[This is primarily addressed to other members of the 'Theory and Practice of the State in a Historical Perspective' class - others are welcome to read and comment. This will be a bit long, but I hope you will read carefully. I wrote this because I will not be doing a presentation, and thus will not have the opportunity to present these points systematically in class.]
Reading through Fried's (now very dated) book 'The Evolution of Political Society', it struck me that a lot has occurred over the last 40 years of anthropology - are there any newer studies to confirm/deny his findings? (My first question was, in fact, why are we reading a science text that is decades out of date?) I am not one to shun a work for its age - I am quite fond of my antediluvian texts - but I tend to treat of philosophy, literature, or poetry in the original whereas science ought to be read with an eye to obsolescence. Scientists, for good reason, will only on (rare) occasions turn to past works for theory, however for data - and in turn for conclusions from said data - they will consult the most current sources. Why as political 'scientists' should we be any less scrupulous?
Thus I wish to present a few articles that will hopefully be of relevance, and if not, at least of interest.
The first is an article from Smithsonian.com about "Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple?" which is simply a stunning find (it's twin site Nevali Çori was lost to flooding on the Euphrates river, a tragedy). Some interesting quotes from the article:
"Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery."
"This area was like a paradise,"...Gobekli Tepe sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent—an arc of mild climate and arable land from the Persian Gulf to present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt—and would have attracted hunter-gatherers from Africa and the Levant. And partly because Schmidt has found no evidence that people permanently resided on the summit of Gobekli Tepe itself, he believes this was a place of worship on an unprecedented scale—humanity's first "cathedral on a hill."
"The first year, we went through 15,000 pieces of animal bone, all of them wild. It was pretty clear we were dealing with a hunter-gatherer site," Peters says. "It's been the same every year since." The abundant remnants of wild game indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated animals or farmed.
But, Peters and Schmidt say, Gobekli Tepe's builders were on the verge of a major change in how they lived, thanks to an environment that held the raw materials for farming. "They had wild sheep, wild grains that could be domesticated—and the people with the potential to do it," Schmidt says. In fact, research at other sites in the region has shown that within 1,000 years of Gobekli Tepe's construction, settlers had corralled sheep, cattle and pigs. And, at a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists found evidence of the world's oldest domesticated strains of wheat; radiocarbon dating indicates agriculture developed there around 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe's construction.
To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
From the Wikipedia entry: "It is also apparent that the animal and other images are peaceful in character and give no indications of organised violence."
Next, and perhaps more appropriately, is a 2007 article "A History of Violence" by psycho-linguist Steven Pinker. This paper, and the associated TED talk, is not original research, but a survey of current scholarship on the origins and evolution of violence in humans. He argues that violence is at its lowest ebb now, that nature has been 'red in tooth and claw' well back into human pre-history, that our ancestors were not as peacable as we may assume, and that the threat and reality of violence was ever-present over evolutionary time. Further, although Pinker claims violent death to be statistically more likely in the past than in the present, is but one facet of a difficult and traumatic life contra the image of the 'abundance of nature' articulated by Fried. I imagine that this postulated abundance and good fortune were the exception and not the rule for the vast majority of human history. For example, common forms of death for our pre-historic, pre-state ancestors included (provided you lived pat infancy, that is): broken bones, bacterial dental infections festering until they burst and then infected the rest of your body causing death, parasites, water borne diseases, ingesting undetectable fungal infection from grains causing death, famine, drought, predation, and any other manner of misfortune that is obviated (or eliminated) in post-state, post-scientific life.
But, to Pinker's points:
This change in sensibilities is...perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion...now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
[T]he choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion. Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist's sense: Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence. Social psychologists find that at least 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don't like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence...What has changed, of course, is people's willingness to act on these fantasies. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a "civilizing process" marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today's cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex.
The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy...This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don't strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.
Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities...
See also this entry at BoingBoing.net on the same article that links to a now-offline New Republic bibliographic companion that features this text:
• Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization (1997). An archeologist looks at skeletons, weapons, and ethnographic accounts of tribal warfare. Forget the noble savage: Hobbes was right. War has always been hell.
So what can we conclude from Gobekli Tepe and Pinker's arguments:
- Non-material social concepts such as primitive religion and worship affected organization and social relations as much, if not more, than material relations such as the so-called 'relations of production'. Veneration brought people together and fostered cultivation and not the reverse.
- Humans have always had, and will always have, the capacity for large scale violence regardless of the types of social arrangement. Even if violence is not always manifest in war or assault, the threat and capacity remains.
- Ever refined normative stipulations have curbed violence from the past into the present. Thus non-material ideas have helped curb violence more than the theories of relations of production, or historical materialism could account for.
- If we are to study anthropological texts at all, we should study more current research of which there is an abundance.
I am not anthropologist, so this is distinctly non-specialist literature, so if you know any other documentation on the topics introduced by Fried, it would be valuable to contribute.
Truth in advertising, I've only read about 100 pages into Fried. He takes a long time to actually get into his argument (well after he finishes surveying pre-WWII anthro literature), so I hope I am not misrepresenting the main thrust of his argument. Corrections or rejoinders are welcome.