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Thursday, 13 August 2009

The First Dictator

Turkish vacation - Archaeology and Architecture

A hunter, lets call him Mask, is sitting round his campfire, chewing the fat (literally) with his great buddy, Skarra. Skarra seems a bit on edge, a little bit unfocused, distracted maybe.

"What's up, Skarra? You seem a bit on edge. Distracted maybe. Trouble at t'mill?"

"Nah" says Skarra "Everything's ok there, know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Besides which, mills havent been invented yet. Although.............."

"Although, what? " says Mask. He's actually more interested in rubbing red ochre across his gleaming, well-developed muscles than understanding Skarra's woes, but tomorrow they're supposed to be hunting an elephant. Mask cant wait, but it's dangerous, exciting, fun, and essential and it usually gets him sex when he brings home the bacon. Except bacon hasnt been invented yet, but you get the idea. He needs Skarra, his partner to be on his game, no distractions, so he has to get to the bottom of this mood.

Skarra sighs and takes another hit of his mildly intoxicating mushroom drink. He's been drinking steadily for the afternoon. Eventually he answers:

"Well, you know how we work about three hours a day,hunting, and its brillinat fun, and we can go where we want, whenever we want, and we are superfit, and meat tastes great, and we are revered by our tribe and are almost never hungry? Oh yeah, and there's all these festivals all the time and lots of mind altering substances and sex?"

"Yeah.." says Mask, "It's great isnt it?"

"Well" says Skarra " I want to pack all that in. You know that handful of grass that keeps growing near our toilet? Well, I want to chop down all those hardwoods over there and clear the ground, making it level, then get a small wooden stick, chop all the soil up, poo in space I've created and plant the grass. Then I want to pick through all the grass, eat the little seeds and replant only the bigger ones. When the big ones get really big, I'm going to pound them all up and make bread. Then I'm going to eat it."

Mask looked puzzled, but Skarra continued "THat's not all. I'm going to capture a baby Bos Progenitus and grow it and then drink it's milk."

"You mean an Auroch? One of those ton and a half precursors of cows that are among the most dangerous things we hunt? For a start, baby Auroch's drink milk - so where's that going to come from?"

"Oh, yeah" said Skarra "I'll capture its mother as well. build a big wooden enclosure and breed them until they're tame enough to be mild mannered."

It was now MAsk's turn to look distracted, but he just asked "And why are you doing this?"

Skarra looked sulky. "I dunno. Its just an impulse.I think its for the best. For my know...something inside me is telling me to be selfish"

Mask frowned "How long will all this take?"

Skarra brightened " Oh, only about five thousand years. Of course the first three thousand will be pretty hard - we'll get disease, famine and we'll have to work fiftenn hours a day tending the fields, and our longevity will decrease but it will be worth it in the end. Eventually, we'll be able to eat popcorn."

THis scenario, evolutionary biologists would have us believe, is how the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture began. It is also as we physicists say, "Not even wrong". I say 'we physicists' because as a polyglot, and joint third best academic in England, I have recently written a new book, based on Physics' mysteries. The book 'Gravity: What's up with that?' is another myth busting best seller, and presents for the first time a Unified Field Theory and Statement of General Relativity that I read about on Wikipedia. But this post isnt about Physics, so onwards I will drive to the point.

Evolutionary biologists argue that human societies are mainly the result of evolutionary drives. In many ways, this is a re-treading of the interpretatins of Darwinism that gave us "The White Man's Burden" - the notion that 'our' civilization was a pinnacle - the point towards which all human socities aspired. The fact that other societies were not 'us' , automatically labelled them as 'primitive', therefore further down the evolutionary ladder, therefore it was our duty to lead them. Modern interpretations of this are more Deterministic - for example Jared Diamond argues, in 'Guns, Germs and Steel' that the reason the West has 'won' is availability of resources. Implicit in his argument though, is still the notion that IF the people of Borneo had had access to the resources 'we' have, then they too would have built an Empire, had an Industrial Revolution and invented minor celebrities.

Anthropologists have long been sceptical of explanantions that emphasize solely evolutionary forces, for two reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer size of the task that was/still is involved in starting a farm. It is an almost impossible venture, and one who's rewards, even in terms of evolutionary fitness, take generations to appear. It is stretching an evolutionary point quite a bit to ask a gene, the supposed driver of the processes, to 'predict' fitness seven or eight generations down the line. The second reason is the questions of culture - art, religion, painting, bingo, texting : evolutionary biologists describe most of these things as by-products of evolving a large brain - anthropologists dont deny this, but say these 'by-products' have become massively important.

What, then, is the alternate hypothesis? For me, the understanding of the counterhypothesis (although I had already read these hypotheses) came while sitting in an amphitheatre in Tlos, Turkey, when I realised just how big the task of developing the Lycia, Roman, Greek and Byzantine settlements that littered the place had been, and it was a task that had been accomplished again and again. Gazing across the amphitheatre it was apparent that the drives behind creating this type of place were several steps removed from being ascribable just to evolutionary drives, and seeing the place, as opposed to reading about it, I understood just how important the cultures of these people must have been (to someone) in order to undertake these massive tasks.

And the distinction between these cultures being important to the 'people' and to 'someone' is I think, important. Building big stuff might not have necessarily been something that everyone in a society was involved in. Somewhere that illustrates this is Gobekli Tepe, also in Turkey. Gobekli Tepe is (probably) and 11,000 year old Neolithic temple. Catalhoyuk, also in Turkey, is also a Neolithic settlement. WHat is distinctive about both these places is that they pre-date agriculture. THis is important because the development of human society that fits neatly with evolutionary biology is that great monumnets were only built AFTER a successful agrarian society had developed sufficient leisure time to allow skills specialization. Monumental structures from pre-agrarian societies which did not even have their own settled villages paint a different picture.

AT Gobekli Tepe, no food, grain, pollen or material remaons have been found, yet the structure is massive, with beautiful ornate carvings. There are no evolutionary reasons why the place was built - it wasnt shelter, defence and it wasnt lived in. It was, it seems, a symbolic place. And if this is true, then the drive behind building it must have included a large dose of Culture, whatever that culture was.

WHich is where the First Dictator comes in. It is hard for me to imagine moves to settlement, monumnets and agriculture, as being accomplished where Culture was not a significan driving force. In fact, and this is where I usually end uparguing with my scientist friends, I think that human culture overtook and overpowered evolution many thousands of years ago, in development of our society. I actually think that apart from on an individualistic level, evolution is practically irrelevant when considering societal development. In fact, I believe that in many cases, the individuals' evolutionary drives were overruled by cultural drives. And by cultural drives, I dont think that a people's culture was necessarily a nicely democratically agreed, homogeneous set of agreements between a group of people about what was important any more than that would be an accurate description of culture today. Culture can be, and often is, imposed.

WHich is why I think that at some point, about 13000 years ago, The First Dictator was born. If I succed in switching University courses from the current one to 'History and ARchaeology', finding that person will be my principal aim. Even if I have to go to Turkey to do it.

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