deletedJun 10, 2022·edited Jun 10, 2022
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Forgive me for commenting before reading, though I very much look forward to digesting this review - at the request of some subscribers I started blogging my way through this book but quit in disgust after a few chapters. (I did finish reading it however.) I'm someone with a fairly high tolerance for, let's say, ambitious nonfiction, but in terms of citation and responsible reference to evidence this is one of the most irresponsible books I've ever read. Just hundreds and hundreds of pages of inadequately sourced claims and a few instances of misreadings of the provided citations so egregious that it crosses the line into dishonesty.

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Cracking review; one sufficiently interesting and in-depth to make me think again about a book which forced me to rethink what I thought I knew in the first place. The delights of recursiveness...!

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Very good professional level writing. IMO though, 9,600 words is too long for a book review. The main reason I read reviews is to see if the book is worth my time. At about 5,000 words we are talking about 20 page of double spaced text. By that point I start to wonder if I should just read the book itself.

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>Rousseau’s submission, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, became an intellectual sensation. In its long life as one of the foundational documents of the Western world it has been, at times, blamed for the bloody slaughter of The Terror, and, at other times, lauded as the inventor of the progressive Left.

Interesting that these "two" interpretations of Rousseau are posed as alternatives, when it was precisely the progressive Left (i.e., the Jacobins) who carried out the Terror. The purported two are in fact one.

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There is evidence that standards of living actually went down with the beginning of agriculture. People became shorter, for example. The gifts of “civilization” initially only benefited the elite. Only with industrial societies has the lot of the many been substantially bettered. I think of agrarian societies as a social trap in and of themselves- where the poor are the majority controlled by a mafia-like elite - an elite who only foster literacy and innovation etc when it helps them . So how did humanity get in that trap initially? Good question.

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Jun 10, 2022·edited Jun 10, 2022

"And Christ, the most important intellectual figure for medieval Europe, was himself a political radical and revolutionary, overturning the tables of the moneylenders and frequently espousing things like in Matthew 20:25-28...."

To be fair, I understand that the question "was Christ poor?" was rather controversial in medieval Europe, with the princes of the Church seeking, in spite of the voluminous evidence to the contrary, to argue otherwise.

Contrast with the Piers Plowman tradition, which took a much more "progressive" (to modern ears) view of the roles of wealth and power and poverty.

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The story i've been telling myself about the sapient paradox is that it was something like a phase change in matter. Your 'gossip' theory maybe ends up telling the same story.

imagine a gas being injected into a weirdly shaped chamber. The chamber represents habitable niches for human beings; the gas is humans. As the gas goes in, first it fills the change (i.e. the out of africa exodus and population of all possible niches) and then the pressure starts to rise.

Pressure could rise for a loooong time, even if individual molecules aren't changing their structure. And-then, at some point, the pressure rises high enough for a phase transition from gas to liquid. What would this look like from the perspective of individual molecules?

From my perspective, a phase change would look like, you'd see some new kind of 'social arrangement' between other molecules, relating to each other in some new way that made the 'normal kind of relationship' (i.e., what happened before) harder to maintain.

So maybe what happened was, population pressure gradually went up, and once it got to a certain point, being better at fighting wars started to matter more than anything else. Gossip networks, because they tear down outstanding individuals, ended up losing out to formalized hierarchies.

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Interesting, but I liked the book review part better than the long tangent into the author's own pet theory.

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Very nice discussion. I do take issue somewhat with the framing of a great swath of human history being in a “great trap”: first, because it’s already natural to expect that archaeological records become sparser as one looks further back in time; second, because the conditions for long-term preservation of evidence of human culture are somewhat independent of what might be valued by the ancient people themselves: for instance if for many generations the people of a certain region favoured sky burial over tombs, we might erroneously take this to mean that they were not engaged in much cultural activity, simply because the evidence would not be preserved (much like how the fossil record grows sparse where and when soft-tissued organisms were dominant).

Admittedly these two objections have a ring of “just-so”. My bigger objection is that a society that lacked mass gatherings may not necessarily have been in a “trap” at all. It might not be that they were “held down” from complex social experimentation; rather, perhaps, conditions were such that they simply drew no benefit from doing so. This, though different in affect, is logically no different from a trap; but I do think it’s worth questioning the affect.

I’ll close with a few speculations about what the change in conditions may have been for this apparent blooming in the archaeological record.

1. Suppose in the distant past that languages diverged much more rapidly than they do today: a lack of standardized syntactic patterns, such as those we see in e.g. the Proto-Indo-European language group, could have caused diverging groups to rapidly become unintelligible to each other, and also hindered the development of Pidgin languages or lingua francas. (Call this the Tower of Babel Hypothesis). If this is true, it might further have had the effect of limiting the size of large gatherings to a smaller factor of the Dunbar number. This hypothesis posits that language evolved more or less like a technology, becoming more effective over a very long period of time.

2. Suppose, on the question of violence and rivalry, that despite humans’ demonstrated capacity for making peace, ancient bands always found it preferable to settle new territory instead. Therefore, for many tens or even hundreds of millennia, humans radiated away from each other in response to conflict and made only minimal attempts to coexist across tribes. Only when and where human migration settled into an equilibrium, in such cases as the risk of conflict in settling new land was roughly equal to the risk of conflict in remaining, did humans begin to develop rituals of broader social assembly.

3. I’m not sure how much this book covers this, but it’s well-known that foraging tribes have an active relationship with the land they live on: through techniques like brush-burning and the planting of favourable seeds, they, just like agrarians, have well-established traditions of working the land to make it more fertile. Yet these traditions may have taken a long time to develop. While the carrying capacity of the environment is low, human population density is also low, which limits the viability of assembling large groups of people for rituals or celebration. Perhaps, magnified by human activity, the carrying capacity of the environment gradually increased over many thousands of years until it crossed some critical threshold.

That’s not to say that the “Gossip Trap” idea isn’t compelling in itself. I fear that it—as well as any of the hypotheses I threw in—are all vulnerable to the same question of “yes, but why *then*? Why did humanity pick that particular threshold moment to stop gossiping and get around to building culture?”

Very likely, no matter what consensus we eventually land on, we’ll have to allow for an unrecoverable element of chaotic spontaneity, just like we (implicitly) do in charting the course of biological evolution.

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Isn't the Sapiens paradox more easily explained by the difficulty to pass on knowledge from generation to generation in small groups? They didn't have writing, and a small group of people doesn't have as good memory as a larger group. Once the group reached a certain size, it was more likely that there was at least another member in the group that knew the skills or ideas that was discovered in the group, which meant that it had a greater chance of being sustained to the next generation, i.e. knowledge became cumulative for the first time. I think a more acurate analogy would be a bathtub without a plug. What does it take to keep the water level rising? Cumulation. No cumulation, no progress. Before cumulation, ideas had to be reinvented again and again. Fortunatly, one major idea was very easy to teach to everyone even in small groups: fire. Smash two flintstones together.

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The orthogonal direction as neither Rousseau nor Hobbes is consistent, in some part, with Otto Rank's study of primitive culture. He found that ideology dominated psychology more than biology (which caused Freud to have his "golden boy" thrown out of the club). Rank always saw humans as most concerned with their individual soul, and the development of religion and ideology as the collective soul-belief. This avoids historical projection of modern values onto ancient ways which (in the 70's) was known as ethnohistory, and that seems familiar in this review.

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I don't buy the comparison of prehistoric small civilizations that operate entirely by informal social power with Twitter, because in Twitter you're encountering way, way more than 150 people. And that's a big part of why Twitter is so terrible: people can tell blatant falsehoods and get away with it a lot more easily on Twitter because the people they're lying to don't have the past experience with them to realize they're lying, and if they mistreat people, they aren't risking the major negative consequences they'd be risking if they mistreated a literal neighbor who was either friends with or related to 20% of their social circle.

High school is also not a good analogue because it's a highly artificial environment with no shared goal.

By contrast, in a persistent community that relies on group cooperation, people are going to care a lot about how much other people are contributing to the community, whether they are willing to help out their neighbors, whether you can trust them to keep their word, whether they're moochers, whether they're always stirring up drama, etc. And...I'm fine with people getting more or less social power based on such factors.

Sure, popularity isn't going to be *entirely* based on those legitimate factors, not by a long shot--humans being humans will also end up gaining or losing social power for stupid reasons and occasionally for positively evil reasons. But the bullshit reasons will be a significantly smaller percentage of what matters to people if they're a functional community where they all need trustworthy fellow-helpers in order to survive and flourish. (Successful) prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribes were such communities. Twitter and high school are not, and so are not good models for imagining what that would have been like.

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Jun 10, 2022·edited Jun 10, 2022

Re: the middle ages not having a concept of inequality, I think you may be misreading things somewhat. Obviously they were aware of the concept, and your reference to scripture is on point. But maybe it's just me, whenever I read the Bible, I can't help but notice for all it criticizes corrupt officials and bad kings, it ASSUMES there must be a king and a hierarchy of officials. Jesus doesn't criticize officials for having power, he criticizes them for being overbearing and not using their power to serve the people. But... and I'm just speculating here... the Son of God seems generally OK with authority?

Rather, I think that the David's point is how in the middle ages the default position was that inequality was natural, inevitable, divinely ordained, and ultimately just in a cosmic sense. There can of course be bad/unjust hierarchies, but the solution involves getting the hierarchy "right", not flattening it. If you think it undercuts the point to note how medieval peasants revel in a carnivalesque return to "primitive equality", you also have to acknowledge that they seem to collectively agree "this is not a sustainable social arrangement".

The indigenous critique was thus significant not in providing the IDEA of an egalitarian society, but rather an EXAMPLE of one, and one that seemed to be functioning.

Personally, my critique of the book is that Graeber has rose-tinted glasses when it comes indigenous anarchism. It may be true that egalitarian societies create complex and deeply fulfilling social arrangements, so calling them "primitive" simply inappropriate. Still, such groups apparently weren't very good at producing vast arsenals of quality weaponry and legions of well drilled soldiers. That turned out to be a pretty serious problem, and one that needs to be taken more seriously by anarchists.

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Great review and thought at the end. I think one miss was Julian Jaynes and his book ‘the origin of consciousness and the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ controversial but still the best explanation for how we got out of the world of Dunbar’s number.

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The Davids seem to have fallen into the too-common academic doublethink of deriding the noble savage myth while at the same time buying it hook, line, and sinker.

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Jun 10, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Just as a heads up, the Northwest Coast Indians are always being cited as “the hunter-gatherers with hierarchy,” and that boils down under the boring/normal theory to the fact that they’ve got colossal fisheries that let them live a settled existence.

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Jun 10, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

I read "Dawn of Everything" about six months ago, so my recollection of it isn't fresh, but I found the book's problems to outweigh its strengths, and not by a little. Among the major problems were the fact that it targets straw men (popular writing by Pinker, Diamond, et al., which doesn't represent, and is far more simplistic than the actual states of the fields of archaeology and anthropology). It sets up simple heuristics to measure social criteria of interest and applies them rigidly where flexibility is called for (e.g., assuming that evidence individuals moving from one settlement to another shows "freedom" to dissociate, when it could as easily be reflecting patterns of exile . . . think of our anonymous reviewer's school lunch tables: what does a change in seating mean?). It reduces the concept of power in a way that seriously discounts the role of religion and views ritual as playacting, rather than as social reality. And multiple times statements from cited sources don't match what the sources actually say, strongly enough that in areas I was familiar with that really jumped out as I read. In my own former field (ancient China), I found the representation of data inaccurate more often than not (which is actually pretty common when non-specialists try to jump into an unfamiliar area, as people in the China field routinely discover). Of course, I'm not capable of assessing the evidence "Dawn" cites about South America, Australia, etc., but I found obvious and surprising errors in sections on Egypt, where citations were from materials I was familiar with from comparative study.

Certainly, Graeber and Wengrow are right that the big popular narrative books about social evolution are simplistic, but they are non-specialist arguments that draw on superseded models that practitioners rarely use. I can't judge their use of French accounts of Native American practices and views of Europe, but a review by David Bell (https://www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity?s=r), who does have requisite skills, suggests it's deeply problematic, and regarding the issue of the pre-prehistoric period of actual "dawn" (about which I know nothing), I'm persuaded by a long review written by two specialists in that field, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale (https://mronline.org/2021/12/20/the-dawn-of-everything-gets-human-history-wrong/), that Graeber and Wengrow were simply not in a position to present their perspective with anything like the rhetorical authority they do.

In the end, I think "Dawn" winds up in the same basket as Pinker and Diamond's books, although it's tougher to read because it is so rhetorically self-indulgent (which produces a variety of internal contradictions, because the authors themselves seem to have gotten lost, as the reviewer here notes). But because it has a contemporary anarchist political ax to grind it's likely to have a different kind of influence, one that tends to strengthen with unearned authority a political point of view that is already over-reliant on abstraction, and which will claim the model offered by "Dawn" as "factual" support.

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This is great. I was at first suspicious because of the claims that the book has been getting glowing reviews (most of the reviews I've seen have found the book interesting, but ended up harping a lot on the empirical difficulties that plague most of Graeber's books, including this one), and also because of the simplistic association of Hobbes with the right and Rousseau with the left (while the headline views of these people might sound congenial to one or another side of the post-revolutionary political debate, the actual details of their ideas are both problematic and useful to both sides). But by the end it's doing the good thing of using the book to explore interesting ideas. I suppose I'm biased because I think the idea it comes to at the end is one I also had, when listening to James Suzman's appearance on the Ezra Klein podcast (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/29/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-james-suzman.html) - that the constant negging and social control of egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer society sounds a lot like cancel culture.

Now, I'm not as uniformly negative on that as the author of this review is, but I'm also not as uniformly positive on that as the anthropologists seem to be. But it's a really interesting thought - that we've somehow managed to re-create Dunbar-number-style social mechanisms with a population vastly beyond that number.

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Reading this review I found myself asking a lot: how can the Davids possibly know that? They say very detailed things about the cultural practices of pre literate cultures a very long time ago. Why do they believe these things? Is it just inference from the archaeological record (in which case Macaulay's _Motel of the Mysteries_ seems a pretty good Swiftian critique of the confidence of that inference)? Or is something else going on?

Maybe the answer is just that they are relying inappropriately on dicta from their sources, as other commenters seem to suggest. But in any case the review would have been stronger if it gave some summary of the epistemological model the book uses to draw its conclusions.

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Did Taleb really praise this book? Yikes, his long decline continues. I can understand the New York Times and the New Yorker taking the line they took, but this book was so awful even the New York Review of Books has a negative review up (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2021/12/16/david-graeber-digging-for-utopia/).

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Also, the little speculation bit at the end is excellent and extremely plausible sounding to me.

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Jun 10, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

"Hobbes, founder of the political Right"

Robert Filmer would disagree with that.

Peter Turchin had a telling critique of Graeber & Wengrow here:


Bryan Caplan discusses a similar "trap", though one that post-dates agricultural civilization (it was first inspired by observations of rural Latin America):


In terms of politics, I would add that before even the middle ages and Christ the Greeks had a tradition of democracy. The Romans refused to admit their emperors were kings, because they had already prided themselves on getting rid of monarchs.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Excellent review. I enjoyed the book but share the reviewer's criticisms. I'd add only that Graeber & Wengrow repeatedly use phrases like: "it cannot be doubted"; "it is obvious that"; "the evidence is clear" etc., on many occasions throughout the book when there are great doubts and the evidence is vague and even ambiguous.

As far as the Sapient Paradox is concerned, the only out-of-Africa Sapiens DNA we have in readable form is some 15,000 years old. We don't know when human vocal cords and the human palate developed and both were required to fully articulate the complex sounds of language. We also don't know when the FOXP2 gene became fully expressed in Sapiens populations.

Without complex language, none of the pre-history societies that Graeber & Wengrow examine could have existed, and it may have been the case that the gene expressions for both the mechanical and the intellectual elements of language did not exist across large populations of otherwise modern humans until after C. 20,000 years ago.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

The Davids have compiled a good overview of recently-overturned hypotheses in archeology, and a qualitative introduction to the new hypotheses. Their usual method is this:

1. Explain a belief archeologists had 40 years ago.

2. List recent discoveries contradicting that belief. Make it sound like /all/ evidence contradicts that belief, without actually giving any numbers. Make it sound like they discovered this themselves, just now.

3. Pose as bravely speaking truth to power, even though they're just presenting something that's now doctrinaire.

4. Explain the vile motives of the archaeologists who conspired for so long to conceal the truth. They were stupid and either racist or sexist.

5. Don't present any quantitative data to support their claim; just imply by omission that the exceptions they've listed (exceptions to the old belief) comprise the great majority of a random sample.

Disclaimer: I read only the first half of the book.

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This was a really first-class essay, well-written and interesting. I even liked the "Gossip Trap" personal speculation part, it's a point of view I haven't seen before, and it's well presented. The only part I didn't really like was the semi-apologetic semi-false-humility final "In Which The Truth Is Revealed" section. Honestly, you could have just cut the essay with the ending of the penultimate section and it would be 20% better, and say just as much. You were bold in that section, don't navel-gaze and equivocate after, end on the strong note!

So, congratulations to the author, it's a great essay.

On the subject matter: the first caveat I would want to see addressed is the whether there is anything to explain in the first place (about the Sapient Paradox). Complex strongly interacting systems routinely have highly nonlinear emergent behavior, where for a long time nothing much at all seems to happen, and then shazam something drastic seems to come out of nowhere, and the triggering even can be something completely trivial, the way (by analogy) an avalanche is driven by snow that builds up all season, slowly, but it finally happens at a given moment in time because of some very small random jolt. So my question about the "Sapient Paradox" is: what evidence is there that anything happened that needs explaining? It could just've been an avalanche.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 12, 2022

I'd like to bring attention to an older, shorter, and I think better archeological study of the development of social systems: Scott Ortman, Lily Blair, & Peter Peregrine, "The Contours of Cultural Evolution". In /The Emergence of Premodern States/, published in 2018 by the Santa Fe Institute, pp 187-217. See https://www.sfipress.org/premodern-states/the-contours-of-cultural-evolution.

It's much less-ambitious than DoE; but it /quantitatively/ shows that cultural evolution follows many long-term general quantitative trends, suggesting that there is an arrow of civilizational development, though one more more abstract than "band / tribe / chiefdom". This makes DoE's key idea, which I take is that social structures used many thousands of years ago might be transferred into the modern age, look untenable.

CoCE has lots of graphs showing things like

fig 1: the population size a society can support scales exponentially in the number of cultural attributes from the Atlas of Cultural Evolution (ACE) which that society possesses; also see figure 7 showing log(population) ~ # of different social functions

fig 2: the population of the largest settlement of each time interval increases exponentially, back at least to almost 12,000 BP (but note that, though the max population keeps rising exponentially, the existing cultures are spread log-evenly throughout the range from tiny to max)

fig 9: log(length a culture survived) ~ log(population of largest settlement)

Most-intriguing is figure 11, which claims to show that the size of cultures has sweet spots at 25, 500, 2500, and 10,000 people. That is, a culture gets "stuck" at these sizes for some time, and on bursting through one limit, begins developing more rapidly until it hits the next one. The histogram data is even neater than reported; the sweet spots appear by my reading to correspond to populations of 23.7, 237, 2371, and 23714, in a regular geometric progression. But the histogram is noisy, because N = 157. I'd like to see a formal statistical test done on the odds of getting such a clean result by chance.

There are a lot fewer claims in CoCE than in DoE, and they're less-specific; but they've got the proper quantitative science that DoE doesn't.

Sabloff, Jeremy A.. The Emergence of Premodern States: New Perspectives on the Development of Complex Societies. Santa Fe Institute Press. The Kindle edition is $3, which can be in Amazon digital credits (https://amzn.to/3MFQ2zd).

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Excellent review.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Very well written and interesting, thank you for your contribution anonymous author.

I think the sapient trap question is very interesting and one I have never thought about before. I sadly must say that I find your answer to speculative and vague sorry. My main complaint is that you don't have an account about how the gossip trap was escaped.

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I read the book... having read David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" I know that he questions mental paradigms or shibboleths or assumptions that deserve to be questioned--and substantiates his positions. Having seen the 2008 financial crisis, I was ready for the fresh air of "Debt," and after working in a hierarchical corporation I was ready to hear in "Dawn" about the possibility of social/economic structures that don't entail so much anomie and powerlessness. Graeber's voice was important. It's sad that he's gone.

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I love this review. In your conclusion you nailed several thoughts that have been percolating through my mind for years. I’d love to write a book with you.

The book, though, sounds like it contains a lot of bunk. I’m kind of an archaeology nerd and armchair historian, and some of these quotes sound a bit wild to me. I want to check the citations to find out exactly what evidence is letting them make such precise statements about the political and religious culture of the Upper Paleolithic, or the Pacific Northwest in 1850 BC.

I love prehistory, but the desire to tell a compelling story (particularly an idealized one) is difficult to resist. It’s honestly sort of an obligation as you try to make sense of evidence, and try to make others care. But it bugged me when my tour guide at the Neolithic village recreation said “This burial was of a woman who traveled long distances trading flints. So clearly this society was egalitarian and the woman high-status because flint was important.” We have no idea what conditions led that woman to walk thousands of miles carrying flint, whether or not she had a choice, and how others felt about her.

There is so much we can never know from the archaeological record. It invites pie-in-the-sky idealizations of prehistoric life, and baseless theories about the beliefs and motivations of ancient people. Anybody who tells you a good story is suspect. I personally think your conclusion is the more convincing one. But then I read this blog, so I would, wouldn’t I?

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I dunno. I'm all for linking interesting ideas back to our modern lives. But at the moment it doesn't seem like I get the chance to hear any conclusions other than "isn't Twitter terrible?" I've literally started to discount any piece of writing that includes this idea because it just seems vapid and contentless. Which is a shame, because I was quite enjoying the review up till then.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Huh, that final speculation about Twitter and the return to the Gossip Trap reminds me of previous speculation about the Thrive/Survive theory of the modern political spectrum (https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/) & Farmer vs. Forager morality (https://www.overcomingbias.com/2012/05/forager-vs-farmer-morality.html).

Basically, if the modern world is increasingly returning to hunter-gatherer levels of mobility and individual prosperity, might we see a return to hunter-gatherer social structures as well? In both good and bad ways, like people being equal... but only because they're stuck in a high-school like morass where none of your accomplishments actually matter, you can't get away from anyone, and the only thing that differentiates you from the rest is how well you play the social game. A world where the formal hierarchies are weaker (e.g. the student council president doesn't really have any power over you), but informal hierarchies simply sprout up to take their place (e.g. every so often a student commits suicide because of relentless bullying, the star football players or band members get away with the occasional sexual assault or even rape because the community is willing to look the other way for its celebrities, punishment for showing up the 'Queen Bee' at the prom by contrast is swift and decisive, etc. etc.).

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The reviewer seems to have somewhat missed the ultimate point of Graeber and Wengrow's arguments. Although the reviewer admit that G&W objective was to disprove many of the social evolutionary assumptions that have haunted Western Civilization since the Enlightenment, they seems to take this book as a direct attack on modern capitalist society (though capitalism is only mentioned three times in the 500 page text). But the reviewer overlooks the fact, that even though both G&W have Leftie academic credentials, their analysis also guts Marxist arguments about social evolution and social inequality (and it earned them scalding review from the Troties over at WSWS). The reviewer writes "maybe the ultimate truth or falsity of prehistorical narratives is unknowable," but the reviewer overlooks the fact that certain narratives are obviously disprovable — which is what G&W do by marshaling massive quantities of diverse historical and archaeological evidence against current social evolutionary dogmas. G&W do not propose some new grand theory for the origin of civilization, and that seems cause the reviewer a certain amount of discomfort, because of their need to jump in at the end and argue for a Grand Theory of Culture revolving around the Gossip Trap.

I spent a month delving into this wonderfully enlightening tome and I followed up on many of the citations (and I am still waiting for some of the books they referenced to be delivered through ILL) — and, full disclosure, I submitted a much shorter review of this book. So, one might be able to accuse me of sour grapes, I am gobsmacked at how differently this reviewer interpreted G&W's arguments from how I interpreted them. It's almost like we read two different books that had the same outline.

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Very good post. It is missing something: the author never explains how or why humans came to escape the gossip trap.

I'm also not convinced that gossip is the enemy of progress: people are often driven to accomplish great feats because of the popularity and status they'll gain from it. In high school, the sports star, the ace student, the most talented actor in drama or musician in band will see gains in the popularity from their accomplishments. I was massively productive as a writer in high school in no small part because I wanted to impress the other kids who enjoyed writing with how good/prolific I was.

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Good review!

I bet you could insert "ALIENS" into the Sapient Paradox, and get a History Channel special out of it. Just for fun.

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First I want to say I appreciate this review. It has charm.

Something I like about Astral Codex is that people who care about rationalism, Bayesian stuff, "reasoning with insufficient information" as a poster put it a few days ago - these people are often rigorously honest about what they know and how they know it, and what they don't know. It's refreshing. So. If my suspicions are correct and the reviewer did not finish the book, I just want to encourage the writer that here, of all places, unlike undergrad school, it is ok, even preferable, to admit frankly that you stopped before you got to the end of the book. You can even write about why. Leaving the trail of accurate observations is more important than you getting to the end of the book. 

The Dunbar number and the Gossip Trap are fun, you "spun a yarn" as you say and I think you would have gotten an A in the class I imagine you having written it for. The prof might have said "please use footnotes" and I would agree. Except if you use footnotes it becomes clear that the last one stops at p. 257 and the darn book keeps going. The final chapter begins on p. 493 according to this kindle version. G&W are just as quotable for the last 200+ pages as they were for the first 200+. Maybe fewer block quotes would help - I am in a social sciences grad program and have to do some writing here and there and sometimes it's just a lot of heavy lifting and one doesn't get there. No one is grading you. You can say exactly where you threw in the towel and why. 

Like I said in another post I lost my hard copy before I was done with it. But I decided to get a kindle copy tonight and looked up the quotes. I'm skimming it, truly this makes me want to go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Anyway here's my list of receipts and at the end I will see if I can use G&W to answer at least one of the reviewer's questions. The method I used was to take a distinctive-sounding phrase from the first line or two of the block quote and look it up. 

#1 the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed - p 4

#2 our world as it existed just before the dawn - p. 5

#3 struck outsiders as puritanical in a literal sense - p. 181

#4 Northwest Coast societies, in contrast, became notorious - p. 182

#5 in any true Northwest Coast settlement hereditary slaves might - p. 199

#6 The behavior of the Northwest Coast aristocrats - p. 183

#7 this is emphatically not what we are taught to expect - p. 183

#8 Once cultivation became widespread in Neolithic societies - p. 232

#9 the process of plant domestication in the Fertile Crescent - p. 233

#10 the key genetic mutation leading to crop domestication - p. 232

#11 were not farmers, or at least, not in the usual sense - p. 105

#12 the centre of settlement stood in a long-lived - p. 243

#13 there are heads that are (should be "were") removed - p. 246

#14 most clearly distinguished by the building - p. 245

#15 saw the creation of patterns of life and ritual - p. 245

#16 to Victorian intellectuals, the notion of people self-consciously - p. 95

#17 when they appear in European accounts, are assumed - p. 36

#18 at the (that) time engaged in a complex geopolitical - pp. 48-49

#19 won a wide audience, and before long Lahontan had become - p. 50

#20 just about every major French Enlightenment - p. 58

#21 there is every reason to believe that Kandiaronk - p. 51

#22 one cannot (even) say that medival thinkers -p. 32

#23 A certain folk egalitarianism already - p. 34

#24 Activities around the stone temples correspond - p. 104

#25 Inuit dispersed into bands of roughly twenty - p. 107

#26 it was winter - not summer - that was the time - p. 108

#27 these would have been kings whose courts - p. 106

#28 among societies like the Iniut or Kwakiutl - p. 115

#29 dismantle all means of exercising coercive authority - p. 110

#30 Most corpses were treated in completely different - p. 103

#31 a (quite) remarkable number of these skeletons - p. 102

#32 Rock shelters around the coastlands - p. 83

#33 a cave site on the coast of Kenya - p. 84

#34 research on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi - p. 84

#35 Given that humans have been around for upwards - p. 257

#36 beginning around 12,000 BC, in which - p. 123

#37 picture our ancestors moving between - p. 85

#38 all the authority of their chief - p. 41

# 39 his name through generous feasting - p. 198 

#40 urge their subjects to provide - p. 42

#41 Wealthy Wendat men hoarded - p. 43

#42 the Yurok were famous for the central role - p. 177

#43 Among (the) Plains Societies  of North America, for instance - p. 160

#44 an office holder could give all - p. 43

#45 talented hunters are systematically mocked - p. 129

#46 Carefully working through ethnographic accounts - p. 86

Questions to follow.

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I don´t get the sapiens paradox. Stone tool diversity seems on an exponential trajectory from the onset. Australopithecans used Oldowan industry for over a million years. Acheuleén hand axes were in use for a slightly shorter time. Middle paleolothic industries lasted for tens of thousands of years and younger paleolothic ones for thousands only. The neolithic sees numerous local tool arsenals with only hundreds of years to wait for the next innovation.

Is it supposed to be paradoxical that a modern looking skull is not surrounded by a modern looking arsenal? I would expect artifact diversity to increase with population density primarily, not brain size.

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I don't think the author of this review is correct about the Gossip Trap, but absolutely I believe them.

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I can't read this review because I read Justin E. H. Smith's review of it, which is a great read. After hearing that the facts are in dispute, which I sort of expected but I didn't realize to what extent, I can't bring myself to read another review of it. So this reviewer faces a challenge because some percentage of us reads E. H. Smith, and I even linked to that review on DSL about six months ago.

It's a fascinating subject, but It's probably so fascinating because it's so speculative. David Friedman says that James Scott makes a somewhat similar claim. I tried to get a discussion of it on DSL and there is some:


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Absolutely brilliant

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I would live in eternal high school personally

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I wish more of my favorite bloggers used a little suspense. Putting some paragraphs between the mystery and answer made it so enjoyable to read

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

Maybe interesting: Peter Turchin offers a critique of some of the points the Davids make: https://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/an-anarchist-view-of-human-social-evolution/

I really appreciated the conclusion of the review, but as you say we see ourselves in the distorted mirror, so it's probably because I already felt the same way. (OT but related and maybe interesting: this essay starts from the ideas of mcLuhan to hint in the same direction as the conclusion of the article, albeit from a different direction: https://palladiummag.com/2021/04/17/americas-new-post-literate-epistemology/ )

What i fail to understand is the conclusion the Davids had hoped one would get from the book. If anything, this feels more apologetic of an archipelago (or well, in its more rightist incarnation, a patchwork) kind of scenario. And I love archipelago, but by construction it's not a leftist super egalitarian future with no hierarchies, it's a system of political experimentation which can accomodate even very unleftist political arrangements next to communes in a choose-your-own-ideology way.

And I am not sure this is what they wanted to hint at, expecially when many people would not choose the commune over Singapore

EDIT: pardon a bit of sarcasm:

> So 50,000 BC might be a little more like a high school than anything else.

Turns out Hobbes was right all along.

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The problem with history is that there's so much of it , even if a lot of it is not documented. In general you can find support in the historical record (or in speculations about the gaps) for any reasonable position. So just as science fiction often tells us more about the present in which it is written than the future it purports to describe, so our vision of the past changes as the things we seek in it, and recognise in it, change over the generations. If you've ever written a historical study you will know that it's impossible not to select and emphasise facts according to some presupposition or other, since otherwise you would be simply overwhelmed by the material. In our age, the default mindset for approaching history is secular progressive liberal internationalism; hence the nervousness with which a lot of historians and archeologists treat aspects of even the fairly recent past, as well as important historical figures.

I haven't read this book (and I won't, now) but Debt seemed to me very much open to this kind of criticism: a thesis looking for, and finding, evidence and arguments in support, but not a complete explanation. I think there are two particular problems with writing of this kind, given our current ideological norms and the generic problem of finding what you hope and expect to find.

One is the blindness of an overwhelmingly secular age to the importance of religion. I don't mean people in churches, I mean the sense of the world as inhabited and dominated by forces which humans could not understand, let alone control, and which needed to be propitiated or negotiated with through ceremonies. And this led to reification of such forces in the form of gods and spirits, and more sophisticated ideas of divine order and the interpenetration of the human and the divine. Now given that it's almost impossible to recapture the largely religious world-view behind, for example, the plays of Shakespeare, we should be extremely circumspect about assuming we can do the same thing by inference from civilisations thousands of years ago.

But (second point) in a liberal, teleological society, where we are happy to sit in judgement on the past, we get the problem of what I have called in a recent article "chronicism", which is the evaluation of the past in terms of the present, and attempts to force what are fundamentally anachronistic modern models onto it. So to talk, of "equality" in medieval times is, I would suggest, not very helpful, and what I think we have here, judging from the excellent review, is an attempt at something similar.


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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

The high school theory is interesting, but I think it's missing something, which is that high school social antics may be peculiar to situations when you put together people of that specific age group and basically let them form a society of same-age peers. This is probably an unnatural situation in the ancient world; people wouldn't necessarily be segregated by age in the same way, so the status hierarchies would likely not pan out like high school.

Age always creates natural hierarchies; although the youth may rebel against their elders, it would be natural to defer to people who have more experience, time to accumulate physical and social resources, etc. This is true within high schools as well; your year in high school is a major determinant of your social status. And on average one would expect older people (especially those with families) to have a vested interest in keeping the youth well-behaved so as not to disturb the peace.

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Holy cow, this was really epic. Now I feel the urge to get the opinion of an anthropologist on this.

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The whole part of the theatrical nature of hirachies made me think "This is what happens when you let constructivists sit in their own stew for to long."

The answer from Occams razor for why those societies did not have aristocracies year round, was because they couldn't. Their economic mode forced them to disperse every few months. In those dispersed groups everybody had to pull their weight.

Stable year round hireachies need easy to store staple foods, like grains. Before that when you tried to play the courtly games, of the fat season, in other seasons you simply starved.

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I've not read the book, though I'm familiar with Graeber (I was there at Crooked Timber when he got nasty but didn't participate in any of the discussions), and this seems like an excellent review.

On the topic of why civilization eventually coalesced around hierarchical societies, Mark Moffett has some observations about that in his excellent, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (Basic Books 2019). Moffett studied evolution and ants under E.O. Wilson at Harvard and went on to develop a reputation as a photographer of ants and ant life, publishing photos in National Geographic and many other places. He's also curious and reads a lot and so has written about the nature of societies, from insects to humans.

Among other things he talks about fission-fusion societies in animals and humans. These are societies where bands will spend part of their time on their own, but will also conjoin with other bands in the society for joint activities. That's one of the things discussed in this review and it relates to the problem of why full-time hierarchical societies eventually emerged out of the fluid jumble we see in preliterate social groups. Here's a crucial passage from p. 138:

"Taking to cultivation at all but the smallest scale of simple gardening had another drawback that no early farmer could have predicted: it could ensnare a society in a plant trap. A trap, because the option of going back to hunting and gathering full time faded away once an expanding society committed to agriculture. [...] Yet once a society grew to a huge population, or was packed in tight with other agricultural societies, the numbers of people would be too great to be supported by native foods and starvation would be guaranteed."

So, once a society became so successful at farming that it decides to stick together all year, it will in time become committed to farming and loose the option to fission into small hunting-gathering bands. As this happens, size forces hierarchy on the society. I'm sure the Dunbar number is part of the story but there's more going on.

I did a series of blog posts about Moffett's book. Here's the one where I quote him on the plant trap, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2019/10/reading-human-swarm-1-hunter-gatherers.html

Here's a post where I discuss the size of social groups more generally, https://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2019/10/reading-human-swarm-2-importance-of.html

I've gathered all my Moffett posts into a PDF which you can download here: https://www.academia.edu/41576252/Reading_Mark_Moffett_s_The_Human_Swarm

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Gossip per se doesn't stifle growth. Gossip in the service of tall poppy cutting has the potential to stifle growth, but only certain kinds. The west ,. particularly the US, is tolerant of huge inequalities in wealth and fame, and it's gossip is mostly focused on policing their relationship to power and sex.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

I feel quite a few of the critiques against this book are isolated demand for rigor, of the sort other thinkers rarely face in this neck of the wood. While it is (together with Debt) a book of "science", it should be compared in the same weight category: against "Sapiens", etc.

The Davids (i'm keeping the term!) are writing two books in one: one is an attack against the current framework of anthropology and prehistory (quite thorough and very well documented); another is their personal replacement framework (less well defended). To say the least, both the old framework and the new are politically charged. Only one of them, though, is dictating all of the public though since anthropology became a science. As such, this book should be read as something which will probably make a bunch of us bristle reflexively (the well known political tags attached to the author does not help in this regard). This goes double with establishment figures from academia: all "I have found this and that" questionable has to go through a filter of "is the person saying that benefitting from the status quo", and mainly: "is the person doing a purely negative review on a few focused points or a true general review with positives and negatives", a test that rarely fails to signal a hit job.

When it comes to misuse of the cited material, I have to step in and defend the authors here: the disciplines being discussed are always *interpretations* of archeological artifacts. The fact that a discovery was published and conclusions drawn will always reflect both the act of discovery (new ruins, etc) and the underlying interpretation framework. If you attack a framework, you will end up citing a bunch of litterature where the conclusions and abstract are seemingly misrepresented: but you have just used the discovery and discarded the loaded / dated / incorrect interpretation. If someone (like I think many of the citation warriors here have done) only skims randomly selected citations using only the intro / abstract/ conclusions and not the actual experimental section, the conclusions will be incorrect a lot of the time... Feel free to correct me here.

All that to say that I enjoyed this book very much, and it was a nice, heavy chunck of thought food to ruminate for a while.

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Excellent food for thought! That'll be my favorite review so far.

My encounter with Graeber's "Debt" was similar - fascinating stuff, though the facts fit his thesis a little too well.

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pretty much my impression as well, except they caught more self-contradictions.

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For another hypothetical solution to the Sapient paradox, that does not politicise the past but ends up wacky nonetheless, I offer the ideas of journalist Graham Hancock (of did-the-Atlanteans-build-the-sphinx fame). His idea is that at some point humans started consuming magic mushrooms, got high on them and saw visions, this inspired them to do cave art and then civilisation somehow followed from these new mental experiences. It's definitely the most fun of the hypotheses, in my opinion.

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I’m reminded a little of the Anti-Politics machine review, and a little of the Gary Taubes argument that only dumb scientists study nutrition.

Anthropologists are losers, by which I mean they were nerds in high school, and not particularly smart or creative or they would have done other things with their time, meaning they can’t possibly acknowledge that popularity was the governing principle of pre-civilization (that means they suck historically) and frankly they’re probably not bright/creative enough to ever figure the truth out anyway (because who even goes into anthropology?).

I love the part about summoning an Elder God. It fits so perfectly with the idea that social media gave a megaphone to all the dumbest people in society. They are advantaged because they don’t care about nuance (perhaps aren’t even capable of it). No cognitive dissonance slowing them down.

Social media has tilted the power dynamic to the people running the most primitive human OS, gossiping about people to bring them down. Lmao

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Does the book anywhere describe the methods used to deduce political arrangements from 7000 year old arrangements of rocks and bones and shells?

I have personally been very unimpressed by everything I've read about the scholarly interpretation of Gobekli Tepe. You will read a discussion on how the Gobekli Tepe site proves a religious and cultural fixation with the phallus -- that Gobekli Tepe is a temple to a "phallic cult." And then the evidence for this is ultimately ... they used pillars. Which, like almost all pillars across the ancient world, widen near the top in order to support more of the overlying burden while minimizing the weight of the pillar itself, thus looking phallic.

(It gets worse: they also refer to a specific type of t-shaped pilled used in Gobekli Tepe as being shaped like a man covering his genitals with his hands. I implore you to look up pictures of t-shaped Gobekli Tepe pillars and tell me if this description doesn't seem like utter bullshit.)

Also, do the authors discuss the idea that substantial amounts of coastal land, where there should be archaeological sites on the order of 50,000-200,000 years old, is now under water?

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Another wretched work of heredity denying propaganda. Sorry if that sounds a bit strong, but at this point, it's utterly indefensible to try and explain inequalities without reference to heritable behavioral differences within and between populations. A failure to do so is a sign of profound ignorance and/or ideological bias.

On the topic of bias, "Western society is great unless you're black" and other such nonsense should be sufficient to dismiss this book out of hand. Black people in the west enjoy a standard of living higher than the overwhelming majority of people to ever live, and the plurality of evidence suggests suggests black white inequality is a product of heritable behavioral differences. Blacks in the west enjoy a standard of living which could not be dreamt of by most people in Africa, but there's absolutely ZERO reason to believe that they are *necessarily* capable of having the same standard of living as western whites and Asians unless you're a creationist.

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Jun 11, 2022·edited Jun 11, 2022

You are incorrect about Putin being afraid of cancel culture, and certainly wrong about it seeming that he is more afraid of it than nuclear weapons. The article in question referred to him talking about Russian artists being pressured by western institutions to condemn the invasion in order to perform. He's not "afraid" of this, he's talking about it as a propaganda coup.

This is different than what cancel culture really is, which is deranged social media pile ons trying to get the target fired or hounded into suicide. Cancel culture can't really happen across borders.

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Excellent review. Just one observation: Hobbes was founder of the political Right? I would argue Plato has a better claim to that title.

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> victim of a totally inexplicable and blazingly fast case of necrotizing pancreatitis.

Let me start by acknowledging that this writer writes better than I can, and I am envious of that.

But I hate this kind of writing. "Necrotizing" is not clever, it's pretentious. Words have semantic values. You undermine their usage when you get creative with them.

"necrotizing" sounds like a joke but there's no joke. Tone matters.

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I just read the winner entry for this year. Wow

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This was a very well-considered review, and deserves a well-considered response. Instead you get a bunch of barely-coherent thoughts jumbled together:

1) On the thesis of ancient pre-civilization being a seasonal thing: sign me up for it. "Nomadism, but with regional burning man once a year" sounds like an ideal way for humanity to spend the next ten thousand years. It helps that pre-agricultural man was also kind of post-scarcity in a weird way - food security was generally much better for hunter-gatherer than for farmer, and all of the stuff of life could be made by you and yours.

2) On highschool as the crab bucket - I think that Americans seem obliged to have universally awful high school experiences, but mine was actually quite pleasant. I went from an small primary school environment dominated by awful, entitled, gossipy kids to a public high school which was large enough for me to blend in and find my preferred group. My school was very english-model, with all that that implies. I don't know what this adds or subtracts to the "Neolithic as gossip girls" hypothesis, but there's a data point at least.

3) On Twitter as the new/old destroyer: I think it's always been mean girls at the top - Twitter just pulls the curtain a bit and reminds us that the people running things are just average human beings, only with portfolios and armies instead of {whatever signified popularity when you were in high school}. The geeks and nerds never, ever, ended up on top They just got put in a cubicle somewhere were then told that the popular kids really do have their best interests at heart.

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Jun 12, 2022·edited Jun 12, 2022

Greg Cochran's 'oeuvre' (book, blog, and poasts) touches on a lot of topics relevant to this review. Why 'anatomically modern humans' didn't displace neanderthals sooner is a topic he has blogged about. Cochran would also take issue with: "there’s no well-accepted evidence that human cognitive abilities emerged at 10,000 BC, and... Homo sapiens was pretty much genetically-intact, at least in the ways we think should matter, somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago."

If the author is unfamiliar with Cochran then The 10,000 year Explosion is required reading.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed this review - well written and creative!

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"This often leads to blanket statements, like how Western civilization is currently great “except if you’re Black,” or even outright misrepresentations of their opponents, like assigning to Steven Pinker the claim that “all significant forms of human progress before the twentieth-century can be attributed only to that one group of humans who used to refer to themselves as ‘the white race’” (Pinker definitely doesn’t claim this), or rejecting kinship-based scientific theories of altruism with reasoning like “many humans just don’t like their families very much” (these are all real quotes)."

This rather reminds be of Gell-Man amnesia: If I can see someone is lying about a Canadian academic who is still alive, why should I trust him about things I can't judge? Such as his claims about a native Canadian called Kandiaronk who died a third of a millennium ago.

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Are there good estimates of population numbers before and in 10,000 BC? Because a slowly growing population up to reaching a critical mass in which the Great Trap can be escaped sounds like a trivially plausible explanation to me.

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This review is genius. Cancel the contest and award the winner, this one won’t be bettered.

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Jun 13, 2022·edited Jun 13, 2022

Review-of-the-review: 9/10

New front-runner for me. I especially like that this review advances the discussion and puts forward its own ideas, but in a way that still feels like it's engaging with the book. There's lots of interesting data presented along the lines of "what did the reviewer learn from the book" and at the end we get the reviewer's own interpretation. The review also does a good job of situating The Dawn of Everything intellectually and politically without letting that color the analysis too much.

On the minus side, I suspect some of the treatment here is a bit reductionist; e.g. it's weird to see Hobbes presented as an arch-conservative and I'm sure intellectual historians would paint a more complicated picture. But I see the rhetorical benefit, for the purposes of this review, of presenting him as a foil for Rosseau. Similarly I'm not totally satisfied by the "Gossip Trap" theory; what was it that broke humans out of the Gossip Trap, and why is Twitter such a threat given that our relationships still far exceed Dunbar's number? But it feels like a productive concept and I really appreciate the ending note of intellectual humility about these things.

As always, many thanks for contributing!

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Loved it! Great review!

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Fantastic review!

I have lots to say but I was struck that he mentioned the 3 bigs: Harari, Pinker and Diamond but left out my current favorite Joseph Henrich of The Secret of Our Success who I discovered from [Scott's great review ](https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/04/book-review-the-secret-of-our-success/) of course.

I've been slowly but surely getting through it on audiobook.

Anyway, in the very first chapter Henrich spends a lot of time describing the importance of "Prestige" as an alternative and complementary form of power as opposed to "Dominance". He states that culture and tradition is copied and transferred via prestigious individuals and not via dominant individuals.

This seems to fit extremely well with the review's conclusion about a prehistoric popularity conquest.

To quote Henrich:

"The growing body of adaptive information available in the minds of other people also drove genetic evolution to create a second form of human status, called prestige, which now operates alongside the dominance status we inherited from our ape ancestors. Once we understand prestige, it will become clear why people unconsciously mimic more successful individuals in conversations; why star basketball players like LeBron James can sell car insurance; how someone can be famous for being famous (the Paris Hilton Effect); and, why the most prestigious participants should donate first at charity events but speak last in decision-making bodies, like the Supreme Court. The evolution of prestige came with new emotions, motivations, and bodily displays that are distinct from those associated with dominance.".

This strikes me as an elegant and compelling explanation of prehistory.

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Your "gossip trap" reminds me of one side of Acemoglu's and Robinson's "Narrow Corridor". Their argument is that societies flourish best in a "corridor" where Hobbes' Leviathan is "shackled" by civil society. Exit the corridor on the side of too much government power and you get despotism. Exit the corridor on the side of too much power in the hands of civil society and no one can amass enough legitimate authority to organize large groups. This latter case isn't anarchy, but it prevents the kind stability needed for sustained growth and freedom. Gossip is a powerful tool for keeping societies stuck in that state.

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To the author: This is a brilliant review, and the best of the contestants thus far!

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This review is excellent. That's all.

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I really wanted to comment on the Paradox... but then...

I congrat you, Book Reviewer, for proposing the Gossip Trap as the solution to the Sapient Paradox. I'm afraid it makes a lot of sense.

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So anthropologists not only take it for granted that meritocracy is a bad thing, but that it's such a bad thing that putting a cap on it is one of the great benefits of human intelligence. Am I reading that right? Seems completely nutbar.

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>So 50,000 BC might be a little more like a high school than anything else.

High schools are so bad because there is no objective criteria of success or usefulness. 50,000 BC would certainly have had social hierarchies, but there would also have been more objective measures of success - being a good warrior or chieftain, having access to food-productive areas, having skills in the various metis-filled arts needed to run a society of that era. This would ameliorate the purely social competition.

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First impression: The "Gossip Trap" hypothesis is interesting and deserves real investigation. One of my problems with the rather fawning admiration by the "Davids" of the "non-hierarchical" organization schemes of early societies is that such groups are destined to be completely flattened by organized and acquisition minded -- and thus larger, better resourced and more powerful -- groups. It happened to the native Americans, except for those more militaristic minded (and thus organized and lead) like the Cherokee and Apache, the Myceneans, and on and on. If Western civilization is devolving as this describes, it will be overtaken by those who find a way to suppress or co-opt social media to retain and control a hierarchical civilization. It seems this is being attempted by China, and also by members of the Western elite among themselves. Hardly the first critique of social media, but one which has an interesting slant on the problem and its mechanism of action.

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I really like the first half of this review! It's interesting, well-written, and does a good job engaging with the book's content.

I'm somewhat less convinced by the "Gossip trap" explanation: it isn't like small-scale, relationships-based societies disappeared 10,000 years ago, or like none of our archaeological evidence comes from this kind of society. Lots of "Western" societies tended to become large and centralized, but plenty of (maybe even most?) central African societies were organized around much-smaller, social-based up until the colonial era (see e.g. Jan Vansina's "Paths in the Rainforests"), and seem to have been pretty functional / produced plenty of the sort of archeological evidence this Gossip trap would predict would be lacking. There's a lot that's very interesting to explore in how this kind of society functions, but the "gossip trap" explanation feels too reductive and it doesn't fit the specific facts very well.

Still a very good review overall! I just much prefer the first half to the second.

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> Some might try to dismiss the Sapient Paradox by pointing to evidence of ongoing human evolution. And while there is some evidence of recent human evolutionary changes, it often seems clustered around things like dietary changes—at least, there’s no well-accepted evidence that human cognitive abilities emerged at 10,000 BC, and almost everyone who tackles these issues, from the Davids to Yuval to Pinker to Diamond, agrees that Homo sapiens was pretty much genetically-intact, at least in the ways we think should matter, somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Indeed, early Homo sapiens 300,000 years ago had brains as large as our own!

This is untrue.

All humans outside of Africa are intermixed with archaic hominids, most notably Neanderthals, but also Denisovians.

We know from genetic studies that some Neanderthal brain-related genes are upselected while male fertility related Neanderthal genes are downselected.

This suggests that humans did, in fact, change when they left Africa, because the modern human is not homo sapiens, but a very slight admixture of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals - and in some cases, other archaic hominids as well, such as Denisovians.

This could easily resolve the paradox. You needed the right mixture of brain genes to get this stuff; once you got that, those people outcompeted all other groups and basically took over the world.

There's a paradox of intelligence: intelligence is extremely useful for creating better tools and more advanced technology, but once someone makes it, the rest of the group can copy it much more easily. How, then, is higher intelligence selected for, when it may not give individuals enormous advantages reproductively?

This is a difficult question to answer... but there's a plausible answer.

What if it wasn't selected for on an individual level?

Imagine the following scenario:

For tens of thousands of years, you have people sort of sloshing around. You need enough "good brain genes" to get the creative juices really flowing, so you have the occasional genius who does improve things, and then people copy it. This leads to random, slow progress, as these geniuses pop up and then disappear because there just isn't selective pressure to make their genes proliferate, but the techniques they come up with are imitated and spread. Sure, it would be better for the *group* if the geniuses became omnipresent, but evolution doesn't know that.

This looks an awful lot like this "trap", but in reality, what is actually going on is that there's these "geniuses" who advance technology and then the multitudinous copycats.

Then, something happens. A group gets taken over by a genius, who has tons of kids, or a genius family goes off and forms their own group and due to the founder effect, this group ends up with a really disproportionate number of these genius genes. These "smart genes" begin to approach fixation in this population, or possibly DO reach fixation.

At this point, you can start to see group selection occur, as while on the level of the individual, the genius is not particularly reproductively successful or selected for, on a *group* level, groups that have hit fixation on these genes will be more successful than those which aren't.

These groups then commit serial genocide, going out and either killing or subjugating the other tribes and producing a grossly disproportionate number of "genius" offpsring, allowing the groups to get these genes fixed.

This doesn't always happen; sometimes (if not most of the time), the "genius" conquerors are absorbed into the underlying population and the genius genes are lost.

But this doesn't matter, because there's always another "genius" genocide waiting, just around the corner, from one of the lucky groups which does get those genes fixed in it.

The result, then, is that these groups start to spread while mixing with local populations. But as long as the "genius" population still generated SOME tribes that were geniuses, and could then slaughter or conquer their neighbors, it continues to proliferate. This would cause all "genius" groups to be some mixture of the local tribes that could get that "genius" stuff up to a high enough level.

In this model, rather than "Europeans" or "Eurasians" being the successful, civilized group, instead you have some seed group which starts basically planting itself across populations, very possibly an elite group that does so.

So rather than everyone popping up and suddenly becoming "advanced" at the same time, instead there was some "seed" event where this started, and this group sort of cavalcaded around. Other groups could imitate the technology, but struggled to advance it themselves, and ended up getting wiped out/subjugated.

This would explain weird things, like "Why did Northern and Western Europe become the center of the world when they weren't very smart previously" - rather than having to come up with some weird explanation where smart people failed to invent advanced civilization and then slingshotted up to a hyper-advanced level, we instead say that they actually just weren't super smart to begin with, and became much smarter because they got taken over by "genius" populations from elsewhere.

This rather nicely fits with the spread of "civilization" in ancient times - you have this group, possibly somewhere in the Near East, that ends up spreading out into Egypt and India and across Mesopotamia, and then over to China and the Far East. The various ancient peoples spread around the Mediterranean and North Africa, then the Romans conquer to the north and spread it further, the Chinese spread it across the Far East, with some of them getting to Japan, and that group then contaminates the rest of the island, etc.

This would explain why things look the way they do today in the Old World.

The problem is, this hypothesis does nothing to explain Mesoamerican civilization or the Inca.

Of course, one explanation is that this maybe happened more than once - maybe there wasn't a single seed event, but this sort of "lucky break" actually happened a few times in history, and instead, East Asian civilization, the Near Eastern civilization, and the American civilization were actually three separate lucky events.

Another is that the actual origination group was actually a group of North Eurasians who ended up spreading to Mesopotamia, Europe, and the Americas - there is evidence of relatively recent shared ancestry between Europeans and North Americans. In this scenario, it was actually this group which was to blame, and seeded these "genius" populations across the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, this raises the question of why it took so long for us to notice this happening, but maybe we just haven't found the evidence because the last Ice Age wiped it out, or maybe we will go puttering around Russia or Siberia we'll find some ancient impressive thing somewhere - we only recently found Göbekli Tepe, so maybe we just haven't gone and dug in the right hill in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe the Ice Age kept the groups too small to really do much of value that was highly visible, but once the Ice Age ended, these folks went out and took over the world.

Or maybe there was a boating group that ended up spreading from East Asia to the Americas, along the coast, and accidentally "planted" a couple civilizations.

Or maybe it's just completely wrong, and the reason why this happened is something completely different.

Of course, there's another thought that comes to mind:

What if *heredity hierarchy* was the thing that allowed this to happen? That is to say, rather than there being some "tribe" that did this, it instead was inbred ruling families that effectively created the smaller populations that enabled these genes to reach fixation in them.

It was very common for ancient kings and nobles to be highly inbred and related to each other, but this also happened amongst other classes of people, with various specialist groups often being related to themselves and passing the craft on within the family.

What if this was not a flaw, but a feature?

This creates a small population amongst which these "genius genes" might flourish. In this scenario, these groups - the nobles, but also possibly hereditary artisans and priests - could potentially get these genes fixed amongst them. This gave them an advantage in manipulating and controlling other people, and gave their civilizations an advantage over competing civilizations. Indeed, they might be outright selecting for these genes, because in these groups, showing high ability gets you social credit and respect and gets you put in the position to pass on your genes the most profitably and stay in charge.

Of course, the fact that it is Good To Be King causes your genes to spread out in the population as you have a bunch of illegitimate children as well, which could result in your genes no longer being so special, which could eventually result in less inequality between the noble/artisan/whatever class and the general population, eventually resulting in the fall of the nobility as they stopped being special (or at least, special relative to a larger proportion of the population, like the middle class). This would be especially pronounced in lower population areas - a small smart founder population, or an elite rolling into a small place and spreading their genes all over the place, could result in a population like that. Like, say, Britain, or Iceland, or Japan.

Meanwhile, if you get overthrown by outsiders without these genes, it may be hard for them to maintain things the way you did, though they might have more success if they marry into your family and get those genes. This would explain why many civilizations fell apart after some other people rolled in and replaced the elite, while others benefitted when a foreign elite replaced their decrepit and stupid elite with one that was actually competent.

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The gossip trap lacks explanatory power of how any such transition occurred.

Why did groups get bigger and break the population barrier? Why wouldn't this have happened previously? Why did it only occur amongst some civilizations and not others? Like, the Mississippian people seem like they should have broken this, but they apparently didn't, as they produced very little tech. Meanwhile, the Easter Islanders were on a tiny little island and somehow ended up making some fancy things.

It also has the significant flaw that one of the best ways to "beat gossip" is to produce things of value. Being an asshole to the guy who makes the best weapons in your village is a great way not to get those. People gossip a great deal about the rich and powerful, but they remain rich and powerful, because they own companies or are good actors or whatever.

Moreover, *smart people tend to win out in these sorts of social games.*

The most popular people are also often quite smart; indeed, the notion of smart people being socially unsuccessful a very recent trope, and honestly probably has more to do with modern technology than anything else, as it allowed smart people with poor social skills to do something of value, which created the nerd stereotype, when in fact the brilliant general, the clever businessman, etc. was the rule of the day previously. The Founding Fathers were all quite smart, and had risen to the top of the social hierarchy via their mastery of social skills and business acumen and leadership ability.

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I give this review a chance of about 15% of having been written by Curtis Yarvin.

Which admittedly is not a very high chance, but, as the saying goes, it's weird it isn't zero.

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I read this review at the suggestion of someone who commented on this post applying anthropologist Mary Douglas's work to some of our current purity purges: https://vpostrel.substack.com/p/purity-sorcery-and-cancel-culture?s=w

I agree that it's an excellent complement.

Another piece of the "why 10K years ago" puzzle: https://vpostrel.com/articles/how-textiles-became-the-fabric-of-summer

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I'm a corrosion professional, and I want to interrogate whether there's a "civilisation trap" at all. The vast majority of human made structures simply don't last that long. The theoretical corrosion rate for modern steel in normal atmospheric conditions would be roughly 0.05mm/yr, and it'll probably be higher if you had iron instead and you were smelting it out of a rudimentary furnace with no controls for composition. But if you had an artefact that was 150mm thick, it would have holes within 3,000 years and probably more or less gone by 4,500 years, unless you lucked out and it ended up in some kind of anoxic environment. Wood would be gone within 100 years or less.

At time scales greater than 10,000 or 20,000 years, would human made material even be detectable to us? Are we just going to the beach and pointing at the pristine sand as proof that no one has ever built a sandcastle there?

If, hypothetically, some people lived in a humid tropical region, then later died out or migrated away, I don't think we'd find their traces after 50,000 years. We wouldn't know if they'd carved their words on trees, because that tree would have been dead and decomposed for at least 48,000 years before we even get the chance to turn it into IKEA dining tables. If they had trade routes and they left, their descendants wouldn't know those anymore and the roads themselves would have grown over. If they made art we might not recognise it as such and it's probably made of leaves or they might have crushed beetles to make paint which would be gone after a few thousand years, maybe 10,000 tops. If they buried their dead then some animals might have dug up the bones later and scattered the parts far and wide. We'd only know if they built something like the Stonehenge, but even then - would Stonehenge have survived on a faultline? Would the pyramids survive massive coastline or river path changes? What about bushfires? Massive floods, tornadoes, or cyclones?

If we all collectively decided to abandon a town after a particular bad cyclone, flood or fire, I would posit that it'll only take maybe 20,000 years before the town basically vanishes into nature, and that's with modern building materials. You'd be able to find us only by doing mass spec on the dirt and finding traces of petrochemicals and exotic minerals that were in our tech and you'd go "well these people must have traded with [places that had these resources]", which is way underselling the town that used to exist there. Maybe the cockroaches in the area test a bit higher for mercury or microplastics. You wouldn't know about how Sally liked avocado toast and coffee, or Tom the yoga instructor, or Mrs Tran's Vietnamese bakery. Even a tiled floor has a useful lifespan of maybe 100-200 years without maintenance, and I'm assuming that's indoors, in an intact building.

That being said, I'm not an archeologist, and someone's probably debunked my take already, but I'm interested in hearing the rebuttal.

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It's worth noting that Dunbar's Number has come under some pretty devastating criticism recently, like here:


Wikipedia: "A replication of Dunbar's analysis with a larger data set and updated comparative statistical methods has challenged Dunbar's number by revealing that the 95% confidence interval around the estimate of maximum human group size is much too large (4–520 and 2–336, respectively) to specify any cognitive limit."

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It's sad to say it of two such brilliant authors, but they could have saved themselves time and perplexity if they'd read Joseph Henrich's 2016 "The Secret to Our Success". The forward-and-backward-and-forward-again nature of cultural evolution is more parsimonious and reasonable an explanation of all the same facts than what the Davids present.

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My first comment to SSACX, and nothing particularly original or erudite to say - how embarrassing...

*Entertainment Value. Unlike some other finalist reviews, and in sharp contrast to the non-brevity, I didn't constantly find myself struggling to keep reading. This wasn't one of the "grind through an actually-unpleasant post for progress on [Codex Completionist] Steam achieve" type things. Some other commenters compare it to last year's Progress and Poverty review, which seems apt - that was also quite long, but consistent positive utilon generation made it seem less so. One is reminded of Einstein's possibly-apocryphal layman explanation of relativity.

*Actually A Book Review. I'm not sure how to word that less-implicitly-critically. One of the concerns raised about the review of __Fusion Cuisine: Appropriating Electrons for Fun and Profit__ (sorry, can't remember actual title, that's headcanon) was that it was a very nice essay "about" the topic of the book, but didn't really...reference or review the book. Pretty sure there weren't any quotes, even. I left with a distinct feeling of having no opinion whatsoever about the associated book, other than it not being obviously wrong and possibly legible to the geriatric reader demographic, and those are low bars. Assessed on those merits, it was indeed fine, but...not a book review, which I thought was the point of this book review contest. This review avoids said pitfalls. I wish I could say the same of all previous finalists too, but that wasn't always the case. On purely technocratic pretextual grounds, this single factor is automatically (dis)qualifying for me, vote-wise. (I do think this might be an issue with Scott's fairly open-ended submission guidelines. While they do guarantee a much more diverse applicant pool, babble without prune leads to...well...a really diverse applicant pool, in both form and function. These same concerns seem to come up every year, or at least with the ACX book reviews so far.)

*Style. This has been the most "Scott-like" review so far, at least according to however my brain organizes such subjective schema. SSCAX for me has always been about the tendentiously long, peppered-with-relevant-what-the-refrances, "no really I swear this is Actually Interesting if you finish reading!" type content; this is the kind of stuff that finally convinced me to buy a subscription. It even finishes off with a possibly-plausible pet theory of Zeitgeist relevance that has an implied "Epistemic status: kinda shrug but Big If True". Contrasts nicely with the, uh, let's charitably call it a lack of epistemic humility on the part of the authors. Puncturing that certitude by satirizing the CHAPTER TITLES, IN WHICH THE GREATER WORK IS SUBDIVIDED ACCORDING TO NARRATIVE FLOW; & WITH CONSIDERATIONS FOR LEVITY was a nice tonal move as well.

*Substance. On the one hand, my priors were appropriately skeptical - I mean, c'mon, it's a book in the Pop <social science> genre. Some level of [Citation Needed] and "I do not think that citation means what you think it means" is to be expected. On the other hand, the comments section didn't disappoint in serving its divinely mandated role of collectively issuing a multitude of isolated demands for rigor - and at some point I think that definitely crosses over into rigor multis, wow. It's honestly sort of impressive that a fun doorstopper of a book, with an equally fun doorstopper of a review (Many Such Examples, actually, appreciate all the links to other reviews!), is *apparently* based on an anthropological house of cards. Which I guess would be made of flint and mammoth bone, or whatever. Social power was obviously determined by playing Status Poker. I'm not an arachnologist, and lack any relevant credentialism to assess or critique the empirical bits...but I think it's fair to say that the entertainment/enlightenment ratio of <s>Department of Egalitarianism</s> __Dawn of Everything__ is a bit lopsided. Gerrymandered, even.

*Regarding Martin Luther's Pet Thesis, One Of 99 Nailed To Jack Dorsey And Elon Musk's Respective Doors. Seems plausible enough...but as others note, this isn't exactly a hot take anymore. The great thing about Social Media Bad as food for thought is that it can be microwaved an unlimited number of times and still be sort of tasty, if empty mental calories. I say that as someone who does, in fact, think Social Media Bad and has given it up it like it's forever Lent. (She says, while writing a baroque comment on a blog, which is definitely not social media, unlike Reddit. Worst argument in the world!) It's certainly sort of novel to link this to Dunbar's Number of the Beast and ancient anthropology...but I'd really like to see the idea fleshed out a bit more. As presented, it's a bit of an all-you-have-is-a-banhammer thing, a sort of Fully General Counterargument for society's nails. Maybe it's true - but since the book which inspired(?) said thesis is itself lacking in structural integrity, shouldn't I revise my priors downwards? Perhaps if this review wins, the author could pull a Lars Doucet and go on to write three more equally-long guest posts exploring this idea in more detail. I'd certainly enjoy those!

Anyway, barring an even better review later, I'll likely vote for this one. Even a speculatively wrong thing based on another speculatively wrong thing can be thought-provoking, and I bet there's at least a little wheat in that chaff pile. (Oh, wait, agriculture wasn't invented yet. Or was it? Hmm, idiomatic uncertainty abounds! [See what I mean?])

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Congratulations! This is a lively text I enjoyed reading, ever more so when it drifted away from mere book review to bold speculation. The high school social web is a convincing model for what might have ruled the social interaction of our early ancestors. However I doubt that it can explain the Sapient Paradox. There are other candidates: slow genetic development followed by a spurt, sexual selection.

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> They argue that Native American intellectuals were the true originators of many of the criticisms of the Western World that would go on to define the political Left

While the review correctly points out that this claim is far too broad to be supported... wouldn't it be great to convince the far left that the entire social justice enterprise was culturally appropriated and watch it vanish in a puff of (il)logic?

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Not sure I would have bothered voting in this competition but I think this review absolutely blows the others out of the water. And they weren't bad!

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The "Gossip Trap" is quite possibly the most interesting theory of human prehistory that I have ever read. I love it. Just to be clear though, since this is a book review -- that's your thesis, not the thesis of the book, right?

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This is an excellent piece and one of my favorite things I have read all year. It also aligns with my attitudes about this book, which were that it had a lot of interesting facts, but they seemed clearly tortured to align with the authors’ political project.

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What exactly is dumb. One of us or Jaynes

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No ag during the ice age because CO2 was too low to allow productivity.

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I have been fascinated by this Book and its progressive attempt to identify what the authors’ believe is why we have been, and continue to be, ‘stuck’ in a particularly violent and dominate form of social structure. I completely disagree with their premises that heeding signs, taking warning, making the right assumptions and acting intelligently will allow for the human construction of a social structure that will be somehow ‘better’ as if utopia remains their goal. Nevertheless, they do introduce new concepts allowing for their theory to yield new evidence as well as new interpretations of the prevailing evidence. This is important for the process of social change, which is never progress, but only change.

The authors’ explanation of how their theory’s three elementary forms of domination (i.e., control of violence, control of esoteric knowledge, and charismatic theatrics) crystallize into institutional forms (i.e., sovereignty, administration, and heroic politics) introduces a new concepts for communicating about the state, but as they say, the ‘State’ is itself the mask which prevents our seeing political practice as it is. So we are left discussing the mask, but with new concepts - which is something necessary for change.

I am always somewhat amused by how people so readily accept evolution is not based on intelligence or intent, but reject that notion when it comes to social institutions, which they say are the intended creations of intelligent actors. Of course, I take what I understand to be the evolutionist point of view.

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Absolutely love this one. I am now a convinced believer in the Gossip Trap.

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Re-reading to decide which is my fav-review. (And it's this one, all right.) - Now I see a fun parallel - "seasonal kings of ritual" to: Carnival. In Germany, the 'societies' vote each season -11/11 to Ash Wednesday - their new princes and (male) queens, who are upper-middle-class at least, 'cuz that honor will cost them dearly. And then those "rule" the sessions and processions - though none ever does more than announce the next event/clown et al + wave and throw candies at "their" people.

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This was bravely detailed, but it did get at the heart of the problem with the book: the Davids look at the last 10,000 years and claim it speaks to what humans fundamentally are. They ignore hundreds of thousands of years of humanity.

Good catch -- thanks.

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D&D isn’t anti story, it’s just another story. And the chronology in reality can’t be reduced since it has no intention, it’s not conscious. People aren’t making clear choices, they’re behaving: hormones, emotions, senses, memories, scarcity, weather. This notion that political social systems are developed in reason alone is obviously fiction. Plus the sapient paradox is obvious, how are we still on Renfrew? Sapiens gain temporal causality 75kya. Then correlational analysis 12kya. Put this mf bullshit to rest, the review and the book are pure narrative bunk. Humans are animals in chaos + language and records: don’t be fooled by the existence of either externality. Chaos rules, humans pretend consciousness until the ecology takes backcontrol as is occurring right now.

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Great review. It strikes me though more as a defence of the Hobbsian view of pre-history than a real fourth alternative to it. This might be because I´m uncertain of how much of a difference between social and physical uses of power there was at that time. Even today formal rules in favour of free expression are the oddity and sanctions against it (because it´s considered a precursor to violence) the norm. Disputes remain in the realm of social power only when restricted by formal rules or technology. The examples discussed in the review support this interpretation.

High-schools rely purely social power, not just because humans have a innate tendency towards it, but also because physical power is formally sanctioned. Twitter also has technological restrictions on use of physical power which pushes users towars using social power. And even if people have access to twitter mobs, they still form traditional street mobs, even if the costs are way higher in the latter.

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Great review! I love how this article takes the ideas put forward in the book and uses them as a launch pad for a far more interesting notion than anything the authors come up with. I haven't read the Dawn of Everything, but I did read Bullshit Jobs by Graeber and found it... entirely unconvincing.

The Gossip Trap idea seems quite plausible to me. I had not heard of the Sapient Paradox before I read this, and I can't wait to go down that rabbit hole.

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Great review! I listened to "Dawn of Everything" and agreed with basically all your critiques. A few thoughts:

A) what made 10,000 BC such a significant date? One hypothesis is that this is when the last great extinction event took place. Wiping out certain competing megafauna might have paved the way for greater social organization to be possible, as dealing with the local saber-toothed tiger seems like a more important task than building Stonehenge, and small hunting tribes do the job just as well as big ones, kind of like landscaping companies. Also, fun thought, domestication of the dog might have been the necessary precursor to the great megafauna extinctions of 13,000-8,000 BC.

B) "The Gossip Trap" is a very fun hypothesis to explain the "Sapient Paradox." I have a few reasons why I don't buy this though (even though I want to buy it):

i) the most successful people I know all gossip a ton. They are obsessed with status, exude tons of negative energy, and work their butts off. I find these people to be rather unpleasant, but I also think that I (a person not particularly gossipy or invested in his own status) am much closer to 20,000 BC paleolithic man than they are. I just want everyone to chill. They want to be awesome and to shame all the people who are not awesome. So often gossip isn't a normative, demotivating force reminiscent of an Ayn Randian dystopia or Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. Sometimes gossip is very motivating and pushes people in innovative ways as they try desperately to become "cool."

ii) All political structures I know of are just dripping with gossip. Democratic elections are basically popularity contests. Authoritarian governments have all kinds of gossip determining who will be seen as loyal to the party and who will be sent to the gulag. These aren't 150 person monkeyspheres, these are centralized states ruling over millions. If gossip is a stagnating force that traps us in prehistory, why is gossip basically universal to human organizations? And if gossip is so stagnating, how did technology like the printing press- technology that was used to spread TONS of gossip- seemingly lead to economic/scientific progress, and not the reverse?

iii) I feel like this actually doesn't directly answer the "Sapient Paradox" at all. So people used to gossip so much they didn't build Stonehenge because they were afraid of being called a nerd. Sure. But why did things suddenly change? Their communities got so big that they needed other, more established forms of societal organization than raw social power? Why did their communities suddenly get so much bigger then? And why didn't those communities get bigger at 20,000 BC or 30,000 BC instead of 10,000 BC? I feel like we're back where we started.

All this being said, I think you're onto something when you talk like we are returning to our primitive state via Twitter/ social media/ the internet in general. I don't know whether we're getting similar to our 15,000 BC ancestors, but I do know we're getting very weird. Communication technology has the power to transform human civilizations. I'm hoping the net effect of the internet ends up being positive in the long run, but there do seem to be some bizarre negative effects that are causing all kinds of problems for people, especially in terms of mental health.

Anyways, thanks for your well written review of "The Dawn of History" and your thoughts on the Sapient Paradox/ "gossip traps." Enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoy reading Scott Alexander's stuff, which is high praise in my world. Best-

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The description of hunter-gatherers as existing in a state of incredible political diversity and creativity reminds me strongly of Scott's own Archipelago utopia (which, as he pointed out, is much the same as a lot of both right- and left-anarchist utopias and even Moldbug's neoreactionary Patchwork utopia.) https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/06/07/archipelago-and-atomic-communitarianism/

I'm not sure whether this is a suspicious sign of rose-tinted glasses, a positive sign that this is actually positive, a worrying sign that the status quo has already out-competed it, etc.

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Oct 10, 2022·edited Oct 11, 2022

It could be gossip games all the way back — and we'll never be rid of them.

The one thing that got rid of gossip traps was industrialism and thoroughgoing capitalism. Everyone was driven from farms to cities where any settled neighbourhood won't be for long. Modernity has offered most people one or two choices: a gossip trap or alienated individualism. Arguably there was a brief, slight period of culture and literacy enjoyed by a broad but still exclusive middle class that wasn't a bunch of jerks, but what they has was built on the backs of slaves and colonized countries.

I'm reminded of a funny passage in Eric Voegelin's History of Political Ideas where he explains John Calvin and the rise of protestantism in terms of terroristic hick towns full of surveillance moralism. It's not really wrong to think of the Reformation as an intense sectarian gossip conflict that rose up in opposition to the gossip monopoly of an existing political establishment. Eventually, sectarian gossip wars evolved into the forms of the modern state we associate with democratic politics while, as you say, some part of the press and academe play the role of neutral, benevolent, or specially enlightened monastics. In theory, as an ideal maybe. Definitely when things are bad, nobody is really free from factions and gossip games. But wherever you find people in groups, especially if they're supposed to be above gossip, there will be gossip. It may be just the rhetoric and aesthetics of social class — what goes on among elites is "politics" but for everyone else doing it, it's "gossip," which lacks legitimacy.

Then again, there are very developed traditions of trying to mitigate the evil eye/heart/tongue in Judaism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lashon_hara) — and of course resistance to consolidated power even when it's your own. The people who invented the minority judgment might know a thing or two about long-term group survival and the struggle not to be reduced to the level of petty gossips.

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