Life in nature was nasty, brutish and short; why would we want to emulate it?

human skeleton

I’ve heard that the latest fashion look is a return to the 1970’s. I lived through those years and I can assure you the fashion had little to recommend it.

Polyester was the material of choice and bright colors were everywhere. Men and women alike were wearing very tight fitting pants and platform shoes. By 1973, most women were wearing high cut boots and low cut pants…

By the late 1970s the pant suit, leisure suit and track suit was what the average person was sporting…

Chest hair, medallions, polyester, butterfly collars, bell bottoms, skin-tight t-shirts, sandals, leisure suits, flower patterned dress shirts, sideburns and, yes, tennis headbands.

No harm comes from a shared delusion that 1970s fashion is worth emulating or from editing leisure suits and polyester out of our memories of the decade. Sadly, a lot of harm can come from a different shared delusion — that life in the state of nature is worth emulating.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The idea that natural is best and technology ruined everything is nothing short of ludicrous.[/pullquote]

The idea that natural is best and technology ruined everything is nothing short of ludicrous.

Hobbes wrote that life in the state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ and he wasn’t far off the mark. Consider that the natural human lifespan is at least 70 years, but for most of human existence life expectancy was only 35 years.

What accounts for the dramatic difference? Nature.

For example:

One of the most famous hominid fossils is the skull of a 3-year-old child found in Taung, South Africa. The Taung child was a member of the Australopithecus africanus species, which lived in Africa from about three million to two million years ago. The skull has holes neatly punched into its eye sockets; they were made by the talons of a large bird akin to an African crowned eagle.

We may be at the top of the food chain now, but in nature we — especially our children — were prey. That’s what happens when you live in the state of nature.

But even if we weren’t eaten by other animals, there were tremendous dangers. Our vaunted “natural lifestyle” left us at the mercy of weather and climate and other natural phenomena. We could and did die of exposure, famine, drought, volcanos and earth quakes. Technology — in the form of fire, shelter and agriculture protect us, though even today people are killed natural disasters.

Our genetic history speaks to a bottleneck.

Around 70,000 years ago, humanity’s global population dropped down to only a few thousand individuals, and it had major effects on our species.

One theory claims that a massive supervolcano in Indonesia erupted, blackening the sky with ash, plunging earth into an ice age, and killing off all but the hardiest humans…

But archaeological evidence shows that human hunter-gatherer settlements in India weren’t too affected by the eruption and quickly recovered. Temperature data embedded in the geology of Lake Malawi, in East Africa, also suggests that the region didn’t cool off that drastically.

So what did cause that major bottleneck 70,000 years ago, if not a giant volcano and an ice age?

Scientists aren’t sure, but they have some new ideas. A catastrophic spread of disease, for example, may have played a role. Or perhaps the way we currently think humans dispersed out of Africa needs some adjustment.

That was hardly the last time that infectious disease killed large swathes of the population. As recently as the 1300’s nearly one third of the world population annihilated by plague. More recently still, the influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people than died in WWI that proceeded it.

Infectious disease has always killed millions. Technology — in the form of sanitation, water purification, antibiotics and vaccines — now routinely saves lives, often by preventing children and adults from getting sick in the first place.

But not all threats to humans come from the outside; many come from within. Childbirth is notably unsafe and more babies die as a result of birth than of any other factor in the entire 18 years of childhood. Women routinely died of hemorrhage, infection, eclampsia and obstructed labor and babies routinely died of prematurity, birth injuries, infections and obstructed labor. Babies also died of insufficient breastmilk. Technology —- modern obstetrics and neonatology and all the interventions they represent, as well as infant formula — saves countless mothers and babies every single day.

Human beings are also vulnerable to injury from broken bones and wounds sustained battling both predators and each other. They are vulnerable to non-infectious diseases like asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, and anything that compromises biological function like poor vision or hearing. Technology — casting broken bones, stitching wounds, eyeglasses and hearing aids — mean that previously life threatening injuries or deficits are easily addressed and often completely remedied.

The bottom line is that in nature there is very little connection between natural lifespan and actual life expectancy. Very few animals in nature die of old age; they are eaten, injured or sickened long before that. In contrast, in countries with easy access to technology, human beings routinely exceed natural lifespan. US life expectancy is 76 years for men and 81 years for women. Without technology it would still be 35.

Only the deluded or the ignorant would pretend otherwise. And who would want to emulate that?