stone statue in Japan

In what ways has society changed since the Stone Age, and in what ways is it exactly the same?

The protagonist of the novel Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata confronts this question upon meeting a dissatisfied young man. The young man believes that society is—and always has been—deeply flawed:

“Nothing’s changed since the Stone Age. It’s just that nobody realizes that. . . . If you ask me, this is a dysfunctional society. And since it’s defective, I’m treated unfairly.”

In this little rant, the young man argues against the common belief that it’s better to be living in modern times than prehistoric times. Nineteenth-century scholars divided human history into three ages. The Stone Age was followed by the Bronze Age, which was followed by the Iron Age. These ages roughly correspond to groups of humans using stone, bronze, and iron tools—but they also refer to a transformation from hunter-gatherer bands and tribes to the formation of city-states practicing agriculture, animal husbandry, and various trades, with accompanying changes in cultural and religious practices and beliefs. These ages occurred in different world localities at different historical times, and in different ways. Popularly, the idea of the three ages is associated with progress—and this implication is what the young man argues against.

An alternate view, one that the young man does not mention, is that the world has not progressed over the ages, but deteriorated. Many cultures and religions have a tradition of believing that the creation of the earth was ideal, and that a Golden Age lasted for a time thereafter, whereupon things got worse and worse, culminating in the banal depravity of today. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod wrote that the Golden Age regressed into the Silver Age, which progressively regressed into the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age. The metals in this worldview—which correspond not to tools but, metaphorically, to the quality of people’s lives—become less and less valuable as time passes. (Though, oddly, the name of one of these ages is not a metal at all!)

The young man’s view is negative and self-defeating; but in one way at least, I agree with him: I do not believe that the passage of time has resulted in a society that is better in every way. I also do not believe that it has resulted in a society that is worse in every way. Society has many facets, and that’s why it’s fun to ask (so I’ll ask it again!)—in what ways has it changed, and in what ways has it stayed the same, since the Stone Age?

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