

How can we change our definition of social success? How do we start telling collective stories that reflect the lives of everyone rather than a narrow few? How do we express through our myths what matters for living well, rather than abstract fantasies of might and glory? These pressing questions are what we'll take up in our next post. To explore them, we'll look to the modern era, continuing our history forward from where we left off last time. As we do, we'll come up against the question that our analysis of civilizational decline desperately begs: isn't modern civilization, at least, a great success? 

It would seem that modernity has delivered good health and welfare for large numbers of people. The way we live now might feel like a vindication of civilization at last. What we'll discover in our next post -- spoiler alert -- is that the health and welfare gains of the modern age are real, but that they don't come from an ultimate success of the story of civilization. After thousands of years of decline, the modern era's great reversals in health and welfare grew out of the seed of a new story instead.

We'll watch the history of how this great reversal of fortune arrives to the West, and we'll see social success re-defined along the way. We'll track the political strategy that made it happen. We'll learn one way to undertake a praxis of cultural storytelling. With luck, it'll bring us closer to understanding how we can tell our culture's story a new way.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower [14]

Audio Credits:

  1. Moby - Memory Gospel (6:42)
  2. Moby - Spirit (4:09)


[1] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

[2] Cohen, Health and the Rise, p. 1.

[3] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 130-142.

[4] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 57-58.

[5] Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis, pp. 18-70.

[6] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise, p. 141.

[7] Cohen, Health and the Rise, p. 141.

[8] Ibid., p. 141.

[9] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

[10] Ibid., p. 140-141.

[11] Ibid.

[11.1] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[13] Ibid., p. 142.

[14] Eisenhower, Dwight D. Address "The Chance for Peace. Delivered Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors." 16 April 1953. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency ProjectLink.