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

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.

Dating schemes

(To those of you seeking a utility for converting BP and BC dates, scroll down to the applet at the bottom. You will need the JRE.)

In the west, we number years counting up from the birth of Jesus Christ. The year 2009 literally means in the 2009th year of Christ's age (although Christ is no longer around on earth, he is still, in Christian belief, very much alive). This is the 'Dionysian era', named after the monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who introduced it in 525. It became widespread when it was adopted by the Venerable Bede in the 700s.

One way of representing the Dionysian era is with the phrase 'In the Year of Our Lord' or the Latin equivalent 'Anno Domini'. Hence, we can say 'In the Year of Our Lord 2009' or 'Anno Domini 2009', abbreviated to AD 2009. Notice that the letters 'AD' should logically come before the year number, although it is now so common to write 2009 AD that the logical version might be considered almost pedantic.

The plaque left behind by the Apollo 11 astronauts reads: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind." Its author, William Safire, who later wrote a newspaper column on language and grammar, was mortified when he realised he should have put AD 1969 instead of 1969 AD.
While the term "AD" is standard in English-speaking countries, alternative but equivalent terms are sometimes used in other parts of the west. E.g. the French use "l'an de grâce" = "the year of grace".

To refer to dates before AD 1, we count backwards, using the term "Before [the birth of] Christ", abbreviated to BC.

The introduction of the Dionysian era greatly simplified the problem of dating, which until then had used a series of weird and wonderful schemes, such as naming years after the annually elected Roman consuls, or specifying the year of a particular king's or emperor's reign.

However, the AD scheme still has one quirk, stemming from the fact that there is no year 0 (1 BC was followed by AD 1). It means that BC dates cannot be treated as simply negative AD dates. E.g. the difference between 1 BC and AD 1 is just 1 year, not 2 years as it would be if we used the mathematics of negative numbers, saying 1 - (-1) = 1 + 1 = 2. Obviously, this is not really a problem, and we just need to remember that to calculate the year-difference between a BC date and an AD date, we add the BC date to the AD date, then subtract 1.

As the traditional Christian ethos of western society has been called into question under the influence of multiculturalism, some have wished to distance themselves from the terms AD and BC, which are closely tied to Christian doctrine. Instead, the terms Common Era (CE) and BCE (Before Common Era) are increasingly in vogue, especially in academic works, as replacements for AD and BC respectively. (In calendrical terminology, an 'era' is a date from which other dates are reckoned.) The CE/BCE scheme still uses the year of Christ's birth as its era, but this is treated as just a convenient point that happens to be in common use, and its significance is not explicitly acknowledged.

When we look at dates in the past, it can be difficult to get a real feel for their significance. Suppose we are told for example that two European countries fought each other in 1530 and again in 1580. Anyone with a reasonable awareness of history can probably conjure up a mental picture of the 1500s, such as the costumes and technologies of that century and some of its more famous personalities and events. However, unless one has made an in-depth study of the period, the distinction between the 1530s and 1580s is much hazier. The result is that the dates 1530 and 1580 sound quite close together, and subconsciously, we think of the two wars as following pretty much one after the other, and involving the same people and the same issues. This in turn reinforces our view of the past as relatively unchanging when compared to the kaleidoscopic unfolding of events in our own lifetimes.

A similar thing applies when we are told the Athenians did something in 600 BC and something else in 400 BC, or the Hittites arose in 1600 BC and their empire collapsed in 1200 BC, or people built Stonehenge in 3000 BC, extended it in 2600 BC and buried someone there in 2000 BC. The numbers are rather abstract and lose their meaning, while the Athenians, Hittites or users of Stonehenge tend to exist in our minds as though they are the same people, doing first one thing then another. However, the later Athenians, Hittites etc. were in fact the many-times-great-grandchildren of the earlier ones, and the earlier and later sets of people would not in general have had the same thoughts, attitudes or experiences.

To get a more realistic feel for ancient dates, I suggest the technique of mentally converting them into equivalent modern dates.
  1. For example, when I read 1530 and 1580, I convert them in my mind into 1930 and 1980, e.g. imagining the 1530 people as being in the Depression Era, driving around in black sedans, and the 1580 people as watching 'Dallas' on TV while electing Ronald Reagan to the US presidency. Thus, I have a reasonable feel for the differences between 1930 and 1980, and this allows me to get a feel for the corresponding differences between 1530 and 1580, i.e. how personalities, costume and technology might have moved on, and how 1530 would have seemed quite old-fashioned from the perspective of 1580.
  2. For dates spanning centuries, I think of the earlier date as equivalent to the corresponding period before our own time. For example, to the Athenians of 400 BC, people and events of 600 BC would have seemed rather like the people and events of AD 1800 seem to us. Similarly, if the Hittite empire spanned the period 1600 BC to 1200 BC, it is rather like an empire that lasted from AD 1600 to the present. Finally, the Stonehenge dates of 3000, 2600 and 2000 BC would correspond to AD 1000, 1400 and the present. This should make it apparent that the rebuilding of Stonehenge was not just the continuation of a general programme of construction, but was a fresh initiative, undertaken by people who may have known very little about the original builders and did not necessarily think about Stonehenge in the same way. Ditto the people who performed the burial - to them Stonehenge was already an ancient monument and the way they were using it may have had little to do with the intentions of its builders.
In archaeology, most dates are BC. Yet prehistoric artefacts do not usually come with absolute dates attached, and what archaeologists work out first, especially with techniques like carbon dating, is how old artefacts are. Obviously, ages can be converted into dates by subtracting from the present. However, this can seem artificial, and it often makes more sense to talk of something having happened "thirty thousand years ago", rather than to convert this into "28,000 BC", especially as archaeological age estimates are seldom accurate to the year anyway.

In light of the artificiality of BC dates for their subject, archaeologists have adopted the approach of specifying dates in terms of years 'Before Present', abbreviated to BP. So something that happened 4200 years ago would be said to have happened 4200 BP. Now, if BP were taken to mean literally 'before the present', something dated to, say, 561 BP one year, would be 562 BP the next year, and 563 BP the year after that. Evidently, this is totally impractical. Therefore, archaeologists have adopted AD 1950 as the standard 'present'. Years BP means years before 1950.

In my work on this blog so far, I have felt the need for a consistent and meaningful dating scheme, as none of the existing methods seems fully satisfactory. I am conscious of the pedantry and parochialism of the BC/AD scheme, but I balk at the clumsy and merely cosmetic CE/BCE alternative. I do not want to keep switching arbitrarily between BP and BC/AD, and would like a standard approach. However, when I am dealing with events of the upper palaeolithic and rough orders of magnitude, quoting BC dates seems rather absurd, but when I refer to recent historical events the use of BP would become equally nonsensical, as I would find myself saying "the first world war broke out in 36 BP" and people would wonder what I was talking about. Furthermore, BC and BP involve counting backwards, whereas it would be preferable to be able to count forwards. It would also be good if the dating scheme could help drive home the distinction between 1530 and 1580, or between 1600 BC and 1200 BC etc.

These thoughts have led me to the idea of expressing dates in terms of 'generations' from a given starting point.
  • Since I am concerned with history from the upper palaeolithic onwards, the starting point, or era, I will use is 50,000 BC.
  • The generation length I choose is 25 years. This has the advantage that it divides neatly into 100 years and makes it possible to translate easily from ordinary years to generations. Obviously the 'generations' I am using are schematised but they are not wholly disconnected from reality. We won't go far wrong if we imagine that people's oldest grandchildren are being born 2 generations = 50 years after their own births.
  • The idea behind using generations is that it should drive home the point that the Athenians, Hittites or Stonehenge-users of generation N were not the same people as the Athenians, Hittites or Stonehenge-users of generation N+10 or N+20, whatever it might be, but were their distant descendants.
  • The use of generations also gives smaller and more manageable numbers, and I hope it should be easier to visualise and make sense of the spans of time involved.

To convert a span of years to the equivalent number of generations, we divide by 25. Alternatively, if it is an exact number of centuries, we multiply the number of centuries by 4.

If we call the people living in 50,000 BC, generation 1, then to convert a date into a generation number, we calculate 1 plus the number of generations that have passed since 50,000 BC.

For example, the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was at about 18,000 BC. This is 32,000 years after 50,000 BC (50,000 - 32,000 = 18,000). In terms of generations, it is 32,000 ÷ 25 = 1280 generations later. (Alternatively, it is 320 centuries, and 320 x 4 = 1280.) Therefore, the people living at the LGM would be generation 1281 (because 1 +1280 = 1281).

When we calculate generation numbers for AD dates, we have to take into account the absence of a year 0. It was in the year AD 1 that 50,000 years = 2000 generations had passed since 50,000 BC. Therefore, AD 1 corresponded to generation 2001. For any general AD date, the total number of generations since 50,000 BC is 2000 plus the number of generations since AD 1. To find the number of generations since AD 1, we find the number of years since AD 1 and divide by 25. However, the number of years since AD 1 is not the number of the year but the number of the year minus 1. Thus, the year AD 2 was not 2 years after AD 1 but only 1 year after AD 1 (2 - 1 = 1). It was AD 3 that was 2 years after AD 1 (3 - 1 = 2). In the same way, it was AD 26 that was 25 years or 1 generation after AD 1. Therefore, AD 26 (not AD 25) was the beginning of generation 2002.

The generation number today is 2081, and it began in 2001. This is because AD 2001 was 2000 years or 80 generations (2000 ÷ 25 = 80) after AD 1, making 2080 generations since 50,000 BC.

Clearly, the generation number only narrows a date down to a 25-year window. All the years from 2001 to 2025 correspond to generation 2081, say. For my purposes, this degree of precision is usually going to be enough, even for historical dates. When talking about the colonisation of Australia or the discovery of agriculture, a 25-year window is obviously more than adequate. However, I am equally content to know, for example, that Columbus's discovery of America was in generation 2060 while the American Revolution was 12 generations later, in generation 2072. I am not writing narrative history so it is not necessary to be absolutely precise (even in ordinary history, the year is often good enough and it is not necessary to give the exact day).

Nevertheless, it would be desirable to be able to refer to the exact year if necessary. We can do this by including the phase, which means the position of the year within the 25-year generation. For instance, the 1st year within generation 2081 was AD 2001, so that AD 2001 has phase 1. The 2nd year within generation 2081 was AD 2002, which has phase 2. The 3rd year was 2003, with phase 3, and so on. This continues up to AD 2025, which will have phase 25. The next year, AD 2026, will be the 1st year of generation 2082, with a phase of 1 again.

We can now put all this together, to obtain some conversion formulas.

For these formulas we will use '%' to mean 'the remainder after dividing by' (or, for the mathematically savvy, 'modulo'). For example,
  • 6 % 3 = 0
  • 7 % 3 = 1
  • 8 % 3 = 2
  • 9 % 3 = 0
  • 10 % 3 = 1
  • etc.

To convert from a BC/AD date to a generation date:

. . For BC dates:

. . . . generation = 1 + (50,000 - year) / 25
. . . . phase = 1 + (50,000 - year) % 25

. . For AD dates:

. . . . generation = 2001 + (year - 1) / 25
. . . . phase = 1 + (year - 1) % 25

To convert from a generation/phase to a BC/AD date:

. . For generation <= 2000 (less than or equal to 2000): . . . . year (BC) = 50,000 - (generation - 1) x 25 - (phase - 1) . . For generation > 2000 (greater than 2000):

. . . . year (AD) = (generation - 2001) x 25 + phase

We also need a notation for dates expressed in generations:
  • To represent an absolute date, we put a 'G' then the generation number, then a colon (':'), then the phase (if required). E.g. the year AD 1492, becomes G 2060:17, meaning it had phase 17 within generation number 2060.
  • To represent a duration, we put the number of generations, a colon, the additional phase (if required), then a 'g'. E.g. a duration of 65 years becomes 2:15 g, meaning 2 generations (50 years) plus an extra 15 years.

I will now provide some example dates, converted into generations (note: I have rounded some of the figures - e.g. 18,000 BC actually equates to G 1281, but I have rounded this to G 1280, since we are only talking approximate dates):

Beginning of upper palaeolithicc. 50,000 BCc. G 1:1
Last glacial maximumc. 18,000 BCc. G 1280
Invention of agriculturec. 10,000 BCc. G 1600
Founding of Egyptian 1st dynastyc. 3100 BCc. G 1876
Pyramid of Cheopsc. 2500 BCc. G 1900
Beginning of bronze agec. 2100 BCc. G 1916
Beginning of iron agec. 1000 BCc. G 1960
Foundation of Rome753 BCG 1970:23
Birth of Christ4 BCG 2000:22
End of western Roman empireAD 476G 2020:1
Battle of HastingsAD 1066G 2043:16
Discovery of AmericaAD 1492G 2060:17
Battle of WaterlooAD 1815G 2073:15
Apollo 11 moon landingAD 1969G 2079:19
9/11 attacksAD 2001G 2081:1
TodayAD 2009G 2081:9

The generational dates should give a feel for relative timescales. E.g. the founding of the Egyptian first dynasty is around 200 g ago, compared to the 2080 g of the human story as a whole. The discovery of America is very recent at only 20 g ago.

It is also useful to note that one lifetime is approximately 3 g (75 years). So the period from the Battle of Waterloo to the first moon landing, which is 6 g -- meaning we would count grandparent, parent, child, twice -- is equivalent to 2 lifetimes laid end to end. From the building of the Pyramid of Cheops to today is 180 g or 60 lifetimes.
It is commonplace to note that life expectancy has been increasing, so it would not always be true that 3G = 1 lifetime. However, most of the increase in life expectancy is due to reduction in infant mortality not to people living longer. Even the Bible considers the typical lifespan to be 70-80 years. Bones of our most ancient, upper palaeolithic ancestors suggest they may have died younger, typically in their 40s, but the 'natural' human lifespan, under reasonably favourable conditions, seems to be around 75 years, as the Bible has it.
Here is an applet for converting AD/BC dates to generations and vice versa. (Instructions: (1) Enter a year into the year field, select AD, BC or BP; click "Convert to gen", and the generation number and phase appear in the generation fields. (2) Enter a generation number and phase into the generation fields; click "Convert to year", and the year appears in the year field with AD or BC selected as appropriate; click "Convert to BP" and the BP figure appears in the year field with BP selected. (3) To convert BC to BP etc., first convert to generations by (1) then convert back to AD/BC or BP by (2).)

(No program? See only a red X? You need to install the Java Runtime Environment (JRE). Click here.)

(Please ignore. This is for my reference only: original archive location = "")

While I propose to start using generational dating in future posts, I will include in brackets the more conventional date in either BC/AD or BP format. This provides a compromise between consistency and intelligibility.

Finally, I note three other aspects of the generational dating scheme:
  1. If somebody was born in G n, then their parents were almost certainly born in G n-1, while their grandparents were almost certainly born in G n-2.
  2. If someone was born in G n, and did not die prematurely, they were probably still alive in G n+3 but dead by G n+4.
  3. The life of a person born in G n will typically just about overlap the lives of people born between G n-3 and G n+3.
  4. Each generation reacts against its predecessor, so that people tend to have more in common with their grandparents than with their parents. This implies a two-generation oscillation in social attitudes, which should show up in the generational scheme as a difference between odd-numbered and even-numbered generations. The pattern will not be exact since our standardised generation length of 25 years is not necessarily equal to the 'true' generation length. However, it might hold roughly over short periods of one or two centuries. This roughly 50-year (2 g) oscillation might be the same as the roughly 60-year Kondratiev wave.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Scale and competition

In The Dynamic Society, Graeme Snooks stresses the importance of the demand for as opposed to the supply of ideas in driving technological change. In other words, necessity is the mother of invention.

A society's technology is wrapped up with its other characteristics in an eigenmode. An invention like writing should be seen not as a lucky discovery but as an inevitable concomitant of a particular level of social development. Inventing writing is not really that hard. It comes into existence in a high-scale society because such a society cannot function without some means of recording information. It is not fruitful to ask whether writing causes or is caused by a given scale. They go hand in hand, that is all it is meaningful to say.

To extend the point to a recent, familiar example, the internet is associated with an increase in the scale of global society (we can get in touch with more people, more easily). The conventional view would be that some boffins invented the internet, and scale increased as a result. However, it could equally be argued that the development of the internet was driven by the needs of governments and businesses struggling to deal with increases in social scale. We have all heard of inventions like Leonardo's helicopter that languish in limbo because they are 'ahead of their time', showing that merely coming up with an idea is not enough. With the internet, people only invested in it because it filled a real technological gap. Again, the eigenmode concept says we do not need to choose between these opposing viewpoints, i.e. as to whether the internet led to increased scale or increased scale led to the internet. The internet and increased scale both caused each other, while the precise steps by which this came about would not tell us much even if we knew what they were.

I say all this because Snooks's observations have made me think again about geographical influences on technological development, and how I may have been insufficiently rigorous when discussing this in an earlier post.

Thus, I previously put up the following diagram, as part of an explanation of why development first took off in the more centrally located regions of the world's landmasses.

The argument was that more centrally located regions had higher scale, i.e. higher social interactivity, because there were more people within shorter range than was the case for societies around the periphery, and this higher scale meant a higher level of technological development. (I went on to explain that as technology, especially sea-going technology, evolved, it changed which societies counted as central and thus changed which regions had the highest scale and were the most advanced.)

While I continue to stand by this argument, I may have been misleading in implying that it was the flow of ideas from neighbouring societies that was the critical factor stimulating the development of the centre.

What I now want to emphasise is that all we can really say here is that high scale (i.e. proximity of large populations, due to the central location) meant there was societal development and complexification. The details of how this happened are not critical. It may be that centrally located societies were stimulated by the strong flux of ideas reaching them from all the surrounding societies. However, Snooks would argue that the important thing was the pressure exerted on the central societies by their neighbours. In his view, the central societies, with so many close rivals, had to struggle harder to survive compared to the more isolated, peripheral societies, and it was this intense competition that stimulated or compelled them to develop. As before, it is fruitless to get into a debate about which of these viewpoints is correct. Probably both aspects played a part, and there may be other factors or mechanisms as well.

It is not my intention to provide a full review of Snooks's book, which is one of a series in which he sets out laws of history. However, it is worth saying that I do not agree with his assertion that the demand for ideas was the only issue, while for the most part I found his book pretty confused and simplistic.
  • Snooks presents his theory as describing biological as well as sociological evolution. This, to me, is a red herring. (It is, however, surprisingly common. Kenneth Boulding does this in Ecodynamics, as does Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe and also arguably Richard Dawkins with his concept of gene-like social memes). Yes, there are superficial analogies between biological and sociological phenomena - e.g. the Roman empire was born, lived and died - but they disappear on close examination - e.g. the Roman empire did not actually 'die', nor was it really 'born'. Biology and sociology exist on quite different levels and need their own conceptual tools. On the sociological side, which is what I am concerned with, we need to use the ideas of politics, economics and cultural anthropology, not the ideas that make sense in biology.

  • Snooks argues that the lack of development of the Australian aborigines was because their isolation meant they were not exposed to significant competitive pressure. (Felipe Fernández-Armesto takes a similar view in Pathfinders [p. 11], where he describes the aborigines as "the 'dropouts' of 50,000 years ago, opting out of worlds of change in order to settle a new continent, where they could maintain a traditional way of life".) However, one could ask why the aboriginal tribes did not compete with each other; it might be thought that being cooped up in a small continent could even have increased competitive pressure. Elsewhere, Snooks introduces the notion of 'funnels of transformation', which are narrow regions like Mesoamerica and the Middle East, where many peoples passed through, creating pressure for development. Australia, apparently, had no such funnel. There is something in this, but why do certain geographical conformations have this funnelling effect? Snooks does not really address this. However, it emerges naturally from the 'scale' concept and the idea that sophisticated social mechanisms are needed to deal with intense interaction among close-packed populations connected by short lines of communication.

  • Snooks refers repeatedly to 'The Industrial Revolution', which seems to play a large role in his thinking. I find this especially surprising when he himself points out, for example, that sixteenth century growth rates, i.e. two centuries before the 'industrial revolution', exceeded those of any other period bar the 1950s and 1960s. (And he notes high growth rates at other times as well.) The 'industrial revolution', in the sense of a special period in history when technological change suddenly became dramatic, is an illusion. Industrial development during this part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grew seamlessly out of what had gone before, and it was then just the latest twist in the ongoing acceleration of technological evolution. The term 'industrial revolution' originally arose as a pun, jokingly implying that, while France and other countries had political revolutions between about 1750 and 1850, Britain had an industrial revolution. The concept then stuck. It seems that people have a weakness for such explanations of history that assign special significance to particular periods and 'turning points'.

Despite my above criticisms, I would still recommend reading Snooks's books. His work has made me more aware of the issue of demand-side versus supply-side explanations of the evolution of ideas, and indeed of the fact I may have lazily slipped into naive, supply-side explanations myself. He also makes other worthwhile points, such as that co-operation and competition are both necessary in an economy. However, I have reservations concerning his overall model. It is not that it is necessarily 'wrong' in a straightforward sense, but I think it is too vague and impressionistic to be any real use as a theory of history.