History crash

My previous post offered a retrospective take on my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ post cycle that I completed a while back. I thought I might now turn to another such retrospective, this time on my recently-completed ‘History of the world’ cycle. So I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the way we think about history, with the help of a couple of books from my recent reading.

JG Ballard’s Crash is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read – a novel about people who are sexually aroused by cars, and in particular by deaths and injuries in car crashes, deliberately orchestrated or otherwise1. It’s a disturbing, semi-pornographic and some might say depraved book, to which a publisher’s reader of the draft manuscript famously wrote “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish”. It’s also, in my opinion, completely brilliant. I can’t imagine what the hell was going through Ballard’s mind in writing it, but for me it touches on two themes relevant to this blog.

The first is that we tend to talk about technology nowadays as if it’s something that’s radically separable from what it is to be a person. So with cars, for example, we might draw up some kind of balance sheet where we say that the advent of the automobile has been positive, because it’s allowed us to get to places quicker and more freely, while acknowledging the downsides – road injuries, air pollution etc. I take Ballard to be saying that this way of thinking is flawed. Cars have changed who we are, and bled into the very fabric of what it means to be a person in the 20th or 21st centuries. So asking if they’re a good thing or not is an incoherent question, because to answer it depends on there being some kind of contemporary human point of view that’s entirely independent of the car itself – and there isn’t. Generalise that to any technology – farming, for example, or a 3KWh/person/day energy economy – and suddenly we’re mercifully freed from all our chatter about backwardness, progress and so on. Of course, it works the same in reverse. We can’t say that people lived at a more unhurried pace in the 19th century before they had cars, so if we only got rid of the automobile then our lives would resemble the unhurried ones of a bygone age.

This all suits me just fine. I’ll admit that Ballard stretches a point with his rather extreme illustration, and that there are clear continuities between what it means to be a person in the 21st century and the 19th, and indeed very much further back than that. Still, I think Crash makes a nicely relativizing move. What are the grounds on which we judge the currents of history or morality? They’re less clear cut than we often like to think. People are always engaged in often mutually exclusive current projects of future history-making (eg. ecomodernists versus neo-agrarian populists) which usually invoke some kind of historical warrant for their choice. But although we can no doubt learn some things from history so long as we’re conscious of the way they’re refracted in our present gaze, these historical warrants are usually quite illusory. What really matters is the current projects.

The second point I derive from Ballard is our tendency to read present tendencies moralistically into the future as utopias or dystopias, which again I take him to be resisting. So for example an ecomodernist might say that if we could only make cars using clean renewable fuel available to all in the future, then truly we can have a great Anthropocene. Utopia. A more traditional environmentalist might say that if we don’t end our infatuation with personal motorised transport, then a grim future of runaway climate change, collapsing ecosystems, choking air pollution and social isolation beckons. Dystopia. I think Ballard is saying ‘Just look around. Utopia and dystopia are already here, depending on how you choose to see them’. Take this passage:

“The entire zone which defined the landscape of my life was now bounded by a continuous artificial horizon, formed by the raised parapets and embankments of the motorways and their access roads and interchanges. These encircled the vehicles below like the walls of a crater several miles in diameter”.

For the protagonists in Ballard’s story this is a world full of beauty, stories, alluring dangers and sex. Utopia. For me, it’s hell on earth – and I used to live there. Dystopia. But I can find beauty, stories, alluring dangers and, er, well maybe sex in less wholly humanised and technological environments. The present global situation is such, I think, that we need to talk about the future more urgently than any generation ever did before, but I still think Ballard is right to warn us away from projecting our desires and fears moralistically into the future. What are we fighting for politically? Whatever it is, it’s not the future but what’s around us right now. Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.

The second book I want to mention is Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels by Ian Morris2, professor of classics at Stanford University and based on his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University – so not at all semi-pornographic or depraved, then. Morris offers a grand survey of human history, the sort of enterprise to which of course I’m wholly sympathetic, but to be honest I feel rather more in tune with Ballard’s line of thought than with Morris’s. I’ll concede there are some definite riches within Morris’s pages, but here I’m going to focus on just one aspect of his thinking that it suits me to analyse for my present purpose – essentially his view of historical development, which I find problematic.

When I was a budding student of anthropology at university, an intellectual crime that my teachers were especially anxious to stamp out in us was teleological functionalism. Quite a mouthful, so let me explain if it’s not clear3. ‘Functionalism’ refers to the notion that the forms societies take can be explained in terms of some kind of function that they perform. This approach rode high in early 20th century social science, and there are doubtless some sophisticated forms of functionalism that may still have something to commend them, but generally the approach has fallen by the wayside. ‘Teleological’ refers to a process that is goal-directed through time. So to give an absurd example of a teleological functionalist approach, you might argue that the driving force of human societies has always been the urge to put people on the moon. If you were then asked why societies historically transitioned from foraging to farming, you might say that it was necessary to have a complex division of labour in order to develop craftspeople and other such specialists who would eventually learn to devise spaceships. If you were asked why the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, you might say that learning to smelt bronze was a necessary step on the way to creating the modern alloys that are necessary in order to have spaceflight. And so on. The obvious flaw in this is that you can’t logically invoke a phenomenon as an explanatory factor for societal changes that have not (yet) brought that phenomenon into existence. More generally, social explanations of the kind ‘Social form X occurred in order to make Y possible’ are suspect – unless Y was an explicit intention of the people bringing X about, which is rarely the case in most forms of teleological explanation.

Morris is smart enough to avoid obviously teleological functionalist arguments most of the time, but they shadow his whole thesis and sometimes rise to the surface, as in this passage on ‘Agraria’, the term he borrows from Ernest Gellner to describe inegalitarian, preindustrial farming societies:

“each age gets the thought it needs. In the absence of fossil fuels, the only way to push energy capture far above 10,000 kilocalories per person per day is by moving towards Agraria, where economic and political inequality are structurally necessary, and in the face of necessity, we adjust our values. Moral systems conform to the requirements of energy capture, and for societies capturing between 10,000 and 30,000 kilocalories per person per day, one of the most important requirements is acceptance of political and economic inequality”4

The obvious objection to this is that, while it may be true that in the absence of fossil fuels you can’t push energy capture over the 10,000 kilocalories figure without instituting inequality, there’s no particular reason why you should choose to, and indeed throughout most of the history of our genus nobody did. The fact that in the last few thousand years the amount of energy capture and the amount of inequality have increased are both social facts that demand explanation – the former fact does not explain the latter.

I think this matters for two reasons. First, Morris’s stance erases and effectively validates the ideological processes by which the elites of Agraria formed themselves and created effective ‘acceptance’ of political and economic inequality. I don’t think this was a matter of everybody choosing the right morality to fit their new agrarian circumstances. It was a matter of people jockeying for advantage within the ever-changing constraints that they found themselves in, much as they do now – albeit that over time those constraints do tend to congeal into various enduring ‘common sense’ ideologies such as the equality of all, or the obviously natural differences between noble and commoner. Second, it makes history the servant of some ineluctable dynamic, in this case that of increased energy capture, and it usually throws in an accompanying dose of implicit or explicit moral approbation – it hasn’t all been great, but look at all the wonders civilisation has given us that could never have been achieved in a foraging society! Perhaps we could call it the Pinkerization of history.

To my mind, the world is much more contingent than this. Increasing energy capture is not a historical dynamic, but a byproduct of the will to power and status that aligned in this direction – but could align in numerous other ways. Each age doesn’t get the thought it ‘needs’ – it’s both enabled and constrained by the thought it inherits from its predecessors, it wrestles with their contradictions and the dilemmas of its day, then it hands on the mess to its successors.

So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future. The author I’d prefer to keep in mind while doing so is Ballard rather than Morris.


  1. J.G. Ballard. 1973. Crash. London.
  2. I. Morris. 2015. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton.
  3. In the last week, the word ‘teleological’ has suddenly arisen to public consciousness in the UK as a result of our hapless foreign secretary using it to justify his opposition to the EU – Steven Poole provides a neat antidote here.
  4. Morris op cit, pp.83-4.


55 thoughts on “History crash

  1. Righto. So….

    “Let’s sharpen our focus on the way we want to live right now, rather than trying to transcendentalize it with reference to the past or the future.”

    “So having finished writing my history of the world, I shall be turning to contemplate its future.”

    Huh? Color me confused.

      • What I am not understanding is calling for a sharpened focus on the way we want to live right now, vs turning (right after that) to contemplating the world’s future. ?

        • In that case, I’d have to reformulate the point along the lines that for many people it’s not possible for them to live the way they’d like to right now, or it may soon not be possible for them to continue to do so any longer. Therefore it’s necessary to engage in politics, which is inevitably future-focused. However, in engaging with future-focused politics, it’s preferable to see it as a process of articulating latent possibilities of the political present rather than the fruition of some grand trans-historical scheme, especially one in which we consider ourselves to be on the right side of.

          • Sounds like what anarchists call prefigurative politics. You have to think about the kinds of worlds you want to live in, which, if they look very little like the one you inhabit today, is easiest to do if you think of them in the future. Then you go about creating those worlds, to the best of your ability, right here and now. Right on, Chris.

  2. The suite of possible societal futures has something like a normal distribution, with the mean being a future that looks just like the present. The extreme ends of the distribution are more complexity and less complexity.

    Fred Cottrell (Energy and Society) and Leslie White (The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome) are very convincing that the primary enabler of more complexity is an increase in energy availability per capita. Thus, if one wants to predict the general direction society is heading, it requires an analysis of the rate of change in energy per capita.

    I believe that it will be very difficult to maintain current levels of energy throughput, especially in those societies that use a lot of it. It is more likely that energy availability will plummet, meaning rapid simplification is coming.

    There are only so many ways to organize a non-complex society, with fewer and fewer of them available the lower energy availability becomes. I eagerly await your attempt at sorting through the possibilities.

  3. I like this post very much! As a professional historian I do enjoy telling people that history is pointless, at least in the sense of ‘relevance’ that media pundits insist on. No past human decisions need dictate what people choose to do next, and yet it’s amazing how often people assume otherwise.

    There is an evident tendency to essentialize when thinking about history, which I think comes with any attempt to explain something – people feel the need for an unchanging prime mover. Nationality is a good one – I once had someone tell me that the English had tried republicanism in the 17th century, and it didn’t work for them then, so there’s no point trying to get rid of the monarchy now. Looks like Morris has settled on energy as his prime mover.

    Contingency, yes. Any history worth its salt has to make clear the many possibilities of any given moment. The question is not ‘why did things turn out the way they did?’ but ‘how many ways might things have turned out differently?’ In most cases the actual momentary decisions that sent things one way or another are lost to us, and might well have been buried deep in the psyches of those involved.

    Of course we all have our prime movers. Yours, in the above post, is the ‘will to power and status’. There’s always some reason why history moves from one moment to the next. I might choose a slightly broader characterization of the human psyche as my baseline, so that we’re not only talking about hierarchical forces, but I think you’re right to ground history in human nature.

    In that sense, as a discipline it has its limits. Those who seek to ground a story of the past in terms of energy, or the evolution of ecosystems, are engaged in a different pursuit, equally valid for its own reasons, but not something related to human experience, which I think is the essence of ‘history’. Of course, if we do start to make decisions based on evaluations of energy capture, then that too will become the stuff of history.

  4. Joe, I see where you’re coming from, but if anything I might propose a counter thesis. A high energy society is basically a capitalist society, because only the self-reinforcing growth imperative results in a constant need to revolutionise the energetic basis of societal reproduction. In one sense that leads to ‘complexity’, but in another sense it leads to simplicity, because almost everyone is forced to serve the same logic of capital accumulation. An agricultural example might be the development of high input/high yield cereal crops, grown at vast scales essentially by hitching a medieval tillage tool to 400hp power units. At one level, this is highly sophisticated. At another level, it’s probably less sophisticated than the social reproduction strategies of the hunter-gatherer peoples who once ranged over the same arable fields. Although it’s true that a lower energy society will inevitably be less differentiated, I’m not sure it’s necessarily true that it will be less complex – the goals and social relationships within such a society may be more differentiated than within a capitalist one. In the words of Perry Anderson: “the complex imbrication of economic exploitation with extra-economic institutions and ideologies creates a much wider gamut of possible modes of production prior to capitalism than could be deduced from the relatively simple and massive generality of the capitalist mode of production itself”.

    I hope I won’t disappoint you in my attempts to sort through the possibilities. I guess my main concern, though, isn’t so much to settle on an idealised future socio-economic form as to think about how we might get from where we are now to a more stable concatenation of post-capitalist relationships without too much trauma along the way.

    Andrew, thanks for that. Indeed, you home in on the implicit prime mover of my account in terms of the will to power and status, a phrase that didn’t entirely satisfy me as I wrote it. I think we discussed this general issue before – I do think it’s important, but I agree that there’s a case for widening the scope and it’s probably the case that my tendency to focus on inequality arises from my own political groundings and biases. I do think Morris greatly overplays his hand, though, in making equality subservient to energy capture as the key of grand history. I pretty much agree with you on the limits of history and the contingent nature of events.

    • Does he overplay his hand? Seems pretty obvious to many of us studying deep history that when societies allowed the Big Men free hand so that more work could get done, equality entered a greased slippery slope so that we can’t even imagine today what it’s like to live as equals — something still vividly described by anthropologists and others lucky enough to witness it.

      I see two prime movers. Power, status and wealth. And then “all men want to rule, but when they cannot, they’d rather be equal.”

      • “Seems pretty obvious to many of us studying deep history that when societies allowed the Big Men free hand so that more work could get done…”

        That’s basically a re-formulation of Morris’s energy prime mover, but to my mind it’s a teleology that requires explanation rather than an explanation itself. Why is getting more work done a goal? A goal for a leader or elite, sure. But not necessarily for anyone else.

        “all men want to rule, but when they cannot, they’d rather be equal.”

        That to me is an entertaining aphorism, but it’s not true – it sounds more like an elite self-justification for inequality, and it effaces the numerous ways of being in which wanting to rule is deprecated or unaccented.

        • Perhaps one should recast the goal of getting more work done (which I agree with Chris – why is that a goal??) to a goal of providing for a common defense (or offence… depends upon one’s perspective). So we have a couple tribes let’s say; they inhabit neighboring habitats and for the most part live and let live (maybe even interbreed). Some environmental disturbance causes resource depletion (drought, hail, you pick). The tribes now face a situation where the habitat to hand will not support their combined numbers. A conflict ensues, the stronger side prevails, the weaker side either migrates away, is captured into slavery, or suffers significant loss of membership. We can speculate to whether energy capture, or power, or status are prime movers – but for me the evolutionary struggles seen in other species seems to suggest that in moments of dire consequence (fight or flight) the morays around communal cooperation and collaboration tend to fall to a might makes right style contest. Sibling rivalries among children appear to me to manifest the same. Or am I building a functionalism teleologically??

          On a different point – did you actually mean ‘Genus’ above, or would species serve? I wonder because I know virtually nothing about the anthropology of other species of Homo – but that we must have gotten along with Neanderthals sufficiently to allow for interspecific mating (though even this may not have been consensual… so I’ll back away from the edge on the issue).

          • I think the emergence of inequality is more mysterious than many of us who are its inheritors suppose, but yes conflict over resources in clan or lineage based societies is one plausible mechanism – I’d add that the resources might be symbolic too…proximity to a charismatic ancestor or sacred site. How you make those inequalities stick in societies that generally are elaborately organised to build solidarity is another set of problems.

            In relation to genus, yes I did mean genus rather than species in the sense that our heritage is millions of years of human society in which so far as we can now tell societies weren’t elaborated around conspicuous and enduring status differentials. Maybe Christopher Boehm’s writing on what he calls a reverse dominance hierarchy is salient here – in some ways it endorses Vera’s aphorism about egalitarianism as a loser’s charter, but I guess the point is that long elaboration establishes a cultural order. As to the relationships between different variants of the genus Homo in the past, that’s a different but fascinating issue, to which I guess we’ll never know the answer, though from what I’ve read I think there’s no reason to suppose coercion and hierarchy, and possibly reasons to suppose otherwise.

          • What you call my aphorism comes from an anthropologist who had studied pastoral tribes in Africa. It is quoted by Boehm in his Hierararchy in the Forest. It is meant to show that while there is in us a desire for power, the push for equality is also very strong and provides a counterbalance. Boehm argues that much of our history was spent in social groupings where equality prevailed (more or less) precisely because of this logic.

            Why more work? Good question. If you read my post on the Enga, you will see how this “more work” imperative was spread and deepened by aggrandizive elites in a New Guinea tribe, step by tiny step. Some people have triple-A personalities: aggressive, acquisitive, ambitious. It is surplus that enables their rise, and it is ongoingly increasing surplus that keeps them in power.


          • Yes, I think explanations of this sort are the most plausible. But note how we’ve moved away from Morris’s teleology, in which society gets the ideology it ‘needs’ in order to capture more energy, to a non-teleological explanation grounded in the dynamics of individual status aggrandizement.

          • I just requested Morris’ book from the library. I think you are right to be suspicious of teleological explanations.

            Game theory is what I reach for when I see the sort of impasse that Morris faced.

          • Yes, all sounds plausible. Though I’d say that a key ‘takeover’ point is the emergence of heritable status differentials and it’s hard to impute those only to individual strategies of aggrandizement. As Flannery and Marcus put it “if feasting were all it took to produce hereditary inequality, there would have been no achievement-based societies left for anthropologists to study”. So I think generally we need to be looking at clan and/or lineage societies with status claims unfurling as social dramas over relatively long periods of time. Once hereditary inequality has emerged somewhere, it’s easier to see how it then spreads locally. Though one interesting point again made by Flannery and Marcus is how widespread relatively egalitarian horticultural societies have been even into recent times…also the focus of Scott’s work…so, live in the mountains and keep off the grain!

          • Chris: You made me pull Flannery and Marcus off the shelf where they sat in much too pristine a shape. Thank you. I confess I was a tad confused by your use of the word “heritable” — nevertheless I gather you refer to societies where rank began to be inherited, and why that transition happened. If you look at the chapter you quote from again, you will see they posit three mechanism by which this may have happened (among the Kachins, for example): brides from richer, more status oriented lowland society, manipulation of genealogies, and indebtedness. These are all tried and true aggrandizer strategies. I see no reason why others would not have been tried as well.

            As for their jab at “some anthropologists” and their claim “if feasting were all it took to produce hereditary inequality, there would have been no achievement-based societies left for anthropologists to study” — they provide no reference. It may be to those people who, like Brian Hayden, have written about the Power of Feasts (name of his book on this theme). Feasting is only one aggrandizer strategy, and as far as I have read him, his claims are limited to seeing increasingly competitive feasts as a potent strategy that led from egalitarianism to Big Man transegalitarianism. Also, he proposes competitive feasting as the primary pressure that led to domestication and the development of new, exotic foods that could be showcased by the rising elites — the earliest grains being primarily used for alcohol production.

            Are you saying you are not convinced by Flannery and Marcus’ explanation of why people moved toward inherited rank?

            As for durability of achievement based societies, there is no reason to doubt it, feasts or not. Not everybody caves in to aggrandizer strategies, especially when — as you pointed out — the egalitarian values are so well embedded and many societies keep a careful eye on those who would usurp higher rank. Plus those who escaped the Cult of MORE would have been more inclined to fight hard against its encroachment in their new home areas. ?

          • Oh and just noticed: “So I think generally we need to be looking at clan and/or lineage societies with status claims unfurling as social dramas over relatively long periods of time.”

            Well put. Btw, rewarding local story tellers to put new twists on old legends is another potent strategy.

        • Vera, generally I find Flannery & Marcus quite convincing. One of the points they make is that it’s much harder to explain the pristine emergence of forms of hierarchy – the first hereditary aristocracy, the first state, the first kingdom etc. So in the Kachin example, the fact that the Shan are an already extant hierarchical society goes some way to explaining the tendencies to hierarchy among the Kachin. The question then becomes how did Shan hierarchy emerge, etc. It does seem to me that the shift from personal renown to inherited status is a big one. It took a long time to emerge, but once it has things kick off rapidly.

    • “the complex imbrication of economic exploitation with extra-economic institutions and ideologies…”
      OMG, academic-speak at its purest – like doing a 3D jigsaw puzzle in the brain. Very fun in small doses.
      I can’t say that you make a very appealing case for reading Ballard’s book (car crash porn? I have a hard enough time with the novels in general anymore) but I couldn’t agree more with what you derive from it. You get this from the foodies all the time – everybody that’s read a book (or even just a NYT article) knows more about what agriculture should look like, optimally, than I do.

      • Thanks Michelle. It’s just another service we offer here at Small Farm Future – reading the stodgily academic/disturbingly depraved so you don’t have to…

    • I hew to Joe’s position here, and think we need to be careful of speaking past each other with worlds like complexity and differentiation.

      Joseph Tainter seems to the person to refer to here. He identifies how many cultures add complexity to solve problems. Complexity can get so layered that it actually starts providing negative returns, so new complexity actually diminishes returns. This negative return results in rapid simplification–or collapse.

      So, if you don’t have enough water to grow more crops, you could differentiate into new species of drought-tolerant veg. Or, you can drill a huge borehole and put a pump on it. This also requires a mining, refining and manufacturing industry, which means loss of lands and pollution. The pumped water eventually salinates the soil and reduces yields.

      The amount of increased yield needed just to pay for the infrastructure that can create the pump is pretty spectacular, so returns diminish.

      Right now the Canadian oil sands is operating at a price per barrel that is about $20 lower than their break-even, so the complexity of cooking fuel out of dirt has negative returns.

      In our highly networked society, we can kite cheques back and forth for a while, maybe even decades or centuries–but not forever.

      • Urban people tend to think rural or tribal people live simpler lives and that capitalism is more complex. When you’re in it, you see the complexity. When you’re not in it, you see simplicity from outside. Think about the amount of nuance you notice when watching a sport for the first time versus watching a sport you’ve practiced your whole life. I get that these notions of complexity come from systems theory — I’m familiar — but I am not so sure that physics determinism always serves us well when thinking about social systems. If you’re in a foraging society and “work” only 4 hours a day on average and have few material possessions to maintain and move around, wouldn’t you have the time and energy to create much more complex systems of social relations than a 9-to-5 wage worker?

  5. The mention above of inherited power or possession moving a society away from an egalitarian form forces me to wonder if anyone has ever speculated about the relative contributions of genetic inheritance vs. a cultural or fiscal inheritance. This would likely be quite difficult to tease apart, and adopted beneficiaries might be one avenue to test. But over a relatively short period of time (just a handful of generations) the benefit of genes directly and indirectly (though nurturing) could explain advantage. Having the benefit of a higher status and thus a seeming exemption from more common stresses could aid as well.

    Any idea if anyone has ever made a stab at these two different forms of inheritance to ponder how much power each portends?

    • There are lots of links that discuss positive assortative mating, which selects for both genetic and cultural similarities in reproductive and marital partnerships and is also linked with increases in class inequality in successive generations, but I can’t point out any studies that sort out the genetic vs cultural contributions to the process.

      Since assortative mating is associated with speciation, I suspect it has been part of human history for a very long time and may have had an early impact on accentuating differentiation in cultural roles.

    • Not sure, I’d have to think about that one. Once a society has transcended the collective benefits accruing to egalitarian organisation of small bands then it’s easy to see the attractions of kin-biased behaviour. On the other hand, there are so many vicissitudes over the course of time (some of which are surely connected with the fact that though it suits the few to lord it over the many, this very obviously doesn’t work in reverse) and humanity is in the words of geneticist Adam Rutherford so “horny and mobile” that the genetic selection gets repeatedly washed out. After all, everybody in the entire world today shares a common ancestor from no more than about 3,000 years ago. I enjoyed Rutherford’s teasing of the actor Christopher Lee’s claim that he could trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne: the truth is, almost everyone in Europe today can trace their ancestry back to Charlemagne.

      • I heard they tested the Luxembourg indigenous a couple decades back, and everybody was descended from the dukes of Burgundy. Which makes me think we are all children of aggrandizers….

      • Looked up the Most Recent Common Ancestor on Wiki.

        “Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam have been established by researchers using genealogical DNA tests. Mitochondrial Eve is estimated to have lived about 200,000 years ago. A paper published in March 2013 determined that, with 95% confidence and that provided there are no systematic errors in the study’s data, Y-chromosomal Adam lived between 237,000 and 581,000 years ago.
        The MRCA of humans alive today would, therefore, need to have lived more recently than either. The age of the MRCA of all living humans is unknown.” The 3000 ya figure is sheer speculation.

        • The relevant link is a paper by Rohde et al accessible from footnote 2 of Wikipedia’s article on ‘Most recent common ancestor’ It’s not complete speculation, but the result of computer modelling rather than a theory built on genetic data.- that may or may not seem plausible to you! It’s worth emphasizing though that common ancestors in exclusive maternal and paternal lines would be massively older than the MRCA, so maybe there’s something to it…

          • The wikipedia article itself says that it can be as far back as 200,000 ya, and that nobody knows. I wasn’t making up an opinion.

            My hunch would say that 3000 years is not enough, but I am happy to wait out until they have more data.

          • To be honest it looks like one of those questions for which an answer can never be proven, just modelled with ever more complex simulations…

          • Andrew is right, mitochondrial and Y chromosome CAs go much further back, and so I think does the common ancestor of everyone who’s ever lived, rather than everyone who’s alive today. I got the ~3000 year figure from Adam Rutherford’s book ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ – he cites among others this paper by Joseph Chang https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/advances-in-applied-probability/article/recent-common-ancestors-of-all-presentday-individuals/330372AB57FB1CB3839FAAA46CF81B66 . It’s based indeed on computer modelling, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ‘speculative’. Rutherford mentions how difficult people find it to believe the date… As I understand it, Chang ran another model with stronger assumptions about assortative mating and found that it only pushed the date of the common ancestor back by a few centuries.

            We are all children of aggrandizers, yes. But we’re also all children of everyone who lived a thousand years ago and left descendants, including the humblest serf.

            Maybe one way to think of how the numbers work here is that if you go back a thousand years and assume that each person alive today had unique ancestors over that period, we’d be looking at a population around the year 1000 of a thousand billion billion. Since the actual estimate is somewhere around 300 million, clearly there’s been a lot of crossover…

          • Clearly there’s been a lot of crossover…

            Indeed. Meiosis is all about crossovers. And thanks to all the thoughts on assortative mating (which is more relevant to my initial question) – but I fell off the train when we got into common ancestor theory. [BTW, Chris’ observation on modeling :
            It’s based indeed on computer modelling, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ‘speculative’ … hmm, perhaps in the British lexicon]

            When posing the question earlier I had in mind the long held tendency for European aristocracy to very deliberately interbreed royal houses (assortative mating on steroids if you will). There have been very well documented cases of hemophilia, and inbreeding depression issues because of this. But still we witness very long term land holdings within the aristocratic masses (especially in England) and our host has on many occasions written about such in these pages. Wars and conflicts within and between houses have reshuffled the decks on so many occasions it may now be too difficult to attempt some teasing apart of the issue for a European population.

            But anthropologists have long looked to less well chronicled populations to examine other aspects of human behavior and I was curious if such a question might have been studied in Samoans, Aborigines, or another population. But I get the sense Joe is probably onto something.

          • Clem, for one, psychopathy is in part inherited. And since psychopaths are heavily overrepresented among the ruling classes, them being such good social climbers, well… the genetics don’t look so well for our side.

          • Vera:
            You suggested:
            And since psychopaths are heavily overrepresented among the ruling classes,…

            I suppose you really mean that; but do you have some way to substantiate it?

          • Clem, I recommend looking into the writings of Dr Robert Hare, one of the top experts on psychopathy. His book:

            Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

            The rough estimate is that only 25% of psychopaths are women. That skews the stats for various “captains of industry,” top politicians and so on. And Hare, who made it his business to study imprisoned psychopaths, famously quipped that if he could not study them, he’d move shop to the stock exchange… it was not said in jest.

          • Vera:
            Thanks for the Dr Hare ref. Fascinating.

            I would offer as counterpoint Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley:

            It appears to me the rub falls to the criteria employed and the interpretations made by a clinician in making a diagnosis. The disparity between genders is certainly worth closer inspection. For Dr Hare’s criteria I’m left wondering where one makes the distinction between heroes and villains. Does it fall to the results of a conflict? Is U.S. Grant a hero at the expense of R.E. Lee’s failure (and hence the latter being cast as villain?).

          • Clem, why is Oakley a counterpoint? Sounds like she had a sister who may have been a psychopath.

            As for diagnosis, it’s pretty cut and dry. There is the Hare checklist that works rather well, and then there is the fMRI. They nail them nowadays. I just read a book by a neuroscientist who “discovered” that he was a psychopath via getting the fMRI himself during research. He says he was surprised, but his family and friends weren’t. It’s a most peculiar book… The Psychopath Inside.

    • Just a note to second Chris’s ‘other hand’. The trouble with linking assortative mating to genetic code is that the attributes found attractive at any given time change too regularly among any given population to become associated with a genetically imposed predisposition. Also, as assortative mating is a trend, not a rule or a law, it is never likely to apply exclusively within any given line of descent over a ling enough period. (Though I am tempted by the idea of the royal family as a different species!).

      I think the idea of genetic and cultural ‘inheritance’ as two different modes of the same idea is unfortunate here. Genetic inheritance happens at the moment of reproduction, and is then a set attribute of any given human being over their lifespan. In contrast, cultural inheritance is reinvented every generation, and occurs during the lifespan of an individual, and is constantly subject to competing influences. Even those cultural elements that appear hard-wired or habitual have to be made that way, usually through various processes of psychological repression during childhood.

      • I’ll agree that the semantics around the word ‘inheritance’ are unfortunate… and likely the root cause for our difficulty at attempting to discern where cause and effect (and proportions of each) can be assigned here. But there is an (perhaps smallish) inherent value in seeing both a cultural and genetic ‘gift’ being passed from a parent to an offspring as an inheritance (just as ‘inherent’ – which means something very different still looks a bit like, and in genetics an inherent characteristic of a gene is inherited, but it’s characteristics needn’t be ‘inherently’ the same once it has been. Language…).

        Difficulty aside, if the question relates to something important I don’t imagine our running away from it is appropriate. To me the process then calls for more careful use of language.

        For instance – assortative mating is more than ‘attributes found attractive’ [which I would agree with Andrew, are subject to fashion]. But there are genetic signatures for selection and obvious cases of even sexual dimorphisms that appear to have resulted from some attractiveness noticed by members of one sex about the other.

        But arranged marriage seems to me a phenomenon that may have some aspects of attraction (among parents deciding a matter for their offspring) but likely have serious cultural matters (dowries for example) that could possibly be quite distinct from genetic matters. OR, if the cultural matters descend (careful, “descending” codes in philosophical as well as genetic discussion) – if the cultural matters influencing mate choices by parents for their offspring descend from a genetically influenced characteristic (physical size, health, mental capacity, etc) the matter gets complicated further.

        And eugenics, not an assortative mating matter at the outset, but more a culling issue. Culling is a fine practice in plant and animal breeding… less so for our fellow humans. But taking the Nazi matter of eugenics as a sort of culling one can imagine the case made for it as a ‘descendent’ of a pure race politics and as such a sort of assortative mating.

        Genetic inheritance happens at the moment of reproduction, … here I’d rather suggest inheritance (genetic at least) happens at the moment of conception. The parent reproduces, the offspring is conceived (the inheritor).

        Perhaps worth a moments thought is that genetic inheritance is separated from fiscal inheritance in time in most cases.

        • Thanks Clem, I take your points about semantics. I wonder now if my point should not be to emphasize different kinds of inheritance, genetic and cultural, but instead to object to the notion of inheritance at all, at least as a word with the power to explain the progression of history.

          This goes with points made above about contingency. Every moment is unique to place and time, and is situated at the intersection of hundreds of different converging conditions or capacities. It seems to me that it should make little difference whether we classify them as genetic, cultural or something else – all are necessary to that moment, but none of them is sufficient on its own to determine what happens next. Fundamentally every moment is unpredictable, even if we can bet on the balance of probabilities – there are no guarantees we’ll get it right.

          Genetic inheritance is often treated as if it can select for certain outcomes, as if it has a kind of agency. But it doesn’t really – even in evolutionary theory the fitness of a gene is determined not by the ‘inherent’ nature of the gene itself but by the circumstances it finds itself in.

          It therefore makes little sense to quibble about the relative proportions of genetic and cultural causes to a given development – neither acts as a cause in itself, both are capacities that contribute to the situation but do not ultimately determine it.

          This, in long-winded fashion, goes back to the post. There’s no point looking for causes in history – we always import our own causes, our own prime movers.

          • I still think there is some value in attempting to dissect the various contributions of different inputs to a phenomenon. At least for those matters we can exert some measure of control over.

            To your point about fitness of a given gene – it is most definitely conditioned by environment. But in agriculture we can, to at least some extent, moderate the environment in some situations (think irrigation, fertilization, or planting date). At least for our domesticates then we can do experiments to test gene combinations in various environments and come away with some knowledge about how a system works (at least within certain parameters).

            Short of eugenics (or gene therapy) we have little means of manipulating human genetics. And I’m not suggesting we should. So in the human sphere I see your point that separating genetic and cultural inheritance is a less practical pursuit. But so far as we might have a run at modifying cultural parameters it could help to some extent.

  6. I’m not sure how much I want to wade into these new arenas of debate, but a couple of comments. On the matter of speculation, there’s surely a difference between probability and speculation? If I say my next throw of the dice will be a 6, I’m speculating. If I say there’s a 1 in 6 chance it’ll be a 6, I’m not speculating. If I construct a halfway decent simulation that suggests a common ancestor around 3,000 years ago, I may not be exactly right, but I’m not speculating.

    On eugenics, the difference of course between human and agricultural breeding is that in the latter we’re looking to enhance a limited number of specific characteristics whereas in the former case we consider ourselves ends in ourselves. Racial ideology goes with the agricultural metaphor of ‘breeding’, and when it gets a crack at power it expends enormous energy policing its chosen, arbitrary boundaries because (going back to Rutherford’s horny and mobile point) not enough people otherwise respect them. My sense is that this is sufficiently true of every society (even Europe, which has been more concerned with ‘breeding’ or with race in recent centuries than most) that assortative mating fairly quickly disappears in the sands of time. And even with aristocratic landholding in England, the integrity of the land and its associated title often outlasts the integrity of the landholding family.

    • On the matter of speculation, there’s surely a difference between probability and speculation? If I say my next throw of the dice will be a 6, I’m speculating. If I say there’s a 1 in 6 chance it’ll be a 6, I’m not speculating. If I construct a halfway decent simulation that suggests a common ancestor around 3,000 years ago, I may not be exactly right, but I’m not speculating.

      I’ll go along with you on the first point – probability vs. speculation. But offering that you have a one in six chance of rolling a six is merely a statement of fact and does not pay the rent once you have to produce something. In the commodities market one will often differentiate a speculator from a hedger by simply asking which posses (or intends to possess for market purpose – a buyer) the commodity being traded. The speculator holds nothing but a hunch, a probability statement if you will. There are excellent models speculators can access to ‘place their bets’… but bets they remain. The producer and the buyer actually have something to hand… their die having been already cast. Having a halfway decent simulation is only a start. You still need to roll the die. Hypotheses still need to be tested. Predicting is still speculating.

      In the end, however, I’ll agree we needn’t wade into the minutiae for this discussion. It’s not like we have an experiment to hand that would test a prediction.

      • Perhaps I muddied the waters by introducing the notion of future probabilistic events, though I’m not sure I agree that predicting is always speculating. But it seems to me that in the case of identifying a common ancestor, it’s different – folks know how human reproduction operates and have a pretty good idea about how population dynamics work – these aren’t guesses. The exact date of a common ancestor is a guess, but it’s no more speculative than our information about many other real world probabilistic phenomena that are rarely called ‘speculative’. Still, being neither a statistician nor a geneticist, I’m happy to accept your invitation not to wade into the minutiae…

      • I had assumed from the article that since some experts say that it happened perhaps 200,000 ya, other maybe as close as 3K, and the article says nobody really knows… that at this point it’s all speculation… various poorly corroborated hypotheses and a lay person cannot make any sense of it. So that was my sense of “speculation.” Perhaps “conjecture” would have been a more respectable term. 🙂

        • OK, but I think the 200,000 ya date is for a mitochondrial CA for all of humanity, which is a different kettle of fish to a genetic CA for the Earth’s present human population.

    • Interesting how they (David and David) so clearly state at the onset that eliminating ‘inequality’ is very difficult to imagine.

      And I don’t want to quibble with them on the point, but I will offer that a decent size collection of Caucasian males gathered in Philadelphia once and sent a declaration to the King of England suggesting in their second paragraph:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

      So whether equality is something to be sought or it isn’t… there are hundreds of millions of us who were brought up soaked in the tradition that this particular band of ‘Patriots’ imagined it so and were willing to spill their blood for it.

      Further – one can rightly claim that a good number of those who authored that particular opinion then returned some years later to author another document that counted some ‘men’ (and their associated women and children) as only 3/5 of a person.

      Still further on one sees that a even greater supply of blood was spilled in the course of changing the manner of accounting for personhood in a government where equality was supposedly a founding principle.

      Equality or inequality. Ideals or realities. Small farms or large. How much more blood will be spilled as the question is turned?

      Thanks for the link to Graeber and Wengrow. There is much longer scholarly piece noted in the comments at Eurozine and I got the impression they’re working a book as well.

      • Thanks Clem. I liked the Davids’ piece, though I think they possibly push their conclusions a bit further than is warranted by their empirical evidence. Perhaps another blog post some time thrashing around this whole historical inequality issue is in order.

  7. Y’all should read James C. Scott’s newest book “Against the Grain.” On the same lines of Graeber and Wengrow’s recent work, much more specifically focused on the rise of the first states in Mesopotamia and elsewhere. Does a much better job than Morris.

    • Yep, read it and working my way through my notes. Hopefully a post on it at some point. Agreed – give me Scott over Morris any day.

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