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.
The conflict between the Democratically-controlled House and President Trump has entered a new phase, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred Donald Trump from giving the State of the Union speech in the House of Representatives. Trump backed down and postponed the address, but surely this is just a skirmish in the overall war. And there is no end in sight for the government shutdown.
As the passions rise on all sides, I can’t help but to think about another conflict between a head of state and a legislature, which took place centuries ago.
In 1642 the King of England Charles I entered the Parliament accompanied by armed guards in an attempt to arrest five members of the commons on the grounds of high treason.
This escalation of a conflict, which had been bubbling for years at that point, was a trigger that directly led to the English Civil war.
Charles lost the war, was tried, and executed.
What is less broadly known is that after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Parliament condemned to death several dozens of people who were responsible for Charles I’s execution (including the 59 judges who signed the death warrant). A number of them were hanged and quartered (which is a particularly gruesome way of execution). Some of those who escaped to Europe or New England, were hunted down and also executed.
Is there a lesson in this history? Of course, the situation today is different. Trump did not escalate, instead backing down. In any case, Trump is no Charles I (after all, Charles I was the head of the established elites, while Trump is a counter-elite, using the jargon of the structural-demographic theory). And one hopes that today we are more civilized (although I wouldn’t bet on it). If there is a lesson, then it’s a general one: escalation of the conflict may result in a conflagration in which there are no winners.
Postscriptum (added Jan 25): Another interesting parallel with the prelude to the English Civil War is in how the Long Parliament undermined Charles I — not by striking at him directly, but by stripping him of loyal supporters. As soon as the Parliament
assembled on 3 November 1640 [it] quickly began proceedings to impeach the king’s leading counsellors of high treason. Strafford was taken into custody on 10 November; Laud was impeached on 18 December; John Finch, now Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, was impeached the following day, and he consequently fled to the Hague with Charles’s permission on 21 December. To prevent the king from dissolving it at will, Parliament passed the Triennial Act, which required Parliament to be summoned at least once every three years, and permitted the Lord Keeper and 12 peers to summon Parliament if the king failed to do so. The Act was coupled with a subsidy bill, and so to secure the latter, Charles grudgingly granted royal assent in February 1641. Source: Wikipedia
Charles assured Strafford that “upon the word of a king you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune.” But then
Charles, fearing for the safety of his family in the face of unrest, assented reluctantly to Strafford’s attainder on 9 May after consulting his judges and bishops. Strafford was beheaded three days later.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote a long piece in New York Times which is quite critical of the ancient DNA lab at Harvard led by David Reich. It has generated a lot of discussion and comments, themselves ranging from mildly to very critical – by Razib Khan, Steve Sailor, Greg Cochran, and others. The NYT article is not particularly well-written — too long and rambling, a lot of unnecessary details, flowery prose. Here’s how it starts:
A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.
Nevertheless, I read the whole thing because it does raise a number of important issues. I’ll talk about two: the tension between general and particular and the issue of”oligopoly.”
On the first issue, Lewis-Kraus doesn’t hide where his sympathies lie. Here’s how he characterizes the two alternative intellectual attitudes:
those bewitched by grand historical narratives, who believe that there is something both detailed and definitive to say about the very largest questions, and those who wearily warn that such adventures rarely end well.
I am obviously on the other side of the barricades, as I am keenly interested in understanding general principles explaining the evolution and dynamics of human societies. But, more broadly, I argue that the whole dichotomy is false. Human societies are very diverse, and in any particular instance — state formation in Java, imperial collapse in Italy — such events are a result of an interaction between particular factors, specific to the locality and time, and general processes of state formation and dissolution. Both the diversity and general principles are interesting and worth of study. In fact, the Seshat project does both. We document the differences between past societies in different places and different times, and then capitalize on this variability to test theories about general principles underlying the evolution of complex societies.
Perpetuating this false dichotomy, in fact, harms our collective enterprise of studying and understanding history, which is best done by a collaboration between specialists and generalists (as we practice in the Seshat project).
On the second issue, oligopoly, my take is less critical. A good nuanced discussion is by Razib Khan. See also this twitter thread. I agree that it has a potential to become a real problem. But whatever we do, we don’t want to harm the good thing we already have. Thanks to the mega-labs, like Reich’s, we are making extraordinary progress in making ancient DNA data available for the students of the past.
I am on the “data consumer” side of the equation, and so I want the data to be published as soon as possible, and to be as easily available, as they can be. Full disclosure: I am currently in discussion with several members of the Reich Lab that may lead to a collaboration, which will combine our cultural data in Seshat with aDNA data (I’ll write about the project in this blog soon). Last summer I wrote to David and his colleagues and they quickly and positively responded. The Harvard group appears to be genuinely interested in expanding their research focus from just genetic data to how aDNA results fit with other kinds of data.
What we need is not to nurture resentment (which the NYT article seems to do), but to work together. Because there are so many gaps in data about past societies, whether it’s genes, pots, languages, or institutions, we need a “totalizing” approach to history, which brings together everything we know about past societies. Only with such an approach we will be able to interpolate between the small islands of light and figure out what happened in the rest of the dark ocean of human history (see my previous post on a similar problem).
What was the quality of life for people living in historical and prehistoric societies? One particularly important dimension of quality of life is freedom from violent death. How high was the probability of being murdered by another person? Modern statistics that express violent death rates per 100,000 people per year don’t extend very far back in time. Obtaining good numbers for even well-known historical societies, such as Medieval European ones, or Classical Rome and Athens, is very hard. Once we get into prehistory, it becomes even more difficult.
Social scientists of various kinds have very different opinions about whether life in the past was more violent or more peaceful than today. My favorite example of what the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley calls the “pacification of the past” is early Mayan archaeology. The first archaeologists who studied the Maya imagined them as peaceful and wise farmers practicing low-intensity agriculture in the “jungle”, ruled by priestly elites. At particular seasons, early scholars thought, these people would congregate around the temples and perform solemn rites to express their awe of the mysterious universe.
The reality is shockingly different. Maya lowlands were densely settled (only now are we learning just how densely, thanks to new technologies employed by archaeologists). They were ruled by a warlike and rather bloodthirsty elite who fought incessant wars against each other (and were often killed or captured and then sacrificed by the victors). The peaceful Maya of the Classic Period are a fantasy.
Lawrence Keeley’s book War Before Civilization was very important in turning the tide. Suddenly archaeologists started to see evidence of violence where previously their eyes slid over it (or at least, they didn’t deem it worthwhile to publish such data). An arrowhead embedded in a rib here, a massacre site there—the evidence piles up.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker popularized this new willingness among scholars to study violence in the past. He proposed that the past was extremely violent, but that as civilization evolved (most importantly, as the ideas associated with the Enlightenment emerged), violence declined.
Unlike Keeley’s book, which was “broadly known in narrow circles,” Pinker’s message resonated with the general public, but also triggered a violent reaction from many anthropologists. I’ve written about this before (see The War over War).
So who is right? Now, thanks to a new project that the Seshat Databank has begun with the Institute for Economics and Peace (see here), we will be able to answer questions like this.
Archaeologists and historians have collected a lot of information about violence in past societies, but it is very patchy. These bits of data are small islands of light floating in a dark ocean. The general idea of the approach we use is to collect as many different kinds of knowledge as possible and use them in statistical analyses that utilize what data are available, without being hampered by the gaps.
The variables that we are interested in coding come in two clusters. First, there are direct measures (e.g., battle casualty statistics) and indirect proxies (e.g., skeletal trauma) for death rates. Second, there are predictor variables that may have explanatory power to indicate which societies are more violent and which are less. One hypothesis with a good chance of yielding reasonable predictive power is that various aspects of social complexity affect rates of violence. For example, larger societies (with large populations and territories) may have a lower death rate due to interstate warfare simply because they remove most of such conflicts to the frontiers. Or better governed societies (higher on the Seshat governance sophistication scale) may have lower violence rates because they more effectively maintain internal peace and order.
Because different kinds of violence—due to interpersonal conflict, political violence and internal warfare, or interstate warfare—have different drivers, our approach will investigate them separately.
Ideally we aim to estimate the overall violent death rate resulting from all the different kinds of violence. This includes many types and causes of violence: from inter-polity warfare to the homicide rate from interpersonal conflict. Following the usual approach to quantifying homicide rate, we define the main variable of interest as the number of people killed by other people per year per 100,000 population. It is understood that because our knowledge about past societies has many gaps, any estimates we obtain will have much uncertainty associated with them. Thus, the secondary goal of the analysis is to quantify this uncertainty so that we can answer the question: how well do we know what we think we know?
We already started data collection last fall and plan to analyze the results in late spring–summer. So we should have interesting results to report by this fall.
When I became interested in what eventually became Cliodynamics, initially I thought that I would just play with some mathematical models of historical processes, because I had read many times before that there is very little quantitative data in history. In fact, the opposite is true. It turned out that history has massive amounts of data with which we can test our theories, and this empirical corpus continues to grow. The main source of new quantitative data is the clever use of “proxies” — indirect quantitative indicators of various processes of interest in historical dynamics. I see articles publishing such new data almost weekly.
The latest one is Linking European building activity with plague history by a team of dendrochronologists based in many labs across Central and Northern Europe, led by Fredrik Ljunqvist. Dendrochronology is the method of dating tree rings, and it allows us to pinpoint the date when a tree was felled down to a year. Ljungqvist’s group went around Europe taking cores from wooden beams in old houses and then dated them. So far they have collected nearly 50,000 such dates for building construction.
The inscription on this house in Lübeck claims it was built in 1535. I wonder, would a dendrochronological date agree? (Photo by the author)
Because new houses are usually built to accommodate extra population, the distribution of dated building years provides us with a great quantitative proxy for population increases (see panel A in the chart below):
From Figure 1 of Ljungkvist et al. 2018
One thing to keep in mind is that because old houses are constantly destroyed, the probability that a 13th century house would survive to the present is much smaller than such probability for a 17th century house. Thus, the felling dates data should be detrended. If one does so, then two great oscillations become even more apparent, with slowdowns in building new houses reflecting the two periods of general crisis in Europe: the Late Medieval crisis of the 14th and 15th century, and the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. You can read more about these cyclic crises in our book Secular Cycles.
The second chart (panel B) in the figure shows the distribution of plague outbreaks, recorded in historical sources, from a well-known compilation based on the pioneering work by the French demographer Jean Nöel Biraben in the 1970s. As the article title indicates, the main factor, potentially explaining building slowdowns, which Ljunqvist et al looked at, is mortality resulting from epidemics. Here I must temper my praise for the article with some criticism. While the data themselves are wonderful, I am not sure that relating them to plague outbreaks is the most interesting thing one could do with them.
An old house in Toulouse (photo by the author)
As the authors themselves acknowledge, European population, and thus building activity, started to decline well before the Black Death of 1347-1352. The causes of this decline are actually well known, and are due to worsening structural-demographic conditions in Western Europe. Furthermore, and even more interestingly, population in most countries did not start growing immediately after the cessation of plague outbreaks. In our book Secular Cycles we discuss the possible reasons for late medieval England and France, and come to the conclusion that the factor that held back population growth was incessant socio-political instability (the Hundred Years War in France, and the Wars of the Roses in England).
Ljungqvist and co-authors propose a similar explanation for the Seventeenth Century population decline in Germany (the Thirty Years War), but they treat it as a singular event. In fact, the Thirty Years War was part of the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century that affected most of Eurasia, from England to Japan.
Some years ago Walter Scheidel and I proposed that we can use the frequency of coin hoards as a quantitative proxy for internal warfare (see our article, Turchin P, Scheidel W. 2009. Coin Hoards Speak of Population Declines in Ancient Rome. PNAS 106: 17276-17279.). One could use a similar approach in the analysis of the data collected by Ljungqvist et al. As an example, here’s what coin hoard data for Bohemia (modern Czech Republic) look like:
You can clearly see civil wars associated with the Late Medieval and the Seventeenth Century crises (the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years War). Unfortunately, Czech building dates are not yet publicly available. It will be very interesting to see whether coin hoard data provide a better predictor for the cessation of building activity, compared to the plague data.
Fredrik Ljungqvist has graciously shared with me data on another region, Central and Northern Europe (data were collected by Hans Hubert Leuschner of University of Goettingen). The coin hoard data I have for this region has fairly crude resolution (50-year intervals), but here’s what happens if we plot these two proxies together:
The blue curve is detrended building activity, and the red bars are coin hoard per half-century. It would be better to resolve coin hoards at shorter time intervals (which is something the Seshat project will soon do), but you get the rough idea—peaks of coin hoards are associated with troughs in building activity.
More generally, there are many more variables whose effects could be investigated. We provide a lot of such proxies in Secular Cycles. For example, we show the dynamics of temple or church building activity for several secular cycles (these buildings can be well dated from historical records). It would be interesting to see whether building activity by the elites and the state (who are primarily responsible for temples and churches) is paralleled by building activity driven by more humble classes.
In any case, despite my critique, it is a very welcome development that we have a new proxy for historical dynamics. We may be at the point where traditional sources, such as historical chronicles, are being mined out, but I expect that quantitative historical data will continue to flow in, thanks to new clever ways of looking at history quantitatively.
An old house in Aarhus, Denmark
Note added 17.XII.2018. Fredrik Ljungqvist clarifies: “The description that ‘Ljungqvist’s group went around Europe taking cores from wooden beams in old houses and then dated them’ does not feel fully accurate as we compiled data already available from decades of archaeological dendro-dating work in Central Europe and reused it for our study. (All the data contributors were included as co-authors.) We did not do any new dating work for this study.”
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