Scott on Diamond (and Pinker)

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

The latest London Review of Books has an unexpected bonus, a review by James C. Scott of Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday. Scott also takes aim at Steven Pinker’s arguments in Better Angels. Scott is particularly scathing about two issues: first, the assumption that remaining hunter-gatherer societies can tell us anything about the societies of our distant ancestors, since these survivors are profoundly shaped both by interaction with and marginalization by statist societies; second, the claim that states emerged as responses to levels of pre-state violence. In respect of the first claim, I’m not totally convinced, since there’s been good work done by anthropologists and primatologists who know the “marginalization” criticism but find sufficient material in the commonalities among such societies and in our similarities (and dissimilarities) to our ancestral species to draw at least some inferences (see Christopher Boehm’s work, for example). In respect of the second, I’m largely in agreement, though I’d note that Scott uses the word “state” in the review to denote a heterogeneous range of forms of political organization (as anthropologists often do) and that’s a departure from his usage in Seeing Like a State. But read the whole thing, as they say.



chris y 11.16.13 at 11:56 am

It was a thought provoking article. I suspect, though I’m not qualified to pronounce, that “at least some” is doing quite a lot of work in your response. There’s also the point that there are probably a limited number of ways to organise societies in very low tech environments which are compatible with survival in the long term.


Agog 11.16.13 at 12:15 pm

Typo: you missed the apostrophe in emerg’d.


Chris Bertram 11.16.13 at 1:07 pm

Agog: thanks.


Soduku 11.16.13 at 2:21 pm

The point about the (near?) universality of slavery in early city-states seems strong.

The existence of a slave owning city that can win wars seems sufficient cause for that universality; suggesting it would also win out in a free choice by individuals seems anachronistic, implausible and in any case unnecessary.

It’s pointless to say things are more complicated; they always are. But a minimum useful level of discussion of the whole scope of human history generally shouldn’t match the plot of a single Hollywood film.

You can, perhaps do better by chaining narratives; apocalypto then avatar then game of thrones then 1984.


JH 11.16.13 at 2:22 pm

I don’t think Pinker makes the claim that you attribute to him: as far as I remember, he doesn’t say that states emerged as a response to pre-state violence. He just says that states effectively reduced violence relative to non-state societies.


Chris Bertram 11.16.13 at 2:31 pm

JH, in case it wasn’t clear: this is a claim that Scott attributes to Diamond.


DrDick 11.16.13 at 2:45 pm

Speaking as an anthropologist, while Diamond’s book is pretty horrible on many grounds, there certainly was pre-state warfare. It was not universal, however, and seems absent or rare in both historic and prehistoric mobile foraging societies (like those of the Paleolithic or the modern San and Paiute). It seems to correlate to the emergence of sedentism and is commonly found among sedentary hunter-gatherers like the Native Peoples of California and the Northwest coast or in the Mesolithic era. That said, the archaeology strongly suggests an escalation of warfare with the advent of the state.


Fu Ko 11.16.13 at 2:56 pm

What bugs me about Pinker and Diamond’s idea of the diminishing of violence is that it seems to dress up dominance as peace. In contemporary society, even people who are literally being put into cages from which they will never be released often fail to resist — because they know they will be defeated. The civilized man walks compliantly to his own execution. Is that really a reduction in violence?

I also do not think it’s plausible that states arose as a response to the civil problems of society. This is a question of pre-history, but if history can suggest a pattern, it would be that states arise not as a means of dealing with violence (as if it were a conscious attempt to address social problems), but as the escalation of violence to the point where one allied group emerges in total victory, securing total submission and enslavement of the vanquished. Once the status of total submission is established in the context of slaves, it becomes possibly to extend the same institutionalized force to take on the task of regulating the free.

The idea of the state as a means to solve social problems — even the mentality of being conscious of and addressing the problems of society as such — seems to come much, much later, and through very different means: cultural influence of the vanquished class on the conquering class, rather than naked force. Before that, it’s just the same type of game-theoretic principles we see in international relations, where there is no state to keep the peace, but there _is_ the status of military dominance to stave off war. The fundamental principle there is that whichever party _would_ win in a military conflict should get to decide things without actually engaging in the conflic — the most militarily powerful get the veto votes on the security council, and so on. That is, everyone knows to ally with the side that would win the conflict, resulting in an amplified, all-powerful alliance that cannot be challenged by anyone. I.e., peace?


stevenjohnson 11.16.13 at 2:57 pm

Pinker’s Better Angels actually makes incredibly strong claims not just about levels of pre-state violence but about the secular trend over human history. The audacity of his games with statistics and graphs that demonstrate to his satisfaction that the contemporary US is the summit of human progress is astounding. Lord Macaulay would have flinched. I know Edward Herman for one attacked Pinker vigorously, but of course he would be disregarded. Better Angels is already cited as definitive refutation of all sorts of unseemly thinking by the likes of Jerry Coyne.

In other words, Scott really isn’t taking much of a swipe at Pinker. The real target here is Diamond. Diamond has always be weak because of his gene worship in my opinion. But as little as the book under review has to offer, it really isn’t so clear that Scott’s libertarian theory of theorigin of the state is any better founded, even if it is a more useful myth for contemporary politics. Perhaps Scott has genuine ideas about the origin of the state but in this review, the state essentially began as a slaver conspiracy.
And violence is the product of the state, either directly or indirectly. I’m not sure that Scott has considered the possibility that slavery may have been a more ultimately humane institution than slaughtering everyone who would poach on the victors’ foraging/hunting territory.

Scott cites Ferguson but I’m not sure Ferguson would much appreciate Scott’s implicit theory of state origins. I would suggest that those who are interested in state origins consult Marvin Harris. He appears to be much despised but I suspect that like Stephen Jay Gould, it is a combination of being perceived as left-wing and being dead. And, much as I would like to think that Chagnon has been discredited, I suspect that he is instead even more exalted.


Chris Bertram 11.16.13 at 3:01 pm

“the advent of the state” – yes, but I wish it was clear what was meant by “the state” this phrase. As I said in the OP, the state in the sense that Scott intends it in some of his earlier work is a much more recent invention.


Shatterface 11.16.13 at 3:10 pm

Hmm, Scott’s emphasis on slavery in pre-state societies vears perilously close to the ‘well they were doing it to each other anyway’ arguments of the slavery apologists while Pinker’s argument about diminishing violence at least has the virtue of countering the tabloid scare stories about crime that legitimate harsher penalties and increasing state surveillance.


William Timberman 11.16.13 at 3:23 pm

Soduku @ 4

You can, perhaps do better by chaining narratives; apocalypto then avatar then game of thrones then 1984.

Clever, and fun. I’d maybe stick 2001 and Blade Runner in between Game of Thrones and 1984, although together they actually constitute more of an alternate universe version of 1984 than a precursor to it. Kubrick understood the world of successful technocracy as an ominously, if faintly oppressive Disneyland-like conformist paradise — I’m thinking of the conversation with the Russian scientists aboard the space station, the briefing at the moon base, and the discussion over sandwiches on the way to the monolith site, as well as, of course, HAL. Scott is more caught up with the dark side of post-1960s society we’ve become all-too familiar with in the West as the 1% and the NSA have inexorably worked their charms on us. What was being worked out simultaneously on the other side of the planet may have looked superficially more like 1984, but may have been, in fact, a failed model of something that the global 1% now thinks it has mastered. Grazie, Signore!


fivegreenleafs 11.16.13 at 3:23 pm

I did not find Scott’s arguments convincing, and having recently read both books, I reacted to some of his assertions, for example, he states,

“As he explains, Homo Sapiens has been around for roughly 200,000 years and left Africa not much earlier than 50,000 years ago.”

But as far as I could find, JD did not make any such statements, the closest I could find was the following quote,

“The world of yesterday shaped our genes, culture, and behavior for most of the history of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens, who arose between 60,000 to 100 000 years ago.’

But becoming “modern” and “leaving Africa” is not the same thing, and the date 50 000 years, are almost certainly wrong for several reasons.

Further, from archaeological evidence it is now quite clear, that ancestors to the Australian aborigines already were in Australia around 50 000 years ago, which leads to another bone I have with this review:

“By ‘traditional societies’, he by and large means hunting and gathering and small horticultural societies that have survived into the modern world in the marginal and stingy environments into which states have pushed them.”

Well, with the fact that humans reached Australia 50 000 years ago, they had in all probability reached Papua New Guniea before that, which means that the societies living there, in both the highlands and lowlands, have in all probability existed and lived there since then.

They have never been “pushed” or marginalized by “any” state. This is a complete nonsense statement.

“Before, say, 1500, most populations had a sporting chance of remaining out of the clutches of states and empires”

Again, I find this a strange statement, and the question is what the author means, does he count number of societies, or amount of global population?

Just for example, around 100 AD, The Han empire in China contained approx 25% of the estimated total world population, and the Roman Empire another 20%, which means that roughly half of the worlds population lived in just these two alone. To this we have to add the Persian empire, Indian kingdoms, and the kingdoms/empires in South and Latin America etc., which means that a majority of the world population probably lived in highly organized and bureaucratic empires/kingdoms already 2000 years ago.

“Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies.”

Again, who “pushed” all the societies into Papua New Guinea, Australia or in the Amazon basin? And who did they trade with? I mean, the societies on Tasmania had (when they were observed in the 1800s had even lost the knowledge and ability to make fire? The Yanomamö still used stone tools when Napoleon Chagnon and other anthropologist first began to visit them in the middle part of the last century.

And finally, the data concerning the violence in pre-state societies, is also collaborated by studies of frequency of damages observed in ancient skeletons, at burial sites throughout the world, and this data falls in line with data from current and historically observed data.

As far as I can tell, many of the arguments, assumptions or claims made are simply not factual correct, misquotations/misunderstandings or highly dubious/questionable in light of existing data.


William Timberman 11.16.13 at 3:24 pm

In the above, I meant Ridley Scott, of course, not James C. (Argh….)


Kaveh 11.16.13 at 4:37 pm

The big problem with both Scott and Diamond is that they seem to only see the extremes–hunter gatherers vs people living in centralized states & under firm control of urban economies.

James C Scott says, I guess agreeing with Diamond: …the first grain statelets around 5000 years ago… in a global population of perhaps eight million. More than 97 per cent of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation-states in which virtually all of us now live.

I dislike the assumptions behind this math. “Human experience” = that of biologically modern humans. But if all I have in common with most of that 97% is biology, how does Diamond justify learning from them about anything other than diet, exercise, &c.? And then the diet he actually recommends is the Mediterranean diet–essentially the diet of premodern peasants and/or cityfolk…?

Second, Hobbes’s fable at least has nominally equal contractants agreeing to establish a sovereign for their mutual safety. That is hard to reconcile with the fact that all ancient states without exception were slave states. The proportion of slaves seldom dropped below 30 per cent of the population in early states, reaching 50 per cent in early South-East Asia (and in Athens and Sparta as much as 70 and 86 per cent).

These numbers look really really fishy to me. If he’s talking about Athens & Sparta, he doesn’t really mean the earliest states–states had been around for a long time by 500BC. So these numbers may (at best) be useful for talking about the etiology of states, but they have very little to do with the vast majority of human experience of living in/around states. I’d be extremely surprised if 30% of ancient Egyptians at any point before 500BC were slaves (I haven’t researched this, so I might be convinced, but…). Or is he just talking about cities and their immediate hinterlands? Then the numbers might make some sense. There is simply no way that even close to 30% of people living in states (broadly defined) between 1BC and 1500AD were slaves. Contrary to what you may have seen in “The Ten Commandments”, the pyramids weren’t built by slaves. Unless he’s calling peasant farmers who pay taxes slaves? But that seems like a pretty serious abuse of language. I could maybe believe that 30% of people in cities were slaves, on average, in some areas. I haven’t read Scott’s books, but I guess I’m having trouble seeing how there could possibly be a good explanation for these numbers.

Diamond is convinced that violent revenge is the besetting plague of hunter-gatherer societies and, by extension, of our pre-state ancestors.

Two fatal objections come immediately to mind. First, it does not follow that the state, by curtailing ‘private’ violence, reduces the total amount of violence.

Non-state peoples have many techniques for avoiding bloodshed and revenge killings: the payment of compensation or Weregild, arranged truces (‘burying the hatchet’), marriage alliances, flight to the open frontier, outcasting or handing over a culprit who started the trouble.

Again, we have the extremes–private violence vs violence by the state. What about organized violence on a smaller scale–piracy, banditry? I don’t want the Persian Empire around to protect me from my next door neighbor, I want it to protect me from Odysseus and his men raiding my town for booty on their way back from Troy. That is not something that these pre-state forms of dispute resolution would be very much good for. Scott talks about slave-raiding as a feature of states, but he doens’t & I think can’t (lacking evidence) claim that states of appreciable size were the first to do this–all the more so if we’re talking about raids that don’t take big numbers of slaves, but that take maybe a few people & valuables. Odysseus was only ‘king’ of a teeny island and I see no reason why the kinds of raids depicted in the Odyssey require a state in even the broadest sense. But a state could be effective in deterring them.


oldster 11.16.13 at 5:34 pm


“We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.”

Another co-ordination problem. If all parties would agree to shut up, then we would all be better off.

But when our intellectual adversaries insist on insisting that P, despite their lack of credible evidence that P, may we not be excused for pointing out the evidence against P?

If the most intellectually scrupulous parties swear off using the past, it’s not as though the intellectually unscrupulous will swear off mis-using it.

The past is going to be used. The other side will never shut up. Unilateral disarmament means permitting them to spread their lies more widely. And that does not serve the truth, either.


mud man 11.16.13 at 6:09 pm

JCS: Contemporary hunter-gatherer life can tell us a great deal about the world of states and empires but it can tell us nothing at all about our prehistory. We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

That’s a little sharp. We have a great deal of credible evidence from physical anthropology, granted that there is much that we will never have evidence about. The defensible intellectual position is to say what there is to be said.

Good point, agreed that contemporary hunter-gatherers are hopelessly contaminated by industrial-state culture, they are only the smashed rubble of what existed in the paleolithic. OTOH they remain functional societies built on the same human nature but variant social practices. In other words, they demonstrate the breadth of what is possible. Good to think about, what makes for a stable society.


mud man 11.16.13 at 6:13 pm

stevenjohnson: I’m not sure that Scott has considered the possibility that slavery may have been a more ultimately humane institution than slaughtering everyone who would poach on the victors’ foraging/hunting territory.

That’s a good one, right there.

…. you mean their new foraging/hunting territory.


bianca steele 11.16.13 at 6:36 pm

We have virtually no credible evidence about the world until yesterday and, until we do, the only defensible intellectual position is to shut up.

When people say this–I don’t mean Scott, the following doesn’t seem like something he’d say–they don’t really mean everybody should shut up. There’s some default view about the past that’s okay, it’s the views that contradict that default who need to shut up: you think evidence can contradict the default, well, you don’t have evidence for anything much past the tip of your nose, now, do you?


Chris Schoen 11.16.13 at 7:00 pm

Slightly off topic, but close enough: I was listening to an episode of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” recently, on the subject of the An Lushan Revolt. Bragg asked his panel (sinologists all) “What about this claim by Steven Pinker that the An Lushan Revolt was the worst atrocity in human history, since it wiped out 2/3 of the population of Tang China?” All three guests instantly burst out laughing.


oldster 11.16.13 at 7:21 pm

Chris, do you recall the source of the laughter?

“that’s preposterous: it wiped out only 5% of the population of Tang China!”

“that’s preposterous: it wiped out 2/3, yes, but that was only 600k people!”

“that’s preposterous: it wiped out a population that, scaled by era, was larger than the Stalinist purges, yes, but you can’t compare atrocities across era by scaling!”

“that’s preposterous: as a professional Sinologist, I can tell you that anything that reduced the population of Tang China was a boon to mankind!”

I’d like to know what you want us to infer from bursts of laughter.


fivegreenleafs 11.16.13 at 8:11 pm


If I remember correctly, Pinker takes this data from (among other sources) the works of Matthew White, the ‘atrocitologist’, “The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities”.

And I second @oldsters question,

“I’d like to know what you want us to infer from bursts of laughter.”


bianca steele 11.16.13 at 8:19 pm

Amusing, unfortunate, and surely unintentional: “What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to . . . bear and raise their children.”


Walt 11.16.13 at 8:26 pm

Sinologists do not think that the An Lushan rebellion killed 2/3 of the population of Tang China. The Tang state was seriously weakened by the rebellion, so they think that for various reasons many people who were counted by the pre-war census escaped the post-war census.


Mao Cheng Ji 11.16.13 at 8:29 pm

What exactly is an ‘atrocity’? And how do you grade them? The Rape of Nanking is considered an atrocity, but something like the Battle of Stalingrad is not, even though it killed many more people.


Jim Harrison 11.16.13 at 8:48 pm

Michael Mann argued that statehood was contagious. Once a community developed the command institutions and military power to lord it over their neighbors, the neighbors had a powerful motive to organize themselves, especially if the new states had cultural and religious prestige to go along with their sheer ability to wreck violence. This sort of echoing is common in ancient history.


Barry Freed 11.16.13 at 9:07 pm

@oldster and fivegreenleafs:

Have a listen and decide for yourselves:


fivegreenleafs 11.16.13 at 9:07 pm

@Mao Cheng Ji

As it is loosely used by White and Pinker, for discussing and relating historic events (spanning more then 2000 years), and literally trying to count skeletons in the ground, I think you can simply equate it with “deaths”, and the more people killed, the worse the “atrocity”.

The next step is to make the numbers relative, so that you can compare them across the ages, and the estimated number of deaths are all recalculated in relation to the world population at 1950 (in Whites book).

This does not mean that “atrocity” can not be used in many other different ways, meaning slightly different things, depending on perspective and what you are discussing. This is just the way I think it is used here in regard to Pinker/White.


Matt 11.16.13 at 9:51 pm

As a non-specialist I am probably unqualified to tell good from bad accounts that I summon out of the Google. If anyone here has or wants to pretend to expertise: what do we know about homicide prior to 4000 BC? Is it possible to estimate rates with any confidence, anywhere? Skeletal remains seem to tell a lot even if they are very old, but I don’t know how many societies left remains in a state to be examined. If corpses were left to the elements, disposed of in water, or burned, we might not find anything for scientists to examine. It seems like examining ancient skeletons would sidestep a lot of arguments about whether extrapolations from remnant hunter-gatherer societies are valid, but the continuing use of extrapolations suggests “easier said than done.”


js. 11.16.13 at 10:27 pm

Re An Lushan, I went ahead and listened to the program (thanks Barry Freed), and while it’s well worth the forty-five minutes, in case you don’t want to bother, the laughter unsurprisingly is because:

Steven Pinker reached deep into his ass and pulled out a “1” and a “6”, conjoined them with a slash, and appended “of the world’s population”.

(The discussion’s a lot more informative, but if your question really is: why the laughter, then that’s the answer.)


Mao Cheng Ji 11.16.13 at 10:35 pm

Cain killing his brother was the worst atrocity. 1/4 of the world’s population massacred.


Ed Herdman 11.16.13 at 10:39 pm

T’ang China was a boon to mankind, at least before its downfall. The historical accounts of the major rebels make them look like wannabe dictators – difficult to reach any conclusions there.

If you want a human account of the final days of the T’ang dynasty, I’d recommend reading the translation of “Five T’ang poets” by David Young (a great translation, and a shame new unsold copies were still being sold at the local university bookstore in want of the students who were now younger than the physical print). Some of the poets deal explicitly with accounts (available more fully elsewhere) of the rebellion and also with the daily issues of inequity (the meat wasted inside these walls, while outside lie the bones of people who starved, to paraphrase one poem) so probably there was something to the decay of the state.

Even with the great scarcity and upheaval of the time, I would say that the social order seemed much better than you would expect in the ‘state of nature’ or at 4000 B.C. There were definitely bloodlettings but they seemed to be of the typical dynastic, “who’s supporting me at the top” details of concern for the top-level public servants, not so much the common folk, before the rebellion broke into open warfare anyway. But the goals of the rebels seem to have been quite simple – to replace the rulers with other ones. There’s no obvious seeds for a mass extermination as would be suggested by the (thankfully discredited) Pinker numbers.

As a side note and question, wasn’t Steven Pinker also embroiled in some discussion of deaths during Mao’s rule?


Ed Herdman 11.16.13 at 10:42 pm

Please excuse wrong attribution of assertions above – I missed the clarifying early posts before I wrote.


Andy Wilton 11.16.13 at 10:46 pm

fivegreenleafs @ 13:

I understood the quot “Before, say, 1500, most populations had a sporting chance of remaining out of the clutches of states and empires” as referring to the possibility of evading state power while remaining within the state’s notional geographical boundaries (hence the reference to forest clearance). I don’t know that the actual percentage of forest dwellers, mountain men etc can have been very significant in the ancient world, but much of the population must have lived close enough to the wilderness that it would have been at least an option to consider, when war or state repression got particularly nasty.


Chris Mealy 11.16.13 at 10:58 pm

There was an interesting comment from a geographer about Diamond’s last book on CT a year or two ago. Anybody else remember it? It was something about Diamond making lots of blunders actual geographers don’t make. Google is failing me.


js. 11.16.13 at 11:21 pm

Also perhaps of interest:

A scathing review of Diamond’s book from the Nation (from several months ago).


fivegreenleafs 11.16.13 at 11:31 pm


This is not my area of academic expertise either, but I have over the last year been reading up on a number of areas that touch upon these questions, so the topic interests me greatly, even tough my knowledge, is, alas often both shallow and patchy.

But for what it is worth, (in regard to examples of palaeolithic homicides and war/raiding) I can for example shortly recount what I have read about Jebel Sahaba, ultimately taken from Fred Wendorf, “Site 117: A Nubian Final Paleolithic Graveyard Near Jebel Sahaba, Sudan”, (The Prehistory of Nubia, Vol. 2)

This is often identified as among the oldest evidence that exist for intergroup violence/war.

Jebel Sahaba is located in the Nile Valley, on the border region between present day Egypt and Sudan. 15 000 years ago this area was home to several different groups of foragers, (that can be identified due to difference in style of stone tools). And while some of these groups appear to have coexisted peacefully, some did not.

In the cemetery at Jebel Sahaba, they found 58 skeletons of men, women and children, and of these 24 showed signs of a violent end. The archaeologist’s found more then 100 flint pieces, mostly parts of spear and arrowheads among the remains, and in several cases, they were still embedded in the bones.

Many also shoved signs of old healed wounds, among them wounds probably obtained in self-defence, such as fractures of the fore arms, broken collarbones and even marks from spear or arrowheads.

One interesting observation is that some of the victims appear to have been literally ‘pincushioned’, with arrows, something that is closely reminiscent of ambushes described by observers of raiding by hunter-gatherers/horticulturists in the 20th century.

It is also worth to note that this happened in the Nile Valley, one of the most fertile regions in the world, and not in a marginalized or impoverished setting, like Papua New Guniea.

It is also interesting to note that this seems to happen when the population density in all probability started to increase, and the evidence for “clan’s” have started to appear, (i.e. when the societies started to grow bigger and more social complex, from forager bands to tribes.

Just a short recap from memory, so take my ramblings with a due amount of cation. But the point is, there exist quite a lot of very good and interesting data out there regarding this, especially in the borderland between archaeology and anthropology.


PJW 11.16.13 at 11:42 pm

The 600,000-year-old Bodo fossil skull shows evidence of having been scalped:


Kaveh 11.16.13 at 11:50 pm

js @30 & Ed Herdman @32, re the An Lushan rebellion:

I’m sure it could be called an atrocity, but Walt has it right–the figure of 2/3 of the population lost is taken directly from Tang census numbers, and that drop in the census count is probably mainly due to a less effective census and not to actual deaths or even refugees (who tended to be missed by census-takers after they resettle).


stevenjohnson 11.17.13 at 12:01 am

mud man, the victors’ newly conquered foraging/hunting territory, yes. I gather you think the idea that slavery is possibly more humane than death is absurd. You are free to assume so.

The funny numbers for the length of human history may come from the insistence that evolution has shaped human nature. But there is a well-known genetic bottleneck often attributed to the Toba eruption. It is hard to conceive how there wouldn’t have been a major change in the species from the founder effect, if nothing else. It seems prudent to reserve the possibility that modern humans are “only” about 70 000 yrs old. The problem for the genetic determinists/evolutionary psychologist types (like Diamond) is that they want to maximize the amount of time for evolution to fine tune human nature. They tend to assume everything pre-paleolithic is static (amazing but true.) They also tend to assume that evolutionary adaptations of human nature require a longer period of time. (But see work on the speed of changes in gene frequency for lactase and genes involved in language.)

All previous variants of humans had more or less static cultures, like the Olduvai, so far as we know to date. Even Neandertal peoples show remarkable stability in material culture , until possible contact with definitively modern human. For this reason too, it seems prudent to reserve the possibility that modern humans have always adapted by cultural change, that this is in fact the defining characteristic of modern humans. In this case a mere 70 000 yrs existence means agriculture etc. has been around a larger percentage of time. This seems to suggest to the genetic determinists the unwelcome possibility that human nature is not as fixed by evolution as they think, or hope. I have no idea why they don’t think each new habitat doesn’t exert a new set of selection pressures.


Glen Tomkins 11.17.13 at 12:10 am

I blame physics. It’s been an intellectually unhygienic, but irresistibly tempting, example for decades. Such neat, dramatic results, based on objective mathematics. It’s no wonder all sorts of people suffer from physics envy.

As Scott points out, “But what a disappointment it is, after nearly five hundred pages of anecdotes, assertions, snippets of scientific studies, observations, detours into the evolution of religion, reports of near-death experiences – Diamond can be a gripping storyteller – to hear the lessons he has distilled for us. We should learn more languages; we should practise more intimate and permissive child-rearing; we should spend more time socialising and talking face to face; we should utilise the wisdom and knowledge of our elders; we should learn to assess the dangers in our environment more realistically. And, when it comes to daily health tips, you have to imagine Diamond putting on his white coat and stethoscope as he recommends ‘not smoking; exercising regularly; limiting our intake of total calories, alcohol, salt and salty foods, sugar and sugared soft drinks, saturated and trans fats, processed foods, butter, cream and red meat; and increasing our intake of fibre, fruits and vegetables, calcium and complex carbohydrates. Another simple change is to eat more slowly.’ Perhaps wary of resistance to a fully fledged hunter-gatherer diet, he recommends the Mediterranean diet. Those who have trekked all this way with him, through the history of the species and the New Guinea Highlands, must have expected something more substantial awaiting them at the end of the trail.”

Scott’s mistake is to then spend any amount of time talking about the theoretical construct Diamond spends 500 pages building. You don’t need the construct to bolster the recommendations. The recommendations are common senses, and as such rest on much firmer foundation than any theoretical rationale Diamond can supply. Of course the construct is hogwash, Grand Unified Theories of anything are hogwash. And Grand Unified Theories that aren’t even necessary to explain something don’t even make for interesting and useful mistakes you could learn anything from.

But Scott can’t help himself going further than he needs to go, into the theory posited as being behind it all. Spinning theories is what we do. Homo theoreticus is so good at spinning the most elaborate theoretical systems, that we can manage to live complicated, totally out of control lives under even the most simple material conditions. We can also live simply under the most technologically complex material circumstances, and we don’t even need the example of supposedly simple-living hunter-gatherers to show us how.


Yarrow 11.17.13 at 2:39 am

Start at at 34:06 in the Melvin Bragg An Lushan episode to hear the question about Pinker and subsequent laughter, followed by a good discussion.

Points made — yes, the size of the post-An Lushan tax rolls are about 2/3 the size of the pre-An Lushan rolls, but probably most of the folks who disappeared had left (or fled) rather than died, given that the tax rolls had been shrinking for some decades before the rebellion; the post-An Lushan tax system was different from the pre-An Lushan system (in particular the Tang lost about 25% of their pre-rebellion tax base).


fivegreenleafs 11.17.13 at 4:08 am

@Kaveh, @Yarrow et al

It can be well worth to remember what Pinker actually wrote,

“The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan revolt and civil war, an eight year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two thirds of the empire’s population at the time.”

And in the note to that paragraf:

“An Lushan Revolt: White notes that the figure is controversial. Some historians attribute it to migration or the breakdown of the censuses; others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure.”

So to his credit, he clearly and plainly states both the background for the estimate, its source, but also that it is controversial, and why it is controversial, exactly in line with what was said in the BBC program.

A warning could be in order here, that this might be a point of contention, and that if another set of three experts in Chinese history were interviewed, we might have got a somewhat different answer, but I have too little knowledge to judge one way or another.

I can only note that in the BBC interview, they also plainly states, that,

“We have no idea if whether they died or fled”

So they really do not know either, but they think, they fled.

Just acting as a speculating counterpart; from another angle, I do not think that the proposed levels of death at 2/3 of the population, in historic perspectives, is completely unprecedented or unrealistic.

For example, the devastation brought to the German states during the 30 years war, averaged 20-40% reduction in population; Wurtemberg for example lost 75% of its population, Brandenburg 50% and so on, and then we must remember that the armies roaming around in Europe were “tiny” compared to the Chinese ones, and the population density probably much higher (I believe).

And what kills people were often never (contrary to what was implied in the BBC program) outright slaughter of civilians, but starvation, and epidemics that always followed in the footsteps of great armies and war.

I think the same general pattern can be seen in the Roman Empire during, “The time of Chaos”, after the death of Alexander Severus AD 235 until Diocletian AD 284, which for example left large swathes of the Italian countryside completely desolated.

So I would argue that we could (from a rough historical comparison) propose some probable and reasonable estimates, where the 65% would be the extreme upper boundary, and say 20%, to be the lower, for a devastating and protracted civil war.

The lower bound would still mean, around 10 million deaths, and recalculated to the population at 1950, equating approx 115 million deaths.

This whole argument might seem absurd, but I think there are some real value to take home from this exercise, and that is to be able to, and do put things in perspective.


roger gathman 11.17.13 at 4:57 am

Re the fallacy of inferring “stone age” conditions from hunter gatherer tribes. I would guess exhibit no. one is the YÄ…nomami, who are treated as stone age survivors by a whole school that goes through Napoleon Chagnon and that recently celebrated itself in an absurd symposium at The Edge, where the likes of Richard Dawkins, who knows next to nothing about anthropology, was on hand to celebrate Chagnon’s genius. But the Yamomami are as recent to their current territory as the Spanish are to Mexico, and one of their base staples is the banana, an import dating from the 1500s from the Canary Islands. In other words, they were not an isolated island set apart from the current of world history, but in fact shaped by it in major ways. However, we are supposed to believe that they represent a lifestyle that was occurring in 17,000 b.c. This is the kind of thing Johannes Fabian justly goes after in Time and the Other. It is really Ripley or believe it or not spectacle, not any realistic description of the society’s that we – the Euro-American we – know.


js. 11.17.13 at 5:56 am

It can be well worth to remember what Pinker actually wrote

Indeed! And as you helpfully quote, here’s what he wrote:

The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan revolt and civil war

Note that nothing of what you quote after is supposed to contradict or undermine this. If he thought it did, then perhaps he should have amended the sentence, because all that follows in the sentence is an identification of what the revolt in question was, and a source citation.

Look, Pinker has an ax to grind and he grinds it hard. Which is perhaps why when his “evidence” for his ax-grinding is brought up to people who actually specialize in the area that the “evidence” is coming from, the specialists’ immediate response is to burst out into laughter—in unison.

(Though I have no doubt you have a more compelling explanation.)


Ed Herdman 11.17.13 at 9:43 am

Large armies roaming about China – in larger areas than available in Europe – cannot immediately militate for expecting concentrated massacres. There should simply be more opportunities to flee or otherwise get out of the way of the armies.

I also have to wonder, with how this is being presented, at the use of this word “atrocity.” Surely it does not absolve parties of blame, in the modern sense, nor would it make things more tolerable for the person who starved or died of disease. But whose atrocity is it?


Louis Proyect 11.17.13 at 2:17 pm

From an article by Brian Ferguson, who has written extensively on the issue of “primitive” peoples and warfare (

Over the millennia, tribal warfare became more the rule than the exception. As the preconditions for warfare (permanent settlements, population growth, greater social hierarchy, increased trade, and climatic crises) became more common, more tribal peoples in more areas adopted the practice. That development in itself spread warmaking to other groups. Once ancient states arose, they employed “barbarians” on their peripheries to expand their empires and secure their extensive trade networks. Finally, the European expansion after 1492 set native against native to capture territory and slaves and to fight imperial rivalries. Refugee groups were forced into others’ lands, manufactured goods were introduced and fought over (as with the Yanomami), and the spread of European weapons made fighting ever more lethal,


fivegreenleafs 11.17.13 at 2:27 pm

@js, @Ed Herdman

I apologize that I only have time for a very short answer now, I will try and come back to this later today.

“Which is perhaps why when his “evidence” … specialize … specialists”

May I recall, that the real (and only) academic expert we have opinions from so far in this discussion, in the specific area of expertize we are discussing here, namely the consequences of civil war, strife and turmoil in historic human civilizations, is, actually Matthew White.

The participants in the BBC interview, were in one way or another (as far as I could tell) experts in different aspects of Chinas history, language and culture, but not in war, food production, logistics, starvation or epidemiology.

To restate what they actually stated in the interview,

“We have no idea if whether they died or fled”

They do not know what happened, or how small or large the loss of population actually were.

But there do exist (to my knowledge), ample evidence, spanning all continents over the last 2000y, that give clear indications to what you can reasonable expect to happen, in a densely populated economy based on high intensity farming, when warring armies roam across the countryside for years, what dislocation of huge populations means for food production and security, and the impact this in turn have of human suffering and expected death rates.

If you just contemplate the equation: roughly ~2/3 of the population, during ~10y, either primarily moved (BBC point of view), or primarily died (Pinker point of view).

What do you think happens, when ~2/3 of the population suddenly stops farming, and starts to move about in a country, especially one that had such high population density that China had?

On top of this you have armies, several 100 000 strong moving about the countryside confiscating food to supply itself, and in all probability disrupting farming of those that stay put.

The point I would like to stress is, it is quite possible to make reasonable estimates to what the consequences roughly would be in term of civilian casualties by comparing to similar cases and situations elsewhere, both in time and place.

I believe the answer probably lies somewhere in between the BBC and Pinker view, but would love to see more opinions from, for example military historians, that I think may have a better position to judge these numbers.


oldster 11.17.13 at 3:22 pm

What I think you’re failing to appreciate, fivegreenleafs, is that the Sinologists laughed IN UNISON.

It’s a well-established theorem of epistemology that the probative value of unison laughter is twice that of contrapuntal laughter, and four times that of laughter harmonizing in your common major or minor triad.

They laughed IN UNISON, fivegreenleafs. That entirely disposes of any counter-arguments you could muster. Further appeals to evidence, inquiry, or commonsense can avail you nothing here.


stevenjohnson 11.17.13 at 3:32 pm

Louis Project @47, the link is not clear where to find the article referenced

fivegreenleafs @43

“It can be well worth to remember what Pinker actually wrote…”

Not if you don’t remember what he did.

“The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan revolt and civil war, an eight year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two thirds of the empire’s population at the time.”

The censuses do not show this. That’s because the censuses are not comparable. There may be a question whether White and his copyist Pinker are mistaken. And on that point, we see this.

“And in the note to that paragraf:

“An Lushan Revolt: White notes that the figure is controversial. Some historians attribute it to migration or the breakdown of the censuses; others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure.”

Both White and Pinker are aware of the problem but choose to present an unwarranted conclusion, cherry picking data for the main text of a popular book. I suppose you may differ as to whether his integrity is satisfied by a footnote. The inconclusiveness of the census data is far more definite than the hypothetical about the vulnerability of subsistence farmers in my judgment.

Incidentally, as I recall Pinker’s treacherous footnoting, his figures on mortality/”homicide” rates due to WWI do not include Spanish Flu deaths, nor do his figures on WWI mortality/”homicide” rates do no include famine in India. Perhaps you would be so kind as to correct me. Misapprehension as to this point would cast an unfair light on Prof. Pinker.

Lastly, I put quotation marks around “homicide” in this context because I found Pinker’s use to be inconsistent and incoherent. Infanticide for instance was not even discussed until well into the text!


Kaveh 11.17.13 at 4:27 pm

fivegreenleafs @43,
It’s not that 2/3 of the people stopped farming because they dead/refugees, it’s that the government had a much poorer ability to count people who may not even have moved. This is something a Sinologist would know about, because it has to do with Tang political circumstances (there is other evidence for their loss of control in other ways…) and somebody who studies demographic stuff may not appreciate the peculiarities related to Chinese censuses.

To put it another way, given the gov’t’s reduced ability to take censuses effectively there is no way that all 2/3 of the population loss was due to deaths.


Chris Schoen 11.17.13 at 7:33 pm

Oldster @21

I didn’t think I’d have to spell it out, but the reason the guests all laughed was that of course 2/3 of China’s population didn’t perish during those 8 years. The numbers Pinker uses (following White) are based on declining census figures, but (as stated above) since the Tang administrative apparatus was in disarray at the time, you would expect a large proportion of households to go uncounted. Not to mention that fact that the Imperial borders had significantly contracted as a result of the civil war.

What I want you to infer is that Pinker’s much-lauded research regimen leaves much to be desired.

Fivegreenleafs @47

The notion that the Tang Imperial census would have been anything close to accurate post-revolt is an absurdity. The question is not whether the An Lushan revolt was disruptive–it’s still remembered in China as a massively influential part of their history–but rather whether it lends any credence to the notion that recent centuries are more civilized than those that came before. Of course if you “know” a priori that pre-Enlightenment societies were more savage than our own, any old facts will do, no matter how ridiculously out of context they may be.


Doctor Bob 11.17.13 at 8:53 pm

We humans pay lots of attention to narratives/ Academic narratives often grow into sweeping theories, or maybe we should say bubbles, analogous to the Tulip bubble. I thought that Guns, Germs and Steel made some very good points, whereas I’ve been disappointed in Diamond’s later works. Scott tends to get my back up, but his theology about slavery is congruent with David Graeber’s Debt, the First 5000 years. Too bad we can’t resurrect Isaiah Berlin to review the collected works of Diamond and Pinker and their place in the history of ideas.


bianca steele 11.17.13 at 10:16 pm

I hope fivegreenleafs’s point is not that Pinker needs the An Lushan revolt to have resulted in a high death count, for his argument; and that Pinker intends the reader to come away with a strong belief that authorities believe that the figures Pinker gives are credible; but that if you think really hard about it, you’ll see that (a) if the 2/3 figure is credible, you see something quite interesting, and (b) we don’t really know whether 2/3 is credible or not and in fact know almost nothing at all about what happened, though (c) we may as well keep saying 2/3 because authorities etc.; and this was all totally intended by Pinker and exactly what he hoped the best reader of his book would come away with. That’s ludicrous, and despite seeming charitable by telling people to read what Pinker really wrote, doesn’t put Pinker exactly in the best light. Nor is there any reason to believe anyone would feel the need to do something like that.

Rather than Bladerunner, I thought of Spartacus. Delegating knowledge of warmaking to slaves makes revolt by near-peers less likely.


roy belmont 11.17.13 at 10:17 pm

Lots of articulate debate about events that happened 1300 years ago, in a civilized state that is relatively still present and accounted for.
And a whole lot of serious conjecturing about the large-scale social motives and pressures and responses of people, diverse, unknown, who are all not here except in bits and pieces of the fossil record, and who existed from 15000 to between 70000 and 150000 years ago, depending on your definitional limits.
65000 years, the minimum, is a whole lot of living.
Fun to speculate, but the likelihood of knowing anything concrete about them outside the highly subjective instinctual/intuitive, and groundless extrapolations from a very small sample contained in the accidental record, seems remote. Which makes it easier to pronounce upon of course, and impossible to refute.
Lots of us were raised with the idea of “short, brutal lives”, filthy squalid desperate conditions, amoral dominance hierarchies founded and maintained on cave-thug violence, back in the Stone Age.
Something that was, and is, consistently elided about that picture, which makes them out to be essentially “losers” to the modern human “winners”, is that what they were doing worked well enough to get us here. Not a small feat, imo.
There is no loyalty or respect for that, when really it calls for something more like reverence, and profound gratitude.
It’s as though those teaching us about our “primitive” ancestors were and are afraid of them, afraid to see anything positive, let alone better, about their lives compared to ours. This extended, in the day, to the various still-extant “primitive” societies. No longer a default attitude, but still there, still informing a lot of the discussion.
What they did worked, long term, well enough that we inherited enough survivability to bring ourselves to the brink of a way of life that may or, may not, work. The superiority appears more and more to be purely a matter of ease and comfort for some, with a potentially much shorter horizon.


mud man 11.17.13 at 11:37 pm

Good call on Pinker. Sensationalism, but plausible carefully documented sensationalism.

… So they really do not know either, but they think, they fled

… so, Fleeing is no bed of roses. The age-old solution is to move in with the relatives, but when you are talking about whole villages in motion the problem is that wherever you’re fleeing to, somebody lives there already. Any deaths that occur should be counted as a deficit in the survivors’ column.

That said, fleeing is a always-available option against Death or Slavery. They (they know who they are) may think they’re enslaving me for my own good, but they’ll have to catch me first.


fivegreenleafs 11.17.13 at 11:59 pm

@oldster wrote:

“They laughed IN UNISON, fivegreenleafs. That entirely disposes of any counter-arguments you could muster. Further appeals to evidence, inquiry, or commonsense can avail you nothing here.”

Science (including anthropology, history and archaeology) is for me all about evidence, logic and reason, it is never, a political tool, ideology, democracy or popularity contest.

If that is the game you are playing, then we simply have nothing in common, because we are not following the same set of rules, and we are not even present on the same playing field.

And I think the matter at hand is far far to damn serious to laugh about, if nothing else, out of simple human decency.


“The censuses do not show this. That’s because the censuses are not comparable.”

I hope you understand that they are not completely different either? In fact, (if I remember correctly and), if we take the information given in the BBC interview at face value, it covered at least 75% of the original area.

What do you think the status was of the remaining 25%, that were part of the original land area, but afterwards fell outside the control of the Tang?

Was it pristine lands, completely untouched by the turmoil that had engulfed the other 75%, or is it more reasonable (in absence of evidence that tell us otherwise), to estimate, that it in all probability (on average) was in as bad shape as everywhere else?

War, starvation, plagues and human misery seldom stops at “fictive” borders, (or lines drawn on a map, to use another metaphor), but contrary, has a tendency to spread.

The second argument is that the value is not reliable because the census organization had been severely effected by the societal upheaval during the intervening years.

If you stop up for a second and reflect about what that statement actually would mean in practical terms, you realize, that that implies that the 10 000s of individuals working in this system have been, either killed or displaced in such a way that they no longer could perform their tasks, or use their knowledge and experience to help to rebuild or reorganize after the upheaval began to subside.

I would actually say that if the census afterwards is so untrustworthy as implied in the BBC interview, it is actually a good indicator for just how devastating the upheaval had been, for a number of simple and I think obvious reasons. For any state like the Chinese, tax collection (i.e. food supply) would, after internal security, be priority one, always. That means that it is (in all probability) the last system to be cut back on, and the first to be restored, since it was absolutely essential for the basic functioning of the empire.

If you compare with the Roman Empire, during the 1st and 2nd century, just a handful of days interruption (or failure in the planning) of grain shipments from for example Egypt, could bring Rome to the point of starvation and riots.

“Both White and Pinker are aware of the problem but choose to present an unwarranted conclusion,”

Unwarrented conclusion? It is what I can understand, their conclusion, formed from the evidence at hand, and they are at complete liberty to make whatever conclusion they think are warranted. It is up to you, to believe it or not. Those that participated the BBC interview had a different opinion, which means that we have a situation of academic dispute between different experts.

Science (and history) is not a popular vote, but are (ideally) resolved (as far at it goes) by carefully hearing the arguments and counterarguments from both sides, and then judge these arguments against each other. Pinker/White was not given any opportunity to comment on their reasons in the program, or for example write an accompanying article, to clarify their thoughts; which means you could not possibly, in any good faith, claim that it is unwarranted, since you have (from what I understand) only heard the arguments of one side.

Do you also propose that the criminal courts should only listen to the prosecutors arguments before making a judgement? I think that is a bad idea, both in the justice system, as well as in a situation of conflicting opinions like this, and I for one, would like to hear what White/Pinker would have to say in the matter.


Louis Proyect 11.18.13 at 1:53 am

Brian Ferguson revamped his website. My apologies for an obsolete link. But if you go to you will a number of articles that are very relevant to the discussion here:

The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East (2013)

Pinker’s List – Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality (2013)

Tribal Warfare (2012)

Why Evolutionary Psychology Cannot be True (2012)

Born to Live: Challenging Killer Myths (2011)

Tribal Warfare (2011)

and lots more


fivegreenleafs 11.18.13 at 1:56 am

@Kaveh, 51,

“It’s not that 2/3 of the people stopped farming because they dead/refugees, it’s that the government had a much poorer ability to count people who may not even have moved.”

A few points; If you go back to the BBC interview, it was very clearly stated, (verbatim quotation),

“We have no idea if whether they died or fled”

Because, one of the main arguments for the low post war census, was, that many people moved south, from the north, and that this process had even started before the rebellion broke out.

So the idea that they moved/fled is (as I understand it) part of the theory proposed in the BBC interview.

Second, I do not think they tried to perform any serious census during the ongoing rebellion, but I think that that comment was made in reference to the post war census.

Third, if the post war census is so unreliable/uncertain, this could (as I wrote in an earlier comment), perhaps indicate that the whole system/organization is more severely damaged, and that a significant amount of officials perhaps have gone missing in the interval, which of course, since these officials would have been evenly spaced out across the whole country, they could possibly function as an indicator in regard to the severity of the upheaval.

If you turn that argument around, if the same official performed an exact census of the same restricted area, there is no reason to believe that that census is less reliable than the old one, so the fact that they deem it unreliable, would to me at least indicate huge organizational differences. But we only have this as a statement, since they did not (as far as I remember it) elaborate, why it was deemed so much more uncertain.

I find that question very interesting. Do they think the number unreliable because it differs so much and is so low, or because of actual knowledge about the organizational impact in the field, for example reported % loss of officials etc.

Fourth, re experts; if I suffer a heart attack, I would value the advise of a cardiologists more then an expert in gynaecologist, even if both are physicians. It is not that the gynaecologist does not know a lot about the human body, but that the cardiologist knows everything the gynaecologist knows that is relevant concerning the heart, but also so much more.

So it is not that the Sinologist does not know things, they probably know many things that are highly relevant to know, and that you must learn (and take into account) to be able to judge what happened. But what’s interesting (I think), is what an ‘atrocitologist’ (or other variants of experts, like military historians) might add, that the Sinologist does not, for example, a much deeper experience in understanding (and comparing) all manners of war, and human suffering, including huge areas of knowledge that are both highly relevant and (what i think is often far) beyond the knowledge of any regular Sinologist, like epidemiology, physiology, logistics.

One example that springs to mind is, that even in the very best of times, these societies (based on different lines of research including current comparable farming societies), are often only a couple of months away from starvation. This would imply that even a very short disruption, or even a very low relative % of refugees, that would stop farming, could push a whole society into full blown starvation.

Which of course can cause more refugees, which cause more starvation, and large groups of human individuals in movements under bad sanitary conditions, will cause the spread of deadly epidemics, which will cause further reduction in food production.

What I am thinking about is that when this process well is started, it was (in historic times) probably often impossible (or very difficult) to stop, and it will often reinforce itself, until the population density in the area is severely reduced. So good knowledge/expertise in food production capacity/population density could be highly relevant to estimate impact/risk/probability/consequences.


Lee A. Arnold 11.18.13 at 2:03 am

In the discussion of what we can know from the description of nonliterate tribes which survived untainted long enough to be recorded by ethnographers, I have always wondered about the origins of money. David Graeber’s recent book goes back as far as chits used in huge temple economies. But anthropologists found use of “ritual money” or proto-money in much smaller systems: e.g., the Melanesian “Big Man” circulation of ritual objects and the Kwakiutl potlatch of bark blanket accumulation and sometimes (I seem to recall reading) burning: wealth destruction. In these smaller systems, this proto-money, which was never used to price everyday sustenance items, nor used to replace “barter”, was used instead in status competition, often culminating in a periodic ritual with celebratory feasts etc. So it might be true that money originated, not for trade, but in status competition. This I think would be psychologically significant, and of course it is relevant today. The question is, how would that invention have come about, in a small tribal system? I find it difficult to construct a psychologically plausible account. It seems to me that it requires a tribe so large that no one can know everyone else personally (or else the outcome of the ritual would be predetermined), and also there would have to be a choice mechanism by which an object becomes ritually significant (such as indeed a temple religion). This argues that the origination of ritual money needs a social system larger than the smallest systems in which its use was observed by ethnographers. So I wonder if e.g. the Kwakiutl potlatch was a holdover, devolution or remnant, stemming from a much larger social system of which we have no record?


Peter T 11.18.13 at 2:33 am

One trouble with Pinker is that he relies too much on overviews which are themselves based on very sketchy evidence. We can know quite a lot – but to do so requires bringing together literary sources, archeological field surveys, pollen analysis, analysis of burials and much more. It is unlikely, for instance, that we have the original Tang census returns – what we have are summaries (and probably summaries of summaries). There can be a lot of reasons for changes in figures – not just mortality, but also changes in the power relations of officials and central government or between villages and officials, migration, evasion and changes in collection or summation methods. I’m not a sinologist, but I do know that single literary sources for comparable European episodes are not regarded as reliable. Pinker should have known better – if the evidence is not there, say so.

We can also know a fair amount about some hunter-gatherer populations before significant contact. For instance, from the narratives of Australian convicts who ran away to live with aboriginal tribes in the very early days of white settlement. But again, real care is needed – of a sort I for one have not found in Pinker.


Peter T 11.18.13 at 2:42 am

Lee @ 60

We have a good record for the development of “money” – that is, a system of exchangeable tokens representing some abstract notion of worth – in the early Middle East, from very early to the sophisticated banking systems of Babylonia. Graeber is interested in coins as impersonal wealth (as opposed to the personal letter of credit), so does not go into this much. The stone rings, cowrie shells and other such which fascinate economists are better seen as ritual objects rather than money.


Yarrow 11.18.13 at 3:47 am

Lee A Arnold @ 60: ” David Graeber’s recent book goes back as far as chits used in huge temple economies. But anthropologists found use of “ritual money” or proto-money in much smaller systems: …”

Graeber talks about those, too, in Debt. Worth a read.


Kaveh 11.18.13 at 4:10 am

roy belmont @55 It’s as though those teaching us about our “primitive” ancestors were and are afraid of them, afraid to see anything positive, let alone better, about their lives compared to ours. This extended, in the day, to the various still-extant “primitive” societies. No longer a default attitude, but still there, still informing a lot of the discussion.

See, I would say the same thing about Diamond (and maybe Scott for that matter) and all the people in between the neolithic & industrial revolutions. Shouldn’t the closest modern analogs to Medieval peasants have a lot to teach us–and a lot more in common with us, the better to make the comparison meaningful? But farmers aren’t hunters–if we’re going to speculate about motives, I think that is a big part of the appeal of ‘hunter-gatherers’–the licit violence that was part of their lives, but no longer part of ours.

Anyway, I think the idea of trying to learn from whatever we can find out about our pre-neolithic ancestors is a fine idea, but I think any attempt to do that would benefit from also keeping all the people in the middle in mind, and not trying to skip over the stage of history that is more directly comparable to both them and us. Otherwise, the direct comparisons between hunter-gatherers and Moderns seem to me to be often very artificial and implausible.


This is all really beside the point, because in spite of Pinker’s misuse of the data, it is still very possible that upwards of 10 million died. The difference between 10 million and 36 has no relevance (here) to anything other than Pinker’s honesty. It was still a pretty big tragedy even if you accept a more modest estimate of the death toll–even if not the biggest pre-WWII (why is it important that it be the biggest?).

“We have no idea if whether they died or fled”

Actually–and I say this as a historian of Medieval C. Asia myself–this statement is overly tentative–it’s meant to accommodate the widest range of possibilities, and ends up being misleading for that reason. It’s pretty implausible that all of the missing 2/3 died, especially given there is positive evidence of refugees turning up in other places which were further from central govt control. The Chinese who turned up around what is now Guangzhou did not spontaneously generate. It is pretty certain that many of them are part of that 2/3 drop in the census count. Of course we don’t know for certain how many people died, there could always be things happening out of the picture that our incomplete & fragmentary evidence of the past doesn’t capture. Maybe there were 10 million people who were not on the census count and are not captured in any estimate of Chinese population, and died at much higher rates than people on the census. But that is pure speculation w/o some kind of evidence. What would be more appropriate to say is that the evidence shows that up to 2/3 of the population died. “Up to”, because there are very good reasons to believe the census-taking within territories still under Tang control was less effective. This loss of control is also incidentally a reason for the southern Chinese economic & maritime trade boom that played out over the next 300+ years. I could go on.

Fourth, re experts; if I suffer a heart attack, I would value the advise of a cardiologists more then an expert in gynaecologist…

This is an extremely bad analogy, just one of many problems being that x-rays or cardiograms of a female body don’t take a different specialist to read than those from a male body.


Lee A. Arnold 11.18.13 at 4:39 am

Yarrow #63: “Graeber talks about those, too, in Debt. Worth a read.”

Read it, and even highlighted it. He mentions them, but so far as I remember, Graeber does not put forth a theory of how ritual objects became countable for comparisons, in order for individuals to win status games at ceremonies, inside small-scale societies. Doesn’t Graeber’s theory of money as debt start later in the sequence, with ancient large temple economies? In other words, money is already well on the way, where he picks up his main story. Yet in smaller societies of Big Man exchange and Kwakiutl potlatch, religious belief is not a primary motivation (at least, as reported) although the patterns of these exchanges are quite sophisticated. Perhaps it starts as a game, allowed alongside the regular exchanges embedded in kinship and lineage, that somehow becomes part of the social structure. A proper economic anthropology might have to posit, not debt, but “gaming + group celebration” as the fundamental monetary construct.


Eric Titus 11.18.13 at 5:11 am

Scott is actually a pretty big name in histories of the state. He leans a little heavy on his authority in this review–most readers aren’t likely to know that he has written several books on state formation and state/non-state groups. But I’d go ahead and suggest that anyone who is tempted to read Diamond go ahead and read Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed” instead.


Lee A. Arnold 11.18.13 at 5:14 am

Peter T. #62: “We have a good record for the development of ‘money’ – that is, a system of exchangeable tokens representing some abstract notion of worth – in the early Middle East, from very early to the sophisticated banking systems of Babylonia.”

That is not in dispute. But I don’t believe we have any record at all, and no good working theory, of the social-psychological process in which the representation of worth by tokens originally came about. We don’t have a good idea of the size of the society that was originally required. Nor how long ago — there are trinkets 40,000 years old. The Kwakiutl were hunter (fisher)-gatherers, more or less sedentary. The social system was acephalous. In a way, the potlatch as well as the Big Man system effected a sort of proto-nucleation of a central leadership position, of control, under peacetime conditions in otherwise acephalous societies that were mainly organized by the multiple lineages. If this sort of money is “better seen as ritual objects”, then so is the modern financial system.


Yarrow 11.18.13 at 5:21 am

Lee A. Arnold @ 65: Doesn’t Graeber’s theory of money as debt start later in the sequence, with ancient large temple economies?

I wouldn’t say so. He doesn’t focus on status competition (though he doesn’t leave it out), but does say lots about debt and the sort of society and money you mention in #60. Two passages from Chapter 6:

These blinders are all the more ironic when one looks at the anthropological literature on what used to be called “primitive money”—that is, the sort one encounters in places where there are no states or markets—whether Iroquois wampum, African cloth money, or Solomon Island feather money, and discovers that such money is used almost exclusively for the kinds of transactions that economists don’t like to have to talk about.

… “bride-price” was dutifully redubbed “bridewealth.” But they never really answered the question: What is actually happening here? When a Fijian suitor’s family presents a whale tooth to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage, is this an advance payment for the services the woman will provide in cultivating her future husband’s gardens? Or is he purchasing the future fertility of her womb? Or is this a pure formality, the equivalent of the dollar that has to change hands in order to seal a contract? According to Rospabé, it’s none of these. The whale tooth, however valuable, is not a form of payment. It is really an acknowledgment that one is asking for something so uniquely valuable that payment of any sort would be impossible. The only appropriate payment for the gift of a woman is the gift of another woman; in the meantime, all one can do is to acknowledge the outstanding debt.


Lee A. Arnold 11.18.13 at 7:14 am

@ Yarrow #68 — I should have written it the other way around, to say that Graeber’s history of debt presented itself (to me at least) as a history of money, although that may be my misreading. But as a history of money, I found it unsatisfactory. Long ago I combed through the literature in the UC Berkeley anthro library to find the appearance of money-like functions in the smallest, simplest societies known. That was the criterion: smallest, simplest social systems. What I found was that the money functions are tribal-wide status competitions in which debt plays a part but it is not the primary motive. (E.g. the Big Man must keep turning over his gifts; the Kwakiutl up-and-comer borrows blankets which he then repays along the way, in the process of the acquisition of even more blankets.) The primary motive of these exchanges is cumulative, ceremonial, and system-wide in nature. I think this rules out Rospabé’s theory of the origin of money, unless status is to be considered as something which cannot be properly paid for. (I suppose that’s a possibility.) These are less-developed economies than most of the social systems in Graeber’s chapter. The Kwakiutl had only a hunter-gatherer resource base (though it was lush enough for them to be sedentary). And these ceremonies not the one-on-one exchanges in Graeber’s chapter (or, in the case of brideprice, clan-to-clan, a rather highly developed form of exchange which I think fits Polanyi’s very precise definition of “reciprocity”). In addition, they are not concerned with repayments for violence, though again, status has an analogy in social power. So what I meant to write was that Graeber does not appear to me to consider the most primitive possible origination of money. Yet its possible roots in nonviolent status-seeking are probably crucial to formulating a proper response to the current worldwide dilemma of a financial system grown so fat that it is inhibiting growth.


maidhc 11.18.13 at 8:41 am

The hunter-gatherer Indians living on the coast of California and Oregon used shell-money. That was interestingly both like and unlike our modern money. When someone offered you shell-money for something, you had to take what was offered. There was no haggling. If someone wanted to show himself to be a fine sort of a person, he would offer generously. If someone consistently offered low amounts, people would just refuse to trade with him at all.

So that indicates that there was some notion of what the ideal or standard price for something would be.

I think different conventions were followed for bride-price.


bianca steele 11.18.13 at 2:26 pm

I don’t think anyone has impugned anyone’s honesty. What’s at stake is the ability to navigate research in a very different field than one’s own, and choice of an appropriate way to talk about a field one doesn’t know for oneself. At most what comes in is arrogance, if experts question one’s statements and one treats them dismissively.


Yarrow 11.18.13 at 3:01 pm

Lee A. Arnold @ 69: Ah. You’re disagreeing with Graeber’s conclusions about early money more than saying he didn’t talk about it. OK.

I don’t have the knowledge to judge whether your examples are smaller and simpler than Graeber’s, but I’m pretty sure they’re not the smallest and simplest — Big Man societies are agricultural, and sedentary hunter-gatherer society can be pretty elaborate (as in, er, the Kwakiutl). Graeber mentions the Kwakiutl as an example of “what are often called “heroic societies”: those in which governments are weak or nonexistent and society is organized instead around warrior noblemen, each with his entourage of loyal retainers and tied to the others by ever-shifting alliances and rivalries.” And the Kwakiutl had slavery and warfare, no? I associate those with at least moderately large and complicated societies.

I’d agree that the entanglement of status and money is important to think about when we’re trying to figure out how to get our own large complicated society out of the mess it’s in.


stevenjohnson 11.18.13 at 3:39 pm

fivegreenleafs@57, there is a logical possibility that somehow the incomparable censuses nevertheless by coincidence gave a valid set of figures for the death toll. Possibility is not probability. In fact it is not even a statement about probability. I’ve forgotten the Latin tag for this fallacious argument. You are correct this underlies Pinker’s argument in the footnote, which makes his conclusions logically invalid.

One aspect to the incomparability of the censuses is that the much-weakened Tang could not force either the population to register or for the local powers to report honestly. Given that the census was always a key part of revenue collection, there is a built-in bias for massive underreporting. The boom in the South powerfully suggests, as the historians told us, that there was a large population influx. There is no doubt that there was a demographic disaster, but Pinker selected an unjustified interpretation that fit in with his overal thesis in Better Angels.

Louis Proyect @58, thanks for the updated link. I see I’ve read a number of these already. I hope others do so as well.

bianca steele@71, I”m sorry to disappoint you but I do impugn Pinker’s honesty. It is possible to defend him as incompetent rather than dishonest. But the man is a Harvard professor famed for his works. On the face of it, then, if such a man makes “mistakes” someone like me wouldn’t make, the assumption he’s just stupid is absurd.


Lee A. Arnold 11.18.13 at 4:17 pm

Yarrow #72: “Big Man societies are agricultural, and sedentary hunter-gatherer society can be pretty elaborate (as in, er, the Kwakiutl).”

Exactly, we don’t know how numerous the Kwakiutl were before white contact. That is why I wondered whether the potlatch could be a vestige from a larger society.

My basic question is this, (and so far as I know, no one has really asked it): what is the smallest possible system — in isolation — that could produce countable trinkets for exchange? What is absolutely required for the basic idea of money?

Does it require a society small enough so that everyone knows everybody (e.g. under a thousand) and can therefore trust the valuation, or does it require a system large enough so that there is no possibility of knowing everybody, so some sort of less-personal, more genera recompense becomes a social requirement?

I have no idea what the answer is, but I think that (in consonance with the top post, Chris Bertram: “the assumption that remaining hunter-gatherer societies can tell us anything about the societies of our distant ancestors, since these survivors are profoundly shaped both by interaction with and marginalization by statist societies”) it is possible that the ideas and uses of money in observed nonliterate systems could be remnants or vestiges of money from older, forgotten, very different social systems, of different size.

So my question is more purely theoretical: what is the tiniest system and structure which could generate money on its own?

Perhaps it requires two tribal systems, with ritual gifting in between the elders, which is then carried back inside each system as they grow larger (something like Aristotle’s notion that the idea of variable pricing forms among long-distance traders noticing the difference in prices between just-price societies)?

What is the simplest hierarchical structure that would produce it? Is money necessarily imposed from nucleated control? The Big Man systems were reportedly hierarchically quite flat: they are sort of the beginning of nucleation.


otpup 11.18.13 at 4:43 pm

“limiting our intake of total calories, alcohol, salt and salty foods, sugar and sugared soft drinks, saturated and trans fats, processed foods, butter, cream and red meat; and increasing our intake of fibre, fruits and vegetables, calcium and complex carbohydrates.”

It’s interesting the degree to which Diamond conflates paleo-wisdom with modern convention (and the modern convention often have less evidence behind them than most people believe but that’s besides the point)

E.g., pre-agricultural diets rely heavily on saturated fats as main source of calories. How does the anthropology suggests that should be a modern practice. It actually suggests the opposite.

Almost everything in the list save cutting back on sugar are assertions for which there is very little scientific evidence and/or is not a logical extrapolation from pre-agricultural lifestyles. Almost every one of these suggestions. Hmmm.

No evidence:
calorie restriction (failed to be demonstrated in primates),
salt (even the CDC has backed off on this),
fiber (research keeps failing to find an effect),
saturated fats (I will avoid the health evidence issue,
but the point is that the anthropology suggests
we should all be eating more not less sat fat)
fruit (modern fruits much more sugary than
pre-agricultural equivalents and many
pre-agricultural cultures subsisted
almost completely on animal products
without apparent ill effects: Inuit, Masai, Plains Indians)


TM 11.18.13 at 11:42 pm

There’s some relevant material at John Horgan’s blog:
“Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots”

I distinctly remember having read recently (1-2 years ago) about a new survey of archeological evidence of prehistoric warfare coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t frequent. Horgan mentions a study by Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli and one by Ferguson but I cannot find a reference from the peer-reviewed literature. Does anybody know of such a reference?


soru 11.19.13 at 11:25 am

The article linked @76 seems literally incredibly weak, as in I genuinely cannot believe anyone can take it seriously on its merits. War was invented ‘8,000 years ago in Anatolia’, and we know this because in some cases there is no evidence of metal weapons before metalworking was discovered, and in other cases there is no evidence of any weapons because minimal archeology has been done.

Rather like Creationism, the only interesting question that aries from that argument is this; given the abscence of facts pushing anyone towards holding it, what is the overwhelming narative that provides the pull? Some liberal variant of Christianity or Western Buddhism that holds that if pacifism is ‘unnatural’, it can’t be right?

Or do people genuinely buy into the line suggested above that you can’t regulate the financial system until you have run sufficient archeological digs to remove all the gaps where Eden might be hiding?


TM 11.19.13 at 5:08 pm

I won’t comment on whether soru’s is a fair reading of the article (and not sure which you are referring to – the blog post or the article which it tries to summarize). But I found the study I dimly remembered. It’s not archeological but a survey of recent anthropological observations of foraging societies, contradicting the Diamond/Chagnon/Pinker position. Of course this survey is subject to the same methodological objections brought by Scott against Diamond.

Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War
Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg, Science 19 July 2013: 270-273.

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