DoE: Chap 3. First Reading

In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber. I’m reading each chapter and writing a quick summary+response, and then I’m going back a few days later and writing more expansively. Quotes and direct commentary are in the regular font. [Tangental thoughts I drifted into are italicized and in brackets. Skip ’em if you’re trying to get through all this.]

Chapter 3 is entitled, Unfreezing the Ice Age, and it continues the two Davids pattern of embedding some important ideas and fascinating evidence amid a turgid text that strives to escape from the biases D+D see in the intellectual world by plodding endless through the intellectual world. So far the DofE is not human history but the history of what people like D+D think. This is especially disappointing in a field like anthropology where the research is not well known to the outside world. So they’re spending pages that could be about sharing research instead on assumptions and prejudices that people in the real world just don’t have. For instance they spend a good bit of the chapter criticizing assumptions about egalitarian foraging bands, but as an outsider to academia I can attest that most people outside of anthropology don’t even know what a foraging band. D+D are irritated by the relative fame of the Kalahari Bushmen and the Colin Turnbull version of the Pygmies, but at best this is like hearing snotty music journalists moaning about some classic rock hit being played too often. It’s actually worse though since anthropology isn’t popular. Okay, once the music industry could force you to hear a hit song every ten minutes for weeks. But 99.9% of Americans know nothing about Bushmen, Pygmies, or Turnbull, and aren’t likely to. I’ve come across this often in my life: even on the left a significant number of college-educated Americans simply do not know, understand, or believe that human beings can be egalitarian. Naturally, college professors assign texts that are most engaging and vivid. Turnbull and the other writers that tend to be on the syllabus get there because (unlike D+D) they don’t spend a lot of time on intellectual history; instead, they vividly describe a people to the reader. If only D+D would do the same, this book could have been a replacement…

But let’s get to it: chapter 3 begins with references to myths and lots of ‘we’ used to think x but then we discovered a and then we thought y, but that’s wrong because b.* So according to D+D ‘Christians’ assumed the world began in 4004 BC, and then discovered Brixham Cave, and so there came to be ‘prehistory’ and then there was ‘mitochondrial Eve’, but all of that was wrong, wrong, wrong, but today finally, “Biological anthropologists and geneticists are now converging on an entirely different picture…” But if the converging in the past was wrong why should we accept this new convergence?

D+D mention the general uniformity of Homo sapiens, which is true, and a point I’ll come back to in the Review. Then they go into a fairly standard assumption that the first evidence of complex symbolic human behavior–which is how they define ‘culture’–goes back 100,000 years. Then ‘we’ used to believe there was a “creative efflorescence” about 45,000 years ago. But turns out this is an illusion! (So why go into it?) Then there is the reasons why it’s an illusion. Which I suppose takes D+D back to the 100,000 year date. But it’s not clear why.

Finally, several pages in the first substantial and interesting point is about dominance behavior. Many social animals engage in a lot of dominance behavior, including many primates, but humans are more ambiguous. We can be observed engaging in dominance behaviors but we also engage in behaviors that undercut dominance. “Gorillas don’t mock each other for beating their chests, humans do so regularly.” So… (1) Are the traces of dominance behavior we see in humans our natural instinct and the behaviors we use to undercut that behavior (ridicule, shame, shunning, violence) learned? Or (2) are the undercutting behaviors instinct and the dominance behaviors learned? Or (3) are both learned? Or (4) are both instinctive? And of course isn’t learning an instinct, and aren’t most instincts partly expressed through learned components?

David and David favor (1) and they see the dominance-undermining behaviors in humans as proof of an innate political skill. Humans in this view can predict the complex outcomes of behaviors and thus envision different political and social systems. Here they misquote Aristotle: “Aristotle was right when he described human beings as ‘political animals.'” As I said in one of these other screeds ‘political animal’ in Greek (zoon politikon) comes from the adjectival form of polis meaning town or city, so he was saying that humans were town animals.** In general the Davids obviously see this notion of humans as inherently imaginative in social and political organization as a new and important idea, an idea critical to the project of this book, but it’s not clear who really disagrees with it. Outside of academia I just don’t think it’s that unusual an idea. It’s also odd to view an idea as radical when it’s something that they think Aristotle believed. (He didn’t but whatever.)

Huzzah!Ten pages into the chapter D+D first give us some cool information about a social group other than their academic peerage. Stone age burials in Moravia, and cave burials in Liguria! Then they describe some Paleolithic monumental architecture. Gobekli Tepe! [I’d never heard of Gobekli Tepe till a decade ago. When I was in college I swear it would have changed by life. Or at least my travel itinerary when I was visiting Istanbul.]

But paradise is shown and quickly rescinded. The Davids must stop to reflect on the reflections of the reflections once more. There’s a dig at Yuval Noah Harari. Who deserves it but it’s wasted time.

Wowzers. Good stuff on p94: ” When we’re capable of self-awareness, it’s usually for very brief periods of time: the ‘window of consciousness’, during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tends to be open on average for roughly seven seconds.” Who would have expected to find interesting speculation on consciousness out of the blue on page 94? This is why I put up with David Graeber. “This is why… even if we’re trying to figure something out by ourselves, we imagine arguing with or explaining it to someone else. Human thought is inherently dialogic. Ancient philosophers tended to be keenly aware of this.” I will think about this for several days. Worth the price of admission. “The Western philosophical tradition has taken a rather unusual direction over the last few centuries. Around the same time as it abandoned dialogue as its typical mode of writing, it also began imagining the isolated, rational, self-conscious individual not as a rare achievement… but as the normal default state of human beings anywhere.”

I’ll come back to consciousness in the follow-up on the chapter. Meanwhile D+D go back to their usual. “Before that it was assumed people blindly followed traditions.” This projects our own sins back into the past.

More complaints about people’s alleged assumptions about foraging bands and then the Turnbull bitching that I wrote about at the beginning. I don’t think what they’re saying is true at all. When I was in college we learned about foraging bands, then horticultural tribes, and so on by reading monographs by anthropologists who did fieldwork with each, supplemented by other material. D+D are quite sure this promotes some sort of bigotry in which no one can imagine mixes or varieties. But I never remember anyone assuming that groups could not move from one system to another or mix things up in all kinds of ways (in fact I can remember quite a few texts that allude to mixed systems), but that the examples were chosen because of the skill of the writers and the usefulness of the basic models. How else do you educate people? If educators overemphasize the purity of foraging bands, that’s because foraging bands are the most remote from the experience and past knowledge of students. There were no foragers in the Mediterranean basin when the Greeks and Hebrews were writing what became Europe’s literary heritage, so foraging is very alien to most educated people.

D+D set down the axe-grinding for a moment to introduce us to the Nuer, and it’s lovely.

Next Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on the Nambikwara of Brazil. During part of the year they live in egalitarian horticultural villages, and then in the other part of they year they move out into hierarchical foraging bands. Note that this reverses the usual assumptions about foragers. The Pygmies and Bushmen, who to D+D’s frustration are most often used to illustrate egalitarian foragers, live in isolated environments (rainforest and desert), so one might assume that the villages would be more hierarchical, but that’s not the case with the Nambikwara (at least according to Levi-Strauss as reported by D+D). This is a core point in what D+D are trying to say, I think, and where they are right and wrong. More on that in the review.

“Let’s return to those rich Upper Palaeolithic burials…” Yes, please! D+D say most of burials that are richly adorned in funeral goods were dwarfs, hunchbacks, and giants. While most bodies don’t seem to have been buried at all. Not how most of us would picture ‘inequality.’

“Almost all the Ice Age sites… were created by societies that lived a little like the Nambikwara.” Here they go into groups that seem to have lived in large groups for part of the year and dispersed at other times. Including the builders of Stonehenge! The Ds mention that groups sometimes abandon farming.

We visit Eskimos, Cheyenne, and Lakota. Great stuff. I love when they bring in fieldwork. D+D talk about seasonal political systems in all the examples above, including variations in authority at times during the year. D+D seem to think the reader will be shocked by mixed or changing organizational, but it’s not clear why they think this.

More boring intellectual history: a certain Pierre Clastres got thrown out of Levi-Strauss’ research group for being an anarchist and stealing stationary. He thought ‘primitive’ people were “mature and insightful political actors.” But his arguments was discarded. UNTIL NOW!

We get several more pages of lamentation that academics can’t imagine humans creating their own systems, and thus don’t see the probably fluidity of prehistory, and then the real question: “Why, after millennia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierarchy, did Homo sapiens… allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root?”

In my review of the chapter, I’ll reverse the order and start with this question, because it maps closely the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Stay tuned.

*There’s a lot of this in Blind Watchmaker and virtually any popular book on science or the history of science. The Great Chain of Being is a prime example. BTW no one actually ever believed in a ‘Great Chain of Being.’ It was a rhetorical device. No one today believes in an actual invisible hand or that there is a conscious force called nature that selects one animal over another.

**This is in Book I of Politics. Ironically Aristotle does, in the same book, talk about the linguistic capabilities of humans, their ability to share complex thoughts that animal communications lack, and the implications for this. this is somewhat closer to what David and David are saying, or want to say.


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