Are the great books the best means to escape the stultifying domestication that occurs in the human zoo of civilization?
In Peter Sloterdijk’s essay Rules for the Human Zoo: A response to the Letter on Humanism (2009) the German philosopher openly brandishes the dangerous ideas of human domestication and breeding. Has civilization bred humans to be mere pets? Are our diverse cultures and nation-states analogous to so many zoo cages holding various human sub-species? How will technology further civilize humans?
For Sloterdijk, culture is a social mechanism that can push humans in one of two directions. Reading the great works of classical humanism tends to unleash a civilizing effect on human culture, but only to a tiny elite. In contrast, the violent—but wildly popular—spectacles of the arena drive man back towards his barbaric animal roots:
During the time of the Caesars the provision of the Roman masses with bestializing spectacles became an unavoidable, routinely executed technique of control, which thanks to Juvenal's bread-and-circuses description, is remembered even today. Ancient humanism can only be understood when it is grasped as one opponent in a media-contest: that is, as the resistance of the books against the amphitheatre, and the opposition of the humanizing, patient-making, sensitizing philosophical reading against the dehumanizing, impatient, unrestrained, sensation-mongering and excitement-mongering of the stadium.
These two cultural poles of patient intellectual taming versus the instant dopamine highs brought out by highly addictive entertainment still strongly exist today. The internet has popularized and democratized philosophical activity and reading the great classics is increasingly seen as a sign of dissidence against Western decline. On the other extreme, just as a hungry dog can be easily trained with edible treats, a modern Westerner will comply with her master’s demands as long as the immediate highs that Netflix and Door Dash bring continue to flow.
A wild animal must first pass through a middle, tame/feral stage, before full-fledged domestication can take place. Tame refers to a wild animal moving in the direction of domestication while feral signifies a formerly domesticated being that escapes civilization and moves in the direction of her original wild state.
In the transition from the wild-to-tame state an animal becomes indirectly dependent on humans. Domestication occurs once the animal and humans directly exchange goods and services. An increase of human productivity that emerged from the domestication of plants and animals created the material riches that set the conditions for civilization.
As described allegorically in GFH Hegel’s famous Master / Servant (also known as the Lord / Bondsman or Master / Slave dialectic), civilization occurs when a masterly class of men succeeds in domesticating servile humans. To start the process, both Hegel’s budding master and servant must move beyond their savage states. Staying wild would result in the death of either the would-be master or servant. But the master, who wins the fight to the death against the servant, must move up to a tame stage and spare the servant’s life in order to domesticate him. But eventually the master will become totally dependent on the servant and in turn himself become domesticated through dependence.
The post-WW2 golden-age of American capitalism can be read as an unstably peaceful situation where both workers and masters were domesticated. But as time moved forward, during the 1970-80’s each side grew stronger and strove to dominate the other. The American master class realized that they would eventually lose if they continued with the Master/Servant dialectic, and strove to break this process by tossing increasing numbers of formerly productive servants into unproductive feral condition. Homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, nihilistic dopamine chasing through entertainment or food are all signs of increasingly feral—and unproductive—servants.
The American masters were still domesticated though. Although great at growing money through financial machinations, they still needed farmers and factory workers. Globalization became the solution, as American servants became feral, those far-away peasants in China would take at least several decades of domestication before they would be even a potential threat to American power. Or so it seemed at the time.
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Savages, Barbarians and Civilized,
Lewis Henry Morgan’s highly influential work, Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (1877) sets out three main stages of human social organizations: hunter-gatherer (savagery), settled agriculture (barbarism) and urban / rural division of labour (civilization). He further divides each stage into three substages based on technological development, and thus all hitherto human societies can be slotted into one of nine categories:
Most of the world today exists in Stage 9 (Modern Civilization). On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are no existing human societies in Stage 1 (Low Savagery) category, which represents an era before the domestication of fire. Indigenous Australians, at the time of their “discovery” by Dutch seamen in the 17th century, existed at Stage 2 (Middle Savagery). The Aboriginals of Australia used fire but had not yet developed the bow and arrow.
Morgan’s system is controversial because it posits cultural and social evolution driven by technology and material conditions. Although Morgan himself was staunchly middle-class and a cheerleader for progress and the establishment, he was hugely influential on Marxism. Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels embraced his work. Although they never stated it this way, their concept of Socialism can be seen as Stage 10 with Stage 11 representing full-blown Communism. Neither of these two states as conceived by Marx has ever existed in reality. The concept of progressive stages in Marxism is explored in my piece Stairway to Communism.
Karl Marx once commented that “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superior to society into one completely subordinate to it.” In his revolutionary vision, the domesticated prole “animals” rise up against their bourgeois zookeepers. In actual practise, real-existing Marxism has so far featured a powerful party of zookeepers managing a mass of domesticated proles, in a replication of capitalism.
Although Morgan (and many others) generally rank civilization above savagery, when humans look at animals it would it would be rare to prefer the idea of an enfeebled domestic pet to a majestic wild animal. Perhaps farmers or people reliant on guide dogs would not agree, but many people find a savage wolf more noble than a civilized lapdog.
Certainly during the post-WW2 golden-age of American capitalism, humans had a strong incentive to embrace civilization. Up until the mid-70’s, Conservatives worked hard to maintain their beloved civilizing institutions while progressives idealistically attempted to tear them down. But at some point, marching behind the banners of Reagan and Thatcher, conservatives became libertarian activists and decided to burn it all down, joining the left in destroying Keynesian prosperity, by launching a jihad against “the state.”
Now after 40 years of Western decline, as the multipolar Realists are on the verge of defeating the unipolar Globalists on both the battlefields and factory floors, conservatives look in horror at what their recent forefathers have wrought and again want to burn the globalist infrastructure all down. At the same time, progressives now act as conservatives and jealously guard their institutions of failure.
Civilized man has longed idealized noble savages, but is it too late for dissident domesticated humans to choose exile? There are popular movements on both the left and right to return to a traditional life closer to nature and further from the dopamine-dispensing urban centers. Is there any hope in seeking the increased freedom of a feral existence?
Darwin on Human Breeding
Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, echoes Sloterdijk’s themes of breeding and domestication when describing the mid-19th century state of human existence. Darwin however does not fall into the trap of imagining the civilized as superior to the savage:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (p. 168)
Is Darwin’s notion that civilized man is breeding his worst not belied by the great affluence of modern society? Perhaps this human drive towards the survival of the unfit paradoxically leads to our prosperity.
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected. (p. 169)
As societies become more wealthy, their “inferior” members do indeed tend to multiply more freely. This tendency may force us to look at the criteria for placement into the superior and inferior categories. In the animal kingdom, genetic dead-enders would not be ranked as superior. Are wealthy nation-states like South Korea, with abysmally low birth-rates (0.7 births per woman) really superior to a poorer nation such as North Korea, whose mediocre birth-rate of (1.8 births per woman) looks outstanding in comparison?
A similar revaluation must then extend to the civilized-savage divide. Thomas Hobbes famously informs us in Leviathan, that savage man’s life is, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” without civilization. But is this really so?
The Original Affluent Society
Cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins strongly differs with Hobbes. Spending his career studying savage societies in the South Pacific, Sahlins argues in his essay, The Original Affluent Society, that individuals in hunter-gatherer societies only work modest amounts of time to acquire their food or build their non-subsistence material goods such as tools. These societies do not stock surpluses and only gather the food they can immediately eat. Based primarily on studies of Australian Aboriginals, most food sources were so plentiful that much of it rotted before it could be eaten. And the groups studied by Westerners were survivors of colonialization and inhabited marginal lands such as deserts since the natives in the plush coastal areas had been long ago been killed off by the European settlers. Even so these natives enjoyed plenty of leisure time, which to Westerners was a sign of laziness.
Sahlins argues that affluence is a measure of total material wealth but is instead a ratio between a society’s desires and their ability to acquire these goods:
Want not, lack not. But are hunters so undemanding of material goods because they are themselves enslaved by a food quest “demanding maximum energy from a maximum number of people,” so that no time or effort remains for the provision of other comforts? Some ethnographers testify to the contrary that the food quest is so successful that half the time the people seem not to know what to do with themselves. On the other hand, movement is a condition of this success, more movement in some cases than others, but always enough to rapidly depreciate the satisfactions of property. Of the hunter it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become “grievously oppressive,” as Gusinde observes, and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry themselves. Or perhaps only what the women can carry: the men are often left free to react to the sudden opportunity of the chase or the sudden necessity of defense. As Owen Lattimore wrote in a not too different context, “the pure nomad is the poor nomad.” Mobility and property are in contradiction.
Hunter gatherers must remain mobile, so it is not an advantage to acquire large amounts of personal property that must be then hauled around with each new journey.
A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society
There are very few hunter-gatherer societies left on earth. For better or worse, most humans have been domesticated by civilization. And not just the cultural type of domestication by reading great classical books or watching the violent stadium spectacles as described by Sloterdijk. Helen M. Leach argues in her paper Human Domestication Reconsidered (2003), that archaeological evidence suggests that humans have undergone similar morphological changes to those biological changes that domestic animals have sustained. Among other changes, civilized humans have endured an overall size reduction, a diminishing of brain size, an upsurge of docility, increased fat retention, and a diminishing of sexual dimorphism (the size and strength differences between males and female have decreased with human domestication). Leach explains:
Physical anthropologists have long been aware of considerable changes in stature in anatomically modern humans in the late Pleistocene but have found it difficult to decide whether to attribute them to gene flow from migration or the genetic effects of isolation and inbreeding. Similar stature decline has been noted in skeletal remains from sites chronologically close to the transition to food production. Although not universally observed, such instances of stature reduction have occurred in such widely scattered regions of the New and Old Worlds that the phenomenon has been causally linked to the adoption of agriculture.
Brain size reduction may seem counterintuitive given the complexity of civilization, but certainly in animals and perhaps in humans, the easy life of domestication demands fewer brain cells than surviving in the wild does:
Despite these views, John Allman (1999) likens human brain size reduction to that which occurred when wolves were domesticated. Relative to size, dogs lost 30% of their brain size under domestication, and Allman attributes this to human provision of food and shelter.
So far it appears that human brain size reduction has been proportional to the smaller stature of gracile, modern humans. But this issue is controversial and has not been profoundly studied. What is clear is that while domestic animals do show a disproportionate brain size reduction, they also display other skull adaptation that domesticated humans do share:
Among domestic animals, however, evidence has been accumulating since the 1950s for disproportionate brain size reduction relative to the size of the body, as well as differential shrinkage of centres of sensual perception compared with wild species. For the pig, up to 33.6% brain weight reduction has been documented. For horses, Rohrs and Ebinger (1998) found that domesticated specimens had about 14% less braincase capacity and 16% less brain weight than wild Przewalski horses, while samples of the latter kept in zoos shared the same reduction as domestic horses. Kruska outlined relative brain size decreases of 30% from dog to wolf and from ferret to polecat. Time since domestication was not a consistent factor, for brain size in the ranch mink has declined by nearly 20% (independent of body size, sex, and age) in only 120 generations since the domestication process began. Domestic animals that have become feral do not return to the brain weights of the wild species. <…> It is likely that confinement of certain domestic animals in cages, pens, and stables has led to a higher degree of loss than in more free-ranging animals—provided, of course, that the confined populations do not interbreed with the extensively reared animals. Though human cranial capacity does not show a similar disproportionate decline, perhaps because humans have enjoyed much greater freedom and stimulation, many Holocene populations share a complex of craniofacial and dental changes with domestic animals, especially dogs and pigs.
Architecture is the great domesticator. Savage humans are nomads, constantly on the move to be to find the time and place where nature’s bounty is most plentiful. Human immobility began in settlements near rare nodes of concentrated and multi-layered abundance, where permanent housing were then built.
A key factor in this human-domestication hypothesis is the artificial protective environment created by humans and shared progressively with animals and plants. It contributed to an increase and consequent concentration of their numbers and to conscious or unconscious interference in breeding. For the human, the combination of adoption of a built environment, change in diet consistency, and lowered mobility brought about morphological changes similar to those seen in certain domestic animals. If future collaborative studies by biological anthropologists and archaeozoologists confirm these trends in other regions and reach agreement that they constitute evidence for the domestication of humans, just how many of the other classic criteria of domestication might be detected? It could prove even more challenging to determine whether humans display the changes in fat storage, sexuality, frequency of multiple births, declining sensory acuity, and docility claimed for other domestic animals.
While one group of scientists are focused on the past by studying the genetic changes that civilization has wrought, there is another group of scientists planning for a future of intensified technologically enhanced human domestication.
Alan Watts: The OG (Original Gangster) Hippie
Alan Watts was one of the founding fathers of the hippy movement of the 60’s. This British-born intellectual was a philosopher of Eastern religions and is responsible for introducing the concepts of zen and the practise of yoga to the US. Watts is known for his many lectures and books published up until his early death from alcoholism in 1973:
Though known for his discourses on Zen, [Watts] was also influenced by ancient Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta and Yoga, aspects of which influenced Chan and Zen. He spoke extensively about the nature of the divine reality that Man misses: how the contradiction of opposites is the method of life and the means of cosmic and human evolution, how our fundamental ignorance is rooted in the exclusive nature - the instinctive grasping at identity, mind and ego, how to come in touch with the Field of Consciousness and Light, and other cosmic principles.[
Watts’ best known lecture is Mind Over Mind.
What’s immediately striking about his words is is how right-wing Watts sounds in the current year despite during that period (1960’s) being considered part of the cultural left. Watts rejects any notion of progressivism as so much human hubris. The truth is, according to Watts, we don’t possess even the first idea of how to improve ourselves let alone improve an entire society:
You see, the reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t—shall I put it like that? We aren’t better because we want to be, because the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Because all the do-gooders in the world—whether they’re doing good for others or doing it for themselves—are troublemakers, on the basis of: “Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown,” said the monkey, putting the fish safely up a tree.
With this note of scepticism towards human progress, Watts then tackles the dangerous idea of breeding “improved” humans.
It’s like the problem of geneticists, which they face today. I went to a meeting of geneticists not so long ago, where they gathered in a group of philosophers and theologians and said, “Now look here. We need help. We now are on the verge of figuring out how to breed any kind of human character we would want to have. We can give you saints, philosophers, scientists, great politicians. Anything you want! Just tell us: what kind of human beings ought we to breed?”
So I said, “How will those of us who are genetically unregenerate make up our minds what genetically generate people might be?”
Because I’m afraid very much that our selection of virtues may not work. It may be like, for example, this new kind of high-yield grain which is made and which is becoming ecologically destructive.
When we interfere with the processes of nature and breed efficient plants and efficient animals, there’s always some way in which we have to pay for it. And I can well see that eugenically-produced human beings might be dreadful.
We could have a plague of virtuous people. You realize that? Any animal, considered in itself, is virtuous. It does its thing. But in crowds they’re awful—like a crowd of ants or locusts on the rampage. They’re all perfectly good animals, but it’s just too much. I could imagine a perfectly pestiferous mass of a million saints.
We never know how circumstances are going to change, and how our need for different kinds of people changes. At one time we may need very individualistic and aggressive people. At another time we may need very cooperative, team-working people. At another time we may need people who are full of interest in dexterous manipulation of the external world. At another time we may need people who explore into their own psychology and are introspective. There is no knowing. But the more varieties and the more skills we have, obviously, the better.
Watts throwing rhetorical penalty flags on human scientific hubris nearly sixty years ago is in stark contrast to today’s era of passive techno-optimism. Watts wisely counselled actual human diversity in the face of the cultural homogenization that is today, in Orwellian fashion, wrongly called diversity. True diversity can only occur through resistance to domestication and civilization. Given the biological adaptations our bodies have already gone through, such resistance will be limited — there is no genetic path back to noble savagery. But perhaps Sloterdijk has it backwards? For those dissidents inspired to become Hegelian masters, perhaps in the battle of the books against the amphitheatre, the road towards becoming feral is paved with the great classics while the amphitheatre of dopamine is the gateway to further stultifying domestication for those fated to be servants?