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Discussion on 'The Dawn of Everything'

rousseau

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A few weeks ago this post suggested starting a thread on this book, which a few members consider groundbreaking. I haven't read it yet but am 37th in line to get one of 12 copies from the library, so may join in soon.

I'm interested in understanding this book, which I haven't seemed to fully get from reviews and synopses. I'll hold off on comment until I've actually taken a look.
 

rousseau

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The first review from Goodreads looks somewhat positive:

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/56269264

Here's what looks like a decent review that is somewhat critical:

https://notevenpast.org/a-false-dawn/

This isn't an endorsement of either of these reviews, but a few decent synopses of what the authors were trying to convey. There is a lot of writing out there on this book, so I could have posted from a pretty wide variety.
 

rousseau

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The critique I usually have of popular history books (for mass consumption) is that they often dig a little too hard into their own thesis, at the expense of a balanced and objective academic treatment. This is what it looks like the negative review above addresses at points: that sometimes the arguments the book presents are meant to be compelling but aren't actually entirely accurate.

On the positive side it likely does do a good job of critiquing popular narratives of the rise of civilization, but I do find the sensational style of popular books a bit annoying. At times it feels like we're trading one misconception for another, but maybe that's just typical of best-sellers. Or maybe it's typical of authors who are passionate about an idea, but often a bit biased.
 

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I was touting this book based on reviews so should respond here.

But I'm only making slow progress. I'm at page 107 in a 520+-page book (not counting notes). This is mainly my own fault: I have other projects and priorities; and am reading other books. I'm a relatively slow reader. My vision problems make reading difficult. But despite all these excuses, I'd be spending more time on the book if I enjoyed it.

Contrast this with The Memory Code, a book I've touted by the wonderful Lynne Kelly. Just now, to check, I opened the book at random several times and found that (except for a few pages where she describes her own experiments), the book consists almost entirely of descriptions and explicit discussions of primitive or prehistoric artifacts. (Ms. Kelly's thesis is said to be a major breakthrough in anthropology.)

Dawn of Everything, on the other hand, instead of talking about a chapter's putative topic, talks about talking about it, and tries to make pointless connections. Talking about the origin of consciousness, the book mentions the movie 2001: Space Odyssey and crackpot YouTubes. Why? Were the authors being paid by the word?

They did go on to make the claim that consciousness derived from language, specifically dialogs; they point out that Plato and other early writers created dialogs for their expositions. This might be interesting. But then why do they complain when another writer asks whether early (pre-language?) hominids were violent and nasty like chimpanzees or peaceful and lascivious like bonobos? (I find it interesting that the other two extant species in Tribe Hominini have such different social behavior, but the Davids think the comparison should have been to biker gangs and hippies instead of chimps and bonobos.)

Political theory and early societies interest me and I hope to learn from this book. But I wish a zealous editor had crossed out all the passages where the Davids celebrate their useless off-topic opinions.
 

rousseau

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That's generally my beef with popular history, and why I usually avoid it like the plague. When your title is going to land in major bookstores, controversy and flash sell, boring and accurate very much do not sell. That doesn't mean the book is necessarily devoid of substance, but when money makes up a major component of the initial motivation you're definitely going to get a certain type of book.

On the other hand, without this particular writing style you can't get a text out to the masses, so it's a bit of a trade-off.

For my money I like titles that are aimed at other academics and graduate students, boring as all hell to the mainstream reader, but cogent, factual, and balanced. I've been lucky to not only have access to one of the biggest academic libraries in Canada, but also work a 5 minute walk away from it. For a few years I could take home literally stacks of beautifully written books, and renew them as long as I wanted, as the actual students at the university fussed over their Instagram.

Anyway, when I read that this title (DoE) is almost deliberately misleading at parts, that raises your eyebrows to what other parts of it are misleading. And if the authors are trying to build a particular narrative, and need to rely on stretching the facts to do so, does that put the central thesis in question entirely? Are they really broaching the topic fairly? And if not, that raises the question of what the central thesis should be. If history isn't just the rise of civilization, what's the actual story?

I really shouldn't say too much before reading it myself, but this is the impression I've gotten from the few reviews I've read.
 

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This will be my summer read, if I ever make it through the end of term gauntlet! I did enjoy the first few chapters, though I wonder if the general public is really the audience so much as those already in the field - I feel like they sometimes leap into one of our popular debates without really giving a novice reader enough information to understand why certain ideas are in dispute. This is especially problematic when the myth they're trying to broach has been solemnly taught to even college students as "the facts" for more than twelve decades now, and remains the consensus understanding of just about anyone who has never studied archaeology, even if they did study one of the other social science disciplines. I don't think economists and political scientists have any idea that their fundamental models of history have become antiquated products of a bygone age while they have continued to parrot them in intro classes; they've had no one to correct them, at least no one whose opinions they respect. So how is the general public supposed to know? That means this book is needed, but I wonder whether it does enough to catch the reader up. The biker gang thing, for instance, makes perfect sense to me. Why on earth would you study chimpanzees rather than humans as analogues for earlier human societies? What you need to account for is social scale, not biological difference, and the data that exist support the contention that very small human groups function similarly in certain key respects regardless of cultural context or "race". There are mountains of data here. Band societies aren't just the doorstep to a later "stage" of social organization, they are the basic form of human social organization and we inevitably fall back into something like it even within and beneath the superstructure of an organic mass society. But if the Davids don't communicate that effectively, I can see where it would be confusing.

I don't know where to go with popular books, honestly. Public awareness of history and the human sciences seems to have frozen sometime around 1965, and ever since then any popular author who wants to get skin in the game has had to waste more and more bookspace luring readers in with lasvicious cover art before sneakily catching them up on the last now fifty years of study. A thankless task that seldom succeeds, and is too often treated with derision by their colleagues if it does. Which means completely uneducated journalists like goddamned Jared Diamond or conspiracy wonks a la Charles Mann often end up writing the most popular works on the social sciences, rather than social scientists. And then those turn into "documentaries" on Natgeo or History Channel that clip an entire culture into a ten minute action sequence bookended by misleading stock images. The questions I get, sometimes, even from undergrad majors... Aliens, blood rites, satanic cults, thinly disguised racism, god knows what all they seem to be putting on the air these days.

I know this sounds "elitist" of me, but I don't know how else to assess what's going on. Public education is in a rut. It has been for a long time. I don't blame "the public" for all this, they are only reflecting what they were taught by authorities they thought they could trust. It's not their fault that higher education has been as hopelessly compromised and crippled as it has become, before you even get to the topic of popular culture. If they aren't even getting things right at four year schools, is it fair to go after Hollywood writers or even newsrooms for not reading a bunch of seemingly obscure journals written in a jargon they can't follow? I review textbooks on a regular basis as part of my job, and it appalls me how little introductory textbooks on almost any cultural subject have changed since the heart of the Cold War, despite the theoretical renaissance of the 1980s onward. I sometimes wonder whether anthropology in the Euroamerican sphere doesn't deserve to go the way of philology, not because the content of our studies is unimportant or irrelevant but because we have ceased to play a meaningful role in the societies we supposedly study and serve.
 

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First of all, let me admit that I have not read The Dawn of Everything and I probably never will, but looking through this thread, I do have a question for Politesse.

Why on earth would you study chimpanzees rather than humans as analogues for earlier human societies? What you need to account for is social scale, not biological difference, and the data that exist support the contention that very small human groups function similarly in certain key respects regardless of cultural context or "race".

My question for Politesse is, if you're studying pre-verbal societies, as Swammerdami suggests, why wouldn't you look at our closest evolutionary cousins rather than highly verbal modern social groups, especially groups as poorly defined as "hippies" and "biker gangs." By "biker gangs" are we taking about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation, with its trademarked logos (defined by the Dept. of Justice as an international criminal syndicate)? By Hippies are we talking about youths who espouse "Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll" (not that different from what the Angels believe in)? Do either of these qualify as a "very small human group?"

So, how would you propose to study pre-verbal groups?
 

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First of all, let me admit that I have not read The Dawn of Everything and I probably never will, but looking through this thread, I do have a question for Politesse.

Why on earth would you study chimpanzees rather than humans as analogues for earlier human societies? What you need to account for is social scale, not biological difference, and the data that exist support the contention that very small human groups function similarly in certain key respects regardless of cultural context or "race".

My question for Politesse is, if you're studying pre-verbal societies, as Swammerdami suggests, why wouldn't you look at our closest evolutionary cousins rather than highly verbal modern social groups, especially groups as poorly defined as "hippies" and "biker gangs." By "biker gangs" are we taking about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation, with its trademarked logos (defined by the Dept. of Justice as an international criminal syndicate)? By Hippies are we talking about youths who espouse "Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll" (not that different from what the Angels believe in)? Do either of these qualify as a "very small human group?"

So, how would you propose to study pre-verbal groups?
The vast majority of verbal communication on a phonetic level is only necessary to transmit concepts of increasing complexity.

As primitive technology, the YouTube channel, demonstrates, effective communication requires very little, and doesn't really require words.

Studying preverbal groups can be accomplished through observing any naively verbal group with few verbal concepts.

You only really need words when you want to communicate more complex things from distances. I expect conflict, war, and fighting changed with language more than anything else.
 

Politesse

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First of all, let me admit that I have not read The Dawn of Everything and I probably never will, but looking through this thread, I do have a question for Politesse.

Why on earth would you study chimpanzees rather than humans as analogues for earlier human societies? What you need to account for is social scale, not biological difference, and the data that exist support the contention that very small human groups function similarly in certain key respects regardless of cultural context or "race".

My question for Politesse is, if you're studying pre-verbal societies, as Swammerdami suggests, why wouldn't you look at our closest evolutionary cousins rather than highly verbal modern social groups, especially groups as poorly defined as "hippies" and "biker gangs." By "biker gangs" are we taking about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation, with its trademarked logos (defined by the Dept. of Justice as an international criminal syndicate)? By Hippies are we talking about youths who espouse "Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll" (not that different from what the Angels believe in)? Do either of these qualify as a "very small human group?"

So, how would you propose to study pre-verbal groups?
Because they are humans as opposed to chimpanzees. Study by ethnographic analogy is a methodology known to be flawed and imprecise, but a human group is still going to act and organize more like a group of humans than like a bonobo troop.


Would you do it in reverse? Study a population of non-verbal humans to gain insight into wild chimpanzee behavior? Why or why not? How accurate do you feel your guesses about the social structure of a chimp community would be?

None of this is to say that primatology is not useful to the anthropologists. We are primates. But what we share with our cousins, we all share with our cousins. Thinking that a culture must be more chimpanzee-like because it seems deficient to your your own is the kind of unhelpful and unpredictive stereotype that the book under discussion is questioning. If that line of reasoning was going to be helpful, it should have helped us explain the material data we find in the deep past, but it has actually done quite the opposite. Victorian attempts to apify indigenous or primeval peoples nearly prevented anthropology from becoming a serious scientific discipline at all, to whatever extent that it is, and misled them in both areas of study in fact (we liberally anthropomorphized apes also)
 
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Swammerdami

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I mentioned the chimp/bonobo vs biker/hippie thing and perhaps should apologize. This was just 2 or 3 sentences that I read just before posting here. The Davids were probably correct to make the point they did.

There's just something hard-to-describe about the authors' tone or style which sometimes gets annoying and causes me to put the book down. Perhaps the fault is in the reader, not the writers.
 

bilby

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As primitive technology, the YouTube channel, demonstrates, effective communication requires very little, and doesn't really require words.
I am not convinced.

Radio works with words but no images; But the reverse - silent movies - has to broken up with panels of written words (often dialogue) so that the audience can follow the story.
 

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First of all, let me admit that I have not read The Dawn of Everything and I probably never will, but looking through this thread, I do have a question for Politesse.

Why on earth would you study chimpanzees rather than humans as analogues for earlier human societies? What you need to account for is social scale, not biological difference, and the data that exist support the contention that very small human groups function similarly in certain key respects regardless of cultural context or "race".

My question for Politesse is, if you're studying pre-verbal societies, as Swammerdami suggests, why wouldn't you look at our closest evolutionary cousins rather than highly verbal modern social groups, especially groups as poorly defined as "hippies" and "biker gangs." By "biker gangs" are we taking about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Corporation, with its trademarked logos (defined by the Dept. of Justice as an international criminal syndicate)? By Hippies are we talking about youths who espouse "Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll" (not that different from what the Angels believe in)? Do either of these qualify as a "very small human group?"

So, how would you propose to study pre-verbal groups?
Because they are humans as opposed to chimpanzees. Study by ethnographic analogy is a methodology known to be flawed and imprecise, but a human group is still going to act and organize more like a group of humans than like a bonobo troop.


Would you do it in reverse? Study a population of non-verbal humans to gain insight into wild chimpanzee behavior? Why or why not? How accurate do you feel your guesses about the social structure of a chimp community would be?

None of this is to say that primatology is not useful to the anthropologists. We are primates. But what we share with our cousins, we all share with our cousins. Thinking that a culture must be more chimpanzee-like because it seems deficient to your your own is the kind of unhelpful and unpredictive stereotype that the book under discussion is questioning. If that line of reasoning was going to be helpful, it should have helped us explain the material data we find in the deep past, but it has actually done quite the opposite. Victorian attempts to apify indigenous or primeval peoples nearly prevented anthropology from becoming a serious scientific discipline at all, to whatever extent that it is, and misled them in both areas of study in fact (we liberally anthropomorphized apes also)
I suppose Swammerdami’s retraction makes this discussion an official derail, but so be it.

I actually agree with most of what you have to say Poli, but you haven’t convinced me because I don’t think your argument applies to this case.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “human.” We are not talking about “indigenous” peoples (and I’m not sure what you mean with “primeval”). We are discussing our remote pre-verbal ancestors. That would be several species ago, and a creature perhaps not even of the same genus as Homo. I base that speculation on the fact that both Broca’s area Wernicke’s area of the brain are already relatively enlarged in Homo habilis and even somewhat in Australopithecus africanus, if I am not mistaken. This indicates at least some verbal abilities.

Would I theorize about the social life of A. africanus based on a bunch of stoned twentieth century youths having sex? I think not.

This does not mean that blanket comparisons between contemporary chimps and bonobos with our assumed A. africanus ancestors makes any sense if done mindlessly. But as you admit, primatology has its place.

Although I’m no expert by any means, I studied some physical anthropology in college, many years ago. The fad then was baboon studies, because they were another social primate that had adapted to life on the savannah. The point generally was how differently they had adapted.
 

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That would be several species ago, and a creature perhaps not even of the same genus as Homo.
Almost certainly not the case; the development of a vocal apparatus capable of what we understand as verbal language is a pretty recent affair. No one knows (or can know) when exactly verbal language came about, but it is a relatively recent event and something that came about within a population fairly similar to ours, if not arguably defining our species.

I mention the apification of indigenous and/or early human peoples, because that's where this trope started; Victorian anthropologists using modern peoples they considered "primitive" as analogues for prehuman primate species and vice versa. While the conversation has changed, many of these ideas persist, and morevover, they always show up again eventually in this sort of conversation. You start talking about early man and chimpanzees, and all the old Imperialist language starts cropping up as though on order- "tribes" and "savages" and "close to nature" and "primitive features" and "non-hierarchical society" and all the other dogwhistles for outdated social and racial stereotyping both positive and negative. Whether as a compliment or an insult, it's always people of a certain lifeway that are getting compared to animals, never the privileged cultures. Even when social elites are the target, the way to insult them is to refer to their "savage, tribal instincts", implying that they themselves are evolutionary throwbacks unworthy of the coveted title of the civilized. Falling short of civilized ideals. And in their case, it is never a compliment. No one praises a CEO by calling her a "noble savage" or saying that she has "strong tribal instincts". Applied to a Eauroamerican, referencing the primeval to describe their behavior is taken as an inherent criticism. But all of this is pseudoscience and rhetoric. "Civilized" peoples and "uncivilized" peoples, however you choose to define those categories, bear the exact same degree and scale of biological relation to chimpanzees, and we are all very distant cousins who took considerably different evolutionary paths. The anlogy fails no matter who you're trying to apply it to you, because chimp society is just different to ours, in very fundamental ways.

This junk needs to be expunged from our popular dialogue altogether. It is neither accurate nor salutory as an approach to real archaeology or paleoanthropology. As the Davids write in the introduction to the book, the myth of civilation magically appearing and transforming the "primitive world" by the power of agriculture is more like a virus or a meme than a serious theory - it isn't accurate, and it has dire political implications. Memes spread because they express something people desire to be true for emotional or sociological reasons, not because they've survived the gauntlet of scientific study.

Would I theorize about the social life of A. africanus based on a bunch of stoned twentieth century youths having sex? I think not.
While as I said, the Australopithecines aren't even in this conversation, I also feel that this a very solid answer to my question. Because we have a lot more in common with A. africanus than we do with modern chimpanzees. Our common ancestor with africanus cannot have lived than ~4 million years or so before the present. If A. africanus is a bad analogue for the social structure of modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are laughably ridiculous candidates.
 
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There were probably MANY mutations involved in the development of language, with the tiny improvements to very primitive languages still offering some survival or procreative advantage. The Y-chromosome MRCA of Sapiens and Denisovo-Neanderthal was about 600k years ago. Neanderthals' vocal tract is significantly different from Sapiens' tract and some believe that this would preclude the wide range of phonemes that makes language efficient. In support of this view is the sudden emergence of advanced tools and fine art when Sapiens replaced Neanderthal, despite that Neanderthal brains were slightly bigger than Sapiens'.

I wonder if linguists can conjecture on the nature of these very primitive hominid languages, the steps that separate the barks, grunts and screams of chimp language from human language.
 

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Of course they can conjecture, and do so, quite vigorously. Many of the most vigorous debates in paleolinguistics center on language evolution.
 

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That would be several species ago, and a creature perhaps not even of the same genus as Homo.
Almost certainly not the case; the development of a vocal apparatus capable of what we understand as verbal language is a pretty recent affair. No one knows (or can know) when exactly verbal language came about, but it is a relatively recent event and something that came about within a population fairly similar to ours, if not arguably defining our species.

I mention the apification of indigenous and/or early human peoples, because that's where this trope started; Victorian anthropologists using modern peoples they considered "primitive" as analogues for prehuman primate species and vice versa. While the conversation has changed, many of these ideas persist, and morevover, they always show up again eventually in this sort of conversation. You start talking about early man and chimpanzees, and all the old Imperialist language starts cropping up as though on order- "tribes" and "savages" and "close to nature" and "primitive features" and "non-hierarchical society" and all the other dogwhistles for outdated social and racial stereotyping both positive and negative. Whether as a compliment or an insult, it's always people of a certain lifeway that are getting compared to animals, never the privileged cultures. Even when social elites are the target, the way to insult them is to refer to their "savage, tribal instincts", implying that they themselves are evolutionary throwbacks unworthy of the coveted title of the civilized. Falling short of civilized ideals. And in their case, it is never a compliment. No one praises a CEO by calling her a "noble savage" or saying that she has "strong tribal instincts". Applied to a Eauroamerican, referencing the primeval to describe their behavior is taken as an inherent criticism. But all of this is pseudoscience and rhetoric. "Civilized" peoples and "uncivilized" peoples, however you choose to define those categories, bear the exact same degree and scale of biological relation to chimpanzees, and we are all very distant cousins who took considerably different evolutionary paths. The anlogy fails no matter who you're trying to apply it to you, because chimp society is just different to ours, in very fundamental ways.

This junk needs to be expunged from our popular dialogue altogether. It is neither accurate nor salutory as an approach to real archaeology or paleoanthropology. As the Davids write in the introduction to the book, the myth of civilation magically appearing and transforming the "primitive world" by the power of agriculture is more like a virus or a meme than a serious theory - it isn't accurate, and it has dire political implications. Memes spread because they express something people desire to be true for emotional or sociological reasons, not because they've survived the gauntlet of scientific study.

Would I theorize about the social life of A. africanus based on a bunch of stoned twentieth century youths having sex? I think not.
While as I said, the Australopithecines aren't even in this conversation, I also feel that this a very solid answer to my question. Because we have a lot more in common with A. africanus than we do with modern chimpanzees. Our common ancestor with africanus cannot have lived than ~4 million years or so before the present. If A. africanus is a bad analogue for the social structure of modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are laughably ridiculous candidates.
I fully agree with Swammerdami’s suggestion, which incidentally echoes what I have been arguing about the history of language. Modern, fully articulated grammatically complex language “as we understand it” did not emerge fully formed when the larynx descended in Homo sapiens one to two hundred thousand years ago, like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.

There must have been proto languages, less articulated no doubt, and with more primitive syntax, and before that even simpler vocal communications, and so on.

A good deal of real work has been done on these issues in the last decades, such as summarized in this paper.

Here is the Abstract:

Recent articles on primate articulatory abilities are revolutionary regarding speech emergence, a crucial aspect of language evolution, by revealing a human-like system of proto-vowels in nonhuman primates and implicitly throughout our hominid ancestry. This article presents both a schematic history and the state of the art in primate vocalization research and its importance for speech emergence. Recent speech research advances allow more incisive comparison of phylogeny and ontogeny and also an illuminating reinterpretation of vintage primate vocalization data. This review produces three major findings. First, even among primates, laryngeal descent is not uniquely human. Second, laryngeal descent is not required to produce contrasting formant patterns in vocalizations. Third, living nonhuman primates produce vocalizations with contrasting formant patterns. Thus, evidence now overwhelmingly refutes the long-standing laryngeal descent theory, which pushes back “the dawn of speech” beyond ~200 ka ago to over ~20 Ma ago, a difference of two orders of magnitude.

As for your claim that to compare one species of the Family Hominidae with an average brain size of 466 cc and extreme sexual dimorphism to another species of Hominidae with an average brain size of 400 cc or thereabouts, and reduced sexual dimorphism, makes me an incipient 19th century racist, doesn’t insult me so much as amuse me. It’s simply silly.

On the other hand you would escape racism by only comparing said species to yet a third species of Hominidae with an average brain size of maybe 1200 cc and very little sexual dimorphism. But A. africanus are human, you say. Well, no they aren’t. They’re Australopithecus. You want Homo for a human.

There are reasons they don’t put Australopithecus into genus Homo, and I don’t think it’s racism. There are reasons Australopithecus, Pan, and Homo are all classified as Hominidae. There are reasons only one extant species of Homo is recognized. That’s us. All of us, Indigenous, European, African, you name it. No doubt all of that would shock a 19th Century Social Darwinist. It very likely would shock Darwin himself. And as I said about comparisons between species, even when both are in the same Family, it's the differences that you learn from..
 

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I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my previous remarks about The Dawn of Everything. I feel obligated, as I am now happier to recommend the book!

The references to contemporary politics that I found annoying in the introductory chapters have disappeared by Chapter 4. (Perhaps they will reappear in Chapter 12 "Conclusions.")

I now enjoy the book much more, and feel the authors do a good and interesting job of presenting their evidence and connecting dots. I'm still reading slowly, but to savor the book. As I read I feel regret that I may not be able to act on — or perhaps even remember! — their teaching.

So far, most of their examples are from America. But not all: the Hadza people of Ethiopia are so intent on equality that "(talented hunters are systematically mocked and belittled)". (Yes, this interesting fact is written in parentheses.)

One reason I'm reading slowly is that I often stop and compare what I'm reading with my other readings or thinking. Fiedel's 1987 Prehistory of the Americas is also in my library; it discusses egalitarian societies and seasonal changes to hierarchy, but also mentions that the wives of Natchez chiefs were strangled and buried with the Chief. (So far, the Davids have given scant attention to such exceptions to their thesis.)

The Davids write that the Wendats had play chiefs and real freedoms while today we have real chiefs and play freedoms. For example, those unable to afford transportation still have the "right" to travel today, but the Wendat insisted that they actually be able to travel. I am reminded of my own nephew who works for government managing a number of Native Americans. He reports that they are not bound by regulations, and feel free to take days off whenever it suits them.

My own ideas:

I look forward to learning how the Davids explain the evolution of values in human society. Land ownership must be a key part of the story. Agricultural land (along with, sometimes, slaves or serfs) represented the lion's-share of wealth from the invention of irrigation until the Industrial Revolution; and the fixed and inherited nature of land led to codes of chivalry. For example, I've been intrigued to note, in prior readings, the emphasis Bronze Age aristocrats placed on travel, adventure and knowledge rather than on accumulation of wealth.

New forms of capital grew immensely after the Middle Ages, dwarfed the value of agricultural land, and changed the systems of values. I wonder if the Davids will agree with this view in later chapters.
 

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I'm glad you're enjoying the book a bit more! I've still been busy setting up my summer courses, but my deep dive will begin soon I hope.

"(talented hunters are systematically mocked and belittled)". (Yes, this interesting fact is written in parentheses.)
Hadza shit-talking particularly is new to me, but socially leveling banter is actually pretty common cross-culturally, and especially where hunting and animism are concerned - a cocky hunter is a danger to everyone. For a classic example, RB Lee's article "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" is an enjoyable (and short) read often put in the hands of undergraduates.
 

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So I discovered that the Kobo version is reasonably priced, and I didn't want to wait months for a library copy, so picked it up a few days ago. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but a few impressions so far:

The book does a great job of painting 'primitive' communities in a new light, granting them the agency that they rightfully deserve. It also does a good job of explaining away eurocentrism. And I'd echo what others have said, I've enjoyed reading through the evidence and examples, it's a fun read.

On the other hand, some of the critiques I anticipated are coming to fruition. The authors seem to go a little too far in painting the state system as some kind of loss of innocence (or as they put it 'freedom'). Which is ironic, since they spend so much effort trying to argue against the concept of the 'noble savage'. Instead, I got the sense that they actually perpetuate this myth to some degree. At one point they go as far as stating that, 'something has clearly gone wrong' in recent times, which is a very provocative statement. If the modern age hasn't offered some kind of net benefit, why do we find ourselves here and not still foraging, or doing the plethora of things that indigenous communities were doing. That is, if we consciously choose how we choose to live.

It may be true that enlightenment philosophers weren't exactly correct in describing history as a series of 'stages'. But if you look at the enlightenment period as basically being made up of pseudo-scientific conjecture, these thoughts weren't exactly wrong. It is true that long ago we were mostly foragers, or living in, more or less, simpler states of social organization, and now we have the state system. So something clearly happened there, which the authors, so far, don't spend a lot of time trying to explain or account for. But they are correct that enlightenment philosophers shouldn't have explained this change as 'progress'. At most you can likely only say that communities were becoming more organized, not necessarily 'better'.

Comparing / contrasting indigenous and European society also strikes me as a bit of a false dichotomy. The authors try to present a picture of indigenous communities as being, at times, superior to live in. But they aren't at all sympathetic to European society. To me, the reality is that both European and Indigenous history is ultimately a subset of ecological and climactic history. IOW, not consciously directed, at least with complete control. So to say that one is 'better' than the other implies that either was some kind of actual conscious choice, which isn't the case. So they make the point that Indigenous society wasn't inferior, which is fine, but then they end up making European society look inferior, which isn't fine. They are also basing this off of 17th century North American colonies.

Don't get me wrong, I am enjoying it, think it's a great book, and at many points very well argued and on point. But there are other times when they seem to miss the mark. They seem to be trying to hook in a certain audience, and it looks like they've done a great job of this. So it seems to kind of trade one myth for another - Eurocentrism versus the idea that modernity actually is a fall from grace. Not exactly true, imo.

A few more positive points. I enjoyed their pointing out rich social relationships in earlier societies, as opposed to the situation now. This is something I've perceived myself. And I also found their argument that many cultures define themselves as 'not their neighbors' intriguing and interesting. I'd never thought of that, and it's so true.

We'll see how much I can get through tomorrow, Monday to Friday is usually out the window for time to read lately.
 

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The authors try to present a picture of indigenous communities as being, at times, superior to live in. But they aren't at all sympathetic to European society. To me, the reality is that both European and Indigenous history is ultimately a subset of ecological and climactic history. IOW, not consciously directed, at least with complete control.

I spoke too soon on this point apparently, they addressed it soon after the spot I'd stopped reading. I even learned a new term: ecological determinism. They explicitly state that they're taking a position to the left of this issue. From what I could gather it's that things are more interesting if we assume people have agency.
 

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You might find the writings of J.M. Blaut interesting to pick up some time; a cultural geographer, he wrote a rather withering but detailed polemic duology against ecological determinism in its various forms, a controversial but oft discussed series. Was going to be a trilogy, but he passed on before finishing the third. Apparently challenging Eurocentrism is hard on the organs.
 

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The term "ecological determinism" is not familiar to me. Is it related to "environmental determinism"?
 

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The term "ecological determinism" is not familiar to me. Is it related to "environmental determinism"?
Yes, also found as "geographical determinism". Essentially, a nest of ideas swirling around the basic notion that a people cannot exceed natural limits placed on them by their ancestral location on the planet. Kenyans must run. Asians must be rich. Europeans must rule. All humans are equal in theory but their cultures are highly dependent on how much sun they get or whether they find shade from it under yew or bamboo. It matters greatly what crops you can grow. How any freshwater ports do you have? Are your mountain ranges mostly longitudinal or latitudinal? Tropical diseases much? That sort of thing.
 

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The term "ecological determinism" is not familiar to me. Is it related to "environmental determinism"?
Yes, also found as "geographical determinism". Essentially, a nest of ideas swirling around the basic notion that a people cannot exceed natural limits placed on them by their ancestral location on the planet. Kenyans must run. Asians must be rich. Europeans must rule. All humans are equal in theory but their cultures are highly dependent on how much sun they get or whether they find shade from it under yew or bamboo. It matters greatly what crops you can grow. How any freshwater ports do you have? Are your mountain ranges mostly longitudinal or latitudinal? Tropical diseases much? That sort of thing.

Which I think is basically correct, but 'determinism' seems a bit strong. The authors of DoE put it well - we make our history, but can't dictate the conditions in which we do so. Climate / Environment seems to be a primary influence, human decisions secondary.

With a sprinkling of Alan Watts' 'Watercourse Way' - some things turn out the way they do just because.
 

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Thanks for the explanations. I'm just finishing up my bedside reading: Not in Our Genes (Lewontin et al), who argue that determinism of almost any sort, whether genetic or environmental, is a political statement. I've found it most interesting reading.
 

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Thanks for the explanations. I'm just finishing up my bedside reading: Not in Our Genes (Lewontin et al), who argue that determinism of almost any sort, whether genetic or environmental, is a political statement. I've found it most interesting reading.
Ah, another brilliant mind lost to us quite recently. Though, Richard Lewontin had a long, full life and his passing was not unexpected.
 

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Thanks for the explanations. I'm just finishing up my bedside reading: Not in Our Genes (Lewontin et al), who argue that determinism of almost any sort, whether genetic or environmental, is a political statement. I've found it most interesting reading.
Ah, another brilliant mind lost to us quite recently. Though, Richard Lewontin had a long, full life and his passing was not unexpected.
Yes, it was reading his obituary that got me interested in reading some of his works.
 

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Highly recommend watching some of his old interviews too, he did quite a few for Cal Berkeley's tv station back in the day, easily found on YouTube now. A rare mind to be sure.
 

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A few weeks ago this post suggested starting a thread on this book, which a few members consider groundbreaking. I haven't read it yet but am 37th in line to get one of 12 copies from the library, so may join in soon.

I'm interested in understanding this book, which I haven't seemed to fully get from reviews and synopses. I'll hold off on comment until I've actually taken a look.
I have started reading it--very interesting. It formulates ideas that I have thinking about for decades, so I may be suffering confirmation bias.
 

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I didn't get too much further this week, but I've picked up a few more responses to my critique from the authors. From what I can tell the central thesis is more or less an excuse to tell a more complete story of our history, and humanize non-Europeans. And while explaining some parts of their thesis they seem to build a caricature of the argument they're arguing against, and then explain it more fully as a counter-point.

For example, they make the argument that agriculture is the result of urbanization, and not vice versa, and they stand this point against the false notion that people believe in a simplified model of the agricultural revolution. Some may generalize a bit on the causes of agriculture, but that the agricultural revolution was, in practice, a fairly complicated process isn't much of a controversial point, at least to any serious student of history. When people generalize about it, it's likely more for the sake of brevity than misrepresentation.

So as I continue to go through the title I feel like I'm seeing two separate threads - a fascinating one that presents all kinds of interesting research, and another that draws a narrative through the title to justify the popular non-fiction part. You can't really write a sellable history book with little premise.

The only other thing I'd add at this point, is that because they seem to be stretching at times to evidence their narrative, it's sometimes hard to fully trust other evidence they present throughout the book.
 

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When people generalize about it, it's likely more for the sake of brevity than misrepresentation.
I'm not sure this applies to the "birth of agriculture" trope, which is still widely disseminated. Even many scholars, if they aren't archaeologists or otherwise keeping up with the literature, often have no idea how our perceptions of agricultural development have changed over the last few decades of research. I meet historians who are more than a little bit patchy on the question of New World agriculture, and spread straight-up misinformation in their introductory courses. It's why most archaeologists I know are excited about this book, which they are hoping will reach a wide enough audience to start eating away at some of those derelict tropes.

I still haven't gotten around to my own read of the Dawn of Everything, though, sorry! It's definitely on my summer reading list, but I've barely had time to breathe since the summer term started, in practice.
 

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When people generalize about it, it's likely more for the sake of brevity than misrepresentation.
I'm not sure this applies to the "birth of agriculture" trope, which is still widely disseminated. Even many scholars, if they aren't archaeologists or otherwise keeping up with the literature, often have no idea how our perceptions of agricultural development have changed over the last few decades of research. I meet historians who are more than a little bit patchy on the question of New World agriculture, and spread straight-up misinformation in their introductory courses. It's why most archaeologists I know are excited about this book, which they are hoping will reach a wide enough audience to start eating away at some of those derelict tropes.

I still haven't gotten around to my own read of the Dawn of Everything, though, sorry! It's definitely on my summer reading list, but I've barely had time to breathe since the summer term started, in practice.

I don't doubt at all that many get it wrong, but I guess to me the nitty gritty details of the agricultural revolution seems to be wading into esoteric territory. For most people with some interest in history, that interest likely begins and ends with 'agriculture became important, and we ended up with modernity'. The title is well worth the read to get a more intimate look at the process, but I think the beauty of the research might be lost on the lay-reader.

On the other hand, disabusing people of the notion that 'civilization' stands in contrast to 'primitive' ways of life is a pretty important point, in my view. People who think rich, Western countries are the center of the world, and everyone else is irrelevant / uncivilized are missing a pretty key point about humanity.
 

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I read a few more chapters today, and am looking forward to the next one where the authors deal directly with the state.

I'm still of the opinion that the evidence presented is on point, but the author's interpretation of the evidence seems a little specious at times. I could go into a good bit of detail but to keep it short it seems like they're a little too quick to land on socialistic interpretations of early cities (where evidence is actually somewhat scarce), and equally as quick to damn the state system as some kind of predatory fall from grace, where collectivity doesn't play a significant part (which it actually does).

One common thread throughout the book is also the idea that inequality is somehow only a thing in highly wealthy, stratified communities, which to me is a false premise. I'd instead argue that inequality is intrinsic to any social group of animals, and at a fundamental level plays itself out in access to sexual partners. Obviously as a community grows larger inequality becomes more visible, but I think the authors overstate the degree to which some western states actually are inequal. But to flesh out that point (and the one above about cities) would take an academic treatment which is beyond the scope of their book.

They also commit quite a bit of text to the idea that stratified, authoritarian government isn't a necessary aspect of scaled up communities, which again seems like an important point, but I don't think it really proves what they think it does. The reality is that these were early communities, and while their existence might indicate that the process of urbanization was more complex than many realize, that's not much of a controversial point. Personally, I'm not surprised in the least that cities without a centralized government once existed. That just seems like a logical pre-cursor (not earlier stage) to more centralized organization. That doesn't mean the state system is some kind of end-point, it means it's yet another pre-cursor to some future state of organization.

Possibly as I work towards the end they'll tie all of this together and the overarching point will make a bit more sense, but so far it seems like they're either working with some false premises, or being a touch disingenuous at times. Still a great (and convincing) book, but I'm probably not their target reader.
 

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I got through the chapter on the state today (two more to go). In the end I think their conceptualization of the state as an impermanent amalgam of trends with different sources is basically correct. But I also have a few issues with the chapter.

- they focus more or less exclusively on the constraining aspects of the state, and not at all on what it enables. They keep tying the state back to what it takes away (a number of earlier freedoms), but there isn't a single mention of new freedoms that it brings with it. For example, I'm thirty-five and have never felt serious hunger, I have access to clean, running water in my home (and hot water). While the country I live in has access to legitimate use of force, this force also protects me from arbitrary violence from people around me. My newborn child is thoroughly and completely protected from danger under the law. You get the idea.

- and likewise they interpret very specific communities on what they managed to enable without a top down structure, but they don't address any problems that may have been present in these communities, that may have been later solved by the modern state

- they claim a number of times that the source and definition of the state is unknown, and basically unknowable (I'm not entirely sure this is true). But they don't spend much time addressing the actual state system as it exists today (pretty much not at all), or how it might have formed. They spend a few lines more or less vilifying it, then spend the rest of the chapter examining evidence from ancient communities of scale while entirely ignoring the properties and source of modern ones. They also don't really address the point that things are becoming more organized over time, and why that might be.

The over-arching theme that history doesn't progress or evolve in a linear fashion shines through nicely, but some of the above points are pretty obvious and glaring problems. Which, after a while, forces me to start questioning more benign claims they're making. I just don't find myself fully trusting the authors like I have in some other books with less of a profit motive.
 

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