The Origins of Human Society

The Origins of Human Society is part of the Blackwell History of the World. It covers human prehistory from the first emergence of the genus Homo to the first emergence of history. Thus, the end of its discussion varies depending on the part of the world concerned; in the Middle East it ends around 3000BC, in Japan around 600AD, and in North America around 1600AD. Obviously, with such a broad canvas, it cannot cover anything in great depth. Rather, the author concentrates on fitting local phenomena into a broader picture of the development of human society.

I enjoyed it and found it interesting. The parts the overlapped with things I already knew seemed reliable, so I’m inclined to trust the other bits. However, there wasn’t a large overlap, so I could be misled. Blackwell are a generally reliable publisher, though.

Actually, this is a very difficult type of book to write about. It’s a general introduction to a broad field, so its main focus is on providing information. It’s outside my specialist field, so I can’t really criticise the information. So I don’t have a great deal to say.

One thing did strike me, however. The author said that he was working on the assumption that society was shaped by self-interested households. This may be true, but only if “self-interested” covers sacrificing yourself and your family for an abstract ideal. That argument can be made, but it tends to rob “self interest” of any usefulness as an analytical tool. You can redefine “self interest” as “interest in improving one’s own economic standing, either absolutely or relative to the surrounding society”, and that will be useful in explaining a lot of things. It won’t, however, explain the existence of European cathedrals, nor, I suspect, can it explain Stonehenge.

A problem for the prehistorian is that the belief systems that lead to things like cathedrals vary widely between societies, and they don’t get preserved in the archaeological record. Thus, it’s very hard to have evidence for such claims about prehistoric societies. On the other hand, I suspect that it’s even more obviously true that they did exist, in some form, and thus explanations that lead them out can be known, pretty much in advance, to be wrong. Indeed, even in this book the author often talks about religious behaviour, but tends to see it only as a tool used by elites to solidify their power. This is indeed something religion has been used for, but historically it is not the only thing. Making that assumption about prehistory would seem to be unwarranted.

Or, to put it another way, a lot of modern Americans believe in their religion. It seems likely that a lot of prehistoric Americans did, too. Any theories of prehistory that don’t take that into account seem likely to miss things of great importance.