Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Tender Carnivore

Paul Shepard was an animal with a PhD who made the astonishing discovery that he really was an animal, and so was everyone else.  This sort of thinking makes us sweaty and nervous, because we prefer to believe that we are the creator’s masterpiece — not the cousins of disgusting baboons and orangutans.  It’s insulting to call someone’s kid a cute animal.

Two-legged primates evolved as hunters and gatherers in healthy wild habitats, living in groups of a dozen or so.  These highly intelligent animals were perfectly at home in natural surroundings, but today’s two-legs are overwhelmed by the input barrage of modern life.  For two-legs, industrial civilization feels like a prison.  Could this be why we are frantically shopping the planet to smithereens?  Shepard spent his life trying to solve this riddle.

Historians have invented glorious stories of the incredible ascent of humankind, from hungry dirty peasants to futuristic cell phone zombies.  In the process, they whited out ninety-nine percent of the human journey, the era before we went sideways.  Restricted to this heavily edited history, our culture has “unwittingly embraced a diseased era as the model of human life.”  This has nurtured “a malignant self-identity.”

We can’t know who we are if our past has been whited out.  In his book, The Tender Carnivore, Shepard pulls back the curtains and presents readers with the 14 million year version of our story.  Notably, the book leaps outside the wall of flatulent myths, and speaks from a viewpoint where wild people are normal healthy animals, and planet thrashers are not.  His ideas provide an effective antidote to the trance, a charm to break the curse.

The book includes a timeline of the human saga.  By 40,000 years ago, we had 240 tools, and numbered 3.3 million.  By 10,000 years ago, we had domesticated sheep, goats, and cereals, and there were 5.3 million.  By 6,000 years ago, we had irrigation, pottery, metal, war, states, wheel, trade, ideology, and writing — and there were 86 million.  The human enterprise was getting dangerously out-of-balance.

Tree monkeys are relatively safe from predators, so males and females are about the same size, and the troop is sexually promiscuous.  Ground monkeys, like baboons, are far more vulnerable to predators, so they are larger, and live in tight groups.  They kill and eat other animals.  The males are much bigger and stronger than the females, and they are hot-tempered.

Ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  They are constantly watched by low-ranking males, who wait for signs of aging and weakness, and opportunities to drive the big boy out of the harem.  They are high-strung animals who constantly adapt to a hierarchy that is always changing.

Humans are also status-conscious critters, so it’s hard for us to recognize that this monkey business is unusual in the animal kingdom.  Monkeys are not our direct ancestors, but we share many genes with them.  Like ground monkeys, every group of humans has a hierarchy of individuals, from ultra-cool to scruffy riffraff.

In sedentary human societies, where personal wealth varies, the status game is amplified by hoarding status trinkets — cars, televisions, and other valuables.  Is it possible that the reason folks refuse to wean themselves from habitual car driving is because it would sharply reduce their social status — something far more important than a stable climate?  Shepard says that we are obsessed with immature goals and follow trends like a dumb herd.

The ape family includes chimps and gorillas.  They inhabit forests, and spend the daylight hours on the ground.  Chimps live in groups of about 40, and use a few very simple tools.  They are nice, mild mannered animals, Shepard says.  But when Shepard was writing, Jane Goodall’s chimp research was just beginning.

It turns out that chimp groups are ruled by an alpha male, who aggressively dominates the females.  They are also violent killers.  Goodall saw one chimp group completely exterminate another group.  Bonobos are their closest relatives, and they are strikingly different.  Bonobo groups are matriarchal, extremely promiscuous, and rarely violent.

A number of anthropologists have reported that, among recent hunter-gathers, males are not dominators, with some exceptions.  But many would agree that, during the civilized era, the status of women often got the shaft.  Shepard’s overview of primate history suggests that male domination and abuse was not invented by Middle Eastern deities.  Evolution can get rough.

When scientists raised chimps in their homes, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  Language promotes mental development, spurring reasoning and knowing.  Yet, without language, lions and wolves are superior hunters.  Intelligence is an evolutionary experiment.  It allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it.

When adolescence concludes with a successful initiation into adulthood, the youth becomes a confident fully human animal that is well integrated with the non-human environment.  He clarifies his self-identity, moves closer to his peer group, and away from his parents.  When initiation is botched or omitted, the youth remains trapped in adolescence, chronically narcissistic, enraged at humankind and nature for failing to help him become a complete human.  “Everyone who fails will be intellectually, emotionally, and socially retarded for the rest of his life.”

Because humans evolved to be ground-dwelling wild omnivores, the hunter-gatherer way of life “is the normal expression of his psychology and physiology.  His humanity is therefore more fully achieved, and his community is more durable and beautiful.”  When removed from a healthy wild environment, folks “live in constant crisis, stress, and poor mental health.”

Throughout the book, Shepard directs a fire hose of ideas at readers, and some are stronger than others.  This one is false: “Hunters and gatherers, by contrast, do not make war.”  When Knud Rasmussen trekked from Greenland to Siberia in the 1920s, he reported several regions where warfare was common, in his book Across Arctic America.

It is also false that all humans are inherently violent.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Richard Lee, and Colin Turnbull all reported that Pygmy and Bushman hunter-gatherers were not warlike.  People with adequate space and resources like to sing and dance.  The Inuit described by Rasmussen lived in extremely low population density, but the lands they inhabited had an extremely low carrying capacity.  Crowding is a social disease that causes frantic agitation.

In the last chapter, Shepard looks toward the future.  He presents us with imaginative, impractical, and sometimes daffy solutions.  Rather than burning oil, we could use yeast to convert it into high-protein food.  Agriculture and domesticated animals must go.  Human settlements should be limited to a five-mile strip along the coasts, returning the interiors of continents to nature.  In the wild lands, only foot travel would be allowed.  Only hand weapons could be used for hunting, no guns or dogs.  And so on.

The book was written in the good old days of the early 1970s, when there were fewer than four billion, and the future seemed fairly stable.  Peak oil and climate change had yet to walk onto the stage.  We seemed to have time to repair things.  This is a 40-year old book, with a few rough edges, but well worth the time.

Shepard, Paul, The Tender Carnivore, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.  [1973]

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