Are you better off than you were 400 years ago?

Here’s an impossible question: is life especially hard for you because you don’t have access to technologies you’ve never even conceived of?

An early episode of CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us included some Canadian celebrities talking about how hard life was hundreds of years ago. The examples cited were that “we’re very lucky… because we can get on a plane” and “I can’t leave my house without my phone.” This is an easy and common fallacy; it’s very tempting to apply our own “beliefs and experiences” to people from the past, and assume we can understand what it was like to be them.

In reality, the culture and context of people who lived centuries ago were different enough that it takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what their lives were like. For starters, people who lived in the land now called Canada hundreds of years ago had all sorts of problems, but a lack of mobile internet ain’t one. Hundreds of years from now human descendants, if there are any, will be tempted to think I suffered because unlike them, I was bound to one physical body, didn’t have a networked mind, and lived in a world that hadn’t yet unlocked the secrets of faster-than-light travel. They would be just as wrong.

Of course, this assumes that life is always getting better, and that if you could live at any time in history, you’d want to live now, if not in the future. Some critics of this idea call it “the myth of progress.” In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes that the cultural idea that things are getting better is a relatively recent one in human history, beginning in Europe around the time of that continent’s conquest of the Americas, about a hundred years before the dawn of Canadian colonialism.

Before that, most Europeans believed that history was static, and that if anything life had gotten worse since the time of a lost “golden age.” As Europeans began to colonize and conquer the Americas, the modern idea of progress was a nascent, experimental theory.

In Sapiens, Harari also argues that while new technologies have been good for the species, they have often been bad for individuals. Ancient foragers, he writes, were “as fit as marathon runners” and “had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.” One way to learn what forager life was like in the distant past is to look at hunter-gathers living today. “Even in the most inhospitable of habitats such as the Kalahari Desert,” today’s hunter-gatherers work an average 35-45 hours a week, less on average than non-foragers in either the developing or affluent world.

If the foraging life of earlier humans meant people were healthier and had more leisure time, why is the development of agriculture considered an improvement? The agricultural revolution was biologically good for the species because it allowed for an increase in population. From a biological perspective, more copies of a species’ DNA is a good thing even if the individuals carrying around that DNA are working harder and getting less in return. This is why Harari calls the agriculture revolution “history’s greatest fraud.”

The point, in the context of early Canadian history, is to be skeptical of the assumptions we might have about what kinds of societies are valuable for what reasons, and about how life does or doesn’t improve for individuals over time.

If you want to understand what life was like in pre-contact North America or early colonial Canada, and you do so primarily through a lens that views past people and their lives as primitive or lacking, your understanding will be very limited, in part because that’s not how they saw themselves. They, like us, could only ever compare their situation to what was possible and normal in their time. Additionally, even if they could compare their society with today’s, there’s no guarantee they’d prefer ours. The theory that people from the past or people with less advanced technology are always worse-off is hardly nuke-proof.

For example, in the 16th century southwestern Ontario was home to The Wendat Confederacy, and they, writes Bruce Trigger, “knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own.” They traveled and traded over today’s provincial and international borders, and remained secure in this belief. And when the French arrived after thousands of years, they still didn’t really change their minds.

This was going to be a post about the Wendat, but again I got lost in the preamble, because I think the context is so important. So I’ve copy-and-pasted the next 1800 words over to another draft for another day.


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2 Replies to “Are you better off than you were 400 years ago?”

  1. This argument is weak sauce, because it paints a picture of physically healthy people with more leisure time, but conveniently ignores a MASSIVE swath of factors that makes life for primitive/historical peoples comparatively garbage. Here are a few:

    1. Life expectancy. Would you prefer 30-40 years with a fit body, or 80 years with a bit of a ponch? Me, i’d go for longevity.

    2. Pain. Pain from disease, pain from infection, pain from predators and parasites gnawing on your flesh, and no relief in sight. Pain all the time.

    3. Darkness. It’s insufficient to suggest that because people worked 35 hours a week, the rest was left to leisure. The sun sets – then what? You can have your leisure, as long as it’s while sitting around a fire for light. We’re shrouded in darkness through a sizable chunk of the year. And then there’s the cold. Wintery days might be productive while the sun’s up, but at night time, back you go, near the fire. Or maybe you’ve built yourself a nice longhouse? In you go to stay warm. But it’s dark inside. As much leisure as you can handle, as long as it’s knitting or beadwork, and as long as you can do it by feel instead of by sight, with your hands shivering.

    4. Uncertainty. Barring any natural disasters, i’m reasonably assured of where and when i’ll take my next meal. In a pre-agricultural (or, more aptly, a pre-supermarket) era, i’m preoccupied with hunting and gathering. i can’t faithfully rely on either the herd or the naturally-growing plants, because i can’t control them. i’m completely at the whim of the weather, or at the whim of wild animals that may eat the same food i want to eat. Imagine if there was one supermarket available to you, and you didn’t know on any given day whether it would have lots of food, some food, or no food.

    Technology solves our problems. Pickling, smoking, drying, and fermenting help solve our problems of food scarcity, as does agriculture. Electricity solves our light and heat problems. Medical science and pharmaceuticals solve our disease and pain problems (and yes, often far better than naturally-occurring plants can, you dirty hippies. i wouldn’t let a dentist feed me beet root extract before a root canal).

    It’s easy in articles like these to jump straight from “hunter-gatherer” to “Snapchat selfies,” but you’re being deliberately disingenuous if your concept of technology does not include zippers, dishware, and bandages – all of which freed up certain societies to spend their warm and well-lit leisure time conquering other societies.

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