Peter Gray and the Case of The (Sympathetic) Appeal to Nature

For the lazy.

I don’t think I’ve made it a great big mystery that I’m a fan of Peter Gray (see here and here) while still being critical of his overall presentation and argumentation at times. Generally, I think Gray is correct about many of his conclusions but his reasoning can, at times, be problematic.

One of those specific times is when he relies on hunter-gatherer societies to make the point that we are all “naturally” playful and thus we should be playful. I agree with Gray’s conclusion that we should be more playful as a collective society, but I don’t think his reasoning for why is the strongest it could be. Partly because it’s an argument that makes a fallacy referred to as an “appeal to nature” and will be, as you might expect, a big part of this article. Particularly I’m referring to an article called Instead of “Job Creation” How About Less Work? 

Before I get to debating some of the finer points I just want to reiterate that, overall, Gray is a great writer, researcher and even given the small amount of his work I’ve read, I deeply appreciate it. So by particularly focusing on Gray’s weak points, I don’t intend to suggest anything other than that we should always strive for the best arguments possible for the best conclusions possible. As I said, I think Gray has a lot of those conclusions already, but the reasoning can be hit or miss.

Before I start with that I want to particularly commend Gray for, early on in the article, sussing out the different kinds of meanings for the word “work” which, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t done as often as you might expect:

The word work, of course, has a number of different, overlapping meanings.

As used by Keynes, and as I used it in the preceding paragraphs, it refers to activity that we do only or primarily because we feel we must do it in order to support ourselves and our families economically.

Work can also refer to any activity that we experience as unpleasant, but which we feel we must do, whether or not it benefits us financially.  A synonym for work by that definition is toil, and by that definition work is the opposite of play.

Still another definition is that work is any activity that has some positive effect on the world, whether or not the activity is experienced as pleasant. By that definition, work and play are not necessarily distinct.  Some lucky people consider their job, at which they earn their living, to be play. They would do it even if they didn’t need to in order to make a living.

That’s not the meaning of work as I use it in this essay, but it’s a meaning worth keeping in mind because it reminds us that much of what we now call work, because we earn a living at it, might be called play in a world where our living was guaranteed in other ways.

At least here, given how long Gray has been studying play (and as a natural result then, work) it shouldn’t be too surprising that he’d not only happily admit the different definitions but that he’d also consider them overlapping. Which is a particular clarification I have never written here but is definitely one I would agree with.

The first definition of work resembles my own definition of work as well as the post-Marxist Andre Gorz’s definition of work for economic ends. When I think about work I don’t think about cleaning my room or moving my stuff around. I don’t need to do that to support myself financially, it’s just something I recently had to do to improve my quality of life a little bit. I don’t feel pressured to do it in the same way I do for my regular job. There’s no bargaining or reasoning with the fact that I need to go to that job but the “work” I did yesterday was overall meaningful, helpful and furthered my self-interest despite it being exhausting. I can’t say much of these same things for my regular job or the ones I’ve held in the past.

The second definition of work Gray provides is closer to what cleaning my room yesterday was. It wasn’t thoroughly pleasant but it did help me out in the end and was in my self-interest to do. I didn’t feel to do it for financial reasons, more for reasons of space and general well-being. Still, I wouldn’t keep doing it every day if I didn’t have to. I do enjoy cataloging and organizing things, but those interests can only take me so far.

The third definition would likely fit the best for cleaning my room and moving my stuff into a slightly larger room. It had a positive effect on the world (mine to be exact) and while it may not have been pleasant, I didn’t hate it either. But on the other hand I don’t think it could be called play, maybe it could be turned into play but that’s another conversation.

So even taking the basic example of cleaning your room with no particular financial goal in mind, we can see that the discussion of work can get complicated, even with Gray’s fairly useful definitions. That’s no fault of Gray’s but more to say how necessary it is to have definitions for ourselves so we don’t trip up later.

But okay, that’s that tangent, let’s get on to the crux of the issue(s):

Researchers who have observed and lived with groups who survived as hunter-gathers into modern times, in various remote parts of the world, have regularly reported that they spent little time doing what we, in our culture, would categorize as work (Gowdy, 1999; Gray, 2009, Ingold, 1999).

I’ve commented on this phenomenon before (briefly) and I’m not even sure I find the evidence super convincing. Most of the studies are spread across years, each with their own definitions of work and some of them don’t consider the food preparation as “work” which (if they did) would make these societies about as work-heavy as we are currently.

In addition there’s lots of debate within the anthropologist community about the meanings of this data or even how efficiently they were measured to begin with. All of which is to say that I don’t think these studies are as convincing as Gray may think they are. Now, I’m no expert on anthropology and I only have a fairly rudimentary grasp on these studies by reading a few myself, so I don’t claim to be necessarily right. But I think more skepticism is warranted.

Even hunting and gathering were not regarded as work; they were done enthusiastically, not begrudgingly.  Because these activities were fun and were carried out with groups of friends, there were always plenty of people who wanted to hunt and gather, and because food was shared among the whole band, anyone who didn’t feel like hunting or gathering on any given day (or week or more) was not pressured to do so.

This raises the problem of work and definitions. While it’s true they didn’t see that as a sort of work would we? I think that’s the more important question and undoubtedly all of us would find it an unpleasant experience that might better the world, but we might not want to do if we didn’t have to.

On the other hand, it’s important to note that those folks in the past who had to do it enjoyed themselves and that speaks well of their society. But I’m not so sure it says much about our own society, much less what sort of “nature” we have. The actions of the past don’t (or at least shouldn’t) determine the future and what it looks like. We can learn things from these more primitive societies without adopting all of their practices or beliefs of sharing or hunting.

Which, to be clear, I don’t think Gray is necessarily doing that but some folks do seem to go that far.

Ten thousand years is an almost insignificant period of time, evolutionarily.  We evolved our basic human nature long before agriculture or industry came about.  We are, by nature, all hunter-gatherers, meant to enjoy our subsistence activities and to have lots of free time to create our own joyful activities that go beyond subsistence. Now that we can do all our farming and manufacturing with so little work, we can regain the freedom we enjoyed through most of our evolutionary history, if we can solve the distribution problem.

Here’s where the real problems come from. Gray doesn’t make any real arguments that “our basic human nature” exists but that, even if it does, why it couldn’t just be what we have now rather than in the past? Why are the earliest civilizations or communities taken as our human nature, exactly? And why shouldn’t we see “human nature” as a static notion that changes as people’s material conditions change?

It’s true that when people first could do something, that they picked these sorts of communities but then these communities constantly evolved and grew into different types of communities with different norms and rules. Which outgrowth reflects our “basic nature” best?

Generally, I think arguments that appeal to our “nature” are often vague and unhelpful. As an existentialist, I’m suspicious that there’s even some coherent thing as our “nature”. But even if I agreed that humans have some general tendencies that spread across centuries upon centuries, I am still unsure why we shouldn’t regard these more as patterns than natures.

As far as the “distribution” problem, my solution is anarchism.

People love to discover and create.

We are naturally curious and playful, and discovery and creation are, respectively, the products of curiosity and playfulness.  There is no reason to believe that less work and more time to do what we want to do would cause fewer achievements in sciences, arts, and other creative endeavors.

I actually don’t have too much to disagree with on the first part. It seems obvious to me that whether we’re talking about human children, animals, or even adults, play is one of our most “natural” instincts. It’s something that helps us guide ourselves towards better understanding ourselves and our communities. I think there’s fairly solid intuitive and empirical evidence for Gray’s claim here and I’ve seen it plenty of times from both children and adults on a personal level.

Band hunter-gatherers, who, as I said, lived a life of play, are famous among anthropologists for their eagerness to share and help one another.  Another term for such societies is egalitarian societies—they are the only societies without social hierarchies that have ever been found.  Their ethos, founded in play, is one that prohibits any one person from having more status or goods than any other.  In a world without work, or without so much of it, we would all be less concerned with moving up some ladder, ultimately to nowhere, and more concerned with the happiness of others, who are, after all, our playmates.

Having read Harold Barclay’s People Without Government and knowing his own research, I don’t think it’s as simple as this. Most hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian than today’s society (which isn’t a high bar to reach admittedly) but some were fairly hierarchical and based on cultural submission to chieftains for example.

And even when there wasn’t formal social hierarchies there were still likely informal cultural hierarchies between different sorts of people, since that’s typically what happens in societies in general.

As usual, I don’t think Gray is completely wrong in any of these claims. I think he’s just giving us a slightly too clean and simple narrative that could be easily complicated if you introduce some other components to the picture as I have. Overall the piece I’m mostly criticizing is really well done and worth reading.

But it’d have been even better without the appeals to nature.

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