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Wild to Civilized


- How did war and civilization begin?
- Losing our social support networks

How did war and civilization begin?

     Warfare seems endemic to Western civilization since the Middle Ages, even since the earliest empires around the Mediterranean Sea. But warfare and civilization did not always exist. The critical turning point was a major change in our mode of survival:  agriculture, which developed around 12,000 years ago, not long ago compared to the million-plus years will lived as hunter-gatherers before we developed agriculture.

     Before civilization and warfare, we humans lived successfully for well over a million years in small nomadic packs of vegetarians. We roamed from site to site, eating raw fruits and vegetables that we gathered from plants growing naturally in our environment. This first environment was the prehistoric African wilderness where we evolved into Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago. Eating wild food raw was like all other animal species. Hence, we can say we lived in a “state of nature.”

     From archeological evidence, little or no warfare happened between these prehistoric nomadic packs. From studies of hunter-gatherers still surviving today in isolated areas, we know that they have little or no disease. Their teeth are gleaming white and perfectly aligned from a diet of hundreds of different foods eaten raw. (See these teeth in the first episode of The History of Food, Curiosity Stream.) From these still-remaining hunter-gatherers, we know that gathering food took around 17 hours a week, or 2.5 hours a day, which left much time for leisure, storytelling, jokes, games, dancing, and music round the campfire. As paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey says, we humans back then were “the original affluent society.”

     But this easy life was not to last. Unlike other animal species, we early humans left this state of nature when we acquired new survival skills, when we learned how to manipulate our environment. What did we learn? How to make stone tools, spears, and bows and arrows to kill wild animals and add meat to our diet. How to cook with fire, increasing our caloric intake and our brain size. But most momentous, around 12,000 years ago, we developed the critical new survival skill called agriculture: how to plant seeds in fields to grow our food. Agriculture, including raising domesticated animals like sheep, goats, pigs, etc., soon replaced hunting and gathering and became the source of most or all our food.

     Even the Bible, in the first chapters of Genesis, reflects this change from an easy life to a life of toil from farming. The biblical account (ignoring the divine acts) has human existence starting in a veritable “garden.” We were “innocent” in being naked without shame. We were “innocent” in simply eating raw fruits and vegetables growing naturally, “innocent” of ways to control our environment and our food sources.

     Yet, as the biblical account continues, we fell out of this state of nature, cast out of the garden when we acquired what the biblical account calls “the knowledge of good and evil.” This knowledge, we suggest, is the ways we learned to control our food sources:  stone tools, spears, bows and arrows, cooking with fire, planting seeds in fields to grow our food, raising domesticated animals.

     Suddenly, “[our] eyes were opened” (Genesis 3:7). We felt shame and covered our nakedness. We left the easy life in the garden and were doomed henceforth to work hard cultivating the soil for food. In the biblical language:

“Cursed is the ground because of you. Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18).

     Let us now explain, without biblical reference, how the world after the start of agriculture would be entirely different from hunting and gathering, how life would become hard work and the roots of war and civilization.

     From the start of agriculture and onward, our survival depended on plots of land that we planted, with the crop growing over a season of many months before we could eat it. From the moment we planted the fields, then, we needed to exclude others. We needed to defend our farmland against those who might take over our fields or steal our crops at harvest time. Thus, agriculture resulted in a new idea – property – to be able to exclude others from specific plots of land.

     Everywhere, farming villages were cropping up, and the needed power to exclude was, in fact, nearby. The farming villages were displacing hunter-gatherers or threatening their traditional roaming territories. Yet, hunter-gatherers could easily turn their hunting tools – spears, bows, and arrows – into weapons of war and defense, and they did. Former hunters became full-time warrior bands to defend villagers and their farmland.

     But the warriors needed food to survive, and their monopoly on violence ensured they would get it. They could “tax” the farming villagers, who were pushed to enlarge their fields enough to grow a surplus, enough food to feed themselves and their protecting warriors.

     From the start, then, agriculture was inherently more strenuous than hunting and gathering. The process of tilling the soil, planting seeds, pulling out weeds, harvesting the crop, threshing the seed, grinding into flour, and baking it – plus the need to plant a larger area to feed protecting warriors – was far more strenuous than gathering wild plants to feed a tribe at subsistence level.

     With warriors protecting farmland, we have the start of feudalism, a widespread early form of society long before a money economy. Inequality and government started here. And warfare soon occurred on a larger scale as warrior bands battled each other to conquer more farming villages, to bring them under more centralized control, and to gain a greater surplus of food and labor to enrich the warrior bands and their leaders. A monopoly on violence seems to have this inevitable centralizing impact.

     As more land was cultivated and better farming techniques developed, a growing surplus of food supported a growing number of non-food-producing specialists besides warriors. The population grew with shamans, medicine men, and priests, with early craftsmen including carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths, and with merchants who traded in exotic, transportable goods from faraway – silk, horses, paper, spices, jade, glassware, furs, and slaves. These early slaves, incidentally, were a luxury product, not a major economic force as on America’s plantations. They worked as servants, entertainers, and eunuchs, the latter being useful to guard harems or advise emperors without divided loyalties.

     Like farmland that needed protection, the growing network of trade routes that spread from China to Europe also needed protection. Warriors came to protect roads as well – for a fee, a toll, usually a share of the luxury goods being transported. As trade developed, it needed places for trading. The first places were fairs that lasted only a short time. But as fairs lasted longer, they eventually became permanent trading centers, the first towns – and later, with large-scale trade, the first cities.

     Eventually, the growing food surplus from agriculture supported empires, a collection of cities and farmland conquered and governed by monarchs such as kings and emperors, with substantial military forces, tax collectors, and other government officials. Besides a tax on surplus food, farmers/peasants were often forced to labor in the off-season, another form of tax used to build grand monumental structures – castles, giant statues, pyramids, etc. – which monarchs desire to display their power.

     Barter, the trading of products for products including amounts of labor, was how trade worked in a small-scale pre-money economy. Eventually, money, created by governments as coin or certified paper, replaced barter as a quicker way to trade over larger regions.

     The idea of property began with plots of farmland, but it spread to all the features of towns, cities, and nations: boundaries that demarcate urban houses and house lots, streets and walkways, shops and businesses, and boundaries of towns, cities, counties, states, and nations. A myriad of rights, obligations, inclusions, and exclusions adhere to each and every one of these bounded units. Civilization was here and growing.

     We are discussing here the general social formations that exist and arise when a transition occurs from hunting and gathering to agriculture and the rise of the concept of property. Such a transition happened in multiple locations, in China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and each transition had its unique characteristics.

     Moreover, empires and civilizations come and go, and their decline is often rapid. In a calculation by Lucas Kemp, some 87 civilizations occurred between 3,000 B.C. to 600 A.D., average lifespan 336 years, shortest 14 years, longest 1,150 years. Some of these civilizations disappeared completely. Others declined to a simpler form, such as to towns or villages. The causes of decline include natural catastrophes, climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, plagues, and “social complexity.”

     This last cited cause of civilizational decline is intriguing, but not further defined. Social complexity likely has two aspects. One is a growing division of labor in which different areas or regions of a city or civilization specialize in a product best suited to their local environment, be it weather or material resources, but shared with all. When one region suffers a catastrophe of any sort, the sudden loss of one essential product disrupts all the other sectors dependent on it, and civilizational collapse happens quickly.

     The other aspect of social complexity is cultural, broadly conceived. Culture is the laws, customs, and habits of a population that are learned and passed down through generations. But civilizations often include a mix of populations, of ethnic groups, and a tension always exists between the cohesion within ethnic groups, their adherence to distinct group norms, and the overarching system of laws, rules, and broadly shared norms. These overarching norms are always weaker and prone to collapse.

Losing our social support networks

     American culture places high value on wealth and material prosperity. At the same time, But however, we ignore the quality of our social lives, our social relationships. OIn broad perspective, not just over decades, evenbut over centuries, we have been steadily losing our social support networks, defined as having the same few people around us for a significant time. We do not see this loss, we do not talk about it, we only feel its silent impact. Something is missing – but we know not what.

     To see how social support networks affect us, consider the homeless today. – who they are and why they are homeless. They are:  Veterans, after military servicee.  Ex-convicts, out from prison.  The mentally ill, often cast out by their families. And of course:  Recent immigrants, who have no roots in their new land.These homeless populations are often addicted. They have only substance, not people, to turn to for satisfaction.

     The obvious problem of the homeless is The lack of social support networks. How do we solve it? for the homeless is obvious. How do we solve it? A recent book “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem”[1] only repeats a widespread assumption: just give the homeless housing and that will solve their problem. WIt’s wrong. TOf course, the homeless will take the free -housing-for-life –  – a material thing, let us note – but it does not change what they suffer from and the negative behavior that gets them into trouble:  addiction, mental illness, and (we will add) loss of their social support networks.

     Over four years, 2018 to 2022, California spent $17.5 billion on housing for the homeless, and its homeless population only grew. Similarly, HUD’s “Housing First” policy has failed.[2] A recent article by Michele Steeb, policy expert and head of a successful homelessness program, makes this same point: it’s not a lack of housing.[3] Steeb urges specific treatment for addiction and mental illness, and it has succeeded. HBut we note that her program operates in a congregate housing and religious setting and in a religious context. So, how much was the treatment’s social setting, andor even its religious setting, a significant part of what helped homeless people get on a better path?

     Our point is that homelessness is a social problem, even a societal problem, but not in the usual way it is conceived. If we are correct that loss of social support networks , or lack of them, is the real problem, then the widespread view is utterly wrong, that “the real cause of crime and misery is inequality, poverty, and racism,” to quote from a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.[4] To resolve inequality, poverty, and racism, even if possible, would take decades – , only to discover, too late, that itthey did not work.

     Similarly, the widespread view that homelessness can be solved by giving the homeless free housing is another all-too-easy , self-righteous platitude.

     We who are not homeless, we, too, suffer from a similar loss of social support networks, just to a lesser extent. Consider the state of our social lives today. For many households, everyone leaves home in the morning for their individual destinations: daycare, school, jobs, stores, all of them bureaucratic organizations or factories where relationships are highly specialized and often near-anonymous. At the end of the day, everyone returns home to freezer food or take-out and to their individual digital screens. Exaggerated? In many cases, yes. But our social lives have moved steadily in this direction over the past half-century. American adults, on average, watch almost five hours of television a day, which adds up to 15 years of an average adult lifespan.[5] Our face-to-face interaction with the same few people is largely gone, or becoming largely gone. Call it the “scant family.”

     Consider the evolution of the family, from extended family to nuclear family to scant family, a steady decline in the number of family members living together. Starting with the Mayflower or even earlier, new arrivals in America (except slaves) usually came with their extended families, settling with home-country compatriots in the same areas and or neighborhoods. Their extended families were a varied assortment of grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins, with all the skills among them to survive in the undeveloped New World. New England’s famous triple-deckers were an economical housing form originally built by large immigrant families in the latter half of the 19th century. They allowed extended families to live together or in adjacent apartments or next door or down the street. 

     The extended family meant that three generations of adults lived and worked together. In a large kitchen (common in triple-decker apartments), the women not only cooked food but preserved it for future use with older technologies: canning, drying, salting, and cold storage in the basement. The elders were built-in babysitters and teachers for the children. The middle generation of adults managed the large household and were built-in caretakers of the elderly. For the men, businesses were often conducted from the home or in a nearby outbuilding, and younger men learned the skills of the older men by watching and helping. It was a very local, highly self-sufficient arrangement – with enduring relationships.

     The extended family largely disappeared, however, as the nuclear family became dominant over the 20th century: two married parents often with two or more children. The stay-at-home mom cooked, managed the household, and was a full-time, on-site caregiver for the children until they started school, but only as early as kindergarten. The go-to-work father often left home for a bureaucratic or factory job.

     This nuclear family, then, largely gave way to the scant family as we described: two-income families, children in daycare from an early age, with most older children and adults interacting in large white-collar bureaucracies (including K-12 schools and 4-year colleges) and blue-collar factories.

     What are we missing today? What do we need from social support networks? We need familiar people with whom we interact almost every day, who we respect, who care about us, who push us to succeed, who admonish us for poor behavior, who have their own experience of success to draw upon, who have resources to help us out. They are also people who we can help if we have the experience and resources. Usually, strong social support networks occur with family members, relatives, and in small, cohesive work groups, such as soldiers, firemen, policemen, and small-scale business partners and employees.

     Apart from becoming homeless, what are the more widespread consequences of our weakened, disappearing social networks?

▪ Young adults, out of school, not in a stable job, searching for direction, searching for friends, lost in loneliness, prone to suicide, all of it aggravated during the Covid lockdowns.

▪ Crime and violence, when the lack of social support networks fails to channel a person’s energy/aggression into constructive activities and instead lets it loose against people who are anonymous to the aggressor.

▪ Radical ideologies, on the left and the right, which unite large groups of people by ideology, not by enduring relationships among a few people. Ideologies lump us into abstract categories – oppressors and oppressed, white supremacists and downtrodden minorities, homophobic heterosexuals and LGBTQ+. But they do not know each other personally.

▪ Lack of intelligent dialogue and debate, loss of the “marketplace of ideas” in which the best ideas rise to the top.

▪ Relativism and loss of scientific method. The world is malleable. No identifiable laws or forces exist. Nevertheless, when we ignore those laws and forces, they come smack us with the hard truth of reality.

▪ Declining faith and rising secularism, which weakens or destroys longstanding, widely shared beliefs and traditional places of local gatherings, such as churches, temples, mosques, etc.           

▪ Authoritarianism and dictatorship, which survive only in one-ideology settings. The population is turned into atomized individuals. Weak social support networks make them easily manipulated.

▪ Declining test scores, when schools and universities consider themselves in loco parentis, replacing parents and indoctrinating values, with less not teaching of subjects – civics, math, science, history, and more advanced topics – and not training for practical, real-life jobs.

▪ The two-income family, in which the goal of wealth and women in the workforce requires daycare and ignores the hard, sad truth that putting a number of small children, even babies, with a few adult near-strangers slows and permanently damages their social, emotional, and mental development, a conclusion widely resisted.[6] From the Institute for Family Studies: “By third grade, children who had experienced more cumulative hours of child care across their first 4.5 years of life conflict, especially were at increased risk for fewer social skills, poorer work habits, problem behaviors, and teacher if they had been in day care centers.”


    What to do? The primary place to have frequent contact with the same few people is in families. Today’s scant families could be strengthened, bringing more people and the same people into the home every day. Local neighborhoods are the other place conducive to frequent contact with the same relatively few people.

     Good relationships only thrive with an economic component. So, we need to bring more resources into our homes and into our local neighborhoods, resources such as food (gardens and local farms) and practical skills and tools (carpentry, home repair, crafts). And we need regular whole-family and local neighborhood activities, such as storytelling and skits, reading aloud together, recounting family and neighborhood history together.

     This kind of change, however, likely only happens with ground-level changes in our neighborhoods, in our minds, in our goals, in our hopes.

     But the challenge still remains: how to develop social support networks for those who have lost them, for the homeless? In brief, the homeless need to be brought together and kept together in small groups with shared experiences (veterans with veterans, ex-cons with ex-cons, etc.), tasked with setting group standards and individual goals, and given access to job skills training and addiction counseling, preferably within the group as a team.


[1] “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” authors Gregg Colburn & Clayton Page Aldern, 2022.


[2]   ▪ “Housing is not the same as treatment. Housing First’s record at addressing behavioral health disorders, such as untreated serious mental illness and drug addiction, is far weaker than its record at promoting residential stability.”  ▪ “Housing First’s record at promoting employment and addressing social isolation for the homeless is also weaker than its record at promoting residential stability.”


[3]  Michele Steeb is a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and oversees its initiative to transform U.S. and Texas homelessness policy. She is the author of “Answers Behind the RED DOOR: Battling the Homelessness Epidemic,” based on her 13 years running Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a successful California-based program for homeless women and children.


[4] WSJ, Sat-Sun, March 16-17, 2024, p. A13.

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