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Richard Gould: Learning From Ancient Human Cultures

user profile picture Adam Taggart Oct 12, 2014
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Richard Gould is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University (where I was his student) and one of the foremost experts on hunter-gatherer societies. In the 1960s, he and his wife spent years living with the aborigines in Australia's Western Desert, observing first-hand their way of life. Through study of these people and many others around the world, his work focused on understanding how human culture and behavior adapts to environmental stress, risk and uncertainty.

We've invited him to this week's podcast to discuss what insights ancient cultures may be able to offer in terms of "natural human behavior" that may fit well within our specie's blueprint. Humans lived sustainably, with their food systems and each other, for many millennia. And yet, in today's modern age, we have infinitely "more" than these primitive societies, but have much less general happiness (and are fast-exhausting our resource base, to boot). Are there best practices for being human that we can perhaps re-learn from our cultural predecessors?

One of the principal findings of Gould's work is that hunter-gatherer societies, while often rarely exceeding subsistence-level living standards, were quite successful at meeting their needs. Each day when they awoke, they knew what was expected of them, and why it was important. So their work had clear and obvious meaning — to them and those in their tribe. This stands in stark contrast to modern society, where our base needs may be easily met, but we have an endless string of unfulfilled wants and manufactured "needs" that advertising and the media constantly bombard us with — creating a chronic sense of lacking and insecurity in our society.

Gould also notes that our ancestral predecessors were much more connected to each other, which gave them great peace of mind in their outlook towards future risk:

What impressed me the most about the Aborigines — and I know it to be true of many other hunter-gatherers, especially the ones living in stressed environments — is the idea of social networking. 

That is, instead of the "money in the bank" approach to security, where we in our culture aggrandize and accumulate surpluses, whatever it may be — money, goods, material wealth and so on — and rely on those for our long-term security, these people essentially give away everything they have, mostly to their relatives, but sometimes these relatives are quite distant relatives. And when they do, they are not just giving them away. They are expecting something in return. A kind of delayed reciprocity, so that years later, if they are in need, they can call on these relatives for support and aid. 

And that system of social networks is very, very robust in hunter-gatherer cultures. You find it in other kinds of societies, too, very poor societies, for example, that have not much in the way of material possessions. But because of this type of sharing, they are able to meet whatever needs come along. This is a tremendously powerful mechanism that I think we have kind of lost in our own culture. We do not appreciate the importance of this kind of social network. We are much more into securing our future based on accumulation rather than on sharing. And I think if you are asking for a kind of 'take-home', I would say that is probably the lesson that we need to learn. We need to pay attention to this type of social order. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Richard Gould (38m:14s):

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