With luck, we may live in hunter-gatherer ease

November 24, 1995|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- Do the living outnumber the dead? From time to time people assert that we do -- mostly population experts trying to scare us into reproducing less enthusiastically -- but is it true?

It's certainly a striking image. The final day dawns, the Last Trump sounds, and all the dead of our long past rise from their forgotten graves -- only to find that they are a minority at the last judgment. While we, with ads for various consumer products printed on our T-shirts, are the majority.

It's an even trickier problem for Hindus and others who believe in reincarnation, for there cannot be enough deserving souls to go around. Either new souls are being created, or some people have no souls (a plausible hypothesis) -- or else there has been a massive upgrading of unworthy souls from turtles and dung beetles (the theological equivalent of academic grade inflation) just to plug the gap.

A little mathematics

If we really are the majority, that is. But a little mathematics suggests that it's not quite that simple.

By 1997, there will be 6 billion beings living on this planet. That is easily equal to all the other people who have lived since the first pyramid was built about 5,000 years ago, but it takes no account of the more distant past.

There have been anatomically modern human beings around for at least 40,000 or 50,000 years. You can easily push that boundary back to 100,000 years if you are willing to overlook physical differences no greater than those that distinguish various contemporary human populations (Samoans and Bushmen, for example, or Swedes and Australian aborigines). But let's just settle for 45,000 years.

Big predators

The world was sparsely populated before the first agricultural civilizations, because big predators like human beings have to spread out pretty thin to make a living.

But assume an average global population of 5 million people during the 40,000 years before the first civilization (smaller at the start, bigger by the end). And say three generations per century, because most people were dead long before they reached 40.

So that's 15 million a century, times 400 centuries; 6 billion human beings who lived and died as hunter-gatherers in our collective ''dream-time.'' Another 5 or 6 billion who lived and died in the 50 centuries since the pyramids (the majority of whom have lived in the past two centuries). And 6 billion alive today.

Makes you think, doesn't it? One-third of the human race died before the wheel was invented -- and one-third has seen television.

An interesting new perspective appears when you look at it this way. These three more or less equal groups had quite different experiences of life.

The hunter-gatherers had no history, for change was imperceptible from one generation to the next. And human beings all over the world probably lived virtually the same way, apart from the details of which animals they hunted and which plants they gathered.

If they were like the hunter-gatherers who survived into our own times in out-of-the-way corners of the world, they lived in small dTC groups that were strongly egalitarian, with no tyrannical leaders and no slaves. They didn't have to work very hard, and they lived quite well; physically, they were as big as the best-fed modern populations. We should not pity them.

Middle third

The middle third of humanity was different. Mass civilizations exacted a huge price from the billions who toiled through the last 5,000 years. Equality vanished; they lived in militarized tyrannies, most of them as slaves or serfs. They worked very hard, for very little return, and most of them probably did not enjoy their lives much.

Even people's physical stature shrank, due to the restricted diets of pre-modern agricultural societies: Most of our more recent ancestors ate meat once a week or less. And conquest and even genocide were run-of-the-mill events.

These were the people who paid our dues. Because we, the last third of humanity, may finally be emerging from the long misery. The great wars of conquest are past, the ideal of equality has been reborn in the world, and malnutrition is down to 20 percent of the global population or less. (The kids, as you may have noticed, are getting bigger again.)

The average human life-span has doubled since the 1930s, and at least 90 percent of all the literate people in history are living now. And beneath the chaotic variety of languages and religions and customs, a global culture with shared basic values is beginning to emerge.

All the bad news

The same mass media that facilitate that emerging global culture make it hard to believe in progress, for we now have real-time access to every bit of bad news in the world. But the basic principle of equality has put down roots everywhere, and few will now deny it publicly even when they are violating it.

That is, not surprisingly, the same basic principle that ruled the human world before the rise of the mass civilizations. There is a sense in which we have come full circle -- except that there are many more of us now, and the potential scope of our lives has grown far wider. The investment has paid off.

Of course, we could easily throw it all away again. No need to detail the number of ways in which things could go disastrously wrong in a world so crowded and so tightly interconnected -- you read jeremiads about the potential catastrophes every day. Nevertheless, we have made progress.

A5 Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on world affairs.

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