The Roots of Progress

Primitive thought

C. R. Hallpike’s book How We Got Here has a few very interesting chapters on primitive cultures. Hallpike, an anthropologist, spent many years living among multiple tribal societies, and he has a keen sense of how they differ from the modern, scientific world.

Here are some of the points I found particularly fascinating, from Chapter 6, “Primitive Thought” (emphasis added in various quotes):

Quantitative thinking

Primitive societies lack quantitative thinking. One tribe lacked basic concepts of measurement and barely had numbers:

When I was living with the Tauade I wanted to ask them for how many years various pieces of land had been lying fallow. (They lived mainly on sweet potatoes, and their gardens only produced for about three years, after which they had to be abandoned for a time.) You might think that ‘How long has this piece of land been fallow?’ is a very ordinary question indeed, the kind that one early farmer, for example, might well ask another, but they were unable to tell me. The reason is that they had no word for year (or for month or week), and would anyway have had great difficulty in keeping a record of them, because they could only count on their fingers and toes, and their words for numbers did not really extend beyond two.

Their thinking is much more qualitative than quantitative:

… hunter-gatherers reckon the passing of the year by their seasonal activities and the availability of different food resources, rather than by a calendar based on twelve lunar months. … Nor do hunter-gatherers divide space by the cardinal points of North, South, East and West, but use specific features of the terrain to orientate themselves. Basic colour terms are often restricted to dark/light, while the names of the chromatic colours are based on a wide variety of actual objects, and their classification of plants and animals is more concerned with practical details than with system: ‘Not only are their taxonomic systems limited in scope but they have a relative unconcern with systematisation’. The whole emphasis of their thought is on the local, the specific, the concrete, and the individual.

Just as they orient themselves in space relative to landmarks rather than an abstract compass rose; so they understand time as a sequence of events rather than an abstract line with even markers of days or hours. If you ask, “What time will you go to Port Moresby?”, the answer would not be “2:00pm”, but it might be, “after the plane has brought my letters to the mission”.

Elaborating on qualitative vs. quantitative:

There is also a general lack of measurement, with no standard units, no rulers, no scales and weights, and no clocks or other ways of measuring time apart from looking at the position of the sun. … While there are always words for big and small, heavy and light, long and short, or near and far, there are no words for size, weight, length, or distance, while big and small, or heavy and light, are seen as different and opposite, not as different points on the same scale or dimension.

Magical thinking

They have a poor understanding of causality, and of what kinds of properties can be transmitted between things:

The properties of objects, including people, may also be seen as something that can be transmitted directly between people and objects, and such beliefs are universal in primitive society. So if travellers are very tired on a long journey and fanning themselves with leaves, they may throw the leaves away in the belief that that their tiredness will leave them and pass into the leaves. A mother may not let her children eat the flesh of a species of white-bearded monkey because she thinks that they will catch old age from it. When a tree does not bear fruit, a gardener may ask a pregnant woman to fasten a stone to one of its branches, so that her fertility will pass into the tree, and so on.

(From a certain standpoint this is not unreasonable at a low level of scientific knowledge: illness can be transmitted from person to person by touch or proximity; why not tiredness, old age, or fertility?)


Education as we know it today does not exist. Instead, children are expected to watch and learn by example:

Whereas children in our society learn in the artificial environment of the school where they have to solve problems that are outside their ordinary experience, and engage in debate, in primitive society the child is gradually introduced into the full life of an adult, ‘and is almost never told what to do in an explicit, verbal, or abstract manner. He is expected to watch, learning by imitation and repetition [in the context of ordinary life so that] education is concrete and nonverbal, concerned with practical activity, not abstract generalization. There are never lectures on farming, house-building, or weaving. the child spends all his days watching until at some point he is told to join in the activity.’ The object of education is not cleverness, or to question or experiment or to think for oneself, but good sense, wisdom, and the ability to perform as a good neighbour and kinsman in work and social relations. The child is highly motivated to conform, and his basic learning commitment is not to things or ideas, but to people, especially those closest to him socially.

Mind vs. reality

They have no strong concept of consciouness, or understanding of the distinction between mind and reality. Quoting R. B. Onians:

The Dinka [of the Sudan] have no conception which at all closely corresponds to our popular modern conception of the ‘mind’, as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self. There is for them no such interior entity to appear, on reflection, to stand between the experiencing self at any given moment and what is or has been an exterior influence upon the self. So it seems that what we should call in some cases ‘the memories’ of experiences, and regard therefore as in some way intrinsic and interior to the remembering person and modified in their effect upon him by that interiority, appear to the Dinka as exteriorly acting upon him, as were the sources from which they derived. Hence it would be impossible to suggest to Dinka that a powerful dream was ‘only’ a dream, and might for that reason be dismissed as relatively unimportant in the light of day, or that a state of possession was grounded ‘merely’ in the psychology of the person possessed. They do not make the kind of distinction between the psyche and the world which would make such interpretations significant for them.

In particular, they don’t understand that the names of things are not an attribute of the thing itself:

… names are supposed to have been given to things by God, or by the first men, but may still be thought in a sense to be ‘in the things’ or else as being ‘everywhere and nowhere’. Even if we can’t recognise a thing’s name when we see it, the child still supposes that there is an inherent ‘rightness’ about names – the word ‘sun’ involves ‘shining, round, etc’.

This explains some forms of magical thinking:

Once we realise that primitive peoples do not have our idea of the mind we can also understand why they will inevitably think of all the symbols used in their rituals, the water, the garlands, the sacred gates, and so on as having real supernatural power. When we talk of ‘symbolic meaning’ we can use our notion of ‘mind’ to make a clear distinction between the symbol and what it stands for. So when we see an object that has symbolic power, such as our national flag, we regard our feelings about it as existing in our minds and not in the flag itself. But our notion of the mind is not available to primitive man, so for him the power of the symbol can only be located in the object itself.


Although (or because) they don’t make a distinction between the mind and reality, they do assume spirit, consciousness or will in objects and in the world:

… the movement of a body is regarded as due both to an external will and to an internal will, to command and to obedience. There is no transmission of force: ‘the external force simply calls forth the internal force which belongs to the moving object’, as when a child says ‘The road makes the bicycles go.’ The movement of things such as clouds and streams, for example, is seen as inherent in them, and called forth by what they have to do in the scheme of things. The child does not think, then, as we do, of force being transmitted from body to body but as belonging to all bodies, not transmitted but awakened – the weight of a stone, for example, is regarded as a force that actively opposes the efforts of a person to lift it.

And they assign agency and intent to the physical world, imbuing natural events with moral meaning:

Since the primitive world is filled with purpose and meaning, there is no room for our notions of probability and accident in explaining why things happen. For example, if a tree falls on a man and kills him, people will obviously understand, physically speaking, what caused his death but they will also want to know why the tree fell on him, in particular, and not on someone else, or why it killed anyone at all. Because the world has meaning, any event with human significance must have an explanation, and it is only in the case of an insignificant event, such as a tree simply falling down without doing any damage, that they will say ‘It just happened’. … The assumption that significant events must have a meaning in the larger scheme of things, and the inability to think statistically, form, of course, the basis of the universal belief in omens and divination.

Relevant books

How We Got Here: From Bows and Arrows to the Space Age

Social media link image credit: Woodlouse via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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