Artificially Intelligent

Any mimicry distinguishable from the original is insufficiently advanced.

Review: Against the Grain

| 2834 words

The original goal was to review Against the Grain by James Scott in the style of Scott Alexander (who has already reviewed this particular book). However, I soon found myself unequal to the task. Turns out writing is harder than I thought and that I’m not as good at writing as I thought.

Instead of attempting something far beyond my literary abilities, I have instead decided to pursue something more in the vein of epistemic spot checks. I haven’t so much as reviewed the book as extracted things I think I learned and why I think I learned them. I spent about 25 minutes trying to verify each claim, to varying degrees of success. One of the main things that I learned from this attempt was that when Elizabeth is correct when she says that epistemic spot checks are insufficient. I encourage everyone to spend 25 minutes trying to determine if a chapter of a book is correct, just to get a feel for the process.

Also, sorry that this is so long. I did not have time to make it short.

Fire was used extensively for terraforming

Everyone knows that the discovery of fire (approximately 400,000 years ago) was a big deal in the history of humanity. Fire let early humans cook their food, extracting far more usable calories than previously possible. This allowed humanity access to energy dense sustenance, making possible the evolution of our large brains [citation needed].

What I didn’t know before reading Against the Grain was that fire was also used extensively by early humans as a terraforming tool. Similar to how a beaver might carefully construct a dam across a river to create a suitable habitat for itself, early humans employed fire to sculpt the surrounding landscape to accommodate their lifestyle.

In particular:

Native North Americans deployed fire to sculpt landscapes favored by elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, ruffed grouse, turkey, and quail, all of which they hunted.

How extensive was the use of fire-as-terraforming? Well…

According to some climatologists, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, from roughly 1500 to 1850, may well have been due to the reduction of CO2—a greenhouse gas—brought about by the die-off of North America’s indigenous fire farmers.

How true is any of this? This is an interesting question. None of the factual claims James Scott makes seem obviously false. Fire probably was discovered 400,000 years ago. Some other person claims nearly the exact same thing about Native North Americans vis-a-vis terraforming with fire. Other sources also support the general notion that terraforming with fire was extensively used by Native North Americans. Reports of primary source documents describe cases where fire was deployed as a hunting strategy. There exists at least one climatologist that talks about the little ice age possibly being caused by “plague-incude reforestation events”.

The problem is none of this really answers the question. Based on what I know about fire and terrain, it sure seems like fire has powerful terraforming capabilities for at least some types of terrain. Brief searching shows that Native North American’s probably made extensive use of this ability. I tried figuring out of early people in Mesopotamia also used fire in this way and my search did not immediately yield fruit, which counts as a point against.

One of the main problems is just that I don’t know enough about early humanity to know what I would predict differently if “fire as terraforming” was more or less true. I don’t have a model in which I can integrate the available evidence; I’m left with a bunch of vaguely related observations. I know “apples are sugary”, but I don’t know that means apple juice will be sticky. This gestures at a broader point about how the extent to which you know something is related to your ability to connect it to things you already know. In this situation, I can really only connect this new knowledge to things I know about terrain, fire, and humans; none of which are specific enough for me to feel like I would be able to tell if “fire as terraforming” was falseish in a non-obvious way.

Disease was a big problem for early states

On priors, disease being a problem for early states seems pretty likely to be true. One reason you might think this is that disease seems to be a reasonably large problem for modern states (sad reacts only). Additionally background beliefs about early states is that they represented a sharp increase in population density. My limited knowledge of how diseases work implies that high population density makes it much more likely that deadly diseases evolve, especially since early states likely also contained a lot of animals.

This section was interesting because there were two arguments that caused me to think disease were especially problematic for early states:

  1. Ecological diseases can cause collapse as well. The primary reason for states to exist is to harvest grain [slightly citation needed]. If a disease wipes out most of the grain, then the people in the state aren’t really going to stick around and starve, especially since there was still plenty of food available outside state bounds.
  2. If people have a vague sense of how diseases spread, they’ll probably disperse after people start dying. The “collapse” of an early state doesn’t really require large numbers of people to die, it sort of just requires people to not stick around anymore. Good reasons to not stick around states include: it’s cursed by gods, there’s no food left, and everyone inside seems to be mysteriously dying.

Lurking in the background is also this meta-observation that states don’t really keep records about why they collapsed because they were, you know, collapsing. The fact that disease doesn’t really leave historical traces means that lack of archaeological evidence of disease is extremely weak evidence that disease wasn’t a problem.

That being said, we would expect some states to have records of disease being a big problem. Not all diseases would immediately collapse a state, so there should be some traces. Indeed, this is exactly what we see in Mesopotamia:

Mesopotamians, it seems, lived in the ever-threatening shadow of fatal epidemics. They had amulets, special prayers, prophylactic dolls, and “healing” goddesses and temples—the most famous of which was at Nippur—designed to ward off mass illness.

Other texts make similar claims:

The [medical texts of Ancient Mesopotamia] reveal an extensive list of herbal remedies, some of medicinal value; also the texts describe the identification and treatment of many kinds of illnesses, among them intestinal obstructions, headaches, tonsillitis, tuberculosis, typhus, lice, bubonic plague, smallpox. rheumatism, eye and ear infections, diarrhea, colic, gout, and venereal diseases such as gonorrhea.

Given my rough understanding of diseases and the reasonably strong arguments in this section, I feel pretty comfortable believing that early states were plagued by disease (I am very funny). That being said, we can still verify some basic facts.

The NY Times describes the temple at Nippur that Scott mentions. This is an extremely sketchy looking website that has an image of an “Amulet to ward off the plague” with no attribution. This is the best source I could find. The other citations were video lectures, which I did not have time to watch.

It also seems extremely likely that states represented a sharp increase in population density. Squinting at the charts here seems to confirm this. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on hunter-gatherer claims that the Chumash had the highest recorded population density of any known hunter-gatherer society at 21.6 people per square mile. This is almost exactly the population density of Oklahoma and seems much much smaller than any state. As a brief side note, the only source I could find for the 21.6 figure was this interview, so I’m pretty skeptical of the figure. This page claims the Chumash achieved 10 people per square mile.

Early states had a lot of slaves

I wish I knew if I believed this before I read the relevant section. In hindsight, this seems pretty plausible, but also hindsight bias exists and will get you, even if you know it exists. A service that I would pay money for is one where I give someone a book, they extract the main claims of the book, randomly reverse half of them, then give me the list. Then I get to look at the list and determine what I think about the things the book claims without knowing whether the book claims them. This way, when I read the book, I can read a section and be like “I already thought this” or “I disagreed with this”.

It certainly makes sense that early states had a lot of slaves. From an economic perspective, slavery is a pretty good practice. You get labor for pretty much free: just the cost of some food and some security, plus maybe some other stuff. There are a bunch of things in a state that people don’t really like doing, mostly things like farming, mining and other resource gathering. It’s very convenient to just get slaves to do this for you. Also, there are lots of non-state people that you can easily enslave, as well as other states that you might be at war with.

In terms of evidence, it’s pretty hard to determine the extent to which slavery existed in various early states. It’s also pretty difficult to determine whether or not someone was a slave or just a poorly paid worker. At some point, it’s just a distinction without a difference. At any rate, these two links support the claim that there were plenty of slaves in early states in Mesopotamia. This paper claims that “[c]lose to 15 percent of urban residents and more than 8 percent of villagers, mostly in Middle Egypt, were slaves, but only 7 percent of the residents of a town in Upper Egypt”, which seems to be a fairly large proportion. Slavery also permeated ancient Greece. Mesopotamia also has a bunch of regularly shaped bowls, which were probably used to pay workers/slaves (does it really count as payment if you’re giving your workers food so they won’t die and can keep working for you?).

A regularly shaped bowl

Overall, I’m slightly disappointed by my analysis of this section, which can sort of be summed up as “seems true, I guess?”. I would feel much better about this section if I had known that I roughly believed early states had a lot of slaves before reading the section, as opposed to simply considering it plausible in retrospect.

It was pretty nice to be a barbarian

Imagine you wanted to be a barbarian during the early days. While humanity had not yet invented states, it would have been pretty hard. You would have to prey upon hunter-gatherer bands, but those bands could just leave. And even if you successfully raided one such band, they probably didn’t have that much food. Really, you would just be a hunter-gatherer.

Enter the grain state, which is characterized by a dense grain production and subsequent storage [citation slightly needed]. Raiding a grain state around harvest time would give you access to many months worth of food production. States were not mobile, so raiding them would be comparatively easy. Additionally, raiding states would give you access to plenty of slaves, which you could turn around and sell to other states.

In fact, states were so vulnerable to barbarians that you could just get them to give you things in exchange for not raiding them and maybe protecting them from other barbarians. Also states had a hard time getting everything they needed to survive, so they had to trade pretty extensively with barbarians. In this sense, Scott claims that barbarians aren’t really a contrast to states, but more like a dual; the existence of states both gave rise to, and depended upon barbarians.

As of which of the two were better, Scott claims that it was pretty easily on the side of the barbarians. Living in a state was pretty bad: there was lots of disease, you were probably a poorly paid laborer, and got attacked by barbarians. In fact, it was so bad that one of the main things the early grain states worked to prevent was population drain. Hilariously, one way they did this was by employing diet-based propaganda:

The Record of Rites (Liji) of the Zhou Dynasty contrasts the barbarian tribes who ate meat (raw or cooked) instead of the “grain food” of the civilized. Among the Romans, the contrast between their diet of grain and the Gallic diet of meat and dairy products was a key marker of their claim to civilized status.

Being a barbarian was pretty a pretty sweet deal in comparison. You were basically a hunter-gatherer, but you also occasionally hunted/gathered from states. You were also pretty much immune to state counter-attack because you could just run away. One piece of evidence we have for this being true is reports of people leaving states to become barbarians:

There was a constant drain of people escaping from China into the realms of the Eastern Steppe, where they did not hesitate to proclaim the superiority of the nomadic life-style. Similarly, many Greeks and Romans joined the Huns and other Central Eurasian peoples, where they lived better and were treated better than they had been back home.

Other books I’ve read (for example the first few chapters of Age of Em) have corroborated the claim that being a human in a state was a worse time than not being in a state. The Wikipedia page on the Xiongnu seems to verify that they entered into agreements with states to not raid them in exchange for tribute.

A question I found myself asking when I was tempted to spot-check various facts was “if this turned out to be false, would I change my mind?” The answer to this was nearly always “no”. The frame of the book was something like “here’s a the pattern; here are examples of the pattern”. But if one of the examples turns out to not support the pattern, then that that only slightly decreases my credence in the theory. Most of the stuff I checked before this section turned out to be true, so I trust Scott to not be actively trying to deceive me. Given that, it seems like most of the component of whether I believed the broad pattern was based on how plausible it seemed, which is moderately unsettling.


Books are really complicated. Some person who is an expert in their field writes down the theories that they have spent a career refining. They include things that might be called “evidence”, but cannot convey the vast majority of the reason why they believe their theories to be true. It’s not really about the specific claims; it’s about the model of the world the author has in their mind that makes the entire set of specific claims plausible.

For example, someone once claimed to me that thermostats work by using temperature sensitive resistors. This seems plausible to me because I know that the resistance of materials change with respect to temperature, which makes sense to me because I have a model of electrons moving around materials that suggests temperature should have such an effect due to an understanding of temperature as average kinetic energy, which relates to velocity. Additionally, I also happen to know that V=IR and that you can measure things like voltage and current, so you can measure resistance. I don’t really know how you measure voltage/current, but I have a voltmeter, so I know it’s possible.

The point is that my belief about thermostats depends on beliefs I have about how electricity works in general and relies on various experiences I have had interacting with electricity. I have to be able to understand the entire belief to actually believe it, which means I have to be basically be on the cusp of believing in order to believe. And I’m supposed to acquire entirely new theories about novel subjects from a single book?

I’ll close with a passage from Ars Longa, Vita Brevis:

“Knowledge,” said the Alchemist, “is harder to transmit than anyone appreciates. One can write down the structure of a certain arch, or the tactical considerations behind a certain strategy. But above those are higher skills, skills we cannot name or appreciate. Caesar could glance at a battlefield and know precisely which lines were reliable and which were about to break. Vitruvius could see a great basilica in his mind’s eye, every wall and column snapping into place. We call this wisdom. It is not unteachable, but neither can it be taught.