It is strange to actually live in a society experiencing a structural-demographic crisis, after studying many examples of such crises in the past. Unfortunately the crisis is developing largely according to the classical pattern. The degree of political polarization is at its highest levels since the (First) American Civil War. Intraelite infighting is tearing the Republic apart. There has already been at least one sacrificial victim (see my post Days of Rage). In general, things are falling apart faster than I expected. But this is the nature of political violence outbreaks: they are like earthquakes in that pressures for them build slowly and fairly predictably, but the actual timing of the quake is very difficult (probably impossible) to predict with any accuracy (see my explanation here).
My prediction for a violence spike peaking in the early 2020s, which I made a decade ago, was based on structural, slowly developing drivers. The most fundamental structural-demographic force is labor oversupply which drives popular immiseration and (after a lag) elite overproduction. Both of these trends are already at levels that they previously reached during our first Age of Discord (see graphs here). But these trends require decades to build and subside, so what helped me to pinpoint the time frame of the crisis to the early 2020s?
One of these faster moving drivers is demographic: the numbers of people aged between 20 and 29 years old. This is the age group that typically supply the shock troops to each of the warring sides in revolutions and civil wars. We are currently in the middle of this “youth bulge” (it will start subsiding after 2020).
Another important factor is economics. The dynamics of economic growth in capitalist societies is very complex. There are a suite of cycles or, rather, boom-bust sequences, as these “cycles” don’t have fixed periods. Instead, they tend to operate on “characteristic” time scales, ranging from years (the business cycle) to decades. One of the most important longer cycles is known as the Kondratiev Wave, because it was first described by the Russian economist Nikolay Kondratiev. Most economists don’t believe in the reality of these “K-waves” that recur every 40-60 years. However, Kondratiev recognized the cyclic pattern in the 1930s, and since then we’ve had two more K-waves, happening pretty much as he hypothesized. It’s actually one of rare economic predictions that have been supported by the subsequent history.
We are currently living during a negative phase of the current K-wave (sometimes known as “winter”), which is associated with stagnating economic growth, unwillingness of business to invest in production, high unemployment, and a general pessimistic mood. According to Russian researchers (like Korotayev, Akayev, and others) the current K-wave should turn around during the mid- or late 2020s. So “winter is here” for the next 5-10 years.
There is also a 50-year cycle of political violence, which I have termed “fathers-and-sons” cycle. Since the last spike was c.1970 (which was preceded, by other spikes in c.1920 and c.1870), the next one should come around 2020.
These and other drivers, which I considered 10 years ago, pointed to the early 2020s as the period when the American social system would be experiencing the greatest stresses (which historically usually end in revolutions and major civil wars). But what I haven’t explicitly considered is the role of finance economics in contributing to the crisis.
This is why I found the recent book by Steve Keen, Can We Avoid Another Financial Crisis?, so interesting and illuminating.
Steve is one of the “heterodox economists” (meaning that they are pretty much ignored by the mainstream). His starting point is the theory of Hyman Minsky (another economist who was largely ignored by the profession). Minsky’s theory makes a lot of sense to me, however. Let me try explain it in one paragraph.
The main dynamical driver is the magnitude of private debt (combining what’s owed by both corporations and households) in relation to GDP. Currently this indicator is at 150% of the US GDP. Why is it bad?
Actually, for a while, as private debt grows, things are just fine because expanding credit drives economic growth (think of new housing construction during building booms). But eventually the cost of servicing accumulated debt starts to depress consumption (the more you pay for your mortgage, the less money you have to buy things). Falling consumption results in overproduction of goods and declining profits for businesses, which makes investment a losing proposition. Credit collapses, businesses go bankrupt, or downsize their labor, less employment means even less consumption, and (absent large-scale increase in government spending) the economy enters a downward-trending “death spiral” of a prolonged depression.
The precise timing of the turn-around point is very difficult to predict (it’s another example of earthquake-like dynamics). Yet Steve Keen is one of very few economists who predicted the General Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007–2008.
If Steve is right in identifying the main cause of the GFC, then we should listen to what he says in the book about the likelihood of another crisis in the next few years. Unfortunately, the news is bad, because we are still at a very high level of private debt in relation to GDP.
I suspect that the Minsky model of Steve Keen would be a good fit with other models on which the structural-demographic theory rests (“suspect” because I haven’t yet looked into the actual equations). More generally, financial crises are a recurrent feature of structural-demographic crises, and I think I understand why (this, though will have to be deferred to a future post).
I think that Can We Avoid Another Financial Crisis is an important book. It is not an optimistic story. If Steve Keen is right, labor oversupply will not abate in any near future. This means popular immiseration will continue to increase, driving the rise of more politically entrepreneurial elite aspirants, ever greater polarization, and political violence. In other words, the current prognosis is a gloomy one.
Kate Kirby and I have organized a symposium on databases in Cultural Evolution for the first annual meeting of the Cultural Evolution Society in Jena, Germany. The symposium will run in two one-hour sessions on Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 (according to the tentative meeting program that I saw). Here’s a brief description of the symposium.
Big data meets cultural evolution/Invited Symposium on Databases in Cultural Evolution
Despite its youth, the field of Cultural Evolution has been highly productive of general theories and mathematical models proposing explanations for major patterns in human history. It has also inspired new empirical approaches, such as behavioral experiments conducted with people coming from a great diversity of human societies. Ultimately, however, theories and models of Cultural Evolution are about social change in the very long-term. Thus, they need to be tested with archaeological and historical data on past societies. In the last few years several research groups began constructing such historical databases, with the aim to test evolutionary theories. This symposium will bring together the key players in this new research direction in Cultural Evolution. Our goal is to discuss (1) the challenges and benefits of constructing historical databases and (2) how we can integrate the efforts of different projects to avoid unnecessary duplication and to increase synergy.
And here are the talks:
I have returned from my African vacation back to the ugly reality (which seems to be getting uglier every day). In Africa I went to two national parks, South Luangwa in Zambia and Liwonde in Malawi. Both are excellent, each in its own way, and well worth a visit.
I had good photographic equipment with me and took a lot of pictures. Here’s one of a lioness feeding on a buffalo that her pride killed the night before:
There is a lot of meat on a buffalo, enough for a pride of ten lions to feed on for two days. They stuff themselves so full that they only can lie down belly up:
And here’s one of a leopard:
I also learned a new bit of ecological lore (which I’ll use next time I teach my ecology class). It’s well known that elephants are one of the most destructive species (perhaps the most destructive, after humans, of course). It turns out that it’s not just because they are large and require a lot of food, but also because their digestion is extremely inefficient. They consume large quantities of low-nutrition vegetable matter, like this guy eating cattails:
But because they are not ruminants, they manage to digest only 20% of what they swallow. The ground in both South Luangwa and Liwonde is literally covered with elephant dung, and because it is so poorly digested, it provides a great resource for other animals, like this yellow baboon:
He is probably looking for marula seeds like these ones, which we found by picking through a large pile of elephant droppings:
I grew up in Russia and for the first 20 years of my life I never tasted a chili pepper. I still remember my first encounter with this potent condiment in a Thai restaurant after moving to the United States: biting into an innocuous looking bit, burning sensation followed by intense pain in the mouth, copious tears flowing out of my eyes. Thai restaurants in Seattle, WA, when I did my postdoc there, had a numerical system allowing one to specify how hot you wanted your meal to be. I never graduated beyond 2 (or 3, if I felt particularly masochistic). It was incomprehensible to me that the Thai not only endured but actually enjoyed food with spiciness dialed up to its maximum level.
I am happy to report that recently this great mystery has been solved to my satisfaction. Now I understand not only why this cultural practice evolved, but also why individual Thai people genuinely enjoy super-hot dishes. The source of this understanding was a truly excellent book by Joseph Henrich on Cultural Evolution (The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter; Princeton, 2016).
Cultural Evolution is a new interdisciplinary field whose intellectual roots go back only to the 1970s (unless, of course, you count Charles Darwin; but in a sense any new development in evolutionary science can be traced to Darwin). In this new field, “culture” is defined as information, which can affect human behavior, that is socially transmitted—through books and manuals, by teaching, or simply by observing and imitation. Cultural variants are information packages that cause people to behave in alternative ways. Cultural Evolution, then, studies how and why frequencies of cultural variants change with time, just as biological evolution focuses on the changing frequencies of genetic variants.
It was during the 1970s when evolutionary scientists started to ask whether the quantitative tools developed for the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, which had become broadly accepted by that point, could also be useful for studying the evolution of human societies. These pioneers were largely working independently of one another.
Following the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and On Human Nature (1979) E. O. Wilson teamed up with Charles Lumsden to publish Genes, Mind and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981). That book became one of the three foundational texts of Cultural Evolution. The second foundational work was written by the geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza and the theoretical biologist Marcus Feldman, Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach, also published in 1981. The third, and ultimately the most influential book, Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985), was published by the anthropologist Robert Boyd and the ecologist Peter Richerson. This book summarized their papers, written in the 1970s, that developed a mathematical theory of what they called “dual inheritance,” a coevolutionary process between genes and culture.
As Joe Henrich relates in the Preface of The Secret of Our Success, his encounter with Cultural Evolution began after he started graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1993. While still a graduate student Joe became a leader in using experimental approaches to investigating cultural variation in how people cooperate (see the edited volume Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies; Oxford, 2004).
The Secret of Our Success is an account of the first twenty years of Joe’s encounter with Cultural Evolution. It’s engagingly written, is illustrated with fun examples, includes autobiographical reminiscences, and (important!) there is not a single equation in it. In this respect it’s part of a new trend in publishing, reflecting the invasion by formerly staid academic presses into the turf traditionally occupied by for-profit publishers of popular nonfiction (“trade books”).
However, the Secret of Our Success is much more than a popular book. It addresses the most fundamental questions about our societies. Why are humans so smart and cooperative, compared to other animals? How do we solve ubiquitous “cooperation dilemmas”?
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Let’s go back to the burning question (pun intended) of the chili peppers (I will also eventually get to social norms, I promise). Why do Thai love hot, spicy food and Russians don’t? It turns out that certain chemical compounds in spices, such as capsaicin in chili peppers, are potent antimicrobials. In hot climates food, and meat especially, spoils rapidly. Spices kill pathogens, and people in the tropics who eat highly spiced foods enjoy better health. So far, this looks like a classic case of natural selection. However, of all animal species only humans use spices to control pathogens. Other animals evolve biological adaptations to safely consume dangerous, toxic foods.
Humans, on the contrary, “devolved” in this respect. Over the last five million years, since our lineage diverged from other hominid primates, our digestive apparatus (mouth, teeth, stomach, intestines) became much smaller. We also largely lost our ability to detoxify wild foods. If you try to eat like a chimpanzee (something that the anthropologist Richard Wrangham actually attempted) you will starve to death, unless you get poisoned first.
What happened? “Culture stole our guts,” says Joe. Evolution sacrificed digestive apparatus so that our bodies could grow huge oversized brains, which made possible human cultural evolution. And sacrificing digestive and detoxification functions was possible, because in parallel with the evolution of large brains and devolution of guts, humans acquired a remarkable assortment of techniques for processing foods. The most important, of course, is treating food with heat—roasting, baking, boiling, stewing, frying in oil, sautéing, etc. But cooking in a more general sense also includes chopping, slicing, pounding, grinding, leaching, marinading, smoking, salting, drying—and seasoning. Processing food in this fashion “externalizes” digestion. It makes food much more digestible and, very important, removes dangerous toxins or pathogens.
Unlike detoxification adaptations in other animals, cooking techniques are traits that are transmitted not genetically, but culturally. Thus, the evolution of food processing becomes a subject for Cultural Evolution (recall the definition I gave at the beginning of this article). When a cooking technique spreads through a population, this is cultural evolution. In fact, the initial adoption of chili peppers in Thailand is also an example of cultural evolution, because these cultivars were brought to Southeast Asia by Europeans from the Americas during the Age of Discovery.
We now understand why people in hotter climates use more spices, and why people in cold climates tend to eat bland food. Thus, one cultural variant (seasoning food with copious amounts of capsaicin) spread under a particular set of environmental conditions (hot climate), because there it conferred better health and survival for cultural groups practicing it. But it did not spread in another environment, where it does not result in better health. All pain, no gain.
But why do inhabitants of hot climates enjoy highly spiced food? After all, capsaicin literally causes pain (it activates a pain channel). Capsaicin is the active ingredient in Mace (the pepper spray)!
It turns out that as children grow up in cultures that value highly spiced foods, such as Mexico, they learn to reinterpret pain signals as pleasure. Their brains are “rewired.”
Now, perhaps chili-lover brains are rewired in a metaphorical, rather than literal sense. But there is another example, discussed in the book, in which cultural transmission literally rewires the brain. This is the case of London cab-drivers, who have to acquire the Knowledge, a memorized map of London’s central part, including some 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks. Not everybody is capable of this feat, but in those taxi drivers who manage it, a part of the brain, known as hippocampus, becomes enlarged by adding a substantial amount of gray matter—the biological wiring of our brains.
Let’s step back for a moment. The expansion of human brain size during the last two millions of years and the expansion of hippocampus in London cab drivers are, of course, very different processes. One is a slow evolutionary change of a particular group of organisms, the other is a fast developmental response in one particular organism (well, not so fast—it takes four years to acquire the Knowledge). But there is also a shared feature. Both examples show that culture and biology (genetics, neurophysiology) are, really, not separate. This continuum between culture and biology is one of the most important threads in Henrich’s book. Far from being separate, culture and biology are actually parts of one interacting system, with feedbacks going both ways. This is why gene-culture coevolution is a central idea in Cultural Evolution. For convenience, a particular study might focus on culture or biology, but if we want to understand human behavior we need to synthesize the two.
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What about social norms, and why are they like chili peppers? “Norms” are socially transmitted rules of behavior. Like cooking techniques, they are elements of culture (again, using the special definition I gave at the beginning). Cooking with chili peppers and enjoying highly spicy foods is also socially transmitted, so both social norms and food processing techniques are cultural traits. But the similarity between social norms and spicy foods goes deeper than that.
Let’s talk specifically about “prosocial” norms that induce people to behave in more cooperative ways. Social cooperation is the all-important glue that enables societies to produce public goods, things like public roads, clean air, and low crime. Public goods benefit all members of a community, or the whole society, but are costly to produce. As is well known, cooperation is highly problematic from the theoretical point of view, because selfish agents gladly benefit from public goods, but refuse to contribute to them (“defect”). How humans evolved the capacity to overcome this “Cooperation Dilemma” is a big question, which doesn’t yet have a universally accepted answer. But most researchers agree that prosocial norms play a very important role in whatever theory that we will eventually develop to solve this puzzle.
As an example of cooperation, consider meat-sharing, which is the norm in most foraging societies. Meat-sharing has numerous benefits for the group within which it is practiced. First, any particular hunter, no matter how skilled, is not always successful in bringing home game. Sharing ensures that everybody has a moderate amount of meat every day. Not sharing results in long spells of famine, interspersed with feasts (with a portion of the kill spoiling, or being wasted in other ways).
Second, put yourself in the moccasins of a hunter. You have an interest in the well-being of others in your tribe. There is that old-timer who is not as spry as he used to be, and can’t chase the game in the bush. But he is an amazing repository of knowledge that can save the whole tribe when a drought strikes (read the story about an old man Paralji in The Secret of Our Success). Or that pregnant woman, whose husband was killed in a hunting accident. When her son grows up, he will stand together with your children against the tribe’s enemies.
Thus, the whole tribe, including you and your descendants, benefits from meat sharing. But when you bring that yummy warthog from a successful hunt, there is a terrible temptation not to share it with others. It’s the Cooperative Dilemma all over again. The benefits of meat sharing are spread thinly over all. Its consequences are often deferred into distant future. Meanwhile, pigging out on the juicy warthog steak is here and now.
This is why you need social norms to help you stick to the straight and narrow. Such “cultural-institutional technologies” make sharing psychologically easier and prevent free-riding. One kind of such a social technology is meat taboos. Among some Kalahari foragers, for example, “the hunter himself could only eat the ribs and a shoulder blade; the rest of the animal was taboo for him. The hunter’s wife received the meat and fat around the animal’s hindquarters, which she had to cook openly and share with other women (only). Taboos prohibited young males from eating anything except abdominal walls, kidneys, and genitals.” These taboos essentially guaranteed that a large carcass would be widely distributed across the whole band.
I don’t know how deeply internalized are these food taboos in the !Kung. But food taboos in general can be very powerful because they plug into one of the most basic emotions: disgust. Many years ago, while touring Paris, I experimentally ate a sandwich with horse meat. Now Russians never eat horse meat, but I hadn’t realized how deeply this taboo was ingrained. I had an upset stomach that evening. Meanwhile the French, or the Mongols, eat horse without any ill effects. Culture.
Food taboos is just a special case. More generally, what deeply internalized social norms do to most of us is rewire our brains to feel inappropriate pleasure as pain (just like chili peppers, although in that case pain is rewired as pleasure). It’s interesting that norm-breaking often evokes disgust (“what he did made me sick to my stomach”). Cultural groups whose members internalize prosocial norms will sustain higher degree of within-group cooperation—and will win and spread at the expense of other, less cooperative groups. And so will the prosocial norm.
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In the Preface, Joe Henrich writes, “Intellectually, I was also keenly interested in the evolution of human societies, particularly in the basic question of how humans went from living in relatively small-scale societies to complex nation-states over the last ten millennia.” He doesn’t really sink his teeth into this question, as the bulk of The Secret of Our Success is devoted to human evolution preceding the great transition of the last 10,000 years. This is where my own Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth picks up the story of human history. Interestingly, Amazon.com, very appropriately, often pairs our two books as “frequently bought together.”
I also “converted” to Cultural Evolution in the mid-1990s, but whereas Joe moved from the bottom up, running behavioral experiments that probed why people in small-scale societies cooperate, I approached the subject from the opposite direction. I was interested (still am) in throwing the scientific method, in all its awful majesty, at the age-old question of why empires rise and fall. Very quickly I realized that Cultural Evolution provides us with an invaluable set of conceptual and mathematical tools to build, and test theories about the evolution and dynamics of large-scale complex societies. Ultrasociety is more work-in-progress than The Secret of Our Success. But it’s becoming increasingly more clear how Cultural Evolution will help us solve age-old questions about human societies.
Evolution of prosocial norms is a big subject in The Secret of Our Success. It is, indeed, one of the major contributions from Cultural Evolution to the question of how complex societies are organized and function. Of course, the study of social norms and institutions is a well-developed subfield of social sciences (for example, the New Institutional Economics). But institutionalists in social sciences tend to focus more on the “institutions as rules of the game” aspects. Yet, no matter how well an institution is designed, it will not ensure cooperation if people don’t internalize prosocial norms. What is needed for rules to work is that conforming to the norm becomes a preference that has intrinsic, rather than instrumental value. In other words, people need to feel good about doing right. To put it crudely, their brains need to be rewired to experience pleasure while sacrificing time, effort, food, money, etc. for the common good. Biology (genetic influences on behavior, physiological and neurophysiological mechanisms, and so on) plays a very important role in this. We leave in exciting times, as science makes great strides in understanding such social and biological influences on human behavior, and what makes our wonderful complex societies work (or not). And Cultural Evolution provides us with an indispensable set of tools to untangle the interactions between the social and biological factors.
My review of has barely scratched the surface of the great variety of topics covered in the book. I didn’t even talk about the Lost European Explorer Files. It goes without saying that my strong recommendation is to read the book. I’ll say more: The Secret of Our Success is going to be a field-defining book for Cultural Evolution in the next decade.
 I should point out that Joe’s example of a northern country with bland food is Norway. It’s a better example than my native country, because Russians are quite fond of mustard and horseradish. As a result, our traditional dishes are not quite as bland as Nordic food. Unfortunately, high level of resistance to allyl isothiocyanate, the active ingredient in mustards and horseradish, does not increase your ability to handle capsaicin without bursting out in tears.
A shortened version of this review was published in Vol. 1.1 of Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture. Reprint
Yesterday Nick Hanauer published an important article on Politico, To My Fellow Plutocrats: You Can Cure Trumpism. I agree with pretty much everything he says there, and I also want to add a few of my thoughts.
I find myself in deep disagreement with almost everyone I talk to about Trump and Trumpism. I firmly believe that Trump, by himself, is not the problem. Indeed, the left’s maniacal focus on Trump confuses cause with effect. Yes, Trump is a manifestation of a serious civic sickness. But treating the symptom by removing Trump won’t cure the disease, even if it temporarily makes us feel better. No, to heal the body politic we must confront the disease itself.
And here’s what I wrote in my blog post Listen, Liberal – Part I :
Clearly, the Democrats are still in massive denial about why they really lost the presidential elections of 2016. They are looking everywhere except at themselves. But by buying into the Russia conspiracy theory they are setting themselves up for much worse. When this conspiracy collapses (I personally give less than 10% chance that there is any substance behind it), it would be a colossal reputational hit, from which they might not recover before the next round of presidential elections.
The Democrats should stop obsessing about the mythical “Siberian Candidate” conspiracy. Instead, they should read the remarkable book by Tom Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
The real threat to our republic is an alarming breakdown in social cohesion, and the cause of this breakdown is obvious: radical, rising economic inequality, and the anger and anxiety it engenders.
I would add two things. First, I’d use the term “immiseration” rather than “inequality.” Most Americans, including myself and (I am sure) Nick, don’t want radical egalitarianism. Some degree of inequality is fair. Of course, the level of inequality in the US is way, way above what the great majority of Americans consider as fair. But it’s worse than that. As Nick says later in the article, the growing inequality is resulting in declining well-being of large swaths of American population – in absolute terms. The technical term for this is immiseration.
Second, as our historical research shows, popular immiseration is only of the general factors that drive political instability. The other, and in many ways more important one, is intra-elite conflict:
Intense intra-elite competition leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination). As a result, excessive competition results in the unraveling of prosocial, cooperative norms (this is a general phenomenon that is not limited to political life). Elite overproduction in the US has already driven up the intensity of intra-elite competition. Another clear sign is the unraveling of social norms regulating political discourse and process that has become glaringly obvious during the 2016 presidential election. Analysis of past societies indicates that, if intra-elite competition is allowed to escalate, it will increasingly take more violent forms. A typical outcome of this process is a massive outbreak of political violence, often ending in a state collapse, a revolution, or a civil war (or all of the above).
And all of these trends, immiseration and intra-elite conflict are spiking, suggesting a peak of political violence during the 2020s:
Structural-demographic theory (SDT) suggests that the violence spike of the 2020s will be worse than the one around 1970, and perhaps as bad as the last big spike during the 1920s. Thus, the expectation is that there will be more than 100 events per 5 years (see the upper panel in the figure). In terms of the second metric (the lower panel) we should expect more than 5 fatalities per 1 million of population per 5 years, if the theory is correct.
What it all means is that the main threat to the American elites are not the “miserables” (or even “deplorables”), but frustrated elite aspirants, who have always been the primary moving force behind revolutions and civil wars. It will be not peasants with pitchforks, but the Revolutionary Tribunal commissars with Mausers.
Or the Committee for Public Safety with its guillotines.
So what’s to be done? I agree completely with one solution that Nick discusses:
as counterintuitive as it might sound, the single best way to advance our own interests is to put more energy and money into advancing the economic interests of others. For example: by fighting to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage.
This is a great start, but it’s not enough. The fundamental social process that drives both immiseration and intra-elite conflict is the massive oversupply of labor that developed in the United States over the past 30–40 years. It’s driven by a combination of factors, demographic growth, immigration, massive entry of women into the work force, and shipping of manufacturing jobs off shore. See my analysis that tries to disentangle these influences: Putting It All Together (Why Real Wages Stopped Growing IV)
Most recently, the social force that has loomed particularly large is the technological change, with machines are replacing people. Something must be done about recovering the balance between the number of people who want jobs and the number of jobs available for them. And then there is the second problem of elite overproduction.
These are all massive problems and I don’t have ready answers or solutions. Yet there are things that a group of researchers and policy experts can do—and the American elites can help fund it.
One huge difference between the periods preceding the crises of the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War is that we have a much better understanding of why things are heading south. The Structural-Demographic Theory is not perfect, and much additional work needs to be done. But while different social scientists and public intellectuals focus on different slices of the overall problem, the SDT provides us with the theoretical machinery to deal with the overall problem holistically. Because we have this understanding, we don’t really have an option of sitting the troubles out – we need to use it.
When I visited Vienna for the first time many years ago, I remember experiencing a feeling of “cognitive dissonance.” On one hand, one hardly ever hears about Austria in the news—it’s one of those small, insignificant European countries (this should not be taken as a put-down; in fact, such countries tend to deliver a much better standard of living to their citizens than most imperial nations who lavishly spend treasure on armies, fleets, and client states).
On the other hand, I saw grand palaces, vast squares, and broad boulevards. Vienna looks like an imperial city, and of course it was. The present mismatch between the scales of the capital and its country is a result of the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, which was dismembered by the victorious allies following its defeat in World War I.
I had much the same feeling when I toured Teotihuacan last week. In my previous readings about Teotihuacan I distinctly remember that most referred to it as a “city state.” I read George Cowgill’s 2015 book Ancient Teotihuacan prior to the trip and, apparently, his opinion is that Teotihuacan was a rather small territorial state that might have controlled the Basin of Mexico but not much beyond it. Certainly not an empire.
Yet the dominant impression one gets when actually visiting Teotihuacan is that of sheer scale.
The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. Those dots on top are tourists (all photos in this post are by the author, published under the CC BY license)
It’s not just the size of pyramids, it’s the huge public spaces – the overall length of the central avenue (the “Avenue of the Dead”), which runs north and south, is 5 km.
The Avenue of the Dead, looking towards the Pyramid of the Moon (the Pyramid of the Sun is to my right)
The Avenue of the Dead, looking in the opposite direction from the Pyramid of the Sun
There are a number of huge plazas.
A reconstruction of Teotihuacan in the Teotihuacan Museum
It is estimated that the city covered 20 square kilometers and had a population of between 100,000 and 200,000. The city lacks any defenses, whether natural (it’s down on the flat plains, as you can see in the photos above) or artificial (no defensive wall). All of those are hallmarks of a capital of an extensive empire with frontiers far away, so that there is little danger of enemy penetrating to its core.
It’s interesting that there is some direct evidence that Teotihuacan conquered areas far away. For example, Stela 31 in Tikal apparently refers to the overthrow of a Tikal ruler in 378 CE by a Teotihuacano general. Now, Tikal (located in modern Guatemala) is 1200 km away from Teotihuacan—that’s quite a remarkable reach for a “city state”!
Stela 31 from Tikal (front view). National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Of course the text on Stela 31 is quite murky, and allows for a variety of interpretations, from an overthrow of one elite faction within Tikal by another, aided by some Teotihuacano adventurers, to an outright annexation of Tikal by the Teotihuacan Empire.
This inscription on the back of Stela 31 tells us about the involvement of Teotihuacan in the overthrow of a Tikal ruler (National Museum of Anthropology)
I leave arguing about the meaning of the text to the experts, but I think cliodynamics can contribute to the overall question—was Teotihuacan a city-state, or a large empire—in a meaningful way. We are nearly there with collecting a large set of data on hundreds of various polities, ranging in size from tiny to huge. There are lots of correlates of territorial extent, and once we have analyzed the data we can come up with an estimate—what is the likely range of possible territorial control that is suggested by the directly measurable characteristics of Teotihuacan?
Earlier this year I was asked to serve on a Cultural Evolution Society committee tasked with developing a strategy for the Society’s publications. The most important issue is whether the Society should publish its own academic journal, and if yes, how. Generally speaking launching a journal in a new scientific discipline is very important for defining its domain and methodology, creating a shared identity for the field’s practitioners, and providing a kind of a “refuge space.” The latter may be needed to allow nurturing approaches and methodologies particular to the new field. It’s often necessary to overcome potential hostility from rival established disciplines, whose practitioners could create significant barriers to publication of papers with novel results and approaches in their roles as editors and reviewers. Unfortunately, organized science is not immune to rejecting novelty just because it’s new!
So a Journal of Cultural Evolution would definitely be a good thing. The question is how to effect its appearance in practice. The discussion within our groups quickly identified three possible approaches (see below). I believe there is a plan to discuss this further at the first annual conference in Jena, Germany, in September. But I thought it would be useful for the Society’s officers and rank-and-file to start thinking and discussing the options now, before we get together in Jena. So here are my thoughts, with which other committee members may agree or disagree.
Traditional publisher route
A default approach in scientific publishing (until recently) has been to link up with a traditional publisher who would provide the funding and know-how to launch the journal. I personally think that following this route in 2017 would be a great mistake. I explain why in this blog post:
The main problem is that it is the nature of for-profit publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer, to extract profit. And they do a great job, enjoying profit margins of 30-40% (see the chart in the post). Some of my colleagues suggested that we discuss this route with a publisher—perhaps we could get a better deal. But I don’t see any point—it’s like a lamb discussing a contract with a lion. It’s in the nature of lions to eat lambs.
University presses are somewhat better than for-profit publishers, but they are also businesses, and they need to make money to stay in business. What’s important is that the goals of us as scientists and of any traditional publisher are misaligned (this misalignment has become more glaring in the last few years). We want to get our results out and we want open access for all (especially for scientists at non-western institutions that can’t afford the subscription fees). But open access clashes with the goal of the publisher to make money
Furthermore, there is an issue of equity. Traditional publishers operate by making scientists do most of the work. We do the research, write articles, review manuscripts, serve on editorial boards. The publisher does the job of organization. For doing perhaps 5% of the work (probably less), they get all the profits. More importantly, they make all the decisions: especially on how to price the “product”.
The whole landscape of scientific publishing is changing dramatically, and most publishers will probably not survive it for long. Thirty years ago publishers could expect to place their journals in perhaps 5,000 university libraries. They were able to price them modestly because of bulk. Then we entered the spiral of journal subscriptions rising and library funds declining. This business model is already in trouble, and I expect it will collapse completely in a few years. Right now is the worst time to give the journal away to a business.
And here’s the latest news on the open access front:
Publishing the journal using Society’s resources
In my opinion, this is the best route assuming we find such resources. I have a lot of experience with starting a journal, having launched Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution eight years ago. Here’s what my experience suggests.
In my opinion, we can, and should, ask authors to help with publication costs. Most grants budget for this. At the same time, we should not make payment a condition for acceptance; we should wave the costs for those without grants (and most authors outside the western countries).
Not starting a new journal
This third option is the one to follow if we cannot raise resources (human and material) needed for Option 2. If there is not enough enthusiasm for starting a new journal, as indicated by failure to generate such resources, then perhaps we don’t really need one.
There are a number of publishing options for society’s members.
I would welcome comments and discussion; and I hope these laying out of our options will be useful for the discussion we will hold in Jena in September.
A week ago I gave an Evolution Institute webinar about how our “ultrasocieties”—huge cooperative groups numbering in hundreds of millions of people and more—evolved over the last 10,000 years. The talk is based on my popular book Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. You can watch the webinar on the Evolution Institute web site.
We ran out of time before I could answer all questions during the webinar, and so I thought I’d use my blog to deal with the questions people sent in.
Jack asks: Do you see the spread of a scientific based liberal education being as powerful as something like war in the evolution of ultrasociality?
PT: In Cultural Evolution we distinguish between traits that evolve, and evolutionary forces that cause such traits to spread or wither. Warfare, and more generally, competition between societies, is one of the most powerful evolutionary forces explaining how human societies changed over the past 10,000 years. An example of a trait (what evolves) that I used in the talk was equity norms and constraints on ruler and elite selfishness.
Forms of education, about which you ask, is another kind of thing that evolves. Because liberal education is a very recent innovation, it’s too early to tell what its ultimate effect will be. But other forms of education, which were adopted by various historical societies in the past, have certainly played a very important role in making societies succeed, or fail. For example, Victor Lieberman presents a powerful argument in his book Strange Parallels that institutions of education in the early modern empires forged a common sense of identity, especially among the elites. Modern education serves a similar function by binding together (hopefully) the whole society, and not just the elites, by building a common set of social norms and preferences that make cooperation at the level of the society more possible.
Tom asks: Warfare almost certainly is the most significant selection force acting on cultural groups. Would we be able to include other selection mechanisms? At least to see relative strength vis-a-vis warfare.
PT: To expand on one of the points I made at the end of my presentation, I think that the success of modern societies in delivering broad-based improvements in their citizens’ quality of life has become more important today than mere military muscle. Thanks to modern communications and inexpensive mass travel, people visit other countries and see how the locals live with their own eyes. That puts a lot of pressure on the elites of those societies that fail to deliver. Note how concerned the Chinese leaders are with not only sustaining the overall rate of economic growth, but also ensuring that no large segments of the country’s population falls behind (thus, their efforts to bring rural areas along).
The recent rise of populist parties in Europe is another example. There are huge swaths of European populations (especially the younger cohorts) who have experienced a decline in their quality of life, compared to the parent generation. They are unhappy and they are putting pressure on their leaders. So I think this is an extremely potent force of Cultural Evolution.
Tom asks: Today we are seeing a next-level ideology (globalization) competing with nation-state ideology. What is the cultural selection force that will determine which ideology dominates, if not warfare?
Success at delivering broad-based improvements in the quality of life (see above). In the West, the ruling elites currently subscribe to the globalist ideology. They have also presided over declines in the quality of life of their populations. It is inevitable that anti-globalist, nationalist counter-elites will start winning elections. If nationalist elites prove to be able to reverse declines in well-being, their ideology will start spreading by imitation. If not, the opposite will happen. And this is an example of cultural group selection.
Anthony asks: Diplomat and International Relations theorist here. Peter, have you had much engagement with the IR field in applying these models/approaches to contemporary strategic behaviour? There is considerable overlap between your presentation and structural realism, such as that of Kenneth Waltz.
In my opinion, the neo-realism is the best empirically supported IR theory. I’ve written about it in this blog post:
Jan asks: Question: In the chart showing the increasing social scale of political entities over time, we reached 100 million people polities about 200 years ago. Can we consider that China brought us to 1 billion? And should we expect to reach polity size of 10 billion, i.e. the entire human population, in a few hundred years?
Aha, this is a very interesting question. Yes, I expect that the scale of polities will reach 10 billion in a few centuries. But no, I don’t expect that the entire human population will be within this polity. By 200-300 years in the future the humanity is likely to colonize the Solar System and perhaps even establish colonies in other solar systems nearby. Just about only realistic scenario that will have all humans becoming encompassed by a single polity is if we get attacked by genocidal Alpha Centaurians or some such.
But to solve the world problems it is not necessary to create one huge global state. Some problems are truly global – stopping the wars and preserving our planet, and require international cooperation. Others, such as delivering broadly based and sustained (and sustainable) improvements in economic well-being, can be, and should be solved locally.
Bradly asks: Can you please speak a bit about how ultra-sociality decreases within societies that are successful at conquering others?
More broadly, societies that are not intensely competing with other societies are susceptible to the operation of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Their elites become selfish and use their power to enrich themselves. The result is growing inequality, with a few wealthy and powerful capturing most of the fruits of the economic growth, and the majority of the population becoming immiserated. This argument is developed in much greater detail in Ultrasociety.
Shron asks: Would I be correct to see your theory as bolstering the interpretation of the sudden rise to riches of Europe in the past several centuries as resulting in large measure from its fragmentation and penchant for constant warfare?
This is certainly part of the answer. But I have a much more elaborate theory for the rise of Europe in the works. Ask me again in a year’s time – by then I should have developed a mathematical model and I hope the Seshat project will yield the data to test the model. Also, this will be the heart of the sequel—Ultrasociety II.
Shron asks: Talking of gentler forms of competition, I was struck by the absence of trade from your discussion of competition, since it would seem to me to be a competition mechanism on par with war in terms of its ubiquity in human history? How do war and trade interact with each other, and has there been a fundamental change in this relationship?
I don’t see trade as a competitive process, but rather as a cooperative one. What I think has changed in the last few centuries is that it is now possible for small countries to get ahead by establishing cooperative relations with other countries, profiting from the resulting division of labor, and thus delivering sustained improvements in well-being to their populations. Think the Netherlands during its Golden Age.
Thank you all for coming to the webinar, and for your questions! If you liked it, spread the word about Ultrasociety!
Today is the second and final round of presidential elections in France. The two contenders are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron is the candidate of the established elites. You cannot get more elite in France: he earned a master’s of public affairs at Sciences Po, and he is a graduate of the École nationale d’administration (ENA).
Le Pen is an anti-establishment candidate. In the jargon of Structural-Demographic Theory (SDT), she is a “counter-elite”, an elite aspirant who mobilizes masses in her struggle to overthrow the established elites. While she is not a graduate of a Grande Ecole (such as the ENA), she still is far from being a commoner (again, a SDT term). After all, her law degree is from the Pantheon-Assas University or “Sorbonne Law School”.
I haven’t done a proper structural-demographic analysis of France (it’s a lot of work, and I have other things to occupy me now, most notably analyzing the Everest of Seshat data), but from just reading about France in the news, it looks to me that it is also entering its own Age of Discord, although perhaps the negative structural-demographic trends are not quite advanced there as they are in the US.
In an article titled The French, Coming Apart: A social thinker illuminates his country’s populist divide, Christopher Caldwell writes:
For those cut off from France’s new-economy citadels, the misfortunes are serious. They’re stuck economically. Three years after finishing their studies, three-quarters of French university graduates are living on their own; by contrast, three-quarters of their contemporaries without university degrees still live with their parents. And they’re dying early. In January 2016, the national statistical institute Insée announced that life expectancy had fallen for both sexes in France for the first time since World War II, and it’s the native French working class that is likely driving the decline. In fact, the French outsiders are looking a lot like the poor Americans Charles Murray described in Coming Apart, failing not just in income and longevity but also in family formation, mental health, and education. Their political alienation is striking. Fewer than 2 percent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 percent just after World War II.
In SDT terms, we see clear evidence of popular immiseration and of elite overproduction. The monopolization of political power by the established elites, in particular, is a common development in pre-crisis phases. In my books on SDT, Secular Cycles and Ages of Discord, I use the Italian term—La Serrata del Patriziato (the closing of the Patriciate)—for this development, when the established elites close their ranks to exclude upward mobility from the commoners.
Is it surprising that the National Front of Marine Le Pen is doing so well? What’s actually surprising is that only 40 percent will vote for her tomorrow, according to the polls.
The mainstream press always tacks the adjective “Far Right” to Marine Le Pen. But is she, really? The old National Front under the leadership of her anti-Semitic father was “Far Right”. But Marine purged the extremists and anti-Semites (including her father) from the party when she took over. If you compare her program, and contrast it with Macron’s (for example, here) you would be surprised to see many left-leaning elements in it. For example, she wants to repeal the El Khomri Law, which made it easier for companies to lay off workers, reduced overtime payments for hours worked beyond France’s statutory 35-hour workweek, and reduced severance payments that workers are entitled to if their company has made them redundant. Doesn’t sound particularly “far right.” If anybody is “far right” it’s “business-friendly” Macron, with his anti-labor, cut the taxes on corporations platform.
It’s unlikely that Le Pen wins today. But under Macron the structural-demographic trends will continue moving in the wrong direction. Le Pen is only 48 years old. I would not be surprised at all if she will be the first woman to become the President of France in the next election cycle.
Follow Peter Turchin on an epic journey through time. From stone-age assassins to the orbiting cathedrals of the space age, from bloodthirsty god-kings to India’s first vegetarian emperor, discover the secret history of our species—and the evolutionary logic that governed it all.
200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but numerous indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.
Pants are the standard item of clothing for people, especially men belonging to the Western civilization. Why not a kilt, a robe, a tunic, a sarong, or a toga?