Bryan Caplan  

How I'd Sell Civilization to Cavemen

From Poverty to Prosperity<... The World Needs the Accidental...
Geoffrey Miller's Spent begins with an imaginary dialog between a modern man (You), and a couple of cavemen (Gerard and Giselle).  You're trying to sell them on modern civilization, but you're thwarted at every turn.

First, you fail to sell Gerard:
Gerard: So, Man-from-Future, with this money stuff, could I buy twenty bright young women willing to bear my children?

You: No, Gerard.  Since the abolition of slavery, we can't offer genuine reproductive success in the form of fertile mates for sale...
The back-and-forth continues, but at the end you've got to admit that modern civilization can't offer Gerard much more life or reproductive success.

Next, you fail to sell Giselle:
Giselle: Man-from-Future, can I buy a handsome, high-status, charming lover who will never ignore me, beat me, or leave me?

You: No, Giselle, but we can offer romance novels that describe fictional adventures with such lovers.
Finally, in desperation, you start listing camping gadgets: steel knives, backpacks, and shoes.  But when an elderly cave woman asks, "What's the catch?," honesty compels you to respond:
All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills, and then work and commute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature.
I've got a lot to say about Spent, but I'll start by insisting that any half-decent salesman could sell civilization to cavemen.  The salesman should start by mentioning that civilization ends hunger.  In fact, by working for an hour or two a day, you can go to a "grocery store" and choose between tens of thousands of tasty foods.  If that's not enough, civilization keeps people warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and dry all year long.  And even if it doesn't drastically raise adult life expectancy, civilization does wonders for infant and child mortality.  Do you think cavemen might miss their kids when they die?  If so, civilization has much to offer them.

OK, how should the civilization salesmen deal with Gerard and Giselle's amorous questions?  He could show them pictures of our movie stars - more attractive than any caveman or cavewoman could conceive.  In the interests of full disclosure, the salesman should add that movie stars are exceptionally good looking, but that almost every civilized human looks better than the average Cro-Magnon.

What about the school and work expectations that civilization imposes upon us?  A wise but honest salesman should point out that civilization offers all kinds of job options.  You can still enjoy food, shelter, etc. even if you take an easy job, dislike commuting, want to live near family and friends, or desire "contact with nature."  To close the deal, the salesman should offer the cavemen a few leading questions: "Do you ever get bored of hunting and gathering?  Fed up with meddlesome relatives?  Well, civilization gives you a choice!"

Spent goes on to attack economists for our indifference to marketing.  Frankly, though, Miller's not setting a very good example for us.  Economists may need to raise our social intelligence, but even we know how to sell heat to Eskimos.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Paul Zrimsek writes:

Cavemen were big on "political empowerment"? Who knew?

Pat writes:

Not getting your head bashed in and living twice as long might be a good selling point too.

RobertB writes:

Pretty weird that the book tries to suggest that civilization doesn't offer a gigantic improvement in reproductive success, considering that there are currently billions of civilized humans currently alive, and less than a million humans currently living with Stone Age technology.

scott clark writes:

I love the idea that somehow cities aren't natural. What could be more natural than living in close proximaty with the people you cooperate with? You know what's not natural? Wandering around in the woods by yourself. The reason your there by yourself? Yea, it's cause everyone realizes that they don't belong there.
Joe Rogan has a great routine about this in his latest stand-up special.

Constant writes:

Okay, so grant that civilization gives you shelter, food, heat and cooling. Still, that only accounts for a small fraction of current typical effort. If Geoffrey Miller is not critiquing this aspect of civilization then his story can be modified so that the caveman have already bought into these basics and one is trying now to sell them on the aspects that Miller is critiquing.

Chris writes:

But nutrition was arguably better pre-neolithic revolution. After the introduction of civilization defined as agriculture, human height went into a 3000 year decline.

Nathan writes:

How about basic pain relief? People in pre-modern times experienced frequent pain from wounds, infection, rotted teeth, etc. I think a single syringe of morphine would sell almost any self-interested caveman on modernity.

Billy writes:

Just tell them how much money they could save by switching to Geico.

jb writes:

You will live in caves that are well lit with sunlight during the day, with special lights as bright as sunlight at night. You will sleep on the softest, most comfortable bedding you have ever experienced, far more comfortable than you can imagine. You will be warm in the winter, cool in the summer. You will never have to hunt for food unless you want to - delicious food will be stored in a special small cave in your main cave. Clean water and delicious fruit drinks will be everywhere.

You will have another special small cave in your main cave for pooping and peeing, and it will carry the poop away so you never have to smell it or see it or step in it or drink it.

Your clothes will be amazingly soft and easy to clean. You will not have to make anything yourself - your medicines, weapons, plates and bowls, clothing, food, tools - everything will be made for you, unless you want to make it yourself. Your choice.

you will be able to see and talk to your loved ones, no matter how far away they are. You will have special pools and drawings that will come to life, and tell you amazing stories and sing wonderful songs to you.

In every way, you will live like the greatest Chief ever known, barely lifting a finger before your wishes are fulfilled. You will find so little to fear in life that you will actually make up silly new fears, just to give you something to do, because all of the old ones are gone forever.

And yet, as hard as it is to believe, that is not the best part. The best part is that none of your children will die or go hungry - it is almost a certainty that every single one will grow up healthy and strong. Your wife will not die in childbirth, your husband will not die hunting or fighting an enemy child. The Shaman Doctors of our time have cures and remedies for every disease that you know of, and many that you don't. You will live long into old age, til your hair is white and you are old and weak, and still the world will care for you and bring you delicious food and treat you when you are sick. You will almost certainly live long enough to see your children's children's children born and grow up.

Dan Hill writes:

What's this nonsense about not being able to buy sexual partners, especially for the guy. Is Miller seriously trying to tell us that there is no correlation between the amount of money a guy has and the willingness of women to sleep with him? Seriously?

Or you could sell it with one of P.J. O'Rourke's classic lines: "Would you rather die of cholera at 8 or cancer at 80?"

Tom writes:

Upon reaching adult age, no one is forced to live in a civilization. Yet, few people discard their modern things and head for remote isolated areas to live as cavemen and cavewomen.

Even the Geico cavemen wear modern clothes and drive motorcycles. ( I see someone beat me to the Geico joke).

8 writes:

Why no historical examples? There have been countless interactions between backwards people and civilization. It's an offer you can't refuse: join or die. It's just a matter of which you prefer: to see your genes passed on, but watch your culture and way of life totally annihilated, or accompany your culture and way of life into the ether.

Independent George writes:

...but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?

guthrie writes:

Nothing, IG!

Wait... is that a sandal on a stick...? ;)

ryan yin writes:

Brought peace?

Penny writes:

I'm pretty sure that letting them spend a night on a modern mattress would seal the deal.

I read an account of some explorers who encountered some hunter-gatherers in a remote jungle, and when the explorers made their dinner they shared it with them. The hunter-gatherers had never tasted plain old white rice before, and they thought it was so delicious that they cried. Living on roots and grubs and the occasional bird, rat, or rabbit has got to really suck.

Floccina writes:

Freedom from lice and mosquitoes. Hot and cold clean running water.

guthrie writes:


There are those few who do, however, eschew our corrupting modern way of life... and I'm sure we could all learn from them... Ted Kaczynski for example...!

Penny, I saw something similar on either Discovery or NatGo... I think it was a tribe deep in the Amazon. The kept touching their mouths after eating the rice, amazed at the sense of taste... quite fascinating!

Marcus writes:

Air conditioning. 'Nuff said.

Seriously, it seems to me Geoffrey Miller has a very misguided idea of what life was like for cavemen.

No ticks, no mosquitoes, no going hungry for weeks at a time. It might be true that we haven't eliminated these things entirely but if he focuses on that then he's ignoring the huge gains we have made.

If Geoff really thinks working 40 hours a week is so bad, maybe he should go try and live off the land for awhile. I suspect it won't take long before he thinks 40 hours a week is a veritable vacation.

Li writes:

Maybe we can't guarantee a perfect lover for Giselle, but "you will likely capable of supporting yourself and your children, and there is public support for you if you can't, so you need not choose between abuse and starvation" is a pretty good start.

Monte writes:

This may not work for Giselle, but if we're trying to sell Gerard on civilization, I'd talk up the risk-free aspects of modern-day cinematography. Contrary to popular belief, Roundhay Garden Scene is not the earliest surviving motion picture. A hieroglyphic depiction of early caveman porn was recently discovered called Jurranessic.

guthrie writes:

Unfortunately, Marcus, even if Geoff tried living off the land in the most remote of places on earth (think the steppes of Mongolia, the deep Amazon or Congo rainforests, Australia’s outback, etc), he wouldn't come close to experiencing the dangers that humans faced in terms of predators only 70,000 years ago. Cave bears, Saber-tooth cats, giant, carnivorous birds, flying insects the size of dinner plates... not to mention the likelihood of his being immunized from all kinds of diseases that haven't posed a true threat to humanity for quite some time now... even as tough as it might be, it ain't nearly as dangerous or deadly anywhere on earth now as it was for prehistoric man.

Raimundo writes:

In the spirit of overcoming bias, shouldn't we question our own intuitions on this matter since all of us probably have a pro-civilization bias? For that matter, don't we all also have a pro-language and pro-art bias as well?

Just to play devil's advocate, I'll cite a widely-read anti-civilization author John Zerzan who has written quite original critiques of civilization, art and even language, arguing that all of these phenomena are fairly new in the history of our species and that before their invention we did not need them for living happy lives. You can read the essays here if you're interested:

Don't get me wrong. I'm adamantly opposed to Zerzan's ideas. Still I must admit, his is a point of view I had never come across before. Shall we get Bayesian and save civilization from these kinds of extreme critics?

Felix writes:

Gerard: So, Man-from-Future, with this money stuff, could I buy twenty bright young women willing to bear my children?

Ha. Is Gerard supposed to be a caveman or a character in a beer commercial whose tribe consists chiefly of members of the Swedish Cheerleading Team?

Anyway, as others have noted, the answer is ... "Yes".

eric mcfadden writes:

Fools that write this civilization sucks stuff have never suffered through a survival school. Try shivering your rear end off curled up in a ball at night or spend a week trying to make a terrible fishing net.
These straw man arguments against civilization will never say the wise to abandon the wonderful plenty Americans enjoy. At best Miller is a fool, at worst he would like me to feel bad about how I live so that he can tell me how to live.

Don writes:

"Hey, Gerard -- you know that festering sore in your mouth that's caused you constant pain for 13 years? That'd be gone. The aching emptiness of hunger? Gone, too. Speaking of gone -- do you remember your two children that your wife nursed and cared for, but they died in infancy? They'd be alive. Your wife would still be alive, too."

And we're done.

Steve Sailer writes:

There are still hunter-gatherer tribes in existence. There aren't that many examples of tribes making smooth transitions to civilized life. Generally, all sorts of things go wrong, and huge death rates are frequent. Certainly, the single uncontacted tribe of Andaman Islanders on North Sentinel Island is healthier and more numerous than the poor tribes now in contact with Indian civilization on the larger Andaman Islands.

Tracy W writes:

Also, as an upside, Gerard is at much less risk of being a slave himself now we've abolished slavery.

I also am a member of a hiking club (a tramping club in NZ terminology). Many members of that club work for the government, or for their own businesses, and yet still can afford steel knives, backpacks and shoes, and even Gore-tex raincoats. Furthermore the tramping club does offer a sense of community, judging by the numbers of marriages amongst members, and political empowerment - the club's president for a while also worked for the NZ Treasury, and thus would find himself representing the club on the other side of the table from his workmates, which resulted in much ribbing from both his workmates and other club members.

Finally, I bet no cavewomen had degrees in early childhood education, nor had they done risk analyses on their huts or caves - so what quality childcare?

Skeeter the Dog writes:

So, the commenters have established that Miller's fictional dialogue is a straw-man, and that modern civilization is, generally, not just superior to a caveman's existence, but much much MUCH better.

But does Miller have a point - i.e., is he hinting at something that is worth some thinking? I have not read anything he has ever written, so I'm operating purely on the basis of what is written above...and I think he's making some valid points.

For the vast majority (approx. 99%) of our (human and pre-human ancestors) genetic existence, we lived very different lives from what we live now. In some very important ways, I do not believe our genetic make-up has caught up to the exponential growth of technology (broadly defined). I'm thinking specifically of health/fitness/diet (grains, sugars, and all processed foods are effectively brand new, Vitamin D deficiency is epidemic, diseases of modernity that older hunter-gatherers do not get - e.g., diabetes type2).

Also, modern life seems to reward certain characteristics/personalities that clearly would have survived in the distant past, but maybe not flourished like they do now. Tribe elders and chiefs (i.e., leaders) are often shown to be wise and humble(d), which may be pure romance, but could a wise, humble person be a CEO of a large corporation, be President, in today's age? I certainly can't think of any, and in my old job I certainly came into contact with a lot of today's business "leaders."

Anyway, I have more specific thoughts, but I'm getting long-winded, so I'll just say: don't be so quick to dismiss Miller's underlying point, even if he doesn't make it very well or misses the mark slightly...I think he's got something to teach us.

Brandon writes:

Why would a caveman care about "political empowerment," "contact with nature," or a "sense of community"? I doubt most cavepersons would care even about "childcare." Wouldn't their most likely response to these things be along the lines of, "WTF"?

The whole exchange is a bizarre dialogical non-sequitur.

And just to reiterate the theme here:

This guy is the worst salesman EVER.

Constant writes:

Skeeter - I second that. I think Miller could well have a point that is getting lost in the pile-on - see my earlier comment.

Jason Malloy writes:

"The back-and-forth continues, but at the end you've got to admit that modern civilization can't offer Gerard much more life or reproductive success."

Genetic data suggests that only 40% of men in history had offspring (compared with 80% of women). Meanwhile the GSS shows that some 86% of American men over 40 have reproduced.

"In fact, by working for an hour or two a day, you can go to a "grocery store" and choose between tens of thousands of tasty foods."

Actually by working zero hours a day!

See this Times article from a few years back about a primitive forager people that stumbled into civilization and fell in love with the modern miracle of welfare: Leaving the Wild, and Rather Liking the Change:

"Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish... Are they sad? "No!" cried a Nukak named Pia-pe, to howls of laughter. In fact, the Nukak said they could not be happier. Used to long marches in search of food, they are amazed that strangers would bring them sustenance — free."

Sounds like it would be an easy sell. Incidentally, see Justin Wolfers' Economics of Happiness. The strongest correlate of happiness in an international data set is access to good tasting food.

Food is the centerpiece of human contentment.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top