Heh… I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but if you want to spend some time,,, https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html is going through a similar journey right now.
You are kind of overselling the fictiveness of lineage. Its true that I don’t know if I will have any heirs or descendants. I don’t know that I will every find someone to make more people with. However, I do know that my ancestors existed. If they didn’t exist, then How did I get to exist? People don’t just jump out of the ground fully formed.
That you have ancestors, sure, that’s an empirical fact. That they are who they say they are… well, “fiction” is a strong word, but it’s a matter of faith. There’s plenty of stories about people who complicate “family lineage” by raising siblings’ and childrens’ and neighbors’ children as their own, or just outright lying about parentage. Or look at the idea of “combining families through marriage.” And if you go beyond the family unit, there’s plenty of examples of people who complicate group identities through travel and migration and conquest and flight, or again outright passing.
Most of us can have a lot of faith that at least the generations we met told us the truth, especially in the modern world where we leave a lot of records. But go back 100 years, or 1000, and we’re often just accepting family stories.
I actually came here to say that this is what those over-the-counter DNA surveillance database companies are selling (you know, “23 And Subpoena Me” and all them). They offer a picture of scientific truth behind (or instead of) those stories. But if you scratch the surface of their DNA sampling techniques, you’ll see that they’re selling a story about the accuracy of that genetic testing, and then they’re letting you make up your own stories about how that knowledge should impact your senses of self and group identities. Stories on top of stories. But they’re obviously filling some need for someone.
That’s not quite the point. The fact that you have ancestors is not a fiction. This “being” called a “family,” on the other hand? A thing in and of itself? A set of people that includes people alive and dead, people who know each other well and people who haven’t even met, ancestors, uncles, third cousins once removed, forbears long forgotten and generations not yet born?
That institution is not an objectively real thing. It really isn’t. “Family” and “lineage” are a narrative we’ve created. It’s a very persuasive narrative, but that makes it no less a product of our own imagination and reasoning. We act like it’s real, and we can observe those actions and conclude it must exist, but even that conclusion is a narrative we construct.
What exactly do you mean by “A thing in and of itself?”
Aside from the fact that one was mobile and the other geographically static, is there any substantive difference between the “family” and the “band” of previous discussions. The latter, after all, was based not just on current members but on the remembered experiences of the past members to regulate current behavior, much like a family does; and was no more a “real” thing than the former.
Yes. Band members certainly passed on knowledge and stories and memories. But there’s a big step from “my great-grandfather has descendants in all the bands around me today” to “all our bands can cooperate with loyalty and trust, because we share the same great-grandfather.”
Think of bands as real people living in the present, though of course with memories of the past. Think of a lineage as something more, something that exists beyond the people living today. It includes all the ancestors that came before, whether remembered or not. It includes the handful of people living today. It includes all the descendants yet to be born. It is a “thing” made up of people, but its existence is separate and distinct, and persists even after today’s people are gone. In other words, an institution. Like corporations or guilds or religions or governments. And just like all the other institutions, it only exists to the extent we believe it exists. It is a narrative we dreamed up, and we’re free to stop believing in it.
And as a matter of fact, we’re going to see precisely that in coming pages. People in one tiny patch of the planet are rather suddenly going to stop believing the narrative of lineage, and that’s going to have some huge consequences. But hush, no spoilers!
Interesting coincidence – I was just reading someone citing Jared Diamond on the difference between bands/tribes on the one hand, and groups with designated leaders on the other. I suspect Diamond’s definition of “tribe” isn’t quite the one you’re using here, since as I understand it “everybody knows everybody else” is one of his criteria.
Possibly I should read his books directly at some point.
His first one, guns, germs, and steel, was much better. His second was too slanted towards his political agenda.
Check out the next page, where we start to come up with a working definition of tribes & clans. It’s just one that’s going to work for our purposes here—there’s surprisingly no settled definition of either. Some sources say the clan is a subset of the tribe, others say it’s the other way around. Some say they’re based on shared religion and culture, more like an ethnic group, while others say they’re based on shared lineage, more like an extended family.
The trouble with setting a precise definition is twofold. First, these social arrangements evolved independently in far-apart lands after agriculture and sedentism took root. It would have been amazing if societies in the Levant, in China, in Central America, etc. all evolved identically.
Second, these societies evolved. There is no clear break between bands and tribes, tribes and chieftans, chieftans and kings. It all happened gradually over many thousands of years (as we’ll start to see on the next page after that). So in a way, all of the definitions are right—it just depends on which moment in time you’re looking at.
Right now, we’re just making the transition from band-level society, from our state of nature, to the first artificial narrative-based society. So our definition is going to be based on some very early snapshots. If we were looking at times after the births of religion, government, and civilization, and even after the fall of Rome, we’d be seeing people living in very different ways, yet still in a kind of tribe/clan arrangement. So the definitions we come up with for “tribe” and “clan” would be much different from those we’re about to come up with here.
Jared Diamond, from what I recall of his books, bases his definitions on observation of modern-day tribal societies. Like so many, he (again, iirc) makes the mistake of generalizing from contemporary tribal peoples to how people must have been living before the invention of religion or government. That’s a mistake because the world today’s tribal peoples live in would be utterly unrecognizable to people living way back then. It’s not as if they’ve been frozen in time this whole, uh, time. Their societies and cultures and languages and beliefs have been evolving for just as many thousands of years as those of contemporary Europeans. You wouldn’t say today’s Germans live the same way as they did a thousand years ago, so why say the New Guineans that Diamond observed are living the way they did 10,000 years ago?
Don’t get me wrong, I think he makes valuable insights in the books of his I have read (Guns, Germs, and Steel first back in ’99, then again a couple of years ago; and Collapse a few years ago). But for me I find it best to take them as insights rather than empirical data.
I just grabbed GG&S to see how he defines tribes. Yup, I recalled correctly. He says band-level society is like today’s nomadic New Guineans living in swampy lowlands, with highly limited opportunities for foraging, and not even stones to make their own tools with. He seems to think that the only reason they and other “band-level” societies don’t naturally settle down and farm is because they live in isolated, resource-poor locations. That couldn’t be more different from the state of nature the anthropological, genetic, and historical record have been agreeing on more and more since around 2007. He defines “tribes” as a political unit of a village, or a cluster of villages. He bases this on the New Guineans farming and herding in the highlands. He contrasts this with what linguists and cultural anthropologists called a “tribe,” casting a wider net to include all who shared the same language and culture. He should have read historians instead. They’ve had a decent understanding of early tribal life since the mid-1800s, and it’s only gotten better with more and more sophisticated anthropological excavation and analysis.
That’s not just him. You’re going to see the same disconnect in all kinds of sources that hypothesized and extrapolated before the science started answering these questions. Like reading Freud if you’re current with neuroscience. It’s easier to believe the older theories, of course, because their narratives reflect the world we live in, and thus seem more real. The narratives coming out of the science, on the other hand, are of a world so alien to ours that it can be hard to think it even makes sense. (That’s precisely the reason, by the way, why I’m taking so much time with these stone-age societies—if I’d just flatly stated “this is how it was” I’d lose credibility, because it seems so obviously wrong to our modern way of thinking. And I really think it’s important we all be on the same page before we start arguing about gun control and abortion and presidential powers and free speech and civil rights.)