"The oldest of all philosophers, that of Evolution, was bound hand and foot and cast into utter darkness during the millennium of theological scholasticism. But Darwin poured new lifeblood into the ancient frame; the bonds burst, and the revivified thought of ancient Greece has proved itself to be a more adequate expression of the universal order of things than any of the schemes which have been accepted by the credulity and welcomed by the superstition of 70 generations of men." T. H. Huxley, 1887.Introduction
The rise and fall of civilizations is a macro-behavior produced by the "micro motives" of genes, to borrow a concept made popular by Schelling (1978).
To the extent that genes played a role in the creation of civilizations it should be said that it was not their "intent" to do so. We know this, first, because the genes are mere molecules conjured up by a mechanistic universe. To say that genes have motives is, of course, an excess of anthropomorphic metaphor. The genes are simply the product of mutations that succeeded in surviving, and if they survive in the gene pool for many generations (of the individuals they construct) we say that they were successful in trying to express themselves and survive, as if they were motivated to do these things.
We know that it was not their intent to create civilizations because it cannot even be said that civilizations are a product of evolution in the same way that one can say the "eye" is a product, or the "brain." The difference, here, is that the eye exists because the genes that code for its assembly during embryologic development have been "selected" by the process of mutation and survival of the inclusively fittest. Whereas eyes exist because eye genes evolved, a civilization exists because of a fortuitous configuration of circumstances which have the unprecedented outcome of "civilization." The outcome is unprecedented because the genome out of which civilizations arise is essentially the same as the genome that gave birth to the first civilization. And when the first civilization emerged, however one defines "civilization," it was an evolutionary unforeseen event, for which no gene, or combination of genes, can take credit. Only after civilizations change the human genome by competing with uncivilized tribes, and winning, will it be possible to credit the genes for "sustaining" civilizations after their accidental first "creation" by the normal evolutionary process of mutation and natural selection.Civilizations are too new for viewing them as some manner of phenotypic expression with an adaptiveness that has been measured; civilizations have not had time to influence gene frequency appreciably. It is more accurate to view the phenomenon of a civilization as an unintended product of evolutionary processes that shaped human nature in an ancestral environment, devoid of civilizations, which rewarded genes that we learn later just happen to lead to the creation of civilizations when the random configuration of circumstances are conducive to the civilization's rise.
Even this gives too much credit to the genes. Group selection, GrS, followed by what I have termed individual selection, IS, may be responsible for the creation of civilizations, as I suggest in Chapter 12. Although group selection is made possible by the genes, the genes are not responsible for the failure of the group to keep individuals subservient to the group. So, to the extent that my suggestion in Chapter 12 is correct, concerning the roles of GrS and IS in the creation of civilizations, some of the credit for civilizations must go to a factor called "LUCK." (In my use of the term “luck” I’m assuming the reader is in favor of civilization, a clarification that is made necessary with the rise of fundamental religious movements throughout Islam, and even Christianity).In the remainder of this chapter, and the following one, I deal with factors that contribute to the fall of civilizations. There must be more ways for a civilization to fall than to rise. The fall of a specific civilization must have many contributing factors, and the most important one may differ in each specific case. The following sections are brief sketches of some of these factors.
Natural Catastrophe TheoryThe Minoan civilization was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of the island Thera (now called Santorini) in the Fall of 1628 BC. In addition to destroying most life on the
, the volcanic eruption produced a tidal wave (tsunami) that devastated coastal settlements on nearby islandof Thera Crete. The Minoan settlements on the north suffered damage to their fleets of fishing and trading ships. The Mycenaeans took advantage of the weakened state of the remaining Minoan civilization by invading them and replacing the Minoan culture with theirs. This unlucky natural event led to the fall of what may have been one of the world's first great civilizations. shoreof Crete
A comparable volcanic eruption and related earthquake-induced tidal wave would not bring down 20th Century world civilization, even if the area destroyed were
, London , Los Angeles or San Francisco . It would weaken Western Civilization, but I doubt that by itself it would be destroyed. Only if other factors were at work undermining the strength of civilization would a natural disaster of moderate magnitude contribute to its decline and fall. A global civilization could be threatened by an asteroid impact, creating a global cloud of stratospheric aerosols that would cool the surface and upset agricultural production for several seasons, leading to famine, widespread desperation and the breakdown of social order. Short of this unlikely scenario, I doubt that a natural disaster will be an important contributor to the current global civilization's decline and fall. Seattle
Group Selection SpeculationsChapter 12 describes a possible mechanism for the rise and fall of civilizations, relying on the controversial concepts of "group selection" and "individual selection." I suggested that the appearance of "individual selection" was a genetically unforeseen breakdown of the group's control of individual aspirations for making decisions, and that the "release" of individual creative and productive powers can generate what we call a civilization. After the successful creation of a civilization many of its citizens become self‑absorbed with their new‑found material wealth. Less civilized members of neighboring societies become resentful of the wealthy neighbors, and they feel threatened by the individual‑liberating culturgens of those neighbors. The uncivilized societies may then draw upon the magical strength of religious fervor, with its readiness for fanatical actions, and engage in a "holy war" of terrorism upon the civilized societies. These attacks require that within the civilization individual energy that had been productive become diverted to defensive and protective measures. The individual may find it easier to adapt to a growing nuisance of interference by jealous outsiders than to coordinate with others to
. This neglectful attitude weakens the civilization under siege, thus hastening its decline and fall. (See Chapter 12 for details.) mount counter‑measures
I recently became aware of a group selection theory relying on gene frequency changes for the rise and fall of empires (Choi and Bowles, 2007,In considering the relative merits of these two theories it is necessary to consider that the gene-based theory requires many generations to be effective, whereas my insightful individual theory can operate on a much shorter, one generation time scale. If we conceive of a civilization as a series of empires “taking turns” defending the same basic culture, then empires may come and go on time scales that require my “insightful individual” explanation, whereas the rise and fall of civilizations may require the “parochial altruism” explanation.
and Wilson, 2007, Turchin, 2007). I’ll refer to these speculations as “parochial altruism” theories. The scenario envisioned by them is quite similar to my speculation, which I will now refer to as the “insightful individual” theory. My speculation is that individuals act heroically on behalf of a super-tribe while it is in conflict with its neighbors because it is in the individual’s best interest to do so, whereas during a peaceful era following a decisive victory individuals act on behalf of themselves and lose their effectiveness at defending their accomplishment because they have become accustomed to a peaceful order that does not require sacrifice for the group. The main difference between my 1990’s “insightful individual” speculation and the 2007 “parochial altruism” theories has to do with the role played by gene frequency changes. Whereas I attributed behavior changes to individuals who could think on their own behalf, and forsake group needs when appropriate, the new theories invoke the influence of genes that predispose individuals to behave in one mode or the other. Wilson
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to accomplish fast behavioral changes without the need to invoke “individual insight” and without the need to invoke gene frequency changes? There is, and I prefer it to the previous two theories; it can be called SR Theory.Stimulus/response theory states that genes produce brain circuits that recognize specific environmental situations and respond with specific behaviors. Social animals are capable of reading a social situation and responding appropriately. It would be a simple matter for a person to distinguish between the home tribe being in chronic conflict with a neighboring tribe and being at peace with neighboring tribes. I’m proposing that when the chronic conflict condition is detected people tend to behave in ways described by “parochial altruism” and intolerance for “out-group differences” - which together predispose the individual for heroic actions during tribal conflicts. The reverse of this is just as easy to imagine: when times are peaceful behaviors are favored that we characterize as self-serving and tolerant of other people’s differences.
The proposed SR Theory for eliciting adaptive behavior has the virtue of producing quick responses to changing conditions since gene frequency changes are not involved. As soon as peace prevails personal behaviors occur that set in motion the downfall of the victorious tribe, which leads eventually to another tribe’s gaining the mantle of victor and eventual loser, thus perpetuating the endless cycle of rise and fall of tribal empires. What a simple theory for explaining the rise and fall of empires and maybe civilizations!As with any phenotypic trait every person will be endowed with slight differences in genetic predisposition. Also, during each transition some will be quicker to undergo change than others. Since this theory proposes that most individuals are capable of behaving according to two opposite modes, depending on their reading of the social environment and depending on the strength of their genotypic predispositions, we can expect to see a mix of types during every transition. I claim that Western Civilization is undergoing a transition of decline, so is there evidence that people with opposite outlooks are present?
Yes, in theEvery society should have some of both types whenever the social situation is difficult to read, or whenever conditions are changing. Indeed, the term “liberal” and “conservative” are used to describe the participants in every political system. In the United States Democrats are liberal, Republicans are conservative, in Great Britain Whigs are liberal and Tories are conservative, and so on for every political system.
one “type” is called Democrat and the other is called Republican. Democrats are widely recognized as being tolerant, compassionate, prone to preferring “peace, not war” and somewhat self-absorbed. Republicans are widely recognized as being intolerant, short on compassion outside the immediate family and social circle, enforcers of group social norms, unthinkingly hyper-patriotic and quick to wage war. United States
When a society is attacked we can expect influence to swing to the “conservatives” and when the peace has been won influence should swing to the “liberals.” The American Empire is in decline, and there is a growing sense that the liberal Democrats can’t be trusted with safeguarding the homeland. As the decline continues, as surely it will, the call for patriotism will become louder, and the level of intolerance for differences in opinion or lifestyle will grow. The outcome, however, is sealed by an unprecedented level of apathy, corruption and corporate control that grew during the peaceful years. From my perspective it seems too late for undoing the institutional damage to a once greatAs the American Empire recedes other societies will aspire to fill the power vacuum.
. America may be the next global empire. Their tradition does not include individualism, so as Western Civilization declines a collectivist Oriental Civilization may take its place. If this happens, as I believe it will, the prospects for individual liberation from genetic enslavement will have become remote. China
Pampered Comfort TheoryAs the previous section shows there is reason to suspect that the successful creation of a civilization guarantees that it will have within itself the seeds for its own destruction. At the risk of dwelling again upon the same theme, consider the mistake of the
Roman Empirein recruiting too many of their army troops from barbarian populations in outlying regions (e.g., the Visigoths). This rendered vulnerable because it was a city defended by less loyal foreigners than during the rise of the empire. The temptation of the Roman citizenry to avoid unpleasant duties in favor of a comfortable life was irresistible, so they relied upon others to bear their burdens of defending the empire. The foreign-born soldiers were treated shabbily, lived far from Rome , and were ordered to battle as if they were “canon fodder.” Meanwhile, back in comfortable Rome , the decadent lifestyle of pampered citizens is said to have led to a neglect of civic duties and a corrupted governance. It is natural for the strong and the clever to gain power when others are not paying attention. This inattention to civic responsibility seems to happen in times of peace. Whenever Vigilance gives way to Neglect, the hard-earned benefits of a prosperous civilization commence a slow disintegration. Rome
Return to Table of Contents