Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Civilization Zoos

If you think zoos are unethical then you should think that civilization (or as Hayek calls it, the extended order) is also unethical. Many people in America find zoos unethical, and desire animals to be left in their natural habitat. This is part of the rationale for national parks across America rather than extensive zoos. The experience of seeing an animal in the wild is markedly different from seeing the same animal in a zoo, and is often preferrable for many observers.

The comparison between zoos and civilization is an embarrasing one to make, on first glance it seems to be a very adolescent insight (along the lines of “wake up sheeple!”). But I think there is some fruitful comparison to be made, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this analysis has been made numerous times. Nevertheless…

Zoos are a pretty good deal for the animals! Animals in zoos benefit from their captivity: they live longer (no predators, less accidents), are healthier (consistent nutrition, medicine), and do not have the usual stressors of their natural environment. However the animals are removed from their Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), and are therefore removed from all the stimuli they are evolved to respond to. Animals in captivity can even develop pathologies such as self-harm and “repetitive and apparently purposeless motor behaviors”. However, those must be weighed against the suffering (and happiness) of living in the wild. No matter how great the zoo, there must be constraints on the animals environment otherwise it would merely be a park and the animal couldn’t receive the benefits of captivity.

There are many important distinctions between a zoo and civilization/the extended order - animals are kept by humans, but humans are their own zookeepers. Furthermore, the implicit analogy between humans and wild animals is limited, because a human is a very unusual animal. The human capacity to abstract and have a “life of the mind” means that it’s capabilities within captivity are greater than most other animals - in other words, human beings have culture. Perhaps we are more similar to domesticated animals where captivity is not such a great burden (either via cultural evolution a la Hayek, or via genetic evolution a la Gregory Cochrane).

For human beings, that real trade-off appears to be the natural environment versus the constructed environment of culture. The last few untouched tribes are the only ones who get to fully opt-out and choose the natural environment. The trade seems irreversible: once the environment of culture has been selected, there is no trade-backs. It is also not really chosen, the modern environment is a natural product of human beings living in groups. However, there are domains in which humans can live in a relatively more ancestral way. War might be something like this, by allowing men to work closely with other men in life threatening situations. The cost of course, is the possibility of dying. In the film The Hurt Locker we see a man addicted to warfare, or in the essay Why Men Love War where Broyles writes:

War is a brutal, deadly game, but a game, the best there is. And men love games. You can come back from war broken in mind or body, or not come back at all. But if you come back whole you bring with you the knowledge that you have explored regions of your soul that in most men will always remain uncharted. Nothing I had ever studied was as complex or as creative as the small-unit tactics of Vietnam. No sport I had ever played brought me to such deep awareness of my physical and emotional limits.

There’s a famous William Boroughs quote: “This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games”. Now that most men do not have to fight in wars, they’re left with games. Are games also an attempt to feel in touch with more ancestral instincts?

This is the fundamental tension that is explored in Freud’s Civilization and it’s Discontents and in various works like Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit. We have natural instincts that are odds with modern civilization. As stated previously, there are significant tradeoffs between these environments, and it is very difficult to accurately judge which is preferable. This is because the gap between ancestral and modern lifestyles is enormous: it’s difficult to understand modernity as a tribesman, and difficult to understand ancestral communities as a modern. Furthermore, the outcome is completely meaningless, there is no return to a state of ignorance (after all, knowledge is the seed of modernity). Anarcho-primitivists are some of the most delusional about this - even if they were right, there is no going back, short of some sort of global catastrophe that destroys both knowledge and society. Also, one of the things we do know about modernity, is that it increases the carrying capacity of earth. It is raraely discussed by primitivists, but their visions often imply drastic downsizing of the world’s population - they probably don’t talk about this to avoid sounding like supervillains.

This is Hayek’s prohition: no matter how certain you are that an alternative (e.g. communisim, primitivism) to modern civilization is better, do not act on it. If you are wrong, the cost is very very high, and despite your certainty, it is extremely difficult to calculate (Hayek claims it is impossible). A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, or “don’t immanetize the eschaton!”. Breaking out of the zoo sounds like a great idea until you realize there are animals called tigers and they’re also free.

However, it’s still fun to think about (just don’t take it seriously). Arguments have been leveled in both directions (such as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now versus James Scott’s Against The Grain). The arguments are so well-trod in both directions that I won’t recant them here. Regardless of the outcome, there are costs associated with modern life, some people seek a partial return via tribal groupings (see Sebastian Junger’s Tribe), while others seem perfectly happy in our modern world. Just like zoo animals!

All that being said, you won’t see me signing up for the army anytime soon.