Taganthropology

Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

My latest for Wired:

Cliodynamics is a field of study created by Peter Turchin in the early 2000s. The idea is to use data as a means of predicting the future, but also as a way of testing theories about what happened in the past. You build a model that seeks to explain history, and then you test this model using real historical data.

The movement’s latest aim is to analyze the origins of complex societies. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turchin and a trans-disciplinary team from the University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis attempt to overturn the long standing belief that large-scale states are the product of agriculture.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.

“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”

The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

While this doesn’t prove that war pre-dates agriculture, it does challenge some ideas about the origins of war.

See Also:

My article on Cliodynamics

Researchers Say Humans Didn’t Wipe Out the Neanderthals

Rethinking Bullying

Bullying is a means of asserting the social order of popularity and keeping lower-status members in their place; the seductive pleasure of cruelty is a rewarding, and sometimes addicting, privilege for higher-status members (but not highest — they don’t need to bully). Bullying is not committed by individuals qua individuals against individuals qua individuals; it is committed by individuals who experience themselves as representatives of a social class within a social hierarchy against other individuals who experience themselves in being bullied as representatives of a social class within that same social hierarchy.

Full Story: Siderea: One Thought on Bullying

Rethinking in this frame would require us to reassess whether Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullies or had been bullied.

Cult Of The Caveman: Paleofantasies

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk and the assumptions of the paleo lifestyle set, noting that it has become a popular diet amongst libertarians:

Charges of hypocrisy, however amusing, are facile. Paleo is an improvement on a diet of processed, sugary junk. It’s not the first diet to banish starches, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, by any other name, the Paleo diet would be just that — a diet.

But more substantial problems lurk in the reasoning behind Paleo principles. By assuming that all that was once natural is now good, militant Paleo leans on biological determinism to back up its theories. While it may not advocate for a complete reversion to cave-dwelling, it accepts that we evolved in a certain way to do certain things and not others, and that advances in technology, civilization, and culture can do little to change that. This logic, however seductive, is incomplete. You can’t get an ought from a was. [...]

Incomplete or flawed interpretations of our biology have long been used to marginalize women, racial groups, even entire civilizations, and nutrition may well become the next variant in this pattern of discrimination. If rice isn’t “natural,” does that make those entire continents with highly developed cultures who eat it “un-natural”? Doesn’t agriculture, however flawed it may be in certain societies, support billions of people? Let’s not forget that for centuries women were considered ineligible to participate in most professions, sports, and diversions on the basis of their supposed female “nature.” Are modern bread-eaters somehow less human than those carrying out “primal” urges by sprinting, lifting, and eating meat?

These troubling questions are probably not the point of an apparently well-meaning lifestyle program. Many adopters of the Paleo diet do so for no reason other than weight loss, or vanity, or ailments caused by certain foods; others are simply curious about how so-called “ancestral” nutrition will affect them, or how certain types of foods affect their bodies. If their giddy testimonials are to be believed, the Paleo diet can cure everything from diabetes to anxiety attacks, which sounds wonderful. Still, the social and political implications of Paleo reasoning ought to be more closely examined, especially as the lifestyle gains adherents.

Full Story: The New Inquiry: Natural’s Not In It

Previously: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

How Can Knowledge Be Preserved In Case Of Collapse?

Adam Rothstein on preserving tools and specialized knowledge (such as science and engineering) in case of a collapse:

Any number of aspiring futurists, science-fiction authors, preppers and Dark Mountaineers can present us with a point-by-point plan of how to survive a species-threatening cataclysm, the true effectiveness of which can only be judged in practice. So let us leave survival up to those who will need to hack it, and instead ask what can we do now to make things a bit easier for our post-apocalyptic children of the future?

We might bury useful tools everywhere in a strategy resonant with Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, to make surprising archaeological Easter Eggs of power saws and streaming media tablets to the future’s struggling humankind. But without cellular data contracts and extension cords, these might not prove very useful. Far better to provide them with knowledge, argues Grassie, in order to kick start their inevitable journey back through scientific progress to re-learn the things we will lose. You can give a post-human descendant species-branch a CD-ROM and they can surf Encarta for a day. Or you can teach a post-human descendant species-branch to write objective secondarily-sourced encyclopedia articles, and they can have their own Wikipedia-esque debates about editing procedures for the rest of their brutish and short lives.

Full Story: The State: Satellites of History

Rothstein goes on to note some attempts to preserve knowledge for the future, and questions whether the endeavor matters.

Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

Still playing catchup:

An intriguing new long-term study of Filipino men has discovered that becoming a father lowers a man’s testosterone level. More specifically, what really drops male testosterone is the amount of time spent caring for children; men who spent three hours or more per day caring for a child had significantly less testosterone than those dads who were less involved with their children. It’s not that men with lower testosterone were “naturally” more inclined to be caregivers in the first place; based on the voluminous longitudinal data, it’s the act of caring itself that reduced testosterone significantly.

An otherwise reasonable New York Times piece on the study begins with the somber warning, “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” But as several researchers in the article point out, this is actually great news for dads—and for all men. One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.

Full Story: The Good Men Project: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men

Evidence Of Previously Unconfirmed Ancient Human Species Discovered

Homo rudolfensis skull

The BBC reports:

Anthropologists have discovered three human fossils that are between 1.78 and 1.95 million years old. The specimens are of a face and two jawbones with teeth.

The finds back the view that a skull found in 1972 ago is of a separate species of human, known as Homo rudolfensis. The skull was markedly different to any others from that time. It had a relatively large brain and long flat face.

But for 40 years the skull was the only example of the creature and so it was impossible to say for sure whether the individual was an unusual specimen or a member of a new species.

With the discovery of the three new fossils researchers can say with more certainty that H.rudolfensis really was a separate type of human that existed around two million years ago alongside other species of humans.

Full Story: BBC: New human species identified from Kenya fossils

Researchers Say Humans Didn’t Wipe Out the Neanderthals

new xmen neanderthals

I thought the idea that humans killed off the Neanderthals was already losing currency. And now a paper published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution casts more doubt on that particular hypothesis.

i09’s Alasdair Wilkins summarizes:

A team of Spanish and Swedish researchers say that new DNA evidence paints a far grimmer view of the state of Neanderthals. Their analysis suggests the Neanderthal population had crashed 50,000 years ago, and a relatively small band of survivors then recolonized central and western Europe before their final end 20,000 years later. In a statement, Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History explained what they discovered:

Instead the paper’s authors suggest climate change had a greater impact on neanderthals than previously thought.

Alasdair Wilkins writes: “This also raises the question of just how humans would have really fared against a Neanderthal population at full strength. I’m sensing some pretty serious alternate history fodder here…”

i09: The extinction of Neanderthals had nothing to do with us

Image from New X-Men

Uncontacted Tribe in South America Goes Missing

here and here.) They’ve gone missing after narco traffickers wiped out the guard post protecting the tribe. Observers fear the worst.

The Brazilian guard post protecting the uncontacted Indians who were filmed from the air earlier this year has been over-run by heavily-armed men, suspected to be drug-traffickers. It has been ransacked and vital equipment destroyed.

Fears are now mounting for the welfare of the Indians after workers from FUNAI (the government’s Indian Affairs Department) found one of the traffickers’ rucksacks with a broken arrow inside. A rapid survey by government officials has shown no trace of the Indians, who made worldwide headlines in February.

Survival International: Guard post for uncontacted Indians over-run by “drug traffickers”

(via Coilhouse)

Humanity’s Next Evolution May Be Mental, Not Biological

Mark Changizi, author of the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Man, writes:

Where are we humans going, as a species? If science fiction is any guide, we will genetically evolve like in X-Men, become genetically engineered as in Gattaca, or become cybernetically enhanced like General Grievous in Star Wars. [...]

Simply put, none of these scenarios are plausible for the immediate future. [...]

We have already been transformed via harnessing beyond what we once were. We’re already Human 2.0, not the Human 1.0, or Homo sapiens, that natural selection made us. We Human 2.0’s have, among many powers, three that are central to who we take ourselves to be today: writing, speech, and music (the latter perhaps being the pinnacle of the arts). Yet these three capabilities, despite having all the hallmarks of design, were not a result of natural selection, nor were they the result of genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement to our brains. Instead, and as I argue in both The Vision Revolution and my forthcoming Harnessed, these are powers we acquired by virtue of harnessing, or neuronal recycling.

In this transition from Human 1.0 to 2.0, we didn’t directly do the harnessing. Rather, it was an emergent, evolutionary property of our behavior, our nascent culture, that bent and shaped writing to be right for our visual system, speech just so for our auditory system, and music a match for our auditory and evocative mechanisms. [...]

The road to Human 3.0 and beyond will, I believe, be largely due to ever more instances of this kind of harnessing. And although we cannot easily anticipate the new powers we will thereby gain, we should not underestimate the potential magnitude of the possible changes. After all, the change from Human 1.0 to 2.0 is nothing short of universe-rattling: It transformed a clever ape into a world-ruling technological philosopher.

Seed: THE NEXT GIANT LEAP IN HUMAN EVOLUTION MAY NOT COME FROM NEW FIELDS LIKE GENETIC ENGINEERING OR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, BUT RATHER FROM APPRECIATING OUR ANCIENT BRAINS

(via Justin Pickard)

New Evidence Suggests Neanderthals Cooked and Ate Vegetables

Neanderthal

Researchers in the US have found grains of cooked plant material in the teeth of the remains.

The study is the first to confirm that the Neanderthal diet was not confined to meat and was more sophisticated than previously thought.

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The popular image of Neanderthals as great meat eaters is one that has up until now been backed by some circumstantial evidence. Chemical analysis of their bones suggested they ate little or no vegetables.

BBC News: Neanderthals cooked and ate vegetables

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