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14 – And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.

15 – And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

16 – Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.

17 – Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

18 – But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

– King James Bible, Numbers 31

In the 20th century the Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas posited that the emergence of pre-Christian European culture went through two phases after the Mesolithic. First, there were the Neolithic Old Europeans who brought agriculture. Then there were the Kurgan people from the steppe, who brought Indo-European languages and warlike patriarchal values to the continent.By the 1990s many archaeologists had turned against the Kurgan model of Indo-Europeanization, leaning rather toward the proposition that the Old Europeans themselves were Indo-Europeans. I believe that the latest work in genetics, utilizing powerful statistical inference techniques leveraging genomics and computational biology, and ancient DNA, suggest that Gimbutas was right in terms of the role of the Kurgan people as promoters of Indo-European culture in Northern Europe. Even those who supported the Kurgan hypothesis, such as David Anthony, were apparently shocked at the magnitude of the genetic turnover.

warbefore But Gimbutas probably went very wrong is the idea that Old Europeans were a peaceful and matriarchal society. First, though there are matrilineal societies, and matrifocal societies, to my knowledge there are no matriachal societies which are analogs to the patriarchies you might find in the modern Arab world or ancient Athens (and frankly, most agricultural and post-agricultural societies). Certainly there were societies where powerful women were shaping the course of events. This influence may even be institutionalized (I’m thinking of the Iroquois as an instance of a case). But there were no societies where rulers were exclusively women and men were forced into roles of total passivity in matters of war and politics, and property as a class.

That’s the truism as informed by what we know from surveying cultures in the historical record and extant today. But there is a spectrum of empirical phenomena in terms of magnitude. During the Roman Empire the women of the Latin West continued to have liberties and freedoms that were customary for them during antiquity (the power of the Julio-Claudian women and Theodora seem less shocking when considering the public prominence of elite women during the Republican period, which some ascribe to the role of Etruscan women in their society). When the focus of Roman power shifted toward Constantinople in the 4th century, one visible marker distinguishing elite women of western cultural affiliation, as opposed to those who were of the Greek nobility, is that the latter were often veiled, perhaps echoing the seclusion of ancient Athenian women of good family.

Similarly, though Japanese civilization is influenced, perhaps even derived, in large part from Chinese civilization, one major distinction between the two is that the in the ideal and often in practice the Chinese have subordinated military values to civilian ones to an exceptional extent for a pre-modern society. In contrast, the Japanese developed a military aristocracy which eventually superseded the civilian nobility. This results in the anachronistic romanticization of a martial ethos such as in bushido, which has no clear analogy in the Chinese world view. Obviously here I am not saying that the Chinese were a purely pacific people. And there were ages when martial values were ascendant, for example the early Tang. But the fact that the founder of the Song dynasty, a general, encouraged a demilitarization of his ruling class makes much more sense in light of the ethos of Chinese elite culture going back to the end of the Warring States period. In contrast, the Western aristocracy, often directly descended from Germanic warlords, have retained an ethos where physical violence and competition is more meritorious. The emergence of firearms necessitated a shift away from direct front-line combat to minimize casualties, and a channeling of energies into patronage of high culture and foppish self-cultivation. But even today the princes of the House of Windsor continue to serve in military professions, putting the role of the soldier in Western society in stark relief as one of esteem.

51PS1EGohbL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_ I bring this up to reiterate that though we see the past through a dark mirror, we must filter its probabilities through what we know of societies today, and those that are historically attested. Human phenomena is not infinitely flexible, but exhibits modal peaks across the distribution of possibilities. Our expectations should not be uniform and agnostic. The Old Europeans may have been gynocentric pacifists, but if they were then they were sui generis among human societies. As time machines are not feasible we will never truly know in a direct sense what they were like. Rather, we must look to aligning material remains with theoretical expectations given what we know about the nature of human societies. Interpretation will always occur. The key is to obtain the proper framework to generate true inferences. In Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization the author observes how the objects which might be useful as weapons in graves have often been interpreted as “ritual” markers of status, as if conspicuous consumption was always the primary form of status competition. Written in the 1990 War Before Civilization was a seminal work taking on the neo-Rousseauan model head-on, that war was somehow a contingent invention of civilization. A terrible mistake.

A recent paper in PNAS puts the final nail in the coffin of this strong form of the neo-Roussseauan paradigm, which now has little support even from scholars such as Brian Ferguson. The paper is The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe:

The Early Neolithic massacre-related mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten presented here provides new data and insights for the ongoing discussions of prehistoric warfare in Central Europe. Although several characteristics gleaned from the analysis of the human skeletal remains support and strengthen previous hypotheses based on the few known massacre sites of this time, a pattern of intentional mutilation of violence victims identified here is of special significance. Adding another key site to the evidence for Early Neolithic warfare generally allows more robust and reliable reconstructions of the possible reasons for the extent and frequency of outbreaks of lethal mass violence and the general impact these events had on shaping the further development of the Central European Neolithic.

The body of of the text engages in a deep osteological analysis, but in the language of the street, “they fucked these people up.” In particular, the victims seem to have had their lower extremities maimed or crushed. If they were still alive when this occurred then it was clearly a form of torture. If they were dead, then it was clearly a spiteful mutilation of the dead, and the valence has to be symbolic rather than utilitarian. The victims in the assemblage exhibited a curious demographic pattern. There were infants below one year of age, as well as young children, but no older children or adolescents. The only two adult women were over the age of forty. The rest of the adults killed were men.

We can’t know what happened with certainty. These were preliterate people. But with what we know about the nature of human culture it seems that an obvious narrative presents itself. As noted in the paper this was an LBK site. But, it seems that the community was on the border of two LBK trade networks (as inferred from the distribution and character of material remains). On the frontier of agricultural production, when land is in surplus, one can imagine that there was little inter-group conflict between LBK coalitions. What we would probably term “tribes.” Additionally, there was almost certainly a “meta-ethnic frontier” which Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who we now know were genetically and physically very distinct from the LBK people (naively projecting genetic variance statistics, their difference was in the ballpark as that between modern Chinese and Northern Europeans, Fst ~ 0.10).

But what happens when Malthusian constraints begin to close in? In the Moral Consequences of Economic Growth Benjamin Friedman suggests that in American history economic stagnation and stress lead to greater xenophobia, and reduced openness. And one doesn’t need a deep history lesson to observe what occurred in Europe during the 1930s. Retrenchment invariably leads to turning back to collective units of organization and protection. Once the LBK reached a stationary state, which reduced marginal returns to labor input, and likely produced increased sensitivity to environmental perturbations, then it is entirely expected that “inter-group competition” would emerge as one of the ways in which the carrying capacity would maintain a “check” on numbers. Sedentary agriculturalists must scramble for scarce resources. There’s no running off, at least at this stage of social complexity.

The fact that the LBK turned on each other should condition our understanding of how the transition to the Corded Ware may have occurred. The Y chromosomes of the LBK period are very different from what we find in Bronze Age Europe. The most reasonable model I believe is that these lineages did not go silently into the night. As they did to each other, so was done unto them. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s work there are allusions to the coming Fourth Age of Middle Earth, an age of men. The rise of agricultural mass society was the age of men in our world. Hunter-gatherer societies were no idyll, but due to their small scale, and complementarity in economic production, the relationship between the sexes was not one of male domination, where women were property to be traded as chattel. But concentrated and sedentary units of economic production that arose with village life became an inevitable target of extraction from collective groups of males, who translated their significant superior upper body strength into a reign of coercive terror. That coercion was translated into reproductive success, which is evident in the explosion of a finite set of Y chromosomal lineages on the order of ~5,000 years ago. The common R1a1a ancestor of Daniel MacArthur and myself was the original O G thug.

In evolutionary genetics R. A. Fisher introduced the idea that when selection pressures come to bear upon a population, large effect mutations may increase rapidly in frequency to increase population mean fitness. But, these mutations are not without cost, one reason that they were likely at low frequency in the first place. For example, one of the most well known adaptations to malaria famously has a very large segregation load in terms of a recessive disease. Evolutionary theory predicts over time that the adaptation will be less genetically disruptive. New mutations which allow for adaptation without the costs may emerge, or, other mutations may arise to “mask” and “modify” the deleterious effect of the initially favored allele.

When John Maynard Keynes purchased the papers of Isaac Newton he was shocked at the proportion of the great physicists writings devoted to matters occult and esoteric. Keynes declared that Newton was the ” last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” In opening the new age with his beautiful system of rational science, Newton nevertheless reflected an ancient ethos which persisted down into the modern period.

The Jewish people have been critical in the development of a universal ethical monotheism in the West, part of the broader evolution away from the supernatural systems of the Bronze Age that occurred across the Axial Age. But the Hebrew Bible preserves within it a world far removed from the divine Logos, a God of law and morality. The angry and jealous sky god of the Hebrews also enjoins upon them genocide of other tribes. Though the Hebrew Bible is pregnant with the possibilities of religious ethical universalism, the voice of the prophets’ righteous indignation raw with rage alive in our age, and channeled through the gentler voices of Hillel and Jesus, it also is a record of a parochial and peculiar people, who wash their hands of their atrocity by attributing it to the capricious and vindictive will of their god. If Moses and Joshua did exist, they almost certainly would have more in common with the war-chiefs of early Neolithic Europe, 4,000 years before their time, than men such as Constantine, who 1,300 years later promulgated a universal religion for a universal empire.

51w0iMybWyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Ancient Egypt, with its autocratic god-kings, was arguably one of the end-points of the Neolithic experiment with mass culture and ideology. So were Shang China and Mycenaean Greece, with their human sacrifices to propitiate the gods. Increasing primary productivity by an order of magnitude, which farming did, resulted in the emergence of huge amalgamations of humanity, and we as a species are culturally creative enough to have come up with adaptations. Literacy, cities, and social stratification, were all responses to the stresses and pressures that the opportunity of mass society presented. The emergence of powerful menacing and extortionate patrilineages was another. This was a world of gangs, thugs, and the question was not whether you would become a thug, it was whether you would be a thug or a victim of a thug. They were necessary, inevitable, cultural mutations against the background pressures that agricultural imposed upon humanity.

But as per Fisher’s model, mutants with deleterious consequences invite their own response. They are tamed and civilized by a scaffold of modifiers. The brutal gods which were but reflections of human vice and caprice were drafted in the service of primal human psychological impulses forged during the Paleolithic, reciprocity and egalitarianism arose against the background of brutality beyond imagining unleashed by the social dislocation that was a consequence of agricultural society. The men and women shaped by the Hebrew prophets and Christian Church Fathers, the rishis of the Upanishads and the Chinese sages, they are all closer to us 2,000 years later, then they were to their own forebears only a few hundred years earlier in their own past.

These models operate in the world between one of naive innate cognitive reflexes and pure cultural inventions generated without reference to the functional constraints of our minds and environments. The independent experiment of the Aztec Mesoamerican society suggests that the same stage of brutal social order that had occurred during the Neolithic was playing out in the New World. The Aztecs were engaging in ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice in a manner not seen in Old World civilizations since the Bronze Age. Some inventions are inevitable, emergent properties of the intersection of our biobehavioral toolkit and our species’ incredible cultural flexibility. Though we may believe ourselves to be far beyond the LBK people, the Nazi gas chambers or the more recent events in Rwanda suggest that the same mental reflexes of coalition-building and competition can be co-opted toward organized violent ends even today. Peace is possible, but violence is always imaginable.

Addendum: This Azar Gat article argues for the reality of war among hunter-gatherers, extensively citing what we know about Australian Aboriginal culture on the eve of European settlement. It would indicate that the only thing separating our Pleistocene ancestors from ourselves in terms of violence would be scale and organization, with ideology a novel handmaid.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Indo-Europeans, War 
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warLike slavery war has a long history in our species, but it does have a history, a beginning, and perhaps an end. That is the sort of message you can take away from a paper such as Zefferman and Mathew’s An Evolutionary Theory of Large-Scale Human Warfare: Group-Structured Cultural Selection. War is a culturally mediated human phenotype, and one which requires particular contingent conditions to flourish, and others to diminish. Perhaps the best survey I’ve read on this topic is Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization (which is $9.99 on the Kindle, so I just got a copy even though I already read this book!). But Gat doesn’t seem to come to any definitive conclusion as to the nature of war from what I could tell (the book is long and meandering). And that makes sense, because war is complicated, and the behavioral phenotype isn’t clear and distinct. What exactly qualifies as war? World War II clearly does. But how about the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys? Obviously there is a continuum, and we have to draw lines. The phenomenon which Zefferman and Mathew focus on is the paradox of mass intergroup conflicts which are defined by clashes between coalitions of unrelated males. More concretely, in wars between nation-states you have old men sending young men to their deaths in large numbers. Why do these young men put themselves in harm’s way?

The authors focus on two species as a contrast with humans, common chimpanzees and social insects, Argentine ants, which have been known to engage in war. War here can be thought of as coalitional intergroup conflict. Chimpanzees are informative toward any discussion of human evolution because they are phylogenetically close to our own lineage, while social insects are not, but like humans are highly complex in their organization (they even farm!). But, there are important contrasts between the wars of chimpanzees and social insects, and those of humans. Chimpanzee wars are of small scale, on the level of the band, and always opportunistic. That is, they occur in a manner which could be modeled as competing firms acting in their own rational interests. When two bands interact, and one of them is much larger, then the larger band proceeds to attack the smaller. Chimpanzees do not engage in conflict by and large when there is parity between two bands. The attackers take on little risk, to the point where there hasn’t been a documented instance of casualty on the part of attacking bands in field observation. Social insects are very different. The scale of their warfare is on the same order of that of humans, millions of ants for example may be party to conflict. But, unlike humans the coefficient of relatedness of the opposing coalitions are such that it can be explained via traditional inclusive fitness theory.

warbefore The figure above, from the paper, illustrates how humans are different. Humans engage in high intensity conflict despite most of the genetic variation being partitioned within the groups. In other words, unrelated individuals (almost always, but not exclusively, men) are fighting and dying for each other. In the examples above over ~20% of the genetic variation across Argentine ants is partitioned across the groups. You may know that across geographical populations a similar order of magnitude of human variation is partitioned across groups; for example, ~10% of the variation between Chinese and English populations is between the two groups. But for the ants we’re talking about adjacent groups, not those geographically distinct. As the figure above makes clear in the vast majority of cases where conflict might arise because of competition over resources or simple opportunity the genetic distance between the groups is very small. That is because a small amount of gene flow can quickly equilibrate differences between populations (1 migrant per generation across groups is sufficient to prevent genetic divergence if they separate). ~7,000 years ago the amount of variation partitioned in Europe between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the first farmers in parts of Central Europe which were co-resident was ~10%. Today, the average difference between national groups (e.g., Czech vs. Portuguese) is on the order of ~1%. Gene flow quickly removes variation, which is important, because without variation natural selection can not operate. Heritable variation is its raw material. morris Evolutionary pressures can maintain intergroup conflict on a massive scale among social insects because of the high degree of relatedness within colonies and supercolonies. In other words, they’re superorganisms. Similarly, moderately social behavior among chimpanzees manifests in a manner such that elegant individual level evolutionary dynamics such as inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism are sufficient to explain interactions, in addition to the close relatedness of the males because of patrilocality. Larger groups of chimpanzees attack smaller groups of chimpanzees because it is the rational behavior in the context of minimal risk to self. Higher level group explanations are not really necessary.

Cultural_Evolution__How_Darwin_2_28_2013_10_16_35_PMThe answer to the question for why humans often, but not always, engage in warfare from Zefferman and Mathew is “group-structured cultural selection.” Often this phenomenon goes by labels such as “cultural group selection” or “multi-level selection,” but the authors assert that these terms are somewhat fraught, so they seem to be presenting their own so that there is a precise and distinctive understanding of what they are getting at without old baggage. As you can see above the Fst between cultural groupings is far higher than that for genetics. Why? Intuition can lead us to the answer easy enough: genetics is a straightjacket in terms of the nature of inheritance, while cultural is more flexible. If, for example, one group defeats another in war and kills all the males and older females, but takes the younger females as slaves, then the genes of the defeated may persist. But often the culture will go totally extinct. Conversely, a group victorious in war may increase demographically through amalgamation, while preserving to a great extent its cultural distinctiveness and identity. As an example, the Zulu were two centuries ago simply one clan among the Nguni. Today, they are one of the major tribes of South Africa thanks to the victories of Shaka and his successors. The recent genetic results coming out of Britain, which suggest that Anglo-Saxons had an impact, but a secondary one genetically, illustrates how a demographic minority can drive a cultural rupture among a conquered populace. The language of the people of Devon, which was once Dumnonia, is a sibling to that of the Germans across the North Sea, with no relationship to the Brythonic Celtic of their ancestors (I choose Devon because this is a region of the British Isles with very little Anglo-Saxon genetic footprint; Dumonia was even conquered after the Anglo-Saxons had become Christian, and so postdates the sub-Roman era).

0226712842 If war as a behavioral pattern is selected on the level of a culture, a group, what does that imply for its innateness? Probably that there is not a “war instinct,” and, that war may not be primal as an ancestral character for our lineage. Rather, war is a social phenomenon which emerges out of the constellation of other cognitive traits which we have as part of our ancestral heritage. In that way, it may be like organized religion or representational sculpture, aspects of evoked culture. Given particular conditions war may bubble up out of the possibilities for human behavior “naturally,” and then be selected upon as Zefferman and Mathews imply (its benefits are made explicit in works such as Ian Morris’ War! What is It Good For?). The reason that there are hundreds of millions of people who are the cultural descendants of Romans and their Latin allies, rather than Etruscans, is that the latter were defeated in war and absorbed by the Romans. Clearly there was a benefit to the Romans as a culture for developing social institutions which made them incredibly effective as a nation at arms. Some of the glory of victory was likely demographic, insofar s Roman colonies spread far and wide, but most of it was in terms of posterity and memory. Though the French may conceptualize themselves today as the descendants of Gauls (genetically this is probably correct), their language and religion come down to them because of the Romans.*

If memes, rather than genes, are the targets of selection, and groups are the units, how is it then that the genes for males who engage in highly risky behaviors persist? Shouldn’t cheaters have a higher fitness? Some of this is likely explained by the benefits to the group. Even though risk is entailed in war, the fitness benefits can be quite great for successful males. But there’s something else going on too. Zefferman and Mathew refer to the tendency toward conformity. This is an innate psychological bias which humans exhibit, and it allows for rapid change in cultural norms and expectations. Twenty years ago Bill Clinton did not hesitate to sign the Defense of Marriage Act in the interests of his political ambition, while today he wouldn’t hesitate to term someone opposed to gay marriage/marriage equality a “bigot.” In Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory he recounts how white American Southerners who came of age from the 1960s to 1980s often remember themselves as being ahead of the times when it came to segregation and race relations, a recollection belied by longitudinal studies. Psychological conformity as an individual level trait allows for rapid homogenization of cultural norms very fast and across wide swaths of the population. in relation to warfare it can explain why the Japanese can shift their national consciousness from that of being very militaristic on the whole to being opposed to the existence of a standing army which engages in force projection. Culture is protean because of a fixed aspect of human nature, social intelligence which fosters group conformity. Those who lack the tendency toward conformity exist, but they are often ostracized, and are considered disagreeable. Though cheating may be beneficial, it may be that the same psychological trait which allows for conformity and agreeableness means that few will wish to betray their “little platoon” for self-interest. War’s raw material exists because it is highly beneficial at a lower level of organization in terms of human social interaction. Humans sacrifice as a consequence of being human as we understand it, embedded in a network of trust, friendship, and affinity.

End_of_War_lores20130205-2-1ovxa4r Human psychology also means that John Horgan’s hope in The End of War that this phenomenon may have a “sell by” date is not futile. Perhaps the best analogy here is to slavery, an institution which arose during the Neolithic in a mass form which many thinkers across time took as a given, whether it was for the good or bad (Aristotle believed there were natural slaves, while other thinkers accepted it as an inevitable evil). And yet a cultural shift, enabled likely by economic and social forces, occurred over the past few centuries, and de jureslavery is now all but abolished, and de facto chattel slavery exists only furtively in the hidden places beyond the reach of modern human norms. Like war the institution of slavery was universal among complex societies, though its magnitude and manifestation varied in detail. With the emergence of radical stratification, with some individuals deified, it stands to reason that the lowest form of abasement within a society would be to utterly dehumanize. Mind you, the anthropological evidence seems clear that dehumanization is common among humans, even in the primal condition, but this was of the Other, those outside of the tribe. Though slavery often had a tribal connotation (e.g., blacks or non-Muslims could be enslaved), the key difference between it and dehumanization in the generality is that slaves became human tools integrated into the body of society, part and parcel of the fabric of human cultures. The abolition of slavery was the revenge of the dignity of the individual, as the circle of human empathy was expanded outward and totality. Hierarchy and inequality persist, but they are dampened by novel cultural institutions and ancient intuitions.**

The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature I do not know how war will end exactly, or, if it will end. History is not filled with many inevitable end points. But, the evidence in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is moderately compelling to me. Humans do have a nature, and it explains why war emerges so often in our history. But that nature also holds the keys for why it may diminish into irrelevance. If psychological conformity can be aligned with non-zero sum interactions then we may see an opportunity to avoid the conflicts that arise because of disputes over finite resources and opportunities.

* The French self-conception has gone through several iterations, some of which are much more philo-Roman than others.

** Do unto others as you would have done unto to you is simply a formalization of an iterated game.

Citation: Zefferman, Matthew R., and Sarah Mathew. “An evolutionary theory of large‐scale human warfare: Group‐structured cultural selection.” Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 24.2 (2015): 50-61.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: End of War, War 
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The special “Human Conflict” issue of Science seems free if you register. No time to read it now, but there’s a lot of interesting looking articles. (via Dienekes)

• Category: Science • Tags: War 
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For most of my life I have had an implicit directional view of Holocene human culture. And that direction was toward more social complexity and cultural proteanism. Ancient Egypt traversed ~2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the fall of the New Kingdom. But it s rather clear that the cultural distance which separated the Egypt of Ramesses and that of Khufu was smaller than the cultural distance which separates that of the Italy of Berlusconi and the Italy of Augustus. Not only is the pace of change more rapid, but the change seems to tend toward complexity and scale. For most of history most humans were primary producers (or consumers as hunter-gatherers). Today primary producers are only a proportion of the labor force (less than 2% in the USA), and there are whole specialized sectors of secondary producers, service workers, as well as professionals whose duty is to “intermediate” between other sectors and smooth the functioning of society. The machine is more complex than it was, and it has gotten more complex faster and faster.

This is a accurate model as far as it goes, but of late I have started to wonder if simply describing in the most summary terms the transition from point A to Z and omitting the jumps from B to C to … Y may hide a great of the “action” of human historical process. My post “The punctuated equilibrium of culture” was inspired by my deeper reflection about the somewhat staccato character of cultural evolution. Granting that the perception of discontinuity is a function the grain at which we examine a phenomenon, I think one can argue that to a great extent imagining the change of cultural forms as analogous to gradualistic evolution or the smooth descent of a ball toward the center of the earth is deceptive. The theories of history which many pre-modern peoples espoused can give us a window into perception of changes in the past: history was quite often conceived of as cyclical, rising and falling and rising. And yet even in the days of yore there were changes and increases in complexity. The Roman legions of Theodosius the Great in 390 A.D. were more complex institutions than those of Scipio Africanus in 200 B.C. The perception of stasis, and even decline, is due to the fact that the character and complexity of societies did not seem to exhibit direction over the short term toward progress. And that short term can be evaluated over centuries. Far longer than any plausible human lifetime. So while it is all well and fine to focus on the long term trend line, the details of how the trend emerged matter a great deal when attempting to construct a model of the past which can allow us to make robust and rich inferences. The people of the past made robust inferences over any scale of time which mattered to them. The world was nearly as likely to get less rich as more rich.

This sort of general model is particularly important for prehistory. Prehistory is the domain of archaeologists, who are extremely empirical, but often theory poor. And there’s a reason they’re theory poor: it’s hard to get a clear sense of the structure of interrelated facts which characterize the past. It’s one thing to say that this pottery style was common in location X and that cremation was the norm in location Y, but integrating it into a seamless and plausible whole which will stand the test of fashion and fad is a different thing altogether.

The integration of facts into a system without the guiding hand of texts is all the more difficult when the systems have scale, in both time and space. One can construct a plausible model of the workings of a village 6,000 years ago in Spain, but it is far more difficult to imagine reconstructing the nature of a polity, at least if you want to be more than a fantasist. Too often this inability to infer specific large scale cultural constructs because of the limitations of method slides into agnosticism or skepticism of the existence of such constructs at all! This is where the lack of the theory of the origin and evolution of cultures with complex institutions independent of and prior to writing becomes such a problem.

Setting aside the issue of theory, one way we can avoid some of the worst problems with the obscuring of the past by intervening years is focus on regions where the past is closer to the present. The New World is just such a case. The descriptions of the Spaniards and the material remains suggest strongly that the societies of Mesoamerica and the Andes were analogs not to their Old World contemporaries, the Gunpowder Empires, but rather to more antique societies, even before the Classical Greeks. The Aztecs and the Inca were the Sumerians, Mycenaeans, and Assyrians of the New World. Perhaps if the Spaniards had not come when they did the Inca would have evolved into a New World Rome, becoming the first universal empire and civilization of this hemisphere.

Because the past is so much closer in the New World there is a better correspondence between oral history and archaeology. The former can tell us something concrete and genuine about the latter (in contrast, Iraqi peasants probably would not be able to tell you anything that might give insights into the Third Dynasty of Ur). A new paper in PNAS focuses on the emergence of “pristine states” in the highlands of the Andes, and the catalytic effect of warfare on the rise of complex polities. War and early state formation in the northern Titicaca Basin, Peru:

Excavations at the site of Taraco in the northern Titicaca Basin of southern Peru indicate a 2,600-y sequence of human occupation beginning ca. 1100 B.C.E. Previous research has identified several political centers in the region in the latter part of the first millennium B.C.E. The two largest centers were Taraco, located near the northern lake edge, and Pukara, located 50 km to the northwest in the grassland pampas. Our data reveal that a high-status residential section of Taraco was burned in the first century A.D., after which economic activity in the area dramatically declined. Coincident with this massive fire at Taraco, Pukara adopted many of the characteristics of state societies and emerged as an expanding regional polity. We conclude that organized conflict, beginning approximately 500 B.C.E., is a significant factor in the evolution of the archaic state in the northern Titicaca Basin.

It has been argued that the rise and spread of farming at the expense of hunter-gathering had more to do with aggression, conflict, and mobilization of large numbers, than the former’s greater per unit productivity in relation to the latter. This is a rather low and pessimistic view of how social complexity arose, but I can’t find much to object to it on a priori grounds. When history begins to shed light on the nature of early human polities much of it is concerned with war, sacrifice, and plunder. The Mahabharata and Iliad are epics of war.

The paper in PNAS is a strange hodgepodge to me. On the one hand there’s the standard archaeological bias toward assaulting the senses with facts. But the authors also attempt to flesh out a thin theoretical model of exogenous and endogenous forces producing a series of oscillations of complexity punctuated by collapses. Exogenous in this context probably refers to environmental “shocks,” from famine to pestilence. Endogenous factors would be those internal to any social system, independent of exterior inputs. Ruling elites generally decay in their asabiyyah. And just as the first “break out” hit by a music artist is more memorable than later attempts, so the first few rulers of a dynasty are almost always more exceptional individuals in terms of competence and efficiency than their heirs. That’s just regression toward the mean.

Our species’ recent past was different from the present insofar as the rate of cultural and technological change was on average far less than it is now. That’s one reason that peasants the world over tend to be so conservative. There isn’t utopia just around the corner in most cases. As a species our inclination is to muddle on, because that’s what biological and cultural evolution drill into us. The cornucopian consumer world of the present is radically different from anything that has come before. But change did occur. Over the lifetime of Cassiodorus the city of Rome went from being a quasi-pagan cultural mecca of hundreds of thousands to a Christian provincial backwater of tens of thousands. Yes, in some ways the past was characterized by a slower pace of change, but the character of that change was often not gradual, but punctuated. A difference of degree, not kind.

That’s the major insight that papers like the one above push us toward. The prehistoric past was not one of mass action as individuals slowly gained human capital and accumulated sophistication over the generations through family lineages. Rather, just like the historic past there were pulses of rapid cultural change and aggregation of political power into central units, and later regressions and collapses. This might imply that we should be less than optimistic about the continuous stability of the complex social systems which have evolved over the past few centuries. We may not know when we approach the knife’s edge of cultural instability, at which point the integrated web of trust and reciprocity explodes, and the walls come crashing down. Assyria looked oh so stable during the reign of Ashurbanipal.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, War 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

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