Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: A Review & Critique

Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress presents the hypothesis that humanity’s move from a forager/hunter-gatherer existence into agricultural societies–and from there modernity–was the first step in our decline as a species. The further we progressed towards modern life, and away from our forager origins, the more we stepped away from our natural state, where we were happier, healthier, and more in tune with our environment, and became the sad, sickly, fragile creatures we are today.

First things first, there are several parts of the book I found interesting, such as the distinction between life span vs. life expectancy to show that our prehistoric ancestors lived much more fruitful and full lives than many of us are keen to believe. I’m also someone who’s not opposed to the notion that the sharp increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and general listlessness seen in modern society is in no small part aggravated by (if not caused by) the luxuries we have adopted in our daily lives (social media being an obvious example of a contributor to this malaise). However, all in all, I don’t think Ryan makes a convincing case for the underlying issues he raises, and there are several holes throughout his one-sided narrative.

Ryan relies heavily on the self-reported happiness of current-day forager societies, and uses that to infer that prehistoric man must have been equally satisfied with his existence. But as anthropologists are quick to point out, foragers today are not prehistoric, and shouldn’t be though of as such, in that they live in the current world same as we do. The conditions of their environment are not necessarily equivalent to those of prehistoric man, and their demeanor and customs have undergone as long of a development and adaptation as that of societies living in industrialize cities. Meaning that short of a time machine, we can’t simply infer the case that the behavior of current-day foragers/hunter-gatherers (Ryan used the two terms as synonyms) is a reflection of prehistoric humans. At best, we can try to piece together narratives that seem plausible in light of available evidence, but in the hands of someone like Ryan these ultimately become unfalsifiable just-so stories, as he has a proclivity to dismiss any opposing views to his as stemming from people being indoctrinated into the neo-Hobbesian view of human nature that demands for modern life to be seen as a point of progress in human development. Thus, any pushback one might give can be readily set aside as just mere squabble from the brainwashed.

Ryan wants to make the case that the selfishness, tribalism, and aggressive tendencies that are seen as innate parts of human nature are actually just things conditioned in us by modernity, and that such traits are entirely absent in forager communities, which he takes to mean that man’s natural disposition is one of harmony, humility, and peace with its environment and fellow man. However, in one part of the book he also states that forager communities will early one engage in customs like banter and roasting of members who show greater talents as a means of keeping their egos in check and instill in them a sense of humility. Ryan never contends with (or seems to realize) the fact that if such behavioral conditioning is needed then it calls into question his hypothesis that humility is the natural disposition of even the foragers he wants to uphold as the hallmark for us all to strive for. It simply implies that they partake in a level of social conditioning to ensure a harmonious society, same as we do when we teach children to share and empathize with those around them, whether we do it around the camp fire or in the daycare centers.

Ryan also engages in a set of conjectures when he appeals to the peaceful bonobos as evidence that man (as a fellow member of the great ape family) is also a pacifist species when allowed to remain close to his natural (forager) state of being. What Ryan fails to address is that we are as closely related to the common chimpanzee as we are to bonobos, and the former—despite having never developed agriculture that set them down the treacherous path of modernity—is still famously tribal, aggressive, and warlike in its demeanor. And that’s not to mention other great apes, like gorillas, which are hierarchical and routinely commit infanticide, and orangutans, whose males often mate via forced copulation of females (aka rape). In light of all this, the peacefulness of the bonobos seems to be the exception in the great ape family rather than the rule.

A final point of neglect that stuck out is that, while Ryan was quick to draw a comparison between humans and our evolutionary cousin the bonobo to support his narrative, he never says a word about our evolutionary forager sibling, the Neanderthal, who was displaced (by one means or another) by our supposedly pacifist prehistoric ancestors. While I’m sure there are ways to make this caveat fit his narrative, the fact that Ryan doesn’t even bother to try gives the impression that he would rather we simply ignore it as a data point in history so he doesn’t have to think about it, and hopes we do the same.

As I said before, I’m actually quite open to the idea that modernity has come with drawbacks that society is failing to deal with (the mental health crisis of the last few decades being a prime example), and I’m even open to the notion that there are lessons we can learn from prehistoric humans about life, happiness, leisure, and purpose. But I don’t think Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death does much to add to that important topic of conversation, and in many ways stands in the way of it, as it’s a topic that appears to be too far out of the author’s wheelhouse to deal with.  

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