Every human society except one is stratified. The exception is the empire of William I, a small sand island that comes and goes by a remote and isolated bend in the Chippewa River, depending on the rainfall. This kingdom is the only known truly egalitarian culture in existence.
Because why? Because this Island Empire has only one permanent resident, your Majestic Host, hence all inhabitants are necessarily equal.
We hesitate to tell you this because, given the mania for Equality, the solution we have hit upon might appeal to the zealous, and we have grown fond of many of you.
In any case, every other society and culture is stratified and unequal. At the least, in the countries which approach or claim egalitarianism, parents preside over their children, and treat their own progeny differently than the children of others, and the majority who vote or act one way establish dominance over the minority who oppose them.
Off with their heads
This is important to understand because some scientists, led by Joseph Watts, in a peer-reviewed paper in Nature, tell us that ritual human sacrifice produced stratified societies. This isn’t opinion, it’s scientific theory: “According to the social control hypothesis, human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification.”
Let’s scour the memory banks on this one and see if we agree. Well, in a society those that kill are at least more important than those who are axed, plus, as discussed above, every society with at least two members is stratified, so Watts’s theory appears to be on solid ground. We agree that there is “strong support for models in which human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification”, but we disagree that stabilization occurs only “once stratification has arisen” as Watts says, because stratification is ever present. What’s true, we suppose, is that the type of stratification would be set in blood.
“The methods of sacrifice [they studied] included burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, being crushed under a newly built canoe, being cut to pieces, as well as being rolled off the roof of a house and then decapitated.”
That last one’s a little harsh, no? You’ve already suffered the indignity of being rolled off a roof, but then to have your head cut off, too? Even the killing methods are egalitarian. There is more dignity being crushed under a new canoe instead of a soiled one.
Have we lost track, here, dear reader? Ah, yes, we need more if we’re going to make this commonsense observation into science. We need quantification.
Watts looked to “93 traditional Austronesian cultures from the Pulotu database” and classified societies thusly:
Cultures that lacked inherited differences in wealth and status were defined as lacking social stratification, and were coded as egalitarian. Cultures were coded as moderately stratified if there were inherited differences in wealth and social position with the potential for status change within a generation, and highly stratified if there were inherited difference in wealth and social position with little or no possibility of status change within a generation.
We’ll give them this, but it’s not to be believed because no society is truly egalitarian. Even the great egalitarian society of the once United States gives preference to inherited status; just ask Jeb Bush; just ask your own children.
Watts et al. saw that ritual sacrifice “was practiced in 5 of the 20 egalitarian societies” and at greater rates in “moderately stratified” and still greater rates in “highly stratified” societies.
This accords with the commonsense model that the more killing there is, the more the killers secure their and their families’ positions, lest they find themselves under the canoe or rolled off rooftops.
Now there might be some interest in predicting, à la Hari Seldon, the rate at which priests in such (carefully defined) societies become hereditary. Once somebody hits upon the swell idea of killing to appease the gods, the society in which this happens surely changes. The nature of that change is an excellent question.
All this is fine, but the authors—and in this they are in no way unique—had to booger it up with a statistical (Bayesian!) model. What they had to do but did not was to examine, society by society, how the type of stratifications which existed before sacrifices began solidified or morphed after the heads came off.
Instead they used their models to “prove” that stratification and sacrifice were “linked” causally. But statistical models are silent on cause, so the authors committed a formal fallacy. The conclusion of their fallacy—societies in which ritual killings exist are more rigidly stratified—is true. And we understand it is true because we understand human nature. Yet the authors said the conclusion was true because some Bayes factor exceeded some number, which is a fallacy.
For a concrete example, they said: “The results from our second series of analyses indicates that human sacrifice increased the rate at which cultures with human sacrifice gain high social stratification, but did not function to stabilize high social stratification once it had arisen.”
They could have had that same result without a model, just by looking and counting and analyzing the societies—no model needed!—and therefore the result would have been on firm ground. It is only a coincidence that that statistical model agreed with reality. Just think: the rigidity of stratification could have occurred because of sacrifice in only one society, but because it was only one, the statistical model would have said the phenomenon didn’t happen!
Plus, they (and we) would have learned more if they examined why which societies fell into sacrifice and which did not. That would have taken real work; certainly more than an afternoon playing with numbers.
Statistical analysis is so often a tool of the lazy that it’s unremarkable that it occurred here. And then you wonder why they bothered at all, when they say at the very end this: “Throughout human history the practice of human sacrifice was often used by social elites as a display of power, intended to instil [sic] fear of the secular and supernatural consequences of transgressing ruling authority.”
Seems they already knew the answer before they began. Which indicates they thought the statistics would give formal proof of what they knew, which is false. Statistics should only be used when we don’t know what’s going on and need to quantify uncertainty of what might happen.
Allure of theory
Finally came this nugget, the last sentence of the article “Unpalatable as it might be, our results suggest that ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors, to the large stratified societies we live in today.”
Thwwwppbbt. This is too far, too much. There is no warrant to extrapolate from the some dumb model to such a gross simplification of human history as this.
Thanks to the many readers who brought this article to my attention. Since these were on Twitter, I’ve lost who they were!