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Grey Wethers

Grey WethersDuring my time on holiday in Devon with my family, my wife and I hiked up into the mists of Dartmoor, our trusty dog beside us and our baby strapped into a harness like Yoda to Luke. Our destination was a pair of prehistoric stone circles high in the moors known as Grey Wethers, and after one failed attempt we did eventually make it there.

I’ve noticed recently that some enthusiastic positivists tend to make grand narratives about such early astronomical constructions – to wax lyrical about the crude understanding of the world that the makers of these circles must have had (often specifically in terms of their “supernatural” beliefs) and to exude a certain smugness about just how much we know about astrophysics and astronomy today. I find this kind of attitude somewhere between repugnant and hilarious.

In the first place, we know very little about the culture of the men and women who built and used Grey Wethers. We can only guess at their beliefs, but we certainly don’t need to patronise their early astronomical skills – they were mapping the heavens using just stone tools, often with considerable accuracy. The sites were almost certainly ceremonial, but why should we look down on calendar festivals? It’s not like we don’t continue to celebrate the seasons… I rather suspect the winter festival that took place at Grey Wethers was something truly memorable, which most of us cannot claim of our last Christmas et al.

There is still something of the condescending attitude that the British and other Empires held towards “primitive” cultures behind the dismissal of prehistoric monuments. I find them more impressive than the glass and steel monstrosities we build today, and have great respect for the people who built them, whatever their beliefs. We are no more separated from these early settlers than we are from remote tribes today, and there are few if any reasons to believe our contemporary cultures are inherently superior to these other forms of human life.


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I think I basically agree with you, Chris, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that modern society possesses vastly more "raw knowledge" across most every field (technology, science, psychology, art, take your pick) than societies even a century ago by virtue of having many more people and much more efficient technology for information communication, storage and retrieval.

It is debatable if this makes our daily lives better or simply different, but I'd argue it's better in many cases. A person in modern society typically has a significantly longer average lifespan with a superior physical quality of life, and a much greater variety of things to do with one's life than those even a century ago, let alone a millenia or four.

Of course I agree that dismissing prehistoric monuments, calendar festivals et al is pointlessly condescending, and assuming that a much greater volume of knowledge makes modern society superior to in every way to all prehistoric societies is very unlikely. (For example, I suspect many ancient societies had a much stronger sense of community than modern societies. In this respect -- and others -- we could probably stand to learn from the past)

However, I think it's clear that modern society Knows More Stuff than societies of the past, and this does make modern society better at certain important things.

I'm curious: how do you think we are likely worse off than the typical circa-Grey Wethers ancient society? I'm sure your knowledge far outstrips mine here.

Nathan: thanks for engaging in this discussion - I purposefully pushed the boat out a little further in the hope that someone would bite. :)

One of the interesting aspects about trying to mount the impossible task of comparing life now to life in the past is just what values it brings out of our perspective on the world. For instance, you trotted out average life expectancy as a plus - but this is a very contemporary entity, a measure of average life. I doubt very much the people who built Grey Wethers would think in anything like those terms. Would they think our hospital systems were a plus? I very much doubt it! (They might, however, greatly value our lower rates of infant mortality).

As for quality of life - do we really have a means to measure this? If we were to take just Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research as a point of reference, we might score the Grey Wethers people higher than us contemporary people. Csikszentmihalyi found that people who had to work constantly to maintain their food and living conditions (as we imagine the people at Grey Wethers had to do) are far happier than a lot of contemporary urban humans.

"I think it's clear that modern society Knows More Stuff than societies of the past, and this does make modern society better at certain important things."

It's certainly not clear to me that Knowing More Stuff is necessarily a plus. We know, for instance, how to destroy vast swathes of our environment in the pursuit of consumer technologies that we know how to build. Should either of these really weigh in our favour? Is knowledge really an end in itself?

"I'm curious: how do you think we are likely worse off than the typical circa-Grey Wethers ancient society?"

Of course, we can only speculate. But if we imagine that the people at Grey Wethers were like remote tribes in the world today, I imagine they had tighter family links, were more satisfied by their festivals than we are, felt stronger bonds to one another, spent less time stuck in time-wasting activities like commuting, and never worried about money (while perhaps worrying about failed harvests and other equivalent crises). They may, if we trust Csikszentmihalyi's observations, even have been happier than us - if this kind of comparison is even meaningful.

But this, of course, is pure speculation. :)

Thanks for wading in!

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