It’s Getting Better All the Time. . . Or Is It?

July 7, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes you find ethnocentrism in unexpected places.

Ezra Klein, in interviewing anthropologist James Suzman, says that he’s sure that “there’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.” (See the previous post.) I would have thought that a liberal and well-read intellectual like Klein would know about the cultural diversity, especially since Suzman had been describing to him a culture where not wanting to share is unknown and would be thought of as unnatural.

Klein offers another comment with overtones of ethnocentrism.

Klein’s skepticism comes across more clearly in the audio clip. But here’s the transcript.

EZRA KLEIN: So there’s a trend in recent “history of human civilization” books of making farming sound really bad. So you work more. You have a less diverse diet. You’re more vulnerable to drought and to famine. You get pressed into these settlements. There’s more disease. I mean, honestly, if you read books — and yours is not a heavy one necessarily, but it is there. The question that begins to arise is, well, why did human beings ever do this? If farming was such an unpleasant lifestyle compared to foraging, then for the people on the border of those two lives, why farming? What accounts for the human move into this, you know, apparently, much more toil-filled and unstable existence?

Klein seems uncomfortable with the idea that hunter-gatherers had it much better and that life in agricultural societies was worse. Basically, he’s saying, “Hey, if hunting and gathering is so great, how come hunter-gatherers all changed over to agriculture?”
I think the unstated assumption is that people choose what’s better. Agricultural societies chose to become industrial and then post-industrial society because our society is better. So hunter-gatherers must have chosen  to switch to agriculture for the same reason.

Klein can’t refute the recent history-of-civilization books, so he chalks their views up to intellectual “trendiness.” These fancy paleontologists with their fancy ideas instead of common sense (“I mean, honestly, if you read books. . . ” )

Klein is not alone among liberal intellectuals in clinging to idea that foraging was inferior to what came after.  Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers make the claim as though it’s fact: “For pretty much the last million years, people were hunter-gatherers living a hand-to-mouth existence. The main focus of life was finding enough food to eat.” (See my blog post, “Dissing Hunter Gatherers.”    

I e-mailed Stevenson calling her attention to this error. Her brief reply expressed no interest in correcting the mistake.    


The audio of the interview is here or on any podcast site.
The transcript is here.

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