Chapter 3: Why Not Civilization?
So, as described above, there are a lot of neat things about civilized society. Unfortunately, there’s one major catch to go along with it: people don’t like it. And for good reason. Civilized living (with city living as the ne plus ultra of the form) is both physically and psychologically stressful.
This is largely because civilization is so evolutionarily recent. It’s only been about 10,000 years since the Neolithic really took off. Five hundred human generations, give or take. It’s worth mentioning that that’s not nothing. Given the massive explosion of population and the various novel selection pressures that have been applied in that time, that’s enough time to see some significant genetic changes in your typical human.
But the experience of civilization is so different from the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness) that humanity hasn’t yet had the chance to adapt at the hardware level, so to speak. The environmental niche that we’re naturally best suited to fill doesn’t really exist anymore. But the sciences of anthropology and paleontology give some insight into what it must have been like. The comparison is enlightening.
It’s important to note that civilized living is real hard on the body. The average male human skeleton shrunk from 5’10” to 5’3” and the average female human skeleton shrunk from 5’6” to 5’1” after the transition from foraging to farming. This is a massive change, implying significant malnutrition and physical hardship.
Meanwhile, the domestication of animal species along with the increased population density led to a concomitant increase in disease. Malnourished people tend to be immunocompromised, so this is something of a double-whammy. When a bacterium or virus undergoes a bad mutation, it tends to spread like crazy within a civilized society. The worst outbreaks result in mass death, killing significant fractions of the entire population. For instance, it’s estimated that the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-19 infected a fifth of the population of the planet and killed a significant fraction of the infected, perhaps as much as 5% of the world population at the time. Death rates of waves of bubonic plague may have been even worse, though the population was lower back then, so the absolute number of victims would have been smaller.
Civilized life is also hard on the psyche. Running down the list of requirements that were summarized at the end of Chapter 1, we see first off that agriculture requires people to work a lot harder than was generally necessary or profitable in the EEA. This mismatch, I’d argue, explains why the subjective experience of working hard is so terrible. Your body has deep programming, which can be traced all the way back to the most primitive ancestors, telling it not to waste energy. Every calorie wasted could be the one that lies between you and starvation. Worse, from the Darwinian perspective, it could be the one that lies between you and successfully reproducing. To the typical human body, hard agricultural labor is a massive energy expenditure for little to no immediate gain. Obviously, therefore, it’s a terrible idea, so your limbic system reports accordingly that you should cease and desist.
Similarly, agriculture also requires people to behave with lower time preference than would have made sense in any conceivable EEA. To an agriculturalist, working hard now can pay off tenfold in six months, when the harvest comes in. These rates of return just aren’t part of human experience before the emergence of this technology. So civilization typically demands (and rewards) levels of patience and risk-tolerance that most people aren’t naturally inclined toward.
Interesting evidence in favor of this statement can be found in the well-known “two marshmallow experiment”.  In this psychological experiment, small children were given a single marshmallow that was placed in front of them. They were told that if they were able to refrain from eating the marshmallow for a short period of time, they’d be given a second one to go along with the first. Most kids weren’t able to resist the temptation, but it turned out that those that did (however they managed the feat) had significantly better life outcomes.
Next, we see that civilization requires people to live among significantly more other humans than can fit in their monkeysphere. In the EEA, it was possible to fit every person you’d ever know into your mind as a fully-realized individual. In fact, your brain probably had enough extra social space available to it that you could treat key features of your environment (say, rocks, streams, and wildlife) as fully-realized individuals, too. That’s why animism is the default human spiritual belief, found everywhere it wasn’t overridden by some later cultural development. In other words, modeling someone in your monkeysphere as a full-fledged person is what it means to humanize them.
At the same time, in the EEA, strangers were dangerous. From the Prisoner’s Dilemma perspective, there’s very little incentive to cooperate with a stranger. The potential gains were small and the risks great. After all, it’s worth it for the stranger to kill you and take what is yours unless you’re able to demonstrate that such a move would be very unwise. The same logic runs in reverse, of course. And even if you were able to establish a cooperative relationship somehow, there’s always the potential danger of contamination. Strangers have strange germs. Strange germs kill. So the natural tendency is to lavish mental resources on the people in your tribe, while at the same time fearing and shunning anyone who’s not in your monkeysphere.
Needless to say, this doesn’t work in civilized society. A big problem is the sheer weight of numbers of the others. You can’t possibly model them all as real people in your hardware monkeysphere. At the same time, you need to deal with these people, in order to reap the benefits of the division of labor. So you need to run another social algorithm, in “software”, in order to get along.
Leaving aside the mechanism by which this can be done for now, let’s focus on how this feels from the inside. Everyone around you, with the exception of perhaps a few close friends and family, feels phony. You relate to them as things – as social roles or stereotypes – rather than as “real people”, as interpreted by your native social system. The garbage man isn’t a real person to most people, per Wong. He’s the thing that makes the garbage go away.
And to the degree that you’re casually acquainted with someone, you generally see of them what they want you to see. Even if you go to the store once a week and chat with your checkout lady in line, for instance, what you get of her life is the façade she’s putting up. So you’re constantly surrounded by cardboard cutouts of people, like Potemkin villages, as it were, and all the while you’re spending effort building and holding up your own cardboard cutout. The whole time, your brain is telling you that you’re surrounded by a bunch of almost-real people. Compared to the EEA, civilized man lives his whole life in the uncanny valley.
Seen from this perspective, it’s no wonder that alienation is such a common theme in civilized art! It’s also why, I think, the “noble savage” has proven to be such a common trope throughout European intellectual history. Civilized people experience this psychological stress all the time, but those of a more sensitive and idealistic bent identify it and long for a way to dissipate it.
Along these lines, it’s interesting to note that when given the genuine choice between a civilized and non-civilized alternative, people typically choose the non-civilized option. As examples of this trend, both Cynthia Ann Parker and Herman Lehmann were famously captured by Indians as children in the 19th Century and each lived for many years among the Comanche. When they were returned to civilization, they both refused to assimilate back into civilized society, preferring their adopted ways unto death. Going the other way, judging by the number of wars fought between the Comanche and the US during the late 1800s, the Comanche by-and-large hated the idea of being forced into a civilized mode of life and resisted it as long as they could.
To sum all that up, the key drawback of civilization is that it’s a bad match for the human EEA, and thus a bad match for humans as they exist. They don’t want to live this way. Thus, it takes constant effort to make people act in accordance with the logic of civilization.
Maybe a more illustrative way to think about it is that civilization is a special crystalline state of human social organization. Under typical temperatures and pressures, individual humans form small, somewhat mobile, roughly monkeysphere-sized tribes. Tracing them through time, they bounce around against and around each other, akin to molecules in a liquid. But if you put people under the right stresses, the small molecules coalesce together into crystal formations much more extensive than any individual molecule. By extension, if you remove those stresses, the analogy implies that the crystal will melt back into the liquid state.