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Book Review #002: A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century

Heying, Heather and Bret Weinstein, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life (London: Swift Press, 2021)

In A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, Heying and Weinstein, who are both evolutionary biologists, use an evolutionary lens to examine the tensions between our evolutionary history and our modern woes, and offer suggestions for what we can do about it. They argue that the same impulses that have carried us to the most prosperous age in human history – our desire to explore, innovate, and to cultivate ideas – have created a “troublesome modern condition” in which people are unhealthier and more unhappy than ever before. It is those same impulses that can put things right again.

The ’troublesome modern condition’ the authors describe refers to the asynchrony between the speed at which the world in changing and our ability to adapt to that change. In short, the world is changing too fast, and the pace of change exceeds our ability to adapt, with the result that our brains, bodies, and social systems are perpetually out of sync. And that is making us sick, in physical, psychological, social, and environmental terms. Heying and Weinstein call it ‘hypernovelty’

It is a persuasive argument, and the authors apply their ideas to several ‘hypernovel’ issues, including medicine, food, sleep, sex, parenting and relationships, school and childhood, becoming an adult, culture, and consciousness. Each chapter is written in a conversational and highly accessible style, with explanatory text boxes and diagrams where necessary, and lots of interesting anecdotes from the authors’ own experiences.

The purpose of this book is not to harken back to some pre-modern idyll; rather, it is to use the lessons of history and evolution to help us make sense of the modern world and navigate a more sustainable way forward. To keep their readers on track, Heying and Weinstein conclude each chapter with a list of actionable solutions in a section called ‘The Corrective Lens’. Some of the suggestions here will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time at all thinking about self-development: listen to your body, spend time in nature, be self-aware, put your phone down, smile at people, never stop learning.

Others are a bit more abstract, such as their advice to develop a
theory of close calls: “When a close call occurs,” they say, “have a plan for how you will leverage it to gain a better understanding of yourself and the world. Calm down, and level up.” (And others are a bit more controversial: avoid porn (it produces “sexual autism”, apparently), but do consider experimenting with psychedelics.) Before they get to the specific issues they want to address, Heying and Weinstein offer a brief history of the human lineage, in which they explain how and why it took so long for us to become who we are today, and how and why rapid and excessive change isn’t always such a good thing. This chapter is beautifully written, and does an excellent job of reminding readers just how remarkable human evolution – not to mention cultural and societal evolution – really are.

I was fascinated by the discussion around culture and consciousness, particularly the section on myths and taboos and the explanation for why some of the stories we tell ourselves are necessary for survival: “As an evolved creature you are built to succeed, and sometimes that involves telling yourself stories.” It seems counterintuitive, but as Heying and Weinstein explain, “Belief can be the difference between life and death.”

The same chapter also discusses the importance of the campfire – literal and metaphorical – for the dissemination of ideas. “The campfire is a force for ideas”, the authors say, “A place to share our experiences, to talk, to laugh, to cry, to deliberate over our challenges and share our successes. From this forge emerge the kinds of ideas that render humans a true superspecies, one that surfs the rules of the universe, kicking up paradoxes in its wake.”

They explain how the ‘Age of Information’ brought with it the promise of a metaphorical campfire, “a decentralized thing where people who have never met in real life can be warmed by the presence of other minds, sharing ideas and reflections.” And in some cases, that exists (Hello, DEVSOC!), but more often, the
online world lacks the structures that made discussion around the hearth so valuable. The authors argue their case convincingly with reference to religion and ritual which are an “efficient encapsulation of past wisdom, wrapped in an intuitive, instructive, and difficult to escape package.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ‘Sit around more campfires’ is something we are told we should be doing more often.

The whole discussion around culture and consciousness encapsulates one of the authors’ main ideas: that one our most vital characteristics is that we are capable of sharing our knowledge and ideas and producing culture. In other words, “The linking of minds is at the root of humanity’s success… In nearly every case, when minds come together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That we have such potential within us should give us great optimism for the future, and Heying and Weinstein are optimistic. In their final chapter, ‘The Fourth Frontier’ (another excellent coinage, alongside ‘sucker’s folly’, which describes our tendency to embrace short-term benefits regardless of long-term risks or costs), the authors describe the world we must aim for, one which is made anti-fragile by investing in public works, is incapable of evolving into something that betrays its own core values, and in which people are free to do “rewarding, interesting, awesome stuff” (count me in).

It's a tall order, but A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21 st Century is oddly uplifting. A lot of their advice is sound and can almost certainly help us as individuals to distance ourselves from the dizzying pace of modern life. We can learn a lot from our ancestors, and Heying and Weinstein have done a great job of using their understanding of evolution to offer some stimulating perspectives on issues like sleep, food, and grief.

In short, this book offers some profound and important lessons in becoming better, both in terms of becoming healthier and more resilient, but also in the sense of becoming a kinder and more compassionate person, with an ability to hold yourself to account and the capacity to change what needs to be changed.

This book review was written by the awesome Sarah W.

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