Chapter 2: What Were They Thinking?
Digression: Government from the Paleolithic to Philadelphia
Page 50: The State of Nature
Thomas Hobbes said life in the “state of nature” must have been solitary… poor… nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes going “hmm” and imagining brutish cavemen.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Group of friends hugging.
After all, our natural state is how we evolved to live, before we invented government… the way that feels the most right… that just naturally works.
And as it happens, we evolved for a life that was intensely social, not solitary! One that was richly fulfilling, pleasant, loving…
…and oh yeah — long!
If they survived childhood, people apparently lived just as long as you or me.
Prehistoric people camping by a river.
Hobbes and Locke (and other philosophers like Marx) were trying to reason what life must have been like. But their conclusions tell us more about them and their own times.
Nowadays, evidence from a variety of scientific disciplines lets us say with confidence that the state of nature was actually kinda…
Oh. My god.
Could you be any more touchy-feely?
You’re the sappy one, remember?
Anyway, as I was saying…
Well, I wouldn’t go as far as “sweet”. Being very vulnerable to predators, disease, and (as you alluded to) infant mortality are not exactly what I call “sweet”. And it’s not like resources were plentiful all across the world, either (in some places, sure). Just because you evolved to fit circumstances doesn’t mean those circumstances can’t still be harsh and difficult to endure. I don’t know, I’ve always been sceptical of the whole “idyllic rural simplicity” thing. As bad as modern life can be, there is, of course, a reason humans invented most of the things we invented.
Overcrowding and urbanization really did a number on us, though. The spike in disease that came with that particular advancement was rather nuts. Some cultures had ways around that, and their life expectancy shot up even MORE, but for places that didn’t have coping mechanisms like raising floors and storing food separately…
Where are you getting this stuff about them living as long as you or me?
A paper from 2007 said that the average life-span for traditional hunter-gatherers is 21 to 37 years. “Longevity Among
HILLARD KAPLAN. page 326.”
Here is the URL: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.737.7899&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Is that an average, typical, or extreme number. Since science keeps one-upping itself with new discoveries and findings rolling in all of the time, one really can’t take any single study to be definitive.
That is an average number. Granted, the study is over 10 years old at this point. So new data could emerge that contradicts it. However, collecting data on non-urban populations is almost by definition more costly than collecting it on urban populations because they don’t have as much population density or a built-in bureaucracy to collect the data. So you would think that our understanding of them really wouldn’t change that much from decade to decade.
That paper does say that average life expectancy from birth is 21 to 37 years, but it also notes that there’s notable differences in death rates based on age.
Roughly 2/3 of children born survived to 15.
Roughly 2/3 of those who reached 15 survived to 45. (And the accultured group had 4/5 survive to 45, if they reached 15.)
Average additional life expectancy for those that reached 45 was 2 decades (to age 65).
If you go to the charts (page 8 of the PDF, page 328 of the paper), you can see that the vast majority of deaths happen in the first year of life, with about 20%-30% of all deaths happening by year 1. Generally another 10% die by age 5. The paper does further calculations assuming an individual lived to age 15, but the death rate from 5 to 15 is actually pretty low, and closer to that of the overall slope. And age 45 is another reference point (primarily for menopause), but the death rate doesn’t have much of an inflection for almost any studied population before the age of 60, so that’s a data point only for fertility, not for death rates.
Overall, from the age of 5, the decline of almost all populations is roughly 35-40% over 50 years, so about 0.7-0.8% per year. The overall average life expectancy variance is almost entirely predicated on the death rate between birth and age 5, which varied between 20% and 50% among the various populations, but had an overall average in the 25%-35% range.
If you exclude the deaths prior to age 5, the average life expectancy is between 50 and 65 years.
So yes, the comic’s statement is reasonably accurate.
This comic is about American law. So American life expectancy is what we should be using. the Life expectancy at birth in America is 78.74 years. It would only be higher if you excluded deaths before age 5. That amounts to a difference of about 14 years, rounding to the nearest year. Even going by the upper limit of the range that you established, 65 years of life. It is still misleading to say that they lived as long as the intended audience for this web comic is likely to live.
Amendment: If I’m a bit more careful about how I measure the graphs, it looks like it would be more accurate to give the average life expectancy (for survivors past age 5) at between 57 and 67 years. Risk of death seems to hit a minimum at about age 10, and then slowly climbs back up as you age. As a mild curiosity, it would seem to also align with cultures that have special “coming of age” ceremonies for children between the ages of around 5 and 10.
Anyway, the comic is about American law, however the current topic is also explicitly about non-American world views, to allow comparison to the American view. Further, it’s related to Thomas Hobbes’ (an English philosopher, not American) assertion about the natural state being “nasty, brutish, and short”. The point is that research shows that that is very clearly not the case, aside from the earliest years of childhood, which even today holds the highest chance of mortality.
While America has a higher life expectancy than other parts of the world, overall worldwide average life expectancy today is 68-72 years for men/women. Further, average life expectancy in the more developed nations of the world (if you want to exclude the lower half of the average) in the early 60’s was also about 68 years. And most of the advances in the last century that improved the average have been reducing childhood mortality rates.
There’s definitely biased improvements from the last few decades, but you can find similar results after excluding childhood years in numerous other locations and time periods. For example, Europe between 1000 and 1500 (aside from the bubonic plague period), with the expected lifespan of adults in the 65-70 year range.
The point is that, aside from childhood deaths, pandemics, and the miracles of the last few decades of medicine, average life expectancy has really not varied very much, ever. It was not “nasty, brutish, and short” when in the “natural state”; it was pretty much the same as modern day. “Short”, in this context, would at least be under 50, and probably under 40, which corresponds with the biased average that includes childhood deaths. In this case, the mathematical average isn’t really telling you the full story, and is a distraction from the point that the comic is trying to cover.
Those are all good points. But consider this: the quote is “Solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” not “Solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, even excluding deaths prior to age 5.” Unless there is a good reason to exclude deaths before the age of 5, the “short” part in that quote was still correct.
The reason to compare adult mortality rates separately from infant/child mortality rates is that adult mortality rates matter also. Hobbes imagines an utterly dystopian existence before (Western) civilization, but infant mortality, while definitely bad, is not the only measure of the quality of a society.
I think y’all are overthinking this a little. Hobbes et al. are selling (Western) civilization as a response to an existential crisis: “Holy moly, guys, our lives really suck, so we’d better invent civilization.” But Nathan is correct: judging from the available evidence, it’s reasonable to conclude that most pre-agricultural people lived pretty good lives, especially by their own standards but even by ours. A lot of the evidence shows that after the invention of agriculture, people worked harder, were less healthy, and died younger.
I’m guessing that Nathan is heading towards something like Kent Flannery’s The Creation of Inequality, where civilization, like beer, is the cause of, and solution to, all the world’s problems.
I think the key phrase you’re glossing over is “if they survived childhood.” Infant morality was quite high up until about 100 years ago, and that brings the average down quite a bit.
Indeed. Settled agriculture has its advantages, but it comes with downsides like warfare, patriarchy, and slavery.
Those things all emerged in non-agricultural peoples as well. Just look at the Cossacks, Mongols, and any other nomadic society of warrior horsemen.
But those tribes of warrior horsemen only arose once there were settled agricultural societies for them to prey upon.
The Mongols got on just fine preying on each other until Ghengis Khan unified them into one kingdom. warrior horsemen in general don’t like living near agricultural peoples because agriculture uses up land that could be used for grazing.
You might enjoy Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
I did! It was one of many books I read back when I was prepping this section, and I enjoyed it immensely. (It isn’t always as accurate as I could have wished, especially when he gets into details. And of course a lot of what Harari discusses is still the subject of active research. Google Scholar is my friend. But I’d still recommend Sapiens to anyone who’s interested.)
I’ve only just found this comic, and I’ve seen a number of comments from you on how non-state societies in a world dominated by states aren’t the best guide to how pre-state societies worked. What would you recommend as a beginner’s introduction to how current thinkers came to the conclusions about prehistoric societies that you’re describing here?
First of all, welcome to the comic! I’m glad to have you, and please feel free to jump into any discussion anywhere. They’re all always open and always ongoing!
As to your question, I’m not sure there’s any one source I’d recommend. Only because it’s not exactly a new idea. It’s been a tension in anthropology almost as long as there’s been anthropology. The tension is between the scientific desire to open a window on the past, and the natural impulse to hold up a mirror to the present, reflecting ourselves and our own realities and beliefs. It’s harder than you might think to put the mirror down. Even very bright people sometimes don’t realize that they’re holding one. So there has been a lot of academic discussion in journals and books, but what I’ve seen has mostly been building up the idea rather than encapsulating it.
(That’s one of the things I’m trying to do with this comic: Put all the info in one place.)
So there’s a scientific concept called “uniformitarianism,” which is shorthand for “we can’t go back in time to see what X was like, but the processes that produced X haven’t changed, so let’s look at modern-day X-like things to see what those processes are.” So we can’t watch the Grand Canyon being formed, but we can observe rivers eroding their landscape today, and we can presume that nature worked the same way back then. It seems like common sense, no? The trick is to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, not apples and oranges. The more the details differ, the less likely your present example is an accurate reflection of the past. If you’re sticking thermometers into iguanas to determine whether T-rex was warm- or cold-blooded, your conclusions aren’t going to be worth much. You’ll need to find a creature with similar anatomy, living a similar way in a similar environment if you want to be taken seriously.
Uniformitarianism gets really iffy when comparing human populations, because circumstances change radically from place to place and over time. People in the middle of France in the year 1125 behaved very differently than they do today, as their society was almost entirely different, their basic assumed knowledge about how the universe worked was not at all like their present-day worldview, and it was in many respects an alien land. It would clearly be a mistake to draw conclusions about how medieval French people lived and thought and behaved simply by studying modern French people.
There have been ethnographers who do just that, and there are plenty who still do. But the better practice has been to formulate hypotheses from observing modern-day peoples, and then testing those hypotheses with actual material evidence from archaeology. Some have started to shift away from ethnography entirely to draw conclusions strictly from the archaeological evidence, judging the prehistoric past on its own terms rather than our own. Obviously this limits us to physical evidence, but at least our inferences about culture and behavior are inferred from actual evidence, rather than from stuff we’re guessing might be similar. Even so, the common wisdom is to use our knowledge about general human processes to figure out what the archaeological evidence means. As the saying goes, “the data don’t speak for themselves.” Fortunately, ever since the year I started this comic back in 2011, there have been enormous gains in the fields of genetics and neuroscience which continue to produce mounds of research supporting or challenging the anthropological hypotheses, and our understanding of how people lived in the ancient past keeps evolving to fit all this new data. It really is an exciting time to be studying this field!
The inarguable fact is that modern-day hunter-gatherers/nomads/etc. are not some kind of Jurassic Park living fossils. They live in the modern world, with all its borders, societies, influences, and technologies. Their societies didn’t stop evolving 12,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago, or 100 years ago—they’ve been evolving and adapting and changing just as long as any other human society. It’s important to recognize that the world they live in today is dramatically different from the world their prehistoric and paleolithic ancestors experienced, and that one must exercise extreme caution before projecting their present ways into the past.
So to answer your question, I would probably recommend looking for a well-received introductory textbook on paleoanthropology that has been published in the last few years. For a more pop-sci resource, maybe Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens might be okay? I did enjoy reading them both when they came out, and they do have bits that are on point, but I don’t know that they answer your actual question.
If any other reader can make some suggestions, please do!
Thanks for such an in-depth answer.
My pleasure entirely!