Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Robb Wolf, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet
I have been rereading and thinking over parts of the two titles above, and I have come to realize that at least some evolutionists have something to give that those of us who believe there is something special about humanity would profit from. I believe more than the “special flower” assessment of humanity that Wolf ridicules; I believe more specifically that humanity is royalty, created in the image of God, and if for the sake of argument at least, the agricultural revolution and what follows are largely a mistake, I can say more than that Homo sapiens (sapiens) is the only species out of an innumerable multitude across incomparable time to be anywhere near enough of a “special flower” to make such a mistake. I believe more specifically that man is created in the divine image and is of eternal significance, and each of us is in the process of becoming either a being so glorious that if you recognized it you would be tempted to worship it, or a horror such as you would not encounter in your worst nightmare—and that each of us in the divine image is in the process of freely choosing which we shall be. No other life form is conferred such a dignity—and I would focus that statement a little more and say no other animal.
‘No other animal:’ the phrase is perhaps jarring to some, but I use it deliberately. I do not, in any sense, say mere animal. But I do quite deliberately say animal. Let us turn to Alisdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, in the opening of the second chapter:
From its earliest sixteenth century uses in English and other European languages ‘animal’ and whatever other expressions correspond to it have been employed both to name a class whose members include spiders, bees, chimpanzees, dolphins and humans—among others, but not plants, inanimate beings, angels, and God, and also to name the class consisting of nonhuman animals. It is this latter use that became dominant in modern Western cultures and with it a habit of mind that, by distracting our attention from how much we share with other animal species…
Since then, evolutionary claims that we are in fact animals is not a resurrection of the older usage; it is a new usage that claims we are nothing more than animals, a claim not implied by Aristotle’s definition of us as ‘rational mortal animals.’ There is both a continuity and a distinction implied between rational humans and non-rational animals, and while many animals have intelligence on some plane (artificial intelligence, after failing to duplicate human intelligence, scaled back and tried to duplicate insect intelligence, and failed at that too), there’s something special to human intelligence. The singularity we are in now may be a predicament, but no other animal could make such dimensions.
I will be interested in a direction taken by Mander and the neo-Paleo movement, in a line that MacIntyre does not really explore. Perhaps his thesis about why we, as dependent rational animals, need the virtues, is greater than anything I will explore here. But I have my sights on something lower.
I would like to define two terms for two camps, before showing where one of them shortchanges us.
The first is revolutionary punk eek. Darwin’s theory of evolution is no longer seriously believed by much of anyone in the (generally materialist) scientific community. People who say they believe in evolution, and understand the basic science, normally believe in neo-Darwinian theories of revolution. That is, with Darwin, they no longer believe that species gradually morph into new species. They believe that the fossil record shows a punctuated equilibrium, ‘punk eek‘ to the irreverent, which essentially says that
evolution revolutionhas long periods of stable equilibrium, which once in a long while are punctuated by abrupt appearance and disappearance of life forms. (What causes the punctuations is accounted for by the suggestions that life forms evolve very slowly when things are on an even keel, but rapidly mutate substantial beneficial improvements when things turn chaotic. When I protested this, I was told that there were people who evolved HIV/AIDS resistance in a single generation, a premise that I cannot remotely reconcile either with my understanding of probability or of genetics.) As my IMSA biology teacher put it, “Evolution is like baseball. There are long periods of boredom interrupted by intense periods of excitement.”
Now I am deliberately making a somewhat ambiguous term, because I intend to include old earth intelligent design movement’s authors such as Philip Johnson, who wrote Darwin on Trial. Johnson argues that natural forces alone do not suffice to punctuate the equilibrium and push
evolution revolution forward; but his interpretation of the fossil record is largely consistent with that of someone who believes in neo-Darwinian revolutionary punk eek. And so I lump Richard Dawkins and Philip Johnson together in the same cluster, a move that would probably leave them both aghast.
The distinction between them is between revolutionary punk eek adherents, who believe the universe is billions of years old, and young earth creationists, including perhaps some Jews, most Church Fathers, Evangelical conservatives who created Creation Science as an enterprise of proving a young earth scientifically, and Fr. Seraphim (Rose), who saw to it that Orthodox would not stop with quoting the Fathers but additionally import Creation Science into Orthodoxy.
Now let me give some dates, in deliberately vague terms. The age of the agricultural revolution and of civilization weighs in at several thousand years. The age of the world according to young earth creationists is also several thousand years. According to revolutionary punk eek, the age of the world is several billion years, but that’s a little besides the point. The salient point is where you draw the line, a question which I will not try to settle, beyond saying that the oldest boundary I’ve seen chosen is some millions of years, and the newest boundary I’ve heard is hundreds of thousands of years. What this means in practice is that on young earth assumptions, agriculture is about as old as the universe, while on revolutionary punk eek assumptions, the beginning of the agricultural revolution occurred at absolute most in the past five percent of the time humans have been around, not leaving enough time for our nature to really change in any way that makes sense for revolutionary punk eek. Or to put it more sharply, young earth creationism implies that agrarian life has been around about as long as the first humans, and revolutionary punk eek implies that the agricultural revolution represents a big-picture eyeblink, a mere blip on the radar for people built to live optimally under normal hunter-gatherer conditions. To the young-earther, there might be prehistory but there can’t be very much of it; the normal state of the human being is at earliest agrarian, and there is not much argument that the ways of agrarian society are normative. To the revolutionary punk eek adherent, there is quite a lot of prehistory that optimized us for hunter-gatherer living, and agrarian society and written history with it are just a blip and away from the baseline.
The other term besides revolutionary punk eek is pseudomorphosis, a term which I adapt from an Orthodox usage to mean, etymologically, conforming to a false shape, a square peg in a round hole. The revolunary punk implication drawn by some is that we were optimized for hunter-gatherer living, and the artificial state known in civilisation and increasingly accelerating away from these origins is a false existence in something like the Call of C’thulu role playing game played by my friends in high school, where rifts occur in the fabric of reality and “mosters” come through them, starting with the relatively tame vampires and zombies and moving on to stranger monsters such as a color that drives people mad. A motley crew of heroes must seal these rifts, or else there will come one of the “Ancient Ones”, a demon god intent on destroying the earth. (It is an occult picture, but not entirely different from the state of our world.)
I don’t want to give full context, but I was in a discussion with my second thesis advisor after my studies, and he asked whether I would make ‘allowances for greater ignorance in the past.’ Now he was a member of a college with one of the world’s best libraries for the study of Graeco-Roman context to the New Testament, and he was expert in rabbinic Jewish cultural context to the New Testament. Hello? Has he heard of the Babylonian Talmud? A knowledge of the Talmud is easily on par with a good liberal arts education, and it really puts the reader through its paces. And its point is not just a training ground with mental gymnastics that stretch the mind, but something far greater. My reply to him was, ‘I do not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable.’ And if it is true that we live in escalating pseudomorphosis, perhaps we should wonder if we should make allowances for greater ignorance in the present. I know much more about scientific botany than any ancient hunter-gatherer ever knew, but I could not live off the land for a month much of anywhere in the wild. Should I really be looking down on hunter-gatherers because unlike them I know something of the anatomical structure of cells and how DNA basically works? If a hunter-gatherer were to an answer, an appropriate, if not entirely polite, answer would be, “Here is a knife, a gun, and a soldier’s pack with bedroll and such. Live off the land for a month anywhere in the world, and then we’ll talk.”
To take an aside and try to give something of a concrete feel to what hunter-gatherers know that we do not, what might constitute ‘greater ignorance in the present’, I would like to give a long quote from Mander (I am tempted to make it longer), and point out that Mander is following a specific purpose and only recording one dimension. He does not treat for instance, interpersonal relations. Not necessarily that this is a problem; it may be expedient for the purpose of a written work to outline what a friend does for work without making much of any serious attempt to cover who that friend is as a person and what people and things serve as connections. Mander describes what contemporary hunter-gatherers have in terms of perception that television viewers lack:
In Wizard of the Upper Amazon F. Bruce Lamb records the apparently true account of Manuel Cordova de Rios, a Peruvian rubber cutter, kidnapped by the Amaheuca Indians for invading their territory and forced to remain with them for many years. Rios describes the way the Indians learned things about the jungle, which was both the object of constant study and the teacher. They observed it first as individuals, experiencing each detail. Then they worked out larger patterns together as a group, much like individual cells informing the larger body, which also informs the cells.
In the evenings, the whole tribe would gather and repeat each detail of the day just passed. They would describe every sound, the creature that made it and its apparent state of mind. The conditions of growth of all the plants for miles around were discussed. This band of howler monkeys, which was over here three days ago, is now over there. Certain fruit trees which were in the bud stage three weeks ago are now bearing ripe fruit. A jaguar was seen by the river, and now it is on the hillside. It is in a strangely anguished mood. The grasses in the valley are peculiarly dry. There is a group of birds that have not moved for several days. The wind has altered in direction and smells of something unknown. (Actually, such a fact as a wind change might not be reported at all. Everyone would already know it. A change of wind or scent would arrive in everyone’s awareness as a bucket of cold water in the head might arrive in ours.)
Rios tells many of the stories concerned with the “personalities” of individual animals and plants, what kind of “vibrations” they give off. Dreams acted as an additional information systems from beyond the level of conscious notation, drawing up patterns and meanings from deeper levels. Predictions would be based on them.
Drugs were used not so much for changing moods, as we use them today, but for the purpose of further spacing out perception. Plants and animals could then be seen more clearly, as if in slow motion (time lapse), adding to the powers of observation, yielding up especially subtle information to how plants worked, and which creatures would be more likely to relate to which plants. An animal interested in concealment, for example, might eat a plant which tended to conceal itself.
Reading these accounts made it clear to me that all life in the jungle is constantly of all other life in exquisite detail. Through this, the Indians gained information about the way natural systems interact. The observation was itself knowledge. Depending on the interpretation, the knowledge might or might not become reliable and useful.
Each detail of each event had special power and meaning. The understanding was so complete that it was only the rare event that could not be explained—a twig cracked in a way that did not fit the previous history of cracked twigs—that was cause for concern and immediate arming.
Examples could easily be multiplied. There are many passages like that in the book, and many to be written for life. We seem to have a filter where ‘knowledge’ implicitly means ‘knowledge of the sort that we possess’, and then by that filter judge other cultures, especially cultures of the past, as knowing less than us. The anthropological term is ethnocentrism. I believe a little humility is in order for us.
Humans have eyes, skin, a digestive tract, and other features that are basic animal features. When studying wild animals, for instance, we expect them to function best under certain conditions. Now the locality of an organism can vary considerably: in North America, there are certain relatively generic species of trees that can be found over a broad swath of land, while in Australia, trees tend to be more specialized and occupy a very specific niche. But in some ways human adaptability is overemphasized. The human body can adapt to regularly breathing in concentrated smoke, in one sense: keeping on smoking is so easy it is hard to quit. But that does not mean that human lungs adapt to breathing in concentrated smoke on a regular basis. The ease with which a person or society can adjust to cigarettes exceeds any adaptation revolutionary punk eek would allow for lungs. Perhaps hunter-gatherers have ingested some smoke from fires, and possibly we have enough tolerance that we do not puff up with an allergic reaction at the first smoke. Nonetheless, in no quarter has the human body adapted to be able to smoke without damage to lungs and health.
For most of the human race to embrace the agricultural revolution, and the revolutions that follow, might be like smoking. We can adapt in the sense of making the change and getting used to it. But that does not include, metaphorically speaking, our lungs. We still have hunter-gatherer lungs, as it were, perhaps lungs that work better if we follow neo-Paleo diet and exercise, and we have adopted changes we have not adapted to.
What punk eek revolutionists have to give us
What is perhaps the most valuable thing revolutionary punk has to offer us is a question: “What conditions are we as revolutionary organisms best adapted to?” And The Paleo Solution offers a neo-Paleo prescription for diet and also exercise. This may not exactly be like what any tribe of hunter-gatherers ate, but it is lightyears closer than fast food, and is also vastly closer than industrial or even agrarian diets. And the gym-owning author’s exercise prescription is vastly more appropriate than a sedentary lifestyle without exercise, and is probably much better than cardiovascular exercise alone. And Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television argues, among other things, that humans do substantially better with natural organic sunlight than any of the artificial concocted lights we think are safer. They don’t suggest social structure; the question of whether they held what would today be considered traditional gender roles is not raised, which may itself be an answer. (For the text Mander cites, the answer is ‘Yes’, although Mander, possibly due to other reasons such as brevity and focus, does not make this point at all clear.) And they don’t complete the picture, and they don’t even get to MacIntyre’s point that our condition as dependent and ultimately vulnerable rational animals means that we need the virtues, but they do very well with some of the lower notes.
The argument advanced by vegetarians that we don’t have a carnivore digestive tract is something of a breath of fresh air. It argues that meat calls for a carnivore’s short digestive tract and vegetables call for an herbivore’s long digestive tract, and our digestive tract is a long one. Now there is to my mind, a curious omission; for both hunter-gatherer and modern times, most people have eaten an omnivore’s diet, and this fallacy of the excluded middle never brings up how long or short an omnivore’s digestive tract is: apparently, we must either biologically be carnivores or herbivores, even though the people vegetarians are arguing with never seem to believe we should be straight carnivores who eat meat and only meat; even people who call themselves ‘carnivores’ in fact tend to eat a lot of food that is not meat, even if meat might be their favorite. But the question, if arguably duplicitous, is a helpful kind of question to ask. It asks, “What are we adapted to?” and the answer is, “Living like hunter-gatherers.” That’s true for the 2,000,000 or however many years the genus Homo has been around, and it’s still true for the 200,000 years Homo sapiens sapiens has been around. Or if you want to subtract the 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution began and we began to experiment with smoking, 190,000 years before we created the singularity that opens rifts in the fabric of reality and lets monsters in, including (as is argued in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, in the chapter on ‘Artificial Light’), the ‘color that makes people mad’ from the phosphor glow of a television screen in a darkened room.
Some arguments vaguely like this have looked at written history, instead of archaeology. Sally Fallon, in the Weston A. Price spirit, wrote the half-argument, half-cookbook volume of Nourishing Traditions, which argues that we with our industrial diet would do well to heed the dietary solutions found in agrarian society, and prescribes a diet that is MUCH better than the industrial diet. But she essentially only looks at recorded history, which is millenia newer than agricultural beginnings. But the pseudomorphosis was already well underway by the times recorded in Nourishing Traditions, and not just diet. Everything had begun a profound shift, even if with later revolutions like electricity and computing the earlier agrarian patterns looked like the original pattern of human life. And indeed if you are a young earther, the first chapters of Genesis have agriculture in the picture with some of the first human beings. And so Bible-focused young earth approaches will not arrive at the correct answer to, “What conditions is man as an animal [still] best adapted to?” In all probability they will not arrive at the question.
Revolutionary punk eek will. It asks the question, perhaps with a Western focus, and its answers are worth considering. Not on the level of virtue and ascesis, perhaps, but the ‘lower’ questions are more pressing now. The default diet and the default level of exercise are part of a profoundly greater pseudomorphosis than when the agricultural revolution took root. And getting a more optimal diet and exercise now may be a more pressing concern, and a diet of more sunlight and better light, if you will, and other things. There is a certain sense in which sobriety is not an option for us; we have a gristly choice between being 5, 10, or 20 drinks drunk, and people who take into account this gift from revolutionary punk eek will be less drunk, not sober. But it is worth being less drunk.
So a word of thanks especially to secular adherents of revolutionary punk eek who do not see us who have perhaps made the mistake of civilization as any particular kind of “special flower,” and ask, “What is Homo sapiens sapiens biologically adapted to as an animal and an organism?” They might not hit some of the high notes, but I am very grateful for the neo-Paleo diet. And I am grateful to Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television for exposing me to the unnatural character of artificial light and the benefits of real, organic sunlight. I’ve been spending more time outside, and I can feel a difference: I feel better. Thanks to revolutionary punk eek!