Notes on “Civilized to Death” by Chris Ryan
Tl;dr: this account is a review and summary of Civilized to Death. It contains spoilers.
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 has unlimited entertaining offers and the Internet provides freely for all types of knowledge.
Yet, he argues that this progress came at a heavy price. His thesis, that the title of the book illustates, 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: equality between genders, no repressive justice system, a 25-hour workweek…overall all ingredients that led people to live a happy and active life. A much better life than now.
He subsequently promotes the thesis – already used by many other authors – that things went south when humans started growing their food instead of hunting it. The shift from a nomadic to a sedentary lifestyle was the spark the lighted the fire of civilization. Everything went wrong ever since. To make the system work, humans, which Ryan presents as 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 applies his energy to demonstrate 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, prisons, the illegality of psychoactive drugs and other mushrooms and even, the lack of credibility that people hearing voices suffer from.
His pamphlet against civilization spares no one. He takes pleasure at debunking modern optimists of the likes of Steven Pinker, using data and accounts of other academics. Civilization is the death of all things, and he intends to prove it.
To do so, he fights and attacks so hard 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 can sense a certain personal and emotional disgust that Ryan has for civilization. It’s impossible to find out where these feelings came from even though the author mentions at some point in the book that he considers himself as 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.
All of these feelings pushed him to write his piece in an angry writing style. This is unfortunate. Before even finishing the introduction, the reader knows he is going to read one of these “everything was better before” discourses often barked by that weird Uncle living in the mountain and pissed off at the government.
What a shame. Ryan’s personal quarrel with society does not earn him points of credibility.
However, 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 – mostly American since his focus is on the USA.
As such, it is correct 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.
Do not idealize foraging societies.
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 Pinker often advertise, it doesn’t mean it has only brought sorrow and pain like Ryan would make you believe. The lack of discussion, reflection, and acknowledgments regarding the good of progress shine by their absence.
Yet, what else 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 guarantee 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 form 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 again.
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 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 instead that it is a chance for us, and everything beyond 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 society to their own collapsing. As such, if no one is there to signal that it is there, it is because alien civilizations have collapsed when trying to do so, or because they have not evolved 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” was 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 read.
It is clear that civilization overall has not improved everyone’s lives. The questions to ask after acknowledging this fact are, therefore, “how bad is it?” and “what can we do”?
Ryan pretends it’s so bad that it is too late to turn back. 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 gain out of it.
However, its pessimistic tone makes it a perfect companion to go with irrational optimists such as Pinker. Together, they balance each other perfectly.