Self managing through the ages

Ian Cunningham spoke to this topic at Harrow Business School, part of the University of Westminster. There were a number of us CSML folk together with staff and students of the University.


Ian was making the case that since for 90% of the time humans have been on the planet they have lived in hunter-gather bands there may be things we can learn from how they lived. They had to survive across that 90% of human history in order for us to be here today. In that sense, they could be considered to be remarkably successful. They also lived light upon the land. Their lifestyle was eminently sustainable and they didn’t leave a heavy footprint.

As well as being ecological in terms of their environment, they were, by and large, socially ecological. Most hunter-gatherer bands were not war-like. They had no state, no bureaucracy, no centralized authority, and no standing armies. They lived the true meaning of ‘anarchy’, as a political philosophy eschewing the imposition of authority and power over others, and proved that it worked. It worked across millennia.

From our perspective, today, it is easy to see how huge a discontinuity, in the human way of life and thought, was the Industrial Revolution. That’s when the modern world started, and those grim, satanic mills still cast their shadow across the way in which we weigh the benefits and costs of our concept of progress.

Until Ian brought it forcefully to my attention, I had not recognized how much more significant was the Agrarian Revolution. Suddenly, we were not so light upon the land. We needed to stake it out, own it, and own the animals that grazed upon it. We created surplus, which created wealth, and then people could own other people. The hunter-gatherer bands knew the concept of ‘enough’. It was interesting to realize that, even with their low tech tools they could have, for instance, damned up a stream and caught more fish. But what for? They had no freezers. It brought home that they had no need of the idea of progress. Progress to what? Most of them were able to get what they needed on a daily basis. What would be the point of having more?

It is easy to imagine that, in living such a life, their idea of leadership might be somewhat different from ours. In many regards, it is unrecognisably different. A chief was unlikely to have more than other people because one of the requirements of the role was that the chief be generous. Resolving conflicts and telling stories was what a chief was expected to do. It was not a role of power. Power, as we think of it today didn’t exist.

Pulling quotes from books and papers, magazine and newspaper articles, Ian was able to weave together evidence on many aspects of hunter-gatherer life. Their health, for instance, seems to have been a lot better than one might imagine. There was high infant mortality, which causes the average life span to shrink. But if you survived the early years health was fairly good. You certainly got plenty of exercise and the degenerative diseases were largely unknown.

The salutary effect of contemplating lives so different from those we live today is the different perspective it can bring us about our own lives. The stress under which we labour today did not really exist for the hunter-gatherers. There were dangers in their lives, especially from the animals they hunted, or those that hunted them; but those dangers did not simply trigger the fight or flight response, and then leave them stewing its toxic biochemicals. They achieved closure by actually fighting or fleeing. The adrenaline didn’t just course through the body wreaking havoc, it was used up in action. Discharged.

I was pleased to hear Ian differentiate between his view of the human past, drawn from anthropology, and the much more prevalent view today of genetic determinism, which is drawn from evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is an elaboration of the approach to Darwinism characterized in the idea of the selfish gene. The popularity of this view is probably a conjunction of the public fascination with genes, and the romance of their chimerical potential, that it claims to base its claims on the constants of human nature (playing the history card) and that their conclusions kind of make sense – if you don’t really think about them. Perhaps it’s appeal might be summed up as – easy answers.

Ian’s point was that, although the evolutionary psychologists gained credibility by drawing on the human past, what they said about how people lived did not accord with the anthropological record. They talked social Darwinism, with its rigidities and oppressions red in tooth and claw; but the hunter-gatherers lived anarchism, with mutuality and co-operation to the fore.

There was lively discussion in the group and I think everyone’s thinking was stimulated. The peripatetic Andre Mailer confided to me that although he works in universities, supposedly the context in which intellectual stimulation is on tap, he missed the kind of neural jiggle that is available to us all – at CSML workshops.

Graham Dawes