A Stone Age Mind in Suit and Tie
(The immediate motivation for this essay was reading about Gen Y gig workers searching Craigslist for short-term, low paid, and non-benefited jobs. That melded with much older motivations and this essay practically wrote itself.)
Shortly after I began writing essays, I was walking home from my daily journey to the local library and upon espying a brass washer lying in the street I picked it up, and put it into my pocket thinking that I could use it someday. I chuckled as I thought about that incident saying to myself “now that was typical hunter-gatherer behavior: find it and eat it, or use it.” And I continued thinking with “picking it up might be hunter-gatherer behavior, but putting it in a box for future use is more characteristic of civilized behavior.” Why would I associate picking up a battered piece of scrap metal with Stone Age hunter-gatherers and then contrast that with storage in civilization? Here is the rest of the story:
The gig economy is nothing new and it has roots going back millennia. Building construction requires it and construction workers have its long history in our tribal culture. I know nothing about the building construction trades in the ancient world, but the fantastic buildings of which we see only the ruins are mute testimony to the skill of those workers.
I will begin the story as the Dark Ages began dissolving in the nascent light of the Medieval. Towns and then cities blossomed, trade increased, money circulated and power devolved upon the merchant. Civilization resumed organizing labor and resources, and building. These new buildings were not the hovels, sheds, shacks, and small dwellings, churches and monasteries of the Dark Ages. They were buildings. Monumentalism accompanies cities and civilization – that is one metric of the socio-economic capital of the elites – and big buildings require money and skill. Money tends to concentrate so large buildings are localized. They require labor, skilled labor above that required for the production of food and other necessities, and that labor is drawn from escapees from the land, lord and bishop. We belonged to the trade and the job, applying our skills for the duration, and when the job ended, we went to another job somewhere else. We worked for the glory and the monuments of the merchant, the bishop and the city, but we belonged to our trade and generated its mores and social control of individual behavior, and transmitted these via stories.
Personal social capital in the building trades is generated and garnered upon several attributes, among them and in particular, attitude and technical skill which are individual behaviors within the mores of the trade. Story telling, our oral culture, is an essential part of the formation of our individual and tribal social culture. I’ve heard stories of nuclear power plants, rocket launch facilities, radar stations in the Arctic, and oil facilities in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I listened eagerly to the big big-job story, the Alaska Pipe Line, and guys coming down off the Slope had wonderful stories to tell. I hung onto their words knowing that I would never go there and that I could only experience those jobs vicariously.
I’ve listened to some master story tellers. There were stories of heroes and bums, of problems solved and dangers to watch out for. I’ve roared with laughter over the antics of one worker and then sorrowed over the death of a another. Stories transmit and teach our shared knowledge and culture. Stories control individual behavior by providing role models for emulation and examples of undesirable behavior.
What does all of this have to do with hunter-gatherer behavior? Not a lot, really, except to note that construction workers are story tellers. And one of the stories told a long time ago altered my mind and lies behind much of what I write, providing a major element of my motivation. Let me tell you that story:
I was working on a headquarters building for a pharmaceutical company, running big conduit for the high voltage conductors feeding large transformers on the roof of a four-story building. Each piece of conduit weighed about 110 lbs. and for this section a piece of conduit was screwed together with a long radius 90-degree elbow for a total weight of about 200 lbs. This combination was wrestled into a conduit bender and carefully bent to the required angle and then removed from the bender and placed on the floor. This was repeated with a second length of conduit and an elbow. My apprentice and I then carried one of these about 150 feet to a stair with a switchback in the middle. Up we went, lifting the conduit over our heads as we traversed the switchback. At the top of the stairs we turned and walked about 50 feet to our electric cart. Back we went and fetched the other piece.
It was nice to take a breather as we drove the cart a hundred yards to the construction elevator. We picked each piece of conduit up and carried it up the ramp to the elevator platform and set it down. When the elevator arrived, we picked each conduit up and then set it down in the elevator. When we arrived at our floor, we picked them up again and carried them to the scissors lift, a mobile work platform that would lift us and the conduits to the ceiling level. At the lift we raised the conduits to about 5 feet from the floor, set them on the lift platform and up we went. When we arrived at the ceiling level, we picked up each piece of conduit again and lifted it above our heads and slid in onto the conduit supports and screwed it together. That’s a lot of lifting and shifting.
This was winter in California. The building was open to the elements and the wind was blowing off the bay. It was air conditioned alright but not warm and comfortable. The wind, humidity, cold steel and concrete sucked the heat right out of my body. I was 56 years old and definitely an ectomorph weighing in at 145 pounds on a 6 ft frame. There is not much of me between wind and bone.
I was cold, tired and miserable, yet if you had asked me, I would have told you the progressive story of civilization, how we had it so much better than those Stone Age savages whose lives were nasty, brutish and short. I would tell you that we had the benefits of civilization: buildings, fire, food, clothing, and medicine even as I was working my fingers to the bone to gain those benefits. It was a good story and made sense – how our forebears gathered together in cities to take advantage of increased food production and then to generate surplus capital that was used to make buildings, fine art, music, and literature – umm, that is, stories.
At lunch time a fellow named Gray, I don’t remember his given name, got to talking about the Affluent Savage Hypothesis – telling a story as we do. I had never heard such an idea. He told us that Stone Age savages led good and healthy lives with far less work, about 4-6 hours a day of light work, and rested or played the remainder of the time – preposterous! He told of the archaeological evidence of the transition from hunter-gatherer through sedentism to civilization and about the Peasant Adaptation. Hunter-gatherers had bigger bodies and brains with less disease and better teeth and bones. Peasants living under civilization were shorter, had smaller brains, and their remains showed obvious debilities including tooth decay, evidence of disease and bone damage from grinding grain.
I was gobsmacked, as the Brits say. It sounded like so-called savages might not have had nasty and brutish lives. They might not have our current life spans, but that is due to the very recent development of medicine. That new story, that they were not working their fingers to the bone and that they might have had more play and fun than I was having, resonated in my mind. It rewired my brain. It was a minor conversion experience and the direction of my thought was altered. I perceived it to be a very interesting, possibly true story, and worth further investigation. Even more, it appeared to potentially explain labor in a very different concept set.
A few years later I received another mental jolt. I read a bit of Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind. His ‘breakdown of the bi-cameral mind’ did not resonate in my mind and had little effect. But in the middle of the book was something new: he extended the concept of evolution to sociological evolution. That resonated. It rewired my brain. This was a bigger conversion experience. I did a Julian Huxley moment: “how extremely stupid of me to not have thought of that.”
I now think that we have Stone Age minds in suits and ties, and in construction workers with tool belts around our waists. We are essentially foraging gather-hunters living in high rises and buying our food at the grocery store. When I picked up that brass washer from the street, I was engaging in foraging behavior. And when I put it into a box for future use I was engaging in civilized behavior, an analog of storing grain in granaries, because foraging is no longer possible, that is, I cannot not depend upon walking out into the street and picking up a washer, or a tuber or a fruit, when I need it. I had converted from a progressive interpretation of civilization to an evolutionary interpretation. This may be pushed beyond the evolutionary to the catastrophic – civilizations are known to be meta-stable, witness the angst over the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
This story was revolutionary and revisionist, replacing progressivism with evolution and improvisation. I now understand civilization as an evolutionary series of brilliant social and technical improvisations in response to a variety of exterior environmental and interior social challenges, in particular climate and demographics. Civilization has an evolutionary history and its story is not entirely or solely progressive. One improvisation may, at the time, appear to be successful, but over time and under change be revealed to require a further improvisation. At some point this process may fail, environmental and social challenges are not met, and a civilization collapses.
My thesis retains an element of progression, after all the cathedral of Chartres certainly appears to be quite an advance over the stick huts of the hunter-gatherers on the Kalahari Desert. But that perception of progress hides yet another catastrophe story which is increasingly being told by anthropologists: that civilization rests firmly upon forced labor, unequal social class, and military conquest – the major elements of the economic miracle and social catastrophe which I descried in One Thousand Words and Root Hog, or Die. Civilization unambiguously generated power, wealth, and luxury, and at the same time, slavery, poverty, labor, and social class. I omitted warfare from this list upon the thesis that tribal conflict consequent to demographic compression and resource competition preceded civilization and was one of its major generative factors.
Construction workers and the gig economy: we are gathered together for a job and toward the end of the job, we are dispersed to another job, the hiring hall, or unemployment. While it may be an over-statement that we invented the gig economy – that is necessitated by the nature of building construction – our institutional mores are methods of dealing with the complex problems of short-term employment and working well with strangers. I can take a job call from the union hall at 8 AM and by the end of the day be working well with a partner that I have never seen before. By then we will have sorted out experience, knowledge, ability, attitude, and dominance, and be making money for the contractor doing a job we have never seen before. And I will probably never work with that partner again after the job is done.
In my years in the trade I did not witness one fight or serious argument. We freely share experience and knowledge knowing that if we angered someone this year, next year he might be a foreman, and what comes around goes around. My father-in-law worked as a welder in the Portland, OR shipyards in the first years of World War II. He had a problem welding something and went to his foreman asking for help. The old-timer looked at Nick and said “you’ll learn it the same way I did, the hard way.” Two years later Nick was a foreman at the Hanford Project building the plutonium processing facility. That old-timer was assigned to Nick’s crew and was promptly put to work welding stainless steel in the overhead position. Molten stainless is very fluid, much more than the carbon steels used in shipbuilding. It runs and drips, and it dripped all over this guy. At lunch time the old-timer showed up with burns all over his clothes and body, and asked Nick for help. Nick shoved his words back at him “you’ll learn it the same way I did, the hard way.”
I was on one job with a fatality. It was due to the engineering and installation of equipment for which I was responsible for the maintenance. For years it had been of no consequence, provision had been made in the original design for a large volume of water to overflow a weir, and no one paid any attention until one day one thing was different and a man died by drowning. That problem was solved by a coupla hours of work and a dollar’s worth of steel and rubber. I’ve listened to many stories of accidents. Our stories generate shared knowledge of dangers, and its causes and solutions.
Hunter-gatherer: male anthropologists originally wrote this phrase and male hunting was seen as definitive so the order of words was hunter first. But in every anthropological study I have read about modern non-sedentary, non-civilized peoples, females more reliably gather more of the calories. Or as one wit put it “women go where the food is and men go where the women are.” So, in my previous essays I have inverted the customary order of words using ‘gatherer-hunter’. Further I prefaced this phrase with ‘foraging’ to distinguish foragers from sedentists who gather and hunt from one location and are not agriculturalists. But there is more to the story than that. Men do most of the hunting. Meat and fat are concentrated sources of calories and are an excellent source of fuel for our demanding brain, we are, after all omnivores, our teeth tell us that. So maybe I should not have inverted the word order and my gatherer-hunter locution is simply an attempt at being intellectually cool or au courant. There are fads and fancies in academic and intellectual pursuits and this may be one of them.
This essay was easy because it was about that most fascinating, endearing and enduring subject, me. My story is that heavy work and miserable working conditions intersected with a story about the easy life of un-civilized hunter-gatherers that resonated in my mind and caused me to question the progressive interpretation of civilization. As they say, the rest is history.
But there is more than ego here, for I have laid out a significant part of my path, motivation and tribe for all to read. Would that every member of the ‘chattering class’ do the same rather than pretending that they alone have descried an otherwise ineffable and ineluctable truth when they may have only found their path-, motivation-, concept set-, and social class-dependent private truth – their own mental model of their experiential world. The chattering class strip their personal experience and motivation from their lucubrations as if those were irrelevant and they were solely dealing in truth.
While I was writing I Solved the Epistemological Problem I had in the back of my mind the conduit story and from it I had concluded that I didn’t have a problem with external reality. I picked reality up and carried it somewhere else every day. When I close a high voltage switch into a load, the circuit is either right or wrong: it either quietly goes mmmmm or violently goes BANG. Going mmmmm implies that my every perception, decision and action while building that circuit sum to right measured not in my mind and its values, but in the measurement of that circuit by its external reality, a merciless taskmaster imposing its values and necessities upon both the circuit and me. Intellectuals dealing in weightless words might not have quite the same appreciation of external reality. I am moving heavy objects and succeeding. They are attempting to move invisible minds with their weightless words and are not always succeeding. There is little to no intellectual uniformity, rather there are intense arguments in both the academic and political arenas. No wonder they question if they are dealing with external reality. Their weightless words and stories are not subject to the correction of reality. I’ve been hit, hut and cut by reality. I have a justifiable confidence in my perceptions of my external reality. But my meta-stories of explanation, interpretation and connection – now that is another story of path dependency and motivation, weightless words attempting to express my mind and move other minds.
I am a construction worker. I tell stories. My essays are built with stories and upon them erecting meta-stories of explanation, interpretation and connections.
At the last moment, just before publishing, I added these observations: I noted that free labor (in the sociological rather than the economic sense) was necessary for the building trades and that we had escaped from the land, lord or bishop. There is another implication of our freedom. At the end of our employment we were just free labor. We did not belong the lord so he had no responsibility for our unemployment relief. We did not belong to the parish so the bishop was freed of responsibility of parish relief. When the job ended, we either had to return home, find another job, or depend upon each other. There are many examples of beneficial relief societies outside of the lord or bishop.
I did not fact check this as it would require an excessive amount of research but I believe it is a reasonable story which I may have read elsewhere. The point of this observation is that unemployment is a fact of life for construction workers and our institutional culture, the stories we tell, are, in part, coping with this problem. I’ve told some of them to my grandson who is an apprentice in the building trades because he needs to know to survive.
A percentage of construction workers are ‘tramps,’ moving from one job to another with no fixed home. and in my experience, they are the best of the story tellers. They have some whoppers. Their stories are about their experiences, how to live within the constraints of being temporary labor, hired for a big job in the middle of nowhere.
For an expression of monumentalism, read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:
My name is Ozymandias
Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.
For an expression of meta-stability of civilization, continue reading:
Nothing beside remains.
Archaeology examines and studies these old wrecks.
For the effects and problems of technical improvisation in a civilization: https://wtf.tw/ref/tainter.pdf
For collapse: Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed … ISBN 978-0-241-95868-1
There are criticisms Diamond’s theses by anthropologists and they may be found in the book Questioning Collapse which I have not read. The central thesis of collapse of many civilizations is based upon unassailable evidence but the mechanism is subject to interpretation.
“How extremely stupid…: the 19th century biologist Julian Huxley uttered those famous words upon hearing Charles Darwin’s evolutionary thesis. That was a major conversion experience replacing one organizing/explaining story in his mind with another in a very short time. A corresponding expression today is “I dope slapped myself when I heard….” I’ve dope slapped myself many times, I even look forward to having to do so, and the results are right here in my essays.