Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Search of Human Ethics

Marvin Harris.  Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures.  1977.  New York: Vintage, 1991.  ISBN 067972849X.

Daniel Quinn.  The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  New York: Bantam, 1996.  ISBN 0553379011.

Losing the perspective brought by Mormonism meant losing the ostensible purpose of my life ("I am here to serve God and his church in whatever way I may decide and/or church leaders may require").  When I no longer had this as my ultimate "reason" for everything (the final "because" to the toddler's "why?"), I had to take a step back and ask myself why I did things.  What was I trying to do?  What were communities (like the church) trying to do?  Part of my faith crisis involved looking intensely at human communities and discovering that they exist to perpetuate themselves (not fixed moral codes); this became problematic when I realized that the church was no different: its leaders said what they said, did what they did, so that we would all keep on "keeping on" as members, regardless of what Joseph Smith really said or did (maybe he was a bit crazy, but that's not worth looking at too carefully), or what the reality of man's destiny was (your purpose is to build our society with work and offspring: don't get distracted by other stuff).  Unfortunately for me, I really cared about these things (especially the latter), and found I had little interest in the LDS church without them.  So I was left wondering why people do what people do (i.e. create societies that must go on and--ideally--get bigger to the point that they fill the earth)?

Enter Marvin Harris.  My interest in human fitness led me eventually to the "paleo diet," the premise of which was that the agricultural revolution that occurred some 10,000 years ago paved the way for the introduction of many anti-nutrients into the human diet, leading ultimately to the set of "civilized" diseases currently plaguing much of the world (metabolic syndrome, diabetes, auto-immune disorders).  Knocking around the Internet in search of "paleo" information to flesh out this thesis, I found the immense website of Ricardo Carvalho, which is named after Harris' book title (translated into Portuguese).  (Carvalho also recommends the book on his extensive Amazon reading list, which I have consulted several times when searching for good reads.)  I was intrigued and checked the book out from my local university library.  Its thesis is relatively simple: human societies shape their behavior to match the quality of the resources available to them, changing behavior as the surrounding environment succeeds (or fails) to supply what they need to survive (adequate food, shelter, and reproductive possibilities).  Most interesting is his explanation of Aztec cannibalism, which he traces back to a chronic lack of animal protein (a precious resource): in the absence of domesticated herds or wild game, the Aztecs were reduced to eating other people.  They did not eat people because they were any more "wicked" than others; what they needed was not "repentance" but food.  Contrary to everything I would have thought in my life as a Mormon, their problem was not one to be remedied by civilization (the "gift of the gods").  Instead, civilization (and the exploding population that has always accompanied it since the agricultural revolution) was the problem (Harris, Cannibals and Kings, 165):
Mesoamerica was left at the end of the ice age in a more depleted condition, as far as animal resources are concerned, than any other region.  The steady growth of the population and the intensification of production [two things that always come with civilization in the wake of the agricultural revolution] under the coercive managerial influence of the classic highland empires virtually eliminated animal flesh from the diet of ordinary people.  The ruling class and their retainers naturally continued to enjoy such delicacies as dogs, turkeys, ducks, deer, rabbits, and fish.  But, as Harner notes, the commoners--despite the expansion of the chinampas [floating gardens]--were often reduced to eating the algae skimmed off the surface of Lake Texcoco.  While corn and beans in sufficient quantity could provide all of the essential amino acids, recurrent production crises throughout the fifteenth century meant that protein ratios were frequently depressed to levels which would have biologically justified a strong craving for meat.  In addition, fats of all sorts were perennially in short supply. 
Mesoamerican cannibalism was just one extreme example of the kind of crisis of availability that has defined human civilization from the agricultural revolution.  (As an aside, the astute reader will notice that this protein-starved Mesoamerica looks very different from anything in the Book of Mormon, whose theories of cannibalism and "Lamanite" life in general are clearly folklore from nineteenth-century New England.)  The crisis works as follows: (1) a society produces crops (usually some kind of grain, i.e. grass seed); (2) grain production allows for a higher birth rate; (3) more numbers provide the resources necessary to take over more land, dispossessing people and animals living in a less "civilized" (and more ecologically sustainable) way; (4) the cost of having more people is that many are under-nourished, especially as the rest begin putting major dents in the best non-agricultural food sources available; (5) in the end, society is either saved by technological revolution (a farming break-though that allows us to sustain the burgeoning population) or falls prey to warfare (which agriculture fosters by creating hordes of people) or famine (which agriculture fosters by creating hordes of people).  Basically, Thomas Malthus was right (though he did not know that grain is poisonous to humans individually as well as collectively).

Harris' thesis was a compelling analysis of human community, for me, but I was left rather stranded by it: after several thousand years in living in constant debt (to the earth, other species, and ourselves), how are we supposed to transform ourselves back into productive mode (a way of living that does not inevitably kill everything around us)?  Harris was the doctor who informed me that I had an incurable disease, dissecting the disorder minutely when all I could really hear was "incurable."  In addition, I now had way too much "technical" information to share whenever people asked me about my increasingly odd opinions regarding diet, religion, and politics.  A simple question deserves a simple answer, not a litany of jargon.  I had a worldview that made sense to me logically.  What I needed now was a simple narrative for relating to it more personally (and pro-actively) and sharing it with others: in short, I needed a myth.  Enter Daniel Quinn.

Quinn tells an engaging story, a fictional account of a modern Catholic priest sent to Europe to spy on someone who may be the Antichrist.  Upon making contact, the priest discovers that the Antichrist (a mysterious character called "B") is preaching against civilization (the agricultural revolution and everything that has followed from it), which he regards as a disease inasmuch as it reduces complex, beautiful reality (life) to simple, ugly reality (death).  The book is extremely interesting (with an ending which I will not give away), and I will not attempt to summarize it here.  Instead, let me offer one of my favorite passages (Quinn, The Story of B, 159-161):
Let me begin with the great secret of the animist life, Louis.  When other people look for God, you'll see them automatically look up into the sky.  They really imagine that, if there's a God, he's far, far away--remote and untouchable.  I don't know how they can bear living with such a God, Louis.  I really don't.  But they're not our problem.  I've told you that, among the animists of the world, not a single one can tell you the number of the gods.  They don't know the number and neither do I...What's important to us is not how many they are but where they are.  If you go among the Alawa of Australia or the Bushmen of Africa or the Navajo of North America or the Onabasulu of New Guinea--or any other of hundreds of Leaver peoples [as opposed to Takers, the agriculturalists] I could name--you'll soon find out where the gods are.  The gods are here...I mean here.  Among the Alawa: here.  Among the Bushmen: here.  Among the Navajo: here.  Among the Kreen-Akrore: here.  Among the Onabasulu: here...
This isn't a theological statement they're making.  The Alawa are not saying to the Bushmen, 'Your gods are frauds, the true gods are our gods.' The Kreen-Akrore are not saying to the Onabasulu, 'You have no gods, only we have gods.  Nothing of the kind.  They're saying, 'Our place is a sacred place, like no other in the world.'  They would never think of looking elsewhere to find the gods.  The gods are to be found among them--living where they live.  The god is what animates their place.  That's what a god is.  A god is that strange force that makes every place a place--a place like no other in the world.  A god is the fire that burns in this place and no other--and no place in which the fire burns is devoid of god.  All of this should explain to you why I don't reject the name that was given to us by an outsider.  Even though it was bestowed with a false understanding of our vision, the name animism captures a glimmer of it.
Unlike the God whose name beings with a capital letter, our gods are not all-powerful, Louis.  Can you imagine that?  Any one of them can be vanquished by a flamethrower or a bulldozer or a bomb--silenced, driven away, enfeebled.  Sit in the middle of a shopping mall at midnight, surrounded by half a mile of concrete in all directions, and there the god that was once as strong as a buffalo or a rhinoceros is as feeble as a moth sprayed with pyrethrin.  Feeble, but not dead, not wholly extinguished.  Tear down the mall and rip up the concrete, and within days the place will be pulsing with life again.  Nothing needs to be done, beyond carting away the poisons.  The god knows how to take care of that place.  It will never be what it was before--but nothing is ever what it was before.  It doesn't need to be what it was before.  You'll hear people talk about turning the plains of North America back into what they were before the Takers arrived.  This is nonsense.  What the plains were five hundred years ago was not their final form, was not the final, sacrosanct form ordained for them from the beginning of time.  There is no such form and never will be any such form.  Everything here is on the way.  Everything here is in process.

Quinn's solution to the problem of civilization posed by Harris (and Malthus) is conceptually very simple.  Stop increasing human food supply every year.  We already produce more than enough for everyone; our problem is not lack, but something else (the inevitable inequality in distribution created by civilization).  Quinn illustrates his solution with a story about mice.  A population of mice fed more than it needs to survive always increases in number (even as some mice starve to death because others don't let them at the food), while a population fed no more than it requires to survive inevitably (without any form of birth control whatsoever) remains stable, replacing itself without growing any larger.  To top things off, you can slowly cut down the overall population of the mice by gradually decreasing food supply, without starving any of them (Quinn, The Story of B, 300-301):
Someone says, here's what to do.  Yesterday five hundred kilos of food went into the cage.  Today we'll reduce that by a kilo.  Oh no, another objects.  A kilo is too much.  Let's reduce it by a quarter of a kilo.  So that's what they do.  Four hundred ninety-nine and three quarters kilos of food go into the cage.  Tension in the lab as everyone waits for food riots and famine--but of course there are no food riots and no famine.  Among sixty-four thousand mice, a quarter of a kilo of food is like a flake of dandruff apiece.  Tomorrow four hundred ninety-nine and a half kilos of food go into the cage.  Still no food riots and no famine.  This procedure is followed for a thousand days--and not once is there a food riot or a famine.  After a thousand days only two hundred fifty kilos of food are going into the cage--and guess what?  There are no longer sixty-four thousand mice in the cage.  There are only thirty-two thousand.  Not a miracle--just a demonstration of the laws of ecology.  A decline in food availability has been answered by a decline in population.  As always.  Semper et ubique.  Nothing to do with riots.  Nothing to do with famine.  Just the normal response of a feeder population to the availability of food.
To me, this looks like the most painless way to accomplish what we are already doing anyway.  If we do not find some way to keep our civilized growth in check, we will run out of food eventually.  We can wait for nature to fix that problem with diseases, real famine (sudden withdrawal of all sustenance), or something worse, or we can put ourselves on a diet (and get back to something like health: I have a feeling Quinn is right to say that involves a radical transformation in the way we live, the things we value, and ultimately what it means to be human).  This does not mean that we should all begin living in caves, hunting wild animals for food, or going naked all the time (though some of us might choose to do this: good luck to them--they'll need it in spades).  What we need is a way forward, a road that leads beyond agricultural civilization rather than back to whatever existed before it.  Quinn provides a very easily accessible account of the best route I have found to date, proving that all other alternatives are really just so many ways of ignoring the same problem: civilization, or modern life as we know it since the agricultural revolution, is killing us, de-stabilizing our moral values, destroying our homes, and inexorably taking away with one hand what it pretends to offer with the other.


  1. I heard this quote from Mr. Rogers the other day that I really liked:

    "I'm always afraid when I talk like that, people will think it's sappy. That's probably one of the worst outcomes of the fast, superficial things people are fed. They think that's the way people should be. I think we're created deep and simple, and society doesn't nurture that. Society nurtures shallow and complicated."

    Say, how come you never comment on my blog, huh?

  2. I find it ironic that you now believe what I used to believe when I entered Harvard at age 19 (and what was taught at Harvard at that time in sociology and anthropology classes), while I now believe what you did at age 19. It seems to me that you have fallen for New England folklore of the 20th century, while it seems to you that I have fallen for New England folklore of the 19th century. In any case, my myth does make me happy and hopeful. I hope yours does. My myth ends with the whole world coming to a knowledge of the truth. Your ending seems a bit open-ended yet, but I gather that if agricultural civilization ends this will be a supremely happy event. I am afraid I should miss my garden, though, if your vision should come to pass, and I get the feeling that the leader in charge of the 'mice' will not allow me that personal happiness - for the good of all the mice, of course. Am I wrong? Why does this not feel ethical?

  3. Hoosier, I see the irony of our reverse evolutions: I like to think of it as Nature's strategy to keep humanity on its toes (we can never be complacent, since sons will always stand opposite fathers).

    I don't think agriculture needs to "end" per se: I do think it needs to evolve into something more intelligent and (ultimately) sustainable than the current industrial debacle. Since the mice have no "leader," it is hard to say how he (or she) will prevent anyone doing anything. (From my point of view, the ethical thing is neither to kill all the mice, nor to kill all the humans: since we rely on the mice to help us survive, these directives resolve to the same principle--don't waste life needlessly, thoughtlessly. Leaders with magical power to enforce this directive are either--at best--an illusion, or--at worst--an impediment. Either way, we should all be able to act reasonably and responsibly without recourse to them.) From what I see, gardens are definitely part of the wave of the survivalist future (as opposed to massive monoculture driven by the quest for profit and government subsidies): so I would not give up on that dream yet! The gardener intuitively has to follow rules of sustainability that "real farmers" consistently ignore (with the aid of ever more industrial chemicals and specialized crops created to maximize profits and/or flood markets with the cheapest crap that can be made to bear the label "food product").

    Ruth, thanks for the Mr. Rogers quote. I like the idea that we are deep and simple: it resonates with a lot of what I have been thinking lately. One of the interesting things civilization tends to do is obscure relatively simple relationships (like the relationship between the Aztecs and their food) with complex myths (which invite us to explain away the simple facts rather than confront them simply).

  4. Your former statement of life's purpose seems somewhat odd to me. When you were 19, is that really how you would have stated your purpose in life? If asked myself, I might say something along the lines of: "to serve my God and my familyhowever I may decide," but not "my church." (Not that I hate my church or anything; I just think that it is here to serve my family, not we it.) Maybe that's heretical of me, or maybe it's just indicative of the different rhetoric given to men vs. women in the LDS church. Idunno.

    I also have a slightly different view of the future than the one you (or Quinn, or Harris) posit here. I think that civilization's currently unhealthy and unsustainable agricultural practices may level off (and decrease) on their own as societies empower women more -- and therefore see a natural reduction in birth rate. Women (and men) who have access to birth control and more career options than housewifery will still want families (IMO), but they probably will not want 10 children. I suspect that allowing women greater opportunities for education and entering the workforce may also contribute to healthier lifestyles overall, too.

    But maybe that's just my own feminist agenda taking a turn for the idealistic.

  5. Kirsti, my life's purpose really was focused on the church at 19 years of age, thanks to years of reading Hugh Nibley and believing (ardently believing) in the law of consecration (with the church, not the family, as the first recipient of all that I have and am). I then went to the LDS temple and swore on everything I held sacred that I would give everything I have and am to the church (not my family). I took this very seriously.

    Empowering women certainly does have good effects on social problems (including overpopulation). Unfortunately, it seems that its occurrence in the First World is still largely dependent on exploiting inequalities in the Second and Third Worlds (which provide the goods and services that let us be "free"). To be blunt, the freedom of women (and men) in the USA depends on the slavery of women (and men, but when push comes to shove, men are physically stronger) in India, China, Indonesia, etc. So I am looking for something a little more game-changing than taking the status quo among the "enlightened" people of the First World and spreading it (by what means?) among everyone else. I will post more on this (huge problem) later.

  6. "how are we supposed to transform ourselves back into productive mode (a way of living that does not inevitably kill everything around us)? Harris was the doctor who informed me that I had an incurable disease, dissecting the disorder minutely when all I could really hear was "incurable."

    I totally understand what you mean by this. I still feel so powerless in the grand scheme of things.

    As for population I think it's easy to jump to the conclusion that a government is going to have to enforce what mice live and which mice die but upon closer inspection of the diagnosis it seems that is not a huge factor of concern.

    The study shows that food supply is DIRECTLY involved in the recurring doubling of our population. Empowering women is not going to stop our outrageously high population (6 billion) from doubling in our lifetime.

    We have gotten by implementing a system where everyone survives on poor quality food. The processed, broken down, ingredients that we freeze-dry, dehydrate, mix with preservatives, strip of nutrients and mass distribute is horrible for us.

    Also we seem blind to the fact that the resources we are using and abusing are breaking down a long held balance. It seems like a real hippy concern until we lose something like a honeybee that pollinates hundreds of others crops. I think we need to watch The Lion King and remember Mufasa's wise words about the circle of life.

    Cool post Joseph.

  7. I think my last comment may have come across wrong. I absolutely think empowering women is a very important thing that will bring much needed good into our world but I'm just not sure it's the most relevant link to our overpopulation worries. I did not mean to be disrespectful.

  8. Chris, no worries (I don't think you said anything offensive). From my evolving perspective (which I will try to flesh out more later), female subjugation is just another symptom of a larger societal disorder (which goes back ultimately to agricultural civilization, the original social cancer that made us at once masters and slaves). What I am really interested in is treating the root-cause of the disorder, rather than trying to cure individual symptoms with band-aids (which may be necessary and even help in the short-term, but which cannot accomplish anything really useful long-term).