I blogged a bit recently about Murray Rothbard's essay, "Down With Primitivism: A Thorough Critique of Polanyi," that periodically veers off into the ridiculous. In reviewing a book (referenced below), I was just struck by another problem in the text. Rothbard writes:
"Moreover, the life of the savage, as Hobbes put it, is 'nasty, brutish, and short.' His life expectancy is very short, and his life is ravaged by all manner of disease, disease that he can do nothing about except give food to witch doctors to utter incantations."
Oops! It turns out that the life span of a "savage" was about the same as that of the average Englishman in 1800, and the "savage" was far healthier, as shown by his greater height, and worked far less to achieve about the same level of material well-being. (Source: A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark.) But why let facts get in the way of scoring polemical points? And note the invocation of a fake authority to back the point -- what in the world did Hobbes, without the benefit of the succeeding 300 years of advances in our historical knowledge, know about the condition of "savages"?
And, of course, it turns out that primitive people have extensive knowledge of healing herbs and so on, and can do a lot more than "utter incantations" to cure diseases.
And, although I analyzed the following statement a bit in the earlier post mentioned above, its arrogance continues to gall me:
"First, it is absolutely illegitimate to do, as Polanyi does, and infer the history of pre-Western civilization from analysis of existing primitive tribes. Let us never forget that the existing primitive tribes are precisely the ones that didn’t progress—that remained in their primitive state. To infer from observing them that this is the way our ancestors behaved is nonsense—and apt to be the reverse of the truth, for our ancestors presumably behaved in ways which quickly advanced them beyond the primitive stage thousands of years ago."
1) Homo sapiens sapiens emerged at least 100,000 years ago. Agriculture began about 8,000 years ago.That means, far from "quickly advancing" beyond "the primitive stage," everyone's ancestors remained in that stage for most of our species' history.
2) Most people who switched from nomadism to agriculture did so through no perspicuity of their own, but because they happened to live next to someone else who had learned agriculture. For instance, there is no evidence that the ancestors of Rothbard or me ever invented agriculture independently.
3) And for those people who did invent it independently -- as far as we know, Near Easterners, the Chinese, West Africans, Meso-Americans, and New Guineans, with the Ethiopeans and Asian Indians as question marks -- it seems likely they did so under environmental pressures. Remember, settled life was a very bad deal until 1800, making all but the very rich worse off than most hunter-gatherers. You'd only make that deal from necessity.
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