tl;dr: Three grandfathers of Flintstonization: (1) Hobbes & perpetual war, written during time as war refuge, (2) Rousseau & noble savage, (3) Malthus & geometric population growth vs arithmetic resource growth
The word myth has been debased and cheapened in modern usage; it’s often used to refer to something false, a lie. But this use misses the deepest function of myth, which is to lend narrative order to apparently disconnected bits of information, the way constellations group impossibly distant stars into tight, easily recognizable patterns that are simultaneously imaginary and real. Psychologists David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner explain, “Mythology is the loom on which [we] weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story.” This weaving becomes tricky indeed when we mythologize about the daily experience of ancestors separated from us by twenty or thirty thousand years or more. All too often, we inadvertently weave our own experiences into the fabric of prehistory. We call this widespread tendency to project contemporary cultural proclivities into the distant past “Flintstonization.”13
Flintstonization has two parents: a lack of solid data and the psychological need to explain, justify, and celebrate one’s own life and times. But for our purposes, Flintstonization has at least three intellectual grandfathers: Hobbes, Rousseau, and Malthus.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), a lonely, frightened war refugee in Paris, was Flintstoned when he looked into the mists of prehistory and conjured miserable human lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He conjured a prehistory very much like the world he saw around him in seventeenth-century Europe, yet gratifyingly worse in every respect. Propelled by a very different psychological agenda, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) looked at the suffering and filth of European societies and thought he saw the corruption of a pristine human nature. Travelers’ tales of simple savages in the Americas fueled his romantic fantasies. The intellectual pendulum swung back toward the Hobbesian view a few decades later when Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) claimed to mathematically demonstrate that extreme poverty and its attendant desperation typify the eternal human condition. Destitution, he argued, is intrinsic to the calculus of mammalian reproduction. As long as population increases geometrically, doubling each generation (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.), and farmers can increase the food supply only by adding acreage arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), there will never—can never—be enough for everyone. Thus, Malthus concluded that poverty is as inescapable as the wind and the rain. Nobody’s fault. Just the way it is. This conclusion was very popular with the wealthy and powerful, who were understandably eager to make sense of their good fortune and justify the suffering of the poor as an unavoidable fact of life.
sex-at-dawn Jethá, Cacilda, and Christopher Ryan. 2012. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Harper Perennial. ↩︎ 1