History of the World: BBC Version

Survival: History of the World Episode 1

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This informative eight-episode BBC series is framed as a history of the species Homo sapiens. In reality, it’s a gruesome history of Western imperialism, but I didn’t figure this out until Episode 7. Obviously aimed at a millenial audience, the melodramatic reenactments are too long and a bit nauseating (especially the really gory scenes depicting human sacrifice and torture).

Part 1 begins 70,000 years ago with the 1,000 fully evolved members of the homo sapiens species leaving Africa by crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. At this point in their development, they possess both language and weapons. Following the trails created by migrating herds, they head east towards India and South East Asia and north towards Europe. Some would reach Australia by 50,000 BC, Europe by 45,000 BC and North America (via the Bering Strait) by 15,000 BC (other non-BBC sources suggest they reached North America by 30,000 – 40,000 BC and were well in place by 15,000 BC).

In Europe, homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, a second species of human apes which migrated there (from Africa presumably?) around 150,000 BC. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis coexisted in Europe (and according to modern DNA analysis interbred) for between 5,000 – 10,000 years. The Neanderthals become extinct, around 30,000 BC, possibly because tools and language help Homo sapiens compete more successfully for limited game.

During the 27,000 – 16,000 BC ice age, most of Europe is covered with vast sheets of ice. As the climate begins to warm, homo sapiens hunter gatherers in the fertile crescent region of the Middle East learn how to domesticate plants and animals. This knowledge spreads north to Europe over the next 1,000 years. A parallel agricultural revolution also occurs in China, India and South America.

This new found ability to produce their own food leads nomadic hunter gatherers to begin settling in permanent towns and villages.

In cataloguing the earliest evidence of “civilized” society, the filmmakers start with 4,000 BC China, which had a population of about 2 million. Next they highlight the Minoan civilization in Crete around 3,700 BC. Estimated to number approximately 100,000, the Minoans produce aqueducts, multistory architecture, and bronze weapons and jewelry. They also engage in human sacrifice to appease gods who inflict earthquakes and volcanoes on them.

In 3,200 BC Egyptian civilization develops the first written language, which enables them to develop a legal system and the first recorded history.

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2012)

Book Review

In this book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond examines dozens of traditional societies that have persisted into the modern era. Diamond subdivides these societies into “bands” consisting of a few dozen hunter gatherers; “tribes” consisted of a few hundred farmers, herders or farmer/hers; and “chiefdoms,” consisting of thousands of farmers/herders ruled by a single chief.

All humans lived in hunter gatherer “bands” until the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago. At this point, “bands” slowly evolved into “tribes.” Aground 5,500 BC, larger food surpluses caused “tribes” to evolve into “chiefdoms.” Most “chiefdoms” were held together by shared religious beliefs enabling strangers to trust thousands of people they didn’t know personally. Until the advent of colonialism, “chiefdoms” were still widespread in the Americas, Polynesia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In many regions of the world, “chiefdoms” evolved into states around 5,000 years ago. States were characterized by still greater food surpluses, increased technological innovation, economic specialization, standing armies, and bureaucratic governance.

Diamond draws most of his examples of contemporary traditional societies from New Guinea, the main focus of his field work. However he also includes numerous examples of traditional societies studied by other anthropologists.

He strongly advocates for the role of the state in reducing the violence human beings inflict on one another. From the statistics he offers, there seems to be a big drop in homicide and intertribal violence (ie war) when traditional societies come under state control. Unfortunately this view directly contradicts recent studies published in the American Journal of Public Health. They refer to 190 million deaths directly and indirectly related to 20th century wars – more than the previous four centuries combined. (See AJPHA Publications)*

At the same time, Diamond has has identified many features of traditional societies that could potentially benefit modern industrialized society. Examples include many aspects of traditional childrearing (including demand feeding**, co-sleeping***, reduction or elimination of physical punishments, and an increased role for alloparenting****). Diamond also identifies clear cognitive benefits from the multilingualism that characterizes many traditional societies, as well as strong health and social benefits from restorative justice,***** the paleolithic diet (see Mayo Clinic Paleo Diet), and systematic efforts to incorporate elder wisdom into community life.


*Unfortunately Diamond’s research is strictly limited to patriarchal societies. They include no matriarchal societies in which women’s prominent leadership role helps to reduce social violence.  See Oxford bibliographiesl  For example the Nagovisi in modern day New Guinea (Modern Societies Where Women Literally Rule).

**With demand feeding, infants are fed when they experience hunger, rather than at parental convenience,

***Co-sleeping is a practice in which babies and young children sleep in the same bed or close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room. In New Zealand, co-sleeping is common in Maori culture and the Ministry of Health issues pepi pods (which eliminates the risk of a parent rolling over on a small infant). See Government to Fund Pepi Pods for Every Family That Needs It

****Alloparenting is a term used to classify any form of parental care provided by an individual towards a non-descendant offspring.

*****Restorative justice is an approach to criminal offending involving mediation between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community.

The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.

Is Schizophrenia an Inflammatory Illness?

madness of adam and eve

The Madness of Adam and Even: How Schizophrenia Shaped Humanity

by David Horrobin (2001 Bantam Press)

Book Review

The Madness of Adam and Eve advances a dual hypothesis: 1) that schizophrenia is a whole body disorder, rather than a “brain disease, as promoted by Big Pharma and the psychiatric fraternity and 2) that schizophrenia stems from the same series of genetic mutations that led to the appearance of the human species (homo sapiens) 100,000 years ago.

The specific biochemical “error” Horrobin credits for causing schizophrenia is a defect in the metabolism of arachidonic acid (AA), a fatty acid that facilitates smooth signal transmission between nerve endings. Horobin believes a genetic mutation around 100,000 years ago caused a massive increase in AA production, enabling a giant increase in dendritic connections between neurons. This, in turn, resulted in a sudden explosion in human intellectual capacity, as well as the sudden appearance of art, music and organized religion.

Horribin also maintains that schizophrenia was a relatively mild illness in hunter gatherer societies, owing to a diet rich in the omega 3 fatty acids essential for optiminal brain function. With the major dietary changes that accompanied the agricultural and industrial revolution, schizophrenia has become much more severe. The switch from omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids to saturated animal fat was by far the most significant, as saturated fats can suppress the uptake and utilization of omega 3 fatty acids.

Horrobin’s hypothesis is born out by WHO research revealing that schizophrenia is more severe in the industrialized west, studies showing that schizophrenics improve when given large doses of the omega 3 fatty acid EPA, and the failure of schizophrenics to experience a “niacin blush”* when exposed to megadoses of niacin.

Aimed at a lay audience, The Madness of Adam and Eve doesn’t always distinguish clearly between theory and established fact. While Horribin’s ideas make an important contribution to the understanding of mental illness, his overemphasis on genetic determinism in the origin of mental illness is clearly dated. In 2002, the field of epigenetics** was still in its infancy and there was limited understanding of the role of noxious prenatal influences on gene expression and the development of chronic physical and mental illnesses. Nor was the role of harmful intestinal bacteria and endotoxin-related inflammation recognized in the etiology of autism, schizophrenia and depression.

His portrayal of the intellectual inferiority of Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) is also obsolete. More recent archeological evidence suggests that Neanderthal man was the intellectual equal of homo sapiens.

*A niacin flush is sudden reddening and burning of the skin caused when niacin promotes conversion of AA to the inflammatory peptide prostaglandin. Several researchers have proposed using a niacin skin test as a research tool in studying schizophrenia.

**Epignetics is the study of hormonal and other prenatal influence that affect the expression of genes as specific protein enzymes.

When Horrobin died in 2003, the British Medical Journal wrote a particularly nasty obituary describing him as “the greatest snake oil salesman of his age.” A decade of research into the beneficial role of omega 3 oil in the treatment of depression (particularly post natal depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia and premenstrual syndrome) has clearly vindicated him. The supplementation of prescription psychotropics with omega 3 oils is now standard psychiatric practice. 

Research into his theory that schizophrenia is a whole body inflammatory illness, rather than a brain disease, is also advancing. More recent studies focus on inflammation caused by endotoxin-producing by gram negative intestinal bacteria. Thus far schizophrenics’ demonstrated impairment in prostaglandin synthesis has failed to translate into viable treatment options.

There have been numerous studies suggesting a beneficial effect of non steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication (such as ibuprofen and naprosyn) in the treatment of schizophrenia. Unfortunately NSAIDs, like psychotropics, have numerous serious side effects, including peptic ulcer disease and reduced kidney function.

 

Animal Domestication and Capitalism

factory farm

In the past I have tended to dismiss the animal welfare movement as another “feel good” liberal cause that does little to redress human oppression and exploitation. I was wrong. A recent lecture by sociologist David Nibert from Wittenberg University has opened my eyes to the historical role of animal domestication in imperialistic wars, colonialism, genocide, and wealth inequality. Even more scary is the rapid spread of the meat-laden “western” diet, an invention of the public relations industry, to the developing world. There it continues to fuel untold violence and cruelty against the poor and disadvantaged, resource wars, and systematic degradation of the complex ecosystems that support human existence.

The title of Nibert’s talk, carried on Alternative Radio, is “The Animal Industrial Complex.” He isn’t being cute. This powerful institution has even more control over our daily lives than either the military or prison industrial complex.

Replacing Our Ancestors with Sheep

After reminding us of the plant-based, “original affluent” society that characterized most of human existence, Nibert traces the rise of the “western” meat-based diet across 10,000 years of human history. After causing thousands of years of European warfare, exploitation, and slavery in the 15th century animal domestication was foisted on the other continents. In South America it destroyed some of the world’ most advanced societies. Back in Europe, the need to provide sheep pasture was the chief rationale for the 18th century Enclosure Acts that drove most of our ancestors off their communal lands (see my review of Fred Harrison’s The Traumatised Society). According to Nibert, this massive expansion of “animal domesecration” was just as important as fossil fuels in the rise of the capitalist economic system.

The drive to clear new pasture to produce meat for global elites led to genocidal wars against native peoples in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Socially Engineered Demand for Meat

In the 20th century Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, assisted the food industry in artificially inflating public demand for meat. After World War II, it culminated in what Nibert refers to as the “hamburger culture.”

In the sixties and seventies, corporate demand for new pasture led to US collaboration with right wing Central and South American dictatorships that systematically drove peasant farmers from their lands. Those who resisted were violently suppressed by US-trained troops and death squads, with US supplied bombers, gunships, and guns.

Animal Domestication and Influenza

Aside from the obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, animal domesecration poses an enormous public health threat, even for vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat meat. This stems from viral “zoonotic” illnesses that have spread to humans from chickens and pigs. Nibert reminds us that the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that killed nearly 285,000 people originated in factory farms in North Carolina. During the 20th century influenza pandemics (originating mainly from chickens and pigs) killed more than 50 million people.

Meanwhile, despite the major health and environmental problems caused by the western meat-based diet, demand for new pasture continues to force thousands of peasants from their land in Africa and South America. While desertification and water scarcity (caused by overgrazing) make food commodities and and shares in water companies the primo investment for banks and hedge fund managers.

Nibert finishes the interview with a critique of leftists who think they’re being political correct by only consuming local, free-range animal products:

“I applaud my friends for eating local plant-based foods but have to argue to them that the continued consumption of animal products is more harmful than they know. The reduction in ‘food miles’ from consuming local animal products is overshadowed by the energy and resources necessary for their production and refrigeration. And while the more affluent among us can afford the more expensive grass-fed products and thus avoid eating domesecrated animals plied with pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, the vast majority of people will continue to eat the cheapest fare that the Animal Industrial Complex can produce. And even if the world were more equitable, moral and environmental issues aside there simply is not enough land or water to “free range” the tens of billions of domesecrated animals necessary to meet the growing, socially engineered demand.”

The full presentation can be downloaded from Alternative Radio. A transcript is $3, an MP3 file $5.

Until Oct 25, you can listen to the interview free on line at KEXP 90.3 FM. Go to http://www.kexp.org/archive#/2013/10/12/6AM/00 and click on “LAUNCH  PLAYER”

photo credit: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via photopin cc