Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leadership Secrets of the Hunter Gatherers and Others

A while back I posted on Acemoglu's and Robinson's Why States Fail.  Faithful readers will recall that I was underwhelmed: quite a few diverting stories but it never really developed the necessary grit and gristle.  Jared Diamond used the phrase "just-so story," which struck me as hard but true.

Well here's news.  Now I find the book they might wish they had written.  Or more precisely, the book which, had they read it before they wrote their own, might have made their own much better.  That would be Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality, subtitled, "How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire."  Sp: an attempt to explore the assertion of Rousseau (whom they take as a point of departure," that we, though "born free" remain "everywhere in chains."  And how, exactly, did that happen?

Responding to Rousseau's puzzle, KM explore finding from--what, 20?  30?--different societies around the world.  Almost all are "prehistoric," although they do include helpful discussions of the Big Dogs in the Fight, the valleys of the Nile and of the Tigris-Euphrates.  They find--ah, well, now, what exactly do they find?  Here I hesitate.  For all my enthusiasm, I'll admit I find the book devilishly difficult to encapsulate.  I worry that part of the problem just might be the same thing that bothered me with AR--that they gloss through to much, never stopping to come to terms with exactly what they have uncovered.

There might be a grain of truth in this last, but I think I can offer  more generous reading.  I think the point here is that the data, on close scrutiny, is refractory, and does not lend itself to facile summary.  I'm guessing, in other words, that someone worked long and hard over that title and subtitle precisely to make sure they did not promise to deliver more than they felt they could. This must have driven the marketers wild (cf., e.g., "How Rome Fell!  Six Important Secrets Revealed, to Help You Enjoy a Better World!").  But if you've got the patience and the curiosity, it opens you up to a wealth of material.  And recognizing their own resistance to easy bullet points, let me see if I can wrestle some bullet points out of them, even if against their will.
  • It did not all start with Sumer.   More generally, not even Sumer started with Sumer.  That is to say, the development of urban culture in Mesopotamia was not an act of creation ex nihilo, it was a slow-rolling arms-race competition between neighboring centers.  Moreover even if the Mesopotamians were special, you can find important prefiguring for almost everything relevant that happened there.
  • There really are truly egalitarian societies. But on the evidence, they are fragile, marginal and desperately poor.
  • In hunter-gatherer societies, men do the hunting, women do the gathering.  We knew that; we probably also knew that hunting is a dodgy enterprise: not everybody is good at it, and not everybody is lucky. 
  • If you are good and lucky, of course you start building up wealth.  But here it gets really murky.  Sure as shootin' (heh!) these guys decide they want to pass some of the goodies on to their spawn.   Sometimes they get away with it; sometimes they don't, and in any event, there is likely to be some kind of a row.
  • Now here comes one of my favorite takeaways.  It seems that if you are going to entrench your power, the best thing you can do is to associate yourself  with the local deity.  Not necessarily become a god (although that worked for the pharaohs).  But you put yourself a long leg up once you get the god to say "he's my guy."
  • An important transition in the development of hereditary inequality is the shift from "men's houses" to "temples." This is a  tantalizing point that needs more exploration.  And it is intriguing (though not necessarily a contradiction) to consider the case of Athens--as strong a temple-centric city as ever there was,  yet nominally a "democracy" (yes, women, slaves, foreigners, imperial overreach blah blah. Still...)
  • A critical "next stage" beyond local power is when you reach out and try to dominate your neighbors (by force or (heh!) diplomacy.   When it happened in Hawaii, it was so unexampled they didn't even have a word for it.  So they borrowed a word from their guests and called him a "king."
  •  Oh, and--we really are a nasty piece of business.  Scalpings, head-huntings, cannibalism, mass execution, revenge killing, debt servitude, blah blah.  If there is any evidence that our predecessors were somehow nicer than we are, you're not going to find it here.  They just didn't have nukes.

 Et cetera.  I made more e-notes on this book, I think, than any other I've read  in Kindle.  I'm still trying to sort it--and them--out.  Meanwhile, this one is surely in competition for the best, the most move-the-ball-downfield book I've read this year.  But then, there have been several.

Reception Index:  Here are a couple of squibs I wrote about the book earlier.   I see that no one else in my Google Reader feed has chosen to comment on it.  And at the moment, the number of Amazon reviews = zero.  So also the number of reviews at the Harvard Press book page.  I do find one review in the Wall Street Journal.  The reviewer reads it as a brief in favor of hereditary monarchy, which strikes me as batty. Oh, and I just spotted another, this in the Times Literary Supplement. This one faults them for underplaying the role and story of women--which is probably a fair cop.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been following your progress in this book with interest. This post was what moved it from a 'someday' book to a 'bought it' book. Thanks for the recommendation.