Cognitive Archeology of the West

This is a guest post by Paula Hay 

Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?

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The Return of the Barbarian

Our cartoon view of history goes straight from the Flintstones to Jetsons without developmental stages of any consequence in between. Hunter-gatherers and settled modern civilizations loom large, as bookends, in our study of history. The more I study history though, the more I realize that hunter-gatherer lifestyles are mostly of importance in evolutionary prehistory, not in history proper. If you think about history proper, a different lifestyle, pastoral nomadism, starts to loom large, and its influence on the course of human history is grossly underestimated. This is partly because civilizations and pastoral nomad cultures have a figure-ground relationship. You need to understand both to understand the gestalt of world history.

Modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles are cul-de-sacs in cultural evolution terms. They stopped mattering by around 4000 BC, and haven’t significantly affected world events since. Pastoral nomads though, played a crucial role until at least World War I. Until about 1405 (the year Timur died), they actually played the starring role. And in reconstructed form, the lifestyle may again start to dominate world affairs within the next few decades. Their eclipse over the last 5oo or so years, I am going to argue, was an accident of history that is finally being corrected.

The barbarians are about to return to their proper place at the helm of the world’s affairs, and the story revolves around this picture:

I am about to zoom from about 15,000 BC to 2011 AD in less than 4000 words, so you may want to fasten your seat belts and grab a few pinches of salt.

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