A child in hospital in Houdieda, a port city in western Yemen
by Mary W Maxwell
Don’t rate your children’s chances by your current position in the social system. All could change rather drastically before they reach adulthood. In fact, don’t even rate your own chances a decade hence according to what you’ve always been accustomed to. We are in a period of upheaval.
I’ve lived my life in what I consider to be unbelievable luxury – I have never wanted for food, shelter, clothing – or social events, education, security, music, etc. It all fell like manna from heaven into my life. No, wait, it didn’t fall. The system I lived in somehow saw to it that I would have all those things.
Comparing Homo sapiens to other species is helpful. It’s always easy to find out what a particular animal requires. Just observe it for a few days and find out where it gets its food and water, and what interactions with other species and conspecifics are involved.
Usually there isn’t any system in place for animals – I mean there are no food kitchens, no supermarkets, no phoning out to have meals delivered. Just as there were none of those things for humans until fairly recently in history.
For a long time we got our food straight from the earth. There may have been local arrangements for sharing, as is true also of the wolf species (and is of course the norm in social insects — ants and bees). So if four men captured a bear by mutual effort all four and their families might enjoy the bounty.
No power arrangements had yet come about. However, there are differences among individuals in skills, in aggressiveness, in deceitfulness — so one’s ability to get the needed nutrition may have been other than “equal.” (Note: non-human animals do not aim for equality but for their own survival.)
Certainly by the time agriculture was invented – the sowing of crops – people were interdependent. The person who pulled the plow, or organized oxen into doing it was a “specialist.” The same fellow did not fish, pick fruit, or gather fuel (firewood) for cooking the food. Other specialists did that.
The domestication of plants is known from about 10,000 years ago and of animals, such as cow and sheep, from 5,000 years ago. Barter must have accompanied that change. “I’ll give you A if you give me B,” and open markets later.
The domestication of people – if we may call it that – also took place. When the mode of food production is crops and livestock, one no longer gets food directly, and individually, from the earth. One has to negotiate with the whole group.
It seems to me that the norm in human history is for food distribution in any system to be universal. That is, the society sees to it that bodies are not falling on the ground from starvation. Everybody is seen to be “entitled” to subsistence.
Serfdom, Slavery, etc
Thus a system of serfdom may come about in which the “owners” arrange to have the best things for themselves and see to it that those who produce the goods for them are kept in reasonable health.
Soon a “philosophy” will be found to match that reality. The rich will know that they are the best people around, and the poor will know that they are not worthy of having the things that the rich have.
It does not take much development of that sort of control-in-situ before a philosophy of slavery emerges. As the slaves are no longer members of society (but are chattel) the rules of human interaction – such as do not kill, do not rape – are called off.
Moreover when one whole nation or tribe conquers another, the vanquished may automatically become slaves of the victors. Perhaps they are sufficiently glad not to have been killed off.
Coping with a Low (or High) Status
I am guessing that the human ability to fall in line with the regime of slavery is built on a psychology that has been present since mammals evolved. Many mammal species have hierarchies — even birds have pecking orders.
The goal for each individual is to find a place – be it high or low. It looks to me that we humans have this psychological instinct. At conception there is no telling where we will end up in the hierarchy – slave, slave-owner, whatever. We possess the means to be high or low.
Also, the “philosophies” that I mentioned are important. If you are born into a class or caste that justifies its position by a story – maybe a story of your holy origin, or a story about the universe (Hindus look forward to reincarnation in a different status) you may be able to cope with poverty, if you are on the low end, or cope with delivering cruelty if you are on the high end.
Fast Forward to the Last Hundred Years
We who were born in the 20th or 21st century in Western countries were not told that our future would be as perilous as is the life of a Yemini today. We would not starve. We’re smart! We have Big Government! Most of all, we have money!
Yet it is obvious that just as the first humans needed food and water – just as all mammals need food and water – that is something that has to be taken care of. Each of us is vulnerable to starvation – depending on what system is in place.
Our present system could fall apart at any time. If that happened, how would you get your food? With money? How would you get your money? And does it have any intrinsic value?
Could you get food by bartering, such as handing over your diamond ring for a loaf of bread? Not if there were no loaves of bread around.
Access to nutrition depends on the society acting like a unit. Today we have no choice but to live in a society. Indeed we are huddled together by the millions in large cities. The society needs to make intelligent decisions in order to see that people get fed.
If you think our society does not have leaders to deal with that, you had better become a leader right now. Indeed if you think you have leaders who are deliberately planning to cut off the food supply, you had better be vocal about that and suggest a remedy.
Once the food supply is cut – as seems to be the case in Yemen and Sudan today (though it is being blamed on a famine) – you won’t have the strength to fight for anything.
— Mary W Maxwell is the author of Human Evolution
Photo credit: Qz.com