Is modern life really the problem? A return to nature probably won’t solve it. cover image

Is modern life really the problem? A return to nature probably won’t solve it.

Dorian Minors • February 22, 2020

The movie Captain Fantastic portrays a sort of scenario I think many of us have entertained at one time or another. Pack a knife, some food, and a bag full of books and gap it into the wilderness. Live off the land, and indulge our atavistic tendencies – a simpler, more fulfilling life. Too simple. Here's why.

The set up

The protaganist, Ben, and his wife appear to be disillusioned, but well-educated activists who’ve moved their family deep into the Washington state forest. They teach their kids the perils of capitalism, and instill instead the value of living in harmony with nature and surviving off the land. School happens around the fire, and they go hard in the paint chewing through a reading list that would make Noam Chomsky quiver with happiness. Of course this all goes awry when they’re forced to reconnect with the family they left behind. But more on that later.

Sounds pretty good. There are whole movements centred around giving up this unfulfilling modern life and getting closer to our paleolithic roots. Certainly the tedious saturation of health and well-being advice centering on this idea indicate a hungry audience. The Guardian even has a column on it. But there are two problematic assumptions that strike me with this idea that are worth considering before you start googling which leaves make the best toilet paper.

Problem One

Do we understand the conditions that optimally satisfy human needs?

Humans love to frame the past as a better time. It's probably good for us in fact. But the narrative often centres around an evolutionary argument that we didn't 'evolve' for the primarily sedentary lives that we lead today. Sitting, eating, and sitting some more. The stress response that once helped us escape lions, now activated by deadlines and bad drivers and social media, enlarging our amygdalas and making us unhappy.

It's never that simple, is it?

Evolutionary narratives are a useful tool: if a theory isn't continuous with principles of evolution, then it probably doesn't hold a lot of weight. That said, it's a very easy thing to say that we evolved in a particular way, and quite another to prove it. Evolutionary narratives are notoriously abused in disciplines like psychology and philosophy and have quite rightly been critiqued as a variant of Kipling’s “Just So” stories (e.g. how did the giraffe get her spots? By getting splashed by a muddy hippo). They're often just too simple.

Let's look at an example. A common lament is the 'over-connectedness' of the modern world. Today we're saturated with half-real digital friends, packed into elevators with colleagues we barely know in huge multi-national corporations, part of a globalising world that continues to distance us from any real sense of community. In Captain Fantastic's world, Ben's family consists of himself, his wife, and their six kids. A group of 8. Ben's family, then, looks idyllic in some respects. It may be small, but it's truly connected.

Yet the research following Dunbar’s seminal works on community size indicates, if nothing else, that we can support far larger groups and have done so for appreciable history. Dunbar thought that the size of the mammalian neocortex predicts the average social group size of a given mammal, and ours suggests a stable group size would lie between 100 and 230. He then explored anthropological evidence for the sizes of hunter-gatherer groups, noting that many indeed appeared to hover at this number and may coalesce into larger groups of around 2000—a 'tribe'. Both Dunbar's later research, as well as the less well-known Bernard-Kilworth estimate of average social networks suggests that to this day we typically remain true to these numbers. Rather, it is the outliers that make it seem as though we are becoming outlandishly connected.

So perhaps it is that a small number in a more ideal environment (e.g. one family in the woods) is any better than a more ideal number in a less ideal environment (e.g. a good workplace, or a social club, or even one of those beautiful cul-de-sacs where all the kids play in the street). This seems to me a bold claim. We know that community relations and social interactions are vital, if not one of the single most important factors related to human well-being. Can a small group really fill that need? It's a question worth asking.

But more tangibly, when Abraham Maslow put forward his hierarchy of human needs, he put first our physiological and safety needs as paramount—shelter, food, water. If you reflect a moment, you might be unsurprised to learn that small group sizes typically struggle in a more atavistic setting. The fewer people there are, the less resilient the group is to disruption. Maslow also put a need for self-esteem and a need for self-actualisation at the top of his hierarchy, above the need to belong, and to be loved. He is suggesting that to belong is perhaps more proximally important, but that that the human desire to explore, achieve, and create drives us for more than the simple life. It is the same reason that Plato has Socrates disparage the 'return to nature' as he puts forward his own utopia: a demand for more.

So, would the simple life provide the conditions that optimally satisfy human needs? I don't think even an evolutionary narrative suggests that it would be quite that easy.

Problem Two

Are humans robust or not?

The second problematic assumption is actually something of a paradox. The assumption lies somewhere along these lines:

  1. Humans have access to physical and mental resources we don’t necessarily use and a kind of extraordinary flexibility to thrive. From Siberia to the Sahara, we can dominate almost any biosphere. So we should take advantage of those resources and put them to work rather than withering away behind our desks.
  2. But of course, the reason we’re doing that is because we have been taken out of some ideal environment (i.e. the wilderness) and placed into another context (i.e. the modern world). All of a sudden, that unique robustness we were talking about becomes a fragile, brittle thing, prone to shattering under the attendant pressures of modern life.

Are humans robust or not? To say they are robust in some contexts and not in others implies that, in fact, they are not robust but are rather sensitive to changes in the environment. It also assumes that the kinds of problems we see today and the historical prevalence of various mental and physical illnesses are not mirrored, if not in kind, in number with that of the ancient world. Everyone’s favourite book on this topic (Sapiens) places the blame squarely on the shoulders of agriculture, and more and more we seem to think that the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the peak of our environmental suitability.

But was it? There is a common statistic that's thrown out to argue against the return to nature—the average lifespan in the 'olden days' was around 30 years. This is a little misleading. Out of context, it sounds like the hunter-gathering life was incredibly hard-wearing, but this isn't quite the whole story. The average lifespan of healthy adults was probably closer to 70. The misdirect comes from the fact that there were incredible levels of infant mortality: 1 or 2 children out of every 5 would die before they could walk. Indeed, in Sapiens, Harari explicitly points out that agriculture was a key solution to this issue.

One might argue that this kind of thing would be mitigated by integrating modern medical knowledge into a more paleolithically-inclined community and perhaps that would be true. But this example highlights a more important point. Some modern-ancient hybrid lifestyle may well be more idyllic or optimal. But despite the horrendous infant mortality rate, our lifespan then is really not so different to our lifespan now. As such, I would suggest that the truth is that different environments pose different challenges and require an emphasis on different skill-sets. The modern world is simply a new kind of biosphere we are adapting to.

And so?

Ben’s escape into the wilderness sure as shit is a solution to something, but what that thing isn’t entirely clear. Rather than trying to radically go back to some amorphous ideal, perhaps we should continue working towards narrowing down the conditions that support well-being. Rather than a continuum from ancient well-being to modern suffering, it would probably look more like a landscape with many idyllic peaks and somber valleys.

The movie delivers a soft ending. Ben and his kids go to school now, and the wilderness is replaced by a rather less untamed farmstead. The oldest (the embodiment of our aforementioned human ambition) has set off to find himself in Namibia. The moral of the movie is something like 'the grip of modern life will not allow a wholesale return to our atavistic roots'. This I'm not so sure about. What's more clear is that the yearnings that make us want to return in the first place should be listened to, but a little more carefully.

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