Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Puzzle of Human Sacrifice

Harvey Whitehouse in New Scientist:

Today’s small-scale societies tend to favour infrequent but traumatic rituals that promote intense social cohesion – the kind that is necessary if people are to risk life and limb hunting dangerous animals together. An example would be the agonising initiation rites still carried out in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, involving extensive scarification of the body to resemble the skin of a crocodile, a locally revered species. …

With the advent of farming, … [and their] larger populations, … new kinds of rituals seem to have provided that shared identity. These were generally painless practices like prayer and meeting in holy places that could be performed frequently and collectively, allowing them to be duplicated across entire states or empires. …

A puzzle, however, is that many of these early civilisations also practised the brutal ritual of human sacrifice. This reached its zenith in the so-called archaic states that existed between about 3000 BC and 1000 BC, and were among the cruellest and most unequal societies ever. In some parts of the globe, human sacrifice persisted until relatively recently. The Inca religion, for example, had much in common with today’s world religions: people paid homage to their gods with frequent and, for the most part, painless ceremonies. But their rulers had divine status, their gods weren’t moralising and their rituals included human sacrifice right up until they were conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. …

Instead of helping foster cooperation as societies expanded, Big Gods appeared only after a society had passed a threshold in complexity corresponding to a population of around a million people. … something other than Big Gods allowed societies to grow. … that something was the shift in the nature of rituals from traumatic and rare to painless and repetitive. … human sacrifice was used as a form of social control. The elites – chiefs and shamans – did the sacrificing, and the lower orders paid the price, so it maintained social stability by keeping the masses terrorised and subservient. … the practice started to decline when populations exceeded about 100,000. … 

Piecing all this together, here is what we think happened. As societies grew by means of agricultural innovation, the infrequent, traumatic rituals that had kept people together as small foraging bands gave way to frequent, painless ones. These early doctrinal religions helped unite larger, heterogeneous populations just enough to overcome the free-riding problem and ensure compliance with new forms of governance. However, in doing so they rendered them vulnerable to a new problem: power-hungry rulers. These were the despotic god-kings who presided over archaic states. Granted the divine right to command vast populations, they exploited it to raise militias and priesthoods, shoring up their power through practices we nowadays regard as cruel, such as human sacrifice and slavery. But archaic states rarely grew beyond 100,000 people because they, in turn, became internally unstable and therefore less defensible against invasion.

The societies that expanded to a million or more were those that found a new way to build cooperation – Big Gods. They demoted their rulers to the status of mortals, laid the seeds of democracy and the rule of law, and fostered a more egalitarian distribution of rights and obligations. (more)

It makes sense that complex intense rituals can only work for small societies, while larger societies need simpler rituals that everyone can see or do. It also makes sense that moralizing gods help promote cooperation. But I’m not convinced that we understand any of the rest of these patterns. The human sacrifice part seems to me especially puzzling. I can sort of see how it could serve a function, but I don’t see why that function would be especially effective in societies of population 10-100K.

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Pre-Civilization Egypt

When we look into the distant past, we often compare ourselves to ancient Greeks and Romans. But their peaks were actually closer in time to us than to the peak of the prior society that they compared themselves with: ancient Egypt.

A recent Nature paper had this dramatic graph, showing that most ancient civilizations had a key initial period of rapid increase in social complexity:

Thus in most regions, history can be divided into before and after the start of “civilization.” As writing also usually started around then, we know far less about “pre-historic” life. Those lives are even stranger to us than forager lives, as we have been returning to forager values lately as we’ve gotten rich. For example, before civilization they mostly didn’t have moralizing gods, and human sacrifice (of valued locals, not just enemies) was quite common.

The first known civilization started in Egypt, about 4800 years ago. To better see strange pre-history lives, I’ve listened to a lecture series on ancient Egypt, watched John Romer’s TV series, and read his book, A History of Ancient Egypt, Part I. Here is an interesting graph from that book:

Below the fold is a long list of what I thought were interesting quotes:  Continue reading "Pre-Civilization Egypt" »

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Firms Are Under-Trusted

Tyler’s new book Big Business is out next week. I haven’t read it – won’t get access until you do. But in an excerpt he just posted from his final chapter, Tyler considers a big question I’ve pondered before:

Think[ing] of corporations as people … is probably also necessary for social cohesion. … Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly. … Consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. … positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. …

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations … you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, … people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople. … it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior. (more)

I’m just not seeing the problem that Tyler sees. We humans do not simply trust everyone; we are quite aware that the interests of others may not align with ours, and that they may betray our trust. We are suspicious of each other, and in fact we are built to be as selfish as we can get away with; when we are trusting and trustworthy it is because our evolved instincts estimate that to be in our interest.

We sometimes misjudge who to trust how much, but such errors do not at all tend to favor for-profit firms. Our egalitarian forager instincts make us especially distrusting of powerful humans and large organizations, especially when it seems logically possible that they may profit by hurting us. Our evolved instincts don’t seem to sufficiently appreciate how competition disciplines for-profit firms today, probably because competition was a less effective force for our distant ancestors.

Compared to ordinary humans that we distrust to a similar degree, for-profit firms actually tend to be much more well-behaved and helpful. So I don’t see us as under an illusion here.

In the above Tyler sounds a lot like what I often hear from AI risk people, who worry that we will trust AIs as if human, and be cut down by AI alien indifference to our plight. I hear similar fears from an overlapping group that fears selfish capitalist firms will eventually destroy us all. I’m much less worried than they.

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Champions Show War Ability

Sports make sense as a way for individuals to develop and show off certain packages of physical and mental abilities. Team sports make sense as a way to show off such abilities in contexts of team production, which have long been especially relevant to human success. Of course we need not be consciously aware of this function; genetic and cultural evolution needed only make us inclined to do sports when that might make us get and look good.

When two teams play each other, the final score is a good summary about the relative abilities of the two teams. Of course there’s more info to be gleaned from game details, but not that much more. And if you can’t study those game details well yourself, but must instead rely on the judgments of others, a final score is admirably resistant to bias and lobbying.

Many sports have a regular season of games, following by a championship round designed to select a tree of “champions”, a tree whose root is the uber-champion of all. Often a “world champion”. This is somewhat puzzling, as individual championship games are not that much more diagnostic about team abilities than are regular season games, and there are far fewer championship games. Why count these games so much more than others?

One could use an elo-rating type system to estimate the abilities of each team based on their pairwise scores. Or one could use even fancier statistical systems to estimate distributions over team abilities, using scores and other data. Within such systems, championship games would be just a few more games, and not be given extra weight. If we just want to know about team abilities, why put so much weight on championships?

Arguably, through most of ancient history the main abilities that observers were interested in inferring and developing via sporting contests were war abilities. This is plausibly why most sports have long been team sports focused on war-like contests, relative to more common social contests. And in war, one mainly cares about abilities displayed in contexts where stakes are very high: hard battles where a large fraction of combatants die, as opposed to practice battles where at most a few are injured.

So championships plausibly exist as a way to focus sporting displays on high stakes contexts. The closer a team gets to the root of the championship tree, the more is at stake in each game, and the better that game’s score becomes as a measure of player abilities in high stakes contexts.

Yes, outside of sports the stakes do vary over contexts, and observers should want to see how individuals perform across a range of stake sizes. But as war is rare today, in our world success mostly comes from consistent quality over many low stakes contests, not from a few super-battles. Designing sporting contests to instead maximize an emphasis on the highest stakes possible seems better explained as a heritage of war. As are many other features of modern human attitudes and behaviors.

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