A Critique of the Western Notions of Progress from an Anthropological Perspective

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Trudyann Blackburn A Critique of the Western notions of progress from an anthropological perspective. Straughn- Williams SSA 101.1869 ACritique of the Western notions of progress from an anthropological perspective. The Western idea of progress stems from the period known as The Enlightenment which was an age of exploration and discovery. We like to think of it as the time in which modern scientific principles were developed. The industrial revolution had seen a huge rise in the population of the world, with an increasing concentration in cities. Western nations had colonized vast areas of the globe and had begun to exploit their resources in a systematic fashion. Old subsistence level work in agriculture was replaced by labor saving machinery, and mass production of all kinds of consumer goods. Goods became cheaper, and life, for those in the West at least, was made easier. This point of view treated all of the earth’s problems as matters which could be solved by mankind’s ingenuity. In recent years this notion that humans are moving in a positive direction, improving their lives as they move from caveman status, to hunter gathering, to farming and now to industrialization has been challenged. Jared Diamond (1994) reports these notions are widely assumed to be true but not proven. The theory that agriculture creates food surpluses, which allow people more leisure time, and thus the space to create cultural advances is just a theory, for example, and there are other possible interpretations of human history over the long term. Diamond cites the work of anthropologists with modern hunter-gatherer tribes as evidence that this lifestyle is precisely not inferior to the agricultural lifestyle: these people (= Kalahari bushmen) … have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neihbors (Diamond: 1994, 106) When one adds to this the evidence of paleopathology, in which scientists work out the health and diet of prehistoric specimens, it becomes clear that agriculture may have been a poor choice, rather than a progressive one. There are three pieces of evidence cited by anthropologists who oppose a progressive interpretation of human history: hunter gatherers ate a wider variety of different foods and a higher quality of food, than farmers. hunter gatherers did not depend on two or three food sources, and so they could survive when there was a weather disaster. and hunter gatherers moved around more, which kept them safe from diseases and epidemics (Diamond: 1994, 107) Once again there is plenty of evidence from the modern world to support these ideas since one only needs to look at the waves of famine that hit Africa and Asia year after year to realize that a dependence on core crops like rice and wheat create huge health risks for millions of people. Even in relatively prosperous America there are problems with the reliance on agriculture and huge cities. As Striffler (2005) explains in his study on the harmful effects of mass production in the chicken industry, there are harmful effects built into every stage of mass production. From the antibiotics that are pumped into the animals to keep down infection in their overcrowded accommodation, to the decrease in diversity in the breeds that are used, everything indicated a system in a state of terminal decline. The only way to stop this and restore human food to an acceptable and healthy standard is to return to more humane and friendly ways of dealing with animals. The lives of animals and farm workers alike are blighted by the pressure to produce ever more cheaply. In the modern world there are many interlocking factors such as wage rates and prices in the local, national and international markets which can affect the ability of farmers to produce food that is fit for human consumption. This means that economic as well as physical pressures weigh down the system and make it susceptible to devastating diseases and disasters. When producers themselves are not enabled to look after the welfare of their animals, then there is little chance that those who process and sell the product further along the chain from farm to supermarket and dinner table can guarantee even minimum health standards. In the light of this, all the efficiency and scientific knowledge in the world is not able to guarantee a better lifestyle for modern citizens. In conclusion, therefore, it seems that the progressive view of human history is not proven and the reverse may indeed be true. Hunter gatherers have survived in parts of the world where agriculture has grabbed all the best land, and they demonstrate that even when pushed to the margins, they have a healthier lifestyle, and more leisure time than the majority of farmers. When seen through the eyes of an anthropologist, the narratives of Western societies show a huge progress in terms of theoretical knowledge, but a huge deficit in terms of real results. It looks as if the shift from hunter gatherer to farming culture has led the world into a trap of unsustainability. It seems that a regressive view, that recommends living on a scale and in a fashion that fits in with nature, rather than attempting to control nature and exploit every last possible calorie, would have been a far better choice than the one that the majority of mankind is forced to endure. References Diamond, J. (1994) The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. In A. Padolefsky and P.J. Brown (Eds) Applying Cultural Anthropology: An Introductory Reader. London and Toronto: Mayfield Publishing, 105-108. Striffler, Steve. (2005 ) Chicken The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favourite Food. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.