The Bioethics of Hunting and Gathering Societies

By Gowdy, John M. | Review of Social Economy, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

The Bioethics of Hunting and Gathering Societies


Gowdy, John M., Review of Social Economy


The Bioethics of Hunting and Gathering Societies Hunting and gathering societies are generally considered to represent the lowest form of human existence. These societies, when mentioned at all by economists, are held up as examples of the terrible fate awaiting us if we waiver in the quest for technological advance and economic growth. By contrast, it is argued in this paper that the hunting and gathering way of life represented, in many ways, the most successful lifestyle humans have yet devised.(1) Of the many societal forms humans have adopted, the hunting and gathering lifestyle has two important advantages. First it is the only way of life truly compatible with the long-run sustainability of the ecosystem and thus the ultimate sustainability of the human species. Secondly, it was a way of life egalitarian to an extent unknown in present-day agricultural or industrial societies. Knowledge of the characteristics of these societies is not only interesting in its own right, but it also offers suggestions for addressing contemporary problems of equality and ecology.

I. Life in Hunting and Gathering Societies

Among anthropologists the view of hunter-gatherers has gone through a great transformation during the past decades. Early anthropological accounts focused on the negative. Such societies were primitive, savage, and represented a lower stage of evolutionary development. Until quite recently most accounts echoed the view of Thomas Hobbes who described life in the "rude state of nature" as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." This view fit well with the Social Darwinist views of nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hunter-gatherers occupied the lowest rung of the evolutionary ladder leading to western civilization.

The model of hunter-gatherers as primitive savages collapsed during the 1960s. Ethnographic studies of groups in Africa and Australia found that they did not die young nor did they face a constant threat of starvation and deprivation at the hands of a hostile natural world. Account after ethnographic account reported that they had a rich and varied diet, lived relatively long lives and had plenty of leisure time. The model of hunter-gatherers that came to dominate in the 1960s was "neo-functionalism"; hunter-gatherers as ecologists (Bettinger, 1987). Their behavior was described as 1) rational and adaptive, 2) group oriented, and 3) homeostatic. In the decade of the 1980s, the research emphasis shifted to micro-level considerations -- many borrowed from economics -- of optimal foraging strategies (Bettinger 1980; Binford 1977, 1980; Clark and Mangel, 1986) or energy balances, and a greater appreciation was given to the many important differences among groups of hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, the basic positive view of hunter-gatherers which emerged in the 1960s remains intact.

In the 1960s and 1970s several influential publications did much to sway opinion, at least among anthropologists, toward a more realistic and sympathetic view of hunter-gatherers. Marshall (1961, 1976) published accounts of the !Kung Bushmen which presented evidence that each !Kung adult, in spite of living in one of the harshest environments on earth, spent only 2-3 hours per day in activities directly related to subsistence. Furthermore, about 40 percent of the !Kung population, children, young adults (aged 15-25) and elderly (over 60) were not expected to work and did not contribute to the food supply. The pattern of ample abundance of food, much leisure time, and relatively long, healthy lives was found to hold in a variety of hunting and gathering societies in Africa and Australia, as reported in Lee and Devore's 1968 volume Man the Hunter, a collection of papers presented at the 1966 symposium on hunter-gatherers held at the University of Chicago. The tone of the essays in this volume is consistent with the views of Lee and Devore as set forth in the introduction:

To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent

adaptation man has ever achieved. …

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