Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Jan

Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World

Every once in a while I come across a quote that makes so much sense I can’t get it out of my head. Sometimes it reveals a new truth or illuminates a long-held one. Other times it makes good and plain something so logical, so sensible, so obvious that it’s like a slap upside the head. Such was my impression of this Robert A. Heinlein quote mentioned by a commenter on Mike Eades blog: “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.”

I’m not intimately familiar with Mr. Heinlein’s work (although I read Stranger in a Strange Land and there is some dual meaning with my choice of Grok as our main character), but this quote has been on my mind for the last few months. It stands on its own, I think, for pondering the force of specialization in our society and individual lives.

The fact is, specialization is as much a product of the Neolithic Age as farming was. Ten thousand years ago we started eating new things but we also saw a major revamping of social structure and human labor. Hunter-gatherers (ancient and present) knew nothing of specialization. It’s inevitable that some folks in a band were better at certain things than others, but subsistence (and all the other basic necessities and pastimes of life) was the stuff of community obligation. Everyone contributed at some point or, well, you better go find yourself some other band to take advantage of.

As band oriented as hunter-gatherers were, they were uncompromising individualists of a unique sort. (This interest in personal autonomy is a common reason many current hunter-gatherers stick with their foraging lifestyle instead of joining the surrounding agricultural and urban settings.) There was flux in hunter-gatherer band structure. People often came and went with the formation or dissolution of mating relationships, a falling out with other members, or with the natural shifts of seasonal resources. Not everyone moved among groups, of course, but it happened. As long as you were fully and actively engaged in the band’s survival and community while you were there, it worked out for everyone.

This flux as well as the inherent risk of hunter-gatherer life meant no one could afford to put all his/her eggs in one basket. If a band had one person who made spearheads, they were pretty much screwed if that person up and left one day to marry the beauty in the next band over or if he got torn apart by a hungry predator. It was crucial that each individual know the skills of survival – hunting strategies, terrain familiarity, plant cataloging, shelter construction, weather reading, cooking, child rearing, etc. They knew it as necessity and embraced it as cultural value.

Enter the Neolithic Age, with its focus on settled life, stored supplies, and larger, denser communities, and you have the start of a whole new ball game. Suddenly they were feeding and protecting a pretty massive group of people (relatively speaking for their time). Human social structure needed roles it never did before. Enter specialization. As Matt Ridley writes in The Agile Gene, we’ve been in a spiral ever since – a continuing interdependent cycle “whereby specialization increases productivity, which increases prosperity, which allows technological invention, which further increases specialization.” Is the result progress? Yes and no – no and yes? Ridley quotes Robert Wright: “‘Human history involve[s] the playing of ever more numerous, ever larger and ever more elaborate non-zero-sum games.’” That’s one way to look at it.

Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt suggests our shift from hunter-gatherer life and settlement in large communities has changed the way we fulfill our need for what he calls “affect hunger,” the genetically based instinct we have to seek and create connection with others. For adults, Goldschmidt suggests, this hunger plays out two ways – “by belonging and by performance.” The Neolithic Revolution and resulting specialization tipped the scale toward performance, he says. Our “peer group” is no longer our intimately known and reciprocally committed band members. It’s more our “occupational colleagues.” I enjoy and value my staff to be sure, but I don’t know how I feel about that idea….

Is all this a “zero sum game,” as Wright suggests? I don’t know about the sum totals themselves. On the one hand, I’m grateful for the innovation and variety that specialization has made possible. Yet, I also ponder what’s been lost.

The last two hundred years alone has ushered in mechanization and whole new layers of career specialization. We’re definitely rewarded these days for specializing – for finding (or creating) a niche so tight and rare – that we can soak it for all its worth. Sure, it’s good business practice – and for some lucky individuals their ultimate passion. I don’t begrudge people their innovation and right to earn a living the best way they know how. I do wonder if the larger cultural force, however, undermines something of individual well-being.

In the 19th Century, John Ruskin wrote about the difference between the traditional artisans who in part designed the structures they built and the “modern” masons whose job it was to lay bricks in the same uniform pattern. We’ve lost something of that autonomy – often on an individual basis and largely on a cultural level. Not to stand in the way of progress, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say something about it gives me pause.

It’s not just about our professional endeavors of course. Our ancestors and even grandparents practiced life skills and arts that are quickly going the way of specialization. For better and worse, we outsource many of the chores and talents that they did as routine. On the one hand, we can say it has freed us up to make other choices with our time. Except, I remember my older relatives having plenty of personal hobbies, and I’m not sure we really have (or at least recognize) much more free time than our grandparents did decades ago.

As for my own lifetime career picture, I’ve never designed and built a gothic church like Ruskin’s artisans, but I’ve had my share of variety. More than that, however, I’ve never felt hemmed in by my then-present job. Whatever I was doing for money at the time, I was always pursuing (by interest or flat-out necessity) other endeavors at home. I painted houses in my early days. I designed and made my own clothing for a while, made much of the furniture in my house at one point, acted as my own attorney (successfully), repaired my own cars, and built a restaurant (including the design and construction of a 60 foot salad bar that was refrigerated from underneath).

For me, everything I have done work-wise (or otherwise) has been a lesson in self-sufficiency as well as self-improvement. Although I occasionally cursed a few of the projects at the time, I love to look at my life now with the knowledge that there’s very little I couldn’t do if I really put my mind to it.

Sure, I also learned that I don’t love doing some of these things even though I can do them. It’s helped me prioritize my life and finances. Would I rather use my limited spare time building or fixing something as an expression of self-sufficiency or creativity? Sometimes. Or would I rather buy it or pay someone to fix it and then be in a position to use my time to play or do nothing simply because I now value that higher? Oftentimes, yes. That said, I’m not going to pay $9 for a mediocre serving of paleo jerky. I’m going to make it myself because, well, I like the result better and appreciate the fact I can do it for a fraction of the cost. Sometimes it’s about principle. Other times, it’s about simple preference. Good jerky, after all, is nothing to shake a stick at.

However, there are bigger themes here, I think. What does self-sufficiency mean to us? Although few of us would choose to make our lives alone in the wilderness, what about the pride and self confidence that comes with being able to do a whole mess of things – being a Jack or Jane of many trades or talents? Is that one of the (many) things that is leaving us feeling empty or unfulfilled in this age? How important is it to feel we can handle any situation life throws at us? A flat tire? A broken circuit or blown fuse or stopped toilet or downed Internet connection? A garden full of vegetables to be stored? A home full of children who need to be fed and clothed and cared for on a shoestring? A roof that needs replaced or a door that needs to be hung? How about a broken marriage, a lost job, an empty bank account? I’m wandering here, but I like the idea of an inner peace and calm that comes from being confident that we can handle anything and knowing that we are wired to be self-sufficient. As with many of CW’s messages, we can too often get caught up in the pattern that tells us we should just give in and specialize, be content and productive within set roles. Maybe it’s just the contrarian part of me coming out.

I guess in my world, this underscores the value of a true “liberal arts” and life education – which can start from formal education (e.g. college) but can also begin – and in either case – most richly unfolds within living itself, the design of one’s personal efforts, followed interests, and creative initiative. For my part, I’d say this. One fine day when I have my own grandchildren, I want to have a whole host of tricks up my sleeve – never ending activities, stories, and how-tos. If they want a treehouse, I like the fact I’ll have the knowhow – and the energy – to build it for them.

Thanks for reading today, everyone! Let me know what you think about specialization. When you look back on the things you’ve done in life (for money or love), what thoughts/lessons come to mind? How have certain jobs or hobbies changed you in ways only they could have?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The “no one left to make spearheads” lamentation does not provide a lesson about “ensuring that you and others understand the basics of .” What such historical anecdotes help to explain is the lamentably primitive nature of societies which for whatever reason lack adequate freedom of trade among disparate families & communities.

    Vanmind wrote on January 28th, 2012
  2. I grew up on a farm and can do most things myself, fix cars, build things, etc. However I also realise the importance of specialisation or the division of labour. It is what makes our lives better. If we all did everything ourselves we would indeed be truly living the paleo lifestyle. Specialisation is crucial to us having modern houses, mobile phons, computers, and internet and websites. It would not be possible to have our way of life without it. I still service my own car, build furniture and grow fish/veges in my aquaponics system, all to save money and eat well. We need a balance.

    russ wrote on January 28th, 2012
  3. The next time you board an airplane, you better hope the engineers who designed it were intensely specialized…

    There is a limit to the jack-of-all-trades mentality.

    Steve wrote on January 28th, 2012
  4. Outstanding post, Mark. I think you have nailed the Achilles heel of our modern society. Just as we have experienced a tech bubble, a real-estate bubble – scenarios where growth outpaced it’s own sustainability due to a flawed model – we will eventually find ourselves in the midst of a humanity bubble. The current model of specialization and consumption is not sustainable in the long run.
    Those of us who have embraced the Primal lifestyle, especially those who have gone all the way in learning hunting, gathering, surviving in nature, will have a leg up if and when the time comes to turn to that lifestyle for survival.
    Not meaning to sound like a EOTWAWKI survivalist nut ( I am not), but should the threads of society begin to unravel due to unsustaianable demand for the limited resources, specialization will no longer be an advantage, and simple survival as a family or band will be the order of the day. No need for a fast internet connection and cell service when your primary concern is finding food for your family in the absence of currently taken-for-granted services.
    I am going to print Mr. Heinlein’s quote and post it in my office – I mean cave :-)
    -Mark

    Mark wrote on January 29th, 2012
  5. Great post, Mark. The ones I love most are ones like this – musings on big issues (not that I don’t like the nutritional nitty-gritty, too).

    One of the most significant things I learned from my father was the value of learning to do things yourself. He has all these great tools in the basement, and can do a lot of home repairs himself, but he didn’t grow up with it. Once, I asked him how he learned it all. He told me that any time the house needed a repair, he’d compare the cost of buying the tools to the cost of hiring someone to do it. As long as the tools weren’t significantly more expensive, he bought the tools, educated himself, and invested the time. I think of that almost any time I teach myself a new skill, particularly a practical one.

    What I find most significant about it, I think, is that it illustrates how learning self-sufficiency can be, counter-intuitively, a great tool for building community and relationships with others.

    Ware wrote on January 29th, 2012
  6. A good general attitude, but unless we return to hunter gathering, specialization is iinevitable. In others words, I agree, but add, don’t overstate the case and begin to sound like a survivalist waiting for the collapse of civilization.  It is unlikely that you can find a competent neurosurgeon who can also repair cars, design bridges, fly a jet liner…etc.  Robert Heinlein was very inclined to grandiose declarations which faded in the light of careful analysis..Still his declarations are worth discussing– the declarations of Heinlein the survivalist, not those of Heinlein the not so very crypto fascist.

    James P. Naranjo, Sr. wrote on January 30th, 2012
  7. Interesting take. If a majority of selective pressures were abrogated since the agro/neolithic revolutions insofar as human nutrition and genetic expression, couldn’t the same be said for society? What of psychological concepts identity and liberty? How do denser and more populous modern tribes manifest those concepts differently?

    Jevon wrote on February 1st, 2012
  8. Unfortunately, I think this is basically romantic claptrap. If we seriously pursued self-sufficiency, or seriously abandoned specialization, we would quickly reduce the global population to pre-neolithic populations. Specialization and trade are the keys to abundance, period.

    That said, specialization brings its own problems, and I’m not an advocate of blindly accepting specialized production (know your farmer). But romanticizing about this is basically possible only for people who have already absorbed the benefits of the very specialization that they bemoan.

    Here’s a very interesting blog post by an economist – http://cafehayek.com/2009/04/gifted-in-nepal.html. I think that the Paleo/Primal community could use a good dose of economic understanding.

    Chip Morris wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  9. One of the great things about the internet is that it really can help to facilitate self-sufficiency. Learning a skill these days can be as easy as finding a tutorial online to get you started.

    Obviously the internet is a two-edged sword, but it’s all in the choices you make. You can use Youtube to look at cat videos all day, or you can use it to learn how to poach an egg, check your oil or play guitar. Oh well, my two cents chucked. Be sure to use your browser to learn how to do something cool before you get up :P

    Stephen wrote on February 18th, 2012
  10. The article reminds me of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Every man knew who was the best at shooting at game, starting a fire, talking to the natives, sewing up buckskin. There was some specialization but 90% of the time it was walking, lifting heavy stuff and occasional sprinting.

    Dark Matter wrote on February 27th, 2012
  11. The analogy between multiply skilled hunter-gatherers and modern multi-tasking culture is false. It draws a false parallel between the directly meaningful human activity of hunter-gatherers (hunting and gathering for sustenance) and the alienated pseudo-activity of modern life (programming computers). Heinlein is apparently suggesting that we can have both at the same time but a cursory glance at the technological environment in which we live should prove the absurdity of that view.

    Heinlein is correct about the undesirability of the present culture of specialization but he misses the point of his own argument. The multiplication of pseudo-activities in modern life, especially as relates to the proliferation of alienated technologies like computers, is the very reason we have a culture of specialization in the first place. How on earth is a person supposed to be multi-skilled in a technological mass culture? Show me the person who learns to hunt, farm land, write literature, organize business activities, program computers and engineer bridges, and all within a single lifetime.

    The culture of specialization developed because it was no longer possible for each member of a community to master the same shared activities. It is not humanly possible to be competent in both the activities that are directly necessary to human life AND the myriad micro-activities required to maintain life in technological mass culture. We have to choose one or the other, either meaningful existence with multiply skilled individuals living and working together, or a technological mass culture unavoidably dominated by division of labor.

    Jon wrote on July 1st, 2012

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