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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Aug 1, 2022

What if everything you learned about anthropology turned out to be wrong? Well, OK, maybe not everything, but some very important things. Today Razib talks to Manvir Singh about primitive communism and misconceptions about hunter-gatherers, what anthropology got wrong in the past and how it has continued to confuse us into the present. Singh is a scholar at The Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse, as well as an artist and essayist. His academic interests lie in explaining why most human societies, from preliterate foragers to urbanites, develop cultural phenomena like “witchcraft, origin myths, property rights, sharing norms, lullabies, dance music, and gods.”

This episode of Unsupervised Learning hinges on two essays by Singh, Primitive communism: Marx’s idea that societies were naturally egalitarian and communal before farming is widely influential and quite wrong and Beyond the !Kung: A grand research project created our origin myth that early human societies were all egalitarian, mobile and small-scale. Razib and Singh discuss the primitive communism of the Ache people of South America, how rare it is and its horrific consequences like obligate murder of orphans. Though the Ache do practice radical communism in the distribution of resources, they also follow the Biblical maxim “that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” And it turns out that they’re not a template, but one end of the extreme among contemporary “small-scale societies.” 

The “initial-study-population” problem crops up again elsewhere in the misleading representations of prehistoric societies that come out of studying the rare marginalized foragers of the modern world, pushed as they often are into desolate lands, eking out an existence on the Malthusian margin. Singh argues that for too long anthropologists and the public have back-projected into the past based on unrepresentative modern people like the !Kung, when the past was actually filled with a diversity of human lifestyles. One takeaway is that we can’t expect to reconstruct prehistory by cobbling together unrepresentative fragments of the present.