There are two radically different ways for members of a society to satisfy all their needs: by
producing a lot, as in Western societies, or by not wanting a lot, as in those the American
anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has called "Zen" societies. The "Zen" way chosen by
hunter-gatherer societies is to stop producing food as soon as they consider that the quantity in hand
has reached a level sufficient for their needs.
It has been shown, and statistically confirmed, that,
contrary to a widespread misconception,
...life expectancy among Inuit doubled between the
early 1940s and the 1980s, when it reached 66
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they
had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but
Regardless of how you feel about the theology involved, I think we can all accept Hugh Brody's assertion that Western Civilization is fundamentally a product of the stories found in Genesis. Stripped of its overtones of sin, the Fall of Man can easily be understood to reflect Man's rebellion against God's desire that we remain essentially docile creatures, content to subsist on His largess and not challenge Him in any way. In eating from the Tree of Knowledge, we understand Adam and Eve to have refused this existence, in a quest to become Godlike. As punishment, God banished them from the Garden of Eden before they could eat from the Tree of Life too, and so become like unto God.
of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for
thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18: Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast
thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
This basic drama is then replayed in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel is content to merely gather his sustenance from the bounty that God has provided, while Cain, representing Man after the Fall, toils to bring forth food from the ground with his own hands. Naturally, when they bring their respective offerings to God he favors that of Abel. An angry Cain slays his brother and so is sent east of Eden with all kinds of curses laid upon him.
3: And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering
unto the LORD.
4: And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had
respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his
6: And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
7: If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.
And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
8: And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that
Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
9: And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my
10: And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the
11: And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's
blood from thy hand;
12: When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and
a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
The essence of these twinned stories is that Man, though made in God's image and now endowed with the capacity for knowledge, is not quite God's equal. God is eternal, while Man is mortal. Therefore, Man does not have a sufficient lifespan in which to develop his knowledge. The tasks that lie before us then are to figure out how to dominate a hostile environment, how to expand our allotted days and how to increase and store knowledge from one generation to the next. Descended from Adam and Cain, we have not given up the idea of becoming God, no matter how hard the task may be.
Hugh Brody thinks this unwise. He is of the opinion that mankind would have been better off had Abel killed Cain, or had Adam never eaten from the Tree in the first place. Brody, an anthropologist and filmmaker whose specialty is aboriginal peoples, particularly those of the Arctic, makes a great deal out of the downside of the quest that we have inherited from Cain. He dwells on the difficulty of wresting a living from the soil, on the dissatisfaction, the wanderlust, the violence, and the inequities that have resulted from this choice. He contrasts it unfavorably with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which he has observed, which he says is egalitarian, geographically centered, and spiritually fulfilling :
The compelling expression of hunter-gatherer culture
lies in the balance of need with resources; the
He offers this hunter-gatherer culture as a healthy alternative to Western culture and notes its continued presence in our culture (in the form of communes, hippiedom, the homeless, etc.). But then, having seemingly set the stage for a clarion call to return to the ethos of Abel, he merely warns that these cultures are under such pressure from the modern world that their ways of life and even their languages are being lost. He urges that we learn from these people and their stories and recognize the impact we, and our quest, have had on them. He concludes the book with this rather modest admonishment :
Without the hunter-gatherers, humanity is diminished
and cursed; with them, we can achieve a more
Somehow, this doesn't seem like the crescendo to which his narrative was building. If he actually believes the critique he's offered of Western civilization and the hosanna's he's sung to hunting-gathering, then the only logic conclusion should be to urge the latter lifestyle upon mankind. That he does not conclude in this fashion suggests some well justified doubt in the validity of his entire argument.
In fact, throughout the book there are so many omitted or underplayed facts and counter arguments, and so many instances of willful obtuseness, that Brody's arguments border on dishonesty. Take for example the very idea that hunter-gatherers make a reasoned decision to live in balance with nature, that they have achieved a kind of static state which allows them to only hunt for as much as they need to feed their stable population. This is awfully hard to square with the infanticide which is used to control that population in times of need. More disturbing is the simple discrepancy in life expectancy between aboriginal peoples and their counterparts in the developed world. It's just hard to get too romantic over the supposed quality of their lives when those lives, absent our medicine, were so short. As to the harm to the species if native languages and stories die out, one feels compelled to note that this is made possible by the fact that they never figured out writing.
In the end, Brody's thesis really isn't based in anthropology or theology or spirituality or sociology; it's just naked political ideology. Though we in the West have generally accepted the idea that human progress depends on a certain level of risk, insecurity, and even violence, there is a significant countercurrent of thought which favors security and equality and is willing to trade technological advancement for harmony with nature and among men. The problem is that the folks who advocate this viewpoint also want to achieve the living standards that the agrarian, Judeo-Christian, West has achieved. Karl Marx presumably would not have been so popular if he'd said : Workers of the world unite; you shall live as the Eskimo do.
Brody seems either oblivious to, or unable to face, this truth. In his discussion of the import of the Cain and Abel story, he says :
But Genesis is not a universal truth about the human
condition. Inuit children do not grow up with
You wouldn't think it would be possible for an author and scientist to misunderstand his own thesis so completely. For, of course, the Inuit conform precisely to Genesis : they are Abel or Man before the Fall. Trapped in ignorance, sentenced to brief lives of mere subsistence, they too shall eventually vanish, leaving little or no appreciable cultural heritage behind, except that recorded by Westerners like Brody. I've no problem with the idea of setting aside lands for these peoples to try to maintain their traditional lives, nor with folks like Hugh Brody trying to preserve a record of theiir societies. Heck, if that's what Brody is after, I'm even willing to acknowledge that the West has been awfully abusive of the indigenous peoples we've encountered as we expanded across the globe. But set aside for the nonce all ideological questions, all personal opinions, and ask just this one question : if those who follow Abel's way of life are still fishing with spears some thousands of years later, while those who follow Cain's example are exploring the stars, decoding the human genome, and splitting the atom, then how could the Cain and Abel story ever have ended differently. In terms purely of Sociopolitical Darwinism, survival of the fittest system, Abel, however placid and beautiful his lifestyle, never had a chance. It's really quite silly to pretend otherwise.
-ESSAYS: Is there a place for hunting in the modern world? (Open Democracy)
-ESSAY: FROM STONE AGE TO POST-MODERN: Has Hugh Brody got indigenous peoples wrong, when he says that they can be modern in their own way? RICHARD D. NORTH takes off from the hunting debate. (Open Democracy)
Book-related and General Links:
-EXCERPT : from Living Arctic: Hunters of the Canadian North by Hugh Brody
-EXCERPT : from Map of Dreams by Hugh Brody
-ESSAY : Resurrection: =Khomani of the southern Kalahari (Hugh Brody)
-ESSAY : Permanence and Change (Hugh Brody, Northern Perspectives : Canadian Arctic Resources Committee)
-BOOK SITE : The Other Side of Eden : Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World By Hugh Brody (FSB Associates)
-PROFILE : Life As A Hunter-Gatherer (BBC Outlook)
-ARCHIVES : "hugh brody" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Other Side of Eden by Hugh Brody (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: HUNTERS, FARMERS AND THE SHAPING OF THE WORLD By Hugh Brody (The Economist)
-REVIEW : of The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World by Hugh Brody (Ros Coward, The Observer)
-REVIEW : of Other Side of Eden (Wayne Grady, Ottawa Citizen)
-REVIEW : of Other Side of Eden (Marius Silke, iVenus)
-REVIEW : of Other Side of Eden (John Palattella, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Other Side of Eden (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd