Friday, May 20, 2011

The domestication bulldozer

Several people have made note of the fact that civilized life is rarely if ever adopted willingly. The history of Western colonial expansion abounds with examples of members of the invading culture “going savage,” but few if any documented cases of the opposite.  Civilization is imposed on the uncivilized through coercion and direct force, with genocide frequently employed to smooth out the bumps in the initial transition. This is true not just on a historical scale, but on the scale of the “development” of the individual person as well.  Children have to be “colonized,” every child needs to have all that is natural and uncivilized within them tamed, caged, quashed—beaten out of them if necessary.

Despite this, the myth persists that civilized life represents the deepest longing of those who remain in the penumbra of the global machine: the few remaining Bushmen and their subsistence farming neighbors in central Africa pine for a life with a television and a factory job.  There is not a single indigenous male in the entire Amazon basin who would not be willing to sell his mother into slavery to be able to spend lazy afternoons sipping latte and surfing porn on a smartphone.  Civilization is obviously such a great idea that anyone who is given the option would be a complete idiot for not jumping on the techno-industrial treadmill.   

There is a closely related myth that relates to the spread of large-scale domestication during the Neolithic.  The agricultural lifestyle is obviously such a great idea that once exposed, hunter-gatherers instantly dropped their spears and started planting seeds.  But Daniel Quinn’s gorilla tells a different story.  Ishmael talks about the conflict between “leavers” and “takers” in terms of conquest, annihilation, and extermination—where nomadic pastoralists and others living subsistence life-ways were pushed further and further to the periphery in terms of both geography and population.   The agricultural revolution, at least according to the cryptic homilies of one fictional telepathic lowland gorilla, was brought about through displacement and genocide—mostly genocide.

An October 2009 article in the journal Science reports the results of a study comparing mitochondrial DNA from skeletons of the first European farmers, from skeletons of late European hunter-gatherer people, and from modern Europeans.  The DNA differences support Ishmael’s contention.  The first farmers in the area were not descendants of local hunter-gatherers but came from someplace else, and the hunter-gatherers in the area at the time were not absorbed into the farming culture, nor did they decide to take up farming as a result of exposure to agricultural practices.  The emergence of large-scale domestication was not a happy bandwagon with everyone jumping onboard.  Like the emergence of civilization a few thousand years later, it was a bulldozer.


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