Paul Shepard, Preface from The Only World We've Got (1996)

(Study questions at the end)


"We are space-needing, wild-country Pleistocene beings, trapped in over-dense numbers in devastated, simplified ecosystems"


"When we grasp fully that the best expressions of our humanity were not invented by civilization but by cultures that preceded it, that the natural world is not only a set of constraints but of contexts within which we can more fully realize our dreams, we will be on the way to a long overdue reconciliation between opposites which are of our own making" from Coming Home to the Pleistocene



2.      Shepard is a "Primitivist" who exhorts us to go "Back to the Pleistocene"

3.      Shepard accepts ideas of evolutionary psychology

         a.      The idea that our psychological nature (not just our physical nature) was heavily determined by our evolutionary past

         b.      Modern evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is generated by psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments

4.      Human nature shaped by and adapted to the Pleistocene

         a.      We became what we are during the 2 million years of the Pleistocene

                   i.       Pleistocene: Geologic era 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago

         b.      Time since the Pleistocene is only 1/300 of human time

                   i.       Diamond example: If human life on planet was 24 hours long, agriculture (11,000 years ago) came along at 11:54 pm

         c.      Human nature is shaped by a life of hunting and gathering

         d.      We are whatever our DNA (in response to our environment) makes us

                   i.       There are aberrations (e.g., people born w/o two legs), but this doesn't mean humans lack genetically determined species characteristics

5.      Shepard’s response to critics of primitivism who say: “You can’t go back”

         a.      Critics argue that "Nature lovers are incurably fixated on nostalgia for illusory past"

         b.      Shepard’s reply

                   i.       Not necessary to go back in time to be the kind of creature you are

                   ii.      Genes of past have come forward to us

                   iii.     Not asking people to change their genes, but rather their society in order to harmonize our way of living with an inheritance we already have

6.      Harmful and false belief that we humans are largely free from our biology and that this makes us fundamentally different from other life forms

         a.      Resulted in ecological devastation

7.      We falsely believe that we can

         a.      Do anything we want

         b.      Create our world according to taste

         c.      Make any sexual and social relationship

         d.      Eat whatever we want

8.      Shepard on eating

         a.      Criticizes vegetarianism as denies our omnivorous ancestry

                   i.       Vegetarianism is "a special arrogance masquerading as ethics"

         b.      Need to celebrate death as a way of life

         c.      This is how nature works and should be affirmed

                   i.       Note the controversial theme: We should follow nature and learn from it

         d.      It is not good for us to eat domesticated animals and plants, bred for appearance, size, keeping and convenience of machines

                   i.       They tend to be nutritionally deficient

                   ii.      Because our bodies are keyed to wild varieties of evolutionary past who we have depleted

                   iii.     What does the science indicate about this claim?



10.    During Pleistocene humans lived in harmony with nature

         a.      Humans were few in number

         b.      Sensitive to seasons and other life

         c.      Humble in attitude toward earth

         d.      Comfortable as one species among many

         e.      Our effect on planet (our ecology) was stable and non-polluting

11.    Pleistocene humans (hunter-gathers) where far better off than people today

         a.      Rejects idea that they lived in fear of a wild threatening nature and cowered in caves

                   i.       This is a modern idea we project back onto them

         b.      Rejects idea that scarcity is fundamental human condition

                   i.       Scarcity as a constant problem arose in era of agriculture

         c.      For primal peoples, their lean numbers, ecological flexibility and richness of earth took care of this

         d.      Our human numbers are the root of our problems leading to scarcity, tyranny, war, deprivation, abuse, terrorism, poverty

12.    Pleistocene humans did have problems

         a.      True, primal peoples had problems as do all humans

         b.      Not always live in perfect harmony with nature or each other

         c.      Not always happy, content, well fed, free from disease

         d.      Acknowledges homicide, suicide, sex and child abuse of natives living in fringe environments (deep tropical forests and arctic)

13.    But our problems today are much worse

         a.      Their troubles hardly compare to the total amount of human suffering in modern cities or the catastrophe of industrial greed that has so impaired human and natural life in name of progress



15.    Problems today not due to technology or materialism but industrial greed/growth

         a.      Right sort of “materialism” is good

                   i.       Love of materials, the physical world, and extraordinary craftsmanship have made us humans (truth of Homo faber idea)

         b.      Industrial greed:

                   i.       Corporate organization of economy, destruction of human community, blindness to place, disregard for scale

                   ii.      Its garbage, rapacity and excessive desire for "products"

         c.      Amazingly, people think more industrial growth is way out of the collapse of human dignity and ravaging of environment it has caused



17.    Traditional view of agriculture as instigator of progress is mistaken

18.    According to the pro-agriculture view:

         a.      Emergence of agriculture was necessary for civilization,

                   i.       As supported necessary density of people for cities (probably agrees with this part)

         b.      This led to "progress": literacy, inventiveness, security from want and natural dangers, leisure, great art, political organization, health

19.    Reality is that agriculture was a disaster for people

         a.      For average individuals, quality of life began to deteriorate with the domestication of plants and animals

         b.      When shifted from primal human groups to agricultural states went from

                   i.       Homicide to war

                   ii.      Murder to genocide

                   iii.     Family hunger to starvation of populations

                   iv.     Diversity in all areas of life to homogeneity

                   v.      Sickness of individuals to mass epidemics

                   vi.     Council and group power to hierarchy of empires

                   vii.    From occasional craziness to group insanity

         c.      Agriculture led to overwhelming uncertainty

                   i.       Would crop seeds come up?

                   ii.      Would weather and disease wipe out the plants?

                   iii.     Would flood wash it away?

                   iv.     Adequate labor force to harvest it or off at war?

                   v.      Enemies burn fields?



21.    Domestication of plants let to serious problems

         a.      When move from perennials to annuals

         b.      Created new mode of perceiving reality

         c.      Altered sense of time; Amputated perspective on future

         d.      Centered on hardy, quick growing, short lived plants

         e.      Annuals are takers from the soil, not givers like perennials are

         f.       Dependent on man created and fertilized fields

         g.      Dependent on disturbance and uniformity (monoculture) rather than diversity

22.    Domestication of animals deformed the fauna giving them exaggerated features

         a.      Great milk-givers and plow pullers

         b.      Reduced social/physical requirements

         c.      Diminished intelligence

         d.      Vulnerability to epidemic disease and psycho-pathology

         e.      Infantilized them and made them dependent on humans

23.    Humans replaced surroundings of wild diversity, maturity, rich mysterious other in elaborate webs of life

         a.      With simplified biota of a few species dependent on us

24.    No wonder we began to think of nature as inferior and as an enemy to our civilized interests

25.    So religion invented God the maker, placed evil in wilderness, reserved soul for only humans, & located heaven someplace else

26.    Led to paradigm that humans must control of nature out of necessity

         a.      Idea took hold of regulating one's body, pests, predators, plants, animals, microclimates

27.    Led to an intoxication with power

         a.      Farmer tries to destroy his competitors (bees, fungi, birds, deer)

         b.      Pastoral rancher kills lions and wolves

28.    Wild things become adversaries

         a.      Wild becomes the enemy of the tame (and civilized)

         b.      Wild things take up space, sunlight, water or invade crops (eating, trampling, or infecting them)


29.    SHEPARD’S CONCLUSION: The Pleistocene human lies within each of us and fostering it is the path to human fulfillment and connectedness with nature

         a.      We have in us a spontaneous sense of connectedness to nonhuman life that should make us feel home on earth

         b.      Strip off the veneer of civilization and you don't find a barbarian, but a connectedness to the earth

         c.      "The genetic human knows how to dance the animal"

         d.      This secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by most ordinary acts of life

Study questions on Shepard’s “The Only World We’ve Got”

1.      What is evolutionary psychology? Does Shepard think out biology is important to us?

2.      What consequences have come about, according to Shepard, from our belief that humans are largely free from our biology?

3.      Why does Shepard think that we need to “go back to the Pleistocene?” What does he mean when he says this? According to Shepard, what do we need to do to reestablish our connection with nature and achieve human fulfilment?

4.      How does he respond to those who argue we can’t go back?

5.      What does Shepard think about the idea that scarcity is a fundamental human condition?

6.      Does Shepard think Pleistocene humans had problems? How do they compare to the problems of modern people? According to Shepard, what problems grew worse with the invention of agriculture?

7.      Does Shepard think our problems today are due to technology and materialism? Why or why not?

8.      Explain why Shepard thinks our domestication of animals and plants has let do our alienation from nature.