Which came first, the City or the Code? (book club Code Economy Ch 2)

The Code of Hammurabi

Writing, which is itself a form of code, enable humans to communicate code. Cities grow as code evolves. –Auerswald

Welcome to The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History, by Philip E. Auerswald. Chapter Two: Code looks at two epochal developments in human history: writing and cities.

One of the earliest pieces of writing we have uncovered is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi, Goddess of Beer, which contains, yes, a recipe for making beer (translation by Miguel Civil):

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer

You guys requested beer or wine with your books, so here you go.

The hymn contains two layers of code–first, there is the code which allows each symbol or character to stand for a particular sound, which let the author write down the recipe and you, thousands of years later, decode and read the recipe; and second, there is the recipe itself, a code for producing beer.

The recipe’s code likely far predates the hymn itself, as humans had begun brewing beer at least a couple thousand years earlier.

Writing and cities go hand in hand; it is difficult to imagine managing the day-to-day need to import food (and water) for thousands of people without some ability to encode information. As cities grow larger, complexity grows: one man in the woods may relieve himself behind a tree; thousands of people packed into a square mile cannot.

Each solved problem, once routinized, becomes its own layer of code, building up as the city itself expands; a city of thousands or millions of people cannot solve each person’s problems anew each day.

Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

But which came first, the city or the alphabet? Did the growth of cities spur innovations that improved agricultural output, or did agricultural innovations spur the growth of cities?

For example, settlement and construction appear to have gotten underway at Jericho (one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities) around 9 or 10,000 BC and at the mysterious Gobekli Tepe site began around 7-9,000 BC, before agriculture emerged in the region.

Writing developed a fair bit later, developing from clay shapes to shapes impressed in clay between 8,000 and 4,000 BC.

Amphitheater, Norte Chico, Peru

Others of the world’s earliest civilizations had either no or very little writing. The Norte Chico civilization of Peru, for example; by the time the Spaniards arrived, the Inca had an accounting system based on the quipu, a kind of string abacus, but appear to have not yet developed a true writing system, despite their palaces, cities, roads, emperor, and tax collectors. (Here is my previous post on Norte Chico.)

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro

The extensive Indus Valley civilization had some form of symbolic encoding, but few of their inscriptions are longer than 4 or 5 characters–the longest inscription found so far is 26 symbols, spread over three different sides of an object. Not exactly an epic–but the Indus Valley Civilization was nevertheless quite large and impressive, supporting perhaps 5 million people. (Previous post on the Indus Valley.)

Auerswald documents some of the ways cities appear to drive innovation–and to “live”:

The Santa Fe team found that cities are like biological organisms when it comes to “metabolic” urban processes that are analogous to nutrient supply and waste removal–transportation, for example, ha a branching structure much like veins or bronchi–but that cities differ fundamentally from biological organisms when it comes to indicators reflecting the creation and transmission of code. measuring the size of cities based on population and on the urban “metabolism” using metrics such as wages, GDP, electric power and gasoline consumption, and total  road surface, the team found a systematic relationship between city size and indicators of the supply of “nutrients” and waste removal… However, while metabolic indicators do not keep pace with the size of cities as they grow, indicators relating to the creation and transmission of code increase at a greater rate than city size. … In short, the creation of ideas accelerates with city growth, whereas the cost of new infrastructure is minimized.

This intriguing macro-level departure from the inverse relationships that hold for organisms ends up risking more questions about the evolution of cities than it answers: What mechanism enables larger cities to produce disproportionately more innovation and wealth than smaller cities?

Data Economy has a fascinating article in a similar vein: Street Smarts: The Rise of the Learning City:

The city as a brain

An amalgam of terms that have been used for parallel conceptions of the Smart City among them cyberville, digital city, electronic communities, flexicity, information city, intelligent city, knowledge-based city, MESH city, telecity, teletopia, ubiquitous city, wired city.

However the one I would like to propose, with population movement in mind, is The Learning City.

The term is based on a combination of two theories The Ego City and The Flynn Effect.

In 2009 Neurobiologist Mark Changizi from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute released a paper entitled Ego City: Cities Are Organized Like Human Brain.

Changizi sees strikingly real similarities between the brain and a city.

The central idea being that they organise and evolve similarly due to the need for efficiency.

As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organisation in order to achieve the right level of reciprocity.

This is analogous to the widening of streets in cities.

The research team found mutual “scaling laws” for brains and cities.

For example, as the surface area of a brain or city grows, the number of connectors (neurons or highways) increased at a similar rate for each.

Likewise, a bigger city needs more highway exits in the same proportion as a bigger brain needs more synapses connecting neurons.

“The brain is like a city.

Cities develop and grow bigger and may get problems with roads and infrastructure, which is similar to what happens to our brains when we get older”, notes Håkan Fischer, Professor of Biological Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University.

 The learning city

This is curious when taken in the context of The Flynn Effect.

Intelligence Researcher James Flynn found that every decade without fail the human population scored higher on IQ tests.

An average increase of 3 points per decade.

His thesis suggests that the more information we as humans have to absorb and compute leads to an increase in IQ.

In this instance the increased information is data collected within the city.

As cities gain more data they adapt and in turn get smarter.

Human brains faced with a busier world filled with more information brings about an increase in IQ from generation to generation.

As people migrant to cities creating a more complex environment for the city it to must gather this data, learn and raise its Smart City IQ.

This is The Learning City.

On the other hand, the data Auerswald cites–from the “Santa Fe Team”–only looks at cities from the US, China, the EU, and Germany. How would this data look if it incorporated other megacities, like Manila, Philippines (the world’s densest city); Sao Paolo, Brazil; Bombay, India; Caracas, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; or Jakarta, Indonesia? Of the world’s ten biggest cities, only two–Seoul, #1, and Tokyo, #10–are in the first world. (#9 Shanghai, is well on its way.)

#2 Sao Paolo might be more energy efficient than villages in the Brazilian hinterland (or it may not, as such towns may not even have electricity,) but does it produce more innovation than #11 New York City? (No American city made the top 10 by population.)

If cities are drivers of innovation, why are so many of the biggest in the third world? Perhaps third world countries offer their citizens so little that they experience a form of extreme brain drain, with everyone who can fleeing to the most productive regions. Or perhaps these cities are simply on their way–in a century, maybe Sao Paolo will be the world’s next Shanghai.

The city, by definition, is civilization–but does the city itself spur innovation? And are cities, themselves, living things?

Geoffrey West has some interesting things to say on this theme:

“How come it is very hard to kill a city? You can drop an atom bomb on a city, and 30 years later, it’s surviving.”

Here’s a transcript of the talk.

Hiroshima in 1945:

Hiroshima today:

Hiroshima montage

Detroit, 1905:

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, 1905–h/t Photos of Detroit’s Golden Age

Detroit today:

Detroit Book Depository

“Bombs don’t destroy cities; people destroy cities.”


Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.

I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.

First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.

The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.

How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”

It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.

This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.

And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.

The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.

But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.

GDP per capita by country

Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?

In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)

IQ by country

But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.

Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a  new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.

Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.

It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.

But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.

Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.

And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.

It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.

What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.

Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:

Source: Audacious Epigone

Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)

Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.

The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.

Well, we have made it a page in!

Termite City

What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?

Come read “The Code Economy: A 40,00 Year History” with us

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

EvX’s Book Club is reading Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy: A 40,000 Year History looks at how everything humans produce, from stone tools to cities to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, requires the creation, transmission, and performance of “code,”  and explores the notion that human societies–and thus civilization–is built on a mountain of of encoded processes.

I loved this book and am re-reading it, so I would like to invite you to come read it, too.

Discussion of Chapter 1 Jobs: Divide and Coordinate, will begin on May 23 and last as long as we want it to.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

What do Stone Age axes, Toll House cookies, and Burning Man have in common? They are all examples of code in action.

What is “code”? Code is the DNA of human civilization as it has evolved from Neolithic simplicity to modern complexity. It is the “how” of progress. It is how ideas become things, how ingredients become cookies. It is how cities are created and how industries develop.

In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the Blockchain, Philip Auerswald argues that the advance of code is the key driver of human history. Over the span of centuries, each major stage in the advance of code has brought a shift in the structure of society that has challenged human beings to reinvent not only how we work but who we are.

We are in another of those stages now. The Code Economy explains how the advance of code is once again fundamentally altering the nature of work and the human experience. Auerswald provides a timely investigation of value creation in the contemporary economy-and an indispensable guide to our economic future.

Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

Some of you have asked  for my opinions on Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s recently published an article, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened):

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:

The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.

  1. What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?

It’s a myth. Mostly.

While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.

For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.

Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)

Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.

I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)

In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.”

The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.

I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.

The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.

However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:

According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.

Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.

Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)

Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.

The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.

There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)

In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.

  • 2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.

This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economies here, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.

The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.

Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.

It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.

Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)

Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.

Where the article goes wrong:

  1. Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”

Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.

The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.

  • 2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities

The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds.  They cite, for example:

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.

Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.

Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.

(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)

The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the Plains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.

We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.

  • 3. Production of material wealth

Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.

A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.

By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.

This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.

The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.

It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)

In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.

Thoughts on Quantrill

Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.

The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.

Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)

And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.

What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?

Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.

And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)

After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)

I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.

War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)

We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.

But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.

Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.

While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.

Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.

This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.

I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.

On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:

The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …

In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat[1] is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.

This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.


So I’ve been doing a long project on crime/criminals. So far I’ve read about pirates, Angola Prison, horseback outlaws, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and currently, the mafia.

The books are good, but this is not light reading. After reading about meth whores abusing their kids for a chapter or two, you find yourself wanting to head over to the nearest church.

And I’ve got two and a half books left to go.

Obviously I don’t like crime. Few people do. I’d like for criminals to go away.

I also don’t want non-criminals accidentally imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t want petty criminals over-punished for minor crimes that don’t warrant it. I don’t want a system where some people have access to good lawyers and a shot at “justice” and some people don’t.

I wish we could talk about crime, and the police, and the justice system, and how all of that should work, and subjects like “do the police shoot people inappropriately?” without getting dragged into the poison of tribal political bickering. I especially don’t like the idea that as a result of people trying to prevent one form of murder (police shootings), far more people have ended up being murdered by common criminals. (At least, that’s what the data looks like.)

Obviously we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people in which there may in fact be a trade off between level of police / justice system violence and level of criminal violence. If you have 10 suspects and you know 5 are serial killers but you don’t know which 5, imprisoning all 10 will get the killers off the streets but also imprison 5 innocents, while freeing all of them will result in a bunch more murders. It would be nice to be perfect, but we’re not. We’re humans.

I think there are a lot of problems with the way the legal/justice system operates, but I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere with fixing it. People need to be genuinely motivated to make it better, not just tribally interested in taking a side over BLM. And most people really aren’t interested in fixing it.

And then there’s the criminal side. (Oh, and on a related note: Portland Deletes Its Gang List for Having Too Many Blacks)

I’m often reminded of a passage in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (which I read ages ago) in which he expressed frustration at his fellow academics. You see, Venkatesh was doing street-level, real live research in–I think it was Chicago–by actually going into ghetto neighborhoods and making friends with the people, interacting with them, seeing what their lives were really like. At the same time, Venkatesh was a university student studying “poverty” or something like that, and so would frequently attend lectures by academic types talking about ways to address poverty or fight poverty or what have you, and it was obvious to him that many of these lecturers had no idea what they were talking about.

And really, people do this a lot. They propose a bunch of feel-good solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.

This is pretty much all of politics, really.

I remember a conversation with a well-meaning liberal acquaintance that occurred shortly after I finished Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio. She suggested that better public transportation networks would help poor people get to resources like public museums, which would enrich their lives. I thought this was a stupid response. People trying to make ends meet by acting as lookouts for crack gangs or struggling to find a job after getting out of prison do not care about museums. I said something to that effect, and I don’t think she likes me anymore.

Deep down inside, I wish we lived in a kumbaya-world of happy bunnies frolicking in the forest and children holding hands and singing about how happy they are. I wish people were honest, and pure, and well-intentioned. I wish we could go to the museum, experience beauty, and feel connected to each other and history and culture. I wish none of us had to wear suits and that jobs didn’t grind up people’s souls and spit them out. I wish people could see the humanity in each other, because when we stop seeing that, we stop being human.

And to a large degree, we live in a very nice world. We live in a world with medicines and antibiotics. Where child mortality is low and mothers rarely die in childbirth. Where surgery is done with anesthesia. I have a comfortable home, lots of books, and plenty of food. I spend much of my time reading about times and places where these weren’t the norm, which makes me quite grateful for what I have. It also sometimes keeps me up late at night when I should be asleep.

It’s a good world, but it isn’t kumbaya world. It’s a world with criminals and idiots and mal-intentioned people. It’s a world that got to be good because people worked very hard to make it that way (many people died to make it that way) and it’s a world that doesn’t have to stay that way. We can ruin it.

While researching the previous Cathedral Round-Up, I came across what I think is a professor’s old Myspace page. Suddenly this professor went from “person who wrote really pretentious-sounding dissertation” to “human being.” They were a kid once, trying to figure out their place in this world. They looked sad in some of their pictures. Were they lonely? Outcast? Bullied?

I hate “dissertation language” and hate how simple (sometimes even reasonable) ideas get wrapped up in unnecessarily complex verbiage just to make them sound astonishing. I hate it on principle. I hate how the same people who talk about “privilege” use a writing style that is, itself, accessible to and performed by only an extremely privileged few. Much of it is self-centered drivel, and pretending it has anything to do with uplifting the pure is unadulterated hypocrisy.

All of this internet-driven SJW political signaling is really performative morality. When you are in the context of a real flesh and blood human being in your own community whom you’ll have to interact with repeatedly over the course of years, you’ll try to be faithful, honest, dutiful, loyal, dependable, etc., and you’ll value those some traits in others. Put us on the internet, and we have no need for any of that. We’re not going to cooperate in any meaningful, real-world way with a bunch of people on the internet. Morality on the internet becomes performative, a show you put on for a 3rd-party audience. Here the best thing isn’t to be dependable, but to have the best-sounding opinions. Status isn’t built on your long-term reputation but on your ability to prove that other people are less moral than you.

I noticed years ago that people on the internet often did not debate honestly with each other, but would lie and distort the other person’s argument. Why would they do this? Surely they couldn’t hope to win by lying to someone’s face about their own argument! It only makes sense if you assume the goal of the discussion isn’t to convince the other person, but to convince some other person watching the debate. If you get lots of approval from your adoring Tumblr/Twitter/whatever fans for saying all the right things and accusing your opponents of being all of the wrong, immoral sorts of things, then who cares what the person those remarks are actually directed at thinks of them?

And who cares if you are actually a good, decent, reliable, honest person?

As someone who writes a blog that often discusses other people’s work for the sake of my own audience, I must admit that I, too, am guilty here.

But hey, at least I haven’t put a meathook up anyone’s ass.

So I guess I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to go and be decent people.

Thermodynamics and Urban Sprawl

Termite Mound

Evolution is just a special case of thermodynamics. Molecules spontaneously arrange themselves to optimally dissipate energy.

Society itself is a thermodynamic system for entropy dissipation. Energy goes in–in the form of food and, recently, fuels like oil–and children and buildings come out.

Government is simply the entire power structure of a region–from the President to your dad, from bandits to your boss. But when people say, “government,” they typically mean the official one written down in laws that lives in white buildings in Washington, DC.


When the “government” makes laws that try to change the natural flow of energy or information through society, society responds by routing around the law, just as water flows around a boulder that falls in a stream.

The ban on trade with Britain and France in the early 1800s, for example, did not actually stop people from trading with Britain and France–trade just became re-routed through smuggling operations. It took a great deal of energy–in the form of navies–to suppress piracy and smuggling in the Gulf and Caribbean–chiefly by executing pirates and imprisoning smugglers.


When the government decided that companies couldn’t use IQ tests in hiring anymore (because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on minorities because black people tend to score worse, on average, than whites,) in Griggs vs. Duke Power, they didn’t start hiring more black folks. They just started using college degrees as a proxy for intelligence, contributing to the soul-crushing debt and degree inflation young people know and love today.

Similarly, when the government tried to stop companies from asking about applicants’ criminal histories–again, because the results were disproportionately bad for minorities–companies didn’t start hiring more blacks. Since not hiring criminals is important to companies, HR departments turned to the next best metric: race. These laws ironically led to fewer blacks being hired, not more.

Where the government has tried to protect the poor by passing tenant’s rights laws, we actually see the opposite: poorer tenants are harmed. By making it harder to evict tenants, the government makes landlords reluctant to take on high-risk (ie, poor) tenants.

The passage of various anti-discrimination and subsidized housing laws (as well as the repeal of various discriminatory laws throughout the mid-20th century) lead to the growth of urban ghettos, which in turn triggered the crime wave of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Crime and urban decay have made inner cities–some of the most valuable real estate in the country–nigh unlivable, resulting in the “flight” of millions of residents and the collective loss of millions of dollars due to plummeting home values.

Work-arounds are not cheap. They are less efficient–and thus more expensive–than the previous, banned system.

Urban sprawl driven by white flight

Smuggled goods cost more than legally traded goods due to the personal risks smugglers must take. If companies can’t tell who is and isn’t a criminal, the cost of avoiding criminals becomes turning down good employees just because they happen to be black. If companies can’t directly test intelligence, the cost becomes a massive increase in the amount of money being spent on accreditation and devaluation of the signaling power of a degree.

We have dug up literally billions of dollars worth of concentrated sunlight in the form of fossil fuels in order to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure in order to work around the criminal blights in the centers of our cities, condemning workers to hour-long commutes and paying inflated prices for homes in neighborhoods with “good schools.”

Note: this is not an argument against laws. Some laws increase efficiency. Some laws make life better.

This is a reminder that everything is subject to thermodynamics. Nothing is free.

Piracy, Bandits, and Civilization

While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:

Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”

Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:

The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …

Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.

The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .

Genghis Khan

Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.

Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.

(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5]” )

We can even see this process occurring with ISIS (h/t Will @Evolving_Moloch):

From Brookings: Experts Weigh in: Is ISIS good at Governing?

Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.

A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.

Chimps fight wars. Neanderthals were cannibals. Homicide in primitive tribes was sky-high. You have twice as many female as male ancestors because the majority of men never reproduced.

Western society didn’t become peaceful by singing kumbaya, but by 1. top-down banning cousin marriage, which ended tribalism,

and 2. Becoming powerful enough to catch and execute the bandits.

We forget this at our own peril.

Existential Caprine


You were



There were predators

The lions could be confusing

But you were free

goat painting, Herculaneum

Then came men

Faster, smarter than lions

They killed the wolves

Brought you food

(The bread of slavery, they say, is far sweeter than the bread of freedom.)

And shelter

Children were born, safe from wolves, hunger, or cold

and you grew used to man.

Centuries passed

And it seemed you outnumbered the stars

Perhaps your sons disappeared

But was it worse than wolves?

You could almost forget you were once wild

Could you return to the mountains, even if you wanted to?

And as they lead you away

You ask

Did I ever have a choice?


To explain: The process of domestication is fascinating. Some animals, like wolves, began associating with humans because they could pick up our scraps. Others, like cats, began living in our cities because they liked eating the vermin we attracted. (You might say the mice, too, are domesticated.) These relationships are obviously mutually beneficial (aside from the mice.)

The animals we eat, though, have a different–more existential–story.

Humans increased the number of wild goats and sheep available for them to eat by eliminating competing predators, like wolves and lions. We brought them food in the winter, built them shelters to keep them warm in the winter, and led them to the best pastures. As a result, their numbers increased.

But, of course, we eat them.

From the goat’s perspective, is it worth it?

There’s a wonderful metaphor in the Bible, enacted every Passover: matzoh.

If you’ve never had it, matzoh tastes like saltines, only worse. It’s the bread of freedom, hastily thrown on the fire, hastily thrown on the fire and carried away.

The bread of slavery tastes delicious. The bread of freedom tastes awful.

1And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: 3And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full… Exodus 16

Even if the goats didn’t want to be domesticated, hated it and fought against it, did they have any choice? If the domesticated goats have more surviving children than wild ones, then goats will become domesticated. It’s a simple matter of numbers:

Total Fertility Rate by Country: Purple = 7 children per woman; Blue = 1 child per woman

The future belongs to those who show up.

Which future do you chose?

The big 6 part 6: The Vigesimal Olmecs

Olmec civilization heartland
Olmec civilization heartland

It appears that the Olmecs–our final civilization in this series (1500-400 BC)–had a vigesimal, or base 20, counting system.

Counting is one of those things that you learn to do so young and so thoroughly that you hardly give it a second thought; after a few hiccups around the age of five, when it seems logical that 11=2, the place value system also becomes second nature. So it is a bit disconcerting to realize that numbers do not actually divide naturally into groups of ten, that’s just a random culturally determined thing that we happen to do. (Well, it isn’t totally random–ten was probably chosen because our ancestors were counting on their fingers.)

Stela C, from Tres Zapotes, showing the date September 1, 32 BCE
Stela C, from Tres Zapotes, showing the date September 1, 32 BCE

But plenty of societies throughout history have used other bases. The Yuki of California used base 8 (they counted the spaces between fingers;) the Chumash use(d) base 4; Gumatj uses base 5. There are also reports of bases 12, 15, 25, 32, and 6. (And many hunter-gatherer societies never really developed words for numbers over three or so, though they easily employed phrases like “three threes” to mean “nine.”)

The Yoruba, Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Tlingit, Inuit, Bhutanese, Atong, Santali, Didei, Ainu all use (or used) base 20. Wikipedia suggests that the Mayans may have used their fingers and toes to count; I suggest they used the knuckles+fingertips on one hand, or in a sort of impromptu place-value system, used the fingers of one hand to represent 1-5, and the fingers of the other hand to represent completed groups of five. (eg, 3 fingers on your left hand = 3; 3 fingers on your right hand = 15.)

Mayan Numerals
Mayan Numerals

Everything I have seen of reliable genetics and anthropology suggests that the Olmecs and Mayans were related–for example, one of the first known Mayan calendars/Mayan dates was carved into the Mojarra Stela by the “Epi-Olmec” people who succeeded the Olmecs and lived in the Olmec city of Tres Zapotes. Of course this does not mean that the Olmecs themselves developed the calendar or written numbers, (though they could have,) but it strongly implies that they had the same base-20 counting system.

You can compare for yourself the numbers found on the Tres Zapotes stela (above) and the Mayan numerals (left.)

In base-10, we have special words for multiples of 10, like ten, twenty, ninety, hundred, thousand, etc. In a base-20 system, you have special words for multiples of 20, like twenty, (k‘áal, in Mayan;) forty, (ka’ k’áal, or “two twenties;”) four hundred, (bak;) 8,000, (pic;) 160,000 (calab;) etc.  Picture 13

Wikipedia helpfully provides a base-20 multiplication table, just in case you ever need to multiply in base-20.

The Olmecs, like the Egyptians and Sumerians, produced art (particularly sculptures,) monumental architecture, (pyramids,) and probably had writing and math. They raised corn, chocolate, (unsweetened,) squash, beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, cotton, turkeys, and dogs. (It appears the dogs were also eaten, “Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein,[93]” possibly due to the relative lack of other domesticated animals, like cows.)

Cocoa pods
Cocoa pods

They also appear to have practiced ritual bloodletting (a kind of self-sacrifice in which the individual makes themselves bleed, in this case often by drawing sharp objects through their tongues, ears, or foreskins, or otherwise cutting or piercing these,) and played the Mesoamerican ballgame popular later with the Mayans and Aztecs. Whether these practices spread via cultural diffusion to other Meoamerican cultures or simply indicate some shared cultural ancestry, I don’t know.

Their sculptures are particularly interesting and display a sophisticated level of artistic skill, especially compared to, say, Norte Chico (though in its defense, Norte Chico did come earlier):



Another Olmec head
Another Olmec head
"The Wrestler," Olmec statue
“The Wrestler,” Olmec statue
Mosaic, La Venta
Mosaic, La Venta
Colossal Head of San Lorenzo,, Olmec
Colossal Head of San Lorenzo,, Olmec
Bird-shaped jug
Bird-shaped jug
Olmec baby statue
Olmec baby statue
Olmec mask
Olmec mask
Man holding a were-jaguar baby
Man holding a were-jaguar baby
Indigenous Mexican man and Olmec statue
Indigenous Mexican man and Olmec statue, from Johnson’s Mystery Solved: Olmec and Transoceanic Contact

Frank Johnson, in his post Mystery Solved: Olmecs and Transoceanic Contact

A lot of people think the Olmec stone heads look a lot like Africans (and I can see why,) but–as lots of people have pointed out–they also look a lot like the local Indians who live in the area today, and so far I haven’t run across any genetic studies that indicate African DNA (which is quite distinctive) in any Native American population (aside from the DNA we all share from our common, pre-out-of-Africa ancestors, 70,000-100,000 years ago.) (There is one tiny isolated tribe over in Baja CA, [Mexico,] quite far from where the Olmecs lived, who do have some interesting DNA stuff going on that could indicate contact with Africa or somewhere else, but it could also just indicate random genetic mutation in an extremely isolated, small population. At any rate, they are irrelevant to the Olmecs.)

Frank Johnson, in his post Mystery Solved: Olmecs and Transoceanic Contact, goes through the laundry list of questionable claims about the Olmecs and does a great job of laying out various proofs against them. While I would not totally rule out the possibility of trans-Atlantic (or trans-Pacific) contact between various groups, just because human history is long and full of mysteries, the most sensible explanation of the origins and cultural development of Olmec society is the simplest: the Olmecs were a local indigenous people, probably closely related to most if not all of their neighbors, who happened to start building cities and pyramids.