Who Are We, Uncivilized?


Bonobo photo by Christian Ziegler for National Geographic.

Once I’ve finished my three-part series on complexity for Shift magazine, explaining why our energy, economic and ecological systems are headed inevitably for collapse, I’m proposing to write a series of speculative stories for the magazine on what life might be like for humans after collapse.

Many authors have written about life during or shortly after collapse, and most such stories are dystopias. But I think it would be more inspiring to write about life a few millennia in the future. In order to do that, I think I have to get a sense of what humans are really like, underneath the trappings of civilization, liberated from its programming, its homogenizing, colonizing, poisonous, domesticating, addictive, inhibiting influence.

Anarchist writer Wolfi Landstreicher gave us some clues, when he wrote:

We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

Could we live this way, if we dispensed with civilization culture? What will we be like when we’re feral again?

I’ve done a lot of reading, of late, about indigenous tribes relatively untouched by civilization, about feral children who grew up without the mental programming of language in their neural circuitry, about bonobos and chimps and baboons and other close relatives of our species, and about prehistoric human societies, to try to answer this question. The bias, and blindness, in most of these accounts is astonishing and unsettling, especially since some of them were written quite recently. But setting that aside, here are, I think, some of the qualities of feral humans — the humans who will represent our species when civilization is gone and forgotten. Our descendants, I believe, will:

  1. Live outside of ‘clock’ time. Like wild creatures, they will only live in the world of constrained, measured, fast-moving time that civilized humans live their whole lives in, during brief moments of fight-or-flight stress. The rest of their lives will be spent in ‘now’ time, in an eternal, joyful present, the way our long-distant ancestors lived, I believe, before the migration from the safety of our idyllic tropical rainforest tree homes, for reasons we can only guess at.
  2. Live without the use of abstract languages. Not because they will no longer be able to invent and use them, but because, like the great whales and other intelligent creatures, they will have no need for them. They will communicate as wild creatures do, through expression, gesture, song, and the senses of touch and smell. That communication will be, in many ways, more profound and more articulate than what our modern languages are capable of.
  3. Live in small, extremely diverse, nomadic communities of several dozen people, tribes, mostly in areas where humans are able to live comfortably without technology — the tropical, treed areas from whence we came, a million years ago. After the current runaway climate change, it’s impossible to guess where on Earth those places will be by then.
  4. Be vegetarians, once again eating the foods our bodies, lacking in claws, canine teeth and speed, have evolved to eat. It will be complex — once we’ve lost and forgotten the technologies of hunting, we will likely reduce our habitat to the locations and ways that are consistent with a non-hunting, un-settled life. We will be capable of reinventing and rediscovering these technologies, of course, but won’t unless and until we must to survive. If we can thrive without them, we will. If the climate of that time is inhospitable, we’ll either shrink our numbers to inhabit only the most hospitable areas (as bonobos did), or we will learn to use technologies that will let us survive in less naturally hospitable areas (as chimps did). Or, most likely, we’ll evolve with a shifting balance of both. How do bonobos live? Here’s what National Geographic says: “Bonobos eat a lot of the herby vegetation that is abundant in all seasons—big reedy stuff like cornstalks and starchy tubers like arrowroot—which offers nutritious shoots and young leaves and pith inside the stems, rich in protein and sugars. Bonobos, then, have an almost inexhaustible supply of reliable munchies. So they don’t experience lean times, hunger, and competition for food as acutely as chimpanzees do.”
  5. Be physically healthy, strong and beautiful, almost without exception. This has always been the nature of feral species living in balance with other creatures. Our descendants will neither need nor want clothes, analgesics, or reality-escaping substances. Their bodies will be beloved canvasses of expression, not prisons of self-loathing.
  6. Play, and create, a lot. This assumes we are able to avoid the inhibiting effects of (self-created) captivity and self-domestication. The New Yorker explains: “Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, ‘Stuck together, bored out of their minds—what is there to do except eat and have sex?'” Civilization is a form of such captivity: Instead of letting us use our leisure time for creative endeavours like art and recreation, civilization assumes we will (apparently like baboons and chimps, but not bonobos) use any leisure time in destructive, antisocial activity, and hence establishes systems that consume all possible leisure time in mindless tasks of work (essentially as slaves) and consumption. It assumes we have to be ‘domesticated’ for our own good. But if we’re not captives — if we’re truly feral — we will never be bored, and, I believe, we will fill that time (beyond eating and having sex, which I expect we will do a lot of, unrestricted by scarcity, obesity-causing processed foods, rules about monogamy, and jealousy) in play and in individual and social recreation. This is the attribute of feral humans I am least sure about, however. I would not want to be a chimp or a baboon, now or then. I am both alarmed and encouraged by what scientists like Robert Sapolsky have learned about primate behaviour. And I would find writing about creatures who are incorrigibly aggressive and violent when not occupied by the needs of the moment (i.e. Mad Max characters), terribly depressing.

One of the qualities that characterizes almost all human stories is the positive transformation of a sympathetic protagonist, and/or a situation, usually through adversity. Stories, we are told, must have struggle, conflict, drama, and progress, or they aren’t interesting, aren’t ‘stories’ at all.

I have a big problem with this argument, which strikes me as unthinking literary dogmatism. Mystery stories, for example, generally have as their essential element a problem to solve rather than a conflict to resolve, and this problem-solving doesn’t require adversity, transformation, or struggle. They are puzzles, and they can also be great stories.

Likewise, although modern comedies too often stoop to mindless ridicule, and get much of their energy from the reader’s or viewer’s loathing of obnoxious characters, the best comedies, I think, are gentle, witty, and teach us things in an engaging way that doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t disparage, and, basically, doesn’t have a lot of drama. Yet they are still great stories. (Two of my favourites are Annie Hall and Noises Off.)

My favourite TV series is Aaron Sorkin’s comedy Sports Night, where unexpected and only occasionally unfortunate things happened to its mostly sympathetic and quirky characters. What made this series great for me was the dialogue, which was witty, human, engaging and resonating. The characters talked about their feelings, their fears, their doubts, their beliefs, what they were passionate about, and why. Watching it was like meeting new, wonderful friends.

So I’m inclined to make my stories, set in a future as distant from today as the era of the great pyramids, about feral future humans with the six qualities above, and have those stories be a mixture of mystery and comedy.

This will be a huge challenge. Somehow I will have to relate my stories’ characters’ feelings without the use of dialogue, by describing what they do and how they look — their body and facial ‘language’ — and by conveying what they’re feeling by getting inside their non-verbal heads and describing what’s happening there. I want to do that in a way that’s not forced or difficult for the reader — so I don’t want to invent yet another ‘language’ and make my readers learn it. And I know the English language is inadequate for the task, limited as it is to the purposes of control, instruction and patriarchy for which it was designed. It may be that these stories will have to be conveyed as plays or films, rather than in text, to increase the tools I have available to do this.

What I may have to do to accomplish this, is to bring together a group of actors, and have them co-develop with me a set of possible gestures, expressions, and representations of how an intelligent creature that is more intuitive, perceptual and holistic and less ‘literal’, logical and conceptual than modern humans might think and communicate.

I think this will be provocative and interesting enough for the audience that there will be no need for a lot of drama or struggle for the characters. I want to explore what makes these future feral humans laugh, what brings them joy, how amazingly diverse they will be in the absence of a homogenizing culture. I’m a great admirer of mystery stories, so I’d love for the story to revolve around a mystery. A mystery great enough to transcend the millennia between astonishingly different cultures. And one that guesses at what we humans will be like when we’re feral again. I think this would make a great, if highly unconventional, story. But damn, it will not be easy.

Comments and counsel welcome.

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10 Responses to Who Are We, Uncivilized?

  1. Fantastic – I can’t wait to get a peek into the possibilities that lie in store for us!

    I’ve been talking about this a fair bit recently with Ran Prieur – particularly about the extent to which certain personality traits that are currently dominant in western pesudo-democracies, such as linear thinking and a reliance on empiricism (despite the limitations of our empirical tools and senses), contrast with personality traits that are common in indigenous cultures, such as holistic perception and a greater reliance on intuition. I expect that once many of the trappings of industrial civilization are stripped away we will revert to more natural ways of interacting with our environment and expressing ourselves, and there will be less of a place for clock-time linearity and linguistic abstractions.

    And I do appreciate your prediction that vegetarianism will become a default, as it certainly makes sense – for so many reasons – to follow the path of least resistance in meeting our real economic needs. I would love to see how many folks accept this challenge to their current thinking about how humans have evolved to meet our dietary needs :-)

  2. simsa0 says:

    With regard to the last 4 paragraphs, the work of @BeyondLiteracy may be of interest to you.

  3. vera says:

    Bonobos are highly coordinated, swift, and deadly hunters when they go after monkeys. But cranking out veg propaganda is more important than accuracy, eh? Well, carry on. ;-)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    I think that’s unfair, Vera. Yes, some of the reporting has been inaccurate, but the two articles referred to in this post, by National Geographic and by The New Yorker, are balanced. Monkeys are a rare and tiny part of bonobos’ diet, and arguably only sought when human disruption of their habitat makes their usual abundant food supply scarce. Humans have been known, often and even in the past 100 years, to resort to systematic cannibalism in sufficiently desperate circumstances, but I wouldn’t jump on these rare situations to say that cannibalism is a normal part of human behaviour. Sorry that this article triggered you to respond to this, instead of to the substance of what I am trying to say.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the link, simsa0. Interesting site!

  6. vera says:

    Dave, you’ve been propagandizing for veg for a long time now. This just one example. We evolved into hunters. Have been hunters for as long as we’ve been a species, and likely long, long before. Historically, high meat tribes = quite a few, in good health. Pure veg tribes = 0. All our primate cousins eat some meat. And avidly, when they can get it. We need it for our brains, and apparently so do they, though less. But you keep spinning dreams of a feral veg future, divorced from the reality of who we evolved to be. As far as I can see that’s all it is: spin for your favorite ism. Ruins the story for me…

  7. You might like Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Hardcover Book, 2013). author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy and a trilogy exploring near future Climate Change. Shaman looks at the life of a tribe at about 30K BC. True to extensive research the tribe are presented as hunter gatherers.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Richard; I’ll check it out.

  9. Chris says:

    I like your train of thought. Though, for my money I’m betting on more of the same…. after collapse. That is why I believe it is so important to make this change happen now, consciously. And, to even have an (after Collapse) Our website is about this.

    I guess I agree with vera too. After being a vegetarian over 20 years I see no evidence vegetarians (get it) anymore than anybody else, basically. So I quit being one. What I’ve seen too is that vegans and all alternative types are just as inclined to be exploiters if they happen to be in control of the resources….. as anyone else.

    So, in conclusion, I agree what you are pointing to, but I’d say we have to do it now or it may never happen and we may fry the planet if we don’t.


  10. rita ashworth says:

    have you investigated Butoh-a Japanese drama discipline devised after the war -this might help u with your stories/drama. I too think the materialistic age is slowly coming to a close aka peak oil and other issues, but to envisage another kind of society which is open we do have to play in drama…hope u can check out Butoh and other similar disciplines in the near future.

    As to becoming vegan and vegetarian this will probably be the case just due to the expense of rearing cattle…let us realise that it is only a recent phenonomen that we became excessive meat-eaters due to our industrial age.

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