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

Friday, 28 December 2007

To all corners of the earth

Long before Europeans developed an ocean-going capability, humans had reached the furthest corners of the earth. This included not only every continent but even the remote Easter Island, thousands of miles from habitation in every direction. Some other Pacific islands, such as Christmas Island, showed signs of human settlements that had died out before Europeans first arrived.

This tells us something about people. Humanity, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Humans do not naturally stick together and congregate in large numbers. There is rather a continual outward pressure as people try to get away from each other.

The stone age lifestyle, based on hunting and gathering, requires a large amount of land area per person. If human numbers were going to grow, people had the choice of staying where they were and developing more advanced food production technologies (to support more people from the same land area) or move steadily out into virgin territory. In reality, people did not make a conscious choice. Moving to new territory would have seemed like the only option, and it was only when the world had filled up that humans had to confront and solve the problem of feeding more people from the same area of land.

The hunting-gathering lifestyle naturally draws people on. Rather than moving a little each day, hunter-gatherers tend to stay in one place for a while and then relocate in one big jump. It has been said they eat their way out of camp. The longer they stay, the further they have to travel to find new food sources. In a matter of weeks, the daily round trip exceeds twenty or thirty miles, and it becomes necessary to make a major move.

This outward pressure can take people a long way in a short time. It often seems to be assumed that for early humans to migrate, say, a thousand miles would have taken many generations. Yet even in the stone age, people could in principle have travelled from one end of the earth to the other in their own lifetimes. Consider that the circumference of the earth is roughly 25,000 miles. For a stone age person with an active life of 25 years, it would be necessary to travel 1000 miles per year, or under 3 miles per day, to cover this distance. People who follow stone-age lifestyles today can easily do that kind of mileage.

Of course, humans would not have gone directly around the equator, with several oceans in the way. Nor would they have walked directly across the continents, where the way can be barred by mountains and deserts.

Their easiest route would have been along the coastline. Since people reached Australia very early, they may have had simple boats from the very beginning, as they came out of Africa. This would have sped them on their way.

At the beginning of the upper paleolithic, 40,000 years ago, sea level was lower than it is today. This left a continuous land route from Africa to the Americas, with no ice barriers. Here is a map of the world at that time:

The above image was created using a program at the site of Sebastien Merkel. This allows you to enter a given sea level and view the resulting map. Information about how sea level has changed over time is available at this site.

With sea level as above, travel to Australia still required crossing open water. However, this could be done by island-hopping, with each island visible from the previous one. Only the final crossing, of about 100 miles, required a leap into the unknown, but Australia was a large target and people could have spotted it during short sea trips to and from their home base. (Humans could also have arrived at Australia via New Guinea, which was then connected to Australia by land. However, it is believed they did not take that route and New Guinea was settled after Australia.)

I do not accept that humans only gradually diffused through the world. I believe that, following initial speciation in Africa, humans exploded across the planet, so that the world was occupied almost simultaneously at around 40,000 years ago.

We can estimate how long it would have taken people to spread to fill every continent.

Modern hunter-gatherers live at densities of around 1 person per 15 square miles (compared with 67,000 persons per square mile in Manhattan). However, they tend to occupy marginal environments, the best land having been taken over long ago by agriculturalists. Average population densities in the old stone age might have been higher, perhaps as high as 1 person per square mile. Since the habitable area of the world is about 15 million square miles, the total human population of the world, with paleolithic technology, would have been somewhere between 1 million and 15 million.

Let us define the following:

A =total area of the world habitable by hunting and gathering (say, 15 million square miles)
ρ =population density of hunter-gatherers (say, 1 person per square mile)
T =
time for an unconstrained human population to double in numbers (say, 10 years, which was observed on Pitcairn Island during the first thirty years after it was settled by the Bounty mutineers)
t =time

The number of hunter-gatherers that would saturate the world is A ρ, while, starting from a population of 1 (a pregnant woman), the number of humans after time, t, would be 2t/T.

The time taken to populate the world is therefore given by

A ρ = 2t/T


t = T log2(A ρ)

Putting in the numbers suggested above, this comes to about 240 years, for humans to cover the planet.

Of course, this figure should not be taken literally. It is just to give us a feel for the issue. A larger starting population (1 pregnant woman is a little unrealistic) would reduce the time, as would a lower population density, while a longer doubling time would increase it. The point is that humanity's spread through the world does not need to have taken a hugely long time, and in fact it is unlikely that it took a hugely long time.

Note that, once the world was fully populated, population growth would have had to stop until technological improvements allowed more people to be supported from the same land surface. Modern hunter-gatherers are adept at keeping their numbers in tune with their environment, or in fact in tune with what the environment can support in its leanest years. There would therefore have been a short population explosion, followed by near-stagnation (until the development of farming).

Three factors would have slowed down human expansion relative to this simple picture:

  1. Obstructions, such as deserts, mountains and waterways. Crossing the Amazon at its mouth, for example, is like crossing the English channel.
  2. Varying ecological conditions. People who knew how to exploit the flora and fauna of one environment (grassland, forest, seashore) would have had to learn new skills to survive in a different one.
  3. Presence of other hominids. Neanderthals and other hominids already occupied the lands outside Africa. Modern humans would have been competing with them for resources, and might for some time have been kept out of their territories by fear or force.

Nevertheless, people could still have reached every continent in a short time, even if actually filling the continents was slower than the simple argument suggests. Having boats and following the coastline, humans would have remained within a familiar environment while being able to bypass obstacles. As for conflict with other hominids, it might even have been a factor drawing the more capable humans onwards.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The problem of the Australians

The (aboriginal) Australians worry me.

These folks settled their continent 40 thousand years ago -- or, as many scholars now believe, 65 thousand years ago.

Yet in all that time, they failed to develop beyond the old stone age. They developed no agriculture, metal, or permanent settlements. They scarcely even had clothing.

If Australia had not been discovered from outside, there is every reason to suppose its inhabitants might have remained at the stone age level for ever more -- or until the sun burned itself out.

It is frightening to think that a branch of the human species could have continued in this way forever, never realising its potential, and never knowing anything of the science and technology we have developed.

If the Australians had been typical of humanity as a whole, the human story would have looked something like this...

We can attempt to explain the Australians' lack of development in terms of dark age theory.
Scale (a measure of interactivity) is a critical determinant of a society's institutional and technological complexity. Low-scale societies are inevitably simple, as small groups of isolated people cannot support elaborate economies and political systems. Stuck at the end of the world's main landmass, and separated from it by a lengthy sea-crossing, Australia experienced low scale. It was exposed to few influences. The effective size of the population within reach, i.e. the scale, was too low to sustain development beyond paleolithic levels.

We can refine this argument. For an isolated region, scale depends on the population contained within that region. But the population that exists within the region depends on the technological level (because sophisticated food-production techniques support more people on the same amount of land). And the technological level depends on the scale. What appears to have happened in Australia is that humans achieved an equilibrium, or eigenmode, where technology supported a population that generated enough scale to support that level of technology...and no more. This eigenmode, i.e. self-consistent solution to the problems of social existence, was quite stable and there was no reason why the Australians should ever have broken out of it.

This argument suggests several points of concern:

  1. New Guinea is also small and isolated, yet its inhabitants achieved the neolithic level, unlike the Australians. New Guinea was actually joined to Australia, as the continent of Sahul, until about ten thousand years ago, so why did the Australians not achieve the sophistication of New Guinea? The Polynesian islands are even smaller and even more isolated, yet many had chiefdoms, surpassing New Guinea in sophistication, let alone Australia. We might be able to explain this in terms of humans bringing the relevant technologies and institutions to these islands, so that they were already in a more complex eigenmode. But why were people not able to carry this eigenmode to Australia?
  2. If Australia was too small to support developmental growth like that of the Afro-Eurasian and American world islands, it suggests that, had the world's landmass been more broken up than it is, then humans would not have been able to develop anywhere. The fact that humans have developed must then be seen, in part, as a geographical accident, not an inevitable result of human talents.
  3. Australia is a big place. If we are saying Australia was too small, then just how big does a continent have to be before humans are able to develop beyond the paleolithic? It is true that Australia has large areas of desert, but the Nile Valley is surrounded by desert. And climatic conditions in Australia have changed a lot over the millennia. Why could civilisation not have developed along the valleys of Australia's Orange or Murray-Darling rivers? If we are saying environmental conditions here were never quite right, then just how flukey was the development of civilisation elsewhere?
  4. If Australia reached equilibrium at a technological level commensurate with its size, then could this be the fate of the world as a whole? Will we stagnate at a (much higher) technological level where the planet is able to support just enough population to sustain that level of technology? Could the human race flat-line until the sun goes supernova or something else wipes us out?

The point of these questions is not to deny that Australia's lack of development can be related to its situation, but to show some of the complicating issues that a full theory must take into account and be able to explain.

We should also note two other points:

  1. There is no reason to think, as some might, that the aboriginal Australians lacked the mental capacity of humans elsewhere. All humans today are members of a single species, descended from common ancestors living at most 100-200,000 years ago. On an individual level, aboriginal Australians operate perfectly competently in technologically advanced society; high achieving aborigines include academics, politicians and writers. Australian traditional culture is also sophisticated in its own way; languages and kinship systems are more complex than those of 'advanced' societies; art and mythology are well developed; the boomerang is a clever device; aborigines found honey by gluing feathers to bees, slowing them down so they could be followed. [As far as dark age theory is concerned, the sameness of humans everywhere and at all times is axiomatic. Only when it has proved impossible to build an adequate theory of history on that assumption will the axiom need to be abandoned - we are nowhere near that yet.]
  2. Australians seem to have taken up agriculture at various points, then abandoned it again. Therefore, the situation is not as simple as achievement of an everlasting equilibrium. Stagnation was not total, and perhaps changing climatic conditions sometimes elevated scale sufficiently to promote development in some areas.

Finally, there is the argument of Jared Diamond, in Guns, germs and steel, which is that the move to neolithic (farming) lifestyles depended on the availability of crop plants and domesticable animals. While Eurasia had barley/wheat/rice on the one hand and sheep/cattle/horses/pigs on the other, suitable equivalents in the rest of the world were lacking.

Diamond's argument comes back to the issue of continental size. There is a well-known relationship between the size of an island/landmass and its biodiversity. Hence, the largest continent, with the greatest biodiversity, inevitably had the most suitable species for agriculture. The second largest continent was a runner up, while the smallest continent had too litte variety to provide species with the right characteristics for human exploitation.

This argument is not endorsed by dark age theory, which starts from the assumption that history is a sociological phenomenon, not dictated by random background features such as climatic conditions or availability of domesticable species. In dark age theory, necessity is the mother of invention, so that people would be expected to have found ways of supporting complex society if conditions were right for it. Diamond says attempts to use the zebra as a beast of burden have failed, which he suggests helps explain Africa's lack of development. However, over thousands of years the zebra might have been domesticated as the horse was, had people really needed such an animal. Dark age theory looks for explanations in terms of the inherent logic of human affairs, not in terms of chance, external factors. (This viewpoint may be wrong, but we start from it as an assumption, to be abandoned only when it has demonstrably failed.)

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Human speciation

I want to discuss why my view of the early migrations of the human species differs from the broad academic consensus.

Firstly, to work out when and how humans came to be distributed through the world, we rely on archaeology and, more recently, genetics. Neither perspective is without its problems.

  • Archaeology depends on sites. The discovery of new sites may change the picture. Archaeologists are biased towards a constantly changing picture. Careers are made by saying something new and interesting, not by confirming what has long been common knowledge.
  • Genetic dating depends on mutation rates. These are estimated and, since mutations are random and do not occur at fixed intervals, there is an inevitable margin of error. Furthermore, external factors could have an unknown, systematic effect on the mutation rate. If, for instance, the earth's magnetic field weakened, it would allow more cosmic radiation to reach the surface, possibly elevating the mutation rate.

Archaeologists' and geneticists' models of migration history are evidence-based. This sounds good -- surely our models must be based on evidence -- but means they are subject to caprices of evidence discovery, and uncertainties and revisions of evidence interpretation.

My model is theory-based. Rather than considering only direct evidence for the issue in question, it reflects a broader theory of how human societies operate, based on theories and evidence from a wide range of cultures and historical periods. The point is to build a coherent explanation of the whole of history from a few principles. Incompatibility with specific facts or interpretations, which are subject to the vagaries of academic fashion, does not make or break the theory.

This approach is by no means unscientific. The model makes predictions to be tested against reality. It could be wrong. If it continues to disagree with facts that become increasingly well established, it must either change to accommodate the facts or be abandoned altogether.

I say all this because I choose to start my account of history with a big bang -- the sudden appearance of 'true' human beings in Africa 40 kya (kya = 'thousand years ago'), and their near-instantaneous spread to Europe, Asia, Australia and America. I associate this big bang with a newly evolved ability to manipulate symbols, which I believe underlay art, speculative thinking and 'true' language. In the archaeological record, it corresponds to the transition to the Upper Paleolithic, marked by a new sophistication and variety of stone tools.

My view is by no means original -- the association of a biological event, language skills and the beginnings of human ingenuity was the mainstream view until not long ago. However, it disagrees with some major points of the current academic consensus, which are:

  1. Modern humans appeared in Africa as much as 190 kya. (Nevertheless, it was long believed, and still is in some quarters, that the emergence of the human species was linked to the appearance of the Upper Paleolithic, which is dated to 40 kya)
  2. Australia was settled 65 kya. (This was believed to be 40 kya until the 1980s.)
  3. America was settled about 12 kya. (Increasing numbers of archaeologists think this date should be pushed back at least a few thousand years, with some arguing for dates as early as 40 kya.)

The reason I do not like to believe the human species is as old as 190 ky is that it makes the acceleration of recent times look even more extreme. If it took 150 thousand years to make the step to the Upper Paleolithic, but a hundred years to develop electricity, computing and space flight, it seems we really are in the grip of a runaway process and it can be at most a few thousand years before we conquer the entire universe -- something I find hard to accept.

Such an early date for human origins -- and the implied slowness to move outside Africa and colonise the rest of the world -- also makes humans look much less adventurous than I believe we are.

My prejudices therefore lead me to identify human speciation with the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic -- the point from which growth of mastery over this planet seems to have been almost continuous.

This belief in a link between new technology and a new species can nevertheless be very reasonably criticised. Oppenheimer points out that there is a vast technological gulf between industrial societies and, say, the tribal societies of highland New Guinea, yet both are composed of fully modern humans. There is no compelling reason why the technological revolution of the Upper Paleolithic should have been associated with a step forward in biological evolution.

So I cannot really justify my choice of starting point. All I can say is, let us run with it and see where it gets us.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Genetic trees and the peopling of the world

I would like to go back to discussing how humans spread through the world.

Numerous books have appeared on this subject in recent years, stimulated by new techniques of genetic research. I find these interesting but I question their claimed definitiveness.

Imagine photocopying documents, where you photocopy the photocopies, perhaps making dozens of copies from each copy. In the course of this, blemishes will occasionally appear. When you photocopy the blemished copy, the same blemishes will be reproduced in all subsequent copies. If you look at two copies and see that they share the same blemish, you know they must "descend" from the same original, blemished copy. If you also see that the two copies have additional, different blemishes, and you know how often blemishes arise--say, once every thousand copies--you can work out how many copying generations it is since the copy from which they are descended. E.g. if they differ by three blemishes, it must be three thousand generations since the "ancestor" photocopy passed through the photocopier.

Photocopier genetics

A similar principle has been used to determine the family relationships between human populations.

It does not work with ordinary DNA, which is mixed and matched at every generation (half from each parent) by sexual reproduction--as if the photocopies were cut in half and taped together in new combinations, so that blemishes are spread around and clear distinctions between lines are not maintained.

Instead, it relies on parts of the genome that do not undergo recombination. These are mitochondrial DNA, which people inherit only from their mother, and the Y-chromosome, which is passed down intact (or almost so) from father to son. When these genes are passed down, copying mistakes occasionally occur, so that people today show many variations deriving from ancient errors. As with photocopier blemishes, such variations make it possible to estimate how long ago any two people shared a common ancestor (female ancestor for mitochondrial DNA and male ancestor for the Y-chromosome).

Stephen Oppenheimer, in his book Out of Eden: the peopling of the world, describes how geneticists have used this principle to trace the ancestral connections between human populations and to work out how long ago they split off from one another.

The message he likes to convey is that archaeologists and historians were fumbling around in the dark until these new genetic techniques came to shine the clear light of day on their disciplines.

For instance, the geneticists have apparently instantly and conclusively resolved an issue that archaeologists might have been arguing about until kingdom come. While archaeologists once saw changes in the distribution of pottery as indicating the wholesale movement of the people who produced the pottery, more recently they have argued that people remained put and only styles and technology spread from one region to another. The genetic evidence seems to show that, indeed, most modern populations have been where they are for a long time and the formerly hypothesised migrations never took place.

Nevertheless, I suspect that, in the fullness of time, the geneticists' arguments will come to seem as problematic as those of the archaeologists' and historians', which themselves once seemed so obvious and compelling. It will be revealed that there are other ways of interpreting the results and doubt will creep into this young discipline where today certainty is supreme.

After all, according to Oppenheimer, the entire non-African population of the world is descended from a single group that left Africa via the Arabian peninsula about 80,000 years ago. Yet the notion that, over the entire lifetime of the human species, no other people had the idea of leaving Africa is hard to credit. Right there lies a reason for having doubts about the completeness of the genetic picture.

Even if the geneticists prove to be completely correct in their picture of ancient population movements, there remains a vital role for historians and archaeologists in advancing understanding of the past. The things that make, say, Britain what it is today are Magna Carta, the Elizabethan Age, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and so on--i.e. sociological things that are not passed down in our DNA. History and society, the concerns of this website, are the subject of cultural, not genetic, transmission, and the connection between genes and culture is probably looser than people like Oppenheimer tend to assume.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The path of civilisation

For most of history, waterborne transport was easier and quicker than movement overland.

Scale was highest in the vicinity of waterways, where people were more mobile and could get in touch with each other more easily.

The first civilisations or city-level eigenmodes ("civilisation" = "city-based society") emerged along rivers. These included the Nile valley (Egypt), the Tigris-Euphrates basin (ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia), the Indus valley (or Harappan civilisation) and the Yellow River (China).

Early state formation was along rivers, where mobility, i.e. scale, tended to be higher

As the technology of water transport improved, the cutting edge of civilisation shifted from rivers towards seas, notably the Mediterranean...

The 'middle sea'--a relatively benign, tideless sea--facilitated societal intercourse and was the focus for the next stage of civilisation

...and then from seas towards oceans...

Improvements in navigation took trade and interaction to the next higher level, favouring those regions bordering the Atlantic ocean

This logic was interrupted by the development of railways, highways and air transport, all of which diminished the advantage of societies bordering on water.

As technology continues to develop and humans build a space-going civilisation, the advantage will shift again towards those regions where it is easiest and cheapest to launch rockets into orbit. These are the equatorial regions where the boost from the earth's rotation is biggest.

As humanity moves into space, scale will be highest along the equator, where launching rockets is easiest, and the centre of civilisation will move once again, towards this belt

That civilisation is most advanced where scale or interactivity is greatest means that, if there are other intelligent races beyond this planet, then they are most likely to be found in the vicinity of galactic cores, where stars are closest. I have stated before that I think humans are probably alone in the universe but, on the basis of this historical theory, I would urge SETI researchers, if they are going to look for extraterrestrial life, to concentrate their attentions where worlds are densest.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Summary - understanding social complexity

I want to summarise the points I have been making in the last half dozen posts.

When we look around the world, we see societies of varying sophistication.

We should not put this down to some societies being more 'talented'. It is a matter of scale and eigenmodes.

The question is, why scale increased in some places and not others.

We should not think that increasing scale is an obvious 'choice'. People actually like to get away from each other. And the simple, free lifestyle of low-scale societies holds many attractions.

That said, people are contradictory. Population concentrations can be attractive, offering possibilities not found in the free-roaming band, especially as far as young people are concerned. Once established, high scale may be self-sustaining.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Why there are three eigenmodes

I previously introduced the family, village and city-level eigenmodes of society. What differentiates these societies is the relative probability of meeting friends, acquaintances and strangers.

  • At the family-level people deal almost exclusively with friends. Encounters with people that could be regarded as acquaintances or strangers are rare.
  • At the village-level people, if not friends, are at least acquaintances. Encounters with strangers from outside the village are rare.
  • At the city-level people, most people are mutual strangers and encounters with strangers are normal.
Since even in the city people have acquaintances and friends, the village and family are actually subsets of the city eigenmode. People who live in city-level societies also belong to village-level and family-level societies. (This need not be a literal village; the 'village' may consist of a neighbourhood or a group of co-workers in a company.) Similarly, people in village-level societies also routinely experience the family-level.

The relationship between scale and the different eigenmodes can be attributed to the fact that maintaining acquaintanceships and especially friendships requires an investment of time, yet people's time is limited. If they encounter thousands of people over the course of a year, they cannot really be acquaintances let alone friends of all of them.

The number of friends a person may have is from about ten to about fifty (remembering that 'friends' in the technical sense includes close relatives). The number of acquaintances may be from about a hundred up to about a thousand. All other relationships are strangerships.

As the society's scale (interactions per unit time) changes, the proportion of friendships, acquaintanceships and strangerships changes as shown in the following figure.

  • When scale is very low and people spend all their time with say ten others, all relationships will be friendships. Friendships=100%, acquaintanceships=0%, strangerships=0%.
  • As scale increases and people each maintain say a hundred relationships, ten of those relationships will be friendships and the other ninety acquaintanceships. Friendships=10%, acquaintanceships=90%, strangerships=0%.
  • As scale increases further and people each maintain say a thousand relationships, ten of those will be friendships, a hundred acquaintanceships, and the other 890 strangerships. Friendships=1%, acquaintanceships=10%, strangerships=89%.

Thus, as scale varies, one passes from a friendship-dominated society to an acquaintanceship-dominated and then strangership-dominated society. Since friends, acquaintances and strangers behave towards each other in different ways, the type of relationship that dominates a society determines the type of behaviour that is characteristic of that society.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the three dimensions of society

Friends, acquaintances and strangers behave differently with respect to the three dimensions of society.

These differences are summarised in the following table and explained below.













Personal contact



  • Political dimension. This scarcely exists. Among friends there are no power relations. Some may be respected and listened to in particular situations, but none are allowed to put themselves above others. There is equality.
  • Economic dimension. There is no concept of debt or of the exact measuring out of how to pay someone back for a service they have provided. Instead, there is an attitude of share-and-share-alike. Everybody pools what they have and all get equal benefit from the common stock. This has been called 'primitive communism'. In sum, there is sharing.
  • Social dimension. People know each other on the most intimate terms, often as close relatives or at least as very close friends. Their loyalty to each other is based on this direct emotional bond. What connects the members of the group is personal contact.
  • Political dimension. This is relatively weak, but certain people have influence over others, obtained through the force of their personality. They must work hard to keep up their authority over networks of clients whom they place under their obligation either with material support or by brokering activities on their behalf. It is their personal qualities and activities that cause them to be listened to. The ability to determine the behaviour of others is based on prestige.
  • Economic dimension. People trust each other and do not demand immediate repayment for goods or services that they might have supplied. Nevertheless, there is a requirement that exact repayment should be made in the long run. People who have been given help owe something to those who helped them. The system of exchange is based on a concept of credit.
  • Social dimension. People know each other by sight. Even if they are not friends directly, they are connected through others. They share a way of life down to every detail of language, dress and custom. They call the same general area home. They participate in the same festivals and public activities. There is a sense of community.
  • Political dimension. Some people have power over others, based not on personal charisma but on the threat of force. There is a pyramid or hierarchy of power and power-holders are supported by the rest of the hierarchy, so that power can be assigned to the very young or old or others who could not secure it on their own behalf. Since the hierarchy mobilises to protect itself and imposes its will rather than merely exerting influence, power is experienced as domination.
  • Economic dimension. People are not prepared to give credit to those they cannot be sure of meeting ever again. When they give each other services they require immediate satisfaction in the form of a counter-service of equivalent value, and they expect nothing further in future. Every transaction comprises a balanced and completed exchange.
  • Social dimension. People do not necessarily share things in common. They may dress differently, speak differently, behave differently. Their sense of home may be different. In so far as they feel part of one group it is by acknowledge loyalty to a flag, a figurehead, a nation or some other abstraction.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Friends, acquaintances and strangers

Hunter-gatherer or family-level societies are characterised by sharing and egalitarianism.
This means that...

  • Sharing: people readily lend or give away food and possessions, and, instead of precise reckoning of debts, there is a general expectation of give and take. This does not mean that people are always happy to share. They can find it a burden. Fred Myers, who studied the Australian Pintupi tribe, once lost his temper when he ran out of cigarettes because the aborigines had cadged them off him. One of his aborigine contacts advised him to hide his cigarettes in his sock and pretend that he did not have any next time he was asked, saying "that is what I do".
  • Egalitarianism: there are no definite leaders and those who try to dominate are shunned or mocked. Richard Lee, who studied the Kalahari San, once tried to thank his hosts by giving them an ox to feast on. Instead of showing gratitude, they teased him, saying what a measly ox it was. In this way they prevented the appearance of any feelings of superiority/inferiority caused by his obviously greater wealth as a western anthropologist.
Anthropologists have contrasted such attitudes with the selfish and hierarchical nature of 'developed', or high-scale, societies, where shopkeepers do not share food with their customers and where politicians exercise power over other people's lives.

A moment's thought reveals, however, that members of high-scale societies behave like hunter-gatherers when it comes to those closest to them. Inside the household, there is sharing and equality: shopkeepers are not mercenary at home, nor do politicians lord it over their family in the way they show their authority in public.

The selfishness and hierarchy that seem typical of high-scale societies are characteristic of how people deal with strangers. It is just that, among hunter-gatherers, meetings with strangers are rare. Nevertheless, when they do have to deal with strangers, hunter-gatherers do not go in for their normal casual sharing. For example, they conduct trade with other groups, and, although this can take on what to us are unfamiliar forms (owing to communication barriers, lack of a medium of exchange, and mutual suspicion/hostility), it boils down to immediate and balanced exchange just like trade in high-scale societies.

Therefore, rather than hunter-gatherers and citizens of 'developed' societies having fundamentally different attitudes to sharing/not-sharing, they can be regarded as having exactly the same attitudes. The difference is in the amount of time they spend dealing with strangers versus friends and relatives.

How one person acts towards another depends on two factors:

  • Intimacy: whether the person is only happy if the other person is happy
  • Trust: whether the person expects to meet the other person again

These factors combine to produce three different types of relationship:













Some comments on this model:

  • A 'person' is not necessarily an individual human being, but can be any legal or corporate 'person' such as a business firm or a nation state.
  • The terms introduced above have the technical meanings given to them, not their natural meanings in informal, everyday language. For instance, a mother would be considered her son's friend in the above technical sense though probably not in the everyday sense. Similarly, a person's bank would be that person's acquaintance in the technical sense, in that there is an expectation of meeting again (they have each other's address) = trust.
  • The above table leaves out a fourth possible relationship, involving intimacy but no trust. One might think that such a relationship would never occur and that intimacy would always involve trust. However, this relationship is seen when people give charity towards those they do not know and do not expect to see again. A classic example is that of desert tribespeople accepting unfamiliar travellers into the camp and giving them food, water and shelter. The hosts do not expect direct recompense, but they do expect indirect recompense through being treated similarly when they are travelling and in need of refreshment. I will not make much use of this relationship.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Three dimensions of society

When characterising eigenmodes below, I described the typical behaviours of each society under three headings: political, economic and social. These may be defined as follows:

  • Political: power relations, or the ability of some parties to control the activity of others.
  • Economic: mechanisms for distributing scarce resources through exchange of goods and services.
  • Social: perceptions of unity, mutuality and membership of groups with definite identities.
These three dimensions of society have long been recognised. They are common in everyday speech as well as in academic work.

Some people talk about the dimensions using different terminology, perhaps of their own invention. For example:

Rudolf Steiner (philosopher)PoliticalEconomicSpiritual-cultural
Arnold Toynbee (historian)PoliticalEconomicCultural
Pitirim Sorokin (sociologist)CompulsoryContractualFamilistic
Kenneth Boulding (economist)Threat (do this or else)ExchangeIntegrative
Peter Cruttwell (independent theorist)PowerSubsistenceMetaphysics
Guy Siebold
(defence scientist)
VerticalHorizontalOrganisational or social

It does not really matter what we call them. The important thing is to recognise that collective human behaviour has these three distinctive aspects.

The reason why some writers prefer 'cultural' instead of 'social' is perhaps that 'social' can be used in a general sense to describe all collective behaviour, including the political and economic. However, the phrase 'political, economic, social' is well established and, so long as we are aware of the issue, it should not cause any problems. Context is enough to indicate which sense is meant in a particular case.

Note also that, as Steiner's and Cruttwell's terminology implies, 'social' or 'cultural' implies ideological aspects. To be part of a social group means to subscribe to values and beliefs that characterise that group, including religious, spiritual or metaphysical ideas.

It is worth remembering the ancient Greek and Latin origins of these terms:

cityThe city is the focus of power relations, where elites have their governmental bureaucracies or where people come together to argue, debate and seek office.
Economicοίκος (oikos)householdThe household has to feed and provide for itself, through its own production and through exchange in the market.
SocialsociusfriendFriends share their outlook on life and feel themselves bound together with a common interest and obligations of mutual support.

Some theorists have denied the three-dimensional model.

  • The sociologist Talcott Parsons supplemented the model with 'military' and 'religious' dimensions. However, military affairs could be seen as an aspect of the political dimension, in its widest sense of power relations, while religion could be seen as an aspect of the social dimension, in its widest sense of common identity and group membership.
  • 'Rational choice theory' contends that all behaviour can be reduced to just one dimension: the economic. According to this, people obey the law or help out loved ones because of what they get out of it, i.e. the benefit of not being punished or the sheer pleasure of being kind and loving. However, this fails to deal with the common-sense perception that a motorist stopping at a traffic light or a mother feeding her baby is engaging in a different kind of activity from buying and selling in the market. With rational choice theory everything interesting is treated as a trivial background assumption about what people would prefer, whereas the behaviours giving some people power over others or giving others a sense of shared interest are really what we need to model and explain.

In science, a theory or model cannot be judged by its correspondence to some intrinsic or absolute truth. Even if such absolute truth exists we do not have access to it. Instead, we must judge theories by how useful they are. It is therefore not a case of Parsons or rational choice theory being 'wrong' and the three-dimensional model being 'right', but of which is richer and more satisfying in describing human sociality. The three-dimensional model is consistently popular in this respect, while that of Parsons has not been taken up and rational choice theory is less in vogue than it was. Nevertheless, the model's merits will not be found in a priori arguments, but depend on its ability to deliver worthwhile results.

Important. Although these three dimensions can be distinguished from each other theoretically, they are mixed together in actual human behaviour. For example, tax-paying is compulsory and therefore belongs to the political dimension, but there is an element of exchange, in that taxpayers receive benefits in return for their taxes, and they are perhaps motivated too by a sense of community responsibility, so that the economic and social dimensions are also involved. It is rare, if not impossible, for an activity to be classifiable as purely political, purely economic or purely social.


In characterising the three basic eigenmodes, an important factor was the size of the community. I argued, for instance, that a small group of hunter-gatherers could not support the social complexity of a large city.

However, it can be difficult to define the size of the community.

  • Although the San split into groups of about a dozen adults most of the time, they come together in bands of fifty or more for festivals or rabbit drives.
  • A city like New York not only belongs to a larger nation, but need not have clear-cut boundaries and includes people who commute in and out during the day.
The important issue is people's ability to interact. The point about the city is that people come into contact with perhaps thousands of people over the course of a year, so that they can access all sorts of specialist services and find enough customers for their own specialist skills.

This is captured by the concept of scale:

The scale of a society is the number of distinct persons with whom a member of that society interacts in a given time.

The advantage of this definition is that we do not need to worry about how to draw the boundaries of the society.

Some theories (e.g. A W Johnson and T Earle The evolution of human societies) talk in terms of population density. However, it is not just the number of people per square mile that is important, but their ability to interact with each other, and this can be affected by transport and communications improvements, which bring people into contact without them necessarily living closer together physically.

The scale concept properly captures the importance of the community's size and density along with people's ability to move and communicate.

Emil Durkheim called this dynamic density.

'Interaction' should be interpreted in a very general sense. It does not just mean interaction with people we know.

  • A fleeting encounter with someone serving in a shop is an interaction.
  • Someone reading a plumber's advertisement in the yellow pages can be an interaction, since there is a flow of information from the plumber to the reader.
A society's scale is the key to its eigenmode (figures in brackets below represent scale in terms of the number of distinct persons encountered per year).

  • Low scale (10s of persons) -> family mode
  • Medium scale (100s of persons) -> village mode
  • High scale (1000s of persons) -> city mode
Although scale is closely connected with eigenmode, it would be wrong to say the society's scale causes its eigenmode. Scale is an aspect of the eigenmode. We should not think of it as coming first, even though we might want to. It is not productive to think in terms of cause-and-effect but instead we should think in terms of interdependency.

With the definition of scale given above, the comparison between two societies depends on the timescale used.

  • If we take scale as the number of distinct persons encountered per day, then it might be around 10 for both a hunter-gatherer and a New Yorker, but if we take scale as the number of distinct persons encountered per year, then it might still be around 10 for the hunter-gatherer but in the 1000s or even more for the New Yorker. In other words, if we use a day as the time interval, the scales of the two societies seem similar, but if we use a year they seem very different.

Although we could adopt say a year, which gives a reasonably realistic result, as the standard time span, it would be preferable to have a measure of scale that does not depend on time span.

Let Zij(t) be the amount of time that the ith member of the society spends interacting with the jth member of the society during a period of time of length t. Define zij by

zij represents the proportion of time, taken over the long term, for which this member of the society interacts with the jth other member. The society's scale from the perspective of this member is then given by

The society's overall scale, S, is the mean of the scales from the perspective of each member. If N is the number of persons in the society:

With this measure, some possible scale calculations are as follows (these are simplified illustrations and are not meant to be fully realistic):

Family of 10 persons; people divide their time equally between the other members.Scale = 1
Village of 1000 persons; people spend much time within a close family group of 10 members and encounter other members of the village one tenth as often.Scale = 2.9
City of 100,000 persons; people spend much time within a close family group of 10 members, encounter a wider circle of 1000 colleagues one tenth as often, and encounter the remaining citizens one thousandth as often.Scale = 4.2

Calculations in the above table use base-10 logarithms. This is not important; using other bases will change the absolute but not the relative values.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Three great eigenmodes

Societies have existed so far in three basic eigenmodes. (Some might argue for a fourth eigenmode; see below.)

I have described two of these eigenmodes already: hunter-gatherers such as the San, and cities such as New York. The third eigenmode is intermediate between these two. It consists of societies whose members grow their own food and live in isolated settlements with no formal governmental structures.

Let us characterise these eigenmodes more closely...

San family group

Example: San
Size of typical community: 10 people
Political mechanisms: Egalitarian; no formal leaders (elders may be respected). Those who try to 'act big' are mocked and resented. Friction/conflict is resolved by one party moving away to join friends, relatives or in-laws in another group (or by violence).
Economic mechanisms: Foraging (living off the land); nomadic; very simple equipment. Philosophy of share-and-share alike. Intricate customs give members rights to specific parts of the day's catch. Those who do not 'pull their weight' are subject to teasing and gossip, but there is no explicit reckoning of debits and credits.
Social identity: Each family-level group considers itself part of a tribe of several hundred people, coming together a few times per year.

New Guinea village

Example: New Guinea highlands
Size of typical community: 1000 people
Political mechanisms: 'Big men' attain prestige through ability, hard work, accumulating wealth and careful cultivation of social networks. They wield influence not formal power. Disputes lead to feuds, where a man allies with his brother against his cousin, and with his cousin against a more distant relative. Big men or priests mediate to break the spiral of violence.
Economic mechanisms: People farm/garden. They help each other, e.g. in harvesting/housebuilding, but debts must be repaid (perhaps many years later). Elaborate displays of generosity gain prestige. People are self-sufficient and specialisation is rudimentary.
Social identity: Kinship (degree of relatedness) dictates people's obligations and behaviour towards each other.

New York panorama

Example: New York
Size of typical community: 100,000+ people
Political mechanisms: Leaders exert formal power, promulgating laws and enforcing them via police and law courts. The position of leader and the hierarchy of officials are permanent, though the individuals fulfilling these roles may change.
Economic mechanisms: People are specialists and must exchange with others to obtain the necessities and luxuries of life. These exchanges are commercial transactions, in which there is an explicit and immediate balancing of value. The political authority demands a share of economic output (tax), to spend on public goods like defence, roads and social security.
Social identity: People can be themselves; this contrasts with other modes, where everyone knows everyone else's business, family and background.

If you brought some ancient Romans to modern New York and asked them to buy a bottle of win in a shop, then, apart from the language issue, they would understand exactly what was involved. They would be familiar with shops and money. They would also recognise other aspects of the city such as street signs, public and private buildings, and even wheeled vehicles (though they might be surprised at these being self-propelled).

By contrast, if you brought to New York some people who had lived all their lives in an isolated New Guinea village and asked them to buy wine in a shop, they would have little idea what you were talking about. They would find the whole environment of the city unfamiliar and bewildering.

(Nevertheless, a New Guinea highlander might be at home with particular pieces of technology, such as a transistor radio, where the Roman would not have a clue, so this is not an issue of mental capacity.)

This reflects the fact that the ancient Romans, though they lived two millennia ago, were in the same social eigenmode as modern city-dwellers, whereas the inhabitants of a 21st century village cut off in the highlands of New Guinea, are in a different eigenmode.

Some might say that there should be an intermediate eigenmode, that of the 'chiefdom', between the village and the city. A chief's authority is more permanent and formal than that of the village big man, but less formal than that of a city government. For example, the chief collects tribute, unlike a big man, but this falls short of a proper taxation system. However...

  • While the chiefdom is indeed distinctive, the existence of three basic eigenmodes can nevertheless be accounted for by factors that I will explain shortly (in another post). I therefore prefer to see chiefdoms as eigenmode "2½" (with the village as 2 and the city as 3).
  • Although there are three basic eigenmodes, there may be many variations on them. A Roman city has its basic features in common with a modern city, but in detail obviously there are differences. Both are eigenmodes in the sense of being self-consistent solutions to the problems of social living. However, in comparison with Rome, the modern city solves the problems with more extensive economic specialisation, more effective policing, higher population density, and a greater ratio of urban to rural population.

It remains a valid question whether there can be a fourth eigenmode beyond the three outlined above, i.e. one that has not yet been realised. I believe the answer may be yes, but I need to discuss other things before I can talk about this properly.


In my last post I talked about the lifestyles of New Yorkers or San hunter-gatherers as being each a self-consistent solution to the problems of social living.

I call such a self-consistent way of life a social eigenmode.

'Eigen', from the German, means 'characteristic'. An eigenmode is therefore a characteristic mode of social living, i.e. one that is feasible/allowable as opposed to impossible/inconsistent. (This use of the prefix is derived from mathematics. An eigenvector of a matrix is a vector whose direction does not change after multiplication by that matrix; in this sense the vector is characteristic of the matrix.)

Let us put this symbolically.

Suppose a society's way of life (mode) is designated by M, which includes technology, population density, customs and everything else that describes how the society's members live.

Such a society is then exposed to the problems of social living, e.g. obtaining sustenance, caring for the young, resolving disputes and so on. These problems challenge or 'act on' the society's mode of existence. Let us represent this by P(M).

If the society's way of life is not a successful solution to the problems of social living, the society will necessarily change to a different way of life, say to M'. Let us write this as P(M) -> M'. If M' also does not solve the problems, the society will need to change again, say to M''. I.e. P(M') -> M''.

A social eigenmode is a value of M that satisfies the equation P(M) -> M. A mode that satisfies this equation is one that solves the problems of social living and does not need to change in response to those problems.

An eigenmode is therefore an attractor of the operator P(). [At least, if the operator P() has attractors, they will be eigenmodes.] What this means is that any given mode of existence will evolve, under repeated exposure to the problems of social life, towards one of the allowable and self-consistent eigenmodes successfully solving those problems, and there it will stay.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Societies and self-consistency

The Namibian government was recently criticised for its treatment of the San or Bushman people, hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari Desert. It had forced them to leave the desert and give up their traditional lifestyle. According to the government, this was so that the San would undergo development and become part of mainstream Namibian society. The San and their supporters said that the government's real motive was to facilitate exploitation of the desert's mineral resources. A court case found in favour of the San, although the dispute will no doubt go on.

Kalahari San (Bushman)
There is a tendency to think of people like the Kalahari San, whose way of life is essentially that of the Upper Paleolithic, as cases of arrested development. It seems as though their society, unlike our own, has failed to progress. They appear to be living fossils, hangovers from the stone age. It may even be thought that the dark-skinned San lack the intellectual resources of the white races, whose technological civilisation now dominates the planet.

Such ideas need to be put aside...

  • On the racial issue, the Sami, or Lapps, of Norway and Sweden are fair-skinned, have been hunter-gatherers in modern times and remain so, in part, to this day.
  • Rather than being a hangover from the stone age, the San may have taken to their way of life in the Kalahari only a few centuries ago, fleeing from slaveraiders and European colonists.
  • The San are just as keen and capable at dealing with modern technology as people belonging to western society. And the average person in western society had no more involvement in developing advanced technology than did the Bushman in the following picture.

San hunter with GPS device

Nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists thought in terms of a ladder of social evolution. At the bottom were 'savages' like the San. Next came 'barbarians', who farmed rather than hunted for their food but were otherwise self-sufficient with a simple lifestyle. Above these were 'chiefdoms', and finally 'states' or 'civilisations', with formal governmental structures and complex economies. Societies were presumed to progress through the successive stages.

It might be thought that this website has a similar view of 'progress'. In an earlier post I showed history as a graph of upward movement towards ever higher Kardashev levels. It is true that I consider human destiny to be mastery of the universe, and since we started from nothing there has to be a process of growth or development to get from here to there. However, we are not 'better' or 'cleverer' than stone age people (past or present). Different ways of life are sensible and successful solutions to the circumstances in which people find themselves, while the dynamic that propels societies from one to the other has a rationale of its own--it is not simply the piling up of inventions by particular brilliant individuals. We should not confuse societies with the people that live in them. The greater complexity of some societies can no more be attributed to them being composed of more capable human beings than the greater complexity of some biological organisms can be attributed to them being composed of more capable molecules.

The way of life of the San and other hunter-gatherers has a logic to it...

  • Since they live off the land, the San must form small, widely-spaced groups and move regularly in pursuit of food. Most of the time, they separate into bands of no more than ten adults and roam territories hundreds of miles across over the course of a year. The San could not live in a group of 100,000 people because such a group would instantly devour any patch of berries or colony of rabbits it came across. A city-sized community of hunter-gatherers would have to move impossibly far and impossibly often in order to support itself.
  • Meanwhile, since the San live in such small groups, their way of life has to be very simple. Think about all the expertise and labour that goes into building a car, or setting up a GPS network. An isolated group of ten people, however capable or intelligent, could never undertake projects of this kind. To have, say, a motor industry you need a large number of people, with some mining the raw materials, others designing and assembling the product, and still others growing the food to keep everyone alive.
  • Finally, since they move around so much and carry everything with them, the San's way of life again has to be very simple. Instead of transporting a drinking beaker everywhere, for example, it is easier just to cup your hands.

Therefore, San communities must be small and mobile because they live simply. And the San must live simply because their communities are small and mobile. The two things go hand in hand.

Contrast this with the situation of New York...

  • A huge, settled population like that of New York cannot live directly off the land. It has to have an elaborate economy. It needs a large number of specialists doing and making the things without which New York could not function--food retailing, plumbing, building, policing... At the same time, all the complex things that go on in New York, such as stockbroking or providing an underground train service, require the co-operation of a large, dense population.

So New York's large size goes hand in hand with its technological complexity, just as the small size of San groups goes hand in hand with their simplicity.

You cannot mix and match the characteristics of the two lifestyles.

The San lifestyle is incompatible with, say, advanced plumbing, just as the New York lifestyle is incompatible with the lack of advanced plumbing.

If for some reason New York's economy were dismantled and the population were forced to become self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, life in the city would become intolerable. The inhabitants would quickly flee the city and spread across the landscape in search of food. It would not be long before they were back to the San way of life.

Rather than thinking in terms of backwardness and advancement, we might see the San and New York lifestyles as alternative, self-consistent solutions to the problems of social living.

When we look at the San lifestyle, we should not regard it as indicating a failure of intellect or imagination but should recognise it as one of the possible ways that humans may live, whose simplicity is one of its inevitable and essential characteristics.

It might be objected that the San's lack of movement towards a more complex, 'civilised' eigenmode is a kind of backwardness. However...

  • Since the San reject the town-life that the Namibian government wants to force on them and have campaigned to go back to the desert, it is clear that they prefer their desert lifestyle. They enjoy hunting and gathering, which gives them all the food they need, for a few hours work a day, while in the desert they are freer than they would be in civilised society, where they would have to obey laws and pay taxes.
  • The complex lifestyle of civilisation can be seen as something that was forced on people when hunting and gathering became untenable, rather than as a product of greater cleverness. Civilised people are not necessarily better off than the San. Many still idealise and hanker for the simple, self-sufficient life. Hunting, for example, is often the prerogative of a privileged elite, while gathering, such as blackberrying, may be done for pleasure.

My main aim in this post has been to introduce the idea that all the features of a particular way of life fit together in a logical manner. As a subsidiary point, I have wanted to challenge the notion that social sophistication should be put down to the greater inventiveness of certain races accumulating over time. Rather than ranking societies on a ladder of progress, we will understand them better if we approach and explore them as individually self-consistent systems.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Outward pressure

Easter Island is a triangular speck in the Pacific Ocean, over a thousand miles from the nearest inhabited land. When it was 'discovered' by the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday 1722, it already had people living on it.

Humans had only been on Easter Island since about AD 1000. Nevertheless, that they had reached this remote spot points to humanity's strong centrifugal tendency. Humans were already in Australia a few thousand years after our emergence as a species, and that journey would have required a sea crossing at some point.

This shows that people do not naturally live together at high densities. They are driven, to some extent, to get away from each other. This outward pressure has several aspects:

  1. For a given technology and way of life, a particular land area will support a limited number of people. As population increases, humans find it easier to move to empty land than to develop ways of supporting more people from the same territory.
  2. Living together causes friction and conflict. Some people may bully others or may impose themselves on others in an effort to keep order. At least part of the population finds it preferable to move away, rather than stay and have its freedom curtailed.
  3. While many humans are happy to drift along with what they know, others have a high degree of 'natural curiosity' that makes them want to explore beyond the known, both geographically and in other ways.

It is now fairly clear, based on genetic data, that humans arose in Africa recently, and spread out from there. Modern humans are therefore all quite closely related.

Nevertheless, I disagree in detail with current reconstructions of the peopling of the world (link requires Google Earth; a Google Maps version is here). According to the view presented in the preceding link, while people reached Australia about 40,000 BC, they did not reach North Africa until 20,000 BC, even though they had evolved on the African continent. Furthermore, while people had got half-way down the African coast by 40,000 BC, they supposedly did not reach the southern tip of Africa until 25,000 BC, even though they were in China and Spain by 40,000 BC and in Britain only a couple of thousand years later. Such a pattern makes little sense and rather shows the limitations of the gene-mapping methodology on which this reconstruction is based.

I suggest that, after emerging in central east Africa, the human species spread to and throughout every continent within a few thousand years, say around 40,000 BC. Only the peopling of oceanic archipelagoes that are not connected to the mainland by chains of intervisible islands did not occur until much later, say from about 5000 BC.

(Although mainstream opinion holds that humans did not move into the Americas until after about 15,000 BC, some archaeologists do place the entry into the Americas around 40,000 BC, on the basis of sites that remain controversial.)

I am still researching this issue...

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Now we are awake

Clive Wearing was a musician who in the 1980s suffered an infection that destroyed his hippocampus, the part of the brain that lays down long-term memories. Thereafter Clive was unable to remember anything beyond a few minutes at a time. He lived in an eternally fleeting present, in his wife's words 'with no past to anchor it and no future to look ahead to'. As if to compensate, he maintained a diary in which he jotted down his thoughts every two or three minutes. The entries in the diary looked something like this:

10.20 Awake at last
10.23 Actually now I am awake
10.25 The above is mistaken. I am awake now!
10.28 No, no, no. NOW I am completely awake.
10.33 Now I really am awake.
Etc. (See C Blakemore The mind machine pp. 55-8)

The human race suffers from a similar kind of amnesia. Each generation believes that it, at last, is awake, and that its parents and all the generations that went before were scarcely conscious.

This is what lies behind the belief that, until very recently, change has been minimal and only in our era has humanity achieved social and technological take-off. Previous generations are thought to have slumbered their way through lives that showed little variation from start to finish.

In my last post, I quoted a recent writer making this point. Another recent expression of it is the claim of the psychiatrist, R D Laing that "We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is disappearing".

To show that this attitude is itself a constant of history--just as Clive Wearing constantly believed himself to be waking up--I would like to offer some quotations from earlier writers on the same topic...

Our century has more history in its hundred years than had the whole world in the previous four thousand years; more books have been published in the last century than in the five thousand years before it; for it has profited by the recent inventions of typography, cannon and the marine compass.
-- Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)

We have raised up a truly philosophical age, in which the deepest recesses of nature are laid open, in which splendid arts, noble aids to convenient living, a supply of innumerable instruments and machines, and even the hidden secrets of our bodies are discovered; not to mention the new light daily thrown upon antiquity.
-- Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)

No age hath been more happy in liberty of enquiry than this.
-- Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Whoever reads these chronicles will find that, from the birth of Christ on, the whole history of the world in these hundreds of years is unparalleled, in every way.
-- Luther (1483-1546, in 1521)

I owe all the above to Pitirim Sorokin in Social and cultural dynamics pp. 272-3. To continue...

[The pace of change today] makes my head giddy.
-- Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95)

What marvellous, stupendous accomplishments human effort has achieved.
-- Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

As for the arts and skills, both those useful for the necessities of life and those created for pleasure, they were either invented or tested by our city [Athens], who then passed them to the rest of the human race to use.
-- Isocrates (436-338 BC)

The discovery of a means to test weights by balances and scales has delivered our life from fraud...Countless numbers of machines also exist...[and] are at hand every day: mills, blacksmiths' bellows, wagons, two-wheeled vehicles, turning lathes, and other things...
-- Vitruvius (1st century AD)

Monday, 23 April 2007

Human achievements

It is usual to think of human development as being very slow until recently, when it suddenly took off. Here is a typical quote, from the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, relying on the American political scientist John H Kautsky: is the 'relatively overwhelming absence of major social and economic
change' that characterizes the variant forms of society that existed across the
face of world history until some two or three centuries ago.

(Giddens The constitution of society p. 199)

When one thinks of the inventions of the last one or two hundred years--radio, the internal combustion engine, heavier-than-air flight, spaceflight, computers and the internet--it certainly looks as though many dramatic innovations have occurred in a very short time. Compared to the 30,000 years of the upper paleolithic, when people continued to live by hunting and gathering, the twentieth century seems to have been characterised by dizzying change.
One can also predict this on theoretical grounds. The more people on the planet, and the more technology there already is, the faster we might expect inventions to come.
Yet how should we measure the significance of an invention?
Which was more revolutionary: the invention of the typewriter or the invention of writing? There is a case for saying that the change from a world without writing to a world with writing was more fundamental than the mere technical improvement represented by the typewriter. The word processor is another (impressive) improvement within a long list of improvements affecting writing, such as paper, ink and moveable type, but neither it nor any of these is as revolutionary in its implications as the invention of literacy itself. The word processor is a great boon, but it is just a better way of producing letters and reports. It has not transformed society that much, if we remember that people still managed to organise such things as the Normandy landings or the Apollo programme without it.
The internet, too, could be seen as just another incremental improvement in information technology, building on the original invention of writing. In other words, in this important area of life, the really dramatic change occurred some five thousand years ago. Everything since has been by way of refinement only.

The invention of writing was revolutionary. Everything since can be seen as a technical improvement in the ability to prepare and disseminate written information.

In ancient times, people were already writing letters and books. Through letters, people could carry on conversations when they were physically separated. Through books, people became exposed to ideas and participated in a far-flung intellectual community. What are email and the world wide web but just better ways of achieving the same thing?
All we are seeing today are the latest twists in a long process of getting more information, more quickly to more people. Ever since the invention of writing, there has been almost continual improvement, both technological and institutional. For instance, communications could be improved by better transport or cheaper writing materials, and these could result from technical innovations as well as from the efforts of politicians and entrepreneurs in setting up factories and commercial networks. To give a couple of examples:
  • In Roman times, communications were improved not only by the building of roads but by the cursus publicus (public mail), which was initially set up for governmental purposes but was also used by private persons. A system of relay stations, where horses were changed, allowed mail to be carried over hundreds of miles at the rate of a horse's gallop.
  • In eighteenth century Britain, communications improved as tarmac and sprung carriages enhanced the speed and ease of road transport. A network of stage coaches was set up, distributing mail throughout the country.

One might also mention things like the postage stamp and the fountain pen, as well as the continuous evolution of printing since the days of Gutenburg and Caxton. A list of all the inventions and improvements that have advanced information technology would be enormous and would show that in every period, not just in recent times, people might have perceived themselves to be living amidst great changes.

An effect of the internet has been a 'democratisation' of information flow. Blogging allows anyone to publish their opinions, and through blogs we are exposed to alternative narratives beyond those of the 'mainstream media'. We need not believe everything we read, but sceptical commentary ('conspiracy theory') surrounding events such as 9/11 alerts us to possibilities that mainstream channels might wish to conceal. We can take a more intelligent view of what we are being told and it is seemingly harder for the authorities to deceive and control their populations. This feels like a revolutionary social change, but such democratisation has always been an accompaniment of improving information technology. It is said that the introduction of printing loosened the hold of the church over what was published, and helped stimulate the Christian Reformation. The first newspapers and journals in the eighteenth century would have seemed as excitingly subversive as blogs do today, and like blogging they were made possible by technological improvements, in this case to do with better printing presses and the distribution networks created by the stagecoach.

If we think of truly revolutionary inventions--those that are not just an improvement to an existing technique but stand themselves at the beginning of a long process of improvement--they might be more evenly distributed throughout history than we appreciate. Things like agriculture and metal-working were enormously transforming in their day, and unleashed tremendous potential for the future progress of the human race. How can we seriously think of the first generations to farm the land or to cast bronze and still agree with the above quotation that 'social and economic change' was 'overwhelmingly absent' until recent times.

Revolutionary, transforming innovations have occurred throughout history, and the more recent innovations are not necessarily more significant than those of the past.

If things that initially seem revolutionary like word processing and printing can be seen as incremental improvements, then what seem to us like small changes in, say, the design of stone tools might have seemed quite revolutionary when they were made. To us stone tools are just stone tools, but to people who knew nothing else subtle variations would have been important, and perhaps made as much difference to their way of life as the move from typewriters to word processing has made to the task of running a business today. In the same way, what seem to us like big changes, such as the introduction of the internal combustion engine, may seem like trivial improvements to people in the far future--yes, we have dispensed with the horse but otherwise we are still crudely travelling around in four-wheeled vehicles along streets and roads on the planet's surface. When people are zipping from galaxy to galaxy by some form of matter transportation, the difference between a motor-car and a horse-and-cart will not seem that great.

Those fundamental inventions that were made long ago, such as farming, writing and metal-working, did not come entirely out of the blue (I will deal with this in a later post). Nevertheless, insofar as their inventors had fewer models to go on than inventors do today, their achievement might be seen as all the greater. Something like the sewing needle has barely changed since it was invented 30,000 years ago. It was brought to perfection by people living in paleolithic times, and yet it remains a vital component of our technology (I thank my sister for this example).

I do not want to turn things on their head and argue that it was the stone age people who were the real innovators. What I do want to point out is that innovation and change have been part of human experience from the beginning, and the idea that things have dramatically sped up in our own time is a matter of subjective perception as much as objective fact.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Periodisation and orientation

In earlier posts, I talked about the overall history of the human race, from its beginnings forty or fifty thousand years ago to its culmination a million or so years from now. I did this so as to dispel the chronocentrism or distortion that comes from viewing history from our particular vantage point.

Since we represent the greatest level of advancement humanity has yet achieved, we tend to have a conceited view of ourselves and of our importance in history. It is common to talk of things happening in our day as 'unprecedented'. Of course, they are unprecedented, but this is an inevitable consequence of the fact that we live in the present and at the forward edge of time, as every generation has done and must do.

The people who lived two thousand years ago did not think of themselves as the ancient Romans, living in the past. They thought of themselves as the most sophisticated, technologically advanced civilisation that the world had ever seen, and that is what they were. Only now do we see them as part of history.

What we must not forget is that we, and our time, are also part of history, which started a long time ago and will continue a long time after we are gone. Once we were the future; today, for a brief moment, we are the present, where everything seems to be happening; and for the remainder of eternity we will be the past, getting deader and more ancient as time goes on.

History is a continuously unfolding saga, and we are just at the latest point of it.

Now that that point has, I hope, been made, I want to concentrate on the history that has actually happened.

We can begin by thinking in terms of the three ages--stone, bronze and iron--that were defined by the Danish archaeologist, Christian Jürgen Thomsen (1788-1865) and his Swedish pupil J J A Worsaae (1821-85). This scheme is a convenient simplification. There was no sharp transition between the various ages, and they occurred at different times in different parts of the world. People continued using stone tools during the bronze age, and they were already experimenting with iron long before the bronze age was over.

The human species emerged in the middle of an ice age, the Würm glaciation, which had then been going on for 60,000 or 70,000 years. (This was just the latest cold snap within the ice age proper, which started 40 million years ago and became more intense 3 million years ago, with repeated cycles of cooling and warming.)

The emergence of humans marks the beginning of the Upper paleolithic (paleolithic = 'old stone' [age]) . Stone tools were being made before this by sub-human hominids, but hundreds of thousands of years could go by with little change in their sophistication. The Upper paleolithic was characterised by more advanced stone-working, a shorter duration, and a process of continual improvement.

With the end of the ice age, it is conventional to recognise the beginning of a new period, the Mesolithic (middle stone age), some 30,000 years after humans emerged. This was characterised by finer stone blades, or microliths, which included arrowheads. It is mainly relevant to Europe, since Africa and the Middle East were already steaming into the Neolithic. This shows the relative arbitrariness of the division into distinct periods; we could as easily consider it a sub-stage within the paleolithic.

The Neolithic (new stone age), from 8000 BC, corresponds to the introduction of agriculture (until now, people had largely hunted and lived off the land). Cities arose in the Middle East, and, though this was still the 'stone age', copper and gold began to be worked (archaeologists sometimes speak of a separate 'Copper Age' or Chalcolithic).

The Bronze age came in from around 3500 BC, when people began mixing copper with tin or arsenic to produce bronze, this being harder and more useful than pure copper.

Finally, the Iron age came in some time after 1000 BC. In so far as hammers and cutting edges continue to be made of steel (an iron alloy known virtually from the beginning of the iron age), we can regard ourselves as in the iron age to this day.

I return to the point that this periodisation is a matter of convenience, to give us some signposts. We should not imagine that a gong rang and suddenly the stone age turned into the bronze age etc. Rather one thing led to another, and everything grew out of what had gone before. Nor should we imagine that the raw materials--stone, bronze, iron--were the be-all and end-all. It is just that these survive best in the soil and are most noticeable to archaeologists. There was also continuous development in other technologies and in the more intangible social, economic and political institutions.