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Human History Gets a Rewrite (theatlantic.com)
167 points by yboris 45 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 106 comments



> The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics.

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.


> 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.

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.


Archaeologists' insistence on defining anything they don't immediately understand as "for ritual purposes" - implying our ancestors were prone to superstition, instead of admitting the archaeologists' own ignorance.

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.


Are these all things you're just making up? It's a common theory that first people reached Australia with the help of boats (and lower sea levels), for example.

Who claims they can not possibly have used boats?


I always considered rituals to be a form of proof of intelligence.


Well, FWIW, there was this weird guy who claimed our ancestors weren't dumb, they weren't even conscious. And by "our ancestors" he didn't mean Homo erectus, he meant ancient Greeks. (The so-called "bicameral mind" theory.)

I think that's completely bonkers but apparently some people like the theory. Previous HN discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27917316


I too, am all for recognizing that goodness is subjective, and that various indigenous communities made conscious philosophical choices that defined their path of rejecting technology as pursued by the empires of the time. However, I cannot get past the fact that life expectancy has risen steadily through the application of technology. And to me, a society in which the life expectancy at birth is 75 yrs (with a modest deviation from the mean) is clearly better to live in than one where the life expectancy is 25 yrs at birth. In that sense I still think "ancestors were dumb" because they didn't know what bacteria was and that it could kill you, for example.


Those discrepancies in life expectancy are mostly due to chances of surviving the first few years. There are studies indicating that health and adult life expectancy were at their peak for Victorian middle classes.


Ok that may be true, but I personally think infant mortality is an undesirable attribute of any society.


That is a way to look at the "dumb" aspect, just as we would say "kids are dumb".

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)


I don’t think anyone is saying not knowing what bacteria is is directly a function of individual intelligence. But it is an important measure of a society, along with things like - how often their young die, how often women die in childbirth, how many people die due to treatable diseases.


Human society has become vastly more knowledgeable over time, and so therefore its individuals, on average, have become so, but this does not imply that the intellectual capacity of individual humans has undergone any improvement. For example, despite our medical knowledge, there is plenty of irrationality, willful ignorance, denial, and poor judgement to be found.

Left to our own devices, none of us would ever learn anything more than a miniscule fraction of what we know today.


Yea, totally agree. But I think my point still refutes the one about long term hunter gatherer Luddite lifestyles being the result of conscious philosophical choices, at least in the context of health, since most people would choose a longer healthier life given the opportunity. There may be trade offs though I guess.


While I tend to agree with you, a society where "everyone" lives to age 70-80 does require a re-think of many social structures.

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?


Not to mention many people over 60 either need to continue working as commodified labor to survive and lack the familial care that was ubiquitious prior to modern rationalization of society or are stuck alone in a nursing home or retirement community.

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.


Are you saying that instituting the Carousel would simplify things?


> I too, am all for recognizing that goodness is subjective

With what does that agree? Where is that stated?


It’s just part of respecting the lifestyles and choices that our ancestors made - recognizing that there are different, equally valid systems for measuring the “goodness” of an individual or a social group.


I understand the concept; it was expressed in the GGP as if someone else had said it and you agreed, and I didn't see where else it had been said.

> 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!'.


I guess I thought that it was implied by the OP


> And to me, a society in which the life expectancy at birth is 75 yrs (with a modest deviation from the mean) is clearly better to live in than one where the life expectancy is 25 yrs at birth. In that sense I still think "ancestors were dumb" because they didn't know what bacteria was and that it could kill you, for example.

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.


Well, except for that, and maternal mortality, war and famine, infectious diseases ...

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.


*After learning more, Graeber definitely was very pro-technology, so I’m really arguing w/ no one here. I’ll have to read the book...


IMHO, the biggest myth that modern historians adamantly believe in is that human intelligence has mysteriously developed from zero to current level in just 12,000 years. We are supposed to believe that humans were dumb savages, yet with fully functional, but apparently unused brains, and then they suddenly chose to become smart and in a few wild leaps they've gotten to quantum mechanics.


Practically all modern historians? Or even just the major consensus of this field? That's astounding to me, I have trouble believing it without at least some anecdotes. Do you have a link or name of one well respected and cited modern historian who adamantly believes this? And a reference to some of their writings or talks where they explain their ideas? That would be fascinating to read about, thank you.


Especially since this would be the field of anthropology. History is classically constructed as the study of texts and therefore doesn’t really have methods that extend past the development of the written word and the survival of sufficient sources.


I'm not sure whether historians ascribe that to intelligence or to knowledge. My interpretation (not a historian) is that writing (i.e. the development of script) is what gave humans the means to go from the lore model of tribal knowledge to the collectively "smart" societies we developed over the past millennia.

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.


Why do you believe that writing is a recent invention? Because we can't find samples older than that? Then what makes you think that all we can find is what can be found in principle? If tomorrow a solar flare wipes out our civilization, there won't be much scriptures left in stone and other resilient materials, so we all must be savages today for not engraving granite with equations in sufficient quantities.


What I see (and am glad for) as the narraritive being challend is not just the simplistic "our ancestors were dumb", which some people may have, but this other one, that's so widespread that it's often considered "common sense" and seems more "objective":

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”?


The original meaning of the word "idiot" is someone who doesn't care for their local politics.

Our ancestors were of course, the same as us.


syrupous?


It is extraordinary that Graeber existed, even if for an unfairly short time span.

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.


I think his biggest fault was that his passionate political views directed his research. He wanted to demonstrate that the earliest societies could exist without hierarchy in "popular councils and citizen assemblies... and were stable features of government", as he puts it, and when you examine archeological sites with this in mind, it tends to bias your perspective and causes you to pre-select data points that support that narrative.

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.


He was also relatively much more open to engaging with his ideological enemies. See his debate with Peter Thiel or his engagement with Nassim Taleb.

https://davidgraeber.org/videos/david-graeber-vs-peter-thiel...

(His relationship with NT going from foe to dear friend is one of the most heart-warming things I've seen on Twitter): https://twitter.com/nntaleb/status/1301570705671237632

In this he was an intellectual in the mould of old-school Brit labor Marxists like Perry Anderson.


> He was one of the very few persons that dared to question prevailing narratives about how society and economic structures (in particular) were structured

Give a search for neomarxism and poststructuralism


I have to admit that I am a bit allergic (hence may not have paid proper attention) to anything ending in "-ism" :-). btw that includes Graeber's "anarchism".

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've read "Debt: The First 5,000 Years". It is not a work of genius. It is a rambling incoherent mess. Graeber cherry-picks bits of real history, anecdotes and random myths, and shoehorns them into some kind of predefined narrative which seems to equate modern notions of debt (with its limited liability, bankruptcy and non-inheritance) with the kind of chattel debt-slavery that existed in the past.

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.


It's a political book. Graeber, an self-described anarchist, looks through the archeological record for evidence that non-hierarchical societies existed successfully.

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.


The subject’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” was so poorly researched and argued, it’s one of the few books I’ve returned to Amazon in the past two decades. (“A History of Interest Rates” by Homer & Sylla, remains the definitive history of debt among humankind. Originally written in 1963, I’d been hoping to find a modern update to the subject matter.)

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.


I didn't evaluate its sources, but thought the writing in Debt was excellent. The typical pattern throughout was for Graeber to introduce an idea in a paragraph, for me to think of several "what about..." and "hm, I dunno"s for it, and for Graeber to spend the next few paragraphs addressing all of those, directly.


One thing I took away from it that has been true every time I've had occasion to check: When economists tell the "first there was barter, and then there was money" story, they almost never care to connect the claim to evidence.

It's like they're laying down premises for an argument rather than making claims about actual humans.


I’ve read that the Austrian school believed you can figure out economics from first principles, but I don’t think that’s true generally.


Moreover, the premise violates one of my first principles.


I checked that one out myself. Modern economics textbooks don't do that.

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.


> Most economists would probably relate a stylized “history of money” something like the following: As specialization caused problems in coordinating trade, societies naturally settled upon certain commodities, usually metals, as media of exchange.

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.


That's so obvious it doesn't require evidence. Of course there was bartering before there was money, you don't need to money to barter, you need to invent money to use money.


Yes, incidents of barter will pre-date incidents of spending money. That part is obvious.

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.


This, a hundred billion times this. It’s been a nagging, cavernous hole in the explanation every time I hear the overly simplistic “barter system was replaced with the eventual invention of money”. It not only denies the existence of more sophisticated systems of barter that include any sort of “futures” being bartered, “pigs now for part of my apple harvest in a couple months”…

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.

/rant over

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.


Nonetheless, we do see evolutionary examples in-between pure barter and government-standardized metal coinage in the historical record.

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.


> These were almost exclusively used as a medium of exchange, and were not directly consumed as a commodity.

See also cigarettes in prisons (more recently ramen).


> 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.

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.


> That is called "barter".

From the Wikiepdia page on "Barter"[1]:

> 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.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barter


Thanks for the clarification!

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". [1]

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.)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy


What you are describing is still a bartering system - just with delayed payments.


It is obvious that barter was a possibility. It is not obvious that most economic interaction worked through barter. How often do your interactions with your friends and family involve barter? Mine are more nuanced exchanges like

- "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"


One of the difficulties of separating small-tribe economics from the rest of their social system is that the members of a small tribe don't think of it like that. If you live in that kind of society then you know personally the people you are dealing with, and while you might "trade" items or favours, its all pretty approximate, with the "balances" held in peoples heads, and tied in with other concepts of social obligation such as a general duty to look after the sick and elderly, and watch out for each other's children. It's only once people start living in larger groups where you can't know everyone that something like an economic system develops.


So because you don't barter with your family and friends - while living a top 0.00001% lifestyle compared to most people in history - you conclude bartering wasn't really a big thing in the past and people just gave things away for free most of the time?

I assume no, but I'm not understanding what are you actually arguing for then?


I think you misunderstood his point- in a system without money, you can directly barter (ie I give you an apple for your your orange), or adopt a ‘credit’ based system (ie I give you an apple today, and when I need a favor I’ll ask you for one - like the Godfather, for example).

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.


Isn't that 'credit system' just one step in transitioning to a monetary system?

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.


Well thats the whole point of the debt book. Taking that progression and poking holes in it. IIRC, Graber suggests that physical money came in too play when kings needed to levy armies.


I know this is a lousy source, but my Latin teacher in High School claimed that Caesar invented fiat currency (although she didn't use those words).

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.


Thank you for explaining.


My assumption is that your lifestyle is similarly detached from antiquity as mine. My only firm conclusion is that it is non-obvious, either of us would need more evidence, and that it was worth David Graeber's time to research.


Sort of how economists are always urging more neoliberalism and less of any alternative (socialism, syndicalism, Georgism, whatever): they're talking their own book. If they don't examine the nature of money (for example, the control that capitalists exert over Fed policy etc.) too closely they can pretend that their simplistic models still have some explanatory value.


You haven't met a wide range of economists.


There is indeed a bunch of variety among academics in economics, but a very heavy filter biases which kinds of economic opinions make it into the broader public sphere.

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.


Hunch: It is because academics need to prove their results. In order to do that, they generally need numbers.


I haven't seen a "wide range of economists" on TV! Or testifying before Congress! Or arranging coups in Chile!

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.


You might like the writings of Yanis Varoufakis.


Yes, I do. He has interesting things to say about the role of Germany in EU, much as e.g. Michael Hudson has interesting things to say about the role of USA globally.


I know this is a public forum and not a scientific discourse, but considering that you criticising the book for essentially lack of evidence (facts), could you give some some evidence/examples for this?


I think the biggest set of fallacious claims made are made on the "Clovis Point" finds. The author makes broad sweeping statements based on these small finds that are not really supported by the evidence, nor do any of the experts in the field agree.

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.


Equating the natural history of "interest rates" with that of debt / credit relations gives a hint of why you might not have liked the Debt book.

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.


Hence our deeply rooted tradition of bankruptcy and laws prohibiting debtors' prison.


This tradition an almost uniquely US phenomenon. "Around the world, people are less forgiving about debt forgiveness than they are in the United States" [0]

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".[1]

[0] https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/schools/law/lawreviews/...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_bondage#South_Asia_2


My understanding is that home mortgages are also more borrower-friendly in the US than elsewhere (e.g., fixed interest rates for 30 years).


Another aspect of how home mortgages are more borrower-friendly in US is that in many states of USA if you default on your mortgage, then after foreclosure the debt is considered settled; while in many other countries the mortgage is just "extra" collateral, so if you default then the mortgaged property is auctioned, but if the proceeds do not cover the whole debt, the remainder still has to be paid in due term and/or accrues extra penalty interest; so a housing bubble followed by a mortgage crisis hits borrowers more and banks less.


I had Dick Sylla as a professor for economic history. Wonderful lecturer with encyclopedic knowledge of the history of finance. Though A History of Interest Rates is thorough, comprehensive and well documented, I must say the writing is pretty dry.


A counter argument on Gobekli Tepe (which dates to 9600 BC) to the thesis of David Graeber is:

“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.”

From: https://thisviewoflife.com/blog/complex-societies-before-agr...

-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe

--

They have recently found even older settlements like Boncuklu Tarla that even had a sewer system that was over 11,800 years old:

https://www.aa.com.tr/en/culture/archaeologists-unearth-anci...

https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ancient-temple-found-in-ma...

---

Meanwhile they seem to constantly find really old "city" settlements in Turkey today:

https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kahin_Tepe


It's ironic that Yuval Noah Harari is criticized in the article despite Sapiens being more up to date on Göbekli Tepe (and maybe on others).


Tangentially: What do you know about This View of Life?


I find interesting how uncharacteristically abrasive Tyler Cowen was regarding Graeber over the years:

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/09/wh...

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2015/11/tu...

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/05/bu...

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).


A couple of things that may help discussion in this thread:

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 :-)


While it sounds like an inspiring read, it also sounds as if it is creating a lot of strawmen. In "The World Before Yesterday", Jared Diamond writes that there were thousands of tribes in New Guinea, and each had different ways of living. So the claim that "traditional research" is unable to fit the things they found in this new book seems flat out wrong.

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.


I think Jared Diamond in particular is villianized in Anthropology circles for his book Guns Germs and Steel which to a traditional anthropologist seemed to purposefully omit important content to support his argument. He too goes against traditional anthropology research, so I think that the claim stands.


Maybe, or maybe it is just the normal controversy you can find in most fields? There will always be people who disagree with each other? Is JD universally villainized in Anthropology circles, or just among some Anthropologists?


I've not read the article (or book) in full yet, but from the comments I get a "lone academic overturns the accepted truth" vibe. Which I don't like on principle. I just want a well written summary of whatever the current consensus is (including areas of disagreement).

Otherwise it's just very long form clickbait.


FWIW, David Graeber was vocally and loyally with you on this.

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 "lone academic" factor is undermined by the fact that the book in question was a collaboration between /two/ academics, one of whom is a professor of archaeology.


I don't think anyone would disagree with the thesis that there was a great variety of hunter-gatherer political organisations, that there were up and downs in human history or that the development was different at different places. Humans have been hunter-gatherers for a very very long time - there was lots of time and place to develop all kind of arrangements.

""" 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.


I agree. Almost all historians acknowledge the persistent existence of nomadic and hunter gatherer societies living at the same time as agricultural based societies.

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.


Doesn't the mainstream view do the same? You don't think the status quo has a built-in confirmation bias as well? Why would the mainstream appear passionate when their take is already accepted as "common sense"?

Compare Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


If it is a straw man, it is a straw man that dominates, that has become the default way of seeing history, that the majority of people embrace, including here on HN. See Steven Pinker, Bill Gate's embrace of Pinker, neoliberalism, the fact that both of the dominant American political parties are essentially conservative (one just less so than the other)...

Who are the people that criticize Pinker, et al? They are all thinkers the mainstream would consider radicals, Graeber included.


It is a straw man because nobody believes that:

- 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...)


You keep saying "nobody" and "everybody". I refer you to the words of Inigo Montoya.

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.


I had just seen that Mel Brooks is working on a sequel to The History of the World, Part I:

https://www.westernjournal.com/mel-brooks-announces-sequel-o...


[flagged]


If you think a book review takes too long to get to the point, do I have some bad news for you about books....


I read a lot of books, and let me tell you: there's quite a few that should've had an editor telling the author exactly that. On the other hand there are books that just have a lot to tell. That's fine. Take the words you need, but no more.

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.


> If you think a book review takes too long to get to the point, do I have some bad news for you about books....

It's 2021, could you summarize it in a tweet for me? /s


I've seen tweets that contain more relevant details than some Atlantic articles.


I came to the conclusion that there is a generation shift that we don't often acknowledge.

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'm not sure it's entirely entertainment vs. information. Books are my primary form of entertainment too, and I do like a good story.

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.


> Most will expect respect for their time and conciseness by default

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).


  @threadreaderapp unroll
...is the modern way to read "books".


Or people could just... read the thread. I don't get why thread reader still exists.


I found it quite readable, Jared Diamond on the other hand...




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