culture


I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it

Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.

Charlie Stross recommended this article on myths of female sexuality (by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, reporting on a study by Terri Conley).  It’s quite interesting, and I’d really like to believe its conclusions, but as mythbusting it’s a bust.  Let’s go over the list.

1. “Women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive.”  Against this, Conley cites one speed dating scenario. One experiment.  Probably less than 30 participants; certainly less than a hundred.  Contrary evidence: pretty much all of human behavior.  Or if you want something more quantified, check out these awesome stats from OKCupid, based on a sample of 200,000 people.

2. “Women want and actually have fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners.”  That is, the first part of the ‘myth’ (about wanting) wasn’t busted, but confirmed.  The twist is that at least one study found that men exaggerate how many conquests they’ve had.  Surely this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Mathematically, if men report n het encounters, women should report n as well.  But even this finding reinforces that men and women don’t think the same.

3. “Men think about sex more often than women do.” The busting consists of confirming the finding, but adding that men think about food and sleep more, too.

4. Women orgasm less.  The busting: “When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency.”  In other words, the ‘myth’ is true!  If you have a generalization that applies to a whole group, it’s not disproved by showing that the generalization doesn’t hold for a fraction of the group.

5. “Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do.”  The classic demonstration was a rather silly experiment where college students were approached with offers of sex— 70% of men were interested, 0% of women.  I call this silly because it’s a completely unnatural setup— this isn’t how people find partners!  Conley did a variation which found that the women were much more interested “if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized”.  Again, that’s a pretty important nuance!

6. “Women are choosier than men.”  Conley apparently found that whichever sex initiates contact, the other will be choosier— that is, if men approach women, the women seem pickier; if women approach men, the men seem pickier.  This one is hard to evaluate without knowing the exact methodology; it seems like a no-brainer that any offer has a chance of being rejected, so I don’t see how this is a test of choosiness at all.

Whitbourne frames the story in the context of people showing surprise that women are interested in sex and male bodies.  Surely that hasn’t been hot news since about 1925?  (She mentions that e.g. Hollywood loves to show female but not male bodies, but I don’t think this is due to filmmakers calculating that women aren’t interested; it’s more that they think men will be turned off.)

The takeaway here, I think, is to be careful about evidence— especially for findings that confirm what you already believe.  When you read “Studies show…”, be at least as wary as when you read “with this weird old tip”.  Look at how the study was done, how many people it involved, and whether the methodology really tests the hypothesis.

(Also, yeah, I know, it’s Psychology Today.  That’s why I mention that Stross plugged the link— he’s a smart guy, so it seemed worth checking out.)

When was this written, and of what dance?

The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners– the female is only half dressed– is absolutely indecent; and the motions– they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety,  in a family newspaper.

(Answer: 1921; of the foxtrot.)

Very interesting article on the evolution of money from David Graeber, an anthropologist.  Apparently economists since Adam Smith have been telling a story that before money there was “barter”.  You’d have a cow and somebody else had arrowheads and, having failed to invent money, you’d work out a direct trade. 

Problem is, anthropologists have been looking for such a system for two hundred years and there just isn’t one.  Individual barters exist, of course, but no barter systems (with the exception of protocols that have emerged in societies where money was already invented but is temporarily unavailable, such as prison).

Instead there’s a plethora of exchange systems, all tied inextricably to the rest of society.  Often the basis is generalized reciprocity.  You want those arrowheads, you praise them, and the other guy gives them to you.  He loudly declaims any desire for recompense, but of course you both know that you owe him one.  At a later point you have a cow and he needs one and you give it to him.  It all works out because you are part of a tiny community, know each other, and any injustices will cause trouble.

Also see this post, where he describes some protocols for trade between different primitive communities, where a trade involves the whole communities, threats of war, and wife-swapping.  Homo oeconomus, the purely rational trade envisioned by Smith, need not apply.

Where did money come from?  In the Middle East, at least, Graeber suggests two major sources for the idea of a unit of value:

  • The accounting systems of large non-state enterprises– namely, temple complexes.  These were complex institutions which had land, farmers, workshops… they started reckoning things in silver and grain just to keep track of things.  Note that money existed as a means of valuation long before it existed as a unit of exchange.
  • Legal systems.  In particular, there was a desire to establish set valuations for things that were damaged: physical goods, lives, body parts, even one’s honor.  He notes that medieval Welsh law codes included precise valuations for all the things found in a home, from cooking utensils to floorboards, at a time when no markets existed where these things could be bought.  You wanted these valuations not to buy the things, but to get recompense if someone destroyed them.

Anyway, much food for thought for conworlders, especially if you have a stage of development before the invention of markets.

Several years ago in Reconstituting America, you said that Southern Secession might be a good idea. In 2011, when 46% of Mississipi Republicans support banning interracial marriage, do you still think it would be a wise choice?

—Campbell

This shows the danger of what I call bullet point politics… making policy based on the worst couple mistakes or outrages of the Other Side.  So a minority of a minority in one Southern state turns out to have some highly unreconstructed views.  Is this even a real worry?  Is anyone proposing delegalization?

More significant is the fact that blacks are voting with their feet— at least a million blacks have moved from the North to the South in the last 30 years.  The percent of blacks who live in the South is now 57%, its highest rate in half a century.  So quite a few blacks believe that it’s a New South indeed.

Apparently it’s become a trope of the right to believe that the Confederates had thousands of black soldiers.  Actual historians’ estimates: less than twelve.

Ta-Nehisi makes the depressing point that people just want to believe these myths that make their past seem better.  But there’s a more optimistic take: we really have moved forward in 150 years, to the point that the Southern position before the Civil War– that secession and war were better than having to pay wages to blacks– makes no sense to people any more.

Very telling chart from the New York Times, showing divorce rates, teenage birthrates, and subscriptions to porn sites, sorted into red and blue states:

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Divorce, teen births, porn by red/blue states

Notice a pattern?  Red states cluster at the top, blue at the bottom.  To put it simply, conservative moralism doesn’t produce morality… quite the opposite.

Though I have my doubts about the last column… who subscribes to porn sites?  Listen, you red staters, I’ll tell you a secret… you don’t have to pay for it. 

Here’s a fascinating article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine, surely one of the only times I’ve ever linked to something about sports.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?_r=2&ref=magazine&pagewanted=all

It focusses on Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, a player his own front office admits is “a marginal NBA athlete”… who nonetheless has an uncanny ability to make his team win.  Both teams he’s played for started out losing and ended up in multiple playoff seasons.  Battier doesn’t score well by any conventional metric… but he’s an outlier on several unconventional metrics.  Something about his play makes his team play better and his opponents worse. 

It’s an offshoot of the statistical methods that began in baseball and are now being applied to other sports, but it’s also a spotlight on what makes teams gel, why it’s important to ask exactly what we’re measuring, and why we need more than superstars.

Ben McGrath has an interesting article in last week’s New Yorker on “The Dystopians“– people who look forward, with barely concealed glee, to complete social collapse.

They have a point– the late-20C American lifestyle is not economically sustainable– but it gets lost in priggishness.  McGrath spends some time with James Kunstler, who gets points for predicting the housing crisis, and loses them for having predicted that Y2K would be a big disaster.  Among Kunstler’s signs of the apocalypse: obesity, tattoos, ugly buildings, large cities, kids and their bongs, Wall Street investors, flat screen TVs, Wal-Marts.  Basically, anything they don’t like becomes a sign of the upcoming barbarity.  It becomes a pleasant revenge fantasy to picture people “studying to be hedge-fund managers” and ending up “supervisors of rutabaga pickers.”  (I guess even after the apocalypse, American managers will think they can manage things they don’t understand.)

Some of the doomsayers are busy making plans– one guy has relocated to a boat, so he can become a maritime trader after the collapse.  Kunstler has a shotgun.  Planning is admirable, but these preparations strike me as another type of fantasy, a hope that the post-apocalypse will basically resemble the 1840s.  Somehow we’ll bypass all the nukes and wars and plagues and looting and just settle into a more rural, more virtuous lifestyle.

Doomsaying is an ancient business, and given human nature, it’s sometimes accurate.  But it doesn’t perceive– it doesn’t want to perceive– human adaptability.  Kunstler describes the 20th century as a “horror show”, and of course it was.  But it was also a dizzying display of progress.  If a European of 1900 would be dismayed at two upcoming world wars and a clash of totalitarianisms, he would also be astonished at the European Union, unparalleled health and prosperity, the Internet, and the progress of China and India from basket cases to powerhouses.

Also, a hint to aspiring dystopians: if you don’t want to look risible in twenty years and validate the scoffers, don’t foresee an early collapse.  2012 is wishful thinking.

Interesting article by Hannah Rosin: http://www.slate.com/id/2199255/

She starts by explaining why the religious right likes Palin– didn’t another cute-pit-bull candidate, Dan Quayle, actually castigate single mothers just 16 years ago?  But it turns out that evangelicals have simply adopted ’60s morality:

The rest of the 30 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have started to slip in their morals and now actually poll worse than the rest of America on traditional measures of upstanding behavior—they are just as likely to live together and have kids out of wedlock, and their teenage daughters lose their virginities at an earlier age than the girls of most Americans.

…The most remarkable differences between the large mass of evangelicals and the rest of Americans are in divorce statistics. Since the ’70s, evangelicals and the coastal elites have effectively switched places. Evangelicals are now far more likely to get divorced, whereas couples with four years of college education have cut their divorce rates in half.

Narrowly, it’s a lesson for lefties: don’t assume based on the public issues of the ’80s that you know how evangelicals think and behave in the ’00s.  More broadly, it’s a reminder that as a religious revival broadens, it also weakens.  Only a small minority of human beings can actually follow strict religious rules.  If they manage to take power, the rules will be broken, though perhaps only in private.

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