The Origin of Religion – Part 2

Let’s take a look at the major components of religious belief according to scientists working on this problem:

1. Hypersensitive Agency Detection (HAD or HADD)

This is one of the things that almost always gets mentioned in the evolutionary psychology of religious belief. Basically, it’s a “false positive”—a default assumption that some event is caused by a conscious entity rather than by random chance. It is thought that such “constructive paranoia” helped us avoid attacks from predators and other hostiles:

Scientists working in the cognitive science of religion have offered…explanations, including the hyperactive agency-detecting device (HADD). This tendency explains why a rustle in the bushes in the dark prompts the instinctive thought: ‘There’s someone there!’ We seem to have evolved to be extremely quick to ascribe agency – the capacity for intention and action – even to inanimate objects.

In our ancestral environment, this tendency is not particularly costly in terms of survival and reproduction, but a failure to detect agents that are there can be very costly. Fail to detect a sabre-toothed cat, and it’ll likely take you out of the gene pool. The evolution of a HADD can account for the human tendency to believe in the presence of agents even when none can actually be observed. Hence the human belief in invisible person-like beings, such as spirits or gods.

There are also forms of supernatural belief that don’t fit the ‘invisible person-like being’ mould, but merely posit occult forces – eg, feng shui, supernaturally understood – but the HADD doesn’t account for such beliefs…

Belief in supernatural beings is totally natural – and false (Aeon)

2. Theory of Mind (ToM) and Existential Theory of Mind. (EToM)

Theory of Mind (ToM), or Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) is basically our intuitive ability to read other people’s minds. It’s “the understanding that others have beliefs, desires and goals, influencing their actions. ToM allows us to have sophisticated social relationships and to predict how others will behave. You couldn’t “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” without it…” [1]

…we can think of ToM as the cognitive system that humans typically use to engage in social interactions with other people. By engaging your ToM when you interact with someone else, you are able to attribute human mental states – such as thoughts, emotions, and intentions – to that person.

It’s adaptive to engage your ToM when interacting with another person, because your ‘theory’ will usually be correct: the other person usually will, in fact, have a normal human mind. So if you assume they do have such a mind, you’ll generally be able to have a more successful social interaction than you would if you assumed that they had no mind, or some kind of non-human mind.

What religion is really all about (Psychology Today)

The perils of an overactive Theory of Mind

Humans, due to their social nature, possess the most sophisticated Theory of Mind in the animal kingdom, and this gives rise not only to the ability to model other people’s inner states and intentions, but also our own, leading to reflective self-consciousness:

It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness.

The self-conscious animal: how human minds evolved (Aeon)

Furthermore, “Humans…show extreme ToM, ascribing minds to inanimate or imagined things…” [1] In real life, people apply ToM to forces of nature, ancestor spirits and invisible gods. And they seem to think about these supernatural actors the same way they conceive of fellow humans: “fMRI studies have found ToM-related regions of the brain activate when people hear statements about God’s emotions and involvement in worldly affairs.” [1]

Experiments have confirmed that we attribute human characteristics and intentions to objects that we know do not have them, such as balloons and abstract shapes. A famous experiment in the 1940s demonstrated that even abstract shapes moving around in a film were perceived as having intentions and could be used to tell a story that the researchers wished to tell.


For example, there are a large number of movies where an inanimate object becomes a “character” in the film, and we apply our theory of mind to it just as much as we do for the flesh-and-blood characters. If we couldn’t do so, such films would make no sense. Take the French movie The Red Balloon. It is all about attributing human characteristics to a rubber ball filled with helium. Or take the “Herbie” movies by Disney. Herbie was a Volkswagen beetle who got into all sort of adventures with his human friends.

Functional MRI scans have confirmed that, in contemplating religious ideas, the theory of mind mechanism of our brain is engaged:

…researchers gave 40 religious volunteers functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they responded to statements reflecting three core elements of belief. …Overall, the parts of the brain activated by the belief statements were those used for much more mundane, everyday interpretation of the world and the intentions of other people. Significantly, however, they also correspond with the parts of the brain that have evolved most recently, and which appear to which give humans more insight than other animals.

“Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions,” say the researchers.

“It’s not surprising that religious beliefs engage mainly the theory-of-mind areas, as they are about virtual beings who are treated as having essentially human mental traits, just as characters in a novel or play are,” comments Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford.

‘Theory of mind’ could help explain belief in God (New Scientist)

Existential Theory of Mind (EToM) is the related idea that our theory of mind is so complex that we engage it not just with people, animals, and inanimate objects, but even with existence itself!

The idea of EToM is that people tend to engage their ToM in interactions not just with other people, but with ‘existence’ in general.
That is, humans seem naturally inclined to perceive their lives as ongoing interactions with some kind of transcendent mind(s) that, at least in some respects, seem(s) human-like. Across cultures, this transcendent mind-like power may be conceptualized as an explicitly-specified god or gods, or in more abstract terms (such as a universal spirit, karma, or ‘the force’).

It appears that more complex “higher order” religions may be connected with more recursive modes of Theory of Mind:

According to Robin Dunbar, it is through Theory of Mind that people may have come to know God, as it were… Dunbar argues that several orders of intentionality may be required, since religion is a social activity, dependent on shared beliefs. The recursive loops that are necessary run something like this: I suppose that you think that I believe there are gods who intend to influence our futures because they understand our desires. This is fifth-order intentionality. Dunbar himself must have achieved sixth-order intentionality if he supposes all of this, and if you suppose that he does then you have reached seventh-order…[3]

Interestingly, both the concept of the “soul” and such “higher-order” religions, religions where the participants are united by mutual self-professed beliefs in some sort of transcendent doctrine –emerge at roughly the same time. This appears to reflect the dawn of something approaching self-consciousness. I’ve previously argued that this has to do with recursion—see my review of The Recursive Mind.

Another consequence of Theory of Mind is that under times of stress, people often perceive a kind of conscious “presence” around them, somewhat analogous to the feeling of being watched. For example, the some of the members of Shackleton’s expedition independently experienced an invisible “felt presence” watching over them:

On 20 May 1916, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean reached Stromness, a whaling station on the north coast of South Georgia. They had been walking for 36 hours, in life-threatening conditions, in an attempt to reach help for the rest of their party: three of their crew were stuck on the south side of the island, with the remainder stranded on Elephant Island. To reach the whaling station, the three men had to cross the island’s mountainous interior with just a rope and an axe, in a journey that few had attempted before or since. By reaching Stromness they managed to save all the men left from the ill-fated Imperial Transantarctic Expedition.

They did not talk about it at the time, but weeks later all three men reported an uncanny experience during their trek: a feeling that “often there were four, not three” men on their journey. The “fourth” that accompanied them had the silent presence of a real person, someone walking with them by their side, as far as the whaling station but no further. Shackleton was apparently deeply affected by the experience, but would say little about it in subsequent years, considering it something “which can never be spoken of”.

Encounters such as these are common in extreme survival situations: guardian angels, guides, or even Christ-like figures have often been reported. We know them now as “third man” experiences…

The strange world of felt presences (The Guardian)

3. Minimally Counterintuitive (MCI) Concepts.

Minimally Counterintuitve Concepts (MCI) ultimately stem from what some researchers have called non-reflective beliefs. There are beliefs which are so ingrained in our psyche that we don’t even think twice about them. Of course, these intuitive beliefs are not always correct. For example, before Galileo, people assumed that heavier objects would fall to earth faster than lighter ones. It turns out that they were wrong.

HADD (see above) is what [Justin] Barrett calls a non-reflective belief, which are always operating in our brains even without our awareness of them. Reflective beliefs, on the other hand, are ones we actively think about. Non-reflective beliefs come from various mental tools, which he terms “intuitive inference systems”.

In addition to agency detection, these mental tools include naive biology, naive physics, and intuitive morality. Naive physics, for example, is the reason children intuitively know that solid objects can’t pass through other solid objects, and that objects fall if they’re not held up. As for intuitive morality, recent research suggests that three-month old “infants’ evaluations of others’ prosocial and antisocial behaviours are consistent with adults’ moral judgments”.

Barrett claims that non-reflective beliefs are crucial in forming reflective beliefs. “The more non-reflective beliefs that converge the more likely a belief becomes reflectively held.” If we want to evaluate humans’ reflective beliefs about God, then we need to start with figuring out whether and how those beliefs are anchored in non-reflective beliefs.

But how do we go from non-reflective beliefs like HADD and Naive Biology to reflective ones like a God who rewards good people and punishes bad ones? It’s here that Barrett invokes the idea of minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts…

A Minimally Counterintutive Concept is one that is congruent with our non-reflective belief systems. It’s something that’s very similar to the things we encounter in everyday life, but just different enough to be more memorable. “MCI concepts are basically intuitive concepts with one or two minor tweaks.”

Barrett gives the example of a flying carpet, which “behaves” like a regular carpet in every way except one. “Such ideas combine the processing ease and efficiency of intuitive ideas with just enough novelty to command attention, and hence receive deeper processing.”
It’s not surprising, then, that cross-cultural studies have shown that MCI concepts are easily recalled and shared. There are two reasons for this, says Barrett. First, MCI concepts maintain their conceptual structure. Second, MCI concepts tend to stand out from among an array of ordinary concepts. “What captures your attention more,” he writes, “a potato that is brown, a potato that weighs two pounds, or an invisible potato?”

Religious beliefs are shared – and they’re shared by human animals with a shared neural anatomy. Our mental toolkit contains built-in biases, such as HADD, which is responsible for a number of false positives. (Most of the time it is just the wind!) For brains that seem wired to find agency and intention everywhere, religion comes very naturally.

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

A Maximally Counterintutive Concept, by contrast, is one which we have a hard time relating to, so we tend to dismiss it as false, instinctively, regardless of its actual veracity.

I think this explains a lot of the stubborn resistance surrounding Darwinian evolution, as well as a lot of other scientific concepts. The idea that slow, incremental change over time gave rise to the teeming multitude of life around us (including ourselves) seems impossible to believe, as even evolution’s staunchest defenders acknowledge. This is because we think on time scales of years, or maybe decades, based on our lifespans. We simply cannot understand—except at the most abstract, intellectual level—a thousand years, let alone a million years. (1 million is a thousand thousands).

Thus, I would call biological evolution a Maximally Counterintutive Concept.

By contrast, the idea of a creator god is minimally counterintuitive, since we humans intentionally create things all the time. Often, in ancient mythology, God creates the world and man the same way we might create, say, a clay pot or a loaf of bread. That’s not hard for us to understand at all, hence it’s a minimally counterintutive concept. And the concept of a “loving, caring” God is really just a step removed from our own parents.

Another way of putting this is that MCI’s are “viral” from a memetic standpoint; they are especially good at becoming memes. Minimally counterintutive concepts make excellent memes, and so they spread more rapidly and easily than their maximally counterintutive rivals. We’ll take a look at memetic theories of religion a bit later.

In fact, it turns out that a great many scientific concepts are maximally counterintutive. The earth is billions of years old? The universe is expanding? Time slows down with your velocity, or moves faster the higher up you go? Solid matter is mostly empty space? Invisible particles in the atmosphere are changing the climate? Really??? Even simple concepts—like the fact that the earth revolves around the sun and is a sphere—are the opposite of how we actually experience them in daily life.

Richard Dawkins may well be right when he describes the theory of natural selection as one of our species’ finest accomplishments; it is an intellectually satisfying and empirically supported account of our own existence. But almost nobody believes it. One poll found that more than a third of college undergraduates believe that the Garden of Eden was where the first human beings appeared. And even among those who claim to endorse Darwinian evolution, many distort it in one way or another, often seeing it as a mysterious internal force driving species toward perfection. (Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if “the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.”)…

What’s the problem with Darwin? His theory of evolution does clash with the religious beliefs that some people already hold. For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence. Other religions posit more physical processes on the part of the creator or creators, such as vomiting, procreation, masturbation, or the molding of clay. Not much room here for random variation and differential reproductive success.

But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

It turns out that Dawkins is right, our brains are designed to misunderstand evolution. It’s much easier to attribute things like thunder and lightning to the “anger” of Zeus or Thor than to something like static electricity differentials, and so forth. It’s a lot easier for the average person to comprehend God’s wrath than plate tectonics. As Insane Clown Posse declared, “I don’t want to hear from no scientist; you fuckers are lyin’ and gettin’ me pissed!” For them, and many others like them, biological reproduction and magnets are simply “miracles”.

4. The Intentional Stance (IS):

This is similar to Theory of Mind: attributing deliberate intentions to other human beings and animals, but also to many things that do not have—and cannot have—intentions and beliefs of their own. This idea was developed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

According to Daniel Dennett, there are three different strategies that we might use when confronted with objects or systems: the physical stance, the design stance, and the intentional stance. Each of these strategies is predictive. We use them to predict and thereby to explain the behavior of the entity in question. (‘Behavior’ here is meant in a very broad sense, such that the movement of an inanimate object—e.g., the turning of a windmill—counts as behavior.)

The physical stance stems from the perspective of the physical sciences. To predict the behavior of a given entity according to the physical stance, we use information about its physical constitution in conjunction with information about the laws of physics…

When we make a prediction from the design stance, we assume that the entity in question has been designed in a certain way, and we predict that the entity will thus behave as designed…we often gain predictive power when moving from the physical stance to the design stance…

Often, we can improve our predictions yet further by adopting the intentional stance. When making predictions from this stance, we interpret the behavior of the entity in question by treating it as a rational agent whose behavior is governed by intentional states.

The intentional stance (Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind)

A good example might be crossing the street. You can predict from the physical stance how fast you can walk, or how quickly a car can stop taking inertia into account, and so on. You also know the basic mechanics of how a car operates by using the design stance—a car has an engine, brakes, a transmission, an ignition, rubber tires, and so forth. It was designed deliberately by human beings for their use. You know that stoplights are designed to change color to regulate traffic. But to really predict what’s going on, you need to understand what’s in the mind of the driver. For that, you adopt the intentional stance to ascribe beliefs, intentions, motivations, and limitations to the driver. This will ultimately tell you whether the car will stop or not, beyond just the physical and design considerations.

Dennett’s argument (as I understand it) is that the benefits of using the intentional stance cause us to apply it to all sort of things where it does not belong. For example, we tend to attribute intentions, characteristics, and deliberate behavior even to inanimate objects that we know are inanimate objects (like the geometric shapes in the movie, for example). Taken to its logical conclusion, you get things like animism and pantheism.

The sun wants us to have two scoops of raisins in the morning. No clue as to how the raisins feel about being eaten, though.

As Rupert Sheldrake points out, young children often draw the sun with a smiley face in it, like on the box of Raisin Bran. This indicates, according to Sheldrake, that children are “instinctive animists,” attributing human mental characteristics to all sorts of inanimate things in the world around them. Indeed, toddlers will often explain scenarios involving inanimate objects in terms of intentions—i.e. the box “wants” this, or the pencil “feels” that. Cloudy days are when the sun “doesn’t feel like” coming out, or “refuses to shine,” for example.

5. Full Access Agents (FAA):

We’ve previously talked about how we are “instinctive dualists,” dividing the world into one of bodies—subject to the laws of physics and physiology; and one of minds—subject to the laws of human psychology. But for some reason, we attribute superior knowledge to the invisible minds which surround us. These “invisible minds” can be in places we cannot, and can read the beliefs and intentions of others in a way we cannot.

These beings have been called “Full Access Agents”: “By full access agents I mean agents that have an unlimited access to other person’s minds: they are omniscient in the sense that they know all mental contents there are to be known.” [4] p. 31

Closely related to the idea of agency is what Dennett refers to as a cards-up phenomenon. Agency detection carries with it certain risks: do you know about that bad thing I did? How can I be sure you know, and how can I be sure about what you think about me because of it? These are complex questions and human beings aren’t good at managing all the options.

What’s needed for learning how to navigate these muddy waters is for everyone to be taught the rules of the game by placing all of our cards face up on the table. The teacher, then, is something of a full-access agent: they see everything and can instruct us accordingly.

The original full-access agents, says Dennett, were our dead ancestors. But eventually, the seeds of this idea became more formalised in various theologies…

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Furthermore, such Full Access Agents have disproportionate access, in particular, to something called “socially strategic information.” Socially strategic information is “information that activates the mental systems used for social interaction. And, “Some theorists have argued that humans throughout history have committed themselves to “the gods” rather than countless other anthropomorphized and supernatural beings (e.g., dragons, trolls, and Mickey Mouse), precisely because the gods have access to socially strategic information.” [5]

Put another way, FAAs help resolve what are called “Multipolar Traps” where equilibrium depends on people not defecting from sort of collective social norm. A multipolar trap can be described as, “a situation where cooperating is in one’s interest only if doing so caused everyone (or almost everyone) else to cooperate.” However, there is always a risk of defection where the defector benefits at the cost of everyone else. Thus, to prevent the defector from winning, everyone needs to update their behavior, and the equilibrium falls apart: “If you cooperate in an environment where most people are defecting, you are only hurting yourself, both in the short-run and in the long-run. If you defect in an environment where most people are cooperating, you benefit yourself in the short and long runs, as well.” Full Access Agents, then, may have helped us escape from the consequences of this trap, allowing for greater cooperation:

“Humans are not very good at behaving just because you punish them for not behaving,” says evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, “otherwise we would all be driving well under 70 on the motorway.” The real problem isn’t how bad the punishment is, but how risky it is to be caught.

If the risk is low, he says, we’re prepared for the punishment. This would have been a major issue in prehistory. As hunter-gatherer groups grow, they need to be able enforce a punishment mechanism – but the greater the size of the group, the less chance there is of being found out.

Enter full-access agents: “We don’t see what you do on Saturday night, but there is somebody who does, so beware,” as Dunbar puts it. This idea was consonant with the intuitive mental tools such as HADD and intuitive morality, so it was well-received by our ancestors’ evolved brains. Plus it had the added bonus of regulating behaviour from the bottom up. “You always get better behaviour from individual commitment,” says Dunbar, “not coercion.”

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Full Access Agents (FAA), or later, the “Universal Mind” (see EToM, above) were the enforcers of proper behavior: they were the original “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s 1984 (and, in the case of ancestor worship at least, it might literally be your big brother!). While we are fully aware that flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings can be tricked, deceived, and possess false knowledge, for some reason these invisible spirits are not subject to the same deficits:

Across cultures, even children seem to think that gods know more than normal humans. This is borne out by experiments using what psychologists call the ‘false-belief task’, which tests whether individuals can detect that others have false beliefs.

In one version of the test, researchers put a bag of rocks into a box of crackers, showed children what’s inside, and then asked what various entities would think was in the box. If the children said: ‘Mom thinks rocks are in there’, then they haven’t passed the false-belief task. If they said: ‘Mom thinks crackers are in there, but there are really rocks’, they have a handle on the incorrect mental states of others.

What’s curious is that, with age, children come to know that Mom, dogs, and even trees will have incorrect thoughts, but they never extend that vulnerability to God. In fact, the quality of omniscience attributed to God appears to extend to any disembodied entity…Louisville Seminary researchers found that children think imaginary friends know more than flesh-and-blood humans. There appears to be a rule, then, deep in our mental programming that tells us: minds without bodies know more than those with bodies.

Furthermore, we also seem to instinctively believe that the Full Access Agents’ knowledge about moral intentions is superior to that of any other actor, and this belief is consistent across cultures:

Christian students from the University of Connecticut who claim that God knows everything will nonetheless rate His knowledge of moral information as better than His knowledge of non-moral information…As reported in a 2012 article in Cognitive Science, our lab at the University of Connecticut examined what might be called this ‘moralisation bias’ of omniscient beings…What these studies suggest is that we intuitively attach moral information to disembodied minds. And this subtle association can alter our behaviour in significant ways.

In one study, in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2011, the psychologist Jared Piazza of Lancaster University and colleagues told children a story about a ghostly princess living in their lab. Though these children never heard a peep from the ghost, they cheated less on a difficult game than a control group of children who were not told the story. This suggests that gods, ghosts and other incorporeal minds might just get us to behave – particularly if we assume that the gods know about our behaviour, and especially if we think they can interfere in our affairs.

From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct. Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry. If you’re tempted to steal from someone, but know that God cares and has the power to do something about it, you might think twice. If God knows your thoughts, perhaps you wouldn’t even think twice. The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes…

Why God knows more about misbehavior than anything else (Aeon)

As the above essay points out, exactly what the full access agents are interested in tends to vary based on the cultural norms. Some are not particularly concerned with sexuality; others are quite judgemental. In either case, they are hitched to basic human feelings of guilt and shame to enforce pro-social norms. For example, in Tuva (a culturally Mongolian society in Russia), gods are tutelary deities rather than all-knowing patriarchal fathers. Nevertheless, they still enforce social norms concerned with environmental stewardship that cannot be enforced by any external living entity:

The [Tuvan] spirit-masters aren’t as vindictive or punishing as the God of Abraham. However, if you disrespect them or forget to make an offering, your luck can quickly change. They also aren’t omniscient. ‘Does the spirit-master of this area know what happens in another area?’ I would ask when in the field. Responses often consisted of: ‘No, but those spirits know what happens in that area.’

The local gods in Tuva aren’t concerned with morality in the Abrahamic or Western sense; instead, they care about rituals and protecting resources such as natural springs, lakes and hunted animals in their area of governance…through conversations, interviews and a variety of other questioning techniques, Tuvans communicated that their gods care about rituals and practices associated with resource conservation. But when asked, for example: ‘Does this God care about theft?’ they’re more inclined to give affirmative responses than to non‑moral questions ..

It looks as if gods can tap into our mental moral systems regardless of what our explicit beliefs tell us. Even though Tuvans might think that their spirit-masters are unconcerned with how they treat each other (or simply do not talk about their gods in this way), these gods might still contribute to co‑operation. If they trigger Tuvans’ moral cognition, the gods might curb ‘immoral’ behaviour especially when associated with territory.

Unlike the God-as-Big-Brother model of the Abrahamic faiths, spirit-masters follow more of a God-as-shy-but-watchful-landlord model…

Why God knows more about misbehavior than anything else (Aeon)

Once societies became to large for external enforcement agents, it is thought, these invisible spirits stepped in to enforce pro-social behavior: “representations of full-access agents have directly helped reciprocal altruism to evolve because they can help one view things from others’ point of view and can make systems of moralistic punishment possible.” [4] p. 32

…morality predates religion, which certainly makes sense given what we know about the very old origins of empathy and play. But the question remains as to why morality came to be explicitly connected with religion. [Pascal] Boyer grounds this connection in our intuitive morality and our belief that gods and our departed ancestors are interested parties in our moral choices.

“Moral intuitions suggest that if you could see the whole of a situation without any distortion you would immediately grasp whether it was right or wrong. Religious concepts are just concepts of persons with an immediate perspective on the whole of a situation.”
Say I do something that makes me feel guilty. That’s another way of saying that someone with strategic information about my act would consider it wrong. Religion tells me these Someones exist, and that goes a long way to explaining why I felt guilty in the first place. Boyer sums it up in this way: “Most of our moral intuitions are clear but their origin escapes us…Seeing these intuitions as someone’s viewpoint is a simpler way of understanding why we have these intuitions.” Thus, Boyer concludes, religious concepts are in some way “parasitic upon moral intuitions”.

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Full access agents, thanks to their all-knowing nature, can also be consulted when big, important decisions need to be made and there is a large element of random chance:

Representation of full-access agents help in strategic decisions: as these are often difficult to make because people do not believe their strategic information is perfect or automatic, they consult full-access agents for advice. In addition, a decision is sometimes difficult to make because the issue at hand is relatively trivial or no alternative stands out as superior. Should I buy this or that gift from my wife? Your place or mine?
Finally, some decisions are difficult to make because too much is at stake. Should I go for the operation when the risk of paralysis is 50 percent? Should we try to bust the terrorists at the risk of losing the hostages lives? [4] p.32

The religion equation.

So, then, our “religion equation” ends up looking something like this: HADD + ToMM + FAA = Religion; or at least the basic form of it.

In Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods and Buddhas, Iikka Pyysiainen derives a slightly different, but similar, equation:

I distinguish three overlapping cognitive mechanisms that contribute to agentive reasoning. The first is hyperactive agent detection (HAD): the tendency to postulate animacy–this mechanism is triggered by cues that are so minimal that it often produced false positive, for example, we see faces in the clouds, mistake shadows for persons, and so forth. Second is hyperactive understanding of intentionality (HUI): the tendency to postulate mentality and to see events as intentionally caused even in the absence of a visible agent. Third is hyperactive teleofunctional reasoning (HTR): the tendency to see objects as existing for a purpose. [4] p. 13

When HADD, HUI, and/or HTR are triggered, giving a false positive, three alternative supernatural explanations are available: the triggering event was caused by (1) a natural agent acting from afar, (2) a present but invisible and intangible agent; or (3) some impersonal force or very abstract kind of agency. The first alternative is represented by beliefs in telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and the like; as well as the example of a picture miraculously falling off from the wall. Examples of the second are beliefs about gods, spirits, and other supernatural agents. Third would be a “numinous” force or a very abstract agent such as “the ground of being”. [4] p. 30

These beliefs in noncorporeal beings (agentive reasoning), in whatever form they take—ancestors, nature spirits, or ‘the universal spirit’—who can see into our inner souls and car about our moral choices, is the scaffolding upon which all subsequent religion is erected. Of course, the forms that it takes will vary greatly across cultures and across time. But such universals which give us clues as to religion’s fundamental nature and origin, while looking past the myriad superficial forms it may take.

In the next part of this series, I would like to briefly discuss some other ideas that were not mentioned in the BBC article, but have also been posited as giving rise to religion. These are Terror Management Theory (TMT), Bicameral Mind Theory (BMT) and the Memetic theory of religion.

[1] The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods (Discover Magazine)

[3] The Recursive Mind by Michael Corballis, pp. 137-138

[4] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas by Iikka Pyysiainen

[5] What Does God Know? Supernatural Agents’ Access to Socially Strategic and Non‐Strategic Information (Cognitive Science)

The Origin of Religion – Part 1

The BBC published its second of two posts on the origin of religion, and it’s a doozy. The first article explored the deep roots of religion in the behavior of various non-human species: How and why did religion evolve? (BBC)

This second part takes on why religious thought exists in humans specifically, drawing on a variety of theories and disciplines, from evolutionary psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to neuroscience. The thinkers the author reference in the article include Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, Justin Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and Robert Bellah.

I’m going to pair this with an older article from The Atlantic, Is God and Accident?, which posits that religion was, in essence, an “accident” due to the unique way our brains have evolved to process information, and covers some of the same ground. I’ll supplement these with other sources.

Two Theories

Two common theories of why religion developed are: 1.) religion evolved to calm our existential fear of death, and 2.) religion evolved to create intragroup cohesion via shared concepts and rituals (i.e. to bind people together). Or, religious beliefs are shibboleths: they evolved to divide the social world into “us” and “them.”

But there are a few problems with these narratives. When you take a look at most primitive religions, there is no “big picture” philosophical explanation for the mystery of human existence. There is no “country club” afterlife that people are looking forward to as in Western (particularly American Protestant) Christianity. There is no “better place” after death—just a different one. In many ancestor-veneration cultures (which I have proposed as the original form of religion), the ancestors simply dwell “under the earth”. It’s hardly a pleasant afterlife.

This chthonic idea—that spirits dwell somewhere below the earth—is so universal that I think there must be something fundamental to it. It was present in all the Near Eastern religions, and is implicit in the Hebrew term for the grave, sheol (Heaven and Hell are conspicuously absent from the Old Testament). It was present in Greek culture too. Even the remote Pirahã of the Amazon believe the spirits of their departed ancestors dwell somewhere beneath the earth.

My guess is that this comes from our tradition of disposing with dead bodies by ritually burying them, which goes all the way back to the dawn of cognitively modern humans. Burials—especially with grave goods—are used by archaeologists as a proxy for when something like religion first emerged.

Here’s a good description of death rituals and beliefs in the Ancient Near East (ANE):

In death a person gave up his or her breath and became a ghost (etemmu). The bodies of the deceased were sometimes buried under a special section of their own house rather than in a separate tomb. As in other ANE cultures, the oldest son was responsible for maintaining such duties as providing the dead with food and drink and other supplies; he was also expected to regularly pronounce their names to ensure that the dead were not forgotten by the living.

Particularly important in this regard was the kipsu banquet, to which dead ancestors would be invited and from whom blessing on the living would be sought. As in other ANE thought, the living could contact the dead (through a medium or necromancer) and the ghosts of the dead could affect the circumstances of the living. Restless ghosts were considered particularly malevolent and were thus especially feared. Accordingly, imitative magic and numerous spells were designed to ward off such malevolent ghosts or demons, such as those thought to attack people sexually at night, or those who were considered responsible for what we refer to as cot death or sudden infant death syndrome. p. 12

The underworld itself was commonly referred to as ‘the Great City’, ‘the Great Below’, or ‘the Land of No Return.’ It was believed to have three tiers: the lowest level was the court of the gods of the underworld; the middle level was the watery realm of the deity Apsu; and the upper level immediately under the earth’s surface was the ‘residence of the spirits of men’. The entrance was supposedly in the west, where Shamash (the sun god) was believed to go down at night and travel under the earth before resurfacing in the east the following morning. To access the underworld, the dead had to cross a river with the aid of a boatman called Remove-hastily. Presumably the sooner he carried out his task the better! [1]

Meanwhile, in ancient Greek tribal culture:

At death the psyche or soul, which entered the body at birth, leaves again like a puff of wind and – so long as the deceased has been properly buried – goes to the underworld. Here the dead exist as insubstantial ‘shades’ or ‘shadows’ of their former selves, without strength or pleasure. While normally confined to the realm of the dead, the deceased may occasionally reappear as ghosts who can haunt or communicate with the living. As in the ANE, proper care of the dead was therefore paramount; indeed, improper care could bring their ghosts back to haunt the negligent, because in Greek mythology the unburied dead were not allowed to enter Hades.

[Hades] is portrayed as a remote place, far below the earth, dark and dismal, and utterly devoid of hope. For the most part, all the dead, regardless of social rank or status, share the same experience; this was clearly not a happy one – even for the heroic dead. Achilles, for example, famously remarks that he would rather be the hired servant of a poor farmer on earth than lord of all the withered dead in the underworld’ (Od. 11.489-491). Yet this was not perceived as a place of punishment or retributive justice; rather, it was simply the grim and gloomy destiny that all men would inevitably share. There was no hope of any physical return from death; the only hope of immortality lay in making a name for oneself, one that would be perpetually remembered by those on earth. So all in all, Homer’s view of death and the afterlife is almost entirely negative. ibid.

And China, with its long (and enduring) tradition of ancestor worship, was quite similar:

According to ancient beliefs, each person had a spirit which required the offering of sacrifices, not just royal figures. It was thought that an individual had two souls. After death, one of these souls, the po, rose to heaven while the other one, the hun, remained in the body of the deceased. It was this second soul that required regular offerings of nourishment. Eventually, the hun soul would migrate to the fabled Yellow Springs of the afterlife, but until that time, if the family did not want the spirit of their dead relation to trouble them as a wandering hungry ghost, they had to take certain precautions. The first was to bury the dead with all the essential daily objects (or models of them) they would need in the next life from food to tools. Next, to ensure the corpse remained at peace, it was necessary to offer appropriate and regular offerings.

Ancestor Worship in Ancient China (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

In The Ancient City, Fustel de Coulanges, who also argued for ancestor worship as primordial form of religion and the key to understanding ancient cultural institutions, notes the similarities between Greek, Roman and Hindu ancestor worship:

The Hindu, like the Greek, regarded the dead as divine beings, who enjoyed a happy existence; but their happiness depended on the condition that the offerings made by the living should be carried to them regularly. If the Śrāddha for a dead person was not offered regularly, his soul left its peaceful dwelling, and became a wandering spirit, who tormented the living; so that, if the dead were really gods, this was only whilst the living honored them with their worship.

The Greeks and Romans had exactly the same belief. If the funeral repast ceased to be offered to the dead, they immediately left their tombs, and became wandering shades, that were heard in the silence of the night. They reproached the living with their negligence; or they sought to punish them by afflicting them with diseases, or cursing their soil with sterility. In a word, they left the living no rest till the funeral feasts were re-established. The sacrifice, the offering of nourishment, and the libation restored them to the tomb, and gave them back their rest and their divine attributes. Man was then at peace with them…

These human souls deified by death were what the Greeks called demons, or heroes. The Latins gave them the name of Lares, Manes, Genii. “Our ancestors believed,” says Apuleius “that the Manes, when they were malignant, were to be called larvae; they called them Lares when they were benevolent and propitious.” Elsewhere we read, “Genius and Lar is the same being; so our ancestors believed.” And in Cicero, “Those that the Greeks called demons we call Lares.” The  Ancient City, p. 17

So, it turns out that most ancient religions weren’t all that reassuring when it came to life after death after all! Nor was any kind of supernatural reward or punishment involved. Mostly, it seems, the dead were just ephemeral ghosts who had to be buried with the proper rituals and appeased through regular feasts and commemorations so that they wouldn’t come back to haunt the living. As Bruce Carpenter remarked of Balinese ancestor worship, “It’s like having a representative in Congress,” describing the ongoing reciprocal relationship between families and their departed ancestors.

This seems to be almost universal in the large cultures we are familiar with. We see it all over the world. The concepts of Heaven or Paradise (along with Hell) came much, much later in history, and mostly in Western monotheistic cultures (the word Paradise comes from Persia and signifies a walled garden). You will find little of this cushy afterlife in say, for example, traditional Chinese or Japanese religions, much less in other more remote cultures.

[As an aside, I had this thought: Is it possible that cultures that buried their dead saw them as dwelling underneath the earth, whereas cultures who cremated their dead saw them as ascending up to heaven, which is what smoke does when bodies are cremated in the open air? The symbolism of smoke representing a release of the soul floating upwards has been used in some belief systems. This is worthy of exploration.]

Similarly, while it’s true that religious beliefs do often serve as a kind of cultural glue which binds societies together, it does not explain the proliferation of supernatural entities, from ancestral spirits to hungry ghosts to malevolent demons to guardian angels to tutelary deities, to capricious gods. Nor does it explain these diverse approaches to the afterlife, or why there should even be an afterlife at all! In fact, many religious beliefs and practices actually seem counterproductive. Often relatives go deeply into debt to perform funeral rites that look silly to outsiders, just so their dead relatives are sated and don’t curse them with bad luck. As the anthropologist Lionel Tiger remarked, “As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.”

Also recall that primitive religions pretty much never feature either Moralizing High Gods (MHG), not Broad Supernatural Punishment (BSP); two key features of doctrinal monotheistic religions. As we saw above, most invisible entities are potentially mischievous, petty, and cruel, and require constant appeasement. There is no greater existential “reason for existence” articulated by any of these religions. You live, and then you die, and that’s pretty much it; and the afterlife isn’t much better than this one—maybe even worse!

(Of course, some have proposed that the very wastefulness of religion is a form of honest signaling—”skin in the game,” as it were. If we have to contribute something costly to participate, and have something significant to lose, the thinking goes, we are less like to be a cheater or a free rider. Of course, this doesn’t explain the reasons for supernatural entities or an afterlife.)

Thus, neither the “religion as anodyne/opiate” nor the “religion as social glue/fraternity/shibboleth” ideas satisfy all the questions surrounding the origin of religious belief, especially the ones we are most interested in. Something else must be at work. But what?

[T]he religion-as-opiate theory fits best with the monotheistic religions most familiar to us. But what about those people (many of the religious people in the world) who do not believe in an all-wise and just God? Every society believes in spiritual beings, but they are often stupid or malevolent.

Many religions simply don’t deal with metaphysical or teleological questions; gods and ancestor spirits are called upon only to help cope with such mundane problems as how to prepare food and what to do with a corpse—not to elucidate the Meaning of It All.

As for the reassurance of heaven, justice, or salvation, again, it exists in some religions but by no means all. (In fact, even those religions we are most familiar with are not always reassuring. I know some older Christians who were made miserable as children by worries about eternal damnation; the prospect of oblivion would have been far preferable.)

So the opiate theory is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation for the existence of religion.

The major alternative theory is social: religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. Sometimes this argument is presented in cultural terms, and sometimes it is seen from an evolutionary perspective: survival of the fittest working at the level not of the gene or the individual but of the social group. In either case the claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not.

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites—for example, snipping off part of the penis.

Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity. The fraternity theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates…

This theory explains almost everything about religion—except the religious part. It is clear that rituals and sacrifices can bring people together, and it may well be that a group that does such things has an advantage over one that does not. But it is not clear why a religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, divine creation of the universe, and so on brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, which is belief in the supernatural.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

Hence the “accidental” (or side effect) theory of religion. As the Atlantic article states, “Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view—that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident…” : In the terminology of evolutionary biology, “religion is either a spandrel or an exaption.”

.. the term “spandrels” [is] a structure that merely follows from the existence of some other (evolved) structures, without itself being an adaptation. “Exaptation” refers to new roles played by evolutionarily old features that are adaptations in the strict sense of the term. Adaptations in this sense are features that are selected to perform their current function. [2]…Standard examples are the reptilian bones of the jaw that get adopted for the middle ear by mammals. Our ability to do mathematics is an exaption of various syntax-modules and modules that do trivial combinatories (“Are any of my babies missing?”). The ability to get embroiled in fictional worlds is an exaption of our ability to conduct thought-experiments as a part of forward planning. [3]

These “spandrels” and “exaptions” became co-opted by our brains to create religion. And, once that happened, religion, in turn, encouraged reciprocal altruism to evolve. In other words, we used religion—a by-product of our own cognitive evolutionary legacy—to bootstrap our way into becoming the unusually cooperative species we are today.

When one thinks of the many pages that have been written about religion uniting people into a moral community, it is not particularly surprising to learn that some anthropologists, biologists, and philosophers now claim that it is precisely religion that has helped reciprocal altruism to evolve. Ferren MacIntyre, for example, argues that religious affiliations have acted as a kind of “kinship surrogate” that helped our ancestors to develop cooperation among large groups of nonkin.

In the “standard model” of the cognitive science of religion, however, religion is instead a by-product based on “runaway” evolutionary processes extended beyond their initial domain. Evolution has built certain structures and mechanisms of mind that are adaptations to certain Pleistocene conditions; religion is made possible by these structures and mechanisms, although they did not originally develop for this purpose. [2]

Basically, according to this theory, the core characteristics of all religions boil down to two primary things:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain the ubiquitousness of belief in disembodied souls, or “spirits”, in whatever cultural form they happen to take. Even nineteenth-century rationalists made serious attempts to contact the dead (e.g. William James and Arthur Conan Doyle)

Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can…

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in [the] brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human…

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don’t feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

This duality is immediately apparent in our imaginative life. Because we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people’s bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs; in Shrek 2 an ogre is transformed into a human being, and a donkey into a steed; in Star Trek a scheming villain forcibly occupies Captain Kirk’s body so as to take command of the Enterprise; in The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice tells of a vampire and a human being who agree to trade bodies for a day; and in 13 Going on 30 a teenager wakes up as thirty-year-old Jennifer Garner. We don’t think of these events as real, of course, but they are fully understandable; it makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world. [4]

Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us intuitive animists and creationists.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren’t even necessary—one can get much the same effect in movies where the “characters” are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor. [4]

As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can’t help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven’t even a smidgeon of a neural system. In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they’re morally culpable for their actions.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?…[5]

As we became smarter and our brains larger, we dragged along this “cognitive baggage” of our evolutionary past. It remains with us to this day, and forms the basis of many of the idiosyncratic beliefs we associate with religious belief, and superstition more broadly.

But there’s still a bit more to it than that. With the help of that BBC article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the “cognitive modules” that helped religious belief evolve. My understanding is that while each of these modules is important in the construction of religious thought, none of them by themselves is sufficient to account for religion. Rather, it is the intersection of all of them that gives rise to the uniquely human phenomenon we call “religion” (although ancient societies would have not made any such distinction between religion and other aspects of their social and cultural lives).

[1] “Death and the Afterlife – Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions,” by Paul R Williamson, p. 13

[2] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, by Iikka Pyysiainen, p. 31

[3] Thomas Forster Tries to Understand Julian Jaynes, p. 5 (PDF)

[4] Is God an Accident? The Atlantic, December 2005

[5] Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain. Slate Magazine, February 2011

House Conundrum

Another personal update.

I thought I’d start out with this little fun fact, since I write so much about ancient and medieval history here. I spoke with my dad’s cousin this week. Her husband went on Ancestry.com doing some genealogical research, and she suggested he look up her last name (which we share).

According to her, he found a family tree ending with my great-grandfather and extending back to—and I don’t know if I’ll believe this until I actually see it—805 AD!!!

So, apparently my family, the H***e family can trace its ancestry back to around the time when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope Leo (800 AD), and 40 years before the Vikings sacked Paris (845 AD). We apparently come from a line of counts—minor mobility. That in itself is interesting, since the European title count comes from the Roman title comes, meaning companion or delegate of the Roman emperor. Maybe I can convince some Alt-right types to make me their rightful ruler.

I also found some papers from my great-grandfather, Otto, on my mother’s side (mother’s father’s father). Not as exotic as finding out your distant relatives were counts during the Dark Ages, but I did find out he was born in 1878 in Altendorf, Prussia (seven years after Germany became a country). My German isn’t good enough to make out much more than that.

Pretty sure this is my grandfather (1908-1968). Not the count side of the family, but he does look the part in this photo!

Kinda makes the fact that I’m the very last H***e alive a bit more poignant, I guess. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

###

My current situation consists mainly of trying to unload my mother’s house. This is the house my grandparents built in 1941.

Brand new – 1941

The house has serious foundation problems. VERY serious, as in there are significant cracks (up to half an inch wide) on all four walls of the basement, plus significant bowing of up to an inch. My guess is that the original builders were just not very good, and simply backfilled with earth, without taking any sort of water-protection measures. The grading slope away form the house is nonexistent, meaning that drainage is poor, plus there are no eaves or rakes to give some distance between runoff and the foundation, as you can see. There are gutters, but lots can go wrong with gutters.


(As as side note, eaves and rakes exist for a reason!)

The frost line in Wisconsin is 4′-0″ below grade, so based on the cracks, I’m guessing the freeze/thaw cycle in the first four feet of earth simply pushed against the foundation for seventy-odd years, and this is the inevitable result.

Water damage in the basement.

I don’t know whether this was typical for building at the time. My neighbors mentioned that they have no problems with their house, which I can tell from old photographs must have been built at the same time. Was their house built better, or had some previous owner done the work?

There is also water in the basement. Without some sort of destructive examination method, I cannot verify the source, but I believe it is coming in from above, and not through the wall itself. It looks as if where the stoop meets the house, there is a gap allowing water in from above. Again, fixable but expensive.

It’s deferred maintenance. My mother was far too poor to do the type of maintenance needed on a house like this, as was my grandmother.

So, basically, it’s kind of a wreck. Not a tear-down, fortunately, but hardly a sound investment.

(As a side note, owning a house in a Siberian climate like Wisconsin is just a losing proposition. I know what moisture and freeze/thaw cycles do. It’s a never-ending cycle of repair costs that will never pencil out).

(As another aside, a crumbling foundation is a good metaphor for the county more generally these days.)

So, just another bad break in a life chock full of them, I guess 🙁

Sometime in the 1960’s

Which means I have a couple options. I can either sell it ‘as is,’ or invest the money to repair the foundations myself and hope-against-hope that I can find a buyer, however long that takes.

Last week, I had some gentlemen come out to look at the house. It was three young (very young, I’m guessing in their 20’s) Hispanic gentlemen who buy houses, renovate them, and sell them. I think they’re pretty local—one of them said he even grew up in the neighborhood.

I liked these guys. They were not some national firm; they were local. They were entrepreneurial in the good sense—making money by improving neighborhoods and making them a better place. This neighborhood is quite the hot neighborhood right now with Midwestern Hipster/Lumbersexual breeder-types for raising families.

They made an offer of $65,000. They obviously emphasized the fact that they would have to excavate and repair the foundation walls, which isn’t cheap. They said it was a fair offer, and I believe them. I don’t think anyone else in their line of work would offer more. In fact, I had another home buyer walk through a few weeks earlier and he never called me back (the fact that there was a dead mouse in the basement toilet probably didn’t help).

Mom and grandpa. 1950 or therabouts

I got a spit-ball estimate of basement repair. It would cost $35,000 just to repair the basement, which I would have to pay upfront, of course. And that’s just for starters. I would also have to remove a fir tree from alongside the house–another $1,000. Then there are minor issues, like damaged walls and cabinets from my mom’s chronic smoking habit; the lack of GFI outlets near the sinks; the old, ugly carpeting; outdated appliances, and so on and so on…

If all those repairs/upgrades were made, one realtor estimated I could get from $120,000-140,000 for it. I’m a little skeptical of those numbers, but I estimate perhaps $100,000-110,000 is more realistic. According to Zillow, the median home in Town of Lake is $143,500, with similar houses (albeit in better condition) selling for $150-180,000. The city evaluated the house as $149,000, which is far above what it’s worth.


If I chose to repair the house, I’m stuck paying a huge amount of costs upfront, with the hope that I will be able to sell it later, and who knows how long that will take? Who knows what the Market will be like? Selling a house is a long, painful, arduous process for anyone. I’d have to engage a realtor, and even the realtor I spoke to charges 3.99 percent (lower than the usual 6 percent, but still…).

Pro tip: don’t plant trees near the house or the underground sewer lines.

To add yet another minor wrinkle, the next-door neighbor asked if I would consider renting the place out. It turns out that they are putting their house up for sale next month (August). Apparently they are building a house (!!) and would need a place to stay in the meantime.

I suppose if I rented it out, I’d make some money on it. But the basement would still be crumbling. All the other problems would still be there, festering. I’d still have to pay all the costs, like insurance and utilities, and do maintenance. Of course, I would receive rent money to help cover that, but it’s still a lot of hassle. And I’d be stuck here in the meantime.

This whole thing has been going on almost two years now. I never thought it would still not be resolved this far after the fact. Personally, I’m ready just to be done with the whole business and move on with my life.

But what life?

###

I’m leaning towards accepting the offer of the home buyers. I’ve asked them to submit an offer in writing to my attorney for review.

There is still a $10,000 mortgage on the house, because as I explained in my last “personal” post, my uncle insisted on getting his share. He probably made more on the house back in 1993 than I will here in 2019, despite doing absolutely nothing. So it goes, I guess.

Back when children played outdoors.

So I have to pay that off. The major claim against the estate is my mother’s home equity loan (HELOC), which I’ve been paying out-of-pocket for the last year. That’s about $11,0000. Then there are the attorney fees, of course, and I have no idea how much that will be.

The other issue is that the probate proceedings were supposed to be wrapped up in August. I’m told by the attorney that we can file an extension to deal with that issue. But does it really benefit me for this to drag out even further?

###

Reader bleg: any advice here? What would you do if you were in my position?

###

As for my employment situation, I kind of fell into a job a few months ago. I thought I was finished, but the agency that had placed me with the architecture firm got me a few interviews. I explained to them what happened at the previous firm, and even the hiring fellow said, “Oh yeah, they can be kind of cliquey.” Um, yeah, now you tell me!

(As an aside, in my initial interview at unnamed architectural firm, my interviewer said that “We’re like a family here,” or words to that effect. My instinct told me–and I’m dead serious– to refuse the job on the spot right then and there and walk out of the interview. In hindsight, I should have listened to my instinct.)

Anyway, I got an interview at an MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) firm in Oak Creek. I thought, I might as well go, because I didn’t think I would actually get the job. I mean, I’m an architect, not a mechanical engineer. As I said in the interview, we architects only thing about two things when it comes to mechanical: make it fit within my ceiling plenum, and make sure there are dampers at all fire penetrations. But they insisted that they actually wanted someone with an architectural background to work for them.

Well, I got the job. I think it really is true—the less you care, the better you do in interviews.

This video embedded below should give you some idea of the gist of my work. The gory details aren’t important.

I’ve been working there since then. The experience could not be more different. I constantly hear about what a good job I’m doing, how everyone says I’ve helped them out tremendously, how they hope I don’t leave, etc.

(Which brings up yet another aside: how much one’s fortunes are based on sheer luck. I mean, I’m the same person I was before. I didn’t just gain 20 IQ points overnight. I didn’t gain any new capabilities. It’s simply the environment, and not anything you do. It’s just luck, regardless of what anyone wrapped up in their bullshit self-attribution fantasies suggests.)

So, anyway, despite my best efforts, I do have a job again. Of course, since I never do anything (besides write this blog), go anywhere, or buy anything, I sock away every penny because, as I have learned, those may be the last pennies I may ever earn under American-style Neoliberal capitalism. And after that you’re on your own.

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I’ve been wondering whether or not I have PTSD. I mean, I’ve never been in combat. I’ve never seen people killed in front of me. I’ve never had to pull the trigger on anyone. I don’t want to make light of those things. There are many people who have been asked to do those things, and their suffering should not be trivialized. And certainly, many people have had much worse breaks than me (I?).

But I still have nightmares. I have panic attacks. Yes, I occasionally still have suicidal thoughts. I think a lot about the fact that I am all alone—utterly, totally alone. It’s hard to go through the quotidian traumas and vicissitudes of life that way. It’s hard to have no safety net in country that thinks Socialism is a dirty word. But it’s not like I’m the only one in that situation, after all.

I don’t trust anyone. I don’t believe anyone, anymore. I’m constantly waiting for the hammer to fall, or the other shoe to drop, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I wish I could say I feel secure, but I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will.

Is it possible for an economic system to give one PTSD?

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Anyway, at least I can pay the bills right now, and I guess that’s enough. But where do you go when you could go anywhere?

I admit to being delinquent with replying to all those who wrote to me last time. Since I’ve started working again, I’ve tended to devote my free time to writing new posts, and I have a bunch I’m currently working on. But, I assure you, I still have them all, and hope to get around to replying some day. Thanks!

Who would want to leave all this???

BONUS: Former homeless people, what did you need the most? What was the best thing someone did for you? (AskReddit)

Independence Day 2019

It’s a surreal experience to wake up on Independence Day to a country that is:

  1. Having a Soviet-style military parade, complete with tank procession, in the capital.
  2. Has concentration camps, complete with the aggressive and violent dehumanization of those interred, on the border.

That’s just before you get to all the other Soviet/Fascist-style facets of the modern-day Republic:

  1. Mass surveillance and incarceration of the citizenry (if prisons and jails were a state, they’d be larger than 15 different U.S. states).
  2. Multiple media organs that are outright, bald-faced agitprop (albeit co-existing alongside a nominally “free” press).
  3. Political brawling in the streets.
  4. Paramilitary groups threatening to kill police over a political conflict.
  5. “Cultural Marxism” as a mainstream political concept (taken seriously even by people who don’t typically consider themselves extremists).
  6. Nuremberg-style political rallies, complete with demonization of opponents and the non-allied press.
  7. The valorization of guard labor of all stripes (military, police, mercenaries, whatever) as unqualified “heroes” showered by unequivocal adulation.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember when those things didn’t exist in America. And I’m not that old!

The wholesale disintegration of the fabric of American society continues unabated. And every year I wonder the same thing: just how bad does it have to get? I saw a Twitter post that read “When you’re discussing what precisely constitutes a ‘concentration camp’, you’re already fucked.” Yep, well said.
It feels like creeping normality is inexorably sweeping us along to our ultimate destination: the inevitable sequel to World War Two that we have all been waiting for (something about humans tends to like sets of three). I’m afraid that this time, though, we (Americans) may actually turn out to be the baddies.

And no one can talk about it. If you do, “Godwin’s Law” is immediately invoked, along with a hefty dose of the customary “It Can’t Happen Here” mentality.

But the problem with the knee-jerk invocation Godwin’s so-called “Law”, though, is that it says that absolutely no comparisons can be made until the NASDAP literally reappears in our midst, complete with black-clad, jackbooted secret police, Totenkopf badges, extermination camps, and stiff-armed loyalty pledges.

Even in Germany that stuff didn’t happen overnight. Do things really have to get that bad??? The childish invocation of Godwin’s Law is as bad as the childish behavior the “law” is supposed to ridicule.

I mean, do we literally need to have extermination camps in our backyards before any valid historical comparisons can be made? From some people’s attitudes, it sure seems like it.

I’m afraid we may well see the end of Democracy in the United States in our lifetimes—in practice, though perhaps not in law. For example, in Wisconsin (I’m going for memory, so don’t quote me on this), but something like 54% percent of us vote for Democrats, yet Republicans maintain their majority in the state legislature. And thanks to gerrymandering, unless some almost impossible supermajority of the state votes for the opposition (something like 3/4 of the electorate), the Republicans will have essentially a permanent, iron-clad grip on Wisconsin’s state legislature, forever.

And the Supreme Court—which has been packed for years—just declared that such election-fixing is perfectly legal (or at least nothing can be done about it).

…when the Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it was a watershed moment in American history. For the first time, a president who lost the popular vote had a supreme court nominee confirmed by senators who received fewer votes – nearly 22 million fewer – than the senators that voted against him. And by now, it will not surprise you to discover that the senators who voted for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh represent 38 million fewer people than the ones who voted no.

With the supreme court in hand, all those other tactics – partisan gerrymandering, voter ID and the rest – are protected from the only institution that could really threaten them. But it doesn’t stop there. The supreme court can be used to do more than approve the minority rule laws that come before it. It can further the project on its own.

Rigging the vote: how the American right is on the way to permanent minority rule (The Guardian)

Then there’s the issue of disenfranchisement due to the majority of Americans living in urban areas, something America’s outdated and antiquated electoral system is not designed to accommodate (each Wyoming voter has 66 times the electoral power of a California voter in the Senate). As Brad DeLong pointed out:

  • 180.8 million people are represented by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.
  • 141.7 million people are represented by the 52 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.
  • 65.9 million people voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tim Kaine to be their president and vice president
  • 63.0 million people voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence to be their president and vice president.

https://www.bradford-delong.com/2018/10/remind-yourself-representation.html

Of course, roughly half of Americans (sometimes over half) don’t vote at all, forming the largest voting bloc in America (the resigned apathy party).

And that’s before all the other things: the “policing” of voting places by right-wing paramilitary thugs, the understaffing of urban polling places, etc. The voter ID law passed here in Wisconsin which was expressly designed (according to its proponents) to suppress voter turnout among minorities and college-educated young people (who move around a lot). North Dakota has a similar law (which disproportionately disenfranchises Native Americans).

And then there’s the electoral college. This article does a good job of explaining why it has no real reason to exist. Two of the last three presidents have lost the popular vote.

And there are proposals are on the table to restrict voting access even further. It’s a formula permanent minority rule. And that’s scary. When the people can’t express their popular will through the ballot box, what do you do?

And this is allegedly a “democracy?”

And we all feel so impotent and helpless because nothing ever changes. When was the last time a problem got solved in America???

Anyway, no sweeping conclusion; these are just rambling thoughts this Fourth of July holiday. I wish I had solutions, but the only hope I have for humanity right now comes from looking at what people are doing in places outside the borders of this benighted country.

Aztec Society, Historical Myths, and Understanding Collapse

Still working on that religion post and some others, but in the meantime, I’ve wanted to post this interview that I ran across on the BBC’s Civilizations podcast for years now. This particular episode concentrates on civilizational collapse, which is obviously of interest to me and, I suspect, to readers of the blog (if they exist LoL).

The first half of the podcast, however, is an interview with an expert on Mesoamerican civilization, Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, who dispels a lot of the common myths about that culture. Some of this information will be relevant soon, when we talk about the economics of New World empires (hopefully coming soon?). But for now, read and learn (lightly edited for clarity):

On the Aztec practice of human sacrifice:

“Human sacrifice is what everybody knows about the Aztecs. And they certainly do practice human sacrifice on an extraordinarily large scale. What we do know is that this is actually a very sophisticated, very compassionate, very cultured civilization where death is not held cheap…

Sacrifice for them is a religious act, and they believe that if they don’t sacrifice people, then the world will come to an end. It’s part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, where the gods nourish and nurture them, and they have to feed the gods with blood to keep the world turning, essentially. And they believe that if you die as a sacrifice, then you will go to a sort of privileged afterlife; it’s almost like a martyrdom. And so it’s a way of attaining privilege in the afterlife in a culture that doesn’t believe you get a very nice here-and-now, as it were.”

“And so they construct this very complex belief system in which sacrifice becomes something that is supposed to be a privilege. Something which to me is very vital in understanding Aztec culture is the fact that they have a universal education system. Both men and women are educated institutionally; where both learn at home from their families about day-to-day jobs like fishing and weaving and so on. And young men go into schools to learn to be priests and warriors. There is a third school which doesn’t get talked about—the cuicacalli—the ‘House of Song’. As teenagers, young men and young women go separately to this place to learn the history, mythology, and religion of their culture.”

“Now, you might call that indoctrination. But it’s really, really important for understanding why Aztec culture can commit human sacrifice without being dehumanized by it to know that every person witnessing it, or participating in it, understood why it was happening. This isn’t like Catholic Europe at the time where all the ceremonies are happening in Latin, and some people understand what’s going on, and other people have quite a vague grasp of the essentials. It is absolutely educated, informed knowledge of what the rituals are meant to represent. And it’s really vital to know that that is happening, because if everybody knows that all these people [who] are being sacrificed are supposedly going to a better place, and it’s essential [so] that the world [doesn’t come] to an end, it becomes possible to see how they might go along with it for reasons other than just kind of cheering at brutality.”

“They train priests in a way that suggests that they don’t think killing people will be very easy, so they go to lengths to separate them from their families; to train them in a very vigorous way much like you would if you were going into the army, maybe, to desensitize the people who were actually going to do the sacrifices. And they don’t have an awful lot of interpersonal violence in their culture. This isn’t a very savage culture as people suggest. Sacrificial violence is certainly normalized, but not day-to-day violence. That’s the thing. Just because people commit human sacrifice, that doesn’t mean they think it’s acceptable to stab their neighbors.”

On the Aztecs being a very ancient culture:

“People think they’re a very ancient culture sitting alongside people like the Egyptians or the Romans in people’s minds. But actually they’re contemporary with things like Henry VIII. They only are conquered in 1521–very, very recently. And actually, they have an extremely developed legal code. Lots and lots of strong rules. Perhaps even stronger, for some things, than in Europe at this time. They do have capital punishment. They have very developed systems of retributive justice, as well as restorative justice. So that means you punish people, but also you have compensation for things. So it’s actually a very complicated culture, and also a very, very recent one, and I think that’s something people forget.”

On whether the Aztec Empire was a brutal dictatorship:

“The Aztecs do have quite strong hierarchies, but they also have a reasonable amount of social mobility.”

“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the ruler an ‘emperor’ because there’s some debate about whether it’s even an empire at all. The real name of the ruler is the Tlatoani—a speaker, ‘he who speaks’, which tells you something about the culture. It’s important that he’s the representative for the society and for the gods. And he is at the head of  a society which has quite a lot of checks and balances. They think it’s really, really important that you be competent in your job. And they have this balance of birth and competence as a way of organizing everything.”

“So, for example, to become the Tlatoani, it’s not the first-born son that gets to do the job. You are elected. We don’t know exactly how—probably nominated from amongst the high nobles. But they pick the person they think will do the best job. So, often it’s a  brother or a younger son of the previous Tlatoani; it’s not always the eldest son—in fact it isn’t usually. You have to be related to the previous Tlatoani, but being the eldest son doesn’t help you at all.”

“And you see these sorts of patterns go all the way down through the society. So they have two levels of nobility: Teuctli, who we usually call ‘lords’; that’s the high nobility. And then the Pilli, who we usually call the ‘nobles’—that’s kind of the low nobility. And you can’t be born a Teuctli – a high lord. You can only be born Pilli. To become Teuctli, you have to attain that through your own achievements. It’s jobs like being the head of the priesthood, or the head of the warriors, or having  senior warrior role. Things like this make you a Teuctli, but you can’t be born that.”

“And people who are born commoners—mācēhualtin—they can become Pilli—nobles–through their achievements, often through being particularly clever, particularly successful in the schools and  in the administration, often through warfare—that’s the most common way—to be a really good warrior. And then occasionally you have stories, for example, of a Tlatoani, a ruler, making someone into a noble just because they’re impressed with them. There’s a famous case of a ruler making a gardener into a noble because he’s so impressed with his honesty. Things like that.”

On social advancement compared to contemporaneous Europe

“One of the things I find most interesting about Aztec culture is that we make assumptions about how savage and ancient it is. And actually in some ways it’s far, far more modern than contemporaneous European civilizations. They have greater social mobility. They have a sort of social care system. They have collective grain storehouses. When you get married, if you’re rich you give capes—that’s the equivalent of currency—you give capes into the collective storehouses, and if you’re poor, you take capes out—you’re given some. So there’s a collective redistribution of wealth to make sure that nobody is too poor to set up their own household.”

“I’m not saying that this is a kind of idealized civilization, but it’s actually a lot better in some ways, I think—for women in particular, maybe—than some contemporaneous European civilizations. You’re allowed to enjoy sex if you’re a woman in this culture. Sex outside of marriage isn’t taboo. You can’t beat your wife. Men and women inherit property equally. Things like this.”

On the role and status of women in such a warlike society

“The fact that warfare is the principal focus of this civilization in many contexts certainly means that there are areas of life from which women are excluded. So they can’t attain high political office, because the high political offices are synonymous with high warrior offices and high priest offices, and they can’t do either of those things. On the other hand, we know that women were also scribes; they were  painters; they were the people who kept the records, which is a hugely skilled job. They must have been very, very important.”

“Childbirth is so interesting because it’s seen as the equivalent of warfare for women. They talk about having children as ‘capturing’ a baby; that the woman had borne the ‘small shield’; that she has returned ‘victorious from battle’–all these kinds of words. And they are honored as parents of warriors.”

“Warfare and childbirth are seen as equivalent fates for men and women. You can see that if you look at what happens in the afterlife. After you die, as a sacrificial victim or in battle, the man would spend four years accompanying the sun; carrying the sun god to its zenith at midday. What they then do, is hand the sun at midday, it’s believed, over [into] the hands of the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth, and they carry the sun to its setting. So you can see this parallel being drawn very clearly between the souls of men who’ve died in sacrifice and in battle, and the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth. It brings equal honor in the afterlife.”

On comparisons to European (Christian) Monotheism

“One of the real problems we have as historians of the Aztec world is that all our sources, except the archaeology, are from after the conquest…so everything we’re reading is reliant on the viewpoint of colonial Spanish men, usually friars. And they don’t want to see a similarity between Aztec religion and Christianity.”

“But, of course, both of them are based around this idea of blood sacrifice. There is, at the heart of Christianity, a sacrifice of blood…if you were a thousand years in the future, and Christianity had died out, and people were just looking at the texts of Christianity, wouldn’t you think maybe they were actual cannibals? Because you talk all the time about eating the body and blood of Christ. How would you read them if you simply took them cold with no contextual information? And so there’s actually a fascinating parallel–this focus on blood as a mythical, a religious, a spiritual totem, is something which is at the heart of Christianity as well as at the heart of Aztec culture.”

“Of course, the Europeans use concepts of their own to try and make this culture comprehensible to them. And it’s not that they see no cultural similarities, or things to admire. They very much admire how devout [the Aztecs] are. A lot of missionaries early on say, ‘obviously they’ve been very misguided in their religion, but they’re such devout people. If only we could bring them to the knowledge of the true God, they would be the most Christian Christians in the world.’ They hate the human sacrifice, but they actually don’t have any trouble understanding that this is from a religious point of view. Don’t forget, this is a society in which violence for religion is very, very familiar. This is a society where—if you think of early modern Spain—where it is very normal that people are being burned alive for being heretics, or crushed between stones, or stoned to death. It’s not unusual…”

And then the interviewer talks to Dr. Guy Middleton, an archaeological “collapsologist” about the realities of civilizational collapse as opposed to the sensationalized Hollywood movies and documentaries:

Guy Middleton (guest): “You wouldn’t find in the archaeological literature that kind of very sudden, very dramatic picture being drawn. You’d find a lot more cautious, a lot more nuanced positions being put forward.”

Viv Jones (host): “There’s a common story about how the Maya civilization collapsed, which you may have come across in articles and documentaries. The story goes, that a period of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands. The Maya were powerless to prevent their own demise as food and water run out. Eventually the jungle reclaimed their palaces and pyramids. But…”

GM: “The megadrought story is very much a modern myth. Even if we accept that there were droughts—and undoubtedly there were; we know there were droughts there in historical times—the Maya area itself was very big and made up of very many—tens or hundreds of independent little states and big states. I think the idea that one massive megadrought killed off all the Maya and caused the collapse of their societies is wrong.”

VJ: “We do know that in the ninth century, many cities in the region were abandoned. What’s unclear is what happened to the people who were living there.”

GM: That’s the million-dollar question. Talking about one Maya collapse is a bit misleading. What we call the collapse of the classic Maya is really a process that takes 200-300 years to play out. And it plays out differently in different regions. So, sites in the north collapse around 1000 or 1050 AD; sites in the south are collapsing in the late 700’s AD. So you’ve got different trajectories, in different cities, in different areas. I think you get a decline in birthrate that happens over this 200-300 year period. So there’s not a certain depopulation. Some sites are abandoned–that’s absolutely right. But you get new cities coming up. It’s different across the whole Maya region.

VJ: So the Maya civilization didn’t suffer one collapse. It’s likely that different kingdoms met very different ends. Along with droughts, there was also a lot of warfare between different Maya kingdoms, and that caused populations to fall, and some cities to be abandoned. This period of sharp decline ended 900 years ago. Very few Maya settlements remained, but some were still thriving when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

GM: “What really did for it, for traditional Maya society, was the Spanish. It’s something like a barbarian invasion. What I find particularly interesting is that you’ve got the very last independent Maya kingdom,–which was a kingdom called Nojpetén–that was only destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. And that’s really close to us in time. And it’s about 900 years after people place the Maya collapse. So they don’t disappear en masse, and they still have a complex culture which the Spanish encountered.”

“But when the Spanish come in, they behave particularly appallingly. For example, they take the children of the nobility to build schools for them and to basically brainwash them into a Catholic culture, and to reject their own culture. So there was a very deliberate process of cultural destruction performed by the Spanish on the Maya.”

VJ: So how did we end up with this popular idea in books, documentaries, and articles of a massive, apocalyptic Maya collapse brought on by drought?

GM: I think we’ve kind of got an inbuilt draw to these dramatic, sweeping stories. And I think you can go back to Biblical images, which are still very much a part of our society. We’ve got these images of disasters–God destroying cities. And then we’ve got the rise of Hollywood, and disaster films, and it’s quite exciting and dramatic and appealing, in that sense, to what we like from a story…

And Dr. Guy Middleton’s conclusion:

Like people say, you get the history you deserve at a particular point in time. You also get the collapse stories that you deserve at a particular point in time. People have looked at the modern situation and the environmental problems that we face now. We know that we have done terrible things to the environment. We can look at plastic pollution now, but also agricultural industry, and monocultural agriculture, and climate change. And we can look back and say we’ve got bits of evidence that suggest the same things might have been happening. And it’s dubious, in a sense, because the situations of ancient societies are so much different, and we’ve been much, much more destructive than any ancient society.

So I think, in a way, to blame collapse on things like climate change—the evidence doesn’t usually support climate change as a single cause of any collapse. If we do it, we’re kind of stealing people’s histories, and some environmental writers and other people try to use examples of ancient collapse—especially the Maya, and especially the Easter Islanders—as kind of moral tales on how we ought to treat our environment. And the fate of those societies is a fate that we can predict for ourselves if we continue in our immoral, environmentally destructive behavior. But I think that’s not doing history, that’s stealing people’s history–stealing people’s stories for our modern-day Western consumption.

And that’s one of the reasons collapse is so interesting. Because you go back and look at what a society was, and look closely at how it changed and who it changed for in different ways. Our upcoming global collapse will be different in scale, and perhaps number of deaths…

Episode 6: How Civilisations Collapse and Understanding the Aztecs (The Civlizations Podcast, BBC Radio)

History Repeating?

Working on a new post about religion. But in the meantime, reader Gregg Winston asks:

It was reported this week that the City of Chennai, India, home to approximately 4 million people, is almost out of fresh water. It was also reported that the Himalayan glaciers are now melting faster than replacement rate of winter snow. It is now projected that by 2030 (10.5 years from now) 40% of the Indian population (now at 1.38 billion) will be without access to fresh water. This means potentially 600 million refugees on the scene looking for someplace else to live. Surely no government or human social system can stand under such immense stress. Would be curious about your thoughts in future posts.

That mainly gives me the excuse to post the video from the BBC below, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.

But in answer to his question – what can you say about that? To me, this is the greatest vulnerability civilization now faces. He’s right, there is no way 600 million people will be able to migrate. Nor is it likely that some sort of technological solution could be pressed into service in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if the political will and technological capabilities existed (which they don’t).

Just that alone is enough to end civilization as we know it, at least in greater Eurasia. But it will, of course, still be slow-moving enough to stymie any sort of constructive efforts to address the situation. How this will affects North America is questionable. But Russia and China will certainly be in the thick of it.

As you see below, the irony is that the very first large-scale civilization in India was also done in by a changing climate. The Harappan civilization, which thrived on the alluvial plains for millennia and constructed some of the most impressive drainage works of the ancient world, was eventually forced to abandon their cities due to changes in the monsoon. No longer could they practice irrigation agriculture with the change in precipitation. So they moved northward, to the foothills of the Himalayas which were fed by rainfall, and reconstituted their civilization there.

But once they settled in agricultural villages, they did not need such sophisticated engineering and left fewer remains behind. It appears that their civilization experienced a reduction in complexity as well, even losing writing. It’s likely that rain-fed farming did not need the cooperative management and political centralization that irrigation agriculture did. As Wittfogel put it, “the scattered operation of rainfall farming did not involve the establishment of national patterns of cooperation as did hydraulic agriculture.” Gone were the blocks and blocks of identical houses, which had apparently existed peacefully for millennia prior. These folks were likely the ancestors of the Indians who were subjugated by the pastoral Indo-Aryan who invaded from the northern plains later on. That new mixture formed the core of what we know as the Hindu culture.

It was a very similar situation to the Tigris/Euphrates river valley, where a complex Sumerian civilization in the lowlands which depended on inundation (flood) agriculture coexisted and intermingled with northern rain-fed highland villages which spoke the Semitic language of Akkadian, and were probably descendants of the original Natufian farmers. Eventually, the highland inhabitants invaded and subjugated their neighbors on the southern alluvium, and incorporated aspects of their civilization, such as writing and religious ideas.

“Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler… they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable. Everything was arranged. The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture – block after block after block – implies a totalitarian attitude… 2,500 years before Christ… came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like. And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing. The style of building never changed. The language did not change. The first carved amulets are the same as the last.” The Aztec Treasure House, (p. 144)

What that can tell us about a subcontinent of a billion people today, however, is probably quite limited.

The Evolutionary Roots of Alcohol Feasting

Since the previous post was about the role that alcoholic beverages played in domestication, and hence the formation of large-scale societies, I thought I’d share this post that I ran across last week. It goes back to the evolutionary origins of our craving for alcohol.

If it’s correct, it would mean that the seeds for later large-scale social groups were sewn very early in human evolution, even back before we diverged form chimps. Millions of years ago, ancient tree-dwelling primates sought out fermented fruits in the canopy. Millions of years later, this craving would lead to the formation of the first civilizations.

According to the [“drunken monkey” hypothesis, formulated by biologist Robert Dudley in 2000], our pre-human ancestors regularly ingested small amounts of alcohol because the substance is produced when ripe fruit or nectar is decomposed by wild yeast. Through natural fermentation, yeast feeds on plant sugars and produces waste products of CO2 and ethanol — the chemical name for alcohol.

Although this spoils fruit, it presents an opportunity for animals that can digest alcohol. Creatures able to eat fermenting sugars would have an additional source of nutrients. Not only would they consume semi-rotten fruits, passed over by other animals, but alcohol itself has nutritional value: There are nearly twice as many calories in ethanol compared to carbohydrates of the same weight. (While this causes unwanted beer bellies today, extra calories are beneficial in the wild.)

Also, fermentation produces strong odors. An animal attracted to the yeasty scent would be able to follow its nose to edible fruit, and potentially find that food source before creatures without the taste for alcohol. And lastly, as many of us have experienced, alcohol stimulates appetite. Individuals munching on fermented fruit may eat more, obtaining bonus calories and nutrients.

In these ways, developing a taste for alcohol — the low levels found in nature — could have given our ancestors an advantage. In a forest full of animals competing for energy-rich foods, “drunk monkeys” would have access to an untapped resource.

It wasn’t until millions of years later, after Homo sapiens created beverages with unnaturally high ethanol concentrations (i.e. beer, wine, liquor), that alcohol consumption became a social and public health issue. According to Dudley, alcohol abuse and addiction are an “evolutionary hangover” of a deep-routed taste for fermented sugars, adaptive long ago.

‘Drunken Monkey’ Hypothesis: Was Booze an Advantage For Our Ancestors? (Discovery)

Food sharing—the basis for feasting—has been observed in bonobos (but not in chimps):

In the wild, sharing of food by chimps typically happens after a rare hunt, and the “sharing” of meat often involves the passive tolerance of theft or simply giving in to relentless begging and harassment by others.

In contrast, the bonobos voluntarily handed over nuts that were solidly in their possession.

“What we are seeing in bonobos is very unusual,” says Krupenye. “We do see food sharing in other species, but in the vast majority of cases it is that one individual tolerates another taking something from them.”

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that bonobos are uniquely pro-social when it comes to food…

What’s Mine Is Yours, Sort Of: Bonobos And The Tricky Evolutionary Roots Of Sharing (NPR). And, related, scientists have discovered the oldest known evidence of humans cooking carbohydrates in Africa:

More than 100,000 years ago, humans lived in the caves that dot South Africa’s coastline. With the sea on their doorstep and the Cape’s rich diversity of plant life at their backs, these anatomically modern Homo sapiens flourished. Over several millennia, they collected shells that they used as beads, created toolkits to manufacture red pigment, and sculpted tools from bones.

Now some of these caves, along the country’s southern coast, have shed light on humanity’s earliest-known culinary experiments with carbohydrates, a staple in many modern diets. Small pieces of charred tubers found at the Klasies River site in South Africa date back 120,000 years, making them the earliest-known evidence of H. sapiens cooking carbs, according to recent research published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The study joins a suite of new findings that illuminate the evolution of our ancestors’ diet. For example, in recent years, scientists have determined that hominins have been eating meat for at least 2.6 million years —with some researchers contending that hominins were butchering bones for marrow as much as 3.4 million years ago. And hominins were roasting nuts, tubers, and seeds about 780,000 years ago. Humans specifically, as another South African find revealed, ate shellfish some 164,000 years ago. And last year, ancient crumbs revealed that H. sapiens has been eating bread for 14,400 years.

Ancient Campfire Remains Hold Oldest-Known Remains of Humans Cooking Starches (Discover)

Drunk (and High) on Civilization

The Feasting Theory has gotten a new boost.

In brief, the argument is this: in complex foraging societies with significant food and material surpluses, social prestige was acquired through a consistent practice of one-upmanship by putting on ever-larger feasts, and that such competitive feasts were the impetus for the more intensive cultivation of desirable plants and animals, which eventually led to full domestication.

Feasts were thrown for a variety of reasons, but one end result was the emergence of elites and endogamous (closed) social classes. As this article states:

The practice of feasting—the consumption of large communal meals within a socially constructed setting—has attracted widespread attention as a result of its role in affecting social and ideological change…feasts have been shown to play essential roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships. Feasts are heavily imbued with meaning and are often associated with ritual behavior and socially important events such as burials.

Early evidence for feasting at a burial cave in Israel (PNAS)

The article cited above goes on to document evidence for feasting preceding the Neolithic (farming) Revolution in the Near East:

…community members coalesced at Hilazon [Tachtit cave, a Late Epipaleolithic (12,000 calibrated years B.P.) burial site in Israel] to engage in special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead and … feasts were central elements in these important events … clear evidence for feasting on wild cattle and tortoises … includes unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle remains in two structures, the unique location of the feasting activity in a burial cave, and the manufacture of two structures for burial and related feasting activities.

Feasts likely served important roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of … stress [from increased group size]. These and other social changes in the Natufian period mark significant changes in human social complexity that continued into the Neolithic period. Together, social and economic change signal the very beginning of the agricultural transition.

Intensive cultivation of cereal crops for feasts appears to have long preceded domestication. So, early cultivation was not “forced” upon us to feed a growing population, but rather seems to have been largely voluntary, at least in the beginning.

Long before [the Neolithic] there are signs of human habitation in the [Fertile Crescent] by Acheulian, Neanderthal and Natufian people, indicated by the presence of many grinding slabs, hand stones, mortars and sickle blades…. analysis of the micro-wear on flint sickle blades [indicated that]…cereals were being cultivated by about 12,000 BP, but were probably harvested before they were ripe and may not have been domesticated, i.e…cultivation preceded domestication. The great variety of plant remains at Abu Hureyra in Syria, dated to 11,500-10,100 BP, has provided no evidence of cereal domestication, despite the all-year round occupance of the site. In this instance, at least, a sedentary life style preceded plant domestication.

Crop Evolution, Adaptation and Yield (Google Books)

Work Feasts were also the main means of recruiting large-scale labor in pre-market economies. As Michael Dietler states, “[A] work feast is… a particular form of the “empowering feast” mode of commensal politics in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor. That is, the work feast is an event in which a group of people are called together to work on a specific project for a day (or more) and, in return, are treated to food and drink, after which the host owns the proceeds of the day’s labor.” (Feasts, p. 241)

Note that this turns previous history books on their head:

– Previous histories argued that cereal domestication is what allowed sedentism. Wrong. Sedentism either preceded, or was encouraged by, cultivation in complex foraging societies long before domestication.

– Previous histories had us all living in small, isolated tribal communities with little to no contact with outsiders. Wrong. Complex, long-distance relationships were sustained by feasting and trade even before the Neolithic Revolution, especially among elites. Some of these stone-age cultures appear to have united villages over very large geographical areas even before the much later urban revolution in Southern Mesopotamia.

– Previous histories had elites first emerging with the large, complex civilizations of the Near East and the Levant. Wrong. It appears that specialized elites long preceded these first civilizations, although they may have been more akin to “big men”, paramount chiefs and shamans rather than “divine kings.” Such positions may not have been hereditary at first, but later became associated with certain preferred lineages over time.

– Previous histories claimed the first monumental architecture were the temples and ziggurats of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these coincided roughly with both domestication and urbanization. Wrong. Temples and other ceremonial complexes long predating domestication have been uncovered in Anatolia (Turkey) such as Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü Tepesi, and Nevali Çori. Furthermore, large stone monoliths, cromlechs, dolmens, cairns, and tumuli are found all over the world thousands of years before the first alluvial civilizations. These range from Egypt (Nabta Playa) to Malta (Ġgantija), to Britain (Stonehenge) and even East Asia in Korea (Gochang & Hwasun) and Indonesia (Gunung Padang). Many of these sites have been definitively shown to be associated with large-scale feasting events over very large areas.

In particular, the foodstuffs which would have been most cultivated were those with psychotropic properties—i.e. those designed to “party”—meaning things like grains suitable for brewing alcohol, and various other psychotropic drugs. In other words, drug use and civilization are intrinsically linked. Addictive substances may have been what first lured us away from “the original affluent society” of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands living within earth’s limits, and bound us with the yoke of domestication, hard,  labor, disease, malnutrition, and oppressive, hierarchical social dominance structures which continue to the present day. Brian Hayden et. al. write:

Partly through the agency of psychoactive substances, feasts in traditional societies are, and presumably were, used as arenas for inculcating ideologies, creating cohesion and social differentiation within a social group, and introducing new foods and technologies. Feasts require the production and storage ahead of time of large quantities of food and drink, and successful organizers can and do obtain political power and reproductive success. The social competition model proposes that a *wealth* rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. (emphasis in original)

Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition (Journal of Ethnobiology PDF)

Indeed, history has shown that human societies are fundamentally conservative in their outlook, and are only willing to tolerate novel social arrangements and endure disruptive social change in conditions of relative abundance, and not under conditions of scarcity and want (as the last few centuries have demonstrated).

Such feasting would have also inculcated a future-oriented mentality among elites quite different from that of simple (immediate-return) foragers. Those more able to engage in such future-oriented behaviors probably gained significant advantages in status, power, and reproductive fitness. Over thousands of years, this would have added up to significant social change. But it may have all started with beer:

Beer has plenty to recommend it over bread. First, and most obviously, it is pleasant to drink. “Beer had all the same nutrients as bread, and it had one additional advantage,” argues Solomon H. Katz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Namely, it gave early humans the same pleasant buzz it gives us.

Patrick E. McGovern, the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further.

Beer, he says, was more nutritious than bread. It contains “more B vitamins and [more of the] essential amino acid lysine,” McGovern writes in his book, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. It was also safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms. “With a four to five percent alcohol content, beer is a potent mind-altering and medicinal substance,” McGovern says, adding that ancient brewers acted as medicine men.

Beer also played an important societal role in bonding early communities together. It was popular at religious ceremonies, communal events, and celebrations. Brian Hayden, an archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes that communal feasting fostered social bonding—and lots of beer was consumed during those feasts.

Moreover, beer was thought to be a necessary component in the afterlife—throughout the Middle East, the dead were buried with jugs of frothy refreshments. It was even used as currency—in Egypt, the pyramid workers were paid in beer.

How did man originally discover beer? McGovern and Katz theorize that man first learned to make some sort of gruel from barley. Then, natural yeast, likely supplied by insects, would have fermented the gruel, leading to a primitive form of a beer. Beer was actually easier to make than bread. Once early humans sipped these ancient suds—whether barley, corn, or rice-based—they began cultivating grain, becoming sedentary creatures. “All of these grains could have jump-started civilization as we know it because you really have to stick around the whole year to take care of your plants,” McGovern says…

“The question is really a no-brainer,” McGovern writes. “If you had to choose today, which would it be: bread or beer?”

Beer Domesticated Man (Nautilus)

While large-scale irrigation works have long been implicated in the emergence of the first complex societies, the role of grain alcohol and other psychotropic substances has often been overlooked. But new evidence from China reinforces the notion that beer brewing played a crucial role in the formation of that ancient civilization as well. Specifically, they found that people there came up with two different ways to brew beer!

Was it the lure of beer that encouraged prehistoric humans to begin farming? Archaeological evidence from China suggests it might have been as the region’s first farmers had worked out how to turn millet and other cereals into alcoholic drinks in two distinct ways, hinting at how important alcohol was at the time.

Li Liu at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed the residues left on 8000- to 7000-year-old pottery sherds unearthed at two early farming sites in north China. At both sites, some of the residues contained cereal starch granules with signs of physical damage similar to that caused by fermentation.

At the site of Lingkou, tiny mineral particles from plants – phytoliths – in the residues suggest the brewers simply let the grains sprout, which frees up the sugars. But at the site of Guantaoyuan, 300 kilometres to the west, the mix of phytoliths and fungi suggests an alternative approach. Here, the archaeologists say the brewers triggered the breakdown of starches by using a ‘fermentation starter’ known as qū, which is made from grains that have been allowed to mould. Qū is still used today to produce cereal wines and spirits.

However, [Patrick] McGovern would like to see stronger evidence that the brewers at Guantaoyuan really were using qū. In 2004, he and his colleagues described even earlier evidence of fermented drinks in the region, at a 9000-year-old site in central China. The brewers there used honey and fruit as well as rice. It’s an important distinction, says McGovern. Not only are honey and fruit rich in fermentable sugars, they also naturally carry the yeasts that perform fermentation – which cereals do not. If they used honey and fruit as well as cereals, early brewers at Guantaoyuan would not have needed to use qū to get fermentation started.

But there is agreement that the new study emphasises the important of alcoholic drinks in early farming cultures. Liu suspects the spread of domesticated rice might have been encouraged in part because of its use in such drinks. “Alcohol would be used in feasting which helps some individuals to gain high social status and to form alliances,” she says.

McGovern thinks alcoholic drinks might even have helped encourage humans to adopt farming. The large quantities of grain produced by farming could be stored and turned into beer or bread all year round. Beer might have been seen as the more desirable product. Bread doesn’t have the mind-altering effect of alcohol, which I think is so important for social and religious reasons,” he says.

Early farmers liked alcohol so much they invented two ways to brew it (New Scientist)

And that’ not the only psychotropic drug that appears to have been cultivated in China. Recently, archaeologists have discovered the earliest use of cannabis, which they suspect was also used in religious ceremonies (no doubt administered by HIGH priests!):

Archaeologists…found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.

The burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis…

Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.

The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Of note, the burials are more in line with the ancient mortuary practices from ancient Central Asia, including the modern-day countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, than they are from China, the researchers said.

The study is the latest to look at cannabis’s origins and historic uses. In May, another group of researchers posited that the cannabis plant likely originated high on the Tibetan Plateau, according to an analysis of fossil pollen. The new finding “provides yet another piece in the biomolecular archaeological puzzle of the ‘abiding mystery of Central Asia’ and its impact on human cultural and biological development through the millennia,” Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science. “Much more remains to be learned.”

People Smoked Pot to Get High at Least 2,500 Years Ago (Live Science)

Chinese tombs yield earliest evidence of cannabis use (BBC)

The widespread use of psychoactive substances didn’t end with the Neolithic, but only intensified, and is intertwined with the very history of complex civilizations. For example, the importation of coffee and tea had a major impact on European history. Rather than beer, coffee and tea could provide a source of clean, filtered water, but with stimulative instead of depressant effects. “Until coffee consolidated its hold in the 18th century, beer soup was the breakfast liquid of choice.” (New York Times) Coffee houses became centers of the new, merchant-oriented economy that reshaped Europe in the Early Modern Period. Insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London were born in coffeehouses. The French Revolution was fomented in coffeehouses by overcaffinated intellectuals, and Americans dumped tea into Boston harbor. Later, Britain would get an entire country hooked on drugs to redress their trade balance, and the United States would use drug laws to imprison millions of its own citizens.

How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History (NPR)

As Hayden et. al. conclude, surveying the long record of psychoactive drugs in human history:

The use of [Psychoactive Substances] precedes agriculture and was widespread in forager societies. Many PAS were exploited for medicinal purposes or were mild stimulants, including tobacco in America and Australia, and khat and betel in Africa and Asia (all these plants were eventually cultivated by some groups). Much forager PAS use focused on hallucinogens for ritual purposes, such as to induce shamanic trances and communicate with the spirit world. Most hallucinogens are debilitating in high doses, and their powerful effects deter widespread consumption, restricting use largely to infrequent rituals by a few specialists. With domestication, however, the focus shifted from perception-altering to mood-altering, euphoric, or stimulating PAS. Domestication enabled the production of large and reliable quantities of such PAS. In the primary Neolithic sites, West and East Asian farmers produced alcohol, while American farmers produced alcohol, coca, tobacco, and cacao. European and Asian farmers added opium and cannabis to the Levantine crop complex; in Southern India farmers produced grains for alcohol; in Africa, coffee and kola were major trade items…

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance.

Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars. Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them…

BONUS: It appears that Celtic people in what is today eastern France were importing food, drink and pottery for feasting from the Mediterranean: Early Celts in Burgundy appropriated Mediterranean products and feasting practices (Science Daily). Incidentally, McGovern was an advisor to Dogfish Head Brewing Company for their beer Midas Touch, which is allegedly “made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas.”

The Market Is Not Natural

Coverage of Bernie Sanders’s GWU speech:

America’s existing political economy is much easier to defend if one posits that the gross inequities it produces are ordained by an invisible hand. If some natural economic process dictates that wage growth must be tepid while corporations sit on cash, or that urban workers must be rent burdened while landlords live high off their labor, or that major financial institutions must be insulated from risk while underwater homeowners are left to drown, then one can plausibly argue that government action to alter such outcomes would be hubristic and self-defeating.

Who is man to challenge the wisdom of the market gods?

By contrast, if the electorate were to recognize that these outcomes are largely determined by public policy, then apologists for the existing order would have a much harder time rationalizing acquiescence.

Bernie’s Right: U.S. Already Has Socialism For The Rich (NY Intelligencer)

I bring this up because I’ve been reading “The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique” by Fred Block and Margaret Somers. This passage resonates with the one above:

…Polanyi’s belief in expanding democracy to include the economy is expressed in his idiosyncratic definition of socialism: “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.”

Implicit in this definition is a critique of the Marxist stipulation that the coercive power of the state would “wither away” once the socialist revolution ended class exploitation. Polanyi sees this claim as a parallel utopian fantasy to that of the self-regulating [libertarian] market. Indeed, he explicitly follows [Max] Weber in recognizing that political authority and power would inevitably continue into any future social order, especially as a countervailing source of power to that of the economy.

Two fundamental points follow. First, socialists could not ignore the difficulties entailed in imposing democratic accountability on governmental power. Second, Marxists were guilty of imagining that a shift in property relations would—by itself—usher in a new and better society. According to Polanyi, Marx mistakenly had accepted the claims of classical economists, especially [David] Ricardo, that property relations can and will determine the entire shape of the social order.

Polanyi’s view here is based on his unique insight that market society was imposed in the nineteenth century through political means. What we think of as “modern capitalist society” was, for Polanyi, not the result of underlying inevitable economic mechanisms, but rather the consequence of a series of political choices and explicit government policies. The pretense now stripped away of the economy as a “force of nature,” it follows logically that these arrangements can be undone and reversed through the same mechanism–the use of political power.

While Polanyi is usually not explicit on this point, his argument is consistent with those who have argued that private property represents a bundle of different rights that owners had at one particular moment in time. It follows that political and legal changes introduced over time can change that bundle of rights until many of the most important structural inequalities in labor markets, capital markets, and product markets are effectively eliminated. (pp. 26-27)

Private property is a creation of legal systems—and hence of human beings—and not some natural force that we are powerless to affect. Why is this so hard to understand? At one point, land was not private property (but collectively owned with usufructary rights). At one point, other human beings were property, along with horses and oxen. There is no “universal law” of what is and is not property, and what rights ownership entails. As Chris Dillow writes, “The limited company was we know it was created by two acts of parliament in 1844 and 1855. (The notion that free market capitalism is somehow natural and emerged without state intervention is a fiction.)” As the article cited above points out:

…[L]egal markets are themselves a kind of “big government” program. Absent a sovereign entity capable of enforcing contracts by commanding a monopoly on violence, mass commerce between strangers is nigh-impossible. Less abstractly, the introduction of private property across the North American continent required massive state violence and investment. Meanwhile, some human agency must decide roughly how much sovereign currency should be in circulation at any given time, and this decision will inevitably have large, economy-wide implications on how markets function and whose interests they best serve. Tight money will privilege those rich in cash by increasing the value of their holdings — and thus, the interest rates they can charge for lending them. Loose money can privilege borrowers by triggering inflation that reduces the cost of their debts…

Americans already live in a country where unelected bureaucrats pick economic winners and losers, where public policy exerts a massive influence over the distribution of income, where some indolent Americans live off the hard labor of others, and where the state directs investment toward official, conscious ends. If these are the defining features of socialism, then the United States lost the Cold War before it began, and the real debate between left and right in the U.S. isn’t over whether “big government” should intervene in markets, or even how much it should, but rather who should have a say over how it intervenes — and whose interests such “socialism” should serve.

These points may seem banal. Sophisticated conservative thinkers are well aware that money doesn’t grow on trees and markets do not make themselves. But efforts to naturalize the economy’s basic ground rules — by obscuring the state’s inescapable role in setting them — remain pervasive in America’s political discourse.

Now, here’s Sanders himself:

“…President Harry Truman was right when he said that: ‘Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.’

“Now let’s be clear: while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires…