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Hunting as Humanizer: Then and Now

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For pre-agricultural foraging peoples—our “savage” human forebears—sacred and secular were inseparable. The same wild animals they preyed upon, they also prayed to. With life and death a daily yin and yang, and the codependence of all living things as starkly obvious as the blood on one’s hands after a successful hunt, it was utterly natural to view sacred powers as diffused throughout nature. Rather than imagining invisible sky-gods, as agricultural humans would do much later, our hunting and gathering ancestors perceived demigods in everyday things, not only animals and plants but also fire, water, weather, and even landscapes, since all such tactile forces directly affected their daily lives, prosperity, and survival.

Theirs was an Earth-bonding spirituality long referred to as animism (literally: breath, soul, life). A more recent term that describes the same basic worldview is deep ecology, which includes a conviction that all life has value in and of itself, above and beyond its usefulness to us, and therefore deserves our respectful treatment. The primary difference between animism and deep ecology is that the latter replaces primitive supernatural interpretations of the workings of nature with scientific fact and understanding. Yet the moral remains the same.

It’s still true today, of course, that life feeds on death.

It’s still true today, of course, that life feeds on death. But unlike our stone-age ancestors, who knew exactly where their meat came from and at exactly what costs to all concerned, we moderns (most of us, most of the time) buy our meat as industrialized and euphemized “product” with no thought of it having recently been the flesh of a fellow sentient living being. This commercial distancing from the bloody reality of our food makes it easy to gloss over, ignore, and—in extreme cases such as veganism—attempt to deny the basic biological fact that life feeds on life.

Yet for an open-eyed segment of modern hunters, the ancient animistic sense of soulful—we might say “spiritual”—unity with wildness remains grounded as ever in awe, humility, and a strong sense of owed reciprocity. “Wildness is what I kill and eat,” proclaimed the late Paul Shepard, the father of human ecology (the study of humanity’s evolution among fellow wild creatures in wild natural environments), “because I too am wild.”

Evolutionarily, hunting was a definitive becoming-human facilitator, culturally as well as biologically. In fact, according to the venerable “hunting hypothesis” (Man the Hunter, Lee and DeVore, eds.; Chicago, Aldine Publishing, 1968), group subsistence hunting was the prime mover of our species’ emergence. Restated: The hunting-gathering lifeway—owing to its distinctive approaches to group living, thinking, cooperating, and the spiritual worldview it inspired—shaped us to be as we are today.

Evolutionarily, hunting was a definitive becoming-human facilitator, culturally as well as biologically.

For at least the final 1.8 million years of our 6- to 7-million-year progression from ape to human, foraging was our way of life, our economy, with no exceptions. By at least 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was a done deal and our collective human genome was set as it remains today. Thus, when Paul Shepard proclaims that “wilderness is where my genome lives,” he reminds us that genetically, socially, physiologically, psychologically, and even spiritually, we exist still today in our genetic core as “space-needing, wild-country Pleistocene beings trapped in over-dense numbers in devastated, simplified ecosystems.”

Shepard is hardly alone among scientific philosophers in proposing that this gaping mismatch between our lingering Pleistocene design for wildness and tribalism, and our current concrete culture and impersonal co-existence, is responsible for much or most of the angst, immaturity, violence, environmental genocide, and multifaceted suffering plaguing the world today. We were fashioned to live in small interrelated groups in a sparsely populated natural world, but have recently refashioned a far less comfortable if more “secure” world for ourselves, while dragging the rest of nature down with us.

Which leaves us to wonder: After thousands of generations of infinitely sustainable stasis as semi-nomadic, tribal hunters and gatherers, what prompted us to abandon that good free life?

In a word: agriculture.

Transitioning from semi-nomadic tribal foragers with no sense of “ownership” of anything to sedentary village farmers and domesticators of previously wild animals prompted a cultural paradigm change that quickly transmogrified both human life and surrounding natural ecologies. In this light, it makes perfect sense that anthropologist Jared Diamond proclaims agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

So while it seems undeniable that hunting made us human, today, rather than hunting shaping humanity, human culture is misshaping hunting into its own image.

Consequently, today, after some 12,000 years spent tilling soil and shoveling manure, and 5,000 years of civilization (city living), most of our kind have lost personal contact with the ancient gossamer thread twining humans with wild (as opposed to domesticated, i.e., dumbed-down) nature. So while it seems undeniable that hunting made us human, today, rather than hunting shaping humanity, human culture is misshaping hunting into its own image. No longer do most “sport” hunters retreat to the woods in search of spiritual sustenance as well as food. Rather, too many hunters today, as glaringly portrayed in and led by the hunting media, are motivated by trivial and morally questionable desires erupting from an aching emptiness of the natural soul and a consequent hunger for fantasy escapism.

All cultures are made. And ours is made to worship efficiency: fast, easy and certain. To transport this stress-making workaday paradigm into what should be the challenging, meditative, and magically uncertain adventure of the hunt is to trivialize one of humanity’s oldest, most potentially rewarding, and, for those still blessed and cursed with hunters’ hearts, sacred acts: the honorable and inimitably personal attainment of our food from nature.

All cultures are made. And ours is made to worship efficiency: fast, easy and certain. To transport this stress-making workaday paradigm into what should be the challenging, meditative, and magically uncertain adventure of the hunt is to trivialize one of humanity’s oldest, most potentially rewarding, and, for those still blessed and cursed with hunters’ hearts, sacred acts….

And so it is that hunting today serves as a metaphor for the mother culture. What’s wrong with hunting is directly traceable to what’s wrong with American culture.

Which brings us back around to the ancient hunter’s worldview, which is defined by Alaska anthropologist Richard Nelson (The Island Within) as embracing all of natural creation as “spiritual, conscious and subject to rules of respectful behavior.”

Happily, the animistic heart of that ancient worldview survives still today among a thoughtful subset of traditional-values hunters, as exemplified by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac.

It’s within the hearts as well as the DNA of nature-rooted sportsmen and women that hope for a meaningful hunting future and, by metaphorical extension, a saner humanity, survives today. Albeit an endangered species.
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"Does hunting make us human?" More important than any answer we might give to that, the question itself raises interesting meditations of its own-- how it is framed, is it really a question, what does it reveal about our inquiry into our own nature?

I've always been curious about our venture across the rubicon from braining to minding. It's a one way function. Once crossed, the exact nature of the creature one was before the crossing can never be exactly known again, only guessed. So when we ask about what features of "animal" processes remain wholly intact and carried forward on the minding side of the fence (are "basic" to our nature) we're caught between two equally plausible answers: "none" and "we have no way of knowing" For me, minding seems to imply storytelling, the capacity to imagine answers, create narratives and anticipate unfolding of events.

If nothing else, storytelling is exactly what has been done (what we have done) with this question. We've told stories to one another. Stories about why it must be basic to our nature; or, why it is not (or hoped that it is not); why we wish something we cannot actually know is of fundamental biological importance, or more of a story telling character with options besides hunting that might be told. All this is complicated by the fact that there is a present an impending issue for us, here and now, that makes the answer we give useful in deciding what story might best hold our interest (dominate) the modern "campfire"; clearly a pressing political question. Are we at heart a hunting species or a rationalizing species?

Aldous Huxley came to a split-decision on the matter, suggesting there was genotypic trait in our species that was assigned to some, but not all of us. It lead him to suggest that our society must provide for this in some way--the physicality and predatory impulses--- for those that were of the "physical type". If not, we were simply creating a pressure cooker of impulses in some of us, to explode again and again, as they always seem to do.

But Huxley's reply can also be seen as a story in response to how we framed the question as a "basic nature" question, and presumed 'basic nature' required animal origins which we cannot really know. Susanne K. Langer, on the other hand framed the matter in quite a different way. She did not view human nature as sequential history, but rather as an atemporal condition, in which original possibilities were everpresent in our species as optional lines of development. She saw the fabric of expression as a continuum from act to body to feelilng (emotion) to brain (thought) to mind (process). It wasn't something fixed as predestination, but rather a dynamic relationship between these levels of perception and interaction that was ongoing and ever subject to mediation.

What I'm suggesting is that storytelling may be one of the fundamental mediators of our nature, the thing that differenced us from all that came before and also provisioned us to tell other stories than the ones that fixed all other creatures (as far as we know) in the static adaptive niches that evolution provided for them. Storytelling not only imagines possibilities, but it becomes an act which impinges on our biology, or emotions and our thoughts in feedback loops which enter the basic self-constructive process which minding enables. In Langer's philosophical musings ("Mind -- An Essay on Feeling", e.g.) we are both temporal/sequential creatures designed in evolutionary kettles; and atemporal/self-modifying creatures always redesigning ourselves by operating our capacity to be mindful of ourselves as well as our surroundings. In Langer's view, the question about "basic nature" is already loaded with an assumption about the primacy of determinant biology when it reaches in to the far side of the rubicon and asks how "animal-like" are we? But on the near side we are also indeterminate storytellers as well.

So, what we get is a pardadox, yes?* And a paradox is something in which Gregory Bateson suggested, "one must choose sides--both sides." Which is why I suggest we may have framed the question wrong -- as a question, though it may appear to have many answers, has but one side. But, the story of what we "basically are" and what we might do/tell about that, may be enormously larger than our question can answer. May even render it meaningless in a very important way. What the better question, the more realistic frame might be, I haven't a clue. Something to talk-story about sometime, I suppose.

*a typo. But I like "pardadox" a term for saying, "pardon me, but I think I only provided one side of this paradox."
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Thank you, gentlemen, for your kind comments. If we look at the hunting subculture as a metaphor for the mother culture, it's remarkable how many directions we can take our thinking about life, death, and human values today. As with other aspects of life, my motto when talking about hunting is "Praise the good and damn the bad." DP
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Outstanding as always! As someone who came into hunting later in life, I can honestly say that your work has helped to guide me in what ethical hunting should be.
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David, I always look forward to your perspective and especially your ability to put it simply into words. Enough words and not too many words. Thank you, dwc
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Incredible perspective, Dave. This is a slightly new direction for you. I hope you explore more about religious thought and the role of hunting in mankind's history.
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Wonderful. Thanks, Dave. Looking forward to :The Good Hunt"
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