Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Constantly Modified Ideal

Wuxtry, wuxtry! Here's the latest news from the Pleistocene!

Like most people, we’re guided by the instinctive sense that a bigger nest is a happier nest. Though we know maxing out our ecological footprint might involve picking up some bad carbon karma, we feel somewhere deep in our guts that we need this house in order to be happy.
Since we feel this need for more square footage "somewhere deep in our guts," it must be the legacy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors' struggles in the Eemian interglacial era.
Most of us don’t need to worry about freezing or starving to death. Yet our happiness barometer continues to compare our living rooms and countertops and backyard barbecues with a constantly modified ideal. “We are victims of that evolutionary hunting strategy,” Rayo explained when I called him to discuss my real estate challenge. “There’s a difference between what’s natural and what's good.”
Given that the desire for an oversized home is "natural," we might reasonably expect it to be pretty much universal. However, the size of the average American house is twice the size of the average house in Europe or Japan. I guess they've had more luck than we have in casting aside Pleistocene hunting strategies.

Interestingly, the architecture in "primitive" villages tends to be fairly uniform, and larger buildings are usually designed to fulfill communal functions. The scarcity of building materials probably has something to do with this, in many cases. But unless I'm mistaken, this approach is also typical of pre-capitalist societies, which have a somewhat different concept of surplus wealth than people do in, say, Palm Springs.

Furthermore, primitive building patterns tend to reflect tribal organization and belief. To depart dramatically from the standard size and construction would represent a break with tradition, and therefore, perhaps, a failure of socialization.

All things considered, we might question whether McMansions in suburban Ohio are really more "natural," in psychological terms, than tiny huts in the Brazilian rainforest. We might even question whether it's wise to use consumption patterns in 21st-century North America as the key to life in the Pleistocene, so that we can then use life in the Pleistocene to explain - or maybe even justify - consumption patterns in 21st-century North America.

The astonishing mystification to which this theorizing can give rise, even among people of good will, is on display in the article's closing paragraphs. The author has bought a house that's too big, thanks to his throbbing biological urges. In order to redeem himself, he intends to rent out the rooms he doesn't need, and form a commune of sorts:
Our acquisitive, status-hungry genes may wish for a life more grand, more private, more sweepingly elegant and expansively lonely. But scarcity will have relegated us to a life of conviviality and trust.
Where is the evidence that our "status-hungry genes" demand expansive loneliness? Where, for that matter, is the evidence that "a life of conviviality and trust" doesn't confer status (as well as reproductive benefits)?

Why, it's all around us. It's just a matter of looking in the right places.

(Photo: "A traditional Kunama village of Eritrea and Ethiopia," by Mutanga Mulambwa.)

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