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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 102

Christopher Ryan — Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

Most of us have instinctive evidence the world is ending — balmy December days, face-to-face conversation replaced with heads-to-screens zomboidism, a world at constant war, a political system in disarray. We hear some myths and lies so frequently that they feel like truths: Civilization is humankind’s greatest accomplishment. Progress is undeniable. Count your blessings. You’re lucky to be alive here and now. Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. Civilized to Death counters the idea that progress is inherently good, arguing that the “progress” defining our age is analogous to an advancing disease. Prehistoric life, of course, was not without serious dangers and disadvantages. Many babies died in infancy. A broken bone, infected wound, snakebite, or difficult pregnancy could be life-threatening. But ultimately, Ryan argues, were these pre-civilized dangers more murderous than modern scourges, such as car accidents, cancers, cardiovascular disease, and a technologically prolonged dying process? In Civilized to Death, Ryan makes the claim that we should start looking backwards to find our way into a better future. Ryan and Shermer also discuss:

  • human nature: peaceful or violent?
  • humans: spectrum or binary?
  • what hunter-gatherers were really like and why it is so hard to know
  • hunter-gatherers and…children, women, the elderly, sex, religion, politics and economics
  • how egalitarian were hunter-gatherers?
  • why hunter-gatherers don’t think of work as “work” in the way we do
  • the lottery test: if you won the lottery would you work at your job, live in your neighborhood, live your life?
  • was civilization the biggest mistake humans ever made?
  • the “Big Gods” theory of religion vs. the communal theory of religion, and
  • how we can learn from our ancestors to lead more balanced and healthier lives.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., and his work have been featured on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Times of London, Playboy, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Outside, El Pais, La Vanguardia, Salon, Seed, and Big Think. A featured speaker from TED to The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House to the Einstein Forum in Pottsdam, Germany, Ryan has consulted at various hospitals in Spain, provided expert testimony in a Canadian constitutional hearing, and appeared in well over a dozen documentary films. Ryan puts out a weekly podcast, called Tangentially Speaking, featuring conversations with interesting people, ranging from famous comics to bank robbers to drug smugglers to porn stars to authors to plasma physicists.

Listen to the podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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This episode was released on February 4, 2020.

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