Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Industrial revolution

Challenge the belief in this as a special time when technology changed.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The history of freedom

This post is under construction

I apologise for the lack of progress on this post. I started off thinking I understood the issues and it would be a fairly simple thing. However, it has become clear that I do not really understand 'freedom' nor how it has evolved over the millennia. As far as I can see, no one has ever really discussed the history of freedom per se before. The issues are more complex than I realised, and the information I need is not presented in any kind of easily digestible form. As an exercise, I checked the indices of about ten books on 'world history', and only one of them (David Christian's Maps of Time) even mentioned 'freedom' at all. Although you do not see much activity on this blog, I am beavering away behind the scenes, toying with theoretical ideas, and reading or re-reading anything that could help.

As the last glaciation was coming to an end, around G 1500-1550 (13,000 to 11,000 years ago), hunting peoples followed reindeer and other herds into the spaces left by the retreating ice sheets. Some of them camped in the caves of Creswell Crags, in the heart of Britain. Here they made engravings on bone and on the rock walls. The engravings included an ibex, a species not known to have lived in Britain but present further south, which suggests that these ice-age humans wandered freely over the 750 miles between Britain and Spain or southern France. This was especially feasible because sea levels were low and Britain was still joined to the rest of Europe by dry land.

The humans of G 1500 were incredibly free. They lived in a world without governments or police, without national boundaries or customs posts. They could make their camp-sites wherever they liked. Their journeys north and south would have been quite seamless, since the modern countries of Britain, France or Spain of course did not exist in any shape or form. The hunting/foraging lifestyle, living off the land, made it natural to roam far and wide, and there was absolutely nothing to stop them. They had little reason to get attached to any particular place, for their way of life could be practised as easily in one place as another--the only constraint was their knowledge of local plants and animals, and of where to find the vital resources of water and stone.

How things have changed. People in G 2081 (today) are tied to the places where their jobs, homes and possessions are to be found. Planning rules and immigration controls restrict where they can build and make their homes. Their efforts are taxed, and their behaviour is constrained by countless laws, for example obliging them to send their children to school and shutting off most of the countryside as other people's private property. This is not to mention the wholesale deprivation of their liberty if they harm others or offend against the moral code. And the level of restraint seems to be intensifying, as laws multiply and people are subject to ever more comprehensive forms of surveillance.

How and why did we get from the total freedom of the first humans to the many controls and restrictions on freedom of modern times? Has freedom steadily diminished between then and now, or was it, say in the form of serfdom and slavery, even more restricted at certain times and places than it is for us today?

First, we need the definition of freedom. Here it is:

The freedom of a sociological actor is the fraction of the actor's behaviour and experience that is subject to the actor's own choice and decision-making.
Notice in this definition the reference to 'experience' as well as 'behaviour'. This captures the notion that people who are exposed to things (such as cold or hunger) they would not choose for themselves are not completely free. The stoic philosophers spoke of the sphere of choice. The thing that is within everybody's sphere of choice is their own mental life. Pretty much everything else, including your own body, is outside the sphere of choice because you are generally powerless to prevent it, say, catching disease, growing tired, or being imprisoned. Nevertheless, some people--the extremely rich, mainly--have more control over at least some of these issues than other people do (e.g. money can buy better doctors and better lawyers). They enjoy a wider sphere of choice with respect to what they experience, and are therefore more free--both intuitively, and as implied by the above definition.

Nevertheless, the 'experience' element of this definition of freedom is really only needed for advanced treatments. In the introductory discussion of the present post, we can focus on the primary component of freedom, which is behavioural choice.

There are three ways in which choice can be restricted: socially, economically and politically.
  • Socially, we are constrained by our affection and respect for those with whom we share a sense of identity--our family, our friends, our neighbours, our compatriots. We modify our behaviour in order to fit in and be considerate.
  • Economically, we are constrained by the need to reciprocate for the benefits we receive from exchange partners;for example, as employees we need to attend work between certain hours and take direction from our employers in order to receive our wages.
  • Politically, we are constrained by the laws and commands of those in authority and their representatives--police, military, officials.

We can say that we are constrained socially by what we ought to do, economically by what we are obliged to do, and politically by what we have to do.

Of these, social constraints are the most limited in that they only work with those we care for, i.e. with friends, in the technical sense, who are quite few in number. Political constraints are potentially unlimited in that they are imposed by strangers on strangers, and everyone is at least a stranger.

A certain amount of freedom has to be given up when people live together because there are bound to be disputes. One person's goals will clash with another person's goals, and the result will be conflict. To maintain society intact, people must be prevented from choosing their behaviour in a completely self-interested manner. Otherwise, society will rupture, as people get away from those with whom they are in conflict.

The effect of constraints on freedom is to ensure that a certain proportion of people's goals are externally imposed, by society in general, and so cannot give rise to conflict. If people have no choice over their goals, they cannot come into conflict. That is, there can be no conflicts of goals when people either completely care for each other (social constraints), are completely beholden to each other for their material welfare (economic constraints), and/or are completely under the control of an external authority (political constraints). Conversely, conflicts will be at a maximum when people do not care for each other, do not depend on each other for their livelihoods, and are subject to no external control.

Let us define the following:

(p) = probability of conflict between a random pair of sociological actors

n = scale (i.e. number of distinct actors encountered per unit time)

z = span of choice restriction (i.e. number of people one cares for, number of people with whom one has economic dependencies or number of people under control of the external authority)

λ = fraction of choices that are not free (=1-freedom, where freedom is defined as above)

d = disputes per actor per unit time

A given actor encounters n other actors per unit time. Of these z will be under a shared constraint of restricted choice, and (n-z) will be under no such constraint. (We are assuming n<z. We will discuss what happens if this is not the case shortly.)

With those actors who are under no shared constraint on choice, the probability of a dispute is simply p. Therefore, the number of disputes is (n-z)p.

With those actors who are under a shared constraint on choice, only a fraction (1-λ) of possible choices are capable of generating a dispute. We might guess that the probability of a dispute is therefore not p but (1-λ)p. In fact, this is not exactly true, but it is a good approximation provided the chances of a dispute with any other particular actor are quite small--something we will assume to be the case (people get on fairly reasonably with each other most of the time). (The following paragraph, which can be skipped, shows why p(1-λ) is a reasonable approximation if p is small.)
Suppose that each actor has goals with respect to n different issues. Let b be the probability that the goals of a given pair of actors, with respect to a given issue, do not clash. Then the probability of a dispute between two actors, i.e. the probability that they clash over at least one issue, is


Now suppose that a proportion λ of goals are shared, i.e. a proportion κ = 1-λ of goals are not shared. Only the κn unshared goals can result in a clash, so the probability of a dispute is changed to


Disputes are relatively rare, so we can assume that the probability of a pair of goals clashing is quite small. Hence, b, the probability of a pair of goals not clashing is quite close to 1. Therefore, let us write b as

b=1-ε, where ε is some small number

Then we can rewrite p and p' above as

p=1-(1-ε)n ≈ 1-(1-nε) = nε
p'=1-(1-ε)κn ≈ 1-(1-κnε) = κnε = κp = (1-λ)p

Thus, provided the probability of a dispute is small, then it is true that, if a fraction λ of choices are unfree, the probability of a dispute is reduced to a fraction (1-λ) of its baseline value.

Therefore, the total disputes per person per unit time is

d = (n-z)p + zp(1-λ)

  = (n-zλ)p

Now, a society can only support a certain level of disputes per person per unit time. Above this level, the society will break up and fly apart as people find that it is impossible to live together. We may therefore define:

d0 = maximum level of d, above which society cannot exist

(This can be regarded as a constant of human nature.)

We thus have

d0 ≥ (nz)p

nd0/p + λz

Each society therefore has a maximum scale that depends on the values of λ and z in that society. If we indicate this maximum scale by n*, we have

n* = d0/p + λz

We can write this as

n* = n0 + λz

where n0 = d0/p is the maximum scale of a society whose members are completely free, i.e. where λ or z (or both) equals 0.

What is the value of n0? It is certainly not very large as, even in family-level societies, people sometimes have to suppress their personal wishes, at least to a small extent, in order to get along. If people's choices were not restricted at all, a society could not be any larger than the family level and might have to be much smaller. Could even a pair of people stick together, in a minimal society, if each person did as they pleased? If not, it suggests that n0 might be as low as zero. That is, in the case of complete freedom, the only society possible would be a society of one. (In a society of one, scale would be zero because the lone member of the society would never encounter any other actor.)


Human freedom is the subject of a perpetual battle between opposing trends.
  • On the one hand, freedom is steadily diminished by ever-expanding governmental surveillance and control.
  • On the other hand, freedom grows in the form of new possibilities and opportunities created by ever-expanding human capabilities.

Technology is crucial to this paradoxical evolution. New technologies extend the reach of governments at exactly the same time as they extend the ease of movement of their subjects. The internet allows people to communicate with each other directly, thus breaking the information monopoly of governments and media corporations, yet on-line activity is readily monitored and leaves almost un-erasable traces for law enforcement to collect.

The post is on hold because I am stuck - on trying to work out mathematically what I mean by freedom in its various guises, and why freedom should vary.

Human freedom diminishes with time, in the sense that people are increasingly subject to surveillance and control by a political apparatus. Twenty first century people, especially in the more developed countries, are the least free that humans have ever been. However, they still have more freedoms than will be enjoyed by the people of the future.

Fortunately, this diminishing freedom in the political sphere is offset by technological growth, which offers possibilities and opportunities, such as long-distance travel, that people perceive as new freedoms. In this sense, twenty first century people enjoy vast freedoms unknown to their ancestors, but they are still very limited and circumscribed in comparison to how humans will be in time to come.

There is an equilibration process, or arms race.

Historic ages

It is conventional to divide prehistory into stone, bronze and iron ages.

In modern times, this scheme is attributed to Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (G 2072-5, 1788-1865). He recognised the pattern while classifying objects for the National Museum of Denmark.

However, the Roman poet Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, c. G 1997-8, c. 99-55 BC), in his scientific poem On the nature of things, wrote that humans first used stone for their tools, then copper and finally iron (Book 5, lines 1281-1296). Lucretius's reference to copper can be taken as shorthand for bronze (which is 90 percent copper).

Before Lucretius, the Greek poet Hesiod (c. G 1970, 750 BC) described five ages, in the following order: gold, silver, bronze, heroes, and iron. Here, the age of heroes stands out as not being named after a metal. It seems to refer to what, in modern reckoning, would be the late bronze age/early iron age, a time of warfare and social breakdown in the Greek peninsula. As for gold and silver, Lucretius also noted that people were using these metals in what for him was the copper age, but he said they preferred copper because it could be worked more easily than the two precious metals.

These three basic ages -- stone, bronze and iron -- have been further divided and refined in various ways.

The stone age, for example, is divided into the old stone age (palaeolithic) and the new stone age (neolithic), while the old stone age is itself divided into the upper, middle and lower palaeolithic (with the upper being the most recent part). Between the stone and bronze ages is recognised to be a copper age, known as the chalcolithic or eneolithic.

Terminology varies between the archaeological traditions of different regions. For example, in African archaeology, the upper/middle/lower palaeolithic tend to be called the late/middle/early stone age. Meanwhile, in Europe there is recognised a mesolithic between the palaeolithic and neolithic; although 'mesolithic' literally translates as 'middle stone age', this is not the same as the African middle stone age, which refers to the middle part of the palaeolithic. In some regions outside Europe, the equivalent of the mesolithic is called the epipalaeolithic.

The history of fully modern humans begins with the upper palaeolithic (or whichever term is preferred in other regions, e.g. late stone age in Africa).

What age are we in today?

We continue to use iron. The contents of the average cutlery drawer, for example, are generally made of iron (or more precisely steel, which is over 95 percent iron and has been the predominant form of iron since antiquity). On the other hand, we have introduced a variety of other materials to replace iron in various applications -- notably plastics, which future archaeologists will no doubt find clogging up excavations dating from our period. So this could be the plastics age. Alternatively, some suggestions pick out other features of our time, labelling this the space age or the information age.

To understand the significance of these 'ages', there are two facts we need to consider:

  1. The 'ages' started and ended at different times in different places. In south-west Asia (Iraq), the start of the bronze age was around G 1840 (c. 4000 BC), while in western Europe it was around G 1920 (c. 2000 BC).

  2. The technologies were not confined to the ages named after them, but could first appear well beforehand and continued in use long afterwards. For example, iron was already known about in the bronze age, and, during the iron age, bronze continued to be favoured for some items, such as statuary and clothes pins. Similarly, particular stone tool types (lithic modes) are known sporadically from times long before they came into widespread use, and stone tools continued to be made into the bronze age.

Taking the second point first, it is clear that the discovery of the technology did not in itself turn it into a prominent part of everyday life. Phasing out one technology and phasing in the next only occurred after a lengthy delay.

The reason for this is that the whole of society revolved around these fundamental technologies. It was not a question of putting down one type of tool and picking up another. The entire political, economic and social structure had to be rearranged.

Consider the change from stone to bronze.
  • (Economic issues) Late stone age people did not generally make their own axes - they were produced by specialists and were traded, sometimes over hundreds of miles. Obviously, the end users had to provide something in return, and so particular goods would flow back towards the makers of the axes. What represented a fair and feasible exchange for a given type of axe would have become established through experience. The end-users and axe-makers did not necessarily meet face-to-face but the axes may have passed through the hands of one or more intermediate traders, who not only saved everyone a long journey but may have played a useful role in swapping the goods the end-users had to offer for other goods more desirable to the axe-makers. To shift from stone to bronze, this network had to be dismantled and a new one constructed - one that now linked the end-users with the people and places where bronze was produced. This represented a problem for the stone axe-makers and for the stone axe-traders. New traders had to set themselves up, and the types and quantities of goods to be exchanged for bronze axes had to be worked out. So this technological shift required all involved to adjust their livelihoods and make contact with different parties, while some (the stone traders) were likely to lose out as others gained.

  • (Political issues) Bronze weapons were far more effective than stone weapons. So unless stone age chiefs were quick to get the new technology they were apt to find themselves being overpowered by new warlords, perhaps people they had once dominated but who by luck or judgement got bronze before they did. Not only did vagaries in the obtaining of bronze affect the balance of power, but the superior qualities of bronze allowed warlords to project their authority over much larger areas than before, though that would not be achieved without a fight.

  • (Social issues) Stone tools were not just utilitarian objects. They had a place in ritual and religion. This is apparent both from the appearance in burial mounds of stone axes that were clearly ceremonial objects, too good for everyday use, and from studies of contemporary stone-using societies. The shift to bronze thus required a transformation of religious thinking or more generally of cultural ideas and practices. In his classic essay Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians, the anthropologist Lauriston Sharp described how, among Australia's Yir Yoront aborigines, only senior men knew how to make stone axes, and this allowed them to maintain their authority over women and junior men, who had to borrow an axe from a senior man whenever they needed one. However, missionary workers gave the aborigines steel axes, without preferring senior men over the others - indeed senior men avoided the missionaries and tended to lose out in the distribution of steel axes. This removed the basis of the senior men's authority and led to a breakdown in the aborigines' whole social order. Similar social transformations may have been triggered by the switch from stone to bronze.

Thanks to the above issues, there was much inertia or resistance to the historical change from stone to bronze. Not only were the adjustments going to be painful but people had little way of knowing whether it would be worthwhile in the long run. So they avoided going down that route in the first place.

Nevertheless, experimentation continued in the background, and the properties and possibilities of bronze became increasingly familiar until it could no longer be resisted. When the changeover occurred it was inevitably rapid. It was not possible to combine some aspects of stone-based society with some aspects of bronze-based society, because the two were fundamentally incompatible. These were distinct eigenmodes and people had to switch from one to the other wholesale.

The switchover was, however, heavily contested. There was war, impoverishment and cultural disruption as the ambitions of those who stood to gain from bronze clashed with the fears of those who stood to lose out, while trading networks collapsed and relations between members of society were fundamentally renegotiated.

In short, the stone-bronze transition was accompanied by a dark age, when the political, economic and social institutions of the stone age were broken down to make way for the building of new political, economic and social institutions more suited to the conditions of the bronze age. This is in accordance with the phoenix principle.

What is true of the stone-bronze transition is true of other transitions. They were also brought about via dark ages. Within the stone age, it is possible to detect dark ages mediating the transitions to mesolithic and neolithic society. And this is also what lies behind Hesiod's identification of an 'age of heroes' between the bronze and iron ages. The age of heroes was a time of violence and warrior culture, when kings and armies thrashed out a new geopolitical landscape for the iron age, and learned how to organise and fight with their new weapons.

We can now return to the first point, i.e. that technological change occurred thousands of years earlier in some places than in others.

The traditional view would be that new technology just took a long time to diffuse say from the middle east to northern Europe, and that this would be evidence of the lack of contact between ancient societies.

We now see that the delay has nothing to do with societal contacts or the flow of ideas. In fact, ancient societies were in frequent contact, and information took just years, not thousands of years, to get from one place to another. The problem was that societies needed to undergo vast political, economic and social changes if they were to exploit the information that was coming through. It was the sheer magnitude of the changes, not the difficulty of communication, that slowed down technological uptake.

It is the same as in Africa today. Africa is exposed to advanced industrial technologies almost as soon as they come into use elsewhere, but Africa is nonetheless finding it difficult to transform itself politically, economically and socially so as to incorporate the technologies fully into its way of life.

It is not only underdeveloped societies that may find it hard to transform. Sometimes societies lag behind precisely because they are already successful and have little incentive to change.

At the time of the bronze age, Egypt lumbered on, not taking up the bronze technology that was making great headway among the fragmented city states of Mesopotamia. Egyptian society was already highly adaptive and its vested interests were powerful enough to fend off changes that might challenge their social position. In a similar way, mighty and monolithic China lagged behind as the fragmented polities of Europe made great technological advances in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Both Egypt and China suffered because of their conservatism, though both eventually accelerated into the new technological era.

Thinking about history in terms of technological ages therefore has both good and bad points:
  • It is 'good' in that the various technologies genuinely stand for distinctive configurations of social institutions, which, because of their mutual incompatibility, changed wholesale from one to the other.
  • It is 'bad' in that the emphasis on technology may fail to convey the important point that these ages involved far-reaching political, economic and social, not just technological, transformations.

As labels for major societal eigenmodes, the stone-bronze-iron ages, with their subdivisions, are too convenient to give up. We just have to remember that they are a shorthand for what were ultimately sociological rather than technological revolutions.

Nevertheless, the difficulty of deciding whether we are still in the iron age or, if not, what age we should call this, indicates that the age concept is not abstract and generalised enough to cover ongoing technical and societal change. We need something more formal and theoretical.

Such an improved measure is a society's total technology complement or inventory. Rather than using just one technology to stand for the total way of life of a society, we can consider all the technologies that the society incorporates into its way of life -- i.e. not just 'bronze', say, but weaving, needlework, pottery, roof-thatching, bow-making, net-making etc.

The 'inventory' concept provides a more nuanced characterisation of technological change than the blunt division into stone/bronze/iron ages. It allows for finer gradations of technological level and it can be immediately generalised to current and future technological levels. We do not need to argue about whether this should be called the space age or the plastics age; we merely tot up the total inventory of modern technologies. Unlike the 'age' concept, the 'inventory' concept also decouples technology from an explicit dependence on time, and this is more consistent with the fact that technological advances do not occur everywhere simultaneously, even among societies that are in contact.

I will return to a more detailed discussion of inventory in a later post. The main purpose of this post has been to get a handle on the significance of technological ages -- i.e. that they are good rules of thumb, which have some theoretical justification behind them.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Technological evolution

We need a measure of technological sophistication.

Technology changes through history, and technological sophistication is closely related to scale and societal eigenmode.

The internet, for example, makes possible and is made possible by the high scale of the modern world.

  • It should be obvious that the internet makes the modern world possible. Consider the direct impact on many businesses if their web and email facilities were suddenly shut off, and consider the indirect impact on many others.
  • As for the modern world making the internet possible, imagine a group of, say, a hundred idealists who decide to cut themselves off on a desert island. Could they produce or maintain all the familiar internet facilities like Google, Amazon and Wikipedia? Obviously not. Even if they took this technology with them, they would soon fall behind what was happening in the outside world, where thousands, even millions, of people are continually advancing the relevant services and underlying software.

In order to talk comparatively about technological change, we need a uniform way of describing the degree of sophistication of any given technology. This has to be applicable to everything from a stone axe to a Saturn V rocket and beyond.

Technological sophistication reflects four factors relating to the creation of an artefact instantiating that technology:
  1. The sophistication of the inputs or precursor processes and materials.
  2. The amount of effort needed for preparation (e.g. assembling the materials in one place).
  3. The amount of effort needed for actually producing the artefact.
  4. The amount of skill required.

The higher the skill, the higher the effort of preparation and production, and the higher the sophistication of precursors or inputs, the greater the sophistication of the technology.
  • A crude stone axe requires no input except a stone, which is about as unsophisticated as one can get, and minimal preparation. It may take some skill but this is relatively easily acquired, and the process of production may involve only a few minutes of effort.
  • A space rocket has very sophisticated inputs, including specialist plastics and alloys, complex microelectronics, and a large ground-based infrastructure for mission control. Preparation and production may take many years of effort by many people, and they will be drawing on an extensive education, from kindergarten through university to specific on-the-job training.

We can reduce the four factors to a common form by considering them in terms of time resources (also known as effort), i.e. the number of people involved in each activity multiplied by the amount of time each person contributes. Specifically, we define technological sophistication as equivalent to total time resources to produce the artefact:
t = tm + tp + ts +

t = total time resource to produce artefact ( ≡ technological sophistication)
tm = time resource for actually making the artefact
tp = time resource for preparation
ts = time resource for skill acquisition
ti = total time resource to produce input i ( ≡ technological sophistication of input i)

Technological sophistication therefore has units of person-seconds (or equivalently person-hours, person-days, person-years, whichever is most suitable). Note that technological sophistication is a characteristic of an artefact, not of a society or of a period in history.

Technological sophistication can be thought of as the amount of time it would take one person, starting from scratch, to manufacture the artefact in question, including all its precursors and materials. If the artefact were, for example, a Saturn V, the person would have to begin by learning basic geology and making a spade or pick in preparation for mining the ore to produce the metal from which the rocket's parts would eventually be constructed. The technological sophistication of the rocket could amount to many human lifetimes.

The actual time resources going into the creation of an artefact are not, in general, equal to the theoretical time resources used in the above definition of technological sophistication. This is because few artefacts are made starting from scratch. Instead, effort is amortised over many artefacts.
  • For instance, once a digger is available for mining ore, it can be used on many projects, not just to produce the one Saturn V. The time resources absorbed by producing the digger are in reality shared across many projects, and the Saturn V is responsible only for a small fraction of that effort.
  • Similarly, if multiple copies of an artefact are produced, the effort for skill acquisition, and possibly some of the preparation, does not need to be repeated. The skill acquisition and preparation time resources per artefact are therefore a fraction of what they would be for just one artefact.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to define technological sophistication as if one were starting from scratch while producing only enough of everything to manufacture one final artefact, even though that does not happen in practice. It is this definition that gives the truest account of what goes into making an artefact.
  • Consider writing a letter on a computer versus writing it with quill pen and parchment. The effort involved in each case may be about the same (e.g. it could take an hour to produce the letter either way). This is also true of preparation (switching on the computer, trimming the quill pen) and skill acquisition (learning to type, learning proper calligraphy)--the effort may be about the same in each case. Even the time resources devoted to the inputs might be similar if the time to build a computer is about the same as the time to prepare a piece of parchment from animal skin. Therefore, if we considered only the actual time resources going into the modern and medieval letters, there would seem to be no difference in technological sophistication. However, there obviously is a big difference in technological sophistication, which is reflected in the fact that a lot more effort and knowhow went into the development of the modern computer than ever went into the development of parchment and quill pens. This is what our definition of technological sophistication captures by assuming one starts absolutely from scratch.

  • Consider also that one person probably could produce a parchment letter from scratch (e.g. starting by tanning the goatskin and mixing soot and egg white to make the ink* etc.). However, to make a computer starting from scratch (i.e. beginning at the level of mining the ore) would take a lifetime, or probably several lifetimes. The time resources going into a computer are so high that, to make computers feasible/affordable, the time resources have to be amortised over many units, both for the final artefact and for the components from which it is built. This industry can only survive if it is done on a large scale, serving a large customer base. In this respect, medieval society was neither populous nor connected enough to support computing, and parchment-based letter writing technology was all that was feasible.
*This is merely illustration, not an accurate description of how to make medieval ink.
To demonstrate this definition of technological sophistication, I will calculate the changing sophistication of cutting tools, from the stone age onwards.
I cannot provide absolutely accurate values of technological sophistication, especially for the more complex technologies. This would require a vast amount of research. The figures given below are only estimates. My main purpose is to show the definition of technological sophistication in practice.

The first cutting tools used by humans were made of stone (=lithics). The tools of the palaeolithic and mesolithic (old and middle stone ages) can be classified into five lithic modes, reflecting increasing levels of sophistication (see Grahame Clark, World prehistory: a new outline, 2nd edn [1969]). The cutting tools of the neolithic (new stone age) were of higher sophistication again. After this came the successive increases in sophistication of copper, bronze and finally iron or steel tools.

Mode 1 stone tools involve the creation of a cutting edge by the application of a few sharp blows from another stone. This requires skill, but not much effort, and little attention is paid to the final form, which is rough and ready. The tool may either be the stone or one of the flakes chipped from it. Sometimes the tool is 'retouched' by chipping off a few small flakes to restore a cutting edge after it has been blunted or broken in use.
Mode 1 stone tools: typically prepared with just a few blows, ad hoc in size and shape

Mode 1 tools were already in use with early hominids in Africa, 2.5 million years before the appearance of modern humans. Some of the tools used by Australian aborigines, who are fully modern humans, continue to belong to this most basic category.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
Skill acquisitionTen minutes to pick up the basic technique, though performance would improve with practice600
Preparation5 minutes to select a suitable stone and hammer stone. Any kinds of stone lying around would be suitable, provided they were of reasonable size and shape.300
Manufacture1 minute to knock off a few chips60
TOTAL≈ 1000

Mode 2 stone tools require at least twice as many blows as a Mode 1 tool, and they are made to take a definite, standardised, symmetrical form, that of the classic hand axe. Instead of chipping with another stone, a soft implement of wood, antler or bone is typically used, often with pressure flaking, to provide fine control over the shape. The removed flakes are not used.

Mode 2 stone tools: chipped all the way round with a soft hammer (wood, bone) to achieve a definite symmetrical form, requiring at least a dozen blows

Mode 2 tools were in use with pre-human hominids from about 1.5 million years before the emergence of humans. The technology developed in Africa and was carried into Europe and Asia by the pre-human hominids that colonised these regions from around 1 million years ago. Again, Mode 2 tools have continued in use with the Australian aborigines.

-- Key innovation --

Specialised ancillary tool (wood etc. hammer); aim of producing a repeatable, pre-conceived form.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsThe bone/wood/antler flaking tool needs to be sourced and prepared, cutting it to the right length and maybe shaping it a bit. Perhaps twenty minutes.1200
Skill acquisitionIt should be possible to get the technique (from sourcing the stone and flaking tool to the design of the axe) in an hour.3600
PreparationA more specific size, shape and type of stone is required. Going to a likely site and selecting a suitable stone might take about half an hour.1800
ManufactureMore blows are required and more careful attention, in order to get the symmetrical shape. Perhaps 5 minutes.300
TOTAL≈ 7000

Mode 3 stone tools involve the Levallois technique, in which a stone core is first carefully prepared and then a single large flake is struck off from it with a sharp blow. In contrast to Mode 2, where the shape emerges gradually, allowing some trial and error, this technique requires a thorough understanding of how flint fractures and an ability to picture in advance the flake that will be produced. Preparation of the core requires a hundred or more shaping blows before the final blow that removes the flake. However, the precise shape of the flake is not particularly standardised.

Mode 3 stone tools: struck with one movement from a carefully prepared core, requiring around a hundred preliminary blows along with the expertise and imagination necessary to envisage how the stone will fracture at the last critical blow

Mode 3 tools are associated with the near-human Neanderthals and were in use from about 200,000 years ago. The first modern humans also sometimes used Mode 3 tools, and indeed the Australian aborigines have never used anything more than Mode 3.

-- Key innovation --

Extensive preparatory work during which finished item is not apparent.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsAgain a special tool is used for flaking. To prepare it: twenty minutes.1200
Skill acquisitionA period of practising more basic techniques would be needed to develop the necessary understanding of stone's characteristics. One 8-hour day.28,800
PreparationSpecial types of stone, similar to Mode 2, would be required. Fetching time: 1 hour3600
ManufactureA long period of shaping the stone is required before striking off the final product: 10 minutes600
TOTAL≈ 35,000

Mode 4 stone tools are based on long, narrow blades with two sharp edges. These are struck from a core whose preparation is more complicated than for Mode 3, requiring some 250 blows with a bone rather than stone hammer, but then yielding five times as many tools from one block of stone. Blades are also versatile. For example, one edge may be blunted, to create a scraper, or the blade may be shaped into a burin, which has a sharp point and can be used to gouge holes in other materials.

Mode 4 stone tools: struck successively from a prepared core, having long sharp edges and possibly further shaped into specialised tools such as the burin (right), used for drilling holes

Mode 4 tools came into use among fully modern humans at the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, i.e. G 1 (c. 50,000 years ago). Whereas Mode 3 tool users stuck to stone almost exclusively, blade tools are associated with equal numbers of tools made from bone and antler. Only modern humans used Mode 4 tools, but not all modern humans used them, since the Australian aborigines and some extinct cultures of Southeast Asia never did.

-- Key innovation --

Preparatory work to produce savings downstream as many blades can be mass-produced from one core; creation of tools to make tools (e.g. burin is used for making holes in bone/ivory to produce needles).

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsAgain a specialist hammer: twenty minutes1200
Skill acquisitionMuch practice is needed for genuine competence: two 8-hour days57,600
PreparationGreater care is needed in selecting the best stone (flint or similar). This might take a day (8 hours) to fetch. In reality, stone might be traded so that people would not have to find it themselves, but this is the sort of efficiency saving we ignore in the calculation of technological sophistication28,800
ManufactureThe preparation of the core requires 250 blows and the blade is further refined after being struck: 25 minutes1500
TOTAL≈ 90,000

Mode 5 stone tools consist of microliths, i.e. small flakes of around an inch long, or less. They come in many precise forms, including triangle, rectangle, rhombus, trapezium, crescent and leaf-shape. They are not complete in themselves but belong to composite tools, such as knives, sickles, spears, harpoons and arrows, with several microliths being fixed into a bone or wooden handle or shaft using resin and possibly some kind of fibre.

Mode 5 stone tools: tiny microliths, chipped into precise shapes and stuck into wooden or bone handles/shafts, using resin and fibre, to produce composite tools such as an arrow (left, with trapezoid head) or harpoon (right)

Mode 5 tools appeared in Africa and India around G 475-875 (40,000-30,000 years ago). By G 1275-1675 (20,000-10,000 years ago) they were in use almost everywhere. There was, however, much more variation than for Modes 4 and below, with groups only a hundred miles apart favouring different shapes and styles of microlith. The greater sophistication of Mode 5 technology is also apparent from the way they were associated with simple 'machines' multiplying human muscle power, namely the bow and the spear thrower, both of which were in use by G 1475 (15,000 years ago, the bow may have been in use much earlier).

-- Key innovation --

Complex composite tools, themselves part of compound systems (e.g. bow and arrow).

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsThe inputs are finished stone blades (the microliths). I will assume these have the technological sophistication calculated above for Mode 4 (90,000). Another input is string, for which I will conservatively assume a technological sophistication of 8 hours118,800
Skill acquisitionTraining is needed in sourcing resin, carving a stick to the right size and shape, and hafting the microliths to it. 8 hours28,800
PreparationObtaining the resin and a suitable stick (the string and microliths are already available, having just been made). Half an hour.1800
ManufactureCarving the stick and attaching the microliths. Half an hour.1800
TOTAL≈ 150,000

Neolithic stone tools involve the imposition of a preconceived shape on a piece of stone. This is either by minutely detailed chipping, to create arrowheads and daggers, or by polishing, to create axes and hammers. In both cases, the form transcends the material of which it is made, in the sense that the object's function, rather than the behaviour of stone, is the primary driver. One is looking at an object that happens to be made of stone, rather than at a stone that has been hacked into a useful shape.

Neolithic stone tools: (not to scale) standardised forms determined by the intended function rather than by the properties of the stone, and involving either minutely detailed chipping to create arrowheads (left) and daggers (centre left), or polishing to create axeheads (centre right) and socketed axe-hammers (right)

Neolithic stone tools: (continued) a neolithic polished axehead, and the tool as it would have been used

The beginning of the Neolithic, and hence of tools like this, is synonymous with the beginning of farming around G 1600 (10,000 BC). The technique of polishing axeheads was perhaps suggested by the technique of grinding corn between two stones, where the stones became smooth as they rubbed against each other.

This technology emerged first in North Africa and the Middle East, and later in Europe, Asia and the Americas. It continued after the invention of metalworking, among people who could not afford or obtain metal tools. The above dagger dates from around G 1940 (1500 BC) and seems to have been inspired by bronze weapons.

Besides their practical purpose, polished axeheads had value as a medium of exchange and store of wealth. The clip below is of a hoard of axeheads found in a burial mound in Brittany, France, and shows they must have been produced in huge quantities.

-- Key innovation --

Form determined by function rather than by properties of underlying material.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsA suitable block of stone would need to be prepared as a grinding platform (8 hours). Animal hide would need to be obtained (by hunting) and prepared for binding the axe in a tool (4 hours). An initial set of stone tools would be needed for the carving and cutting tasks associated with these and subsequent activities (assume sophistication of Mode 4 tools: 90,000 person-secs).133,200
Skill acquisitionThe basic grinding/polishing technique could be picked up quite easily, although to create sharp, smooth and symmetrical axes would require longer practice. 2 hours7200
PreparationThe hide is assumed available. Other parts to be sourced and fetched are: the stone to be polished, resin for gluing it in the handle, the handle itself, and one or more abrasives (sand) to be used in polishing. Total: 1.5 hours5400
ManufactureThe stone would be roughed out by chipping then polished by rubbing against the platform, using successively finer abrasives to get the final smooth surface (1 day). It would then be mounted in the handle (1 hour).32,400
TOTAL≈ 180,000

Copper tools are made either by beating the solid metal into shape or by melting it and casting it in moulds. In a very few places, such as parts of the North American Great Lakes, copper can be taken from the ground in virtually pure form. However, most of the time it has to be extracted from an ore by heating. It thus requires an extra stage of transformation compared to the shaping of a stone. Yet unlike a stone, the molten metal can be cast into arbitrary forms, and once a mould has been produced, identical copies can be turned out one after the other. Copper is also less brittle than stone and, if broken, can be melted down and recast. Since copper is not nearly as common as stone, the widespread use of copper requires long-distance exchange between producers and consumers. Typically, the ore is refined close to the mine location then transported in the form of standardised ingots.

Copper tools: the metal is either beaten into shape with a hammer (e.g. spearhead, left; note the groove round the hammer stone for attachment of a handle), or molten and cast in a mould (e.g. axehead, right); the resulting copper tool (centre, reconstruction) can be neater and more compact than its stone equivalent

Copper tools: (continued) this is a classic oxhide ingot of the ancient copper trade; the ingot is 27 inches by 16 inches (70 cm by 40 cm) and weighs around 82 lb (37 kg); it is a convenient shape for carrying by two people

Copper and gold were the first metals to be worked by humans, beginning in ancient Iraq around G 1760 (6000 BC). Copper was in common use in Europe and Egypt by G 1860 (3500 BC). The reconstructed copper axe above belonged to Ötzi, the man from G 1870 (3300 BC) whose body was found in an Alpine glacier in G 2080:16 (AD 1991). Copper chisels were used in the building of the Giza pyramids around G 1900 (2500 BC). This 'copper age', also known as the chalcolithic (chalcolithic = 'copper-stone'), technology does not seem to have reached sub-Saharan Africa until G 1960-1980 (1000 - 500 BC).

The discovery of copper metallurgy is related to the invention of pottery, which meant that people were already experimenting with heating earthy materials in a fire. Pottery, in turn, could have been suggested by the practice of heating stone tools to give them strength; this may have led people to experiment with the effects of heat on other materials.

-- Key innovation --

Transformation of raw material (ore) whose properties are not those of the finished product.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsOne input is the copper ore. This requires developing some knowledge of geology (4 hours), and then the actual location and extraction of the ore (8 hours). A set of stone tools would be needed for this (assume Mode 4: 90,000 person-secs). There is also a need for a pottery crucible and charcoal for the fire: assume 8 hours to make these.162,000
Skill acquisitionIt is necessary to understand the construction of a cast and the melting and pouring of the copper. 12 hours.43,200
PreparationThe copper must first be produced from the copper ore. 8 hours.28,800
ManufactureA mould has to be made, then the copper poured. After the copper is removed from the mould, it requires tidying up and polishing. For this: 12 hours. Finally, the object needs to be mounted in a suitable manner: 4 hours.57,600
TOTAL≈ 290,000

Bronze tools are made from a mixture of typically 90 percent copper and 10 percent tin or arsenic. The metals are molten together and cast in a mould. Bronze is much harder than pure copper, and can hold a sharp edge. Tin-bronze is superior to arsenic-bronze, which therefore tends to be found only in early or less developed bronze industries. However, tin is even rarer than copper, so a tin-bronze industry presumes a well-developed trade network connecting the point where the ore is mined and refined with the regions where the bronze artefacts are to be produced.

Bronze tools: an alloy of copper and tin, bronze is strong than either and capable of carrying a sharp edge; varying sophistication is evident in both the amount of metal used and the complexity of the shape to achieve a given effect, here ranging from the flat axe (far left) to the same with small flanges that hold it more firmly in the handle (centre left), to the palstave axe with an attachment loop and shaped mounting area separate from the blade (centre right), and finally to the fully socketed axe (right)

The earliest bronze-working societies were in the areas of modern Turkey, Syria and Iraq, beginning around G 1860 (3500 BC). Bronze was in use in China by G 1912 (2200 BC), in north-western Europe by G 1930 (1800 BC), and in India and Egypt by G 1940 (1500 BC). In the Americas, metalworking, with gold, silver and copper, began around G 1980 (500 BC), and copper-silver and copper-gold alloys appeared around G 1993 (200 BC). Arsenical bronze did not appear until around G 2040 (AD 1000), and classic tin-bronze was only introduced by the Incas around G 2060 (AD 1475), shortly before the Spanish conquest. American pre-Columbian metalwork tended to consist of decorative and prestige objects, rather than tools or weapons.

Arsenic often occurs naturally in conjunction with copper, which would have facilitated the discovery of arsenical bronze and perhaps suggested the possibility of experimenting with other adulterating metals.

Styles of bronze artefacts evolved continuously, tending to become both more efficient and more mass produced in their appearance, as illustrated in the following clip.

I have participated in a couple of bronze-making workshops run by Dave Chapman. The first was to make a leaf-shaped sword based on one in the Pitt-Rivers museum; this was cast in a stone mould. The second was to make an early bronze age-style axehead, using the lost-wax technique.

Replica leaf-shaped bronze sword cast in stone mould

Replica early bronze age axehead made using lost-wax technique

-- Key innovation --

Combination of raw materials to produce substance not found in nature.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources
InputsFor the ores, geology knowledge is required - more than for copper as there are now two metals involved, so 6 hours. For locating and mining the ores, two 8-hour days. Again there is a need for a set of stone tools (assume Mode 4: 90,000 person-secs), and for a pottery crucible and charcoal for the fire (8 hours).198,000
Skill acquisitionSimilar skills are needed as for copper, but now two metals are involved. Assume 50 percent more effort: 18 hours.64,800
PreparationThe metals need to be separately refined from their ores: 12 hours43,200
ManufactureThe actual melting and pouring of the bronze takes relatively little time, but there is much work first in creating the mould into which the metal will be poured and then in cleaning up and polishing the object after it has been removed from the mould. For this, two 8-hour days. Finally the object needs to be mounted in a suitably carved handle: 4 hours.72,000
TOTAL≈ 380,000

Iron tools are usually made from iron combined with small amounts of carbon (up to about 2 percent), and possibly with other elements, to create various kinds of steel. In terms of hardness and sharpness, decent bronze can actually be superior to an average piece of iron. On the other hand, deposits of iron ore are relatively common, which means that, compared to bronze, the technology is less reliant on far-flung trade networks, and this makes it cheaper. Iron has a higher melting point than bronze (around 1500°C compared to 1000°C), so that refining or casting it requires more sophisticated furnaces and handling equipment. However, the metal can be worked at lower temperature in a forge. A sword, for example, can be made from a bundle of rods heated and hammered together -- the metal becomes soft enough to take on a new shape, but does not actually melt. Iron can also be welded. This involves causing two pieces of metal to fuse by the local application of intense heat.

Iron tools: made from a metal that is widely available but only melts at high temperature (although becoming soft enough at lower temperatures to be worked in a forge); iron is usually mixed with small amounts of carbon, and sometimes other elements, to create various steel alloys; iron and steel remain in common use for a wide range of tools; here are shown an axehead of around G 1980 (500 BC) from the Black Sea region (top left), a replica Roman sword (left), a Roman axe (centre), a modern axe (right), and a chainsaw (bottom right)

Iron was first produced in the period after G 1920 (2000 BC), in India, the middle east and east Africa, but this was only in small quantities and as a kind of novelty. Around G 1960 (1000 BC), iron came into widespread use, overtaking bronze as the material of choice for tools and weapons. This occurred first in the middle east and Mediterranean countries from Egypt to Italy. In central Europe, iron technology took off 10 g later, i.e. around G 1970 (750 BC), and in north-western Europe 10 g later still, i.e. around G 1980 (500 BC). Iron technology also became fully established in sub-Saharan African in this same period, G 1960-1980. Africa was unusual in that iron and bronze came into use there at around the same time, instead of a lengthy bronze age preceding the take-up of iron. Iron was not known in the Americas until after the Columbian contact (G 2060:17 = AD 1492).

The addition of carbon to iron, to make steel, was a fairly natural development, since carbon would previously have been used in bronze casting, where it prevents a skin forming over the molten metal. The carbon came from charcoal (85-95 percent carbon), which is obtained by heating wood in the absence of oxygen and burns at the high temperatures needed for melting metal. In a primitive foundry, with a charcoal fire force fed by bellows, there would be plenty of carbon dust floating around in the air, and early metallurgists probably could not avoid it getting into the mix.

Over the generations, the technology of iron-making has evolved in several ways. One goal has been to allow iron to be handled in larger quantities, while another has been to adjust the amount of carbon and other elements so as to produce iron/steel with varying qualities (in terms of melting point, malleability, rust-resistance etc.) suitable for performing varying tasks. One major innovation, the Bessemer process, was made only just over 6 g (150 years) ago, and iron-making patents continue to be taken out to this day. Steel remains important, although plastics and sophisticated composite materials are increasingly dominant.

-- Key innovation --

Iron-making was perhaps not as revolutionary as some earlier transitions between lithic modes or the first use of metals, but the development of the high-temperature furnace was a breakthrough.

-- Sophistication estimate --

FactorDiscussionTime resources (seconds)
InputsA knowledge of geology is required: 4 hours. To obtain the ore (more widely available than copper ore): 4 hours. Also required are a crucible and high temperature furnace, along with charcoal fuel: two 8-hour days. Tools are needed to mine the ore and construct the furnace, for which assume a bronze package: 350,000 person-secs. 436400
Skill acquisitionThe necessary skills include producing the high temperatures for melting iron, handling the molten metal, and understanding how carbon or other ingredients affect the metal's properties: 20 hours.72,000
PreparationThe iron has to be smelted from its ore: 12 hours.43,200
ManufactureThe work involves creating a mould, melting the iron, and polishing the cast object into a finished product: 2 days. Finally, it has to be mounted: 4 hours.72,000
TOTAL≈ 625,000


The following table summarises the technological sophistication of different types of cutting tools and the times at which they first appeared.

Technology          Sophistication          Appearance     
Mode 11000Pre-G 1
Mode 27000Pre-G 1
Mode 335,000Pre-G 1
Mode 490,000G 1
Mode 5150,000G 500
Neolithic180,000G 1600
Copper290,000G 1760
Bronze380,000G 1860
Iron625,000G 1920

This chart shows growth of technological sophistication over time, based on the above table:

While these figures for technological sophistication are rough and ready, it is not surprising to see the kind of accelerating growth shown in the chart.

To make the numbers easier to write, it will be helpful to introduce some abbreviations. Thus, 90,000 person-seconds = 90x103 ps = 90 kps, where ps is short for person-seconds and kps is short for kilo-person-seconds, i.e. 1000 person-seconds; similarly we can have Mps (mega=106), Gps (giga=109) and Tps (tera=1012).

To conclude, I want to make two final points:
  • Only modern humans have used tools with sophistication 90 kps and above (Mode 4 lithics and higher). However, this does not mean modern humans only use tools above 90 kps. Humans continued to use Modes 1-3 lithics alongside more sophisticated tools, while some groups, like Australian aborigines, did not use anything higher than Mode 3. On aborigine tool-making, see R. Foley and M.M. Lahr, 'Mode 3 Technologies and the Evolution of Modern Humans', Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1997, 7(1): 3-36; A. Brumm and M.W. Moore, 'Symbolic Revolutions and the Australian Archaeological Record', Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 2005, 15(2): 157-175.
  • The adoption of a more sophisticated technology does not mean the abandonment of less sophisticated ones. At most, less sophisticated technologies become rarer over time, as more sophisticated ones are taken up. However, a relatively simple technology, such as a hammer, can be well adapted to its purpose and remain in widespread use despite massive growth of technological sophistication in other areas. Thus lower mode lithics continued alongside higher ones, neolithic tools continued alongside bronze, and bronze continued alongside iron. In principle, an astronaut landing on the moon could still pick up a pebble to fashion a Mode 1 tool for a purpose like prising open an equipment canister.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The first is the best

In Works and Days, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod wrote that history began with a golden age, which was followed by a silver age, a bronze age, and finally the miserable iron age of his own time. He recognised that technological progress had occurred, but nevertheless believed that humanity's finest times lay in the past.

James Lovelock has called this grandfather's law, the belief that the old days were the best.

Yet there may be more at stake here than simple prejudice.

Suppose the world's population were asked to choose just one iconic building to stand for the whole of human architectural achievement. What would they vote for? The Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the US Capitol, The Forbidden City, the Parthenon, the Coliseum?

I think there is a good chance, when all is said and done, that they might settle on the Great Pyramid of Cheops. It is only within the last century that significantly taller buildings have appeared, and, while these may be more sophisticated than the Great Pyramid, they do not have its simplicity, nor are they likely to last as long.

That the Pyramid of Cheops should remain one of the world's largest and most iconic structures might seem extraordinary, considering it was built by people who were still using stone tools, but it illustrates a general principle: in many areas of human endeavour, first efforts are often the best.

The Apollo 11 landing, for example, will probably stand for all time as a highpoint of space exploration. People will one day return to the moon, and will eventually reach other planets and the stars beyond, and they will use technologies of unimaginably greater sophistication than those of Apollo. Yet whatever they do, the Apollo achievement will in some ways never be equalled -- going from a standing start to landing a series of crews on the moon within the decade, in the most primitive craft, and then returning them to earth without a single fatality.

Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 team member who remained in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, has revealed that his biggest fear was that the lunar module ascent stage, which had never previously been tested under lunar conditions, would fail to fire, and he would have to return to earth alone. President Nixon had a speech prepared for this eventuality, in which he would have said that while Armstrong and Aldrin knew there was no hope of rescue they also knew their sacrifice would not be in vain. The speech was never needed, for the ascent stage performed flawlessly, and the mission was in every respect a triumph.

The observation that earliest examples are the best is encountered in all sorts of cultural phenomena.

  • The peak of Egyptian sculpture was achieved in the fifth dynasty, around the time the pyramids were being built (c. 2680 BC). This was never surpassed in the remaining two-and-a-half millennia of Egyptian history, though there was something of a renaissance in the eighteenth dynasty.
  • Experts on Mayan ceramics tend to note that the earliest designs are the most aesthetically pleasing and technically accomplished.
  • Drama in the modern sense began to develop in England from the mid-sixteenth century. Within forty years, it had already produced William Shakespeare, whose fame extends around the world. (A German friend once told me how he was shocked, when he was growing up, to discover that Shakespeare was not German.) In later centuries, Britain has produced other great dramatists, such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but they are not in the same league.
  • The earliest known cave paintings, at Chauvet Cave in southern France (see right) have been described as "the best we know of Palaeolithic art...a confident peak from which later cave painting could only go downhill." (S. Oppenheimer, Out of Eden: The peopling of the world, [London, 2004], p. 121).

There are several possible reasons why the earliest examples of a given cultural activity should be superior to those that come later.
  1. People have a need for mastery, to prove that they can do something. Once they have mastered whatever it is, their interest wanes. To land on the moon is a fantastic challenge that can inspire people to heights of daring and ingenuity, pushing contemporary technology to its limit. To land on it again is a humdrum task that people will get round to in due course when technology has advanced to the point that they can scarcely avoid it. Once people had built the Great Pyramid, they had proved their point. They would never build quite so ambitious a pyramid again, and before long they would stop building pyramids altogether.
  2. The first patrons of a new cultural product are elites, who can afford to pay for quality. As time goes on, people ever lower down the social scale seek their own versions of the product, in imitation of their betters, and this demand is satisfied by mass production, skimping on materials and cutting corners. The earliest Mayan ceramics were rare items destined for royal usage. Later ones were cheap imitations to be found in every peasant home.
  3. The first geographers to explore a new continent will be the ones to discover the biggest mountains, widest rivers and most spectacular views. Their successors can only fill in the details and will inevitably seem lesser folk. Similarly, the first people to explore a new cultural medium will access its finest opportunities, leaving only lesser achievements for those that come later.
  4. In attempting to assert their own creative individuality, people distance themselves from the cultural forms of the past. When what was achieved in the past was perfection, cultural products that seek to be different and distant will end up looking flamboyant, bizarre or degraded.

The 'first-is-best' rule does not always apply, but even when it does not, the peak of achievement in a cultural activity often comes in a short burst, and involves a cluster of exceptional individuals. This was the finding of the anthropologist A L Kroeber in his book Configurations of Culture Growth, where he investigated cultural 'efflorescences' in fields such as painting, sculpture, philosophy and science, and in societies ranging from Greece and Rome to China and Japan.
  • The peak sometimes comes early in the efflorescence, and sometimes late. It is less common for the peak to come in the middle.
  • Wherever the peak comes, the people who are responsible for the peak, i.e. the highest achievers in the given field, tend to be contemporaries or nearly so. An outstanding example is the Italian Renaissance, where Raphael (1483-1520), Titian (1490-1576), Michelangelo (1475-1564)) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) were all active in each other's lifetimes.

As Kroeber argued, the clustering of talent shows that high cultural achievement is a sociological phenomenon, with a dynamic of its own, and is not dependent on the chance appearance of individual geniuses. In other words, phases of great brilliance, rather than being random occurrences, have sociological causes and are susceptible to sociological explanations. This means that they can and should be accommodated and accounted for in a theory of history.

In addition, the fact that humans' earliest cultural products can surpass their more recent ones teaches us something about our own situation: it is not because we are cleverer than ancient Egyptians or stone age hunters that we are more technically advanced. It is because we live at the latest moment in history, and are the beneficiaries of these ancient peoples' achievements. Rather than being in every way superior to those who inhabited the planet before us, we are in some respects their degenerate and less accomplished grandchildren.