The Roll of the Dice: What Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherers Know About Luck (And We’ve Forgotten)


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This picture might be overly bucolic, but there is no Fox News


In this week’s New Yorker, John Lanchester has a really interesting, humbling, and depressing read about how civilization turned out to be really bad for people in general. It made us unhealthier, more stressed, and, though he didn’t say it, downright meaner.

He says outright that the Neolithic Revolution is the worst thing that’s ever happened to humans, and that if we had slowed our roll a few hundred thou after harnessing fire, we’d be much happier.

That isn’t to say we’d be stupid. As Lanchester points out, there were literally thousands of years after the dawn of agriculture but before the rise of city-states. This was a time where there was art and some religion, mythologies, and knowledge about how the world worked. People, it seemed, didn’t resist collecting into civilization because they didn’t know how, but because it didn’t seem to make sense.

The whole article is really interesting, and points to some fascinating-sounding scholarship, but this might have been my favorite part.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. (Affluence without abundance- ed) It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition.

What really strikes me about this is how hunter-gatherer societies embrace and understand the role of luck in life. Think about it. You could be an amazing hunter, but if something else spooked the animals, they’re off and running before you unleash and arrow. You could throw a spear perfectly, but if the gazelle zigs left instead of right, it falls clattering to the earth, pointedly and pointlessly.

So much in life is about luck, chance, and circumstance. You could stumble into some sweet hunting grounds or be born rich. You could watch the prey you’ve been stalking get freaked by a bird and run off, or you could grow up in the shadow of industry that’s poisoning your water and putting lead in your brain, limiting opportunities in life.

Things happen. As we’ve grown as a species, we’ve invented new ways to heighten the role of luck, the roll of the dice. Capitalism exacerbates this, with all its talk of meritocracy. Racism, prejudice, and borders make it stronger. Where you are born and to whom you are born make more a difference than who you are.

Hell, luck can extend to the random sequencing of a genetic code, a little glitch that makes you sicker or weaker or less able to rise up. That’s luck.

Paul Newman, in talking about his camp for sick children, had one of my favorite quotes about luck in life.

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No! You’re not allowed to be this handsome and wise!


I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.

And we’ve set up a society that refuses to recognize that. We’ve set up a society where the national myths are that you deserve your fate, and that there are many people who deserve to suffer. If they are suffering, ipso facto, they must deserve it. And they should suffer more, so that the luckier, who never consider their fortune anything just the justifications of virtue, can have more.

You may have recognized this as a summation of the Republican platform. It’s made crystal clear in their multiple attempts to repeal the ACA (and how goddamn happy Paul Ryan was when he thought he did).

Because that’s what repeal really is. It is saying that if you work three jobs, none of which have health care, you don’t deserve it. If you have a pre-existing condition, that’s too bad. If you live in a state with a Republican governor, too bad. If your cancer becomes metatastic and you can’t afford care, well, them’s the breaks.

That comes from the inability to understand that life is about luck. It’s about the driver looking up just in time to slam on her brakes before she t-bones you. Another second, another half-second, and you face a lifetime of therapy and mounting bills. There’s no virtue there. That’s only chance. The same as if you had entered the intersection a half-second earlier and were in her way.

Our system shouldn’t be about ignoring luck. It shouldn’t imagine that the person who happens to have the most meat at any given moment is the bravest, the best, and the most worthy. Our adherence to that superstition puts us far behind hunter-gatherer socieites. We’re less wise, less moral, and less knowledgeable about the world. We’re just less.

(h/t to Allison, Dee, and Bill Breeding for the breakfast conversation about this piece that made me think about luck and who we are. Always my favorite people to talk to.)


Enceladus Discoveries Demonstrate That Life (Almost Certainly) Exists


The caption as the NASA site reads, blandly and beautifully, “Color image of icy Enceladus.” It sounds like the beginning of a poem that somehow explains everything. Someone write it. 



Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

NASA announced on Thursday that its Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn has gathered new evidence that there’s a chemical reaction taking place under the moon’s icy surface that could provide conditions for life. They described their findings in the journal Science.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.

Don’t let the last paragraph get you down. Thrill, instead, at the possibilities. And thrill, even more, at the certainties. Because while Enceladus might not have life, the last sentence contains within it the seeds of a glorious “yet”, and with that, the possibilities explode like the limitless universe.

Let’s just take Enceladus, and assume that its youth has left it so far lifeless. But the idea that life could develop there, given time, expands our perceptions in both directions. Think of the idea that there could have once been life on Mars, or even on Venus, even just the merest microbes that were entirely annihilated with the slightest shift in orbit.  Life developed over millions and billions of years, while the earth was lifeless, or as the first microbes emerged from a chemical sludge, and then disappeared. Entirely. Our centuries seem so vain compared to that eonic drama.

And then go forward: after we’ve wiped ourselves out and the earth starts to rebuild from our folly, maybe life will slowly bloom on Enceladus. It might not happen, but it might. It might spark to life and then fizzle out, unsuccessful. That has probably happened billions of times across the universe.

But the point is, it has happened. One of this blogs secondary yammering points has been that we’re past the point where any reasonable person could think there isn’t life outside of earth, or that there hasn’t been, or that there never will be. Mars once had water. Enceladus has the primary conditions for life. There are seven nearby planets that are the right distance from their star to contain life.  There are40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way.” Just the Milky Way! There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more things than can be contained in even our most outsized vanities.

The universe is far too big, and far too weird (look how weird Pluto is), to think we’re the only place this has happened. But that’s not so bad. We’re probably the only place where that weird chemical sludge whorled and zapped up the exact combinations that led to sequoias and dinosaurs and tree sloths and Tilda Swinton, and that’s awesome. We get to have Warren Zevon and playoff hockey. Neat!

None of this is to say that, given the size of the universe, and the certainty that we aren’t alone, that our problems are lessened. Because, functionally, we are alone. It’s not like any jerkass Enceladusian microbes are going to FedEx us a care package, much less a solution to our crippling frailties. The fact that we know that life certainly started in other places, even in our solar system, and was wiped out, a fate that will absolutely befall earth, should be enough to dim our self-destructiveness and work to make better the time we have. One would hope, anyway.

I’ve argued that since we are past the point where life in the universe can plausibly be doubted, even without definitive proof, something will slowly alter in our morals. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a generational thing, much like the Copernican “discoveries” began the slow erosion of Popish authority. Our perceptions of ourselves will change. And I think it could be for the better.

We might realize that far from being special, we’re lucky. We’re enormously lucky to be here, as a planet, as a species, and as individuals. Stretch back to the beginning of time and trace the events that led to your parents meeting. It’s impossible. So much could not have happened, and so much didn’t happen to other potential beings, other potential species. A wrong turn on a Sunday means your great-grandparents never chanced into each other or that you were just too far away from the sun to be warm, and so you’re a lifeless void.

It’s wild, these possibilities created by an endless universe. Maybe if we recognize that, if we recognize this glorious chance that lets us drink champagne with the ones we love, we won’t be so vainly self-destructive. If only we have time.

(Note: for a good scientific explanation of Enceladus, read Calla Cofield’s piece at