DoE Chap 3: Review

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 ends with question: “Why, after millennia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierarchy, did Homo sapiens allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to take root?”

This is the question that David & David might have started the whole book with. Had they done so the answer would be that for most of the human past whenever a more complex political or social system wasn’t working out, humans could always return to foraging bands. Humans could always bug out. Foraging is the escape hatch. The possibility of this kept leaders in hierarchies reasonably honest. But foraging, while being the best way for humans to live from many points of view, needs a large territory, and at some point for reasons not clearly understood–but having something to do with climate and/or population–many parts of the planet ran out of space. Oh sure, people still strove to escape from oppression by fleeing into mountains, forests, and swamps, but without the space for foraging all their egalitarian compromises were still just that, compromises. Today the only foraging bands left are groups like the !Kung bushmen of the desert and Mbuti pygmies of the rainforest, who live in very isolated areas that aren’t suitable for agriculture. All across the political spectrum today we seem to agree if we can’t get people out there truly living by their own means (foraging) then we’re stuck in some potentially-oppressive hierarchy.

But for David and David this won’t do. The Davids need a way to convince us that we can free humanity from its chains without first overthrowing oppressive hierarchy. They don’t like the hierarchies but they don’t want our freedom to wait on the hierarchy’s overthrow. (David Graeber was one of the organizers of the Occupy Movement, which sought to do just this.) And this shows why the Davids start out the book dwelling incessantly on Rousseau. David and David work hard to make us doubt any version of the state of nature and the social contract because they want to insulate us from any assumption the past so severely limits our future. Are they right? Stripping away the polemical subterfuge, the straw man sophistry, the bait-and-switch, what are the strength and weaknesses of their underlying argument? As I see it in addition to the dross they present two really strong points:

  1. Many societies, including many of the indigenous societies of North America, have had social inequality without the oppression that we assume goes with it. In most of the societies since Homo sapiens emerged from Africa laws did not have binding power of compulsion regardless of inequality. People could be unequal without being unfree.
  2. This is why they care about groups like the Nambikwara who were more hierarchical during their foraging part of the year than during their horticultural part. And the evidence of inequality in Paleolithic Europe. They want to break the presumed connection between foragers, equality, and freedom.

Of course the refutation is in all the unequal-but-free groups the Davids show us, individuals could go off and live in the wilderness if they wanted to. There’s always that escape valve.

There’s also a point they don’t make but could:

Most anthropologists (at least on the left) have believed that if things are so easy for foraging groups in deserts and rainforests today, then things must have been even easier for the foragers in river valleys, open savannas, and other areas where Homo sapiens first expanded across the planet (Only later did our ancestors enter the rainforests with the adoption of the bow). So that puts us back in the bind of the social contract theorists of asking why would they ever accept inequality in the first place. Modern anthropologists have most often assumed some version of climate change, resource depletion, or population growth. But these aren’t a falsifiable claims. (This is a problem I was working on when I dropped out of grad school but never published anything.) I assume we’ll revisit this in future chapters of DofE.

One assumption in this book, and every other book that touches on human evolution that I know of, is that the genetic changes created our species, Homo sapiens, probably had something to do with intelligence or culture. At the very least Homo sapiens considered an important break or step in human evolution. This is the overwhelming assumption of all such books, as I’ve said, and whom am I to disagree? I’m not an expert on anything.

But it’s worth mentioning that an alien species watching us from another planet might well consider Homo sapiens just another sort of Homo erectus. It’s Homo erectus that first migrated out of Africa, tamed fire, made a complex stone tool kit, crossed large bodies of water in some sort of craft, almost certainly developed some sort of spoken language, and may have created rudimentary art and designs. In most mammals there’s a lot of variation between various isolated subgroups. Now DofE correctly points out the general uniformity of Homo sapiens across the globe (There’s an irony in humans believing so much in race, when compared to most animals we really don’t differ very much.), but there was no such uniformity of Homo erectus. Local groups varied enormously in body and brain size with some skulls in the modern range and some the size of a Hollywood ape man. It is quite possible that Homo sapiens (and Homo neandertalis for that matter) aren’t any smarter than some groups of Homo erectus and our success at spreading across the earth has more to do with some mutation affecting infant mortality rates, immune systems, or maternal survival rates than the sort of intelligence adored by popular writers on evolution.

One last point and then on with Chapter 4:

The Davids write this: “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.”

Dawn of Everything is not a book on consciousness (Perhaps given the title it should be?) but in an offhand way I find this a really startling suggestion. It reminds me of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ book is crackpot to be sure, arguing that thinking before language was based on verbal hallucinations with the split between brain halves more extreme than for us today, and that the change happened only as late as 700 BC. As I said, it’s crackpot, but I loved how Jaynes explores Homer’s Iliad, reminding us how weird it is. That weirdness is much more sanely explained by researchers like Milman Parry and Albert Lord (Read The Singer of Tales.) working with improvising bards in Yugoslavia a century ago. That’s why research matters a lot more than armchair pondering like Janyes’ (or mine). But the connection between language and consciousness is an interesting one. Hopefully the Davids return to it. In any case I’ll be thinking about it a lot.


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