One hardly ever sees news from Austria or Czechia* in the American press. Yet recent developments in these two small European countries have big implications for the continuing viability of the European integration process.
The Austrian People’s Party poster: Kurz: Now. Or never! Source
In Austrian elections a week ago the greatest gainers were the Austrian People’s Party and the Freedom Party of Austria. Both parties can be described as right-wing, populist, and anti-immigration, and the Freedom Party is, in addition, Eurosceptic (which means that want to reverse European integration). If they form a governing coalition, as seems likely, this would result in a significant rebellion against the EU governing elites.
Czechs had their own elections last weekend, and the resulting ruling coalition is also likely to be right-wing, populist, anti-immigration, and Eurosceptic (Euroscepticism is particularly strong in Czechia). Now keep in mind that the current governments of Poland and Hungary are already governed by similarly Eurosceptic leaders. In other words, there is a rebellion in the middle of the European Union, and it’s growing.
I’ve written extensively about the disintegrative processes gaining momentum in the EU over the past few years:
The surge of right-wing populism, which resulted in a formation of a group of European countries whose political trajectory increasingly diverges from that prescribed from Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, thus, is only the latest sign of how far disintegration of the EU has gone. In fact, it’s remarkable how many various fault lines there are, which increasingly divide Europe.
One of the most important is, obviously, Brexit, which should end with the UK leaving the EU. Then we have the Greek crisis that could end in Greece leaving the Eurozone. Although this seems to be off the table at this moment, the fundamental problems that resulted in the crisis haven’t been addressed.
In addition to fault lines between the EU center and constituent nation-states, there are a number of problems within the states. Catalonia is number one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ham-fisted tactics of Madrid eventually lead to a violent conflict between the Catalonian secessionists and the Spanish unionists.
The independence movement is also very strong in Scotland. In Belgium secessionists essentially won, because the Flemish and the Walloons cannot any longer agree on living in a common state. The only thing that keeps them from declaring two newly independent states is the question of how to divide up Brussels. It’s rather ironic that Brussels is both the capital of the EU, and of Belgium, a failed state.
Last weekend also saw “nonbinding” referenda in which over 90 percent voted for greater autonomy in Veneto and Lombardia. In short, wherever you look in Europe, the signs of impending fragmentation abound. And I have probably missed some in this sad list.
*Czechia is how the Czechs now want their country to be referred to. See ‘Nobody calls it Czechia’: Czech Republic’s new name fails to catch on
Forty years ago this day my family (and I with them) left the Soviet Union on our way to America. Our first stop was in Vienna, where, by a curious coincidence, I am today (visiting at the Complexity Science Hub).
From the cliodynamic point of view, four decades is not a lot of time. Still, these particular decades saw quite a dramatic change of the world’s geopolitical landscape. In this post I take a quick look back at how the world changed since 1977. I focus on the two superpowers of 1977.
USSR – Russia
I left Russia because my father was one of the dissidents calling for reforms that would make the Soviet Union more democratic and market-oriented. In the mid-1970s the Brezhnev regime had consolidated its power over the USSR and decided to do away with the last remnants of dissidents, even though they had zero influence on what was happening in the country. Some dissidents were forced to immigrate, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and my father. Others ended up in prisons. By 1980 the Soviet Union looked like a monolith that was immune to both external and internal challenges.
Now, in retrospect, we know that this appearance was deceptive – the disintegrative trend had already set in. When the new generation of leaders replaced the Brezhnev cohort in 1985, they rapidly drove the Soviet empire into collapse and disintegration. The first time I went back to Moscow after emigrating was in winter 1992. I saw what a social collapse looks like. Massive immiseration of the population, passed-out drunks everywhere, collapsing infrastructure, collapsing law and order. For example, we saw several charred car wrecks that were left after some businessman or a mafia lord (actually, there was no difference between the two) was assassinated. In the produce market, ethnic Mafiosi were collecting protection money in the broad daylight. Shouldering aside the buyers, they walked down the stalls with thick wads of cash, the vendors handing them bills with shaking hands.
However, the reversal of the disintegrative trend occurred quite rapidly, by historical standards. The onset of the new integrative trend coincided with the shift from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Putin is, of course, currently demonized in the Western press, but the Russians have a different view, because his rule was associated with rapid growth of personal incomes (mainly between 1999 and 2007), and return of Russia to the circle of Great Powers. Of course Russia today is nothing like a superpower that the USSR was—rather it’s a weak and shambolic great power (sort of like Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century).
The integrative trend has faltered somewhat in the last few years, and it’s difficult to predict whether it will be sustained into the next four decades. In any case, the history of the past 40 years has seen two dramatic trend reversals. Predictions based on linear extrapolation, whether made in 1980 or 1995, turned out to be completely wrong. History is dynamic and nonlinear.
The United States
It’s hard to remember now, but back in 1977 it was the US that looked like an ailing superpower. The defeat in the Vietnam War was only two years in the past. Across the world, insurrections aided by the Soviet Union were seemed to be in ascendance. Within the country, the social turbulence of the late 1960s and the 1970s was just coming to an end. In fact, the Black Liberation Army was still active in the US until the Brinks truck robbery in 1981. The 1970s economy was in disarray, with one recession after another, and the Bear Market contributing to (or reflecting) the feeling of social pessimism.
But the subsequent four decades, again, showed that linear trend extrapolation is a really bad way of making geopolitical predictions. When the USSR collapsed in early 1990s, the US became the only standing superpower in the world, the status that it retains today. There was a lot of giddy prophesizing concerning how the 21st Century would be the American Century. That looks increasingly unlikely, especially given the outcome of the presidential elections of 2016. We have clearly just entered our own Age of Discord.
When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978 (this is described in detail in Part IV Ages of Discord, see in particular, the significance of Douglas Fraser’s resignation letter from the Labor Management Group written in 1978, p. 195).
In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.
What follows is my report on the workshop Evolution of Social Complexity that I organized at Complexity Science Hub-Vienna, October 2–3, 2017.
An Agenda for Research on the Evolution (and Devolution) of Social Complexity
Over the past 10,000 years human societies evolved from “simple” – small egalitarian groups, integrated by face-to-face interactions – to “complex” – huge anonymous societies of millions, characterized by great differentials in wealth and power, extensive division of labor, elaborate governance structures, and sophisticated information systems. What were the evolutionary processes that brought about such an enormous increase in social scale and complexity?
We also need to understand why social forces that hold huge human societies together sometimes fail to do so. Complex societies collapsed on numerous occasions in the past, and may be at risk today. There are clear signs that even industrialized, wealthy, and democratic Western societies, that seemed to be immune to collapse until recently, are becoming less stable. Research on social complexity will bring understanding that is of direct value to our societies and human well-being.
On October 2-3, 2017, Complexity Science Hub (CSH) in Vienna conducted a workshop on the evolution of social complexity organized by the CSH external faculty Peter Turchin. A diverse group of scholars, which included historians, archaeologists, evolutionary and computer scientists, and physicists, who considered the following questions: Can we measure Social Complexity? How many dimensions does it have? What were the evolutionary forces that explain the dramatic increase in Social Complexity over the past 10,000 years? And why do complex societies sometimes become unstable, and even collapse?
One important point that several participants stressed is the need to study the deep human past. Social forces that bring about societal disintegration build up slowly, over many decades. A short-term view that focuses on only where we currently are, rather than on also where we came from, will not yield effective policies that will allow us to avoid the looming crisis. Furthermore, the tension between collective, more cooperative forms of governance, on one hand, and more autocratic, even despotic forms, on the other, is not new—it has been with us ever since the first centralized societies arose some 7.5 thousand years ago. We need to learn these lessons from the past. Similarly, evidence is accumulating that increasing inequality undermines social cooperation and societal stability, both in the past and today.
More generally, much research is currently addressing questions of environmental sustainability and of sustainable economic growth. But what about social sustainability? Social instability has a direct impact on human well-being, and collapse of complex societies can be catastrophic. In Europe, specifically, we see a number of worrying trends—the rise of populism, authoritarianism, and separatism—all suggesting that social cooperation is gradually unraveling and a disintegrative trend is setting in. The participants of the workshop think that a research program combining the quantitative methods of complexity science (including computational social science, nonlinear dynamical systems, and social network analysis) with “Big Data” methodologies that probe deep human past will generate new and exciting insights that will allow us to understand how these negative trends can be reversed.
There are two particular challenges to social sustainability that have become very important recently. One is the communication revolution that has dramatically changed how information is processed and disseminated. On one hand, this revolution has had many positive effects. For example, it has democratized social influence, since any individual or group can now reach large numbers of other individuals online. On the other hand, it enabled malevolent actors, including individuals, organizations, and states, to conduct “informational warfare” to nefarious ends.
The second challenge is also driven by technological evolution. As automation and robotization of production expand, the demand for human labor will begin falling below its supply (in fact, this may already be happening). This technological transition is not necessarily bad, unless it is mismanaged. Unfortunately, the triumph of neoliberal ideology in the United States, and deep inroads this ideology recently made into European elites, means that the chance this transition will be mismanaged is quite high. If it is left to free markets, then businesses are likely to continue replacing workers with machines, unemployment will grow, collective demand that drives economic growth will decline, and inequality will spike, followed by social instability and growing political violence.
These (and other trends that we did not mention here) are serious challenges to the sustainability of complex societies. As history shows, drastic social simplification nearly always imposes huge costs on societies in terms of human well-being. Research into the mechanisms and causes of evolution—and devolution—of complex societies is not only intellectually exciting, but also has direct benefits for our societies and human well-being.
Today Catalonians vote (or not) in an independence referendum. As a result of moves by the regional government in Barcelona and national government in Madrid, Catalonia became one of the potentially most dangerous flash points in Europe. The potential for violence has been greatly elevated as a result of a reckless decision by Madrid to send Guardia Civil to suppress the referendum by force. I have no idea whether there are enough Catalonians who feel strongly enough about independence to respond to force by force, but I also doubt Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy really knows what will be the consequences of his move. As I write this post on Sunday morning, most violence is not particularly serious, but violent confrontations have the potential of escalating far beyond what either side wishes.
The Madrid government has declared the referendum illegal according to the Spanish Constitution. But that constitution is not a divine law, or law of nature. Laws are made by men, and Spain had many constitutions prior to the current one, which was adopted in 1978. In any case, human societies evolve, and laws must evolve with them. And this leads me to why the Catalonian referendum is interesting from the point of view of Cultural Evolution.
The theoretically interesting question is what is the optimal size of a politically independent unit (“polity”) in today’s world. Clearly, optimal size changes with time and social environment. We know empirically that the optimal size of a European state took a step up following 1500. As a result, the number of independent polities in Europe decreased from many hundreds in 1500 to just over 30 in 1900. The reason was the introduction of gunpowder that greatly elevated war intensity. The new evolutionary regime eliminated almost all of the small states, apart from a few special cases (like the Papacy or Monaco).
In today’s Europe, however, war has ceased to be an evolutionary force. It may change, but since 1945 the success or failure of European polities has been largely determined by their ability to deliver high levels of living standards to their citizens. Economics is not the only aspect of well-being, but let’s focus on it here because it is clearly the main driver behind Catalonian independence (since culturally and linguistically Catalonia has been given a free rein within Spain).
So the question becomes: will Catalonia be better off as an independent state, or an autonomous province with Spain (as it is now)? (Same question can be asked about Scotland, which recently also ran an independence referendum.)
About half of Catalonians think yes, because they know that the region pays much more in taxes to Madrid, then gets back from the central government. There are, of course, significant costs associated with independence. Some are transitory, and others (like the need to maintain a diplomatic service and embassies in many countries) are permanent. There are a lot of other unknowns, for example, whether Catalonia would be able to remain within the European Union, should the referendum succeed.
My conclusion: nobody really knows whether independence will make the life of most Catalonians better, or worse. Thus, I say: if the majority of Catalonians vote for secession, let them have it. If they are willing to run an experiment using themselves as subjects, they certainly have the right to do so, and their experience will be useful to other regions (e.g. Scotland) that currently contemplate independence.
This is applied cultural evolution. We can have lots of theories and models about the optimal polity size, but they are worthless without data.
And it’s much more than a scientific issue. The only way for our societies to become better in all kinds of ways (wealthier, more just, more efficient) is to allow cultural evolution a free rein. More specifically, we need cultural group selection at the level of polities. A major problem for the humanity is finding ways to have such cultural group selection to take place without violence. Which is why I find the current moves by Madrid to suppress the Catalonian independence vote by force criminally reckless. It seems that Madrid still wants to go back to the world as it was in the nineteenth century (or more accurately, Europe between 1500 and 1900).
Notes on the margin: You can read more about cultural group selection and success or failure of societies in Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.
This evening I am meeting with a group of historians, mostly specializing in the study of Byzantium. The topic of discussion is “Evolution of Large-Scale Societies”. The participants were sent a couple of my papers on the topic, and so the plan is for me to give a short (15 minute) introduction to the discussion to follow, rather than present any specific results.
As I was thinking this morning about what I should say in this introduction, I saw an article from American Scientist sent by a colleague in my department.
Although I am now really a social scientist, my main appointment is in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The article that my colleague shared was about why Ecology needs Natural History. And it’s directly relevant to my discussion with the historians of Byzantium tonight.
There is clearly a tension between traditional historians and scientists in such new fields as Cliodynamics and Cultural Evolution. Scientists are interested in discovering general principles that govern the dynamics and evolution of human societies, while most historians are passionately interested in the inner workings of a particular society that they study. Historians typically are not interested in general laws, and in fact most of them don’t believe that there are such things in History.
What historians don’t realize is that similar tensions, between an emphasis on general principles and the in-depth study of particular cases, are also found in Natural Sciences. In particular, in Ecology. In his Scientific American article, John Anderson explains how Ecology started as Natural History. Without naturalists, like Alexander von Humboldt, there could be no theory of evolution, because any general theory needs empirical content. In fact, the fathers of evolutionary theory in biology, Darwin and Wallace, were also keen naturalists.
The relationship between traditional History and new scientific fields, like Cultural Evolution, in my opinion, is very similar to that between Natural History and Biological Evolution (note that “history” and “evolution” show up in both pairs). Both fields need each other.
It’s obvious that Cultural Evolution needs History. This need was made especially clear in our Seshat project, because building a Global History Databank without specialists on past societies (historians and archaeologists) is clearly impossible. Yes, some social scientists have put together databases by hiring student research assistants to code historical data, but such databases suffer from numerous problems, for example, frequently relying on obsolete results that more recent historical scholarship has shown to be erroneous. In contrast, the number of specialist historians and archaeologists who have contributed to the Seshat Databank is already approaching one hundred.
Furthermore, where do general theories come from? In my experience, they arise as a result of reading detailed histories of particular societies. Over the past 20 years, I read an awful lot of history, and it certainly makes me a much better theorist than I would be otherwise.
What is less obvious is that History equally needs Cultural Evolution. Without a scientific component (which means formulating theories very clearly and testing them empirically against each other), History is doomed to be a heterogeneous collection of facts and particular explanations. My favorite example is the collapse of the Roman Empire. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about it, and each author has her own pet theory of why the collapse occurred.
Moreover, the sad truth is that scholarly disciplines that don’t yield clear practical benefits tend to be neglected. This is why History and other Humanities are severely under-funded. There is little appetite in our societies to fund pure research unencumbered by practical benefits (even if in some distant future).
Interestingly, John Anderson follows the same tack in justifying why Natural History should be funded:
The failure to train a new generation of natural historians goes beyond academic interests and has practical and legal implications. Several years ago, I participated in a workshop on the importance of natural history in modern science. After the presentations, a representative from a federal agency stood up and said essentially, “Look, you environmentalists have managed to get all these laws passed that require us to do environmental-impact statements. Then you betrayed us. You went into the lab and focused on theory and genetics. You stopped teaching herpetology, mammalogy, and ornithology. When I am trying to do a consultation on the Endangered Species Act, I don’t need someone who can talk theory or run gels; I need to know whether that is a clouded salamander, because if it is, a whole new regulatory procedure has to be instituted. You people in universities just aren’t turning out students with the training I need anymore.”
The reason Ecology is much better funded than History is because Ecology has shown itself as not only a theoretical discipline, but also because it (via its connection to Environmental Science) yields practical benefits. Just as personal health matters (which is why biomedical sciences are the best funded of them all), the health of ecosystems in which we live matters, as does the health of our planetary biosphere.
The health of societies we live in also matters. What most people don’t realize is that Cultural Evolution allied to History has the potential of yielding immense practical benefits, by helping us to evolve more cooperative, better-organized, more productive, and more just societies that deliver high levels of well-being for us all.
Why is Cultural Evolution a particularly good fit for History? To address first the two common tropes, Cultural Evolution is not Social Darwinism; it also doesn’t say that societies must pass through fixed stages of development.
Cultural Evolution is interested in both general principles and in variation between societies. In fact, variation is an incredibly important part of evolution. Furthermore, historians love contingency, but so do evolutionists. History and Cultural Evolution are natural allies, and practitioners of these two disciplines should work together.
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”?
~~~ *** ~~~
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.
~~~ *** ~~~
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.
~~~ *** ~~~
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
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?