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on Feb 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite



An individual human of times past might have been able to capture his meat, [get the females in his village to] forage for his vegetables, make his own shelter and clothes, etc., but he also probably died around the age of 30.

Specialization is one of the reasons people have the time to devote years of their lives to the research that gives us things like medical knowledge, the computer that the above essay was typed on, and the vast majority of the knowledge the author wants to attain.


A common mistake is to conflate hunter gatherer societies with the primitive agricultural societies that came after them.

Hunter gatherers were happy, healthy, and relatively long lived[1]. Unfortunately, they faced very sharp resource constraints - if you travel around gathering nuts and berries you need a lot of land for a pretty small tribe. Still, it wasn't a bad life.

But for whatever reason, some hunter gatherers developed the secret of agriculture. This changed everything - it was so phenomenally productive that for the first time there was a surplus. One person could produce enough food for himself and have some left over. This allowed the creation of an elite (priests, beauracrats, soldiers, scientists) who were not engaged in food production. Unfortunately, it came at a cost: A vastly shortly and unhappier life for pretty much everyone, but especially the non-elite. Let me reiterate: Being a peasant is just about the worst possible existence we have managed to come up with.

Modern society has, more or less, only brought adult mortality back up to hunter gatherer levels. (Of course, it's done wonders for child mortality, which was pretty terrible under both hunter gatherer and primitive agriculture.)

What the original post is pining for is a return to the hunter gatherer societies, without any specialization. Life expectancy would be MUCH higher than 30 in that scenario. Of course, there's probably only room on this planet for about 0.2% of the current population. Something tells me the 99.8% wouldn't be too happy about any attempts in that direction. :)

[1]: Life expectancy data is hard to come by for obvious reasons, but it's seems that for modern hunter gatherers you're looking about 50 years. That's a little misleading, because only about 2/3rds of children made it to 15; of the 15 year olds about 4/5ths made it to 45; of the 45 year olds, mean remaining lifespan was around 20 years. In other words, if you survive childhood, you're likely to see, at least, your 60s, and you've got a decent chance of seeing 80. That's radically different than what we think primitive life was like, because we're thinking of privative agriculture, which was entirely different.


Can you provide a source for the claim that hunter gatherers were much happier?


Not really. The low expected life expectancy of the past times is significantly skewed by the extremely high infant mortality (and high death rate of women following childbirth as well). If you survived until you were, say, 15 years old, you could expect to live a pretty long life (unless you were a woman that would give birth to many children).


Gombrowicz wrote nice book "Ferdydurke", that touched this subject. Specificaly - who we are, what we think of ourselves, how we behave depends on simple labels, that others or we assign.

People think you're architect - it comes with rules you can break, but probably won't, because of others (and your own) opinion, even if you want to. You can escape such labels (Gombrowicz call them "faces" society glues to you), but eventually you settle for another one.

The whole book is about that, and I highly reccomend it.


The author needs to learn some economics. Specialization is the very opposite of inefficiency. The most precious non-renewable resource is time. Quality of life of nomads is laughable compared to the sophistications of modern societies, only made possible by the division of labor.

If anyone thinks he can find the time to become proficient enough in mechanical engineering to develop a radical new method of transportation, in between all the shelter-building, food-foraging, clean-water-supplying and clothes-washing that he does, he's simply delusional.


You also need to learn some economics. There is substantial evidence and supporting theory to suggest that absolute material wealth (once it exceeds a certain level of basic needs) makes relatively little difference to quality of life. See the "Easterlin paradox".

In particular, even if absolute material wealth does have some positive impact on quality of life, a culture that optimises solely for efficiency is almost certainly sub-optimal for quality of life.

I bet if you search your own experience you will find times when you did something that you weren't good at (and could easily have been done better by someone else more specialised) and found that you enjoyed it. The feeling of achieving something new and different and surprising? That's called quality of life my friend..... and many nomads a few thousand years ago probably had just as much of it as we do today


Oh, I certainly support and enjoy a bunch of activities you and the other have mentioned. Personal development, pushing one's limits, et cetera can be very fulfilling indeed.

I just don't confuse those with productive efficiency—which supports the first three level of Maslow's pyramid, enabling man to enjoy relatively useless activities such as rock climbing and romance—and then go around and claim "inefficiency is wasteful".


You're attacking a strawman.


Maybe yes, maybe no. It is really hard to understand what author has in mind. That's actually poorest and most unclear part of manifesto.


I shall write this to the author, even though you are not he:

1) You have divided the universe of possible desires into a short list of "needs" and "wants". Good for you. But the essence of (true, classical) liberalism is the recognition that everyone has the right to their own list of needs and wants. I am not you; nor is anyone else. I am allowed to have different marginal utility curves for time, leisure, and consumer goods. Society needs to work for us all, not just your personal aesthetic ideal.

2) More generally, there are no absolutes. You try to turn to an imagined, mythical golden era. "If humans managed to do without [...] I can also." This is incoherent. What does it mean to be human? We are plains apes who have figured out a few tricks. In our time we've managed to "do without" pretty much everything, including clean water and nutritious food. And as for a "place to sleep", we've lived in mud huts, igloos, under bushes, in hovels, tents, wagons...and also penthouses, palaces, and six bedroom McMansions. Comfort has value. More to some of us; less to others.

3) You also seem to struggle with logic. There is a LOT of logic to having a large house and only intensively using a small part: Space is not a scarce resource, but the flexibility of having a lot of space is nice. Do you purposefully buy the smallest hard drive you can? After all, I'm sure you only access a small fraction of that 1TB hard drive on any given day... There's also a lot of logic to heating an entire house; it's simple and easy, and heat is cheap. Really, the median family in the US does not have to slave all day to pay their heating bill. Nor to purchase their car; you do not work anything remotely LIKE 8 hours a day to pay for your car. How about a few minutes?

4) The lawn mower example is so absurd as to deserve a point all on its own: This is an already solved problem. It's called a "lawn service". They're quite popular, you should look into it.

5) You decry people spending money in order to efficiently wash their clothes. You then turn, without pause, to decry a lack of efficiency. And then, to cap it off, to attack specialization, the ONE MOST IMPORTANT increase in efficiency we as a species have yet invented. Words fail me; I simply cannot grapple with the magnitude of cognitive dissonance these sentences have egendered in me except to ask: Is this some sort of joke? Are you trolling? Because if so, you win.

6) Even so, your entire rant about specialization has been said far better by a far better human than you: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." Who here doesn't feel their heart stir upon reading that? And I've spent more than a few hours working my way through that list. And yet...

...and yet the great RAH is wrong. A society without specialization is a tribe of hunter gatherers. If you want anything more - be it material goods, services, or even our modern morality - then you need specialization. You get to pick one: A primitive hunter gatherer society, or specialization. If you are not personally gathering all the food you eat and crafting all the clothing and tools you use, then you have specialization. And if you are doing that, then you will eat nuts and berries, wear furs, and have no tools. Full stop. There are no other options.

7) You have a point buried under all the mistakes. Don't be defined by one of your activities, even if it happens to be the only one you make any money at. Have some idea of who you are as a person, and live that as much as you can, in as many aspects of your life as you can. It's equally stupid to have no life outside of your job as it is to work at a job you hate so that you can do what you really like outside of it. Strive to be a whole human being. Great idea!

...but get over the ridiculous ideas about specialization and efficiency. They have nothing to do with your core point, and they're naively wrong. People have unlimited needs and wants, and any given person is going to spend their resources in a way different from yours. That's what being a human is all about; any effort to stamp that out leads to the same insect-like existence that you (and RAH) were complaining about with regards to specialization.


How would I be able to test my ability to plan an invasion?

Beyond of course playing a video game, attaining a senior military rank or being rich enough to hire my own private army?

Even getting access to a ship that is big enough to be called a ship is probably unfeasable to most people unless they take a career that specialises in that or are rich.

I agree that everyone should be able to cook decent food, fight well enough to defend themselves and analyse problems though.


"6) Even so, your entire rant about specialization has been said far better by a far better human than you: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." Who here doesn't feel their heart stir upon reading that? And I've spent more than a few hours working my way through that list. And yet...

...and yet the great RAH is wrong. A society without specialization is a tribe of hunter gatherers. If you want anything more - be it material goods, services, or even our modern morality - then you need specialization. You get to pick one: A primitive hunter gatherer society, or specialization. If you are not personally gathering all the food you eat and crafting all the clothing and tools you use, then you have specialization. And if you are doing that, then you will eat nuts and berries, wear furs, and have no tools. Full stop. There are no other options."

I was thinking the exact same thing. The author is either very naive or very stupid. However, as they don't make a decent point at the end of their tirade, I'll go with naive. Good luck without specialization.

It's the most hypocritical thing I've read in a while. He complains about calling a plumber to fix the toilet. That we should learn to do things ourselves. Well, if everyone really took that logic, then where would the manual come from? Guess what? Someone who specialized. Whatever about the toilet itself and the plumbing and everything in your damn house, no matter how big or small. You say you want to read to learn more. How would these books have been written for you to learn anything without the specialization you detest? If everyone were a Renaissance man... we would not get very far as a species. I do believe we are very capable, but it's just inefficient to try to learn everything.

If you want to live link a hunter gatherer, be my guest, but you can't take some approach that's neither that nor the current model of all humans becoming highly specialized. I'll take specialization.

It is specialization that has enabled our species to thrive and progress so far. It is generations of specialization on top of specialization that has helped give us all we have.

You either take it all or leave it all. Anything else is pure hypocrisy.


"Even so, your entire rant about specialization has been said far better by a far better human than you"

What makes someone a better human than someone else?


I really like this. Very similar in philosophy to the the ERE movement (http://earlyretirementextreme.com)


Another quote in the same vein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein.


wazoox, you are a terrific summary writer!


This is a great piece. The link didn't work for me, did you write this or find it somewhere?



Affordable health care is a luxury? You must be very young (and likely male).


Why do other people care about what you choose to call yourself? This sounds more like an affirmation one would do in front of the mirror than something to shout to the world.


"I need relationships with my fellow man."I don't understand this line. English not my 1st language.


It means: I need social interactions. I need friends. I need people to respond to my comments on Hacker News. ;-)


For "man", read "humans". For "relationships", read "to be connected".

I need to be connected with my fellow humans.


Lucky for you, we Chinese "citizen" haven't got those basic needs yet


Look around you. You are not a citizen. You are an exception.


Everyone is an exception.

(Let's try and catch each other.)


> When being introduced, it bothers me that the thing I happen to do for work defines my person.

Take a chill pill. «So, what do you do?» is a conversation starter, not an irreversible linnaean damnation.


Great piece. Thanks! Just set a recurring reminder to read every month. Here is the working link. http://pr.odi.gy/manifesto.htm


Nonono! You're a taxpayer. (Sigh)


Beware of everything worth more than it's weight in gold.




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