Çatalhöyük and Human Nature

Çatalhöyük

When talking politics, I seem forever to be told that my egalitarian ideas just don’t work. This usually takes a simple form. “Socialist can’t work because ‘Stalin’!” But then I dig down into people’s thinking. It is all the same: humans naturally depend upon incentives. If people can’t become rich they won’t work. This kind of argument shows just how much mainstream economics has poisoned our society. There is nothing “natural” about modern society.

Çatalhöyük represents a stable and successful egalitarian system. So why don’t capitalists engage with it as an example of socialism?

Look at the history of humans. Through most of our time on Earth, we have lived in extremely egalitarian communities. Paleolithic cultures (small nomadic groups) had very little hierarchy — especially regarding gender. It was only during the Neolithic (when humans lived in non-nomadic settlements) that hierarchy began to rise. At first, this seems to have been the result of increased fertility. Women spent more time pregnant. But specialization meant that a religious class could rise up. This ultimately destroyed the traditional egalitarian and democratic basis of earlier societies.

(That’s right Virginia, the Greeks didn’t invent democracy.)

But there is at least one Neolithic city that remained egalitarian. And it did so for roughly 1,800 years. Çatalhöyük. It was founded 9,500 years ago in southern Turkey. At its peak, it had a population of 10,000 people. It’s remarkable for a number of reasons. As I’ve discussed before, the people developed farming after the city was settled. This is the opposite of what archaeologists had long thought was always the way Neolithic cities came into being.

Economic Egalitarianism at Çatalhöyük

What’s most notable about Çatalhöyük, however, is the absence of “great houses” — temples and so on. This isn’t because they lacked religion. The houses are littered with religious objects. And different houses have different levels of religious iconography. But the people who had higher levels of religious status did not have higher levels of economic status.

This is remarkable. It’s almost as though the people of Çatalhöyük thought that all people should have the necessities of life. Their people didn’t have to hunt around the garbage heaps to find food. Indeed, there were no poor people.

Ian Hodder is the current head of excavations at Çatalhöyük. In the following half-hour video, he provides an overview of what we know about the city:

I’m not saying that Çatalhöyük was some kind of utopia. But it is an example of people forming what seems very much like an anarcho-communism system. And they didn’t find it necessary to allow their most productive members of society to live in large houses inside fences. Somehow, everyone managed to get by without roaming police to incentivized economic policy.

Stalin vs Capitalism

Recreated Çatalhöyük Home
Recreated Çatalhöyük Home

One thing most Americans forget about the Soviet Union is that it started in an economic hole. Russia was a very poor country. Under Stalin, the people became richer at a faster rate than Americans did. I’m not saying this justifies the brutality of Stalin. But why do we focus on it when apologists justify capitalism in the same terms? “Yes, millions starve each year because of capitalism, but it is justified because of all the poor people who get pulled out of poverty!”

If the justification for capitalism is that it “works” then there is nothing to criticize Stalin about, right? I personally have a problem with both. But capitalists pretty much never engage with the problems of the system. And when they do, they simply brush away all the deaths associated with it. In these arguments, capitalism never fails. When there is a failure, it is because capitalism isn’t being done right. The fact that capitalism has never been “done right” is not engaged with.

Çatalhöyük as Socialism Example

Çatalhöyük represents a stable and successful egalitarian system. So why don’t capitalists engage with it as an example of socialism? I think it is the same reason they always rush to Stalinism: they don’t know of any other socialist system. The entire basis of their critique of socialism is based on Cold War propaganda.

Counterarguments

But if these people did defend against the troubling example of Çatalhöyük, I know roughly the lines of their argument. They would say that this is just one city and the model would not scale up to the world. But that begs the question. Humans have invaded all parts of the world — creating untold environmental damage — because of capitalism. Do we really need 7+ billion people on this planet?

Çatalhöyük was not some isolated city. It traded far and wide. It was a major exporter of pottery.

But I still don’t see how this model does not scale up. It’s not like Çatalhöyük was some isolated city. It traded far and wide. It was a major exporter of pottery.

“Ha!” I hear the capitalists say. “It was involved in trade so it wasn’t socialism!” I am constantly shocked at how ignorant people who defend capitalism are. Markets are not a thing that capitalism created. Capitalism is simply a system in which people can own infrastructure and thus make money for doing nothing. (It doesn’t speak well of the defenders of capitalism that they are economically ignorant about the very systems they defend and attack.)

An Example Nonetheless

But Çatalhöyük is a good example of socialism regardless of any holes that can be poked in it. That is because it shows that there is nothing natural about the social Darwinian model of human behavior. Humans live good lives without being incentivized by huge profits.

Today, we assume that people won’t work unless they are constantly under threat of living on the streets. This is what Paul Ryan was getting at when he said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” Why did he think this? It isn’t based on evidence. It is just something everyone “knows” in modern America.

Çatalhöyük proves this is not true. The fact that we have trained generations of humans to live awful, meaningless, competitive lives doesn’t make it natural. And it also provides hope. We can untrain people. We can allow them to see the truth. Humans are social animals. We take care of each other. We don’t need the promise of millions of dollars to go to work.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

14 thoughts on “Çatalhöyük and Human Nature

  1. What’s more, it requires an actively cultivated blindness to believe that money is the only or even the primary motivator of human behaviour. Just a cursory observation of society and our everyday experience is enough to dismiss this notion. For instance, there was never any shortage of competition or ambition among the academic class before the universities were turned into profit centers and research became a jumping off point for founding corporations rather than a public resource.

    • Exactly. And I just saw a local story about a guy who admitted to murder. The police said they were glad because they never could have solved the case without a confession. Why do people do that? Because humans — even murderers — are guided by ideals. We don’t act like the good, perfectly rational actors of economic models.

  2. What’s fucked up, here, is I’ve learned to believe nobody. If someone says, “I’m your pal,” your best bet is assuming they’re lying. Because, rather often, they’re lying.

    How the hell did this happen? When did basic human politeness become a weapon for screwing each other over? I have no clue, but it’s a completely crappy way to live.

    Studies show that Americans have fewer friends than almost anybody in the world. A wise person in this country trusts nobody on nothing. This is not right. This is not normal. And, yet, it’s where we are.

    • Hierarchy is worse than a zero-sum game because after the hierarchy is established, there is no end to how far apart the levels can get from each other. This was, let’s not forget, the reason that we had slavery for blacks: so that poor whites and blacks (and natives) wouldn’t work together; so that poor whites would feel good about the enormous difference between them and the land owners.

      To me, it is all about hierarchy. And the problem with capitalism is that it makes the normal problems with hierarchy worse.

      I would accept a far more meager lifestyle with more work if it meant I didn’t have to worry about paying my bills. Of course, I’m in a good position mentally. I already think that those “above” me are full of shit. Most people buy into the hierarchy. But they wouldn’t very quickly if the hierarchy were gone. For example, if I had a knife fight with Bill Gates, I think everyone would see that he isn’t as great as all the anus-sucking articles in major newspapers claim.

      But Bill Gates has roughly 15 million times my net worth. How is that conceivable? How could any person be worth that much more than another person? It’s because there is a totally arbitrary system (mostly of IP laws) that allows him to. And this whole mythology has been created to justify it. And it actually makes less sense than the divine right of kings.

  3. It’s wrong, but I would so totally pay to see a knife fight between F. Moraes and B. Gates. Nerd war! I’ve seen dumber, I’ve done dumber. Not proud of it, but I’ve been that ridiculously stupid. It’s happened.

    • I’ve practiced; I think I’d win. Unless he used his billionaires to hire the best trainers. And then his victory would beg the question because it would be yet another example of a rich person who doesn’t deserve to be rich being able to buy his way out of everything including a knife fight!

  4. I just got this on the baseball site. “You hate hierarchy, you hate corporate power. You must be jealous. Take a hard psychological look at yourself, there’s obviously something wrong.”

    It’s bananas. WTF? Hating shit bosses=mental illness. It’s a preposterous notion. But that’s the way we are now. If you think there’s something off with the system, you’re a weirdo & freak.

    • Speaking of imputations of mental illness, the USSR went through a phase of portraying opposition to the system as needing hospitalization.

      Defending existing relationships by trying to marginalize critique is neither new, nor unique to our present hierarchy. It is a sign of desperation though; I think this because of how obviously absurd it is. It’s at the point where people cannot even muster attempts at rational justification of existing economic relationships.

    • That’s perfect! Unless you are an obedient drone there is something wrong with you. This is the problem with these things that everyone “knows.” But I pity people who never have the realization that something they’ve always thought was true is just bullshit. Those kinds of epiphanies are great!

  5. A thing that hit me today; there’s no longer any difference between fact and opinion. I dislike certain political policies; that’s my opinion, others might disagree. Those policies are fact. They exist, they’re real.

    What Trump does — what all authoritarian politicians do — is blur the lines. Opinions are stated as facts. So you don’t know where you are, anymore.

    • This blurring is also a very old game, but I think it has been facilitated by the Internet, which tends to give a false sense of knowledge because information appears to come unfiltered. The right-wingers have learned (sort of) the terms ‘critical thinking’ and ‘fallacy’, and thereby confuse their use of them – uncritical defence of hierarchy – with their true meanings.

      • It’s interesting to watch, for example, a global warming denial video that is filled with cherry-picked data. Then a fairly honest scientifically-literate person will make a response video that shows that the first video is wrong — point by point. But almost none of the people who watched the first video will watch the second. And that’s generally true of the right and the left. The only difference is that the left still believes in facts. The right gave that over long before Trump.

    • Absolutely. That’s what authoritarians always do. They have to. It’s built into the ideology. It must be that whatever the leader says is right regardless of the facts. I remember while the Soviet Union was around that a large part of the society knew they were getting propaganda from the state news sources. But Americans were getting arguably as much propaganda and they were almost completely unaware of it. It’s funny now to see Republican voters as willing to believe any nonsense from Trump. They are worse than the people of North Korea.

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