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Book Review: Empire of the Summer Moon [Nov. 13th, 2012|01:45 am]
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History is a lot like xkcd: I expected it to be sad, I expected it to be wonderful, but I never expected it to be so big.

As a child, history comes so neatly packaged. First there was Egypt and Babylon. Then there was Greece. Then Rome. Then some Middle Ages and also the Rise of Islam. Then Columbus and Magellan. Then the Colonial Period, the Revolution, some stuff happens, the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, the Cold War, The Struggle For Civil Rights, and the present. China might have been involved at some point too.

And it's all so interesting that you don't realize until later that none of it makes sense. How come Egypt was like the only game in town for a thousand years and then suddenly stopped being relevant? The Goths sacked Rome? Who the heck were the Goths, where did they come from before sacking Rome, and what happened to them afterwards? How exactly did a prophet from a tiny desert city manage to conquer like six big empires in half a century? Where was the entire rest of the vast and fertile American continent when the Aztecs and the Incas were building their civilizations? Did Russia just suddenly appear one day out of the aether?

The first time I got to read a better class of history book was Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. I got it as a kid, probably figuring that as a cartoon it would be a light-hearted and funny treatment of history along the same lines as the ones I'd already read. I was absolutely wrong. Not only did it address all the background factors my school books had glossed over as "for economic reasons" or "because of internal struggle", but it expanded the scale by an order of magnitude.

Phoenicia. Armenia. Lombardy. Almoravids. The Kara-Khitan Khanate and the Black and White Sheep Turkmen. The Ghana Empire and Songhai. The Safavids, Vijayanagara. People and places I'd never heard of who were a big deal in their time.

And not only that. The Yellow Turban Rebellion killed more people than Vietnam; the White Lotus Rebellion killed as many people as World War One. The largest city in the world between the fall of Rome and the Industrial Revolution was Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Ten percent of the Roman population was Jewish, and after the Diaspora the Jews revolted and massacred hundreds of thousands of Romans before being brought under control. There are giant pyramids in Missouri constructed by a Native American tribe no white man ever met who built cities larger than the great European capitals of the time. The Prime Minister of France asked to join Great Britain in the 1950s, but the British rejected his offer; Syria and Egypt did merge in the 1950s but broke apart a few years later.

And so on in that vein. The point is, I have grown used to unexpected history.

Still, I was surprised to learn that there had been an Native American empire larger in size than the Aztecs who soundly defeated the conquistadors, fought off the US Army for thirty years, and stayed independent until the 1870s right in the middle of the United States, and that I had never heard of them before.

Empire of the Summer Moon was a book about the Comanche Indians. They were not very advanced by "civilized" standards. They didn't build cities, farm crops, centralize government, or have any form of writing. The book argues, hard as it is to believe, that they didn't really even have any art or even a religion. They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it. By the 1800s they had defeated virtually every other Indian tribe in the central United States and extended into modern Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas, with their territory bordered by a ring of "vassal" tribes paying them tribute and functioning as a single economic unit.

In the 1600s and 1700s, the Spanish tried to expand northward from Mexico. They lost some horses, the horses started running wild over the Great Plains, the Comanches captured them and learned horsemanship, and then became so good at it that they actually pushed the Spanish back until finally the Spanish government gave up and promised them lucrative peace terms to leave them alone.

When Mexico took over from Spain and tried to colonize Texas, the Comanches beat them so soundly that they decided to get some "help" by inviting Anglo-Americans to come in and colonize, leading to the Texas revolt, the Mexican War, and so on. Through the first thirty years or so of American Texas, American control only extended through the eastern half of the state, with the western half being totally Comanche and almost totally unexplored. The border was so feared that places like Fort Worth, Texas were originally a line of actual forts intended to protect the Texans from Comanche raids.

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches' land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. Sometimes people were scalped alive. The women would usually be gang-raped dozens of times, and then enslaved, carried off to Comanche territory, and gang-raped some more. Children were forced to watch as their parents were raped and tortured and killed, or vice versa.

Their favorite pastime was to find a remote farm somewhere, ride in dressed in full war gear, communicate some version of "Oh, hi, I know what this looks like but actually we're just stopping by, mind giving us a bite to eat?", enjoying a lavish feast put on by extremely nervous settlers, and then saying "Very good, in exchange for this feast we give you a five minute head start", then giving them five minutes to run away before riding them down and torture-killing the entire family in the manner described earlier.

On the other hand, the Comanches fit the classic pattern of hunter-gatherer civilizations of simultaneously being really mean to people outside the tribe while showing deep and heartfelt kindness to everyone within. We know this because sometimes if there were very young children, and the Comanches were feeling a bit low on headcount, they would capture the children and adopt them as full Comanches (after torture-killing the parents, of course) and some of these children would later grow up to write English-language books about their experience. But this practice definitely led to some awkward situations, and the book centers around one of them: the last great chief of the Comanches, Quanah, was half-white, the son of a Comanche chief and a Texan woman who had been captured when she was nine years old.

So there was a bit of traffic back and forth between America and Comancheria in the 19th century. White people being captured and raised by Comanches. The captives being recaptured years later and taken back into normal white society. Indians being defeated and settled on reservations and taught to adopt white lifestyles. And throughout the book's description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did; the Comanche men were probably the best archers and horsemen in the history of history, and even women and children had wilderness survival and tracking skills that put even the best white frontiersmen to shame. It sounds like a life of leisure, strong traditions, excellence, and enjoyment of nature, and it doesn't surprise me that people liked it better than the awful white frontier life of backbreaking farming and endless religious sermons.

And the phenomenon of whites preferring the Indian lifestyle wasn't just limited to the Comanches of the 19th century. A paper by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (I wonder if they're related to Steve) notes that:
"By the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English - some contemporaries thought all of them - returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. Ont he other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians - by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home."

It then goes on to quote no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, who had independently noticed the same phenomenon:
"When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them."

Now I know that idealizing the "noble savage" is a well-known and obvious failure mode. But I was struck by this and by the descriptions of white-Comanche interactions in the book. Whites who met Comanches would almost universally rave about how imposing and noble and healthy and self-collected and alive they seemed; there aren't too many records of what the Comanches thought of white people, but the few there are suggest they basically viewed us as pathetic and stunted and defective.

I remember when I was younger reading one of Ayn Rand's philosophy essay books. And she was talking about New Age return-to-nature aesthetic, and she commented on how ironic it was to see people who could build skyscrapers and fly to the moon venerating people who squatted in the mud and lived in squalid huts as their superiors. I remember being profoundly impressed by it at the time and considering it deep wisdom.

But now I think about it further and I realize that civilizations aren't people. We are not "people who can build skyscrapers and fly to the moon" - even if someone is the rare engineer who designs skyscrapers for a living, she might not have the slighest idea how to actually go about pouring concrete. And people who have actually met these cultures that live in huts in the mud have almost universally - because this isn't nearly the first time I've heard this - had an incredible respect for them as human beings even as they're disgusted by the primitiveness of their civilization.

And at the same time, I'm continuing to plod through my book review of Last Superstition and this Aristotelian idea of creatures living in accordance with their nature and creatures acting in unnatural ways and ending up morally defective. Feser keeps returning to his example of a defective squirrel that eats only toothpaste and doesn't want scurry around for acorns with the rest of them, and this has a suitably pathetic feel to it to be valuable.

I don't believe that there's some kind of objective, ontologically basic reality to this sort of "goodness by living properly in accordance with your nature", but it's hard not to notice that at least in some contigent, non-fundamental way, a squirrel that lived entirely off of toothpaste is pretty pathetic and not operating off of proper squirrel design specs.

And whenever these virtue ethicists try to think about the nature of humans, they come up with some kind of boring, exactly-what-they-were-doing-already idea of "Well, be a Christian and definitely don't have gay sex, and you should be fine." But Empire of the Summer Moon certainly made it sound - and I realize authors can be pretty good at pushing their viewpoint, but this didn't look deliberate and it was amply supported by quotes from the time - it certainly made it sound like the god-fearing non-gay-sex-having Texans were the toothpaste-eating squirrels and the Comanches were the ones who were dignified and wild and free and living "the good life" in the most Aristotelian sense of the term.

I have long wondered whether civilization was a mistake. If it was, it is not an easy mistake to avoid. The stubborn persistence of the Comanches aside, once civilized people with technology and professional armies start competing with less civilized people, the results are always going to be lopsided in civilization's favor. We might be at the bottom of a prisoner's dilemma, the descendants of people who defected from a happy equilibrium of hunting and gathering in order to gain a slight numerical and military advantage over their foes, only to end up with everyone large, well-armed, and miserable.

This is another reason I've always found some modern political philosophies so barren. There's no such thing as society and everyone has free choice over what kind of lifestyle they want? Tell that to the descendants of the Comanches. One of the most heartbreaking stories in the book follows a Comanche band after they'd been on the reservation a while. They protest they want to leave the reservation and go back to traditional life, and eventually the government relaxes and says to try it. They leave the reservation, and...nothing. Their sacred sites have all been bought by cattle ranchers. The wide open plains the once roamed are now dotted with barbed wire and villages. The buffalo they once hunted are now almost extinct. They slink back onto the reservation in despair and stay there until they die.

One of my hopes for the future is that someone figures out how to combine the aspects of hunter-gatherer life that seem so important for proper human development with some of the advances we've had since then, like medicine and technology and science and not torture-killing people and having some idea what's going on. Barring something unexpected like the Change, I admit this is probably going to have to wait for post-singularity. Right now there's no way out of civilization but through it.

But getting back to the book. The Comanches resisted the white settlers effectively for about thirty years, mostly because of their greater knowledge of and adaptedness to the Plains environment. It didn't hurt that until about the Civil War, the Comanches' bows-and-arrows were actually better technology than the settlers' guns, since the latter were really difficult to reload and by the time a settler had finished he was usually already shot through with arrows. It got so bad that during the Civil War, the frontier actually was pushed back hundreds of miles and white people had to evacuate several hundred miles worth of Texas. After the Civil War, the US government had lots of soldiers it didn't really know what to do with and decided to turn them on the Comanche "problem".

One area where the book excelled was in describing the "treaties" the US government would sign with the Indians. I'd always known that the US government had a shameful record of constantly breaking these treaties whenever it saw the least advantage of doing so. I hadn't been aware that the Indians did pretty much the same thing. The treaties were pretty much a farce on both sides: usually the Indian "chief" who signed them was just some local war leader with a really big eagle-feather headdress whom the clueless whites assumed must be "in charge" of the Indian tribe because obviously every group of people must have a centralized government with exactly one person at the head.

The treaties worked out pretty well for both sides, in a sense. The white politicians would trumpet the achievement of solving the constant struggle with the Indians. The "chief" would go back to his village with a lot of manufactured goods the Americans had given him as bribes/"rewards" for being such a good negotiating partner. It was a win-win situation, unless you actually cared about peace or a just an equitable outcome, in which case it was a disaster.

The book admitted it wasn't always clear which was the chicken and which was the egg here. Did the Comanches ignore the treaties because they knew that the whites would break them anyway? It pointed out that they did stick pretty exactly to the letter of their peace treaty with the Spanish for several centuries. But overall it seemed like a classic case of politics going stupid on both sides.

And about politics...I don't know what the Bureau of Indian Affairs is like today, but back in the days when there were actual not-on-reservation Indians, it was the archetype of every corrupt and villainous group of scheming bureaucrats you've ever heard about. Their modus operandi was to find some Indians who were in a conflict with the US, promise them lots of gifts and food if they would give up their land and move to a reservation, laugh hysterically when the Indians agreed, and then pocket the money the government gave them to buy gifts and food and let the Indians starve to death. At one point it got so bad that the government decided to fire all the Indian Affairs people and replace them with Quakers, on the grounds that Quakers seemed trustworthy, but the Quakers had no idea what was going on and were totally pacifist which just made the whole situation worse.

And the Bureau of Indian Affairs was an equal opportunity thing-screwer-upper. Not only were they horribly unfair to the Indians, but they caused the deaths of a lot of white settlers as well. Part of the government treaty with the Indians said that the government wouldn't send the army onto Indian reservations and kill Indians there, because obviously that defeated the whole point of an Indian reservation. This was probably a good policy with peaceful friendly Indians like the Creek, but when the Comanche heard about it, several Comanche bands "surrendered" and agreed to go on reservations, then used them as a base for their raids, assuming (correctly!) that once they reached their reservation the army couldn't do anything about it. This went on for like a decade with dozens of white people being killed in these raids, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs just sort of said "Sheesh, we got them to go on reservations and you guys are still complaining? We're just going to sit here and do nothing."

So the history of white-Comanche relations was basically one long tragedy in which both sides competed to see who could be a bigger piece of crap to the other, with the whites eventually winning (we usually do in these kinds of things).

But the highlight, and the only part that wasn't totally depressing, was the story of Quanah, the half-white last chief of the Comanches. He tried to organize the Comanches into a glorious last stand, and he did pretty well for himself, but when it became obvious it wasn't working he surrendered and went to the reservation with his tribe. And even though the entire rest of his nation basically got confused and depressed and fell apart, Quanah had this bizarre philosophy of "better make the best of a bad situation", learned how to play American politics, made himself rich, and then spent the rest of his life doing awesome stuff like founding the peyote movement among Native Americans, traveling the country, going hunting with President Roosevelt, and last but definitely not least, marrying seven wives.

Overall I liked this book. It made a not-very-good decision to meander back and forth around history instead of going in an easy-to-follow straight line, but I forgive it. It was sort of romantic, alternately sensationalizing the Comanches as murderous psychopaths and idealizing them as noble and free, but sometimes the world really is romantic, and you don't get extra points for trying to make it sound boring. And it shed light on a part of history that was apparently pretty important for the American West and about which I had previously been entirely unaware.

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[User Picture]From: snysmymrik
2012-11-13 08:11 am (UTC)


>>>They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it.

Genghis Khan would have been so proud...
[User Picture]From: jordan179
2012-11-13 08:43 am (UTC)


I have long wondered whether civilization was a mistake. If it was, it is not an easy mistake to avoid. The stubborn persistence of the Comanches aside, once civilized people with technology and professional armies start competing with less civilized people, the results are always going to be lopsided in civilization's favor. We might be at the bottom of a prisoner's dilemma, the descendants of people who defected from a happy equilibrium of hunting and gathering in order to gain a slight numerical and military advantage over their foes, only to end up with everyone large, well-armed, and miserable.

Mobility. We are on a path which will enable Mankind to spread throughout the Universe. Noble savages will never spread beyond a single planet, and their race is doomed to die when something interrupts its inhabitability.
[User Picture]From: snysmymrik
2012-11-13 12:13 pm (UTC)


>>>Noble savages will never spread beyond a single planet, and their race is doomed to die when something interrupts its inhabitability.

EVERYONE is doomed to die when something interrupts inhabitability of the place they inhibit. 8-)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-13 09:53 am (UTC)


There's still many small groups of Indians in Oklahoma, none of which live on reservations. The eastern half of the state (which was actually Indian Territory, and not Land Run land given to white settlers like that west of Oklahoma City) is roughly 10% Native, and I would estimate at least 25% claim some Native heritage, whether or not it's technically true (just look at Oklahoman Elizabeth Warren). The strong connection to Native American culture is something that always attracted me to that part of the country -- there's so many ancient cultures represented in such a small area.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-13 03:37 pm (UTC)


If I understand the situation there correctly, the Indians were placed on reservations in Oklahoma, then the reservations were dissolved because white people wanted to move into Oklahoma and the Indians were "compensated" by being given private property rights to whatever small parcels of land they already lived on.
[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-11-13 10:03 am (UTC)


Happy Lifestyle

My uninformed impression is that you don't need to do specifically hunter-gatherer things to be happy, but people tend to be happy if they have a similar sort of mix of:

- lots of leisure time
- lots of exercise
- a few hours necessary work a day

so platonic forms are probably a good guide to a good lifestyle, but not the One True Way.

Civilization a mistake

There definitely seems to be a trade-off here. It seems like hunter-gatherer lifestyle is day-to-day much much heathier and enjoyable than agrarian lifestyle, although agrarian is necessary if you have a lot more people, or a drought.

Similarly, it may have taken us 10,000 years to get here, but having medicine for childbirth and infectious diseases, etc, is a definite plus. Hunter-gatherers may be less prone to disease than city dwellers, and generally healthier, but having magic "make bacterial diseases go away" drugs is a pretty sweet upgrade.

Another way of looking at the European invasion of America (which I don't endorse, but is an interesting reversal) is like the occupy movement: why should the native Americans with 100s of acres each enjoying a life of leisure not have to subsidise the impoverished Europeans who often had no land and no money?

Although the native Americans could retort "we didn't massively overbreed, why should we share the burden?"

And the Europeans would reply "neither did we, our parents did!"

And the native Americans would say "so you're not going to massively overbreed now, right?"

And the Europeans would say "um..."

So, in balance, I'm not sure. Is it better to have a healthy lifestyle of leisure? Or to have a massively increased resistance to dying in infancy and childbirth, or in famines or plagues?
[User Picture]From: naath
2012-11-13 11:39 am (UTC)


Happy lifestyle; my instinct is that "most people able to understand most things that are present in life" is a happy-causing thing. If your life is simple then it is quite easy for a curious individual to gain a reasonable working grasp of all aspects of it, maybe not to be a total expert society-renowned do-er of each thing but a competent person.

But in today's Britain it's really not possible for any one person to be even vaguely useful at *everything*.

Specialisation makes civilization work; but maybe it makes us unhappy when we do it.

However I am certainly all for medicine.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-11-13 01:21 pm (UTC)


You're the second person whom I really respect who told me to read that book. I think I really should.

I've given some thought to the "hunter-gatherer lifestyles really are better" thing. First of all, I don't buy the argument that "our brains evolved for this, so it must be more satisfying" because humans have evolved significantly since the Paleolithic. Lactose tolerance is a *recent* invention. You think our brains haven't been changing too?

On the other hand, it *is* true that you need lots of pressure (and sometimes cruel abuse) to get nomads to settle, or hunters to farm, or artisans to behave like industrial factory workers. (The history of the Gypsies in Eastern Europe under Communism is a lot like the history of the Native Americans here -- forcing nomads to live in housing projects creates crime and alcoholism and unspeakable misery.) I have some hope for the idea of creating modern lifestyles that are more hunter-gatherer-like.

I know people who live various kinds of gypsy existences, usually heavily technology-aided but sometimes not. There's the "bartender in the Australian outback" path like Louie, there's the "consultant wandering with lute & sword" thing that Venkat Rao does, there's Kevin and his supplement business...the world is much bigger than you imagine. I'm not up for that life, I don't think, but the people who go that way *do* seem "alive" in the way you mean. And they don't even have to gang-rape their enemies!

[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 01:54 pm (UTC)


Then how did settlement start when they were the first ones and no one was there to pressure them?
[User Picture]From: vinaigrettegirl
2012-11-13 01:27 pm (UTC)


Having grown up with this it is lovely to read your enthusiastic and involved thoughts...

One thing about indigenous life from that place and time that struck me from childhood was that the Comanches (and other migrating hunting cultures: the Pawnee, the Apaches, and the Sioux) were patrilinear; the Dine, or Navajo, were and remain matrilinear and nonmigrant, and arguably have retained more of their culture, long-term. They too had a form of empire; and although the Comanche were indeed dominant in their region they had both outright war, and skirmishes, with the Sioux, and both Pawnee and Apaches. There's a lot of good reading ahead!
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-13 03:55 pm (UTC)


The fact that the Navajo got an absolutely huge (comparatively) reservation that wasn't broken up later probably was also helpful, but I don't really know enough about them to have a strong opinion.
[User Picture]From: Emanuel Rylke
2012-11-13 01:30 pm (UTC)


So in summary Comanches were:
Not living in a very hierarchical society.
Very skilled at what they did - implying individuals were allowed lots of time to hone their skills.
Not practicing a religion that made them afraid of divine punishment.
Not monogamous.

I read the blogs of a few people whose lifestyle also could be described like that. They seem able to maintain (maybe even advance) civilization.

So i would say that from "people like to live like Comanches" doesn't necessarily follow "civilization is wrong".

writing "Non monogamous" was a rhetorical trick. The Comanches were polygynous, and the people whose blogs i read are polyamorous.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-15 01:46 pm (UTC)


Actually the lack of hierarchy is one of the unhappy-making things. Humans are still primates enough to want it, and the way hunters and gatherers stay egalitarian is relentless abuse of anyone who is doing better than others, to prevent its accruing as status.

Well, for the victim. I bet the other member enjoy letting their envy run free.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 01:47 pm (UTC)



I have to point out that Gonick is not very accurate. I mean, as in his synopsis of Augustine's Confessions has five lies in it.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 01:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Gonick


That's in four panels, BTW.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 01:50 pm (UTC)


One of my hopes for the future is that someone figures out how to combine the aspects of hunter-gatherer life that seem so important for proper human development with some of the advances we've had since then, like medicine and technology and science and not torture-killing people and having some idea what's going on.

Feser probably thinks that unlike the squirrel, man is fallen and does not find his nature natural and spontaneous.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 02:20 pm (UTC)


I point out that contrary to popular belief, hunters and gatherers -- all of them -- are much more violent than civilized people. Much. The !Kung of the Kalahari, when investigated, had a murder rate higher than that of New York City at its absolute worse.

The torture-killing of people is a lot easier than you might think.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: cousin_it
2012-11-13 02:09 pm (UTC)


Here's a nice post about nomads vs settlers in programming.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-11-13 03:05 pm (UTC)


White people being captured and raised by Comanches. The captives being recaptured years later and taken back into normal white society. Indians being defeated and settled on reservations and taught to adopt white lifestyles. And throughout the book's description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization.

The whites had Stockholm Syndrome and the Indians didn't?
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-13 03:56 pm (UTC)


Doesn't take into account voluntary defections to the Indians; also, why would this be?
[User Picture]From: Randy Miller
2012-11-13 04:27 pm (UTC)


Interesting post. I'll probably add the book to my wishlist. A couple things stood out for me:

"The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic"
It seems an exaggeration that in a nomadic culture the men had no jobs. They didn't train or care for the horses or other animals, or set up or break down the tents, make and maintain tools and weapons--anything analgous to the women's regular cooking chores? Your description sounds like the Commanche life was great, except for the murder-rape and oppression of women.

Second, I find your thoughts on pre-modern life vs civilization interesting. I'm growing increasingly anti-modern of a few topics, although different ones I suspect than you. Bu the reason unciviilized folks appear more impressive (aside from diet) is that they have to be broadly competant in a number of areas to survive. The settlers had to do a few things very well; even moreso now with all the more specialization.
[User Picture]From: zarzuelazen
2012-11-13 06:08 pm (UTC)


This is the Hanson dichotomy of farmers versus foragers again is it not?

There's probably good reasons why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle dies out, I think the explanation I read somewhere is that its just not sustainable for large populations, only small numbers of people could live that way.

But yes, psychologically, I think many people would be much happier as foragers rather than farmers, so Singularity will hopefully see the 'revenge of the foragers' and a return to some of the more attractive aspects of that type of social organization (but updated to a new high-tech form).

In the modern world, tropes such as hacker/pick-up artist/lifestyle designer/nomad/traveller indicate new moves in this direction perhaps?

Frankly, the need to have to remain in a fixed place to make money (the 9-5 'farmer' grind) is huge pain in the backside, and sure ain't making people happy.

I recently struck a big spectacular lottery jackpot and that resulted in my miserable 'farmer' existence in New Zealand coming to a swift end. So I've become the 'forager' I was meant to be now, and thus I travel the world.

Currently in Oxford, England right now, an incredibly charming and wonderful place. The reach of a lottery winner extends far and wide ;) Only in perpetual travel and exploration can the forager feel truly alive.

[User Picture]From: sunch
2012-11-13 09:33 pm (UTC)


I remember reading about Russian military men who fought in Chechnya (in recent wars, this century) and got home not being able to live normal lives and wanting to go back to war (and going) again and again. Everything is much more simple and true there, they said, and you feel alive.
[User Picture]From: vinaigrettegirl
2012-11-13 10:06 pm (UTC)


Curious: where would you place pastoralist nomads on regular migration routes, augmented with seasonal short-term cultivation and hunting/gathering, along this dipole?
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-14 05:39 am (UTC)


Not sure.
From: nomophilos
2012-11-13 10:54 pm (UTC)


I feel the same way about history: the version I learnt in school was much too linear and simplified (also, Yay Cartoon History of the Universe! Though I was interested in history before reading that)

(French and British union? What the eff?)

Maybe Ems will feel about us the way you feel about Comanches ... meatlings will protest they want to leave the pods, and eventually the central conglomerate will relax and say to try it. They leave the pods and...nothing. Their landmarks have all corroded. The streets they once walked are covered with cables and antennas and solar pannels. The plants they once ate only grow in vats. So they slink back to the pods in despair and stay there until they die.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-14 05:40 am (UTC)



Yes, I agree that ems are a good metaphor, and I'm much less accepting of that possible future than Robin is.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-14 12:54 am (UTC)


Civilization isn't good at making people happy. Civilization is good at spreading civilization. There's a significant difference.
[User Picture]From: torekp
2012-11-16 01:13 am (UTC)


Scott put it better:
We might be at the bottom of a prisoner's dilemma, the descendants of people who defected from a happy equilibrium of hunting and gathering in order to gain a slight numerical and military advantage over their foes

If you ignore the implication that the military advantages of farming were deliberately sought, it's an impressive hypothesis. Whether a competitive advantage is intended or not, evolution will spread it - but that may or may not be to the happiness advantage of anyone involved.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-14 06:54 pm (UTC)

Join my pirate crew


Are you sick of eating toothpaste? Do you want to be the Best squirrel you can be?

Though you Yvain certainly could be a doctor or perhaps a financier, my boy have you considered a more challenging career?

Arrrgghh join me pirate crew!

We aim for efficient charity too.


[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-11-14 07:02 pm (UTC)


So all of these accounts seem REALLY male-centric, and they conform to a lot of masculine stereotypes/traditions. Did kidnapped women feel happier? You say commanche women had it easier than pioneer women, but there don't seem to be an reports from their point of view compared to men saying they had it easy. Do you think trading less workload for increased chance of rape and kidnapping is a good deal?

Also: Survivor effects. The men who get kidnapped and survive in Commanche society, and the men who survive in commanche society but then get kidnapped seem FAR more likely to be the kind of men for whom that life is happy than the kind of men who would be happier passively sitting at home and reading books or engaging in pleasant conversation instead of going out raping and pillaging.
[User Picture]From: multiheaded
2012-11-15 10:50 am (UTC)


I've read this review while under the influence of an imagination-expanding substance, and damn, Yvain... Just... duuuude, WOW.

Now I better go out jogging, at least - I gotta feel the wind in my face! And then it's back to delicious toothpaste...

P.S. I realize that this is a stereotypical low-quality comment, sorry 'bout that.
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