Civilized to Death is a book that tells how the modern society we have created is not adapted to us at all.
It’s an interesting read, albeit far from objective, and a bit long.
This article isn’t a summary, but a critic of the book and the ideas it vehicles.
Critic of Civilized to Death Written by Chris Ryan
Civilized to Death came out in 2019 and was written by Chris Ryan, “Sex at Dawn” author.
The book is one long complaint on how civilization has brought doom upon our heads; and why the answers to a better and happier life are not to be found in the future – but in the past.
The author starts his diatribe by acknowledging that his life is comfy.
He’s got a refreshing shower, a powerful MacBook, and a spacious house.
He can find cure in a hospital and fly to any part of the world in 24 hours.
TV offers unlimited entertainment and the Internet provides freely for all types of knowledge.
Yet, he argues that this progress came at a heavy price. Ryan’s thesis, which the title of the book illustrates, is simple. Civilization can only lead us to our end.
To demonstrate his beliefs, Ryan first starts by outlining the greatness of forager tribes.
Nomadic groups were ideal societal systems.
There was equality between genders, no repressive justice system, a 25-hour workweek…all ingredients that led people to live a happy and active life.
A much better life than now.
After about 300 thousand years of non-events, things went south.
Humans started growing their food instead of hunting it.
The shift from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle was the spark the lit the fire of civilization.
To make the system work, humans, which Ryan presents as inherently kind and gentle creatures, created a coercive system aimed at making society work: taxes, power structures, slavery, abuse all of the sorts, etc.
The author subsequently demonstrates how wrong civilization is, has been, and will continue to be when compared to the nomadic tribes we once were part of.
He cites, in random order: wars, genocides, slavery, capitalism, physical and mental decay due to change of diets, inequality, poverty, antidepressant consumption, loneliness, boredom, lack of meaning, suicide, pollution, the inhumanity of prisons, the outlawing of psychoactive drugs and other mushrooms we have been using forever and finally, the lack of credibility that people hearing voices suffer from (go figure out that last one).
His pamphlet against civilization spares no one. He debunks modern optimists of the likes of Steven Pinker (which, realistically, lacks credibility), using data and accounts of other academics. Civilization is the death of all things, and he intends to prove it.
But every fight has some limits. Ryan spends so much energy proving his thesis that we may be tempted to believe him at some point. One problem though stands in the way of our adherence to his theory: he is not objective at all.
From the first line written in the book, readers sense a personal and emotional disgust that Ryan has for civilization.
It’s impossible to find out where these feelings come from even though the author mentions at some point in the book that he considers himself a “genetic failure”.
If a bestselling author is a failure to life, many of us have a lot to worry about.
To imply that Ryan’s disgust for himself has led him to hate civilization is a step we dare not to make – its contemplation suffices.
In any way, Ryan’s lack of objectivity is unfortunate. Before even finishing the introduction, the reader knows he is going to read one of these “everything was better before” discourses barked by the older family member at Christmas.
But let’s not throw the baby with the bathwater. Once you take the personal rage of the author out of the story, the book is not bad.
Illogical and random at times, it makes compelling arguments regarding the madness of our society I certainly won’t deny – although mostly American since his focus is on the USA.
Ryan is not wrong when he claims that the world is more polluted than before, that people are more depressed and lonelier, and that a fire provides better entertainment than TV.
However, by presenting forager societies as the pinnacle of human fulfillment, Ryan falls into the trap that industry giants like Yuval Noah Harari warned us against.
For anyone who has read Harari, Homo Sapiens casts its shadow over the entire book of Chris Ryan and tempers the ardors of the author.
While civilization and progress are far from being as great as authors like Steven Pinker (or Jordan Peterson, for that matter) often advertise, it doesn’t mean it has only brought sorrow and pain.
The lack of discussion, reflection, and acknowledgments regarding the good of progress shines by its absence.
But what could you expect when the title is “Civilized to Death?”
Ryan’s narrative is interesting for those that wish to gain a better understanding of the type of society we came from.
Kinship, freedom, individual responsibility, respect, autonomy and solidarity are values guaranteed to make the most depressed human a happy fellow.
It’s indisputable that we have evolved to be part of a tribe, no matter which forms it takes.
It is also difficult to negate that civilization as we know it, has put up some important barriers in the possibility to practice this lifestyle.
However, I don’t believe one instant it is intentional.
I don’t believe some governments somewhere ever declared “let’s make people miserable for our own sake”.
I don’t believe society is as it is because someone designed it to be.
I believe it evolved how it evolved because of the chain of action that happened in this exact order.
I believe we lived happily for 300 000 years in the forest because we had plenty of food. I believe that the agricultural revolution started because we ran out of mammoths to hunt and eat – and we wanted to survive.
Things went downhill after that.
While I do agree with Ryan that the earth, ecosystem, and humans would have been better off not evolving, I disagree with him over the fact that civilization is all bad. I think that it is a chance for us, and for everyone after us.
At the end of the book, Ryan discusses the Fermi paradox, an enigma outlining that the universe should be full of aliens due to its size making it impossible not to have other planets like ours.
Yet, the results are what they are. So far, it seems like we are alone.
Ryan proposes that the reason why it is so is because of progress.
Progress and technology, he explains, lead societies to their own collapsing.
He thinks that if no one is there to signal that they’re there, it is likely because alien civilizations have collapsed when trying to do so, or because they have (chosen?) not to evolve at all.
This, according to him, is the ultimate sign that the only thing we are headed towards, is our own end.
Civilized to Death is a weird book. I did not expect to read some sort of historical account of the good of foraging societies and the monstrosity of our civilization.
The hundreds of sources Ryan read to write his book make it nonetheless an interesting and compelling read.
It is clear that civilization overall has not improved everyone’s lives. Instead of sitting on the floor and crying, shouldn’t we ask instead “what we can do to improve?”
Ryan pretends it’s so bad that it is too late to turn back.
He’s a fatalist.
He acknowledges, however, that he hopes he is wrong.
The book itself is not enough to form a bigger picture of what is civilization and what we gained from it (probably no book will ever be big enough to answer that question).
However, its pessimistic tone makes it a perfect companion to compensate the irrational optimistic ardors of people such as Steven Pinker.
Together, they balance each other perfectly.
For more summaries, head to auresnotes.com.
Did you enjoy the summary? Get the book now!
Then you will likely enjoy all the others. When you subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, you'll receive a list of the articles I wrote during the two previous weeks + insights from the books I am reading + a short bullet list of savvy facts that will expand your mind. I keep the whole thing under three minutes.
Oh, and you'll also receive a hidden article for new subscribers only!
How does that sound?