I hate when people fall into paradise lost traps in their thinking. It is too easy for us to think that the past was somehow great and that our modern times and our pathway to the future are bleak. We always seem to be looking back to some sort of paradise that we have lost, some great golden age that has passed, some point in the history of humanity where everything was better. We criticize high school kids today as being worse than we were when we were their age. We imagine times when humans were more civil to each other. We lament a loss of our connections to nature and a natural way of life. Underneath all of these ideas is a fallacy.
I think the heart of paradise lost mindsets is the long human childhood development period. We literally did have someone who watched over us and provided for all of our needs (if we had a full, healthy, and enriching childhood which is not the case for everyone). This sets our mind up to believe that there truly was a golden time where everything was perfect. That there was a paradise that we lost as we got older. The reality of course, is that we were simply young and didn’t have fully formed brains. We were not aware of the difficulties and tragedies of life, if we were lucky.
Also playing into this fallacy are various errors in human memory and judgment. We fail to remember the boredom, tedium, and frustrations of our youth. We are more likely to remember positive moments, even if they were few in number, than the long and unremarkable stretches of time or our past fears and anxieties. This misremembering process takes place in other areas too. We fail to remember how bad long traffic commutes were for previous jobs, we fail to remember minor contentious political and social events that created ill will and animosity among our societies and families, we forget how painful workouts were from back when we were in better shape. We fail to remember all kinds of negativities in our lives and we fail to recognize how awful life has been for other humans across space and time. And life has been miserable, violent, and deadly for humans across time.
As an example, Steven Pinker writes about the amount of violence that ancient humans experienced. Skeletal remains that we can recover from hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of years ago show substantial signs of violence. It is quite common to find remains with signs of major injuries that occurred before death and were very likely inflected by other humans in acts of violence. “Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium,” writes Pinker, “the only bodies that got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had been ritually sacrificed. But for most of the bodies, we have no reason to think that they were only preserved because they were murdered.” According to Pinker, it is unlikely that so many of the bodies that we have recovered have signs of trauma consistent with human to human violence simply by chance. The reason why there is so much violence identified by anthropologists on ancient bodies is likely because there was a lot of violence experienced by ancient humans. Pinker continues, “prehistoric remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.”
It is fashionable today to say that humans should live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That in moving to big modern cities we lost some part of paradise and have disconnected from our humanity. That we need to eat like a caveman, need to be one with nature, and need to reconnect with our natural human instincts. But this is just a fashionable myth. Our ancient hunter-gatherer forebearers were quite violent and lived short and painful lives. The paradise is today and lies ahead of us, not behind us where we were under constant threat, were undernourished, and killed each other or inflicted violence upon one another to a greater extent than we do today.