Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Modern Hunter-Gatherer

I'm not a very evolved human being. I define myself by my ability to provide for me and my clan. I guess that makes me not very much different from my Lower-Paleolithic ancestor Homo habilis. Bring home a woolly mammoth for dinner, and you are the big hero. Come home empty handed, and you might find yourself evicted from your cave and the main entree at the home of a sabre-toothed cat or hyena.

As a society, we like to pretend that there is a huge difference between us and our rock-throwing forefathers. Personally, I don't see much difference. Sure, we have much more stuff - and we have made the world a much more complicated place - but - peel away the technology, the pretentious social & political trappings and the other luxuries that come from being the top predator on the planet, and what are you left with? You are left with a group of two-legged hairless apes scurrying around trying to bring home dinner.

In fact, an argument could be made that Homo sapians still has a heck of way to go to be able to claim to be as successful as Homo habilis. H. habilis is believed to have lived from about 2.5 million to 1.6 million years ago. They survived for about 900,000 years - that's about 50,000 generations. H. Sapians has been around for only about 200,000 years - less than 25% of H. habilis. We will have to survive waaaaay past the Star Trek era to match that!

Beyond simple survival and species longevity, we may have much more to learn from H. habilis. It has been conjectured that the social structure of H. habilis was the first group to cooperate in activities such as hunting, food gathering and tool making. The longevity and success of their species may have been due in part to their relatively peaceful coexistence with neighboring groups and their willingness to work together instead of competing. Believe it or not, there is actually a term known as "primitive communism" attributed to Marx & Engels to describe the egalitarianism of early hominid societies. I doubt very much the early humans were very concerned with the oppression of the masses by the capitalists - but if it got more meat in the cave, great!

So, if I am just another grunting, stick-waving hominid, what does it mean to be unemployed? We have no way of knowing what H. habilis would have done with a member of the clan that temporarily couldn't contribute. They rest of the clan might have cared for him (state unemployment insurance) or they might have had him for dinner. The latter might certainly also explain the success of their species - there is nothing like a little thinning of the gene pool to strengthen the following generations. It would also have made sure that able-bodied workers got off their butts and back to work as soon as possible!

No, I'm not advocating cannibalism as a solution to unemployment - at least not while there's still so many other (better tasting) species for us to eat. This is not a treatise on how to solve unemployment. I'm just pointing out that the funk that descends on the unemployed may have very deep-seated roots in the human psyche. A person who has spent their entire adult life as the primary provider for their family cannot easily become a non-productive member of society without it also affecting their mental self-image and how they view their place in society. Maintaining the belief that you CAN reenter the workforce is a critical part of surviving a temporary unemployment. When you start believing that you can no longer be a provider, you are entering a very dangerous downward spiral.

What can you do to keep your chin up while being ignored by dozens of recruiters on a daily basis? Well, one way is what I am doing with these blog posts - I am using this blog as an outlet for my frustrations and also as a way to keep my brain active. If I can write a bit of drivel that I am proud of, then perhaps I CAN still use my brain to provide value to an employer. Find an outlet that allows you to be proud of something you do, whether that is writing, consulting or just working on projects around the house.

So, to my great-to-50,000th grandfather H. habilis, I salute your indomitable spirit, your ingenuity and your skill with a stone axe. I will not let you down!

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