My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, November 14, 2021


I have only read the first 150 pages of the Graber and Wengrow book, but I am having such fun with it that I thought I would say something about what I have learned of it thus far. First of all, I always enjoy reading anthropologists because they know lots of interesting stuff about people I have never heard of. In addition, this book is sprightly, charming, provocative, and an all-around good read. What I am going to say is based only on that first hundred fifty pages and I would imagine that there will be lots more in the remaining 400 that I am not now anticipating.


The goal of the book, as I understand it, is to rebut the standard story of human development that has been put forward by anthropologists, economists, and others and that is used repeatedly to ridicule the hopes of those, like modern-day anarchists, who believe there are alternative and better ways for human beings to live their lives even now in a world of 7 ½ billion souls dominated by late capitalism (as we used rather optimistically to describe the present state of affairs back in the 50s and 60s).


The standard story, I freely confess, is one that I learned and have been repeating in lectures, blogs, and YouTube videos for quite a long time now, although not with the reactionary implications put forward by the folks the authors want to argue against. For me personally an exciting aspect of the book is that it calls into question something I thought I knew and was quite confident about.


The standard story goes something like this: human beings have been around for 200,000 years, plus or minus, and for the first 190,000 of those years, more or less, they got their living by doing what anthropologists have come to call foraging. They hunted for wild animals, they collected nuts and fruits and berries, and they lived in relatively small groups without, so far as anyone could tell, stable political organizations and arrangements or what today we would call class structure. Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, near the end of the Neolithic era, three big things happened that totally changed human affairs and rather rapidly produced the world in which we live now. Those three things were, first the development of agriculture, second (but not necessarily in this order) the domestication of wild animals, and third the construction of substantial permanent residential settlements – cities.


This triple revolution took place, so far as the archaeologists could tell, first in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now roughly Iraq, but then in many other places around the world.


Anthropologists speculated (they did not have direct evidence for this, of course) that the increase in available food supplies resulting from formal agriculture and the domestication of animals resulted in a surplus which, when seized by certain members of the community, enabled those persons to control the society by using a portion of the surplus to support soldiers, using another portion to support priests, using yet another portion to support judges, and even taking a little bit left over to support philosophers who would explain elegantly that this was all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. After this, there came writing, empires, large-scale wars, and all the other benefits of civilization.


One of the central goals of the book is to pull together large amounts of archaeological and anthropological evidence to show that this story is simply false. The human story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than the standard story suggests. How so?


Well, first of all, all over the world there are the remains of large complex structures – monoliths, amphitheaters, etc. – which were erected by human groups at a time when those groups were not engaging, so far as the evidence shows, in agriculture or the domestication of animals. The structures are so big that they clearly required a coordinated effort for long periods of time of large numbers of people, people who were nevertheless supporting themselves by foraging and hunting. The implication is clear: foraging peoples were able to support themselves for extended periods of time when they were engaged in these construction projects and not simply foraging, and, equally important, there is no reason to believe that the coordination of labor required was enforced by a class of soldiers being supported by the surplus generated by agriculture or the domestication of animals.


Secondly, and this is in its way even more surprising, there are even today (which is to say in the last 500 hundred years) examples of people who spend part of the year organized politically under the sway of rulers who exercise coercive power and the rest of the year hunting and gathering completely independently of these people who during part of the year function as their rulers! This is, when you think about it, truly astonishing.


It turns out there are lots of examples of organized well-functioning societies in which people deliberately choose whether or not to submit to rulers during part of the year and even rotate the functions of rulership. What is more, there are societies in which being a ruler does not bring with it greater wealth and in which greater wealth does not bring with it the opportunity to be a ruler.


So the standard story we tell ourselves about how things are and why they are that way and whether they can be different is simply not supported by the anthropological evidence.


The book starts with an extended riff on a subject that was not new to me and to which I devoted several of my YouTube lectures on ideological critique, namely the fact that so-called “primitive” or “inferior” people are as intellectually active, complex, and self-reflective as the supposedly great minds of Western civilization. The authors extend this not simply to Native Americans or African slaves or supposed foragers of the Kalahari Desert, but backwards in time over the entire 200,000 years of the career of Homo Sapiens. It is initially shocking to hear it claimed but on reflection obvious that men and women 100,000 years ago were as self-aware, intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberative about their living arrangements and social organization as the authors of the American Constitution. After all, Lysenko to the contrary notwithstanding, intelligence is not an acquired characteristic, so Stone Age men and women must have been just as intelligent, or as dimwitted, as 21st century men and women are.


Well so much for an interim report on a lovely book. When I read another 150 pages I will nod in again on the subject.


marcel proust said...

Stone Age men and women must have been just as intelligent, or as dimwitted, as 21st century men and women are

1) Doesn't this assume that homo sapiens stopped evolving in or after the stone age? Henrich is quite interesting on this point.

2) Any consideration in the book of Flynn's hypothesis concerning the Flynn effect? The part of intelligence tests that have shown the greatest increases in scores over the 20th C are those pertaining to abstract reasoning and analysis. Flynn speculates that this is due to the much greater value of abstract reasoning in modern economies, and the consequence that abstract reasoning is taught and emphasized in schools to a much greater extent than previously. I ask because even if the distribution of intelligence has remained roughly constant over the last 100 to 2000 centuries (or whatever), it is not clear that we would easily recognize what passed for intelligence in the distance past as such.

DDA said...

This all might make one suspect that there no such thing as intelligence. That is, no property of persons that has the characteristics usually ascribed to it.

Eric said...

Before I forget, let me share a couple of items that passed through my Twitter feed recently.

Those who take inspiration from the revelation rendered to Moses will no doubt enjoy this one:

11 When two men are fighting and the wife of one intervenes to save her husband from the blows of his opponent, if she stretches out her hand and seizes the latter by his genitals, 12 you shall chop off her hand; show no pity.
Deuteronomy 25:11-12

(One wonders whether that tells us more about the Revelation or about the people to whom it needed to be revealed.)

And on the subjects of political power, private property, and social (in)equality, there is this:

Italian economists examining tax data from Florence from 1427 and 2011 found that the wealthiest families today are descendants of those who were the wealthiest 600 years ago. "Looking for non-linearities, we find, in particular, some evidence of the existence of a glass floor that protects the descendants of the upper class from falling down the economic ladder." (quoted from study report linked in the article)
In other words, the rich stay rich. Who would have thunk it?

Matt said...

"so Stone Age men and women must have been just as intelligent, or as dimwitted, as 21st century men and women are."

In some sense this is likely true. Although it's possible that some degree of (biological) evolution has taken place in the last 10K years or so that has made us "more intelligent", but doesn't seem super likely. On the other hand, it seems obviously false if we accept even a modest version of the "extended mind" hypothesis - it seems highly likely to me that the advent of writing, if nothing else, taps a huge amount of potential that was only very slightly tapped in people without it that I wonder if we can really make clear comparisons across time. If this isn't accounted for, I'm already worried about the book (even beyond my before-mentioned worries about Graeber's tendency to not be especially worried about whether his "facts" are actually facts or not.)

(Also, as everyone knows, the existence of monoliths is obviously due to extra-terrestrial activity, as shown here: )

Matt said...

Here's a discussion/review of the book by a very smart historian of philosophy and science, in case anyone is interested: I have only read part of it, because in addition to being very smart, the author is also extremely wordy and, I'd say, in need of an editor, either internal or external, and so I got a bit bored and stopped reading. Those with more patience than me and who are interested in the book are likely to gain something, though, so I pass it on.

marcel proust said...

Apropos my comment yesterday, and Matt's earlier this morning, I offer up this link about shrinking brain sizes in humans since the ice age/start of agriculture:

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

So the question is, what would an intelligence test look like for Fred Flintstone and his family?

But here the question is relatively easy to solve. The requirement for an IQ test must be: How fast does a test person find a solution for a task that is given to him from his environment. The faster, the higher the chances of survival. The writing or symbolic forms of every kind (also mathematics) would count for me to the environment.

Some confuse "knowledge" and "intelligence" in these discussions. One must ask the question, what is the use of my knowledge about the production of iron, if I cannot make a fire without a lighter?

I think there is no such thing as metaintelligence.

Even the Neanderthals 65,000 years ago already had the beginnings of what we call culture today. Until recently, they were untalented for science in this regard.

DDA said...

Off-topic, helpful hint: When someone posts a very loooong URL all you need to copy and use is the stuff up to the first question mark. So, in Matt's post above, all you is:
Both Safari and Firefox have extensions (aka add-ons) that accomplish this automatically. Not that the extra fluff doesn't serve a purpose; it just doesn't serve your purpose.

Eric said...

Matt @6:58,

Most of humanity were incapable of reading and writing until very, very, very recently. The cultivation of language, on the other hand, surely traces back through countless generations. Many preliterate cultures across the globe have prized oratorical skills. Graeber and Wengrow focus in the early part of the book on that aspect of the culture of the preliterate indigenous North Americans.

G & W quote Jesuits of the early 17th century, who themselves called the illiterate indigenous North Americans they were trying to evangelize remarkably intelligent (and hard to convince!). And to provide proper context, G & W point out that the Jesuits were at that time "the intellectuals of the Catholic world," "trained in classical rhetoric and techniques of disputation."
But for goodness' sake, you don't have to take Graeber's word for it. Read the documents yourself.

I don't have time to dig up the full sources at the moment. Here's a tidbit:

They nearly all show more intelligence in their business, speeches, courtesies, intercourse, tricks, and subtleties, than do the shrewdest citizens and merchants in France.


But it is wrong to judge thus; for I can say in truth that, as regards Intelligence, they are in no wise inferior to Europeans and to those who dwell in France. I would never have believed that, without instruction, nature could have supplied a most ready and vigorous eloquence, which I have admired in many Hurons; or more clear-sightedness in affairs, or a more discreet management in things to which they are accustomed.


[T]here are almost none of them incapable of conversing or reasoning very well, and in good terms, on matters within their knowledge. The councils, too, held almost every day in the Villages, and on almost all matters, improve their capacity for talking....

What's most remarkable about this is that, as G & W argue, modern notions of freedom that are so characteristic of modern societies (as in the US and Western-influenced democracies), likely traveled to Europe from America, not the other way around as typically taught in most of Western academe.

s. wallerstein said...

"What's most remarkable about this is that, as G & W argue, modern notions of freedom that are so characteristic of modern societies (as in the US and Western-influenced democracies), likely traveled to Europe from America, not the other way around as typically taught in most of Western academe."

I don't doubt that many Native-American peoples had sophisticated notions of self-government and were as intelligent as Europeans, but there seems to be no reason to believe that modern notions of freedom as are practiced and believed in Western society today originated among them, not because they had no profound notions of freedom, but simply because Western societies paid no or little attention to what Native-Americans had to say.

That G & W claim that lends some weight to Matt's claim above that G & W are not especially worried about whether their "facts" are actually facts. That is, if they make unbelievable claims about where Western notions of freedom come from, why should we believe them when they make other claims about prehistoric societies?

Jerry Brown said...

I always loved reading but always hated 'book report' assignments in school. As soon as that task was assigned, whatever pleasure I took from reading disappeared completely. Even when, as often happened, I had already read the book for my own enjoyment and would have been happy to re-read it in any other case.

I must admit I never considered turning in a book report on just the first third of a book though. Maybe that would have allowed me to enjoy the rest of the book. I wonder how the teacher would have reacted. I imagine you don't need to worry about that though.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

I think it has to be that the detailed narratives that societies or whole cultural groups tell themselves again and again are constantly checked and questioned. But you can see that sometimes the pendulum swings just as strongly in the opposite direction.

off topik:
This morning I read in a German magazine (Der Spiegel) an article with the headline "The racial contract". It was about an author named Christopher Rufo, who apparently sees in this term an instrument that serves to make "whites" unjustified feelings of guilt.

It seems to me that the pressure in the cauldron is continually rising. Many discussions are relentless. Many paint only in primary colors. Arguments become concrete. Nuances are superfluous, question marks are suspect, shadows are painted over. Because even chains of argumentation are only as strong as their weakest link, they are left with just one.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry Brown, that is one of the many benefits of being 87.

Anonymous said...

Archeology, I must confess, is not one of my greatest passions. And not only have I not read the G&W book, but I have very little interest in reading it.

Having said that, from Dr. Wolff's early report, I suspect either Dr. Wolff's reading of the book does it no justice, or the ideas the book advances must be flawed.

Take as an example the notion that human groups shifted back and forth between submitting themselves to life under a strictly structured class system and a much less structured alternative system.

A first problem with that is that to infer behaviour from material evidence is difficult. To use Dr. Wolff’s term, it requires speculation. But my understanding is that G&W castigate the “traditional” view as speculative. Why should their own speculation be spared this criticism?

Another problem is that even if one accepts the G&W notion that some human groups shifted from one to another mode of organisation, it doesn’t prove that human society in general did organise itself in such a way. In our own times there are lots of same-sex couples; does this prove or at least suggest that there are no male/female couples?

- The AnonyMouse

LFC said...

Somewhat OT but speaking of long books, I've recently made a (slow) start on L. Menand's 727- pp. (not including endnotes) The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. At this rate I have no idea when I'll finish it.

aaall said...

AK, Rufo is a part of the far right cadre who managed to create the CRT disinformation. He has openly acknowledged this. I wouldn't believe anything he writes.

So far the premise of the book seems an updated version of "Lo the Noble savage." World human population prior to the Chalcolithic has been estimated in the low single digit millions with possible bottlenecks over several tens of millennia prior to the development of agriculture and pastoralism. Organization would have been on the of a HOA or a block party. Not trivial but lots of latitude.

Also, without lots of pesky agriculturalists to crowd them out, hunters and gatherers had a far easier time. After the glaciers began to retreat in North America it would have been fat city for many groups after the Asian invaders eliminated the apex predators. Then the lakes dried up and Europeans invaded.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

@ aaalle,
I must openly admit that I very often observe completely perplexed with what simple means the strategists of the right manage to manipulate the perception of large parts of the public.

When Prof. Wolff makes the nice comparison of intelligence between the people 100,000 years ago and the fathers of the American Constitution, it is perhaps permissible to ask whether intelligence can also develop backwards?

Another Anonymous said...

AK raises an interesting question, “Can intelligence evolve backwards?”

If one accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, evolution favors the passing on of those genes which enhance the likelihood of a species to survive by being able to better adapt to their environmental conditions. As the conditions change, the mutations in a species which favor survival in the changed environmental conditions, whether those changes be changes in the natural environment and/or changes in the conditions created by the species themselves, are favored.

Regarding homo sapiens, the theory is that mutations in enhanced intelligence favored the species’ survival over predators which relied on brute strength, speed, etc. Enhanced intelligence also favored the survival of Cro Magnon homo sapiens over Neanderthal homo sapiens. But a segment of homo sapiens can also self-select for the survival of a particular segment of its population, at the expense of another segment. For example, in the Middle Ages in Europe, three classes dominated society: the nobility, the military, and the clergy. If one wanted to advance in that society, but was not already a member of the nobility, and was not particularly athletic, but was of moderate intelligence, you chose to join the clergy. When Catholicism was the dominant religion, this entailed (if one were true to one’s oath) celibacy. Those priests who represented the more intelligent members of that society thereby failed to pass on their genes which favored intelligence, with arguably adverse consequences for the general intelligence of that segment of European population.

Can a society select for less intelligent people in other contexts? Given the advances in military technology, those who choose to enter the military can exercise an advantage over those segments of the population which represent the intelligentsia, and do not have experience using weapons, Cas is occurring in Myanmar today. The jailing and execution of the intelligentsia can result in lowering the average intelligence of the population, to the extent that their jailing and execution prevents them from procreating.

Can such a phenomenon occur here in the United States? I do not see why not. Is our social media selecting those who prefer entertainment to, for example, reading books, favoring the financial success of those given to superficial thought processes, thereby enhancing their ability to raise a family more devoted to social media than to analytic thought? (I submit that reading a nonfiction book online, versus reading a hard copy, is less conducive to concentration and analytic thought – no margins to write notes in, for example.) So an argument could be made that the average intelligence of our current society is evolving backwards. If, God forbid, Trump is re-elected and succeeds in co-opting the military to support him, there could be mass arrests of members of academic and professional classes, duplicating what is happening in Myanmar (and elsewhere) and the acceleration of the general intelligence evolving backward.

Unusual Suspect said...

Another Anonymous, et al,

From a biological perspective, there is no such thing as devolution. All changes in the gene frequencies of populations--and quite often in the traits those genes influence--are by definition evolutionary changes.

Evolutionary biologists have long wondered if history can run backward. Examining the evolution of one protein, a team of scientists declares the answer is no, saying new mutations make it practically impossible for evolution to reverse direction.

Jeff Goldblum could never become The Fly.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

I remember a scene from the 1981 film "La guerre du feu" by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (wow, that was 40 years ago).

It's about a very small group of early humans who are not yet able to start fires on their own. They only ever take fire, which is absolutely essential for their survival, from burning trees after a lightning strike. Then they guard it in a kind of container made of branches and bushes like the Catholics guarded their Ostensory thousands of years later. There is even an official who is responsible only for securing the flame.

Abstract: The drama begins with the loss of the flame which immediately brings that small group into existential distress. The plot now shows how a group of three individuals is sent out to retrieve the "eternal flame". They finally succeed because they encounter a village where people live as settlers who already have the ability to make fire. These settlers, in turn, have another problem, that of inbreeding. So a deal is struck. Fresh genes for the knowledge of how to make fire.

Ok, a movie and a script and of course we know it's a nice story that forces a little more reality on us than the scientific facts might allow. But one important aspect becomes clear. The "Ironic Turn" does not allow to continue to look exclusively after the cathegories of evolutionary biology when it comes to the way of man. The fire meant not only progress and expansion of opportunities, but also dependence and new necessities. Intelligence, as the ability to respond to the challenge of nature, is forced to respond also to the consequences of its own actions.

If the "state of nature" of the ironic animal, to which we give the name Homo sapiens sapiens, were to be compared with the thermodynamic equilibrium in physics, then the keepers of the fire, who can probably be called hunter-gatherers, and the settlers who practice agriculture and animal husbandry, would be on a higher level in relation to this equilibrium. Higher level means greater complexity and a greater effort to keep the achieved state stable, which is undoubtedly a greater challenge to their intelligence.

Another Anonymous said...

The movie was shown in the United States as “Quest For Fire” and starred Ron Perlman (from the TV series “Beauty and The Beast”).

Here is a synopsis of the critique by the scientific community:

The film was not intended to be a scientifically accurate documentary of a specific point in pre-history. This is reinforced by the response of the scientific community. In an essay for the journal American Anthropologist, Brown University linguistics professor Philip Lieberman described as "absurd" the mixture of different levels of advancement among different tribes living in close proximity. Lieberman pointed out that it "would be most unlikely 80,000 years ago" for humans to still be exhibiting apelike characteristics, at the same time noting that the Ivaka tribe was depicted as having "a village culture that would have been likely 10,000 years ago."

ICT said...

Thank you for nice information
Please visit our website:
Visit Us