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692 pages, Hardcover
First published October 19, 2021
Max Planck once remarked that new scientific truths don’t replace old ones by convincing established scientists that they were wrong; they do so because proponents of the older theory eventually die, and generations that follow find the new truths and theories to be familiar, obvious even. We are optimists. We like to think it will not take that long.
In fact, we have already taken a first step. We can see more clearly now what is going on when, for example, a study that is rigorous in every other respect begins from the unexamined assumption that there was some ‘original’ form of human society; that its nature was fundamentally good or evil; that a time before inequality and political awareness existed; that something happened to change all this; that ‘civilization’ and ‘complexity’ always come at the price of human freedoms; that participatory democracy is natural in small groups but cannot possibly scale up to anything like a city or a nation state.
We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.
Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on…
We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such? What if, instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?
Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would otherwise be invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say that things are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévis-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.
Perhaps if our species does endure, and we one day look backwards from this yet unknowable future, aspects of the remote past that now seem like anomalies — say, bureaucracies that work on a community scale; cities governed by neighbourhood councils; systems of government where women hold a preponderance of formal positions; or forms of land management based on care-taking rather than ownership and extraction — will seem like the really significant breakthroughs, and great stone pyramids or statues more like historical curiosities. What if we were to take that approach now and look at, say, Minoan Crete or Hopewell not as random bumps on a road that leads inexorably to states and empires, but as alternate possibilities: roads not taken?
"Was such a society really capable of falling out of nurturing and caring for others into dominating them? Perhaps. But it's worth bearing in mind that the literature on the topic is incomplete and biased. Are we suggesting that because of this fact that prior conclusions regarding such societies are wrong? Of course not. However, its difficult to really ignore the fact that evidence A, B and C have been discredited by main stream archaeology for decades. As such, was *insert society* really what we think it is? Were its citizens in fact actually acting out a ritual based on..."
hunter/gatherer (egalitarian)—>agricultureContrary to perceptions that the above was the inevitable arc of human history, this book maintains that there were many exceptions and a wide variety of paths taken (i.e. it's complicated).