Introduction: On Death
If we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all. As Aristotle somewhere put it: luck is when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow - Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
It was a busy afternoon on the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal; hundreds to thousands of people were scurrying away in organized chaos. To the surprise of many outsiders, the streets of Kathmandu are somehow fully operational without streetlights or clear lines. Amidst this chaos, a small scooter turns the corner out of a narrow alley full of street vendors. The scooter carried four people, two adults and two children, closely huddled together and barely fitting into the seat made for two. As the family merged onto a larger street, a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motor taxi) swerved into the path of the scooter. Startled and losing control of the vehicle, the family of four were flung off of the narrow seat and into the tumultuous streets of the night. The youngest boy – who was seated at the front of the scooter – rolled into the path of a large 18-wheeler truck. Quickly, the scattered attention of the city brought its focus to the boy, as the driver stomped on the brake.
In a matter of seconds, the streets came to a halt and thousands of people huddled around the accident. The mother and the older child were safe, just some scratches and bruises. The father had been lightly hit by the truck, as he ran towards the monstrous vehicle in an attempt to stop it. But the youngest was still beneath the truck. Slowly, the more daring onlookers lowered their heads under the vehicle, to find the young boy startled in terror. His small body had fit perfectly between the tires, and only the tip of his fingers had been crushed under the weight. Everyone survived.The young boy in this story was me, and I distinctly remember marveling at the nails slowly growing back on my naked fingers. Everyone had thought that I was dead, and I am sure my body was preparing for it too as I barely remember anything between seeing the tuk-tuk to being carried off to the nearest hospital. In the face of death, I blacked out.
I must admit, however, regardless of this “near-death experience,” I am still terrified at the thought of my own death. Even though I understand that I will die, that simple certainty does not comfort me very much. This is because death is quite mysterious: we all know it’ll happen but we can’t know exactly when. It may not even come when we get thrown into the path of an 18-wheeler.
What’s even more marveling is that even with this anxiety-inducing, terrible, and possibly all-consuming thought of our own death, we seem to manage our lives quite well. Many people comfortably get into deadly machines we call cars and ingest things we know keeps the grim reaper busy. In fact, my family returned right back onto the road after the incident that almost got me killed.
But this isn’t all that rare in the animal kingdom: a moth will fly straight into burning fires, a young doe will stare into the headlights of an impeding car, and a fish will jump straight out of your childhood fish-tank only to be found dead when you return home from school. What seems to be uniquely human is not that we will die or do things that hasten our already-short lives; it is the fact that we can imagine, think about, and conceptualize our own end.
This is precisely what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker dedicated his life to understanding. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Denial of Death, Becker proposes a tantalizing argument regarding our ability to imagine our death. He writes:
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men (Becker 1973:Preface).
What he means here is that all human activity – religion, politics, art, etc – root from and are designed to obscure, deny, and overcome death itself. Becker observed that without this denial of death, humans would be engulfed in fear and anxiety, immobilizing us from doing anything beyond tremble.
Moreover, as Becker shows, our cognitive abilities allow us not to only deny death, but to make humans “seem important, vital to the universe, [and] immortal in some way” (ibid:133). We accomplish this by creating stories about ourselves, the origins of the universe, and the imagined future or transcendent world that we can be a part of.
This incredible ability to imagine and share such stories about the world has allowed for incredible human success. If we look into the history of humankind, there are hundreds of thousands of these stories. They all tell their own tale of the origin of humanity and the world, while also imagining a future that humans should strive for. And when these different stories collide, it has causes confusion, panic, and fear. More consequentially, the stories that were created to help humans thrive in the face of existential dread seems to have led us to kill and annihilate more than any other animal on earth.
This book will explore this very phenomenon: to understand the role of fear, terror, and insecurity in the history of conquest, forced assimilation, and genocide.
We will explore these questions through the examples of Napoleon Bonaparte, Japan’s short-lived empire in the late 19th to 20th century, the issue of slavery and race within the United States, our disregard for the natural environment, and much more. Moreover, we will bring the conversation back to our modern day to explore how we manage our fear of death today, and the consequences this fear seems to have on life itself.
Yali’s Unanswered Question and on the Roots of Conquest and Colonialism
The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. – Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
In 1999, renowned scholar Jared Diamond published the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In this book, Diamond attempts to answer a question he received from a New Guinean politician named Yali. Yali asked Diamond the ever-daunting question: Why did white people come to conquer the world instead of black-skinned people?
Diamond’s answer – in the form of the book that we are unsure if Yali ever read – was widely praised and accepted, even earning him the Pulitzer Prize. His basic argument is as follows:
White people came to conquer the world because they settled in areas with an abundance of natural resources (which gave them good guns and steel) and also formed highly concentrated settlements around agriculture. This gave them immunity to many of the germs that killed off the others, alongside the power of their guns and steel.
This is an insightful argument and allows for a rare holistic assessment of human history.
However, as admired as his writing was, it seemed as if Jared Diamond missed a crucial side of the question: Why did self-sufficient people — like the Europeans, Japanese, or Romans — feel the need to go out of their way to conquer, kill, rape, assimilate, and extinguish other people and lands? Furthermore, and even more disturbingly, why do we feel that the civilizations and nation-states that emerged out of such colonial powers gave us so much good? Such sentiments can be seen through the works of other renowned scholars like Steven Pinker or Rutger Bregman who see our modern world as infinitely better-off than our “primitive,” “uncivilized,” or “unenlightened” past.
A variety of answers can be inferred. Humans may have conquered others solely for economic and political gain or escaping persecution themselves. We also may see cases where people were motivated by religious dogma to spread across the world and convert those who are ‘living in the dark’.
Furthermore, we may think that even if through our recent history of colonial movements, constant war, and the near destruction of the globe through nuclear powers, much good has come out of it. Humans have extended their life-expectancy incredibly and have reduced child mortality rates just as much. We live in a world far more technologically advanced than science fiction novelists may have imagined, in which more and more people are living lives we consider “good.” Many of us can simply order a delicious meal on our phone and communicate with loved ones across the globe.
But attempting to rationalize such pasts and see the silver-lining in it obscures the reality of today and the coming future. Rising mental illness, suicide, political turmoil, growing inequality, human induced climate catastrophes, growing divisions and violence within social groups — the list can go on. As such, the question of progress can still be debated; however, I do not highlight these issues to merely be an alarmist, but to try and tap into one of the greatest skills of humankind: solving problems.
When we encounter a problem — from figuring out how to move boulders, providing food for an entire village, or creating vaccines that can save millions of lives — our species have been able to cooperate extensively to rise up to the issue. But what always predates these incredible actions is to recognize the problem first.
That is what I will be attempting to do through this book: introduce a problem, illustrate how it has been affecting us in the past and present, and bring to light what it can mean for our future.
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH AND INTRODUCING THE IDEAS OF ERNEST BECKER
The problem we are dealing with in this book is one that has been with us before the emergence of consciousness, and is one we share with every other living thing on earth.
It is the problem that we are all dying. Through the thermodynamic laws of entropy, everything is slowly (or often abruptly) entering into a state of chaos and disorder. For creatures — such as white birch, salamanders, gorillas, and more — this is bad news. Throughout the vast history of this cosmos, the very instincts of all these living beings is to resist this process as best as possible. We all avoid harmful things, try to take in more energy to maintain homeostasis, and have developed incredibly diverse ways to pass on our genes.
Humans also deal with this problem, albeit with a unique twist. About 200,000 years ago, our brain developed and gained the capacity to use language and symbols to string together incredible stories. We can tell stories of horses with wings, horses that are human from the torso up, horses with horns, and more things beyond just horses. As beautifully written by globally admired scholar Yuval Noah Harari:
Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of the Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers (Harari 2014:27).
These stories have allowed us to travel across oceans, mountains, rivers, and even into the solar system. We create incredible stories to teach our young children about morality and taboos. These stories have also given birth to incredible global systems that can cooperate and create this computer I am typing on. But this new ability is a double-edged sword.
Alongside the magical stories and fictions of our world, we are also able to conjure up some nasty images. A car accident, hurricanes decimating villages, or even hurricanes with sharks in them — it seems our imaginative capacities are truly outstanding. But most consequentially, we are able to imagine our own death.
This is the problem: the fact that we are all dying and doing our best to avoid it, but have the mental capacity to imagine our own death and continuous decay.
20th century anthropologist, Ernest Becker, put this human problem at the center of his thinking. How, he asked, did humans manage this paradoxical nature? On one hand, we are animals who have instincts for preserving our lives. When a threat approaches us, we want to mitigate that threat as best as possible (i.e. fight or flight). However, to the contrary of this, we are able to imagine our own death and understand that our presence on the world is no more significant than the ant crawling by.
Becker’s answer was that humans do anything we can to quell this fear by an array of strategies that deny, ignore, or transcend the idea and reality of death. In fact, Becker goes as far to argue that controlling this fear of death is the fundamental motivation for all human activity.
Becker argued that all humans attempt to deny or manage death by doing two things: first, we create stories or fictions that give meaning to our existence; second, stories also provide narrations and ways in which humans can either literally or symbolically transcend death itself. We tell stories about going to heaven or achieving immortality through robotic body parts. Symbolically, we strive to leave legacies through artwork, statues, names, or even our own children serve as a justification for our existence on earth.
This — as we will see in the next chapter — is sometimes achieved on an individual basis. When the world is too chaotic and hostile, we personally try to rationalize the world into a place for us to belong. However, this process is most effective on an inter-relational and societal basis. We create cultures, languages, and shared values to capitalize on our ability to share stories. In this sense, we not only manage our death anxiety together, but gain a sense of purpose, belonging, and put order into the world that is spiraling into disorder. Becker called this “self-esteem,” in which we find meaning in our mortal lives.
As seen through the quote from Harari earlier, this ability to collectively imagine a world beyond death has allowed for incredible feats for our species on earth.
However, the problem remains with us today: we are still dying and it still scares us. We have been dealing with this problem for the past 200,000 years, and yet it continues to loom large within our minds. Before we answer this question, we must add another crucial dimension to this uniquely human problem: the “other.”
MANAGING THE TERRIFYING OTHER: DEROGATE, ASSIMILATE, ANNIHILATE
By incorporating a new dimension to this idea — the “other” — we are able to expand beyond Becker’s idea into empirical studies of our modern day. As if Becker’s formulation remained just as his own observation, it may not give any credence to explain human behavior beyond a subjective philosophical perspective. However, in the 1980s, a group of social psychologists took Becker’s ideas further and systematically studied human behavior through the lens of death. The authors – Jeff Greenberg, Solomon Sheldon, and Tom Pyszczynski – coined the name “Terror Management Theory” (TMT from here on out), and looked to study how our existential anxiety is managed through various hero systems, worldviews, or cultural stories. Most important to the discussion of this book, they were able to show how we react when our worldview is challenged or put into question by another worldview. Scholars of TMT have formulated these defensive responses into three categories: derogation, assimilation/accommodation, and annihilation.
Derogation refers to how we belittle or trivialize the “other” and their worldview. For example, if you yourself are religious, you may scoff away all other beliefs except your own as a “fiction” or “illusion”. As we will see in chapter 3, this derogation of the other plays a huge role in our history of conquest and domination. However, this is often not quite enough “in diffusing the threat” (Hayes et al 2008:502), so we move on to a new strategy to maintain our worldview.
Assimilation/accommodation occurs when we either attempt to convert the other’s belief system to our own or to alter our own ideas to match the other. Again, this type of behavior is seen in every story of colonization, where groups look to assimilate the other to their own theory of the world. However, this process is never easy, as we can see in political debates where both parties are hopelessly attempting to convince the other. As such, when these two earlier ideals fail, TMT theorists have shown that humans often move onto the final response: annihilation.
Annihilation is even more self-evident than the earlier two ideas. When another person or group threatens our own immortality – and derogation or assimilation is not enough – humans have resorted to extinguishing the “other” entirely. Countless examples are imaginable: Nazi Germany, the Cold War, the ruthless massacre of Indigenous peoples, and more. There are two reasons that can be inferred as to why annihilation is so effective in managing our death:
First, if numerous individuals on the opposing side of the conflict are killed while one’s own group continues to exist, then by inference the beliefs of one’s own group must be correct. Massive casualties for the opposition imply that their beliefs were insufficient to protect them from the ultimate threat of death. Second, annihilation reduces the threat by effectively eliminating the opposing worldview altogether. Worldviews are symbolic meaning systems that must be enacted by people in order to exist. If those who would enact a worldview are dead, then that worldview literally ceases to exist. Thus, wars and violent intergroup conflicts can be understood as a means of reducing thoughts and concerns about one’s own vulnerability and mortality by bringing death to those people who threaten one’s anxiety-buffering conception of reality (Hayes et al. 2008:502).
The death of others can offer us peace, a sense of safety, and in an odd way, a place to belong within our own idealized worlds. Put simply, if the other is dead, it proves that our idea, god, or hero system was correct and superior. However, annihilation often serves to brew more violence and killing. So although annihilation can be an immediate response to maintain internal peace, it often accomplishes the opposite effect in the long term.
These responses are corroborated through empirical studies in a controlled environment. Most TMT studies are structured in a very simple manner. The scientists split a group into two, then designate one group to a death reminding task and the other to a different task. The death reminding task can be anything from completing a questionnaire about death or conducting an interview near a cemetery. What’s notable here is that the results are always the same; regardless of how explicitly one group was made to think of their own death.
A fascinating study found that Iranians were more willing to become suicide bombers themselves when confronted with the thought of death, while citizens of the United States were more supportive of using weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological, etc) to others that did not directly threaten the country (Pyszczynski et al. 2006). The same can be seen across the globe where such studies were implemented, where we all become more tolerant of derogating, assimilating, or annihilating the “other” when we are reminded of our mortality.
What’s even more telling is that the opposite has also been shown to be true. What I mean by this, is when our worldviews are challenged, we implicitly or explicitly think of death more clearly. In 2007, Mike Friedman and Steven Rholes conducted a study with a group of 235 students who identified as Christians. Unlike other TMT studies, the two scholars first made a group read an essay that logically challenged the Christian faith and dogma. This passage pointed out an array of contradictions and inconsistencies within the Bible. Soon after, the group was asked to complete a word-stem completion task, in which they must complete arrays of letters such as C O F F _ _ or D E _ _ into a word. The study showed that when our beliefs of the world – such as Christianity – are challenged, we are more likely to think of the words like COFFIN or DEATH rather than COFFEE or DEER.
All in all, these studies point to the observations of Ernest Becker. From how our culturally constructed stories obscure the reality of death and how we become aggressive or hostile towards those who implicitly or explicitly challenge these ideas.
THE ROOTS OF CONQUEST AND COLONIALISM
With the theoretical premise of this book established, it is time to begin and explore the core thesis of this book: What role does our terror of death play in the history of conquest and colonialism? And more importantly, how is it affecting us today?
To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to discuss the possibility that conquest and colonial activity is just part of human nature. If we only look at the past few thousands years, this may seem like a plausible explanation as to why we derogate, assimilation, and/or annihilate. It simply seems as if when provided with the means to conquer — such as superior guns/steel and immunity to certain pathogens — humans have done so. Moreover, humans have justified such activities under the name of certain gods or a benevolent intent. People also justify these pasts from the “positive” outcome of economic and technological progress we have achieved.
However, growing evidence from the fields of anthropology and archaeology suggests otherwise. Humans seem to have adapted to changing conditions of the environment, which created circumstances that made war and conquest a viable option to mitigate our death anxiety.
The Dawn of Agriculture: Choosing the Least of Evils
The importance of the development of agricultural and sedentary societies in the history of humankind has gained widespread attention through the works of Yuval Noah Harari, Jared Diamond, or even as far back as Jean-Jaques Rousseau.
Often dubbed the “Agricultural Revolution” (or Neolithic Revolution), the story goes as such: humans initially lived in small bands who hunted/gathered (this is often a pejorative description) and only occasionally conducted small scale, temporary agricultural or sedentary lifestyles. However, around 12,000 years ago, as the Ice Age gave way to a more stable geological epoch we call the “Holocene,” agricultural practices began to be seen across the globe. But here is where things get odd.
We often assume that people should “rationally” want to adopt agriculture for all of its presumed benefits. So when the climate shifted to a more agriculturally favorable circumstance, we assume people should happily do away with hunter/gathering. Yet that is a ridiculous idea, which is a deeply ingrained part of our modern cultural systems based on eternal growth. The reality is that most people — and that includes you — would most likely choose the practice of hunting/gathering (‘foraging’ here on out) as the rationale choice. Let me spell it out so you can make the decision yourself.
One lifestyle is full of diverse array of food options: meat, fruits, nuts, honey, mushrooms and more. Work only consists of an average of about 15~40 hours a week, and most of this “work” is hanging out with your pals and figuring out what’s for dinner.
The other lifestyle consists of 2 or 3 different types of food, often bland and hard to digest grains. You often can’t afford to eat meat because the meat comes from valuable labor power or you’re too busy cooped up at your job. Your “work” requires your constant attention
Which would you choose? If you go for the latter lifestyle, I have a few telemarketing jobs I could recommend.
To make it explicitly clear, the former option is what many forager societies look like, with a richer diet and more leisure time. The latter lifestyle is what agricultural societies looked like — especially in the beginning of the “Agricultural Revolution.” Making matters worse for agriculture, agricultural practices were extremely unstable. A drought could decimate the crops, excess food makes them vulnerable targets for raids, and strict hierarchies emerge within these societies, leaving generations of people bound to the fields all day.
So then, why did people choose agriculture? And moreover, why do we think it is somehow “better” than foraging? To answer this, we need to return to the problem of death.
Human culture — the mechanism in which we collectively tell stories on how to manage death anxiety and achieve immortality — is a symbolic reflection of our physical/material needs based on our surrounding. And if we do not meet these needs, we will die (surprise!). Now, what does this mean? Let’s look at it through an example.
Throughout many cultures, water is often incorporated and symbolized into a very important place within the imagined cosmology of the world. Water is depicted as a life giver, the nourisher, or a pure being. Conversely, water often takes form of powerful and destructive deities. Do we expect this because some people were just lying around one day and dreaming about a fierce water god? No! It’s because water gives life, nourishes our thirsts, and can clean us. Furthermore, water can also destroy in forms of flooding or tsunamis.
In these ways, our cultures are a reflection of our physical needs. And if we look at it through TMT, it only makes sense for us to do that. If our collective values didn’t reflect the base physical needs and environment to stay alive, that culture would quickly disappear. Now, what does this have to do with agriculture?
As seen in the very word, agriculture is a cultural phenomena. We now know why agriculture suddenly became visible across the globe only around 12,000 years ago: because it was practically impossible to create a society around agriculture before that. This is due to two main reasons: unstable climate and lack of necessary chemical elements (like carbon and nitrogen) in the atmosphere. So, just like our cultural and physical relationship with water, it was a bad idea for humans to attempt to make a culture around agricultural practices before the Holocene. If people committed to agriculture, they won’t have enough to eat and would go hungry, making the thought and image of death even more salient in everyones mind. So, although the idea of agriculture seems to have popped up occasionally when food was scarce, our ancestors mostly foraged in the pre-Holocene years. They picked fruit, nuts, and mushrooms, or banded together to catch large game like mammoths. But what is fascinating about simple foraging societies is that they are extremely egalitarian. And I mean, extremely egalitarian.
True Equality and Freedom: Learning from Foragers
To begin, let’s learn about societies scholars call “immediate return hunter gatherers.” As inferred from the name, these social groups do not store or process food for the long term, but eat whatever they have within a few days. Our modern-day college students are like this, foraging in the vast university cafeteria and not thinking to store the delivery pizza for tomorrow. But to compare the “immediate returners” with college students is a terrible example, as one of these groups doesn’t entirely know what they are doing, while the other lives in a consciously and carefully constructed social system. Of course, the college students are the dumb ones.
What we see in these immediate return cultural economies is an egalitarian society on all bases — age, sex, gender, family origin, etc. More importantly, these are conscious choices and values that are meticulously kept in balance and policed. Let’s look at an example.
One Christmas day in the mid 20th century, an aspiring Canadian anthropologist sat bewildered at the repetitive mocking he was receiving from the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. Richard Lee, the teller of this story, had come to southern Africa to learn about the lives of these people. Knowing that the !Kung celebrated a form of “Christmas” of slaughtering an ox, Lee thought it would be a fantastic idea to gift the people a large ox. He explains:
The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the cooperation of the past year; and since it was to be our last Christmas in the field, I determined to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy, insuring that the feast and trance-dance would be a success (1969:1).
Lee had bought an enormous creature he estimates to be 5 feet high, with 12 foot horns, and weighed more than 1,000 pounds. But when he presented this gift, there was no sign of appreciation.
First, a 60 year old lady came and said, “Do you expect us to eat that bag of bones?” Another man later came and told Lee, “Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the point of death” (ibid) Even when Lee attempted to defend his mighty ox, they all brought him down.
Then came the day of the ceremony. The ox was brought out, killed, and cooked. Everyone ate heaps of the meat while talking about “the thinness and worthlessness of the animal”.
According to Lee, the celebration lasted for two days and nights, and the ox meat never ran out. Lee was right, the ox was massive. Yet the ridicule continued throughout the entire occasion. Deeply bothered, as he expected many thanks and praises, he went out and asked around as to why his ox kept being shot down when clearly everyone enjoyed it. Lee went to a man named Tomazo and asked:
[W]hy insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track and kill an animal and when he is going to share the meat with you so that your children will have something to eat? (ibid:3)
Tomazo simply replies: “Arrogance.” He explained to the confused anthropologist:
[W]hen a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle (ibid:3).
What we see through this story is an active and conscious effort to maintain the current order of egalitarianism. If one person rises above others— even within his own mind — it can compromise the freedom of others. But here you may ask: can’t the strong hunters who are able to kill large oxen use that as leverage to elevate their social status? Maybe even threaten that they won’t share the meat unless they praise the work? To answer this, we again, return to death and our innate need to be alive and find meaning.
To spell it out once again: humans die, and we die faster if we do not take care of our physiological needs. Simultaneously, our developed minds push us to imagine a world in which we belong and have a purpose beyond just a blob of breathing meat. So humans have created stories that satisfy both of these needs, which we call culture. And people like the !Kung who live in extremely egalitarian and free societies are no exception — their culture both gives them meaning and the necessary means to survive.
First, let’s look into how the !Kung people survived. To make matters simple, we’ll assume that we are in a pre-Holocene climate where agriculture isn’t plausible (don’t worry, we’ll get to agriculture). For the majority of foragers, people can all maintain their lives independently or with a small group of other friends or family. If a powerful alpha-male hunter suddenly claims that he is the righteous leader of the group and his meat will only be available to those who follow him, people can simply turn away. They can gather fruits and nuts, and when they want, form a different group together and get some meat.
Here again, you may counter, “well, the strong hunter can force the others to follow him by threats!” Not really. If a person, let’s say, kills another person and threatens others that he will do the same if they don’t follow his orders, the others will most likely abandon him or kill him. That is the magnificence of the stories humans tell. The others could come together and share stories of how threatening that one arrogant hunter has become. They could decide collectively to do something about it, rather than fear the strong hunter individually. Moreover, arrows, poison darts, or other projectile weapons would simply make the large stature of a hunter obsolete. In short, the powerful hunter has no bargaining power to convince the others to do what he wants them to do. In such ways, equality and freedom are maintained.
But then, something like the Holocene happens. And years later, a white person who does something wack called “anthropology” comes along with bags of canned beans and new technology. This person may tell them this was possible from the unequal hierarchy that developed from the practice of agriculture. And if people like the !Kung adopt this practice, they won’t have the risk of malnutrition because the culture has been developing for 10,000 years and is incredibly efficient. The !Kung will surely take this offer right? Well, as we can learn from the continued existence of these people and their egalitarian ways, they didn’t. And why didn’t they take this offer? Culture and meaning.
As seen in the story of Tomazo and other !Kung people, they deeply value this egalitarian lifestyle they have. Moreover, having autonomy over their lives is also a key feature in their culture, which is additionally maintained by keeping everyone equal. Even when presented with a new culture and lifestyle that may offer some benefits, the !Kung have predisposed values, morals, and customs that keep them from doing otherwise. Culture is sticky.
Then, why agriculture?
If I have done justice to the appeal of forager groups at all, you may be wondering, “then why the hell would humans ever move to agriculture?” We had equality and freedom, which are things we are fighting for now. Humans had significant amounts of leisure time, another thing modern humans work 60 years of their life to attain for the remaining 20. On top of this, we also had all the necessities of food, water, shelter, etc.
But the fact is that the possibility for such sustenance practices largely depends on our environment. If there were no fruits, mushrooms, or mammoths running around, we would go hungry and die. And the world began to turn this way around the end of the last Ice Age.
In short, people in certain areas across the globe, were being pushed into agriculture. Not in the sudden “revolutionary” turn into agriculture, but a gradual and mediated process — in fact, the emergence of “permanent” agricultural societies took close to 6,000 years after the beginning of the Holocene.
Research shows that humans took on agriculture for 3 main reasons. First, it was smart to do so. The ability to cultivate your own food allows for a safety cushion to fall back on when foraging does not go well. Especially at the turn of the Ice Age and into the Holocene, many large animals who had adapted to the cold climate (like Mammoths) began dying off. Most people who cultivated agriculture early on did not seem to fully rely on the food they grew or the animals they domesticated, but instead used them when foraging was not quite enough.
Second, building off of the first reason, is that populations began to grow. Before the Holocene, certain areas could only support a certain amount of people — what scholars call “carrying capacity”. If there was only enough mushrooms, nuts, fruits, and game to feed 300 people, a society that grows beyond this carrying capacity will run into problems. They may split off and go into other areas or disputes may arise as people start to go hungry; making the thought of death even more salient. In a variety of physical and cultural ways, humans maintained a population level that matched the carrying capacity of the place they lived in. However, agriculture changed this. As food began to grow more abundant, the carrying capacity of the land expanded — although often in a less nutrient diverse way. Nonetheless, this allowed for people to grow their population.
Third, we began to tell stories. As different sustenance practices became necessary to survive with the turn into the Holocene, we also told stories that made sense out of this change. Here’s one famous example.
In one imagined paradise world, two people — a man and a woman — were foraging across the land, eating whatever fruit or nuts they want and enjoying their time. But then, an evil serpent came and tempted the couple into doing things that they were not permitted to do. Succumbing to this temptation, they — alongside all of their descendants — were thrown into a life of extensive, backbreaking labor and painful childrearing.
If you haven’t guessed already, this is the biblical “fall” story of the Judeo-Christian culture. Although this story could be read as to the emergence of mortality and sinful behavior, it can also serve as an allegory to when humans made the transition from foraging to full-fledged agricultural lives. Some evil being tempted originally happy humans by promising great knowledge and power, but the outcome is eternal damnation to slaving away in the fields and pain. This is a very good depiction of agricultural societies, where labor hours grow exponentially and women give birth to more “laborers” — making the experience more notably painful. Did the first tellers of this story know the hardship of agriculture, and needed to rationalize it in some way? We can only guess.
The emergence of raiding, conquest, and colonialism
One last question remains: how do agricultural practices lead to conquest and colonialism? The simple answer is that when excess food is produced, it makes aggression, raiding, and conquest a viable option for survival and thriving. However, before we explore this logic in agricultural societies, we can first learn about it in other cultures we now call “complex hunter-gatherers”. By looking at these societies and their cultural beliefs/practices, we are better able to understand how agriculture can make human aggression spiral out of control.
Complex hunter-gatherers are sedentary groups whose culture and sustenance practices are centered around one or two main sources. For example, there are the Haida people on the Northwest Coast of the North American continent, whose lives were largely supported by fishing. As fish like salmon travel seasonally — and unlike the ox, it is very difficult and impractical to try and follow these fish around all year — the Haida store the food they caught to make it through the rest of the year. This storage of food brought about two new concepts: wealth and raiding.
First, people like the Haida who stored food became wealthy. Unlike immediate return hunter gatherers who do not hold on to many possessions or make excess food, when food is stored, people have more things. One group may have an abundant catch one year and store 1,000 fillets of fish, while another group living down river are only able to store 500. As the year goes on, the group with 500 fish may begin running out of food, and they see the other group with twice their “wealth”. This economic inequality in turn gives incentives to act. There are two imaginable responses to this situation.
One way to act is to ask the group for food. The group with more fish could bargain: “Sure, we’ll give you some food. But in turn, you have to do all the fishing for us in the next year.” This results in social hierarchy based on physical needs. The other possible way to act is raiding the other group, which leads us into our second concept.
The culmination of excess food makes way for the possibility of concerted attacks on the other. To continue the example above, the group who is running out of stored food could gather their most powerful people and share stories on how to attack and steal food from the other. This is the earliest form of conquest, and we have evidence that these activities occurred well before the Holocene. There are examples of these groups even today in the form of pirates who make a living by raiding the excess material of other groups or parasitic publishers who email me every other week. Or even better, the entire Mongolian Empire was reliant on plunging and raiding sedentary groups who held large amounts of wealth to survive. Again, raiding can result in strict hierarchies as they could take the survivors of the attack as slaves.
However, raiding and attacks were very rare in complex hunter-gatherer groups. In some areas — such as Southern Levant near modern-day Israel — these complex societies existed without any trace of war or continuous raiding. Why is this so?
This is most likely due to the fact that many complex hunter-gatherer groups simply did not need to risk their own lives to raid and create conflict. They knew how to forage, so when food ran low, they could simply eat other foods until their staple returned the following year. There were also other conflict mitigating practices such as intermarrying, which made it undesirable to raid a group your brother or sister lived in. But as the Holocene began to push more and more groups to “fall” into the dreads of agriculture, things became a little more bloody.
To put it plainly, agriculture is complex hunting-gathering on steroids. The inequality that emerges among those with better land, plants, or animals gives rise to greater and greater gaps between what people “have.” As populations grow and there is a greater need to produce food to sustain their lives, they expand their agricultural ways into other neighboring lands. In particularly harsh winters or climates, those with more wealth can bargain unequal deals with those who have less: “I’ll give you this food for you to live, but then you have to work on my field.” In other instances, agricultural groups could take over land the foragers lived on, by promising things like the serpent did in the Bible. This expands the social group not only horizontally, but creates even more complex vertical hierarchies. On the contrary, raiding becomes significantly more attractive as the other has more food and items that are worth taking.
Again, we return to our innate need to find meaning, coherence, and a sense of belonging in the world. What meaning would you have if you were to just work in the fields and slave away? If left to be meaningless slaves, people will revolt — as they have throughout history. However, we have also told stories that give meaning to these hierarchies, such as, “God told me that if you work hard for 12 years, you can get a really hot spouse and go to heaven.” Or we could tell stories that all humans are evil and need to work hard and be nice to our bosses to achieve immortality. Humans have coupled these stories with terrifying ones like “hell” or “punishment,” making the thought and idea of death more real. We can make drawings, stage killings, or make documentaries that instill the cultural ideal of life and death in peoples minds.
As seen in the case of the !Kung, these cultural stories can stick even as circumstances change. People who were once succumb to those with more could have left that group as the climate became more favorable to forage. And in many cases, they did. There are groups who practiced seasonal shifts from hierarchical agricultural lives and egalitarian foraging. Or as in the case of many North American groups, they actively refrained from constructing communities based solely on agriculture, understanding the dangers of aggression it can bring.
However as we know today, agricultural societies have taken over the world. This is because agricultural societies develop hierarchies and attack/defense mechanisms to protect their excess food. In addition, agriculture grows the population, making the need for more food. So they expand out into neighboring lands, and conquer other groups with less people or food. Soon they tell stories that make this “normal” or divinely ordained; making war, hierarchy, and conquest part of their culture. These stories also give a purpose and place to belong, making it less favorable for people to simply turn their backs and return to their previous way of life.
This is what colonialism is: spreading agriculture based stories. The root word for colonialism is “colonia,” which translates to “a place for agriculture”. To colonize or practice colonialism is to create and make places for agriculture. But as physical and symbolic creatures, colonialism wasn’t just about the spreading of long labor hours on the field, but the stories that made sense out of them as well. They told stories about how to live, how to manage your dying body, and how to achieve immortality. And as these stories spread, the “preconditions of war became more common…with violent peoples replacing less violent ones” (Ferguson 2018).
So to return to our question: is conquering and colonial activity just part of our genes? The answer is yes and no. It is not that humans are either selfish (only self-serving) or altruistic (looking to create meaning collectively), but through looking at our long history, we can understand that humans are both. However, some environments emphasize one side of these human characters for our survival, which is then translated into various cultural practices (such as agriculture vs foraging).
It is with this setting that we begin the book. For 200,000 years, humans managed their mortal bodies and imagined terrors by telling stories that make sense out of it. Around 12,000 years ago, the climate began to shift, forcing some people to adapt to these new changes. From this change, new stories needed to be told about how and why to live. But these realities made raiding, conquest, and colonial activity a viable option for survival and terror management. Because of the aggressive character of some of these cultures and stories, they began to expand and replace less aggressive groups. This culture stuck, perpetuating more and more violence. New stories emerged that justified these activities, even making them preconditions for immortality.
But we never solved the core problem. We are all still dying. And when our stories tell us that in order to protect ourselves from the fear of death, we need to conquer and colonize, we have done so. We conquered because we are terrified, insecure, and dying.