Home Forum Community CasP RG v. 1.01: Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything

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  • #249651
    jmc

      Welcome to the next round of the CasP reading group. We are reading Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. I presume many of you are aware that the release of this book got a lot of attention. But, like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the book is long, so do the reviews of the book do its arguments justice? We are going to do the hard work of reading the whole thing. Will we sing its praises? Maybe, maybe not. There certainly will be lots to talk about.

      Discussion opens on August 1, 2023. Please try to have the discussion follow the suggested pace below.
      The slow pace is to accommodate for people’s schedules and to promote slower reading and detailed discussion.

      Suggested pace for Schedule:

      Chapters 1-4 by August 01, 2023
      Chapters 5-7 by September 01, 2023
      Chapters 8-10 by October 01, 2023
      Chapters 11-12 by November 01, 2023

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      • #249710
        jmc

          Discussion is open! Looking forward to seeing what others think of the book.

        • #249711

          Hi there! I’m new to the forum and I’m gonna take this section chapter by chapter through the month. R.I.P to a person that forever changed my life.

           

          This post will be relatively short since chapter one is essentially a reiteration of much of Graeber’s work. Dismantling the binary between Rousseau and Hobbes is essential for opening the imagination to historical possibilities; I particularly enjoy the story about Romito 2! The notion that agriculture is humanity’s fall from grace has always been ridiculous and it’s good to see pushback there. There are many cases of modern isolated tribes being used as the benchmark of the past and it’s easy to see in retrospect how ridiculous that is; as a child admittedly for me not so much. Dismantling the framing of solutions around inequality helps disentangle one’s mind from unachievable possibilities. As someone finishing their bachelor’s in Psychology and History, I particularly hate Steven Pinker. Unpacking his imperial apologia is quite satisfying to read. The quests mentioned towards the end of the chapter had me thinking of Graeber’s past work about honor and quests; crossing the seas to spread one’s name and culture is still a familiar theme in today’s age of global media. I’ll be digging into chapter two later this week!

          • #249712
            jmc

              Hi Jacob! Thanks for getting the thread going. Feel free to post as you read. I imagine that the size of this book will affect the frequency of our posts on this thread.

          • #249715

            Here’s a chunky chapter 2! The idea that great thinkers are merely summarizing the Zeitgeist is, I think, a more accurate reading of history; no one lives in a vacuum. Graeber loves mentioning Rousseau submitted that treatise for an essay contest; Graeber loves his “umm actually” factoids lmao. What I would call a “Graeberism” is to point out the unsaid assumptions, both positive and especially negative, by a historical/philosophical/religious/cultural thought or practice. He employs this frequently and it occurs right on the next page as he posits the implications of the Ancien Règime’s scholars asking about the origins of inequality. I’ve read many of Graeber’s books but I still can’t train my brain quite as well as his to constantly perform this transformation. It is wild to think of such a stratified society holding a public essay contest; looks at current regime. I’ve picked away at Graeber’s posthumous book on pirates and that coincides with this chapter’s project of placing enlightenment Europe in the context of the broader world. If y’all wanna think about differential accumulation, the injection of trade goods from abroad after the Ottoman embargo for so long, gave Iberian nobles an insane sudden differential in accumulated wealth, in massive inconsistent bursts. Once this ramps up with the gold and slave trade, the volatility of these shipments, and the leveraging of the Habsburg/Iberian war machine would be a massively destabilizing factor. One can imagine the desperate measures a noble may take to ease unrest that could expand the egalitarian imagination of a peasant realizing how dependent the upper classes are on the fruits of the poor and the scale of the robbery at hand.

            The idea that scholars got pilled on Chinese bureaucracy and smuggled it into European governments is both amusing and seems true. Scholars have all the incentives to push ideas for their ability to reliably reproduce their social strata as bureaucrats. The Davids’ points about inequality not showing in medieval literature are quite salient and do well to reinforce their accounting of European social structure. I wonder if there were coffee store chains in enlightenment Europe.

            The stark contrast between the gregariousness of Americans and the sociopathy of the colonists is notable and obvious. The frontier coming home is often destabilizing for regimes and France is no exemption. I wonder what were the negative consequences of the collective punishment meted out by the wendat and other indigenous communities in the case of war; I’d wager it’s not as cruel as industrial prisons, gulags, slavery, or capital punishment. The idea of wealth being detached to power sounds fun and all, but deeply difficult to enforce or build durable institutions around. The notion of wealthy wendat spending wealth for honor once again echoes Graeber’s work on heroic societies. Indigenous African acephalous societies often employed similar forms of what I would call “charisma corvee labor” that are performed by wendat chiefs. Egalitarian societies often have chiefs that must schmooze locals into work, whether that is through gifts, or merely convincing them the project is necessary/beneficial. The Jesuits are one of many lovely examples of “the bad guys telling on themselves”. The Jesuit historical records decry things such as women’s liberty as horrid but to our modern eyes we can often see how institutions often don’t age very well. The thought of Americans having conversations with prohibitionist Europeans also colors amusing pictures; “wait, you all just listen to that guy?”. I feel like the cosmology of the Americans is missing from this chapter and it would help elucidate the contrast against the equality of subjects below the sovereign. Is there essentialism going on when the Huron are all described as quick witted? I guess these things are unavoidable if you want to say anything and I’d rather a positive depiction than a negative. That being said, the roles that are afforded any modicum of power often create barriers to entry. People are incentivized to mold themselves into a fashion that would pass these tests. Just as how corporate culture encourages sociopathy from the top down, good humored and charismatic chiefs can do the same!

            Get me some of that freedom and communism. I think there is a great point of redefining communism in the way that they do, but it feels like there is still some residual cold war jingoism that resonates through life here in the states still; bafflingly. Consequently it feels like a fruitless hill to die on to attempt to reform the word communism in American minds; I’m still gonna try though. Roman property law is so baked into people’s brain stems and I wonder what it’ll take for people to chill out and share a little already. Kandiaronk is awesome and a postmodernist to some degree; maybe a reflection of the large urban societies in Cahokia or to the south.

            The indigenous critique spurring a change in European thought certainly shifted due to the indigenous critique, the Euros only ever seemed to apply their egalitarianism to themselves though. I’m not sure if the story the Davids tell is as impactful as they make it out to be (the unpacking of European intellectualism and pop culture), but I’m by no means literate enough in the intellectual writings of the time to cross reference. I’m curious to read Wengrow’s work on ancient archeology to dismantle this notion of “the stupid savage”. This book reads quite easily!

            • This reply was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by Jacob Klein.
          • #249717

            Loving the book so far. It’s taking me awhile—not because the writing is difficult, but because every paragraph I sit back and marvel at how unaware of all of this I am, and how it all makes so much sense. I certainly received the standard incorrect education that this book dissects, as did every friend I’ve talked to about these issues. Some things that stand out:

            Pp. 23-4 discuss “long-distance interaction spheres” that weren’t inherently related to trade, mentioning Iroquois vision/dream quests, Massim members taking dangerous voyages for the excitement and prestige, and both women gamblers and traveling entertainers/curers of North America. The modern parallels are too numerous to count, but modern humans do exactly the same thing. E.g., traveling across the country to dress up in  animal costumes and attend a Furry convention, walking the Camino de Santiago, trying to visit every MLB stadium, hiking the highest peak in each state, or any other similar journey. Not necessary, not made for direct trade, and yet central to many people’s identities.

            P. 32 stating that pre-Columbus, there were little to no mentions of equality or inequality in the sense we are concerned with in English, French, Spanish, German, or Italian literature. Everyone was ranked and pegged, and this was considered “natural.”

            All of the examples of ways to orient society and the flexibility inherent in them, and the attendant question not of the origin of inequality, but the origin of our inability to get unstuck in our present situation, where money equals political power.

            The potential origin of private property as being linked to the idea of the sacred, and how the concept of property expanded and “how it eventually came to order so many other aspects of human affairs” (p. 163).

            Really, there’s far too much that I find fascinating to be able to write it all out here. Very excited to be reading this and look forward to everyone’s comments.

          • #249853

            Hello everyone,

            I’ve already read the book and wanted to jump here to share this YouTube Playlist from WHAT IS POLITICS about the book: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLU4FEuj4v9eBWP22ujafheoEejbQhPAdl&si=wsANekWQlI8-gB5j

            I personally love the work of Graeber, and these videos helped me get the wild things of this book straight.

            Have a good reading!

          • #249857
            jmc

              Hi everyone. I want to thank everyone here for stoking the flame of discussion. For personal reasons, my reading of Dawn of Everything has been slower than planned. Had I more free time, I would have liked to generate a series of questions for chapters or sections.

              So far I am enjoying reading The Dawn of Everything. I will say that the Davids can sometimes be too playful with evidence. Repeatedly they have this structure of argument:

              1. Make a claim about the social intentions of an ancient Indigenous society

              2. Acknowledge that there is insufficient archeological evidence for anthropologists to make claims about the social values and worldviews of an ancient Indigenous society

              3. Derive the truth of #1 through a circuitous interpretation of archeological evidence

              The Davids are working with the research that is available, but I wonder if the risk of this argumentative approach multiplies with each use.

            • #249864

              I’ve been working through Dawn of Everything with interest. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

              One of the things that strikes me about the book is the tone, which is overtly polemical. Usually, I enjoy a good polemic, but in this case I find the tone off putting. I’m trying to understand why.

              I think it’s the particular mix of polemics and strawman arguments. To me, what makes a good polemic is the devastating, detailed deconstruction of someone’s argument. But as I’m reading Dawn of Everything, I find myself consistently noticing polemics about strawmen.

              Here’s an example discussing the work of David Boehm:

              So, according to Boehm, for about 200,000 years political animals all chose to live just one way; then, of course, they began to rush headlong into their chains, and ape-like dominance patterns re-emerged. The solution to the battle between ‘Hobbesian hawks and Rousseauian doves’ turns out to be: our genetic nature is Hobbesian, but our political history is pretty much exactly as described by Rousseau. The result? An odd insistence that for many tens of thousands of years, nothing happened. This is an unsettling conclusion, especially when we consider some of the actual archaeological evidence for the existence of ‘Palaeolithic politics’.

              The emphasis here is mine. Does any anthropologist (including David Boehm) insist that humans all ‘chose to live just one way’? And if so, what exactly does that mean? What do we mean by ‘chose’? And what do we mean by ‘one way’?

              In my mind, what we have here is strong rhetoric that insists on a point that no one is making. Similarly, what does it mean to insist that for tens of thousands of years, ‘nothing happened’? Does any serious social scientist actually insist that?

              Of course, many authors make strawman arguments. But it’s particularly annoying to see it happen in a book that’s claiming to write a new history of humanity. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far in Dawn, I’m underwhelmed by the quality of the evidence, and annoyed by the tone of arguments, which don’t seem to seriously engage with the theories they criticize.

              One last thought. I find the use of the word ‘political animals’ revealing. If humans are evolved animals, it follows that we have not always been political. No other animal has politics like us. So where did we get our politics? This, to me, seems to be a gaping hole in Dawn: skirting around issues of evolution without a serious engagement in evolutionary theory.

              • This reply was modified 8 months ago by Blair Fix.
              • This reply was modified 8 months ago by Blair Fix.
            • #249867

              Here’s another example of what, in my opinion, is a strawman argument:

              It’s easy to see why the neo-evolutionists of the 1950s and 1960s might not have known quite what to do with this legacy of fieldwork observations. They were arguing for the existence of discrete stages of political organization – successively: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states – and held that the stages of political development mapped, at least very roughly, on to similar stages of economic development: hunter-gatherers, gardeners, farmers, industrial civilization.

              Did the ‘neo-evolutionists’ actually make the case for ‘discrete stages’? Or did they make the case that there are some fuzzy categories into which we can lump societies, much like there are fuzzy categories into which we can lump animals?

              And even if the scientists of the 1950s thought this way, it’s now the 21st century. Do any modern social scientists insist on discrete, linear stages of social evolution? I can’t think of any. So who, exactly, are the Davids arguing against?

            • #249868

              I’m enjoying the David’s discussion of seasonality. It seems like a fruitful avenue of research. Still, they draw weird conclusions. For example:

              In other words, there is no single pattern. The only consistent phenomenon is the very fact of alteration, and the consequent awareness of different social possibilities. What all this confirms is that searching for ‘the origins of social inequality’ really is asking the wrong question.

              To a quantitative scientist like me, this wordplay is bizarre. How can you say anything about variation and the lack of pattern if you don’t measure anything? We could make similar arguments about human height — it’s all about variation and there is no single pattern. But when we actually measure height across time, we find that there is a pattern — humans tended to get taller during the industrial revolution.

              The David’s use of anecdotes without systematic quantification is frustrating, given the sweeping nature of their conclusions.

            • #249869

              Some more frustrations. I’m annoyed that the David’s pay so little attention to war and violence. They put a lot of emphasis on human agency, on the fact that humans make culture the way they like. But the big hole here is the interaction between cultures.

              Suppose that a hierarchical society conquers a non-hierarchical society. Sure, both societies made choices that led to their form of organization. But these choices tell us little about why hierarchy spread. The hierarchy spread because it defeated the other society.

              This is the view taken by multi-level selection theorists like Peter Turchin. I find it frustrating that the David’s don’t engage with this highly relevant theory. Here’s a prime example. The Davids ask:

              Was farming from the very beginning about the serious business of producing more food to supply growing populations? Most scholars assume, as a matter of course, that this had to be the principal reason for its invention. But maybe farming began as a more playful or even subversive kind of process – or perhaps even as a side effect of other concerns, such as the desire to spend longer in particular kinds of locations, where hunting and trading were the real priorities.

              I don’t really understand this question. I’m sure that humans had many different reasons for taking up farming. And these reasons are interesting. But in my mind, the more important feature of farming is that it spread at the expense of other ways of being. Why did it spread? What features of farming societies led them to out-compete non farmers? The Davids don’t ask these questions.

              • This reply was modified 8 months ago by Blair Fix.
              • This reply was modified 8 months ago by Blair Fix.
            • #249872

              More weird strawman arguments, this time about Yuval Harari. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t take Harari seriously … I suspect that few social scientists do. So it’s not really worth discussing his ‘theory’ of agriculture, since there really isn’t one.

              In this case, the Davids chose to critique Harari’s rhetorical technique in which he looks at agriculture from the perspective of wheat:

              Yuval Harari waxes eloquent on this point, asking us to think ‘for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat’. Ten thousand years ago, he points out, wheat was just another form of wild grass, of no special significance; but within the space of a few millennia it was growing over large parts of the planet. How did it happen? The answer, according to Harari, is that wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. ‘This ape’, he writes, ‘had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat.’ If wheat didn’t like stones, humans had to clear them from their fields; if wheat didn’t want to share its space with other plants, people were obliged to labour under the hot sun weeding them out; if wheat craved water, people had to lug it from one place to another, and so on.

              Don’t the Davids understand that Harari is basically telling a joke? His story is fun rhetoric. No one, not even Harari, takes it as a serious theory. So it’s odd that the Davids proceed to mount a serious critique of this joke.

            • #249873

              As I read Dawn, I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by what, in my mind, amounts to innumeracy from the Davids. Start with the following very interesting description of early agriculture:

              In the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, long regarded as the cradle of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, there was in fact no ‘switch’ from Palaeolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production took something in the order of 3,000 years. And while agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after its inception. In the centuries between, people were effectively trying farming on for size, ‘play farming’ if you will, switching between modes of production, much as they switched their social structures back and forth.

              The Davids conclude:

              Clearly, it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like ‘the Agricultural Revolution’ when dealing with processes of such inordinate length and complexity.

              I just cannot understand this statement. If anatomically modern humans have been around for at least 300,000 years, isn’t a 3000-year transition a blink of the eye? And why does the fact that a transition is ‘complex’ mean that we can’t call it a ‘revolution’?

              • This reply was modified 8 months ago by Blair Fix.
            • #249875

              Continuing with the theme of innumeracy, I’m struck by the David’s discussion of scale. They write:

              In the standard, textbook version of human history, scale is crucial. The tiny bands of foragers in which humans were thought to have spent most of their evolutionary history could be relatively democratic and egalitarian precisely because they were small. It’s common to assume – and is often stated as self-evident fact – that our social sensibilities, even our capacity to keep track of names and faces, are largely determined by the fact that we spent 95 per cent of our evolutionary history in tiny groups of at best a few dozen individuals.

              What follows is a chapter which critiques the issue of scale in social evolution. But what is striking is the almost complete absence of quantification in this critique. And when numbers enter in, they’re mostly one offs rather than any systematic investigation.

              Contrast the Davids’ approach with Robert Carneiro’s paper ‘On the Relationship between Size of Population and Complexity of Social Organization’. Here’s his systematic study of the relation between population (scale) and the number of organizational traits.

              If the Davids want to critique this kind of quantitative evidence, avoiding numbers isn’t the way to do it.

               

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            • #249877

              Well, Chapter 10, “Why the State Has No Origin” has made me laugh, and in a good way. Take this quote:

              For much of the twentieth century, social scientists preferred to define a state in more purely functional terms. … Basically, all it says is that, since states are complicated, any complicated social arrangement must therefore be a state.

              This little joke cuts to the heart of so many problems in theories of the state. Basically, no one agrees what ‘the state’ is, so no one can agree on how it came to exist. My take is that the whole fuss is about a category that’s too fuzzy to be worth much effort. Better to focus on something more concrete, like the scale of hierarchy.

            • #249878

              In Chapter 11, the Davids mount a critique of ‘evolutionism’:

              One problem with evolutionism is that it takes ways of life that developed in symbiotic relation with each other and reorganizes them into separate stages of human history. By the late nineteenth century, it was becoming clear that the original sequence as developed by Turgot and others – hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, then finally industrial civilization – didn’t really work. Yet at the same time, the publication of Darwin’s theories meant that evolutionism became entrenched as the only possible scientific approach to history – or at least the only one likely to be given credence in universities.

              Here again, I think they’re arguing against a strawman. Sure, some early (racist) social scientists looked at social evolution as an inevitable progression towards European civilization. But does any modern social scientist subscribe to this view, especially the ones working from an evolutionary lens?

              I mean, symbiosis is a basic fact that evolutionary biology tries to explain. Does it make much sense to raise symbiosis as a critique of ‘evolutionism’? And what do the David’s mean that evolutionism ‘became the only possible scientific approach to history’? For that matter, how can you study history without recognizing that cultures evolve?

              Why the relentless lampooning of the silly ‘stages of evolution’ theory, and not serious engagement with modern theories of cultural evolution?

            • #249879

              The Davids begin the final chapter with the following summary:

              This book began with an appeal to ask better questions. We started out by observing that to inquire after the origins of inequality necessarily means creating a myth, a fall from grace, a technological transposition of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis – which, in most contemporary versions, takes the form of a mythical narrative stripped of any prospect of redemption. In these accounts, the best we humans can hope for is some modest tinkering with our inherently squalid condition – and hopefully, dramatic action to prevent any looming, absolute disaster.

              Again, I can’t help but feel that the Davids are making a strawman argument that they maintain by refusing to look systematically at quantitative evidence. When we look systematically at attempts to measure inequality, and to put these measurements into different categories of society, we get the pattern shown below.

              Looking at this chart (which is from my Dissertation), I see nothing ‘inevitable’ about inequality. Instead, I see a ‘radiation’ of inequality as (some) societies began to exploit more energy. What’s essential is that some societies — whether horticultural, agriculture, or industrial — stayed quite equal. But other societies explored the depths of despotism. So what seems to have happened is that access to more energy increased the upper threshold on inequality. But it did nothing to the lower limit of inequality.

              In short, we can maintain that inequality has an origin and maintain that we can do much more than ‘tinker’ with our inherently squalid conditions.

               

               

            • #249880

              Hi all, jumping in late here, spurred by Blair’s contributions.

              The aha! for me from the book was the huge political diversity (more, less, differently, and even seasonally hierarchical/egalitarian) of pre-historic/-literate societies — discernible, with careful interpretation, from the archaeological record. Wengrow contributes much fascinating fact and detail to Graeber’s more-overt ax-grinding/politicized approach.

              G&W’s claim about Boehm that Blair highlights: Humans as political animals. Key line:

              “Boehm assumes…we were strictly ‘egalitarian for thousands of generations’”

              This is a bad overstatement; Boehm never uses the word “strictly.” In fact he points to prehistoric societies that were more hierarchical, and discusses societal traits and material conditions that are contributive or necessary to more hierarchy.

              But he does say quite explicitly in the introduction to Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior:

              “I make the major assumption that humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear.”

              So his hierarchical examples can be (cynically?) viewed as rare exceptions, “now, to-true-true”-isms.

              So Boehm very much does participate in the widespread Rousseau-istic noble savage business that I and I think innumerable others have ingested through osmosis in our non-expert intellectual travels. And as G&W point out, that does conflict quite oddly with Boehm’s Aristotelian view of humans as The Political Animal. Were humans not political (much) before the neolithic revolution?

              G&W’s claim, that according to Boehm, “for about 200,000 years political animals all chose to live just one way”, is another unfortunate overstatement. But “mostly one way” would not be.

              G&W forcefully make the point, with many examples, that pre-neolithic humans had hugely diverse (and sometimes large) political structures, with huge variance even in adjacent tribes — often in fact, in direct response to adjacent (hierarchical) structures that they disliked/disapproved of (see “schismogenesis”). I didn’t know that.

              That was a super-interesting and useful understanding for me, and a valuable corrective to lurking simplistic Rousseau-ism that is still quite intellectually pervasive — with significant help from Boehm.

              Thanks for listening…

            • #249881

              Thanks Steve. You raise good points. Essentially, we’re dealing with an absence of evidence. There is nothing in the deep archaeological record that suggests massive inequality.

              Scientists usually take this to mean that inequality was absent, in the same way that the absence of evidence for little green men presumably means that little green men don’t exist. Both are assumptions … the absence of evidence never proves the non-existence of a thing.

              What Dawn does is push back the dates in which there are signs of inequality. But the problem, again, is the strawman arguments. Many working scientists are aware of this evidence. So the claim that it is revolutionary is overstated. It’s like finding a fossil of an anatomically modern human that’s a bit older than expected. It hardly changes everything about our understanding of human evolution.

              Another point, raised by David Boehm, Peter Turchin, and recently Richard Wrangham is that human paleolithic egalitarianism was actually a departure from our primate heritage. Wrangham makes the case that we basically domesticated ourselves — we used reverse dominance to kill off the big violent alpha males, turning ourselves into a much more socially docile species. The book is called The Goodness Paradox. I thoroughly enjoyed it, except for Wrangham’s refusal to discuss group selection. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

              Back to Dawn. After a few days of reflection, here are my thoughts.

              On the one hand, Dawn is a stunning piece of scholarship. The Davids compile a massive array of case studies to make the case that pre-history was extremely messy. Societies went in all sort of directions, some getting bigger and more hierarchical, while other societies rejected hierarchy and the trappings of agriculture. This evidence should be celebrated and taken seriously.

              On the other hand, Dawn is a stunning example of bad science. It repeatedly attempts to win points by ridiculing theoretical straw men.

              Sure, some anthropologists of the past once believed in a naive, linear view of evolution in which all societies went through distinct phases. Likewise, some evolutionary biologists of the past once thought of evolution in terms of the laughable ‘ascent of man’ imagery, in which all of life was working to make humans possible.

              The problem is that today, few (if any) working scientists take these ideas seriously. They know that evolution is complex, contingent and messy. So it is frustrating to see the Davids take pot-shots at ideas that modern scientists don’t hold. In fact, I’d wager that very little of the evidence marshalled in Dawn would be considered controversial by working scientists.

              So let’s diagnose the biggest problem with Dawn, which is this: the David’s cite many examples of individual trees; then they use these examples to make controversial claims about the forest. But the Davids don’t actually try to measure the forest to see if their inference is correct. It’s a big mistake.

              Here’s an analogy by way of life’s evolution. To play the Davids’ game, I start by ridiculing the ascent-of-man imagery as hopelessly wrong. But I don’t tell you that most working scientists agree that this view of evolution is wrong.

              Then I bombard you with a list of case studies which show that individual organisms evolve in all sorts of direction. Some ‘choose’ to get larger and more complex. Others ‘choose’ to get smaller and simpler. Again, I don’t tell you that this evidence is widely known and uncontroversial. At the level of individual species, evolution takes all directions at once, and working scientists know that.

              Then the twist. I take this well-known evidence and claim that everything you think you know about the origin of life is wrong. In fact, it’s ridiculous to think that life even had an ‘origin’.

              Here’s the problem with this reasoning. I’m taking observations about the trees and making inferences about the forest. But the catch is that I’m doing it without actually quantitatively aggregating the trees to look for average trends.

              Yes, at the species level, evolution goes in all directions at once. But if we aggregate the big picture, it’s clear that life started small and then branched into bigness. Or put in more mathematical terms, life evolved a ‘fat-tail’ distribution of big organisms. The net effect is that on average, over billions of years, life got bigger. Looking at this average, it’s very clear that if you reverse the trend, it implies that life had an origin that was small. (Extensive DNA evidence corroborates this inference.)

              I think the same is true for human societies. As the Davids show, there is a stupendous richness to the evolution of individual societies. But they error in then boldly arguing that this richness implies that inequality has no origin. Scientists who’ve tried to measure trends across time (i.e. measure the forest) clearly see a pattern towards societies with larger scale and more inequality. So when we look at the forest, it does appear that inequality has an origin, at least in a statistical sense.

              So here’s my main beef with Dawn. The facts it musters are all consistent with what in my mind is the modern evolutionary understanding of human social evolution. In terms of the big picture, humans evolved from small-group living primates to present-day industrial societies which span the globe. There was never anything ‘inevitable’ about this process … indeed, it depended (like all evolution) on a whole series of contingent events. Still, the big picture trend towards larger scale and greater inequality is fairly clear (again, in a statistical sense).

              This average trend is one set of facts, visible when we aggregate across many societies and large swaths of time. The other set of facts is of a whopping mess. When we zoom into the small picture, we find groups and societies going in all sorts of directions. Again, this mess is expected. The big-picture trends are statistical, not absolutes adhered to by every society.

              Then problem with Dawn is that it insists on a strawman version of evolutionary theory, one in which large-scale statistical trends are universal laws of nature with no known violation. But few (if any) working scientists hold this view. So the book argues against an imaginary opponent.

              So here’s the bottom line. Minus the ubiquitous strawman arguments, the Davids have written a welcome volume that illuminates the richness of human social evolution. So perhaps a better, less grandiose title would have been this: ‘Taking all roads at once: Social experimentation during the neolithic era’.

            • #249894
              CM

                Not having read much of the work of their intellectual adversaries, I did not pick up on the degree to which the Davids caricatured their arguments when I read the book, which makes me curious to read them.

                I think there are legitimate reasons why the Davids might have stayed away from using statistical or quantitative analysis.

                For one, its possible that for much of the subject material, and if I remember correctly they mention this, there just isn’t much evidence, quantitative or no. One of the things they highlight is just how little we know about cultures beyond a certain time period. In this sense, their argument is intentionally framed as speculative and imaginative. Not very scientific perhaps, but my sense is that they were upfront about this.

                I was reminded of a similar set of arguments in Mumford’s “Technics and Human Development,” where he argues that most of the important information about paleolithic/neolithic cultures (language, myth, knowledge, moral system) leaves no physical trace. The emphasis on certain quantitative evidence is to a certain extent unavoidable but nonetheless creates certain biases of inquiry and assumptions , for instance toward technological determination (e.g., weapons and graves).

                Second, and much more importantly, I saw the book as having an explicit prescriptive purpose, which quantitative evidence may not have been particularly helpful for advancing. Namely, what the Davids are really interested in is making an argument about the future, not the past.

                The way I see the Davids’ project is that it is aimed at expanding the range of imaginable possibilities for how humans might organize themselves, and especially in terms of alternatives to currently existing coercive/hierarchical orders. So by -for instance – downplaying the important role of war and violence in the past, they may have overstated the degree of autonomy humans generally have had, yet they are at the same time refusing to conclude that such (coercive, unequal) forms are inevitable. One way of looking at it is as a failure to do good science, but I think looking at this work as a book that is only concerned with science or scientific fact gives an incomplete picture of what they are trying to do.

                There’s a popular anarchist slogan, “demand the impossible.” Because radical egalitarian political movements tend to be short-lived in modern (and ancient?) history, they are like statistical anomalies. So radical change always appears from the ‘facts’ as highly improbable if not impossible. Taking such a pessimistic view, however, unfortunately only reduces those odds. And the big-picture statistical view definitely seems to predispose one to such conclusions. The philosopher Françoise Proust once defined history as “the collection or recollection of sublime experiences of liberty.” I think DoE is written in this spirit.

                Blair, you mentioned that some of the views the Davids are arguing against within the evolutionary camp are not actually held by contemporary social scientists. I am curious to read more of this literature. If you were to put forward the strongest possible rebuttal of the Davids argument, (i.e., of the evolutionary/technological/geographical determinism camp) what sources would you likely turn to?

                • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by CM.
                • This reply was modified 7 months, 1 week ago by CM.
              • #249897

                Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Chris.

                Here are some fascinating books that use an evolutionary lens for studying deep human history:

                Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, by Peter Turchin.

                Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

                The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, by Richard Wrangham

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goodness_Paradox

                Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd

                https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo3615170.html

              • #249898

                Oh, and here is Peter Turchin’s response to a 2019 essay by the Davids. He really goes after their strawman techniques and refusal to quantify.

                An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution

              • #249899
                CM

                  Excellent, thank you!

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