Author Archives: whitney-smith

Why was Elizabethan England so violent?

Here’s an answer that talks about the impact of information technology on the way people perceive their world:

Part of the reason it seems more violent is that we know more about the time period. The press made it easier for things to be chronicled and so news of violence has come down to us. In each information revolution (press, telegraph and telephone, digital) people have been given access to more information and so perceive their world differently. When all you know about is your small village it doesn’t seem scary but when you know all about violence everywhere it seems much worse.

If you ask people today if they feel safer than they did 10 or 15 years ago they will say no they feel less safe. Yet crime and violence have declined and continue to do so. The reason they feel less safe is that now news reports violence around the world, and people see it in their living rooms.

If you feel unsafe stop watching TV.

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What can the modern West learn from “primitive” cultures?

I re-read this post and so posted it as a Holiday message. To this I would echo Mbuti Pygmy Moke’s statement about god. We may not know what god is, but we know god is good, and we want god to be happy because people are singing. Happy Holidays!

We can learn: 1. Recognition that there is enough for all, if we share, 2. Peace, 3. Concern for the environment, 4. Egalitarianism, 5. Acceptance of others. 6. How to live in an information-based culture rather than a material-goods based culture.

1. Sharing:
Lorna Marshall, an anthropologist who worked many years amongst the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, asked what happens if someone kills an animal and eats it without sharing. They respond that it could never happen. She says of their reaction when she pushed them to imagine such a situation:
“The idea of eating alone and not sharing is shocking to the !Kung. It makes them shriek with uneasy laughter. “Lions could do that,” they say, “not men.

Similarly, Turnbull writes about food sharing amongst the Mbuti Pygmies:
“In a small and tightly knit hunting band, survival can be achieved only by the closest co-operation and by an elaborate system of reciprocal obligations which insures that everyone has some share in the day’s catch. Some days one gets more than others, but nobody ever goes without. There is, as often as not, a great deal of squabbling over the division of the game, but that is expected and nobody tries to take what is not his due.”

2.  Peace:
Kirk Endicott writes of the Batek – hunter/gathers of Malaysia
…the Batek abhor interpersonal violence and have generally fled from their enemies rather than fighting back. I once asked a Batek man why their ancestors had not shot the Malay slave-raiders, who plagued them until the 1920s with poisoned blowpipe darts. His shocked answer was: ‘Because it would kill them!’ (Endicott, K. L.1981. “The Conditions of Egalitarian Male-Female Relationships in Foraging Societies,” Canberra Anthropology4(2): 1-10)

Children are taught from a very young age about the value of sharing, there are no competitive games, and there is no value put on competition or on violence as a way of getting what one wants.

Amongst the Inuet hunter/gatherers of the High Arctic, violence is seen as childish, and any kind of confrontation is avoided. Children who fight are laughed at, teased, and ridiculed for such silly behavior. When adults lose their tempers with children or with each other they are also teased and perceived as childish.
(Briggs, J. L. 1994. “’Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?’ The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps” in: The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, L. E. Sponsel and T. Gregor, (eds) Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, p.155-181)

Not surprisingly, if you perceive that there is enough for everyone, and your social system is based on sharing, there is little reason to fight. People who have studied hunter/gatherers have discovered that hunter/gatherers don’t practice war and abhor violence. Chapter I – The Original Information Culture – Hunter/Gatherers (full text)and Chapter II – The Invention of Scarcity (full text)
3.  Concern for the environment:
Turnbull gives us the the Mbuti Pygmies’ world view
“”The forest is father and mother to us,”      Moke showed me this when he said, “Normally everything goes well in our world. But at night when we are sleeping, sometimes things go wrong, because we are not awake to stop them from going wrong. Army ants invade the camp; leopards may come in and steal a hunting dog or even a child. If we were awake these things would not happen. So when something big goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children. So what do we do? We wake it up. We wake it up by singing to it, and we do this because we want it to awaken happy. Then everything will be well and good.”” (see Turnbull above)

Hunter/gatherer groups believe they are children of the environment in which they live. Australian aborigines believe they are descended from their totem animals from the dream time. They reverence all the aspects of their surroundings because it is father and mother to them. As they move through the land they “sing up the land” because they are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. It creates them and they create the land.

4.  Egalitarianism:
Eleanor Leacock has pointed out that the measure of egalitarianism is actually autonomy, not similarity. Even in our culture, we don’t want to be the same as our neighbor; we want to have the same opportunity to make our own decisions for our own lives – we want autonomy. She writes:
Hunter/gatherer women and men make their decisions about their lives with great autonomy and even children have far more autonomy than we would think is proper.
Nisa was about 5 years old when her baby brother was born. One evening, Nisa snuck into bed with her mother, moved her baby brother away and nursed, for which she was punished so she decided to go to live with her Grandmother. She apparently made this decision on her own and throughout her childhood she moved away fairly frequently.

Again Leacock quoting LeJune’s attitude toward gender when he encountered Native Americans in the 17th century:
Disputes and quarrels among spouses were virtually nonexistent, Le Jeune reported, since each sex carried out its own activities without “meddling” in those of the other… Noting that women had “great power,” he expressed his disapproval of the fact that men had no apparent inclination to make their wives “obey” them or to enjoin sexual fidelity upon them. He lectured the Indians on this failing, reporting in one instance, “I told him that he was the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands.

5.  Acceptance of others
Respect for the autonomy of each person’s beliefs is also part of the view of god held by the Pygmies, as explained by Turnbull.
He told me how all Pygmies have different names for their god, but how they all know that it is really the same one. Just what it is of course, they don’t know, and that is why the name really does not matter very much. “How can we know?” he asked. “We can’t see him; perhaps only when we die will we know and then we can’t tell anyone. So how can we say what he is like or what his name is? But he must be good to give us so many things. He must be of the forest. So when we sing, we sing to the forest. (see Turnbull above)

6.  How to live in an information-based culture rather than a material-goods based culture
Hunter/gatherers live by what they know rather than what they own. They have been described as immediate gratification cultures – everything is there for the taking.
Information obeys different rules than material-goods do. If I have a material thing and you take it I no longer have it. On the other hand if I have a good story, or song, or idea and I give it to you I still have it and you have it too. In addition, you may actually add to the story, song, or idea and we will both have ‘more’. This validates a certain world view – the world view that to know is cool, to demonstrate that you know is to share. Chapter I – The Original Information Culture – Hunter/Gatherers (full text)and Chapter II – The Invention of Scarcity (full text)

From these two things: the way of life of hunter/gatherers and the world view that information validates we can generalize the characteristics of an information culture. People living in an information culture have no sense of scarcity. They regard getting a living as an enjoyable social activity. They share everything. Their attitude is that if there is food, there is no reason for anyone to go hungry. Even those who do little work are useful, so there is little concern about the “free rider” problem. To be ‘cool’, in an information culture, is to have good stories, songs, and dances rather than to have material wealth or power. People move because they want to know what is happening in other places, not because they need more material goods. They value exploration for its own sake. People perceive their world and their god(s) to be benign and an intimate part of their environment.

For more go to: Hunter/Gatherers to Digital Natives: and visit my author page on Amazon Elin Whitney-Smith the two most relevant publications are:
Push: Information Revolution Dynamics, and
Cain and Abel: Information and the Invention of WAR

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How might human behaviour throughout history have been different if there had never been any concept of an afterlife?

A shift away from Hunter/Gatherers to theology as befits the season:

The concept of an afterlife is relatively recent. During the Roman Empire there was discussion amongst the Jews as to whether or not there was an afterlife.

The Pharisees believed there was an afterlife and they believed in the Oral Torah. There were Pharaisees amongst the Sadducees since the definition of the Sadducees is mostly a class and legal definition.

However, for the most part the Sadducees didn’t believe in the Oral Torah therefore they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead since it is not in the written Torah. The main focus of Sadducee life was rituals associated with the Temple.

Some Roman religions had an afterlife others didn’t.

That suggests that life would probably not have been that different. People as a whole don’t believe or disbelieve any one thing. They have always picked amongst teachings.

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Is there any evidence to support the theory that, during the Stone Ages, women were forced to stay home and become caretakers, while men chose to become hunters?

There seems to be an on-going thread in the conversations around hunting and gathering that wants to show that women and men have specific gender roles that fit the notions of traditional western society. Here’s my answer:

Elin Whitney-Smith

No, there isn’t any such evidence.

Amongst modern hunter/gatherers men as well as women play, carry, and care for infants and children. Men will take both boy and girl with them when they hunt or gather as will women. Women do exclusively nurse children but among many groups any woman who has milk may pick up a crying infant and nurse it.

Since the majority of food consumed is gathered and the majority of the meat eaten is from small animals hunting isn’t life threatening. And both women and men hunt. Often hunting is done with nets and the entire band will participate. There isn’t any reason to think that people of the stone age didn’t do the same.

Women and men in hunter/gatherer societies are egalitarian and make their own life decisions neither gender is dominant.

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If humanity can change the concept of God throughout history and cultures because he is humanity’s creation, could humanity make God unnecessary?

I think this fits the Advent season:

Roy Rappaport – anthropologist – wrote a book titled, “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” In it he said ritual and religion is part of what makes us human, and defined god as the “unfalsifiable supported by the undeniable”.
Let’s take each term separately.

Unfalsifiable: god cannot be investigated using ordinary scientific methods and therefore cannot be disproved.

Undeniable: individuals and groups have experience of transcendence/ a “god experience” therefore they have the choice of denying their own experience, which leads to a kind of insanity, or of accepting that there is something beyond their ordinary experience, which for convenience we, and they, might call god.

Rappaport’s notion is that the beginning of language made it possible for people to lie. That created dissonance in the group. Ritual made possible the “setting straight” of that dissonance.

In addition, ritual serves an ecological purpose, as he shows in his book “Pigs for the Ancestors”. People raise sweet potatoes and pigs, when the pigs get too numerous, and raid gardens, it is time to slaughter the pigs and have a feast honoring the ancestors. This acts to keep the population of pigs under control and redistributes meat amongst the population.

If the ritual has outlived its’ usefulness then it is maladaptive. The evolution of ritual and of god is necessary for groups to maintain their adaptation to their ecology; if their notion is maladaptive the people either change their notions or perish.

The Christian year provides an example of religion and ritual being adaptive. (Note: I start with Halloween even though the church year starts with advent since it precedes a time of fasting)

Halloween is the day before All Saints day (a high holy day). It coincides, more or less, with harvest. Halloween predates Christianity. It is a day of redistribution – when poor people can demand tribute from the rich. The poor are in masks so that the rich cannot punish them for their demands – “trick or treat” – is a kind of protection scheme. “If my demands aren’t met I will play a “trick”” (which may be quite destructive).Then comes a season of moderate fasting – Advent – food is still plentiful, but it needs to be conserved since it is only the beginning of winter.

Advent is followed by Christmas, and Epiphany, which, again requires the rich to give to the poor.

Following that is Lent – a season of heavy fast – since food is becoming scarce. It is the time when people and animals are most likely to die of hunger. And it is preceded by redistribution day – Mardi Gras – a masked holiday where the rich are to give to the poor.

Then comes Easter, which is a celebration of the first fruits. Once people get to Easter they will be able to survive. They must work throughout “ordinary time” after Pentecost. Ordinary time lasts through harvest and Halloween and the whole thing starts over.

Therefore, the Christian year is a northern European ecological ritual that keeps the poor alive.

We, with our abundance, have (with the exception of the Salvation Army Santas and a few churches) translated poor into children; so we give candy to kids on Halloween, presents to kids on Christmas and have wild parties with plastic money and jewels for Mardi Gras.

The authority of religion forced the rich participate in the various redistribution holidays and to fast – conserve food – during the seasons of penitence.

Now let’s go back to the fist part of the original question, “If humanity can change the concept of God throughout history and cultures because he is humanity’s creation,”.

Truly, we observe that humans have different concepts of god. However this does not necessitate that god is humanity’s creation.

As a thought experiment let us assume that there is (not god) but some kind of “god experience”. That experience is, of necessity, expressed in the language, and with the concepts, that are situated in a particular culture (I take culture to include time – England of today is different from England of the 13th century or of the 3rd century BCE)

Therefore, the only way the person who has the “god experience” can express him/her self is with the thoughts, words, and metaphors of that particular culture. Therefore it would be surprising it the notion/concept of god hadn’t changed since language and culture are different over time and in various cultures.

Next, god’s existence or non-existence may or may not be dependent on humanity’s recognition, since, as we said above, god doesn’t have the kind of existence that can be falsified.

Finally, it may be that we can live without religion and without god, but then we have to decide how to maintain our ecological balance and how we can account for the “god experience” of people and groups.

Humans create institutions to keep themselves in check – governments, laws, regulations and religions. How does a complex, secular, culture, keep itself in check, fit in with its ecology, and care for the poor?

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How did pre-agricultural societies deal with the problem of free riding?

To be concerned with “free riders” people have to have a notion of exclusively held property. This is the answer I gave on Quora:

From the Batek Hunter/Gatherers from Malaysia :

“A person with excess food is expected to share it, and if this is not done others do not hesitate to ask for some… Recipients treat the food they are given as a right; no expression of thanks is expected or forthcoming, presumably because that would imply that the donor had the right to withhold it. If someone were hoarding food, it would not be considered ‘stealing’ (maling) for others to help themselves to it… Their attitude seems to be that it is more immoral to withhold food from those who need it than to take it without permission.”

Lorna Marshall, an anthropologist who worked many years amongst the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, asked what happens if someone kills an animal and eats it without sharing. They respond that it could never happen. She says of their reaction when she pushed them to imagine such a situation:

“The idea of eating alone and not sharing is shocking to the !Kung. It makes them shriek with uneasy laughter. “Lions could do that,” they say, “not men.” ”

So our concern about free-rider problems from their point of view shows us to inhuman – to be animals.


Is there any time in world history in which gender equality was normal or is this a modern day phenomenon?

Early hunter/gatherers are generally more equal than we. They live in an information based culture; status comes from what a person knows, so there is naturally a high premium placed on sharing, because knowledge is visible only when shared. Therefore, the notion of who is the ‘coolest person’, like other aspects of hunter/gatherer life, shifts from day to day and from camp to camp. If I have a good story today, you may have just as good a story tomorrow. And women as well as men are apt to have good stories.  So I agree with Gwydion Madawc Williams on hunter/gatherers.
For more on hunter/gatherers and gender see “Autonomy Gender and Leadership” in: Chapter I – The Original Information Culture – Hunter/Gatherers (full text)

But other ages have also seen greater gender equality. Elise Boulding wrote in her masterwork, The Underside of History, “Women have yet to recover from the Renaissance.”

During the middle ages women had autonomy and especially economic autonomy – they manufactured everything from shoes to beer.

Men did production of the craft – weaving cloth, tanning hides, making barrels. Women managed the shop – negotiating with suppliers and customers, buying raw material and selling product, overseeing and teaching journeymen and apprentices.

A craftsman couldn’t become a master  craftsman unless he had a woman to manage his business. When a  journeyman was ready to marry he could then open a shop of his own.

Guild records show that if a master craftsman lost his wife and didn’t have some other woman (daughter, sister etc) to take over the management of his shop he lost his master status and became a journeyman again. On the other hand, if the master died it was fairly easy for a woman to hire a journeyman to do production and the widow became the de facto master, and voted in guild meetings. The shop continued to operate.

Upper class women were professors of mathematics, scientists, religious leaders and business leaders and managed manors, large estates, and even kingdoms. They waged war and put down rebellions while overseeing everyone from the lowest peasant or washer woman to freeholders and knights. Lower class women were poor but were more equal to their men than any time since. Women are only beginning to regain the equality they had in the middle ages.

Before the introduction of the printing press class determined how one was educated. Upper class women read and learned mathematics. Lower class people, men and women, were largely illiterate. The press made education available to the crafts-producing classes. And as a result, the press changed the balance between the genders which we are only now beginning to rectify.

Men remained in the shop or farm therefore a investment in their education was an investment in the business so they were educated. Women, on the other hand, married out and therefore their education didn’t benefit the family’s business; they were not educated.

As craftsmen became literate and numerate they were able to take over the management of the business from their wives. They could track how much raw material became how much product. Their ability relative to to their wives changed and production moved out of the common room managed by women, to a room of its own, and eventually to a building of its own. This left women in charge of the household and children. Women became associated with the home, interior, emotion, and spirituality. Men became associated with business, money exterior, literacy and rationality.

For more on the press and gender see Chapter VII – The Late Middle Ages Full Text and “Capitalism, the Press and Social Relations” at the end of: Chapter IX – Capitalism and Information Freedom (full text):

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Scientists: Assuming the most widely accepted theories, such as The Big Bang and Evolution are correct, could God exist?

It depends on what you define god to be. If  you define god as the ground of all being (Paul Tillich) then yes, of course god can exist. If you define god as a creator who created the world in X number of days then probably not.

It also depends on how you read scripture. If you read it as the record of scientific investigation then, no. If you read it as the attempt of people to come to grips with and communicate their experience of transcendence then, yes.

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