I have met people for whom the 1960s cartoon The Flintstones must have been a reality television show. Contrary to all evidence that demonstrates that humans and dinosaurs never co-existed, and that, in fact, 60 million years separated our time on this planet, these people’s modern theocratic and apocalyptic political visions necessitated absurd imaginings of our human past.
Speculations about the nature of early human societies and about “human nature” have played central roles in the development of modern social thought. Our images of “hunters and gatherers” in pre-agricultural social worlds are often ur-fantasies — primal projections that allow us moderns to construct both bogeymen and angels out of distant pasts about which we know very little.
Often these paleolithic imaginings of human life dozens of millennia ago serve to justify the political orientations of modern thinkers.
Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) famously posited the original state of affairs as a “war of all against all.” Hobbes argued that humans are by nature equal in faculties of body and mind, which leads them to be willing to fight one another. In this original state of nature, people are free to do anything necessary to preserve one’s own life — “poor, nasty, brutish and short” that it might be.
In contrast to Hobbes, John Locke (1642-1704) believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. In our natural state, humans were imagined as equal and independent, and that everyone has the right to defend their life, liberty and possessions. Humans invented civil society with help from government to help defend their rights.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) criticized Hobbes for asserting that humans must be “naturally wicked” and without virtue. Instead, Rousseau proffered the image of the “noble savage” and imagined that our early ancestors had “uncorrupted morals” and existed at the most optimal stage of human development. As he stated, “nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”
The thinking of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau was central to the advancement of “social contract” theory, which argued that individuals have consented to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to authority for the protection of their rights.
Philosopher David Hume (1711-76) argued that the idea of a “social contract” was speculative fiction. While consent of the governed is an ideal foundation on which a government should rest, very rarely has that been the actual way that things have emerged.
For Karl Marx (1818-83), the great communist revolutionary, primitive society existed without social classes, without property and with no state. The modus operandi was: “For each according to his (sic) need, from each according to his ability.” Marx’s friend and co-author, Friedrich Engels (1820-95), in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), speculates on the origins of gender inequality, imagining that the original state of nature included the matrilineal clan.
More recently, social ecologist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) posited an original “organic society” that existed without hierarchy or domination. Similarly, anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan (1943- ) imagines our distant past as peaceful and harmonious, non-alienated and non-oppressive, based upon abundance and closeness to nature.
Much of contemporary social thought critiques these strands of philosophical humanism. Increasingly, social scientists claim the impossibility of saying anything credible about a composite human subject over such vast periods of time. Remember that humans existed in our biological form for some 200,000 years before the advent of agriculture some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
It is absurd to assume that tribal people lived in permanently static states of nature without social change and development. Human societies are marked by more complex and variable patterns, practices and institutions than found in any composite account.
Of course, many early modern social theorists speculated without the benefit of paleo-anthropological research. They were engaging in thought experiments. Later thinkers based their understandings of the “state of nature” on 19th-century ethnographies of existing tribal societies, assuming that nothing had changed for tens of thousands of years.
To imagine tribal cultures encountered by modern cultural anthropologists as living in a pure state of nature, untouched by the surrounding world, is a fallacy disproved by what we now know about trade routes among paleolithic people.
Increasingly, scholars are questioning the whole notion of social progress, especially as advanced by proto-sociologists, such as Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who saw a natural, “unilinear” evolution of societies from more simple and backward “primitives” to more complex and “civilized” moderns.
Such notions are now often deemed ethnocentric as they idealize European values and ways of life, while discounting the cultures of the rest of the world. Moreover, these evolutionary schemas are often inherently racist, justifying the colonialist imperialism that exploited, and still exploits, people of color across the globe.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).