THE PULL OF TRIBALISM THREATENS CIVILIZATION
Man is at bottom a dreadful wild animal. We know this wild animal only
in the tamed state called civilization… Schopenhauer, 1851, Parerga and
Paralipomena (i.e., Aphorisms).
In the previous chapter I estimated that there's a 50% chance that humanity,
as we know it, will cease to exist sometime between 2100 and 2600 AD. In
earlier chapters I have tried to identify factors that may contribute to
the disintegration of civilization. In this chapter I will try to imagine
how one scenario for an unfolding disintegration may occur, and then present
a theoretical unification that should embrace all scenarios of this type.
The specific scenario is based on the notion that communists and fascists,
with their primitive longing for opposite aspects of the tribal lifestyle,
are twin enemies of artisan created civilization.
The closer we approach the final population crash during the next few centuries
the more accurate will be our speculations about it. It is inevitable that
future generations will view speculations from this era as "outdated"
and I acknowledge that the following hypothetical scenario may never happen.
But it at least contains elements which have a credible claim for relevance.
Perhaps the biggest disclaimer for the many endeavors in this book to discern
civilization crash scenarios, and an exploration of new directions for human
evolution, is that the world's population may not crash, and that to rely
upon the Doomsday Argument is to be misguided since it may not apply to the
human population situation. Therefore, the preconditions for the evolution
of a new species of humans who achieve liberation from their genes may therefore
never exist, and consequently there is a greatly reduced probability that
a new species of gene liberated humans could evolve. These are uncertainties
we must live with.
The population of Europe began to collapse at about 200 AD, coinciding with
the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Rome’s population fell by a factor
10 during the centuries following 200 AD. Civilization is needed to sustain
a large population, and since civilizations are more quickly destroyed than
created, population collapses will be faster than their rises. The important
point here is that for the one well documented example of the world's intellectual
vigor and its population, the latter has a peak centuries after the former.
For the reader's convenience, I repeat two figures from the previous chapter
that illustrate this concept.
Figure 21.01. Repeat of Fig. 20.16, for a 1400 year period centered
on the Golden
Era of Greece (Chapter 20 has a fuller explanation).
Figure 21.02. Another 1400-year period, showing three hypothetical
world population scenarios (Chapter 20 has a fuller description).
Innovation rate and population during the current, post medieval period appear
to be following a pattern similar to the one associated with Classical Greece
and the Roman Empire. In both cases the population continues to rise after
a peak in innovation rate.
The reader may find it difficult to believe the precipitous drop of the innovation
rate trace in Fig. 21.02, but recall that the trace is a "per capita innovation
rate," and is therefore influenced by the rising world population. In absolute
terms the rate of innovations is still increasing, but the world population
is increasing at a stupendous rate which causes the per capita innovation
rate is to drop.
I claim we might gain insight into our future by studying the fate of the
Golden Era of Greece, which prepared the path to the Roman Empire (which
ran its course and was replaced by the Medieval Ages). At the height of the
Roman Empire the influence of Rome spread across the entirety of that part
of the world known to the Romans. After the "decline and fall" the influence
of Rome was greatly reduced, and regions went their separate ways, like wanderers
lost in a forest. In each distant region the rule of Roman law was replaced
by the rule of local lawlessness. Grievances could again be settled by the
action of small, local coalitions, probably family based in most cases. In
some ways this resembled the state of affairs before the Roman Empire, when
tribes had two sets of rules: those that applied to others within the tribe,
and those that applied to outsiders (Spencer’s amity/enmity duality of morality).
I shall assume that whenever the rule of law disintegrates, a population
collapse begins. Consider the 50% population scenario of Fig. 21.02, which
has a population peak at about 2200 AD. This scenario corresponds to a disintegration
of the rule of law throughout the world at that time. During the subsequent
200 years the world's population shows a collapse to small values, as happened
after the Roman Empire's "decline and fall." In this chapter I will adopt
this specific timetable for describing scenarios of how today’s global civilization
Some of Civilization’s Discontents
Let us "step back" for a moment to review the long march of our human ancestors
toward the glorious civilizations of the Holocene Epoch. Hopefully this will
help us discern "big picture forces" which create and destroy civilizations.
Humans are presumed to have lived in tribes during the past 1.8 million years
of the Pleistocene Epoch, dominated by glacial periods interrupted at 100,000
year intervals by 10,000 year interglacial warmings. The evolution of larger
brains, occurring at 1.8 million and 0.3 million years ago, is probably climate
driven, ultimately, but also associated with tribal adaptations to the challenge
of living with a variable climate. It was not the individual who faced a
harsh environment, but individuals living in tribes who faced harsh and variable
environments. The human mind must have evolved adaptations that allowed it
to meet the challenges of tribal living when climate became variable, causing
landscapes and hunting styles to change profoundly.
During the Holocene interglacial warming, starting 11,400 years ago, those
individuals prospered who changed their connection to their tribe by adopting
farming and herding lifestyles. Gradually, a sedentary village way of living
replaced the hunting and gathering lifestyle. As weakened tribes coalesced
into super-tribes, then villages, cities and eventually the metropolis, civilization
was created. Civilized cities act like a magnet attracting rural dwellers
to the glitter of the city.
But life in cities is fundamentally different from life on farms, just as
life on farms was fundamentally different from life in hunter gatherer tribes.
Both transitions brought the average person into contact with strangers on
a daily basis. When the farmer returned from his fields to his village home,
or when he sold his produce at a farmer's market, he was surrounded by strange
faces. The strain of seeing strange faces on a daily basis may have been
even worse for permanent city dwellers.
Recall that in the tribal setting a person is surrounded by friendly, fellow
tribesmen on a daily basis, and the only time strange faces are encountered
was during conflicts with neighboring tribes. During the 1.8 million years
of Pleistocene living our ancestors must have evolved an automatic association
"strange face means enemy." Mental modules (i.e., neural networks) were created
by the genes to make this association, and those gene-created modules did
not disappear as soon as tribal living was abandoned. It is possible that
even today we become uneasy after encountering many strangers on a daily
basis. We must suppress these ancient instincts as we pretend to not dislike
strangers. Yet, we still have brain modules adapted to the ancient reality
that "strangers" mean "danger." A part of us must wish for a return to the
tribal setting, where we could count on a peaceful social setting, and where
the need for tribal cohesion produced a "brotherhood" of loyal social relationships.
It is important to appreciate the abruptness of our transition away from
tribal living. Compare the 1.8 million years of Pleistocene living, or even
the 4 million years of human evolution following the separation from our
chimpanzee like ancestors, with the shortness of the Holocene's 11,000 years.
Our experiment with non tribal living represents less than 0.5% of the "human"
evolutionary experience. How much could our genome have changed during the
past 11,000 years? The genes coding for skin pigment can change during times
this short, and some aspects of anatomy can change (witness the native American
Indian, who left Asia at the beginning of the Holocene), but the bulk of
our human genome is identical to the one that was adapted to the previous
1.8 million years of tribal living. We are forced to consider that there
are parts of our brains better adapted to tribal living than to life in a
modern civilization, and that in some ways people would feel more comfortable
living in a tribal setting than the modern civilized one!
What a poignant realization! Civilized living is unnatural, and parts of
ourselves wish to return to tribal living, as if we still primed to hear
that “call of the wild.”
The implications of this speculation are profound. Not only does it help
us understand the aimless frustration with life in these modern times, but
it might help us understand the political motivations of various "social
Alternation Between Inter-Tribal Conflicts and Intra-Tribal Harmony
In order to understand the subconscious feelings after being abruptly forced
into a civilized world, let us dwell upon the "feel" of tribal living. It
will be useful to think of tribal life as consisting of two flavors: things
you do during intertribal conflicts, and the things you do during the longer
interludes between conflicts. Conflicts can take the form of defending against
attacks by neighboring tribes, or they be the initiating of conflict by the
home tribe. All-out tribal conflicts may be rare, separated by years. The
more frequent conflicts can be described as “raids,” which are brief encounters
by small bands from a neighboring tribe that attack when they feel they outnumber
their victims and can overpower them with small risk to themselves. These
will usually occur near the periphery of the territory claimed by a tribe,
near contested borders.
The existence of defensive palisade structures, dating to at least 30,000
years ago, are testimony to the importance of the less frequent, large scale
conflicts (Keeley, 1996). For these inter tribal wars tribes would have relied
on their best warriors more than during opportunistic raids. The same warriors
not only defended the home tribe, but they are the ones who initiated tribal
conflicts. Let us appreciate the importance of the ancient warrior niche
in every tribe. I will assume that there is a "warrior" mentality, as well
as an instinctive appreciation of the warrior as a valued member of one's
The majority of tribal life consisted of peaceful endeavors, of activities
that sustained the tribe by providing food, shelter, tools, weapons and other
economic necessities. The tribe's survival hinged as much upon economic strength
as on its war waging prowess. Indeed, the ability to defend the tribe and
wage war upon one's neighboring tribe is determined by the productive payoffs
of peaceful economic activities. I will therefore assume that there is a
peaceful producer mentality, as well as an instinctive welcome of the producer
members of one's own tribe.
As I have argued earlier, late in the Pleistocene the artisan became one
of the tribe's most valuable assets. He was the full time toolmaker and weapon
maker. For the advanced tribes there was a place for the artisan who specialized
in constructing dwellings, storing food, gardening, and domesticating the
occasional animal that could be domesticated (goats, dogs, etc). Initially,
tribes had few full time artisans. When the climate warmed during the Holocene
artisans became more valuable, as they could more profitably pursue farming,
herding and other specialized economic activities. Therefore, I will assume
that there is an "artisan" mentality, as well as an instinctive (though grudging)
welcome of the artisan as a member of one's own tribe.
Three Mentalities Enter Civilization
This was the condition of tribal living that existed before the artisan created
"civilization." I have identified three mentalities that were important in
the tribal setting of the Late Pleistocene; there are others, but for now
I want to focus upon this most important triad. These three mentalities can
be referred to as 1) the warrior, 2) the everyday producer, and 3) the specialist
artisan. The distinction between the "everyday producer" and the artisan,
both of whom are producers, is that the first has no unique skills and is
pressed into battle during tribal conflicts, whereas the artisan is "protected"
during tribal conflicts. Because of a resentment over this the acceptance
of the few artisans in each tribe was made grudgingly.
Now, consider how these three types of people would react to the spectacular
explosion of civilization. Since "civilization" is the handiwork of the artisan,
he would feel comfortable in this new setting. However, the warrior and everyday
producer would feel somewhat “left out” and “out of place.” They would feel
uneasy for being forced to endure daily encounters with strangers, since
strange faces "trigger" subconscious anxieties. The loss of tribal rituals
and a world of surrounding spirits would also contribute to a feeling of
dissatisfaction with civilized living. Within the minds of people who are
inclined to the warrior and everyday producer life, there would be an ambivalent
feeling about the new civilized state. A subconscious "homesickness" for
the tribe may become stronger the more civilization advances.
But the homesickness for tribal life would be slightly different for the
warrior type and the everyday producer. The warrior would miss his crucial
and celebrated role in defending his tribe and attacking others. The everyday
producer, on the other hand, would miss the ambience of a peaceful interlude
of cooperative comradeship. These best of times were peaceful, friendly,
cooperative, and infused with an atmosphere of loyal togetherness that sustains
effective group living. At these times it is fair to characterize one's fellow
man as "peaceful" or "noble."
Birth of Communism
There's a "place in the brain" for the concept "noble savage." Jean Jacques
Rousseau felt it, as do all present day Marxists and communists. This faded
memory is easily resurrected, and Marx played on this with his interpretations
of history. He wrote that the “class struggles” characterized modern capitalist
societies, and this struggle was due to the corrupting influence of culture.
Moreover, since he believed that human nature remained noble, a change of
culture could return us to that dreamed of state where everyone worked harmoniously
together for the good of the group. His wish to return to commune living,
and his belief in its feasibility, are manifest expressions of a subconscious
nostalgia for our million-year experience with tribal living. I believe his
perspective can be distilled to the following: “If only people could break
the shackles of a dysfunctional culture (i.e, civilization), then all Mankind
could return to simply living together in ancestral peace and harmony.”
Birth of Fascism
Marx overlooked the other half of human nature, namely the human appetite
for inter tribal conflict. Those who most strongly longed for intertribal
conflict are today’s fascists! The fascist's gripe with civilization is that
it is too peaceful, with too much civil behavior, codified by artisan written
laws and enforced by police and courts, which deprive the fascists their
most important tribal role. Whereas no one celebrates the criminal today,
everyone celebrates the warrior even though both thrive on mayhem
and murder. The fascist thus wishes for a breakdown of society, and a return
to the kind of anarchy that so pleased his ancestors.
The fascist also dislikes civilization’s celebration of individualism. Fascists
instead embraced “authoritarian order, based upon the subordination of the
individual…” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1977, 7, 183). They also have “a
definite attitude of mind that exalted the fighting spirit, military discipline,
ruthlessness and action…” (op cit). “The Italian slogan [under dictator Mussolini]
to ‘believe, to obey, to combat’ was fascism’s antithesis to ‘liberty, equality,
fraternity’” (op cit). Of course, “liberty, equality, fraternity” grew out
of the French Enlightenment, which in turn was an expression of the artisan’s
Chapter 19 defined fascism using a statement uttered by Benito Mussolini,
who urged a combining of business and state leaders for authoritarian rule
of a nation so that it may pursue “belligerent nationalism.” The part about
combining business and state leadership is simply a means for hijacking a
nation from a democratic embrace so that it may be set on the belligerent
nationalism course. “Belligerent nationalism” really refers to the primitive
drive for initiating inter-tribal warfare for the goal of enlarging a tribe’s
dominion over a larger territory and subsuming rival tribes. A modern name
for this desired en-point is “empire.” In this chapter I will emphasize the
warrior aspect of fascism since it springs from the deepest parts of a person’s
Communists and Fascists as Twin Enemies of Civilization
The fascist and the communist have something in common, even though they
are traditionally assigned opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both
wish for the destruction of the civilized state and a return of society to
a tribal lifestyle. Both harbor a deep hatred of the artisan, whose creation
they wish to destroy. The early part of the 20th Century was wracked by the
simultaneous efforts of fascists and communists to destroy the society that
had thwarted the expression of one's natural self, and denied realization
of a half remembered idyllic past where these people were important.
The forces of discontent unleashed during the early 20th Century, between
World Wars I and II, caused many thoughtful people to worry about the end
of civilization. Fortunately, these destructive forces were subdued and returned
to subconsciousness after World War II. But they remain as an unnoticed wish,
partially hidden, and these desires are a serious threat to civilization.
I predict that the 21st Century will see a replay of the assault of tribalism
If the Fascists had Won World War II
If "civilization" had not won the Second World War, which some suggest was
a "close call," then we might now be witnessing a slide into a new Medieval
Age. The shape of this world would have begun with Hitler’s version of fascism,
not Stalin’s version of communism. Even Lenin acted like a fascist, and his
embrace of communism seems more a convenience than a fervently believed in
ideology (Server, 2000). The decline and fall of today's civilization is
therefore likely to resemble, in its early stages, the scenario one can imagine
if victory had gone to the three Axis fascisms: Nazi Germany, fascist Italy,
and racist Japan. We may assume that Germany would have subjugated the vanquished,
given their superior military; so imagine a world styled upon the Nazi dream.
It would be an understatement to say that Nazi Germany was racist. They were
racist in the classic tradition of tribalism. The first rule of the "tribal
mentality" is to hate strangers and love your fellow tribesmen. It is common
in primitive languages to employ a term for everyone belonging to other tribes
that is dehumanizing, such as "dog" or "snake" (Chagnon, 1992). These epithets
help arouse the right attitude for acting unmercifully toward the "others"
during tribal conflicts. During World War II, as in other times of war, the
same technique was used to help arouse the required tribal hatreds and brutal
behaviors. The Nazi victors would have continued their "ethnic cleansing,"
and it would have become a global project. The Nazi killing of non Aryans
might have gone on for decades.
The “Nazi Dark Age” would have run out of energy before world ethnic cleansing
could be completed, given the immense magnitude of the task of exterminating
billions instead of millions. I believe this would be the case because the
fascist is motivated to behave in ways that "made sense" when one's enemies
were limited to the troublesome neighboring tribe. Exterminating the rest
of the world would become a weary task, in which the confused Nazi would
probably lose interest eventually. After abandoning the ill conceived goal
of world ethnic cleansing, the Nazis probably would have settled for plundering
the rest of the world which they had already started during the
So, imagine a world in which non Aryan populations lay decimated, in which
world commerce has been converted to a one way transport of plundered goods,
and in which artisan initiative is no longer rewarded as it is in civilized
societies. The Nazi Dark Age would have degenerated from organized racial
exterminations, to plunder, to chaos and eventually disinterest. The rest
of the world would have been robbed of the resources and incentives to reconstitute
itself as a civilization.
This, I submit, could still happen. Even at a time when we know that the
hidden hand within the glove of tribal cruelty is the genes. The genes “act”
as if they cannot tolerate competing alleles, and this intolerance is what
fashions all animal behavior, including human animals. The greater insight
that we now have concerning human behavior will be a puny force in the face
of the juggernaut of evil primitive forces. No matter how much the artisan
learns, no matter how powerful his insights in the coming decades, he is
destined to be squashed under fascist boots. These boots have a blind wish
to march, with the innocence of a noble savage heart, to a societal state
which a vague memory clings to, of the way things were, and should be again:
the beloved tribe to which all but the artisan mind is well adapted.
The shape of the new Armageddon will be qualitatively different from any
alternative unfolding of the 20th Century. For in this 21st Century the world's
population is 3 times larger, global oil production “peaked” during the 21st
Century’s first decade, natural resources are nearly exhausted and require
more technology and energy to extract, the environment is more contaminated
than at any previous time, small terrorist groups are a greater threat than
a complacent First World has the resolve to reckon with, there are larger
pools of diseases ready to hitch a ride with people moving globally on a
daily basis, and on and on.
The new "world system" has many more variables than at any previous time,
and I feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of predicting in any detail how
the next Dark Age will unfold. All I feel certain about, though, is that
our primitive ways of thinking, that served our genes well for millions of
years of tribal living, will provide the energy for the micro motives that
together will produce macro behaviors longing for the tribal setting. And
since our primitive desires will never be in alignment with civilized living,
civilizations will always be transient affairs.
The Chinese Empire
Although I hesitate to make specific predictions, I will present one possible
As I write this (mid-2008) China’s economy is booming and America’s is sputtering!
China is investing in a military build-up that seems disproportionate to
present threats. An army is created for one purpose (killing people) and
if it achieves sufficient strength to fear no foe, and if it is unused for
a long time, political forces stemming from that army will “rattle its sabers”
and give courage to ambitious business leaders and politicians to instigate
an international crisis with high stakes potential benefits. China appears
to be “itching for a fight” to take over Taiwan, which they have steadfastly
claimed is a part of China and not a separate country. If China invaded Taiwan
(let’s say in 2020) it would be logical for there to be no response from
America. This is because the American economy would collapse almost immediately
if China retaliated by demanding payment of its U.S. Treasury bonds, or even
stopped buying new ones.
It may be logical for America to refrain from defending Taiwan but internal
American politics will not allow a non-response; it would be too humiliating
for whoever is president of America (especially if it’s John McCain). So
imagine that America attempts to defend Taiwan, and China responds by stopping
the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds, demands payment for the U.S. Treasury
bonds that it holds, manipulates its currency to make American imports of
Chinese products more expensive, and does other things to punish America.
The American economy would collapse, China and other foreign countries would
buy American assets, such as mines, ports, financial institutions, and little
by little America would devolve into a series of foreign-owned colonies.
How ironic for America to start out as 13 British colonies, and end up as
a dozen or so colonies controlled by China, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and
other Middle Eastern, oil-rich countries. The American colonies would provide
resources for use in the home countries. China needs copper, cement, lumber,
other raw materials, and food, such as grain, corn and cattle. American mines
would be owned and run by Chinese companies, America’s forests would be cut
down by lumber companies owned by China, and farms would be run by China.
America’s rail and highway infrastructure would finally be upgraded in order
to transport America’s resources to ports where Chinese ships would be waiting.
Americans would find employment with Chinese companies. The Chinese language
would be taught in schools, replacing Spanish as the most popular “foreign”
language. Since most Americans would be unemployed, some of them would be
hired to provide security for the new colonial commerce. Immigration that
now is from Mexico to America would reverse direction. Those who could not
find work with Chinese or Saudi Arabian companies, and who saw no future
in emigrating to Mexico and were prevented from emigrating to Canada, would
simply kill each other, starve and die.
At this stage in China’s growth it would be fair to refer to China as an
empire. Every empire has a finite lifetime. This is because the rulers of
an empire are the ones who had the fascist outlook. They rise to power because
in a powerful nation individual freedom is incompatible with social stability.
China has a “head start” in controlling individual freedom. This is partly
due to a fundamental flaw in the Chinese character, the willingness to passively
accept feudalism, a king’s rights and fascism – which are the same in their
demands on the individual. (Why else is there a scarcity of real scientists
in China; a scientist must have a strong individualistic personality. Engineers
are another matter, they can be submissive and still be effective)
In this scenario China evolves into a fascist state, let’s say sometime in
the middle of the 21st Century. Far flung colonies throughout the world provide
China with raw materials and food. China has scores to settle with Japan,
Korea and Russia, so to suppress growing civil unrest over a straining economy
in a too-large empire China begins to wage wars with its neighbors. At this
point, consider the state of the world to be similar to the state of the
world during World War II, when Germany was threatening world domination
using their military supremacy. China wins all its wars, and extends its
empire to the entire world. Now, refer to the previous section’s scenario
and run it with the word “China” replacing “Nazi Germany.”
This is obviously a hypothetical scenario that is unlikely to unfold with
the same details I used to illustrate things that could happen. Other scenarios
could be imagined in which India become an empire instead of China. The world’s
civilized condition may revert to a Middle Age barbarity during the 21st
Century; or it might be the 22nd. The great descent into Dark Age barbarity
might occur in the year 2050, or 2200, or 2400 AD, but surely the time will
come when the civilization we know and pretend to cherish will succumb to
dark forces more ancient than any human life, and more compelling than any
noble human aspiration. The accomplishments of Beethoven, Schopenhauer, Darwin,
Bertrand Russell, E. O. Wilson, and all my other heroes, every noble Beauty
and Truth which they strove to bring to life, will fall into the ashes of
a dying civilization, perhaps never to return again.
This dark scenario is but one of many that could be constructed from the
discontents of those forced to endure “civilization.” The "backward pull
toward the primitive" has many faces; and the communist/fascist variety is
merely one example. People who are less intelligent and articulate may prefer
anarchy, the great leveler that forces those with ability to suffer equally
with those who lack ability. There are religious fanatics who feel that their
cozy emotional nest is threatened by what the rest of us call ideas and progress.
Each malcontent will react to civilization differently, but they all will
feel, at a subconscious level, that there’s something wrong with civilized
life, something is out of place, and to fix things that went wrong during
our historical journey we must somehow return to an idyllic past condition,
a Garden of Eden. And this means dismantling civilization, as if by doing
that we will thereby free ourselves from alien, corrupting influences. Alas,
that darned world that artisans created will be destroyed.
Cultural "Reverse Evolution"
This section presents a "unifying theory" which endeavors to embrace each
category of dissatisfaction with civilization. It accounts for how most people
are subconsciously unwilling to leave the emotional comfort of the ancestral
environment. Regardless of civilization's material bounty, regardless of
the plethora of awesome insights which spring from civilized intellectuals,
civilization nevertheless presents an unwelcome mat for the human emotions.
It is as if many people are dragged into the civilized state who are silently
screaming and digging in their heels waiting for an opportunity
to return, by whatever means.
In the Chapter 4 genetics tutorial I described something called "reverse
evolution." The basic idea for this new thought is that the most recent mutations
in a genome are the most vulnerable to loss, and that the evolutionary "advance"
that they produced is the most vulnerable to "evolutionary reversal." This
is because the most recently acquired genes have had less time to acquire
"allies" for genetic survival (apologies for putting it this way, which is
quite anthropomorphic). The longer a gene is "in place" in a genome, the
more it becomes depended upon by newer mutations at other chromosome loci.
The new mutations provide their contributions to fitness only for as long
as certain other pre existing genes remain present. If a pre existing gene
is deleted, then not only does the individual lose the trait it brought into
existence, which was the original justification for its selection, but the
individual also loses traits that later genes brought into existence when
they depended upon the presence of the first gene for its proper expression.
This intertwining of genetic effects is captured by three complimentary terms:
Pleiotropy, polygenes and entrenchment. "Pleiotropy" refers to the fact that
a single gene can influence many traits, "polygenes" refers to the fact that
a specific trait requires the presence of other genes, and “entrenchment”
describes the situation of old genes being difficult to get rid of because
they have more newer genes depending on their presence for them to work properly
than is the case for not-as-old genes.
Because an "entrenched" gene has many "allies" for resisting meddling by
hypothetical future mutations, the entrenched gene has an advantage when
a rival begins to compete with it. Let us use the term "unentrenched" to
refer to a recently acquired gene. Unentrenched genes are unlikely to have
allies, and are therefore more vulnerable to "challenge" (I ask the reader
to understand that my use of anthropomorphic terminology is done for brevity,
and any reader who is bothered by this anthropomorphism must provide his
own long winded reductionist version.of the thought I mean to convey).
When environments change, the unentrenched genes are the ones most likely
to be replaced by allelic challengers. This is especially true when the environment
changes back to an earlier one, to an environment that existed before the
unentrenched gene came into existence. Indeed, if the unentrenched gene came
into existence in response to a change from Setting A to Setting B, and if
Setting A returns, the unentrenched gene is a very likely candidate for being
replaced with the gene that it had replaced assuming some of
them still exist in a few individuals.
"Civilization" is a product of a fast paced cultural evolution, made possible
by a much slower paced genetic evolution. The genes coding for a specialized
left brain (LB) rely upon a serial processing architecture of interacting,
self contained neural networks. The right brain (RB) relies upon a more primitive
neural architecture of parallel processing. LB logic led to the accidental
creation of a social arrangement we call "civilization." I shall assume that
contemporary humans are little more receptive to civilized living than those
of our ancestors who were present to usher in the Holocene. In other words,
I shall assume that "civilization" was created by an unfolding of an ever
more complex culture with few genetic accommodations.
Cultural evolution is constrained by the genome; hence, the potentially fast-paced
evolution of culture is constrained by the slower-paced evolution of the
genome. Genes determine what elements of culture, called culturgens (Lumsden
and Wilson, 1981), are theoretically possible, and probable. After a culturgen
has been universally adopted throughout a gene pool the social environment
is changed, and this change may create new opportunities for genes. The co
evolution of genes and culture is a young science, but some rudimentary properties
of it are already understood.
Since culturgen frequencies can change much faster than gene frequencies,
it is possible to consider cultural evolution in the absence of genetic evolution.
To my knowledge, the matter of "cultural evolutionary reversals" has not
been studied, or even mentioned, in the literature. The term "reverse evolution"
is recognized as applying to genes. So let us use the term "cultural evolution"
to refer to culturgen changes that occur faster than gene frequency changes.
Chapter 4 described the results of a genetic study of fruit flies by Teotonio
and Rose (2000), showing that they can achieve 90% "reverse evolution" (for
many traits) in only 10 generations! The "recovery lines" appear to be linear,
so a 10 % recovery can be accomplished in just one generation! These data
are for "unentrenched" gene alleles. Surely, the recovery times for unentrenched
human culturgens would be much shorter, as measured in generations. Adopting
a human generation time of 30 years (Pang et al, 1998), pure cultural evolution
could achieve a complete reversal in much less than 300 years, and partial
reversals in about 30 years.
In the context of the rise and fall of civilizations, it is important to
ask if pure cultural evolution can account for the rise and fall of civilizations,
or must genes be invoked in a way that requires a mixture of cultural evolution
and genetic evolution to give an accounting of the rise and fall of civilizations.
We should be prepared for an answer such as "a mixture of genetic and cultural
evolution causes civilizations to rise, but almost pure cultural evolution
causes them to fall." This would be compatible with the fact that civilizations
rise with a timescale of approximately 1000 to 2000 years, whereas they fall
with a timescale of 200 years (i.e., 30 to 60 generations, and 6 generations).
Entrenchment of Culturgens: Archosis, Taboos and Conformism
Is there anything analogous in cultural evolution to pleiotropy and polygenes?
Can it be said that one culturgen affects others? Or that many culturgens
contribute, or are required by, one cultural trait. What we're after is an
answer to the question: Do culturgens interact in such a way that recently
acquired culturgens are easier to shed than longstanding ones?
I think the answer to all these questions is "yes." Consider, for example,
the adoption of fire for preparing food. With just this one culturgen many
new lifestyles became feasible. Foods that were not digestible become edible;
foods that spoiled easily can be eaten for a longer time; campfires keep
dangerous animals at a safe distance, allowing for larger groups of people
to live in areas where large predators also live, etc. Clearly, the adoption
of this one particular culturgen changed the feasibility of adopting many
other culturgens. This one example shows that not only is there a culturgen
counterpart for pleiotropy, but one culturgen can affect the fate of other
The longer the fire culturgen is used, the more other culturgens will be
adopted that depend upon the existence of the fire culturgen. Therefore,
for any tribe whose culture has relied upon the use of fire for a long time,
over time there will be greater penalties for abandoning the fire culturgen.
It is therefore inescapable that there should be a tendency for culturgens
to exhibit the same property of genetic evolution reversibility, that the
longer a culturgen remains adopted by a society the more “entrenched” it
becomes over time. Indeed, since this principle can be expected to apply
generally, regardless of the specifics of the culturgen, there may have been
rewards for our ancestors to adopt those culturgens which punish thoughts
and acts that appear to defy ancient culturgens. Rituals and traditions may
thus be revered merely for their longevity, and the concept of "taboo" may
itself become a valuable culturgen.
As an aside, let us acknowledge the seminal work of Weston LaBarre, who introduced
the term "group archosis" (LaBarre, 1984) to refer to "nonsense and misinformation
so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking.
...A frightening proportion of all culture is arguably archosis, more especially
sacred culture." Dan Sperber, taking a similar position (1985), went on to
suggest that genetic evolution produces mental dispositions with "side effects"
that have marginal adaptive value, with religion being one example (as recounted
by Edgerton, in Sick Societies, 1992, pg. 53).
“Conformism” was described in Chapter 10. Culturgen entrenchment could be
the theoretical explanation for conformism.
If these speculations are true, then it will also be true that recently acquired
culturgens will be un entrenched, and they will be the ones most easily discarded.
This is the feared position I have been working toward in this section. For,
to the extent that civilizations are creations based upon the adoption of
new culturgens, the robustness of a civilization, and its ability to rebuff
cultural assaults, will be weak. The genes have created a brain that is demonstrably
capable of creating a civilization; but since the genes have no experience
with sustaining civilizations there can be no guarantee, and indeed there
should be little assurance, that the civilization will endure the continual
challenge of people who are born with a nature that feels more comfortable
in the primitive, tribal environment. The amazing thing about civilizations
is not that they seem to always collapse, but that they ever are created
in the first place.
Role of Time in the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
Figure 20.01 shows that the ancient Greek civilization may have "peaked"
at approximately 300 BC, and the Greco-Roman civilization was in collapse
starting at ~200 AD when, ironically, the region's population
had reached its peak. Using "per capita innovation rate" as the measure for
the strength of their civilization, it had lost 90% of its peak strength
in 400 years, which corresponds to about 14 generations. (If Greek civilization
had not been adopted by the Romans, the loss might have occurred closer to
10 generations). Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that gene
frequency changes did not occur, and contribute to the decline. The decline
may in fact have been a mixture of genetic and cultural reverse evolution.
The "rise" of Greek civilization appears rapid in the figure. In 200 years
the "per capita innovation rate" rose from a background level to the peak.
I suspect that "per capita innovation rate" is inadequate for revealing the
role of underlying genetic changes that eventually led to the apparent abrupt
blossoming of civilization. As Carl Sagan pointed out (1980, p. 174), a region
called Ionia was a hotbed for new ideas and inventions starting in the 6th
Century BC; these practical-minded thinkers introduced the rudiments of the
philosophy of reductionism. We can only speculate that perhaps the Ionian
population was based upon a diaspora of Minoans, who had to flee their island
homelands when the volcanic eruption of Thera destroyed much of the infrastructure
of their civilization in 1628 BC (Pellegrino, 1991) and left them helplessly
exposed to the invasion of Mycenaeans from the mainland. If the Ionian and
Greek civilization is a continuation of the Minoan civilization, then there
is a case for a 3000 year rise phase. Such a long time, representing 100
generations, could easily have been influenced by gene frequency changes.
We are left with an ambiguity on how to partition credit for the rise and
fall of civilizations between the two candidate root causes, genes and culture.
My personal preference is to credit the "rise phase" to a co evolution of
genes and culture, and to blame the "fall phase" almost exclusively on culture.
During the rise, new culturgens improve the congeniality of civilization
promoting genes, which lead to more civilization promoting genes, which in
turn leads to a greater congeniality of the social environment to culture
promoting genes, and so forth. This process may sometimes lead to the creation
of a civilization.
At some point during this process, a culturgen crucial to the well being
of civilization is challenged and discredited. This fateful challenge may
not make sense to a thinking brain, but most people within a culture are
unthinking. An old way of believing and behaving simply seems more attractive
to enough of the populace that the discrediting of the new ways is accomplished,
almost effortlessly. The loss of a new, un entrenched culturgen is a case
of "reverse cultural evolution," which has its counterpart in "reverse genetic
evolution." The details of what must be a large number of "reverse cultural
evolution" episodes is open to speculation, but when a critical loss occurs
the fate of the targeted civilization is sealed, and the unraveling proceeds
as if destined by compelling but unseen forces. It may be that the new culturgens
that created the civilization had been resisted all along, but only after
the populace acquired power did their opinions matter and produce destructive
Sigmund Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents (1930) at a time when
there was a gathering storm in Europe that caused many intellectuals to become
concerned over the prospect that Western Civilization might not survive the
mischief of a flawed human nature. The climate of opinion favored serious
questioning of the inevitability of civilization as an enduring state for
humans. Freud cited the human heritage of animal instincts from a tribal
setting, and he questioned whether civilizing forces were capable of controlling
the impulse for uncivilized behaviors. One famous line from the book is “…men
are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves
if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression
has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.” Incidentally,
Freud would probably be receptive to the sociobiological paradigm, for he
wrote “…a psycho-analytic, that is, genetic explanation…” (op cit., pg. 10).
Whatever insights are eventually revealed by further study, at this time
we can say with some confidence that the pull of primitive ways of thinking
and feeling produce a powerful and subconscious longing for those well established
culturgens that evolved in a tribal setting. Further, we can say that this
"emotional longing for the past" drive reversals in cultural evolution that
eventually destroys each civilization. Since going backwards to the familiar
is emotionally more inviting than sustaining an uncomfortable present, or
going forward into an uncertain future, the primitive parts of men's minds
will always try to unravel the civilization woven by the creative efforts
of a few brave men. The unraveling is driven by RB-styled people, who resent
the emotional discomforts of the civilization created by LB-styled artisans.
I suggest that the rise of a civilization is due to a favorable co-evolution
of genes and culture, whereas the decline is due only to the loss of recently
If what goes up eventually comes down, then the "gravity" of human affairs
is the wish for emotional comfort, the feeling of a primitive pull to a vaguely
remembered tribal setting. In short, it is the desire to answer a profoundly
human "call of the wild!" And if this requires destroying whatever stands
in the way of the return, which happens to be civilization, then "so be it."
Return to Table of Contents