Primitive Cultures are Simple, while Civilization is Complex: Part 2

In the first part of this discussion, I reminded you that we are talking about “falsehoods.” “Falsehood” is a term I and others have co-opted and have used for well over a decade in anthropology and biology courses across the land. The idea is to identify a statement that, when uttered in some particular demographic or sociocultural context, invokes a relatively consistent set of meanings in the minds of those present, such that those meanings are at least iffy, probably wrong, and often (but certainly not always) offensive and destructive in some way. Such a construct … this falsehood thingie … can then be de-constructed in a way that becomes an enlightening learning experience.

The falsehood “Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex” invokes a sense of undeserved privilege in those who feel they are part of a civilization. This sense of privilege has a number of negative side effects. Since the civilized privilege dude is usually white middle or upper class heteronormative suburbanite, everybody else gets to be at least a little primitive, and part of the falsehood is that “primitive” is a certain applicable label that has certain connotations. The people in the city, the people of some other religion, the people of some other country, the people of some other complexion — or perhaps just the people that are feared — can be put in their place. This sense of privilege allows the modernized westerner to feel not too bad about the fact that many things he does have a negative consequence for people elsewhere in the world. He attains a sense of “betterness” or accomplishment. He is a smart, civilized guy and his very living in this civilized society makes him better, and generally, very impressive.

This sense of privilege and betterness comes out more clearly when it is suggested that people in “civilizations” are not better than other people, and it comes out with a special sharpness … like when you crush the fresh basil instead of the dried basil, lots of extra insect poison floating around in the air … when it is further suggested that people in “primitive” societies may be in some ways better than those in civilized societies.

So, now the second part of the concept. Let’s return to the question of how to get a meal on the table. (See my earlier post to learn why from this point on we are going to restrict our terminology to “Western” vs. “Hunter-Gatherer”)

As many of you wisely pointed out in the comments, there actually is complexity behind the process of putting the pre-made frozen dinner in the microwave. Need I describe it? The steps to get the microwave to the kitchen counter involve development, maintenance, and operation of research programs, manufacturing facilities, and transportation facilities that exceed in complexity anything that ever happened before in history. Same with the Lean Cuisine dinner. Not to mention the house the focal person (the eater of the dinner) is in, or the lazy-boy lounge chair on which he will recline, or the TV he will switch on and the show on that TV he will watch before dozing off to sleep with a bit of pasta from his Cheese Lasagna with Chicken Breast Scaloppini dangling from his chin.

To survive as a Hunter-Gatherer you need to participate in, understand, be good at, and contribute to a rich and complex culture that is personally challenging on a daily basis. It is hard, but rewarding, and there is time for leisure. But the society you live in may be quite simple. The culture is complex, the society is simple.

To survive as a Westerner, you can get away with participating in a culture that requires of you, teaches you, or asks of you little more than understanding what the “one minute” button on the microwave is and you need to know, or at least want to know even if you don’t need to know, where the TV clicker is. You may also need a job but it may be a job that is not much more complex than operating a TV clicker. The culture is potentially astonishingly simple, the society is mind numbingly complex.

It is almost (and I emphasize almost) as if there is a certain amount of complexity to go around, and it is distributed among the society and the culture in some way. In some societies, there’s lots of complexity in the culture and thus not as much in the larger society, in others, there is lost of complexity in the overall society but a simple culture does the job. That is of course an oversimplification of what is really happening. Or perhaps I’ve added unneeded complexity. Either way, we’ll discuss that issue in the next installment of this particular falsehood.

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One thought on “Primitive Cultures are Simple, while Civilization is Complex: Part 2

  1. A “sense of undeserved privilege” has everything to do with the person listening to the comment, and the society he/she lives and was raised in, and very little to do with the statement itself.

    By any reasonable qualificaition of complexity, and from what I can tell, the authors own admission, “Civilized” cultures are vastly more complex than “Primitive” . The average city apartment has hundreds of items in it, each one desigend, produced, and distributed by hundreds of individuals. The average city dweller visits his in-laws in aircraft made from millions of parts, drives on roads that took millions of man-hours to make, etc, etc, and follows vast rulebooks of codified knowledge in order to do so properly. (He may be largely ignorant of precisely what these rules are, but he knows enough to to break too many of them.)

    The point the author seems to make is that hunter gathers need no fewer skills, or less knowledge, then their city-going equivalents. This should be a “Well, of course” point to anyone who thinks about the subject matter in more than cursory manner. It does not contradict the point that urban societies, primary by virtue of having more people than anything else in particular, really are vastly more complex than their rural precursors.

    So, my point is this, the author has identified a prejudice, but really, the statement “Primitive Cultures are Simple, Civilization is Complex” is not directly a falsehood unless it is overextended beyond certain boundaries….

    I can go into more detail about mathematics, philosophy, written language, social hierarchy, or a million other things that evolve above a certain population size and density, but I assume that both author and audience are smart enough to figure all of this out for themselves.

    So it seems the anthropologist (general) would be much better served trying to upset the internal logic of people who would like to believe that “Primitives” just strut about all day collecting fruit and rutting occasionally than anything else.. You do this by informing people about how other societies function, which is well, an anthropologist’s job is it not?

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