Introducing A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century

(This has been a long time coming)

Today is the publication date of A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, co-authored by Bret Weinstein and myself. We are so thrilled to be finally bringing this book, and the thinking in it, to the world.

In Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide, we provide an evolutionary framework for understanding what we are, where we’ve been, and how we might move towards a future that is maximally productive and free for all. In the beginning of the book, we review some evolutionary concepts, and introduce new concepts and framing for how to understand the human species. We then proceed through an investigation of many of the major topics that modern people are concerned with: health, medicine, food, and sleep; sex, gender, parenthood and relationship; childhood, school, and adulthood; culture and consciousness, and how to build and live together in a functioning society.

Bret and I have discussed the book with a wide range of smart and intriguing people already, and will continue to talk to more. As of this writing, those conversations that are public include: The Joe Rogan Experience, Mind & Matter, Resistance Radio, The Unspeakable Pod, The Michael Shermer Show, Freedom Pact, and The Dr. Debra Soh Podcast.

On the DarkHorse podcast for the last thirteen weeks, Bret and I have been reading excerpts from each of the 13 chapters, and in today’s post, I provide two excerpts from the Introduction. If you enjoy this, please consider buying the book, and sharing this post.


From the Introduction

At no other time in history has it been possible to think that you are a local but to be so lacking the deep knowledge of a place that keeps you safe during rare events. We moderns struggle to grasp this gap in our knowledge for many reasons. For starters, we no longer rely on tight-knit communities or a deep understanding of local terrain like humans did until recently. Given how easy it is to move from place to place with relative ease, many people tend not to stay in one locale for long at all. The facts of our individualistic lifestyles and transience tend never to strike us as odd, simply because we’ve neither seen nor can imagine an alternative to the world we live in right now: one where abundance and choice are ubiquitous, we rely on global systems too complex to understand, and everyone feels safe.

Until they don’t.

The truth is, safety too often proves to be a facade: products on supermarket shelves turn out to be dangerous; a frightening diagnosis reveals weaknesses in a health-care system too focused on symptoms and profits; an economic downturn stresses a disintegrating social safety net; legitimate concerns about injustice become excuses for violence and anarchy, while civic leaders offer pablum rather than solutions.

The problems that we face today are both more complex and simpler than experts make them seem. Depending on whom you’ve asked, you may have heard that we are living in the best, most prosperous time in human history. You may have also heard that we are living through the worst and most dangerous time. You may not know which side to believe. What you do know is that you can’t seem to keep up.

Over the past few hundred years, developments in technology, medicine, education, and so much more have accelerated the rate at which we are exposed to change in our environments—including our geographic, social, and interpersonal environments. Some of this change has been wildly positive, but hardly all, and other changes appear positive but have consequences so devastating that, once discovered, we struggle even to conceptualize them. All of this has encouraged the postindustrial, high-tech, progress-oriented culture we live in now. This culture, we propose, partially explains our collective troubles, from political unrest to widespread failing health and broken social systems.

The best, most all-encompassing way to describe our world is hyper-novel. As we will show throughout the book, humans are extraordinarily well adapted to, and equipped for, change. But the rate of change itself is so rapid now that our brains, bodies, and social systems are perpetually out of sync. For millions of years we lived among friends and extended family, but today many people don’t even know their neighbors’ names. Some of the most fundamental truths—like the fact of two sexes—are increasingly dismissed as lies. The cognitive dissonance spawned by trying to live in a society that is changing faster than we can accommodate is turning us into people who cannot fend for ourselves.

Simply put, it’s killing us.

From later in the Introduction

Why do we laugh, cry, or dream? Why do we mourn our dead? Why do we make up stories about people who never lived at all? Why do we sing? Fall in love? Go to war? If it’s all about reproduction, why do we take so many years to get on with it? Why are we so picky about with whom we choose to do it? Why are we fascinated by the reproductive behavior of others? Why do we, sometimes, choose to impair and disrupt our own cognition? The list of human mysteries is endless.

This book will address many of those questions. It will bypass others. Our primary aim here is not to simply answer questions but to introduce you to a robust scientific framework for understanding ourselves, one we have developed over decades of study and teaching on the topic. It is not a framework you will find elsewhere; we developed it by working from first principles as much as possible.

First principles are those assumptions that cannot be deduced from any other assumption. They are foundational (like axioms, in math), and so thinking from first principles is a powerful mechanism for deducing truth, and a worthy goal if you are interested in fact over fiction.

Among the many benefits of first principles thinking is that it helps one avoid falling prey to the naturalistic fallacy,1 which is the idea that “what is” in nature is “what ought to be.” The framework that we present here is built to free us from these sorts of traps. It is intended to allow us humans to make sense enough of ourselves that we can, at a minimum, protect ourselves from self-inflicted harm. In this book, we will identify the most large-scale problems of our time, not through the limiting, divisive lens of politics, but through the indiscriminate lens of our evolution. One of our hopes is that we can help you to see through the noise of our modern world and become a better problem solver.

Modern Homo sapiens arose approximately two hundred thousand years ago, the product of 3.5 billion years of adaptive evolution. We are, in most ways, a generic species. Our morphology and physiology, though staggering and marvelous when considered in isolation, are not special when compared to those of our nearest relatives. But we, uniquely, have transformed the globe and become a threat to the planet on which we still thoroughly depend.

We might have called this book A Postindustrialist’s Guide to the 21st Century. Or An Agriculturalist’s Guide. Or A Monkey’s Guide, or A Mammal’s Guide, or A Fish’s Guide. Every one of those represents a stage of evolutionary history to which we have adapted, and from which we carry evolutionary baggage: our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA, to use the term of art. In this book, we speak to our Environments of Evolutionary Adaptedness—which is to say, not just the EEA of the title, such as the African grasslands and woodlands and coasts on which our ancestors were hunter-gatherers for so long, but the many other EEAs to which we are adapted. We emerged onto land as early tetrapods; became lactating, fur-bearing mammals; developed dexterity with our hands and visual acuity as monkeys; grew and harvested our own food as agriculturalists; and live cheek to jowl with millions of anonymous others as postindustrialists.

We chose to include hunter-gatherer in the title of the book because our recent ancestors spent millions of years adapting to that niche. This is the reason so many people romanticize this particular phase of our evolution. But there was not just one hunter-gatherer way of life, any more than there is one mammalian way of life, or a single way to farm. And we are not adapted only to being hunter-gatherers—we also adapted, long ago, to being fish; more recently, to being primates; and most recently, to being postindustrialists. All of these are part of our evolutionary history.

This wide-ranging view is necessary if we are to understand the biggest problem of our time: Our species’ pace of change now outstrips our ability to adapt. We are generating new problems at a new and accelerating rate, and it is making us sick—physically, psychologically, socially, and environmentally. If we don’t figure out how to grapple with the problem of accelerating novelty, humanity will perish, a victim of its success.

This is a book not only about how our species is in danger of destroying our world. It is also about the beauty humans have discovered and created, and how we can save it. An irrefutable evolutionary truth undergirding this book is that humans are excellent at responding to change and adapting to the unknown. We are explorers and innovators by design, and the same impulses that have created our troublesome modern condition are the only hope for saving it.

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There are actually three closely related logical fallacies, the distinctions between which philosophers like to chide the rest of us about when we use them imprecisely: the naturalistic fallacy, the appeal to nature fallacy, and the is‑ought fallacy.