In my last post, I spoke a bit about Gell-Man Amnesia and how it can lead to differential weighting on the accuracy of reporting from the exact same source (despite the fact that such differential weighting is illogical), but I wanted to spend a bit more time delving into why we need to question our sources (and why in fact the more steeped in a discipline we are the MORE we need to be open to questioning given the way brains work).
I decided to create a book list of newer pieces that are questioning key elements of establishment narrative. The first on that list is the Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wegrow, which does no less than question our traditional narrative of the evolution of human society. So let’s recap the basics: the story I was taught in high school (specifically in AP World History) was that agriculture allowed for surplus of food, which led to cities and the formation of centralized governing bodies (whether monarchies or bureaucracies of some sort) because otherwise there would be no redistribution of food to enable specialization of labor, the development of educated classes, technology, and ultimately our technological revolution.
What the authors claim is that this Enlightenment era narrative is actually not correct in light of the latest archeological evidence (agriculture existed in many forms before city-states and specialization of labor existing before agriculture), and that centralized power is not inevitable or predestined for effective redistribution models. Thanks to increased investigations in South America and Africa leveraging technology like drones many new discoveries are calling these early conclusions into question. Their argument is that the formation of a State was not an inevitable progression of agriculture; in fact agriculture and centralized power are not the denouement of human civilization (necessary for economic prosperity), but for the vast majority of our history human societies tried MANY different organizing principles. They walk through a huge body of knowledge showing that society vacillated between egalitarianism (communal councils and equal rights for all citizens), and some form of centralized power, and that the power centralization was as often due to the consolidation of physical strength–barbarians/warrior classes who could overwhelm their neighbors, or through food surplus that could benefit through management for distribution purposes).
Interestingly in the examples they share sometimes power centralization happened due to food production/surplus, but often that happened in small regions: it was hard for those communities to move given their ties to their crops, and they couldn’t really spread their influence outside of a limited geographic region. If their communities were too awful/repressive, people would just leave, or they would revolt and join an external community with no skill in farming, but strong warriors who could overrule the current era. What this pattern teaches is not that state is inevitable, and that we must subjugate ourselves to our leadership for technological and economic advancement, but rather that societies self-corrected on these premises throughout the course of human evolution except for these past 3-4 centuries…why is that? What has changed? That is what the book questions. (It is really a phenomenal read, and I highly recommend it if you love history, anthropology, and archeology.)
Second on the book list of “question what you know” was Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts. There are a huge number of pieces written about Churchill (including his own biographies), and while I know he is a difficult character for many, this piece is so well-researched it clarifies many of the discrepancies and decisions that were made (where he is honest, and strove to aid individuals, and where he was influenced by his biases) backed by extensive source material, including King George VI’s diaries and many more. I fundamentally do not believe that we can ignore history and its implications because we don’t agree with the decisions people made. We have to study what mistakes were made and why so we can endeavor to not repeat them. That he was a light in the dark for many through arguably one of the most difficult periods of human history is true, and his intelligence, work ethic, and inspirational leadership are traits worth study even with the racism, colonialism, and chauvinism that is also apparent and difficult to understand given the era in which I was raised. People are nuanced, as is our history. We cannot afford to erase the ugly–inevitably we will then miss the beauty and the learning.
I’ll keep sharing good books that I find help me question my assumptions like these–if you have recommendations, please do share.