Face it, we all indulge in nostalgia and we all tend to think the world was a better place when we were young. The twenty first century is a scary place and harking back to the 1960s, the 1950s or the Victorian era is understandable. A yearning however for the hunter-gatherer societies of pre-civilised eras is a new one, at least on me. But this is the argument of Yuval Noah Harari in this weekend’s Guardian Review.
‘Over the last decade,’ Harari says, ‘I have been writing a history of humankind, tracking down the transformation of our species from an insignificant African ape into the master of the planet.’ To support his unlikely conclusion – that centuries of technological and social process have made us less happy than the creatures who originally crawled out of the ocean – it’s necessary for him to knock down a couple of straw men. He trashes both ‘the Whig version of history’ which he summarises as ‘Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people’ – an oversimplification that probably not even the Whigs believed at the time. He also concedes the advances in medical and child mortality rates. ‘Yet the romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every novelty is as dogmatic as the Whig belief in progress.’
So, in fact, what’s his problem? It’s animal rights:
We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.
I can understand Harari’s rage against super dairies and battery hutches, but seriously ‘no precedents in the annals of planet Earth’? The big entertainment in sixteenth-century Paris, according to Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature, was watching animals being lowered into an open fire: ‘singed, roasted and finally carbonised.’ Clive Bloom in his Violent London describes anti-Catholic protests where live cats would be stuffed into the heads of papal effigies, to give the impression that the straw Pope was screaming as he burned. That sort of thing is just unthinkable now, at least on an organised scale. Animal experiments still continue (albeit mostly not using live monkeys) but the problem with ending them is a) computer models haven’t yet developed a way to emulate important medical experiments reliably and b) ending animal experiments would also hurt animals who benefit from painkillers and other drugs thus synthesised.
Harari’s next argument is interesting: that ‘the time frame we are talking about is extremely short. Even if we focus only on the fate of humans, it is hard to argue that the life of the ordinary Welsh coalminer or Chinese peasant in 1800 was better than that of the ordinary forager 20,000 years ago.’ Maybe not. But would you rather be a nineteenth-century rice farmer of the Qing dynasty, from where you’re sitting, or a tribesman of the year 20,2014 BC? Harari thinks he can tell you. He iterates the awfulness of modern life: environmental problems, sedentary occupations, social atomisation: ‘Yet how well can you really know a person only from conversations?’ We are on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ – chasing the consumer dream:
Today we can go to the supermarket and choose to eat a thousand different dishes. But whatever we choose, we might eat it in haste in front of the TV, not really paying attention to the taste. We can go on vacation to a thousand amazing locations. But wherever we go, we might play with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but what good is this choice, when we have lost the ability really to pay attention?
Compare this with Harari’s treatment of Neanderthal man. ‘For millions of years,’ he says, ‘human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms.’ While human relationships today are based on Facebook and binge drinking, ‘friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples.’ In fact, cavemen were a veritable superrace, with enhanced sensory perception. ‘Ancient foragers lived in the present moment, acutely aware of every sound, taste and smell. Their survival depended on it. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits and birds’ nests. They sniffed the wind for approaching danger. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies gave them physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or tai chi.’ Well I, for one, welcome our new Neolithic overlords.
I am quite sympathetic to pessimistic arguments, after all things are tough and people are really struggling. I suspect that historians will look back on the mid twentieth century as the golden age of the lucky generation and the Gen-Y and millennials will have to deal with scarcity and violence and struggle for many decades into the new era. But in recession-hit Britain the anti materialist philosophy falls down because, if people are unhappy, it’s not because of an excess of stuff. Harari says that ‘our happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions. When things improve, expectations rise, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before.’ This is the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – a nice concept – but in the real world poverty is enabled and characterised by low expectations, of ourselves, others and society.
Why has Harari’s doom and gloom perspective gained traction? Part of it is down to politics. If you are a political extremist then the idea that things are worse than they have ever been is an obvious rallying point. Partly it is also a reflection of British’s intelligentsia. I don’t care if Harari went all over the world researching his book – the tone of his article is basically provincial. It’s the ennui of people who live in wealthy enclaves and do nothing but read the same kind of books, attend the same kind of functions, speak only to people who agree with them and then wonder why their lives feel slightly dissatisfying.
Harari mentions ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and it’s an irony that the only country where that’s codified in law is also the country demonised by so many bourgeois philosophers concerned with human well being. Tony Soprano explored the conundrum better than any Thought for the Day slot when he says to his therapist, Dr Melfi: ‘You know we’re the only country in the world where the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in writing? Can you believe that? Huh? A bunch of fucking spoiled brats. Where’s my happiness then?’
And Melfi replies: ‘It’s only the pursuit that’s guaranteed.’