What the Hell Were Humans Doing in Prehistory?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/8/22

I’m still reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m a member of an online book club that will be discussing the book all during the month of March, so I’ll be discussing it here piece by piece, whenever a particular topic intrigues me.

Here’s the setup for the book. Humans have been around in their present form for about 200,000 years, but recorded history only covers around the last three thousand years — what were we doing for those other 197,000 years? Anthropology and archeology help answer that question to a degree. The Dawn of Everything works to say to what degree is possible. However, most of what anyone can say about those 197,000 years is speculation, and that can cause controversy.

For most people, prehistory is a mixture of the Garden of Eden imagery and fantasies about cave people. Anthropologists study the evidence provided by archaeologists then speculate about that evidence by comparing it to what we learned from ethnographic research on various indigenous societies from the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, what most Americans know about the pre-20th century indigenous people of North America comes from watching westerns. In other words, unless you read a lot of books on anthropology it’s doubtful you think about prehistory at all, and what you do think you know is pop culture deceptions.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist, have caused some political shit storms by angering some of their readers with their discussion of freedom and inequality while analyzing what we know about prehistory. These brouhahas are caused partly because Graeber was an anarchist and was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and, partly because they challenge the established Western views that speculate on humans in prehistory, and tie ideas about various forms of inequality and freedom to their speculation. They seem to imply humanity made a wrong turn, but I’m not so sure we did, but don’t care to argue it. Graeber and Wengrow do review a lot of speculation that claimed we made a wrong turn when we switched from hunting and gathering to farming, but I’m not sure they believe that idea either, but merely review it too.

First off, there is no introduction, so the first chapter works as an introduction, but I don’t think it’s a good one. So far, I’ve felt every chapter has been self-contained, so it’s hard to assess the book as a whole. They title their first chapter, “Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood: Or why this is not a book about the origins of inequality.” I don’t think some readers took that to heart and feel The Dawn of Everything is harping about inequality. I wonder if conservatives dislike the book for the same reason they don’t like Critical Race Theory, that it smells of liberal thinking, and it asks them to relearn a history they’ve already embraced and memorized.

Here’s the thing about speculating about prehistory — speculation is only speculation. We’ve found some human bones, lots of animal bones, we have some pots and graves, some old cave paintings, remnants of housing, stone monuments, figurines, lots of rock tools, but not much of anything else. Most speculation about prehistory rests on ethnographic studies of primitive cultures that have survived into historical times. What Graeber and Wengrow challenge are generalized ideas we’ve developed about those cultures over the last couple of centuries.

Most of The Dawn of Everything is about the limits of speculation. What we really want to know is what were the people like? What did they think? How did they relate to each other? What kind of societies did they form? How much did they know about nature and reality? It’s one thing to look at old bones and relics and guess what people did, it’s entirely another thing to extrapolate what they thought and believed.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can ideal concepts exist before they are defined? Take inequality? That’s a concept that’s been emerging for a few centuries and a concept that modern society is working on. Even something like freedom is a concept been around for a long time, but has it always existed? What about science? Graeber and Wengrow have a whole chapter dealing with the origin of scientific thinking. Our ancestors might have observed nature and put two and two together but was that really science? I believe a concept like fairness might be very ancient, but I don’t know about inequality. I believe inequality is an emerging concept. There might have been societies in history and prehistory that had more equality but I don’t think they thought about it as a concept.

I think it’s completely insane to suggest humanity took a wrong turn because we don’t like aspects of our present society. The old saying, “the only constant is change” applies here. The variety of ways humans can organize their societies is infinite, and that comes across in this book. I think Graeber and Wengrow are right to say we can’t generalize about the past like Rousseau or Hobbes.

The best we can do is study all the ethnographic studies, examine all the archeological evidence and review all the speculation, and then create our own inner map of what prehistory was like with the jigsaw pieces we have. We also must be willing to constantly update that map as we gather new puzzle pieces.

We must resist philosophers and psychologists who try to characterize humans now or in the past in broad general terms. I believe what Graeber and Wengrow are telling us is not to lump together various stages of human development or societies into convenient pigeonholes. For example, there was no one shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Nor was there one type of nomads or hunting and gatherers. For example, North America had hundreds of different types of Native American cultures, so there is no way to generalize about what they thought about gender or money, or politics.

The trouble is there are places in the first chapter of this book (and I’m only on chapter six) that seem to imply that Graeber and Wengrow are advocating that we should be working towards all the various forms of equality. We can judge modern societies on inequality and even ethnographic studies of primitive societies we have studied, but I believe speculation on inequality in prehistory societies will be based only on our biases, and I think Graeber and Wengrow make that clear even though they keep trying.

Personally, I wonder if Graeber and Wengrow haven’t spoiled the rest of their book with chapter one. Most of the reviews I’ve seen focus on that first chapter. That might be due to the reviewers only reading that chapter, or it might be because it’s the one that pushes buttons. The other chapters I’ve read deal more with what we know, and I’m finding them quite fascinating. It makes me want to read more ethnographic studies — although, as Graeber and Wengrow show, those studies are often colored by their observer’s speculations. If anything, this book shows us time and again how we distort the evidence.

For me, the key to enjoying learning about prehistory is to avoid speculation and focus just on the evidence. The trouble is a certain amount of speculation is good. Nowadays generalizations are considered evil. But we make useful generalizations all the time — it’s called pattern recognition. We just can’t go overboard. Every archeological dig is like a crime scene. You only find so much evidence. Science never knows anything for sure, but works with statistics, looking for a preponderance of convincing evidence.

Most people don’t spend time studying history, much less prehistory. And it’s hard to make a case to get people to care about history and prehistory. For most people, it’s about as useful as studying geometry, cosmology, or particle physics. But consider this. All of us are deluded. We constantly fool ourselves in countless ways that make us see reality distorted by our cultural upbringing. Studying other societies that adapted to our shared external reality in different ways can break us out of the brainwashing of that upbringing. If the book is doing its job it should be stirring things up.

It’s not about whether or not we made a wrong turn, but knowing about all the possible turns we took and could have taken. I think this is scary for some people. If you want to believe the Bible is literally true, then learning about all the societies that existed at the same time as the Bible was being written could be disturbing. If you’re a scholar of Western culture that backed a particular view of history and prehistory, considering what Graeber and Wengrow are saying could also be disturbing. But aren’t all paradigm shifts uncomfortable?

Humans think we’re the crown of creation. And people raised in western culture believe we’re the pinnacle of human intellectual development. Maybe Graeber and Wengrow believe we took a wrong turn because our global society is sailing into an iceberg and they want us to change course. Personally, I don’t think our species has any control over its evolution. It’s not a matter of choice, but playing out all the anti-entropic possibilities. I believe studying history and prehistory shows us some of the many things we’ve already tried.

Knowing where we’ve been might help us know how we can adapt to climate change. Here’s one example. Graeber and Wengrow consider that prehistory societies made the choice between being hunting and gatherers and settling down and that they often chose to stay on the move because it offered more advantages. This video, it shows one modern reason why nomadic people choose to settle down and pursue year-round agriculture. It allows them to build wealth and stability in their lives. This is a very inspiring video.

JWH

2022 Book #4 – The Horse The Wheel and Language by David W. Anthony

by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/22

Reading about the past is calming my anxieties about the future. The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony is not a book I recommend to the casual reader. I expected it to be a popular science book about archaeology, but it turned out to be something much heavier. It’s a scientific work, probably used as a supplemental textbook. I found listening and reading the book to be rewarding and inspiring but it’s not fun. However, it has caused me to do a lot of philosophical pondering.

I won’t try to describe the book, Wikipedia has done an extremely detailed job with hyperlinks. If you want to know what the book is like, here is Anthony giving a lecture. This is exactly like listening to the audiobook.

I bought this book years ago and never read it and gave it to the library book sale. Then I read a popular article about linguistic anthology and decided I wanted to try it again and found a used copy. Still, I didn’t read it. Finally, I found an audiobook version that made it more accessible. I’m glad I had the physical book to refer to, because of its many complex charts and illustrations. This was a rewarding read, but I just want people to know it’s real science, not even popular science, and the going is tough. It took me weeks to listen to it all. Mainly, I want to talk about how I reacted to the book.

For years I’ve been troubled, even disturbed that our species lack real effort to combat climate change. For almost thirty years I’ve been waiting for governments and citizens to change their ways. I now realize that was naive of me. People don’t change. Not that I’ve given up complete hope, but all the evidence tells me our global civilization will never do anything significant about climate change.

That has inspired some existential insights. I expected humanity to grab control of reality and do everything it could to freeze the environment to its 1850-1950 weather patterns and maintain that as a steady-state forever. Once I started studying archaeology I realized that weather has always been changing over our species lifetime, and even for the whole lifetime of the Earth. Humans have always adapted to new weather patterns. It’s probably too fantastic to think we’ll control the weather.

Reading The Horse The Wheel and Language showed that humans have never stayed the same either. We’re constantly changing. Civilizations come and go all the time. Reading and watching documentaries about history and archaeology is teaching me that change is constant. That old saying, “the only thing constant is death and taxes” is true.

On its own specific subject The Horse The Wheel and Language is fascinating, but like I said, I not going to recommend you run out and buy it. Most of it is one giant infodump describing several societies around the Russian Steppes from about 4000-1200 BCE. The most interesting chapters were the early ones about the Indo-European languages and how linguists infer what the Proto-Indo-European language was like, and more specifically to this book, where in the world did the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language lived.

Anthony claims by looking at the array of words in an ancient language and comparing it to the array of objects that archeologists have unearthed, we might pinpoint where those people could have lived. For example, if a language has the word for a wagon, but no wagons are ever found, it’s a not likely match. Or if a language has a lot of words for raising sheep, and lots of sheep bones were found, we might be getting warm. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. For example, linguists can show how words from adjacent civilizations have passed into a language. I found all this fascinating, but overwhelming.

This is why the words Horse and Wheel are in the title. Only certain early civilizations had horses and wheels. For a long time, horses were only hunted for food. Then they were domesticated for food. Then came riding horses, and finally using horses to pull carts, then wagons. This made me think about how we’ll adapt to climate change. We’ll invent housing, clothing, lifestyles, jobs, political parties, etc. to adapt.

One thing I was amazed to learn was just how many different groups of people existed in a small area in prehistory that we know about. Most people when they think of ancient civilizations think of Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and a few others. To me, the Russian Steppes and nearby lands sounded like North America before Columbus with countless tribes of nomadic and agrarian peoples.

For a while when reading the book I thought of making a timeline/list of civilizations to memorize but I soon realized that could become a lifetime project. I’ve ordered an archaeology textbook to help me get a bigger picture, but I’m not sure how big of a picture I can manage. Reading this book also made me crave maps, so I ordered a couple of atlases.

Many of these early civilizations lasted hundreds or even thousands of years. That made me think about how often world maps have changed in my lifetime. If the United States of America doesn’t make it to its 300th birthday it won’t be alone. All the descriptions of past changes of civilizations due to climate change, war, technology, disease, etc., make me wonder about what America might be like in the 22nd century. I now understand we can’t keep the weather of the 1950s forever, or the politics of the 1790s, or the technology of the 2020s.

About 85 million people died in the decade before I was born due to WWII, or about 3% of the world’s population. We’ve already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to kill that many or more by the end of this century. Since we’re not going to stop adding CO2 anytime soon, billions will probably die in the 22nd century. Percentage-wise, civilizations have seen that kind of population reduction before.

I believe conservatives wanted to preserve the social climate of the 1950s, while liberals wanted to keep the weather environment of the 1950s. Neither will get what they want. All the demographics on Americans and America will be so much different in the 22nd century that we wouldn’t recognize either.

I need to stop speculating or worrying so about the future. Studying the past is philosophical liberating for me, but I’m not sure how much I should pursue it either, but I will. Living in the now is what’s important. And that’s why most people don’t worry about the future. I doubt for most of humanity’s existence the future was even a concept. I also assume the reason why so many people embrace various forms of denial is they don’t want to know the future because deep down they fear change. But change is coming. We can’t stop it.

JWH

2022 Book #1 – The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

by James Wallace Harris

My old buddy Connell and I often talk about the unexpected scientific discoveries made in our lifetime. Back in the 1960s, we both grew up reading science fiction and we had certain expectations about the 21st-century. Now that we’re in our seventies living in that century we realized that science fiction missed so much, and so did our imaginations.

Because we grew up thinking the black and white astronomical photos made by the Mt. Palomar 200″ telescope were the pinnacle of astronomical awareness, we never imagined what the Hubble Space Telescope would show us in color. We never dreamed that astronomers would discover exoplanets or robots would roam the solar system. We thought people had to go to all those places.

Nor did we imagine society being transformed by computers and networks. I never pictured the computer I’m typing on now, or what I could do with my iPhone or iPad.

But one of the biggest discoveries we missed was about animal consciousness. We expected that we’d have to wait for interstellar spaceships to be developed before we’d meet another form of intelligent life. We never realized it was all around us on Earth and in the oceans.

Intelligence and sentience are on a spectrum. We grew up in a time when people believed they were the crown of creation, and all life below us was unconscious and stupid. We’re finally realizing just how stupid we were. See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

There are so many books to read to illustrate what I mean. The Soul of an Octopus is just one, but a beautiful work by a woman that has learned so much about animals by spending time with them. Sy Montgomery writes in a way that we follow her around as she makes her discoveries. You will fall in love with four beautiful creatures, Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. You will cry when some of them die, but you will also get to meet intelligent alien lifeforms.

I still read a lot of science fiction, I can’t help myself, it’s a lifelong addiction that I no longer try to escape from. But I’ve learned if I really want to experience the far-out I need to read science books, books like The Soul of an Octopus.

My reading goal for 2022 is to read as many intensely great books as I can find. The Soul of an Octopus starts the year with a bang.

JWH

The End of Civilization – Again

by James Wallace Harris, 11/29/21

When I was growing up in the 1950s annihilation by atomic war was a common worry. Kids were taught duck and cover drills, people built fallout shelters, we routinely heard Conalrad tests on the radio, and popular culture was full of stories about WWIII. The famous Doomsday Clock stayed set just minutes from doomsday.

Over the decades there has always been the world is ending forecasts. Some chicken little is always yelling the sky is falling. The new vogue is to claim civilization is collapsing. Routinely following the news makes it hard to ignore such fears.

What if civilization is collapsing? What should we do? The science is quite solid on climate change, and we’ve been warned for decades, but for decades we’ve done nothing significant. A fair number of folks are buying rural plots of land and AR15s but that hardly seems to be a practical solution for everyone.

My guess is most people are ignoring all the gloom and doom, or else going crazy in their own quiet squirrely way. I don’t think there is much we can do. The reason why many analyzed trends lead to possible apocalypses is that the natural thing for everyone to do is to keep doing what we’re always been doing. Humans aren’t big on intentionally making drastic changes to their lives.

If we’re not going to do anything to avert the forecasted catastrophes, then what are we going to do instead? Anxiety and depression are so self-destructive. It’s much too early to panic. We could party like it’s 1999, but the end isn’t that close yet. Enduring resignation will probably be a common plan, but that’s emotionally draining. Taking up Zen Buddhism or meditation might be useful. Enjoying the simple pleasures of life has always been an excellent choice. Ditto for pursuing creative hobbies.

Developing a positive perspective should be helpful. Civilizations always collapse, but often over decades or centuries. There will be a rush to hoard or consume everything left. The well-to-do will grab what they want, which is always more than they need. The practical will learn to live with less without agonizing over what they no longer have. For most citizens the collapse of civilization will be in such slow motion they will hardly notice it. It’s only the unfortunate who become refugees from random catastrophes that will feel the harshest impacts. So knowing how to relocate will be a valuable skill. There are certain preparedness precautions to take, but since nothing is certain, it’s not practical to go overboard with such measures.

Probably most useful is the ability for understanding the true reality of things. Don’t get caught up in delusions, fears, panics, but also avoid over-optimism and Pollyanish thinking.

I bring all this up because of some videos I’ve been watching. I have no idea how valid they are, but I consider the increase of such thinking as a kind of pulse-taking. What do you think of these videos? These three accept doom but try to find a positive perspective with dealing with such doom. They offer wisdom.

If you are a routine YouTube watcher and are signed in, watching these three videos will cause YouTube to offer you more of the same. There are quite a lot of these videos, so be careful. Don’t get overwhelmed.

JWH

CRISPR: Book v. Documentary

by James Wallace Harris, 8/18/21

I’ve been learning about the gene editing tool CRISPR for years in bits and pieces. From reading news and magazines articles I had a vague idea that science had made a tremendous breakthrough, one akin to science fiction imagined in GATTACA and Brave New World. CRISPR/Cas9 will allow us to heal people with inheritable genetic diseases or cure people with conditions caused by defective genes, but more than that, it will allow us to program our own evolutionary developments, and change our reproductive germlines.

I don’t want to try and summarize CRISPR/Cas9 to you in detail because I’m recommending your read The Code Breakers by Walter Isaacson or watching Human Nature. But if you want a quick overview, here’s the Wikipedia entry.

My focus is to compare learning from a book versus a documentary. I’ve already acquired what I would consider rumors about CRISPR via Flipboard and The New York Times. Those are casual, everyday ways to absorb tidbits of information. But what’s the next level up? That depends on the time you’re willing to spend, and the amount of details you wish to digest.

Human Nature (2019) is a 1 hour and 35 minute documentary that’s currently available to Netflix or PBS Documentaries on Amazon subscribers, or to rent or buy from Amazon and other video sources. It’s a superior documentary that quickly covers the background of CRISPR with impressive infographic and animations, while interviewing the major scientists, then moving into the thorny ethical issues of gene editing, before finally wrapping things up by speculating about the future. After watching Human Nature you’ll have a good sense of what CRISPR can do and its science fictional impact on society. The documentary claims CRISPR will change the world more than the internet.

On the other hand, if you want go beyond the Gosh-Wow level, you could read Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breakers. It’s 16 hours and 4 minutes on audio, or 552 pages of reading. The book tells the same story as the documentary but with far more detail. The framing of the book is a semi-biography of Jennifer Doudna, who shared the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2020. Walter Isaacson is noted for his biographies (Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin), and The Code Breakers is sort of a biography of Doudna, at least when it comes to her scientific career.

But The Code Breakers is much more. It’s a history of a technology that has emerged in our lifetime, and a chronicle how scientists work to discover and apply that new technology. We learn about publishing papers, going to conferences, building labs, forming startup companies, and competing for the Nobel Prize. If you loved books like The Double Helix by James Watson, The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, or The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth, then you should love this one too. I especially admired how Isaacson’s interviewed the various scientists competing for fame and glory, because he knew that they knew he was giving Doudna the scientific fame over them. Recognizing who came first in a discovery is a challenging piece of detective work that Isaacson pulls off with the skill of a master lawyer working the jury.

What also impressed me was how Isaacson told this complex story. I can’t imagine amassing so much information and then weaving it together into a compelling narrative. I’d love to see a documentary about how Isaacson researches and writes his books.

The Code Breakers will take you much further than the Human Nature regarding how genetic editing history unfolded, but the documentary has its own virtues, especially in compelling visuals. However, I wanted to go even further into learning how CRISPR works. Neither the book nor the documentary gave me the step-by-step concepts of what the lab work was like. Because CRISPR is so damn interesting, I went searching for even more information on YouTube. Both the book and film claims using CRISPR is easy, and that anyone can order educational kits to use the technology. I just couldn’t visualize that.

This short clip gave me more of what I wanted, but it’s still not enough, but I’m going to continue looking for more videos like this one. However, I also found this video about one of the CRISPR kits.

The trouble with wanting to understand even more is I run into the limits of my understanding. I found the 2012 article from Science that’s at the heart of the book. I can read it, and even spot ideas covered in the book and documentary, but 95% lies behind an event horizon of jargon I can’t penetrate. Just look at this one paragraph:

I love popular science books and magazines, but I have to take the working of real science on faith. I don’t like that. I’m hoping to find other books and documentaries that will help me in my quest to visualize how scientists do their work in a step-by-step process. Throughout the book Isaacson wrote about the experiments involved in discovering CRISPR, but I have no mental picture of what they were like.

For example, x-ray crystallography was often mentioned as a vital skill in this lab work. Seeing this video helps me visualize more of the narrative. What I would love is a Ken Burns type documentary, a 10-part series that visually illustrated The Code Breakers.

CRISPR is another example of the positive potential for our future, and another example that validates science. Sure, CRISPR offers all the potential evils of H-Bombs, but it also proves we have great abilities to solve incredibly complex problems.

I feel lucky to have experienced digital revolution, and I’d love to live long enough watch the gene editing revolution unfold. By the time the 2040s and 2050s roll around, society will be transformed again. But then, there will be other transformation happening in the same time frame. Our efforts to slow climate or our failure to do so will reveal another massive transformation. Talk about Future Shock…

JWH

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