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Why A.D. 2011 beats 100,000 B.C.: More choices, free will, freedom

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Jacket cover for 'Freedom'Has civilization been a big mistake? My friend and former neighbor Kirkpatrick Sale thinks so. Sale is a smart, feisty critic of modernity, and especially technology and big government. His writings have inspired environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, whose book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 2010) cites Sale.

Sale’s book Rebels Against the Future (Basic Books, 1996) celebrates the so-called Luddite rebellion of British workers against textile factories in the early 19th century. The book ends with a rousing call for a new Luddite rebellion, in which we reject computers and other technologies that increasingly rule our lives.

Sale serves up a similar anti-progress message in After Eden (Duke University Press, 2006), which argues that our despoliation of Earth is bearing us toward "a conjunction of crises that will create havoc, war, starvation, disease and death on a wide scale in every land on earth, and bring our civilization crashing down around our heads." Yikes! Sale yearns for the simple, pre-technological existence of our Paleolithic ancestors, nomadic foragers who according to Sale lived in harmony with each other and with nature before civilization messed everything up.

After describing Sale’s radical nostalgia to students taking my history of science and technology class, I asked them to write an essay on this question: Would you rather be alive today or in the Paleolithic era? The Paleolithic lasted from the dawn of the Homo genus two million years ago to the dawn of agriculture, towns and cities, chiefs and kings, armies, ziggurats, moola, shopping malls and other building blocks of civilization 10,000 years ago.

A few students—perhaps guessing, wrongly, their hippy-dippy professor’s preference—sided with Sale. During the Paleolithic, David wrote, "one would have time to stargaze and lounge in the beautiful world we live in, pastimes which are not common in the world today. People would thus respect nature and not pollute it and destroy forests, contrary to how the world is today." "It’s a cookout every night, boys,” Chris, another student, exulted, “and the girls are doing all the work!"

Most students, however, chose the present, for obvious reasons: iPhones, cars, jets, fast food, television, the Internet. "We have things such as supermarkets where we can buy our food, as opposed to having to hunt it and cook it over a manmade fire," Carlos wrote. "I honestly don’t think I could survive more than a day in the Old Stone Age." Tim provided the answer I was looking for: "In today’s world anyone can try to do anything they want. It is this freedom of choice that is the reason why I would rather live in modern times than in the Paleolithic era."

"Yes!" I wrote in the margin of Tim’s paper. There is no better measure of the vitality of a society than the number of choices it offers its people. Choices about the important things in life—education, career, religious worship, sexual behavior, even the books we read and films we watch and Internet sites we visit—are what make life meaningful. That is why I argued so strenuously in my last post that free will—which I equate with freedom and choice—is not an illusion, as Einstein and other misguided reductionists have claimed. That’s also why I love living in 21st-century America, despite all of its flaws.

Our profoundly ignorant Paleolithic ancestors had little or no choice in where, how or with whom they lived; the very notion of choice would have been foreign to them. Many people around the world—too many—still don’t have meaningful choices because of crushing poverty and tyranny. But civilization keeps giving more of us more freedom—including the freedom to turn our backs on a highly technological, consumerist culture and live like the Amish or other modern-day Luddites.

Freedom is not some airy-fairy concept but an objective, measurable quantity. The non-profit organization Freedom House has been charting the ebb and flow of political freedom since the 1940s. Freedom House defines a nation as "free" if it meets two criteria. First, it must "elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate." Second, the nation must allow "freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state."

According to Freedom House’s 2010 annual report, 89 of the world’s 194 nations, representing less than half of the global population, are free; another 58 are "partly free." People were "not free” in 47 countries, home to 34 percent of the global population; a single nation, China, accounted for roughly half of this percentage.

The report warns that for "the fourth consecutive year, declines [in freedom] have trumped gains." Set-backs were especially severe in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Although the U.S. has orchestrated elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, Freedom House categorizes these nations as "not free."

The report points out, however, that "the overall state of freedom in the world has improved over the last two decades. Many more countries were in the ‘free’ category and were designated as electoral democracies in 2009 than in 1989, and the majority of countries that made major progress 20 years ago have retained those improvements." We’re moving in the right direction.

A freer world is also a more peaceful world. As political scientists such as Bruce Russett of Yale have been pointing out for decades, democracies—although they obviously, especially in the case of the U.S., fight non-democracies—rarely if ever wage war against other democracies. Russett and others assert that the surge in democracy since World War II—when fewer than 20 nations were fully democratic—has contributed to the recent decline of international war.

Big Caveat: More freedom does not necessarily equal more happiness. In fact, more choices may mean more confusion, mistakes, regret, even despair. That is the irony at the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010). Consider his character Patty, a smart, sassy college basketball star who marries a good man, an environmental lawyer who adores her. He makes so much money that Patty doesn’t have to work; she can focus on raising their two bright, healthy kids.

"By almost any standard she led a luxurious life," the narrator muses. "She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable." I can identify with Patty, and so can many other people, if Freedom‘s sales and accolades are any indication. But just as I would rather live in A.D. 2011 than 100,000 B.C., so I would choose to be free and unhappy rather than vice versa.

May your New Year be happy and free!

Illustration courtesy Wiki Commons


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  1. 1. lowndesw 11:29 am 01/3/2011

    Does it make any difference what Sale thinks or says?? We are where we are.

    My wife was raised in the country (GA), remembers when electricity came (REA), and didn’t have indoor plumbing until she went off to college. Her father used to say, "Those ‘good old days’ were (not so good)". I had to clean up his actual words, I hope you understand. But his point was well made, and well taken.

    I suspect some hypocrisy on Seal’s part. He probably does his complaining on a cell phone, or on the internet, or with a ball point pen.

    If you have ever been out in the woods, the virgin Boreal forests of upper Canada for example, in the rain, wind, cold, cooking and paddling for ten days (even with modern equipment), you get an appreciation for a roof and hot water at your finger tips. Tell Seal to try it and THEN come back and tell us about it. I’ve been there. I’VE LOVED EVERY MINUTE of it, but will always come back home!!

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  2. 2. agenthucky 11:53 am 01/3/2011

    I guess the only one who can critisize is Christopher McCandless

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  3. 3. promytius 12:30 pm 01/3/2011

    If I had lived a fairly similar life in 100,000 B.C as I am living presently, I’d be dead, many times over simply because of medicine available to me for viruses and other diseases. While it may be an interesting essay exercise (although doubtful from the samples)to speculate on choosing one or the other, the REAL point I may suggest is how do we go forward?
    I have a rather boring, middle-way suggestion that won’t excite anyone, but for what it’s worth, we need to simply slow down, as we need to enter a time of sustainability rather than rampant consumerism. I said some time ago that we really do not need more than one (or one pair) of most everything. We don’t need extravagances and we eventually will have to cut back/out on luxuries. If we are to have a global vision, then the developed countries are going to have to tuck in their tails, open their eyes and see how 5 billion people live – in less than acceptable conditions. I am not a Socialist or a Communist but both of those embrace principles which in there lower case form are growing necessities for a global consciousness. Ex: I saw a man standing shin-deep in a barren, vast field of mud just south of Cebu, Philippines, with a single dirty cloth wrapped around his waist for clothes; he stood next to what I thought was just trash, but it was his ‘house’; he was looking at nothing, just standing there. Not to pick on that country in particular, but there are billions and billions of people living in those same conditions – please just stop and consider that: billions and billions of people without adequate anything. There must be a moral revolution to bring all people up to an acceptable standard of living and that will necessitate a sacrifice on the part of all developed nations. If being human means anything special, then ALL humans ARE special and deserve better from their fellow humans. Now ask the students to write an essay about how they will lead us there.

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  4. 4. grandpa 12:40 pm 01/3/2011

    Having grown up in small towns and rural areas, i’m not an urban person. Big cities and large crowds don’t work for me. But I can appreciate the amenities that go with them, technology, cultural, universities, medical centers, electricity, proper plumbing and all that stuff.

    The trouble is that those amenities introduce their own limits and restrictions. I prefer to live a long arms length from urban restrictions. I like my technology, but I wish it not to show or intrude when I choose to ignore it. I want it covered over with real wood and leather and hand crafted veneers and especially doors to close off the incessant digital blinking lights.

    This topic offers an either/or choice and I’m not good at accepting other peoples theoretical limits.

    I want the freedom to chose when I want them and how I want them. A choice of either/and…not either/or. So I suppose my happy point would be a very very large acreage in a wild wilderness area, but with reliable internet access and a well maintained highway connecting to civilization and the people who have chosen to live within those boundaries.

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  5. 5. sleeprun 12:46 pm 01/3/2011

    ….happy-talk pop ideology for the New Year…this is all over pop media, we don’t need more in SciAm….zzzzzzzzzz… will is a myth……

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  6. 6. bjohnd 1:39 pm 01/3/2011

    Wake up and smell your own volition sleeprun.

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  7. 7. lowndesw 1:43 pm 01/3/2011

    Yeah!! Ask him how he liked it. And he had all the modern comforts of a school bus.

    What was the experiment a few years back where a group of volunteers lived for a month in an iron-age village in England to experience the pre-modern lifestyle?? Eating porridge, sleeping dirty every night with bugs on a mat, trying to keep warm and dry. It was a VERY, VERY difficult life.

    Somehow I don’t think Sale was one of the volunteers.

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  8. 8. Fine Material 1:56 pm 01/3/2011

    The real measure of Sale’s comments are what he is doing. Methinks he is still choosing modern life. End of debate, he is not genuine, he knows he is full of it.

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  9. 9. Teklanika1 2:23 pm 01/3/2011

    You seem to have forgotten that the law of carrying capacity applies to humans as well as any other animal. Because we ignore this law, with only the Chinese government attempting to put the brakes on human procreation, we find ourselves in an ecologically disasterous predicament: we are running out of living space and resources, and ruining the planet that has so much promise.
    Humans, without some form of external control, seem to make choices that are antithetical to their own survival.
    I think your idea of utopian freedom is B.S. Also you are kind of ignorant if you think we have "freedom". That is confusing freedom with greed.

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  10. 10. sleeprun 3:16 pm 01/3/2011

    ….the comment behaviors we’re unconsciously triggered in milliseconds in the brain stem….seconds (a long time)before the self/"mind" could verbalize/be "conscious" of them…conscious control is a convenient illusion…our ancestors that had to "think," before taking action, died off…rather quickly…other primates and animals live their lives surprisingly effectively, thank you, with out having to "think about it" (really verbalize) or "make decisions"….ho hum…

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  11. 11. jminnis 3:52 pm 01/3/2011

    "There is no better measure of the vitality of a society than the number of choices it offers its people. Choices about the important things in life–education, career, religious worship, sexual behavior, even the books…"

    Spoken like a well-off white male. Choices (i.e. freedom) are for the well-off……

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  12. 12. gamt67 3:59 pm 01/3/2011

    I find it interesting that this was tagged, "Culture", it CLEARLY did not have cultural relativism in it’s sights.

    A capitalist economy does not provide pure freedom, particularly for those low earners that make up the largest portion of the population. Nor, does a democracy.

    One other point, "Choices about the important things in life–education, career, religious worship, sexual behavior, even the books we read and films we watch and Internet sites we visit–are what make life meaningful." Sorry, this is pure opinion, in my worldview, relationships are what make like truly meaningful. All those other things are nice, but not the foundation of meaning, not to me anyway.

    This column was horrible for so many reasons, too many to list.

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  13. 13. dhrosier 4:02 pm 01/3/2011

    If I lived 100,000 years ago, at age 68 I would have been dead at least 45 years.

    Modernity demands responsibility IF humans are to survive as a species, which humanity has abdicated both with respect to population and environmental protection. With increases in either (and both) of quality of life and population comes geometrical increase in the stress on the environment.

    Pollution and resource depletion were problems before 1960 when the global human population was less than 3 Billion. Unfortunately, mankind refuses to see there is a problem until it becomes so great a problem that horrible damage is being done TO PEOPLE.

    Problem recognition is exacerbated by self appointed crusaders who urge society to act prematurely to unproven causes of the problems, by some people who balk at the burden of mitigating the problems, and by people who absolutely refuse (for religious and/or social justice reasons) to consider there might be a problem.

    Human suffering increases out of proportion to population excesses for reasons far more serious than commute times and congested living conditions.

    If population doubles in any high risk area of the planet people will suffer more than twice as many deaths and injuries when disaster strikes – tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods … fill in the blanks.

    Today there are severe water shortages in many regions of the planet – India, Middle East, Mexico … again the list is long. While much less severe in the US there are many areas struggling today, and getting worse every day. Watch the studies, reports and debates and it is rare you will see any serious mention that the demand (population) exceeds the supply.

    Similar exhaustion applies to many resources, most notably in the news lately are oil and ocean fish stocks.

    In 1972 it did happen that people murdered people because they were afraid they would not be able to fill their gas tanks.

    There are reasons to be very, very afraid.

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  14. 14. bjohnd 5:11 pm 01/3/2011

    You seem to be changing your position. Are you arguing that conscious control is an illusion, or are you arguing that it should be an illusion?

    The fact that one does not have conscious control over some aspects of cognition does not negate its existence altogether. The proof of free will is available to us all through introspection. If you recognize a difference between being asleep and being awake, you have the proof of free will, the power to direct your attention from one thing to another. If you do not recognize a difference between wakefulness and sleep, I respectfully suggest that you hit the snooze button and try again.

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  15. 15. sculptingman 5:52 pm 01/3/2011

    Choice necessarily brings many people suffering over the notion of the choices not made, the paths not taken. The classic double bind experiment, in which a rat learns that choosing a sweet drink deactivates a food dispenser, while choosing the food dispenser deactivates the sweet drink dispenser… once the rat realizes that picking one eliminates the other, they choose neither, but sit in the middle and do nothing… hardly a satisfying choice in itself.

    But the primitive society offered nearly zero choice. You would hunt and gather and that is all you would do… if female, you would pop out babies until some birth killed you, and the notion that this world was without violence is absurd… The hunter gatherers had little time for anything but subsistence, and the conflicts with other tribes over resources were many… the lack of written history does not mean nothing of note transpired.

    Bones in caves of our prehistoric relatives often bear signs of butchery… imagine not having a war with your neighbors over land, or property… but over whether they were going to eat you, or you, them…

    Still… as a man, I have less real choice than most women in my society… I really do not get the option of being supported and free to do as I please… I must work, at something, pretty much till the day I die. I do get some choice over what I do as work…. and that is probably just enough choice to offer real contentment and lasting joy.

    Perhaps too much choice is a curse… but too little is far more crushing… and certainly the potential of choice, even unrealized, offers hope, even to those who never quite figure out what choices might make them happy.

    In the final analysis, we are not rats, and we can learn how to cope, reasonably and emotionally, with choice.

    After all… every modern convenience, every technological change of any substance, was something some ancestors invented to solve something they had to suffer.
    Yes, we divorce more readily and often, today, than in ages past… but our grandparents liberalized divorce because living in a bad marriage was awful.

    It is easy, with the health, comfort and education that technology affords, to deride the merits of technology and indulge in nostalgia for an age you can’t possibly really understand.
    Its nice that he has the freedom to entertain such fantasies, and make such a good living distributing such fancies thru the educated world via the technology he so maligns.

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  16. 16. mwagner17 6:02 pm 01/3/2011

    From behind our computers, while sitting in our warm homes, it is easy to romanticize about "how easy" life was in 100,000 B.C. when predatory cats roamed every continent (except perhaps Antarctica) and humans died from the common cold – let alone broken bones and the aforementioned "big cats".

    Food was scarce during European Winters – and the dry seasons of the savannahs of Africa.

    Our Homo erectus ancesters had occupied every corner of Eurasia yet our species (Homo sapiens sapiens) left Africa only 100,000 years earlier.

    Sale discredits technology but where does one draw the line? Without the simplest technology (stone tools, fire, and wooden spears, we would still be gathering berries and eating roots on the savannahs of Africa while our children died of diseases we can now easily cure.

    Those children who survived disease fell to predation later in life. By the age of thirty, one could expect death to come soon. It would be rare for us to see our grandchildren.

    Do humans misuse our technology to kill one another? YES! Do we act irresponsibly by hunting species to the brink of extinction? YES! Have we overpopulated the planet! YES.

    Ironically, the industrialized world, with all its cynicism and greed has finally brought population growth under control. It’s the nations of the Third World that still have out-of-control pupolation growth while the industrialized world is at ZPG (zero-population-growth).

    If we deny our technology to the The Third World, their plight will only become worse. If we allow ourselves to abandon all we have learned in the last 100,000 years, the Earth will return to balance but at what cost? How many human lives will be lost needlessly?

    A far better solution is to enlighten the rest of the world with that knowledge and the resources that knowledge provides.

    Let us learn to live together in peace and will will use our technology to bring the Earth back into balance for the betterment of all.

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  17. 17. mwagner17 6:08 pm 01/3/2011

    The "brakes" on "human procreation" have already been applied throughout the industrialized world – all of which have attained zero-population-growth.

    The Chinese approach is heavy-handed and has accomplished nothing. Education and a cultural shift of considerable magnitude is required to address population growth in the Third World. Education is the key.

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  18. 18. jtdwyer 8:27 pm 01/3/2011

    While the birthrate of the citizenship of industrialized countries is dropping precipitously, most are importing workers to perform the necessary but undesirable work supporting industry, or exporting industrial production. We have not attained zero population growth, and as long as we continue to import the procreation of less developed nations we won’t.

    Industrial labor has never been pleasant, but life in the early 19th century textile mills, coal mines and even household service could be unbearable. Life is currently much more bearable for most, especially for those of us living in post-industrial societies.

    There’s no guaranties for the future, since we in the ‘modern world’ are now producing fewer and fewer goods of any real value – mostly just providing services for each other. How long will our production of services justify our salaries in the global marketplace?

    I have no specific predictions, except the world is already overpopulated and will continue to be so until some critical failure of overstressed delicate infrastructure produces catastrophic population reductions on the order of perhaps billions.

    The global population doubled during the past forty years. Is there any comfortably agreeable way to halve the population?

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  19. 19. way2ec 8:40 pm 01/3/2011

    100,000 years ago? As if any of us knows what "quality of life" was then. At least let me move up to about 20,000 years ago, give or take 10,000. Going to the art museums to see the latest installations (Lascaux), with huge gatherings where young people could meet and "mix it up" socially. In the colder regions, everyone was wearing fur coats. A remarkable diet of fresh meats, fish, wild fruits and vegetables, combined with plenty of physical activity, fresh air and clean water. Plenty of free time for contemplating the stars, keeping the oral traditions alive, designing jewlery, perfecting the arts and crafts. Free choice? Tell that to the serfs of the Industrial Revolution, to the slaves in Greece, those in the Americas, the untouchables in India. Ok, 21st century. I am among the 1 billion who are "rich". Lets talk free choices to the 5 billion who aren’t. And I confess, I choose now, but without knowing what it was like then. My first thought was about sexual freedom, selection of partners, etc. I am from a very small town, I imagine it would have been similar to small "communities" 10,000 years ago, and I’m SO glad I have huge urban areas to go find mates, but then again, who knows what the attitudes were back then, what the possibilities were. Noble savages, brutal beasts, modern geeks and whimps, mom, home, and apple pie… I will wager we are now is what we were then, just billions less of us. And one more thing, what we have now? Not worth it if it is not sustainable. What we were for 100,000 years was sustainable for all that time. What we are now? Not only is it not sustainable, for all we know, by the end of the this century, not to even bother to imagine end of next millennia, we might be living something like we had then, but with such environmental damage and mass extinctions… at least we will have the stars to contemplate.

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  20. 20. southindian 10:02 pm 01/3/2011

    For some reason I cannot fathom the relation between freedom and choices. I have lived in mosquito ridden earthen huts in India and also in the standard comfortable American home. I dont prefer one to the other. My freedom exists within me and not in the number of choices I have or the amount of luxury I have.
    Freedom as a nation is different. You can live in a ‘non free’ country and still be free. But coming to the question of civilization or not, I think we should change the way we govern, trade and globalize.Smaller economies and societies with all the technology and science would be a better place to live in than an utterly globalized world.

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  21. 21. Masse Bloomfield 11:42 pm 01/3/2011

    Mankind is locked into an evolutionary pattern reflected in punctuated equilibrium. This pattern seems to be true for viruses, the rest of life as well as man. Our cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution that is long periods of stabilty and short periods of transition. We are in one of those short periods of transitioin. My book "Mankind in Transition" is based on this fact.

    We are committed to evolving into an automated society where machines do all the work in producing goods and services. In my estimation, Sale is trying to reverse the clock. Going back to live in a peasant society is OK is you are a nobleman, but living like a peasant as peasants do in Egyptian villages, isn’t pleasant. Sale doesn’t know how lucky he is that he doesn’t have a lord to tell him his every daily movement. I cannot think of any human society that has back tracked. So I think Sale is locked into living in a complex society that is becoming more and more automated.

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  22. 22. Michael M 12:22 am 01/4/2011

    More choices? Free will?
    Rather simplistic argument by the author, who may not have experienced the complexity of life in a wilder framework. Free will is quite internal and definitely not improved by a culturally dependent, learned lifestyle. Presuming that this internet is sufficient replacement for life, sufficient enough to describe as more choise, or freer will.
    Threee commentators seem to have a grasp on the issue Mwagner17, and 21 & 22.

    Consider the freedom of living before the population saturated its environment.
    Horizons were limitless, and creativity blossomed anew with each truly new moment.
    We now see a mercantile culture in which one is by necessity forced (no free will in that word)to occupy oneself with indenture for money to find the comlex foods and sheltering materials that were well-available for North American natives into the 19th century.
    Consider also the immunologic naivete’ of those cultures before the domesticating Euros arrived. They did not need immunity to diseases which jumped from domesticated species.
    Consider their psychological, physical, social healing methods which kept the tribes in a coherent ecological balance and health. And consider that whatever we do know of this is only known about saturated populations.
    Before saturation, the world was, again, limitless and magnificent, with dangers and joys to which we were well-adapted.

    Most of the commentators and certainly the writer, is too culturally bound to even understand that complexity, creativity, vision, exist outside the bounds of their little tech-world.

    You do not have the understanding of relatinoship with the natural biological complexity, nor have you ever extended your life to adventurous expanses, or you would recognize that more exists than the plastic, machines, and involuted solipsism of your present culture.

    None of the arguments are remotely valid, nor anything but chest beating about the presumptions of the present. I would expect far, far more from one whose profession is to teach.

    Please give us articles and authors with a bit more perspective than "how I would spend my summer vacation."

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  23. 23. jtdwyer 1:36 am 01/4/2011

    The distinctions of cultural perspectives are so interesting – I haven’t heard anyone express such a self-centered view of life for a very long time. In my opinion, the ‘typical’ modern American on the street views personal freedom as the ability to do what they wish, free from constraints, such as financial limitations and social acceptance, for example.

    A techno-village vision was shared by some young Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s hoping to create a better world. I can’t really say whether that cultural vision has been generally abandoned or whether I’ve simply lost it in the demands of family responsibilities.

    I do think that independent, self-sufficient villages would be very difficult to maintain in today’s overpopulated, potentially underesourced world. But then, there have always been droughts, floods, disease and bands of wandering marauders to contend with. Happy, peaceful village life may have always been a temporary state of being.

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  24. 24. judynz 1:47 am 01/4/2011

    Part of human evolement is improving our conditions, nothing wrong in that. But this is Not what has happened. Althought the Greedies point the finger at the masses saying it is our demands, it is in fact they via capitalism who have destroyed water, soil Air etc along with their game of moving STUFF around the world & their book keeping & ledgers mentality for showing profits, that the real problems lie. They push & shove & brainwash the sheep to believe they are nothing without things. They actually hire staff to undermine quality of goods so they wont last & they dont expect to include recycling nor clean up messes they make. Removal of trees decimates water, & its quality.
    I wonder about the day we might put our foot on the path to actually becoming civilized. Thre is nothing civilized about a manic Shopping, shopping, shopping.

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  25. 25. oldvic 3:28 am 01/4/2011

    Let’s take a REALLY long term look at this, including not just the past and the present but also the far future as we are able to predict it now.
    I don’t think anyone can argue convincingly that modern life isn’t much richer in freedom than primitive life, which was a never ending race to evade starvation-predation-disease; those who forget about this reality are letting their distaste for the present deceive them.
    The present isn’t perfect, but then it NEVER is or will be. We will ALWAYS have problems to solve, and to imagine that someday we will achieve some state of everlasting bliss is to misunderstand the world we live in. Utopia is our horizon, but we need to remember the definition of horizon: a line that inevitably recedes as we walk towards it.
    As to the future, we can, thanks to science, foresee some of it. We would be unable to do it to any significant degree if we were hunter-gatherers.
    How will a primitive society respond to climate change (let’s not forget that climate change has happened before for reasons totally unrelated to our activities)? How will it respond to the fall of a big asteroid? Hundreds of millions from now, how will it survive when the increasingly hot Sun cooks the Earth?
    My point is that we are locked in a race for survival the final result of which we can’t foresee.
    However, it seems safe to say that we will not survive by refusing the advancement of knowledge and by choosing a (temporarily) static culture. That’s a sure recipe for disaster.

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  26. 26. oldvic 3:45 am 01/4/2011

    I don’t follow Mr. Horgan when he says that freedom of choice as such exists (that is, perfect freedom for the individual to choose so that such choices can be said to be random or unconstrained).
    My view on the subject is that a human, when making a choice, is constrained by an inner state (life’s experiences until that moment, our own features as living beings) and by an outside environment (laws of physics, social constraints, etc.).
    I think that when a choice presents itself, we take the path that pleases us most at that moment using the net result of all the inner and outer forces that act on us. The apparent unpredictability of some of our choices is simply a reflection of the complexity of the human being.
    So, my definition of free will is: being able to make the inevitable choice that arises from the interplay of our inner state and our outside environment without undue interference of another human. I fully realise the problems created by the word ‘undue’, but that’s what society is for: finding an acceptable social contract that maximises free will for the individual.
    Of course, I might be wrong…

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  27. 27. oldvic 4:05 am 01/4/2011

    On my comment #26, instead of ‘hundreds of millions from now’ please read ‘hundreds of millions of years from now’.

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  28. 28. roleednc 12:32 pm 01/4/2011

    Wow! Stunning!

    "Our profoundly ignorant Paleolithic ancestors" is probably one of the least supported and least accurate phrases I have ever read in any scientific publication. It is simply amazing that any journal with an editor in the building would let that one get by.

    Now, if someone wrote "our profoundly ignorant children who sit around playing video games and don’t know how to do anything useful" I would probably take less exception to it. Knowledge is what allows you to get by in a hostile world. Our ancestors had to have knowledge of the world around them that would make our heads spin–tracking animals, identifying plants, dealing with weather–and they had to be right. There was very little room for error. Lack of choices does not equal ignorance.

    Our current population only needs to know how to drive to work at McDonalds, find the cereal isle in the grocery store and hold a hand out for someone (employer, parents, government) to give them money.

    I guess the best example that I can think of is that someone in this day and age can think, write, and get published the phrase "Our profoundly ignorant Paleolithic ancestors" with no consequences except nasty comments from people like me. A hundred thousand years ago anyone who did not understand or underestimated another person, especially someone not of their tribe, would probably soon be dead.

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  29. 29. Steve D 12:42 pm 01/4/2011

    Don’t give me any garbage about the Good Old Days. The Good Old Days are right now. I can recall the Fifties. It was wonderful if you were a white male. If you weren’t, not so much. You could kill a black man or rape a black woman with near total impunity in parts of the country. If you were a woman, you could be a mommy, a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. Not long ago, I met a woman who flew the Space Shuttle. I know another who operated a Mars Rover. I happen to think that is very cool. I like my Internet and hot water and electric lights, thank you.

    And what happened in your ideal hunter-gatherer society if your mate had a breech birth? Or you got a deep puncture wound from that antelope you invited to dinner? Or an inflamed appendix? What happened if the tribe over the hill decided it would be fun to have two mates instead of one, or decided it was easier to make someone else do all the work?

    Actually, the hypothesis that primitive life is better is eminently testable. Let’s just stop giving aid to the Third World. How many advocates of primitivism are for that? Put your hand down, Glenn Beck, you don’t get to vote. You can, of course, move to a Third World country and adopt citizenship there [crickets chirping....]

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  30. 30. Iokarlo 12:52 pm 01/4/2011

    I am starting to read this great thread… By the moment, I am only trying to get my self in touch with it, by requesting to be advised into my e-mail when any updating happen… I will look ahead to participate as I become learned about.

    Tank you to all as for to be here… And there.

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  31. 31. gesimsek 2:01 pm 01/4/2011

    Did not the founding fathers establish this country so that people could live free from want? What travesty of thinking changed this idea into freedom to houses, SUVs and millions of other things we think we want.

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  32. 32. dave chamberlin 1:06 pm 01/5/2011

    Only a whiny pop-science sell out could write this book.

    100,000 years ago we would be saying things like:

    "I guess I’ll be in constant pain for the next year till this infected tooth falls out"

    "Well I guess we all go hungry till we catch something much faster than us"

    "I’ve never gotten used to all these biting bugs living on me"

    "Glad we didn’t give a name to that last dead baby, it makes them harder to dispose of"

    "Don’t worry, it’s only the pretty bad nieghbors. They only kill all the men, rape all the women, and steal all our food. The really bad ones rape and kill everybody and then steal everything."

    no book should be burned but some are best used as toilet paper.

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  33. 33. sofistek 4:43 pm 01/5/2011

    We have freedom now, as opposed to 100,000 years ago? I think not. That is a very rosy view of where we are. Nor do we have democracies or a peaceful world.

    The complexity and division of labour that we now live with makes us dependent on others for our survival. The hunter-gatherer new how to fend for himself/herself. That was freedom. And with an egalitarian community, it was probably a more contented lifestyle more often than people experience today.

    It’s a nonsense to suggest that anyone can do what they want (or attempt to do it). We live in such an unequal society and certainly not everyone has the same opportunities. And we can’t judge that question from our own personal experiences, living in a world that has conditioned us. If civilisation hadn’t have come along, there wouldn’t be the same people alive as there are today, or the same numbers of people.

    A hunter-gatherer lifestyle is impossible for 7 billion people, with the damaged biosphere that we now have, so it’s a forlorn wish to go back to that but we can certainly start to be freer by becoming more self reliant, and moving to a less complex society. Look at the misery caused by high, long term. unemployment. That’s not freedom. Not in the least.

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  34. 34. bucketofsquid 5:25 pm 01/5/2011

    I much prefer my narrow view of freedom to the simple fact that in a paleolithic setting I, like 80% of all children born in a paleolithic setting would have died before adulthood. Your ignorance is quite profound.

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  35. 35. bucketofsquid 5:36 pm 01/5/2011

    I found your post profoundly ignorant. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Since the paleolithic people didn’t build a starship or develop immortality I find them to be ignorant. They didn’t have libraries. No one is calling them stupid. It is likely that they averaged higher than we do in intelligence because the stupid ones tasted good and were easier to kill. There is a big difference between ignorance and stupidity. I suggest you learn it.

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  36. 36. bucketofsquid 5:41 pm 01/5/2011

    Actually no, they didn’t establish this country to be free from want. They established this country to be free of the UK. They felt that we have the right to pursue what we want without undue interference. They were not however, foolish enough to try to guarantee that anyone will actually get what they want.

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  37. 37. dave chamberlin 6:09 pm 01/5/2011

    Get your game up Horgan, you are representing a fine magazine, the Scientific American. Your subject matter, that life may be better today than 100,000 years ago is appropriate for dumb high school students, not readers of this magazine. Maybe next you’ll want to explore if evolution is a conspiracy wrought by the devil. Your chosen subject matter is extremely shallow and outright silly. There are all kinds of under reported science news stories that aren’t bogus, that are legitimate, report on them.

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  38. 38. sofistek 8:33 pm 01/5/2011


    Can you verify that claim before calling others ignorant?

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  39. 39. gwmckenzie 10:28 pm 01/5/2011

    " so I would choose to be free and unhappy rather than vice versa."

    Sorry, that makes no sense to me. Just as I could understand not wanting any combination of things ending in "unhappy", assuming first that you are truly happy, how does it matter if you are free? Or not?

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  40. 40. pauladriaenssens 7:30 am 01/6/2011

    Is a good paper the one in which a student expresses a teacher’s own opinions? This severely encroaches on the student’s freedom, I’d say.

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  41. 41. Quinn the Eskimo 11:13 pm 01/7/2011

    If we were to HAVE to live 100,000 years ago, could we have hot showers? Color TV? The internet?

    Or, could we settle for a slice of Prime Rib?

    Think, I’ll stay here. At 62, I need my meds. Or, I’d be a fossil, too.

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  42. 42. Grasshopper1 9:20 pm 02/23/2011

    Let’s say we DID live in a world without civilization. Those people would gradually make groups. More people helping one another = more chance of survival for all of them. More people would join these groups. Some groups would join with other groups.
    These bigger groups would have a great idea: FARMING!!! Yay! Now they didn’t have to move, they could just settle down in one place. The groups would guard their land; voila, you have a city-state, then a country. People in their countries would invent and create.
    You know the rest. Pretty soon we’re at the same stage that we are in now. Anyway, the point is that civilization happens naturally. You can’t just stop it from happening. We’re MUCH better off than we were in our Paleolithic time.
    We do have some problems today, but the way to fix them is not to go back. We have to go forward from where we are now.

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  43. 43. sofistek 9:39 pm 02/23/2011

    I’m not sure what you mean by "forward" but we’re certainly in a precarious state, at the moment, because of civilisation and the completely false stories we’ve told ourselves. We’re starting to hit limits that most people (including myself) appear to have ignored for so long and are still ignoring. A collapse in most or all civilised societies around the globe seems close now (all civilisations and societies collapse eventually) due to hitting those limits. The problem this time is that we’ve done immense damage to the environment and grown our population to unsustainable levels. The future doesn’t look bright and we may well have to return to some of the ways of living that many experienced in the past, before we move "forward" again, probably to eventually forget the lessons we should have learned.

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  44. 44. dudeinhammock 6:23 pm 03/27/2011

    I’ve responded to this post at Psychology Today:

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