In his closing remarks to our informal seminar on David Graeber's HAU paper on divine kingship among the Shilluk, Lee Drummond writes,

    I think it’s fair to say that seminar participants have found “sovereignty” a rather slippery concept.  David has noted that his subject is not the origin of the state.  Rather, it seems to be about the conditions under which a social arrangement forms with one individual (the reth) being able to conduct arbitrary violence against a populace, that power then serving as a catalyst to transform the populace into “a people.” 

    My lingering question is: In undertaking an archeology of sovereignty aren’t we by implication beginning to develop an archeology of inequality?  Here I don’t refer to the emergence of political institutions or of what has been called “social stratification.”  I mean, quite directly, the origin of inequality.  Huon posed essentially the same question early in the seminar, but it remains unexamined now that we’re at the end of the seminar.  I would suggest that, at least since Rousseau’s Discourse, the origin of inequality is a preeminent question for social thought.  Somehow human societies transformed from fairly egalitarian bands of hunters-gatherers into hierarchical forms which feature Pharaohs, Sun Kings, Russian oligarchs, software billionaires.  How? 

This is a good question, but one whose premises need examination. Arguably, both "fairly egalitarian bands of hunter-gathers" and Scandinavian social democracies are historical aberrations in a world where hierarchy is pervasive in nature as well as in human affairs.

The origin of inequality is no great mystery. Pecking orders are common among all sorts of vertebrates. To be unequal is the fate of every human child from birth until maturity. Our parents are the first rulers empowered to employ what is felt as arbitrary violence upon us. Random graph models suggest that without specific constraints all networks will tend to form power law (Pareto curve) distributions in which the Matthew effect, those who have get more, prevails. 

Thus, the question shifts. We understand the origins of inequality. But what about its opposite, that always unfinished utopian project we call equality? Where does that come from?

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John, since you posit this in terms of the idea that inequality is natural whereas equality is utopian it may be worth considering that both inequality and equality are ideas that people, or as here animals, use to judge their particular situation. Skip to 12:42 of this video to see capuchin monkeys making judgements about equitable treatment: the concept of equity seems to be just as naturally available as the awareness that life is subject to hierarchy. Even quite simple life forms must need to be able to make assessments that have to do with balancing resources. If we decide that inequality is 'real' or 'objective' while equality is at best imaginary and or utopian then we have already committed ourselves to how we will explore the question, but of course views on this kind of thing are forever changing. For instance in the last 30 years or so Americans have come increasingly to think that low taxes on the rich are 'correct', but 30 years is a very short time in the great scheme of things. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcJxRqTs5nk

Huon, thanks for the link to the TED talk. It clearly makes the point that there are natural impulses toward reciprocity and fairness, found in animals as well as humans. I never supposed, however, that utopian projects are ungrounded in nature. We are still left, however, with the question of why hierachy enforced by violence is far more prevalent in human history than examples of egalitarian community based on empathy and reciprocity. I will happily agree that we need better terms than "natural" or "utoptian" to describe this difference but the difference is real. How do we explain it?

When I think about hunters and gatherers I am always mindful of Colin Turnbull's observations among the Ituri Pygmies. They seem to have been on the whole a laid-back and cooperative lot; but quarrels did occur. And, here is the key point, when conflict became serious it was possible to walk away. Why? Because all adults were equipped with the skills to survive in the jungle, and loose ties between bands also made it possible to join another band.

Contrast the situation of the Pygmies with that of their Bantu neighbors, agriculturalists whose villages and fields were immovable assets essential for their way of life. Quarrels could not be resolved by individuals wandering off to join another village. People were stuck with their conflicts and shared a predictably gloomy view of the world around them, seen as filled with witches and other mystical dangers.

Now step back and examine human history from its earliest records to the present day. Wars on every scale come down at the end of the day to conflict over real estate, who owns it and who controls the people who live in a given territory and are trapped by immovable assets, not easily given up.

Flash forward to modern social democracies. When the state guarantees housing, healthcare, education and income sufficient to live in modest comfort, people are as free as pygmies to walk out of existing relationships when conflict escalates. Remove the social safety net and Pareto rules. The rich get very rich and the poor become more impoverished. When people become desperate...Revolutions do happen...Examples that result in more than temporary relief from cycles of violence are, to the best of my knowledge, rare.

I have lived with this gloomy assessment for a long time. I would be delighted to be dissuaded.

We are still left, however, with the question of why hierachy enforced by violence is far more prevalent in human history than examples of egalitarian community based on empathy and reciprocity.

Well, it depends what you mean by human history and how you interpret it. Homo Antecessor and her family left their footprints on the beach at Happisburgh 900,000 years ago. Homo Sapiens was travelling around Africa and Eurasia for 40,000 odd years before she hit on the idea of combining a sedentary lifestyle with a hierarchical social order (e.g. Catal Huyuk). That went on for perhaps 10,000 years then mechanisation and global mercantilism took off, let's say from about 1600 onwards (roughly when Northern Europeans developed the slave-powered sugar mill in the Caribbean on an industrial scale)-- which means we have had about 400 years of the current frame. Even within the agrarian and industrial hierarchies there have been modes of egalitarianism. For example in indian caste systems fraternity and sharing within the caste are recognisable features. So, the problem is more how equality, hierarchy and freedom are combined in any given social set up; which is distinct to whatever pareto rules point to--if people aren't wearing the right clothes in a Greenland winter then most of them will freeze as happened to the poor old vikings. If there is no way of creating an equitable balance between creditors and debtors in the social system then ultimately the system will crack; that is what happens when pareto type effects are allowed to take hold. For example this article from the U.K. Daily Telegraph points to the likelihood that:

"Eventually, there will be a massive correction, in which creditors will suffer sickening losses. Nobody can tell you when that moment will arrive. We live in an “extend and pretend” world in which economies pathetically fight between themselves for any scraps of demand."

John,

    In response to my call to develop an archeology of inequality which engages the question of the origin of hierarchy in human societies, you argue that the question, as lawyers say, has been “asked and answered” : 

 

The origin of inequality is no great mystery. Pecking orders are common among all sorts of vertebrates. To be unequal is the fate of every human child from birth until maturity. Our parents are the first rulers empowered to employ what is felt as arbitrary violence upon us. Random graph models suggest that without specific constraints all networks will tend to form power law (Pareto curve) distributions in which the Matthew effect, those who have get more, prevails. 

Thus, the question shifts. We understand the origins of inequality. But what about its opposite, that always unfinished utopian project we call equality? Where does that come from?

 

Here you seem to be in good company.  No less an authority than Marshall Sahlins recently made the same observation: 

 

For much too long anthropologists have been working on the erroneous assumption that human socie­ties were egalitarian and homogeneous at the start; hence solving the perennial problem of ‘the origins of inequality’ would consist in finding the practical conditions by which populations were invidiously differentiated by status and power . . .

. . . instead of worrying the problem of the origin of inequality, the human sciences should be more concerned with the apparently rare and recent origins of social equality.

 Marshall Sahlins  “An Anthropological Manifesto: Or, The Origin of the State” 

Anthropology Today, April 2015 

 

[Just a passing thought: Here it will be discreet to defer comparing Sahlins’ 2015 argument and his 1966 classic, “The Original Affluent Society” – in which his description of the lives of hunters-gatherers is unsettlingly like those of members of hippie communes of that bygone era.] 

 

    However, in that brief essay Sahlins adds a kicker to his conclusion that takes his argument in a radically different direction from your own.  Whereas you propose that relations of inequality – pecking orders – are a basic part of our vertebrate heritage, recapitulated in our childhood dependency, Sahlins claims that those relations follow from a fundamental belief – specific to humans – in a spirit world apart from and superior to human society: 

 

But [the all-important “but”] to generalize from observations of Viveiros de Castro (1992) on indigenous Amazonian people, every human community is always already articulated with, sur­rounded by, and hierarchically encompassed in a larger society populated by beings endowed at once with human attributes and superhuman potencies. Here are gods and spirits, not to mention other peoples and marvellous beasts, who are the effective sources of human vitality, mortality, and prosperity.

Human communities are in the necessary position of entering into social relationships with these beings, using common grounds of intentionality and shared means of communication, to influence them in people’s favour. It follows that people have ever been engaged in hierarchically-organized societies. By virtue of their dependence on metahuman persons, they have always known inequality as a condition of their social existence. Indeed, given the potency and invisibility of the higher governing order of human communities, they have lived in something like a state from the beginning, well avant la lettre. There are kings in heaven where there are no chiefs on earth, and cosmic agents with life and death powers of judgement known to peoples without legal systems of their own. By comparison the late develop­ment of the human political state seems a somewhat impoverished imitation.

Sahlins, “A Manifesto . . .” 

 

    Here it is interesting to reflect that David Graeber in his Shilluk essay carries the same line of thought further, arguing that the quest for something beyond, something outside everyday life is inherent in human experience: 

 

    Sacred kingship can also be conceived of as offering a kind of (tentative, imperfect) resolution for the elementary problematic of human existence proposed in creation narratives. It is in this sense that Clastres (1977) was right when he said that state authority must have emerged from prophets rather than chiefs, from the desire to find a “land without evil” and undo death . . . (emphasis in the original) 

David Graeber, “The Divine Kingship . . .” , page 13 

 

 Following this line of thought, Graeber underscores Sahlins’ argument (which runs through several of the latter’s publications):

 

Marshall Sahlins (1981, 1983, 2007) has taken all this much further, pointing out, for one thing, that in the vast majority of kings, in all times and places, not only try to mark themselves as exterior to society, but actually claim to come from someplace other than the places they govern. Or at least to derive from ancestors who do. There is a sense almost everywhere that “society,” however conceived, is not self-sufficient; that power, creative energy—life, even—ultimately comes from outside.  (my emphasis) Graeber, page 4

 

    So, hierarchical order in society may well be documented in our species’ early symbolic expressions (creation myths) – an order thought to come from without and which, in a crucial sense, is there waiting for us when Homo sapiens is in the process of acquiring its redundant name, Homo sapiens sapiens

    And on to the next, truly fundamental question: How / where did the earliest humans acquire that none-too-obvious concept of an “outside” world, separate from and superior to everyday life?  Here’s a none-too-obvious answer: from hallucinatory visions received by the first shamans, hallucinations quite possibly augmented by psychotropic substances in addition to the prosaic stimulants of fatigue, pain, sleep deprivation.   

    The best-researched work on this thesis applies to the cave paintings of Upper Paleolithic Europe, and the topography of the cave itself has much to do with the origin of hierarchical order in the social world.  In what I regard as one of the most important books of our new century, David Lewis-Williams, in The Mind in the Cave lays out his provocative theory.  As a preface to that argument, note that cave paintings were of two very different sorts: the large tableaux (for example, Lascaux’s “Great Hall of the Bulls” and the “Painted Gallery”) in open, accessible spaces likely intended as settings for communal ritual; and crevices in the deepest, almost inaccessible places which could accommodate only a single or very few persons and where the artists worked by the flickering light of  tallow lamps in complete darkness.  Their “artistic” creations, Lewis-Williams argues, depicted spirit beings of the chthonic realm who appeared to the vision-seeker by virtue of his proximity to them in the deepest reaches of the cave.   

 

Finally, transformed mentally and socially by their experiences, questers returned to the level of daily life where they were regarded as those who had traversed the cosmos and had thereby acquired abilities not possessed by everyone. They entered into new kinds of social relations with other members of their community. Every time the cave was used, social divisions were dram­atized: the many outside, probably the few in the entrance, and even fewer in the depths, face to face with the creatures of the nether world.  (page 234)

 

. . . dreams and visions experienced on the level of daily life were probably considered to be mere glimpses of what was possible in the cave. In this way, a group of people within the community, and with the community's general consent, linked the cave to the spectrum of consciousness to create social divisions, not the only ones, but significant ones. The topography of the cave thus paralleled narrowing social divisions - a form of hierarchy - and underwrote them with varied mental experiences, access to which was controlled. The cave itself and the experiences of shifting consciousness were thus implicated in the fashioning of social structure that was not founded entirely on brute strength, age or gender, though those discriminating factors probably played some role.  (page 235) 

 

    Access to various levels of a cave were granted to shamanic initiates on the basis of a strict hierarchy; contact with the spirit world, achieved through hallucination, represented and enforced an evolving system of social stratification and control.  Note that this relationship between access to hidden and powerful knowledge, access often made possible by altered states of consciousness, is a hallmark of religious authority throughout the whole of human history.  To Clastres’ argument (see above) that prophets preceded chiefs, it seems necessary to add that shamans preceded prophets (and by thousands of years).  

    We don’t know that the hallucinatory visions of Upper Paleolithic shamans were associated with the use of psychotropic substances (get busy on those coprolites, guys!), but it is well-established that those substances and associated practices figure prominently in the origins of world religions and in the lives of many indigenous groups featured in our ethnographies.  The ergot of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the West, the soma of Vedic rites in the East (yes, I read and followed with experimental zeal Wasson’s classic text), comprise a mosaic with the peyote, cannabis, ayahuasca, opium, tobacco, psilocybin, khat, zornia, and many other plants, a mosaic that is inseparable from the sacred or religious practices of much of humanity. 

    Might we already have encountered this idea of fundamental knowledge hidden in the deep recesses of thought?  In fact, an account eerily similar to that of Lewis-Williams is a centerpiece of Western philosophy, a centerpiece that is also a birthright: Plato’s parable of the cave in the Republic.  True knowledge and power (let’s hear it for the philosopher-king) are to be found waiting in the cave’s recesses; everyday social life is only a distorted, misleading shadow of that reality.  Did Plato occasionally lapse from his pursuit of Socratic rationalism to partake of the hallucinogenic ergot of the Eleusinian Mysteries that were, in effect, Athens’ state religion?  Could be.    

    It is crucial to note that to speak of psychotropic substances as “drugs” is to prejudice the case before serious discussion begins.  Those powerful chemicals are best described as entheogens – keys to “unlocking the divine within,” a gift possessed by the best poets and dramatists of ancient Athens. 

    Let me close here – I know, I’ve already run on – by flagging the idea that a host of paradoxes come hard on the heels of the argument that social hierarchy arises from a fundamental need to experience the divine, the sacred “outside.” 

    Fast-forwarding to our own social experience (at least mine as an American), it will be crucial to explore why the most powerful entheogens (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin) are classified as Schedule One narcotics – their possession a felony that takes one, not to the visionary experience of an Upper Paleolithic cave, but to years spent in the antiseptic depths of a super-max prison.    

Whereas you propose that relations of inequality – pecking orders – are a basic part of our vertebrate heritage, recapitulated in our childhood dependency, Sahlins claims that those relations follow from a fundamental belief – specific to humans – in a spirit world apart from and superior to human society

Lee, thanks for the Sahlin reference. I am, of course, tickled to find myself in such distinguished company. I offer two observations to extend our conversation.

First, my vertebrate-heritage and Sahlin's spirit-world hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. There is no contradiction here, and the bridge between them has been around at least since Freud. Where does the idea of a spirit world come from? Every child grows up in a world where adults are different from children and have secrets not shared with the kids. But it follows, of course, that our perceptions of gods and other mythical beings will depend in large part on how we see our parents and how they behave toward us—and here there are cultural differences. An angry Jehovah may become a sweet Jesus. Spirit worlds may differ in fundamental ways. 

Here, for example, is the introduction I wrote for a chapter on traditional Chinese religion for Ray Scupin's Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus.

Turn back the clock a century. You have graduated from university and accepted a post with one of the great British trading companies that operate out of Hong Kong. To reach China from England, you must travel by ship. En route, your ship will stop in Italy, Egypt, India. Wherever it stops, you have a few days to explore the countryside and pursue your interest in comparative religion.

Italy is strange but also familiar. With its crucifixes, candles, incense, priestly vestments, carnivals and saints days, Italian Catholicism may seem a bit exotic. Still, it is Christianity, the most common form of religion in Europe. Its churches, priests and doctrines are not all that different from what you imagine when you think of religion in the West.

In Egypt you encounter Islam. Mosques replace churches. Friday not Sunday is the holy day, and religious images are forbidden. But Islam also has its saints and festivals. Islam is, like Christianity and Judaism, a religion of the Book. All three are monotheistic religions rooted in belief in one, transcendent God, who exists apart from his creation and reveals His will through prophets whose words are recorded in canonical, sacred texts: Torah for the Jews, the Bible for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. For believers in all three religions, their faith is the mark of membership in an exclusive religious community. 

In India you encounter Hinduism. Here, too, there are temples, rites, and festivals. The division between Brahmin and warrior castes recalls a familiar division between priestly and secular authorities. But instead of one God there are many—goddesses as well as gods, and a seemingly endless variety of both. Stranger still, devotion to one does not preclude the worship of others. Instead of one sacred Book, you find a seemingly endless list of scriptures, commentaries, folktales and myths. There are, to be sure, similarities between their content and what you find in the sacred Books of the monotheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East. There are, however, no rabbis, priests or judges with the power to determine which are canonical and which are not. 

You may note, too, that Hindu creation myths do not describe a singular event. Instead of a one, definitive pronouncement, "Let there be light," creation in Hindu thought is an endlessly repeated dream. Mystics of all schools seek to free themselves from the dream by losing their mortal selves in the great Self that is God. In this archetypically mystical religion, the mystic's search for that true Self has replaced submission to God's revealed Word. 

Then, at last, you arrive in China. Here, again, there are temples, rites and festivals; images like those of Catholic saints or Hindu gods and goddesses; fire, incense and offerings. When, however, you ask, "What is the religion of China?" you hear two surprising answers. Some say that China has three religions: Confucianism and Daoism, both indigenous to China, and Buddhism, imported from India. The other says that China has no religion. The three religions aren't religions at all, but schools of moral philosophy. The customs of the masses are only superstitious magic.

 If you live long enough—to the middle of the twentieth century—you will also hear some scholars say that there is, after all, one Chinese religion. It is not, however, a monotheistic religion; there is no single high God. Like Hinduism, Chinese religion is polytheistic and only in one of its many dimensions—the worship of ancestors—exclusive. But in contrast to Hinduism, there is no Creator who exists apart from His creation. The world does have an invisible dimension, the realm of spirits; all spirits—whether gods, ghosts, or ancestors—exist, like the human beings they resemble, inside the one, self-sustaining, natural order of things. 

 In Chinese religion, mysticism aims, not to escape from a world seen as a dream, i.e., as a snare and illusion, but instead to become one with the constantly changing cycles of Nature. Ritual is seen in functional terms, either as essential for maintaining social or cosmic order or, more pragmatically, as a means of achieving the long life, wealth and numerous descendants that define worldly success. 

Like a Chinese banquet, the religious life of the Chinese combines many elements: some can be identified as Daoist, Buddhist or Confucian; others are labeled folk or popular religion and described as shamanistic. 

At the core of this complexity is ancestor worship, to which everything else is related. Before the revolutions of the twentieth century, the worship of the ancestors was encompassed and elaborated by rites performed by emperors and mandarins: the cult of the imperial Chinese state. In traditional Chinese communities in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, communal and sectarian worship of gods and the exorcism of ghosts continue to surround and complement the domestic cult of the dead. In the People's Republic of China, all three were officially regarded as "feudal superstition" and targeted for suppression. In recent years, however, they have once again become widespread.

But, turning now to my second point. You mention vertebrate heritage and childhood experience. I would, however, like to underline again that third factor I mentioned, the mathematics of networks. That all networks above a certain scale and density will become hierarchical, with Pareto-curve like distributions of centrality and a large component that includes the vast majority (90% or more) of the nodes and relations involved is a proven mathematical theorem. It is this fact, I would argue, that adds special urgency to Sahlin's call for close examination of the apparently rare and recent origins of social equality, at least as an ideal. 

With due respect to Huon, whose politics I imagine are very like my own, pious speculation that prehistoric human hunters and gatherers were more like Bonobos than Baboons does not answer Sahlin's call.

Neither do speculations about Paleolithic shamans and hallucinatory substances. How sixties is that?

Well, probably the best Pareto-esque assertion I have read recently is Dan Dennett's claim that 90% of anything coming out of any kind of academic discussion is likely to be rubbish, so we shouldn't waste our time with that, we should engage with the small amount interesting stuff. Alas where to find the mysterious 10% of good discussion? 

I like your introduction to the complexities of Chinese philosophy, John, but what has it got to do with the issue at hand? Rather than prove some inevitable law of social development it points to how civilisations develop in distinct ways. In the eighteenth century China was acknowledged as the great world civilisation, vastly superior in its cultural achievement but at the same time far more hierarchical than the Europe of that time. In contrast, when your English traveller arrived there China was an interesting case of a civilisation in decay, weighed down by absentee landlords and political sclerosis. No doubt Pareto type effects played a part in both scenarios -- but isn't that just a generalisation along the lines - 'There is a tide in the affairs of men that leadeth on to fortune... and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures'?

Lee's general point seems much more relevant -- a key to inequality as an idea is that hierarchisation is essential to symbolisation. Symbols take meaning from being nested in other symbolic frames -- the symbols of the generality come to derive their meaning from the higher order symbols of the ritual specialist.

In de Waal's film of the capuchin monkeys, the capuchins on the left shows striking levels of symbolic reasoning - notice how she/he taps the stone to check its quality before handing it over. What is left out of the analysis of the morality involved is how the capuchins have been imprisoned, how they are dependent on the person feeding them and the routine of feeding, and how the audience finds the frustration-aggression of the thwarted capuchin hilariously funny -- attention to those features might give us some further clues to how hierarchy works. In that sense the comparison of bonobos and chimps etc. are of interest because both are capable of symbolic thinking which they put to use in quite different ways -- if we want to take this pareto effect type reasoning seriously we would have to ask, what is the pareto effect that has trended toward the organisation of contemporary bonobo culture as opposed to the pareto effect that has led to contemporary chimp culture. Pareto is intellectually promiscuous in terms of whether the rule is applied to 'violence', 'mango eating contests', 'sex', 'cake-making webpages' etc. so, the question must then be what is the specific relevance in any given case.

The obvious corollary between the symbolic function and hierarchy that Lee sketches for paleolithic culture is the meta-symbolic status of money in contemporary cultures. As Marx said money is the means by which we carry our demand on society around with us in our pocket--above all money is something that is 'outside' our subjective comprehension. Anyone can perceive the effect of money, but full understanding of how money achieves its symbolic hold is beyond my ken at least - collective representation, mimesis, a priori rationality, desire, tunnel vision, take your pick. Pareto type effects are clearly of some interest in understanding how the trend for fewer and fewer people to have more and more control over the money-symbol takes shape. At another level they don't particularly help explain the stabilisation of the systems involved since what is being described is a chain of events towards an inevitable catastrophe (either way, if what you said about networks was true in practice, John, then the Gini index of every nation state would look the same which it does not; which presumably means that networks aren't or can't achieve perfect integration). In contrast, the ways of pushing back toward equity in large-scale societies are already available -- debt jubilee, devaluation, taxation and redistribution, conversion of money flows into publicly-owned durables and social projects, dropping money out of a helicopter etc.

Huon,

You mistake my purpose if you equate what I have written with some crude form of unilinear evolution. That universal laws can operate in ways that produce an infinite variety of forms is something I know full well. Consider snowflakes, for example.

My introduction to Chinese religion is in full agreement with the proposition that civilizations develop in distinct ways. In all of the cases mentioned, however, sufficiently large and densely connected populations formed networks with the properties that the mathematics predicts, combining extreme differences between the top and bottom of the social scale and giant components surrounded by peripheries occupied with much smaller components [Note: I am using "components" here in the network analysis sense of fully connected subnetworks, within which which there is at least one path connecting every pair of nodes.] Why, then, do we see the differences in social organization and traditional cosmologies sketched in my introduction? There is plenty of room here for historical and cultural analysis. 

What the mathematical theorems in question imply is that, except in circumstances where other constraints apply, hierarchies will inevitably appear and become more extreme as populations increase. Sahlins asks precisely the right question: What are those rare and recent circumstances in which equality prevails against this natural tendency?

The logic of the argument I am advancing is standard stuff in science and engineering. Consider airplanes, for example.

The law of gravity is what it is. With no other forces to offset gravity, neither birds nor aircraft could fly. The Bernoulli principle that generates lift under wings makes flight possible, despite the fact that gravity continues to exist. Helicopters employ the same principle but apply it differently, in effect spinning their wings instead of driving them straight ahead through the air. Dirigibles and balloons represent an alternative approach, using lighter than air gases instead of the Bernoulli principle.

In a similar way there is no contradiction between a universal tendency for hierarchies to emerge in sufficiently large and dense populations and the existence of varied attempts either to justify their existence or to moderate their extremes. But  history suggests that equalitarian communities are rarely larger than a few hundred souls, and even the largest among them tend to be short-lived. 

The Amish are an interesting outlier. As of 2012, there were 251,000 Amish people living in the United States and Canada, and their numbers seemed to be growing. One observes, however, that the Amish are embedded in larger nations. They may eschew electrical and gas-powered machinery; but they do not produce the steel in their plows, and much of their prosperity depends on selling surplus produce. 

It is these sorts of considerations that make Sahlins' question particularly poignant for those like myself who self-identify with the left and progressive politics. We imagine little communities filled with friendly neighbors who take care of each other. We live in a world of 7.6 billion people, the vast majority of whom live lives of abject poverty compared to anyone who participates in this or similar discussions on line. 

My goal is not to abandon the dream. It is, instead, to ask hard questions about barriers to its realization, questions that move beyond the blame games of conventional critique.

 

John and Huon (anyone else out there?), 

 

    I suppose we all have our favorite math metaphors: John seems to favor Pareto’s power laws, Huon not so much.  One of my favorite math metaphors is cellular automata, particularly the version developed by the mathematician John Conway, called “the Game of Life.”  (I’ve mentioned this before, in another venue).  Its premise is that of one school of complexity theory, according to which our world is permeated with “order for free.”  Take a random assortment of elements, establish a dynamic interaction among them, and presto! structures begin to form, structures which have interesting properties and relationships.  These various structures are not hierarchical, although some do transform others.  With this analogy in mind, it’s hard for me to accept John’s claim that hierarchy is somehow natural, built into the human psyche.  John’s argument that:

 

First, my vertebrate-heritage and Sahlin's spirit-world hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. There is no contradiction here, and the bridge between them has been around at least since Freud. Where does the idea of a spirit world come from? Every child grows up in a world where adults are different from children and have secrets not shared with the kids. But it follows, of course, that our perceptions of gods and other mythical beings will depend in large part on how we see our parents and how they behave toward us—and here there are cultural differences. An angry Jehovah may become a sweet Jesus. Spirit worlds may differ in fundamental ways. 


strikes me as leaning too far in the direction of a “night in which all cats are black” position. 

    For me cultural analysis needs to focus on the particulars of any social arrangement or cultural production, which means avoiding generalities that propose to encompass all experience.  When you claim that “the idea of a spirit world” comes from the universal experience of childhood in which “every child grows up in a world where adults are different from children and have secrets not shared with the kids,” I am at a loss to apply this to Lewis-Willians’ account of Upper Paleolithic culture.  How do we get from the experience of childhood dependency to a shaman journeying to the darkest recesses of a cave, where he experiences (entheogen-induced?) visions of chthonic spirits literally emerging from the cave walls – which have become living rock, a membrane between spirit and human worlds?  Why go to so much trouble to communicate with spirits that are hardly God the Father (that collective delusion neurosis was to come much later), and to inscribe images of his vision in a nearly inaccessible part of the cave – images that very few if any individuals will see?  And how do we begin to reconcile an image like that, say, of “The Sorcerer” with a notion of a heavenly Father who is an old white guy with a long beard, reclining on a cloud?  What accounts for the fantastic imagery?  Why  bother if all that’s required is a hyped-up father figure? 

 

    The extraordinary images from the caves – likely associated with the use of psychotropic substances (entheogens) – lead us / me to an extraordinary paradox: somehow the shaman’s intensely private and powerful vision experience – his communication with chthonic spirits – becomes the basis for establishing himself as a leader in a proto-society just beginning to exhibit hierarchical organization?  As Sahlins and Graeber note, the divine king is divine before he is king, and the source of his divinity is his claim to coming from outside normal, everyday society.  The chthonic realm of caves is outside, big time. 

    The trick we need to understand – let’s be honest and call it a con game – is how the shaman’s intensely private esoteric vision is somehow transformed or appropriated to serve as a charter for secular or quasi-secular rulers who establish a system of inequality of a kind all too familiar to us.  Doesn’t that seem remarkable?  How did it happen? 

    Although it’s a reach across some thirteen or fourteen millennia, we might inquire into Western societies’ (particularly the U. S.) need to draw a hard-and-fast line between shamanic-psychotropic experience and the “down to earth” business of government.  Why, as a for-instance, did Richard Nixon, that old liar and crook, describe Timothy Leary as “the most dangerous person in America”? 

    Finally, a note about “archeology.”  For nearly half a century now, Foucault’s metaphor / method of “excavating” the history of ideas through examining discursive practices of idea constellations (epistemes) has had a major influence on social thought. 

Some applications of that method are far more impressive than others; David Graeber’s “archeology of sovereignty” is, I think, one of the best.  However, in proposing that we conduct an “archeology of inequality” I had in mind the actual practice of the field as conducted by Lewis-Williams.  The imagery of Upper Paleolithic paintings and petroglyphs must be studied in terms of what is known about their disposition in the cave, their subject matter (animals? which animals?  chimera? fantastic figures? humanoids?), reconstructions of Upper Paleolithic living sites, and reconstructions of the environment (relatively warm or cold?  vegetation?  rainfall? evidence of transhumance?)  I think there is a lot to be said in favor of this rather traditional approach, particularly since the subject before us – Upper Paleolithic culture (really, the origin of our Hss species) – long antedates the appearance of texts with their discursive practices.   

 

Lee,

I do not have a favorite mathematical metaphor. I am talking about a theorem, which appears to apply across a wide range of phenomena, from protein cascades in cell biology to the structure of the Worldwide Web. You can read about it here: http://arxiv.org/abs/0708.2709. The logic of the argument is precisely that you attribute to John Conways's Game of Life; "Take a random assortment of elements, establish an interaction between them, and presto! structures begin to form." The added element here is that given networks above a certain scale and density, those structures will, if no other factor intervenes, become hierarchical.

Do I think that this theorem is the last word? Of course not. My assessment, reading related work, is that it resembles Copernicus' model of the solar system. It's simple. It gets a lot of things right. It is still awaiting a Kepler to figure out that the orbits are elliptical, a Newton to explain why, and an Einstein to account for phenomena that cannot be explained given Newton's assumptions about absolute space and time. Thus, for example, there are mathematicians now at work on how to explain empirical distributions of network centrality measures that appear to be scale-free power laws only over part of their range with discontinuities or unexpected turns when that range is exceeded.

Besides, I am an anthropologist, a writer of thick descriptions (Geertz), a pursuer of the logic in tangible qualities (Levi-Strauss), the guy who noticed the similarities between logs and alligators in Shilluk myth and ritual.

My starting point is always Clyde Kluckhohn's observation that every human being is (1)like every other human being in some respects, (2) like some other human beings in other respects, and (3) still a unique individual in many respects. (1) does not determine (2) or (3) but it does establish basic conditions that restrict the possibilities of (2) or (3).

I say "restrict the possibilities," but here I speak as someone with a modest familiarity with formal systems in logic, mathematics, and computer programming. I know for a fact that a finite set of axioms can generate an infinite, but nonetheless restricted, set of possibilities: integers, for instance, instead of real numbers. I know that something similar applies to humanity. I recall with pleasure, at a time when I was worried if genetics could explain everything about me, reading Teodor Dobzhansky's remark that the number of possible combinations of genes in the human genome is larger than the number of electrons in the visible universe.

I do not find it implausible to imagine that prehistoric shamans doing drugs shaped human perceptions of the spirit world. They still do in the Amazon. But what has that to do with the differences in religion I describe in the introduction to my article on Chinese religion? Graeber's suggestion that sovereignty combines a utopian project with arbitrary violence is insightful and provocative. But how do we explain the differences between say, Genghis Khan delighting in razing his enemies' cities and Barrack Obama deploying drones that go astray and kill the innocent but are still far from being systematic genocide?

I look forward to reading how you address these questions.

 

John (and anybody???),

    As you know, normally I’m not this quick on the uptake.  But the weekend (SoCal time) is almost upon me, and the gang at the Sidewinder Bar and Grill tell me they’re planning a real blowout – now that the Trustafarians, L. A. industry scum, and assorted other Outlanders here for the musical (?) extravaganzas of Coachella and Stagecoach have departed our fair Valley.  They’re promising a starter course of gluten-free entheogen salad, and who knows what follows.  I’m hoping that we all get totally bombed, turn out the lights, fire up tallow candles, and paint on the walls.  Look out  Sorcerer, here we come! 

    Anyway, on to your theorem: 

 

I do not have a favorite mathematical metaphor. I am talking about a theorem, which appears to apply across a wide range of phenomena, from protein cascades in cell biology to the structure of the Worldwide Web. You can read about it here: http://arxiv.org/abs/0708.2709. The logic of the argument is precisely that you attribute to John Conways's Game of Life; "Take a random assortment of elements, establish an interaction between them, and presto! structures begin to form." The added element here is that given networks above a certain scale and density, those structures will, if no other factor intervenes, become hierarchical. (my emphasis) 

 

    Not from what I’ve been able to decipher of the heady math of complexity theory.  Your “networks” can be as large and dense as you like, but extrapolations of the Game of Life describe a scale that is, well, as large as the Universe.  In fact, it is the Universe – which some of these folks are describing as a “recursively defined geometric object.”  No hierarchy, just endless transformations.  With here and there a tiny packet of entropy-defying order, i. e. humanity. 

    Then you continue to describe what, I guess, is a hoped-for future: 

 

Thus, for example, there are mathematicians now at work on how to explain empirical distributions of network centrality measures that appear to be scale-free power laws only over part of their range with discontinuities or unexpected turns when that range is exceeded. 

 

Say wha’?  Sorry, but my tenuous grasp of the math involved here has now let go, and I’m in free fall – I wonder if I don’t have a lot of company here.  So let me return to the matter of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings and petroglyphs.  I think these are phenomena anthropologists should really want to understand – after all, they are about all of the first symbolic representations our species has produced.  How to explain / interpret these intriguing cultural productions?  Lewis-Williams has taken his best shot.  I’ve grabbed onto his coattails – thinking that he really seems to know what he’s talking about.  Now it’s your turn.  What do we say as anthropologists about these unique creations of (arguably) some of the earliest human minds?  Is there a power law that will shed light on Upper Paleolithic cave paintings?  An interpretation / theory we can set beside that of Lewis-Williams and dissect the pros and cons of each?  What are / were those cultural productions about? 

 

I don't doubt the significance of the model John is talking about in some domains -- for example this is precisely what Piketty is talking about in his recent book on Capital -- if the body politic doesn't do something about the accumulation of capital by an ever decreasing number of economic actors by way of rent and compound interest then the so-called 'free market' is headed for a catastrophic cascade toward pole reversal. These dynamics are accentuated because of the very high level of convertability of money across distinct social networks and worldviews. Of course this is a relatively recent feature -- not everything about it is bad; it goes with the enlightenment Triumph of Reason after all...

Fair enough -- but Lee is right in calling this a metaphor, because if the model just becomes a way of talking about hierarchy tout court then that essentially stops any kind of discussion of what we mean by hierarchy or equality or, indeed, authority, legitimacy, status, sacredness, caste or any of the other interesting things that anthropologists have amassed knowledge about. So, yes, what went on in the caves and all those other sites, the footprints washed away by the sea -- all that is relevant to thinking how the power of some people over others sprang up.

Was human-deer a frightening transformation, a transgression, or was it an expression of cosmic absurdity evoking the laughter of all the people who climbed down into the cave?

because if the model just becomes a way of talking about hierarchy tout court then that essentially stops any kind of discussion of what we mean by hierarchy or equality or, indeed, authority, legitimacy, status, sacredness, caste or any of the other interesting things that anthropologists have amassed knowledge about.

If the model does that, it will be because anthropologists are stone ignorant about the nature of models. A model is a simplification, an approximation. As the statistician George E. Box famously noted, "All models are wrong, but some are more useful than others." The point of this one is not to end conversation by pretending to be the last word. It is, however, to take off the table the utopian dream that if only we were all equal peace and justice would reign forever. Properly understood, it points directly to Sahlins' suggestion and the need to focus on those rare and recent circumstances in which societies have become more equal instead of vice-versa.

What further discussion of authority, legitimacy, status, sacredness, caste, etc., can contribute to a project framed along the lines that Sahlins proposes remains an open question. Pending further evidence, my tentative conclusion is that, with a few exceptions, e.g., Graeber's book on debt, not much can be expected.

As I have said repeatedly, I will be happy to abandon that conclusion if I see substantial evidence to the contrary. Handwaving about prehistoric cave art created by people whose own opinions we will never know, barring the invention of a time machine, or infinite transformations in cellular automata, which depends on how they are programmed, does not, in my view, provide such evidence.

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