The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

Why do food replicators suck?

If you like mega-nerdy discussions about impossible things, this Tumblr and Metafilter discussion delivers. I found myself convinced by entirely opposite conclusions several times. The basic question: is Star Trek replicator food as good as real food?

The originator of the discussion, Beatrice-Otter, thinks it obviously is:

In Star Trek, replicator technology is part of the same tech tree as transporters. Replicated food would be identical to the food it was based on, down to the subatomic level.

The discussion makes many good points.

  • Working from a fixed recipe makes every instance of a dish taste the same. That could get boring fast.
  • If you’re a foodie, the number of options for a dish just explodes. Precise ingredients, multitudes of obscure varieties for each one, their terroir, different cooking methods, seasonal changes, the taste imparted by the pan you use. Maybe even which microorganisms live in the local tap water…
  • Maybe the replicator is good with pizza, but does it do Ethiopian food well? To say nothing of all the hundreds of planets and dozens of species the Federation has run into. You can have a database that’s huge, yet really only works for a subset of people, probably the developers.
  • Everyone has their own individual associations and preferences. You could store the ratatouille recipe that brings Anton Ego back to his childhood— but visiting Anton Ego’s childhood isn’t the same for you and for him.
  • The ship’s replicators are military grade and just don’t have the options the crew had back home.
  • Humans are humans, and will find a way to complain even in a post-capitalist utopia.
  • Our senses are affected by ambience. Anton Ego’s ratatouille might be spectacular in a restaurant in Paris, bland and disappointing in a cold starship galley.
  • In ST canon, replicators can’t produce live animals. What about that Klingon dish that includes live ingredients? But you don’t have to invent other species to get this problem: I once saw a video about a Mexican street dish that included live insects. For that matter, yogurt is supposed to have live bacteria cultures…

Someone pointed out that once replication tech exists, people would deliberately mess with it— e.g. make a steak where some of the proteins are replaced by raspberry syrup. Or you deliberately play with glitches that would be impossible in any other cooking method. (E.g. imagine layering hot and cold levels within a pastry— each 0.01 inch wide.) Or a similar layering effect with chocolate and fruit.

To me, the killer consideration is data space. How much physical space does a recipe take up? We’re used to thinking of data as weightless: an e-book takes up way, way less space than a book. Thus we can easily imagine a replicator filled to bursting with variations on the pizza recipe.

But an e-book is negligible because printed letters are enormously huge at the molecular level. It really doesn’t take much to fool the eye. The stomach is another matter. You have to replicate the food way below the cellular level. E.g. you’re making a steak: you have to make all the proteins correctly down to the molecular level— if you make the proteins wrong, the food isn’t even nutritious!

A pound of steak contains on the order of 1025 atoms. We need to store the location and velocity of each one.

  • Yes, Heisenberg would have something to say about that; take it up with Star Trek.
  • Velocity? If you think “but the atoms aren’t moving much,” I remind you that electrons moving is what we normally call “temperature”.
  • Just in case you have some bright idea about storing info about multiple atoms in one atom using floating point numbers… atoms are quantized. E.g. the state of any electron can be given by two integers (spin and energy level). And these are not numeric registers: if you set an electron to a high energy state, it won’t stay that way, it’ll send off the energy as a photon.)

Anyway: to store the state of each atom, we have nothing smaller than an atom. The recording of the state of 1025 atoms will itself be 1025 atoms— a pound of computronium. Maybe more, since any data format has some overhead; plus of course you need the mechanisms to actually read the data. Now, do you still think that the replicator can store thousands of recipes, and thousands of variants for each one? The ship will end up being made of recipe blocks.

Fine, you say: we’ll compress the data. And I’ll say: there is no lossless compression. Every method you use will have some effect— and could change the taste. Make enough compromises and yeah, replicator food sucks.

Now, I’m happy to grant that compression can be done. But a lot of thinking about this will be due to analogies that don’t apply here— namely, our experience compressing visual and auditory data. It’s pretty easy to fool the eye and the ear with low-res data. How much of that applies to taste and smell is another matter. (A lot of biological processes, including these, depend on recognizing large molecules; you can’t depend on macro-level fakery. That’s one reason making fake meat is so hard.) And again, satisfying the digestive system is even harder.

Edit: Compression can be lossless if the data is strongly patterned. E.g. an entry in the Library of Babel that consists entirely of the letter “e” can be precisely described in a few words (I just did it). But complex biological material (a.k.a. “food”) isn’t strongly patterned in that way.

Suppose you can compress the recipe a thousandfold: you can store the recipe for a pound of beef in 1022 atoms. Great! Now you can store a thousand variants of the recipe in a pound of computronium, a thousand recipes still weigh half a ton. How many replicators did you want in your starship, by the way…?

OK, we compress it a millionfold! Just 1018 atoms per recipe. That’s just a pound of computronium for a thousand dishes with a thousand variants each. Good enough for government work! Only… come on. You can’t just say you’ll keep 1 bit in 1,000,000 and claim that the loss is undetectable. Some people will insist on this, but I call this an instance of engineer’s disease: a certain type of nerd thinks that their tech solution cannot fail, an optimism belied by fifty years of engineering experience.

(Also, please don’t quibble over the portion size. You could store 1 cm3 of beef instead and save a couple of orders of magnitude. Only, one, building food out of 1 cm3 cubes will definitely be noticeable. And two, I could easily increase thousand recipes by several orders of magnitude too— that was just a simplification for ease of calculation. The Joy of Cooking contains 4500 recipes, and it’s hardly the last word on food. And Star Trek ships include people not only from every human culture, but from other biospheres and other species.)

All this shed some light, I think, on why Star Trek transporters can’t be used to store multiple backups per person, create endless clones, etc. A person takes 1027 atoms to store— the same weight as a person. (You want that data compressed? And then you’re gonna cheerfully step into that machine?) This would explain why (as one Metafilter user points out) during one ST transporter malfunction, storing all the person-data completely overwhelmed the ship’s computers. Transportation cannot be a matter of reading the data, storing it in some mega-compressed form, beaming it somewhere, and 3D-printing it. The best way of storing those 1027 atoms is to use those very atoms. They’re transformed into plasma beams or whatever tech-gobbledygook you want, but they continue to be 1027 atoms, and they’re physically moved to the destination.

Oh, one more thought experiment for you. You go into the transporter carrying a portable food replicator— whose core is a pound of computronium. As we’ve established, every atom in a recipe is important: this data has been compressed as far as it can be. Does the replicator still work after you’ve been transported? Does it work well? Analogies based on JPGs won’t help you here!

Finally: this is all speculative and no answer, including mine, is the last word. But there is a conworlding lesson here, and that’s that though you can rescue a magical sf idea with more magic, you shouldn’t. A certain type of nerd just wants those replicating machines to work perfectly and keeps adding more impossibilities to keep the idea pure. But to get an interesting sf idea, you want limitations and tradeoffs and possible flaws.

A People’s History of Science

I just read this book, by Clifford D. Conner. Er, is it clear that the title of the book is the title of the post? If not, it’s called A People’s History of Science. Glad we could clear that up.

Anyway, the thesis of the book is that science, both theoretical and practical, though it owes much to the various geniuses everyone emphasizes, also owes much to a usually unknown army of craftsmen, assistants, and ordinary people.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Not because he doesn’t prove his thesis– he does, and there’s a lot to learn here whether you’re interested in the history of science/technology, or in conworlding. But he can’t resist polemic, and those parts are tedious.

So, when he sticks to his subject, it’s a great book. He has fascinating sections on the Polynesian navigators, on knowledge of plants from around the world, on the practical knowledge of miners, instrument makers, craftsmen, and midwives. It’s full of things I didn’t know, such as:

  • Portugal’s Prince Henry is famous for encouraging navigation; what’s less known is that his captains would kidnap Africans and learn the local sea routes and trade opportunities from them.
  • Similarly, when American colonists wanted to grow rice, which requires deep knowledge of wet-field cultivation, they stole the expertise, by buying African slaves who knew how to do it. Conner find newspaper ads from the 1700s which touted the availability of slaves who had “knowledge of rice culture.”
  • The famous Dutch microscopist van Leeuwenhoek was not a professional scientist but a draper. He was originally interested in lensmaking in order to get a close-up view of his fabrics.
  • The man who won the British contest for a way to accurately determine longitude was John Harrison, a carpenter who had taught himself watchmaking.
  • The invention of printing was followed by an explosion of practical manuals, written by and for craftsmen. Smart savants read these books, or talked to craftsmen.
  • We tend to think of painters and architects as an elevated class– Artists– but traditionally they were considered barely-respectable craftsmen. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi were all apprenticed to goldsmiths, and Vasari called Michelangelo as “the wisest of all the craftsmen.”
  • Benjamin Franklin published the first chart of the Gulf Stream, which could shave two weeks off the trip across the Atlantic; he himself acknowledges that its was dictated to him by a whaleboat captain, who was his cousin.
  • One 19C account of the steam engine comments, “There is no machine or mechanism in which the little the theorists have done is more useless. It arose, was improved and perfected by working mechanics– and by them only.”

Conner quotes plenty of old-fashioned histories which exalt solitary thinkers and theorists, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Newton to Einstein, trumpet the ancient Greeks as if they invented inquiry and theory, and explicitly downplay craftsmen and practical workers. These ideas are easily demolished by quoting the very Greeks and Renaissance savants they extol, who praise (though they don’t often name) the practical workers their work depended on. The Greeks themselves tell us that they got much of their knowledge from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The polemic sections, as I said, get tedious. The last few chapters in particular are a slog, as Conner mostly forgets his subject and indulges in a slapdash tour of modern capitalism and its disasters (though for balance he also condemns Stalin). A typical bit is the invocation of the Bhopal gas leak; his one-paragraph discussion has nothing to do with his main thesis and tells us nothing new.

A minor but annoying cavil: being anti-establishment in so many ways sometimes leads Conner into a defense of quack ideas. E.g. there’s a sympathetic discussion of Mesmer’s “animal magnetism.” He approvingly quotes a contemporary who accepted that Mesmer could cure “blindness, deafness, wounds, or local paralysis”, and Conner suggests that the dismissal of Mesmer by the savants was a “monumental missed opportunity for the… advancement of science.” Now, the history of science is largely the history of wrong ideas, and wrong theories are a necessary step toward better theories; but just because “the authorities” condemn a particular set of ideas doesn’t mean that those ideas need rehabilitation. Conner seems to like Mesmer because he railed against the Academy, but describing Mesmerism as “people’s science” is a stretch– as Conner himself notes, Mesmer was supported by a rich banker, and did his best to appeal to high society.

Finally, though there is some recognition of Polynesians, Chinese, and Babylonians here, the book as a whole is extremely Western-oriented. As a nonfiction writer myself, I very much understand the problem of research load. But though he insists on the debt the Greeks owed to Babylonia and invokes Joseph Needham, the Babylonians don’t rate a chapter, nor do the Chinese or Arabs.

Ask Zompist: Second thoughts on religion

One of the first pages I read after I had discovered zompist.com , back in 2000, was the introductory page on Almean belief systems. And it made an enormous impression on me back then. I know that it is technically about your conworld, but IMO almost all of it works very well as an essay on belief systems on Earth, too. Back then, that essay changed the way I look at things. For instance, ever since, even when I share some of the beliefs in a belief system, a part of me still prefers to look at the belief system from the outside rather than the inside.

But all of this makes me wonder how more than 20 years of additional learning and experiences have shaped your own views of the topics that essay deals with. Any thoughts?

—Raphael

I would add more today, but not really change what I wrote there.

Looking over it, I can see a few writers who influenced me greatly: Marvin Harris, G.K. Chesterton, Eric Hoffer. And C.S. Lewis, though he’s not mentioned there. I’ve read quite a lot since, but ironically the first thing I’d add is more Harris— the etic/emic discussion discussed here, which relates to what you say about looking at belief systems from the outside. Many aspects of belief systems simply make no sense on their own terms (emically), and have to be looked at etically. On the other hand, I’d caution against trying to use etic analysis as a weapon. It irritates the people involved, and you really have to make sure you get your facts right. (A heuristic: if the analysis makes the people look stupid, it’s probably more partisan than scientific.)

I purposely talked about “belief systems” under the belief that religions and political ideologies are aspects of the same phenomenon. (There’s a lot of Hoffer in that.) That’s one thing I’d maybe modify today. Now, on one level it’s true— see the previous blog entry, on Orwell’s observations of ideologues. I do think we can best understand the wars of religion in the 1600s, and the wars of ideologies in the 1900s, with the observation that people used to understand their national and political fights in terms of religion, and now understand them in terms of ideologies. The mental habits of the religious and the political partisan are nearly identical.

On the other hand, the functional yield of this grouping, so to speak, seems to be low. Religion encompasses quite a few features— theology, ritual, personal spiritualism, recourse to supernatural aids— that are largely lacking in politics. Political ideologies, meanwhile, tend toward authoritarianism in a way that doesn’t shed much light on religion. (Religious authorities can be oppressive, oh yes. But I object strongly to viewing any religion as “nothing but oppression.”)

There’s also the present-day relationship between religion and politics, which is complicated. Very old-style religions can be political— cf. political Islam, or the disgusting Evangelical love for Trump, or the nationalism of Modi in India. If anything, the expectation that politics has replaced religion now seems overblown. We still have fascists and communists, but to get tens of millions of people excited, the smart money is now back on religion.

As I said, I’ve read a lot more about religion in the last two decades, mostly while researching my books. So I could talk quite a bit more about Dàoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Middle Eastern polytheism. But a lot of that wouldn’t come up in an overview of belief systems. Though an alert reader on Twitter had a great idea— a Religion Construction Kit— so you may see a long-form treatment of the subject in a few years. (My current book, on the ancient Middle East, will have quite a lot to say about the origins of monotheism and state polytheism.)

One more thing I might emphasize more now is the buffet nature of religion. Not all religions have all the elements I described. And even when they do, individuals may take what they like and ignore the rest. Outsiders can concentrate too much on what the priests do, or what the scriptures say. I’ve always wanted to know what the ordinary believer does, and what the range of possible behaviors is.

On a personal level, I’ve moved over the last 35 years from being an energetic Evangelical, to being a Christian very disappointed in the church and the Church, to being an agnostic. All this without developing the disdain and hatred for religion (especially Christianity) that some people indulge. I’m still fascinated by religion— or parts of it, and by the character of God. And I’m irked by conworlds which take the easy trope of making religion All Oppressive All the Time.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

What happens to heroes

Some dude named Noah Smith had an interesting opinion about LOTR. (Hat tip to Jeffrey for retweeting it.)

One interesting thing about Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits mostly don’t learn to fight, come of age, get the girl, or win the throne. They’re not Campbellian heroes; they’re soldiers in a war. They do their duty and come home with PTSD.

Now, my immediate reaction is that this is entirely wrong. Merry, Pippin, and Sam do all of these things and get all of these rewards. True, you have to read the appendices to learn all the details, but they’re all there– Sam is Mayor, Merry is Master of Buckland, and Pippin– reverting to his dignified name of Peregrin– becomes Took. For them, it is absolutely a Campbellian journey.

Eressëa (artist’s rendering)

Frodo, yes, has a hell of a case of PTSD. He is also far from the fairly idle and naive fellow of Chapter 1, is able to reorder the Shire to his liking, and actually becomes Mayor. He ends up living as an immortal in Eressëa. (Smith went on to say that he interpreted that as a metaphor for death, but no, that’s not what Eressëa means in Tolkien. Aragorn dies normally, Frodo does not.)

This got me interested in what a Campbellian hero is, so the next stop is Wikipedia. This article is pretty interesting, and I’m tempted to go off in a million directions on it. But let’s just focus on what happens to heroes after they defeat the Big Bad.

Campbell is actually pretty perceptive about the difficulty here:

Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.

So a bunch of temporal rewards is not in fact the normal end of the Campbell story. In fact he’s predicting that a return to ordinary life is going to be difficult and unattractive. Frodo’s experience is actually a far better illustration of his point than Sam’s or Aragorn’s.

Let me very unsystematically survey some epics and see what happened at the end.

  • Gilgamesh: The hero completely fails his quest. He just goes home. No rewards to speak of, though he retains his day job (king).
  • The Odyssey: Odysseus ends up with what he wanted: being back at home, with his wife.
  • The Ramayana: Rama loses the girl in a display of nasty suspicion.
  • Three Kingdoms: Liu Bei foolishly dies in battle as he’s pursuing the wrong war, for personal vengeance, rather than paying attention to the overall situation of China.
  • The Mahabharata: The victors give up their happy life to be pilgrims, and most of them die. But of course this isn’t final in Hinduism.
  • Morte D’Arthur: Arthur dies and his circle of knights dissipates.
  • Hamlet: Everybody dies, except the one guy who got very few lines and now becomes king.
  • The Roland/Orlando saga: Roland fails to defeat the Saracens and dies.
  • The Three Musketeers: Porthos and Athos die. Aramis becomes evil. D’Artagnan serves the king faithfully and dies in battle.
  • Narnia: Everyone but Susan dies in a train crash. Before that the kids brought to Narnia to improve their souls long for it interminably and seem not very well adjusted at all.
  • Star Maker: the Cosmos is rebuffed by the Creator and intelligent life, after lasting billions of years, is quietly extinguished in the heat death of the universe.
  • Pullman’s Dust saga: Lyra and Will are separated forever and travel to other worlds is prohibited.
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide: Arthur likes a quiet life in a rural area, as much he ever likes anything.
  • Snow Crash: Hiro becomes a moderately successful security engineer.
  • Laundry novels: I haven’t finished these, but Bob apparently succeeds his boss as some kind of powerful undead.
  • Star Wars: Everybody’s happy. Later retconned to: And then it all happens again.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: She-Ra gets the girl.
  • Harley Quinn animated series: Harley gets the girl.
  • Rocksteady Arkham games: Batman has a really bad night, pisses off all his allies, and apparently kills himself and murders his butler. (Never got to that scene: too many Riddler trophies to solve.)
  • Sandman: Sandman racks up just enough maturity to realize that he can never change, so it’s better to die and get reincarnated.
  • Little Nemo: Nemo leaves Slumberland and takes a long airship tour. In his very last strip, he goes to watch a farmer shearing sheep.
  • In the Land of Babblers: Whether Beretos gets the girl is unknown. The political situation improves for awhile, but after a century it all goes to hell.

If we learn anything from this– and it’s unsystematic, so feel free to learn nothing– it’s that Smith is wrong: the hero does not always end up with power and romance. Even in pure power fantasies, creators seem to realize that endings are bittersweet, and the celebration often gives way to melancholy. And it’s pretty common for stories, even ancient stories, to end unhappily, or in a mood of existential angst.

Beyond that, as Neil Gaiman noted, if you prolong any story it becomes a story about death.

On the other hand, the next stage, according to Campbell, seems like nonsense:

Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.

I dunno. Do any of the works above end up with a master who “gaily leaps” from the mundane to the extraordinary and back? The whole idea of an epic, one could say, is that some great evil has to be ended so people can go back to a normal life. If you have to keep going, then you didn’t exactly take care of the problem. True, episodic series (Star Trek, Conan, Batman, the detective novel) have to keep going and keep creating new threats. But the price paid is that there is never any closure.

SCA2: now with file support

I made a few changes to the Sound Change Applier.

First, files should be supported. That is, you can now download your work to a file, and upload it back into SCA².  You can include the input lexicon or not.

(I use the download attribute on browsers that support it, and another method for Explorer and Edge.  Hopefully it’ll work on your browser.)

Second, you can now have intermediate results. E.g. you could generate Old Ibero-Romance and then Portuguese with the same sound changes.  (Basically: add the special rule -* at the appropriate place in your sound changes. You can add a descriptive name after it.)

See the help file for details on both changes.

The Fremen Mirage

Here’s a great set of articles, by Bret Devereaux, on what he calls the Fremen Mirage, or what might be called the Myth of the Warrior Race. There’s also a great sub-series on Sparta, one of the most pernicious of these myths. All this should be of great interest to conworlders, as well as people interested in the history of our planet.

A warning, though: there’s a lot to read. I spend most of Friday on these.

dunefight

Pedantic note: Devereaux likes the miniseries, but this is from the Lynch film, which is the only one I saw, and whose costume design rocks.

The basic elements of the myth are:

  • Empires are started by virile, manly men full of manliness.
  • They get weak because of luxuries, corruption, and sex.  They may actually lisp.
  • They are then taken over by virile manly men from warrior cultures.

Dune happens to be a shining exemplar of this; in the Sparta series he invokes 300. His use of the name invites digressions on the book, and he provides one, but it’s probably better than limiting the idea to one real-world exemplar, or using squishy words like “barbarian”. I’ll just use “barbarian”, but do imagine scare quotes used throughout.

To summarize the rebuttal:

  • States have little to fear from barbarian bands, which they normally beat or co-opt. Their major preoccupation is advanced states similar to their own: either neighbors or opposing factions in a civil war.
  • Agricultural states have no problem creating a professional army which, pound for pound, can beat barbarian bands.
  • On an individual basis, your basic state soldier was probably more fearsome than the barbarian, not less.
  • Corruption and sex have nothing to do with the decline of states.
  • Sparta was a pretty horrible place and its elite cruelty destroyed its own power in not much more than a century.
  • The myth generally has no interest in the accurate description of barbarians; it’s always a self-criticism from within the advanced states. To be more precise, it’s the whining of certain elites within those states, used against other parts of the elite.

The obvious counter-rebuttals, and the counters to those:

  • But the fall of Rome. Yes, all empires have to fall sooner or later. But people get inordinately interested in the 400s alone. Devereaux goes over Roman history from one sack of Rome to another– 390 BCE to 410 CE.  Think about that: that’s 800 years of solid power.  And in the East, another 1100 years. Barbarians win sometimes, but the state is forever.
  • But the Mongols.  The steppeland of Eurasia has a long and important history, and was a major threat to multiple civilizations. Nomad power is real. But the Mongols were just the high-water mark of a tide that, in the larger view, was controllable. China was almost always ruled by Han Chinese, and anyway was very good at assimilating conquerors.

Kind of amusingly, the Warrior Race trope is often used for and against the same people. E.g. the Greeks were manly warriors when fighting Persia, corrupt softees when fighting Rome. The Romans were manly outsiders when they took over Greece, softees when fighting Germans. The Arabs were virile outsiders during the Caliphate, and unutterably corrupt for the 19C Europeans.

But again, it’s never really about the barbarians. The myth was elaborated, though undoubtedly not originated, by Roman writers around 100 BCE to 100 AD… that is, the height of Roman power, when Rome was still expanding and the Germans were nothing to worry about. It was basically the complaint of one bunch of rich Romans against another. None of those making the complaint gave up their wealth and went to live in military camps in order to build up their manliness. Few of them actually visited any of the barbarians they praised. (Caesar did, but he was fighting them; he wasn’t engaged in conservative whining so much as flattering his own enemies in order to puff up his victories over them.)

Sparta is a fascinating story, and when you really look at it, it proves just about the opposite of what its fans think. Consider this: there were just 8000 full Spartiates– males with full citizenship– in 480. It was the largest state in Greece, and it was able to send just 5000 hoplites to Plataea. Athens sent 9000. Aristotle notes that if worked like other Greek states, Sparta could have supplied 30,000 hoplites. So its 85%-slave social system made it underperform in number of troops, a key metric for military success.

Nor were they that much better than other Greek troops. They shared the same equipment and tactics of all Greek states, and phalanx warfare was a matter of group action, not individual prowess. The Spartans may have had no profession but war, but they didn’t bother to train much.  Sparta did defeat Athens in 404– with the help of Persian funds. When it attempted to defy Persia, Persia simply switched its subsidies to Athens, and Sparta’s response was to appease the Persians by giving them the Ionian cities. Very manly!

And that was Sparta’s height. By 418, Spartiate strength was down to 3500.  By 371, it was 1500. Not coincidentally, Thebes was then able to shatter Sparta’s power and free Messenia, the territory that supplied most of its slaves. Devereaux goes into the reasons why, but in short: the Spartan elite was self-inoculated against all change. Their system was based on exclusion: excluding the helots, excluding elite members who couldn’t pass the agoge training system or maintain the common mess, excluding impoverished Spartiates. They had no way of maintaining their numbers without changing at least some of their ideology.

The myth was revived in the 19th century, added to the malodorous stew of European racism. Tacitus’ praise of the Germans (who he had never met) were intended to shore up Roman manliness, but they found a new audience in Germany, which liked to see itself as a scrappy and manly warrior race. France found its warrior race in ses ancêtres les Gaulois, while the Brits chose the Celts. (Not that this made the English particularly appreciate their sister nations.) The British in particular loved to divide their own subject people into warrior and non-warrior races… not the least reason they lastingly screwed up Indian politics.

One thing Devereaux doesn’t quite go into is the importance of the Fremen Mirage to modern conservatism. A lot of conservative ideas make no sense unless you interpret them in its light. Adapting the adage that American vote as if they were temporarily distressed millionaires, we may say that conservatives see themselves as temporarily comfortable Spartans. Yes, they live in nice suburban houses and have nice office jobs, but in their minds they’re living in a mess hall with other manly men, ready to lay waste to the softies. Spartan attitudes about the 85% of slaves below them in the hierarchy are relevant as well. Conservatives are fond of hazing rituals, even for themselves; but they also approve of pure misery for the lowest swaths of society (i.e., everybody but themselves).

What can you do with all this in your conworld?

One, throw out your Warrior Race– your Klingons, your Dothraki, your Cimmerians, your orcs. These are all fantasies made by civilized people who are tired of civilization but don’t want to leave it.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t have warriors, or war. War is hell, but storytellers can hardly do without it. But get rid of the notion that civilized states are bad at it, or that barbarians are particularly cruel. Agriculturalist empires are very good at cruelty in war.

The main threat to your civilized states will be other civilized states, or themselves.

At the same time, you should balance Devereaux with Scott.  (Not that they conflict, but they have different emphases.) The state has been near-unstoppable for the 5000 years since its invention. But until recently, it had real trouble extending its power over the people who lived in non-grain areas (marshes, mountains, jungle), and over nomads. The first group may be sizeable, but is not usually a threat to states; the second is.

But your nomads should be based on real nomads, not on the mythical Warrior Race. Some generalizations about real nomads:

  • They’re trained on horse-riding and archery, which makes them a great natural cavalry. Occasionally this can be parlayed into the conquest of an agricultural state… but that’s a) a rare reward, and b) a poisoned one. Nomads are rarely good or lasting rulers. (Mongol rule lasted less than 75 years after Khubilai Khan. The Qing held on much longer, but they weren’t really nomads.)
  • The first resort of states is to co-opt nomads. And that works pretty well!
  • Nomads don’t disdain city luxuries; in fact they’re quite fond of them. Historically they have a great interest in civilized religions, and nomad elites are good at joining agricultural elites.
  • Nomad societies are not extraordinarily macho; in fact their women are often far freer than in agricultural states.

Due to geography, Europe, India, and China were never going to be overwhelmed forever by nomads anyway. They just have too many people. Arguably Mesopotamia did not have this advantage, and that’s why it was not a major power after 500 BCE. More on that in my upcoming book…

States do decline, but it’s not due to luxury and corruption. More often, it’s due to the concentration of wealth, or ecological factors, or the elite losing interest in supporting the central power.

Finally: unlike individual humans, an aged state can rejuvenate itself. This may be as simple as a vigorous new dynasty taking over. Both Rome and China had some dramatic periods of instability or civil war, and yet kept picking themselves up for centuries.

 

 

The Langmaker book

I’m about to order the proof copy of Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, by Jeffrey Henning. But I’m not Jeffrey Henning!  What’s going on?

Well, Jeffrey decided (and it’s about time) to put out his material from Langmaker as a book. He asked me to edit and design the book, and it’s almost done.

Back in the early 2000s, there were two websites that the aspiring conlanger certainly had bookmarked: mine and Langmaker.com.  Jeffrey was interested in all kinds of conlangs, and there were all sorts of ways to get involved: get your conlang listed, translate the Babel Text, submit a neologism, etc.  And then, around 2008, the database got corrupted, and no one knew how to fix it, and the site sadly perished.

The book contains most of the essays and reviews Jeffrey wrote for the site, plus a bunch of his conlangs.  (Except for the lexicons.  They’re one of his specialties, really, and worth a close look… but they’d make the book 2000 pages long.  I will host them a bit later.) (We tried to buy the Langmaker domain back for that, but it wasn’t available.)

We also included the “Conlangs at a Glance” section of the site, a list of historical and contemporary conlangs compiled by Jeffrey or submitted by readers. I spruced this section up to make it more informative.  I think it’s a useful snapshot of conlanging as of 2005 or so, and if that means it includes a lot of people’s first conlangs, that’s just how it was.

Edit: Oh! While I was adding the book page, I got rid of the Google ads on my home page. They are bringing in so pitifully little that they’re not worth the annoyance. I’m hoping to get up a Patreon instead.

 

 

Against the Grain

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

hamurabi

Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.

Collapse

The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.

Lessons

If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)