Origin of Social Inequality: Wandering God (Part 2)

Social inequality plays a central role in the shift from “what might be called ‘horizontal’ egalitarian relations to ‘vertical’ hierarchical ones” as Morris Berman writes in his book Wandering God.

We see in the last post that the birth of existential awareness a few thousand years ago leads to a painful alienation. The Self becomes split from the World. Sapiens grapple with this split through paradox, the sacred authority complex, and dullardism.

Paradox accepts and lives with the Self/World split, leading to a type of mature ambiguity. We mostly find it in hunter-gatherer (HG) societies who tend to have horizontal-egalitarian relations.

The Sacred Authority Complex transcends (or tries to) the Self/World split, leading to a focus on certainty. We mostly find it in agricultural civilizations who tend to have vertical- hierarchical relations.

Dullardism isn’t so important to our narrative, so we’ll put it aside for now.

In this post we’ll look at social inequality.

Social Inequality: What, When, and How

According to trusty online google searches, social inequality is “the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society.”

Well, clearly, in most parts of the modern world, we have that.

Was it always here? If not, when did it arise? How did it arise?

Berman cites the work of the social anthropologist Alain Testart who “locates the rise of social inequality in the phenomenon of storage among certain groups of HGs.”

As Testart writes in this paper these “storing hunter-gatherer societies exhibit three characteristics- sedentarism, a high population density, and the development of socioeconomic inequalities.”

Importance of Storage in Rise of Social Inequality

All of which provides us with a clue as to when.

Berman writes:

“At the very least, it is by now abundantly clear that social inequality antedated the deliberate cultivation of the first sheaf of wheat.”

If storage itself arises before the Agricultural Revolution, then social inequality does as well. Although its origins might lie there, its rapid expansion and domination coincides with the growth of agricultural civilizations.

The Other Factors

Although the phenomenon of storage is essential for the rise of social inequality, it’s by no means the only factor. Berman outlines a few others, including:

1. Population pressures

2. The influence of “aggressive subgroups”

3. Alteration in child-rearing practices

4. Breakdown of ‘levelling mechanisms’

5. Deliberate human intention

So we know what it is (“unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses”).

We know when it was (in HG societies before “the deliberate cultivation of the first sheaf of wheat”).

We know how it arose (phenomenon of storage plus the 5 factors above).

If social inequality arose prior to the Agricultural Revolution, why didn’t it dominate in those societies nearly as much as it has in agricultural societies?

The spread of social inequality is kept in check

The Right Timing

Although it isn’t rosy utopia’s back in the HG day, it also isn’t the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence that Thommy Hobbes was writing about.

Berman avoids the ‘noble-savage’ romanticism by reminding us that “the potential for stratification is present within egalitarian societies, just waiting for the right context to spring in.”

That context, for the most part, is not the hunter-gatherer context.

Intense stratification is certainly possible, like a gene waiting for activation, but that possibility is kept in check. One way of doing this is by relying upon the freedom of movement to resolve conflicts.

“The point is that in HG societies such as these, people are not coerced (i.e., do not coerce themselves) into ‘community’; the system is much more laissez-faire. When a conflict arises, people simply pull up stakes and move on.”

When The Stresses Pile Up

However, in times of stress (like major climactic changes), the freedom to get up, move, and form new communities was curtailed. During these stressful times, a new dynamic arose as “aggressive subgroups” of people began to dominate for brief periods.

As the stresses withered away so did the aggressive subgroups. This cycle, most likely, repeats over-and-over. At some point though, the new dynamic begins taking hold for longer and longer periods of time.

The dormant gene activates for the long term and social stratification begins molding the religion and politics that will come. As Berman writes:

“The potential for verticality of both a political and a religious sort may possibly be inherent in human makeup, but apparently it gets (or got) triggered in HG societies for the most part only under certain stressful conditions. When that happens, a certain aggressive subgroup comes forward to take power, and this pushes the rest of the group into a prisoner’s dilemma situation: get on the bandwagon or get left behind.”

History, in large part, chose the bandwagon.

The next post will focus on the political and religious aspects of the bandwagon most of us are traveling in.

Existential Awareness and How We Deal With It: A Wandering God Review (Part 1)

Existential awareness — that mundane experience we all take for granted — had dramatic historical effects. Morris Berman explores some of these effects in his book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality.

Who are nomads? What is their spirituality and consciousness like?  How does it differ from more sedentary cultures?  What role did it play (and what role might it continue to play) in the evolution of human consciousness? 

Berman hints at an answer for the role of nomadic spirituality when he writes of his personal motivations:

“Years of body work and meditation led me to believe that paradigm zeal is rooted in a denial of our somatic experience. Emotions, often painful, live in the body; paradigm-shift addiction (like substance addiction) enables us to escape these emotions and live in our heads. Carl Jung and the transpersonalist’s (…) call for a renewed spirituality only went so far, in my view; clearly, we needed a renewed corporeality if we were not going to repress the body and fall into the trap of a new mythology, make a fetish out of our supposedly new spirituality.”

A lot of painful emotions that live in our body can be traced back to the dawn of existential awareness. It’s here that we’ll start off.

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David Hume on How Thoughts are Made and Mixed

David Hume thought a lot about how thoughts are made and mixed. His thoughts concerning such inquiries was summed up in the 1748 classic “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.”

As far as titles go (refer to the title), it’s entitled to a bit of praise for it so accurately describes what follows. The “what” that follows is the subject of Human Understanding.

What is “understanding”? How do humans understand? Continue reading

Human History in Three Revolutions

Cognitive Revolution

 

The pace of biological evolution makes paint drying on a wall seem like NASCAR, so not a lot of noteworthy stuff occurs  until we arrive at anatomically modern humans in East Africa 200,000 years ago.

Although slowness still reigns, it picks up a bit 70,000 years ago when the Cognitive Revolution begins. This is one of three major revolutions that Yuval Noah Harari details in his comprehensive book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.  (…) From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.”

Long before Christianity or the French Revolution came, the development of language itself and the radical expansion in our ability to think and communicate came. All of subsequent history is indebted to the gifts imparted by the Cognitive Revolution.  Continue reading

On Bruce Chatwin Meeting Werner Herzog

Bruce Chatwin

In the introduction of Bruce Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here, he warns us with a simple passage:

“The word ‘story’ is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.”

This doesn’t mean that the essays and stories collected in the anthology are all lies, but rather that, perhaps, they’re aiming for what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth.

In an interview with Speigel Online, Herzog says “Facts per se are not so interesting for me. Facts do not illuminate; they create norms. The Manhattan phone directory has 4 million entries which are factually correct, but as a book it doesn’t really illuminate you.”

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Why Architecture Makes Us Better

Why do we build things?

For much of human history we didn’t. Maybe we didn’t have the capacity; maybe we didn’t see the need.  Somewhere along the way – most likely a few thousand years after the Agricultural Revolution with the rise of Civilization –people started to surround themselves with architecture.

Archaeologists and historians can get an idea of what the interior life of those who lived long ago might have been based upon the buildings left behind. Nowadays most people around the globe are surrounded by architecture and, likewise, these surroundings can tell us a lot about ourselves.

Alain de Botton expands upon this in his book The Architecture of Happiness. It centers around an insight and an implication:

  1. Insight: Buildings are psychological molds.
  2. Implication: We can mold ourselves into better humans through architecture.

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Overview of Esoterica

Delving into esoteric literature can be an overwhelming experience that prematurely sets off bullshit detectors which short-circuit one’s awareness of their own cognitive biases.

Curious enthusiasts (like yours truly) stumbling through this paradoxical maze of arcane terms, odd blabbering’s, and fantastical explanations need some sort of guide.

Johnathon Black’s The Secret History of the World is just such a guide.

This comprehensive narrative weaves together disparate strands of esoteric philosophy into something that lay folk can grok.

Black detours down the alleyways of esoterica, walking through the streets of Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Swedenborg, Egypt and more, to let the reader admire their unique form and structure before merging back onto the main road they all use.  Continue reading

An Inspired Reason For Schooling

“Public education does not serve a public” Neil Postman writes in his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School , “It creates one.”

And the one it creates, at least in the United States, is one bound by  “false gods.” These tiny deities often go unnoticed but that doesn’t mean their effects are unnoticeable.

As the subtitle suggests, purpose is what Postman’s book is all about.

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To WIT: Cultural Transformation

In keeping with the recent theme of long-term thinking and deep-time narratives, the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson (W.I.T.) sketches out a compelling mind-jazz mosaic in his article Natural Drift and the Evolution of Culture.

It provides a model for the Evolution of Consciousness over the past few million years. This is a notoriously tricky endeavor because, as Thompson writes:

“It is one thing to talk of the evolution of the small Ice Age horse shown on the walls of Lascaux to the modern long-legged race horse, but quite another to talk of the evolution of Renaissance perspectival painting into the abstract landscapes of Kandinksy and Pollack.”

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An Internet Primer

internetworldblog

Lay-folk like yours truly often need quick-and-comprehensive guides to help navigate the strange maze of modernity. John Naughton’s book What You Really Need To Know About The Internet is an indispensable primer for the aforementioned demographic.

It helps the helpless halfwits (like yours truly) in getting a handle on what the Internet medium is, its place in the larger Media Ecosystem, and its relationship with larger forces (historical, cultural etc.) Continue reading