What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not that humans had evolved from other species. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that Paleolithic humans or Mesolithic humans guessed that they had evolved. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was the fact that, before the advent of agriculture and village life, humans had lived in a profoundly different way.
This explains why the Great Forgetting was not exposed by the development of evolutionary theory. Evolution in fact had nothing to do with it. It was paleontology that exposed the Great Forgetting (and would have done so even if no theory of evolution had ever been proposed). It did so by making it unarguably clear that humans had been around long, long, long before any conceivable date for the planting of the first crop and the beginning of civilization.
Paleontology made untenable the idea that humanity, agriculture, and civilization all began at roughly the same time. History and archaeology had put it beyond doubt that agriculture and civilization were just a few thousand years old, but paleontology put it beyond doubt that humanity was millions of years old. Paleontology made it impossible to believe that Man had been born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder. Paleontology forced us to conclude that Man had been born something else entirely - a forager and a homeless nomad - and this is what had been forgotten in the Great Forgetting.
It staggers the imagination to wonder what the foundation thinkers of our culture would have written if they’d known that humans had lived perfectly well on this planet for millions of years without agriculture or civilization, if they’d known that agriculture and civilization are not remotely innate to humans. I can only conclude that the entire course of our intellectual history would have been unthinkably different from what we find in our libraries today.
But here is one of the most amazing occurrences in all of human history. When the thinkers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries were finally compelled to admit that the entire structure of thought in our culture had been built on a profoundly important error, absolutely nothing happened.
It’s hard to notice nothing happening. Everyone knows that. Readers of Sherlock Holmes will remember that the remarkable thing the dog did in the night was … nothing. And this is the remarkable thing that these thinkers did: nothing. Obviously they didn’t care to do anything. They didn’t care to go back to all the foundation thinkers of our culture and ask how their work would have changed if they’d known the truth about our origins. I fear the truth is that they wanted to leave things as they were. They wanted to go on forgetting … and that’s exactly what they did.
Of course they were forced to make some concessions. They couldn’t go on teaching that humans had been born farming. They had to deal with the fact that farming was a very recent development. They said to themselves, “Well, let’s call it a revolution - the Agricultural Revolution.” This was slovenly thinking at its worst, but who was going to argue about it? The whole thing was an embarrassment, and they were glad to dismiss it with a label. So it became the Agricultural Revolution, a new lie to be perpetuated down through the ages.
Historians were sickened to learn the true extent of the human story. Their whole discipline, their whole worldview, had been shaped by people who thought that everything had begun just a few thousand years ago when people appeared on the earth and started immediately to farm and to build civilization. This was history, this story of farmers turning up just a few thousand years ago, turning farming communes into villages, villages into towns, towns into kingdoms. This was the stuff, it seemed to them. This was what counted, and the millions of years that came before deserved to be forgotten.
Historians wouldn’t touch this other stuff, and here’s the excuse they fashioned for themselves. They didn’t have to touch it … because it wasn’t history. It was some newfangled thing called prehistory. That was the ticket. Let some inferior breed handle it - not real historians, but rather prehistorians. In this way, modern historians put their stamp of approval on the Great Forgetting. What was forgotten in the Great Forgetting was not something important, it was just prehistory. Something not worth looking at. A huge, long period of nothing happening.
The Great Remembering was in this way turned into a nonevent. The intellectual guardians of our culture - the historians, the philosophers, the theologians - didn’t want to hear about it. The foundations of all their disciplines had been laid during the Great Forgetting, and they didn’t want to reexamine those foundations. They were perfectly content to have the Great Forgetting go on - and, for all practical purposes, it did exactly that. The worldview we transmit to our children today is fundamentally the same as the worldview transmitted to children four hundred years ago. The differences are superficial. Instead of teaching our children that humanity began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that), we teach them that human history began just a few thousand years ago (and didn’t exist before that). Instead of teaching our children that civilization is what humanity is all about, we teach them that civilization is what history is all about. But everyone knows that it comes to the same thing.
In this way human history is reduced to the period exactly corresponding to the history of our culture, with the other ninety-nine point-seven percent of the human story discarded as a mere prelude.
The myth of the Agricultural Revolution
That the earth is the motionless center of the universe was an idea that people accepted for thousands of years. In itself, it seems harmless enough, but it spawned a thousand errors and put a limit on what we could understand about the universe. The idea of the Agricultural Revolution that we learn in school and teach our children in school seems similarly harmless, but it too has spawned a thousand errors and puts a limit on what we can understand about ourselves and what has happened on this planet.
In a nutshell, the central idea of the Agricultural Revolution is this, that about ten thousand years ago, people began to abandon the foraging life in favor of agriculture. This statement misleads in two profoundly important ways: first, by implying that agriculture is basically just one thing (the way that foraging is basically just one thing), and second, by implying that this one thing was embraced by people everywhere at more or less the same time. There is so little truth in this statement that it isn’t worth bothering with, so I’ll just issue another one:
Many different styles of agriculture were in use all over the world ten thousand years ago, when our particular style of agriculture emerged in the Near East. This style, our style, is one I call totalitarian agriculture, in order to stress the way it subordinates all life-forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food. Fueled by the enormous food surpluses generated uniquely by this style of agriculture, a rapid population growth occurred among its practitioners, followed by an equally rapid geographical expansion that obliterated all other lifestyles in its path (including those based on other styles of agriculture). This expansion and obliteration of lifestyles continued without a pause in the millennia that followed, eventually reaching the New World in the fifteenth century and continuing to the present moment in remote areas of Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and South America.
The foundation thinkers of our culture imagined that what we do is what people everywhere have done from the beginning of time. And when the thinkers of the nineteenth century were forced to acknowledge that this wasn’t the case, they imagined instead that what we do is what people everywhere have done for the past ten thousand years. They could easily have availed themselves of better information, but they obviously didn’t think it was worth bothering with.
East and West
It’s become a solid part of our cultural mythology that a profound gulf separates East from West, “and never the twain shall meet,” and this causes people to be disconcerted when I speak of East and West as a single culture. East and West are twins, with a common mother and father, but when these twins look at each other, they’re struck by the differences they see, not the similarities, just the way biological twins are. It takes an outsider like me to be struck by the fundamental cultural identity that exists between them.
Nothing could be more fundamental to any people than the way they get the wherewithal to live. The people of our culture, East and West, do this by means of totalitarian agriculture, and have done so from the beginning - the same beginning; for the past ten thousand years the people of both East and West have built squarely, solidly, and exclusively on totalitarian agriculture as their base. There’s not a single thing to chose between them in this regard.
Totalitarian agriculture is more than a means of getting what you need to live, it’s the foundation for the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. This comes as a shock to many listeners, but there isn’t any question about it: No one works harder to stay alive than the people of our culture do. This has been so thoroughly documented in the past forty years that I doubt if you could find an anthropologist anywhere who would argue about it.
It’s my notion that the laboriousness of their lifestyle has given rise to another fundamental similarity between the peoples of East and West, and this is the similarity in their spiritual outlook. Again, it’s commonplace to imagine that an enormous gulf separates East and West in this regard, but the two of them look like twins to me, because they’re both obsessed by the strange idea that people need to be saved. In recent decades, the salvationist coloration of Eastern religions has been toned down for export to Beat, hippie, and New Age markets, but it’s unmistakable when seen in the originals, in native habitats.
It’s certainly true that the ends and means of salvation differ between East and West, but then the ends and means of salvation differ among all the salvationist religions of the world - this is precisely how you tell them apart. The essential fact remains that, anywhere in the world, East or West, you can walk up to a stranger and say, “Let me show you how to be saved,” and you’ll be understood....
Mike Sved wrote:He theorizes that civilizations such as the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, etc, etc didn't end the way we were taught. According to him, their agricultural lifestyle couldn't be sustained and the hierarchical structure was unacceptable so the people abandoned their society and stepped back into the jungle to live tribally and forage for their food. If this is correct, then it would seem as though we currently are just collectively too lazy and complacent to abandon a system that is oppressive, miserable, selfish and destructive.
Mike Sved wrote:There is a very well-developed infrastructure in place to perpetuate the current state of society. Reclaiming one's sanity requires disconnecting from a wide array of subtle and not so subtle tethers that reduce our ability to think independently, logically and creatively. Television, music, newspapers, magazines, billboards, interwebs, packaging, etc, all bombard us with thought programming messages.
While we struggle to free ourselves, the majority of people are scrambling to sign up for newer, better, stronger tethers, thinking that they have to do so or risk being 'left behind', regardless of what lies 'ahead'. These people are then programmed to shun and/or attack anyone not with the program. It's a brilliant system for those benefitting from it and I feel sad for those being manipulated by it. To some extent, I'm still one of them.
I'm weary of lamenting and want to just get on with the things that I feel are worthwhile, responsible and enjoyable. I don't look forward to the obstacles ahead but I'd rather face them than glide down the freeway toward oblivion.