As the readers of this blog know, a big chunk of my research focuses on why complex societies go through cycles of alternating internally peaceful, or integrative, phases and turbulent, or disintegrative periods. In all past state-level societies, for which we have decent data, we find such “secular cycles” (see more in our book Secular Cycles).
What was a surprise for me was to find that pre-state societies also go through similar cycles. Non-state centralized societies (chiefdoms) cycle back and forth between simple (one level of hierarchy below the chief) and complex (two or more hierarchical levels) chiefdoms. But now evidence accumulates that even non-centralized, non-hierarchical societies cycle. The work by archaeologists, such as Stephen Shennan, showed that various regions within Europe went through three or four population cycles before the rise of centralized societies (see, for example, his recent book The First Farmers of Europe).
These cycles were quite drastic in amplitude. For example, last month at a workshop in Cologne, I learned from archaeologists working in North Rhine that population declines there could result in regional abandonment. Several hypotheses have been advanced, including the effects of climate fluctuations, or soil exhaustion. But there is no scientific consensus—this is a big puzzle.
One hypothesis, which, for some reason, doesn’t get much attention, is the role of warfare in all this (I’ve written about this curious bias in this post and others). For example, a recent, and otherwise excellent article by Hofmann et al. on the rise and collapse of Tripolye mega-settlements (Governing Tripolye: Integrative architecture in Tripolye settlements) doesn’t mention words “warfare” or “war” even a single time! I’ll return to this article in a bit.
To fill this theoretical gap, I am starting a project in which we will model the rival hypotheses, including the one focusing on warfare, and will do a systematic empirical test of their predictions using data on several Neolithic populations.
But back to the Tripolye article. Hofmann et al. integrated the data coming from high-resolution magnetometry surveys (it never ceases to amaze me how rapidly archaeological methodology is advancing) of 19 mega-settlements and discovered that they all had large communal buildings. Here’s a map from the article of one well-studied settlement, Maidanetske:
The big red square with numeral 1 appears to be the main meeting/ritual building. There are 12 more intermediate size buildings, which are much larger than residential houses, and were also “integrative buildings” where joint decision-making meetings could take place (followed, it goes without saying, by feasting). What is particularly interesting is that we have a three level hierarchy here:
1. Usual houses (around 3,000 of them, implying total population in excess of 10,000)
2. Mid-level integrative buildings (12 of them), probably used to govern each district
3. Top level integrative building to govern the whole settlement.
At least, this is the reconstruction by the authors, which makes a lot of sense to me.
What is particularly interesting is the dynamics between 4100 BCE, when these giant settlements formed, and 3600 BCE, when they collapsed. It is schematically depicted in this figure from the article:
The mega-settlement was formed by a number of groups moving together. Each of the groups probably occupied a separate district with its own integrative building, and then they added the top-level meeting hall to work out the issues affecting the whole community. Later, however, mid-level meeting halls disappear, and only the top-level integrative building remained. And soon after that the whole settlement collapsed.
The authors argue that “the non-acceptance of this concentration of power and the decline of lower decision-making levels might be a crucial factor for the disintegration of Tripolye giant-settlements around 3600 BCE”. Perhaps. But this conclusion leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
First, why did the different groups move together in the first place? From almost any point of view, except one, this was a really poor decision. Such crowding together resulted in serious problems with sanitation and disease. Additionally, farmers had to waste a lot of time traveling to their fields, because such huge settlement required a lot of land to support it. The only reason for such population concentration that makes sense to me is collective defense.
There are many signs pointing to warfare as the primary mover behind the rise of Tripolye mega-settlements. The Tripolye people constructed elaborate defenses with not just one but two concentric rings of ditches. Another indicator of external conflict is burned houses. Of course, wooden houses can burn as a result of an accident, but note the green-colored “houses burnt (settlement 1)”. These houses are outside the ditch, and quite spread out. Enemy action is more likely as the cause of burning then accidental fire leaping from house to house. Finally, the authors note that the size of mega-settlements increases as one travels in the southeastern direction, and thus towards flatter steppe region, where defense is more difficult.
The second question is that at the end of the mega-settlement period, the population didn’t simply disperse out; there was a very substantial population collapse. Again, what was the reason for this? In historical periods the usual answer is pervasive endemic warfare. Not only war kills people, its effect on demography is even more due to the creation of a “landscape of fear,” which doesn’t permit farmers to cultivate fields, so that the local population gradually starves, has fewer babies, and is further diminished by out-migration. Such landscape of fear is not easily detectable archaeologically, because few people die violently (they keep to fortified settlements and are afraid to venture out).
As I said earlier, this internal warfare hypothesis is just one of possible explanations for the Neolithic collapses. We will get better answers by comparing model predictions to the data, and it looks like Tripolye would make a great case study in this research.
Scott Alexander wrote two reviews of my work on the structural-demographic theory: Book Review: Secular Cycles and Book Review: Ages of Discord. The first one, on Secular Cycles, is quite positive, but the tone of the second review is a bit uneven–generally positive, but with some notes of critique and suspicion. His suspicions of the data and theory in Ages of Discord (AoD), however, are misplaced. Still, I would be the first person to admit that AoD is a highly technical and, thus, difficult book — full of models, formulas, tables, and graphics. I am constantly thinking about a popular version of AoD, but I haven’t yet figured out how to lay it out for the general public (I am also currently completely occupied with the analysis of Seshat data). Here I offer a few thoughts in response to issues raised by Alexander.
While what follows may sound critical of his review, I emphasize (and reiterate at the end) that I greatly appreciate the amount of time and effort he invested into reading and digesting my books.
First, Alexander starts the review of Ages of Discord with on overview of empirical patterns and only much later gets to theory. This is not how AoD is organized and, as a result, he ends up confusing himself and, I think, readers. AoD is only the latest installment in my work on structural-demographic theory (see Chapter 7 and 8 in Historical Dynamics published in 2003). By the time I wrote AoD, structural-demographic theory has matured to the point where one could (and I did) make predictions about novel cases. AoD, thus, is mainly an empirical test of predictions for the USA between 1780 and 2010. It is true that the US has gone through only 1.5 secular cycles in its history, but my identification of these cycles is not based on just these 1.5 “points”. The case of the US is an “out of sample prediction”, as it is known among the analysts.
Predictions were listed in Table 1.1 of Secular Cycles, published in 2009. I devoted two chapters at the beginning of AoD to extending the structural-demographic theory to industrializing societies and refining the predictions for the US. These two chapters, however, have very significant mathematical component. By his own admission, mathematics is not one of Alexander’s strong suits, which is probably why he jumps into data right away. But by doing this, his review fails to give justice to the logical structure of AoD.
Second, Alexander does some “spot-checks to see whether the data are any good”. This is somewhat strange — all data sources are listed in AoD, does he think that I have falsified them? Naturally, he concluded that “Turchin’s data all seem basically accurate.”
Next, in an attempt to check whether I “cherry-picked the data series that worked”, he looks at a variety of random indicators, for example, treasure bonds. Here again, by missing the theoretical part he doesn’t do justice to AoD. The variables I focus on all follow from general theory. There are fundamental variables in the theory that drive the dynamics (immiseration, elite overproduction, state strength, and socio-political instability) and there are “proxies” — variables closely correlated with the fundamental drivers. Then there are variables about which the theory is silent. Treasure bonds in no way are part of the theory, and I have no idea whether they would correlate with anything important, so I never looked at them.
There are also variables that are affected by fundamental ones, but are not part of the feedback web (they don’t affect the main drivers). For example, homicide rates. We expect that popular immiseration and elite overproduction would result in social pressures for instability, and one surface indicator of that could be growing homicide rates. I discuss homicide data in both Secular Cycles and AoD. However, one should keep in mind that there are many other factors, apart from structural-demographic ones, acting on this class of variables. Thus, we do not necessarily expect a perfect correlation. In fact, while structural-demographic pressures continued to grow during the last four decades, homicide rates actually declined during the 1990s. One possible explanation is that incarceration rates have quadrupled over this period of time. But the more important point here is that homicide rates are not a fundamental driver in the theory.
A particularly strange indicator that Alexander looked at is the USD/GBP exchange rate. I have no idea why he did that. Once again, in my research on structural-demographic dynamics I do not trawl through the thousands of time-series available on the web to look for correlations. Such trawling inevitably will yield correlations, but with high probability such correlations will be spurious.
Third, one has to be careful with data on meaningful indicators, and examine its provenance. In his first review (of Secular Cycles), Alexander starts by showing “Chinese population over time.” He doesn’t specify the source, but I recognize it — it’s McEvedy and Jones. 1978. Atlas of World Population History. Unfortunately, this resource is quite dated. Furthermore, it smooths out a lot of cycles in the data. Compare it with this chart (for provenance, see Historical Dynamics):
Quite a difference! Not everything in this graphic is solid, but the main point I am making is that one simply can’t grab the first available chart; it’s important to give thought to data sources and to understand their limitations.
Fourth, you cannot take on faith various opinions — myths is not too strong a word — propounded by social scientists; they have to be evaluated critically. This is particularly true of economics, because economists have an enormous vested interest in propounding theories that would please various powers-that-be. I’ve written about it in several of my blog posts, e.g.
When Alexander takes issue with one of the fundamental processes in structural-demographic theory, that oversupply of labor tends to depress its price, he says: “Hasn’t it been proven almost beyond doubt that immigrants don’t steal jobs from American workers”? Alexander refers to a survey of top economists for this. I’ve written about how much we can trust what economists say to the public here:
So I am on the side of Harvard Professor George Borjas, who’s careful lifelong work leads him to conclude: “The best empirical research that tries to examine what has actually happened in the US labor market aligns well with economic theory: An increase in the number of workers leads to lower wages.”
Despite these disagreements, I want to emphasize that I quite appreciate the amount of time Scott Alexander invested in reading my work, especially because AoD, let me repeat, is not the easiest book to read.
Let me finish this post with a quote from Steve Sailer,
I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted.
I am afraid I can’t argue against this assessment; the only thing I can do is to continue doing my work, to the best of my ability.
I am often asked, after my talks or on social media, to pass a judgment on the stability, or lack of it, of a particular country. For example, looking across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, one sees a lot of parallels with the crisis we are currently living through in the US. The rise of populism, increasing fragmentation of the political landscape—do these similarities reflect deep structural trends below the surface? Such questions can only be answered with a proper structural-demographic analysis.
A research team based in Moscow’s Higher School of Economics recently published such an analysis in Cliodynamics. The article by Ortmans and colleagues brings a wealth of quantitative data (with over 30 figures) to inform our understanding of social pressures for instability in the UK. And it shows that similarities between the UK and the US go deep below the surface events.
As I explained in Ages of Discord, one of the most important factors in the structural-demographic analysis is the balance between the supply and demand for labor. The American economy has been operating under the conditions of labor oversupply since roughly the 1970s. The main causes were immigration, the entry of massive numbers of baby boomers and women into the labor force, the export of jobs overseas, and a few others (see a series of blogs I wrote on this).
Ortmans et al. show in their article that the UK developed the conditions of labor oversupply also during the 1970s, and for very similar reasons. The shift from labor undersupply to oversupply in the UK is clearly visible in the data on unemployment rate. While before 1975 the unemployment rate stayed below the four percent level, after 1975 it never declined to that level again:
Charts in this post are by the author, using data from the Ortmans et al. article
Labor oversupply is only one part of the story. To understand the “extra-economic” factors we need to go even further back in time than the 1970s.
In the United States persistent socio-political instability, peaking in c.1920, resulted in an adoption of an unwritten social contract between the labor, the capital, and the state which ensured that workers would get their fair share of the economic growth (see Chapter 10 of Ages of Discord for details). This social contract unraveled during the 1970s.
In the UK the timing of the shifts in the social norms and institutions that regulate labor-capital relations was very similar. The first shift is vividly represented by the rise of the Labour Party, which really took off after 1910:
The second shift was signaled by the rise of Reaganomics in the US and Thatcherism in the UK, which resulted in determined attacks on trade unions by governments and employers, epitomized by Reagan’s victory over the Air Traffic Controllers and Thatcher’s breaking of the National Union of Mine Workers. As a result, the participation of British workers in trade union has been declining since the peak of the early 1980s:
As workers and their institutions lost political power, they similarly lost economic power. This trend is quantified by the “relative wage”—median (typical) wage divided by GDP per capita, which tells us what proportion of gains from economic growth goes to the workers. Until 1975 relative wage fluctuated around a constant level, but between 1975 and 2015 it declined by roughly a third:
Other UK structural-demographic variables (economic inequality, elite overproduction, mass-mobilization potential, and intraelite conflict) also followed trends that were very similar to those in the US (see Ortmans et al). What accounts for such a remarkable degree of parallelism between the two countries? Note that such synchronized structural-demographic dynamics are not a foregone conclusion. Although all countries in the world are affected by the same global trends, which tend to make their internal dynamics to converge, there are many internal reasons, most importantly, differing histories and cultures, that work against such synchronization. As an example, France, just across the English Channel from the UK, also an economically developed liberal democracy, resisted the trends that we saw in the UK (and the US). In particular, economic inequality in France stayed roughly constant until recently, although in the US and the UK inequality has been growing for nearly 40 years.
Ortmans and colleagues offer an answer—the rise and rapid triumph of neoliberalism, which happened during the same period in both countries. It would be interesting to make a formal test of this hypothesis. If we can develop a quantitative measure of the influence of neoliberal ideas over the minds of various governing elites in European countries, then would it correlate with the increased economic inequality and other structural indicators? This would be a very interesting project.
I just came back from a trip to China, during which I and two friends traveled along the section of the Silk Route that passes through PRC. We started in Luoyang, then went to Xian, made three stops in the Gansu corridor, and finally reached Turpan and Urumqi in Xinjiang. Our main interest was geographical, historical and archaeological. I’ve written extensively about the northwestern frontier of China, and the role of the nomads in state-building, for example, in War and Peace and War. And I wanted to see both the landscapes, the archaeological sites, and historical museums (which turned out to be excellent — very well organized and highly informative). So the trip was a great success.
Historical museum in Luoyang, built on a typically gigantic scale. All photographs in this post are by P. Turchin
But an additional, and somewhat unexpected outcome of this trip was my much better understanding of the modern China. The previous time I was in China in 2004. Although there were already signs of impending change, the overall impression I got then was of China as a third-world country. Riding a bus through the Yangtze River Valley, we saw peasants using water buffalo for field work. And most towns and cities (including Beijing) we visited then looked “scruffy.” Here’s a picture I took back in 2004:
China 15 years ago
It was stunning to see how much the country changed in the last 15 years — really, a very short period of time, especially in the historical perspective. For me it was particularly interesting to see the transformation of China in light of periodic predictions one sees in the mass media about how China is about to collapse (imperial collapse being one of two of my main directions of research). For examples of such predictions see here, here, and here. I’ve been skeptical about these forecasts, and the ones made in early 2000s that China would collapse in 5, at most 10 years have completely missed the mark, of course. And what I saw this year, as well as changes over the previous 15 years, makes me even more convinced that such predictions are driven more by wishful thinking than serious science. Granted, what follows is based on personal impressions, not on a systematic study, so take it with a grain of salt.
The most visible sign of China’s transformation is the spectacular improvement in the quantity and quality of the infrastructure. While our infrastructure in the United States decays, China has been building high-speed railways, highways, and apartments.
View from the airplane approaching Beijing airport
Everything is done on a gigantic scale, which reflects the cultural predispositions of the Chinese going back at least two millennia. Everything works (e.g., trains arrive on time — something that the British, pioneers in building railways, cannot deliver any more).
A high-speed train arrives at a station. Our travel from Luoyang to Urumqi was entirely ground-based: mostly by high-speed train, with some segments by van.
Less visible to a traveler, but equally real, is a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the ordinary people. I went to the same hutong (traditional neighborhood) in Beijing that I visited 15 years ago. The, it was “scruffy” — a dilapidated slum inhabited by poor people. The change in 15 years was remarkable. Note, in particular, the air conditioners in the metal cages:
One of the non-touristy hutongs
There has been a wholesale replacement of old and dilapidated housing, with people moving into apartments in high-rise apartment blocks. There are costs, of course. Personally, I much prefer living in a low-story individual house in the countryside. And the Chinese ironically refer to their apartments as “bird cages.” But these apartments are large (between 90 and 140 square meters; by comparison, when I grew up in the Soviet Union, and apartment of 50 square meters was considered to be large). Furthermore, it is quite likely that the move to the high-rise apartment building is a phase that will eventually be succeeded by the backward movement to the countryside, as it happened in America and, more recently, Russia. Given how rapidly things change in China, the next phase may not be too far ahead.
The rapid change of living standards is illustrated by biological (lots of tall young Chinese) and cultural change. Back in the 1980s, when a young man wanted to marry, he needed to demonstrate his material success by being able to buy for his wife a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a watch. Today the symbols of success are a car, an apartment, and jewelry.
Back in 2004 the streets of Beijing were dominated by myriads of bicyclers. Today, you hardly see any bicycles — they’ve been replaced by cars and electric scooters.
The Chinese themselves are highly aware of how rapidly their material well-being increased. This is, probably, why the levels of trust in government in China are the highest in the world.
At the same time, there is no question that China is a police state and many political freedoms are limited or lacking. As the most visible reminder, I couldn’t access Google, Wikipedia, or Amazon while in China. You need your passport not only for travel and hotels, but also to get into a museum.
However, there is no oppressive feeling engendered by large numbers of heavily armed police or soldiers (as one experiences in, for example, Mexico). In fact, I haven’t seen armed police anywhere, except for Xinjiang. We toured Tienanmen Square on June 5, precisely 30 years after the famous Tank Man event at the end of the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests. Yet there was no unusual activity by the police. This is what the area in front of Mao’s Mausoleum looked like:
Population is controlled and regulated, but not as much by the police, as by “public security volunteers” wearing red armbands. Another way of regulating population is that queuing up is typically enforced by metal guardrails.
In closing, while I haven’t done a formal structural-demographic analysis of China, my informal impression, based on what I’ve seen, suggests that China is a long way from a collapse.
A guest post by Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter Francois
This is an interesting moment in the development of history as an academic discipline. We stand on the brink of a sea change, not necessarily in the way historical evidence is gathered and documented, but in the way the resulting data can then also be compared across space and time. For those who are interested in theories about how human societies have evolved, these are exciting times. But they are also turbulent times because many of those theories will turn out to be wrong. One of the first casualties appears to be the hypothesis that big societies require moralizing gods.
Our Nature paper is just a first step towards adjudicating on the moralizing gods hypothesis. But it is an important step because it demonstrates that even using very lenient criteria for the presence of beliefs in supernatural punishment, such beliefs appear late in the rise of social complexity. Advocates of the view that such beliefs occur much earlier include distinguished academics whose work we respect. But the way some have recently gone about defending their cherished hypothesis is problematic.
In the first of two papers posted online our critics have argued that they can reverse our results by systematically changing the data to adjust for what they call ‘forward bias’. Unfortunately, half the adjustments they propose are indefensible on factual grounds effectively beyond dispute. Even if we adjust all the remaining data in their favour exactly as they propose, this doesn’t reverse our main finding, as claimed.
The second paper challenges the quality of our data and will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Historiography alongside a rebuttal that we are currently working on. The fact that both critiques have been ‘pre-published’ online, and that considerable effort has been invested to disseminate them to the widest possible audience, means we can no longer restrict our rebuttal to academic journals and the pressure is on to summarise key points at a much faster pace on more informal platforms, such as blogging sites. This situation has its limitations but it also affords novel opportunities.
A limitation of this informal online approach to debating scientific findings is that it is hard to coordinate critique and response. The pre-published attack on our work submitted to the JCH includes a substantial appendix, the contents of which we need to rebut at length (and will do so). But in the meantime, it could look to some as if a valid pre-published critique stands while the main finding of our Nature paper, which underwent rigorous peer review, can simply be dismissed. It would arguably have been better for science if critique and rebuttal had appeared side by side, as the journal editors in this case intended.
More positively, though, online debate allows us the license to step back more informally and consider bigger-picture issues. For example, are we really at a turning point in the history of history? Potentially yes. The likes of Marx, Spencer, Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim – among other big-thinking Victorians – dreamt of establishing generalizable theories of history but they were held back by the ‘cherry picking problem’. That is, theories of history – from grandiose visions of economic and technological determinism through to the idea that the division of labour in society evolves through discernible stages – have always rested on evidence selected because it supported the theory, while less congenial evidence was rejected or overlooked. What is radically new about the approach adopted in our Nature paper is that it tests theories of history based on a serious effort to avoid bias in the selection of data by coding for features of social complexity, religion, and ritual, in exactly the same way across hundreds of polities. The data itself and the methods used to gather and analyse it are all publicly available so that colleagues can inspect it, replicate and criticize our efforts, and run analyses of their own. As we have seen, they can even run analyses that explicitly bias the data to fit their own theories if they so wish – but at least we can see clearly that this is what they are doing.
Seshat: Global History Databank allows us for the first time to address the problem of selection bias convincingly in our efforts to test theories of world history empirically. Fully realizing this vision requires the input of very large numbers of experts from fields as diverse as history, archaeology, classics, anthropology, comparative religion, and others. Many scholars in these fields, however, are wary of scientific methods so it is no mean feat to have attracted such large numbers (around 100 or so currently) to the Seshat enterprise. Can we continue to do so?
The very public attack on our data, analysis, and methods launched online, albeit using material that has not been peer reviewed, has the potential to undermine confidence in Seshat. Those leading the criticisms against us are closely associated with a rival database which is at a much earlier stage of development but which may hope to catch up if only we can be slowed down. Attacking Seshat could, however, hamper everyone’s efforts in this new field and not just our own.
If our new approach to the study of global history survives, this will be very good news for the humanities. It will not change the fundamental methods of historical enquiry but will complement them. Existing historical research will become more thoroughly integrated with many areas of the social sciences and attract more resources. On the other hand, it will be mostly bad news for theories.
Few theories will survive unscathed. But that is a desirable situation scientifically. What is undesirable is to try to smother the latest prodigies of science before they are old enough to speak or loud enough to be heard.
Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter Francois are both at the University of Oxford, and (together with Peter Turchin) are Seshat Databank Founding Directors
Our recent article in Nature, Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history has been generally very well received, but this week we got slammed with two critical articles, both published as preprints on PsyArchive. It will take us some time to carefully evaluate these claims and publish responses in academic journals. A response to Beheim et al. on analysis issues is in the works, but on my blog I am going to focus more on the criticisms of the Seshat data in Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History”. The first author of this piece is Prof. Slingerland who is the head of the Database of Religious History (DRH), a rival project to Seshat. His co-authors are also associated with the DRH.
One particular issue that they discuss at length is, when did moralizing gods appear in Chinese history? This is an important case study, because it is often used by the proponents of the Big God theory to support their claims (for example, see Section 3.2.2 in The cultural evolution of prosocial religions).
The data coded in Seshat, which we analyzed in the Nature article, suggest that moralizing high gods appear in North China around 1000 BCE during the Western Zhou period (c.1040–771 BCE). First truly large-scale societies in North China appeared roughly half a millennium earlier. During the Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE) the population of the Early Shang polity was at least 1 million, and likely more. The Shang capital city was huge, sprawling over 2500 ha with a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, the North China sequence – first large-scale societies, then moralizing gods – supports the general conclusions of the Nature article.
Here’s what Prof. Slingerland and his colleagues have to say on this issue:
These coding errors undermine the analysis presented in Whitehouse et al. (2019). For instance, a crucial datapoint for Whitehouse et al. (2019), a supposed instance of a Natural Geographic Area (NGA) that possessed writing before a moralizing high god, is the Middle Yellow River Valley (MYVR). This is because the Late Shang polity was coded as lacking a moralizing god, based on a citation from Robert Eno, an expert on the area. Eno’s opinion, however, is in the minority in the field, as anyone familiar with the literature would know. A look at expert-generated, pre-coded data from the DRH shows that Eno’s view (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/299/#/) is contradicted by the other two entries on the Shang, by the eminent scholars David Keightley (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/23/#/) and Lothar von Falkenhausen (https://religiondatabase.org/browse/187/#/). Re-coding this variable as 1 (based on majority opinion) or weighting it as .66 would seriously undermine Whitehouse et al.’s conclusion.
This paragraph is a good example of the strident, self-righteous tone permeating Prof. Slingerland’s critique. Wherever there is a difference between a Seshat code and a DRH code, the professor counts it as a Seshat error. But is this conclusion justified?
In the Early Shang/Erligang period (1650–1250 BCE), archaeologists find bone fragments and ceramic jars with inscribed characters, but no records that could tell us about the specific tenets of religious practices in this period. Records become abundant during the late Shang (1250–1045 BCE). Most of what is known of Shang’s religion is written on 107,000 “oracle” bones.
Di, the High God of the Shang, was the god of rain, snow, hail, wind, thunder, and disasters. According to Robert Eno’s translations of Shang oracle bones, Di could summon natural phenomena to ruin harvests or call lightning, but also could support or ruin political and military endeavors. The Shang king acted as an intermediary to appease or influence Di through the correct ritual sacrifices. Eno concludes there is no evidence in the oracle bone records for Di as a moralizing force: “Nowhere in the texts do we see clear indication that the Powers are beneficent …. The Shang rulers seek advance approval for their actions – sometimes, it seems, obsessively – but there is no suggestion that the basis for approval will be anything other than the arbitrary inclinations of the Powers” (Eno 2009: 100).
The introduction of the concept of Tian (Heaven) in Western Zhou inscriptions has prompted scholars, such as archaeologist Li Feng, to question the nature of religious continuity between the Late Shang and Western Zhou. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven became a central concept in the Western Zhou, making a significant change in the Chinese religious landscape. Evidence from the Western Zhou on the Mandate of Heaven is sparse. Robert Eno points to a 998 BCE Western Zhou inscription that quotes a ruler named King Kang claiming the Shang had lost the Mandate of Heaven because of its king’s acceptance of poor behavior like drunkenness and overall bad governance.
To summarize: we have plenty of evidence from the Late Shang period about horrifying and capricious deities, who exhibit a complete lack of concern for human moral behavior, and instead need to be placated by sacrifices and rituals. David Keightley provides numerous examples of such, distinctly not moralizing, behavior in the Shang inscriptions. The first signs of a moralizing high god appear only during the Western Zhou period. So why did the DRH experts coded it differently?
Let’s look into the DRH data coded by Prof. von Falkenhausen. For China, 1750–850 BCE, the DRH asks, is there supernatural monitoring of prosocial norm adherence? The answer by the expert is “yes.” It would be interesting to know what Prof. von Falkenhausen thinks about the Shang-Zhou transition, but all we have is a “yes”. This is quite different from the Seshat record, which provides a paragraph explaining the basis of the code (“no” for Late Shang and “yes” for Western Zhou) and gives an academic reference for the change.
Furthermore, we might ask, what is the basis for coding “yes” for the whole period, 1750–850 BCE. During this period, nearly a millennium, the society and polity of North China was utterly transformed. It seems foolhardy to code it as one period. In contrast, Seshat not only breaks up this millennium in four phases, but also allows us to capture any changes within a phase by attaching such a change to a date. Furthermore, 1750 BCE falls into the Erlitou period (1850–1600 BCE) for which there are no records that could throw light on Erlitou religion. One wonders, what is the evidential basis for the code in this early period. Unfortunately, “yes” for 1750–850 BCE as a whole is all we have.
I want to emphasize that the preceding is in no way a criticism of Prof. von Falkenhausen, who is an excellent and broadly respected archaeologist of Ancient China. This strange coding – indeed, one could use Prof. Slingerland’s term and refer to it as a “coding error” – is, rather, a failure of the DRH.
Now, unlike Prof. Slingerland and his DRH, we at the Seshat project make no claim that we know the ultimate truth. All data codes in Seshat are subject to change as new or additional evidence is brought to bear. But in this particular case I see no reason why Seshat codes for the Shang and Western Zhou periods need to be adjusted.
In this blog post I delved into just one, although important, example from the critique leveled at us by Prof. Slingerland and his co-authors. But more broadly their critique is full of gross misrepresentations, simple misunderstandings, and false charges. We are currently writing a scholarly response to it, which will eventually be published in the Journal of Cognitive History. In our response we will demonstrate that Seshat is the most reliable source of data ever created to test cultural evolutionary hypotheses using world history.
The scale at which humans cooperate expanded greatly over the last 10,000 years—from hundreds of people to hundreds of millions. One popular theory that explains this dramatic increase in the scale and complexity of human societies is known as the Big Gods hypothesis. The basic idea, as Ara Norenzayan explains in his book, is that “watched people are nice people.” In small-scale societies people are constantly watched by kin and kith, who will impose sanctions on them for antisocial behavior, such as free-riding on collective efforts to produce public goods. But who will watch people in large-scale societies in which people need to cooperate with complete strangers? The proponents of the Big God hypothesis have an answer: all-seeing and all-powerful supernatural beings will see when people do wrong and punish them, sometimes in this life (by bringing misfortune on their heads) and sometimes in the afterlife.
Anubis weighs the heart of a recently departed against the feather of Maat Source
This is a neat explanation, which provides a solution to the free-rider problem in very large groups of people and, apart from being somewhat reductionist, it makes sense to me (see my review of Ara’s book on this blog). Cross-cultural research confirms that there is a strong association between social complexity and belief in moralizing high gods (see this article and references in it). We see the same pattern in Seshat data:
But as any statistician will tell you, correlation is not causation. In particular, the empirical pattern we see is equally consistent with either the idea that Big Gods gave rise to Big Societies, or that Big Societies gave birth to Big Gods. Which direction does the causal arrow go? Prior analyses using “static” data, in which we see characteristics of a society at a particular point in time cannot easily resolve this question. The Seshat Databank is really a unique resource, because it traces how societies in different parts of the globe change over time. As a result, we can ask a very simple but very important question: which comes first, Big Gods or Big Societies?
On Wednesday the Seshat team published an article in Nature that answers this question. We analyzed 414 polities (politically independent societies ranging from independent villages to chiefdoms, states, and empires) from 30 different locations spread around the world:
The global distribution and timing of beliefs in moralizing gods shows that they appear appear in complex societies. The area of each circle is proportional to social complexity of the earliest polity with moralizing gods to occupy the region or the latest precolonial polity for regions without precolonial moralizing gods. For regions with precolonial moralizing gods, the date of earliest evidence of such beliefs is displayed in thousands of years ago (ka), colored by type of moralizing gods. Whitehouse, François, Savage, […] Turchin. (2019) Nature.
The time frame of the analysis spans more than 10,000 years, beginning with Neolithic Anatolians (today Turkey) in 9600 BCE. Our analysis confirmed that there is an association between Big Societies and Big Gods. In many cases we see these two cultural characteristics appear simultaneously (within 100 years of each other). But there are many instances where Big Gods trail the transition to large-scale complex societies. And in no case do we see Big Gods appear well before this transition. To see this on a single graph, lets focus on all the Seshat areas in which societies achieved large scale (to be specific, when the total polity population increases from hundreds of thousands to millions of people) before the colonization era. Let’s call the moment of transition to a Big Society “Time 0” and mark the time when each such area acquired Big Gods in relation to this point. We then see the following pattern:
Source: analysis of Seshat data by the author
The thin grey lines trace the evolution of social scale in each individual Seshat area (Natural Geographic Area). Individual trajectories have been shifted so that Relative Time = 0 is the moment when they exceed 5 on the Social Scale (corresponding to the transition to millions or more of population). The thick brown curve is the averaged, or “typical” trajectory. Orange bars show when each area acquired Big Gods (or, more technically, BSP: broad supernatural punishment or MHG: moralizing high gods). (This figure provides a somewhat different angle on the same pattern as in Figure 2 of the Nature article, because there individual trajectories are shifted so that Time = 0 corresponds to the appearance of Big Gods.)
However you slice it, the conclusion is that Big Gods do not precede Big Societies. At best (in about half the cases), they appear simultaneously, but in the rest of cases they can trail the transition to Big Society by hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of years.
This is not to say that the Big Gods hypothesis is entirely wrong — just one aspect of it, which predicts first Big Gods, then Big Societies. Additional (and as yet unpublished) analyses I’ve done on these data support a feedback loop relationship between Social Scale and presence of Big Gods (BG). There is a very strong causal arrow from Scale to BG, and somewhat weaker feedback from BG to Scale. However, the feedback starts operating only once Scale exceeds 5; that is, once societies become large-scale and complex. The major implication of this regression result (together with the timing of BG appearance) is that moralizing gods and supernatural punishment are just one, albeit important, of the social technologies that are needed to stabilize large-scale societies when they arise. Other such stabilizing cultural traits include equity institutions that reduce inequality, the common identity provided by world religions that stabilize multiethnic societies, bureaucracy for better administration, and others. Big Societies are highly fragile when they first appear and they need many such institutions to make them more resilient to internal and external shocks. Those Big Societies that didn’t acquire enough stabilizing institutions break apart and are replaced by more cohesive societies. As a result, after thousands of years of cultural evolution we see a near universal presence of such stabilizing cultural characteristics, and Seshat data show that Big Gods is one of the important ones.
Levels of inequality have changed dramatically during the course of human evolution: from the social hierarchies of our great ape ancestors to egalitarian small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers, and then to large-scale hierarchical societies with great inequities in the distribution of power, status, and wealth. The Axial Age (c.800–200 BCE) introduced another notable transformation in the evolution of inequality, starting a move towards greater egalitarianism that has been continuing to the present. The resulting trajectory of inequality looks like a Z, and for this reason some time ago I proposed that we call it the Z-curve:
For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. …
There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true.
For a general critique of their ideas see my previous post. I don’t disagree with everything they say (for example, the relationship between the adoption of agriculture and the rise of large-scale complex societies is indeed more complex than is usually portrayed). But the central idea in their essay, that there was no transition from egalitarian Pleistocene foragers to inegalitarian early states is wrong.
To be sure, when we talk about forager egalitarianism, nobody thinks that they were completely, absolutely equal. Of course, there were differences between men and women, children and adults; in physical prowess and in social influence. When we talk about the evolution of human inequality in the long run, we mean changes in relative levels of it.
Second, and perhaps more important, forager egalitarianism was not simply a result of foragers having fewer possessions than a typical person has today. The reason we say that foragers were fiercely egalitarian is because they practiced reverse dominance hierarchy. The key thinker here is Chris Boehm (whom G&W never mention). The goal of reverse hierarchy is to restrain physically powerful and aggressive men. Foraging societies use a variety of social mechanisms to prevent such “upstarts” (as Boehm calls them) from bullying everybody, ranging from gossip and ridicule to expulsion and even capital punishment.
How do we know that this is an accurate representation of typical social arrangements during the Pleistocene? A good summary of the argument is given by the anthropologist Camilla Power in her own critique of G&W.
Camilla Power is a self-described radical feminist, but as we shall see below, her political views do not interfere with her scholarship. However, as her focus is primarily on sex and gender, her perspective needs to be supplemented by a few other ideas/facts relevant to the broader issue of forager egalitarianism.
Here are the main points she makes (I will again quote large chunks of her text, as I did in the previous post).
In Mothers and Others, the most important book on human evolution published this century, the outstanding Darwinian feminist Sarah Hrdy … presents a straightforward argument. We do babysitting in all human societies, mothers being happy to hand over their offspring for others to look after temporarily. African hunter-gatherers are the champions of this collective form of childcare, indicating that it was routine in our heritage. In stark contrast, great ape mothers – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans – do not let their babies go. Because of the risks of harm to their infants, they are hyperpossessive and protective, not daring to take the chance. …
Our foremothers must have been living close to trusted female relatives, the most reliable in the first place being a young mother’s own mother. This ‘grandmother hypothesis’ has been used to explain our long post-reproductive lifespans – the evolution of menopause.
Hrdy explores how multi-parental care shaped the evolution of our species’ unique psychological nature. While cooperative childcare may start with the mother-daughter relationship, bonding with grandchildren quickly leads to the involvement of aunts, sisters, older daughters and other trusted relatives.
Unlike female chimpanzee, who disperse to other troops upon reaching sexual maturity, women in foraging societies stay with their native bands, argues Power. As a result, these women are embedded in thick support networks, not only of female relatives, but also of related males (their brothers, their mother’s brothers). This gives women social power to control powerful and aggressive bullies.
Women have evolved a sexual physiology which can be described as levelling and time-wasting. Why? Because if a hominin female really needs extra energy for her hungry offspring, better to give reproductive rewards to males who will hang around and do something useful for those offspring. Our reproductive signals make life hard for males who want to identify fertile females, monopolise the fertile moment and then move on to the next one (a classic strategy for dominant male apes). We have concealed and unpredictable ovulation. …
For a dominant male trying to manage a harem of females this is disastrous. While he is guessing about the possible fertility of one cycling female, he has to stay with her, and is missing other opportunities. Meanwhile, other males will be attending to those other sexually receptive females. Continuous sexual receptivity spreads the reproductive opportunities around many males, hence is levelling from an evolutionary perspective.
In chimps and gorillas (and probably in our Great Ape ancestors) some males enjoy huge mating success, and others none. For example, in gorillas dominant silverbacks jealously guard harems of females, which means that most male gorillas don’t get to mate. Male reproductive success in Pleistocene foragers was probably much more equitably distributed, and concealed ovulation and continuous sexual receptivity in females played a big role in this shift. Of course, once early centralized societies arose, the alpha males were able to put together huge harems maintained by coercive power (for example, using eunuchs to guard their wives). Again we see the zigs and zags of inegalitarianism in human social evolution.
The most salient feature of our anatomy distinguishing us from other apes is the extraordinary size of our brains. … Brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy requirements. Doing the whole job by themselves, great ape mothers are constrained in the amount of energy they can provide to offspring and so apes cannot expand brains above what is known as a ‘gray ceiling’ (600 cc). Our ancestors smashed through this ceiling some 1.5-2 million years ago with the emergence of Homo erectus, who had brains more than twice the volume of chimps today. This tells us that cooperative childcare was already part of Homo erectus society.
This is an interesting idea and I am not sure I entirely buy it. In any case, this account is incomplete without bringing in another important factor: the radical change of diet, which occurred two, or more, million years ago. When our ancestors moved to the savannas they started consuming much greater quantities of animal protein and fat, which they obtained by scavenging and (later) hunting. Somewhat later they started processing food for easier digestibility. Anthropologists like Richard Wrangham make a strong argument that cooking food over fire was what made us human. But cooking is not only treating food with heat—roasting, baking, boiling, stewing, frying in oil, sautéing, etc. In a more general sense it also includes chopping, slicing, pounding, grinding, leaching, marinading, smoking, salting, drying—and seasoning. Processing food in this fashion “externalizes” digestion. The key book to read on this topic is Joe Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success (see my review How Social Norms Are Like Chili Peppers). It was this dietary change that made possible our huge and energetically expensive brains.
Any tendency to male dominance and strategic control of females would have obstructed these unprecedented increases of brain size. While there must have been variability in the degree of dominance or egalitarianism among human groups, we can be confident that those populations where male dominance, sexual conflict and infanticide risks remained high were not the ones who became our ancestors. Our forebears were the ones who somehow solved the problem of great ape male dominance, instead harnessing males into routine support of these extraordinarily large-brained offspring.
In other words, inegalitarian groups were weeded out by evolution working at the level of groups.
Perhaps the hallmark of our egalitarian nature is the design of our eyes. We are the only one of well over 200 primate species to have evolved eyes with an elongated shape and a bright white sclera background to a dark iris. Known as ‘cooperative eyes’, they invite anyone we interact with to see easily what we are looking at. By contrast, great apes have round, dark eyes, making it very difficult to judge their eye direction. Like mafia dons wearing sunglasses, they watch other animal’s moves intently, but disguise their thoughts from others. This suits a primate world of Machiavellian competition.
Our eyes are adapted for mutual mindreading, also called intersubjectivity; our closest relatives block this off. To look into each other’s eyes, asking ‘can you see what I see?’ and ‘are you thinking what I am thinking?’ is completely natural to us, from an early age. Staring into the eyes of other primate species is taken as a threat. This tells us immediately that we evolved along a different path from our closest primate relatives.
This is a great example of another trait that distinguishes humans from our Great Ape relatives, and helps to explain our uniquely cooperative species. I use it in my course, Cultural Evolution, and it is a revelation to my students. By the way, as far as I know there is apparently only one other animal that can read humans’ eyes — dogs (but not wolves).
Over fifty years ago, leading US anthropologist Marshall Sahlins made a revealing comparison of nonhuman primates against human hunter-gatherers. Noting egalitarianism as a key difference, he saw culture as ‘the oldest “equalizer”. Among animals capable of symbolic communication’ he said, ‘the weak can collectively connive to overthrow the strong.’ We can reverse the arrow of causality here. Because among Machiavellian and counterdominant humans weaker individuals can connive to overthrow the strong, we are animals capable of symbolic communication. Only in such conditions is language likely to emerge. The strong have no need of words; they have more direct physical means of persuasion.
Ability to communicate effectively and plan collective action is absolutely the key to controlling upstarts. Obviously, gossip and ridicule become much more effective with language. But harsher forms of control, such as expulsion and capital punishment also need extensive planning and seamless execution. A powerful and aggressive upstart is too intimidating and dangerous. The whole band needs to agree on how to get rid of him in a safe manner. His relatives might need to be persuaded to join the punishing detail, or at least to step aside. Language is key to all of this.
One other characteristic that distinguished early humans from other great apes, and which Powell doesn’t address, is our uncanny ability to use projectile weapons: starting with stones, then throwing spears, and later slings and bows. The key authors here are Herbert Gintis (whom Power cites in another context) and Carel van Schaik. I discuss this story in Chapter 5, “God Made Men, but Sam Colt Made Them Equal” of Ultrasociety. The idea is simple. Confronting a powerful and angry upstart with hand-held weapons is dangerous and inefficient. It is much better to get a coalition of ten or more people to shoot the bully from distance.
Execution Group, Remigia, Castellón, Spain
Women’s bodies evolved over a million years to favour the ‘one woman, one penis’ principle, rewarding males who were willing to share and invest over those who competed for extra females, at the expense of investment. But as we became more Machiavellian in our strategies, so did would-be alpha males. The final steep rise in brain size up to the emergence of modern humans likely reflects an arms race of Machiavellian strategies between the sexes.
As brain sizes increased, mothers needed more regular and reliable contributions from male partners. In African hunter-gatherers this has become a fixed pattern known by anthropologists as ‘bride-service’. A man’s sexual access depends on his success in provisioning and surrendering on demand any game or honey he gets to the family of his bride – mainly his mother-in-law who is effectively his boss. Where women are living with their mothers, this makes it almost impossible for a man to dominate by controlling distribution of food.
The problem for early modern human females as they came under the maximum stress of increased brain size would be with males who tried to get away with sex without bride-service. To deal with this threat, mothers of costly offspring extended their alliances to include just about everyone against the potential alpha. Men who were relatives of mothers (brothers or mother’s brothers) would support those females. In addition, men who willingly invested in offspring would have interests directly opposed to the would-be alpha, who undermined their reproductive efforts. This pits a whole community as a coalition against a would-be dominant individual.
What I find particularly compelling about Power’s argument is that it is explicitly evolutionary. She not only uses a variety of data to infer the egalitarianism in Pleistocene foragers, she explains the evolutionary mechanisms that made human societies more equitable, and maintained equity. This is quite unlike G&W. In fact, a disdain for evolution is one of Power’s points of critique against the G&W piece:
As an American cultural anthropologist, Graeber comes from a tradition which regards Darwinism with distrust, viewing it as a Trojan horse for capitalist ideology. But the funny thing is that sociobiology, evolutionary ecology, or whatever you want to call it (it keeps changing name because social and cultural scientists are so rude about it) has taken an extraordinary feminist turn this century. The strategies of females have now become central to models of human origins. Forget ‘man the hunter’, it’s hardworking grandmothers, babysitting apes, children with more than one daddy, who are the new Darwinian heroes. Source
I will end my review with this final quote:
The anarchist professors, because they are gender-blind in their analysis on the history of equality, have got it wrong. … [They] are undermining our current understanding of how recent patriarchy is in our history, and how little it has contributed to making us the species we are.
David Graeber and David Wengrow recently wrote a long piece in the New Humanist, Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound. What follows is my critical review of it. The structure that I adopt is quoting large chunks from their essay followed by my commentary (I don’t usually quote at length, but since my take is quite critical, I chose to let the authors speak in their voices, rather than paraphrase).
Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. I read three of his books, including Debt. Wengrow is an archaeologist specializing in the early history of Egypt. I read two of his books, including What Makes Civilization? Both aim at the “public intellectuals” status, with Graeber, clearly, much farther along the way to fame. Let’s see how well their latest piece works.
The authors start their essay with the following passage:
For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilisation properly speaking. Civilisation meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy and most other great human achievements.
Hold on a second! I object to putting taxes and bureaucracy into this list of “bad things.” Without taxes we could have no government, and without government we would have no public goods that it produces, which is what really makes possible high standard of living we enjoy in reasonably well-governed societies (which include Western Europe and North America). Of course, taxes can be used not to elevate general well-being but for other less productive, or outright malignant purposes. But it would be like saying that fire is a bad thing because people get burned to death in forest fires. Same for bureaucracy. We love to hate bureaucrats, but large-scale societies cannot function without professional administrators. Take a look at this graph from our recent article analyzing Seshat data:
What it says is that once the polity population gets to roughly 200 thousand (and certainly by the time you exceed a couple of millions), it must have sophisticated government institutions, including professional bureaucrats. A society numbering in millions simply can’t function without specialized administrators. Societies that try to do it, instead fall apart, which is why we don’t see them today, or (much) in history.
The conclusion from this is that the way forward to sustaining and increasing the well-being of large segments of population is not to abolish government, but to evolve institutions that keep bureaucrats working for the benefit of the population, rather than themselves.
But let’s get on with the essay.
Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilisation, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to “primitive communism”, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.
There is a fundamental problem with this narrative: it isn’t true. … Those writers who are reflecting on the “big questions” of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris and others – still take Rousseau’s question (“what is the origin of social inequality?”) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.
Graeber and Wengrow employ here an old and highly effective, but intellectually dishonest rhetorical device. They present the reader with a caricature, and then associate it with authors who actually say quite different things. Ian Morris, for example, is hardly a Rousseauian. Just read his War, What Is It Good for? Not that I necessarily agree with everything he says (see this blog post).
As to their substantive critique, let’s read more before I address it. Skipping a few paragraphs, we get to the main thesis:
What we’re going to do in this essay, then, is two things. First, we will spend a bit of time picking through what passes for informed opinion on such matters, to reveal how the game is played, how even the most apparently sophisticated contemporary scholars end up reproducing conventional wisdom as it stood in France or Scotland in, say, 1760. Then we will attempt to lay down the initial foundations of an entirely different narrative. This is mostly ground-clearing work. The questions we are dealing with are so enormous, and the issues so important, that it will take years of research and debate to even begin to understand the full implications. But on one thing we insist. Abandoning the story of a fall from primordial innocence does not mean abandoning dreams of human emancipation – that is, of a society where no one can turn their rights in property into a means of enslaving others, and where no one can be told their lives and needs don’t matter. On the contrary. Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there.
Well, let’s throw off our conceptual shackles and follow the authors on their intellectual journey.
I again skip quite a bunch of paragraphs, in which Graeber and Wengrow first expand on their caricature and then criticize Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. A few of their criticisms I actually agree with—for my alternative view on the rise of complex societies during the last 10,000 years, see my 2016 book Ultrasociety.
A dismal conclusion, not just for anarchists, but for anybody who ever wondered if there might be some viable alternative to the status quo. But the remarkable thing is that, despite the smug tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence. There is no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian, or that large ones must necessarily have kings, presidents or bureaucracies. These are just prejudices stated as facts.
In the case of Fukuyama and Diamond one can, at least, note they were never trained in the relevant disciplines (the first is a political scientist, the other has a PhD on the physiology of the gall bladder).
Ouch! What could a gall bladder specialist possibly tell us about the evolution of human societies?? Seriously, what does the topic of dissertation that Diamond defended in 1961 have to do with the validity of his ideas four decades later? Diamond is a broad-band thinker, who during his long career contributed to diverse fields (including, for example, community ecology). His ideas may be controversial (and I don’t agree with everything he says), but they have been influential and productive — that is, they lead to new empirical and theoretical research.
Still, even when anthropologists and archaeologists try their hand at “big picture” narratives, they have an odd tendency to end up with some similarly minor variation on Rousseau. In The Creation of Inequality: How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2012), Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, two eminently qualified scholars, lay out some 500 pages of ethnographic and archaeological case studies to try and solve the puzzle.
Here the Davids actually make a good point. I myself slammed Flannery and Marcus for dragging in Rousseau in an otherwise positive review of their book in the Times Literary Supplement (unfortunately behind a paywall, but the preprint is here).
After several more paragraphs, Graeber and Wengrow finally get to presenting their alternative understanding about the course of human history.
So, what do we actually know about this period of human history? Much of the earliest substantial evidence for human social organisation in the Palaeolithic derives from Europe, where our species became established alongside Homo neanderthalensis, prior to the latter’s extinction around 40,000 BC. (The concentration of data in this part of the world most likely reflects a historical bias of archaeological investigation, rather than anything unusual about Europe itself.) … Prehistorians have pointed out for some decades – to little apparent effect – that the human groups inhabiting these environments had nothing in common with those blissfully simple, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers still routinely imagined to be our remote ancestors.
To begin with, there is the undisputed existence of rich burials, extending back in time to the depths of the Ice Age. Some of these, such as the 25,000-year-old graves from Sungir, east of Moscow, have been known for many decades and are justly famous. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who reviewed The Creation of Inequality for The Wall Street Journal, expresses his reasonable amazement at their omission: “Though they know that the hereditary principle predated agriculture, Mr. Flannery and Ms. Marcus cannot quite shed the Rousseauian illusion that it started with sedentary life. Therefore they depict a world without inherited power until about 15,000 B.C. while ignoring one of the most important archaeological sites for their purpose.” Dug into the permafrost beneath the Palaeolithic settlement at Sungir was the grave of a middle-aged man buried, as Fernández-Armesto observes, with “stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.” And a few feet away, in an identical grave, “lay two children, of about 10 and 13 years respectively, adorned with comparable grave-gifts – including, in the case of the elder, some 5,000 beads as fine as the adult’s (although slightly smaller) and a massive lance carved from ivory.”
Indeed, this is an amazing display of wealth. In The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain (p. 456), Olga Soffer estimates that just the beads alone represent over 2,500 hours of human labor. But this is only a single datum to support a lot of theory. Furthermore, we don’t really know what role the children played. Were they “princes”? Or sacrifices, as some archaeologists suggested?
Such findings appear to have no significant place in any of the books so far considered. Downplaying them, or reducing them to footnotes, might be more easy to forgive were Sungir an isolated find. It is not. Comparably rich burials are by now attested from Upper Palaeolithic rock shelters and open-air settlements across much of western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16,000-year-old “Lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière”, bedecked with ornaments made of the teeth of young stags hunted 300 km away, in the Spanish Basque country; and the burials of the Ligurian coast – as ancient as Sungir – including “Il Principe”, a young man whose regalia included a sceptre of exotic flint, elk antler batons and an ornate headdress of perforated shells and deer teeth.
These other examples don’t sound very compelling to me. It would be good to get a professional archaeologist estimate of the amount of human labor needed to produce these ornaments, but I doubt it would approach the Sunghir grave. Still, the point is well taken that we do see substantial displays of wealth in pre-Neolithic societies. This is not news for archaeologists, however, because pretty much everybody I talk to agrees that it’s not really agriculture that leads to the rise of inequality. Foraging societies in highly productive areas, like Northwest Indians, have developed highly unequal societies with high differentials in wealth, slavery, etc.
No less intriguing is the sporadic but compelling evidence for monumental architecture, stretching back to the Last Glacial Maximum. The idea that one could measure “monumentality” in absolute terms is of course as silly as the idea of quantifying Ice Age expenditure in dollars and cents. It is a relative concept, which makes sense only within a particular scale of values and prior experiences. The Pleistocene has no direct equivalents in scale to the Pyramids of Giza or the Roman Colosseum. But it does have buildings that, by the standards of the time, could only have been considered public works, implying sophisticated design and the coordination of labour on an impressive scale. Among them are the startling “mammoth houses”, built of hides stretched over a frame of tusks, examples of which – dating to around 15,000 years ago – can be found along a transect of the glacial fringe reaching from modern-day Kraków all the way to Kiev.
Until this paragraph I’ve been half-willing to go for a ride with Graeber/Wengrow. Yes, they caricature the views of their opponents, and are not above ad hominem attacks, but I agree with some of the points they make, such as that there was no sharp transition in human social evolution with the adoption of agriculture (and it’s worth pointing out that this is not a novel idea for most Neolithic archaeologists). With this passage, however, Graeber and Wengrow themselves become guilty of monumental silliness.
An example of a “monumental” mammoth bone hut in the Vienna Museum of Natural History (photo by the author)
First, their dismissal of the possibility of measuring monumentality. In my experience, refusal to quantify is usually the last refuge of those who don’t want to see their pet theories rejected. G&W are not above quantifying when it suits their needs. Clearly 5,000 laboriously carved and polished beads represent a much more massive investment of human labor than 5 beads. Three orders of magnitude, to be precise (an order of magnitude is a 10-fold change). This is a truly big difference.
Second, archaeologists are already quantifying monumentality — by how much labor, in people-hours of work, it takes to construct the monument in question. Human labor is a universal coin. Yes, there is some variation in how much different people value an hour of work (and it depends, of course, on the kind of work). But there are ways to incorporate such factors into our estimates. An hour of construction work is a pretty good unit. What’s important, is that any variations in the value of this unit in different cultures and different periods of human evolution are dwarfed by the many orders of magnitude in the sheer number of work hours needed to construct different monuments in human history.
I used this device at the beginning of my book Ultrasociety to trace the scale at which people cooperate to construct impressive buildings. Looking at such monuments as the Empire State Building, the Amiens Cathedral, Egyptian Pyramids, and Gobekli Tepe, I showed the social scale implied by the scale of the monument diminishes as we go back into the past. And this is a change of many orders of magnitude. For example, it required roughly 400,000 people-years of work to construct the Great Pyramid of Giza, but only 300 people-years to build each Gobekli Tepe temple (for details and labor estimates for other famous monuments, see Chapter 1 of Ultrasociety). Let’s add mammoth bone houses to this sequence:
I doubt that it took one person more than a day to construct a mammoth hut (after you have hunted down and butchered the mammoth, of course). It would take much more time (and people) to eat such a mountain of meat! The difference between one day of work and 300 people-years, required for Gobekli Tepe, is 5 orders of magnitude (365 days/year x 300 people-years = 109,500 people-days). And there is another jump of 3 orders of magnitude from Gobekli to the Great Pyramid. Claiming that the monumentality of a mammoth house is not really different from that of the Great Pyramid is, well, silly.
Still more astonishing are the stone temples of Göbekli Tepe, excavated over 20 years ago on the Turkish-Syrian border, …
Indeed, 5 orders of magnitude more astonishing than a mammoth hut. And note that, although the builders of Gobekli Tepe did not practice agriculture, crops such as wheat and barley were already cultivated in areas only a couple hundred kilometers away.
What, then, are we to make of all of this? One scholarly response has been to abandon the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age entirely, and conclude that rational self-interest and accumulation of power are the enduring forces behind human social development. But this doesn’t really work either. Evidence for institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is nothing if not sporadic. Burials appear literally centuries, and often hundreds of kilometres, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy: after all, if any of these Ice Age “princes” had behaved anything like, say, Bronze Age princes, we’d also be finding fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states.
This passage seems to contradict what has come before…
A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of “micro-cities” found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic, feasting on a superabundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals and ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells and animal pelts over striking distances. Western European equivalents of these seasonal aggregation sites would be the great rock shelters of the French Périgord and Spain’s Cantabrian coast, with their famous paintings and carvings, which similarly formed part of an annual round of congregation and dispersal.
Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a “double morphology”. … Most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this “unequivocal authoritarianism” operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more “anarchic” forms of organisation once the hunting season and the collective rituals that followed were complete.
Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who lived mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny “bands”. That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from “bands” to “tribes” to “chiefdoms”, then finally, the kind of complex and stratified “states” we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of “the legitimate use of coercive force”. By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be “evolving” from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then “devolving” back again come spring.
Here we go again. To equate late summer congregations of the Cheyenne or the Lakota to complex stratified states does as much violence to data as equating a mammoth hut to a great pyramid. The social scale of such seasonal congregations of hunter-gatherers was a few thousand people. Complex large-scale societies organized as states, such as we find in Ancient Egypt, have populations counted in millions, tens of millions, and more. That’s a difference of 3-4 orders of magnitude. States are also organized in a centralized fashion. There is a supreme ruler (a king, an emperor, or a president) at the top of deep vertical hierarchy with 4, 5, 6 and more levels of control. Even more importantly, states are characterized by a internally specialized governance. This means that we have people who specialize as administrators (the bureaucrats), others as military leaders (officers), yet other as ideological leaders (priests). There was nothing like that in the Cheyenne society. Of all American Indian societies on the Great Plains, it was the Comanche who approached a politically centralized society the closest, but even they did not have a supreme leader (read the great book The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen for this fascinating story). A monopoly on legitimate use of coercive force is also a huge stretch. Tribal police of the Plains Indians was a community-based force whose purpose was to control non-cooperators. In fact, small-scale societies can control the behavior of their members much more effectively (and oppressively) than the state’s police, as anybody who lived in a small village can attest.
Modern authors have a tendency to use prehistory as a canvas for working out philosophical problems…
Indeed. And Graeber and Wengrow provide us with a striking example of how ideology can override common sense.
…the real question is not “what are the origins of social inequality?” but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, “how did we get so stuck?” All this is very far from the notion of prehistoric societies drifting blindly towards the institutional chains that bind them. It is also far from the dismal prophecies of Fukuyama, Diamond et al. where any “complex” form of social organisation necessarily means that tiny elites take charge of key resources, and begin to trample everyone else underfoot.
Jared Diamond notwithstanding, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down structures of rule are the necessary consequence of large-scale organisation. Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe.
In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that any large-scale human society can be organized in any other way than hierarchically. We are not ants! (I expand on this theme in the Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism)
And social movements organized on the principle of anarcho-populism invariably fail. As did the Occupy Movement in which David Graber played an important role. Where are the “occupiers” today? What have they accomplished? Nothing.
The only way to achieve a lasting positive change at the society’s level is through effective political organization, which in humans means chains of command (I explain why in Ultrasociety). Of course, once leaders emerge there is a terrible temptation for them to subvert their social power to their selfish purposes. This is why the first centralized societies quickly became despotisms. But then cultural group selection started weeding out the most despotic societies, resulting in the evolution of norms and institutions that began to restrain the worse excesses of power abuse. I tell this story in Ultrasociety.
The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications.
If you are interested in an alternative view of social evolution, different from both Graber/Wengrow’s and their caricature of the conventional narrative, read Ultrasociety. As I explain in the book, there is a way forward to a peaceful, affluent, and just society. But anarchism is not such a way — it’s a blind alley.
Follow Peter Turchin on an epic journey through time. From stone-age assassins to the orbiting cathedrals of the space age, from bloodthirsty god-kings to India’s first vegetarian emperor, discover the secret history of our species—and the evolutionary logic that governed it all.
200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but numerous indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.
Pants are the standard item of clothing for people, especially men belonging to the Western civilization. Why not a kilt, a robe, a tunic, a sarong, or a toga?