Source Book For Social Origins

Comment on Part I: The Relation of Society to Geography and Economic Environment

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In connection with the whole question of the relation of geographical environment to culture, I feel that in one sense this relation can hardly be exaggerated, while in another sense it may be greatly overdone. Mason's paper on technogeography brings out the absolute dependence of man on nature. He may be more or less cunning in finding out what he can get out of nature, but he can secure nothing which she does not afford. On this score we need not hesitate, and we can also have no doubt that in certain regions nature affords more than in others. But after all culture is more fundamentally connected with the operations of the human mind than with the aspects of nature. Nature may affect the rate and particular form of progress and limit its degree, but human society takes the same general pattern everywhere. Every people has its laws, its commandments, its religion and superstition, its marriage, its art, its property, etc. The paper on the Yakuts shows the effect of a very cold climate on social life, but we are struck even more by the resemblance of the life of the Yakuts to that of central Europe than by its difference. Their practices are harder, because life is harder, but they are not harder than the practices of the central European peasant, and in many points strikingly resemble them.

It is plain also that the force of climate and geography is greater in the lower stages of culture and that ideas play an increasing rôle. The peculiar cultures of Japan, China, and India were the results of psychic

(131) rather than geographic factors in the first place, and the transformation they are now undergoing is again one of ideas.

The paper of Bücher on the economic life of primitive man ought to give us a different idea of the laziness of the savage. In certain respects he was a very energetic person, and this will appear in more detail in the later section treating of his inventions. Certainly he, like ourselves, shunned unstimulating activities as far as possible, and substituted animals, slaves, women, and mechanical forces to do routine work, but his real backwardness lay, as it still lies, mainly in lack of numbers, permanence, security, and accumulated materials and ideas. Among ourselves, as the result of an artificial relation to the sources of food, long habits of specialization, and a fierce competition growing out of pressure of numbers we have developed steady habits of work and a very fast pace. But this is merely a social habit on our part, and not a natural disposition.

As a working hypothesis, at least, w e may assume that prehistoric man was of essentially the same nature and mind as man at present and that this is true also of the savage. Before men are able to live in large numbers the characteristic works of civilization are not possible, and large numbers are not possible until man has worked out a very particular relation to the food supply. Lewis Morgan has justly remarked, in his Ancient Society, that man was at the threshold of civilization when he had made a union of the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds-had harnessed the horse or the ox to the iron plow for the purpose of cultivating the cereals. At that point the food supply was controlled to such a degree that men were not only able to

( 132) live in large groups, but had that surplus we call capital which enabled them to disengage their attention from the satisfaction of immediate appetite. When a man has "only one meat between himself and starvation" he may indeed be inventive-and primitive man was preeminently that-but he cannot interpose all those intermediate steps, those long calculations, those elaborate constructions, and specialized aims and habits which characterize civilization.

The foregoing materials also enable us to appreciate the fact that the first steps in human progress must have been almost incredibly slow. If white society were stripped by some disaster of absolutely everything but life, it would be able to reconstruct its civilization rapidly, because it would retain the pattern of everything in its memory. But primitive society began `without these ideas and memories. Without fire or metals, domestic animals or plants, with no artificial means of travel and communication, with no general conception of change, and no outlook except the immediate satisfaction of appetite, man must have drawn away from the brute world very slowly. Totemism and savage man's reverence for animal life have excited a great deal of wonder and speculation. But it is not strange that he should have felt so. Man had a peculiar power of mental calculation which the animals did not possess, but in their fighting equipment, strength, poisons, swiftness, and peculiar senses and instincts, he felt that they outclassed him. His superiority was acquired slowly and was. long in doubt.

Nor is it surprising that different groups of men progressed in different ratios, because of difference in opportunity afforded by the geographical environment,

( 133) and the varying nature of crisis and reaccommodation. And in this connection we should once for all discard the habit of thinking of the lower races en bloc. There is as much difference between the North American Indian and the Australian as between the Indian and the white man. Between the Australian or the Wood Veddah of Ceylon and the ancient Greek or the modern German, it would be possible to make a rough but continuous classification of culture on the principle of more or less complete control of environment.


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