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Tuesday
May152012

Religion and Hierarchy at Göbekli Tepe

Last week, we wrote about how what has become the conventional wisdom on the Neolithic Revolution, partly based on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, may be underestimating the importance of institutional innovations underpinning transition to agriculture (see our previous two posts on geography and the Neolithic Revolution).

We discussed how the evidence from Göbekli Tepe is particularly telling.

A National Geographic article on Göbekli Tepe by Charles C. Mann, the author of the excellent 1491 and its even more engaging sequel, 1493, is definitely worth reading in this context.

Mann tells the story of German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, whose research on Göbekli Tepe challenged the established wisdom at the time and pinpointed the role of religion and religious hierarchy before the transition to agriculture. But it also tells the story of how the conventional wisdom on the Neolithic Revolution, which goes back to the Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe, has been changing.

Mann writes of the Neolithic Revolution:

The new research suggests that the “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

He also explains based on Schmidt’s work why Göbekli Tepe symbolizes the sort of religion and religious hierarchy that emerged before the transition to agriculture. He quotes from Schmidt:

“These people were foragers,” Schmidt says, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. “Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow their resources. They can’t maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can’t carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then there is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that.”

Mann continues:

Discovering that hunter-gatherer had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife.

He also explains why Göbekli Tepe reverses the conventional wisdom:

The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization…. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm — a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants — and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

He sums it up again quoting from Schmidt:

“Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”

We would add that it’s probably a product of the human mind in a very specific sense: a product of human institutions.

Friday
May112012

How Marx Got it Wrong

In our last two blog posts (here and here) we discussed Jared Diamond’s thesis about world inequality and the Neolithic Revolution. In emphasizing the primacy of technology and its defining impact on institutions, Diamond is in fact following a great line of thinkers.

Perhaps the most famous version of the argument that technology shapes institutions is advanced by Karl Marx, who stated:

The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

Alas, Marx was largely wrong about feudalism. 

 

As the French historian of the feudal world Marc Bloch pointed out in his book Land and Work in Medieval Europe, milling by hand went back a long way. Nobody quite knows exactly when the handmill started being used, but it was certainly many centuries before feudalism. (We know that the first dated watermill was in 18 BC at Cabrira in an old palace of Kind Mithridates of Pontus, in modern Turkey).


Bloch writes on the handmill (page 143):


It was in fact the first machine whose use seemed capable of ameliorating the lives of countless numbers of human beings. The astonishing thing is that, having it at their disposal, they were so slow at bringing it into general use. 


The handmill did not cause feudalism, quite the contrary. Bloch noted (pages 152-153):


From the 10th century onwards, however, a profound change took place in the economic and legal framework of rural life. Using their power of command – which was called the `ban’ — and fortified by the right to deal out justice … the lords … succeeded in setting up certain monopolies very much to their own advantage, monopolies concerning the use of the baking oven, the wine press, the breeding boar or bull, the sale of wine and beer … monopolies in the supply of horses for treading of corn … and lastly … a monopoly over the mill… From this point onwards the lord’s mill was the only one where tenants of land on which it was erected were allowed to grind their corn.


With lords in charge of the watermills, they then systematically suppressed and broke up handmills.


So contrary to Marx’s claim, it wasn’t technology driving the political organization of society, but the political organization and institutions of society determining what technology could be used.


Sounds familiar?

In the last two blog posts [hyperlink to the previous two posts] we discussed Jared Diamond’s thesis about world inequality and the Neolithic Revolution. In emphasizing the primacy of technology and its defining impact on institutions, Diamond is in fact following a great line of thinkers.

Perhaps the most famous version of the argument that technology shapes institutions is advanced by Karl Marx, who stated:

 

The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

 

Alas, Marx was largely wrong about feudalism. 

As the French historian of the feudal world, Marc Bloch pointed out in his book Land and Work in Medieval Europe [hyperlink to Amazon], milling by hand went back a long way. Nobody quite knows exactly when the handmill started being used, but it was certainly many centuries before feudalism. (We know that the first dated watermill was in 18BC at Cabrira in an old palace of King Mithridates of Pontus, in modern Turkey).

Bloch writes on the handmill (page 143):

It was in fact the first machine whose use seemed capable of ameliorating the lives of countless numbers of human beings. The astonishing thing is that, having it at their disposal, they were so slow at bringing it into general use. For … although the invention of the watermill took place in ancient times, its real expansion did not come about until the Middle Ages.

Bloch attributes this to different things, one being the use of slaves. Nevertheless, hand horse driven mills were common throughout the centuries before feudalism.

In fact, the handmill did not cause feudalism, quite the contrary. Bloch noted (pages 152-153)

From the 10th century onwards, however, a profound change took place in the economic and legal framework of rural life. Using their power of command – which was called the `ban’ — and fortified by the right to deal out justice … the lords … succeeded in setting up certain monopolies very much to their own advantage, monopolies concerning the use of the baking oven, the wine press, the breeding boar or bull, the sale of wine and beer … monopolies in the supply of horses for treading of corn … and lastly … a monopoly over the mill… From this point onwards the lord’s mill was the only one where tenants of land on which it was erected were allowed to grind their corn.

With lords in charge of the watermills, they then systematically suppressed and broke up handmills.

So contrary to Marx’s claim, it wasn’t technology driving the political organization of society, but the political organization and institutions of society determining what technology could be used.

Sounds familiar?

Wednesday
May092012

What Really Happened During the Neolithic Revolution?

In our last blog post, we examined the explanatory power of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. A viable position is that while the argument in his book cannot explain modern inequality amongst nations, it can explain where the Neolithic Revolution took place and thus, at least in part, account for inter-continental inequality before 1500.

But we also saw that the distribution of domesticable plants and animals doesn’t show a distinct pattern singling out southeastern Turkey and the banks of River Jordan as the places where the Neolithic Revolution should have taken place.

This should not be surprising. Economic success is all about innovation and technology. But technology itself depends on institutions — and on institutional innovations.

The Neolithic Revolution was not only a set of technological innovations associated with farming and herding. It was also an institutional revolution — people became sedentary and social and political life changed.

Diamond’s argument, which has essentially become the conventional wisdom on this topic, is that the introduction of farming was a direct result of the greater benefits from farming in terms of greater domesticable crop and animal species, and this major technological change then caused institutional change.

Though popular, this argument is at odds with the archaeological evidence, which instead shows extensive social and institutional change prior to the transition to farming in the Middle East.

Consider the hill of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Soon after 9600 BCE people came and carved massive T-shaped pillars out of limestone, an example of which is shown in the next picture.

Many pillars were 8 feet high and weighed 7 tons and had been brought from as far as 100 meters away. They were sunk into circular structures cut into the hill, and many of the pillars were carved with wild animals, snakes, wild cattle, gazelles, wild boars.

Here is the important thing: There is no evidence of domesticated plants or animals in the area from this period. The site shows a level of social organization previously unknown before the Neolithic Revolution.

Another important site is Çatalhöyük also in Turkey, shown below.

Archaeological evidence suggests that this was a sedentary town of perhaps 500 people dependent on hunting and gathering. The town appears to have had a very rich religious and symbolic life. People were buried under houses, which embedded the skulls of bulls in their walls, and included clay figurines and wall paintings.

But this is the sort of stuff that is supposed to happen after the Neolithic Revolution, not before.

The archaeologist Bruce Smith in his book The Emergence of Agriculture describes the transition which took place in the Middle East in the following way (page 79):

their inhabitants had clearly shifted to permanent year-round settlements as early as 12,500 years ago and invested considerable labor in constructing houses and storage facilities.

When people established sedentary settlements, their concepts of who owned resources likely became more restrictive as they strengthened their claim on the surrounding countryside, which they viewed more and more as being for their exclusive use. By 12,5000 BP, then, hunting and gathering societies began to adopt a way of life that set the logistic, economic, and organizational groundwork for the emergence of village farming communities…many of the basic elements of social organization essential to village life were already in place before the first experiments with cultivation…

In other words, the existing evidence, in contrast to what is presumed in Diamond’s argument and the conventional wisdom, is that institutional innovation did not follow transition to agriculture, but preceded it. In fact, it was this institutional innovation which allowed the technological changes at the heart of the Neolithic Revolution.

So most likely, the Neolithic Revolution is also not about geography but all about institutions.

James A. Robinson (Harva

Monday
May072012

What Does Geography Explain?

The view that geographic factors such as climate, natural resources, disease burden or soil quality directly explain why some countries are poor still has many proponents. But these diehard geographic determinists notwithstanding, most people recognize that such geographic factors cannot explain world inequality today.

That being said, the dominant explanation about world inequality at the start of the early modern period (around 1500) is all about geography. This explanation, developed and popularized in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, links inter-continental inequality circa 1500 to the historical distribution of domesticable animal and crop species. Where there were a lot of these the Neolithic Revolution — the transition from hunting and gathering to herding and farming — happened earlier and was more productive. In these places population density took off, and this spurred both technological progress and the emergence of complex societies.

A fascinating argument.  But it is not an explanation for modern world inequality.

Diamond argues that the Spanish were able to dominate the civilizations of the Americas because of their longer history of farming and consequent superior technology. But then once the Incas, for example, were exposed to all the technologies they had not been able to create themselves, such as modern writing, guns and the heavy plow, and imported European animals and crops, their income levels ought to have started to converge to those of the Spanish. Yet nothing of the sort happened. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a much larger gap in incomes between Spain and Peru emerged. Today the average Spaniard is more than six times richer than the average Peruvian.

Of course, this gap in incomes is closely connected to the uneven dissemination of modern industrial technologies. But this has little to do either with the potential for animal and plant domestication or with intrinsic agricultural productivity differences between Spain and Peru.

While Spain, albeit with a lag, adopted the technologies of steam power, railroads, electricity, mechanization, and factory production, Peru did not, or at best did so very slowly and imperfectly. Diamond’s thesis does not tell us why these crucial technologies are not diffusing and equalizing incomes across the world.

Moreover, whatever the drawbacks of the Inca Empire in the early 16th century, it was undoubtedly more prosperous and had developed a more complex society than anywhere in North America. North America became more prosperous subsequently because it enthusiastically adopted the technologies and advances of the Industrial Revolution while Peru, like the rest of South America, did not. This cannot be explained by pointing to differential geographic endowments of North and South America. In fact, according to the logic of Diamond’s theory, which links prosperity and the presence of complex societies to geographic factors, one would have to presume that geography favored South America — but as we’ll argue in the next blog post, there are good reasons to think that even early prosperity is not about geography, so one shouldn’t even presume this.

Could the uneven dissemination and adoption of technologies underpinning modern world inequality be related to the factors emphasized by Diamond? For example, Diamond suggests that the east–west orientation of Eurasia enabled crops, animals, and innovations to spread from the Fertile Crescent into Western Europe, while the north–south orientation of the Americas accounts for why writing systems, which were created in Mexico, did not spread to the Andes or North America.

Another fascinating argument. But again not much of an explanation for modern world inequality.

Consider Africa. Though the Sahara Desert did present a significant barrier to the movement of goods and ideas from the north to sub-Saharan Africa, this was not insurmountable. The Portuguese, and then other Europeans, sailed around the coast and eliminated differences in knowledge at a time when gaps in incomes were very small compared with what they are today. Since then, Africa has not caught up with Europe. On the contrary, there is now a much larger income gap between most African and European countries.

Another major problem for Diamond’s argument is that it has little to say about inequality within continents, which is an essential part of modern world inequality. For example,  the orientation of the Eurasian landmass might explain how England managed to benefit from the innovations of the Middle East without having to reinvent them. But it doesn’t explain why the Industrial Revolution happened in England rather than in Eastern Europe or in the Ottoman Empire.

More critically, as Diamond himself also recognizes, China and India benefited greatly from very rich suites of animals and plants, and from the orientation of Eurasia. But most of the poor people of the world today are in those two countries.

In fact the best way to see the scope of Diamond’s thesis is in terms of his own explanatory variables — the distribution of domesticable plants and animals.

The next map shows the distribution of sus scrofa, the ancestor of the modern pig, and the Auroch, ancestor to the modern cow. Both species were widely distributed throughout Eurasia and even North Africa.

The second map below shows the distribution of some of the wild ancestors of modern domesticated crops, such as Oryza sativa, the ancestor of Asian cultivated rice, and the ancestors of modern wheat and barley. It shows that the wild ancestor of rice was distributed widely across south and southeast Asia, while the ancestors of barley and wheat were distributed along a long arc from the Levant, reaching through Iran and into Afghanistan and the cluster of “stans” (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Krgyzistan).

 

Though all of these ancestral species are present in Eurasia, their wide distribution suggests that inequality within Eurasia cannot be explained by a theory based on the incidence of these species. In fact, this wide distribution also suggests that any theory that explains the transition to agriculture purely on the basis of geographic factors — as Diamond’s theory as well as the conventional wisdom on this topic do — is at best incomplete.

We’ll see in the next blog post that there are good reasons to think that this conventional wisdom may be more than incomplete. In fact, it may have the cart before the horse.

Tuesday
May012012

Who Are the Extractive Elites?

Key to our argument in Why Nations Fail is the idea that elites, when sufficiently political powerful, will often support economic institutions and policies inimical to sustained economic growth. Sometimes they will block new technologies; sometimes they will create a non-level playing field preventing the rest of society from realizing their economic potential; sometimes they will simply violate others’ rights destroying investment and innovation incentives.

An interesting article in The Economist’s Buttonwood column asks: Who are these rapacious elites in today’s Western economies?

Buttonwood suggests that two plausible candidates are too-big-to-fail huge-risk-taking bankers and public sector employees with their cushy jobs, which they protect using their power as voters and sometimes through public-sector unions.

Banks, which have huge political clout, as the world witnessed not only in the midst of the 2008-2009 crisis but again in the European debt restructuring debacle of the last two years, are a great candidate indeed. Buttonwood questions whether they have really been an impediment to prosperity. The answer is probably yes: excessive risk-taking by the banks created lots of economic distortions and is in part responsible for the crisis. The inflated salaries in the banking industry may have also damaged the economy by attracting a lot of the talent that should have gone into more innovative activities (as suggested by the evidence in this paper and this paper).

But what about public-sector employees? What about unions? Don’t they, as Buttonwood suggests, also exercise their power to block new technologies and create similar distortions?

On the face of it, this is a plausible hypothesis. In democratic societies organized groups can wield power, and it is only natural that they will exploit this power to their benefit — and to the great detrimental of others. Muncur Olson, in fact, suggested in The Rise and Decline of Nations such groups as the most important threat to the economic longevity of Western democracies.  In his magisterial Levers of Riches, Joel Mokyr uses the Luddites destroying textile machines as the exemplar of the resistance against the creative destruction wrought by new technologies. More recently, the print unions on Fleet Street had blocked the introduction of the superior offset litho printing process until their defeat by Rupert Murdoch’s News International in 1987. And of course unions do create a non-level playing field, advantaging their members at the expense of those left out.

So perhaps unions in general and public-sector unions in particular are the new extractive elites resisting technological change.

But here is the problem with this perspective. In most cases, unions and workers, even if they appear politically powerful, don’t seem to be able to stop the introduction of new technologies. Luddites feature in history books not as successful blockers, but to illustrate the futility of standing on the path of new technologies. Print unions did delay the introduction of superior printing technology but were ultimately cast aside.

And there is a good reason for this. The power of the Luddites in 19th-century Britain was limited — certainly compared to the near-absolute power of the Russian and Austria-Hungarian elites who strenuously resisted the introduction of factories and railways. Unions can mobilize their members to strike and can act as a powerful interest group, but their power is also probably limited relative to those of the very rich both in democratic and non-democratic societies — and in the US, the power of unions was probably seriously, perhaps irreversibly, damaged by Ronald Reagan’s victory over the air traffic controllers’ strike.

In consequence, in the US today, the fear is not that unions will take over the political process, but that the rich elite — including but not limited to the banking elites — will and in fact have already done so.

This makes us believe that, though the unions, when they have the power, can also act as extractively as other groups in pursuing their interests at the expense of the rest of us, they are not the main elites threatening the inclusivity of Western institutions.

That being said, it is probably true that unions have been in a more rent-seeking mode in the second half of the 20th century compared to their pivotal role in the development of inclusive institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the story of democracy in Britain would have likely been very different without the labor movement, which mobilized the disenfranchised to demand voting rights for all. Similarly, the US labor movement played a central role in giving voice to workers and improving working conditions. Is anything different today? The answer is not clear. But one possibility is that in fighting for broad-based issues such as democracy or limits on harsh, even coercive, working conditions for most workers, the labor movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries was both more effective and more clearly on the side of greater inclusivity in economic and political institutions. This may have changed once unions’ demands shifted to higher wages, more generous health insurance and better pensions for their narrow membership.

On the other hand, some also argue that a strong labor movement is even more necessary today as a counterweight against the creeping political inequality in favor of the very wealthy and the politically-connected corporations. We think that some sort of organization to counterbalance the political power of the mega-rich is indeed necessary. Whether this role can be — and should be — played by unions is a question that requires more thought and research (i.e., we don’t know the answer).