In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, one of the dialogs I especially enjoyed was in Chapter 11 when the pupil expressed his anxiety around pre-civilization life. The mental image he shared was of a man running along a ridge in deepening twilight, hungry and following tracks on the hunt, while tooth and claw pursued not far behind. The man is “forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.” Ishmael, role-playing a hunter-gatherer, laughed off the concerns as being wildly off the mark.
I find similar expressions of fear from people when I challenge the viability of modernity. For many, losing modernity is a frightening prospect tantamount to certain death—either by starvation or violence by man or beast. The projection is that modernity is the only thing standing between us and a life of misery and anxiety. But since it’s not even a choice whether to continue modernity (unsustainable things fail), we may as well start to think about life without that particular security blanket.
How frightened should we be? Was pre-civilization life a miserable, desperate struggle, or did things seem to be pretty well in hand? I can offer some quantitative arguments suggesting that life could not have been that knife-edge, white-knuckle anxious.
Let’s start with this mental image of trying to stay one step ahead of being eaten, while facing the similarly daunting challenge of finding enough to feed yourself. If you asked the person conveying that image to quantify their fear in terms of survival odds, they might very well guess a 50/50 prospect of surviving the night. We’ll moderate that in a bit, but let’s roll with it for now.
If the daily odds of finding enough food to survive and evading predation were as dire as 50%, a person would have a meager 0.1% chance of surviving 10 days (one chance in 210 = 1024). Ouch. Granted, a 50/50 chance might be a reasonable-enough estimate for a modern (urban?) human dropped into the wild. Thus, the sense of horror is not baseless when the prospect is applied to us, personally.
But we’d like to know how it would have felt for individuals adapted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. One way to look at it is that the pre-modern human population would be gone well within a month at a 50% daily rate of attrition (20 days would wipe out a million, and 30 days would cover a billion—which is well above prehistoric human population levels). Clearly it was not as bad as that.
What about 10% odds of copping it each day? Well, then your 0.1% expectation (a lucky survivor) would be two months, but most would not survive a week. Okay, things can’t even be that bad. At a 1% chance of failing to survive the day, you might expect to live a few months, and would have less than a 0.1% chance of lasting two years.
What’s the right answer? Well, we know something relevant: humans routinely survived to reproductive age. Otherwise, the species would fail to hang on. For an individual, attaining a 50% chance of surviving through adolescence corresponds to a daily death probability of about 0.01%, or one chance in 10,000 (would drop a bit to 1 in 8,000 to have a 50% chance of living just to age 15).
How scary would that feel? Such low odds are not consistent with living in constant fear, looking over one’s shoulder for the fatal agent one step behind. One in ten-thousand sounds more like having life basically figured out, so that most days are free of close calls.
At this 99.99% daily survival rate, a simple “half-life” exponential decay process would have about a quarter of people making it to age 40, and 10% to age 60. Life expectancy would technically be about 19 years (median) at this rate, but white hair and wrinkles would not be unknown: every clan would sport a few elders.
Admittedly, this model is dirt-simple. But it is still capable of illustrating a reasonable point. Unless following the strategy of having offspring by the thousands or millions, species don’t survive if the odds of individual survival are stacked heavily against them. Survivors have things figured out well enough that each day is pretty mellow. As a whole, you know how to find sufficient food. You know how to stay warm enough or cool enough. You know how to avoid predation day to day. If not, bye bye, species. Any species that has survived for the last several million years is demonstrably capable of dealing with one-in-a-million bad-luck years—including whole strings of tough years such as during ice ages.
Sometimes I see movies set in an exotic environment (often other-worldly), where a fast-paced life depicts one thing eating another and then getting eaten itself moments later. If that’s how things went, the show of life would be over pretty quickly. If it’s not boring, it’s probably not realistic. Nature documentaries, while showing real life, involve editing months of time in the field to a few minutes of captivating footage. Most of the time involves a whole lot of “nothing much” going on. High drama is the exception.
Life in the Wild
It can help to think of the strategies various plants and animals have devised to survive, reproduce, and thrive. A squirrel has its food situation figured out, as does a bird, or a fish, or a wasp. They also have strategies for dealing with seasons. Trees might shed leaves for winter. Some animals hibernate, migrate, or have the fortitude to accommodate large temperature ranges. While perhaps subject to predation, life can’t involve significant daily deathly danger or too few individuals would be around long enough to propagate the species.
So ask yourself: do you think animals in the wild are miserable? Do you think every waking moment is a torment of fear, and that even sleep is fitful and given to nightmares and sudden starts? That’s no way to live. Sure, each life form has to be on its toes to seize opportunities and stay safe, but most moments are relaxed and mundane. A while back I saw in a documentary a study of stress levels in deer (or similar animals). When they lower their head to graze or browse, they show no physiological signs of stress. They might hear something and pause their foraging to assess possible danger—during which time stress is measurably higher—but revert to low stress when returning attention to their food. They’re not wound particularly tight.
Now the big surprise: humans are also animals that evolved on this planet. We also had strategies for finding plenty and surviving for decades. Lots of that time was available for relaxing, laughing, sporting, loving, storytelling, and supporting the health of our communities. Sure, we might have had a fright now and again, and some lean periods (for which we necessarily had strategies). But such trials don’t rob life of pleasure or meaning, which were not inventions of modernity.
When I think about life before civilization, I am filled with admiration, not anxiety. If I were thrown into living in the wild, as a product of modernity I probably would not fare too well. I think this is part of why people react the way they do. But first, individualism is a new thing: an aberration enabled by modernity. Pre-modern living was as a social team—not as a contestant on a reality show. Second, we’ve lost a lot of knowledge and wisdom for how to live without modern conveniences. But many of the social instincts are still there, waiting to be utilized again in something akin to their original context.
If plunged overnight into the end of civilization, we would have a rough go of it. But given time to adapt and shed the trappings of modernity, those who are willing to let go and embrace new (old?) ways of living will stand a decent chance of being satisfied with life.