November 17, 2021
EP. 131 — A New History of Humanity with David Wengrow
When telling the history of our species, why do so many writers keep regurgitating the same centuries-old just-so story? If we had a more accurate, truer account of our origins, how would it change our understanding of our society and ourselves? To answer this question, on the show this week is archaeologist David Wengrow, co-author with the late anthropologist David Graeber of the blockbuster new book The Dawn of Everything. Check it out at factuallypod.com/books.
131 — A New History of Humanity with David Wengrow
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover. Thank you for joining me once again as I talked to an amazing expert about some incredible shit that they know, that I don’t know and that you don’t know. All of our minds are going to be blown. We’re going to have an awesome time learning and, dare I say, laughing together. What a terrible intro. Look, I am so excited about this episode. This one is a banger, OK? Because today on the show, we are talking about the origins of human civilization itself. On the show we have the author of one of the most talked about books on the subject. This is a huge episode. The interview is incredible. You’re going to love it. So look, there have been a boatload of attempts, recently, to tell the history of humanity. From our origins all the way to today. That’s right, the whole kit and caboodle. Bestselling books and documentaries keep popping up that attempt to tell that story, and that are trying to give us revelatory new ways of looking at ourselves and our society. I’m talking about books like Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens,’ Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ or his book ‘The World Until Yesterday’, and of course, Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 banger ‘The Origins of Political Order.’ Sorry for using the word banger twice in the same intro. That was a little hacky, I apologize. But something is a little bit weird about all these books. Because even though they attempt to give us brand new narratives of human history, they end up telling the same story over and over again. These books always seem to say something like ‘Human society was so great when we were hunter-gatherers. They carry their babies around while they murdered elk and gathered berries, until one day everything changed and we got agriculture, cities, kings, money, murder, taxes and the Volkswagen Passat. Everything went bad when civilization started.’ I’m serious. If you look at these books, you will see this story told over and over again. Or you’ll see its cousin: the story that everything was terrible back in the hunter gatherer days, that humanity lived in murderous roving bands who were constantly killing each other, tearing each other apart with our teeth. That we had to make civilization and social hierarchy to restrain us from murdering each other into oblivion. Now the weird thing about these two accounts is that despite the fact that these books present themselves as giving a revelatory new perspective, these stories actually go back hundreds of years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau painted the rosy version of our prehistory, in which mankind existed in a wonderful state of nature before civilization. Thomas Hobbes painted the bloodthirsty one: the idea that we had to build civilization to end the war of all against all. These are not revolutionary new ideas. These books are literally a rerun. They sprinkle in a limited and selective arrangement of scientific or evolutionary factoids from present day, but they really do weave the same old yarn. Specifically, this is a yarn that implies that the world that we live in today; that the civilization we have built for ourselves was inevitable. That we had to, as a consequence of the laws of history, go from hunter gatherers to agricultural feudalism to the growth of the state and then to the capitalism we have today. That we had no choice in the matter, that this is the best of all possible worlds. That’s kind of a weird thing to assert, especially because the people writing these books are often not anthropologists or archeologists; people who have actually studied the ancient civilizations that we know about, and the other forms of human social organization that exist on Earth today. These are books written by psychologists or political theorists (or in the case of Jared Diamond, a biochemist who got his Ph.D. studying the physiology of the gallbladder. So while the centuries old ‘just so’ stories they tell might make intuitive sense to us and while they might make us feel reassured that we live today in the best of all possible worlds, they don’t necessarily give an accurate account of what really happened in human prehistory. So we have to ask ourselves, ‘What would such an accurate account look like? What would happen if someone wrote a book that used the actual, most up to date, research from anthropology and archeology to describe what we actually know about where we came from? As opposed to just helping us tell the story that we already decided happened a couple of hundred years ago.’ If we did that, our picture of the past of our species and our idea of what the possibilities are for the present that we currently live in might look quite different. In fact, they do, because that book has actually been written. That is the project that has been taken on by the archeologist, David Wengrow and his colleague; the late anthropologist David Graber. Their new book, ‘The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,’ is one of the most fascinating things I have come across this, or any, year. I think you are going to love this interview. Please welcome David Wengrow. David, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:05:40] Thank you for having me on.
Speaker 1 [00:05:42] So your new book – I just want to say, first of all, get this out of the way: you wrote it with David Graber, who is an incredible thinker and I was a huge fan of his. He tragically passed away a number of years ago. I was very upset that I could never have him on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:05:56] Just last year, he passed.
Speaker 1 [00:05:58] Excuse me, yes. So, it’s wonderful to have you on the show and be able to discuss his work with you together.
Speaker 2 [00:06:08] I look forward to it.
Speaker 1 [00:06:09] Yeah. So tell me about this book. There’s been a number of books over the last couple of years of ‘Here’s the entirety of human history. In a single book.’ I’ve read a couple of them. It’s always an entertaining narrative. But what is wrong about the story that we normally tell, of the history of humanity?
Speaker 2 [00:06:31] Well, one way to express this, I guess, would be to say that some histories of everything that’s ever happened to the human species can actually be summed up in about one sentence. It goes roughly like this: human beings started out in tiny, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, and then somehow we fell from grace into a state of inequality. Now we’re all doomed because there are 8 billion of us on the planet. The fact that you can compress an entire book into a sentence and a half probably tells you already that there’s something a little bit askew here. Basically, nothing about what I’ve just said is true. What we’re trying to do in our book is actually bring the evidence of our disciplines. I’m an archeologist. David Grabell is an anthropologist, and largely what we’re trying to do in our book is tell a different story which is closer to the evidence. There’s all this amazing new evidence that’s just flooded in over the last 20 or 30 years; most of it is still locked up in funny, little obscure scientific journals that only other professors read. So it’s partly about bringing all this stuff together and trying to piece together this emerging picture of human history, which is quite radically different from what I was just talking about. This idea that we start out as egalitarian hunter-gatherers and then something happens. Some other books claim that it’s the invention of agriculture.
Speaker 1 [00:08:16] I’ve read that, yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:08:17] Others emphasize when humans first moved into cities, but in the standard story – Let’s call it the standard story, the conventional story. There’s always going to be some moment, some threshold, when we collectively tip ourselves off the edge and we end up basically stuck on a one way journey to the systems and social arrangements we have today. And supposedly there’s no way of getting off. You may have detected something a wee bit biblical about this. Very Garden of Eden, we tried the forbidden fruit and it bit us in the ass and now…
Speaker 1 [00:09:03] Well, and that story of agriculture, which I’ve read in a number of these books as being a disjunctive, ‘Hey, this is going to change how you think about everything. What if the invention of agriculture was actually the big mistake that we made and it cursed humanity to live under backbreaking conditions, etc, etc.’ That’s been very in vogue, as an idea. You’re right, that’s just the Garden of Eden again, except instead of an apple, it’s a stock of wheat.
Speaker 2 [00:09:29] Well, this is how myths work. They basically tell us stuff we think we already know and then we all go, ‘Hmm, look how clever I am. I already knew that.’ I knew it because it’s been drummed into my brain since I was two years old. I think what you may be referring to, is what the historian Yuval Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ called ‘The Wheat Trap.’
Speaker 1 [00:10:00] Yeah, that’s where I first encountered this idea, was in his book. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:10:04] The wheat trap, is where human beings get trapped by wheat. Let’s dwell on this, just allow that to sink in for a while.
Speaker 1 [00:10:14] They come at us with nets, or what?
Speaker 2 [00:10:17] The wheat’s got it all figured out, in this story. Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and ignore the fact that wheat is a form of grass. The wheat has figured out that it can get you (and me and all our friends) to look after it and that if it’s clever, we will devote most of our time to getting rid of all its weedy competitors and clearing all the stones out of the field and bringing water and we’ll turn our whole lives upside down just to look after Mr. and Mrs. Wheat because we’ve fallen into the wheat trap. So the catch phrase goes, ‘We didn’t domesticate the wheat. The wheat domesticated us.’
Speaker 1 [00:11:11] Now, let me just say –
Speaker 2 [00:11:13] Can i just quickly add that is all wrong. Everything I just said is wrong. Just to be clear.
Speaker 1 [00:11:21] I always do like the kind of argument where – I first encountered it in Michael Pollan’s ‘The Botany of Desire.’ He writes about how if you look at it from the plant’s perspective, there is a degree to which the plant has evolved to take advantage of our needs. That’s a cool way to look at the world.
Speaker 2 [00:11:37] I get it. It’s cool and it’s fun. It’s interesting, as a mind game, but if you’re trying to understand what happened, why would you do that? I mean, the idea that you could look at it from the perspective of wheat. What would that even mean? But the whole difference between us and wheat is that we have a perspective.
Speaker 1 [00:12:02] Fair enough. Fair enough. But also, I believe you’re saying that also this didn’t happen. Like, this specifically didn’t occur.
Speaker 2 [00:12:08] Well, yes. I’m making fun of it. But there is a serious point here, which is that not only do we have a perspective, but people thousands of years ago in the Neolithic, they had a perspective too, because they were people. They weren’t subhuman, silly creatures who would be falling into a wheat trap. If you think about it, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Because our species were hunter-gatherers for most of our existence, which means that if you look at the evidence of societies that were still hunting and foraging until recent times, they are the most incredible scientists. They’ve got this encyclopedic understanding of plant life and animal life and the great practical botanists, and they understand exactly how to manipulate and engage with landscapes to achieve certain goals. So the idea that they would just stumble into this, and in fact, when you look at the evidence, it bears this out. Because what we know these days (although it doesn’t really feature in any of these big history books), is that on all the world’s continents, that process by which humans domesticate plants was really, really, really, really slow. I’m talking thousands of years; during which humans are tinkering that playing around they’re cultivating, but they’re not going the whole hog. They’re not becoming peasant farmers. There was no agricultural revolution. There was no ‘sometimes they go into farming and then they come out again and they look at the social implications and decide it’s not for them.’ There’s all kinds of different variations, depending whether you’re in, say, China or Mexico or the Middle East. The idea these days, with the evidence we have, that there was an origins of agriculture and the consequences were this is just crazy, reductionist nonsense. The consequences are actually very different in different parts of the world, as you might expect. A lot of what we’re doing in the book is simply this: it’s actually trying to give an account based on the latest evidence of what people actually did as people, not some sort of semi mythical allegory for how we all became unequal or something like that. I’ve encountered a little bit of disappointment from some readers, that we don’t provide a substitute myth. A simple story about how we all got stuck or why the world is in such a mess. But that’s the whole point of the book, we want to get away from myths and fables and actually introduce the reader to a lot of this new knowledge and also try and ask different questions.
Speaker 1 [00:15:11] What are those questions that you want to ask, that are different?
Speaker 2 [00:15:14] I’ll give you an example. If you begin a history of our species from the assumption that once upon a time, we all lived in societies of equals and then something changed and we get inequality then you’ve already made a whole load of assumptions there. For example, what’s the evidence for this primordial society of equals? We don’t really have any actually. If you look at the earliest surviving evidence which goes back only around (I say only) 30 or 40,000 years. Our species has been around much longer than that. But for most of that time, the evidence we have from archeology is just too sparse and too fragmentary to really begin to reconstruct what our societies were like. When we start to get enough evidence, which is roughly around the time of the last Ice Age, what we see is something totally different. It’s not human beings living in these little isolated, simple, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Instead, we see this incredible stuff. So, for example, in Europe during the last Ice Age, we actually have people buried like kings and queens. I mean, absolutely covered in jewelry and ornamentation with these great elaborate weapons and regalia. There’s various examples of this, and these are hunter-gatherers living during the last ice age on the tundra (like on the edge of glaciers) and the interesting thing is we have the burials but we have almost no other evidence that they were actually living in a very hierarchical society. So what’s going on there? It’s like they’re play-acting. It’s like a costume drama. Or if we switch over to North America 3,500 years ago, way before we have agriculture, there are sites like Poverty Point. Actually, there’s no other site quite like poverty point. It’s a unique site in Louisiana, which is huge. It’s a hunter gatherer metropolis with these vast earthworks. It’s like a great amphitheater, where hunter-gatherers must have been gathering in their thousands. We’re not quite sure what they were gathering to do. But it’s very clear they’re not living in little bands at this point when they’re doing it. There’s a similar kind of picture that comes out of Japan before rice farming. You’ve got thousands of years of really exuberant and diverse hunter gathers. So the whole idea that all of this can be locked up in a little box and say ‘Oh, nothing much happened before the invention of farming,’ is just beginning to look kind of silly. So a better question to ask might be something along the lines of this: when you look at the actual evidence for what’s going on, what we seem to be seeing in a lot of these cases are human groups that actually switch around their social structures; often on a seasonal basis. There are actually historically documented examples of this. For example, some of the Plains nations. Up until relatively recent times, like the 19th century, when they were preparing for the annual Bison Hunt and then afterwards for the Sundance rituals that followed, these groups would actually form something like a state. They would actually appoint soldiers and a police force, because everything depended on the success of this one big collaborative hunting exercise. Anyone who screwed around with that, or endangered the hunt could be locked up or whipped or punished. But then when the hunt and the rituals that came afterwards were over (we’re talking about maybe two or three months of the year when all of these coercive structures are in place) they would just dissolve away. Anyone who held those powers one year would not be granted them the next. They would just go back to something more like egalitarian bands. This is not that unusual. We have lots of cases of Hunter-Gatherer Societies that did this kind of switcheroo. So the question then becomes something more like wondering if that’s more like what people were doing for most of our history as a species, instead of asking ‘What are the origins of social inequality?’ What we could ask is, ‘how did we get stuck?’ How do you go from a situation where people are constructing and then taking apart hierarchy (either on a seasonal basis or by doing it in a ritual and then not doing it for the rest of the year); how do you go from a fluid and flexible situation like that to one where you’ve got hierarchy all the time?
Speaker 1 [00:20:36] Yeah, but even that story you just told (of those plains nations) that violates every story I’ve been told about the origins of humanity. Because I’ve read a couple of these books, to varying degrees. The question is always ‘Where do the hierarchical structures come from? First, we didn’t have hierarchical structures. Then they were imposed. Then at this point, we have the king, or the dictator or whatever you want to call it. And that stuck around forever.’ But the fact that it would be back and forth, just looking at the evidence of ‘this is what this nation did instead’ completely makes that question look stupid.
Speaker 2 [00:21:18] I think that’s why some people are a little bit annoyed with the book, because it kind of plays havoc with our standard way of telling that story. The standard story usually goes something along the lines of, ‘Well, first you’ve got the wheat trap, and then when you’ve got the wheat then societies (for the first time) have a surplus of wealth. And out of that comes private property. And then you have to defend the private property, so you get civil society. Then populations grow because you’ve got the surplus, and then you’ve got to have kings to control them and bureaucrats to administer them.’ It’s all really based on a story that the Swiss French philosopher, Jacques Rousseau, told in the 18th century. The whole thing is predicated on the idea that our ancestors couldn’t see what was coming. They’re a bit like Wylie Coyote, they’re always stumbling into the next horrific trap. Every time they try something, it bites them in the ass and they’re sinking deeper and deeper and deeper into trouble. I’s a morality tale, basically, but it really doesn’t match the facts.
Speaker 1 [00:22:30] Do you feel, when you look at this book (and it’s a many hundred page history of humanity), that there is no story that you are replacing the old story with? Or is there a deeper narrative? If there isn’t, does that make what you’re doing harder? Is it harder to have the information go down for people?
Speaker 2 [00:22:53] This is very important, because a lot of the book is brush clearing. It’s using the latest evidence to clear away the cobwebs, if you like, of outdated theories that we just think are just bad. Bad, bad history. What you’re left with is interesting and there are patterns. One of them that emerged, which we think is important, is really about scale. What are the effects of populations actually scaling up? A massive issue today. There’s nearly eight billion people on the planet, most of us live in cities. What does that mean? Does that constrain the kind of people we can be, the ways we can interact with each other? It’s obviously a massive issue right now with the climate summit and the climate crisis. Are we basically trapped by our sheer numbers into something like our present system? We go into this issue in quite some detail in the book. One of the really fascinating things we found out is that when you look at the evidence for early cities, a surprising number of them don’t fit a characterization. They actually don’t have kings and queens. Quite often they don’t even have Central Administration or central storage areas. These are cities with tens of thousands of people that actually seem to have governed themselves from the bottom up: through neighborhood councils, that kind of thing. In fact, one of the takeaways from the book as a whole, is that egalitarian city and egalitarian regional coalitions and confederacies are surprisingly common, historically. But egalitarian families are not, and egalitarian households are not. Actually, what we ended up concluding is that the conventional stories got things back to front; in the sense that the most insidious and deep forms of inequality are actually the ones that take root not on the large scale, but on the small scale. It’s when it gets into your head: gets into family relations, relations between men and women, children and elders. That is when we appear to get stuck in really durable systems of inequality. It’s a pattern; it’s something that we really wanted to go on and explore more in other writing.
Speaker 1 [00:25:43] Wow, that’s really interesting. It mirrors a thought that I’ve had sometimes, which is that as many systems as we try to put in place to prevent humans causing harm to other humans on a societal scale, we can never stop people from hurting their own families. So much pain is caused; domestic violence or people cheating on each other, right? Just emotional violence being done, that sort of thing. There’s often this this sacredness of the family that’s held out as this perfect social unit, but if you actually look at -Talk to a social worker about what they deal with and about what people do to each other is extremely painful, and that must have been true throughout all of history as well.
Speaker 2 [00:26:34] Exactly. It’s weird: our common sense idea that things like making decisions by consensus is easier in small groups. Have you never had a family?
Speaker 1 [00:26:50] To try to pick what movie to watch in a couple of weeks when you go home for Thanksgiving. Terrible.
Speaker 2 [00:26:56] It’s very counterfactual, and actually, it turns out it’s no different for hunter-gatherers. There was a study quite recently that showed that it’s exactly the same for them. The difference is that, historically, there’s often been an answer to that predicament, which is that you just move away. So if you look at the history of indigenous or Aboriginal societies, whether it’s Australia, North America. There were often these systems of hospitality; which meant that if you found yourself in an abusive relationship (or stigmatized or maybe done something wrong, or you fall into debt, whatever) you could move away. Often very long distances, not just from your biological family, but even outside your own language group. And because there were systems of what anthropologists often call clans, you knew that there would be somebody else, somewhere far away, who was actually obliged by that code to take you in and look after you and effectively adopt you. There were rules about how this worked, exactly, but this is exactly what we see going on for a lot of human history. Way before there are cities. What we have, is not these little isolated groups of human beings wandering around in bands. What we see in the archeological evidence, are these big coalitions of society spread out over whole continents. The science is really great on this now. We can actually pin down how people are moving around and intermarrying and moving across landscapes on a really amazing scale. How we get trapped in hierarchy and abusive relationships with each other, which then spread out to other areas of society and the things spirals. But what we found in the book is, that unless it takes root first on the small scale, it doesn’t necessarily have these major kind of ramifications. It’s like these debates about warfare and violence. There’s evidence for warfare and violence going as far back as we can trace it. But it’s not all the time. We’re not innately warlike any more than we are innately peaceful, actually, when the evidence shows is that it kind of alternates. You go through periods of interpersonal violence and then people somehow figure out to live peacefully for a while, then violence comes back. But it doesn’t always have these cataclysmic effects. But then there are these moments in history where the violence becomes structural. It’s sticks, and that’s interesting. Why does that happen? We have a theory about this.
Speaker 1 [00:29:55] I want to hear this theory, but let’s take a really quick break. That way there’ll be suspense so that people have to listen to the ads. You just set up such a perfect teaser. We’ll be right back with David Wengrow. OK, we’re back with David Wengrow. You left us on a wonderful cliffhanger: that you have a theory about why there’s times at which violence becomes structural. Why do you feel that is?
Speaker 2 [00:30:35] One thing we noticed was -Well, let’s start with an example that everybody’s heard of. So think about ancient Egypt: pyramids, pharaohs, all of that stuff. There’s something very striking that happens when all of those things are happening for the first time. So you start getting kings and pharaohs and pyramids and what not, about 5000 years ago. The first thing you see in the archeological evidence is that you get this these kind of outbursts of violence associated with the burial, the actual funeral, of a king who’s died. It’s really peculiar, and it’s not just Egypt. You see something similar in China with the Shang Dynasty. And in North America, Cahokia. It’s almost a global pattern; where setting up kings seems to involve (on the one hand) these very large scale funerals and rituals, which are all about showing affection, showing care, showing love for your ancestors. But then into that comes the most extraordinary violence. So they start killing people and burying them around the king; and there can be literally hundreds of individuals who aren’t necessarily slaves or enemies. Sometimes they’re actually relatives of the king, or members of his inner circle who have to die on the occasion of his death or her death (if it’s a queen) and they go into their tombs along with the king. So you get this very odd, very intense fusion of systems of violence and systems of the opposite like systems of love, care and affection. That seems to have an extraordinary effect on how these societies then develop for many generations afterwards. The violence and the hierarchy do become structural. I guess if you think about it, it all sounds a bit exotic, but it’s actually pretty familiar. You love your country. You kill for your country. Systems of care, systems of love: when those get confused with systems of violence, that seems to have an extraordinary effect. I was thinking the other day that the perfect expression of this is museums. You look at a museum, like a big state museum, like the British Museum in London or the Met in New York and it’s full of loot, right? It’s full of stuff that was forcibly ripped from every corner of the world.
Speaker 1 [00:33:24] Indiana Joneses diving into some poor dude’s tomb and being like, ‘I’m going to take this and put it in a museum’ and dodging all the traps. Stealing it.
Speaker 2 [00:33:33] It’s empire. It’s violence. Let’s not pussyfoot around it, that’s what it is. But what happens to all that stuff? Well, it goes into this building with all these laboratories, and everyone just loves it and strokes it and fixes it and cares for it and puts it carefully and arranges it in a little glass case. That’s why you get to keep it, is because you can look after it better than anyone else. So it’s like the ultimate expression of that fusion of light, love and horrific violence. And it literally becomes a structure. I mean, the museum is a building, after all.
Speaker 1 [00:34:09] Yeah and when someone says, ‘Hey, hold on a second, give all that stuff back.’
Speaker 2 [00:34:14] ‘No, no, they don’t know. They don’t know what to do. We know. We’ve been looking after it. Look how nicely we’ve been looking after it.’
Speaker 1 [00:34:22] ‘Yeah, we here at the at the Met or the British Museum or whatever. We are the true stewards of this Indian artifact.’
Speaker 2 [00:34:30] I’m not saying we’ve got this all figured out, but when we started looking at various examples from different parts of the world, there does seem to be something in that combination that is very powerful and can actually trap people into certain kinds of otherwise undesirable patterns of behavior and relationships.
Speaker 1 [00:34:50] You said that we are not innately warlike, no more than we’re innately peaceful. I’ve heard both arguments. When people hold up examples like, ‘Oh the bonobos, they all kiss each other and have missionary style sex, and that’s what we’re like. Not like the chimps.’ It’s a just so story as much as anything else. Do you feel that there is anything that we are innately, or is this an argument against that sort of innate way of thinking about humanity?
Speaker 2 [00:35:22] Well, it’s an argument against the idea that we’re basically innately good or innately evil, because really those are more like theological arguments than scientific ones. Clearly, good and evil are concepts that we made up. It’s like arguing whether we’re innately fat or innately thin. It’s a matter of judgment, not everyone is going to agree. That’s partly why we’re human, is precisely that we can have these kind of debates and presumably that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 200,000 years. But there is one aspect of our species history that we feel has been underplayed, which is that we did turn out to be innately (if you like) just a lot more playful and experimental than we tend to give ourselves credit for. When we tell these big narrative histories of the broad sweep of human history or whatever, it’s always the story of how it all went wrong. How we kept falling into these traps and every time we try to pull ourselves out, we sink down even further. This really isn’t the picture that we get. The picture that we get from history and archeology, is actually of a species that was constantly trying stuff out for size and then often rejecting it, or just doing it in a certain context and not doing it elsewhere. That is the point about human nature that we feel has been rather lost. And that has implications, because if you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re basically not a very inventive sort of species and at the same time, you’re aware that you’re living in a cultural system that has some pretty nasty things in store for us over the next century; in terms of mass migration, global poverty and the whole continental shelves going underwater. That’s a pretty toxic combination. So I think there is a case to be made for reevaluating the evidence of what our species has actually been like for most of its history, partly just to remind us that there are possibilities out there which otherwise we might not even consider.
Speaker 1 [00:37:46] Yeah, tell me if I’m putting words in your mouth. So often these stories are told about what we were like as hunter-gatherers or the evolutionary psychology accounts are meant to reify and solidify something about the way that we live today. Often someone is saying, ‘Well, in hunter gatherer times, men were like this and women were like that, and therefore that’s what we’re really like and we should continue to model our society that way.’ ‘See, everything I already thought was true, and we shouldn’t change stuff too much because our society is based on these old principles.’ It sounds like you’re saying the the opposite; that we were so variable that we shouldn’t really draw any specific conclusion about the way our society is today was inevitable and it must be this way. In fact, we could change things a lot more than we perhaps think. Am I getting that right?
Speaker 2 [00:38:42] Yeah, if anything, it’s it’s the other way around. What’s really striking about people today is that we find it really, really hard to even imagine living in different kinds of societies; let alone actually putting that into effect. Whereas our ancestors – I mean cities did have to be invented, right? Somebody had to do that for the first time. Turns out that when they did it, they did it in myriad different ways. There wasn’t just one model, in the same way that there wasn’t just one model of agriculture. I guess the extreme version of this, in anthropology would be that, we are walking around in this incredibly densely populated, technologically complex universe, but we still got these hunter gatherer brains in our heads. And they haven’t actually changed since the days when we were walking around in tiny, simple, egalitarian bands. So we’re constantly getting overheated. It’s a constant challenge to even exist in the kind of societies we’ve ended up in. The interesting thing is, this really comes back to what you mean by a hunter gatherer brain, because actually the latest studies (in places like the Journal of Human Evolution which are based on very rigorously quantified studies of what modern hunter-gatherers actually do, in terms of the kind of societies they form) they completely go against this idea. It turns out that, although in demographic terms these are often very small groups, they hold in their heads a kind of mental picture of a much larger society. So we’re talking here about groups in Australia and in sub-Saharan Africa; and it turns out that these carefully observed studies show that even though they may not meet any of these people ever (in the same way that you’ll never meet everyone in America), they have exactly the same kind of idea: that potentially these could be marriage partners or these could be people you form relationships with. In other words, there’s a mental picture among hunter-gatherers of a vastly extended cultural network. Which is not, in essence, very different at all from the way that we think about our own societies. So actually wandering around with a Hunter-Gatherer brain in the middle of Manhattan is not really much more of a problem than wandering around with a Hunter-Gatherer brain in the Australian outback. They both involve interaction of two different scales. This is what really makes us different from bonobos, chimps and all those other primates: is that they base their interactions on direct evidence. I have a friend who is a very famous – Sorry, I’m bragging about how famous my friends are. He’s not really famous. He’s only famous in the tiny internecine world of anthropology. But within that field, he is very well known. Maurice Bloch is his name, and he has a nice story.
Speaker 1 [00:41:47] Oh, Maurice Bloch, you know, Maurice? Oh my god.
Speaker 2 [00:41:50] Thank you very much, you see?
Speaker 1 [00:41:51] Maurice Bloch is a legend. Everyone has heard of Maurice Bloch.
Speaker 2 [00:41:56] Go down the street, say ‘Maurice Bloch.’ Everyone knows who you’re talking about.
Speaker 1 [00:41:59] I’m blushing, just thinking about the fact that you’ve met Maurice, but please go on.
Speaker 2 [00:42:04] Here we go. So Maurice has a story about a village where he did his fieldwork in Madagascar. It’s a very simple story, but it just illustrates this point. So there was an old guy in the village who was a very respected ancestor, and at some stage he (like everybody) started getting very elderly and losing some of his faculties and so on. Now, when this kind of thing happens in a troupe of chimpanzees, so you know, the alpha male isn’t alpha anymore. Immediately, he will be replaced: knocked off his position by some other aspiring chimp who will then steal his mate. It’s all based on direct observation of the other chimps capacities, and if those capacities start to look a bit unconvincing then the chimp’s in big trouble. What Maurice points out is just a very, very simple observation: that what goes on in human societies is often completely different. Where in fact, what happened to this old man is that he’d lost many of his faculties. He couldn’t speak properly anymore. And yet, he was still totally revered and treated with the greatest respect as a living ancestor by his everyone in his vicinity. What this highlights is a capacity that we have as humans, which seems to be completely (or almost completely) lacking in other animals, including other primates. It is the ability to treat each other, not purely on the basis of how we perform, but of the roles that we play and it begins very, very early in the life of a human infant, maybe even in the womb. There’s been work on simple categories like mummy and daddy. The infant learns that there is a thing called ‘mom,’ and sometimes mom doesn’t act like mom. But that category doesn’t immediately evaporate. It becomes stable. So even when mom’s acting a bit off, you know she’s still mum and it’s that separation. But it’s what they call essentialism. You have categories which are desirable in our minds. The fact that we can do this allows us to build completely different types of social systems, compared to other primates. We trace our genealogy back over many, many, many generations. We can live on really large scales, even though we don’t actually meet most of the people involved. But we know that they are: in New Yorkers they are New Yorkers and in London, one has fellow Londoners. These are all abstractions which are part of how we organize ourselves. This is really a key difference in human psychology, which sometimes gets ignored in these discussions.
Speaker 1 [00:45:10] Completely, it makes this idea that we are somehow ill adapted to the world that we’ve created; that we have Hunter-Gatherer brains that don’t fit in in our current world. It makes it seem like some sort of weird anti tautology because it’s like, ‘Well, we created this world because our brains were able to create it, because we’re able to deal with abstractions.’ If we had primate brains, we’d be ill suited to it. But we created this world full of abstractions because we uniquely had the ability to create a world full of abstractions, so could we possibly be ill equipped? It’s sort of like saying, ‘I built a glove to fit my hand, but my hand doesn’t fit it.’ No, I built it. I sewed it together. I use my hand as the pattern. What the fuck are you talking about? One thing that you said about all the difference; that we’ve had so many various ways that we’ve established human society. So we should open the possibility to ourselves, of what human society could look like. Reminds me of a particular passage in Harari’s book, ‘Sapiens,’ that always stuck with me. It’s an enjoyable book, because it’s the kind of book where there’s a couple of big flashbulb ideas on every page, every page is sort of like, ‘Oh, interesting. Oh, I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s interesting to think about.’ One of the ones that always stuck with me, is he makes this assertion; that throughout and – I’ve always wanted to ask someone who maybe knows better than he does what they think of it. He makes this assertion that throughout human history, men have always run human society, we’ve always had a patriarchy.
Speaker 2 [00:46:53] Does he say that?
Speaker 1 [00:46:54] He says that. He says there’s no stable matriarchies. He says also, that no one knows why. He says it can’t be because men are physically more strong, because we don’t have a world in which the strong person is always ruling. We can have Bill Gates and people who are physically weak. So he says no one really has any idea why men are always in charge, but they always are. And anyway, moving on.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t have a counterargument to this, but I have always been curious about it.’ Do you have any point of view on that?
Speaker 2 [00:47:30] We do actually go into this in the book. I didn’t realize that’s what he thinks, but he’s not the only one. Actually the interesting thing here, is that if you look at pretty much every known historical example of a society that is clearly very hierarchical in the form of a kingdom or an empire, something like that. Almost invariably, whether we’re talking about ancient Egypt or ancient China or 18th century France, the societal hierarchy models itself on a patriarchal household; where the king is the father of his people in some sense, so he governs the land as he governs his domestic arrangements. So this idea of patriarchy in different parts of the world clearly becomes very, very important at certain points in history. Then it becomes very hard to get rid of. So the million dollar question is, ‘Were we always like that?’ This is where it gets interesting because there is a resistance. We talk about this in the book, somewhere around the middle of the book, there is a resistance to talking about societies that weren’t like that. So if you bring up matriarchy, for example, it’s kind of a no-no in my field. If you speculate that, let’s say, societies before kings might have been different, maybe not even matriarchy. Maybe let’s just say men and women had roughly equal status or women had autonomy, or maybe just priority in ritual and religious affairs. You almost immediately get accused of romanticizing or playing around with unscientific ideas, and this kind of thing. This is a problem, because unless we’re actually allowed to interpret evidence for societies that were not patriarchal, you do end up just saying, ‘Oh, it must have always been like that as far back as humanity goes.’ Actually, what was shown in the book is that there are exceptions to this. Actually, many of these early agricultural societies: in the Middle East, for example, we have very good evidence now. Again, very famous in very small circles, there’s a place in Turkey called Chattahoochee, which is an early farming settlement. Probably the most intensely researched Neolithic town in the world. It dates back around 10,000 years ago, and this was a town of considerable size, about 5,000 people. We’ve got really detailed hard evidence that shows that in terms of diet, quality of life and just about any other measure, you can think of men and women (biological males, biological females) have roughly equal status. We’ve got lots of evidence for how they organize their houses and their artistic and ritual creations, and there’s no indication that men in any way dominated or encompassed women. Actually, if anything, it might be the other way around. Now it’s true that in the past, people have made some exaggerated claims that, ‘Oh, it must be a matriarchy. It must be a matriarchal society.’ Well, that’s very hard to demonstrate, but it’s much harder to say that it’s a patriarchy. Something else is clearly going on. Unless we can talk about those things, it’s very hard to even begin understanding where patriarchy comes from and why it came at certain points in history. So initially, I think the problem with the kind of account you were just describing, which you attribute to Harari (I don’t know if he says it or not, but other people certainly do) is that they won’t even allow you to ask the question. Something we do in the book is just trying to open these things up again for debate, so we can at least try to understand where patriarchy does come from, rather than just assuming it’s there all the time.
Speaker 1 [00:51:49] Yeah, because in the account I gave (I read this book a couple of years ago so if anyone wants to write in and tell me that I miss attributing it, feel free) he says it has always been this way and no one knows why. What you’re saying is that if you make the assumption that it has always been this way, or if you come to that conclusion too quickly
Speaker 2 [00:52:06] Then you’ll never know why. Yeah, there’s another nice example from the history of ancient Egypt, where there’s a period of about 300 years (from about 800 B.C. to 500 B.C.) when women were basically running the country in ancient Egypt. Actually, they were often foreign women from Nubia or Libya, and they’d basically take on most of the responsibilities of kings. They own the biggest agricultural estates in the country, and it’s historically quite an unusual situation. But it all falls into a period of history, the Egyptologists call (wait for it) the third intermediate period. It’s like putting a big sign on top that says ‘Nothing happening here.’
Speaker 1 [00:52:53] Look I could talk to you for a thousand years, but we have to start to come in for a landing here. So let’s put our seatbelts on and try to work our way to the end of this. I want to talk more about how we think about contemporary society, because I think it’s very difficult for us to look at these accounts. We have this weird dichotomy: where we look at them as both being non-humans and as separate from us. Then we also just want to say, ‘What can we learn about how we live today? What lessons can we take from our very simplistic understanding of our past selves and apply today?’ It’s very hard to literally think of ourselves as being the same species as what we’re reading about and studying. How does this work change your view of human society now. Of you, as a primate walking around, in a system that we’ve all built?
Speaker 2 [00:54:00] Well, I’ll give you an example. There’s a lot of speculation at the moment about artificial intelligence right now, and how this is going to change human societies. What I’ve noticed about a lot of that literature is that they start off from a completely oversimplified, almost cardboard cutout version of human history and what human societies actually are. When you’re speculating about something like A.I., that is kind of fatal because the way that they imagine our ancestors is as if they already were robots. ‘For most of human history, we were kind of automatons stumbling around, adapting to our environments, reacting to stuff, but not really understanding or reflecting on what was going on.’ Well, guess what? That’s what A.I. will be. That’s what robots are. But that’s not the future of humanity. If you’ve got a completely unrealistic idea of what we were like for most of our history, how can you even begin to then speculate on what actually having thousands of robots will be like? Whereas if you start from a realistic idea, then you’ve got a platform to actually begin to assess the real possibilities. What could we do with that technology? Let’s not fall into the wheat trap (the digital version of the wheat trap): we’re in control. What do we want this to do? What do we want social media to do, instead of it constantly doing things to us?
Speaker 1 [00:55:34] Yeah. Well, and it’s also an argument against people who abdicate responsibility for designing a system. We’ve talked about on the show before and we’ve discussed A.I., that it’s so often framed as, ‘This is going to happen and it’s going to turn out this way. So we have to get ready now. We have to accept that all the cars are going to be self-driving in this particular way. And what that means are we need to start putting barriers in all the crosswalks because people won’t be allowed to walk into traffic anymore because the A.I. car is going to be driving,’ and instead we can acknowledge that we are designing the system. We are creating the A.I., we are creating a tool for us to use. So let’s take some fucking responsibility for it and say ‘This is what we want to design.’ And the same thing with our current social economic systems, capitalism (and, say, democracy in the United States) is often framed as the best we got. This is the end of history. This is the final outcome and deal with it.
Speaker 2 [00:56:37] It’s also about our particular notion of democracy, it’s something we talk about quite a lot in the book. We’ve ended up with an understanding of democracy that is very different from, let’s say, the ancient Greek understanding. The ancient Greeks did not think that elections formed part of democracy; precisely because they create winners and losers. They’re like a big sports game, big, charismatic, often rather weird individuals competing for your votes, and they tend to throw up charismatic individuals who can very easily become war leaders. Actually, the ancient Greeks thought that this was undemocratic. This was what they called the aristocratic mode of electing leaders. And it creates (obviously not just competition but) very short term understandings of key decisions. So we are in a situation where we tend to take decisions of global scale: global politics, the future, the implications of AI, how we respond to the climate crisis and we harness them to politics, which is often a short term game of basically oneupsmanship. Where it’s kind of impossible within that system to make decisions on a really long term scale. There’s nothing in our history or in our social development that obliges us to do that: to put long term decisions in the hands of a tiny number of individuals who, very clearly and very overtly, are trying to win the next election race. Why do we do that? There’s no particular reason why that version of what we call a ‘state’ or a ‘nation state’ doesn’t have any deep evolutionary basis. It’s something that’s come together over, really, just the last century and a half, and then through wars and conquest and colonization has basically been spread and imposed throughout much of the planet. But it’s not inevitable. There’s no particular reason. People already are experimenting with other ways of making those kinds of decisions. So if you can do that for one important set of decisions, potentially you could do it for a whole bunch of others.
Speaker 1 [00:59:03] What is an alternative way of making those?
Speaker 2 [00:59:06] In the U.K., for example, we’ve got people trying out things like assemblies; which are selected from the public at random the same way you do jury duty. So you get a random cross-section of the population for a given region or city, and they have to sit down and have long, intensive conversations about what changes we make to our own communities in order to reach these carbon emission targets.
Speaker 1 [00:59:37] Wow, that anything could be worse than jury duty. No, it actually sounds nice. It actually sounds very nice.
Speaker 2 [00:59:43] It’s an it’s an example. I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to work or it’s going to take off everywhere, but it’s an example of people trying something else. Who you’re going to vote for in the next election is not the determining factor of that discussion
Speaker 1 [00:59:58] Instead of getting a notice, – Well, first of all, when you get that jury duty notice, I think we underestimate how deeply weird of a thing that is, how you have to go decide someone’s fate randomly. You’ve been randomly selected to decide whether someone’s going to be incarcerated and perhaps killed by the state, but instead you’d be randomly selected to essentially lead the country. To make policy choices, say, ‘Hey, what should we do about climate change?’
Speaker 2 [01:00:22] To take part in the decision, to take part in a process of deciding what your life and what your children’s life should be like, why do we find that so strange?
Speaker 1 [01:00:33] Yeah. It’s that slogan that I’ve they’ve heard so many times of, ‘A better world is possible.’ There’s a reason that’s a mantra because, we need to remind each other of it.
Speaker 2 [01:00:45] Maybe that’s a nice point to end on. That was a slogan associated, among other things, with the global justice movement, which my coauthor David Grab was was deeply involved with. In a way, this book we’ve written, ‘The Dawn of Everything,’ is kind of a logical thing to do if you’re involved (as he was) with social movements, which in essence are all about asking that question: is this the only way we can organize ourselves? Are there alternatives? It’s very logical, then to go (if you’re an anthropologist, especially) and investigate all the other ways in which people have organized themselves. But what we found, was that when other authors have come to do this and try to capture that big picture of human history, they end up doing the opposite and basically telling these myths/fables about how we got stuck and trapped into just one sort of path of development. So the book is really coming out of a desire to bring the latest scientific evidence to bear on exactly those kinds of questions and in the process, just highlighting, something more of just the true range of human possibilities that’s often hidden from our view by these very, very deeply entrenched, tenacious myths.
Speaker 1 [01:02:23] Yeah. Well, that’s an incredible project, and I can’t thank you enough for coming to talk to us about it. I can’t wait to read the book. If folks want to pick it up, you can get it from our special book shop at factuallypod.com/books. You’ll be supporting not just the show, but your local bookstore when you do. Or go pick it up at your local bookstore. David Wengrow, thank you so much. Oh, and the name of the book one more time for us, please.
Speaker 2 [01:02:45] ‘The Dawn of Everything.’
Speaker 1 [01:02:48] Incredible. Thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2 [01:02:50] Thank you.
Speaker 1 [01:02:56] Well, thank you so much to David Wengrow for coming on the show. Since I recorded this, I have started reading the book and it really is fantastic. If you want to check it out, hit up factuallypod.com/books. Once again, that’s factuallypod.com/books. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song, The fine folks at Falcon Northwest, for building with the incredible custom gaming PC that you are listening to this very interview on. You can find me online at adamconover.net or @AdamConover, wherever you get your social media. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books