There is the great difference between descriptions of hunter / gatherers life in this book and a zillion descriptions of such life in literature from Jean Jacques Rousseau to present time – the author actually knows what he is writing about. Jared Diamond spent years living in hunter / gatherers societies and collecting information so he is probably the last trustworthy witness of how these societies worked. The simple and obvious reason for this is that during his research’s duration starting from 1960 to the present day these societies disappeared for good so we are not going to have any witnesses of them in the future. It is too bad because our genetic makeup is pretty much defined by the process of evolution as individual members of such societies successful enough to pass their genes on to the next generation. Obviously the genes that were not consistent with mode of living in such society were filtered out by this process.
So let’s look at what his knowledge of such societies tells us about what we can or cannot do; what we can and cannot be in different areas of human life:
Territory – all hunter / gatherers are territorial creatures. They divide space between tribes and guard borders as much or actually much more vigilantly then nation states because their survival depends on it. This territoriality runs deep in our genes and it is just not possible to remove it whatever socialists / communists / utopists think about it. We’ll always divide world into bits and pieces of property that belong to somebody: individual, family, tribe, or government or, more precisely to individuals who are in control of these entities and therefore care about this property decreasing in proportion to decrease of level of control over this property.
Consequently the division of the world into property pieces leads to conflicts because of dynamic nature of the world, which is constantly breaks down whatever mutual agreements about division exist at any given moment. Since there is always a change in power and legitimacy balance, there is always change in property allocation: who owns / controls what and to what extent. This leads us to another important feature of our nature – we are very prone to use violence to get what we want. Fortunately we are also very prone to build images of future outcomes which make us very peaceful creatures if we expect to fail in achieving whatever we want to achieve either because of inevitable and forceful violent resistance, retaliation, or whatever else can cause this failure.
Actually it opened a proven way to achieve peace – inevitable and extremely severe retaliation in form of nuclear strike stopped total wars between big states in the middle of XX century. With expansion of electronic surveillance of everything and everybody which seems to be impossible to stop, it looks like we are well on the way to eliminate individual crimes except in the case of complete desperation when consequences are irrelevant for individual.
Another important feature of hunter / gatherer is what author defined as “Constructive paranoia” – cautious and careful approach to environment with main objective to avoid catastrophic outcome rather then achieve a significant gain. There is a wonderful discussion in this book about agricultural strategy of tribes when everybody works on a number of different plots (sometimes 7-10) in different areas to assure that at least some of them provide enough food to survive despite a high cost of moving from one plot to another. It is a wonderful sample of antifragility in stark contrast to fragility of recently expanded nation state societies which provide such examples as potato famine in Ireland, or Cultural Revolution in China, or socialism in Russia.
For me as convinced libertarian, one additional source of hope that comes from this book is discussion about treatment of children and old people in this society. With all multiple variations of such treatment one thing seems to be consistent across the board – self-sufficiency of individual within framework of the tribe. It means that individuals either children or old entitled to receive resource transfer from other people only on two conditions – they could not do without it and their survival has more upside then downside for the tribe survival. Since we did not get that far away in our background from hunters / gatherers, I would expect that genes of majority of individuals would switch to the mode of survival when decrease in quality of life due to parasitic bureaucracy will achieve the level unacceptable for them.
The final part of book dedicated to religion, language, health, and nutrition of hunter/gatherers. Curiously as much as all these areas distant from each other they have something in common – in natural environment they are provided in very small doses and as result our genes developed to grab all these things as much as possible and consume them without a limit.
As result the religious world view of hunter / gather which serves a valuable purpose to explain world and help to deal with it, but could be only supplemental activity not capable to provide for survival, becomes a full time business of expansion, often violent, of religious world view on other people. The necessity for hunter-gatherer, member of a small tribe to speak several languages in order to communicate with members of other tribes become intellectual indulgence in symbolic arts of literature and entertainment. The health – death and life issue for hunter-gatherer, becomes an unhealthy obsession with unnecessary treatment for non-existing deceases for influent member of our society. By the same pattern the sweet and fancy food rarely available in small quantity in natural environment becomes easily available in unlimited quantities leading to obesity and early death.
I personally have no doubt that humanity will survive either via traditional way through elimination of individuals, whose genes are too much prone either to religious fanaticism or food overindulgence, or via less traditional and more human way of education and prevention of excesses.