Explaining the paradox of civilization
Reviewed in the United States on 7 October 2019
Great book. I recommend reading it whether you are a listener of Christopher Ryan's podcast or not. If you're not, Civilized To Death assumes no prior knowledge and lays out its argument and evidence from the ground up. And, depending on how much of the ideas in the book you've encountered before, you might find it completely upends how you see the world. If you are a regular listener of the podcast, you'll find a lot of familiar ideas, but what's different here is that all the ideas are systematically organized, fully fleshed out, and all the names of researchers and historians and the names of books and research papers, etc, which fly by when you're listening to a podcast and are hard to catch, are spelled out, with pages of notes at the end of the book with all the references so you can check the sources for yourself or learn more about any of the concepts in the book.
So what is the book about? Well, if you've ever wondered about this seeming paradox, that we live in an age of space age wonders -- we can go to the moon and all have supercomputers in our pockets -- and yet, it somehow still feels cold and meaningless, like there's a nutrient missing, that as our technology advances, life should be getting better and better, yet, rather than descending down towards zero, rates of depression and anxiety are actually going up (and lest you think that this is simply a change in measurement and reporting, actual suicides are going up as well), and that our efforts to find solutions, such as our society's political discourse, seems the flounder all over the place and always miss the mark, as if everyone trying to talk about our issues can only draw from a limited, boxed-in set of ideas, this book is for you. The central premise of the book, which explains these mysteries, is that we humans are the only species that has domesticated ourselves. We all live in what is essentially a zoo -- a world built for us by other humans -- instead of living in the natural world like animals. Everything from the food we eat to the houses we live in to the social institutions that shape our lives to the electronic communications systems that form so much of our waking life experience these days all follow designs and rules invented by other humans, much as how zoo animals live in a world that is totally built and controlled by the zookeepers. If it was a perfect zoo, with a built environment that suited our species perfectly, this wouldn't be a problem, but it is a very imperfect zoo, and the mismatch explains the ailments listed above. So as not to spoil any of the surprises in the book (and there will be a few, I can pretty much guarantee, even if you are already familiar with ideas from psychology, anthropology, and archaeology) and to keep this review short and to the point, I'll just say that Christopher Ryan pokes and prods the zoo cages to see what they're all about, and also delves very deeply into the question of, "What kind of animal is the human species?" Human nature probably isn't what you think it is, because the zoo itself, which we call "civilization", feeds us completely wrong information about who we are, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because the wrong story serves the interest of "civilization" better. If you want to know who we really are, and what the evidence is, read this book.
The book is clear and fast-paced, and even though it references a lot of science, it never gets bogged down in details or scientific jargon. All the ideas are presented directly (with occasional humor) and in a way accessible to everyone. You'll probably find you zip through the book in a matter of days, but the ideas will stay with you and you'll think about them for years to come.
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