Was it better for our paleolithic ancestors?


Jason Collins


May 31, 2011

I have just started reading Geoffrey Miller’s Spent. It opens with a mildly amusing faux discussion in which a modern person seeks to convince some Cro-Magnons of the benefits of the modern way of life. The modern person is unable to do so as the discussion focuses on how the modern way of life does not increase the ability to attract and hold a mate (as opposed to, say, the rate of child mortality). In the conversation, it is noted that modern people work more, live marginally longer (compared to a Cro-Magnon that survives infancy) and have less connection to their community. Miller states:

This thought experiment has, I hope, shaken your faith that humanity has ridden a one-way escalator of ever-increasing progress and ever-greater happiness since the Aurignacian. True, modern life can be a wondrous glee-glutted Funky Town for the wealthiest .01 percent of people on the planet. However, a fairer assessment would contrast the lifeways of an average prehistoric human and the lifestyle of an average modern human.

The passage made me recall the choice facing Jemmy Button, one of the Fuegians collected by Captain FitzRoy in 1830 during the first voyage of the Beagle. After a year in England, Jemmy Button and the other two surviving Fuegians were taken on the second voyage of the Beagle to be returned home. On the Beagle for this voyage was Charles Darwin.

Darwin wrote that during his time in England, Jemmy Button had picked up many English habits:

Jemmy was short, thick, and fat, but vain of his personal appearance; he used always to wear gloves, his hair was neatly cut, and he was distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied. He was fond of admiring himself in a looking glass

When it came time to leave Jemmy Button in Tierra del Fuego, he was not pleased:

Poor Jemmy looked rather disconsolate, and would then, I have little doubt, have been glad to have returned with us. His own brother had stolen many things from him; and as he remarked, “What fashion call that:” he abused his countrymen, “all bad men, no sabe (know) nothing” and, though I never heard him swear before, “damned fools.” Our three Fuegians, though they had been only three years with civilised men, would, I am sure, have been glad to have retained their new habits; but this was obviously impossible.

Several months later, the Beagle returned to Jemmy Button’s area. Darwin writes:

This man was poor Jemmy, - now a thin, haggard savage, with long disordered hair, and naked, except a bit of blanket round his waist. We did not recognize him till he was close to us, for he was ashamed of himself, and turned his back to the ship. We had left him plump, fat, clean, and well-dressed; - I never saw so complete and grievous a change. As soon however as he was clothed, and the first flurry was over, things wore a good appearance. He dined with Captain Fitz Roy, and ate his dinner as tidily as formerly. He told us that he had “too much” (meaning enough) to eat, that he was not cold, that his relations were very good people, and that he did not wish to go back to England: in the evening we found out the cause of this great change in Jemmy’s feelings, in the arrival of his young and nice-looking wife.

In some ways, this hits Miller’s point - in his faux discussion, most of the discussion is about attracting mates and raising children. However, Jemmy Button’s situation is somewhat different. Jemmy Button would have been in a much worse position in England as his chance of attracting an English wife would have been near zero. There was a much stronger asymmetry in the potential of Jemmy Button’s options than if we were offered a straight decision between Cro-Magnon or modern existence.