All posts filed under: Primitive Cultures

Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Peter Turchin)

Peter Turchin leads a recent academic movement to quantify and mathematize human history. That is, instead of analyzing history thematically, or engaging in broad analysis of happenings and trends, he aims to use processed data to prove hypothesized truths about our collective past. Turchin calls this new science cliodynamics (after the Muse of history), and I thought this effort was largely successful in his Ages of Discord, in which the focus was cycles of stability and instability. I think the effort much less successful in Ultrasociety, which tries to explain all of human history as inevitable cultural evolution towards cooperation, but still, it’s an interesting, if bumpy, ride.

Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe)

Americans do not understand Australia. At all. If Australia is brought up, they think of a few movie and television stars. They think of a vast red desert, perhaps, with a big rock, what’s-its-name (Ayers Rock), sticking up against a bright blue sky. They think Australians eat kangaroos (they don’t; they’re vermin). Most of all, they have a vague idea that Australians are a lot like Americans, only more informal, and more rugged and self-reliant. They once were, true, and a few still are. But the Australians are in many ways more ruined than Americans today (though we are accelerating to see if we can pass them). The 2014 book Dark Emu, or rather the insane racial-religious grift of which it is a small part, is one example.

Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (Peter Cozzens)

I have always been aware of the great Shawnee Indian war chief Tecumseh. I grew up within walking distance of the site of his confederacy’s defeat, by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, and often visited the battlefield as a child. Tecumseh himself wasn’t at the battle; he was far away, trying to raise Indian allies. The battle was instead lost by his inconstant brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, with whom Tecumseh had a fraught, but close, relationship. In this book, Peter Cozzens expertly and evocatively traces the lives of these once-famous brothers, the last of the eastern woodlands Indians of North America to mount an effective challenge to the expanding United States.

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (Christina Thompson)

Interest in Polynesia is not much in fashion nowadays, except for using the islands as an exemplar of the claimed, always imminent yet never arriving, effects of global warming. Still, ever since the Spanish accidentally ran into the Marquesas, on the east side of the giant triangle that forms Polynesia, anchored on the southwest by New Zealand, the north by Hawaii, and the southeast by Easter Island, the islands have had an intermittent fascination for Europeans. In part this is the usual fascination with lands far away; in part a specific fascination with Polynesian culture, accomplishments, and, often, origins. It is this last Christina Thompson covers in this narrowly focused, but excellent, book.

Bronze Age Mindset (Bronze Age Pervert)

I am fascinated by what is to come. For someone who came of age imbibing the narrow, facile, weak, always-second-place conservative pieties of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the chaotic fluidity of today’s Right is something entirely new. There are no straight lines of sight; all is a jumble of splintered mirrors. In this chaos, of which Trump is only one manifestation, it is a sign of something, or rather of many things, that this self-published book by an pseudonymous author, calling for adoption of a supposed ethics of the Bronze Age, is receiving a lot of attention. And as much as I hate to admit it, or think I hate to admit it, the philosophy that runs through this book is likely to drive a lot of discourse, and action, in coming years.

A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline (Hans-Hermann Hoppe)

Hans-Hermann Hoppe!, they cried. Hans-Hermann Hoppe! They told me that if I read his books, it would change my life. This is not the first time I have heard that promise; it has been made to me of many books, from Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The promise has always failed me, but each fresh tomorrow brings the possibility that next time, it will not. Thus, I read this book, which aspires to give the history of man in one hundred and fifty pages, as an introduction to Hoppe’s thought. It was interesting enough, but I have gone away sad, for that looked-for tomorrow is not today.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)

Sapiens is a book of history, but its main thrust is philosophical. It explores, or tries to explore, the conundrum that if man is built to seek meaning, but under modernity there is no meaning to be had, what is man to do? Since the author, Yuval Noah Harari, rejects all meaning as myth, yet makes meaning the focus of his book, his book has a split personality. But if you take Sapiens simply as longitudinal history, ignoring Harari’s sophomoric musings, and if you don’t mind the superficial nature of much of his history, you’ll have a reasonably good time.

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (David Reich)

We have all heard of the fad for DNA ancestry testing. Being a paranoid, I haven’t joined the crowd, because all testing companies are happy to hand over the results to the police, and what if I need to keep quiet some heinous crime I commit where I leave my DNA behind? Not to mention, what those tests claim to reveal about you is limited, in many cases, by inadequate comparison data, which the companies fill in with lies. But that lack of comparison data is swiftly being remedied, both in the present, and in the past, which is the topic of this book.

Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (William Dalrymple and Anita Anand)

Koh-i-Noor is not about the diamond, to my disappointment.  Oh, sure, it makes an appearance here and there in this book.  But very little is actually said here about the diamond itself, probably because the Queen of England hasn’t made it available for analysis and study, and prior generations didn’t record much about its specifics.  Rather, this is a book of cultural history revolving around people who have owned the diamond.  That’s interesting, in its own way, but not what I was promised.

The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph A. Tainter)

In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic.  Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918.  And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome.  Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising.  Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.