Friday, July 14, 2006

The Nature of Paleolithic Art

I've been reading a book called The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by R. Dale Guthrie. This reading choice springs from an interest I have had all my adult life in Native American rock art, some of which is not that different from European cave art of the old stone age, which is what Guthrie's book is primarily about.

I don't know about other readers, but I am afraid I come away with a strange and weirdly idyllic picture of roving bands of mostly monogamous big-game hunters with anachronistic New England town meeting virtues, who were strong and brave and resourceful, much like moose-hunting Alaska lifetime members of the NRA, and all of whose children were above average ("quality kids," I believe, is Guthrie's term--and raising quality kids is a contribution of the ice-age womenfolk, lest anyone think by the nearly total absence from his book of a discussion of half of humanity then and now, that he scants their contribution), and whose adolescent boys were playful, risk-taking, sexually obsessive teenagers very much like our own except for the fixation on large herbivores and a tendency to explore deep caves and put their handprints on the walls. Plus they had a susceptibility to romantic love only rediscovered in the European middle ages,

But I think he wants to say something about human nature. Usually biological-determinist statements of human nature end up leaving us feeling a bit stranded and out of luck in a world that we can easily see has moved beyond our adaptations, in this case in a non-paleolithic world where we are guided by a human-nature overadapted to a world that is utterly and completely gone. Hyperspecialization has its drawbacks, as we see with our big game hunter minds in the agricultural/industrial/postindustrial world of the past 10k years, a world possibly ours for a few more decades. (It's true that some peak oil and/or climate change catastrophists present a very convincing picture of a return to our hunter origins--though if so there will certainly be no big game left to hunt--as our only alternative to dying out altogether as a species.)

He paints a nice picture of a world without war. But there is no way to know. Lack of depictions of war in rock art 30,000 years old is not really evidence of lack of war. Indeed if we have chimps who go to war, and presumably did before ice-age humans existed, not to mention a steady record of war in the past 10,000 years, one can't really rule it out for his hunters as firmly as Guthrie does.

Guthrie argues for an odd biological determinism where the heritage of the ice age world turns out to be everything that is the best in human nature today. And in his view what is best in human nature today is found preeminently among guys who hunt, especially guys who hunt big game in the north woods, as our author himself does.

Well, I dunno. I mean, look, if the big-game hunting phase of human existence left us with a genetic impulse towards certain behaviors, it stands to reason that at least some of those behaviors would be grievously ill adapted to the present world, another tragic case of a sadly overspecialized species now in the wrong niche, promoted above our level of competence.

And it's hard not to notice that much of our behavior is indeed very ill-adapted to our long-term well-being, if not our survival as a species. For example, the adolescent excesses of risk-taking, which he attributes to our big-game-hunter genetics, and our adolescent tendencies to violence--which paradoxically, he is at pains to insist are not a big-game-hunter genetic heritage-- are not the most adaptive traits for successful life in our present world, as evidenced by the relative greater success of military recruitment ads on this very demographic.

But he may be right that some of the behavioral leftovers of the ice age constitute the better part of our nature as humans. But I find it hard to place a desire to go kill moose foremost among the worthy traits that have been left to us in our DNA. Hunting, to be fair to Guthrie, is in his view really an expression of creativity, which he seems to think is ultimately our foremost heritage from the old stone age. I admire creativity as much as the next guy, but I don't really think hunting is necessarily either a cause or a major expression of that virtue. I am inclined to guess, and on the basis of his own evidence, that the best and still-very-adaptive genetic leftover of the paleolithic is an occasional tendency for human cooperation, which can also call for great creativity, as we can see when that creativity fails us, as in the diplomacy of the Bush Administration.

But I digress.

And cooperation seems prior to hunting anyway. Without it successful big game hunting would have been difficult if not impossible. Imagine trying to kill a large savannah animal with a spear, by yourself. You gotta have some help. Otherwise you'd never even get near to it, much less finish it off. Hopefully, cooperation, whether genetic or learned, may do us some good in these latter days, at least among populations that still exhibit it.

I have to say the book is poorly organized and digressive--but who am I to fault anyone for that? Some of the digressions come out of nowhere and go nowhere, like his view that a spiritual impulse is adaptive, but that superstition is not. Um, OK.

Then we have the idea that hunters commune with the animals they kill. Well, the hunter may spiritually commune with the gut speared bison, but the bison--and I'm just guessing here--is communing with fear and pain, not the hunter. Romantic nonsense, in other words. I used to hunt, when I was an adolescent, and I didn't commune with the animals I hunted any more than someone who orders a big mac communes with the ground beef he eats. I think modern-day hunters who buy into this are fooling themselves, at best, and as for the hunters of the ice age, if we are honest we have to admit knowing little about what they actually thought.

I thought the book contained a lot of interesting ideas, most of them marred by a certainty that outruns the evidence.

But then who doesn't display that vice on occasion?

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