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As today seems to be the day of cool visualizations on this blog, so on this note I’d like to highlight a really cool way of analyzing the influence of various people (philosophers, coding languages, etc) on history.

One of the basic strategies is to feed the information in Wikipedia info-boxes into a computer program called gephi that creates graphs of influence. The more connections a particular node has the bigger it appears, and distinct groupings of objects have the same color. I won’t reproduce the images here because they are typically so big (>10MB) but they are quite fascinating so here is a list of links to the relevant posts.

  • Graphing the history of philosophy by Simon Raper. Note how the the algorithm successfully manages to recognize distinct schools just by analyzing the number of connections within them. The biggest nodes are those of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx and Schopenhauer which is broadly consistent with general informed opinion on the greatest voices in Western philosophy.
  • Following up on the The Graph of Ideas by Griff’s Graphs (who is also the author of all subsequent graphs linked to here). It goes beyond the above by also including authors (including sci-fi/fantasy) and comedians. We get an idea of the most influential authors – Hemingway, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Borges, Nabokov, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft; though the Big 7 philosophers both within philosophy and overall.
  • This was followed up by a Graph of Ideas 2.0 in which nodes were sized not by direct influence but by the total number of other nodes with which they were connected with (so, theoretically, an obscure ancient Greek philosopher with just one connection to Plato would also have access to Plato’s entire network). This results in a pretty meaningless graph in which the influence of ancient philosophers is over-weighed.
  • Graph of Mathematicians isn’t very useful because too many outright philosophers creep up and achieve prominent (Bertrand Russell? Avicenna?). There is no clearly dominant grouping.
  • The Graph of Programming Languages is more interesting; Haskell, Java, C dominate, followed by a dozen or so of the likes of Algol-68, C++, Fortran, Perl, Python, Lua, Ruby, Smalltalk, Pascal, and Lisp. I do not have the background to assess if this is an accurate representation of reality, though I’ve never heard of Haskell, and would have guessed Fortran and Lisp would be higher.
  • The Graph of Sports Teams.
  • The Graph of Beer though they don’t really influence each other all that much.
  • The Graph of Human Diseases is apparently dominated by colon cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, and deafness.

There is clearly a lot of scope to continue building on these graphs, especially involving ideas (philosophers, politicians, economists, sociologists, authors, etc) though finding or building the requisite databases is a time-consuming endeavour. Interesting patterns will also emerge. For instance, now that I think of it, the most influential person in history is Jesus Christ, and Karl Marx is surely in the top ten. Amazing really how deep Jewish over-achievement goes even on the biggest historical scale.

Another interesting project would be to build a graph of influence in the blogosphere perhaps based on some combination of blogroll connections and visitor numbers. This will of course be a very computationally demanding project given that there are something like 100 million blogs in existence today.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s review; The Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

great-divergence-pomeranz It’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

Essential Similarities Between Old World Cores

It is sometimes argued that special European demographic patterns, such as marrying late and a celibate clergy, had the effect of lowering its fertility and mitigating the Malthusian impoverishment held to be prevalent elsewhere. Another, often complementary, view is that European consumption markets were already far more developed than in China, which allowed it to hit the ground running (so to speak) once the preconditions for industrial revolution were fulfilled. However, China also saw fertility postponement, and there is ample evidence that at least until the mid-19th century the average quality of life in China as measured by life expectancy, median incomes, availability of consumer goods, etc. was at least as good as in Europe, probably higher, and as good as Britain in its most advanced region, the Yangtze Delta.

Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics – China had a clear lead in irrigation, soil preservation and land management, and medicine (yields per acre in Europe only approached Chinese levels by the late 19th century). This is of no small consequence in pre-industrial societies hewing to the laws of Malthus. As in China, per capita food and fuel availability declined in Europe up until the mid-19th century century; only in Britain was this in significant part mitigated from 1800 by the windfall of “coal and colonies” (much more on this later).

Finally, there’s the argument that European capitalist institutions and markets were better developed and thus kick-started its growth. But again, the evidence Pomeranz marshals convinces that, if anything, China was substantially more “capitalist” (in the laissez-faire sense) than Europe. There were far fewer monopolies, and no internal trade barriers – contrast this, for example, with ancient regime France – and as a consequence, the volume of trade flows (in grains, sugar, timber, etc) were far higher within China than in continental Europe. The civil service was professional and meritocratic, whereas in Europe this only came to be in the 19th century. Markets for labor and products were freer in China; guilds had much less political influence than in Europe. Bound labor and feudal obligations remained prevalent far longer in Europe (and India) than in China, where it had long ago become marginal; for instance, the settlement of Taiwan for the cultivation of sugar – China’s equivalent of the Caribbean islands – was done by free labor. Though credit was cheaper in Europe – or, at least, in Holland and Britain – but to cut a long story short, there is (1) no evidence that this made crucial industrial activities unprofitable or impeded further pro-industrial mechanization, and (2) the credit system was more developed in India relative to China and Japan, although it was far more backward in general.

One major factor that Pomeranz glosses over is the impact of the Scientific Revolution. Though Chinese scientific achievements are under-appreciated – for instance, it matched Western mathematical achievements up to and including those of 16th century Italy – it is undeniable that Europe took a commanding lead from about the mid-16th century. There was to be no Chinese Kepler or Newton. But impressive as it was, you do not need calculus or laws of planetary motion to produce coal and iron (“as late as 1827 and 1842, two separate British observers claimed that Indian bar iron was as good or betterthan English iron”), and you certainly don’t need them to more efficiently produce textiles. As first textiles, and then coal and iron, constituted the first stages of the Industrial Revolution – up to the 1860′s or so – the European scientific base was almost entirely incidental to the initial industrial takeoff. Now obviously this scientific base did become vastly more important by the late 19th century, which saw the flowering of the electric, chemical, and international combustion engine industries; and those countries with particularly powerful research establishments, such as the US and Germany, did very well, catching up to Britain. However, by then China was already hugely behind.

Addendum 7/31: I almost forgot to mention this. This is probably obvious, but Pomeranz says nary a word about the contribution of cultural differences to the Great Divergence (in contrast to people like Landes who make it a centerpiece of their analysis, waxing poetic on the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, distinctive Western values of separation of church and state, etc). And rightly so. Culture is an intangible, and has very little explanatory power; furthermore, such explanations are frequently contradictory in time and place (for instance, whereas “Confucian values” may be cited as holding Chinese society back, they are now frequently invoked to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian tigers; you can’t have it both ways, folks).

The European “Miracle”: Coal and Colonies

Why then did Europe, and more specifically Britain, industrialize while China fell into an ecological impasse in which food production barely kept up with population growth? Pomeranz argues (convincingly, IMO) that the crux of the matter was a fortunate conjunctures and contingencies that overwhelmingly favored Europe.

First, colonies. Many recent scholars have dismissed their contribution; according to one article, overseas coercion could not have been responsible for more than 7% of gross investment in late 18th century Britain (and far less in Europe). But this neglects the vital role of the New World colonies – with their near endless land and natural resources – at relieving ecological bottlenecks in Europe, and in particular Britain. These included sugar (which acted as an additional source of calories as well as a hunger suppressant) and cotton (for clothing, and indirectly relieving pressure on pastures and timber for heating), and later in the 19th century, massive grain exports. All this “ghost acreage” allowed the British isles to support a far larger population than its existing carrying capacity could have, a highly urbanized one and relatively comfortable too (hence no Malthusian stress as in late Qing China, with its debilitating effects on political and social cohesion).

(Furthermore, even the aforementioned 7% figure could have been significant in a pre-industrial world. Due to high rates of capital depreciation, the net accumulation in capital stock then was only a small fraction of the overall savings rate. For instance, according to one calculation, that hypothetical 7% in “super-profits” – an increment to gross savings not purchased at the expense of consumption – could have significantly increased an otherwise minimal rate of net capital accumulation.)

And these goods – cotton, sugar, etc. – could be imported at very favorable terms of trade, because of another set of favorable conjunctures. The decimation of Native Americans due to European epidemiological superiority cleared the way for settlers, who supplied the Caribbean colonies with food and Britain with timber (thus relieving its Malthusian stress). Furthermore, the slave labor on the Caribbean islands – apart from the implicit coercion (and “super-profits” it enabled) – prevented them from developing their own proto-industrial sectors that could undercut British exports.

This is in contrast to what happened naturally in China, largely by dint of its free labor markets (as opposed to New World slavery or East European serfdom). The inner provinces began to expand their handicrafts and textiles industries, thus undercutting the (more advanced) proto-industrialization of the Yangtze Delta. This was a form of “import substitution,” and economically natural in those times because of far higher transport costs than is the case today. This was accompanied by a growing population in the inner regions. Unable to increase its industrial exports, and facing declining imports of rice, timber, etc., the most advanced Chinese regions, the Yangtze Delta and Lingnan, had to increase the labor intensity of their agriculture so as to keep food production abreast of their own population.

Obviously, the conditions did not exist for a Caribbean turn towards import substitution. The slaves themselves had no choice, and neither did the owners; they needed to produce commodities for export in order to pay for replacing slaves. And this all provided a growing (as opposed to declining) demand stimulus for British industry.

One additional New World advantage covered in some length by Pomeranz is the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe on account of the slave labor and monopolies used in its extraction. This allowed it to easily balance the books with trade in China for silk, porcelain, etc., which in turn could be used to pay for African slaves and New World resources. And Chinese demand for silver was huge, since it was remonetizing its economy to run on silver during the early modern period. Indirectly, it contributed to the formation of the Atlantic economy.

The second great British advantage was coal – that is, as an alternative to wood, located close to its main industrial centers (China too had coal, but it was far away from its main industrial centers, and transport costs were prohibitive). Coal relieved pressure on woodlands, which were in rapid decline, and – due to its virtually limitless nature – unbound the production possibilities of iron. Steam power was crucial to this expansion, not only by powering other processes but by permitting a huge expansion of coal-mining itself. “The Chinese had long understood the basic scientific principle involved – the existence of atmospheric pressure – and had long since mastered (as part of their “box bellows”) a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the twentieth century. ll that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.” So the relevant technical skills were not unique to Europe. In fact, northern China had a huge coke and iron complex as early as the 11th century under the Song dynasty, though it was brought low by the multiple perturbations of the 12th-15th centuries (Jurchen and Mongol invasions, etc). The rest is worth quoting in extenso:

However, a number of factors militated against widespread Chinese (re)adoption of coal as a major fuel source. First, the reorientation of the center of Chinese development to the east and south meant by the Qing dynasty meant that its industrial cores were now located far from the big coal deposits in the north-west; the advantages of linking these regions by transport are only evident ex ante. Second, the best artisans were concentrated in the (low coal) Yangtze Delta or along the south-east coast, and serving a huge public demand for clocks and other mechanical toys. Third, “even if mine operators had seen how to improve their mining techniques, they had no reason to think that extracting more coal would allow them to capture a vastly expanded market.” Finally, and most importantly, the technical nature of extracting Chinese coal was profoundly different from that of extracting British coal; in fact, it made the deep extraction that enabled Britain to boost its output all but impossible.

English mines tended to fill with water, so a strong pump was needed to remove that water. Chinese coal mines had much less of a water problem; instead they were so arid that spontaneous combustion was a constant threat. It was this problem – one that required ventilation rather than powerful pumps – that preoccupied the compiler of the most important Chinese technical manual of the period… Even if still better ventilation had ameliorated this problem—or if people wanted coal badly enough to pay for this high level of danger – ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did. Thus, while overall skill, resource, and economic conditions in “China,” taken as an abstract whole, may not have been much less conducive to a coal/steam revolution than those in “Europe” as a whole, the distribution of those endowments made the chances of such a revolution much dimmer.

In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy, lots of skilled craftspeople in other areas, and – to give the problems of getting and using coal some additional urgency – a society that had faced a major shortage of firewood by 1600 if not before. And although timber and timber-based products were imported by sea, this was far more expensive than receiving logs floated down a river, as the Yangzi Delta did; the incentives to use (and learn more about) comparatively accessible coal were correspondingly greater.

Much of the knowledge about how to extract and use coal had been accumulated by craftsmen and was not written down even in the nineteenth century… Harris shows that French attempts to copy various coal-using processes foundered, even when they reproduced the equipment, because the production of, say, a heat-resistant crucible required very detailed knowledge and split-second timing acquired through experience – and the financial losses from making a mistake could be very large… Only when whole teams of English workers were brought over (mostly after 1830) was the necessary knowledge effectively transferred.

Thus we see that technological expertise was essential to Europe’s coalbreakthrough, but the development of that expertise depended on long experience (and many failures along the way) with abundant, cheap supplies. This experience was possible because artisan skill, consumer demand, and coal itselfwere all concentrated near each other. Without such geographic good luck, one could easily develop lots of expertise in an area with a limited future (e.g.,in using and improving wood furnaces) and not proceed along the track that eventually led to tapping vast new supplies of energy.

Furthermore, the adoption of the steam engine – whose synthesis with coal was what really generated the Industrial Revolution – was also highly contingent. It was the result of 200 years of use on British coal fields, which was both economical (free coal due to zero transport costs) and proximate to mechanics-minded artisans which could offer improvements. Nonetheless, it took until 1830 for the costs of energy per unit of power for steam-run textile machinery to decline precipitously; until then, water remained competitive with steam engines!

Take away some of the incremental advantage conferred by skill transfers from nearby artisans in other fields, the learning by doing made possible by the application to nearby coal fields, and the low cost of coal itself, and – as incredible as it seems to us today – the steam engine could have seemed not worth promoting.

So, in conclusion, Britain enjoyed two major advantages that the Yangtze Delta, the Lingnan region, and Japan did not: (1) a colonial system that allowed it to massively increase its effective carrying capacity while simultaneously stimulating its industrial production, and (2) conveniently located coal reserves in damp places.

Apart from Britain, Europe as a whole was nowhere close to an industrial takeoff at the dawn of the 19th century; and though the relative inefficiency of its land usage – and the gains from ameliorating that – allowed it to avoid a crisis for a few decades after 1800 (what Pomeranz calls the ecological “advantages of backwardness”), it was nonetheless approaching an an ecological bottleneck as in China (the 1840′s in particular are known as a time of dearth). This was at a time when the Industrial Revolution had scarcely began on the mainland, and if it had continued it would have required the diversion of more and more labor to working the land intensively, instead of industry. Could industrialization then have been sustained without coal, New World surpluses, and the already existing industrialization of Great Britain?

The general impression one gets is that not only was the “European miracle” in fact just a matter of fortunate conjunctures and contingencies, but that there was nothing especially preordained about the Industrial Revolution. No colonial surpluses; no easily-reachable coal or mechanical culture; perhaps, even no slavery (to enhance the efficiency with which colonial surpluses were extracted) – no industrial revolution. At least, not a few more centuries.

Additional Thoughts for Consideration

(1) Needless to say, I now largely reject my previous theory Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System? I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.

(2) One important factor that I didn’t see Pomeranz mention – the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! China was building ships as advanced as that of the European Golden Age of Navigation as early as the 15th century, and in huge numbers far exceeding the capacity of any single European state. Navigation itself wasn’t a problem either (note that it was China that invented the compass, topographic maps, etc). But it didn’t practice overseas slave-trading, and those Chinese that settled new lands – be they in Taiwan, or the inner provinces – tended to develop their own proto-industrial economies, which in the presence of conditions of free trade and free markets for labor and products eventually undermined the volume of trade.

(3) The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns. Ironically, the BRIC’s (including most prominently China) are the ones using mercantile strategies to catch up to the West.

(4) What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t only Britain, and then the rest of Western Europe that overtook China; so did Russia. Now Russia was undoubtedly far, far behind both China and the West practically since its inception until (relative to China) about the late 19th century. It had serfdom, very small urban class, a very de-commercialized economy, with luxury consumption being indulged in by a tiny elite, etc. Nonetheless, despite this backwardness – an inevitable one, due to ecological reasons I have written a lot on this blog about – the state did nonetheless successfully leverage what meager surpluses it had to maintain a rough military parity with the West and play the role of a Great Power. So, yet more evidence that strict adherence to neoclassical economic development isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.

(5) An interesting counter-factual to consider – what if there had been no easily accessible coal in Britain or the Rhineland, and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean? Could there have been an industrial revolution? Is industrial revolution contingent on “coal and colonies”?

Or would Europe instead have become something like Qing China in the 19th century, increasingly politically debilitated, and economically stagnant – any improvements in land management and increasing labor intensity swallowed up by an inexorably growing population? Could it, indeed, have collapsed, perhaps after it grew critically weak and was invaded by the Russian Army much like China was by the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, etc., and pillaged by British pirates much like Japanese pirates preyed on a weak China in the 17th century Ming twilight? Indeed, could it eventually have collapsed into yet another Dark Age as followed the Roman Empire, in which much of the vaunted knowledge of the Scientific Revolution would be lost to memory, with the 18th century to early 19th century coming to be seen as a bygone “Golden Age”?

PS. H/t to Doug M. for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

What about China’s stultifying Confucian traditionalism? Again, there was no shortage of reaction in Europe. No colonial empires bringing in revenue from trade and overseas commodities, because the Chinese grounded their fleet in the 1430′s? Please, Spain owned half the western hemisphere, and ended up stagnating despite (or because of) it; meanwhile, inland European regions with no colonial empires to speak of, such as the Ruhr or Silesia, industrialized early. Ravaged by rebellions, nomadic invasions, and repeated Malthusian crises? But Europe also had its fair share of these: the Black Death depressed European populations for nearly three centuries, and constituted a classical subsistence crisis, while some conflicts were also exceedingly devastating, e.g. the Thirty Years’ War that killed about a third of the German population. No good energy sources? China has as many rivers for watermills as Europe, and the Song dynasty produced more coal and pig iron in 1000AD than Europe did in 1800. The Chinese were hobbled by a low national IQ? This controversial theory was advanced in some circles to explain the historical failure of India or the Arab world, but whatever its merits, it surely can’t apply to China. Nor can several specific reasons given for the failures of other civilizations, such as water stress and desertification in the Middle East, or being on the wrong latitude as with Africa, India, and the Americas.

For a long time, I’ve only found two theories to be semi-plausible. First, Jared Diamond’s argument that China’s geography – a flatland of fertile river plains, capable of feeding big armies, with no major peninsulas that could host rival power bases – is naturally suited for unification (in contrast to Europe’s zigzag of mountain ranges and rugged peninsulas coasts). This reduced internal competition, so that the effects of bad policies – such as the occasional banning of private seafaring – reverberated throughout the whole of China, whereas in Europe only one region at a time suffered under Louis XIV’s fiscal depredations or the Spanish Inquisition. But on the other hand, surely this was counterbalanced by the returns to scale and (relative) internal peace enjoyed by a unified China, as opposed to fragmented Europe with its never-ending internecine wars? While IMO the charge of “geographical determinism” is thrown about too wildly nowadays, in this case it may be justified.

Second, as I said in my post on cliodynamics, the depth of Malthusian collapses that occurred in China were arguably bigger than in Europe, and tended to affect all of China at once (because of its greater internal connectedness). This meant that during these “dark age” periods, there may have been more technological regression in China than in Europe. Nonetheless, both of these theories are speculative and hedged with all manner of caveats. In my view, this question remains wide open.

However, I’m only writing this post because I think I’ve discovered a major, perhaps the major factor, that explains the “great divergence” between Europe and China. In short, it is China’s writing system.

From its origins in Phoenicia, the alphabet spread to Greece and Rome, and formed the building blocks of all future European literary culture. In contrast, China retains a system of hieroglyphs (汉字), inherited from the very earliest days of literacy (imagine using Egyptian hieroglyphs or Linear B today). All its writings are in the form of thousands of distinct symbols, and combinations thereof, expressing ideas. The hanzi may look much cooler than a standard alphabet, but in practice it throws up a host of serious problems.

1. Universal Literacy. It is much harder to attain practical literacy in Chinese, than it is in “normal” languages. A typical West European only has to know 26 or so symbols, and after that – because her language is mostly phonetic – she can transcribe most speech into text that is, at a minimum, legible and understandable. Not so for Chinese, where knowing how a word is pronounced is typically no clue as to how to write it. The PRC’s standards for literacy are recognition of 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban dwellers, but in fact it is estimated that real fluency requires knowledge at 3,000-4,000. Furthermore, this is passive recognition; writing stuff involves active recall, and is much more difficult still. David Moser’s The Writing on the Wall [DOC] has many amusing anecdotes on this subject, e.g.:

The most astounding example I encountered back in my early days studying Chinese was during a lunch with three graduate students in the Peking University Chinese department. I had a bad cold that day, and wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel a meeting. I found that I couldn’t write the character ti 嚔 in the word for “sneeze”, da penti 打喷嚔, and so I asked my three friends for help. To my amazement, none of the three could successfully retrieve the character ti 嚔. Three Chinese graduate students at China’s most prestigious university could not write the word for “sneeze” in their own native script! One simply cannot imagine a similar situation in a phonetic script environment – e.g., three Harvard graduate students unable to write a common word like “sneeze” in the orthography of their native language.

What was even more amazing – and puzzling – was that the Chinese people I dealt with showed almost no concern for this phenomenon. Most tended to explain away the situation as due to low educational standards, or merely natural everyday memory lapses. “And besides,” they would say to me, “Don’t you sometimes forget how to spell a word in English?” And I slowly began to realize that part of the problem is that, for most native Chinese, who have not grown up using an alphabetic system of writing, the contrast between the systems is not at all evident – they simply have no basis of comparison. Such people tend to assume that their difficulties are with the process of writing itself, rather than the particular writing system they are using.

Go, read his essay. And his other essay, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. Good, you’re back, and want to know what this has to do with China’s late industrialization. The answer is that, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, literacy rates, and educational human capital in general, is the most important prerequisite and determinant of economic development. The most literate countries in 1800 were also the richest ones in 2000. Thanks to its traditionally high levels of development and meritocratic system for grooming civil servants, China has always been relatively literate, until eclipsed by North Western Europe by 1800; as you can see in the graph below, its somewhat of an outlier. But knowing what we know of the peculiarities of literacy as limited by the very structure of its writing system…

(PS. Note that both Korean uses an alphabet; and so does Japanese, if a very complicated set of two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) with borrowings from Chinese hieroglyphs in the form of kanji. Could this, at least partially, explain why both Japan and Korea were far more successful at industrialization than China?)

One tentative implication is that the literacy rate estimated for historical China would be a fraction of its conventionally estimated percentage because to be able to functionally express the same range and depth of ideas in a hieroglyphic script as a scholar working with an alphabet-based writing system would constitute a much harder undertaking. I daresay that for anyone without a photographic memory, a great deal of time would simply be taken up with laboring over the Kangxi dictionary. This reduces the amount of mental energy that could be spent on more practical matters of original research or innovation.

2. Platonic Worldview. Many theorists have speculated about the role of traditionalism in keeping China back, but one can’t help noticing that such tendencies would logically be encouraged by the limitations of the Chinese writing system. Hieroglyphs originally evolved to keep track of two basic functions: religious ceremonies, trade accounts (e.g. bushels of grain delivered, etc), court historians (mostly formulaic accounts of dynasties, omens, wars, etc). As symbols stand for ideas, and given the simplicity of Chinese grammar, I suspect it is much harder to accurately convey unusual and complex phenomena in the Chinese script. Psychologically, this may have encouraged a Platonic worldview based on perfect forms, and the exaltation of traditional wisdom over the skeptical empirical, which is all antithetical to the scientific method.

3. Small Webs Of Reference. In pre-industrial times, much of what passed for industry and manufacturing was hands-and-eyes type of work, small artisans with apprentices and a few simple machine tools practicing their art in a workshop. China was abreast or ahead of medieval Europe in most of these spheres (barring a few things like eye-pieces and mechanical clocks). They even invented movable type printing well ahead of Europeans, which is truly amazing given how much simpler that system is for alphabet-based scripts. In some respects, Song China was already as economically developed as 18th century Europe. But they never made the leap to mass production and assembly lines; from about 1820, England made a qualitative spring forwards that China would not begin to replicate until the 1950′s.

Ultimately, the reason for this may reside in alphabetic script. Artisinal techniques can be conveyed well enough by word of mouth; the larger projects, such as dams or canals, can be overseen by a few very well-educated bureaucrats with the appropriate symbolic expertise. But once you get into the world of mass production, steamships, advanced metallurgy, chemicals, electricity, etc., then you can’t do without a big reservoir of specialists with a high degree of functional literacy, and a big, shared body of knowledge that these specialists can consult. The Chinese writing system is not conductive to the emergence of the far wider webs of reference, of citation and indexing, that is a prerequisite for an industrial takeoff. As Moser points out, this remains a problem even in the digitized modern age:

Yet even if some technological fix were to be devised to solve the problem of character entry, the non-alphabetic nature of the writing system still results in other serious and long-standing “invisible” problems. For example, the inclusion of a standard index to books, manuals and reference materials is made orders of magnitude more difficult by the Chinese writing system. The result is that to this day, the vast majority of non-fiction books published in China do not have an index, or anything like it. This fact seems incredible to those firmly ensconced in the alphabetic world, for obviously the lack of an index considerably lessens a book’s usefulness. Removing indexes from Western library books would be like an atomic bomb being dropped into academia. Yet their lack is a mundane fact of life in China.

… In virtually every informatic context, from library card catalogs to everyday user’s manuals, the relatively cumbersome Chinese writing system exerts a low-level but constant drag force on productivity, and tends to reinforce an undemocratic state of affairs in which only the educated elite or the doggedly determined make full use of the tools of the information environment.

Now imagine the challenges faced by Chinese scholars of yore, who did not even have the pinyin alphabetization system to help them out. In summary, the main problem of hieroglyphic writing systems is that it puts a mass of structural impediments towards the effective sharing of information that would not otherwise exist in an alphabetic system. This might be as good an explanation of why China reached a technological plateau early, and then largely stagnated for the better part of a millennium, as any other.

(Granted, there were improvements during this period. For instance, there was a huge burst in agricultural productivity during the Qing dynasty, which enabled the Chinese population to remain on par with the European. But this was a matter of traditional experimentation with crop varieties that has been practiced since the dawn of agriculture; an industrial revolution it does not – and cannot – make.)

Many pundits believe Chinese industrial catch-up is unsustainable because of its “traditional” lack of innovation and tendency to retreat into itself and stagnate. However, if this, for now admittedly fragile, theory is accurate, then the prospects for China under 21st century technological conditions look auspicious (for now, we’ll leave aside issues of climate change and Limits to Growth). Automatic translators can instantly look up any characters; likewise, any pinyin can be instantly converted into the appropriate character. Cell phone apps can recognize characters on paper and translate them. In tandem, a limited alphabetization and modern IT have overcome most of the structural difficulties that once stymied Chinese breakthrough into the world of industrialism and hi-tech. Furthermore, the critical languages of the future are those of math and computer science, and in these the Chinese are on a level playing field.

I can only finish these ruminations with a few comments on the big debate surrounding the simplification and/or alphabetization of Chinese. Largely, the latter is far more effective than the former; simplification may, in most (but not all) cases, improve the chances of character memorization, but it doesn’t resolve the core problems of hieroglyphic writing systems. On the other hand, the Chinese characters are a major cultural legacy and losing them would be tragic. As such, it would be best IMO to use pinyin (or Gwoyeu Romatzyh; I wish, LOL!) for practical purposes, but continue compulsory teaching of Traditional and Simplified characters for their historical and literary value.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.

Bloom, HowardThe Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995)
Category: human society, psychology, history; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Amazon reviews, James Schultz

More S/O material on related topics:

Superorganism, or: The Whole is Greater than its Parts

Bloom starts off by providing reams of evidence on why it is completely logical for nature to be “red in tooth and claw”. Selfish genes need to replicate and it is no great loss if they doom billions of individuals to untimely deaths in the struggle for evolutionary survival. Hence, creatures battle for the “privilege of procreation”. High-ranking gorilla females kill their harem rivals’ offspring. Existence in primitive societies is so brutish and short that it is as if they were fighting World War Two every year and life eternal (the myth of the “noble savage” really is just that). The wellspring of Western civilization, the Romans, have the rape of the Sabines as one of their proudest foundational myths. In short, violence is reality.


[The Rape of the Sabine Women, Pietro da Cortona.]

One interesting theory he mentions is that of the triune brain, according to which the human mind is actually composed of three brains – the reptilian (stimuli, mating, territoriality), mammalian (loyalty to family and clan) and primate (reasoning faculty). The reptilian component makes creatures nasty and violent, while the mammalian reinforces the power of social groups. It is only the latter that allows man to dream about peace, even as they hack each other to pieces in the waking world.

In the next section, Blooms asks why people commit suicide. He cites a lot of research showing that isolation is the ultimate poison – without social approval, people not only tend to become depressed, but their physiology goes on self-destruct mode, encouraging illnesses, insanity and suicidal tendencies. This is a negative feedback loop because once you are depressed, other people no longer want to be around you or make friends with it (but that, too, works in the interests of the group). He ties this in to the larger idea that just as cells, sponges and ants can only survive as constituent particularly of a greater whole or not at all, so humans are part of a greater “superorganism” that is society.

Paradoxically, the logic of “group selection” encourages loyalty to the superorganism that cares little if at all for the individuals that owe it their fealty. For instance, upon seeing a pride of lions beginning to stalk a herd of gazelles on the African savanna, the beasts that notice the predators begin prancing about in warning. This actually diminishes their individual chances of survival, since lions are likeliest to go for animals that are acting unlike the rest of the herd. The best outcome for the individual gazelle upon noticing the lions would be simply to retreat slowly to the safe center of the herd. However, over the evolutionary eons, groups with many individuals exhibiting these self-preserving tendencies presumably got weeded out, for self-interest is the bane of group interests. Hence in real life we do get a lot of genuinely altruistic loyalty to the group – amongst ants, gazelles, humans.

Humans who are no longer needed by the group really are no longer needed and might as well wane and die (“the Moor has done his duty, he can now go home”). Durkheim suggested suicide was essentially individuals altruistically relieving society of their own burden to it, and I would suggest that this is especially evident in societies like Japan without the traditional Western Christian guilt. I would also suggest that this is the reason why ostracism and exile were so much more fearful punishments in the pre-industrial world than they would seem in today’s global rootless cosmopolitanism. In an age when bonds were strong and essential, but geographically tied to small regions, being shorn of human contact would have been psychologically crippling.

All this of course has a more than passing resemblance to Turchin’s and Ibn Khaldun’s work on social cohesion and Asabiyah. There’s a reason why through the ages soldiers have willingly charged cold steel pikes and machine gun fire for the glory of their nation. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and far more important too – and the superorganism knows this.


[The Battle of Gettysburg. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!]

Though shalt not kill… but only as long as they’re members of your tribe. Otherwise it’s cool. Note that primitive societies believe “humans” to be only their own tribe or clan (in fact if you look at the etymology, many ethnicities call themselves “the people” in their own tongues). Civilization has expanded the definition of those considered to be human to their own nations: in the case of the Jews, to the Israelites; in the case of later “universal” religions, potentially to all humanity (except inveterate heathen, of course). Even many modern liberals are intolerant of those who don’t share their liberal ideals. Why these divisions? Having enemies is really good for social consolidation (see “castle identity”, “residential fortress”, “siege mentality”); human societies are defined not by what they are, but by what they oppose and hate. Or as Orwell would say, war is peace.

There is always a deep wellspring of frustration in any society. Bloom quotes interesting research showing that fro cells to ants to humans, each unit performs a preordained role. In any ant colony, there are industrious workers and lazy workers, soldiers and queens. Separate the industrious and lazy workers into separate group and new social roles are created as some former busybodies become idlers and former idlers become industrious. In observations of summer campers, it was noted that after a few hours, bunk-mates assumed four specific social roles: dominant “alpha male”, unpopular “bully”, “joker” sidekick and the over-eager “nerd” who is kicked around by everyone.

All human minds possess thousands of unrealized personalities which could have been but aren’t. This results in an undercurrent of frustration, which can be channeled into the hatred of the interloper that binds it together. Early cellular lifeforms discovered that they could dispose of calcium, poisonous in high quantities, by using it to build shells. In similar fashion, common hatreds glue societies together, such “that every tribe regards outsiders as fair game; that every society gives permission to hate; that each culture addresses the demon of its hatred in the garb of righteousness; and that the man who channels this hatred can rouse the superorganism and lead it around by the nose”.

From Genes to Memes, Yet Us vs. Them Always

In another chapter full of worthy insights, Bloom notes that the main vector of evolution shifted from genes swimming through “the protoplasmic soup of the early earth” to memes floating through a “sea of human brains”. Both genes and memes mercilessly exploit their hosts in their struggle for survival and bid to overspread the earth. Though rat broods are normally loving to each other, insert a rodent from a different clan that smells different, and they tear the unfortunate apart – even if he carries their genetic stock (rats tell who is who by smell). Humans are more advanced: they have language, culture and religions that bind closer than any uniform. The Hebrew genocide of the Canaanites was just and splendid, for their ethno-genetic stock was chosen by the LORD God.

Over the millennia of ancient history, memes gradually divorced themselves from the genetic level altogether, appearing in “universal” religions like Zoroastrianism and Christianity after St. Paul. Competing universal religions and ideologies now encompass nearly the whole world. The confer several advantages. First, the effective illusion of control, which is good guarantor of health and mental agility (note that most medical procedures even today are based on getting the patient to believe she will recover and hence doing so). Second, memes help consolidate huge communities, and hence ensure their own long-term survival.

A society is, in effect, a vast, problem-solving neural net – humans are to it like brain cells are to a mind. As a swarm of individuals interact in limited and simply ways (bees, humans), an extraordinarily complex structure emerges (a beehive, the modern economy). One feature of human society is male expendability – from cradle to old age, men have weaker immune systems, are more accident-prone and die quicker. This is especially marked in primitive societies where warfare is brutal and incessant.

polygamy-map The reasons are biologically obvious: whereas one man can inseminate dozens of women, one woman can only reproduce about once a year at most. So Mother Nature can afford to play with men as dice, ensuring that only the fittest survive. Interestingly, life is most brutal and profligate in the south, where resources are plentiful. In the tropics, male birds tend to have bright plumes to attract female attention (which also makes them highly visible to predators); but in the north, birds have grayer colors designed to blend into the surroundings, and their sex tends to be indistinguishable to the human eye. That is because the female needs male help to rear her chicks through the hard winter months of dearth. Likewise with humans, polygamy has been most prevalent in southern cultures – even if many guys die in battles for prestige, territory and slaves, the women can continue the race without most of them.

Most men failed, and died early or had little reproductive success (in primitive societies only 50% of men end up having offspring, compared to 80% of women). But those who made it, like Chinggis Khan, became the biological fathers of millions (King Saud was probably the last such very influential warlord). But as history progressed, memes steadily took center place. The generators of successful memes, like St. Paul, Marx or Sayyid Qutb, took the center place in the lives of millions and billions!

The Pecking Order: Hierarchy is Good

Stalin was right: the weak get beaten. That’s what happens to those at the bottom of the pecking order, the phenomenon observed in the 1920′s where chickens formed a fixed hierarchy that determined priority access to food and shelter. While the top hen was well fed, warm and respected, the one at the bottom was ostracized and pecked by everyone else. Likewise, those at the top are most sexually successful in primitive societies. In a series of experiments in which three male rats and three female rats were brought together in a cage, some 92% of offspring accrued to the dominant male!

Success breeds success, failure breeds failure. Low ranking baboons suffer increased levels of glucocorticoids, a stress hormone that acts as a slow poison, and walk around slouched and defeated. The same thing operates in human societies – being at the bottom of the pecking order is bad for you, as you suffer from increased rates of depression, blood pressure, heart attacks, etc – obviously this also makes you unattractive and entrenches your gutter status. In contrast, higher ranking monkeys people walk upright and their testicles hang down further. (So consequently no wonder that that is the reason why men are recommended Alexander posture and walking with one’s legs wide apart… it is to project the image of the physical aspects of the alpha male; on third thought that would explain society’s dislike for the “pick-up artist”, since their craft essentially cheats the naturally emergent hierarchy by getting men to mimic alpha traits instead of actually being one).

There’s a very good reason for the existence of these feedback loops that reinforce social hierarchy – the alternative to hierarchy, with its inherent, diffuse coercion, is anarchy. This entails a state of constant expenditure of previous, limited energy on banditry and defense. In this situation, the weak and friendless get trampled down even more quickly and ruthlessly than if they were (merely) oppressed within a hierarchic system. So it is actually in the interests of everyone, including even its lowliest members. (The exceptions are, of course, those who believe that their position in the hierarchy is unjustified on the basis of their abilities or beliefs, e.g. the Bolshevik insurrectionist, the Islamist cell member, etc, who would like to level the current hierarchic system in a cleansing purge before rebuilding it in their own image). Bloom notes that “superior chickens make friends”, not only within societies, but within the community of tribes and nations. Just as powerful Yanamamo tribes attracted allies and clobbered the weak and friendless tribes, and Rome maintained coalitions awed by its political and military prowess, so the modern US draws on the loyalty of many of its allies in the West and elsewhere through the visibility of its hegemonic power. (It even gets financial credit at low prices due to an effect called American alpha!)

In the last few chapters, Bloom ingeniously – or in an act of unintentional hypocrisy, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt ;) – shows “us vs them”, memes and hierarchy at work in his own book! He states America’s refusal to support France and Britain in their neo-colonial 1956 endevour to seize back the Suez Canal was morally wrong, proclaims the superiority of the West over the cultures of the Third World and labels Islam a “killer culture” harboring the next barbarians. (Of course, the Islamist crazies promptly did their best to prove him right). No, you don’t need to be a PC-head to realize that in the last hundred pages Bloom strays from his fascinating insights into a morass of opinion(ated) projections of his social theories onto modern geopolitics and the “clash of civilizations”. They can be skipped. The only more or less useful additional point he makes is that giving gifts is insulting, like the World Bank does with Africa, because it created humiliating cultural dependency relationships (e.g. demands to Africans to do things the way armchair economists with no practical experience there want them to). China’s straightforward infrastructure or cash for resources approach is better for Africans, both spiritually and probably even economically.

The Lucifer Principle: Superorganism, Memes & Hierarchy

These elements combined form the Lucifer Principle. The superorganism – be it body, village, nation (“imagined community”) or civilization – curtails your individuality, and has no qualms about throwing your life and health away if doing so would serve the greater good. It can throw you against another superorganism so as to weed out the weak, identify the strong, and consolidate itself internally and ideologically (war is peace). It can – and does – trample your mental and physical health under the social stratification it requires to maintain its own complexity (peace is submission). But it also nurtures and protects you with a love harsh but true… for while you can surmount the burdens and realize yourself (slavery is freedom), without society, that would be impossible… survival itself is impossible (freedom is death). I would say that the essence of the Lucifer Principle is that fascism is the natural state.


[The essence of the book in one comic. Translation: "What's the matter, you fat monkey?" "Fuck off, fucking fascist!" "You say 'fascist', as if it's a bad thing. But dude, people love fascists. Have you ever met a woman who fantasizes about being tied up and raped by a *liberal*?"]

Though Rome “had been an oppressor, it was also “the source of nourishment and peace”. It’s end brought not freedom, but death, says Bloom, as roving bandits moved in to pick its carcass. (Though I would make the caveat that by its end the Western Empire armies were themselves no better than bandits). In conclusions: “Superorganism, ideas, and the pecking order – these are the primary forces behind much of human creativity and earthly good. They are the holy trinity of the Lucifer Principle”.

There were several problems with the book. It was tied in loosely with the book and while chock full of fascinating details, many of them did little or nothing to advance or support the argument. The poor organization made writing this review rather tedious. The two chapters at the end, in which Bloom tried to apply disjointed elements of the Lucifer Principle onto modern politics and geopolitics, were largely irrelevant and should have been split off into a separate volume.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

Turchin, PeterWar and Peace and War (2006)
Category: history, cliodynamics, war; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Amazon reviews

Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, and Saint Matthew meet up for coffee

1) According to the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, empires only form when a tribe, nation, or religious sect attains a high degree of asabiya, – the ability of a group’s members to cooperate with each other, to maintain their identity and discipline in the face of adversity, and to impose their beliefs, values, and control over other groups. Other similar expressions are social cohesion or “social capital”. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, “royal authority and dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through… mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other”. (To put this in context, this is similar to Lev Gumilev’s theories of “passionarity” / пассионарность (willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s values) or my own ideas on the sobornost’-poshlost’ / rationalism-mysticism belief matrix, in which a state of sobornost’, of course, refers to a high level of asabiya).

This is not surprising – military cooperation and morale is an important factor in military success. See the stunning successes of the early Islamic armies spreading the revelations of Mohammed, or of Nazi Germany. Later in the book, Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1, in the battles on the western front of 1944 – in other words, excluding equipment and terrain, each Germany soldier was militarily “worth” 20% more than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others? Ibn Khaldun’s analysis covered the dynamics of the desert / settled boundary in the North African Maghreb. Amongst the desert Bedouin tribes, constant inter-tribal warfare exerts group selective pressure favoring the emergence of tribes high in asabiya. These selective pressures are much weaker in settled civilizations with rule of law. Now these defects are more than made up for civilizations’ greater population density and better technologies, which can normally yield much bigger, better-equipped armies than anything the barbarians can muster. However, should civilization fall into a state of internal strife and social dissolution, it becomes “vulnerable to conquest from the desert” by a coalition of Bedouin tribes organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. However, as soon as the barbarians become ensconced within their new domains, they gradually assimilate into the urban civilization, the high asabiya of the core group dissipates, and the cycle begins anew.

Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s beyond the Maghreb into a general theory of the rise of empires, almost all of which arise along “meta-ethnic frontiers” featuring bloody conflicts between starkly alien peoples. The constant military pressure and hatred for the Other binds the borderlanders together, fostering the relative economic equality, social solidarity, and discipline that will in time build an empire. Examples of this include the conflict of the Roman farmer-warriors against the Celtic barbarians of the Po Valley that melded the Latin peoples into the Roman Empire, the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise, and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States. The entire history of Europe from the Roman Empire to Poland-Lithuania has been characterized by the millennial, north-eastern drift of the meta-ethnic frontier between Rome/Christianity and tribal pagans, a frontier which repeatedly spawned new states and empires (Rome itself, the Caroliangian Empire, and the myriad Germanic and Slavic states.

2) The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s blaming of “luxury” and “senility” for the degeneration of civilizations is an inadequate explanation, being nothing more than a biological metaphor with questionable applicability. Instead, Turchin lays out the theory of cliodynamics, the “mathematized history” that attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of the “secular cycles” of imperial rise and fall by modeling Malthusian dynamics, i.e., when a great empire arises the resulting stability and prosperity produce overpopulation, which results in dearth, rising inequality (i.e. the old middle-class shrinks, while oligarchs and the landless indigent veer into prominence), and an intensified struggle for scarce resources that undermines social solidarity. Eventually, a severe shock such as a disastrous harvest, peasant uprisings, civil war, or foreign invasion provokes a full-fledged Malthusian crisis that triggers the collapse of the empire. I’ve already written about cliodynamics in detail here.

(Incidentally, I’ve also connected the decline of asabiya (or in my terminology, the transition from sobornost’ to poshlost’) to the socio-demographic cycles of cliodynamics. The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions. See my Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations and explanation of the Malthusian Loop.)

3) Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. In other words, there is a natural tendency for wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the few, called the Matthew Principle. In other words, if a pre-industrial civilization enjoys socio-political stability, has ineffective redistributive mechanisms, no free land / overpopulation, and a social mentality that accepts (or even glorifies – see “conspicuous consumption”) big levels of wealth inequality, within several generatons it will develop prodigal levels of social stratification. Wealth inequality tends to reach a maximum just before a collapse of the entire system: for instance, the Roman Empire fell for the last time just decades after reaching “peak inequality” in 400AD. Similar things can be said about the end of republican Rome, the decline of medieval France, and even Russia 1917 or Iran 1979.

Why does the Matthew Principle operate so strongly in Malthusian settings? In agrarian societies, private property is the normal way of storing inherited wealth. If a family has lots of children, each one will inherit ever smaller plots. To make ends meet, they will be eventually forced to borrow loans; if they can’t, their land is taken over by their creditors, and they now have to hire themselves out as agricultural laborers or drift into the cities where they can try to join a trade (hence the reason why cities expand so much in times of subsistence stress). Meanwhile, those who have land can 1) rent it out at exorbitant rates (since the demand for it is so high in an overpopulated country) or 2) they can sell the grain their tenants or serfs produce at high prices (again because there are more mouths to feed). The resulting accumulation of drifting unemployed are matchwood for social unrest (e.g. see the role of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social spectrum, the elites or nobility grow at a faster rate than the commoners because they have better access to food and can afford more children, and die less quickly. Those with land benefit from cheaper labor and the rise in rent prices, while manufactures become easier to afford thanks to the increase in trade and urban artisans. However, intra-elite inequality also increases, and there is increasing tension as some poor nobles see peasant arrivistes rising above them in social status. Because the king depends on the nobles for governing his kingdom, state institutions must be expanded to “feed” all those nobles who are left out of inheritances, fostering corruption, aristocratic intrigues, and social stratification. Those at the very top of the social pyramid engage in the most extravagant conspicuous consumption, provoking envy amongst the have-nots. All these widening social chasms reduce the society’s asabiya.

The plagues, wars, and internal violence unleashed by Malthusian collapse tends to kill off most of the top and bottom of the social period. The landless indigent starve to death, or their weakened immune systems succumb to disease, or they get carried away as the cannon fodder in the uprisings that wrack the failed state. The nobles also die fast, thanks to their status as a military caste. Generational cycles of violence and wars and political purges carry many of them off. After the collapse, land becomes cheaper and labor becomes more expensive. Subsistence stress largely subsides and society becomes much more egalitarian. The cycle begins anew.

Criticisms and Consequences

I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev). However, though readable – mostly, I suspect, because I am interested in the subject – it is not well-written. The text was too thick, there were too many awkward grammatical constructions, and the quotes are far, far too long.

More importantly, 1) the theory is not internally well-integrated and 2) there isn’t enough emphasis on the fundamental differences separating agrarian from industrial societies. For instance, Turchin makes a lot of the idea that the Italians’ low level of asabiya (“amoral familism”) was responsible for it’s only becoming politically unified in the late 19th century. But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century? And why was France able to build a huge empire under Napoleon, when it had lost all its “meta-ethnic frontiers” / marches by 1000 AD? For answers to these questions about the genesis of the modern nation-state, one would be much better off by looking at more conventional explanations by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Charles Tilly, or Gabriel Ardant.

Nowadays, modern political technologies – the history textbook, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the radio and Internet – have long displaced the meta-ethnic frontier as the main drivers behind the formation of asabiya. Which is certainly not to say that meta-ethnic frontiers are unimportant – they are, especially in the case of Dar al-Islam, which feels itself to be under siege on multiple fronts (the “bloody borders” of clash-of-civilizations-speak), which according to Turchin’s theory should promote a stronger Islamic identity. But their intrinsic importance has been diluted by the influence of modern media.

Turchin has an interesting discussion of the future of the US, China, Russia, and the European Union based on the conclusions of War and Peace and War. In particular, one very relevant point he made is that to become a true empire, the EU requires 1) the development of a European-wide loyalty towards it, willing to shed blood for it, and 2) its core state, Germany, must continue to underwrite it financially. None of these conditions, I think it is safe to say, will be met. Germany is most emphatically not prepared to sacrifice its national interests in favor of a European project over which it does not have direct control; the Germans have their own problems, foremost among them the demographic aging of the population. Furthermore, only 37% of Germans are today prepared to fight for their own country, according to the findings of the World Values Survey*; if that is the case, then how many Germans would fight (and risk death) for the Brussels bureaucracy? 5% would probably be generous. Quite simply the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.

Another major problem with the book that makes it incomplete is that although Turchin touches and speculates about the modern world and the future – in particular, he notes that the rising inequality, crime rates, slower growth, etc, of the post-1960′s industrialized world is similar to the traditional symptoms of an emerging Malthusian crisis – he does not connect the dots with the Limits to Growth, the theory that explicitly states that we are being swept into a Malthusian crisis due to global overpopulation and resource depletion. This is a far more important development than the techno-hype he devotes much of the last chapter to.

In the end I gave a 4/5 for this book, although it could have potentially gotten 5*/5. Turchin did valuable work in emphasizing how the material (e.g. the Malthusian) interacts with the spiritual (asabiya) in history, whereas many lesser theorists regard the latter as a “mystical” factor unworthy of serious attention. However, the book suffered from 1) poor writing, 2) too many marginal details that should have been edited out, and 3) unsuccessful application of the theory to the current, post-agrarian era. He should either have left it out entirely, or spent a lot more time doing it better.

* From the latest “wave” of the World Values Survey, “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” I think this question is an excellent way of gauging asabiya in a nation, since it directly addresses the issue of life, death, and self-sacrifice. The results are very interesting.

The Scandinavian countries – limp-wristed feminist socialists that they are ;) – all say a resounding “yes” (Sweden 86%, Norway 88%, Finland 84%). Similarly, for all the problems of the post-Communist transition, Eastern European nations also retain high levels of asabiya (Poland 75%, Russia 83%, Georgia 70%), though Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought) and so is Ukraine 69% (its Russophones aren’t as loyal as West or Central Ukrainians). Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier. Similarly, the Asian nations also have high levels of patriotism (China 87%, India 81%, South Korea 73%).

The United States 63% isn’t as high as one might think, and curiously close to France 61%, Great Britain 62%, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world. The nations of Latin America tend to have similar figures. The Mediterranean countries, the old countries, and the countries defeated in World War Two are the last willing to put their lives on the line for their nation (Italy 43%, Spain 45%, Japan 25%, Germany 37%).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

Korotayev, Andrei & Artemy Malkov, Daria KhaltourinaIntroduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends (2006)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Andrei Korotayev (wiki); review @; a similar text на русском.

Introduction: Millennial Trends

Google Books has the first chapter Introduction: Millennial Trends.

In 1960, Heinz von Foerster showed that the world’s population at any given time between 1-1958 CE could be approximated by the simple equation below, where N is the population, t is time, C is a constant, and t(0) is a “doomsday” when the population becomes infinite (worked out to be 13 November, 2026).

(1) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

According to Korotayev et al, this simple formula of hyperbolic explains 99%+ of the micro-variation in world population from 1000 to 1970. Furthermore, a quadratic-hyperbolic equation of the same type accurately represents the increase in the GDP. Why?

He discusses the work of Michael Kremer, who attempted to build a model by making the Malthusian assumption that “population is limited by the available technology, so that the growth rate of population is proportional to the growth rate of technology”, and the “Kuznetsian” assumption that “high population spurs technological change because it increases the number of potential inventors”.

(2) G = r*T*N^a

(3) dT/dt = b*N*T

Above, G is gross output, T is technology, N is population, and a, b, and r are parameters. Note that dT, change in technology, is dependent on both N (indicates potential number of inventors) and T (a wider technological base enabled more inventions to be made on its basis). Solving this system of equations results in hyperbolic population growth, illustrated by the following loop: population growth → more potential inventors → faster tech growth → faster growth of Earth’s carrying capacity → faster population growth.

Korotayev then counters arguments dismissing such theories as “demographic adventures of physicists” that have no validity because the world system was not integrated until relatively recently. However, that is only if you use Wallerstein’s “bulk-good” criterion. If one instead uses the softer “information-network” criterion, noting that there is evidence for the “systematic spread of major innovations… throughout the North African – Eurasian Oikumene for a few millennia BCE” – and bearing in mind that this emerging belt of cultures of similar technological complexity contained the vast majority of the global human population since the Neolithic Revolution – then this can be interpreted as “a tangible result of the World System’s functioning”.

Then Korotayev et al present their own model that describes not only the hyperbolic world population growth, but also the macrodynamics of global GDP in the world system until 1973.

(4) G = k1*T*N^a

(5) dN/dt = k2*S*N

(6) dT/dt = k3*N*T

Above, T is technology, N is population, S is surplus per person (and S = g – m, where g is production per person and m is the subsistence level required for zero population growth), and k1, k2, k3, and a are parameters. This can be simplified to:

(7) dN/dt = a*S*N

(8) dS/dt = b*N*S

(9) G = m*N + S*N

As S should be proportional to N in the long run, S = k*N. Replace.

(10) dN/dt = k*a*N^2

Recall that solving this differential equation gives us hyperbolic growth (1).

(11) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

Furthermore, replacing N(t) above with S = k*N gives (12), allowing us to work out the “surplus world product” S*N (13).

(12) S = k*C / ( t(0) – t )

(13) S*N = k*C^2 / ( t(0) – t )^2

Hence in the long-run, this suggests that global GDP growth can be approximated by a quadratic hyperbola. Other indices that can be described by these or similar models include literacy, urbanization, etc.

One finding is that after 1973, there world GDP growth rate itself falls (rather than just a slowing of the growth of the GDP growth rate, as predicted by the original model): the explanation is, “the literate population is more inclined to direct a larger share of its GDP to resource restoration and to prefer resource economizing strategies than is the illiterate one, which, on the one hand, paves the way towards a sustainable-development society, but, on the other hand, slows down the economic growth rate”. To take this into account, they build a modified model, according to which, “the World System’s divergence from the blow-up regime would stabilize the world population, the world GDP… technological growth, however, will continue, though in exponential rather than hyperbolic form”.*

The consequences for the future are that though GDP growth will reach an asymptote, technological improvements will continue raising the standard of living due to the “Nordhaus effect” (e.g. combine Moore’s Law – exponentially cheapening computing power, with the growing penetration of ever more physical goods by IT).

“It appears important to stress that the present-day decrease of the World System’s growth rates differs radically from the decreases that inhered in oscillations of the past… it is a phase transition to a new development regime that differs radically from the ones typical of all previous history”. As evidence, unlike in all past eras, the slowing of the world population growth rate after the 1960′s did not occur against a backdrop of catastrophically falling living standards (famine, plague, wars, etc); to the contrary, the causes are the fall in fertility due to social security, more literacy, family planning, etc. Similarly, the decrease in the urbanization and literacy growth rates is not associated this time by the onset of Malthusian problems, but is set against continuing high economic growth and the “closeness of the saturation level”.

(AK: This rosy-tinged analysis is persuasive and somewhat rigorous, but there is a gaping hole – they used only “technology” as a proxy for the carrying capacity. However, as Limits to Growth teaches us, part of what technology did is open up a windfall of energy resources – high-grade oil, coal, and natural gas – that have been used to fuel much of the post-1800 growth in carrying capacity (disguised as “technology” in this model), yet whose gains are not permanent because of their unsustainable exploitation. Furthermore, the modern technological base is underpinned by the material base, and cannot survive without it – you can’t have semiconductor factories without reliable electricity supplies – and generally speaking, the more complex the technology, the greater the material base that is needed to sustain it (this may constitute an ultimate limit on technological expansion). This major factor is also neglected in Korotayev’s millennial model. As such, the conclusion that the world has truly and permanently reached a sustainable-development regime does not follow. This is not to say that it is without merit, however – it’s just that it needs to be integrated with the work done by the Limits to Growth / peak oil / climate modelers.)

Chapter 1: Secular Cycles

Korotayev et al conclude that these millennial models are only useful on the millennial scale (duh!), and that typical agrarian political-demographic cycles follow Malthusian dynamics because in the shorter term, population tends to growth much more rapidly than technology / carrying capacity, which led to a plateauing of the population, growing stress due to repeated perturbations, and an eventual tipping point over into collapse / dieoff.

The basic logic of these models is as follows. After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values. The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions, etc. As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population. As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.

He notes that newer models are far more complex and predict the dynamics of variables such as elite overproduction, class struggle, urbanization, and wealth inequality with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy (e.g. see A Model of Demographic Cycles in a Traditional Society: The Case of Ancient China by Nefedov). Korotayev et al then list three major approaches to modeling agrarian political-demographic cycles: Turchin (2003), Chu & Lee (1994), and Nefedov (1999-2004).

1. Turchin has constructed an elegant “fiscal-demographic” model, in which the state plays a positive role by by a) maintaining armed order against banditry and lawlessness, and b) doing works such as roads, canals, irrigations systems, flood control, etc, – both of which increase the effective carrying capacity. However, as demographic growth brings the population to the carrying capacity of the land (in practice, the population plateaus somewhat below it due to elite predation), surpluses diminish. So do the state’s revenues, since the state taxes surpluses; meanwhile, expenditures keep on rising (because of the reasons identified by Tainter). Eventually, there sets in a fiscal crisis and the state must tax the future to pay for the present by drawing down the surpluses accumulated in better days; when those surpluses run out, the state can no longer function and collapses, which leads to a radical decline of the carrying capacity and population as the land falls into anarchy and irrigation and transport infrastructure decays.

2. The Chu and Lee model consists of rulers (including soldiers), peasants (grow food), and bandits (steal food). The peasants support the rulers to fight the bandits, while there is a constant flux between the peasants and bandits whose magnitude depends on the caloric & survivability payoffs to belonging in each respective class. However, it’s not a fully-formed model as its main function is to fill in the gaps in the historical record, by plugging in already-known historical data on warfare and climatic factors; they neglected to associate crop production with climatic variability (colder winters result in lesser crop yields) and the role of the state in food distribution (which staved off collapse for some time and was historically significant in China).

3. Nefedov has integrated stochasticity into his models, in which random climatic effects produce different year-to-year crop yields. One result is that as carrying capacity is reached, surpluses vanish and the effects of good and bad years play an increasingly important role – i.e. a closed system under stress suffers increasingly from perturbations. One bad year can lead to a critical number of people leaving the farms for the cities or banditry, initiating a cascading collapse. However, he neglects the “direct role of rebellion and internal warfare on cycle behavior”, so as the model is purely economic, each demographic collapse is, implausibly, immediately followed by a new rise.

The ultimate aim of Korotayev et al is to integrate the positive features of all three models (Chapter 3), but for now the take a closer look at the political-demographic history of China, the pre-industrial civilization that maintained the best records.

Chapter 2: Historical Population Dynamics in China – Some Observations

Below is a graph of China’s population on a millennial scale. Note the magnitude and cyclical nature of its demographic collapses. Note also that such cycles are far from unique to Chinese civilization (see collapse of the Roman Empire), and reflect for a minute, even, on the profound difference between the modern world of permanent growth, and the pre-industrial, “Malthusian” world.

Since it would be futile to repeat the fine details of every political-demographic cycle in China’s, I will instead just list the main points.

  • The cycles tend to be ones of a fast rise in population, when surpluses are high and people are prosperous. It plateaus and stagnates when the population reaches the carrying capacity, when there is overpopulation, much lowered consumption, increasing debilitation of state power, and rising social inequality and urbanization.
  • Sometimes, such as in the middle Sung period, population stress did not lead to a collapse, but instead to a “radical rise of the carrying capacity of the land” through administrative and technological innovations. This increased the permanent ceiling of Chinese carrying capacity from 60mn to around 120mn souls, and in doing so alleviated the population stress until the early 12th century (AK: e.g. in Early Modern Britain, the problem of deforestation was solved by coal). At that point, China may have once again solved its problems, even escaping from its Malthusian trap (AK: some historians have noted that it had many of the prerequisites for an industrial revolution). That was not to be, as “the Sung cycle was interrupted quite artificially by exogenous forces, namely, by the Jurchen and finally Mongol conquests”.
  • The Yuan dynasty would not reach the highs of the Sung because of the general bleakness of the 14th century – the end of the Medieval Warm Period, unprecedented floods and droughts in China, etc, which lowered the carrying capacity to a critical level. The resulting famines and rebellions led to the demographic collapse of the 1350′s, as well as the de facto collapse of the state, as China transitioned to warlordism.
  • Carrying-capacity innovations under the Ming did not, eventually, outrun population growth, and it collapsed during the turmoil of the transition to the Qing dynasty. The innovations accelerated throughout the 18th century (e.g. New World crops, land reclamation, intensification of farming). Indications of subsistence stress as China entered the 19th century were a) declining life expectancies, b) rising staple prices, and c) a huge increase in female infanticide rates in the first half of the 18th century. By 1850, China was again under very severe subsistence stress and the state grew impotent just as Europeans began to encroach on the Celestial Empire.
  • Huang 2002: 528-9, worthy of quotation in extenso. “Recent research in Chinese legal history suggests that the same subsistence pressures behind female infanticide led to widespread selling of women and girls… Another related social phenomenon was the rise of an unmarried “rogue male” population, a result of both poverty (because the men could not afford to get married) and of the imbalance in sex ratios that followed from female infanticide. Recent research shows that this symptom of the mounting social crisis led, among other things, to large changes in Qing legislation vis-à-vis illicit sex… Even more telling, perhaps, is the host of new legislation targeting specifically the ‘baresticks’ single males (guanggun) and related ‘criminal sticks’ of bandits (guntu, feitu), clearly a major social problem in the eyes of the authorities of the time”. See Diagram V.13. (AK: Interestingly, China’s one-child policy, by artificially restricting fertility in order to ward off a “Maoist dynasty” Malthusian crisis, has led to many of the same problems in the past two decades).
  • Speaking of which… China had further dips in its population after during perturbations in the 1850′s (the millenarian Taiping Rebellion), the 1930′s (Japanese occupation), and 1959-62 (the Great Leap Forward), each progressively smaller than the last in its relative magnitude. For instance, the latter just formed a short plateau.

Korotayev et al conclude the chapter by running statistical tests on China’s historical population figures from 57-2003. In contrast to linear regression (R^2 = 0.398) and exponential regression (R^2 = 0.685), the simple hyperbolic growth model described in “Introduction: Millennial Trends” produces an almost perfect fit with the observed data (R^2 = 0.968). So in the very, very long-term, the effects of China’s secular cycles are swamped by the millennial trend of hyperbolic growth.

Finally, the authors describe in-depth the general pre-industrial Chinese demographic cycle. Below is a functional scheme I’ve reproduced from the book (click to enlarge).

The main points are:

  • Fast population growth until it nears the carrying capacity, then a long period (100 years+) of a very slow and unsteady growth rate, accompanied by increasingly significant, but non-critical fluctuations in annual population growth due to climatic stochasticity (positive growth in good years, negative growth – along with dearth, minor epidemics, uprisings, etc – in bad years). These fluctuations get worse with time as the state’s counter-crisis potential degrades due to the drawdown of previously accumulated surpluses.
  • According to Nefedov’s model and historical evidence, the fastest growth of cities occurred during the last phases of demographic cycles, as peasants were driven off the land and there appeared greater demand for city-made goods from the increasingly affluent landowners (who could charge exorbitant rates on their tenants). Furthermore, some peasants are drawn into debt bondage because the landowner had previously given them food at a time of dearth. Other peasants turn to banditry.
  • Re-”elite overproduction → over-staffing of the state apparatus → decreasing ability of the state to provide relief during famines”. The system of state relief had been very effective earlier, e.g. in 1743-44 a state effort to prevent starvation in the drought-stricken North China core was successful. However: “By Chia-ch’ing times (1796-1820) this vast grain administration had been corrupted by the accumulation of superfluous personnel at all levels, and by the customary fees payable every time grain changed hands or passed an inspection point… The grain transport stations served as one of the focal points for patronage in official circles. Hundreds of expectant officials clustered at these points, salaried as deputies (ch’ai-wei or ts’ao-wei) of the central government. As the numbers of personnel in the grain tribute administration grew and as costs rose through the 18th century, the fees payable for each grain junk increased [from 130-200 taels per boat in 1732, to 300 taels in 1800, and to 700-800 taels by 1821]“. Similarly, the Yellow River Conservancy, whose task it was to prevent floods, degenerated into hedonistic corruption in the early 19th century; only 10% of its earmarked funds being spent legitimately.
  • So what you have is an increasingly exploited peasantry, a growing (and volatile) urban artisan class – e.g., the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, and more banditry. The bandits create a climate of fear in the countryside and force more outmigration into the cities, and the abandonment of some lands. At the same time, state power – military and administrative – is on the wane, displaced by corruption. The effects of perturbations are magnified due to the system’s loss of resiliency. There eventually comes a critical tipping point after which there is a cascading collapse that involves a population dieoff, the fall of centralized power, and a prolonged period of internal warfare.
  • Fast population growth does not resume immediately after collapse because things first need to settle down.

In my Facebook Note, Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations, I draw a link between the fast population increase / abundance of the “rise” period, and the concept of the “Golden Age” common to all civilizations. Also ventures a theory as to why cities (hedonism, conspicuous consumption, etc) have such a poor reputation as a harbinger of collapse… because they are, it’s just that the anti-poshlost preachers haven’t identified the right cause (i.e. overpopulation, not “moral decadence” per se).

Furthermore, a tentative explanation of the reason for differential Chinese – European technological growth rates (compare and contrast with Jared Diamond’s explanation):

Incidentally, a possible reason why Western Europe emerged as the world’s economic hegemon by the 19th century, instead of China, a civilization that at prior times had been significantly more advanced. But in China, the depth of the Malthusian collapses was deeper and more regular (once every 300 years, typically) than in W. Europe… Once the Yangtze / Yellow River irrigation systems failed, tens of millions of peasants were doomed; nothing on an equivalent scale in Europe, which is geographically and politically fragmented into many chunks and nowhere has anywhere near the same reliance on vulnerable hydraulic works for the maintenance of complex civilization (control over water was at the heart of “Oriental despotism” (Wittfogel); the Chinese word “zhi” means both “to regulate water” and “to rule”).

This theory that the reason China began to lag behind Western Europe technologically was because of its more frequent collapses / destructions of knowledge should be explored further.

Finally, about the nature of perturbations in a closed system under increasing stress… That is our world in the coming decades: even as Limits to Growth manifest themselves, there will be more (and greater) shocks of a climatic, terrorist, and military nature. The stochasticity will increase in amplitude even as the System becomes more fragile. As a result, polities will increase the level of legitimization and coercion, i.e. they will become more authoritarian.)

Chapter 3: A New Model of Pre-Industrial Political-Demographic Cycles

To address the shortcomings of other models and taking into account what happens in typical pre-industrial demographic cycles, Korotayev with Natalia Komarova construct their own model that includes the following three main elements:

(1) The Malthusian-type economic model, with elements of the state as tax collector (and counter-famine reservoir sponsor), and fluctuating annual harvest yields; this describes the logistic shape of population growth. It explains well the upward curve in the demographic cycle and saturation when the carrying capacity of land is reached. (2) Banditry and the rise of internal warfare in time of need are the main mechanism of demographic collapse. Personal decisions of peasants to leave their land and become warriors / bandits / rebels are influenced by economic factors. (3) The inertia of warfare (which manifests itself in the fear factor and the destruction of infrastructure) is responsible for a slow initial growth and the phenomenon of the “intercycle”.

Reproducing the model in detail will take up too much space, so just the main conclusions: “the main parameters affecting the period of the cycle are a) the annual proportions of resources accumulated for counter-famine reserves, b) the peasant-bandit transformation rate, and c) the magnitude of the climatic fluctuations. Hence, the lengths of cycles – and this is historically corroborated – is increased along with the growth of the counter-famine (more reserves) and law-enforcement (repress banditry) subsystems.

Chapter 4: Secular Cycles & Millennial Trends

Full version of Chapter 4: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends.

The chapter begins by modeling the role of warfare, and challenges recent anthropological findings that denser populations do not necessarily lead to more warfare.

  • First, this is explained by the fact that it’s not a simple relation, but more of a predator-prey cycle described by a Lotka–Volterra equation. When warfare breaks out in a time of stress it leads to the immediate reduction of the carrying capacity and demographic collapse; however, warfare simmers on well into the post-collapse phase because groups continue to retaliate against each other.
  • Second, the methodology is flawed because it treats all wars the same, whereas in fact they tend to be far less devastating for bigger polities than for small ones. This is because bigger polities have armies that are more professional, and the length of their “bleeding borders” relative to total territory, is much smaller than for territorially small chiefdoms, for whom even low-intensity wars are demographically devastating. As such, more politically complex polities fight wars more frequently more frequently than smaller ones, but tend to be far less damaged by them.
  • Imperial expansions in territory coincide with periods of fast population growth and high per capita surpluses; later on, shrinking surpluses decimate the tax base and even defense proves increasingly hard (“imperial overstretch”). This correlation is very strong.

Now Korotayev et al combine their model from the last chapter with Kremer’s equation for technological growth (see the Introduction):

dT/dt = a*N*T

They also model a “Boserupian” effect, in which “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”.

Indeed, if land shortage is absent, such stimuli are relatively weak, whereas in conditions of relative overpopulation the introduction of such innovations becomes literally a “question of life and death” for a major part of the population, and the intensity of the generation and diffusion of the carrying capacity enhancing innovations significantly increases.

Finally, they make the size of the harvest dependent not only on climatic fluctuations, but also on the level of technology.

Harvest i = H 0*random number i*T i.

Running this model with some reasonable parameters produces the following diagram, which reproduces not only the cyclical, but also the hyperbolic macrodynamics.


Note that it also describes the lengthening of growth phases detected in Chapter 2 for historical population dynamics in China, which was not described by our simple cyclical model. The mechanism that produces this lengthening in the model (and apparently in reality) is as follows: the later cycles are characterized by a higher technology, and, thus, higher carrying capacity and population, which, according to Kremer’s technological development equation embedded into our model, produces higher rates of technological (and, thus, carrying capacity) growth. Thus, with every new cycle it takes the population more and more time to approach the carrying capacity ceiling to a critical extent; finally it “fails” to do so, the technological growth rates begin to exceed systematically the population growth rates, and population escapes from the “Malthusian trap” (see Diagram 4.26):

The cycles lengthen, and then cease:

AK: some confirmation for my rough explanation of why Chinese technological growth rate fell below Europe’s prior to the Industrial Revolution (see end of Chapter 2 in this post).

Of special importance is that our numerical investigation indicates that with shorter average period of cycles a system experiences a slower technological growth, and it takes a system longer to escape from the “Malthusian trap” than with a longer average cycle period.

Finally, they also add in an equation for literacy:

l i+1 = l i*b*dF i*l i*(1 – l i)

Which has the following effect on population growth:

N i+1 = N i*(1 + α × dF’)*(1 – l) – dR i – rob*N i*R i

And all added together, it produces the following stunning reproduction of China’s population dynamics from ancient past to today.

And concludes:

Of course, these models can be only regarded as first steps towards the development of effective models describing both secular cycles and millennial upward trend dynamics.

The Meaning of Cliodynamics

Turchin, Peter & Sergey NefedovSecular Cycles (2008)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Read the whole book (PDF) or in chapters

This is a free online, quasi-popular book about eight different pre-industrial secular cycles (including Tudor England, the Roman Empire, Muscovy, and the Romanov Empire). Knowing the facts of history and the proximate causes of Revolutions – Lenin’s charisma, Tsarist incompetence, the collapse of morale and of the railway system, etc – is all well and good, but an entirely different perspective is opened up when looking at late Tsarist Russia through a social macrodynamic prism. The interpretation shifts to one of how late imperial Russia was under a panoply of Malthusian pressure, and of how the additional stresses and perturbations of WW1 “tipped” the system over into a state of collapse.

Finally, my reply to someone who sent me a message suggesting that cliodynamics may “make old school idiographic history redundant”.

I don’t think these trends will make idiographic history redundant, because there are many elements that are irreducible to mathematical analysis; furthermore, a major and inevitable weakness of cliodynamics is our lack of numbers for much of pre-mass literacy history. To the contrary, I think cliodynamics will end up complementing the “old school” rather than displacing it.


* Ray Kurzweil, one of the high priest of the singularitarian movement, extends Moore’s observations to also model technological growth (computing power, to be precise) as doubly exponential, or even hyperbolic. See Appendix: The Law of Accelerating Returns Revisited,

On the other hand, Joseph Tainter noted that in many areas the rate of technological innovation is actually slowing down. This is an argument that Kremer’s assumption that the rate of technological growth is linearly dependent on the product of the population and the size of the already-existing technological base is too simplistic.

These observations are supported by Planck’s Principle of Increasing Effort – “with every advance [in science] the difficulty of the task is increased” (i.e. you’re now unlikely to make new discoveries by flying a kite in a thunderstorm). Furthermore, “Exponential growth in size and costliness of science, in fact, is necessary simply to maintain a constant rate of progress”, and according to Rescher, “In natural science we are involved in a technological arms race: with every ‘victory over nature’ the difficulty of achieving the breakthroughs which lie ahead is increased”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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While trawling through my computer archives, I stumbled across this book review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” from five years ago. Overall, it’s a great book, better than his follow-up “Collapse”, which is also interesting – especially in the psychological aspects of “collapse”, like creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia” – but far from the best in the genre (that would be Tainter).

Diamond, JaredGuns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
Category: world systems, history, anthropology; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel (wiki)

Having finished reading this book in November 2004, I came away impressed by its success in compressing 13,000 years of human history into a lucid and compelling explanation of why the rate of socio-economic development varied so significantly on different continents, without resorting to culturalist or racialist arguments. Jared Diamond succeeds spectacularly at proving why Eurasia had become by 1500 AD (the dawn of “Europe’s assault on the world”) the world’s most technologically advanced continent, far ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australasia. In the final chapter, he extends the analysis to question why, within Eurasia, it was Europe that decisively overtook apparently better-endowed competitors (primarily China) within the next four hundred years and proceeded to “remake the world in its own image”.

The underlying thesis in this work is that the environment is the primary shaper of human societies – hence the title of Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History”. Connected with Diamond’s general aim of transforming human history into a scientific discipline, it explains how the Austronesians who populated the Polynesian islands, despite sharing common ancestors in Fujian, China, went on to produce remarkably different societies – agricultural and hunter-gatherer, technologically adept and primitive, oligarchic and egalitarian.

In the next few chapters , he contends that the rise of statehood, and the consequent, self-catalysing technological expansion (producing steel and guns, amongst others) and evolution of germs, was linked to the shift of food-production away from hunter-gathering, which first happened in Eurasia. This is because Eurasia was blessed in possessing an abundant number of nutritious and highly-domesticable crops such as wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent and rice in China, and also because she possessed an area covered by the world’s largest and most varied Mediterranean climate in southern Europe and south-west Asia, and fertile soils and monsoon rains in China, India and Indochina. It is true that the Americas had corn, and the Africans sourghum – but the shift from hunter-gathering to food-production depends not on a single crop, but on a sufficient amount to offer a secure and balanced diet. The latter was lacking – for instance, of the world’s 56 large-seeded grass species, 32 were in the West Eurasian Mediterranean region, and only 11, 4 and 2 in the (geographically splintered) Americas, Africa and Australasia respectively.

Nor were the extra-Eurasian continents especially suitable for pastoral economies. Of the world’s 143 big wild herbivores, only 14 are domesticable and only five – sheep, goats, cows, pigs and horses – can thrive across a broad range of climates. These discrepencies are due to the so-called Anna Karenina principle, which states that a variety of factors can null the chances of an animal being domesticable – their growth rates, problems of captive breeding, nasty dispositions, tendency to panic, and social structure. According to Diamond, of the 5 major and 9 minor domesticable animals, 13 are indigenous to Eurasia and one (the llama) is indigenous to South America. Africa might have animals that could be tamed (e.g. the elephant), but none that has ever been domesticated. The dearth of big animals in general in the Americas and Australasia is due to the fact that humans, with refined hunting skills, arrived there only 11,000 and 40,000 years ago respectively, and hunted all of them down because the animals had not had time to get used to this. The “lethal gift of livestock” also gave Eurasian peoples germs (as most infectitious diseases originated from human interactions with animals – for instance, flu was derived from pigs and ducks, and measles, smallpox and tuberculosis all derive from cattle), and, consequently, stronger immune systems to the diseases. The resultant fact that the exchange of germs was virtually one-way largely explains successful European colonization of the Americas.

Eurasia, because of it’s main east-west axis, fostered much easier transferals of agricultural and epidemiological breakthroughs. Crops and livestock generally move much more easily along lines of latitude than lines of longitude – thus, Fertile Crescent agriculture spread relatively quickly to southern Europe, north Africa, Iran, north India at a rate of 0.7 miles per year, whereas Mexican corns and beans crawled north to the Mississipi chiefdoms at 0.3 miles per year. The same applied to livestock – “The cool highlands of Mexico would have provided ideal conditions for raising llamas, guinea pigs and potatoes, all domesticated in the cool highlands of the Andes. Yet the northward spread of these Andean specialities was stopped completely by the hot intervening lowlands of Central America.” Whereas crops and livestock can travel relatively easily from Ireland to Korea (despite obstacles such as the Tibetan Plateau, Gobi desert and the jungles of southern India and Indochina), to travel the much smaller distance from Peru to the southern USA, one has to go north and transverse the Darien rainforests of the Isthmus of Panama (only 40 miles wide at its narrowest) and the northern Mexican desert.

What applies to crops and livestock, must also apply to other forms of technology. Writing evolved independently in Sumer by 3000 BC and in Mesoamerica in 600 BC – however, whereas the former spread rapidly throughout Eurasia, the latter never reached the Incas or the Mississippi, where sedendaty food-producing civilizations might have made good use of it. Other examples in Eurasia included the wheel, door locks, pulleys, rotary querns, windmills and the alphabet, whereas the Mesoamerican wheel failed to reach the Incas in Peru.

In conclusion, Eurasian societies were intially much better endowed than their American, African and Australasian counterparts not only in terms of crops and livestock, but also geographically and climatically. Eurasia’s primary east-west axis fostered linked the entire continent economically and epidemiologically, especially after the establishment of the Silk Road in Roman times. More productive agricultural bases, supporting much greater and denser populations, ensured a continuously generated food surplus, to sustain an evolving state appratus and the investment, development of technology and military machine that went with it. Eurasia’s quiltwork of states ensured a competitive environment that put an imperative on change that could not be replicated in the isolated societies of the Americas and Australasia. As a result, by 1500 AD no Native Americans had managed to progress to the Bronze Age and had not developed any deadly germs for the Spanish conquistadores to carry back home. Australia (mostly desert and marginal scrubland) and New Guinea (flat or hilly rainforest) were still in the Stone Age in the second millenium. Tasmania, with its 4000 hunter-gatherers, totally isolated for 10,000 years, had on the eve of its discovery by Europeans in 1642 AD the “simplest material culture of any people in the modern world”. As a result, these differences in development meant that, throughout history, but particularly within the last five hundred years, more advanced Eurasians were able to expand and appropriate the territories of native primitive peoples – examples include Chinese expansion into southeast Asia and the Pacific, the Bantu expansion into sub-Saharan Africa and the European colonization of the Americas, Australasia and Siberia.

Diamond’s epilogue is concerned about why Europe, apparently one of the more backward super-regions on the Eurasian landmass as late as the High Middle Ages, nonetheless was the first to industrialize and dominate the world more fully in its heyday – from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century – eclipsing ostensibly more powerful medieval empires, primarily China. The author again made use of geographic arguments, leaving aside institutional and cultural factors and relying heavily on E.L. Jones’ “The European Miracle” thesis. Now Europe is, in essence, a highly fragmented continent, separated by numerous mountain ranges (Alps, Carpathians, Pyrenees, etc) and small rivers (Rhine, Po, Oder, Visla, Danube), which support small, scattered population centres in their valleys. Numerous peninsulas and islands (primarily Iberia, Scandinavia, Britain, Italy) have traditionally counter-balanced potential continental hegemons (usually Germany or France). Europe has many different climates – Mediterranean to the south, maritime to the north-west and continental to the east, which produce different products (stimulating trade) and create natural ethnic boundaries (a phenomenom noted as early as the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus). China is almost the exact opposite – a huge, round piece of flatland, with its population concentrated in the great river valleys of the Yangtze and Hwang Ho (providing a huge and easily controlled source of manpower) and relatively uniform climatic conditions in its historic heartland (the tropical Cantonese south, dry continental Manchuria and Sinkiang and mountanous Tibet are comparatively recent acquisitions and even today are of peripheral economic importance).

As such, China’s “connectedness”, to use Diamond’s term, encouraged political unity and autocracy; Western Europe’s fragmentation fostered a competitive states system, encouraging innovation and technological progress, and precluded the possibility of any single European state conquering the entire continent and stiffling it under a blanket of reaction. Hence, Columbus was able to find a financial backer in 1492 despite several previous rejections; however, court intrigues in Beijing brought to a permanent end Cheng Ho’s oceanic voyaging in 1433 and soon after closed dockyards across the whole Celestial Empire. As for the Fertile Crescent, intensive agriculture since 8500BC brought an ecological degradation that intensified due to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and subsequent destruction of complex irrigation infrastructure.

Two main arguments have been leveled against this book. The first is that China is not necessarily geographically more suited to unification than Western Europe, that the values of fragmentation are not necessaily greater than of unity, and most importantly that Europe owes its “miracle” more to its institutions – “the devolution of power implicit in feudalism and the scope for free thought created by the independence of the medieval Christian church from political control” (from David Frum’s review, “How the West Won: History That Feels Good Usually Isn’t“) – than to any geo-climatic conditions, which invoke the derogatory label of “historical determinism”. I’ll address these contentions one after the other. In his review of the book, J.R. McNeill in “The World According to Jared Diamond” wrote, “Europe may or may not have a geography that encourages greater fragmentation than does China’s (and I think this is open to question if one leaves out the Grand Canal, a man-made link). ” Apart from the evidence above, and the fact that the Grand Canal was constructed during the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) and as such affected China for the majority of its history after the first unification in 221 BC under Shih-Huang-ti, we also know that the multitude of plains could support a might horseman army, which could exert political control over the huge, densely-clustered population centres of the Middle Kingdom. In fact this is the primary reasons why the Mongols (whose main strategic strength was in their speed and functionality without logistics) were able to conquer late Sung China, but wisely decided to stay away from Europe, where the land west of the Hungarian plains, containing only forests, mountains and areas of intensive agriculture, could not have supported a single tyumen. Hence, Europeans relied on decisively less mobile and more logistically demanding traditions of infantry and castle sieges, which made rapid conquests of vast areas practically unrealizable.

Slightly later, McNeill writes that, “political fragmentation is not necessarily an advantage, indeed in some circumstances, such as the presence of a powerful and aggressive neighbor, it is a weakness”. The argument is made that although Europe was always a political quiltwork, it only started to become formidable after the first milennium. There are several weaknesses to this position – Europe, especially the “barbarian kingdoms” north of the Alps, was before the first millenium extremely backwards in comparison with any other major Eurasian civilization – China, Byzantium, the Arabs and India, but by the 14th century at the latest the qualitative gap had closed even with China. This suggests average rates of development were much higher in feudal Europe than in Asia. Besides, Europe never truly had a life-threatening neighbor – the Arabs were halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel, the pagan Vikings were Christianized around the 10th century and it was Rus’ and Byzantium that took the brunt of nomadic assaults by groups like the Pechenegs and the Polovtsians (Cumans). McNeill draws an example with politically fragmented India, which however “did not generate highly efficient states and technologically precocious societies bent on expansion and conquest”. Admittedly, my knowledge in this area is shallow – and doubt the validity of that statement, given that India was the home of higher mathematics and that its port cities grew very wealthy off the trade of the Indian Ocean. Also, other factors may be more prescient at explaining this, such as India’s isolation from the main routes of the Silk Road, its stratified caste system (which discouraged innovation) and perhaps “Dark Ages” stemming from the plethora of outside barbarian invasions.

Finally, David Frum contributed the third and most important point to this institutional counter-argument. I will quote from his review in extenso.

At least in this century, the traditional account of the rise of the West has given credit to its propitious political and social institutions. That is not true only of recent times, when the institutions in question are liberal ones, but of more ancient history as well, when the West benefited from the devolution of power implicit in feudalism and the scope for free thought created by the independence of the medieval Christian church from political control. And that traditional account agreed, with varying degrees of certainty, that those traditions were more or less available to anyone else and would have more or less similar results wherever they were tried.

Again, however, numerous holes can be picked in the text. The Church might have been independent of political control, but it was dogmatic in its views and consistently anti-capitalistic (e.g. the ban on usury). This is the reason so much commerce was in the hands of Jews in medieval Europe. Independent thought as such would have been confined to universities which began to be founded in 13th century, and these tended to support the monarch over the Pope. As for feudalism, it was based on the self-sufficient agricultural economy of the manor, economically isolated following the collapse of Roman order. Although I think a period of feudalism, which develops the idea of the contract (in addition to the Roman idea of private property) is a very useful precedent to capitalism, we must ask ourselves, why did it develop in Europe, and not in China? After all, China does have a long history of “warring states’ periods, including the post-Han economic downturn and fragmentation from 220 to 581 AD, which coincided with the fall of Rome. However, conditions in European were far more suited for the emergence of a feudalistic societies – firstly, “barbarian kingdoms lacked the bureaucratic and literate resources to rule directly over great areas”, unlike the Confucian bureaucracy which held China together until the twentieth century. Secondly, it had precedents in the fusion of Roman concepts of property with the Germanic “blood-brotherhood of the warrior-companians of the barbarian chief”, which was respectively partially and completely lacking in China. Last but not least, that same geographical fragmentation and relative lack of plains frustrated assertative European monarchs attempting to bring to heel some remote rebelling vassal, let alone maintain effective political unity.

The second important argument was made by McNeill and contends that ultimately “the spread of useful species was usually a conscious act…determined by trade links, migration routes, and happenstance”. He argues as an example that a single line of latitude on Eurasia could vary greatly, from “the Gulf Stream-induced equability of western Europe, to the continental climate extremes of Kazakhstan, to the monsoon rhythms of Korea”, and consequently make the dispersion of animal and plant species very hard. He also attributes a lot of this dispersion as due to trade within Eurasia. Again, these criticisms have their flaws. For instance, jungles present much more of a barrier than continental plains or even desert, because of the greater number of diseases they harbor and because they are much more physically hard to pass. I think another crucial factor is that significant climate shifts, that have played a very large role triggering nomadic migrations and expansions within and out of the Eurasian Great Steppe, are lacking in rainforests, encouraging a more permanent existence. As for the second argument, it is downright irrelevant in the context of the book, because Eurasia as a continent only started to become contiguous with the genesis of the Silk Road during Roman times. By then, all the key crops and livestocks were already in place, that had generated the rise of the civilizations which were only then beginning to communicate with each other, albeit in rudimentary form, over thousands of kilometers.

Having attempted to disprove two existing criticisms of the book, I would nonetheless wish to make a few of my own. One is how he rather hypocritically claims New Guineans are more intelligent than Eurasians, after just having had condemned white racist theories whose argumentative style in their specialization are similar to his in this instance. And I think he could have covered the scope of the last chapter of his book beyond an analysis of why Europe “won” and China “lost” – Middle Eastern societies were mentioned little (and the argument of environmental degradation was admittedly somewhat lost on me, considering that Egypt has managed to sustain a massive agricultural base from pharaonic times to the present day), and India and Russia not at all. (At least in the latter case there is a plethora of geoclimatic factors that negatively affected its development and covered in such books as Andrej Parshev’s “Why Russia isn’t America”).

In conclusion, this is overall an excellent book which is a must-read for people in professions as varied as biology, geography, history, archaelogy, anthropology, sociology and economics, as well as the intelligent layman. Apart from the invaluable information and insights, it is written in concise, engaging and understandable language and one would be challenged to put it down after having read just a few pages.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Realism has been falling out of favor since the end of the Cold War, condemned by the Kumbaya crowd, avoided by the liberal, PC-gone-wild intelligentsia, and denigrated by “end of history” ideologues (many of whom all too cynically remain realists while cloaking it under the mantle of “liberal interventionism”). What they all have in common is a denial of reality – denial of basic human psychology, and the inevitability of its transmutation onto the level of inter-state relations. Let’s look at this through the prism of human violence throughout history.

Imagine living in a society in a near-constant state of war, both within and without. A society where you lose 0.5% of your population to violence every year, a rate which would translate to 2bn war deaths during the 21st century. As a man, you are constantly mobilized for fighting and your chances of meeting a violent end are roughly equivalent to that of a French man during World War One or a Russian during the Great Patriotic War – throughout your entire life. Overall there is a 15-60% chance you will die by the club, spear or arrow. Doesn’t sound like a great deal, right? But such was human reality for the vast majority of its history, “noble savage” myths to the contrary. Quoting Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying “by the sword” than a citizen of an average modern state.

Below is a chart illustrating the vast gulf between the natural violence of man in the “natural state” (two meanings) and the artificial / coercive violence embodied in the “civilized” state.

This was total war on a scale even technological totalitarianisms had difficulties recreating. The constant prevalence of warfare in human prehistory also made a huge impact on society in terms of language (“…That language has evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident…Given the incessant warfare between early human groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.”) and even psychological traits like altruism.

As if this wasn’t enough, tribal societies are also very violent internally, with homicide rates a full two orders of magnitude above those seen in modern industrialized nations like the US today (5.8 / 100,000). Typical homicide rates ranged from 165.9 / 100,000 for the Yanomamo of Brazil (1970-74) to the 778 / 100,000 of the Hewa of New Guinea (1959-68). As described by one of the first visitors to the New Guinea Highlands, Kenneth Read:

Both men and women are volatile, prone to quarreling and quick to take offense at a suspected slight or injury. They are jealous of their reputations, and an undercurrent of tension, even latent animosity, accompanies many interpersonal relationships. Dominance and submission, rivalry and coercion are constantly reccuring themes, and although the people are not lacking in the gentler virtues, there is an unmistakable aggressive tone to life.

Homicide rates fell somewhat by the time of the Middle Ages, though at 20-100 / 100,000 per year medieval societies were still far more violent than most countries today. (Again, images of bucolic Christian idyll to the contrary).

[Historical homicide rates in Germany and Switzerland (log scale) on vertical axis. Note the uptick in the 14th century, which corresponds to the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages].

Folks of all social classes carried knives with them (for eating) and were quick to perceive insults, at which point they summoned the help of their kin, servants and friends to deal with the offender (most murders were collective). Though medieval and early modern punishments, when they happened, tended to be brutal, public and excruciating by modern standards, they mostly focused on transgressions against the community and the sovereign – from larceny & theft to high treason.

As Norbert Elias wrote in his history of manners, which attempted to explain the gradual pacification of European societies over the centuries, “fear reigned everywhere; one had to be on one’s guard all the time… The majority of the secular ruling class of the Middle Ages led the life of leaders of armed bands”. So if that was how the elites behaved, not much hope for constraining the traditional (violent) ways of life of the peasants. Homicide was not treated as a particularly fell crime and conviction rates were much lower for it than for property crimes. Society only hanged those convicted of murder who were perceived to be outcasts. In most cases they were pardoned or suffered a lesser punishment, because the circumstances were held to warrant their homicide (e.g. defense of honor).

The culture of violence only really came to be suppressed by the power of the emerging, centralizing monarchies from the 15th century, which more-and-more effectively claimed a monopoly on violence as one of their core prerogatives (as well as a monopoly on issuing money and tax collection). The power of coercion, to punish and discipline, passed from the community to the state as part of the overarching transition to modernity begun in the late Middle Ages.

* Trying to explain differences between homicide rates today in different countries is interesting, but is not directly related to the main thrust of this post, and is relegated to the end.

But states themselves are run by humans (e.g. with the same basic psychological attributes of primitive warriors), who have found it useful to repress small-scale violence by coercion and territorial integration, but nonetheless feel it necessary to maintain a more traditional perspective in an arena where older arrangements, that is, anarchy (the state of nature), still prevails – international relations. Almost all modernization efforts from the early modern period to today were driven by the fiscal-military imperative of building taxable (or controllable) means of manning, equipping and supporting the military forces that are the last and truest guarantors of state security from the predations of other states.

Whether you think the world state system today resembles more an inter-tribal state of nature (constant risk of bloody warfare) or a medieval-like community based on clan ties and largely separate from the state (need to conform for safety and always risk offending another member by a perceived slight into violence against you – and if he does, then the community is not certain to be on your side, or may even take the side of your attacker), it is certainly not an “end of history” utopia** where you can afford to sing Kumbaya as your lullaby and slip away into the progressive pieties of the warm glow of common humanity. Welcome to the real world, in which said humanity – most of which still identifies itself by tribe, nation and faith – will make sure you never wake up.

So here are the lessons and suggestions for further discussion:

  1. Though I call prehistoric peoples with a low material & technological level “primitive” and “violent” (which they are – by our standards), I do not consider them evil or even inferior to modern “civilization” – that would be quite illogical, consider that our understandings of “good and evil” are quite foreign to them, whereas “inferiority” implies measurement by one’s own yardstick. Instead, I go by Trubetzkoy’s moral relativism as to “the equal worth and qualitative incommensurability of the cultures and peoples on this earth”.
  2. The concept that violence is our reality – and perhaps the most basic human commonality of all – is one of the major wellsprings of my geopolitical analysis, and I make no apologies for this.
  3. International relations are amoral (not immoral) and profoundly opportunistic. State security should always be (and usually is by wise leaders) prioritized in an optimal way – focus on power maximization, but not so overtly or arrogantly as to alienate the conformist “international community”. Applied to today’s world, act realistic while paying lip service to the tired tropes of liberalism and idealism.
  4. At times, this will have to include the sacrifice of internal liberties (economic, political and social) to guarantee the retention of greater liberties – foremost, sovereignty – from other Powers. The optimal balance between cooperation and coercion, both internal and external, varies between countries. It is logical for nations under intense geopolitical pressure like Israel, Russia or Iran to institute a greater degree of coercion within and aggressiveness without; geopolitically secure nations like the US can afford a greater degree of leeway.
  5. Assuming a medieval-era society is an acceptable model for the international system, note the spike in homicides during the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages recorded in almost every European region. This was a time of resource shortages (deforestation), famine and the Black Plague, i.e. a Malthusian crisis. Similarly, internal warfare – inter-tribal raids in primitive spaces and civil war in collapsing empires – spikes during Malthusian crises. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that if the energy-and-environmental crises are not checked and reversed soon – and there is absolutely no indication of that happening – one can expect a similar spike in global violence in the decades ahead. This is expected to manifest itself in resource wars externally and rising crime rates and authoritarianism internally.

Further Notes

* Today, most advanced industrial nations have very low homicide rates, ranging from 0.4 in Japan and 1-2 in most Western European nations to 5.8 in the US (which has pockets of medieval-level violence in many inner-city hoods). Only a few countries have homicide rates much above 20 / 100,000, encompassing mostly Latin American and failed / semi-failed states. Though there is a great deal of concern over violent murders even in extremely quiescent societies like Britain (by historical standards), their prevalence is mostly illusion. On the other hand, in a place like Venezuela, with its homicide rate of 48 / 100,000, the everyday danger from violence is very real (accounting for Venezuelans’ life expectancy, this roughly translate into a 1/30 lifetime risk of dying by the bullet, and would be translate into prestate-era rates in some barrios).

To a great extent, many of the differences in homicide rates between different nations today are the result of deeply-ingrained cultural legacies. For instance, why is the US so much more violent (typical homicide rates 5-10 / 100,000) than Western Europe (1-2 / 100,000)? Eric Monkonnen suggests America’s exceptionalism may have something to do with the historical weakness of the US state relative to its European peers:

There is no direct comparison, but arrest, prosecution, and punishment would appear to have been much more likely and much harsher in England than in the United States, at least until the mid-nineteenth century. Vic Gatrell’s study of English executions, The Hanging Tree, is chilling. In the waning years of capital punishment, 1805–1832, more than 2,000 people were publicly hanged; only 20 percent of those were for murder. Those numbers—about 75 a year—were down from an estimated 140 per year for 1770–1805, and even more dramatically down from 75,000 executions in the century between 1630 and 1730. In the United States, Watt Espy’s research suggests about 800 executions for 1770–1805, and 840 for 1805–1832. The execution rates per capita would be about 20 percent higher for England, and this crude estimate ignores the much lower crime and homicide rates there. In addition, we often forget that transportation loomed as a terrifying alternative for English felons. However, an English criminal would have found life easy in the American colonies and the young United States.

We can directly examine the figures on homicides and executions in New York City from 1800 to 1950, and the record shows that there is no statistical relationship between the two rates. In the nineteenth century, in slightly more than half of the years there were no executions in New York City, but there were plenty of murders. Very few New Yorkers were executed in that century—maybe 82 of some 3,400 murderers, less than 3 percent. Such a low rate of executions may seem surprising, but even today, the rate of executions for murder in the execution-prone state of Texas ranges from .1 to 1.3 percent. Even the dimmest murderer may not worry too much about capital punishment.

Combined with Americans’ different mentality from Europeans – they put a much greater stress on older values of individualistic, rugged, manly asperity and honor; as well as pockets of distinctly pre-modern social attitudes seen amongst “ghetto” communities (based on “respect”, turf wars, etc) – and it’s not surprising its homicide rates are much higher than in Europe. And although the US managed to substantially reduce it’s homicide rates from the highs of the 1980′s, this was most likely due to its record-breaking achievements in raising incarceration rates than any kind of cultural shift.

(Though some would argue that guns are responsible for the higher American murder rates, this is a vacuous argument I will not bother debunking here).

Russia’s homicide rate is a lot higher even than America’s (around 16.5 / 100,000), nor is it a recent phenomenon born of “transition shock”. Soviet propaganda to the contrary, socialist Russia had a higher homicide rate than the US for the vast majority of the post-Stalin period, despite the relative severity of Soviet laws. Partly this was due to Russia’s traditional proclivities towards excessive alcohol consumption, but also partly due to the fact that by the time industrialization came to Russia in the late 19th C it was still, in a sense, a medieval society – very violent, community- and kin-based, and very touchy on matters of respect / social status (see Figes’ unflattering description of pre-revolutionary Russian village life in A People’s Tragedy). A century of state coercion did not break its embedded medieval cultural traditions, and through its arbitrary nature perhaps even reinforced them.

** Granted, there are some improvements. Modern leaders tend to be more rational than the prestige-obsessed “big men” presiding over primitive societies, and most do not react to slights with the same zeal or violence. Another factor is that in relative terms, war has become less demographically damaging in modern times. In primitive societies, because political units were very small and dispersed, the “bloody borders” between states were much longer in aggregate, whereas the borders between today’s big states may sometimes get very bloody very fast, but there are much fewer of them. [A metaphor for primitive war would be a thousand gashes continually inflicted over humanity's body all the time, whereas modern warfare (WW1-style) would be infrequent maulings with an ax]. On the other hand, the advent of missile / nuclear weapons and post-2nd generation warfare has married the technological destructiveness of modern war with the totality of primitive war.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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A while ago I wrote Education as the Elixir of Growth on DR, in which I noted that in most countries the educational profile is closely correlated to their level of productivity. The major exceptions are nations with resource windfalls (inflated productivity) and socialist legacies (deflated productivity). Furthermore, the greater the gap between the ‘potential productivity’, as suggested by the human capital level, and actual productivity, the greater will be the rate of economic convergence. This rate in turn depends on the openness of an economy (i.e. the rate at which it can absorb the latest know-how). Some countries, however, cannot converge to advanced industrial levels, since their human capital is set at a low level – they have reached an asymptote relative to the developed world and cannot converge without improving their educational profiles relative to the latter.

I have come across this article by Russian sociologist Andrei Korotayev, Reconsidering Weber: Literacy and the Spirit of Capitalism, which places the above into a long-term historical perspective. I will quote in extenso:

As has been mentioned earlier, human capital development has been suggested as one of the most important factors of economic growth, whereas education is considered to be one of the most important components of human capital (see, e.g., Schultz 1963, Denison 1962, Lucas 1988, Scholing and Timmermann 1988 etc.)…

In the 20th century mass literacy spread around the globe, and nowadays differences in literacy levels between different countries tend to disappear. At the same time, according to our hypothesis, the differences in economic developments of various countries are rooted in the period of the beginning of modernization era. Therefore, it seems reasonable to explore the connection between such indicators as GDP per capita at present and the literacy level in the early 19th century.

The data in Table 6.1 show that the level of economic wealth in the early 19th century in various regions did not differ greatly enough to be considered the leading factor of economic differentiation between the regions later on.

Diagram 6.1 shows that there is a strong and definitely significant linear correlation between the literacy rate in 1800 and GDP per capita at present. R2 coefficient indicates that this correlation explains 86% of the entire data dispersion.

Therefore, the hypothesis that the spread of literacy was one of the major factors of modern economic growth gains additional support. On the one hand, literate populations have many more opportunities to obtain and utilize the achievements of modernization than illiterate ones. On the other hand, literate people could be characterized by a greater innovative-activity level, which provides opportunities for modernization, development, and economic growth.

Literacy does not simply facilitate the process of perceiving innovation by an individual. It also changes her or his cognition to a certain extent. This problem was studied by Luria, Vygotsky, and Shemiakin, the famous Soviet psychologists, on the basis of the results of their fieldwork in Central Asia in the 1930s. Their study shows that education has a fundamental effect on the formation of cognitive processes (perception, memory, cognition). The researchers found out that illiterate respondents, unlike literate ones, preferred concrete names for colors to abstract ones, and situative groupings of items to categorical ones (note that abstract thinking is based on category cognition). Furthermore, illiterate respondents could not solve syllogistic problems like the following one – “Precious metals do not get rust. Gold is a precious metal. Can gold get rust or not?”. These syllogistic problems did not make any sense to illiterate respondents because they were out of the sphere of their practical experience. Literate respondents who had at least minimal formal education solved the suggested syllogistic problems easily (Luria 1974, 1976, 1982: 47–69).

Therefore, literate workers, soldiers, inventors and so on turn out to be more effective than illiterate ones not only due to their ability to read instructions, manuals, and textbooks, but also because of the developed skills of abstract thinking. Some additional support for this could be found in Weber’s book itself:

“The type of backward traditional form of labor is today very often exemplified by women workers, especially unmarried ones. An almost universal complaint of employers of girls, for instance German girls, is that they are almost entirely unable and unwilling to give up methods of work inherited or once learned in favor of more efficient ones, to adapt themselves to new methods, to learn and to concentrate their intelligence, or even to use it at all. Explanations of the possibility of making work easier, above all more profitable to themselves, generally encounter a complete lack of understanding. Increases of piece rates are without avail against the stone wall of habit. In general it is otherwise, and that is a point of no little importance from our view-point, only with girls having a specifically religious, especially a Pietistic, background” (Weber 1972: 75−6).

We believe that the above mentioned features of the behavior of German female workers in the late 19th−early 20th centuries simply reflects a relatively low educational level of German women from labor circles at that time. The spread of female literacy in Germany, as elsewhere, lagged behind that of male literacy (see Chapter 7). In the early 20th century the majority of women could write and read only in the most developed parts of Germany (Meliantsev 1996). More rational behavior of German workers from Pietistic circles could be easily explained by the special role of education in the lives of Protestants.

The ability to read was essential for Protestants (unlike Catholics) to perform their religious duty − to read the Bible. The reading of Holy Scripture was not just unnecessary for Catholic laymen, for a long time it was even prohibited for them. The edict of the Toulouse Synod (1229) prohibited the Catholic laymen from possessing copies of the Bible. Soon after that, a decision by the Tarragon Synod spread this
prohibition to ecclesiastic people as well. In 1408, the Oxford Synod absolutely prohibited translations of the Holy Scripture. From the very beginning, Protestant groups did not accept this prohibition. Thus, Luther translated in 1522–1534 first the New Testament, and then the Old Testament, into German, so that any German-speaking person could read the Holy Scripture in his or her native language. Moreover, the Protestants viewed reading the Holy Scripture as a religious duty of any Christian. As a result, the level of literacy and education was, in general, higher for Protestants not only than it was for Catholics and for followers of other confessions that did not provide religious stimuli for learning literacy (see, for example: Malherbe 1997: 139–57).

In our opinion, this could explain to a considerable extent the differences between economic performance of the Protestants and the Catholics in the late 19th − early 20th centuries in Europe noticed by Weber. One of Weber’s research goals was to show that religion can have independent influence on economic processes. The results of our study support this point. Indeed, spiritual leaders of Protestantism persuaded their followers to read the Bible not to support the economic growth but for religious reasons, which were formulated as a result of ideological processes that were rat
her independent of economic life. We do not question that specific features of Protestant ethics could have facilitated economic development. However, we believe that we found another (and probably more powerful) channel of Protestantism’s influence on the economic growth of the Western countries.

Literacy is a means of sharing information. Someone knowledgeable writes something (or not – but on average they will be more knowledgeable than the average reader on their subject, and in neural networks, that’s what matters), you read it and become more efficient at something, more productive. (It is not the only – another example would be speech, albeit the latter is much less intense and preservable.)

Looking back, the means of sharing ever larger amounts of information have been growing at a doubly exponential pace. Speech evolved a few tens of thousands of years ago. The first cuneiform tablets appeared in Mesopotamia a few thousands of years ago, and writing migrated to paper within that timeframe. The printing press appeared a few hundred years ago, first fitfully in China, then in Europe with gusto. The seeds of the Computer Age were sown in the past decades, and have since metamorphed into the information highway. Within several decades Singularitarians predict the occurence of such paradign shifts every few years, then months, then days, then seconds, unto and beyond the event horizon of our current world consciousness. Our universal history has been characterized by this one meta-narrative, of technological progress which proceeds at a doubly exponential pace, and of which the means of sharing information is a subset. (For the theory behind this observation, take a look at Korotayev’s Introduction: Millennial Trends).

And to peer into the future you need this kind of universal perspective. For even as in the decades ahead civilization’s material base is constrained and undermined by the limits to growth (resource depletion, catastrophic climate change, overpopulation), the electronic web will embrace the world ever tighter and ascent above it and float, lighter than air, even as the forests below wither away to reveal the desert of the real.

I am of the opinion that just as industrial take-off appeared first in the most highly literate countries and explains current international wealth disparities, so the key transformatory technologies of this century (nanotechnology, strong AI, etc) will be best utilized by those countries with the highest proportions of connected agents, netizens (as measured by Internet penetration, share of Top 500 supercomputers, spending on nanotechnology, etc). Even as the populations of these advanced regions gradually transcend, laggards will be stuck for a time in the (rapidly degrading) material world, just as in the nineteenth century the rest languished as the West made the world its oyster.

However, literati must precede digerati. The most networked countries also tend to be those which are best educated, like South Korea, Finland, Taiwan and the Netherlands. And in general education gives very good returns on investment. As such, in the name of egalitarianism and development, the flow of information must be made as free as possible so that as great a percentage of the world’s population could partake of the economic and spiritual benefits of the Singularity, as soon as possible. The maximum rate of catch-up of follower countries (developing) relative to leader countries (developed) in the nineteenth century was 1-2%; today, with improvements in transport and communications, it’s closer to 10% (see China). Imagine what it could be with the phenomenal bandwidths we’ll see in the decades to come! Unlike with the Industrial Revolution, or the Agricultural, this paradigm shift could in principle be a collective, universal human experience.

1. Abolish intellectual property. The main argument is that it won’t reward creators. I disagree. IP rights are a relatively recent Western development and great works of art and scientific progress has occured before the term was invented. Truly genuine artists and scientists do it out of altruism (a few) or a desire for recognition (the many), to satisfy their thymos, and monetary benefits are not the key factor.

2. Free information. The world’s libraries, universities and think-tanks should fling open the doors to their ivory towers, at least in the electronic world. People should be able to access the contents of courses on any subject, take the exams in them any time they want and following verification, get their degrees.

3. Universities should enter the modern world. For supposed bastions of enlightenment, universities are remarkably backwards today. In some people are expected to go to lectures and have qualified professors waste their time reading out elementary concepts in some subject or another to freshmen, when they could do it once, record it and post webcasts, and have students view it at their leisure, anywhere. They also tend to have Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Admittedly, at least on some fronts (access to course contents), trends are moving in a positive direction – but it is happening far too slowly.

4. Encourage denser networking and informatization in as many spheres as possible. Because crowds tend to be wiser than individuals and bio-metric data is more reliable and easier to procure (it’s always on you, duh!) than paper ID’s.

5. Encourage a culture of enlightenment. The state should do its utmost to ensure society respects intellectual culture instead of dissing it and invest the greatest resources into it, seeing as how it is the basis of long-term productivity growth and on a larger scale universal history itself. Shift the masses from materialistic concerns (mass consumerism) to a green civilization based on broad participation in scientific research and artistic endevours. Suppress factors that go against this culture (religion that tries to interfere in social and political life would be a prime target).

The countries that follow the above prescriptions and have the best pre-requisites (a solid educational profile – literacy, PISA scores, tertiary enrolment, etc – and a densely networked citizenry) will be at the forefront of those who will experience information takeoff – the new ‘leader’ countries, like as Britannia of industrial yore.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.