I am genuinely glad we are progressively leaving the "ancestors were dumb" narrative. It seems to have been a long and slow process, I fully root for it.
Side point: this article is primarily aimed at promoting a (long) book, so readers are expected to enjoying reading for reading, and will appreciate the author's effort to lead them through a syrupous long ride, I guess. This reminded me I don't belong to that camp.
Other than the "our dumb ancestors dumbly believed their ancestors were dumb" narrative, I don't think I have ever seen this among people who who have actually seriously thought about it.
And if you're referring to dumb cavemen hitting everything with clubs "narrative" that's seen in comedy and other entertainment, I don't see why you think this article indicates we're moving away from that. Or really what the problem with it is at all, or why we would want to move away from it. Larson et al. rigorously proved it to be hilarious.
Every time we say "civilisation started with X" and then discover a city from before that time.
We still don't understand how the Australian Aborigines got to Australia 50K years ago. You can't get to Australia without good boats. Yet there's a blank refusal to admit that this means that early humans had sophisticated boats.
It's really common to write off early humans as less sophisticated.
Who claims they can not possibly have used boats?
I think that's completely bonkers but apparently some people like the theory. Previous HN discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27917316
But I think it hides away how much they got done within their limited means and technology. Them not knowing about bacteria was less a limitation of their intelligence than a limitation of the scale they could observe the word (including data collection technology and drawing patterns from huge samples)
Left to our own devices, none of us would ever learn anything more than a miniscule fraction of what we know today.
For example, one could wonder how much of the mess of current US politics is because the average age of people in power is so far about 60?
Yes, the elderly also worked within prior socio-political configurations but I think we can agree bagging at Walmart is pretty distinct from doing artisanal crafting or agriculture.
With what does that agree? Where is that stated?
> there are different, equally valid systems for measuring the “goodness” of an individual or a social group
It's essential to understand that people have perspectives, values, and situations outside my own or even outside my own imagination, and that their similarity to my 'system' is not a measure of their validity.
That means that making judgments is very error-prone. But that's different than saying all systems are equally valid, or are good, or that goodness is subjective. Making the judgment that system A is equally good and valid as system B by virtue of their existence is far more error prone. It's like saying, when evaluating programming languages for a project, 'I'm not absolutely certain, so I'm scoring them all 100!'.
The key phrase is "at birth". The vast majority of the difference between "75 years at birth" and "25 years at birth" is due to infant/toddler mortality.
If you made it to 10, your life expectancy wasn't a lot different than today.
The max has not really changed that much, and modern life may be killing some people, but the percentage of people who survive from 25 to 75 has also improved a lot.
Whether you choose to ascribe the quality "savage" to a tribal society is a discussion all of itself; there is evidence of vast (continental-scale) trade networks even from the tribal era, so it wasn't all lets-bash-some-skulls-before-lunch. But being smart can only give you limited sight if you have no giants' shoulders to stand on.
ALL hunter-gatherer societies/culture are fundamentally the same, because the main components are somehow a necessary consequence of being a hunter-gatherer (which is a stable category, which applies to a variety of human cultures throughout history, that can all be summed up as being more or less the same), and therefore we can tell how ancient "hunter-gatherers" lived by looking at contemporary people we call "hunter-gatherers".
No, no, no, no, and no.
And, in fact, human culture always has and still is various, diverse, and with many possibilities. From the review:
> Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all. The book is something of a glorious mess, full of fascinating digressions, open questions, and missing pieces. It aims to replace the dominant grand narrative of history not with another of its own devising, but with the outline of a picture, only just becoming visible, of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity.
> “How did we get stuck?” the authors ask—stuck, that is, in a world of “war, greed, exploitation [and] systematic indifference to others’ suffering”?
Our ancestors were of course, the same as us.
Extraordinary, not because he was genius (though he probably was in some sense) but because there aren't many more like him. He was one of the very few persons that dared to question prevailing narratives about how society and economic structures (in particular) were structured and evolved since prehistoric times and propose plausible alternatives about true underlying social mechanisms and phenomena.
Now, all societies fill-in the countless gaps and repaint the past to fit their purposes / justify an existing order. But in our "modern society" that claims to be scientific / fact based the paint job has some flaws so blatant it requires heroic will to pass unnoticed.
When I read criticism of his Debt (and I suspect of this last book as well) I sense people have no idea how monumental the task of re-visiting and re-examining how the past evolved into the present without regurgitating banalities and "self-evident" assertions. Implicit in this program is the debunking of the entire field of modern economics and its associated legal/financial structures.
If he is guilty of biting more than he could chew is because so many of the rest of us are intellectually and morally (and possibly soon also economically) bankrupt.
The OP author talks about how Graeber was a genius because he was so well versed in so many diverse subjects and the histories of different cultures, but unfortunately his conclusions are not supported by the experts in those specific cultures' histories. His conclusions about Clovis Points are a great example. He draws a huge number of conclusions from a tiny set of data that most experts don't agree with - conclusions that also support his modern politics.
It reminds me of the fanfare around the book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", which was immensely popular because it supported modern progressive politics, and put on numerous best seller lists - but actual historians later showed it not to be supported by the historical record and that its conclusions were drawn from scant and/or misinterpreted evidence.
Hard science is boring and tedious. ...and if you're selecting a hundred data points from different areas to construct a narrative that also happens to agree with your activist politics... then it's fair for the community to be skeptical of your methodology and conclusions. ...and that's also why he was dismissed from his roles as professor at two separate institutions.
(His relationship with NT going from foe to dear friend is one of the most heart-warming things I've seen on Twitter):
In this he was an intellectual in the mould of old-school Brit labor Marxists like Perry Anderson.
Give a search for neomarxism and poststructuralism
To me it seems far more important at this stage to have a more informed "natural history" of economic / social organization that spans out the "phase space" of possibilities rather than strive already for a coherent framework that puts everything in its "proper place".
I say "seems to" because it is genuinely hard to tell. He will be talking about the temple-banks of ancient Sumer or the customs of the Maori, and then suddenly go off on a long diatribe about how this compares to modern banking. Hidden away in this will be a bald assertion prefixed by "of course" which left me screaming "citation needed!". If you weren't watching for it you might miss it. But once you spot it you realise that the whole of the rest of the chapter just collapsed into meaningless drivel.
I cannot think that this guy was a genius.
Everyone in that political area calls him a "genius" because he offers them a rich trove of new "evidence" to support their modern politics.
It's an inconvenient truth that the experts in these individual fields don't agree with his conclusions.
Similar to this article - lots of claims of greatness, but never actually gets around to using facts to build the case.
“All hat and no cattle” as they might say.
It's like they're laying down premises for an argument rather than making claims about actual humans.
That entire section seemed to be Graeber saying "Economists have been promoting a myth for the last two centuries, but here I graciously point out their error so that they may be corrected and learn the truth." It never seems to occur to him that he might be tilting at a straw man.
I'm quite happy to agree that Smith got it wrong, but the modern examples Graeber cites don't support his claims. If you read them more carefully, what they are saying is "IF we were to live in a barter world then it would be very inefficient, hence money". They don't say that Barter World ever existed; its just a thought experiment.
The Transition From Barter to Fiat Money, Saint Louis Fed WORKING PAPER SERIES, 1994: https://files.stlouisfed.org/files/htdocs/wp/1994/94-004.pdf
This idea is widely accepted to be wrong today, but as you can see it wasn't the case not so long ago.
But this does not imply that there was a widespread "barter system" as the primary means of trade and cooperation, which was then replaced by a superior "money system". Instead, there would have been systems of credit, where you give me chickens now and I give you apples in six months. No money changes hands, but it's possible to keep track of who deserves to have some apples, and complex social institutions can be constructed on this basis, that would never be possible if society relied entirely on a "barter system". The "money system" is not an alternative to a "barter system" but is an alternative to a "credit system". Societies have gone back and forth between them many times throughout history - arguably we switched from a money system to a credit system when we abandoned the gold standard, and Bitcoin advocates want us to switch back again.
It also denies the existence of any systems where “money” is simply just the “most convenient commodity to barter with”. If everyone has these handy similarly sized hunks of gold and trade them cause it’s more convenient than carrying a chicken, that doesn’t mean “your using money”. If I’m happy not having gold and can simultaneously function in the “local economy” entirely with my chickens, I may use “gold”/“money” purely as a temporary item of escrow. I give gold to a shepherd to deliver sheep to my barn but he gives back the gold and takes some of my chickens when he leaves after the delivery… basically the “obviously money replaced barter cause it’s better” is a bullshit story that no one seems to give a shit trying to find evidence and I’m kind of sick of it.
So where are the serious historical, evidence based research economists to be found? Id love a well researched history that had some evidence of past social behaviour with respect to barter/money.
The Aztecs had a complex system involving cacao seeds, strips of cloth, and "hoe money" for larger values. But while all three of these were used as a unit of account, they were also consumed directly as commodities.
Prior to the technological migration of metal coinage, ancient East Asia used shell money. These were almost exclusively used as a medium of exchange, and were not directly consumed as a commodity.
Standardized metal coinage was almost certainly invented only once by the ancient Mediterranean culture. Part of why the story "money replaces barter" is told is because this invention disrupts and rapidly replaces every other system that it touches for the next several hundred years, until the entire Old World is using metal coinage of some sort.
See also cigarettes in prisons (more recently ramen).
That is called "barter".
Unless all the transfers/debts/values are being tracked in terms of apple's, then apples are fulfilling at least one aspect of money: unit of account.
From the Wikiepdia page on "Barter":
> In trade, barter (derived from baretor) is a system of exchange in which participants in a transaction directly exchange goods or services for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money. Economists distinguish barter from gift economies in many ways; barter, for example, features immediate reciprocal exchange, not one delayed in time.
The "immediate reciprocal exchange" criterion means that exchanging chickens now for apples later is not barter. When we talk about money replacing barter, we are talking specifically about the ability to immediately exchange physical tokens for goods or services. This refers very specifically to money as the medium of exchange, not as the medium of account.
In the traditional story, money was needed because Farmer A wants to exchange chickens for apples with Farmer B, but Farmer B doesn't have any apples right now. Money is useful because they can exchange that instead. But this story loses a lot of its force when you understand that they could have simply exchanged credit, without any need for money at all. The systemic change is not barter -> money, but credit -> money, which has very different implications for how society is organised. And, as I mentioned, we can see transitions from credit -> money and back again occur many times in history, whereas we see barter occur only in extremely rare circumstances.
I was not aware of the "immediate" condition for barter.
Reading from your link, there seems to be a gap in terminology for a situation separate from bartering, gift giving, and money based exchanges. Specifically, delayed exchanges where an account is informally kept but based on what was taken, not any unit/money.
The wikipedia entry for "Gift economy" rules out "explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards". 
So what to call the situation implied by "delayed barter", or "gifting with explicitly expected reciprocity"?
That situation can still happen without money. (Not claiming it was the basis for any particular economy, as it wouldn't scale well past trusted or enforcable relationships.)
- "I generally do the dishes and trust that you are keeping on top of sorting our mail"
- "I've got this round of beers. You'll probably get the next one but nobody's counting"
- "Sure, I'll help you move flats"
I assume no, but I'm not understanding what are you actually arguing for then?
What the book ‘Debt’ discusses is that credit based systems were the norm, not bartering.
In fact, iirc even bats have been shown to keep track of who shares food with them, and to share excess food with a less lucky partner, provided that partner continues to reciprocate.
It's unlikely that people were battering one day and then suddenly had this great idea of transitioning to a system of using money. Battering > battering with some credit > formalised money system seems like a logical series of steps to me. And of course there would be many more small steps between those. I would expect the number of transactions using credit to track the growth of society and the corresponding range of goods and service available.
He put is face on gold coin, gave it to soldiers, and demanded that his taxes be paid not in any-old-gold, but in Caesar-face gold. Thereby ensuring that recently conquered villages have an incentive to feed and house the solders that conquered them. This way, those soldiers didn't need to resupply before moving on to the next village.
It would seem that we've been using money to override ethics on behalf of the powerful ever since.
This has a lot to do with how think tanks are, on average, politically biased due to their funding sources, and so one could argue that it's not academics' fault.
Still, I often feel that academics in economics too easily abdicate their responsibility for how the subject impact society.
At university, I met (and roomed with) lots of economists, all of whom were solidly in the neoliberal camp. As perceptive readers might have realized, since then I've read and listened to a broader range of economic expertise. My favorite now is Richard Wolff.
Additionally, the author goes to great lengths to make the claim that the earliest societies were egalitarian "commune" societies of hunter gatherers, by cherry picking very specific finds, and completely ignoring any counter-examples. He also draws broad conclusions on very weak evidence. For example, he looks at the ruins of certain ancient sites only partially excavated, notes that there's no evidence of a "central large building" and draws the conclusion that these societies had no central gov't or singular leadership.
These are wildly fallacious arguments. It's the sort of thing we see when someone who is very politically active does direct historical research. It's too easy to biased your research if you're specifically looking for evidence to support your modern politics.
Anecdotally, modern day bankers and economists get a real shock when he discusses the long historical relation of debt with slavery. Their further response to the book is generally tainted by that unease.
The rarefied world of high finance and macroeconomics (while well endowed with "research" and sophistry) has generally avoided to take responsibility for both human and physical (environmental) costs of the financial / economic systems they rationalize. That is a societal debt that is now becoming overdue with unknown consequences.
Now consider the implications of a globalized economy where consumption in rich countries is underwritten by debt peonage. "The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that $51.2 billion is made annually in the exploitation of workers through debt bondage".
“Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height.”
They have recently found even older settlements like Boncuklu Tarla that even had a sewer system that was over 11,800 years old:
Meanwhile they seem to constantly find really old "city" settlements in Turkey today:
And yes, I don't know if this says more about Cowen or Graeber, but Cowen is usually much more coy with his critiques (or straussian, he might say).
1) Historians do history, that is the period with a written record. Writing is at most a few thousand years old, whereas "behaviorally modern" humans are starting maybe ~80,000 years ago
2) Anthropology split into those who eschew science and write nonsense (e.g., cultural, social anthropologists) and those who do science (e.g., biological anthropologists) a few decades ago. The anti-science anthropologists are driven by political views. See the Napoleon Chagnon controversy.
3) Mostly, you're actually interested in archaeologists here :-)
Also there is a long history of scientists idealizing some traditional societies to prove a point about their desired ways of living. Often they turned out to be far from reality, and in reality far more violence and rape was going on than the researchers claimed (for example Yanomami seem a popular example).
Lately I have read frequently that a majority of women were subject to rape in traditional societies. While I also not necessarily believe it at face value (there are ideological reasons to make that claim, too), it also does not sound extremely unlikely and may serve as a starting point to doubt the idealization of traditional societies.
Otherwise it's just very long form clickbait.
This isn't a book about the consensus, it's more of a deconstructionist vibe. The paradigms in the crosshairs tend to be the 19th century, modernist, "thought experiment" era. His book on debt challenged that era's (still persistent) "origin of money" hypothesis. This one is more about political history.
EG, the prevalence of rights, constitutions and such in preindustrial societies.
The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).
This is a straw man.
The problem with Graeber is that, as a self-described anarchist, he specifically looks for evidence of non-hierarchical hunter gatherer societies in his review of research and draws broad conclusions based on select data points.
It's the same danger anyone encounters when they're very passionate politically, and go to great lengths to look for evidence to support their modern politics in the historical record.
Compare Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Who are the people that criticize Pinker, et al? They are all thinkers the mainstream would consider radicals, Graeber included.
- The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Societal_collapse
The other parts are not that clear cut - but for most of the list there is no 'mainstream' consensus. For example: progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated) - everybody believes that at least the past civilizations had some good sides and it is now quite mainstream that hunter-gatherers were egalitarian (see also https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/the-worst-mist...)
I also don't think you understand the mainstream. Neoliberalism in America is thoroughly dominant, across liberals and conservatives. Even the "democratic socialist" countries in Europe are still neoliberal and capitalist, just a bit less so than America. The belief that the liberal world order is both better than anything that has come before and is still ascendant is dominant.
If anything, you are making the straw man counter argument, with an overly literal interpretation of the article's use of "linear", especially ironic given your use of "nobody" and "everybody".
That's all I have to say on this. If I'm wrong, I guess so are the people upvoting me. Best wishes.
Internet longreads tend to just have been made longer to be long. Their favourite strategy seems to be to just not talk about the subject, but about their journey of discovery and the journey of all the people they've encountered along the way, and about how they look, and how special they are. And then, finally, after they've explained the entire history since the fucking Big Bang, they'll talk about the subject for a few sentences. It always turns out to be unsatisfyingly banal and not worth the journey.
Low information density is annoying.
It's 2021, could you summarize it in a tweet for me? /s
For a long time public written word needed to be both entertainment and informative. Just like us watching documentaries: we kind of expect them to be beautifully shot and mind blowing at the same time.
Nowadays we have more written content than ever, but also more entertainment than ever, in all forms and shapes. Some people will still appreciate beautifully written prose on any subject. Most will expect respect for their time and conciseness by default, and entertainment and delight only if that's what they came for in the first place.
A lot of publication still strictly cater to the former public.
I can see how the artform of the written word could be part of it, as I'm generally unappreciative of larger pieces where the words are the primary art. Though honestly, if this kind of stuff is appreciated for the art of writing, instead of the content, well. It's pretty cookie-cutter, IMO.
In my experience, that expectation is quite often faulty: they complain about something being too long for, but what's really going on is they don't know what being informed is (and are satiated by superficial understanding), or they don't know how to effectively communicate something (absolute most concise representation is often pretty poor).